ONE Interlude: man on the battlefield

“Hey, have you ever heard of it?”

“Please, stop…”

“That story. It’s an old legend. Called the Tale of the Golden Beast—”

Nico Fabrizzio tightened his conducting gloves. It felt unnatural over his skin. Leather mixed with bits of metal at the very tips of his fingers running down to the base of his palm. 

“I heard it in the ports of Gemini awhile back.” A half-laugh, half-cough. “It’s about this monster that chases after ships, trains, and v-ehicles that carry gold. Disappears the occupants just like that.”

Nico knelt down beside the man who was speaking and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. The man cocked a brow at him and grinned.

 “What, Nico, you scared already?”

“Please, Mister Braginsky,” Nico said quietly. “When you move like that, you’ll tear the skin that I transmuted.” 

Braginsky paused, mouth half-open, smile slowly sliding from his face. He stared down at his body, his eyes dimmed, and he slowly lowered his head back down onto his pillow. “Right… can’t move around much like I used too, huh? Transmuters can only do so much.” A cough. “I can’t complain. I mean, you don’t need to do this. You’ve already given us our conductors. Business deal closed.”

Conductors, Nico thought, were truly awful. 

The skin on Braginsky’s torso was stretched, splotchy, thin, and pale compared to the skin on his shoulders. A tear had formed at the man’s chest due to his earlier movements. It was small but it was beginning to grow and to split the rest of the skin that had been stretched thin.

Damn.

“I’m going to transmute some more of your skin.”  Nico raised his glove hands and placed them on the man’s shoulder. The gloves buzzed with warmth and a splotch of the man’s skin began to glow. Carefully, slowly, Nico moved his gloves along the man’s body from his shoulder to the wound on his chest. The glowing patch of skin moved along with his hands and filled in the scar there. The man grunted with a grimace.

Letting out a sigh, Nico removed his hands. The glow faded; and when it did, the man’s wound had been sealed it over with another stretch of thin, pale skin.

Nico recalled the first time he’d seen a body like this.

He was 10 then, clinging onto his father’s lab coat as he was dragged into that cold, metal room. He had hated the room. He still did. The white walls that were meticulously scrubbed clean, the metal tool table that squeaked along the tiled floors— he hated it all. But what he hated most was the table that sat square and center. There was always a body on that table. Sometimes a man. Sometimes a woman. Sometimes neither. 

On that day, his father had pulled him up to that table and had shown him a man lying there. The man was pallid and breathing shallowly. The paleness of his skin just brought out the deep red that painted his chest that looked like it’d been carved out with a knife.

“This is Lucille Bracci. He works for the Campana Family from the right side of the bridge. On the surface, at least. He’s been acting as our Romano Family’s mole, but he was discovered last night.” His father pointed to the ugly wound. “He was caught up in a shootout. The Campanas had a remarkable externalist Conductor on their side.”

The man groaned and eyed Nico through a haze of tears.

“I want you to operate on Mr. Bracci here, Nico. Both on his injuries and on his face. I want you to change his face. He can no longer go around this city—no, this country—with that face.”

Nico felt his blood run cold. “But…”

“You’re a transmutationist,” his father had said. “Successful transmutationists are always in the medical field. And you are better at manipulating vitae extraneously than intraneously. In other words, you are perfect for this kind of thing, Nico.”

“B-But,” Nico had whimpered, “I-I—”

“I’ve shown you the textbooks, haven’t I? Living bodies are filled with soft vitae. Soft vitae particles can be found anchored within a living being’s cells. It is through breaking apart clusters of vitae particles and bringing them back together that transmutationist Conductors operate. It is simple, Nico. You already know the anatomy of a human body, and I’ve had you practice using your conductor on the hard vitae in non-living things. It’s the same concept, Nico. Just break apart the soft vitae and bring it back together. That’s all it is.”

“What if I hurt him?” Nico whispered. “What if I mess up?”

“Then I will fix your mistake, and you will try again,” his father stated.

Lucille’s eyes widened wider than Nico’s.   

Nico swallowed, the beginnings of tears begin to leak from his eyes. “B-but… I-I’ll hurt him…”

His father had gripped his shoulder tightly then. An inescapable hand. “The best way to learn is through first-hand experience.”

Nico swallowed, clenched his gloved hands, and reached outwards. 

Afterward — after he had rinsed the blood off his conductor and changed out of his stained clothing — he had stood outside and cried. He had sobbed his heart out. Fists clenched, hair messy, face sloppy.

It wasn’t long before his childhood bullies came along. They had been regular neighborhood kids. Kids who had the fortune of being unaware of who Nico truly was. Where the bullying started, Nico didn’t know. Maybe it’d been when they saw him crying at the school they attended together after one of Nico’s friends had gotten a papercut.

As always, they approached him with raised chins and crossed arms.

“Well look at this, guys, crybaby Nico is at it again. Crying, crying, crying.” The ringleader of the crew sneered. “So stupid. What are you — a girl? I bet your dad yelled at you again, huh? He’s a doctor, isn’t he? Can’t blame him for yelling. I mean, you’re so useless, crybaby Nico!”

Nico barely had the chance to wipe his tears on his sleeve before he was shoved up against the wall. He smelled garlic on the ringleader’s breath which made him tear up even more. 

“What, you gonna cry some more?” The ringleader sneered. “Cry some more, crybaby Nico.”

A shadow passed over them then. They turned their heads and found someone standing at the mouth of the alleyway shrouded in light. A small figure with ruffled hair the color of wine, with chubby cheeks that were spotted with freckles.

“You—kid front and center—you named Pietra?” Came the voice from the figure. 

Pietra released Nico and rolled up his sleeve. “Yeah, that’s me. What of it?” He crossed his arms. “What, Nico, you can’t even fight your own fights?” Pietra stalked forward and studied the figure closely before he laughed. “What and from a girl?”

“Who said anythin’ about fightin’?” The figure shrugged. “I’m just here to tell you that the bicycle you parked round back — the fancy one with your name engraved in it — just got stolen by some old guy in slacks.”

Pietra’s mouth dropped open, and his eyes popped. Letting out a cry of rage and horror, he shoved past the figure and darted out the alleyway. His lackeys followed him out the alleyway a beat after all the while shouting at Pietra to wait for them.

The figure then regarded Nico with a hand on hip before closing the distance between them.

“T-Thank you….” Nico mumbled, rubbing his arms.

There was silence as the girl studied him. Finally, she said as she extended her hand, “The name’s Cadence. Cadence Morello. You mighta heard about me from Francis or somethin’.”

Nico took her hand. “You… You know Francis?”

“Yup, I work for the Romano Family. Not stayin’ for long but…” She leaned against the wall and slid her hands into her pockets. Despite her small size, Nico thought she looked very cool. “Since your father works for the Romanos, he’s under my protection. Which means that you’re under my protection.”  She shrugged. “I ain’t much of a fighter, but I can help ya get out of bad sitches. Just give me a holler.”

Nico looked at her uncertainly, hesitantly, wiping the last of the tears from his eyes.

“Ya look like you’re too big for these twin cities,” she said suddenly. “Well, that makes both of us.” She extended her hand. Her pinky. “Don’t like it here, do ya? The adults say this is a city of opportunity, but it’s more like a cage, ain’t it? Makes sense for us to work together on that. What do ya say?”

Nico stared at her hand for a long while, but the girl did not lower her hand. Nico had no choice but to accept. As he reached out his hand, the girl reached forward and looped her pinky around his own pinky. She gave it a hard shake and grinned.

A pinky promise made with a girl with a freckled smile. Nico figured that the moment had probably slipped from Cadence’s mind. In her line of business where she dealt with odd people day in and day out, that small meeting had probably been lost to the dozens. But to Nico, in that moment, as he looked up at that extended hand, Cadence was the sun. Forever burned into his mind.

Nico’s childhood days spent roaming the streets with Cadence and the Foxman brothers and the Romano children were days Nico smiled fondly on. From sneaking into bars, to breaking up fights, to running through the streets like they owned them. They strayed the line between childhood innocence and cruelty.

Nico wondered how the brothers were doing now. Allen and Carl were probably arguing about spending money, and Francis was probably watching them go at it with that unreadable smile of his. Cadence was probably trying to profit off of the fight. Maybe starting a betting ring.

“Nico, snap out of it.” Came a voice from behind Nico. “We gotta go.” 

Nico blinked out of his daze. Braginsky was still lying in front of him on the makeshift bed. Asleep. Sweat beaded the man’s forehead. Nico used a rag to dry it and then rose to a stand. Clive and Rino were standing behind him wearing varying expressions of disgruntlement. He had come up here with them to deliver the conductors to the Aquarians. No — to heal Clive and Rino if they were injured along the way. That was his purpose.

“Let’s get the hell outta here before we’re caught up anymore in this mess,” Clive said, rubbing his nose with a grimace. “Smells like death here.”

He followed the two men out of the room and into the dirty hall. 

 Bodies lined the halls. Men on gurneys pressed up against one another. Men in casts and slings curled up against walls. Some groaned. Some cried.

Nico felt his eyes sting as he passed them by. The medical Conductors had not gotten to them fast enough, it seemed. Nico looked at them. Was there nothing he could do for them? Nothing at all? What would Cadence do?

“Stay out of it,” Cadence had said. “It ain’t your war.” 

Even still…

They passed by a young medical Conductor who was tending to a young man whose hair was as red as the bandages wrapped around his head and arms. As red as wine.

“You guys head back first,” Nico found himself saying as his feet stopped moving beneath him.

Clive paused, turned. “What are you—”

“Look, Fabrizzio,” Rino sighed. “You’re an empathetic guy. I get it.” He jerked his head towards the men on the floor. “But the Aquarians got themselves into this mess with Capricorn. No use dragging ourselves into it.”

“Plus,” Clive added under his breath as he formed a mock gun with his hand, “we’re the ones fueling this mess. It’s a bit hypocritical to try and throw them a hand, ain’t it?”

Even still… the men here were an inescapable situation just as he had been. And now… wasn’t he technically free?

“I’ll come later. If my dad or Ricardo have problems, just tell them that I chose to do this. To strengthen our relations with our business associates.” Nico turned away before they could say anything else and knelt down next to the medical Conductor he had seen earlier. “It’s on me.”

The medical Conductor looked up at him in surprise. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Clive and Rino shrug before turning to leave.

“I’ve got this,” Nico told the medical Conductor. “You help some of the others.”

She regarded him for a moment before she nodded and headed down the hall to tend to another soldier. Nico placed his conductor over the adolescent’s shoulder and began his work. When he finished with the adolescent, he continued making his way through the halls going patient to patient until he finally arrived at the room in which Braginsky resided. He hesitated at the doorway and peered in. Braginsky was still lying asleep there. Hesitantly, Nico entered the room.

As Nico approached, Braginsky cracked open an eye and stared at him for a long while. Then, Braginsky grinned. “What, you wanna hear my story, after all?”

Nico felt a smile tug at his lips as he pulled up a chair next to the man’s bedside. “Yeah, tell me, Braginsky.”  

One (5/6): imamu snip, ii

The man did not turn at her call and instead addressed a thin adolescent who stood quaking before him. Ah, it seemed as if the poor boy was in trouble. As the man named Werner Waltz continued to coldly condemn the boy in front of the other soldiers, Atiena couldn’t help but say, “How cruel.”

Surprisingly, Werner seemed to react to her words and he shook his head.

Could he hear her…?

Atiena perked up at this and drew nearer to him. “Fear is a teacher but not a good one.”

He seemed to stiffen at this. It was for his own good. There’s no room for error or weakness in the field.

Although his lips did not speak the words, she heard them echoing through her ears. How peculiar. She took a step towards him. She tried, “Then why not say that to begin with?”

I…

The man froze suddenly and did not continue any further.

Hesitantly, she reached for the man’s shoulder. But before she could make contact, the scenery around her melted away. When her surroundings resolidified around her, she found that she was no longer in the field nor was she back in her home’s green halls. No, before her was a wooden stage with a grand piano placed front and center. Before this stage stood a boyish-looking girl who was dressed in a loose suit that looked one size too large. Upon closer inspection, Atiena found that the girl was, in fact, a young woman. The young woman had unruly red hair that was barely tamed by her hat. Her round cheeks were dotted with freckles. The young woman did not seem to notice Atiena’s presence because her eyes were focused on the piano in front of her.

The young woman’s fingers itched for those piano keys. How Atiena knew this, she did not know.

Out of pure curiosity, Atiena tried in the common language, “That’s a lovely piano.”

The flirtatious smile she was greeted with was amusingly charming enough for Atiena to engage with it. Thus began a short conversation that was interrupted only by a voice that seemed to belong to someone standing behind her― a bartender it seemed: “Who are you talking to…?” 

She had studied the languages of the twelve countries for many years now despite the fact that common had become the most spoken language. She knew many viewed her studies as useless. Regardless, Geminian was one of the languages she found hardest to learn. It was just too far away from her own mother language and too far away from common. But for some reason, as she listened to the bartender’s question, she could comprehend him completely. 

Ah. It seemed as if she could not be seen here by others either. Wherever “here” was.

The scenery flickered again and began to melt away, but this time Atiena did her best to hold onto it. The stage with the piano re-solidified in front of her eyes as did the wide-eyed face of the ginger-haired young woman.

“No, no, no,” the young woman shook her head and waved her hand in the air, “go back. Go away, go away, go away. I’ve got enough stressors in my life. Don’t need ta start hallucinatin’. Got enough whackjobs in this city.” The woman looked at her up and down. “Even if the hallucination is a pretty lady.”

“Oh, I’m very real,” Atiena chuckled. “In my point of view, I should be the one denying your existence.”

The young woman blinked at her. “I ain’t having an argument with my imaginary friend.”

In the background, the bartender pressed again, “Seriously. You’re freaking me out. Who are you talking to?”

The young woman glanced over Atiena’s shoulder; and in the blink of an eye, her expression of displeasure melded into one of playful lightheartedness. It was such an instantaneous change that Atiena was left wondering if the woman had truly felt disturbed by Atiena’s presence at all.

“Just ventin’ my frustration with work,” the woman said to the bartender. “I’m sure you don’t want to hear me run my mouth. Why don’t ya go take a cig outside? You sure ain’t doin’ anything in here. No customers.” She then reached into her pocket, pulled out a wallet, and tossed it. “Here, you can get yourself somethin’ nice too in the meantime.”

A thud resounded as the wallet was caught, and it was followed by a pause of silence.

“It’s empty.”

The young woman cracked an even wider grin. “Empty just means it’s perfect for bein’ filled.”

A grunt followed by footfalls and the sound of a door closing.

The young woman’s smile fell smoothly off from her face, and she regarded Atiena apprehensively. “So, what does my subconscious wanna tell me? That I should stop doin’ underground work?” A laugh. “Sorry, but if you’re my subconscious, you’d be arguing for me to continue as I please.”

Atiena hid her smile again which caused the young woman to cock half a grin. “How about instead of choosing to label whatever is happening as reality or delusion,” Atiena said, “we just talk?”

The young woman did a double-take. “Talk?”

Atiena nodded before clasping her hands together. “Whether this is real or not is dwarfed by the fact that this experience is something very out-of-the-ordinary, right?”

The young woman squinted at her and then rubbed the back of her neck. “Er, yeah.”

“Even though I’m standing in the middle of this hallway right now in my house,” Atiena continued, extending her hand out. “I can see this bar like it’s right in front of me.”

The young woman cocked a brow before cracking a sly grin and extending her hand out to touch Atiena’s own hand. Their fingers brushed up against each other. Static at the touch. The woman’s eyes widened as her breath hitched.

Atiena took a step forward out of curiosity. She peered into the young woman’s face and studied it. Realization dawned a beat later. “Can see where I’m standing? My house ― the hall?”

The young woman pulled back, shook her head.

Atiena frowned at her worriedly and leaned in close. “Are you alright?”

The young woman straightened and shook her head again before pinching the bridge of her nose. “Saints be damned. I feel like I’m havin’ a really bad morrowheat trip.” She studied Atiena―more curiously than flirtatiously. “What is goin’ on here?”

“I’m not sure,” Atiena said with a thoughtful frown before she extended her hand once more. “But what I’m sure of is that I am Atiena Imamu, and I’d like to understand this — and you — better. Real or not.”

The young woman quirked a brow before she seemed to snicker to herself. Extending her hand and accepting Atiena’s gesture, she said, “Cadence Morello.”

Atiena blinked.

Cadence Morello and her dimly lit bar were gone in the next instant.

“Cadence?” She tried.

The green-painted halls answered her silently.


When Atiena arrived in front of the large, wooden doors that guarded the kitchen, she was greeted by muffled shutting. They were arguing again. With a sigh, she pressed a hand against the cool surface of the door and pushed it open. The shouting stopped immediately.

Their kitchen was a modest one. Nothing as spectacular as the well-equipped and extravagantly decorated kitchen of the Council Hall. A stove was built into the corner with a hearth crackling just beside it. At the center of the kitchen stood a rectangular table that could sit six people. At the ends of this table stood her father and her brother. Panting, breathless.

“Atiena!” Both men exclaimed at her entrance.

“My dear, how are you feeling?” Her father pressed, crossing the kitchen and placing his hands on her arms. “The healers said you were recovering, but…”

“Much better, father,” Atiena replied before she smiled gently. “I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything.”

Both men exchanged looks and said nothing.

Her father raised his hand to touch her face. His eyes were tired. She remembered when they used to be bright with laughter. She took his hand in her own and gave it a squeeze.

“Atiena, I cannot allow you to be harmed any more than this.” Her father murmured. He side-glanced at Bachiru. “None of my children should be put in danger like this! If anything, what has happened to you just highlights my poor decision to remain on the Council.”

Atiena and Bachiru exchanged looks.

“Father…” Bachiru frowned. “You can’t possibly be suggesting that you step down from your position as chieftain.” He shook his head and took a step forward. “That would just be doing what they want! Obviously someone wanted to scare you off because of your support for the Sagittarians!”

“Enough, Bachiru—”

“You are choosing fear over your people!”

“I am choosing my family!” Her father bellowed.

Atiena’s heart skipped a beat. Her head swam as her father’s voice rang in her ears.

“You’re going against everything mother worked for if you do this!” Bachiru snapped before he recoiled at his own words. “I-I meant…”

The world blurred around her. A vague memory tempted her at the corner of her mind but she refused to look at it. Instead, she squeezed her fists tight and bit the inside of her mouth. She glanced at her father and found that his face was drained of color. She tasted iron.

Her father stumbled backward and fell into his chair beside the table. Atiena and Bachiru took a step forward to aid him but he waved their efforts off.

“Father,” Bachiru tried, “I just meant…”

“Atiena, Bachiru,” her father sighed. “You should both retire to your rooms. We still do not know if there will be another attempt made.”

“But—”

“Enough, Bachiru.” Her father shook his head. “Atiena, take him to his room. Please.”

Before Bachiru could make another stand, Atiena placed a hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. His words died as did the flame in his eyes. In response, she offered him a smile. In a daze, she led her brother out of the kitchen and down the hall and dropped him off to his guards stationed there. He looked as if he wanted to say something more to her but made no move to. And so, she continued down the hall in a stupor.

She could not face her mother like this. No, she could not.

And so, she passed by the corridor that led to her mother’s chambers without sparing it a glance.

But was that the correct choice? Atiena did not know. Too many choices, too many consequences. It was more complicated than what was right or what was wrong. Everything, that was. Poison. Purpose. Politics. Even peace.

Her vision of Werner and Cadence from only half an hour earlier seemed like a faraway dream.

“Maybe there is no correct choice…” Atiena murmured to herself as she studied the book in her hands. “Or maybe it’s just that I…”

Her fingers itched. Much like the fingers of Cadence when Cadence stood in front of that piano. However, Atiena knew her fingers did not itch for something as lovely as that piano. No, what her fingers itched for was…

“Ah, I forgot the apples…”


When night fell, Atiena slipped out of bed and walked over to her bookcase and selected a black tome from the highest shelf. It was a hollowed-out book and within it were several small glass bottles of paint and a roll of linen-bandages. She spilled the paint out onto her fingertips and dragged it across her face. A dot here, a dot there, a long stroke, and then she was unrecognizable. After wiping the paint off, she carefully wound the linen around her fingers and palm. A perfect fit.

She hid away the paint and the roll back into the tome and stored it back on the shelf before she deftly climbed on top of her bookcase. From there, she reached for a latch that was hidden in the corner of the ceiling. When she gave the latch a tug, it opened up a crawl space where she pulled herself up into. After she made sure to close it behind her, she crawled forward into the darkness until she reached a dead-end. She then reached above her head and pushed. The ceiling gave way, and she broke out onto the rooftop. She nimbly, quietly pulled herself up onto the roof and crept to the edge of the building. Just beneath her view, she could see the guards standing resolute.

It was not difficult to slip past them, as she’d done it many times before. She did feel bad, however, for their hard work going to waste but she set the matter aside as she’d always done.

Through the dimly lit streets of town, she stalked twisting down alleys and through trees and vines that consumed dirt and stone building alike. Down into the depths of darkness, she went until the trees completely consumed the buildings, and the chatter of town became lost to the cries of crickets and other wild nightlife. Very few knew this path. But she knew this path deep in her heart. She had engraved it carefully there as to never forget. A couple more steps and — there. She broke out from the thrushes and overgrowth into an open clearing marked by the silver light from the full moon.

In the clearing was a ring lit by torches. Around the ring stood individuals with faces painted similar to her. Bright splotches of red, blue, green obscured and twisted their features strangely in the flickering flame light. Others wore masks that made them look beastly. Perfect in this setting.

At the center of this ring stood a shirtless man wore a long and wooden mask carved into the shape of a snake. The fangs of the snake curved down his cheeks and touched the base of his neck.

Atiena slinked down through the crowd that parted for her and entered the center of the circle. The snake-masked man nodded at her, and she nodded back in turn.

“No names. No tribes. No conductors.” The man in the long mask bellowed out. “This is how it is meant to be. No bad blood, no good blood.”

With that, the people around the ring began to chant, to stomp their feet, to clap their hands to a steady rhythm. Thump. Thump-thump. Thump. Like a beating heart.

Into the ring stepped another figure. Face painted bright red with streams of white running down their cheeks from their eyes. Painted tears. How ironic.

The snake-masked man stepped out from the ring and then let out a shout that tore through the night. It had begun.

Atiena regarded her opponent, and her opponent regarded her. A beat of silence passed, and then her opponent swung at her with a fist. Atiena deftly dodged it with a lean to the right before she swung her leg up and cracked her opponent’s head with her foot. She followed through the momentum of the spin and used the force of it to power her punch which connected with her opponent’s skull again a second after.

Her opponent stumbled backward in stupor but she did not relent. She swung her leg out again and swept their legs out from underneath them. Before they could fall, she sent out another kick that sent them toppling sideways. Once again, she did not let them fall.

“And it is right to not think at all? To sit back and watch things progress and hope for the best? Like we’ve been doing all these years?”

She cut upwards with her fist.

“I am choosing my family!”

Again and again.

“You’re going against everything mother worked for if you do this!”

Punch after punch. Kick after kick.

She did not know how long it was before she stopped throwing punches and kicks but when she finished her opponent lay motionless on the dirt floor. Heaving and panting, she wiped the sweat that was dripping from her brow and felt the paint smear onto her arm.

Distantly, she heard the noise from the crowd. Somewhere in-between her punches they had stopped chanting and had instead started cheering: “Queen of the Night! Queen of the Night!”

Their cheers rang in her ears as did the blood rush from a complete victory.

The itching in her fingers and the buzzing daze in her mind subsided. No uncertainty, no choice, no consequence. It was a wonderful relief.

One (4/6): gloria tango

“Captain, you really should rest!”

“Rest?” Maria Gloria-Fernandez laughed merrily as she walked up onto the deck. “Why should I rest when there is so much to do?!”

“Because you might seriously injure yourself if you don’t!” The other woman replied exasperatedly as she followed Maria up the steps of the deck to the Captain’s wheel. The woman glanced nervously at the surrounding men who were lugging around sacks and piles of rope and then blushed with embarrassment as the men chuckled at her antics. “Oh, come on, Maria, please!”

Maria closed her eyes and threaded her hands through the open air. She could feel the rays of light from the sun on her fingertips, feel the spray of ocean waves on the nape of her neck. And it felt wonderful. She rested her hands on the wood of the wheel and felt the grooves beneath her palm. Opening a single eye, she side-glanced at the woman. “Have you no faith in me, Conta? After all the years you’ve been at my side?” 

“Of course not! I’ll always believe in you, Maria!” Conta insisted before she added in a whisper: “But, Captain, you nearly drowned! It’s a miracle you were not more injured in that explosion. You could have died! And now you are just…”

Conta had always been the type of person who worried too much. When they were younger, Maria had once jumped from a seaside cliff into ocean waters just to experience what it was like. Conta had gone in after her in a wave of alarm and panic. Perhaps her intention was to save Maria if Maria had drowned. In the end, however, it had been Maria who had to drag Conta out from those cold waters and onto the hot sandy beach. As they laid there panting, Maria had laughed so hard that she cried. Still, even then Conta had worried.

The constant worrying had carved early crow’s feet in the corners of Conta’s gray eyes. Sometimes gray hairs would even find their way into her sea-bleached, shaggy brown head.

“You know I’ve always wanted to give drowning a try.” Maria laughed before she paused in thought. “What is your concern this time, Conta…?” Maria queried, tilting her head back to look at her.

Conta averted her gaze. “Well, the things you’ve said you’ve been hearing and seeing… They frighten me, Maria.”

“Hm? Remind me what I’ve said, Conta.”

Conta glanced left and right and waited for one of the men to pass by before she whispered, “About the voices and visions—”

Abruptly, Maria turned and grabbed Conta’s hand causing her to start and flush. “Oh, Conta, that reminds me! Speaking of hearing and seeing things — I have yet to meet our new crew members!” She grinned. “Please do bring them up from the cells!”

Conta opened her mouth but the only thing that came out was a sigh of defeat.


When Maria descended the stairs and arrived onto the main deck a beat later, she came to face a dozen kneeling men and half a dozen standing men. The men who were kneeling appeared to be dressed in uniform. White shirts with orange buttons and clasps. The men who stood were dressed in torn shirts, dirt-stained pants, worn-through boots. Still, those who stood were grinning, smirking, and those who kneeled were grimacing, shaking.

Maria drew the blade that hung at her waist and pointed it squarely at the throat of the kneeling man whose white shirt was decorated with gold and silver medals. His peppered hair and scruff were matted to his face, but his verdigris eyes were wide and intense.

Maria laughed: “I complimented your steel behemoth the other day, yes? Morandi, was it? I said such a thing but there are many ships just like yours, so you mustn’t mourn too long!”

 The man burned holes into the wooden floorboards. “Even a wretched pirate like yourself should understand as a fellow captain that every vessel has a soul – even your small, wooden ship here. There will be no other ship like the Corriere d’Oro in existence ever again.” He paused, raising his head to meet her gaze.“You’re the captain of this ship, aren’t you?” He spoke in accented common. Something Maria was glad for. There would be no translators needed, it seemed.

Maria blinked, sheathed her sword, rubbed her chin in her thought. “Yes, I am the captain but I don’t really understand the sentiment.” She turned to the man standing closest to her. He was a wiry young man with very short dusty blonde hair and was dressed in a deep black robe. At his neck hung a pendant. She asked him, “Is this the third or fourth, Simon?”

A sigh of exasperation came from the man, and it was echoed in sentiment by the standing men around him. “This vessel would be Grail de Gloria the Fourth, Captain.”

Maria clapped her hands loudly startling those kneeling before her. She pointed to Morandi and stomped her leather heels. “You see, my friend, this is the fourth time this ship has risen from the depths of the ocean. It has been destroyed three times so far, and it has been resurrected each time with every detail more or less the same.”

“It’s less than more, Captain,” Simon noted.

Maria considered this for a moment and then laughed. “Well, while that may be true, that is not the point.” Taking a step back, she gestured widely – at the endless waves stretching out beyond them, at the sky and the sun erupting above them. “The point is that although your ship was beautiful, it was merely a vessel for your voyage and your adventures. There will always be another. However—” Unsheathing her sword once more, she pointed it at the other captain’s throat. “There is only one person who can live out their adventure in the way that you do! Do you understand what I am saying, my friend?”

The man didn’t seem to.

“What I am saying is that you must live out the rest of your adventure, and you may use this vessel of mine to do it.”

Several sighs of exasperation followed but they were lost to the sound of lapping waves.

“You’re asking me to join your crew?” The former sailor captain guffawed. “After everything you’ve done?”

Maria pulled back. “I really haven’t done much yet though…” She spun her sword in hand and ran her callused fingers along the blade. “Should I do this ‘everything’ if you refuse? I haven’t decided yet.”

“I still have my pride and my loyalty to my men.” The former captain raised his chin. 

Maria sighed and ran her fingers through her short curls. “Everyone from your land speaks of loyalties but such things are like treaties aren’t they? They change with the tides of time. If you want to hold anything to yourself, it should be a promise. And I’m sure there is an unspoken promise between you and your men to protect each other, yes? It just seems to go that way when you are together for so long. So now, Morandi, is loyalty worth a broken promise?”

Morandi did a double-take. “What…?”

Is it really a good idea to put all of your eggs into a basket even though the basket may be smashed into a yolky pulp in one go?” Maria pressed. She whipped her head back and addressed Conta who stood behind her. “Is that how that saying goes?”

Before Conta could respond, Morandi spat, “We do have our pride, pirate. You may not know of it, but every person of the respectable sort has it and treasures it.”

“A respectable sort, you say!” Maria fell into a crouch in front of him. “As convincing as your uniforms are, I do have my doubts.”

Morandi opened his mouth to retort but Maria broke out into a grin that silenced him.

“I may not be familiar with these parts, but I recognize a ship that falls into the custody of the Foxman brothers when I see it,” she mused.

Morandi narrowed his eyes. “If you’re aware of the Foxmans, then you are aware of the gravity of your actions.”

“Oh,” Maria chuckled, “I’m very aware of who they are! Carl still doesn’t want to join my crew despite the countless times that I’ve asked him. I think he has a problem with authority, but that’s all right! I am sure he will come around eventually!”

 Morandi and the other men kneeling stared.

“You know Mr. Carl… ” Morandi trailed off and shook himself out of his stupor. “Our ship is carrying important cargo that must be taken out of Geminian waters as soon as possible. This is a matter of great importance. A personal associate of the Romano Family gave us this shipping task.”

“Is that so?” Maria studied him, hand on a chin, before she grinned again. “Okay, I believe you, my dear.”

For some reason, Morandi appeared baffled. “But you just said…”

Maria popped back up to her feet, sheathed her blade. “You will show me your cargo and explain to me the items you’ve been tasked to carry.” She turned back to Conta. “You’ve taken their items down to the cargo bay, yes?

Conta nodded.

“Well then,” Maria drew, extending her hand out to the former captain, “shall we?”


 The lower levels of the ship were lit only by the candles carried by the crew members who had accompanied Maria on her journey down to the cargo bay. She hopped down a set of wooden stairs at the front of their group while four of her crewmen including Conta creaked slowly behind her. Sandwiched in-between them were three of the sailors including Morandi.

“You…” One of the sailors who had introduced himself as Piet muttered. “You don’t have a conductor in your ship?”

“Ah, yes, your country loves those things, don’t they?” Maria threw back a laugh that echoed eerily through the halls. “I hope to learn how to use one someday!”

“You’ll need to go to Ophiuchus to get a State Conducting License to be able to really do anything,” one of her crew members said. “And you need to study before that. It ain’t that easy, y’know — becoming a Conductor.”

Maria merely laughed at this.

“Trust me, I’ve tried convincing her,” another crew member whispered to the sailor. “Says a conductor for the ship takes too much time to set up.”

“There are many more fun things to spend time on.” Maria waved him off with a light-hearted shrug. “Besides, I can always steal a ship with a built-in conductor if you really want it.”

“Once you see what we were shipping,” Morandi interjected as he took a step forward, “you will let us go, won’t you? With our goods.”

Maria met his eyes with a smile.


They reached the cargo bay a minute later, and Conta led them to a corner occupied by a mysterious mound covered by a blue, leather tarp. Conta reached for the tarp’s edge and began to pull it away with difficulty. Maria then stepped forward and jerked it off with a swing of her hand.

The tarp went fluttering onto the ground.

Revealed to them in its place in the dimly lit darkness were crates. Crates upon piles of crates. Her crewmembers whistled and hollered before excitedly surging forward. They tore into the boxes without hesitation and dug into their contents eagerly.

Maria watched them with amusement. Her amusement increased tenfold when the crew pulled out from the crates with disappointed expressions. In their hands were what appeared to be regular, everyday objects. Some silver rings. A bladeless hilt of a sword. A pistol without a cartridge. Other items that seemed to be missing parts.

“They’re just conductors,” one of her men complained. “Just like the parts we deliver but put together.”

“Parts you deliver…?” Morandi frowned before he shook his head. “Like I’ve said. I’ve been given a task by a personal associate of the Romano Family to—”

Maria did not wait for him to finish and instead walked past both her men and Morandi’s men. She stopped short in front of a low and long crate that was hidden behind the others. It had been painted in black — so black that it was almost lost in the darkness. She sank to a crouch beside it and wrapped her fingers around the lid. A quick tug. It barely budged.

“W-What are you doing?”

Another tug.

“Wait, don’t open that one—”

With one final tug, Maria yanked off the lid and sent it flying in the air. No one paid attention to where the thing landed, however. All eyes were glued to what glittered within it.

Golden coins. An uncountable number of Geminian Cens. Jewels. Diamonds. Silver, glittering chains. There even looked to be some other currency coins scattered within. The crate was filled to the brim with these things and threatened to overflow.

The items reflected back the light from the flickering torches they held and painted flecks of gold and watercolor-washes of silver onto their faces.

But Maria did not move forward to pick up any of these treasures nor did any of her men.

Because residing on top of all of these treasures was a sleeping woman with cuffed arms and golden hair.

One (3/6): waltz target, ii

The tent had a familiar layout. Along the walls of the tent were small narrow tables with radios and documents placed onto them. A large and long table occupied the center. It was covered with numerous maps with locations marked with numerous words, circles, and x’s. At the table stood a singular man.

Werner recognized Major Ersatz immediately. Ersatz was a heavyset man with a receding, graying hairline and deep black eyes. The Capricornian cold had reddened his cheeks and forehead but it had yet to freeze off his seemingly constant smile. His medals gleamed at the front of his uniform.

“Sir,” the Captain cleared his throat as he came to a stop in front of the table. He paused, gesturing to Werner who stood just behind him. “Here is First Lieutenant Waltz.”  

“Good to see you, First Lieutenant.” Ersatz said as he offered Werner his hand. “Your performance on this past skirmish is to be praised, and I’m glad you’ve made a recovery from that accident I overheard you suffering.” 

“Thank you, sir,” Werner responded, accepting this gesture. He wanted to say that his accomplishments were due in most part to the squadron that served under him. However, a soft voice whispered this in the back of his mind: a step closer to a rung up the ladder. Appearances, Werner, appearances. 

Ersatz merely smiled in response before glanced over Werner’s shoulder at the Captain. “If you would let me have a word in private with your lieutenant.”

The Captain glanced at Werner before nodding and departing. 

“I hear that they’ve been calling you ‘Cold Eye’ out here. In part due to your accuracy with your conductor and your complete lack of hesitation. They even say you never have missed a mark.” Ersatz mused once the Captain had left. He stroked his beard. “That’s something to be proud of, Werner.”

“Yes, sir.”

A pause.

“I received word that there has been trouble with the Watch, sir,” Werner said.

Another pause.

“Yes, so I’ve heard.” Ersatz sighed. “There seems to be outside intervention. It’s quite unfortunate… however, the damage has been done as expected.”

“Sir?”

“But you needn’t worry yourself over that at the moment.” Ersatz leaned forward onto the table. He tapped at a town that was marked on the map. A town that bordered their country and Aquarius.  “As expected, the Ophiucians have caught word of our conflict with the Aquarians. They’ve sent down peacekeepers to handle the dispute. Knowing them, they’ll surely side with the Aquarians.”

Ersatz slammed his fist against the table. It was an abrupt action but Werner did not allow himself to flinch.

“As if they have any right to! That vitae reservoir is rightly ours.” Ersatz spat. His cheeks were beet red now. “The Aquarians have an endless supply of reservoirs right within their borders. At the end of Reservoir War, the treaty clearly drew lines placing that reservoir within our boundaries. It’s been that way for years. And yet here they come in dipping into like they own it. It’s only right for us to defend ourselves! Not to mention those damn Sagittarians — saying things like we’re the ones dragging them into this. They’re the ones getting in the way!”

Ersatz let out a sigh and straightened himself.

“Anyways, the Ophiuciucian agents have sent a request for a representative from the battlefield from both sides to meet them in Gradstal near the reservoir.”

“A representative?” Werner repeated. “Will an official be coming down from the capital?”

“No, they’ve requested that we send someone who has been personally involved with this ‘dispute’ to attend.” Ersatz raised a brow. “In other words, they don’t want to make this international incident an official one. Like always, they want to sweep it under the rug.”

To keep an appearance of peace. 

“I would like for you to be the representative, Werner.”

This gave Werner pause.

“Is there a problem, Lieutenant Waltz?”

“With all due respect,” Werner drew. “I believe Captain Weingartner would be the better choice for this. Not only is he of higher rank, but he also has dealt with Ophiucian agents before.” 

“Werner, you think too lowly of yourself. Rank does not mean everything.” Ersatz gave a hearty laugh. “For instance, just because I am a Major doesn’t mean that I know of the hardships of battle as you do. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. While I know of strategy and plans, that does not mean that I know the toll it takes on a soldier to constantly be taking lives. The hesitation one must go through—”

“There is no hesitation, sir,” Werner replied. “As you’ve said yourself, that is why I’ve been named Cold Eye.”

“Good.” Ersatz popped. “Then there should be no hesitation for you to take this task.”

“If you assign it to me, I will do it,” Werner replied.

“Good.” Ersatz sighed as if in relief. He folded his hands behind his back and peered down into the map. “I also want you to eliminate any Aquarian pockets you find along the way.”

Werner did not pause at this, but Ersatz provided clarification regardless:

“They are on our side of the border without permission, and they are acting with aggression. We must defend our people.” Ersatz paused only to run his finger in a circle around a particular spot on the map. The reservoir. “The meeting is in three days, so it’d be best if you departed as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir.”


By noon Werner had selected his group. He had weighed all the candidates in his squadron with care, mindfully noting all strengths and weaknesses. After parsing through all of the possible combinations, he had come up with what he viewed as a well-functioning team.

They stood before him now straight-backed and at attention at the mouth of their encampment. Passing soldiers eyed them. Werner was also eyeing the line up he’d chosen. As he passed them by, he surveyed them and went over his reasoning for choosing them once more.

The first he had chosen was, of course, Gilbert. Gilbert was a fine marksman, after all. An exceptional externalist Conductor. 

The next was Wilhelm Fischer. The eager private. An externalist. Unlike many other externalist, he had chosen to train using melee conductors. A longsword. Like the olden days. Gilbert thought he made the odd choice because he wanted to stand out which Gilbert thought was a foolish thing to choose to do on the battlefield. 

 Alwin Brandt was Werner’s third choice. Alwin had been transferred into their unit two weeks prior —  just before the initial incident —  but had adapted to 278th squadron life rather quickly. He was a combat nurse with a light-hearted demeanor that made even the jaded Derik Stein warm to him quickly.  Although Alwin was a transmutationist with conducting abilities not suited for combat, he was a quick thinker and quicker with a plain pistol.

The jaded Derek Stein was Werner’s fourth choice. He threw around the sentence, “It’s no use getting to know a newbie — not unless they lasted two weeks,” like it was his catch-phrase and was one of the few soldiers in the squadron able to look Werner in the eye. 

His fifth choice was Emilia Fleischer. A rare elementalist. Specialty: earth. Unfortunately, she was not adept at extraneous vitae manipulation and required physical contact with the element to manipulate the vitae particles within it. Regardless, her rare skill was useful.

Werner’s sixth choice, Klaus Klein, was a conjuror Conductor who would rather bury his head in a book than scope out the battlefield. Perhaps it was the ability to immerse himself in his stories that he was able to conjure to such an exact degree. His range of conjuring was limited only by his inability to think and act under pressure. Which was another reason why Alwin was on board. 

Next: Brunhilde Falk. Externalist. Rarely spoke. Skilled markswoman. Also able to look him in the eye.

His last and final choice was Otto Vogt. The boy who played soldier. The one who had disobeyed orders on that watery overpass. The one who had run from the trigger. He too was an externalist Conductor.

In front of Otto, Werner came to a stop. In turn, Otto tensed. Their eyes met. Otto looked away. Swallowed. Remaining silent, Werner observed him. The silence stretched on.

“I-I’m very sorry for what happened, sir,” Otto finally stammered. “I-I’m really glad that you’re alright… I… It was all my fault that you were—”

“I’m aware,” Werner interjected, “who is at fault.”

Otto stiffened. “I…”

“You will be dishonorably discharged,” Werner stated the finality clearly, loudly. “If you do not display the appropriate behaviors on this mission.”

Heads turned in their direction. Otto shrank deeper inside of himself. 

“D-discharged…?”

“You are lucky that I haven’t requested your discharge already, Private Vogt.” Werner continued. “This is your last chance.” He paused to allow the reality of his words to sink in. “I understand that the military stipend helps to provide for your family.” Werner paused again. “If you do not want to disappoint them, then do not disappoint me.”

Otto’s lips trembled and parted, but no words came out.

Turning away from him, Werner addressed the rest of his men: “Gather your things. We will depart in three hours.”

How cruel, came a sudden thought as he watched all but Gilbert make their way back to their respective tents. Fear is a teacher but not a good one.

It was for his own good, Werner argued back. Otto’s skills would be wasted if he didn’t change. And if he didn’t change, he would also be a danger to himself and his comrades. There was no room for error or weakness in the field.

Then why not say that, to begin with?

I…, Werner began to respond before a cold and creeping realization dawned on him. Why in the world was he arguing with himself? No. The voice resounding in his head was not his own. Was it?

A sharp, pulsating pang struck his temple and began to spread to his forehead. Despite using all of his strength, he could not resist pinching the bridge of his nose. The world blurred. Colors bled into sound into smell into touch.

A train horn bellowed in the distance. A piano chord was struck. Oil and soot. The smell of worn, leather books. Ringing, musical laughter. A crack of heat.

Straighten, Werner told himself through the confusion, appearances are everything. And so, with great effort, Werner did as he ordered himself to. 

The world snapped back into place slowly. The gray clouds passing overhead. The slap of leather boots against the wet earth. The men and women sitting silently in front of their tents. And Gilbert who still stood at his side. GiIlbert who was regarding him with a frown but who said nothing.

At dusk, they set off. 

Zero (7/7)

Jericho, peacekeeper

“If I were in charge, I would have you relieved of duty.”

He blinked at the woman who sat across from him. He had heard many stories about her from his coworkers. About how her square-rimmed glasses did nothing to hide her ice-blue eyes “that could rip out your soul”. About how the tapping of her perfectly manicured nails “could drive even the strongest-willed Conductor insane”. About how her Librish accented voice “could shake down the very walls of Taurus’s renown fortress of a capital city”.

Alice Kingsley. The Ice Gate of Ophiuchus.

And now that he’d had the opportunity to sit before her twenty-five times now, he could confirm the stories as true.

“I think you’re too dangerous. Too unstable.” She continued evenly. Her Librish lilt resounded around the white walls of the office and made the room seem much larger than it already was. “But I doubt you even care about what I think.”

“I do care,” he responded automatically. “I care a lot. About what you think.”

“Spare me the facade. We’ve been through this many times already, Jericho.” Alice waved her hand as she rifled through the papers in front of her. “I study people for a living. And I see you for who you are.” She paused, lowered her papers, peered over them. Her eyes bore into him, digging, searching.

It almost felt as if she could hear his thoughts.

“But I doubt you even care about that either.” She returned her attention to her papers flipped through several more of them before she stacked them neatly on the table in front of her. “You’ve passed the psych evaluation the bureau has provided, and there’s nothing I can do about what’s been written.”

“So—”

“So, you’ll be dispatched to the Saggitarian-Aquarian border. There’s been word of an ongoing dispute around Gradstal which is a town that connects the two countries. You’ll receive a debriefing on the train ride there.”

Jericho blinked. “I thought…”

“You would be dispatched to handle the ELPIS issue?” Alice gave one dry, chuckle. “As much as Ophiuchus values the both of us, they also know how to play us well.”

There was a long stretch of silence. But she did not speak.

“Jericho, you can leave now.” Her voice came out gently for once. It startled him out of his stiffness.

“Yes, ma’am.” Jericho nodded. With that he rose to a stand and walked toward the glass door behind him. Before he reached it, however, it swung open wife. There in the doorway stood a woman with blindingly red curls. She had on cat-eyed glasses and wore a blue dress with a loose red, fur-lined jacket thrown over it.

Not in standard uniform.

In her hand was a cane which she tapped against his foot with a smirk — but was it a smirk or was it a friendly smile? He always had trouble reading expressions.

He had seen this woman a couple of times before during his visits to Kingsley’s office. She was the first person he’d seen in Ophiuchius who wasn’t an overseer or there to take their State Conducting Exam. Kingsley and the woman were friends, apparently. Up until that point, Jericho hadn’t realized that it was possible to make friends.

He blinked.

Friends outside of Ophiuchus, that was.

The red-haired woman was blind, maybe. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to point that out, he reminded himself. He didn’t want a repeat of that last incident. The one that had caused the other agents to team up and lock him in the closet for three hours straight. Uncomfortable and awkward.

“Excuse me, and goodbye.” He flashed a quick smile and proceeded down the hall.

The hall itself was littered with Ophiucan agents streamlining back and forth between the rooms dotting the walls. All in monochrome. Just as he was.

There had been a large number of cases opened these past few months. So many that closing one case meant immediately opening another. This past month he’d handled four cases himself. And here was another one. Not the one that he wanted.

Posted on the wall of the main lobby was a large map of the continent of Signum. It was almost perfectly circular with Aries to the north, Virgo to the east, Capricorn to the south, and Scorpio to the east. At the very center of the ring of twelve countries was the city-state of Ophiuchus. Vitae reservoirs were marked on the map with a blue star while locations of EPIS attacks were marked with an X.

ELPIS…

He bit the inside of his lip before turned down the hall, made several more turns, and pressed out the entrance of the building. Sunlight met his eyes. As did the light from the vitae reservoir that glowed several miles away. Even from this distance with an entire strip of buildings and a mile of desert between them, he could feel the warmth of it in his skin. Warmer than the sun. It painted the long marble staircase just below him in a blinding white.

His stomach churned, and he placed a hand over his belly. He turned his eyes away from the light, and his stomach settled. When he closed his eyes, and he felt right again. He paused and thought. Would it be unreasonable to walk down the stairs with his eyes shut like this? He had done a handful of times before. He’d always made it down with success. The only downfall was that the other agents would always give him looks for some reason when he did it. Drawing attention to himself was not something he wanted to do.

Then again, it seemed as if lately everyone was too busy to pay anyone else much mind.

A breath of air suddenly tickled the back of his neck and drew him away from his thoughts. The breath came with a whisper: “Traitor.”

Something pressed against his back. No, something pushed against his back.

His eyes snapped open in time to see the third marble step from the top come rushing towards him.

The momentum was too great. He could not right himself.

His head cracked down on the step first. Then came the rest of his body. Down he rolled — each crack of limb against marble signaling another tumble forward.

It seemed as if he’d been rolling for hours before he finally hit the bottom. He immediately tried to right himself, but his limbs wouldn’t allow it. His arms were broken, it seemed.

He threw a furtive glance up at the top of the staircase just in time to see a shadow recede back into the building. Then, he was alone.

He would not succumb to this, he knew. He thought this to himself as he clenched his fists tightly in the red that pooled around him. Not until he’d done it. Not until then. He would not let go.

Then again, what was this?

Was this—

Zero (6/7)

Atienna Imamu, Virgoan Daughter of Sixth House Chieftain

They were arguing again. 

She watched them as they slammed their fists against the tablecloth and pointed their utensils at each other’s throats.  Despite their raised voices, they did not draw the eyes of those seated around them. It was difficult to hear anyone in this large dining hall, after all. The clay walls that rose around them ended in an arch above their heads. It was an arch that threw back their voices at them tenfold. A whisper became a shout. A pleasant comment, a booming exclamation.

Needless to say, with the ten families lining the long white table to her left and another ten families to her right, the entire room was filled with an almost headache-inducing cacophony. Paired alongside the idle words of conversation were the clicks and clacks of spoons against porcelain bowls and knives against clay plates.

Atienna glanced back down at the book she’d hidden under the cloth. It rested on her lap open, alluringly beckoning her to delve into its pages once more. One more page, it said. If not that, one more paragraph. Or one more sentence.

It was a bit difficult to read in this dimly hall. The only light present came from the parallel streams of vitae that ran along the floors of the hall beside the wall. At the bank of the rivers of light grew vibrant star-shaped flowers and twisting vines.  Atienna knew that these rivers ran out from the building to a large vitae pool just around the back. The streams would continue out from this pool and stretch out into a river that reached all the way to their neighboring country of Gemini.

Legend had it that their Ancestor had purposefully built the dining hall around the vitae streams. For what reason? Atienna wondered about it quite often. Perhaps it was in order to not disturb the natural balance of things. Or perhaps it was for something else.

“What do we look like now that we’ve chosen to do nothing?!”

Atienna slowly lifted her gaze up to the one who sat across from her. Despite the brightly woven and beautifully patterned yellow and green formal robes her brother wore, he looked anything but elegant and courtly.  His eyes were wide and irate, his dark skin glistening with sweat.

“The Sagittarians have aided us whenever we were in need! How can you agree with the Council’s decision to deny their request for aid!”

“We never asked them for assistance!” The young woman beside him snapped, shaking her head so hard that her high, cone-shaped headdress nearly fell straight off her head. “And you can’t compare sending a handful of volunteers to help with wildlife restoration to assisting a war effort!”

“It’s not a war effort!” came the aggravated sigh. “They’re defending their lands from those skirmishes between Capricorn and Aquarius. They only seek peace and to protect their people.”

“So, you would have us risk our own people for theirs?” 

A pause. And then a spit. “You have no heart, Safiyah!”

“You have no head, Bachiru.” 

And then the young Safiyah laid eyes on her. And then her brother laid eyes on her.

Oh, bother.

Atienna shut her book and awaited the full brunt of their words. The storm of breathless shouts. The demands. And come the words did.

“Atienna, talk some sense into your brother! He’s been hanging around Usian for far too long. That man has clouded your brother’s empty head with foolishness!” Safiyah pressed, swinging her fork in Bachiru’s direction.

“Atienna,” Bachiru retorted, fending her fork off with a fork of his own.  “Talk some sense into your friend! She knows nothing of empathy or sympathy! She has sold her heart to some devil!”

Atienna glanced in-between them and waited a beat. In the lull in conversation that hung there, she could hear their heavy panting.

“Bachiru,” she addressed her brother first. “If you feel so strongly about this, why don’t you take it to the Council instead of wearing yourself out here? Our father is a chieftain on the Council, isn’t he? Is it not better to speak to him about these things?”

Bachiru opened his mouth to retort, and Safiyah did as well. Their faces were creased with confusion. She could read their thoughts like the pages from her book— whose side was she on?

“Safiyah,” she addressed her friend next. “The Council has already made their decision, and it’s a decision that coincides with your beliefs.  And you and I both know that Bachiru is too stubborn to ever change his opinion.” She smiled gently, almost sheepishly. “Forgive me, but I’m having a hard time understanding exactly why this argument is happening to begin with. You’ve disagreed about this subject with members from other tribes, but I’ve never seen you reach this level of anger.” After a pause, her smile turned impish. “Unless there’s another reason for this…”

Their brows furrowed with confusion and then rose with realization. They tried a glance in each other’s direction but paused halfway and instead settled back into their chairs and began to busily shove their mouths with the spiced rice.

Offering an even more impish smile, Atienna gently opened her book on her lap again and thanked the server as he came over to refill her glass cup with wine. She lifted the glass up to her lips and took a sip as she turned the page. The next chapter. Finally.

She blinked.

That was odd.

The words were a bit hard to read. Fuzzy. Out of focus. 

“Atienna…?”

Now that she thought about it, everything seemed out of focus. The noise around her. The movements of her brother and friend across the table. Her own movements. 

The wine glass slipped from her fingertips and shattered onto the floor in a great explosion of red and translucent petals. She followed it to the ground not so long after. As she lay cold on her back, she blinked up at the archways in confusion and studied the intricate designs that had been carved there centuries ago. The archways, in turn, echoed back the shouts of alarm from those seated around her.

Dark faces ringed around her like a halo. The lights cast by the streams of vitae twisted strange shadows across those faces in a way that made them look foreign, strange. 

Beside her, the wine bled out onto the tablecloth and into the pages of her book. 

Was this—

Zero (5/7)

Maria Gloria-Fernandez, Unknown

“Pirates!” the man cried as he dragged himself across the forecaster deck. The sun beat down on his brow like a whip, and he gagged on the heaviness of the saturated, salty air. His words, however, were lost to the slap of ocean waves against the hull and the thump, thump, thump of rubber shoes against the hollow, wooden floorboards.

“Pirates?” She laughed as she walked alongside him. “My darling, we are adventurers not pirates!”

The man paused in his scramble and craned his neck up at her. He was sweating quite a bit and stains were beginning to seep into his elegantly red overcoat. His dark gray hair had fallen loose from its ponytail and strands now clung to his pallid face. “You’re not adventurers or pirates. You’re a monster!” He spoke with a thick accent she couldn’t quite place.

She pulled back and glanced at the woman who stood behind her.  The woman merely shrugged and offered the man a sympathetic look. Nothing to be said, it seemed. With that, Maria threw her head back with a loud and musical laugh that rang across the ship. The sound bounced off of the torn sails of the ship, twirled around the mast, before sinking down into the main deck below.

She skipped forward past the man and towards the railings just behind him. She peered over them and down into the main deck. There right before her was a battle for the ages. Blade clashing against blade. Fist against face. Someone was even throwing barrels around. 

There did not seem to be a Conductor on this ship, however, which was quite a downer.

Regardless…

Maria hopped up onto the railings, spread her arms wide, and took in a deep breath.

There was ash in her hair, the dried crumblings of black and red caked onto her face, and icy droplets dripping down her arms. The sky—once a clear and blemishless stretch of endless blue—was scarred by a pillar of black that blossomed from a mountain of flames and ashes. This burning pyre as well as clusters of wood, metal, and cloth littered the stretch of sea that unfolded endlessly into the horizon.

Maria took in the entire scene with a wide smile. From here, the view was wondrous. Every detail, every flickering ember, every lapping wave was laid out right before her eyes!

“Such a shame. It really was a pretty ship.”

With that, she reached for her sheathed blade hanging at her side and drew it out into the light.

“Wait, Captain―” The woman behind her began.

But it was too late. Down Maria dropped right onto the shoulders of an unsuspecting man below her. The man barely had time to register her before she kicked him in the face with the back of her boot and launched herself at another. She knocked this next man in the face with the hilt of her blade, before reaching for his shoulders and lifting herself up in the air while using his body as an axle.  She swung her legs forward and used the force of her fall to bring the man up over her shoulders. For a moment, he was in the air. In the next, his body was crashing into that of another.

Several onlookers gazed at her in horror while others only offered expressions of exasperation. Some, admiration. But she did not dwell on these changes of face. Instead, she tore through the ones she deemed her enemies. Relentlessly, with a smile of exhilaration gracing her face. 

She paused in her almost manic stampede only to wipe the blood from her blade and the sweat from her brow. It was then that a movement from the corner of her eye caught her attention. It was a boy. Amidst the chaos of clashing blades and colliding fists, a boy stood there huddling a cylindrical object close to his chest. His eyes ― they glowed with an inhuman red-orange light.

A Conductor?

How amazing―

Maria barely had the time to finish the thought before the boy came rushing at her. The object in his hand gave out an unearthly red-orange glow that expanded outwards and consumed his body ― and then her body.

She heard it more than felt. A large resounding boom that drowned out the chaos of battle and the calm of lapping waves. It rang so loudly in her ears that for a moment she almost thought it was the only sound that ever existed.

When the sound faded, she found that she was in the air. Falling in the air with the ocean opening up below her.

“Captain!”

She did not hear the rest of the exclamation because she broke through the barrier of the ocean water below her. The cold gripped her tightly and dragged out from her a trail of blood which smokily rose up to the surface alongside little air bubbles.

A minor injury, surely, Maria thought to herself as she sank deeper and deeper into the frigid dark. All she needed to do was kick her legs a bit, and she’d break through the surface to rejoin her men. Surely, this would be an exciting tale. And then onto the next adventure they would go.

An intrusive thought suddenly invaded her mind as black dots began to prick her vision:

Was this—

Zero (3/7)

Cadence Morello, Geminian Swindler

The air was thick with smoke and the smell of booze. The dim v-lights barely had the power to pierce through the veil of grayness that was seeping down from the cloud of ash in the air. The haziness was the perfect blanket for her to hide in.

They were sitting at one of the many round tables that dotted the room. On the table before them was an array of playing cards with small tokens interspersed in-between. The man who sat across the table from her was looking at her like he could read her like a book.

Damn. He was so easy to read. 

The v-watch he wore on his wrist was a knock off brand which indicated that he was a show-off who was easily swindled. His tight monochrome suit that strangled his wrists and neck indicated that he was in denial of his current circumstances and that he may not have the funds to get a purchase a new one. In other words, he was desperate for money and respect.

The man sneered at her as he tugged at his collar with one hand and waved his set of cards in the other. “Looks like this game is just about to wrap up, Antonio.” 

That was not her name, of course. That was who she looked like at the moment, however. Yes, Antonio Figeroli was the guise she currently wore. Antonio Figeroli was a middle-aged man with a hanging gut and a sadly receding hairline. He had a terrible demeanor and often threw his money at whatever caught his eye be it women, clothes, or alcohol. He frequented this tavern so often that the bartender always prepared his drink before he arrived in order not to face the man’s impatient wrath.

It had not been difficult to pick up Figeroli’s mannerisms. All she had to do was swing by the tavern a couple of times and chat him up when he was drunk. He’d been even easier to read than this buffoon. At the moment, the real Antonio Figeroli was passed out in an alleyway somewhere in the city — courtesy of the Romano Family.

The fact that this man truly believed her to be Antonio Figeroli just highlighted how stupid he really was. For saint’s sake, he was in the left Twin City, home of thieves and birthplace of everything underground. If someone in this city approached you out from the blue that meant that they either wanted your money, wanted your life, or wanted your body.

“Damn,” she swore in the deep and rumbling voice of Antonio with a spit for good measure. She slammed her fists onto the table with cards still in hand just as Antonio would and bowed her head. Her rings clacked noisily against the wooden surface as she tapped her fingers in mock impatience. “This can’t be right. You must be cheating.”

“Not cheating,” the man across from her grinned. “I’m just that good.”

She narrowed her eyes at him and looked him over carefully. “Say, I’ve seen you here before once or twice. Always drunk as hell. Made me feel better about myself. So, what’s with the sudden confidence and mood?”

The man considered her for a moment and then smirked. 

Hook. Line. Sinker.

The man leant across the table and glanced around the tavern with narrowed eyes. She leaned forward to meet him and pricked her ears.

“Just between you and me,” he whispered. “I recently got myself a new gig distributing some state of the art conductors to some very generous buyers. You wouldn’t believe how desperate people are nowadays for one of ‘em.”

“Don’t ya mean how desperate people are to make money sellin’ ‘em?” She returned.

A pause, and then: “Your voice—”

Rising to a slow stand, she wiggled her ringed fingers and felt them prickle where the metal of the ring touched her skin. Orange light blossomed from the prickling area and crawled up her arm before reaching up to her face.  When the light faded, the man sitting across from her let out a shout and fell backward on his chair. 

“Y-You’re not…!” The man stammered, pointing a shaking finger in her direction. “You’re a kid!”

This gave her pause. Raising a brow, she lifted up her hat and scratched her head. “Not what I expected to hear, but what can I say?”

“Who—?!”

Holding out her cards for him to see, she let them slip from her fingers and onto the table. As they left her hand, they glimmered orange just as her body had. The two of spades became an ace of hearts. The five of clubs became a queen of hearts. The jack of diamonds became a jack of hearts. And the king and tens of spades became a king and tens of hearts.  An illusion broken. A royal flush.

“The name’s Cadence Morello.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Personal associate of the Romano Family at your service.”

At the family name, the man paled and then greened and then paled again. In an instant, he was on his knees and crawling to her ankles. “I… I… I…, please. I meant no disrespect! I have a family I need to provide for! You understand, don’t you? My children! Please, I’ll give you all the conductors I have and—”

She took a step back from him with raised hands. “Ey, ey, I get it. These are hard times. People get desperate. But you can only go so far and get sympathy, ya know? I mean, did you really think you could go tryin’ ta encroach on the Romano Family’s business turf and scrape away without a single problem? Even I’m not that lucky.” She fell to a crouch and met his gaze with a reassuring smile. “Look. If ya tell us who’s been providin’ ya with those conductors then I might be able to get in a good word for ya. Maybe only two fingers cut off instead of all ten.”

The man’s eyes widened. For a moment, it looked like he was going to pass out then and there. 

“Woah, don’t go passin’ out now,” she sighed. “I don’t want ta have ta drag your body to the boss, ya hear?”

The man did not move. And then it clicked for her. He was not staring at her in fear. He was staring at something behind her.

She turned her head just in time to see a flash of bright light followed by a gust of heat. The gust knocked her clean off her feet, and she was thrown backward into the bar. Glass rained down around her in clicks and clacks — a sound which seemed to match the beat of the crackling and popping that echoed in the background.

Blearily, and with much effort, she cracked open her eyes. 

The air was clouded in smoke. A shroud of smoke. But this time the shroud did not aid her. No, it was suffocating her with its gray hands.

She couldn’t breathe.

Not only that.

She couldn’t move.

Flames danced on the outskirts of her vision. The flickering embers were reflected in the shards of glass that were snowed around her. 

No. No. No. It couldn’t be. Not like this. Not when she was so close.

She gagged, hacked, coughed.

Was this—

Zero (0/7)

What is the color of a soul? Does it come in a gray-scale — a gradient from white to black? Is it red for a person who is passionate? Green for someone who’s lived a life full of envy? Blue for a wistful dreamer? Does the color change depending on one’s mood, depending on whoever is around oneself?

The woman glides across the bodies strewn across the dirt ground as she turns over these thoughts in her mind. To her, the cracks of bones beneath her leather boots are like the crunch of dry grass on a hot summer day. To her, the groans of the men and women around her are like the cries of cicadas. To her, the iron that hangs heavy in the air is like humidity that comes after rain.

A man crawls across her feet and gives her a look. Not a look of desperation. Not a look of fear. A look of pure hatred. She wonders, as she studies the man’s twisted expression, if his soul is red with anger.

“How pitiful.”

She lifts the blade she holds in her hand to the man’s throat.

“For a cockroach to glare at a human. Really, it’s pitiful.”

With a flick of her wrist, she sends golden light shimmering down out from the hilt of her blade to its tip.

“For someone who serves under the name of peace to only grasp for war, like this. Really, it’s pitiful.”

With another flick of her wrist, she ends the man’s life with a stroke of red.

As she cleans her blade of his blood, she hums and wonders if her soul is the color of gold.