Werner Waltz found himself standing in his childhood bedroom, its floorboards and walls reflecting the blue moonlight seeping through the window. The frost eating at the windows bled the cold into the room and nipped at his fingertips and toes. Across from him stood Viktoria, her cheeks fuller, her legs shorter. In between them stood their mother, thin and tall—the stick in her hands just the same.
Again, just like the time when their brother was standing in-between them, Viktoria looked to Werner tearfully. Although there were no words spoken, pleading expectation glinted in her eyes. And so, Werner presented his hands in turn. He couldn’t quite recall the details of this particular event, but he did recall that he had taken responsibility for whatever had been accused.
That does sound like something you’d do, came Shion’s voice, but wanting to be responsible wasn’t the reason why you did this—why you wanted to do any of it.
Werner tried to dissect the meaning behind those words as he waited for his mother’s approach.
Before he could reach a conclusion, however, a comet of golden light sheared through the memory and shattered his surroundings to pieces. As the fragments fell away back into the black abyss, the gold light coming down surged through his body:
Maria arriving to rescue his unit and defeating Leona. Gilbert losing his arm in the process. Maria joining the beginnings of a rally. Maria being guided into the bunker by Stein. The sign nailed to the bunker’s wall. Maria’s reunion with her group at the convention, and her subsequent raid and clearing of the area with the aid of the other True Conductor Veles. Finally, the plan to combine Jericho’s ability and Lita’s ability.
As the memories faded, Werner became aware of his surroundings. Lavi appeared at his side, seeming somewhat surprised. Shion stood across the glowing line of vitae, seeming somewhat concerned.
“Jericho’s up there now probably…” Shion’s voice wavered unnaturally. “I… he’s not like Maria…”
“Jericho is that peacekeeper…?” Lavi muttered, tilting her head in thought. “The one who conducts like Libra…” Her eyes narrowed. “He’s the one who always charges into things, right? With that lack of self-control…. he’s dangerous.”
Werner tried his best to focus on their words, but he couldn’t because—
Gilbert’s arm. It was gone.
Injury was common in service. Amputees resulted from a unit ill-equipped with medical Conductors. Those handicapped soldiers would be given monetary compensation and an honorable discharge. The case would be closed.
But it was Gilbert.
A subordinate. Favoritism was unacceptable.
Shion’s hand drifted into view, and she tried for his cheek. “I’m sorry about Gilbert, Werner. You need to stay strong,” she said gently. “You know Gilbert is important to you. He isn’t just another subordinate. Don’t let it try to convince you otherwise.”
Werner felt his chest become heavy. His eyes began to burn as memories of Gilbert’s constant presence from childhood through the periods of waiting in the trenches until now blazed through his mind.
Gilbert was loyal to a fault and had kept his promise despite it constantly putting him in less than desirable situations. Werner didn’t believe there was any possible way to repay Gilbert for everything. After all, the man had always taken pride in his ability to aim his conducting rifle with steady hands, but now that one of them was gone—
Before Werner’s emotions could spiral any further out of control, he recollected himself and began to think logistically: Now that Jericho was on the surface, there was a chance—though Werner hated leaving things to that—that his condition could be corrected. But as for what he would do after that—he was uncertain.
“Let’s just focus on one thing at a time, Werner,” Shion interjected.
Werner stared at her.
He still wasn’t able to logic what she was trying to show him. Her reluctance to simply state it was obstructive and unnecessary.
Shion’s expression fell, and she shook her head. “I can’t just tell you. It won’t stick that way when you go back up. You have to realize it yourself.”
Lavi glanced at her, frowning slightly. “That’s what you’ve been doing?” After a beat, she nodded thoughtfully. “That’s actually not too bad of an idea…” She looked at Werner, then said, “Scorpio likes bringing what he views as the ‘driving force’—the passion—behind a person’s actions to the surface. I’m not sure how they do it, but even after Scorpio’s been removed, that impulse stays there.” She pointed loosely at him. “If you survive this, when you go up there, you’re going to go up with whatever Scorpio thinks is you.”
Upholding appearances was everything. And the appearance of an exemplary soldier in the Capricornian army—
“But if you can make it your own…” Lavi looked away. “Well… it’s sort of wishful thinking.”
“I… didn’t even realize that. I was just trying to make things easier,” Shion murmured, looking between them, “but if that’s the case, then—”
This was the preparation: the first signs of a counter-offensive. If the others outside were able to cut Scorpio out of him, then there was a slim probability that he would be able to outmaneuver Scorpio’s influence here. In this situation, a slim probability was still significantly beneficial. And now, his actions here had purpose and meaning.
The unfortunate matter remained that he still didn’t understand what it was that Shion wanted him to become.
Shion frowned. “I told you, Werner. It’s not about what I want you to become. It’s about what you wanted to become… Since the very beginning.”
The words on the sign in that small bunker that Maria had stowed away in suddenly flashed through Werner’s mind: Schutz. Shelter. Protection.
Realization slowly dawned on him as he began to dissect the memories Shion had shown him up to this point. The thematic pattern ran just beneath the surface:
His rescue of Fenrir. His decision to switch to the Border Force to be with Gilbert. His decision to execute Magda in Gilbert’s place. His warning to Vogt at the Capricornian-Aquarian border. His leniency towards Cadence—and perhaps even towards Nico—paired with that event in which he overrode Cadence in the Twin Cities. All of these choices led back to that moment in his childhood home when Viktoria had stared at him tearfully from across the hulking silhouette that divided them. A wordless request.
It was the very first thing ever requested of him—asked of him—that didn’t concern appearances nor perfection. No, it was the first expectation he’d ever risen to meet. No, it was the first expectation that he’d ever wanted himself to meet. And at this point, it was irrelevant whether or not someone had given that expectation to him. He would make it his own. He needed to.
He had come to accept now that it was true that he tailored everything about himself to keep up appearances and with expectations—layer after layer—but there was one thing that he’d kept constant beneath all of this. It had fueled all of his decisions since childhood. There were no numbers involved with this desire nor any logic nor reason nor cost-benefit analysis. Probability wasn’t even considered.
“Don’t forget,” Shion had said as she’d tapped his pocket watch residing in his chest pocket the very ‘first’ time he had met her.
“Who exactly are you?” Atienna had asked in the cold of the Zatenminye Caverns. “What’s your goal? What do you want to become?” She had assumed that he’d wanted to fold into the mold—the appearance—of the perfect Capricornian soldier.
But, that was incorrect. He did want to become something himself outside of that: like what Ludwig had been to him and Viktoria before he lost his legs in the Reservoir War. Perhaps, like what Shion had been to them all years ago. Like what Gilbert had been when he had stood up for the misfortunate, bullied students at the military academy. In other words—Werner concluded—he’d always wanted to become like all those whom he deeply admired.
Becoming a soldier in the Capricornian Army had been a secondary result of this desire, so had rising to the rank of Oberleutnant, so had serving as the leader of and a control point for the other five. He’d never wanted to become someone glorious nor someone adorned in medals nor someone who people admired nor someone who represented the Capricornian gold standard.
Shion’s face brightened, and her cheeks flushed a rose color.
Right. What he wanted to become was someone who could shield others without fear of what others thought; someone who would be able to make the difficult decisions—cut losses—when no one else could in order to ensure the safety of the majority; someone who others could come to in order to seek reason and shelter.
It was a state of personhood that he’d only been able to achieve partially. And it was also so simple-minded, childish, and naive that it was almost embarrassing but—
“Being simple isn’t a bad thing,” Shion drew slowly, what sounded like joy, pride, and realization gushing from her voice. “If it makes it easier to live and keeps you going, then it’s more than enough.”
‘More than enough’?
Werner considered this.
He still wasn’t certain if he could face her. He wasn’t certain if he was at the state of mind where he wouldn’t subconsciously bend to the expectations of others yet. After all, he knew that appearances were truly everything. However, there was one certainty here. He knew exactly who he wanted to be.
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
Gilbert Wolff felt like shit.
He was used to going in and out of consciousness—either a good time after hanging at a local bar or a bad time after getting a concussion from the residual blast of a grenade—but this was on a whole other level. Every time he drifted awake, he was met with a pulsating pain from his stub and the reality that his arm was really gone.
Usually, he’d bear it well enough with good company. But at the moment he didn’t quite have that. Brandt was buzzing around him like a damn fly. And although Gilbert knew it was for good reason and appreciated him, he still found the whole ELPIS thing weird. On the other hand, Stein was sitting in his corner, conducting rifle tucked between his legs while he flipped the Ariesian royal guard badge in between his fingers. Fischer was still bound, gagged, and sulking in the corner.
Gilbert had always thought Fischer was a pushover, but—dammit—Stein and Brandt had been pretty alright. But now they’d lost their marbles, ironically following in the footsteps of their oberleutnant. And Gilbert knew he was right there with them.
Earlier he had asked Brandt if there was any bad blood between him and Stein since Stein had probably killed Iota. Brandt just said calmly, “She returned to her resistor. It’s fine.” Kind of scary to hear a medic say that.
“You should try to rest at least, Leutnant Wolff,” Brandt said suddenly, cutting off Gilbert mid-thought.
“The hell do you think I’m doing?”
Brandt remained silent.
Damn it. Why did he have to make things awkward?
“Are conductor prosthetic limbs a thing?” Gilbert joked after a beat. “Maybe—I dunno—you could’ve made some back in the day? Don’t know how technology was centuries ago. Hell, wait—tell me how ELPIS and the saint candidates were back then. You remember it?”
“Vaguely,” Brandt muttered. “But I doubt that it’d do anyone any good knowing about that since everyone from then is different now. At least Theta and the saint candidates are.”
“So, basically this entire thing is a shitty academy reunion for you?”
“If you want to put it that way…” Brandt said before gesturing to his head. “I was surprised the most about Leona though. Like I said, it’s all vague, but I swear when we first started ELPIS… Leo was on our side.”
A rumbling suddenly shook the dust from the ceiling and caused the v-lights to flicker on and off.
Stein immediately popped up to a stand, shoved the badge in his pocket, and aimed his rifle at the ceiling.
“Saints, Derik, do you think something’s gonna come down through the roof?” Gilbert sighed and pulled himself upright off the mattress. “It’s definitely going to come down if you start shooting at it. At ease.”
Stein lowered his weapon and shrugged. “Just being cautious.”
Gilbert unsteadily rose to a stand and leaned against Brandt for support. Grimacing, he made his way over to the ladder leading to up above as dust continued to rain down. It sounded like an entire damn army was marching above their heads.
Gilbert moved forward—
“Leutnant Wolff, you just received a transfusion,” Brandt interjected, holding him black. “And now you’re running a fever. You might be having a bad reaction.”
“Brandt, not to pull rank-and-file, but I’m still your superior.” Gilbert nudged him aside and approached the ladder leading upwards. “Doesn’t matter if you’re ELPIS or not.”
Brandt opened his mouth then closed it and nodded.
Gilbert thought he looked a little bit too pleased by that statement. Kind of how Kleine, Bergmann, and Vogt looked whenever they received a drop of praise from Werner.
Shrugging the thought off, Gilbert reached for the first rung of the ladder with his good hand and then grimaced as he saw Brandt hovering behind him. Still, he was no damn quitter. With difficulty, he continued forward and struggled upwards. He ended up having to practically hug the thing as he ascended, hooking his armpit over the rungs to make up for his lost appendage. It took an embarrassingly long amount of time for him to reach the top, and he was covered in sweat by the end of it.
After he caught his breath, he popped the lid of their shelter open, peered outside, and was met with a welcome splash of cool water from the drizzling rain. As he shook the water droplets from his hair, he looked around.
Over a dozen men and women running around—even some children. They waved around Capricornian flags painted over with the Augen symbol and held signs—The Kaiser has no Honor, No Peace in Signum without Peace in Capricorn, Military Dogs—as they charged forward. Several of the buildings had similar signs and flags hanging from their balconies.
Everyone seemed to be heading in the same direction. Whatever that destination was, it held their full attention. Not a single person paid Gilbert any mind even though he was popping half out from a manhole in the ground. With effort, he pulled himself up onto the concrete and tried to make heads-or-tails of the situation.
Faintly past the drizzling rain, he could hear a steady thump, thump, thump paired with muffled shouting—almost underwater-like. For a brief dizzying moment, Gilbert swore he was on assignment back out at the border: rolling out into unoccupied territory and flattening everything in their path. In the next moment, he was back to himself.
Gilbert wiped the water from his face and took a step back towards the bunker.
Strategically speaking, it was probably not the smartest idea to get involved in whatever the hell this was. A protest? That saint bastard’s doing probably. Unfortunately, getting involved was just asking to get infected—
And then Gilbert saw him: Werner, hair dripping with rainwater, civilian clothing soaked through thoroughly, splint no longer being worn, being dragged by the arm along the street by a man and a woman wearing blue sashes with the Augen symbol sewn onto them.
Gilbert whipped around to Brandt and Stein who were just climbing out of the shelter behind him: “Brandt, Stein, stay here. Brief the others when they return. I’m going after Werner.”
Gilbert jogged forward through the street, weaving himself through the people heading forward with him. Eventually, he broke out into an open square that was filled to the brim with two crowds divided by an invisible wall of empty space. One side was made up of the military police—no, the suppression police as indicated by the yellow tag on their uniforms—while the other side consisted of civilians, some of whom were dressed in old military uniforms from the days of the Reservoir War. The Augen.
The Augen members at the front of the line had formed a human chain, linked arm-in-arm as they faced the well-organized wall of military police. Some of the Augen members at the very back of the lineup were waving vitae blades—most of them white—in the air. Mirroring them, the officers at the very back line of military police were also wielding blades with their tips pointed upwards.
Were these people actually infected or…?
Gilbert scanned both sides for Not-Werner, sincerely hoping not to find the man in the crowd. But, a flash of platinum blonde caught his eye in all of the gray and blue. Nestled in that wall of Augen members and linked arm-in-arm with a man and a woman was indeed Not-Werner himself. He was being jerked forward, backward, left, and right like a ragdoll, but his expression remained impassive. Not Maria.
Shit, Gilbert thought, head swimming with fever and half-thinking this was a dream. What the hell was going on? What happened to finding that Diverger girl?
“Forward!” shouted one of the officers. And with almost perfect synchronization, the wall of officers stepped forward and began to beat their batons in their hands.
“Werner!” Gilbert called.
Nervously, hesitantly, and fully aware of his stupidity, Gilbert feverishly crept his way through the divide towards Not-Werner. He was halfway there when something hard nicked the top of his head. Looking down, he found a small stone rolling at his feet. He glanced at the Augen members and saw some of them—the younger ones—casting stones across the invisible wall. Some rocks struck the officers, others were caught and thrown back.
Gilbert dodged most of these; but as he lunged to the side to escape one, he was suddenly pulled into line with the Augen members and locked into an arm link and a shoulder link. He tried to tug himself out of it, but the woman to his left snapped at him—
“Don’t break formation! We have to stand up!”
Gilbert prepared to swear back at her but shut his mouth in horror when he found a young girl probably no older than twelve in the lineup, just two men down. Just across from the girl stood a boy in a military police uniform—no, gauging by the red lapels on his chest, the boy was a trainee uniform. Fourteen? Fifteen? Sixteen-years-old? Did they even know what they were fighting for? No—why the hell did they even have to fight for it to begin with?
Gilbert shook his head and glanced right. Just five people down was Not-Werner—
Two successive shots abruptly rang out just as lightning streaked across the sky. There was a beat of silence.
Gilbert craned his head back. Lying on the ground just a meter away were two bodies. One was adorned with a metal gorget, the other with a dusted hat. It was impossible to tell which one fell first, but their blood pooled together in-between the brick street all the same.
A roar rang out from one of the sides—Gilbert couldn’t tell which—and both sides suddenly rushed forward. Gilbert broke free of the arm link as the line gave way and stumbled into the invisible barrier of space that was crumbling. He turned his head and saw that Not-Werner had stepped out into the empty space too. Not-Werner didn’t look in his direction, however, and darted down the space in the opposite direction.
Gilbert chased after him as the invisible wall crumbled away fully and both sides collided. Dodging the swings of batons and conducting blades, he leapt over a military police officer beating an adolescent with his baton, scrambled over a veteran pulling another officer into a chokehold, and dodged a stream of conducted glowing water hosing down a cluster of Augen members.
Eventually, he broke out of the mob and stumbled forward. Some onlookers dotting the sides of the street stared in horror at the chaos. Others broke away from the sidelines and leapt right into the fray. More still took photos.
Ignoring them, Gilbert scanned the area for Not-Werner and caught sight of a flash of blonde disappearing down a far alleyway. As the drizzle thickened into a downpour, Gilbert darted into and through the alley after him before breaking out into another street—this one empty. Not-Werner, nowhere in sight.
Behind him, Gilbert could hear screeches, shouts, peppering gunfire, and the high-pitch whirs of vitae rays.
Really, he thought—those sounds shouldn’t be in this city so far from the border. What the hell were they fighting for out there if the same thing was happening here?
Two men in civilian clothing wielding Augen-painted flags popped out from the alley across from Gilbert. When he noticed that one of the men was holding an activated vitae blade, he swore to himself and took a step back.
“Look at that uniform. He’s with the Militärpolizei!” the conductor-wielding man shouted. “Get that pig!”
Seriously? Didn’t they know the difference between the Border Force and the Militärpolizei?
Gilbert stumbled backwards, reaching for the pistol at his side but found that it was stuck in the straps of his holster. After struggling to pull it out for a moment, he abandoned his attempts and broke out into a dash back into the alleyway he came from. Halfway down the alley, however, he lost balance and crashed to the ground. He whipped around to see the two men standing over him and glowering.
Lightning lit up the gray sky at that moment, causing Gilbert to wince and look away. Twin cracks followed by a metal twang resounded as thunder rumbled in the distance. When the light faded into a gray coldness, Gilbert made out Not-Werner towering above him wielding a small trash bin. The very corner of the bin was dripping with blood. Scattered at Gilbert’s feet were the two men, groaning and bleeding from broken noses.
“Are you injured?”
Gilbert stared upwards and was greeted with a stolid stare. A familiar one. Hesitantly, he tried, “Werner?”
“No, that is incorrect.” Not-Werner pulled back, setting the bin on the floor. “Are you also a Conductor?”
“Are you a Conductor. Like them. Like the Elementalist.”
Instead of answering, Gilbert asked slowly as he struggled up to a stand, “Do you… know who I am?”
“You’re a Capricornian.” A pause. “You… were in the Twin Cities.”
“No, I meant my name.”
“You haven’t told me your name.”
Gilbert couldn’t believe it had gotten to this extent. He grimaced, then said, “I’m Gilbert. Werner’s… second lieutenant. Do you remember Werner at least?”
“Yes, I remember Werner.” But Not-Werner didn’t elaborate any further.
Saints. Great conversationalist.
“What’s your name?” Gilbert pried.
“The peacekeeper.” Gilbert let out a sigh of relief. “Saints. Finally.”
“Peace,” Jericho muttered. “False peace.”
Gilbert arched a brow before shaking his head. “Well… welcome to the party,” he said, slapping him on the shoulder. “I’ll brief you since you’re probably confused.” He wiped the rainwater from his face. “Well, let’s get out of this shit show first.” He grabbed Jericho’s arm and gave him a tug, but the man didn’t budge. Frowning, Gilbert tried, “At least let’s get out of the rain—”
“It isn’t raining,” Jericho stated, looking upwards. “The sun is still on the east. It’s morning.”
The rain roared in Gilbert’s ears.
Another weird one then…?
Gilbert snorted. “What? Does all that mean something else in the peacekeeping world of Ophiuchus? Like a code word?”
Instead of answering him, Jericho turned his head, looked at the ground beside him, and nodded slightly. “Yes. I won’t forget, Ayda.”
Gilbert followed his gaze but only found empty space. When he looked back to Jericho, he found the man staring down the alley towards a handful of civilians who were flailing their arms wildly as they ran towards them. Gilbert recognized one of them as the woman who had pulled him into the Augen line-up. She was wielding a rifle conductor. Pursuing her group were a handful of military police officers.
Jericho bent down to pick the fallen Projector blade. Its hilt sparked indigo, then copper, then crimson, then gold before paling into white—an off-white, almost gray. The insulating tubes of the conductor began to smoke, the metal of the hilt burning orange.
“Jericho,” Gilbert said in alarm, “you’re overheating it—”
The Augen members reached their side and swiveled around to face the oncoming officers who stopped short in front of them. One officer drew out a conductor blade, activated it, but kept it pointed backwards.
“Put down your conductor!” the officer ordered.
“Jericho, put down your conductor,” Gilbert hissed under his breath.
The officer stepped forward, holding out a halting hand. “Let’s not make this difficult, alright—”
Instead of the officer charging forward to apprehend them, Jericho charged forward. The officer brought his vitae-blade up in alarm as Jericho swung at him. As soon as Jericho’s blade touched the officer’s, the officer’s blade shattered into pieces. The man then brought his hand up reflexively, but Jericho’s blade slid through his fingers like butter.
The blade became lodged in the officer’s shoulder, causing the man to fall to his knees with a shout. Startled, the other officers started forward too, whipping out pistols and conductors. However, as soon as they saw grayish-white cracks spread out across the kneeling officer’s chest, they paused.
The cracks continued to spread until they consumed the officer’s entire body, and he shattered into nothing. Before the other officers could digest the scene, Jericho charged at them too. A water Elementalist officer tried to send out a whip of liquid from the rain in a panic, but Jericho disintegrated the water and the officer in the blink of an eye. Another one of the officers—a Conjuror—only created half a pistol before Jericho tore through him. Not even the rain around the peacekeeper escaped his touch, the droplets bursting into steam at the touch of his vitae.
In the end, Jericho was left standing alone.
Gilbert couldn’t even recall how many officers were there to begin with because there were no traces of them left.
“What the hell are you doing?!” one of the Augen members—the one wielding the conductor—snapped at Jericho, her eyes wide and livid.
“Wait—” Gilbert warned.
She approached Jericho, grabbed his shoulder, and turned him around to face her. “If you do that, we’re no better than them!”
Jericho stared at her blankly, then at the conductor in her hands, before driving his blade into her abdomen. She barely had the time to react before she crumbled into nothing too. The other Augen members scrambled backwards in terror as Jericho turned to pursue them.
In horror, Gilbert threw himself at Jericho, knocking them both to the ground. The vitae blade clattered to the floor, while the remaining Augen members escaped down the alley. Before Jericho could grab at the conductor, Gilbert clambered on top of him and pinned him to the ground with his knees.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Gilbert spat.
Jericho stared up at him blankly. “It’s okay.”
“Wha—” Gilbert’s words caught in his throat as lightning cracked again, illuminating the fully-formed blue scorpion tattoo that was crawling up Jericho’s face.
“They will return to the cycle. They were Conductors. They were evil.”
The Manipulator bastard—
Gilbert swallowed and shook himself, before grabbing Jericho by the scruff of his shirt. “Look in a mirror! You’re a Conductor too!”
Jericho’s eyes widened slightly. “Right. Conductors are not the ones who are wrong. But something else has to be wrong.” Lightning lit up the sky again, dying the man’s skin a pale white and illuminating his eyes that now burned with frigid intensity. “False hope is what’s wrong.”
Startled, Gilbert released the man’s shirt. He’d seen bloodthirstiness before—Stein was renowned for his—but the cold fire in Jericho’s eyes seemed bottomless. No joy or exhilaration there.
Jericho suddenly coughed and hacked, bringing his bare hand to his mouth. Red seeped in between his pale fingers then trickled to the ground where it was washed away by the rain.
An effect of the prolonged override…?
“Shit!” Gilbert swore, scrambling to his feet and extending his hand. “We need to get you to Nico or Brandt—no, we need to get you to that Diverger. Stop using your conductor. Look. Right now, I’m sure you’re confused. You’re stuck in a possession thing because of a Manipulator. If you’re seeing some mumbo jumbo, it’s not real—”
Jericho didn’t accept the gesture and rose to a stand himself. He wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. “There is no pain.”
“And I have to keep the promise.” Jericho picked the smoking conductor off of the ground and turned. “My duty. I’m leaving.”
Gilbert grabbed him by the shoulder. “Wait—”
Jericho abruptly lifted the Projector’s blade, activated it, and pointed it at Gilbert’s throat causing him to release Jericho’s shoulder. The heat of the blade burned at Gilbert’s skin, and for a moment Gilbert swore he saw his life flash before his eyes.
“Are you a Conductor?” Jericho asked. “No, are you with ELPIS?” Before Gilbert could even react, Jericho shook his head. “No, you are Werner’s friend.” He cast a glance down to the side again as he lowered the blade. “Right.”
Gilbert stayed frozen in place as Jericho began to saunter away before he placed a hand to his throat and felt his pulse hammering. Why the hell was he so afraid for? He’d faced countless life-or-death situations before. This one wasn’t any different—
The military police officer’s expression of agony as he shattered into nothing, without even a fragment of him left, burned itself into Gilbert’s mind.
Having not even a trace of him left—that was what terrified Gilbert. At least if he died out in the field, his mom would get a piece of his body or uniform. If Jericho ended him here, there wouldn’t be a dust particle left of him. No physical evidence of his existence. And that was terrifying.
Gilbert swallowed, stumbling back until his back was pressed against the brick of the wall behind him. He stared after Jericho, realizing that he didn’t even know this man or what kind of person he was. For all Gilbert knew, this could be who Jericho really was. This was insane. His country was falling apart now, and here he was flailing around with one arm after some lunatic—or at least someone driven to lunacy. This was too much.
His vision blurred, his stub throbbed, his cheeks flushed.
No, dammit! Gilbert shook himself. This was Werner. And he’d made a promise to Werner and owed him. There was no way he was going to let the guy check out of life before him. Greta’d hate him anyways, Nico would slap him, Werner’s siblings’d spit at him. Damnit—wait. Was Greta okay? Was ma?
“It’s more efficient to address issues immediately in front of you that you know you can correct, rather than issues you can only speculate about,” was something that Werner had always thrown around, right? Right.
Gilbert eyed Jericho’s retreating back again before peeling off the wall and following the man close behind. He kept a safe distance, out of sight.
He figured that at this point Werner had been knocked on the head so many times already that one more bash against the skull wouldn’t hurt. Of course, Gilbert knew he’d have to wait for Jericho to let his guard down. Who knew what Jericho could do with that kind of ability.
Jericho muttered to himself all the way to whatever destination he had in mind. Whoever he was speaking to—whoever he thought he was speaking to—was apparently short because he kept sparing glances downwards.
Eventually, Gilbert followed him across a low-hanging metal bridge. Just below, he caught sight of a handful of Augen members dashing down the street and around a somehow still-functioning and rolling v-tram. They were chased closely behind by a handful of Militärpolizei who fired off rounds in their direction.
Gilbert continued forward after Jericho until hushed whispers reached his ears. After peeling into an open square beyond the bridge, he found a crowd gathered in front of a large stage with a cloth tarp pulled up over it to shield it from the rain. Capricornian black flags that were soaked thoroughly surrounded the stage. The men and women of the crowd—all in civilian wear—stood beneath umbrellas and shivered in the cold. Standing rigidly in front of the buildings lining the square were military police officers, conducting rifles at port arms.
Gilbert couldn’t wrap his head around why they were all gathering here when there was chaos starting a couple blocks away.
Jericho stopped short in front of the crowd before worming his way in. After weighing his options, Gilbert followed him. He weaved through the men and women standing shoulder-to-shoulder and neared the front stage in his search. He nearly did a double-take when he registered the man standing on the stage.
Standing at the lacquered podium was the Kaiser himself. The man wore a stern face and looked out at them all like he was standing out there in the rain with them instead of beneath the cover of the tarp. As he spoke, his voice rang out through the cone-shaped speaker phones hanging on wooden posts around the stage:
“Together we stand stronger. We cannot let this temporary unrest disrupt the foundation of our great nation! They ask for peace and demilitarization… but look at their actions, look at the hospital, look at the bombings, look at the people who they choose to ally themselves with!”
An officer made his way through the crowd and climbed onto the stage. He whispered something into the Kaiser’s ear, causing the man to become grim.
“I’ve just received news that a riot has broken out in Vereinigt Square,” the Kaiser said gravely into the microphone. After a pause, he continued, “The members of the Augen movement have borne arms against the very Militärpolizei who were sworn to protect them. They ask for responsibility but what about theirs?”
Audible gasps and whispers followed.
‘Just received news’?!—Gilbert grimaced—What bullshit! He wanted to throttle the lying bastard. He was even half tempted to whip out his pistol and shoot the man then and there—one tower down, just like that. A quick scan of the military personnel standing directly behind the Kaiser, however, convinced him otherwise. Gilbert figured he probably wouldn’t be able to aim correctly now anyways.
“We cannot let these insurrectionists ruin the country we’ve spent this past decade trying to heal and rebuild!”
Ignoring the Kaiser’s speech, Gilbert surveyed the crowd again for Jericho. He couldn’t wrap his head around why the man had come here—or why Scorpio had guided the man here. Scorpio wasn’t sending Jericho to kill the Kaiser, was he? Weren’t the Kaiser and the saint candidate working together on this?
Damnit—he hated thinking.
Gilbert stiffened and turned, squinting at the man who had just squeezed into the crowd beside him. “Klaus…? The hell are you doing here? How the hell did you lose Maria?”
“S-Scorpio…” Kleine shivered, shaking his head, glasses dripping with water. “Leutnant Wolff, it’s bad. The generals—some of them were infected. But—” He looked around as he ran his hands through his hair. “—I don’t think any of these people are infected. Are any of them out there infected? I—”
“What?” Gilbert frowned. “Make sense, Kleine.”
“S-Scorpio. He was one of the peacekeepers. They didn’t know. He revealed who he was at the convention. He said he barely has any spores out here.” Kleine looked around. “We took the generals the peacekeepers apprehended—”
“You took the what?”
“—and Generalmajor Von Spiel’s men who weren’t infected yet and Maria’s group to our bunker too. I don’t know what happened to the peacekeepers. Brandt told us what happened when we arrived, and the hauptmann sent some of us out to look for you, but the riot—”
“Wait, Scorpio just let you go?” Gilbert took a step back and looked at Kleine with suspicion. “Why…?”
Kleine opened his mouth then closed it. “I… Sir, he’s already won.”
The rain roared in Gilbert’s ears.
That was something he had realized as soon as that Augen line broke. Right now all they were really trying to do was salvage the remains.
“Aren’t any of you afraid of getting infected?” Gilbert asked after a beat.
Kleine stared at him blankly. “Aren’t you, sir?”
Piercing screeches suddenly traveled through the crowd in a wave. In confusion, Gilbert followed the crowd’s gazes to the stage. Out from nowhere, tendrils of glowing white light shot up to the sky and pierced through half of the officers that surrounded the Kaiser. A second later, another wave of white tendrils erupted. This time their targets were the officers guarding the surrounding buildings. A familiar squelching sound filled the air as the water beneath Gilbert’s boots began to run red.
The crowd scattered immediately as shrieks filled the air, almost drowning out the sound of the rain and the peppering battle in the distance. Gilbert remained fixated in place as did Kleine and a handful of others.
Stepping up the stairs onto the stage came a young woman with mousy brown hair. The white tendrils were protruding from her arm, but with a snap of her wrists, they disintegrated into nothingness. The men and women officers who had been pierced through collapsed to the ground.
Another man wearing glasses came up behind the ELPIS woman, conjured up a pistol from a wound running along his arm, and shot through the remaining officers around the Kaiser. The Kaiser stiffened as the man pointed the pistol at him.
“You are a tower,” the man said to the Kaiser in Common as he neared him.
The Kaiser remained silent, eyes un-averted.
“You Capricornians preach glory and honor,” the glasses-wearing man said, his voice amplified through the microphone and ringing through the speakers. “But you turn your eyes away from all of those things for war and profit and use dirty conductors. ‘For your country’? For yourself.”
Another man in a military police uniform—a disguise—came up along the stairs dragging along two bound and gagged figures with him. He threw them at the other man’s feet before conjuring up a gun himself and aiming it at their heads. It was Oran and Fortschritt.
“Grand Kaiser Kafke Nezche, you inherited your position from former Kaiser Friedrich Nikolaus Netzche who tried to drag your country out of war only to have you make it love war.” The glasses-wearing ELPIS leader gestured out to the thinning crowd with his free hand. “You rulers and leaders become worse and worse with each generation.” He cocked his gun, finger moving towards the trigger. “You have sealed the fate of your people. With this infection, they cannot be allowed to liv—”
A ray of graying white light zipped through the air suddenly and shot through, not only the tip of the ELPIS leader’s pistol but also the wall of the stage behind him. Both items shattered into nothing.
“Gamma,” the ELPIS woman said to the glasses-wearing man, “that style of conducting. It must be the suitcase peacekeeper in a polarized state.”
Gilbert followed the ELPIS leader’s unshaken gaze to find Jericho standing beside one of the fallen officers alongside the building to his left. The rifle conductor Jericho was still aiming at Gamma and the other ELPIS members was smoking and sparking at the insulation tubes. He seemed to notice this and discarded the thing before bending down to pull more conductors from the fallen officer’s waist. Then, he abruptly sank down onto one knee, bowed his head, and placed a hand over his chest. He took a deep breath and recited something in some language Gilbert didn’t understand.
Gilbert tensed, glanced over at the ELPIS leaders, and found them exchanging looks. In unison then, they placed a hand over their chests and began to chant to themselves. Their chanting—maybe a prayer—carried over the speakers and matched Jericho’s muffled words. Gilbert’s ears reverberated with the sound. It felt surreal.
Gamma stated, lowering his hand as the prayer ended, “A True Conductor.”
The officer at Jericho’s feet stirred, but Jericho activated one of the blade conductors he’d stolen from him and stabbed it through the man’s abdomen while rising to his feet. As the officer crumbled into nothing, Kleine startled and the few onlookers who remained scrambled away.
“ELPIS. Peacekeepers. Conductors.” Jericho drew slowly, lifting his sparking blade conductor and pointing it at Gamma. “Everything will be returned to the cycle.”