After Werner and Alice manage to calm Jericho, Jericho gains some closure with Francis/Theta and provides his vitae to the Capricornians. Before Scorpio’s spore can be removed from him, however, Scorpio forces himself to the surface and lashes out.
Those outside of the six within the Capricornian capital make their final struggle.
Protokoll Schließen » Log closed at 2400 hours
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
Nico wasn’t quite sure what happened. One moment, he was trying his best not to eavesdrop on Jericho’s, Doctor Kingsley’s, and Francis’s conversation; the next he was mentally preparing himself to use a proto-conductor containing superhuman vitae on Werner’s body; and then the very next moment he was suddenly blasted backwards by an intense wave of heat. He barely caught sight of blazing crimson embers floating lazily through the air before those embers torrented outwards like an inferno. The hairs on his skin curled up in the humidity, causing him to brace himself as the feverish wave cracked his skin—
—then his stomach flip-flopped and a burst of cold air whipped at him from behind him as the ground fell away beneath him. A second later, the back of his head cracked against something hard and wet. Stars flooded his vision as he tried to adjust to the new darkness around him.
A face eclipsed his own.
“Are you alright, Nic?”
It was Francis. And if it was Francis, then Francis must have opened a gate. The dots connected. What a rescue.
“I think my vitae left my body,” Nico said, panting. He accepted Francis’s extended hand, sat up, and surveyed the area.
They were crouched in a narrow alley that connected to the road that housed the entrance to the underground bunker. Hidden in the shadows of the alleyway across from them were familiar, shifting silhouettes. Weingartner, Heimler, Martin, two of Martin’s subordinates, and Maria’s group—though Nico could barely make them out.
“I was unable to retrieve everyone,” Francis said to him.
Nico tensed and looked back over his shoulder. Much to his relief, he found Gilbert, Kleine, Brandt, Stein, Agent Kingsley, and Werner’s family clustered behind him—all crouched low, save for Ludwig who had fallen out of his chair. Nico rushed over to help the man back into his seat with Viktoria’s assistance. He then glanced at Werner’s parents tucked away beside the two siblings. While Werner’s father was sharp and alert, his mother was stiff, still, silent.
Nico froze as the gears in his head turned.
What about Fischer and the two generals—
“I’ve never enjoyed the actual art of war.”
Werner’s voice rang out down the street. Across the road, Weingartner signaled them to stop moving and stay silent with a closed fist. Nico darted back, grabbed Francis by the shoulder, and pulled him back just before the man was about to peer around the corner. Francis turned to look at him with blank confusion just as crimson flames flooded the adjacent road centimeters from his face.
Sweat poured from Nico’s face in the smoky aftermath; his heart hammered in his chest; and he could barely breathe—he couldn’t tell whether it was from the heat or the fear. This was the Ariesian prince’s conducting, wasn’t it? How in the world had Aries kept under wraps for so long?
As the embers faded away and the alleyways and road became dark again, a hand wrapped around Nico’s arm. He startled and turned to find Gilbert beside him then watched as the man put a finger to his lips and jerked his head forward. Nico followed Gilbert’s gaze to a long puddle stretching across the road at the lip of the alley. Captured in the puddle’s reflection was Werner—Scorpio—standing at the road’s center in front of the entrance to the underground shelter and looking down the opposite direction. The man threw out his left hand and sent a crimson inferno out that way—the sound it made as it crackled forward was unnerving.
He didn’t know where they were, Nico realized with relief but then paused. What about his mediums…?
He then tensed as he registered the object in Scorpio’s hand. A proto-conductor blade spitting out unstable, flickering, indigo, molten light. Kneeling in front of Scorpio were three men—Fischer and the two generals. Scorpio’s hand was gently resting on one of the general’s stiff shoulders.
“The politics and mechanics behind it are what’ve always intrigued me. Kingdoms into empires into republics and back again. It’s interesting to see what sort of justifications people will use in promoting the good fight—energy, resources, alliances, human rights, justice, glory, honor, ‘for the greater good.’”
Scorpio waved his blade-wielding hand in the air, a familiar set of proto-conductor rings glinting on each of his fingers.
“But with this kind of conducting ability… Well, I can understand why. It’s so easy to be frivolous when you have so much.”
He placed the blade loosely to the general’s neck, then flipped the proto-conductor up in the air. When he caught it, it spilled out off-white light instead of indigo. He tapped the tip of the blade against the cuffs binding the general’s wrist causing them to shatter. He did the same for the other general’s wrists and Fischer’s too. When they turned to look at him completely befuddled, he chuckled.
“Your Kaiser has betrayed you. Half of your citizens hate you. I’m eager to see what you’ll do in these conditions. Either way, know that I’ll always be watching over you. Go along now.”
Nico tensed as he locked gazes with Fischer in the reflection of the puddle. Fischer glanced back up at Scorpio in front of him and pressed his lips into a thin line. But he said nothing.
Clicking his tongue, Scorpio whipped out his free hand sending out an arc of flames at the trio— “I said go!”
The three men ducked out of the path of swirling crimson embers and disappeared down the road as booming and peppering vitae-ray fire rumbled in the background.
“Fucking piece of shit traitor coward,” Stein spat.
Nico turned to see Brandt clamp a hand over the man’s mouth and then returned his attention to the puddle.
“I see you’re working with the same kind of people you say you despise again, Theta,” Scorpio said, staring after the three men’s retreating backs as the crimson embers faded. He covered his mouth and hacked a wet cough. “People who sell those conductors you hate. People who use them. People who refuse to take accountability. People who blame things on circumstances—or ‘orders’ in this case. People.”
Nico glanced at Francis who was staring down at the reflection impassively. He then reached over and squeezed the man’s shoulder.
“Saints,” Gilbert whispered, “the bastard really likes to talk, doesn’t he?” He peered at Francis. “Does everyone who’s into this possession shit like to talk this much—”
“We both think we’re doing things for the greater good too though, don’t we? Who’s to say we’re right or wrong? We do have more years of experience on them though—I moreso than you. Wisdom leads to ignorance which leads back to wisdom. And, like you always say, ‘how can those who have never known peace hope to implement it’? The thing is, even if they did know, the result would be the same. I mean, why do you think we’re standing here today, Vega?”
Scorpio lifted his ringed hand loosely above his head and snapped his fingers. The rings there began to spark with copper light.
Nico tensed at the sight of the familiar color. His fight with Cadence still burned at the edges of his mind and her words still stung. But—but how dare this bastard use her conducting like this—how dare he do this to her—
Scorpio abruptly disappeared from the road in a burst of copper light. An illusion, just like Cadence’s.
Nico looked across the road to the captain and Martin who were both tense and pale. They signaled for everyone to draw weapons with a couple of hand signals. Nico’s hand went for the proto-conductor still strapped to his waist, while he saw Gilbert hesitantly reach for his pistol out of the corner of his eye.
The puddle at the entrance of the alleys rippled causing the gears in Nico’s head to turn. Just as he reached the realization, a burst of indigo light lit up in a line above his head and swung downwards. Gilbert shouted something incomprehensible and launched himself at Nico and Francis beside him. They all hit the ground collectively together, just barely managing to dodge the blade of vitae. The burning light cracked into the sidewall before being ripped out by an invisible hand and then hovering in the air.
A familiar snapping sound echoed through the alleyway; and, in a burst of copper brilliance, Scorpio appeared in front of them. As the shattered light faded away, Werner’s—Scorpio’s—smiling face became illuminated. Nico could tell that the saint candidate’s eyes were focused on him, Francis, and Gilbert beside him—and it made Nico’s skin crawl. Not even someone as slimy as Verga or Feliciano back home had ever looked at him like that.
“Capricornians are known for their military might. I’ve seen it myself many times before. But you’re all afraid. The ones who’ve seen the most of those kinds of things always are—”
A high-pitch whine whistled from behind Scorpio as a flash of verdigris light lit up the area. Scorpio turned immediately, flicking the proto-conductor in his hand and causing the indigo blade of vitae to shiver out into an off-white whip. He flung it out just in time to disintegrate the verdigris vitae-ray hurtling at him from behind. He then lazily extended out his other hand and sent out a wreath of crimson flames out down the opposite alleyway.
At that same moment, a patch of glowing pale tangerine light opened up below Weingartner and the others over there and below Nico himself and those around him too. Nico squeezed his eyes shut as he fell through the gate and winced as his stomach did flip flops.
When he opened his eyes, he was flat on his back. He scrambled up to a crouch quickly and noted that he was now on the roof of some building. It was dark—the city bleak and gray—so he could just make out the faint indigo reflecting off the walls of the building across from him. Faintly below, he could hear the slap of rubber against concrete as Scorpio walked along the road.
He looked over his shoulder. Everyone who had been crowded in his side of the alley and the alley opposite now sat scattered there. Just a step in front of him crouched Francis who was pulling his hand away from a patch of dimming tangerine light on the roof.
Another gate. Another save. Doctors were all about saving lives, Nico mused, but here Francis was doing that work. At this thought, Nico grimaced and recalled the Transmutationist Renée’s conducting. An indescribable sense of discontent bubbled in his chest.
“I’m not giving any of you older folk memories of the war, am I?” Scorpio’s voice rang out from below them.
“We need to incapacitate him,” Francis whispered calmly.
“How do we incapacitate him if we can’t get near him?” One of Martin’s remaining two subordinates grimaced. He turned to Martin beside him. “Major General, we’ve lost so many men already and we haven’t even done anything yet.”
Martin nodded. “I’m aware. We can’t take any more losses.”
“This is going against Scorpio’s modus operandi,” Alice said. “We have to figure out what he wants—”
Martin’s other subordinate—a woman with pale blonde hair tied up into a tight bun—frowned and drew slowly, “With all due respect, Major General von Spiel, we have the proto-conductors already. Lieutenant Waltz is a danger now. We need to get to the Kaiser. I think we should—”
Stein cracked the woman so hard across the face that she flew backwards and slammed against the barely visible metal vent shaft behind her. Martin’s other subordinate quickly aided her to her feet; but before she could say anything else, a burst of crimson flames skirted the edge of the roof—shooting up from below.
Nico dove to the ground as did everyone around him. They remained quiet for a stretch of time. No other flames came.
“If you fucking mention killing the lieutenant again,” Stein finally hissed at the woman from where he lay, eyes filled with a familiar yet unfamiliar insanity, “I will fucking kill you.”
Brandt reached over and patted Stein’s back. “Let’s take it easy now…”
“Control your subordinate,” Martin whispered to Weingartner.
Weingartner nodded at Stein. “Enough, Stein.”
After a tense moment, they—aside from Werner’s family and Maria’s group—gathered together in a crouch at the center of the roof.
“As I was saying,” Alice continued, seemingly unperturbed. “I don’t believe Scorpio’s objective is to kill us. Not unless he decides that we want him to.” She paused. “He clearly went for Mr. Fabrizzio, Mr. Foxman, and Herr Wolff here. While I assume he went after Francis due to a personal vendetta, the other two have strong connections to Werner.”
She was talking like they weren’t even there. Not something that Nico was unused to, but still.
“He also revealed himself when attacking,” she continued. “I’m certain he’s playing with the relationships Werner has… He’s putting on a show and trying to prove a point—for who and what about, I don’t know. The issue is that Scorpio has been shown time and time again to lack self-control. He’ll take it too far.”
“If we leave Herr Waltz like this with the way Scorpio is releasing his vitae, he will die,” Francis said. “And everyone he is connected to will die. I am not the best in combat. And with the way my vitae is now, I am almost as susceptible to infection as you are. Still, I am going to try since we have the means to do it—although I see the sentiment is not shared.” He looked around at them. “You Capricornians only think of supply and supply, and you exchange loyalty for orders. It’s no wonder that you were so willing to work with unsavory people like u—”
Nico winced as he noticed pointed glares directed at Francis and moved to place a hand on his shoulder. He squeezed. “Okay, Francis. I think there’s somethin’ else you want to say maybe?”
Francis glanced at him and then cleared his throat. “I apologize for my rudeness. Still. You may have Jericho’s vitae in those proto-conductors, but I assure you that is not enough for whatever you have planned nor for what lies ahead.”
There was a lapse of silent agreement.
“We could try to wait until he’s worn himself out,” Stein suggested.
“He literally just said Werner would die if he did that, Stein,” Gilbert replied. “Pay attention, dammit—”
“Or we can lure him in and ambush him using those teleporting proto-conductors,” Ludwig interjected suddenly, causing Nico and everyone else to turn to look at him. He pushed himself forward on his chair and entered their circle. “I’m obviously not the most important resource here, I’ve served so I have experience, and… I’d like to think that being Werner’s brother marks me as someone important enough for Scorpio to go after. Since finding the Augen’s been postponed, let me help here at least.”
“Ludwig…” Viktoria murmured, tense as she rose to all fours. She looked back to her parents but her mother seemed grim and silent and her father looked directly at Ludwig without objection—and even with a hint of pride.
Nico was queasily reminded of his own father.
“What’s your conducting-type, Ludwig?” Weingartner asked after a beat of silence.
“I was an Elementalist, sir,” Ludwig replied before he gripped the wheels of his wheelchair. “I’m no longer able to conduct properly. But I can still use a rifle and combat knife.”
“Against your brother?” Martin asked testily.
“If we do this correctly, Martin,” Weingartner pushed, “then that won’t have to happen.”
“We still can’t put all of our assets in one area.” Martin grimaced, pinching the bridge of his nose. “You have to realize that this is just one step on a larger scale.”
There was a pause of silence.
“Captain Weingartner,” Gilbert interjected. “I… have a suggestion. You, the major general, Maria’s lot, and the rest of Werner’s family should go. You’re both higher ranking than all of us. You’ve done more service. Whatever this ends up being—people will listen to you.”
“You’re suggesting that we fall back?” Weingartner pressed quietly.
Gilbert nodded. “To gather resources. To recollect, sir. If you approve.” He grimaced.
Weingartner opened his mouth and then frowned. He glanced at Martin and then began to converse in whispers with him. Finally, he turned back to Gilbert and nodded. “Alright. We’ll try to contact you again at 0600 hours. Phonebooth 23.” He glanced at Alice.
“I’ll be going with them to handle Herr Waltz,” she replied. “My combat experience may be lacking since I’m not a field agent, but my conducting ability and suppression cuffs will be useful. The presence of a peacekeeper is more valuable than you realize.”
Gilbert shrugged then swept the otheres with his gaze. “Kleine, Brandt, Stein, Nic. With me?” He glanced at Heimler. “Heimler?”
“Gil,” Nico drew cautiously, “you’re not looking good. You should probably go with them—”
Brandt nodded in agreement beside him.
“Don’t start with me, Nic,” Gilbert interjected before looking at the others in the unit. “Anyway. It’s an order but let me hear what you have to say.”
Nico exchanged a brief look with Kleine and saw Stein do the same begrudgingly to Brandt.
“Werner is our superior…” Kleine mumbled. “It’s only right that we handle this, sir. I mean, our unit only lasted so long at the border because of him… And True Conductors…” He glanced at Francis. “And ELPIS. I… we have to know more.”
“Agreed.” Brandt glanced at Francis. “And I’m with you, Theta.”
“The reason Waltz is infected is because of me,” Heimler drew, lips drawn tightly, hand fisting. He didn’t say anything more.
“If you wish to split your resources like this, then I can assist you with the transportation,” Francis said after a beat. “I want to highlight that I’ve only been helping you since we share similar goals and an enemy in Scorpio and because this involves Jericho and Cadence. Do not expect an extension.” He glanced at the others. “But your loyalty is something I respect.”
Martin gave him a curt nod before glancing off to the side. “And we can’t forget the most important aspect.” He turned his gaze to Maria’s group huddled away from them—specifically Lita. Again. “I would feel more comfortable with her coming with us, but—”
“We won’t be able to cut the spore out without her,” Gilbert said.
“Maria,” Lita whispered, crawling forward. “I want to help Maria. Let me come with you.”
“I—” Viktoria began before glancing over her shoulder towards her mother and quieting.
Nico crawled over to Lita and took her hand in his own. He looked at Simon, the Monadic priest, who studied him then nodded. Out of the corner of his eye, Nico could see Francis’s grim acceptance.
Ludwig Waltz now sat at the center of the empty road that Scorpio had once been standing in and ran his fingers along the conjured rifle resting on his lap. The first time he he’d held one of these in years was back of the dome, but he still had remembered the weight and feel. Still remembered it now.
His mind was still wrapping around the conducting feat his brother was capable of. It was astonishing; and some of that old, bitter jealousy simmered in the pit of his stomach at the thought of it, despite the situation. It had boiled there when he’d caught sight of that Ariesian’s free-handed fire-conducting back on top of the train too. But as his wife always said, “Don’t be silly. You’re you.” He’d managed to call her earlier in between the dome and the shelter, and she’d agreed to lie low for a while. “This isn’t what I wanted,” she’d said. And he agreed.
With a grimace, Ludwig suddenly thought of Gilbert. And then of Gilbert’s arm. Gilbert had always been a rowdy kid. Ludwig distinctly remembered thinking that he’d be a bad influence on Werner and Viktoria. Oh, how wrong he was. If somehow Gilbert came out of this with his reputation intact, the man would probably be given a medal, some marks, and be shoved aside and forgotten. Just like they all were. Just like how they would do to all future soldiers in service. Care and reverence only mattered when someone was poster child material after serving—
“I know what your plan is.”
Ludwig tensed at the familiar voice and looked down the road. His brother—no, Scorpio—stood there, his proto-conducting blade illuminating the surrounding buildings and the faint blood— his blood—staining the front of his blouse. Dark circles crescented his eyes, and he was deathly pale. Nauseous worry bubbled in Ludwig’s stomach at the sight of it.
“If you know what the plan is, then you have to be a masochist to come out here,” Ludwig replied, steely, tense, as Scorpio came to stand in front of him.
Scorpio lifted his proto-conductor in the air, the molten indigo light splattering into the floor. Then he lowered the weapon and sank to a crouch. Just as that peacekeeper had predicted.
“I enjoy watching people struggle until the very end. It’s very sad and beautiful at the same time. Even in the simplest of times, you people struggle to live and to find meaning in what you do. It’s only in times of tumult that you grasp it—whether that’s serving in a time of war or being a generous soul in a time of poverty. True peace is too dull and too much for you to bear. And that’s why the cycle continues. Anyway, my good man, if the Augen isn’t made into a martyr movement, then it’ll turn into exactly what it was made to combat against somewhere down the line. Marionette Engel’s parents must have seen the future when they named her.”
Scorpio met his gaze.
“Don’t you think so, Former Colonel Ludwig Waltz?”
Ludwig stiffened as he saw a dark blue scorpion tattoo crawl up his brother’s face. It felt like something out of one of those grim fairy tales Werner and Viktoria used to sneak-read together when they were younger. Grimacing, he tightened his grip on the rifle resting in his lap.
“Who will run, who will stay, who will be the one to cut me out.” Scorpio made a cross shape over his chest with his free hand before reaching out and tapping Ludwig’s rifle. “This is for show, obviously. If you used that on me, the next person you’d use it on is yourself.”
Part of Ludwig wanted to vocally deny it, but he realized there was no point.
“Werner would be upset if you did that, of course. And when Werner is upset, I’m upset too.”
“How… can you say that after what you’ve done?”
“Wouldn’t you say the same?” Scorpio’s grin grew. “You would think that the people who care for you the most would be the ones to offer you fortress, but those are the ones who also hurt you the most. I’ve seen it time and time again. Just because you’re that close to each other, you think everything that you say and do will be forgiven. And that just spirals everything further. Some people mistake that pain as passion—as an act of love—while others reject everything similar to it that comes their way. And the cycle turns another revolution. Even on a smaller scale, it’s all quite—”
Using his arms as a spring, Ludwig launched himself off his chair and threw himself at Werner—Scorpio—with all of his might. The man caught him awkwardly in surprise before toppling to the floor beneath his weight.
Ludwig squeezed Scorpio’s blade-wielding hand tightly, forcing the man to drop his weapon. He then quickly wrapped one arm around the man’s, while placing his other hand against the man’s face and pushing, pushing, pushing as he pinned him beneath his elbow.
He turned to his wheelchair, the seat of which was painted over with a dark spot.
“Hurry up!” he snapped in the direction—
Scorpio laughed. “What? This is your plan? It’s so inelegant… What happened to Capricornian innovation and tactics?” He lifted his ringed hand and stretched it out towards Ludwig’s face. Sparks caught around the grooves of his knuckles.
Before Scorpio could continue further, the black splotch on the chair erupted with bright pale tangerine light. Leaping out from that light came Heimler, knife drawn—how the old man could still move well, Ludwig had no clue. Heimler forced Scorpio’s free hand down before proceeding to pin it to the ground by stabbing it through with his knife.
Ludwig sent Heimler an intense glare. Heimler returned with an apologetic grimace before he began to pull the proto-conducting rings from Scorpio’s fingers one by one. Gilbert and Alice crawled out from the gate next, suppression cuffs in both of their hands.
Scorpio grunted as he glowered at Alice and threw himself forward causing Ludwig and Heimler to be jerked forward themselves. In the struggle, Scorpio broke free from their grasps and ripped the knife out from his palm. Gilbert stiffened and dove for the man’s legs, wrapping his entire body around them. As Scorpio began shaking him off, Stein emerged from the gate and threw his entire body against Scorpio, sending them all to the ground. Ludwig lunged for Scorpio’s hand again and held it down so Alice could wrap her conducting glove around his arm. Scorpio’s entire body stiffened at her contact, but he started to struggle forward rigidly—
“How much vitae do you think a True Conductor with all channels open contains? Especially when I’m here?” Scorpio continued to laugh. “I was impressed before that you could hold both my spore and Jericho down earlier, but—Alice, you always assume you know everything. About me, about Jericho, about Gabe, about Flannery too.”
Alice tensed but then slapped the cuffs over Scorpio’s wrist. “You always jump ten steps ahead.”
Nico emerged from the gate next with Lita in his arms and Kleine and Brandt at his side. The three men jumped at the man, grabbing for his wrists and locking them with multiple suppression cuffs. It was only after the seventh one was slapped over his wrist that he stilled completely. Lita was then lowered to the ground, her hands guided by Nico to Werner’s face.
It was almost funny, Ludwig thought, how the future of Capricorn lay in the hands of a child and an odd peacekeeper. This problem was hidden way beyond Capricorn itself.
“I… I can barely see anything…” Lita whispered, eyebrows furrowing as she squinted at Werner’s body through her conducting glasses. She shook her head. “I’m sorry—I can barely even see any vitae at all—”
“It’s the suppression cuffs.” Alice frowned after a moment. “They’re restricting the flow of vitae…”
“You’re shitting me.” Gilbert panted, his one arm still tightly wrapped around Werner’s legs. “That Libran saint candidate tracked down Leona and cut Scorpio out of her even though she was cuffed. Is this a prank?”
Alice frowned, eyes narrowing, sweat dripping from her brow. “Lita is not a saint candidate clearly, and you’ve seen the gap between people like us and people like ELPIS, True Conductors, and saint candidates.”
Ludwig’s stomach twisted.
Gilbert sighed. “You’re saying we have to try to cut that spore out of him while he’s conscious?”
Alice glanced at him.
Gilbert grimaced and then nodded at Kleine. At his and the peacekeeper’s direction, Kleine began to conjure up heavy bindings—titanium and tungsten, he said. With the help of the others, they began to place Werner in these bindings—around the wrist and around his legs and waist. Ludwig watched them stiffly, still wrapped around his brother’s arm. Once all the bindings were in place, Alice walked over to Lita’s side and placed her hands around the cuffs closest to her.
“Are you ready?” Alice asked Lita quietly.
The girl nodded.
Letting out a quiet breath, Alice released the first suppression cuff. Nothing happened. Lita shook her head—she couldn’t see anything either. Alice released the second one slower. Nothing, a head shake. At the third one, Werner’s lids began to flutter, but still Lita shook his head. The fourth, fifth, and sixth were undone next.
“Okay. Okay.” Lita’s voice trembled slightly. “The vitae looks like it’s starting to… be thicker. But…”
Tensely, Alice removed the last cuff.
“There! I can almost see it—”
Scorpio’s eyes snapped open, and at the same moment, the bindings that covered his hands glowed a bright orange. Before Ludwig could give a warning shout, an intense heatwave threw him back as the bindings exploded. He smacked against the building wall behind him before collapsing to the floor. He barely rolled out of the way of the shrapnel that cometed the wall a second after. When he shook himself and scanned the clearing, he found the others had been blown towards the wall opposite.
“I’m insulted on Aries’s behalf and on the behalf of all the ones who make up Aries that you thought that could contain her.” Scorpio rose to a stand, back facing Ludwig, his voice distorted by the crackling flames that melted away his bindings and the smoke that thickened the air. He covered his mouth with his elbow and coughed before grimacing. “And you all find purpose and victory in this.” He threw out his hand again and sent another wreath of crimson flames crackling out like a whip.
Memories of struggling against similar flames during the war beneath bombshelling and vitae-ray fire flashed through Ludwig’s mind. Then came the words he’d said to Werner and Viktoria when he’d returned home after his injury. His heart seized in his chest.
Ludwig clenched his fist, tears stinging his face from the heat and ash, and crawled forward. Scorpio paid him no mind and continued to throw out his hand and send out poorly-aimed flames in the others’ direction. The air thinned to the point where Ludwig felt like he was breathing in gravel. Still, he pulled forward and forward until he grabbed a hold of Scorpio’s leg again. Lowering his hand, Scorpio turned and blinked down at him.
“You’re all so pitiable—”
Viktoria appeared from the gate in the chair behind Scorpio, face flushed and panting heavily.
What? Ludwig thought. Why did that ELPIS leader let her go through—
He locked eyes with Viktoria incredulously before glancing at Lita who was just beginning to pick herself up from the ground across from him. Viktoria followed his gaze to the girl before running over to where Lita had fallen and pulling her up onto her back. She then charged at Scorpio from behind, wrapped her arms around his waist, and squeezed tight, while Lita clambered forward and looped her arms around the man’s neck.
Scorpio merely laughed. “You all look so ridiculous!”
Before he could reach for either of them, however, Stein, Kleine, and Brandt dashed forward and grabbed hold of his arms. Gilbert came next, delivering a quick blow to the back of the man’s legs, causing his knees to buckle. As Scorpio fell to the ground in a kneel, Alice stumbled over and placed her conductor-gloved hand on his shoulder. Scorpio stiffened but continued to struggle rigidly.
“R-Right there!” Lita shouted, reaching around and jabbing her finger at his chest directly above Scorpio’s heart. “It’s dark blue, big, and ugly! Three millimeters in diameter—”
“Hold him!” Nico shouted, flipping the proto-conductor on and stumbling up and forward from where he’d crashed against the wall. He skidded to a halt in front of the man and poised the proto-conductor—
“Why do you always charge into things you don’t understand and call it bravery? One slip, and you’ll kill Werner.”
Ludwig stared up at him incredulously. Do it, he wanted to say but Scorpio’s words dug into his mind.
“You’re a Transmutationist. I’ve seen everything. You’re constantly wanting to become something you’re not—a saintly doctor, a fearless warrior, etcetera. You’ll never be satisfied. I assure you that you will never be what you want to be—”
“The lieutenant asked me to wake him up,” Nico interjected, tightening his grip on the blade, “and that’s exactly what I’m going to do, so I don’t know what all this other talk is about, to be honest. And—trust me—this is not the most dangerous operation I’ve ever done.” With that, Nico slid the blade with a steady hand into and through Scorpio’s—Werner’s—chest just below where Lita was pointing.
Scorpio jolted as the blade slid through his chest. White cracks began crawling up the man’s neck, just barely brushing the scorpion tattoo that was scrambling to the upper corner of his face by his eye. And then, he smiled thinly—“You’ll see”—before slumping forward.
Ludwig felt a dread overtake him at the sight of this.
Wide-eyed, Nico switched off the proto-conductor, caught Werner with the help of the others, and lowered him to the ground.
Ludwig dragged himself closer to his brother just as Nico scrambled on top of the man and placed an ear to his chest. A painfully long stretch of silence proceeded. Then Nico’s eyes widened, and his cheeks flushed with relief. He let out a sigh.
A storm of boots slapping against the water cut him off short.
Ludwig propped himself and looked around in confusion. Men and women in military police officer uniforms were filtering onto the road from the connected alleyways around them. Before he could comprehend what was happening, the bottom of a boot was slammed down against his face, pressing him into the puddle of water below him.
Two of the military officers grabbed Werner by the arms and began to drag him away. Nico lunged for him, but the nose of a rifle stopped him short.
Ludwig snarled. “Let go of him—” He was cut off by a shaky yelp and whimper. Startling, he searched around wildly for the source. All around him he saw the others being shoved to the ground and against the building walls by the military officers. Only the peacekeeper was untouched by them, and she skirted back with a frown of confusion. Ludwig’s gaze was torn from her as the whimpering yelp reached his ears again. When he followed the sound, he found Viktoria being pinned to the ground by two large officers. “Let go of her!”
If only he could use his damn legs and conductor, then—
Another boot on the back stomped him to the ground, driving him further into the puddle as a voice rang out with absolute authority—”Arrest them all for suspected involvement with the Augen and treason!”
Proceeding up above to the surface the second time around had been even more excruciating than it had been the first time. Werner had steeled himself for the experience prior to his ascension, but he could barely think when he actually arrived on the surface. It was as Lavi had told him. Only one vague feeling and pulsating thought kept him going. Still, he managed to help Jericho get himself in order.
However, as he had calculated, it had not taken long for all the thoughts of all the Capricornians Scorpio was still connected with to strike down on him. They submerged him in their weight and intensity and drowned him with their desperation.
Change—there needs to be change. Down with the Kaiser. The military police are going too far. We should follow orders. If we keep following orders, we’ll be jumping right off the cliff like lemmings and sheep. I’m afraid. I want to get this over with. It’s time to finish things. We need to hold this country together.
Werner held steadfastly onto himself and onto his own thoughts with all of his might as one foreign thought bled into another
But still, the weight of all the others continued to bear down on his shoulders to the point where he ashamedly could not bear it any longer. The last thing he saw before he spiraled back down into agonizing darkness was Jericho’s expression of concern. The image stayed with him as did the pain that remained throbbing at his temples and seizing his chest even as he sank back down. The swirl of pulsating confusion seemed unending.
And then abruptly—almost as if it never existed—the tight and agonizing pain and cloudy confusion ended.
Suddenly, Werner became aware that he was lying on his side. Sweat clung to his back, and his breathing was labored. His shoulder pulsated with a familiar pain as did the palm of his left hand, and he could taste iron and an oddly sweet bitterness in his mouth.
A shadowy figure peered over him, their locks of dark hair spilling down onto his face.
“It’s time to return to reality.”
Werner studied the figure until his gaze finally focused. The face above him was youthful, their eyes round, theeir cheeks ever so slightly tanned.
“Scorpio’s been removed,” she informed him, letting out a sigh as she rose from her crouch. “Somehow… I guess sometimes all of that struggling and fighting does result in something.”
He followed her gaze up to the abyssal sky. Cracks were running through it again, splitting the black. However, this time the cracks glowed an indigo blue and extended to the ground far off in the distance.
Lavi glanced back at him. “That was risky.”
Werner agreed. Taking a risk like that was unlike him. The parameters had been unknown, the range of the probability of the success wide, however—the outcome was acceptable.
Werner pulled himself up to all fours and calmed his breathing. He then searched the divide of vitae at his left and found Shion poised there at the very edge. She was in a crouch, the worry furrowing her brows just beginning to lessen.
“Are you okay…?” Shion whispered. “I tried calling to you, but…”
“I’m fine,” Werner replied, rising to a stand and straightening himself before making his way over to her with Lavi trailing behind him. “This is most likely due to the efforts of my subordinates. As expected, they remain efficient and reliable.”
“You proved you were reliable too, you know.” Shion smiled thinly, joining him in a stand.
Her words squeezed something inside of his chest, and he felt a little less concerned about how unsightly he’d appeared before laying down in a heaping mess before her.
A groan resounded above. A glance upwards informed Werner that the indigo cracks had spread even further, causing the black in-between them to shrink.
“I’ll be returning above soon,” he stated, meeting Shion’s eyes again. “As myself.”
“Yes…” Shion’s gaze lowered before the corners of her eyes crinkled. “Yes, you will.”
“Up and down, a crescendo followed by a diminuendo,” Lavi hummed beside him, her eyes narrowing slightly. “And the cycle turns again—”
“Olive will free you from this place,” Werner interjected, turning to her. “The means may be unethical to him from what I’ve observed now but… we can discuss where you stand after.”
Lavi studied him before squinting and puffing her cheeks out childishly. “I see you’re back to your usual self.” She slowly trailed him up and down with her eyes. “At least… you’re acting like it.”
Regarding her for a moment, Werner pondered what he would do if Viktoria were in this position instead of Lavi. Viktoria, who had given him that first expectation.
Absentmindedly, as he recalled the past with that singular thought pulsating at the back of his mind, he placed a hand on top of Lavi’s head. Lavi stiffened, then looked back up at him, a mixture of appreciation, pity, and reluctance in her eyes.
“I’m glad you have people up there that you can rely on outside of us,” Shion drew slowly. “Just in case, you know? I’m sorry for lying to you in the beginning. It was pretty… stupid.”
“Agreed.” Werner nodded, moving his hand from Lavi’s hand and clasping it behind his back. “However, given the situation, I doubt that you disclosing that information would change anything.” After a second, he clarified. “That was meant to be reassurance, Shion.”
The corner of her eyes crinkled again. “I know, Werner.”
A lapse of silence fell between them.
Werner, for a moment, considered if he could extract any additional information about the syzygy from Shion in the little time he had left here. However, he then realized that she wouldn’t be able to give him any information that he would be able to retain. In other words, it was a poor use of time. On other hand, shewould be able to retain everything he said to her here. As he thought about it, he found it quite sad.
“I know this is asking a bit much,” Shion spoke suddenly. “Probably selfish too. And it’s probably pointless to ask.”
Instead of agreeing, he listened.
“But since I’m not there anymore…” She hesitated. “Could you maybe take my place up there instead?”
Werner stared at her as faint memories—of hers, not his—flitted in his mind’s eye: synchronizations on wet and hot summer days, faded words of reassurance during late nights under the light of a full moon, a faint yet ever-constant presence. ‘Warm’ things never to return.
Werner considered this for a moment, then thought of Otto and Emilia. “While it’s easy to replace the parts of a conductor, it becomes increasingly difficult to replace members that were integral to a unit. It won’t function the same even if most of the parameters are matched.” He nodded. “But I’ll meet those standards to the best of my ability even though these specifics will be difficult to recall.”
Shion stared and then laughed, covering her hand with her mouth. “‘Standards,’ Werner?”
He studied her as her laughter quieted and she drew nearer to the threshold dividing them. The light from the river warmed her face, and he could see himself reflected in her dark eyes.
After seeming to study his face, she reached across the river of vitae in between them. “One more selfish request…” She tapped his forehead causing him to stiffen. “Since you can’t remember me here—” She then tapped the pocket watch still ticking above his chest. “—Maybe you could try remembering me here instead…?” She chuckled with a shrug, pulling her hand back as if stung. “Or not.”
Werner regarded Shion quietly. Memories weren’t truly stored in the heart nor were feelings, but for a moment he wished they were. The reality of vitae—as efficient of a resource as it was—was a troubling thing. Especially if those around him—
“The syzygy is approaching,” Shion continued, face tightening, her voice starting to shake ever so slightly. “It’s only going to get harder from here on. I wish I could be up there to tell you everything and be with you—I really wish I could, but I… I was stupid.”
Werner remained silent.
“There are things that you shouldn’t hide. There are things that you can’t compare with numbers too. I mean… the time I spent with all of you was so tiny, but I still think it was the most important time of my life—” She took a moment to recollect herself, before continuing: “There’re things you have to rely on others to do in order to… ‘succeed’ like you say.”
Werner could see past regrets folded in her expression.
“I mean—I’m sure with being a dashing commander you already know all this… but it’s more than just on the battlefield. It’s not always ‘unsightly.’ Sometimes… you have to do it. Right, Werner…? You’ve seen it? Promise me?”
He nodded slowly to reassure her.
“Anyway… I’ll still be right here if any of you end up falling back down. Until the very end.” Sighing fondly, she moved her hand across the divid to cup his face again. Although it felt strange, he held still for her. “Hopefully that doesn’t happen.”
Werner could feel that she wished it did deep down and that she despised herself for it. He studied the face of the woman whom he had met only a short while ago yet whom he had somehow known for years. Although he could not recall it himself, he felt as if he owed something to her. For a moment, he almost wished to keep her company down here. But that was not realistic nor reasonable. And so, he thought, thiswould only be something he would show to her.
Werner cupped her hand in his own, startling her. Carefully, he said, “These are merely words, Shion Myosotis. I’m aware they can’t be equated to something physical.” He squeezed her hand. “But from what you’ve shown me—back then, I’m sure that to all of us you were something akin to a mothe—”
Shion’s eyes lit up just as the abyss around them shattered into an indigo blue.
Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn
Capricornian First Lieutenant Werner Waltz opened his eyes.