Two (6/6): jericho raid, ii

This was not the first time Jericho had heard a cry for help resound from within his mind. Echoes of the past were always present—so much so that sometimes he thought they were more than just phantoms. It was during these times that Doctor Kingsley advised him to focus on a physical object he knew was real but—

SOMEONE HELP ME.

But this was the first time that Jericho had heard a cry that resounded so loudly even as he focused on the ground beneath his feet. It was a cry that drilled out from his temple and circled around him.

He had to go. He couldn’t not go.

He started forward and—

Something wrapped around his wrist and stopped him from pursuing the echo any further. A hand. Talib’s hand. The man was panting heavily and wiped the sweat from his brow as he doubled over.

“There’s something going on inside the warehouse.”

Talib straightened and adjusted his hat. His eyes narrowed as he seemed to strain his ears.  “So it seems.”

Jericho turned back to the warehouse. His head pounded. “We should go investigate.”

Talib held up a hand. “Wait. Let’s not go rushing into things without knowing what we’re rushing into. This may not be within the jurisdiction of our investigation.”

Jericho frowned. So this was the type of person Talib was. “It may involve Leona,” he said. A lie with no ground. He was not very good at lying or so he’d been told.

“And how would that be so?”

Jericho stared.

Talib raised a brow. “I’m not suggesting we leave it be. We’re peacekeepers by profession, Mr. Jericho. Peace requires patience and planning. We don’t want to accidentally kick-start an incident.”

“Then…”

Talib winked and tapped his nose. “I trust your intuition. From what I’ve seen, you seem to be blessed with a very good one. That or you’re psychic.” Before Jericho could even question the odd theory, Talib cleared his throat loudly with hands on hips. “But you are too forward. But you’re my partner. And so, acting on our contract—”

“Contract?”

“Will you allow me to first survey the area before you enter?” 

The earnesty of the question seemed both suiting and unfitting for Talib. Jericho was so taken aback that he couldn’t help but nod. 

With a nod of content, Talib reached into his trench-coat pocket and pulled out two items. The first was the stack of colorful, square papers from before which he placed on the ground. The second was a penknife. The pen was silver and had an empty hollow glass center. It looked like it was out of ink. 

Flourishing his hands out dramatically and kneeling to the ground, Talib raised the point of the pen in the air and lightly tapped it onto the top sheet of paper which was plain white. The tip pierced through the sheet like butter. And then dark blue light began to spill into the ink container of the pen. The light trickled down the sides of the container and dribbled down to the pen’s point before bleeding out onto the white paper. From there, it coated the sheet in a translucent haze of dark blue. 

Talib lifted his pen away. His eyes were glazed, seemingly focused on some distant point on the sheet. The sheet trembled beneath his gaze before its corners began to draw up towards each other as if guided by an unseen hand. After the corners met, it was creased and folded and creased and folded again and again. 

The finished product was a bird. No. A crane. An origami crane with paper wings that lifted it into flight just above Talib’s head. 

Talib pressed his pen—his conductor—onto the next square of paper which was an orange-yellow color. After absorbing the vitae from his conductor, the paper folded itself into a similar crane and floated up beside its white companion. 

Talib repeated this pattern three more times with his eyes becoming more and more glassy with each conduction. When he finished, a rainbow of five paper cranes flapped around his head. 

“I’ve never seen a manipulator manipulate more than two objects before.” 

Talib didn’t respond. 

The origami cranes departed from their circular route around his head and headed towards the warehouse. They slipped in through the cracks between the wooden walls and disappeared from sight. 

Soon, Talib grimaced. “There’s a confrontation going on inside…. they… one of the groups look like children… I…”

“What about the other group?”

“They’re saying that they’re…” Talib hesitated, brows furrowing. His unfocused eyes widened. “ELPIS.”

That was all Jericho needed to hear. In an instant, he was in front of the warehouse doors. Delivering a swift kick, he blew them open. A gust of wind whistled through the chaos unfolding within. None of the participants of the chaos acknowledged him. Some of them couldn’t. 

Nothing within the warehouse was without motion. Not the barrels of trash fire rolling along the ground nor the fragments of wooden crates being blasted through the air. Not the screaming children and adolescents who darted left and right—some in flight, some in fight. Not the figures who were dressed in white cloaks that were slowly beginning to become stained with red. 

Snip by snip. Snapshot by snapshot. It was almost the same. The only thing missing was the sand and the beat of the sun—

No, something else was missing. That feeling wasn’t there. 

A sudden animalistic roar resounded to his left, and Jericho turned just in time to see a cloaked figure swinging at him with an axe that had a blade-bit made of yellow light. Dodging the swing with a swift step backwards, Jericho swung his suitcase up and cracked it against the figure’s temple. There was a splatter of red. The figure slumped to the ground with their conductor still flickering yellow in their hand. 

Jericho stared at the conductor. 

So, that was what it was. It wasn’t the same after all—

Help me!

Jericho snapped his head to the right. Just a couple of meters away lay the corpse of an adolescent. Half of their face was missing. Most likely shot through by an externalist conducting gun of some type. Dead upon impact. 

Jericho did not linger on this sight long. Something else drew his attention away. Not a shout or a scream. Not a flash of light or a blur of a makeshift weapon. No. A feeling. That string again. 

He made his way around the chaos while dodging children who swung wooden planks and steel crowbars blindly and while tucking beneath rays and blades of psychedelic light. It was not hard to maneuver around the chaos. No one present appeared to be a professional Conductor.

He was dodging the swing of a bat while simultaneously ducking under a ray of vitae when he saw it.

Her.

There— just behind the hull of a torn down ship. A young girl was dragging along another much younger girl by the arm. The elder was small and slender with curly chestnut hair and gap teeth. Despite having never seen this girl before in his life, Jericho knew that she was a fourteen-year-old orphan who often did odd jobs around the city. 

But that was just who the girl appeared to be. Appearances were deceiving.

His gaze flicked to behind the two girls where a figure in a white cloak was swinging at them with what appeared to be a conducted blade. A male externalist. The elder girl shoved the younger to the side behind some crates. The white figure hesitated for a moment before continuing after the elder girl. 

The elder girl became agitated at this and whipped her head around to gauge the distance between her and her pursuer. A mistake on her part. She didn’t see the steel beam that jutted up from the floor in front of her and tripped right over it. She rolled forward before scrambling to her knees. She turned her head.

The white-cloaked figure was already at her feet and raising his weapon in the air.

Jericho was in-between them in an instant, kicking the figure’s weapon-wielding hand up in the air and swinging his suitcase right in the figure’s gut. There was a squelching sound as the corner of the case dug into the man’s flesh but the sound was drowned out by his yelp as he flew back into a pile of wooden crates.

Jericho did not check to see if his swing left the white figure immobilized. Instead—

Jericho stared down at the girl. And the girl stared up at Jericho. 

Jericho’s head buzzed.

But the ever-present dull headache that had been invading his mind since he had woken up from the Medical Conductor’s room in Ophiuchus began to ebb away. His head felt clearer than it ever had before. A clarity that reminded him of his childhood days before the War’s end. Like a splash of cool water washing away the sand that had made home in the cracks of his dry skin. Yes. It was a refreshing, nostalgic sensation just like that. 

—water. That too was the manner in which the girl’s face peeled away, revealing an entirely different face underneath. A shimmering splash, a wash, of yellow-orange light. Vitae. Revealed beneath the light was a boyish freckled face, a pair of caramel brown eyes, and hair as wild and red as fire. But this was not a boy nor was it a girl. It was a young woman.

“Jericho,” the young woman said his name despite him not having given it. 

“Cadence,” Jericho returned. He tilted his head. “How do I know your name?”

She quirked a brow and then asked in Geminian: “How am I supposed to know tha—” Her eyes widened and she shouted in common: “Look out!”

Jericho turned his head and brought his suitcase up just in time to catch the swing of a steel, spiked bat in the handle of his suitcase. The assailant let out a gasp of surprise which was then followed by a shout of alarm as Jericho jerked the assailant’s weapon up in the air with a jerk of his suitcase.  He plucked it midair and drove it up his attacker’s chin. There was a splash of red as his attacker flew through the air and a resounding thud as they collapsed to the ground a foot or so away. 

Jericho turned his eyes away from the fallen figure and back to the young woman. Cadence.

“You just killed that man,” Cadence said as she met his gaze.

“I believe I merely incapacitated him.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. You incapacitated him.” Cadence hopped to her feet and circled him. He followed her path with his eyes and blinked when she came to a stop in front of him. “And he attacked you.”

“Yes.”

“Which means he saw you.”

“Correct.”

“Which means you’re real.”

“I believe I am.”

“But you’re like the rest of ‘em, aren’t you…?”

Jericho paused and thought on this. He had been too focused on his objective and the possible ties his objective had with ELPIS to pay any of it enough mind but—

“I think I am.”

Cadence looked him up and down incredulously before slowly, hesitantly reaching forward with her hand. She pressed her hand against his chest.

Electricity surged through his entire body at the contact. Cadence must have felt it too—he knew that she did—because she let out a surprised yelp and pulled away. He did not allow her to pull away any further, however, and reached out for her arm and tugged her to his chest—which allowed her to just barely skirt a bright ray of purple vitae that seemed to come from nowhere. Instead of hitting her square in the chest, as was its original destination, it burrowed its way through a stack of metal beams that had been behind her.

Cadence chuckled at the sight of the singed metal. “Always heard ELPIS members were violently crazy, but this is a whole ‘nother level.” Amusement or fear—Jericho couldn’t tell which one the young woman was chuckling with. On the surface at least. But somehow, deep down, he knew exactly what sort of emotion was behind the statement. As if the feeling were his own.

“They are not ELPIS.”

Cadence quirked a brow. “Not to hark on my savior or anything, but these folks literally burst through the doors and said ‘We are ELPIS’.”

“They were lying.” Jericho swung his suitcase at another white-cloaked figure who charged at them before he pulled Cadence by the scruff out of the line of fire of a conjured gun. “Appearances are deceiving.”

Cadence, still dangling from the collar of her shirt, raised a brow. “So I’m assumin’ you’re not the one who is all ‘appearances are everything’ then.”

Jericho glanced down at her. “No… that wasn’t me.”

“But you know what I’m talkin’ about then.” Cadence hummed. “And I thought so. You don’t seem like the type.” Then she quirked a brow. “If they ain’t ELPIS then—”

Jericho dropped her in favor of catching the wooden swing of a child’s bat. He jerked it out of the child’s hands, paused as he felt Cadence’s stare, and then tossed the bat to the side. He stepped forward which sent the child stumbling back. He paused as a faint, static-filled memory scratched at the edge of his mind. But before the memory could fully form, Cadence stepped in between the two and gave the child a toothy smile and jerked her thumb backwards.

“Ya better skedaddle, kid. The guy you just swung at? Take a good look at that sash on his arm.” 

The child’s eyes flicked to Jericho’s arm. To the band on Jericho’s arm. The child must not have noticed it in all the chaos but beneath the overhead v-lights that shone brightly down on them, the sash now glowed. The child’s eyes visibly widened. 

Cadence grinned. “The Ophiuchians are here now.”

With trembling lips, the child scrambled backwards and darted away without throwing a look back. Cadence cackled at this before quirking a brow. “It sure is nice to have friends who gotta bitta international pull, right?”

Friends? Was that what they were? Doctor Kingsley had always told him that creating a supportive social circle was one of the best ways to facilitate reintegration. It was something that Kingsley had always chastised him for not putting more effort into. And here this individual was offering friendship. Kingsley would let him be if he told her this, correct?

Unsure of how to respond, Jericho replied with a “Thank you”.

Cadence raised a brow. “You’re really savin’ my ass here, so I should be thankin’ you.” 

He stared at her. And then somehow abruptly he came to a realization. “You work with Don Romano and the Foxmans.” 

There was no change in her expression. “And you work with Ophiuchus.” Before he could pursue the matter any further, she held up both hands and shook her head. “Is now really the time ta be talkin’ about this?” She gestured to his suitcase. “And isn’t there a better weapon inside there that’s more effective than swinging it around?” She paused and gave a lopsided grin. “And I ain’t talkin’ about the stuffed animal.”

He did not ask how she knew about the stuffed animal because he already knew for fact that she knew.

Jericho put his hands around his case and drew it to his chest. “My conductor is only used for dealing with true members of ELPIS.”

Cadence quirked a brow. “And is that your choice or your higher up’s choice?”

Jericho froze.

“Ya really gonna go and follow whatever your higher up’s tell ya even if it don’t make sense?”

The clarity that had splashed upon Jericho began to drip away. Replaced by the murkiness that had been present from even before he fell down those stairs. The particles of the past that clung to him tightly clouding his mind. 

Cadence seemed to notice this change because she started, held her head, and then frowned. “Hey, I—”

It was then that the doors to the warehouse flew open once more. Jericho tensed and whipped his head in the direction before he brought up his suitcase offensively. 

The threshold was once again crowded by an army of silhouettes with conductors in hand.  The sensation of deja vu was dizzying but Jericho remained focused. As he lifted his suitcase in preparation, a hand was abruptly placed on his shoulder.

Cadence quirked a brow. “Call me a bit proud, but I doubt an old suitcase could hurt our heavy guns, ya know?”

‘Our heavy guns’?

Jericho returned his attention to the doorway. All those who stood there were in suits. After one of them gave a shout in what sounded like Geminian, they all charged forward. Anyone who wasn’t in a suit was their enemy, it seemed. Without hesitation, they swung their conductors.Unlike the white-cloaked figures, these individuals seemed like they were trained Conductors.

“Wonder how they got here,” Cadence said as she watched the tide of battle change as if for sport. She glanced at him. “Not ta be rude but ya don’t seem like the type ta plan ahead for things like these.”

As if to answer her question, one of the suited men came to a skidding halt in front of them just after firing a pistol conductor at one of the cloaked figures. 

“You alright, Morello?” The man asked in Geminian. Not lifting his gaze from the battle scene, he reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a slip of heavily creased paper. It was square, white, and had a tear at the center. There was a message scrawled in blue ink: warehouse 13—possible internal family-related incident. “Some manipulator sent this to us. Ophiucian apparently.” The man paused, seeming to finally realize Jericho’s presence. He eyed the armband and then gave an awkward salute. “W-We’re glad to accept your assistance, sir.” His common was very accented.

Jericho lowered his case. “There is no assistance. This incident does not fall within our jurisdiction.” 

Both Cadence and the man exchanged looks. 

“But then…” the suited man began. For some reason, Jericho knew that this man’s name was Donatello.

“This appears to be an internal situation. It does not seem to involve our case. These are not truly ELPIS members.”

“How do you—”

Cadence held her hand up to silence Donatello and tipped her hat. “Well, regardless, thanks for comin’ here to save me even though I ain’t in your jurisdiction.” She extended a hand. “Cadence Morello.”

Jericho stared at the hand for a long moment as he listened to the battle raging on in the background. It didn’t seem like the appropriate place to be doing this exchange. 

“It’s never an appropriate time or place unless you make it one yourself.”

Jericho thought on this for a minute before he ceded. “Jericho.” He accepted the gesture. 

The brushing of their fingertips sparked electricity again but left their palms warm. 

Donatello who still fisted the white piece of paper glanced between them in confusion. 


The situation was dealt with swiftly.

It was a very efficient execution.

The white-cloaked individuals were herded together into an inescapable corner by a team of suited men. 

One of the cloaked figures broke away from the group scrambled to their knees and begged to be spared.

Cadence who had been hanging on the outskirts of the scene frowned and said, “Wait—”

But the man who headed the raid—the man who looked as if he’d just come from a funeral—raised his hand and brought it down swiftly. Alongside his fist came a rain of vitae rays. The flashing lights that pelted down were dizzyingly nostalgic. If Jericho closed his eyes, he was certain he’d slip into the past. Instead of doing that, Jericho glanced at Cadence.

She seemed pale. In the flashing light, she looked almost sick.

Which didn’t make much sense to Jericho. This was her profession, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it common to see things like this?

Abruptly, blurs of faint sceneries and sensations flitted past his mind’s eye. Blurred, cracked, incomplete. A crooked smile as a man scrambled to his knees on the ground. Someone clinging to his legs and pleading to be spared. Cold, hard rain seeping into his bones. Bony hands dancing across the white teeth of a piano.

Memories? He was used to them coming at him from nowhere at inopportune times. But these memories seemed foreign to him. The unfamiliarity made him think for a moment that these were forgotten memories, but he quickly tossed this theory aside. 

He never forgot. He never would.

He glanced back at Cadence. There was color in her cheeks again, and she was wearing a crooked smile. All in order.

He was curious about her, but his objective came first.

And so he turned to leave. As Jericho pulled away from the scene, however, another thought came to him like lightning—

The children escaped

Before he could comprehend the thought, a sudden dull pain shot through his arm, and he stared down at in confusion. Nothing out of the ordinary. No injury visible.

He glanced back at Cadence. She was still smiling but she was gripping her arm. But there was no injury visible there. The only thing out of the ordinary was a faint trail of scarlet that ended a couple of meters away from her. But the floor was painted in red. It was difficult to tell the source of the trail.

He rubbed his arm absentmindedly.

It had been a while since he noticed pain.

Two (4/6): gloria jive

Maria pressed her index finger forward. Once again, she received no response. She sighed. 

“Captain, I don’t think that’s helping…”

“Oh, I’ve tried telling her, Conta. But she seems very set on doing it.”

Maria straightened from where she had draped herself across the bed and leaned back in her chair. Bending her head backward, she eyed the two who stood behind her. 

Conta sat at a round table in the back. A mountain of glittering golden coins, jewels, conductors, and spices were littered on the table before her. The smell was excitingly intense, and the sight was dazzlingly bright. 

At the opposite corner of the room stood Simon with a bucket of water in one hand and a rag in the other. He crossed the room quickly and knelt down beside Maria. His gaze was not trained on her, however. It was trained on the woman who laid on the bed in front of her. 

The woman with golden hair. 

The woman was clothed now—as per Conta’s insistence—in one of Maria’s blouses. A thin blanket had been thrown over her—once again, as per Conta’s insistence—and the only sign that she was alive was the gentle rise and fall of the sheets. 

Maria watched as Simon drew the rag across the woman’s brow before she reached forward and pressed her finger against the woman’s cheek again. No response. 

Maria peered at her closely. 

Even her eyelashes seemed to be made of gold. 

“My dear Simon, what do you think is wrong with this lovely lady?” She asked, peering deeply into the man’s face. “Why will the most interesting of treasures not awaken?”

“That, I do not know.” Simon sighed as he pulled away. “No signs of fever. Heart rate slow but not alarmingly so.” He gently, reverently lifted the thin blanket to reveal the woman’s hands that were still bound by the thick, steel cuffs. “And the fact that we can’t remove this isn’t helping.” 

“You say so, but I have yet to—”

Maria reached for the offending object but a gentle hand placed on her wrist stopped her. Eyes sharp, she glanced up. Simon smiled down at her knowingly. 

He said, “I have no doubts about you, Captain, but I fear what the removal of that will due to our mysterious guest here. It may be connected to her condition.”

Maria returned the smile. “My, my, Simon, how daring of you.”

“Oh, well, I do learn from the best, my Captain.”

Maria laughed and slapped him on the back before she hummed and hopped to her feet. She made her way over to Conta’s side and leaned over her shoulder. 

“Anything of interest, my dear Conta?”

Conta tucked a lock of hair behind her ear before plucking a coin from the pile and stacking it on top of a tower of similar coins. 

“Just the usual loot, Captain,” she said. 

Maria stared at her for a long moment, and Conta seemed to flush beneath her gaze.  The moment stretched on, and the groans of the ship resounded in the silence. Finally, Maria cracked a smile and squeezed Conta’s shoulders. “Whatever you say, my dear Conta.”

With that Maria swept out of the room. She made her way down the halls enjoying the sound the crack of her boots made against the wooden floorboards. As she approached the mess room at the end of hall, the sounds of idle chatter and the squeaks and clacks of chore work reached her ears. As she drew nearer and as the sound of her boots resounded louder and louder, the sounds of chore work heightened and idle chatter lowered. 

She burst through the doors of the mess hall with a grin and observed the ongoing with hands on hips. 

The mess hall was dotted with the newly indentured men. Some were dragging soapy rags across the food littered tables while others swooshed mops across the brine-stained floor. In the back behind the kitchen counter, Maria could faintly hear the plaster clicks of dishes and the metal clacks silverware being tossed around. 

They were still in their sailor uniforms, although the uniforms had begun to lose their pristine white glow. At her arrival, they all slowed their movements. 

“My, my,” she laughed, “you are doing so much better than the ones who have been on this duty before you! Perhaps they did so poorly on purpose?”

No one answered her question which made her hum in thought. 

One of the men who manned one of the mops nodded at her. “Captain, may we assist you with anything?”

Maria stared at the mop-wielding man for a long moment before she closed the distance between them. They were almost nose to nose now, but even as she peered more deeply into his face he held his ground. As she pressed forward a bit more, he only faltered for a fraction of a second. 

She pulled away from him and grinned with relief. Clapping a hand on his shoulder, she said, “Ah, my dear Morandi, I was afraid you were sick—you were acting so strangely just now! So easygoing!”

“Well, Captain,” he responded thickly, “seeing as we’ve reached an agreement, it would be dishonorable for me not to follow through.” 

Maria scratched her head and hummed again as she turned away from him. “There is that honor you speak of once again.” A thought came to her, and she snapped her fingers and twirled around before clamping her hands back onto his shoulders. Squeezing tight, she said: “You will answer my questions!”

Morandi started and then frowned. “Look, I’ve already told you everything I know about that woman. I know nothing about her. We’re just charged to ship things. We don’t ask what we’re shipping. That’s part of the job.”

A beat of silence. 

“Tell me about conductors and conducting.”

Morandi stared. “I—Excuse me…?”

“Conductors, conductors, vitae, extraneous, intraneous!” With each syllable, Maria bounced on the soles of her feet. “Tell me about these things! I wish to know, Morandi, from you who is tasked with carrying them for our dear friends in Gemini.” 

Morandi faltered a step before he shook his head. “I am by no means an expert, Captain. I don’t even have my Conducting License.” He took a moment to collect himself before he regarded her with a raised brow. “I’m aware that your crew is a salad bowl of a crew and that you’re all from different parts but I’m surprised that you don’t have even one Conductor among you.”

“Oh, we do have a Conductor.” Maria hummed with a grin. “A former Conductor. Simon from Leo. But he is retired.  Taken on a religious lifestyle. Something about worshiping your Ancestors? What’s that religion called? Monad? Strange. I’ve never understood it. My belief in myself has always been enough for me. Well, either way, Simon does know his way around a conductor—”

“Well, then—”

“But that does not matter in this case because I wish to hear from you, Morandi.” Maria released the man from her grip before taking a step back and falling down into a sit at the wooden table behind her. “Tell me your experience and knowledge of these things. Your version, your tale, your legend.” She propped her elbow up on her crossed legs and rested her chin on her knuckle before she offered a smile. “Please do make it interesting.”

“And what’s with the sudden interest?” He asked with narrowed eyes.

“Maybe I’ll know it when you tell me!” 

Morandi sighed, rested his mop against the table, and crossed his arms. “Well, where do I even start? The basics? Like how Conductors manipulate vitae through conductors? Or about the basics of vitae? Soft versus hard? How vitae can be manipulated extraneously or intraneously—”

“Ah, yes, about that,” Maria interjected, “I think I’ve heard about it. About how certain Conductors can use the vitae in themselves versus the vitae outside. But is it not tiring to use the vitae from inside? The concept is beyond me but vitae is like energy, no?” 

“For someone who claims to not know how vitae and conductors work, you sure seem to know a lot about them.” Morandi mused before ruffling his hair. “Like I said I’m not an expert, but from what I understand, intravenous vitae can be replenished through ingesting the soft vitae that is present in food. Still, externality Conductors who literally just shoot out the vitae inside of themselves—well, apparently, they have shorter life expectancies than other Conductors… or something like that. Not sure if that’s really it. I mean,  why anyone would want to do that?”

“Maybe that is what you call passion?” Maria tapped her chin in thought before she mused: “There is a saying that goes ‘vitae is the color of a soul’, no? Would conducting then not be akin to burning the soul of something for fuel? Like a fire?” Her eyes widened and she leaned forward. “Can something like a soul truly be replenished by eating?”

“That’s just a saying. Vitae isn’t actually a person’s soul.” Morandi said matter-of-factually. He quirked a brow. “If you’re this interested, why don’t you go to Ophiuchus and take your State Conducting Exam? That way you’ll get access to all sorts of vitae-related research material you wouldn’t be able to gain access to otherwise. Maybe you could even think to release me and my crew on land while you’re at it.”

“Why do that when it’d be so much easier and exciting for me to hear about it from people like you?” Maria returned with a chuckle. “Besides, that is not our agreement.”

“To think a pirate would hold so steadfastly to promises.”

“I never break a promise, my dear Morandi.” Maria rolled her neck before hopping off her table and coming to sit beside him instead. Abruptly, she snapped her fingers and grinned. “Ah, yes, I almost forgot! How many people are able to conduct without those conducting devices? I would like to learn how since it seems quite fun!” 

Immediately, a short burst of laughter erupted from Morandi’s lips but it was quickly silenced with a clearing of the throat. He exchanged looks with the others around him who were also stifling their laughs. The sound was not mirrored by Maria. 

 “You’re… serious?” He asked. When he received an expectant stare in response, his gaze seemed to soften and he sighed. “Forget ‘how many’—there’s no such thing as a Conductor conducting without a conductor. Those two go hand-in-hand. Just look at the word itself.” He spread his arms wide. “It’s just not possible.” 

“There’s no such thing as no such thing,” Maria said after a pause. “It’s just that you don’t know of it yet.” She stretched out her arms and leaned her head back against the tabletop behind her. “‘Impossible’ is something to be broken by the strong.” In the silence that followed, she studied the lines of the ceiling and turned her ears towards the groans of the ship. The smile slipped from her face. “Ah… also, ELPIS—what is it?”

The other members of the cleaning crew who had been listening in on the conversation froze at the question. Maria did not pay them any attention and merely turned her head expectantly towards Morandi again. The thumps of footsteps and muffled voices from other areas of the ship resounded in the silence. 

Finally, after a long while, Morandi cleared his throat and wrung his hands. “I’m actually surprised you know about that. Didn’t think you knew too much about the affairs of Signum with you being a seafarer from wherever.”

“Ah, I did spend some time in your country a while back. Eight years ago, actually,” Maria replied, returning her attention to the ceiling. “So, what is this ELPIS exactly? What is so exciting about this ELPIS?”

Morandi gave her a look of confusion but when she did not acknowledge him, he sighed. “It’s not a ‘what’. It’s a ‘who’.”

“Who?”

“The matter is rather hush-hush, but they’re what’s left of a group of people who fought during the War. Lived before the war. The thirteenth group.”

“The thirteenth group, you say…?” Maria murmured. “Do you mean those funny people who work in that Ophiuchus place?”

“No, no, no. Definitely not..”  Morandi shook his head. “Well, I think I understand the confusion. Where Ophiuchius is now is where that thirteenth state was located originally.”

“Thirteenth state?” 

“Yes…” Morandi rubbed his chin. “They had some radical beliefs—that group. They saw usage of vitae and conductors as evil, sacrilegious. Tried to purge conducting and those who used conductors. Very steadfast in their beliefs. Determined. I was never on the battlefront during the War—worked on cargo just as I do now—but I’ve heard many stories about them. Horror stories.” He reached for the mop and studied it. “But, they are the reason for why the War ended.”

Maria perked up at this.

“The twelve countries ended up banding together to fight against them,” Morandi explained. “It was an annihilation. Of self-defense, of course. Left all of us too weak to fight any further.” He shrugged. “Still, it’s difficult to kill off radical beliefs. Some pockets of the state survived and branched out. Eventually became known as ELPIS. But they’re only a fraction of what they used to be.”

Such an odd thing—ELPIS. 

Maria turned the word over in her mind. What a sour and unpleasant thing—strange, since she usually enjoyed even the most morbid of concepts and ideas. She leaned forward and thrummed her cheek in thought. Her eyes locked onto one particular sailor who seemed to be fidgeting with his collar. With a smile, she nodded at him. “You—you seem like you have something interesting to say? What is it?”

The sailor in question started at the address before cleared his throat and stepped forward. “I—er—they’re still pretty big actually, sir—er—Captain. When I was younger, my town was attacked by them. They ransacked the conductor that powered our town and took a bunch of children. I was one of the lucky ones…” 

Maria whistled before gesturing to the other sailors in the area. “Does anyone else have anything interesting to add about this ELPIS?”

“They’re just plain crazy,” interjected another sailor without skipping a beat. 

Maria pointed at the sailor who had spoken and winked. “Crazy is just something you use to describe something you don’t understand, no? Perhaps you to me?”

The sailor started. “Uh, well, yes, I guess… I mean—”

“Why so flustered, my friend?” Maria laughed. 

“I—”

“It’s alright, Giorgio. Doubt she means anything by it.” Morandi rubbed his chin again and then shook his head with a sigh. He turned back to Maria and finished, “Anyways, I’m by no means an expert in history either, so—”

An abrupt silence followed like a string cut. Scissors snapping closed on the conversation. Garden shears pruning the neck of an unwanted bud. 

“—er, is there something wrong, Captain?”

Maria quirked a brow and grinned at the man as she straightened herself. “The only thing that is wrong is that you have all stopped talking.” 

Morandi exchanged a look with the one he had called Giorgio before motioning towards her eye. 

Maria touched her cheek and felt wetness trail onto her fingertip. She pulled her hand away in surprise before chuckling and wiping away the tears that were leaking from her eyes. “This just keeps getting more and more interesting!”

“Er—”

Maria patted the man’s shoulder and beamed.  “My dear Morandi, how knowledgeable you are!” She gestured out towards all of them. “You all are very knowledgeable! How lucky of me to have you on my crew! Surely, I chose well!”

“And she’s not making sense again…” One of the sailors muttered under his breath.

“Oh?” Maria hummed at the sailor who had spoken and made her way over to his side. “So you will be calling me crazy after all?” When the man stumbled back, she chuckled. “You can think what you want, my dear. What sort of world would this be if that were not the case?”  Before he could respond, she turned away from him and addressed all of them with an absentminded wave. “Anyways, you can all rest for the night. You told me such interesting things, after all!”

“Uh—”

“See you later, my dears !” With that, she swept out of the room.


When Maria returned to the cabin that housed the mysterious woman, Simon was nowhere to be found  and Conta was dozing away at her table. The golden woman was, of course, just as asleep as before. 

Maria crossed the room and knelt down beside her again. She pressed her finger against the woman’s cheek. No response as always. 

How boring. 

“It might be the handcuffs…”

Maria perked up and turned her head. Leaning against the wall with crossed arms to her left was a familiar boy. He had dark hair that was tied into a loose ponytail and green eyes. There was a cloak thrown over his shoulders that looked fabulously extravagant. 

“Oh!” Maria pointed at him as she rose to her feet. “You are that boy from earlier, no? The small, angry one. With the fire!”

The boy started and uncrossed his arms as a scowl broke across his expression of indifference. The indifference returned a second later, and he reclined back against the wall with crossed arms. He threw a glance in Conta’s direction. “You’re taking a random person who may not be real pretty well.” He glanced back at her. “You must be crazy or stupid.”

Maria tilted her head at him and hummed. “Ah, that may be so.” She tilted her head as a thought occurred to her. “Ah! But what about you?”

The boy’s eyes narrowed but he said nothing instead choosing to approach the bed. He bent over the golden woman and studied her with a frown.

“Oh?” Maria hummed. “Do you see something you like, my dear?”

In response, the boy sent her a quick glare but remained focused on the golden woman. He knelt down with hovering hands. He hesitated. “Can I touch her?”

Maria raised her brows and tilted her head. “Why are you asking me? Why don’t you ask her?”

Another glare. He leaned forward and traced the cuffs around the woman’s wrists. With care, he lifted them and rubbed his thumb against the edge. There was a thin, almost imperceptible strip of material there. It seemed to be rubber. His eyes widened. “… it’s a conductor.”

“A conductor?” Maria tilted her head.

The boy inspected it closer. “I’ve never seen anything like it… usually, conductors have an insulator just on the inside to help control vitae flow but…” He pressed against the material, and it seemed to squeak beneath his fingers. “There’s an insulator on the outside.” He shook his head and pulled back. “I didn’t think it was possible… but I think these handcuffs are suppressing—no, maybe it’s constricting—her intraneous vitae flow somehow. And if it’s doing that then…”

Maria scratched her head before she chuckled. “Well, I do not really understand but you sound like you know how to remove it, yes?” She peered into his face. “At first,  my dear crew tried using all sorts of things to try and remove it but Simon insisted that doing so was too risky. I care for Simon, you see, so I listened to him.” 

“Look, I don’t care. But you helped me this morning so I’ll return the favor. I don’t like owing people. Real or not.”

“Real or not?” Maria ruffles her hair and rose to her feet. The boy craned his neck up to look at her, and she smiled a close-eyed smile at him. “Oh, I am very real my friend. I am the most certain thing in this world.” She pointed a finger at him. “It is you who is uncertain. But since I am something that is completely certain, I can make you certain just like that.” The snap of her fingers echoed in the quiet that followed. 

The boy stared and glanced away with a mumble. “… you sure like to talk a lot.”

Maria threw her head back and laughed. “Well, of course! How else will you know what I’m thinking?”

“I don’t want to know,” the boy grumbled as he rose to his feet and walked over to the table where Conta rested. He reached out but Maria stopped him with a hand around the wrist. “I just need this conductor,”

 he said. When she released him, he reached over and plucked a slender object from the table. It was long and black with a thin, pointed end like the blade of a rapier. The handle of the thing was made of rubber and was a dull gray color. It was only slightly larger than his hand.  “It’s a kickstarter. Pre-charged with vitae,” he explained. “Usually they use these things on new conductors because the insulators in them can become stuck and prevent vitae flow—”

“I don’t really get it,” Maria laughed, “but I am surprised! You sure sound smart!”

“It’s common knowledge,” the boy responded as he turned away from the table and began to walk back towards the bed. “Any person who knows about conductors knows about it—”

Maria stepped in front of him and stared into his eyes searching. “What is this? Are you rejecting what I think of you? My opinion?”

The boy hesitated, brows furrowed in confusion. “No, I—”

“Then why do you deny what I say?”

“Why do you have so much to say?” The boy returned evenly.

At this, Maria laughed again. “My dear friend, why are you asking a question I have already answered?”

The boy opened his mouth to retort but then promptly shut it and pushed past her towards the bed. “Anyways, if I can get this past the insulator to reach the conducting piece of it, I might be able to overcharge it. Overheat it.” 

Maria made her way over to him as he knelt down beside the bed. She watched as he lifted the cuffs and slid the thin, pointed part of the conductor into a crack that was between the metal and rubber of the cuffs. He pressed down a nodule at the side of the device, and it hummed with life as light spilled from the nodule down its shaft to its pointed tip.

Maria leaned forward and watched with awe. “Wow! Conductors are truly beautiful, no? For the world to contain something like this—it’s quite amazing, yes?”

The boy gave her a strange look again before shaking his head and returning his attention to his work. 

Maria studied him with interest before a thought occurred to her. She leaned in close—so close that her breath blew stray hairs out of his face—before she asked, “Ah, by the way, what is this Tragedy of Aries that I keep seeing everywhere?”

And just like that—

—the boy was gone. The conductor that had been in his hands was now in hers, and as the thing gave one last final hum, the cuffs let out a click. A second later and they fell open onto the mattress of the bed. In turn, the golden woman let out a soft breath.

Maria leaned in, spilling her shadow across the woman’s face.

The woman’s golden lashes fluttered open. Slowly, as if waking from a dream, her eyes rose to meet Maria’s own. 

The woman’s eyes were the color of molten amber. Not quite gold but not quite brown. 

Extending a hand, Maria grinned. “My golden lady, shall we become friends?” 

One (6/6): jericho track, i

“The medical Conductors from the Medical Department have cleared me for travel.”

“So they have,” Alice Kingsley returned thickly. She sat across from him at her desk with cross legs and crossed arms. In front of her was a file with his name on it. She clicked her tongue. “The times certainly are tense.”

“I would be grateful if you cleared me too,” Jericho said after a beat. “So I can aid in the Ophiucian mission for peace.”

Alice waved him off. “Don’t try that with me. I’ve told you many times before — it doesn’t work with me.” She leaned forward and stared into him. “Let me get this clear. You’re insisting that you fell down the stairs.”

“I tripped,” Jericho amended. “Nothing was purposeful.”

“A trip that left you a bloody mess at the front of our SERPENS Establishment.”

Jericho nodded. “I am a klutz.”

Silence.

Alice did not smile. Jericho was unsure of how to react.

“I can’t help people who don’t seek help themselves,” Alice clipped, tapping her fingers on his portrait photograph that was clipped to the file. “Since you’re insisting that you merely tripped, there is no evidence at present that allows me to hold you back.”

“So,” Jericho tried, “I’ve been cleared?”

“You’ve been reassigned.”

Jericho blinked. “Reassigned?”

“The team handling the Capricornian-Aquarian conflict has already departed,” Alice explained. “They left while you were in the Medical Department.” 

“… oh.”

“Instead, you’re being assigned to a missing person’s case,” Alice continued. She studied him and then made a sound that he almost assumed was a laugh. “No need to look disappointed. Any case assigned to an Ophiucian is high profile. But even if that were not the case, shouldn’t someone who has chosen to serve as an Ophiucian agent not care whether or not something is high profile? Are we not called by those outside these borders as neutral peacekeepers?”

“Yes, of course,” Jericho responded automatically. 

Alice leaned back in her chair and studied him long and hard before she elaborated, “The missing individual is an Ophiucian agent.” 

Jericho perked up at this. 

“You may have heard of her. Leona.”

“Isn’t she…?”

“The soon-to-be Chairman of the ELPIS Department, and an individual who completed the State Conductor Exam with a score high enough to rank her as second out of all of those who have taken the exam. And a saint candidate.” Alice laced her fingers together and frowned. “The very fact that no one has seen her face and yet everyone knows these things highlights her position in our current world. Some say she is even the symbol of Ophiuchus. Peace.” Alice seemed to chuckle at the thought.

After wondering if he should laugh along, Jericho tried, “That is… troubling.”

There was a long pause of silence.

“I don’t know all the details but the agent was last seen in the Twin Cities of Gemini,” Alice finally said, closing his folder gently. “And it seems as if you were granted your wish. This case seems to involve ELPIS.” She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Your train is to depart in an hour so it’s best that you get ready. It would be unfortunate if you were to miss your train again.”

Giving a deep nod, Jericho rose to a stand. As he left Alice’s office, he passed by the cane-wielding, red-haired woman again. This time, she flashed him a smile. “Good luck with Talib, Jeri.”


Jericho arrived at the Grand Snake Train Station with a single suitcase in hand. In it was a single change of clothes and his conductor. 

The station was as busy as usual.  Ophiuchian Conductors dressed in their usual monochrome uniforms crowded the platforms and left little room to breathe. Wrapped around many of their right upper arms was a white sash with the Ophiucian symbol emblazoned upon it. Interspersed between the agents were a handful of individuals who were not dressed in monochrome. Rather than boarding the trains, they looked to be leaving them. They were most likely normal citizens here to submit requests for aid.

“Mister Jericho…?”

Jericho blinked down and found a young woman standing at his side. She was very small and very slender. Tiny. Jericho had to stop himself from asking how she had not gotten lost in the crowd. Well, it was probably because of that.

Pink. Bubblegum pink. That was the color of her pixie-cut hair.

“You are Mister Jericho, right? Of the Investigations Department?” She repeated.

Jericho nodded.

“I’m Ferris Hart. Cancerian.” She extended her hand. “I work in the Assignment Department.”

Jericho stared at her extended hand for a moment before he accepted the gesture. For some odd reason, her face lit up at this and she cleared her throat and straightened her uniform.

“Please follow me, and I’ll introduce you to who you’ll be working with.”

Jericho followed the young woman through the crowd and nearly ran into her when she stopped short in front of a signpost. He glanced up. Platform 2, it read. 

There was a small bubble of breathing space created around the post, and within the bubble resided two men and one woman. They were all dressed in monochrome suits. The man who stood with his arms crossed leaning against the post had a trench coat thrown over his uniform and a hamburg hat dipping down his head.

“Hey, everyone,” Ferris greeted them with a small wave before flushing and clearing her throat. She stepped to the side and gestured to Jericho. “This is Jericho, the one who’s been assigned on the missing person’s case. Please introduce yourselves.”

The agent who introduced himself first stood a head taller than Jericho. He had curly light brown hair that was haphazardly slicked back. The pair of horn-rimmed glasses perched on his hawk nose made his hazel eyes seem twice as large. 

“Wtorek Izsak — Izsak being my first name,” the man said with a bright smile as he extended his hand. He was wearing thick gloves that were lined with metal. “From Taurus. Conjurer. Happily married. Proud father.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Am I missing anything?”

“Jericho,” Jericho said, shaking his hand and studying his face. Something about it was familiar. “… Not married… or a father.”

Izsak stared at him for a long moment before he barked out a laugh and clapped Jericho hard on the back. “Gabe, looks like we’ve got one of the good ones!”

The one who was nicknamed Gabe approached Jericho next with an extended hand. She stood at Jericho’s height and had dark skin and a dark rope of hair tied high into a ponytail. There were dark circles beneath her eyes but the smile beneath them was a blinding white.

Jericho stared at her for a moment before reaching out to accept the gesture.

“Gabrielle Law,” the woman said. “I’m originally from Aries. Lived in the countryside. I’m an elementalist. I’ve heard a lot about you from Doctor Kingsley — er, is everything alright?”

Jericho found himself unable to release the woman’s hand. Unable to remove his eyes from the woman’s face. There was something about the woman’s face that itched at his memory.

“Have we met before?” Jericho tried, still shaking the woman’s hand. “On another assignment?” 

Gabrielle searched Jericho’s face. “No, I don’t think so.” She glanced down at their still ongoing handshake. “But it’s good to hear that you’ve heard of me… er…” 

That wasn’t it. There was something else. Something about Gabrielle Law that was very nostalgic. Familiar. Jericho was certain.

“You…” Jericho was close now. Close to the answer. “You are…  someone who looks like they have a terrible personality.”

Gabrielle stared. Ferris stared. Izsak stared. The unintroduced man stared. 

Jericho released Gabrielle’s hand and covered his mouth. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud.” He paused. “Oh. I mean—”

Izsak threw his head back as a laugh tore through his body.  He slapped Gabrielle hard on the back and wiped a tear from his eye. “Told you, you can’t get everyone on your side.” And then he leaned forward and gave Jericho a cuff on the shoulders. “You’ve got a good eye.”

“I am sorry,” Jericho apologized. “I meant no disrespect.”

Gabrielle looked nonplussed. Unaffected. Maybe she was too tired to care. It seemed that way because the woman soon yawned and rubbed her eyes.  “None taken. Can’t please everyone.”

It was then that the final agent in the trench-coat stepped forward. He did not extend his hand, however, and instead regarded Jericho with charcoal-colored eyes. The color of his hair was the same shade of black, and his curls were barely tamed by his hat. A mole dotted his cheek right below his left eye. 

After a very long pause, the man pulled down his hat. “The name is Talib al-Jarrah. Manipulator of Scorpian descent.” 

Jericho extended his hand. 

Talib studied it before rubbing his chin. “I noticed that you have yet to introduce where you’re from, and you have yet to state your conducting form. Why is that?”

“That’s—”

“Is it because you’re working for the Organization?”

Jericho felt his heart skip a beat. He frowned. “The Organization?”

“Yes, the Organization.” Talib nodded gravely before leaning in close and whispering in Jericho’s ear. “The ones orchestrating everything since the very beginning. The ones behind everything.”

“… the ones behind everything?”

Before Talib could elaborate, Ferris cut in between them. Her face was red. Jericho couldn’t tell whether she was angry or embarrassed.

“Talib!” Ferris snapped. “Not this again! Other agents will avoid going on assignments with you if you keep doing this!”

“Avoid me, Miss Hart?” Talib scoffed. “They only avoid me because they know that I’m onto them.” He leaned in close again. “The Organization is afraid of what I know.”

Jericho stared. “What…”

“Talib is our resident conspiracy enthusiast,” Izsak provided, looking more amused than anything else. “Sure makes the train rides go by fast. My favorite is the one about bubble blowers being secret weapons mass destruction.” 

“You call it conspiracy,” Talib drew with a tip of his hat. “I call it the hidden truth.” He whipped his head round in Izsak’s direction and then formed a circle with both of his hands. “How you can even view bubble blowers as a child’s toy baffles me. Look at how they release those circular monstrosities.” He turned to face Jericho again and clenched his hands into fists. “The Organization is nefarious and clever. They’ve even found their way into Ophiuchus through the Assignment Department.”

Ferris threw up her hands. “Oh, so you’ve finally found our links to your Organization, have you?”

“Aha!” Talib pointed a finger at her face. “So you’ve admitted it! You are affiliated with them!”

“I don’t mean to interrupt your flirting,” Jericho interjected. “But I didn’t realize there would be so many people on this assignment.”

Ferris and Talib paused with their mouths ajar. Their cheeks reddened in unison, and their gazes met. In the background, Izsak chortled.

“That’s not—” Talib began.  

Ferris cleared her throat loudly and straightened her uniform. “Actually, Gabrielle and Izsak are on a different assignment but they’ll be riding along with you partway.”

“A different assignment?” Jericho inquired.

Ferris cast a glance sideways as she began to dig into her bag. “Yes, it’s one that involves Leona — the subject of your missing person’s case.” She procured two manilla envelopes filled with papers and handed them to Jericho and Talib.  “The details are in here, but in short, before her disappearance, she was investing a lead on a party we believed to be involved in an Ariesian assassination plot.”

“A party?” Jericho pressed. He received odd looks at the question. 

“From the stories I’ve heard, Leona is a very skilled Conductor,” Ferris continued quietly. She glanced around. “I didn’t think anyone would be able to lay a hand on her, but if there were anyone able to then it’d be…”

ELPIS. 

Yes, it had to be.

ELPIS.

It was them.

ELPIS.

Finally, he would be able to—

“But we still don’t know for sure.” Ferris waved the idea off. “At least until you and Talib locate her.”

Jericho blinked out of his thoughts and glanced at the mentioned man. So he was working with Talib Al-Jarrah then.

“Anyways, the lead that Leona was looking into turned out to be true.” Gabrielle ran a hand down her face. “Which is why Izsak and I are heading to Aries. And since we’re riding together, it’d be a good opportunity to exchange information.” She laughed a bit as she studied Jericho. “And get to know our fellow agents.”

Jericho paused. “Aries…? Then the assassination…?”

“Yes.” Ferris nodded. She looked grim. “I heard you were in the Medical Department when it happened, but… There was an assassination attempt on the prince of Aries.”

Jericho’s shoulder throbbed with an odd phantom pain, and he reached up to rub it out. “I see…”

One (2/6): morello introduction, ii

When they entered the tea store, an intense wave of earthy scents greeted them. Root, herb, leaf, branch. Dirt. It was poignant, to say the least. Foreign scents that did not belong this deep into the city.

Cadence walked up to the counter and tapped the scales. “I’d like twenty-five grams of morrowheat, please.”

The Sagittarian stared at the four of them for a beat before he headed to the back of the store. Without hesitation, they followed him past the curtain that hung next to the displays and into the backroom that lay beyond. They were then led up a long staircase and down a hall that opened into a large room.

The room had wooden floorboards that were covered by a royal red carpet. At the center of the rug was a square, wooden table manned by six chairs. A burly, thick man with a balding head and a thick beard sat at one of them. He had on a black dress shirt and a pair of pin-striped slacks. At his wrist gleamed several bracelets studded with gems. He had on a grim and gaunt expression that made it look as if he’d just come from a funeral.

At the opposite end of the room was an oak desk piled with neatly stacked papers. A man stood behind this desk with his hands folded just as neatly behind him. He wore a white button-up shirt and a white pair of dress pants. His hair was a snowy white as well, and his skin was as pale as the rest of his clothing. It was difficult to see with the lightness of his skin, the wrinkles that graced his features. 

“I see you’re well, Cadence.” The man in white said as he turned his blue eyes on them. The monocle above his left eye glinted in the dull overhead lights. 

“Define ‘well’.” Cadence raised a brow. “Honestly, I should be restin’ up somewhere nice instead of havin’ ta book it here.”

“I see you brought the Foxmans with you.” Cavallo continued, ignoring Cadence’s comment. He offered out his hand and gave each brother a firm shake. “As always, it’s a pleasure doing business with you. Without your control over the ports, we would never be able to ship out our conductors. It is a shame that one of your establishments was destroyed in this incident.” He gestured to the chairs. “Please, sit.”

The Foxmans obliged.

“Thanks for having us, Cavallo,” Francis said as he flicked his wrist and put out his v-cig which he then tucked away in his pocket. “How’s Ricardo doing?”

“Our leader is doing just fine.”  Cavallo returned. “Although he sends his condolences for your establishment.”

“Which is why we’re here,” Allen provided.

“Look,” the burly, balding man who sat across from the brothers sighed. “Your joint got busted. It sucks. I understand. But you’re gonna be wastin’ your breath lookin’ into it. It was probably just some drunk punk who got a little bit too handsy with a conductor of the explosive variety.”

“I think it’s more than that, Verga,” Cadence ruminated. She lifted her hat to scratch the back of her head before leaning back against the wall behind her. She crossed her arms. “Yeah, it’d be too much of a coincidence if it was just that.”

“A coincidence?” Cavallo turned to her.

“I’m thinkin’ someone has an aim here.” Cadence nodded. “I mean, look, everyone knows that that joint belonged to the Foxmans. No one in their right mind’d hit the place up even if they were wasted.” She ran her fingers along the brim of her hat. “And then there’s the fact that we were just about to nab the guy who’s been weedin’ out some of our business.”

“What’re you implying, Cadence?” Francis asked, throwing a look back towards him.

 Cadence shrugged. “Looks like someone wanted to silence him.”

“That’s just an assumption.” Verga grumbled.

“It’s intuition.” Cadence returned. “There’s a difference.”

“And that’s what your intuition is telling you? That there is more to this?” Cavallo raised a brow. And then a smile wrinkled his wrinkles. “How about you take point on this then, Cadence? Look into this matter for us. Find out who set off the explosion. ”

Cadence pulled her scowl up into a grin. “‘Course, my liege.”


Going door to door asking questions about who saw who when and where and why was exhausting after having pulled through a near-death experience. It didn’t help so much that only one out of her three companions was any good at speaking to people. Then again, Allen was the one who handled the monetary issues and Carl was the one who dealt with their goons and underlings. Not many social skills were needed for those sorts of things. 

After they made their final rounds around the block housing the burnt remains of the tavern, the Foxmans were approached by one of their underlings. There was something mentioned about one of their ships having gone missing from the ports. It sounded serious enough to make Francis lose the melodic quality in his voice. And so, they parted ways.

Cadence watched them go with a wave before she headed in the opposite direction. Slipping her hands into her pockets, she weaved through the streets and walkways with a hum.  Soon the cement sidewalks bled into cobblestone paths and the high-rise buildings shrank down to two-tiered apartments with stucco walls. 

She could now see the skyline stretching high above her head. Just within reach. The sun was hanging low on the horizon there, but it was hidden by a long bridge that stretched out far into the distance. 

The Dioscuri Bridge. The bridge that connected the left and the right Twin Cities to each other. It rose up in a great arch above the Castor River that ran through the Twin Cities and emptied out into the Pollux Bay. At night, sometimes the city officials would activate the conductor that was wired into the bridge and cast illusions of light across it.

Faintly, Cadence could make out a stream of smoke passing above the bridge. The v- train. If she strained her ears, she bet that she could make out its clicks and clacks and its bellowing horn as it pulled into the station. She’d always imagined herself sitting on that train. Watching the Twin Cities flit past below her behind a window. Of course, she’d be on the train leaving the city not the one that was arriving to it. A pleasant daydream—

Bam!

A small, frail body collided with her own and sent her stumbling backwards. When she righted herself, an adolescent no older than thirteen stared back at her with wide, round, black eyes. A boy. Unruly brown hair framed his face and barely concealed a scar ran from his left temple to his right cheek.

“Sorry, sir, sorry.” The boy bowed his head. He bent down to pick up her hat that had fallen to the ground and handed it out to her.

She accepted it but held it there. “No problem, kid.”

“Really,” he said, retracting his hand. He turned to leave. “I’m really sor—”

She reached forward, grabbed his retreating hand, and jerked him towards her. Out from his pants pocket, fell a familiar object. Her wallet. The boy’s eyes widened at the sight of it, and he blinked up towards her with a startled expression. An expression which became horrified as she took on his appearance in a burst of orange light with a snap of her ringed fingers.

Holding him in place, she bent down to pick up her wallet. She then pried open his hands and emptied its contents out onto his palm. Ten cens. Enough to buy three drinks at any bar.

“I’m really sorry,” she said, mimicking his voice, “but I’m not stupid enough to carry a lot of money with me on these streets.”

The boy stared at her wide-eyed, wordless.

She sighed and released him as she snapped her fingers and took on her original appearance. She then waved him off absentmindedly. “Get a move on, kid. And try to pickpocket someone who doesn’t look stone cold broke next time.”

The kid opened his mouth to retort but paused. He then pulled the coins close to his chest and took off down the street without another word.

Sighing, Cadence continued her path down the cobblestone walkway until she reached her most frequented place in the city. A small building that was only one story tall. A wooden sign was placed in front of its singular square window. Sognare, bar and tunes

Shrugging her shoulders, Cadence entered.

The bar was dimly-lit and empty. The bartender didn’t even look up from his busywork of cleaning glassware when she entered. And so with a whistle, she slipped past the round tables that dotted the floor and made her way to the very back where a stage had been raised on a platform. She hopped up onto the platform and made her way to the large, grand piano that stood tall there. 

It was a beautiful thing. Black and white keys made of ivory. A polished shine. Dusted religiously.  

Her fingers itched for the keys. They longed for them.

Cadence gently placed her fingertips on a set of their desired destination and pressed down. A shrill chord rang out.

“That’s a lovely piano.”

Cadence started, turned, and found someone standing at the very edge of the stage beneath the spotlight.

It was a young woman wrapped in a bright green dress that looked like it was made of silk. The top of her dress was a mesh of colorful beadwork that wrapped all the way around her neck. Her dark skin seemed to bring out the vibrancy of the colors, and her dark eyes reflected the dim lights coming from the bar in an eerie way. Her cheekbones were high, and her lashes long. In other words—

“Doll,” Cadence cracked a grin as she drew off her hat, “you’re lovely.”

A white smile broke across the woman’s features, and she hid it with her hand.

“What’s someone like you doin’ in a place like this?” Cadence continued.

“Sir…” The bartender called out in the distance.

“And what is ‘this place’, exactly?” The woman returned. Her brows were arched, and her eyes glimmered with mischief. She glanced around as she drew her arms around her waist. 

“Well.” Cadence scratched the back of her head. “You tellin’ me you entered this place without even knowin—”

“Sir, who are you talking to?” Finally, the bartender raised his voice loud enough to cut into their conversation. What a spoiler. 

Cadence frowned at the bartender before gesturing back to the woman. “What do you mean? I’m—”

The space she was gesturing to was empty. A spotlight on an empty stage. 

There it was again. That itching feeling. Like she was being watched.

“I’m…” Cadence concluded. “… losing my mind.”

One (2/6): morello introduction, i

Life was full of deceptions. Life was only one letter away from lie, after all. But there wasn’t really much a person could do about the fact but judge. And if a person judged, they were a hypocrite. But life was full of hypocrites. Life was full of people, after all.

Cadence was a self-labeled hypocrite; and if anyone judged her, they were a hypocrite too. Like if they judged her current predicament, for example, they’d definitely be a hypocrite.

Her current predicament?

“I’m tellin’ ya! I’m tellin’ ya!” Cadence snapped, slamming her hand against her chest with each clipped syllable. “You need to check me over again! What if ya missed something?!”

She was dressed in a loosely-buttoned, long-sleeved blouse that came down to her knees. While wearing it, she knew she looked like a child. The man who sat across from her on a metal stool wore a crisp white lab coat over his shoulders and a pair of white gloves over his hands. While wearing it, he almost looked like a highly esteemed doctor. Papers, shiny tools, and bandages cluttered the tables lining the walls of the room around them. While sitting within this room, Cadence figured the two of them probably looked like they were a regular doctor and patient.

But appearances were deceiving. 

“Cadence, your psychological state seems to be in much more need of attendance than your physical state.” The doctor appeared amused as he said this and stroked his stubbled chin with a smile.

What a quack, Cadence thought. The doc’s bad interpersonal skills were probably what landed him here doing jobs underground rather than up above with the good folk in the first place. The doc was a specialist vitae Conductor, after all. If Cadence had been blessed with that manifestation of vitae manipulation instead of being born as a transmutationist, she would’ve kissed this city goodbye a long time ago. Or maybe it was just that the doctor just liked working in places like these. No rules. No restrictions. No law. 

“Between me and you, doc.” Cadence raised a brow. “I reckon my psychological state is a lot better than the state of your other patients. If you can call them that.”

“Oh dear, Cadence,” the doctor sighed as he placed a tender hand to his heart. “Are you implying that I don’t see my patients as patients?”

“I ain’t implyin’. I’m clearly statin’.” Cadence returned with a crooked grin before she laughed and raised her hands. “I’m jokin’. I’m jokin’. I’d be dead six times over if it weren’t for you.”

The doctor merely smiled. “Well, it looks like you’re feeling better now.”

Cadence rolled her neck and shrugged. “Well, I’m alive and kickin’, so…”

“Much luckier than other patrons in that bar. It seems as if your Family retrieved you just in time. Unlike the others.”

Cadence paused and then rubbed the back of her neck and tapped her foot. “I see. Sounds like I got a lot of work cut out for me then.” She let out a dramatic sigh and hung her head. “Can’t a gal catch a break?”

“If it makes you feel any better, Nico called.”

Cadence perked up immediately. “Ya mean he’s on his way back?”

The doctor shook his head. “He did ask you to call him back though. You can use the phone outside.”

“Is that your way of tellin’ me to get out of your office, doc?” Cadence raised a brow. “I did nearly die, y’know. Y’sure I shouldn’t hang around here a little bit longer just in case? I know you’re the best in the business, but still. What if I pass out?”

“If you pass out then come back,” the doctor replied. “You know that I’m only interested in injured people.”


The phone booth outside of the room was — to put it eloquently — a piece of crap. Its wooden casing was so chipped that parts of it jutted out like jagged teeth. The nails that kept the wood in place were also hazardously popping up like weeds. The phone itself was covered in a thick layer of dust. Made sense. People didn’t make appointments with the Doc. They dropped in whenever they had a foot in the grave.

Cadence picked up the receiver and placed it to her ear. She twirled the cord around her index finger and said into the mouthpiece, “Operator, connect me to the line that was called last from this one.” 

As the line rang, she thrummed her fingers along the surface of the booth and grimaced when a splinter plucked the tip of her pointer.

“…. Cadence?” A voice cracked out from the speaker.

Cadence felt a smile crack across her face. “How goes it on the front lines, soldier?”

“That’s not funny,” came the quiet response. “People are dying out here, Cadence.”

“People die everywhere, Nico,” Cadence said matter-of-factually. When a silence fell over the conversation, she grimaced. “It’s that bad, huh?”

“Yeah… We managed to deliver the shipment to the Aquarians three days ago but just the other day they got caught up with the Capricornians—”

“Woah, woah,” Cadence shouted, straightening herself. “You’re okay, aren’t ya? Ya didn’t get caught up—”

“No, no, I’m fine.”

“That’s a relief.”

Cadence considered telling him about her recent near-death experience but thought better of it. The entire ordeal seemed like something that was better kept on the down-low. 

“It’s good to hear your voice, Cadence.” Nico suddenly said.

“Yeah, right back at ya. Don’t get all sappy on me again. And no need to worry about that other stuff.” Cadence waved him off. “It’s not your war, Nico. Just hurry up and get out of there, okay?”

The line crackled with static.

Cadence pulled away from the phone and shook it a bit before pressing it back up to her ear. “Hello? Nico?”

“Werner, what’s wrong?”

Cadence did a double-take. “Who the hell is Werner?

“What?” came Nico’s voice. “Werner? Who’s that?”

Cadence pulled back from the receiver and stared at it. She shook her head and pressed the phone back to her ear. “Nothin’. Nevermind. Think we accidentally crossed someone else’s line.”

“Really? I didn’t hear anything.”

“It was only for a sec.” Cadence waved him off again. “Anyway, come home quick, aight? Don’t get caught up in complicated things, Nico.”


When Cadence stepped back out onto the streets of the city she knew like the back of her hand, she took in a deep breath and tasted both salt from the nearby ocean port and soot from the nearby conductor manufacturing plant. Needless to say, she spat not soon afterward.

Here, in this backwater alleyway where the buildings stretched upwards to unbelievable heights, she could barely see the sky above her head. It was just a crack of white up there. Too far to reach. 

She was back in her usual wear now. A simple and loose suit topped with her favorite hat. Dark maroon in color, because that got the blood going.

She turned and prepared to walk down the alleyway when she noticed a group standing at the mouth of it. They were looking at her. A trio of them. A trio of men wearing suits. From left to right the suits went from dark green to dark red to dark blue. From left to right the men went from frail to bulky.

“You could at least look a little bit happier to see us.” The one who wore the maroon suit and who stood at the center said in an almost musical voice. He then reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a slender, cylindrical object no larger than his index finger. He gave it a quick flick of the wrist, and the tip of it lit a glowing orange. Taking a drag from the unlit end, he studied her.

“Well, excuse me for not jumpin’ for joy when I saw you, Francis. Not to be rude but usually, when you guys show up, someone’s about to die.” Cadence shrugged and offered a lopsided smile as she closed the distance between them. “It was almost me this time.” She leaned forward and pressed the tip of her ringed index finger against the bud of the v-cigarette.  A familiar yellow-orange light bled out from her ring and pooled onto the cig. The light-coated cigarette then began to take on a different shape. A curve there, a sprout here, a blossom there. By the time the light faded, the cigarette had taken on the form of a white lily flower.

“And I’m glad it wasn’t.” Francis smiled in amusement. “We were hoping to accompany you to Cavallo’s place.”

Cadence pulled her finger away from the tip of the cig. The yellow-orange light blinked again before cracking and receding from both her hand and the cigarette. The cig took back its original shape. The illusion, broken.

“Huh?” She frowned. “What for?”

“The Romano Family’s personal associate was nearly killed.” The blue suit provided. “How would the Foxmans look if we ignored this transgression against our closest ally?”

This was a lie. Cadence knew. Or maybe a half-truth. 

“The explosion happened on our turf, Cadence.” Francis explained, after giving the blue-suit a look. “You know Cadence is a human lie detector, Allen.” 

That was right. The TwinStar Pub was one of the Foxmans’ joints. They had many of these bars sprinkled throughout both the left and the right Twin Cities but this one in particular was one of their most famous. All patrons knew who held ownership of their bars but very few knew that the bars were in fact just a simple cover for the Foxmans’ real business. 

Allen didn’t so much as shrug. “I thought she might be off of her game.”

“Well, it is a matter of turf.” Francis muttered after a pause. “But it also is a matter of connections.” And here, Francis’s expression darkened. “The fact that someone thinks they can harm a childhood friend of the Foxmans’ without retaliation just goes to show how soft we’ve become. Something we need to fix.”

Cadence whistled before inclining her head. “Well, shall we?”

And so they walked as a quartet out the alleyway and onto the open streets. The roads here were narrow allowing only one v-ehicle to roll along at a time. The sidewalks were wide, which allowed groups of five and up to walk alongside other even larger groups. The congested streets were something Cadence was in fact fond of. It was easy to blend in.

“So,” Cadence drew as they walked along the path. “Anything interesting happen since I nearly kicked the bucket?”

“Someone attempted to assassinate the prince of Aries.” The green suit supplied nonchalantly.

Cadence stopped in her tracks and whipped her head around. “You serious, Carl?”

“With a bow-and-arrow conductor of all things.” Francis clarified. “Word is that the arrow was shot by an elemental Conductor.” He took another drag. “Fire.” And another drag. “Anyway, the whole kingdom’s been in the fritz about it. To think that an Ariesian may have made the attempt. Can trust their neighbors as much as they trust themselves.”

“I’ll never understand monarchies.” Carl shook his head. “All this ruckus just ‘cause some kid got shot.”

“What, Carl?” Cadence raised a brow. “Don’t like the idea of bendin’ over backwards for someone and swearing fealty?”

“And you would?” Carl returned.

“Course,” Cadence laughed. “No point in hidin’ it.” She raised her ringed-fingers up and rubbed them together. “Just give me a nice sum, and I’ll swear my loyalty to you, my liege.” With that, she gave a deep and mocking bow. 

“Pretty sure any king or queen you serve under’d be bankrupt in a week as soon as you joined their ranks,” Allen said.

“And I’d be filthy rich.” Cadence chortled.  


They reached their destination five minutes after. It was a small and quaint building wedged between a flower shop and a bookstore. The sign at the top of the building read ‘Saggitarian Tea Store’. And if one peered into the large open windows of the building, they would see just that. 

Jars of tea leaves and other herbs and roots lined the back wall of the shop. In front of this collection was a counter manned by a balding man who looked of Sagittarian descent. At the counter he manned was a balancing scale and a cash register. Perfectly normal and upstanding.

Every time Cadence came to this place, she’d have to force herself to suppress her laughter.

Appearances were—

everything, after all.

Wait, what?

“Everything?” Cadence frowned. “They’re deceivin’ is what they are.”

“Cadence?”

Cadence blinked and found the Foxman brothers staring at her from the door. She glanced left and then right as a chill began to crawl up her spine. What was this feeling? Like she was being watched. But there were too many people walking back and forth to tell from where. No, that wasn’t it. It felt as if she was being watched from everywhere. Left, right, up, down. Outside, within.

Instead of addressing the subject, however, she pulled up a bright smile and dusted off her shoulders. “Gotta prepare myself to face the devil, y’know?”

One (1/6): chance connection

― death?

Olive woke up gagging on nothing, gripping his left hand as if it were on the trigger of a gun, and blinking away nonexistent tears from his eyes. He shot up to a sit only to double over and empty his stomach over the side of the bed. Or at least he tried to. Nothing came out.

Had he been poisoned…? 

No—

The fire!

No.

What?

He winced and grabbed his shoulder. He winced even harder at the dull pain that followed the touch. Right. The arrow. He’d been shot by a conducted arrow. He glanced down and found that his shoulder was wrapped in bandages. It looked as if they’d gotten him to a healer. 

He blinked blearily around the room. 

Scarlet, silken drapes hung from the window that opened to his left. The light that fell in from the sun graced the large, oaken closet on the opposite side of the room but did not manage to reach the desk at the left corner. The item that received the full brunt of the sun was the birdcage that stood tall at the room’s center right in front of his bed. Inside of it fluttered a blackbird.

The blackbird turned its neck to him and tweeted. He glared at it in turn and said, “What do you think you’re looking at?”

A chiming laugh rang out to his right startling him. There at his bedside, she sat with the upper half of her body stretched across his bed. Her dark hair formed a halo across his blanket, and her dark eyes peered at him humorously.

He sighed. “That’s some way to greet your brother who nearly got impaled by an arrow, Lavi.”

“You didn’t nearly get impaled by an arrow.” Lavi returned. “You were impaled by one.”

“That makes your reaction much, much worse.”

They stared at each other for a long minute, before an expression of relief broke across her face. The expression was followed by an eruption of tears. They cascaded down her flushed cheeks like a waterfall.

“I’m so glad that you’re okay!” She cried as she threw her arms around him. “Don’t you dare get shot again, do you hear me? You idiot!”

Olive stiffened in her hold before he gently returned the hug and patted her head. “It’s not like I chose to get shot, Lavi. Geeze, were you always such a crybaby?”

Lavi pulled back with a glare; but before she could snap at him, the oaken doors next to his closet swung open. In the threshold of the doorway stood a man and woman wrapped in royal red garments interlaced with twisting gold thread. 

“Uncle! Auntie!” Lavi piped as she pulled away from him.

“Olive!” The woman cried. In an instant, she closed the distance between them. She threw her arms around Olive’s neck, before pulling back to examine his face. She turned his face over with her callused fingers before hesitantly reaching for his bandaged shoulder. “The healer said you would make a fast recovery, but — how are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.” Olive replied. 

He studied his aunt as she studied him. Her hair which was the color of straw was tied up into a graceful bun.  The years had creased wrinkles at the corner of her drooping brown eyes, and just beneath those eyes were deep and dark circles. The sight of them made his stomach churn uncomfortably.

The man approached him next and looked him over with scrutiny. His narrow, gray eyes were also accented by dark circles. His dark hair was peppered with gray and silver. His long face was gaunt and hollowed out by stress and time.

“We’ll double the security around the estate and quadruple security around your quarters,” he finally said. “The Security Council is launching an investigation as we speak. I just received word Ophiuchus has sent agents to investigate this matter, as well. Until we find out the reason for this, I want you to stay within the mansion grounds. I’ve told your professors at the university that you’ll be taking a leave of absence until you recover.”

Olive opened his mouth to protest but realized nothing would come of it and instead offered a nod. His uncle studied him for a long moment, before resting his hand on his wife’s shoulder. 

“Terra, can I speak to Olive alone for a moment?” His uncle pressed in a quiet voice. 

Terra’s brow furrowed, and her eyes narrowed. Vaguely, Olive recalled stories regaling her as “The Blaze of the North”. There were legends about her time on the battlefield during the war. She had been younger then. Lively. Scorching everything ablaze with a flick of her conductor. At least until the Tragedy.  Briefly, in ironic thought, Olive wondered if she’d do the same to him. But then she released Olive from her hold and peeled away. She placed one last hand at his cheek before pulling back and heading out the door.

That left the three of them. Great. Olive side-glanced at his sister who merely shrugged at him while biting her lower lip.

“The guards told me it looked as if you saw the arrow coming.” His uncle said suddenly before sitting down at his bedside. “The arrow — it’s the only lead we have.”

It took all of Olive’s willpower not to bury his head into his blankets.

“Olivier, I would have rather have had you burnt that arrow to a crisp and have been left with you unharmed and with nothing to investigate than having the arrow remain and you hurt.”

Olive said nothing and instead stared into the birdcage in front of him. The blackbird hopped around there and fluttered its wings. The sheen of its feathers caught the sunlight in a way that made it look ablaze. Like a phoenix, came the thought. If only.

“And your behavior at the university is…”

Out of the corner of his eye, Olive could see his uncle hesitantly reach for him. Olive turned to face him fully and watched as his uncle retracted his hand. If Olive would have cared enough, he would have laughed. Instead, he held his uncle’s gaze and watched as the man gave a deep nod and departed from the room—

“Rest well.”

And that left the two of them. 

“They’re worried about you, Ollie.” Lavi said from beside him as she pulled closer. “You have to talk to them.”

“I don’t have to. It’s not like talking will do anything.” Olive grunted and swung his legs over his bed and stared at the dirt floor that was dusted with gravel and slick with rain.

Wait — dirt floor? Rain?

He blinked.

The normal wooden floorboards of his room stared back at him.

He shook his head. 

Raising a brow at his sister, he swept past the cage and made his way to the door. He cracked it open with effort and peered around the hall.  He only just managed to throw a glance to the right when the door was yanked open and he found himself face-to-face with a bulging set of bare arms and a pair of piercing blue eyes.

“Where do you think you’re going, prince?”

It was Alexander Charming, dressed in the royal red uniform of a royal guard — minus, the sleeves. How he managed to pass royal inspection, Olive didn’t know. Perhaps it was because of how meticulously he polished his golden buttons or how pristinely shined he kept the medals that gleamed at his chest.

That aside, Charming was someone who lived up to his name. Spiked blonde-hair, dimpled cheeks, broad shoulders. A cylindrical, black conductor hanging grandiosely at his waist for all to see. Probably a melee-class model. He always did enjoy facing things head-on.  Usually, hot-blooded people like Alexander irritated Olive. But— 

Olive thought Alexander was a decent human being — more decent than a lot of the people around the estate. But still. He loathed Alexander’s name. No, he felt pity for Alexander’s name. ‘Charming’? Really? It was a lot to live up to — that name.

“Look, if they really wanted to kill me, they would’ve used a better Conductor than a bow and arrow.” Olive sighed pointedly. 

“If they didn’t want to kill you, they wouldn’t have tried to shoot you in the first place.” Alexander returned. There was guilt lining the corners of his false smile. 

Olive didn’t quite understand it. It wasn’t Alexander’s fault that what happened happened. Sure, he had been the one stationed to guard Olive at the time, but Olive had given him the slip. Really, Olive thought to himself, people who cared too much just had to be masochists. There was no other explanation for them to put all of their eggs into one basket even with the knowledge that the basket may be smashed to a yolky pulp in one go.

Olive frowned. That was an odd line of thought. Where had that come from?

Shaking the oddity off, Olive opened his mouth to retort but stopped short when he noticed that there was an unannounced man standing just behind Alexander. The man had on a thick coat that obscured much of his pale skin. Even so, Olive could tell that the man was rather lean. His hair was dark and jagged, his eyes a bright hazel. At his waist hung what appeared to be two pairs of curved conductors.  What type they were and what vitae category the man wielded, Olive did not know. The man looked young though. Maybe a year or two older than Olive himself.

“Oh, right.” Alexander said with an inclination of his head. “This is Trystan. He was just indoctrinated into the royal army from the academy.” 

The man named Trystan stepped forward. Stiff, proper. And then he gave a deep bow. Stiff and proper. Frankly, Olive hated these types too. Usually, behind the professionalism, there was deep-rooted two-facedness and desperation. Desperation to rise in the ranks, desperation to please. Desperation blankity, blank.

Olive glanced at Alexander.

“He passed his State Conductor test with flying colors.” Alexander explained. “Top ten from the pool of those completing it this month. He interviewed well too, so now he’ll be serving as royal guar— ” 

“Oh.” Olive hummed. “Couldn’t make it into the top five, huh?”

Trystan straightened and bristled. His head snapped up, his lips forming the beginning of what would probably be a profane shout. But then his eyes widened, and he cleared his throat before giving a curt nod. “Yes, unfortunately not, sir.”

Olive felt rather disappointed at the response. Alexander looked exasperated.

“Don’t mind him, Trystan.” Alexander said to his companion. “Prince Chance enjoys testing newcomers. His bark is worse than his bite.” A laugh. “Actually, I don’t think he can even bite!”

Olive resisted rolling his eyes and stared down the opposite end of the hall.

“Back to the matter at hand,” Alexander continued. “You should really be resting, your highness—”

Olive didn’t listen to the rest because something else caught his attention. Distantly, he heard an odd sound he couldn’t quite place. A click-clacking that rang in his ears. Paired with it was a low rumbling that was finished off with a low, bellowing groan.

What?

Olive frowned. Trained his ears.

Was that…. a train horn?

“I’m worried about you, Jericho—”

Huh?

Olive started and turned. Both Alexander and Trystan were staring at him. The two royal guards exchanged looks.

“Is everything all right, sir?” Trystan asked. “You’re being quiet.”

Olive felt himself frown. “What do you mean? That sound—”

Alexander stared at him. “What sound?”

Olive prepared to retort but thought better of it.  It didn’t really matter, did it? 

“Nevermind. I’ll be in bed then,” he said, slipping back into his room.

He closed the door tightly behind him before either man could respond and then immediately headed to his closet. He threw it open and quickly changed out of his sleepwear and into casual clothing. A loose shirt, a loose pair of shorts. Over this, he threw on a cloak and pulled the hood of it over his head.

“What are you doing, Ollie?” Lavi asked. Her back was to him.

“Leaving.”

“But—”

He sighed. “I’ll come back before they notice I’m even gone.” Like always.

Before she could say another word, he was climbing out the window.


The heart of New Ram City was noisy as usual. The streets were filled with v-ehicles rolling alongside walkways that were dotted with ambling pedestrians. Pedestrians who would pause to peruse the open-stall stores that would pop up in clusters every along the walkway every few blocks.

The sun beat down on everyone and everything mercilessly and without bias like a whip. The smallest of movements would induce sweat. A glance upwards would cause temporary blindness. Such was the weather of Aries.

It only made sense that all the stalls had roofs or cloth canvases pulled over them and that all street-walkers had hoods pulled over their heads or sun-umbrellas twirling in their hands. In Aries, those items were common wear. To be seen without one or the other would be like labeling oneself as a foreigner.

A couple blocks ahead a v-ehicle haphazardly swerved onto the walkway and nearly took out a fruit stall. This resulted in the stall owner catapulting red, ripe fruit at the v-ehicle as it sped away.

Olive didn’t quite understand why so many people bought into the v-ehicle fad. After all, they required extensive use of vitae to power the conductor that made the engine run. The point of using them was to get to locations in less time and with less manual labor. But Olive didn’t see the point of using them when driving five miles left one winded and when breaks needed to be taken in between their usages. Then again, he had recently read an article detailing a new model of v-ehicle that was in development. Apparently, the conductor within this new model could be fueled by placing it close to a vitae reservoir station. 

Frankly, Olive was skeptical. He had the chance to glance over the prototype blueprints when they’d been handed over to the feudal lord who headed the chair of Conductor Development in Aries. It was a pipe dream, for sure.  To condense a conductor down into such a small size yet keeping its ability to power an engine was practically impossible. Even v-trains had conductors that were behemoth in size within them and had to be refueled at a vr-station every couple hundred miles. Besides that fact, only licensed Conductors could operate them. The market for such things was therefore tiny. Why not just design a v-ehicle that didn’t require a conductor? Surely, that was possible.

Pointless thoughts, Olive realized with a shake of his head. Brushing them aside, he continued down the walkway under the blazing heat. It was past noon so the humidity that blanketed the air was especially suffocating. If he pressed his palm against the brick wall to his left, he would surely burn his hand.

He shivered—

Olive stopped short in confusion—

Was he… cold?

—and shivered more intensely as nausea overtook him.

Appearances are everything.  Nothing left to chance. The thing you believe to be peace is… The world is mine to explore.  Life is one letter away from lie. Never let go. 

Olive broke off from the stream of pedestrian traffic and leaned against the wall of a nearby deli stall. Several passersby gave him odd looks, but he didn’t care for them. What he did care for was taming the headache that was now screaming from temple to temple. 

Squeezing his eyes shut, he turned and pressed his forehead against the sun-bleached wall behind him. The effect was immediate. The heat seeped into his skin and radiated down his neck and through his spine. When he opened his eyes, the pain was gone along with the nausea that came with it. Like it was never there to begin with. 

Well, that was unpleasant

But it was what it was. There was no use wondering about it. If it happened again, it happened again. If it didn’t, then it didn’t. That was how life was. 

And so Olive peeled away from the wall and continued onwards to his destination as if nothing was out of the ordinary. His destination was a small square of a store that rested in a cul-de-sac a little deeper into the city. 

When he entered the store, he was greeted by a familiar sound and sight. A grinding of metal against metal, and an eruption of sparks. Gears, nuts, and bolts littered the floor, and scraps of metal filled the corners of the room. A smog hung low in the room and obscured nearly everything in sight. The barely visible counter of the reception desk acted as a faulty barrier to the smoke that streamed out from the very back of the shop. 

Olive walked up to the counter and pulled out a stool to sit. It was five minutes before a wiry young woman with frizzy brown hair emerged from the cloud of smoke. She had on a pair of overalls that were stained with grease and a pair of goggles that she lifted from her face when she drew nearer. 

“What in saints name are you doing here?” She asked. “News is you got shot.”

Olive pulled down his shirt and gestured to his bandaged shoulder. It stung a bit with the effort but he ignored it.

“And you decided to come here instead of kicking back at your mansion?”  She threw her head back with a laugh. “I’ll never understand you.”

And that was what Olive liked about her. She didn’t understand him, and she said it clearly. She didn’t hide words or pull back. She was straightforward to the T. Nothing hidden, nothing falsely promised. 

“Unfortunately, I’ve got a lot of orders today. Bless our ancestors — finally! What — with the rumor of proto-conductors being passed around in the black markets, who’d want to have a conductor made old-fashioned style?” She rambled as she picked up a wrench on the counter and swung it back and forth. “Anyways, the point is that I’ve got nothing for you to tinker with today.”

Olive raised his brows and gave her three slow claps. 

“You could be a little more enthusiastic for me.” She rolled her eyes before pulling her goggles back on. With that, she headed back into the haze of smoke while lifting her hand up in farewell. “You can catch a wink here though if that stuffy mansion if yours is too high class for you.”

Olive stared after her and considered the offer. Before he could accept or reject, however, the door behind him creaked open. In came two figures. 

The first was a young man with jet-black hair and cat-like eyes. A light blue cloak was thrown loosely over his head in a way that hid the rest of features. The cloak looked expensive. Like it was made out of silk. Must be wealthy, Olive surmised. Odd to see a person like that here. 

The young man glanced at him before bowing his head and taking a chair that had been propped up alongside the wall. 

And the second figure— 

“Ollie!”

His sister. She quickly closed the distance between them with crossed arms. 

“What are you doing here?” He asked. 

She looked insulted at the question. “Why wouldn’t I be?” She studied him. “What about you?” She side-glanced at the young man. “Should you really be here? What if someone tries to—”

“Right, right. I was going to take a nap.” He interjected with a raised brow. “And if someone tries something, let them.” He paused before nodding over towards the couch that lined the wall opposite of the young man. In a gentle voice, he said, “Walking here must’ve made you tired. You should rest. We’ll head home after, okay? Together.” 

“Fine…” She pouted, arms crossed. 

He watched as she begrudgingly sauntered over to the couch before he glanced at the young man across from her.  The young man was frowning at him with an arched brow.

“Are you talking to me?” — his voice came out lightly accented. 

Olive stared at him long and hard. The man returned the expression without falter. 

“No.” Olive returned. Before the young man had a chance to reply, Olive rested his head back down on the counter and crossed his arms across his stomach. As he listened to the drone of metal against metal in the background, he began to drift off. 

He wondered briefly, as sleep began to claim him, if he should be more alarmed by his circumstances. His headache. His hallucinations. His apparent break from reality. All after nearly being shot dead by a Conductor. A Conductor-slash-assassin He figured any normal person would head to a specialist healer right away. But, funnily enough, he didn’t find the events that had occurred that strange or alarming. 

He might have finally cracked but what of it? 

After all, his sister who had died eight years ago was sitting right behind him.

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 (4/7)

Werner Waltz, Capricornian First Lieutenant

He could see them from where he lay flat against the gravel of the overpass that stretched above the area that was enclosed by walls of rock. The men trudged on below him as rain pelted down into their cloaks that were embroidered with Aquarian violet. Below their stomping feet, the ground had become sludge.

There were precisely thirty-two of them altogether. Their numbers had been halved since the earlier skirmish. It was evident that the battle had worn them out considerably. Despite their stiff fatigue, they still inched slowly towards the enclosement. Too tired to even cast a glance up at the shrubbery that shrouded the overpass. Too exhausted to even suspect. 

There had only been less than a one percent chance that the Aquarians would pass this location by. A chance that he had been considering when devising this plan. It was foolish not to consider these chances. Even the smallest percentages counted. No matter how small the chances, an error was an error. This was why he sent another group of men down the path earlier. They were waiting in the brushes that dotted the pathway further down.

 The Aquarians began to set up camp in the enclosement. Make-shift tents were gradually propped up beside the walls, and a handful of them stole away into the cover the tents provided.

One of the Aquarians below Werner settled down beside a slab of rock and then pulled down the hood of his cloak.

Werner peered at the man through the scope of his conducting rifle. The Aquarian’s cheeks were round, his fingers thin and shaking. His dark blonde hair clung to his face as rainwater trickled down his chin. He was more of a boy than a man, Werner realized, but that did not matter because wrapped loosely around the boy’s arm was a sash emblazoned with a red cross and gracing the shoulderpads of his uniform were a pair of golden insignias in the shape of two waves stacked on top of one another. A medical officer.

Beside him, Werner felt one of his men tense.   

“Do not hesitate.” He stated under his breath. “Hit your mark.”

The pitter-patter of the rain swallowed up his words. But there were no words that truly needed to be exchanged. They already knew their purpose. Their duty. The fact that Werner had to speak such words indicated that the man beside him was still struggling to take on the appearance of a soldier. A foolish mistep. Appearances were everything. 

Lining the mouth of his conductor up with the young medical officer’s head, Werner looked at the boy one last time through his scope and pulled the trigger. 

A brilliant ray of pure blue light cracked through the rainy gray haze and pierced the center of the boy’s head straight on. The force of the ray sent him flying backwards to the ground. The sludge ate up the red that pooled out from the gaping hole in his skull.

The Aquarians who had been setting up tents nearby let out shouts of alarm. Some scrambled for cover, others ran to their fallen comrade’s side, while a majority made to grab the conductors they had cast aside beside them.

But it was too late.

Down came a ray shower of lights. Navy blue. Sky blue. Blue-violet. A blinding storm of color bulleted the clearing and tore up rock and body without bias. In the calculated chaos, the sound of rain was swallowed up by cries and explosions. 

Werner followed an Aquarian who was scrambling towards a stray conductor buried beneath debris with his scope. This one was even younger than the other.  Bright blue eyes that almost glowed in the dark.

Aim. Shoot. Fire.

Another one was ducking for cover behind a large stone slab that jutted out from the rock wall.

Aim. Shoot fire.

Thirty-two men became halved to sixteen. Sixteen became halved to eight. Then four. Then two. Zero.

Werner held up his hand in a fist.

The bombardment of light stopped. Smoke and steam rose up from the clearing as an unnatural silence fell upon them. The tapping of the rain and the heavy panting of the men lined up beside him were the only sounds that reached Werner’s ears.

Peering into his scope once more, he surveyed the ground below. The smoke was too heavy to see through. They would have to wait. They couldn’t risk an Aquarian escaping. If they did, all of their planning would have been for nothing. Perfectionism at this point was key. Error, unacceptable.

The crunch of gravel beside him drew his attention away from the smoke. When Werner turned his eyes from the scope and to his left, he found that one of his men was standing, shaking, hugging his conducting rifle tightly to his chest.

“Get down.” Werner stated.

The soldier shook his head and took a step backwards.

“I said get down.” Werner ordered louder.

Once again, the soldier shook his head. “Soldier”? No, Werner realized, this was no soldier. No soldier would disobey orders like this. This was just a man. No, a boy.

“You didn’t use your conductor.” Werner realized and regarded the boy with contempt.

“I―” Another step backwards.

Werner frowned and reached for the boy’s arm. “I said get―”

Werner should’ve known what was to happen next, but it still alarmed him when he saw a hurtling bolt of violet light burst out from the haze of smoke. There had only been less than a one percent chance that one of the Aquarians could’ve survived. But a chance was still a chance. An error was still an error. And errors were fatal.

The ray of light tore through his shoulder and sent him flying backwards.

“Lieutenant!”

The boy was at his side now as were the rest of the men. He was crying now ― the boy. Werner could see the tear droplets intermingling with the rain.

“Sir―”

“Mark the clearing.” He stated calmly as he gripped his shoulder tightly. It was numb ― from the cold or the pain, he didn’t know. It didn’t matter.

“But―”

“I said mark the clearing, private.”

He didn’t have much energy to say much else and fell back. The cold rain seeped through the fabric of his uniform, seeped deep into his skin, and reached the core of his body where it slowly stole away his movement and sight.

Briefly, he wondered what he appeared like to his men as he was laying out bleeding out like this. And, what was this, exactly?

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—