Zatmeniye Caverns, Aquarius
The storm continued to rage outside as they moved Kamala’s body away from the campsite.
The wailing of Afu, the Piscese guard, as he was pried from Kalama’s body was something that Atienna wished to never hear again. It reminded her too much of her father’s wails on that night six years ago. The pain of having someone close to you flicker out of existence just like that was truly an unbearable thing. Remembering how they used to be and thinking back on how their little quirks filled in a space in your life—truly, excruciating. A pain that she herself had a hard time looking away from. Her pain was not the same though, Atienna knew. At least her mother was still alive.
They were careful when they moved the body—both to preserve Kalama’s dignity and the evidence. They set her aside behind one of the larger rock formations several meters away from the campsite.
Moana and Afu were given time to perform their cultural funerary rites away from prying eyes. Atienna, however, prospected that they were most likely unable to complete the entire thing in fear of damaging any evidence they might have missed in their preliminary checks of the body.
Leave it to the diplomats not to resort to finger-pointing and senseless shouting in a tense situation. Instead, Chiamaka, Moana, and Alexei calmly discussed how they should proceed. They had all agreed it would be in ill taste to move forward with their meeting of diplomacy and had voted to stall it until a proper investigation could be carried out. “Our personal, unresolved feelings could introduce bias to the investigation and negatively impact the future of our countries,” was something along the lines of what was said.
Despite the agreement, the Aquarian and Piscese groups started to keep their distance from each other and from Atienna’s own group as well. The only time the fire was occupied by all groups was at night time and even then their groups sat far apart. The only person who was able to freely go between groups was the only uninvolved party: Louise Beaumont. She went around somberly offering handfuls of various consumable goods to each party with tearful eyes.
Out of all them, Louise should have been viewed as the most suspect, but her bumbling nature had made most of them turn their gazes away from her. Too harmless to hurt a fly was the saying.
At the moment the diplomats were discussing what Atienna assumed were additional measures near the mouth of the cavern alongside their respective guards. Atienna had been present for a portion of it as was the Aquarian advisor Cvetka but they were both politely excused. Sefu had nearly made to follow her but a stern hand on the shoulder prevented him from leaving Chiamaka’s side. Rewritten duties, it seemed—although it seemed a bit odd. The one who had died was an advisor just as she was, after all. Then again, Atienna knew she could manage herself.
As Atienna pondered these things, she approached the fire to warm herself.
Louise was huddled there beside Cvetka. The former woman’s somber expression seemed a bit out of place on her face—a face that Atienna could only remember being rosy with a smile. The Cancerian tourist had been surprisingly affected by Kalama’s death and had only recently stopped shedding fitful tears every hour.
“May I join you two?” Atienna asked quietly.
Cvetka smiled slightly, tucking a dark lock of hair behind her ear as she nodded her head. Atienna took a seat beside the woman and stared into the flame.
“She was such a nice girl…” Louise murmured, staring into the fire as well as she nibbled on a bag of nuts she’d pulled out from her coat. “I didn’t know her that well at all, but I knew she was a nice girl…”
Cvetka nodded her head. “She was using this as an opportunity to travel the world. That was what she said.”
“I don’t really understand politics much…” Louise glanced at Atienna and then at Cvetka. “But I hope this doesn’t cause problems for you all or anything. I don’t think Kalama would want that at all… I mean…. she was such a nice girl.”
“What do you think, Atienna?” Cvetka asked abruptly.
“She was a nice girl,” Atienna agreed.
Cvetka smiled wanly and stared back into the fire. “I meant about what happened. Obviously, someone here had to have done it. There’s no other explanation.”
Louise paled from beside her and looked around. “Everyone here is so nice though, Cvetka. Please don’t say that. I don’t want anyone to fight… It had to have been an accident.”
While Louise was focused on what was to happen next, Cvetka seemed to be focused on what had happened before. Strange. Shouldn’t it be the opposite way around?
Atienna pondered this for a moment. “I’m not much of a detective…”
There were a lot of factors involved in Kalama’s death after all, but there were several things for certain. Firstly, the way Kalama died was most definitely conductor-related. Secondly, her death was either an accident or a message—a threat. Kalama had informed them at the fire the previous night that she had only recently become an advisor, meaning her political enemies would be far and few between. Additionally, due to her rookie nature, she had not been given many duties regarding this affair and therefore her death would not impact Moana’s diplomacy abilities. Either someone had ill intention personally towards Moana and Afu or—Atienna’s mind went to the blue coat that Kalama had been wearing at her time of death—or towards Alexei. But why? That was the question. Whoever did such a dangerous thing must not have feared the consequences their actions would have towards their country. A detached person.
But saying all of these things without acting on them or reaching a conclusion would be—as Werner always put it—a waste of time—
“How dare you say that!”
Cvetka and Louise both startled from beside her as the shout resounded around the cave. Atienna exchanged a look with Cvetka before they both rose and headed towards the mouth of the cave where the diplomats and their guards were gathered.
It was a rather startling scene.
The Piscese guard Afu stood wielding what appeared to be a feathered spear above a fallen Alexei. The tattoos on the man’s face were twisted alongside the expression of absolute hatred stretched across his face. So much hatred—he didn’t seem to even notice Nikita pointing a conductor rifle at him nor did he notice Kabal and Sefu aiming their conducting spears at his chest. Chiamaka and Yulia stood behind their respective guards, the former with an expression of disappointment and the latter with an unreadable one.
Standing slightly offside from them was Sigurd who held what appeared to be a halberd-shaped conductor behind her back. Despite all the chaos, her expression was blank. Like that of an observer.
“Afu!” the Piscese diplomat Moana shouted from where she stood in between Chiamaka and Yulia. “What are you doing? He was only trying to propose a solution—”
“By desecrating Kalama’s body?!” Afu screeched. “He wants to get rid of the evidence! Trying to hide the fact that he was the one who killed her!”
“T-That’s not what I intended!” Alexei stammered from beneath him. “I’m sorry for your loss. I truly am but—”
“She was wearing your coat!” Afu seethed before he jabbed the weapon at Alexei’s throat. “And you—you wear that face of goodwill, but I’ve seen the types of things you support in your country! You think you’ve hidden it well but your closest allies even—”
“He gave it to her last night when we were around the fire,” Sigurd said calmly, tightening her grip on her conductor.
“And why should I believe you?!” Afu hissed. He glowered at Alexei. “You… What kind of monster—” He lifted his spear and—
Sigurd swung her halberd in an arc immediately and from the after-image of the swing appeared a razor line of water—it glowed a psychedelic wisteria hue—that rushed at Afu’s chest. Before the water reached him, she swung her halberd again, and out came a burst of frigid wind that iced over the line of water in an instant. The now frozen solid ice razor slammed into Afu’s chest sending him flying backwards. He managed to hold his ground, though he looked dazed.
Fascinating. Two elements? That should be impossible, shouldn’t it? But then again there was no such thing as impossible.
Sigurd swung her halberd twice again—this time aiming it at Afu’s feet. The ice encased his legs in an instant, grounding the man to the spot. Alexei scrambled away in the chaos, just barely making it out of Afu’s reach.
But then Afu whipped out his hand—gloved—and flicked his wrist. In his palm in a flash of coral light appeared a pistol.
Atienna’s gaze flicked between them. These were diplomats, and they still could not find a resolution. How unpleasantly frustrating. If only everyone would calm down and listen then—
Atienna rushed forward, ducking beneath the blast of his conductor which he fired off at her in alarm; and then sweeping her legs beneath his feet, she drove the palm of her hand up his chin. A crack resounded through the air before the man fell backwards unconscious onto the floor.
Adrenaline lit her veins on fire as she stared down at him. The rush was incredible as it always was.
Atienna could feel Sefu and Cvetka staring at her back with wide eyes. Out of the corner of her own eye, she could see Chiamaka remaining impassive. Unpleasant. As she backed away from the scene, Moana darted forward and pried Afu’s conductor away from his hands. Sigurd slipped beside her and generated cuffs of ice around him with the two flips of her conductor.
“I… I apologize, Alexei,” Moana stammered as she pulled away from the unconscious man. “I-I don’t know why he… he is just deeply affected by Kalama… I—”
“I understand, Moana,” Alexei said as he was guided to his feet by Nikita. “No one is harmed. Save for Afu.” He glanced at Atienna. “We just need to detain him to—”
“Detain?” Moana frowned lightly, rising to a stand as well. “Afu is not a criminal.”
“I understand where you’re coming from Miss Moana,” Alexei said gently, “but how do we know that Afu will not act again?”
The light in Moana’s eyes died at that moment, and her smile flickered. “We know because I have known Afu for years just as I have known Kalama.”
Alexei tensed and held up a hand. “I meant no disrespect, Miss Moana. I’m merely just trying to be cautious—”
“I do agree with Alexei on this matter,” Chiamaka said suddenly, peering at them both from beneath her glasses. “As I’ve said before, we can’t allow our personal feelings to affect the future developments of our countries. We’re merely cogs in the wheel.”
Eventually, an agreement was made to have at least two guards—one from Virgo and one from Aquarius—on Afu at all times.
Olive’s incident with the Sagittarian assassins occurred only a minute after, so Atienna was not able to fully focus on what was being discussed.
Startlingly enough, Cvetka had come to stand beside Atienna while the proceedings went underway and had even gone so far as to loop her hand around her arm—whom the gesture was meant to comfort remained a mystery to Atienna. Obviously, Cvetka’s was not at all deterred by her show of violence.
“That’s the problem,” Cvetka murmured beside her. “We can never understand each other no matter how hard we try.”
After witnessing Olive’s reaction to the massacre on Maria’s side, Atienna couldn’t help but wonder if something was wrong with her. Olive had been so affected and disgusted by the bloody scene that he had nightmares of it combined with flashes of the young assassin he’d burnt in the days following. Atienna herself did feel sympathy for the fallen bounty hunters’ friends and families who would never see them again just as she felt sympathy for Afu and Moana for their loss of Kalama. But that was all her feelings amounted to. Sympathy. A distant feeling.
Did she only feel that distant feeling because they had nothing to do with her? Perhaps it wasn’t that simple.
Atienna mulled over these things to herself as she sat before the fire again a day later. She was joined by Cvetka and Louise again as well as Sefu who sat beside her. Yulia was with later, although she sat on a different stone slab a meter or so off. She was jotting notes down in her notebook.
“I can’t believe Afu did that…” Louise mumbled suddenly in a lull in their conversation, nibbling on a bag of pecans and stretching her arm across Atienna and Cvetka to offer Sefu some from the bag.
Sefu accepted graciously and through a mouthful of nuts, he said, “Yes, I was surprised. He seemed very level-headed.”
“That’s how it happens,” Cvetka mumbled from Atienna’s right, staring across the fire at Yulia. “No matter how good your intentions, as soon as you start valuing one person or one group more than another, you automatically become a villain to the other party.”
“That’s from The Endless Cycle by Kovich, isn’t it?” Atienna asked quietly. “It’s a popular read in Aquarius or so I have heard.”
“You really do know everything,” Cvetka replied. And then a smile tugged the corner of her lips. “Or at least you wish you did.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I only know about him because Yulia recommended his book to me.”
Yulia did not show any indication that she’d heard her name mentioned.
Cvetka stared at her before she turned to Atienna and continued, “Have you read his other works?”
Atienna nodded. “Yes, I’ve read his entire To Man collection. Do you have a favorite?”
Thus began a lengthy conversation around literary matters, and Atienna was rather impressed by how well-read Cvetka was. She seemed to know literary works originating from all over Signum—both recent and old. It made Atienna feel as if she was outclassed in that category.
After a while, they fell into a comfortable silence.
“I wish I brought some of Kupika’s seasoned jerky with me,” Sefu grumbled suddenly from beside her. He glanced at Louise. “No offense, Miss Louise, but your food is not as hearty as what we have at home.”
“Perhaps, you and your country should have stayed in isolation,” Yulia interjected, not looking up from her task. “This world is filthy. You step outside from home, and you become dyed in the grime.”
Atienna was surprised by her sudden entry into the conversation but not so much by her words.
Frowning and clearly perplexed, Sefu replied, “It is our country. We are the ones who can speak for it. Not you.” After being nudged in the ribs by Atienna, he amended. “Of course, I am sure you feel similarly about your country—”
“I don’t care what happens to my country,” Yulia interjected. “I don’t understand people like you who do. You are only valued if you can become what they deem as a useful member of society. Happiness is a commodity. If you are useful but do not capitalize on your usefulness, you’re simply sold to people who can.”
“Those are interesting words for a secretary to a diplomat,” Sefu huffed.
The exasperated indignation reminded Atienna of her brother Bachiru. At the thought of him, her mind drifted to the letter resting inside of her pack.
But then Yulia laughed loudly, abruptly with wide eyes that held no light. It was a long and hollow laugh that seemed out of place. After what seemed like an eternity, she quieted and continued on jotting down notes in her book, leaving them only with, “If you don’t come to your senses, you will fall apart. You and your country.”*
The ghost of her laugh, however, continued to bounce around the rock formations in the cave.
It was unnerving, to say the least, and Atienna found her gaze lingering on Yulia as she thought on the woman’s words. Sefu scooted a bit closer to her afterwards. Cvetka meanwhile gave her an apologetic look.
It wasn’t so long after that conversation that their weekly synchronization meeting was held. The revelation that there were other groups similar to them did not come as a surprise to Atienna. And after it had concluded, she secretly listened in to Werner and Olive’s conversation. It hadn’t been her intention to, of course. Merely an accident spurred on by a single thought of curiosity.
An interesting conversation generated by light misunderstandings.
“We can never understand each other,” was what Cvetka had said, wasn’t it? But Atienna wondered if that was the case with those she was connected with. They kept things from each other, avoided each other, averted their eyes from unpleasant things—she wondered if she would be able to truly ever understand any of them.
And the sense of self topic was an interesting point as well. How could a person hope to understand another person when the latter person couldn’t even understand themselves?
That was why on a night when she snuck away to explore the cavern not so long after the meeting, Atienna addressed the topic when Werner happened to synchronize with her. He appeared beside her during her stroll, and it was evident that he was working on those reports of his again. Still, he put down his pen to listen to her.
“Yes, the sense of self aspect is revealing,” Werner said after she brought up the subject, “and it should be looked into thoroughly. But that wasn’t the most significant information we received from Prince Yuseong.”
“It does make you think though, doesn’t it?” Atienna whispered. “What exactly defines you as you and me as me? It would be quite easy to say that we are defined by our experiences, wouldn’t it? But if there were someone out there who had the same exact experiences as me, would they also be qualified as me? And if I were to somehow accumulate the experiences of another person, could I still be considered Atienna Imamu? Would they be considered Atienna Imamu? I wonder...”
Werner remained silent.
“If that’s not the case, if we don’t put experiences and memories as our definition of who we are, then would it be our goals that define us? Olive’s goal is to return Lavi to normal. Cadence’s goal… well, to be honest, it seems to flip back and forth between fame, just getting by, and that Alma….” Atienna smiled thinly, knowing that Werner knew that it did not meet her eyes. “Isn’t that amazing? Having someone dedicate their entire life to you?”
Werner said after an internal sigh, “That dedication is not one that I think about.”
“That may be so. But Werner, what about you?” Atienna continued. “What exactly is your goal?” Perhaps she had gone far enough, she thought to herself—but that itching curiosity spurred her forward.
“It’s simple,” Werner replied. “My goal is to serve Capricorn to the best of my abilities.”
“Right?” Atienna smiled, resting her cheek on her hand. “That’s exactly the kind of goal I’d expect the perfect military officer to have. Someone who isn’t after the money or the glory. Someone whose sole purpose is to serve their country and their country alone and rise in the ranks. It’s almost as if you fit the template perfectly. When I first met you, I couldn’t help but think ‘amazing, people like this truly exist.’ You are orderly, pragmatic, strict, and you follow through on everything that is asked of you.”
“That’s what’s expected of a Capricornian soldier,” Werner replied, although there was a pause before he spoke. “If I was not this way, then I would have never been promoted to this position.”
Atienna hummed in agreement. “That’s right, isn’t it? That’s exactly how you should be… rather—”
What in the world was she saying? Why in the world was she saying these things? She knew she should stop, but she wanted to keep going, to see, to get to the bottom of it. She couldn’t avert her eyes again.
“—that’s how ‘you should appear to be’, should I say?” She continued. “Is that just how I see you or is that how the others see you as well?”
Werner studied her silently. She could see it in his eyes—he was trying to gauge what she thought of him.
“I think…. perhaps… Olive sees you as—well, expects you to be—someone who is stern yet forgiving,” Atienna pondered aloud. “Maybe even something akin to a guiding hand. Cadence expects you to be someone who is a voice of reason, someone who is a stable balance to her own instability. I personally don’t hold any expectations for you at all, Werner.”
Werner again remained silent.
“We do tend to bend ourselves slightly to what people expect of us. Like a piece of hot metal. Molded and shaped.” She shrugged her coat more over her shoulders. “I wonder if it’s able to ever return to its original form.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Sorry… I’m rambling again but what I really wanted to say was… recently I’ve been wondering Werner, who exactly are you?”
When Atienna turned and registered Werner’s expression. Why did she say such things? She wished he would just—
“We are both adults, Atienna,” Werner said, expression falling flat. “We have more important matters to handle than philosophizing all day.”
Just as she’d hoped and expected him to say.
Werner seemed to sigh internally again. “If there is nothing else to discuss then—”
Then it struck like lightning. The burning hot feeling compressing in her chest expanding outwards. The feeling she hadn’t felt in months, snapping through every muscle in her body. Pure hatred.
“Jericho,” Atienna whispered.
“Yes, something is happening on Jericho’s end.” Werner nodded. His eyes became distant.
He was trying to synchronize with the peacekeeper. How dutiful. She attempted to do so as well but was met with an iron wall. Every time, she neared it she was met with a surge of hot anger and a barrier that seemed unpassable.
Werner frowned and shook off his dazedness before meeting her eyes. “He’s being reckless. He’s not listening.” His frown deepened. “That style of conducting… it’s dangerous.”
The image of it flashed through her mind. The black streaks that glowed tangerine. Omicron. The Specialist.
Atienna put her hand to her mouth as her stomach began to twist into knots. “Will he be—”
A high-pitched shriek pierced her ears. For a moment, she thought she was hearing something that was spilling in from Jericho’s end, but then she was abruptly tackled to the side and wrapped in furry arms. Werner disappeared from her line of vision at the impact, their synchronization dropping in an instant.
“It’s terrible, Atienna! Terrible!”
Atienna lifted her head to peer over the bundles of fur and registered warm caramel eyes framed with straw blonde hair.
“There’s two people hurt over there! Oh, Atienna, it’s terrible!”
Atienna’s eyes widened. Another attack? A murder?
Louise shook her head. “I don’t know who they are or where they came from. Oh, this is awful—”
Atienna placed a reassuring hand on Louise’s shoulders and smiled gently. “Please calm down, Louise. Where are they?”
Shakily, Louise pointed into the darkness behind her. In the direction of the painted walls. Painted walls. Two people.
The dots connected within Atienna’s mind.
It couldn’t be.
Atienna immediately started towards the direction, glancing back in slight surprise as Louise clasped her hand from behind.
“I-I’ll show you…” Louise stammered.
Although Atienna was familiar with the direction she allowed the woman to guide her. As they drew nearer to the black painted door, Louise’s steps slowed and Atienna began taking the lead. Despite the darkness increasing its depth as the black-painted cave wall loomed before them, Atienna’s eyes were able to adjust to it quickly as she was quite used to maneuvering in the shadows.
There were two bodies strewn over each other beside the black painted wall there. Atienna’s heart thundered as she came closer and realized she recognized them. Louise tightened her grip on her hand.
The one closest to the wall—Atienna could tell—was most definitely dead. He was a heavyset man with a receding, graying hairline, and deep black eyes that stared listlessly up at the ceiling. His cheeks were still a deep, frost-bitten red.
White cracks that were sprawling out from the glowing white wound at his shoulder had nearly consumed his entire body.
At least he was not in any pain.
The other was a tall, lean man with a strong and prominent brow and a light mustache. He was dressed in a familiar monochrome uniform paired with a pale white armband. Mladen. He was bleeding from the shoulder but most definitely alive given the labored rise and fall from his chest. And—
—and there was a knife embedded into his abdomen. The one Omicron had handed Ersatz. The handle of the knife appeared to oddly be made of glass. Cracked glass. There was something inside of the handle encasement—a swirl of white light that was slowly beginning to dim and sinking to the point where the hilt met the blade. Some of the light seeped out from the cracks and bled out into the dark of the cave.
What in the world? Was that vitae?
Spatial distortion. The black markings. The dots connected. Those two men had fallen through one of the pools of light and had come here. It was hard to believe but fact was fact.
Conductors were truly terrifying.
But was the Specialist here? She needed to be cautious. Analyze. Think. Calculate.
Yes, Atienna had to agree, caution was important, but she had a gut feeling that this event had been a miscalculated fluke. These two men were not supposed to end up here just as—the memory flashed into her mind—Omicron and Alice were not meant to end up wherever they were.
And that knife in Mladen’s chest—no, that conductor—
Before Atienna could move forward to inspect the knife, a stampede of footsteps resounded from behind her.
“What is going on here?” came a familiar voice from behind. Chiamaka.
Atienna turned her head and found the woman and everyone else minus Afu and Sefu gathered behind her. The newly arrived party seemed to assess both her and Louise for a moment before their eyes fell on the two men.
Alexei ogled the two bodies and did a double-take. “Where in saint’s name did they come from?!”
“They’re injured,” Moana observed with a frown before turning around and heading back to the campsite.
Stiffening beside Alexei, Nikita stared at Mladen. “That’s—”
“You know him?” Alexei pressed.
“Yes,” Nikita stated, surprise and confusion plastered across his face. “He… He is Mladen. We worked together. Before he join Ophiuchus.” Nikita’s gaze fell onto Ersatz and his eyes narrowed. “I know him too. Capricornian major on border. Crazy. Worked with ELPIS. Supposed to be locked… in Ophiuchus.”
“ELPIS?” Yulia repeated, grabbing Nikita’s arm. Her eyes widened when the man gave her a confused nod of confirmation, and she looked around at them wildly, desperately. “Transmutationist—is anyone a Transmutationist?!”
“I am,” Moana said, as she returned to the scene panting heavily, hands now gloved in a conductor. “Remove his shirt for me.”
Without hesitation, Yulia moved forward and ripped open the man’s suit shirt with a strength that almost seemed unnatural.
Moana got to work immediately, sinking to his side placing her hands over the man’s upper arm. His skin under her gloves began to glow a hot pink. Almost immediately, a frown took over her controlled expression. “Something isn’t right. I’m having trouble moving the vitae particles to… ” She shook her head, flicking her hands slightly and causing the light to glow more intensely. Finally, she seemed to make progress. Letting out a sigh of relief, she guided the glowing splotch to the open wound on the man’s shoulder. When she removed her hands, the area was covered over with a thin stretch of skin. She then assessed the knife embedded into the man’s abdomen. She nodded and addressed the closest person to her—Yulia: “When I say go, pull the knife out.”
Yulia inclined her head, wrapping her hands around the cracked glass handle.
“This is difficult...” Moana wiped her forehead with the back of her hand before placing it over the man’s chest again. “I don’t understand. It’s like it’s resisting me.” Her brows furrowed, and the salmon-pink light brightened beneath her hand brightened. “Now!”
Yulia ripped the knife out from the peacekeeper’s chest as Moana brought up the glowing patch of skin to cover the newly opened hole. The light dimmed as she removed her hand revealing that the wound had been successfully closed. Moana gave a sigh of relief as she fell back, while Yulia clutched the broken handle of the knife as if it was a lifeline.
There was a beat.
Mladen’s eyes fluttered open, and he stared up at the cavern's ceiling blankly. And then he shot up immediately.
Yulia jumped back with him in surprise, while Moana leaned forward with concern.
What? Atienna startled. How had he recovered so quickly? She had read the books. She had seen the wound. It was deep. Even the most skilled Transmutationist wouldn’t be able to—
Moana seemed to agree. “Mr. Mladen, sir?! What are you doing?! You must rest! I have not assessed your internal injuries yet—”
Mladen turned to stare at the Piscese diplomat with an owl-like expression cutting her off short before he looked to Major Ersatz lying beside him. No sooner did the peacekeeper flinch away from the corpse did the white cracks expanding across his finally finish their journey. In an instant, Ersatz’s body crumbled away into nothing.
Moana retracted herself in alarm as did Alexei.
Yulia, however, paid the occurrence no mind and drew near to Mladen. She placed a hand on his shoulder and pressed the odd knife to his chest. Her eyes were wide, and she seemed dazed. “Can you tell me if—”
Before she could finish the statement, Mladen ripped the knife out from her hands and stared at the thing in horror. “Broken!” Mladen shouted, running panicky fingers through his hair as he gripped the thing. “Terrible!”
“What in the—what’s wrong with him?” Alexei grimaced, skirting backwards.
“Maybe he has a concussion,” Moana murmured, inching closer with raised hands. “Where did you come fro—”
Mladen shook his head and his face twisted with frustration. “No. No concussion.” He held his head with his free hand and gripped the knife tightly. “Initiation. Faulty. Terrible.”
“And here I was hoping for a voice of reason from a peacekeeper…” Alexei muttered under his breath.
Something must have happened when he was stabbed with the knife, Atienna conjectured. The knife was most definitely a conductor. Perhaps manipulation? No, despite his erratic behavior, his actions were still comprehensible. Plus, he was still able to vocalize somewhat properly—an attribute not found in those who were manipulated. Besides, Ersatz was a Conjuror, not a Manipulator.
“Peacekeeper?” came Mladen’s questioning tone. “Peace? Syzygy?”
At the word, Atienna was immediately drawn out of her thoughts. She slowly lifted her gaze to Mladen who was now staring blankly at Alexei who was frowning back at him in confusion.
What...? Atienna thought. Why in the world did he say that word? No—how did he know it? Her mind spun round and round.
Before she could fully comprehend his words, she saw it. Rather, she saw them—their reactions to the singular word. Cvetka’s eyes narrowed for a moment, while Yulia looked as if she had been slapped. Sigurd who had been quietly standing behind Alexei the entire time with an air of disinterest snapped her attention forward.
“That sounds familiar…” Louise murmured quietly from beside her as she tapped her chin. “Is that a peacekeeping word?”
What was this?
Atienna's heart began to hammer wildly in her chest—but it was not unpleasant. Like the thrill right before stepping into the ring.
This already precarious situation had turned dangerous.
Sitting in the room without any windows and doors, the one known as Theta slowly shut their book. A smile touched their lips—