15.3: Lance Corporal, 0610 Enemy Encounter

Re-cap:

Atienna is locked in an override over Werner. After discovering that a Capricornian was disguised among their Argoan attackers, she follows Gilbert’s lead to complete the mission assigned to them–to meet with Captain Weingartner in the unoccuppied territory. As they near their point of destination, however, they find that the captain’s camp has been ransacked and three survivors remain: an Argoan named Emil, a fellow Capricornian soldier, and Marionette Engel of the Verbundene Augen movement.

Meanwhile, Werner finds him at the supposed threshold of life and death where he untangles himself from a memory only to encounter Lavi and the owner of the mysterious voice that always escapes his memory.


Feindliche Begegnung » Enemy encounter at 0610 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine was accustomed to seeing dead bodies. He’d seen his first five years ago in his city-town of Buchstadt before he’d even been officially deployed. That day, the newspapers had praised Capricornian victory against an Argoan onslaught from Abschnitt 45 to 51, pushing forth celebrations all across the country. What the government gifted their citizens for their victory and sacrifice were caskets. They were of polished black wood, engraved with rigid gold lines, and embossed with the Capricornian sea-goat. No names designated.

The first casket to arrive in Buchstadt contained the body of Klaus’s senior at the military academy, Ulrich Stoeffman. Klaus had been witness to Stoeffman’s mother’s tears as the Militärpolizei peeled away the coffin lid to reveal his body. She had caressed Stoeffman’s pale face and wailed for hours—all in the town square.

That night, a resident fire Elementalist Conductor set all the bodies and caskets aflame as they sang the country’s national anthem.

For mother, for father, 
 For glory, for honor, 
 Victory is upon us…”

Fear thundered through Klaus’s bones as he’d repeated the hymn ingrained in him since primary school. As his childhood friend Charite—before she became Omicron—had gripped his arm tightly, he could hear her thoughts echoing his own. I don’t want to die; I don’t want to die.

When Klaus had seen his first dead body on the battlefield—one felled by his own conjured rifle and fresh with ichor pouring out from all bodily orifices—he had puked. Stein had tormented him all the while, urging him to conjure a self-help book “to help him grow some balls.” Klaus had continued to heave on the ground until First Lieutenant Werner Waltz ripped him up to a stand with an iron grip.

“Enough, Private Kleine,” Werner had said coldly. “You’re a Capricornian. If you have time for regrets, then you’re wasting my time.” In other words, there was no time for regrets.

And it was true.

Even here at their mysteriously fallen camp, as Klaus joined the others in collecting the name tags from their own and the Argoans, there was no time for regrets—no time to wonder if they could’ve done anything more, if they could’ve come earlier.

Stein swore from beside Klaus suddenly. He plucked a tag from a corpse draped over a log. “It’s fucking Lukas. He owes me twenty marks from poker.”

Klaus glanced down and registered the face of the man he had lent a book to only a week prior. He grimaced and gave an internal Monadic prayer before his gaze trailed over to a clearing in the campsite where Gilbert, Nico, and Werner—Atienna—stood in front of three seated individuals. The first was the captive Argoan Emil. The second was the survivor Heimler had found, Henning Rath  a soldier from the 212th Division whom Klaus was not familiar with. Lastly, there was Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augen.

Klaus had been keeping a sharp eye on her political movement for some time now. He happily ate up the group’s surprisingly uncensored news pieces in his free time.

A Capricorn without war. It sounded nice.

* * *

At dusk, Klaus handed off a dozen tags to Second Lieutenant Wolff at the center of camp. Nico, Marionette, Emil, and Rath stood in a cluster just a meter away from Gilbert. Vogt was stationed behind them, watching like a hawk. Atienna was not present.

“Kleine.” Gilbert jerked his head and motioned him closer.

Kleine swallowed and complied.

“Go keep an eye on ‘Werner’ for me. He was collecting the tags and moving the bodies with the others, but I had him start the campfire instead.” Gilbert nodded across the field where Atienna was collecting pieces of wood from desecrated tents within eyesight.

“Yes, sir.” Klaus eyed Marionette Engel. “Sir, can I ask… how she even made it past the border?”

“Don’t think too hard, Kleine, and keep your damn lieutenant company,” was Gilbert’s response.

And that was that.

By the time Klaus made it over to Atienna, her fire was already crackling away. She was seated before it, knees pulled up to the chest, staring into the flames. At his approach, she lifted her head and offered him a small smile:

“Oh… hello, Klaus.”

It was odd hearing his first name used out here. But it was nice. Made him feel like more than a cog in the machine. Made him feel a little bit more human.

“Hi…” Klaus fumbled with his glasses. “Er… you’re good at making fires.”

“Oh, I’ve had quite a lot of practice.” The corners of Atienna’s—the lieutenant’s—eyes crinkled. “Is there something I can do for you?”

Weird but pleasant.

“I… was just wondering what Miss Engel, the Argoan, and Rath said about what happened here.” —A half-lie. He didn’t think she’d like the idea that he’d been sent over to keep an eye on her, after all.

“Oh…” A soft hum. “Did Gilbert not tell you this himself?”

Klaus stiffened. When he locked gazes with her, however, her lips were turned up slightly.

“But…” She averted her eyes. “A friend of a friend of mine advised that if you can’t solve a problem, you should ask a friend for a different perspective. And I agree.” Before Klaus could digest what she meant, she continued, “The three have differing stories… Miss Engel says that she came with a group of protesters. They planned to form a line at the middle of the unoccupied territory… She didn’t elaborate on her plans much further than that and demanded a lawful representative.”

A demonstration? One that seemed dangerous and stupid.

“She says that the Capricornians discovered her group and started attacking, so they tried defending themselves. Mr. Rath says that Miss Engel’s group attacked them first, and they defended themselves. He lost sight of Captain Weingartner during the confusion but suspects that he retreated. That Argoan—Emil—is still in shock… poor thing.”

‘Poor thing’—coming from the lieutenant’s mouth was very weird. Especially when it was in regards to an Argoan.

“Miss Engel didn’t mention anything about why she was in a Capricornian uniform—not even the possibility that it was used for her demonstration … which is a bit strange, don’t you think?”

“It’s like someone was trying to hide her identity,” Klaus realized, sinking down beside her. “Or maybe they were trying to blend in with us? Did she do it herself? What’s the point?”

“That’s exactly what I’m wondering,” Atienna murmured. “An elaborate political demonstration that’s gone wrong…?”

Klaus studied her and found himself figuring randomly that she was probably a pretty person. He cleared his throat. “It’s best to leave this to higher command. This isn’t really your problem to solve.”

“Are you saying that I’m an outsider looking in?” She side-glanced at him, Werner’s eyes piercing and cold. “And what makes you think you know who I am? I’ve seen you through Werner’s eyes, but you haven’t seen me. I might be closer than you think.”

Klaus stiffened beneath that frigid gaze.

“I’m sorry. I was just teasing you.” Atienna chuckled, looking away sheepishly. “I know exactly where my place is. It’s not something I wonder about.”

Klaus liked Atienna. A lot. And he also knew his place like she did. Cog in the wheel. Part. Replaceable. Easy to do it—as easy as it was to conjure a single part of a conductor.

“I’m sorry you had to see all of this,” Klaus said after a beat, adjusting the strap of his conjured rifle. “It’s ugly…”

“It’s something Werner and the rest of you have to face every day. It seems a bit wrong that you’re apologizing to me… I’ve only collected fifteen tags so far, but you’ve collected so many more.” A hum. “Gilbert is more careful than he appears to be—sending you over here like this. Although I do enjoy the company.”

So she knew.

“I know Werner already gave you his condolences about Omicron—Charite…” Atienna continued. “But I would like to offer you it myself. I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds by saying this… but Charite was heroic in her last moments. I’m certain her encounter with you was one of the things that spurred her on.”

A slight heaviness entered Klaus’s chest as faint memories of his childhood wandering his hometown with Charite filtered into his mind. He wished he could mourn her more—mourn more for the others in his unit who had died too. But it was hard. A waste of time, even.

Wait. ‘Condolences’?

Klaus thought back to the lieutenant’s words just before they had left the Twin Cities.

“The ELPIS leader Omicron passed away,” Werner had said, after pulling him aside. “I’m heading to the capital with the second lieutenant, Bergmann, and Stein. While you’re expected to make a report yourself, the report isn’t due until a week from now. The train ride to the capital will take approximately two to three days.” He’d paused. “Take as much time within that allotted period that you require. Just be sure to report to the capital before the deadline. You’ll be marked if you don’t, Lance Corporal Kleine.”

Now that Klaus thought about it, the lieutenant had been unusually considerate in his approach. Klaus himself had been too dazed by the revelation of Charite’s death at the time to register it. Afterwards, he’d used the allotted time before the reporting deadline to visit Charite’s parents in his hometown. He couldn’t tell them anything, of course, but he’d thought his presence was better than nothing.

“Are you alright, Klaus?” The lieutenant’s voice in Atienna’s tone jarred Klaus from his thoughts.

“I’m just… a bit confused,” Klaus replied. “This… override is lasting a very long time.”

Atienna nodded, sullen.

“I just want to preface this by saying that this is a complete compliment.” Klaus squeezed his knee. “But this isn’t a place for someone like you… Not a place for Bergmann, Vogt, or me either. People who are here collect enemy military tags like they’re trophies. They hold scoreboards for who’s killed the most.”

Vogt and Heimler approached the fire from behind them and took a seat across the flame.

Atienna asked, “Do you really think they are excited about taking another life?” Her eyes seemed to ask—Do you think Werner is?

Klaus eyed the two newcomers before shrugging. “Stein said that he’d be happy to shoot even a half-Argoan Capricornian if he could… sir.”

Atienna hummed, placing a hand on her cheek. “…Things said out loud aren’t able to fully reveal what lays behind, don’t you think? And I’m not referring to just lies and self-deception.”

Klaus realized Atienna was a bit odd. Her way of speaking was very roundabout.

“Even though I’m speaking honestly with you now, I’m not able to fully convey my thoughts. Words simply aren’t enough. Neither are actions.” Atienna side-glanced at Heimler. “Perhaps that’s why there’s so much conflict… That small bit of discrepancy is all that it takes to switch something from being perceived as ‘right’ to being perceived as ‘wrong.’ Justice and vengeance. Maybe that’s why we can’t achieve peace. Because we can’t fully convey everything to each other.”

Heimler stiffened. Klaus couldn’t dissect the exchange.

Atienna’s gaze lingered a moment longer before she turned back to the flame. “Maybe… you would think that being able to know another’s thoughts—without needing to use words—would resolve this issue.”

Was she referring to her connection as a ‘True Conductor’ with Lieutenant Waltz and the Geminian redhead?

“You can liken it to reading the appendix or a glossary of a book… But seeing those types of book sections just makes you more aware of everything you don’t know, don’t you think? …Or is it better that way?”

Klaus figured it was a question that didn’t require an answer—

“It would make it harder, sir, I think,” Vogt interjected—Klaus assumed the silence had compelled him to respond. “The appendix… If you have too much information… it could make you hesitate. You wouldn’t be able to do as you’re told.” He eyed Atienna’s shoulder. “… That was one of my problems when I first started. I know that now, sir”

“What do you think the correct answer is then, Otto?”

“T-The… answer?” Vogt blinked, perplexed. He glanced at Klaus then at Heimler before meeting Atienna’s gaze. “Find… a balance?”

Atienna didn’t respond, averting her eyes ever so slightly.

Vogt melted. “I didn’t mean to interrupt the conversation, sir—”

“You… didn’t interrupt. You contributed.” The corners of Atienna’s eyes crinkled again. “There is a difference.”

“Right…” Vogt scrubbed a chunk of dirt off of his boot with his heel. “By the way… are you feeling any better, sir? With your head injury, I mean.”

There was a glint in Atienna’s eye. “Are you alright, Otto? You’ve been working hard today…”

Vogt perked up. “I’m fine, sir.” He reached for his neck and ran his fingers along the tag that hung there glinting silver in the firelight. “I… It’s nothing. Thank you for asking.” He scuffed his shoes again and tried hesitantly, “I hope this doesn’t affect our leave….”

“Leave?” Atienna murmured.

“Military leave.” Vogt nodded, relaxing fully. “To go home. I haven’t been back in over three months. They keep increasing the number of operations I have to take every time I meet the quota.”

“Yes… It would be nice… to go home.”

“Home with all the booze,” came a singsong voice from behind. It was Stein, squeezing himself in between Vogt and Heimler. “With all the home-tied beauties ready to admire all my medals.” He shoved Vogt to the side. “Heard Heimler got loaded after the Reservoir War and lives in a mansion. What’ve you got to look forward to returning to, Vogt? Your mom?”

“Your botanical store-school, right, Otto?” Atienna interjected.

Vogt’s fallen expression brightened. “Yes, sir. But… Stein is right. I miss my mom’s potato pancakes more than anything else. She made the best in the town. Grows her own. Potatoes, I mean.”

Stein snorted.

The corners of Atienna’s eyes crinkled again. “Do you not miss your family, Derik?”

Stein stiffened and then shrugged. “Well, of course, I miss my parents, sir. It’s just not something to think about out here.” He held a mock gun, aimed it at Vogt, and fired. “Here, I’m just thinking about the number of Argoans I can shoot down with one vitae ray.”

Klaus regarded Stein silently.

* * *

At the crack of dawn, Gilbert made the call for them to set off back to the border to report in their findings. After tallying up all of the tags overnight, it was clear that a handful of soldiers in Captain Weingartner’s platoon were missing. This included the captain himself, Emilia Bergmann, and several others. Gilbert had surmised that the missing had either retreated or had been captured. Klaus was relieved beyond belief at the possibility of Bergmann and the captain still being alive—and at the fact that they were returning home.

Their route back to the border was accompanied by lightning clapping through the sky. By the smell of the air, Klaus forecasted rain within the hour. The occasional booms of thunder shaking through the trees stretching around them made Klaus wonder if they would have to find a hole-in for the night. No one looked like they were ready to entertain the idea.

Emil and Marionette Engel sauntered on sandwiched in-between Stein and Heimler. Rath limped just behind them with the Gewehr-43 conducting rifle Klaus had conjured for him dangling in his hands. Usually, Klaus would feel disrespected by the mistreatment of creations, but at the moment he was in decent spirits. After all, he could almost taste and smell home—

A loud crack resounded again, but not from above. It thundered out from the thicket of mist and trees to their left. A high-pitched whine accompanied the sound and was followed by a snap as one of the branches from the trees to their right splintered off from its base. Then came the barrage. Bullets peppered down on them like torrenting rain. One whizzed by Klaus’s ear, while another struck the ground a centimeter away from his foot.

“Take cover! The trees!”

Instinct moved Klaus before Gilbert’s orders reached his ears. He dove behind the tree-line to his right and swung himself behind a thick trunk before falling into a crouch. He pulled his rifle from his shoulders and wrapped his fingers around the trigger—ready to fight. But as the trunk behind him shook with pounding bullets, he shrank further into himself.

Wait.

How many made it?

Atienna.

Klaus stiffened and scanned the area to his left. The combat medics Nico and Alwin were hidden behind a cluster of thin trees just a drop away. Behind a thick fallen log to his right, Fischer and Stein were caged around Marionette and Emil. A shaking Rath was pressed against the floor in front of them. It looked like he had somehow lost the conducting rifle. A waste.

Klaus glanced right. Relief came soon afterwards as he rounded off survival numbers in his head.

Vogt and Gilbert were pressed back against the tree stump beside him while Atienna was seated low in-between them. There was sweat beading her brow but her eyes were eerily calm, her breathing even. Almost like Werner.

For a moment, the barrage of bullets halted.

Maybe the lieutenant was back—

“Are you all alright?” Atienna asked quietly under her breath.

The illusion shattered.

Before Klaus could reply, another storm of bullets sprayed just above their cover. Stein and Vogt both lifted their rifle conductors and returned fire, only to be hampered down by another flurry of metal. Machine-gun? Klaus had heard about the Argoans developing higher-caliber artillery in the past few months, but this was something else.

“I need a headcount! How many of them are there?” Gilbert shouted, whipping around the trunk to fire off into the fog before pulling back again as a barrage of bullets ricocheted just above his head. “Dammit… how the hell did they get around us?” He swore. “This is why Werner wanted some damn Manipulators in this unit! Is that too much to ask for? Just a bit of damned medium-surveillance?!”

Vogt gave him an odd look before glancing at Atienna.

“Stein, Vogt, help me give Fischer some cover fire,” Gilbert ordered before nodding at the plethora of short-ranged conductors clipped to the latter’s belt. “Fischer, put those things to damned use.”

Atienna stiffened.

“Don’t worry,” Gilbert muttered to her. “He’s trained for this.”

Not seeming to hear the exchange from the short distance, Fischer nodded, locked eyes with Rath, and tossed the man his conducting rifle. He then pulled out a bladeless hilt from his waist and ignited it in amethyst with a flick of his wrist.

“Kleine.” Gilbert nodded. “Grenade.”

Klaus lifted his conductor-gloved hands, closed his eyes, and concentrated. He pictured the strike lever, the detonator, the percussion cap, the filling hole. Everything exact. One wrong ingredient and the entire thing could go off in your hands, as the instructors at the military academy had said.

His palms warmed and his arms became heavy. He, however, kept his concentration sharp. One last detail. One last serrated, cast-iron shell and—there. Klaus opened his eyes as the grenade solidified from the sky-blue light emitting from his palm.

Gilbert nodded at him. Signaled one, two, three. “Now!”

Klaus pulled the pin, drew out from cover, locked eyes with shadows moving through the smog, threw. A boom rang out a second later, followed by a gust of smoke and heated wind. Stein and Vogt immediately opened fire into the opposing tree-line. Fischer darted out from behind the protective cover fire and zipped through the mesh of fog and smoke. He slipped into the gray shroud, the light from his ignited blade serving as the only indication of his position. The faint amethyst line of light slithered through the smog in an arc before swinging up in a circle. A hissing sound as vitae tore through metal followed this motion, and the gun-gattling ceased. Then came the minute pops of gunfire followed by howling screeches.

It was a bit funny how they all sounded the same, whether they were afraid or dying—whether Argoan or Capricornian.

Gilbert signaled them to move forward. Projectors first. Combat medics last. Stein on Marionette and Emil, and Atienna ‘keeping an eye out’ behind the trees.

Rifle ready, Klaus filtered out behind Gilbert in a low crouch alongside Vogt. He kept close to the latter private as he always did—ready to conjure another conductor if Vogt cracked his insulation system or his conducting core as he usually did. He scanned for movement in the smoke. There. Just two meters away. A woman was trying to reload her rifle. This was where conductors dominated.

Vogt fired his conductor at her before the woman could get the bullet into the chamber. She folded onto the ground. Gilbert gave a firm nod before disappearing into the gray. One down. Unknown number to go—

“Kleine, behind!”

Klaus whipped around at Vogt’s shout just in time to see an Argoan charge at him from behind with a bayonet. Less than a meter away. This was it—

But there was a loud crack, and suddenly the bayonet was spinning up into the air. The Argoan grunted, staggering backwards away from the one who had kicked up his weapon: the lieutenant—no, Atienna.

She grabbed the Argoan, swept his legs out from underneath him, and then drove his face into the ground in one swooping motion. Swinging her rifle off her shoulders, she cracked the butt of it against the back of the Argoan’s head before swinging it out and jabbing it into the gut of another Argoan coming up just behind her. She uppercut him with the rifle a second later, and when he fell to the ground, she pounded down on his face twice, thrice, until he was no longer moving. She pulled back, panting heavily before turning around—

“Are you alright, Klaus?”

Beneath all of that odd concern, her eyes were afire. She looked like how Stein looked after he made a headshot. Absolutely…. alive.

The Argoan she had just incapacitated abruptly whipped out a pistol from his holster. Before he could fire it off, however, an arc of shimmering amethyst light severed his gun-wielding hand from his arm. The Argoan screeched in alarm but was soon muted as the amethyst light drilled its way through his chest.

Panting heavily, Fischer pulled his blade conductor out from the Argoan’s torso, turned to Atienna, and searched her face for approval. The only thing he found there, however, was wide-eyed shock. But before anything could be said, another figure lunged out at them from the smokescreen with a roar. It was—

—Rath?

The Capricornian tackled Fischer to the ground with a snarl.

“I’m friendly!” Fischer snapped, deactivating his conductor as he held up his arm to defend himself. “Look at my uniform! My conductor!”

Rath let out a guttural growl as he ripped Fischer’s conductor from his hands. Stumbling backwards, he flicked his wrist and activated the blade with a shimmer of light yellow. “You! It was one of you! My Magda!” And then he swung it down.

Fischer swiftly drew out another blade-less conductor from his belt and activated it just in time to block Rath’s oncoming attack. Sparks erupted as the blades screeched against each other. The steam from the heat and their panting breaths filled in the space between them.

Before Klaus could react, another pepper of gunfire came down in their direction. He ducked low, rolled into a wave of smoke cloud billowing towards him, and aimed his rifle at three Argoans who peeled out from the smog. Two shots. One to the chest, one to the face. Vogt took down the other one with a vitae-ray straight through the head. The Argoans dropped dead. Danger eliminated.

When Klaus turned back to Fischer and Rath, he found that their two vitae blades were still scratching against each other. But—something about Rath’s vitae blade looked odd. Cracks ran along its body—cracks that reminded Klaus of the vitae cracks that had run along the lamia tree Atienna had taken an interest in the other day. The cracks along Rath’s blade were dark blue instead of white, however, and they were pulsating, spreading. In an eerie fashion, the cracks crept forward along Rath’s blade towards Fischer’s blade—

Atienna kicked both Fischer’s blade conductor and Rath’s conductor up out of their hands before the strange cracks were able to complete whatever course they were taking. Without skipping a beat, she lunged forward and kneed Rath in the abdomen before grabbing him by the scruff and throwing him over her shoulders. He hit the ground with a thud before groaning and remaining motionless. Pulling away from him, she turned her attention to Fischer.

“Sorry, sir.” Fischer panted.

Atienna offered him a silent hand. Fischer startled before accepting it as if it were a gift from a saint. Klaus had never understood Fischer’s gushing admiration for Werner. While Klaus did respect his lieutenant, he wasn’t fanatical.

A movement from behind the two cut the moment in half. A bloodied-face Rath had pulled himself up into a sit and was now pointing a weapon he seemed to have pulled out from nowhere at them. The conducting rifle Klaus had conjured for him earlier.

Rath fired off two bursts of vitae without hesitation before Fischer charged at him with a newly drawn dagger conductor. Klaus dodged the blasts as did Atienna—her movements swift and fluid. Fischer drove the conducting knife into the man’s gut before pulling it upward in one clean slice. There was a splurge of red followed by the smell of unnatural iron and then silence.

Heaving, Fischer pushed Rath’s divided corpse off himself before turning to face them. Then, he stared past them. Klaus froze and followed his gaze right to Vogt—no, to Vogt’s stomach.

Klaus took in a breath. “No…”

Vogt whimpered as he stumbled backwards. He unbuttoned the front of his singed uniform, peeled away the fabric that had melted into his skin, and gripped his abdomen. “Oh, saints. Oh no… please no.”

It was an ugly, gushing wound, and for a faint moment, Klaus thought he could see right through it.

Atienna was at Vogt’s side in an instant, catching him before he hit the ground.

“M-Medic!” Klaus shouted hoarsely, running up to their side. “Alwin!”

Atienna pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket, placed it over Vogt’s wound, and applied pressure. Klaus found himself looking to her—to the person who wore his lieutenant’s face—out of habit for direction but instead found her looking to him for reassurance.

The world blurred; the background popped with spits of gunfire; Vogt’s sobs cut in out of the deafening sounds; and then came the pounding footsteps. Klaus whipped around with his rifle drawn but stopped short. Finally.

Nico and Alwin, conducting gloves already equipped, seated themselves on opposite sides of Vogt. Atienna’s gaze flicked from medic to medic, but all Klaus could focus on was Vogt—Otto.

“Get the morrowheat from my left lower pocket,” Nico said. “It’s the liquidized version. Inject it in his left leg. Keep applying pressure, Ati—Lieutenant. You’re doing good.”

Klaus fumbled through Nico’s orders, pulling out a capped needle from the man’s pocket and injecting it into Otto’s leg as instructed. As he did this, Alwin pulled a combat knife from his belt and tore open Otto’s pants leg. While Atienna continued to apply pressure to the wound, Nico and Alwin began to run their conducting gloves from the skin of Otto’s exposed lower leg to the gaping wound at his abdomen.

Another set of footsteps crunched on towards them from behind causing Klaus to finally realize that everything had fallen deathly quiet. No gunfire, no screams, no booms.

Gilbert emerged from the fog a moment later, rifle still gripped in his hands, but with loose shoulders and hop in his step. “The lot of them are retreating. We—” His eyes widened as he registered Rath’s corpse and then Otto bleeding out on the floor. He turned to the opposite woods and whistled sharply. “Stein, if you’re still alive, bring those two out here. Now!”

A smirking Stein came out from the wooded cover a second later with Marionette and Emil in tow. Upon laying eyes on Otto, however, the man swore. He then swiveled around and drove the butt of his conductor against Emil’s head. “You damn Groan! This was a trap, wasn’t it?!”

Emil yelped and hit the ground before curling up into a ball. “It wasn’t! It wasn’t! I don’t know anything!”

“Dammit, Stein! Enough!” Gilbert ordered. “One headache at a damn time. Keep a damn eye out.” He sank to a crouch beside Nico and glanced between him and Alwin. “How’s it looking?”

“We’re almost done with the graft,” Nico replied, forehead dripping with sweat as he continued to move his conductor from Otto’s leg to his stomach, “but he’s lost too much blood.”

During Stein’s ordeal with Emil, Atienna had been ushered aside by the combat medic and now hovered beside Klaus. She looked between them all with a painfully hopeful expression.

Alwin nodded at Nico in agreement. “We need to get him to a dressing station.”

“He…” Nico hesitated. “He might not make it.” He shook his head. “We need to stabilize him for transport. Klaus, get a gurney ready.”

Conjuring the gurney wasn’t as difficult as conjuring a grenade. Fewer parts, less dangerous. It took less than a second for Klaus to create it, and with Atienna’s help, he situated it parallel to Otto’s body.

Nico and Alwin peeled away from Otto as they finished their transmutation. Beneath all of that blood, they had managed to pull over a thin sheet of skin over his stomach. The transmuted area glistened in the dull light looking like it’d tear at any moment. Otto looked like a corpse.

Klaus had seen this many times. It was always strange—how fast the color was drawn out from a person’s face as they were dragged closer and closer to death. Pink to pale white to ashen gray.

“We need a transfusion,” Nico muttered. He glanced up at Alwin. “Otto is type-O, right?”

Alwin nodded and grimaced. “No one in the unit is—”

“I… I am…” Atienna whispered, placing a hand on Nico’s arm.

Nico’s eyes widened and then softened, and he consoled her: “ Werner is type-A. Otto is the only type-O in the unit. “ He called out to Marionette and Emil. “Type-O! Are any of you type-O?!”

No one answered. No one moved.

“None of you are type-O?!” Nico swung around wildly before his face crumpled. “Let’s just move him as fast as we can. Help us get him onto the gurney.”

Stein came around, swinging his conductor over his shoulder and locking eyes with Klaus as he hooked his hands underneath Otto’s arms. Klaus nodded, grabbing Otto by the legs. One, two, three—

Otto cried and kicked and squirmed as they hoisted him up. “Let me down! Let me down! Please! It hurts!”

“F-For, saint’s sakes, Vogt!” Stein snapped. “We’re trying to save you, you pussy!”

“Put him down!” Alwin shouted. “His transmutation graft is tearing!”

Klaus stiffened and turned his eyes towards Otto’s stomach. The thin, shiny flesh there had split into two and a geyser of red spurted out from it.

Saints.

“Gently, you guys, gently!”

With great difficulty, Klaus placed Otto back on the ground with Stein’s help. Alwin didn’t move forward, however. He merely sank to his knees and ran a hand down his face. Nico did, hands extended. His face contorted as he began the effort to transmute more of the skin from Otto’s leg to his abdomen.

“There’s not enough left for grafting,” Alwin said calmly. “Nico, you’re wasting your energy.”

Nico stiffened. “Then we use the other leg—”

“It’ll just tear. And I know you saw it. The amount of blood. The abdominal aorta—”

Klaus stared at Alwin in disbelief. “Don’t just sit there and—”

“I-I’ve been hit,” Otto stammered, eyes fluttering. He searched Nico’s face and then Klaus’s as he placed a hand to his stomach. He stared at his bloodied hand. “Klaus, Nico, I’ve been hit…”

Delirium.

From the corner of his eye, Klaus saw Atienna slowly, silently pulling away as she averted her gaze. Before she could make her escape, however, Otto grabbed a hold of her arm.

“A-Am I dying, Lieutenant…?” came the cracked sob.

Atienna’s eyes widened and her fingers trembled as she wrapped them around Otto’s hand. No words came from her mouth. No confirmation.

“Yes…” Nico said quietly. “Yes, you are, Vog—Otto. I’m sorry.”

There was a stretch of silence as the reality sunk in.

“T-Talk to me. Please,” Otto whimpered. “Someone please talk to me.”

Talk? With what? Empty words? Emptier than the pages of poetry that he always dove into to ignore the sound of gunfire and stupid, senseless chatter when he was stationed in the trenches at Abschnitt 45?

Atienna leaned forward, her face eclipsing Otto’s. She whispered, “You… You did good, Otto. You did very good.”

Empty words. And another empty stretch of silence.

“Will you write to my parents for me…?” Otto murmured after a long quiet. “It would mean a lot coming from you.” A shaky breath. “Tell mutti that I love her. Can you tell them I was good? Just… like you said now… Even if it can’t convey everything. It’s enough.”

Atienna side-glanced at Gilbert before nodding and placing a steady hand to his face.

“I’ll write, Otto,” she whispered. “I’ll write. Anything you want. About your plan for your botanical garden. About your horticulture class—”

Atienna was cut off by a hand on the shoulder. Nico, eyes calm but somber. She didn’t look away from Otto to meet those eyes but the message was clear. The one her words had been intended for was gone.

And the only thing Klaus could do was try to remember if he had lent Otto a book back at Abschnitt 45.


Threshold

The threshold between life and death’? That was ludicrous. That threshold was not a location. It was a state of being.

Cacophonic flapping and chirping resounded across the divide of light.

Werner squinted past the darkness towards the origin of the voice. There, he found a humanoid shape inching closer and closer to the stream of light between them. Its form was undefined, devoid of color, and pitch-black. Rippling, shifting, quivering—breaking apart at its edges. Breaking apart into something that fluttered, that flapped, that sent thin jet-black feathers swirling through the air. Blackbirds.

Werner’s eyes widened then narrowed.

A dream?

He glanced down at Lavi briefly. Her eyebrow was arched, her face impassive.

“It’s not a dream,” the voice across the divide continued, milky but clear. “Not in the literal sense.”

She could hear his thoughts, he realized.

“Yep,” the figure popped, her voice resonating above the chirping of the birds enveloping her body. “But not in the literal sense.”

It made logical that she could hear him and knew his name. If this was a dream, anything beyond the realm of reality was possible. This surreality.

“I mean this in the gentlest way possible, but the more time you spend thinking that this is a dream, the more dangerous your current situation becomes.”

Current situation?

“You’re in a perilous position right now, Werner. You and the other five.”

At the mention of the others, Werner tensed and moved his hand towards the gun clipped to his belt.

The blackbirds crowding the figure peeled away slowly, fluttering upwards into the darkness. As the birds dissipated, her features slowly became revealed. First came the black of her suit jacket, then came the white of her armband. Next, her short black hair was freed from the swarming birds, followed by her almond-shaped black eyes and round nose. Her appearance vaguely stirred Werner’s memories, although he was certain he had never met her before. Perhaps one of the other five had.

The unknown appeared to be a woman of Sagittarian descent and affiliated with Ophiuchus, Werner surmised as he felt the cold tip of his pistol at the tip of his fingers. Normally, it would not be wise to engage with foreign peacekeeping bodies. The consequences would be severe. The evidence that this was not normal circumstance, however, was clear.

“Like I said, you’re on the threshold,” the woman said. “You’re here but you’re not really here, so you don’t need to be worried about those kinds of consequences. And that gun you’re reaching for isn’t really there either.”

Werner paused, glancing down to his waist where his holster sat empty. He lowered his hand.

It appeared as if certain assumptions would have to be made.

“Exactly!” The woman nodded. “I know you’re a logical person, so if you see it right before your eyes, then you have to assume it’s real. If we want to get metaphysical about it, it became real as soon as you laid your eyes on it.”

You’ve been invaded, Werner,” Lavi said, her fingers ghosting his hand that still gripped her arm. “You’re being strangled by an idiot who doesn’t know how to stop. You and the others. If you don’t do something, you really will all…”

Werner released his hold on her. Was this truly Lavi? His eyes narrowed. “What do you mea—”

“Well, she’s a truer Lavi than the one you’ve seen,” the woman across the divide interjected as she pointed upwards. “While it’s pretty easy to make it down here, it’s pretty hard to make it back up without crossing this line. And, well, if you cross this line—I’m sure you know what that means. Of course, being a True Conductor does make it easier for you to return in the direction you came from.”

If she could hear his thoughts, it was unsurprising that she knew his position as a True Conductor. It was also unsurprising that she knew of Lavi. And if the presumption that this place was truly a ‘threshold’ was accepted then a reasonable theory could be made as to why Lavi was with him. This other woman’s presence, however, was unexplainable.

“Identify yourself,” he said calmly. “You’re a peacekeeper. Why are you here?”

The woman’s lips pulled tight but then she shrugged. “I’m Shion Myosotis. Weird name, I know. Mother was Sagittarian; father was one-third Ophiuchian. Kept the surname. And I, my dear, am here because I kinda died and got stuck. I’m just the result of doing too little too late.”

It’s too little, WernerA soft, stern voice whispered at the back of Werner’s mind. A faint memory, expanding like a fractal sheet of ice. And it’s too late—

Shion tutted loudly. “Be careful now. Like I said, you’re at the place where vitae enters and leaves the cycle. And since vitae stores memories, memories hold more power here than normal. You can easily slip into something you’ll have a hard time crawling out of. Metaphysical stuff.”

Werner stiffened despite himself. It had already been difficult to adapt to the other five being able to access his thoughts and memories. A sixth intruder was—

“Memories make up reality,” Lavi argued. “There’s nothing metaphysical about it. It’s fact.” Her words were sharp and direct, so unlike the airy and timid girl that would ghost their synchronization meetings. “Just take a look at your history textbooks,” she continued. “We all know those types of things aren’t fully accurate. They’re based on the recollections of people who wrote them. But because they’ve been recorded and remembered, they’ve become fact—”

“Enough,” Werner interjected. “What is happening?”

“Always down to business with you.” Shion sighed. “Like I said earlier, I’m the result of doing too little too late. I’m stuck here—kinda like how Miss Chance is stuck here. And if you don’t act soon, you’ll be stuck here too—”

“No,” Lavi interjected. “You’ll die. You and the others. My brother.” She turned, pushed herself up on toes, and grabbed hold of his shoulders. “You need to free yourself.”

Die? Free himself?

Werner tensed. “Explain.” He studied Lavi for a moment—faint memories of running through sun-dappled courtyards hazed the edges of his mind—before he provided a respectful, “Please.”

Shion pointed to her open palm. “You had an accident, you see. It’s not your fault, but the moment it happened, you and the people you’re connected to were visited by an intruder’s vitae.”

Werner stiffened, before tightening his gloved hand into a fist. The memory was faint but he could still vaguely recall the ghost of the knife cutting into his palm. The knife had belonged to Heimler, and Werner was certain it had not been a conductor. Unless… An individual who was able to use vitae without a conductor was involved and had wielded the weapon.

Werner frowned.

He hadn’t even considered the possibility. A miscalculation. So if everything said was true, then this occurrence was his fault. Unacceptable and shameful. He would need to rectify it.

“Invaded by what?” Werner pressed. “A Specialist? A saint candidate?”

Lavi answered, “You can compare it to something like a monster. The point is that True Conductors are like channels. Each True Conductor group serves as one channel. When something else is added to it or if something that is part of it breaks away, the channel is either put under pressure or crumbles in on itself. What entered you is slowly constricting you and the other five— my brother.” Her eyes narrowed. “It’s playing with you. Loosening, constricting, loosening, constricting.”

Werner studied Lavi carefully. He already had suspicions about her nature, her history as a failed saint candidate, and Olive’s ability to conduct without a conductor. He hadn’t addressed it for reasons that he realized now were unclear to him. Influence from Chance, most likely. And now Lavi’s knowledge here was highly disturbing, but he couldn’t make himself think of her as anything but an ally. Again, Chance.

“Right now,” Shion continued, “you’re the only one here. Most of the others are probably caught somewhere between here and the surface. Maybe one of them is on the surface. Your surface. Meaning, only you can fix this.”

Was she referring to an override? Then that was even more disconcerting given the physical position of his body in the unoccupied territory and his mission. And if Olive or Cadence were on the surface then…

He pressed, “And how exactly do I rectify my mistake?”

“You’re reacting really well to being told you’re dying,” Shion noted with a grin before frowning. “And I told you, it isn’t your fault…”

There would be no point in panicking in this situation. And responsibility always needed to be accounted for. They needed to get to the matter at hand.

Shion gave an abrupt laugh. “Well, since you’re so eager—think of it like this. Right now, whatever’s invaded you has its fingers embedded in you—in your vitae. Meaning, in your memories. All you need to do is cut off those fingers.”

An unclear answer, but first—

“You know a significant amount of information regarding this,” Werner said. “How did you obtain this information? You told me your name, but that isn’t proper identification.”

He felt ridiculous—questioning something that might as well be a part of his own subconscious. But he had taken enough risks already and had possibly put the others in danger due to those risks. He would not make the same mistake again.

“Well, Miss Lavender and I have been stuck here for quite some time. You tend to pick up a thing or two. Sometimes things come on down here just like you did now. But, look, trust us, don’t trust us. We’re here to help you regardless.”

Trust—Werner thought of his men. Here, however, that was an empty word. Too many variables. Too much uncertainty. Too much risk.

Shion clasped her hands together. “The deal is the longer you stay at this threshold, the closer you all are to dying. Because of that constriction. Eventually you’ll be constricted to the point where you’re no longer connected with the others—and that connection is what’s keeping you all alive. The clock is ticking, Werner.”

Tick, tick, tick, tick—Werner’s pocket watch abruptly began to thrum away over his heart in his chest pocket. He refrained from reaching for it—refrained from thinking of the one who made it—and kept his pose firm and his ears peeled.

“The only way to get out of this mess—to remove the hold it has on you,” Shion continued, “is to find exactly where it’s embedded in you—in your vitae. A.K.A., which memories it’s embedded in. Pretty easy to find ‘em since we’re at the threshold.” A frown creased her lips, and she folded her right hand into a mock gun which she rested in her left. “After you find the memories, you need to wade your way through them, and break it—the finger, I mean.” She pulled a mock trigger. “It’s as metaphysical as that.”

A distant memory resounded within Werner’s mind at Shion’s motion: the bang of the bullet exiting its chamber as he’d pulled the trigger of the gun aimed at the back of Magda Rath’s head.

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