Twin Cities, Gemini
Gilbert was guided by a hand on the arm through a back hallway and down a series of crisscrossing steps. Gilbert himself was not accustomed to covert operations so he fumbled his way forward bumping into walls and tables alike. Eventually, they slipped into a room divided into multiple sections by silk draperies. Smoke suffocated the air, curling around long and lavish sofas that spotted the room. Men and women were lounging on the sofas, puffing hookahs with lazily batting eyes.
The air smelled like morrowheat. They were high to hell.
Cadence pulled him along through a maze of curtains and rooms until they reached a back room that only seemed to be slightly suffocated with smoke.
There Gilbert found Colonel Fritz von Spiel puffing a cigar with one hand and swirling a glass of wine in the other. Seated across the table from him was a man with a sharp jawline dressed in a crisp suit with slicked-back hair. The table in between them was littered with half-eaten chicken breasts, sirloin steaks, and scallops. It looked ten times more lavish than what Gilbert had eaten upstairs. Bastards.
“Well, Mr. Enzo,” Colonel von Spiel said, placing his glass of wine down onto the table. “I think it’s about time we get to business.”
“Of course… Bring the samples out,” the suited man—Enzo—said, flourishing his hands in the air.
A beat after a cluster of bodies appeared from behind the curtain behind him. Seven total. Two of them—one tailing the front and one tailing the back—were men who looked like wrestlers but were dressed like waiters. And the other five—
Children. They were children. Small, nubby-nosed, frail-looking. None of them looked older than thirteen. All wearing white gowns. All keeping their eyes glued to the floor.
“As we’ve discussed,” Enzo continued motioning for one of the children to come close. He grabbed the child’s chin absentmindedly, “we’ve run numerous V-Type Tests on them and are 100% certain that they are Specialists. We’ve only been able to assess the ability of some, however, given the nature of Specialists.”
Enzo turned the child’s face away from himself as he inspected further. The child stared listlessly in Gilbert’s direction.
They were selling Specialist children.
Gilbert felt sick.
Where were their parents? Their guardians?
“There’s more of them here, isn’t there?” The colonel puffed his cigar. “I want to see all of them. I want to see their condition.”
“Herr von Spiel,” Enzo continued. “All of our product is perfect—”
“I said I want to see all of them!” the colonel snapped, slamming his fist against the table.
Gilbert startled. He’d never seen the colonel so angry before—and he’d personally seen the man drunkenly curse out a bartender
“Aw come on, Enzo,” came a voice from an adjacent room, “there’s nothin’ wrong with bein’ cautious, right?”
It was that brat. Feliciano. He was lounging on a couch behind a spread of curtains with women draped over his arms. Gilbert had no idea what the hell was going on but judging by the way he could faintly hear Russo whispering “bastard traitor” under his breath, Gilbert assumed it had to do something with the criminal organization rivalry. But that wasn’t important.
“Signore Enzo,” the colonel continued, leaning forward, “I like to see fully what I’m investing my money into. So if you would so kindly show me the rest that you currently have present, I would be grateful.”
Enzo smiled tightly and waved his hand again.
Five more children filtered out from the curtains and stood in front of them.
The colonel rose from his seat, approaching a pre-adolescent boy who stood at the end of the line.
“He’s of Aquarian descent,” Enzo explained, walking over to stand beside him. “His father sold him to us a couple of years back during Aquarius’s economic scare. You have a good eye. His Specialist conducting is something that would probably prove very useful in your field.” Enzo reached out a hand towards the boy’s head.
Fritz grabbed the man’s wrist, stopping him short without lifting his eyes from the boy. “Does he have a name?”
“Well, most of them don’t have a chance to get one but I think this one did. His father named him something like Kirill—”
“That’s a very unsuitable name,” the colonel interjected. He stooped slightly so he was at eye-level with Kirill and let out a sigh. “How about ‘Kovich’? Doesn’t that sound better?”
The boy lifted his head and met the colonel’s eyes.
“Isn’t that the name of that one obscure Aquarian philosopher?” Enzo asked. “I didn’t think a Capricornian would explore beyond their native literature.”
“It’s obviously not obscure enough if you know of it,” the colonel responded with a bite. He rose to a stand slowly, still not breaking eye contact with the boy. “I want all of your product. All of it.”
Enzo did a double-take, and Feliciano’s head popped up from behind the sofa. Gilbert himself felt bafflement over his disgust.
Enzo chuckled in confusion. “I-I am sorry, Mr. Von Spiel. Perhaps, I am not understanding you correctly—”
“You’re understanding me perfectly,” Von Spiel returned.
Enzo spread his arms wide. “Well, if you have the money, I can’t argue. Although… Do you mind if we finalize this with a down payment tomorrow? I have another guest coming in an hour or so, and I’d like to prepare.”
Feliciano scowled while Von Spiel gave a nod of approval.
A tug on the arm signaled for Gilbert that it was time to head back.
The sky was dark when Gilbert left the restaurant with Cadence, Bergmann, and Kleine. The colonel had left hours prior, citing that he had ‘to check the bank’. It was bullshit, Gilbert knew. Russo had also absconded somewhere which Gilbert personally didn’t give a damn about it.
As expected, Bergmann and Kleine were buzzing with questions, but engrained rank-and-file kept them silent. Still in Werner’s guise, Cadence walked along, casually yet somehow rigidly discussing points of interest within the city. She put in a few words of gratitude too. Kleine was a pushover, so he took to her conversation easily—that and Gilbert figured he probably interested in seeing another True Conductor. Bergmann was more reserved, keeping her head down and only smiling when addressed. She must’ve felt uncomfortable with Cadence’s disguise. Gilbert himself was uncomfortable with it— and the fact that Cadence was so unaffected by the children trafficking. Or at least she appeared that way.
Sure, the battlefield was hell, but this was something else. Screw the colonel and Capricorn. Those kids needed help.
Still. The plan was to head back to the hotel together and for Cadence to depart an hour or so later and leave Gilbert to the hell-on-earth paperwork, but they were walking at such a casual pace that they hadn’t made it even near the east side of the city yet. Gauging by the emptiness in the streets and the few late-night walkers passing by, Gilbert figured it was around two in the morning.
Just as they are turning a street corner, Cadence abruptly stopped short, face pale beneath the v-lamps that lit up the empty sidewalk. Gilbert turned back to her, eyebrow arched. She stared past him at some point in the distance.
A flash of pale light suddenly burst from the upper sidewall of the book shop they’d stopped in front of. And out from the square-shaped glow tumbled out three bodies. They fell to the ground meters from each other, unmoving.
Cadence paled, dispelled her guise with a snap of her fingers, and ran towards one of the bodies. Eyeing the patch of light still glowing on the upper wall, Gilbert paced after her, followed from behind by Bergmann and Kleine. When he reached Cadence’s side, he found her helping a tall and dark familiar man to his feet.
The man was dressed in a monochrome suit and wore a pair of square glasses. In one hand, he gripped a suitcase and in the other a deactivated conductor.
It was the peacekeeper Gilbert encountered in front of the Abaccio several days ago. Gilbert wasn’t stupid so he connected the dots fast. This was another person part of Werner’s group. Gilbert couldn’t help but laugh inside at the idea—the fact that Werner was connected with a peacekeeper.
Kleine had made his way over to the other two who had fallen out from the light. A woman in a polka dot dress, and an older man bound in chains. Cadence noticed Kleine go and somehow paled even more—
A click-clacking echoed through the night as the dress-wearing woman slowly rose to a stand without Kleine’s assistance. Kleine took a step backwards as she raised a conductor-gloved hand. The chains wrapped around the older man’s body began pulsating with white, unnatural light. As realization settled in, all Gilbert could think was ‘shit’.
And then he was blinded as the night skyline became lit up with numerous chains with arrowhead tips that were all pointed in their—rather, the peacekeeper’s—direction. The woman brushed back her ungloved hand, revealing the tell-tale tattoo engraved at the arch of her hand. She brought down her conductor, and the chains hurtled towards them, scraping against the air like nails on a chalkboard.
Without skipping a beat, peacekeeper flourished his conductor and out from it bled vitae that was even whiter than hers. It spilled out in an arc, clashing against the chains that spindled at them. The chains shattered instantly upon contact, falling away into pieces that dissolve into nothing on the ground.
Gilbert couldn’t help but laugh inside even further at the idea—the fact that Werner was connected with a peacekeeper who obviously had ties with ELPIS.
Having barely managed to get out of the attack zone, Kleine pressed back against the shop wall, gaze flicking between both parties in confusion. No fear. Calculation. He was already reaching into the pocket of his uniform where his conductor had been folded, stored, and untouched for weeks. A good soldier, Gilbert thought.
“It didn’t say in your file, Iota,” the peacekeeper said to the woman, “that you were a coward. But intuition.”
“Jericho,” Cadence stammered.
The peacekeeper Jericho, blinked slowly down at her as if just noticing her. “Hello, Cadence,” he said. “You are not avoiding me anymor—”
“Coward?!” Iota spat before jabbing a finger at him. “Look at the color of your vitae, and tell me who the damn coward is!”
The heat in the peacekeeper’s eyes reminded Gilbert of the time when an Argoan soldier snuck into their base camp aiming to assassinate Werner in his sleep because Werner had singlehandedly sniped off the man’s entire squadron. The hatred in that Argoan’s eyes that night was the same. A burning desire for vengeance.
Iota raised her hand. With a flourish, she sent white chains spilling out from the glowing patch on the wall. The chains hurtled towards them but before the peacekeeper could lift his conductor again, Bergmann leaped before them, slamming her hands that were now gloved with conductors onto the ground. The sidewalk erupted upwards, forming a wall of concrete. The barricade let out low rumbles as the chains battered against them.
Bergmann turned to Gilbert, clearly looking for reassurance. Gilbert nodded, still uncertain. She glanced at the peacekeeper, and Gilbert followed her gaze to the man’s conductor which is now deactivated.
Kleine appeared rounding the earth blockade with conducting gloves equipped. He looked at Jericho uncertainly, eyed his Ophiuchian band, and then eyed the lack of distance between him and Cadence. “Sir, should I conjure you a—”
“Do not get involved,” Jericho said, reaching into his suit pocket and flashing an Ophiuchian badge albeit upside down. “This is under the jurisdiction of Ophiuchus. You are to remain here while this issue is resolved—”
“Ya can’t be serious,” Cadence interjected. She paused, flipped over his badge for him, and stared at him.
There were no words exchanged. Not verbal ones, at least.
Cadence seemed to finally take notice of Gilbert and the others and gestured to Jericho’s arm. She began in a distant, formal tone— “Mr. Peacekeeper, I understand that—ah, screw it.” And ended with familiarity: “You’re hurt, detective.”
Gilbert couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed it, but Jericho was indeed injured. There was a blood trail dripping down the man’s hand, but despite this his grip on his conductor was tight. Gilbert figured Jericho himself hadn’t even noticed it yet.
Kleine and Bergmann looked to Gilbert again, waiting for orders. Jericho and Cadence were, however, now staring off to the side together. There was nothing there. Just empty space. But Cadence’s brows were drawn up, and Jericho seemed to be mildly surprised—maybe even a bit happy.
Cadence’s face twisted with shame abruptly. “I—”
Cadence stopped short, paled, frowned at the empty space, and then nodded. She faced them, snapped her fingers, transmuted Werner’s guise over herself, and started giving orders of all things. Concise. Precise. Strategic.
Automatically, Kleine and Bergmann shouted an ‘understood, sir’ and then looked at each other in confusion. Gilbert just nodded, glad that he didn’t have to think of a way to get out of this mess.
As per the order dictated, Kleine conjured a Ghewer-43 rifle conductor and kickstarted it. Gilbert took it from him, pointing it at the wall several degrees to the right of where he assumed Iota was standing. Jericho faced the wall too, while Bergman crouched low and ready to sprint.
The wall crumbled as expected as the white chains burrowed through them. The chains shot above their heads before retracting back into the dust cloud that had formed. As the dust cloud began to clear, Jericho whipped out his conductor in Iota’s direction. There was a screech as it made its target, and Gilbert used the sound as a cue to fire his conductor. An azure vitae ray erupted from his conductor, cut through the clouds, and hit its target: the chain that connected the bound man to the ELPIS woman.
Bergmann broke out into a mad sprint towards the bound man, forming a wall of earth between Iota and herself as she did so. She reached the man, threw him over her shoulder, and stumbled back to them. The bound man was still unconscious when Bergmann put him on the ground. Cadence stared at down at him with an unreadable expression before stiffening and whipping her head towards Jericho who was now stepping into the clearing dust cloud. The man’s conductor was deactivated again.
Iota stood across from them, gripping her elbow with a glower. There were white cracks forming along her lower arm, and her fingers were crumbling away into literal dust. She took a step backwards as Jericho marched forward.
And then came a rain of glowing metal rods from the sky. Jericho skirted back as the rods pelleted the ground between Iota and himself.
Gilbert scanned the area for the enemy and spotted someone standing on the rooftop of one of the buildings. A woman. She maneuvered down the fire escape before landing deftly beside Iota. There was an unmistakable snake-like tattoo emblazoned on the left side of her face.
“Omicron!” Iota shouted in relief.
“What are you doing here, Iota?” Omicron snapped. “You’re supposed to leave the east side of the city to me—” She stopped short, eyes widening as she registered Iota’s steadily crumbling arm. She grabbed the woman and stared in horror. “We need to get you to Lambda.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Jericho stated calmly from behind the bars of metal.
Omicron turned to face the peacekeeper with a frown. “It’s you again…? You’re really determined, aren’t you?” She raised a hand in their direction and then stopped short, eyes wide and locked onto something behind Gilbert. Rather, someone.
“C-Charite…?” Kleine stammered.
Stiffening at the name, Omicron continued to stare. “K-Klaus…?” Her hand shot up to the tattoo on her face, and she took a step back.
‘Charite?’ Gilbert searched his memory before it clicked.
“Your girl’s a member of ELPIS?” Gilbert hissed back at the Conjuror.
With one hand still clutching the side of her face, Omicron raised her conductor-gloved hand and sent another wave of metal piping at them. Gilbert threw himself to the ground away from the flurry, but he soon realized as he picked himself up that none of pipes had landed even remotely near him or the others. A distraction. He looked up, and sure enough, Omicron and Iota were gone. The glowing patch on the upper wall of the building was also gone.
Before Gilbert could make heads-or-tails of the situation, Jericho paced over to them—to Kleine.
A drop of water fell onto Gilbert’s cheek from the sky, and it began to softly drizzle.
“Do you work with ELPIS, Klaus?” the peacekeeper asked, stony.
“I—” Kleine looked as if he was half asleep—half in a nightmare.
“I asked you if you work with ELPIS,” the peacekeeper pressed. His glasses were dripping with water now, but his eyes seemed to be almost faintly glowing with a ring of white light. He reached forward slowly and grabbed Kleine by the scruff. “How do you know her?”
“S-She was my friend. I’ve known her since childhood,” Kleine stammered, eyes wide. “I-I thought she was one of you—” His gaze flicked to Jericho’s conductor which was still gripped tightly in his other hand. “You…”
“Jericho, he doesn’t work for ELPIS,” Cadence said, stepping forward and gripping his arm. “Trust me. He doesn’t.”
“Why?” Jericho stared back at her.
“Why should I trust you? How do I know you are not tricking me?”
“I’m not….” She released his arm. “I promise… I’m not.”
The peacekeeper continued to stare at her before nodding and releasing Kleine from his hold. He flipped his Ophiuchian badge at them again.
“Please do not speak of what occurred.” A pause. “Return home safely.”
Bergmann and Kleine nodded, both hesitant.
Jericho and Cadence held each other’s gazes for what seemed like hours before Jericho pulled away from her, threw the bound man over his shoulders, and headed down the street, suitcase still in hand. Gilbert stared after him, befuddled, and then turned to Cadence.
But Cadence was gone too.
Gilbert stared at the empty space she had once occupied.
What the hell happened to ‘going together to the Abaccio’?
“Sir, with all due respect,” Bergmann stammered, “what is going on here?”
Gilbert shivered in his damp uniform.
Damn. Gilbert hated thinking.
“Private Gilbert Wolff Shows promise. He gets along with his squadron-mates, and he’s skilled in combat. He’d make a fine office. But unfortunately, I find that he’s lacking initiative and dedication to our country. He puts heart in areas he shouldn’t.”Major Erwin Ersatz, pre-Aquarian-Capricornian Border Conflict