Four (2/5): morello bridge

“Adapt, adapt, adapt,” she would say, her porcelain fingers flying across the bone-white keys. Her clear laugh would chime through the air as she’d look down with a coy smile.

Cadence would tune her ears to the sharp chords that the woman would play and try to jump in to play with her. But…

She would always be too fast.

Alma, that was. “Just Alma”. Alma, the young entertainer who had spotted an even younger Cadence peering at her playing piano in a dimly lit bat through a frosted window.

Yes, Alma was always too fast. At everything. Cadence could never hope to keep up with her, and that was what made Cadence want to reach her even more. And even though Cadence hadn’t seen Alma in years, Cadence still wanted to reach her. It was why Cadence was in the business she was in.

But Alma was always with her in a spiritual sense— with her lessons and the like. After all, only a couple years later after Alma’s otherservices had been bought out by a mysterious suitor affiliated with the Romano Family and Alma’d disappeared from the city, Cadence herself would be saying, “Adapt, adapt, adapt.” To Nico, of course, when she taught him how to play the piano. She was always too fast for him though.

Adaptation…

That was another bible she followed. Other than that cost-benefit analysis.

Adaptation was the key to survival in the Twin Cities. Never reject anything. Never fully accept anything. Pride was debt. Loyalty was interest. Always change, never stay still. Appearances were deceiving.

Even with that being said, however, Cadence found it a bit harder to adapt to her current predicament. Being psychically connected to five other people took some time getting used to, after all.

Most of them were pretty easy to read though.

There was the Ariesian prince. A brat, for sure, but probably only because he was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. The kid was abrasive and rejected people like it was second nature to him—on the surface at least. Cadence could see the truth. That desperation to reach out for another person and to be reached out to himself. A typical, angsty kid. Give him enough talking to paired with pulling away, and he’d warm up to her real quick. Calculated negligence. That aside, being buddy-buddy with a prince obviously came with its perks.

The Capricornian Lieutenant was a different story. Cold and unyielding and distant. That was the problem with people who held positions in the middle-rung of authority. They weren’t high up enough to bend to compliments and praise, and they weren’t down the ladder enough to be desperate to scramble higher no matter the cost. The man’s stony disposition didn’t help either. He barked out commands with such authority and presence that made Cadence want to shed a tear for the lackeys under him. But he was hiding something, Cadence could tell. And people with secrets were easy to play a tune to.

Atienna was something else altogether. She was mysterious, and her intentions seemed to hover just beyond Cadence’s reach. Just like Alma. Just when Cadence thought she had Atienna playing to her tune, she’d find that she was the one playing to Atienna’s tune instead. But that made things interesting.

Maria, on the other hand… Well, the Captain was a complete wild card. Cadence got a headache even thinking about her.

And Jericho… Jericho had a one-track mind. He was easy. And he came with the perks of being an Ophiuchian Agent. If Cadence played her cards right, he could be her free pass out of sticky situations.

In this case, this whole connection thing came with more benefits than costs. Of course, it was still risky. Having her thoughts and feelings open was a downside but playing by half-truths was the way to bypass these issues.

After the whole fiasco with Olive’s personal assassination investigation was over and done with, Cadence had begun to focus on her larger task at hand: Verga’s job. She’d probably annoyed Olive enough to make him not want to look in her direction even if they did synchronize completely. And Atienna seemed busy at her end so she wouldn’t interfere either. It was smooth sailing from here.

Currently Cadence was donning the disguise of the recently deceased Duccio and making her way through the city streets. Morning had come and gone. She’d stopped by the Abaccio Hotel after she’d managed to abruptly “remember” Jericho’s confrontation with Matilda. When she checked with the bellboy at the front desk, he’d informed her that the girl had departed just that morning. Just her luck, she had thought. She’d just exited the hotel lobby while thinking this when Jericho abruptly appeared in front of her.

“What are you doing?” He’d asked.

“Workin’,” she’d said with a shrug. “Life-on-the-line kinda deal but I’ll handle it.”

“The person you’re working for.” Jericho’s eyes seemed to glow in an unnerving way. “He is working with ELPIS.”

A familiar burning heat sparked its way into her chest. It was suffocating, and she could feel it frying the edges of her reason.

That was the trouble with this connection. It went both ways. And she couldn’t control what information went and came. But she could adapt.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she’d said to him coaxingly. “I’m plannin’ to find out all about his ELPIS deal while I’m at it. The kids delivered the goods for Verga so they probably know a thing or two about what exactly’s goin’ on in that department.” She offered him a placating hand raise. “I’m not pro-terrorist. Don’t worry.”

“And the children,” Jericho said suddenly without further elaboration.

“Well, I’m sure Verga’ll just give ‘em the old Geminian slap on the wrist,” Cadence had said after putting on a sympathetic expression. “But that’s a good thing. Teach ‘em to keep their noses clean. I mean, he has a daughter. He’d be the devil if he’d do anything bad when he has kids of his own.” She waved the thought off and nodded to Jericho. “Enough about that. How you feelin’?”

“… I’ve been thinking a lot since my body is not functional at the moment but my consciousness still is.”

“Any philosophical thoughts you’ve been thinkin’ about that you wanna throw onto the table?” Cadence asked jokingly.

“We were children,” was all he’d said.

Cadence had cocked her head, caught off guard by the odd statement. “Yeah, we were.”

And just like that, Jericho had faded back into his blackness.

Yeah. Jericho was weird.

Cadence brushed the memory of the encounter from her mind as she continued forward through the crowd of pedestrians ambling through the walkways. She went over a canal and crossed beneath a high bridge where a couple of street performers were taking a breather. As she passed them, she couldn’t help but let her gaze linger.

When her destination glowed its way into her point of view fifteen minutes later, she slowed to a stop.

The place that Matilda had said was their next target. The Geminorium Gamma. The Foxman brothers’ restaurant front.

It loomed like a behemoth compared to the smaller buildings beside it. A pair of gold-gilded white pillars rose up at its entrance and held up a stone black plaque that she assumed read its name in swirling letters. The light that glowed from the windows were warm and acted as a rosy backdrop to the silhouettes dining inside with their polished silverware and ridiculously designed plates.

The restaurant looked packed. Good for them.

Cadence turned away from the dazzling building and towards the sidewalk that ran opposite from it. It was dotted with only a few pedestrians and a couple of tourists who ogled the restaurant with wistful eyes. Not what Cadence was looking for but her intuition told her that this was the place to be.

Intuition. Hm.

She noticed a thin alleyway no wider than a meter hidden behind a collection of trash bins on the walkway. Shoving her hands into her pockets, she slowly approached the mouth of the alley and peered in. And she almost had a heart attack.

Huddled there just behind the bins was a small body, legs drawn up against the chest and arms wrapped around the legs. A butterfly-shaped birthmark blossomed on the pale face that peered out from the darkness towards the restaurant opposite.

“Matilda!” Cadence shout-whispered.

The girl blinked slowly as if waking up from a dream before her gaze rose to meet Cadence’s—rather Duccio’s face. “Duccio!” The girl exclaimed. “You’re all right! I tried to reach you but… I thought…”

“I’m alright. Don’t worry.” Cadence scrambled over the bin before crouching down beside the girl. “Thought I’d find you here,” She sighed, glancing down the alleyway as she shoved her hands in her pockets. She scanned the darkness behind them. “The others aren’t with you? What about Marzia?”

Matilda looked away. “No… I… the ones that I could contact… I told them to lay low. But I couldn’t reach Marzia. She might be…”

Cadence reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder. “If she’s not here, then she’s out of the city. Don’t worry. I know her.”

Matilda met her eyes and then looked away towards the restaurant.

Cadence followed her gaze for a moment before asking, “What are you doing here? After what…”—and here, Cadence allowed her voice to crack and she looked away—“w-what…. happened yesterday… they probably have people around guardin’ the place. It’s dangerous.”

Matilda shook her head. “No. They’ve already forgotten about us. I can tell. You don’t think about buying bug spray for a bug after you think you’ve killed it.”

“Tilda…”

“I don’t really know,” Matilda whispered quietly. “I don’t know what to do now.”

“I’m here for you, Tilda. Whenever you come up with another plan, I—”

Matilda shook her head. “I can’t ask any more from you. Not after what happened. You’re the only one out of all of us who knows how to use a conductor like that. If we lose you, then…”

So Duccio had been the one to set off the bomb. Talk about an ironic retribution.

“Even when I see all of them in there with their families being happy,” Matilda mumbled suddenly ;, “I still want to blow the entire place up. Actually, the more I stare at them, the more I want to do it. Maybe they’ll know then. About what kind of people they’re supporting. And maybe they’ll know just like me: that I’m out here, and they’re in there.”

Cadence paused and looked at her. She was still staring holes into the restaurant. Pretty murderous thoughts for—what—a fourteen year old. Well, that was what they called desire.

Slowly, Matilda lifted her head and met Cadence’s gaze. “Am I a bad person?”

This wasn’t the first time Cadence had been asked this sort of question, and she figured it wouldn’t be the last. People always needed reassurance of their deeds, but in reality…

“It’s not that there’s good or bad,” Cadence said with a sigh. “It’s all just circumstance. There’s no use applying morals to situations. That’s just self-righteous. There’s no good or bad in the world. There’s just people makin’ choices and tryin’ to justify themselves.”

Matilda was staring at her now.

Cadence scratched her neck. “When I can’t sleep, I think about weird things—”

Cadence froze. There it was. That familiar feeling. Deja vu.

Suddenly, abruptly, she’d become sharply synchronized with someone else. A coolness crept along her back, and for a moment her vision went double. In the far distance in her mind’s eye, she could see a familiar cabin filled with tables toppled with items that looked a bit familiar. Conductors, packets of v-cigs, and the like. In the far corner of the cabin was a piano. At the other end of the cabin was—

Werner.

Shoot.

She really did not need someone asking her if she was really going to be putting these children under the bus. Her life was on the line here, after all, which meant that their lives was on the line—

“What you do and say is of no concern to me,” was all the soldier said, not even turning to face her in his mind’s eye.

Well then.

Cadence turned to face the girl and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Matilda. It doesn’t have to be over yet.”

Matilda glanced at the restaurant. “What do you mean?”

“When I was running away… I came across Verga. He works under the Romanos. I heard him talking. He’s the one who’s behind this. Not the Foxmans or the Romanos. That bastard’s been stealin’ the conductors from them and makin’ us sell and deliver them for him just to throw us away when he doesn’t need us anymore.”

“But…” Matilda’s eyes widened. “Wha—if that’s true… If it was him… then… the TwinStars Pub… we…”

“It’s okay,” Cadence said, squeezing her shoulders. “That doesn’t matter. What matters is that I found where he’s hidin’. The Vitae Roll. He’s always at that joint, and he’s so cocky that he goes there without anybody with him.”

“Duccio… what are you saying?”

“We can end this once and for all. Get revenge for everyone. For us.” Cadence stared deeply into her eyes. “But we need everyone who’s left to do it.”

Matilda pulled away from her. “I don’t know, Duccio… That sounds… too easy…. And after everything that’s happened…”

Hm.

“We’ve lost so much already, Matilda,” Cadence said. “And it’s not fair that we’re the only ones who know it.”

Matilda stiffened.

“I know an associate of the Foxmans and the Romanos. A street swindler,” Cadence reassured her. “We’re on good terms. I’ll tell her everything after. I promise. I got this. We’ll be safe.”

Matilda stared at her for a long quiet moment before turning back to look at the restaurant. She bit her thumb. “One last time… tomorrow. Let’s do it. ”

And that was that—

But they were children.

Cadence froze again.

Werner.

It wasn’t so much a thought as a feeling. It wasn’t so much a feeling of absolute disgust as she’d been expecting but an entirely different feeling altogether. Regret. An emotion that Cadence always ignored.

Yeah, they were children, Cadence tried to argue—to herself mostly. But that meant nothing in this kind of place.


When Cadence fell into her bed that night, she fell into a restless sleep. Rolling images attacked her in-between periods of black emptiness, and she wasn’t sure whether they were dreams or memories. Or nightmares.

There was Alma tapping away on the piano as the crowd cheered in the background. There was Cadence’s first meeting with the Foxmans when they were all younger—with Francis extending a hand out to her and her cheekily extending a stack of cards back. There was her, the Foxmans, Nico, and the other kids running wildly through the streets and then piling together their pickpocket winnings beneath the Dioscuri Bridge. There was laughter, thrill, danger, freedom.

And then there was Alma being dragged away into the darkness by a shadowy silhouette. There were the Foxmans’ watching calmly, distantly, as a man tied to a chair was beaten to a pulp with a pipe in front of them. There was Nico, wiping his patient’s blood that had splattered onto his face with a rag.

And then there was Ricardo Romano standing above her as the rain pelted down harsh on his bright yellow-orange umbrella. Everything was gray around them, but when he extended his hand outwards, the world gained a bit more color.

When Cadence awoke and cracked open her eyes, she knew she was not alone. She sat up from bed and cast a glance to the side where Werner stood by the window.

“How much did you see?” She asked, too tired to put on a smile.

He shifted where he stood, not looking at her. “I didn’t see your parents.” Well, that was an awkward response.

“Well, neither did I.”

Werner stiffened. “I apologize… that was not my intention—to see those private things.”

Cadence couldn’t help but cackle at the sight and criss-crossed her legs. “Well, it ain’t a big secret.”

There was a long stretch of silence.

Cadence sighed and paced over to where Werner stood. The man took two steps back in turn. She didn’t pay it any mind and instead stared out the window. Instead of seeing the small cobble-stone square that she usually greeted early in the morning, she saw what Werner saw in his surroundings. A window and a thicket of thin trees in the dark beyond that. She could tell by his reflection in the said window that he was still in that room with all the tables.

“Doin’ inventory?”

“Yes.”

Well, he was being friendlier than usual. Was it because he’d seen some of her dreams and memories? What—was he a softie after all?

Absentmindedly, she said, “Y’know, bein’ in this business isn’t my end goal. It’s just a stepping stone.”

“Is that so?” He was looking at her now, almost curiously.

“Yeah, just you watch. In a couple years or so you’ll see me playin’ on the Ophiuchian Way. I’ll have one of those fancy v-ehicles and a big house. Everyone’ll know my name.”

And Alma would be at her side.

“Those are high expectations you’ve set yourself,” Werner noted. “It’s good to set the bar high.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Cadence grinned. She thrummed her fingers against the window sill absentmindedly. “Did ya see how I met Ricardo Romano?”

“Ricardo Romano— he is the don of the crime family you sometimes work for, correct?” Werner said slowly. “I don’t believe I have.”

Cadence cracked a grin. “I picked his pockets.”

Werner was frowning now.

“He didn’t realize it until later but when he did he sent out the hunting dogs. When he found me, I thought I was a goner.” She turned to him and chuckled. “But y’know what? He offered me a damn job instead of a bullet! I rejected, of course. Said I’d rather have a full course meal, and boy did he treat me.” She shook her head. “Still dont get why.”

“But you are working with him now.”

That was what the guy got out of that?

“Yeah….” Cadence felt the smile fall from her face as Alma flashed in her mind. “Got a little bit desperate. But it ain’t bad.”

Does she not feel any shame by betraying those she’s worked for?

“Uh, Lieutenant, sir, our thoughts are kinda linked so even if ya don’t verbalize, I can still hear what you’re thinkin’.”

Werner’s eyes widened a fraction of a centimeter, and Cadence thought he looked a bit embarrassed. It must have been a fluke, because he met her gaze coolly a beat after— “Things are seldom held together or maintained for long without loyalty. Dreams included.”

“I get ya,” Cadence agreed, “but I mean, our lives are on the line here. If I don’t do it, Verga’ll kill me. Even if they get to him first, he’s already probably hired someone to kill me. He’s meticulous.”

“I see.”

“I mean, it’s not like they’re like my real family.” Cadence shrugged before she winked. “I’m like a lone cat, y’know. Ya feed it but ya don’t take it in.”

Werner stared into her. Man, he had such an intense gaze. It took every ounce of Cadence’s willpower to hold it. Abruptly, however, he turned away from her.

“I have to make my rounds now.” He nodded curtly. “Goodbye.”

And that was that. Or so they both thought.

As he moved out the cabin, Cadence found herself being pulled along with him. He stopped short just outside and turned to give her a look. She responded with a shrug and a “not like I can help it”.

He held his ground for the better part of a minute before he gave in and stalked towards another cabin a little further down the dirt path. She followed him and glanced at the two Capricornian soldiers standing guard there. A woman with a steely gaze and a man. Brunhilde Falk and Wilhelm Fischer, Werner’s mind provided. They saluted Werner upon his arrival—which Cadence found bizarre—and moved aside for him to enter the cabin.

The cabin was dimly lit, containing about six beds, four of which were occupied. The people in the beds were in uniform but in a uniform different from the one Werner wore. They looked completely worn out—the people in the bed. Like how the gamblers at the casino looked when they’d bet the last of what they brought with them and lost.

Prisoners, Werner’s mind supplied.

Man, Cadence thought as she looked them over, it would suck to be a prisoner.

Then she saw him.

And her entire world froze over.

Was it the chill from Werner’s surroundings that was leaking into the warmth of her home, or was it the stone-cold realization dawning on her? She didn’t quite know. But.

No, no, no, no. Anybody but him.

“Adapt, adapt, adapt,” she had told him all the years ago. But she didn’t mean it like this. That idiot—

“Nico…?”

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 (6/6): jericho raid, i

“Jericho.”

Jericho sat up from his bed in the darkness. The doorway across from him was illuminated with yellow light and crowded by a familiar silhouette.

“Jericho. My wallet. It’s gone. The organization stole my wallet.”

“You lost your wallet?”

“No!” The lights to the room flicked on, and Talib’s form became revealed. Disheveled curls, wide and searching eyes, heaving shoulders. “The Organization stole it! They knew it was a limited edition denim Libran designer wallet! It was diamond-studded and everything!”

“You were pickpocketed,” Jericho concluded.

“Yes.” Talib nodded. “Pickpocketed by a member of the Organization.”

Jericho thought on this before he shook his head. “You bumped into someone when we first came here. He must have taken it then.”

Talib opened his mouth to argue but closed it in favor of giving Jericho a steady once over. “Did I interrupt your nap?”

Jericho swung his legs off the bed. “I wasn’t sleeping.”

At least he didn’t think he had been. Time seemed to bend oddly when he had been laying down staring at the ceiling. Was it an hour that had passed? Several minutes? An entire day?

He walked over to the storage chest at the foot of his bed. He clicked it open and pulled out his suitcase. His change of clothing was still stored inside of it, as was his conductor. He pulled it out and rose to his feet. Talib was still staring at him from the doorway.

“Our meeting with the Romano Family and the Foxmans?”

Talib checked his wristwatch. In turn, Jericho reached into his suit pocket for a pocket watch he didn’t own. He stared at his hand when he found nothing and then returned his attention to Talib.

“The meeting is in about an hour,” the man said, walking over to the bed next to Jericho’s. He knelt down beside his own chest, flipped it open, and pulled out his folded suit and a colorful stack of small, square papers. “Do you want to shower first or…?”

“I don’t need to shower.”

Talib placed the stack of papers on the bed and rose to his feet. “Everyone needs a shower, my friend. To wash off the deeds of the day. To refresh oneself. To appear presentable not only for oneself but for one’s companions.”

Jericho paused.

“And, of course, to do away with any possible trackers that the Organization might have on you.”


Jericho’s hair was still damp when they arrived in front of the cobblestone building an hour later. The walls of the building were also damp despite the lack of rain. A result of the fog rolling in from the not so far bay, Jericho concluded.

They were greeted by a large, burly man who motioned them in without a change in expression. Acting as a silent guide, he led them through a hazy dining hall filled with the sounds of clinking wine glasses and laugh-filled chatter. In-between those paired noises a saxophone blared out a hoppy tune that was complemented by some hidden singer.

They passed through this hall quickly and entered the kitchen in the back. Jericho met eyes with some of the kitchen staff before pushing forward through a curtain-draped passage at the end. After being led down a long flight of stairs, they arrived in front of a twin set of mahogany doors with golden handles. With a grunt, they were ushered inside.

The room within was also fashioned similarly to the dining hall upstairs save for far fewer tables interspersed in between the ornately designed poles that rose up from the wooden floorboards. The other discrepancy was the fact that there was only one rectangular table that was occupied in the room. At the table sat four men. One was noticeably older than the others and had a graying, balding head. He sat at the table’s head. He was neither heavyset nor overly thin. His sun-kissed face paired with the silver streaks that ran through his mustache gave him a friendly look. Like he could reach out one of his heavily ringed hands and offer a loving pat on the head.

To his left sat a single young man. His light brown hair was loosely styled back, and his caramel-colored eyes seemed almost amusedly smiling despite the professional maroon suit he wore. The two men to the older man’s right were also in similar suits although theirs were of different colors. Blue and green. Neither were smiling with their eyes. Their grim expressions seemed unfitting on them.

Talib stepped forward first, approaching the table with an extended hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you Don Romano.” He spoke in lightly-accented Geminian.

The old man who was evidently Don Romano accepted the gesture with a nod. “Agent Talib al-Jarrah, right? It’s a pleasure to have an Ophiuchian visiting our fair city. Please do speak in common.” He spoke in common, and his voice was baritone and croaky like something was stuck in his throat.

“If you wish,” Jericho agreed. “I don’t want to butcher your beautiful language, after all.”

The don merely smiled.

Francis Foxman stood after and introduced himself as Francis Foxman. Then came Allen and Carl’s introductions which were brief and unsmiling. It didn’t occur to Jericho until all men were looking at him that he had known their names before they had given them. And because he already knew their names, he had thought that they already knew his. But as the silence stretched on, he realized that was not the case.

Jericho approached the table with an extended hand. “Jericho.”

Another round of curt yet firm handshakes.

Don Romano gestured for both of them to sit at the other end of the table. They obliged and met eyes as they did.

Idle—“obligatory” as Alice often called it—conversation started. There was talk of weather, friendly and daily ongoings, and other things Jericho did not believe pertained to their purpose.

“Is there something wrong, Mr. Jericho?” Francis Foxman asked, turning his head away from Talib’s train ride tale to meet Jericho’s focused gaze.

“We’re looking for an Ophiucian agent. They should have passed by here three to four days ago.” Jericho supplied nonplussed. “Have you seen anything unusual around here within this time frame?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Jericho could see Talib half-grimace. Allen’s brows rose, Carl looked torn between perplexed and smug, while Francis seemed as nonchalant as always.

“An Ophiucian agent?” Don Romano rubbed his chin. “You two are the first peacekeepers I have seen face-to-face in a decade. I am actually very surprised by your visit. I trusted that Ophiuchus had enough trust in us to allow us to run our operations without interruption. If another Ophiucian was sent here earlier without our foresight then…”

“Of course, Ophiuchus is very aware of the contributions made by your businesses,” Talib interjected before Jericho could even open his mouth. “Although the peacekeeper in question was here several days ago, it was not her destination. She was headed for Aries for a certain case.”

Francis frowned. “You’re not referring to the assassination attempt, are you?”

“That is correct.”

“Ha, well, they did a sh—”

A loud thud underneath the table silenced Carl before he could finish. It was followed by a yelp from the man’s mouth and then a glare directed in Francis’s direction.

“It seems as if they’ve failed in the task they were given.” Don Romano did not seem amused nor contempt when he spoke. And despite his words being curt and simple with no questions attached, Jericho felt inclined to answer. It seemed as if Talib felt the same because the man cleared his throat and nodded.

“Yes, they failed their task,” Talib said. He folded his hands beneath his chin. “And it’s something that all departments in Ophiuchus are curious about. But we don’t have an answer for the failure. And that’s because the peacekeeper in question went missing right before she was to board her train to the Ariesian capital. Right here in this capital.”

Jericho waited for Talib to mention the organization, but Talib never did. The silence that stretched on in place of his usual ranting was long.

“Which is why my associate here is asking if you’ve seen anything strange recently,” Talib finally concluded.

Another beat of silence.

Don Romano either let out a heavy sigh or took in a deep breath. “These cities are large, Mr. al-Jarrah. I am not even foolishly arrogant enough to say that I am aware of everything that happens in my domain of these parts—which is only this half of the two cities, mind you.” He chuckled. “Perhaps I should retire.”

Showing vulnerability while hiding vulnerability. This man was definitely wise in his years. Someone who dealt with all types of people.

But—

— he was also cunningly kind. Calculated neglect paired with rationed praise. Even knowing this—

“Any information will be helpful. Anything out of the ordinary.”

“You’re in the Twin Cities,” Carl said. “There’s nothing ordinary about any day.” He paused and glanced across the table at Francis and then at Romano. “With all due respect, of course.”

Francis reached into his coat pocket where he pulled out a stack of v-cigs. He offered it around the table before selecting one for himself and lighting it with a flick of his wrist.

“As I’m aware, you do not have a Conducting Licenses, Mr. Foxman.” Talib inclined his head towards Francis’s hand. “Despite your position, you are not above prime laws. Without a license, it is illegal to operate a conductor. Depending on the type of conductor in question, the repercussions can be quite serious.”

“If I recall correctly, that law only applies to weaponized and engine-type conductors.” Francis waved his cig in the air in-between two fingers. “I’m afraid to say that this is just for show. A normal general conductor.”

Talib’s brows raised to almost comical levels. “I see. Forgive me. I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m only doing my job.”

“Of course.” Francis smiled thinly. “We all are—”

Anything unusual,” Jericho repeated, “would be helpful… Thank you.”

Allen and Carl exchanged looks as they always did while Francis seemed to stifle a laugh like he normally did in these types of situations. The boss, on the other hand, remained unreadable.

Then again, Jericho didn’t quite understand what type of situation this was. Too nostalgic and friendly to be a matter of investigation and business. His head was beginning to hurt but he ignored it.

Francis hummed before he out an ‘ah’ of realization. “Well, actually…” He took a drag of his cigarette. “One of our cargo ships left the docks without our prior notice. We thought it’d been stolen but as it turns out one of our men had a misunderstanding with one of our suppliers.”

Jericho had known this but he didn’t know how.

“As you can see, miscommunication is the greatest downfall in any relationship.” Saying this, Romano clasped his hands and leaned forward. Met Jericho’s eyes.

Jericho stared back.

There it was again. That itch to answer a question that had not been asked.

“What about your business location that was burned to the ground?” Jericho asked. “That seems unusual.” Talib kicked his leg underneath the table for some reason. Jericho ignored it and continued, “It may tie in with our investigation.”

“I see word gets around fast.” Francis took another drag. “Your concern is warranted, but that was just an accident. The conductor in the building overheated. Led to a blown insulator and an explosion. It was a very tragic occurrence. We lost many patrons and many of our men.”

Jericho stared at him. “The conductor didn’t overheat. Your bar was attacked. Why are you lying?”

And something in the atmosphere snapped in two. It snapped so abruptly and with such force that even Jericho became aware of it. Aware he had misspoken.

The bud of Francis’s loosely held cigarette dribbled out ash onto the table.

All eyes were on Jericho but he didn’t care. All he wanted was an answer. And then he would be one close stepper to—

Talib cleared his throat loudly and laughed heartily while giving Jericho a clap on the shoulder. “Ah, yes, my associate Jericho here is using an old Ophiuchian interrogation technique, you see. It’s a very archaic yet effective thing. Used in the olden days. Absolute confidence. He’s a stickler for the past and—”

“It is understandable for there to be doubt between us.” Don Romano smiled as if amused. “After all, by name, you peacekeepers represent justice. By rumor, we represent the opposite. Trust is something that must be forged by hand—”

“But I do. I trust you.” Jericho turned to the don and looked him up and down. He then glanced at Francis and Carl and Allen.

Talib paused. Francis paused. Romano paused.

“Which is why I don’t understand why you’re lying about this. Hiding information from us acts as an obstruction of justice.” Jericho blinked. This was a fact.

Finally, Francis shook his head, flicked the line of ash from his cigarette, and took a drag. “If you trust us,” he said with a thin smile, “then trust me when I say that whatever is occurring with our establishment has nothing to do with your missing peacekeeper. It is a personal matter.”

The smile looked like it could cut through steel.


“Well, that was an awkward situation.”

Jericho was winding down a long stretch of cobblestone stairs alongside Talib. The flight of stairs curved around high-rising stone buildings that scratched at the darkening sky. The buildings seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions and were pressed up tight against each other. Whatever few alleyways that were squeezed in between the buildings were only a meter or so wide. Despite this, it felt much easier to breathe here.

Their descent was a crowded one. There were as many people descending down with them as there were people ascending up past them. And Jericho wasn’t sure if he was tasting the smoke from the city, the smoke from the pipe of the woman walking down next to him, or the lingering ashen smog from Francis’s cigarette. Above the echoing voices that volleyed within the walls around them, Jericho could barely hear Talib’s words. He managed to inter the man’s words from studying the movement of his lips. But unfortunately, Jericho did not know how to respond to Talib’s statement and settled on a change of topic—

“They were lying.”

Talib inclined his head before stroking his nonexistent beard. “Yes, yes, I believe they were.” He pushed up his hat and ruffled his hair. “It seems as if their pub incident has to do with bad blood.”

“Bad blood?”

“Yes, poor relations. Maybe one group wronged another. Maybe a rival family—although, I doubt that’s the case. From what I’m aware of, the families are trying to hold a peace between them.” Talib readjusted his hat. “So maybe it’s something akin to a petty sense of justice or maybe… vengeance?”

“Vengeance…” Jericho tried the word out on his tongue. It melted in his mouth.

“I noticed that you seemed very, very passionate about this case, my friend. While I do agree with the sentiment that the families are overstepping bounds and need to be dealt with, I don’t think direct confrontation is the way to go. And it seems like you weren’t even thinking about that during our meeting with them.” Talib said. He peered out at him from beneath the brim of his hat. “Passion is neither good nor bad. It’s something to conduct a person’s actions or something to be conducted by the person.”

Jericho blinked at him.

“Well, no matter. I’m sure the Romano Family and the Foxman have all the assets they need to handle their situation. What I’m interested in is that ship that left their port at the bay without their notice.”

Jericho tilted his head. “You think Agent Leona may have been kidnapped? By the Foxmans?”

“Yes, I know how that sounds. They stand more to lose than to gain from targeting Leona.” Talib scratched his chin. “But the same goes for the Organization, and yet they’re relentless in their nefarious deeds. That’s passion, for you.” He tapped his nose. “And then there’s the fact that the Foxmans mentioned it so openly—but that could also just be a ploy. Though that might be overthinking things…” He quickened his pace a little and slid his hands into his pockets. “Still, it warrants a looking into, doesn’t it?”

Of course it did. Anything that involved ELPIS did.

Jericho took a step after him and—

We are ELPIS.

Jericho stopped short and whipped his head around. Nothing. Just an ordinary street crowded with ordinary people, many of whom sent him a glare as he blocked their way with his sudden halt. Even still, that word rang in his ear, worming its way out from his temple.

Where had it come from?

Raising his hand to his ear, Jericho combed through the area thoroughly. Nothing, nothing, nothing. And yet—

—there was that feeling again. Like something was stringing him along.

His left foot moved first. Then his right. Forward and forward into a brisk walk. Weaving past the pedestrians around him. Destination unknown. Down the stairs to the bottom. Through the one-roaded streets loosely dotted with v-ehicles. Past the fallen TwinStars Pub. Forward through a haze of humid fog.

Onwards, onwards, until the noisy chatter of the city became drowned out by the sloshing of waves against a cement ridgeline. Onwards until the acrid smell of smoke became drenched with the smell of seaweed and brine.

Finally, Jericho came to a halt. He didn’t know how long he had been walking for but he was sure it was a long time because he was now out of breath. He glanced around but could see nothing through the thick haze that surrounded him. Perhaps he was lost. No, that wasn’t it

The fog around him peeled away revealing the other end of the invisible string.

Before him loomed a warehouse with cracked wooden walls and cracked windows that bled out warm light. Even from this distance, he could hear muffled shouting from within.

Warehouse number 13.

13.

How ironic.

But despite the pull, he knew this place had nothing to do with the case. Nothing to do with Leona. Nothing to do with ELPIS other than that ironic number. Nothing keeping him there, but—

HELP ME.

Two (5/6): imamu prune

Atiena had yet to memorize all of the rooms within the Tribal Council Hall. When she first came to the Halls years ago, she had thought that she would be able to memorize the entire layout of the building within the week since there were only twenty-four rooms total and at the time she had visited the Hall every single day. Looking back now, she realized the very thought had been childish folly. The idea that one could conquer something no matter how large that ‘something’ was—perhaps, it wasn’t so much as childish folly as it was human folly.

Atiena pondered this as she sat within the reception room on one of the many chairs that circled around a small black tree that grew at its center. The tree was only about two meters tall and was barely beginning to bud flowers amongst its glass-like leaves.

When she had come here for the dinner several days ago, the room had an entirely different layout. There had been no tree growing from the center then. Instead, there had been patches of flora crisscrossing the ground following along the path of the vitae streams that had flowed there. Atiena wondered how the room would look tomorrow. Different, surely. Unrecognizable maybe.

This was because the rooms of the Council Hall changed alongside the shifting currents of the vitae streams that trickled in from the outside and swirled around the floor in different patterns every day.

Atiena was drawn out of her thoughts by a loud sigh. She turned her head just in time to see Safiyah throw herself back on the chair beside her. 

“Your brother is impossible,” she said, arms crossed, glaring through the crowd that stood around them and in the direction where Atiena assumed her brother stood. Her expression then turned sympathetic, and she turned to Atiena before reaching out and squeezing her hand. “As are you. If I had been poisoned, I would be locking myself up in bed.”

“To escape from these meetings or to rest and recover?” Atiena wondered. 

“To escape these meetings of course.” Safiyah threw her hands up in the air. “If we are to be required to come here, I would at least like to take part in the meetings!” She then cleared her throat and then spoke like how a schoolteacher would. “Family members of the chieftain are not allowed to take part in meetings as they have not earned their positions. Nepotism. And yet our purpose here is to ‘follow tradition and facilitate peace amongst the tribes’?” She crossed her arms and shook her head. “Facilitate peace—half of us can’t sit in the same room without throwing fists with one another. And isn’t that nepotism anyway?”

Atiena concealed her smile with a hand. Safiyah’s rants were always interesting to hear. 

Safiyah glanced at her before relaxing back in her seat. “Why do I always get the feeling that you actually enjoy being here?”

“What makes you think I enjoy it?” 

“It’s the only time I see you smiling like that other than when you’re gardening or reading.”

Atiena supposed that was true. The smooth snip of her garden shears as they snapped shut on the neck of damaged parts of her favorite bush. The muffled flaps of her new book as the pages ruffled against up against another.  The many changes of expression that fluttered across a single person’s face in a single conversation. All of these were things that she found relief in. These things and—

And the crack of her knuckles against bone and flesh. This too was something she felt was able to wrestle out the tension in her shoulders. It would leave her fingers raw as a paper cut or a prick of a thorn would but it was not unpleasant.

But Safiyah did not know this. What sort of expression Safiyah would make if she knew—Atiena could only wonder.

“Honestly, you even seem to enjoy my rants.” Safiyah nodded before she took Atiena’s hand in her own and bowed her head. “Someone who will actually listen to me curse the heavens—Atiena, may I take your hand in marriage?”

Atiena inclined her head in turn and gave her hand a squeeze. “Oh, I was about to ask you the same. But are you and Bachiru not—”

“It’s not like that!” Safiyah snapped, pulling her hand away with a huff and flushed cheeks.

“Were you and Bachiru discussing the Sagittarian issue once again?”

Safiyah’s expression soured once more, and she pulled away with a roll of her eyes. “Even worse. Your brother has become convinced that aiding the Sagittarians is not enough. Says that our isolation has caused us to turn one another. That…”

“That my poisoning was a stab at my father who was promoting Saggitarian aid and that not aiding the Saggitarians would be giving in to the brewing conflict.”

Safiyah hummed. 

“I do know my brother.”

“Convoluted ideas, don’t you think?” 

“Is that what you think?”

Safiyah thought on this and crossed her arms. “Getting involved in the affairs of others doesn’t always lead to a joyous revolution of hand-holding. Sometimes it’s better to let people resolve things themselves for all parties.” She met Atiena’s eyes, and her gaze became distant. “We both know that.”

Atiena felt her fingers ache. 

 Safiyah’s expression then became wry. “Besides, thinking that you can just swoop into other’s problems and solve them just like that is… egotistical.” 

“So averting one’s eyes…” Atiena murmured. 

“What was that?”

“I was just wondering to myself,” Atiena replied with a smile. 

“If only Bachiru was as quiet, and thoughtful as you.” Safiyah sighed. “I’m pretty sure that all of your family’s good traits were passed onto you.”

“And what of Kichea and Kamaria?” Atiena smiled as she leaned forward. 

Safiyah responded with an immediate huff. “I love them to death but I swear sometimes they are evil incarnate.”

“They are mischievous.”

“You were too now that I think about it. We all were. You, me, Bachiru.” Safiyah shook her head. “Bachiru… to think after everything we’ve been together, he’d go so far as to call me a black-hearted ELPIS sympathizer.

Finally, Atiena found herself frowning. The word burrowed into her temple and kick-started a dull headache. “He said that?” Her frown deepened when Safiyah nodded in confirmation. “What in the world is he thinking?” Atiena pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. “I’m so sorry, Safiyah.”  

Safiyah matched her frown as she registered Atiena’s expression.“It was rude, but it wasn’t…”

But Atiena was already rising to her feet. “I’m going to have a word with him.”

While right and wrong were subjective, there were certain things that were not tolerable. 

After sifting through a jungle of brightly colored garments, high-towering headdresses, and daring flashes of bare skin, Atiena made out her brother in the crowd. He was standing at the corner of the room in his usual formal attire of a deep green sash thrown over a loose gold-gilded robe. But he was not alone. Beside him stood Usian in his deep purple. Green and purple were colors that went well together—or so said ‘Color theory by PC Sies’.

But at the sight of them standing beside each other, Atiena faltered. Her heart skipped a beat.

Bachiru and Usian. They were two dots to be connected. Or perhaps they were already connected. And what would she do if they were?

“Oh, you have a lot to say for being part of a tribe that is the prime suspect for the poisoning!”

“Prime suspect? How dare you!”

She averted her eyes away from them and turned her attention towards the commotion. The words were flying between two young men who looked around Bachiru’s age. One young man wore a painfully scarlet scarf that fell short only an inch or so above the ground. At his ears hung fang-shaped earrings. The other man was draped in a loose yellow shawl patterned with blue zigzags and green polka dots.

“I spent a good portion of the last school year going out to the different lands of each tribe and studying the flora native to each area.” A wide swooping finger was pointed. “Have you heard of sorrowheat? I suppose not. It is a very rare and deadly plant that causes intense fevers that can lead to death. And do you know where such a plant is found?”

There was a gasp amongst the crowd gathered. 

“Are you serious? How dare you imply that!” The fang-earringed man snapped. “How dare you! The Imamu tribe and the Jino tribe have had close relations for years after we held the Shala line during the War!”

Atiena observed them and unconsciously flexed her fingers. She wondered if they truly saw a point in this confrontation. Where did they think their words would carry them? Speaking as if they had experienced firsthand the bonds forged between the tribes and as if they had the power to bend and break the bonds just like that.  Ah, but that was fine wasn’t it?

If you are so annoyed by them then why do you not intervene?

Atiena paused but she did not panic. Instead, she carefully scanned the area in search of someone who was out of place. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of deep brown curls and a white smile.

And suddenly she found herself in-between the two men. The two looked down at her with startled expressions before they quickly inclined their heads reverently. In unison, they asked about her well-being before sending the other a tantalizing glare. 

“There’s no point in pointing fingers,” she said before she smiled gently. “Besides, I was the one who was poisoned, wasn’t I?” She left what her rhetorical question implied up to the others to determine, and the action allowed a thoughtful, hesitant silence to fall over them.

The door to the hall cracked open, and a guard stepped in to tell them that the meeting had concluded. By the way her father handled himself on their way home, Atiena supposed that the meeting had turned out similarly to how this “strengthening of tribal relations” had come out.


Despite the itch of her fingers, as soon as she arrived home, Atiena strode to her mother’s door. There she paused, pressing her palm against the white-painted wood. Cold to the touch. As any divide should be. And even if she crossed this physical barrier, there would still be another one to cross. An insurmountable, unseeable one that towered over her even now. So, the least she could do was overcome this physicality. 

Atiena pushed forward through the door and entered the room. It was a quiet room. At the center of the room was an occupied bed hidden by drapes that reached down from the ceiling.  Thin, pale, white curtains hung in front of an ajar window that allowed in a small breeze and setting sunlight. At this window sat her mother, as beautiful as always. Dark rope of hair smoothed and tied back by the attendant probably earlier in the morning. Blemishless skin glowing in the soft light. Ebony eyes staring out at whatever scenery played out beyond the windowpane. Ebony eyes that did not rise to meet Atiena even as she approached.

When she reached her mother’s side, Atiena placed a hand on her folded hands. 

Atiena rolled her mother’s chair out the room. She passed by Bachiru who averted his gaze at the sight of them and then Kichea and Kamaria who were holding each other’s hands. Kichea looked on with curiosity while Kamaria stared on blankly. Nia and Sefu trailed behind her at her feet. Their conductors were deftly held in their left hands while in their right they held a collection of records and a dismantled music player, respectively. 

They continued on outside the house through the back door, winding down a forested path that lay just beyond it. There were no buildings here, and the sounds of nature—chirps, buzzes, distant pattering—filled the areas in-between what was allowed by the blanket of humidity. This path was far from the path Atiena had taken the previous day under the cloak of night. The path here was well-trodden, used often, and the trees that grew around it reached from either side and met each other above their heads. The vines that hung from those brambles had been carefully trimmed and tucked away by gardeners that morning. Still, the vines seemed to be drooping down towards them again. The gardeners would be back soon to cut away what they deemed was an unwanted overgrowth. 

As they walked on, the air became warmer and warmer, lighter and lighter.

It was an hour and a half before they reached their destination marked by a gate of ferns. Through their green leaves bled shifting, psychedelic light. Blues, reds, greens, and whites in-between.

Nia stepped forward and parted the ferns with an inclination of her head. Immediately, light spilled into the shade provided by the canopies. Atiena nodded in thanks before turning forward to face the blinding light. 

When her eyes adjusted, she found a great black tree rising above a marsh of pools and light. The tree had a great, thick trunk that was as wide as the width of her house. Where its reach for the sun setting sky ended was unknown. Its branches spider-webbed across the horizon forming cracks along the skyline. But the cracks were not empty. Glittering on their tips were transculescent, glass-like leaves that reflected the light from below.

At the tree’s base flowed streams of light that wove their way in-between the arched roots of the tree. Alongside the vitae streams were normally bodies of water that too reflected the light from them.

Atiena rolled her mother to the edge of a riverbank. After locking the chair in place, she aided Nia and Sefu in setting up the music player. With much effort, she insisted that both guards take a break for half an hour. She knew that they obeyed not out of a desire to rest but out of a desire to allow Atiena and her mother some time for themselves.

When the two were out of ears reach, she placed the needle of the player on the record and waited for the static whine to lull into a tune. 

The tune that rolled out from the record player was slow and melancholic, nostalgic. A tune that had been popular near the war’s end nearly two decades earlier—for whatever reason. One would think war-end tunes would be joyous, celebratory. Then again, politicians saying ‘war is over’ — was there any meaning behind those words? 

“Mother,” she said, sinking to her knees beside the woman, “are you comfortable?”

As always, there was no answer. Only a listless stare that was not even directed at her. 

How boring, came a thought she knew was not her own. But she could not distribute the time to think about such things. In her mother’s presence, she could not wonder about anything at all.

“Bachiru thinks he’s following in your footsteps. I can see it in his eyes,” she said as she gently laid her head across her mother’s lap. “Trying for fairness and peace.” 

In silence, her mother gazed past her towards the soft glow that emanated from the pool of light behind the trees.

“He thinks he’s being selfless, but I think he’s being selfish. But he’s probably neither, right?” 

Again, no answer.

“I think he wants to follow in your footsteps.” 

There was a crunch from behind her. The sound of a twig snapping.

Atiena turned her head.

But instead of finding her guards emerging from the fern doors, she instead found a matchstick patch of jet-black brambles rising from sodden, frosted ground. And beyond the matchstick work—

—was him. 

It was that man again. The soldier. He was an odd one—this soldier.  He stood out from the others flanking his sides like a sore thumb. It wasn’t so much his appearance that stood out—they were all in dusted uniforms, all in boots that were caked with mud, all lugging along some baggage or weapon—but his demeanor that did. Tight and stiff despite the fatigue that hung over them. Unshivering and steadfast despite the frost that was collecting on their clothes. Sharp eyes focused squarely at her. Not seeming to appraise her—rather seeming to appraise whether she was appraising him. Those eyes…

In contrast to the grayness of the woods that unfolded around him, the man’s ice-blue eyes seemed glow as a conductor would. 

Those eyes stared out past the haze of fog that seemed to roll out from beneath his feet. Stared out at her. She met his gaze before glancing at those around him. They were exhausted—she could tell. Poor things. Some were hovering close together while others strayed from each other distantly. And the blue-eyed soldier was one of those who strayed. It seemed as if despite whatever arduous journey they shared together prior, there was still a distance that could not be crossed.

How relatable. This mirage of a man. 

Smiling at this, she told him her thoughts on their shared matter before turning her attention back to the tree.

“They say that memories are stored in vitae. That’s what our Ancestor Virgo taught us at least. We don’t worship her like the people who follow the Monad way of life worship their Ancestors, their saints. To us, Virgo was a teacher.”

She felt another gaze on her but she did not turn her gaze in the direction.

“There is a Virgoan belief that states that when you die, your vitae does not dissipate out into nothingness like they teach you in books. The belief is that your vitae leaves your body and becomes a part of the world around you. Whether it merges with hard vitae in rocks or soft vitae in plants—it doesn’t matter. Because the entire thing is a cycle. Neither created nor destroyed—just returned and retaken.”

Another shadow flickered out of the corner of her eye. Another curious observer, maybe.

“The memories that are stored in your vitae also become shared with the vitae in the world around you.” She continued. “That’s the reasoning for why your life flashes before your eyes when you have a near-death experience. It’s your vitae leaving your body and taking your memories along with it to rejoin the rest of the vitae in the world. Romantic, right?”

Silence.

“But I didn’t learn that directly from Virgo. Not from any of her books at least.” She blinked up and traced her mother’s jawline with her eyes. “She never taught me what would happen if you were stuck like this. Not quite alive, not quite dead. Where your vitae would fall in the cycle. It’s not written in any books either so you can only wonder…” She smiled thinly. “Is an ideal really worth something like this?”

Finally, she lifted her head and glanced around her. She couldn’t help but smile at the emptiness that surrounded her. But she too eventually averted her eyes away from this.

Atiena wondered if the ‘others’ could see her now. And if they could, she wondered if they too were averting their gazes. Would they avert their gazes when she re-entered that ring of fire later tonight as well? 

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?” 

Two (3/6): waltz aim, ii

Werner paused.

What was he doing? Killing injured, surrendering soldiers? These soldiers who had surrendered in hopes of returning to the families and friends waiting for them? Families and friends…

A migraine was beginning to build at Werner’s temple, and his vision began to blur. He squeezed his eyes shut to dispel the nausea that came with the sensations. When he opened his eyes again, he felt his blood run cold. Standing just behind the Aquarian soldiers was a boy. A boy with deep green eyes and long dark hair that was bleached blonde at the tips and tied into a loose bun. His skin was pale but in certain areas, it looked like it’d been beaten by the sun. But yet even still his eyes were harsh and cold.

Werner did not know this boy but yet he knew this boy. A name was on his tongue.

But what was that in the boy’s eyes…?

Judgement…? Disgust, pain, empathy.

“How can you even do this to people?” The boy whispered.

The boy’s eyes scrunched, and he covered his mouth as he hugged his stomach with his free hand. And then it came. The flashes of memory. The bodies that had been strewn across the floor on his way to this floor. The bodies that he had aimed at. The soldiers who had crawled away from his target. The people he had killed.

Anton. Lukas. The names began to return to him as did their faces. The Aquarians and those who he’d slain on the southern border.

Something crawled at the pit of Werner’s stomach and rose to his throat. Shivers followed as did a piercing pain at the back of his neck. It came so forcefully that he fell on all fours—an action that sent his conductor skidding away. He was only vaguely aware of this because bile came crawling up his throat and out his mouth.

All of those bodies—

—but he had to kill them. There was no other way. Orders were orders. Could that boy not understand this—

Wiping the bile from his mouth, Werner lifted his head to look at the boy. But the boy was gone. In the boy’s place was the freckled Aquarian. The Aquarian stood there pointing his very own conductor at him. It seemed as if he was an externalist then. What misfortune.

He locked eyes with the Aquarian. The desperation in those eyes was familiar.

The Aquarian’s finger moved towards the trigger. And then there was a bright burst of sky blue light. Werner winced in the brightness, and when he opened his eyes the freckled Aquarian was on the floor and missing half of his face. The man he was protecting laid beside the pool of red unconscious.

Werner turned his head. Just a couple steps below him stood a shaking Otto, the tip of his conductor still billowing with smoke.

Lowering his weapon with trembling hands, Otto asked, “Are you okay, sir?”

Werner turned away from him and pried his conductor from the fallen Aquarian’s hands. His own hands were trembling. Could Otto see? Swallowing the bile in his mouth, Werner rose to a stand and wiped the sweat from his brow.

“I’m fine, Otto. Thank you.”

Otto straightened and nodded. “Of course, sir.” His gaze then shifted to the bodies on the floor, and his face turned green.

Werner followed his gaze, and his stomach immediately began to churn. He looked away from the mess and at Otto. Otto who looked palid, exhausted, sick. Again, Werner’s stomach churned. That green-eyed boy’s gaze was burned into his mind as was the gaze of the freckled Aquarian.

“Tell the other men to take the Aquarians in if they surrender,” Werner found himself saying. He noticed Otto’s brows raise in surprise but he continued nonetheless. “We should abide by the laws that were in place during the War.” He stared at Otto for a moment, and the boy wavered under his gaze. “We will take camp here for the night.”


An hour or so later and Werner was standing in a small cabin furnished with two wooden desks pressed along the walls and a handful of chairs. A single bulb hung from the ceiling and paired with the moonlight streaming in from the window it provided the cabin with all-reaching light.

At one of the desks sat Klaus Kleine. On the desk sat a large book that was opened to a page that displayed a military radio in detail. It’s parts, wires, knobs, nuts, and bolts. Klaus’s gaze was locked onto these details and sweat was beading his brow. His conductor-gloved hands were extended outwards and the base of it was glowing with lilac light. Very faintly, a glowing wire-like object began to take shape just below his extended hands.

The door to the cabin creaked open.

Gilbert. He stepped inside, gave a nod to Klaus, before joining Werner’s side. He raised a brow at him before asking, “So what’s going on?”

“I’m having Private Klaus conjure a radio so that I can update Major Ersatz on our current whereabouts.”

Gilbert rubbed his neck. “Well, yeah, I can see that, Werner, but I was talking about how you said earlier we’d keep on for the rest of the day but now you’re saying that we should rest here. It’s not like you to change your mind, so what’s up?”

“The men need rest,” Werner said, folding his hands behind his back. “We don’t know how many more Aquarian pockets we’ll find along the way. Exhaustion will lower their performance.”

“Huh.” Gilbert raised a brow. “What about the Aquarians then? Usually, you’re all ‘orders are orders’ but you switched things up today.” He shrugged. “I’m not complaining or anything. Not volunteering to be any more of a murderer. But is there something going on?”

Werner glanced at Klaus. He seemed to be too focused on conjuring the radio parts to be listening in on their conversation.

“I’m just following the precedent set before. It…. didn’t occur to me before.”

“Right…” Gilbert studied him for a long while before he stretched and yawned. “Well, if anything else happens to occur to you, I’m here.”

Werner turned to Gilbert but then hesitated. Before he could say anything, Klause shot up from his seat and stretched with a huff. Rubbing his eyes from behind his round glasses, he turned around, stiffened, and saluted.

“It’s all done, sir. Everything should be in working order.” Klause gestured to the desk which was now topped with a military radio that was identical to the one in the book. Microphone, headset, and all.

“Good work, Private Kleine.” Werner nodded at him. “I will need two more radios.” He paused as Klaus grimaced for a fraction of a second, and his stomach churned with an odd emotion that felt as if it was not quite his own. Guilt. “If you are feeling up to it.”

Gilbert and Klaus both seemed surprised by this statement and Werner was too, but Klaus nodded deeply before moving over to another desk and bringing his book with him. Gilbert headed towards the door.

Werner watched them go, and then—

There was a static crackle from the recently conjured radio in the corner of the room. A voice cracked out: “Hello?”

Kleine did not move from where he was working on conjuring another radio, and Gilbert did not turn back from the doorway.

“Nico…?” the voice cracked again.

Still, no one moved from their positions.

“Hello? Are you there?”

Werner slowly paced over to one of the large machines and picked up the headphones producing the sound. He placed them to his ear and leaned down towards the microphone. “First Lieutenant Werner Waltz of the 789th Squadron speaking. What is your military code?”

Static prickled his ears. White noise.

But then: “What’s this code you’re talkin’ about?”

Now that the headphones were pressed up to his ear, Werner could hear the strange lilt to the voice on the other end of the line. The accent they spoke with was odd.

“Operator?” the voice pressed.

Werner’s heart skipped a beat and his head began to spin.

He opened his mouth to respond, but then—

“Oh, you’re like her, aren’t you? You… you’re real, aren’t you?”

What?

And the static that crackled out from the headphones was suddenly overcome by a much louder sound. A piercing whine. It screamed through his ears and pierced his temple like a bullet. The lights in the room intensified bleaching everything around him in a painful white. While Werner managed to remain rigid and standing, he couldn’t help but to squeeze his eyes shut. He had suffered from concussions several times before and what he felt now was several times worse than the feeling that came with them.

“You—who are you?”

Werner opened his eyes.

The radio room was gone.

He was standing in a pale hallway that was dotted with polished wooden doors. Papers littered the floor. And right in front of him stood a young woman — although, perhaps it was a young man — who leaned on the rim of a gray telephone phone station that looked in need of repair. There was a singular headphone pressed to her ear.

The woman’s eyes were narrowed as if hurt and her lips were pulled downward, but the expression only lasted a fraction of a second. Soon she was quirking a brow and offering a lopsided grin: “Well, I gotta say that these hallucinatory meetings keep gettin’ weirder and weirder.”

The voice that came out from the young woman standing before him simultaneously crackled out of the headphones that he still had pressed to his ear.

Werner, lost for words and certain he’d lost his mind as well, stood frozen in place.

“By the look of your face,” the young woman drew, pulling off the fedora on her head and resting it on top of the phonebox, “this must be the first time you’re experiencing this. That is, if you’re real.” She spread her free arm wide. “Welcome to the party.”

Werner opened his mouth wordlessly again.

“The name’s Cadence.” The woman mocked a deep bow. “But maybe you knew that already.” Straightening herself, she offered her hand. “And you look like… a Werner…”

“What’s the meaning of this?” Finally, Werner managed to find his voice. It only came out as a whisper.

“Well, not sure ‘bout that.” The woman replied after a moment of staring. “Either I’m goin’ insane, or we’re both goin’ insane, or we’re experiencin’ somethin’ outta this world.” After another moment of staring she continued: “Honestly if there’s a meaning to all this, I can’t really think one up. This is how it’s going to be now—I think—and we just gotta make use with what we have.”

Werner remained silent. He glanced down at the microphone he was holding in his hands. Despite him being in what appeared to be a completely different location than the communications cabin, he was still able to see and to feel the device in his hands. A hallucination, then. A result from his injury several days earlier. That would answer the question as to why Gilbert and Klaus didn’t acknowledge the radio transmission.

“Ey, you’re a soldier, aren’t you?” The young woman Cadence pressed. “Capricornian by the looks of it. Let’s just say you’re real. Ya wouldn’t happen to be involved in that border conflict, would ya?”

Werner glanced back up at the woman.

“Even though you’re a Capri, I don’t have anything against you and what you’re up to.” Cadence continued. “None of my business.”

And then Werner closed his eyes. He counted to fifty; and as the numbers in his head became louder, the ringing in his ears became quieter. The woman’s voice became nonexistent. Faintly, he could hear Klaus tinkering in the background of the radio station.

“’Ey, what the hell!?”

Werner opened his eyes.

Cadence was right in front of him now. She was so close that he could see even the smallest freckles on her cheeks. Her caramel brown eyes were wide and livid.

“Is that how they teach manners in your country?!” She snapped.

Werner stumbled backwards in surprise. The headphones and microphone clattered noisily onto the floor beside him.

“I ain’t one to know much about manners, but even I know that ignoring someone is one of the worst things you can do!”

“I—” Werner swallowed, overcome by confusion and alarm. The only words he could think of were: “I apologize.”

Cadence studied him before pulling back with crossed arms and a nod. “Well, I get it. You’re confused. I was pretty confused too so I can’t really judge you too harshly. Sir, I still am confused.” She dropped her arms and then moved to rub the back of her neck. Her eyes drifted to the ceiling. “Here’s the low down.”

Werner followed her gaze up, and for some reason, he thought of the sky and the moon. He hadn’t seen the clear sky for a while now. The moon was a blessing tonight.

“You and me? If we’re both not insane, then we’re somehow communicatin’ across borders.” Cadence continued. “Don’t know how. Don’t know why.” She whistled. “But if we’re not hallucinating, then it looks like we’re connected somehow. At this point, with everythin’ goin on, I’ve pretty much accepted it. Problems of the heart and mind, ‘ey?”

Her words were incomprehensible.

“I am hallucinating.”

The young woman cackled at his words. “Well, then I am too. But if I’m hallucinatin’ then that means you’re not real. Bah, just thinkin’ about it makes my head hurt.” She really did seem amused. Her eyes sparkled with the emotion. “There are others part of this whole maybe-hallucination-maybe-real thing, so I recommend you be more friendly with ‘em. Not everyone is as easygoin’ as I am, sir.”

“I was injured during a battle. I suffered a head injury. I did not allow myself sufficient time to recover.”

Cadence cackled again. Louder this time. An unrefined laugh. “You’re gonna be a hard one, ain’t ya? Well, that’s how life is.” Suddenly, abruptly, she extended her hand out to him “So, how about you and I become acquainted then? From one hallucination to another.”

He stared at her hand without comprehending it. Slowly, carefully, he reached out.

“Werner!”

And just like that, the hallway scenery shattered. The papers, the phone, the doorways fell down around him in shards. The woman reflected his expression of surprise before she too fell away into pieces.

He was standing back in the radio station with the microphone and headphones still resting on the ground beside his feet. The hum of the radio whirled in the background. In the background where Kleine sat staring at him. At him with his hand still extended in the direction where Cadence once stood. At Gilbert Kraus who stood beside him gripping his raised arm tightly.

“Werner!” Gilbert repeated, eyes wide, grip tightening.

Their stares pricked his skin. The palm of his hands began to itch terribly.

Werner dropped his arm and tried to recollect himself. A difficult task due to the buzzing alarm of panic in his head and the cold sweat trickling down his back. He swallowed and then tried in an even voice: “Is there something else you’d else you would like to tell me, Kraus?”

Like nothing occurred.

Gilbert stared at him and opened his mouth. But then he followed Werner’s gaze to Kleine, and his eyes narrowed. He shook his head and released his grip. Disappointment probably.

“Back to work, Private,” Werner said clearing his throat.

Like nothing occurred.

Two (3/6): waltz aim, i

Werner pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open. It was hard to read in the setting sunlight that was dispersed by the brambles rising around them, but he could still make out the hands of the clock.

They had been walking for exactly eight hours, thirty-two minutes, and twenty-two seconds since they had set off from their first rest stop at exactly six in the morning. At this point, they were ahead of schedule.

Odd. It seemed as if they’d been walking for longer than that.

Snapping his watch closed and tucking it into his breast pocket, Werner observed the skyline. It would be best if they continued on at a steady pace from here. They would reach the nearest populated town within four hours.

“Stop it, Stein!”

Werner turned his head. 

Private Klaus Kleine was sandwiched in-between Derik Stein and Wilhelm Fischer. They were pressing up against him from both sides. Derik was wearing a sneer and Fischer a grimace. Beside Fischer stood disappointed and frowning Emilia. 

“Enough, Fischer!” Emilia said, pulling on the man’s shoulder. “Leave him alone already!”

Otto was observing the entire confrontation from behind them with a nervous expression. He toyed with hands as his gaze flicked from the dirt floor to the unraveling scene. Brunhilde walked slowly beside him, her attention and interest seeming to be elsewhere. 

Werner nodded at Gilbert who had been walking beside him. The man let out a dramatic sigh before falling back towards the other group. Alwin who was walking just a step behind him fell back as well.

“Fischer, Stein, knock it off,” Gilbert snapped, pulling the two men off of the bespectacled, shorter soldier. “My legs are already sore from walking all day. Don’t make my ears sore too.”

“Er, sorry, sir,” Fischer apologized.

Stein merely rubbed his neck and shrugged the strap of his conductor up his shoulders. Klaus bowed his head, readjusted his glasses, and fell back in step next to Otto and Brunhilde. Gilbert laughed dryly and shook his head.

“Aren’t you guys tired of going through the same routine every time you’re around each other?” He asked. He glanced at Klaus and Wilhelm and found them looking away with embarrassment. He shook his head. He paused before nodding at Alwin. “Speaking of routine, do you have any more of your bootleg stories for us?”

Alwin comically rubbed his chin in thought. “Well, I do have one that I’ve been waiting for the right moment to tell. Heard it while I was in the Twin Cities a while back.” He peaked at Werner. “But…”

“You’ll waste your energy, and we still have four more hours until we reach our next resting point,” Werner informed him quietly, coolly as he turned away from them and looked forward. He could feel his squad’s displeasure at this information but he continued nonetheless: “And we must tread carefully and quietly and be attentive. We don’t know if there are any Aquarians nearby. It’s not worth the risk.”

Gilbert jogged up to Werner’s side and matched his pace. “Oh come on, Werner, Aquarians out this far? Almost all of them got caught up at the Zeigenberg Ridge.”

“You just said it yourself. Almost. That’s not an absolute.” Werner continued forward at a steady pace. “There should be nothing left to chance, Second Lieutenant Krauss.” 

“With all due respect, First Lieutenant Waltz,” Gilbert pressed, “I think they could use a bit of a morale boost. I mean, we’ve been walking for hours and we’re due to walk for several more hours.” He leaned in close and muttered, “And it’s not like there’s a spa at the end of this happy camp journey. I know that even someone like you isn’t fond of it when Ophiuchus gets involved.”

Werner glanced at the man. “Gilbert, morale has nothing to do with life or death.”

Gilbert quirked a brow as if challenging the idea.

Werner looked away from him and addressed those behind him: “Private Brandt, you said you heard your story when you were in the Twin Cities, correct? Then it must be your story about the Golden Beast. I’m sure everyone has heard it by now. There is no meaning in telling it again.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alwin start in surprise. The man quickened his pace and fell into step beside him.

“Lieutenant, how did you know about the Golden Beast?” He asked. 

“As I’ve said,” Werner replied quietly, “I overheard you telling it before.”

Alwin frowned. “But I’ve never told it before, sir.” He exchanged a look with Gilbert across from him. “Right?”

Gilbert half-nodded, half-shrugged.

“Guess you must be a mind reader then, sir,” Alwin chuckled.

“I am not a mind-reader, Brandt,” Werner replied coolly, “but if you and Second Lieutenant Kraus cannot remember the story that you told, perhaps it was not a story worth telling.”

Gilbert rolled his eyes and fell back. Eventually, Alwin did too.

They walked on in silence.

The only sounds were the wind whistling its way through the trees and the crunch of sticks and fallen leaves beneath their boots. The grayness of the darkening sky draped a dreary and eerie atmosphere over their route, and Werner could see why Gilbert had mentioned ‘morale’. However, comfort was not a priority here. Success was. 

Suddenly, a faint sound that did not seem to belong to nature reached his ears.

Werner held up his hand signaling his men to stop. Most conformed instantly while others stumbled in surprise. Werner glanced at them before straining his ears and carefully examining the woods around them and the path before them. A fog had rolled in from the east threading everything in a haze. The faint sound seemed to bounce off the fog and resounded around them.

Music, Werner realized as he inclined his head and unstrapped his conductor from his back. He exchanged a look with Gilbert who was frowning. Before Werner could interpret that frown, the distant sound suddenly grew in volume and the echo seemed to concentrate in a single area.

There, just behind a jail of thin black trees to his left. Werner lowered his conductor in both awe and confusion. He did not understand how he or any of his men could have missed something like this. 

There right before him blossomed a large, white, glowing tree that seemed to be at least ten stories tall. Its trunk was thick, its branches reaching far across the skyline. At its roots glowed a pool of light. A vitae stream…? Impossible. There was no such thing in this area.

In front of this impossibility knelt a woman with dark hair, dark skin, and a dark dress. Her head was resting on the lap of an older woman was sitting on what appeared to be a wheelchair. Beside them was a record player that twirled out a slow, melancholic tune sung with garbled words by a somber singer.

Werner took a step forward and attempted to make out the features of the older woman but stopped when he realized that her back was to him. The kneeling woman, however, lifted her head and locked eyes with him. A thin, almost coy smile slowly crept up her face.

“It’s funny,” she said, “how close you can be someone and yet so far away. You’d think that things like painful and traumatic memories will bring people closer together—all hearts coming together as one—but they can pull people apart too.”

Werner brought a hand to his ear. Rather than her voice echoing from the distance, it sounded as if her voice was resounding in his head.

“W..rn…r…?”

The woman slowly broke eye contact with him and turned her eyes back towards the tree. “You know,” she began, “they say that memories—”

“Werner!”

A hand was clapped on his shoulder. He started and turned. It was Gilbert. The man was searching his face with concern and confusion.  Odd behavior, seeing that there was an anomaly before them. Werner returned his attention to the tree and the women but only found the black matchstick trees caging an empty, foggy clearing.

There was a sharp prick at his temple and a ringing at his ears. The black brambles swam around him as did the faces of his soldiers.

“Wern—”

“It was just an animal,” Werner said, shouldering his conductor. “Let’s keep moving.” Without waiting to see if protest followed, he continued onwards down the path. He was grateful for the chilled breeze that came with dusk. It cooled the sweat that was still trickling down the back of his neck.

Once again, a dissonant silence that was not complete reigned. Rubber crunching against gravel, wind whistling through leaves, bated breaths.

They were watching him, Werner knew. His squadron. He could feel their gazes glued to his back. What they were thinking, however, he did not know. What he did know was that as soon as he completed this assignment—this mission—he would check himself in with a medical Conductor immediately. It seemed as if something had been left to chance without his knowledge.

A barren hill came into view. The slope of it was gradual and dotted with boulders and fallen logs. It was slick with mud.

Werner held up his hand signaling his men to stop again. This time Gilbert came to his side and glanced around the area. 

“Up there.” Werner nodded at the hill that rolled up ahead of them. Very faintly on the hill-line glowed the light from a cluster of buildings.

“Houses,” Gilbert murmured. “That can’t be right. There’s nothing about this on the maps.”

Werner almost let out a sigh of relief. So, what he’d been seeing this time was indeed real. Pushing the feeling aside, he motioned for Brunhilde and Fischer.

“Scout the area,” he ordered. “Who, what, why.”

Both saluted before making their way up the hill. They returned exactly forty-five minutes and thirty-two seconds later. Their legs were soaked through and caked with dirt.

“It’s an Aquarian base. Mostly injured men,” Brunhilde informed Werner upon their return. “The town has been abandoned since the end of the War. They took advantage. There was no Red Star noting it as a field hospital.”

Werner took this information in without speaking. Lawfully, medical camps and hospitals that displayed the Red Star were under the protection of international humanitarian law prohibiting them from being attacked. A rule both written and unwritten during the War. Where that rule fell during this time of tumultuous pseudo peace when there was no Red Star… well, it was obvious. Besides, the uphill trek would be tumultuous. It would be best if they went around it instead. It would save his men energy. 

But then Major Ersatz’s orders came to mind. ‘Eliminate any Aquarian pockets on their side of the border’. These orders too were sensible, logical. Even if these Aquarians were injured, if they recovered and remained on this side of the border they would surely become a threat. No Red Star. No protection. No remaining Aquarians. No threat.

“How many?”

“Maybe around twenty-ish.” Fischer said. “There were about five who looked like they could maybe put up a fight, sir.”

“Maybe?” Werner frowned.

“I-It was hard to tell, sir. But I’m pretty sure it’s around there,” Fischer returned. 

Werner mulled over this and then they set out. 


They crept upon the small settlement with the fog as their cover. They approached the town from all directions. Werner had the long-range externalists position themselves in vantage points that allowed them to scope out the five uninjured Aquarians.  Werner himself found a slab of rock overgrown with thrush that oversaw a small building. At the farthest left window of the building sat a man outlined in a yellow light backdrop. He sat with his hands buried in his head. One of the uninjured Aquarians. According to Fischer’s report, within the building, there were three more Aquarians. Injured. Werner could deal with them swiftly. 

A three-note whistle indicated they were all in position. 

Werner peered through the scope and aimed his conductor at the man’s temple. He pulled the trigger. The silencer on his conductor deafened to the blast of blue light to a windy whistle. Glass shattered. The ray met its target. A splurt of red followed by a thud. 

Werner moved his scope to one of the upper floor windows where a man who had been curled up on a metal bed shot up to a sit. An easier target. He aimed and pulled the trigger. The ray whistled, cracked through the mirror, and shot through the man’s head like a pin needle. The corpse hit the floor with a thud, and the sound was followed by a shout of alarm from within. 

Shadows started streaking across the windows. Scrambling, panicking. Werner easily followed them through their path with the scope. One strayed too close to the window. An aim and a twitch of a muscle ended the shadow in a blur of blue. 

Then there was silence. Faintly in the darkness, Werner could make out the faint glows of fired conductor bolts.

Werner waited there peering into the building, peering around in the darkness before he lowered his scope. Pressing his fingers to his lips, he let out another whistle which was met by a chorus of similar whistles.

After twenty-two seconds more of careful observation, he lowered his conductor and made his way down to the building. He creaked the door open with his conductor and peered inside. Red bled onto the wooden floorboards, and a body rested by the window at the very corner of the room. 

Werner knelt down beside the corpse to check the pulse and the ID before continuing on. He continued on inside, taking mark of the other bodies scattered through the room as well as the supplies within. 

After making his way through the first floor, he carefully, quietly climbed the stairs. As he reached the final step and entered the hall thee, he saw a shadow flicker out of the corner of his eye. He raised his hands just as a shout ripped through the air and a body launched itself at him from the darkness. He was slammed against the wall by the shadowy figure and felt them attempt to wrestle his conductor away from him. A quick kick to the chest sent the person flying backwards into the dark.  

“Don’t move,” Werner snapped, pointing his conductor into the dark. 

Suddenly, from the opposite end of the hall, silver light began to spill in from the windows. Moonlight unveiled from the clouds. It slowly cascaded down, inching closer and closer, until it reached the area where Werner’s assailant was hidden. The shadows pulled away from the area and revealed his assailant’s freckled face as well as the face of the man his assailant was hovering over protectively. The man was injured. The bandages wrapped around his head and torso were stained red. His breathing was labored. He would not last long.

The freckled man abruptly raised his hands in the air. “Please. We surrender.” He gestured slowly, cautiously to the man behind him. “He needs help. Please.”

It was pathetic, surely. Unsightly even. But orders were absolute. 

Werner raised his conductor, aimed it at the man, and moved his finger towards the trigger. 

What are you doing…?

Two (1/6) : chance deflection, i

When Olive started into consciousness, he nearly fell out of his chair. Nose-to-nose with him was the young man with the sky-blue cloak. The one who’d been sitting behind him.

“What the—”

The young man pulled back with raised hands. “S-sorry! You looked like you were having a bad dream… I…” 

Olive ignored him and glanced over his shoulder towards the couch. His sister was gone. He glanced back over the counter. The back room of the shop was still thick with smoke. The clock that hung to the side of the wall read 2:01. 

Nine hours of sleep. 

Olive frowned. 

He felt odd. As if he’d been asleep for longer than that. As if he’d been away for longer than. Nevertheless, Olive figured the royal guards were probably looking for him frantically now.

“Do you come here often?” 

Olive turned back to the young man who had lowered his cloak to reveal his face. His features were sharp — more fox-like than cat-like, Olive realized. His dark hair was wildly windswept. And… And he was tall. Two or three heads taller than Olive himself. 

Instead of answering, Olive swept off the chair and started towards the door. The young man followed him. 

“I-I was wondering if you could give me some advice on a conductor for a friend of mine. A weaponized one.” The young man continued. “They’re an elementalist—”

Olive stopped short, sent him a look of displeasure. Did this person not know who he was? Usually, people on the streets avoided him when he traveled without cloak—when people recognize his face, that was. Whether it was because of his handed down status or the rumors surrounding him, Olive didn’t care to know. He asked, “What makes you think I know anything about conductors?” 

The young man rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Good question. You just… seem like the type? I mean, you’re here.” He gestured to the store. 

“You’re here too.” Olive returned. “There’s a mechanic in the back.”

“She seems busy…” 

“She is,” Olive affirmed, sliding past him. “That’s what appointments are for.”

“Oh, you have to set an appointment?” The young man blanched before he chuckled with embarrassment. “I feel like an idiot now…” 

Olive paused just as he reached the door and craned his neck. “How long have you been waiting here?”

The young man glanced at the clock. Paled. “Nine hours…”

Olive stared. “You are an idiot.”

The young man continued to oggle the clock. 

“Extraneous or intraneous?” 

“What?” The young man blinked out of his daze.

“Your friend is an elementalist,” Olive repeated. “Do they conduct vitae extraneously or intraneously? The vitae inside their body or outside?”

The young man perked up immediately. “I-Intraneously.”

“Then you should probably get one that has a stronger insulator,” Olive said, turning his attention back to the door. 

“An insulator?”

Olive paused. Turned. “The material that goes on the outside of a conductor? To keep vitae utilization stable?” When the young man frowned in confusion, Olive turned to him fully. “How are you looking for a conductor when you don’t even know what an insulator is…?”

“T-That’s why I’m here…” The young man scratched his head. “Isn’t it…?” 

“This shop is for special customized conductors,” Olive said. What a pain. “You have to know what you want before you come here.” He pressed his hand on the door and pushed it open. Then he paused halfway out the threshold. “It’s closed right now but there’s a store a couple streets down.” 

With that, he inclined his head and pressed outside. The young man brightened and followed him. 


The twilight air was still heavy and humid but the lack of sun allowed a cool breeze to creep in between the buildings. As Olive led the young man around the block, the breeze picked up. 

The darkness of the night crept into the corners and alleyways around them but a couple of stores were still open and poured out warm light. The streets were dotted sparsely with pedestrians. Nothing even remotely comparable to the afternoon rush hour from earlier. 

The young man shoved a hand in Olive’s face. “I-I really appreciate you showing me the way. My name is Claire.”

Olive studied the hand apprehensively. “I don’t really need to know that.” 

“Oh, true.” Claire lowered his hand and rubbed the back of his neck. “What’s your name?”

You don’t really need to know that.” 

“But I kind of do…” Claire insisted. “You’re helping me out. I’d feel bad if I didn’t at least get your name.”

Olive regarded him. “Olivier.”

“Oh, okay.” Claire nodded. “Can I just call you Olive?”

Did this guy really not know?

“I don’t really care.” 

“I’m seventeen,” Claire continued unperturbed. “How old are you, Olive? I mean, if you don’t mind me asking…”

“Sixteen.” 

“Are you from around here?”

“That’s how I know where everything is,”  Olive replied dryly as they turned down a corner. “Let me guess: you’re a tourist.”

Claire broke out into a smile. “How did you guess?” 

“You don’t know where anything is.”

“I guess you’re right about that…” Claire laughed sheepishly. “Anyways, it’s really impressive how much you know about conductors.” He pulled off his cloak fully and tied it around his waist. “Passionate people really inspire me. The fact that you can find something that you really love out of the millions of things out there and that you choose to pursue it on our own? It’s amazing.”

“Are you sure you’re not a solicitor trying to sell me something?” Olive side-eyed Claire. 

“Did it sound that way?” Claire frowned. “I’m being honest…”

They trudged up a sloping walkway in silence. 

“It’s not a passion,” Olive finally grumbled. On the outskirts of his vision, he saw a flash of long black hair.  “It’s barely even a hobby.”

“Passion, hobby.” Claire mused. “They’re all things that you care about enough to—”

Olive came to an abrupt stop which sent Claire crashing into him. Claire stumbled backward after mumbling an apology before he gave Olive an inquiring look. In response, Olive nodded at the building in front of them. A behemoth, wooden sign loomed on top of the building. CONDUCTOR STORE: GENERAL, WEAPONIZED, ENGINES.

The store was much larger than the shop they were previously in and took up the entire block. It was a wooden building with window displays filled with various conductors of different shapes, sizes, and colors. 

Claire blinked up at the sight. “How did I not notice that before?”

What a pain, Olive thought with a sigh. Claire returned the sound with a grateful smile and an extended hand. “Thank you, Oli—”

A sliver of brilliant blue light cracked through the blackness just behind Claire. It blitzed past Claire in an instant and hurtled past Olive’s head. A dull crack resounded followed by a sharp pain at Olive’s ear. 

Olive cradled his ear with a wince before he turned his head. A short knife with a blade made of blue light was embedded in the wall just behind him. Its light dissipated a second after, taking the shape of the blade along with it. The now bladeless knife clattered to the ground. A sound followed by silence.

There was wetness at Olive’s ear. A drip, drip, drip of blood.

A conductor, he realized. A melee conductor. An externalist Conductor’s weapon.

“What—” 

A shadow dropped down in-between them before Claire could finish.  

A tall and dark figure cloaked in black. 

Their face was obscured by a white mask that was painted with red cheeks and a black smile. 

The masked figure reached for their hip where an array of bladeless hilts hung on a belt. With a deft twist of their fingers, they plucked one of these hilts and twirled it in the air before pointing it at Olive loosely. Out from the tip of the hilt grew a bright blue blade. The light from it banished the shadows around them and ended its growth at its pointed tip that ghosted Olive’s throat. 

Olive swallowed.

In an arc of blue, the figure spun the knife in hand and raised it high in the air. 

“Olive!” Claire shouted.

Here we go again, Olive thought as he watched the edge of the knife hurtle towards him. It was like the universe was pushing him towards this point. But why? What did his assassination even accomplish? Was his life really worth all of this effort? At this point, wouldn’t it be better if—

Dodge! Tuck!

The thought came at Olive so forcefully that he obeyed it without hesitation. With a quick drop of his knees, he fell beneath the line of the knife’s path. Its sharp edge missed the top of his head by a hair’s breadth and carved out a line in the wall where it became embedded. 

Fight! Grab their weapon! Use it against them! Sweep their feet! 

What? No! That was stupid!

“Run!” Olive shouted at Claire before he ducked out underneath the figure who had reached for their belt again.  He gave the figure a jab at the side with his elbow before dashing down the walkway. His footsteps pounded in his ear as did his heartbeat. But those were the only sounds he could hear. Had the assassin gone after Claire? 

Olive craned his neck just in time to see the silver glint of a blade arcing towards him.

Duck!

Olive snaped forward and ducked. The blade once again skirted his head. The momentum of his evasion, however, sent him tumbling forward and crashing into a trash bin.

A woman who stood just across the street gave a shout of alarm. Papers, rotten food, and scrapes of pipe metal rained down around him drowning out the sound. By the time Olive got his bearings, the shadowy shape of the assassin was in front of him.

The assassin flicked their gloved hands and lilac light began to gather at their palm. The light illuminated their face—their mask. The mask was brown. Wooden. Carved into a smile.

The mask. It was different, Olive realized. The vitae color and conducting type were different too. A conjurer, probably. This was not the person who had attacked him before. There was more than one assassin. 

The lilac light began to take shape in the assassin’s hand. Another sword. As it solidified in their hand, the light it emitted dimmed until all that was left was a normal longsword. A longsword which they lifted into the air.

This was—

exhilarating!

What… ?! Like hell it was!

“Guards!” Olive finally managed as he scrambled backward.

He felt something ghost the skin of his hand and turned his head. Crouching right beside him was a woman. A woman with tanned skin, with dark brown hair that fell in short waves to her ears, with bottle green eyes that seemed to glow unnaturally in the darkness. A woman whose hand was wrapping around his hand.

“Wha—”

Before he could respond, the woman jerked his hand and forced it to wrap around a stray metal pipe on the ground beside him. With a manic grin, she guided his hand and the pipe upwards—

Clang!

Sparks erupted in the dark as metal clashed against metal. The woman pulled his hand back and forced it forward with the pipe. With a surprised grunt, the masked figure blocked the blow with his longsword. Metal screeched against metal. 

Olive felt his arm strain against the push of the assassin’s sword, but the woman continued to guide his pipe forward, forward, forward. But the assassin seemed prepared. Flicking their free hand, they conjured another weapon there in a flash of purple light. A dagger.

“Wow, conductors sure can do amazing things!” the woman laughed—of all things—from beside him. 

The figure hesitated for a moment before driving the dagger towards Olive’s side. With a quick upward kick, however, the woman sent the dagger spinning in the air. Using the temporary distraction to her advantage, the woman gripped Olive’s hand tight and slid the pipe across the longsword. The motion sent the assassin stumbling back. Without hesitation, the woman swung the pipe at the assassin’s side. A sickening crack resounded.

As the assassin collapsed with a groan, Olive released the pipe, scrambled to his feet, and dashed down the walkway. He was jerked back, however, by the woman whose hand was still wrapped around his own. She was studying the groaning assassin curiously.

“What are you doing?!” Olive snapped. “Ru—”

 He blinked. 

The woman was gone. 

His hand felt cold.

He looked around in confusion. 

Nowhere.

 “Wha…?”

He couldn’t linger on the absurdity for any longer because the masked figure began to rise to their feet. With a grimace, Olive turned on his heels and began to dash down the road again. He locked eyes with the woman who was still standing across the street with her hands cupping her mouth in horror.

“Hide! Get the guards!” Olive snapped at her. She stumbled back in response, but he didn’t wait to see if she abided by his request. Instead, he rounded the corner into an alleyway as he threw a glance back in the direction of his assailant. They were now on their feet and running. 

Damn, he thought as he quickened his pace.

“Olive—!”

Olive snapped his attention forward just in time to see a familiar pair of cat-like black eyes. With a painful crack, he collided with Claire and fell to the ground alongside him in a messy tangle of limbs.

“Olive!” Claire panted breathlessly as he sat himself up. He gripped Olive’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Olive swallowed a groan and scrambled to his feet. “W-Why are you here?!”

“I-I was following—”

“Why in Aries’s name are you following me?!” Olive snapped.

“I was just trying to help!” Claire returned, an edge creeping into his voice. He pulled himself up to a stand and then frowned. “Why are they chasing you?”

“Because I’m the prince, you idiot!” Olive snapped.

“The prince…?! The prince of what?!”

“Seriously?!” Olive recoiled. “I’m the prince of Ari—”

A swift blow to the side cut him off and sent him flying against the alley wall. His vision blurred as his back cracked against brick. His bandaged shoulder pulsated in unison, and his vision dimmed. With a grunt, he shook away the paired pain and forced himself to focus.

The assassin with the wooden mask was approaching him with sword in hand. But Olive didn’t care for this assassin. Who he cared for was the white-masked assassin who was now approaching a fallen Claire with a glowing blue knife.

No. 

Not again. 

It was happening again. All his fault. The same thing. If he hadn’t reached out that helping hand then—

Olive felt it before he saw it. A heat bubbling up the base of his palms. A heat that steadily rose in intensity and temperature until it reached a boiling point. No! But it was too late. Before he realized what was happening, activation energy had been reached.

A flash of pure red sparked at his palms. A spark that exploded into a blaze of deep crimson. A wreath of fire.

The wooden-mask let out a shout of alarm as the flames licked at their feet. They stumbled backward to escape the heat but the flame was relentless. Crawling across the ground, snapping at everything, devouring everything in sight. There was no stopping it now.

Soon the wooden-mask was pressed back against the opposite alleyway wall alongside the white-mask. Flames surrounded them.

“Impossible…!” The white-mask whispered against the wall of fire. “Without a conductor…?”

ONE Interlude: man on the battlefield

“Hey, have you ever heard of it?”

“Please, stop…”

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

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

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

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

 “What, Nico, you scared already?”

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

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

Conductors, Nico thought, were truly awful. 

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

Damn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nico felt his blood run cold. “But…”

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

“B-But,” Nico had whimpered, “I-I—”

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

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

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

Lucille’s eyes widened wider than Nico’s.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even still…

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

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

Clive paused, turned. “What are you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One (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…”