16.2: Private, 0405 No Honor

Re-cap:
The baton has been passed. Cadence Morello is stuck in an override over Werner Waltz and is trapped in the enemy country of Argo along with Werner’s unit, Werner’s captain, Marionette Engel, and a group of familiar Aquarians. Confronted by Captain Weingartner who has his own interests in True Conductors, Cadence unveils the truth and lays down a threat before the ones who serve in Werner’s unit.

Stuck at the threshold between life and death, Werner must excise the intruder that has invaded him but is swallowed by a memory of the past involving his family. Shion appears at the last moment and pulls him out, but…


Keine Ehre » No honor noted at 0405 hours

Argo

Private Wilhelm Fischer always wanted to be somebody. Anybody. He wanted to be more than his grandfather who fished day-in and day-out with a lame leg that ached every morning. He wanted to be more than his grandmother who toiled away at the bakery reading customers’ lips and because she’d lost her hearing in the Reservoir War. The two always praised him. Whether he was average or not, they always showered him with praises: “that’s our boy” or “we’re so proud!” Wilhelm hated it. What was the point? He was average.

He’d pushed himself in his classes as hard as he could, scrambled fruitlessly to graduate at the top of his class. All he had to show for it was a slightly above average class-ranking and a flimsy piece of paper. Still, his graduation ceremony from the military academy had been one of the happiest days of his life. He had been shortly after offered a position as a drill instructor for a middle-tier military academy in his hometown because he ‘could inspire dedication.’ But he’d declined and instead selected to serve in the Border Force.

And then for once, as the news of his decision reached his grandparents, neither of them had any words of praise waiting. All they’d said was, “How could you? After what happened to your parents? What’s wrong with you?”

Wilhelm had convinced himself their words were a badge of honor. He’d left cowardice and normalcy and bureaucracy behind in favor of serving his country as true Capricornian. Just like the war heroes defending Capricorn at the very beginning of the Reservoir War.

But when Wilhelm saw his first battle, he’d cowered in fear as his first operation went south. He’d been part of a unit intended to make one of the first breaches into the Argoan trench. Halfway there, they’d been ambushed and their commander had been shot straight through the skull. Even the Transmutationists couldn’t do anything for him. 

Cowering behind a fallen tree, he’d hugged his melee, axe conductor like it was a lifeline. He wasn’t alone. More than half of the unit members had joined just two weeks prior, and this was their first battle too. There had been a young man huddled to Wilhelm’s right clutching a conducting-rifle. Trembling, Wilhelm had locked eyes with that man’s ice-blue gaze and saw his own terror and the terror of those around him reflected there. 

A boom had resounded, signaling the end; and Wilhelm had squeezed his eyes shut and had thought of his grandparents—

“Formation-45.”

The young private who had been cowering just beside him suddenly peeled out from behind cover and fired off two vitae rays before ducking down again. The agonized screams following this indicated that the private had hit his targets square on. His eyes had become sharp, calculating, focused, ready. Just what everyone had been looking for. Without hesitation, he’d continued forward, shouting orders, signaling them all to get into formation, all while firing off his rifle conductor with pristine accuracy. It had been all very rudimentary—his orders and directions. Word-for-word of what had been taught in the Advanced Military Tactics class at the academy, but again, it had been what was needed. And together with him at command, they’d held position until reinforcements came. 

Wilhelm would later learn that the private’s name was Werner Waltz. And Wilhelm aspired to become just like him, especially after Waltz was promoted to Lance Corporal shortly after. Of course, admiring Werner Waltz was paired with being at the brunt of Gilbert Wolff’s abrasiveness, but Wilhelm was fine with that. As long as he had a goal to shoot for, he could accomplish anything.

But the promotions never came. Those who entered his unit after him climbed up the ladder faster than he did. There were always rumors about conducting-type playing a large role in ranking-up but Wilhelm didn’t believe it because that would mean that his dedication meant nothing. Besides, if Waltz could be promoted despite being a Projector, so could he.

In fact, recently, the lieutenant had commended his dedication, saying something along the lines of, “I always thought this, but I feel like it needs to be said. Your dedication is not unnoticed.”

But now after everything had been laid out in the open the previous night, Wilhelm began to doubt whether those words had been the lieutenant’s. 

True Conductors—among them Fritz von Spiel and the lieutenant himself—who were linked in memory, thought, and feeling across Signum. Overrides that allowed one of the linked to take control over the other and somehow allowed an exchange of conducting-type—Captain Weingartner had shown both extreme interest and concern at this. The truth held in the Anima-Vitae hypothesis. ELPIS and resistors. And Ophiuchus’s ELPIS Department who were actively searching for True Conductors. And finally, there were the deals Capricorn made with the crime organization that Cadence Morello, the person who currently held the reigns of the override, was frequently employed by.

It sounded ridiculous. It was more likely that the lieutenant had lost his mind, but Wilhelm didn’t like thinking about that.

“A lie sounds more likely than the truth,” had been Cadence’s response.

Wilhelm didn’t trust her. She had to be lying. If not, why would Lieutenant Waltz keep this entire ordeal a secret? Maybe the lieutenant was working in tandem with the Capricornian government and using this condition to his advantage—Wilhelm’s first and hopeful thought. But then Cadence had made open threats with ease: inform the higher officials of any of this and she would readily tie them down with their own past mistakes. 

Just who did she think she was? She might’ve thought that she had something on him like the others, but she had nothing on his loyalty to Capricorn. He would do what needed to be done—even if he had no clue what was going on. 

“Gil and Nico told me that the person here before me said to not use conductors and to look out for a man? Looks like we got half of that part down,” Cadence had concluded that night, taking the reins with nonchalance. “But let’s take it one step at a time and get out of this hell hole first. Deal? At least until we figure out why the dear lieutenant won’t come to the phone right now.”

And everyone had just accepted it. Like it was nothing. Wilhelm couldn’t tell if it was out of fear of the threats, lack of belief, or something else. 

And now here Wilhelm was walking alongside Aquarians hand-in-hand. The forest grew thick around them, the sky an irritating gray and the ground a mess of leaf and dirt. There was a morning chill in the air. That aside—

“Do you need me to carry anything, Sigurd?”

Wilhelm looked up to find his first lieutenant pacing beside one of the Aquarian soldiers. Said Aquarian had a natural, rugged charm about her—the kind of charm Wilhelm figured Stein would jump on top of it. But Stein was keeping his distance and walking right alongside Wilhelm himself. Occasionally, Stein would throw furtive looks in Cadence’s direction. 

“I’m not carrying anything,” Sigurd responded curtly, increasing her pace.

Cadence matched it a second later and whispered into her ear.

When Captain Weingartner had thoroughly drilled Cadence the previous night about why she had seemed to show camaraderie to Engel during their imprisonment, the conversation had gone something like this:

“Why were you being friendly with Engel?”

“I wasn’t being friendly with her—”

“You placed a hand on her shoulder and kept her away from our confrontation.”

“Are you serious…?”

“Answer me—”

“Saints. Because she was pretty, alright? And you were being too harsh. When I see a pretty, passionate woman who’s getting bullied, I can’t help but be the gallant knight in shining armor. Haven’t you heard of chivalry?”

It had been pathetic. Plainly put, Cadence was a damned womanizer, and Wilhelm loathed womanizers. To even coddle the enemy…

Sigurd merely quickened her pace again. Cadence didn’t move to pursue her and instead fell back into step with Fabrizzio. Nico Fabrizzio. 

Wilhelm had more or less grown to respect the man for his quick-thinking during tight situations on the field. Turned out it wasn’t so much as quick-thinking as dirty-thinking—learned from his time as an underground doctor and from acting as a liaison between Capricorn and a crime family. Wilhelm doubted Nico’s trustworthiness since the medic was associated with people who’d sold conductors to Argo.

On the other hand, Capricorn taking weapons from underground deals was sensible. Even with the inverse law between reservoirs and conductors put in place by Ophiuchus, Capricorn still didn’t have enough conductors. And the ones that they did have weren’t always good enough. It was all justifiable. 

Even the Aquarians did it. One of the Aquarians most closely associated with it was even here.

Said Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer was walking alongside Captain Weingartner ahead of him. Weingartner had shown his own betrayal to Capricorn by keeping his awareness regarding falsified reports on the Twin Cities incident quiet. And according to the swindler, he’d also done something warranting a Manipulator to be placed on him. 

A step away, Second Lieutenant Wolff, Kleine, Bergmann, and Brandt were boxed in around Heimler and Engel. Friedhelm Heimler—a sniveling traitor. Joining some crackshot “peace” movement just because he was too afraid to serve. A coward. The four circling him weren’t that much better, falsifying reports over the incident in the Twin Cities and not disclosing they were aware of the Capricornian deal.

Traitors. They were everywhere. The only other soldier to the unit present—mentally—who seemed to hold some bit of respect and loyalty to their country was Brandt. But according to Cadence, he wasn’t all clean either. 

Wilhelm glanced at Stein who yawned and rubbed his eyes. The man was still a friend in Wilhelm’s eyes but friendship didn’t save him from treasonous charges. Still, it was strange how indifferent Stein was to everything. Wilhelm wondered if something happened in the Twin Cities between them all that caused them to be so nonchalant about the entire ordeal. 

As if to answer Wilhelm’s wondering, Stein suddenly approached Cadence. “Hey, teach me how you do that.”

Cadence turned. “That, Stein?”

Stein stiffened slightly. “How you stole back the pocket watch and Bergmann’s cigarettes. Without any of those groans noticing. Was that your transmuting?”

“Are you referring to my proto-conductor?” Cadence corrected with a lie as she subtly eyed the Aquarian group clustered just a step ahead of them. She flexed her gloved hands, the impression of her rings faintly visible below them. She placed a hand on Stein’s arm. “It has nothing to do with it. It’s misdirection, Stein.”

“Misdirection?”

Cadence nodded. “People pay very little attention to their surroundings. Even with effort, attention is minimal.” She held out her gloved hand. Resting on her palm was a lighter. His lighter.

Stein took his lighter back from her and grunted. Nico sighed from beside Cadence almost out of exasperation. 

“How about you, Fabrizzio?” Stein asked. “Anything to show?”

One of the Aquarians—Nikita Knovak—peeled away from the other Aquarian he’d been walking with and fell into step beside Cadence and Stein.

“Makes sense that Capricornian know how pickpocket. You all sneaky ‘cause can’t fight.”

“What did you say, Aquarian?” Stein glowered, shoving him to the side. “Last time I recall, you were lying in that hospital bed and our prisoner.”

“And I remember I have fight for you against your crazy major,” Knovak bit back, dusting off his shoulder. “I never receive thank you for that.”

Wilhelm realized he was referring to Major Ersatz who had—according to the Geminian—been initiated into ELPIS through use of a resistor. Wilhelm had admired him too.

Before Stein could retort, Cadence interjected in Capricornian: “Listen, Derik, you should play it smart before playing it rough. Let it go.”

“I’m not playing anything.” Derik sneered back in his native tongue.

“Right, right,” Cadence assuaged. “You’re in it to win it. But the thing is winning isn’t all about muscles—”

“You say that it’s brains and I’ll punch you.” Stein spat on the ground. “You’re not actually the lieutenant.” 

“No, it’s about satisfaction,” Cadence corrected, nonplussed. “Going back-and-forth isn’t fun unless you’re a masochist. Victories are subtle.” She continued in Common as she nodded at Knovak: “You dislike Argoans, Stein, which is understandable. He dislikes Argoans. Rather than discussing your dislike towards each other, it would be more efficient to foster your dislike towards the Argoans. We will be working together for the time being, so we should be amicable.”

It made Wilhelm’s skin crawl—how this swindler could mimic the lieutenant so well. Cadence had said something like “preserving at least some of the dear lieutenant’s dignity” and “keeping things under wraps as best as we can.”

“You still crazy, Capricornian,” Knovak muttered before smirking. “Good.” His gaze flicked to Nico. “And you. Always switch sides, doctor. Never work out, huh?”

***

After another two hours of walking, the two captains stopped to discuss the statistics regarding their location and their destination. They had been heading in the direction opposite of the setting sun since they had all recalled facing the setting sun when they had been led into this country. The idea was to keep walking until they eventually reached the border—Capricornian or Aquarian, it didn’t matter. 

Just as they were about to start the briefing, a rumbling snaked its way through the thin overgrowth around them. A quiet sputtering. The ground vibrated. A v-ehicle. No. A vehicle. Both captains tensed and signaled for them all to remain still. 

“Captain,” Cadence stated calmly, “I will investigate.”

Instead of abiding by the order like they all did, Cadence darted forward towards the sound, followed shortly after by Nico.

Waltz!” Weingartner called out. “What are you—”

Gilbert swore under his breath and chased after her only for her to disappear in a shimmer of copper. He ducked down immediately as he reached the lip of the woods and pulled Nico down with him. Gilbert shimmied forward, peeking up above the thrushes towards the rumbling sound before signaling them all forward. After sharing a look, Weingartner and Kramer nodded, and they crept forward as a unit.

As Wilhelm reached Gilbert’s and Nico’s side, Cadence appeared just in front of him in a burst of light and jerked her head towards the bushes. Wilhelm jumped back in surprise, still unnerved by the sight of the conducting, before peering through the greens along with the others. Just beyond the leaves, a strip of asphalt road extended from a tunnel down to a winding hill. Every so often, a vehicle would roll steadily on by. They didn’t look military-grade.

“Civilians,” Cadence provided, unbuttoning her uniform shirt and sliding it off. The blouse beneath it was spotless. She plucked off the medals adorning the uniform, pulled out the pocket watch, and studied them all for a moment before slipping them into her pants pocket. After side glancing at the group, she neatly folded the uniform before setting it aside. She whipped off her cap next, tossing it onto the uniform. “Captain, my suggestion is that we disguise ourselves as civilians and convince one of the drivers to transport us.”

“To the border?” Weingartner frowned and then seemed to let out a sigh. Not unkindly. “Waltz, I doubt that any non-serving Argoans would be allowed to make it to that point. Even if that’s the case, the chance of being reported—”

“Not to the border. To Stonbo,” Cadence clarified. “The city that the Argoan mentioned.”

“And what do you suggest we do there, Lieutenant Waltz?” Kramer pressed. 

“I was speaking with Fabrizzio earlier. As you’re both aware, his situation is special.” She glanced at Nico crouched beside her. A wordless conversation. “There’s an organization there that doesn’t serve beneath the government directly. They specialize in shipping things into Argo from Signum below the radar. The reverse is possible.”

“Smugglers,” Kramer realized, gaze narrowing. “You want us to go deeper into enemy territory to try to get out of it? Work with an enemy organization? That’s insane.”

“You could call my actions back at the Aquarian-Capricornian the same, Captain Kramer,” Cadence replied. “But we can both agree that the end result begged much to differ. As long as we remain covert and don’t draw attention to ourselves, they won’t notice. Even the most attentive person tends to be too self-absorbed to fully notice their surroundings—at least not until it’s too late… Although I don’t believe in chance, this may be the closest chance we have to escaping Argo without conflict and with minimal casualties and with the shortest time frame.”

A long stretch of silence passed. Ten vehicles passed by on the road.

Eventually, Kramer pinched the bridge of her nose and nodded.

“Go on, Waltz,” Weingartner urged.

Cadence continued, “It’ll be too suspicious if we’re all out on the road initially. With your permission, I will go out solo and give a signal for when I believe it’s safe for all of us to reveal ourselves. I will be taking on an alternate persona as a facade to blend in more effectively, so I ask that you play along with me.”

“Are you kidding me?!” Wilhelm snapped, unable to contain his indignation any longer. “With all due respect—you’re suggesting we work with the same Argoan smugglers who’ve been smuggling conductors to those damned groans?!”

“Fischer, stand down.” —Wilhelm stiffened at the lieutenant’s voice— “Keep check of your emotions. You can’t allow them to dictate your actions. I understand we’re under a situation of duress but we can’t put aside opportunities when they present themselves.”

Wilhelm stammered, “Sorry, sir—” 

Wait. Damn.

Wilhelm shut his mouth and narrowed his eyes at Cadence who simply held his gaze for a moment before turning back to the captains.

“You should take off your uniforms too,” she said.

“Right. Everyone. Uniforms off.”

It was painful stripping off the uniform that Wilhelm had cherished and taken care of for months. Compared to their older uniforms, these ones had been light-weight and more suitable for trench weather. They’d been given to only a select few units. It had been an honor to receive them and so it was a disgrace to toss them aside. 

Bergmann and Kleine seemed to be as hesitant as he was, peeling off their sweat-drenched and mud-caked uniforms slowly and plucking off their medals reverently before storing them in their pockets. Stein, Heimler, Engel, and Gilbert whipped theirs off without care. The Aquarians fared similarly, Sigurd and Knovak shedding off their uniform with ease while Kramer and the other Aquarian did with hesitation. As they stripped, Cadence ran her fingers through the lieutenant’s hair causing blonde strands to fall into her eyes. 

Then, they waited. Several vehicles passed by in clusters, but Cadence didn’t make a move for them. Probably because there were too many of them at once.

Eventually, a single vehicle with an empty, wooden trailer attached to its back came sputtering out from the tunnel down the road towards them. Letting out a breath, Cadence peeled out from the shrubberies and began to wave her hands wildly in the air. The vehicle pulled to the side in front of Cadence. The passenger side window squeaked downwards. An older man with a balding head sat at the wheel with a disgruntled expression.

“Thank you!” Cadence panted in Common. “You’re the only one that’s stopped by for us in the past four hours!”

“The hell are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” the man grumbled.

Cadence chuckled and thumbed back towards them in the woods. “My friends and I were having a party back in Stonbo, and they dropped. Part of a hazing type deal.”

Nico peeled out immediately from the woods waving a hand. “Someone finally stopped? Thank you so much, sir!”

Gilbert exchanged a look with Captain Weingartner who then exchanged a silent conversation with Captain Kramer. Collectively, they filtered out of the forest together.

The old man glanced at them as they emerged, expression folding with wariness. “…You’re in-between Cyril and Streighem.”

Cadence pulled back and scratched the back of her head. “You’re kidding me…”

A head popped out from the back-passenger seat. “My goodness! I thought I was seeing things but—is that the Cadence?”

Cadence squinted into the darkness and hesitated for only a split-second before throwing her hands up in the air and beaming. “It’s Hideyoshi!”

The man—Hideyoshi, apparently—at the back scrambled out into the passenger’s seat and nearly leapt out the window to shake Cadence’s hand. “It’s so good to see you, my friend! It’s been so long!”

The man was clearly of Sagittarian descent with smiling dark eyes and dark hair that was combed back into a ponytail. He was dressed oddly, wearing a suit-and-tie with a woolen coat thrown over it.

Relaxing somewhat, the old man at the wheel looked between them. “You two know each other?

“Of course!” The Sagittarian gushed. “We met back in Gemini! Cadence here saved my dear life!” He scratched his head. “Some strange things happened there, didn’t they? Well, no matter—” He paused, squinting down at her. “Why are you in that outfit again? Your red hair is so lovely—”

Cadence barked out a laugh and slapped Hideyoshi on the shoulder. “Are you on about that night again?” She jerked a thumb at him. “You’ve probably heard him talk a lot about his adventures, haven’t you?”

Wilhelm had no idea what the hell was going on. The only person who didn’t look even mildly confused was Gilbert. 

“Well, I don’t have a problem with Geminians despite all the trade restrictions. Crazy tourists coming during wartime is good for business.” The old man glanced back at them again. “It’s just those damn Capricornians and Aquarians.”

“You think you have a problem with them?” Cadence mused. “Back when I was in Gemini, I couldn’t even get away from ‘em. They’re everywhere in Signum. We’re Argoans by the way. Just went to the Twin Cities on vacation.

Wilhelm bristled, bit the inside of his mouth, and remained silent. The disrespect… He was surprised by a hand on the shoulder by Cadence, however, and the woman offered him a sympathetic look before turning back to the Sagittarian: 

 “Anyway, Hideyoshi, gotta ask, how and where’s your better half?”

“Oh, my dear, Cadence. The capital!” Hideyoshi exclaimed, before rubbing his eyes. “It’s terrible. People are beating each other with signs there! I thought it was some cultural sport at first, but I was a fool!” He pulled back and stroked his chin. “Although, I was able to see some peacekeepers, a saint candidate, and a guild master there! Such an exciting place!”

Cadence’s smile dipped slightly. 

 Hideyoshi blinked. “Wait, did I ever tell you about Louise?”

The old man interjected with a cough. “So, what are you folks doing out here?”

“University vacation,” Cadence explained, waving Hideyoshi off. “We may not look like it, but we’re actually students at the—well, take a guess!”

The man thrummed his fingers on the wheel. “Slemings.”

“Think higher.”

The man paused. “Elysian University?”

“Bingo!” Cadence snapped her fingers.

Hideyoshi gasped. “I didn’t know you went to an esteemed university, Cadence!”

“There’s a lot that you don’t know about me, Hide.”

The old man’s brows shot up. “Really now?” He looked them up and down again as if re-evaluating their worth. 

“I’m studyin’ medicine,” Nico interjected with a frighteningly friendly smile. “I’ve got two more years t’go.”

“Makes sense for how you got to visit those Twin Cities if you can afford to go to a place like that…” The old man stroked his chin before glancing behind Wilhelm where Marionette squirmed in her human prison between Stein and Bergmann. “Is everything alright, miss?”

After receiving a nudge from Stein, Marionette lifted her head. “Everything is fine.”

Cadence waved her hand in the air. “Anyway, I was hoping that we might catch a ride with you?”

The man thrummed his fingers on the wheel in thought. 

“I’ll pay. What do you charge?”

The man grunted. “Depends on where you want to go.”

“To Stonbo.”

The man grunted again. “Ten. For each person.”

Cadence reached into her pocket and pulled out a wallet. Werner’s wallet. As she began rifling through it, she nodded at the back of the man’s vehicle. “That’s a lot of empty space. Did you just make a delivery?”

 As the man glanced backwards, Cadence activated her conductor and wrapped her fingers around one of the marks inside. Copper light shimmied over it, changing the grayish mark imprinted with the Kaiser’s face into a bright blue slip with the number ‘500’ slapped front and center. Transmutation of currency. A universal law in Signum—broken without a care in the world.

 The old man turned back to them. “Yeah, I just dropped off something in Cyril. Work as a carrier.”

“That’s pretty amazing—seeing the entire world for a living. Wait, do you have change?” She flipped through the wallet and pulled out the transmuted bill.

The old man ogled the bill before quickly digging into his glove compartment and pulling out a mess of Argoan bills. He counted them and held out both hands—one empty, the other piled on with the cash.

Cadence dropped her Argoan bill into the man’s hand, plucked the man’s wad of cash from his hand, and shoved about twenty bills into her pocket before handing the rest of the bills back to the man. “You keep the rest of the change. Think of it as a tip.”

Biting down a smile, the old man jerked his head to the back of the vehicle. “Get in.” 

Cadence popped into the passenger seat, while Nico loaded into the backseat of the vehicle beside Hideyoshi and was joined by Gilbert. This left Wilhelm and the others no choice but to load onto the trailer.

The disrespect for superiors was aggravating, but Wilhelm swallowed his words and took his seat. The back window of the vehicle was wide open so he could easily overhear the discussions going on inside the vehicle. 

And…

Cadence Morello. Wouldn’t. Stop. Talking

The worst part was that the Argoan driver was eating it all up. Even if he was a dirty groan, Wilhelm still felt bad for him. Being told lies like “I’ll put in a good word for you at my dad’s company” and “they’re really looking for drivers,’ and “wow, it’s impressive that you’re able to keep on the road for so long”—it reminded Wilhelm of his own grandparents’ empty praises. Nico fed into the charade, offering occasional compliments here and there. They worked like a well-oiled team.

Cadence was still talking when the city lights of Stonbo began to shine on the horizon. It was a lot brighter than the v-lights of Die Hauptstadt but also less sharp. Wilhelm still remembered his lessons back in primary school about energy sources outside of Signum:

Countries beyond Signum still hadn’t moved beyond using an archaic source of energy that ate away at and polluted their environment. It was also unsustainable and was not able to power as much per unit of energy as vitae particles did. That was why, his teachers had said back then, it was good to conserve vitae in reservoirs when possible since they were blessed with being born in Signum—no, in Capricorn—where they naturally formed. This lesson had been shortly, ironically followed by a military declaration from the Kaiser stating that the levels of the singular vitae reservoir of the country were extremely low.

After this and following the orders of an official military mandate, Wilhelm’s village was required to cycle the use of their conductor generator two times a day for half-an-hour increments to preserve it until the reservoir was replenished naturally. It was all sensible though. A little bit of sacrifice for the whole of the country. Civilians still had duties.

But seeing the number of Argoan civilians dotting the sidewalks increase as the vehicle drew deeper into the city gave Wilhelm a sense of odd discomfort. So did the buildings and street lamps. The city looked no different from the capital yet different at the same time.

“Look at all these people,” Marionette muttered. “Half of them will probably end up having to take up arms because we keep pushing them to that extent.”

Heimler remained silent beside her, merely offering a furrowed brow of sympathy.

Coward.

“They’d come at us whether or not we stop shooting at them,” Stein retorted. “Better to shoot them before they can pull out their artillery.” He nudged Kleine sitting beside him. “Ain’t that right?”

Bergmann frowned. “Stop it, Stein.” 

Stein opened his mouth but shut it a beat after. He was probably thinking about Otto.

“Or maybe they’d be willing to put their weapons down once they realize they don’t have to defend themselves anymore. Land is land, lives are lives. They’re separate, not the same.” Marionette frowned. “You paint things as ‘us’ and ‘them’ when in reality it’s our militaries putting us against each other. We’re just puppets on strings.”

“What kind of bullshit is that? You’re not even out here,” Stein scoffed, waving her off. “Not listening to you anymore. Shut up before I shoot you.”

The Aquarians across from them exchanged muted looks. It rubbed Wilhelm’s skin the wrong way. As if their country was any better with their greedy oligarchs and their constant famines in areas without reservoirs.

Eventually, the old man parked his car at a building with an overhanging plastic red roof at its front. While he and Cadence began to exchange contact information—false on Cadence’s part—the Aquarians began to load off the trailer.

“Smells like the Twin Cities,” Stein grumbled, scrunching his nose as he swung himself over the wall of the wagon onto the brick sidewalk. “Like shit. Worse than the trench.” 

Wilhelm followed him off, a bit more hesitantly. Pedestrians eyed their group as they passed by. Their laughter and conversations sounded muffled like whispering in Wilhelm’s ears like they were underwater. What were they saying? Did they see something off? 

In enemy territory. Surrounded by enemies. Far from home. 

Wilhelm’s heart hammered, and a chill crept up his spine. Something brushed against his leg causing him to startled away and reach for a ghost of a gun at his waist. When he looked down, he found a boy no older than ten blinking up at him warily. 

A spy?

A hand brushed his shoulder. 

Wilhelm turned to find the lieutenant—no, Cadence—standing behind him, eyebrows arched. Just behind her stood Nico and Gilbert. The Aquarians, the rest of the unit, and Engel were crowded in front of the building beneath the roof. While Nico and Cadence looked relaxed, everyone else too seemed on edge. 

A sputtering sound cut between the garbled whispers as the old man started up his vehicle and waved a hand out the window. The Sagittarian mimicked the gesture.

Cadence waved her hand in the air, muttering, “Not gonna be too friendly when my transmutation wears off, but Hide will handle that. Don’t understand that Hide at all though.” When she turned back to him, her expression betrayed worry.

 Wilhelm wondered why. Not like she knew him. 

“Calm down, Will,” she said. “This is a gambling city, remember? People care more about earning their fill than anything else.” Digging into her pocket, she pulled out a chocolate bar, broke off an extended piece, and handed it to the Argoan boy. 

The child took it greedily and popped it into his mouth only to make a face a second after and spit out the half-chewed piece onto the ground. “It’s bitter.”

Cadence grimaced but quickly pulled her lips into a thin line and tucked the chocolate bar back into her pocket. “You shouldn’t be wasteful.”

Weingartner approached them from behind causing the boy to stiffen and run off without another word. For a moment, Wilhelm thought he saw the captain’s face fold.

Cadence sighed. “You know, when I was younger, I ate whatever I could find. One time I swiped a melon from a traveling fruit seller. Turned out it was bitter melon from Sagittarius. But you know what? I still ate it.”

“No one forced you to eat it, Cadence,” Nico amended. “Ricardo was hosting dinner that week and invited you.”

“Well, I worked for it,” Cadence responded, eyes still locked onto the boy’s retreating figure. “Of course, I’m going to eat it. But you’ve been hanging around here so long, you’ve probably forgotten all about your cultural roots, huh?”

Nico frowned. “What’s that supposed to—”

“Well, Morello,” Weingartner drew, glancing back to where the others clustered by the sidewalk a meter away. “What’s the next step? How will we get to the smugglers?”

“Nico and I’ll search the city and get information on them,” Cadence replied.

“And what do we do?”

“Relax?” Cadence suggested, dropping three bills into the captain’s hand. “Enjoy yourself.”

“I’ll come too,” Gilbert interjected.

“No offense, Gil, but you’re not the best actor.”

“I don’t feel comfortable leaving reconnaissance to just you and Fabrizzio,” the captain agreed. “You…”

“Don’t you worry, Captain. I won’t be abandoning you.” Cadence flashed a smile. It seemed off from her usual lax grin—a bit duller. “The dear lieutenant wouldn’t let me hear the end of it if anything happened to you. Half of the others too. Cost-benefit analysis…”

 It almost sounded like she was trying to convince herself.

***

They waited in front of the building for half an hour before Cadence and Nico returned. Time moved sluggishly for Wilhelm. He’d spent the time sitting beside Stein at a cafe patio across from the building they’d arrived in front of and staring at the lights within. The lights occasionally flickered on-and-off which prompted a worker to light candles and place them around the tables.

Cadence greeted them as the lieutenant would, minus all the ingrained military procedure. She was dressed sharper now as was Nico—both in crisp suits that looked expensive. Normally Wilhelm wouldn’t question it out of habit, but now he had to restrain himself from asking how’d she gotten her hands on the clothing. 

Cadence led them down the road several blocks and through several twisting alleys, before presenting them in front of a wide building with pillars embedded into its walls. The pillars held up an engraved wooden sign bleached by a spotlight below. It read in Common, Albion Dreams.

The entryway was crowded. Dresses glitter and shining suits sparkled in the glow cast by the bleeding spotlight. The customers’ breaths fogged up the air creating a cloud of energy above their heads.

“A casino?” Weingartner inquired. 

“It’s a front,” Cadence replied, staring up at the sign. “It hides the real business underneath… ‘Albi.. on… Dreams’—fancy name.”

Nico turned to Cadence in surprise. “You can rea—”

“The owner of the smuggling ring owns this location and is fond of poker. All we need to do is get her attention.” Cadence glanced at the Aquarians and turned back to the captain. “With your permission, sir, I ask that you let me and Nico handle that affair since we’re familiar with it.”

This was ridiculous. 

But still the captain nodded and merely said, “We’ve come this far already.”

Coward. 

Wilhelm knew that Weingartner was merely going along with Cadence because she had promised to keep his daughter safe. Thinking that his daughter’s life was worth more than his dignity as a Capricornian—shameful. If the head generals learned about this…

Cadence waltzed right into the casino like she visited it every single day while Wilhelm lagged a step behind with the others. She greeted a circle of men crowded around a billiard table at the very front of the casino and put money down for one of the players. The men there exchanged glances of confusion at first before warming and inviting her to observe. Eventually, the man she’d bet her money on won the game, and she reaped the earnings before heading to the back of the casino.

How she was able to navigate the elongated tables, the swarming waiters, and the half-drunken customers amazed Wilhelm—though he didn’t admit it. She headed over to a token booth caged in by diamond-shaped bars at the back of the room, bought a handful of tokens, and seated herself at the nearest poker table. Nico followed suit a minute after, giving the captain a nod, Gilbert an arched brow, and all the others a reassuring smile. He seated himself across from her and joined the game. 

“Down draw attention to yourself,” was Weingartner’s only order.

Wilhelm awkwardly moved to observe a roulette game along the left-side wall as the others dispersed around him. Eventually, he was joined by Stein dragging along Marionette by the arm. But even with Stein’s off-handed, crass comments about the drunken man playing in front of them, Wilhelm couldn’t focus on the game. His gaze kept drifting over towards the poker table.

As the poker game over there dragged on, it drew more and more attention as players in tweedled jackets and in loose gowns became replaced with players in well-tailored suits and gem-encrusted dresses. When a crowd began to form around the tables, Wilhelm peeled away from the roulette table along with Stein and Marionette and joined the onlookers. 

It was startling to see how many tokens were piled up on Cadence’s side of the table. Opposite of her, Nico had half that amount and would occasionally wring his hands and tap his hand of cards against his palm. Gilbert had a single token but didn’t seem too disgruntled by the fact. The others at the table, however, did and sent glares in Cadence’s direction. Ignoring the looks, Cadence revealed her cards.

“Royal flush.”

One of the other players slammed his fists on the table. “You’re cheat—”

Abruptly, the crowd behind Cadence parted like a veil and a tall woman with a sharp nose stepped forward. She wore a black dress with a red train that dragged on the floor behind her. The trail of cloth reminded Wilhelm of the way streaks of blood would stain the ground when moving a body. She tapped the shoulder of the man sitting to Cadence’s right, and he quickly moved aside. After taking his place, she asked the dealer to restart the game and dropped a handful of tokens onto the table seemingly from nowhere. No one complained.

Wilhelm had never played poker before. He always spent his free time cleaning out the insulating tubes of his conductors or counting the second ticking by in his head. He’d always thought poker was a silent mental match of endurance, but the way Cadence played made it seem like something else altogether.

“Oh, are you my lucky charm or my bad luck charm?” she asked as she put several cards down.

The woman smiled, responding, “Only time will tell.”

Ten minutes into the first round and Cadence won.

“You must be quite wealthy seeing how well you play,” the woman said, batting her eyelashes over the new cards she’d been dealt.

“Oh, I know how to make money.” Cadence chuckled good-naturedly. “Just don’t know how to save it. Not really. Keep using it for useless things.”

“Well.” The woman smiled. “It’s my pleasure to let you earn and lose here at my establishment. If you’re willing to play another round with me, I might be willing to give you a discount.”

“You’re the owner?” —It was difficult to tell if Cadence’s surprise was genuine— “Well, the pleasure is mine, Miss….?”

“Mallory.”

*** 

The table played into the late hours of the night. Customers were ushered out at one in the morning—some drunk and grumbling, others excitedly cheering, and most with their head hung low. Wilhelm noticed, however, that none of the unit nor any of the Aquarians had been asked to leave. The two captains were sitting at a bar sharing a drink of all things, while the others were scattered about. It was obvious that something wasn’t right. 

But Cadence didn’t seem to notice. Throughout the entire evening, she’d been exchanging flirtatious looks with the Argoan and even went so far as to brush her leg up against the Argoan’s every so often.

It aggravated Wilhelm to no end. 

“It’s been a long time since a man’s caught my eye,” Mallory said. “I wish we could play forever.”

“I can’t say I’ve got the best luck with women.” Cadence offered a smile. “But maybe I should give it another go.”

Mallory covered a chuckle with her hand before setting her cards down and sighing. “So what are Capricornians and Aquarians doing on this side of the border?”

Wilhelm tensed. The dealers and bartenders that had once been stacking chairs around them whipped out guns from nowhere. Stein, Sigurd, and Knovak all launched themselves at the armed men closest to them and tackled them to the ground. There was a brief struggle, but after a stomp on the face from Sigurd, five punches across the jaw from Stein, and a kick in the groin from Knovak, the trio took hold of the weapons and aimed them at Mallory. 

Wilhelm lunged for the nearest bartender who was holding a pistol, but as soon as he took a step forward, a dealer standing to his right pointed a gun right in his face. Wilhelm froze in place, body tense, grimacing. If he had his conductor on him, they wouldn’t stand a chance.

“Woah, what’s with all of this violence?” Cadence’s hands were up in the air. “I thought we were batting eyelashes at each other just a second ago.”

“Your companions are the ones that attacked mine first.” Mallory shook her head. “You residents of Signum are such hypocrites.”

“You sound a lot like a friend of mine,” Cadence continued, undeterred. She threw a look back towards Weingartner: “Captain…?”

“Stand down,” Weingartner ordered. 

Kramer nodded.

Three weapons were lowered.

Mallory waved her hand in the air causing the rest of the weapons to be lowered. She then turned to Cadence and looked her up and down. “How did you hear of me?”

“Let’s just say I’m acquainted with an acquaintance of an acquaintance of someone you did good business with. It makes me very privy to this kind of information.”

Mallory hummed. “Someone from the Twin Cities then?” She eyed Nico. “And you. You must be that famous underground doctor’s son… Why are you involving yourself in a fight that’s not yours?”

Cadence merely side-glanced at Nico.

“I don’t understand you people at all.” Mallory curled a lock of hair around her finger before she shrugged. “You have peacekeepers to make sure you don’t find each other, but you do anyways. You even fight us. But hey, at least it was good for business. While it lasted at least.”

“I know, right?” Cadence chirped. “Always ready to become target practice for what? A bit of land? A bit of glory? For honor? Victory is upon us?” She looked to the side at the others, but Wilhelm couldn’t tell who specifically. “Maybe a bit of romance?”

The disrespect…

Mallory chuckled then, leaning forward across the table. “It’s the reservoirs. And the conductors… although I don’t think they’re worth all that trouble.” She was practically laying on the table now. “You on the other hand… I’m still considering it.”

“Miss Mallory,” Captain Weingartner interjected. “Given that you’re aware of who we are, it’s clear that you know what we’re looking for.”

“You’re looking for someone to transport you across the border,” Mallory concluded, pulling back. “Well, it’s good that you’ve come to me. Anywhere else and they might’ve shot you on the spot. Not so much for country but for all of their friends and families you’ve killed.”

Wilhelm grimaced. Acting like they didn’t do the same, he thought. Hypocrites. 

“It’s a shame what Capricorn has become,” Marionette agreed from the sidelines.

Saints. Wilhelm wanted to put a bullet through her. He couldn’t wait to see what the courts would do to her once they got back home. 

Cadence reached into her pocket causing all the Argoans to raise their weapons. A hand wave from Mallory, however, dissuaded them. The Geminian continued and pulled out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter from her pocket. Bergmann and Stein reached for their own pockets in surprise. Ignoring them, Cadence offered Mallory a cigarette and lit it for her. She then reached into her pocket again, this time drawing out a collection of items that she tossed onto the table. The silver and gold medals that were every Capricornians’ honor and dream clattered against the wood. Hollow, heavy, hard. 

Wilhelm startled, and he heard Bergmann gasp.

“I hear that you have a thing for military medals of Signum. Doesn’t matter if they’re pre- or post-Reservoir War.” Cadence picked up the Iron Horn and smoothed her gloved fingers over its intricate points. “You paid ten-thousand Argoan dollars for just one of these. And I bet it wasn’t the best medal. I’m offering you around—well, let’s say—maybe six of these. Highest quality, highest honor. Pretty sure that covers the transportation of at least three-fourths of this lot—”

What? How dare she…?

“—that and I’ll put in a good word for the heiress of the Romanos for you.”

Mallory threw her head back and laughed. “That princess? You think I want anything to do with the Romanos anymore? Everyone’s heard what’s happened in that city. The Campanas are through; the Romanos have become mere dogs on chains… Oh, and one of the Foxmans is out of his mind.

Cadence’s smile dipped slightly, and Nico’s brows creased.

“The Reservoir War weakened Signum. All the other countries surrounding it are just waiting for that last crack to appear so they can reap the rewards.” Mallory puffed. “The Second Reservoir War—ha, how do you feel about that?”

Stein stormed forward, teeth bared, eyes wild. Bergmann and the captain gave him a warning shout but his mind seemed set. Before he could cross that line, however, Marionette grabbed a hold of his arm and jerked him backward. He whipped around towards her with a raised fist, but she dug her nails into his arm and whispered something into his ear that caused him to stop altogether.

Cadence’s and Mallory’s conversation continued undisturbed. 

Cadence clasped her hands together. “Well, a chained dog can be more aggressive than a free one—not that I’ve ever seen one before. But what I’m saying is that the Romanos have been investing in a new resource. Not quite illegal.”

“Go on.” 

“What do you think a cross between morrowheat and sorrowheat is?”

Mallory’s brows rose. “Expensive.”

“I’ll be able to send you the details in a couple weeks. But until then…” Cadence pushed the medals forward. “Any of these catch your eye?”

Mallory twirled the cigarette in-between her fingers as she stared at the medals considering. “Hm… make it seven.”

“No problem.”

Mallory flicked off a bud of ash and narrowed her eyes. “But tell that Fortuna that if I see her face again, I’ll gouge her eyes out.”

Cadence’s smile dipped before she offered a pleasant smile. “I can only deliver the message if I’m alive… the entire package included.”

Mallory reached across the table with a pale hand and placed it over Cadence’s. “You showed me such an entertaining time. How could I—” 

Cadence suddenly shot up to a stand and ripped her hand away. Her eyes were wide, her breath heavy and shallow, her voice trembling. “W-What did you just say…?”

Mallory frowned, retracting her hand. “It was a compliment. No need to be so rude. Is this how you do business deals in your country…?”

Cadence’s gaze flicked around the room, eyes darting from bartender to dealer from Weingartner to Kramer from Stein to Sigurd. When her eyes landed on Wilhelm, Wilhelm felt static prick its way up his back. It was like she was staring right through him.

Nico rose to a stand, his movement catching her eye. She turned to him, stared into him, and then sank back down into her chair with an easy smile. It was eerie how well she was able to change her expression. Wilhelm couldn’t even tell which one was real.

Cadence reached across the table and placed a hand over Mallory’s. “Sorry about that. Your touch is just so electrifying. That’s all.” She took Mallory’s hand in hers and gave it a shake. “So, we have a deal then.”

*** 

At 200 hours, they were loaded beneath the tarp of a caravan attached to a vehicle at the back of the casino. There were no words exchanged as they situated themselves in the caravan nor were there any words exchanged when the vehicle started rolling forward. Wilhelm sat in tense silence listening to the labored breathing of the others as the vehicle bumped along the road. 

The vehicle stopped after an uncountable amount of time, and they were ushered out and greeted by a rose-colored sky lathering the horizon with pink clouds. 

The first thing that Wilhelm tasted was the familiar salt hanging heavy in the air. Paired with it was a mustiness—probably from seaweed that had been washed ashore. Seagulls cawed above their heads and circled them like vultures. Summing all of these parts together, Wilhelm concluded that they were near an ocean port.

Sure enough, they were led through a small portside town dotted with shirtless men and women wearing bandanas. The stench of fish tied up in fishnets hung up on sides of buildings and dismantled boats wasn’t overwhelming to Fischer, but he became embarrassed when Stein and Bergmann began to gag. 

“Come on. Move quickly,” the Argoan who had driven them to this place said. “I wanna go home too.”

They peeled onto the docks extending out from the town. The echo their rubber boots made against the wood brought much-unwanted nostalgia to Wilhelm. The Argoan driver led them up to and onto a steel behemoth of a boat that stretched half the length of the dock. The name of the boat that was pasted on the side was clearly in Piscese. Stolen, probably. 

After being loaded into the lower deck, they were handed a pack of cards, two packets of cigarettes, and a gallon of water in a plastic jar. A “happy sailing” was their parting gift. 

The lower deck area was small and smelled of mildew. There was a singular porthole to the side of the wall that allowed evening light to coat the tarps thrown over steel containers filling the room.

After an hour of inspecting the area, Cadence invited the Aquarians to play a card game with the rest of the unit: “My subordinates suggested a card game to pass time. Would you like to join?”—all said with a serious expression, with an even tone. Only Knovak took up the offer, with Sigurd choosing to reside quietly in the corner with the other Aquarian and with Kramer moving to discuss something with the captain behind a hanging tarp. 

They built their makeshift game table out of a stray wooden crate and used canisters of oil as chairs. They set up their game behind a stack of containers and crates by the singular porthole for light and privacy. 

Wilhelm didn’t join the game, instead choosing to watch the unit—minus Stein who was on guard over Engel—and Knovak from a close distance. It irritated Wilhelm to no end that Cadence had invited not only Knovak to play but also Heimler who hesitantly accepted the cards she dealt out. Gilbert, Kleine, Brandt, Nico, and Bergmann accepted their cards without this hesitation.

It was like she was baiting him. 

Halfway through the first round, Brandt complained he was tired and headed off to sleep. He was soon joined by Nico who exchanged a quick slew of words in Geminian with Cadence before departing. 

“Can’t believe it work,” Knovak finally said after their third round.

“Our last partnership worked,” Cadence responded. “It’s not unusual for our second one to be the same.”

“You crazy.” Knovak snorted. “You crazy, but you smart. Anyway, gotta piss.” And with that, he rose and disappeared behind the stack of containers. 

A silence fell over them as they waited for Knovak to return. 

“So, Cadence.” Berman swallowed. “You really do work for the crime organization that supplied Capricorn with…” She trailed off, peering into Cadence’s face and studying it. 

That analytic curiosity reminded Wilhelm of the way the captain had inspected Cadence on the night of the revelation. The captain had asked a series of strange questions then: how do you distinguish your thoughts from each otherhow many times have you crossed conducting-typeswhat types of memories do you experience, how long have you been in hiding from ELPIS and Ophiuchushow is Capricorn involved, and how sure are you that you’re actually you.

“You were there, Bergmann,” Cadence said, not unkindly. “I’m sorry for the city being unpleasant during your last visit. It’s usually very lively—in a good way.”

“Right…” 

“You’re very good at acting like the lieutenant…” Kleine noted, setting down his cards playing-face up. “It’s uncanny.”

“Well, we are swimming around in each other’s heads half the time.” Cadence abruptly gathered all the cards and shuffled the deck in a methodical manner reminiscent of the lieutenant—not that Wilhelm had ever seen Waltz handle cards. “It’d be weird if I didn’t know how he acted. Plus, it’s my profession. And you seem like you’d be uncomfortable if I started talkin’ ta ya all like this which is how I normally talk, doll. So I decided to continue speaking like this. I’m doing it for myself too, of course. I’m not that generous—as you’re all aware.”

The threat grated on Wilhelm’s nerves. He grimaced. “I can’t believe we have to rely on groans like this. The lieutenant would never approve of this strategy. He’s not a coward.”

“Fischer,” Gilbert warned. 

Cadence blinked at him. “Never said he was… ”

Wilhelm glanced at Gilbert, winced under his glare, but continued anyways. “People like you are dangerous. You’re a liability. You could sell out all of our secrets that the lieutenant knows just like that!” He whipped around to the others. “Can’t you see that?!”

Cadence held up a hand and offered a sympathetic smile. “Look, I understand how you feel. You’re dedicated. But let’s all just get along—”

Unable to control his irritation any longer, Wilhelm flew up to a stand and slammed his hands against the crate. The cards still resting on the table fluttered into the air. “You can’t give me orders! You’re not the person I chose to follow!” 

His words drowned in the silence that followed. 

Cadence silently reached into her pocket, pulled out a lighter, and lit herself a cigarette. The embers painted her face orange. “I get where you’re coming from, Fischer. I really do. You care about your country—”

“Exactly.” Wilhelm gritted his teeth. “Once we get back to Capricorn, I’m going to report all of this in. Not just the Augen but that the lieutenant is a True Conductor. He should’ve reported it in to begin with, but I’m guessing you people had something to do with that. You don’t scare me. You have nothing on me.”

After a beat, Cadence sighed. “Word of advice. First, don’t make obvious threats. Ya gotta be subtle. It amps up the fear. And don’t make threats when you’re threat ain’t immediately actionable. Secondly, pride is a bad investment.” She took a drag and held out her hand. Copper sparks seeped up from her gloves like smoke and danced at her fingertips before coalescing together to form a humanoid figure on her palm. “Thirdly, if ya keep people on a pedestal like that, you’ll only be disappointed. Admiration and dreams’re only mirages. The closer ya get, the more reality seeps in. ‘Course that doesn’t mean, ya shouldn’t go after ‘em. That’s what bein’ alive is all about.” 

Wilhelm shook his head. “What does that even have to do with—” 

“He trusts you.” Lowering her hand onto her playing cards, Cadence took a drag and stared out the port window. “The dear lieutenant, I mean.”

Wilhelm could feel the discomfort in the atmosphere. Cadence seemed to find home in it.

“You, Derik, ‘milia, Klaus, Alwin, the good captain,” she continued, gathering the playing cards again. “‘And of course Gilbert.” She winked at the second lieutenant before her smile dipped slightly. “And… Nico too.”

A brief spark of satisfaction beat in Wilhelm’s chest

“But he’s a cherry when it comes to things like these. Soon as you break through the initial ten meters of ice, you’re in the iron fortress for good.” Cadence hummed, shuffling the cards rapidly. “But ya see, I can see the type of persona ya are, Will. You’re lookin’ like you’re constantly searching’ for praise. Thing is, it’ll never be enough praise. Not for you. You’ll never be satisfied, so you’ll keep at it even if it hurts people—” She shrugged “—but some people are just like that. The problem is that your want’ll make my investments go kaput. And I can’t let that happen.”

Wilhelm’s heart skipped a beat as she locked eyes with him.

“I’m not the type for personal threats but I owe the guy a whole lot so I’ll tell ya this.” She held a card out to him—a joker—and then she snapped her fingers.

Copper light popped at her hands again and swallowed her body whole. When the light shattered, a chill ran down Wilhelm’s spine as he found himself face-to-face with his grandmother who then morphed into his grandfather in a flash of copper light. 

How did she know…?

“Ya said that I’m not the person you chose to follow. Dramatics aside, you’re right. I’m a Twin Cities rat through and through. Power dynamics aren’t concrete in there, ya get me? Even a rat can eat you alive.”

Wilhelm had completely forgotten about the stories he’d heard about the denizens of the Twin Cities. It had all been buried beneath the tales of endless night parties, one-night-millionaires, and romantic meetings. The truth was that the people who lived there—the crooks, thieves, criminals—used people’s lives like currency. And this person—this Cadence Morello—was the one who’d initiated the deal with Capricorn. And she was connected to people who’d been able to sneak modified conductors right under Ophiuchus’s nose for years. Dangerous

“Back in the Twin Cities, we don’t run by many laws but we’ve got a general rule of thumb. You hurt me, I hurt you. Doesn’t matter if we go blind by doin’ it. Ya get me? I may not be the type ta bury someone a meter under but I’m friends with people who do it three times a day. Don’t even need a phone call to ask ‘em ta do that.” She gestured around the circle. “I’m sure ya know this yourself, Will. Ya don’t need to be strong to make it in this world. Ya just need ta surround yourself by people who are. And all you’re doin’ is pushin’ those people away. You’re lucky ta be in this unit, like I’m lucky ta have met Nico and the Foxmans.”

Wilhelm didn’t know it was possible to feel both fear and shame at the same time.

“Anyways, the worst kinda pain ain’t the physical kind. Trust me. I know from experience.” She smiled, thin and without a care, as she shed his grandfather’s skin in a shimmer of light. “Everyone has something they don’t want to lose.”

The ship horn blew.

Cadence laid down the deck of cards, playing-face up. The joker card stared at him.

*** 

The ship docked an unknown amount of time later. They waited below deck as the thump, thump, thump and clang, clang, clang of cargomen moving around containers and crates resounded above. Eventually, a man of Piscese descent came below deck and jerked his inked-head upwards.

As soon as they stepped out onto the docks and into open, salty air and blinding dawn light, they were met with the points of conductors—melee, long-range, and all the above. Kramer stepped forward, pulling something out from her pocket and flashing it to the man with the highest number of Aquarian waves on his uniform. The man scanned the item before his eyes widened. He opened his mouth and said something in a language Wilhelm barely understood. Aquarian.

Damn. They were in Aquarius. 

After conversing with the man, Kramer turned back to them and said in Common, “I will speak with my superiors about what happened on your behalf. I will be back.” And with that, she departed behind an army of bodies and left them caged in by an army of bodies.

Kramer returned half an hour later flanked by Aquarians on her left and right. She was dressed in her uniform again, cap and all, and had even re-clipped her medals. Wilhelm’s heart hammered in his chest as her gaze swept over them. He knew that she had the advantage here. Betrayal was easy.

Hands folded behind her back, she spoke clearly, “I’ve explained the situation to my superiors stationed here. They’re willing to provide you transportation to the border, since you aided us in the escape.”

Relief lifted a weight off of Wilhelm’s shoulders, but Cadence’s words still hung heavy in his chest.

“But, because this is an entanglement between two of our countries, Ophiuchus has been notified and requested a meeting before departure. Fortunately, one of our newly-appointed liaisons to Ophiuchus is already here for a routine conductor inspection.” She nodded at Knovak and Sigurd who both looked disinterested by the unfolding events. “Knovak, Sigurd, you should both be familiar with her. She was with you during the event at the Zatmeniye Caverns.”

A woman stepped out from behind Kramer and—saints—she was a stunner. Dark locks curled around her heart-shaped face, her long dark lashes catching the faint light spilling in from between the clouds. Her red lips seemed to be the only splash of color in all the gray.

Out of the corner of his eye, Wilhelm noticed Cadence take a sudden step back and Sigurd tense.

“It’s good to see you again, Nikita, Sigurd.” The woman smiled, tucking a dark lock of hair behind her. “My name is Cvetka. Cvetka Akulova… And I promise I won’t take up too much of your time.”


Threshold

Werner Waltz squinted and held up his hand to catch the sunlight sauntering down in-between the stone pillars that rose to his left and right. Just across the grassy courtyard in front of him glowed a crimson-red flag emblazoned with a sewn-on golden ram head. 

Aries…?

Realization and memories crashed down on Werner immediately: he had been tasked to find and excise the intruder he’d allowed into himself, and yet he had somehow forgotten that purpose and had become entangled in that living memory. Unacceptable.

Something brushed against his hand—his bare hand—and he whipped around to find a young girl with wispy black hair blinking up at him past the sunrays. Lavender Chance. Her cheeks were rounder and her hair shorter than he remembered. She was younger, he concluded. Perhaps no older than five.

“Come on, Ollie,” Lavi pouted, wrapping both her hands around his upper arm. “You promised you’d show me your friends! You promised!”

What was she playing at?

Werner frowned down at her and prepared to respond but his lips started moving on their own and words tumbled out without his control— “You need to be patient, Lavi! I’ll show you after lunch! Alexander said mom and dad are going to bring sweets from Pisces!”

Olive’s voice.

This was a memory, Werner realized. And not his.

“Bingo,” came a familiar voice from behind. “It rarely happens like this, but think of it as a side story.”

Werner turned away from the pouting Lavi to find Shion standing behind him. The sunlight painted her dark hair gold, while the shadow of a pillar concealed her face in darkness.

 “You brought me here.”

Shion held up her hands. “I’m on your side. You were being pulled in too much.”

So she had seen. And that aside, to be able to do this and to come here with him indicated she was playing more of a role than she was revealing. 

Shion frowned. “Like I said, I’m on your side…” 

Lavi tugged him forward. He couldn’t resist her because Olive didn’t resist her, and together they dashed forward. They passed by a building lined with many circular windows, and Werner caught Olive’s tanned, round-faced, exasperated yet pleased face reflected there. They continued until they reached a small clearing that housed a stone water fountain with tiers crafted to resemble flames. Lavi pulled him to the edge, sank into a crouch, dug into her pocket, and threw in a handful of common-coins.

“What did you wish for?” came Olive’s question from his mouth.

“That the saint candidate ceremony goes good!” Lavi popped up into a stand.

“If you tell your wish to other people, then it won’t come true.” 

Lavi’s face fell. “Then why’d you ask?”

“It’s okay.” —Werner’s hand reached forward towards the fountain on its own— “If I take it out then it’ll reverse the reverse of the wish!” 

Just before Werner’s fingertips touched the barrier of water, he felt control over his body return to him. He pulled his hand away from the water but opuses when something in the fountain caught his eye. The tiled floor of the fountain that was filled with common-coins suddenly extended deeper and farther down, until it seemed almost bottomless. Werner peered closer but instead of finding the tiled-floor at its bottom, he found a familiar room filled with blue moonlight pouring in from a frosted glass window. A small figure stood front and center there, and before that figure stood a tall woman holding a thin, long stick.

It was as if he was looking down at the scene from a high vantage point, and it gave him a sense of vertigo. An impossible occurrence. Regardless, Werner kept his breathing even and inspected further. 

Muffled sounds rose from the scene below and bubbles escaped from the mouths of the small and tall figure. When the bubbles rose to the surface of the water and popped, Werner was able to hear the conversation released from the bubbles in full:

“You’re telling me that Frau Wolff’s son wasn’t the one who broke the window? You’re saying that it was you? You’re not lying to me, are you? To make it so that I don’t fire Frau Wolff? You know what people think about liars, Werner.”

“I was in the room. I should’ve prevented it from being broken since I was there, but I didn’t. I need to take responsibility for it.”

“…That’s right, honey. That’s so admirable. People will think you’re an amazing, responsible leader. You should hold people in the same regard.” A soft sigh resounded. “Because you know Werner—”

“Appearances are everything.”

A sharp crack resounded as the last bubble rose to the surface and popped.

Werner frowned. Something wasn’t right. This being placed here was almost like a lure—

but he had to get back. And this was an entryway to get back to the place Shion had whisked him away from.

Right. He had a task to finish.

Werner reached forward towards the water but before he could touch its surface, a hand wrapped around his wrist. He didn’t need to turn to know that it was Shion. He was jerked backwards and—

No—

—he fell back onto the ground, gravel scraping against his bare palms. Dimness suddenly surrounded him, and it took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. 

When his eyes adjusted, he found that he was no longer staring at the water fountain but at a red brick wall. The sunny sky had become replaced by heavy black clouds overhead. The air tasted of soot and salt. The Twin Cities. 

Shion was trying to deter him, Werner realized as he picked himself off the ground and scanned the area. The next question was why she was trying to deter him when she’d set him on this course initially along with Lavi.

A sniffling from his left drew his attention away. A young boy with curly dark hair and amber eyes sat on the dirty ground surrounded by a ring of groaning younger children. Gauging by the bruises purpling all of their faces and arms, it appeared as if there had been a fight.

“Are you okay, Cadence?” Nico wiped the tears from his eyes as he stumbled over and took his—rather Cadence’s—hand in his own. “Why did you do that?” 

“I’m uninjured.” Werner paused as he realized he was also able to speak freely now too. He pulled his hand away out of habit. 

“You don’t have to do that for me, Cadence.” Nico sniffled. “I can take the punches. Don’t take it for me again, or I’ll hate you forever!”

Werner swallowed a sigh and paced forward. 

Childish.

 It seemed as if this was another memory of where Cadence rescued Nico from his childhood bullies. These were things that Werner ‘remembered’ frequently, so he was not deterred by the events. Now, he just needed to find an exit—like that fountain.

“Where are you going? We should go to my dad! You’re hurt!”

“I’m fine, Nico.” Werner scanned the walls slathered over with peeling posters and stepped over glass bottles scattered over the ground. “I need you to help me find something.”

“Find something?” 

“Anything that looks out of the ordinary.”

“Out of the ordinary…” A pause. “Wait, were you trying to be like your imaginary friends again?” Nico continued just a step behind him. “Like the Capricornian or the one in the Monadic orphanage?”

Werner stopped short, turned, narrowed his eyes. Nico startled.

What…? Wasn’t this a memory? Nico was obviously referring to him and Maria despite their first synchronization not occurring until just over half a year ago. This memory was evidently from much earlier. Perhaps, this wasn’t a memory after all. Which was dangerous. 

Werner pushed the issue aside and continued forward down the alley. The important matters needed to be addressed first as much as he disliked leaving things unresolved.

“Could you talk about the book girl or the Capricornian again?” Nico continued. “They’re my favorite out of all six of ‘em.”

Werner frowned. “Nico, please focus—” He stopped short again. “Out of all the six…?”


Adhere to the Vitae Preservation Mandate of 1930.
Preserve vitae, preserve the country, serve the country!
Do your part as a fellow Capricornian! And remember to report in non-adherence!
For glory, for honor, victory is upon us at home too!

Vitae Preserverence Mandate Adherence Poster, posted by the Capricorn Chamber of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda

16.1: Captain, 0500 Insubordination

Re-cap:

An intruder has crept its way into the connection between the main six. Stuck in an override over Werner, Atienna has had to maneuver the battlefield. She accompanied Werner’s unit into unoccupied territory and discovered the Capricornian’s main camp decimated. Scattered amongst the debris, Werner’s unit had found Marionette Engel, leader of the anti-military Verbundene Augen movement sweeping across Capricorn; Henning Rath, a Capricornian soldier who shortly afterwards murdered Otto Vogt in the middle of battle; and Emil, an Argoan soldier whom Atienna treated kindly. After Otto’s death, Atienna discovered the true nature of the one who pulling the strings, while simultaneously discovering that Friedhelm Heimer—a soldier in Werner’s unit—was working together with Marionette to protest in the unoccupied territory. 

Before she can reveal anything, however, their group is captured by Argoans and taken into Argoan territory. Gilbert then witnesses a change in Atienna’s behavior and realized that Atienna may no longer be at the helm of the override. They are taken to an Argoan isolated location where they find familiar faces imprisoned with them.

Among the Aquarians captured with them are Dunya Kramer, the captain whom Maria freed during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict; Nikita Knovak, the soldier present during the border conflict and accompanying the Aquarian diplomat at Atienna’s tripartite peace meeting in the Zatenimye caverns; and a a familiar Aquarian woman. Among the Capricornians imprisoned are Werner’s Captain Weingartner and the Elementalist Emilia Bergmann.

Not soon after they are locked in their cells, Nico is carted off for unknown reasons.

Meanwhile Werner is stuck at the threshold between life and death. After learning from a mysterious peacekeeper named Shion and from Lavi who both reside there that he must excise the intruder himself. With apprehension and distrust keeping him steady, Werner succeeds in the first attempt, but…


Gehorsamsverweigerun » Insubordination documented at 500 hours

Before Volker Weingartner was captain of the 212th Division of the Border Force, he was a teacher at Vollmond Elementary. Rather, he was a professor, holding first a degree in psychology and then numerous degrees in literature ranging from Capricornian folklore to classical Signum epics and finally then a degree in military tactics. Nothing too impressive.

Of course, before he settled down into that title, he had been a first lieutenant serving in Capricorn’s joint 45th United Front against Ophiuchus during the Reservoir War. Before that, he had been employed as a primary school tutor in a small town just south of the Ophiuchian-Capricornian border. His best friend had been just across the country-boundary.

And now here he was again. A soldier.

He was used to the cyclic process: books of poetry replacing books of war and strategy; romanticized war eulogies he once admired again becoming bitter parodies; stand-up military officials becoming common political crooks; pride becoming shame.

The only thing that had changed was the attitude of the people. The younger generation had become more emblazoned, more passionate, straining the far ends of the spectrum of patriotic pride. Fiery patriotism and steadfast devotion seemed to define every other young person—whether in service or not. Weingartner didn’t blame them. Unlike him, they didn’t remember what Capricorn was like before the Reservoir War. And Capricorn had done well refining its rhetoric.

It all left a sour taste in Weingartner’s mouth, though he didn’t voice his dissent. A sin for a teacher, surely—but he had more to lose than to gain by fighting against the rigid structure of power. The military draft had become the lifeblood of the country, after all.

He’d convinced himself that all he needed to do was to serve a couple more years, and then he’d be back in the classroom and even cash in a long leave. In a couple years, perhaps the conscription and draft would be obliterated altogether. Besides, there were still things to be proud of. Capricornian conductor innovation, Capricornian perseverance and reliance on only one reservoir, Capricornian infrastructure.

Truly, it was a cyclic process.

During one of his more depressive bouts, Weingartner had even attended a Verbundene Augen meeting in the capital. He had gone in civilian clothing and had been disappointed to find Marionette Engel absent. Her absence, however, didn’t dampen the flames.

There were explosive declarations of injustices, calls to action, and self-righteous villainizations. Reduce the military. Republic! Democracy! It’s the only way. Why should we die so a wealthy man can live another day? And the usual, soldiers are trained to oppress, not protect.

It was the same as Capricornian military rhetoric but on the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of picking up arms to die for Capricorn, it was laying down arms to fight for Capricorn.

Yet despite all of his apprehension, Weingartner had anonymously donated several hundred marks to the movement that day. Now after learning from Gilbert’s debriefing that the Augen movement had been behind the massacre at his campsite, he was overcome with regret. He had heard rumors of a demonstration occurring near the border’s edge, but he had kept quiet—eager to see a semblance of change from a distance but also thinking that it would never actually unfold. But he had been a fool and so had they.

Weingartner still wasn’t certain who’d fired the first shot in that chaotic skirmish at his camp. A soldier’s identity had been questioned, another soldier had felt cornered then enraged, and yet another soldier had fired off a conductor. In reality, the details didn’t matter. In the end, Capricornians had turned their weapons on Capricornians. And that was the sign of a country falling apart.

It was the opposite of the stereotypical fall: unrest from the higher officials—Major Erwin Ersatz and Colonel Fritz von Spiel—bleeding down to unrest in the general servicemen and servicewomen instead of vice-versa.

Ersatz… had been a brilliant commander. Weingartner had the pleasure of serving under him twice, once in the Reservoir War and another time while in the Border Force. They’d developed a steadfast camaraderie despite their opposing views on Capricorn’s development. Ersatz’s nationalistic pride had even been inspiring. But it had too been his downfall.

“It’s a mess,” Ersatz had told him just a few days after they had sent Waltz off to the Aquarian-Capricornian border for negotiations. “Volkner, it’s been a mess from the very beginning. Capricorn, these reservoirs, the conductors—all of it! We’ve been played!” Voice cracking, he’d seethed. “My country is… How dare that damn Kaiser and the generals—to our Capricorn!”

The accusatory tone had alarmed Weingartner: “What are you saying, Erwin? You’re not sounding like yourself. You’re just tired—”

“Sounding like myself?” Ersatz had muttered. “Haven’t you noticed it, Volkner? I’m no longer me. I’m someone else now… I can see clearly… Volker, listen to me. If we fail, you should get yourself and your daughter out of here.”

“Fail? Fail at what? You’re not making any sense… Erwin, just tell me what’s wrong. I can help you.”

But that had just set Ersatz off: “If you want to help me—if you want to save Capricorn—then when you find a True Conductor, promise me that you’ll kill them.”

“Are you talking about the Aquarians? The Argoans—”

No!” Ersatz had fumed. “Even if they turn out to be Capricornians—even if it’s the damned Kaiser—you have to kill them. It’s the only way to prevent it. As many times as it takes.”

“Listen to yourself, Erwin. You’re just tired. You need to rest.”

“I can’t. I don’t have a choice.”

“You always have a choice, Erwin…”

Ersatz had merely laughed.

And then Ersatz had chosen ELPIS, and Weingartner had chosen to omit the conversation from his reports with growing apprehension.

Only a couple of months following this, Weingartner’s apprehension grew once more as the news of Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s betrayal trickled up to the higher-ranking officials.

Weingartner had been the colonel’s homeroom teacher back in the day—right when Vollmond Elementary was renamed Vollmond’s Primary Military Academy for the Gifted Conductors—although Weingartner doubted Fritz recalled. Fritz had always been a spoiled child and nepotism seemed to feed his arrogance, so Weingartner had been pleasantly surprised to hear the news of Fritz’s sudden personal growth and accomplishments. At least, that was until Fritz committed treason in Gemini.

Two days after, Weingartner had stumbled across a grief-stricken Martin von Spiel at the quarterly general meeting at the capitol. While the other officers were sharing drinks within the main dining hall of the Stolzrudel building, Martin had kept his distance and remained outside for the majority of the time. The officers inside had gossiped about how Martin’s military career was over—not only had he been a co-signer of the failed Watch, but he’d also chosen not to denounce his son following the events in Gemini. It was abhorrent—the gossip. Especially the gossip from those who had served in the same unit as Martin during the Reservoir War.

And so feeling a pang of empathy, Weingartner had joined him sitting at the outside stone water fountain and had offered him a glass of whiskey from inside.

“You taught Fritz back at the elementary military academy, didn’t you?” Martin queried. “He’d always had a wild imagination. His pride let him to act on it…. But he’d changed recently. He became someone I could truly say I was proud of. I even joked that he’d become a different person. He always took offense to that. Could never take a joke. Now they’re all saying he was the joke, that he shamed Capricorn. My son…”

Even now Weingartner could still clearly recall the whites of Martin’s eyes in the moonlight as he had stared ahead at nothing.

“Last time I spoke to him, he mentioned leaving. Mentioned a woman and a child. I assumed he was taking responsibility for one of his past affairs.” After a hesitant pause, Martin had continued, “He mentioned something… about a ‘True Conductor.’ He was really strange about it. Reminded me of his imaginative stories when he was younger so I thought… have you ever heard of anything about that before from him, Volkner? When hw was younger? Maybe it has to do with why he…” Martin had hung his head. “I agree that he’s a shame to Capricorn but he’s not a shame to me.”

“Let me help,” Weingartner had amended, squeezing Martin’s shoulder. “I’ll look into it.”

So, Weingartner held to both of his promises and had spent the rest of his time at the capital researching. It had felt good to oil that wheel. But there were no such records of ‘True Conductors’ in any of Capricorn’s libraries. Even after visiting the oldest libraries, even after speaking to the oldest librarians, the term remained a mystery. And so, he’d taken to researching the terms involved with the word: ‘loss of self,’ ‘personality change,’ and ‘out of character behavior.’

But there had been only one manuscript nestled in one library that had exactly what he was searching for: a single-page report from a long destitute psychiatric hospital detailing observations of a patient that had been showing unusual psychological presentations. The only reason it had even been in that library to begin with—or so the librarian had said—was because a peacekeeping agent named Jin had requested it from the institute before it had been dismantled. But Jin had never come to pick it up, so it had remained in stasis for years. The paper had read:

Unusual behavior and altered state of personality and identity found in patient 5789. Recalls imaginary events—”memories”—that have not happened to startling detail. Formerly believed to have held a possible character flaw. Five weeks into treatment, ability to change conducting-type from Transmutationist to Elementalist noted. P.D. Oran, an onboard conductor engineer, suggested possibility of dissociative psychological disorder playing a role in this extraordinary display. 

Interest from Capricornian Council on Special Conductors and ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus garnered. Patient and patient information subsequently transferred over to parties per legal request. 

And that was it. The rest was censored by either Ophiuchus or by Capricorn—Weingartner couldn’t tell. He would have written it off as ridiculous pseudoscience if it weren’t for that fact. ELPIS, Ophiuchus, Capricorn…

Perhaps—he had thought then—he had learned something he shouldn’t have.

It was two weeks after his fruitless research that he had been approached by Dämon Forstchritt out of the blue. She’d come up to him just as he was preparing to return to the front and had invited him out for brunch. Although they hadn’t met each other formally, they had heard enough about one another to hold a degree of mutual respect.

Their conversation at brunch was casual. Weather, subordinates, recent accomplishments. But just as they were topping off their eggs and wurst with a cup of coffee, Dämon had asked pleasantly, “You were looking into True Conductors recently, weren’t you?”

Weingartner had paused, more out of confusion than fear.

“How do I know? My employer sees everything,” Dämon continued without pause. “They see you, they see me, they even see your daughter back home. She’s due in three months, isn’t she? Writes to you every day? The Enlightenment Committee members that read over mail letters find her writings very cute by the way.”

Only then did Weingartner feel both fear and anger. He had stepped on a landmine. “What—”

“I wouldn’t suggest you go to the committee or your good friend General Watzmann for complaints,” Dämon had hummed, adding sugar into her coffee. “Because your highly esteemed general is also employed by my employer. And it’s not ELPIS if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s the one with the crown.”

Then… the Kaiser? But why?

She had taken a sip of her coffee and had sighed. “Saints, bless the Maillard reaction and sucrose! That is fine coffee.” Placing down the cup, she had hummed, “We have enough traitors in this country, don’t we? People questioning and looking into things they shouldn’t? How will your daughter react if her father turns out to be one? Stress isn’t very good for a woman in late-term pregnancy. Do you understand?”

Weingartner had remained silent.

“It’s better for all of us to enjoy what little time we have left here,” Dämon had continued. “It’s a boy, right? The child? To be named Angelo? Such a shame. Even if you’re a good little toy soldier, Angelo won’t see it to his first birthday.”

Weingartner had reached for the butter-knife.

“Don’t worry. That wasn’t a threat. None of us will see it,” Dämon had finished, raising her cup. “That’s why I say, we all enjoy it until the end.”

And so, Weingartner had chosen the middle path of least resistance. And his apprehension rose to the surface.

Choosing extremes on either end, a famous Ophiuchian writer named Vega once wrote, was choosing an illusion of progress. Or maybe it was, There can be no progress unless you push to the extreme against the rock that is tradition and stagnation.


Argo

And now here Weingartner’s sharpest subordinate—no, his most practiced student since Weingartner foolishlyconsidered all of his subordinates students—was pushing for a reckless, extreme plan. It wasn’t even a plan but a gamble.

“Captain,” Werner continued, reclaiming the pocket watch Gilbert had taken from him. “The capital needs to be informed of this immediately. We’re the only ones aware of how deep the Augen runs in Capricorn. We aren’t even sure if there are any members here with us. We’re already in a dangerous position—”

“You said you wouldn’t—” interjected Heimler from where he stood beside Marionette.

Werner stared at Heimler inquisitively before following Heimler’s gaze to Marionette. And for a moment, Weingartner swore he saw Werner smirk.

Weingartner frowned. “I understand what you’re saying, Werner, but we don’t know the layout of this base or our location, and we don’t have access to conductors. I’ve already lost enough men today—”

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t believe we need conductors to escape. And I remember the route out.”

Weingartner stared in disbelief. Although the first lieutenant’s tone was even and calm, Weingartner had the vague feeling that the man was agitated. The head injury? As much as Weingartner wanted to give Werner the benefit of the doubt, they were both leaders first and foremost and had to set an example.

“Waltz, enough. I don’t want to hear it.”

Werner stiffened, opened his mouth, but closed it when Gilbert placed a hand on his arm. “Yes, sir.”

The Argoan whom Werner had antagonized earlier returned two minutes later with the promised water. He passed the glasses through the bars—one for each person including the Aquarians—before he settled down at the table again and fiddled his thumbs nervously. He was new to the art of war, it seemed. But still… cunning and naivety were two different things.

Weingartner stared apprehensively into his glass as his subordinates did the same. Rather, as most of them did the same.

“Thank you.” Werner took a steady sip from the glass. “I apologize for my earlier behavior.”

The Argoan perked up, clearly as confused as Weingartner but also almost hopeful. But he remained silent.

“How long have you been serving?” Werner pressed.

“…T-Two months?”

“Voluntary or drafted?”

“I… volunteered.”

“And why did you do that?”

“Why?”

“I see. So you haven’t thought about it… What did you say your name was?”

The Argoan blinked again, perplexed but also oddly pleased. He glanced at the men standing behind Werner. “Emil… remember?”

“Right. Emil. You must be far from home.”

Emil’s face folded. “It’s not so bad… I mean… Well, I mean there’s a couple of local places around here. I grew up in a city, so I just visit those places from time to time.”

“You grew up in the city? All cities are different from each other. Some are gambling cities; others are tourist cities.”

“Well, the city sorta around here is more like a gambling one. It’s called Stonbo. Have you heard of it—”

The door swung open and the Argoan lieutenant from earlier stormed in. Behind him came two more Argoans dragging forward Nico Fabrizzio whose face was dripping with blood. The combat medic’s head hung low, making it difficult to discern if he was conscious.

How despicable…

Derik launched his glass at the Argoans through the bars. It hurtled across the central table before shattering on the wall just behind the Argoan lieutenant’s head. The petals sprinkled down onto the floor at the Argoans’ feet, but the lieutenant waved a hand, kicked several shards into the Aquarians’ cage, and then sneered:

“Leave them.”

The lieutenant signaled for Emil who rose to a stand and unlocked the remaining empty cage. The other two Argoans threw Nico inside.

“What are you doing? What did you do to him?” Weingartner pressed as he approached the bars. “He’s a combat medic. You—”

The lieutenant turned to them all and scoffed. “All having a nice drink? Enjoying our hospitality—” When his gaze fell on Werner, something in his demeanor changed. Eyes sharpening, he paced right up to Werner’s cell and leaned in close. He whispered, “It isn’t too painful is it, Cucciolo?”

Werner stiffened.

A Geminian word…? Weingartner frowned.

“Enjoy this freedom while you can, True Conductor,” the Argoan continued in Capricornian. “I’ll give you a helping hand. You’re important to me.” He side glanced Gilbert and then Weingartner. “Keep a good eye on my True Conductor, will you?”

There it was again—that term…

The Argoan’s gaze bore into Weingartner causing cold sweat to break out at the back of his neck. Out of the corner of his eye, Weigartner noticed Gilbert and Kleine startle. Despite being the sole focus of attention, Werner’s expression remained even.

Werner frowned. “What are you talking about?”

The Argoan lieutenant turned back to Werner, blinked in dazed confusion, and scowled. He spat in Common, “You’ve got a stupid look on your face, Capricornian. Doubt we could get anything out of you.”

“What are you playing at?”

The Argoan looked him up and down and then scoffed. “You have a lot of gall to be talking to be like that when you’rethe one in the cage.” He spat at Werner’s feet, waved a hand in the air, and exited the room with the two other Argoans in tow before anything else could be said.

Instead of staring after the man, Weingartner stared at Werner. “What was he talking about, Waltz?”

“I don’t know, sir,” replied Werner without waver. “But Fabrizzio…”

Weingartner followed Werner’s gaze to Nico’s motionless body. Weingartner had held doubts about Nico’s service and loyalty from the very beginning. The doubts had increased tenfold following the revelation that the Romano Family had been supplying Argo too with modified conductors. And yet still, the capital had wanted to keep Nico in their employ. And yet still, Nico had assured that all he wanted to do was to help the soldiers in the unit. And now…

Abruptly, Werner addressed Emil, “Are you going to let one of your prisoners die? You know your lieutenant is going out of bounds. That medic is still under your care and the responsibility lies with you.”

Emil stiffened before fumbling to unlock Nico’s cell. He rushed into the cage and to the man’s side before feeling his pulse. After a minute, Emil stammered, “H-He’s not breathing. He’s not breathing. What should I—”

Werner interjected, “What are you doing standing there?”

Emil dashed out of the room without another word. Weingartner couldn’t wrap his head around how the Argoan had stayed alive for so long with such an easily swayed will.

Werner called out, “Fabrizzio.” No answer.

Weingartner watched as Nico’s body remained motionless.

Werner hissed, “Nico!” Again, no answer.

“Hey!” Gilbert snapped. “What are you doing?!”

Weingartner looked away from Nico to find Werner on his knees and shoving two fingers down his throat. Gilbert tried to jerk him back up to a stand but was pushed aside. And then, Werner puked. Bile splashed out onto the floor along with a collection of other things that rattled hollow and heavy. Pushing the bile to the side, Werner gathered the objects hastily. He held one up to the light while shoving the others into his pocket. A metal band lined with glass tubing glinted in the dull overhead lights. A proto-conductor ring.

Weingartner stiffened.

Where had Werner even gotten that from? And what use was it in this situation? It looked like it was one designed for a Transmutationist.

Waltz whipped off his glove, tucked it beneath his arm, and slipped the ring on. He closed his hand, flexed it, closed it again. Weingartner stared, temporarily forgetting the Argoan lieutenant’s strange words.

“Waltz, put that away before they come back—”

The insulating tubes of the band swirled with specs of blue light, and sparks began to erupt around Werner’s hand. The sparks soon turned copper as the color began to overtake the blue in the insulating tube. The copper slid over Werner’s hand like a glove before slithering up his arm then to his face and torso and eventually consuming his entire body.

Wilhelm, Marionette, and Heimler stumbled back, while Stein and Brandt leaned forward with interest. Across the room, the Aquarians straightened. Gilbert and Kleine remained frozen in place, both wide-eyed in disbelief.

The copper light encasing Werner’s form shattered. When the pieces fell away, Weingartner found himself staring at empty space. He had only seen this type of conducting once before back when he’d visited the Twin Cities for recreational reasons. There was a street performer who had a skill for the illusionary arts there. She’d conducted in a manner just like this. If he recalled correctly, the performer labeled herself as an intraneous Transmutationist.

So…. was this a intraneous transmutation…? From Werner who was a certified extraneous Projector?

“It still had some vitae left in it, sir.” Werner’s voice came from the empty space. “There’s no need to be alarmed.”

The others within Werner’s cell visibly relaxed. Weingartner did not. Regardless, he managed, “I understand, Waltz, but stand down—”

Gilbert was abruptly jerked forward by an invisible force. A faint imprint of a hand was visible on his shoulder. Copper light began to spread up from the imprinted area until it consumed his entire arm and then his entire body. When the light shattered, Gilbert too disappeared. The same happened to every single person standing within the cell until all within disappeared in a burst of light. The door to the room flew open just as the last one within the cell—Marionette—also became invisible.

Emil and a young male nurse—indicated by his armband glowing with a red cross—spilled into the room in panic. It was only after Emil had rushed to Nico’s cell and unlocked the door that he noticed that Werner’s cell was devoid of prisoners.

“Oh… no…” Emil rushed to the empty cell as the Argoan nurse gawked from behind him. He fumbled for the keys, unlocked the cell door, and stepped inside in disbelief.

Weingartner noted how the cell door creaked ever so slightly as if pushed by wind. A loud clang rang out a beat after, and the Argoan nurse collapsed on the ground. Hovering in the air just above where the medical nurse’s head had been was one of the chairs that had been beside the island table.

Weingartner stared in disbelief.

Before Emil could react, he was shoved to the ground by an invisible force. Stein appeared above him a second later out from a burst of copper light. He looped Emil’s neck in a chokehold and held steadfast until Emil slumped forward unconscious.

Heart hammering and mind racing, Weingartner watched as Gilbert pried the keys from Emil’s hand and darted over to his cell. As soon as Gilbert unlocked the door, Weingartner rushed out and signaled for Bergmann and Stein to stand guard at the entrance and for Heimler to keep an eye on Engel.

Werner meanwhile darted inside Nico’s cell. He sank to Nico’s side, hands hovering, before he called for Brandt who joined him within the cell alongside Gilbert. Brandt fell to his knees and flipped Nico onto his back as Werner dug into his pocket and procured a cluster or proto-conductor rings. He handed one to Brandt.

Brandt slipped it on while checking Nico’s pulse. After a beat, he blinked and said, “He’s alive…”

“‘Course I am,” came Nico’s weak voice.

Brandt and Gilbert stiffened, while Werner’s shoulders sagged.

“Saints, Nic,” Gilbert whispered, handing Werner the keys upon his request, “you make a hell of an actor.”

Brandt shook his head and moved forward with his transmutation. Weingartner drew close just in time to see Brandt heal Nico’s split lip in a flash of pale mint green light.

“Wasn’t really acting,” came the chuckle.

Brandt sighed and pulled away, wringing his hand. “Damn. Transmuting with these things is hard.”

Werner glanced at Brandt before addressing Nico, “This is no time to be joking. I’m used to telling this to Gilbert but not you, Nico.”

Gilbert grimaced. Nico blinked up at Werner and stared long and hard. Then, without warning, he lunged forward and threw his arms around Werner’s neck. Werner stiffened before placing a hand on Nico’s shoulder and squeezing.

After pulling away and clearing his throat, Werner ended with, “Fabrizzio, look at our situation. Get a grip.”

Nico cleared his throat too and unfurled from him. “Right, sorry, I—”

Weingartner pulled Werner up to a stand by the arm. “Waltz, have you lost your mind?”

“Sir, they’ve already done this to Nico, a combat medic. What’s to say they won’t do the same to us?” Werner met his gaze. “Unless you believe there’s another reason for why Nico would receive this treatment?”

Weingartner tensed and glanced at the others. None seemed to have caught on to the implications of their lieutenant’s words.

Just what in the world was Werner playing at?

Releasing him, Weingartner nodded at Nico. “I’m glad you’re okay—”

A voice abruptly called out from the opposite side of the door Bergmann and Stein guarded: “What’s going on in there? Is the combat medic alive?”

Bergmann and Stein tensed.

The door rattled as the Argoan behind it continued, “Hey—”

Werner moved his ringed hand to his throat causing copper light to spread over the area like butter. Without hesitation, he opened his mouth and said in Emil’s voice, “It’s nothing…! H-He’s improving, I think. Please keep it down. I don’t want the lieutenant to find out.”

“Just hurry it up,” came the irritable response.

The door remained still.

Werner guided Nico up to his feet before exiting the cell. Without pause, he headed to the Aquarian’s cage and reached for their cell door.

Weingartner darted forward and grabbed his arm. “Waltz… What are you thinking?”

“They’ll alert the Argoans if we don’t release them,” Werner replied. “Our chances will improve by working together.”

Without waiting for an affirmative, Werner unlocked the door. “We mustn’t waste time.”

“Capricornian went cuckoo again,” one of the Aquarians noted. Weingartner recognized him from the border conflict. Nikita Knovak, if he recalled correctly.

The Aquarian captain whom Weingartner recalled as being named Dunya Kramer inclined her head and stepped out while extending a hand out to Werner. For once the latter followed protocol by looking for affirmation. Weingartner signaled approval with a nod and watched as Werner and the Aquarian captain engaged in a handshake of solidarity. Weingartner then moved forward himself to complete the unspoken truce with a handshake of his own.

“We’d all like to die in our own land,” was all he said in Common to Kramer.

“We’d all like to live,” Kramer returned.

“***

Weingartner knew something was wrong. Werner tried to misdirect his concerns with less-than-concrete reassurances and roundabout remarks of “we should focus on the task at hand first, with all due respect, sir” rephrased in ten different ways. Something was off but by only just a margin. Weingartner’s suspicion only grew.

They stripped Emil and the Argoan medic of their weapons and supplies: one handgun for himself, another for Gilbert as Werner passed in taking one, and two for the Aquarians. It was only fair.

After Werner ‘experimented’ with the proto-conductor rings he had apparently stolen from the Argoans, they slipped one each onto Emil’s and the Argoan nurse’s index fingers after loading them into the cells. As soon as the ring was on the nurse, he took on the image of Bergmann and Weingartner himself. It was unsettling to see his doppelgänger, to say the least. Meanwhile, Emil’s proto-conducting ring caused him to take on the image of Werner and the others who had been in the cell with him—Nico included. The discrepancy of Nico’s misplacement concerned Weingartner.

“They won’t question it,” Werner reassured him. “The Argoans will fill in the blanks themselves.”

No concrete reasoning. Just intuition, it seemed.

They lured the guard on standby into the room and quickly rendered her unconscious before dragging her into the cell the Aquarians had formerly occupied. When Werner slipped another conducting ring onto the Argoan’s finger, she took on the form of the Aquarians.

The stage now set, Werner extended a hand out to Weingartner who accepted the gesture before extending his hand out to Gilbert behind him. The chain continued until they were all linked, hand-in-hand. With that, they slowly pressed out the door and into the hallway.

Weingartner couldn’t believe how easy it was for them to slip past all the Argoans. They slinked forward like ghosts through the hall, their boots leaving faint impressions in the mud caking the floor.

The Argoans didn’t even notice.

It didn’t seem right. Didn’t seem natural. It felt like at any moment, someone was going to whip out a gun—maybe a conductor—and they’d have to take cover against the bombardment. But none of those things happened.

When they arrived at the front gate of the building, they found it wide open. It was too good to be true, and Weingartner’s apprehension reached boiling point. Gauging by the hushed whisperings in Aquarian behind him, he knew the Aquarians felt the same. But Werner pushed them forward regardless. As they passed by the lone two guards posted there, Weingartner overheard their conversation:

“Why do you think the lieutenant asked us to leave the gate open for? Are we expecting a shipment?”

“Don’t know. Lieutenant’s been on-and-off weird lately.”

Weingartner let out a quiet sigh, silently apologized to his daughter, and tightened his grip on Werner’s hand. He was a scholar before a soldier. And temporarily solace was not true solace.

Their group crossed the gate and stepped onto the dirt road beyond. They didn’t stop to catch their breaths and continued along the dirt path for several kilometers before Weingartner pulled them all into the woods expanding to the left of the path in the opposite direction of the setting sun. They continued forward for some uncountable distance until Werner suddenly stumbled out of Weingartner’s grasp.

The illusion coating them shattered in an instant.

Werner crouched in front of him, lightly panting. Although his expression was calm and collected, sweat beaded his brow and there was a very faint haze of exhaustion clouding his eyes. He was guided up into a stand by Nico and given a nod from Gilbert and a wince from Kleine.

“The proto-conductor rings are spent?” Fischer asked, coming up from behind. “Lieutenant Waltz, if you try again—”

Weingartner held up a hand and locked eyes with Werner. “We’re far enough to avoid detection. If there is any of that vitae left, we should save it and use it wisely.”

Werner nodded.

***

They continued on through the woods opposite the setting sun as planned for nearly two days straight, never stopping for rest even once. The ghost of the Argoans felt like a constant at their heels. No rest. Only anxiety. On the third day, however, he and Kramer agreed to stop for rest. They came to a small creek, foraged for food there, and settled for a tense three-hour repose as night fell.

During the first hour, Weingartner relieved Heimler of his duty of guarding Engel, requested Kramer’s assistance in posting someone over Engel in his place, and ordered his subordinates to meet him at 500 hours. When he arrived at the designated meeting area in the forest clearing, his subordinates stood at attention. It was all so habitual that Weingartner had to stop himself from reciting an afternoon briefing. Instead, he ordered them all at ease.

Werner remained standing with Nico beside him. Gilbert leaned cross-armed against a tree. Brandt, Stein, and Fischer reseated themselves on a fallen log, while Bergmann and Kleine huddled by an iced stump. Heimler stood away from all of them, head dipped low.

Weingartner seated himself on a fallen log and took a moment to muster all of his courage. Nowhere to hide now. He let out a breath, watching as it fogged up the clouded twilight air. “What’s a True Conductor?”

Gilbert and Kleine tensed, the latter rising to a stand. Brandt stiffened. Heimler, Bergmann, Stein, and Fischer exchanged perturbed looks. Only Werner held his gaze, while Nico looked to him without expression. The betrayal in those gestures stung more than it should have, just proving to Weingartner that he would never make it in the capital.

“That term that the Argoan lieutenant said…” Werner murmured in thought, clasping his hands behind his back. “I’m unsure. Do you think it might be an Argoan plan? Maybe they’re starting their own conductor development. They might not be able to harvest it as an energy resource from reservoirs, but that says nothing about their ability to manufacture them.”

Weingartner remained silent, clenching his fists.

Kleine started shaking his leg. Gilbert glared at him.

“Are you familiar with the term, Captain?” Werner inquired.

Weingartner shut his eyes. “A True Conductor is not a thing but a person. That being said, what would you say if I said I was one?” When he opened his eyes, he found Kleine staring wide-eyed at Werner. Gilbert was no longer cross-armed.

Werner’s eyes narrowed. “What are you implying, Captain? If you claim to be one and if it truly involves Argo—I will have to report this into the capital.”

Werner wasn’t taking the bait. The man’s apparent ignorance and steadfastness were so convincing that for a moment Weingartner thought he’d made an error and taken an unnecessary risk—no, thought that he’d gone mad. But…

“No, that was a lie,” Weingartner admitted. “When I spoke to Major Ersatz during the border conflict, he mentioned it. Colonel Fritz von Spiel’s father also said that Fritz mentioned it many times to him before the incident in Gemini. Both men were involved with ELPIS. And you, First Lieutenant Waltz, were involved in both incidents and with both men. You’re always there when something is happening.” He glanced at Nico, Kleine, Stein, Bergmann, and Gilbert. “And so are the rest of you. But your reports always support each other’s alibis.”

The addressed remained silent.

Fischer stammered, “B-But, sir, we’re all only doing our duty—”

“True. I could chalk it up to mere coincidence under the usual circumstance. But that Argoan lieutenant’s words make it very difficult for me to do so. I hope you understand this, Werner. We could chalk it up to nonsense, but that’s too many connections to write off.” Too many good dead men.

Silence.

“I trust you. You’ve all served under me for many operations.” Weingartner pressed his palms together and stared at the forest floor. “In order for the division to work effectively, you also need to hold trust in me. That’s been an effective order since the very beginning.” He took in a deep breath and sighed, locking eyes with Werner. “Now I’m asking for you to let me help you. Whatever it is—”

“We haven’t done anything, sir! It’s all just a coincidence!” Fischer snapped, stepping forward. “I don’t know about the others, but I’ve—” When Werner glanced at him, he shut his mouth.

“If any of you aside from Lieutenant Waltz know anything about it and are willing to speak of it,” Weingartner continued, feeling the empty threat leave distaste on his tongue. “I can help you. If not, I’ll have to report you into the capital. First for falsifying your reports in the Twin Cities. Second, for concealing a development possibly involved with ELPIS.”

“Someone say something,” Fischer hissed. “We shouldn’t all be punished for a couple of people’s actions—Lieutenant Waltz, please.”

They sat in silence until the sun began to peek up between the trees.

As the morning birds began their song, Weingartner swallowed. “I understand your feelings of camaraderie and loyalty… and I see you’ve all made your decision.” Weingartner pulled out his pistol and pointed it at Werner. “We’re going to start the day with the truth. A squadron is strengthened by truth and weakened by lies.”

No one moved. Rank and order—

Gilberts stepped forward, looking between him and Werner. One hand rested on the gun at his hip. “Captain, this is crazy—”

Weingartner’s eyes narrowed. The ever-so-loyal Fischer moved forward in an apparent attempt to disarm Gilbert prompting the latter to pull out his gun fully. He didn’t aim it.

Fischer scowled, stepping backwards. “Raising your weapon against a superior is—”

“I’m not raising it against my superior, Fischer. You on the other hand…”

“Stand down, Gilbert. We’re in the same unit,” Werner said. “I apologize for his behavior, Captain. I believe Wolff may be unstable because of Vogt’s passing under his command—”

Gilbert’s face contorted. “What the—I’m trying to help you!”

Werner startled, sighed, and then rubbed his face. “Right… Sorry. Man, this is a mess.” Side-glancing at both cocked guns, he addressed Bergmann, extending a hand. “Emilia, check your left pocket.”

Weingartner nodded at Bergmann who had stiffened at the first name address. She looked to Gilbert and then to Werner for further affirmation, before digging into her uniform. She froze and pulled out a packet of cigarettes.

“I… the Argoans confiscated these… how did it…?” She swallowed and tossed the pack to Werner.

He caught it and inspected the box. “A good brand.” He pried a cigarette out from the carton and slid it into his mouth.

Werner, you don’t smoke,” Nico pressed beside him. “It’s not good for you anyways…”

“No use putting up the act anymore, Nico,” Werner said, popping a cigarette into the combat medic’s mouth without a drop of hesitation. “That Capricornian captain is determined as hell. Pulling us out in front of everyone like this. I’m stressed, sweaty, hungry, and I need a smoke. Screw quitting. Kid’s not here to micromanage.”

“Even if that’s the case, it’s not your bod—”

“Just this once, Nico.”

Nico paused, glanced around the clearing, sighed. He pulled out a lighter and lit the cigarette hanging in Werner’s mouth before lighting his own. It was a practiced movement.

Werner took in a drag a beat after, coughed hard, pounded his chest.

“I told you!”

But Werner waved Nico off. He straightened himself, shrugged his shoulders, and took another drag. Meeting Weingartner’s eyes, he asked, “So what are you going to do about it if I’m a True Conductor when you don’t even know what it is… Captain?”

The atmosphere surrounding Werner changed instantly. The usual rigidity left his shoulders, and his eyes glinted with something other than coldness.

Hey,” Gilbert warned.

“Relax,” Werner waved a hand. “I know what I’m doing. More or less.”

For a moment it looked like Gilbert was about to shoot Werner instead.

“Anyway, you’re making a lot of threats when we’re in the middle of enemy territory, Captain,” Werner continued, coughing lightly. “Threats that are going to end with you being dragged down into the swamp too with the rest of us. Seems to me you think bringing me in front of everyone else is a good way to work everything out. Or force it.”

The disrespectful, casual tone was disconcerting.

“That aside, you’ve got a lot of curiosity. But you seem scared. That’s also why you brought everyone here to hold everyone accountable. What happened?” Werner paced over to a fallen log just across from him and sank down on it. “Was it Agatha?”

At the mention of his daughter, Weingartner tightened his grip on his gun.

Werner merely held up a casual hand. “Not a threat. An offer of protection.”

What?

“You see, ever since what’s happened in the Twin Cities, I’ve been keeping a close eye on everyone that’s around everyone.” He sighed, flicked off a bud of ash. “‘Course it’s been kinda hard since I can’t rely on the broker and have to go through other channels. Info is less quick and detailed, gotta talk to a lot more people—but that’s a story for another time.” And then, he smiled. “Don’t worry. You’re not the only one. Like I said, I’ve been looking out for all of the people involved with the others and Werner. It’s under the table though—which is a hell of a hard thing to do ‘cause of how we are. I should be praised for my selflessness and all that.”

Third-person.

“Did you know that a Manipulator planted a medium on you a month back? One of the enlisted officers you’re pals with actually. Good old espionage. Makes me think about the state of your country. Never understood monarchies. Understand military govs even less.”

Weingartner’s heart thundered. A Manipulator?

“The good news is that Manipulator owed a gambling debt to good friends of mine. Pulled a few strings. Got him to pull back and falsify his reporting. Got him off Agatha too. Thought I invested more time in it than I should’ve but turns out it was a good call.”

“Why?”

Werner blinked. “I didn’t do it for you if that’s what you were wondering, but that can change.” He shrugged. “Anyway. Had no idea what he was surveilling you for—no clue who was paying him either—but seems like you’ve got yourself into some trouble.” He grimaced. “Have no idea what the hell that Argoan was talking about either by the way. Creepy as hell. ELPIS maybe? They don’t like us much. But it sure sounded like that Argoan liked me. So maybe…”

For a moment, Weingartner thought he saw fear flicker in Werner’s eyes but it was gone as quick as it came. That aside, why did it feel like Werner was carefully partitioning out information?

Werner pointed at him abruptly with the cigarette. “Anyway, if you were marked because you were looking into True Conductors, then it looks like you’ve got some trouble in your government. Tough.”

Ersatz’s words rang in Weingartner’s head.

“Still, you’re right about one thing. Secrets make things complicated. Creates a whole lot of a mess, like the one youjust made—but I don’t blame you. I work with secrets and lies for a living. I know all about it.” Werner put out the cigarette at the bottom of his boot. “Honesty is the best policy ‘cause we can all hold each other accountable for all the secrets we know about each other. Someone spills the beans, we all spill ‘em. Like you, hiding the falsified reports and donating some marks to the Verbundene Augen and whatever you were doing to tick off whoever put that Manipulator on you.”

Weingartner felt as if he’d been slapped, and he tensed as he felt his subordinates stare at him in disbelief. Instead of denying the accusation, he inclined his head.

Werner glanced at the others. “No need to be judgmental. Most of you lot falsified reports about what happened in the Twin Cities anyways. Thanks for that, but a court martial’s usually the answer to it, right? And Alwin, for a combat medic, you’ve got an interesting record in my home city. And, Will, we’re gonna have a one-on-one later.” Ignoring the newly formed tension, Werner nodded off-handedly to Heimler who had remained silent during the entire ordeal. “And of course good ol’ Friedhelm’s been working with Marionette for that demonstration here earlier—”

Heimler recoiled. “You said you wouldn’t say anything!”

Werner shrugged. “I’m not the one who made that promise. Wouldn’t have even realized it if you weren’t so obvious about it, Helm. Actually hadn’t had the time to get info on you since you were so sparkly new. Anyway, you tell a lick of this to Marionette or your Augen buddies and—well…” He gestured loosely around the circle. “This is only the visible consequence.”

Stein leaped up and cracked Heimler across the jaw. “You bastard, you set us up!”

Heimler hit the ground and glowered. “I didn’t! It wasn’t supposed to—”

“Please stand down, Stein,” Weingartner ordered. “We need to address one thing at a time.”

Stein sneered, kicked the ground, and returned to his former position.

Weingartner turned back to Werner who appeared undeterred about his subordinates’ behaviors. With Erwin’s and Martin’s words ringing in his ears, he tried, “Who are you?”

“Cadence Morello,” the unknown replied with a glint of amusement in the eyes. “Let’s use truth as currency.”


Threshold

A white door loomed in front of him: blemishless, clean, rubbed down with varnish and oil.

There’s no point in telling you everything again,” came an airy sigh from behind. “Just how many times do you think you’ve come down here, Werner? You’ve probably gotten to know me better than my brother, but every time you go up and come back…”

He turned his head but found only a neatly trimmed garden beneath a graying sky. Facing forward once more, he reached for the doorknob, pulled the door open, and stepped inside

For once, Werner Waltz, 8 years old, was eager to arrive home from school. His excitement, of course, didn’t deter him from abiding by the rules of the house: He pulled off his shoes at the entrance and placed them neatly on the shoe rack alongside the wall before hanging his coat on the wooden rack and cordially greeting their maid Helga Wolff as she peeled out with a friendly wave from the kitchen. Rule one and two. Additionally, despite his excitement, he didn’t dash up the stairs to his room. Instead, he paced up gradually, steps matching the tick-ticks of the many grandfather clocks hanging on the wall. Rule three.

When he entered his room that was furnished with a neatly folded bed, dustless drawers, and scrubbed wooden floors, he didn’t dare to close the door. Rule four. He paced up to his wooden desk stationed before the frosted window and organized some of the stray papers there, before reaching into his desk drawer. He hesitated midway through the action.

Never hide anything was rule five, but he had broken this rule with this action many times over now. If his mother were to discover this… His palms itched at the thought—

No, he’d just twisted the rule a bit. He would tell her eventually.

Right. He hadn’t truly broken any rules.

Werner pulled out the item he’d been reaching for and set it on his desk. It was rectangular and took up a quarter of the table with its length. Beneath its tinted glass surface, a network of sleek glass tubing glinted alongside copper gears. He ran his fingers along the box’s surface and took in a deep breath. Almost done—

Something flickering just outside the window caught his eye. A murder of crows was taking flight off of one of the frosted garden trees. The way they swarmed together reminded him of smog. And beneath that smog of feathers at the base of that tree stood a dark-haired woman dressed in a monochrome suit. Shiona voice whispered at the back of his head.

The woman placed a finger to her lips and shook her head.

Werner blinked once.

The phantom was gone.

Something wasn’t right, Werner realized, glancing around his room. He was forgetting something…

Right.

He paced over to his bookcase and pulled out a small wooden box hidden just behind the books lined up methodically, alphabetically. He popped the box open revealing a neatly ordered collection of wrenches, screws, and kickstarters. After checking to make sure all tools were in order, he set the toolbox on his desk alongside the rectangular contraption.

Feeling rather embarrassedly excited, he reached for the contraption only to freeze when creaking resounded from behind him.

Someone was coming up the stairs.

Werner’s heart thundered and sweat formed at his palms as he shoved the toolbox beneath his desk. A voice called from behind just as he reached for the rectangular contraption:

“Hello, Werner.”

Werner stiffened and turned. And then he beamed. “Ludwig! You’re…” He cleared his throat. “Welcome home. Is father back too?”

Ludwig Waltz, eldest son of the Waltz family, gallantly swept into the room like a knight. He was wearing a crisp pale lavender uniform decorated with medals. A cap with the Capricornian emblem glistening heroically on its rim rested on his head. As he approached Werner, he pulled off his cap and placed it on top of Werner’s head.

“Dad’s back from the eastern front, but he was called back to the capital to discuss plans on our front with Libra. But bah, that’s all boring stuff.”

“How was your time at the front?”

“Oh, you know. The usual. Got a bunch of newbies to the division recently. One of them was a Projector. Accidentally shot off his friend’s leg during his first battle but that’s what Transmutationists are for. And Elementalists like me—well—we’re for the spotlight. But that’s a story another time. Let’s just say we definitely showed those Sagittarians and Librans.” Ludwig sank into a crouch and pinched Werner’s cheek. “Aren’t you a little too young for all that formality? Anyway, where’s my favorite little sister? Where’s Viktoria—” He stopped short, staring towards the desk.

Werner stiffened, heart hammering.

“What’s that? A conductor toy?”

“That’s—”

“Who knew we had a conductor engineer in our family!” Ludwig beamed and then placed a finger to his lips. “It’ll be our secret.”

Relief loosened Werner’s shoulders ever so slightly but the tension remained. Before the unease could fully settle, however, a rapping from the window drew his attention away. Werner turned but found nothing there. Just a dead branch tapping against the windowsill.

I have entered.

When Werner faced his brother again, he frowned.

Something about Ludwig was different. His brother was sitting now instead of crouching, and there was something odd about his hands. Werner’s gaze was drawn down to his brother’s legs. His brother’s face to contorted immediately.

Shut up! Who do you think you are saying that to me—what are you even looking at?!” Ludwig snapped. “You’re thinking it too, aren’t you?! Just like her! I’m useless, pathetic now—that’s all you see! I can’t even see this damned war to the end!”

Right…

Werner Waltz, 12 years old, hands still burning from his most recent lesson met his brother’s gaze evenly. It was unsightly behavior.

“Luddy,” came a whisper by the doorway.

A young girl stood at the threshold. Her blonde hair cascaded down her back like a veil, and her wistful eyes were just beginning to drip with tears.

Ludwig didn’t spare her a look. “You think you can do any better, Werner? I saw your V-Type test results. You’re just a Projector!” Finally, he turned to his sister. “And you, Viktoria, you can’t even become a Conductor! You’re more pathetic-looking than I am!”

Without flinching, Werner watched as his brother continued on and on. But when his sister locked eyes with him from across the distance, Werner froze. Her eyes sought protection. Expected it. And so mechanically, Werner fulfilled that request by pacing over to her side and standing in front of her.

Allowing this to go any further benefited no one.

Ludwig paled as if slapped and then croaked. “Just admit it! You all think I’m a useless burden—”

Werner interjected, “Get a hold of yourself, Ludwig. The more you make yourself appear to be a burden, the more you’ll become one. As I suggested earlier, you should join one of the organizations in the capital. That would be the best way for you to remain useful to Capricorn.”

“… get out.” Ludwig’s delicate expression cracked and he dug his good hand into his knees. “Get out! Get out! Get out!”

Werner guided Viktoria further behind him and towards the hallway. It was a calculated retreat, much like the ones he’d been taught in school. And while retreats were for those who did not plan, this was a special case—

A sudden thump, thump, thump from behind gave him pause.

Someone was coming up the stairs.

Blue moonlight spilled into his room and into the hall behind them from the window. A long, thin shadow crawled up along the hall from the stairwell and touched the lip of his room. Since the door was not closed, it continued to slither into the room invading every corner and space.

There was no escape. There never had been.

Werner reached for his sister’s hand but froze as her fingers reached for his instead. When he turned, he found the woman from earlier—Shion—standing in place of his sister.

“This is too much,” she whispered, tightening her grip. “Let’s stop here.” With that, she pulled him over the threshold—over that line—and into darkness. No, into a memory.

15.[]: Peacekeepers, 0700 Verschlimmbesserung

Re-cap:

While the main six are entangled by an unseen enemy, peacekeeper Gabrielle Law embarks to investigate the Verbundene Augen in Capricorn alongside two companions.


Verschlimmbesserung » Improving for the worse beyond 0700 hours

Ariesian knight-turned-Ophiuchian peacekeeper Gabrielle Law felt like she was losing her minions one-by-one. She’d lost her first, oldest, and best to a body-hopping, ancient terrorist. And now she’d lost newest to—as Elizabeta Wtorek had said back in the Medical Department—’fatigue’ and ‘exhaustion’ which had led to an ‘unconscious state’ for an ‘indeterminable amount of time.’ At least was how it was ‘on paper,’ Elizabeta had clarified shortly after. In other words, Jericho’s condition was a medical mystery. At the moment, he was still tucked away in that bed in the Medical Department under Elizabeta’s hawk-like gaze and probably looking like he was still sound asleep. A very long sleep.

But that wasn’t Gabrielle’s field, and she wasn’t doing anyone any favors by worrying about it. What was important was endgame.

Yeah. Endgame. Your eye is still on the prize, right?” Wtorek Izsak would always ask during the brief periods of repose during the war. Back when ‘peacekeeper’ was a concept only fantasized about. “Only one of us’s got 20/20 vision, so I’ll leave that up to you. That’s what friends are for, right?”

Love is blind,” Moraeni would interject in that strange way of his. Always coming in with a saying that never pertained to the situation. “And friendship closes the eyes.”

You should both be comedians,” Gabrielle would return. “You both would do great for the economy. Fruit stalls would be sold out every time you did an act.”

Izsak’s jokes really had been awful at the time and had only gotten worse after he’d become a father. Still, Gabrielle would do anything to hear one of those jokes again—even if it meant being stuck with thousands of them on this day-long train ride.

She had boarded the Grand Snake Train two hours ago with two of her other minions in tow. Both sat across from her now, one folding an intricate origami crane and the other rifling through a series of colorfully-enveloped letters. Neither were Conductors specifically suited for combat… which was troublesome since they were entering a country based in the military, but Gabrielle figured that this trip to Capricorn would be something routine.

“Hey, Miss Law.”

Gabrielle turned to find Talib staring at her through the reflection in the window. In the light pouring in from the pane, his caramel brown eyes almost seemed to glint amber. He reached across the table and placed a red paper-crane in her lap. She arched a brow in turn.

“It’s been some time since we’ve had a case together, Gabrielle. So… I feel like it’s an excellent opportunity to talk.”

“Didn’t I tell you to stop calling me ‘Miss’?” She yawned. “Makes me feel old.”

“Well, you are older than me—”

She clicked her tongue. “What did you want to talk about?”

Talib began to fold another crane, this time forest green in color. “Endgame. I mean, we’re almost there. Soon you’ll be the chairwoman of the Assignment Department, and Alice is no doubt heading towards Chairwoman of Psych Evals. Soon, you’ll both be on the electoral list for Head Chair of Ophiuchus and then… well. What next?”

With evident disinterest, Alice peeled open a red envelope and began to scan the cream-colored letter within. Despite rarely going out into the field, the Librish woman somehow always received more goodwill letters and gifts than Gabrielle herself did. Bachelorette for life, Gabrielle supposed.

“I mean, I’ve got a couple of policies and regulations in mind,” Gabrielle replied, stifling a yawn. “More of a focus on prevention than trying to amend things after they happen. You know the drill.” She rubbed her eyes. “Can’t believe the election is so close. I’ve got to prepare my platform—”

“Ah, like a disease control?”

“What…?”

“Your policy that you mentioned. Prevention.”

Gabrielle stretched and grimaced. “When you put it like that it sounds ugly.”

Talib made a final crease and placed the newly formed paper crane on the table. “Izsak was the one who was working with you on all of that policy stuff. I mean…” He turned the crane so that it’s now faced her. “Will you be able to manage it all alone? Moraeni is certainly a big help, but he’s busy all the time…”

Gabrielle grimaced, brows furrowing. Gamma… Damn, she had been trying not to think about that lately.

“I’m no good politician, but if you’d like, I could help you on your campaign when the time comes around,” Talib continued, pulling out another sheet of paper and folding it again. “You… said you wanted to cut down funding on the General Investigations Department and put more funding to the International Relations Department and Psych Evals specifically.”

Gabrielle hummed, resting her cheek on her fist. “I’m surprised you remembered that. You always seem more interested in your… hypotheses when we’re in meetings. Gotta say. Sometimes the stuff you say is a lot more interesting than my policies.” She sighed. “But you’re right. Since the election is getting closer, I need to start thinking about how to…”

“Make yourself a likable candidate,” Alice finished.

Talib glanced at Alice, saying, “It’s not such a bad idea. Cutting things down. If something grows too big, it’s bound to fail.” He creased another origami paper and flipped it over on itself. “It’s the same with all the great empires. They reach for glory, grow too big, and crumble under all the weight. They try to rule all their people justly, but one community’s justice is not another’s. And yet still, each ruler that comes along thinks they’ll be the ones to do it. I think that’s what they call gambler’s fallacy.”

Gabrielle arched brow. “I like it better when you’re talking about the Organization—”

Talib leapt to a stand, slapping his hands down on the table and sending all of the cranes that were piled up there leaping into the air. “Don’t get me started on the Organization! I’m sure of it—they’re the ones behind Jericho’s state! I warned him not to use graphite pencils for his journals because the Organization has laced certain brands with poison, but he said, ‘I’ll live with it. Thank you for your concern.’ That man’s bravery was no doubt viewed as a hindrance to the Organization so they—”

“Oh please, Talib,” Alice interjected as she peeled open a blue-enveloped letter and began to read its contents. “I don’t need you to interfere with Jericho’s progr—” Her eyes widened, her glasses reflecting the letter in her hands.

“What is it?” Gabrielle asked.

Alice placed the letter down flat on the table. In curling blue letters it read,

Take me with you ♥︎

It was a bit creepy, but when it came to anonymity, most people had no shame. Not really unusual, Gabrielle thought before she registered what had made Alice go so pale. At the corner of the letter there was a cartoonish drawing of an eye with three eyelashes. Gabrielle had gone over the case files just the previous night so she immediately recognized the symbol as belonging to the Verbundene Augen.

“Oh, that…” Talib’s brows rose. “Sort of looks like the letter Jericho was reading right before he fainted.”

“Jericho received a letter like this too?” Gabrielle frowned. “What did it say?” She pointed to the eye symbol. “Did it have this?”

Talib frowned. “I think it said… I’ve got my eye on you.’ I’m not sure if it had the symbol…” He stiffened and began to dig into his coat pocket. “Wait that blue envelope!” He ripped out a stack of letters, sorted through them, and pulled out one encased in an envelope that was the same shade of blue as Alice’s. He peeled it open, scanned it, and slowly placed it on the table:

I’m here ♥︎

At the corner of the page was the Augen’s icon.

Talib stiffened, jerking his hand away from the letter and wiping his hand. “What if it’s coated with poison? And Jericho was—”

“You and Ferris collected all of the letters afterwards,” Alice interjected. “If it was that, you both would’ve been in the Medical Department with them. Plus, Jericho’s blood test came back clean. I double-checked.”

Alice always had held a soft spot for Jericho, and Gabrielle still didn’t know why. When Gabrielle had heard about a peacekeeper who had ELPIS ties being admitted into Ophiuchus, she had jumped at the opportunity. Having someone with that experience and sort of reputation at her side was definitely desirable. It’d taken Gabrielle months to get Alice to disclose details about Jericho to her, but the toiling had been worth it in the end. But now…

“Did you get anything like this, Gabrielle?” Talib asked.

Gabrielle shrugged, ruffling the back of her head. “I didn’t really get through all my letters so I don’t know. Left them back in Ophiuchus… But I’ll ring Ferris once we get to Die Hauptstadt. I’ll have her check her letters and Moraeni’s too.”

“It could be a message from the movement itself to peacekeepers,” Alice murmured, pulling her letter off of the table and examining it. “Perhaps they’re saying they’re aware that they’re being watched and they’re returning the favor. Of course, the letters aren’t dated so we don’t have a clue of when they were written.”

“That’s an interesting analysis,” Talib noted.

“It’s why I’m here, Talib.” She sighed, flipped the letter over, and scanned the back. “To do what the Psychological Evaluations Department was originally meant to do. Not treat, but study and evaluate.” Frowning, she placed the letter back down on the table, back-side up. Etched into the corner of the page there was a rudimentary drawing of two lotus flowers.

Talib turned his letter on the table over. There was a singular lotus flower printed on his.

A signature?

“Perhaps the Organization is behind the recent growth of the Augen movement,” Talib suggested, eyes widening. “They could be using the civil unrest in Capricorn to their advantage and—”

Alice interjected, “The ‘Organization’ this time wouldn’t be in reference to the saint candidates, right? I can never tell with some of your tirades.”

Gabrielle tensed.

Talib gaped obviously. “How did you—”

“Talib, you left your notes out on my coffee table a month ago,” Alice explained, crossing her arms and locking eyes with Gabrielle. “It’s no doubt that Izsak was investigating something on your behalf when he became initiated into ELPIS.” A pause. “And now you’re making Talib do the same. I understand that we came into your ‘hand’ with a certain degree of understanding that we’d be acting as pawns. But providing information and orders to one pawn while keeping the other in the dark isn’t characteristic of a leader. It’s the characteristic of a dictator.”

Gabrielle’s frown deepened before she sighed and rubbed her eyes. “You’re right. It’s just that everything that’s been happening with ELPIS lately is…”

“At any point in time we could fall victim to resistors and become your enemy,” Talib concluded.

More like ‘become a different person’ which Gabrielle thought was much, much worse.

“So, tell me, Talib,” Alice continued, “what has your search led you to find?”

Wincing, Talib sank into his seat. He glanced at Gabrielle and, after receiving a confirmatory nod, he explained, “Saint candidates have been involved in every major event in Signum. From small border skirmishes to the civil revolutions. Of course, you could chalk it up to the cultural significance of saint candidates and their position as role leaders in the Monadic religion and in Signum historically. Given that position, it’d be natural for them to be in the history books. You could chalk it up to coincidence, meaning maybe those events of unrest are ‘the cause’ and the saint candidates are ‘the effect.’ But I don’t personally believe in coincidence. And given ELPIS’s origins, perhaps saint candidates also…”

“A reversal of cause and effect? And again with the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.” Alice frowned. “That’s a dangerous and ridiculous conspiracy. You can’t just start making baseless theories without factual evidence. There has to be temporality proving causation. Besides, even if it were true, there’s still the ‘why’.”

A pause.

“Look. Alice. The other reason I haven’t mentioned any of this to you or Elizabeta is because…” Gabrielle sighed, crossing her arms. “Leona considers ‘failed saint candidates’ to be the same as ‘regular saint candidates’.”

“That would mean Izsak and Elizabeta’s daughter Csilla might also be classified as possible adversaries,” Talib continued.

Csilla, the failed saint candidate of Taurus. Thinking of her as an ‘adversary’ as Talib had put it seemed ridiculous especially since she was barely fifteen years old.

“And also…” Talib continued.

“Flannery,” Alice finalized.

The failed saint candidate of Libra.

“You know how ridiculous this sounds, Gabrielle,” Alice stated instead of asked.

Gabrielle shrugged.

There was a lapse in conversation. Alice continued to sift through her letters, while Talib continued folding the cranes. The train’s clinking on the tracks became deafening.

“You’re folding a lot of those,” Gabrielle noted after a beat. “Any reason?”

Talib perked up. “Actually, there’s a legend that I’ve heard—”

“About the Golden Beast?” Gabrielle responded without thinking.

Talib threw his head back with a laugh. “Golden beast? Oh, come on, Gabrielle. That urban legend is ridiculous!” He shook his head, shaking off the last of his laughter with it. “No, no. It’s a… Sagittarian legend. If you fold one thousand origami cranes, then you’ll be granted a wish. Or, there’ll be a full medical recovery of someone you hold dear. I tried doing it once before and—well—it did work.”

Alice paused, glancing at him.

Gabrielle arched a brow.

“It’s for Jericho this time,” Talib elaborated. “And hopefully it’ll work this time too.”

Gabrielle watched him fold ten more cranes in silence.

Talib spoke again after his thirteenth crane. “You told us that you were going to bring true peace to Signum no matter what, GAbrielle. You said that all of our questions about how Signum got to this point would be answered so we’ll never repeat a war like that ever again. I’m following you because I believe that.”

Alice corrected, “No. We’re holding you responsible for that.”

***

Die Haupdstadt, Capricorn

As soon as Gabrielle stepped out into the cold, gray light gracing the capital of Capricorn, she was met with a sea of bodies. Men and women, dressed in slacks and evening coats, crowded the station platform and wielded signs written in Capricorn and Common. They were all shouting, spitting, jeering, some even crying as their bodies pressed up against one another’s. Emotion clouded the air with their fogging breaths.

A protest.

When Gabrielle had seen them all from the window when the train had first pulled into the station, she knew she was in for a headache. But she hadn’t realized it would be this bad.

NO MORE! NOT OUR WAR! read one sign.

“You’re just damn lemmings! You know you’re leading Capricorn right to ruin!”

These shouts and signs were not directed at Gabrielle herself, however, nor were they directed at Alice and Talib who stepped out of the train cart behind her. Rather, all of this wrath was directed towards a group of uniformed Capricornian soldiers who stepped out from a train cart three carts over. The soldiers’ medals were dirty as were their faces which were caked in mud. Their expressions remained steely as the crowd surrounded them. The gray light seeping through the overhead clouds hollowed out their faces.

Gabrielle recognized the look in their eyes. Her own eyes had gradually taken on that dull glint of emptiness during the Reservoir War. It had taken time and practice to shine it out.

One of the protestors started swinging their sign wildly in the air and nearly brought it down on a soldier’s head.

Damn, Gabrielle thought, scanning the platform. Things could get ugly quick. Where were the military police? Nowhere, evidently.

With a sigh, she pulled out her badge, straightened the sash on her arm, and dragged herself over to the opposing groups. The protestors closest noticed her approach first, eyeing her sash then her badge before lowering their signs and their voices. The silence spread quickly until all fell quiet and all eyes were on her—save for the eyes of the unwieldy protestor wielding the sign.

“Let’s not get violent now,” Gabrielle said as she put herself in between the protester and the soldier. “Or we’ll both be going against the thing we’re trying to promote. Yeah?”

The protester froze upon registering Gabrielle’s sash and badge before lowering the sign and disappearing back into the crowd.

The Capricornian soldiers studied her for a moment and then studied Talib and Alice coming up behind her. The male soldier who stood at the front of the group inclined his head in thanks before signaling his group forward. The soldiers passed by the quieted crowd in formation before heading through the square that unfolded wide and gray beyond the station.

Gabrielle wondered what Ophiuchus was doing if things like this were happening out in the open.

A tap on the shoulder cut her ruminating short. When she turned, she found a woman with straw blonde hair and caramel brown eyes staring up at her with flushing cheeks. The woman placed a delicate hand over her mouth as she covered a gasp.

“A peacekeeper!” the woman exclaimed. “It really is a peacekeeper! I’ve never seen a peacekeeper before!”

Gabrielle shared a look with Talib and then tapped the white band on the side of her arm. “Yep, that’s what I am, ma’am.”

“Can I get a signature?” the woman pressed.

Asking for a signature from a random peacekeeper? And claiming to have never seen a peacekeeper before? This woman was strange, and she was dressed strangely too. Rubber boots that went up to the knees hugged the woman’s legs, while pastel-pink raincoat was wrapped around her body. Paired with this came a pink sun hat which rested on her head.

“Oh! I’m so rude!” The strange woman extended a gloved hand. “I’m Louise Bonnefoy! It’s a pleasure to meet you!”

Gabrielle accepted the gesture and then the pen and paper Louise offered her. “Gabrielle Law.” She quickly signed her name and handed the items back. “Nice to meet you too, Miss Bonnefoy.”

Louise stared at the autograph in admiration. “Oh, Argo is so amazing! First I come across a guild master, then a gang of tattoo artists—”

“Argo?” Gabrielle did a double-take.

“—then a saint candidate and now a peacekeeper!”

Gabrielle felt her neck hair stand on end. “Saint candidate…?”

What? Was she referring to Leona? Here? But ELPIS wasn’t involved—

A commotion broke out just behind Gabrielle. A passerby had thrown a rock at one of the protestors which kickstarted a tousle that had blown out into a fistfight. Torn between a sigh and a yawn, Gabrielle stepped forward and easily pulled the entangled bodies off of each other. When all was settled and she turned back to Louise, she found that the woman had run off somewhere.

Gabrielle whipped back to Alice and Talib. “Did you see—”

“She darted off that way,” Alice replied, pointing down the length of the train where a dot was disappearing on the horizon. “But frankly, it wouldn’t be surprising if Leona was here. After all, if you were to believe Talib’s theories, then they’re always around when something is happening. And if you were to believe reason, then the ELPIS Department is simply ensuring that the Augen truly has no ELPIS ties.”

Talib didn’t pay the insult any mind and instead squinted in the complete opposite direction. “Hey, guys, isn’t that…”

He pointed out past the station towards the far sidewalk where a phonebooth rested on the corner of the street. A man with ear-length dark black hair and thick brows stood there, one hand resting on the phone booth and the other on the bow conductor hanging at his hip.

Gabrielle squinted and then did a double-take. “Trystan Carter?”

She quickly crossed the expanse of asphalt road after him, traversing over a series of crisscrossing v-tram rail-lines. The clip-clopping footsteps behind her informed her that Talib and Alice were not too far behind. As they drew nearer, a pair came out from behind the phone booth and joined Trystan’s side. One was dressed in sky-blue silk garments and wearing a cap with a hanging beaded string. The other wore a wooden mask.

Oh, boy.

Gabrielle stopped short a couple of feet away from the group and called out with a wave, “Fancy seeing you here!”

Trystan startled and turned away from the two Sagittarian men he was conversing with. “You’re… the peacekeeper. Miss Law?”

Gabrielle closed the distance between them, extending a hand. “And you would be royal guard Trystan Carter, Sagittarian prince Yuseong Haneul, and his guard—gauging by the mask—Felix?”

“Please, call me Claire.” Claire smiled like any politician would, accepting the gesture. “It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Peacekeeper Law.”

“Pleasure is all mine,” Gabrielle replied cordially. She peered into the phone booth. “I’m guessing you all are here for the diplomatic conductor convention? Is Prince Chance already queuing up in line?”

Trystan tensed and shared a look with Claire.

Gabrielle shared a look with Alice in turn. “Did something happen to the prince?”

***

Claire and Trystan led them all across the open square, past the square buildings topped with spires lining the area, and through several well-kept alleys. Every corner was impeccably spotless and clean. Even if they were protesting and going through a civil revolution, the Capricornians sure kept their streets clean, Gabrielle thought.

Eventually, they made their way to a brick building guarded by a medium-height, black fence. The building boasted numerous brick arches held up by white limestone pillars. An open, grassy courtyard expanded just behind the gate and was dotted by men and women dressed in either white lab coats or medical gowns. Upon pounding up the white steps and entering the building, they made their way up to what seemed like the highest floor. The floor’s hall was lined with only four doors, and a familiar man dressed in a monochrome suit was staioned cross-armed in front of one of them.

“Roberto?” Gabrielle arched a brow.

“Hey, Gabe, Alice, Talib.” Roberto Gonzalez greeted them with a slight jerk of his head. “Been waiting for you guys to show up once Ferris rang me in and told me you were all coming.” He jerked a thumb back to the door behind him. “Got pulled into this in the middle of my commerce investigation.”

Roberto led them inside the room he was guarding without a beat of hesitation. The room itself was lavishly furnished, hosting open windows, silk curtains, and several ornate armaments. There were two rows of three beds put off to the side of the wall. Three of them were already occupied.

A young girl with cropped black hair dressed in silk garments was draped over the closest white bed. Yuseong Eunji, princess of the Seong Clan, most likely. Behind her stood a woman donning a white porcelain mask. Soha. They both moved to the side at Gabrielle’s approach.

Laid out on the white bed there and covered in thin sheets lay the Ariesian prince Olivier Chance. He looked peacefully asleep, his breathing only mildly shallow.

“What happened?” Alice asked, falling into place beside her.

“He collapsed at the library,” Trystan explained. “Two days ago—”

It was around the time Jericho collapsed then.

“—the medical Conductors said it was exhaustion and fatigue. Prince Yuseong helped me find a room here since one of his vassals had also fallen ill. I’m considering arranging transportation to have the prince taken back to New Ram City…”

“That’s not a bad idea.” Gabrielle turned to Claire and inclined her head. “Thank you for taking care of our prince, Prince Yuseong.”

Claire offered a deep bow as his sister joined his side. “Aries and Sagittarius’s relations have always been strong. And I’ve come to consider Prince Chance as a friend. It was nothing. Really.”

Politicians…

Gabrielle’s gaze drifted to the other occupied bed. A dark-skinned woman with a blemishless face lay there. The woman’s black hair curled around her cheeks as she seemed to sleep soundly. Standing guard and tucked away in the corner of the room by her bedside was an equally dark-skinned man wrapped in silken robes. A conducting spear rested at his side.

Virgoans…?

“A Virgoan advisor,” Roberto explained, coming up from behind Gabrielle. “She collapsed around the same time as Prince Chance apparently. I was there, brought her in. The medical doctors and Conductors couldn’t find anything wrong with them. Figured they might’ve been exposed to the same contaminants or something. City police are still investigating.” He paused in thought, rubbed the back of his neck. “Heard from Ferris too… The ELPIS guy’s out cold, right?”

Gabrielle took note of the way Claire’s eyes sharpened for a brief second.

“It’s Jericho, Roberto,” Talib corrected. “Not ‘ELPIS guy’.”

“Fine. Jericho knocked in too?”

“Yeah, he’s up in the Medical Department.” A frown pressed down on Gabrielle’s lips as her gaze flicked from the Virgoan diplomat to the prince. Shaking her head, she addressed Trystan, “If you need anything, Mr. Carter, feel free to reach out to any of us. We’ll be in the city for some time. Hopefully, the prince sleeps it off.”

Trystan opened his mouth to say something more but merely bowed his head.

And with that, Gabrielle bid farewell to the Sagittarians and Roberto before departing the hospital wing with Alice and Talib trailing behind her.

“Say, Alice,” Gabrielle drew quietly, pulling the Librish woman aside as they made it back outside. “Jericho hasn’t mentioned anything about something called ‘True Conductors’ has he? In one of your sessions?”

“Are you asking me to disclose patient information to you?” Alice returned coolly. “I still have my own morals and standards. I’m a doctor before I’m a peacekeeper.”

“This might have something to do with saint candidates—”

“This is why Olive said you had a terrible personality, Gabrielle,” Alice interjected evenly. “If I recall correctly, you kept pressing him for details about the Tragedy only hours after it happened. Despite him being in shock. Even I thought that was pushing it.”

Gabrielle sighed, glancing up at Talib who paced just a couple of steps in front of them. “Look, the pirate I was undercover with mentioned the term. She somehow knew Jericho who somehow kicked it off with our Ariesian prince after they met for like a second back at New Ram City over the summer. It’s just too much of a coincidence. Especially if you throw in the fact that ELPIS and Leona have been involved in every incident with them.”

Alice’s eyes widened a fraction. She frowned, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “No, Jericho’s never mentioned anything like that… And he tells me everything.”

***

Alas, there was no rest for the weary. As soon as Gabrielle Law left the hospital grounds with Talib and Alice, they were due for their preliminary meeting to discuss their investigation of the Verbundene Augen movement with a Capricornian official.

The meeting was to be held in the Seeziegenhalle, a military building that was located at the exact center of the capital. It was a domed structure supported by twelve white pillars, half of which hosted Capricorn’s black national flag. The limestone steps leading up to the building were wide, long, and pristine. And as Gabrielle ascended those steps, she began to wonder how hard the groundskeeper toiled away to keep everything looking so nice.

Seeziegenhalle itself was filled with uniformed men and women, chests all gleaming with medals, as they marched up and down the red-carpeted hall. There was a constant ring-ring-ring trilling in the air from the occupied phone booths lining the far end walls. Elevators dinged in the distance, while Capricornian words were exchanged harsh and clipped.

It felt very much like the Assignment Department back in Ophiuchus. Busy, busy, not a time for a chat.

Major General Martin von Spiel was already waiting for them at the oaken, circular table that took up the center of Meeting Room 4 at the back of the building. The room was lined with empty bookcases and hsted a large map of Capricorn on its back wall. Martin first gestured to the chairs across from him with a genial smile, before clasping his hands as he waited for them to seat themselves. Although Gabrielle had never met him directly, she had heard many good things about him during the Reservoir War. Honorable, wise, dedicated, etceter. She, Talib, and Alice had all spoken with him over the phone on separate occasions during the aftermath of the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, and they had all agreed that they could add the word ‘personable’ to the mix.

And yet the first thing Martin von Spiel said to them in barely accented Common was, “Thank you very much, Miss Law, Miss Kingsley, Mr. Al-Jarrah, for coming all of this way. Your peacekeeping organization has always assisted us when we needed it the most, and Capricorn can’t thank you enough for aiding us during that ELPIS infiltration at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. That being said, with all due respect—” He took a sharp breath. “—We don’t need you here.”

Gabrielle arched a brow. “You’re the ones who invited us.”

“Yes, there was a communication issue. A—how do you say—misunderstanding,” amended Martin von Spiel. “This is a situation Capricorn is perfectly capable of handling on its own. Ophiuchus’s interference in a small political movement like this will only damage both of our reputations. If you come in now, who is to say you won’t set precedent? Who is to say we won’t set precedent?”

Bureaucratic politics with a dabble of hurt, nationalistic pride, it seemed.

“Mr. Von Spiel,” Talib interjected suddenly, “I understand that you might hold a negative view of us in light of what happened to your son Fritz in the Twin Cities with ELPIS—”

Martin’s lips pulled down immediately. Gabrielle moved to stomp on Talib’s foot beneath the table but found Alice’s foot already there. This sort of off-handed comment was something Gabrielle expected from Jericho, not Talib. Maybe the two were just rubbing off on each other.

The mahogany doors to the room abruptly creaked open, and a woman entered. A white lab coat was draped loosely over the woman’s shoulders like an afterthought, while military medals gleamed at her chest. The sleeves of her coat billowed back like wings as she approached them, heels clicking all the way.

“I have to rebut everything you’ve said just now, Major General von Spiel,” the woman said, accent barely noticeable in her Common as she rounded the table and came to a stand beside the major general. “Which has been happening quite often lately.”

Martin shot up to a stand. “What are you doing here?”

“General Watzmann sent me himself to deliver our welcome message,” the woman explained before extending her hand across the table. Her lips curled, her blonde lashes catching the overhead light. “Dämon Forstchritt, head conductor engineer of the state.”

Huh. Gabrielle had always assumed Dämon was a man. Flashing a smile, Gabrielle accepted the gesture and watched as Dämon slid herself into the seat beside Martin whose face had tightened considerably.

Dämon began immediately: “So, you’re interested in seeing whether this movement will disrupt not the peace in Capricorn but the peace in Signum as a whole.”

“The peace in Capricorn ties into the peace in Signum,” Gabrielle returned.

“What a perfectly neutral answer. Now, would you prefer me to provide you a cohort study of information or a case-control study?”

What?

“Could you clarify what you mean by that?” Gabrielle returned.

Dämon eyed Alice. “Would you like me to hand you a file on individuals who have been exposed to the rhetoric of the Verbundene Augen so you can follow along to see which ones convert to better understand the movement and its implications for Signum?” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Or would you like me to give you a file on the individuals who are confirmed to be members of the Augen so you can work backwards and find out what they were exposed to eliminate that exposure?”

Well, that was certainly a way to put it.

“You keep a very tight eye on your citizens, I see,” Talib noted.

“And we’re not here to ‘eliminate’ anyone or anything,” Gabrielle continued. “This is your country and your people, after all. Your country’s movement. We’re just here to make sure there aren’t any signs of this movement becoming violent and spiling over–”

“If I might interject, Gabrielle,” Alice said suddenly, lock eyes with the Capricornian woman. “Frau Dämon, I’d prefer it if you simply compile information regarding current Augen members and where they tend to gather and hold meetings. I can’t let your bias start clouding our investigation before it begins.”

Dämon flashed a smile. “Well, of course. It doesn’t matter the method. It’s always better to catch malignant behavior before it metastasizes.”

Gabrielle resisted yawning.

***

After that terrible experience, Gabrielle received a dinner invitation addressed to herself, Alice, and Talib from one Flannery Caertas. Since Flannery was in the capital for strictly business purposes, Gabrielle felt somewhat warmed by the fact that she had invited them all to dinner despite being so busy herself. The warmth, however, soon became eaten away by apprehension as Gabrielle recalled the earlier train conversation.

Upon arriving at the restaurant location with Alice and Talib in tow, Gabrielle was greeted by a gaunt server who directed them to the back of the restaurant. Although the tables at the front of the dining area were filled to the brim, they became less so as they moved further back until only one occupied table was within their sights.

At the helm of the table sat Flannery Caertas, future CEO of Signum’s number-one conductor-manufacturing company. Flannery’s bright red hair acted like a gigantic red arrow, and yet she still leaned across the table and waved her hands wildly at them as the server dropped them off. It was hard to believe that she was to inherit a fortune.

To Flannery’s left sat Roberto who was already working on a mouth-watering, well-plated dish of pork. An unfamiliar man occupied the chair to Flannery’s right. The unknown man was bushy-browed and blonde with a prominent brow and rather trimmed nails. Not a soldier nor an official. There was a pen resting behind his ear too; and the leather bag resting at his feet seemed to contain parts of a camera. So maybe he was a—

“This is Hilton Tyler. He’s a Libran reporter who’s here to write a story ‘bout the conductor convention,” Flannery explained with a pearly smile as they neared the table. “Came across him, chatted him up a bit, decided to invite him over. Bit excitin’ and bit of a change, ya know what I mean?”

Oh, saints

Gabrielle resisted scowling as she seated herself.

She hated reporters.

“Jeeze, all four of ya’ve got a dead look in yer eyes,” Flannery noted. “I get Roberto lookin’ under the weather, but the rest of ya’ve just arrived. The city isn’t treatin’ y’too bad, is it? If y’need some time t’relax, I can get ya a pass t’an all-inclusive spa in the city.”

“My dear Flannery, bless your heart.” Talib inclined his head and placed a hand over his chest. “You’re always so considerate. But alas, also so naive. Don’t you know that the Organization owns all the spa resorts in Signum? Even if you try to relax, they’re using those hot baths to collect samples of your genetic information to complete their final plan!”

Hilton, salad fork halfway in his mouth, paused and stared.

Flannery’s smile dropped for a second before she threw her head back and cackled. “Man, yer theories keep gettin’ better and better, Talib! I love it!”

Talib returned the chuckle, albeit less energetic. “Don’t you mean getting ‘more accurate’, not better? This is no laughing matter, Flannery.”

There was a regrettable sort of quiet tension between Talib, Alice, and Flannery as the dinner continued on. Roberto seemed oblivious to it, either too busy working on his meal or too busy thinking about his case in the city to care. The Libran reporter still seemed too caught up on Talib’s usual anecdotal theories to read the atmosphere.

Gabrielle attempted to break the silence by addressing Hilton, “So, how’s the article on the conductor convention going, Mr. Tyler? What newspaper are you with?”

“Oh, I’m not just here for the convention,” replied Hilton automatically. “I’m also here to see how Ophiuchus handles this situation.”

Gabrielle felt another headache coming on. “Is that so?”

“Whenever you peacekeepers become involved, bad situations always become worse, and readers tend to eat that up,” Hilton finished. “And for the record, I’m with whatever newspaper pays the most.”

Gabrielle blinked at him and then shared a look with Flannery who winced with apparent regret. “So, what you’re saying, Hilton, is that you’re paying for dinner.”


Dämon Forstchritt, leading face of Capricornian conductor engineering, stood in front of the plexiglass window as she basked in the glow emitting from behind it. Every so often she would look down at her clipboard and jot down a sentence or two. Behind her stretched a network of clear wires and metal tubes that passed from the ground floor to the ceiling.

When she looked up at the window after jotting down another observation, she saw a silhouette behind her reflected on its surface. She turned her head curiously and found a woman with wild black curls barely tamed by a bun standing there. The woman was dressed in a military police uniform, gorget and all.

Dämon tensed. “What’s your military code? Who let you in here?”

It’s me.” The woman waved a dismissive hand, scanning the area. “Where’s P.D. Oran?”

Dämon’s brows rose. She looked the woman up and down. “Oran is in the restroom. Vomiting. That aside, I must say you look more ravishing than usual this time, Scorpio.”

That’s an insult, Madam Dämon,” the woman replied, crossing her arms. She threw a glance at the windowpane and a smirk blossomed up her face. “I see you’re very busy despite the earlier intrusion. I’m very proud of you.

“Well, it wasn’t unexpected given the noise the Verbundene Augen has been causing lately.” Dämon paused in thought. “It won’t interrupt my research down here, will it?”

Oh, don’t worry. Your research is as important to me as it is to you,” Scorpio replied.Of course, even I can’t control the passion of people.”

“You mean mob mentality?” Dämon chuckled. “Not that I’m particularly for or against it. And not that I would hold it against you either. You’re the reason my work is finally being realized, after all.”

You should be grateful.” Scorpio nodded.Though, I admit that if it weren’t for your progress, we’d be behind on the syzygy.”

“Hm… To be honest with you, even after you’ve told me all the details, I still care little for your True Conductor and syzygy obsession,” Dämon said, turning back to the glass and jotting down several more notes.

Of course, you care little for it,” Scorpio responded. “You’re a woman who only cares for the present.”

“What else would I care for?”

The plexiglass window groaned as the light behind it shifted.

“Born September 1st. Blood type O. Vision, 20/60 in both eyes. Height, 161.3 cm. Weight, 54.4 kg. Left-handed. Personality, INFP-Turbulent. Father, alive. Mother, awakened. Siblings, younger brother and two younger sisters, alive. Occupation, Virgoan Advisor for multiple relations. 

Described by associates as ‘kind, attentive, thoughtful, dedicated, well-versed, reasonable, inquisitive.’ Described by family as ‘warm, compassionate, mischievous’ and ‘occasionally terrifying.’

Unusual activity: involvement in bringing Virgo out of isolation, presence in cavern incident with True Conductor Yulia Kriska, presence in Twin Cities incident. 

Probability of being a True Conductor, 100%. Probability of disrupting syzygy, 26%.”

Dämon arched a brow. “That was a mouthful. And who might that be?”

Scorpio smiled distantly. “Someone who I’ve been able to get to know very well recently. Someone who can’t even choose a happy ending.”

“Endings…” Dämon hummed, turning away from the other woman and towards the glass pane again. Something writhed behind it, distorting the light seeping through. “Say… where are you looking then?”

What do you mean?

“Well, if ELPIS—as you’ve said many times before—is constantly looking at the past, and I’m currently looking at the present, then where are you looking?”

Oh… well.” Scorpio smiled, placing a hand on the plexiglass and closing her eyes.Our eyes have always been focused on the future.

15.5: Second Lieutenant, 0310 Captured

Re-cap:
Still reeling from Otto Vogt’s death, Atienna discovers that Friedhelm Heimler, a man in Werner’s unit, is a member of the Verbundene Augen and is working with the movement’s leader, Marionette Engel. She also figures out that she is not truly alone within her mind despite losing contact with the other five. There is an intruder whose intentions are unknown. Before she can disclose any of this, however, she finds herself and Werner’s subordinates under Argoan capture.

Werner, meanwhile, is stuck at the threshold and must personally remove the intruder that has embedded itself within him through ‘playing out a memory’. Acting as his supposed guides are Lavender Chance and the mysterious peacekeeper Shion who stands on the opposite side.


Genfangen » Captured at 0310 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

Death was like a bad whiskey. Drink enough of it—get exposed enough to it—and you got used to it. Sometimes forgot about it. The weight of it lessened into something shrugged at, maybe grimaced at lightly in passing. The line, smudged. Until it was someone you knew. Someone you really knew.

But at least, Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff thought, Otto wouldn’t have to deal with being in this situation.

Gilbert hadn’t a clue how the Argoans managed to follow them to near the border’s edge and give them the jump. He wasn’t sure whether it was just bad luck or bad leadership at this point. He’d tried to dissuade Captain Weingartner from giving him the damned promotion to second lieutenant because he felt like he wasn’t qualified enough to lead a unit, but Werner had urged him to accept it. And here they were with Werner not even around for Gilbert to offer an ‘I told you so.’

Gilbert surveyed his surroundings again just to reevaluate how backwards their situation had become. At the moment, they were winding their way back through the unoccupied territory. They’d already passed their fallen camp, and the sun was beginning to peek up through the fog on the horizon. The Argoan commander—a lieutenant whom Gilbert had dubbed ‘Lieutenant Asshat’—leading their group hadn’t stopped to ask questions about the scene of carnage. Asshat had merely spat on the ground a bit and knocked down a couple of their already toppled tents. He was fluent in Common—as were all the Argoans in the unit—so Gilbert had the joy of listening to the man crow about “Argoans this” and “Capricornians that” for the better part of five hours.

Gilbert couldn’t even retort because he and his men were not only bound at the wrists but also gagged at the mouth. Which seemed like overkill since they were surrounded from all angles by Argoans. Not even a crack in the wall of bodies that caged them in. There were probably thirty or more Argoans to this unit. Always so many of them. Damn cockroaches.

To Gilbert’s left, Stein dragged his feet and glared at the Argoans like he was the one with the gun. Beside Stein walked Fischer and Kleine. Fischer’s eyes were glued to the muddied path, while Kleine was staring ahead at nothing. There was an empty space beside him that Otto Vogt would usually occupy. Behind that bunch, Heimler paced quietly, staring holes into Marionette Engel who was walking with her held up high like she was about to take an interview from the press. Typical politically-minded person. Gilbert would’ve laughed at her if it weren’t for the fact that Atienna was walking forward with the same amount of grace to his right. Practically floating, like she wasn’t stuck on a path leading right into enemy hands. Gilbert figured she didn’t know any better. It’d be scary if she did.

Dammit. Gilbert frowned. Not only did Otto die under his watch but he’d also handed Werner’s possession-buddy right into enemy hands.

He looked away from Atienna and towards Brandt and Nico who were walking side-by-side at the very tail-end of their encircled group. They both looked grim. But given Nico’s upbringing and occupation, Gilbert figured Nico wasn’t worried so much about their capture as mulling over Otto.

Damn it. Would Otto still be alive if Werner had been in charge instead? Would they have been captured like this?—This was why Gilbert hated thinking. Too much of it and there went the marbles.

Feeling a gaze prick his side, Gilbert turned to Atienna and found her staring at him. She paced forward a bit and turned her head towards him. Gilbert arched a brow as she started tapping her gloved fingers against the side of her leg. He continued to stare blankly at her, his gaze flicking from her hand to her eyes back to her hand. And then it clicked.

Code, Gilbert realized. She knew Capricornian code? Damn, she was smart. Why the hell hadn’t Werner mentioned her more often? Secretive bastard. Probably taught her it himself. Always talking about confidentiality and being compromised when he was out doing stuff like this. ‘Course, Werner’d probably chalk it up to “necessary precautions” instead of something more along the lines of “trust.”

Gilbert nodded and blinked back twice signaling that he was ready to interpret the message. Atienna’s lips pulled upwards slightly.

A. V. O. I. D. C. O. N. D. U. C. T. O. R.

Two taps. Message finished.

What?

Gilbert arched a brow.

Atienna tapped her side three times. Another message.

M. A. N—

“What the hell are you doing?”

Atienna stiffened and glanced up just as Lieutenant Asshat raised the butt of his rifle and cracked it across her temple. She hit the ground like a rag doll.

“Hey!” came Nico’s muffled snap as he charged forward.

But Gilbert beat him to it. He threw himself against Asshat, knocking them both to the ground. A second later, he was dragged off of the lieutenant and kneed in the gut three times. Still worth it—especially after he got a glimpse of the flabbergasted lieutenant’s redenning face as he was helped to his feet. Gilbert’s satisfaction faded, however, as he realized that Atienna was still on the ground.

“Get up,” Asshat grunted, straightening himself and nudging her in the stomach with the point of his boot. When he received no response, he delivered a hard kick. “I said get up!”

“Stop!” one of the Argoans exclaimed, throwing himself in-between Atienna and the colonel with arms widespread. It was Emil—the one that Gilbert had found at the carnage of their campsite, the one that Atienna had comforted. “Sir, please stop!”

Asshat stopped, boot still raised.

“He’s a first lieutenant, sir! He has information! What’ll the major say if you bring him back dead?”

That was a politician for you, Gilbert thought with relief. A couple of words and you’d be laying down your life for them.

Lieutenant Asshat lowered his boot and scrapped it on the ground. Emil’s eyes narrowed.

“Then you carry his dead weight,” Asshat snapped, jabbing Emil in the chest before pulling away. “Like how we have to carry your dead weight.”

Emil swallowed, nodded. As the other Argoans began to move them forward, he bent down and looped Atienna’s arm over his shoulder. He struggled to pull up the dead weight, but none of his fellow soldiers came to his aid. Gilbert moved forward instead, pushing past the threatening Argoans and offering his shoulder.

***

They were pushed on deeper into the unoccupied territory, pushed further away from home. Eventually, the woods fell away into trampled earth. Soon, in the distance, Gilbert was able to make out a black line drawn across the horizon. The Argoan trench, dipping down into the earth. The divide.

As they drew near to it, Gilbert realized how lucky they were with their well-furnished trenches back in Capricorn. The Argoan trench was a muddied cesspool with walls lined with bags of sand slathered in more mud. The men and women scattered within it were caked with grime and dirt.

Yuck.

Gilbert and his men were directed to a small wooden platform placed haphazardly over a stretch of trench. It connected one side to the other. Halt, came Asshat’s order.

Gilbert’s hairs stood on end as he stood waiting at the very edge of the makeshift bridge. One more step and that was it. The line.

Lieutenant Asshat signaled several of his men forward. After Gilbert handed Werner off to Emil and another Argoan, his hands were unbound, his mouth un-gagged. The others in his unit were given similar treatment. A clear-cut message.

Gilbert, still tasting the fibers of the clothes at the roof his mouth, rolled his tongue in displeasure. As he rubbed his sore wrists, he turned to Nico and asked, “Well, Nic, you ever face anything like this in the Twin Cities?”

“More than you’d think,” Nico whispered, wiping his mouth. “Though it’s not as flashy as this…”

Right. The weird-ass crime family war. Gilbert wondered what had happened to that lot. He hadn’t bothered asking.

“Shut up and move,” Asshat ordered.

Stein, Kleine, and Fischer looked to him, unmoving.

Gilbert took in a deep breath, held his head up high, and took the first step onto the plank. The thud of rubber against wood was hollow. The sound resonated further as the others followed behind him single-file—

Argo

—Silent eyes from the trench below were glued to their backs as they stomped across the wooden bridge. The silence remained even as they stepped onto Argoan soil collectively, and it held steadfast even after Gilbert returned to his position of carrying Atienna’s—Werner’s—weight. Nico joined him in the effort as Emil peeled away. And with the silence still keeping clutch, they were pushed forward again.

Argo didn’t look much different from Capricorn, Gilbert realized as they were led through a dune of sand that opened up to a rolling prairie dusted with snow. The grass had the same crunch. The air had the same thin consistency.

They passed through a small village where a handful of dirty children ran around playing hide-and-seek in-between towers of rubble that might have once been buildings. Gilbert recalled reading a military report several months back about a successful breach of the Argoan border where they’d made it to a residential area. The Capricornian advance was chased out not soon after but the newspapers raved about it for weeks. Personally, Gilbert couldn’t wrap his head around why that group had pushed so far in. “The higher you reached and climbed, the farther the distance you’d fall,” as his mother had put it way back when. And Capricorn had indeed lost some ground in the unoccuppied territory following the advance’s tactical retreat.

After an hour of walking through snow-caked grass, Gilbert and his group were shoved onto a dusted path worn down by wheel tracks. As they were made to wait on the side of the path, Gilbert studied the tracks and for a moment thought that the Argoans had somehow gotten their hands on v-ehicles. This thought left Gilbert’s mind as soon as he heard a rumbling coming on down the road. What came rolling down the dirt path was certainly not a v-ehicle, despite looking like one. It lacked the signature insulating tubes and signature squareness that characterized every v-ehicle model within Signum. Instead, it was round and sleek with a hooded caravan was attached to its back.

“This must be one of your first times seeing it, no?” Lieutenant Asshat hummed. “You based your v-ehicles off of our vehicles. Our automobiles. Our innovation.”

Saints. Gilbert wished he had a gun.

“We improved your vehicles,” Gilbert grumbled. “Heard these things can’t even go over 45 kilometers an hour.”

Gilbert…!” Nico whispered from opposite of Atienna.

Asshat didn’t have a chance to respond as the automobile pulled into a park in front of them. A man wearing a billed cap unloaded from the driver’s seat and handed Asshat a clipboard and pen.

A groan emitted from Gilbert’s left. When he turned in the direction he found Atienna lifting her head. Her gaze flicked briefly to the caravan and then to the Argoans and then to him and then to where Stein and the other men stood silently. She pulled away from him and Nico, before straightening herself with a cool gaze. Locking eyes with him, she asked, “What’s the meaning of this, Gilbert?”

Gilbert stared back hard, feeling relief loosen half of the tension in his shoulders. He couldn’t help but chuckle despite the situation. Always the best timing. “That’s what I was about to ask you. Told you I wasn’t good for the promotion. I take it your head’s on straighter now?”

“Werner?” Nico tried, expression brightening.

Werner stiffened and turned. “Nico—?”

A stomping of boots out from the vehicle cut him off. A group of men and women were being loaded off the caravan at gunpoint. Gilbert recognized the color of their uniforms immediately.

Stein spat on the ground. “Aquarians.”

There were five Aquarians total—two women, three men. Two of their faces itched at Gilbert’s memory. Nico gawked at them.

It took another second for recognition to come to Gilbert: “Oh, what the—”

“—hell,” Nikita Knovak finished across from him, eyes wide, lips pulled down into a slight sneer.

Even when Gilbert had been fighting beside Knovak against Major Ersatz’s ELPIS whackos back during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, Knovak had been jeering at him just like this. Good to see he was still the same. Even kept the habit of being captured by the enemy.

Beside Knovak stood the Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer, the woman whom Werner—Maria—had released from captivity during the very first override. The Aquarian captain’s reaction to them was much more subdued than Knovak’s. She merely locked eyes with Werner and inclined her head.

“You know each other?” Asshat addressed Werner and pointed to Kramer.

But Werner stared past Kramer and towards the other female Aquarian soldier who stood at Kramer’s right. The soldier’s hair was a light blonde, her eyes an ice blue, her nose hooked and prominent.

“Your head still tossed, Capricornian?” Asshat pressed. “I asked you a question.”

Gilbert’s gaze flitted back to Werner.

“We became acquainted during the Aquarian-Capricornian conflict approximately six to seven months prior,” Werner replied, meeting Asshat’s gaze. “There was an incident that required us to work together. Our association goes no further than that, and I doubt that holds pertinence to our current situation—”

“I decide what’s pertinent here.”

“That appears to be the case,” Werner agreed.

Man, it was good to have him back.

Lieutenant Asshat pulled back with a scoff, returning the clipboard to the driver who then loaded back into the vehicle. “All you Signum people know how to do is fight. I’ve heard from down the pipeline that you two were fighting over reservoirs when you were already dealing with us. Sadly, it’s never crossed your minds to work together.” A derisive snort. “We’re innovative, you see. We don’t rely on one sole source of energy like you idiots in Signum, so we don’t fight—”

“Because you don’t have. Any other source.” Knovak snorted. “Not impressive when you scavenge for the scraps.”

An Argoan soldier stormed over and slammed the butt of his rifle in Knovak’s stomach, but the Aquarian remained standing firm and unflinching. Gilbert figured the man’s abs were as hard-steel as his guts.

“You want fight?” Knovak challenged, arching a brow and glowering down at the offending Argoan.

“Knovak.” Kramer sighed before muttering something in Aquarian. Stand down, it seemed.

Knovak shrugged and returned in Common, “Yes, ma’am.”

The vehicle reversed and started rolling back in the direction where it’d come from. Gilbert watched it go with a grimace as Asshat saluted and waved. He then turned to Werner and found the man switching between staring at Nico, staring at his subordinates, staring inquisitively at Marionette Engel, and staring at the rifles held steady in the Argoans’ hands. Analyzing, probably.

“Need a debriefing or are you getting debriefed already?” Gilbert joked. “And mind trading me one?”

Werner glanced at him before returning his attention to Nico. “Now is not the time, Gilbert.”

***

After walking a kilometer or so further down the road, they were led to a dirt trail through a patch of woods that opened up to a clearing occupied by a singular square building with a tiled roof. It was caged in by a metal fence guarded by two Argoans who allowed them in after the Asshat waved a hand.

A large hall with a floor smeared with a sludge of ice and dirt greeted them upon their entry. The dim overhead lights cast the wooden doors dotting the hall and the uniformed men and women guarding them in an amber sheen. Kleine stared up at the lights, dazedly fascinated.

They were made to wait by one of the doors alongside the Aquarians as the Argoan woman stationed there searched for the keys in her pockets under Asshat’s watchful gaze. A pair of Argoans straddling a wooden, splintering crate came pacing on down the hall. As they passed by, Gilbert was able to catch a glimpse of the crate’s contents. Small rings, bladeless hilts, metal gloves—all lined with large glass tubes.

Proto-conductors, Gilbert realized. He had heard from Werner that one of the crime families in the Twin Cities had been selling them to the Argoans. He’d figured after Ophiuchus had barged into the city that the Argo had been cut off from the supply. He hadn’t seen any of them wielding conductors recently either, so he’d seen it as a small victory. But it seemed like the bastards still had some scraps left after all—

Werner abruptly slipped on the ground and crashed into the pair carrying the crate. The duo stumbled backwards, barely managing to steady themselves. Werner and the crate weren’t as lucky, both hitting the floor in synchrony. The crate burst upon impact, sending the proto-conductors clattering onto the ground. Gilbert gawked at the scene, before shaking his head and extending a hand to Werner. But Nico beat him to it, aiding Werner to his feet as the Argoan pair began to gather the scattered proto-conductors.

“Stop,” came the clipped order from Asshat. He motioned Emil forward and pushed Nico aside. “Check Cold Eye’s pockets.”

“I did, sir,” Emil said. “Before we—”

“Check them again.”

Emil stiffened and nodded, swinging his rifle over his shoulders before searching Werner’s body bottom-up. His hand paused above Werner’s pants pocket, and he pulled out a familiar-looking pair of chocolate bars.

The Argoan lieutenant eyed the things and sneered. “Let him keep it.”

Emil nodded, placing the chocolates back into Werner’s pants pocket. He moved on to searching Werner’s belt. Nothing. As his fingers brushed over Werner’s chest pocket, however, he stiffened. Hesitantly, he reached into it and pulled out the object occupying it. The silver of it glinted even in the dull overhead lights. Werner’s pocket watch.

Asshat motioned for it, and Emil slowly walked over and placed it in his waiting hand. Asshat then examined the watch, turning it over and tossing it in the air. He pcaught the item, ocketed it, and approached Werner. “Seems suspicious, so I’ll keep it.”

Werner’s expression remained impassive, his eyes narrowing only a fraction of a second.

The woman guarding the door finally managed to find the keys, inserted one into the door, and pushed it open. Gilbert found himself and the others swiftly ushered inside. They were greeted with a damp, dim room housing an island table at its center. A jail cell was nestled in each corner, one of them already occupied by a man and a woman.

“Captain!” Kleine exclaimed, shaking out of the stupor that had kept to him during their long trek to this place. “Bergmann!”

Captain Weingartner rose from where he sat cross-legged on the floor of his cell and approached the bars. Incredulity folded over his tired face. “Kleine? Waltz?”

Bergmann peeled out from behind Weingartner and pushed herself beside him. Her face brightened as she registered them but a brief expression of puzzlement took over her as she searched all of their faces. Worry lines crested her brow as the full weight of their predicament seemed to dawn on her. When their gazes met, Gilbert looked away. He knew exactly who she was searching for.

“Seems like you all know each other,” Asshat noted, looking between them all.

No shit.

“He’s my commanding officer,” Werner affirmed, inclining his head in the captain’s direction.

“Well, it’s unsurprising that you all ended up being caught by us then. Birds of a feather flock together,” Asshat responded. “You’ll get to know each other quite well here—and our interrogators.”

Asshat directed Dunya Kramer, Nikita Knovak, and the two other Aquarians into a cell located diagonally across from the captain’s. Gilbert was shoved in one of the remaining empty cells alongside Werner, the rest of his men, and Marionette. Just as Nico was filtering in behind them, however, one of the Argoans grabbed him by the arm and jerked him away.

Gilbert whipped around. “Hey!”

Stein lunged forward only to be sent back into the cell with a kick to the gut. The cell door clicked shut as the keys turned in the lock. The keys were then handed over to Emil who paled.

Werner paced up to the bars. “That is a combat medic. He has no information on the details of our operations. If your methods border on torture, then you will be in direct violation of the Treaty of—”

“Cold Eye, we didn’t fight in your grand war,” the Asshat responded. “We don’t abide by any of your treaties. Just be glad that we’re sensible enough not to have you executed on the spot.” He chuckled wryly. “I’ve heard from down the pipeline that your unit is fond of those things.”

“It’ll be fine, Lieutenant,” Nico responded tightly. “See you soon.”

Werner pulled away from the bars before offering a curt nod. Although his expression was calm and collected as ever, Gilbert could feel the irritation, annoyance, and worry emanating from his rigidly stiff back. The stiffness seemed forced and exaggerated which—Gilbert now realized—was very worrying. As worrying as Nico’s current predicament.

“Keep steady, Nic,” Gilbert managed.

Damnit. They couldn’t catch a break, could they?

Asshat and all of the other Argoans besides Emil exited the room with Nico in tow. As the cellar door clicked shut, Emil seated himself at the center island table and stared at his hands. He then lifted his head and studied Werner.

“You can talk to each other,” Emil murmured, absentmindedly shifting through the papers laid out on the desk. “I won’t say anything. If you need water or food, just ask me.”

Atienna’s magic no doubt.

Werner stared back at him silently before gazing at the door.

Captain Weingartner approached the bars of his cell and spoke quietly across the distance, “Waltz, are you and your men alright?”

Werner peeled his eyes away from the door, surveyed Gilbert and the other men in their crowded cell, before acknowledging the captain with a nod. “Yes, sir.”

Captain Weingartner let out a quiet sigh before he peeked past Werner. “I don’t see Vogt with you. He was a part of your unit. Was he not captured?”

Werner glanced back at the men again, evidently scanning their faces in search of one that was buried half a meter under the earth. His gaze flicked to Marionette Engel who was tucked away in the corner of the cell shielding her face with an upturned collar. Heimler was stationed beside her.

Gilbert frowned, that itching suspicion returning. Had Atienna not told Werner what had happened yet? No, she wasn’t the type from what he’d seen so far. The only person Gilbert knew that would go to nonsensical extremes to withhold information would be…

“Captain, Werner got a head injury midway through the operation,” Gilbert explained as he went up to the bars. “His head is still kinda jumbled, so I was given command, sir.” He side-glanced at the Aquarians jailed across the room before briefing the captain on everything that had occurred since Atienna’s override. Coming across their fallen camp; discovering Marionette Engel, Henning Rath, and the Argoan Emil; engaging with an Argoan unit on their way back home; and, losing Otto Vogt to a crazed Henning Rath.

Werner paled and his lips pulled into a tight line as he digested the information. Shoulders sagging, Bergmann released her iron grip on the bars of the cell and took a step back.

“I see,” Weingartner said after a beat. “Otto’s loss is unfortunate. I’m sorry. He was a good man.” He allowed a solemn, momentary pause of silence to pass before he eyed Marionette standing stiffly in her corner. “It’s fortunate that you caught Engel but can’t do much with that in our current situation. But their infiltration into our military is something that needs to be reported—”

“We aren’t infiltrating anything.” Marionette unfurled herself from her corner and stormed over to the bars to face the captain. “We were here from the very beginning. Things don’t exist the moment you notice them, Captain. And our voices are more common than you think. I’m sure you’ve thought about it too. I mean, look at where our military has gotten us.”

Emil tensed at the island table before glancing nervously between them. “I said you could talk… but if you argue my superiors might overhear and come in and—”

“—and what?” Werner interjected, meeting Emil’s eyes. “You’re offering us empathy and solidarity, but it’s a useless gesture given your position.”

Emil’s brows furrowed, and he rose to a stand. “Look! I’m trying to—”

“We’re the ones in the cells. Look where you’re standing.”

Emil’s shoulders deflated.

“You said that you would get us food and water if we needed it. That would be the best way for you to ‘assist’ us. Anything else is just empty words.”

Gilbert’s stiffened.

Emil stood silent there for a tense moment, holding Werner’s gaze. He then absentmindedly touched his cheek with one hand and plucked the keys from where they rested on the table with the other. “Water and food, right? I’ll see what I can do about that.”

And with that, he swept out of the room.

Weingartner stared holes into Werner in the silence that followed. Gilbert didn’t blame him. What had just happened was—

“Waltz,” the captain finally whispered, “that was extremely dangerous.”

Werner placed a hand on Marionette’s shoulder, guiding her away from the bars. “I apologize, sir, but I thought it would be the best route to get a discussion alone.”

“A discussion?”

Werner blinked. “Yes, for us to discuss our escape plan.”

The Aquarians in the cell across from them all turned their heads at this. Stein, who had laid down after kicking the wall several times moments earlier, jerked up to a stand. Fischer straightened to attention. Gilbert wasn’t surprised by their reactions. The two of them were poster boys for Capricornian military might, after all. But—

“An escape plan?” The captain frowned. “Werner, now is not the time for that. We don’t know this area enough to even remotely begin to plan anything.” He sighed with some semblance of understanding. “I’m aware of your injury, Werner, so I’ll chalk it up to—”

“I have a plan, sir. I ask that you trust me—”

Weingartner’s brows furrowed.

Shit. 

Gilbert grabbed Werner’s shoulder and whipped him around. He studied the man’s face before he found his gaze drawn down to the man’s chest pocket. Without hesitation, he reached into it. Something was there, round and cold. Gilbert stiffened, pulled the object out, and held it out to the light. In his palm rested Werner’s pocket watch that the Argoan lieutenant stolen away from him only minutes before. A sleight of hand had probably returned it into Werner’s—not-Werner’s—possession.

“I said ‘another time,’ didn’t I?” Not-Werner pressed, eyes glinting as he reached over and closed Gilbert’s fingers over the pocket watch. “Trust me.”

Gilbert felt a headache coming on.

Saints. Not this bit—


Threshold

“How will I find where this intruder is ‘embedded’?” Werner Waltz inquired. “The information you’ve given me is subjective. Are their specific locations?” He paused, staring down at Lavi and reconsidering his words. “I would appreciate a more concrete explanation.”

Shion’s lips moved but Werner couldn’t hear her. He cautiously approached the stream of light only to be stopped by a hand around the wrist. Lavi.

“Be careful,” she said. “It’s easy to go over the line at this point.”

“I’m aware of the danger,” Werner replied, eyes narrowing. Just as he was fully aware of the questionability of Lavi’s and Shion’s intentions.

Pulling his wrist out from her grip, he continued forward, drawing short just one exact step away from the stream of light. The touch of the stream was warm, but he knew it was not real.

“I said, ‘nothing precise about it.’” Shion’s milky voice carried over the distance. “Sorry. I know that probably bugs the heck out of you but that’s how it is here.”

That was an unsatisfactory response but acceptable given the situation.

“This incident involves saint candidates and the syzygy.” Werner studied her. “I know you’re aware of this.”

“Sure, I’ll tell you about it,” Shion popped with a shrug. “But not now because time’s a ticking—” She reached across the divide towards him, her pale hand catching a white and almost translucent sheen from the light below.

Werner grabbed her wrist to stop her—rather, he attempted to. Her hand phased right through his, and she tapped the pocket watch above his heart.

“—Don’t lose track of it.”

The stream of light in between them burned bright at that moment, blinding Werner and forcing him to reflexively squeeze his eyes shut. When he opened his eyes, it was dark. A jail of trees imprisoned him in a musty clearing. Before him kneeled a bow-headed Magda Rath. His hand was gripping a gun, his finger hovering above the trigger.

This was most likely one of the ‘memories that needed playing out’ that Shion had mentioned. The very concept was borderline fantastical, but standing by and doing nothing was unacceptable. If it was needed, he would play out his role. However, even with this resolve in mind, Werner couldn’t help but note Magda’s trembling shoulders. Ridiculous. There was no need for hesitation—there hadn’t been any when he initially had taken this action. This was not real—

“How can you even do this to people?”

Werner stiffened, feeling a gaze prick his back. He didn’t need to turn his head to identify the speaker. That voice filled with grievance, that question asked in the same tone as always—Olive. The very first question the prince had ever asked him. The question began to buzz back and forth in his mind like a broken record.

Werner’s finger twitched—seemingly without his will—and moved away from the trigger.

“How can you even do this to people?”

It wasn’t a matter of ‘can.’ It was a matter of ‘must.’ The ‘how’ came easily with practice.

Werner forced his finger back to the trigger.

“Have you ever considered a different profession, Werner?”—Another voice, another question that was asked in passing not so long ago. Asked by Atienna, eyes half-lidded as she listened to the click-clacking of the railroad tracks that pointed in the direction of Capricorn. “You know Olive’s been meaning to ask you all this time. I’ve been meaning to ask this to you and Jericho too. But Jericho—I understand his ‘why’. But… I’m wonder what the ‘why’ is with you. Is it because of conscription—the draft? You don’t have a choice?”

Again, his finger moved away from the trigger.

It wasn’t a matter of choice. It was a matter of duty. And also appearances and therefore expectation which all fell in line with that former concept of duty.

You can meet the expectations of your superiors but can’t meet their expectations? What would they think of you doing something like this? 

They wound understand—

… but do they really understand? Do they understand why you did thisWhy did you do it?

Werner’s gaze focused on the woman kneeling before him.

Because Magda Rath was a coward and a traitor to Capricorn, putting herself and her family before her country.

No. Why did you really do it?

Because it was his duty.

No. There’s no need for appearances here. They’re deceiving. Why did you do it?

Because he hadn’t wanted to see Gilbert executed for failing to follow orders and for deserting his post.

A cold sweat broke across Werner’s forehead.

So you admit it. When you took away Gilbert’s task, you indirectly performed an act of insubordination. You should’ve reported Gilbert to begin with! You chose a person over your country.

“I told you already so many times, Werner,” came a familiar, hot whisper ghosting the back of his neck, “you shouldn’t associate with useless people or other people will think you’re useless too. Appearances are everything. Useless people will always be put in their place, and you can’t let that become your place.”

In a rational mind, this was fact.

“Are you happy when you disappoint me?” The voice slithered down his back again. “It’s okay. As long as you keep up appearances, I’ll—”

Palms burning, Werner pulled the trigger. The sound was hidden by a boom of thunder overhead. Magda Rath’s entire body spasmed, her head snapping forward crookedly. She swayed for a moment before falling forward. As her body hit the ground, it shattered like glass, the fragments taking the shape of scorpions. Hundreds of them, black-bodied and glistening. The arachnids scrambled over each other’s bodies, writhing in a mass of shining blackness.

Werner frowned, shaking one back into the swarming pile as it crawled up on his shoe. Then, something in the body of that pulsating mass caught his eye: a scorpion with an iridescent, cerulean exoskeleton that shone like a sapphire gem. Its stinger was sharp and dripping a dewdrop of venom.

Why do you always disappoint—

Werner crushed the blue scorpion with the sole of his boot, silencing the daunting thoughts in the process. He scraped off the excess against the earth. And as he did so, the woods fragmented around him again and fell away revealing the familiar empty void occupied by a familiar pair and by a familiar stream of light.

“Wow, that was fast! It looked pretty tough too.” Shion clapped. “But that’s expected. Congratulations, one down!”

Lavi, still standing beside him, peered at him curiously. “Are you okay? How’d it go?”

Werner took one second to collect his thoughts and steady his breathing.

That had been an unpleasant experience. That unpleasant memory—paired with other unpleasant ones—had started bleeding into memories he had quietly dubbed as ‘pleasant.’ It was only recently that he had started taking the time to separate the two from each other—this was to better handle situations where one of the other five would inevitably receive some of the memories.

That aside, he would rather not experience it again. But if it was necessary, he would do it once more. However…

A whisp of faded green light suddenly sank down from the blackness above his head and sauntered on towards him. He attempted to side-step the whisp but it rushed forward, passing through him and imparting a brief warmth in his chest.

Simultaneously, a sharp pain shot up the back of his neck to his temples where it built in pressure, almost threatening to explode. He jerked his head subtly but did not bow to the pain—not even as it increased ten-fold, exploding at the back of his head.

Lavi peered up at him inquisitively, while Shion frowned.

And then came the images. Photographic, monochrome snapshots that tumbled down inside his mind without order or context:

Gilbert offering a reluctant hand on a moonlit night in front of a lamia tree. Shifting through Argoan corpses only to discover that they were Capricornian. Nico offering company to a riverbank where a conversation with Heimler and Vogt was held. Traversing through a marshland laced with bitter cold in search of the meeting point with Captain Weingartner. Discovering their fallen camp and Emil, Marionette Engel, and Henning Rath among the carnage. Fleeting battle. A conversation with Heimler and Engel. Capture. And then Henning Rath’s eyes full of rage and hatred as he pulled the trigger to a rifle conductor. And finally, Otto Vogt, lying on the ground, covered in dirt, mud, and blood, paling beneath the graying sky. 

The photographs collaged, the blank spots filled, the lines connected.

The images faded as did the pounding pain in Werner’s head but the heavy hanging dread that squeezed his chest remained. It reminded him of the heaviness that would press upon Chance from time to time.

Werner rubbed the stars out of his eyes and drew his fingers to pinch the bridge of his nose. Memories, most likely. Had all of this occurred while he had been down here?

Atienna had…

He didn’t blame her for the developments. She had little experience with these types of things, after all. The sole responsibility lay with him.

“I’m sorry.”

Werner lowered his hand and registered Shion wearing a somber expression.

“Atienna must’ve been in an override while you were down here. She’s probably fallen out of it since you removed part of the intruder—maybe,” Shion elaborated. “All of that”—she pointed to a whisp of vitae sauntering down from above and joining the river of light—“must’ve come down because of it… I’m really sorry about Otto. About your friend.”

Werner straightened himself and replied evenly, “It’s not unexpected in this occupation. And he was my subordinate—”

Another memory flitted into his mind:

Otto, approaching him with a sloppily wrapped bundle of mint-smelling leaves in the middle of the night when they were stationed in unoccupied territory. “I heard that you were starting to have migraines again,” he’d said. “These… act as anti-inflammatory agents. It might help until we can get back. I promise that I know what I’m talking about. Well, my parents… Er, nevermind, sir. Just. Here. Take it… please?” 

The black abyss began to blur and fragment as the memory with Otto began to solidify within Werner’s mind—

No. Werner shook his head, focusing on the present. He knew he had to ground himself. It was easy to slip here, as Shion had said—Shion who had someone known he’d received these memories. Shion who’d known of Atienna just as she’d known of him.

“I’ve been trying to make it back up there for a very long time,” said Lavi suddenly, twirling a lock of hair. “Only a little bit of me ever gets out, so it’s kinda frustrating to see you guys come here and leave… but that’s the cycle.”

Cycle… Briefly, Werner wondered if Otto’s vitae had somehow made it down to this place and if it would enter that glowing stream. A wishful, ridiculous thought.

Abruptly, out from the stream only five meters down from where Shion stood blossomed a small sapling made of vibrant, white light. That sapling spiraled upwards in a burst of growth, blooming out into a large, white, glowing tree that seemed to be at least ten stories tall. Its trunk was thick, its branches reaching far across the black abyss.

The Great Tree of Virgo?

Lavi hummed. “That tree in Virgo was birthed from a vitae stream, so it’s not surprising to see it here. It has nothing to do with Atienna or your presence, if you were thinking about that.”

A full moon blinked into existence just behind the tree’s branches. The circle of light burned blue and consumed the entire skyline of the abyss, its rays burning at the touch, its pressure suffocating, heavy.

“Now that…” Lavi peered at him. “Probably has to do with you.”

Shion grimaced and shielded herself from the brightness as Werner stared up at it. From this distance, it reminded him of an eye.


[…]

In conclusion, due to their common, shared enemy found at the southern border of Signum, Capricorn and Aquarius hold not only a significant relationship that serves as a cornerstone of peace within Signum but also hold the potential for an alliance that may change the tide of both countries for years to come. With the military might of both, the encroaching country of Argo will surely falter.

Therefore, I ask the Grand Military Generals and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, the Kaiser, to consider putting forth a request for a mutually beneficial military dual pact with Aquarius.

Proposal: DENIED by the Grand Kaiser Kafke Netzche

Proposal on Southern Border Joint Military Efforts, submitted by Fritz von Spiel

15.4: Advisor, 0101 Distance Pain

Re-cap:

Atienna is locked in an override with Werner and scours the unoccupied territory with Werner’s unit in attempt to meet up with Captain Weigartner for a pincering operation against the Argoans.

Atienna and Werner’s unit discover that the meeting point camp that they were supposed to the captain at, however, has been decimated. The Verbudnene Augen leader Marionette Engel, a fellow Capricornian soldier named Henning Rath, and an Argoan named Emil are the only found survivors. As the group heads back to camp to report their findings, they are ambushed by Argoans. And although they win the battle, Otto Vogt is felled not by an enemy weapon but by fellow Capricornian soldier Henning Rath. The cracks in the Capricornian army have become clear.

While of this has been unfolding, an antagonistic voice pounds at the back of Atienna’s mind.


Fernweh » Distance pain at 0101 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

No matter how hard Atienna scrubbed, the blood wouldn’t come off. Rubbing her gloves against the overgrowth eating away at the stream bank failed her as did plunging her gloved hands into the stream’s icy depths. All it did was numb her hands to the point where they felt as if they belonged to another. Which they did.

It was nighttime now. She and Werner’s unit were almost within reach of Capricorn. “About half a day’s walk,” Gilbert had said before they had settled here for the night. They had already passed the lamia trees crowning the area that greeted her at the beginning of the override, and now they had found camp beside a thin stream nestled within a patch of woods.

Nico, Gilbert, Marionette, Emil, and Werner’s subordinates were a meter back behind a line of trees. Atienna had started a campfire for them before secluding herself to this area. “To refill my flask,” she’d told them, gently dissuading Nico when he’d offered to accompany her.

A waxing gibbous moon hung low in the sky, spreading its quiet blue light through the branches weeping overhead. It spilled along the rippling waters, giving the illusion that the river itself was emitting light. The trickle was quiet, crystalline, much like the streams back home.

Their walk to this scenic place had been cloaked in absolute, respectful, somber silence—something akin to a funerary march. They had left Otto’s body in a shallow grave marked by his conducting rifle. Apparently, there existed a special Capricornian division that would come back along these tracks, exhume Otto’s body, and return him home.

Home…

Atienna scrubbed her gloved hands in the water again. When she pulled them back out, the moonlight illuminated the red caked in between the leather. It was different from fighting in the Night Circle—the blood easily washed away from her bare hands there, and there was no death there either. Only hurt pride.

So, the best thing to do would be to peel away these gloves and do away with them altogether. But Werner wouldn’t like that very much and…

How cruel, Atienna thought, for her to wash away Otto like this.

But that was how she was. Always watching from afar and washing her hands of things when they became unpleasant. Only involving herself when it affected the people close to her or when she was pushed to the edge. Playing by curiosity otherwise. Curiously delving into mysteries—into the appendix—when it was a distant affair. But as soon as it was something close to the heart, averting her eyes and peeling away. 

But she was moving instead of remaining still—

—but was she really? And were the results any better?

Otto again flashed into Atienna’s mind. She had heard about people dying every day—read about it, saw it through the eyes of the others. But she supposed that until it was someone one knew, until it was someone one loved, it was all just noise, ink on paper, a distant look through another’s eyes.

And she had seen so clearly with Werner’s eyes at that moment. Even now. Everything defined, detailed, crystalline: Otto’s slowly paling face, his bluing lips, his searching eyes. He must have been utterly terrified, she thought. Dying in front of people he’d probably only known for a handful of months. Dying away from his family.

Did she even know Otto that well to be feeling like this?

Werner did. Diligently attending training exercises, and a quiet presence in the trenches—that was Otto. A space filled. And that was enough.

Oh, Werner. He would blame himself, Atienna knew. But she didn’t know that—

Why was she always feigning ignorance? Didn’t she know everything?

No, she only wished she did.

No, she chose to be ignorant. Knowledgeable when pleasant, selectively ignorant when unpleasant—

“Isn’t that right, Miss Imamu?”

Atienna’s blood ran cold at the familiar voice as red spilled on down towards her from upstream. As she followed that line of red upwards, dread began to build in her stomach. The first thing Atienna saw were her eyes, wide open and blue. Then Atienna saw her throat, bulleted through with a small hole and pouring out red into the blue. 

In the frigid moonlight, Yulia Kriska lay across a rock bed jutting up from the waters. Her ashen face was several shades paler than Otto’s had been, but her eyes were sharp and terrifyingly clear. Despite the odd angle her neck was bent at, she was able to crane her head towards Atienna.

Atienna shot up to a stand.

It was the same thing she had seen when she had been getting water with Nico at the stream bank just the other day. The same thing that appeared in her nightmares. A ghost; a mirage; a trick of the mind possibly due to the override or trauma; an illusion—Atienna knew this. But despite all logic and reason, she couldn’t help but stumble backwards as her heart thundered.

“You pushed me into this,” Yulia said, her voice hollow and gravelly. “I had no other choice.” She began to pull herself forwards along the shallow waters—arms bent at inhuman angles. “We could’ve been free, but you stole my choice from me. Even though you’re just like me.” Her bones cracked as she dragged herself closer and closer. “Did it feel good to win against me? Did it feel good to be ‘right’?”

Atienna took another step backwards, slipped on mud, and fell flat on her back.

“You!” Yulia hissed even closer now—so close that Atienna could see her breath fogging up the air. “You—” 

A pale hand wrapped around Atienna’s ankle. Heart pounding, she followed that pale hand to a pale arm to a pale and blemishless neck, to a round and painfully youthful face.

“—took everything from us,” Kovich seethed.

Atienna swallowed a scream, squeezed her eyes shut, and kicked hard. As soon as the grip around her ankle fell away, she jumped to her feet, arms raised, body tense, eyes open. But—

—there was one. Nothing. Just the silent, quiet stream bathing in moonlight and the trees stretching up to the sky like hands.

The hairs on the back of Atienna’s neck stood on end.

That had felt like a synchronization reminiscent of when she had first started crossing over with the other six. No, it was nothing like that. Here, she was alone. Here, there was no one to experience that with her.

A result of the prolonged override.

Was it…?

All Atienna wanted to do was run into someone’s arms—to Sefu who was always ready at request, to Cadence who would make her laugh, to Werner who would offer her reason and calm, to Maria who would highlight the minisculity of her problems, to Olive who would offer her company, to Jericho who would always listen—but that was impossible in the present situation. And she couldn’t run to Gilbert or any of Werner’s subordinates.

Atienna drifted back into the direction of camp but paused as a thick bush overgrowing with white, star-shaped flowers caught her eye. Absentmindedly, she crouched down by the thrush and inspected the flora. After a moment of consideration, she sank to her knees and crawled into a small space beneath the brambles. Once hidden away, she tucked her knees beneath her chin and buried her head.

In her childhood, she would frequently do this with Safiyah and Bachiru—stowing away into the shrubberies around the meeting halls of Virgo, telling stories, whispering to each other in the damp quiet. Maria too would do this all of the time, Atienna recalled. Yes, Maria and her dear—who? Atienna couldn’t recall at the moment—her mind was so muddled.

Why did she even leave Virgo, to begin with? What had she hoped she could accomplish? Every choice she’d made since putting Usian down had led to terrible outcomes. Even her choice to handle Usian and Virgo’s withdrawal from isolation was questionable. And all of those choices—she had made on her own. But of course now—like always—she was trying to distance herself from her choices. Regrets? Pathetic. 

It was so lonely. She hated it.

Her father’s warm face, her mother’s gentle eyes, her brother’s boisterous laugh, and her sisters’ mischievous giggles as they ran around the estate—those images seeped into the edges of Atienna’s mind.

She missed home. She just wanted to go back, to return to her book reading in the gardens, to return to her visiting the Great Tree weekly and resting her head on her mother’s lap. Even if it meant turning back to the days where she would lift her fists in the Night Circle. 

What…?

Was that what she really wanted? What she truly missed? No, as much as she missed her family, she feared returning to Virgo. She didn’t want to be the only one out of all six of them who remained unchanged, unmoving. Right, all she wanted right now to be anywhere else but here—here where Werner, Gilbert, Nico, Klaus, Otto, and the others spent half of their lives. It was selfish but there was a difference. Still, she was avoiding things again.

Well if she didn’t want to be here and she didn’t want to be there, where exactly did she want to be? Want, want, want, want. And the only way to achieve what was desired was to choose the extreme. 

Why couldn’t there be a path down the middle? If there had been a path like that available maybe then Otto… Yulia… Usian… her mother…

Tears leaked from Atienna’s eyes before she could stop them. They spilled out molten hot, and she put out her hands to catch them. She had not spilled tears for herself in some time, she realized. She didn’t think she’d ever done so. Her tears were usually for someone else, and the last time she had cried for someone else was six years ago after her mother had…

No, she didn’t want to think about that.

“Hey, what are you doing under there—oh… Shit.”

Atienna startled and looked up. She’d been so distracted by her own thoughts that she hadn’t even noticed she had been approached and discovered. What a dangerous position to be in if it wasn’t a familiar face that was looking down at her.

Gilbert stared, one hand prying up branches to her hiding place, the other finding repose on his holster. “Uh… You sure you don’t want me to try hitting you over the head to see if that works? Don’t blame you for not wanting to be here.”

Atienna couldn’t help but chuckle. “Is… that how you usually solve your problems, Gilbert?”

Gilbert gave a noncommittal grunt, sliding himself beside her and kicking up his boots.

His nonchalant directness didn’t surprise her, although she felt shy of it. She wiped her cheeks and hid her face. “This is… a bit embarrassing. I’m sorry. I feel like a child.”

“Nah, you’re pretty good for seeing your first body.” He ripped a flower from one of the brambles hanging overhead and inspected it. “You should see half of the floppies they send here—new recruits, I mean. Get a bit of blood on their uniforms and they’re asking for bleach. Otto was the same. Grew into it though.”

Atienna studied the flower in his hand and thought of OttoAfter a beat, she drew, “This… is not the first time I’ve seen something like this.”

Gilbert squinted at her, dropped the petals. “And… what exactly do you work as again?”

Atienna hesitated but she didn’t quite know why. Although Werner did not admit it, he trusted Gilbert wholeheartedly—and yet, an odd sort of apprehension unfurled in Atienna’s chest at the prospect of divulging everything to him. A flitting nervousness. The type of feeling that would only blossom in her chest when speaking to a stranger.

“I’m an advisor,” she finally said, “for a Virgoan diplomat.”

Gilbert’s eyes widened, and he swore under his breath. “No wonder you’re good with words. Did some weird silver-tongued thing to that Argoan Emil too… I get what Werner means now by your happy-go-lucky possession group being a security issue.”

Atienna suspected that Gilbert’s reaction would be much more dramatic if he realized Olive was a….? Prince—Olive was an Ariesian prince.

There it was again. That fleeting feeling.

“… I heard from Werner that you don’t like them very much. People in my profession, I mean.” Atienna plucked one of the fallen petals from the ground. “Would it reassure you if I told you that I don’t have a direct influence over anything?”

“That’s what they all say. Ask ‘em to change something and they say their hands are tied—either the opposition is pushing back, it’s too much money, or it’s too complex to do.”

Oh. Atienna looked away. She supposed he had a point.

Gilbert sighed and rummaged for something in his pocket before pulling out two rectangular bars wrapped in wax paper. He placed them in her hand. “Here.”

She turned them over and inspected the golden print on brown there. Schokolade.

“Werner’s sister and mother sent these down for him. He didn’t want it, so I stole it from him,” Gilbert explained. “Guys out here would kill for this stuff.”

“Comfort food,” Atienna surmised.

“Go ahead.”

She hesitated before carefully peeling away the wrapping and breaking off one of the six square chocolate blocks. She popped it into her mouth, and her tongue immediately curled. Wincing, she quickly chewed and swallowed.

“Oh, that must be the bitter chocolate.” Gilbert snorted. “His mom’s kind of a health nut. The other bar’s from his sister. Probably milk chocolate if that suits you better.”

“I think I’m satisfied…” Atienna drew, folding the wrapper over itself and handing both bars back to him. “I appreciate your kindness.”

“Keep them.”

Atienna hesitated again before moving to tuck the bars into her front pocket. She paused as she felt something already stored there—round, slender, smooth. The pocket watch, she realized. She reverently pulled her hand away before storing the candies in Werner’s pants pockets instead.

“I can see why Werner relies on you.”

Gilbert stiffened, scoffed. “Trying to butter me up now?”

“He does rely on you, Gilbert,” Atienna murmured, lips curving upwards. A distant memory that was not her own clouded the edges of her mind. Although the image was not clear, the feeling was. “He’s… very grateful for you just being there. Truly.” And because Werner had felt this way, Atienna felt the same. The fleeting feeling from earlier faded with the thought.

“Yeah, well….” Gilbert shrugged with a grimace—perhaps even a slight flush. “I owe him a lot, so it’s good to know that I’m making good on dues.” He sighed. “Third time I’m talking to someone who looks like Werner but isn’t, and I’m still not used to it.”

Humming, Atienna took a sip of Werner’s canteen to wash the bitter taste out from her mouth. “If you don’t mind me speaking about this… You’ve known each other since childhood, right?”

“Yeah. My mom worked as a cleaning lady for his parents.” Gilbert scoffed. “I helped my mom out from time-to-time. ‘Course Werner’d always shove me to the side because I didn’t do a good enough job. Honestly, the guy’s so ‘straight-laced’ that the military probably doesn’t even have to pay him to be out here… He was originally supposed to do stuff in the capital but here he is…”

A complicated friendship. Perhaps as complicated as Cadence’s and Nico’s. Atienna realized she was lucky to have an uncomplicated one with Safiyah.

“You’re a woman of many words.”

Atienna lifted her head, offering a wan smile. “And you’re a man of few.”

Gilbert regarded her before muffled shouting in the direction of camp behind them caused a frown to crease his face. He sighed, getting on his knees and then crawling out of their hiding place. “Can’t leave them alone for one minute,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

He disappeared into the moonlight, his footsteps fading in the direction of camp. The silence that he left did not last long. A stomp of boots crunched a minute afterwards and was followed by hushed whispers. Atienna peered through the spaces between the leaves and made out two figures creeping along the water’s edge. A tall man with red hair and a woman with brown curls—Friedhelm Heimler and Marionette Engel. There was little space between them, and their expressions were tight, their hand gestures animated. Atienna, however, could not overhear them from this distance. Although Werner’s sight was sharp, it appeared that his sense of hearing was not.

Atienna hesitated before slinking quietly through the bushes and approaching them from behind. She made sure not to step on any fallen branches nor any frosted patches dusting the earth. The feat was a bit harder carrying Werner’s weight but she managed to keep to the shadows beneath the overhanging trees. Friedhelm and Marionette continued conversing, bodies turned towards the river.

“—murdered Vogt!” Friedhelm hissed. The moonlight accented the age-lines on his face. “What in saint’s name is going on?”

Marionette pulled away from him, turning away from the river. “I don’t know—” She stopped short as she stared out into the darkness in Atienna’s direction.

Mildly impressed, Atienna peeled out from the dark. “What appears to be the issue here, Friedhelm?”

Friedhelm stiffened, took a step back, shared a look with Marionette before grabbing her arm. “Sorry, sir. Miss Engel said she needed to use the restroom. I—”

“And you’re planning to watch her?”—it did feel a bit nice to be more direct, Atienna thought, although it still seemed too sharp.

Friedhelm cleared his throat. He pushed Marionette roughly towards the thrushes and jerked his head. “Make it quick, Engel.”

Marionette sent Friedhelm a callous look before studying Atienna. She then dipped behind the shrubberies a meter away, tucked into a squat, and went silent. The noise from the trickling stream gave her some privacy.

“How are you feeling, sir?”

Atienna turned to Friedhelm, unsurprised. It was a question asked over and over, each inquirer expecting a different answer. How troubling.

“Er, sorry, if this is overstepping my bounds, sir, but I was just curious. My son was a combat medic, you see. He said head injuries were the worst type.”

Hm. Werner had deemed it unnecessary to investigate why Friedhelm Heimler had decided to re-enlist in the Capricornian army despite holding anti-militaristic views. This was because the military had approved Friedhelm, and that protocol was sufficient. Werner was still straight-laced and law-abiding despite everything, and Atienna found that charming. However, she personally deemed investigation very necessary. Friedhelm’s motivations were… quite curious. Atienna’s fingers itched at the thought—wait. Was a combat medic,” he said? Perhaps, it would be best to approach this in a Cadence-like manner.

“I… appreciate your concern, Friedhelm. I’m feeling alright.” She side-glanced at him. “How are you feeling? After that…”

He side-glanced back at her. She could see the gears in his head turning, calculating.

“I’m alright, sir. Thank you for asking.”

“You mentioned your son was a combat medic,” Atienna continued, trying her best to keep the hesitation out of her voice. “I recall reading that he was serving in the Border Force. My memory is still fuzzy…” She took note of the way his eyes sharpened again, though they appeared pained. “Is your son serving out here with us?”

Friedhelm’s lips pulled tight, his gaze flicking left towards nothing. “He passed away, sir. During the border conflict with Aquarius.”

A coldness gripped Atienna’s chest tight and squeezed. “I… I’m sorry. I didn’t realize… I’m sorry for bringing up something painful.”

It had been recent too. The wound of having his son carved out from his life was still exposed, fresh—perhaps even festering.

“Not bringing it up doesn’t change the fact that it happened,” he interjected, bending down to pick up a rock at the stream’s edge. “With all due respect, sir.”

Truth and… motive. 

Their gazes met. The whites of his eyes seemed to accentuate the black of his pupils. Out of habit, Atienna looked away.

“I thought I was fighting in that war—the Reservoir War—so my son wouldn’t have to fight in another one.” He threw the rock in his hand. It skipped once across the shallow waters. “But look what happened. We’re still fighting. I’ve been at this for years, so I know how it’s going to turn out. If we win whatever piece of land that’s here, they’ll just send us out again. It’s like a drug.” He scoffed. “Cheers to living to fight another day in another man’s war.”

It seemed as if he was very steadfast in his beliefs. And it all appeared to have been sparked by— “I truly am sorry, Friedhelm, for what happened to your son…”

Friedhelm’s eyes glinted again, but then he snorted, undignified. “What are you saying, sir? I served with your father during the Reservoir War. I’m sure he feels the same way….” He paused. “Except you’re still alive. Just think about how your father feels with you out here.”

Atienna wondered about that.

“I mean, look at what happened just now to… to Vogt. What are you going to tell his parents…? No parent should outlive their child.”

Atienna gazed down into her distorted reflection in the stream.

“And before that too. With you. You’re still young in my book, sir. In your current state… it’s only going to get harder for you.”

A rustle from the shrubberies detracted Atienna’s attention. She glanced to the side and found Marionette peeling out from the shadows.

Atienna regarded the woman for a moment before turning to Friedhelm and asking quietly, “Are you thinking of taking advantage of my current condition, Friedhelm?”

Glistening sweat began to trail down the man’s face immediately. “A-Advantage, sir? I apologize if I’ve overstepped my bounds. I was merely stating my opinion—”

Atienna glanced back at Marionette who had stopped short in her tracks. The woman’s stiffness reminded Atienna of the aghast surprise that would grace her younger sisters’ faces when she would catch them sneaking out from their chambers late at night.

“Do you think my mental faculties are so far gone from my injury that you could easily sway me? What do you think influencing me as I am now will even do?” Atienna turned back to face Friedhelm whose face was white. “You’re… part of the Verbundene Augen, aren’t you, Friedhelm? You tried to hide Miss Engel from us when you found her earlier. Perhaps… you knew she was there—”

Friedhelm reached for the pistol strapped at his waist, ignoring Marionette’s hiss of alarm. Before he could pull out the weapon, however, Atienna placed a hand over his—gentle but firm.

“Please don’t be too rash, Friedhelm,” she said, meeting his eyes. “It would be a bit strange if you went against your beliefs right now and drew your weapon, don’t you think? Moral beliefs aside, given your suspicious behavior earlier… I don’t think it would end very pleasantly for you. Gilbert is very sharp.”

Friedhelm stiffened.

“While I believe you have the right to your own beliefs, what you do with those beliefs… is a different matter, don’t you think?” Atienna paused in thought, before continuing slowly, “But right now I’m just trying to understand what’s happened here. Believe me. Many people have lost their lives, and I think it would be sad if we didn’t uncover the why.”

Then the anger came to Atienna—the anger that this man had almost lifted a finger against someone dear to her. Without hesitation, even. If Cadence or Olive had been here in her place instead, what would have happened? This man was a coward attempting to draw a weapon against someone whom he thought was not at full mental capacity. 

Atienna, however, swallowed the bitter pill and waited for Friedhelm to release his weapon before she released his hand. “What were you planning here?”

Silence filled in the lapse in their conversation. Friedhelm glanced past her shoulder towards Marionette.

After a beat, he responded tightly, “Sir, it was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration. I swear on my blood. This is my country—I love it—and I’ve served here far too long to do it any harm.”

“Henning Rath… the other soldier you found… he was a part of the movement too,” Atienna surmised, “wasn’t he? There are many more of you in the Capricornian Army.”

Friedhelm hesitated, eyed Marionette.

“I understand your hesitation. But as I said, Friedhelm, all I want right now is to understand. Lack of understanding is what causes these problems, don’t you think? Politics can wait. It’s only fair to Otto.” —Otto whom Friedhelm might have viewed as a surrogate.

Now Friedhelm looked away. “I received information from a Twin Cities broker about a route here that wasn’t traveled by the Argoans or us, so I told Miss Engel and she took a small group of our members along that route for our demonstration.” He turned back to face her. “I was supposed to meet with them when we met up with the captain for the operation. Then, our members were supposed to join hands and stand together in an act of solidarity, sir. I promise. We weren’t breaking any laws with this demonstration.” He shook his head before frowning and Marionette. “What happened with Rath and Otto, what happened with our meeting point—what the hell was thatMari?”

Marionette studied Atienna hesitantly. The stream seemed to roar behind them.

Finally, the woman said, “I already told you what happened. One of the ones in your division took the first shot…” Her expression was tight yet flat. “I’m not sure how they found out about us. But one of ours retaliated…The situation got out of hand. And that was the result.”

Moment passion could drive people to such extremes—Atienna knew this well. She had experienced this herself six years ago in front of the Great Tree. Words, ideas, or weapons—each could lead to conflict, but one was more dangerous than the others.

Atienna weighed the truthfulness of Marionette’s words before she tried, “When Gilbert—Second Lieutenant Wolff—asked you earlier, you said that this attack happened two days before we arrived.”

Marionette’s brow twitched.

“Would it be a correct assumption to say that you were stretching the truth? To make us think that it had been too long for us to chase after your members that might’ve escaped…?” Upon noticing Marionette’s apprehension, Atienna elaborated: “This is for the sake of the people in your movement too. This is a dangerous place for them to be wandering around, don’t you think? So if they’re closer than we believe, we might be able to retrieve them before someone else does…”

Marionette hesitated. “… I think it was just a day before you came.”

The timeline lined up.

“There was a member of your group dressed in Argoan uniforms,” Atienna continued. “Was this also part of your demonstration ?

Friedhelm and Marionette exchanged looks of confusion.

Atienna elaborated, “The Argoans that we encountered several days before coming to Captain Weingartner’s camp—right before I was injured… there was a Capricornian among them. One of the members of your group may have disguised herself as… the enemy. I’m still wondering the ‘why’.”

What?” Marionette’s eyes widened. “You and your second lieutenant never mentioned this to me—”

“And you never mentioned that you had fellow Augen members in this division, Miss Engel, and you stretched the truth on when your conflict with the captain happened. And—”

And this would’ve never happened if their Augen group hadn’t been there.

Refraining from speaking those unpleasant thoughts, Atienna let out a quiet breath. “But I don’t believe in a lie for a lie or an eye for an eye… So we should try to find an understanding as I said. I don’t believe it would make sense for highly-trained soldiers to attack so rashly nor do I believe that it would make sense for members of an anti-military peace movement to react violently—not unless something pushed them to that point.”

Another encompassing silence.

Marionette finally said, “Argo wasn’t included in our demonstration plan, though a group of them had the misfortune of coming across us during the shootout and got pulled in.” She folded her arms. “But… Recently, I’ve heard rumors. Maybe Capricorn restarted the Watch but made it domestic. Spying on citizens and sewing unrest in organizations that oppose them. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of your soldiers stationed at the camp was involved in something like that. Or maybe even that ‘member of ours’ that you mentioned.”

Oh, conspiracy… not even questioning her own people. Typical. 

Marionette’s nails dug into the skin of her forearm. “Who was it? The woman you found—can you describe her to me?”

Oh. She had more reason than that.

“…The Capricornian was a young woman—perhaps, mid-twenties,” Atienna replied. “She was blonde… And her fingernails painted with your movement’s symbol.”

Marionette sighed. “It must be Angelika… She’s from Grünland and came here with me for the demonstration. I lost sight of her during the shootout at the camp… ” She glanced at Friedhelm. “You wouldn’t know her, Friedhelm. She was a new recruit.”

So, that lowered the possibility of it being an Argoan machination.

Marionette shook her head. “I have no idea what Angelika was doing. She must have panicked or…” She let out a quiet sigh. “Since Angelica isn’t with you, then…”

“She…” Atienna glanced at Friedhelm. “I don’t quite recall, but I believe it may have been a suicide…”

“You mean the Argoan that attacked me?” Friedhelm’s brows rose. “The one that cut you?” He turned to face the other woman. “Mari, she bit her own tongue off.” His gaze darkened. “If you’re moving onto tactics like that—”

Marionette paled. “What…? Don’t be ridiculous. I already told you. I would never ask them to do something like that.”

“Then what was that with Rath and Angelika?” Friedhelm hissed.

And Otto…

“I don’t know,” Marionette replied quietly before shaking her head. “It just got out of hand.”

It was a bit startling to see Friedhelm speak so vehemently, Atienna thought. His docility seemed to have been just a facade. That aside, this was rather perplexing. Marionette didn’t seem to be untruthful here…

“Lieutenant Waltz, they—we—were only trying to… stand up for our rights, for our children, for our country. Believe me. Whatever happened here wasn’t supposed to happen,” Friedhelm urged. “If you explain it to the higher-ups then maybe…”

Feeling a frown press against her lips, Atienna turned to the man but then froze. She couldn’t recall his name. She knew she had known it just a moment before because Werner had known it. But as she continued to stare at the man whose name she could not recall, she realized she could also not recall a single thing about him other than the information he’d just given her regarding his son and his beliefs. Nothing from when he’d joined Werner’s unit, nothing about what he’d been doing serving in Werner’s unit these past few months.

Atienna swallowed, heart racing. Olive had mentioned in passing that he’d lost the ability to understand and speak Capricornian during his override of Werner several months prior. His knowledge—perhaps memory—had been snipped off cleanly during that period. Olive also had said that his comprehension of Capricornian had returned once the override had ended. Knowledge—sewn back on.

Atienna wondered faintly—did overrides lead to a slow and complete disconnect with the knowledge and memories of the others?

How frightening…

Was that really how she felt? Or was she relieved at no longer being put under the pressure of the memories of those who were constantly making her choose? All choices led to misfortune. There was no such thing as satisfaction. 

Relieved ‘at no longer having the others forcing her to choose’…? What…?

And then it dawned on Atienna.

“Who… are you…?” she whispered in reserved disbelief, staring past the shoulder of the man whose name she could not recall and into the moon-streaked woods.

That voice inside her head—although it sounded like it—was not her own. She knew this with absolute certainty. It did not belong to any of the others either.

That was ridiculous. What voice would it be if not her own?

Yes, it was a bit of a stretch. Perhaps it was that she’d gotten so used to the others buzzing around inside of her head that she had forgotten what it’d felt like to be alone with her own thoughts. She supposed it was a relief—

Exactly. 

There it was again. The misstep. The incorrect assumption. The truth of the matter was that it was the five who were pushing her forward. Without them, she knew she would remain firmly rooted to the ground. No different from The Great Tree, eternally growing. That was one of the reasons why she needed them. She was glad that they were making her choose.

I wouldn’t be me, she thought, if I didn’t think like this. I would like it if you didn’t test me like this… whoever you are. 

There was a beat of silence and her ears rang.

She really was a clever one. 

Atienna’s chest tightened.

Cvetka was right about you.

Cvetka? Atienna’s mind raced. Cvetka’s employer— 

“Er… sir…? I’m Friedhelm Heimler.” The ginger-haired soldier whose name she had forgotten gestured to himself in front of her. “Do you not recognize me? Should I get Fabrizzio or Brandt?”

The memory came back instantly but Atienna was in no state to feel relieved.

When did you get here? Atienna’s eyes narrowed. Her nerves lit on fire as she suddenly became hyperaware of both Friedhelm’s and Marionette’s un-averted gazes. What are you trying to do? 

Why are you acting like I’m doing something? It’s their choice and their actions. Your actions. You all did this to yourselves. 

‘Their’ choice? ‘Their’ actions? Whose? No, those words had been bait. A distraction. What she needed to focus on was the important facts:

Cvetka’s employer. Saint candidacy, which was a possible criterion for conducting without a conductor. Werner’s cut. The blue cracks spreading along Rath’s blade when he’d attacked Wilhelm. Displaced Capricornians. The misplaced anger. These thoughts that were not her own. How terrifying it would be if these were all connected.

Oh, you really are clever.

All this speaking of ‘cleverness’—Atienna was certain that this wasn’t so much as her own cleverness as this intruder’s foolishness.

Who do you think you are calling me foolish? The thought seemed to boom out from all around her—a scraping voice of vehement. Take a good look at yourself!

The world suddenly spun, the moonlight sheering through the trees and burning her skin silver. The light painted the branches white in a way that made them reminiscent of the ever-glowing Great Tree. The branches looked like they were scratching across the clearing towards her. A suffocating feeling like she was being watched crept along her spine as she buckled beneath the overwhelming feeling of dread.

Friedhelm caught her. “S-Sir?”

Calling me a fool when you go skirting around hard decisions and expecting your choice to be the righteous one that’ll satisfy everyone. A person like you can never be happy nor can the people around you ever be happy. Even the choice of happiness is just too much for someone like you to even bear. And that will just drag down everyone else around you.

Atienna’s head pounded. Her mind reeled. How deep did this intrusion go?

I don’t need you highlighting my flaws, Atienna managed calmly. I know exactly how I am. More than you do.

Then that makes everything you do… the voice continued. And Atienna’s heart plummeted in her chest as the venomous words rang out in her mother’s gentle, warm tone: …so much worse.

Friedhelm startled at something past her shoulder. The white of his eyes glowed in the moonlight, and his lips pulled back into a grimace. Tensing, Atienna whipped around and froze. Out from the trees in the direction of camp slinked men and women garbed in Argoan uniforms. They peeled out from the dark, rifles ready and aimed, eyes sharp and murderous.

So close to the border…?

Atienna tensed. Too many. She couldn’t risk injuring Werner like this. She couldn’t face them alone.

And you will continue to be alone. That’s what happens to people like you. You can never be happy because you refuse to make a choice—

No… She did make choices. With Usian. With… Yulia.

What’s the point of making a choice when you start pulling back at the last moment?

Atienna bit the inside of her cheek as her fingers began to itch. She stopped herself before the heat of the moment possessed her, however, and lifted her hands into the air Friedhelm and Marionette eyed followed suit.

But it’s okay. I will continue to watch over you even though you’re all so ugly. 

One of the Argoans approached her and nudged the tip of his rifle to her back. The silent ‘move’ was clear. The Argoans led Atienna back through the woods at gun-point along with Friedhelm and Marionette.

The voice remained silent all the while, but Atienna still felt nauseous.

Despite their gradual approach to the warm firelight of camp, Atienna felt only coldness in her chest. Once they arrived, they found another ring of Argoan soldiers interspersed among the rolled-out sleeping bags dotting the trodden ground.

Gilbert was bound, gagged, and kneeling at the center of the clearing beside the smoldering campfire as were all of Werner’s subordinates. The formerly bound Argoan Emil was standing behind the group and holding a rifle. When he met Atienna’s gaze, he tensed and looked away towards a tall, thin man kicking up dirt into the campfire.

When that man noticed Atienna’s guided approach, he turned and eyed the medals on her uniform. Then, he sneered. “You must be Werner Waltz. I’ve heard many things about you, Cold Eye. Everyone keeps their head low back home because of you. But look at you now. You can’t even look at me in my eyes!”

Oh dear... Atienna stared at Gilbert past the Argoan’s head. She didn’t think she had time to deal with someone like this. There were more pressing matters at hand.

The man spat in the dirt and jeered. “All you Capricornian pigs should be happy. As of today, you’re Argoan property.”

15.3: Lance Corporal, 0610 Enemy Encounter

Re-cap:

Atienna is locked in an override over Werner. After discovering that a Capricornian was disguised among their Argoan attackers, she follows Gilbert’s lead to complete the mission assigned to them–to meet with Captain Weingartner in the unoccuppied territory. As they near their point of destination, however, they find that the captain’s camp has been ransacked and three survivors remain: an Argoan named Emil, a fellow Capricornian soldier, and Marionette Engel of the Verbundene Augen movement.

Meanwhile, Werner finds him at the supposed threshold of life and death where he untangles himself from a memory only to encounter Lavi and the owner of the mysterious voice that always escapes his memory.


Feindliche Begegnung » Enemy encounter at 0610 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine was accustomed to seeing dead bodies. He’d seen his first five years ago in his city-town of Buchstadt before he’d even been officially deployed. That day, the newspapers had praised Capricornian victory against an Argoan onslaught from Abschnitt 45 to 51, pushing forth celebrations all across the country. What the government gifted their citizens for their victory and sacrifice were caskets. They were of polished black wood, engraved with rigid gold lines, and embossed with the Capricornian sea-goat. No names designated.

The first casket to arrive in Buchstadt contained the body of Klaus’s senior at the military academy, Ulrich Stoeffman. Klaus had been witness to Stoeffman’s mother’s tears as the Militärpolizei peeled away the coffin lid to reveal his body. She had caressed Stoeffman’s pale face and wailed for hours—all in the town square.

That night, a resident fire Elementalist Conductor set all the bodies and caskets aflame as they sang the country’s national anthem.

For mother, for father, 
For glory, for honor,
Victory is upon us…”

Fear thundered through Klaus’s bones as he’d repeated the hymn ingrained in him since primary school. As his childhood friend Charite—before she became Omicron—had gripped his arm tightly, he could hear her thoughts echoing his own. I don’t want to die; I don’t want to die.

When Klaus had seen his first dead body on the battlefield—one felled by his own conjured rifle and fresh with ichor pouring out from all bodily orifices—he had puked. Stein had tormented him all the while, urging him to conjure a book “to help him grow some balls.” Klaus had continued to heave on the ground until First Lieutenant Werner Waltz ripped him up to a stand with an iron grip.

“Enough, Private Kleine,” Werner had said coldly. “You’re a Capricornian. If you have time for regrets, then you’re wasting my time.” In other words, there was no time for regrets.

And it was true.

Even here at their mysteriously fallen camp, as Klaus joined the others in collecting the name tags from their own and the Argoans, there was no time for regrets—no time to wonder if they could’ve done anything more, if they could’ve come earlier.

Stein swore from beside Klaus suddenly. He plucked a tag from a corpse draped over a log. “It’s fucking Lukas. He… He owes me twenty marks from poker.”

Klaus glanced down and registered the face of the man he had lent a book to only a week prior. He grimaced and gave an internal Monadic prayer before his gaze trailed over to a clearing in the campsite where Gilbert, Nico, and Werner—Atienna—stood in front of three seated individuals. The first was the captive Argoan Emil. The second was the survivor Heimler had found, Henning Ratha soldier from the 212th Division whom Klaus was not familiar with. Lastly, there was Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augen.

Klaus had been keeping a sharp eye on her political movement for some time now. He happily ate up the group’s surprisingly uncensored news pieces in his free time.

“A Capricorn without war.” It sounded nice.

***

At dusk, Klaus handed off a dozen tags to Second Lieutenant Wolff at the center of camp. Nico, Marionette, Emil, and Rath stood in a cluster just a meter away from Gilbert. Vogt was stationed behind them, watching like a hawk. Atienna was not present.

“Kleine.” Gilbert jerked his head and motioned him closer.

Kleine swallowed and complied.

“Go keep an eye on ‘Werner’ for me. He was collecting the tags and moving the bodies with the others, but I had him start the campfire instead.” Gilbert nodded across the field where Atienna was collecting pieces of wood from desecrated tents within eyesight.

“Yes, sir.” Klaus eyed Marionette Engel. “Sir, can I ask… how she even made it past the border?”

“Don’t think too hard, Kleine, and keep your damn lieutenant company,” was Gilbert’s response to that.

And that was that.

By the time Klaus made it over to Atienna, her fire was already crackling away. She was seated before it, knees pulled up to the chest, staring into the flames. At his approach, she lifted her head and offered him a small smile:

“Oh… hello, Klaus.”

It was odd hearing his first name used out here. But it was nice. Made him feel like more than a cog in the machine. Made him feel a little bit more human.

“Hi…” Klaus fumbled with his glasses. “Er… you’re good at making fires.”

“Oh, I’ve had quite a lot of practice.” The corners of Atienna’s—the lieutenant’s—eyes crinkled. “Is there something I can do for you?”

Weird but pleasant.

“I… was just wondering what Miss Engel, the Argoan, and Rath said about what happened here.” —A half-lie. He didn’t think she’d like the idea that he’d been sent over to keep an eye on her, after all.

“Oh…” A soft hum. “Did Gilbert not tell you this himself?”

Klaus stiffened. When he locked gazes with her, however, her lips were turned up slightly.

“But…” She averted her eyes. “A friend of a friend of mine advised that if you can’t solve a problem, you should ask a friend for a different perspective. And I agree.” Before Klaus could digest what she meant, she continued, “The three have differing stories… Miss Engel says that she came with a group of protesters. They planned to form a line at the middle of the unoccupied territory… She didn’t elaborate on her plans much further than that and demanded a lawful representative.”

A demonstration? One that seemed dangerous and stupid.

“She says that the Capricornians discovered her group and started attacking, so they tried defending themselves. Mr. Rath says that Miss Engel’s group attacked them first, and they defended themselves. He lost sight of Captain Weingartner during the confusion but suspects that he retreated. That Argoan—Emil—is still in shock… poor thing.”

‘Poor thing’—coming from the lieutenant’s mouth was very weird. Especially when it was in regards to an Argoan.

“Miss Engel didn’t mention anything about why she was in a Capricornian uniform—not even the possibility that it was used for her demonstration … which is a bit strange, don’t you think?”

“It’s like someone was trying to hide her identity,” Klaus realized, sinking down beside her. “Or maybe they were trying to blend in with us? Did she do it herself? What’s the point?”

“That’s exactly what I’m wondering,” Atienna murmured. “An elaborate political demonstration that’s gone wrong…?”

Klaus studied her and figured that she was probably a pretty person, before he cleared his throat. “It’s best to leave this to higher command. This isn’t really your problem to solve.”

“Are you saying that I’m an outsider looking in?” She side-glanced at him, Werner’s eyes piercing and cold. “And what makes you think you know who I am? I’ve seen you through Werner’s eyes, but you haven’t seen me. I might be closer than you think”

Klaus stiffened beneath that frigid gaze.

“I’m sorry. I was just teasing you.” Atienna chuckled, looking away sheepishly. “I know exactly where my place is. It’s not something I wonder about.”

Klaus liked Atienna. A lot. And he also knew his place like she did. Cog in the wheel. Part. Replaceable. Easy to do it—as easy as it was to conjure a single part of a conductor.

“I’m sorry you had to see all of this,” Klaus said after a beat, adjusting the strap of his conjured rifle. “It’s ugly…”

“It’s something Werner and the rest of you have to face every day. It seems a bit wrong that you’re apologizing to me… I’ve only collected fifteen tags so far, but you’ve collected so many more.” A hum. “Gilbert is more careful than he appears to be—sending you over here like this. Although I do enjoy the company.”

So she knew.

“I know Werner already gave you his condolences about Omicron—Charite…” Atienna continued. “But I would like to offer you it myself. I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds by saying this… but Charite was heroic in her last moments. I’m certain her encounter with you was one of the things that spurred her on.”

A slight heaviness entered Klaus’s chest as faint memories of his childhood wandering his hometown with Charite filtered into his mind. He wished he could mourn her more—mourn more for the others in his unit who had died too. But it was hard. A waste of time, even.

Wait. ‘Condolences’?

Klaus thought back to the lieutenant’s words just before they had left the Twin Cities.

“The ELPIS leader Omicron passed away,” Werner had said, after pulling him aside. “I’m heading to the capital with the second lieutenant, Bergmann, and Stein. While you’re expected to make a report yourself, the report isn’t due until a week from now. The train ride to the capital will take approximately two to three days.” He’d paused. “Take as much time within that allotted period that you require. Just be sure to report to the capital before the deadline. You’ll be marked if you don’t, Lance Corporal Kleine.”

Now that Klaus thought about it, the lieutenant had been unusually considerate in his approach. Klaus himself had been too dazed by the revelation of Charite’s death at the time to register it. Afterwards, he’d used the allotted time before the reporting deadline to visit Charite’s parents in his hometown. He couldn’t tell them anything, of course, but he’d thought his presence was better than nothing.

“Are you alright, Klaus?” The lieutenant’s voice in Atienna’s tone jarred Klaus from his thoughts.

“I’m just… a bit confused,” Klaus replied. “This… override is lasting a very long time.”

Atienna nodded, sullen.

“I just want to preface this by saying that this is a complete compliment.” Klaus squeezed his knee. “But this isn’t a place for someone like you… Not a place for Bergmann, Vogt, or me either. People who are here collect enemy military tags like they’re trophies. They hold scoreboards for who’s killed the most.”

Vogt and Heimler approached the fire from behind them and took a seat across the flame.

Atienna asked, “Do you really think they are excited about taking another life?” Her eyes seemed to ask—Do you think Werner is?

Klaus eyed the two newcomers before shrugging. “Stein said that he’d be happy to shoot even a half-Argoan Capricornian if he could… sir.”

Atienna hummed, placing a hand on her cheek. “…Things said out loud aren’t able to fully reveal what lays behind, don’t you think? And I’m not referring to just lies and self-deception.”

Klaus realized Atienna was a bit odd. Her way of speaking was very roundabout.

“Even though I’m speaking honestly with you now, I’m not able to fully convey my thoughts. Words simply aren’t enough. Neither are actions.” Atienna side-glanced at Heimler. “Perhaps that’s why there’s so much conflict… That small bit of discrepancy is all that it takes to switch something from being perceived as ‘right’ to being perceived as ‘wrong.’ Justice and vengeance. Maybe that’s why we can’t achieve peace. Because we can’t fully convey everything to each other.”

Heimler stiffened. Klaus couldn’t dissect the exchange.

Atienna’s gaze lingered a moment longer before she turned back to the flame. “Maybe… you would think that being able to know another’s thoughts—without needing to use words—would resolve this issue.”

Was she referring to her connection as a ‘True Conductor’ with Lieutenant Waltz and the Geminian redhead?

“You can liken it to reading the appendix or a glossary of a book… But seeing those types of book sections just makes you more aware of everything you don’t know, don’t you think? …Or is it better that way?”

Klaus figured it was a question that didn’t require an answer—

“It would make it harder, sir, I think,” Vogt interjected—Klaus assumed the silence had compelled him to respond. “The appendix… If you have too much information… it could make you hesitate. You wouldn’t be able to do as you’re told.” He eyed Atienna’s shoulder. “… That was one of my problems when I first started. I know that now, sir”

“What do you think the correct answer is then, Otto?”

“T-The… answer?” Vogt blinked, perplexed. He glanced at Klaus then at Heimler before meeting Atienna’s gaze. “Find… a balance?”

Atienna didn’t respond, averting her eyes ever so slightly.

Vogt melted. “I didn’t mean to interrupt the conversation, sir—”

“You… didn’t interrupt. You contributed.” The corners of Atienna’s eyes crinkled again. “There is a difference.”

“Right…” Vogt scrubbed a chunk of dirt off of his boot with his heel. “By the way… are you feeling any better, sir? With your head injury, I mean.”

There was a glint in Atienna’s eye. “Are you alright, Otto? You’ve been working hard today…”

Vogt perked up. “I’m fine, sir.” He reached for his neck and ran his fingers along the tag that hung there glinting silver in the firelight. “I… It’s nothing. Thank you for asking.” He scuffed his shoes again and tried hesitantly, “I hope this doesn’t affect our leave….”

“Leave?” Atienna murmured.

“Military leave.” Vogt nodded, relaxing fully. “To go home. I haven’t been back in over three months. They keep increasing the number of operations I have to take every time I meet the quota.”

“Yes… It would be nice… to go home.”

“Home with all the booze,” came a singsong voice from behind. It was Stein, squeezing himself in between Vogt and Heimler. “With all the home-tied beauties ready to admire all my medals.” He shoved Vogt to the side. “Heard Heimler got loaded after the Reservoir War and lives in a mansion. What’ve you got to look forward to returning to, Vogt? Your mom?”

“Your botanical store-school, right, Otto?” Atienna interjected.

Vogt’s fallen expression brightened. “Yes, sir. But… Stein is right. I miss my mom’s potato pancakes more than anything else. She made the best in the town. Grows her own. Potatoes, I mean.”

Stein snorted.

The corners of Atienna’s eyes crinkled again. “Do you not miss your family, Derik?”

Stein stiffened and then shrugged. “Well, of course, I miss my parents, sir. It’s just not something to think about out here.” He held a mock gun, aimed it at Vogt, and fired. “Here, I’m just thinking about the number of Argoans I can shoot down with one vitae ray.”

Klaus regarded Stein silently.

***

At the crack of dawn, Gilbert made the call for them to set off back to the border to report in their findings. After tallying up all of the tags overnight, it was clear that a handful of soldiers in Captain Weingartner’s platoon were missing. This included the captain himself, Emilia Bergmann, and several others. Gilbert had surmised that the missing had either retreated or had been captured. Klaus was relieved beyond belief at the possibility of Bergmann and the captain still being alive—and at the fact that they were returning home.

Their route back to the border was accompanied by lightning clapping through the sky. By the smell of the air, Klaus forecasted rain within the hour. The occasional booms of thunder shaking through the trees stretching around them made Klaus wonder if they would have to find a hole-in for the night. No one looked like they were ready to entertain the idea.

Emil and Marionette Engel sauntered on sandwiched in-between Stein and Heimler. Rath limped just behind them with the Gewehr-43 conducting rifle Klaus had conjured for him dangling in his hands. Usually, Klaus would feel disrespected by the mistreatment of creations, but at the moment he was in decent spirits. After all, he could almost taste and smell home—

A loud crack resounded again, but not from above. It thundered out from the thicket of mist and trees to their left. A high-pitched whine accompanied the sound and was followed by a snap as one of the branches from the trees to their right splintered off from its base. Then came the barrage. Bullets peppered down on them like torrenting rain. One whizzed by Klaus’s ear, while another struck the ground a centimeter away from his foot.

“Take cover! The trees!”

Instinct moved Klaus before Gilbert’s orders reached his ears. He dove behind the tree-line to his right and swung himself behind a thick trunk before falling into a crouch. He pulled his rifle from his shoulders and wrapped his fingers around the trigger—ready to fight. But as the trunk behind him shook with pounding bullets, he shrank further into himself.

Wait.

How many made it?

Atienna.

Klaus stiffened and scanned the area to his left. The combat medics Nico and Alwin were hidden behind a cluster of thin trees just a drop away. Behind a thick fallen log to his right, Fischer and Stein were caged around Marionette and Emil. A shaking Rath was pressed against the floor in front of them. It looked like he had somehow lost the conducting rifle. A waste.

Klaus glanced right. Relief came soon afterwards as he rounded off survival numbers in his head.

Vogt and Gilbert were pressed back against the tree stump beside him while Atienna was seated low in-between them. There was sweat beading her brow but her eyes were eerily calm, her breathing even. Almost like Werner.

For a moment, the barrage of bullets halted.

Maybe the lieutenant—

“Are you all alright?” Atienna asked quietly under her breath.

The illusion shattered.

Before Klaus could reply, another storm of bullets sprayed just above their cover. Stein and Vogt both lifted their rifle conductors and returned fire, only to be hampered down by another flurry of metal. Machine-gun? Klaus had heard about the Argoans developing higher-caliber artillery in the past few months, but this was something else.

“I need a headcount! How many of them are there?” Gilbert shouted, whipping around the trunk to fire off into the fog before pulling back again as a barrage of bullets ricocheted just above his head. “Dammit… how the hell did they get around us?” He swore. “This is why Werner wanted some damn Manipulators in this unit! Is that too much to ask for? Just a bit of damned medium-surveillance?!”

Vogt gave him an odd look before glancing at Atienna.

“Stein, Vogt, help me give Fischer some cover fire,” Gilbert ordered before nodding at the plethora of short-ranged conductors clipped to the latter’s belt. “Fischer, put those things to damned use.”

Atienna stiffened.

“Don’t worry,” Gilbert muttered to her. “He’s trained for this.”

Not seeming to hear the exchange from the short distance, Fischer nodded, locked eyes with Rath, and tossed the man his conducting rifle. He then pulled out a bladeless hilt from his waist and ignited it in amethyst with a flick of his wrist.

“Kleine.” Gilbert nodded. “Grenade.”

Klaus lifted his conductor-gloved hands, closed his eyes, and concentrated. He pictured the strike lever, the detonator, the percussion cap, the filling hole. Everything exact. One wrong ingredient and the entire thing could go off in your hands, as the instructors at the military academy had said.

His palms warmed and his arms became heavy. He, however, kept his concentration sharp. One last detail. One last serrated, cast-iron shell and—there. Klaus opened his eyes as the grenade solidified from the sky-blue light emitting from his palm.

Gilbert nodded at him. Signaled one, two, three. “Now!”

Klaus pulled the pin, drew out from cover, locked eyes with shadows moving through the smog, threw. A boom rang out a second later, followed by a gust of smoke and heated wind. Stein and Vogt immediately opened fire into the opposing tree-line. Fischer darted out from behind the protective cover fire and zipped through the mesh of fog and smoke. He slipped into the gray shroud, the light from his ignited blade serving as the only indication of his position. The faint amethyst line of light slithered through the smog in an arc before swinging up in a circle. A hissing sound as vitae tore through metal followed this motion, and the gun-gattling ceased. Then came the minute pops of gunfire followed by howling screeches.

It was a bit funny how they all sounded the same, whether they were afraid or dying—whether Argoan or Capricornian.

Gilbert signaled them to move forward. Projectors first. Combat medics last. Stein on Marionette and Emil, and Atienna ‘keeping an eye out’ behind the trees.

Rifle ready, Klaus filtered out behind Gilbert in a low crouch alongside Vogt. He kept close to the latter private as he always did—ready to conjure another conductor if Vogt cracked his insulation system or his conducting core as he usually did. Klaus himself scanned for movement in the smoke. There. Just two meters away. A woman was trying to reload her rifle. This was where conductors dominated.

Vogt fired his conductor at her before the woman could get the bullet into the chamber. She folded onto the ground. Gilbert gave a firm nod before disappearing into the gray. One down. Unknown number to go—

“Kleine, behind!”

Klaus whipped around at Vogt’s shout just in time to see an Argoan charge at him from behind with a bayonet. Less than a meter away. This was it—

But there was a loud crack, and suddenly the bayonet was spinning up into the air. The Argoan grunted, staggering backwards away from the one who had kicked up his weapon: the lieutenant—no, Atienna.

She grabbed the Argoan, swept his legs out from underneath him, and then drove his face into the ground in one swooping motion. Swinging her rifle off her shoulders, she cracked the butt of it against the back of the Argoan’s head before swinging it out and jabbing it into the gut of another Argoan coming up just behind her. She uppercut him with the rifle a second later, and when he fell to the ground, she pounded down on his face twice, thrice, until he was no longer moving. She pulled back, panting heavily before turning around—

“Are you alright, Klaus?”

Beneath all of that odd concern, her eyes were afire. She looked like how Stein looked after he made a headshot. Absolutely…. alive.

The Argoan she had just incapacitated abruptly whipped out a pistol from his holster. Before he could fire it off, however, an arc of shimmering amethyst light severed his gun-wielding hand from his arm. The Argoan screeched in alarm but was soon muted as the amethyst light drilled its way through his chest.

Panting heavily, Fischer pulled his blade conductor out from the Argoan’s torso, turned to Atienna, and searched her face for approval. The only thing he found there, however, was wide-eyed shock. But before anything could be said, another figure lunged out at them from the smokescreen with a roar. It was—

—Rath?

The Capricornian tackled Fischer to the ground with a snarl.

“I’m friendly!” Fischer snapped, deactivating his conductor as he held up his arm to defend himself. “Look at my uniform! My conductor!”

Rath let out a guttural growl as he ripped Fischer’s conductor from his hands. Stumbling backwards, he flicked his wrist and activated the blade with a shimmer of light yellow. “You! It was one of you! My Magda!” And then he swung it down.

Fischer swiftly drew out another blade-less conductor from his belt and activated it just in time to block Rath’s oncoming attack. Sparks erupted as the blades screeched against each other. The steam from the heat and their panting breaths filled in the space between them.

Before Klaus could react, another pepper of gunfire came down in their direction. He ducked low, rolled into a wave of smoke cloud billowing towards him, and aimed his rifle at three Argoans who peeled out from the smog. Two shots. One to the chest, one to the face. Vogt took down the other one with a vitae-ray straight through the head. The Argoans dropped dead. Danger eliminated.

When Klaus turned back to Fischer and Rath, he found that their two vitae blades were still scratching against each other. But—something about Rath’s vitae blade looked odd. Cracks ran along its body—cracks that reminded Klaus of the vitae cracks that had run along the lamia tree Atienna had taken an interest in the other day. The cracks along Rath’s blade were dark blue instead of white, however, and they were pulsating, spreading. In an eerie fashion, the cracks crept forward along Rath’s blade towards Fischer’s blade—

Atienna kicked both Fischer’s blade conductor and Rath’s conductor up out of their hands before the strange cracks were able to complete whatever course they were taking. Without skipping a beat, she lunged forward and kneed Rath in the abdomen before grabbing him by the scruff and throwing him over her shoulders. He hit the ground with a thud before groaning and remaining motionless. Pulling away from him, she turning her attention to Fischer.

“Sorry, sir.” Fischer panted.

Atienna offered him a silent hand. Fischer startled before accepting it as if it were a gift from a saint. Klaus had never understood Fischer’s gushing admiration for Werner. While Klaus did respect his lieutenant, he wasn’t fanatical.

A movement from behind the two cut the moment in half. A bloodied-face Rath had pulled himself up into a sit and was now pointing a weapon he seemed to have pulled out from nowhere at them. The conducting rifle Klaus had conjured for him earlier.

Rath fired off two bursts of vitae without hesitation before Fischer charged at him with a newly drawn dagger conductor. Klaus dodged the blasts as did Atienna—her movements swift and fluid. Fischer drove the conducting knife into the man’s gut before pulling it upward in one clean slice. There was a splurge of red followed by the smell of unnatural iron and then silence.

Heaving, Fischer pushed Rath’s divided corpse off himself before turning to face them. Then, he stared past them. Klaus froze and followed his gaze right to Vogt—no, to Vogt’s stomach.

Klaus took in a breath. “No…”

Vogt whimpered as he stumbled backwards. He unbuttoned the front of his singed uniform, peeled away the fabric that had melted into his skin, and gripped his abdomen. “Oh, saints. Oh no… please no.”

It was an ugly, gushing wound, and for a faint moment, Klaus thought he could see right through it.

Atienna was at Vogt’s side in an instant, catching him before he hit the ground.

“M-Medic!” Klaus shouted hoarsely, running up to their side. “Alwin!”

Atienna pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket, placed it over Vogt’s wound, and applied pressure. Klaus found himself looking to her—to the person who wore his lieutenant’s face—out of habit for direction but instead found her looking to him for reassurance.

The world blurred; the background popped with spits of gunfire; Vogt’s sobs cut in out of the deafening sounds; and then came the pounding footsteps. Klaus whipped around with his rifle drawn but stopped short. Finally.

Nico and Alwin, conducting gloves already equipped, seated themselves on opposite sides of Vogt. Atienna’s gaze flicked from medic to medic, but all Klaus could focus on was Vogt—Otto.

“Get the morrowheat from my left lower pocket,” Nico said. “It’s the liquidized version. Inject it in his left leg. Keep applying pressure, Ati—Lieutenant. You’re doing good.”

Klaus fumbled through Nico’s orders, pulling out a capped needle from the man’s pocket and injecting it into Otto’s leg as instructed. As he did this, Alwin pulled a combat knife from his belt and tore open Otto’s pants leg. While Atienna continued to apply pressure to the wound, Nico and Alwin began to run their conducting gloves from the skin of Otto’s exposed lower leg to the gaping wound at his abdomen.

Another set of footsteps crunched on towards them from behind causing Klaus to finally realize that everything had fallen deathly quiet. No gunfire, no screams, no booms.

Gilbert emerged from the fog a moment later, rifle still gripped in his hands, but with loose shoulders and hop in his step. “The lot of them are retreating. We—” His eyes widened as he registered Rath’s corpse and then Otto bleeding out on the floor. He turned to the opposite woods and whistled sharply. “Stein, if you’re still alive, bring those two out here. Now!”

A smirking Stein came out from the wooded cover a second later with Marionette and Emil in tow. Upon laying eyes on Otto, however, the man swore. He then swiveled around and drove the butt of his conductor against Emil’s head. “You damn groan! This was a trap, wasn’t it?!”

Emil yelped and hit the ground before curling up into a ball. “It wasn’t! It wasn’t! I don’t know anything!”

“Dammit, Stein! Enough!” Gilbert ordered. “One headache at a damn time. Keep a damn eye out.” He sank to a crouch beside Nico and glanced between him and Alwin. “How’s it looking?”

“We’re almost done with the graft,” Nico replied, forehead dripping with sweat as he continued to move his conductor from Otto’s leg to his stomach, “but he’s lost too much blood.”

During Stein’s ordeal with Emil, Atienna had been ushered aside by the combat medic and now hovered beside Klaus. She looked between them all with a painfully hopeful expression.

Alwin nodded at Nico in agreement. “We need to get him to a dressing station.”

“He…” Nico hesitated. “He might not make it.” He shook his head. “We need to stabilize him for transport. Klaus, get a gurney ready.”

Conjuring the gurney wasn’t as difficult as conjuring a grenade. Fewer parts, less dangerous. It took less than a second for Klaus to create it, and with Atienna’s help, he situated it parallel to Otto’s body.

Nico and Alwin peeled away from Otto as they finished their transmutation. Beneath all of that blood, they had managed to pull over a thin sheet of skin over his stomach. The transmuted area glistened in the dull light looking like it’d tear at any moment. Otto looked like a corpse.

Klaus had seen this many times. It was always strange—how fast the color was drawn out from a person’s face as they were dragged closer and closer to the door of death. Pink to pale white to ashen gray.

“We need a transfusion,” Nico muttered. He glanced up at Alwin. “Otto is type-O, right?”

Alwin nodded and grimaced. “No one in the unit is—”

“I… I am…” Atienna whispered, placing a hand on Nico’s arm.

Nico’s eyes widened and then softened, and he consoled her: “Werner is type-A. Otto is the only type-O in the unit. ” He called out to Marionette and Emil. “Type-O! Are any of you type-O?!”

No one answered. No one moved.

“None of you are type-O?!” Nico swung around wildly before his face crumpled. “Let’s just move him as fast as we can. Help us get him onto the gurney.”

Stein came around, swinging his conductor over his shoulder and locking eyes with Klaus as he hooked his hands underneath Otto’s arms. Klaus nodded, grabbing Otto by the legs. One, two, three—

Otto cried and kicked and squirmed as they hoisted him up. “Let me down! Let me down! Please! It hurts!”

“F-For, saint’s sakes, Vogt!” Stein snapped. “We’re trying to save you, you pussy!”

“Put him down!” Alwin shouted. “His transmutation grafting is tearing!”

Klaus stiffened and turned his eyes towards Otto’s stomach. The thin, shiny flesh there had split into two and a geyser of red spurted out from it.

Saints.

“Gently, you guys, gently!”

With great difficulty, Klaus placed Otto back on the ground with Stein’s help. Alwin didn’t move forward, however. He merely sank to his knees and ran a hand down his face. Nico did, hands extended. His face contorted as he began the effort to transmute more of the skin from Otto’s leg to his abdomen.

“There’s not enough left for grafting,” Alwin said calmly. “Nico, you’re wasting your energy.”

Nico stiffened. “Then we use the other leg—”

“It’ll just tear. And I know you saw it. The amount of blood. The abdominal aorta—”

Klaus stared at Alwin in disbelief. “Don’t just sit there and—”

“I-I’ve been hit,” Otto stammered, eyes fluttering. He searched Nico’s face and then Klaus’s as he placed a hand to his stomach. He stared at his bloodied hand. “Klaus, Nico, I’ve been hit…”

Delirium.

From the corner of his eye, Klaus saw Atienna slowly, silently pulling away as she averted her gaze. Before she could make her escape, however, Otto grabbed a hold of her arm.

“A-Am I dying, Lieutenant…?” came the cracked sob.

Atienna’s eyes widened and her fingers trembled as she wrapped them around Otto’s hand. No words came from her mouth. No confirmation.

“Yes…” Nico said quietly. “Yes, you are, Vog—Otto. I’m sorry.”

There was a stretch of silence as the reality sunk in.

“T-Talk to me. Please,” Otto whimpered. “Someone please talk to me.”

Talk? With what? Empty words? Emptier than the pages of poetry that Klaus always dove into to ignore the sound of gunfire and stupid, senseless chatter when he was stationed in the trenches at Abschnitt 45?

Atienna leaned forward, her face eclipsing Otto’s. She whispered, “You… You did good, Otto. You did very good.”

Empty words. And another empty stretch of silence.

“Will you write to my parents for me…?” Otto murmured after a long quiet. “It would mean a lot coming from you.” A shaky breath. “Tell mutti that I love her. Can you tell them I was good? Just… like you said now… Even if it can’t convey everything. It’s enough.”

Atienna side-glanced at Gilbert before nodding and placing a steady hand to his face.

“I’ll write, Otto,” she whispered. “I’ll write. Anything you want. About your plan for your botanical garden. About your horticulture class—”

Atienna was cut off by a hand on the shoulder. Nico, eyes calm but somber. She didn’t look away from Otto to meet those eyes but the message was clear. The one her words had been intended for was gone.

And the only thing Klaus could do was try to remember if he had lent Otto a book back at Abschnitt 45.


Threshold

The threshold between life and death’? That was ludicrous. That threshold was not a location. It was a state of being.

Cacophonic flapping and chirping resounded across the divide of light.

Werner squinted past the darkness towards the origin of the voice. There, he found a humanoid shape inching closer and closer to the stream of light between them. Its form was undefined, devoid of color, and pitch-black. Rippling, shifting, quivering—breaking apart at its edges. Breaking apart into something that fluttered, that flapped, that sent thin jet-black feathers swirling through the air. Blackbirds.

Werner’s eyes widened then narrowed.

A dream?

He glanced down at Lavi briefly. Her eyebrow was arched, her face impassive.

“It’s not a dream,” the voice across the divide continued, milky but clear. “Not in the literal sense.”

She could hear his thoughts, he realized.

“Yep,” the figure popped, her voice resonating above the chirping of the birds enveloping her body. “But not in the literal sense.”

It made logical that she could hear him and knew his name. If this was a dream, anything beyond the realm of reality was possible. This surreality.

“I mean this in the gentlest way possible, but the more time you spend thinking that this is a dream, the more dangerous your current situation becomes.”

Current situation?

“You’re in a perilous position right now, Werner. You and the other five.”

At the mention of the others, Werner tensed and moved his hand towards the gun clipped to his belt.

The blackbirds crowding the figure peeled away slowly, fluttering upwards into the darkness. As the birds dissipated, her features slowly became revealed. First came the black of her suit jacket, then came the white of her armband. Next, her short black hair was freed from the swarming birds, followed by her almond-shaped black eyes and round nose. Her appearance vaguely stirred Werner’s memories, although he was certain he had never met her before. Perhaps one of the other five had.

The unknown appeared to be a woman of Sagittarian descent who was affiliated with Ophiuchus, Werner surmised as he felt the cold tip of his pistol at the tip of his fingers. Normally, it would not be wise to engage with foreign peacekeeping bodies. The consequences would be severe. The evidence that this was not normal circumstance, however, was clear.

“Like I said, you’re on the threshold,” the woman said. “You’re here but you’re not really here, so you don’t need to be worried about those kinds of consequences. And that gun you’re reaching for isn’t really there either.”

Werner paused, glancing down to his waist where his holster sat empty. He lowered his hand.

It appeared as if certain assumptions would have to be made.

“Exactly!” The woman nodded. “I know you’re a logical person, so if you see it right before your eyes, then you have to assume it’s real. If we want to get metaphysical about it, it became real as soon as you laid your eyes on it.”

You’ve been invaded, Werner,” Lavi said, her fingers ghosting his hand that still gripped her arm. “You’re being strangled by an idiot who doesn’t know how to stop. You and the others. If you don’t do something, you really will all…”

Werner released his hold on her. Was this truly Lavi? His eyes narrowed. “What do you mea—”

“Well, she’s a truer Lavi than the one you’ve seen,” the woman across the divide interjected as she pointed upwards. “While it’s pretty easy to make it down here, it’s pretty hard to make it back up without crossing this line. And, well, if you cross this line—I’m sure you know what that means. Of course, being a True Conductor does make it easier for you to return in the direction you came from.”

If she could hear his thoughts, it was unsurprising that she knew his position as a True Conductor. It was also unsurprising that she knew of Lavi. And if the presumption that this place was truly a ‘threshold’ was accepted then a reasonable theory could be made as to why Lavi was with him. This other woman’s presence, however, was unexplainable.

“Identify yourself,” he said calmly. “You’re a peacekeeper. Why are you here?”

The woman’s lips pulled tight but then she shrugged. “I’m Shion Myosotis. Weird name, I know. Mother was Sagittarian; father was one-third Ophiuchian. Kept the surname. And I, my dear, am here because I kinda died and got stuck. I’m just the result of doing too little too late.”

It’s too little, Werner. A soft, stern voice whispered at the back of Werner’s mind. A faint memory, expanding like a fractal sheet of ice. And it’s too late—

Shion tutted loudly. “Be careful now. Like I said, you’re at the place where vitae enters and leaves the cycle. And since vitae stores memories, memories hold more power here than normal. You can easily slip into something you’ll have a hard time crawling out of. Metaphysical stuff.”

Werner stiffened despite himself. It had already been difficult to adapt to the other five being able to access his thoughts and memories. A sixth intruder was—

“Memories make up reality,” Lavi argued. “There’s nothing metaphysical about it. It’s fact.” Her words were sharp and direct, so unlike the airy and timid girl that would ghost their synchronization meetings. “Just take a look at your history textbooks,” she continued. “We all know those types of things aren’t fully accurate. They’re based on the recollections of people who wrote them. But because they’ve been recorded and remembered, they’ve become fact—”

“Enough,” Werner interjected. “What is happening?”

“Always down to business with you.” Shion sighed. “Like I said earlier, I’m the result of doing too little too late. I’m stuck here—kinda like how Miss Chance is stuck here. And if you don’t act soon, you’ll be stuck here too—”

“No,” Lavi interjected. “You’ll die. You and the others. My brother.” She turned, pushed herself up on toes, and grabbed hold of his shoulders. “You need to free yourself.”

Die? Free himself?

Werner tensed. “Explain.” He studied Lavi for a moment—faint memories of running through sun-dappled courtyards hazed the edges of his mind—before he provided a respectful, “Please.”

Shion pointed to her open palm. “You had an accident, you see. It’s not your fault, but the moment it happened, you and the people you’re connected to were visited by an intruder’s vitae.”

Werner stiffened, before tightening his gloved hand into a fist. The memory was faint but he could still vaguely recall the ghost of the knife cutting into his palm. The knife had belonged to Heimler, and Werner was certain it had not been a conductor. Unless… An individual who was able to use vitae without a conductor was involved and had wielded the weapon.

Werner frowned.

He hadn’t even considered the possibility. A miscalculation. So if everything said was true, then this occurrence was his fault. Unacceptable and shameful. He would need to rectify it.

“Invaded by what?” Werner pressed. “A Specialist? A saint candidate?”

Lavi answered, “You can compare it to something like a monster. The point is that True Conductors are like channels. Each True Conductor group serves as one channel. When something else is added to it or if something that is part of it breaks away, the channel is either put under pressure or crumbles in on itself. What entered you is slowly constricting you and the other five—my brother.” Her eyes narrowed. “It’s playing with you. Loosening, constricting, loosening, constricting.”

Werner studied Lavi carefully. He already had suspicions about her nature, her history as a failed saint candidate, and Olive’s ability to conduct without a conductor. He hadn’t addressed it for reasons that he realized now were unclear to him. Influence from Chance, most likely. And now Lavi’s knowledge here was highly disturbing, but he couldn’t make himself think of her as anything but an ally. Again, Chance.

“Right now,” Shion continued, “you’re the only one here. Most of the others are probably caught somewhere between here and the surface. Maybe one of them is on the surface. Your surface. Meaning, only you can fix this.”

Was she referring to an override? Then that was even more disconcerting given the physical position of his body in the unoccupied territory—his mission. And if Olive or Cadence were on the surface then…

He pressed, “And how exactly do I rectify my mistake?”

“You’re reacting really well to being told you’re dying,” Shion noted with a grin before frowning. “And I told you, it isn’t your fault…”

There would be no point in panicking in this situation. And responsibility always needed to be accounted for. They needed to get to the matter at hand.

Shion gave an abrupt laugh. “Well, since you’re so eager—think of it like this. Right now, whatever’s invaded you has its fingers embedded in you—in your vitae. Meaning, in your memories. All you need to do is cut off those fingers.”

An unclear answer, but first—

“You know a significant amount of information regarding this,” Werner said. “How did you obtain this information? You told me your name, but that isn’t proper identification.”

He felt ridiculous—questioning something that might as well be a part of his own subconscious. But he had taken enough risks already and had possibly put the others in danger due to those risks. He would not make the same mistake again.

“Well, Miss Lavender and I have been stuck here for quite some time. You tend to pick up a thing or two. Sometimes things come on down here just like you did now. But, look, trust us, don’t trust us. We’re here to help you regardless.”

Trust—Werner thought of his men. Here, however, that was an empty word. Too many variables. Too much uncertainty. Too much risk.

Shion clasped her hands together. “The deal is the longer you stay at this threshold, the closer you all are to dying. Because of that constriction. Eventually you’ll be constricted to the point where you’re no longer connected with the others—and that connection is what’s keeping you all alive. The clock is ticking, Werner.”

Tick, tick, tick, tick—Werner’s pocket watch abruptly began to thrum away over his heart in his chest pocket. He refrained from reaching for it—refrained from thinking of the one who made it—and kept his pose firm and his ears peeled.

“The only way to get out of this mess—to remove the hold it has on you,” Shion continued, “is to find exactly where it’s embedded in you—in your vitae. A.K.A., which memories it’s embedded in. Pretty easy to find ‘em since we’re at the threshold.” A frown creased her lips, and she folded her right hand into a mock gun which she rested in her left. “After you find the memories, you need to wade your way through them, and break it—the finger, I mean.” She pulled a mock trigger. “It’s as metaphysical as that.”

A distant memory resounded within Werner’s mind at Shion’s motion: the bang of the bullet exiting its chamber as he’d pulled the trigger of the gun aimed at the back of Magda Rath’s head.

15.2: Combat Medic, 0705 Head Trauma

Re-cap:
Atienna is locked in an override over Werner. The events surrounding this are clouded in mystery. After investigating the Argoan woman who injured Werner, Atienna discovers that the woman was in fact a Capricornian who was involved with the anti-military Verbundene Augen movement. The woman’s purpose remains unknown, but as per Werner’s personal request to Gilbert, the unit pushes forward to complete their objective of cutting off the Argoan line and meeting up with Captain Weingartner. As they push forward into the battlefield, Werner…


Schädeltrauma » Head trauma reported at 0705 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

Underground doctor-turned-combat medic Nico Fabrizzio’s mind was always full of ‘what if’s. For example—what if Cadence was his little sister? What if flowers fell from the sky instead of snowflakes—instead of ash? What if conductors didn’t exist? What if the pictures at the theater were in color? What if Wilhelm Fischer was second lieutenant instead of Gilbert? What if Argo and Capricorn and Aquarius got along? What if his father had never gone into the underground business? What if Nico himself had never grown up in the Twin Cities? What if Werner had grown up in the Twin Cities with the rest of them? What if Werner…

As Nico brushed aside these thoughts and continued trudging forward along the marshy ground, his gaze drifted to Atienna who was pacing alongside Gilbert. The rifle that Kleine had conjured for her was swung up on her back, but it looked like it was weighing her entire body down.

A fog rolling up from the south snaked its way in between the thinning tree line around them and covered up the muddy ground that was patched over with a network of ice. The high-hung sun could not pierce through the veil of clouds shrouding the sky, and so everything felt cold, gray.

Nico sighed, his breath fogging up the air and adding to all the drabness.

A couple more kilometers and they’d reach the captain. While that was definitely a reassuring thought, it still wouldn’t be some time until they reached ‘true safety.’ They had been walking for several hours now and had thankfully not come across any additional Argoan pockets. Gilbert had suggested for Atienna keep to his side just in case the worst-case scenario came knocking. Atienna had not objected—merely offered words of gratitude. Gilbert reveled in it a lot more than he should have. A shameless guy. A lot like Cadence. But…

There was definitely something wrong, Nico knew. This ‘override’ was lasting longer than any other override Werner had told him about before. The longest one Werner had referenced had been Maria’s cheery-eyed override during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict. The shortest had been Cadence’s override in the Twin Cities to save Alma two months prior. And now… how many hours had it been? Six? Seven? If only there was a telegram line so he could use a conjured radio to call up Cadence to see what was going on on her end.

Atienna seemed to share his concerns but did not address them directly. Instead, she had approached him earlier this morning, asking him to re-evaluate Werner’s hand injury. Maybe she thought the injury had to do something with the override.Nico did as she requested before they were set to leave. After removing the glove that was constantly kept over Werner’s hand, he’d undone the bandages and inspected the injury. Thin grafted-skin ran diagonally across Werner’s palm where the cut had once been. The skin at the area hadn’t yet split indicating that enough skin had been transmuted to hold. Upon further inspection, however, Nico found a tiny dark spot he hadn’t noticed before beneath the transmuted skin there. Most likely petechiae or purpura as a result of the injury. Would probably disappear within a few days. Leaving it at that, Nico had resolved to assess it periodically.

As Nico had re-bandaged the hand, however, he couldn’t help but stare at Werner’s palm. He hadn’t ever had to treat the area—or even Werner, in general—so he had been… alarmed when he had first seen it. He had contemplated addressing it after Werner awoke, but when Atienna awoke instead…

“I… may be making a baseless assumption here,” Atienna had interjected during his rumination, “but if you’re thinking what I’m assuming you’re thinking, then perhaps it would be best to wait to address it face-to-face instead.” She’d stared right through him. “Middlemen—from your personal experience—aren’t too good, don’t you think?”

Nico was drawn out of his memories of that event as Stein, Brandt, and Fischer approached him from the side. He greeted them with a slight nod.

“So?” Stein took a drag of his v-cig and passed it to Brandt. “What’s really wrong with the lieutenant, Fabrizzio?”

Although the question had been asked casually, Nico could see the glint in Stein’s eyes. Stein had been present in the Twin Cities during the ELPIS incident, after all. He’d witnessed Werner’s confrontation with Colonel Fritz von Spiel and the fallout of Francis’s rampage—but he still hadn’t been given the down-low on what was what with True Conductors. Neither had Bergmann. Stein himself never asked for the details but he’d been keeping one eye keenly peeled ever since.

“It’s like Gilbert says.” Nico flashed a practiced smile. “The lieutenant is fine. He suffered light head trauma from when he fainted from exhaustion earlier. He’s still disoriented.”

“Poor lieutenant…” Combat medic Alwin Brandt sighed, passing the v-cigarette to Fischer beside him. “Are you sure there’s nothing you missed? I’ve been on leave since that border conflict with Aquarius, so I wouldn’t mind checking for you if you’d like. Been itching to get my hands into something. It’s not a bother.”

Nico frowned. The statement in itself was an insult. “No, I’ve got it. Thanks though, Brandt.”

It wasn’t that Nico didn’t like Brandt. It was just that since they were in the same occupation in the same working space, they often butted heads on how to handle certain procedures. “Competition is bad for business,” as Allen would say.

“And still the lieutenant marches on,” sang Stein suddenly. “That’s a Capricornian through and through.” He craned his neck around and jeered. “Unlike some people here.”

Heimler and Vogt who were walking beside one another behind them shared a grimace.

“A bunch of pansies.” Stein spat.

Stein reminded Nico a little bit of Feliciano Donato, one of his many personal childhood bullies. Same aggressiveness, same condescending tone, same swagger. Except Stein had some redeeming features. Definitely a lot more honor. But still.

“Knock it off, Stein.” Nico sighed before he hummed. “You never know. You might be in a situation where Stein or Heimler are the only ones who can bail you out. Pretty sure you won’t think that they’re that then. As we always say, ‘never throw all of your cards away because you’ll end up chucking a card that wins a hand.’”

Stein scoffed. “Those two are joker cards. If anything I’ll be the one’s saving their asses.”

“I’ll raise you one on that.”

Stein’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t feel comfortable doing that when it’s with you of all people.”

Nico shrugged but then paused as a chill went up his spine. It seemed as if their conversation had gained the attention of Atienna. Nico locked eyes with her across the path, and she flashed him a smile in turn. It was a very nice smile, but… There it was again. That look. As if she was looking on at Stein’s malicious behavior from a far distance. Like it didn’t truly involve her. Just like how she’d looked that previous night while inspecting the Argoan’s corpse.

Initially that night, despite Atienna’s attempts to hold her expression steady, her horror, disgust, and sympathy upon gazing at the pile of corpses had shone through clearly—so clearly Nico had almost felt ashamed that he hadn’t been nearly as affected as her.

But then, that changed.

Nico could still picture it now.

The way the moonlight had bled through the spaces between the trees, streaking Werner’s face in splashes of silver and highlighting that curious fascination as Atienna had examined the corpses. Like a detective observing a crime scene. No. Like an outsider looking in. No. Like a movie-goer watching the flickering monochrome film reel. A reader flipping through pages of a book.

Truthfully, Atienna unnerved Nico.

The dichotomy of warm sympathy and cold curiosity reminded Nico too much of his own father.

***

Gilbert had them take a short break when they passed by a slowly trickling stream. Nico knew that Werner probably wouldn’t have made this less-than-scenic stop but was appreciative of the opportunity to rest his legs.

While the others sat and puffed their v-cigs, cleaned their weapons, or opted for an additional wink of sleep, Atienna hovered around uncertainly before settling beneath a large tree. She rested the conjured rifle against the trunk before gazing at Gilbert who was inspecting a map a meter or so away. Nico studied her from where he lounged puffing a v-cig with Kleine and Stein before pacing to her side.

Atienna greeted him with a pleasant smile at his approach. Like she’d been expecting him. “Oh, hello, Nico.”

Unnerving.

But Nico offered a genial smile and thumbed behind him. “Want to refill your water with me?”

Atienna’s gaze swept the area, and she seemed to take note of the glances she was receiving from the others. With a thoughtful hum that made Nico think she was evaluating the meaning—the worth—of those stares, she inclined her head.

They walked down a slope towards the stream in silence. Only the sound of crunching leaves and iced dirt, the occasional slosh as Nico misstepped into a deep puddle, and the trickling of the stream as they drew nearer and nearer. Atienna did not walk with the same sense of rigidity and purpose as Werner did, Nico noted. If anything, she floated.

Heimler and Vogt were crouched side-by-side by the bank when they arrived. The two men were conversing quietly with one another, so engrossed in their conversation that they didn’t even notice his and Atienna’s approached. But Atienna didn’t make her presence known and settled down further along down the bank. Nico crouched down beside her, uncapped the bottle, inspected the stream hesitantly. The water ran clear. He turned to back to Atienna but found her attention elsewhere—she was staring down the stream bank towards Vogt and Heimler.

Nico arched a brow. If she was interested in them, why didn’t she sit closer to them to begin with?

After a pause, she asked, “Do you mind if I ask, Otto—”

Vogt snapped up to a stand. He scanned the area, locked eyes with Atienna, stiffened. “Sorry, sir! I didn’t even notice you were there. I was distracted. It won’t happen again!”

A very quiet, brief chuckle almost akin to a sigh passed Atienna’s lips. An accident, probably, given by how her mouth pulled into a tight line afterwards. Nico couldn’t tell if the two had seen the slip.

“I was wondering how you knew about the sternblume we found on that Argoan’s…boots,” Atienna continued, voice even but still way too soft. “If I recall correctly, you’re from the Felsenberg region. Far west from the area that sternblume grows.”

“Er, yes, that’s where I’m from.” Vogt nodded. “My mother is a botanist, you see. My father’s a florist. Know about all sorts of plants.”

“Botany…” Atienna’s brows rose. “Is that what you want to pick up again when your military service is over?”

“When my service…?” Vogt blinked.

Heimler, eyes suddenly sharp, drew up to a stand.

Nico arched a brow at him, but paused when he noticed Atienna regarding the man carefully with that lookin her eye again. Was she honestly curious about Vogt’s situation, or did she have another intention in mind?

Vogt finally nodded, cracking a nervous smile. “I have a lot of catching up to do when I get back. I was hoping to do a duel-business where I sell and teach people about different flora.”

“Have you thought of bringing along a book to study…” Atienna paused. “…while you’re here?”

Otto grimaced. “I don’t like reading much…”

Atienna rose to a stand, capping her now filled flask of water. “Well, that’s a shame, don’t you think? You can miss out on a lot of things by avoiding things you dislike… But you could always ask one of the others to read to you. It would be good practice for both parties.”

“Like a bedtime story, sir…?” Otto chuckled nervously, glancing at Nico in slight confusion.

Not a very good joke, but Nico didn’t blame him given the strangeness of the situation.

“If that’s what you perceive it to be,” Atienna responded. “But—”

Nico glanced up at her.

Atienna was staring across the river—wide-eyed, pale. An almost imperceptible shiver slithered down her entire body as she took one small step backwards.

Nico followed her gaze but only found a patchwork of trees and rock at the opposite end of the stream. He rose to a stand. “Lieutenant?”

Atienna snapped to him, tightened expression lessening slightly before she glanced past the stream again. She turned back to him slowly and held up her flask. “Are you done, Nico?” As if nothing had occurred.

Nico nodded, tense.

“Should we head back then?”

Again Nico nodded.

Atienna bid farewell to Vogt and Heimler before heading up the slope leading back to the forest clearing. Vogt offered a wide-eyed wave in turn, while Heimler gave a curt, one-worded goodbye with lingering eyes.

“Did you see something?” Nico asked as he caught up to her from behind. “Was it one of the others…?”

She stopped short, turning to him. Her brows were beaded with sweat. “No… I… saw…” She raised a hand to her mouth. “I thought I saw someone I used to know. But it couldn’t be because she died several months ago…”

Nico paused.

“I suppose if none of you saw it then…” A frown creased her lips. “I… need to look further into this…” She flashed a distant, tired smile with almost a faint glint of mischief. “I hope I didn’t scare you.”

***

The unit started off again half an hour later after checking their conductors, weapons, guns.

Taking on the occupation as a combat medic meant that Nico had to learn how to use a gun. The ‘correct’ way. It was one of the things he’d been looking forward to the least when he’d decided to come on out to serve here—bullet, chamber, gunpowder, bang.

It wasn’t like Nico was unfamiliar with it. He’d used a gun once before when his father’s clinic had been raided by city newcomers trying to make a name for themselves. Missed every shot. Fortunately—or unfortunately—the Romanos had handled the rest so it hadn’t mattered in the end. But here, Nico had been taught the ‘correct’ way to hold and fire the weapon. It was one of the perquisites he had to complete before shrugging into his role as liaison for the Romano Family. Werner had been the one to teach him—and saints was he a strict teacher. But now Nico was certain he would at least get one shot in if the time ever called for it. And he hoped it wouldn’t.

It seemed like an oxymoron—the term ‘combat medic,’ but so had the term ‘underground doctor.’ This was better, Nico was certain. Much better than before. These people weren’t fighting greedily, selfishly for themselves. They were fighting for their country. Each other.

“We haven’t come across any Argoans this entire time,” Kleine said suddenly. “It’s weird.”

Although the glasses-wearing Conjuror usually hung back with Otto or Heimler, Nico noted that today he paced just a step behind him, Atienna, and Gilbert.

“You know what they say about rats in a sinking ship,” Stein quipped.

Fischer smirked. Otto chuckled.

“… They say you should follow them.”

There was a stretch of silence.

Seeming to not notice the stares she received, Atienna continued walking along beside Gilbert examining the tree line. Nico had a feeling she wasn’t scanning them for enemies. And he realized a beat afterwards that she was very aware of the stares she was receiving because finished her comment with—

“…Don’t they?”

“Yes, they do.” Kleine nodded.

“They do,” Fischer agreed immediately despite his prior laughter. A boot-licker, as Gilbert liked to say. A guy who knew where to play his cards, Cadence would most likely argue contrarily. “Happened all the time when I was on those boats with my dad off the coast of Pisces. Every time we had a leaky hole, the rats would scramble, sir.”

Stein snorted. “How the hell did you get off the coast of Pisces if you’ve got holes in your ship—”

Gilbert held his up hand and brought it into a fist. Nico immediately halted as did the others—save for Atienna who stopped short three steps afterwards. Everyone pulled out their weapon or their conductor. Nico himself swung his rifle off of his shoulder and moved his finger to the trigger. Then Gilbert jerked his head up. Telling smoke trails bled skywards in the distance right above where they were to meet Captain Weingartner.

***

It was a kilometer or so through the thicket of trees that they found the designated point they were intended to unite with Captain Weingartner. Rather, they found what was left of it.

Toppled tents were pounded into the ground in between pyres of smoking flame. Steam drifted upwards from spaces of bulleted earth. Vitae-ray marks were scorched into the dirt and filled with bullet shell casings. Around them lay conductors and guns and combat knives. Gripping those weapons were uniformed men and women—some in Capricornian dark gray, others in Argoan forest green.

The air smelled stale yet sharp, felt thick but thin. The only audible sound was the crackling of the dying embers. No birds, no animals, no breathing.

Nico’s stomach churned.

The two things that were different about the Twin Cities and here were the amount of bodies and the way those bodies were handled. Back in Gemini, all the stiffs were buried ten feet under. Here, they were always out in the open.

Gilbert held Atienna back with one arm. “Stick together—”

Heimler suddenly darted off into the campsite without warning. He slipped several times in his mad dash but managed to pick himself up before disappearing into the carnage. Gilbert began to shout after him but bit his tongue and swore under his breath.

“Next person that runs off, I shoot!” he hissed. “Stick together, dammit!”

Gilbert locked eyes with Nico and then Kleine and jerked his head. Nico drew closer to Atienna as did Kleine.

They threaded their way through the campsite quietly, cautiously, eyes peeled, muscles tense. Whenever they would pass a body that didn’t look completely mutilated and riddled with either vitae-ray singes or bullet holes, Nico would draw near and assess the pulse. Every single time there would be nothing.

It hurt. His profession was one of healing and saving people. Each body ticked another failure. Of course, he knew that there was no way he could have saved them, but that nagging feeling remained. “Don’t be naïve. There are more pertinent things to concern yourself with,” Werner would say, “than things that are truly beyond your control.”

As they drew deeper and deeper into camp, it became harder and harder to tell what was blood and what was mud. Everything melded together into one. Iron, smoke, dampness. And then—

A groan emanated from just beneath a collapsed tent to their left. The tarp strung above the broken metal frame shifted and groaned before a man dragged himself out from beneath the entangled mess. Nico broke off from formation and ran to the man’s side. He flipped the man over before pausing as he studied the man’s face and then the color of his uniform. Realization settled in a second later. The injured person was not a man, but a boy—barely touching on adolescence. And not a Capricornian, but a—

“It’s a damn Argoan!” Stein spat, shoving Nico away and aiming his conducting rifle squarely at the adolescent’s face.

In a flash, Atienna was beside Stein and shoving the point of his conductor down. The shot went off with a flash of blue and burned a fist-sized hole into the dirt beside the boy’s head.

“It’s discourteous to shoot without question. Especially during a surrender.” The glint in Atienna’s eyes was almost Werner-like. “Nico, would you mind?”

Nico nodded before moving onto his usual medical assessments with the Argoan. The boy tensed under his searching hands and barely stuttered answers to his assessment questions. Pulse, 85 beats. High—but probably from anxiety and stress. And fear. That was clear. Gilbert approached them from behind meanwhile, dealing a slap upside Stein’s head. Nico pulled back a minute later after finishing his run-through.

The Argoan was uninjured. Merely in slight shock. All in order—although Nico figured the boy would appreciate a blanket. He informed Gilbert and Atienna of this, but it was Stein who spoke:

“With all due respect, Lieutenant Waltz—” Stein jabbed a finger at the Argoan. “—but your head’s still not right. He’s the enemy and just a foot soldier. We won’t get anything from him than blubbering and—”

“The conductors are still here,” Atienna drew calmly. “Whatever happened here, the Argoans didn’t have the time to collect them all. None of the tags have been taken off any of the soldiers either. I imagine that the Argoans would want to collect both of those things. In other words, whatever happened here was unexpected for both parties.” She studied Stein for a moment. “I understand where you’re coming from, Derik, but…”

Stein stiffened at the mention of his first name.

“So interrogation,” Gilbert tried, searching her face for Werner.

Atienna responded by sinking to her knees in front of the Argoan who shakily propped himself up in response. “What happened here?” Quietly, gently in Common.

The young Argoan shook his head ferociously, wide eyes flitting back and forth as if expecting something to pop out from behind them—no, as if expecting them to lunge at him. He scooted back, looking to Nico desperately as if asking for rescue.

And then Atienna placed a hand on the Argoan’s cheek causing not only him to stiffen but also all of the other men. “It’s okay,” she continued, nonplussed. “You’re safe.”

The Argoan shook his head, eyes wide. “T-They…” The words seemed to be stuck in his throat.

“What’s your name?”

“E… Emil.”

“Okay, Emil, you’re safe. I promise. My name is Werner. I’m a first lieutenant. I’ll make sure you get home, okay? You can trust me.”

Emil nodded dazedly, focusing in on Atienna’s—rather, Werner’s—face. Nico could see everyone besides Gilbert and Kleine exchanging looks.

Atienna pulled her hand away slowly. “How did you end up here, Emil? You… weren’t directly involved in this attack… correct?” A pause. “It’s okay. Take your time—”

“No!” Emil sucked in a breath, reaching to grab Atienna by the arm before she could fully fold into herself. “The Capricornians—you—were attacking each other.”

What…?

“My unit and I… we saw this camp… we were too small to engage, so we were just going to go report to our superiors.”

Stein clicked his tongue and shared a heated look with Fischer.

“W-When we were trying to slip past you—you just started attacking each other. First, it was one, and then it was everyone.” Emil’s eyes went wide. “My captain wanted to take advantage of the chaos and had us wait… had us wait… but… but…”

“He’s obviously lying!” Stein snapped, kicking up mud with his foot. He whipped around, gesturing wildly. “The Argoans ambushed us but we fought back and they ran off! This guy got left behind and is just trying to scramble! He doesn’t know anything!”

“Stein, shut up,” Gilbert muttered back. “Cool off.”

The sound of sloshing footsteps came at them from behind before anything else could be said. Fischer and Stein raised their conductors while Nico’s hand went for his rifle. He lowered his hand a second later, however, as he registered the figure approaching them.

Heimler. And he was not alone. To his left stood a freckled man dressed in Capricornian dark gray. To his right stood a woman dressed the same, although she kept her head dipped low and her chin buried in the collar of her coat.

Survivors.

“T-They’re ours,” Heimler said, voice trembling with unusual nervousness. “I found them—”

Nico stepped forward but was quickly pushed to the side by Gilbert who first stared—as white as a sheet—at the freckle-cheeked man before turning to the woman. He pulled down her collar exposing her face. Nico recognized the woman immediately. He’d seen her before in the Capricornian newspapers once or twice. In the papers, she’d be posed with her fist raised up in the air, her wispy blonde hair popping out of a tight bun, her prominent brow furrowed. Behind her would be a flag with a cartoonishly drawn symbol of an eye flapping in the wind. 

“What the hell…?” Gilbert seemed to recognize her too. 

Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augden movement.


???

Werner Waltz returned back from his post at dusk, 2021 hours exactly. He slipped back past the line, reported his numbers to Major Ersatz, and made his way through the trenches. It had rained approximately 13 centimeters that morning, and the entire trench was flooded up to the knees. The gutters had become clogged with debris, so the sewage system was not running properly. Unsightly.

As he manuevered through the waterlogged trenches, the gazes of the soldiers tucked away in the walls bore into him all the while. News of his success in breaching the Argoan stronghold at Abschnitt 46 must have made its way here to Abschnitt 45.

It was nothing to be praised.

He had merely assisted the offense there alongside the others in his division. If anything, his numbers were lower in this operation compared to his previous performances. Improvements needed to be made.

After locating his designated bunker through the watery maze and tucking down into it, Werner found his bunk bed as orderly as he had left. His bed was at the top rung so it had not been affected by the rising flood. Gilbert’s bed that rested just below his, however, was completely submerged. Gilbert himself sloshed around in the waters lugging his bag and throwing clothes and shoes up onto a bunk parallel to theirs. He was by himself, the v-lights accentuating his loneliness as they flickered on and off.

Werner frowned. “Wolff, what are you doing? You’re making even more of a mess.”

Gilbert tensed, back still turned. “It’s Magda.” He threw down his bags. “They sentenced her to death. Just an hour after you left. I’m supposed to be the one to do it. ‘Cause I was the highest-ranking rifleman around at the time. As if being a lance corporal means anything.”

Werner digested this information. “Yes, I heard about Magda. She deserted during the Schwarzer Streifen operation and was found by Rittberg’s unit in Abschnitt 24. Deserters are to be executed by article—”

“I don’t give a damn what article says what!” Gilbert snapped. “That’s too much!”

“She deserted, Wolff.” Werner folded his hands behind his back. “They were generous not to have her executed by firing squad or hanging.”

Of course she deserted! She has two children waiting for her at home! A sick father! Her husband in the 44th was nearly killed in that skirmish at Abschnitt 21! They won’t get their damn pension until the end of the month!”

“We all have to make sacrifices. That’s what it means to be a part of a functional society like Capricorn. Once she turned her back on her country, she became an enemy of a state. She is no different from the Argoans standing on the opposite side of this line.”

“Saints, Werner, do you hear yourself?” Gilbert whipped around and gestured wildly. “I was just sharing a drink with her yesterday! And now they’re asking me to murder her?”

Werner paused, glancing over his shoulder to the entrance. “Gilbert, calm down. You were given a task, and you have to follow through.” He repeated from memory, “You have to do what’s expected of you.”

Gilbert scoffed, turning back to his bags and resuming his packing. “No, I don’t. I’m done with this. All of this. If you ever see me again, it’s gonna be in the Twin Cities drunk on life—”

Werner’s eyes narrowed. “Or beside Magda being executed with her.”

Gilbert froze. “And I’m guessing you’re going to be the one aiming the conducting rifle at us?”

“Don’t be irrational, Gilber—”

“Don’t be this, don’t be that. Do this, do that.—I can’t flip a damn switch in my head and kill one of our own like it’s nothing!”

“You’re a Capricornian. You’re a soldier. This merely falls in line with duty. Don’t act like this is unexpected—”

“Give me a break!” Gilbert snapped, whirling around like a storm. “Don’t tell me you actually believe that bullshit—”

“If you can’t serve your country as a Capricornian,” Werner interjected coldly, “then I will.”

Gilbert froze wide-eyed, water dripping from his sleeves and his hair into the pool below. He did not speak; he did not move forward. In other words, he did not object. And so Werner locked eyes with him, reached over to draw his pistol from his belt, and exited the barracks to fulfill his duty.

Werner picked up Magda Rath from the bunker where she was guarded by two enlisted women. Few words were exchanged before he took her from them. The path they took to the soon-to-be execution ground was a short one. A path without spoken words. A path without resistance.

When they arrived at the thickly forested area, he ordered Magda to kneel. She obeyed and didn’t tremble as he loaded Gilbert’s pistol. Despite the brave face shown here, she had still chosen to desert instead of serving her country. Regardless of her well-meaning intentions, she appeared a coward to outsiders. Cowardliness was unacceptable, unsightly, and anti-Capricornian.

Werner lifted the gun to the back of her head. Only then did Magda start shaking. Her trembles reminded Werner of Otto Vogt’s trembling—and Vogt’s refusal to comply and open fire—when they had come into conflict with the Aquarians at the Ziegenberg Ridge. Unsightly cowardice.

But…

Chance often solved his problems by running away. At times, that choice had led to acceptable outcomes: the escape from the Watch, the escape from the battle between Leona and Jin, and even ordering that tactical retreat during the override.

Werner froze.

Something wasn’t right.

His finger moved away from the trigger.

This had happened already. He had executed Private Magda Rath one year and two days before the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict broke out along the east—before the skirmish with the Aquarians Ziegenberg Ridge with Vogt’s hesitation.

What was—

The world spun, inverted, blackened. When color bled back into his awareness, Werner came to realize he was somehow lying on his back. Light from a campfire encircled by his subordinates—Vogt, Fischer, Stein, Heimler, Brandt, Kleine, Bergmann—and Gilbert flickered in the distance.

A face eclipsed his own. “Are you alright, Lieutenant? Do you have any pain anywhere?” The voice was instantly recognizable.

“Nico?” Werner tried. “How long have I been unconscious?”

Nico reached into his right pocket and pulled out his conducting gloves. He slipped them on quickly and said, “Let me check something—”

Werner grabbed the man’s wrist and rose to a slow stand.

Nico blinked up at him in confusion. “Werner, you’re injured. You shouldn’t—”

“Nico stores his conducting gloves in his left pocket, not his right. The right pocket is to store additional ammunition,” Werner said, eyes narrowing. He inclined his head towards the campfire but did not look away from the imposter. “Bergmann is not in this unit for this operation, and they are all wearing our previously issued uniforms.” He tightened his grip. “You will tell me what this is. And where this is.”

The imposter regarded him for a moment before sighing: “Well, memories are a bit subjective so you can’t blame it for not taking the shape you remember it to be. Who says the way you remember things is even correct?”

Before Werner could respond, the imposter rose to a stand and took a step back. Fine, hairline cracks appeared across their face—cracks that were reminiscent of the white fragmentation that appeared along anything Jericho’s conductor touched. The cracks spilled down from the imposter’s head to their toes. The pieces of the facade fell away from their face, their torso, their legs slowly, until Werner was able to identify—to recognize—who it was that truly stood before him.

“Lavi,” he realized, loosening his hold.

Lavender Chance’s dark hair fell like a cloak around her pale face, and her dark eyes bore into him with a sharpness that he had never seen in her before. The white cracks continued to spill out from her feet and onto the ground before spreading endlessly into the distance and splintering the environment. Like a shattered mirror. The fragmented pieces fell away revealing almost complete and utter blackness. It seemed to extend infinitely above, below, behind, and in front of him. The expansiveness made Werner’s stomach flip for a brief moment but he grounded himself.

Panic did nothing. Observe.

There was a singular source of light in the abyss. Just behind Lavi glowed a large river of light that stretched out endlessly into the distance east and west. Every so often wisps of light—at times blue, at times green, at times red—would float down from the darkness above and enter the river from one side. Periodically, light would also exit it from the opposite side and disappear upwards.

“To answer your earlier question,” came a voice from the darkness on the opposite side of the glowing divide, “you’re at the point where vitae enters and leaves the cycle, so not exactly physically anywhere.”

It was a voice Werner recognized. The same voice that had whispered to him not to reveal the modified conductors to Major Ersatz—Pi—at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. The same voice that had consoled him after he had been injured in the Twin Cities following Morello’s override. The voice that he had heard right before coming to wherever this was. The voice he had forgotten up until this point.

“In other words,” that voice continued, “First Lieutenant Werner Waltz, you’re standing right on the threshold between life and death.”


The position of combat medic is open to all Conductors within the Capricornian army. Preference is however deferred to those whose conducting-types fall under the Conjuror or Transmutationist category as their natural abilities are more equipped for the profession. Upon completion of service, combat medics are encouraged to seek employment as researchers in the Institution for Military Vitae & Conductor Scientific Research.

Enlistment Information, published by the Iron Horn Recruitment Comittee & edited by the Capricorn Chamber of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, 1936

15.1: Advisor, 0001 Log Open

Re-cap:
The psychic connection between the six is abruptly cut as an intruder eerily states that they have entered. 


Protokoll Geöffnet » Log opened at 0001 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

“—stop bullshitting, Vogt.”

“It’s the truth…”

“Stein’s right. Why in saint’s name would you lie about something like that? What’s wrong with you?”

“Fischer, it’s the truth!”

“Like how you said it wasn’t you who woke up screaming about the damn Aquarians three nights ago?”

A cackle. “Vogt’s still dreaming about the border mix-up. What? You wanna go back and kill some Aquarians? No, be friends with some Aquarians? Kleine, he wants to go back and be friends with Aquarians! Why don’t you go and conjure him a bouquet of flowers so he can hand it over to ‘em.”

“Don’t involve me, Stein… Besides, you know it’s impossible to conjure living things.”

“Says who?”

“Did you not actually pass your State Conductor’s Exam, Stein?” A different voice, a different sort of sigh. “I’m still a ranking officer. If it seems to me that you’re unfit—physically or smarts-wise—then I’m gonna have to write you up.”

“It was only a joke, Wolff.”

“Who said you could talk to me that way? I’m your second lieutenant.”

“But you said—”

“That was then. This is now.”

“Yes, sir…”

A pause.

Then laughter.

“I’m just messing with you, Stein.”

The familiar pop and crackle of wood in between beats of unpleasant conversation drifted into Atienna Imamu’s awareness. The ground was cold beneath her back, but her face was warm. The sensation caused her mind to wander back to the past, back to her month within the frozen Zatmeniye Caverns, back to the pleasant conversations turned sour, back to Yulia’s cold and open lifeless eyes—

With great difficulty, Atienna forced open her heavy eyelids and dispelled the nightmarish image. A dark, starless sky greeted her awakening. Faintly out of the corner of her eyes, she could make out the soft glow of fire a couple of meters away. Around her stretched a network of black trees holding up a cold, yet damp air that smelled of moss and dirt. Familiar.

“You’re up.” A shadowy face eclipsed her own. “How are you feeling, Lieutenant? Does your shoulder still hurt? Can you sit up?” And then more quietly, “Did something happen to the others? Was it Cadence?”

Those dark curls and amber eyes were instantly recognizable. The scrapes and bruises seemed a bit new and foreign, as did the half-moons beneath the eyes—but this was undeniably Nico Fabrizzio, Cadence’s childhood friend turned Werner’s left-hand man.

What a surreal dream, Atienna thought. Or perhaps this was a memory.

It was a bit unusual though. She rarely saw Werner’s memories. As accessible as that man was, everything surrounding his past was shrouded thickly by the smell of gunmetal, soot, moss, and iron. The only clear, resonant thing was that memory of that pale woman standing in that white room. And what an unpleasant thing that was.

“Werner…?” Nico frowned in the dark. “Can you hear me?”

Loud and clear—oh.

“… is this not a memory?”

At the sound of Werner’s voice coming from her own mouth, Atienna pressed a hand to her throat. Her hands were gloved, she realized. Leather-gloved. She could feel bandaging just beneath the leather over her right palm.

So, that was how it was… How troubling. How had this happened? The last thing she recalled was attempting to make that phone call in the capital of Capricorn. And then…

“Werner?”

“I don’t mean to alarm you,” Atienna said quietly after a pause, “but I believe something may have gone wrong…”

Nico pulled back and studied her face with wide eyes before he called for Gilbert over his shoulder.

***

Atienna waited patiently by a thick cluster of bare-bone trees that jutted up from the ground away from the campfire. The campfire itself was ringed by a half-circle of familiar uniformed men who were chattering quietly as they sipped from tin cans. Their slurping was quite thunderous in light of the silence that now occupied her mind.

To feel fully her own thoughts, to hear only the whistle of wind through the tree branches and not the distant trickle of commotion from the others, to feel only her—rather, Werner’s—heartbeat was… a bit lonesome. To think this was how she had felt prior to their connection… A foreign familiarity.

So, this was an override, Atienna continued to ponder. It seemed as if Maria and Olive’s experience of being ‘cut off’ from everyone else during overrides was a certainty now. However… There were several discrepancies here, and that worried her.

Atienna turned her attention back to the trees.

Strange…

She recalled reading about these particular trees before. They were even more lovely up close since she could see the identifying white veins of vitae threading through their black bodies. But…

A leaf fell from one of the branches and landed by her feet. She followed its cascade downwards and spied at Werner’s boots. They appeared immaculate despite the marshy landscape. She supposed she should try to keep them clean like this for him until he returned.

If he returned.

The crunch of leather boots against leaves and twigs drew Atienna’s attention away.

Gilbert Wolff and Nico Fabrizzio came to a stop just before her—close enough to see the dirt dusting their faces but too far for her to make out the color of their eyes in the dark. Both of their collared uniforms were eclipsed with a single silver-woven bar at the shoulder pads designating their rank. Nico’s arm was adorned with a crimson cross, while a billed cap similar to Werner’s rested on top of Gilbert’s head. The same yet different. But together they seemed to share some sort of mutual hesitance and uncertainty. Together, they scanned her quietly.

“Hello,” Atienna greeted the second lieutenant with a dip of her head.

If Nico was the left hand, then Gilbert was the right hand. “Proficient in different aspects,” as Werner would say.

“Er, hi…” Gilbert looked her over again and then spoke in Common. “It’s happened again?” He pulled the cap off his head, tucked it under his arm, and extended his hand. “Gilbert Wolff.”

“I know who you are, Herr Wolff.” Atienna couldn’t help but smile. “I should be the one introducing myself.” She reached out and accepted the gesture. “I’m… pleasantly surprised at how gentlemanly you are.”

“You’re a different one than the last couple of times,” Gilbert confirmed, not at all appearing offset. “Haven’t gotten along so well with some of the others before. Figured I should try a friendlier approach.”

“I do appreciate the effort,” Atienna returned genially, pulling her hand away as he released it. “I am…” She paused, considering. “… Atienna. Although, it’d be strange if you started calling me that, don’t you think?”

“You’re a woman?” Gilbert stared. “Well, I mean, Cadence was one, but she wasn’t…” He gestured towards her—rather, Werner’s—body.

“That’s a beautiful name,” Nico interjected quickly in an obvious attempt to save face. “It’s got a nice ring to it. Like from a romance novel. I bet Gil’s just jealous he doesn’t have as nice of a name as that.”

Atienna chuckled despite herself. The duo’s responses were rather predictable. Charmingly crass and charmingly polite. It was certainly a comfort. Her response—she realized—was not as predictable, however. At least not for them. The two stared, ogled.

“Thank you, Nico,” Atienna said, before addressing Gilbert. “But are you concerned about something in particular, Gilbert?”

Gilbert continued to stare at her, mouth slightly ajar.

“I do have a younger brother,” Atienna provided. “And I’ve had to care for him when he was younger—if that answers your concerns…”

Gilbert stared at her again but this time the stare ended with him snickering. He nodded. “You speak Capricornian?”

“It’s a beautiful language,” returned Atienna in said language.

Gilbert offered a nod of approval and then continued in his native tongue. “So, we should—”

“I don’t mean to interrupt, but shouldn’t we invite Klaus to discuss this with us?” Atienna interjected quickly, inclining her head in the direction of the campfire—rather, towards the soldiers gathered there in a ring. “It would make things flow a bit smoother… I believe.”

Gilbert regarded her for a moment before shrugging. He then gave a sharp, ear-piercing, two-fingered whistle causing Atienna to startle slightly— “Kleine!”

The glasses-wearing man stiffened from where he sat at the foot of the campfire. After quickly shoving the book he’d been reading into his pack set beside him, he jogged on over.

When Klaus reached them, Gilbert explained the recent developments. Although—in Atienna’s opinion—Gilbert put it a bit more forthright than she would have. The term ‘possession’ and ‘physical recalibration’ were thrown around several times but Atienna politely requested a reconsideration of the latter idea. She doubted being hit upside the head would resolve this issue regardless of what Olive had experienced when he’d overridden Werner several months ago.

“So, how long’ll this one last?” Klaus tried after a pause. He studied her but would not meet her eyes.

“I’ve never overridden anyone before, so I’m not too sure. But I’m… questioning if this is what you would actually consider one.” Atienna studied the frost decorating the scattered leaves on the ground. She placed a thoughtful hand on her cheek. “Usually, there is intent when that occurs…”

“And there wasn’t ‘intent’ or whatever this time?” Gilbert arched a brow.

Werner’s recent memory of the Argoan woman lying in a pool of red came to Atienna slowly. The colors—pale white and silver against all of that crimson… A terrible thing. But the Argoan’s behavior had been quite odd. Atienna had heard of extreme patriotism before—patriotism to the point of suicide upon capture, but….

This was what choice did to people. And now no one could tell the deceased Argoan woman whether she was right or wrong.

“We’ve…” Atienna met Gilbert’s eyes for a moment before looking away. “We reached an agreement in a prior meeting to stay at a low level of synchronization for the rest of the week unless it was a dire circumstance.” She paused in thought before staring at her right gloved hand. She had considered stepping in when Werner’s palm had been cut, but her intention then had only been to console not to intrude. The desire to override had not been remotely present. “Still, there’s so much we don’t understand about what it means to be a True Conductor. This could be an entirely different development… or…”

Or what? Why was she always looking for reason and rhyme where it didn’t exist? Some questions didn’t have answers. 

“And you can’t communicate with any of the others right now, right? Not Werner?” Nico tried. “That’s what the… last one said…”

“Olive did say he couldn’t hear nor feel any of us when he overrode Werner during that one incident,” Atienna confirmed in thought. “It wouldn’t be so strange to imagine that the same thing would occur here.”

“Olive?” Gilbert arched a brow. “That the name of the brat?”

Atienna felt her lips dip slightly, but she supposed that was just his opinion. Olive was a bit… cheeky at times.

“H-He saved my life,” Klaus stammered, “back when Argo got their hands on conductors. I’ve been wanting to thank him, but uhm…”

Basically, Werner was too intimidating to approach in person.

“… Yes, Olive is a very kind-hearted person,” Atienna agreed. She offered Klaus a smile of reassurance. “I’ll be sure to convey your thoughts to him.” Pausing, she glanced at Gilbert. “You’re in the middle of an operation…?”

“Right. We’re doing a pincering movement,” Gilbert explained, fitting his cap back on his head. “Meeting with two platoons headed by Captain Weingartner. Cutting off the Argoans from their supplies and sweeping down the line. At the moment, we’re in unoccupied land. Wider strip than what’s in front of our trenches in Abschnitt 45.” A scoff. “Called ‘unoccupied,’ but the capital insists that it’s our land. Anyway, other platoons went ahead of us. We’re just picking off any stragglers.” He gestured behind him and then behind her. “Stretches roughly fifteen kilometers.”

‘Picking off stragglers’…

Of course, Atienna had been aware that this aspect had existed even before she’d been connected to Werner: a profession to protect ultimately crossed over with a profession to kill. She glanced at Nico and thought, even in the profession of medicine… Right, because, ‘As soon as you valued one person more than another, you automatically became a villain.’

Absentmindedly, she glanced back at the tree cluster growing beside her. It really was strange…

“What?”

She blinked up and found Gilbert frowning at her.

“It’s…. nothing.”

“Come on. If it was nothing, then you wouldn’t be caught up about it.”

What a difficult person…

“I didn’t think that there would be vitae streams beyond Signum…” She reached out and touched the brambles. The gloves prevented her from feeling its rough surface. “This is a lamia tree. They grow in areas of Signum that don’t receive a lot of sunlight, and they gain energy from vitae streams underground—runoffs from reservoirs. However, if this is unoccupied territory then…”

“Oh. Well, it’s why we’re out here…” Gilbert drew after a pause. “The Kaiser claims this was our land before the Reservoir War broke out ‘cause there’re vitae reservoirs here. Argo says otherwise. I say fuck both of ‘em. And Ophiuchus? Well… ” He cleared his throat when he noticed her stare.

There went his gentlemanly guise, she supposed.

“…Ophiuchus has no say in countries outside of Signum,” Atienna finished, more to herself than the others. “I do recall reading about this issue of unoccupied territory, but I always thought…”

“Thought it was propaganda?” Gilbert seemed to be asking himself instead of her. He scoffed. “‘Reading’ about it, huh? Well, we’re living it. Propaganda galore.”

“I don’t believe that’s what Werner would call it…” She felt the corners of her lips tug upward.

“Can you not refer to Werner as ‘Werner’?” he grumbled.

She had done it on purpose but inclined her head regardless.

“So what do we do?” Nico pressed, concern knitting itself across his brow and lips. “I mean… you are—Werner is…. a first lieutenant. A leader. A soldier. And this is a battlefield… And right now…”

“We’re only going to go deeper in to meet up with the captain.” Gilbert shifted on his feet. “It’s going to be dangerous. But Werner specifically asked me to complete this operation. Plus, this entire thing relies on units like us clearing away the debris—”

‘Debris’…?

“—We can’t leave them high and dry as much as I’d like to. We can’t stop moving, so—”

“We can’t leave Werner behind…” Nico interjected. “There could still be Argoans escaping back this way. What if we miss them? And… there aren’t any units coming up behind us for another day.”

“I wasn’t saying that we should leave him.” Gilbert grimaced, placing a hand on his hip and casting a glance towards the campfire. He nodded back at Atienna. “I’m assuming you’ve never killed anyone before?”

“Does that always have to be one of the first questions you ask people?” Nico sighed, exasperated. He turned to Atienna apologetically.

“I didn’t ask you that when you first joined up,” Gilbert interjected pointedly.

“Right. You asked me if I’ve ever dissected a person alive before.”

“Good icebreaker though.”

Atienna supposed Gilbert’s directness could be considered endearing, and she had often wondered how well Bachiru and Gilbert would get along. At this particular moment, however, his behavior was not very endearing at all.

The image of Yulia’s and Kovich’s and Alexei’s bodies draped over one another on that damp street beneath the illuminated night sky forced its way into Atienna’s mind as she considered Gilbert’s words. That trio had been all alone. Unable to reach. Their choices, neither right nor wrong.

“I find things like this… unpleasant,” Atienna admitted, “but it isn’t my place to say…”

However, Werner would be very displeased if he thought people viewed him as too much of a burden.

“But if you’re looking for a way for us to all be satisfied…. perhaps, we could say that I’m—Werner is—suffering from head trauma from the fall,” Atienna suggested after a pause. “And you could take the lead for a little while… I’d hate to put this burden on you, but I’m not very well equipped to handle leadership positions like this… Your experience far exceeds mine, don’t you think?”

Gilbert stared. “Damn… wish I could record those words coming out from Werner’s mouth. The bit about me exceeding him. Mind repeating that again so I can keep it in memory?”

Atienna chuckled lightly, hiding her smile with her hand out of habit.

“Anyway, you know how to use a conductor?”

“I…don’t personally have a license,” she responded slowly.

Klaus’s eyes widened to comical proportions.

“That’s fine.” Gilbert held up a hand. “We’ll just have to keep a tight circle around you in case anything goes south—”

“I don’t have a license, but I do know how to handle myself in unpleasant situations,” Atienna returned. “I’ve… thrown quite a few people around…”

Gilbert snorted as if amused, and the atmosphere seemed to lighten. “Well, all it all, it seems like an idea worth trying. Werner probably won’t be happy being temporarily stripped of his position though, I reckon.”

“I reckon not,” she returned pleasantly.

He scuffed her shoulder and then hesitated. “You’ll be safe under Capricornian eyes, don’t worry.”

She wasn’t too worried at all. Not about that at least. Handing off the torch to Gilbert had relieved a fragment of her unease.

Because the truth was that she just didn’t want the responsibility of having all of their lives in her hands. 

***

Atienna hung back behind Gilbert as he informed Werner’s unit that he would be taking point on the operation. They had both been saluted at upon approaching the campfire which Atienna found rather strange. It was a different feeling from the respectful greetings she had received when her father had still been chieftain of the Imamu tribe. There was warmth with each greeting back then—although she had personally held her distance. Here, there was a distance without her even having to skirt away.

Her father… Her family…

She hadn’t seen them in months. And now here she was even further away from home than before…

“—leave at 0500 hours. So get your rest,” Gilbert finished.

A chorus of ‘Yes, sir’s erupted at the end of speech which was followed by Werner’s men dispersing—though, Atienna could feel their gazes linger.

Gilbert drew back to her afterwards. “You should get some rest too. Maybe Werner’ll come back when you wake up.”

Atienna touched his arm just before he brushed past her. She felt him stiffen, and so she quickly removed her hand. Displays of consideration and affection were different for different people, she supposed. And even though she knew Gilbert, he didn’t know her.

“Can I ask a favor?” she asked. “I… would like to… see the one you were facing before this all happened. The Argoan…”

***

“W-We put them over here, sir,” Otto Vogt stammered as he and Wilhelm Fischer guided Atienna, Nico, and Gilbert through the tree lines.

“Your stutter is worse than Heimler’s,” Wilhelm scoffed. “And you’re only one-third his age. What kind of Capricornian are you?”

Atienna peered at Wilhelm, feeling a frown touch down on her lips.

How unpleasant. Werner had deemed this as ‘necessary’ hazing. Pressure to break the layer of insecurity that enveloped a person. Hatching into something stronger. Coal to diamond. But Atienna herself wasn’t so sure.

But truly, she was so judgmental for someone who still remained the same after everything. Always keeping quiet until it was almost too late and averting her eyes like always. One step forward. Two steps back. The unpleasant thing here was herself. No one else. She was—

“Is there anything wrong with a stutter?” Atienna questioned, despite knowing it would be best to remain silent. “If the meaning gets across?”

Wilhelm stiffened and whipped his head back to face her. His reaction was akin to someone having been slapped. Otto stared too, wide-eyed.

“Er, sir,” Wilhelm managed, “of course not. I was just—”

“Just knock it off, Fischer,” Gilbert ordered.

They eventually came to a circular clearing where moonlight sauntered on down through the trees. If she were to stand at the center of the clearing, Atienna was certain the waxing gibbous moon would act as a spotlight. However, the center of the clearing was already occupied.

“Right here, sir.” Wilhelm nodded as he rounded the mound of bodies casually with Otto.

Pale-faced, blue-faced men and women laid there, stiff like porcelain. Limbs were entangled with limbs. Eyes stared out vacant and glass-like, like the eyes of dolls. Dark red caked the ground below. Inhuman. Really, like dolls.

This wasn’t like the times she had seen through Werner’s, Maria’s, Cadence’s, and Jericho’s eyes. No, she was here. And the smell was…

Nico and Gilbert followed on behind Otto and Wilhelm just as nonchalantly.

Atienna remained at the edge of the clearing, unmoving. She averted her eyes from the scene. “You haven’t buried them…?”

How many bodies had there been? She would have to take another look to count. Another look at that terrible scene. How awful…

“We just haven’t gotten around to it yet,” Gilbert explained. “Don’t have to worry about wild animals. This area doesn’t have a lot of them.”

That wasn’t what she’d been referring to. Still, she nodded.

Otto and Wilhelm dragged one of the bodies away from the pile and brought it before her. They dropped it in front of her without care, although Otto appeared pale. He avoided looking at anyone, anything.

Atienna sank to her knees and studied the Argoan woman’s corpse carefully. The woman was young—most likely only in her early-20s. She had a sharp and angular face that death still had not hollowed out. Dried blood stained her jaw, contrasting the light blue of her vacantly staring eyes.

How sad.

Yulia flashed into Atienna’s mind, sending a wave of nausea throttling through her stomach. Letting out a quiet breath, Atienna reached out and closed the woman’s eyes. She then checked the woman’s hands, turning them over in her own. Her eyes narrowed.

“We already did a strip, sir,” Wilhelm said. “Got some supplies from the groan—

A derogatory, Common term. ‘Groan.’ Used to refer to Argoans because of the way their war cries tended to sound like groans from a distance. An anagram also. Clever, but cruel.

“That’s enough. Thank you for that information, Wilhelm,” Atienna said more tightly than intended. “One moment.”

She inspected the woman’s nails before rising and moving towards the woman’s feet which were adorned in muddied, military-grade leather boots. Kneeling down slowly, Atienna began to examine the spiked soles of the woman’s boots.

There.

Atienna reached forward and plucked something that had been impaled on a spike. Leaning backwards, she inspected it in the moonlight. A white petal.

“What is it?” Gilbert asked.

“It’s a bit strange….” drew Atienna as she held out the petal for them to see. “This is a sternblume. It only grows—”

“In the Grünland region of Capricorn,” Otto realized, brows rising.

Atienna regarded him in surprise for a moment. “Yes, exactly, Otto.” She moved forward, gently turning over the woman’s hand before she showed them the woman’s polished fingernails. Each nail hosted the same design painted white on black. “This symbol…”

“Wait a minute.” Wilhelm startled, squinted, leaned closer. “I’ve seen that somewhere before, sir.”

“It’s the trademark for a political organization that was founded inside of Capricorn. Just this year, actually. Verbundene Augen.”

“Those anti-military zealots?” Wilhelm frowned.

“Fischer, shut up,” Gilbert snapped.

“Yes, sir,” came the automatic response.

Unpleasant…

Otto inched forward. “What are you saying, sir?”

“I…” Atienna pulled away.

How would Werner put this? Certainly, he would be direct and to the point. Even if the words troubled the heart. ‘Cold eye.’ She wondered about that.

“This woman is not an Argoan. She is a Capricornian,” Atienna finally said. “For whatever reason, she chose to disguise herself as an Argoan soldier. That’s my theory.”

No one spoke nor objected.

“It may also be possible that this is a tactic being used to sow dissent and confusion among the Border Force….” she continued. “But I believe if that were the case, there would be a more blatant attempt than this… And I have heard that certain sects of the Verbundene Augen can be…” She shook her head. “This warrants some investigation, don’t you think?”

Still, what was the intention here? An organization promoting peace that utilized violence? Was this some sort of extreme demonstration by the Verbundene Augen? Did Argo actually have any involvement? If not, then where else would the Augen movement be able to procure these uniforms?

Curious…

“Why?”

When Atienna looked up, she found Gilbert, Otto, and Wilhelm staring down at her—rather, at the Capricornian woman—wide-eyed. She wanted to apologize for not only her rambling but also for this revelation, but she knew that words would not suffice.

Why…?” Wilhelm pressed, searching her face for an answer. “We’re out here fighting for… fighting for them!”

Atienna looked away.

“There’s… There’s another tattoo, sir.” Otto gestured to the woman’s forearm.

Atienna inspected the area and paused. At the base of where the woman’s palm met her arm was a dark-blue-inked tattoo of a scorpion. It was not a very detailed tattoo—it bordered on almost cartoonish—but something about it unnerved her. How had she not noticed it before?

Wilhelm stomped his foot on the ground and kicked up a flurry of ice, leaf, and dirt as he spun on his heels. “Unbelievable!” He turned to Atienna. “Sir, we have to report this to the capital immediately. We should send a runner. This is treason. That organization should be dismantled. The traitors punished!”

For some reason, it looked as if he wanted praise.

“Okay, enough, Fischer. One thing at a time.” Gilbert waved him off. “You and Vogt head back to camp. And keep your mouths shut, will you?”

Both men exchanged a look before nodding affirmative and heading back into the direction of camp. No protest. Rank-and-file. Such a powerful thing obedience was.

Atienna waited for the crunch of their boots against the frost laden ground to recede before she let out a quiet sigh. After a moment, she inquired, “Would you like me to inspect the other bodies, Gilbert? To see if there are more involved?”

The man gave her an odd look before he nodded. “That’d probably be a good idea.”

Nico remained silent.

Atienna glanced at the mound of corpses. “Will you… send a runner like Wilhelm suggested?”

“We’re already down one man. I don’t feel comfortable moving forward with two gone. Probably best to just meet with the captain and let him decide on what to do.” Gilbert sighed, rolled his neck. “Damn, I hate thinking.”

A pause.

Atienna slowly rose to a stand. “Do you think you’ll tell your subordinates about this, Gilbert?”

“You ask a lot of questions, you know that?” Gilbert arched a brow before he shrugged. “Wouldn’t do good for morale. Finding out the people you’re supposedly fighting for could be mixed in with the people you’re pointing a conductor at.” He frowned abruptly, waved his hand. “Inspect the bodies tomorrow. You should get some sleep. Maybe Werner’ll return from his vacation by then, and he can deal with this mess.”

***

But Atienna awoke several hours later to the sound of grumbling, packing, and stomping leather boots. Peeling herself off up Werner’s thin sleeping pack, she blinked blearily as she observed his men shuffling back and forth around the campsite.

The campfire had been long extinguished, any evidence that it had once been burning carefully hidden away by a pack of dirt. The soup cans and paper ration wraps that had been scattered across the forest floor the previous night had also been hidden away somewhere.

Atienna was rather pleased with the latter development. She’d spent the last couple of minutes before sleep gathering what she could of those items in a bag. The earth needed to be treated with respect, after all. Despite war’s strangulation.

Werner’s men had done impressive clean-up work. The area almost looked as if it had not been occupied at all. But still… the emptiness of the campsite gave everything an odd sensation of desolation and seemed to make the morning chill feel even colder.

Atienna shivered, feeling the gazes of all of Werner’s men pressing upon her. She sighed.

By the look and sound of things, it seemed as if she had been the last to wake up…

But despite all the noise of morning bustle, it was all still too quiet.

Absentmindedly, she lifted a hand to her ear. All too quiet…

Her palms abruptly itched as a creeping apprehension crept from her stomach to her shoulders. She tensed and pulled the blanket closer around herself. She was forgetting an important detail, she knew. What was it…?

She spotted Gilbert at the very lip of the forest’s edge conversing with Wilhelm. Gilbert seemed to have felt her stare because he turned towards her and arched his brow. She shook her head slowly in response, causing him to offer a mere shrug-nod in acknowledgment. However, his concern was now clear beneath the gray overhead sunlight seeping in through the clouds. Atienna glanced away from him when something floating down from those clouds caught her attention. A snowflake sauntering down lazily. She held out a hand to capture it—off-white against her gloved hand.

It did not melt.

She realized it was ash.

14.4: Soldier, 0000 Miscalculation

Re-cap:
Werner Waltz was sent to the Twin Cities of Gemini to participate in a new deal between Capricorn and the Romano Family. There, he discovered that his superior for the mission, Fritz von Spiel, was a True Conductor aiming to utilize Capricornian presence in the city for his own goals. The incident ended with the death of Von Spiel and the annulment of the deal between Capricorn and the Romano Family. 
Skirmishes at the southern border with Argo continue as expect two months later, but something begins to creep closer.


Fehleinschätzung » Miscalculation, unrecorded.

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

From his perch in the trees, Capricornian First Lieutenant Werner Waltz scanned the clearing through his scope. Bodies littered the marshy ground below, painted over with silver from the moonlight slithering in between the skeleton forestry. The light could not pierce through the fog that crept along the fallen leaves and branches. The veil blanketed the corpses, hiding them from sight.

It was quiet. The birds had flown away at the first gunshot. The Argoans had not. They had put up a fight—a fruitless one, since they had not been able to find Werner and his unit in their newly-issued, dark-gray uniforms among the branches above their heads. The light from the Capricornian conducting rifles had exacerbated the Argoans’ confusion leading to a break in formation which was followed by their deaths in a concise blitz of light.

As always during these execution events, nausea bubbled at the pit of Werner’s stomach. He couldn’t recall the last time he had been able to pull the trigger without hesitation. Every time he conquered this obstruction, it resurfaced during the next battle. He was certain that this had not been an issue prior to the synchronization. It did not affect his numbers, however. They remained the same in the high double digits. A number. A statistic. Quantifying lives so easily...

Werner tensed and peered through his scope as he spotted movement from below. Out from the thrushes stepped a lone woman wrapped in an Argoan gray. Gauging by the single star stamped on the shoulders of her uniform, she was most likely only a private. Her hands were held high in the air. Surrender, it seemed. But appearances were deceiving. Caution needed to be kept. That aside, if her surrender was genuine, it would be an inconsequential development. He most likely would not be able to extract any valuable information from her.

“Heimler,” Werner addressed the older man balancing on the branch just below him.

Friedhelm Heimler was a new addition to Werner’s unit. Although he was new, he was much older than the rest of them and had peppered orange hair and brow creases to show for it. He had served in the Capricornian Army during the Reservoir War and had obtained the rank of captain but was subsequently stripped of the position after he had voiced his anti-military rhetoric against the Kaiser in the years following the war’s conclusion. And yet, despite being renounced and over the age requirement for the draft, Heimler had voluntarily signed up to re-join the army. And—out of all services—he had opted to enter the Border Force. The man held years of expereince and had passed all prerequisite tests for enlistment, so Werner held no doubt in his abilities, but…

Heimler’s reenlistment was a curious mystery to Werner. Perhaps it had to do with the man’s son who also happened to serve in the Border Force in the 312th Division. But that wasn’t pertinent. It would be a waste to dissect reason and rhyme.

Heimler fumbled at Werner’s address before dropping his conducting rifle. It scored down the branches before hitting the pile of leaves below with a soft thud.

Werner tensed, training his rifle on the Argon. The woman did not make any movements for the conductor. Heimler shot Werner an apologetic wince.

Werner shook his head and instead signaled to Fischer who was balanced in a tree over. Fischer nodded firmly before descending the tree. Werner kept his conductor trained on the Argoan while Fischer approached her, forced her into a knee,l and searched her for weapons. Two shakes of the head indicated that she was unarmed.

Werner gave one last careful sweep of the area through his scope before he signaled for his men to descend to the forest floor. After swiftly scaling down the trunk behind Heimler and landing on the ground, he was greeted by a chorus of whooping cheers. A quick scan of his subordinates and the kneeling Argoan informed Werner that it was a celebratory gesture.

Private Derik Stein and Private Wilhelm Fischer were jeering down at the woman, while Private Otto Vogt and Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine looked on at them with both apprehension and relief. Combat medic Alwin Brandt was passing a v-cigarette to Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff while Nico circled the area and checked the bodies for pulses. At the center of all this, Heimler looked between the groups uncertainly, torn between a smile and a grimace.

Werner admitted that he was pleased with their performance on this operation so far. With only nine men including Werner himself to the unit, they had successfully cleared away the leftover Argoan companies along their route with no casualties. A satisfactory feat.

Werner clicked open his pocket watch and allowed the men to revel in their victory for another minute. It was 2250 hours. They were forty-five minutes ahead of schedule which he still found to be a rather tight window. If their trajectory and timeline remained the same, then they would meet up with Captain Weingartner’s platoon in 18 hours and 14 minutes. Then it would be operation complete, though he would have to take another look at the map to be completely certain.

“Enough.” Werner pocketed his watch. “There still may be hostiles in the area.”

“Oh, come on, Werner,” Gilbert said from behind the Argoan as he swung his conducting rifle over his shoulders. “We’re all getting leave after this. Let the men enjoy a little bit.”

“Celebrations are reserved for when something of merit is accomplished. We still haven’t completed this operation yet.” Werner paused in thought. “But good work.” He motioned for Stein. “Sweep the area with Kleine. Half a kilometer radius.”

Stein and Kleine gave the formal responses of confirmation before heading off into the surrounding thicket of trees.

Werner approached the Argoan prisoner and tried, “Common?”

The woman looked up and nodded.

“How many units are southeast of here?”

Her eyes narrowed before she answered in Common, “Don’t know, warmonger.”

Gilbert arched a brow from behind her while Fischer raised the butt of his rifle up and swiped it at the back of her head. The woman grunted, staggering forward on her knees.

“Enough, Fischer.”

Gilbert arched a brow. “Can’t question her if you smack the last two damn brain cells out of her head, Fischer.”

Fischer stiffened. “Sorry, sir.”

Stein and Kleine returned to report no hostiles in the area. A good development, although Werner considered ordering a double-check.

Werner motioned for Heimler who was now loitering by a thrush bush a meter away from everyone else: “Heimler, assist Fischer.”

Heimler cleared his throat, dipped his head, and started over to them. Just as he neared Werner’s side, however, he tripped forward and landed face-first in front of the Argoan. As he picked himself off of the ground and bared the brunt of disapproving stares, the Argoan locked eyes with the man’s waist—no, the sheathed combat knife that hung at the man’s belt.

The woman lunged at Heimler, ripping the combat knife right out from its holster and driving it without hesitation toward his gut. Werner darted forward in turn, hand extended. Acting before thinking. And—as always—such a pattern of events lead to unfortunate, unpleasant results.

The blade of the knife cut into and through Werner’s gloves as he wrapped his fingers around it to stop its course. The woman stared at him wide-eyed before she attempted to jerk the knife away from him. Werner merely tightened his grip. Although the blade budged ever so slightly with her tug and drew blood, it moved no further.

The Argoan released the weapon and fell backwards. Fischer and Stein were on her in an instant, pinning her to the ground beneath their knees.

“Are you alright, Heimler?” Werner inquired, wiping down the knife before handing it back to him by the blade.

“Y-Yes, sir,” stammered the man, sheathing his knife with effort. “Your hand—”

“You need to be alert,” Werner interjected. “I’m aware you’ve served in the Reservoir War before, and I’m not calling into question the experience you hold. But, this is a different war. A mistake like this cannot be tolerated more than once. Since the Argoans—”

“Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”

The Argoan suddenly screeched the word as she kicked her legs out from beneath Fischer and Stein. Her face was pale in the moonlight, her eyes wide, her black pupils small, her white teeth bared. And then blood leaked out from behind her gums and poured out from the corners of her lips. She spewed out red and spat something out onto the ground.

A mound of flesh, twitching.

She had bitten off her own tongue, Werner realized. He held his bleeding hand, ears roaring as the young woman gurgled on her own blood. Nico was on her in an instant, brushing the other men aside and ripping out his conducting gloves from his pocket.

“Wrong… wrong…” she managed between mouthfuls of crimson red. “War…monger.”

“The hell are you doing, Fabrizzio?!” Fischer snapped, grabbing Nico by the shoulder. “She’s a—”

“Stand down, Fischer,” Werner ordered calmly despite the indignant annoyance that flared in his chest.

“But—yes, sir…”

Nico reached for the woman’s mouth, his gloves already emitting their usual glow. Before he could place a hand on her, however, she shoved him back and kicked and clawed at the air. She spat again, sending blood spraying out from her mouth like mist.

I will enter,” the woman wheezed before her eyes snapped to the back of her head.

Nico fell back, panting heavily, the woman’s blood still dripping from his chin.

“The hell was that….? Crazy lady…” Gilbert grimaced at the blood pooling into the damp ground as he looped around the scene. He nodded at Werner. “You alright?”

“It’s a minor injury,” Werner replied as he elevated his hand above his heart. He nodded at the combat medic still seated on the forest floor. “Nico, are you alright?”

Nico stumbled up to a stand, wiping the blood from his face with the back of his hand. “Sorry…”

“Are you hurt?” Werner asked.

Nico assessed himself slowly before he shook his head.

“Good. You and Brandt are the only Transmutationists we have in this unit. Be aware of your role and importance.”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” Nico drew faintly before rising to a stand and gesturing to his still bleeding hand. “Do you need me to look at that?”

“As I’ve said, it’s minor.” Werner frowned, scanning the thicket of trees. “Search the perimeter. If she was willing to put up this much of a fight, there will be others.”

Kleine and Stein exchanged looks.

“We just did, Lieutenant,” Stein said.

Kleine asked, “Would you like us to… do another sweep?”

At that moment, a sharp, terrible pain exploded at Werner’s shoulder. He stumbled backwards, gripping the area with a grimace. He surveyed the pain site but found no wound. Still, the area was numb―from the cold or the pain, he didn’t know. It didn’t matter.

Ridiculous. Of course, it mattered. If the other five felt this pain then it could compromise—

The other five. There was no response from them. Radio silence. White noise.

Something had gone wrong.

Werner’s gaze flitted from the stares of confusion from his subordinates to Gilbert’s increasingly prominent frown and then to Nico’s unrestrained concern.

Where had the miscalculation been? What had been the error?

He locked eyes with the Argoan’s body.

“Werner, what’s wrong?”

The throb of pain—Werner realized hazily as he continued to stare at the Argoan—was hauntingly similar to the pain he’d felt when he had been struck by that vitae-ray at the Ziegenberg Ridge. Gilbert stepped into his view, reaching out to remove his hand from his shoulder. No injury.

“What’s going on? Were you hit—”

“Keep moving,” Werner ordered, keeping his voice steady and even. His heart thundered in his chest as the pain spread. “Meet up with the captain. Complete our operation.”

“What? Werner—”

Werner turned to Nico. “Nico, contact—”

He didn’t have the energy to say much else as the pain throttled from his shoulder to the rest of his body. He fell forward onto the forest floor.

Faintly in his mind’s eye, he saw phantoms of colorful letters fluttering downwards in-between ghostly pages of hand-written notes. He felt cold water swirling around him, heard the pitter-patter of a distant rain, tasted soot and salt.

Although there was no actual rain, he could feel the ghost of it from his memory of that day where it all began on the Aquarian-Capricornian border. That memory of cold rain seeping through the fabric of his uniform, deep into his skin, and reaching his core, where it slowly stole away his movement and sight.

The last thing he saw was all of his men staring down at him, the whites of their eyes matching the shade of moonlight pouring in from between the trees.

Oh, Werner, came that voice. It’ll be alright.

14.3: Advisor & Pirate, 0000 Lost Connection

Re-cap:
Atienna has freed herself from the conflict in the Zatenminye Caverns of Aquarius. At a cost. True Conductor, Aquarian secretary Yulia Kriska has passed away along with the others in her connected group. Atienna has been confronted by True Conductor(-hunter) Cvetka Akulova and has been offered an opportunity (?) to work alongside Cvetka’s employer. Two months later, Atienna’s uncertainty remains…

Maria has suffered her first defeat. Having lost her childhood friend Conta to ELPIS, she has set off to find Conta and fulfill her promise. Despite this tragedy, Maria has found an odd  kinship with fellow almost-saint-candidate and True Conductor Veles (a bounty hunter who claims to be a guild leader) and also with Chevalier Renee LeBlanc, another True Conductor. Two months later, Maria’s search leads her…


Verlose Verbindung » Lost connection, unrecorded

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

“Papers,” the man ordered in accented Common, hand extended. “Papers, please.”

Rainwater trickled down the brim of his charcoal-colored cap onto the metal gorget hanging around his neck by a thick chain. The imprint of a sea-goat lined the top of the accessory with the word Militärpolizei stamped in bold, capital letters just below it. A baton, a holstered gun, and a conductor of an unknown type hung at the belt around his waist.

Military police.

Balancing her small evergreen umbrella above her head, Virgoan advisor Atienna Imamu searched the small satchel that hung from her shoulders. After shifting aside three thick books and a stack of folded papers, she pulled out a slip of paper stamped with a Virgoan M-seal and her tribe’s seal.

The man accepted the identification and scanned it. Despite his hard eyes, his neatly trimmed ginger mustache brought some color to his face.

At the moment, they both stood at the corner of a sidewalk with steady traffic. A very large and gray stone-laden square unfolded before them. It was dotted with just-as-square v-trams that rolled along the tracks and around medium-sized, closely packed, just-as-square buildings. Several of those buildings were capped off with mint-colored domes, but the predominant colors in the area were beige and gray—gray from the clouding skyline. Despite the low, overbearing clouds, however, there was a sense of extended space to the square—an openness. Although there were most likely hundreds of people bustling around, it was not very crowded.

“Ah, I see. You are an advisor, Atienna Imamu.” The man nodded, handing back her slip and flashing her a cordial smile. “You are here for the Leitertechnik Diplomatisch Konvention! The conductor diplomatic convention! Is it true that people from even Libra and Sagittarius are coming over here?”

“Well, you’re very knowledgeable, Herr…?”

“Herr Schmidt,” replied the man with a grin, tipping his cap and sending some rainwater pattering onto the sidewalk. “Are you not with a bodyguard?” He glanced down the brick-stone walkway. “While it is quite safe here, there have been a couple of… incidents because of a… certain political group as of late. It would be best to travel with someone who can protect you, Frau Imamu. We would not want harm to come to a diplomat visiting our city.”

Atienna dipped her head. “I am just out to make a quick phone call.” She pointed to a building marked with long windows and capped with a triangular maroon roof just across the street.

Sefu was in there on the fourth floor being hustled around by the newly appointed Virgoan diplomat to Capricorn—Nyimbo Dimka of the Maneo Tribe. The man was much younger than the former diplomat Chiamaka had been and was much more energetic too. Thus, Atienna had used Nyimbo’s overzealousness to her advantage and had slipped away from them all minutes prior.

“I am just in there, so it is not so far.” She flashed the officer a genial smile. “I do thank you for your concern.”

“Enjoy your stay here, Frau Imamu.” The military police officer tipped his hat before pointing down the road. “There is a phone booth just down this street and to the left. It will be right across from the… how do you say… newspaper booth.”

Atienna dipped her head in thanks as the officer departed before following on down the road as the officer instructed. Her leather shoes click-clacked against the path, accentuating the subdued chatter ghosting the square.

After rounding the corner, she found the telephone booth as the military police office had described—rectangular, green-painted, straight across from the newspaper stand. Closing her umbrella, she slipped inside and took a moment to admire how clean and well-kept it was. She even thought she caught a hint of lemon-scented, cleaning-agent near the windows. She paused in her admiration to eye the phone box resting alluringly in front of her.

Her palms itched.

Atienna took in a deep breath and pulled out a slip of folded paper from her pocket. She had treated it with care ever since she’d received it from the True Conductor—rather, True Conductor hunter—Cvetka Akulova, and so it looked the same as it had when she’d accepted it two months ago. Though, she supposed she hadn’t so much treated with ‘reverent’ care as with ‘fearful’ care. Fear of deciding to use it. Fear of deciding not to. She had discussed this numerous times with Cadence and Werner. But the choice, Atienna knew, was ultimately her own.

She picked the phone off the receiver and waited to connect to the operator. After offering a polite word of greeting, she read the number off to the woman and waited as the phone trilled a ring before the line connected.

“Hello. Secretary speaking,” came the voice on the other end. Clipped, almost mechanical.

“Hello—”

“This is a private line that is being recorded for quality assurance purposes,” the voice continued. “At the moment, I’ve been directed to transfer all calls to a separate receiver. Please hold while I send you on over.”

Before Atienna could answer, the line rang again.

Oh. Okay.

“Hello,” came another voice—cheery—a second later. “You’ve reached the General Investigations Department of Ophiuchus! This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes. Are you calling to submit a new request or to address an old case? If it’s the former option, I’d be happy to direct you to the Assignment Department. If it’s the latter, may I please have your case number or the name of the peacekeeper you’re in contact with?”

Atienna paused. “Oh… I suppose I have the wrong number. I’m sorry. Goodbye.” She slowly placed the phone back onto the receiver. And then she let out a sigh—of both disappointment and relief.

It seemed as if she had narrowed her number of tasks considerably after having only been in the city for a day. Still, it was odd. Had something happened to Cvetka’s contact or had it all been a taunting ploy….? It was something that definitely needed to be addressed… Perhaps, at a synchronization meeting.

Atienna spied the newspaper stand across the square and contemplated giving it a gander. Eventually, she pulled out her umbrella and started across the square. She politely addressed the vendor within and paid for the daily newspaper with one Capricornian mark.

The newspaper headline detailed the diplomatic conductor convention. Hosted below the informational article was a rather passionate, anti-military piece written by Marionette Engel, leader of the recently popularized Verbundene Augen movement:

—the political aficionados refuse to admit that the reason they support our constant skirmishes at the southern border is because it lines their pockets with money. In short, the Capricornian military is overfunded. Some economists may argue that these monetary resources trickle over to other economic sectors. While this may be true, they must acknowledge that, with every large investment, there is always a large down payment. And that down payment is the lives of our sons and daughters—

A sharp prick at the base of Atienna’s palm distracted her from her reading.

Werner, it seemed. But they had all promised to keep a low level of synchronization whenever he and Jericho were on operations or assignments. Atienna contemplated reaching out for him regardless but thought better of it. She didn’t want to distract him. And so, she returned her attention to the newspaper.

She blinked.

That was odd…

The words were a bit hard to read. Fuzzy. Out of focus.

Several words seemed to stand out from all the blurred ink. One from the headline article, one from the demilitarization piece, and another from an ad printed at the bottom corner.

I—

will—

enter.

Now, everything seemed out of focusThe noise around her. The movements of the pedestrians and vendors around her. Her own movements. The movements of the other five—no…. The others were drifting away from her. She could feel it, feel them pulling away, leaving her in cold, cold darkness.

The newspaper slipped from her hands and fell onto the floor. Her knees buckled, and she followed it to the ground a moment after. As she lay cold on her back, she blinked up at the gray sky in confusion and studied the shape of the clouds. They almost looked like eyes, peering down at her unyieldingly.

Dark faces ringed around her like a halo. Capricornian words shouted in alarm and concern. Beside her, the rainwater bled into the pages of her newspaper.

This sensation… the heat at the pit of her stomach and the cold enveloping her skin…. It was like when she had been poisoned by sorrowheat back at the dinner meeting in Virgo. Exactly the same.

The others…

She couldn’t complete the thought. Heaviness weighed down on her eyelids. As she drifted away, the pitter-pattering of the rain sounded like whispering in her ears.

I see you. I see you. I see you.


Slidr River, Aquarian-Capricornian Border

“Am… Am I really walking on water?”

“Yes, this is called a blessing, child Lita. I—Veles—have made it so!”

Maria Gloria-Fernandez threw her head back and hummed as she gently took both of Lita’s hands in her own and guided her forward in a slinking dance. “You are certainly amazing, my dear Beast of the Deep!”

At the moment, Lita was indeed walking on water. As was Maria. As was the bounty hunter Veles, as was the Monadic priest Simon, as was the sailor-turned-pirate Morandi, as was the foreign conductor engineer Emmanuel. Barefoot and walking along the surface of a crystalline river speckled with particles of glowing purple light.

There was an encroaching winter chill in the air, and the rocks guarding the side of the riverbank were lightly frosted. Overhead, grayed sunlight bled in through the archway of branches and barely touched their skin. Every so often a chunk of ice would roll on down the stream towards them. In response, Veles would offhandedly wave his conductor-gloved hand and the current would change causing the ice to flow around them.

It was quite strange feeling the water pushing up against her toes and keeping her afloat, Maria thought. It reminded her of that time she had stolen a hot-air balloon from Cancer and had ridden on its top all the way to Taurus. The airy buoyancy, the feeling of exhilaration of being at the divide two different terrains. It was peaceful.

“Golden Beast, your words are too kind!” Veles returned as he marched forward in front of them. Every so often, he would flick his hand and the glow of water beneath their feet would expand further ahead of them and recede a bit behind them. Despite the cold, Veles was still bare-chested, although he had taken up a much thicker fur-lined cloak that concealed his entire body.

Maria herself had a similar cloak wrapped around herself. She had gotten it in exchange for some of her medals back at an Aquarian port.

“I-It’s too bad Giorgio couldn’t come…” Lita mumbled, her words muffled in the fur-lining of her thick leather coat.

Maria moved forward to pull up the girl’s hoodie.

“Yes, well, he and the others have to take care of all the children,” Morandi said, gazing with uncertainty at the water flow below him. “It’d be precarious to bring them all along…” He glanced down at the girl. “Just as it is precarious for us to bring you along—”

Lita turned in his direction and frowned. “More precarious than when I was under the Campanas?”

Morandi grunted. “Well, dear, ELPIS and the Campanas are completely different organizations…” As he said this, his eyes widened and he hung his head. “What in saint’s name are we doing? This is crazy.”

“I still can’t wrap my head around it…” Emmanuel scratched the back of his neck as he shrugged his cloak more over his shoulders. “I have studied the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. For my license. But my impression was that it was… not real? But you say memories can be stored in vitae? So… your Licensing Department in Ophiuchus… is wrong?”

“There is only one truth you need to know, Emmanuel,” Veles boomed. “And that is that I—Veles—will avenge my fallen guildmates!”

“Yes, we will find Beta, and I will rescue Conta,” Maria affirmed with a nod. She cocked her head at Emmanuel. “Was that not clear when we left the ship?”

Morandi choked and coughed, hard.

Maria blinked back at him, brow arched. “Are you alright, Morandi…?”

“Yes, Captain,” Morandi managed, pounding his chest. He glanced at Veles then back at her. “I was just concerned about whether or not we’re all on the same page…”

“Same page?” Maria inquired.

“I know we’ve been working together for several weeks now, and we and Veles share similar goals…” Morandi elaborated. “But the execution of those plans seems a bit… different.”

Maria recalled the day two weeks prior when she’d bounded into Veles’s hideout in Hapaira after dropping off the Chevalier Renée LeBlanc. She had quickly dismantled Veles’s bounty hunting associates—without any deaths included, since ‘that wouldn’t be a good way to make friends’ as Atienna had pointed out—and had approached Veles who reclined at the back of his hideout on a leather sofa. There, she had graciously bowed before him and requested his assistance in locating Conta. He was not interested in her request at first—at least, not until she explained that Beta was most likely the one who had executed his underlings. After that, he had immediately packed his bags and left with her.

It was through Veles’s efforts paired with Cadence’s trickle of information from the information broker in the Twin Cities that they had made it to this river that ran along the Aquarian-Capricornian border. Maria had left her ship in the Aquarian bay that this waterway poured into and had then left their canoeing boat behind too as the river had narrowed to the point where it was no longer accessible by it. The river had widened since then, but they had decided to settle on a more scenic route instead of opting for locomotive transportation.

Their destination?

The capital of Capricorn!

Yes, the trail of ELPIS sightings across Signum led there. A destination in sight. Die Hauptstadt.

Emmanuel was coming along to the capital due to his interest in the conductor convention there, while Lita wished to offer the assistance of her eyes in finding Conta. Morandi was there as a ‘nanny’ as Olive had put it. And as for the silent Simon who was taking in the scenery beside her—Maria supposed he was concerned about Conta. Or perhaps….

“Well, we both wish to protect what is ours…” Maria murmured, releasing Lita’s hand and fingering her blade beneath her cloak. “Is that not—ow…!”

Maria jerked her hand away from the blade before blinking down at her bare, tanned palm. She shook it absentmindedly and looked up to find Veles and the others studying her.

“Ay, that was strange…” She chuckled.

And suddenly, she became winded, her lungs igniting with intense, burning pain. Before she could even comprehend the situation, she was face down on the water. Its press against her cheek was both warm and cold, both wet and dry.

“Maria?! What—”

She didn’t hear the rest because she abruptly broke through the barrier and fell into the depths of the river. The cold gripped her tightly, forcing her to release her held breath and sending air bubbles out from her mouthHer limbs would not obey her, frozen stiff in the cold of the dark waters.

The memory of being caught in that conducting grenade explosion onboard Morandi’s ship over half a year ago seeped into her mind intrusively.

The only difference was that now she was not bleeding and that now she was in the middle of seeking something that had been stolen from her instead of stealing from other people. And—the air bubbles too. They were different. They almost looked like eyeballs, staring directly at her as they rose to the surface.

Maria sank deeper and deeper into the frigid dark.

Right.

All she needed to do was kick her legs a bit, and she’d break through the surface to rejoin her crew. She had to. She had to find Conta. To fulfill that promise.

An intrusive thought invaded her mind as black dots pricked her vision:

I don’t want to lose again—


“The Verbundene Augen is a new political movement that is seeing steady growth. Its foundation in the Die Hauptstadt appears to be in relation to the recent publicization of the Capricornian military Watch. Its strong stances on demilitarization and criticism of the Kaiser can be problematic for future progressive development. Proposals of defaming the group through associating it with ELPIS have been suggested due to both groups’ apparent anti-conductor stances. The leader Marionette Engel, however, has denounced ELPIS publicly so this may prove to be difficult. Further investigations into this group are suggested and to be approved by General Falke Sperber.” 

Report from Capricorn Chamber of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, 08/1941