17.5: Private, 2200 Point of Contact

Re-cap:

The Kaiser has been revealed to be working willingly, knowingly alongside the Manipulator, the Saint Candidate of Scorpio. In a split moment decision, Weingartner turns away from the Kaiser and kidnaps Dämon Forstchritt in an attempt to expose these operations. He finds help and allies in Werner’s subordinates—Gilbert, Nico, Brandt, Heimler, Fischer, Kleine and Brandt. With a coup possibly shining in the background, Weingartner searches the city for a potential ally.

As for his current allies…


Meanwhile, Werner begins to crumble at the threshold of life and death after being subjected to the thoughts and feelings of hundreds of Capricornians.


Anlaufstelle » Point of contact discovered at 2200 hours

Private Derik Stein never understood what the big deal was. Duty, honor, glory, loyalty, whatever. He’d always found it so boring. Lectures at the military academy put him to sleep. All the classes about ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ too—who the hell had time to think about how many soldiers to move backwards or forwards when they were being blasted to hell by gunfire? Derik only felt excitement in school during practicals. Gun ranges, hand-to-hand combat, war play—he scored the top of his class for all the time.

But boredom followed him out of class too. Chores, boring. Listening to his parents argue about the chickens, boring. Trips to the local Monadic Temple to admire a dumb, white, faceless statue with a gold-made halo around its head—symbolizing their ancestor Capricorn—boring. Hunting out in the backwoods with his mother—fun.

But fun was sparse. Boredom reigned. Sometimes he’d be so bored that he’d mess with his classmates after school. The studious or quiet ones always gave the most interesting reactions. Steal their books and they’d either cry or silently bear with it. Call them names and they’d dip their heads. The funnest ones fought back.

“You just need to find something to dedicate yourself to,” the headmaster had told him when he’d been called into the office after he’d pushed one of his classmates into the school fountain. “Why not dedicate yourself to serve Capricorn? Fully after your required service? Loyalty is the groundwork for a meaningful life.”

But despite ignoring these words, the school never expelled him. His practical scores were too good for that. He had a ‘promising military career’ or something.

After graduation, Derik’s first assignment had been to the 47th Division of the Border Force at the southern border. His unit mates were either patriotic bootlickers, practical money-grubbers looking to cash in a stipend, clueless bastards, or sniveling cowards. No in-between. Almost all of them said the same thing—“I wanna kill Argoans”—before proceeding to vomit and puke as soon as they’d killed one. Derik didn’t understand them. When he said he wanted to kill Argoans, he meant it. Even enjoyed it up to a point.

He’d also enjoyed whenever leave would come around. He would go home, dance with girls in bars and halls, and have all the late-night flings he’d wanted. No strings attached. He made it a game to see which one—him or the woman of the night—would say the departing line: “I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I don’t know what battle’ll be my last.” Usually, it went 50:50.

What he hated were the beats between battle. His superiors flip-flopped between hating him and loving him.

“Too much,” they’d say. “Overkill. You butchered that Argoan’s body. You lack Capricornian honor.”

“Too little,” they’d say at other times. “You don’t follow orders. You lack Capricornian discipline.”

Their version of ‘too far’ and ‘too little’ had made no sense. Accusations were always based off of secondhand accounts. Still, in the end, they didn’t discharge him because—again—his numbers were too good. Instead, they shifted him from division to division, unit to unit.

Eventually, he’d transferred into the 212th Division of the Border Force and was placed into a unit headed by a first lieutenant named Werner Waltz. A straight-laced, no-nonsense numbers man with a stick up his ass.

This particular unit was more fun than his previous ones. New additions kept things interesting. There were two pushovers, Otto Vogt and Klaus Kleine; a cute goody-two-shoes, Emilia Bergmann; a bootlicker who actually did shit, Wilhelm Fischer; a relaxed and nonchalant second-in-command, Gilbert Wolff; a guy who told good stories to kill time—Alwin Brandt; a couple of others Derik didn’t bother remembering; and eventually medic with an impressive sleight of hand, Nico Fabrizzio.

During one of his first raids out into unoccupied territory with the unit, they encountered an Argoan party performing reconnaissance. Feeling impatient and indignant at the fact that the lieutenant had ordered them to wait in the branches above the Argoans, Derik began firing down at them before the order was given. Shortly after, he’d launched himself out from the trees and began pouncing on Argoan after Argoan with his combat knife drawn. Stab after stab—until the entire party was wiped out. Derik later found out that two of his unit members were killed in the onslaught but it didn’t bother him in the least bit. Not like he knew them.

The lieutenant’s feelings towards his performance were a different story.

“You broke formation and put the entire operation at risk,” the lieutenant had said, pulling him aside when they returned to the trenches.

“What’s the big deal?” Derik had returned. “We won, didn’t we?” 

“Insubordination of one person in the unit can easily spread to others like an infection,” was the lieutenant’s response. “Regardless of your performance, your insubordination is marking you as a risk to the division.”

“What are you talking about? I’m the best there is,” Derik had fired back, meeting the man’s eyes. “You can’t discharge me. The higher-ups won’t let you. Don’t tell me you’re going to hark on me about Vogt and Kleine too because Bergmann complained. They’re pussies.”

“I said nothing about discharge. That would be too easy,” the lieutenant had replied evenly. “Your relationships with the others in the unit don’t concern me unless it affects your performance in the field.”

Following this, the lieutenant had taken him to a complex shooting range where a Manipulator sent up five targets into the air and made them fly around wildly high in the sky.

A sniping match.

“Prove to me you’re the best like you say you are.”

Sneering, Derik had readied his sniper rifle and had fired wildly, excitedly. He’d ended up expending all of the bullets in his chamber, but he successfully hit every single target.

The lieutenant had used only one bullet. He’d waited, watching through his scope as the five targets flew through the air. In the fraction of a second when all five targets aligned, he’d fired.

Derik had never been so humiliated in his entire life.

“There’s no such thing as being ‘the best,’” the lieutenant had said, “because the best is an end line. There is always room for improvement. Your numbers are exceptional, but that isn’t what makes an efficient soldier or person. I can tell that you enjoy being out in the field. If you want to continue being out here, you need to listen to me. If you disobey my next orders, I won’t discharge you but assign you to a penal unit instead. However, if you follow orders and continue to perform well, I can have you transferred to special operations—your profile says this is where you want to be. So stay calm, think, listen. Is that clear?”

“Crystal clear, sir.”

The bastard.

Derik never figured out why the man had gone the extra distance just to hammer that point home. Looney perfectionist. Almost cartoonish. But Derik had supposed if someone was willing to confront him like that, they deserved at least a little bit of respect.

His opinion of the lieutenant remained the same even after the man started behaving strangely at the Aquarian-Capricornian border, even after the man requested his trust in the Twin Cities, and even after all the dirt was unburied. To him, the lieutenant was still a straight-laced numbers man who was always at the center of excitement. Looney perfectionist— even loonier after the True Conductor revelation. And, all in all, Derik lived for looney excitement.

But Derik started to feel odd after Cvetka took them into her tent once they’d escaped Argo into Aquarius—was already feeling odd and more irritable after Vogt kicked the bucket. If it weren’t for Marionette Engel digging her nails into his skin so hard that it had caused him to bleed in that tent, he would have launched himself at Cvetka. In fact, he would’ve shoved Engel to the ground too if he hadn’t suddenly feel so damned tired afterwards.

Shortly after the tent nonsense, he’d started to have odd urges. He never questioned it. Never the type to question any of his urges.

When he felt the urge to grab a beer back in the lieutenant’s hometown even if it meant abandoning his post over Heimler and Engel, he did it anyways. Not like the lieutenant was there to whoop his ass and write him up. When he felt the urge to listen to a new hit artist Alma on the radio when they’d boarded the train to the capital, he’d blasted her music through the train cart. And after he’d witnessed the swindler’s argument with Nico, an all-consuming urge swallowed him completely: Protect the prince.

Back then he hadn’t known why he’d needed to—hadn’t even known who the hell the ‘prince’ really was. He had only known two things: that the prince was on the rooftop of the train and that the prince needed protection. No questions asked. And he did just that.

Unlike the other past urges, however, this one didn’t fade. It found home at the back of his head.

And so, he’d followed through with the urge over and over again. Kept a close eye on the prince as much as possible. Thought about protecting the prince so much that he’d even dreamed of killing that ELPIS leader Iota who was a danger to him. Even threw himself in danger and dragged the grieving prince out of 43rd Street. And after the prince had passed out after nearly killing Oran, Derik had picked up the royal guard badge that had fallen from the prince’s hands and had pocketed it in hopes of using it as an excuse to return to and protect the prince later.

Frankly, Derik didn’t really care what happened to Capricorn. If stuff got bad, he’d just write a letter home telling his parents to abandon ship and then move elsewhere himself. But. What he did care about was what happened to the prince.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Deep in thought, Derik Stein turned over the Ariesian badge in his hands and rubbed his thumb over the ram horns curling at its top.

At the moment, he was sitting ontop of a gray stone bridge leaning against one of the six towers lining the bridge. This bridge—instead of having tall railings like the one they’d just crossed an hour or so ago—had a floral, low-hanging banister that barely went up above the shins. One wrong step and kersplat into the water fountain in the courtyard below. The fountain itself was large, rectangular, and flat with a bronze statue depicting decorated soldiers standing back-to-back and aiming rifle-conductors around the court at its center. Across the courtyard stood another bridge identical to their own.

Beside Derik sat Nico who was staring down with a frown at the black liquid-filled, needle-shaped proto-conductor in his hands. A gift from that nut job ELPIS leader. Across from Derik against the tower opposite sat Dämon Forstchritt who was sandwiched between Brandt and Kleine. Derik still didn’t have any idea of who the hell Forstchritt was. Some conductor engineer? He didn’t get the buzz.

They were all supposed to meet a friend of the captain—the ‘major’ now, although treason probably put a damper on that promotion—but Weingartner had run off to make another phone call to that friend with Second Lieutenant Wolff and Heimler in tow. The captain, despite his gung-ho attitude, was obviously nervous. Derik could tell that the man was going on the fly. But that was Derik’s personal style too.

“What is that…?”

Derik glanced over to find Kleine staring at him. The man had been tasked by the captain to conjure five long-range Projector proto-conductors, three short-ranged melee proto-conductors, and several normal rifles and handguns. Klein had been reading up on proto-conductors ever since the swindler had asked him to make her those proto-conductor rings. Kleine’d even been keeping a small manual about very basic proto-conductors in his chest pocket since then. Sad hobbies. Decent ironic luck.

“What does it look like, Glasses?” Derik snapped. “It’s that royal guard’s insignia. Took it from the prince when he dropped it.”

Kleine paled.

Nico arched a brow. “You… kept it?”

“That’s messed up, Stein,” Brandt muttered.

“You’re the one who’s fucked up,” Derik snapped back. “I’m not the one who shut their mouth about knowing about this shit for months.”

“I already said I don’t know much.” Brandt grimaced. “I just remember vague feelings, Theta and the others, and that we thought we were the last hope left. When the captain, the kid, Engel, and I were all working together to figure out about the energy levels—that was my first time finding out about it too. The eelings finally made sense.”

“Aw, boohoo. You want me to give you a hug and a kiss? Bastard.”

Kleine frowned.

“Hey, stop it, Stein…” Nico interjected. “We’re supposed to be working together.”

“Okay, mafia man.” Derik grimaced. “Brandt aside—don’t even know why Heimler was allowed back. He’s why we’re stuck like this.” He pointed to the palm of his hand. “Bastard couldn’t pull his weight and dragged us into this shit.”

“Hey, without this mafia man, you would’ve been dead exactly three times over,” Nico retorted. “And if Alwin hadn’t transmuted your face that one time fast enough, you wouldn’t be lookin’ as you do now. But Heimler… Well, he used to be an important person in the military, right? And he’s a member of the Augen too. I’m sure the captain is thinkin’ about his connections and all that.”

“Why’d you end up coming with us anyway, Fabrizzio?” Derik asked, stretching his arms. “You’re buds with that ELPIS leader guy, aren’t you? I saw you talking to him before they left. Thought you were going to jump ship and go with him.”

Nico grimaced before chuckling. “Oh, I wanted to, but Francis said it was too dangerous. He actually told me to take a train home.”

“To the Twin Cities?” Kleine asked.

Nico nodded.

“Why didn’t you…?” Kleine pressed. “I mean, I appreciate you, Nico, but this isn’t your country.” He winced. “I mean—I… don’t understand why you stayed.”

“I can’t do anythin’ for anyone if I go home,” Nico drew. “I can’t help Cadence ‘cause everythin’s all tied to Werner… And Francis is still here lookin’ for that Libran saint candidate too…” He smiled. “And you’re all here. You’re still my patients, so there’s that.”

“Don’t lie, Fabrizzio.” Derik rolled his eyes. “No one’s that saintly. Are you saying if we all went full ‘fuck everyone’ and went along with Alles Für Alle, you’d join us?”

Nico shrugged.

“Staying here versus going home,” Brandt interjected. “Is that what you and Cadence were fighting about?”

Nico forced a smile. “Why? Want to add more to drama stories to your collection?”

Footsteps approached them from up the bridge. Down came Fischer, a proto-conductor rifle swung around his back and a grouchy look on his face.

“You guys talk too loud,” he said as he approached them and then sank beside Derik. He eyed the Ariesian royal badge before reaching for it. “That looks expensive. Have you thought about maybe selling it—”

Derik jerked it away from him with a glare. “Why the hell would I do that?”

Fischer stared. “…It was just a joke, Stein.”

“Where did you run off to anyway?” Derik asked, shoving the badge back into his pants pocket. “That was a long piss break.”

Fischer shrugged before jerking his head towards Brandt. “You’re right about him though. You’re a damned traitor, Brandt.”

“We’re all technically traitors though, aren’t we?” Nico tried. “I mean, I’m not an official Capricornian but part of the deal was me actin’ as a liaison between back home and your government.”

“I’m no traitor,” Fischer muttered.

Damn, Derik thought, Fischer was in one of his pissy moods. He was a fun guy to be around otherwise.

“Do you really think we can pull off a coup?” Fischer asked suddenly. “There’s only what? Seven of us? How will that work?”

“The peacekeepers will help us,” Kleine offered. “After they find that Libran saint candidate, we can save the lieutenant. And then they’ll report into Ophiuchus… Then we can…” He frowned, paling. “The peacekeepers don’t even know about the Kaiser yet.”

“I don’t see why we just don’t find this Scorpio guy and just kill him.” Derik frowned. “That ELPIS guy didn’t even mention going directly after Scorpio. Doesn’t sit with me right—”

“Hey, I know Francis,” Nico almost snapped back. “If Francis didn’t mention it, then either he doesn’t think it’s possible, doesn’t think we’re capable of doin’ it, or thinks that it’s too dangerous.”

“Of course it’s possible.” Derik snorted. “Where’s your head, Fabrizzio? Anything can be killed.”

Instead of responding, Nico held up the needle-shaped proto-conductor. “I was thinkin’ maybe we can somehow use this to tell the peacekeepers and Francis that the Kaiser is in on it too. Francis said he could hear through it sometimes.”

Nah, Nico, you saw that light show when we were below. It’s too bright,” Derik said, waving the idea off. “It’ll draw attention if you use it.

“Yeah… I know.”

‘Peacekeepers’ll save us’ is wishful thinking anyway,” Fischer scoffed. “The peacekeepers don’t care what happens to us. They just want to hammer us down with more restrictions. They’ll just dismantle everything we’ve worked for as a country and leave us to clean up the mess.” He looked around. “I’m sure when the lieutenant comes back, he’d probably want to go along with what the Kaiser and the major generals are saying….”

Nico frowned. “What…?!  What makes you think that…? He’s where he is now because of the Manipulator.”

“Well, he’s a Capricornian through and through,” Fischer argued. “He’d understand that his sacrifice was an honest mistake, and he’d want to make up for keeping this True Conductor thing a secret.”

“‘Sacrifice’? What the fuck?” Derik arched a brow. “Why do you kiss his ass so much?”

“I don’t—”

“You think people like their ass being kissed all the time?” Derik snorted. “The only time ass-kissing is good is when—”

“Don’t go any further than that,” Brandt interjected.

“I’m just saying.” Fischer nodded at Kleine. “Weingartner gave you those papers about the whole Alles Für Alle order, right?”

Kleine placed a hand over his chest pocket. “Yes… Why?”

“I mean, you’ve read it,” Fischer continued. “The Kaiser has good intentions, and he’s doing what he thinks is… resourceful. It’s…. just gotten a little out of hand. He’s doing his best.”

Kleine stared. “Fischer, do you even hear yourself?”

“I’m just saying. The Augen was already here before they started this project. I mean, the Augen are domestic terrorists, so he’s just using what he can to support the country.”

“Fischer, he’s making it worse,” Brandt pressed. “This could’ve all just ended with a protest and some paperwork, but look. Now there’s a curfew and restrictions. Look at what happened at the hospital and the border. Just because they want more.”

“Because the people need more—” 

“If you’re gonna bitch all the time, why are you even here, Fischer?” Derik sighed.

“I’m just trying to see how they’re seeing. That’s all,” Fischer explained. “I mean… We’re all gonna die. We might as well give back what we can to the country and the people who’re here after us. And it’s not like we haven’t contributed to the plan already—”

“Well, yeah, we’re all gonna die.” Derik snorted. “But I’d rather die on my own terms instead of being turned into light sludge.”

Brandt nodded. “Returning the cycle is a natural part of the universe. Becoming part of a reservoir—the cycle can’t continue to its fullest. And… being in that state—it’s… probably agony or something.”

The hell. Brandt was too much now.

“I wonder…” Kleine murmured, paling as he stared at the ground. “I wonder what’s going on down there. Below 43rd…”

Fischer frowned.

Nico glanced at him. “You didn’t see that thing, Fischer. I’ve seen a fair share of people bleedin’ out and dyin’ from all types of things… but I’ve never seen someone die like that before. That royal guard… Trystan… I think he was just a kid.” He looked away. “Do you know how amazin’ it is that we’re all even still alive? I’m not talkin’ just about the fact that we’ve made it out of a lot of skirmishes. I mean, there’re so many things that can go wrong in our bodies—heart attacks, blood clots, all that—but we’re still here despite that. And havin’ it be put out so quickly… I think it’s easy to forget sometimes. A human life is a valuable thing. Not some energy source.”

“You’ve always been soft,” Fischer muttered.

“Maybe I am,” Nico agreed, “but I’m also from the Twin Cities. Altruism, loyalty, and dedication is a thing there—believe it or not. But even the most altruistic person there’ll know and stop when they’re bleedin’ themselves dry for someone else.” He hesitated. “I know I’m probably speakin’ where I shouldn’t, but that’s where I see it.”

Fischer grimaced. “So you’re for being selfish—”

“You all need to shut the hell up with the philosophy,” Derik grumbled. “You’re putting me to sleep.”

Chuckling, Nico looked to the sky which was just beginning to become colored purple from the sun rising somewhere. He frowned. “Maybe this is all a sign that we’ve been relyin’ on conductors too much. Maybe we need to move to something else.”

“Funny hearing that from you, mafia man.” Derik snorted. “I’m not giving up my conductor the other countries sure as hell aren’t either.”

“But… isn’t it weird?” Kleine murmured. “How are we just finding out about all of this now? How come this vitae-level thing hasn’t made the news yet? Not just in Capricorn, but everywhere else too.”

“We should just leave this to the guys on top.” Derik yawned, bored again. “The Ariesian prince and the Sagittarian. The peacekeepers. We’re just laymen. Pick a guy we like to follow and mindlessly obey and have fun while we’re at it.”

The conversation lapsed into silence.

Derik peered around the tower and down into the courtyard on a whim. Shadows swept across the ground below causing him to tense before relaxing. Crossing the dark courtyard below them were Weingartner, Heimler, and Gilbert. Seeing them in all of that empty, quiet darkness in such an open space put Derik on edge. In a good way.

Suddenly, a click-clack, click-clack echoed just behind the three men causing them all to stiffen. Out from below the arches of the bridge opposite stepped a woman with a wreath of golden hair that almost looked like a lion’s mane. A monochrome suit clung to her figure, and a white armband was barely visible around her arm. Derik could barely make them out, but there was another peacekeeper on her left and a military police officer on her right.

Weingartner, Heimler, and Gilbert remained stiff in place as they turned towards her. The woman, in turn, reached for her waist and drew out a bladeless conductor.

Gritting his teeth, Derik signaled for Kleine who threw him a rifle proto-conductor. Kleine offered the same to Fischer who accepted it hesitantly.

Burning gold light consumed the square as the peacekeeper’s blade conductor ignited. Derik felt the warmth even from his vantage point and winced at the brightness.

“What are you doing out here?” the peacekeeper asked. “There’s a curfew.” She reached into her pocket and flashed a badge at them. “First chairwoman of the ELPIS Investigations Department. Leona.”

The ELPIS Department?

Derik tensed.

They were being manipulated then, weren’t they? And the second lieutenant said that the chairwoman of the ELPIS Department was a ‘tower.’ So if this woman was connected to the Manipulator, why the hell was she acting like she didn’t know Weingartner? It was like it was a game. Wait—how the hell had she found them here?

“Is there a curfew?” Weingartner asked, brows furrowed. “I had no idea. We just arrived in the city recently—”

Leona spun the conductor in her hand and pointed it at the captain. “I’ll have to cut you down to get to Forstchritt then.”

Shit.

Derik charged his rifle proto-conductor, poked his head around the tower, aimed, prepared to fire—

—before the blade conductor that was in Leona’s hand hurtled right towards him.

He barely had the time to pull back into cover as it sheared past where his face once was and then embedded into the opposite tower just above Kleine’s head. He caught a glimpse of a blue vein pulsating through the golden vitae of the blade before it deactivated and clattered to the ground.

In a quiet panic, Kleine and Brandt dragged Forstchritt over to the wall beside Derik. At the same time, a high-pitched whine screeched through the air. When Derik peeked his head around the corner again, he found that Leona and Gilbert were locked—conducting blade against proto-conducting blade. Sparks of gold, dark blue, and gray erupted in the dark. Past these blinding sparks, Derik could see that while Gilbert was pushing down on Leona with both hands, Leona was keeping him at bay with just one.

“Proto-conductor,” Leona deadpanned.

Weingartner conjured a rifle and aimed it at her. Before he could fire, Leona reached for another bladeless conductor hanging at her waist, activated it, and threw it at him. Heimler activated his own blade proto-conductor and knocked it out of the air only to have to block another golden blade hurtling towards him and another one and another one. Leona seemed to have an infinite amount of conductors on her belt. One after the other.

This was ridiculous. Her strength didn’t seem human.

After reloading the rifle, Weingartner fired it off at her again but she plucked two blades from her belt—one conducting and one regular combat knife—and threw them at both Heimler and him. Heimler barely managed to block the incoming conducting blade, but the combat knife sheared through Weingartner’s uniform with such force that it pinned him against the tower wall below by the cloth of his shoulder. Still, the captain managed to fire his rifle at the police officer who had conjured a rifle of his own and was taking aim at Heimler. The officer flew backwards off of his feet at the impact and hit the ground dead.

Shit, Derik thought. The captain had just killed a military police officer.

Drawing out a blade conductor at this sight, the other peacekeeper who had come with Leona stormed towards Heimler, who was barely holding his ground against Leona’s onslaught. Weingartner fired off his shotgun at the approaching peacekeeper in response, but the man sliced the bullets out of the air with a spin of his blade. Derik aimed at the man instead and fired. A ray of electric blue lit up the dark before a burst of red splattered across the courtyard. The peacekeeper fell forward motionless.

Shit, Derik thought again. He’d just killed a peacekeeper… This was great. What was not great was that Leona was beginning to beat her blade down over and over again on Gilbert who was beginning to bow beneath the force. Also not great: peeling out from beneath the bridge across them came ten—no twenty, thirty—figures. Fifteen in peacekeeper uniforms, ten in military police uniforms, and five in what looked like civilian wear. Augen members? Half of them aimed rifle conductors up at where Derik was stowed away with the others behind the tower before they began to fire in quick succession.

Derik peeled back and listened as the brick of the tower rumbled with each hit.

Damnit. They had a vantage point from up here but here they were being outnumbered again. Just like back in Argo—

A howl abruptly tore through the open square. It came down with such gravity that everyone in the square was forced to their knees then to their stomachs. The wind—like a hand—swept Gilbert and Heimler to the side away from Leona and then Leona’s back-up to the side towards the opposite bridge. Flecks of blue light pulsated in the air in the aftermath. Derik followed these flecks upwards and found the Sagittarian prince perched on a staff conductor high above the ground.

What the fuck?

A whoosh of cold air tickled the back of his neck followed by a soft tap. Derik immediately whipped around, aiming his conductor, but—

A man wearing a frowning wooden mask stood above him with arms raised.

“I am with the young prince,” the masked man spoke in Common with a deep, rumbling voice. “My name is Felix. We are here to assist you.”

Derik frowned. “Your name sounds Aquarian.”

Felix stiffened before he continued over the howling winds: “The prince has had us watching over you. He wants physical proof of what has been happening in this country.” He turned to Kleine. “You have those papers. Give them to me so I can take them to the prince.”

Kleine pulled back. “What…? I… I can’t give this to you. We need this. It’s evidence against the Kaiser.”

Felix reached for Kleine, only to be stopped with a hand around the wrist by Brandt. Felix tensed at this and studied Brandt before saying, “You must give it to us. That’s why we’re offering you our aid.”

“Your aid?” Fischer glowered. “You just want political leverage. You Sagittarians want to get back for what happened during the border conflict.”

“You don’t look like you’ve even got enough people for backup,” Derik scoffed.

“The rest of the prince’s vassals are watching over the young princess and are preparing to leave this country,” Felix replied. “We will do the same once we have a hold of the information. Soha and I are… the only ones with the prince, unfortunately.”

So the Sagittarians were going to leave them high-and-dry, Derik figured. Not everyone could be crazy like Nico and the prince and ignore border lines.

“The prince sent one vassal to deliver the news we overheard about your Kaiser to the peacekeepers,” Felix continued. “I’m sure they will help you the rest of the way.”

Ignoring Felix, Derik peered around the tower and down into the courtyard again just in time to see a yellow-blue vitae ray hurtle out from nowhere and strike the staff-conductor Claire was perched on.

The prince plummeted in an instant.

Felix let out a cry of alarm, before launching himself off the floral balcony. He tackled the prince out of the air and gripped him as he stretched out his hand to the ground and conjured something in a burst of lilac light. A series of thick mattresses—of all things—formed beneath them. The duo bounced off one cushion then another as they hit the ground. Eventually, they bounced off of the mattresses and onto the brick yard before rolling to a stop.

“Felix!” Claire snapped. “I told you to stay away!”

“B-But—”

“I see you’re scared of losing your servants after seeing what happened to the royal guard,” Leona drew, “but you still put them into this position because of your greed.” She chuckled. “You may be a prince, but you’re still a child. And you still have the arrogance of a child.”

Claire chuckled, seemingly nervous, as Felix released him. He picked himself off the ground before saying, “That’s a rude thing to say to a prince of Sagittarius, Miss Leona. I know I’m one in fifty, but I’d like to think that everyone deserves respect.”

Felix conjured another staff conductor in a flash of lilac light without even breaking a sweat.

Claire’s sheepish smile thinned into a sly one as he accepted the staff and pointed it at her. He then drew out something from his pocket. A pair of cuffs. Suppression cuffs. “That and you said that you had to leave me be, right?”

Leona stared at him, expression darkening. “I respect your passion for your country, but—”

In the blink of an eye, she’d drawn out a small bladeless conductor, activated it, and threw it—not at Claire but—at Felix who barely managed to conjure up a thick, square block of metal to catch it. The blade burned through the barrier and pierced through the opposite side, but the block had slowed it enough so that Felix could dodge away.

“—your ‘things’ don’t fall under that category.”

A cyan blade hurtled out from below their bridge and towards Leona who quickly blocked it with a vitae-blade drawn out from her waist. The cyan conductor ricocheted back to below the bridge where a figure wearing a porcelain mask caught it and stepped out into the dim light.

Then came the rain of vitae enemy fire. It showered down into the courtyard, only skirting around Leona, the prince, and Felix. The rays then moved up to pound against and batter Derik’s cover tower. The brick structure rumbled with the impacts.

Derik could barely peer around the corner and make out the direction the barrage without meeting a faceful of vitae-rays. It was coming from in-between the floral banisters of the bridge opposite of them. The thirty or so peacekeepers, officers, and civilians had taken up residence there.

With effort, Derik peeked down into the courtyard:

Weingartner ripped himself free from the knife pinning him to the wall and ran at Heimler and Gilbert who were just beginning to pick themselves off the ground. He conjured up a large wall of metal just before vitae rays pounded them. The porcelain-masked figure dove for his cover as well, pausing only momentarily before leaping out and towards Leona, Felix, and Claire.

The clash between the quadrad was dizzying.

Leona would throw a vitae-blade at either Felix or the porcelain-masked person, and Claire would quickly send out a burst of air from his conductor to blow it away. In Claire’s momentary distraction, Leona would rush forward and grab at him only to be pushed back by a  slash of a cyan vitae blade or a bang of a conjured gun—all of which she either dodged or blocked with ease. An endless loop. The only thing that changed was that the Sagittarians’ movements were getting sluggish with each maneuver.

Seeming to notice the decline, Gilbert peered around the conjured blockade and fired multiple rounds from Weingartner’s rifle at Leona but she easily rendered the bullets useless with a slash of her blade.

Oh, this was bad.

And Derik loved it.

He waited for a slow in the vitae-ray barrage before whipping around and firing wildly across the open space. One of his rays hit a shadowy figure peering out from the floral display on the bridge opposite. The figure, conducting rifle still in hand, fell off the bridge and cracked against the ground below. Derik grinned but the victory was short-lived. The vitae-ray barrage restarted. It even seemed to intensify.

Damn.

Derik chanced a glance around the corner again and fired one more blast before he peeled back and turned to the others beside him. Nico was holding Forstchritt tightly in place while Brandt and Kleine were both peering over the opposite corner of the tower and aiming rifle proto-conductors down into the courtyard. But Fischer—Fischer who was always one of the first ones to charge headfirst into battle no matter the amount of fire—was pressed back against the wall and staring straight ahead. Stiff, unmoving.

What…?

Then realization dawned on Derik—“You piece of shit, Fischer…. You fucking called them here, didn’t you?”

The pounding of vitae rays against the brick of the tower resounded behind them deafeningly.

Fischer tensed before swallowing. “I… I did what was right for all of us. We have to follow what the Kaiser says. For the people. The country. Do you think that we became the country we are today by not following orders? I’m doing this for all of you!”

Kleine stared. “Fischer…”

Fischer paled then snarled, “This is what it means to be a Capricornian!”

Derik growled, grabbed one of the stray blade proto-conductors off the floor, and filled it with vitae. He rose to a stand and pointed the blade at Fischer before freezing.

Everyone was staring at him. No, staring at the conductor in his hands: the verdigris shade of vitae that emerged from the blade was veined over by pulsating dark blue light.

“That’s just like that peacekeeper’s…” Fischer stammered. “Stein, you’re infected.”

Derik’s head spun.

What? When? He didn’t have a tattoo. How long? He felt fine. Was he—

“Derik…” Nico whispered. “It’s okay. Just calm down. We can figure this out.”

No. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that Fischer was a damned bootlicking coward who’d just sold them out to the people who were hunting and hurting the prince. And Derik had to protect the prince.

With a roar, he launched himself at Fischer. Nico tackled him to the side, but Derik kicked him back against the wall. The black, liquid-filled proto-conductor that was in Nico’s pocket flew out, shattered on the ground beside him, and spewed out black liquid that began to pulsate with pale orange light. A dark head emerged from the glow. But it wasn’t Geminian poet ELPIS leader. Instead, a man with a pair of square glasses, a mustache, and a military police gorget hanging from his neck popped out from the light. The man scanned the area before locking eyes with Forstchritt.

“Wait!” Brandt shouted, lunging for the woman.

The mustached man conjured a pistol out from the bloody gash on his palm and fired blindly in Brandt’s direction causing Brandt to jerk back. The man then grabbed Forstchritt’s leg and dragged her back into the portal with him. Brandt and Kleine lunged for her but it was too late. The glowing light swallowed her whole before dimming back into black.

Not caring for this happening, Derik launched himself back at Fischer with a growl. Fischer scrambled backwards and grabbed a hold of another stray blade proto-conductor. He filled it and activated it just before Derik brought his own proto-conductor down on him.

Sparks of dark blue, yellow-green, and verdigris erupted between them. The dark blue cracks on his conductor spilled onto Fischer’s but didn’t consume the man’s entire blade. But that didn’t matter to Derik. He pushed down and down and reveled as Fischer began to bow beneath him. But—

“What is with all of this fighting?”

—just as Derik was about to deliver one last push through, he caught the upward swing of someone’s leg out of the corner of his eye. A sharp jolt shot through the hilt of his conductor, sending it out of his hand and soaring through the air along with Fischer’s conductor. The silhouette that had kicked up the blade stepped out from the cover of the tower and into the open vitae barrage.

It was the lieutenant—the prince—who proceeded to pluck Fischer’s proto-conductor out of the air.

“Olive?!” Nico shouted.

Derik stared at the sight incredulously before he saw an oncoming vitae ray hurtle at the prince from across the courtyard—“Look out!”

Without any worry, the prince swung the blade conductor like it was a bat. A thunderous boom rang out as the incoming vitae ray cracked against the blade and ricocheted back where it came from. It struck its owner head-on, causing them to fall forward down into the courtyard dead.

Definitely not the prince.

Laughter filled the air as not-prince-nor-the-lieutenant bounced on their heels and twirled the proto-conductor in their hand. The jubilation was a disturbing sight since Derik had just seen the prince sobbing his eyes out over the royal guard only hours before.

“Did you see that? That was amazing, yes?” The newcomer chuckled before glancing at Derik with an unnervingly blinding smile. “You need help, yes?”

At that moment, the sun rose up in the distance and enshrined the newcomer’s head in a halo of golden light—nearly dwarfing the light emitting from Leona’s golden conductors below.


Threshold

The Kaiser’s office blinked out of existence, as did his mother. In its place, the black abyss opened back up around him.

“Werner?!”

Still on all fours, Werner grimaced up to find Shion staring in horror at him from across the glowing divide. Lavi ghosted his side, kneeling down beside him. She spoke, but her words were garbled and unclear.

He continued to pant as he stared down into the black below him. The endless empty space around him accentuated the pain pounding his skull and chest. The thoughts and feelings had stopped, but he could still feel them squirming around inside.

He couldn’t pull himself together—no, he had to.

Calm down. Think. It wasn’t real.

Just as he calmed his breathing and approached a sense of clarity, a crimson light sauntered down from above and consumed him with fiery intensity. Flashes and memories bombarded his mind, burning into the back of his retinas with scalding intensity.

Extending a helping hand to the medical train. The conversation with Iota. The painstaking calculations that revealed the unseen truth. “Small goal after small goal.” Going beneeath 43rd. Brandt’s revelation followed by learning about saint candidates from Francis. And then Trystan and Marta, merging into a glowing mess beneath 43rd Street. 

The details filled in. The picture became clear.

Olive’s anguish swirled in Werner’s chest and pulled it down like a heavy weight—

No. Calm down. Think.

As soon as Werner grasped and suppress those feelings, a pulsating pain began at his shoulder before spreading to his chest. When he looked down, he found dark blue glowing cracks spreading along his upper chest.

A voice rumbled out from the area.

Olivier Chance. Born March 30th. Blood type A. Vision 20/20 in both eyes. Height, 160 cm. Weight, 52.2 kg. Left-handed. Personality-type, ESFJ-T. Parents, dead. Sibling, younger sister, awakened and possibly dead.

Occupation, none. Prince of Aries and rightful heir to the throne. Wants to be a conductor engineer.”

The pain intensified until suddenly a pale hand burst out from the cracks on his chest, followed by another hand.

“Described by Ariesian socialites as ‘easily manipulated, apathetic, workable, rude.’ Described by royal palace staff as ‘uncouth, sharp-tongued, unappreciative.’ Described by ‘close’ associates as ‘passionate, headstrong, compassionate, naïve, curious.’

Unusual activity: involvement with Gamma and the Capricornian Watch in assassination attempt, association with True Conductor Yuseong Haneul, and association with the former saint candidate of Sagittarius.

Probability of being a True Conductor, 100%.

Probability of disrupting syzygy, 75%. Reason: impulsivity, connections, intellect, and altruistic nature.”

Together both pale hands clawed and dragged at the air—pulling themselves out further and further—until a pale figure emerged from his chest and stepped out into the abyss. As the figure surveyed the area, the glowing cracks on his chest resealed and faded as if they’d never been there.

“Hm… I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be down here and still conscious,” his mother hummed. She paused once she registered Lavi, who had risen to a stand and taken a step back. “Oh, I was wondering about you, Aries.”

“You’re going too far…” Lavi said, eyes narrowed, embers dancing at her feet. “Leave him be. And if you put another hand on my brother—”

“That wasn’t me that time.” His mother chuckled. “That was all the prince.” She studied Lavi’s face for a moment before sighing. “Aw, did you think that your older brother was just a kind-hearted, innocent saint this entire time? Is that what they call childish ignorance?”

“Don’t belittle me…” Lavi frowned. “You’re killing them.”

“You sound attached, and that’s not a bad thing. But you do know there’ll always be more True Conductors if we wait around long enough. Then again, this group seems like they’ll hold up in channeling the syzygy, so it would be a shame if they died—I mean look at how many of them there are!” His mother peered down at him before resting a heavy hand on his head. “Besides, I’m helping them. Suppressing who you truly are is—”

“Don’t touch him!”

His mother paused before straightening and staring past the divide towards Shion. “Oh… It’s you! I was wondering who kept pulling him away from me. I couldn’t figure out why Werner thought that he could somehow escape from all this…” She leaned down and whispered into his ear, “I guess she was trying to make you focus on a goal so you wouldn’t crumble immediately. Maybe she even got Aries in on the lie.”

Shion paled.

“You realized it after our conversation, aren’t you?” 

Yes, it was perfectly clear.

“Everything you’re doing here is meaningless. You’re going through these memories because I’m making you go through them. Going through them is exactly what I want you to do, and you’ve been obeying without hesitation.” She smiled. “It’s impossible for you to remove me on your own. You’re inefficient—possibly even a little pathetic. This wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t go out of line and save that man—Friedhelm Heimler. You’re a leader—a shepherd—aren’t you? There’s no point in keeping a lame dog or sheep.”

“Haven’t you done enough already?!” Shion snapped, voice wavering. “Stop it!” She turned to Werner, eyes wide and almost tearful. “Werner, don’t listen to that thing! It doesn’t know you.”

He didn’t even know himself. 

Werner had a conversation not too long ago with his subordinates about how they felt towards their service. Usually, he wouldn’t partake in small side-chatter since he didn’t find value in it, but on that day he did. He’d already knowns their reasonings from his personal deductions, but hearing them speak it out loud was different: Vogt and Bergmann wanted to support their families with the stipend and give back to their country; Fischer wanted to prove that he could accomplish something beyond the ‘average’ label the military had placed on him for his country; Derik wanted excitement; and Kleine, much similarly to Gilbert, just wanted to get through it. And when they had all asked Werner his reasoning in turn and he had given him the same answer he’d given his superiors—“it was simply the duty of a Capricornian to give back to the country they were living in”—all of them aside from Fischer had jokingly asked him what he really was serving for. In other words, they didn’t find his answer sufficient as a leader. 

But he didn’t need to know ‘why’. Appearances were what was important. Those small details were not. Because without the opinions of others, he was nothing. He had to uphold it. But the man that his subordinates saw and the person that the other five saw—there was an in-congruency that needed to be rectified. 

No, no, no!

“No, I said stop it!” Shion screeched, startling Werner from his daze. “Leave him alone. Leave them all alone!”

Something akin to panicked anguish ripped through his chest. It was a feeling he was somewhat certain was not his own.

“You’ve probably realized it about her too, haven’t you?”

“She’s a True Conductor…”

“Not just any True Conductor. His mother sank to his side and pointed across the divide. “I can’t believe I didn’t realize it way back then… Say, Werner, didn’t you find it strange that your group was able to communicate so quickly with one another right when your connection began?”

“Wait, stop,” Shion whispered, now even paler.

“You learned from Olive that Aries being here should be impossible, right? There shouldn’t have been enough room.”

There was a beat of silence.

“She was a True Conductor connected to all of you.”

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