6c: Outsiders Looking In

Yuseong Haneul—though he preferred the name Claire—sat on the ledge of the belfry overlooking the New Ram City’s market square. It was crowded as usual given the time of the day, but even still, he was able to pick him out from the crowd.

Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance. He was standing at the exit of the marketplace, looking back with a determined expression. At his right was Trystan, and at his left was a birdcage.

Claire thrummed his fingers in thought, but a shadow dancing in the corner of his eye distracted him. He turned. A woman stood there. Her hair was a light blonde, her eyes an ice blue, her nose hooked and prominent.

“Why do you enjoy being stepped on so much?” she asked.

“Hey, I’m not a masochist,” he sighed. “But in order to create a better world, you need to be willing to make a few sacrifices.” He turned his attention back to the square and back to Olive.

She didn’t respond and instead followed his gaze to Olive. “Is he really one then?”

“Yup,” Claire affirmed with a thin smile, resting his cheek on his fist. “He’s like—”

“My Lord, who are you talking to?” came another voice.

It was Soha who had just climbed her way up the tower. She stood behind him without her mask. Her confusion was clear as her gaze swept the empty bell tower.

Claire chuckled. “To myself like usual.”

* * *

Leona approached the two-way mirror and peered inside.

Izsak Wtorek sat in the room on the opposite side of the glass. His hands were bound, and his eyes stared forward into nothing.

“They got rather close this time,” the man who stood next to Leona murmured. “ELPIS… to think they’d taken an Ophiuchian agent…”

Leona glanced at him. His brows were furrowed, his lips drawn tight, eyes focused on the man on the opposite side of the mirror. An expression of loss.

“But they’ll continue making the same mistakes over and over again,” Leona returned. “Struggling like an ant.” She observed Izsak. “Don’t worry. Izsak’s and Ophiuchus’s reputation will be saved since we pinned his actions on the act of illegal manipulation conducting. Of course, we’ll keep him here and alive to see if ELPIS decides he is worth retrieving.”

A soft chuckle. “With all due respect—from one saint candidate to another—ants are quite powerful when they work together, Leona… but, thank you.”

“No need to thank me. That aside, you can still crush them with your boot—ants, that is.”

“This was hopeless from the beginning. They should know this.” Another chuckle. “Well, your temporary problem and the end of the border conflict aside, we’ve had good developments. Virgo has finally come out of isolation after some prodding. Unexpectedly, it was a daughter of the Imamu tribe that did it. And… you found one of them?”

“Yes, a True Conductor. A pretty amusing one.” Leona smiled. “I’ve already put a tab on her, but we shouldn’t make a move until we know who she’s connected to.”

“That’s good. We’re close to the syzygy. True peace at last.”

* * *

The pitch-black warehouse smelled of iron.

“They really went after you, Omicron,” came a voice from the shadows. “From the Twin Cities to Aries to here.”

“No, they didn’t send a saint candidate. They must not see us as enough a threat.”

“That’s a good thing. Usian failed and the Geminians still have our shipment. Plus, Verga’s dead.”

“Right. The Romano Family and the Foxmans.”

“We have to get it back.”

“And the Ophiuchians have two of ours too. What a headache.”

Moonlight spilled into the warehouse, illuminating a lake of crimson. The bodies that floated in the pool were identifiable only by the white sashes wrapped around their arms. The whiteness of the sashes matched the whiteness of the snake-like tattoos of those who stood above the corpses.

“We’re the only hope left.”

6b: Crimson Volition

Re-cap:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly, a terrible personality.

Even so, Jericho accepted Gabrielle’s hand.

And with that, an entire month passed by.

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

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

But—

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

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

Both his aunt and uncle beamed.

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

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

“What?”

“Olivier, you can’t—”

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

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

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

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

Lavender Chance, unknown time

6a: Chance Ignition

Re-cap:

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

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

New Ram City, Aries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a flash of periwinkle light.

“Your highness!”

Samuel rushed at him.

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

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

No. Not again.

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

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

“Bu—”

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

Olive stiffened.

She was right.

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

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

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

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

Olive’s ears rang.

Run.

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

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

“Pathetic,” came the accented Common.

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

A grimace. “Die, prince.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olive nodded.

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

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

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

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

Uh.

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

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

This had been a terrible idea.

Abruptly Maria appeared before him. Olive startled in surprise.

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

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

“Do you trust me, Olive?”

Olive turned his head back to Maria.

Trust. That was a strong word. But…

“I guess…”

Without warning, Maria took his and guided him—

“Wha—”

—right out the window.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So this was another political ploy then.

At least he’s helping ya, kid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man immediately stiffened. “B-But—”

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

Felix tensed and then bowed his head.

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

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

Claire glanced back at him and smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His conductor!

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

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

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

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

The guards ringed around them.

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

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

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

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

Four guards. Four Capricornians.

Another flurry of light.

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

Two guards. Three Capricornians.

Another flurry of light—

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

One Ariesian guard. One Capricornian assassin.

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

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

A monochrome uniform and a white sash. It was—

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

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

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

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

“M-Mr. Wtorek?”

Get away from him.

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

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

White. It was white.

Izsak’s vitae.

It was a pure white.

It didn’t make any sense. How—

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

What—

Grenade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay attention.

Olive froze and looked up.

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

“M-Mr. Wtorek, w-what—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get up, Chance. Get up.

No. He couldn’t. It hurt.

Get up, Olive!

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

But where was Claire?

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

No.

Olive desperately scanned the area for anything he could use.

Not again.

This didn’t make sense.

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry Izsak. Sorry Izsak. Sorry Izsak.

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

Control it. Small.

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

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

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

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

Kid, ya had to.

He rejected this thought and forced himself to look up.

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

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

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

Olive scrambled backward desperately.

Izsak came to a stop a foot away from him.

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

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

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

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

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

“If the syzygy happens, then—”

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

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

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

“I can see that…”

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

Olive nodded slowly.

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

Olive tensed.

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

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

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

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

Olive could barely grasp what was happening.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a Specialist,” Izsak realized.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho hesitated.

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

A conducting grenade. A whole handful of them.

Get away—

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

“Stay down, Wtorek,” she whispered.

Izsak struggled a bit more before going limp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho blinked at him. “Yes.”

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

They stood in awkward silence.

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

Saints. Jericho was weird.

“No.”

What a terrible week.

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

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran

5.5: Imamu Cultivar

Re-cap:

Atienna has discovered that it is her former teacher Usian who has whispered into her brother’s ear. With family in her heart, she heads after him only to be put at a crossroads of choice once more. Her former teacher sees right through her and carries on with his plan knowing that she will not intervene. But after witnessing the events unfolding for the other five, something inside of her has cracked. So with clenched fists, she makes a choice.

The Great Tree, Virgo

It was clear to Atienna now. After witnessing the events that had unfolded for Olive, Cadence, Werner, and Maria, it was perfectly clear. Maria was right.

There was no time for hesitation.

Turning away from the Great Tree that illuminated everything in sight, she turned toward the darkness of the trees and ran into it. Through the brambles that scratched at her arms, over the roots that jutted up like boulders, onto the well-trodden path where she saw him pacing down leisurely.

Atienna dashed to him and met his eyes as he turned at the sound of her footsteps.

“Atienna?!”

Before he could say anything more, she grabbed his wrist. “I agree with you when you say that I’m not like my mother. Saying that I am would just be ruining my mother’s image.”

“You have come here to just—”

“But don’t speak as if you know my mother,” Atienna said, tightening her grip. “She would never go to such lengths. Destroying something that people rely on. Risking the lives of other people to achieve the end goal.” Olive’s memory of heat, screams, and smoke bled into her mind.

Usian winced at the pain and fell to his knees.

“Yes, there is no evidence of your involvement and if I go to report this to the Council, then they will most likely find fault only with Bachiru. I cannot have that.”

“So you would turn a blind eye—”

“Morrowheat—have you heard of it?” Atienna asked. “It is a recreational plant that grows only in Gemini. I’ve learned about it only recently due to a friend of mine. When it is taken in large doses, it produces symptoms similar to that of sorrowheat, which is a poisonous plant found only within the borders of Virgo. It takes one close to death’s door, but not quite over the threshold. A person who uses this type of thing must be somewhat kind, don’t you think?”

The way Usian paled was akin to the way her opponents in the ring did when they saw her stand above them in absolute victory.

“Usian, did you know? Approximately twenty-five Virgoans make a trip outside of Virgo per year. Isn’t that such a strange statistic?”

“I tire of your dancing words, Atienna. From childhood till now—”

Atienna tightened her grip on his wrist until she felt something give way beneath her hold. Something cracking out of place. A crunch.

Usian’s scream whistled through the trees around them as he squirmed in her hold, but it was ultimately lost to the deep black of the night.

“In hopes of stirring Bachiru who holds high status due to my father and who holds family desperately close to him, you ‘poisoned’ me with the morrowheat you found on your trip to Gemini. I am assuming that is where you contacted ELPIS as well. And in poisoning me, you hoped to create enough tension to break out of Virgo’s twelve-year long isolation. Your deal with ELPIS was a reassurance. You were to destroy the generator conductors here for them, and in exchange they would stir the pot outside and create the perfect circumstances that would not allow Virgo to remain in isolation.”

Usian barked a laugh after he managed to catch his breath. “You are clever, Atienna, but you have only half the picture. Regardless, you say all of these meaningless words with no action. “You have no evidence. You will not bring this to the council and endanger your brother—”

“Of course, Usian.” Atienna smiled thinly. “You will be the one to bring this to the Council.” When Usian did a double-take, she released her hold of him and said slowly, “And when you tell them that you are the one who has poisoned me, then I will highlight how Virgo’s reluctance to leave its isolated self-protection has caused one of its most highly-esteemed teachers to fall to such lengths and show how close we are to self-imploding. From there, I will argue for Sagittarian support and after that—” She felt a surge of Maria’s boundless confidence. “—I will bring Virgo out of isolation. To help. With my status and father’s support, I’m sure I will be able to do just that. Just as mother wanted. Just as you wanted.”

Usian stared at her.

“Is that not a fair exchange? Instead of resorting to such violence. In exchange for brushing my brother’s involvement under the rug. In exchange for your arrest for my poisoning in Virgo, instead of your imprisonment in Ophiuchus for your involvement with ELPIS. In exchange for what you desire.” She chuckled. “For such a wise man, it surprises me that you haven’t thought of this.”

A white grin cracked across Usian’s lips. “Perhaps you are like your mother after all—”

Atienna knocked him out cold with another punch before he could finish his sentence. She then sank to her knees as a wave of exhaustion took her over. As she studied Usian’s bloodied features, she could not help but compare him to how he’d been when he was younger. Pacing the front of her classroom as he lectured about peace and conductors and vitae.

She placed a hand on his cheek.

Changes and choice really did make people unrecognizable.

Atienna could feel eyes on her again. The others. Mostly Jericho. His righteous justice was simmering beneath the surface. He wanted more, she knew. This wasn’t enough a punishment for Usian—this was what Jericho thought. Burying his involvement was not ‘right’ to Jericho. But—

“This is my justice.”

5.4: GOLDEN BEAST

Re-cap:

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

Gloria’s Grail, Geminian Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pierre, would you go check on Maria?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pierre stumbled up the staircase and through the hallway.

Quiet. It was too quiet. Empty.

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

Oros. He had to get to Oros.

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

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

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

A monster.

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

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

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

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

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

A sweet smell permeated the deck.

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

“Your legend?” Pierre whispered.

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

Pierre’s eyes widened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what about you, Pierre?”

Pierre froze as its hot breath ghosted his ear.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Oros chuckled.

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

Jericho.

Synchronized.

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” Maria asked plainly.

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

Maria stared at her.

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

True Conductors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morandi remained firmly planted in place.

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

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

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

“Do it,” Maria agreed.

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

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

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

“Yes, I understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You say really weird things sometimes, Maria… Here. I’ll start… How about we start with a monster? That’s exciting, isn’t it? A beast…” 

A conversation between Maria and Conta, many years ago

5.3: Waltz Lock-on

Re-cap:

Werner Waltz is suffering from the effects of the synchronization and has encountered Nico, Cadence’s childhood friend, among his Aquarian prisoners. Memories of childhood blur and Werner releases the man with a promise of modified conductor exchanges being made between Capricorn and the Romano Family ensured on Cadence’s behalf. Gilbert stumbles across the debacle and learns of Werner’s condition and is ordered by Werner to keep him under control. And then just as things look as if they are going to be resolved, Major Ersatz arrives with a troop of soldiers. Orders: to wipe out the Ophiuchians who have come down to mediate the border conflict.

Abandoned Town, Capricorn

“What the hell is going on here?!” Cadence repeated.

Sequentially, the events leading up to this moment where Werner was now bashing in the head of one of the soldiers Ersatz had brought along with him had been simple.

When the major had reiterated that they were to take on the Ophiuchian Agents sent down to handle the border conflict, Werner respectfully asked if this had been an order from the General. The major had responded with a sigh of disappointment.

“There is no turning back now, Waltz,” the major had said. “The moment the War ended, there was no turning back.” He had rubbed his eyes before staring into the distance. “There’s only one hope left.”

Hope…?

“Anyways, you do understand the repercussions and punishment the Border Force doles out to those who run from battle and disobey orders?”

“Yes, sir,” Werner had responded.

Werner’s group had responded as expected when he gathered them inside to debrief them. Stein had been the first to complain and pointed out that going against the peacekeepers was insane, while Fischer had followed up with asking if this was something the Generals approved of. Werner had simply repeated what the major had told him, although he voiced his understanding of their concerns.

Chance’s turmoil following Yuseong’s betrayal had thrown Werner in for another loop. The self-hatred and self-loathing were scalding. That paired with the boy’s desperation and guilt toward his younger sister’s current circumstance had put Werner on edge. So on edge that he’d almost divulged information about the Watch.

He left the cabin to clear his head and ordered Stein and Gilbert to guard the building holding the prisoners and restrict access to the soldiers Ersatz had brought with him. He ordered Kleine to keep an eye on the cabin holding the modified conductors.

Upon return, roughly half an hour later to the cabin with the prisoners, he found one of Ersatz’s soldiers standing at its front. The man was in a heated argument with Stein, and Gilbert was standing between them.

Werner approached them swiftly and was greeted with salutes by Gilbert and Stein and an ogle by the other soldier.

“What is the meaning of this?” Werner had pressed.

Stein had responded first, jabbing a finger in the unknown soldier’s direction. “This guy keeps insisting to go in even though I told him it was the Lieutenant’s orders! He’s just a private! Who do you think you are?” Stein edged forward and pushed the soldier backward. “Now that I think about it, I don’t recognize you at all. What are you—a newbie? What squadron do you serve with?”

“Does it matter?” the soldier snapped. He pointed a finger to the door of the cabin. “I want to see what you’re hiding in there!”

“Enough. Where is your discipline?” Werner interjected coolly. “You are in the presence of your superior—”

Abruptly, the soldier swung his rifle conductor off of his shoulders and aimed it at Werner. Werner and his men froze in confusion.

“What do you think you’re—”

The soldier pulled the trigger.

Werner had dodged on reflex. And the vitae bolt that shot out from the barrel of the conductor hurtled out past his ear and into the dark of the forest. A quick, blink of light. But Werner had seen it.

White. That was clear. A pure blinding white. The color of the soldier’s vitae.

“They’re—”

“ELPIS!”

Out of the corner of his eye, Werner could see Jericho sharpen into focus. There was white hot rage there. A burning anger that radiated outward from the peacekeeper’s core—no, from Werner’s core. It was suffocating. The world was drained of color.

The soldier lifted his conductor to fire another round, but Werner was on him in an instant. He shoved the man back against the cabin wall before ripping the conductor out of his hands. Without hesitation he brought the butt of the conductor to the ELPIS member’s temple. There was a crack, and the man’s body slumped the ground. But that was not enough.

Werner straddled him and brought the butt of the conductor down on his head over and over again.

Die. Die. Die—

That was when Cadence appeared, looking horrified. As their synchronization strengthened, realization dawned on her face and she paled considerably. “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me—”

“Werner!” Gilbert grabbed Werner by the shoulder and jerked him backward. “Werner, enough!” The man’s dark gray eyes drilled into him and cut the monochrome world in half.

The rage that had been boiling immediately dissipated.

Werner lowered the conductor and then grimaced as he held his slightly pounding temple. He then noticed that his loss of self-control had managed to garner the attention of the rest of his company. Bergmann, Fischer, Brandt, Kleine. They were all standing in front of him now. Wait. Kleine?

“Kleine,” Werner drew slowly, “what are you doing here?”

“I—sir—the men that came with Ersatz—I couldn’t stop them—they—”

Before Kleine could finish, Werner rushed forward and pushed him to the ground just barely sparing him from a bright white conducting bolt hurtling toward his head. The firer of the bolt was another soldier—no, an ELPIS member. A woman. She stood at the clearing of the town square. Behind her near the rest of the cabins were the other ELPIS members Ersatz brought with him. And Ersatz himself.

But that didn’t matter. What mattered was—

The ELPIS woman was out in the open.

Werner aimed the conductor and pulled the trigger. The vitae bolt pierced the night and hit its target head-on. The ELPIS members dispersed immediately, taking cover behind the cabins.

“So, you lied to me, Waltz!” Came the familiar booming shout of the major from behind one of the cabins. “You told me you had nothing else to report! And what do I find when I come here? Modified conductors!”

“In the cabin, now!” Werner ordered as he shot another round. His company obeyed and scrambled inside, and Werner followed after, firing several more rounds.

The Aquarian soldiers within the cabin looked around in confusion at their entrance and muttered amongst themselves.

Werner ignored them. “Ready your conductors. Man the windows. Shoot on sight. Those are not Capricornian soldiers, but members of ELPIS. Major Ersatz has committed treason and is now working with them. Do not hesitate.”

Fischer and Bergmann froze in place while Stein swung his rifle off his shoulders and settled into a vantage point by the windows. Gilbert gave Werner a deep nod and followed suit. As soon as they settled down, they began firing. The familiar thundering booms of the v-bolts echoed through the room.

Cadence ducked slightly, covering her ears and widening her eyes.

Werner frowned. She should leave. Desynchronize.

“I can’t, y’know…” Cadence chuckled, lowering her hands. “Besides, looks like ya need moral support.”

One of the Aquarians—the Sergeant, Nikita Knovak—limped to Werner. “What… going on? ELPIS…? Major…?”

Werner nodded. “They have roughly thirty men with them. Their aim is to ambush the Ophiuchian Agents who are here to regulate the peace negotiations.” He paused, feeling lightheaded as Maria’s laughter tickled the back of his mind. He shook the dazedness off and asked curtly, “Will you help us? And can you help us?”

The Sergeant looked startled for a moment before he exchanged a look with one of the Aquarians on the bed. He nodded.

“Kleine, figure out what conducting-types they are and conjure conductors for them immediately. After you are finished, conjure grenades.” Werner continued, checking the insulator of his rifle: “Brandt and Fischer, you will launch grenades in-between rounds of fire. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir!”

Ducking low, Werner approached the window closest the door and aimed his conductor outward. “Bergmann, go to the front of the cabin and conduct the ground up for cover on my mark. We will provide cover fire.”

Bergmann stiffened and then nodded, falling into a crouch and moving toward the door.

A moment passed. And then—

“Now!”

The Projectors in the room including Werner fired their weapons. In the confusing light display that followed, Bergmann threw the door open and rolled out onto the ground. She slammed her conducting glove on to the ground, and the dirt and rock beneath her touch cracked and shot upward, forming a tall wall of earth. There were several high square windows cut into the wall and a makeshift set of staircases leading to them. The thud of Projector conducting bolts and gunfire resounded against the wall. It shook but remained standing.

“Shit, Werner,” Cadence chuckled nervously after giving a low whistle. “You Capricornians sure are efficient. Everything’s good, right?”

Werner signaled them to advance out of the cabin one by one. The Projectors aside from Werner went first with Kleine and Brandt providing cover with grenade throws. Werner provided cover fire for the duo before he exited. He climbed up to the centermost bird’s nest and aimed his conductor.

An ELPIS member poked their head around the corner of the cabin, and Werner easily sniped him off. He then turned to finally answer Cadence: “No. They have us outnumbered and they are utilizing modified conductors. Although Kleine can conjure conductors for us, they are nowhere near the real things. And he can’t conjure them forever. He’ll become exhausted.”

Cadence remained silent before saying, “The higher the risk, the greater the reward?”

Werner ducked his head to avoid an incoming bolt and then aimed and sniped another ELPIS member.

“Damn, you’re good,” she noted.

“There’s too damn many of them!” one of the Aquarians snarled. A Projector. He lifted his head to get a better aim at the enemy below, but a shot rang out and he fell backward, blood spurting out of his shoulder

“Conducting grenade!” Bergmann shouted. But it was too late.

There was a bright flash of white light, then a terrible high-pitched whirr. The rock wall exploded in a fiery wave of heat that sent Werner flying backward. He hit the wall of the cabin behind him with a thud before falling to the ground.

Werner coughed and gagged on the dust and smoke clogging the air. He brought the crook of his arm to his mouth to filter it.

He was only lightly bruised. Which was good. But—

He glanced around. He could no longer see Cadence. Was she—

—fine. I’m fine. But damn that hurt.

Their synchronization had weakened to the point where her projection was no longer visible to him.

Werner struggled to a stand and peered into the dust cloud. A silhouette appeared abruptly in front of him. He took a cautious step back and reached for his conductor which had fallen at his side. He had just wrapped his fingers around the barrel when a sharp flash of silver swung at him. A combat knife.

Werner dodged backward and found himself pressed against the wall of the cabin.

Close combat. Not good.

The point of the knife hurtled toward him again.

Abruptly, Atienna appeared before him and grabbed the wrist of his assailant. She flipped the assailant over her shoulder and slammed his head into the ground. Unconscious.

Werner knew in reality that she had overridden him and that he’d performed all those actions, but he was still reeling from the sensation. Nonetheless, he was thankful.

They were abruptly desynchronized again. Werner was so distracted by the oddity that it was too late when he saw a figure rushing from behind. He felt a searing pain in his abdomen where the man had stabbed him with a conjured blade.

Werner winced and grunted as he glared at the man from behind. “Major…”

Major Ersatz twisted the knife further into Werner’s gut. “You disappointed me, Waltz. I hoped that you would be honest with me, that you would understand.”

Werner delivered a swift kick to the man’s chest and set him back against the wall. “There is no understanding… when it comes to betraying Capricorn. Working with ELPIS.” He tasted iron and he just wanted to crumple then and there, but he could not show weakness.

Ersatz conjured a gun and pointed it at him. “I’m working with ELPIS to help Capricorn, Waltz. Can’t you see that? They showed me. We can’t trust Ophiuchus. Conductors are despicable. We need to destroy them all, but we can’t destroy them with Ophiuchus in the way.”

Werner couldn’t comprehend it.

Ersatz lowered the gun. “Waltz, if you’d just understood then… about Ophiuchus and the Ariesian prince—”

Werner tensed.

“The Watch has existed for this moment, Waltz. Can’t you see? They can’t be allowed to exist. The syzygy. We saw it during the Tragedy of Aries—”

A flash of purple light whistled from behind him and it hit its mark right through Ersatz’s shoulders. The man crumpled to the ground instantly.

Footsteps resounded. Another group in different uniforms appeared from the cloud of dust and rushed past him. Those monochrome uniforms. That sash. Ophiuchians.

One straddled Ersatz and restrained him.

Werner stared at them in confusion and continued to press his gloved hand against his wound. They paid no mind to him, however, and continued through the dust cloud in pursuit of what Werner assumed was their mission: the take down of the ELPIS members.

“Are you all right?!” came a faint voice to his left.

Nico. It was Nico Fabrizzio.

“Wha…?”

Before Werner could even register, the man was on top of him. Fabrizzio had conducting gloves on.

“Move your hands,” Nico ordered.

“Second Lieutenant Wolff and the others—”

“Are fine. Now move your hands.”

Werner obeyed and watched as Nico quickly pulled out the blade and used his gloved hands to transmute the area immediately. There was pain, but nothing that was unbearable. Werner was concerned for his men, but this was not the time to think about such things.

“Why are you here?”

“I went to get the Ophiuchians like you said,” Nico explained. “But I… you said your major was acting strange and I had a bad feeling, so I told them your location.”

“I understand that,” Werner said. “But why are you here?”

“They needed a guide,” Nico mumbled. He looked away and reached into his pocket, pulling out a familiar pocket watch. “And I forgot to return this.”

Werner stared at Nico for a beat before holding out his hand. Nico put the pocket watch down reverently, and Werner’s gloved fingers closed in around it. He flipped open the watch. Four hours, twelve minutes, five seconds. Before he could say anything, another figure emerged from the dust cloud.

It was a gaunt-looking, middle-aged man who was a bit heavy set. The man was dressed in a tight suit and had that familiar white sash on his arm.

“Are you the commanding officer?” the Ophiuchian asked in Common.

“Yes.” Werner saluted with difficulty. “First Lieutenant Werner Waltz of the Border Force.”

“Explain to me what happened here.”

Werner did to the best of his knowledge, and the Ophiuchian’s eyes narrowed. He then gave a firm nod and turned to leave.

“That’s not the only thing,” Werner grunted.

The peacekeeper paused and turned to him.

“There is a military program in Capricorn called the Watch. Major Ersatz helped create it and partially heads it,” Werner said. “It was created to keep an eye on the political developments in other countries through planted spies.” He paused, feeling the eyes of the other five on him. His palms itched. “It was also created to help Capricorn covertly intervene in affairs if deemed necessary. Recently, Sagittarius has been seeking aid from other countries including Aries. To make sure Aries did not intervene, Ersatz activated the Watch to fake an assassination attempt on the prince of Aries.”

The Ophiuchian’s frown deepened.

“The Watch that is stationed in the Ariesian capital now consists of fifty men,” Werner concluded. “And Ersatz moved them forward before he came here. I believe he ordered them to finish off the assassination though I don’t know why. Prince Chance needs protection immediately.”

Chance, Werner thought, you need to run and hide.

The Watch. Established 7 Jan 1926. 

Goal: To observe the activities of other countries through specialized covert operations to ensure that Capricorn does not face unexpected developments it is not prepared for and to execute political maneuvers if deemed necessary.

Notes: The existence of the Watch will be made known to a select few comissioned non-comissioned officers. Members of the Watch will integrate themselves into the culture and country they are assigned. They are to report bi-annuallly of their observations. 

Founders: Major Erwin Ersatz, Major Kurt Flugel, Colonel Emil von Spiel, Sergeant Major 

Excerpt from The Nachkriegszeit Papers, Capricorn, 1926

5.2: Morello Conclusion

Re-cap:

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

Twin Cities, Gemini

Cadence was exhausted. Emotionally and mentally.

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

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

It was all too much.

But still, Cadence had a job to do.

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

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

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

They rushed the building like a storm.

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

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

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

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

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

The children stared out in confusion.

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

“D-Duccio…?” Matilda stuttered. “Wh—”

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

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

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

A pistol was pointed squarely in her face.

“Wha—”

The gun fired.

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

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

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

Hook. Line. Sinker.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

‘Save the children’ it was.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Ricardo was as kind as he was cruel.

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

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

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

5.1: Chance Rejection

Re-cap:

Olive Chance, guided by Cadence, Atienna, and Werner, and aided by Claire, has managed to gather evidence proving that the arrested Trystan Carter is not the one behind the assassination attempt through the use of a vitae spectrophotometer. All he needs to do is find the right moment to present the evidence—the three samples—to the king and queen, but… 

New Ram City, Aries

Olive’s walk back to the royal palace was oddly filled with thoughts of Maria. He could only faintly see her in his mind’s eye. In a dark and dim cell with hands cuffed in chains, Maria sat without a smile. The very sight of her was unnerving. Betrayal must hurt.

When Olive finally made it back to the palace, he was greeted by Samuel and the other guard who had escorted him there.

“Your highness!” Samuel exclaimed. “Where have you been?”

“I—”

“The king and queen request your presence immediately.”

* * *

When Olive entered the throne room, he was immediately ushered into his chair beside his uncle and aunt’s thrones. They were already sitting there, both grim and stiff. They didn’t even look at him when he seated himself. Something he welcomed. Oddly enough, they were dressed formally. Dressed in the attire they would wear only to diplomatic meetings. A black suit and a red tie for his uncle, and a black dress laced with red for his aunt.

Olive then noticed Gabrielle standing to the side of the room with crossed arms. Izsak wasn’t with her. He needed to get the vials to her.

Before he could think on it any further, one of the royal guards abruptly entered the room and boomed, “Your highnesses, please welcome the nineteenth prince of Sagittarius. Yuseong Haneul of the Seong Clan.”

Oh. So they were expecting a prince from another country. That explained things. Talk about late notice. He thought of Atienna and wondered if they were here to seek aid.

Olive threw a disinterested look to the doors of the throne room, which creaked open slowly.

A person drifted forward, gliding in a way that made them seem as if they were floating on clouds. Sky-blue Sagittarian silken robes laced with silver-woven clouds wrapped around them. Their hands were hidden by the long, dangling sleeves of the robe, while their face was hidden by a black hat. The hat’s rim was wide and circular, and its top rose to a flat top above their head, slightly higher than a normal hat would. A blue and white beaded string connected to the ends of the hat hung inches below their chin.

They bowed low as they neared the throne before lifting their head to meet the king’s and queen’s eyes.

Olive felt faint as soon as he registered the face hiding beneath the brim of the hat. A coldness seeped into his bones. His head buzzed, his stomach burned, a buzzing panic seized his chest.

“It is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance,” Claire said calmly, smoothly, voice as steady and tranquil as Atienna’s. “I greatly appreciate your acceptance of my presence given the current circumstances that befall your crown prince.” He inclined his head in Olive’s direction, and their eyes met.

Olive felt bile climb up his throat as understanding dawned on him. He couldn’t breathe. He could taste smoke in the air.

“Prince Yuseong,” his uncle said calmly, “we are always glad to welcome a member of the Sagittarian royal clans even with short notice. However, given the current political state of things, I do have to question your reason for coming here.”

“With all due respect, that’s exactly what I’ve come here for,” Claire interjected. “While I understand your desire to keep out of the border conflict due to your current internal issues, I must say it would be impolite to reject the request of a party that has aided you.”

“What are you saying, Prince Yuseong?”

Olive shakily reached for his coat pocket. Empty. When did he…?

Claire gestured behind him. Two figures entered the room and came to a stand beside him—one of his left and one on his right. Both of them were donning masks—one a porcelain white and one a wooden brown.

“These are my vassals,” Claire said. “The one with the wooden mask is Felix, and the one in the white mask is Soha.” He waved his hand in the air, and the two stepped forward each presenting two items in their hands with a bow. One vial and one arrow each. “This is evidence that Trystan Carter is not the assassin.”

“How did you get your hands on those arrows?”

“I’ve been investigating the assassination since I arrived,” Claire answered. “I will be open. The two individuals that went after the prince several nights ago were my vassals here, but I meant no harm. I was merely trying to lure out the true assassins which did not turn out as planned unfortunately.” He gestured to Olive. “And as to how I got my hands on these arrows… you could ask Prince Chance that.”

Olive felt his uncle and aunt staring at him.

“We have much to discuss,” Claire—no, Haneul—finished with the smile of a politician.

* * *

Olive wasn’t really aware of being led back to his room nor was he aware of walking to his bed and sinking down into it. His bird was tweeting loudly, but he could barely hear it above the ringing in his ears.

Shut up already.

He buried his head.

Out of the corner of his eye, five shadows flickered into existence. What? All of them? He didn’t need this right now. Eighty percent synchronization. Eighty percent suffering.

“Leave me alone…” Olive muttered.

They didn’t move. One drifted closer. Atienna. She brought her with a sensation of calm. A calm he didn’t deserve.

“Leave me alone!” Olive snapped, leaping from the bed.

“Do you…” Atienna began. She paused then continued gently, “I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but you have to understand… we’re connected, Olive. The things you feel, we feel too.”

Olive sent her a glare. “Sure, anything to distract you from your own problems.”

Atienna froze.

“Hey now, your highness, let’s not get too harsh here,” Cadence said as she drew near. “It ain’t all that bad, kid. I know it sucks that Claire stabbed ya in the back, but it ain’t your fault. He was very convincin—”

“This wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t listen to you and just let it be!”

“Yeah, prince, you’re right,” Cadence reassured him. But I did say the kid was a liar. “You shoulda just done your own thing. Ya know better than us about these kinds of things. You’re right—”

“I knew. I knew… It was pointless for me to try to help, but I did it anyway.” Olive kicked the pole of the birdcage, sending his bird into a fluttering panic. “I’m an idiot who never learns. Always the same thing over and over again. I—”

I should just die.

Like a lightning bolt, Olive’s thought rattled through the room.

Silence, shock. Shame, anger.

“Whoa, kid, that’s a bit much. Ya messed up, but there’s no reason ta start goin’ ta those lengths—”

“Why?” Olive scoffed. “Every time I try to help, I end up dragging down everyone around me. This, me freeing Oros, and—the world would be better if I was gone.” He shook his head before glowering at Cadence. “And what do you care? Sure, you might be connected to me, but I know what you really think. I’m just a spoiled brat to you. You act so sad, but it’s just an act in the end.”

All of them remained silent.

“Stop looking at me like that. Does feeling pity toward other people make you feel better about yourself? ‘I may be bad, but at least I’m not like that.’ Is that what you’re thinking? I know it is. You just don’t want to admit it.”

“Kid, you might be brat, but you ain’t that bad—”

“Not bad?” Olive scoffed. “I’m the one who caused the Tragedy of Aries!”

Another beat of silence.

Cadence exchanged a look with Werner. “Kid, I don’t know much history, but I doubt that you—”

Werner held up a hand. “Tell us.”

Olive stared at him wide-eyed. Words lodged in his throat. Heart hammering in his chest.

Atienna drew near and guided him onto the bed. There was no pity in her eyes. Only understanding. Nothing right, nothing wrong.

Screw it.

Olive swallowed and let out a breathy sigh. “I… My little sister was really talented. They said she had the ability to become a saint candidate. They took her to Ophiuchus to do the tests, but she failed. She was so upset after. I just wanted to cheer her up.” Saints, he was pathetic. “I did everything I could. Tried to build stupid toy conductors. But none of it was enough. So I snuck her out of the palace one day when my p—” Olive clenched his fists. “My parents had a meeting there. Bought her a stupid bird even though I had no idea how to take care of it. She was so happy after that. She was probably just tired of being cooped up all the time—I… I felt like I’d accomplished something. I got full of myself. So stupid.”

It was a memory forever burned into his mind. Her last smile.

“When we came back to the palace, there was a homeless man outside. None of the guards noticed him. And he was hungry and tired, and he asked for help. And… And… Because I was feeling like some self-righteous hero, I snuck him in. I…” He felt his voice crack. “I let him in… And he—”

“He let in the ELPIS members who murdered the people inside the royal palace,” Jericho realized. “The ones who started the fire.”

“ELPIS didn’t start the fire.” Olive felt somewhat lightheaded. “There were bodies everywhere, and it was all my fault… I…” He buried his head in his hands, eyes wide. “I tried to get Lavi away. I tried so hard. I ran. I ran. I ran, but they—she—”

The image of her small body dangling from that man’s white gloved hands invaded his mind. He felt sick.

“Maybe one of them could be saved, but I—” Olive dug into his hair. “I was just thinking to myself that I… that I couldn’t look at it. I just couldn’t look at her. At any of them. That’s all I could think. I couldn’t control it. I…”

The memory flashed in his mind. The fire that erupted from his hands without warning, spilling out from his fingertips, devouring everything in sight without discrimination. The white cloaks that the ELPIS members wore. The bodies strewn on the floor. His sister.

The smell had been revolting. It was truly something that no one should ever experience. The odor of burning flesh. The screams as bones and muscles melted. Seared into his memory.

When the Ophiuchians arrived later, they found Olive curled up in a pile of ash. Gabrielle had been the one to find him. Izsak had conjured mountains of stuffed-animals to try to get him to speak. But Doctor Kingsley had been the one to break through. They were the few who knew about his ability to channel vitae without a conductor. Something that he’d been able to do ever since that day.

Saints. He was pathetic. Saying he should just die or disappear when that was too easy of a punishment. Like an ant.

“Channeling vitae without a conductor…” Jericho stared.

Yes, it was all out now. They all knew what he’d done—

Jericho said, “ELPIS… their fault.” There was an edge to his voice, but Olive couldn’t feel the righteous anger from all those times before.

“That’s right, kid,” Cadence agreed. “Even if you didn’t let them in, they still would’ve gotten in. Besides, you were just a—”

“Don’t say that!” Olive snapped. “Just saying that doesn’t make it better!”

“That is obvious,” Werner interjected. He closed the mental and physical distance between them and lowered himself, so they were eye-level. “But now you know you must take responsibility. You believe your sister is still present, correct? She is more than an illusion. That line of thinking isn’t illogical given our situation.”

Atienna glanced at him and then nodded. “I’ve been giving it some thought since you mentioned her. In the context of the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis, your sister may actually be alive in a sense. During the Tragedy, when she was near death, her vitae may have left her body and entered you. It might also explain why you’re able to conduct without a conductor.”

“If that’s the case,” Werner continued, “then you are partially responsible for her current condition.”

“Werner—”

“And it’s your responsibility to find a way to reverse it,” Werner finished. “You have a goal now and a duty to reach that goal’s end. For your sister.”

An image flashed through Olive’s mind. It wasn’t Lavi. It was a young, frail-looking girl with platinum blonde hair and pale blue eyes. But the feeling was the same. A sibling affection.

Something clicked into place within Olive’s chest, and it suddenly felt as if the world became a bit clearer. He was ashamed at the feeling but at the same time…

“I’ll avenge you too,” Jericho interjected.

Too?

“I don’t want revenge.” Olive frowned. “And I don’t want anyone being killed on my behalf. I’m not like that.”

Jericho cocked his head at him.

“Nothing’ll be solved by beating someone with a suitcase,” Olive grumbled, rubbing his arms and then wiping the tears away from his eyes. Had he been crying? Embarrassing. “But thanks for the thought, I guess.”

Still, it didn’t feel right. It felt too easy. It really didn’t feel like he deserved this sort of redemption or whatever this was. It felt like an escape.

“You cannot die, Olive Chance.”

Everyone turned their attention to Maria. She was still within her jail cell on her ship—they could all see this—but she was standing now and gripping the bars of her cell. Tightly, just like Trystan had.

“I won’t allow you to die,” Maria elaborated. “Because I like you, and you are mine.” She looked toward him. “And I don’t let bad things happen to things that are mine.” She brightened abruptly and addressed all of them. “And that’s all of you.”

They all stared.

“Chance…” Werner said suddenly. There was an edge to his voice. “The attempt on your life was not an assassination attempt.”

Olive blinked a couple of times at the sudden nonsensical change. “Uh, what?”

“It’s very well known that Sagittarius is seeking aid from other countries after being pulled into the border conflict. It’s also known that Aries and Sagittarius have shared good relations following the Reservoir War. It follows that Aries would come to aid Sagittarius if anything were to happen to them. That is unless Aries had their hands full with something else.”

“Werner…” Atienna murmured. “What are you saying?”

Werner opened his mouth, then shut it. His eyes widened, then darkened. Abruptly, the synchronization between them was cut.

4.[]: Peacekeeper on the Verge

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

Ferris Hart, Assignment Department of Ophiuchus

New Ram City, Aries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ride back to base camp was quiet.

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

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

“They’re calling us Generation War.”

Izsak looked up from his nearly empty bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could he say no?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, too convenient.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabrielle grunted. “Still a brat.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Saint candidates.

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

But…

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


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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Y-You…”

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

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

“I am truly sorry.”

“Sorry enough to let me go?”

“You know the answer to that question.”

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

“Are you really going to—”

Without hesitation, Izsak pulled the trigger.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His last thought was of her.

4.5: Imamu Aeriation

Re-cap:

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

Virgo

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

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

He had gotten better. Much better.

His jabs were quicker, his dodges swifter.

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

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

This was—

It wasn’t enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She gave him an inquiring look.

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

“Mind of a Sociopath,” Atienna recalled.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Bachiru. I was wrong.”

“But you think I’m wrong too?”

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

Bachiru was staring.

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

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

She already knew who it was.

* * *

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

“So, he told you then.”

“He did.”

“And the other tribe members?”

“Won’t be coming.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jericho ghosted the edges of her mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atienna’s journal entry, unknown date