14.1: Observer & Peacekeeper, 0000 Unusual Activity

Ungewöhnliche Aktivität » Unusual activity, unrecorded 

Werner Waltz. Born January 1st. Blood type A. Vision, 20/6.6 in both eyes. Height, 183 cm. Weight, 80.1 kg. Ambidextrous. Personality type, ISTJ-Turbulent, changing. Parents, alive. Siblings, elder brother and younger sister, alive. 

Occupation, First Lieutenant of the 212th Division of the Border Force of the Capricornian Army. Nicknamed, ‘Cold Eye’ or ‘Kaltes Auge.’ Badges awarded; Iron Horn, Periwinkle Cross, Border Force Combat Clasps, Order of Duty [Rank II], Badge of Marksmanship [Rank V], Border Force Saturn Ring of Honor for Valor. 

Described by superiors as “efficient, accomplished, hardworking, orderly, pragmatic, driven, loyal, professional.” Described by subordinates as “strict, skilled, unyielding, cold, intimidating, focused, rational,” and “occasionally, surprisingly kind.”

Unusual activity: involvement in dismantlement of Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, presence in Twin Cities during large-scale ELPIS-related event, associated with deceased True Conductor Fritz von Spiel, associated with deceased 98th Pi Erwin Ersatz. 

Probability of being a True Conductor, 89%. 

Probability of disrupting syzygy, 1%. Reason, obedient and cautious. When adjusting for influence from connected parties if assumption of being True Conductor holds, 56%. Reason, obedient but cautious. Resulting course of action…?

Turning over this particular topic in mind, the Saint of Passion spun his pen in hand as he studied the bulletin board on the wall across from him. The red strings crisscrossing the clusters of newspapers, photographs, and sticky notes there glowed in the light sauntering through the partially drawn blinds. 

“What’s the best way to steal sheep and a guard dog from a shepherd?”

The woman sitting straight-backed beside the bulletin board remained silent.

“A sheep is mindless. A dog is loyal.” He flipped his pen. “Therefore, the correct answer is not to directly deal with either of them. The best thing to do is to break the shepherd.” 

Again, silence.

“… Having a law that makes it so that conductors allotted to a country is inversely proportional to their vitae reservoirs was truly an ingenious strategy. A sensible, cruel law,” the saint candidate continued. “But it’s not enough. Capricorn isn’t in the state it should be in. Their vitae reservoirs are…” 

“Capricorn has only one major reservoir,” the woman finally spoke. “Near the border with Aquarius. Additional reservoirs are forming along the south.”

“When was the last major conflict again?”

“The Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict—”

“That was barely a conflict. How many died?”

“Approximately 150 Capricornians and 240 Aquarians.”

“Definitely not enough…” He let out a sigh. “Oh, Capricorn—a country graduated from war but still relishing in it. From the failed Watch to the southern borders shared with Argo to the eastern borders shared with Aquarius.” His lips curled. “Well… if they wish for war, then let’s give them a civil one, shall we?”

Rising from his sofa, the Saint of Passion glided over to the bulletin board and uncapped his pen. 

“Let’s seat the audience, set the actors on stage, and yell ‘fire’!”

With vehement glee, he drew large arcs across the map that was pressed flat below all of the photos, strings, articles. Over and over again he went at it until the tip of his pen snapped off and struck the window blinds. Dark blue ink dripped from his hands, trailed down the walls. 

“Can you hear it? It’s almost here.”

Panting, he took a step back to admire his masterpiece. 

“The pulse of the syzygy…”

A knock on the door drew his attention away. 

He rolled his eyes and sighed. 

“I suppose we can take a lunch break.”


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“Partner, it’s good to see you! I haven’t heard from you in days!”

Upon entering Gabrielle’s office, Ophiucian peacekeeper Jericho was met with this exclamation. He chose to remain unmoving as Talib Al-Jarrah fervently shook him by the shoulders. He did not remain still out of discomfort. He simply did not want to drop the stack of files he carried in both hands. 

“I thought the Organization almost had you for sure!” Talib continued, gesturing widely towards the occupied sofas before them. He curled his hand into a fist. “Recently, they’ve installed this diabolical device in the cafeteria that transmits strange sounds in up and down undulations in between stretches of static. Now, listen here, Jericho. I’ve done my research. Those sounds send subliminal messages right to our brainstems and increase our aggression so that we go at each other’s throats! It’s a ploy to dismantle our Ophiuchus!” 

Jericho cocked his head. Interesting supposition. Intuition: tinfoil hat conspiracy theory. 

“Saints! You mean the radio, Talib?” Ferris sighed from her usual spot to the left of the island table. Her lunch today was a tuna sandwich which she paused her exasperation to munch on. “I’m actually glad that they’ve finally installed one there. It’s been so… quietsince what happened down at the detention center.” She glanced at Wtorek Elizabeta who sat silent beside her before clearing her throat. “There’s that new singer I really like. Alma Miraggio. Her song ‘Red Fern’ is so good! I wish I could carry it with me everywhere! She’s on a tour, right? I wish she’d stop by here.” 

Red was also the color of Ferris’s hair now. She had dyed it three times in the past week and had settled on this color for two days so far. Jericho conjectured it would last two more days. 

“Oh, my sweet naive, Ferris.” Talib shook his head, detaching from Jericho’s side. “Your innocent trust of the public is—”

“Don’t call me that please, Talib.” Ferris sighed again.

“That is a bit absurd, Talib,” came the reply from the sofa opposite. “Even for you.”

Doctor Alice Kingsley sat there nibbling on her usual fruit salad. She had gotten a short haircut recently, and her blonde hair now fell well above her ears. Although Jericho liked the new haircut, he did not like how it made it more difficult for him to escape her mind-reading eyes. No bangs to curtain her gaze. Everything, clear. 

Talib joined her on the sofa while continuing on about how sound waves could change brain patterns. Alice rebutted every one of his theories. 

Again, their luncheon was missing three of its formal members. First, there was Roberto Gonzalez who was still investigating a case in Capricorn. Then there was Moraeni, still ensnared in the busiest department of Ophiuchus: the Licensing Department. Lastly, there was Flannery Caertas whom Jericho had recently discovered the reason behind her nickname “money bags.”

Flannery’s parents were from an old family in Libra with a lineage extending well before the Reservoir War. Her “great-to-infinity”— as she had put it—grandparents started one of the first conductor-manufacturing-slash-research companies in Signum. The business was passed down for generations and produced 2/3 of the conductors—generator and weaponized—currently in circulation. 

Flannery was in the process of inheriting the company herself and had taken a trip down to Capricorn to attend a diplomatic convention regarding the distribution of said conductors. But this was not of interest to Jericho—although the family company name was…. unique.

Pure Balance, it was called. 

Upon learning of Flannery’s ‘secret’ identity, Jericho had been bombarded left-and-right with questions from Olivier. The questions were filled with the prince’s indignation on how Jericho had not realized such a ‘high-up’ person could be in his presence.

“You’re a prince, kid,” Cadence had said in response to that. “Ain’t that even higher up?”

Werner had also shown interest in Flannery’s status. But Jericho suspected his intentions were not as academically-inclined as Olivier’s. 

“So,” Gabrielle drew after a yawn from where sat at her cornerstone desk, “how’s the new department treating you?”

Jericho took his usual position beside Ferris and set his stack of files onto the island table. Alice stared into him the entire time.

Alice had made her displeasure and disappointment regarding his choice to enter the ELPIS Investigations Department upon his acceptance known at every one of their sessions. Yet she still spoke with him ‘pleasantly.’ She would move on from the unpleasanttopic after voicing her disapproval of it and would address other topics such as his journaling and his daily activities. 

This was just concern, Jericho had learned. It always had been.

“I have not been put on any cases,” he replied. “Paperwork. Deskwork. Only that.” He pointed to the paper stack. “A lot of that.”

“And…” Wtorek Elizabeta peered at him over Ferris and then eyed the files. “Are any of the files…”

“They mention attempts to find Gamma,” Jericho answered. “But they do not mention contact with him.” He paused, thinking. “It is supposed to be confidential.”

“Keyword is ‘supposed to be,’ right?” Gabrielle returned, leaning back in her seat. She closed her eyes and remained silent for a very long time before she tried, “And Leona?”

“Has not contacted me since accepting my application.”

“Well, she is chair of the ELPIS Investigation Department.” Gabrielle sighed. “It’d be weird if she kept tabs on you.”

“Well, I say we should all enjoy the reprieve from all of the cases we’ve been bombarded with since that ELPIS incident, partner,” Talib interjected, arms crossed behind his head. “That way we can focus on what’s truly important. That nefarious radio—”

“Actually…” Ferris nibbled on her sandwich again before she finally said, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the Assignment Department is starting to see an influx of requests and cases. We’re handing out over three dozen assignments starting tomorrow.”

Talib lifted his hat to scratch his curly dark head. “This wouldn’t happen to be due to the diplomatic conductor convention going on in Capricorn, would it?” 

Gabrielle answered, “Sort of. A couple of agents from International Relations are already in the Capricornian capital overseeing it in light of what happened in the Zatmeniye Caverns in Aquarius two months ago.” She rolled her neck. “The main problem is that there’s a political organization that’s starting to make some noise in the capital because of that. Verbundene Augen—” 

“Connected Eyes,” Jericho translated to Common. He did not like that wordRather, that organization. Correction: Werner did not like it. 

She nodded. “It’s a party supporting demilitarization of Capricorn that formed after the Capricornian Watch was made known to the public. No ELPIS ties from what we’re aware of…”

Jericho nodded his head in confirmation.

“They’ve been around for a while, but they’ve become popular recently,” Gabrielle continued after offering Jericho a nod. “They’re planning a demonstration around the same time as the convention. The Capricornian government requested Ophiuchus to give ‘em a bit of a gander. So, here we are.”

“Haven’t been to Capricorn on a case in sometime…” Talib mused, rubbing his chin. “Well, Gabrielle, hopefully we’re assigned together. It gets quite lonely without someone there to appreciate my ideas.”

“I’m assuming, Talib—” Alice arched a brow. “—that you’re referring to how agents outside of ourselves tend to evaluate you in a negative light when you go on about your conspiracy theories?”

“Theories that will soon become fact!”

Jericho frowned. 

He… missed going out on cases with Talib. The feeling was similar to how he’d miss Werner when the man would lower synchronization to focus on his operations or how he’d miss Atienna when she did similarly to focus on diplomatic meetings. 

A knock on the door cut the conversation short. 

“I got it!” Ferris rose from her seat, rounded the table, opened the door. 

An agent wearing a cap that read DELIVERY SERVICE stood there holding a large wooden basket filled with festively wrapped boxes that were buried beneath a mound of envelopes. Letters. 

“Heard you all usually hang out together,” the man said, “so thought I might as well bring everything at once.”

“Oh!” Ferris brightened, taking the basket from him and beaming. “Thank you!”

The man tipped his hat and left down the hall. 

“Is it a mistake?” Jericho asked, staring. 

“No, silly.” Ferris laughed lightly as she walked over and set the basket on the island table. “People always send letters to peacekeepers after they complete cases. They come in such volume that the Communications Department usually sends them all in bulk semi-annually to save time.” 

Send letters?

“They’re ‘thank you’ letters,” Alice elaborated. “You started taking cases near the end of the last lettering season which is why you haven’t received any before now.” She leaned forward and selected an envelope from the basket. 

To Alice was written in swirling Common letters. 

Elizabeta silently pulled out a letter addressed to her and skimmed it without expression. After shooting her a sympathetic look, Ferris plucked a stack of envelopes from the basket, paced over to Jericho, and handed him half as she took a seat beside him. She flashed him a smile before digging through her own letters. 

Ferris had been very ‘friendly’ to him recently. Intuition told him she still felt bad about voicing her fear of him to Roberto. Unneeded. He had told her it was okay before. But he understood her. Almost. She did not want misunderstandings. She wanted to improve their relationship. Relatable. 

Jericho glanced left to see Alice already peeling open the envelope and scanning the letter inside. Jericho moved forward to do the same. Gingerly, carefully, he undid the first envelope which was cream-colored and hosted a stamp featuring a crab. 

There was a small piece of wrapped candy inside paired with a thin, folded letter. It read inked in black:

Dear Agent Jericho,

You probably don’t remember me, but I do remember you. I was the man who was manipulated into fighting you in Lepischau, Cancer. Thank you for your heroic actions on that day. I cannot put into words how terrible it feels to be manipulated. I feared the worst. I thought I would never see my family again. I thought I would be killed by the pursuers of the Manipulator. But you saw me. Saved me.

There are not enough words to express how grateful I am for your help. I will always remember you, Monsieur Jericho. 

I own a small but very renowned candy store within Lepischau that has been awarded numerous Cancerian golden stars. Within this envelope, I have sent you one of our finest confections made from the sugar trees of Virgo (Quite rare and since Virgo is just beginning to open its doors to trade. You will taste nothing like it!) and the milk of the finest Taurusian cow. We only make twenty of these a year. I hope you find it to your liking even though I know it will not be enough. Thank you again.

Sincerely, 

Leize Artigue

Jericho unwrapped the confection and popped it into his mouth. It melted like honey on his tongue. He knew Olive enjoyed the phantom taste, although he believed he himself enjoyed the letter more.

That’s lovely, Jericho, came Atienna. Since they had improved their control over synchronization levels within the past few weeks, she always hovered within a reachable distance. You should frame it. 

Yes. Jericho supposed he would. If it was customary. It was important too. It was his first.

He folded the letter gingerly and slipped it into his pocket before reaching for another one. The next envelope was dark blue and sealed with paraffin wax. A small card rested inside it with a singular sentence penned in blue ink.

I’ve got my eye on you! ❤

Beneath it was a cartoonish drawing of a pair of eyes. One was closed as if winking. The other was almond-shaped with three eyelashes protruding from its top. 

“Looks like you’ve got a secret admirer!” Talib crowed, leaning over the table to peer at the card. “Quite the swooner, you are!”

“Secret admirer?” Jericho stared. “Why would they keep it secret? They are hiding something. A threat.” 

“No, they just really like you, Jericho,” Ferris amended, carefully peeling open another envelope.

“I know.” Jericho stared down at the card and then back up at her. “It was a joke.” 

“Oh!” Ferris’s eyes widened for a second before her face lit up and her cheeks became a rosy pink. She chuckled squeakily, like a mouse. 

Cadence and Olivier had been providing him tutorials on humour. ‘Sarcastic’ and ‘dry’ were his favorite types from what they had shown him.

Ferris continued to chuckle, wiping a tear from her eye.

It was… pretty, Jericho thought. The shade of her cheeks. He wanted to sketch that color in his journal. Though—he realized now—he’d never used color in his drawings before. 

It’s a good time to start.

Yes, it was. 

A dull pain suddenly pricked the base of his right hand. When he studied the area, he found split leather and an open wound that ran across a pale, bleeding palm.

Werner?

He blinked.

The mirage disappeared. His dark skin remained unblemished and ungloved beneath the overhead lights. 

Yes. A minor injury on Werner’s end, it seemed. No problem—

But then Jericho felt nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Not the rain drizzling down in the capital of Capricorn, not the cold moonlight spilling through the trees at the southern Argoan-Capricornian border, not the soot and salt of the Twin Cities, not the creaks of an old library, not a single buzz at the back of his mind. 

Silence.

Something was…

A clattering sound drew his attention away. Talib had tripped over the desk, sending all the letters he had been carrying fluttering into the air. They cascaded downward in a psychedelic, hypnotic, rainbow array, occasionally catching glow from the overhead v-lights. Like rain. Tumbling down. Like how Jericho had tumbled down those stairs all those months ago. 

Alice stared at him. “What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing,” Jericho replied.

The truth. 

Absolute silence. 

There was nothing. 

A falling letter landed at his feet. In curling dark blue letters, it read—

I will enter.

Pinpricks dotted Jericho’s vision as his knees suddenly gave way. He stumbled forward, lost his footing. His knees cracked against the floor first followed by his shoulder and then his head. 

Someone shouted in alarm. 

He did not feel pain. Not really. Just numbness along his head, neck, limbs. In other words, he could not move an inch. But. This sensation. It was the same. The same as how he’d felt when Omega had pushed him down the stairs of the Serpens Establishment before this all began. The only difference was that this time he was not alone. Faces ringed above him as his vision dimmed. 

He would not succumb to this, he knew. 

He clenched his fists tightly as the memory of lying in a pool of his own blood at the bottom of the steps of the Serpens Establishment seeped into his mind. 

Not until he’d reached the answer. Not until then. He had to hold on.

An unfortunate cut to black.

12.1: A Duet for a Prince & Peacekeeper

Re-cap:

Francis/Theta prepares to sink the Twin Cities in an explosive event.

Meanwhile, the Serpens Establishment of Ophiuchus also rumbles with change. Jericho, who has been thrown to Ophiuchus through one of Theta’s portals from the Twin Cities, now faces a dangerous enemy alongside Olive, who has just finished taking the written portion of his exam. 


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Jericho’s ears rang with the wail of sirens as he picked himself and his suitcase off the white tile floor.

It was an odd sensation. He knew where he had landed before he had even taken a survey of his surroundings. And that was because—

Jericho turned his head.

Olivier Chance stared back at him wide-eyed. Behind the Ariesian prince stood Sagittarian Prince Claire Yuseong, Trystan Carter, and the Sagittarian guard Felix. Jericho glanced backwards. Just behind him, two other peacekeepers were just beginning to right themselves. Gabrielle and Talib. They had been thrown to this location too through Theta’s portals, it seemed. And so had—

“Are you alright?”

Alice stood on the opposite side of the large portal that divided the hallway as she asked the question. Her voice barely carried above the wail of the sirens as her gaze swept from him to Olivier to Talib and Gabrielle. “Are you alright?” Her gaze pierced through him specifically.

She wants the truth. Not— “I’m uninjured.”

“I’m unsure,” Jericho replied after a moment’s hesitation.

Alice met his eyes and nodded. “Okay—”

“We’re fine, Alice. Go get reinforcements,” Gabrielle called above the sirens as she took in her surroundings. “Something isn’t right here. There aren’t any other agents around, and we’re right outside the Detention Center. Go. Now.”

Alice frowned, gaze lingering on Jericho and then Talib and Olivier, before she dipped her head and disappeared down the hall.

“Is that you, Olive…?” Gabrielle asked, finally noticing Olivier’s presence and then Claire’s. “And Prince Yuseong Haneul…” She reached over and shook Claire’s hand abruptly. “It’s good to see my home country getting along with Sagittarius. Though if you’re here for the State Conducting Exam, you’re in the wrong place…”

“Good to see you always focus on what’s important….” Olivier mumbled.

“Right…” Gabrielle rolled her neck and nodded to the portal. “Olive, Prince Yuseong, do you think you can make that jump? I would like to get you both as far from here as possible.”

Claire startled, glancing back at the portal before digging into his pocket and pulling out his conductor. “I can carry myself over with my conductor, but—”

Gunshots and a series of shouts resounded from down the hall in the direction of the detention center.

Jericho’s heart started racing. Correction: Olivier’s heart started racing.

The detention center. Olive’s fear bled through. Jin went down there. Izsak. I think… I’m not sure… I… the proto-conductor. I’m sorry…

It is okay, Olivier. 

Footsteps resounded down the hall and two figures came into view. A man and a woman. The man held the woman at gunpoint as he dragged her forward.

“Do not move, or I will shoot this woman.” The request barely carried over the call of the sirens.

Jericho stepped in front of Olivier. Trystan who was already in a protective stance in front of the prince gave Jericho an odd look. Jericho received the same look from Talib, but he wasn’t unused to receiving stares.

As the gun-wielding man and the hostage drew nearer, Jericho identified them. Wtorek Elizabeta, who appeared more concerned than afraid. And Wtorek Izsak, who was expressionless.

No. That wasn’t Wtorek Izsak. Cadence had heard Omicron confirm the fact days ago: Wtorek Izsak’s vitae had already left his body went the resistor was used on him. ‘Gamma’ had been initiated.

Jericho tightened his grip on his suitcase.

In other words, this Gamma had to die—

The image of the terribly conjured stuffed animal that was still resting on his bedside in his apartment abruptly flashed through Jericho’s mind. This was followed by a faded memory of Wtorek Izsak resting a hand on his head while conjuring a mountain of similarly ugly stuffed animals with a lackadaisical smile.

Jericho’s rage dampened abruptly, leaving him with an uncomfortable hollowness.

It didn’t matter who Izsak was before, Jericho thought. It wasn’t Izsak anymore.

“Move aside—” Gamma said as he pressed the gun to Elizabeta’s temple. He stopped short, however, as he registered Olive and Jericho. “True Conductors…”

“Trouble with the wife?” Gabrielle asked, smiling thinly, sweat dripping down her forehead.

Gamma didn’t respond.

How can she say that in this situation…?!

“Izsak, I’ve been hearing really weird things about ELPIS,” Gabrielle drew. “Things about ELPIS, the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, and these things called resistors.” There was a pause. “How much of you is you?”

“Would my answer change anything?” Gamma asked.

Gabrielle’s expression darkened. “Yes, yes, it would.”

Elizabeta’s brows furrowed in confusion. She craned her neck towards Gamma and whispered, “Honey, please…”

False hope.

Before Gabrielle could continue, she was suddenly thrown to the left against the wall by an unseen force. Correction: by a surge of wind. Talib was at Gabrielle’s side in an instant, checking for damages.

The sound of footsteps resounded up the hall from the direction Izsak had come from and it was followed by a sigh: “Hey, I’m doing Omicron a big favor here by busting you out and ruining my stellar Ophiucian reputation, and you repay me here by running off without me?”

Still gripping Elizabeta tightly, Gamma turned his head. Jin Ilseong appeared behind him, bow conductor cocked.

“Aunt Jiji?” Claire stammered, wide-eyed.

“The saint candidate of Sagittarius,” Talib realized.

“Aw crap,” Jin blanched as she registered Claire. “What are you doing down this way? Oh, well…”

She pointed her bow conductor, aimed it at the center of their group, and jerked it backwards. Instead of a burst of air coming at them, however, the air around them stilled and became dotted with blue light.

Something was wrong.

Olivier suddenly gasped, scratching at his throat as he fell to his knees. Trystan was on the ground too, wheezing. Claire and Felix were topped beside them. Talib and Gabrielle were in the same state along the wall.

And then Jericho felt it. The air had thinned. His chest ached dully, while he felt Olive’s chest burn as if it were on fire.

Stumbling forward, Jericho clicked open his suitcase and dragged out his conductor. He gripped his weapon tightly as his vision blurred and doubled. With this level of concentration, he knew he wouldn’t be able to properly wield it. There was only one target possible.

But Jericho’s gaze was drawn not to Jin. Instead, it was drawn to the man standing behind Jin: Gamma, who had shoved Wtorek’s wife to the side and was now staring down at them with a look of righteousness.

Jericho tightened his grip, bit the inside of his cheek unknowingly until he drew blood. Olive wheezed beside him.

There shouldn’t be hesitation, Jericho realized. The choice was clear.

Jericho whipped out his conductor sending a thin line of vitae hurtling forward. It missed its target but the effect was the same. Jin’s conductor shattered in her hand, and the blue flecks of light dotting the area dispersed.

“My conductor!” Jin yelped. “That was expensive, you jerk!”

Gasps filled the air as everyone who had been subjected to the vacuum took in a deep breath.

Jericho rubbed his throat and coughed lightly, turning to Olive who was being helped to his feet by Trystan. Trystan himself was staring at Jericho’s conductor wide-eyed. However, Claire and Felix paid him no mind as they guided each other to their feet and neither did Gabrielle nor Talib as they righted themselves. Instead of addressing him, however, the wheezing Trystan whipped out his bow conductor and fired an arrow of flame vitae straight at Gamma who had aimed his gun at them. Jin darted forward and lifted a hand in alarm to block it. A crunch resounded as the arrow wedged itself right below her middle finger. Jin swore and cradled her hand as she ripped out the arrow. But it was too late. The fire spread, igniting her entire hand in a wreath of pale rose flame.

Jin screeched as she cradled her hand. “That. Is. It!”

A burst of blue-flecked wind whirled through the hall, causing the flames to die away and leaving her hand smoking.

Trystan stared. “How—”

Don’t tell me—

Jin aimed a mock gun at Trystan and winked. “Bang!”

Out from Jin’s mock pistol came a burst of glowing air. The invisible arrow hurtled forward, striking Trystan right through the shoulder and sending him flying backwards over the portal. He hit the ground on the opposite side, rolling to a stop after a couple of meters.

Worry and panic seized Jericho’s chest.

“Trystan!” Olive shouted.

Trystan grimaced as he cradled his bleeding shoulder and craned his neck towards them. “Y-Your highness, I’m fine—watch out!”

Jericho whipped around just in time to see Jin aim another mock gun at them.

“Bang!”

Jericho launched himself at Olivier and curled around him just as a gust of wind took them backwards and into the portal.

***

Olive’s ears rang as his eyes adjusted to the light. It took him a moment to realize that Jericho was draped over him. Their gazes met.

“Are you okay?” Jericho asked as if everything that had just happened was a walk in the park. He cocked his head. “It’s not a walk in the park. It’s dangerous.”

Jericho unfurled from him and rose to a stand to assess his surroundings. Olive did the same, albeit more hesitantly.

The atmosphere was warmer now, Olive realized, and everything was brighter. And colorful. Particles of light floated through the air fluorescently, casting everything in a multicolored, psychedelic glow. This light originated from below the raised bridge that they were now on top of. Vitae reservoirs. Thirteen of them.

It was the tourist attraction site within Ophiuchus that Jericho had taken them to before ELPIS attacked the detention center.

But… where were the tourists? It was empty.

It was shut down before I left. To do a double-check and clean down any of Theta’s portals. 

Well, they obviously hadn’t scrubbed it down well enough.

A duet of groans arose from just beside Olive. Talib and Claire, who were just beginning to pick themselves off of the ground. Talib rose first and offered Claire a hand. The Sagittarian accepted the gesture dazedly.

“It seems like we’ve been tossed to the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs,” Talib assessed.

Olive nodded at Claire. “You… okay?”

Claire was pale, dazed, quiet, unlike himself. His conductor was loosely gripped in his hand. “I…” His gaze flicked to and then past Olive.

Olive turned his head.

Theta’s portal was open just a couple of feet away from them at a hidden strip just in front of the railing on the left side of the bridge. In front of that portal stood Jin and Gamma.

It was just the six of them here, Olive realized. Gabrielle, Trystan, and Felix must have either been thrown to a different location if they entered the portal or they were still within the Serpens Establishment.

“I don’t have my suitcase,” Jericho whispered to both Olive and Talib.

“You don’t have your conductor,” Olive realized.

“Okay, okay,” Jin grumbled, brushing off her uniform and fixing her hair. She slid her hands into her pockets and nodded at them. “Let’s just go our separate ways now, alright?” She thumbed Gamma. “I’m just here for him. Not ya’ll. So let’s not create some dramatic fight about this, okay? I’m tired. My head hurts. My reputation is ruined.”

“I will not leave until those True Conductors have been put down,” Gamma said, gripping his handgun tightly. He glanced to the side at the light rising up the bridge from the vitae reservoirs below. “And this reservoir—”

“You’re the one who’s going to be put down.” Jericho glowered.

Olive blanched. Was it really the best idea to make threats without a weapon?

I need to let him know, Olivier.

Okay then.

“Yeesh. Why are you two so violent?” Jin sighed before nodding back at Gamma. “Omicron and your gang are waiting for you to tell them what’s what with the syzygy and everything, you know that?” She twirled a finger around her temple. “They’re missing some marbles. Your records aren’t so great.”

Gamma frowned. “You didn’t tell them?”

“I’m already doing enough for you, aren’t I?”

Gamma didn’t respond and instead lock eyes with Olive.

Olive’s hand subconsciously went to his throat as he felt the ghost of Wtorek’s—no, Gamma’s hand—hand wrap around it. The memory of the intent to kill in that man’s eyes in New Ram City all those months ago still haunted Olive’s nightmares. It was the same here. A nightmare bleeding into reality.

“There is no point in me being here if I don’t deal with this,” Gamma responded, lifting his gun.

Jin shrugged. “Well, you heard the man. He won’t go away until I put you down so it can’t be helped.” She took a step forward.

Olive’s heart raced, chest still achingly raw from Maria’s loss of Conta. He glanced at Jericho as cold sweat broke down his back before he pulled the peacekeeper behind him and extended his hand. With a grimace, he drew a line of flame vitae between his group and the two outsiders.

“I’ll burn you to a crisp,” Olive said, managing to keep the shake out of his voice, “if you take another step forward.”

“I heard rumors but….” Talib murmured from behind him. “You really can conduct without a conductor…”

Olive stiffened and looked back at Talib to find the man studying him perplexed. Before any words could be exchanged, however, a cold gust of wind speckled with blue blasted through the area. The torrent extinguished Olive’s drawn line and knocked him clear off of his feet. Jericho caught him by the scruff of his shirt and righted him.

“Wow, you’ve sure improved a lot in that short amount of time, kiddo.” Jin whistled, as she waved off the smoke in the air. “But air still beats fire. Like paper beats rock.” With that, Jin flicked out her hand and then curled it into a fist.

Unlike before, the vacuum formed in an instant. Olive fell forward as his vision blurred Talib and Claire were already collapsed on the ground. The Sagittarian prince was still conscious, however, reaching for his conductor which had fallen from his hands.

Jericho…

Jericho stumbled towards Jin but eventually he too fell to his knees. Still, he crawled forward relentlessly as Olive’s vision faded to black—

—and then brightness cracked across Olive’s vision. As he tried to get his bearings, Olive came to realize that he was somehow now only inches away from Jin who was looking down at him with an arched brow. No. He was seeing through Jericho’s eyes. Relentless Jericho.

“Geeze, Glasses, you’re desperate, aren’t you?” Jin sighed.

Fire needs oxygen to spread. And if Jin’s removing the oxygen via vitae particles from the air, then she has to be shifting the oxygen atoms somewhere else, Jericho. Somewhere else being right—

Olive urged Jericho to extend his fingertips further and further until Olive was able to feel the slight change in the air pattern surrounding the woman through Jericho’s fingertips.

—here. 

Just before the white sparks erupted from Jericho’s hands, a flicker of black appeared out of the corner of Olive’s—rather, Jericho’s— eyes. Olive knew who it was immediately. Lavi. She gazed through Jericho at him with a sharp expression that Olive had never seen on her face before.

“Don’t hold back,” she said. “Not with them.”

With an audible roar, the white flames burst forward in aninstant, consuming Jin in a white aura of fire. Gamma and Jericho were thrown backwards in opposite directions by the explosion.

Through Jericho’s eyes, Olive was able to see Claire gasp, grab his conductor, and whip it through the air. Flecks of sky-blue light shot out from his conductor followed by a gust of wind.

Olive’s eyes fluttered open. His senses returned to him as he took a deep breath, gasping, heaving. Air had never tasted so good. But as thankful as Olive was for the additional oxygen Claire had brought in, the gift came with an acrid, all too familiar scent. Burning flesh. At the smell, he gagged and retched before screeching and wailing reached his ears above the crackle of flame. Olive turned in slow horror towards the sound. The silhouette of a human enveloped in a crown of white flame stumbled back and forth along the bridge in agony.

“A-Aunt Jiji…”

Claire was wide-eyed, unmoving beside Olive.

And then Olive’s horror settled in—the horror at Jin’s immolation, the horror at the realization that he had meant to do this to Jin. It wasn’t like how it was with Gamma back in New Ram City. Not like how it was with the Sagittarian assassins weeks ago. This time, to protect the others, to not die, to continue on, he had been intending wholeheartedly to… kill?

Tears burning at his eyes, Olive bent over and gagged again as revulsion seized his entire body. But before he could fully empty his stomach contents, an agonizing anger crumpled his chest. His gaze was torn from Jin and towards Jericho who had picked himself off the ground only a second after the fiery explosion, who had run past the immolated Jin, who had launched himself at Gamma without hesitation. Now on top of the man, Jericho wrapped fingers around his throat.

Olive could feel Jericho’s hands tightening around Gamma’s neck, could feel the other man struggle fruitlessly beneath Jericho’s grasp, could feel life leaving the man’s body.

But what if Izsak is still

Jericho hesitated but only for one moment before he squeezed and squeezed and—

No. False hope. False hope.

—was tossed backwards by an abrupt torrent of wind.

“That really, really frickin’ hurt, kiddo.”

Olive’s gaze flicked to the one who had spoken and nearly fainted at the sight of her. It was Jin, no longer surrounded by white flames and instead cloaked in gray smoke. Her suit was badly tattered and singed at the edges, but despite that, her Ophiuchian armband shone brightly. And she looked unscathed. Unharmed. Just covered by a thin layer of soot and ash.

How…? Olive couldn’t comprehend it. Had she driven the oxygen away with her vitae particles? But he had seen her ignite in flame. What in the world—

“…But I see that you’ve got someone you’re connected to in our ranks,” Jin noted. “That changes things up.” She glanced at Claire then at Olive then at Jericho. She threw a look back at Gamma who didn’t look at all surprised by her lack of injury and then at Talib. “Let’s clear the stage of the non-essentials, shall we?”

And with that, Jin threw out her arms outwards towards opposite sides of the bridge. A gust of twin winds kicked up, one throwing Gamma straight into the portal and the other tossing Talib right off the bridge.

Jericho hesitated for less than a second, before he launched himself not towards the portal that Gamma had disappeared into but towards the railings after Talib. He managed to reach the rails just as Talib tumbled past him. Missed by a hairsbreadth.

“Claire!” Olive shouted in panic.

Claire snapped out of his stupor, twirled his conductor, and took off from the bridge in a blast of wind. He hurtled downwards after Talib, disappearing with a boom that shook the bridge.

Jericho stiffened and whipped his attention back to the portal—the portal that had dimmed away back into a black stain. Olive felt the rage in Jericho’s chest dissipate instantly. But the emptiness that the feeling left behind was almost as unbearable.

But they had to focus.

A click-clacking suddenly echoed from behind Olive. Upon turning his head, he found a newcomer coming up the bridge slowly. A woman. She was flanked on her left and right by a peacekeeper. The light from the reservoirs cast her golden hair in an odd light.

Leona.

It was the first time Olive had seen her up close himself, and something about her gave him unease.

Wasn’t she back in the Twin Cities? Had she fallen into one of the portals? Even if she did fall into one leading to the Serpens Establishment, why did she come here?

His gaze flicked to the two peacekeepers behind her.

And that wasn’t even close to enough people to handle Jin, was it?

Jericho was at his side immediately, expressionless.

“Are you two alright?” Leona asked as she fell into step beside them. She was calm. Unnervingly calm.

Olive tensed, nodded.

“How are you here?” Jericho. Direct as ever.

“I fell through one of Theta’s gates,” Leona explained, “and landed in the Serpens Establishment. With the sirens blaring, I suspected that Gamma was being freed. And if he was free, I assumed I would have to keep an eye on our reservoir. It seems as if I’ve made the correct choice.”

… How had she known Gamma’s name?

“My partner. Talib,” Jericho said. “He—”

“I saw,” Leona replied calmly. “Believe me when I say he will be fine. The Sagittarian prince—”

“Come on, Leo.” Jin sighed from across the bridge. “You’re always butting in where you don’t need to butt in.”

“You’re an embarrassment, Jin,” Leona replied, meeting the woman’s gaze. “Why are you doing this?”

So Jin hadn’t been lying. They did know each other. Closely.

“I just felt like it.” Jin shrugged. “Was bored. Felt like fighting for the losing side for once. A change of direction. Don’t you ever feel bored with winning?”

“And Gamma?”

“Gone with the wind.” Jin thumbed the black stain.

Leona looked her over. “And are you still to pursue this route, Saint of Arrow and Direction?”

Jin cracked a grin. “Of course, Leo. I mean—since we’re being formal now—of course, ‘Saint of Victory’.”

Leona motioned for one of the peacekeepers behind her with an index finger. The peacekeeper shuffled forward, placing a belt in Leona’s waiting hand. The belt was equipped with a number of bladeless hilts, several handguns lined with glass tubes, and other miscellaneous weapons. Conductors. She calmly clipped the accessory around her waist.

Leona nodded at Jericho. “Jericho, please escort the Ariesian prince back to the Serpens Establishment.”

Jericho stared.

Claire’s got Talib. I’m sure of it.

Jericho continued to stare. “You… will face Jin alone?”

“Of course,” Leona replied. “As I said earlier, the traitor who allowed all of this to come into fruition is not your concern. It is mine—”

Olive suddenly felt the hair on the back of Jericho’s neck rise. Jericho whipped around just in time to see Jin cock a mock gun in their direction.

“Bang!”

Leona pushed the both of them backwards, drawing out a bladeless hilt and igniting it in a flash of gold. She did a strange twisting movement with her wrist and dispelled the invisible arrow of air with a flourish.

Jin changed course and curled her hand into a fist. The air thinned again, and Olive’s vision blurred. However, in one swift movement that was barely perceptible to Olive’s eye, Leona plucked a bladeless hilt from her belt, ignited it, and threw it at Jin. The screech it made as it tore through the air was unsaintly, and it hit Jin’s shoulder right on target. The woman yelped, and the air instantaneously became breathable again.

“Dammit!” Jin snapped, before ripping the conductor from her shoulder and tossing it to the ground. She frowned, taking a step backwards. “I forgot how good you were when it comes to close quarters…”

Jin flicked her wrist, and the feel of the air changed. Olive braced himself gawked when Jin suddenly shot up to the sky leaving glowing flecks of blue light in her wake.

Leona reached into her belt again and drew out another bladeless conductor. Instead of throwing it, however, she swung it upwards. Out from its tip unfurled a gold whip that flew out and wrapped itself around Jin’s ankle. Giving the whip a sharp tug, Leona slammed Jin back onto the ground. The Sagittarian groaned as the bridge trembled.

Leona glanced back at them. “Agent Jericho, I told you to escort the prince away.” Her eyes were ringed with an intense golden light.

Without thinking, Olive stumbled back, grabbed a hold of Jericho’s hand, and pulled him backwards. And then he began to run, leaving behind Leona and her two apparently non-combative assistants, leaving behind Jin, leaving behind the reservoirs. He pounded up the bridge dragging Jericho along behind him. He had no idea if he was heading in the right direction. He just knew he had to get himself and Jericho away. Just like he had dragged Werner away from that battlefield. Pathetic. But sometimes running away was the best route.

A sudden and loud sonic boom resounded in the air followed by a loud clang. Olive glanced left just in time to see a wrestling Leona and Jin crash down from the sky onto a bridge running parallel to them. Jin untangled herself from Leona and shot up to the sky again; but the other woman leaped onto the railings of the bridge, ran along its length, launched herself up at Jin, and wrapped her arms around Jin’s legs. They fumbled there for a moment before Jin flew higher and higher until they disappeared into the clouds.

What in saint’s name…

This was ridiculous. Were they even human?

Abruptly, Jericho stopped running behind him.

Olive stopped too and turned. He knew what Jericho was thinking of. Gamma and the portal.

They have been right in front of me, Olivier. This entire time. This is the closest I’ve gotten. To them. And my purpose is to eliminate false hope. Destroy them. But I let them go. Not just here with Gamma. With Theta. With Omicron. Only Omega. It’s not enough.

Jericho stared into Olive, causing Olive’s heart to skip a beat. The man’s eyes were intense. Almost scary.

Is it this connection? Am I forgetting? A pause. I would rather become nothingness than for my anger to disappear. It’s my purpose. 

The memory of Theta’s words— “You’re already close to becoming nothingness”— to Jericho resounded within Olive’s mind.

I can’t fail. I am going to eventually become nothingness. That is fine. That is natural whether what ELPIS has taught me is true or not. But only if I fulfill my purpose before then. I can’t fail.

Olive’s heart dropped to his stomach. Hearing Jericho think that was…

They killed your family. But you don’t feel hatred. 

Olive’s heart dropped even further at the statement, but he shook his head. Was this really the time to be thinking about this?

Jericho continued to stare at him.

Olive guessed it was.

Of course I’m angry, Jericho. At them. At myself. I obviously want them to go down and to be locked up for good. But for me, killing them won’t do anything. It’s stupid and meaningless. And it doesn’t get anyone anywhere. And I can’t live with the guilt of doing something like that. No matter who or what they are.

Frowning, Olive studied Jericho from the corner of his eye.

I can’t wrap my head around your revenge thing at all. I don’t agree with it… And I know my opinion doesn’t mean much. Doctor Kingsley probably knows better. But I don’t think it’s good for you. I mean, there’s literally a bunch of books saying things like ‘revenge is a cycle’… then again, I’m an idiot and naive so who cares what I think. 

Jericho blinked. I care. What you think.

Okay. Then I don’t think the ‘become nothingness’ spiel even means anything. Doesn’t matter whether the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis is true or not. Burning energy versus burning a soul.

An uneasiness took over Olive at the thought of it ringing true.

But that’s not the point.

He grabbed a hold of Jericho’s wrist, tugging him forward and continuing with him onwards down the bridge.

The point is that there’s still stuff after too—whether you decide to keep going with this revenge thing or go for a different route. 

Their footsteps echoed along the walkway, interspersing with the resounding booms of Leona and Jin’s battle in the distance.

If being a part of this has taught me anything, it’s that there’s always stuff after. 

Olive let out a sigh of relief as the edge of the bridge neared their sights. Just beyond that was a pathway leading to an empty train station.

Not ‘nothingness’.

Jericho’s eyes widened slightly.

Finally, they reached the threshold of the bridge.

Olive slumped and proceeded to collapse onto the ground panting. Jericho blinked down at him, not even remotely out of breath.

“That is an ‘interesting’ way of thinking.”

Olive grimaced back up at him. “When you do air quotes, it’s just insulting.”

I think I appreciate it.

Olive stiffened before grimacing.

A shadow suddenly passed over both of their heads causing them to tense. When Olive looked up to the sky, however, he let out a sigh.

It was Claire, slowly sinking towards them while riding his staff conductor. Balancing precariously on the staff beside him was Talib who had one arm slung over the Sagittarian’s shoulder. Olive felt Jericho’s chest lighten immediately. Although Jericho didn’t fully comprehend the feeling, Olive did. It was relief, filling in the emptiness inside of Jericho.

“Partner, it’s good to see you in one piece!” Talib exclaimed as he hopped off of the staff with Claire’s assistance.

“I am glad you’re okay,” Jericho responded.

Olive winced. Jericho was still so awkward.

Jericho blinked down at him.

Olive winced again before he stiffened and turned to Claire “Leona and Jin—”

“Yeah… We saw both of them while we were flying over here,” Claire muttered. His expression was grim, pale, but still he offered Olive his hand and helped him up to his feet. “Seems like you were right then.”

Olive opened his mouth, unsure of what to exactly say, but then another boom resounded and he allowed the silence to continue.

Talib broke the quiet, peering at Jericho hopefully. “And… Izsak?”

“Gone,” Jericho replied curtly. “Through Theta’s portal.”

Talib’s expression fell.

A click-clacking suddenly echoed from behind them. It was Leona, drifting down the bridge towards them. She was sweating and panting lightly, but she appeared unharmed. She assessed them silently as she came to a stop in front of them before she paused and assessed Talib. “Are you all alright?”

Olive nodded as did Claire. Talib inclined his head. Jericho remained impassive.

“Good.” Leona extended her hand. “Talib, Jericho, I would like any of the suppression cuffs you still have on you.”

Without hesitation, Talib unhooked both of his from his belt and handed it to her. Jericho stared at Talib before following suit. Leona clipped the items to her own belt before turning on her heels and starting down the bridge again.

“Did… Did you…?” Claire called after her.

“I will take Ilseong Jin into custody where she will face trial for collusion with ELPIS,” Leona answered curtly, disappearing from their sights and leaving the click-clack of her heels echoing in her wake.

Olive glanced at Claire who was whiter than a ghost and winced. He opened his mouth and then closed it, still unsure of what to say. It was easy to convey his feelings to the others he was connected to, but with those outside of their group, it was still…

That didn’t go as planned, Jericho thought.

Olive turned to Jericho and sighed with a grumble. It never does.

Would it be customary to… hug now?

Olive hesitated, considering. No.

11.5: Jericho’s (Dicotomico) Hatred

Re-cap:

As the plan’s final knots are tied, Jericho finds himself in Warehouse 13 alongside Cadence and one captured Theta/Francis. They await not only the arrival of the crime organization executives, but also Omicron’s arrival to seal the deal and save the city. As the strings of their plan unravel, Jericho faces the one who brought him into ELPIS to begin with.

Twin Cities, Gemini

Talib had many questions for Jericho when he arrived at Warehouse 13. He procured a bullet-pointed list out from his journal and promptly read the list out word-for-word:

“Why did Jericho want me to track Colonel Fritz von Spiel? Why is Jericho working alongside an associate of the Romano Family? Why is Jericho not on guard duty? Why did Jericho ask me to bring along a chair and rope? Is the Organization involved? Why—”

As soon as Talib laid eyes on Francis Foxman’s tattooed face, however, he fell silent.

Cadence propped up the chair Talib had brought, and Francis collapsed onto it with a polite word of gratitude. Jericho assisted her in binding the man to the seat with the rope.

“Sorry, Francis,” Cadence murmured, “we can’t be too careful.”

Francis offered a thin smile.

“I will explain when the others come,” Jericho said to Talib as he fastened the last knot. “No repetition.”

“Okay, partner…” Talib eyed the suppression cuffs around Francis’s wrists.

Now, they waited.

No one within the warehouse had a watch to count the time that ticked by, but that was not an issue. Werner would check his pocket watch every so often as he wove through the city streets and would increase synchronization just enough to provide an update. Every time Werner did this, Jericho would consult Talib about the location of Colonel Fritz von Spiel and would relay that information to Werner.

Cadence spent the time pacing the full length of the warehouse, while Talib busied himself folding origami with glazed eyes. Jericho remained standing in place, gripping his suitcase tightly and staring at Francis. Correction: staring at the tattoo on the right side of Francis’s face.

“Mind if I ask you what your story is, Mr. Jericho?” Francis asked suddenly.

“I want to destroy ELPIS,” Jericho answered without pause.

Francis blinked. “Well, that’s pretty straightforward.”

“Long story,” Cadence replied before meeting Jericho’s eyes. That ain’t the best conversation starter, detective.

I haven’t been practicing.

‘Practicing’…? Well, how about I practice with ya and show ya how ta do it so ya don’t have ta go practicin’ all the time?

You will… be my teacher?

“Are you two an item, Cadence?” Francis looked between them. “Didn’t think you’d be the type to go for someone like that.”

Saints. It’s so easy ta slip into that.

Cadence approached Jericho and threw an arm around his shoulder. “I mean, they do say that opposites attract, ‘ey?”

Jericho cocked his head.

“Partner, I know you said you’d explain everything later,” Talib drew as he finished folding a paper frog, “but this is quite… perplexing.”

Francis chuckled. “So we’re both being strung along then, Mr. Al-Jarrah?”

Talib frowned at Francis’s address.

Francis averted his gaze. “I understand your reservations—seeing that I’m not only the head of a crime organization but also a leader of a terrorist organization now. Two things you’re sworn as a peacekeeper to be against.”

Talib ran his fingers along the brim of his hat. “Well, you put it eloquently into words…”

Jericho felt something twist in Cadence’s gut. When he looked over to her, however, she was wearing a casual smile.

The Romanos arrived at the warehouse shortly after. First came Cavallo, alone as requested. And then came Cavallo’s special guest, bound with rope and guarded by two tall, suited men. As soon as the tied-up Caporegime Donato registered Cadence and Francis, he paled. His jailers and Cavallo also stiffened at the sight of Francis. No. At the sight of the tattoo on Francis’s face.

Only a second after came Ambrose Campana, accompanied by two guards. Not as requested. Another request Ambrose did not fulfill: bringing along Enzo. When Ambrose’s gaze passed over Francis’s face, he took a slight step backwards.

“What in saint’s name…”

“I’m aware that you’re young, Ambrose,” Cavallo drew, “but I was hoping you would still be attentive to Cadence’s request.”

Ambrose turned to Cavallo and then smiled as if amused. “Ah, yes, Cavallo, I’m very aware of our age difference as well.”

There was a tense stretch of silence as the two members of the crime organizations regarded each other, but Cadence swiftly stepped in between them, smiling.

“Hey now,” she sang, “we all reached an agreement before comin’ here right.” She gestured to Ambrose. “But like Cavallo said, I can see not everyone kept ta the deal.”

“I was merely being cautious, Cadence,” Ambrose replied. “I expected Cavallo to do the same, but I see now that he’s more honorable than what I originally took him for.” He placed a hand over his heart. “I apologize for my lack of tact.”

“And Enzo?” Cadence pressed.

Ambrose frowned. “His apartment was empty when we stopped by. I think that’s pretty self-explanatory—”

“Okay… what’s going on here?” came a voice from the doorway.

Gabrielle stood at the threshold there, panting. Her Ophiuchian band glowed on her arm.

“Talib? Jericho…?” She sighed and rubbed her hand down her face. “How much have I missed—” Her eyes widened as she registered Francis’s face. “Okay, brief me.”

***

With all parties present, Jericho proceeded with a prompt, general synopsis of what he and the other five had discovered about ELPIS’s origins, ELPIS’s goal of sinking the city and of targeting the reservoirs through Theta’s ability and proto-conductors, and how ELPIS was manipulating the Families from behind the scenes. Cadence interjected to describe Donato and Enzo’s role in the events and filled in the holes regarding how she and Jericho had stumbled across this information. She omitted any mention of True Conductors and refrained from mentioning their possession of two of Theta’s proto-conductors.

“Anyway, we met at a bar,” Cadence finished, thumbing herself and then Jericho. “Got drunk. Talked a little. Found out we got a lotta shared problems.”

Probably didn’t even need to pull wool over their eyes on that part, Cadence thought to him after they concluded their explanation. I mean, look at ‘em.

All of them—from the peacekeepers to the Family executives to the Family’s bodyguards—were quiet, stiff, pale as they digested the information.

“Do you have any idea when or where—other than the reservoirs—they’re going to set off the explosive conductors?” Gabrielle asked quietly.

Jericho shook his head once. “We are going to ask Omicron when she arrives.” He glanced at Francis. “Or Theta.”

He felt Cadence tense.

Gabrielle eyed Francis. “I’d like to say that I’d doubt they’d set it off when they’re still in the vicinity or that they don’t even have the firepower to, but…” Her eyes narrowed. “… with the way they operate, and Theta’s ability too…” She bit her thumb. “I hate to say it, but we really are going to have to rely on this Omicron to pull through.”

“Wait, so Izsak…” Talib drew dazedly. He turned to meet Gabrielle’s gaze. “Is he like Mr. Foxman here or…?”

Jericho opened his mouth to respond, but—

Not a good idea ta get emotions all riled up now. Things are tense as it is.

— “I’m unsure,” he said.

“They’re practically immortal… Right?” one of Ambrose’s guards muttered. “Is that even possible?”

“That’s not important.” Cavallo held up his hand before turning to Cadence. “Are you sure your plan will follow through, Cadence?” He folded his hands over his stomach. “Inviting us here when this city could be sunk into the Pollux Bay at any moment is quite callous.”

Cadence nodded half-heartedly in agreement.

Cavallo continued, calmly, “And if you do manage to complete this plan of yours, Cadence, what are you expecting to happen to Francis here? If what you’re saying is true, then he’s not only stolen from us but he’s also murdered several of our executives and is now planning to attack our territories.”

Francis didn’t acknowledge the mention of his name and continued to stare ahead at nothing with a strained expression.

“He attacked my father,” Ambrose interjected. “And he kidnapped and tortured Fortuna. Obviously, he needs to be held accountable.” Ambrose gestured to the ceiling. “The damages to the city. The current danger to our territories.” He shook his head and addressed Cavallo: “We shouldn’t even be waiting here. It may sound crude, but the best thing for us right now is to get Francis to talk no matter what means we’ll have to use—”

“That was Theta, not Francis,” Cadence argued. “And Theta happened because of Enzo and Donato. I get where you’re comin’ from, but before ya start pointin’ fingers, shouldn’t ya take a look at the ones who started all of this ta begin with? Plus, ya really think ya can make that guy talk? You’re charmin’, Ambrose, but even I can’t—”

Gabrielle finally stepped between them all with a yawn. “Look, you don’t decide what’s going to happen to him. Ophiuchus does.” Her gaze drifted over to Ambrose, and she smirked lightly. She nodded at Jericho and Talib. “And, you two, is there a reason why you didn’t turn Francis into Leona? You mentioned that she’s here.”

Jericho exchanged a look with Cadence and then with Talib.

Grunting noncommittal at the lack of response, Gabrielle leaned in towards Francis and inspected the tattoo on his face. “Anyway, Mr. Foxman, mind if I get a conversation in with your worse half?”

“That was parta the plan…” Cadence murmured, rubbing the back of her neck. She glanced at Francis with a frown. “But are ya up for it, Francis?”

“Whatever helps,” Francis replied after a beat.

Gabrielle nodded to Jericho, prompting him to move forward and undo the suppression cuffs over Francis’s wrists. The man grunted in turn and slumped immediately. A stretch of silence followed.

Cavallo and Ambrose puffed their v-cigarettes as they waited. Donato squirmed in his bindings. Talib and Gabrielle exchanged looks. Cadence bounced on the balls of her feet. Jericho drilled holes into the back of Francis’s skull.

Finally, the man at the center of their attention lifted his head, scanned his surroundings, scanned the gathered group, and tried his bindings.

Jericho stiffened. Ambrose and Cavallo stopped puffing. Donato froze. Talib and Gabrielle exchanged looks again.

“I see…” A sigh, amused. “It’s only natural that people of the same constitution would come together.”

“You’d be Theta, right?” Gabrielle pressed, walking forward and inspecting the man. “You’ve caused a lot of trouble, you know that?” She sighed. “I’m out of office for a little over a month and I come here to learn that you’ve gone and kidnapped one of my associates. And now what—”

“You’re referring to the blonde peacekeeper who wears glasses, I’m assuming,” Theta replied. “She is quite stubborn.”

“Do you mind telling me where you’re keeping her?” Gabrielle asked casually.

“You know my answer to that.”

“What about the others you’re holding captive?” Cavallo interjected. “Would it be too much to ask what their condition is, Mr. Theta?”

Theta turned his eyes onto Cavallo, and something akin to mirth enveloped his features. He answered in a quiet voice, “Before Cadence Morello captured me, the ones who we had not made an example of yet were Allen Foxman, Carl Foxman, Fortuna Romano, Agape Rosario, Bendetto, and a man whose name I believe is Maximallian. But rest assured. Even though I am not there, their time will come.” He turned back to Gabrielle. “You needn’t worry about your fellow peacekeeper. She is not a component of this. Her behavior aside, she is a very nice conversationalist—”

A pressure lifted itself off of Jericho’s chest.

“Are you the one who attacked my father?” Ambrose interjected, pressing forward. “The one who took Fortuna?”

The hell. We literally just told him that.

Theta stared at him. “Who are you?”

Ambrose blanched.

Something tickled the inside of Jericho’s chest. When Jericho turned to Cadence, he found that although she was frowning, there was a light in her eyes. She was amused, though Jericho didn’t know why.

“I’m Ambrose Campana,” Ambrose finally replied.

“Oh, I see.” Theta looked him up and down. “You’re his son. How dutiful… It wasn’t me who attacked your father, but an associate of mine,” Theta returned. “However, I will take responsibility for—”

Jericho felt a tug from Werner’s end, so he went over to Talib and asked the Manipulator to switch over his medium from Von Spiel to Omicron. Jericho kept his eyes glued onto the unfolding conversation all the while.

“—and Wtorek Izsak,” Gabrielle pressed. “This whole initiation thing—is he like you or is he…?”

“Would my answer change anything?” Theta inquired. After studying Gabrielle for a moment, however, he amended, “I’m unsure if he was properly initiated. I wasn’t the one who did it, and I didn’t ask.”

Gabrielle’s expression didn’t crack, and she pulled back in silent thought.

Theta regarded her for a moment before he registered the silent Donato standing just behind her. He chuckled. “I see you’ve brought the one who started this all here. It’s ironic. You people have caused your own downfall.”

Donato stiffened.

“The polite thing to do would be to thank you, Donato,” Theta continued, “but you’ve taken something from us.” The lightness in his tone fell flat. “Where are our resistors?”

Jericho detached himself from Talib’s side and stepped before Theta, blocking the man’s view of Donato.

“We’re asking the questions,” Jericho stated. “You don’t deserve to ask.”

“That’s quite a fire you’ve got in your eyes…” Theta murmured. His gaze flicked down to the suitcase in Jericho’s hand. “Oh. I see. You must be the suitcase peacekeeper that’s been causing us a lot of trouble—”

“How do you use your proto-conductor?” Jericho pressed. No. That wasn’t the question he wanted to ask.

Theta remained silent.

Jericho could feel Gabrielle’s gaze prick his skin, and so he pulled away to allow Gabrielle to push forward again.

The woman studied him for a moment before addressing Theta once more: “Mind telling me when you’re planning to detonate the conducting grenades at the vitae reservoirs? And around the city? Where around the city?”

“You don’t have trust in your fellow peacekeepers to watch over the energy source you’re so dependent on?” Theta returned.

“Not really,” Gabrielle admitted. “Especially when you’ve got your handy Specialist conducting paired with those proto-conductors filled with your vitae—”

“What is the point?” Jericho interjected again, causing Gabrielle to glance at him with an unreadable frown. This was once again not the question Jericho wanted to put forward.

“Why are you asking me that question when the color of your vitae is the same as mine?” Theta murmured. “If you chose to bleach your vitae, then you should know and understand our feelings. Towards conductors and towards those who use them. It’s unnatural. It upsets the cycle. Those things are only used to take lives and sow the seeds of destruction. If you look all the way to the end, by eradicating those things and the people who use them and fight over them, you will save many more lives.”

“Interesting soliloquy…” Gabrielle noted, clearly unaffected by his words.

But Jericho was. He pressed, “You don’t think you’re evil?”—but this was not the question he had wanted to ask either.

“Evil?” Theta chuckled. Musically, familiarly. “I’m sorry for laughing, but isn’t that kind of a childish concept, Mr. Jericho? You’re the one who offed Omega, aren’t you? When you were about to kill her, how did she look at you? Did she look like she was about to be put down by some noble knight? Did she grovel on the floor and beg for forgiveness? No, I’m sure she was very aware of where she stood and where you stood.”

The memory of Omega’s eyes on that night flashed through Jericho’s mind. They had been wide and full of hatred.

“Look at the people surrounding you, peacekeeper. People who you peacekeepers are supposed to put behind bars. People who sell modified conductors outside of your regulations, who turn profit from the wars they fuel.”

Gabrielle and Talib frowned, exchanging looks before studying Ambrose and Cavallo. Ambrose froze under their gazes while Cavallo took a drag of his v-cig.

Theta shifted in his chair, examining Jericho pensively—almost in disappointment. “They are right under your view, but you avert your eyes to their crimes. What is worse? Acting or staying in place?” He met Jericho’s eyes. “Now that I look at you, suitcase peacekeeper, I see you’re quite pitiable. You made a choice, and you can’t accept responsibility for it. Instead, you seek to blame others, to find a purpose and reason. I look at you, and I can already tell. Although you’ve left ELPIS, you’re still after us—still with us—because you’re unable to find anything beyond us. Nothing afterwards. Because you know we’re right.” He paused. “I’m sure you’ve already realized that even without dying, you’re already close to becoming nothingness.”

Jericho cracked his fist against Theta’s jaw, nearly sending the man to the ground. Before he could take another swing, however, he was pulled back by both Talib and Cadence. Theta hadn’t even flinched.

“You need to keep a chain on your Ophiuchian friend, Cadence,” Cavallo said. “We can’t afford losing our bargaining chip.”

Another chuckle escaped Theta’s lips. This time it sounded flat. “Oh, I see. You all seem to be under the impression that my life has value and weight. Perhaps you think you can get one of my associates to trade those executives or the locations of the detonation points in this city for me.” Theta cast a somber look to the side. “You are quite mistaken. I know as much as the others do that our individual existences are nothing compared to our purpose. If you’ve contacted any of them, all you have done is signal that we need to move forward. Even the person who values me the most knows this. They won’t come for me.”

Jericho curled his fists, but Gabrielle extended an arm to hold him back.

“You can kill me here if you’d like,” Theta continued calmly. “Perhaps I will return to my resistor, or perhaps I won’t. It doesn’t matter. Someone else will take my place. I’ve given them enough of my proto-conductors to operate without me. All you are doing is failing to even prolong the inevitable.”

The guards Cavallo and Ambrose brought along tensed as Theta seemed to loom over the crime executives despite remaining unmoving.

Theta continued, “You will take responsibility for—”

“Shut up about the damn cycle and takin’ responsibility!” Cadence snapped as she untangled herself from Jericho. She gestured back to him wildly. “How can ya even talk like that when ya forced him into this!”

“The peacekeeper made his choice,” Theta responded. “You’re responsible for your own actions.”

“Look, I completely get all your talk about responsibility,” Cadence drew. “But how can a dumb kid take responsibility for bein’ coerced into somethin’ he didn’t even understand?”

Jericho stared at Cadence in surprise.

Was she… defending him?

Theta frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Cadence stared back. “What—”

And then Jericho felt something clicked in Cadence’s head.

… He doesn’t know. 

Cadence stared at Jericho.

Omicron was tryin’ ta hide the Specialist kids from Theta. And if she was doin’ that, she’s probably hidin’ the fact that some of the kids Theta’s taken in got the whole recruitment spiel. Maybe she’s thrown away the records or whatever they bookkeep with. Because Theta probably wouldn’t be too happy if he found out about that and Omicron—

Jericho stared at Cadence, ears ringing.

I ain’t defendin’ Theta by no means. I mean, he’s blowin’ up half the city. And I’m not sure if it even means anything. But maybe, we could use that against him.

Jericho’s head buzzed.

“You’re wrong about that, ya know,” Cadence addressed Theta again, thumbing her chest. “I don’t mean ta sound cheesy, but I know from experience. Love makes ya stupid. And right now, I bet ya my life that Omicron is about ta walk right through those—”

As if on cue, the doors to the warehouse swung open. Cavallo’s and Ambrose’s guards went for the guns on their hips, while Gabrielle flexed her gloves. Jericho himself tightened his grip on his suitcase, while Cadence skirted back behind him.

Theta stared wide-eyed at the woman standing at the threshold. “Why?”

Omicron held her bare, ungloved hands in the air as she stepped into the warehouse. “A deal is a deal.”

Behind her were a group of men and women. Four men. Two women. Status: tentative, confused, hesitant as they entered behind her.

Ambrose raised his hand. His bodyguards hesitated, exchanging looks.

“She doesn’t have a conductor,” Ambrose said through gritted teeth. “Hurry up.”

His guards startled before slowly making their way to Omicron. Upon reaching her, they patted her down cautiously before pulling her arms tightly behind her back.

“Alice!” Talib detached himself from the gathered circle and ran over to the side of one of the women who had come in behind Omicron.

The woman’s red square glasses were undeniably recognizable, as were her piercing blue eyes. As soon as those eyes locked onto Jericho’s, he momentarily forgot about Theta sitting beside him and Omicron standing in front of him. A lightness filtered into his mind as the woman approached him. She came to a stop a quarter of a meter away while inspecting him.

“You are safe,” Jericho said. He searched his mind for the correct words. “I am… glad.”

“You look like you need more sleep, Jericho,” Alice returned. “Have you been writing in your journal?”

“No.”

Alice clicked her tongue and shook her head. “You need to keep up with these things even when I’m gone.”

“Okay, I will.”

They held each other’s gaze for another moment before Alice headed back towards Gabrielle. Talib who had followed behind Alice remained planted at Jericho’s side.

That’s it…?

Jericho wasn’t sure whose thought that was. Was that not the customary greeting for a reunion? He looked to Alice for confirmation, but it seemed she was preoccupied.

Once at Gabrielle’s side, Alice extended a hand. Gabrielle accepted the gesture with a slight smirk before they conversed with one another quietly. Gabrielle’s face paled as their conversation continued, and she shook her head before looking to and through Theta and then to and through Omicron.

Jericho glanced over at Cadence to find her surrounded by Allen Foxman, Carl Foxman, Fortuna, and Maximallian. Fortuna and Allen soon detached themselves from that circle, however, and moved over to speak with Ambrose, Agape, Bendetto, and Cavallo who were speaking within their own circle. Fortuna, Allen, and Carl kept throwing glances back at Theta. But Cadence didn’t pay the behavior any mind. Although her shoulders were loose and her arms widespread, Jericho could feel the relief, the joy, leaking through their connection. There was a slight swelling in Jericho’s chest at this feeling, prompting him to consider the fact that he was ‘happy’ for her, but—

Jericho’s gaze flicked over to Omicron. Their eyes met. Jericho tightened his grip on the handle of his suitcase.

“I would like to speak to Theta,” Omicron said, turning away from Jericho and towards Ambrose.

“You’re in no position to be making demands!” Ambrose snapped, voice thin.

“Okay, cool it.” Gabrielle sighed, pacing over to them. “What’s going on here?” She seemed dazed. “What’s with the shouting?” She also seemed angry, irritated, unhappy. Sad.

“I just want to talk with Theta,” Omicron reiterated, shrugging herself out of the guards’ hold with ease.

Gabrielle ogled her. “You want to talk now?”

Gabrielle placed a hand on Omicron’s chest. For a moment, magenta sparks danced beneath the peacekeeper’s gloved fingertips. Gabrielle crumpled Omicron’s blouse in her hand—

“Please,” Omicron pressed. “I’ll tell you everything you want to know after. And…” She paused as if reading Gabrielle’s mind. “It wasn’t me. When I came across him, Wtorek was already—”

—and then Gabrielle released her.

“I don’t believe you,” Gabrielle muttered. “He’s not…” She trailed off, pulling away and motioning Omicron forward. “You have two minutes, and then you’re telling me exactly what happened on that day.”

Alice musta told Gabe what happened ta Izsak…

Jericho thought of the deformed stuffed animal still resting on the desk at his bedside in his condo. An uncomfortable tightness squeezed his chest.

Surprised that Gabe didn’t knock Omicron in. Guess the prince doesn’t give her enough credit. Or maybe she’s in denial—

That was why ELPIS was truly evil. They allowed false hopes like this to exist. An illusion.

Omicron sank down to her knees in front of Theta and placed her hands in his lap.

“What are you thinking?” Theta asked, tone flat.

In response, Omicron lifted the chain around her neck—the same one that hosted the resistor Jericho had shattered weeks ago—and revealed its bareness to Theta.

Theta’s eyes widened. “When…?”

“When I tried getting into Ophiuchus,” Omicron replied. She glanced at Jericho briefly. “I’ve been meaning to tell you—no, that’s a lie. I didn’t want you to know. Like how I didn’t want you to know the other things that happen in this place.” She chuckled half-heartedly. “It looks I’m doomed to make poor and stupid decisions as Charite.”

“We can put your vitae into my resistor…” Theta muttered. “It will take some time and research, but—”

Hypocrite.

“It won’t be the same,” Omicron murmured. “I’ve been thinking about things that way for a while now, but my resistor breaking forced me to really face it.” She rested her head on top of Theta’s lap. “This is the only time this me and this you will meet each other.”

“You’re not making any sense. You’re putting our work at ri—”

“Aren’t you tired, darling? It’s like we’re all going through the same motions over and over again. Reservoir after reservoir, generator conductor after generator conductor, True Conductor after True Conductor. They fall and rise and fall and rise, over and over again. Reading the records has become such a chore now because I’m just reading the same thing in a different setting.”

“You’re only saying that because you weren’t initiated properly,” Theta stated, frowning. “Don’t be foolish. That is still progress. You’re beginning to sound like the—”

“Could you call me by my name one last time?”

“Omicron—”

“No, not those ridiculous code names we chose from the alphabet.” Omicron shook her head. “My real name.”

“Omicron, don’t do this.”

Omicron sighed and rose to her feet, turning towards Gabrielle and Alice. “We’ve been planning to deploy the conductor grenades and explosive conductors we’ve stolen from the Romano Family at certain areas in the city. Half of them have been placed already, and we’re currently in the process of placing the rest. They’re rigged to blow in two hours.”

Two hours.

Jericho tensed and saw Talib and Gabrielle do the same. The former captives of ELPIS didn’t appear startled in the least bit. Intuition: they were informed of this truncated timeline during their capture.

Saints. Two hours? Cadence was pale. Jericho could feel her scrambling for the others through their connection. I thought we’d have longer than that. I—

“You’re planning on leveling the entire city in two hours?” Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. “Are you insane? Do you know how many people live here?”

“Our plan was to evacuate the children and those we deemed innocent,” Omicron replied, “before that happened.”

Gabrielle stared. “In that time frame? Just what gives you the right to say who’s innocent and guilty?”

“I admit it was a recent… rash idea,” Omicron replied, “but I’ll tell you the locations we’ve chosen as long as Theta is given some form of immunity or at least some protection.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. “That isn’t my call.”

Omicron sighed. “I figured as much.”

There was a stretch of silence.

Omicron gestured to Gabrielle’s side. “May I borrow those suppression cuffs?”

Gabrielle regarded Omicron for a moment before unlatching a pair from her belt and tossing it to the other woman.

“Don’t do this,” Theta stated.

Omicron reached over Theta, pulled both of his hands forward from beneath the rope, and pressed the suppression cuffs over his wrists. The man slumped immediately. She waited there patiently until Francis lifted and shook his head. He blinked in bewilderment, tensing when he registered her face.

“I’m sorry, Francis,” Omicron said, placing a hand on his cheek. “I was selfishly thinking this entire time that we might get to know one another. It’s pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? I’m sorry this happened.”

Francis stared at her stiffly.

It enraged Jericho. He couldn’t comprehend how they could show kindness to each other like this, but not to others outside of them. He wanted to shatter them both right then and there. But he knew he couldn’t because Omicron was needed to save the city and because Theta was Francis. And because Theta was…

It ain’t that black and white, detective. 

Wasn’t it?—

The door to the warehouse abruptly swung open. Jericho felt Cadence’s heart take flight in her chest.

“If anyone activates any of their conductors,” a familiar voice called out from the threshold of the doorway, “I will order them to open fire.”

Cadence, who was halfway to snapping her fingers, lowered her hand as she stared at the silhouette standing at the entrance. That ain’t part of the plan. How in saint’s name did she find us here?

Omicron took a step backwards, eyes widening. “Leona…”

Yes. It was Leona who stood there at the entry, her golden hair seeming to glow in the darkness. Behind her clustered a group of men and women in monochrome suits. The chairwoman stared past them all and locked eyes with Omicron, then Francis.

Omicron followed Leona’s gaze to the man before stiffening and making an attempt towards him. However, Leona’s peacekeepers were on Omicron in an instant. They tackled her to the ground, pulled her to her feet, dragged her out of the warehouse as she cried Theta’s name.

“Please take the civilians in for questioning as well,” Leona added

The peacekeepers obliged, surrounding Cadence and the other executives and herding them outside. Cadence threw a look back at Jericho before dipping her head and allowing herself to be guided out. Although she was gone from his sights, he could still feel her peering in.

Leona signaled for Jericho, Talib, Alice, and Gabrielle to come to her. Gabrielle obliged first, followed by Talib and Alice. Jericho was the last to join. He approached the gathered group just as Leona introduced herself to Gabrielle with an extended hand:

“First chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigation Department.”

Gabrielle accepted the gesture. “Third chair of the Assignment Department.”

Leona turned her eyes onto Alice and shook her hand. “And you would be the third chair of the Psychological Evaluations Department. The one who was captured by ELPIS. I’m glad to see that you’re well.”

“Thank you. I appreciate your words,” Alice replied.

“You’ve certainly got your hands full,” Gabrielle said after a beat. “The city’s timeline is a bit tight so maybe we should—”

“We will handle the issue,” Leona said, “since it falls under the ELPIS Department. Please don’t overconcern yourself. We’ll handle it.”

The atmosphere felt odd.

Ya mean ‘awkward’?

“I’m very curious how this all came about,” Leona continued. “Captives of ELPIS, two peacekeepers off-mission, and a chairwoman gathered together with crime organization executives and leaders of ELPIS. I’m aware that you four are very close associates, but this seems too planned to be a coincidence.”

“I’m actually pretty curious about how you found your way here too, Leona,” Gabrielle replied. “I’ll detail it in my report, but I was pointed here by some of the city residents. ‘Course, like I said… it seems like there’s a bigger issue here.”

Jericho stared at Gabrielle. Was she covering for him?

Please stop starin’. It looks suspicious.

Jericho looked forward.

“You’re speaking of the explosive conductors set around the city. As I’ve said, the ELPIS Department will handle it. While you were here, we’ve been working with an information broker within the city to handle this issue and working towards locating and dismantling them as we speak. The addition of Theta and Omicron will, of course, be helpful.”

Aint she bein’ too casual?

But Gabrielle and the others kept quiet.

“And to answer your question, I was also given a handoff by the broker,” Leona replied. “Can you imagine my surprise when I found you all here? Gabrielle, you were on a covert operation?”

“That I’m just about to wrap up,” Gabrielle confirmed.

“Well, I congratulate you on that,” Leona continued, “but given this current predicament, I need you to tell me exactly how much not only you but how much everyone else has learned here regarding ELPIS.”

“Are you asking me if I know about the individual details of the ELPIS members,” Gabrielle drew, “or about how they’re shoving themselves into pseudo-conductors and transferring themselves into people who’re practically living corpses?”

“I see. So you do know.”

“Sounds like the ELPIS Department is privy to it too.”

“I’m aware of ELPIS’s origins,” Leona replied. “The ELPIS Department has been aware of it for quite some time. ELPIS is an old cult of extremists who have discovered the ability to extract their vitae and forcibly inject that—and therefore themselves, their ideology, their memories—into unfortunate victims.”

“So the ELPIS Department accepts the idea of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis? I don’t mean to come across as rude, but wouldn’t that information be useful to other Ophiuchian Agents? Or Conductors in general? Especially our Research Department.” Gabrielle paused. “Unless the chairs of the department already know…”

“And what good would unveiling this information do if the hypothesis is real, Chairwoman Law?” Leona inquired, arms crossed. “All it will do is drive more people to ELPIS. Tell me, the very idea of being able to separate oneself—one’s vitae—from one’s body for pseudo-immortality is alluring, isn’t it? People will be drawn into ELPIS just for the chance at that if they believed it was possible.”

Gabrielle shrugged. “Rather than that, I was thinking more along the lines of the ethical implications of what that means.” She arched a brow. “You don’t sound like you have that much faith in humanity.”

Leona looked her over. “If you’re concerned about ethics, then consider the fact that human beings are quite unethical when they’re desperate. That’s why we exist in Signum. Souls, vitae, memory. Artificial immortality. There will be a cold war between all the countries here if they thought the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis were true, and our job is to keep the peace.”

So it was an illusion of peace.

Jericho’s heart skipped a beat.

What. No. ELPIS was the illusion.

“I have to say I’m impressed by the amount you know, Leona,” Gabrielle said after a beat. “Will I get that same information on my desk in a classified folder when I become first chairwoman of the Assignment Department, or is that something that the Chairman of Ophiuchus only provides to certain departments?”

Leona didn’t respond.

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. “Just checking job perks.”

Leona smirked and then addressed Jericho and Talib, “I did mention, Talib, Jericho, that if you were to divulge any of the information regarding the case files I’ve handed to you to any outsider, I would have a case put forward to have your licenses revoked—”

Talib stiffened beside Jericho.

“With all due respect, Chairwoman Leona,” Gabrielle interjected, “everything I learned just now, I learned from—”

“However,” Leona continued, holding up a hand, “since you were able to bring Theta and Omicron into our custody—a feat none of those under me were able to achieve—I will allow the digression to pass.”

“I—your understanding is greatly appreciated, Miss Leona,” Talib stammered. “I—”

“I would like to speak with Jericho alone,” Leona interjected.

Jericho blinked at her.

There was a stretch of silence.

Talib and Alice shared a look with each other before glancing at Jericho. Gabrielle, on the other hand, gave Jericho a nod before heading outside. After a moment, Talib and Alice followed suit.

Leona waited for them to pass the threshold of the doorway before she asked, “So?”

Jericho stared at her. “… So.”

She chuckled. Not with him. At him. “So have you found your peace here yet?”

Ya need ta get outta there, detective.

“ELPIS still exists.”

Leona chuckled again. “That may be so.” She extended her hand.

Jericho glanced at it and shook it. When he retracted his hand, however, she still held hers out, palms up.

“You have Theta’s conductor, don’t you?” Leona pressed. “That’s important evidence for the ELPIS Department.”

Jericho hesitated.

“Well?”

He dug into his pocket, pulled out Theta’s glove conductor, and dropped it into Leona’s waiting palm.

Leona smiled thinly, curling her fingers around the glove. “You have promise, Jericho. Once this is resolved, I will take a look at your application to my department myself.”

Her praise didn’t make him feel ‘good’. In fact, it accentuated the hollowness that had been carving itself in his chest ever since he had shattered Omega that night. He hadn’t been expecting to feel anything when he had completed the deed. But this emptiness was uncomfortable.

Leona said a word of parting to him before she exited the warehouse and left him in the quiet. In the new silence, the warehouse seemed vast, empty, like a void. And it left Jericho with his thoughts.

Theta hadn’t known.

But that changed nothing.

But that also meant that all the ELPIS leaders might not know either. Was there a point in shattering them all if they weren’t aware of their crimes?

Irrelevant. Of course there was.

But Theta. The question Jericho had truly wanted to ask Theta—

Suddenly, a terrible screech resounded from outside the warehouse, and a cold wind whipped the wooden doors ajar. His attention was drawn away from this by a pale tangerine light emitting from his suitcase. When he clicked it open, he found Theta’s proto-conductor that had been stored within glowing. He picked it up in confusion.

Hot!

Jericho dropped the thing at the thought. It shattered on the ground upon impact, spewing its contents all across the ground. A portal, gaping wide.

Cadence’s terror came shortly afterwards.

Jericho turned away from the portal and dashed outside to find the sky afire with the reflection of pale tangerine light. The ground was littered with large planks of wood and singed with the aftermath of vitae-ray fire. Behind the crates scattered between the debris hid the peacekeepers. Jericho could feel Cadence’s fear and worry as she hid among their monochrome uniforms. And as if drawn by her feelings, Jericho found his gaze being pulled away from the scene and up to the roof of the warehouse just beside the one he had come out of.

At the top of Warehouse 12, Francis stood free of suppression cuffs. On his left hand was Theta’s glove conductor. On his face was an expression of distraught. No, of righteous fury.

Jericho started forward at the sight, only to suddenly sink downwards. He barely managed to register the portal that glowed beneath his feet before he was in free fall.

10.5: Jericho’s Cycling (Vendetta)

Re-cap:

Jericho has arrived in the Twin Cities along with Jericho and Leona under the latter’s request. Jericho and Talib are to assist Leona in her investigations of ELPIS within the city. Leona believes that Omicron who was present during an ELPIS attack on the Black Constellation Detention Center may be present in the city. Talib is set to scour the city with manipulated mediums, while Jericho is temporarily put on guard over Romano Family executives. Jericho clashes with Iota while protecting Caporegime Donato and encounters Cadence and Werner’s subordinates. Jericho manages to save Donato with assistance from Cadence, Werner, and Werner’s men.

And now Jericho has learnt of ELPIS’s true origins from Cadence’s end.

Jericho has decided to…

“I see you are still grieving,” Theta—rather, that version of Theta—had said, cupping Jericho’s cheek on that moonlit night all those years ago. The silver moonlight had made the tattoo on the right side of her face glow. “But there is no reason to be sad.”

“No reason to be sad?”

“They have died, yes, but in reality, all that has happened is that they have returned to the cycle of vitae. They have become a part of everything around you. They still exist all around you. That is how the cycle of vitae turns.”

“Vitae…?”

“Yes, so you shouldn’t grieve. You will only make them sad if you grieve. In the end, everything will return to the beginning. Isn’t that reassuring?”

Yes, it had been reassuring. Having lost his entire family, his neighbors, his friends, his town in one night, Jericho had found Theta’s words a comfort. Although she had been among the group orchestrating that massacre, he clung to her like a lifeline. As did the other children who were picked up along the way.

“Conductors are inherently evil,” she had told him. “Their main purpose is to kill people, to bring an end to everything. They are unnatural. Our purpose, on the other hand, is… well, you don’t need to worry about that.”

But when Theta had ‘died’, despite clinging onto every word she had said, Jericho had grieved. Just as he’d grieved when his mother was slaughtered in front of him by the same people who had taken him in.

One of the ELPIS members—perhaps an underling, perhaps not—took note of Jericho’s grief and the grief of the children who had become his friends under Theta’s care.

“Theta wouldn’t want you to grieve,” the ELPIS member had said to them. “Theta would want you to fight. Do you know what we’re fighting for?” A pause. “Would you like to know?”

For hope.

Jericho had embraced the ideology fully then. Just as the other children had.

Bleaching his vitae was excruciatingly painful, but Jericho rarely ever felt pain afterwards. He used to think that all the pain he was to endure in life was concentrated in that moment, leaving everything else going afterwards numb. Equivalent exchange.

Every generator conductor they destroyed together signaled a step closer to a hopeful future without reliance on conductors. Every Conductor killed represented one less murderer. But at the same time, death didn’t matter. All those who died were simply returning to the cycle. Over and over.

Jericho had carried this ideology even after he was taken in by Ophiuchus, by Alice. His perspective had only changed when he had put a bird with a broken wing out of its suffering and was discovered by Alice enacting the mercy kill.

“You killed it to put it out of its suffering, and it doesn’t matter if it’s died because it’ll return to the cycle? Do you really believe that?” Alice had clicked her tongue and shook her head. “I can’t believe the doctors haven’t handled this topic yet.” She looked him right in the eye then and said clearly: “That’s ridiculous. Even if that were true, even if someone’s vitae were to return to the ‘cycle’, it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be ‘them’ anymore. Not really. The situation, the parts, the components will never be the same. That’s why they say life is precious. Do you understand?”

It was difficult to break out of that thinking. If he did not think of it as a cycle, how could he rectify what he had done for so many years of his life? So instead, he stopped thinking of that aspect altogether. Alice had not been happy with his choice, but it had been the best he could do.

***

Twin Cities, Gemini

Recalling those memories that remained burned into his mind, Jericho stood on an empty street in front of a boarded-up liquor store. The building was large and took up an entire block by itself. He had to leap a wired fence to get to this place. And upon his landing on this side of the fence, he was greeted by a large sign at its front that read—UNDER INSPECTION AND DECONSTRUCTION. STAY OUT.

Jericho was grateful to Cadence because she was the reason for why he was standing here. He had received this information from her when she had been in Theta’s room listening in to all of their exchanges. Jericho surmised that she had been too affected by the revelation of ELPIS’s origins at the time to pay any attention to what was really being said. Jericho conjectured Francis’s brothers were also too affected to pay attention. Jericho couldn’t fathom why. Even if everything that was said was true, the fact was that—

ELPIS was still ELPIS.

And because Jericho knew this, he wasn’t distracted and was able to pick up the quick exchange between Omega and Theta regarding the warehouse location that Fortuna had given Theta.

“A conductor-manufacturing plant renovated from a renowned liquor store that went out of business fifteen years prior,” was what Theta had said. “Plant your mediums there and use my proto-conductor there.”

A quick check at the city hall and a dive into the records there paired with half an hour spent studying a map of the city had led Jericho here. To this warehouse. To this warehouse that Omega was most certainly within.

Jericho could feel her presence in the way his heart pounded, in the way his senses sharpened, in the way his ears rang. This was certainty.

Jericho. 

Jericho turned his head. A silhouette stood behind him.

Werner.

The Capricornian seemed tired.

Jericho wasn’t sure whether the man was exhausted because of his unconscious state or because he had taken on the brunt of Cadence’s pain. Jericho recalled his own bout of unconscious consciousness. It hadn’t been comfortable for him back then, so Jericho doubted that it was comfortable for Werner.

Werner’s image straightened and approached Jericho with a frown. “Engaging with an ELPIS leader without assistance is rash and high-risk.”

Jericho could already feel the lecture coming on, but he had come prepared: “Leona’s file. Omega is a Manipulator. She specializes in observational mediums. Intuition. She doesn’t have strong combat abilities. If alone, she will be easy to kill.”

Jericho had to do this. He had to. It was time. His fingers ached for it. His heart felt like it was going to explode if he didn’t achieve it.

Much to Jericho’s surprise, Werner nodded and said, “The weakest link. There is a high probability that she is the main information gatherer for ELPIS. Targeting her first is a reasonable strategy.”

Jericho blinked at him, confused.

“I know I can’t stop you, Jericho,” Werner responded evenly. “You’ve fallen out of following orders, as you’ve said. And I admit your sense of self—of revenge—is too strong for me to attempt an override without permission if the situation called for it.”

Jericho stared at him, still confused.

“As I’ve said, engaging with an ELPIS leader without assistance is dangerous—which is why I am offering my assistance.” A pause. “That and limiting their inflow of information will allow us to avoid detection as True Conductors for longer.”

“Are you sure?” Jericho cocked his head and pointed at him. “Is it customary to assist in battle when you have been through torture?” He paused, frowned a bit, and lowered his hand. “Suggestion… You and Cadence should rest.”

“Your concern is acknowledged, Jericho,” Werner said. “But I will not waste my time doing nothing while I’m in this… state.”

“… Thank you.”

Werner hesitated and then nodded. “What is your plan, Jericho?”

“I will kill her,” Jericho said simply. “This time. For certain. Intuition. Tonight. And then I will save Alice.”

“… We need to get as much information as we can from her first,” Werner returned. “And what will you tell Leona and the other Ophiuchian agents if they discover you?”

“Intuition…?”

In an unusual display of physical frustration, Werner pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ll think of something then.”

Jericho shifted in place, gripping his suitcase tightly. “I… would like to say a prayer.”

Werner lifted his head. “… a prayer?”

“Yes.” Jericho stared into the darkness. “I don’t remember a lot before ELPIS. I was young. But I do remember the prayer my mother taught me. A Scorpian nomadic prayer. So, I would like to say it. Since I am ready. In control. It feels… ‘right’.”

“… Like I said, Jericho,” Werner said quietly. “I am not here to stop you. I am here to assist.”

Jericho nodded, set his suitcase to the side, and sank to his knees. He then dipped forward, pressing his forehead to the ground, palms faced downwards. He took a deep breath—

“Although our land is barren, our spirit is strong.
Although we are spread far apart in these deserts, we are connected through our spirit.
Each grain of sand we walk on is from a distant land connecting our ancestors past to us.
When we pass,
our bones will become the earth,
our spirits will become the sun shining on the land.
That is how we will become eternal.”

Jericho rose to a stand, picked up his suitcase, and turned back to Werner. The man silently met his eyes and then nodded.

“We are dealing with a Manipulator who is skilled at creating observational mediums. We most likely won’t be able to take the element of surprise during our initial encounter. She will most likely attempt an escape when she encounters you. There is no solution to this. If she does engage, she will use Theta’s proto-conductors to her advantage. I suggest you take advantage of the portals as well.”

Listening closely to Werner’s summary, Jericho closed the distance between himself and the warehouse. On Werner’s suggestion, he slipped in through an open window. He landed deftly on a high stack of crates just below and swiftly maneuvered his way down to the ground floor. In the darkness, he could make out looming machines and factory belts that crisscrossed across the ground.

An updraft of wind made him pause.

“My, my, the knight has finally arrived. I knew you’d come.” An airy laugh filled the air. “You cut an even more gallant figure up close.”

As expected, she’s already placed observational mediums in the building. By her tone, she means to engage. She’s been expecting you.

“I’ve always, always, always wanted to meet you, Jericho. I’ve been watching you from afar for forever.” A sigh. “From the moment the previous Theta took you in until now, I’ve been watching you. You’ve grown so, so, so much since then. But in the end, even after all this growing up, you’re still a—”

There was another updraft of air. This time from the left.

“—traitor.”

Jericho froze.

The voice was the same. The whispers from the walls. The whisper inside of his head. The whisper behind his back right before he was pushed down the stairs of the Serpens Establishment several months ago.

“I was hoping that the trip down the stairs would be the end of you, but it looks like I accidentally kick-started your path to True Conductorhood. Whoopsies.”

She knows. You have to kill her here. 

Jericho slowly undid his suitcase and pulled his conductor out.

“Don’t worry. Only Gamma and I know what you are. If I told any of the others, they would come right for you, and I don’t want that. It’s hard keeping a secret, you know? But I made it work.”

Another airy laugh.

“I want you all to myself. Which probably sounds weird since you’ve never met-met me before. You don’t know me at all. But I know you. I’ve been watching you forever, like I said.”

A loud boom resounded, and Jericho felt something whistle by his ear. Heat.

A bullet. She has a gun.

Jericho scanned the darkness. Metal piping, swinging chains from the ceiling, cold rectangular machines.

But her vision and aim are poor. Don’t activate your conductor, or she’ll be able to locate you in this darkness.

Jericho hesitated and stared at his conductor.

Jericho, you may not be able to feel much pain, but your body can still take on irreparable damage. A pause. Given the others’ reactions prior to our first synchronization, despite your analgesia, for whatever reason, the others are still able to feel your injuries. Do not activate your conductor.

Jericho nodded, clutched his conductor tightly in hand, ducked low, and began to head in the direction of where the last updraft had originated.

“You’ve been looking for us desperately this entire time, waiting for an opportunity like this,” came Omega’s sing-song voice. “But you know, I’ve been seeking you out too for the same reason.”

A bang resounded in the darkness, and a bullet ricocheted on a protruding pipe just above his head.

She has an obsession with you. She’s not operating rationally. 

“I hate you, Jericho. I really hate you.” Omega’s voice came out slightly higher-pitched than before. And it was coming from above his head. “I watched you, Jericho. The others have forgotten, but I haven’t. I’ve been active the longest out of all of them, you know? Ever since the Reservoir War ended…”

Another gust of wind.

A metal click-click, click-clack, click-clack resounded along the ground, and something rolled up to Jericho’s foot. He could barely make out its shape in the darkness. It was cylindrical, with a hollow glass tube lined with metal at its center.

“What you did to all the other little ones that were with you on that day—the ones who you grew up with—how can I forget? It’s burned into my brain. You lifted your conductor towards them, and you shattered them into nothing.”

The hollow glass tube began to hum and glow with a faint white light.

A conducting grenade. Jericho—

Jericho swiftly kicked the grenade right back in the direction it had come from.

“And when the peacekeepers took you in after you killed them all, they called you a tragic hero! And they hid you away, telling you that you were ‘strong’ for turning away from us, that you did the right thing by killing all the little ones.”

A fiery explosion erupted several meters away from him above his head. The fire illuminated the entire warehouse, stretching crooked shadows across the floor in between combing smoke. In front of that flame and on top of a factory machine, a woman stood with one hand snaking through her white hair and the other loosely holding both a gun and one of Theta’s proto-conductors.

“How do you think the little ones felt when they stared into the eyes of a friend-turned-murderer and felt their bodies crumble away into nothing? All because you thought for just one moment that what you all were doing was wrong,” Omega said, her voice barely carrying above the crackle of the flame. “I watched you spend all of these years without shedding even a single tear for any of them. You think we’re the monsters, but you’re the monster to me, you know? They were children.”

Children who were prepared to execute an entire community in cold blood because they had installed a generator conductor in their village. Children who wouldn’t stand down, who wouldn’t hesitate, in following through with their duties. Children—friends—whom Jericho hadn’t been able to deter with words.

“Yes, they were children,” Jericho agreed. “We were children.”

Omega’s eyes narrowed. “They became nothingness after you killed them. You know that, right? Because of the bleaching of their vitae, your vitae, our vitae… ‘It’s inevitable’ as Theta says, but… You should’ve become nothingness instead.”

“I said a Scorpian prayer my mother taught me before I came here,” Jericho stated. “I will also say the prayer Theta taught me. For them. When I kill you. Will that be sufficient?”

Omega stared and laughed.

The sprinkler system went off, and a torrent of water came gushing down, soaking Jericho to the bone. The fire dimmed, and once again the factory became shrouded in darkness. Jericho continued forward, his footsteps sloshing around in the puddles that had formed on the ground. The sound was deafened by the pitter-patter and whining of the sprinklers.

A loud bang resounded again, but Jericho did not hear the ricochet of the bullet.

Jericho, your arm.

Abruptly, Jericho found his left hand resting on his upper right arm. The fabric just above his Ophiuchian sash had torn. It was damp. The bullet had grazed him.

Omega knows where you are. Even if she’s filled this factory with mediums, her precision is too exact. She may have placed an observational medium on you without your knowledge.

Jericho paused and reached for his bleeding arm.

Intuition.

He ripped off his Ophiuchian sash and stared at it.

A lure.

He threw it on the ground and started off into the dark. After ducking behind a network of interlaced, low-hanging pipes, he fell into a crouch and stared out into the dark.

Jericho, we don’t know what other locations she’s placed her mediums. This hiding location is not—

Intuition. She has only placed observational mediums at the entrance and where she thinks the modified conductors are being stored. Not here. I don’t think. 

Jericho waited, listening intently to the tap-tap-tap of the water around him, tuning his ears to any discrepancy of sound.

Several bangs resounded in the dark. Sparks erupted around where Jericho had dropped his sash from bullets ricocheting off the ground. After that, for a long while, there was nothing.

And then, a figure emerged from the network of low hanging pipes opposite of him. Omega. She slowly stepped forward in the darkness, clutching her gun loosely in one hand as she extended the other blindly outwards. She stopped short just in front of the white band and squinted down at it.

“Oh my, you’ve grown smart though, haven’t you?”

Jericho activated his conductor with a flick; and with precision he assumed was from Werner, he threw out a whip of vitae across several meters right at her. Instead of piercing her through, however, he split his vitae out into a web that formed a bubble around her. He flicked his wrist, tightening the cage of vitae and leaving just her head exposed. He stepped out from his place of hiding. The heat from the vitae caused her to drop both the gun and Theta’s proto-conductor. The water from the sprinklers sizzled as it pitter-pattered onto the white cage.

“I really am not suited for this kind of thing, am I?” Omega laughed airily as he approached her. “This is more of Iota’s thing. Ah, Iota will be so mad at me…” Her eyes widened. “You took Iota’s arm… that’s right. I can’t forgive you for that either….”

“Tell me where Theta keeps the prisoners,” Jericho stated. “Tell me how to use Theta’s proto-conductors.”

The corners of Omega’s eyes crinkled as she traced his face. “You really have grown up since then.”

“Shut up.”

“Congratulations on getting closer to your goal of completely eradicating us. Vengeance for yourself? Or for your blood family? I still can’t figure it out… What did you call us when you were speaking to Talib? I was watching then too, you know? Right… You called us ‘false hope’?” Omega hummed. “What will you do now that you know that just killing us isn’t enough? Will you hunt down our resistors too? That’ll be a long road ahead, you know?”

Jericho brought up his suitcase and cracked it against her face. She stumbled to the side, pressing into the cage of vitae.

The smell of burning flesh filled the air paired with an unpleasant sizzling sound.

Omega righted herself quickly, pulling away from vitae. The contact was not long enough, leaving her skin intact.

“I said shut up,” Jericho stated.

“You should know. I’m just like you. My sense of pain is super-duper dulled,” Omega replied, blinking away the blood that had dribbled into her eyes from the wound that had formed at her temple. “So, things like this won’t work on me. And killing won’t work either. Not right now anyways.” Her lips turned upwards. “I’m not afraid of dying. It’s the same with you, isn’t it?”

Jericho didn’t respond. Merely tightened his grip on his suitcase that was dripping with her blood.

“After you eradicate us, what’ll you do, Jericho?” she continued. “Do you think peace happens instantaneously? You should know. We’re not something physical. If you really want to eliminate us, you have to eliminate ideology, you know? And that’s really hard—”

“You keep talking. But all that’s coming out of your mouth is garbage.”

“Could it be that you’re a bit of an airhead, Jericho?” Omega gasped. “I mean, the color of our vitae is the same, isn’t it? So, to really destroy ELPIS, you would have to—”

Jericho cracked the suitcase against her head again and again. She rattled against the small cage but righted herself.

“What is the syzygy?” Jericho found himself asking.

“Syzygy…” Omega cocked her head and then chuckled. “Who knows? I think I forgot what it was five lifetimes ago, but who knows, who knows. I don’t think Theta or Omicron remember either. Maybe just bits and parts. The records are falling apart now too… We just know that we have to stop it and how to stop it—which is by eliminating conductors and killing True Conductors like you, hm… that’s why we need Gamma—Wtorek Izsak, this time. Gamma’s barely been initiated so Gamma remembers almost everything.”

A ludicrous existence. 

“Hm-hm, I used quite a lot of my vitae this time around actually,” Omega said suddenly. “There might not be enough of my vitae left to be me… I really might become nothingness this time.” She stared off into the darkness. “That doesn’t scare me though. I’m only afraid that if I do make it back, I won’t remember everything. I won’t remember you or what you did at all. Nobody but you will. Ah… such troubles.”

“I will ask you one more time,” Jericho stated, tugging on his conductor and tightening the vitae cage around her. “Tell me where Alice is. Tell me how to use the proto-conductors.”

Omega paused in her airy laughter, straightened herself, and locked eyes with him.

“I hope you suffer,” she answered, her voice losing its light tone. “Just as they suffered, you hypocritical traitor.”

With a grunt, Jericho pulled his conductor backwards, tightening the cage of vitae around her. The lines tightened, tightened, pressing into her skin, constricting her like a snake, until the contact was enough and the crumbling began. The cracks crawled up her arms and legs, connecting at her chest before ascending to her face.

And then she crumbled away into nothing. Not even a dusted trace of her left. The cage of vitae fell loose in the absence of her body. Mist-like whiteness rose into the air and dispersed.

Jericho retracted his vitae back into his conductor, leaving him in the cold, wet dark. Slowly, he bent down to pick up the proto-conductor and gun and stored it in his suitcase. After a brief moment’s hesitation, he sank down onto one knee, bowed his head, and placed a hand over his chest. He recited in the original Ophiuchian language—

“There is no end,
There is no beginning,
There is only a cycle.
Whether enemy, whether friend,
Whether family, whether stranger,
Whether on land, whether on sea, whether in sky,
Whether alone, whether in company,
Whether in peace, whether in war,
May all return to where all began.”

Continuously repeating the chant under his breath, Jericho stared at the spot where Omega had drawn her last breath.

“—no beginning,
there is only a cycle.”

He had succeeded. He had killed her. She had said there was not enough of her left ‘to become her’ when she returned to her resistor. But her resistor didn’t seem to be on her person. He would have to find and destroy her resistor, to be sure. But if she was re-initiated in the meantime, it wouldn’t be the same. Still.

Conclusion: destroy all of their resistors.

Until there was nothing left. Absolutely nothing. Like how there was nothing left of her now. Eliminate the false hope. Completely.

“—whether in peace, whether in war,
May all return to where all beg—”

A hand on his shoulder.

Jericho turned his head.

Werner.

You should leave. The Romano Family will send people to investigate the disturbance here. 

***

Still dripping wet, Jericho made his way through the streets of the Twin Cities. He didn’t really have a direction in mind.

Werner was still synchronized with him lightly. Jericho could feel his presence, like he could feel the moonlight hazily seeping through the smog clouding the skyline. Jericho didn’t understand why Werner was still present despite the task being completed. Perhaps it was customary.

What next.

“Jericho!”

Jericho lifted his head and looked left then right. The streets were familiar to him. The windows of the shops and the people walking along the streets skirting around him scratched at his memory. Yes, familiar. Werner had been steadily directing him back to the Abaccio, Jericho realized.

“Jericho!” Came the shout again.

Jericho turned his head.

It was Talib, coming along down the walkway and waving his hand wildly in the air. The Manipulator came to a stop in front of him before bending over and panting. Even after all of the cases they’d had together, it seemed as if Talib’s cardio still hadn’t improved much.

“How did you find me?” Jericho asked after a beat.

“Leona is looking for you,” Talib said slowly, straightening himself. “I tracked you with my medium.” He tapped Jericho’s chest pocket.

Jericho reached into the pocket and pulled out the damp origami paper Talib had slipped in there several days earlier. Jericho had completely forgotten about it.

“You saw,” Jericho concluded.

“I overheard,” Talib corrected. “… You weren’t directed to chase after the ELPIS leader by Leona, were you?”

“No, I was not.”

“How did you know where that one would be?”

Jericho remained silent.

“And you didn’t get any information on Alice’s whereabouts…”

“No.”

“You… killed them.”

“Yes, I did,” Jericho affirmed. “Will you tell Leona this?”

This time Talib remained silent.

“I will meet with Leona,” Jericho said after a beat, turning back towards the direction he’d been walking.

Talib placed a hand on his arm. “Not with that look in your eyes, partner.”

When Jericho turned to Talib in confusion, Talib nodded over to a closed store with darkened windows. In the reflection of the pane, Jericho found his reflection captured. His face was pale, his lips were drawn tight, and his eyes were wide—wide and faintly glowing with a ring of white light.

“You can trust me, partner,” Talib said. “I won’t tell Leona what happened here, but I think we both need to talk with each other for a bit.”

They made their way over to a bench that rested on a desolate walkway and sat down. Talib ran into a nearby bar and returned with a towel. Jericho accepted it from him and began to dry his hair slowly.

“Did you know the framework of most conspiracy theories is based on fundamental attribution error?” Talib asked suddenly. “We as human beings tend to favor dispositional explanations for things rather than situational explanations. Say someone bumps into you and glares. You tend to think that the person doesn’t like you instead of considering that they might be in some sort of pain and bumped into you and glared accidentally. Say you choke on a piece of food while at a restaurant. Say instead of thinking that you choked on accident because you were eating too fast, you end up thinking that the chef is an assassin sent by a shadowy organization to kill you.”

That was one gigantic leap… wasn’t it?

Yes, it was.

Werner. Still present.

“But it’s not always circumstance,” Jericho said, pulling the towel from his head.

“Or is it?” Talib responded automatically, arching an inquisitive brow. He cleared his throat. “But most of the time it is. Or so we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better.” Talib slid his hands into his pockets and stared across the empty street. “Say someone you respect hands a message off to someone else you respect. Then that latter person tells you to fulfill that message. That message involves you looking into yet another person you fear but respect. But the very first person who is a part of this chain turns their back on everything they stand for, while the person at the end of the chain begins to exemplify everything that the first person stood for. What is it? Situation or disposition? Coincidence or purpose. You can lose your mind in the conspiracy.”

“Gabrielle asked you to investigate Leona,” Jericho concluded, piecing together the details from Maria’s end of things. He paused and thought on Talib’s words. “Gabrielle received a message from… Izsak before he became involved with ELPIS.”

Before a resistor was used on Izsak and he became ‘Gamma’.

Talib would be sad if he found out… correct?

Yes. Cadence was sad about Francis. Theta…

Talib nodded. “Izsak gave a coded message to Gabrielle before he… converted. It was very strongly coded, so the decoded message was terribly brief. Just—‘saint candidate’ and ‘vitae reservoir’. Two concepts that could be connected. Or not. The thing is… Is this a wild goose chase that Izsak has sent on us or…?” Talib whipped out his notebook from his pocket and flashed it at Jericho. There were nonsensical scribbles within. “And then there’s you, Jericho. You were formerly involved with ELPIS too. Situationally, your aim is revenge. Dispositionally, your aim is revenge. You’re a constant. Alice was right about that.” Talib’s shoulders drooped, and he pocketed his journal. “Alice said you were very trustworthy…”

Jericho stared. “Are you… saying you trust me?”

Trust…

Talib nodded again and then bit his thumb. “Saint candidates, ELPIS, vitae reservoirs. Alice, Flannery. Leona, Izsak.”

Syzygy.

Talib shook his head. “I say Leona is exemplary, but at the same time, I have this sinking feeling that she doesn’t really care what’s going to happen to Alice. That doesn’t bode well at all.” He frowned. “Perhaps Leona’s involved in the Organization? No, that’s a separate thing. Or is it?”

“We will find Alice then. Together.” Jericho paused. “But, Talib, be careful.”

Talib startled and then chuckled. “I’m not the one who’s tackling ELPIS head first.” He rubbed his knees. “Well, if you know anything, I’d appreciate it if you told me. And if you want to know something, I’m all mouth.” He pointed to Jericho’s pocket where Jericho had restored the origami sheet. “I put that on you out of concern, but if you don’t feel comfortable then—”

“Talib… can I ask you for something?”

Talib stared at him. “Of course, partner, anything.”

“A paper crane. One that you manipulate as a medium. Can you place it on someone for me? I think they might be involved with ELPIS.”

Talib nodded. “Of course. Anything that’ll help us get closer to finding out where Alice is.” He paused. “Do you know what they look like? Can you give me a name? Maybe a picture?”

“I can draw one,” Jericho said as Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s face drifted into his mind.

… Thank you, Jericho.


Reversus Oratio: an ELPIS Ophiuchian prayer often directed towards a person one has strong feelings for. A prayer of parting. Sometimes said in memory of one who has passed away.

???

9.6: Jericho’s (Lost) Raziocinio

Re-cap:

Ophiuchus has been breached through the use of portals created by the ELPIS leader and Specialist Theta. Omicron has entered Ophiuchus through the portals in hopes of retrieving Izsak Wtorek but escapes with Alice in tow. Alice has been seen alive by Cadence and is being held captive in an unknown room alongside Twin Cities underground criminal executives Still reeling from the developments, Jericho…

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Gabrielle’s office was quiet.

Roberto had been assigned a Capricorn case regarding a financial scandal involving a Transmutationist, the country’s capital bank, and “an unsaintly amount of damned sausages.” Ferris was swamped at the Assignment Department due to the recent attack on the Black Constellation Detention Center and had to take lunch while in her own office. Wtorek Elizabeta, meanwhile, kept to the detention center. Jericho didn’t understand her. Security for the lower levels of the detention center had increased tenfold, and medical Conductors were temporarily banned from entry. There was no point in waiting there.

All of these absences paired with Gabrielle’s continued absence left the luncheons for the past several days to just Jericho himself, Talib, and one Flannery Caertas who had started making frequent stops to Gabrielle’s office following the incident.

“Did you forget me already?” Flannery had cackled the first time she had appeared in the office after the ELPIS invasion. Her Librish accent was much harsher than Alice’s, but she continued on rapidly without care, “I’m codename ‘money bags,’ remember?” Her vibrant smile paired with her wild orange curls that fell just below her ears were an unusual sight.

“No, I remember,” Jericho had responded. “You are friends with Talib and Alice.”

Alice. Alice was still alive. ELPIS had Alice.

“I hope you won’t mind it if Flannery joins us for our lunches from now on, partner,” Talib had murmured with a tired smile from his usual spot.

“I don’t mind.”

Flannery grinned as she had leisurely seated herself beside Talib. “Good. That’s the spirit, Jeri. I appreciate ya. Y’keep your head on straight. Talib here’s all twisted up about it. But you and me—we know Alice’s probably makin’ those terrorists question their life choices, ‘ey?”

Jericho thought on it. “Alice is intimidating.”

“That’s it, lad. You got it. Alice’s holdin’ down the fort while your ELPIS Department gets a handle on everything. We gotta crack on, yeah?” After cackling, Flannery began to animatedly reminisce about times past with Jericho. Stories upon stories. Half of them seemed too strange to be real.

It was a form of comfort. 

Yes, that seemed like the case.

Childhood friends, Jericho had recalled again. That was what they were. Like Gilbert, Greta, and Werner. Like Atienna and Safiyah. Like Cadence, the Foxmans, Nico, and Fortuna.

Jericho wondered if he had something comparable to that. Alice had always said it was customary to form relationships at a young age and—

Alice.

***

Jericho’s lunches were shorter than they had been before due to the repercussions following the invasion. He had been assigned “clean up duty” the entire week which saw to him sweeping the halls of the Serpens Establishment and nearby locations to check for and to remove any black stains sighted. He shared this duty with Talib and dozens of other peacekeeping agents. Although he and the other agents had stopped finding the mysterious black streaks on their fourth comb through of the regions, Ophiuchus wanted them to be thorough.

Jericho didn’t hate it. He didn’t like it. It kept him busy.

“It’s like they’re making you run around like headless chickens,” Olivier had muttered. It was a statement that Jericho had agreed with.

In the times between clean up duty, Jericho would initiate a synchronization with either Cadence or Atienna. There was no progress on either end. Werner repeated patience. Jericho had patience. But he had no progress.

Then she appeared one day. Correction. She was there from the beginning.

When Jericho stepped into Gabrielle’s office with his usual sandwich four days after the incident, he found her sitting with her hands clasped together at Gabrielle’s desk. Talib sat stiffly in his usual spot on the sofa, and Flannery was nowhere to be seen.

Beneath the lights of Gabrielle’s office, her hair glittered gold and her amber eyes glowed. Now that she was dressed in the Ophiuchian monochrome suit and tie, she looked mesmerizingly stunning. He wanted to know more about this lovely person in spite of everything she had done.

No. There needed to be caution. 

Werner and Maria were watching.

Jericho could feel them tapping along the edges of his mind.

“You must be Jericho,” she said. “My name is Leona. I’m the chairwoman for the ELPIS Department… I believe we may have come across each other briefly before in New Ram City.” She gestured to a spot across from Talib. “Please sit.”

Jericho took a nibble of his sandwich and seated himself.

Silence fell.

“Why—I—it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Leona,” Talib finally stammered. “I—what do we owe the pleasure? I mean, are you looking for someone? This office belongs to a chairwoman of the Assignment Department, but she’s off on a case at the moment—”

“The people I’m looking for are sitting right in front of me,” Leona informed him. “Agent Talib Al-Jarrah.” Her gaze wept over to Jericho. “Agent Jericho. I’m here requesting your assistance on a particular case.”

She knew your names. 

She is a chairwoman. She has access to the agent registry. 

Take precaution. 

“A case?” Talib questioned. “You don’t mean—”

“An ELPIS case,” Jericho stated more than asked.

Leona nodded, holding his gaze.

Jericho’s heart hammered wildly.

Talib did a double-take. “But, Miss Leona, we’re merely members of the Assignment Department. Is the ELPIS Department understaff—”

“I’m very aware of what department you two are a part of,” Leona interjected, folding her hands neatly in front of her. “But I am personally seeking you two out, do you understand?”

Talib exchanged a look with Jericho before nodding.

“Good. This is in regards to the case that a good portion of my department has been handling in the Twin Cities,” Leona elaborated. “I had earlier plans to request you two to temporarily offer me your services due to your particular skill sets. However, at the time, you both were handling an illegal manipulation case in Cancer.”

A missed opportunity, Jericho realized.

A dangerous one, someone corrected.

Talib leaned forward, perplexed. “You returned from the Twin Cities just to request us personally?”

A mirthless laugh. “No, I didn’t return for you specifically, Talib. I learned recently that an ELPIS leader might have gained access to Ophiuchus so I was returning to handle that. Seeing as how I’ve just arrived an hour ago, it’s clear that I wasn’t here soon enough.”

“I see…” Talib looked over at him again. “Then… do you know how—”

Leona held up a hand. “There may be a peacekeeping agent who is working with ELPIS. This peacekeeping agent in question most likely used a proto-conductor stored with the Specialist’s vitae within the establishment to allow the ELPIS leader to enter later.”

Talib stiffened. “That’s—”

“But that isn’t the topic I’m here to discuss,” Leona interjected. “At the moment, I want a Manipulator capable of manipulating multiple observational mediums long-range in order to comb the Twin Cities thoroughly. There are very few Manipulators who fit this criterion, Talib, and you are one of them. Your familiarity with the city is also advantageous.”

Talib remained silent.

“I also wanted to have someone who is more familiar with ELPIS’s movements to advise me,” Leona addressed Jericho now, her amber eyes glinting. “And your particular Specialist conducting may be useful.” She glanced at Talib who suddenly tensed. “And I’m sure, Talib, you are aware of what I mean about that.”

It’s natural that she knows, Jericho thought before the others could voice their apprehension. She is a chairwoman and head of a department. She is using me. But I will use her.

“Since we didn’t turn up any leads in the Twin Cities, I was under the impression that they had moved their operations to Scorpio since there has been activity reported there—though this has yet to be confirmed,” Leona continued. “Since a member who was active in the Twin Cities has made a movement here, however…”

“You think the ELPIS member who attacked the detention center has returned to the Twin Cities?” Talib tried.

“Yes, that is a possibility,” Leona confirmed. “Of course, if I’m understanding this correctly, you witnessed the ELPIS’s Specialist’s conducting abilities first hand. So, this may not hold true. I’m simply aiming to confirm or deny.”

Jericho’s head buzzed.

“All I ask is for two weeks of your time in the Twin Cities working temporarily alongside my department. After that, you will be returned to your departments.” Leona sighed, leaning back in Gabrielle’s chair and crossing her arms. “Since this is a case from a department that is not your own, I’ll give you a choice on whether or not to accept.”

***

They boarded the Grand Snake Train the following morning.

Jericho sat beside Talib in their designated compartment while Leona sat directly across from them.

Jericho was unsure of how to feel about Leona. If she was associated with ELPIS then he would have to act accordingly. If she was not then… he was not sure. Maria seemed to like her but the others did not. Odd.

Although Leona continuously looked Jericho and Talib over during the beginning of the train ride, she didn’t initiate conversation. The only words she spoke were to the dining-car service attendants. In the silence, Jericho had taken out his notebook and pressed his pen to the empty page. But he couldn’t think of what to write. Or even what to draw. Eventually, Jericho put the items back into his suitcase and began to doze off to the steady clack, clack of the v-train climbing along its route.

“—give me if this is rude, Miss Leona, but I’m actually quite curious about Monadism. I’ve been thinking to be a convert myself for some time now. How often are the gatherings?”

“I’m happy that you’re considering it, Talib. It’s a very respectful and kind community. People are welcomed in from all countries.”

Jericho awoke to such a conversation. When he lifted his head from the window, he found Talib leaning forward across the table and speaking animatedly to Leona. Leona herself was looking down at him with what Jericho assumed as amusement. He wasn’t certain. He’d never been good at reading people.

“Yes, the aspect about respecting one’s Ancestors has always intrigued me,” Talib continued. “And I think that having a saint candidate who uses the Ancestors as a role model while also acting as a role model themselves is very… inspiring.”

Leona smiled.

“Am I correct in saying that there are two active saint candidates at the moment?” Talib pressed onwards.

Leona’s lips dipped downwards briefly. “I still view a failed saint candidate as a saint candidate,” she replied. “They’ve already met all the criteria. They just haven’t mustered the strength nor the capabilities to take on the role.” She held Talib’s gaze. “So, yes, from my point of view, there are more than that. There’s the failed saint candidate of Taurus. And then there’s the failed saint candidate of Libra whom I’ve heard has been frequenting Ophiuchus as of late—despite her not being an agent.”

Talib stiffened.

Jericho connected the dots. Flannery was a failed saint candidate. There was most likely history there. But it was not relevant.

“Ah, yes…” Talib cleared his throat, leaning back into his seat. He shifted uncomfortably for a moment. “I wasn’t aware that saint candidates had responsibilities. Well, still—”

“Are these answers necessary to become Monadic, Talib? You seem to have an intense focus on saint candidates when that’s only a fraction of what Monadism is about.”

Talib flinched. “Well, Miss Leona, I apologize if my questions are excessive. I’m just a very cautious person, and I like to touch all bases before I dedicate my heart to something.”

Jericho waited for Talib to mention the Organization but he didn’t.

“That’s not a negative trait. In fact, it’s admirable,” Leona appraised. “You remind me of a close friend of mine. They were quite passionate, just as you are.”

“I… thank you,” Talib said uncertainly.

“Enough of that. It’s about time I went over the details of this case that you should know.” Leona glanced at Jericho. “Since you’ve come to, Jericho.”

Talib followed her gaze to Jericho and nodded at him in surprise. “Good morning, partner.”

Jericho nodded back.

“You must understand this before I debrief you,” Leona said firmly. “If you are to divulge any information I am about to give to you regarding ELPIS to outside parties, you will face disciplinary action. Your Conducting License will be revoked, and you will be removed from the agent registry. Additionally, you may be tried and held in the detention center. Is that clear?”

Jericho nodded. So did Talib.

“Good.” Leona reached for her suitcase beside her, withdrew a manila folder from within, and handed it to Talib. She explained, “There are two ELPIS leaders whom I know for certain are active and have had previous operations in the Twin Cities. The first would be a person who attacked the Black Constellation Detention Center.”

Talib flipped open the file and held it between him and Jericho. A photograph of a blurred woman’s face was paperclipped to one sheet of paper within. The sheet of paper read:

CLASSIFIED

      ELPIS Name: Omicron (#54)

      True Name: Unknown

      Country of Origin: Most likely Capricorn or Taurus

      Conducting-type: Manipulator

      Capable of manipulating 15+ items at once

      Incapable of using manipulated items as observational mediums

      Requirements—blood contact with item, conductor usage

      Location of tattoo: left-side of face

      Threat Level: A-

      Additional Notes: At least 3+ Licensed Conductors advised to engage.

Talib’s brows shot up. “Her manipulation ability is—”

“Yes, she’s much more adept than you at manipulating, Talib,” Leona agreed. “Although your talents aren’t something to be brushed aside.”

“… You flatter me, Miss Leona.”

Someone sounds like they’re tryna butter her up. 

Jericho didn’t understand the analogy.

“So, am I correct in saying that the names we’re referring to them by are pseudonyms of sorts?” Talib pressed. “To possibly hide their true identity?”

“They’re pseudonyms, but they have no desire to hide their true identities,” Leona replied. She reached over and tapped the number beside Omicron’s name. “That number indicates that this is the fifty-fourth person who has taken up the code-name Omicron. There have been fifty-three others who have taken up the name before them. They share similar conducting-types despite this.”

“They must go through leaders quickly then…” Talib noted, brows raised.

Leona pulled out another file from her suitcase and exchanged it for Omicron’s file. Talib flipped the new one open and held it out for Jericho again. There was no photo this time. Just a single sheet of paper:

CLASSIFIED

      ELPIS Name: Theta (#16)

      True Name: Unknown

      Country of Origin: Unknown

      Conducting Type: Specialist

      Capable of a form of spatial distortion

      Requirements—user’s blood marked with appropriate diameters at location of interest, conductor contact with separate blood marked area

      Location of tattoo: unknown, but most likely right-side of face

      Threat Level: S+

      Additional notes: Do not engage.

A faded memory flashed into Jericho’s memory once more. The sandy dunes that soaked up the tears and blood. And that person who had reached out for him amongst the destruction.

Leona continued, “Theta has been dormant for some time. This marks their first emergence in years.”

“Perhaps, it’s a new ELPIS leader then…” Talib suggested. His eyes then darkened. “I’ve never seen a Conductor with that kind of ability…” He handed the file back to her. “It’s dangerous. Am I correct to assume this ‘Theta’ is one of your capture priorities?”

“Yes, that’s the case. Although, this is the first time Theta has acted out so aggressively.” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “Something must have changed.”

“And… that conducting we saw,” Talib continued. “And these files. They’re using their blood as if it were vitae…”

“An old form of conducting,” Jericho recalled from Olive’s book reading only minutes ago.

Leona inspected him before nodding. “Yes, we believe that’s what it is. It’s a putrid form of conducting, but I have to admit that it’s one of the reasons ELPIS leaders are so hard to capture alive.”

“They gain an advantage every time they bleed,” Talib concluded.

Leona further elaborated, casting a look towards the window: “The conductors that we use aren’t capable of performing like that. They weren’t designed that way. We have yet to obtain ELPIS conductors to assess how exactly it’s done. Of course, their lower-tier members that we’ve captured are ignorant of this blood conducting.”

She was lying about something. 

“I’m surprised by your knowledge of it, Jericho,” Leona noted. “But you must have seen it in action yourself when you were with them. Perhaps, even taught about it. Though your file states that you had very little contact with actual leaders.”

Jericho hadn’t been taught this and had ever seen it himself. He supposed he was a ‘lower-tier’ member if that was the case. But he shouldn’t let her know that. It was time to change the subject.

“Are there any other ELPIS leaders who might be in the Twin Cities?” Jericho asked. “I would like to know. Please.”

Leona wordlessly reached into her suitcase and held out two files to him instead of Talib. Jericho accepted it, opened the first, and held it so that Talib could read as well.

ELPIS Name: Omega (#91)

      True Name: Unknown

      Country of Origin: Unknown

      Conducting Type: Manipulator

      Capable of manipulating an uncounted number of objects.

      Capable of using manipulated objects as observational mediums.

      Location of Tattoo: Back of neck

      Threat Level: C+

      Additional Notes: N/A

Jericho flipped to the next file.

A clear photo of a familiar woman with wild orange hair and glowering eyes was clipped to the corner.

ELPIS Name: Iota (#67)

      True Name: Iris McKillop

      Country of Origin: Libra

      Conducting Type: Manipulator

      Capable of manipulating 10+ objects at once

      Tends to favor chains as medium

      Location of Tattoo: Side of hand

      Threat Level: A+

      Additional Notes: Extremely dangerous, aggressive, violent. Do not engage unless accompanied.

Tugging the file out of Jericho’s hands, Talib stared down at the photo and paled. “She’s… the war criminal. She’s infamous in Libra. They used to tell horror stories about her back home… about how she’d drink the blood of children.” His gaze snapped up to Leona. “So she’s a leader of ELPIS…?”

Leona nodded silently. Talib returned to staring at McKillop’s photo.

“I see you enjoy reading files, Jericho,” Leona noted, crossing her legs and propping her elbow up on the armrest. She leaned into her fist. “I’ve personally read your file myself.”

“I’ve heard it’s a lengthy file,” Jericho replied.

Leona chuckled. “Yes, well… I do wish for you to find solace and closure here.”

Jericho stared at her. “…Thank you.”

The conversation lapsed back into silence, and Jericho’s eyes once again became heavy as he listened to the click-clacking and the low bellows of the train horn.

“Traitor.”

Jericho’s eyes snapped open. He winced as he was met with blinding white. The whiteness was pouring in through the windows of the train, bleaching everything of color. The compartment, the chairs, and—

Jericho turned back to face Talib but found that the man was no longer sitting beside him. Leona was no longer sitting across from him either. Jericho was alone. 

“You really are a traitor.”

A familiar young girl with hair that fell to her ears apparated beside him. Every detail of her was the same as it had been all those years ago: her small hands, the mole on her shoulder, her pointed nose. And as she turned slowly towards him, a large white crack appeared at her chest that began to creep outwards completing the image of the past. 

“We were going to save the world,” she said. 

“We were destroying it,” Jericho replied.

The cracks along the girl’s body grew.

“We were giving people hope,” she pressed.

“’Despair.’”

The cracks spider-webbed up her neck and bare limbs, but she continued to speak, “We were getting retribution.”

“I still am,” Jericho replied.

The girl’s lips turned upwards for a moment before they dipped downwards again. “Against the people who saved us.” The cracks reached her eyes, and they resembled tear stains.

“Against the people who made us their weapons.”

A pause. 

“We were friends.”

This was not reality. 

Jericho knew this well. Alice had gone over this particular dream with him many times before, but he didn’t feel remorse in these dreams so Alice had never had the need to dissect it any further. But now something was different. Something had changed. In his chest, a gaping hole was beginning to form. A hollowness. 

He didn’t understand it. 

“We were friends.”

Repeating that phrase one last time, the girl shattered into pieces as the fragmentation finished its course. 

“Jericho! Partner!”

Jericho startled and opened his eyes. Talib hovered over him, holding both of their suitcases in hand with great difficulty.

“We’ve arrived,” Talib explained. He glanced out the window behind him. “That Miss Leona is quite fast. She was off the train as soon as we arrived. We should catch up before the Organization can locate us.”

Jericho stared at the man blankly.

Even though the dream was over, even though reality now presented itself before him, Jericho still felt that gaping void. The emptiness.

Something wasn’t right. Something was missing.

Then it clicked.

It was Werner. His connection to Werner had been weakened to the point of almost non-existence, and a void now expanded between them. The fragmented events of what had occurred trickled down to Jericho slowly but he was only able to dissect three pieces of information from them. One, Werner had been overridden. Two, Cadence was the cause of the override. Three, Werner was injured because of the override.

“Er… partner?”

Staring up at Talib, Jericho reached out to Cadence. We were friends.

And silence answered him.

***

Twin Cities, Gemini

The first thing they did upon arrival in the Twin Cities was check into the Abaccio Hotel. The police were warding off the luxury hotel across the street from it. When Talib inquired what had occurred, the police officers informed him that hours earlier a generator conductor had blown. Talib didn’t seem pleased with the answer but after Leona asked him to let it be, he promptly dropped the topic and followed her inside the hotel.

While Leona and Talib checked into their rooms, Jericho remained outside and watched the police’s clean-up work. He wondered if the commissario Vincente Giustizia—no, Tau—was over there directing them on what to do.

It would be very easy to go over there, search for Tau, and stab him through with his conductor if he were present, Jericho thought. Jericho could picture himself going through the motion step-by-step. No, he would have to interrogate Tau first. Get him to show him where Alice was—

A silhouette suddenly appeared in front of Jericho. Atienna. He could tell that she was sitting in that small cavern within the large cavern again. He could tell she had just spoken with Cadence. He could tell—feel—that her knuckles were raw.

“Jericho, please don’t…” she said under her breath.

He stared at her.

If ELPIS didn’t exist, this would not have happened. If their ‘hope’ didn’t push people like this then… Yes. If ELPIS did not exist, then Alice wouldn’t, then Werner wouldn’t—

“Jericho,” Atienna whispered, “please be patient. I think I might have an idea. Please, just this once, avert your eyes.”

A brush against the shoulder jarred Jericho from his synchronization. Jericho turned his head and identified a tall man with light brown hair dressed in a military uniform.

“Sorry,” the man mumbled, offering a loose wave before sliding his hands into his pockets and turning to head down the sidewalk.

“Gilbert,” Jericho realized.

Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff stopped short in his tracks and whipped his head around. The man studied Jericho, eyeing the white band on his arm, before asking, “Do I… know you?”

Jericho blinked at him and looked across the street. Gilbert followed his gaze.

“Wait,” Gilbert began, facing him fully, “are you—”

“Ophiuchian agents know every person in Signum,” Jericho said, turning away swiftly. “Have a good day.” He entered the hotel without another word, feeling Gilbert’s gaze burning his back all the while.

***

Their second destination after arriving in the Twin Cities was the Leonian Monadic Temple. It was located at the exact point where the east and west halves met, and it resided within the Monadic District of the city. The streets within the district were clean and cobblestone. The buildings were pure white. There was not a single piece of trash on the ground, and there was not a beggar in sight.

The Leonian temple was large, consisting of a raised platform from which multiple pillars sprouted. The pillars were long and thick, supporting an extended roof that was carved with unfamiliar symbols.

Inside the temple was dark—lit only by a cluster of candles. There were only two small stained-glass windows on the left and right inside, ensuring that the light pouring in from the entrance was the dominant illuminator. Pews lined the walls and faced towards the back of the temple. The pews were filled with a cluster of men and women dressed in familiar monochrome uniforms. Peacekeepers. Most likely in the ELPIS Department. All of them turned to stare first at Leona and then at him and Talib as they entered. Their gazes, however, lingered on Jericho, leaving him to wonder if they knew who he was.

Without addressing him or Talib any further, Leona walked forward to the back of the temple where a large, startlingly realistic statue of a faceless person stood front and center. The statue was gilded with gold bits that caught the light from the windows.

Talib slid into a pew and motioned for Jericho to sit beside him. Jericho complied but couldn’t comprehend why they were stopping by this temple. The destination seemed irrelevant to their case at hand.

Eventually, Leona came back to them and motioned for Talib to stand. She nodded over to a cluster of peacekeeping agents whispering to one another at the corner of the room.

“The taller woman standing over there is Lucretia Long,” she explained. “She’s one of the senior agents in this department, and she’ll inform you of what you’re to do here, Talib. You’ll be working under her from now on.”

Talib nodded slowly before turning and extending a hand out to Jericho. Jericho stared down at it for a moment before accepting. Giving him a firm shake, Talib concluded with a, “See you around, partner,” before he headed over.

Jericho stared after him but then—

“Wow, this is so nostalgic!”

A pleasant buzz filled his mind. When he glanced to his left, he found Maria’s image sitting beside him. Faintly, he could make out where she was. On a canoe. In the middle of the ocean. Hm.

“This really brings me back,” Maria continued, “to the Monadic orphanage. We even had a statue of the Leonian Ancestor there too! I used to climb it all the time!” She paused, leaning forward to stare past Jericho.

He followed her gaze.

Leona was now seated to his left. She was admiring the statue.

Had she spoken to him? He hadn’t been paying attention.

“I didn’t hear anything.” Maria hummed. “She’s interesting though, isn’t she?”

Jericho stared at Leona, trying his best to figure out what about her Maria found interesting. Leona had formed an insurrection against Maria. A mutiny. But Maria herself held no ill will.

Jericho couldn’t understand her. And she couldn’t understand him.

“We should look into the crime organizations or the generator conductors in this city,” Jericho stated to Leona. “If we have no leads.”

Leona slowly turned away from the statue, her eyelashes catching the light and glittering. She studied Jericho impassively. “… I agree with looking into the generator conductors, and I’ve already put other agents on them. I’m working with the state to increase protection over them.” A pause. “But why exactly would ELPIS target the crime organizations? What about them would bring about ELPIS’s vindication?”

Leona was staring into him. Like Alice would. Almost like reading his thoughts.

“I know, right?” Maria whispered from beside him.

Jericho realized he had slipped. If he wasn’t connected to Cadence, he wouldn’t have knowledge of ELPIS’s dealings with the Romano executives and he wouldn’t have knowledge of the Romano’s underground work which made them targets of ELPIS.

“Intuition,” Jericho tried.

Maria nodded.

Leona regarded him. “I read your application form for the ELPIS Department. It said that you believe eliminating ELPIS will bring true peace to Signum. Do you mean that wholeheartedly?”

Jericho nodded. “Yes, they are—”

“The false hope that lures people astray,” Leona recited quietly. “But that could be said about any ideology. I’m sure if you looked into Signum’s history—beyond Signum’s history—you’d find groups similar to them.”

Jericho exchanged a quick glance with Maria who looked just as perplexed, albeit intrigued.

“And you’d find groups similar to us. Sometimes they win. Sometimes we win. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of the amount of guidance given, the same mistakes will happen over and over again.”

“Over and over again?” Jericho repeated.

“There will always be another ELPIS,” Leona said.

Another ELPIS. No, that was impossible. There was only one. If that wasn’t the case then—

A hand on his shoulder stopped the thought from completing its course. Maria. In the light that fell through the stained-glass windows, she was illuminated with a rose-colored glow.

“Well, you know what Conta tells me,” Maria hummed. “If you can’t find a solution to a problem even if you’ve spent a lot of time on it again and again, then all you need is a shift in perspective. Another person to help catch what you missed!”

Jericho informed Leona of Maria’s solution.

Leona gazed at him before chuckling mirthlessly. “That’s good. You have a good amount of pride. Pursue that goal to the ends of the earth. Just be sure not to look back. If you do, I’m sure you’ll be very disappointed.”

***

Acting on Jericho’s intuition, Leona met with several executives of the Romano Family the following day. Jericho wasn’t in attendance. He assumed Talib wasn’t in attendance either since the man had left the hotel to join his new team the previous night.

“Off to do long-range surveillance,” Talib had said before slipping a folded crane into Jericho’s pocket and finishing with, “but I’ll keep in touch.”

After the meeting, Leona invited Jericho over for lunch at the Gamma Geminorium. He learned here that he would be assigned temporarily as a guard for the Romano executives while she collected data about the days she was absent from the city from other agents. She informed him she would refer to him for ELPIS-related information after she’d finished and would move forward with him from there.

The first person Jericho was assigned to guard was Caporegime Bendetto of the Romano Family. Jericho recalled Cadence mentioning that the man handled land and collected rent for the organization.

Working alongside Jericho were two additional ELPIS Department agents who only exchanged words of greeting with him and nothing more. At first, Jericho had thought they were displeased with him because they knew of his connection to ELPIS. He later realized after witnessing them glowering in Bendetto’s direction that they weren’t fond of the crime families.

Bendetto spent most of his time in his apartment flat, taking calls from unknown business partners. He had a wife who brought him breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lucy, was it? She was kind and warm, and Bendetto was kind and warm in return.

Late into his shift, Lucy brought Jericho a platter of multi-colored cookies and milk. Although he wasn’t hungry, he accepted them. He was joined by Olivier as he nibbled on the treats.

After offering a loose “hey” in greeting, Olivier muttered, arms crossed, “Have you talk-talked to Cadence lately?”

Jericho shook his head. He hadn’t spoken to her since Werner had been injured. Whenever he accidentally synchronized with her, she would always say something along the lines of “I’m really busy, detective. Sorry, maybe next time” before pulling away. Was this called ‘avoidance’?

Olivier frowned deeper. “Not surprised.” He rubbed his arm. “Anything… from Werner?”

Again, Jericho shook his head. And then heaviness came to him. It was uncomfortable and suffocating like there was an anchor pulling his entire chest downwards. He knew it was not his own feeling, but he didn’t know what to do with the knowledge that it was Olivier’s feeling.

On a whim, Jericho lifted the cookie he was eating and held up the cookie platter with his other hand. Does it taste good?

Olivier arched a brow, scoffed, rolled his tongue in his mouth, and said, “Yeah, they taste good. Are you sure they aren’t poisoned or something?”

Why would they be poisoned? 

Olivier scoffed again before glancing at the platter. “It’s really weird how that works. Being able to taste what another person tastes, I mean… It seems like a pretty useless thing.” He uncrossed his arms. “It’s been a while since I had any sweets. Sagittarius is surprisingly lax when it comes to that stuff.”

I can try more. If you’d like. Jericho stared down at the platter.

Olivier shifted from side-to-side for a moment before gesturing to a heart-shaped cookie. “How about that one?”

Jericho picked it up and ate it in two bites. He glanced at Olivier.

Olivier made a face. “Too much sugar.” He then pointed to a pumpkin-shaped one. “How about that one?”

After Jericho nibbled on it, Olivier gave a nod of approval. Then he pointed to another cookie.

After half an hour, the entire platter was empty, and Jericho was left feeling a bit nauseous. Olivier snickered at him before nervously urging him to drink water and milk.

Even after all the sweets, however, the heaviness eventually returned. Jericho supposed this meant that his efforts had failed. Alice would know, he thought, what the appropriate course of action should’ve been. Still, Olivier remained with him until the end of his shift.

Thus the first day and a half of the assignment passed without incident.

After his shift, Jericho made his way over to the alleyway outside the Casa de Bambolle. Not for entertainment purposes, he thought to the others just in case. For investigative purposes. When he arrived at the location in the alley where Cadence had emerged from after she had escaped her ELPIS capture, however, he found that it had already been warded off by ELPIS Department agents.

They knew what they were doing.

On the second night, Jericho was on guard over Donato and his son Feliciano. He was admitted into their lavishly furnished mansion on the outskirts of the city and was offered a plethora of refreshments. After ‘small talk’, he was taken into Donato’s home office where the man spent most of his time.

Two different ELPIS agents were assigned with Jericho for this shift and were already present upon his arrival. They too kept their distance.

Donato kept himself planted at his desk, going through piles upon piles of paperwork. Feliciano also kept to the office, watching with a grimace as the two other peacekeepers played cards in front of the fireplace sandwiched between bookshelves. Jericho himself began to go through the bookcases on Atienna’s behalf.

It was near the end of Jericho’s shift that Donato abruptly said, “I’m stepping out for a bit. I’ll be back in half an hour.”

Jericho turned on his heels. Donato was pulling a jacket from the coat hanger beside the door. His once cluttered desk was now empty. His gait was normal, his bad leg appearing not to bother him.

Jericho watched the man leave through the door and glanced over at the two agents. They hadn’t looked up from their game. Jericho detached himself from the bookcase and followed after Donato only to be stopped by a hand around the wrist. He turned and found Feliciano glowering behind him.

“Hey, Glasses, my dad said he was just steppin’ out for a bit. You deaf?”

“I am not deaf,” Jericho replied. “I am here to watch over you and your father. You were informed of this.” He stared at Feliciano. “Unless you are deaf?”

Feliciano stiffened and flinched away from him. “Creepy bastard…”

“I’m sorry if I scared you,” Jericho returned.

Feliciano flushed. “You didn’t—”

Brushing past Feliciano, Jericho exchanged a couple of parting words with the agents. He brushed past Feliciano again, picked up his suitcase from where he’d left it beside the door, and exited the office and then the mansion.

***

The night air was heavy and humid. Pitch black.

The mansions in this city were different from Olivier’s estate. These ones were all relatively close together, and their gated entrances met with the gray, brick sidewalk that connected the edge of the city to the heart of it.

Jericho wasn’t too familiar with these streets. He assumed this was because Cadence wasn’t familiar with them. But that didn’t matter.

Gripping his suitcase tightly, Jericho followed along the gray sidewalk in the direction of the city. The soles of his shoes squeaked against the wet sidewalk, highlighting the silence around him. The v-lamps lining the street were off, but Jericho didn’t mind it. In the distance, the active glittering lights from the city’s heart provided just enough visibility—

A flash of light suddenly burst across the street causing Jericho to stop in his tracks. He turned his head. Pitch black darkness met his eyes. But, even so, he swore he saw it. That color.

“Theta wants me to drag you back to base,” came a quiet voice from the darkness. “But I think it’s better if I just end you here.”

A high-pitched, metal click-clack, click-clack, click-clack followed the whisper, and it was paired with a rustling sound. Vaguely, Jericho could make out something writhing in the dark. It looked like a snake with an arrow-shaped head, its body twisting unnaturally in the air.

And then slowly, they became illuminated—the chains. They burned white, tips pointed, as they slithered through the night sky. A woman wearing a polka-dotted blue dress stood beneath them with her shadowed back to him. Her hand which was gloved in a metal contraption was extended outwards towards a man who was seated on the ground. Donato. He was bound in luminous chains that slithered over his body and mouth.

Donato’s eyes flicked over to Jericho, and he let out a muffled shout. The woman followed the man’s gaze, craned her neck, stared at Jericho.

“Huh?”

Jericho stared back at her. Stared back at the woman whose photo he had studied thoroughly only days earlier. Stared back at the woman whom Cadence had seen within that unknown room a week prior. Stared at the woman who had punched Carl across the room. Stared at the woman who had grabbed Alice’s wrist.

Jericho’s eyes darted to the woman’s ungloved hand that now rested lightly on her hip. There was a tattoo there. The symbol was unmistakable.

In that instant, every limb in Jericho’s body became electrified. Everything sharpened into focus. The unimportant things faded away into black.

There was only Iota and himself.

Jericho unlatched his suitcase, and his conductor fell into his waiting palm. He flicked it into activation, his vitae spilling out of it in the shape of a whip.

Iota’s eyes widened as the light from his vitae drained the color from her face.

“You’re…” Her eyes narrowed and she glowered at him. “You’re the suitcase bastard, aren’t you?” Kicking Donato to the side, she pointed her conductor-gloved index finger at him. “So they sent you here, huh? I’ve heard plenty of things about you from Omicron and Omega—”

“Shut up,” Jericho stated. “If you take me to Alice, I’ll let you live.”

Iota shut her mouth, flabbergasted. “Alice…? ‘Let me live’?” She barked out a laugh and flicked her hand outwards towards him. The chains obeyed her command and rushed at him.

With two quick whips of his conductor, Jericho shattered them along with the nearby v-lamps and gates that lined the sidewalk. Everything his conductor touched crumbled away into nothing. The trash bins, the gates, the gray brick sidewalk. Disintegration.

Ignoring the destruction, Jericho confirmed, “Yes. I will let you live long enough to choose your burial site.”

8.5: Jericho’s Reunion (Seperazione)

Re-cap: 

The dominoes are beginning to fall. 

After enjoying his usual luncheon with Gabrielle’s inner circle, Jericho begins to wonder if his connection with the other five has quelled his rage. Alice says it is good progress and invites him to visit ELPIS-converted Wtorek Izsak who is imprisoned in the belly of Ophiuchus. 


Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs, Ophiuchus

“These security checks are ridiculous. We’re Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents. We shouldn’t have to go through these things like these tourists here.”

“Is it that you think you’re above all of these ‘tourists’, Talib? Do you think you’re above the security measures?”

“See! That’s exactly how the Organization wants you to think. They’re taking advantage of your docility and compliance! These vitae-spectrophotometer tests are just tools they use to find their next targets!”

“And how and why exactly would they do that? And who are these targets?”

Jericho paused and turned. Alice was walking right behind him and Talib beside her. They were all out of uniform. Jericho in a sweater vest, Talib with a blue scarf thrown over his shoulders, Alice in a blue ribbon dress.

They were walking along a wide bridge platform that rose high above the ground. Several meters below them glowed a cluster of oval-shaped vitae reservoirs. There were thirteen total with twelve smaller ones circling around a larger central one. The glow of them from this distance was psychedelic—shifting from soft blues to pale greens to bright purples. Particles of light rose from the pools and dusted the air coating everything in a dreamy haze.

It hurt to look at.

The platform they were walking across was one of twelve. Each platform hung over one of the twelve outer reservoirs and connected together at a central platform that stood tall above the largest reservoir. The platforms were congested, but not as congested as the streets of the Twin Cities.

Jericho approached the railing to his left and peered downwards into the light. His head pounded at the glow, but he took a deep breath and reached out to the other five. It took two tries. Synchronization was around 80 percent with all five appearing physically before him. Some were confused. Some were curious. One was excited.

Uh, what’s the deal, detective?

You said that there was nothing happening on my end, Jericho explained. I’ve heard that it is… customary… to visit places like this Prognoikos Aurora attraction since they are ‘touristy’—

“Jericho, put your hands down,” Werner interjected. “You’ll draw attention.”

Jericho put down his air quotation marks. Touristy. Uplifting to the spirit. That is what the books say. About this place. 

“That’s very nice of you, Jericho,” Atienna drew with a smile, clasping her hands together. “Thank you.”

Pleasant.

Maria threw her hands up the air and wrapped him in her arms before she peeled away and leaned over the railings. “Amazing! I have always wanted to visit this place!” She leaned forward. “What do you think it’s like to swim in it?”

“These are gigantic compared to the one in the royal palace,” Olivier noted, ignoring Maria as he peered over the railings beside her. He grimaced. “There’s so much of it here. I don’t understand why it isn’t just harvested and given out.” He glanced at Werner. “It’d save people a lot of trouble.”

It seemed as if Lavi was not with Olivier today. Jericho was somewhat disappointed. He had wanted to see her reaction.

“That’s not how economics works, kid,” Cadence said with a shrug, glancing with only mild interest at the reservoirs.

“And you know how economics works?” Olivier arched a brow back at her.

Cadence remained smiling. “Hey, who’s the one’s saved ya from gettin’ scammed in Sagittarius?”

“Well, this place is considered sacred in Monadism,” Atienna informed them. “It is used for the baptismal portion of saint candidate ceremonies. Although… I have heard that they are starting to begin the construction of a continent-wide insulator system to connect these reservoirs with other major vitae reservoirs around Signum. They’re hoping to provide the poorer areas with it too.”

Olivier perked up at this. “Really? I must have missed that…”

Atienna pressed her fingers to her lips. “It isn’t that you have missed it, it is that it has not been announced yet. Diplomats have very interesting conversations.” She smiled lightly. “Despite everything, we can still keep personal matters from each other. That is reassuring, don’t you think?”

Olivier shrugged and glanced at Jericho. Jericho had not heard of it either and mimicked the gesture.

Cadence cracked a grin, nudging Olivier on the shoulder. “See, friends in high places everywhere.”

“I’m literally the Ariesian prince…”

“Exactly!” Cadence snapped her fingers. “Anyway, I once sold a whole group of elites from Cancer phony VIP tickets to this place.” She slipped between Maria and Olivier at the railings. “I couldn’t really understand why a buncha people would fork over a thousand common coin to visit some vitae reservoirs but lookin’ at it now…”

“It’s pleasant,” Werner agreed. “The gesture is appreciated, Jericho. I’ve always wanted to see the Ophiuchian vitae reservoirs myself, so—”

What? Cadence’s grin widened. Mr. This-isn’t-a-vacation is takin’ in the scenic view?

“I do appreciate the natural wonders of Signum,” Werner returned coolly. “These are the things that fuel our countries. We should treat them with respect.”

“Hm—Hey, why are some of ‘em kinda lower than the rest?” Cadence inquired, gesturing to about eleven of the reservoirs. “It kinda ruins the whole symmetry.”

“It is a natural phenomenon,” Atienna explained, observing them far from the railings. “Every couple of decades, the levels of the vitae reservoirs rise and fall. I hear there is still research going on about it.” She glanced at Jericho before placing a hand on her chin. “However… During the end of the Reservoir War, the original country of Ophiuchus ended up desecrating half of the reservoirs here, so several of them have never risen since then.”

Cadence rocked back on her heels and grimaced. “That sounds like a history lesson I don’t wanna get into.”

The nausea that had been lightly holding Jericho’s stomach suddenly tightened as he watched them converse. He placed a hand over his stomach absentmindedly.

Olivier glanced back at him with a frown. “Look, Jericho, it’s not that great.” He loosely thumbed the reservoir below him. “You don’t have to show us this. A picture is good too.”

Cadence whipped around grinning. “Or ya could draw us it too. We could put it in a frame and everything. Hey, who knows? Ya might be the next big artist! People’ll be talkin’ about ya in the streets!”

“—uh, Jericho, are you home?”

Jericho snapped his attention to Talib who was standing right beside him waving a hand in his face.

The man startled at Jericho’s attention and placed a hand over his heart. “Saints! You scared me.” He straightened his scarf. “I was saying that this really is quite the view, isn’t it? And it’s nice to be out of uniform.”

Jericho stared back at him before he nodded. “No one stares.” He glanced around at the pedestrians passing by around them. “I didn’t realize. Some people aren’t fond of peacekeepers.”

Talib nodded slowly, following the passersby with his eyes. “Either we’re too controlling or we’re not controlling enough. Either we spend too much time saving people who don’t matter or we don’t spend enough time saving people who matter.”

“You’ve thought about this. A lot.”

“Yes, well… we can’t save, help, and make everyone happy,” Talib said. “But if we can save and help at least one person, I think that’s enough. Like that poor fellow and those women who were manipulated by that Cancerian—”

“Jericho.”

Jericho turned to find Alice behind him. She had been walking along the opposite railing and now stood before him with an unreadable expression as usual.

“I think this is good progress for you to come here,” Alice said curtly. “But today is also the day you said you would come with us to visit Izsak. I hope you don’t think that coming here this morning excuses you from your promise.”

“This is not an excuse.”

Alice nodded. “Good.”

***

Black Constellation Detention Center, Ophiuchus

Beneath the Serpens Establishment was the Black Constellation Detention Center. It was a prison that extended many meters below the ground and consisted of a network of halls and cells layered up on top of one another. Ferris had likened it one time to a beehive.

After passing through the ten security checks at the Center’s entrance—one of which consisted of a vitae-spectrophotometer test—Jericho, Alice, and Talib were allowed into a small elevator.

When Ophiuchus initially began using vitae-spectrophotometers, Jericho had been swept into an unexpected routine check, tested ‘white’, and had nearly been tackled to the ground after that. Alice had been nearby at the time, however, and had flashed her Ophiuchian chairman badge in his defense. Following that event, she had done a hefty load of paperwork and procured a special badge for him that allowed him to bypass the tests.

“Good ta know people in high places, right?” Cadence had chortled.

Sometimes Jericho wondered what those people who knew the color of his vitae thought of him. Rumors had probably already started.

They rode down the elevator in silence. Jericho watched as light from different levels bled through the crack in doors as they descended further and further. Ten minutes later the elevator dinged, and they reached the last floor.

When they exited the elevator, they were met with a sterile nearly all-white hallway. Lining the left of the hall were large two-way mirrors in-between which metal doors stood rigid. In front of each of those doors stood a pair of uniformed peacekeeping agents. The walls across from the guards were spotted with black metal benches. The walls themselves were dotted with occasional strange streaks of black.

Jericho glanced into the first two-way mirror as they walked past. Usian, laying down on the bed within with his hands folded over his stomach. He stared up at the ceiling with an unreadable expression.

The second two-way mirror down the hall contained another man. Major Ersatz. The Capricornian major paced the room back and forth while biting his thumb and muttering to himself.

Jericho’s gaze lingered on the man before he forced himself forward.

They came to a stop before the third two-way mirror.

Jericho glanced inside.

Wtorek Izsak sat at a table set at the room’s center. Across from him sat a woman in a black suit wearing a white armband. Her wavy brown hair was tied into a rather messy bun, and her hand was resting on the man’s upper arm.

Wtorek Elizabeta.

The heaviness in Jericho’s chest felt foreign and detached.

Alice immediately went up to the window and stood before it with crossed arms. Jericho stared after her for a moment before glancing at the opposite wall.

There was a girl sitting on the bench across from the two-way mirror of Izsak’s cell. She had wispy brown hair braided, caramel-colored eyes and appeared to be around fourteen years old. Resting on her lap was a strange-looking stuffed rabbit, reminding Jericho of the monstrous stuffed animal that rested on a table back in his condo.

“That’s Izsak’s daughter. Csilla,” Talib whispered, detaching himself from Jericho’s side and walking over to the bench. He sat down beside the girl and began speaking animatedly with his usual dramatic hand gestures.

Csilla giggled in turn. Entertained.

Jericho stared at the two and offered Csilla a small wave when the girl looked up at him. She returned the wave with a faint smile before her gaze drifted to the two-way mirror. Jericho followed her gaze before coming to a stand beside Alice in front of the glass pane.

“Maintenance still hasn’t gotten rid of those stains yet?” Alice grimaced and turned to one of the guards standing beside the door. “Mladen, it’s disgusting to look at.”

Mladen was a tall, lean man with a light mustache, a prominent brow, and an expression of complete indifference. An Aquarian, gauging by his sharp features.

The Aquarian grimaced. “Every time you complain I go up to maintenance and cleaning and tell them. After that we have to take the prisoners out to a separate level while the stains are cleaned out. Then we move them back in. You know what happens after that? More stains appear. And the cycle repeats. Someone is pulling some stupid prank, and I have to suffer for it either way.”

“Give me the names of the maintenance crew, and I’ll deal it with myself if you can’t.”

Stains?

Jericho looked around.

There. It was barely viewable from his current angle, but there was a black streak running along the wall just behind Izsak’s head. It was about the length of his arm, and it looked a bit familiar. It reminded Jericho of the paintings in Atienna’s cave. And…

Jericho turned his head.

There were similar black streaks on the wall behind him.

So it wasn’t a customary design then.

“That doesn’t help me,” Mladen complained. “I’ll just have to move all of them again when the stains reappear.”

Alice sighed and knocked on the steel door.

Elizabeta startled from within and pulled her hand away from her husband’s arm. She turned back towards the door and then glanced at the two-way mirror. Although she couldn’t see them, she nodded in their direction.

“Open the door,” Alice ordered.

Mladen rolled his neck and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a set of keys and inserted one into the slot in the door. There was a cold draft of wind as the door groaned open.

The guard beside Mladen shivered and grimaced. “Saints. They need to turn on the damn heat—”

A loud squelch cut the guard off. The sound was followed by a gurgle and then a steady drip, drip, drip.

Jericho turned, stared, and then tried to piece together the events that had preceded the scene before him. All he had seen was a flash of tangerine light, a glint of metal, and then—and then just red. Red seeping in-between the white tiles of the floor, red bleeding onto the guard’s Ophiuchian armband, red pooling out from the guard’s mouth—his mouth from which a steel beam now protruded. The beam extended almost all the way to the opposite wall, and the weight of the thing dragged the peacekeeper forward. His body crumpled to the floor in an instant, sending red droplets splattering onto the walls as he clutched his throat and gurgled.

“Z-Zeke!” Mladen shouted, rushing to the fallen guard’s side. He glared at the other Ophiuchian guards standing frozen around him. “Conductors! Get the damned medical Conductors! Don’t just stand there!”

“Wait! Nobody move!” Alice snapped.

The door to the cell behind her was just barely open. The chaotic noise from their side seemed to have traveled through the crack in the door, as Jericho could see that Elizabeta had shot up to a stand through the two-way mirror. Izsak, meanwhile, faced the wall and stared at the black smear there.

“Where in saint’s name did that come from?!” shouted another one of the peacekeepers closest to the elevator.

The elevator doors were closed. None of the peacekeeping agents had pulled out their conductors yet. The perpetrator was not in sight.

Jericho whipped his head around to where Talib and Csilla sat. The girl’s face was buried in Talib’s chest, and the man held her tightly while staring at Zeke with wide eyes.

The wall behind the two was glowing. No. The black patterns painted on the wall were glowing—glowing with pale tangerine light. And out from those numerous glowing splotches grew steel beams coated in white luminescence.

Familiar. Manipulator. White. That color.

The world around Jericho began to blur, the surroundings melding into one another.

Calm down. Think. 

Jericho whipped his head around and tackled Alice to the ground just as the steel beams whistled out from the pools of light. The ear-piercing screech was followed by the ring of metal against glass, metal against tiled floor, metal against body. When the sounds dampened, Jericho peeled himself off of Alice and observed his surroundings.

Talib was on the ground as well, body caged protectively over a shivering Csilla. They both looked unharmed. Several other peacekeepers had also made the successful dodge. A number of them, however, were flat on the ground—bodies pierced through with pieces of metal.

The glow from the wall dimmed, leaving behind the black smears that still seemed to hum with a faint energy.

Specialist…? But even for that, this is—

Jericho scrambled to his feet to fully assess the damage. The two-way mirror leading to Ersatz’s cell had shattered and the floor was flooded with blood, bodies, pieces of metal, and fragments of glass. The two way-mirror of Izsak’s cell was, however, still intact—the door, still cracked open just slightly.

Ears ringing, Jericho dashed towards it.

“Jericho, wait!” Alice snapped, rising to a stand only to slip on the blood that dyed the floor crimson.

Ignoring her shout, Jericho ripped the door open and rushed inside.

Elizabeta stared at him wide-eyed as he entered. “Jericho? What’s—”

Jericho’s gaze fixated upon the black streak on the back wall that Izsak was now extending a hand out towards. Before Jericho could move forward, however, he was pushed to the side by another peacekeeping agent. Mladen.

The peacekeeper flicked his gloved hands and conjured a pistol and a combat knife in a flash of deep green light. He pointed the pistol squarely at Izsak, gripped the knife tightly in his other hand, and snapped, “Don’t move, Wtorek!”

“What are you doing?!” Elizabeta hissed at him. “Are you craz—”

The black streak on the wall began to glow with pale tangerine light, bringing with it a chillingly familiar updraft of wind. Something slithered out from that glowing streak. A hand.

Elizabeta whipped her head around and stared at the glow gaping. “What in saint’s name is—”

Izsak started forward, reaching out towards the hand protruding from the wall.

“No!” Elizabeta cried, throwing her body across the table and tackling Izsak to the ground away from the light.

“You’re going to make this very hard for us, aren’t you?”

Jericho froze as the familiar voice drifted out from the glowing light. The same voice from that night at the docks. The same mocking tone. The same feeling building in his chest. A hot iron heat that sent a surge of electricity through his entire body. His head buzzed, his ears rang—

Jericho, calm down. 

The hand retracted back into the pool of light for a beat and then shot outwards again flinging out a spray of red that splashed across the room.

Without thinking, Jericho ducked beneath the splatter. Mladen, however, lifted his hand wielding the knife, and the red droplets caught on to his hand and the blade.

Mladen wiped the droplets from his face with a grimace. “Disgusting—”

And then the blood flecked upon his conjured blade began to glow white. The whiteness consumed the entire thing in an instant. Before the man had the chance to react, the knife flew from his hand and then flipped over to face him with its point. It hovered there for a moment before hurtling forward and piercing his shoulder. The force of the blow sent him flying back out of the doorway. He hit the wall in the hall with a thud before sliding to the ground motionless.

“‘Disgusting’? Isn’t that a bit too harsh? Unsanitary, yes—I have to admit that it is.”

Out from the glowing streak on the wall stepped a young woman dressed in a loosely buttoned blouse and a pair of black slacks. A chain glinted faintly on her neck, barely hidden by her loose rope of braided hair partially concealed her face. By her relaxed demeanor, however, it was evident that the concealment was not done purposefully. She had nothing to hide.

Sighing, the woman paused to brush off her shirt before glancing to the side of the room where Elizabeta remained hovering over Izsak. “You’re not going to cause trouble for us, are you?”

“Stay away from my family,” Elizabeta hissed, eyes fierce and cold. “He’s not one of you!”

The woman sighed again and snapped her conductor gloved fingers. The sound was followed by a whirling whine as the knife from Mladen’s shoulder flew out from his body and into her waiting hand.

“I’m sorry, honey,” Omicron said, pointing the knife at them, “but that man is no longer—”

Jericho rose to a stand, heart hammering, ears ringing, head pounding. If the others were there, he could not hear them or feel them. All he could feel was the heat that was building inside his chest just waiting to explode outwards. A feeling almost forgotten. Never.

Flipping her hair away from her face, the woman turned to face Jericho. In the pale overhead lights shining down from above, the white of the snake tattoo on the left half of her face blended into the pale of her skin.

Omicron. Yes. That was her name. He hadn’t forgotten since that night at the docks in the Twin Cities. He couldn’t recall the pain he’d felt when she’d pierced him through with the steel beams that night, but he could still recall the white glow of her vitae. A member—a leader—of ELPIS in here. In the Serpens Establishment. In the place Alice had said was safe.

Omicron’s eyes widened. “You’re…”

Recognition. Good. Good to know one’s executioner.

Izsak locked eyes with Jericho from beneath Elizabeta and held up a warning hand in the ELPIS leader’s direction. “Omicron, be careful, he’s a—”

What? Why was he—

Jericho grabbed one of the chairs that had toppled to the ground, leaped over the table at the room’s center, and swung the chair at her head. Omicron formed a fist with her gloved hands, and out from the pool of light on the wall behind her came another steel iron bar. The clang of metal against metal rang through the room as the bar slipped through the legs of the chair and locked it in place.

But Jericho was not deterred. He slipped beneath the thing and landed a solid kick to the woman’s chest sending both of them flying back into the wall and into the pool of light. Cold nipped at Jericho’s ears as they tumbled through a stretch of void and light. A tumbling free fall with no end and no beginning and—

—suddenly Jericho was falling out onto the messy floor of a familiar hallway. The floor was wet and red beneath him and littered with shards of glass, steel beams, and unmoving bodies dressed in monochrome.

He was somehow back out in the hall outside of Izsak’s cell. Above him, the black streaks on the wall were once again glowing with light.

Spatial distortion? Even for a Specialist, that’s hard to believe. Regardless. Pay attention. Look out for the other Conductor. Be careful. Get reinf—

Jericho’s ears began to ring again, muting Werner’s cool, calming voice. In the white noise, he began to evaluate his physical condition as Alice had directed him to do over and over again. The fragments of glass from the shattered two-way mirror of Ersatz’s cell had pierced his forearm, but he did not feel the pain. Operational still.

He focused his gaze upon Omicron who lay only a meter or so away from him. She was slowly rising to her feet now, groaning.

There was another peacekeeper laying beside him. At the peacekeeper’s waist were two conductors. One in the shape of a gun, and the other a bladeless hilt.

There was a sudden pang of horror in Jericho’s chest followed by remorse and disgust and pity at the sight of the body—the corpse—and then—

Probably a Projector’s conductor. Probably incompatible with a Specialist. It’s too dangerous—

Olivier.

But those facts didn’t matter.

Jericho lunged for the Projector’s gun, whipped around, and pointed it squarely at Omicron just as she turned to face him. Her eyes widened for a moment before an impassive expression slipped itself over her face. Acceptance. Without hesitation, he pulled the trigger.

The heat and the hum that trembled through the conductor told Jericho that his conducting-type was most definitely incompatible with the conductor. But the conductor still served its purpose. Out from its tip exploded a burst of blinding white light that hurtled right towards the woman’s torso.

In the moment before contact, however, another figure leapt in front of the white blast. The vitae ray caught the figure’s shoulder, and the force of the blast sent him flying back into Omicron. A familiar groan reached Jericho’s ears.

It was Ersatz, who lay draped across Omicron’s body while clutching his shoulder. Omicron stared down at him wide-eyed, before she reached into her pocket and slipped something into his hands. A pendant, knife-shaped and crafted with a glass handle.

Saints—your conductor!

Jericho glanced down and saw that the conducting gun was smoking.

You’re crazy! You cracked the insulator! It’s not usable anymore—

Jericho chucked the thing aside, gaze snapping to the bladeless conductor still at the dead peacekeeper’s waist.

Omicron whipped her gloved hand out again sending three of the steel beams that were scattered around the ground hurtling in his direction.

Jericho dove for the Projector’s blade conductor, activated it, and sliced through the steel beams with ease. Then without hesitating again, he lunged at her.

Omicron pushed Ersatz to the side as she launched herself backwards. She tensed as her escape was shortened by the two-way mirror behind her. Back pressed against the mirror, she glowered.

“You’ll die here,” Jericho stated before he swung again.

Omicron dropped and ducked below the swing but the blade skirted her braid, disintegrating it in an instant and leaving her with a rugged short cut. She flicked her wrist and sent another wave of pipes in his direction from all sides. She slipped out beneath him as he disassembled the pipes with three quick swishes. Before she could get out of his reach however, he grabbed her by what little remained of her hair and threw her back up against the pane. She hit it with a thud and slid to the floor with a slight grimace.

“Haven’t you heard of being a gentleman?” she asked.

Instead of answering, he swung at her again. She moved quicker than before, although she still barely managed to skirt him this time. His conductor, however, did make contact with something on her person—the oddly-shaped pendant of the chain that had been hanging from her neck. The pendant was knife-shaped with a clear handle just like the one she’d handed to Ersatz. It fragmented and shattered in an instant just like everything else Jericho’s vitae touched. This time, however, Omicron’s reaction was different. Her eyes widened in horror; and with a roar, she sent Jericho away from her with a solid kick to the chest.

Jericho hit the black painted wall behind him but immediately popped back up to a stand while flipping the conductor in his hand. The handle of it was hot in his grip, but he didn’t pay it any mind.

Omicron still had a completely stricken look on her face as she gripped the chain around her neck. Distracted.

He made towards her again but Olive’s thoughts rang out once more—

Jericho, it’s hot! You’re overheating the conductor! It hurts—

No sooner did the thought leave his mind did his hand suddenly release the conductor. It fell onto the floor, losing its blade of light immediately. It sizzled and smoked and popped, sparks bursting from its body.

He glanced at his hand. It was red and raw.

“You’re really crazy, you know that?”

He looked up to find Omicron standing and holding her gloved hand out in his direction. Surrounding him from all sides were rows of glowing white pipes. But he stared past them and stared holes into the woman. The woman grimaced and flicked her wrist—

—but before she could bring her hand down, Omicron was abruptly tackled to the side wall by another person. Jericho could barely register that the person was Alice before the two women fell into the glowing pools of light there and disappeared in an instant.

No.

Jericho dashed towards the wall but was stopped by a hand around the wrist. Turning his head, he found Ersatz standing there, eyes wide and livid, practically foaming at the mouth. There were white cracks along man’s body, bleeding out from his wounded shoulder. The cracks were gradually spreading, fragmenting along his lower torso. Still, Ersatz struggled forward, brandishing the knife Omicron had dropped onto the ground moments before. Before Ersatz could even make a move, however, he too was tackled to the side of the wall—and into one of the glowing pools of light—by another peacekeeper. Mladen. In an instant they too were swallowed up.

And then—

—just like that, the light on the wall dimmed into nothing, leaving the black smears looking just as they did when Jericho had first come into the hall.

Jericho drifted to the wall and placed a hand on one of the smears. Cold.

He couldn’t quite comprehend the scene.

Elizabeta was now out in the hall hugging Csilla tightly. There were other peacekeepers filtering in through the elevator. The sirens were blaring. Talib was standing in front of him, shaking him and shouting. Alice. Where was Alice.

Were those his own thoughts or Talib’s shouts. Jericho didn’t know.


(            )

“Oh…” Omega lifted her head as she flipped her hair. She was sitting at the board game table across from Tau and had been using one of her black pieces to capture one of his white ones when her eyes had suddenly glazed over.

“Omega?” Tau pressed, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “What is it?”

Omega returned her attention to the board game, eyes still glazed over, as she finished capturing his piece. “Omicron isn’t in the Serpens Establishment anymore. Neither is Ersatz.”

Tau clicked his tongue at her move and handed one of the black game pieces he’d captured previously back over to her. “That’s good…. Then, where are they?”

“I don’t know,” she hummed, accepting the piece and placing it in the spot that his had previously occupied. She flipped her hair again, this time over her shoulder. “They’re not anywhere that I’ve used my conductor at. I can’t see them through any of my mediums. Oh, but Izsak is still there—”

“What?!” Tau snapped, shooting up to a stand. “That’s not good at all! What was the point of Omicron going there? I knew trusting that peacekeeper was a terrible, awful idea! Dammit! Izsak has valuable information! If I hadn’t lost that damn game with Omicron then—”

“It was the peacekeeper with the suitcase again,” Omega said, voice sing-song. “But he didn’t have his suitcase this time around. What a terrifying person.”

“The suitcase bastard Omicron met in the Twin Cities?” Tau pinched the bridge of his nose. “Again?”

“Theta is off right now,” Omega sang. “I wonder what they’ll do when they find out their knight in shining armor has failed.”


“If someone asked for your help, cried in front of you, or asked for your love, what would you do? Certainly, the easiest answer would be to embrace them. It’s the simplest method with the fastest effect. But giving a hug or a kiss or even offering a drink—these are all temporary measures. What about tomorrow? The day after that? Would you embrace them every single time? And what if you’re no longer around? What then? That is why, Jericho, I will not be like any of the others. I will not simply embrace you.”

Doctor Alice Kingsley, Third Chairwoman of the Psychological Evaluations Department of Ophiuchus

7.6: Jericho’s Peace (Guerra)

Re-cap: 

Synchronization has occurred. 

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

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

And now—

Lepischau, Cancer

“He’s going around back!”

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

Jericho ignored them and scanned the area.

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

There.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There.

The only one who was running away from him.

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

The distance between them closed swiftly.

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

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

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

Hm.

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

What to do.

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

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

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

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

***

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

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

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

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

“It isn’t healthy to make blasé comments like that,” Alice returned. “You may eventually convince yourself that all you are saying is true, and then you may not even be able to discern reality from fiction.”

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

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

“Well—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The ELPIS guy? Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho paused and stared at Ferris. “Really?”

“I—”

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

“Hey, I’m trying—”

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

“Talib, be quiet—”

Jericho watched them fire back and forth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was Elizabeta. Wtorek Elizabeta.

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

Izsak. Wtorek Izsak.

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

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

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

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

“Traitor.”

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

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

“You did not startle me.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

That was true.

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

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

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

The transition from writing in the journal entries to drawing in them had been a smooth one. When Jericho initially received the journal from Alice, he hadn’t been sure of what she wanted from the entries and had spent his free time staring at the blank journal page in thought. But it was during one of the first synchronization meetings that Werner held that Jericho had begun to sketch absentmindedly in the corner of his journal. He rendered the Capricornian Lieutenant in stick-figure form wearing a frown and the Ariesian prince with a scowl and fire spewing from his mouth. Olivier had noticed it first, glancing down at the drawing before snickering. Werner hadn’t been pleased and had made his displeasure known in a concise five-minute lecture. “A hobby was acceptable,” was something along the lines of what he’d said, “but a distraction was not.”

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

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

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

Praise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that something Talib has said?”

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

Jericho stiffened under her gaze.

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

Jericho accepted the journal.

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

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

Olivier was.

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

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

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

“Traitor.”

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

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

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

White. ELPIS.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

2.6: Jericho Raid

Re-cap:

Peacekeeper Jericho has just arrived in the Twin Cities with his assigned partner Talib Al-Jarrah to investigate the disappearance of fellow peacekeeping agent Leona–a case to which he has been reassigned. He has been introduced to fellow agents Gabrielle Law and Wtorek Izsak who are off to investigate an assassination attempt on the Ariesian prince. Jericho finds himself very familiar with the city and stumbles upon a demolished bar which he somehow knows falls under the ownership of the Foxman Family. 

Surprised by Jericho’s knowledge, Talib then informed Jericho that that he had arranged a meeting with the Foxmans and the Romanos for them. 

Twin Cities, Gemini

“Jericho.”

Jericho sat up from his bed in the darkness. The doorway across from him was illuminated and crowded by a familiar silhouette.

“Jericho. My wallet. It’s gone. The Organization stole my wallet.”

“You lost your wallet?”

“No!” The lights to the room flicked on, and Talib’s form was revealed. Disheveled curls, wide and searching eyes, heaving shoulders. “The Organization stole it! They knew it was a limited-edition denim Libran designer wallet! It was diamond-studded and everything!”

“You were pickpocketed,” Jericho concluded.

“Yes.” Talib nodded. “Pickpocketed by a member of the Organization.”

Jericho thought on this before he shook his head. “You bumped into someone earlier. He must have taken it.”

Talib opened his mouth to argue but instead gave Jericho a steady once over. “Did I interrupt your nap?”

Jericho swung his legs off the bed. “I wasn’t sleeping.”

At least he didn’t think he had been. Time seemed to bend oddly when he had been lying down staring at the ceiling. Was it an hour that had passed? Several minutes? An entire day?

He walked over to the storage chest at the foot of his bed. He clicked it open and pulled out his suitcase. His change of clothing was still inside, as was his conductor. And Izsak’s stuffed animal. He pulled the case out and rose to his feet. Talib was still staring at him from the doorway.

“Our meeting with the Romano Family and the Foxmans?”

Talib checked his wristwatch. In turn, Jericho reached into his suit pocket for a pocket watch he didn’t own. He stared at his hand when he found nothing and then returned his attention to Talib.

“The meeting is in about an hour,” the man said, walking over to the bed next to Jericho’s. He knelt down beside his own chest, flipped it open, and pulled out his folded suit and a colorful stack of small, square papers. “Do you want to shower first or…?”

“I don’t need to shower.”

Talib placed the stack of papers on the bed and rose to his feet. “Everyone needs a shower, my friend. To wash off the deeds of the day. To refresh oneself. To appear presentable, not only for oneself but for one’s companions.”

Jericho paused.

Appearances were everything.

“And, of course, to do away with any possible trackers that the Organization might have on you.”

* * *

Jericho’s hair was still damp when they arrived in front of the cobblestone building an hour later. The walls of the building were also damp despite the lack of rain. A result of the fog rolling in from the not so far bay, Jericho concluded.

They were greeted by a large, burly man who motioned them in without a change in expression. A silent guide, he led them through a hazy dining hall saturated with the sounds of clinking wine glasses and laugh-filled chatter. Between those paired noises, a saxophone blared out a hoppy tune complemented by some hidden singer. They passed through this hall quickly and entered the kitchen in the back. Jericho met eyes with some of the kitchen staff before pushing through a curtain-draped passage at the end. After being led down a long flight of stairs, they arrived in front of a twin set of mahogany doors with golden handles. With a grunt, they were ushered inside.

The room within was fashioned similarly to the dining hall upstairs, save for the ornately designed columns that rose up from the wooden floorboards and the single rectangular table that occupied the room. At the table sat four men. One was noticeably older than the others and had a graying, balding head. He sat at the table’s head. He was neither heavyset nor overly thin. His sun-kissed face paired with the silver streaks that ran through his mustache gave him a friendly look. Like he could reach out one of his heavily ringed hands and offer a lovin’ pat on the head.

To the old man’s left sat a young man. His light brown hair was loosely styled back, and his caramel-colored eyes seemed almost amused despite the professional dark red suit he wore. The two men to the older man’s right were also in similar suits although theirs were of different colors. Blue and green. Neither were smiling with their eyes. Their grim expressions seemed unfitting.

Talib stepped forward first, approaching the table with an extended hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Don Romano.” He spoke in lightly-accented Geminian that Jericho vaguely understood. Odd. He’d never taken any lessons in learning languages outside Common.

The old man who was evidently Don Romano accepted the gesture with a nod. “Agent Talib al-Jarrah, right?” He spoke in Common, and his voice was baritone and croaky like something was stuck in his throat. “It’s a pleasure to have an Ophiuchian visiting our fair city. Please do speak in Common.”

“If you wish,” Talib agreed. “I don’t want to butcher your beautiful language, after all.”

The don smiled.

Francis Foxman stood after and introduced himself. Then came Allen and Carl’s introductions which were brief and unsmiling. It didn’t occur to Jericho until all men were looking at him that he had known their names before they had given them. And because he already knew their names, he had thought that they already knew his. But as the silence stretched on, he realized that was not the case.

Jericho approached the table with an extended hand. “Jericho.”

Another round of curt, yet firm handshakes.

Don Romano gestured for both of them to sit at the other end of the table. They obliged and met eyes as they did.

Idle—‘obligatory’ as Alice often called it—conversation started. There was talk of weather, friendly and daily ongoings, and other things Jericho did not believe pertained to their purpose.

“Is there something wrong, Mr. Jericho?” Francis Foxman asked, turning his head away from Talib’s train ride tale to meet Jericho’s focused gaze.

“We’re looking for an Ophiuchian agent. Talib informed you before we came. They passed by here three to four days ago,” Jericho supplied nonplussed. “Have you seen anything unusual within this time frame?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Jericho could see Talib half-grimace. Allen’s brows rose, Carl looked torn between perplexed and smug, while Francis seemed as nonchalant as always.

“Right, your reason for being here.” Don Romano rubbed his chin. “You two are the first peacekeepers I have seen face-to-face in a decade. I was actually very surprised by your call, Mr. al-Jarrah. I trusted that Ophiuchus had enough confidence in us to allow us to run our operations without interruption. If another Ophiuchian was sent here earlier without our foresight, then…”

“Of course, Ophiuchus is very aware of the contributions made by your businesses in keeping peace,” Talib interjected before Jericho could even open his mouth. “Although the peacekeeper in question was here several days ago, the Twin Cities was not her destination. She was headed for Aries for a case.”

Francis’s smile faltered. “You’re not referring to the assassination attempt, are you?”

“That is correct.”

“Ha, well, they did a sh—”

A loud thud from beneath the table silenced Carl before he could finish. It was followed by a yelp from and then a glare directed in Francis’s direction.

“It seems as if they’ve failed in the task they were given.” Don Romano did not seem amused nor contempt when he spoke. And despite his words being curt and simple with no questions attached, Jericho felt inclined to answer. It seemed as if Talib felt the same because the man cleared his throat and nodded.

“Yes, they failed their task,” Talib said. He folded his hands beneath his chin. “And it’s something that all departments in Ophiuchus are curious about. But we don’t have an answer for the failure. And that’s because the peacekeeper in question—as I’ve said—went missing right before she was to board her train to the Ariesian capital. Right here in this capital.”

Jericho waited for Talib to mention the organization, but Talib never did. The silence that stretched on in place of his usual ranting was long.

“Which is why my associate here is asking if you’ve seen anything strange recently,” Talib finally concluded.

Another beat of silence.

Don Romano either let out a heavy sigh or took in a deep breath. “These cities are large, Mr. al-Jarrah. I am not even foolishly arrogant enough to say that I am aware of everything that happens in my domain—which is only this half of the Twin Cities, mind you.” He chuckled. “Perhaps I should retire.”

Showin’ vulnerability while hidin’ vulnerability. This man was definitely wise in his years. Someone who dealt with all types of people.

But…

…he was also cunningly kind. Calculated neglect paired with rationed praise. Even knowin’ this…

“Any information will be helpful. Anything out of the ordinary.”

“You’re in the Twin Cities,” Carl said. “There’s nothing ordinary about any day.” He paused and glanced across the table at Francis and then at Romano. “With all due respect, of course.”

Francis reached into his coat pocket where he pulled out a stack of v-cigs. He offered it around the table before selecting one for himself and lighting it with a flick of his wrist.

“As I’m aware, you do not have a Conducting License, Mr. Foxman.” Talib inclined his head toward Francis’s hand. “Despite your position, you are not above prime laws. Without a license, it is illegal to operate a conductor. Depending on the type of conductor in question, the repercussions can be quite serious.”

“If I recall correctly, that law only applies to weaponized and generator-type conductors.” Francis waved his cig in the air in-between two fingers. “I’m afraid to say that this is just for show. A normal general conductor.”

Talib’s brows raised to almost comical levels. “I see. Forgive me. I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m only doing my job.”

“Of course.” Francis smiled thinly. “We all are—”

“Anything unusual,” Jericho repeated, “would be helpful. Thank you.”

Allen and Carl exchanged looks as they always did while Francis seemed to stifle a laugh like he normally did in these types of situations. The boss, on the other hand, remained unreadable.

Then again, Jericho didn’t quite understand what type of situation this was. Too nostalgic and friendly to be a matter of investigation and business. His head was beginning to hurt but he ignored it.

Francis hummed before letting out an ‘ah’ of realization. “Well, actually…” He took a drag of his cigarette. “One of our cargo ships left the docks without our prior notice, but that’s a personal affair. Nothing to do with your missing agent.”

Jericho had known about the cargo ship, but he didn’t know how.

“As you can see, miscommunication is the greatest downfall in any relationship.” Saying this, Romano clasped his hands and leaned forward. Met Jericho’s eyes.

Jericho stared back.

There it was again. That itch to answer a question that had not been asked.

“What about your business that was burned to the ground?” Jericho asked. “That seems unusual.” Talib kicked his leg underneath the table for some reason. Jericho ignored it and continued, “It may tie in with our investigation.”

“I see word gets around fast.” Francis took another drag. “Your concern is warranted, but that was just an accident. The conductor generator in the building overheated. Led to a blown insulator and an explosion. It was a very tragic occurrence. We lost many patrons and many of our employees.”

Jericho stared at him. “The conductor didn’t overheat. Your bar was attacked. Why are you lying?”

Something in the atmosphere snapped in two. It snapped so abruptly and with such force that even Jericho became aware of it. Aware he had misspoken.

The bud of Francis’s loosely held cigarette dribbled ash onto the table.

All eyes were on Jericho, but he didn’t care. All he wanted was an answer. And then he would be one step closer to—

Talib cleared his throat and laughed heartily while clapping Jericho on the shoulder. “Ah, yes, my associate Jericho here is using an old Ophiuchian interrogation technique, you see. It’s a very old, yet effective thing. Used in the olden days when Ophiuchus first started as a peacekeeping organization. Absolute confidence. He’s a stickler for the past and—”

“It is understandable for there to be doubt between us.” Don Romano smiled as if amused. “After all, by name, you peacekeepers represent justice. By rumor, we represent the opposite. Trust is something that must be forged by hand—”

“But I do. I trust you.” Jericho turned to the don and looked him up and down. He then glanced at Francis and Carl and Allen.

The room was silent.

“Which is why I don’t understand why you’re lying about this. Hiding information from us acts as an obstruction of justice. Peace.” Jericho blinked. This was a fact.

Francis shook his head, flicked the line of ash from his cigarette, and took a drag. “If you trust us,” he said with a thin smile, “then trust me when I say that whatever is occurring with our establishment has nothing to do with your missing peacekeeper. It’s a personal matter.”

The smile looked like it could cut through steel.

“Of course.” Talib reached out of his pocket and pulled out a square piece of yellow paper. He placed it down on the desk and pushed it toward Francis. “Well, if you think of anything, please write it down here. It’d benefit us both if we work together.”

* * *

“Well, that was awkward.”

Jericho was winding down a long stretch of cobblestone stairs alongside Talib. The stairs curved around high-rise buildings that scratched at the darkening sky. The buildings seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions and were pressed up tight against each other. Despite this, it felt much easier to breathe here.

Their descent was crowded with people rushing up and down. And Jericho wasn’t sure if he was tasting the smoke from the city, smoke from the pipe of the woman next to him, or the lingering ashen smog from Francis’s cigarette. Above the echoing voices that volleyed within the walls around them, Jericho could barely hear Talib speak. He managed to interpret the man’s words from studying the movement of his lips. But unfortunately, Jericho did not know how to respond to Talib’s statement and settled on a change of topic:

“They were lying.”

Talib inclined his head before stroking his nonexistent beard. “Yes, yes, I believe they were.” He pushed up his hat and ruffled his hair. “It seems as if their pub incident has to do with bad blood.”

“Bad blood?”

“Yes, poor relations. Maybe one group wronged another. Maybe a rival family—although, I doubt that’s the case. From what I know, the two families are trying to hold a peace between them.” Talib readjusted his hat. “So maybe it’s something akin to a petty sense of justice or maybe… vengeance?”

“Vengeance…” Jericho tried the word. It melted in his mouth.

“I noticed that you seemed very, very passionate about this case, my friend. While I do agree with the sentiment that the families are overstepping bounds and need to be dealt with, I don’t think direct confrontation is the way to go. It’s very messy,” Talib said. He peered out at Jericho from beneath the brim of his hat. “Passion is neither good nor bad. Without it, there would be nothing to drive a person to a dream.”

Jericho blinked at him.

“Well, no matter. I’m sure the Romanos and the Foxmans have all the assets they need to handle their situation. What I’m interested in is that ship that left their port at the bay without their notice.”

Jericho tilted his head. “You think the disappearance is tied to the Foxmans?”

“Tied to them, yes. Whether it’s a tightly wound string or a loosely wound one is the question. But a tie is still a tie. Something is there.” Talib scratched his chin. “Just like the Organization. Slow, steady, but relentless. That’s passion for you.” He tapped his nose. “It would give me ease of mind if we crossed the Foxmans off the list.” He quickened his pace a little and slid his hands into his pockets. “It warrants a looking into, doesn’t it?”

Of course, it did. Anything that could involve ELPIS did.

Jericho took a step after him and—

“We are ELPIS.”

Jericho stopped short and whipped his head around. Nothing. Just an ordinary street crowded with ordinary people, many of whom sent him a glare as he blocked their way. Even still, that word rang in his ear, worming its way out from his temple.

Where had it come from?

Raising his hand to his ear, Jericho combed through the area with eyes. Nothing, nothing, nothing. And yet there was that feeling again. Like something was stringing him along.

His left foot moved first. Then his right. Forward and forward into a brisk walk. Weaving past the pedestrians around him. Destination unknown. Down the stairs to the bottom. Through the one-road streets loosely dotted with v-ehicles. Past the fallen TwinStars Pub. Forward through a haze of humid fog.

Onward, onward, until the noisy chatter of the city became drowned out by the sloshing of waves against a cement ridgeline. Onward until the acrid smell of smoke became drenched with the smell of seaweed and brine.

Finally, Jericho came to a halt. He didn’t know how long he’d been walking, but he was sure it was a long time because he was now out of breath. He glanced around but could see nothing through the thick haze that surrounded him. He was lost. No, that wasn’t it.

The fog around him peeled away revealing the other end of the invisible string.

Before him loomed a warehouse with cracked wooden walls and cracked windows that bled out warm light. Even from this distance, he could hear muffled shouting from within.

Warehouse number 13.

Despite the pull, Jericho knew this place had nothing to do with the case. Nothing to do with Leona. Nothing to do with ELPIS other than that coincidental number. Nothing keeping him there, but—

help me.

This was not the first time Jericho had heard a cry for help from within his mind. Echoes of the past were always present—so much so that sometimes he thought they were more than just phantoms. It was during these times that Doctor Kingsley advised him to focus on a physical object he knew was real but—

someone help me.

But this was the first time that Jericho heard a cry that resounded so loudly. The cry drilled out from his temple and encircled him.

He had to go. He couldn’t not go.

He started forward and—

Something wrapped around his wrist and stopped him from pursuing the echo any further. A hand. Talib’s hand. The man was panting heavily and wiped the sweat from his forehead as he doubled over.

“There’s something going on inside the warehouse.”

Talib straightened and adjusted his hat. His eyes narrowed as he seemed to strain his ears. “So it seems.”

Jericho turned back to the warehouse. His head pounded. “We should go investigate.”

Talib held up a hand. “Wait. Let’s not go rushing into things without knowing what we’re rushing into. This may not be within the jurisdiction of our investigation.”

Jericho frowned. “It may involve Leona.” A lie with no ground. He was not very good at lying or, so he’d been told.

“And how would that be so?”

Jericho stared.

“I’m not suggesting we leave it be. We’re peacekeepers by profession, Mr. Jericho. Peace requires patience and planning. We don’t want to accidentally kick start an incident.”

“Then…”

Talib winked and tapped his nose. “I trust your intuition. From what I’ve seen, you seem to be blessed with a very good one. That or you’re psychic.” Before Jericho could even question the odd theory, Talib cleared his throat loudly with hands on hips. “But you are too forward. Regardless, you’re my partner. And so, acting on our contract—”

“Contract?”

“Will you allow me to first survey the area before you enter?”

The earnestness of the question was both suiting and unfitting for Talib. Jericho nodded.

Talib reached into his trench-coat pocket and pulled out two items. The first was the stack of colorful, square papers from earlier, which he placed on the ground. The second was a silver pen with a hollow glass center. It looked like it was out of ink.

Flourishing his hands out dramatically and kneeling to the ground, Talib raised the tip of the pen in the air and lightly tapped it onto the plain white top sheet of paper. The tip pierced through the sheet. Dark blue light began to spill into the ink container of the pen. The light trickled down the sides of the container and dribbled down to the pen’s point before bleeding out onto the white paper. From there, it coated the sheet in a translucent dark blue glow.

Talib lifted his pen away. His eyes were glazed, seemingly focused on some distant point on the sheet. The paper trembled beneath his gaze before its corners drew up toward each other as if guided by an unseen hand. After the corners met, it creased and folded and creased and folded again and again.

The finished product was a bird. No. A crane. An origami crane with paper wings that lifted it into flight just above Talib’s head.

Talib pressed his pen—his conductor—onto the next square of paper which was an orange-yellow color. After absorbing the vitae from his conductor, the paper folded itself into a similar crane and floated up beside its white companion.

Talib repeated this pattern three more times with his eyes becoming more and more glassy with each conduction. When he finished, a rainbow of five paper cranes flapped around his head.

“I’ve never seen a Manipulator manipulate more than two objects before.”

Talib didn’t respond.

The origami cranes departed from their circular route around his head and headed toward the warehouse. They slipped in through the cracks between the wooden walls and disappeared from sight.

Soon, Talib grimaced. “There’s a confrontation going on inside…. they… one of the groups look like children… I…”

“What about the other group?”

“They’re saying that they’re…” Talib hesitated, brows furrowing. His unfocused eyes widened. “ELPIS.”

That was all Jericho needed to hear. In an instant, he was in front of the warehouse doors. Delivering a swift kick, he blew them open. A gust of wind whistled through the chaos unfolding within. But none of the participants in the chaos acknowledged him. Some of them couldn’t.

Nothing within the warehouse was without motion. Not the barrels of trash fire rolling along the ground nor the fragments of wooden crates being blasted through the air. Not the screaming children who darted left and right—some in flight, some in fight. Not the figures dressed in white cloaks that become stained with red.

Snip by snip. Snapshot by snapshot. It was almost the same. The only thing missing was the sand and the beat of the sun—

No, something else was missing. That feeling wasn’t there.

A sudden animalistic roar came from his left, and Jericho turned just in time to see a cloaked figure swing at him with an axe that had a blade-bit made of yellow light. Dodging the blade with a swift step backward, Jericho swung his suitcase up and cracked it against the figure’s temple. There was a splatter of red. The figure slumped to the ground with their conductor still flickering yellow in their hand.

Jericho stared at the conductor.

So, that was what it was. It wasn’t the same after all—

Help me!

Jericho snapped his head to the right. Just a couple of meters away lay the corpse of an adolescent. Half of their face was missing. Most likely shot through by a Projector conducting gun of some type. Dead upon impact.

Jericho did not linger. Something drew his attention away. Not a shout or a scream. Not a flash of light or a blur of a makeshift weapon. No. A pulling feeling. That string again.

He made his way around the chaos while dodging children who swung wooden planks and steel crowbars blindly while tucking beneath rays and blades of psychedelic light. Jericho maneuvered around the chaos with ease. No one present appeared to be a professional Conductor.

He dodged the swing of a bat while ducking under a ray of vitae when he saw it.

Him.

There—just behind the hull of a torn-down ship. A familiar boy was dragging along another, much younger girl by the arm. The boy had a scar running across his face. Despite having never seen this boy before in his life, Jericho knew that his name was Duccio.

But that was just who the boy appeared to be. Appearances were deceiving.

Jericho’s gaze flicked behind the children where a figure in a white cloak swung at them with a glowing conductor blade. A Projector. The boy shoved the younger to the side. The white figure hesitated for a moment before continuing after the boy.

The boy became agitated at this and whipped her head around to gauge the distance between her and her pursuer. A mistake on his part. He didn’t see the steel beam that jutted up from the floor in front of him and tripped right over it. He rolled forward before scrambling to his knees. He turned her head.

The white-cloaked figure was already at his feet and raising his weapon in the air.

Jericho rushed between them, kicking the figure’s weapon-wielding hand into the air and swinging his suitcase right in the figure’s gut. There was a mix of a yelp and a wheeze; he flew back into a pile of wooden crates.

Jericho didn’t check to see if the white figure was immobilized. Instead Jericho stared down at the boy.

Jericho’s head buzzed.

But the ever-present dull headache that had been invading his mind since he had woken up from the medical Conductor’s room in Ophiuchus ebbed away. His head felt clearer than ever before. A clarity that reminded him of his childhood days before the war’s end. Like a splash of cool water washing away the sand that had made home in the cracks of his dry skin. Yes. It was a refreshing, nostalgic sensation just like that. Like water. That too was the manner in which the boy’s face peeled away, revealing an entirely different face underneath. A shimmering splash—a wash—of copper light. Vitae. Revealed beneath the light was a boyish freckled face, a pair of caramel brown eyes, and hair as wild and red as fire. But this was not a boy nor was it a girl. It was a young woman.

“Jericho,” the young woman said his name despite him not having given it.

“Cadence,” Jericho returned. “How do I know your name?”

She stared, smirked, and then asked in Geminian: “How am I supposed to know tha—” Her eyes widened, and she shouted in Common: “Look out!”

Jericho turned his head and brought his suitcase up just in time to catch the swing of a steel, spiked bat in the handle of his suitcase. His assailant let out a gasp of surprise which was then followed by a shout of alarm as Jericho jerked the assailant’s weapon into the air with a tug of his suitcase. He plucked the bat out of the air and drove it up his attacker’s chin. His attacker flew backward and collapsed to the ground a meter away.

Jericho turned his eyes from the fallen figure and back to the young woman. Cadence.

“You killed him…”

“I believe I merely incapacitated him.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. You incapacitated him.” Cadence hopped to her feet and circled him. He followed her path with his eyes and blinked when she came to a stop in front of him. “And he attacked you.”

“Yes.”

“Which means he saw you.”

“Correct.”

“Which means you’re real.”

“I believe I am.”

“But you’re like the rest of ’em, aren’t ya…?”

Jericho paused and thought on this. He had been too focused on his objective and the possible ties his objective had with ELPIS to pay any of it enough mind but…

“I think I am.”

Cadence looked him up and down incredulously before hesitantly reaching forward with her hand. She pressed hers against his.

Electricity surged through his entire body at the contact. Cadence must have felt it too—he knew that she did—because she let out a surprised yelp and pulled away. He did not allow her to pull away any further, however, and reached out for her arm and tugged her to his chest—which allowed her to just barely skirt a bright ray of purple vitae that seemed to have come from nowhere. Instead of hitting her square in the chest, as was its original destination, it burrowed through a stack of metal beams behind her.

Cadence chuckled at the sight of the singed metal. “Always heard ELPIS members were violently crazy, but this is a whole ’nother level.” Amusement or fear—Jericho couldn’t tell which one the young woman was chuckling with. On the surface at least. But somehow, deep down, he knew exactly what sort of emotion was behind the statement. As if the feeling were his own.

“They are not ELPIS.”

Cadence stared. “Not to hark on my savior or anything, but these folks literally burst through the doors and said, ‘We are ELPIS.’”

“They were lying.” Jericho swung his suitcase at another white-cloaked figure who charged at them before he pulled Cadence by the scruff out of the line of fire of a conjured gun. “Appearances are deceiving.”

Cadence, still dangling from the collar of her shirt, raised a brow. “So I’m assumin’ you’re not the one who is all ‘appearances are everything’ then.”

Jericho glanced down at her. “No… that wasn’t me.”

“But you know what I’m talkin’ about then.” Cadence hummed. “And I thought so. You don’t seem like the type.” Then she frowned. “If they ain’t ELPIS then—”

Jericho dropped her in favor of catching the wooden swing of a child’s bat. He jerked it out of the child’s hands, paused as he felt Cadence’s stare, and then tossed the bat to the side. He stepped forward which sent the child stumbling back. He paused as a faint, static-filled memory scratched at the edge of his mind. But before the memory could fully form, Cadence stepped in-between the two and gave the child a toothy smile and jerked her thumb backward.

“Ya better skedaddle, kid. The guy you just swung at? Take a good look at that sash on his arm.”

The child’s eyes flicked to the band on Jericho’s arm. The child must not have noticed it in all the chaos, but beneath the overhead v-lights that shone brightly down on them, the sash now glowed. The child’s eyes widened.

Cadence grinned. “The Ophiuchians are here now.”

With trembling lips, the child scrambled backward and darted away without throwing a look back. Cadence cackled at this. “It sure is nice to have friends who gotta bitta international pull, right?”

Friends? Was that what they were? Doctor Kingsley had always told him that creating a supportive social circle was one of the best ways to facilitate reintegration. It was something that Kingsley had always encouraged him to put more effort into. And here this individual was offering friendship. Kingsley would let him be if he agreed, correct?

Unsure how to respond, Jericho replied with a thank you.

Cadence raised a brow. “You’re really savin’ my ass here, so I should be thankin’ you.”

He stared at her. And then somehow, he realized: “You work with Don Romano and the Foxmans.”

There was no change in her expression. Before he could pursue the matter any further, she held up both hands and shook her head. “Is now really the time ta be talkin’ about this?” She gestured to his suitcase. “And isn’t there a weapon inside there that’s more effective than swinging that around?” She paused and gave a lopsided grin. “And I ain’t talkin’ about the stuffed animal.”

Jericho put his hands around his case and drew it to his chest. “My conductor is only used for dealing with true members of ELPIS.”

“And is that your choice or your lady doc’s choice?”

Jericho froze.

The clarity that had splashed upon Jericho dripped away. Replaced by the murkiness that had been present from even before he fell down those stairs. The particles of the past that clung to him tightly clouding his mind.

Cadence seemed to notice this change because she started, held her head, and then frowned. “Hey, I—”

It was then that the doors to the warehouse flew open once more. Jericho tensed and whipped his head in the direction before he brought up his suitcase.

The threshold was once again crowded by an army of silhouettes with conductors in hand. The sensation of déjà vu was dizzying but Jericho remained focused. As he lifted his suitcase in preparation, a hand was abruptly placed on his shoulder.

Cadence pointed at the suitcase. “Call me a bit proud, but I doubt an old suitcase could hurt our heavy guns, ya know?”

‘Our heavy guns’?

Jericho returned his attention to the doorway. All those who stood there were in suits. After one of them gave a shout in what sounded like Geminian, they all charged forward. Anyone who wasn’t in a suit was their enemy, it seemed. Without hesitation, they swung their conductors. Unlike the white-cloaked figures, these individuals seemed like they were trained Conductors. Licensed, perhaps.

“Wonder how they got here,” Cadence said as she watched the tide of battle change as if for sport. She glanced at him. “Not ta be rude but ya don’t seem like the type ta plan ahead for things like these.”

As if to answer her question, one of the suited men came to a skidding halt in front of them after firing a pistol conductor at one of the cloaked figures.

“You all right, Morello?” the man asked in Geminian, and Jericho found himself vaguely able to understand him. Not lifting his gaze from the battle scene, the man reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a slip of heavily creased paper. It was square, white, and had a tear at the center. There was a message scrawled in blue ink: warehouse 13—possible internal family-related incident. “Some Manipulator sent this to us. Ophiuchian apparently.” The man paused, seeming to finally realize Jericho’s presence. He eyed the armband and then gave an awkward salute. “W-We’re glad to accept your assistance, sir.” His Common was very accented.

Jericho lowered his case. “There is no assistance. This incident does not fall within our jurisdiction.”

Both Cadence and the man exchanged looks.

“But then…” the suited man began. For some reason, Jericho knew that this man’s name was Donatello.

“This appears to be an internal situation. It does not seem to involve our case. These are not truly ELPIS members.”

“How do you—”

Cadence held her hand up to silence Donatello and tipped her hat. “Well, regardless, thanks for comin’ here to save me even though I ain’t in your jurisdiction.” She extended a hand. “Cadence Morello.”

Jericho stared at the hand for a long moment as he listened to the battle raging on in the background. It didn’t seem like the appropriate place to be doing this exchange.

“It’s never an appropriate time or place unless ya make it one.”

Jericho thought on this for a minute before he ceded. “Jericho.” He accepted the gesture.

The brushing of their fingertips sparked electricity again but left their palms warm.

Donatello glanced between them in confusion.

* * *

The situation was dealt with swiftly.

It was a very efficient execution.

The white-cloaked individuals were herded together into an inescapable corner by a team of suited men. One of the cloaked figures broke away from the group, scrambled to their knees, and begged to be spared.

Cadence, who had been hanging on the outskirts of the scene, frowned. “Wait—”

But the man who headed the raid—the man who looked as if he’d just come from a funeral—raised his hand and brought it down swiftly. Alongside his fist came a rain of Projectors’ vitae bolts. The flashing lights that pelted down were dizzyingly nostalgic. If Jericho closed his eyes, he was certain he’d slip into the past. Instead of doing that, Jericho glanced at Cadence.

She’d tried to speak with him more after their aid came. About what was happening between them and why. But whatever it was, it was not pertinent to his case. When he’d told her this, she’d stared and laughed before shaking her head and walking off with a wave. Now, she seemed pale. In the flashing light, she looked almost sick. Which didn’t make much sense to Jericho. This was her profession, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it common to see things like this?

He glanced back at Cadence. There was color in her cheeks again, and she was wearing a crooked smile. All in order.

A sudden dull pain shot through his arm, and he stared down in confusion. Nothing out of the ordinary. No injury visible.

He glanced back at Cadence. She was still smiling but she was gripping her arm. There was no injury visible there. The only thing out of the ordinary was a faint trail of scarlet that ended a couple of meters away from her. But the floor was painted in red. It was difficult to tell the source of the trail.

He rubbed his arm absentmindedly.

It had been a while since he noticed pain.

Manipulator: a Conductor who falls into one of the five general conducting-type categories. Manipulators utilize vitae strictly intraneously. They are able to inject their internal vitae into objects and manipulate the physical movements of those objects. Some are even capable of using their object of manipulation as a medium and ‘see’ through the medium. (Manipulation of living things is highly outlawed and highly dangerous to both the Manipulator and their victim.)*

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran with an addendum by the Literary Department of Ophiuchus

1.6: Jericho Track

Re-cap:

Peacekeeper Jericho has just been assigned an investigative mission regarding a Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict out near Gradstall. His evaluator Doctor Kngsley gravely has shown her disaproval of his joining of the mission due to his nature.

As he prepared to leave Ophiuchus, however, he was pushed down the stairs and gravely injured by a mysterious individual.

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“The Conductors from the Medical Department have cleared me for travel.”

“So they have,” Alice Kingsley returned thickly. She sat across from him at her desk with crossed legs and arms. In front of her was a file with his name on it. She clicked her tongue. “The times certainly are tense.”

“Yes,” Jericho said after a beat. “If you clear me too, I can aid the Ophiuchian mission for peace.”

Alice waved him off. “Don’t try that with me. I’ve told you many times before—it doesn’t work with me.” She leaned forward and stared into him. “Let me get this clear. You’re insisting that you fell down the stairs.”

“I tripped,” Jericho amended.

“A trip that left you a bloody mess at the front of our SERPENS Establishment.”

Jericho nodded. “I am a klutz.”

Silence.

Alice did not smile. Jericho was unsure how to react.

“I can’t help people who don’t seek help themselves,” Alice clipped, tapping her fingers on his portrait photograph clipped to the file. “Since you’re insisting that you merely tripped, there is no evidence at present that allows me to hold you back.”

“So,” Jericho tried, “I’ve been cleared?”

“You’ve been reassigned.”

Jericho blinked. “Reassigned?”

“The team handling the Capricornian-Aquarian conflict has already departed,” Alice explained. “They left while you were in the Medical Department.”

“… Oh.”

“Instead, you’re being assigned to a missing person’s case,” Alice continued. She studied him, then made a sound that he assumed was a laugh. “No need to look disappointed. Any case assigned to an Ophiuchian is high profile. But even if that weren’t the case, shouldn’t someone who’s chosen to serve as an Ophiuchian agent not care whether or not something is high profile? Are we not called by those outside these borders as neutral peacekeepers?”

“Yes.”

Alice leaned back in her chair and studied him long and hard before she elaborated: “The missing individual is an Ophiuchian agent.”

Jericho perked up at this.

“You may have heard of her. Leona.”

“Leona.”

“The soon-to-be Chairman of the ELPIS Department, and an individual who completed the State Conductor Exam with the second highest score of all time. And a saint candidate.” Alice laced her fingers together and frowned. “The very fact that no one has seen her face and yet everyone knows these things highlights her position in our current world. Some say she is even the symbol of Ophiuchus. Peace.” Alice seemed to chuckle at the thought.

After wondering if he should laugh along, Jericho tried, “That’s… bad.”

There was a long pause of silence.

“I don’t know all the details, but the agent was last seen in the Twin Cities of Gemini,” Alice finally said, closing the folder gently. “And it seems as if you were granted your wish. This may involve ELPIS, although the uncertainty of it has not allowed the ELPIS Department to be dispatched.” She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Your train is to depart in an hour, so it’s best that you get ready. It would be unfortunate if you were to miss it again.”

* * *

Jericho arrived at the Grand Snake Train Station with a single suitcase in hand. In it was one change of clothes and his conductor.

The station was as busy as usual. Ophiuchian Conductors dressed in their monochrome uniforms crowded the platforms and left little room to breathe. Wrapped around many of their right upper arms was a white sash with the Ophiuchian symbol—the letter U with a wave running through its center—emblazoned on it. Interspersed between the agents were a handful of individuals who were not dressed in monochrome. Rather than boarding the trains, they were leaving them. They were most likely citizens here to submit requests for aid.

“Mister Jericho…?”

Jericho blinked down and found a young woman standing at his side. She was very small and slender. Tiny. He would not have even seen her if it weren’t for that pink.

Bubblegum pink. That was the color of her pixie-cut.

“You are Mister Jericho, right? Of the General Investigations Department?”

Jericho nodded.

“I’m Ferris Hart. Cancerian.” She extended her hand. “I work in the Assignment Department.”

Jericho stared at her hand for a moment before he shook it. For some odd reason, her face lit up at this and she cleared her throat and straightened her uniform.

“Please follow me, and I’ll introduce you to who you’ll be working with.”

Jericho followed the young woman through the crowd and nearly ran into her when she stopped short in front of a signpost. He glanced up. Platform 2, it read.

Two men and one woman stood by the sign, all dressed in monochrome suits. One man stood leaning against the post with his arms crossed, wearing a trench coat over his uniform and a homburg hat tipped over his eyes.

“Hey, everyone,” Ferris greeted them with a small wave before clearing her throat. She stepped to the side and gestured to Jericho. “This is Jericho. He’s been assigned the missing person’s case. Please introduce yourselves.”

The agent who introduced himself first stood a head taller than Jericho. He had curly light brown hair that was haphazardly slicked back. The pair of horn-rimmed glasses perched on his hawk nose made his hazel eyes seem twice as large.

“Wtorek Izsak—Izsak being my first name,” the man said with a bright smile as he extended his hand. He wore thick gloves lined with metal. “From Taurus. Conjurer. Happily married. Proud father. Bad vision.” He gestured to Jericho’s own square glasses. “We’re twins.”

“Jericho,” Jericho said, shaking his hand and studying his face. Something about it was familiar. “Not married. Or a father.”

Izsak stared at him for a long moment before he barked out a laugh and clapped Jericho hard on the back. “Gabe, looks like we’ve got one of the good ones!”

The one nicknamed Gabe stepped forward to shake Jericho’s hand. She was roughly his height and had dark skin and a dark rope of hair tied high into a ponytail. There were dark circles beneath her eyes but the smile beneath them was a blinding white.

“Gabrielle Law,” the woman said. “I’m originally from Aries. Lived in the countryside. I’m an Elementalist. I’ve heard a lot about you from Doctor Kingsley—er, is everything okay?”

Jericho found himself unable to release the woman’s hand. Unable to remove his eyes from the woman’s face. There was something about it that itched at his memory.

“Have we met before?” Jericho tried, still shaking the woman’s hand. “On another assignment?”

Gabrielle searched Jericho’s face. “No, I don’t think so.” She glanced down at their still ongoing handshake. “But it’s good to hear that you’ve heard of me… er…”

That wasn’t it. There was something else. Something about Gabrielle Law that was very nostalgic. Familiar. Jericho was certain.

“You…” Jericho was close now. Close to the answer. “You are… someone who looks like they have a terrible personality.”

Gabrielle stared. Ferris stared. Izsak stared. The unintroduced man stared.

Jericho released Gabrielle’s hand and covered his mouth. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud.” He paused. “Oh. I mean—”

Izsak threw his head back as a laugh tore through his body. He slapped Gabrielle hard on the back and wiped a tear from his eye. “Told you, you can’t get everyone on your side.” And then he leaned forward and gave Jericho a cuff on the shoulders. “You’ve got a good eye.”

“I am sorry.”

Gabrielle looked nonplussed. Unaffected. Maybe she was too tired to care. It seemed that way because the woman soon yawned and rubbed her eyes. “None taken. Can’t please everyone.”

Then the final agent in the trench coat stepped forward. He regarded Jericho with charcoal-colored eyes. His hair was the same shade of black, and his curls were barely tamed by his hat. A mole dotted his cheek right below his left eye.

After a very long pause, the man pulled down his hat. “The name is Talib al-Jarrah. Manipulator Conductor of Scorpian descent.”

Jericho reached out his hand.

Talib studied it before rubbing his chin. “I noticed that you have yet to say where you’re from or to state your conducting form. Why is that?”

“That’s—”

“Is it because you’re working for the Organization?”

Jericho felt his heart skip a beat. He frowned. “The Organization?”

“Yes, the Organization.” Talib nodded gravely before leaning in close and whispering in Jericho’s ear. “The ones orchestrating everything since the very beginning. The ones behind everything.”

“The ones behind everything?”

Before Talib could elaborate, Ferris cut in-between them. Her face was red. Jericho couldn’t tell whether she was angry or embarrassed.

“Talib!” Ferris snapped. “Not this again! Other agents will avoid going on assignments with you if you keep doing this!”

“Avoid me, Miss Hart?” Talib scoffed. “They only avoid me because they know that I’m onto them.” He leaned in close again. “The Organization is afraid of what I know.”

Jericho stared. “What?”

“Talib is our resident conspiracy enthusiast,” Izsak provided, looking more amused than anything else. “Sure makes the train rides go by fast. My favorite is the one about bubble wands being secret weapons of mass destruction.”

“You call it conspiracy,” Talib drew with a tip of his hat. “I call it the hidden truth.” He whipped his head round in Izsak’s direction and then formed a circle with both of his hands. “How you can even view bubble wands as a child’s toy baffles me. The chemicals laden in them make us all complacent!” He turned to Jericho again, clenching his fists. “The Organization is nefarious and clever. They’ve even found their way into Ophiuchus through the Assignment Department.”

Ferris threw up her hands. “Oh, so you’ve finally found our links to your Organization, have you?”

“Aha!” Talib pointed a finger at her face. “So you’ve admitted it! You are affiliated with them!”

“I don’t mean to interrupt your flirting,” Jericho interjected. “But I didn’t realize there would be so many people on this assignment.”

Ferris and Talib paused with their mouths ajar. Their cheeks reddened in unison, and their gazes met. In the background, Izsak chortled.

“That’s not—” Talib began.

Ferris cleared her throat and straightened her uniform. “Actually, Gabrielle and Izsak are on a different assignment, but they’ll be riding along with you partway.”

“A different assignment,” Jericho repeated.

Ferris cast a glance sideways as she dug into her bag. “Yes, it’s one that involves Leona—the subject of your missing person’s case.” She procured two manila envelopes stuffed with papers and handed them to Jericho and Talib. “The details are inside, but in short, before her disappearance, she was investigating a lead on a party we believed to be involved in an Ariesian assassination plot.”

“A party,” Jericho stated. He received odd looks.

“From the stories I’ve heard, Leona is a very skilled Conductor,” Ferris continued quietly. She glanced around. “I didn’t think anyone would be able to lay a hand on her, but if there were anyone able to then it’d be…”

ELPIS.

Yes, it had to be.

ELPIS.

Finally, he would be able to—

“But we still don’t know for sure.” Ferris waved the idea off. “At least until you and Talib investigate. If you find any possibility that ELPIS may be involved, you are to report back to the ELPIS Department.”

Jericho blinked out of his thoughts. So he was working with Talib Al-Jarrah, then.

“Anyways, the lead that Leona was looking into turned out to be true.” Gabrielle ran a hand down her face. “Which is why Izsak and I are heading to Aries. And since we’re riding together, it’d be a good opportunity to exchange information.” She laughed a bit as she studied Jericho. “And get to know our fellow agents.”

Jericho paused. “Aries. The assassination.”

“Yes.” Ferris nodded. She looked grim. “I heard you were in the Medical Department when it happened, but… There was an assassination attempt on the prince of Aries.”

Jericho’s shoulder throbbed with an odd phantom pain and he reached up to rub it. “I see.”

* * *

The four of them boarded the v-train half an hour after and found their way to their assigned compartment. Two booths faced each other within the compartment. Between them was a small table nailed to the floor.

Jericho took the window seat and Talib sat beside him. Gabrielle and Izsak sat across from them.

As the other agents became situated, Jericho spied out the window. From the sea of agents, he could barely make out Ferris’s bright pink head. She was waving. He raised his hand to wave back.

The train started up a second later and began to roll along the tracks. The compartment rumbled with each click, clack, click, clack. The horn bellowed.

The crowds of Ophiuchian agents standing on the platforms flitted past the window in a monochrome blur as the train pulled out of the station. The monochrome soon faded into pure white as the light from the central vitae reservoir pulled into view. It was even brighter than the sun. So white and bright that it was blinding.

Jericho held his stomach as it churned. He turned his eyes away from the window and flipped through the files he’d been provided. Odd. There was no picture of Leona inside. How were they supposed to find her if—

“So, Jericho, tell us a bit about yourself.”

Jericho glanced up and found Gabrielle studying him. Despite the fact she looked as if she was about to doze off, her lips were upturned in a smirk. A very odd combination.

“I’ve already made friends with Talib and Izsak here since we’ve been on a lot of assignments together,” Gabrielle continued. “I’ve seen you around, but we’ve never had the chance to talk.” She crossed her arms and gestured toward him. “I’d like to hear about you. Maybe we could be friends, too.”

There was some underlying intention in the woman’s words, Jericho knew. But he didn’t know what. Perhaps he was overthinking it.

“Aw, don’t haze the kid,” Izsak chuckled. “You can’t bring everyone under your umbrella.” He leaned forward and dug into his suit pocket. A burst of amber light erupted from the pocket, and out from the light, Izsak procured a fluffy, white object. An object that Izsak pushed forward with a wink.

Jericho stared at the offering in confusion before he took it in his hands. It was soft to the touch and had a pair of flopping ears, a pair of misshapen eyes, and a lopsided smile. A stuffed animal. Which animal, Jericho wasn’t sure.

“You know if you were going to get your Conducting License just to conjure up things like that,” Gabrielle sighed with a shake of her head, “you could have just been a stage magician.”

Jericho glanced at Izsak’s hands—rather, his gloves. They were conductors, it seemed.

“Hey, can’t believe I’m hearing that from you,” Izsak snapped back at Gabrielle. “I need to practice for Csilla, alright? You know how hard it is for Conjurers to do these kinds of things. We need to picture every single nook and cranny of the things we conjure down to the details. Anyway, Csilla loves this stuff.” Izsak glanced at Jericho and broke into a smile. “Csilla is my daughter. Here, let me show you.” Before Jericho even had the chance to digest the conjured stuffed animal, Izsak shoved yet another object into his face. A photograph.

A smiling young girl with light brown hair braided into twin pigtails sat covered in dirt next to a smiling woman. Their smiles were identical as were their light brown eyes.

“Right next to her is my wife, Elizabeta,” Izsak explained as he shook the photograph back and forth. “She works as an agent, too—people think Csilla takes more after her since Csilla took the V-Type Test and it said that she’s a Transmutationist like her mother, but we all know she’s a daddy’s girl.” A deep breath. “Did you know that she was almost chosen to be saint candidate too—my little Csilla!”

“You really have no shame.” Gabrielle sighed again.

Glancing between the two, Jericho found himself frowning. “I don’t understand.”

“You don’t understand?” Izsak pulled back and glanced at the photo. He chuckled again. “About what?”

“You and your wife work as Ophiuchian peacekeepers. You have a daughter.” Jericho frowned. “It’s one of the most dangerous professions. There are other Conducting License jobs. Better salary. Safer. Your daughter could lose both of you, and she would be left with nothing. I don’t understand.”

Izsak exchanged a look with Gabrielle, who exchanged the look with Talib. Jericho was also confused by his own behavior. Normally, he didn’t engage this much with his associates. It was too difficult. And Gabrielle and Izsak weren’t even on the same assignment as him. So why…?

Jericho’s temple throbbed.

There was a beat of silence.

“Well, it’s because we love our daughter so much that we chose to be agents,” Izsak replied as he sank back into his chair and pocketed the photo. He stared out the window with half a smile. “I want her to live in a better world than this.”

It was then that Gabrielle leaned forward, propped her elbows on the table, and rested her chin on her folded hands. She stared at Jericho in a way that reminded him of Alice. “And you? Why are you working in Ophiuchus, Jericho?”

* * *

Twin Cities, Gemini

Jericho wasn’t sure when or how he had dozed off, but when Talib shook him awake, the sky beyond the window was pitch black.

Jericho stepped onto the platform before the others since his suitcase was much smaller and lighter. Easier to remove from the compartments.

As soon as he stepped out of the train, he took in a deep breath and tasted salt from the nearby ocean port and soot from the nearby conductor manufacturing plant. It was an unpleasant, yet nostalgic taste. But the nostalgia was odd as he’d never been to the Twin Cities before. Never had an assignment directing him to the location. How had he even known there was a conductor manufacturing plant nearby?

He brushed the thought aside.

The platform was dotted only by a handful of people and was sparsely lit by v-lamps that ran parallel along the train tracks. He made his way to the metal railing at the very end and peered over its edge.

A fractured city unfolded beneath him. The buildings glimmered with faint light like tiny stars and a spider web of streets ran between them. Right below him ran a large river that split the city in two. The river stretched far into the darkness—so far that the light from the city couldn’t unveil it.

Talib joined him, lugging along a very large and black suitcase. Dropping it to the ground with a sigh, Talib panted out, “Yes, it’s quite the sight. This Dioscuri Bridge here is in fact one of the most famous attractions in all of Gemini.” After a beat, Talib added, “I believe the Organization is using this as a gathering place for their secret meetings.”

“I see.” Jericho leaned closer against the railings.

“Careful with Mr. Giggles there,” came Izsak’s good-natured laugh.

“Mr. Giggles.” Jericho blinked before he looked down at his hands. In his left was his suitcase, and in his right—Oh. He was still holding the stuffed animal. Was he the strange one here or was it Izsak?

He turned and found Gabrielle and Izsak standing right behind him. Both were carrying heavy suitcases.

“Our train to Aries leaves in a couple minutes,” Izsak said as he jerked his thumb backward. “So we won’t be seeing each other for a while.” He pointed to Mr. Giggles. “But you can keep him.”

“I don’t want to,” Jericho said, staring at the thing. He glanced up to find an amused-looking Gabrielle and a startled Izsak. “Oh. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“It’s fine.” Izsak waved him off. “But I insist you keep it.”

“He just doesn’t want to have to lug it to Aries,” Gabrielle elaborated as she closed the distance between her and Jericho to shake hands. “Anyways, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of each other in the future,” she said, giving his hand one last shake. She smiled thinly before she turned to leave with a loose wave. “It was nice getting to know you.”

Izsak offered the same formality before turning on his heels. “Oh, I remember now!” The man chuckled again as he joined Gabrielle’s side. “The reason it was so funny that Jericho said you have a terrible personality. That’s what the prince said to you the first time you met him.”

Jericho stared after the two before Talib cleared his throat.

“Those are good people, Mr. Jericho,” Talib said as he picked up his suitcase. He walked toward the exit and inclined his head, indicating that Jericho follow. “I hope we can be as good as them.”

After stuffing the plushie into his suitcase, Jericho followed after him.

The descent to the city from the bridge station was long. The stone stairs that led to the inner city seemed to extend forever, both downward and to the sides.

“These stairs,” Talib grumbled from beside him. “The Organization probably built them this way to weaken us.”

“Right,” Jericho replied, not even glancing in his direction.

Their footfalls echoed in the silence that followed.

“Can never get used to the looks,” Talib said from beside him.

“The looks.”

“When people recognize our uniforms,” Talib elaborated.

Jericho glanced around. Although there were not many people walking up and down the stairs, the people who were present eyed them. The stares weren’t subtle. Many were outright ogling.

“Seeing how this city is run…” Talib grunted as he lugged along his suitcase. It looked even heavier than he was. “I can’t tell if those are looks of admiration or looks of ‘get out of my city!’”

Jericho reached over and plucked Talib’s suitcase out of his hands. “How is this city run?”

“Oh, my thanks, Mr. Jericho,” Talib said, dusting off his hat and shaking off his arms. He straightened his cap before he elaborated, “Yes, there are many organized crime groups running the city.”

“And Ophiuchus allows them?”

Talib thought for a moment before answering. “After the war, they helped reshape the economy of this country. Without them, Gemini would never have become the powerhouse it is today.” He slid his hands into his coat pockets. “The crime groups also act as a quasi-police force and help reduce crime.” A side-glance. “Their competition. Plans of regulation have been discussed in our advisory board, but nothing concrete has been set yet. For now, they are a necessary evil. Besides, it’s a bit of a foible since there hasn’t been any evidence of the need for Ophiuchian intervention. We don’t want to overstep our bounds. It’s best practice to leave it to Gemini’s own security forces to handle it. As much as I hate the idea.”

“I see.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t know about them, Mr. Jericho.”

Jericho ruminated a response. Finally, he said, “I’ve been living under a rock.”

Talib stared. “Was that a joke?”

“No.”

They reached the street level ten minutes later.

The buildings here scratched at the sky, leaving only a crack of star-dotted blackness above their heads. A narrow one-lane road unfolded a couple of meters in front of them, and it was sandwiched between two enormous sidewalks. Although the road was empty, the walkways were spotted with ambling pedestrians.

“Well, it’s getting late,” Talib said from beside him as he rubbed his chin. “We should stop at an inn for the night. You—”

Before Talib could finish, a small body collided into the man’s own with such force that it knocked his hat clean off. The offender was a teary-eyed child. A boy. A distinctive scar ran diagonally across the boy’s face.

“I’m so, so sorry,” the boy stammered as he bent down to pick up Talib’s fallen hat. He handed it to the man with shaking hands. “I didn’t mean to—” His eyes widened as he seemed to register the monochrome uniform hidden beneath Talib’s trench coat.

“It’s all right.” Talib waved him off as he accepted the hat. “But you should—”

The boy took off in the opposite direction before Talib could finish.

“Well, that was rude—”

But Jericho was heading off in another direction too. Jericho could hear Talib sputter in confusion behind him, but he, too, was confused by his own actions. He moved forward as if being led along by an unknown force. A string pulling him along the streets.

The streets. He knew these streets. He knew these streets like the back of his hand. A turn here, a turn there. How did he know these streets? His head pounded; his stomach flipped. His footsteps echoed around the alleyways.

He came to an abrupt stop—strings cut—in front of a strip with wooden barricades along its front. The strip housed a collection of shops. A coffee shop. A bookshop. And between the two was a pile of ash and rubble. Singed wooden planks and shards of glinting glass protruded from the ash pile. A store must have been there before. Jericho could almost see it in his mind’s eye. A tavern, maybe, with a rustic brown roof and fogged-up windows. Dimly lit, maybe, with smoke from v-cigs and regular cigs clouding up the air.

It was nothing now. Carved from its place. Unsalvageable.

Jericho drifted past the barricades and approached the remains slowly. Ash and wood and glass crunched beneath his feet.

“TwinStars…” He murmured to himself. The name slid off his tongue easily, like it was something he would toss around often. Which he knew was not the case. He crouched down and sifted through the ash in thought.

A second later, Talib emerged from the alleyway behind. He was panting heavily and doubled over once he saw Jericho standing amidst the debris. When he recovered himself, Talib approached Jericho with raised brows: “How did you know about this place? It wasn’t mentioned in the debriefing file.”

“This place. What is it?”

Talib gave him an odd look and scratched his chin. “This was an establishment run by the Foxman brothers.” He frowned. “If you didn’t know that then how did you—”

“The Foxman brothers?” The name felt familiar on Jericho’s tongue.

Talib studied him for a moment in silence before nodding. “Yes, one of the crime families I mentioned earlier. Like I was saying, I arranged an audience for tomorrow morning with both the Foxmans and the head of the Romano Family. They know everything that happens in this city, so they must know something about the disappeared Miss Leona.”

Conjuror: a Conductor who falls into one of the five general conducting-type categories. Utilizing the vitae within themselves, they are able to craft physical objects. It requires a great deal of concentration and great knowledge of the physical properties of what is being conjured. (Living things have not yet been recorded to have been conjured. Research on this topic is extremely outlawed. Conjuring currency is also outlawed.)*

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran with an addendum by the Literary Department of Ophiuchus