Peacekeepers Gabrielle, Alice, Talib, and Francis have discovered a strange facility beneath 43rd Street in the capital of Capricorn. Simultaneously, Olive arrives in the capital with Trystan and Werner’s unit and is caught off after encountering what appears to be a reservoir leak in the heart of the city.
Meanwhile, Sigrid is under Cvetka’s watchful eye after being discovered as a True Conductor. Claire who has been in this city this entire time decides to…
While his country stirs with unrest, Werner comes face-to-face with the one who appears to be manipulating the strings at the threshold of life and death.
Waffenstillstand » A truce made at 1100 hours.
Yuseong Haneul—though he preferred Claire—still remembered the very first assassination attempt on his life. A servant from the Hoshi Clan had disguised themselves as one of his clan’s servants and had not only slipped themselves into the kitchen staff but also sorrowheat into his morning tea.
When he’d finally broken out of the fever induced by the sorrowheat, his mother had pulled him into her lap and had rocked him back and forth as she thanked him for living, lamented the other clans, and cursed at the emperor. She had ended her tirade with, “But you should see the opportunity in this, Haneul. This means that the other clans are finally taking the Seongs seriously.”
Assassination attempts came bountifully after that. Claire, in turn, became skilled at avoiding all sorts of ‘accidents.’ He easily dodged assassins that slipped past his guards and had even once dodged a ‘malfunctioning’ sky-v-tram that nearly crushed him to death from above. Although no attempts claimed his life, many claimed the lives of his vassals. He despised it and wondered if his vassals despised him for it as well.
The second assassination attempt that truly nearly took his life came from a cousin of his whom he’d viewed as his best friend despite her mixed-blood. They had been playing a game of baduk over tea when she had suddenly freed a pin from her hair and plunged it into his chest. He’d wondered, as he laid bleeding out on the playroom floor, if bloodlines and family meant so little. The clan system that supposedly tied families together seemed to tear it all apart.
Unlike the first on-point assassination attempt, the second one truly dragged him close to death’s door. His mother would later tell him tearfully that he’d even stopped breathing at one point. She would try to persuade him after this incident that the throne wasn’t worth it, and that they should abandon the competition for emperorship—it didn’t matter what the other families said.
It was too late though, he’d thought. The weight of his clan was already on his shoulders. And once a weight was put on, it was impossible to give up.
And that was when the voices started. First came a girl from the deep mountains of Aquarius and then a boy from the inner cities of Leo. Their ambitions and desires clouded his mind throughout childhood, but he still maintained his desire to change things in Sagittarius.
Maneuvering the inner courts to competing with his siblings to win favor with their father to successfully improving relations with Aries and its future ruler—he’d slowly climbed higher and higher. Aunt Jiji’s activities had put a damper on things, but he didn’t allow it to deter him.
In fact, he had thought that things would actually improve after this bump—but things started going downhill as soon as he’d arrived in the capital of Capricorn for the diplomatic conductor convention with his sister and vassals in tow. Their purpose for attending this convention was three-fold: signaling to the rest of Signum that Sagittarius still had a presence, locating innovative inventions and talented Conductors that would be beneficial to Sagittarius, and assuring Capricorn that their relationship despite the border-conflict was stable.
As always when Claire arrived at any new location, he’d sent out his vassals to scope the location. For once, he did not send out Soha nor Felix to scan the city and instead had placed the duty upon a newly-minted vassal of his. A young girl from the Jaeseong family named Beom.
When she didn’t return from reconnaissance for three days, he was prepared to send out Felix after her. Before Felix set out for the night, however, Beom returned to their hotel through the open window—eyes wide, hair dripping with sweat. She didn’t bow when she brought herself before him, but he was more concerned about her condition.
“Where were you?” Soha had asked. “You were to report in two days ago.”
“43rd,” Beom had whispered. “43rd Street. I went there.”
“And… did you find anything?” Claire had pressed as he offered her a pleasant smile. “No need to be concerned about Soha’s curfew. I break it sometimes too—”
Before he could finish, Beom had lunged at him with a conjured knife. Both Soha and Felix had been across the room at that time tending to Eunji so they hadn’t been able to divert the attack. Fortunately, Sigrid wasthere and quickly slipped into an overlap. She forced him to lunge backwards and swept his legs beneath Beom’s sending the woman crashing to the ground.
My gratitude, he’d thought as he had pounced on Beom and reached for the knife in her hand.
“Your family doesn’t deserve to represent our clan!” Beom had seethed beneath him. “Why must we toil away for someone incapable of ever achieving the throne? Why did the emperor choose your mother instead of mine?!”
The accusation had startled Claire which allowed Beom to free herself and her knife from him. Instead of lunging at him again, however, she backed against the wall with eyes filled with terror.
“I-I’m sorry, My Lord. The one who is unfit is me,” Beom had whispered breathily before plunging the knife into her stomach and collapsing onto the floor.
One of his nearby vassals had been a Transmutationist so he’d ordered her to reseal the injury immediately. Once Beom was stable, they transported her to the city’s most esteemed hospital which was surprisingly its only hospital.
He was lucky enough to rent out a private suite right before a sudden influx of patients checked in. After the medical Conductors, doctors, and nurses informed him that Beom was stable but that the cause of her continuous unconscious state was unknown, Claire remained by her bedside in thought for several hours. As he’d peeled away from her as night fell, however, he’d managed to catch sight of a strange tattoo pasted just behind her ear—one he had never noticed before. A tattoo of a scorpion.
He’d comforted Eunji later that night despite her insistence that she was fine. Beom was her favorite, after all. And Claire had been certain Beom was completely loyal—he’d hand-selected her himself—so her actions had disturbed him. Because if a leader couldn’t understand the passions of his people, then he was unfit to rule over them.
Not too long after that, Claire received notice from one of his vassals that a Virgoan advisor had taken up bed space in their private room. Only an hour following this, he encountered at the hospital an irate Trystan Carter who was shouting at a nurse about getting into a room—which was when Claire had happily provided his assistance. The Ariesian prince seemed to have gotten himself into trouble. An unknown sickness leaving him in a semi-conscious state. Whatever it was, an ally was an ally, and a favor was a favor.
Only a week or so after this, Sigrid encountered Cvetka. A couple days later when the hospital was attacked, Claire had sent Beom away in a medical train. But he himself did not leave nor did he send his sister away despite the danger. They were representatives of the Seong Clan, after all.
It was a cruel game.
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
A couple of days after the incident with Cvetka, Claire found himself sitting cross-legged and closed-eyed on top of his floor mattress in his room at the Frieden luxury hotel.
At the moment, his mind was being stretched in three directions by anxiety, apprehension, and anger, so it took him a moment to reach a stable state of mind and understand what he was feeling. Once he got a grasp of that, he reached out in the direction of the feeling of apprehension.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself in a particularly comfy-looking train cart furnished with fur rugs, leather upholstery, and even a small furnace crackling along the sidewall. He could feel the warmth of the flame cracking his dry skin—rather, Sigrid’s dry skin. To the left opened up a window beyond which only white could be seen—white snow peaks, white cliff-faces that fell down into a bottomless abyss, white sky. Oh, well, there was a glint of black and silver from the train tracks they’d just run over further down the mountain.
“I see nothing much has changed,” Claire noted, scanning the area. “I’ve told Andres to stay away and keep his head low, so it’ll just be me for the time being unless you need some of his help. Hope you don’t mind the company.”
Better company than what I have here.
Claire studied Sigrid’s face for a moment before beaming and pointing to the assortment of dried fish, stuffed wraps, and pickled vegetables plated on the table. “Hey, at least the food is good.”
Better fish at home.
Claire had to agree. Sigrid father’s salted fish was inhumanly good. It even brought the Sagittarian royal pickled fish to shame. As much as Claire loved his royal chef, Sigrid’s father’s food certainly had more heart.
The door to the train cart slid open and Cvetka Akulova stepped in. She paused at the threshold with a crown of peacekeepers behind her as snow and cold spilled into the train from outside. She said nothing, did nothing, remaining completely still like ice.
I told you that this woman was off. Right when I saw her at that True Conductor meeting. But youinsisted that we continue to make contact. We’re lucky that I decided to keep away. We would’ve been caught much earlier. She’s impressive.
“Sorry, I was wrong.” Claire held up his hands. “But you know what they say about doors—”
You should close them immediately so the cold and wild animals don’t get in.
Claire rubbed the back of his neck. “Well… That’s an interesting take on the proverb.”
We know my situation but what about yours? Worry bled through their connection. You should leave the capital.
“You know I can’t do that.” Claire’s smile fell slightly. “The Xing and the Hoshi clan are still here even with everything going on. I just saw Mai and Kai the other day… It’ll reflect very poorly on my clan if I withdraw now.” He clasped his hands together and tapped his mouth as he leaned forward tensely. “I’m obviously not winning best brother of the year award this time.”
And the Ariesian True Conductor?
“Hmm… I have to admit, I might have bitten off more than I can chew with him.” Claire chuckled. “First the assassination thing, then my aunt, and now the ELPIS Department apparently.”
Do you think he’s connected to the Capricornian? That ‘Cadence’ looked like they were stuck in an overlap over the Capricornian. Sigrid’s eyes narrowed. And Akulova somehow connected Imamu to them.
Claire tilted his head in thought. “Well, I’m pretty sure that Olive is connected to that one peacekeeper that keeps showing up wherever he is. But if Olive’s connected to the Capricornian, then that would mean that there would be at least five people in that circle… We’ve only ever seen at most four.”
It sounds straining. Sigrid glanced at him. Two is already too many.
“Speaking of parties of two…” Claire nodded across the table.
Sitting there just across from Sigrid were Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer and Sergeant Nikita Knovak. While Claire was quite familiar with Knovak from Sigrid’s time in the Zatenminye Caverns with him, he was curious about Kramer as Sigrid had only been serving under her for one month. Kramer had been watching Sigrid closely this entire time but had yet to say a word.
Are you worried—
No, I’m not attached to them.
Unsurprising. Sigrid didn’t seem very attached to anyone she served with.
The clack of stiletto heels against the matted floor cut their conversation short as Cvetka approached. Her paper-star earrings caught the gray light filtering in from the window casting glowing shadows on her cheeks. She stopped in front of their table with her entourage of peacekeepers just behind her.
“How is everything?” Cvetka inquired, eyes kind, lips upturned as she glanced between the three of them. “Is the food to your liking? Or… would you like the furnace to be warmer? I’m here to make sure you feel comfortable.” Slowly, she turned to Sigrid with a thinning smile. “Especially you, Sigrid.”
Her eyes—Claire realized—almost seemed to hold no light to them. Vaguely, he was reminded of the solar eclipse his aunt Jin once took him to see. A ring of white around complete black.
Cvetka continued, “And of course I’m including your extra company, Sigrid. The prince, right? Of Sagittarius.”
Claire’s heart hammered, and his ears roared. He felt almost as if Cvetka was looking through Sigrid and right into him.
How did she know…?
It’s one of the other True Conductors. The Ariesian prince. They betrayed—
It’s okay, Claire returned. At the rate this is going, this was pretty much inevitable.
“You’re lucky you’re connected to such a high-profile person,” Cvetka continued sheepishly. “I’m a bit jealous. With him being as important as a prince, my employers are going to have to let him be until the syzygy. Well, for the most part…”
Sigrid bristled. Cvetka hummed in response, eyes sharpening.
“Where are you taking us?” Kramer interjected. “To see the tsar? Have they been informed about whatever this is with the ELPIS Department?”
“You don’t have to worry, Captain Kramer, Nikita,” Cvetka replied without turning to look at them. “You’re unnecessary. I’m not very sure what they’ll do, but you’re both very capable. I doubt they’ll waste your skills.”
She tilted her strangely, as if listening to something in the distance before she smiled thinly at Sigrid:
“You… Sigrid… on the other hand. If you cooperate, then you can continue on living comfortably with the people important to you until the very end.”
She took a step closer, tucking a dark lock of hair behind her ear.
“There’s no reason for you to be apprehensive about cooperating, is there? It won’t be so much different from cooperating with Aquarius. The tsar is the one who ordered the Vklad Plemennykh Rabochikh Act, wasn’t it? The Tribal Workers’ Contribution Act? They said it was to provide employment to the mountain and seaside tribes who served during the war after the war, but it just seems like they’re filling up the empty ranks with the children of those old soldiers… right?”
“There’re programs similar to that which almost every country in Signum has adopted, so it must work, right?”
Sigrid remained stone-faced.
“You talk too much,” Knovak noted.
“Oh, it’s not me that’s talking,” Cvetka returned to him. “But I agree… it’s a bit too much.” She cast a look off to the side out the window. “It always is.”
“Crazy,” was Knovak’s response.
Claire noted the conducting gloves on the hands of the peacekeeper standing to Cvetka’s right.
Transmutationist or Conjuror?
Claire paused. Maybe it wasn’t worth the risk then—
I won’t be caged.
“No utensils.” Sigrid pointed to the plates set in front of them.
Cvetka looked Sigrid up and down as if appraising before she nodded at the peacekeeper on her right. The peacekeeper held out his hand and, in a flash of an odd blue-ish yellow light, conjured up three sets of forks, knives, and spoons. He held them out to Sigrid then to Cvetka but moved to set them on the table himself after receiving no response.
Sigrid lunged for and grabbed the man—rather, his gloves. He pulled away from her in alarm, but she refused to let go. And as suspected, despite her repeatedly kicking him in the face with her spiked boot, he did not pull out his visibly holstered gun and combat knife. As the peacekeepers started forward, Sigrid ripped the conductor off his hands.
“She’s connected to a Conjuror—”
Before Cvetka could finish the sentence, Sigrid delivered a hard kick to the Conjuror’s chest and sent him flying back against the wall as she slipped the gloves on.
Claire could feel Sigrid’s mind race as she hopped up onto the table and sent the plates and food clattering onto the floor. When one of the other peacekeepers lunged forward, Knovak dove down, grabbed a plate off the ground, and smashed it into the peacekeeper’s face. He picked up a knife and a fork next and brandished them threateningly.
“Knovak, Anker, stand down!” Kramer snapped.
Knovak froze, grimaced, dropped the fork and knife.
“Anker!” the captain pressed.
But Sigrid paid her no mind. Instead, Claire could feel her mind race to think up an item that would aid her in this situation. A weapon.
Something that won’t need to be reloaded. No, something long-ranged. There’re too many peacekeepers.No. Enclosed space. Not good. A knife. No, you could get hurt or caught. I won’t get caught—
Their thoughts clashed dissonantly together in competition as another peacekeeper dove for her legs. At that moment, they reached a decision. In a flash of lilac light, a slender and thin object formed in Sigrid’s palm. It extended out and sharpened at one end before solidifying completely.
Swinging the point out wide, Sigrid knocked two peacekeepers off of their feet and caused Cvetka to skirt back along the wall. Now the peacekeepers pulled out their conductors fully, but still showed very little aggression and desperation.
We’re apparently too precious to risk injuring.
As if confirming this, Cvetka threw a hand back. “Don’t attack. She’s valuabl—”
“There’s nowhere to run,” the Conjuror peacekeeper interjected as he rose to his feet. “Your cage isn’t physical.” And then he lunged at Sigrid.
Claire reached out and sent up Sigrid’s leg to deliver the man a kick to the stomach. Claire then reached further and guided Sigrid to swing the spear up in an arc. With the motion, he swept up an approaching peacekeeper into the air and slammed him against the ceiling. Sigrid didn’t bother waiting for the man to come down. She took back the reins, spun in a circle, and jabbed the butt of the spear into the gut of another peacekeeper reaching for her from behind. After jabbing the spear into the shoulder of yet a nearby Projector who ran at her with a blade conductor, she used him as an axle and flipped onto a table on the opposite side of the compartment. Upon landing, she swiped the spear in a large arc outwards five times, pushing back the cluster of peacekeepers swimming around the floor.
Always so violent. This one, Claire thought. But… There was no point in fighting. They needed to—
Escape—a thought not Sigrid’s nor his own—understood.
Before Claire realized what was happening, Sigrid’s gloves hummed with light and another object formed in her palm—sleek, black, long, familiar. It looked just like his own conductor staff, minus some of its intricacies.
That was fast.
Practicing, came the response.
Claire reached out and spun the newly conjured conductor in Sigrid’s hands. A torrent of wind speckled with lilac flecks of light spun out from the conductor and threw everyone backwards and off their feet—Cvetka, Kramer, and Knovak included.
Something wasn’t right though, Claire realized. Even if these people were trying their best not to harm Sigrid, this was too easy.
Cvetka picked herself up to her feet as the peacekeepers groaned around her.
Now standing peacefully and dissonantly in between them and the peacekeepers, Cvetka slowly undid her earrings and dropped them to the floor. She smeared the trinkets into the ground with her boot before looking up to meet Sigrid’s gaze.
“What… are you doing?” the Conjuror asked from where he laid groaning behind her.
“She’s using us to escape too,” Claire whispered.
“What he said is true. You can’t hide,” Cvetka said calmly, still standing. “It’s like swimming against an ocean current. The more you resist, the more you’ll exhaust yourself and drown. But… a current is different than a whirlpool.”
The Conjuror stared holes into Cvetka’s back before abruptly throwing back his head and barking out a laugh. “You really are useless.”
I don’t care.
Sigrid spun the conductor staff in a circle as Claire reached out and stepped in for her fully. He sent out another wave of wind—this time more intense. It screeched and whined through the entire compartment, sending the peacekeepers on the ground back even further and rattling the windows like an earthquake.
The windows shattered under the pressure, and the shards flew inwards as frigid mountain air spilled into the compartment. The cold stung at Claire’s eyes, but he still kept them open and locked onto his escape route: the window just to his left. He scrambled towards it and poked his head out. Just a meter away out the window extended a sheer drop from a cliff to an almost unseeable bottom.
Pausing, he turned to look back over his shoulder.
The peacekeepers were just beginning to pick themselves off the ground. Cvetka, however, was already standing and facing a window on the opposite side of the train. She must have felt his gaze because she too looked over her shoulder and met his eyes. Then, she smiled and leapt out into the cold.
Following suit, Claire leapt out himself and tumbled through open air. For a brief moment, he enjoyed the mountainside rushing past him and the cold whipping him in the face. When it hurt to breathe, he decided it was enough and threw out his conductor.
A burst of speckled-lilac air threw him back up into the sky. As the forces of the wind pushing back up equalized with the force of gravity, he swung himself up onto his parallel-hanging staff and landed deftly with the soles of his feet.
Then, he shot forward, Sigrid’s vague directions acting as a guide at the back of his head. Mountains flitted past below him—little spikes of black capped by a dust of white. It all seemed to stretch on forever—one mountain no different from the other. Disorienting—
Okay. Here is fine.
Shivering, Claire lowered himself slowly to the ground into a small clearing marked by a single pine tree. Sigrid reclaimed herself, shrugging her fur military-grade coat further up her shoulders and flipping both the staff and spear in hand before stabbing the staff into the ground and running her finger along the body of the spear.
Claire watched her for a moment before scanning the surroundings. The snow was blinding white and sparkling beneath the dull light sprinkling down from the clouds.
Don’t look at the snow. You’ll blind me from the sun reflecting off it.
Claire looked up. “Will you be alright out here all alone? What about your fath—”
Sigrid launched the spear towards the lone pine tree and it landed—not with a thunk but—with a squelch at the base of the trunk. When she paced over and pulled the spear from the snow, a white hare was hanging from its point.
Ah. Of course.
“My father and tribe can handle themselves,” Sigrid said, pulling the animal off her weapon and splattering red onto all the white.
Claire opened his mouth, then closed it. I’m sorry, Sigrid.
She punched him lightly in the chest and shrugged. “Handle yourself.”
* * *
When Claire opened his eyes again, it took him a moment to regain his bearings. Adrenaline was still coursing through his veins, and the frigid mountain wind was still nipping at his nose and ears. A knock at the door finally brought him fully back to reality.
Felix, mask half-off, entered the room and gave a deep bow. “I was worried, My Lord. You were speaking very loudly.”
“I was just trying to think through some problems out loud.” Claire rose to his feet, stretching left then right. “Go ahead and take Eunji to the convention early. I’m going to look into something. Don’t worry. I’ll keep high—”
“But, Soha requested I keep watch over the both of you together. At all times. And with everything happening in this country lately—”
Turning to Felix, Claire pressed his fingers to his lips before clasping his hands together and dipping his head. “Please, Felix—”
“Please don’t do that, My Lord!” Felix whispered, voice wavering. “It’s not right for you to bow your head to a vassal—”
Claire popped back up. “And it’s right for a vassal to dictate what their lord should and shouldn’t do?”
Felix squirmed for a moment before dipping his head. “As you wish, My Lord.”
Claire grinned, heading towards the window as he gave a salute. “Thanks, Felix.” Then, he went airborne.
* * *
The skies of Capricorn were much colder than the skies of his homeland, yet much warmer than Sigrid’s. The heavier clouds above crawled along slowly, not even allowing a single ray of light to pierce through.
Claire wasn’t sure what he was looking for—a chance to clear his head, maybe. A reason to look into something—probably. It was a delicate balance—the needs of his country, the requests of his clan, the safety of those close to him, and his own personal wishes and desires. And now this whole Cvetka mess. Just to be free for just one moment would be…
A flash of movement from beneath him caught his eye. A sign of life from the otherwise half-empty streets. Just below him dashed a bushy-browed man with a large camera slung around his neck. He seemed to be running from something—
Claire lowered himself down onto the street. With a pleasant smile, he dropped down beside the man, saying, “This is a pleasant surprise. I didn’t think you’d be sticking around here that much longer.”
The man recoiled and fell flat on his back. He squinted up at Claire before pressing a hand to his chest and sighing. “What the bloody hell, Claire? You nearly gave me a heart attack!”
“Well, you scared me with that article you wrote in the newspaper, Hilton,” Claire replied calmly, still smiling. He flipped his staff two times causing it to fold back in on itself before he extended a hand. “You write like Capricorn’s becoming a dangerous place to be in. You really know how to write a gripping article.”
“That’s because it is becoming a dangerous place,” Hilton replied, accepting the gesture and dusting himself off once he was standing. “The citizens are the lifeblood of a country but the government here is just allowing them all to bleed out. The Kaiser and his chancellery cabinet haven’t addressed anything. It’s like they’re waiting for things to get worse.”
“Are you trying to get me to comment on it?” Claire asked lightly. He gestured to his plain clothing. “I’m not in my endorsement outfit.”
“It was worth a shot.” Hilton grimaced, running his finger around the grooves of his camera. “Just caught an encounter between peacekeepers, the military police, and members of the Augen actually. Quite the scoop.”
Claire blinked. “One of the peacekeepers wouldn’t happen to be a woman with black hair tied in a ponytail, would she? Looks sort of tired all the time?”
Hilton nodded. “Well, yes. Her, a blonde with glasses, and a man with a mole beneath his eye. Why?”
“It’s… nothing.” Claire waved a hand and offered a smile. “Anyway, how’s your better half’s search going? The Cancerian duchess, right?”
“Still searching,” Hilton replied before his eyes narrowed to slits. “Why? Do you know something?”
Claire shrugged before his smile thinned. “While it’s really good to see you again, the real reason I’m here is to tell you that Sigrid was caught by Cvetka.”
Hilton pulled out a cloth from his pants pocket and began to wipe his camera lens. “Hm. That would be the True Conductor you told me is working with the ELPIS Department? The Ophiuchian department that’s interested in us for whatever reason? Given your nonchalance, I’m assuming Sigrid’s made a daring escape.”
“You know Sigrid. She can find her way out of anything.” Claire’s smile dipped. “You should leave this country while you can. Something is happening here—”
“Why are you afraid? Look at your position. You’re practically untouchable given your status. I highly doubt any supposedly diabolical secret organization would dare touch you at the risk of kickstarting an international incident.”
“I guess I’m kind of in a cautious mood,” Claire replied. “Oh, one more thing.” He reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a slip of paper, and handed it to the man. “Did you happen to see anything like this recently?”
Hilton scanned the paper—the poorly drawn sketch—and nodded. “Scorpion tattoo? Yep. It seems to be quite the popular choice in Capricorn nowadays. I’ve seen it on members of the Augen and a couple of the military officers.” He handed the paper back. “Although… I did speak to my contact in the Twin Cities recently about it and…”
“The information broker?”
“Right, he said that he received information about the people with these tattoos being involved in some sort of government program. It all sounded rather conspiratorial so I didn’t pay it much mind.”
“Anyway.” Hilton cleared his throat. “You wouldn’t be so generous as to spare me a lift to the convention, would you? I’m feeling quite fatigued from my recent escapade, and I wanted to take some more pictures there…”
Does he think you’re a transport service?
Claire smiled pleasantly, offering a hand. “Well, I still have to get in the appropriate attire. But. Sure thing. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
* * *
After dropping Hilton off at the back of the domed building hosting the convention, Claire remained behind the building with him and took a moment to stretch and rub his arms.
“Oh, here’s a tip, prince,” Hilton said as he straightened his suit and camera. “There’s a big protest happening a couple of days from now. I think you should keep your head down for now.”
Claire responded with a polite word of gratitude before taking back off to the skies. Much to his surprise, just as he was about to fly back to his hotel to get dressed, he spotted a familiar-looking man being dragged out from the dome building. It was the blonde Capricornian that had helped Sigrid escape Argoan captivity. A first lieutenant named Werner Waltz—if Claire recalled correctly—who was being overlapped by some woman called Cadence Morello? A True Conductor.
Pulling Werner out onto the street by the arm was a pretty, familiar, oddly-dressed woman with straw blonde-hair. Louise Bonnefoy—the strange Cancerian tourist Sigrid had come across in the Zatenminye Caverns.
Before Claire could digest the sight, a blip of light blinked into existence several blocks down. He couldn’t quite tell what the source of the light was since it was being blocked from his sights by a row of brick buildings—brick buildings which abruptly began to shake, sway, tremble.
Stained-glass windows lining the buildings around him shattered as twisting metal ornaments that decorated rooftops swayed dangerously on their hinges. Below this chaos, the people dotting the ground fell forward onto their hands and knees.
Another blur from below drew Claire’s attention away. Yet another man was peeling out from the building of the conductor convention. But—
Claire blinked multiple times just to make sure he wasn’t seeing things.
Nope. That was definitely the Ariesian royal guard—Trystan Carter—tripping down the steps and darting after Werner.
Why is Trystan…? It clicked. Unless—
No. Not good. No involvement. You might be disco—
Claire brushed the thought aside and pushed forward through the sky after Trystan and Werner. After only a second of pursuit, he was nearly knocked off of his conductor by an intense heatwave that pulsated out from the direction of the light source. He righted himself and continued forward.
After he rounded several blocks, he found Trystan pulling Werner and Louise around the corner. They were soon joined by four additional Capricornians who seemed to have peeled out from nowhere—two in dark gray uniforms dotted with medals, and the other two with red crosses marking the white bands around their arms. Claire recalled them too from Sigrid’s side of things. He would’ve observed them further if it were not for the fact that he could now see the source of the pulsating light in full.
An entire river of glowing, psychedelic vitae was spilling out down the wide street and weaving in-between v-trams and v-ehicles and v-lamps—all which melted at its touch.
A reservoir leak…?
In the distance down the block, a pair of military policemen were holding back a torrent of glowing liquid light with large glass shields—insulators. Claire had seen these types of insulators being used for vitae reservoir leak clean-ups before, but…
The pressure from the vitae flow was too much, and both policemen abandoned their posts and scrambled away in alarm. The vitae consumed the insulators and continued on its path, undeterred.
It was moving at an alarming rate, Claire thought. If the Capricornians didn’t get this contained, then—
Claire stiffened as he noticed the vitae encroaching on the group of Capricornians, Louise, and Trystan who were collectively trying to escape its reach. Not good. If this Werner really was connected to Olive and this man was injured or died, then the relationship he’d painstakingly built up with Aries would crumble.
Claire swept down and looped his hands beneath Werner’s armpits.
“C-Claire?!” the man and Trystan snapped in unison.
That confirmed it. Looked like someone else more familiar was in the driver’s seat.
Olive barely had enough to say much else before Claire shot them both to the sky. He dropped him off on top of the roof of the tall building to their left, before sweeping back to the ground. This time he plucked Trystan from the ground. Although the royal guard did not resist, the other Capricornians startled backwards, one of them—Derik Stein if Claire recalled correctly—even reaching for a holstered weapon.
Not enough time.
After setting Trystan back down onto the ground, he swung his conductor at said ground and sent out a large burst of air. It ricocheted off the gray sidewalk and shot up a powerful updraft that swept everyone up to the sky well above the buildings. Shouts of alarm and swears followed this, but Claire paid them no mind. He flew to the sky, caught Trystan by the scruff, and quickly dropped him onto the roof beside Olive. Not even a second after, he sent up another burst of air and caught the four other Capricornians and Louise just as they were about to hit the ground. He guided the air to drop them off onto the rooftop before letting out a sigh.
After they were all safely on the roof, Claire alighted himself and leaned against his staff, panting lightly. Once he caught his breath, he studied his rescuees.
Trystan was tending to Olive who was staring at him with an almost panicked expression. The other Capricornians stood close around them and were looking to him cautiously and distrustfully.
“Is everyone alright?” Claire asked pleasantly to which he was met with a—
“Who the hell are you?” from Derik Stein.
“Claire,” Claire responded amicably. “I was just passing by, but I have to say that’s quite a reservoir leak.”
“Thanks for the lift,” grunted another Capricornian whom Claire believed was named Gilbert Wolff. “Do you know what’s going on?”
Claire shook his head. “Like I said, I was just passing by—”
Trystan’s eyes widened from beside Olive. “You’re one too?”
“One of what…?” Gilbert stared back at Claire. “A True Conductor? The Sagittarian?”
Claire let out a breath he was holding, while Olive tensed and paled.
See. Loose lips.
Claire began, “Well, I was hoping to keep it a little bit more under wraps but—”
Gilbert abruptly slapped Olive upside the head. “Why the hell did you take off like that—”
Trystan shoved himself in between Olive and Gilbert. “Do not touch—”
“I’m sorry, Claire,” Olive said, pushing past them.
The apology was strange, and hearing Olive’s inflection from a man who towered above him was even stranger.
Claire stared before he forced a pleasant smile. “It’s alright. It was only a matter of time of time anyways, Ollie.”
“No, you don’t understand, Claire.” Olive clicked his tongue in frustration and shook his head. “Right now I think… I’m a medium for a Manipulator. I’m not sure how much they know or can see from me. I…”
Olive proceeded to explain the situation regarding his current locked overlap, the Manipulator saint candidate, the Verbundene Augen movement, and what he’d theorized about vitae energy levels. It took a moment for Claire to digest it all.
So that was how Cvetka possibly knew. Through Olive’s knowledge.
He’s dangerous. A liability. Get away from him.
Olive tried hesitantly, “Is she…?”
“She’s fine,” Claire reassured him before returning in his mind, I understand where you’re coming from, Sigrid. But let me handle it from here. All partnerships carry risks. Worthwhile risks.
Besides, there were more important things here. For one, the entire ‘vitae energy level’ thing sounded a bit ridiculous. Then again Claire knew Olive was bright about these kinds of things. That and—
Claire bit the inside of his mouth but kept a pleasant facade.
—now he definitely needed to get his vassals and his sisters out of this country. But also…
Claire dug into his pants pocket, pulled out the slip of paper, and handed it to Olive. Olive’s eyes widened as he scanned the sketch there, and he peeled back the glove over one of his hands and presented it. Resting on his palm was a half-scorpion tattoo.
A spark of rage flared out in Claire’s chest as he recalled Beom laying in the hospital bed, but he quelled it with a sigh. He proceeded to explain what he’d heard from Hilton regarding possible government involvement with the scorpion tattoo.
“Not like they don’t screw us over enough already sending us out there,” Gilbert grumbled. “Now they want us to what? Fight each other? What the hell is—”
“It’s much more than that, Herr Wolff,” Claire interjected.
Gilbert stared. “How did you know my name—”
“This has the possibility of becoming an international incident.”
Gilbert stared again. “What?”
“Olive here might not be inclined to bring his country into this matter because he’s connected to someone who is a part of this country,” Claire explained, eyes narrowing. “But that’s not the case with me. My vassal was injured by someone associated with this Manipulator. That is a direct threat to the Seong clan.”
“So you are a True Conductor,” was all Gilbert said as he continued to frown in confusion.
“Well, yes. But I’m also a prince of Sagittarius—the Seong clan, specifically,” Claire clarified, suppressing a smile as the Capricornians recoiled. Pressing his fist into his open palm, he dipped into a respectful bow. “Situation aside, it truly is a pleasure to meet you. Your country is pleasant—”
Gilbert, Brandt, and one of the combat medics—Alwin Brandt—tensed.
“—unfortunately, there needs to be accountability with you as witness. Your people are being used as mediums for this Manipulator, and there are hints of government involvement. Not to mention the fact that this reservoir leak is endangering my entourage and myself and other officials from different countries here. Your Kaiser needs to answer for this—”
“Uhm… excuse me…” Louise cleared her throat as she held up a shy hand. “I just wanted to show Cadence the light show…” Placing a hand to her face, she peered into Olive’s. “You are Cadence, right?” After receiving a look of confusion, she pointed to herself. “It’s me! Louise! We met in the Twin Cities, remember? Ah, well, you met my dearest in the Twin Cities.”
“You know her?” Gilbert asked.
Olive looked her up and down with a frown. “No, I don’t know her… One of the others might’ve seen her or something.”
What? Was he lying? The Virgoan advisor had met Louise in the caverns. Something wasn’t right.
Louise’s face fell. “But you saved me, Cadence. From the mean man in that alleyway. You don’t remember? What a sad day…” She placed her other hand to her cheek before sighing, “Oh, it’s been so terrible. There was an explosion at the hospital the other day. I would’ve died if it weren’t for Mr. Foxman—”
“Wait. Do you mean Francis?” the other combat medic—Nico—pressed as he stiffened. “Francis is here?”
Louise blinked at him slowly before brightening. “Yes! It was Mr. Foxman! Oh, do you know him? Such a gentleman! He saved me, you know?” Her smile dipped. “Then… he dropped me off in some strange dark alleyway… but that’s okay! It was just another opportunity to tourist around!”
Politics momentarily forgotten, Claire sighed, glancing at Olive. “You always seem to get into trouble… don’t you?”
But Olive wasn’t paying attention to the conversation. His gaze was instead fixated on something beyond the lip of the building.
“Something’s not right…” he said, peeling to the edge of the building and peering down. The heatwave from the vitae leak pushed back his hair.
Gilbert, Stein, and Trystan joined him.
Gilbert grumbled, “You’re not going to run away again after saying that, are you—”
“The vitae’s not flowing out to the sides of the street even though it’s downhill.” Olive pointed to the direction the vitae was flowing. “It almost looks like it’s going uphill… it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Gilbert said after a beat. “The military police here are trained to handle leaks like these. For the most part. Don’t worry your pretty head.”
Well, if that was settled then…
Claire kicked down his staff and sent himself up to a hover a meter above the others. The wind rushing out of his conductor whipped their hair and clothing around wildly, causing Claire to offer an apologetic smile and half-bow.
“Claire…?” Olive blinked past the tears forming in his eyes. “What are you doing…?”
“I just learned quite a lot of things in one sitting,” Claire replied. “I need to get to work.”
“You really just going to ditch us here…?” Gilbert stared, nodding at the glowing light behind him. “With this? Really?”
“It’ll be fine,” Claire reassured them. “Like you said, your military police will contain this and get you down—”
Before he could finish, an intense wave of heat rolled out along his back as a shadow passed over him from behind. The shadow eclipsed the faces of those below him—faces which became twisted with varying degrees of confusion, shock, and alarm. Claire slowly turned his head and was nearly blinded by the light glowing behind him. The viscous vitae that had once been rolling along the ground had now somehow extended an appendage that towered above him. The appendage swayed before hurtling on towards him.
Just before the vitae made impact, Olive leapt and knocked Claire off of his conductor. Upon hitting the roof below, Claire caught sight of the vitae as it sank lazily back to the ground. His heart hammered wildly as he reached for his conductor that had fallen to his side. As he took a moment to catch his breath, Olive picked himself off the ground and offered him a hand. Claire accepted the gesture in a daze.
Once Olive righted himself, he paced back to the edge and threw out his hand despite Trystan’s protests. A wave of vitae flame flurried out in the air. But as soon as the flames hit the sky, another wave of the leaked vitae slowly rose up like a behemoth and battered the flames out of existence before crashing back down onto the ground. The sound the vitae made as it sloshed below was unnatural—not quite a howl, not quite a splash, not quite an earthly tumble.
“It’s reacting to the vitae. No, it’s being attracted to it. But… why?” Olive muttered to himself as his gaze followed the flow of the vitae uphill. He squinted in the distance before he paled considerably. “I… I think it’s heading to the convention. There’s a bunch of conductor engines and generator conductors in that building. Maybe the vitae particles are being attracted to it. I…”
Claire’s head spun.
Olive whipped around and grabbed hold of Claire’s hand. “Claire, wait. Let’s… work together.”
Claire shut his open mouth.
“Look, I know that it’s complicated with Capricorn right now and we have responsibilities to our countries.” Olive glared—his gaze coming out cold through Werner’s eyes. “We could at least help them get it contained. I’m not sure if they’ll even be able to contain it before it reaches the convention. I know it’s not your country—”
“No, the prospects of that are nice.” Claire nodded cordially. “Despite all this sourness, this could give Sagittarius quite a boost—intervening in a possibly disastrous accident in Capricorn.”
“Politicians,” Stein spat.
But politics was only half of the story.
Claire desperately needed to get all of that away from the convention, from Eunji, from his vassals. And Olive seemed to be offering him a good chance at that.
Olive’s face folded in disgust but he shook his head and pressed, “You’ve been here longer than I have. Do you know any good places without people around here?”
“43rd Street,” Claire suggested after a moment of thought. “It’s a historic area that’s practically abandoned, right?”
The Capricornians all shrugged.
“We can maybe guide it with our vitae there then,” Olive said tentatively. “Since it looks like it’s attracted to expelled vitae…”
Trystan frowned. “Olivier, I object to this. It’s too dangerous for you. If you’re set on this, then allow me to—”
“You and the others can’t expel vitae like Claire and I can. It’s not enough,” Olive grumbled. “Not to mention it’ll be a pain if we have to double back for you.”
“That’s not a bad plan. I don’t really get the whole ‘attraction’ thing but…” Gilbert interjected, arms crossed, “after you attract it, the rest of us can follow up behind you and make sure it doesn’t diverge somewhere We can get a couple of military police officers on it too so they can set up insulation shields. Stein?”
“I think it’s risky. Sending some pampered kid up there.”
Gilbert arched a brow at him. “What…? When did you grow a soft spot?”
Stein shrugged, dug into his uniform jacket, and pulled out a startling array of what looked to be long-ranged Projector conductors. He tossed a bladeless conductor to Gilbert who inspected it before giving a nod of approval.
Capricornians were strange.
Trystan seemed to think so too because he took a step forward and glowered. “Do you understand you are asking the heir of the Ariesian throne to risk his life for your country—”
“I’m not under your monarchy, Carter. Could care less about it,” Gilbert said. “He’s your prince, isn’t he? Isn’t it your job to listen to exactly what he says? If not, then what’s your relationship with him?”
Trystan stiffened while Olive opened his mouth seemingly to protest but then shut it a beat after.
“It’s a good idea,” Gilbert reaffirmed with a nod. “Don’t get a lot of those over here recently, so we need some positive reinforcement.” He waved his hand in the air. “Well, anyway, we might be out in the open with the True Conductor stuff, but we still can’t have Werner running around shooting fireballs from his hands. Got a solution for that?”
Olive dug into his pocket and pulled out a series of proto-conductor rings. He parsed through them before selecting one that was marked by etchings of what appeared to be a frowning face? Olive slipped on the ring and flexed his fingers. A shimmer of copper went up his arm and consumed his body. Upon the light shattering, Olive looked… very much like himself. Dark hair, sun-kissed skin, hazel-ish eyes. But there was something a bit off—
Trystan frowned. “Olivier… you’re a little bit shorter, I believe. This is a transmutation, isn’t it? Will this… deter you?”
Olive frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“You usually come up to my shoulders,” Trystan explained, tapping the area before moving his hand down to a couple of centimeters below that. “You come up to here now. Below my chest. Does it feel different?”
Olive frowned deeper as he inspected himself before scowling. “ Cadence… ” He shook his head. “It’s nothing. I can’t feel a difference.” He met Claire’s gaze. “Are you ready, Claire?”
Claire spun out his conductor and held out his hand. “You’re being friendlier than usual, Ollie.”
Ignoring him, Olive glanced back over his shoulder towards Trystan and gave him a quick nod before accepting Claire’s extended hand. With that, they shot upwards.
Not even a second after they hit the sky in a torrent of blue-flecked wind, a wave of vitae reached up towards them. Olive threw out his hand and out swam a swirl of crimson flame that consumed the encroaching wave in an instant. Claire kicked them off higher into the sky in a panic. As the smoke cleared below them, it became clear that Olive had somehow burnt away a section of the encroaching vitae wave—
—but then the vitae began to bubble, glow, and regrow the mass that it lost.
Clinging to him tightly, Olive half-shouted, half-whispered, “Did you see that?!”
“It’s growing back—”
“No!” Olive interjected, sounding excited despite the situation. “Look! It didn’t regrow fully.”
Claire squinted and frowned when he realized that the glowing vitae had in fact only regrown about three-quarters of what Olive had burned away.
“Maybe… Maybe… It has to do with the 70:30 ratio. I’m not sure what it is but…”
Claire had no clue what Olive was talking about. He kicked them higher as another appendage shot up at them until he felt they were well out of reach.
From this vantage point, Claire could clearly see how much vitae was swimming around the ground. It covered three blocks and spider-webbed further in-between nearby buildings—melting everything it touched. He squinted past all of the brightness and made out where the vitae was spilling out from. A kilometer or so downhill from their position was an open space surrounded by pristine white buildings marked with numbers. A trail of vitae led to this area and ended at what appeared to be a large drainage hole.
Was that the location of an underground vitae reservoir? He’d never heard of such a thing. Ironic that it was their original target destination.
“Might as well take it back where it belongs then,” Olive grumbled when Claire informed him of this. He extended his hand out again and sent out a whirlwind of fire blasting out just above the glowing vitae.
Simultaneously Claire kicked his conductor forward and drove them towards 43rd Street. Tentacles of vitae reached out to them—to the flames, to the flecks of blue in the air—as they lurched forward.
“It’s working,” Olive muttered.
Claire threw a glance over his shoulder and saw tendrils of light retracting from their course uphill towards the convention. Something about the way the vitae moved made his stomach squirm but he ignored and refocused his attention forward.
In a momentary beat of distraction, a tendril of light shot up from in front of them nearly knocking them from the conductor. Claire managed to dodge to the left and grabbed Olive by the scruff before they tumbled to their deaths. As expected, he received a glare in response but met it with an apologetic smile before continuing forwards.
Once they reached the center of 43rd Street, Claire shot them up higher into the sky. Tendrils of vitae followed them upwards as light pooled below them in an almost perfect circle filling up the block. The pool of vitae stretched itself tight and then, reaching and reaching, until abruptly—
—down and down the vitae sank to the ground. A bubbling began at the center of its mass which was soon followed by a swirling. Like water draining down the sink, the vitae whirlpooled down into the open drain it had originally spilled out from until it was swallowed up completely. Almost no evidence of it left. An empty street littered with glass and half-melted lamp posts.
“Did it just…”
“I think it did…” Claire whispered back. “A bit anti-climactic.”
They stared silently at the ground for a moment before Claire cautiously, hesitantly guided them to them down to the surface several meters away from the drain. Claire stepped off of his conductor first before Olive hesitantly did the same. They approached the drainage hole together, peered down into the darkness, and upon seeing nothing, relaxed simultaneously.
Well, that was easy.
Claire lifted his hand in the air for a celebratory high-five. “Hey, we did it!”
Olive stared at him with an arched brow before looking away and loosely punching his fist into his waiting hand.
A stampeding of footsteps resounded from down the street. Along came the Capricornians and Trystan. Louise, however, was nowhere to be seen.
“Are you alright, Olivier?” Trystan pressed as soon as he reached their side.
“The hell happened?” Gilbert managed after catching his breath. “Where’s the vitae? We’ve got half the military police running around with insulation shields.”
“Well—” Claire began before a loud crack from below cut him off short.
Claire held Olive’s gaze for a moment before they tentatively glanced down in unison.
Cracks were forming along the brick-laden ground below them. Cracks that grew and spread and consumed the entire surface beneath their feet. A final slick, crack! rang through the air as the ground fell away and they tumbled into darkness.
The thing sighed, hanging its head. “You’re a very dull person, aren’t you? You couldn’t even spare a little bit of a reaction?”
The tick-tocking of the surrounding clocks resumed. Loudly, cacophonically.
Werner regarded the thing cautiously. Clearly, it saw this entire situation as entertainment.
Abruptly, the blue light coating the thing’s entire body rippled like water and peeled back across its face—folding back like paper. What was revealed as it shed its blue coating was his mother again.
No, this thing, Werner realized as he met with the thing’s blue-gray gaze, viewed this as a game. But there was an opportunity here to—
“This entire situation was honestly an accident.” The thing frowned. “I’m sorry about this. Really. If it makes you feel better, you did see that the person who did this to you was dealt with swiftly.”
The Augen member in disguise as an Argoan soldier. The memory of the knife crossing his hand suddenly became so cognizant that Werner could almost feel the ghost of the cut on his palm.
An accident…? There was no such thing as an accident.
“But if I try to pull myself out of you or worm my way out, I might accidentally rip your own vitae right from your body. There’s just too much of me in you at the moment and given that you’re a True Conductor, it’d be especially messy. I do admire the effort you’re putting into it though.”
If this thing couldn’t leave the people that it entered on its own, then why—
“Even if I somehow leave though, the impression I’ve left will be left behind regardless. Like those scars on your hands.”
Werner remained silent.
“It’s not your fault and neither is it mine. You might think I’m the one pulling all of these strings and controlling everything because I’m a Manipulator… but to be honest with you, I’m quite weak. Most of the time, all I do is enter a person and read into a bit of their surface-level thoughts and memory. If I want them to do something, I just plant a single thought—an idea. It’s up to that person to decide whether or not to act on that. I’m not unkind. Of course, if I’m a bit more desperate, I’ll go a bit further but I rarely do that. You understand, don’t you…?”
The clocks around Werner began to tick slower and slower.
“Of course, the ideas I leave behind are just thoughts that I’ve already found swimming around in the heads of the people I enter. Desires that they’ve suppressed due to thinking that it’s a waste of time or to keep up appearances, etcetera.”
It was speaking so casually about such a disgusting act. Living manipulation was abhorrent—
“That’s cruel. Is that what they teach you in your military academy?” It frowned. “I’m not so much different from a True Conductor. Though I can’t feel as deeply and remember as much as you people do, I still can feel the thoughts, memories, and feelings of those I’m in as if they were my own.”
If that was the case, Werner realized, then the situation was more disadvantageous than he’d originally thought. Pressing for answers was dangerous. Observation would be the best route. He wasn’t in the position to be making demands at this time. He was very well aware of that.
“Correct, dear.” It smiled, batting his mother’s eyelashes. “You could stretch to the point of saying you aren’t in the position to be making decisions either. Atienna certainly could but wouldn’t. But you… I do think you’re very decisive… but… you didn’t even try to change course.”
Was it referring to him going through the memories in order to excise it? All of those events had already occurred. Attempting to ‘change the course’ would be a time-consuming, fruitless effort without benefit. Nothing would truly change.
“Any normal person would’ve at least tried to resist though,” it continued. “Even the street orphan did.”
“Yes, I’m very well acquainted with her now. She’s quite the liar—that one.” She smiled before chuckling. “But you’re much more of a liar than her surprisingly. You’ve even chosen a much easier way to live compared to Atienna.” She shook her head. “I just can’t wrap my head around it… You see, I approach every person by asking the same question: what does this person seek in life?”
The clocks had almost slowed to a single tick every ten seconds.
“Money? Love? Status? Admiration? Yes, yes, and yes. This all culminates to the fact that every single person alive seeks self-fulfillment. By achieving this self-fulfillment, the theory is that they’ll obtain true peace. And… in a sense, self-fulfillment is equivalent to desires.”
Every thirty seconds now.
“Honestly, I’m not a bad guy. You can think of me as a wish granter.” She chuckled. “Since I’ve accidentally been inserted into you, I’ve been looking around as I’m sure you can tell… But—you see—I couldn’t and can’t find anything.”
The clocks hit one final tick and fell silent.
“You’re completely hollow. There’s nothing there. You’re made up of a couple of stereotypical traits glued together. It just doesn’t make any sense. How can a man have such an impressive record and resume behind him and yet be so empty? Boring? Even that peacekeeper is filled with something—I do disapprove of all of you attempting to suppress his righteous anger, by the way. That’s very selfish of you—imposing your status quo like that.”
These were meaningless, reaching words. What Werner was able to gain from this was that she already knew about Jericho.
“And what if I do know about him?” She pressed. “I thought you wanted as little to do with them all as possible? To cut off your connection as a True Conductor and continue with your duties as a Capricornian soldier to the fullest of your abilities? Or did your mind change to conform to what the others wanted unwittingly?”
Abruptly, the memory of the conversation with Atienna in the Zatenminye Caverns cut through Werner’s thoughts like a knife.
“Who are you exactly, Werner?” Atienna had asked. “What do you want? What is your goal?”
You don’t know.
When Werner got a hold of himself, he found her still sitting there at the desk and smiling at him pleasantly.
It was toying with him.
He needed to retreat.
“Like I said, it’s not about you giving me what I want.” His mother smiled again, extending a hand. “It’s about me giving you what you want. And if you don’t want anything—well—I can always fill up that empty space instead.”
She reached across the table, and suddenly in a blink, she was standing before him. He took a tense step backwards but she grabbed at his wrists with unnatural strength.
“Let me see if I can show you what I mean—through my eyes.”
And with that, she tugged him into complete and utter blackness.
When his vision and senses returned, Werner came to realize that it was almost painfully hot. He was no longer standing in the tent but in an open area dotted with crimson embers. Smoke filled the air, and a ring of flames burned around him on the ground. Beyond that ring of fire, he was just barely able to catch sight of—Gilbert, Nico, Brandt, and Stein. Beside them stood Yuseong Claire who gripped his staff conductor tightly with an expression of horror and worry. Other figures Werner couldn’t make out stood behind them.
This is happening right as we speak, echoed his mother’s voice. This is what he wants.
Werner realized that all of his men’s gazes were trained on a singular target. He followed their eyes and found Olive standing only one meter behind him. For a moment, Werner felt something approximate to relief at the sight of the prince—at least until he registered Olive fully.
An expression of pure hatred twisted Olive’s face. And in the boy’s hold being consumed by the very same crimson flame blazing around them was a vaguely humanoid shape.
The Vklad Plemennykh Rabochikh Act, better known as the Tribal Worker’s Contribution Act, was signed into legislation following a surge of unemployment in Aquarius after the Reservoir War. The act was designed to create employment specifically for formerly-serving soldiers from the tribal states of Aquarius. Other benefits of this act include increased vitae-reservoir supply to the tribal territories and agricultural food assistance and support.
Positions range from military, fishing industry, and conductor manufacturing. The act requires a quota of job-filling to be met in order for the tribes to receive the additional benefits. In 1932, the act was extended to encompass the progeny of tribal members who served in the war.
Success of this program is still under evaluation.
Significant Legislation, Countries of Signum 20th edition by Various Authors