Joint-Outpost 12, Aquarian-Capricornian Border
“Your boyfriend hasn’t called yet still, Emilia?”
Sergeant Emilia Bergmann looked up from her cardboard box of Käsespätzle and registered Corporal Klaus Kleine approaching her from the mess hall across the road. Beside him came Alwin Brandt, both men crunching along the deep snow piled up to their ankles. While the snow beneath their feet was blinding white, the sky itself was gray and flat.
At the moment Emilia was seated just outside the newly-minted Capricornian-Aquarian co-ed bunker which was built just one month prior to support the monthly co-training military drills. While she was perfectly fine with the co-ed aspect of the bunker, the fact that her bed was right next to an Aquarian’s unnerved her still. The feeling wasn’t quite fair to the Aquarians, she knew, but—was it fair to them or to her to be sleeping beside someone who may have shot a vitae ray straight through their comrade or slammed their ally in-between two pieces of rock?
Inside the bunker was understandably divided into an Aquarian half and a Capricornian half. Only a handful of Aquarians and Capricorns had intermingled so far—much less than the amount of crude and stinging remarks exchanged every day. The ones who intermingled were often subtly ostracized by the non-interminglers. The division reminded her a bit of the cliques back in her military academy days.
Emilia wasn’t too fond of that sort of conflict. She had enough of it at home, having to separate her siblings whenever they argued. Fortunately, all of this drama was taken up by a designated middle person. A Capricornian soldier with Aquarian origins. Charlotte Petrov: a middle-aged woman with graying hair and a thick body frame. Petrov had seen half the Reservoir War play out and had two dozen medals to show for it. She was the chipper sort—always planning ‘get to know each other’ events and arranging training days outside of the official mandated exercises. Despite the lack of participation in all of her events, she remained happily smiling. She’d even laughed almost airily when one of the attending Aquarians had made some rude remarks about her figure. Emilia wished she could absorb some of Petrov’s positivity.
That aside, Emilia had left the bunker as soon as she’d woken up in the morning and had made herself a little space here outside the building below the extended roof. It hadn’t taken too long to clear the snow from the ground—just a quick swish of her conductor gloves after she’d dug deep enough in one spot to touch the actual dirt ground. The cold wasn’t too terrible either despite the touch of Aquarian chill. She figured she should try to at least make a connection with a few Aquarians. She’d walked alongside a few through Argo, after all.
Courage, right? But where did loyalty fit into that equation?
“No…” Emilia slowly pulled her fork from her mouth as the two men sank beside her—one on each side. “No, he hasn’t…”
Emilia did not have an actual boyfriend. She didn’t have time for one. What she had was an Ariesian-Geminian friend who would call once a week so that they could exchange information while being covert under Scorpio’s watchful eyes. One Cadence Morello. Cadence was just as charming on the pone as she’d been when Emilia had encountered her in Argo—tumultuous train incident aside. Somehow Cadence managed to turn their tense covert conversations into something light-hearted and frankly a bit amusing. Though, in all honesty, Emilia couldn’t imagine Captain Waltz getting along with someone like Cadence at all.
Emilia knew that in-between those two, she and the others—Klaus, Alwin, Lieutenant Wolff—were mere bargaining chips. Something used to keep the captain in place. Her own family and the families of the others served as bargaining chips too. Being the blackmail and being blackmailed all at once. It felt awful. Capricorn, Signum: a shadow—one being cast from within.
“Maybe he’s busy,” Alwin suggested, popping open his own cardboard box and revealing a rouladen. “You’ve seen everything that’s going on recently. The elections, the anti-ACC movement—I could tell you ten stories about the things I’ve heard about the ACC.” He paused, staring at the meat. “The abductions too—you know—of the kids around Signum…”
Emilia felt a tightness squeeze her chest as her thoughts went to her siblings. She’d used her phone time for them just this morning since Cadence hadn’t reached out to her. They’d all whined and complained about their parents and long drives but were otherwise content and happy. One of them had even gotten a boyfriend.
“Yeah…” she murmured. “It’s awful.”
Klaus popped open his box and stared at the steamed potato and wurst resting inside. “I heard that since they’re finding evidence that it’s the same perpetrator across Leo, Aquarius, and all the other places, Ophiuchus is getting involved in it now.”
Alwin frowned slightly.
Klaus peeked at him. “There’s also a rumor about the ELPIS Department launching an investigation too. There’s evidence it might be ELPIS.”
Alwin met his gaze for a moment before he shrugged nonchalantly. “Well, I heard the General Investigations first chair is going to Leo to investigate the kidnappings that happened there. The first chair of the ELPIS Department is heading there too.”
“Really…?” Klaus studied him a bit longer. “I heard that they were going there just to give some speeches.”
“Well, you’ve met Gabrielle.” Alwin arched a brow. “Does she seem like the type to put the vote over people like that?”
“Politically speaking it’d make sense for her to, wouldn’t it?” Klaus fiddled with his glasses again before frowning slightly. “But I guess… at the capital, Gabrielle was…”
Emilia really didn’t like politics.
Alwin set down his box after he devoured his roulade. “…There’s also the chlorowheat thing.”
Chlorowheat. There were whispers of it here at the borders. Something in-between morrowheat and sorrowheat, bringing you halfway to death’s door and giving you a high you’ve never experienced before.
“I’ve seen anti-chlorowheat flyers all over recently,” Klaus noted, adjusting his glasses. “I didn’t even know it existed until I saw one to be honest. They’re saying the anti-ACC movement is bringing it all in. That they’re getting people addicted to it to get them to join their ranks.”
Propaganda, probably, Emilia presumed.
“Well… I’ve heard other stories.” Alwin looked at them gravely—like how he would when he was telling one of his tall tales in the trenches. Golden beast, white anaconda, Great Devourers—he had them all. Sometimes Emilia wondered if a few of those stories were faint recollections of Zu. “It doesn’t only give you a high ‘better’ than morrowheat,” he continued, voice deepening. “It also makes it so that… you’re no longer able to conduct.”
Emilia nearly choked on a noodle.
“Wait? So that rumor is true?” Klaus arched a brow, his face now almost as white as the snow. “I read the paper the Medical Department released about it last week… They don’t mention it being like that. Just that it has a lot of cognitive side effects and that it’s more addictive than morrowheat.”
“Of course they don’t mention it.” Alwin scoffed. “I mean—not being able to conduct after taking it? No using conductors? That’d decrease the chances of people’s vitae being elevated to the higher level. They don’t want that. But other people might. ELPIS. People who want peace.”
“Not any peacekeepers?” Kleine tried, sounding tentative. “I don’t think ELPIS is synonymous with peace, Brandt. Peacekeepers—”
“Well, okay. Most peacekeepers are decent…” Alwin muttered seemingly more to himself than to them. “People who want to use chlorowheat as a weapon—I’m guessing outside of the saint candidates in that place, the general oblivious peacekeeper is just worried about those type of people instead.”
“Maybe that’s the key to peace…” said Klaus suddenly.
“Drugs being the key to peace?” Emilia frowned. “I don’t want my brothers or sisters anywhere near something like that.”
Klaus flushed. “I wasn’t saying it like that. I was just speaking in hypotheticals. I mean, if you think about it in the short term vague hypothetical, it’s both a good and bad thing…”
“They haven’t called it a public health crisis yet. It’s probably too early for that. You look at any epidemic or pandemic throughout history and the response time is always too late because it’s not taken seriously enough or because they think it’ll cause mass hysteria,” Alwin muttered after a beat. “But if it continues to spread like I think it’s been spreading… it’ll be a real problem. The pattern’s in history, the records, the books.”
“No wonder they’re trying to demonize it with all of these flyers….” Klaus replied after a beat. “Can you imagine the captain being here in the middle of this? I think he even hated v-cigarettes.”
“Oh yeah.” Alwin leaned back. “If he were here then no one would dare to even think about chlorowheat.”
Emilia chuckled at the idea.
The conversation lapsed into quiet for a while as they scarfed down their food. The quality of the meals had gone up recently due to displaced former Militärpolizei taking up various roles at this outpost including chef, cook, cleaner, guard, Border Forcer, and everything in between.
“It’s so weird.” Klaus surveyed the empty, white, pristine snowfield just behind the mess hall and the buildings dotting the area around them. “It feels like everything’s happening yet nothing’s happening at the same time.”
“Well, that’s really just because we’re so far away from everything that’s really happening,” Alwin noted with a half chuckle. “Can you imagine that? Being at the borders is considered being away from the action.”
Klaus looked over at him. “Technically, for you… that’d be sort of an extension of that, wouldn’t it? With ELPIS—”
Alwin clicked his tongue in annoyance. “Klaus if you ask me one more time about Zu—”
“Hey,” Emilia tutted. “Let’s get along now. The three of us are all we have out here.”
The two fell silent for a beat.
“I already told you that I don’t really remember much from back then.” Alwin finally sighed, ruffling his hair. “You literally ask me every other day. The answer’s not going to change. I’m not going to miraculously remember something from Zu’s almost non-existent vitae. That’s not how vitae works.”
“But you remember things well enough to… think that True Conductors should be… eliminated…” Klaus argued.
“It’s feelings,” Alwin corrected. “Not memories. But—yeah…” He grimaced. “That was—well saying it was ‘bad’ of me would be putting it too lightly. It was the stress. Scorpio. All of it combined… Sounds like bad excuses.” He sighed. “I still haven’t apologized to the lieutenant—er, the captain—yet. Then again, it wasn’t really him.”
“You’d have to apologize to a prince,” Alwin drew slowly. “That’s still—well, it’s fascinating, but it’s also… I mean, the captain is intimidating enough as it is.” He peered curiously at Alwin again. “I… can’t help but be a bit curious about why the saint candidates haven’t… done anything with you yet. I mean. You are still sort of technically Zu.”
“They don’t see me as a threat.” Alwin shrugged. “Zu isn’t like the others that were initiated properly or who had enough vitae left to spare to remember and do things. I’m like”—he gestured to Emilia then to Kleine— “you both. Normal, so to speak. I’m more Brandt than I am Zu.”
Klaus chuckled nervously at this before eyeing him again. “I still have a lot of questions about ELPIS, Alwin. I mean, it’s such a big puzzle piece.” He held up his hands when Alwin sent him a half-glare. “Not historical information. Just like general conceptual information… like how you all agreed to bleach your vitae and why you bleached your vitae too since it seems like it has a lot more cons than pros…?”
Instead of frowning at Klaus, Alwin squinted into the distance this time. “I… don’t really remember—like I said. What I do remember is that it was like a death pact. No one said it but we all understood it. Not being able to die in the normal sense. Not like Otto. He returned to the cycle. Not being able to return to the cycle—that’s true death. Nothingness.”
Emilia’s gaze sharpened and she looked up at Alwin with a glare. Tears burned at the back of her eyes.
Otto. Otto. Oh, the funeral. His parents had sobbed their hearts out.
Alwin stiffened. “That’s not what I meant. Otto—his death wasn’t just another turn of the cycle. I…” He stared at his hands for a moment before he continued. “The main idea was to pass on knowledge and to ensure we didn’t contribute to the displacement of the cycle. Yeah, I think that was it. At the same time, we didn’t want to be like the saint candidates. We didn’t want to take away someone’s entire life like that. So, we decided to pass on the knowledge—”
“It’s not really passing on knowledge when there’s no one there to receive it, right?” Klaus reasoned. “At least for you.”
Alwin frowned at him.
Klaus continued, “And from what I understand, you’re losing vitae and memories with every initiation. I just… don’t see the logic behind it.”
“I think… we thought that the ‘battle’ would last a century at most, so that wasn’t an issue on our minds…” Alwin gestured vaguely to the snow. “Obviously our estimations were wrong. We were too optimistic and too desperate. Well, I don’t know.” He met Klaus’s gaze and sighed. “Klaus, you know your problem is thinking that everyone always acts rationally. The world is chaotic. Sometimes there’s no clear cut explanation for everything for you.”
“I still want to try to understand…” Klaus mumbled. “Were you all… for bleaching your vitae?”
Alwin sighed. “We just followed one after another—especially after the older ones like Theta joined.” He nodded. “Yeah… First it was Alpha, Beta, and Gamma… Eventually it was Omicron. And then Theta followed Omicron. Most of us looked up to them so we followed afterwards. We had our own reasons, of course. They were just the final push.” Abruptly, he grimaced. “Omicron’s gone… So is Omega.” He closed his eyes briefly. “Who knows who else is gone now? The wheel of time catches up to everyone in the end.”
Klaus nodded thoughtfully. “Thanks, Alwin. For answering, I mean.”
Silence lapsed again.
Emilia watched people move in and out of the mess hall before she suddenly found herself asking, “Have you guys decided who you’re going to vote for in the election yet?”
The two men turned to her in surprise.
“My vote by date is coming up,” she explained. “I think it makes sense to choose Gabrielle. I haven’t met her personally myself but she was involved in everything with us back in the capital, right? She’s on our side?”
“I was actually considering Seamus Dolby,” said Klaus. “He’s eloquently spoken and he has experience with international relations. And he’s not a saint candidate. I know that’s not much of a criteria but…”
“Seamus Dolby is a prick,” Alwin scoffed, back to his normal self. “I’ve heard stories about him, you know? He’s as sleazy as they come. He was a career politician back in Libra right after the war ended. Wrote a bunch of welfare legislation that benefited himself.”
“Well—” Klaus began.
“Politics only leads to fights when the person discussing it isn’t an actual politician,” Emilia interjected quickly, cutting the argument short.
“I can’t argue with that…” Klaus mumbled. “Oh, are you excited by the way, Emilia?”
The new Aquarian-Capricornian joint training exercises came with a slew of other joint programs including a particular one that involved students from Capricornian military academies and Aquarians schools jointly visiting joint-training outposts at the border of Aquarius and Capricorn. Joint, joint, join. Buzz words these days.
Although Emilia felt generally uneasy about any joint Aquarian-Capricornian, she couldn’t help but biasedly approve of this one. A couple months back and she wouldn’t have ever imagined she’d feel relieved at the thought of her siblings coming over to the border.
“I can’t wait for you guys to meet them,” she answered. “Maybe you can teach them a thing or two.”
Alwin chuckled. “Yeah, by setting an example of what not to do.”
“At least Fischer and Stein aren’t here to scare them off,” Klaus remarked.
Emilia chuckled at this as did Alwin.
Once the laughter died down, Emilia murmured, “You know… I actually miss them. The entire unit…”
Klaus set down his food box. “Me too, honestly. It doesn’t feel the same without them.” He frowned. “Even if Stein and Fischer were…”
“They were jerks,” Emilia interjected quickly. “But… yeah. I do miss them too.”
“Can’t say I miss Fischer, honestly.” Alwin leaned back against the wall. “But I sure miss Stein. He always had the best reactions to my stories.”
Scorpio had twisted him though, Emilia thought, hadn’t he? So much so that he’d gone off and sworn loyalty to the prince of a foreign nation. It was terrifying what one thought—one obsession—could do to a person. Briefly, Emilia wondered about the captain.
“We’re all just sitting ducks out here,” Alwin said abruptly. “Not too unfamiliar with that.”
* * *
At noon two long v-ehicles came rolling down through the heavy snow. They were painted in an odd shade that was in-between Capricornian periwinkle and Aquarian purple. Emilia and a couple of earth Elementalists including Petrov and some Manipulators had pre-cleared a path through the snow allowing the v-ehicles a smooth ride through. The v-ehicles pulled in front of the main mess hall building where Petrov stood waiting with a bright smile. Although she was dressed in thick black Capricornian winter gear, she also wore a thick brown Aquarian ushanka. Emilia didn’t think the styles went together much. But perhaps Petrov was appeasing both crowds?
The Aquarian v-ehicIe pulled in first, and a handful of Aquarian children and adolescents crunched out onto the snow. Petrov greeted them with a cheery smile and a peppy welcome in Aquarian. She sent them off into the mess hall with two Aquarian soldiers who’d volunteered to oversee the activities of the day—as designated by the smiley-faced metal pins stuck to the lapels of their uniform.
When the Aquarian v-ehicle was directed away from the mess hall to its designated parking area, the Capricornian v-ehicle rolled out in its place. A second after, another handful of children and adolescents spilled out in a single-file line and stood at attention in front of Petrov.
Emilia, who was watching the entire event unfold from just outside the bunkers, made her way through the snow towards them. Adjusting the smiley-faced pin on her own lapel, she came to a stand two meters behind the backs of the lined-up children and adolescents.
Once Petrov finished her welcome speech, the woman gestured towards Emilia. When the children swiveled around to face her, Emilia straightened her back and folded her hands behind her. While most of the children and adolescents glanced over her without much interest, three in particular startled before breaking formation and darting right to her.
The first to reach her side was Anna, her light brown ponytail bouncing every step of the way. She had grown several centimeters since Emilia had last seen her and now sported broad shoulders that rivaled their mother’s. Her periwinkle academy uniform was a bit too large, Emilia noticed, but that didn’t stop her from throwing her arms around Emilia’s neck.
“Milia!” Anna chimed. “How have you been? Well, we talked on the phone only this morning, so I know how you’ve been. I still wanna know though! You won’t believe what mom did last week—”
“Okay, okay, Anna. I’m all ears.” Emilia returned the gesture before pulling away and turning to address the male adolescent standing with his hands shoved into his coat pockets behind Anna.
Emilia smiled and signaled for him. Reluctantly, he did, and so she pulled him into a close hug and rubbed his arms.
“Saints, you’re embarrassing me…” he mumbled, despite not resisting her. “‘Milia… can you not?”
Finally, Emilia turned to face the youngest of the trio. Lutz only came up to her stomach, but he’d always been the smallest of her siblings—and also the sweetest. He flashed a toothy smile before she swept him up into her arms and squeezed tight. He, of course, returned the gesture and even pecked a kiss on her cheek. No embarrassment at all—which was why he was secretly her favorite.
It was only three of them here out of her many siblings—the others were either too young or too old to be part of the program—but it was better than nothing.
The sound of snow crunching behind her pulled Emilia’s attention away from the embrace. She set Lutz down and looked over her shoulder. Alwin and Klaus were approaching her from the bunkers. Familiar smiley-faced pins glistened on their chests.
“These are my friends that I told you about,” Emilia explained, gesturing to Alwin and then Klaus once they were close. “Alwin Brandt and Klaus Kleine.”
Both men saluted, and her three siblings reflected the movement reflexively. The moment after, Alwin cracked a grin and nodded at Anna—
“So what year at the academy are you?”
“Thirteen,” Anna replied, lifting her chin slightly.
“Oh wow.” Alwin whistled. “So you graduate this year, huh?”
“Yep. Right before they change the curriculum and make it easier.” Anna huffed before jerking her chin at Armin. “He doesn’t even have to take an artillery course.”
“Sucks to suck.” Armin shrugged.
Alwin smiled, clearly bemused. Emilia was not so much so.
“Do you have Aquarian friends yet, ‘Milia?” Lutz asked suddenly. “I made two at the rest stop earlier.”
“That’s good, Lutz!” Emilia brightened before exchanging a look with Klaus and Alwin. “And, well… not yet here for me…” She cleared her throat, gestured to Capricornian children who were all ogling her from a meter away, and walked towards the mess hall. “You all had a long ride, right? How about we get some good food. I swear that we have the best Käsespätzle here!”
* * *
The rest of the day went just as Emilia had imagined. She showed the Capricornian and Aquarian children around their station while Alwin told them his usual bedside tall tales. An Aquarian soldier by the name of Alyona who also volunteered for the event chimed in. Together, Alwin and Alyona wove together some fantastical tale about a golden beast facing off against a great devourer in a climactic battle at the capital of a kingdom ruled by snakes. It kept the children of both sides entertained at least. It startled Emilia how easily the children made friends with each other across the national lines. If only adults like herself could do the same.
In-between these story beats, Petrov guided the kids through various joint-training exercises including a war roleplay and a diplomatic conversational roleplay. The two seemed to be incongruent with each other, but Emilia was glad to see her siblings excel at both activities. The sight of their laughter and smiles put her at an ease that felt foreign. She wished she had a camera to take pictures of them and with them.
As evening began to draw to a close and the activities concluded, Petrov let the kids enjoy the open snowfields just outside the mess hall. Emilia spent some time with her siblings, built snow forts and snowmen with them, and proceeded to play hide-and-seek along with them and some of the Aquarian children.
Most of the other ‘counselors’—as Petrov had deemed them—had retired into the mess hall. Alwin and Klaus had done the same, so when Emilia pulled away from her siblings and the children, she found only Petrov posted outside the building watching them. Emilia didn’t quite feel like peeling inside yet so she came to a stand by Petrov’s side and continued to watch her siblings play around.
Petrov smiled and nodded at her. Emilia returned the gesture.
Petrov would sometimes have an odd smell about her—like she did today. It was a musty but sweet scent. Emilia couldn’t quite place it. A perfume, maybe? Emilia did smell it around the outpost sometimes in the washing rooms, so maybe—
“You know, after the war, there were a lot of questions about my citizenship.”
Emilia turned sharply in surprise and found Petrov watching an Aquarian adolescent and Capricornian adolescent pelt snowballs at each other.
“I was born right at the border of Aquarius and Capricorn. Wasn’t much of an issue during the war, but the legal matters afterwards were hell since my family’s records were damaged during a raid. Capricorn and Aquarius were fighting for my citizenship like I was some prized possession. I was called the Mountain Shaker back in the day.”
Emilia opened her mouth, but Petrov continued on before she could respond—
“Capricorn won ‘the battle’ for me in the end. My brother, on the other hand… was left back in Aquarius. The borders became tense after that, so we couldn’t talk, help each other out, anything.” She hummed, eyes distant. “It’s really nice to see things returning to how they sort of were before. It sounds bad when I say it like that. It sounds like I’m wishing for what it was like back during the war…”
Oh, this was awkward.
“You’ve been through a lot,” Emilia finally managed, “Major Petrov—”
“He was a peacekeeper, you know?” Petrov laughed. “He joined so he could provide for his family. He had to bear out the worst of the famine all on his own.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful of him—”
“His name was Mladen. Apparently, he was killed in an ELPIS raid in Ophiuchus.”
Emilia paled and prepared to offer condolences, but was stopped by a light-hearted laugh that shook through Petrov’s entire body. The laughter continued long and loud until it eventually subsided into a chuckle. Petrov’s gaze remained trained on the children.
Before Emilia could even think to address the oddity, a warm brush against her hand drew her attention away. Upon looking down, she was surprised to find Lutz gripping her fingers tightly.
“Lutz?” Emilia patted his head as he drew close. “What’s wrong? Don’t you want to keep playing?”
Lutz shook his head. “There’re Monadic priests here,” he explained, pulling on her arm. “They’re trying to give us things. My friends and the others like them, but Anna and Armin think they’re weird. Can you check just to be sure?”
“Monadic priests…?” Petrov straightened herself and blinked out of her daze. “That’s not on the roster…”
Emilia watched as Petrov stalked forward across the snow and past where a majority of the children were playing—onwards and onwards to a small group of children and adolescents clustered together several meters away. Among the outskirts of that crowd, Emilia spied Armin and Anna.
And then Emilia saw them. Two people—a man and a woman—dressed in gold-gilded Monadic robes and standing at the center of the ring. Just behind the duo were a handful of children dressed in neither the standard Capricornian nor Aquarian school uniforms unlike the other children and adolescents.
Alarm bells rang in Emilia’s head. The image just didn’t fit.
“Anna! Armin!” she called out.
It was evident that they couldn’t hear her from the distance, so she ordered Lutz inside and began to cross the field while ushering the ones she passed inside as well. As she drew nearer to the crowd, she could almost make out the conversation Petrov was having with the two priests:
“—joint training exercise.” A laugh. “Unfortunately, we don’t have time to squeeze in a Monadic prayer session on the schedule we have right now. I do appreciate you coming all the way down here—”
“We just wanted to provide the children with—” began the Monadic woman.
“Oh, I understand, but this is a government sanctioned—”
“Anna! Armin!” Emilia called out again, once she was only a few meters away.
The two finally turned at her call and began to make their way over to her. Emilia kept her eyes trained on the priests all the way, and it was because of this that she was able to see the male priest reach for something hidden in the folds of his uniform at his belt.
There was a flicker of movement—the man’s arm twitched—and suddenly the snow beneath Petrov’s feet became stained red. Petrov staggered back, holding her stomach.
Anna and Armin swiveled around and stared at the scene in confusion. Emilia stared as well, uncomprehending.
There was a barely visible vitae blade in the male priest’s hand, Emilia realized. And the color of it—white. The vitae was white. It was almost impossible to see against the blinding paleness of the snow, but that color—
The children—aside from the ones behind the two priests—screeched and scattered immediately, running off in all directions.
The female priest watched them go from beside the man and sighed. “Nu, you just increased our legwork by tenfold.”
Instead of answering, the man—Nu—swung up his blade and brought it down on Petrov again. Petrov, however, managed to swing her leg out and hook Nu in the stomach before the blade made contact. The kick sent him backwards and crashing into the female priest who merely groaned as she caught him.
A momentary distraction.
“Run! Sound the alarms!” Petrov managed as she staggered back cradling her stomach. “Get the children!”
Emilia tensed before she grabbed Anna and Armin—both frozen in place and staring at Petrov—and started to drag them back to the mess hall.
“Run!” she shouted at the children who dotted the field between herself and the hall. “Protokoll Alpha!”
While the Aquarian children stared blankly at Emilia, the Capricornian adolescents snapped to attention and began to gather up the younger ones and peel them away into the surrounding buildings.
Protokoll Alpha was a protocol specifically taught in the military academies of Capricorn—rescue injured and vulnerable, retreat, do not engage—although using it in actual practice in the field was frowned upon. It wasn’t surprising that the Aquarian children were confused. They probably had never heard of it before—probably had their own version of it under a different name.
Thankfully, some of the Capricornian children were directing the Aquarian children away to hiding spots behind and inside the buildings. The commotion also seemed to have caught the attention of some of the Aquarian and Capricornian soldiers holed up in the building too. Among the ones coming out from the mess hall ahead were Klaus and Alwin who both stood at the threshold of the door
“We have intruders!” Emilia cried out as she ran towards them. “ELPIS—”
A heat suddenly lapped at her neck. She only managed to turn her head just in time to see a tornado of licking white embers before she was suddenly thrown forward by an intense heat wave. She cracked against the wooden walls of the mess hall ahead of her before hitting the deck below with a thud. Despite the ringing in her ears and her spinning head, she forced herself off the ground and scanned her surroundings for her siblings.
There—laying side-by-side only half a meter away from her with their faces smudged with ash. She crawled over to them, heart hammering, ears ringing, tears stinging her eyes
“Armin?” She gently shook her brother who offered her a grunt before moving to her sister— “Anna?”—who groggily rose to a sitting position. Relief spread like warm through Emilia’s chest, and she quickly drew them close.
Footsteps crunched in the snow just beyond the deck. Stiffening, Emilia pulled her conducting gloves from her pants pocket and fastened them on. She then paused as she scanned the deck and the snow. No. There was no earth around that she could conduct. Then her gun—
She reached for her leg but found the strapped pistol she’d fastened there in the morning missing. Had it fallen off when she’d been thrown to the side? Damn it. She should’ve tied it tighter. The captain always said to secure all equipment no matter the situation. Nothing could be left to chance.
“Get up. Get up. Get up!” Emilia whispered to her siblings and she threw their arms over her shoulder and brought them both up to a stand.
By the time she managed to right them, she found herself staring straight across at two figures—stark black against the white snow that was now beginning to flurry down harshly from the sky:
The ELPIS leader Nu who held an activated vitae blade and a child dressed in an ill-fitting winter’s coat. The child didn’t look much older than ten, and yet still his hands were gloved in conductors and from them he produced a flickering flame. A white flame. The child—his vitae was pure white. He was a fully indoctrinated member of ELPIS. A kid.
Stomach churning, Emilia held her siblings closer. All they had to do was get inside the mess hall—no. They needed to wait for back up from the mess hall to get up and help them—
“What are your conducting types?” Nu asked calmly, gaze flicking from Anna to Armin. He lifted his blade and then—
—suddenly he was gone. The child too. In the blink of an eye, they were no longer standing before Emilia. She felt Anna and Armin tense at this.
It seemed as if Nu and the child had been shoved to the side—by an unseen force. No, not by unseen force. By a physical object that she could now barely make out against the blizzarding snow. Yes, she could hear the sound—
Clink, clink, clink.
A ghost pain throbbed at Emilia’s abdomen as she gazed at the shadows of chains snaking through the thick mist of powdered snow. An opaque shadow flickered in the snow screen a meter away briefly before a figure stepped out into her view.
It was a man not a woman as she’d been expecting. His hair was short, not long, but he had familiar wild orange curls. He did not wear a polka-dotted headband, but a polka-dotted bow-tie. Among all these discrepancies, one thing remained the same: the snake tattoo slithering at the arch of his hand.
Iota’s—rather Hatsya Androulakakis’s—initiation had proceeded smoothly. It was odd. The last thing she recalled upon awakening was laying down on a cold stone table as Proteus hovered over her. And yet an immediate moment afterwards, she suddenly found herself—as a man—staring up at an unfamiliar man wearing glasses. The snake tattoo crawling up from his neck to his face made him immediately identifiable.
“We have work to do,” was all he said as he handed her a knife.
Iota wasn’t too put off by the cold welcome and odd situation. Gamma had started to become aloof after the event with Scorpio and Virgo back then, so his attitude wasn’t unusual. And—gender was irrelevant anyways.
Sam Hunt was the name of the man Iota had been initiated into. Sam had just gotten his conducting license at the tender age of 29 and had been riding the train home to Libra when it was derailed in a freak landslide accident. Sam had waited an unknown number of days for rescue before coming close to perishing beneath the hull of the train. That was when Gamma had found him and initiated Iota into his close-to-corpse.
It had taken several days for Iota to recover from the injuries from Sam’s accident. In that time frame, Gamma had initiated a couple of the others—including Delta and Alpha— into the bodies of the people who’d died in a railway accident. Alpha’s initiation had given Iota a sense of relief. He was the one had started it all. Gamma had even offered to have a revote for leadership out of respect, but Alpha had oddly declined.
Lamendos was left in Alpha’s care while Iota and the others went off to continue wiping reservoirs and generator conductors off the face of Signum. When they had returned back, however, they had found their resistors absolutely ravished, empty, cracked, everything. With calm reserve, they’d tested the resistors on half-corpses they’d brought in and—nothing. It was no use. Not enough vitae to bring the half-dead back.
Ever since then Iota had been on the chase with Beta and Tau—chasing their own: Alpha, Rho, and Nu. Traitors or fools—Iota didn’t know which they were. Certainly not both. He didn’t allow that sort of flexibility with his judgements.
Iota had crossed the windy cities of Sagittarius, torn through the seaside towns of Pisces, dipped into Capricorn, and blazed through the waterfalls of Cancer. And now he found himself at the divide between the Aquarian and Capricornian border chasing the duo through the snow while wearing only a bowtie, a blouse, and a pair of slacks. Highly unfashionable.
Iota noticed a pattern to Rho’s and Nu’s travels during the chase, however. They only really stopped whenever they stumbled upon specific locations—orphanages, schools, children’s homes—and they would never leave unless they found what they were looking for. Recruits.
Iota himself had seen several of the converts himself. Children. He couldn’t believe it—although he could see the pragmatism behind it. Peacekeeping puppets of the saint candidates would definitely hesitate when facing off against chubby-faced foes who only went up to their stomachs in height. Using children though? That was against everything they’d as ELPIS agreed upon when they’d placed Ophiuchus’s mark upon their bodies. To think Alpha of all people would—
That aside, when Iota finally caught up to Rho and Nu and found them surrounded by fleeing Aquarian and Capricornian children dressed in school uniforms, he wasn’t too surprised. Neither was he surprised when he found Nu and a child convert standing in front of a young woman—Capricornian gauging by the outfit—who was curled protectively over two younger adolescents. The trio were cornered back against a rickety wooden longhouse and looked quite pitiable.
Despite the fact that said woman was clearly a soldier—a major contributing force to the syzygy—Iota felt some amount of sympathy towards her. Looking upon her reminded Iota of himself. That and he felt a lot of indignation towards Nu. So with a sense of righteousness, Iota throttled both Nu and the child to the side away from them with his chains. He tightened his chains around both of them in the far distance before turning to face the two adolescents and the woman.
The woman stared up at him with wide eyes and gripped her abdomen.
“Discard your conductor, woman,” Iota told her gravely as he lifted his chin. “You don’t understand the corruption that using one of those monstrosities brings—”
Iota looked up and found an unfamiliar pair of men standing at the entrance to the longhouse. Capricornians again—gauging by their uniforms. One of the men was staring at Iota’s hand where his tattoo was printed.
“It’s me…” the staring man drew slowly. “It’s…. Zu.”
Iota stiffened, glanced briefly at the glasses-wearing man standing beside the staring man, and looked the staring man up and down. “Zu…?”
After what appeared to be a moment’s hesitation, the addressed man traced an S-shape from his left shoulder to his lower-right abdomen. Right where Zu had initially placed his tattoo. A confirmation.
“So there’s still some vitae left of you.” Iota felt a beat of relief. “That’s good… Your resistor wasn’t with the others, so…” He frowned. “Wait—what are you doing here? We need you—”
Suddenly Iota found himself flying through the air. The next moment saw him hurtling face first into what felt like ten meters or deeper into a mound of snow. With difficulty, he peeled himself out only to come face-to-face with a full-on howling blizzard, Nu, and two children who flanked him. The fire Elementalist boy from earlier and a girl with pigtails who stood a head taller than him. Beyond the wails of the wind, Iota could hear peppering vitae-ray fire and the spray of bullets. Awful sounds.
It looked as if Rho and Nu were getting daring, Iota thought. Usually, they would flee through a gate once he’d found them. Realization regarding this discrepancy dawned as Iota’s gaze was drawn to the two children standing at Nu’s side. No—it was just that now they had a reason to stay. The Aquarian and Capricornian school children scattered around here. Easy pickings.
The pigtailed girl lifted her gloved hands suddenly and the snow around her rose like bird wings. Glowing blindingly.
A ‘Manipulator’? No. The control size was too vast and large to be a Manipulator’s. Only Scorpio was ever able to do something like that. An ‘Elementalist’? No, no. The precision was too refined. A ‘Specialist’ then. Bleached vitae as well. Wait. This blizzard had started blazing from nowhere, so perhaps that girl—
The snowy wings shot forward towards Iota before he could finish the thought and sent him flying back, back, back until he hit the wood of yet another building behind him. Despite the ringing in Iota’s ears, he felt no pain and quickly picked himself off the ground.
A second after, the trio emerged from the swirling snow and began to approach him.
Fools. Long distance was advantageous for him. He would handle the problem child first. The girl wouldn’t be able to return to the cycle with the way her vitae was, but at least he could give her mercy outside of a life of puppetry.
Iota flung his hand out towards the girl. His chains rose up from beside him at his command and hurtled forward like arrows. The smaller boy shouted in alarm and threw out his own hand, sending out a whip of flames that consumed and then melted Iota’s chains in the blink of an eye. But Iota had been prepared for this and had sent another chain looping around the trio. Drawing his hand close to his body, he sent this spiked chain shooting towards the girl’s back.
Abruptly however, the falling snow behind the girl began to glow white. A moment after, his chain’s clattered uselessly to the ground, steaming up in the areas where his blood once stained them. Not snow, it seemed. Mist. Rho.
“Aren’t you getting tired of chasing us everywhere?” Asking this in her usual chipper tone, Rho emerged out from the haze of white particles whirling in the air beside Nu. “Why don’t you go skirt chase Scorpio instead?”
Iota pulled backwards as he scanned the flurry around him. It was impossible to tell what was mist-snow and what was Rho’s vitae. Dangerous.
If only Tau were here, Iota thought. Tau would be able to conjure up something useful to work against Rho’s ability. But alas, Iota had lost Tau while traversing through Pisces—and he wasn’t quite sure where he’d lost him. One moment Tau was there, and the next he was gone. Knowing the man, Iota figured Tau had probably accidentally berated the wrong person and gotten into some trouble. Fortunately, Iota had his resistor and it was empty, so he knew Tau was still alive. Unfortunately, Tau had Iota’s resistor.
Beta, on the other hand, had gone solo in the search. Even if Iota met his end here, he was certain Beta would carry on the role for him in the meanwhile. He hadn’t seen her or Gamma since he’d left Lamendos searching for Alpha, Nu, and Rho. Hadn’t seen Lamendos itself since then either. He would need to touch point soon if he survived.
Reassured by this, Iota unsheathed the knife holstered to his leg and drew it across his palm. He flung his hand out in an arc and sent some blood droplets flying back onto his chains and others onto some of the wood he’d ‘displaced’ when he’d crashed into the building. As expected, the blood that fell on the chains sizzled uselessly. But the blood-splattered fragments of wood rose from the ground and hovered in the air at his command. Bullets—ready to ravage their target.
The pigtailed girl raised her hand again, however, and so Iota braced for impact. In the blink of an eye, he was swept out from the porch and thrown into the air by an arm of snow. Quite a deja vu feeling—-flying through the air like this, he thought. What was not a deja vu feeling was the sensation he felt when he finally hit a hard surface: cracking against what was evidently someone else’s body.
“Ow!” someone cried.
“Emilia!” cried another.
Iota quickly freed himself from the limbs he’d become entangled in and pulled away from the figure he’d crashed into. It was the woman again, he realized. The one who’d been protecting the two adolescents. The Capricornian. She immediately scrambled back and whipped out a gray pistol at him. It seemed as if she’d gotten a gun somewhere, somehow.
Iota ignored this, rose to a stand, surveyed the area.
Scattered around them were several other groaning bodies—four of whom Iota vaguely recognized: the two adolescents this gun-wielding woman had been curled over, the man with the glasses, and Zu himself.
“Leave us alone.”
Iota turned towards the voice and found Nu and the girl emerging from the whistling blizzard. Rho and the boy seemed to have made off somewhere. No. They were most likely searching for children to capture.
“Tell me what you did to the resistors,” Iota replied, tone flat. “What is wrong with you, Nu? Following so blindly. How many times have you died now? If you keep dying like you’ve been dying then there’ll be nothing of you left.”
“There won’t be anything left of any of us,” Nu replied. “Of anything.”
“Only if the syzygy happens,” Iota reasoned.
Nu’s eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth to retort before a movement in the snow right at his feet caught his attention. Slowly, Nu reached for the area and stuck his hand deep in. When he pulled his hand up and out, he was holding a small boy by the scruff. He pulled the boy up to eye-level. “What type of Conductor are you?”
The boy whimpered.
“Lutz!” the Capricornian woman wailed before scrambling to her feet and aiming her pistol at Nu. “Let him go!”
“Emilia, no!” Zu snapped, pulling her back.
The woman—Emilia—shrugged Zu off and lifted her pistol at Nu again. Nu, of course, remained unflinching. Emilia’s gaze hardened, and her fingers moved toward the trigger. The pigtailed girl then lifted her hand, causing Emilia to flinch. Then, came the familiar wave of blinding snow that sent Iota and the others—or so he presumed—flying through the air again.
As soon as he hit the ground, Iota snapped up to a stand, brushed himself off, scanned the expanse of snow, and started forward. A familiar clicking sound stopped him short. Upon turning, he found Emilia there with a gun aimed right at his back. Behind her were the two adolescents who clung to each other tightly, Zu, and Glasses.
“What’s going on here?” Emilia hissed, breath fogging up the air. “Where did they take my brother?”
Siblings. Ah. Sentiment.
Iota remained silent.
“Saints…” Glasses stared at Iota’s stomach then at Iota’s hand. “You’re bleeding so much…”
Iota frowned at this and looked down at his body. His blouse was stained red as was his bowtie. Damn it, he thought. These stains would take forever to get out. He’d tailor-made this himself too. With a sigh just beginning to escape from his mouth, Iota’s vision dimmed and he fell forward.
* * *
When Iota opened his eyes again, he was in a dim room with only a single light source: a window that spilled in the white glow of the storm from outside. Shadows drifted in and out of focus around him paired with faint whispers in Common:
“We signaled the radio tower as soon as we heard there were intruders.”
“Half an hour response time…. the ELPIS Department too…”
“Holing out until aid arrives—”
“Alwin!” came a harsh, low whisper that was closer. Masculine. Deep. “Why did you bring her—she’s! Remember what he did to Emilia—”
“Klaus, it’s fine.” A familiar woman’s voice. “We need information from him anyways.”
Iota snapped up immediately up to a sit, taking note that he’d been placed onto a flat mattress on the cold, hard, wooden ground. He also noted that he was now in a thick black military coat that went down to his knees. Very unfashionable. It almost made him want to puke.
When his eyes adjusted to the light, he found three familiar faces staring at him in shock. Zu, Emilia, and Glasses. He pressed Zu, “How long was I unconscious?”
“Only… eight minutes,” Zu drew slowly, hands hovering placatingly. “Are you sure you’re well enough to move? You lost a lot of blood. I transfused some for you since your blood type was listed on your medical card….”
Iota stared at him in confusion. Then he recalled that he had indeed kept not only Sam’s conducting license for its advantageous purposes but also Sam’s papers and medical card. The print on the card had been particularly stylish.
Iota eyed Zu’s hovering hands, before drawing, “Rho and Nu—they’re still here. For now. We need to find them.”
“Rho and Nu?” Glasses frowned. “Are those the names of the ELPIS leaders?”
Iota stared at him before turning back to Zu. “Are these recruits? Yours? Why do they know so much?” He pointed at Emilia. “She pointed a gun at me.”
“Er… Yeah…” Zu drew slowly, oddly, earning him even odder looks from Glasses and Emilia. “These are my recruits… And that was just a bit of a misunderstanding.” He proceeded to introduce the two:
The woman’s full name was Emilia Bergmann, the man with the glasses Klaus Kleine. For some reason Zu also felt the need to introduce himself by the name of the person he’d been initiated into. ‘Alwin Brandt.’
There were four other soldiers stationed in the room and they were crowded around a table that hosted what Iota had recently learned was a radio. There was another door adjacent to the radio, and it was cracked open just slightly. Through the crack Iota could barely make out a small room inside which a group of children huddled together and were seemingly being comforted by Emilia’s siblings. Iota eyed them all with suspicion.
“Don’t worry about them,” Zu whispered. “As long as we talk low, it’ll be fine.” He cleared his throat. “I’ve been out of the loop since I haven’t been able to contact you… So… I have to ask… what in the world is going on?”
Iota eyed Emilia and Kleine.
“I trust them. Don’t worry,” Zu said quickly. “They’re for the cause, and they know about almost everything.”
“What?” Iota’s eyes narrowed.
As ELPIS leaders, they weren’t supposed to tell people they recruited the truth about their long war with the saint candidates out of principle. ‘No need to burden the younger with the older’s problems’ was the idea. Theta had been particularly adamant about it. ‘We’ll expand too fast and too far,’ Theta had said when they were all discussing the matter long ago. ‘We are not an organization nor are we a movement of passion. Recruitment should be kept to a minimum.’
“Show me your vitae, Zu,” Iota demanded, glower lessening when he saw the saw the stricken look on Zu’s face. “I’ve been initiated long enough to know that you have to suspect everyone….”
Zu tensed. “Look—”
Zu opened his mouth, closed it with a hardened gaze. “There’s no need to show you. I wasn’t initiated properly when I was initiated last year. There’s no re-initiating me either. I can’t even say I’m Zu with how little vitae was left in Zu’s resistor.”
“So, you’ve become a liar.” Iota clenched his fist only to realize his conducting gloves were missing.
“You need to tell us what the hell is going on here,” Emilia demanded, drawing her hand to her hip where a pistol was holstered. “Where is my brother?”
Ah, so that was this woman’s relationship with that boy, Iota thought. The burning in her eyes was familiar.
Still, Iota lifted his chin in defiance. “You can shoot me if you please—”
“Don’t give me some bullshit about returning to your resistor,” Emilia snapped, tightening her grip on the firearm. She released her grip on it a moment after. “You’re going after the ones we just saw, right? I doubt returning to your resistor mid-chase would be productive.”
“How much do you know?” Iota scrutinized the woman. “If you’re suggesting an alliance, let it be known that I am not going to work together with people who smear the cycle with—”
“At least explain what’s going on,” Zu—no, Alwin Brandt—urged. “We were dragged into this mess.”
“And you’ve dragged yourself away from ‘the mess’ before this.” Iota narrowed his eyes at Brandt. “How long have you been keeping up this act of playing soldier? Even if you’re not properly initiated, don’t you feel a sense of responsibility? The syzygy—”
“I don’t even know what that is anymore.” Brandt’s face tightened. “So instead of letting me wallow in not knowing what’s going on, enlighten me. I mean, I saved your life just now.”
Iota frowned but couldn’t find an argument against this. He wasn’t a person of no honor, after all, and these people were already in the know. So, he quickly gave them the condensed version of his experiences since his initiation.
There was a stretch of expected silence afterwards.
“They’re the ones taking the children? The ones they were talking about in the papers?” Klaus whispered. “There’s been a rift in ELPIS?” He paused. “I mean—another one? And you’re trying to stop them…?”
“Where are they taking them?” Emilia pressed.
“Nowhere,” Iota responded, studying her. “At least not yet like I said.” He nodded to the window. “That snowstorm out there is being created by a Specialist child working under them. I’m assuming they’re using it as cover so they can get as many children as they can without interruption and interference. Recruitment.”
“Children…” Emilia paled and exchanged a look with an equally pale “Lutz…”
“That’s not the main reason why I’ve been tracking them,” Iota said, “but recruiting children and bleaching their vitae goes against everything we stand for as ELPIS.”
For some reason, Klaus tensed.
“Your brother is most likely still being carried around by Nu and hasn’t left the area yet,” Iota drew slowly as he brought himself up to a stand. His head swam—most likely due to cold and blood loss. “If I do find him, I’ll leave him for you. Conductors are not my priority right now. Chasing them down is—”
“Instead of chasing him…” Emilia shook her head. “Trapping him might be better.”
Instead of answering, Emilia turned on her heels and approached the four soldiers gathered around the radio. She stood at attention, and the soldiers did the same.
“I’m a sergeant and the highest-ranking officer here,” she said. “You’re under my command now.” She nodded at one of the men who was dressed in what Iota recognized as an Aquarian military uniform. “You’re a Manipulator, right? I need your help—”
“I—wait, no. I can’t conduct right now,” the Aquarian stammered before gesturing to the radio. “If you need me to send any messages—any—I can do it, ma’am.”
“What?” Emilia’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“He really can’t,” the Capricornian soldier beside the Aquarian pressed, pale as he reached for his chest pocket. “I… We just can’t—we should wait for our superiors and the ELPIS Department to—”
Emilia tensed and grabbed at the Capricornian’s hand before digging into his pocket. She then pulled out a thin, small packet made of wax paper from there. The Capricornian startled and lunged for the packet but Emilia shoved the man away. Before he could lunge again, Kleine shot up, darted over, and held him back. Emilia then proceeded to unwrap the packet, revealing a dark, leafy, dry substance contained within.
Kleine stared at it. “Is this what I think it is?”
Chlorowheat— Iota recognized it. He’d seen Rho and Nu use it once to their advantage before. Its properties were fascinating, but it was still an addictive drug in the end. Its apparent mass production just went to show how terrible things had gotten. The corruption—
“We’re not fighting at southern borders anymore, and t-this is how you spend your time?” Emilia’s face contorted as she curled her fingers around the scruff of the Capricornian soldier’s shirt. She trembled for a moment before pulling something off the Capricornian’s chest: a smiley-face pin. “You were watching over the children while you were high the entire time?!” She threw the pin at the wall before shoving the man backwards and turning to meet Iota’s gaze.
Disgust and disappointment at the situation and how things had developed thus far—Iota recognized that look in her eye very well.
“You’ve seen that I’m what you consider a ‘Manipulator,’” Iota said after a pause. “I need Nu and Rho. You need that boy. What do you need me to do?”
* * *
Admittedly, Iota was not well-versed in war tactics. He never needed to be and had never thought of them as useful. Theta had always chided him for this—saying something along the lines of ‘every piece of knowledge whether unknown, repeated, or previously known is useful in some shape or form.’
Emilia’s plan didn’t leave Iota entirely convinced of this idea. It involved him manipulating newly conjured chains to sweep away the heavy snow piled at the front of the ‘mess hall.’ Their main target was Nu since Klaus had labeled him as an ‘untrained combatant’ and ‘less dangerous’ than Rho. Frankly, Iota didn’t care which one they captured—though he’d prefer to have them both.
One of their aims was to separate Nu from Rho and then Nu from the Specialist children. This was partially prepared for by Kleine who conjured rigged explosives at a far building at the edge of the outpost. He’d found some children holding up there and had brought them safely back to the building Iota had woken up in as well. Separate and capture. S and C. Apparently this was a tactic that a superior of Emilia’s often used.
Once Iota had swept the ground clean of most of the snow, Emilia went to work shifting the earth with her conducting. By the time she was finished, the blizzard had coated the ground again. As directed, however, Iota kept a small space of ground clear for Emilia behind an outhouse adjacent to the field they’d been working on.
As soon as everything was in order, Kleine activated the detonation device at the far end of the outpost. The fire resulting from the explosion carried its light even through the thick blizzard. Smoke pillars rose from the flames and clouded all the white with gray. Kleine then moved to dress in a school uniform—-disguising himself as a child. It was convincing enough, Iota supposed. More convincing than it would have been with Brandt, himself, or Emilia who were taller and more broadly built.
“Help!” Klaus began shouting once he was at the edge of the field. “Is anyone out there? Someone please help!”
Emilia, Alwin, and Iota proceeded to return to the back of the outhouse and crouched hidden behind it.
The snow storm raged on and on as they waited and listened to Klaus’s phony cries become carried away by the wind. The Capricornians’ shared patience was rather surprising to Iota—although Capricorn was always the patience and rigid sort as well.
The entire time, however, Emilia remained tense beside Iota and would occasionally shoot him furtive looks. Impolite.
Ah. Working together with soldiers: major contributors to the syzygy and the third level of vitae. Iota wondered if he was becoming like Theta now who’d intermingled with individuals associated with the criminal underworld. No. He wasn’t. This was merely a temporary alliance. Coinciding goals. Of course, having Zu back—even if like this—would be a blessing since their numbers were so low now. Convincing him would most likely be a hardship.
Iota studied Emilia again before saying, “Your concern for your brother is—”
“If you mention it being okay for him to die since he’ll return to the cycle then I—”
“No, I wasn’t going to say that.” Iota frowned. “I’m not insensitive to your issues. It’s just that my issues are more pertinent.”
Emilia sent him a glare but didn’t say anything for a while. Alwin merely sighed.
After a while, Emilia whispered, “You don’t remember your previous initiations at all…”
“No, of course not.” Iota arched his brow. Realization dawned a moment after: “You encountered one of my previous initiations. Is that one of the reasons why you know so much…?”
Emilia’s hand moved to her abdomen again.
Despite the topic’s irrelevance, Iota couldn’t help but feel a bit curious. Before he could address it, however, Klaus’s voice cut through the pause of silence—
“Hello? Is someone there? Mister?”
Iota peered around the outhouse and squinted past the windy flurry. Kleine stood at the center of the field there hunched over. Only a meter or so ahead of him stood three figures: Nu, the boy fire Elementalist, and some other child Iota didn’t recognize. Hopefully the second child was not an earth Elementalist or their plan would go awry. Pushing the thought aside, Iota’s gaze became drawn to the small, whimpering body draped over Nu’s shoulder.
“Lutz…” Emilia breathed.
Nu drew nearer to Klaus as the latter pulled away. The two children behind the man kept close. As the Capricornians had expected.
“It’s alright,” Nu pressed, trying to peer at Klaus’s face which was hidden by his upturned collar. “Come with me. I’ll help you.”
Klaus continued to skirt away until he reached the very center of the field after which he remained stiff in place. Nu closed the distance between them, and when he was only a step away, Klaus took off in a mad dash—
Emilia slammed her gloved hands onto the ground beneath her feet, and the area immediately began to emit a warm blue glow. The glow spread to the area beneath the feet of Nu and the two children as well. The brightness seeped up from the thin layer of snow as the ground trembled. The two children looked to Nu in alarm but it was too late. The earth beneath their feet crumbled away, sending the two tumbling down into the pit. Their cries were cut into groans as a soft thud resonated up from the holes. Then came the eruptions of burning white fire and water from each pit. No earth Elementalists. Good.
Nu ran to the edge of the closest pit in alarm. Iota flicked out his glove conductor in response, sending the ten chains that Klaus had conjured and buried in the snow up and out towards Nu. The man whipped out his blade conductor immediately and slashed through three of the chains. He was not fast enough, however, and Iota managed to wrap a chain tightly around his abdomen and arms, constraining his movement. As Iota tightened the chains, Nu dropped his conductor and kicked his legs furiously until Iota bound them too. Carefully using his extra chains, Iota pried Emilia’s brother from Nu’s shoulder and set him on the ground. Then, he quickly proceeded to wrap the chains around Nu’s open mouth, preventing the man from biting off his tongue like he’d done so many times before.
And then—that was it. Plan completed.
Iota shot up in both alarm and amazement before flicking his wrist and bringing Nu close to him. He studied the man’s face, took in the man’s half-glower, before turning towards Emilia in slight awe. To have spent so long trying to capture this person and now to have them wrapped up so easily?
Paying no attention to Nu, Emilia ran forward towards Lutz who was staggering up from the ground. She wrapped her arms around the boy’s body. Trembling, the boy returned the gesture and enveloped Emilia in a vice-like embrace.
Iota watched them with a frown as a faint memory tickled the back of his mind.
The snowstorm began to pull back as soon as Iota finished wrapping Nu up in chains. Emilia herself, Kleine, Brandt, and Iota were all now gathered behind the outhouse from earlier.
“Rho probably thinks Nu’s died and returned to their resistor, so they’ve probably left,” Iota reasoned as if the entire course of action were logical. “They don’t keep their partner’s or their own resistors on them like we do. Nothing to retrieve.”
“How many…” Emilia tried. “How many did she take?”
Iota remained silent. “As many as she thinks they need.”
Emilia’s gaze drifted to Nu—who looked like he was wrapped in a cocoon—as she held Lutz tightly in her arms. Her brother had dozed off only a moment after she’d brought him into an embrace. She’d almost lost him.
“Backup will probably come soon,” Klaus muttered, eyeing Nu and Iota with nervousness. “The ELPIS Department too…”
The ELPIS Department…
They had worked together with a terrorist—this realization finally sank in for Emilia. Alwin was still Alwin, so their countless times together in the trenches didn’t count as working together with a terrorist. Klaus had worked together with an ELPIS leader named Theta during the Week of Blindness, but apparently Theta—the man responsible for nearly sinking the Twin Cities last year—had turn coated from ELPIS, so that didn’t count either. But Iota—admittedly, Iota was different from how they’d been when Emilia had encountered them on that train to the capital. The manic insanity in their eyes from that night had become with a cool suaveness and maybe even a touch of flamboyance. Still, the snake tattoo on Iota’s hand was unignorable. It didn’t matter their intention—whether cruel or righteous—ELPIS had torn people’s lives apart.
But maybe she had too.
Emilia pulled Lutz closer to herself and brushed some of the snow out of his hair.
“You’re taking Nu with you, Iota?” Alwin asked after a beat as he glanced at Nu’s chain prison.
Iota scrutinized him. “Of course. That’s why we worked together. If you’re suggesting that I hand him over to them, then—”
“—Take me with you too, Iota.”
Iota looked up sharply, while Kleine startled visibly. Emilia stared at him in confusion as her heart skipped a beat. The wind howled.
Slowly, Iota drew, “Through Theta’s gates? Back to Lamendos? Back to Gamma?”
Alwin nodded with a half shrug. “What else would I mean?”
Klaus stiffened. “What…? What are you saying, Brandt—”
“My fiancé is being put in danger because of me while I’m just sitting out here doing nothing and acting as a bargaining piece for the captain,” Klaus snapped with a grimace. “Even before everything in the capital…” Seeming to notice Iota’s arched brow, he explained slowly, “There was an… incident in the capital of Capricorn involving Scorpio… We ended up facing off against him. It’s a long story, but…”
Iota’s cheeks—oddly enough—flushed momentarily. “So you encountered Scorpio…” He cleared his throat and looked Klaus up and down. “As long as he hasn’t planted any of his spores on you, then I don’t have any objections. I can’t say Gamma would be happy to see you initiated improperly. I’m sure if you still had some vitae left, he’d kill you and reinitiate you in a heartbeat, but—”
“Wait, wait, wait—” Klaus stepped forward, hands raised. “What are you saying—”
“Klaus, I need you to conjure me…” Brandt leaned over and whispered into the man’s ear.
Klaus somehow went even paler. “I can’t conjure something that’s living—”
Alwin pulled back, eyes hardening eerily, “And do you consider that something living, Klaus?” When Klaus frowned, he shook his head and cleared his throat. “I… I’ll show you what I mean.”
Emilia stepped forward. “What’s going on?”
“He wants me to conjure him a body double,” Klaus answered, “of himself.”
She looked between the two men in confusion before the puzzle pieces finally fit together. “You’re going to fake your death and go with…?”
“I can’t just sit around here and do nothing anymore. Not after what happened in the capital and now even here,” Alwin drew slowly. “And obviously if they know that I’ve run away, they’re going to use my fiancé against me or—worse— hurt her. I can’t have that.” He gestured around the area and then towards the pillar of smoke still rising in the distance. “This is the perfect opportunity. The perfect cover.”
“But your fiancé…” Emilia whispered. “If she thinks that you…”
Brandt’s face contorted briefly, and Iota’s frown was clearly visible.
“I can’t indulge myself at the cost of other people, Emilia,” he finally said. “Not anymore. So… Klaus—”
“Wait…” Klaus interjected abruptly, gaze glued to the snow. He fidgeted with his glasses. “I… think I feel the same.” His gaze flitted between them all. “Just sitting out here with my parents on a noose and being on a noose myself…”
“But you’re going with a—” Emilia’s voice caught in her throat as she locked eyes with Iota.
“I-I know, Emilia,” Klaus stammered. “And it feels gross, but…” He locked eyes with her. “It’s… I think it’s the best option now.” He held her gaze—in askance.
“I…” Emilia took a step back and tightened her grip on Lutz. “I can’t… I’ll keep quiet but I can’t come too. I can’t leave them.”
Iota’s eyes narrowed at her. “If Scorpio decides to interrogate her about your supposed deaths and implants a spore in her, then all of this ‘planning’ will be for nothing. I suggest you—”
“It’s fine,” Alwin said, lifting a hand. “Really.”
“I’m sorry…” Emilia mumbled.
Alwin merely spread his arms and offered a smile. Emilia went to him immediately, and they held each other for a moment. She turned to Klaus then; and only after flushing slightly did he return her offer for an embrace.
Afterwards, they concocted a story: the three of them had gone to try to retrieve Emilia’s brother from Nu but Klaus and Alwin had perished in combat during the operation. A seamless tale. And so, once the ending to that tale was written, without even an exchange of goodbyes—an action considered bad fortune on the field—Emilia turned away from them and proceeded through the snowy field alone with Lutz.
A selfish choice, she thought as she headed towards the mess hall almost blindly in the whiteness. Courage, heart, loyalty, glory, victory, and honor. These Capricornian ideals were figments—or so she’d learned during the Week of Blindness. There was no glory, no victory, no honor, no heart, so her actions were… understandable.
Right. There was nothing. Only puppets and pawns and the invisible hand—
The mess hall loomed ahead of her now—bright with lights and with hushed chatter seeping out from its cracks. She could also make out two guards posted at the doorstep—both, dozing despite everything that was happening. Chlorowheat, most likely. The lack of care still irked her despite the fact that the danger was long gone. Didn’t they have any sense of responsibility, heart, honor, or duty? No courage or loyalty…?
Emilia stopped in place as the ghostly whispers of Iota’s clink, clink, clinking chains whispered in her ears and the memory of that night on the train bled into her mind. How could she forget it: the burning and intense determination that boiled in her stomach as she’d reached a resolution—
Right. There was still loyalty and courage, wasn’t there? Yes, there was. Even in this situation.
Heart hammering, ears roaring, Emilia slipped between the guards and gently set Lutz down on the front porch of the mess hall. She roughly shook the nearest guard and immediately tucked around the building. The guard stirred a second after, stared at Lutz for a beat, before leaping up to a stand.
“What the…?!” He immediately swept Lutz in his arms and darted inside the mess hall.
After a beat of silence, Emilia could hear hysterical shouting coming from within:
“Saints! He was just laying out there in the cold—”
“T-That’s my brother!” Anna. “My brother! My brother! My sister?”
“Where’s Emilia?” Armin. “She was supposed to be with him—”
Emilia then peeled away from the building and headed back into the lessening snow. Nausea boiled in her stock, and tears stung her cheeks as her mind buzzed.
Her siblings would cry, she knew. Her parents would grieve and blame and hate themselves. Just like Otto’s parents did. The others—the captain, Lieutenant Wolf, maybe even Fischer and Stein—would probably blame themselves too for not being out here. She wasn’t prideful enough to think that she was the centerpiece of their lives, but she knew that she fitted in as some piece of their world.
It hurt. Having them think that she was gone—that she was no longer there to comfort, talk, or be there for them—hurt. It almost made her wish that they could forget her instead. But—as Cadence said all the time over the phone—the more tears that were shed, the more believable it was.
By the time Emilia made it back to the three men behind the outhouse, Klaus had already conjured two humanoid-shaped piles of a gray meat-like substances. They looked monstrous in the dark and were tucked onto the ground right beside the side of the building. If those things had a smell, Emilia imagined it would be awful.
At her arrival, Iota, Klaus, and Alwin turned simultaneously. While Klaus startled in surprise, Alwin merely gave her a curt nod and Iota a brief glance.
“I’m sorry, Klaus.” Emilia chuckled sheepishly. “Would you mind conjuring one for me too…?”
Klaus’s lips drew into a tight smile before he moved to fulfill her request. Once three humanoid-shaped piles of meat were stacked against the side of the building, Klaus conjured a match stick and some tinder which Iota promptly sparked into flame with a strike of his chains. The embers fell onto the lumps of meat, and they erupted into a blaze a few moments afterwards in the quiet of night and snow. The heat warmed Emilia’s face, and she briefly closed her eyes.
Brandt let out a sigh and then said—
“From here on out Alwin Brandt, Emilia Bergmann, and Klaus Kleine are dead.”
A/N: I was going to post the poll results from two weeks ago in a separate google doc but that would take too much time and i wanted to get this chapter out now. Sorry for its tardiness.
TDLR updates are now switching to saturdays with the next one being next saturday not this saturday because I need to focus on some school, exercise, and work things that i’ve been putting off to write this accursed chapter. please be nice/forgiving to me & thank you for reading ^^