There was nothing Gilbert Wolff hated more than owing a debt. He hated thinking, after all. And when you owed a debt all you could do was think about paying off that debt. His mother always told him too: “Don’t take help without doing anything in return. It’s just not right.” And so, not wanting to be smacked over the head with a righteous hand or a broom handle, he’d followed through with that principle most of his life.
Whenever someone would offer to help carry his grocery bags when he was toppling around the streets with them at the age of six, he declined. Whenever his neighborhood school friends would offer to help him with his assigned after-school classroom-cleaning tasks, he waved them off. The only exception he made was with food. If someone offered him a chocolate bar or a bottle of milk—screw honor—he was going to take it.
Then Gilbert met Werner Waltz: class prefect, Kaiser of the phrase “if you can’t perform this simple task, then I will do it myself,” peddler of dealing out debts.
As a prefect, one of Werner’s responsibilities was to come and inspect the classroom after the class had all finished their after-school chores. Whenever he would see a spot or a stain uncleaned, he would call whoever did the job back in and force them to redo it in front of everyone present. If they continued to ‘underperform,’ he would give them ‘one last warning’ before doing it himself and saying ‘this is how it should be done’ afterwards. A subtle debt dealer. Some admired him for it. But Gilbert knew Werner was no saint.
For example, once when Gilbert encountered one of the smaller students being picked on by the school bully during chore time, he’d stepped in and eloquently… beat the shit out of the bully. Werner had stepped in promptly after and had written everyone up for disturbing chore time.
Saints, what a dick, Gilbert had thought during detention as he’d watched the bullied student write up the required apology with a bruised hand gifted to him by the bully.
Gilbert encountered that very dick again when his mother asked him one day to help her out where she worked as a maid for a wealthy family in the village. The Waltz family.
The Waltz family was perfect. Frau Waltz was pleasant and sweet. Herr Waltz was out on the field but was the pride of the town. Viktoria was cute and kind and good with her hands, while Ludwig’s heroic gusto was the talk of the town.
Gilbert frankly was jealous—at least until that day he ended up owing the biggest debt of his life.
On that day in that house, Werner and Viktoria were busily doing their schoolwork at the dining room table while Gilbert absentmindedly played miniature football with himself using a crumpled wad of paper.
Gilbert didn’t quite know the full story, but apparently, Viktoria had been born with a disease that prevented her from being able to expel vitae. Because of this, she dedicated her time to taking over the family watch-making business. So, when she finished her schoolwork on that day, she brought down her watch-making tools and began to tinker away at the table.
“Don’t make a mess,” was all that Werner said to her. “We eat here.”
Gilbert rolled his eyes and paid Viktoria the attention he thought Werner should’ve given her. She’d been working on a very large clock with a sapphire-colored border and silver hands. It looked more like an art piece than a timepiece.
“Woah, that’s really good,” Gilbert crowed. “Can I see it?”
“Yes… but it’s… nothing special.”
Gilbert had gingerly picked it up off the table and inspected it in awe. “Nothing special? I’d pay 500 marks for this!” He’d popped up to a stand and held it up to the light. “This’d look badass on any wall.” After peeking at Viktoria and seeing her flush, he’s carried the clock over to the wall and pressed it in the space there in-between a stool and a vase. “See.”
Viktoria rose from her seat and walked up to him, chuckling. Meanwhile, Werner merely watched him, expression unreadable.
Grimacing at this, Gilbert climbed up onto the stool to push the clock higher against the wall.
Tripping over his own two feet, he had toppled to the ground, taking both the clock and the adjacent vase with him. While he’d managed to cling steadfastly to the clock, the vase shattered into ten billion pieces on the floor.
Viktoria paled, while Werner shot up to a stand. Steps from down the hall resounded slow and leisurely but somehow also threatening. Werner grabbed Viktoria by the arm and dragged her back to her seat just as Frau Waltz entered the room with scanning eyes.
“Oh no… Who did this?” Frau Waltz asked, smile thin, eyes crinkled, as she approached and gestured to the fragmented pieces. “Was this you, Gilbert?”
“I—” His voice caught in his throat as her silver-flecked blue eyes dug into him.
“Do you know how expensive this is?” she’d continued, still smiling, looking down at him. “This is an antique gifted to my husband for his service. It’s irreplaceable. I doubt even your mother’s yearly salary from us could cover it.”
Then realization dawned on Gilbert: he had just cost his mother her job. Her job that kept them afloat while his father was serving up north. What were they going to do now—
Gilbert had looked to Werner in confusion, but Werner hadn’t returned his gaze and instead kept his eyes focused on his mother. When Gilbert looked back to Frau Waltz, his heart dropped. She stared directly at him instead of her son—like she was looking for his reaction to Werner’s words. It made Gilbert’s stomach churn. But he couldn’t find the words to speak.
“I see. Well, Werner, obviously we need to discuss this mistake.” Frau Waltz had headed back to the door’s threshold and had beckoned Werner with a thin finger before smiling at Gilbert. “Oh, don’t touch the vase, any of you. The one who is responsible should clean up the mess.”
Werner had left in silence and had returned half an hour later. When Viktoria had paced over to him, he’d brushed her aside and went to pick up the fallen pieces of the vase. With a scowl, Gilbert had joined him and began shoveling the pieces into a makeshift pouch he’d made with the lower part of his shirt.
Werner said nothing.
With indignation, Gilbert grabbed the large piece of porcelain that Werner was picking up from the ground and tugged it out of his hands. “What do you think the big dea—”
His voice caught in his throat as he registered the blistering welts crisscrossing Werner’s palms—almost dripping red. Some of those lines—Gilbert could tell—weren’t new. Werner tensed and hid away his hands as shame burned his cheeks.
Gilbert opened his mouth, but again no words came out. There was nothing he could even think to say at the time. No words would’ve been enough—he knew this then and now. And so he’d refocused his attention on the fragmented shards of the vase and continued to help Werner pick them up in silence.
From then on, Gilbert did whatever he could to repay that debt.
He’d spent the academy days watching Werner carefully, hoping to find his ‘weak spot.’ He’d at first tried to hook Werner up with some of the most popular girls in class. But Werner was never interested in any of that. Wasn’t interested in turning any classmates into friends either. The only other friend Werner made was Greta—Gilbert still secretly hoped that the two of them stayed just that—but that friendship was something Werner made on his own. In fact, Werner had been the one who’d introduced Greta to Gilbert. Yet another debt.
Just when it couldn’t get any worse, right after graduation, Werner showed up at Gilbert’s train station with a ticket in hand and news of a transfer from the capital to Gilbert’s division. And then Werner even went in and executed Magda Rath in his place when she’d deserted. It all kept fucking piling up.
Werner climbed the ranks in the south quickly despite being a Projector, while Gilbert himself was always a step behind—not that he cared. Gilbert figured Werner probably climbed so rapidly because he ‘efficiently’ set aside things like camaraderie and general morale. Gilbert himself was the opposite. He’d take a chat about anything over sitting in silence in the middle of the trenches. The entire unit made being out on the border bearable. He relied on them to keep his sanity.
But Werner wouldn’t rely on anyone. He was as unsociable as he was at the academy: speaking only when necessary and when giving orders. “Small talk was fruitless and blurred the line between superior and subordinate” was something along the lines of what he’d say whenever Gilbert asked.
But then the border conflict cut things in two. Werner accepted some nonsense mission as negotiator between Capricorn and Aquarius which was swiftly followed by the unit opening fire against the Aquarians they were supposed to be negotiating with.
A day after they’d captured those trespassing Aquarians in a town that was abandoned due to the conflict, Gilbert had come across Werner wandering around the backwoods. There was a pistol in the man’s hands, and Gilbert could tell even from his distance back then that the weapon had been fired.
An execution, he’d figured. Probably one of the Aquarians spreading around the propaganda flyers. Even though it was against the treaty. Dirty work.
“What’s up, Werner?” Gilbert had asked once he’d caught up to him.
Werner had stared at him blankly.
“If you were going to take a midnight stroll, you should’ve asked me to join you. I could use some getting away from Fischer… Unless you were doing Hauptstadt dirty work again.”
Again, Werner stared.
It was almost maddening.
“Look,” Gilbert had snapped. “I’m not that much of a dumbass. The guys aren’t either. I’m your second-in-command, alright? If something happens to you, I’m the next person in line, so you’ve got to keep me up-to-date on shit.”
Again, a blank stare.
“Shit, Werner, I know we might not exactly be friends, but we’ve known each other long enough to where you can rely on me, right? Ask me for help. I’m not fucking here for no reason—”
“I don’t really understand what you’re saying,” Werner—rather, not -Werner, Gilbert later came to realize—interjected. “But what’s the point of saying it? Is it not better to just do it? Why must you let me know? Is it that you value letting me know more than actually doing it?”
Gilbert had been startled speechless by the remark and had remained speechless long after not-Werner had wandered away. It had been a gunshot to the knee. Awful. Embarrassing.
Finding out later that Werner didn’t recall a single thing about that incident because of the override was a relief to Gilbert, which he knew was pretty sad. What was even sadder was the damned joy he felt when Werner had looked him right in the eye and asked him to keep him in line.
It was the first thing Werner had ever asked of him. A promise to a friend. Or more like a way to repay many debts.
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
This was pretty sad, Gilbert thought to himself, back pressed against the metal shield the hauptmann had conjured. The rumble of the vitae rays pounding against the barricade was turning his headache into a migraine. Above the rumbling, he could barely hear the howling of the wind the Sagittarian prince was sending out from his conductor and the high-pitched whines of Leona’s v-blade clashing against the prince’s guard’s blade.
It was more embarrassing than sad: the fact that they were receiving back up from a bunch of Sagittarian politicians. It was like a debt now. Ah, fuck it.
Gilbert dared to peek around the barricade again and aimed his rifle out into the open courtyard.
Nothing had changed in the past couple of minutes. Three-versus-one. Around and around in a loop. In any other battlefield or situation, the winner would’ve been clear. No bets, no wagers. And yet here Leona, a Projector, was—holding her own against a Conjuror, a Projector, and an Elementalist. A kid Elementalist, but an Elementalist all the same.
Gilbert let out a slow breath and pulled the trigger to his rifle. A metal clang rang in the air as his bullet hit the hilt of Leona’s blade, sending it flying out of her hand. The porcelain-masked figure used the opportunity to lunge forward and take a swipe at Leona’s abdomen with a vitae blade, which forced Leona to stumble back and trip over her own feet.
Ha. Take that—
Leona performed a backflip as she fell backwards, kicked back the masked figure as she did so, and balanced deftly back on her toes. Without even looking in his direction, she drew out another blade from her belt, ignited it, and threw it at him. Gilbert pulled back into cover as it whizzed past his ear.
A clang of metal against rock behind him cut the thought short.
Gilbert turned just in time to see the blade rebound off the tower wall behind him and ricochet back towards him. He didn’t even have the time to yelp as it seared into his arm just below his elbow. A beat after, it deactivated and clattered to the ground.
“You’ve got to be shitting me…” Gilbert whispered, head buzzing, heart hammering, arm pulsing.
What the hell kind of luck was this? What now…? Wait. Maybe it wouldn’t infect him because it was only in for a second. Maybe he wouldn’t become a medium. But the others probably wouldn’t think that. Maybe it’d be better just to keep quiet…?
“Hauptmann!” Gilbert grimaced. “Hauptmann, I… I’ve been hit.”
Heimler and the hauptmann turned to him from where they crouched at the opposite end of the barricade. Gilbert lunged for the proto-conductor in Heimler’s hands and brought it to his arm just above his elbow.
“Wolff! Steady.” The hauptmann’s warning shout gave Gilbert pause.
Dammit. Would cutting it even be enough?
His heart raced.
‘Cutting it’… off…?
Sunlight suddenly burst over the bridge behind them, causing Gilbert to wince and hesitate. When his eyes adjusted to the morning glow, he registered a familiar silhouette standing on the edge of the bridge and surveying the carnage below. No uniform. Just a pair of slacks and a button down. Werner. No, the prince.
Wait. No. It couldn’t be the prince. Gilbert could tell. There was too much confidence oozing from the stance of the person perched up there, too much manic energy, and too much damn smiling.
Whoever it was leaped down from the bridge—
—and landed on top of the hauptmann’s conjured shield with a clang! before swinging the proto-conductor blade in their hand out to block an oncoming vitae-ray. A beat after, they hopped down to ground level in front of Gilbert.
The hauptmann looked to Gilbert for an answer, but Gilbert was flabbergasted.
Not-Werner placed a hand on Gilbert’s head and peered into his face. “You’re… My dear Gil, yes?”
The way they spoke Common sounded sing-song and accented strangely. A blend of the usual Capricornian lilt with something more eastern. Leonian maybe? Wait—‘My dear Gil’…?
“Who are you?”
The person paused, thinking. “I am… Werner?”
What…? Not convincing. Wait—
“You’re the one from the border…?” Gilbert realized, blinking up past the dim sun rays. “Look. We know everything already. No need to act. Saints, it’s not convincing anyways.”
“Oh, I see! Do you recognize me then?” Not-Werner beamed—absolutely terrifying—and pointed to their face. “It’s me: Maria!” Her gaze shifted to the wound on his arm. “Oh, you’re injured! You should be more careful, yes?”
Gilbert tightened his grip on Heimler’s proto-conductor blade. “Uh yeah. Well, Leona cut me. I’ve been infected. Gotta. Deal with it.”
She tilted her head. “Infected?”
Gilbert stared. “Didn’t the peacekeepers tell you? The Manipulator can control living things. If you’ve been cut by someone who’s been cut by the Manipulator, you’re also fucked. Wait, where are they—the peacekeepers? They are here, right?” He paused. “What the hell are you doing here then?”
Maria stared back at him. “Peacekeepers? Are peacekeepers here? Besides the ones shooting, I mean?” She tilted her head, inspecting his injury. “Manipulator… What was that again?”
“Well, it sounds like a bad thing, yes? I just came because I heard a lot of noise, and you need help, you see? I am strong, so I will take care of it for you—”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Gilbert shook his head. “What?”
The hauptmann made his way over to Gilbert’s side and grimaced down at the wound. He looked to Maria briefly and asked, “Were you not able to get into contact with the saint candidate?”
Maria tilted her head. “All this talk about Manipulators and saint candidates is so confusing. Maybe if you would explain it to me, I would understand more?”
The hauptmann stared at Maria, shook his head in confusion, and wrapped his hand around the hilt of the blade in Gilbert’s hand. He muttered, “Don’t do anything rash. Maybe if we—”
“It’s me or the arm, Hauptmann.” Gilbert’s heart hammered in his chest as he jerked his hand out of the hauptmann’s and brought the blade closer to his arm. “It might not even work. I might just have to…”
His hand wouldn’t bring the damn conductor down no matter how much he demanded it to.
“You or your arm?” Maria murmured suddenly.
Then there was a flash of yellow-green light, then red, followed by a sweet yet putrid scent. Something flopped to the ground. It took a second for Gilbert to realize that it was his arm. He stared in disbelief and tensed as he watched as glowing dark blue pulsating veins formed at the base of the severed appendage. The blue coagulated to the base of his spasming palm and formed a scorpion tattoo that skittered around there.
Maria pressed down further on his head and met his eyes. “You will not die.”
His head spun.
“Werner! Gilbert!” came a cry from above.
It was Nico, peering around the tower above the bridge and staring down at him in horror.
“Nic, get the fuck down!” Gilbert snapped.
A ray hurtled through the air from the opposite bridge towards Nico. Thankfully, someone pulled him down in the nick of time and the ray skimmed the tower wall behind him.
Maria’s expression darkened before she pried the proto-conductor out of Gilbert’s weakening grasp and flung it at the shadowy figure peeking out from the top of the opposite bridge. It hit whoever was perched there head-on and sent them tumbling down to the ground with a splat.
Maria laughed. “Did you see that? Werner’s eyes really are amazing!”
“Fabrizzio, down here now!” the hauptmann shouted, pulling off his jacket and pressing it against Gilbert’s stub of an arm.
Gilbert stared at the stub, but still didn’t feel the pain. Shock, probably.
Suddenly Nico, conducting gloves equipped, was in front of him panting heavily, sweat dripping in dollops from his brow. He reached forward—
“W-Wait.” Gilbert tensed, pulling away. “It might not be safe.”
Nico frowned. “Gil, listen. You lost an arm. Please shut up.”
Nico’s gloves buzzed with warm light and glided over Gilbert’s stub. With a grimace, Nico said, “The blade’s cauterized it, but—” His eyes widened as he stared past Gilbert’s shoulder. “Wait, what are you—”
Gilbert then realized that Maria was no longer beside him. He peered back around the barricade just in time to see Maria jump into the fray where the Sagittarians were dancing around Leona. Maria slid between the two Sagittarian guards and thrust her proto-conductor forward; and when Leona brought her blade up to block the blow, Maria swung her leg to the woman’s side. When Leona tried to block this with her free hand, Maria pulled her leg back before shooting it out towards Leona’s chest and sending her skidding backwards.
Maria chuckled at this as the Sagittarian looked on in confusion. Instead of pursuing Leona further, however, Maria delivered a kick to Claire’s chest. And not gently either. The prince flew through the air and crashed against their barricade before his guards joined him in alarm.
Maria wagged a finger in his direction as she flipped her proto-conductor in hand. Before Claire could respond, a rain of vitae came down from the bridge opposite, forcing Claire’s guards to drag him back behind the barricade with them.
When Claire righted himself beside Gilbert, he turned and then stared at him, wide-eyed. “You… your arm. I-I’m sorry—”
“Bound to happen someday, kid,” Gilbert muttered, blearily peering around the barricade again.
“Infected True Conductor,” Leona stated, picking herself off the ground.
Maria turned back to the peacekeeper and grinned. “Leona—no, Oros, my dear friend! It is good to see you again, yes? I already forgave you for hurting my Conta and my crew, but now you are hurting people who are important to someone important to me.”
“You’re outnumbered,” Leona stated. “Fortschritt is gone, but we’ll still take you in.” She grimaced, eyes narrowed as she looked to the side and muttered, “The Sagittarian prince is allowed to be free under surveillance and shouldn’t be harmed, but this one must be taken in. We need to bring her into Libra.”
‘Fortschritt is gone’? What? Who the hell was Leona talking to?
Maria suddenly giggled—disturbing to hear from Werner—before she tapped her temple. “Ah, is the one you are speaking to the same as the one yelling here, then? It is nice to have another voice inside my head since the others are quiet, but… Telling me I am weak and that my strength is false and that I don’t understand a thing—well, you’re not very wise!”
Leona grimaced again, pinching her nose.
“The only person who knows me and defines me is me,” Maria said, gesturing to herself. “I might not understand everything, but I know I am strong. And right now, that is all I need.”
Why the hell was she monologuing, Gilbert thought incredulously.
Leona’s expression flattened as a dark blue scorpion tattoo crawled up from her neck to her cheek. Without hesitation, she surged forward and swung her blade out at Maria.
Maria took a graceful step back and blocked the blow with just a slight flick of her wrist. She held Leona there with one hand before swiveling around behind Leona and whipping out the proto-conductor towards the woman’s back in the blink of an eye. Leona’s response was just as quick—drawing out another blade conductor from her belt, igniting it, and blocking the blow in an explosion of dark blue and gold.
Maria hopped back, swinging the proto-conductor callously around again. She tilted her head. “I don’t really get it, but you do not move as beautifully anymore, my dear Leona. Are you this ‘infected’ too?”
Leona charged at Maria with both conductors drawn. Maria chuckled before blocking two swings with a single swing of her own and retreating across the long shallow fountain at the center of the courtyard and to the opposite bridge—no, not retreating.
Maria bounded over to the peacekeeper she’d impaled with Heimler’s proto-conductor only minutes before and unsheathed the still activated weapon from the peacekeeper’s stomach. She then swiveled around and kicked the corpse up towards Leona who paid it no mind. The peacekeeper sliced the body in half with her shorter blade while thrusting forward with the other. Maria met the thrust with a thrust of her own; and as the tips of their blades sparked against each other, she whipped her other blade out at Leona’s face. Leona quickly pulled her shorter blade back and blocked the blow, which was when Maria twisted her thrusting blade forward and slipped past Leona’s.
Maria’s blade ghosted Leona’s cheek causing the latter to side-step backwards. Then a line of red sprouted on her cheek, nearly splitting the scorpion tattoo there in half.
Abruptly, the vitae- and gun- fire battering their barricade and the tower above them where the others were stowed away stopped. Instead, it began raining down on Maria. She simply lifted one of her blades and spun it high above her head, deflecting the vitae and metal bulleting down on her. One ray deflected and decapitated one of the metal soldier statues at the center of the fountain; another chipped the corner of the conjured barricade. Still, Maria’s laughter filled the air and the dark spaces where the rising sun didn’t reach.
What the hell, Gilbert thought in hazy alarm, this person is crazy. But—
“She’s drawing fire. We need to cover her,” Gilbert grunted, turning with effort to face Weingartner. “Hauptmann…”
The hauptmann was already conversing—almost arguing—with the Sagittarian prince, although Gilbert couldn’t quite hear them. After another exchange, Claire took Heimler on his staff conductor and they shot up to the sky and towards the opposite bridge. Taking care of Leona’s backup then?
Everything sounded like it was underwater. Not good.
“Fabrizzio, stay here and watch Gilbert,” the hauptman said to Nico before darting out of cover and up the open staircase of their bridge.
The Sagittarian guards conversed with each other in their native tongue before dashing out of the barricade, slinking their way around the outer edge of the courtyard, and then up the stairs leading to the opposite bridge. To their prince probably.
Damn, Gilbert realized, I’m deadweight now. And that sucked.
In the far distance, he could hear the high-pitched whines of Leona’s and Maria’s conductors beating against each other in rapid succession.
The Ariesian prince brat had said something about the ‘last two’ being—
“Monsters, huh?” Gilbert muttered as his vision swam. He shook his head before darkness could take him fully. Nope. Not now. Not today. When he turned around the barricade and refocused on the fight again, he was met with startling sight.
One of Maria’s wrists was locked in a suppression cuff with Leona holding the other end of the shackles. Gilbert had heard about these cuffs, but this was his first time seeing one.
Maria looked as surprised as Gilbert felt. But she also looked way too damned pleased at the same time. Without skipping a beat, she twisted her cuffed hand like a snake, forcing Leona to release her shorter blade conductor. And as Leona righted herself, Maria sent out her foot, somehow unhooked the strap of Leona’s belt with the tip of her boot, and kicked it to the opposite side of the court.
Leona began slashing madly at Maria with her remaining bladed conductor in turn. Back, back, back, Maria retreated as she fended off each slash.
Leona was edging Maria towards the tower to his left, Gilbert realized. Cornering her. Before he could even give out the warning, Maria was already back-to-back against the tower wall.
Abruptly, however, Maria pushed off against the wall with her hind legs, launched herself at Leona, and grabbed at the woman’s shoulders. Using Leona’s shoulders as an axle, Maria flipped over the woman and landed deftly on her feet behind her.
Somehow, during the flip, Maria had clipped the other end of the cuff to Leona’s wrist.
Gilbert stared. How and why the hell did she do that?
Maria tossed her proto-conductor up and down in her hand playfully, but when she caught it the fourth time, the blade abruptly flickered and dimmed into nothing. She blinked in surprise before shaking it.
The vitae had run out, Gilbert realized, tensing. Was she not a Projector? Did she even know how to use a conductor? Either way, Gilbert knew she needed another one. And fast.
“Aw, is it out already—” Maria was cut off as Leona tugged her forward by the cuff.
Gilbert made for the proto-conductor blade lying at his feet despite Nico’s protest. Panting heavily, he concentrated with all his might and filled the thing with his vitae. When the glass tubes lit up with gray light, he flicked it to ignite it.
“Hey!” Gilbert shouted over his shoulder before hurling the ignited proto-conductor in Maria’s direction.
Maria beamed at him. She ran for it, plucked it from the air, and brought it up behind her back just in time to block the downswing of Leona’s blade aimed for the nape of her neck. Pushing Leona away with a back kick, she spun around and whipped the blade around wildly. Leona brought up her blade to block it, but Maria pressed down harder and harder. Just as it looked like Maria was about to gain ground, however, her proto-conductor flickered off. She stumbled forward as the weight gave way. Fortunately, the proto-conductor flickered back on just in time for her to pull it back up to block another one of Leona’s swings.
She needed another one, Gilbert knew. He hadn’t filled that proto-conductor with enough vitae—
The light from his proto-conductor finally gave way fully as Maria was driven flat back against the tower again. Nico grabbed for the rifle he’d brought down with him and aimed it in the duo’s direction. He fired only to have Leona slice the bullet cleanly in two. Maria took the opportune moment of distraction to duck underneath Leona and drag them back into the open courtyard.
Continuing to dodge Leona’s swings, Maria retreated to the central fountain. Their feet sloshed through the fountain, splashing the water onto the open square and sending droplets into the air.
The central statue of the soldiers was now straddled between the two of them.
Maria gave the connected handcuffs a harsh tug, causing Leona, who was already charging forward with a swing, to be pulled even further forward. Her head cracked against the statue with a loud clang! before she staggered to the ground.
Panting heavily and dripping with water, Maria lifted her empty-proto conductor and studied it in thought. “Wait a moment… I think Werner does it something like this—”
Leona popped up to her feet and began swinging her blade again.
A burst of indigo suddenly puttered out from Maria’s proto-conductor as she dodged an uppercutting sweep of Leona’s blade. It sputtered again as she ducked below a horizontal swipe. This time the vitae came out a copper hue. Crimson sparks came next as she looped around the statue again.
Then, as the water droplets pitter-pattered down back into the fountain and burst into steam at the touch of Leona’s blade, Maria’s blade ignited once more. This time with gold. The very same gold spilling out from Leona’s blade. Even from his position, Gilbert could feel the heat.
Leona’s pristine face—in that exact moment as the gold flushed her cheeks—twisted into something ugly. Her lips curled, her eyebrows furrowed, her eyes widened:
She surged forward with electric intensity, and the vitae in her conductor flared out wildly as it skirted Maria’s nose.
“Do you see this?” Maria laughed as she leaned back and brought up her blade to meet Leona’s own in a raining spark of gold. “I am seeing why you all like using these so much now—”
Golden blue sparks erupted.
A body from the opposite bridge hit the floor as someone from their bridge sniped it out.
More sparks. Three bodies tumbled down. This time Gilbert could see Heimler, rifle conductor billowing with smoke, slinking out from behind the towers on the opposite bridge.
Over and over again Leona beat her conductor down on Maria who blocked the blows, skirted back, and tugged Leona along with her—towards the stairs and up the opposite bridge.
They disappeared from Gilbert’s sights as they went all the way up the bridge and dipped behind the tower there. Bursts of gold lit up the back-tower walls, and their twin shadows stretched across them. Gauging by the abrupt bursts of aquamarine light also bleaching the back-tower wheels, Gilbert figured Heimler was trying his best at support.
Abruptly, the light-show dimmed to nothing, and there was absolute silence.
Gilbert tensed, eyes and ears straining.
Then, in a burst of gold, Leona and Maria appeared behind the floral banisters. Both of their proto-conductors were sparking up against each other; and they were inching their way towards the edge of the building. Abruptly, Maria swept her blade free of Leona’s and delivered the woman a signature kick to the gut. Leona flew off the edge of the building—dragging Maria down with her via their bound shackles.
Gilbert’s heart dropped with them.
“Werner!” Nico shouted in alarm.
The two plummeted into the fountain below, which erupted with a geyser of water. As the water droplets pattered down and the mist cleared, Gilbert registered Leona lying motionless in the pool with both of her hands cuffed behind her. Maria stood on top of her with a firm boot placed against her back.
Panting heavily, Maria wiped a hand across her brow as she chuckled. Seeming to feel his stare, she straightened and turned to him. Then she smiled.
* * *
When Gilbert cracked an eye open, it took him a moment to get his bearings because the world was spinning. He figured he must have passed out as soon as they arrived at this small greenhouse nestled in the eastern corner of the city.
The entire journey from the courtyard to this conservatory had been a blitzing blur. Frankly, Gilbert felt sorry for whatever poor soul would be making rounds in the morning since whoever it was would discover the massacre of peacekeepers, military police officers, and civilians that they’d left scattered behind them in the courtyard.
Dammit. This sucked.
Regret and guilt with these things always came delayed. And as much as Gilbert hated thinking, he couldn’t help thinking now about the fellow Capricornians he’d just killed. While he was never for the whole ‘glory, honor, victory’ spiel, he still took some pride in the ‘defending fellow citizens against danger’ concept.
Shit, he thought. If they weren’t considered treasonous before, they sure as hell were now. That damned saint candidate.
Grimacing, he wiped sweat from his brow.
It was irritatingly humid here, even in the shadow of the ferny canopy they were taking cover under. The damn sun blazing through the clear windows was not helping, nor was the conductor generator humming somewhere in the building. It was so damned hot that Gilbert was tempted to dunk his head into the man-made stream trickling just over the floral hedges to his right.
Kleine had suggested this place. He’d said he’d often heard Otto speak about it: a conservatory that only local biologists from the city’s military academy visited. In other words, this place would be away from the eyes of military police officers and extras. Infected and manipulated people, on the other hand…
Gilbert doubted they could remain here long.
At the moment, Gilbert was lying flat out on the floor. Heimler and Nico were on either side of him—one man, the doctor, and the other, the donor. Gilbert never liked watching transfusions despite stomping in piss, blood, and everything in-between when he was down south, so he stared across at the corner opposite instead.
Lying in a pile there were Leona, Stein, and Fischer. Despite the suppression cuffs slapped over her wrists, Leona was eerily staring blankly at them all and breathing shallowly. Stein—the stupid poor bastard—was keeled over with another pair of suppression cuffs they’d taken off from Leona’s belt slapped over his wrists too. Fischer was in regular cuffs and chained to a water pipe jutting out from the ground. His face was littered with bruises.
Gilbert would’ve laughed at the sight if it weren’t dampened by the fact that they’d somehow lost Fortschritt along the way. He would’ve much rather kept the crazy engineer than the bootlicking fanboy.
Brandt and Kleine were stationed in front of the semi-unconscious group. Standing beneath an overgrowth of vines crawling up along the bench across from the two were the hauptmann, the Sagittarian prince, and the prince’s guards. It looked like they were discussing something serious.
Frowning, Gilbert lifted his head and did a second scan of the area. “Where’s—”
“She ran off,” Nico murmured, brows creasing. “As soon as we got here. Kleine and I tried going after her but…”
Gilbert struggled up to a sit but fell backwards as he tried using his hand that was no longer there. He grimaced and tried again, but Nico pushed him back down.
“Gil, you need to rest.”
The hauptmann peeled away from the Sagittarians and approached him before kneeling down. “Gilbert, how are you feeling?”
“Can’t say I’ve been worse, Hauptmann,” Gilbert replied. “Forgot to ask—I can still call you hauptmann, right? ‘Major’ doesn’t really fit.”
The hauptmann smiled lightly, tightly. “They’ll be searching for us. I can’t say for sure since living manipulation has rarely been studied, but even with the suppression cuffs on Leona and Derik, the Manipulator probably has some awareness over where they are—similar to any ordinary Manipulator’s mediums. Meaning we shouldn’t bring them with us to meet my associate. I was discussing it with the Sagittarian prince, but it’s probably best to leave them with those three peacekeepers.”
Brandt stared holes into Leona at this.
Kleine walked over to Brandt and murmured, “Saint candidates are similar to ELPIS members, right? So… do you know Leona? Like… know her?”
“Not like she is now.” Brandt frowned. “I know Scorpio was manipulating Leona, but I can’t believe the oberleutnant—whoever that was—was even able to take her down… Leo—I remember… No, I know—was—is the best.”
The hauptmann regarded Brandt for a moment before turning back to Gilbert. “Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about you, Gilbert. Good man. You’re okay. You’ll come up with us.”
Nico frowned, eyes narrowed.
“Thanks, Hauptmann.” Gilbert grimaced again. “But I’m not too sure if that’s a good idea. We need someone to watch over Stein and Leona, right? We don’t know if I’m really off the hook yet.”
“Gilbert,” the hauptmann interjected, not looking at his stub, “the Sagittarians will handle communications and transportation to the peacekeepers for us.”
Gilbert remained silent. What exactly was the trade-off for that?
“Okay, Gilbert? You’re still with me.” Saying nothing else, the hauptmann gave him one last squeeze on his good shoulder before returning to converse with the Sagittarians.
Dammit. The debts kept piling up. And…
Gilbert turned and looked at the empty space where his arm and hand should’ve been. He could still feel it there.
Ah, shit. His mother would be so damned pissed. She’d probably beat him senseless when she found out. Damn—and what would Greta think? Would she even consider taking a man who could only hold one of her hands at the altar? And Werner—shit, Werner would just shake his head and say, ‘you didn’t think before you acted and this is the result’ or maybe he wouldn’t say anything. That would be even worse.
Burying his face in the crook of his good arm, Gilbert grimaced and then choked on a sob.
* * *
Gilbert figured he must have passed out again because when he cracked open his eyes everyone was standing and either had a rifle in hand or a conductor.
A woman stood at the lip of the shrubs leading to their tiny hideaway. Her fiery red curls caught the sunlight filtering in through the windows above them. A dark red bomber jacket was draped over her sparkling dark blue dress. In other words, she looked like she’d just come from a dinner party.
But something about her was off. There was a butter knife in her left hand and a gun in her right. And despite none of those items being conductors, they were lined with a dark pink vitae.
Werner knew he needed to get a hold of himself. The thoughts and feelings of hundreds of Capricornians still felt like they were crushing his skull and chest. But he needed to focus on what had just been revealed. The question now was how pertinent was this new information? What did it change?
In the long term, this development changed very little. However, despite this fact, for some reason, there was a heaviness in his chest.
Aside from this, there was the fact that his efforts here were meaningless. He was insufficient, powerless, controlless here. It needed rectifying, but he didn’t have the ability to rectify it.
Werner wanted clarity. He needed it. He wanted someone to tell him what to—
“Oh, I see now.” His mother sighed, her body still cracked by that worrisome pinkish blue light. “You’re truly a pitiable man. You’re almost like that Atienna, aren’t you? But instead of not wanting to choose, you’d rather have someone choose for you in the grand scheme of things? It’s so much easier to conform because appearances are everything. You always choose the path of least resistance.”
Her words pounded into his skull.
“It’s okay,” his mother whispered gently. “Staying true to who you are is what being alive is all about. People can’t really change, so trying to do it is just poorly spent time.”
That was logical. Time was a resource not to be wasted and could be better spent on routes that provided a more salient, quantifiable outcome. As long as one kept the standard, then anything was acceptable.
“Right. Now, I’ll always be here watching,” she whispered as she reached for his chest. “Even though you can’t see me.”
Her hand passed through the area as his shoulder pulsated with a familiar pain. She reached forward with her other hand and then burrowed back from where she had originally emerged from: inside of him.
It was painful, but he didn’t show it. Not even when she was gone.
His actions were irresponsible and unacceptable—Werner had time to realize now.
Shion and Lavi began whispering to each other in the quiet that his mother left behind, but he had a hard time focusing on their words. Their words were not pertinent.
Werner was aware he should’ve reported his status and condition from the very beginning. His loyalty was to Capricorn because he was a Capricornian oberleutnant.
Scorpio was working with the chancellery cabinet and the Kaiser. The Kaiser was absolute and becoming a Capricornian soldier meant swearing loyalty to the Kaiser. Therefore, logically, because he was a Capricornian oberleutnant, adhering to Scorpio’s guidelines was expected…?
“Werner…” Shion neared the river of light that divided them. “Werner, come here.”
Werner considered the woman. Shion was a peacekeeper. Peacekeepers had international authority. In international situations, it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that they had a ranking equivalent to a major general. So he would have to listen to that authority. Yes, that was logical.
Shion’s frown dipped lower.
Was that an incorrect assumption? All assumptions had a degree of fallibility, which was why he didn’t like relying on them. But—
Werner paused, picked himself up, and made his way over to her before standing at attention. He studied her, searching her face, wondering what she thought of him since she had another perception of him from the past.
Here was the incongruency again. The different perceptions—the different appearances and expectations he’d tailored to. There could only be one chosen, but the question was which one was the most acceptable choice and applicable in the long term.
The path of least resistance.
No. Incorrect. Wait. Changing oneself was poorly spent time—
Shion’s brows furrowed before she raised her hand.
He braced himself for a slap and readied himself not to flinch. Instead, however, she placed that hand to his cheek.
“It’s not a waste of time,” she said. “I can’t tell you. It won’t mean anything if I do. But I can show you.”
One thought on “18.1: Second Lieutenant, 0900 Debt”
I do hope that werner keeps some of this