5.2: Morello Conclusion

Re-cap:

Cadence has sold out Matilda’s orphans street gang to the greedy, traitorous Verga and has set up the dominoes for their fall. Afterwards, she faces the judgments of Jericho and Werner. Things take a turn for the worse when she finds her childhood friend Nico among Werner’s prisoners. A deal is made with Werner, however, and Nico is freed. But Cadence herself is still in a cage…

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence was exhausted. Emotionally and mentally.

First there had been the incident with Nico and Werner. And now there was Olive’s emotional dilemma. Those two events had just exacerbated Cadence’s exhaustion.

Olive’s memory of the fire had been seared into Cadence’s mind. The screams, the smells. Awful. And then there was Olive’s suffocating self-deprecation. In that moment, Cadence had truly felt that it would be better if she too just disappeared. Terrifying.

It was all too much.

But still, Cadence had a job to do.

She stood in front of the Vitae Roll now in the guise of Duccio. Beside her was Matilda, and behind them were what remained of Matilda’s street gang. A bunch of ragtag kids so scrawny the wind could knock them over. Since their numbers dwindled, they looked much less fearsome than at the warehouse.

Matilda turned to face the fifteen kids behind her. “This is what we’ve been waiting for,” she said calmly. “Verga is in there smoking a v-cig without even a care in the world about what he’s done, so let’s remind him.”

Each person looked to the person on their left and their right. They nodded at one another in acceptance of whatever was to come. Like true residents of the Twin Cities.

They rushed the building like a storm.

The door was blasted open by a well-aimed kick, and they flooded into the building swinging their pipes and bats at everything they could see. Glass cases shattered, premium v-cigs were sent flying through the air, and the wood that splintered off from the randomly dispersed chairs flew out like shrapnel.

The store owner let out a screech before ducking below the counter.

They bypassed him and stormed up the stairs leading to the room where Verga resided. Matilda was the one who moved to open the door. With a steely look in her eye, she pushed it open and stepped into the room.

Verga was there all right. He was standing by the boarded-up windows peering out into the empty street below. He was there and so were fifteen men holding guns.

“Knew you’d be quick, Cadence,” Verga chuckled without turning.

The children stared out in confusion.

“Sorry, kids.” Cadence shrugged as she crossed the invisible line that divided the two groups. She turned on her heels with raised hands. “That’s just how the cards fall.”

“D-Duccio…?” Matilda stuttered. “Wh—”

There was a barrage of gunfire followed by a cloud of gun smoke and then silence. Cadence wrinkled her nose at the smell and waved the smog away from her as best as she could.

When the cloud cleared, the bullet holes riddling the wall opposite became apparent. As did the bodies. They were toppled over each other, limbs tangled up with one another, eyes still wide in horror. Red pools spread across the floor.

Cadence rubbed her neck and turned to face Verga. “Okay, okay, that’s done an over with, I’d like to—”

A pistol was pointed squarely in her face.

“Wha—”

The gun fired.

Cadence’s body hit the ground and red formed beneath it.

Verga grinned and shrugged, waving his gun loosely in the air. “Did you really think I’d trust you enough to not tell the Foxmans or Ricardo after this was over and done with? Guess you really are rusty!”

Verga laughed heartily and his newly hired guns laughed with him. But then he frowned. He squinted down at Cadence’s body which still held tightly onto the guise of Duccio and then—

Hook. Line. Sinker.

“Did ya really think I’d not tell the Foxmans or Ricardo before this was over with?”

The entire room glowed copper before cracks appeared along the walls, over the bodies, and across the ceiling.

“Shit,” Verga managed before the cracks along the room around them shattered.

What was revealed beneath the broken illusion was probably Verga’s worst nightmare. There stood the children looking alive and well. Behind them were Francis Foxman, Carl Foxman, and Allen Foxman along with about ten of their men. Cavallo stood to the side with an expression of disappointment.

Cadence, looking very much alive and like herself, stepped out from behind Cavallo and shrugged. “Turns out I’m not gettin’ rusty after all.”

* * *

Cadence had already realized how stupid the deal was from the very beginning. There was no way Verga would let her go just like that. He was a bastard. But how to go about saving her tail was another story.

It was Nico’s appearance that had started it. Nico’s appearance paired with Werner and Jericho’s insights. To have two people whose jobs were to kill other people judge her was baffling. She’d expected judgment from the prince and Atienna, but not from those two.

Frankly, with how this whole connection thing worked, it felt as if all their misgivings about her actions were her own misgivings. And she couldn’t live with that.

‘Save the children’ it was.

Attempting to pull the kids out of the hole was going to decrease her chances of surviving this mishap. It’d be risky. But the higher the risk, the greater the reward.

So she had revealed herself to the children during their pre-raid meeting. It had been quite the debacle, and she had to spend about fifteen minutes arguing for her life before the kids settled down and lent her an ear. From there it was smooth sailing. Like Jericho, the kids had a rather one-track mind. Revenge, revenge, revenge.

Then she had brought Matilda to Cavallo and the Foxmans. Francis had offered his condolences while Carl insisted on at least smacking the children around a bit, but Francis was the voice of reason.

Cavallo and Ricardo were informed subsequently. Cadence thought Cavallo was going to shoot her on the spot, but Ricardo intervened with his fondness for children. Verga’s assassin was taken care of quickly. And that was that.

* * *

The execution happened in an instant. There was a shower of bullets, then a ring of bodies hit the floor. Verga was the last man standing.

The man was visibly shaking. “So… you gonna cement me and dump me in the bay?”

“Oh no,” Francis said pleasantly. “Mr. Ricardo said that it was only fair that the people you wronged dole out your punishment. And we agree wholeheartedly.”

Verga frowned in confusion and then realized that the ring of children was now approaching him.

Ricardo was as kind as he was cruel.

“At least you’re dressed for your own funeral,” Cadence said as the children descended upon him.

While the Foxman brothers and Cavallo watched the children tear Verga apart with a strange, sick amusement, Cadence excused herself and descended the stairs. She felt like she was about to keel over there. She’d definitely expended too much of her vitae with that light show. She was thinking about a goodnight’s rest when she was abruptly synchronized with Werner.

Werner who was beating a Capricornian soldier to death with the blunt of a conductor.

4.[]: Peacekeeper on the Verge

“Izsak? Oh, he’s a very nice man. His daughter is really cute… but his wife is a little bit scary. He conjured a box of sweets for me for my birthday once. It wasn’t too pretty and it tasted pretty bad, but it was a really nice surprise. At least until Talib said that the jelly beans were laced with a mind control drug, but that’s a whole nother story… but, yes… Izsak’s really nice.”

Ferris Hart, Assignment Department of Ophiuchus

New Ram City, Aries

Wtorek Izsak first learned how to use a conductor at the age of eight.

He grew up in a small, isolated, sheep-herding village called Okor embedded in the heart of the Great Lascaux Mountain that ran the length of Taurus’s eastern border with Ophiuchus.

The only thing they knew of the war were the occasional loud cracks they’d hear in the distance. Although rare, they were booming sounds that sent shockwaves rippling through the air.

Every time the rumbling would rock their village, his grandfather would rub his nose and say, “Guess that means the war’s still going on, ’ey?”

The day the conscription man came. He took names, birth years, heights, and weights, and gave each member of their village a V-Type Test. The test consisted of holding a metal handle connected to a glass vial. There would be a sharp prick at the base of the palm, and then a black, misty shape would form inside of the tube. The conscription man would take the vial, either give a grunt of approval or a sigh of disappointment, and then jot down whatever was satisfactory or dissatisfactory to him in his notes.

When it was Izsak’s turn to take the test, the shape that formed was a half circle. When the conscriptionist inspected the vial, a smile cracked across his face. To ten-year-old Izsak, it was quite frightening.

“Well, look at that! You’re a Conjurer! Just like me,” the conscriptionist boomed, giving Izsak a friendly shake before gesturing to the conducting gloves on his hands. “Most battles can’t be won without a Conjurer, you know that? We’re the backbone of the battalion!”

It was that afternoon that the Sagittarian descended upon them. The Elementalist Conductor came riding in on a storm of wind. Harnessing the power of air, she tore up trees from their roots, fences from their nails, houses from their foundations. A tornado of terror. When she came across the conscription man, she merely twirled her finger at him and watched as he suffocated in the vacuum she’d created around his head.

Izsak watched the man’s corpse drop to the ground from where he hid beneath the remains of his aunt’s house. He hadn’t known the man, but for some reason, he felt a righteous anger burn in his stomach at his death. Without thinking, Izsak tore from the rubble and ran for the man’s corpse. He ripped the conducting gloves off of the man’s hands and put it over his own.

They were too large, too heavy, and too cold for a child to wield but he did it anyways. His hand hummed with warmth, and a soft light emitted from the base of his palm.

It was quite feeble, the thing he conjured. It was the only thing he could think of, after all. A wooden shepherd’s stick.

He was left exhausted after its conjuring but let out an unruly shout when he swung it. The Sagittarian had easily dodged with a backstep. Still, he persisted, swinging and screaming, until he was a tired, panting, heaving mess on the dirty ground.

The Sagittarian laughed long and loud before turning away, taking the storm with her departure. Why she left him, he still didn’t know.

A hero, they later called him. His name was in the papers weeks after. ‘The Great Shepherd of Okor.’ He enjoyed the praise and the attention.

He just wished there was someone left in the village to share it with.

* * *

At the age of eighteen, after completing his conductor training, Izsak participated in his first battle. He was assigned as a support Conjurer for a joint Ariesian-Taurusian company in which he found easy comradeship despite his poor grasp on the Common language.

They were all young and eager for a fight. Some of them cried for revenge, others bragged about the numbers they would get under their belts, while others dreamed of the rewards they would receive when the war ended.

Izsak had his own way of counting ‘victory points,’ as they would call it. He had practiced conjuring weapons with his name engraved on them. “It counts as my kill,” he’d say to the chagrin of his company.

After the battle ended—they had won, of course—Izsak was sent with a group to trace back and pick up (or off) any survivors remaining on the battlefield. They joked all the while. Until they saw the bodies, that was.

When it came to battles, it was hard to see who one was shooting or swinging their conductor toward amidst the chaos. Even more so for Izsak, who usually hung along the rear, conjuring weapons and sometimes conductors for the front guard. But now, their victory points—their victims—were laid clear to them.

“Bastards,” mumbled an Ariesian as Izsak knelt to the ground. “Can’t believe they send…”

It was a child. A girl. Her hair wasn’t long enough to tie up into a ponytail, so it was splayed across her face and matted down with blood. There was a combat knife driven into her chest.

It was one of Izsak’s. His engraved name glowed in the faint sunlight on its hilt. Izsak Wtorek. One added victory point. One slain child.

The ride back to base camp was quiet.

While some of the returning soldiers bragged about their kills and others swore revenge for the fallen, most remained silent upon arrival at base and throughout lunch. Izsak was one of them, quickly grabbing his bowl of soup from the food aid and settling down in a far corner away from everyone else.

The soup was tasteless, but he continued to eat because he could not stand his reflection in it.

“They’re calling us Generation War.”

Izsak looked up from his nearly empty bowl.

“The poster children born into war, but fighting for a peaceful, righteous future,” the person continued. “I can’t really call someone who likes to sign murder weapons with their name a peaceful person though. Gotta say, you’ve changed since training, Izsak.”

It was a young woman. She had dark skin, a shaved head, and sunken eyes. Her uniform indicated that she was Ariesian. He recognized her. They had been part of a joint training exercise camp together months earlier. Gabrielle Law, was it?

“That’s not how you recruit people to a cause, Gabrielle,” came another voice. It was a pale young man with jet black hair. His eyes were as hollow as his cheeks. He looked like he’d drop dead any minute.

“I know what I’m doing, Moerani,” Gabrielle sighed before turning her attention back to Izsak. “So, you like killing kids then?”

“I…” Izsak had stared into the ground. “I didn’t know—”

“That you’d be killing children?” Gabrielle scoffed. “So if they were maybe—let’s say—eighteen years old, you’d be fine with it?”

Izsak looked away with balled fists. “You know the answer to that.”

“Do I?”

Izsak scoffed, angrily scooping up a spoonful of soup. “What do you want me to say? One battle and I’m already weak to my knees? Yeah, I am, so wha—”

“You’re a Conjurer, aren’t you?” Gabrielle had interjected, pointing lazily to his gloved hands. “Don’t you want to see a world where they pay you to conjure a stuffed animal instead of a weapon?”

Izsak had choked on his soup. “A stuffed animal?”

“Yeah,” Gabrielle affirmed. “This war is going to end within our lifetimes, and because it’s such a mess, they’re probably going to put a policing organization in place to clean things up afterwards. And that organization is going to control what the future is going to look like. People are going to abuse that power, definitely. Still, Izsak, that organization is going to be my ticket to bring order to this continent. Conjurers that conjure stuffed animals instead of weapons—that’s the future I want to see.”

Izsak frowned. “You sound like a villain, you know.”

Gabrielle shrugged. “If I’m the villain, do you mind being my minion?”

Izsak considered this. “Can’t I be co-villain?”

Gabrielle startled before she let out a booming laugh. A long laugh that lasted the better part of a minute. Izsak exchanged a look with Gabrielle’s companion, but the man merely shrugged.

“Sure, fine,” Gabrielle sighed, wiping a tear from her eye. “But there’s no turning back.”

Izsak arched a brow. “Well, if you’re going to do something crazy, of course I’m going to turn back. Anyways, why did you ask me?”

“You have a good reputation. The Shepherd of Okor, right?” Gabrielle smirked. “I need someone like that on my team.”

Not so long after, Gabrielle introduced him to Elizabeta, who immediately insulted his height. It was love at first sight. Izsak proposed to her on their third shared battlefront, and Elizabeta finally accepted on their seventh.

Several years after that, the formerly uninvolved central country of Ophiuchus declared an insane twelve-front war on the other twelve countries of Signum. The declaration was met with ridicule—at least that was until several vitae reservoirs were decimated in several countries by Ophiuchian Conductors. There was no better way to bring together bitter enemies than a common adversary. And that was how Izsak served in the final offensive against Ophiuchus. It was odd. Fighting beside Sagittarian, Virgoans, Scorpian, Libran, and Piscese soldiers that had been his enemy just a year before, but Gabrielle adapted quickly and seemed to forget the fact that the former had slain many of their comrades.

It wasn’t long after that the Treaty was signed by all twelve countries.

That night was the night Csilla was conceived. Izsak and his wife had decided to name her ‘Csilla’ after the Taurusian word for star. She was their star of hope, after all. Hope for a peaceful future.

At the war’s end, Izsak and Elizabeta settled back in his old mountain town. He’d spent his war funds building and renovating the perfect, quaint home for them, far away from the reaches of the politics of wartime’s end. The night they moved in, Izsak danced with Elizabeta across the rocky landscape, marveling with her at the beauty of a smokeless sky.

The next day, Izsak received a knock on the door. It was Gabrielle, dressed in a black suit with a white sash donned on her arm.

“Told you, didn’t I?” She had smirked, tapping her sash. “Ready to be my co-villain?”

How could he say no?

* * *

“And what exactly are you reminiscing for?” Gabrielle yawned from where she lay draped across the red velvet couch. She lifted the Manila folder that she had been using to block the sunlight from her face. “We’ve had the rug pulled right out beneath us.”

Izsak lowered the files he’d thumbed through and tossed them onto the glass table between them. “Well, I was just thinking of Eliza and Csilla just now—”

“That’s all you ever think about,” Gabrielle said, sitting up. “How is Csilla doing, by the way? I’ve been meaning to ask.”

“Aw, you know, all the boys in school are still fawning after her even after I threatened to conjure black widows in their rooms while they’re asleep.”

“An Ophiuchian Agent threatening a bunch of fourteen-year-olds,” Gabrielle hummed, lacing her fingers together. “No wonder they’re saying such good things about us. Even going so far as to impossibly conjure living things.”

“Well, they don’t know that it’s impossible,” Izsak huffed.

Gabrielle chuckled before pressing, “How is she really?”

Izsak offered a half-smile. “The doctors and medical Conductors say she’s doing better, but you know my Csilla—she’s still aiming to be the youngest to complete the State Conducting Exam even though she’s no longer a saint candidate.” Izsak sighed. “My sweet Csilla—”

Gabrielle chuckled. “You make me want to stay away from married life as long as possible.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Izsak returned the laugh. “Don’t take your anger about the case out on me. It’s not my fault that the Investigation Bureau here got to the culprit first.”

“Is that the real culprit though?” Gabrielle threw the file she’d been reading onto the table too and crossed her arms. “It’s all circumstantial evidence as best. Too convenient.”

“You think?” Izsak shrugged. “You’ve got a suspect who has pretty heated opinions about the royal family, and you’ve got matching weapons of choice.”

“Yeah, too convenient.”

“We could always ask the Ariesian Investigation Bureau for their case files.”

Gabrielle sighed. “Doesn’t change the fact that they are trying to kick us out as soon as possible.” She glanced around the room they were in.

It was well-furnished—perhaps, overly so. A golden ram statue sat in the corner and a diamond chandelier hung from the ceiling. They had been accommodated with a free room at the best hotel within New Ram City, after all. It was to be expected.

“Politics are the same here as always.” Gabrielle rubbed her face. “And as much as I want to get out of this place as soon as possible, I can’t deny that the feudal lord heading the Investigation Bureau might just be trying to use this to line their pockets.”

“You’re concerned about Olive,” Izsak realized. “There must be some national Ariesian loyalty in you left after all.”

“I’m surprised you’re not more concerned,” Gabrielle returned. “Thought your fathering senses would be tingling.”

“They are, mind you,” Izsak huffed. “But Olive seems to be doing a lot better than he was six years ago.”

Gabrielle grunted. “Still a brat.”

“By the way, how do you think Talib and Jericho are doing? Talib’s quite the handful, you know.”

“And according to Doctor Kingsley, Jericho is the handful,” Gabrielle said. “A perfect match.”

“You really think Jericho’ll agree to be your minion?” Izsak pressed. “I mean, he seems pretty smart. Not an idiot like the rest of us.”

“The question is if he’s worthy to join,” Gabrielle replied, reaching for the files again. “But Talib will be the one to determine that.”

“Talib does have good intuition about people,” Izsak agreed. “And what’s this about being worthy? Last I checked, you were desperately trying to get whoever you could on your better-future team.”

Gabrielle gave a noncommittal grunt in response before she flipped through the files again. She shook her head. “Everything’s just too convenient. Lining up too perfectly. The border conflict. Leona’s disappearance. That incident in Virgo. And now this. Plus, there’s ELPIS’s recent movements—or lack thereof.”

“You’re starting to sound like Talib,” Izsak noted. He responded to Gabrielle’s arched brow with a coy smile before a sudden thought occurred to him. He frowned.

“What is it?”

“I… there’s something I want to check.”

* * *

New Ram City’s largest library was located on its city’s university campus, which was nestled next to its royal palace. As expected, the library was extravagant. It boasted ten stories and had five deep-red banners emblazoned with the gold Ariesian ram at its front. Five of the ten floors were restricted to individuals with State Conducting Licenses, while three were restricted to Ariesian officials. To Izsak, there was no restriction at all. A quick flash of his sash and his badge to the librarian sitting at the front desk, and he was granted immediate access.

He started with the floors restricted to licensed Conductors. He could tell immediately that there was more love and care given to these levels. While the shelves on the lower floors were made of chipped and faded wood, the shelves here were not only much larger, but were also made of deep maroon oak. The windows were larger here as well, nearly taking up the full height of the walls. Many long, large, polished wooden tables were interspersed between the shelves—something that the lower levels did not have. These floors were surprisingly busy, so Izsak was forced to flash his badge to clear out a table for himself. It earned him a handful of glares, but that came with the job.

He secured his table by draping his suit jacket over the chair and paced over to the nearest shelf, which was labeled Conductors. There, he continued to ruminate and mutter to himself.

Prince Olivier Chance’s assassination attempt. The conflict between Capricorn and Aquarius. The current political unrest within Virgo. The missing Agent Leona. Agent Leona who was sent to investigate the possibilities of the assassination attempt despite not having any relations to Aries. Agent Leona who apparently was a saint candidate…

Saint candidates.

He shook his head. “Gabrielle’s making me paranoid.”

But…

He briskly went to the history shelf and pulled out a book titled simply Ariesian Potential Saint Candidates. He flipped it open to the first page and found a brief description there:


‘A concept and tradition within Monadism that has prevailed since Signum’s founding and throughout the Reservoir War. These are individuals who show exceptional results on the V-Type Test and subsequent follow-up tests. These individuals tend to become prodigal Conductors who are said to show capabilities similar to that of the founding Ancestors. A truly remarkable achievement. Only one individual is selected per country of Signum for saint candidacy.’

.

But he already knew that. His little, precious Csilla was almost chosen, after all.

“Csilla…” He sighed, reaching for his pocket where he stored his photo of her. He stopped short when he received a reprimanding shush from a passing Conductor. Izsak whispered an embarrassed apology before focusing back on the text.

Below the definition he found a long list of Ariesian saint candidates.

He flipped through to the last recorded person. Lavender Chance. So, she really was…

Poor kid. Shaking the thought away, he went up the list slowly. And then he froze. “It can’t be…”

Tearing himself away from the book, he darted back to the history shelf and pulled out the large encyclopedia that sat at the top shelf. He stumbled backward at its weight, nearly knocking into someone behind him. After offering another apology, he made his way back to the table and set down the encyclopedia with a thud.

He spent the next two hours flipping through both texts and jotting down notes on a spare sheet of paper that was left behind by the table’s previous occupant. It was at the end of the third hour that he reached the startling realization—

“Why are they…? Why would they…?” he murmured, shaking his head as he stood and stumbled backward. He collided with the bookshelf behind him. He was hushed in response, but he was in no state of mind to pay attention.

He had to tell Gabrielle—no, Olive. Olive was at the center of this. This was bigger than the assassination attempt. This was bigger than all of them. Olive had to be…

Frantically, he ripped a page out from the encyclopedia and scribbled down a slew of words there. He then grabbed the nearest person walking by and shoved the paper into their hands while flashing his badge.

“Turn this into an Ophiuchian Agent by the name of Gabrielle Law in the Cardinal Hotel. Room 13. Do you understand? This is important!”

Without waiting for an answer, Izsak dashed down the staircases and out of the library. The sky was pitch black, and the city lights glowed yellow on the horizon.

Had this much time really passed? No time to think about it.

He tore through the darkened campus walkway in search of the exit. There. An open hall lined with white pillars. He had entered through there earlier.

Just as he was making way past the hall, a voice echoed—

“Where exactly do you think you’re going, Izsak?”

Izsak abruptly froze in place. A chill crept up his spine, as he turned around. There, in the deep black shadow of a pillar.

“Y-You…”

The figure stepped out from behind the pillar. A hand was kindly extended. “You know I can’t let you go now. You should just come with me. You played the idiot, but you were always too smart for your own good.”

Izsak lowered his head and bit his lip. “Look who’s playing who.”

“I am truly sorry.”

“Sorry enough to let me go?”

“You know the answer to that question.”

“Well then…” Izsak held out his hand and flicked his wrist. There was a flash of light and a buzz of warmth. A familiar shape formed in Izsak’s palm. A pistol.

“Are you really going to—”

Without hesitation, Izsak pulled the trigger.

* * *

He had pulled the trigger nearly point blank, yet he was running for his life. He had somehow managed to make it off campus, but the royal palace was kilometers away despite it being within sight.

Unfortunately for him, the route connecting the university campus to the royal palace was completely deserted. No witnesses. Nowhere to hide. Talk about bad luck.

Izsak spotted a tree in the distance. He darted toward it and ducked behind, pressing his back against the trunk and trying to calm his heavy breathing. Tuning his ears to the silence that permeated around him, he waited.

“You’re a Conjurer, Wtorek,” came a sympathetic sigh from his side. “Projectors are the fighters, Transmutationists the healers, Manipulators the spies, Elementalists the destroyers, Conjurers—well. The best you can do is support others. You can’t win battles on your own. Especially against a Specialist. This was hopeless since the beginning. You should know this.”

Izsak gripped his bleeding shoulder and grimaced as he peeled away from the tree and glared into the darkness. “Yeah, I’m feeling pretty screwed right now. Kind of want to start praying to our Ancestors.”

A deep chuckle resounded. “Is this really the time to be joking?”

“This all feels like a joke to me, really,” Izsak remarked, as he heard the familiar hum of a conductor being activated. “To think that ELPIS of all things was right about conductors. Really, it’s bugging me. But it makes sense for me to agree with ELPIS. I’m a co-villain, after all.”

A small, but sharp light above him caught his attention. A star. Csilla.

His last thought was of her.

4.5: Imamu Aeriation

Re-cap:

Convergence has occurred. Influenced by Jericho’s rage and pushed by Maria’s observations, Atienna has lashed out at her younger brother Bachiru who she believed was getting involved in dangerous, violent things he did not understand. Chastised for not moving forward, not making a choice, Atienna must decide. Everything has boiled over. The next step is to… 

Virgo

After her confrontation with Bachiru, Atienna headed to the Night Circle. Doused in paint, she’d leapt into the ring without thought and faced the opponent she’d fought only days earlier. The man with painted tears.

As soon as he stepped into the ring, he launched himself at her. She dodged to the right, but was caught off guard when he kicked his foot up to meet her face. She heard the crack before she felt it. A jarring blow that left the taste of iron in her mouth. She barely had time to recover before he swung his fist into her stomach. More iron.

He had gotten better. Much better.

His jabs were quicker, his dodges swifter.

Was she slow because of her hand injury? No, that wasn’t it.

Her swings would not reach him. Her itch could not be released.

This was—

It wasn’t enough.

He had gotten better, and she had stayed the same. This was really—

Abruptly, her opponent halted midway through throwing an uppercut. Pulling back, he regarded her. There was something in his eyes. Frustration. Like Bachiru. Without another word, he exited the ring of fire.

The onlookers remained silent. Not even sparing her a whisper.

Atienna felt shame burning her cheeks as the snake-masked ringmaster offered her a hand, but she accepted it anyways. She wasn’t sure if the streams running down her cheeks were from her tears or her sweat.

When she’d returned home, she painstakingly scrubbed the paint from her face and washed the blood from her hands before roaming out to her gardens. It was then that Olive had somehow managed to synchronize with all of them.

The desperate anguish Atienna had felt reverberate inside her chest as Olive told them about his sister left her breathless. To lose her siblings in such a way, she couldn’t fathom it.

Then came the subsequent synchronizations she had with the other five. Each of them heading somewhere. Running toward, running way, hiding—they were all in motion. Despite all of their differences, that was what the other five had in common. It was dizzying. All of them in constant motion. All except her.

* * *

Atienna found Bachiru sitting in front of their mother’s room with his back against the door. This was where he would always sit when he was younger when their mother’s incident had first occurred. She would always join him during those times, and he’d welcome her with a half-smile.

Now, he tensed at her approach. But he did not move as she slid down next to him.

He sent her a glare, then froze with wide eyes. “Atienna—your face—what happen—”

Atienna clasped her hands together and smiled. “The wall and table have gotten their revenge for me breaking them—is that too unbelievable?”

Bachiru glanced at her hand, glared at the wall opposite, and then glanced at her face. “Are… you okay?”

She clenched and unclenched her hand for him to see before bowing her head. “I’m sorry, Bachiru,” Atienna murmured. “For scaring you.”

“You always scare me,” Bachiru replied. “This is the one time you didn’t.”

She gave him an inquiring look.

“You never get angry. You never cry. You never yell.” Bachiru shook his head. “You know that book you were looking for five months ago at the library? The book you could not find?”

“Mind of a Sociopath,” Atienna recalled.

“I checked the book out,” Bachiru said. “I still have it out. It’s in my room.”

Atienna pursed her lips. “That isn’t funny, Bachiru.”

“It’s true. I thought you were one,” Bachiru said. He glanced at her again. “But I can return the book now.”

“Because you know I am one or because you know I’m not one?”

Bachiru offered a wry smile before he frowned again. “I don’t understand why you do that. You’re upset, but you don’t act on it. You let things happen, and then you are upset when they happen.”

“Yes, Bachiru. I was wrong.”

“But you think I’m wrong too?”

“I don’t think you’re wrong,” Atienna drew. “About trying to give aid to people who need it.” She tucked a dark lock of hair behind her ear in thought. “But what kind of aid? We can’t send our Conductors to them. That would just create more conflict. Would they accept any other kind of help though? Perhaps we could supply them with care items.”

Bachiru was staring.

“You could say that I’ve been a bit inspired,” she chuckled. By a pirate of all things. “But the way you’re going about it is wrong.” She allowed the smile to drop from her face. “Who was it, Bachiru?” she pressed. “It’s not like you to think of something like destroying the generator conductors and burning the Great Tree. You’re too kind for that.”

Bachiru looked away from her. “You will be angry.”

She already knew who it was.

* * *

In the darkness, the Great Tree glowed. Its white trunk seemed to hum with an energy that sent its glass-like leaves shivering on its branches. The pool of vitae at its feet.

“So, he told you then.”

“He did.”

“And the other tribe members?”

“Won’t be coming.”

Usian turned away from the tree to face her. His face was eclipsed in the light. He didn’t look much like himself. “Well, that’s too bad.”

“Usian…” Atienna held her hands. “Help me understand—”

“What is more important, Atienna? Hope or peace?”

Atienna studied his back. “Neither is better than the other.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Atienna.” Usian turned back to the reservoir. “The concept of peace changes with time and person. Sometimes it is defined as being without war. Sometimes it is considered a time where nothing changes. But a time where nothing changes can also be considered the opposite of peace by some.” He turned to her then. “We cannot be cattle sitting idly as this world changes. We cannot have peace that way. That’s why hope is much better, Atienna. It’s a constant.”

“You have always been a great lecturer, Usian,” Atienna said gently, “but I’m sorry. This lecture seems a bit too high-level for me—or perhaps it’s just that it’s too convoluted.” Before he could retort, she continued: “So please explain it to me. I’ve been wondering this, but I can’t quite reach an answer. Why would you go to such lengths in order to overturn the Council? I understand wanting to aid the Sagittarians, but…”

“I am only doing what your mother originally wanted, Atienna. For Virgo to come out of its isolation in order to contribute to a peaceful future for Signum. If she saw your reluctance now, she would be disappointed, my dear.”

Atienna stiffened. She wasn’t quite sure whether the tears that were pricking her eyes were ones of shame or outrage.

“I’ve been waiting this entire time for an opportunity like this. Hoping for it. A situation where they would have no choice. It was painstakingly long waiting for the right opportunity, but all my hoping and waiting paid off. Your poisoning, the Sagittarian request for support, your father’s stance amongst the chieftains, your brother’s hardiness. I had truly hoped that with all of this, your mother’s efforts would not have been in vain—”

“Don’t you… dare say it’s about mother,” Atienna whispered. “That’s just self-serving.”

A pause. And then, Usian sighed, “Knowledgeable ignorance and selective hypocrisy have always been your greatest faults, Atienna.”

Atienna recollected herself with a deep breath and smiled thinly. “That’s not the constructive criticism of a teacher, Usian.”

Usian turned to fully face her, allowing a wreath of white vitae from reservoir to shroud him. White.

The realization came a moment afterward as the word finally sunk in. Hope. The original Ophiuchian language. The meaning of that word. Elpis.

Jericho ghosted the edges of her mind.

No. That didn’t make any sense. The points didn’t connect—

“Well, despite my best efforts, it seems as if our plans here fell through. But there are always our assets in Capricorn. If not Capricorn, then we have someone ‘new’ in Aries. Yes, if what I’ve heard about what’s happening in Aries is true, then there’s still hope. Virgo will—”

Jericho’s anger boiled beneath the surface, but Atienna reined it in and released it with a quiet breath. “So, have you been teaching your students the ways of what I’m assuming you believe are revolutionaries?”

“I’m not a part of ELPIS.” Usian frowned. “They are fiends. I’m not lost enough in my own beliefs to agree with their views. But… they have assets, and they have a plan. I saw what they could do when I went to the Twin Cities. You should have seen what they were able to do with that peacekeeper. And they are right about many things, Atienna. Not that I care for those things. Our plans and sentiments happened to align. That is all. They are a means to an end.”

“A means to an end…? Usian… I looked up to you.”

Usian looked as if he’d been slapped. Good.

“And I can’t let you go like this, Usian.”

“Can’t let me go on? What exactly will you do, Atienna? Will you turn me in? For what?” Usian scoffed after a beat. “All I did was whisper a couple of ideas into your brother’s ear. He is the one who chose to act. If anything, he will be seen as the one at fault seeing as he’s been recruiting members of other tribes for this plan.” He gestured to the empty area around them. “And nothing has come of it. There is no crime in sight and no evidence.”

Atienna looked away, clenching her fists. Something only for the night, she consoled herself. Not here.

“Do you wish for us to become like the Capricornians, who choose to punish their people for just speaking their minds? Or the Ophiuchians who achieve peace through fear and violence? There is nothing right about what I did—this is true—but there is nothing wrong with my beliefs either. You know this, which is why you have yet to do anything.” A dry chuckle. He walked toward and past her. “You aren’t your mother, Atienna. What can you even hope to do?”

The Great Tree is a symbol for peace in Virgo or so says half of the tribes of the country. A symbol of peace through isolationism. The other half of the tribes say it a symbol of stagnation through negligence. It’s all perspective though, don’t you think?

Atienna’s journal entry, unknown date

4.4: Gloria Twist

Re-cap:

Convergence has occurred. Maria has spent her time waltzing around the lives of the other five and has returned only to be challenged to a duel and surprisingly disarmed by the mysterious golden Oros. Maria’s crew members appear to be dissenting but she does not notice this herself. Maria’s carefree nature opens up a dangerous door… 

Aboard Gloria’s Grail, Geminian Waters

“Hm? Mutiny? Why would I be concerned about something like that?

Maria was not only addressing Simon and Conta who were currently present with her in her quarters but also Werner, Olive, and Cadence who were mentally present.

“Captain,” Conta began, “the men… they saw you—”
“—lose in your duel if I’m gettin’ the details correct,” Cadence finished.
“I didn’t lose,” Maria replied with a laugh.

Simon exchanged a glance with Conta, while Cadence tried to exchange a look with Werner.

“Right, right, ya didn’t lose.” Cadence nodded with a grin. “But some people probably don’t see it that way. And y’know how it is in these types of professions, once the big top dog looks like it’s feeling’ a little under the weather, all the other ones pounce.”

“I’m not feeling under the weather, though,” Maria replied.

Conta and Simon’s confused expressions deepened.

“Right, right, there’s nothin’ ya can’t do,” Cadence agreed laxly, “but that doesn’t change the fact that Oros lady is—”

“—conversing closely with some of the other men,” Simon said. “When I spoke with Morandi and his men earlier, they said she was saying strange things. Not to mention, Pierre…”

“Let them say strange things then,” Maria chuckled. “Everyone says I say strange things all of the time! It’s not fun being by myself, no? And we’ll take Pierre out of his cell and get him off this ship when we get to land.”

“But Captain,” Simon pressed, “the things she’s saying. She’s convincing some of them to leave and—”

“If they want to leave, they can leave,” Maria said with a shrug.

“Captain.” Simon smiled tiredly. “Do you recall the first thing you said to me when you found me?”

“Hm… ‘I like your priest outfit’?”

Simon chuckled and shook his head. “No, you said to me, ‘I like your eyes. I’ve decided! From now on, you are mine. Do you understand what that means? You cannot leave my side, and in turn I will protect you.’”

“Did I say those things?” Maria cocked her head with a slight frown before she brightened again. “Well, if I did, it was a spur of the moment thing.”

“It may have been that for you,” Simon said gently. “But for others, hearing things like that can be very troubling for the heart and the ego. Some view it as a chain. People don’t like being chained down, Maria.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Maria said, tousling her hair. “But I do understand not wanting to be chained down.”

“What about the others? The missing ones?” Conta pressed. “Simon and I’ve searched the entire ship top to bottom and we can’t find them. Morandi says he hasn’t been able to find some of his crew either.”

“Oh… they are still missing?” Maria pulled off her shirt in thought. “Well then…”

Both Werner and Simon flushed before looking away while Cadence and Conta looked on unperturbed.

Olive was facing the wall and shaking his head. “Get me the hell out of here.”

“Those disappearances…” Maria grabbed the towel hanging from her chair and wrapped it around her body. “I will look into that.”

* * *

The bath was a new installment on the ship. Six months ago, they had picked up a group stranded in the middle of a storm. They were members of a passenger ship bound from one of the outer countries to Gemini and were clinging desperately to the wreckage of their capsized ship. A day after getting those passengers on board, the Gloria Grail was throttled by the same storm, which had been pushed backward by wind currents.

They braved the storm and it was certainly exhilarating—though no one else seemed to think so—and made it to Geminian ports on a ship that sported five holes in its hull.

The passengers who were apparently from rich families offered to restore the ship. Although Simon had pressed to decline, Maria had said “why not?” Emmanuel, one of the passengers, happened to be an engineer hoping to learn about the conductors of the countries of Signum on his travels. He offered to design them a new ship, but Maria had cheerfully refused. Instead, Maria offered him a spot on her ship so he could see Signum in full. As she later found out, he hadn’t seemed to understand that Maria’s ship was what people considered a ‘pirate’ ship and had accepted the offer out of ignorance. He adapted well, however, and had managed to convince Maria to let him install a bathhouse on board.

And here it was.

Emmanuel was amazingly talented—Maria was sure to tell him that.

The bathing room was more like a sauna than anything else, equipped with a large hot bath and five shower stalls. The bath was Maria’s favorite as it reminded her of the hot springs of Sagittarius.

Maria sank into the waters and let out a sigh of relief. She stretched out her legs and stuck one out to lather it with a bar of soap that had been set to the side. She was halfway through this motion when she noticed she wasn’t alone.

Although Cadence and Olive had seemed to have lessened their synchronization with her, Werner remained. He stood, hands clasped behind him, with his back to her near the showers.

“Oh, if it isn’t the soldier! If you were going to stay here, why did you not just say so?”

The soldier flushed, cleared his throat, and stared at the door. “It is not my intention to intrude on your privacy.”

Maria chuckled. “What are you talking about? You are not intruding.” She gestured to the water. “You should join me! The water is perfect! How do you say it in Capricornian?”

“Perfekt.”

“Oh, so the same way—”

“No—”

“Anyway, join me!”

“I’m not actually present so that would be physically impossible,” Werner supplied. “Besides, that would be inappropriate.”

“How so?”

Werner turned slightly, caught himself, and said, “That should be obvious.”

Maria stared at him before swimming closer to the edge of the tub and studied his back. “Hm?” Maria squinted, trying to peer into his surroundings. “Where are you—”

“I would prefer it if you didn’t pry,” Werner said curtly. “I took the precaution of secluding myself when this synchronization first occurred, but I do not want a repeat of the Aquarian captain.”

Maria rested her chin on the edge of the tub. “Are you still mad about that?”

“Lingering on it does nothing,” Werner replied, back still turned. “That doesn’t mean I will not keep it in mind and allow it to happen again.”

Maria thrummed her fingers before she smiled. “I see. Your crew must think you’re pretty—how do they say it—‘cool’, yes?”

“What my men think of me is irrelevant,” Werner said after a stiff pause. “Leadership is about being an example to the people beneath you. You must be able to understand them, but you must not allow your understanding to cloud your judgment. That is how a chain of command works.”

“You do not have to lie to me,” Maria chuckled. “About you thinking that it is irrelevant.”

“Wha—”

“But this ‘understanding’ you are talking about… do you think I am lacking in it?” She thought of Conta and Simon and Morandi and Pierre as she asked the question.

This caused Werner to face her. After meeting her eyes, he turned away again and answered curtly, “Yes, I believe you are.”

Maria hummed. “I see. Well, I will become better then. Improve, yes. I can do anything, you know, but some things just require a bit more effort.”

In the distance, she could almost see Olive turn his head.

“You need to put more focus on Oros,” Werner returned. “I agree with Cadence and the members of your crew that she is something that needs to be removed. She challenged your leadership and is spreading dissent among your men.”

“Hm, since everyone is saying it, I guess I should look into it.” Maria frowned a rare frown. “I really don’t like being pushed to do things though.” She brightened a beat after and chuckled. “Hey, is it me, or are you being a little bit friendlier now, Wern?”

“It’s Werner,” Werner corrected. “And recent circumstances have indicated that improving relations would be beneficial.”

“You are talking about Nico, yes?”

“How—”

“I saw him when I was freeing that Aquarian Captain,” she said.

There was a jolt in Werner’s chest which resonated within her own. He really was upset about that then.

“I don’t regret what I did,” Maria said, “but I am sorry about the trouble you are in.”

“I understand.”

The door abruptly flew open. And the synchronization she had with Werner weakened to the point where he disappeared from her line of sight and she could no longer hear his thoughts. Which was a bit disappointing.

Maria turned her attention to her party crasher with a slight pout.

Standing at the threshold of the door was Oros in the flesh. And in the nude. All concerns immediately flew from Maria’s mind.

“May I join you?” the woman asked.

Maria beamed. “Yes, of course!”

Oros moved forward with an air of grace, crossing the bathroom as if she was gliding, before sinking into the waters right across from Maria. She plucked the bar of soap out of Maria’s hands.

“You are very good at sword fighting,” Maria said as she watched Oros lather herself.

“Of course, I am,” Oros answered with a smile.

“For someone who is so good at sword fighting, I’m surprised you were caught off guard and locked in that crate.”

Oros’s smile deepened. “I’m surprised someone like you was somewhat capable.”

Maria chuckled. “I am strong, yes.”

There was a stretch of silence.

“Say,” Oros said, “have you ever heard the tale of the Golden Beast?”

“I’ve heard it many times before. It’s a very popular sea-farer’s tale.” Maria hummed. “But I am excited to hear your version of it!”

Oros smiled thinly before she began:

“The Golden Beast is something that suddenly appears on ships. No one knows what it looks like or what it is. Some say it disguises itself as a passenger on the ship. It’s a merciful thing and so as long as it’s treated with utmost respect, it spares the ship. However, if it feels as if it has been wronged in any way, the ship’s fate is sealed.”

“Oh, very ominous!”

“Slowly, one by one, members and passengers of the ship start disappearing. Some say the beast makes them a part of the ship while others say the beast eats them whole. Still, like I’ve said, the Golden Beast is merciful. If the passengers promise to become the beast’s servants, then they are spared.”

“And if they don’t?”

Oros mimicked picking up a piece of food and dropping it in her mouth.

“That’s interesting. So how does your version end?” Maria pressed.

“Well, no one who has heard the story has lived to tell its ending.” Oros crossed her arms.

“That doesn’t seem very good for you or for me, does it?” Maria laughed.

“No. Just for you,” Oros concluded, rising to a stand.

Maria looked up at her in confusion. Confusion that was forgotten once she noticed how the light spilling in from the window caught onto Oros’s features. Really, she was radiant. Almost glowing.

Gold hair. Gold eyes.

“Hey!” Maria leapt up from the water. “You said your name was Oros, yes? Are you sure it’s that? I have a friend, you see, and he is looking for someone called—”

The door to the bathroom flew open.

Maria turned her head and found a handful of her crew standing there. One crew member in particular stood out to her.

Maria, came a warning voice.

She was in front of that man in an instant, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Pierre! Shouldn’t you be in your cell?” She squeezed. He tried to rip her hand away, but she tightened her hold, causing him to yelp. She then looked at the others around him, meeting each of their eyes, and smiled. “What exactly is going on here?”

They remained silent, whatever gusto they’d come in with seeming to have left them.

“What are you doing?”

The men turned their gazes away from Maria and toward Oros.

“Are you really going to show your cowardice to me when I’m standing right here?” came Oros’s rumbling voice.

Pierre’s gaze hardened, and he signaled some of the crew members forward. And step forward they did, dragging in unconscious bodies with them.

Maria stepped back as she registered who they were. Simon, Morandi, Morandi’s men, Raul the Chef, Emmanuel, and—

—Conta.

Conta. She looked strange lying there on the floor. It didn’t suit her. She was always bright—Conta.

“I’ve gotten rid of the ones who wouldn’t accept my offer.” Oros’s voice drew nearer until it was echoing just beside Maria’s ear. “Although these ones also rejected me, I couldn’t help but think to offer some mercy.”

Something hot and sharp pressed against Maria’s back, causing her to turn her head to the offending object. A sword—no.

It was shaped like a sword, but it had properties unlike one. Its edges glimmered a blinding gold, and it hummed strangely.

A conductor.

Oros pressed the conductor into Maria’s back. “I am the Golden Beast.”

4.3: Waltz Misfire

Re-cap:

Convergence has occurred. Werner has just discovered that Maria had overridden him prior and had freed the Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer whom he’d been ordered to execute for partisanship by Major Ersatz. He has no memory of this, but he is not one to panic. He still must act as a representative of Capricorn in mediating the Aquarian-Capricornian conflict despite the convultion of everything. Thus, he carefully considers his next options and seems oddly vigilant of the prince. But then Cadence synchronizes and appears before him and recognizes one of his prisoners.

Abandoned Town, Capricorn

The synchronization event brought upon by Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance seemed to have exacerbated Werner’s condition.

Whenever he’d rest his eyes, he’d enter an odd sort of micro sleep where what he assumed were memories would barrage his mind. The dreams were so vivid that they’d almost seemed real. Flashes of a narrow street and the sound of laughter, the warm sun in an open garden, a flicker of swirling flames in a quiet and reverent chamber, the splash of saltwater on a sunny day, and a cramped darkness in a damp room.

He’d been trying to resist sleep due to these things. But he already knew the truth.

He was compromised.

However, it seemed as if not all information was transmitted through this synchronization. While the flow of feelings and thoughts was uncontrollable, the flow of memories received and given seemed to depend on each individual. He’d questioned Atienna about it during one of their sudden synchronizations. At the time, Atienna had tilted her head in thought as she rested her cheek on her bandaged fist and said, “I wonder. I’ve mostly just seen what I believe are memories from Olive.” For a moment, her expression became sympathetic. And then she smiled, saying, “Lieutenant Waltz, are you perhaps concerned we may see something you don’t want us to see?”

He had left it at that.

Atienna was perceptive but she was not confrontational. That aside, Cadence was hiding something. That much was apparent given her profession. What she was hiding was just out of his grasp. The answer was ghosting the very edges of his knowledge. Perhaps, it was intentional.

Either way, he was not happy when she started following him. After all, she could easily siphon off information regarding the Capricornian-Aquarian conflict from him and feed it to whomever she decided. It was in her line of business, though she claimed innocence.

Regardless, he still had his duty and rounds to perform. Keeping his mind clear, he’d entered the cabin housing the prisoners when—

“Nico…?”

He’d felt Cadence’s horror as if it were his own.

Now, Werner found his gaze forcefully focused on the Aquarian combat nurse who was kneeling in front of one of the other prisoners. Aquarian? No, the combat nurse looked nothing like an Aquarian.

Werner hadn’t recognized the combat nurse before this moment, and he’d only felt slight déjà vu when he’d heard the man’s name. It was a common name, however, and Werner assumed he’d heard it in passing. But that was the problem with assumptions.

Werner slowly approached the combat nurse. Swallowing the lump that had formed in his throat, he asked for confirmation in barely a whisper: “What is your name?”

From beneath a mess of curly black hair and with steady eyes an amber so clear, the young combat medic answered. “Nico. Nico Fabrizzio.”

“Nico Fabrizzio—that’s my name. But they always call me crybaby Nico. I don’t know why,” the young boy stuttered in a shaky voice as he wiped away tears and dirt from his face.

“Ya don’t know, ya say?” She’d chortled as she reached into her pocket and provided him with a handkerchief.

He took it and wiped his face before mumbling a shy “thank you.”

“Ten Cens,” she’d told him, matter-of-fact, extending her hand out.

“What?”

“Ten Cens for the kerchief.”

Nico started to laugh but stopped short when he’d realized that she hadn’t been joking. He dug into his pockets, pulled out two five Cen coins, and dropped it into her palm.

She’d smiled charmingly for him. “What’s the underground doc’s kid doin’ wanderin’ around gettin’ his ass beat for? With a reputation like that, you’d think you wouldn’t have to be dealin’ with a schoolyard bully.”

The young boy had sniffled. “I-I know. I know. I’m sorry. I-I just—”

“No more waterworks, Nico, please,” she’d sighed. “I’m no good with this stuff.”

Nico had gulped down two more sobs before he nodded his head. “Are you really working with the Romanos?”

“Yup. Not officially a part of the Family though, but they’re already givin’ me a nickname.” She’d puffed her chest out then, filled with a sense of childish heroism and pride. “They call me the black knight of the Romano Family.” She’d rubbed her nose and winked at him, saying with little to no embarrassment, “And that would make me your black knight too, wouldn’t it?”

At the end of that conversation, after speaking vaguely about cages and opportunity, she’d extended her pinky out to him. When he’d accepted her gesture, a sort of indescribable happiness blossomed in her chest.

That was where their friendship began. Two dirty children standing in a filthy alleyway overshadowed by clouds thick with soot. Side-by-side through cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Side-by-side, teaching each other the oddest of things like how to play piano or how to swallow a cigarette whole or how to sew up a small cut. All the way, side-by-side, until now.

The wounds from their most recent fight were still raw. The hurtful words Nico had said to her still rang in her ear.

Wait, ‘their’ most recent fight?

No. That fight had not involved Werner. Cadence was the one who’d fought with Nico. Cadence—

Werner blinked and the images that whirlwinded through his mind cleared. He was still standing in front of Nico Fabrizzio, who was for once not teary-eyed despite the straining situation.

A pair of hands gripped Werner’s arm. The man turned his head and found Cadence wide-eyed. Despite her not actually being present, he could feel her nails digging into his skin. A trick of the mind, most likely and logically. But Werner couldn’t even think at the moment.

“Please,” she whispered, “help him.”

He looked back at Nico. The man seemed to be limping.

Was he hurt?

“Enough,” Werner said. Cadence, Nico, and the Aquarian prisoners froze. “Nico Fabrizzio, come with me.”

The man looked back over his shoulder. “With all due respect, Lieutenant Waltz, these men are injured. If I don’t change their bandages now, they could get worse.”

“That idiot.” Cadence bit her lip.

“I will send in our combat medic to aid them,” Werner said. “Now, come with me.”

Nico looked back at one of the men on the bed who gave him a firm nod. Swallowing, Nico followed Werner out of the cabin. Fischer and Bergmann were still standing guard outside. The former started in surprise when he saw Nico emerging behind Werner.

“Send in Brandt to tend to the injured,” Werner ordered.

“But—”

“These are prisoners of war, Private Fischer. They are not animals. Or do you not have any pride as a Capricornian?”

“Er,” Fischer stammered. “Right away, sir.” He ran off to fetch the combat medic.

Werner inclined his head, indicating Nico to continue following him. They crossed the dirt path in silence.

“Hey, hey,” Cadence stammered as she came along beside him, “what are ya gonna do to him?”

That question indicated that she could not at the moment tell what he was thinking. Which would have been a good thing if Werner was thinking at all.

Werner led Nico into a cabin, gesturing for him to go in first and then closing the door behind them.

Werner, urged Cadence.

Ignoring her, Werner turned to study Nico. The man was standing stiff and staring at the rows of tables at the center of the room. No. He was staring at the items neatly lined up on top of them. The conductors, the vices, the flyers.

Werner stepped beside him, and the man stiffened further.

“Why… did you bring me here?” Nico asked.

Werner stared at him for a moment before gesturing across the room. “Stand over there.”

Nico followed his gaze and his eyes widened. He studied Werner for a moment before complying. Werner joined him shortly after.

Pointing to the instrument in front of them, Werner said, “Play.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Uh, you’re kinda bein’ a creep, Werner,” Cadence whispered with a nervous laugh.

Werner glanced at her and hesitated, then repeated, “Play.”

Nico swallowed and nodded, resting his hands on the keyboard in a natural position. And then he started playing. A deep melody flowed out. It wasn’t choppy and full of energy like Cadence’s had been. It was slow, methodical, pleasant.

“He’s usually better than this,” Cadence said. “He’s just a little nervous ’cause, y’know.”

Werner found himself nodding. There was a bit of pride in Cadence’s voice and worry in their connected feelings. It was hazy, but Werner supposed there was a bit of guilt there in her too. It was none of his business, but he was aware of the fact that Nico and Cadence had recently gotten into an argument. Argument…

Then the memory came to him. The phone call between Cadence and Nico. The one that ended with their fight. For a moment, Werner felt rude for intruding on such a memory. Then realization dawned.

“You supplied the Aquarians with the modified conductors,” Werner drew slowly.

The music stopped. Both Cadence and Nico froze. Silence filled the air.

“You’ve been delivering them to the Aquarians before the border conflict even began.”

Nico turned to him, and there was fear in his eyes. And guilt. “How…?”

Cadence’s image stepped between them.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Cadence stammered, hands raised. “This is just Romano Family and Foxman business! Nico just came along to help in case any of our guys got caught up in your fight.”

“Those weapons are the reason why sixty-seven Capricornian lives have been lost this past week,” Werner stated.

“Nico is barely a delivery man. He has nothing—”

“Just barely a delivery man, you say.” Werner met Cadence’s eyes. “Those children are also ‘just delivery men.’ As I’ve said before, what you do does not concern me, but do you expect me to treat Nico differently? He holds pertinent information regarding this as do you. He will be taken in by higher authorities and questioned there. I’m sure this holds implications for Ophiuchus as well.”

Werner and Cadence both paused, but Jericho did not appear.

Cadence swallowed, and Werner could see her mind racing in a million different directions.

“I should have told Major Ersatz about the conductors from the beginning,” Werner said to himself more than her. But at least this synchronization connection had proved useful. “I’ll inform him when he arrives.”

“Wait, think about this, Werner. And I mean to say this with all due respect. Your major is crazy. Admit it. Ya know it. I know ya know it.”

“My opinions of Major Ersatz mean little in light of his position and the countless times he’s proven himself serving Capricorn.”

“Ya say that, but you’re still standin’ here talkin’ to me,” Cadence said. “Look, I get that I’m bein’ hypocritical and selfish askin’ for ya to look the other way, and you’re completely justified in bein’ pissed, but we could work somethin’ out.”

Werner remained silent.

“Those conductors we’ve been supplyin’ to the Aquarians—we could supply them to you instead. For a price, ’course, but I’m sure your higher-ups can handle that. Ya need ’em, don’t ya?”

Werner hesitated.

“Please,” Cadence pleaded, lowering her hands, “Nico is good, aight? He was just born into unfortunate circumstances.”

Werner’s eyes narrowed. “Responsibility—”

“He was born into unfortunate circumstances, but he’s still tryna do good despite that. Stupidly, might I say.”

“He’s aiding the Aquarians.”

“He’s helpin’ people who’re hurt. That’s just how he is. I know that’s how he is, and because I know, you also know.”

A brief image flashed into Werner’s mind.

A young, teary-eyed Nico, stumbling around in the middle of a rainstorm with Cadence on his back.

“Lieutenant Waltz,” Nico said suddenly but slowly, carefully, “who are you talking to?”

Werner looked past Cadence and met Nico’s gaze.

“Sir, I don’t think you’re well,” Nico continued. “That night with Captain Dunya Kramer—”

The Nico standing in front of him abruptly flickered and was replaced with—

A young Nico Fabrizzio, dressed in his usual slacks and suspenders, extending a shy hand in apology even though Cadence had started the fight.

“Stop it,” Werner snapped through gritted teeth, gripping his pulsing head. He took a step back away from Nico, away from Cadence, and grimaced as a familiar wave of déjà vu wracked his brain. “Stop doing that.”

“I’m not doing anything…” Cadence was pale.

Was she pale because he’d raised his voice? He couldn’t tell. Everything was hazy and painful and confusing and—

—and as always Nico was standing there with a concerned look on his face. Always concerned, always worrying, always crying.

The haze faded as did the pain and confusion.

Werner lifted his head from his hand and found both Cadence and Nico staring at him with wide eyes. Nico was right beside him, holding him steady with rigid and tense hands. Cadence stood a little ways away looking concerned.

“You’re not an Aquarian combat medic,” Werner said, meeting Nico’s eyes.

After a pause, Nico answered, “No, I’m not.”

“You were involved in the shipment of these conductors to the Aquarians.”

“… yes, I was.”

“Why are you still here?”

Nico pulled away from Werner. “I… just…” Their eyes met. “I know this sounds convoluted, but they needed help.”

“By helping them, you’ve indirectly aided them in killing Capricornian soldiers.”

Nico met his eyes head on. “That goes for anyone I help. Even helping you stand now could be leading to someone dying in the near future. It’s something I’ve accepted.”

Werner looked away from him. “If you remain here, you will be questioned by my superior when he arrives.”

Nico tensed.

“However, I have my doubts about my superior’s current mental faculties. If I were to bring you to him, he may act irrationally and damage the potential information you carry.”

Werner could feel Cadence brighten from beside him.

“That being said, Nic—Mr. Fabrizzio—I will arrange for an agreement to be made with an associate of yours in exchange for your freedom.”

“You got it, Werner,” Cadence chirped from beside him as she placed a hand on his shoulder. “Leave it to me!”

“Freedom?” Nico gave Werner a wary look. “I can’t just leave the people I was treating…”

“What? Sorry, this isn’t like him.” Cadence sighed with exasperation and ruffled her hair. “You could scare him a bit ya know. Maybe point your conductor at him to give him an idea of the…er… horrors of war?”

Werner side-glanced at Cadence before addressing Nico: “I will see to it that the Aquarian soldiers you were tending to are treated fairly.”

Nico took a moment to digest this information, before he tried slowly, “You said you’d make an arrangement with someone. Who exactly—”

Werner interjected, “That is none of your concern.”

Nico stiffened.

Werner could feel Cadence frowning at him from the corner of his eye. “Your concern should be getting away from this camp and returning—”

“Uh… what the hell is going on here?”

A familiar voice rang throughout the room, which was disconcerting since Werner and Nico were the only physical occupants. He wasn’t synchronized with any of the others, so that voice wouldn’t have been them either. Plus, Nico had visibly reacted to the voice.

Werner scanned the room slowly. Empty. He turned back to Nico and—

The window. There was a window right beside the piano. An open window. And just outside that window stood one Gilbert Wolff who had a highly disturbed look on his face. How had Werner not even noticed?

“How long have you been standing there?” Werner asked calmly, palms itching.

“Is this really the time to be calm?” Cadence chuckled nervously.

“Long enough,” Gilbert replied. “So what exactly is going on here? Actually, what’s been going on this entire time? You’ve been acting sketchy as hell, Werner.”

Nico looked between them, tense.

Werner narrowed his eyes and spoke curtly, “Second Lieutenant Wolff, this is none of your concern—”

Gilbert met Werner’s eyes. There was something in them. Anger? Betrayal? Hurt? Before Werner could dissect the emotion, Gilbert leapt through the window, rushed at him, and then grabbed him by the scruff.

“Werner, for saint’s sake!” the man snapped, shaking him hard. “I’ve been with you for too many years now! If you’re gonna be losing your mind, let me know, so I can lose my own before you!”

Werner paused. Gilbert had been by his side since they were schoolboys just as Cadence and Nico had been by each other’s side. Would Gilbert—

“Wait a minute,” Cadence started warningly.

—yes, Gilbert would.

* * *

“So, what you’re saying is that you think you’ve been talking to people from across Signum telepathically, and you’ve been having visions of their memories or thoughts or whatever. And to boot, you think that if one of the people in your happy connection group dies then you all die.”

They were standing by the piano, having closed the window minutes earlier. Nico was sitting in the opposite corner of the room looking unsure of what to do with himself.

“Yes, Gilbert.”

Gilbert paced back and forth, before stopping to give him a look. “Werner you know how this sounds, right?”

“I am very aware.”

“W-Well, actually, it may not be as unbelievable as it sounds,” Nico interjected. “I mean, if you look at the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, then it might actually be possible…”

Gilbert stared at Nico before thumbing him. “Okay, who is this? Why is he here?”

“That is Nico Fabrizzio. He works alongside an underground organization called the Romano Family.”

“Okay…” Gilbert rubbed his chin and looked Nico over. “So he’s not an Aquarian. You could kinda tell that just by looking at him. But how did you know that other stuff?”

Werner opened his mouth but paused to glance at Cadence who was standing beside him and studying Nico from afar. Gilbert tried to follow his gaze but found nothing. When Cadence felt Werner’s gaze, she shrugged.

I do enjoy bein’ a black knight.

“I am connected with an individual associated with Nico. She goes by the name Cadence Morello.”

Nico stiffened before rushing forward. “Cadence?! Cadence—you’re connected with Cadence?!” He looked around the room. “I-Is she here?”

Werner glanced at Nico and nodded. “Yes, we have arranged an agreement regarding the conductors the Family has been shipping to the Aquarians.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Gilbert stepped in-between Nico and Werner. “You’re saying that one of the people you’re connected to knows this guy? Isn’t that a bit too coincidental?” He turned to study Nico. “Are you sure you don’t have anything to do with this?”

Nico shook his head with wide eyes. “Honestly, this is the first time I’ve heard about this, but it would explain what happened with Dunya Kramer.”

Gilbert backtracked. “What exactly happened to Dunya Kramer?”

Werner looked away despite himself. “It appears that some people within this group are able to… take over others in the group.”

“What?!” Gilbert snapped. “They can control you? Like possession? Shit, Werner. Do you need an exorcist or something? Look, I know a Monadic priest—”

“We need to focus on the subject at hand,” Werner said. “Besides, that’s why I’m telling you. If something like that happens again, I’m trusting you to keep me in line.”

Gilbert appeared startled at this statement.

Werner unhooked the pistol at his side, turned it around, and handed it to Nico. Gilbert tensed as Nico hesitantly reached out to accept it.

“A precautionary measure,” Werner said. He nodded at the window. “Roughly five miles north from here, you will find a party of Ophiuchians who are here to address our current conflict with the Aquarians. When you get to them, you will tell them that you are a traveler who was caught up in the conflict. You will not tell them you were a prisoner here nor that you were aiding the Aquarians. From there, you will take the train home. Is that clear?”

Nico blinked dazedly before he nodded.

“What are you waiting for?” Werner pressed.

Nico shook himself and nodded firmly. “Right.” He headed to the window and paused with one leg hanging out. He seemed to ruminate something before he lifted his head to meet Werner’s gaze.

“I… thank you,” both Nico and Cadence said.

With that, Nico climbed out the window and disappeared into the night. Cadence faded with him.

* * *

Gilbert grunted and then asked, “So, what are we going to do about Ersatz?” He glanced around. “Uh, and are they still here?”

“No, it appears we’ve desynchronized for now,” Werner said. “That doesn’t mean she isn’t aware of me, however. Perhaps it’s below thirty percent.” Absentmindedly, he lifted his hand to his face and tapped his cheek in thought. “We will have to hide Nico’s existence from the major. We’ll hide the modified conductors from the major as long as we can, but we’ll pin them on the Aquarians as a temporary measure if they’re discovered. I’ll inform the General about the Romano Family involvement and the major’s condition as soon as I’m able to speak with him.”

“Wow, that’s awfully crafty of you,” Gilbert noted. “Always knew Ersatz was cracked.”

Werner studied Gilbert for a long moment. They really were like Nico and Cadence, weren’t they?

Gilbert offered him raised brows in turn. “What is it?”

“Gilbert…. thank—”

A knock on the cabin door cut Werner off short. It creaked open a second later, and Fischer stood at the threshold. After offering a formal salute, Fischer said, “Lieutenant Waltz, Major Ersatz has arrived. He’d liked to speak to you immediately.”

Gilbert swore under his breath.

Werner nodded. “Inform him I will join him shortly.”

Fischer cocked his head in slight confusion before glancing at Gilbert. “Sir, he said immediately.”

“Right.”

Leaving Gilbert behind, Werner exited the cabin and followed Fischer down the pathway leading to the small town’s square. Ersatz stood in the center, inspecting the buildings with a whimsical expression. The major turned at their approach and brightened seeing Werner.

“Ah! Werner, good to see you in order!”

“And you, sir,” Werner returned after giving the man a salute.

Ersatz signaled for Fischer to leave and for Werner to come closer. Both men obeyed.

“Right, Werner. I’ll have my men supply you and yours with the conductors we’ve brought along.” The major tilted his head to the side.

In the direction he indicated, hidden behind one of the cabins were fifteen—no, thirty men. They wore Capricornian army uniforms, but Werner did not recognize any of them. It was an unusually high number of men to bring to a peace negotiation. The major motioned for one of the men to come forward.

The man handed Ersatz the conducting rifle from his back before returning to his squadron.

“I apologize, sir. I don’t understand,” Werner drew. “With all due respect, why are you supplying us with conductors and why did you bring such a large division with you? I understand that you’re here to overtake my mission to attend the peace negotiations—”

“Peace negotiations?” Ersatz pushed the rifle into Werner’s hands. “Did I not make it clear over the radio, Waltz? We are going to eliminate the Ophiuchian Agents they’ve sent down here.”

4.2: Morello Bridge

Re-cap:

Convergence has occurred.

Cadence has assisted Olive in finding evidence to support the falsely imprisoned Trystan. Now, she can focus on the task at hand free from distraction. She has discovered that the children of Warehouse 13 and their leader Matilda had been previously hired by Verga to deliver modified conductors the man had stolen from the Romano Family. Verga had deemed the children disposable and had begun to kill them. The children, believing that the Romano and Foxmans were the ones behind these incidents, had retaliated against the organizations leading to the attack on the TwinStars Pub. Verga has asked Cadence to lure the remaining children to him so he can clean up the mess and leave the city unharmed.

In return, Verga offers her money and her life.

Twin Cities, Gemini

“Adapt, adapt, adapt,” she would say, porcelain fingers flying across the bone-white keys. Clear laugh chiming, she’d look down with a coy smile.

Cadence would tune her ears to the sharp chords the woman would play and would try to jump in to play with her. But she would always be too fast.

Alma, that was. “Just Alma.” Alma, the young entertainer who had spotted an even younger Cadence peering at her playing piano through a frosted window in Sognare.

Yes, Alma was always too fast. At everything. Cadence could never hope to keep up with her, and that was what made Cadence want to reach her even more. And even though Cadence hadn’t seen Alma in years, Cadence still wanted to reach her. It was why Cadence was in the business she was in, after all.

But Alma was always with her in a spiritual sense—with her lessons and the like. After all, only a couple years after Alma’s other services had been bought out by a mysterious suitor affiliated with the Romano Family and Alma disappeared from the city, Cadence would be saying, “Adapt, adapt, adapt.” To Nico, of course, when she taught him how to play the piano. She was always too fast for him though.

Adaptation.

That was another bible she followed. Other than that cost-benefit analysis.

Adaptation was the key to survival in the Twin Cities. Never reject anything. Never fully accept anything. Pride was debt. Loyalty was interest. Always change, never stay still. Appearances were deceiving.

Even with those mantras, however, Cadence found it a bit harder to adapt to her current predicament. Being psychically connected to five other people took some getting used to.

Fortunately, most of them were pretty easy to read.

There was the Ariesian prince. A brat, but probably only because he was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. The kid was abrasive and rejected people like it was second nature—on the surface at least. Cadence saw the truth. That desperation for connection. Typical angsty kid. Give him enough talking to, paired with a sprinkle of the old cold shoulder, and he’d warm up to her real quick. Calculated negligence. That aside, being buddy-buddy with a prince obviously came with its perks.

The Capricornian Lieutenant was a different story. Cold and unyielding and distant. That was the problem with people who held positions in the middle-rung of authority. They weren’t high up enough to bend to compliments and praise, and they weren’t so far down the ladder that they would do anything to get higher. The man’s stony disposition didn’t help. He barked out commands with such authority and presence that Cadence wanted to shed a tear for his lackeys. But he was hiding something, Cadence could tell. And people with secrets were easy to play a tune to.

Atienna was something else altogether. She was mysterious, and her intentions seemed to hover just beyond Cadence’s reach. Just like Alma. Just when Cadence thought she had Atienna playing to her tune, she’d find that she was the one playing to Atienna’s tune instead. But that made things interesting.

Maria, on the other hand… Well, the Captain was a complete wild card. Cadence got a headache even thinking about her.

And Jericho. Jericho had a one-track mind. He was easy. And he came with the perks of being an Ophiuchian Agent. If Cadence played her cards right, he could be her free pass out of sticky situations.

In this case, this whole connection thing came with more benefits than costs. Of course, it was still risky. Having her thoughts and feelings open was a downside, but she could bypass these issues by playing half-truths.

After the whole fiasco with Olive’s personal assassination investigation was over, Cadence had begun to focus on her larger task at hand: Verga’s job. She’d probably annoyed Olive enough to make him not want to look in her direction even if they did synchronize completely. And Atienna seemed busy at her end, so she wouldn’t interfere either. It was smooth sailing from here.

Currently Cadence was donning the disguise of the recently deceased Duccio and making her way through the city streets. Morning had come and gone. She’d stopped by the Abaccio Hotel after she’d managed to abruptly ‘remember’ Jericho’s confrontation with Matilda. When she checked with the bellboy at the front desk, he’d informed her that the girl had departed just that morning. Just her luck, Cadence had thought. She was just exiting the hotel lobby when Jericho appeared in front of her.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Workin’,” she’d answered with a shrug. “Life-on-the-line kinda deal, but I’ll handle it.”

“The person you’re working for.” Jericho’s eyes seemed to glow unnervingly. “He’s… working with ELPIS.”

A familiar burning heat sparked its way into her chest. It was suffocating, and she could feel it frying the edges of her reason.

That was the trouble with this connection. It went both ways. And she couldn’t control what information went and came. But she could adapt.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she’d said to him. “I’m plannin’ to find out all about his ELPIS deal while I’m at it. The kids delivered the goods for Verga, so they probably know a thing or two about what exactly’s goin’ on in that department.” She offered him a placating hand raise. “I’m not pro-terrorist. Don’t worry.”

“And the children,” Jericho said without further elaboration.

“Well, I’m sure Verga’ll just give ’em the old Geminian slap on the wrist.” Cadence put on a sympathetic expression. “But that’s a good thing. Teach ‘em to keep their noses clean. I mean, he has a daughter. He’d be the devil if he’d do anything bad when he has a kid of his own.” She waved the thought off and nodded to Jericho. “Enough about that. How you feelin’?”

“I’ve been thinking a lot since my body is not functional at the moment.”

“Any philosophical thoughts you wanna throw onto the table?” Cadence joked.

“We were children,” was all he’d said.

Cadence had cocked her head, caught off guard by the odd statement. “Yeah, we were.”

And just like that, Jericho had faded back into his blackness.

Yeah. Jericho was weird.

Cadence brushed the encounter from her mind as she continued through the crowd of pedestrians around her. She crossed over a canal and walked beneath a high bridge where a couple of musical street performers were taking a breather. She gave them a nod.

When her destination glowed its way into her view fifteen minutes later, she halted.

The place that Matilda said was their next target. The Geminorium Gamma. The Foxman brothers’ restaurant front.

It loomed like a behemoth compared to the smaller buildings beside it. A pair of gilded, white pillars rose up at its entrance, holding up a stone-black plaque that she assumed read its name in swirling letters. The glow from the windows was warm and acted as a rosy backdrop to the silhouettes dining inside with their polished silverware and gaudily designed plates.

The restaurant looked packed. Good for them.

Cadence turned away from the dazzling building toward the sidewalk that ran opposite. A few pedestrians were out and a couple of tourists who ogled the restaurant with wistful eyes. Not what Cadence was looking for, but her intuition told her that this was the place to be.

Intuition? Hm.

She noticed a narrow alleyway no wider than a meter hidden behind a collection of trash bins on the walkway. Shoving her hands into her pockets, she approached the mouth of the alley and peered in. And almost had a heart attack.

Huddled there just behind the bins was someone small, legs drawn up against the chest and arms wrapped around the legs. A butterfly-shaped birthmark blossomed on the pale face that peered out from the darkness toward the restaurant.

“Matilda!” Cadence shout-whispered.

The girl blinked slowly as if waking up from a dream before her gaze rose to meet Cadence’s—rather Duccio’s—face. “Duccio!” the girl exclaimed. “You’re all right! I tried to reach you, but I thought…”

“I’m all right. Don’t worry.” Cadence scrambled over the bin before crouching down beside the girl. “Thought I’d find you here.” She glanced down the alleyway as she shoved her hands in her pockets. She scanned the darkness behind them. “The others aren’t with you? What about Marzia?”

Matilda looked away. “No… I… the ones that I could contact… I told them to lay low. But I couldn’t reach Marzia. She might be…”

Cadence reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder. “If she’s not here, then she’s out of the city. Don’t worry. I know her.”

Matilda met her eyes and then looked away toward the restaurant.

Cadence followed her gaze before asking, “What are you doing here? After what…” Cadence allowed her voice to crack and she looked away. “W-What…. happened yesterday… they probably have people around guardin’ the place. It’s dangerous.”

Matilda shook her head. “No. They’ve already forgotten about us. I can tell. You don’t buy bug spray after you think you’ve killed the bug.”

“Tilda…”

“I don’t really know,” Matilda mumbled. “I don’t know what to do now.”

“I’m here for you, Tilda. Whenever you come up with another plan, I—”

Matilda shook her head. “I can’t ask any more from you. Not after what happened. You’re the only one out of all of us who knows how to use a conductor like that. If we lose you, then…”

So Duccio had been the one to set off the bomb. Talk about an ironic retribution.

“Even when I see all of them in there with their families being happy,” Matilda nodded toward the restaurant, “I still want to blow the entire place up. Actually, the more I stare at them, the more I want to do it. Maybe they’ll know then. About what kind of people they’re supporting. And maybe they’ll know just like I do: that I’m out here, and they’re in there.”

Cadence paused and looked at her. She was still staring holes into the restaurant. Pretty murderous thoughts for—what—a fourteen-year-old? Well, that was what they called desperation.

Slowly, Matilda lifted her head and met Cadence’s gaze. “Am I a bad person?”

This wasn’t the first time Cadence had been asked this sort of question, and she figured it wouldn’t be the last. People always needed reassurance of their deeds, but in reality…

“It’s not that there’s good or bad,” Cadence said with a sigh. “It’s all just circumstance. There’s no use applying morals to situations. That’s just self-righteous. There’s no good or bad in the world. There’s just people makin’ choices and tryin’ to justify themselves.”

Matilda was staring at her now.

Cadence scratched her neck. “When I can’t sleep, I think about weird things—”

She froze. There it was. That familiar feeling. Déjà vu.

She’d become sharply synchronized with someone else. A coolness crept along her back, and her vision went double. In the far distance of her mind’s eye, she saw a familiar cabin filled with tables toppled with items that looked familiar. Conductors, packets of v-cigs, and the like. In the far corner of the cabin was a piano. At the other end of the cabin was—

Werner.

Shoot.

She really didn’t need someone asking her if she was really going to be putting these children under the bus. Her life was on the line here, after all, which meant that their lives were on the line—

“What you do and say is of no concern to me,” was all the soldier said, not even turning to face her in his mind’s eye.

Well then.

Cadence turned to face the girl and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Matilda. It doesn’t have to be over yet.”

Matilda glanced at the restaurant. “What do you mean?”

“When I was running away, I saw Verga. The creepy-lookin’ one. He works under the Romanos. I heard him talking. He’s the one who’s behind this. Not the Foxmans or the Romanos. That bastard’s been stealin’ the conductors from them and makin’ us sell and deliver them for him just to throw us away when he doesn’t need us anymore.”

“But…” Matilda’s eyes widened. “Wha—if that’s true… If it was him, then… the TwinStars Pub… we…”

“It’s okay,” Cadence said, squeezing her shoulders. “That doesn’t matter. What matters is that I found where he’s hidin’. The Vitae Roll. He’s always at that joint, and he’s so cocky that he goes there without anybody with him.”

“Duccio, what are you saying?”

“We can end this once and for all. Get revenge for everyone. For us.” Cadence stared into her eyes. “But we need everyone who’s left to do it.”

Matilda pulled away. “I don’t know, Duccio… That sounds… too easy… And after everything that’s happened…”

Hm.

“We’ve lost so much already, Matilda,” Cadence said. “And it’s not fair that we’re the only ones who know it.”

Matilda stiffened.

“I know an associate of the Foxmans and the Romanos. A street swindler,” Cadence reassured her. “We’re on good terms. I’ll tell her everything after. I promise. I got this. We’ll be safe.”

Matilda stared at her for a long, quiet moment before turning back to look at the restaurant. She bit her thumb. “One last time… tomorrow. Let’s do it.”

And that was that—

But they were children.

Cadence froze again.

Werner.

It wasn’t so much a thought as a feeling. It wasn’t so much a feeling of absolute disgust as she’d been expecting but an entirely different feeling altogether. Regret. An emotion that Cadence always ignored.

Yeah, they were children, Cadence tried to argue—to herself mostly. But that meant nothing in this kind of place. She would know.

* * *

When Cadence dropped into her bed that night, she fell into a restless sleep. Rolling images attacked her between periods of emptiness. She wasn’t sure whether they were dreams or memories. Or nightmares.

There was Alma tapping away on the piano as the crowd cheered in the background. There was Cadence’s first meeting with the Foxmans when they were all younger—with Francis extending a hand out to her and her cheekily extending a stack of cards back. There was her, the Foxmans, Nico, and the other kids running wildly through the streets and then piling together their pickpocket winnings beneath the Dioscuri Bridge. There was laughter, thrill, danger, freedom.

And then there was Alma being dragged away into the darkness by a shadowy silhouette. Then the Foxman brothers watching calmly as a man tied to a chair was beaten to a pulp with a pipe in front of them. There was Nico, wiping his patient’s splattered blood off his face with a rag.

And then there was Ricardo Romano standing above her as the rain pelted down harsh on his bright yellow-orange umbrella. Everything was gray around them, but when he extended his hand, the world gained a bit more color.

When Cadence awoke, she knew she was not alone. She sat up in bed and cast a glance to Werner, who stood by the window.

“How much did you see?” she asked, too tired to put on a smile.

He shifted where he stood, not looking at her. “I didn’t see your parents.” Well, that was an awkward response.

“Well, neither did I.”

Werner stiffened. “I apologize. It wasn’t my intention to see those private things.”

Cadence couldn’t help but cackle. “Well, it ain’t a big secret.”

There was a long stretch of silence.

Cadence sighed and paced over to where Werner stood. The man took two steps back in turn. She didn’t pay it any mind and instead stared out the window. Instead of seeing the small, bustling, cobblestone square she greeted early in the mornings, she saw Werner’s surroundings. A window and a thicket of thin trees in the dark distance. She could tell by his reflection in his window that he was still in that room with all the tables.

“Doin’ inventory?”

“Yes.”

He was being friendlier than usual. Was it because he’d seen some of her dreams and memories? What? Was he a softie after all?

Absentmindedly, she said, “Y’know, bein’ in this business isn’t my end goal. It’s just a stepping stone.”

“Is that so?” He was looking at her now, almost curiously.

“Yeah, just ya watch. In a couple years or so you’ll see me playin’ on the big stage. I’ll have one of those fancy v-ehicles and a big house. Everyone’ll know my name.”

And Alma would be at her side.

“Those are high expectations,” Werner noted. “It’s good to set the bar high.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Cadence grinned. She thrummed her fingers against the windowsill absentmindedly. “Did ya see how I met Ricardo Romano?”

“Ricardo Romano. He is the leader of the syndicate you often work for, correct?” Werner said slowly. “I don’t believe I have.”

Cadence cracked a grin. “I picked his pockets.”

Werner was frowning again.

“He didn’t realize it until later but when he did, he sent out the huntin’ dogs. When he found me, I thought I was a goner.” She turned to him and chuckled. “But y’know what? He offered me a damn job instead of a bullet! I rejected, ’course. Said I’d rather have a full course meal and boy did he treat me.” She shook her head. “Still don’t get why.”

“But you’re working with him now.”

That was what the guy got out of that?

“Yeah.” Cadence felt the smile fall from her face as Alma flashed in her mind. “Got a little bit desperate. But it ain’t bad.”

She doesn’t feel any shame by betraying those she’s worked for?

“Uh, Lieutenant, sir, our thoughts are kinda linked so even if ya don’t verbalize, I can still hear what you’re thinkin’.”

Werner’s eyes widened a fraction of a centimeter, and Cadence thought he looked a bit embarrassed. It must have been a fluke, because he met her gaze a beat after, saying, “Things are seldom held together or maintained for long without loyalty. Consistency. Dreams included.”

“I get ya,” Cadence agreed, “but I mean, our lives are on the line here. If I don’t do it, Verga’ll kill me. Even if they get to him first, he’s already probably hired someone to kill me. He’s meticulous.”

“I see.”

“I mean, it’s not like they’re like my real family.” Cadence shrugged before she winked. “I’m like a lone cat, y’know. Ya feed it but ya don’t take it in.”

Werner stared into her. Man, he had such an intense gaze. It took every ounce of Cadence’s willpower to hold it. Abruptly, however, he turned away from her.

“I have to make my rounds now.” He nodded curtly. “Goodbye.”

And that was that. Or so they both thought.

As he moved out the cabin, Cadence found herself being pulled along with him. He stopped short just outside and turned to give her a look. She responded with a shrug and a “not like I can help it.”

He held his ground for the better part of a minute before he gave in and stalked toward another cabin further down the dirt path. She followed him and glanced at the two Capricornian soldiers standing guard there. A woman and a man. Emilia Bergmann and Wilhelm Fischer, Werner’s mind provided. They saluted Werner upon his arrival—which Cadence found bizarre—and moved aside for him to enter the cabin.

The cabin was dimly lit, containing about six beds, four of which were occupied. The people in the beds were in uniform but in a uniform different from the one Werner wore. The people in the bed looked completely worn out. Like how the gamblers at the casino looked when they’d bet the last of what they brought with them and lost.

Prisoners, Werner’s mind supplied.

Man, Cadence thought as she looked them over, it would suck to be a prisoner.

Then she saw him. And her entire world froze over.

Was it the chill from Werner’s surroundings that was leaking into the warmth of her home, or was it the stone-cold realization dawning on her? She didn’t quite know. But. No. Anybody but him.

“Adapt, adapt, adapt,” she’d told him all the years ago. But she didn’t mean it like this. That idiot—

“Nico…?”

The Sognare: Bar and Tunes. Est 1921.

Formerly a popular late night destination frequented by musicians, tourists, and starry-eyed children, it has fallen into obscurity and debt. Some say its fall from popularity and grace is akin to the slow takeover of criminal organizations in the Twin Cities. 

4.1: Chance Direction

Re-cap:

The convergence has occurred and communication has been set in stone. Olive has discovered that the other five can see the phantom ghost of his sister and a pitiful hope stirs in his chest. The assassination investigation occurring in the background and his bathroom conversation with Claire, however, weigh on his mind.

New Ram City, Aries

“Good morning!”

Olive snapped up in bed, heart thundering as his eyes darted around the room. Sunlight was just beginning to spill onto his carpet from the window, and his bird chirped its morning song at the foot of his bed.

Damn Maria.

Thirty percent whatever.

Olive fell back and closed his eyes tight. Just as sleep was beginning to claim him again, he was greeted with the rattling of morning street traffic echoing at the back of his mind. From Cadence’s end. It had to be.

What in the world was going on? This synchronization thing was happening too frequently now.

He opened his eyes and glared at the ceiling. No use sleeping.

He swung his legs off his bed, fed his bird, and then made his way toward the door.

“You’re up early, Ollie.”

Olive paused and turned his head. Lavi. She sat on the windowsill, looking out at the courtyard below.

“Did something good happen?” she continued absentmindedly.

“More like a series of unfortunate events,” Olive muttered.

“Really?” Lavi turned away from the window. “I like your new friends.”

Not friends.

“It was nice speaking to someone other than you for once,” she continued, somewhat cheeky. “I mean, you’re so grumpy all the time.”

Olive froze in place. What was this? She’d never said anything like this before. Not even once. She had always just been there by his side as if she’d never left, always acting like all was right in the world. A ghost. An illusion. Something Doctor Kingsley had said: ‘felt nothing and only existed as a reminder.’

But they had confirmed it, hadn’t they? The other five.

She was more than an illusion that only he could see. Right? Or?

“Lavi, you—all this time…” Olive whispered, taking a step toward her. For these eight long years that she’d been at his side—“Have you… are you lonely?”

“Huh?” Lavi frowned. After twirling a dark lock between her fingers, she looked down at her feet. “I guess it does get boring sometimes.” She pulled her knees to her chest. “I was never an extrovert like you, but I’m not a hermit either, you know.”

A terrible, yet familiar feeling seized his chest.

How could he have not realized?

“If that’s the case then…” Olive swallowed, looking away. “I’ll find a way to make it so that… you can talk to people whenever you want. I promise.” He looked up at her and found her staring at him rather vacantly.

There was a stretch of silence.

“Okay,” she said with a strange smile, and she disappeared.

* * *

When Olive cracked open the door to his room, he found that it was Samuel and another guard posted by his door. Trystan was nowhere to be seen.

“Your highness, you’re up early,” Samuel said as he noticed Olive peeking out the doorway.

“Like I could sleep with all the racket you’re making out here,” Olive said, slipping into the hall. “Well, I guess it’s fine since it looks like you’re temporarily free from the leash that Trystan has around your neck.” He looked around with disinterest. “Where is he anyways?”

Samuel and the other guard exchanged nervous looks.

“About that… Trystan’s been stripped of his position as head royal guard.”

Olive started. “What? Why? Because of what happened yesterday? That was my fault. I just passed out. As much as he’d like to, he wouldn’t knock me out.”

The two exchanged looks again.

“No, it wasn’t that, your highness.” Samuel clenched the conductor that hung at his side. “Trystan has been arrested for… treason.”

Treason…?

“They found evidence linking him to your assassination attempt,” Samuel continued. “From the conductor inspection.”

Olive’s ears began ringing and he felt his blood run cold.

“The conductor-type and conducting-type that he uses matched the one used on you. Plus, the timeline matched up with his transfer to the royal palace and…” Samuel looked away. “Well, all the royal guards know. During his days at the academy, he was very vocal about his views on the royal family and officials. It was so obvious. I can’t believe we didn’t see it.”

Olive remained silent.

“Everything is all right now, your highness,” Samuel said gently. “He tried to get close to you as head royal guard to probably finish the job he failed to do. It’s a good thing he’s gone.”

Olive gave a noncommittal grunt. “The Ophiuchian Agents work pretty quickly for all the trash talk everyone likes to give them.”

“No, it was actually the Investigation Bureau,” the other guard supplied. “They were running a parallel investigation themselves.”

Olive frowned.

“Right now, the IB is trying to send the peacekeepers back to Ophiuchus since their job’s finished,” Samuel said. “But you know Ophiuchians. They always want to have control—”

“I’m hungry,” Olive interjected. “Let’s get breakfast.”

* * *

The chairs lining the table in the dining room were empty as usual, although the table itself was full. Eggs, bacon, pancakes, fruits, yogurt parfaits—the surface was completely cluttered with them.

Olive settled down at a random chair and began to pick at the food with his fork.

Samuel and the other guard were standing by the wall. At the opposite end of the room was another set of guards. All four of them seemed to be at ease. Olive hadn’t seen the royal guards relaxed like this in weeks.Being relieved of the suspicion surrounding the assassination investigation must do wonders for the stress lines.

Well, it all seems a little too convenient ta be true.

Right. It would be a different story of Izsak and Gabrielle had closed the case but if it was the Investigation Bureau—wait.

Olive shook his head. There wasn’t any point in thinking about this. He knew that. So if he knew it, then who thought otherwise…?

Who was synchronized?

Olive scanned the room carefully as a vague sensation of déjà vu greeted him.

“So, this is the kinda stuff royalty gets treated with.”

Olive nearly jumped as the voice within his mind resounded right next to his ear. Leaning with an elbow propped on the table to Olive’s right was one grinning Cadence Morello. She picked up a pear from the fruit tray and took a bite.

Olive blinked.

And then he realized that he was the one taking the bite, not her.

He frowned and put down the pear she’d made him pick up. He glanced at the guards. They didn’t seem to register anything out of the ordinary.

“Sorry ’bout that,” she said with a mild wince.

What was she doing here?

Cadence shrugged as she turned around and leaned against the table with crossed arms. “Not like I can control it. I’m actually preparin’ for a job and decided to hit my favorite bar just beforehand. Was drinkin’ with some tourists and found myself here.”

There was a slight throb at Olive’s temple, followed by a series of images and sounds. The first was of Cadence entering a brightly lit bar. The next was of her sitting in a booth surrounded by a group of young men and women marveling at the bar’s interior and ‘the beauty of Geminian architecture.’ After that came the image of Cadence pulling out a deck of cards and setting it on the table. And then one of Cadence pulling a man’s wallet from his pocket as she threw an arm around his shoulder. The last image—Olive somehow knew—was what Cadence was doing at that very moment.

Classy.

“What should I call ya by the way?” Cadence gestured to Olive. “Are ya a stickler for titles or do ya wanna be called somethin’ else?” She raised her hands. “Just wanna get along with everyone since we’re here together.”

Olive sighed.

“All right, your majesty. Then it’s free real estate with nicknames,” Cadence chortled. “Anyways, I couldn’t help but notice your predicament.”

It wasn’t really a predicament.

Olive blinked, and his surroundings abruptly changed. He was standing in front of the booth Cadence was seated in. He could see the flashy jewelry worn by the people seated at her table—none of whom acknowledged him—to a startlingly clear degree, and he could hear the faint clinks of glass and silverware in the background. There was a disgustingly strong smell of v-cig smoke in the air.

Olive knew in reality, he was still sitting at the table back at the mansion. He could even taste the sweet parfait he’d just spooned into his mouth. Still, it felt strange.

He examined Cadence’s card game with disinterest. What was this? Poker?

I’ve got a good eye for people. Comes with my profession, Cadence’s thoughts echoed in Olive’s mind as she flashed a charming smile to the woman across from her. Trystan—that’s tall, dark, and handsome, right? From what I can tell, he’s a cherry boy. Honor and duty type of guy. A schoolboy playin’ warrior. She dealt the cards to the tourists and placed a bet of fifty Geminian Cens. Definitely not the type of person to try an assassination attempt. Wouldn’t want that on his record.

The tourists placed their bets in Aquarian Dracul.

“The Investigation Bureau thought otherwise, but maybe you’re right. Maybe I should be listening to the words of someone who’d cheat tourists out of their money instead,” Olive retorted.

I may not know much about politics, but I know enough to not trust a politician. Cadence increased her wager. And I’m pretty sure those are more of your thoughts than mine.

The tourists exchanged nervous looks. Some folded. Others clung to their cards, grinning.

Anyways, cherry boy was obviously framed. Cadence increased her wager again while patting the woman to her left on the shoulder and subtly pulling off the woman’s silver necklace and pocketing it.

“Not like I can do anything. The IB already made its decision. And it has nothing to do with you,” Olive muttered.

Well, the point is that your assassin is still out there and ya don’t have a royal guard that’ll fly to your side on command anymore. Cadence made eye contact with him. You’re not tellin’ me ya don’t even feel a little bit worried about tall-dark-and-handsome? Not a bit of righteous justice coursin’ through your veins?

Olive frowned. He didn’t want to be patronized by someone like Cadence. She was probably just concerned about the possibility of her dying along with him.

Man, kid, ya really don’t pull your punches, do you? Cadence leaned over the table to order another round of drinks from the bar. When she pulled back, she unfastened the wristwatch from the man sitting across from her and tucked in her palm.

How in the world are these people not seeing this? Olive wondered. It was kind of impressive.

Anyways, shouldn’t ya be a bit more concerned about dyin’? Or is this just how kids are nowadays?

“Why are you calling me a kid when you’re one yourself?” Olive returned.

Cadence’s smile cracked for a moment, but she brought it back up easily. Look, I’ll admit it. I don’t wanna die. But, I don’t want you to die either. I get easily attached. What can I say?

Cadence finally revealed her cards, as did two of the other tourists who had not folded. Judging by the tourists’ ecstatic faces and cheers—

“You lost,” Olive noted.

Did I? Cadence winked and tapped her full pockets.

Olive blinked.

The bar scene slowly faded away from his vision, and the dining hall came into focus before him. He’d been working on an omelet the entire time he’d been speaking with Cadence. It was odd—being mentally present in more than one place.

Cadence was back standing at his right, hands on hips.

“I do think it warrants some looking into,” came a familiar, sudden, quiet voice to his left. “Being wrongly accused and arrested is a bit pitiable, don’t you think? But it’s ultimately your decision, Olive.”

Olive didn’t need to turn his head to see who it was. Atienna. Cadence offered her a tip of her hat at her sudden arrival. Her presence was calming as always.

“Fine. I’ll look into it,” Olive sighed, rising to a stand. “I probably won’t be able to do anything, but I don’t want your deaths on my hands—”

“Your highness?”

Olive jumped in surprise. Samuel was standing puzzled right behind him.

“Were you speaking to me, sir?” Samuel asked. “I couldn’t hear you from my post.”

Olive looked to his left and right. Atienna and Cadence were gone. Of course.

* * *

It wasn’t hard to give Samuel and the other guard the slip when they brought Olive to the royal palace upon his request. They weren’t as tightly wound as Trystan nor were they as keen as Alexander. In fact, as soon as they arrived inside the main entrance hall, the two immediately began to gossip with the other guards present.

It was expected. They hadn’t been the most attentive before or during the assassination incident. Olive waited for the guards to start talking about how they had seen Trystan’s betrayal coming before he leisurely made his exit.

People love to gossip, came Cadence’s observation.

Olive jumped at the echo of her voice inside his head. They still seemed to be synchronized, unfortunately, but at least it was to a lesser degree than before.

He slipped through a door that led to the stairwell. He peered up, squinting at the stretch of red carpet extending up numerous zigzagging staircases. He then glanced down at the same red zigzagging below downward.

Okay, so you wanted to visit your family. That’s really cute of ya, but what does this have to do with the whole Trystan-and-assassin thing?

“The royal dungeon is beneath the palace,” Olive sighed. “It’s where Trystan is being kept and interrogated, probably.”

Saints. You keep a dungeon beneath your royal palace? Monarchies are really somethin’ else.

Olive waved away her thoughts and began his descent. He moved quickly, but quietly. Tense. As he went deeper and deeper down, the decorative walls became bare and unpainted and the carpet was traded for hard concrete flooring.

He paused as loud clanging echoed from below. Pressing his back against the wall, he continued slower. When he reached the next floor space, he peered cautiously around the corner. A great oak door. The light leaking from the space beneath the door was warm. There was a sweet smell wafting out.

The kitchen.

He quickly passed this area and descended further.

After three more levels, he reached an absurdly long set of stairs. It seemed to go on for miles, and he became self-conscious of his labored breathing as he continued down. Near the bottom, he began to hear a sound other than his panting.

Stomping leather boots.

He paused just in front of the threshold where the floor level met the stairway.

It was dim here. The floor was cobblestone, the walls brick. There were wooden tables draped in red sheets along the walls. Large pillars ran from the floor to the high-rise ceilings. From his angle, he could just barely make out the wrought iron door leading to the jail.

Voices and footsteps drifted toward him.

“—it was really Trystan. I always had a bad feeling about him when we were together at the academy.”

“Right? He was always so snooty. Talking about how reliant we’ve become on Ophiuchus—look at him now! Caught not by Ophiuchus, but by us. Ha!”

“Yeah, he was only popular there because his grades were kinda good and he was kinda okay with his conductor. Nothin’ special.”

Three pairs of footsteps began to drift away.

Olive darted forward, hurtling toward the table across the room and ducking beneath the tablecloth before clamping his hand over his mouth. Damn it. This was so stupid.

What’s with all the sneakin’? Can’t ya use your authority to just waltz in there?

“I’m a prince. I’m just here for appearances. I don’t actually have a say in anything,” Olive whispered under his breath. “If they find me here, they’ll put more guards on me and I’ll never be able to sneak back in here. I’m not crawling around for fun.”

“Hey, guys, I’m kinda hungry. How about we grab lunch real quick?” One of the guards sighed.

“I was hoping you’d say that. I was just about to eat my hand,” responded another.

“You’ve been liking food a lot recently huh?” asked the third.

“Are you calling me fat?”

Olive waited for the shadows of boots to pass him by and listened for the pad of footsteps to fade up the stairs before peeling out from beneath the table.

Wait, wait, wait. What if there are more of ’em?

“There aren’t,” Olive said, brushing off the dirt from his shirt. “Clement, Adam, and Leslie are the only ones on guard around this time since it’s near lunch. They always skip out for food.”

Wow, y’know the rotation of your royal guards? You’re pretty good, kid.

“It’s nothing special. Just helps for when I sneak around.” Olive looked around the room. There wasn’t much to see. Just a v-light barely brightening the room and a thin window near the high ceiling.

He walked over to the dungeon door, which had rust creeping along its edges. He reached for the handle and paused. He grabbed the padlock that hung there.

Locked.

Olive took a step back and scanned the walls.

What’re you doin’?

“Looking for the keys,” Olive sighed. When he noticed that the key holder built into the wall was empty, he swore under his breath before addressing Cadence. “What are you doing? Why are you still here?”

Jeez. Don’t take it out on me, your highness. Can’t help it. And ya could always lock-pick it.

“I’m not the type of person who learns how to break into places in my free time.”

Well, you’re in luck because I happen to be the type of person that does.

Olive frowned. “Are you planning on overriding me?”

Nah, I’ll just tell ya how to do it. Not sure what model that is, but I’m pretty sure usin’ the end of that pin in your shirt’ll do.

Creepy how she knew that. Olive reached for the gold-pressed pin and unfastened it.

A minute later and he was kneeling on the ground, blankly jabbing the end of his pin into the padlock with little result.

No, no, no, ya can’t just go straight in like that—

This was stupid. How else was he supposed to do it?

To the side! You’re supposed to feel for it and twist it and—

“You really should avoid becoming a teacher,” Olive muttered under his breath. “Or a lock picker. Your job prospects would be—”

“What are you doing?” A cool voice abruptly cut their conversation short.

Olive felt his heart skip a beat, and he could feel Cadence’s heart do the same. A chill crept up his spine, but it was not a hair-raising chill. Rather, it was a familiar one.

Olive rose to his feet and turned.

It was the Capricornian Lieutenant. Werner Waltz. He stood there with his hands folded behind his back inspecting the room with an unreadable expression.

“It seems that I’ve synchronized with you and Morello,” Werner said calmly. He raised his hand briefly to his temple before clasping it behind his back again. “This is reckless.”

“I don’t have time for this,” Olive grumbled, turning away from him.

Cadence tried to assuage Werner while Olive continued working on the padlock, which he was now tempted to smash his head against.

“So you don’t believe Carter was the perpetrator,” Werner said after a lengthy pause. “Then who do you think did it?”

“Don’t know,” Olive said. “Don’t really ca—”

Werner held up his hand, cutting him off short. “Someone’s coming.”

“Wha—”

“You need to hide.”

Olive’s eyes darted around the room. The table. Beneath there.

He made for it. Or at least he tried to. He barely took his first step before he tripped over his own foot and face-planted on the ground.

Kid—

Shadowy arms abruptly wrapped around Olive’s waist and drew him up off of his feet. Up, up, up, up, until he was near the ceiling and straddled against one of the pillars. Before he could scream, a hand was clamped over his mouth and a familiar ‘shhhh’ brushed his right ear.

Don’t panic, came Werner’s voice although Olive could no longer see him. Decreased synchronization?

Below them, one of the guards from earlier approached the cellar door. He unhooked something from his belt and hung it on the wall. The key.

The guard let out a sigh, rubbed his face, and headed back up the stairs. The sound of his footsteps echoed for a moment before silence fell.

Olive swallowed and looked over his shoulder. He glared into the shadows, and then—

“Claire?!” Olive whispered incredulously, jerking his head away from the clamped hand.

The sight was almost unbelievable. There Claire was hanging upside down from the pillar. He was using his legs to wrap around it and hold himself in place.

“Wha—what are you?!”

“Wait, wait, let me get us down first,” Claire whispered back in a strained voice.

A minute later and they were both on the ground. Claire collapsed back against the pillar behind him and sighed. “You’re pretty heavy, you know.”

Olive frowned.

“Anyways, I’m really glad you’re okay after yesterday. Should you really be—”

“What are you doing here?”

“I—what do you mean—”

“Don’t play dumb.” Olive looked him over. “What are you doing here in the dungeons?”

Claire’s eyes bulged. “This is a dungeon?” He looked around bewildered. “You have dungeons beneath your royal palace?”

“Wha…?”

“I thought this was the treasury.” Claire took a step back and swiveled in a full circle. He pointed at Olive. “I thought you were trying to steal something so that’s why I—what are you doing here then?”

Olive shook his head incredulously before he snapped: “First off, does this look like a treasury room to you?!” He startled himself with his own shout and pulled back with crossed arms. He continued more quietly: “Secondly, why would I steal some from the treasury? And third, what were you doing looking for the treasury in the first place?”

Claire opened his mouth and then closed it before he said, “The Ramicus.”

Olive stared. “You broke into the treasury of the royal palace to try and steal a pot that I was going to give to you.”

“I thought since you fainted… I didn’t want to stress you.”

“I’m more stressed now that you’re here—”

There isn’t time for this. Werner’s thoughts cut through like a knife. You came here with an objective.

The prince clicked his tongue in annoyance and turned away from Claire. He walked to the cellar door and unhooked the key before inserting it in the slot.

“Wait, what are you doing here though?” Claire pressed from behind him. “I mean… the dungeon—isn’t it dangerous?”

Kid—it was Cadence now—careful.

“Trystan was arrested for my attempted assassination,” Olive stated plainly.

That’s the opposite of bein’ careful.

“Trystan?”

Olive ignored him and pushed the door open. The metal door creaked on its hinges and scrapped against the floor. Olive stepped inside with Claire following shortly behind.

Surprisingly, the room inside was well lit.

The dungeon consisted of ten individual jail cells—five on the left and five on the right. A wide walkway divided the room in half, and at the center was a long table piled with documents.

Only one cell was occupied. The one closest to the window. A figure cloaked in shadows was sitting on the bed in the cell and had raised his head at their entrance. When he registered them, he shot up and ran to the bars.

“Your highness?!”

Olive frowned and put a finger to his lip.

“W-What are you doing here?” Trystan whispered.

Trystan looked worse for wear. There were bruises on his cheek, and his left eye was swelling. His fingers that were wrapped around the bars of the cell were raw red. It looked like the Investigation Bureau had interrogated him thoroughly. But even still—

His eyes were strong.

They glimmered with a sort of fiery intensity that Olive supposed all foreigners thought Ariesians possessed.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Olive returned.

Trystan’s eyes widened at the implication, and his grip on the bars tightened. “It wasn’t me, your highness. I would never dare to take the life of an Ariesian—much less a member of the royal family. It’s my duty to protect them.”

“You sure like waxing lyrical,” Olive said, looking him over. “But the evidence is really stacked up against you. You need to start keeping your political opinions to yourself.”

Trystan froze.

“I read through some of your papers earlier today.” Olive reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of folded paper. He opened it and recited in a mocking tone: “‘The election of feudal lords has moved from competitions of merit to calculated nepotism. The royal family has devolved from its former state of reassuring the people through their image to being mere figureheads. They need to be reformed.’”

That’s a bit dramatic.

Olive ignored Cadence and continued, “Anybody reading your papers would think you were a radical. Maybe you’re radical enough to think that an assassination would solve everything.”

Trystan’s grip on the bars loosened and he stared into the floor. “That’s… not the way true, permanent changes are made. The reason I became a royal guard was because… I wanted to try to change things from the insi—”

“Are you going to break him out then?” Claire asked, sounding a bit hopeful.

Trystan finally noticed him standing behind Olive. “You’re… How—”

“Long story,” Claire said with a wave. “But we’re going to get you out of here—”

“No, that would be stupid,” Olive interjected.

Claire paused. “We’re not breaking him out?”

“Firstly, there’s no ‘we.’ Secondly, breaking him out would cause more trouble for him and for me,” Olive continued. “Doesn’t help him look innocent.”

Olive turned away from the cell and walked to the center table. He moved aside the papers there that detailed aspects of the case recorded by the Investigation Bureau. There, beneath the file. He picked up two thin metal objects that had been set to the side together. He held them loosely for the other two to see.

“My arrow…” Trystan identified. “And the one you were shot with.”

“Since the IB didn’t have the actual conductor used on me, they focused on the conducting type used instead and the fact that an arrow was used. A Conductor who is a fire Elementalist who uses a bow conductor.” He pointed to the tips of the arrows. “But the real evidence is here.” He tapped his shoulder. “And here.”

“You believe me?” Trystan whispered.

“You’re too stuck up to dirty your hands trying to kill me.” Olive waved him off. “But who knows.” With that, he headed back toward the door.

“Your highness—no, Olive.”

Olive paused and turned.

Trystan met his eyes. “Thank you.”

The very sentence made Olive nauseous. Disgusting.

He exited the cellar without another word, Claire following.

Abruptly, Claire said, “Let me help you, Olive.”

Olive stopped in his tracks, turned, and stared.

This guy is too suspicious. No one ever offers help without schemin’ somethin’ behind the scenes.

Olive had to agree with Cadence on that part, but—

Claire pressed on: “You’ve seen me. I’m pretty good at getting in and out of places. Maybe even better than you.”

He was pushing it now.

“Why do you want to even help me?” Olive asked.

“Like you said.” Claire shrugged. “I’m an idiot.”

Maybe he really was an idiot.

Or maybe he’s playin’ idiot.

Either way—

Someone is coming—Werner again, cutting through their thoughts with his clipped voice. Storming of footsteps down the stairwell followed.

Olive grabbed Claire’s arm. “Okay fine. I’ll let you be an idiot. How did you get in here?”

Claire pointed up to the window.

* * *

Half an hour later Olive and Claire arrived at the specialized conductor store where they first met. They entered the building side-by-side and were welcomed by a familiar mess of tables topped with conductor parts and a haze of smog.

Didn’t think this’d be the kind of place a prince’d hang out at.

Olive nearly jumped at the sound of Cadence’s voice. She’d been silent during their journey here. He, for a moment, had hoped the synchronization was gone. Why in the world was she still here—

“Chance?” The owner of the shop appeared out from behind the curtains at the back of the store. Wiping her hands on a rag that hung at her waist, she walked up to the counter and squinted at him.

“Didn’t expect you to be here so soon,” she said. She glanced at Claire. “You were here the other night, weren’t you? You know each other?”

“Claire.” Olive thumbed at Claire. “Marta.” Olive pointed to the woman. Introductions done and over with.

“Nice to meet you, Claire.” Marta gave him a slight bow of her head before turning her attention back to Olive. “You here to sleep again or…?”

“I’m actually here about that thing you were talking about last week.”

“That thing?” A question from both Claire and Cadence.

“My vitae-spectrophotometer!” Marta boomed, causing Claire to jump.” I’m finishing up the trials as we speak. I’m hoping to get it board-approved at Ophiuchus by the end of next month.”

“I need to use it.”

Marta paused. “Use it?”

“Borrow it,” Olive tried. “Test trials.”

Marta looked unconvinced.

Tell her that you’ll convince your uncle and aunt to set up an exhibition to promote her invention thing.

Why? It wasn’t like he could actually convince them of that, and he doubted Marta cared.

But she doesn’t know that. And besides, there’s one thing I know about anyone who creates anything. They always seek validation.

With nothing to lose, Olive told her what Cadence suggested.

Without another word, Marta took them to the back of her store. It was as cluttered as Olive expected, but for some odd reason he felt an itch to clean it up. Its appearance was… unacceptable.

After rummaging beneath her desk in the corner of the room, she pulled out a large rectangular contraption and hefted it onto the desk. It was black with two slots set slightly off-center. She connected its two cables to a square generator conductor and a large, cylindrical, glass insulator.

The generator conductor was an Ariesian brand with the obnoxious Ariesian ram printed at its center. It read ‘100 VPps’ and 10K VP charge. One hundred vitae particles per second. And ten thousand vitae particles stored inside? That was pretty good.

Noticing Olive’s stare, Marta shrugged. “Plugging into the vitae provided by the city generator conductors is too unreliable.”

Claire cleared his throat. “Sorry, I’m confused. What does this do?”

“Whenever someone uses a weaponized conductor, some of their vitae lingers on not just the conductor, but whatever they used their conductor on,” Olive said. “A Manipulator’s vitae’ll still be in whatever they manipulated. If a Projector uses a conducting rifle, their vitae will linger on whatever they shoot at. And, well, you can see why Elementalists are so dangerous.” He pulled out the two arrows he had tucked into his coat pocket and nodded to the device. “This thing can extract and read that vitae.”

“Oh! So it’s like the V-Type Test they give you so that you can find out your conducting type?”

“Don’t compare my baby to that simple thing!” Marta snapped. She placed a gentle, loving hand on the device. “The V-Type Test isn’t sophisticated like this thing. This baby here—it can read vitae colors. And not just from human beings—no, that would be too boring. My vitae-spectrophotometer can read the colors of anything.”

“I see,” Claire said, despite evidently not seeing.

“Everyone has a unique color to their vitae, so…” Olive removed the arrowhead from Trystan’s arrow and moved toward the machine as Marta messed with the cables connecting everything together.

“You sure know a lot about conducting,” Claire noted.

“Not conducting. Vitae theory goes over my head. But… conductors—yeah, I know a thing or two.” Olive set the arrowhead in one of the slots. Marta handed him a cubical glass cover to slip over it. “I wanted to be a conductor engineer when I was younger.”

“What made you change your mind?”

Both Claire and Cadence asked the question.

“I realized it was stupid. Pointless,” Olive answered as he helped Marta check the cables. “You make things thinking that you’re helping people. That you’re making a difference. But that’s just you trying to reassure yourself that something you’re putting so much effort into actually matters. It’s stupid.” He moved away so that the mechanic could hook an empty vial to the other slot. “Sometimes just by doing that, you make it worse for everyone else without realizing it.”

Damn, kid. Uh, are you all right?

Marta ran the machine.

After half an hour, a wispy light spilled into the empty vial. They then tested the assassin’s arrow next. After another half an hour, another empty vial was filled.

After retrieving the vials, Olive held them up to the light. The one labeled ‘death arrow’ contained a swirling vermillion light while the one labeled ‘Trystan’ contained a pale-rose light.

“They’re different!” A grin broke across Claire’s face. “This proves Trystan is innocent!”

“It’s not enough,” Olive said. He tapped his shoulder. “We need to test one more thing.”

After the third vial was filled with a blood sample from Olive’s shoulder and it was treated, they examined the contents of the former. It swirled vermillion.

“Now we’ve proven Trystan’s innocence,” Olive said, slipping the vials into his coat pocket. “And—”

“I don’t get what’s going on and I don’t want to get involved,” Marta interjected bluntly. “But you’re going to have that exhibition set up for me, right?”

“Yeah, don’t worry. You’ll have your moment in the spotlight,” Olive muttered. He tapped his pocket where the vials were stored. “But first I have to turn this into—”

“Wait.” Claire gave a rare frown. “Is that a good idea? I mean, you already know you can’t trust some of the people at top. They might just get rid of the evidence as soon as you give it to them.”

I agree, came Werner’s sudden thought. Caution is key.

Had Werner been quietly watching the entire time? Creepy.

But he had a point.

“I’ll hold onto it until I can get to Gabrielle or Izsak—they’re Ophiuchians that’re here to investigate this mess.”

“That’s a good idea,” Claire approved. Abruptly, he checked his wristwatch. “Oh—I have to go now. Sorry.” Before Olive could respond, Claire had already made it to the curtains. “But I’ll keep in touch! Good luck with everything!”

Your Highness, I don’t mean to get in-between you two, but I know a liar when I see one.

“The prince is a bit rude, don’t you think, Clarence?”

“Yeah, but that’s not our problem. Kid is probably goin’ through a phase or something. I mean, it’s not like he really has a place here. He’s only being kept beside the throne because the king and queen feel for him. If those two have a kid, then it’s going to be an entirely different situation alltogether. I mean, look at him. Any successor’d be better.”

“It’s dishonourable to speak of the prince in such a way. We are royal guards now, Clarence, Menma. Criticism of Aries’s government is necessary, of course. The feudal system is flawed. But this is rude, unempathetic—“

“Look, Menma, Trystan’s at it again with his politically righteous talk. That’s why no one likes you man. If you keep up that downer attitude, no one’s gonna come help you when you need it.”

A conversation between Trystan and two fellow royal guards

3.[]: Convergence

Re-cap:

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

The synchronization has begun.

It hurt.

Saints. It hurt.

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

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

It hurt. But—

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

Olive scrambled to his feet and spun around the room.

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

Silence answered him. Deafening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Atienna?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surprisingly, they obeyed and ogled.

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

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

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

The soldier stiffened. “Ariesian prince…?”

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

“That’s not the point—”

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

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

“Who said anything about talking down to?”

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

Everyone stared at him for a beat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was weird too.

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

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

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

“Were ya now—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Olivier Chance,” Olive provided.

There was a long stretch of silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, it’s my room,” Olive said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

“Levels?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have an idea.”

All heads turned to Jericho.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pause. Olive resisted rolling his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Werner’s frown deepened.

Gross.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s my theory,” Atienna concluded.

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

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

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

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

Olive ignored her.

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

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

Damn.

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

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

There was another pause of silence as realization settled in.

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you do with the Aquarian Captain?”

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

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

“Oh. Well, I let her go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unconscious?”

“Yes, I was injured. Ambushed by—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would happen if one of them died?

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

“Break it off?” Atienna repeated.

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

“Well, when ya put it like that…”

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

“Lucky?” Olive asked flatly.

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

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

Even Cadence looked befuddled by her enthusiasm.

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

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

Olive’s eyes widened. “Lavi—”

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

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

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

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

Werner stiffened.

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

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

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

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

Olive wasn’t sure if he responded.

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

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

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

There was a long stretch of silence.

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

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

—real.

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

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

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

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

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

“Intuition.”

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

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

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

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

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

Olive peered at Cadence. So that was the kind of work she did. It made sense.

“Saints, you might be onto something’ actually,” Cadence muttered, glancing at Olive for half a second before focusing her attention back on Jericho. “Well, Agent Jericho—”

“Yes, I’ll look into it. But right now.” He stared down at his hands. “I can’t.”

Cadence cracked a grin again. “Don’t sweat it, partner.”

“Not because of my injuries. Most information about ELPIS is restricted to the ELPIS Division. I’m not in it yet.”

Cadence’s grin fell somewhat, but still she said, “Don’t sweat it, partner.”

“I hope by completing this missing agent case I’ll be promoted to the division,” Jericho concluded with a nod.

“All right, before this gets anymore out of hand, perhaps we should get on common ground,” Atienna gently said, clasping her hands together. “We all have things going on at the moment, right? And we have no idea how to stop whatever this is. Perhaps we could help each other out. I’m not talking about getting involved in national affairs or anything, but it would be reassuring if we all guaranteed each other’s safety for the time being, don’t you think—seeing how much we affect one another? And, of course, this is so that we ensure we also don’t interfere with one another without the other’s permission, right? And work together to look into what this is? I’m sure each of us has access to information the other doesn’t have. It’s much better than ignoring one another and coming across unexpected problems because of it, don’t you agree?” She let out a breathy sigh before flushing. “Sorry… rambling.”

Werner frowned, glancing at Olive. Then he nodded. “That is acceptable, so long as everyone agrees to those conditions.” He directed his gaze at Maria.

Cadence cracked a grin from where she sat. “Well, sounds good enough to me. Let’s get along and look after one another, shall we?”

“So we are all going to be around one another from now on then?” Maria brimmed with a radiant joy that was almost blinding. “How exciting!”

Olive rubbed his eyes and sighed. “Whatever happens, happens.”

“I accept,” Jericho said.

Atienna let out a sigh of relief that filled the room with an odd sort of serenity.

“So, to summarize this meeting’s conclusion—” Werner cleared his throat. “—we will be working with one another strictly to ensure our survival. We will mutually research what exactly this occurrence is, and we will investigate the possibility of ELPIS involvement. I don’t believe we will be able to get much on that front until Agent Jericho has recovered and joined the ELPIS Division.”

Jericho nodded.

“Seems about right,” Cadence affirmed. She nodded at Jericho. “I’m assumin’ you’re still in the Twin Cities. I’ll try sendin’ ya some help.”

They stood for a moment staring at each other.

“So…” Cadence tapped her foot. “Now what?”

They stared at Olive.

“What?”

“Well, ya are the one who synchronized us here. Ya gonna cut it off?”

“I have duties that I need to attend to,” Werner agreed. “I can’t do them in this state.”

Olive scowled. “I don’t even know how I brought you here! How do you expect me to send you away? You must think highly of yourself to think I want your company.”

Cadence whistled. “Okay, kid.”

“Perhaps emotional state is a factor,” Atienna murmured in thought. “Distress, anger—it seems as if synchronization increases with these things. I’ve injured myself several times within the time window of this connection, but I don’t think any of you have felt it.” She peered at Jericho. “So maybe the reason why we felt Jericho’s pain is…”

“So we gotta wait until everyone is all calm-like?”

Maria sprung up. “This is great, yes? Now we can get to know each other!”

“I will refrain,” Werner stated.

“Same,” Olive agreed.

Cadence shrugged her shoulders. “I got some time ta kill.”

And so they waited. And waited. And waited.

Olive felt the anxiety and tension that had consumed his entire body begin to slowly ebb away as Cadence and Atienna entertained Maria’s odd conversational topics. Golden beasts. Conductors. Money. Currency. Philosophy.

As the minutes ticked on, slowly, one by one, they began to fade from his vision until he was all alone.

His room was quiet. His windowsill unoccupied, his bed empty, the floor graced with feathers strewn loosely about, having fallen from the cage. But he could feel them distantly in his mind’s eye. Clearer than before. The noise, the colors, the sensations buzzed around in his mind. They were there. And Lavi—she was there.

What was it? Thirty percent synchronization? Ten?

Olive walked over to his bed and fell face-first into it.

What a bother.

Anima-Vitae Hypothesis: a theory about vitae that comes in three parts. Firstly, a part of vitae is representative of the soul. Secondly, vitae particles have the ability to store memories. Thirdly, upon the death of a person, their vitae does not dissipate. Instead, their vitae particles rejoin with the soft, living vitae of the natural world thus rejoining a cycle. A common belief held in Virgo. Has yet to be proven but was popularized by P.D. Oran.

All Things Vitae by L.B. Ran

3.6: Jericho Brutality

Re-cap:

Jericho and Talib are still in the Twin Cities investigating Leona’s disappearance. After a fruitless meeting with the Foxman and the Romanos, they follow an intuitional lead Jericho found through his psychic link to Cadence in Warehouse 13. Although Jericho has managed to save Cadence, their case has fallen flat once more.

Twin Cities, Gemini

“Curse the Organization for stealing my wallet. Now I can’t get the sustenance I need to truly get to the bottom of their nefarious deeds.”

They were standing outside a cafe. It was dark out and the light from the café window was warm.

Jericho stared at Talib before pulling out a handful of common currency from his uniform pocket. He extended his hand out to Talib, who reached out his in confused correspondence. Jericho dropped the common-coins into his partner’s hands.

Talib startled and pushed the money back. “My friend, I was merely—”

Jericho pushed it back toward Talib. “Is it not customary to do this for colleagues?”

A minute later, and they were sitting at a small table inside the café. Talib had ordered them both black coffee. He had asked for them to be served in paper cups and claimed that styrofoam was laden with a chemical designed to control the masses. The barista, who was already vocally miffed about having to take common-coin instead of Geminian Cens, glared at them as she brought their drinks.

“How does it taste?”

“Like dirt,” Jericho replied, moving his suitcase on the floor to the side and out of the way of the barista.

Talib nodded thoughtfully. He took a sip of his drink and jerked away with a yelp. “Hot!”

“This does not seem relevant to… ” Jericho began. After he received an odd look in turn, he amended: “Would you like me to ask the barista for a glass of ice?”

“No, no, I will live through this.” Talib blew on the surface of the liquid before taking another tentative sip. He gave a nod of approval before pulling out a small journal from his front pocket. He flipped through it before speaking: “So we have an abandoned warehouse occupied by what I reckon are orphaned children. And an apparent ELPIS sect targeting them.”

“They were not ELPIS,” Jericho interjected.

“Right,” Talib agreed. “That much was clear from the reports of their vitae color. Most likely, they were hired hands. And—” He paused, reaching into his pocket again. He pulled out a yellow sheet of paper that had been folded into the shape of a butterfly. “I planted one of these on one of the Foxmans during our meeting and overheard that they were preparing an infiltration operation at the warehouse. The hired fake ELPIS fits into the equation somewhere. With the way they were executed, perhaps it’s a matter of internal betrayal. But it’s still an internal affair.” He took a moment to catch his breath and leaned back in his chair. He stared at the ceiling with a frown. “Those children…” He pinched the bridge of his nose.

Talib seemed to have lost the exuberance he’d shown earlier. There was a chance that Talib’s conversation with Cadence Morello had something to do with it. Jericho paused at the thought. Talib’s conversation with Cadence—how did he know about that? Most likely the same way he knew about the warehouse.

“I have to ask—how did you know about the warehouse?”

“You called it intuition,” Jericho replied.

“I did.” Talib stroked his non-existent beard. “With that sort of intuition, perhaps you will be the one to finally bring down the Organization.” He folded away the origami and his journal back into his pocket. “But first thing’s first. Since the warehouse seems out of our jurisdiction, I say we head to the docks we were going to investigate prior to our warehouse detour.”

“The ELPIS members inside the warehouse were fakes,” Jericho said. “But that doesn’t mean that ELPIS is not involved.” After receiving an arched brow, he clarified, “As you said. Intuition.”

Talib leaned forward, his expression softening. “Yes, but if we suspect ELPIS involvement, we should report it to the ELPIS Department. We’re not equipped to handle them. We should focus on our Leona case. I understand you’re concerned about the children as well, but that is not our jurisdiction. The best we can do is send in a report and see if anything comes of it.”

“This is not about the children,” Jericho clarified with a slight tilt of his head. “This is about ELPIS.”

Talib froze before regarding him. “It seems as if you have quite the fixation on ELPIS.”

“Yes, I would like to work for the ELPIS Department.”

“I see. How gusty. Have you applied?”

“Ninety-nine times.”

Talib choked on his drink and cleared his throat. “I see. Well, now I’m curious. Despite the numerous roadblocks the Organization has put in your way, you seem to be very steadfast at your goal. May I ask exactly what is behind your remarkable determination?”

“They need to be exterminated.”

“Exter…?”

“Completely exterminated,” Jericho clarified. After a pause, he added, “Hope. In the original Ophiuchian language. Before the War ended. That’s what it means.”

“Excuse me?” Talib scratched his hair beneath his hat. “Hope?”

“That is what the world ‘elpis’ means,” Jericho answered. “What ELPIS thinks they are… it’s that. Pure white hope.”

“White…” Talib folded his hands. “Yes… I’d heard rumors about it. About how they are somehow able to bleach out the color of their vitae.” He shivered. “To purge the color of your vitae—that’s akin to erasing the color of your soul, don’t you agree? I didn’t believe it until I encountered my first ELPIS member. I can’t imagine what that must feel like.”

“They trick people.” Jericho stared into his reflection in the coffee cup. “Convince people they are the only hope left. Desperation to preserve the last hope. ‘If I do this, then everything will be okay. If I don’t do this, there won’t be any hope left.’ That hope. Desperation to do anything. Self-justification.” He looked up from his cup. “False hope. The cause of war and suffering. If ELPIS is eliminated, false hope will be eliminated. No more war and suffering. Peace.”

Talib remained silent for a long while before he asked, “Do you really believe eliminating ELPIS will lead to peace?”

Jericho met his eyes. A strange question. “Of course. It’s why I joined Ophiuchus.”

* * *

“As much as I trust your intuition, I think it’s best if we check out the docks first. Many things come in and out from Pollux Bay. Perhaps even people.”

“We go back to the warehouse afterwards?”

A sigh. “If you really believe there are leads to Leona there.”

They had left the café fifteen minutes ago for the long walk to the bay. The intercity trams were still closed at this time, and there were very few v-ehicles dotting the road. Getting a ride would be extremely difficult, so they traveled on foot. The cobblestone walkways were slick from the drizzle half an hour earlier, and Jericho had already had to catch Talib from slipping on the walkway five times. Each time ended with Talib declaring that the Organization had set traps for them.

A series of metallic bangs from an alleyway to his left caught his attention. He stopped short and turned toward the sound, ignoring Talib as the man ranted about how the State Conducting Exam was actually some ‘diabolical’ test to track Conductors.

The bangs continued, and Jericho stepped into the mouth of the alley—

Bad idea. Bad idea. Not a good gamble, especially in this city.

—and continued forward.

It took a second for his eyes to adjust to the darkness away from the lit streets, and he could barely make out the dead-end of the alley and the dumpster that occupied its left wall. A body was just emerging from the trash bin. Small. Short. Something was cradled in its arms. Food.

He took another step forward quietly. And then another—

—right into a puddle. The splash that followed caused whoever was huddled in the darkness to freeze. It was too dark to see any semblance of color. Only shades of black and white. But Jericho could still make out the features of the girl who stood in front of him. Nothing about her stood out to him except—

A splotch of paler skin took up half of her face. It resembled the shape of a butterfly.

Jericho felt something click in his head, and he advanced toward her. “You—”

The girl’s eyes hardened, and she bared her teeth at him. She glanced over her shoulder and seemed to take note of the dead-end before she let out a snarl and dashed toward him.

Intimidation as a distraction in order to escape. Concealed weapon. Immobilizing her before she reaches that point would be the best option.

The thought came suddenly, but the thoughts had never failed him before.

Gripping his suitcase, Jericho swung his leg out and caught the girl in the stomach with his knee. She let out a wheezing gasp as something clattered onto the floor beneath her. A shard of glass wrapped with cloth at one end. A makeshift knife.

Before she could even make for it again, Jericho kicked the object to the side while reaching forward and grabbing the girl by the wrist. He held her up a couple centimeters above the ground watching as she kicked her feet.

“You were there. At the warehouse,” Jericho stated as he pulled the girl closer. “Why? What do you have to do with ELPIS?” There was a slight throb at his temple, and he found himself asking after a pause, “Why are you attacking the Foxmans and the Romanos?”

The girl’s eyes widened in the darkness, but she said nothing and continued to squirm in his hold. He tightened his grip.

She spat something in what seemed to be Geminian.

“My Geminian is rusty,” he said in Common. “I’m not from around these parts. I’m from Ophiuchus. Do you know Common?”

The girl ceased her struggling. “O-Ophiuchus? You are peacekeeper then?” Broken Common.

“Yes,” Jericho supplied. “What do you have to do with ELPIS?”

“Nothing!” the girl shouted. “Nothing! Romano and Foxmans! Their fault! Help us—you must! Peacekeeper!”

He noticed the tears streaming from her eyes. “Am I hurting you?”

“Yes!” she hissed.

“I’m sorry,” he said, releasing her from his grasp. She stumbled to the ground, but he reached out to stop her from falling. “Don’t run away, or I’ll catch you again.” He paused thinking before he added, “Without hurting you.”

The girl gave him an odd look as she wiped the tears away from her eyes. She rubbed her wrists with an almost glare but nodded.

“Jericho!”

It was Talib, running toward them, waving wildly. When he reached them, he bent over, heaving.

“Partner, you really need to stop disappearing without telling me!” Talib gasped. It took him another minute to catch his breath, and Jericho and the girl watched him in silence. Only after he collected himself did he notice the girl. “Oh, and who might you be?”

“She was at the warehouse. She was one of the children involved. I recognize her. She knows something. Intuition.”

“I see.”

Talib lifted the brim of his hat as he crouched down to the girl’s eye level. He extended a hand to her. “I am Agent Talib al-Jarrah of Ophiuchus at your service. And what would your name be?”

“Matilda,” she said, lifting her chin and accepting the gesture. She then squinted at him in the darkness, before she whispered, “Ophiuchian peacekeeper—you, really?”

“Yes, yes, would you like to see my ID?” Talib pulled out his badge from his coat pocket and handed it over to her before she answered.

Matilda took into her hands almost reverently. Like all other Ophiuchian ID badges, it came in a bifold. The bottom half contained the usual State Conducting License watermarked with the Ophiuchian symbol while the top half held a circular silver badge. The badge had an image of a snake with wings wrapped around the continent of Signum. She ran her fingers over the plastic that covered the license and then the badge.

“Now, I have a couple of questions for you and after I ask them you can ask your questions, all right?”

Matilda nodded as she handed back the badge.

“You were at the warehouse a couple of hours ago, were you not?”

The girl nodded.

“Are you injured?”

The girl shook her head.

“Good. Now, do you know why you were attacked by the people in white cloaks?”

Matilda shook her head with a tremble. “We do nothing to ELPIS, but…”

“They were not actually ELPIS members, Matilda,” Talib said slowly. “It seems as if they were impersonators.”

Her eyes widened, and the fear was replaced with an emotion Jericho could identify immediately. Rage. Her fists balled, her teeth bared. “Them! Romano! Foxmans—”

Talib raised his hand placatingly before he put a hand on her shoulder and said slowly, “Listen to me, Matilda. It is taken as a serious offense to promote anything related to ELPIS. Even simply masquerading as them. Position, power, and status cannot protect you when you commit this offense. Even if you are a footstone of this city, you will be taken into our custody. Do you understand, Matilda?”

Matilda glanced at Jericho for a moment before nodding firmly.

“Good, so will you answer my questions honestly?”

Matilda nodded again.

“You are behind the recent attacks on buildings that are owned by the Foxmans?”

Matilda hesitated and then nodded.

“Do you understand that you have hurt innocent people in your act?”

Matilda lowered her gaze.

“You do realize that I will have to report your confession to local authorities, correct?”

Matilda bit her lip, eyes widening.

“At least that’s what I’m supposed to do,” Talib continued. “But at the moment, I can’t help but think that this whole murderous revenge plot is not something that someone as sweet as you could come up with. Why did you do it? No. What made you act in the first place? What was the catalyst?”

Matilda’s brows furrowed. “Don’t know ‘catalyst,’ but her. She tourist. Pretty. Help save from thieves. She brave. She told us pride. ‘Don’t let our pride and family pride be trampled on.’ Lose pride, lose everything. ‘Fight back,’ she said. Not ant. Yes.”

“She?” Talib pressed. “Someone saved you and then told you to pick a fight? Well, that’s rather convoluted.” He rubbed his chin. “Did you happen to catch her name?”

“Never forget. Leona.”

Jericho straightened himself, but Talib remained impassive.

“What did she look like?”

Matilda flushed as she looked to the side. “Pretty. Gold hair and eyes. Strong. Like magazine girls.”

Talib pulled out his journal and jotted down details before he nodded firmly and stood. He put the journal back into his pocket and pulled out something else. A key. “This here is a key to our suite. The Abaccio Hotel on Decoco Street. You know it, yes?”

The girl nodded slowly.

“My friend and I probably won’t be heading back to our hotel tonight if this checks out, but we rented it out for the entire week. Even if this doesn’t turn out to be anything, my friend here doesn’t sleep, you see. It would be a waste if the room just sits like that so…” Talib dropped the keys into her hands. “You may use it tonight. These streets aren’t good to be running around late at night.”

The girl stared at him.

“I know you probably don’t trust me, but—”

“Yes, trust!” Matilda urged, wrapping her fingers around the key. “You Ophiuchians. Peacekeepers. Help us. The one, Leona Ophiuchian. Help us. Encourage us. Trust.”

Talib half-sighed, half-chuckled, “Right, right. Run along now. Leave this to us.”

Jericho waited for the girl to disappear from the alley before he addressed Talib: “You are good with children. You must like them.”

Talib wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “Oh, saint’s no! I despise them. In fact, I break out in hives every time I come near one.”

“I see.”

“Yes, in fact, I believe that the Organization—”

“I see what you mean now.”

“What’s that?”

“I see what you mean about the children.”

* * *

They arrived at the bay ten minutes later. The slippery cobblestone streets had become gradually replaced with cement walkways as they drew nearer to their destination.

It was foggier here than at the warehouses, and Jericho could see less than a meter in front of him. The sun was just beginning to rise on the horizon and the heat it brought with it saturated the air with a heavy humidity.

“I’ll go this way.” Jericho pointed to the left.

Talib stared. “Splitting up? That never ends well. Besides, I could use my conductor to look around instead of wandering around like geese.”

“I don’t like sitting around,” Jericho replied. “We can cover more ground. All reconnaissance plans need to take into account not only persons, but also location.” Jericho pointed to the fog.

Talib scratched his nonexistent beard again before nodding. “All right, if you put it that way, I’ll trust your intuition.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of white origami paper which proceeded to fold itself into a frog. The paper frog shivered to life before hopping right out of Talib’s palm into the fold of Jericho’s uniform. “I didn’t imbue it with much, but it should be enough for communication. If you find something or come across trouble, just give it a tear, and I’ll come to you.”

“What about you?”

Talib looked somewhat surprised but then straightened his trench coat and hat. “Well, I will send my own messenger if anything occurs, but that frog there will unfold if anything happens to me.”

“How will I know where you are if something happens to you?”

“I will yell very loudly. I did win the National Screaming Competition of ’28.”

Something tickled Jericho’s chest.

Talib stared at him.

“I’ll take the west side,” Jericho said.

* * *

As it turned out, Jericho had chosen the direction where the cargo holding facility was located. He had known this, of course. The entire layout of the bay was familiar to him. Somehow.

Metal cargo containers surrounded the main buildings of the facility, and stacks of wooden crates lined the edges of docks extending out into the mist.

Strange. The lights to the buildings were off. It was silent. No gulls.

Jericho tightened his grip on his suitcase and approached the closest building. He peered into the dark of the windows and inspected within. Nothing out of the ordinary. At least, he didn’t think so. He wasn’t sure what constituted as normal for a dock building.

Quickly, Jericho turned on his heels and extended his hand. “Hello, are you—please stop screaming, sir.”

The man who approached Jericho from behind while he had been inspecting the building swallowed his yelp and wiped his sweaty hands on his overalls. His overalls were damp, and his hair was matted down. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. He had dark blonde hair and hazel eyes—eyes that darted to Jericho’s Ophiuchian sash and then to his still-extended hand.

“I am Jericho. I am from Ophiuchus.” Jericho flashed his badge with his free hand. “I would like to ask you some questions. Do you speak Common?”

The man hesitated for a moment before accepting Jericho’s gesture. Uncalloused hands.

“Well, I can’t say no to an Ophiuchian Agent,” the man answered in Common, quickly yanking his hand away. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“I’m here investigating the disappearance of another agent. Leona.”

The man glanced at the building. “Well, do you have a picture? A lot of people come around these parts.”

“I don’t see any people at the moment. And no, I don’t have a photo. But that’s not needed. You would be able to identify her by her uniform.”

“Well, if you put it that way.” The man wrinkled his nose, causing Jericho to pause.

“I’m sorry if I came off as rude,” Jericho amended. “This is a serious case.”

Now the man looked interested. “You a newbie or something?”

Jericho thought on it. “Or something.” After thinking on it some more, he placed a hand on the man’s shoulder and tried, “Anything will be appreciated.” Realizing that the man was uncomfortable with the gesture, Jericho removed his hand. He wondered why Talib had done it more effectively. “We believe this may involve ELPIS, so time is important.”

“ELPIS, huh? That does sound pretty serious.” He then rubbed his chin. “Now that you mention it, I think my friend mentioned seeing someone odd.”

“Friend.”

“Yeah, he’s inside right now on break.” The man nodded toward the building. “I can take you to him.”

Jericho stared at him, and he seemed to squirm under his gaze. Finally, Jericho nodded.

The man dug into his overalls and pulled out a ring of keys. He fumbled around for a couple of seconds before selecting a rusty key and fitting it into the keyhole of the door to Jericho’s right. With a grunt, he pushed the steel door open and jerked his head toward the interior.

Jericho followed the man inside and watched the faint sliver of light cast by the open door behind him thin into nothing. Complete blackness. The sound of footsteps. A soft click.

The v-lights flickered on. It didn’t take long for Jericho’s eyes to adjust, and he studied the interior. It was large and mostly empty with just several bare metal shelves lining the wall and a handful of steel beams rolling along the floor.

“Where is your friend?” Jericho asked as he turned around.

A flash of silver, and then a shout. “Right here!”

A soft thud echoed.

The man stumbled backward, panting heavily.

Jericho spun around his suitcase which he had lifted to his chest moments before. He inspected the knife that was now embedded a couple of centimeters deep into its surface. He looked at the man.

“Why did you do that?”

The man was visibly sweating now, but his fists were clenched. His eyes were hard.

“I may have to bring you in for further questioning,” said Jericho, removing the knife from his suitcase. “Attacking an Ophiuchian Agent is a crime.”

“All you Ophiuchians are so damn arrogant. You and that woman. Attacking an Ophiuchian Agent? Attacking anyone should be a crime! But you only give a damn about what you think is right.”

Jericho stared at him. “You seem angry.” He paused. “That woman?”

“You’re damned right I’m angry!” The man reached into his back pocket and glowered. A conductor, probably, Jericho deduced. “Using those damned conductors on us and saying that it’s for peace when we can’t even defend ourselves! Forcing us to use these things to protect ourselves and then throwing us behind bars for it!”

“Are you a licensed Conductor? If you use any more force against me, I will have to retaliate—”

Letting out a blood-curdling scream, the man pulled out his conductor and ignited it in a flash of bright light. He swung it wildly across Jericho’s chest, and Jericho felt the heat radiate even as he ducked backward. Jericho was forced to push him back with a well-aimed kick to the chest. The man stumbled back, gripping his conductor as if it were a lifeline.

A Projector. Melee-type. Sword. Long sword? Vitae color: green. Not well-trained. Illegal conducting. Jericho stated his observations to the man calmly.

“Untrained?” The man spat. “I’ll show you just how much they taught me.”

The man flicked his wrist. For a second, there was nothing. But then slowly, from where the vitae-formed blade met the tip of its conductor, it began to pale. From a deep blue to a sky blue to—

There was a ringing in Jericho’s ears as the white bled into his vision. White. White. White. The world twisted, taking on a stark monochrome gradient.

“You Ophiuchians—”

There was a deafening crack followed by a splatter of red. The man collapsed to the ground. He was probably screaming. His cheek was leaking red. The liquid on the corner of Jericho’s suitcase dripped the same color.

Good. Good. Good. Anything but that white.

“That color. This changes things.”

The man scrambled back, reached for his conductor. It ignited again. A blinding white.

No. No. No.

It wasn’t enough.

Jericho lifted up his suitcase and brought it down. Lifted it up, brought it down. He did it again. And again. And again. And again. Die. Die. Die

The conductor rolled out of the man’s hands, losing its blade of white vitae as it left its wielder’s hands. The white was gone. There was only red and black.

Stop it.

Abruptly, color returned to Jericho’s world. The gray bricks of the building. The yellow of the flickering v-lights. The off-white of his Ophiuchian armband.

The ringing in his ears faded.

Jericho paused and set down his suitcase. He reached for what he believed was the man’s throat and checked his pulse. Still alive. Unconscious. He grabbed the man’s face in his hands and shook it hard. The man stirred.

The man whimpered. “Please…I… missing agent… tell…know…”

“I see.” Jericho glanced at him before he rose to a stand. “Their training was too much for you, after all. Thank you for your cooperation. But after you tell me, you still have to die.”

An inhuman sound escaped from the man’s throat.

“There can be no hope for peace as long as even a hint of ELPIS remains,” Jericho informed him. “Even if you turn away from them, a part of it still remains in you. And you need to be eliminated—”

Jericho jumped backward just as a ray of light hurtled past where his head had been. That color—

Jericho righted himself. A man and a woman stood there, wearing overalls similar to the man who now lay motionless on the ground. The man held a handgun conductor still billowing out smoke. In the woman’s hands was a close-ranged conductor which spilled out a vitae whip that flickered from a pale yellow to a painful white.

Calm do—

But the thought was drowned out by a familiar high-pitched ringing that resounded in his ears. The world spun, taking on a monochrome hue once more.

Black and white. White. Sounds. Shouts. Movements. Blurs. Die. Die. Die.

People like this didn’t deserve to live.

When the world came into focus, the white glows of the man’s and the woman’s conductors were gone. Both were laying in a puddle of red. Jericho’s suitcase was in his hands. It was no longer black.

The world remained monochrome with splashes of red. The ringing still resounded.

Not enough, Jericho thought, watching the red spill in-between his boots. Not enough.

“Beating down our new recruits with just a suitcase. I can’t tell whether you’re crazy or talented. You’re scarier than that woman. Haven’t you heard about love and peace?”

“O-Omicron,” the woman on the floor sputtered.

Jericho turned his head. For a moment, he caught a glimpse of a pale face. A pale face marked on the left half by a tattoo inked in white. From this distance it looked like the letter S with a line drawn straight down the center of it. But Jericho knew that the symbol was not as simple as that. He knew even from this distance that the S was in fact an intricately designed snake and that the line was in fact made of letters spelling out a word. ελπίς. ELPIS.

He had seen that tattoo for the first time on that hot summer day. The sun had been beating down on the sand, parching it and forcing it to soak up all liquids—including the blood. The heat had even dried up his tears before they hit the ground. He supposed that was why the woman in the white cloak had reached out to him kindly. Perhaps she had thought that he had been so strong that he didn’t cry. As she had cupped his cheek in her hands, he had seen it. The tattoo that glowed white on the right half of her face. The same tattoo worn by all the people in the white cloaks who stood over the corpses of his neighbors and his—

It was the same. The same.

Jericho’s monochrome world fragmented. The black in the world thinned out into nothing. There was only white.

His head buzzed. His chest seized as his heart thundered. There was the taste of iron in his mouth. He felt his grip tighten on the handle of his suitcase. He needed to do it. It was time. If he didn’t do it, every part of him would explode—implode—with this feeling.

Jericho clicked open his suitcase, and a silver, thin cylinder no longer than his palm fell into his hand. He gripped it tightly in his hands. Finally. Finally. Finally. After all these years finally. One of them was right in front of him.

“I forgot to bring my shovel,” Jericho murmured absentmindedly to himself.

The tattooed figure whistled in response.

The door to the warehouse was suddenly thrown open, and a lone figure stumbled in.

“Jericho!”

It was Talib. Why was he here?

“Get awa—”

There was a high-pitched whine followed by a squelching sound. A splatter of red.

But Talib was fine. Although he looked horrified.

A wetness emanating from Jericho’s abdomen and shoulder caught his attention. He brought a hand to the area. Wet. Red. How?

Jericho turned his head around and saw it. Twin metal poles covered in faint, pure white light were sticking out of his back. The poles quivered before moving forward, guided by an unknown force.

The pain was burning hot like someone was pouring hot embers down his throat.

Jericho forced himself to glare up at the tattooed figure who stood there with a metallic gloved hand lazily extended outward. The poles followed the pull and continued their course, ripping themselves right through and out of Jericho’s abdomen and shoulder and into the figure’s waiting hands.

From behind. A Manipulator.

“Conductors are people who are licensed to kill,” the figure said. “And yet the founders of your peacekeeping organization were those kinds of people. It’s scary to think that you peacekeepers think you’re the epitome of just with that kind of background.”

But Jericho wasn’t listening because he was already rushing toward the figure while his conductor sparked to life in his hand. There was a flash of light, and the figure shouted in alarm. With a flick of their gloved hand, they brought the twin poles back up to defend themselves.

There was a blinding burst of white against white.

“You…!”

And then there was only black. A void. Emptiness. A place where time and space did not exist. But then—

“Enough already! You’re all going to listen to me. Here. Now.”

ELPIS is a Class 1 terrorist organization operating in numerous sects throughout Signum. Formed after the Reservoir War, their members were initially comprised of a handful of people from the original former country of Ophiuchus. They have since expanded their ranks to include citizens of other countries whom they’ve lured into their ranks. They have been linked to the Tragedy of Aries, the Dune Massacre, and several other engine conductor-destruction related events.

Their leaders are discernable by the snake-like tattoos that are found somewhere on their bodies.Members are identifiable by the curiously white color of their vitae when using weaponized conductors. The manner behind this bleaching is still not fully understood.

In a statement presented back in 1936 by one of their leaders, their goals were clarified: “To destroy the false peace of Signum and to promote hope in a conductor-less future.”

All ELPIS related cases are to be handed to the ELPIS Investigation Department of Ophiuchus. 

Annual Update Report, ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus

3.5: Imamu Snap

Re-cap:

Atienna continues to tiptoe around the brewing conflict surrounding her poisoning even after she witnesses her brother Bachiru discussing something of obvious political dissent with her former teacher Usian. She goes to the Great Tree of Virgo with her mother who was injured six years prior and encounters Werner Waltz through their psychic link. A voice is egging her on at the back of her head—urging her to move. Everything ugly is bubbling to the surface.

Imamu Estate, Virgo

“Can you hear it? The pulse of syzygy?”

Atienna stopped and turned.

There was nothing behind her. Only the long, familiar stretch of green walls she had known her whole life. What an unpleasant thought. Recently they had been occurring more often. She looked away.

“What is it, Atienna?”

Safiyah was giving her the usual look of concern. Despite meeting one another just the other day, Safiyah had insisted on popping in for a wellness check.

“The walls. Do you think we should repaint them?” Atienna wondered, moving over to the wall and pressing her hand against it. “The green is a little suffocating, don’t you think?”

“Atienna…”

“Maybe white?”

Something terrible twisted in Atienna’s stomach at the thought.

“Well, maybe not white—”

“Atienna!” Safiyah rushed forward and grabbed her hand. A surprisingly tight grip. “What happened? Did someone do this to you?”

Atienna startled in alarm. When realization dawned, she could not help but smile. Safiyah always worried incessantly.

“I was gardening again,” Atienna replied, slipping her bandaged hand out of her friend’s grip and then holding it sheepishly. “The roses are very pesky.” She dropped her hand and flushed. “Even though I’ve been at it for years I still—”

Safiyah threw back her head and let out a dramatic sigh. “You’re so clumsy! You need to take better care of yourself! Every single time I see you, you always have on new bandages! If I didn’t know you, I would think you were out getting into fights with your hands like that. Who would’ve thought gardening was so dangerous.”

The irony was not lost on Atienna, but instead of addressing it in words or in mind, she mimicked snipping scissors loosely with her hands as they continued their stroll down the hall. “Gardening. I don’t think it’s really fair coming out of it unscarred. To help, to hurt, to cultivate—whether it’s either of those intentions—it’s a change. And change always results in pain one way or another, don’t you think?”

Safiyah stared at her before shaking her head. “You say the strangest things sometimes, Atienna.”

“And I’m grateful you’re still my friend despite it.”

“I’m your friend because of it.” Safiyah elegantly rolled her eyes. “I know what to expect from you.”

“Do you?” Atienna grinned devilishly.

“Of course.” Safiyah huffed. “With the Council, at the moment they’re saying that they’re refraining from international involvements due to the current internal affair, but who knows what they will say next? We might be off to fight in that silly Capricornian-Aquarian conflict tomorrow after they suddenly declare they suspect outside involvement with your poisoning. Well, not tomorrow. They’ll probably sit on it for another couple of years or so before we hear anything of it.”

“I thought you’d be happier about that. About the continued isolationism, I mean. Well, I hope you wouldn’t be happy about my case.”

“Oh, stop teasing me.” Safiyah rolled her eyes. “What I’m saying is that other people change ‘at the tip of a hat,’ as the Ariesians say. But you never change.”

Those were words meant for comfort, but for a moment Atienna felt something flare up in the pit of her stomach. Her palms itched, but the sensation only lasted for a second. This was not the place, after all. She could wait. She needed to.

Atienna chuckled. “Being around a boring person all the time must be a hardship.”

They passed through the halls, speaking about everything except what Atienna presumed was on their minds. When the front doors were within their sights, they found Nia and Sefu waiting for them at their posts. The guards turned almost immediately at the approach and gave their usual salutes.

Safiyah nodded at them with an air of nobility that she seemed to draw from thin air. Under her breath, she whispered, “They’re not going to search me again, are they?”

“I bribed them with food made by my father’s personal chef,” Atienna whispered back. “Kupika. He’s served the chieftain family of the Imamu tribe for generations. Apparently, he gets requests to cook outside of Virgo.”

“I don’t mind being bribed as well.”

After sharing a hug with Safiyah, Atienna watched as Nia escorted her out the door and through the pathway outside leading to the gate. Sefu remained posted by the door

“You look tired, Sefu. Did you have a late-night shift again?” Atienna asked.

Sefu turned his head toward her, but his face remained impassive. Rigidly, he looked over his shoulder at the twisting walkway and back down the hall behind her. Almost immediately the tightness in his shoulders loosened. He hung his head. “Miss Atienna, I’ve been posted here since midnight! I am near fainting!”

Atienna covered her mouth in shock. “I’m so sorry. You’ve been here for that long? Without food?”

“Well, no. I did take a lunch break an hour earlier,” Sefu admitted. “And a breakfast break before that, but there have been so many guests coming in and out of the estate that—”

Atienna hid her smile. “Worry not, Sefu. I am at your service.”

With that, she made her way back through the halls and found her way to the kitchen doors. She reached for the handle but paused as a muffled voice echoed from within.

Bachiru.

Probably raiding the fridge again in an effort to procrastinate his homework from Usian.

Usian…

Sighing, Atienna pressed her hand against the door and pushed it open an inch.

“—tonight at the Great Tree.”

Atienna froze and peered down at the gap beneath the door. The light spilling out from the crack was smeared by shifting shadows. One, two, three, four, five—

Just how many people were inside? And with so many people present, why was Bachiru the only one speaking?

“All the Council does is speak about their beliefs about what is right, what is moral, what is good for this country. But beliefs alone do nothing. They are merely the spark, and a spark that does not catch flame is meaningless. Actions are the tinder to the flame.”

Atienna’s vision swam.

Those were the exact words. The words that she had engraved into her heart. The words that her—their—mother had spoken to that crowd on that day. That day that—

No.

“I already have the support of the Mkuki tribe. Although they have close ties with the Ra who have strictly voted against Sagittarian support, I have managed to convince their eldest chieftain son of our cause. We will stand together in front of the Great Tree—the symbol of stagnation for our country—and we will burn down the conductors and the tree itself! We will show those old men and women sitting on their chairs that it is time to do away with the old. That we must reach out! If —”

Atienna peeled away from the door.

Should she intervene? Stop him from starting something that could become something irreversible? Was the irreversibility good or bad? Would Bachiru be in the right, in that case, or the wrong. Both? Ideals were never wrong as long as they were viewed within the right frame of mind, but… No. She didn’t know. What was right, what was wrong. Both.

Bachiru, he—

Abruptly, a woman appeared right in front of Atienna’s eyes. Out of thin air. Like she had been dropped from the sky. Vaguely, Atienna was reminded of the sensation of skipping pages in a book and being taken from a tragic scene to a happy reunion. Startling, but not quite out of place nor unwanted.

The woman was very tall with broad shoulders and a posture that radiated confidence. Her deep green eyes were determined, looking straight ahead without reluctance. The smile she wore was charismatic and fearless. Perhaps an author may have spotted her in passing and then crafted a heroic princely figure in a novel out of inspiration. Yes, that was the impression Atienna got from this woman. An unearthly, impossible person.

“For you to drop by so suddenly, you must be very bold,” Atienna said, meeting her eyes.

“Oh! You can see me!” The woman let out a laugh that filled in all the corners of the hallway. She stepped forward and clasped Atienna’s hand in her own. Warm. “Are you a spirit too, then?”

Atienna opened her mouth to reply, but—

“Well, I suddenly found myself with that other one, yes? The short, angry child? Well, it was very boring, so I left that place. And then I was somewhere else and now I am here.” The woman rocked back on her heels and nearly stumbled back toward the door. She caught her balance on the balls of her feet, however, and rocked forward. “But you’re the first one to speak to me like this! Say, why is that, spirit? You are a spirit, yes?”

This was a bit too much. But perhaps this was just the way this person was.

“Well, although I can’t confirm or deny your interesting theory on spirits, I can’t say I feel very much like one,” Atienna responded.

“You just denied my theory, didn’t you? Why are you saying you can’t? When you speak like that, I get really confused, you know?” The woman’s gaze pierced through her like an arrow. It was unnerving. Those unsettling eyes paired with that sparkling grin.

Atienna covered up her smile of discomfort with her hand. “Well, when you put it eloquently like that, I guess I have to confirm that I am not a spirit. I doubt the others you’ve encountered are either.” Atienna then did her best to explain what little she knew of their current situation. The connecting thoughts. The mirages. The feelings.

After the lengthy explanation, Maria Gloria-Fernandez tilted her head and stared at Atienna, puzzled. And then she broke out into another dazzling grin and gripped Atienna’s shoulder. “I don’t really get it, and I definitely have never felt anything but emotions that are my own,” she said. “But from what I am understanding, we are currently experiencing something that no one has experienced before, yes? In other words, this is amazing!”

Atienna was rather taken aback. Even Cadence hadn’t reacted this positively. Atienna couldn’t help but wonder if people like this truly existed. She wondered—

“What are you doing?” Asking this, Maria suddenly popped up only inches away from Atienna’s face.

Atienna stepped back and smiled. “I’m sorry if this comes off as rude, but I could ask you the same thing.”

“I told you. I’m here because I’m bored,” Maria answered. She leaned back against the door behind her and paused when Atienna froze. She gestured backward and cocked her head. “You want to go inside, don’t you? Or is it that you want to walk away? I don’t really get what’s going on, but whatever you do is much better than just standing here, no?”

Atienna’s palms itched. Had she not dressed them properly before?

“It’s very kind of you to be concerning yourself with my current situation, but from what I gather, you seem to be at a crossroads yourself.”

And then Maria frowned, perplexed. “Huh? What are you saying? What does that have anything to with what you want to do?”

This Maria was—

“Your body is strong. I am sure if you tried to punch me now and I let you, it would definitely hurt. But your eyes…” Maria lifted her hand, brought it to Atienna’s face—just barely brushing over her left eye. “At first, I thought you were like the boy, but you’re not even looking in any direction. Not a path of escape, not a path forward.” She cracked a grin again. “Well, regardless, I still like you.”

Leaving that statement in the air, Maria Gloria-Fernandez promptly disappeared from Atienna’s sight. But the itch remained.

There was a sound from behind the door. Someone was approaching. Atienna swiftly backed away and headed into the bathroom two doors down. Once inside, she approached the stone sink carved from the wall and ran the water. She rinsed her face before shutting off the spout and headed to the window on her left. She could barely make out the pathway leading to the gates from this angle, but she could still see the sunlight splattering through the overhanging canopies.

Sunlight…

She glanced down at the sill. Her heart sank at the sight of it. With all the commotion going on, she had forgotten to water her flowers here and they had begun to wilt. Virgo was in the middle of a heat wave, after all. She picked up the pitcher that was in the corner of the room, filled it up in the sink, and took to watering her neglected plants.

Bachiru—

Worrying did nothing. It was better not to think about it. It was all useless anyways.

Atienna held her lightly throbbing temple as a heaviness suddenly pressed down on her chest. The feeling of déjà vu that she had become familiar with followed shortly after.

And then she felt it. That sensation again. Like with the woman. Something startling but not out of place or unwanted.

Atienna turned her head.

And just like that, a young boy appeared there in the mirror above the sink. He was sitting on the edge of a windowsill, staring out. There was another person sitting next to him. A friend? No, it didn’t seem that way.

Just like Maria, he did not seem alarmed at her appearance.

As she spoke with him, Atienna couldn’t help but wonder what it was that made Maria think they were alike initially. It was a little ways into their conversation that she noticed the third person. A girl. She could vaguely make out the girl’s thoughts, but everything about her was surrounded in a haze. When she addressed the boy about the girl, he gave an unexpectedly emotional response. There was desperation in his eyes and anger and guilt. But before she could address it—

—like a lightning bolt, an unexplainable rage throttled through her core.

It bubbled up in her chest and rose upward where it lodged in her throat. Her vision blurred.

Bachiru. How dare he? After everything that had happened, after everything their father had suffered, after—

“Ah!” Abruptly, Atienna found herself doubled over, cradling her stomach. Her hands were wet, warm. She tried to move them away from her abdomen to assess the damage, but even the slightest movement caused excruciating pain to shoot through the area. Grimacing and blinking the tears out of her eyes, she looked down. Red seeped between her fingers.

Blood…?

Yes. And no. This wasn’t her pain, she realized. Not her wound. This was—

Atienna looked up at the mirror above the sink. “Jericho.”

A coldness gripped her insides as she spoke the name and the feeling closed in around her chest. She gasped for air as the iciness gripped tighter, making each breath even more painful than the last. Black dots flooded her vision.

And then the coldness released her.

It took a moment for Atienna to catch her breath. When she looked back up at the mirror, the boy was gone. The pain was gone too.

She glanced down at her stomach.

Nothing.

But the feeling remained. Lodged in her throat.

What in the world was that pain?

She leaned against the windowsill and wiped her brow. After taking a minute to collect herself, she stood and glanced around the bathroom. Rubbing her arms, she asked quietly, “Are you all right?”

Silence answered her. The quiet sent a chill down her spine.

Taking in a deep breath, Atienna made her way back out the hall and then found herself right in front of the kitchen doors. Maria’s words echoed inside of her mind again and paired with that feeling, they were almost unbearable.

Atienna reached toward the door, but it swung open abruptly.

Bachiru stood there, startled. “Oh, Atienna. Did Safiyah leave already?”

Atienna remained silent and peered behind him. The kitchen was empty, but the tabletops were cluttered with crumb-filled plates and used utensils.

“Did your friends leave already?” Atienna smiled pleasantly.

Bachiru’s eyes widened and his body tensed. “I—Wha—Yes.” He swallowed. “I invited them over to make bets on the Olorun Game Festival this fall.”

Atienna walked forward and did not allow her gaze to leave his face even as he backed away. She closed the door behind her. “What are you doing, Bachiru?”

“Wha—what do you mea—”

“Arson is a bit extreme, don’t you think?”

A long stretch of silence.

“So you have heard then,” Bachiru said. “You’ve always told me it’s not polite to eavesdrop.”

“Nor is it polite to destroy something that thousands of people rely on.”

Bachiru lifted his chin. “If we don’t do something, then they will win.”

“They?”

“The people who hurt you, Atienna.”

“I am perfectly fine, Bachiru. What happened to me has nothing to do with what you’re doing. Using what happened as an excuse is a bit irresponsible, don’t you think?”

“It has everything to do with you! You heard what has been said—what everyone knows! You were poisoned because Father wanted to support the Sagittarians! It was a threat!”

“And if it really was a threat, is destroying the conductors and the Great Tree the correct way to respond? When the one who did it is not even known? Who is to say that the people you’ve allied with aren’t the ones who did it? It’s an endless spiral of conspiracies. Why spread distrust to others when there’s already enough of it? It doesn’t fit together, don’t you think?”

Bachiru opened his mouth and then closed it.

“These issues that are happening—I think you are justified in your feelings,” Atienna said gently. “But I’m not sure you’re going about it the right way. Are you certain your actions are justified? Think about it, Bachiru. Do you believe that no one will be harmed if you go through with this? Will you be able to live with it?”

A soft, wry chuckle escaped Bachiru’s lips as he shook his head. “That’s always how you are. Not even addressing what this is all about. Question after question after question. Dancing around everything.”

Ah. There it was again. That accusation.

Averting her eyes? What was wrong with that? It was better than choosing something and hurting others, wasn’t it? Right. No matter where it landed on the scale, a choice always ended with suffering. Not only that…

Her palms ached, her knuckles cracked as she clenched her fists.

No. No. No.

Keep calm. It wasn’t right to be angry now. Bachiru was justified in his thoughts from his point of view, but she was also justified in hers. No one was right, no one was wrong. And what she was feeling right now was only for the night. That was a choice for no one to see.

“Seeking to offer peace to another country by promoting violence in your own—don’t you think that’s just a little bit strange?”

“Atienna. You know that speaking about beliefs does nothing. Acting on those beliefs is what matters. Just speaking about it lets problems fester. Mother—”

Something snapped. A dam broke.

“Wait, I didn’t mean…”

The feeling that had been bottled up near her throat suddenly released. The red, hot anger spilling out into her fingers, out from her mouth, coursing into her veins.

Did she scream? Yell? She didn’t know. What she did know was that there was now a deep dent in the wooden table beside her and—

—that in the petals of wood that fragmented outward from the dent’s center, her closed fist now rested. There was a dull throbbing at the side of that fist, but it hurt no more than it hurt when she threw a bad punch in the ring.

“A-Atienna.”

Bachiru was wide-eyed. Concern? Fear? She didn’t know.

“What makes you so sure that you’re right?”—whether she was shouting or whispering, she didn’t know either—“What kind of arrogance do you have that you think your version of justice is so much better than mother’s, than anyone else’s?”

Bachiru was stumbling backward, but she continued toward him.

“After everything she fought for, after everything that’s happened to her—to us—because of what she fought for, how dare you do all of this? How selfish can you be? Calling me indecisive? I have been thinking of this family every single day since mother became like this! What to do and what not to do so the same mistake never happens again—it’s all I ever think about! And you—you have the gall to—”

Bachiru was up against the wall now, and she was mere centimeters from his face.

“You told all of those people in here that beliefs were meaningless without action. Using mother’s words so easily.” Atienna clenched her pounding fist. “Do you know what I hate most, Bachiru? You do, don’t you? It’s when people speak with such vindication without having a clue what they’re talking about!”

Atienna released all of her righteous, burning anger and punched the wall right next to his head. The picture frame that had been hanging there shattered and the wall behind it splintered. Glass shards rained down onto the floorboards as the picture within the frame became loose and fluttered downward.

Out of the corner of her eye, Atienna caught a glimpse of the photograph.

It was the six of them. Before they became the chieftain household of the Imamu tribe. Before—

The anger, the heat, the rage disappeared in an instant, leaving Atienna with a cold emptiness. Atienna stumbled backward, cradling her bleeding hand. She looked away from where the photograph now lay on the ground and up at her brother who flinched at her gaze.

“Bachiru, I…”

Her brother slid to the ground shaking, and her heart fell with him.

“Miss Atienna? Yes, she’s a very nice, respectable young woman. Very kind. Always looking after her siblings.”

“Right? She’s always so considerate. I don’t think there’s a bad bone in her body. In fact, I think she intimidates some people with her gentleness.  That’s Imamu tribe upbringing for you. Plus, she always sneaks us food—“

“Sefu. That’s inappropriate.”

A conversation between Nia and Sefu, guards of the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe