When Olive started into consciousness, he nearly fell out of his chair. Nose-to-nose with him was the young man with the sky-blue cloak. The one who’d been sitting behind him.
The young man pulled back with raised hands. “S-sorry! You looked like you were having a bad dream… I…”
Olive ignored him and glanced over his shoulder towards the couch. His sister was gone. He glanced back over the counter. The back room of the shop was still thick with smoke. The clock that hung to the side of the wall read 2:01.
Nine hours of sleep.
He felt odd. As if he’d been asleep for longer than that. As if he’d been away for longer than. Nevertheless, Olive figured the royal guards were probably looking for him frantically now.
“Do you come here often?”
Olive turned back to the young man who had lowered his cloak to reveal his face. His features were sharp — more fox-like than cat-like, Olive realized. His dark hair was wildly windswept. And… And he was tall. Two or three heads taller than Olive himself.
Instead of answering, Olive swept off the chair and started towards the door. The young man followed him.
“I-I was wondering if you could give me some advice on a conductor for a friend of mine. A weaponized one.” The young man continued. “They’re an elementalist—”
Olive stopped short, sent him a look of displeasure. Did this person not know who he was? Usually, people on the streets avoided him when he traveled without cloak—when people recognize his face, that was. Whether it was because of his handed down status or the rumors surrounding him, Olive didn’t care to know. He asked, “What makes you think I know anything about conductors?”
The young man rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Good question. You just… seem like the type? I mean, you’re here.” He gestured to the store.
“You’re here too.” Olive returned. “There’s a mechanic in the back.”
“She seems busy…”
“She is,” Olive affirmed, sliding past him. “That’s what appointments are for.”
“Oh, you have to set an appointment?” The young man blanched before he chuckled with embarrassment. “I feel like an idiot now…”
Olive paused just as he reached the door and craned his neck. “How long have you been waiting here?”
The young man glanced at the clock. Paled. “Nine hours…”
Olive stared. “You are an idiot.”
The young man continued to oggle the clock.
“Extraneous or intraneous?”
“What?” The young man blinked out of his daze.
“Your friend is an elementalist,” Olive repeated. “Do they conduct vitae extraneously or intraneously? The vitae inside their body or outside?”
The young man perked up immediately. “I-Intraneously.”
“Then you should probably get one that has a stronger insulator,” Olive said, turning his attention back to the door.
Olive paused. Turned. “The material that goes on the outside of a conductor? To keep vitae utilization stable?” When the young man frowned in confusion, Olive turned to him fully. “How are you looking for a conductor when you don’t even know what an insulator is…?”
“T-That’s why I’m here…” The young man scratched his head. “Isn’t it…?”
“This shop is for special customized conductors,” Olive said. What a pain. “You have to know what you want before you come here.” He pressed his hand on the door and pushed it open. Then he paused halfway out the threshold. “It’s closed right now but there’s a store a couple streets down.”
With that, he inclined his head and pressed outside. The young man brightened and followed him.
The twilight air was still heavy and humid but the lack of sun allowed a cool breeze to creep in between the buildings. As Olive led the young man around the block, the breeze picked up.
The darkness of the night crept into the corners and alleyways around them but a couple of stores were still open and poured out warm light. The streets were dotted sparsely with pedestrians. Nothing even remotely comparable to the afternoon rush hour from earlier.
The young man shoved a hand in Olive’s face. “I-I really appreciate you showing me the way. My name is Claire.”
Olive studied the hand apprehensively. “I don’t really need to know that.”
“Oh, true.” Claire lowered his hand and rubbed the back of his neck. “What’s your name?”
“You don’t really need to know that.”
“But I kind of do…” Claire insisted. “You’re helping me out. I’d feel bad if I didn’t at least get your name.”
Olive regarded him. “Olivier.”
“Oh, okay.” Claire nodded. “Can I just call you Olive?”
Did this guy really not know?
“I don’t really care.”
“I’m seventeen,” Claire continued unperturbed. “How old are you, Olive? I mean, if you don’t mind me asking…”
“Are you from around here?”
“That’s how I know where everything is,” Olive replied dryly as they turned down a corner. “Let me guess: you’re a tourist.”
Claire broke out into a smile. “How did you guess?”
“You don’t know where anything is.”
“I guess you’re right about that…” Claire laughed sheepishly. “Anyways, it’s really impressive how much you know about conductors.” He pulled off his cloak fully and tied it around his waist. “Passionate people really inspire me. The fact that you can find something that you really love out of the millions of things out there and that you choose to pursue it on our own? It’s amazing.”
“Are you sure you’re not a solicitor trying to sell me something?” Olive side-eyed Claire.
“Did it sound that way?” Claire frowned. “I’m being honest…”
They trudged up a sloping walkway in silence.
“It’s not a passion,” Olive finally grumbled. On the outskirts of his vision, he saw a flash of long black hair. “It’s barely even a hobby.”
“Passion, hobby.” Claire mused. “They’re all things that you care about enough to—”
Olive came to an abrupt stop which sent Claire crashing into him. Claire stumbled backward after mumbling an apology before he gave Olive an inquiring look. In response, Olive nodded at the building in front of them. A behemoth, wooden sign loomed on top of the building. CONDUCTOR STORE: GENERAL, WEAPONIZED, ENGINES.
The store was much larger than the shop they were previously in and took up the entire block. It was a wooden building with window displays filled with various conductors of different shapes, sizes, and colors.
Claire blinked up at the sight. “How did I not notice that before?”
What a pain, Olive thought with a sigh. Claire returned the sound with a grateful smile and an extended hand. “Thank you, Oli—”
A sliver of brilliant blue light cracked through the blackness just behind Claire. It blitzed past Claire in an instant and hurtled past Olive’s head. A dull crack resounded followed by a sharp pain at Olive’s ear.
Olive cradled his ear with a wince before he turned his head. A short knife with a blade made of blue light was embedded in the wall just behind him. Its light dissipated a second after, taking the shape of the blade along with it. The now bladeless knife clattered to the ground. A sound followed by silence.
There was wetness at Olive’s ear. A drip, drip, drip of blood.
A conductor, he realized. A melee conductor. An externalist Conductor’s weapon.
A shadow dropped down in-between them before Claire could finish.
A tall and dark figure cloaked in black.
Their face was obscured by a white mask that was painted with red cheeks and a black smile.
The masked figure reached for their hip where an array of bladeless hilts hung on a belt. With a deft twist of their fingers, they plucked one of these hilts and twirled it in the air before pointing it at Olive loosely. Out from the tip of the hilt grew a bright blue blade. The light from it banished the shadows around them and ended its growth at its pointed tip that ghosted Olive’s throat.
In an arc of blue, the figure spun the knife in hand and raised it high in the air.
“Olive!” Claire shouted.
Here we go again, Olive thought as he watched the edge of the knife hurtle towards him. It was like the universe was pushing him towards this point. But why? What did his assassination even accomplish? Was his life really worth all of this effort? At this point, wouldn’t it be better if—
The thought came at Olive so forcefully that he obeyed it without hesitation. With a quick drop of his knees, he fell beneath the line of the knife’s path. Its sharp edge missed the top of his head by a hair’s breadth and carved out a line in the wall where it became embedded.
Fight! Grab their weapon! Use it against them! Sweep their feet!
What? No! That was stupid!
“Run!” Olive shouted at Claire before he ducked out underneath the figure who had reached for their belt again. He gave the figure a jab at the side with his elbow before dashing down the walkway. His footsteps pounded in his ear as did his heartbeat. But those were the only sounds he could hear. Had the assassin gone after Claire?
Olive craned his neck just in time to see the silver glint of a blade arcing towards him.
Olive snaped forward and ducked. The blade once again skirted his head. The momentum of his evasion, however, sent him tumbling forward and crashing into a trash bin.
A woman who stood just across the street gave a shout of alarm. Papers, rotten food, and scrapes of pipe metal rained down around him drowning out the sound. By the time Olive got his bearings, the shadowy shape of the assassin was in front of him.
The assassin flicked their gloved hands and lilac light began to gather at their palm. The light illuminated their face—their mask. The mask was brown. Wooden. Carved into a smile.
The mask. It was different, Olive realized. The vitae color and conducting type were different too. A conjurer, probably. This was not the person who had attacked him before. There was more than one assassin.
The lilac light began to take shape in the assassin’s hand. Another sword. As it solidified in their hand, the light it emitted dimmed until all that was left was a normal longsword. A longsword which they lifted into the air.
What… ?! Like hell it was!
“Guards!” Olive finally managed as he scrambled backward.
He felt something ghost the skin of his hand and turned his head. Crouching right beside him was a woman. A woman with tanned skin, with dark brown hair that fell in short waves to her ears, with bottle green eyes that seemed to glow unnaturally in the darkness. A woman whose hand was wrapping around his hand.
Before he could respond, the woman jerked his hand and forced it to wrap around a stray metal pipe on the ground beside him. With a manic grin, she guided his hand and the pipe upwards—
Sparks erupted in the dark as metal clashed against metal. The woman pulled his hand back and forced it forward with the pipe. With a surprised grunt, the masked figure blocked the blow with his longsword. Metal screeched against metal.
Olive felt his arm strain against the push of the assassin’s sword, but the woman continued to guide his pipe forward, forward, forward. But the assassin seemed prepared. Flicking their free hand, they conjured another weapon there in a flash of purple light. A dagger.
“Wow, conductors sure can do amazing things!” the woman laughed—of all things—from beside him.
The figure hesitated for a moment before driving the dagger towards Olive’s side. With a quick upward kick, however, the woman sent the dagger spinning in the air. Using the temporary distraction to her advantage, the woman gripped Olive’s hand tight and slid the pipe across the longsword. The motion sent the assassin stumbling back. Without hesitation, the woman swung the pipe at the assassin’s side. A sickening crack resounded.
As the assassin collapsed with a groan, Olive released the pipe, scrambled to his feet, and dashed down the walkway. He was jerked back, however, by the woman whose hand was still wrapped around his own. She was studying the groaning assassin curiously.
“What are you doing?!” Olive snapped. “Ru—”
The woman was gone.
His hand felt cold.
He looked around in confusion.
He couldn’t linger on the absurdity for any longer because the masked figure began to rise to their feet. With a grimace, Olive turned on his heels and began to dash down the road again. He locked eyes with the woman who was still standing across the street with her hands cupping her mouth in horror.
“Hide! Get the guards!” Olive snapped at her. She stumbled back in response, but he didn’t wait to see if she abided by his request. Instead, he rounded the corner into an alleyway as he threw a glance back in the direction of his assailant. They were now on their feet and running.
Damn, he thought as he quickened his pace.
Olive snapped his attention forward just in time to see a familiar pair of cat-like black eyes. With a painful crack, he collided with Claire and fell to the ground alongside him in a messy tangle of limbs.
“Olive!” Claire panted breathlessly as he sat himself up. He gripped Olive’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Olive swallowed a groan and scrambled to his feet. “W-Why are you here?!”
“I-I was following—”
“Why in Aries’s name are you following me?!” Olive snapped.
“I was just trying to help!” Claire returned, an edge creeping into his voice. He pulled himself up to a stand and then frowned. “Why are they chasing you?”
“Because I’m the prince, you idiot!” Olive snapped.
“The prince…?! The prince of what?!”
“Seriously?!” Olive recoiled. “I’m the prince of Ari—”
A swift blow to the side cut him off and sent him flying against the alley wall. His vision blurred as his back cracked against brick. His bandaged shoulder pulsated in unison, and his vision dimmed. With a grunt, he shook away the paired pain and forced himself to focus.
The assassin with the wooden mask was approaching him with sword in hand. But Olive didn’t care for this assassin. Who he cared for was the white-masked assassin who was now approaching a fallen Claire with a glowing blue knife.
It was happening again. All his fault. The same thing. If he hadn’t reached out that helping hand then—
Olive felt it before he saw it. A heat bubbling up the base of his palms. A heat that steadily rose in intensity and temperature until it reached a boiling point. No! But it was too late. Before he realized what was happening, activation energy had been reached.
A flash of pure red sparked at his palms. A spark that exploded into a blaze of deep crimson. A wreath of fire.
The wooden-mask let out a shout of alarm as the flames licked at their feet. They stumbled backward to escape the heat but the flame was relentless. Crawling across the ground, snapping at everything, devouring everything in sight. There was no stopping it now.
Soon the wooden-mask was pressed back against the opposite alleyway wall alongside the white-mask. Flames surrounded them.
“Impossible…!” The white-mask whispered against the wall of fire. “Without a conductor…?”