The psychic connection between the six is abruptly cut as an intruder eerily states that they have entered.
Protokoll Geöffnet » Log opened at 0001 hours
Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border
“—stop bullshitting, Vogt.”
“It’s the truth…”
“Stein’s right. Why in saint’s name would you lie about something like that? What’s wrong with you?”
“Fischer, it’s the truth!”
“Like how you said it wasn’t you who woke up screaming about the damn Aquarians three nights ago?”
A cackle. “Vogt’s still dreaming about the border mix-up. What? You wanna go back and kill some Aquarians? No, be friends with some Aquarians? Kleine, he wants to go back and be friends with Aquarians! Why don’t you go and conjure him a bouquet of flowers so he can hand it over to ‘em.”
“Don’t involve me, Stein… Besides, you know it’s impossible to conjure living things.”
“Did you not actually pass your State Conductor’s Exam, Stein?” A different voice, a different sort of sigh. “I’m still a ranking officer. If it seems to me that you’re unfit—physically or smarts-wise—then I’m gonna have to write you up.”
“It was only a joke, Wolff.”
“Who said you could talk to me that way? I’m your second lieutenant.”
“But you said—”
“That was then. This is now.”
“I’m just messing with you, Stein.”
The familiar pop and crackle of wood in between beats of unpleasant conversation drifted into Atienna Imamu’s awareness. The ground was cold beneath her back, but her face was warm. The sensation caused her mind to wander back to the past, back to her month within the frozen Zatmeniye Caverns, back to the pleasant conversations turned sour, back to Yulia’s cold and open lifeless eyes—
With great difficulty, Atienna forced open her heavy eyelids and dispelled the nightmarish image. A dark, starless sky greeted her awakening. Faintly out of the corner of her eyes, she could make out the soft glow of fire a couple of meters away. Around her stretched a network of black trees holding up a cold, yet damp air that smelled of moss and dirt. Familiar.
“You’re up.” A shadowy face eclipsed her own. “How are you feeling, Lieutenant? Does your shoulder still hurt? Can you sit up?” And then more quietly, “Did something happen to the others? Was it Cadence?”
Those dark curls and amber eyes were instantly recognizable. The scrapes and bruises seemed a bit new and foreign, as did the half-moons beneath the eyes—but this was undeniably Nico Fabrizzio, Cadence’s childhood friend turned Werner’s left-hand man.
What a surreal dream, Atienna thought. Or perhaps this was a memory.
It was a bit unusual though. She rarely saw Werner’s memories. As accessible as that man was, everything surrounding his past was shrouded thickly by the smell of gunmetal, soot, moss, and iron. The only clear, resonant thing was that memory of that pale woman standing in that white room. And what an unpleasant thing that was.
“Werner…?” Nico frowned in the dark. “Can you hear me?”
Loud and clear—oh.
“… is this not a memory?”
At the sound of Werner’s voice coming from her own mouth, Atienna pressed a hand to her throat. Her hands were gloved, she realized. Leather-gloved. She could feel bandaging just beneath the leather over her right palm.
So, that was how it was… How troubling. How had this happened? The last thing she recalled was attempting to make that phone call in the capital of Capricorn. And then…
“I don’t mean to alarm you,” Atienna said quietly after a pause, “but I believe something may have gone wrong…”
Nico pulled back and studied her face with wide eyes before he called for Gilbert over his shoulder.
Atienna waited patiently by a thick cluster of bare-bone trees that jutted up from the ground away from the campfire. The campfire itself was ringed by a half-circle of familiar uniformed men who were chattering quietly as they sipped from tin cans. Their slurping was quite thunderous in light of the silence that now occupied her mind.
To feel fully her own thoughts, to hear only the whistle of wind through the tree branches and not the distant trickle of commotion from the others, to feel only her—rather, Werner’s—heartbeat was… a bit lonesome. To think this was how she had felt prior to their connection… A foreign familiarity.
So, this was an override, Atienna continued to ponder. It seemed as if Maria and Olive’s experience of being ‘cut off’ from everyone else during overrides was a certainty now. However… There were several discrepancies here, and that worried her.
Atienna turned her attention back to the trees.
She recalled reading about these particular trees before. They were even more lovely up close since she could see the identifying white veins of vitae threading through their black bodies. But…
A leaf fell from one of the branches and landed by her feet. She followed its cascade downwards and spied at Werner’s boots. They appeared immaculate despite the marshy landscape. She supposed she should try to keep them clean like this for him until he returned.
If he returned.
The crunch of leather boots against leaves and twigs drew Atienna’s attention away.
Gilbert Wolff and Nico Fabrizzio came to a stop just before her—close enough to see the dirt dusting their faces but too far for her to make out the color of their eyes in the dark. Both of their collared uniforms were eclipsed with a single silver-woven bar at the shoulder pads designating their rank. Nico’s arm was adorned with a crimson cross, while a billed cap similar to Werner’s rested on top of Gilbert’s head. The same yet different. But together they seemed to share some sort of mutual hesitance and uncertainty. Together, they scanned her quietly.
“Hello,” Atienna greeted the second lieutenant with a dip of her head.
If Nico was the left hand, then Gilbert was the right hand. “Proficient in different aspects,” as Werner would say.
“Er, hi…” Gilbert looked her over again and then spoke in Common. “It’s happened again?” He pulled the cap off his head, tucked it under his arm, and extended his hand. “Gilbert Wolff.”
“I know who you are, Herr Wolff.” Atienna couldn’t help but smile. “I should be the one introducing myself.” She reached out and accepted the gesture. “I’m… pleasantly surprised at how gentlemanly you are.”
“You’re a different one than the last couple of times,” Gilbert confirmed, not at all appearing offset. “Haven’t gotten along so well with some of the others before. Figured I should try a friendlier approach.”
“I do appreciate the effort,” Atienna returned genially, pulling her hand away as he released it. “I am…” She paused, considering. “… Atienna. Although, it’d be strange if you started calling me that, don’t you think?”
“You’re a woman?” Gilbert stared. “Well, I mean, Cadence was one, but she wasn’t…” He gestured towards her—rather, Werner’s—body.
“That’s a beautiful name,” Nico interjected quickly in an obvious attempt to save face. “It’s got a nice ring to it. Like from a romance novel. I bet Gil’s just jealous he doesn’t have as nice of a name as that.”
Atienna chuckled despite herself. The duo’s responses were rather predictable. Charmingly crass and charmingly polite. It was certainly a comfort. Her response—she realized—was not as predictable, however. At least not for them. The two stared, ogled.
“Thank you, Nico,” Atienna said, before addressing Gilbert. “But are you concerned about something in particular, Gilbert?”
Gilbert continued to stare at her, mouth slightly ajar.
“I do have a younger brother,” Atienna provided. “And I’ve had to care for him when he was younger—if that answers your concerns…”
Gilbert stared at her again but this time the stare ended with him snickering. He nodded. “You speak Capricornian?”
“It’s a beautiful language,” returned Atienna in said language.
Gilbert offered a nod of approval and then continued in his native tongue. “So, we should—”
“I don’t mean to interrupt, but shouldn’t we invite Klaus to discuss this with us?” Atienna interjected quickly, inclining her head in the direction of the campfire—rather, towards the soldiers gathered there in a ring. “It would make things flow a bit smoother… I believe.”
Gilbert regarded her for a moment before shrugging. He then gave a sharp, ear-piercing, two-fingered whistle causing Atienna to startle slightly— “Kleine!”
The glasses-wearing man stiffened from where he sat at the foot of the campfire. After quickly shoving the book he’d been reading into his pack set beside him, he jogged on over.
When Klaus reached them, Gilbert explained the recent developments. Although—in Atienna’s opinion—Gilbert put it a bit more forthright than she would have. The term ‘possession’ and ‘physical recalibration’ were thrown around several times but Atienna politely requested a reconsideration of the latter idea. She doubted being hit upside the head would resolve this issue regardless of what Olive had experienced when he’d overridden Werner several months ago.
“So, how long’ll this one last?” Klaus tried after a pause. He studied her but would not meet her eyes.
“I’ve never overridden anyone before, so I’m not too sure. But I’m… questioning if this is what you would actually consider one.” Atienna studied the frost decorating the scattered leaves on the ground. She placed a thoughtful hand on her cheek. “Usually, there is intent when that occurs…”
“And there wasn’t ‘intent’ or whatever this time?” Gilbert arched a brow.
Werner’s recent memory of the Argoan woman lying in a pool of red came to Atienna slowly. The colors—pale white and silver against all of that crimson… A terrible thing. But the Argoan’s behavior had been quite odd. Atienna had heard of extreme patriotism before—patriotism to the point of suicide upon capture, but….
This was what choice did to people. And now no one could tell the deceased Argoan woman whether she was right or wrong.
“We’ve…” Atienna met Gilbert’s eyes for a moment before looking away. “We reached an agreement in a prior meeting to stay at a low level of synchronization for the rest of the week unless it was a dire circumstance.” She paused in thought before staring at her right gloved hand. She had considered stepping in when Werner’s palm had been cut, but her intention then had only been to console not to intrude. The desire to override had not been remotely present. “Still, there’s so much we don’t understand about what it means to be a True Conductor. This could be an entirely different development… or…”
Or what? Why was she always looking for reason and rhyme where it didn’t exist? Some questions didn’t have answers.
“And you can’t communicate with any of the others right now, right? Not Werner?” Nico tried. “That’s what the… last one said…”
“Olive did say he couldn’t hear nor feel any of us when he overrode Werner during that one incident,” Atienna confirmed in thought. “It wouldn’t be so strange to imagine that the same thing would occur here.”
“Olive?” Gilbert arched a brow. “That the name of the brat?”
Atienna felt her lips dip slightly, but she supposed that was just his opinion. Olive was a bit… cheeky at times.
“H-He saved my life,” Klaus stammered, “back when Argo got their hands on conductors. I’ve been wanting to thank him, but uhm…”
Basically, Werner was too intimidating to approach in person.
“… Yes, Olive is a very kind-hearted person,” Atienna agreed. She offered Klaus a smile of reassurance. “I’ll be sure to convey your thoughts to him.” Pausing, she glanced at Gilbert. “You’re in the middle of an operation…?”
“Right. We’re doing a pincering movement,” Gilbert explained, fitting his cap back on his head. “Meeting with two platoons headed by Captain Weingartner. Cutting off the Argoans from their supplies and sweeping down the line. At the moment, we’re in unoccupied land. Wider strip than what’s in front of our trenches in Abschnitt 45.” A scoff. “Called ‘unoccupied,’ but the capital insists that it’s our land. Anyway, other platoons went ahead of us. We’re just picking off any stragglers.” He gestured behind him and then behind her. “Stretches roughly fifteen kilometers.”
‘Picking off stragglers’…
Of course, Atienna had been aware that this aspect had existed even before she’d been connected to Werner: a profession to protect ultimately crossed over with a profession to kill. She glanced at Nico and thought, even in the profession of medicine… Right, because, ‘As soon as you valued one person more than another, you automatically became a villain.’
Absentmindedly, she glanced back at the tree cluster growing beside her. It really was strange…
She blinked up and found Gilbert frowning at her.
“Come on. If it was nothing, then you wouldn’t be caught up about it.”
What a difficult person…
“I didn’t think that there would be vitae streams beyond Signum…” She reached out and touched the brambles. The gloves prevented her from feeling its rough surface. “This is a lamia tree. They grow in areas of Signum that don’t receive a lot of sunlight, and they gain energy from vitae streams underground—runoffs from reservoirs. However, if this is unoccupied territory then…”
“Oh. Well, it’s why we’re out here…” Gilbert drew after a pause. “The Kaiser claims this was our land before the Reservoir War broke out ‘cause there’re vitae reservoirs here. Argo says otherwise. I say fuck both of ‘em. And Ophiuchus? Well… ” He cleared his throat when he noticed her stare.
There went his gentlemanly guise, she supposed.
“…Ophiuchus has no say in countries outside of Signum,” Atienna finished, more to herself than the others. “I do recall reading about this issue of unoccupied territory, but I always thought…”
“Thought it was propaganda?” Gilbert seemed to be asking himself instead of her. He scoffed. “‘Reading’ about it, huh? Well, we’re living it. Propaganda galore.”
“I don’t believe that’s what Werner would call it…” She felt the corners of her lips tug upward.
“Can you not refer to Werner as ‘Werner’?” he grumbled.
She had done it on purpose but inclined her head regardless.
“So what do we do?” Nico pressed, concern knitting itself across his brow and lips. “I mean… you are—Werner is…. a first lieutenant. A leader. A soldier. And this is a battlefield… And right now…”
“We’re only going to go deeper in to meet up with the captain.” Gilbert shifted on his feet. “It’s going to be dangerous. But Werner specifically asked me to complete this operation. Plus, this entire thing relies on units like us clearing away the debris—”
“—We can’t leave them high and dry as much as I’d like to. We can’t stop moving, so—”
“We can’t leave Werner behind…” Nico interjected. “There could still be Argoans escaping back this way. What if we miss them? And… there aren’t any units coming up behind us for another day.”
“I wasn’t saying that we should leave him.” Gilbert grimaced, placing a hand on his hip and casting a glance towards the campfire. He nodded back at Atienna. “I’m assuming you’ve never killed anyone before?”
“Does that always have to be one of the first questions you ask people?” Nico sighed, exasperated. He turned to Atienna apologetically.
“I didn’t ask you that when you first joined up,” Gilbert interjected pointedly.
“Right. You asked me if I’ve ever dissected a person alive before.”
“Good icebreaker though.”
Atienna supposed Gilbert’s directness could be considered endearing, and she had often wondered how well Bachiru and Gilbert would get along. At this particular moment, however, his behavior was not very endearing at all.
The image of Yulia’s and Kovich’s and Alexei’s bodies draped over one another on that damp street beneath the illuminated night sky forced its way into Atienna’s mind as she considered Gilbert’s words. That trio had been all alone. Unable to reach. Their choices, neither right nor wrong.
“I find things like this… unpleasant,” Atienna admitted, “but it isn’t my place to say…”
However, Werner would be very displeased if he thought people viewed him as too much of a burden.
“But if you’re looking for a way for us to all be satisfied…. perhaps, we could say that I’m—Werner is—suffering from head trauma from the fall,” Atienna suggested after a pause. “And you could take the lead for a little while… I’d hate to put this burden on you, but I’m not very well equipped to handle leadership positions like this… Your experience far exceeds mine, don’t you think?”
Gilbert stared. “Damn… wish I could record those words coming out from Werner’s mouth. The bit about me exceeding him. Mind repeating that again so I can keep it in memory?”
Atienna chuckled lightly, hiding her smile with her hand out of habit.
“Anyway, you know how to use a conductor?”
“I…don’t personally have a license,” she responded slowly.
Klaus’s eyes widened to comical proportions.
“That’s fine.” Gilbert held up a hand. “We’ll just have to keep a tight circle around you in case anything goes south—”
“I don’t have a license, but I do know how to handle myself in unpleasant situations,” Atienna returned. “I’ve… thrown quite a few people around…”
Gilbert snorted as if amused, and the atmosphere seemed to lighten. “Well, all it all, it seems like an idea worth trying. Werner probably won’t be happy being temporarily stripped of his position though, I reckon.”
“I reckon not,” she returned pleasantly.
He scuffed her shoulder and then hesitated. “You’ll be safe under Capricornian eyes, don’t worry.”
She wasn’t too worried at all. Not about that at least. Handing off the torch to Gilbert had relieved a fragment of her unease.
Because the truth was that she just didn’t want the responsibility of having all of their lives in her hands.
Atienna hung back behind Gilbert as he informed Werner’s unit that he would be taking point on the operation. They had both been saluted at upon approaching the campfire which Atienna found rather strange. It was a different feeling from the respectful greetings she had received when her father had still been chieftain of the Imamu tribe. There was warmth with each greeting back then—although she had personally held her distance. Here, there was a distance without her even having to skirt away.
Her father… Her family…
She hadn’t seen them in months. And now here she was even further away from home than before…
“—leave at 0500 hours. So get your rest,” Gilbert finished.
A chorus of ‘Yes, sir’s erupted at the end of speech which was followed by Werner’s men dispersing—though, Atienna could feel their gazes linger.
Gilbert drew back to her afterwards. “You should get some rest too. Maybe Werner’ll come back when you wake up.”
Atienna touched his arm just before he brushed past her. She felt him stiffen, and so she quickly removed her hand. Displays of consideration and affection were different for different people, she supposed. And even though she knew Gilbert, he didn’t know her.
“Can I ask a favor?” she asked. “I… would like to… see the one you were facing before this all happened. The Argoan…”
“W-We put them over here, sir,” Otto Vogt stammered as he and Wilhelm Fischer guided Atienna, Nico, and Gilbert through the tree lines.
“Your stutter is worse than Heimler’s,” Wilhelm scoffed. “And you’re only one-third his age. What kind of Capricornian are you?”
Atienna peered at Wilhelm, feeling a frown touch down on her lips.
How unpleasant. Werner had deemed this as ‘necessary’ hazing. Pressure to break the layer of insecurity that enveloped a person. Hatching into something stronger. Coal to diamond. But Atienna herself wasn’t so sure.
But truly, she was so judgmental for someone who still remained the same after everything. Always keeping quiet until it was almost too late and averting her eyes like always. One step forward. Two steps back. The unpleasant thing here was herself. No one else. She was—
“Is there anything wrong with a stutter?” Atienna questioned, despite knowing it would be best to remain silent. “If the meaning gets across?”
Wilhelm stiffened and whipped his head back to face her. His reaction was akin to someone having been slapped. Otto stared too, wide-eyed.
“Er, sir,” Wilhelm managed, “of course not. I was just—”
“Just knock it off, Fischer,” Gilbert ordered.
They eventually came to a circular clearing where moonlight sauntered on down through the trees. If she were to stand at the center of the clearing, Atienna was certain the waxing gibbous moon would act as a spotlight. However, the center of the clearing was already occupied.
“Right here, sir.” Wilhelm nodded as he rounded the mound of bodies casually with Otto.
Pale-faced, blue-faced men and women laid there, stiff like porcelain. Limbs were entangled with limbs. Eyes stared out vacant and glass-like, like the eyes of dolls. Dark red caked the ground below. Inhuman. Really, like dolls.
This wasn’t like the times she had seen through Werner’s, Maria’s, Cadence’s, and Jericho’s eyes. No, she was here. And the smell was…
Nico and Gilbert followed on behind Otto and Wilhelm just as nonchalantly.
Atienna remained at the edge of the clearing, unmoving. She averted her eyes from the scene. “You haven’t buried them…?”
How many bodies had there been? She would have to take another look to count. Another look at that terrible scene. How awful…
“We just haven’t gotten around to it yet,” Gilbert explained. “Don’t have to worry about wild animals. This area doesn’t have a lot of them.”
That wasn’t what she’d been referring to. Still, she nodded.
Otto and Wilhelm dragged one of the bodies away from the pile and brought it before her. They dropped it in front of her without care, although Otto appeared pale. He avoided looking at anyone, anything.
Atienna sank to her knees and studied the Argoan woman’s corpse carefully. The woman was young—most likely only in her early-20s. She had a sharp and angular face that death still had not hollowed out. Dried blood stained her jaw, contrasting the light blue of her vacantly staring eyes.
Yulia flashed into Atienna’s mind, sending a wave of nausea throttling through her stomach. Letting out a quiet breath, Atienna reached out and closed the woman’s eyes. She then checked the woman’s hands, turning them over in her own. Her eyes narrowed.
“We already did a strip, sir,” Wilhelm said. “Got some supplies from the groan—
A derogatory, Common term. ‘Groan.’ Used to refer to Argoans because of the way their war cries tended to sound like groans from a distance. An anagram also. Clever, but cruel.
“That’s enough. Thank you for that information, Wilhelm,” Atienna said more tightly than intended. “One moment.”
She inspected the woman’s nails before rising and moving towards the woman’s feet which were adorned in muddied, military-grade leather boots. Kneeling down slowly, Atienna began to examine the spiked soles of the woman’s boots.
Atienna reached forward and plucked something that had been impaled on a spike. Leaning backwards, she inspected it in the moonlight. A white petal.
“What is it?” Gilbert asked.
“It’s a bit strange….” drew Atienna as she held out the petal for them to see. “This is a sternblume. It only grows—”
“In the Grünland region of Capricorn,” Otto realized, brows rising.
Atienna regarded him in surprise for a moment. “Yes, exactly, Otto.” She moved forward, gently turning over the woman’s hand before she showed them the woman’s polished fingernails. Each nail hosted the same design painted white on black. “This symbol…”
“Wait a minute.” Wilhelm startled, squinted, leaned closer. “I’ve seen that somewhere before, sir.”
“It’s the trademark for a political organization that was founded inside of Capricorn. Just this year, actually. Verbundene Augen.”
“Those anti-military zealots?” Wilhelm frowned.
“Fischer, shut up,” Gilbert snapped.
“Yes, sir,” came the automatic response.
Otto inched forward. “What are you saying, sir?”
“I…” Atienna pulled away.
How would Werner put this? Certainly, he would be direct and to the point. Even if the words troubled the heart. ‘Cold eye.’ She wondered about that.
“This woman is not an Argoan. She is a Capricornian,” Atienna finally said. “For whatever reason, she chose to disguise herself as an Argoan soldier. That’s my theory.”
No one spoke nor objected.
“It may also be possible that this is a tactic being used to sow dissent and confusion among the Border Force….” she continued. “But I believe if that were the case, there would be a more blatant attempt than this… And I have heard that certain sects of the Verbundene Augen can be…” She shook her head. “This warrants some investigation, don’t you think?”
Still, what was the intention here? An organization promoting peace that utilized violence? Was this some sort of extreme demonstration by the Verbundene Augen? Did Argo actually have any involvement? If not, then where else would the Augen movement be able to procure these uniforms?
When Atienna looked up, she found Gilbert, Otto, and Wilhelm staring down at her—rather, at the Capricornian woman—wide-eyed. She wanted to apologize for not only her rambling but also for this revelation, but she knew that words would not suffice.
“Why…?” Wilhelm pressed, searching her face for an answer. “We’re out here fighting for… fighting for them!”
Atienna looked away.
“There’s… There’s another tattoo, sir.” Otto gestured to the woman’s forearm.
Atienna inspected the area and paused. At the base of where the woman’s palm met her arm was a dark-blue-inked tattoo of a scorpion. It was not a very detailed tattoo—it bordered on almost cartoonish—but something about it unnerved her. How had she not noticed it before?
Wilhelm stomped his foot on the ground and kicked up a flurry of ice, leaf, and dirt as he spun on his heels. “Unbelievable!” He turned to Atienna. “Sir, we have to report this to the capital immediately. We should send a runner. This is treason. That organization should be dismantled. The traitors punished!”
For some reason, it looked as if he wanted praise.
“Okay, enough, Fischer. One thing at a time.” Gilbert waved him off. “You and Vogt head back to camp. And keep your mouths shut, will you?”
Both men exchanged a look before nodding affirmative and heading back into the direction of camp. No protest. Rank-and-file. Such a powerful thing obedience was.
Atienna waited for the crunch of their boots against the frost laden ground to recede before she let out a quiet sigh. After a moment, she inquired, “Would you like me to inspect the other bodies, Gilbert? To see if there are more involved?”
The man gave her an odd look before he nodded. “That’d probably be a good idea.”
Nico remained silent.
Atienna glanced at the mound of corpses. “Will you… send a runner like Wilhelm suggested?”
“We’re already down one man. I don’t feel comfortable moving forward with two gone. Probably best to just meet with the captain and let him decide on what to do.” Gilbert sighed, rolled his neck. “Damn, I hate thinking.”
Atienna slowly rose to a stand. “Do you think you’ll tell your subordinates about this, Gilbert?”
“You ask a lot of questions, you know that?” Gilbert arched a brow before he shrugged. “Wouldn’t do good for morale. Finding out the people you’re supposedly fighting for could be mixed in with the people you’re pointing a conductor at.” He frowned abruptly, waved his hand. “Inspect the bodies tomorrow. You should get some sleep. Maybe Werner’ll return from his vacation by then, and he can deal with this mess.”
But Atienna awoke several hours later to the sound of grumbling, packing, and stomping leather boots. Peeling herself off up Werner’s thin sleeping pack, she blinked blearily as she observed his men shuffling back and forth around the campsite.
The campfire had been long extinguished, any evidence that it had once been burning carefully hidden away by a pack of dirt. The soup cans and paper ration wraps that had been scattered across the forest floor the previous night had also been hidden away somewhere.
Atienna was rather pleased with the latter development. She’d spent the last couple of minutes before sleep gathering what she could of those items in a bag. The earth needed to be treated with respect, after all. Despite war’s strangulation.
Werner’s men had done impressive clean-up work. The area almost looked as if it had not been occupied at all. But still… the emptiness of the campsite gave everything an odd sensation of desolation and seemed to make the morning chill feel even colder.
Atienna shivered, feeling the gazes of all of Werner’s men pressing upon her. She sighed.
By the look and sound of things, it seemed as if she had been the last to wake up…
But despite all the noise of morning bustle, it was all still too quiet.
Absentmindedly, she lifted a hand to her ear. All too quiet…
Her palms abruptly itched as a creeping apprehension crept from her stomach to her shoulders. She tensed and pulled the blanket closer around herself. She was forgetting an important detail, she knew. What was it…?
She spotted Gilbert at the very lip of the forest’s edge conversing with Wilhelm. Gilbert seemed to have felt her stare because he turned towards her and arched his brow. She shook her head slowly in response, causing him to offer a mere shrug-nod in acknowledgment. However, his concern was now clear beneath the gray overhead sunlight seeping in through the clouds. Atienna glanced away from him when something floating down from those clouds caught her attention. A snowflake sauntering down lazily. She held out a hand to capture it—off-white against her gloved hand.
It did not melt.
She realized it was ash.