Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border
Death was like a bad whiskey. Drink enough of it—get exposed enough to it—and you got used to it. Sometimes forgot about it. The bitter taste of it lessened into something shrugged at, maybe grimaced at lightly in passing. The line, smudged. Until it was someone you knew. Someone you really knew.
But at least, Leutnant Gilbert Wolff thought, Otto wouldn’t have to deal with being in this situation.
Gilbert hadn’t a clue how the Argoans managed to follow them to near the border’s edge and give them the jump. He wasn’t sure whether it was just bad luck or bad leadership at this point. He’d tried to dissuade Hauptmann Weingartner from giving him the damned promotion to leutnant because he felt like he wasn’t qualified enough to lead a unit, but Werner had urged him to accept it. And here they were with Werner not even around for Gilbert to offer an ‘I told you so.’
Gilbert surveyed his surroundings again just to reevaluate how backwards their situation had become. At the moment, they were winding their way back through the unoccupied territory. They’d already passed their fallen camp, and the sun was beginning to peek up through the fog on the horizon. The Argoan commander, a leutenant—rather, lieutenant—whom Gilbert had dubbed ‘Lieutenant Asshat’—leading their group hadn’t stopped to ask questions about the scene of carnage. Asshat had merely spat on the ground a bit and knocked down a couple of their already toppled tents. He was fluent in Common—as were all the Argoans in the unit—so Gilbert had the joy of listening to the man crow about “Argoans this” and “Capricornians that” for the better part of five hours.
Gilbert couldn’t even retort because he and his men were not only bound at the wrists but also gagged at the mouth. Which seemed like overkill since they were surrounded from all angles by Argoans. Not even a crack in the wall of bodies that caged them in. There were probably thirty or more Argoans to this unit. Always so many of them. Damn cockroaches.
To Gilbert’s left, Stein dragged his feet and glared at the Argoans like he was the one with the gun. Beside Stein walked Fischer and Kleine. Fischer’s eyes were glued to the muddied path, while Kleine was staring ahead at nothing. There was an empty space beside him that Otto Vogt would usually occupy. Behind that bunch, Heimler paced quietly, staring holes into Marionette Engel who was walking with her held up high like she was about to take an interview from the press. Typical politically-minded person. Gilbert would’ve laughed at her if it weren’t for the fact that Atienna was walking forward with the same amount of grace to his right. Practically floating, like she wasn’t stuck on a path leading right into enemy hands. Gilbert figured she didn’t know any better. It’d be scary if she did.
Dammit. Gilbert frowned. Not only did Otto die under his watch but he’d also handed Werner’s possession-buddy right into enemy hands.
He looked away from Atienna and towards Brandt and Nico who were walking side-by-side at the very tail-end of their encircled group. They both looked grim. But given Nico’s upbringing and occupation, Gilbert figured Nico wasn’t worried so much about their capture as mulling over Otto.
Damn it. Would Otto still be alive if Werner had been in charge instead? Would they have been captured like this?—This was why Gilbert hated thinking. Too much of it and there went the marbles.
Feeling a gaze prick his side, Gilbert turned to Atienna and found her staring at him. She paced forward a bit and turned her head towards him. Gilbert arched a brow as she started tapping her gloved fingers against the side of her leg. He continued to stare blankly at her, his gaze flicking from her hand to her eyes back to her hand. And then it clicked.
Code, Gilbert realized. She knew Capricornian code? Damn, she was smart. Why the hell hadn’t Werner mentioned her more often? Secretive bastard. Probably taught her it himself. Always talking about confidentiality and being compromised when he was out doing stuff like this. ‘Course, Werner’d probably chalk it up to “necessary precautions” instead of something more along the lines of “trust.”
Gilbert nodded and blinked back twice signaling that he was ready to interpret the message. Atienna’s lips pulled upwards slightly.
A. V. O. I. D. C. O. N. D. U. C. T. O. R.
Two taps. Message finished.
Gilbert arched a brow.
Atienna tapped her side three times. Another message.
M. A. N—
“What the hell are you doing?”
Atienna stiffened and glanced up just as Lieutenant Asshat raised the butt of his rifle and cracked it across her temple. She hit the ground like a rag doll.
“Hey!” came Nico’s muffled snap as he charged forward.
But Gilbert beat him to it. He threw himself against Asshat, knocking them both to the ground. A second later, he was dragged off of the lieutenant and kneed in the gut three times. Still worth it—especially after he got a glimpse of the flabbergasted lieutenant’s reddening face as he was helped to his feet. Gilbert’s satisfaction faded, however, as he realized that Atienna was still on the ground.
“Get up,” Asshat grunted, straightening himself and nudging her in the stomach with the point of his boot. When he received no response, he delivered a hard kick. “I said get up!”
“Stop!” one of the Argoans exclaimed, throwing himself in-between Atienna and his superior with arms widespread. It was Emil—the one that Gilbert had found at the carnage of their campsite, the one that Atienna had comforted. “Sir, please stop!”
Asshat stopped, boot still raised.
“He’s a first lieutenant, sir! He has information! What’ll the major say if you bring him back dead?”
That was a politician for you, Gilbert thought with relief. A couple of words and you’d be laying down your life for them.
Lieutenant Asshat lowered his boot and scrapped it on the ground. Emil’s eyes narrowed.
“Then you carry his dead weight,” Asshat snapped, jabbing Emil in the chest before pulling away. “Like how we have to carry your dead weight.”
Emil swallowed, nodded. As the other Argoans began to move them forward, he bent down and looped Atienna’s arm over his shoulder. He struggled to pull up the dead weight, but none of his fellow soldiers came to his aid. Gilbert moved forward instead, pushing past the threatening Argoans and offering his shoulder.
* * *
They were pushed on deeper into the unoccupied territory, pushed further away from home. Eventually, the woods fell away into trampled earth. Soon, in the distance, Gilbert was able to make out a black line drawn across the horizon. The Argoan trench, dipping down into the earth. The divide.
As they drew near to it, Gilbert realized how lucky they were with their well-furnished trenches back in Capricorn. The Argoan trench was a muddied cesspool with walls lined with bags of sand slathered in more mud. The men and women scattered within it were caked with grime and dirt.
Gilbert and his men were directed to a small wooden platform placed haphazardly over a stretch of trench. It connected one side to the other. Halt, came Asshat’s order.
Gilbert’s hairs stood on end as he stood waiting at the very edge of the makeshift bridge. One more step and that was it. The line.
Lieutenant Asshat signaled several of his men forward. After Gilbert handed Werner off to Emil and another Argoan, his hands were unbound, his mouth un-gagged. The others in his unit were given similar treatment. A clear-cut message.
Gilbert, still tasting the fibers of the clothes at the roof of his mouth, rolled his tongue in displeasure. As he rubbed his sore wrists, he turned to Nico and asked, “Well, Nic, you ever face anything like this in the Twin Cities?”
“More than you’d think,” Nico whispered, wiping his mouth. “Though it’s not as flashy as this…”
Right. The weird-ass crime family war. Gilbert wondered what had happened to that lot. He hadn’t bothered asking.
“Shut up and move,” Asshat ordered.
Stein, Kleine, and Fischer looked to him, unmoving.
Gilbert took in a deep breath, held his head up high, and took the first step onto the plank. The thud of rubber against wood was hollow. The sound resonated further as the others followed behind him single-file into—
Silent eyes from the trench below were glued to their backs as they stomped across the wooden bridge. The silence remained even as they stepped onto Argoan soil collectively, and it held steadfast even after Gilbert returned to his position of carrying Atienna’s—Werner’s—weight. Nico joined him in the effort as Emil peeled away. And with the silence still keeping clutch, they were pushed forward again.
Argo didn’t look much different from Capricorn, Gilbert realized as they were led through a dune of sand that opened up to a rolling prairie dusted with snow. The grass had the same crunch. The air had the same thin consistency.
They passed through a small village where a handful of dirty children ran around playing hide-and-seek in-between towers of rubble that might have once been buildings. Gilbert recalled reading a military report several months back about a successful breach of the Argoan border where they’d made it to a residential area. The Capricornian advance was chased out not soon after but the newspapers raved about it for weeks. Personally, Gilbert couldn’t wrap his head around why that group had pushed so far in. “The higher you reached and climbed, the farther the distance you’d fall,” as his mother had put it way back when. And Capricorn had indeed lost some ground in the unoccupied territory following the advance’s tactical retreat.
After an hour of walking through snow-caked grass, Gilbert and his group were shoved onto a dusted path worn down by wheel tracks. As they were made to wait on the side of the path, Gilbert studied the tracks and for a moment thought that the Argoans had somehow gotten their hands on v-ehicles. This thought left Gilbert’s mind as soon as he heard a rumbling coming on down the road. What came rolling down the dirt path was certainly not a v-ehicle, despite looking like one. It lacked the signature insulating tubes and signature squareness that characterized every v-ehicle model within Signum. Instead, it was round and sleek with a hooded caravan was attached to its back.
“This must be one of your first times seeing it, no?” Lieutenant Asshat hummed. “You based your v-ehicles off of our vehicles. Our automobiles. Our innovation.”
Saints. Gilbert wished he had a gun.
“We improved your vehicles,” Gilbert grumbled. “Heard these things can’t even go over 45 kilometers an hour.”
“Gilbert …!” Nico whispered from opposite of Atienna.
Asshat didn’t have a chance to respond as the automobile pulled into a park in front of them. A man wearing a billed cap unloaded from the driver’s seat and handed Asshat a clipboard and pen.
A groan emitted from Gilbert’s left. When he turned in the direction, he found Atienna lifting her head. Her gaze flicked briefly to the caravan and then to the Argoans and then to him and then to where Stein and the other men stood silently. She pulled away from him and Nico, before straightening herself with a cool gaze. Locking eyes with him, she asked, “What’s the meaning of this, Gilbert?”
Gilbert stared back hard, feeling relief loosening half of the tension in his shoulders. He couldn’t help but chuckle despite the situation. Always the best timing. “That’s what I was about to ask you. Told you I wasn’t good for the promotion. I take it your head’s on straighter now?”
“Werner?” Nico tried, expression brightening.
Werner stiffened and turned. “Nico?”
A stomping of boots out from the vehicle cut him off. A group of men and women were being loaded off the caravan at gunpoint. Gilbert recognized the color of their uniforms immediately.
Stein spat on the ground. “Aquarians.”
There were five Aquarians total—two women, three men. Two of their faces itched at Gilbert’s memory. Nico gawked at them.
It took another second for recognition to come to Gilbert: “Oh, what the—”
“—hell,” Nikita Knovak finished across from him, eyes wide, lips pulled down into a slight sneer.
Even when Gilbert had been fighting beside Knovak against Major Ersatz’s ELPIS whackos back during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, Knovak had been jeering at him just like this. Good to see he was still the same. Even kept the habit of being captured by the enemy.
Beside Knovak stood the Aquarian hauptmann—kapitan?—Dunya Kramer, the woman whom Werner— Maria—had released from captivity during the very first override. The Aquarian kapitan’s reaction to them was much more subdued than Knovak’s. She merely locked eyes with Werner and inclined her head.
“You know each other?” Asshat addressed Werner and pointed to Kramer.
But Werner stared past Kramer and towards the other female Aquarian soldier who stood at Kramer’s right. The soldier’s hair was a light blonde, her eyes an ice blue, her nose hooked and prominent.
“Your head still tossed, Capricornian?” Asshat pressed. “I asked you a question.”
Gilbert’s gaze flitted back to Werner.
“We became acquainted during the Aquarian-Capricornian conflict approximately six to seven months prior,” Werner replied, meeting Asshat’s gaze. “There was an incident that required us to work together. Our association goes no further than that, and I doubt that holds pertinence to our current situation—”
“I decide what’s pertinent here.”
“That appears to be the case,” Werner agreed.
Man, it was good to have him back.
Lieutenant Asshat pulled back with a scoff, returning the clipboard to the driver who then loaded back into the vehicle. “All you Signum people know how to do is fight. I’ve heard from down the pipeline that you two were squabbling over reservoirs when you were already dealing with us. Sadly, it’s never crossed your minds to work together.” A derisive snort. “We’re innovative, you see. We don’t rely on one sole source of energy like you idiots in Signum, so we don’t fight—”
“Because you don’t have other source.” Knovak snorted. “Not impressive when you scavenge scraps.”
An Argoan soldier stormed over and slammed the butt of his rifle in Knovak’s stomach, but the Aquarian remained standing firm and unflinching. Gilbert figured the man’s abs were as hard-steel as his guts.
“You want fight?” Knovak challenged, arching a brow and glowering down at the offending Argoan.
“Knovak.” Kramer sighed before muttering something in Aquarian. Stand down, it seemed.
Knovak shrugged and returned in Common, “Yes, ma’am.”
The vehicle reversed and started rolling back in the direction where it’d come from. Gilbert watched it go with a grimace as Asshat saluted and waved. He then turned to Werner and found the man switching between staring at Nico, staring at his subordinates, staring inquisitively at Marionette Engel, and staring at the rifles held steady in the Argoans’ hands. Analyzing, probably.
“Need a briefing or are you getting brief already?” Gilbert joked. “And mind giving me one?”
Werner glanced at him before returning his attention to Nico. “Now is not the time, Gilbert.”
* * *
After walking a kilometer or so further down the road, they were led to a dirt trail through a patch of woods that opened up to a clearing occupied by a singular square building with a tiled roof. It was caged in by a metal fence guarded by two Argoans who allowed them in after Asshat waved a hand.
A large hall with a floor smeared with a sludge of ice and dirt greeted them upon their entry. The dim overhead lights cast the wooden doors dotting the hall and the uniformed men and women guarding them in an amber sheen. Kleine stared up at the lights, seemingly fascinated.
They were made to wait by one of the doors alongside the Aquarians as the Argoan woman stationed there searched for the keys in her pockets under Asshat’s watchful gaze. A pair of Argoans straddling a wooden, splintering crate came pacing down the hall. As they passed by, Gilbert was able to catch a glimpse of the crate’s contents. Small rings, bladeless hilts, metal gloves—all lined with large glass tubes.
Proto-conductors, Gilbert realized. He had heard from Werner that one of the crime families in the Twin Cities had been selling them to the Argoans. He’d figured after Ophiuchus had barged into the city that the Argo had been cut off from the supply. He hadn’t seen any of them wielding conductors recently either, so he’d seen it as a small victory. But it seemed like the bastards still had some scraps left after all—
Werner abruptly slipped on the ground and crashed into the pair carrying the crate. The duo stumbled backwards, barely managing to steady themselves. Werner and the crate weren’t as lucky, both hitting the floor in synchrony. The crate burst upon impact, sending the proto-conductors clattering onto the ground. Gilbert gawked at the scene, before shaking his head and extending a hand to Werner. But Nico beat him to it, aiding Werner to his feet as the Argoan pair began to gather the scattered proto-conductors.
“Stop,” came the clipped order from Asshat. He motioned Emil forward and pushed Nico aside. “Check Cold Eye’s pockets.”
“I did, sir,” Emil said. “Before we—”
“Check them again.”
Emil stiffened and nodded, swinging his rifle over his shoulders before searching Werner’s body bottom-up. His hand paused above Werner’s pants pocket, and he pulled out a familiar-looking pair of chocolate bars.
The Argoan lieutenant eyed the things and sneered. “Let him keep it.”
Emil nodded, placing the chocolates back into Werner’s pants pocket. He moved on to searching Werner’s belt. Nothing. As his fingers brushed over Werner’s chest pocket, however, he stiffened. Hesitantly, he reached into it and pulled out the object occupying it. The silver of it glinted even in the dull overhead lights. Werner’s pocket watch.
Asshat motioned for it, and Emil slowly walked over and placed it in his waiting hand. Asshat then examined the watch, turning it over and tossing it in the air. He caught the item, pocketed it, and approached Werner. “Seems suspicious, so I’ll keep it.”
Werner’s expression remained impassive, his eyes narrowing only a fraction of a second.
The woman guarding the door finally managed to find the keys, inserted one into the door, and pushed it open. Gilbert found himself and the others swiftly ushered inside. They were greeted with a damp, dim room housing an island table at its center. A jail cell was nestled in each corner, one of them already occupied by a man and a woman.
“Hauptmann!” Kleine exclaimed, shaking out of the stupor that had kept him during their long trek to this place. “Bergmann!”
Hauptmann Weingartner rose from where he sat cross-legged on the floor of his cell and approached the bars. Incredulity folded over his tired face. “Kleine? Waltz?”
Bergmann peeled out from behind Weingartner and pushed herself beside him. Her face brightened as she registered them but a brief expression of puzzlement took over her as she searched all of their faces. Worry lines crested her brow as the full weight of their predicament seemed to dawn on her. When their gazes met, Gilbert looked away. He knew exactly who she was searching for.
“Seems like you all know each other,” Asshat noted, looking between them all.
“He’s my commanding officer,” Werner affirmed, inclining his head in the hauptmann’s direction.
“Well, it’s unsurprising that you all ended up being caught by us then. Birds of a feather flock together,” Asshat responded. “You’ll get to know each other quite well here— and our interrogators.”
Asshat directed Dunya Kramer, Nikita Knovak, and the two other Aquarians into a cell located diagonally across from the hauptmann’s. Gilbert was shoved in one of the remaining empty cells alongside Werner, the rest of his men, and Marionette. Just as Nico was filtering in behind them, however, one of the Argoans grabbed him by the arm and jerked him away.
Gilbert whipped around. “Hey!”
Stein lunged forward only to be sent back into the cell with a kick to the gut. The cell door clicked shut as the keys turned in the lock. The keys were then handed over to Emil who paled.
Werner paced up to the bars. “That is a combat medic. He has no information on the details of our operations. If your methods border on torture, then you will be in direct violation of the Treaty of—”
“Cold Eye, we didn’t fight in your grand war,” the Asshat responded. “We don’t abide by any of your treaties. Just be glad that we’re sensible enough not to have you executed on the spot.” He chuckled wryly. “I’ve heard from down the pipeline that your unit is fond of those things.”
“It’ll be fine, Lieutenant,” Nico responded tightly. “See you soon.”
Werner pulled away from the bars before offering a curt nod. Although his expression was calm and collected as ever, Gilbert could feel the irritation, annoyance, and worry emanating from his rigidly stiff back. The stiffness seemed forced and exaggerated which—Gilbert now realized—was very worrying. Almost as worrying as Nico’s current predicament.
“Keep steady, Nic,” Gilbert managed.
Damnit. They couldn’t catch a break, could they?
Asshat and all of the other Argoans besides Emil exited the room with Nico in tow. As the cellar door clicked shut, Emil seated himself at the center island table and stared at his hands. He then lifted his head and studied Werner.
“You can talk to each other,” Emil murmured, absentmindedly shifting through the papers laid out on the desk. “I won’t say anything. If you need water or food, just ask me.”
Atienna’s magic no doubt.
Werner stared back at him silently before gazing at the door.
Hauptmann Weingartner approached the bars of his cell and spoke quietly across the distance, “Waltz, are you and your men alright?”
Werner peeled his eyes away from the door, surveyed Gilbert and the other men in their crowded cell, before acknowledging the hauptmann with a nod. “Yes, sir.”
Hauptmann Weingartner let out a quiet sigh before he peeked past Werner. “I don’t see Vogt with you. He was a part of your unit. Was he not captured?”
Werner glanced back at the men again, evidently scanning their faces in search of one that was buried half a meter under the earth. His gaze flicked to Marionette Engel who was tucked away in the corner of the cell shielding her face with an upturned collar. Heimler was stationed beside her.
Gilbert frowned, that itching suspicion returning. Had Atienna not told Werner what had happened yet? No, she wasn’t the type from what he’d seen so far. The only person Gilbert knew that would go to nonsensical extremes to withhold information would be…
“Hauptmann, Werner got a head injury midway through the operation,” Gilbert explained as he went up to the bars. “His head is still kinda jumbled, so I was given command, sir.” He side-glanced at the Aquarians jailed across the room before briefing the hauptmann on everything that had occurred since Atienna’s override. Coming across their fallen camp; discovering Marionette Engel, Henning Rath, and the Argoan Emil; engaging with an Argoan unit on their way back home; and, losing Otto Vogt to a crazed Henning Rath.
Werner paled and his lips pulled into a tight line as he digested the information. Shoulders sagging, Bergmann released her iron grip on the bars of the cell and took a step back.
“I see,” Weingartner said after a beat. “Otto’s loss is unfortunate. I’m sorry. He was a good man.” He allowed a solemn, momentary pause of silence to pass before he eyed Marionette standing stiffly in her corner. “It’s fortunate that you caught Engel but we can’t do much with that in our current situation. But the Augen’s infiltration into our military is something that needs to be reported—”
“We aren’t infiltrating anything.” Marionette unfurled herself from her corner and stormed over to the bars to face the hauptmann. “We were here from the very beginning. Things don’t exist the moment you notice them, Hauptmann. And our voices are more common than you think. I’m sure you’ve thought about it too. I mean, look at where our military has gotten us.”
Emil tensed at the island table before glancing nervously between them. “I said you could talk… but if you argue… even if they don’t understand Capricornian… my superiors might overhear and come in and—”
“—and what?” Werner interjected in Common, meeting Emil’s eyes. “You’re offering us empathy and solidarity, but it’s a useless gesture given your position.”
Emil’s brows furrowed, and he rose to a stand. “Look! I’m trying to—”
“We’re the ones in the cells. Look where you’re standing.”
Emil’s shoulders deflated.
“You said that you would get us food and water if we needed it. That would be the best way for you to ‘assist’ us. Anything else is just empty words.”
Emil stood silent there for a tense moment, holding Werner’s gaze. He then absentmindedly touched his cheek with one hand and plucked the keys from where they rested on the table with the other. “Water and food, right? I’ll see what I can do about that.” And with that, he swept out of the room.
Weingartner stared holes into Werner in the silence that followed. Gilbert didn’t blame him. What had just happened was—
“Waltz,” the hauptmann finally whispered, “that was extremely dangerous.”
Werner placed a hand on Marionette’s shoulder, guiding her away from the bars. “I apologize, sir, but I thought it would be the best route to get a discussion alone.”
Werner blinked. “Yes, for us to discuss our escape plan.”
Some of the Aquarians in the cell across from them turned their heads at this. Stein, who had laid down after kicking the wall several times moments earlier, jerked up to a stand. Fischer straightened to attention. Gilbert wasn’t surprised by their reactions. The two of them were poster boys for Capricornian military might, after all. But—
“An escape plan?” The hauptmann frowned. “Werner, now is not the time for that. We don’t know this area enough to even remotely begin to plan anything.” He sighed with some semblance of understanding. “I’m aware of your injury, Werner, so I’ll assume—”
“I have a plan, sir. I ask that you trust me—”
Weingartner’s brows furrowed.
Gilbert grabbed Werner’s shoulder and whipped him around. He studied the man’s face before he found his gaze drawn down to the man’s chest pocket. Without hesitation, he reached into it. Something was there, round and cold. Gilbert stiffened, pulled the object out, and held it out to the light. In his palm rested Werner’s pocket watch that the Argoan lieutenant had stolen away from him only minutes before. A sleight of hand had probably returned it into Werner’s—not -Werner’s—possession.
“I said ‘another time,’ didn’t I?” Not-Werner pressed, eyes glinting as he reached over and closed Gilbert’s fingers over the pocket watch. “Trust me.”
Gilbert felt a headache coming on.
Saints. Not this bit—
“How will I find where this intruder is ‘embedded’?” Werner Waltz inquired. “The information you’ve given me is subjective. Are their specific locations?” He paused, staring down at Lavi and reconsidering his words. “I would appreciate a more concrete explanation.”
Shion’s lips moved but Werner couldn’t hear her. He cautiously approached the stream of light only to be stopped by a hand around the wrist. Lavi.
“Be careful,” she said. “It’s easy to go over the line at this point.”
“I’m aware of the danger,” Werner replied, eyes narrowing. Just as he was fully aware of the questionability of Lavi’s and Shion’s intentions.
Pulling his wrist out from her grip, he continued forward, drawing short just one exact step away from the stream of light. The touch of the stream was warm, but he knew it was not real.
“I said, ‘nothing precise about it.’” Shion’s milky voice carried over the distance. “Sorry. I know that probably bugs the heck out of you but that’s how it is here.”
That was an unsatisfactory response but acceptable given the situation.
“This involves saint candidates and the syzygy.” Werner studied her. “I know you’re aware of this.”
“Sure, I’ll tell you about it,” Shion popped with a shrug. “But not now because time’s a ticking—” She reached across the divide towards him, her pale hand catching a white and almost translucent sheen from the light below.
Werner grabbed her wrist to stop her—rather, he attempted to. Her hand phased right through his, and she tapped the pocket watch above his heart.
“—Don’t lose track of it.”
The stream of light in between them burned bright at that moment, blinding Werner and forcing him to reflexively squeeze his eyes shut. When he opened his eyes, it was dark. A jail of trees imprisoned him in a musty clearing. Before him kneeled a bow-headed Magda Rath. His hand was gripping a gun, his finger hovering above the trigger.
This was most likely one of the ‘memories that needed playing out’ that Shion had mentioned. The very concept was borderline fantastical, but standing by and doing nothing was unacceptable. If it was needed, he would play out his role. However, even with this resolve in mind, Werner couldn’t help but note Magda’s trembling shoulders. Ridiculous. There was no need for hesitation—there hadn’t been any when he initially had taken this action. This was not real—
“How can you even do this to people?”
Werner stiffened, feeling a gaze prick his back. He didn’t need to turn his head to identify the speaker. That voice filled with grievance, that question asked in the same tone as always—Olive. The very first question the prince had ever asked him. The question began to buzz back and forth in his mind like a broken record.
Werner’s finger twitched—seemingly without his will—and moved away from the trigger.
“How can you even do this to people?”
It wasn’t a matter of ‘can.’ It was a matter of ‘must.’ The ‘how’ came easily with practice.
Werner forced his finger back to the trigger.
“Have you ever considered a different profession, Werner?” —Another voice, another question that was asked in passing not so long ago. Asked by Atienna, eyes half-lidded as she listened to the click-clacking of the railroad tracks that pointed in the direction of Capricorn. “You know Olive’s been meaning to ask you all this time. I’ve been meaning to ask this to you and Jericho too. With Jericho—I understand his ‘why’. But… I wonder what the ‘why’ is with you. Is it because of conscription—the draft? You don’t have a choice?”
Again, his finger moved away from the trigger.
It wasn’t a matter of choice. It was a matter of duty. And also appearances and therefore expectation which all fell in line with that former concept of duty.
You can meet the expectations of your superiors but can’t meet their expectations? What would they think of you doing something like this?
They would understand—
… but do they really understand? Do they understand why you did this? Why did you do it?
Werner’s gaze focused on the woman kneeling before him.
Because Magda Rath was a coward and a traitor to Capricorn, putting herself and her family before her country.
No. Why did you really do it?
Because it was his duty.
No . There’s no need for appearances here. They’re deceiving. Why did you do it?
Because he hadn’t wanted to see Gilbert executed for failing to follow orders and for deserting his post.
A cold sweat broke across Werner’s forehead.
So you admit it. When you took away Gilbert’s task, you indirectly performed an act of insubordination. You should’ve reported Gilbert to begin with! You chose a person over your country.
“I told you already so many times, Werner,” came a familiar, hot whisper ghosting the back of his neck, “you shouldn’t associate with useless people or other people will think you’re useless too. Appearances are everything. Useless people will always be put in their place, and you can’t let that become your place.”
In a rational mind, this was fact.
“Are you happy when you disappoint me?” The voice slithered down his back again. “It’s okay. As long as you keep up appearances, I’ll—”
Palms burning, Werner pulled the trigger. The sound was hidden by a boom of thunder overhead. Magda Rath’s entire body spasmed, her head snapping forward crookedly. She swayed for a moment before falling forward. As her body hit the ground, it shattered like glass, the fragments taking the shape of scorpions. Hundreds of them, black-bodied and glistening. The arachnids scrambled over each other’s bodies, writhing in a mass of shining blackness.
Werner frowned, shaking one back into the swarming pile as it crawled up on his shoe. Then, something in the body of that pulsating mass caught his eye: a scorpion with an iridescent, cerulean exoskeleton that shone like a sapphire gem. Its stinger was sharp and dripping a dewdrop of venom.
Why do you always disappoint—
Werner crushed the blue scorpion with the sole of his boot, silencing the daunting thoughts in the process. He scraped off the excess against the earth. And as he did so, the woods fragmented around him again and fell away revealing the familiar empty void occupied by a familiar pair and by a familiar stream of light.
“Wow, that was fast! It looked pretty tough too.” Shion clapped. “But that’s expected. Congratulations, one down!”
Lavi, still standing beside him, peered at him curiously. “Are you okay? How’d it go?”
Werner took one second to collect his thoughts and steady his breathing.
That had been an unpleasant experience. That unpleasant memory—paired with other unpleasant ones—had started bleeding into the ones he had quietly dubbed as ‘pleasant.’ It was only recently that he had started taking the time to separate the two from each other—this was to better handle situations where one of the other five would inevitably receive some of the memories.
That aside, he would rather not experience it again. But if it was necessary, he would do it once more. However…
A wisp of faded green light suddenly sank down from the blackness above his head and sauntered on towards him. He attempted to side-step the wisp but it rushed forward, passing through him and imparting a brief warmth in his chest.
Simultaneously, a sharp pain shot up the back of his neck to his temples where it built in pressure, almost threatening to explode. He jerked his head subtly but did not bow to the pain—not even as it increased ten-fold, exploding at the back of his head.
Lavi peered up at him inquisitively, while Shion frowned.
And then came the images. Photographic, monochrome snapshots that tumbled down inside his mind without order or context:
Gilbert offering a reluctant hand on a moonlit night in front of a lamia tree. Shifting through Argoan corpses only to discover that they were Capricornian. Nico offering company to a riverbank where a conversation with Heimler and Vogt was held. Traversing through a marshland laced with bitter cold in search of the meeting point with Hauptmann Weingartner. Discovering their fallen camp and Emil, Marionette Engel, and Henning Rath among the carnage. Fleeting battle. A conversation with Heimler and Engel. Capture. And then Henning Rath’s eyes full of rage and hatred as he pulled the trigger to a rifle conductor. And finally, Otto Vogt, lying on the ground, covered in dirt, mud, and blood, paling beneath the graying sky.
The photographs collaged, the blank spots filled, the lines connected.
The images faded as did the pounding pain in Werner’s head but the heavy hanging dread that squeezed his chest remained. It reminded him of the heaviness that would press upon Chance from time to time.
Werner rubbed the stars out of his eyes and drew his fingers to pinch the bridge of his nose. Memories, most likely. Had all of this occurred while he had been down here?
He didn’t blame her for the developments. She had little experience with these types of things, after all. The sole responsibility lay with him.
Werner lowered his hand and registered Shion wearing a somber expression.
“Atienna must’ve been in an override while you were down here. She’s probably fallen out of it since you removed part of the intruder—maybe,” Shion elaborated. “All of that”—she pointed to a wisp of vitae sauntering down from above and joining the river of light—“must’ve come down because of it… I’m really sorry about Otto. About your friend.”
Werner straightened himself and replied evenly, “It’s not unexpected in this occupation. And he was my subordinate—”
Another memory flitted into his mind:
Otto, approaching him with a sloppily wrapped bundle of mint-smelling leaves in the middle of the night when they were stationed in unoccupied territory. “I heard that you were starting to have migraines again,” he’d said. “These… act as anti-inflammatory agents. It might help until we can get back. I promise that I know what I’m talking about. Well, my parents… Er, nevermind, sir. Just. Here. Take it… please? With all due respect, sir.”
The black abyss began to blur and fragment as the memory with Otto began to solidify within Werner’s mind—
No. Werner shook his head, focusing on the present. He knew he had to ground himself. It was easy to slip here, as Shion had said—Shion who had someone known he’d received these memories. Shion who’d known of Atienna just as she’d known of him.
“I’ve been trying to make it back up there for a very long time,” said Lavi suddenly, twirling a lock of hair. “Only a little bit of me ever gets out, so it’s kinda frustrating to see you guys come here and leave… but that’s the cycle.”
Cycle… Briefly, Werner wondered if Otto’s vitae had somehow made it down to this place and if it would enter that glowing stream. A wishful, ridiculous thought.
Abruptly, out from the stream only five meters down from where Shion stood blossomed a small sapling made of vibrant, white light. That sapling spiraled upwards, blooming out into a large, white, glowing tree that seemed to be at least ten stories tall. Its trunk was thick, its branches reaching far across the black abyss.
The Great Tree of Virgo?
Lavi hummed. “That tree in Virgo was birthed from a vitae stream, so it’s not surprising to see it here. It has nothing to do with Atienna or your presence, if you were thinking about that.”
A full moon blinked into existence just behind the tree’s branches. The circle of light burned blue and consumed the entire skyline of the abyss, its rays burning at the touch, its pressure suffocating, heavy.
“Now that…” Lavi peered at him. “Probably has to do with you.”
Shion grimaced and shielded herself from the brightness as Werner stared up at it. From this distance, it reminded him of an eye.
3 thoughts on “15.5: Second Lieutenant, 0310 Captured”
Cadence pls, be cool
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cadence oscillates between being cool and being a hot mess eioaruewioraa
Cadence as overrider ? Gilbert is gonna have a time of his life.
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