Fortuna requested another round of Itero Recino. Theta didn’t question her about it when returning alone several hours after ELPIS’s truth was revealed, didn’t even question Tau on how he became locked in the room with them. When Tau left after receiving another proto-conductor from him, Theta settled into the requested game as if nothing had happened.
However, instead of inquiring about another warehouse after winning the match, Theta asked her, “Why do you still insist on playing?”
Fortuna answered without answering. “Obviously, I have a question I want to ask.”
Fortuna Romano didn’t fear Theta. Not anymore, at least. She admitted she was afraid at first—but only because she’d never dealt with an organization like ELPIS before. But fear faded with familiarity. She had learned this firsthand. Sneering, towering executives in the family that made her shrink backwards were now playing pieces in the game. Conductors that she had been once afraid to touch, she now easily turned over in hand as she inspected them for salability.
“Perhaps I should lose a round and satiate my curiosity.” Theta chuckled when Fortuna stiffened.
“… Please do.”
Fortuna consulted Allen with a glance, moved a piece. “I assume that ‘Lambda’ has resolved your…. allergy issue?”
Theta didn’t look up at her, ate one of her pieces with his own. “Yes. ‘Lambda’… You’re observant. It’s a pity that you’ve spent your skills in less favorable professions.”
Theta met her eyes.
Fortuna knew she was straying the line between arrogance and bravery.
“I was a teacher before becoming what you call a terrorist,” Theta explained. “Is it customary not to think that a favorable profession?”
Fortuna glanced at Allen again. Ate two pieces. “It certainly is more favorable than being an executive in a crime organization, but I doubt it pays as well.”
“I’m not a psychologist nor a Conductor by any means, but from what I understand, you’re still an executive of the Foxman Family. Don’t you think there’s a conflict of interest here?”
Theta moved a piece. “I have put some thought into it. A dichotomy exists. I won’t deny that. The fact that I trusted you to tell me the locations of the warehouses if I won proves that I am more influenced than I initially believed. Or maybe that shows my personal naivety.”
“But that’s why I can rely on Omicron,” Theta said. “If I can’t follow through, Omicron always will… I recommend that you find someone you can truly rely on too. Even if it’s just one person, that is all you need.”
It sounded like advice.
Silently, Fortuna moved a piece, leaping over six of his in one move. Theta stared at the board in mild disbelief. The only piece left on it was hers.
“You won.” Theta looked up. “What do you want to ask?”
Fortuna swallowed despite herself under Theta’s gaze. “I need time to think about it actually…”
Something abruptly flickered in Theta’s gaze. “The Romano Family has decoy warehouses.”
Fortuna pulled her hand away from the board and stiffened.
“Yes, you told me—Francis—when you were much younger. The higher-tier executives like the capos and you use the destruction of decoy warehouses to send signals to each other.” Theta studied her. “You deceived me.”
Fortuna remained like a statue.
Theta rose from his chair and stared down at her. “The people of this city do not make any sense to me. They lie and lie and lie habitually despite not changing the outcome. But rest assured. I will ensure you take responsibility for everything you’ve done.”
When Omicron stepped in half an hour later, there was a kid riding on her shoulders. She did a quick sweep of the room, looked disappointed that only her prisoners were present, and sent the kid back off through one of the gates with some sweets she’d brought in a bag.
“That doesn’t have nuts in there, does it?” Allen asked from beside Carl.
Omicron glanced at them. “No, it doesn’t.”
“If you guys are foodies, you should try givin’ him some beef wellington. It’s Francis’s favorite,” Carl said, shrugging. “If you’re gonna treat my brother, you gotta treat him damned right.”
Carl had a long conversation with the peacekeeper about Francis. Alice didn’t believe in coating words with false hopes, and Carl liked that about her. She’d said transmuting a small amount of a Manipulator’s vitae from a victim was already hard enough. Removing an entire person’s vitae was unheard of. But Carl was used to being dealt bad cards. Bad situations could be muscled into good situations.
Omicron looked them over.
“So how long have you two been together?” Carl continued as she set the bag of sweets down. “You and Theta.”
The gears in Omicron’s head were turning. Carl could tell she was trying to figure out what he wanted. He could also tell that she was in love. And from his experience with working with underlings who were in love, love tended to make people loose-lipped. Maybe even a bit stupid. And Carl knew all about being stupid.
Carl’s jaw hit the floor. “Saints… you’re old then.”
“Anyway, how’d you guys meet?”
There was something dignified in the way she held herself. Reminded Carl of the Ariesian royal guards he’d see pictures of in the newspapers.
“I don’t understand the people of this city,” she said. “One moment you’re terrified of me, the next you’re angry, and now you want to converse. You change face too quickly. Accept everything too easily. Complacency. Lack of self-discipline. No sense of responsibility… Your circumstances don’t change simply because Theta happens to be related to you.”
“Yeah, Theta said he could rely on you ‘bout that.” Carl shrugged. “But from my point of view, my brother just happens to be Theta.”
Omicron paused. “You’re taking it in well.”
Carl shrugged. “Cooled my head off. Thought a bit. Still wanna hunt down and strangle the bastard who did my brother in, but if you’re not pulling my leg about not bein’ involved in what happened to him, then you’re not on the list.”
“And this is after you’ve put some thought into my position as your captor and executioner?”
“Yeah, Francis ain’t gonna go through with that.” Carl waved her off with his head. “I know my brother.”
“And I know Theta.”
“Theta’s an explosion enthusiast then?”
Omicron went silent.
“When you guys get married?”
Omicron cleared her throat.
Carl did a double-take. “…The hell? You’re slapping matching tattoos on each other’s faces, callin’ each other pet names, been together for over sixty years, and you’re not married?”
“They were different times,” Omicron huffed, straightening her suit.
The love-struck stupidity was leaking through.
“So you weren’t lyin’ when you said you’re from way back when,” Carl continued. “So you know what’s what when it comes to modern tech. That mean Theta doesn’t know how to use a telephone?” He glanced at Allen. “They didn’t have those back then… right?”
“Theta did struggle quite a bit…” Omicron admitted before she chuckled lightly. “It was actually a bit cute…” Omicron sighed fondly at some memory before turning to them tersely. “You have no idea how fortunate you are to have these things. But instead of working further to develop them, you decide to develop weapons instead.” She shook her head. “It makes no sense to me.”
“They say you should never mix business and pleasure,” Agape interjected suddenly. “Working with your partner never works out. You’ll either lose sight of what you’re doing or of each other.”
Carl had thought that Agape had fallen asleep again with how quiet she’d been, but he figured it made sense that she’d speak up when it came to this kind of topic. She was in the business of love, after all.
“It must be very convenient,” Agape continued. “Your relationship. If you ever have a big fight, you’ll just forget about it the next time your resistors are used. Like it never happened.”
Omicron tensed. “That’s not—”
Theta entered the room before she finished.
Omicron made her way to Theta’s side and took his hand in her own.
Theta stared at her. “What is it?”
Omicron opened her mouth, closed it, smiled. Finally, she said, “I’ve been thinking. It’s something akin to a miracle that we’re here at the same time. I’m just hoping that you’ll hold my hand until the very end.”
“You’re a ridiculous person.” Theta sighed after a beat. He cupped her hand in his own and said gently. “You are my precious magpie. My hands may be cold, but I want to hold you in them for as long as possible. Every single time.”
Omicron’s expression fell slightly at the last remark.
Theta was alone perusing the bookshelves a couple of hours later. Allen cleared his throat to get the man’s attention. The other executives were watching him like a hawk. Let them, Allen thought. He didn’t give a damn. Not anymore.
“Trying to find something?” Allen asked.
“I’m trying to find our records from around ten years ago,” Theta murmured after a pause. “But, as I suspected, they must have been lost some time ago. As most of them are.”
“Why you looking for records?”
“Why do you think people wade through them?” Theta continued scanning the shelf. “I’m sure of it. I was definitely active then.”
Allen grunted in response.
“You feel guilty for what happened,” Theta said suddenly, turning to him. “But you don’t feel guilty for everything else that has happened due to your underground businesses. The fact that you are shipping weapons of mass destruction does not give you any pause. Cognitive dissonance.”
Allen thought of Francis bleeding out on the dirty alleyway floor surrounded by a circle of their men and he grimaced. “Comes with the business territory—”
“I’m not referring to Francis being stabbed with my resistor,” Theta interrupted. “I’m referring to your guilt about not being able to protect your brothers from all of your father’s abuses.”
Allen stiffened and felt his skin crawl. “So, you got some of those memories then.”
“Yes. It’s only a small amount at this point, but it’s enough for me to see that you were a good brother.” Theta returned his attention to the bookcase. “As they say, every child deserves better parents, but not every parent deserves a child.”
“Hey. It’s not normal to bring stuff like that up casually in public,” Allen said. “Not polite.”
“What happened with your father was beyond your control,” Theta continued regardless. “But what’s happening in this city isn’t.”
Allen didn’t feel like continuing on this path. Switched gears. “Sounds like you like kids.”
“They’re inheriting the world from us.” Theta turned to meet his eyes again. “Just like you inherited it from us.” Then Theta looked to the side. “Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say that we’re borrowing it from all of you…”
So damned gloomy. Not even close to matching the manic energy Allen had seen when Theta had taken them up to the Dioscuri Bridge earlier.
There was a flash of pale tangerine light from the corner of the room, and Iota suddenly stormed in. Wailing like a banshee, she knocked down bookcases, stomped out candles with her foot, toppled book stacks.
Allen noticed with muted surprise that the woman was missing her lower left arm. There was a bandage going around the stub’s end. Unsurprisingly, the handicap didn’t stop her from thrashing everything in her sights. She eventually roared her way over to Carl and lifted her fist with a snarl, but Theta stepped in between them without expression.
“Iota, enough,” Theta stated. “What is this really about?”
Iota froze and stared holes into him. Wordlessly, frigidly, she pulled something out from the folds of her dress and held it out to him. It was a resistor. There was something swirling at the very corner of its glass handle. A drop of white vitae that was barely larger than Allen’s two fingers put together.
“This is Omega’s,” Iota murmured. “She gave it to me right before she left to go put mediums at that warehouse like you told her to. She’s… returned to her resistor.” Iota’s face crumpled. “I knew something was off! I knew it, but I…”
Theta took it from her and studied it. “Omega must have encountered a peacekeeper. Most likely, she encountered the peacekeeper with the suitcase.”
“There’s barely anything of Omega left,” Iota pressed, voice cracking. “What are we going to do?”
“Nothing,” Theta responded after a pause. “We will continue our search for the third vitae reservoir, and we will continue collecting the explosive conductors we’ve stolen from their warehouses—”
“What?! How can we do nothing?!” Iota spat. She reached forward and wrapped her fingers around Theta’s hand that held the resistor. She snapped out a couple of words Allen didn’t understand and then she hissed, “I mean, look at what they did to her—”
“This fate is something we have all accepted, Iota,” Theta stated. “We died the moment we bleached our vitae, so there is nothing to be lost and there is nothing to be returned to the cycle. You know this. Omega knew this.”
Iota closed her mouth.
“Our individual lives don’t matter. They never have. It’s our purpose that does.”
“Our purpose…?” Iota gritted her teeth. “Well, we’re taking too damn long with that purpose! If we’d just sank the damn city and reservoirs and generator conductors when we were first all here, then this wouldn’t have happened!”
“Not everyone in this city deserves to die, Iota. We need to ensure the innocent and the children are properly accounted for. The third vitae reservoir is important. And Omicron also needs to handle the Campana—”
“The children?! The innocent?!” Iota recoiled. “What is with you and Omicron?! You both keep acting like the past several centuries haven’t happened! Omicron keeps speaking about honor and valor and righteousness, and you just…” Iota slapped her chest. “I have memories of the war. I’ve seen what the conductors—what people using them—can do firsthand. And those ‘children’ aren’t as innocent as you think! They’re cruel as all the other people in this city. And if not, they become cruel!” Iota shook her head. “Let’s just use the damn conductors and blow up the two damn vitae reservoirs. Screw the other one! Let’s just crack this city in two!”
“Our goal is not senseless destruction, Iota. Do not forget.” Theta’s stolidness hadn’t changed. “There needs to be a lesson.”
Faltering under Theta’s gaze, Iota turned away. She glared holes into Allen, let out a snarl, ripped a book from one of the book stacks, and chucked it against the wall. The book rebounded back, flew through the air, and clipped Theta in the temple. Theta didn’t even flinch, but Iota did.
“You need to collect yourself,” was all Theta said. “Come back when you can think clearly.”
Iota dipped her head, nodded, and left through a portal using Theta’s proto-conductor.
“Uh…” Carl cleared his throat. “Thanks for the save…” He trailed off and swallowed.
Theta was staring down at the resistor in his hand, and his eyes were wet.
What a bluff.
“You’re bleeding,” Allen said after a beat. “You should get that looked at.”
Maximallian had been working for the Foxman brothers for over five years. Spent months proving himself. Worked his way up to become the brothers’ most trusted man. Made a name for himself in his home city. Used to be called Maximallian “The Mouse” Jarrick. Now was Max “The Jackal.”
But on that night over a month ago when he’d escorted Francis out of the casino, he became ‘the Mouse’ again. He was incapacitated by a bullet from the dark and didn’t see the face of the bastard who ended up ramming a knife right up his boss’s stomach.
Max’d thought then that if the bullet wound didn’t kill him, Francis would. That was how things were in the city, after all. But Francis didn’t kill him. Instead, the boss visited him at the hospital, looked him right in the eye, and said— “We’ll hunt the ones who did this down, Mr. Maximallian. I promise.”
But then Carl and Allen went missing. And with all the pressure of running the family on his own, Francis delegated Max to watch over the Rosario Round casino when Max got out of the hospital.
Max did the best that he could for someone who’d never run a casino before. But he still preferred bodyguarding. And because of his preferences, when Francis took a couple of the other men with him to the west side of the city without asking Max for help, Max was off-put. Felt a bit useless, put to the side. But he still continued looking after the casino.
Then the men the boss went out to the west side with came back saying that the boss randomly took off was nowhere to be found—all while Max was running the damn stupid casino. Some of the others abandoned ship due to loss of paycheck. Max considered but figured he’d invested too much time into his occupation to give in that easily.
But at the same time, Max had no idea what to do. Spent all his time thinking about it. Went through the liquor cabinet at the casino for emotional compensation.
So when a Sagittarian tourist stumbled into the casino one day, Max wasn’t really interested. Too busy thinking what to do. When the tourist mentioned the swindler sent him, Max’s interest piqued. And when the tourist told him that he’d seen Luigi and Feliciano together, Max was invested. When he learned that the tourist had actually witnessed the night the boss was stabbed, Max was obsessed.
“I thought it was some sort of street performance,” the tourist said, “but I did see that Luigi fellow running off after running into that… Francis fellow. I saw him a bit later when I was window shopping. He was speaking to that frightening Feliciano fellow.”
It took everything in Max not to use the tourist as a punching bag.
That damn bastard Luigi.
Several weeks prior, Francis had shown rare mercy after they’d brought Luigi in and beat him down. The boss had let him walk off scott-free with only two dozen bruises. Carl had argued against it, while Allen had watched on silently. Max couldn’t understand it. There had been secondhand accounts and everything, and yet still Mr. Francis had said— “That’s enough violence for today.”
“I saw that Francis fellow playing with some children several weeks ago, so he must’ve made a speedy recovery,” the tourist added. “He’s a Specialist, correct? That is quite an interesting ability…”
Ignoring the tourist’s mad and irrelevant ramblings, Max took a couple of men and went on a hunt. It didn’t take them long to find Luigi. He was at one of his usual gambling dens and was losing terribly at a round of poker. Max figured he was doing the man a favor by ripping him out of his seat.
As Max and the men he’d brought began beating Luigi within an inch of his life in an alleyway at the back of the gambling den, he started spilling his guts. Begged for forgiveness. Begged them not to tell the boss. Offered money.
And that just made Max want to beat him in more.
Just as they were about to pound Luigi into an early grave, a woman appeared in front of them out of nowhere. She was wearing a polka dot dress and was missing half an arm.
“I’ve been about what I need to do to make Theta move,” the woman said, staring at them wide-eyed before a slow grin crawled up her face. “But hearing you say all of that just makes me realize I just have to make Francis move.”
The next moments came in broken flashes.
The woman raised her gloved hand, and there was a click-clack, click-clack sound. And suddenly Max was thrown off of his feet and was sent flying backwards through a dizzying swirl of tangerine light. When he hit the ground, it was dark.
As Max’s eyes adjusted, he found himself not on the dirty alleyway floor but in a room lit only by candles. There were no doors, no windows. Only bookcases, book towers, and a group of people tied to chairs. Max glanced to his left. Luigi foundered around in confusion beside him. The polka dot dress woman stood behind him.
“What the—Max?!” a familiar voice shouted from the lined-up row.
Maximilian squinted at the bound people. Recognized half of them. Boss Carl. Boss Allen. Caporegime Agape Rosario.
“Stay right there, Max, don’t move,” Allen said calmly from where he was tied beside Carl.
Max surveyed the room again in confusion. A group of about five people crowded the bookcases to his right. The commissario Vincente Giustizia was among the group as were two of his officers.
As soon as the commissario locked eyes with him, he stormed forward and snapped at the polka-dot dress woman— “Iota, what is this?! What are you thinking?!”
A hand on the shoulder stopped Vincente short, and he stepped aside. Francis stood there behind him with an ELPIS tattoo smack on the right side of his face.
‘Shit’ was the only thought Max had.
“Iota… what are you doing?” Francis asked. He approached Max and stared down at him and then at Luigi. “Who are these people?”
Luigi let out an incomprehensible, while Max stared up in confusion.
“This guy,” Iota said, kicking Luigi in the ribs, “apparently is the one who stabbed Francis with your resistor.” She nudged Maximallian with her foot. “At least, according to this guy. Which means guy number one knows where our resistors are.”
Francis stared down at Luigi. “Were you the one who initiated me?”
Luigi scrambled forward, grabbing Francis’s pants leg. “I-I had to. It was Feliciano. His pop. I owed ‘em too much money. I—”
A woman with a tattoo on the left side suddenly bulldozed in and shoved Luigi backwards. She glowered at him before turning to assess Francis. But the boss’s eyes were glued to Luigi.
“Yes, I remember seeing you at that moment I was initiated.” Francis’s speech pattern sounded off. “Right after you shot Maximallian and Stefano in the chest, you shot Luci, Barto, and Marcelle right through the head. Why did you do that?” He stared into Luigi. “Were you aware that Marcelle was only sixteen years old? She was only a child.”
“L-Like I said,” Luigi stammered, scrambling, “i-it was—”
“Always diverting the blame when you are the one taking the action.”
Francis reached over and pulled out a knife holstered to Vincente’s belt. Luigi whimpered but startled when Francis turned the knife on himself. The boss sliced his own palm and drew blood before handing back the knife.
One of the boss’s hands was gloved in a conductor, Max realized then. An odd sight. Before Max could make heads-or-tails of it, Francis rushed forward and shoved his bleeding palm over Luigi’s mouth. Luigi jerked away, gagged, spit.
“W-What was that?!”
The boss wiped his bloodied palm onto his gloved hand before silently pressing that hand against Luigi’s chest. There was a pale tangerine glow beneath his gloved palm before his hand passed right through Luigi’s chest. When Francis pulled his hand out a second later, Luigi began gagging and scratching at his throat.
The man ripped open his shirt, revealing a circular lump the size of a fist just beneath the skin over his heart. He foamed, made an inhuman sound Max’d never before in all of his years working in the underground, before he collapsed.
When Luigi stilled, Francis reached forward with his glove-conductor again and placed it on the lump. His hand passed through, and his fingers wrapped around the lump beneath Luigi’s skin. Upon pulling his gloved hand out in a flash of tangerine light, he held a familiar-looking cue ball.
“It looks like you can swallow it,” Francis said before dropping the ball on the ground and watching as it rolled its way over to Max’s foot.
There was a stretch of silence.
“T-Theta, he had information on where our resistors are!” Vincente snapped. “Why did you—”
“As you’ve heard, he was hired out by Donato of the Romano Family. So will just need to capture Donato,” Francis replied. “He was unneeded.”
The woman with the tattoo on the left side of her face pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped Francis’s hand with it.
“Oh, that’s right.” Saying this suddenly, the boss fell back into a sit on a stack of books just behind him. He placed a hand over his mouth. “No, I’m an idiot, Omicron.”
“What is it, darling?” the woman—Omicron—asked, pocketing the handkerchief.
“We started off with the wrong Caporegime,” Theta said, gaze fixating on Agape Rosario. “The one who handles the land and rent collection is Caporegime Bendetto. He shares a close relationship with Ricardo Romano. If anyone knew where the third vitae reservoir is, it would be him.”
“So then…” Iota pressed. “What now?”
There was a long stretch of silence again.
Omicron paled and knelt down beside Francis. “Darling, I still haven’t finished working on the west side yet. I still don’t have all the locations of the Campanas bases and—”
The commissario stared bullets into Omicron. He was sweating bullets too.
“The longer we leave it, the more it will fester,” Francis said, placing a hand on her arm. “As we speak, these organizations are still shipping out these conductors and children are still suffering. We’ve become complacent. We can’t bide our time any longer. It’s a cost-benefit analysis. We have more to lose the more we wait.” He moved his hand to her cheek. “You will have to move up your schedule, Omicron.”
Iota bounced on the heels of her feet.
“Since we’re in a city of indulgence,” Theta said, rising to a stand, “we should have a proper memorial for Omega. We should let this city know we’re here and why we’re here and what they’ve done.” He nodded at Iota, and there was a glint in his eye. “You can contact all of those ‘recruits’ that you’ve been gathering in the city, Iota. From the Campanas to the Romanos to the common people who have chosen to follow us. The directions are simple. Use my gates to plant the conductors at the vitae reservoirs and the points we’ve agreed on. Evacuate the children and those you deem innocent.”
“And condemn those who profit from any form of conductor use and conductor trade.”
Iota nodded, beaming.
“Let’s have a proper eulogy,” Francis said before inclining his head towards one of the executives. “Mr. Etoile, rest assured. Your time will come soon. You will be our first example.”
Etoile melted like butter in his chair.
The next couple of minutes went by in a blur.
Max was strung up in glowing white chains and straddled between Allen and Carl. Francis left with Omicron through some sort of portal, and a handful of other people exited and entered and exited again in a stampede of footsteps. Soon, the only people who remained in the room besides Max himself, two-thirds of his bosses, and the executives were the commissario and his two officers.
Commissario Vincente paced up and down their line biting his thumb.
“A-Are you really going to go along with this, chief?” one officer stammered.
Vincente whipped around and snapped, “Of course, I’m going to go along with it. I don’t like it, but I have to go through with it! Theta was chosen as leader, and our rules say the one who’s chosen is the one we follow! If I break the damn rule now, then I set precedent to break the rules in the future—oh, don’t look at me like that when three months ago you were breaking the damn rules to try and bag of a couple yankee-dankee, two-bit criminals! You should be arrested!”
Vincente dug into his pockets and tossed the two officers an item each. “Here. Theta gave me extra proto-conductors since I got myself locked in here last time. Take it, use it, get your families out of this city.”
“Dammit, shut up and leave before I charge you for subversion of the law!”
The officers exchanged looks before nodding and heading in and through the wall in a flash of light.
“Sounds like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew,” Caporegime Agape said two heads down. Sweat dripped from her forehead, and her voice shook. “It’s no time for regrets unless you—”
“No regrets?” The commissario threw his head back and barked. “You really think everything that’s happening here is all us? I know Theta. Theta would never do any of this. Just read the records. Theta has always worked on the sidelines passively. Theta’s not violent, and Theta’s not a murder.” He shook his head and mumbled to himself. “We could’ve done this better. Using both of our new identities. Something permanent—”
“Well,” Carl scoffed. “Open your damn eyes. Your Theta is just as murderous as the rest of us—”
“You’re the one who needs to open your eyes, you greedy, stupid, dirty pig!” Vincente seethed, jabbing a finger at Carl’s chest. “It’s your damn brother!”
Caporegime Bendetto of the Romano Family wasn’t fond of Ophiuchus’s peacekeeping agents. They slithered around like snakes and wielded their badges like batons, intervening in places they deemed necessary and brushing their hands of areas deemed not. On paper, their accomplishments did look impressive. Treaties, peace accords, conducting law, but in reality, it was all laughable.
The fact was that the peacekeepers were now protecting people who were breaking the laws they were meant to enforce. But Bendetto knew that the peacekeepers weren’t stupid. They probably had more than an inkling of what the Romano Family really did in the city. He’d heard buzz from under the table about certain departments in Ophiuchus beginning investigations regarding their business, but none of those had come to fruition. Ophiuchus had always been the last thing on Bendetto’s mind because of this.
Then Ophiuchus came barging in saying that ELPIS could be in the city and that the Romano Family could be targets. It was too many ‘could be’s in Bendetto’s opinion, and he was rearing to decline their protective services, but—
“You’re mistaken about your position here,” the peacekeeping Agent Leona had said during their meeting. “It’s not that your power in this city keeps us from intervening in your activities. It’s that our power allows you to continue. It’s cost-effective for us. But if you continue to obstruct us, then we’ll remove that obstruction.”
Bendetto wasn’t stupid. He didn’t take a gamble when he knew it was bad, so he begrudgingly accepted Leona’s assistance. Maybe Agape would disagree with his decision, but she’d disappeared off of the face of the earth. Damn Campanas.
And so, Bendetto found himself accompanied by two peacekeeping agents—persuaded to be disguised as civilians—to his favorite casino just a block away from the newly refurbished TwinStars Pub. He had to keep up the casual appearances, after all, and had invited several of the Romano Family’s investors to play some rounds of poker with him.
At the moment, Bendetto sat at a large poker table with a disguised peacekeeper at his left and Bruno Perti—a wealthy investor who’d been with them for years—at his right. The male dealer at the table was wearing a surgical mask and watched their play with disinterest. Occasionally, the dealer eyed Bendetto’s hired guns crowded at the roulette tables behind him. Probably afraid.
They were ten minutes into the first round, but Bendetto couldn’t focus on the game.
Recently, their decoy warehouses had been under fire, meaning someone—probably Fortuna or Agape—was trying to send a message. Campanas had been seen leaving the scene of the attacks, which was contradictory to the message being sent out: danger from outside the city.
Abruptly, one of Bendetto’s men approached him from behind and whispered into his ear, “Boss, they’ve found Etoile.”
Etoile was one of their lower-tier executives who’d disappeared around the same time Agape had. Had the Campanas released him? Why?
“He showed up out of the blue at the front steps of the Casa.” A pause. “Boss, there was a conducting grenade insideof him. He took one step, and it detonated.”
Bendetto threw down his cards and rose from his seat, but a hand on his arm gave him pause.
Bruno Perti flashed him a grin. “Come on, Bendetto, the leaders are just about to clean everything up. Why don’t you stay for a bit?”
Before Bendetto could decipher what Bruno meant, the man reached into his suit and pulled out a handgun conductor. Without hesitation, he aimed it at Bendetto and pulled the trigger.
Bendetto was tackled to the ground by both the peacekeeper guarding him and one of his own bodyguards—but not before Bendetto saw the white vitae ray emerge from Bruno’s conductor and strike the high ceiling. The ceiling plaster crumbled down, and the patrons shrieked in alarm. The second peacekeeper wrestled Bruno to the ground, while the patrons around the table leaped to their feet in alarm.
“Everyone, stay calm!” the peacekeeper beside Bendetto said, helping him to his feet. The peacekeeper reached into his pocket, pulled out his badge, and flashed it. There was a collective of gasps.
While Bendetto was handed off to his own bodyguards, the peacekeeper pocketed his badge and approached the dealer at the table. The dealer responded in turn by reaching for his belt. The peacekeeper swiftly conjured a gun in a flash of verdigris light and fired it without hesitation.
The dealer stumbled backwards, gripping his bleeding chest before he abruptly straightened and hissed, “That’s attempted murder, dammit!” The bloodied bullet wound started glowing white beneath the dealer’s gloved hand. And as the dealer drew his hand away from the wound, a stream of the white glowing blood floated out from it before compacting into an easily recognizable shape. The glow faded as the gun solidified in the dealer’s palm.
The Conjuror peacekeeper’s eyes widened. “You’re a leader.”
Before the dealer could pull the trigger, the peacekeeper fired three additional rounds at him, each one hitting him square in the chest. A click, click, click indicated that the gun was now empty. The peacekeeper flourished his gloved hand to conjure another one but the dealer beat him to it. Without faltering from his wound, the dealer fired off six shots. One bulls-eyed right into the Conjuror peacekeeper’s head. Another struck the other peacekeeper that was pinning Bruno down in the arm, while the other four found their ways into Bendetto’s bodyguards. Only one dead thought.
Bendetto’s guards retaliated by whipping out the conductors they’d brought with them. The Projectors started firing immediately, while the Conjurors fired after they’ve conjured handguns. The dealer leaped back behind the table as the rain of vitae rays and bullets came down on him, while Bendetto was pushed back by several of his guards.
Some patrons screamed and ran. Others dropped to the ground.
The air was cluttered with fluttering cards, bouncing cue balls, and flying game chips.
And suddenly, in the middle of this chaos, the ceiling above Bendetto’s head began to glow and a chilling draft of wind filled the room.
White glowing chains slithered out from the pools of light. Three figures rode down on them, but Bendetto was in no position to pay attention. This was because the chains started raining down into the crowd. They acted like bullets, shooting through the bodies of patrons left and right without dispute. Bendetto himself was shoved to the side as one of his bodyguards was felled by a chain that went straight through his gut.
A shrill laugh resounded from one of the three that were still riding down on the chains: “That’s what you filth get! And you damn peacekeepers! How dare you call yourselves Ophiuchians!”
As soon as that shout hit the air, the last peacekeeper was impaled by a chain.
Screams resounded as the patrons scrambled to the door leading to the entrance hall. But something was off about that route—Bendetto could tell. It was an intuition—an instinct—he’d developed since serving on the eastern front during the Reservoir War.
It was a trap.
But it was too late to warn them. A group had already fled through the doors. As soon as they stepped past the threshold that was glowing with pale tangerine light, they disappeared. And reappeared tumbling out from the glowing light from the ceiling. Their bodies cracked against the floor, the billiard tables, the roulette tables, and the island bar at the center of the room. Those who were dashing towards the door scrambled away, only to be picked off by the mask-wearing dealer who was now firing into the crowd from on top of the island bar and by the chains still pelting down.
Bendetto was again shoved to the side by his guard, who was subsequently pierced through the head by a chain. Bendetto ripped the rifle conductor from the man’s corpse and aimed it at the trio still descending downwards.
Bendetto hadn’t fired a conductor in some time, but it was all muscle memory. He aimed and fired. A blood-orange vitae ray hurtled out from the conductor towards the descending trio, only to be obstructed by a collection of luminescent steel bars that came from nowhere. There was a fiery explosion upon impact, causing smoke to unfurl in the air.
Bendetto got on his knees below the smoke and, with several of his bodyguards behind him, began to crawl his way towards the staircase at the very back of the casino.
Lucy. He needed to get back to Lucy. No matter what. Couldn’t leave Lucy alone.
Just as he neared the staircase, however, another collection of steel beams bulleted the ground in front of him blocking his path. Bendetto froze, glanced back at his men, heart racing.
“Bendetto,” a familiar voice called out from the smokescreen.
Bendetto couldn’t believe his ears. “F-Francis?”
White beams flew out from the smoke and impaled the men behind Bendetto.
Out from the smoke shroud in the direction of where the white beams had come from, stepped Francis Foxman. He was wearing a dark turtleneck sweater with a suit jacket thrown over it like an afterthought. He had been one of the three people riding down on the chains, Bendetto realized as he took in the man’s outfit. And upon further inspecting the man’s face, Bendetto reached a more troubling realization.
Francis smiled thinly down at him.
“Shall we have a talk, Bendetto?”
To Matilda the Twin Cities was her home just as it was home to tens of thousands of others. Like them, she knew that the city was dirty and filled with disgusting people and things. Still, it was home. The place that accepted everything and rejected nothing. People here didn’t gawk at her butterfly-shaped birthmark, didn’t ogle her when she’d worn raggedy clothing or stolen food from trash bins. People here didn’t care. And that was a comfort.
Matilda had worked hard to get where she was currently at in the city. To get to the point where she was in the fancy restaurants looking outside instead of outside looking in. She’d made friends who’d made friends who’d made friends until together they’d formed a network of weak that was able to stand up against the strong.
Together, they had a fighting chance in this city where adults played games with each other’s lives. Together, they made more money working with the Foxmans and Romanos than any other delinquent ring in the city. Together, they could survive. Together, they were stronger.
And so Matilda didn’t understand why some of her friends started to break off from the group that they’d all painstakingly formed. Those who’d left said things along the lines of “what we’re doing is wrong,” and “we don’t have to work for them like this,” or even “they’re just taking advantage of us and don’t care about us.” And when Matilda had asked them where all of these ideas had come from, they said plainly, “Theta said it. Theta cares. Theta knows. Theta says we can live a better life somewhere else.”
Matilda secretly wanted to meet who this mysterious ‘Theta’ was. She was sure that the person was simply full of false promises, false hopes. She figured that Theta was someone who was manipulating all of her friends—someone who was seeking to take advantage of them.
And Matilda knew all about being taken advantage of. She’d been taken advantage of by Verga. She knew she was being taken advantage of by the Foxmans and the Romanos. But she was fine with it because she was taking advantage of them too. Being taken advantage of, she thought, was only dangerous when you weren’t aware of it. And Matilda was certain that her friends who were leaving their shipping business for this ‘Theta’ weren’t aware of it.
And so when one of her closest friends Fernando began to speak about ‘Theta’ too, Matilda decided to take him out to a casino party that Bendetto had invited her to. She wanted to show Fernando everything they’d worked for, everything they were working towards. She wanted to prove to him that if they continued working together, they could live in luxury too like all the adults.
The casino was fun at first. They were greeted at the door by Bendetto and greeted warmly by all the servers. The adults and patrons at the casino smiled at them warmly, jokingly offered them drinks, and showed them how to play some of the games.
But then things snapped in two.
As soon as Matilda saw the man beside Bendetto pull out a conductor, she grabbed Fernando’s hand and ran to the nearest escape she could find: a staircase at the back of the casino. They pounded up the seemingly endless marble steps, until they reached the highest floor, ran down the carpeted hallway, and burst into a mansion of a room at the end. Matilda scrambled around in the dark before she pulled herself under a cloth-covered table at the very corner of the room with Fernando in tow.
As soon as they were beneath the tablecloth, the screams from below started. Gunfire. Vitae ray fire. Thud, thud, boom, boom. The entire building shook and rumbled.
And then there was silence.
Matilda clutched Fernando’s hand and waited.
Suddenly, there was tap, tap, tapping. Someone was ascending the staircase. The door creaked open. There was scrapping, a click-clacking, a series of receding footsteps, and then silence.
Matilda met Fernando’s eyes and peered out from beneath the cloth.
The curtains in the room had been drawn open, revealing a window that took up the entire left wall. The entire twinkling, nighttime cityscape was visible from it. The city lights spilled into the dark room, stretched across the tiled floor that was littered with playing cards and poker chips, and reached all the way back to the room’s center where a man was tied with chains to a chair.
Matilda squinted and tried to make out the man. She instantly recognized Bendetto’s crisp suit. But—Matilda’s blood ran cold—Bendetto’s head was missing. At the base of his neck where his head should have been, there was an oddly glowing splotch of pale tangerine light. Contrarily, his chest was still moving up and down. He was alive?
Across from him facing the light from the city stood a figure. A man, holding open the page of a book. From that book, emerging from a pool of light, was Bendetto’s head.
Matilda nearly passed out from the sight of it.
“This city is actually pretty beautiful when I’m looking at it from up here,” the figure drew. “It’s a shame that it’s built on dirt and filth.”
Matilda recognized the voice. That was—
“Francis…” Bendetto’s head pressed. “What are you trying to do? No—why?”
Matilda gasped despite herself.
Bendetto continued, “Agape, Fortuna, Etoile, your brothers too—that was all you? Why?”
“How can you ask me that after everything you’ve done? Can’t you see the hypocrisy behind it?” Francis lifted the book so that Bendetto was eye-level with him. “But I have to thank you for the information about the third reservoir. I should’ve known it was there.” He chuckled. “Tell me, Bendetto, what do you think’ll happen if I close my gate with your head still stuck right here?”
Bendetto paled, eyes hardening.
Suddenly, Fernando pulled his hand out of Matilda’s and crawled out from beneath the table before she could stop him.
“Theta, you’re outside!” Fernando exclaimed, running up to Francis’s side while beaming.
“Theta…?” Bendetto repeated in confusion.
“Fernando.” Francis turned. The snake tattoo on the right side of the man’s face became cast in the city’s glow. “What are you doing here? I thought I told you and the others to leave the city.”
Fernando faltered, gaze flickering between Bendetto’s head and Francis’s face. “I… I…”
Francis stared past him, towards the table, towards Matilda. “Come out. The one that’s hiding. You can come out now.”
Matilda trembled but obeyed, pulling herself out from beneath the table.
Matilda again obeyed but stopped short a meter away, trembling.
“I-It’s okay, Tilda,” Fernando said. “It’s not Francis. It’s Theta. We’re safe.” He made it sound like whatever that meant was supposed to reassure her.
“I thought I told you to leave the city too,” Francis—Theta—said to her. He followed her gaze to Bendetto, and his brows furrowed. He abruptly dropped the book and started cradling his head and his stomach. The book snapped shut, Bendetto’s head disappearing along with the light.
Matilda whipped her attention to Bendetto’s body just in time to see Bendetto’s head pop out from the glowing light on his neck. The man gasped in relief, panting.
“T-Theta,” Fernando stammered, hands hovering.
“I’m alright,” Theta said. He straightened himself and placed his gloved hand on top of Fernando’s head. He then beckoned Matilda. “Come closer. I won’t hurt you. I promise.”
Matilda wanted to run. But she didn’t. Instead, she hesitantly took advantage of the mercy that he showed her and fell into step beside him.
Theta nodded his head towards the window. “Watch.”
The city lights started to flicker in unison. On and off, on and off—until they began to go dark one by one, patch by patch. The only thing left burning bright was the v-lights sparkling on the Dioscuri Bridge. But they too started flickering, until they completely went out, leaving Matilda in terrifying, complete darkness.
A warm hand rested on her head.
“It’s alright,” Theta said. “Wait for it.”
A sudden burst of light from a city street below bleached the surrounding skyscrapers and buildings in light. Several streets away came another flash of light. And then another, and another, illuminating the city blocks in sporadic blazes of white and almost taking the place of the illumination of the city’s v-lights themselves. Oddly pretty.
“This is all for you.”
- Town of Morioh
- Luckiest Unlucky Person Alive
Hobbyist writer, epidemiology graduate student, case investigator, retired weeb. I don’t have flashbacks; I have cringebacks. And the person who rings me up the most is Spam Likely ♡
(If you’re reading this, have a great day!)