21b: Hidden Faults

[Chapter Mood Theme]

Re-cap:

The Kaiser is dead, killed by Marionette Engel. The six deal with the fall out as Signum begins to change around them.


“Congratulations, Captain Waltz,” Acting Kaiser General Watzmann said. “You’ve done well. Capricorn thanks you for your service.”

Newly promoted Captain Werner Waltz stood at attention as the general fixed a medal in the shape of a thirteen-pointed star over his chest. Werner stood now in the late Kaiser’s office with Kleine, Bergmann, Brandt, Stein, and Gilbert just a step behind him. The glass shards that had once cluttered the floor had been cleaned up and a rickety replacement glass pane had been put over the window. The warped glass distorted the morning light that was seeping through the clouds, making everything seem hazy and dream-like.

Promotions had been given to Werner’s subordinates as well just a moment earlier: Kleine from Lance Corporal to Corporal Class III, Bergmann from Corporal Class III to Sergeant Class III, Stein from Private to Lance Corporal, Brandt from Medical Combat Class III to Class I, and Gilbert from Second Lieutenant to First Lieutenant.

“You held the final defensive line against the revolting Verbundene Augen and defended the Kaiser with all your might with the little resources you had and despite being slandered by misinformation,” Watzmann continued. “Marionette Engel’s forces were overwhelming. The military police weren’t prepared for her coup d’état. The Kaiser’s assassination was not your fault. And yet still, order has been maintained.”

General Watzmann, whom Olive had met back on the medical train, had arrived at the capital only two hours after the Kaiser’s death was announced to the public. The two other generals who were in Leona’s care deferred leadership to him. Thus he welcomed Ophiuchus’s intervention with open arms. His lack of involvement with both the Augen and the chancellery cabinet due to his long medical leave had put him in a mostly favorable light in the public eye.

“Waltz, I take it you’ll take your new office position at the capital just as seriously as you did your position on the Border Force. Logistics and communicating with Ophiuchus is quite a big deal,” Watzmann continued, pulling back and surveying the others behind him. “As long as your captain here gets all of his paperwork done, I’m sure everything will run smoothly at the border too. Everything goes top-down.” A pause. “And everything is more-or-less operating the same as before you stumbled upon this discretion as well, so keep your heads up. You have a hefty responsibility on your shoulders. Carry it with pride.”

It wasn’t like he had a choice. Sleaze. 

Gilbert said nothing. Stein shifted in place, leering at the general up and down. Bergmann and Kleine exchanged looks.

“Now, Captain Waltz,” Watzmann continued, “you wouldn’t happen to know what happened to Friedhelm Heimler and Volker Weingartner, would you? Heimler was a prominent member of the Augen, and Weingartner’s being investigated for his own involvement, but they’ve both disappeared without a trace. Weingartner’s daughter too.” He folded his hand over his stomach. “How about Ludwig? He had former relations with the Augen, didn’t he? Would he or your sister by relation know anything? I heard that your family just made it back to Eisburg. Should we make a call?”

Werner clenched his fist behind his back but kept his face stolid. “No, sir. I have no knowledge of what happened to Heimler and Captain Weingartner. I’m aware that Ludwig has dissociated himself from the Augen, and there’s been a case opened for him about the fact that he was also possibly manipulated. I doubt he knows anything about their whereabouts.”

Watzmann turned and pulled a stack of files from his desk. After rifling through them for a moment, he peered at Werner. “And I assume that even after all of this, your loyalty lies to…?”

“To Capricorn, of course,” Werner responded without skipping a beat.

“Very well then.”

Werner watched him set the papers down and then released his clenched fist.

Stripped of his subordinates. Stripped of his original duty. Stripped of his freedom . Stripped of his privacy. It was an unsightly state. And here it was being treated as some exceptional, praised distinctive honor. A false, honorable appearance. Appearances were everything, but also deceiving.

“I’m sure General von Spiel will give you some pointers on the office culture of the capital when he comes around,” Watzmann continued. “It’ll be much calmer and safer here than the border, but you will still be watched and held to the same standard.” He nodded. “I say—with the recent discovery of a vitae reservoir just beneath our feet, Capricorn is about to enter a renaissance age. There’s no better time to be a capital soldier.”

Trystan’s agonized expression as he melted down into a pool of vitae flashed through Werner’s mind.

“You can all leave now. Thank you for your service.”

Werner exited the office with Gilbert and the others following behind. The ringing of telephones and tap-tapping of typewriters filled the surrounding hall. On the walls of the hall hung the familiar portraits of the past Kaisers—Kafke Netzche’s grim-faced profile being the most recent addition.

Werner stared up at the portrait for five seconds more before he turned to face his subordinates. “You all still have two weeks of leave before you’re to report back to the border. You’ll be taken under a different commander then.”

“You’ll always be our commander, Lieuten—er—Captain,” Kleine interjected, brows furrowed, fists clenched. “Not anyone else—”

“That’s not how it works, Kleine,” Werner interjected before inclining his head. “But I appreciate the sentiment. I’ll remember your words.”

Kleine nodded.

Werner took in a deep breath and then said steadily as he met each of their eyes: “This is my last order to you. When you go home, don’t think of what’s transpired here. Enjoy your time with your families instead. And when you go to the border to serve, make sure you come back alive.”

Stein nodded, while Kleine and Bergmann stood at attention. “Yes, sir.”

“I’ll see you sometime soon.”

Gilbert lingered by Werner’s side when the other three departed. After a while, he muttered, “Well, that doesn’t apply to me, does it? Honorable discharge and all that.”

Werner turned to him, brows knitting as he glanced again at Gilbert’s armless sleeve that was tied into a knot.

“Well, I’m not letting them kick me out that easily. Not you either. I mean, I heard Nic’s somehow got a job as a medical officer for the new hospital here and earning a good paycheck. Can’t let him beat me.”

Werner stared.

“And not like their bonus package the capital is giving me is going to last us long,” Gilbert continued, ruffling his hair with a sigh. “So I was thinking of maybe trying for that special program for injured-in-combat officers. The one Ludwig mentioned to me a while back.”

Werner paused before he realized in surprise: “The Stahlherzprogramm. That’s the one Kaiser Netzche put in place, correct? To provide influential positions for officers who were disabled during battle… It’s a highly competitive program.”

“Yeah, guess the guy did one thing right other than being a puppet.” Gilbert grimaced. “Well, anyway, I might actually try for that—like I’m going to actually try for it.” He sighed, ruffling his hair again. “No idea what the hell I’m doing jumping right back into things when I got a free pass, but just sitting around doing nothing pisses me off.” He peeked at Werner. “‘Course. Getting into the program is one thing; getting an actual job is another.”

Werner nodded, allowing a slight smile to touch his lips. “I’ll keep a position open.”

“Thank you, paycheck.”

* * *

Werner stepped out from the chancellery building and took in the morning rays seeping in lazily through the clouds. He took a sweep of the streets, noting how the cement roads were even more dilapidated than before. Still, despite this, every so often a group of civilians would filter by in a hurry. And—there was almost complete silence. In the distance, instead of the thunderous boom of battle, there was the warbling of birds. It was a sign of recovery—perhaps. Or maybe that was too optimistic.

Feeling a faint pull at his chest, Werner walked down the steps of the chancellery building and down the road. He stepped around several fallen v-lamps along the way, stopping temporarily to direct some newly deployed and lost military police officers to their designated locations. The pull continued all the while; and eventually, he followed it into a barricaded alleyway. After two more minutes of walking, he reached a very small clearing where a familiar group of five gathered in a circle—some sitting on crates and steel drums and others standing—around a toppled stack of insulating shields.

Olive sat closest to him, face caked in ash, eyes red and puffy. He looked nothing like a regal prince of Aries. Cadence was leaning against the wall beside him, spinning a golden necklace by the chain around on her index finger. When she noticed his stare, she cracked a grin—Hey. I found it on the ground. Honest. 

Maria sat beside her. Despite the sweat staining the woman’s face and the blood soaked into her shirt, she was beaming brightly and waved wildly at his arrival—We are captains together now, no? 

Sitting quietly next to her was Atienna who was also caked in ash but smiling faintly. Last was Jericho who momentarily stopped scrubbing away the blood caked to the suitcase on his lap to turn and offer him a short wave. In between Jericho and Olive was an empty crate waiting to be occupied.

Their appearances were rather poor and perhaps even pathetic. However, at the moment, that didn’t matter to Werner—

Olive shot up to an abrupt stand and approached Werner swiftly, coming to a stop just before him. His eyes were glued to the ground, his hands balled into fists, his cheeks still visibly puffy and red. When Olive finally looked up, Werner noted the boy’s eyes were just the same: red and puffy.

Olive opened his mouth and then closed it with a grimace. Then he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Werner, causing Werner to lift his hands in surprise.

Desperation, fear, relief, sadness, and loss reeled through Werner’s mind with such intensity that he almost doubled over from the pain of it all. But he maintained himself. Protect.

Werner stiffened, hesitating at the closeness as he thought of politics and appearances, before he slowly lowered his arms. He placed one hand on top of Olive’s head while resting the other across the younger’s back shoulders. He held him there for a stretch of time as he also held Atienna’s gaze. After an agreeable amount of time had passed and the heaviness he felt in Olive’s chest numbed, he led Olive back to the circle and seated himself there alongside him.

The six of them sat there in silence for a stretch of time before Werner felt his stomach grumble  It took a moment for him to realize it was Olive’s stomach, not his own. Absentmindedly, Werner reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the single bar of milk chocolate that his sister had gifted him months ago. After carefully peeling off the wax paper, he handed the full bar to Olive.

Olive took the bar with an embarrassed frown before breaking off a piece for himself. After a beat, he hesitantly handed the rest to Cadence. Cadence bit a piece off the bar nonchalantly with her teeth before tossing it to Maria.

As they continued to pass along the chocolate bar, Werner stared at the wrapper in his hand and then pressed it flat against his knee. Feeling as if he was being moved by an unseen force, he began to fold and crease the paper methodically. Corner to corner, side to side, flip there.

By the time he finished it, Jericho was holding the remaining two pieces of the chocolate bar. Werner placed the newly-folded origami crane on top of the stack of insulating shields in front of him.

Talib—no, that wasn’t it.

He stared at it with the others for a while until, in a flash of black, Lavi appeared before them and knelt in front of it with a dreamy expression. 

Lavi sighed. “That’s really cool. Who taught you, Werner?”

Werner wasn’t sure. Before he could think on it much longer, he felt all six of their stares on his face. No doubt the scorpion tattoo had crawled its way back onto his cheek. It was a sign of their defeat. No. It was a reassurance that, little by little—even if not apparent, whether for better or for worse—they were indeed changing.

Chewing his piece of chocolate carefully, Jericho held the remaining piece out for Werner and dropped it into his palm. After a pause, Werner popped the piece into his mouth.

It was a familiar taste.

Sweet.

* * *

Olive was the first to depart the capital.

He first exited their gathering in the alley and went to clean himself up at a nearby wash house in order to not arouse the suspicion of his royal guards when he returned to the train. Atienna held concerns about him wandering the city alone in the chaotic aftermath, but he rejected her offer to accompany him.

After his long bath, Olive wandered down another alleyway and found a gate of Francis’s that was to let him back onto his train. Just as he was about to pull Francis’s proto-conductor from his pocket to jump the gate, he was approached from nowhere by a duo of military police officers who demanded his ID and his conductors. He flippantly ignored them which caused them to aggressively shove him against the wall. Before any overrides could be made, however, the two officers were abruptly thrown to the side and cracked against their jaws by none other than Derik Stein who flew into the alley from nowhere.

Stein continued to kick the officers while they were down until Olive pulled him away in alarm. Turning to face Olive, the man held out a familiar golden badge. Trystan Carter’s royal guard insignia. Heart seizing in his chest, Olive stared at it in disbelief as he reached out to take it, but then—

Stein dipped into a kneeling bow. “I don’t get all this formality shit, but you basically don’t have a personal guard anymore, right? Well, I’m not being pushed around like some bargaining chip. Those saint bastards want to keep you safe anyway, right? I can do that.” He looked up, gaze wide and burning. “ Please say yes. I’ll be your guard.”

Olive, alarmed and unnerved by the fire in Stein’s eyes, reached out to Werner in alarm. But Werner gave his approval. Begrudgingly, and with slight pity, Olive accepted the offer.

When Olive returned to the medical train cart, he made up some elaborate excuse with Cadence’s help: Stein was a professional sought out by Trystan at Olive’s own orders—with Stein being the reason Trystan left for the capital. Stein then bluntly informed Alexander of Trystan’s death, covering it up with little care as Trystan being caught in a crossfire between the Augen and the military police. Alexander took in the news of Trystan’s death with a strained expression that melded into surprise when Olive requested for them all to return to Aries.

This also brought concern from Jericho and Atienna.

Don’t worry, Olive thought to them as the medical train finally departed to Aries. No matter what happens, I won’t go back to the way I was before. To the way I was back when I was locked up in the royal palace… I promise. I won’t go back. Not again. A promise more to himself than anyone else, it seemed.

Two days later, Olive arrived in Trystan’s hometown and found his way to the late royal guard’s house which was a small cottage no bigger than Olive’s personal bathroom. This made Olive’s stomach drop.

Trystan’s parents’ faces lit up at his arrival and they gushed about how proud they were of Trystan and how honored they were that the prince of Aries had taken Trystan in as his personal guard. Olive almost didn’t want to tell him the truth, but he refused to run away and delivered the news mournfully.

Trystan’s parents immediately fell to their knees and wept at Olive’s feet. He sank down beside them and handed them Trystan’s royal guard badge that Stein had begrudgingly relinquished. It was the only physical thing of Trystan that remained—something that Olive had a hard time relinquishing himself.

“Trystan… He didn’t die for nothing,” Olive reassured them. “He told me about all the problems here. I’ll do something about it. Things will change.” He glanced over his shoulder as Lavi’s apparition appeared there smiling morosely. Lavi, his sister and a true saint candidate. “I promise…”

*

The evening of Olive’s return to Aries was the evening of Marionette’s public execution which was held in the courtyard in front of the chancellery building. Werner did not attend and instead—after witnessing Olive’s personal visit—left the city to meet Otto Vogt’s parents. As soon as he entered their flower shop and they locked eyes with him, however, Otto’s mother slapped him across the face, accused him of murder, and kicked him out of the shop. Werner complied with a steely expression, leaving Otto’s personal flora books and uniform folded neatly at the front door.

On the way back to the capital, the train’s internal speakers played out the execution event in full. It blared out so loudly that Werner had no choice but to put down the papers he was working on to listen. Above the constant crackle of static, a voice cracked out:

“We’re gathered here today to witness the execution of treasonous Verbundene Augen leader Marionette Engel who—on the 15th of this month—assassinated Kaiser Kafke Netzche in cold blood. She has declined Monadic blessings from the local Monadic temple, so we now ask for her final words.”

There was a beat of silence.

“There will always be people like me whether you view me as a hero or a villain,” crackled Marionette’s voice, firm and strong. People who want change for better or for worse and are willing to die for it. That isn’t despair. That’s hope.”

Then came the snap of the rope and more static.

* * *

The second to officially depart was Cadence, who frequently dipped in and out of Francis’s gates to visit Werner in his temporary office in an older building in the military district.

“Ya sure that even with Ophiuchus here, everythin’ is goin’ ta turn out okay?” was one of her frequently asked questions. And also—“Ya sure you’re okay?”

Her concerns were warranted. Marionette’s death brought about a series of riots in which houses and stores of military officers—retired, serving, for-Augen-or-not, high-ranking-or-not—were targeted, torn apart, and burned down. They claimed these riots to be disassociated from the Augen and solely protesting the death of a ‘woman who was merely speaking her mind.’ Suppression—this time without Ophiuchian aid—was slow and dragging.

Sometimes, as if to take her mind off of things, Cadence would often bring with her Geminian tabloids and news articles during her visits with headlines like—

APPARENTLY MISSING TWIN CITIES PHILANTHROPISTS ROMANOS AND FOXMANS REVEALED TO BE SAFE. CONTACT MADE WITH NEWS REPORTER.

And—

ROMANOS AND FOXMANS SAID TO BE TAKING TIME AWAY FROM PUBLIC EYE. WILL CONTINUE PHILANTHROPY.

And—

CAMPANA SPOTTED IN LEO? SECRET LOVER?

It was all gossip and rumor. And although Cadence knew the truth behind the matter—that Francis had whisked them all away into his gates when this all began and that the organizations were all now using his presence to their advantage—she enjoyed the flair of it.

Werner did not believe such things were educational, so he provided her with primary news articles, such as—

A HALF-WAY AGREEMENT ON PEACE AT THE BORDER

Acting Kaiser General Watzmann has stepped forward with the aid of Ophiuchus to address the issues that the Augen movement has brought to light. Stating that he has understood and heard the pleas of the people, he has decided to move forward and cut military spending while simultaneously reaching out to improve relations with Argo. However, Capricorn is not the only country in Signum that has precarious relationships with the Argoan country, and so General Watzmann has reached out to Aquarius hoping to improve border relations.

At 1300 hours on December 27th of the year 1941, a joint agreement was made between the Acting Kaiser General Watzmann of Capricorn and Tsar Efrosin Mikhailov and Premier Onisim Tarasov of Aquarius to create a joint task force to work towards this mutual goal of obtaining a truce with Argo.

To improve relationships between both countries to achieve this, numerous joint activities are to be held during various points in the coming year. Among these activities include less taxation on vitae transportation across borders, the installment of better ley lines between the reservoirs between the two countries, and joint military training exercises. 

When Cadence finished reading this article—at a faster rate than normal, which Werner found pride in—she arched a brow. “Yeah, this is why I don’t like readin’ the news. Stressful and depressin’. I mean it looks good on paper, but. doubt the other countries’re gonna take this too well. The two big militaries of Signum joinin’ hands? Nah.”

“The Augen and other anti-Kaiser groups will be temporarily appeased with this.”

“People are never satisfied for long though,” Cadence noted. “That’s why people keep visitin’ the casinos even though they’ve already won big money.”

Never satisfied…

“If the Foxmans and the Romanos decide to continue to hide,” Werner pressed after a moment of silence, “what will you do?”

Cadence shrugged, shifting from foot to foot.

“I appreciate your visits, Cadence,” Werner finally said, “but Francis’s gates are our only advantage and the saint candidates most likely have him as a high priority target. I’m the person most in the eyes of the saint candidates. Visiting me is putting not only yourself but also Francis in danger.”

A prick of pain stabbed Werner’s chest.

—but Cadence flashed a smile and tipped her hat. “I get what you’re sayin’. Not like we can’t have a party like this in our heads instead.”

Werner placed a hand on her head in response. “You need to speak with Nico to resolve whatever conflicts you have, so we don’t run across any issues in the future. You should be concerned about yourself first.”

Cadence pulled her hat down slightly. “Aye, I know, Captain.”

* * *

The third to depart was Maria, but not before she made her way to the laboratory below the city. The area was warded off and well-guarded by officers, but she easily slipped and bashed her way past them to the underground. When she reached the series of insulation bars and tubes that Olive recalled Kappa being tied up to, she was instead met with the woman’s corpse: killed with a bullet straight through the head. No sign of Conta in sight.

Both Veles and Gabrielle were already there, inspecting the body when she arrived.

“It’s Gamma, most likely.” Gabrielle sighed. “We’re just dancing around blindly at this point.”

“Well, I dare say, Maria, since we’ve reunited by means of my own machinations,” Veles proclaimed abruptly, “I suggest we rejoin our forces to hunt down this nefarious Beta.”

Maria thought on it and agreed jubilantly. She left Gabrielle with Veles in tow and picked up Simon, Lita, and Emmanuel before hurtling them through Francis’s gate to a port near her ship. Once back on board, her crew greeted her as they normally would and rallied her with questions:

“Welcome back, Captain.”

“How was it?”

“You didn’t start that revolution in Capricorn, did you, Captain?”

“No, but I participated in a rally,” she answered. “It was quite fun!”

“We should be careful about traveling from now on,” Raul the Chef said warily as he handed her a newspaper. “Maybe we should pull out of Signum for a little while.”

TARIFF TENSIONS REACH ALL-TIME HIGH

This week has been bursting with economic tension. Sagittarius’s poor relations with Capricorn have been well known since the end of the Reservoir War and became highlighted during the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict. It came to a head today when bedridden Emperor Heixing of the Xing Clan announced that they would place a 30% mark-up tariff on all food and animal products imported from Capricorn. 

The reasoning for this, paraphrased from the Emperor, was due to Capricorn’s “atrocious treatment of its citizens and staining of its people’s civil rights” and its “carelessness for its international allies” as seen during the recent Augen revolution. He has also increased the mark-up of Aquarian imports as well due to Aquarius’s friendly relations and support of Capricorn. Since Sagittarius makes up 10% of Capricorn’s and 15% of Aquarius’s consumers for these items, both are sure to feel the burden. 

Eyes have now turned to Aries who shares a long-standing, strong relation with Sagittarius following the war. There has been talk that, as an ally of Sagittarius, Aries should issue the same tariff. Word has been heard that Aries is to issue a 10% mark-up on the same goods imported from Capricorn and Aquarius.

The Tariff and Embargo Protections issued by Ophiuchus in the year 1926 prevents tariffs being placed on solely one country by one country from being marked-up higher than 30%. This was to protect the economic integrity, stability, and relations throughout the continent. With this act came the ban of embargos for the same reason.

Pointing to this Protection, columnist Edmund Sieg warns against this sort of economic retribution. He states:

“Globalization is necessary to uphold the peace of Signum. Our peace works because we depend on each other economically. If we raise taxes and tariff each other into oblivion, we will force the other party to adapt and become less involved in Signum’s international activities. Independence in this case is not a good thing. Once a country in Signum becomes economically independent from another, there can be no peace.” 

Edmund Sieg has received criticism for his remarks—

Maria crumpled up the newspaper, preparing to toss it over her shoulder. She thought better of it and reopened it with a hum. “They do not know how to get along and share, no? We should be careful, yes?”

Veles chuckled. “There’s no need for caution when I’m around.”

Her crew gave Veles an exasperated look before pressing, “Where to now, Captain?”

“Well… I have been thinking about Conta recently and Leona too,” Maria drew slowly, gaze lowering. “And thinking about them makes me think about the Monadic orphanage I grew up in.” She turned to her crew. “If I am thinking about that place and them, they must be thinking about it too, no? So, we set sail!”

* * *

The fourth to depart was Atienna. Instead of leaving through one of Francis’s gates, she decided to wait with Sefu until the train stations were up and running again. The process took approximately four days, and she spent the time perusing the capital’s library and reading through Aquarian literature alongside Sefu as she thought of Yulia and Kovich.

When she was finally able to load into her train booth the morning of her departure, she felt somewhat morose. She recalled her homesickness when she had been stuck in her override of Werner. Her father and siblings had burned in her mind at the time. Now that she was on her way home, however, she was overcome with a desire to not return. She didn’t think she was as strong as Olive. And so if she returned, she wondered if she would become re-rooted in place

In thought, she glanced at the booth across from her and spied a strange woman sitting there covered in numerous layers of fur coats and adorned in several lower-face masks. It took Atienna a moment to realize that it was Louise Bonnefoy who sat across from her. Alone . Louise’s eyes brightened when their gazes locked, but she quickly put a finger to her mouth. Atienna slowly returned the gesture in slight confusion but looked away when Louise broke off their eye contact.

As Atienna looked out the window in wonder as the train began to roll along the tracks, she received an answer to her unasked question. Outside on the train platform stood Libran reporter and True Conductor Hilton Tyler, absentmindedly lighting a v-cig. He took one long puff before he turned and found himself surrounded by a handful of men and women in monochrome suits wearing white armbands. The ELPIS Department. Without resistance, he followed them away.

So Hilton had chosen a different, more altruistic path. Atienna wondered…

“Hey,” came Cadence’s voice as her apparition appeared suddenly beside her, “we can’t help other people if we can’t help ourselves. It sucks, but…” She reached over and squeezed Atienna’s hand. “Eh, it just sucks.”

*

Atienna switched trains with Sefu near the border of Capricorn. When she entered the compartment on her new train designated by her ticket, she found someone already sitting there. A woman with dark curls, red lips, and bottomless pitch-black eyes. Cvetka Akulova.

“I see you’ve made the same choice as me. Leona’s told me all about it after we reconnected,” Cvetka said, inviting Atienna to sit with a gesture. When Atienna accepted and Sefu followed suit, she smiled and handed Atienna a newspaper article.

A MARRIAGE ACROSS COUNTRIES

As many of you following the regal circles, successions, and gossip of the remaining monarchies in Signum may know, the Cancerian Duke of the House Lune proposed to the Duchess of the House Etoile Louise Bonnefoy almost two years ago. The Duchess has been reported to be ill and has not seen the public eye since then, but the Duke has remained steadfast despite rumors that she’s run away. People lavished that he was absolutely love-struck. So, there’s no question as to why the public was surprised when the Duke proposed to the Princess of Leo. Alas!

While the duchess and dukes are not seats ingrained in the Cancerian government, they still serve as symbols of the country. What this marriage proposal will mean for relations between the two countries and the rest of Signum… we may only wonder. 

Small editor’s note: I’m sure all of our readers have noticed that our recent articles have a different tone than usual and that we’ve been spinning through many different writers. This is because we were recently informed that beloved reporter Hilton Tyler has chosen retirement. We weren’t given much notice—no shame on his part—so our articles may be far and few in-between until we find an appropriate underwriter. To Hilton Tyler, we wish you all the best. 

“This is what happens when you make those kinds of choices. Selflessness is another form of selfishness.” Cvetka tucked a lock of hair behind her ears as her eyes narrowed. “We’re all just cogs in a clock being moved forward by other people’s hands. So, let’s enjoy ourselves, shall we?”

* * *

The last to depart was Jericho, and he left by train alongside Alice and Gabrielle. Since the train ride was stiff with silence, he spent the time conversing with Maria and Cadence inside of his head while sketching in his journal. The only interaction Alice and Gabrielle had was Alice handing over the photo she’d received from Francis.

Their reception in the Serpens Establishment was just as muted. Stares were abound. Jericho did not like it.

“Everyone is just tense because of everything that’s been happening,” Atienna reassured him.

As soon as Jericho stepped into Gabrielle’s office with Gabrielle and Alice, however, they were met by a hysterical Wtorek Elizabeta. She grabbed Gabrielle by the scruff and stared at her with wide, mad eyes.

“Where is she?! Where is she?!” Elizabeta cried. “Where’s Csilla?”

Gabrielle stared at her in confusion—

“It seems as if little Csilla has wandered off somewhere. A runaway.”

At the sound of Talib’s voice, Jericho tensed and moved closer to Alice.

Lounging casually on one of Gabrielle’s sofas was Talib—no, Scorpio, Werner reminded him—himself, no longer bound in suppression cuffs. At his left sat Roberto, looking tense but alert. Sitting on the island table in front of him was a gift basket filled with multiple bottles of wine. Across from that sat Ferris and Moraeni—both tense and quiet, the former appearing concerned as she studied Talib’s face.

“My intention wasn’t to bring Taurus out of hiding, but it appears as if that was another surprising effect.” He curled a dark lock of hair around his finger. “It’s like the universe is dancing at my fingertips—said the man before his fall.”

“So they let you out of your cage, huh?” Gabrielle asked, stiffly. She glanced at Roberto. “Did you let him go?”

“Well, I am needed in the ELPIS Department,” he answered casually, before turning to Ferris and smiling thinly. “But I was considering the Assignment Department instead and working my way up to first chairman. Perhaps even Psychological Evaluations.” He glanced disinterestedly at Roberto. “Oh, yes, Flannery was kind enough to cut me out of Roberto here, but I was thinking perhaps I should place another medium close to you. Well, maybe I already have.”

Roberto tensed, pale.

Flannery doesn’t think you’re dangerous; but even though I know you’re pathetic, Gabrielle, I know how dangerous you can be. You’re very good at pulling people into your fold and having them throw away their lives for you. Me being one of them.”

Scorpio rose from his seat, plucking two bottles of wine and two wineglasses from the gift basket. He sauntered over to her, popped the bottle, and began pouring her and himself a glass. Gabrielle accepted the glass when offered, causing Scorpio to chuckle.

“The head chairman election is coming up soon, isn’t it? The old man at the top is getting too senile, right? I might try for that too.”

He lifted his glass.

“Let’s have one more beautiful form of democracy before the syzygy.”

“The suppression cuffs,” Alice interjected, eyes narrowing. “When you had them on, you felt guilty. I knowyou did, Talib. I saw you.”

Scorpio’s eyes narrowed at her as he brushed past. He paused by the threshold of the door to lock eyes with Jericho and then departed with a wave. “See you around, partner. Keep a good eye on my dear Werner for me.”

* * *

Unlike the other five, Werner did not leave the capital of Capricorn. Instead, he spent his time preparing to move into his permanent office in the chancellery building for his new position. He was not one for decorations, so his office consisted of only his desk, a sofa, a bookshelf exhibiting some books Francis had recommended to Cadence, and a birdcage housing Olive’s blackbird that he’d rescued from storage. It was suitable and practical.

During his second week in his permanent office, Werner was visited by General von Spiel, who delivered to him paperwork to be filed about conductor distribution by the next evening. They exchanged little words besides formalities. Before he left, Von Spiel dropped off a stack of letters he’d picked up for Werner from the mailing room. Among these letters and documents was a letter from home signed by Viktoria.

Setting aside the other letters, Werner opened this one first. Inside, he found a neatly written message detailing the events Viktoria and his family had encountered since they’d arrived home from the capital. She wrote that they were all healthy. Mother was worried and wanted to speak of him. Ludwig was thinking of taking a visit to Sagittarius to see if he could start a business there—

Werner frowned as he scanned over the letter again. It was a coded message—one that Ludwig most likely had helped Viktoria to write: Weingartner, his daughter, and Heimler were in Sagittarius in hiding. Werner reasoned this had to do with the deal the captain made with Claire earlier. While Werner appreciated the information, he thought it dangerous for Viktoria to use this means of communication. Part of him was even slightly irritable at Ludwig for bringing her into it. Then he thought of his mother and father and tensed. Some things couldn’t be fixed, could they? But what did it mean to ‘fix’ something like a relationship?

Werner’s attention was drawn away from the letter as he felt the pull of the synchronization. It was Atienna, synchronizing at a high enough level that he could see her surroundings. She was in a small, familiar room tucked into some silk blankets with a thick tome resting on her lap.

“Well, it’s a relief that you’re not avoiding me at least,” she said, eyes twinkling.

She was referring to Olive.

“He’s trying not to be cold, but he’s clearly upset and it slips out…”

“Olive is still young,” Werner said. “He’s just beginning to realize that not everything in the world is completely right or wrong.” He set down his paperwork. “You made a necessary choice.”

“For us—I agree.” Atienna smiled wanly. “But for others…”

“We need to think in the long-term and be pragmatic.” Werner folded his hands together. “It’s becoming apparent that this is just one battle in a long war. And wars are never won without cost.”

Atienna hid her smile with a hand. “Is your head still on the battlefield despite being confined to an office? You’d make a fearsome military police officer, don’t you think?” She peered into his face and then averted her gaze. “Olive and Cadence were concerned about you and I was too… but when you say things like that, it’s a bit reassuring, don’t you think?”

Werner allowed himself to smile just slightly before he returned his attention to his paperwork. “You should go to sleep. It’s getting late.”

The others had already turned in for the night—Werner could barely feel them in the distance.

Jericho had the earliest sleep schedule, but Werner supposed he had to sleep early due to most of his deskwork cases requiring him to wake up at 0300 hours to handle. The peacekeeper, however, had a peculiar habit of sleeping: with his suit and work shoes on . Despite Werner trying to mend this habit, his instructions often slipped Jericho’s mind. On this particular night, however, Jericho had changed into sleeping wear, clocking out at exactly 1900 hours.

Cadence’s sleep habits were more sporadic. On this night, she’d fallen asleep on the couch after playing a drinking game with Allen and Carl and a disinterested Francis while the other children slept.

Maria’s sleep habits were even more sporadic. Tonight, however, she slept reasonably early with Lita tucked in beside her on her hammock and the rather loud snores of her crew members, the Specialist children, and Veles echoing around her ship.

Olive had stayed up a bit later, tinkering away at his conductors and sifting through books in the library of Trystan’s hometown under Stein’s watchful eye. He had fallen asleep right at his workstation.

Werner noticed Atienna seemed to be peering at them all too, and she looked down at Werner with an inquisitive smile. She then tapped a small hand-written note sitting at the corner of his table. Nico’s handwriting. It read—At least 5 hours of sleep! She then disappeared from his sight, leaving him with a “Goodnight, Werner” and some of her drowsiness.

Goodnight. 

Suppressing a yawn, Werner rose from his desk and turned to stare out the window behind him. It was pitch-black out and the city was dead asleep. After mulling for a moment, he walked over to his office door, closed it, then locked it. He proceeded over to his sofa and laid down on it as he stared up at his ceiling and planned his next day while listening to the ticks of his pocket watch tucked in his chest pocket.

Since he was staying here for the night, he would have to wake up earlier to use the bathing house in the morning: 0400 hours. Coffee: 0430 hours. Then, he would start documenting the rest of Von Spiel’s files right away: 0500 hours. A short lunch at 1200 hours. And the rest of the day filing through papers. Sleep at 2300 hours. 5 hours of sleep.

Acceptable.

Werner suddenly realized that none of the other five were having any dreams or nightmares. What a rare occurrence. Olive had once complained that being in this state was lonely, but Werner found it a quiet recluse. It was only at rare times like this when he had his thoughts to himself that he knew with certainty that they were his own.

And so he thought about that long period when he was not himself. A missing gap in time. As Viktoria said, ‘it was very easy to lose track of it.’ Time, that was. And although he was missing that time, he felt he had somehow gained something else in exchange. Something that he couldn’t quite remember. Not something Scorpio had given him—he was certain, although he disliked thinking about nebulous things like this.

He was not one for philosophy, but perhaps just because something wasn’t remembered didn’t mean that it was not important. Yes. That was obvious. Perfection, imperfections, appearances, unsightliness, victory and failure, and duty aside, he felt more certain of himself. His purpose felt clear. Those he was important to paired with what and who were important to him were even clearer. All of this culminated in one thought, succinct thought:

It was good to be himself.

Werner Waltz closed his eyes.


“How would I describe Lieutenant Waltz? Well, he can pretty scary, harsh, and strict, to be honest. They don’t call him Kaltes Auge for no reason… But once you serve under him and get to really know him, you can tell he’s only being that way to make sure all of us are safe.”

Otto Vogt about Werner Waltz, two months after the Aquarian-Capricornian Border Conflict


21a: Indigo Waltz

[Chapter Mood Theme / Werner’s Mood Theme]

Re-cap:

Gilbert, Nico, Captain Weingartner, and the rest of Werner’s unit are accused of treason and of working with the Augen against Capricorn. As they wait at the top of the execution tower for their deaths, Lieutenant Werner Waltz—who has no awareness of the other five True Conductors to whom he is connected to—steps in as one of the executioners.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

It still wasn’t clear to Werner what made him do it.

Was it his reminiscing of his subordinates standing at attention before him in that dirty clinic in the Twin Cities as he asked them for their trust? That went both ways. Was it Ludwig’s words—“Trust your instincts”? Was it Major General von Spiel’s morose expression and cryptic words? Was it the Kaiser’s steadfast, fiery proclamations? Or was it the incongruency of everything he’d experienced since awakening?

Perhaps it was the fact that he wanted to know the face of the one-handed man kneeling before him. Werner knew it was not Emilia Bergmann whose sharp-shooting he’d helped to perfect a month ago. It wasn’t Otto Vogt who had taught him about flora either. Was it Derik Stein whom he’d once challenged to a shooting match to get him in line? Was it Alwin Brandt whose tall tales and fables he’d secretly eavesdropped on whenever there was a lull in the trenches? Was it Klaus Kleine who’d frequented his side recently and rattle about books and strange theories? Was it Nico who appeared paradoxically worried, yet serene whenever he visited? Or… was it Gilbert—

No. Werner didn’t want to imagine if it was Gilbert.

The thoughts were prospective, reminiscing, and very unlike himself. Werner knew he had no reason to be thinking about these things. Despite knowing this fact and knowing that he was merely following through with his duty and responsibility as a Capricornian, he—

hesitated.

He could see Fischer at the opposite end of the line-up do the same—the man’s hands barely brushing the rifle at his side. But that did not apply to the other officers in the lineup whose fingers were already resting on the trigger of their weapons. Among those faces was Vash Edelstein, an old classmate of his from the academy. From his conversation with Vash earlier, Werner had learned that Vash had taken the capital position that he had given up years ago. Now that Werner thought on it, however, he couldn’t quite recall why he had chosen to transfer from the capital to the Border Force. Was it to escape nepotism? Was it to prove himself on his own merit? No—what was it?

Werner berated himself internally for his distraction.

“Present arms!” the head executioner called from the center of the line-up at the back wall.

Werner swung his rifle forward and pointed it at the head of the man kneeling before him in unison with the other military officers. In the tense silence that followed, the tick-toking of his pocket watch became especially pronounced over his chest. It rattled around there, making him feel as if his chest was hollow.

As his fingers drifted towards the trigger, a blur of black feathers drew his attention away from the back of his subordinate’s head to the window. In that moment, as he studied the fall of the feathers from behind the rosy glass pane, a singular thought rang through his mind: Protect.

The head executioner’s voice boomed, “Fir—”

Without quite thinking—almost on instinct—Werner whipped his rifle to the left and fired. The military police officer who’d been standing there stumbled back as his rifle exploded in his hand and his hand exploded in crimson. The man crashed right into the officer standing behind him before hitting the ground with a blood-curdling screech. Everyone who was kneeling ducked forward immediately.

As Werner watched the scene unfold, his ears rang and the reality of what he’d just done settled in. But there was no room to question or hesitate. Once a decision was made, it needed to be followed through with.

He quickly ducked low, firing off additional rounds at the military officers who were standing at attention along the back wall as they reached for their holsters. Seven out of fifteen of them hit the ground. Not good enough. He was too slow.

Kicking down the masked subordinate he’d been planning on executing only one second prior, Werner exchanged his rifle for the handgun holstered at his waist before darting forward and grabbing the body of the injured, the still screeching officer.

Said officer, cradling his bleeding hand, shouted, “Don’t shoot—”

But the other officers immediately began to open fire.

Using the man as a shield, Werner shot at the stained windows to his left. The glass shattered with a high-pitch screech and rained down in large fragments all around the room. While the military police ducked from the debris, his subordinates floundered around blindly in the blue moonlight drowning the room.

Werner took the opportunity to dart to the side of the bound to his left and shot through the chains shackling his hands and legs. The man, in turn, immediately ripped the sack from his head and whipped around heaving.

It was Derik Stein, whose expression of pure rage melted to surprise upon registering Werner’s face. Werner silently handed him a combat knife and a gun from the belt of the dead officer acting as his shield. Stein accepted them, not even bothering to check for bullets, before he launched himself at the next closest officer who yelped in alarm.

Werner clicked his tongue and shook his head but continued forward, discarding the body of the officer for the one Derik had torn through with his combat knife. He continued forward, shooting over the corpse’s shoulder, until he reached another shackled subordinate and freed him the same way.

Once said man freed his head from the sack over his head, Werner was met with a head of curls.

“Nico.” Relief.

Nico blinked at him and tried hopefully, almost as if in disbelief: “Werner…?”

“Free the others,” Werner ordered, handing Nico his combat knife and the other gun strapped to his leg. “Quickly. Be careful. I’ll cover you.”

Nico opened his mouth, closed it, then nodded firmly before darting off to one of the others laying on their side. Werner caught sight of an officer aiming a rifle at Nico, but he quickly disposed of the woman with a steady shot straight through the head.

Aim. Shoot. Kill.

Aim. Shoot. Kill.

The air was tightened by the sound of bullets and clouded by moonlight-stained gun smoke.

It was like clockwork. No different from the field—save for the fact that he was now firing on fellow Capricornians and that they were not as combat-familiar as those he’d faced before. Treason—but this was not the time for such thoughts.

Werner spotted Fischer pressed back against the wall, gripping his rifle tightly, eyes darting from left to right. Indecisiveness. Ignoring him, Werner aimed his gun at an officer who was picking himself off the ground: Vash, who turned and locked eyes with him. And then Werner froze on the spot, a sense of cold dread spilling out from his chest into his limbs where it froze them in place. He couldn’t even lift a finger.

“What are you doing, Lieutenant Waltz?” Vash pressed, facing him fully. He didn’t have a long-range weapon on him—only a combat knife that he was holding precariously. A bullet whizzed past his ear, but he didn’t flinch. “You’re committing treason.”

Werner couldn’t understand it. Vash had only a melee weapon, while he himself had a gun. He had the advantage here, and yet he was nailed to the spot.

A loud bang! resounded from Werner’s left, followed by a burst of red at Vash’s throat. Vash covered the area with his hand and began to gurgle as blood spilled from his mouth. Werner turned slightly and found Nico on the ground beside Kleine who was pulling off the sack from his head. The gun in Nico’s hands was steady and poised.

Still, Vash stepped forward, reaching, and—

Bang! 

This time the red blossomed squarely at the center of Vash’s forehead, and he fell flat on his back dead. As soon as Vash’s gaze left him, Werner felt sensation return to his arms. When he turned around, he found Gilbert standing just behind him, his one hand wielding a gun that was still billowing out smoke.

Werner realized that he had almost executed Gilbert.

Again: not the time.

Refocusing his attention, Werner lifted his gun and shot two officers who were scrambling along the back wall—one in the head, and the other in the chest. The latter stumbled away before toppling right out of the shattered window down to the streets below.

Then came silence. No more officers remained standing. Bodies littered the floor in-between the blood and glass—

“Die, die, die, die!”

Werner turned to find Stein straddling the mutilated corpse of the head executioner and driving the conducting blade in his hands into the man’s chest over and over again.

“Stein, enough,” Werner ordered. “You need to preserve your energy. More military police will be coming up here soon.”

Stein halted immediately and panted heavily, hair and uniform soaked in blood, as he pulled himself off what remained of the officer. “Bastard made fun of my mom and stole this—” He held up his free hand, revealing his fingers curled around what appeared to be a gold badge.

“You’re crazier than ever…” Gilbert grimaced.

“Stein, take point at the entrance,” Werner ordered, ignoring Gilbert’s remark.

Once Stein complied and stationed himself there, Werner assessed the others. Nico was helping Kleine—who was sporting a gash on his upper arm—up to his feet. Brandt was reloading a pistol while searching an officer’s body for weapons. Fischer was pressed up against the opposite wall, still motionless and tense. Heimler—was kneeling in front of Captain Weingartner whose chest was soaked in red. A glass shard painted in the same color rested beside his leg. A misstep. 

“Nico! Brandt!” Werner shouted, approaching the older men.

Nico was at Weingartner’s side immediately, sinking down and pressing his hands against the wound. Brandt was at his side a moment later with a piece of fabric he’d ripped off from one of the officer’s uniforms. He pressed against the wound with the cloth and grimaced.

Werner reloaded his gun and nodded at Kleine who approached from behind. “Search the bodies for conducting gloves, conductors, and weapons. If you find transmutation conductors first, give them to Brandt and Nico. If you find conducting-gloves for yourself first, conjure some conductors for them.”

“Y-Yes, sir!” Kleine responded gravely but somehow enthusiastically as he took off to search the bodies.

“Surprise it didn’t take a knock on your head to remember everything,” Gilbert said, wiping his forehead with the back of his head. His cheeks were flushed. “I thought we were goners for a second there.”

So there was something else going on beneath the surface. This fact put Werner somewhat more at ease with what he had just done. Still, he felt like he was walking on unstable ground. Treason…

Kleine returned a moment later, sporting conducting gloves over his hands and carrying two pairs of conducting gloves under his arm. He quickly threw them to Nico and Brandt, who both put them on quickly before moving to transmute the wound over the captain’s abdomen.

“Whatever you’re saying I should remember, I don’t,” Werner said calmly, glancing briefly again at Gilbert’s missing hand, then at Weingartner. “I’ve been told that I was manipulated by the Augen and that you were working alongside them.”

Kleine and Heimler looked up at him at this, causing him to tense inwardly. He felt overexposed—not something he was unfamiliar with, but it was especially pronounced now.

“But you…” Gilbert trailed off.

“Which is why I’ll need you all to brief me quickly on what’s really happening on here.” Werner knelt on a knee as Brandt and Nico finished their work. “How is the captain?

“We’re lucky it wasn’t a conductor this time and that it didn’t hit any vitals, unlike…” Nico trailed off.

“I’m good to travel, Werner.” Weingartner coughed and whipped the blood from his mouth before signaling Brandt to help him up to a sit. “You’re a good man.”

But not a good soldier.

Werner nodded, before surveying the room again. “We need to escape quickly before they bring more reinforcements.” He caught sight of Fischer still pressed up against the wall.

Stein snarled from his position, “I say we execute that bastard for—”

“Stein, stay focused.” Werner regarded Fischer for a moment as he weighed his options. Fischer had not opened fire against them and had clearly been hesitating at the execution orders. Eliminating Fischer here had no benefit as their escape would be known regardless of whether Fischer informed the coming military police officers of it. In addition, Fischer was still his subordinate.

Sentiment.

“Let’s leave quickly,” Werner said, turning away from him, “before the reinforcements increase beyond what we can handle.”

* * *

Fortunately—Werner realized—they had the advantage of being uphill from the military police officers who were ascending the stairs up to them. With Stein and himself at the front of the unit and sniping away with their newly conjured conducting rifles at everything that moved below them, they quickly made their way to the bottom floor. All the while, Kleine briefed him on their side of the events.

It all seemed beyond the realm of imagination. Even ludicrous. True Conductors, Fritz von Spiel, ELPIS, saint candidates, and the Kaiser’s machinations. Thinking about it somehow felt even more treasonous than his current actions.

As they continued to return fire, they pulled past numerous jail cells and a small Monadic prayer room before exiting the building and taking cover in an alleyway just across the street. They remained there to recuperate as Werner spied back on the execution tower building which stood tall, square, and rigid. A dozen or so military police officers were beginning to filter into the building from the road. They needed to move quickly again, Werner realized. But just as he was about to suggest departure, a burst of pale-tangerine light from the black stain on the alleyway wall behind him cut him off short.

Werner took a step away from the light as a familiar figure spilled out from it: a young man with dirty-blonde hair wearing a dark maroon turtleneck. His conductor-gloved hand was pressed against the glowing light on the wall.

Werner vaguely recognized encountering this man once in the Twin Cities. It was Francis Foxman who was—according to Gilbert and the others—an ally, despite the white tattoo gracing the right side of his face.

“Well, this is fortunate,” Foxman said without skipping a beat as he looked them over. “It seems as if you’ve made the right choice, Herr Waltz.” He extended his free, ungloved hand. “Let’s depart quickly.”

Werner tensed, his own hand resting on the rifle swung on his back. There were too many uncertainties already—

“Would ya stop overthinkin’ things already and get in here?” came a voice from inside the glowing light. A pale, thin hand reached out from it and wrapped around Werner’s wrist. “Come on, Lieutenant.”

A surge of electricity shot up Werner’s arm at the contact before it blitzed right to his head. He barely had the time to comprehend it before he was pulled into the glowing light.

* * *

    )

As soon as Werner stepped across the threshold from the capital into what he now recognized as Francis’s exitless room, everything became clear to him: aiding Olive in his escape from the Watch, taking Cadence’s place when she’d been tortured by Donato’s underlings, Maria’s reckless overrides, his cavern conversation with Atienna, and aiding Jericho through both his encounter with Omega and his earlier struggle.

The hollow ticking of Werner’s pocket watch above his chest suddenly felt filling.

“Morello,” Werner realized, instantly recognizing the young woman who stood before him still gripping his wrist. Cadence.

He could see and feel the others outside of Cadence at their distant locations: Jericho and Maria, on top of a building with Marionette Engel bound at their feet; and Atienna and Olive, stowed away in an alleyway with Sefu. Although they were far from him, they were here—their images transposed right in front of him. It was admittedly… a comfort.

“This is wonderful!” Maria leapt in the air. “We are all together again! This is refreshing, no?”

Jericho offered a thumbs-up.

I’m glad you’re alright, came Atienna’s greeting. We were very worried about you.

Olive remained silent beside her, but his relief, desperation, and contentedness bled through. It almost seemed as if the boy wanted to embrace him, but as soon as Werner thought that, Olive pulled away and merely thought—Glad you’re okay.

“You can relax, Lieutenant,” Cadence said, releasing his wrist. “This is what ya would call a military vantage station point thing, right?”

Behind Werner, the rest of his unit and his captain were filtering into the room from the gate. Quiet relief came at the sight of them followed by affirmation that he had indeed made the correct decision. But paired with this came a foreign fear over the fact that he’d almost lost them at his own hands. Werner regarded them for a moment as they marveled at the room before he took his time to survey it despite knowing the layout from Cadence.

Allen was lounging on the sofa on the back wall, while Carl was standing tense with a grimace. All of the children in the room were cowering behind him and throwing fearful looks at Stein who was now sneering at them. In-between Cadence and those two men stood—

“Emilia…?” Kleine whispered in disbelief as he darted over to her. “You’re okay—you’re alive!”

Faint images of Emilia being impaled by Iota’s mediums flashed through Werner’s mind.

“Thanks to the Ariesian prince’s medical Conductors,” Bergmann replied, sharing a momentary embrace with him before she faced Werner and saluted. “Lieutenant, I’m ready for the next orders.”

Controlling his relief, Werner nodded at her. “I—”

“Who the hell are these mooks, Francis?!” Carl snapped. “They’re scarin’ the damn kids—” He did a double-take, squinting past Werner. “Nico?”

Nico, sharing Weingartner’s weight with Brandt, stepped forward and stared. “Allen, Carl…?” He ogled Cadence. “Cadence…”

“We don’t have time for reunions right now,” Werner interjected, gesturing to the unoccupied sofa on the opposite side of the room. “May our captain use this place temporarily to recuperate?”

Allen nodded.

With Francis’s help, Brandt and Nico moved Weingartner to the sofa there. While Brandt remained by the captain’s side, Nico detached himself and made his way back over to them. He sent a tentative glance in Cadence’s direction, but they exchanged no words.

Not the time, like ya said, Cadence reasoned.

Carl jerked his chin out at Werner. “Who’s this guy?”

“This is Herr Waltz,” Francis explained as he joined them. “We did business with him a couple months ago. He was with the Capricornian representative for…”

“You mean the guy from back when everything went downhill financially?” Allen inquired, taking a drag from his v-cig. “Do your business, then leave—”

Werner! Cadence’s alarm and worry struck Werner so suddenly that he almost mistook it for his own. Your face—

Werner stared down at her in confusion, before he suddenly found himself looking at himself through her eyes. And it was through those eyes that he could see it: slowly crawling up his face from his collarbone to his cheek was a dark blue-inked tattoo of a scorpion. Everyone around him, aside from Gilbert, Nico, and Cadence, immediately took a step back.

“How peculiar,” Francis muttered, coming to less than a centimeter away from him and studying his face. He pulled away. “It seems as if rather than Scorpio’s spore being obliterated, someone has merely cut it away from its connections…”

“Whaddya mean?” Cadence looked at him worriedly. “I mean, Scorpio’s outta him, right? That’s how we’re talkin’. I mean, I can feel him.”

Francis nodded. “I believe… you can think of it as a puppet with its strings cut or a sheep without its shepherd—wandering without direction. It’s not a danger. Just a blemish. The records state that it’s happened a couple times before. Perhaps it could be transmuted off, although it would be more difficult since it would probably be a more delicate procedure…”

Nico reached for his face. Werner caught the man’s hand before it finished its course, however, and turned to face him. He held Nico’s hand there briefly as he met the man’s gaze before slowly releasing them both.

“It’s all right, Nico. I appreciate your concern. But as Francis said, it’s equivalent to a scar”—one that couldn’t be concealed by gloves—“Your work was as good as it always is.”

Nico looked doubtful but nodded regardless before glancing again at Cadence. This time, they held each other’s gaze.

“Although that issue is no longer pertinent,” Francis continued, “I do have questions regarding what exactly Scorpio brought to the surface in your mind since his infection was of you and not the others. You were with him for a very long time…”

“The last thing I recall is being cut by the infected Augen member,” Werner said, noting how Heimler grimaced at this. “But I understand your concern about the situation.”

Still, he thought on it. He certainly did feel different, but it was difficult to pinpoint why. Something had shifted within him. But it did not give him a sense of unease or alarm. What was it…? He thought back the moment he’d decided to turn his rifle away from Gilbert’s head. Was it possibly… protect?

Cadence looked to Werner in surprise before stepping forward and patting Francis on the shoulder. “It’s a private kinda thing, Francis. Ya just don’t askin’ people about it. It’s fine though. Ya got nothin’ ta worry about.”

Francis nodded, seemingly convinced.

Werner looked away from the Twin Cities residents and faced his subordinates. At his attention, they stood at attention. He studied each one of them, going over their accomplishments, successes, sacrifices, demeanor, his memories with them, and their loyalty in his mind. If there was such a thing as luck, he supposed then that he was lucky to have them as his subordinates.

After ruminating, he finally said, “I am honored and grateful that you all chose to assist me during my absence. I apologize for bringing you into this situation without disclosure. The secrecy regarding my status as a True Conductor, at the time, seemed warranted and necessary for—”

“Just give the orders, Lieutenant,” Stein said, wiping the blood from his face with the back of his hand. “No questions asked here.”

“Be respectful, Stein,” Bergmann hissed, before lifting her head. “We’re with you, Lieutenant.”

“It’s not like they have any other choice, Werner,” came Gilbert’s response. He was leaning against the right wall in between two bookcases now. “As for me, I’m stuck with you, so—” When he noticed Werner’s stare, he arched a brow. “What?”

Werner approached Gilbert, reached for the man’s empty sleeve, and held it in his hand. He curled his fingers around the fabric as the realization settled in. It really was gone. The hand Werner had always secretly imagined boasting a ring matching Greta’s was gone.

“Hey… Better to lose my hand than end up half-crazy like Stein over there.”

“This is nothing to joke about, Gilbert,” Werner murmured. His stolid facade broke for a moment, and he grimaced as guilt wracked his chest. It had happened in his absence.

Maria’s apparition appeared beside him then, peering into his face with a rare frown. “I am… sorry, Werner. It seemed like the best solution… no?”

You did what you thought was necessary, Maria. Thank you. Werner glanced at her, then at the others through his connection with them. My words were not only to my subordinates but to you too—for handling the situation while you were in the override to the best of your abilities. If ‘lucky’ described his relationship with his subordinates, Werner supposed a ‘miracle’ would describe his relationship with the other five.

Aw shucks, lieutenant. Cadence’s eyes twinkled from across the room despite her casual expression. We gotta return dues, don’t we? What’s with the sudden sap? It ain’t like ya…

Sentiment.

Protect.

“Second Lieutenant Wolff is injured,” Werner said aloud. “He and Captain Weingartner will stay here while we carry out the next operation.” Feeling Cadence’s stare, he then nodded at Nico. “Fabrizzio, you should stay with him.”

Nico frowned and tensed. “Hey… Werner—”

Before Nico could finish, Werner found himself abruptly met with a slap to the face. It took him a moment to realize that it was delivered by Gilbert.

Werner didn’t move to touch his stinging cheek. He merely frowned. “Gil—”

“Your head’s obviously still not on straight, Werner,” Gilbert seethed, fisting Werner’s shirt. “There’s barely enough of us here as it is. You’re gonna need every single man you can get unless you’re planning on sending these kids out there to fight instead.”

Francis’s eyes narrowed.

Gilbert spat, voice-cracking, “I-I’m still fucking useful, Werner—I—”

Protect.

Werner placed a hand on the man’s shoulder, cutting him off short. “This is not because you no longer have both your hands available. This is because you have a fever and you still haven’t recovered from your injury. You’ll always be more than useful to me, Gilbert.”

Gilbert’s anger melded into confusion and then into worry that paled his face. He looked him up and down. “Shit, Werner, you sure you’re okay…?”

“Again. This isn’t time for jokes,” Werner continued, “But as you’ve said. I can’t choose favorites. I can’t let you decide that you’re fit for combat even though you’re clearly not just because…” He considered this for a moment, thinking about how Gilbert had remained steadfastly at his side regardless of circumstance. This wasn’t a superior-subordinate relationship. This was—“… just because you’re my friend.”

“Holy shit.” Now, Gilbert looked afraid. “I’m not joking Werner. You’re head—”

Werner moved his hand from Gilbert’s shoulder to the man’s chest and then formed his hand into a fist. “I still need you, Gilbert, so I will need you to stay alive and recover for me. Is that clear? I need you… alive.”

Gilbert stiffened at this before his eyes narrowed and he returned the gesture hard. “Fine, but I say take Nic with you. Leave Brandt here. No offense to Brandt, but I feel like Nic has a better chance of snapping you to your senses sometimes.”

Werner felt Cadence tense inwardly. He could see her glancing at Nico, and through her eyes, he saw Nico nod.

There was a beat of silence.

“Werner…” Atienna’s image stepped forward after the moment passed. “To make things… smoother after this is taken care of, I was thinking of perhaps gaining the favor of the two generals who weren’t turned into Scorpio’s offshoots.”

Werner nodded. I see. That’s a good idea. I suggest you find Von Spiel and inform him of your plan. He’s managed to still keep his influential position. From my conversation with him, he is still very much against the Kaiser. He’ll be a necessary component.

Cadence sank to a crouch and sighed as a child ran over to her and started pulling on her hair. “Aw, hell, I’m glad ta see ya, Lieutenant, but this is gettin’ worse and worse by the minute—”

Nico approached her and extended his hand. She arched a brow at him before sighing and accepting the gesture.

“So what’s the plan, Lieutenant?” Cadence asked, tapping her temple. “Any good strategies ya got stored in there? Ya know we’re all in.”

I believe this will require everyone’s assistance to succeed. Werner nodded in gratitude. But everyone aside from Cadence and Maria should try their best to keep their distance and keep their identities hidden. Our identities as True Conductors might be known to these… saint candidates, but not to the public eye. We still need to maintain appearances, so the situation doesn’t escalate further outside of Capricorn—

“Francis.” Werner turned to the man. “Since our connection has been restored, we would be able to use each other’s conducting-types freely, correct?”

Francis nodded. “I would caution against using it too much. You know what conductors really do.”

In the silence that followed, Stein cracked his knuckles. “So are we going to finally fuck this Scorpio up?”

Talk about bein’ unnecessarily gung-ho. Cadence arched a brow. But at least he’s charmin’.

“No, Scorpio is beyond our capabilities right now,” Werner said, placing a hand over his mouth in thought. “Our target is Scorpio’s final tower, so we can rid Capricorn’s forces of the saint candidate.”

Silence passed as the reality of what that meant sank in.

“The Kaiser will most likely be preparing to leave the chancellery building and going into hiding after hearing about what happened at the execution tower,” Werner continued. “We need to intercept the Kaiser and remove Scorpio’s spore before then.”

“So we’re really going against Capricorn…” Bergmann murmured.

“We’re still in service to Capricorn,” Werner stated clearly. “You can select your pown erspective, but I am not in service to the Kaiser, to glory, to honor, nor to any similar ideals. I am—” He thought. “—here to serve the people. And to protect them.”

And right now the Kaiser was the enemy of the Capricornian people and his people.

* * *

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Werner was let out of one of Francis’s gates located in an alleyway just across from the main chancellery building alongside Klaus, Stein, Nico, Heimler, and Brandt. Their faces were concealed with nylon fabric which was also wrapped around their arms and legs. It was the best precautionary measure against being infected in close quarters combat. Pushing aside his concern about the progress Atienna and Olive were making in finding the two generals, Werner reached out to Olive:

We’re in positionNow

The building just across the chancellery building erupted into verdigris flames—Olive’s flames transmuted in color by Cadence’s vitae and propagated through one of Francis’s portals from a distant location. It wasn’t perfect, sporting occasional glimpses of crimson that cracked through Cadence’s thin illusions, but it was acceptable for the small time frame they had.

A handful of military police officers immediately rushed out the chancellery building in alarm and darted forward to douse the flames with conducted water either from their own vitae or from the puddles scattered around the street—which took care of one group of Elementalists. As they fought against the flames, illusory Augen members spilled out from the alleyways around that burning building. The water Elementalists and other officers stumbled back in alarm at their sudden appearance before quickly shifting their attention to combat them. Hidden among the illusions was Maria whose laughter rang through the courtyard as she hacked and slashed away. She was soon joined by Jericho who did the same, albeit with his suitcase.

Cadence, Werner thought. Signal Bergmann for me.

Aye, aye, Lieutenant. 

Werner could faintly hear Cadence conversing with Bergmann from within Francis’s room and then—

—the ground began to shake below the feet of the military police officers in the courtyard. From the street beneath them sprouted a wall of earth that divided and then surrounded them, trapping them in an earthen enclosure. Another larger, taller wall rose around the buildings surrounding the chancellery, including the alleyway Werner was hiding in with his men and the building that was in flames. The wall encased the area in a circle with not a crack to be seen: a large cage with the chancellery at its center.

Everything was being executed as planned.

As more and more military police officers spilled out from the chancellery building in panicked confusion, Werner pressed forward and slipped into said building alongside his subordinates. The halls and office areas within were empty which merely caused Werner to signal for his men to tread forward even more carefully.

As they rounded the corner towards the hall leading to the Kaiser’s office, chattering reached his ears. He pulled his fist up, signaling everyone behind him to halt. Upon peering around the corner, his eyes narrowed.

There were ten military police officers still standing in the hall in front of the doors to the Kaiser’s office. There were most likely even more officers inside. This needed to be handled quickly, silently, efficiently. Covert.

While reaching out to Cadence, Werner signaled his men to stand down and then snapped his conductor-ringed fingers as he unhooked the conducting blade clipped to his waist. The blade sparked indigo in his hands before a shimmer rode over it like a wave, causing it to disappear from sight.

Maria and Atienna. Quietly.

Werner did not enjoy overrides and he disliked the lack of control that came with them, but this was the fastest, most direct course of action. That and he felt a sense of trust.

A wave of drowsiness overcame Werner as he temporarily blinked out of consciousness. When he came back to himself, he was standing at the end of the hall above the quietly groaning and still bodies of all the officers. Snapping his fingers again to dispel the illusion of invisibility, he wiped the smile from his face, signaled his men forward, and approached the large mahogany doors leading into the Kaiser’s office. Once they had all gathered in a crouch in front of the doors, he ordered them to activate the proto-conducting rings that Kleine had conjured for them that were filled with Cadence’s vitae. They obeyed, disappearing from his sight. He snapped his fingers to activate the illusion again himself.

“Do not shoot the Kaiser,” he said. “Leave him to me. Like I said earlier, some of these officers are being manipulated. They are still Capricornian citizens, so try your best to shoot to maim. But if you must, choose your life over theirs.”

“Yes, sir,” came the whispers.

On the count of three, Werner pushed open the door alongside Stein and—

“What do you think you’re doing, Werner?”

There it was again: the cold sensation gripping his chest, holding him tight and refusing to let him go or move.

Werner—someone reached out for him, but he couldn’t tell who—he can’t reach you anymore.

Yes, Werner knew that, but that did not stop his heart from hammering wildly in his chest. Before he realized what he was doing, he was signaling his men to hold fire with two raps of his knuckle against the ground.

Werner…” Nico whispered in his ear.

Reclining leisurely at the Kaiser’s desk was Talib Al-Jarrah, who was smiling as he curled a lock of dark hair around his finger. Stationed around the walls of the room were twenty military police officers—statute and unmoving. The Kaiser was nowhere in sight.

“The man you’re looking for is escaping out the back door as we speak,” Scorpio said. He laughed. “What? Were you planning to pull that Lita out from a gate and use her eyes to cut me out with my partner’s vitae just like that? Then what? Removing me from the Kaiser won’t change anything.” He addressed a shadowed figure standing in the far corner of the room. “The people are already too impassioned by themselves—wouldn’t you say? Nothing will stop them now.”

Tucked away in that corner and bound and gagged was—

Alice. Jericho’s outrage throttled through Werner abruptly, causing his head to spin but also giving him a sense of clarity.

A hostage. A bargaining chip. To prolong this as long as possible. 

Scorpio rose from the desk and walked over to Alice’s side, reaching out for her chin.

“My dear, Ali—”

Alice abruptly ducked low and then surged forward, effectively uppercutting Scorpio with her head. As the man stumbled back in alarm, Alice darted forward and dove for them across the central table. Werner caught her awkwardly before handing her back to the others.

Scorpio straightened and rubbed his jaw as he glowered in their general direction. “Struggle, struggle, struggle—but what for what? I admire your passion, but don’t you see you’re going against everything you stand for? It’s going to happen regardless of whether you fight against it, so why do you do it?”

With Alice tucked away behind them, the next decision was to—

“Open fire!” Werner ordered immediately, grabbing at the twin doors and pulling them half backwards to act as a partial barricade just as the military police officers opened fire blindly on them.

He returned fire with his subordinates and shot two of the officers within. He also caught sight of Scorpio, who was standing undisturbed in the middle of all the flying bullets and vitae-rays.

A hand on his shoulder drew his attention away. It was Nico. “Werner… the Kaiser.”

Werner nodded. “Everyone, continue fire but start the retreat. Our target is not Scorpio. I’m going after the Kaiser.”

“Yes, sir!” came the shouts.

Werner darted up the stairs at the end of the hall and burst onto the third floor. After checking the floor for enemies and finding none, he went from window to window, peering into the courtyards behind and in front of the building until—there.

Down in the courtyard below at the back of the building away from the chaos of the inflamed building and being guarded by a plethora of military police officers was Kaiser Kafke Netzche. Despite the resounding booms of gunfire all around him, the man was calm and grim in the blue moonlight.

It appeared as if now they were relying on the last resort.

Pulling off his protective mask and dispelling Cadence’s vitae, Werner reached out to Olive and waited for the prince’s faint memory of his earlier encounter with Leona and Flannery to trickle down:

“By the way, I get the feeling’ y’might get a little antsy so let me just give ya a hint in case ya get ballsy and get ta it first.” Flannery had crossed her fingers over her chest directly above her heart“Aim for the bullseye.”

A memory that highlighted their lack of control of the situation, yes. But also—intuition: a place to aim. A small window. A risk. But—protect. 

Werner switched out his conducting rifle for the sniping rifle hanging on his back and then propped the conductor against the ledge of the window frame. Peering through the scope, he lined up his crosshairs with the Kaiser’s heart.

Jericho. Werner reached for the man.

Jericho’s image appeared beside him. Faintly, Werner could see him swinging his suitcase left and right at the military police officers outside.

Stay focused. I only need your vitae. 

Still, Jericho tensed and stared into him. The man could not find the words to describe the sensation, but Werner understood. He was afraid of returning to the way he had been when he’d been in ELPIS.

“I trust your intuition, Jericho, so trust me in return,” Werner said calmly. “I won’t take a life with your conducting ability unless absolutely necessary. I understand how you feel.”

Jericho’s brows knitted together before he relaxed slightly and nodded. Trust. His ghostly hand moved over Werner’s. The insulation tubes of the sniping rifle burned a bright off-white.

Suddenly the earth around the Kaiser rose up and encircled the man and his guards in a sphere-like barricade, leaving only a narrow gap for sight. The earthly barricade crunched forward along the ground as the Kaiser’s group advanced. It gouged up the street as it did so, causing puddles nearby to trickle and pool around the protective dome.

An earth Elementalist was with the Kaiser, Werner realized. A Conductor like that could easily dismantle Bergmann’s earth barricade. It was something Werner had considered when he’d planned this operation. However, such an advantage for the Kaiser was one that he didn’t have enough resources to account for and one that he’d hoped the Kaiser didn’t have.

Damn.

This was what happened when all parameters were not fully accounted and planned for. An error.

It’s okay. Not like we had time for that.

Werner contemplated shooting through and disintegrating the barricade but then considered the possibility of the Elementalist being trained enough to pull up another barricade quickly before he’d be able to lock onto the Kaiser. If that was the case, then his location, methodology for attack, and presence would be known to the Kaiser’s guards. The Kaiser’s other guards also needed to be considered. Therefore—

Maria can hold her own, Werner thought. Jericho, can you draw the Kaiser’s guards’ attention? Disguise yourself.

Okay. 

Werner watched through their connection as Jericho peeled away from Maria’s tango with the military officers. The peacekeeper headed around the chancellery building and towards the earthen sphere that was rolling forward. With Cadence’s assistance, he transmuted over himself the appearance of a large group of Augen members. Werner provided Jericho with his vitae; and in turn, Jericho began to rapidly fire on the earthen tomb with the rifle conductor Kleine had conjured for him earlier. As the side of the dome Jericho was firing at began to chip away, the Elementalist—as expected—shifted more of the earth towards the onslaught, leaving the Kaiser’s back exposed.

Unfortunately, the exposure was on the opposite side of Werner’s sight. He could just barely see the top of the Kaiser’s head over the barricade. The vantage point was not good either. After quickly flipping through the different gates Francis had placed around the area in mind, he frowned. None of them would provide a better vantage point. Even the closest one on ground level was not directly facing the Kaiser’s back.

Werner berated himself for not being clearer about his expectations—wait. The water that was surrounding the barricade had flooded inwards towards the Kaiser’s and the guards’ feet and was now reflecting them in full. Captured in that watery reflection was the Kaiser himself and the conducting-blade-wielding Projector right at the man’s side.

Werner hated relying on chance and luck, but it seemed as if that was all that was available to him at the moment. Two shots were required, he decided then. A feint to distract the Projector. And a direct hit to the Kaiser.

The issue remained about the vantage point—

Olive, Gabrielle, and I found the generals, came a quiet voice. Now let me help, Werner. 

Atienna. Werner hesitated for a moment as he considered her political position in all of this, before he inclined his head and reached out to her. He found her leaping through one of Francis’s gates and exiting out of the ground-level gate that he had been considering only a second earlier. In her hands was a proto-conducting blade that was filled with Jericho’s vitae. Werner saw the protective earthen shield around the Kaiser through her eyes and felt her arch her arm backwards in preparation to throw the blade. 

Understood.

Atienna didn’t aim for the Kaiser and instead threw the blade with all her might directly towards the alleyway across from her. 

Werner saw with his own eyes as the proto-conductor blade hurtled across the courtyard, past the Kaiser’s back—

Wind. Temperature. Humidity.

Werner glanced briefly at the puddle beneath the Kaiser’s feet, while chasing the proto-conducting blade with his scope, and then pulled the trigger twice.

Perfect. Everything: crystal clear.

The first off-white ray of vitae zipped through the air, thinning as it hurtled forwards. It hit the tip of the sailing proto-conducting blade and ricocheted off of it towards behind the cover of the earthen sphere. From the reflection of the puddle, Werner could see the Kaiser’s Projector immediately bring his conducting blade up to meet the vitae-ray, causing both to shatter into dust upon contact.

The second off-white ray of vitae hit the hurtling proto-conducting blade just a second after at a different angle. Instead of hurtling towards the Projector, it instead cometed towards the Kaiser and pierced through the man’s chest.

Werner continued to watch tensely through his scope via the reflection of the water.

The Kaiser fell forward onto his knees, but did not shatter into dust. He merely collapsed onto the ground, unmoving, as did the earth Elementalist who was holding the barricade and two of his guards. The guards who were still standing looked around in confusion as the earth wall crumbled away. Jericho quickly charged forward and disposed of them with quick cracks of his suitcase before moving to assess the Kaiser—still breathing. He then turned in Werner’s direction and gave a thumbs up.

Werner nodded.

The commotion from below Werner quieted as well. He peeled away from the window, snapping his fingers and pulling Cadence’s transmutation over himself again as he descended the stairs. Jericho’s presence lingered strongly beside him all the way down. When he slipped back into the hall, he found Alice still pressed against the hall’s wall. His subordinates were still hidden from his view, but he could see the bodies of officers littering the floor inside the Kaiser’s office. Scorpio was poised untouched before the Kaiser’s desk with his head buried in his hand. The window behind the man had shattered, causing the light from the moon to bathe the room in an even harsher hue.

“I thought I told you that you wouldn’t change anything.” Scorpio lifted his head, staring straight through Werner like an arrow. “How many times do I have to tell you that…”

For a moment, Werner thought Scorpio could somehow see him through Cadence’s transmutation, but then the sound of click-clacking footsteps reached his ears.

“Flannery…” Alice whispered, staring past Werner over his shoulders.

Upon turning, Werner spied Flannery Caertas, the Saint of the Scales, coming on towards him up the hall with a knife lined in dark pink vitae in her left and a gun in her right. She stared right at him, seeming to see through Cadence’s transmutation. He tensed at this, but she slipped right past him and then past his men and Alice too.

“Deus ex machina, hm? Well, I suppose it’s time for me to exit stage left,” Scorpio said calmly, before abruptly throwing himself out of the broken window. He didn’t make it past the ledge, however, and was thrown back into the room by an unseen force. He hit the meeting table and slid across it, coming to a stop where Flannery was waiting at the end.

Smiling still, he began to dig into his pockets, fisting a handful of origami paper. Before he could pull it out, however, a golden blade of vitae flew in from the window and effectively severed both his hand from his arms. As the appendages toppled to the ground, Flannery placed the knife at his neck and stared into his eyes.

Leona stepped into the room from the window and rounded the table. As the blood from Scorpio’s severed hand began to glow a dark blue and moved to reattach themselves to his arms, Leona slapped conducting cuffs over the man’s wrists. And then another cuff. And another. And another. And another. By the time his hands had reattached themselves, they cluttered his arms like sleeves of a shirt.

“Well, that was enjoyable while it lasted,” Scorpio said calmly. “A task well done. Reservoirs restored. I wonder what next time will bring—assuming that you’re going to return me to the reservoir now.”

Werner felt Jericho tense.

Flannery glanced back over her shoulder towards Alice who met her gaze evenly. When she faced Scorpio again, she spoke calmly: “Due to the previous precedent set with Dämon Forstchritt and after observin’ the interactions of the opposin’ factions in the country, I’ve determined that yer involvement has merely accelerated what was bound t’happen in this country t’begin with. By the free will clause when we first started this, this won’t be considered as a rule-breakin’ intervention.” She lowered her knife. “Yer free t’continue as ya are as long as y’dont pull anythin’ like this again.”

“The syzygy is approaching and you need all hands on board, right?” Scorpio smiled thinly, words sluggish, as he shrugged. “Whatever you choose to do, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Or is your mercy because of something else?” His smile fell slightly as his eyes lost some of their light, and he looked to the side, something akin to guilt glinting in his eyes. “Sorry for the mess, Flannery.”

Leona looked away from him before slowly sauntering out of the room and into the hall. She stopped by the threshold of the door, scanning the area. “You did well handling Scorpio and the Kaiser. It would be Lieutenant Waltz, am I correct? You don’t need to hide any longer.”

After momentary hesitation, Werner snapped his fingers, dispelling Cadence’s vitae. He signaled his subordinates to remain hidden but motioned for them to draw near to him silently. A beat of silence passed.

Leona chuckled mirthlessly. “If you wish to keep the people under you hidden, that’s fine with me. It’s noble.”

A hand pressed against his arm— “It’s… over, right?” It was Nico.

Werner shook his head subtly. It was far from over.

But. Bullseye, Jericho thought.

Werner found his gaze lingering on Scorpio. Bullseye, he agreed.

* * *

Following this, Werner requested the other five to pull back and keep their distance from further developments. They all agreed to varying degrees of resistance. Atienna and Olive handed over the two generals to Major General Von Spiel whom they’d found with Werner’s direction, while Maria, Jericho, and Cadence handed Marionette Engel over to Leona when approached by her. No words were exchanged in the latter event—not even from Maria, which in itself was something approximate to a miracle.

At 0300 hours, Werner rendezvoused with Alice, Leona, Flannery, and Major General von Spiel in the abandoned convention dome. They each had a person of interest under their watch. For him, it was the Kaiser. For Flannery, it was Scorpio. For Major General von Spiel, it was the two generals. And for Leona, it was Marionette Engel who was bound with normal cuffs and now fully conscious. While Werner had opted to leave his men and Nico behind in Francis’s room, Von Spiel had brought his remaining two subordinates. Flannery and Leona meanwhile came unattended. In tense silence, they stood beneath the broken glass roof of the dome and basked in the full moon. In the distance, peppering gunfire and muted thuds could be heard still—the conflict continuing.

The other five were peering in through him—Werner could feel them. There were times where he preferred his privacy and to be left alone, but now was not one of them.

“I apologize for Scorpio’s behavior,” Leona started first, folding her hands in front of her, “and for the distress that his interference in your country has caused you. “

“He’s caused damage beyond repair,” Von Spiel muttered darkly. “I don’t care if he’s a peacekeeping agent or a saint candidate. He needs to face trial on Capricornian soil.”

“A death sentence wouldn’t be doing him justice,” one of Von Spiel’s two subordinates—a woman with pale blonde hair tied up into a tight bun—muttered.

“You can try to kill him, but you won’t be able to. It would be a waste of your energy,” Leona replied slowly, somehow looking down on the man despite being shorter than him. “You’re very arrogant to think that you can even attempt to do that, despite needing our help to handle him.”

They could barely handle him… came Olive with a grimace.

Flannery sighed. “I understand yer frustrations, Herr von Spiel, but we can’t make our judgements based on emotion. The only reason Scorpio’s still alive right now is because—as I’ve said—his intervention merely accelerated what was already goin’ t’happen.”

“You’re saying this is all our fault?” Von Spiel asked incredulously. “You—”

Alice held up a hand. “Herr von Spiel, I believe it would be best if this situation wasn’t agitated.” She turned her gaze on Flannery and Scorpio. “I’m very well aware of how deep your reach goes, but I evaluated the Augen members. While their reasoning for supporting the Augen made sense with their backgrounds, this revolution is not—”

“There you go again, Alice.” Scorpio sighed. “Always assuming that you’re right and that you know everything. You think that keeping a far distance from everything gives you an outsider’s perspective and the big picture? You’re wrong. You can’t even see the small details—”

Werner felt Atienna frown.

“Scorpio.” Flannery sighed again. “Would y’be quiet?”

Scorpio glanced at her then at Alice, before he looked away as his smile dipped.

“Herr von Spiel—You’re the father of Fritz, aren’t you?” Leona drew suddenly. “Fritz von Spiel’s death was an unfortunate disappointment. He was very valuable to us. If we had only known he was a True Conductor back then, we would have protected him from ELPIS. I hope you can see from this that we are on your side.”

“On our side?” Von Spiel scoffed. “You’ve caused my subordinates so much grief in just a couple of hours. I haven’t lost this many since back in the days of the Reservoir War. Vitae conversion—”

“And yet you bring your subordinates before me again,” Scorpio sang, nodding at the man and the woman who stood stiffly behind Von Spiel. “You change your tune all the time, Martin, but you remain unchanged. You sell out your allies— 

“I merely protected my subordinates by denying involvement with Volker. That’s what comes with command. I can’t pull them into dangerous situations without consent. They’re not puppets—”

“Like I said, you’ve brought them both before me again. If I I recall correctly, you were very gung-ho about sending them down to fight all the Augen members at the dome not too long ago…” Scorpio shifted from foot to foot, the numerous suppression cuffs on his arms clinking loudly. “I also do remember you making a fuss about not wanting to join the ‘revolution’ because you didn’t want to risk your subordinates… so why are they here?” He nodded at Werner causing him to stiffen.“Dear Werner here chose not to bring his along. Would that make you or him the poor commander?”

“They wanted to see you grovel,” Von Spiel replied plainly.

“But the only person here groveling is you.”

“Scorpio, be quiet,” Flannery muttered.

“People aren’t black and white, Talib,” Alice added coolly.

Scorpio glanced at her, lips thinning.

Werner felt Atienna reach for him, and he found himself saying, “We should discuss the best way for this to turn out for all of us.” He received a glare from Von Spiel’s subordinates and an arched brow from Von Spiel. “We know about saint candidates, and you know about us. From what I understand, we all want to keep everything… functioning properly not only for ourselves but for the people we care about.”

“The advisor? Scorpio glanced at Flannery. “She reminds me a lot of you, Libra.”

Seeming to ignore him, Leona placed a hand to her chin as a smile of amusement crawled up her face. “Of course, given the advisor’s deal with me, your safety and… satisfaction is a high priority. I admire her as someone who knows her place. The mechanics do need to be worked out. Let’s see.” She blinked slowly. “I’ll make a suggestion, so things run easier for you: Since this all started with the Verbundene Augen movement—”

“This started with the Kaiser and chancellery cabinet,” Marionette objected from behind Leona, eyes wide. Her hair was tousled and her signature scarf was fraying at the edges and stained thoroughly with blood, smoke, and dirt. She glowered at the Kaiser. “After everything you’ve done—knowingly using the people—”

The Kaiser remained silent, head lifted high.

“As if your actions these past few days are any different, Marionette.” Scorpio chuckled. “You complain about being used until you have to use people yourself.”

“The question isn’t ‘who started it,’ but who is the most important,” Leona said calmly. “You Capricornians are forward-thinking, are you not? What will happen to your country if it loses the Kaiser versus losing Marionette? Do—”

“The country will fall into even more disarray if things are pinned on the Kaiser with less than half the cabinet remaining,” one general interjected from behind Von Spiel. “If the Kaiser is removed, we have to consider who will take his place.” He nodded at Von Spiel. “You’re an honorable leader on the battlefield, Martin. But you do not have what it takes to run a country. No one in this room besides the Kaiser does.”

Von Spiel recoiled. “So you’re agreeing that we should give back the position to the man? How can you say that when the Kaiser manipulated half of the chancellery? You would have been dead if it weren’t for us. If we go to the public about this—”

“I’m just saying this is how things are—not how they’re wrong or right,” the general said, glancing at the saint candidates with a frown. “You don’t understand the situation, Von Spiel.”

“I agree. You seem to misunderstand the situation, Von Spiel,” Leona said, voice thin. “‘Go to the public’? There will be no such thing. If this gets out through your tongue, you may not die—but only because I believe you’re still quite useful and you can still contribute things to your country. On the other hand, your family—your wife who is still weeping over Fritz in that cottage in Volkmarkt—will not be so lucky.” She glanced at Alice. “What do you think happened to Wtorek Izsak? We allow you to walk, make decisions, and commit folly on this continent, but if you overstep your bounds you will be punished. Wtorek is not the first, and he will not be the last. I recommend you not to follow in his footsteps.”

Alice paled then tensed, while Von Spiel bristled.

Leona’s gaze lingered on Werner. “This punishment applies to everyone who knows about this truth whether it be the people in this room right now or the people in hiding who know of it—which is why I highly recommend they come out of hiding unless they’re ready to prepare for a very long funeral when they return.”

Alarm, frustration, fear, and desperation wracked Werner’s chestbut—calm down. I can’t think. The feelings tightened and pulled away.

“If Scorpio can do this to an entire country, what do you think we can do to your lives? We are clearly on different tiers.” Leona closed her eyes for a moment. “We’re giving you different options to cover up what happened here so you don’t have a slip of the tongue and lose things that are important to you…. It’s quite unfortunate that you’ve come across this knowledge. I do pity you.”

Blackmail. Hostages. Like puppets on strings.

“Libra?” Leona inquired. “Your thoughts?”

“It’s not m’place t’decide,” Flannery said evenly. “I even think yer pushin’ yer bounds right now, Leo.”

Scorpio’s eyes narrowed. “Are you seriously using that ‘it’s not my place’ excuse to not get involved again, Libra? So you’re folding back into your slovenliness and apathy after you’ve lifted your hand just a tiny bit? You—”

“It is quite a troublesome situation,” Leona continued, ignoring him. “And as I’ve said, I’m trying to help you, so I ask that no one interrupts me again.” After she allowed a moment of silence to pass, she continued: “My suggestion is this. The Kaiser will reclaim his title and request for Ophiuchus’s intervention of the Augen. The current story that the Augen has been working with ELPIS to manipulate the populace at wide will remain in place. This will allow Augen members to step down if they wish to and conceal their involvement, while also pardoning the manipulated.” She glanced at Flannery. “And it doesn’t push against our agreement.”

Hm, Leona is not very nice right now, is she… no?

Man, another damn cover-up. They’re a cens a dozen these days.

Werner found his awareness of this lack of control unpleasant : blindly following and agreeing with a path set ahead—although he supposed he was no stranger to it. This outcome was more favorable than other possibilities Leona was insinuating.

Von Spiel remained silent.

“You’re just going to let this happen, Werner, Martin?” Marionette half-whispered, half-hissed. “Don’t you care for your country? Don’t you have any pride as a Capricornian? Everything that we worked for… the people who I represent—our ideas—to be turned into scapegoats—”

“Take her away, Charlotte, Roderich,” Von Spiel ordered his subordinates, before his expression smoothed into one of sympathy. “Save what little dignity she has left…”

The man and woman saluted at the order and dragged Marionette out of the building.

“You shouldn’t take it too much to heart, dear Marionette,” Scorpio called over his shoulder to her.“You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last.” He faced forward as the doors to the building swung closed, locking eyes with Werner. “Don’t you think so, honey?”

His gaze made Werner’s head spin.

“Now that we have that settled,” Leona continued, turning to him, “we should decide exactly what to do with you, Lieutenant Waltz, and your involved subordinat—”

The doors to the dome burst open abruptly and a singular figure stormed into the room: Marionette Engel. Behind her came Von Spiel’s male subordinate who lunged at Marionette only to be tackled to the ground by Von Spiel’s other subordinate before he could reach her.

“Major General!” the male subordinate shouted as he was pinned by the other. “Charlotte freed Marionette! She’s—”

She’s with the Augen, Werner realized. Right under Von Spiel’s eyes— 

Then he saw the small pistol in Marionette’s hand.

“I refuse…” Marionette hissed, tears streaming from her eyes, her tattered scarf billowing back like wings, as she steadied her gun-wielding hand. “I won’t let you use my country as a puppet!”

Werner darted for the Kaiser. “Get down—”

But the shot rang out before he could make it to the man’s side. The Kaiser stumbled backwards with the force of the bullet, Leona barely managing to catch him before he hit the ground. Werner had to stop himself from calling Nico’s name as he ran to the Kaiser’s side.

Von Spiel meanwhile tackled Marionette to the floor as the woman continued to heave and shout.

Scorpio fell to the ground too, cuffs clinking along with him, as his deep, howling, tear-filled laughter rumbled through the air.

Werner felt his heart skip a beat as he came close enough to the Kaiser to see the single bullet hole running directly through the man’s head. The man’s glassy eyes reflected back the full moon burning down into the dome.

Without affection—as if nothing in her life changed at all with the occurrence—Leona simply stated: “The Kaiser is dead.”

20.4: Soldier » Duty/Lunacy

Re-cap:

While Maria, Jericho, Cadence, Atienna, and Olive, tie the loose ends to their developments in Capricorn, Gilbert, Nico, Captain Weingartner and the rest of Werner’s unit await their fate in the capital’s execution tower. Werner, meanwhile…


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Feeling a familiar sense of deja vu, Gilbert stared at the bars of his cell. Captured. Again. At least it was on home turf this time. The cell was cleaner, larger, better furnished, and all that. Or maybe that was what made it worse—

A loud metal clang abruptly scraped against his eardrums, followed by a shout—“Screw this shit! Fuck you!”—and some more metallic rattling.

From where he sat on his hanging cell bed, Gilbert looked to the bars of the cell next to him. There he saw Derik Stein flipping between shaking and kicking the bars of his cell.

“Knock it off, Stein.” Gilbert nodded at Alwin Brandt who was nestled in the corner of the same cell as the man. “Brandt, stop him. He’s giving me a headache.”

Brandt nodded, rising to his feet and walking over to Stein. He placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered something into Stein’s ear which seemed to calm him just slightly.

“But this is bullshit!” Stein snapped, giving the bar one last kick before throwing himself onto his cell bed and punching the wall beside him. “Fuck this!”

Gilbert sighed, then grimaced as a faint, familiar pounding crept up his spine and to his temples. The two damn painkillers the Militärpolizei had so generously given him were wearing off. He had enough pride not to beg for another.

“Are you alright, Gil?” Nico asked from where he sat on the ground beside him.

Gilbert glanced down at him. Guy always looked worried. But also didn’t seem bothered by the fact that he was dragged into some other country’s problem at all. Probably had to do with the fact that he was from the Twin Cities. What was the slogan they all threw around? “Accept everything, reject nothing”? What a way to live. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“I’m fine, Nic.”

Rubbing his temples, Gilbert glanced at Kleine, who was sitting on the floor in the opposite corner of the cell and fidgeting with his glasses. Heimler and Captain Weingartner were sitting on a bed beside each other in the cell across from him.

How the captain had been captured after shouldering all of that hope and vigor—Gilbert didn’t know. What he did know was that Von Spiel had sold them out just like that. Like father, like son. Not only that, but from the ten thousand overly complicated, roundabout questions the Militärpolizei officers had asked them, the bastards had concluded that Gilbert and his entire unit had been working for the Augen all along. The officers even claimed that they were involved in some vitae-manipulation, mass-brainwashing scheme with the help of ELPIS. According to the Militärpolizei, under Weingartner’s command, they’d planned the slaughter at the border. Apparently, the Augen civilian protestors had willingly sacrificed themselves for the demonstration. According to the story, the Augen had been manipulating Werner this entire time to do their bidding. Talk about switching up the damn story.

Admittedly, Gilbert thought it was better to have the story changed from them mercilessly gunning down Augen-leaning civilians to them helping the civillians instead. Hell, maybe even all those Augen members who’d been demanding their deaths in exchange for the civillians who’d died at the border would be willing to back them up now. Maybe some of them would even create a pity fund for his mother if he died here. That’d be nice.

Hell.

Gilbert honestly had no idea what was going on anymore. Everything and everyone kept flip-flopping. News and politics—this was why he hated these things. Right or wrong—whoever was still alive at the end of this mess would be the one to decide, so thinking about it didn’t matter.

The only good things that came out of this were that Werner’s family had been absolved of any involvement with them and that they maybe successfully removed the Scorpio bastard out of Werner. Two victories in the middle of a shitstorm.

Stein was right. This was bullshit—

“—who would’ve thought all these years after graduation, we’d meet again on opposite sides of this line,” came a familiar voice from down the hall that divided the cells.

Gilbert approached the bars of his cell and peered down the hall. Weingartner and Heimler did the same.

Approaching the cells was a familiar man dressed in a ranking Militärpolizei officer’s uniform. Vash Something-or-other, his and Werner’s bastard of an old classmate from the academy, the bastard who’d stroked his ego at them when they’d first arrived in the capital with the Ariesian prince.

“We met at the station, you dick,” Gilbert responded when Vash stood in front of him.

Vash arched a brow before his lips thinned into a smile. Gilbert arched a brow back at him but then took a step back as he saw a familiar blue tattoo crawl up the man’s face. Nico shot up to a stand, while Kleine stiffened and Heimler and Weingartner tensed. Stein, meanwhile, ran back up to the bars of his cell and glowered with Brandt hesitantly joining him.

“We met before that too,” was all Scorpio said.

“Makes sense you’d do your possession shit to Vash. Bastards are attracted to bastards.”

“And Werner?”

Gilbert shrugged. “Yeah, Werner can be an ass sometimes.”

Scorpio chuckled. “Well, since I know you’re wondering about it, Lieutenant Werner Waltz no longer has me inside of him.”

Although the way Scorpio said it made his skin crawl, Gilbert felt relief loosen his shoulders.

“Fuck you,” Stein hissed.

“I enjoyed my stay with you, Derik Stein,” Scorpio drew slowly, glancing at him. “You’re a man who lives truly as himself—to the fullest of your passions. The thought of changing who you are hasn’t even crossed your mind. You don’t care for it. I bet you live a very happy life.”

“If you come over here and let me bash your face in,” Stein spat, “I’d be even happier.”

“Stein,” Gilbert hissed, “stop being a dumbass.”

“Sure.” Scorpio darted to Stein’s cell and shot his hand through the bars.

Brandt barely managed to pull Stein back before Scorpio could claw at him. Scorpio remained standing there, arm lodged between the bars, eyebrows raised at Brandt.

“And… Zu, is it?” Scorpio looked Brandt up and down. “Though, I can see it in your eyes—you’re not them anymore, are you? Just a remnant. In worse condition than the others.” He retracted his hand. “You’re pitiable and terrible at the same time. Dancing around in corpses…”

Brandt frowned.

“Can you believe it?” Scorpio paced to Weingartner’s cell. “Just a day or so ago, you were loved by your military and hated by your people. Now you’re loved by your people—the Augen—and hated by the military. Morals of living manipulating be damned!” He shrugged. “Opinions flip back and forth, but the end result stays the same.”

“I highly doubt a majority of the Augen—the ones who aren’t under your control—” Heimler spat. “—would be supportive of living manipulation.”

“‘Well-intentioned extremists’ is what’s being tossed around here and there. Who has the time for morals when pushed by passion and justice and righteousness, Friedhelm? I mean, if you hadn’t realized my existence, I’m sure you’d be singing along right with all those other Augen folk.”

Heimler’s eyes narrowed.

“Of course, there are people who question the Augen’s and ELPIS’s relationship and think it’s a government set-up. Meanwhile, the others who believe the news is real find you all… abhorrent. But in the end, it’s the passionate, vocal minority against the apathetic—or perhaps fearful—silent majority.” Scorpio chuckled, pressing his index finger to his lips. “And that goes on a larger scale too. Did you know that only 30% of Capricornians are for the Augen movement? Only a quarter of those people have my spores in them. And that’s one of the reasons why things never change. The majority stays silent and abiding as the world moves around them. Like puppets on strings to either apathy or passion… They can’t help themselves.”

“We’re going to be turned into scapegoats for what you’ve done,” Weingartner muttered quietly. “I recognize these cells. They’re beneath the execution tower. We’re going to be executed for treason and working alongside the Augen.”

There it was. The nail in the damn coffin. Gilbert could see Kleine pale behind him. Looked like they were going up to join Otto. Gilbert paused in thought, glancing at Nico.

“Hey, Nico’s not a Capricornian,” Gilbert said. “Pretty sure you’re breaking ten provisions from the post-war treaty if you decide to off him.”

Scorpio chuckled. “Ask your Kaiser, not me. You know everything I do is just going along with what people truly want to do. That includes the Kaiser. I’m just a puppet, like how you’re all puppets. Greed, duty, love—whatever it is, that’s your puppeteer and you’re the marionette.”

“I’m sorry, Nico,” Weingartner said.

Nico offered a half-smile. “Nothin’ to apologize for, Captain.”

Weingartner nodded at him, before he continued, “The Augen members who think we’re with them and support us—they’ll just use this as motivation to keep going. This country will be torn apart. For your reservoirs. It’s history textbook.

“Over and over again.” Scorpio leaned against the bars of the cell. “You should’ve played the same cards as Martin, Volker. And here I thought you desperately wanted to see your daughter.” He glanced over his shoulder at Weingartner and sighed in disappointment when the captain’s expression remained unchanged. “All your families will remember you for being traitors to your country.”

“When’s the execution date?” Weingartner asked calmly, undisturbed, unlike Kleine and Brandt.

“It doesn’t matter when the date is.” Scorpio pulled away from the bars, mocking snipping scissors with his fingers. “What matters is who your executioners will be. Two very familiar faces are being selected for the firing squad. The first is recently promoted Lance Corporal Wilhelm Fischer—”

“Promoted?!” Stein spat. “Are you kidding me? That rat bastard—”

“—who reported into a station filled with my offshoots only an hour after escaping me. He reported everything. What a good soldier.” Scorpio rolled his neck. “The last executioner is your dear lieutenant—”

“You don’t know the lieutenant at all,” Kleine interjected. “He won’t go along with it.”

“Your lieutenant doesn’t remember the other True Conductors right now. Such is the result when True Conductors are squeezed so tightly to the point of nearly returning to the threshold.” Scorpio chuckled. “It’s twice they’ve escaped death now, isn’t it…? No—oh, I remember. It’s thrice. Amazing how they still function as True Conductors after that.”

Gilbert felt his heart skip a beat.

“And ‘I don’t know’ my dear Werner?” Scorpio threw his head back. “I was inside of him! Of course, I know him! Much more than any of you. You think the kindness and leniency that your lieutenant has been showing to you this past year have been because he’s come to care about you all on his own?”

Stein snapped, “Just shut the fuck up—”

Scorpio held up six fingers. “Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance: sheltered to the point where the mention of death turns his stomach, formerly narrowminded to where he thought anyone who took a life was evil, and self-sacrificial to the point of almost being suicidal—”

Stein leaned forward intently at this, while Heimler grimaced.

Scorpio lowered a finger. Cadence Morello, selfish and greedy to the point where she doesn’t let go of the past and clings desperately to people, lying to the extreme of self-deception.”

Nico’s eyes narrowed.

He lowered another finger. “Maria Gloria-Fernandez, someone who pursues things without considering responsibility or circumstances. A woman of whim who operates on her own sense of justice.” Another finger. “Atienna Imamu, who cares only for the people close to her, who cares little for her own country as a whole. Doing anything to protect the ones she loves, while averting her gaze to everyone else.” Another finger. “Jericho, a man of passion and justice who will always do right and white.” And the last finger. “And Shion Myosotis, whose only reason for living was to protect and be remembered.”

Wait. Gilbert frowned. Who the hell was Shion?

Scorpio pressed his hands together. “Those are the reasons Werner trusted you and asked you to trust him—even why he protected you. I remember how he was before he became a True Conductor… What a lovely person. Like ice: cold and hard, but fragile.”

Ugh. Gilbert puked in his mouth a little. Saints—what a creep.

Scorpio startled suddenly, brows pushing down as he grimaced and cast a glance to the side. “They left the train…? Well, no matter.”

“You turn people ugly,” Heimler muttered suddenly. “You force them—”

Scorpio stared at him and chuckled. “You must think I enjoy pushing people to their breaking point.” He pivoted on heels and waved at them as he sauntered down the hall. “No, no. I enjoy taking people to the very edge and watching them take that final step themselves. At that moment, they truly realize and become who they always were—Marionette, Werner, Kafke, etcetera… although breaking the shepherd is the way to go.”


Medical examination: passed.

Psychological evaluation: passed.

Conducting examination: passed.

Fit-for-duty evaluation: passed.

“Well, welcome back to the world of the living, Lieutenant Waltz.”

First Lieutenant Werner Walz tightened his gloves and glanced at the medical officer standing at the threshold of the door.

The medical residency room he was stationed in was smaller than the ones he remembered visiting in the city before. It consisted of two unoccuppied beds, a medicine cabinet filled with other devices at the near corner, and a sink and mirror in the opposite corner. The medical Conductors and ranked officers had informed him of the events developing in the city and country since he had lost consciousness at the border.

First, the Verbundene Augen movement headed by Marionette Engel had started a wave of riots—nearing levels of insurrection—throughout Capricorn. Second, the Augen was working alongside ELPIS and had decimated the city’s main hospital which pushed the patient load onto smaller, local clinics. Third, ELPIS had provided Marionette Engel with the means and conductor technology to be able to successfully manipulate a mass of people. And fourth, he himself had been subjected to this living manipulation.

Werner could faintly recall the incident: an Argoan had charged at an unprepared Heimler with a knife at the border, and he himself had stepped in to save the man. Werner swore the knife he’d been cut with was not a conducting one, but the medical Conductor had said that his time being manipulated had led to distortions in his memory.

Regardless, that was an error not only on Heimler’s part but also on his own. Heimler had shown himself several times to be unprepared for combat before that, and yet Werner had decided to be lenient with him. Perhaps, he’d based the decision for leniency on how effective his leniency had been with Otto Vogt—who was now deceased.

Werner frowned.

Otto had shown great promise after improving following the events at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. It was… a shame—more than a shame—to lose someone capable of so much improvement. Werner hoped the case was not the same for Bergmann, who was reported to have been injured by an Augen attack on a homebound train.

Sentiment, Werner realized. But death and injury were to be expected on the field. So, he brushed the thought aside.

Aside from Otto and Bergmann who were no longer with him, according to the briefing, his other subordinates and his captain were being detained and questioned for their personal involvement with the Augen and his state of manipulation. The entire incident had been reported by Major General Martin Von Spiel who had been covertly spying on the operation.

The idea that his subordinates—Gilbert especially—would know of his manipulation and use it to their advantage seemed ludicrous to Werner. Inwardly, it was hurtful. Regardless, he was certain the investigation would find the truth: that his subordinates did no such thing and this was a misunderstanding. But that in itself was a childish thought: an opinion based on his presumptions of his subordinates’ characters. He would have to wait for the true verdict—the true decision—to be made by his superiors.

Him, manipulated. His unit, truncated and under question. Shameful. Unacceptable.

“What did it feel like, Lieutenant Waltz?” the medical officer pressed from the doorway. “Being manipulated, I mean? You’re very… calm after all that. Usually, they have to cart these kinds of cases to the psychiatrics.”

“If you weren’t briefed on the details that I’ve given the head medical officer, then that information is not meant for your ears,” Werner replied. “You’re Corporal Wittenberg, correct?”

The medical officer nodded. “Yes… sir.”

“Your superior informed me that you and several others were assigned to be at another clinic at 0400 hours.” He reached for his pocket watch, but then remembered it was no longer there and dropped his hand. “Instead of looking into things that don’t involve you, you should be following through with what’s been requested.”

Wittenberg stammered something then pinkened and grimaced before departing with a salute. Once the medical officer’s footsteps faded down the hall, Werner walked over to the sink, turned on the faucet, and leaned forward against the basin. Then he puked. He quickly rinsed his mouth and cleaned himself before staring at his reflection in the mirror. Something dark blue appeared at the base of his neck in the reflection. When he blinked, however, the mirage was gone.

Werner felt terrible. There was a sickly-sweet taste at the tip of his tongue paired with bitterness at the roof of his mouth. His right shoulder was pounding to the same rhythm thrumming at his temples. But the pain was manageable.

Werner was rather surprised that he wasn’t put under further observation due to his manipulated condition. It seemed like a careless oversight by the doctors. No, rather than seeming like an oversight, it seemed more like a piece didn’t fit somewhere. A missing step in logic. And missing steps in logic were abound all around him. Everything felt surreal, almost like a dream. For instance—

He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out—not his trusted pocket watch—but two chocolate bars, one with only one square remaining. He undid the wrapper for this one and stared at the singular dark piece. Although he was not one for such indulgences, he placed the piece in his mouth anyway.

Bitter—but the taste was familiar to him. He allowed it to melt on his tongue before he moved to pull up the sleeve of his uniform. There, he found a single word inked there in Common right over his wrist: Shelter. Below it was the number 7. The handwriting was not his own. 

His head pounded.

* * *

Upon exiting his medical room, Werner was escorted by several Militärpolizei officers down a damp hallway lined with open-doored rooms filled with groaning men and women. After turning down a corner, they led him to a smaller room with peeling yellow wallpaper and six Militärpolizei officers dotting the corners. At the center of this watchful guard sat Mother, his father, Viktoria, and Ludwig. He hadn’t seen them since his last leave, but they looked much more worn than before.

From what Werner understood from the briefing, his family had been pulled into this circumstance by Captain Weingartner and his subordinates. They had only been recently rescued due to the efforts of Martin von Spiel.

When Werner felt all their four stares upon his arrival, his palms began to itch.

“I’m glad you’re all safe,” he said as he drew near. “I’ve been informed that you’ve been briefed on the basics of what’s been happening in this country in regards to the Augen and the living manipulation. I apologize for my behavior earlier and that you were dragged into this. I wasn’t myself. It won’t happen again.”

Mother immediately leapt to her feet, closed the distance between them, and threw her arms around his neck. He returned the gesture automatically, holding her for only as long as she held him.

“Oh honey, it was terrible,” she said, pulling away. “I knew it wasn’t you. Oh, don’t ever let something like that happen again. It was awful. You’re supposed to be our Capricornian soldier, aren’t you? Just listen alright? Listen and stay safe.”

When he looked down at Mother, her gaze bore into him; and he straightened himself unconsciously. “I understand. I apologize again. The Augen has gone too far, and the Kaiser and the Militärpolizei will handle them accordingly. You no longer need to be concerned with that.”

Ludwig approached next, wearing a frown. “And the others?”

Werner replied, “My subordinates are being investigated as we speak. But as I’ve said, it’s no longer your concern.” He extended his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Ludwig.”

“No, I meant—you don’t—” Ludwig glanced at the military officers before accepting the gesture with a grimace. “Nevermind.”

His father approached next, extending a hand. Werner accepted it and nodded. They exchanged no words. Viktoria joined them a moment after, hands clasped in front of her. She too glanced at the military officers.

“They’re here to keep you safe, Viktoria,” Werner informed her. “I apologize if my behavior earlier alarmed you. That wasn’t—”

Viktoria shook her head. “No, it’s not that, Werner… But I am glad that you’re yourself again.”

Werner frowned. Her words didn’t match the situation.

Viktoria’s face suddenly brightened, and she dug into the satchel at her waist. She pulled out a thin, circular object no bigger than her palm and presented it to him. It was black and engraved with a feathering design at its edges. On its belly rested a small circular window where he could see tiny black hands ticking on forward.

“I finished this recently. To replace yours. You’re missing it, right?” Viktoria held the watch out to drop in his hands, but hesitated before reaching over and tucking it into his chest pocket. “It’s easy to lose track of time.”

The pocket watch’s ticks almost seemed to match the pace of his heartbeat. A sense of nostalgia and heaviness followed.

“Thank you, Viktoria. It’s beautiful,” Werner said. “The design is unique.”

“That was my intention… I got the inspiration from the convention actually. Some Ariesian guard brought a blackbird in a cage—can you believe that?” She cast a glance to the side. “You were there, but I suppose it wasn’t you.”

“That’s peculiar,” Werner agreed, ignoring the latter comment.

There was a lapse of silence.

“Werner,” Ludwig spoke again, grabbing the arms of his wheelchair and digging his nails into the leather.

“What is it?”

“I…” Ludwig glanced at the officers lining the walls. “I’m sorry.” He reached out and grabbed a hold of Werner’s arm, causing Werner to stiffen. “I know I’m in no position to be asking you to listen to me, but—”

Mother frowned at him, causing Werner’s head to buzz.

“Ludwig, you’re acting strange,” Werner said, glancing at the officers. Appearances. “This seems like it would be better said in private.”

Ludwig pulled him closer and whispered, “Trust your instincts. Don’t believe what you hear or see.”

Werner frowned at him, studied his face, then studied the faces of the police officers around them. Before he could evaluate the situation further, however, a knock at the door drew his attention. There at the threshold stood a highly decorated man holding a clipboard.

“Lieutenant Waltz?” the man nodded at him. “The Kaiser would like to meet you now.”

Werner didn’t allow his surprise to show on his face.

This was a superior speaking to a subordinate. As long as he maintained himself, there would be no issue.

* * *

Werner had only stepped into the chancellery building twice before. First, following Major Erwin Ersatz’s treasonous actions at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. And the second time, following Colonel von Spiel’s treasonous actions in the Twin Cities of Gemini. Neither time had he ever spoken with the Kaiser face-to-face—let alone stepped into the Kaiser’s office chamber.

The Kaiser’s office was quiet and dark. Two sets of Capricorn flags hung from opposite back corners of the room. A rectangular table sat centrally below a hanging chandelier, while a more private desk sat at the very back in front of a window. Sitting at the former location were two men and one woman. The woman was pale, blonde, and had a pair of glasses perched on her nose. One man was older and gruff, while the other was young, had dark curly hair with a mole just beneath his left eye, and was dressed in a trenchcoat. They all wore the Ophiuchian sash.

So Ophiuchus was involving themselves—

Werner’s heart began to hammer suddenly, and his palms began to itch unbearably. He kept himself steady, however, as he assessed what was causing his unease. There. The woman peacekeeper’s gaze—no, it was the one dressed in the trenchcoat. His eyes were warm and kind, but something about those eyes—

“You can relax, Lieutenant Waltz,” came a rumbling, deep voice. “May I call you Werner? No need to worry about the peacekeepers. They’re just here observing.”

Werner followed the voice to the back desk. There the Kaiser sat, quiet, hands folded over a stack of papers. Peacekeepers present, and no generals in sight. The country was truly in chaos.

Werner lowered his hand, folding it behind his back with his other. “If you wish, sir.” After a stretch of silence, he said, “Is this about my condition—”

“What’s more important, Werner—strategy or manpower?”

Although abruptly asked, it was an age-old question asked at the beginning and end of every military tactics class held at every single military academy. It was used to evaluate exactly how much a student had developed mentally, emotionally, and logically throughout their courses. Although it didn’t seem the case, there was a ‘correct’ answer that was accepted and lauded by professors, lecturers, and commanders alike. It was—

“Manpower,” Werner found himself saying as he recalled. It took him a moment to realize he had spoken aloud, saying the exact opposite of the ‘correct’ answer.

The Kaiser’s brows rose. The trenchcoated peacekeeper frowned slightly.

Werner felt both men’s gazes intensify, and his palms began to itch even more. His head still wasn’t in order. “I apologize,” he said. “I was thinking out loud. I believe—”

“No…” The Kaiser remained impassive. “Tell me your logic, Werner.”

Werner nodded then drew carefully: “One would usually think strategies are superior over manpower, but strategy can only extend so far out—especially in a war of attrition. In the end, manpower is a resource. Whoever has the most of it will win in the end. Loyalty of that manpower also plays a major role. When the battle drags on, the loyal will stay while others desert.”

The Kaiser hummed. “Yes, I agree… manpower is the greatest resource… Without it, Signum would fall apart.” He rose from his chair and then turned to face the window behind him. “Do you remember the Kaiser before me? My brother.”

“Kaiser Friedrich Nikolaus Netzche,” Werner recalled. “He was a great general. His tactics are still used on the border to this day.”

“Yes, he was always bright…” the Kaiser muttered. “He’d been handed the Reservoir War by our aunt and her father before her. Like them, he passed away on the battlefield. Just as the war was about to end. A vitae-ray to the leg. A ruptured artery. Medical transmutation back then was not as advanced as it is now. The entire time he begged for someone to put a bullet through his head to end the agony. It was the only time I’d ever seen him so… weak.”

Werner remained silent.

“I wonder what they would think of Capricorn as it is now,” the Kaiser continued. “It was him who pushed for Capricorn’s hyper-militarization, did you know? I just helped him maintain it. I was only 19 when I took on this title. ‘Lucky that you inherited Capricorn after the war, ’ they’d say when they weren’t calling me a puppet of the chancellery. Little did they know, fixing a country after a war is harder than fighting a war.”

Again, Werner opted to remain silent.

‘Never forget the people,’ Friedrich told me on his deathbed. ‘Your duty is to protect the people, but you can’t protect everyone. You can’t choose favorites. You must choose the majority even if you must sacrifice diversity.’” The Kaiser turned back to him. “Numbers. Manpower. As you’ve said.”

Werner was certain that wasn’t what he meant by ‘manpower,’ but the trenchcoated peacekeeper’s gaze made it difficult to think. Additionally, that one singular word that the Kaiser had said rang now in his ears and mind. Protect—

The Kaiser cleared his throat. “You’ve done well in protecting the honor and needs of Capricorn up until this point, Werner. But you still have much that you can do for this country. Don’t let time go to waste.”

* * *

Shortly after, Werner was given the task of temporarily aiding the Militärpolizei in suppressing the Augen throughout the city. He was given command of a small unit of Militärpolizei officers. Among them was Wilhelm Fischer who greeted him with an enthusiastic salute before requesting to speak with him privately.

Oddly enough, Werner was glad to see the man. Fischer was a needed familiar face in all of the disruptions in the city and was also his only subordinate still in active service. 

Again, unneeded sentiment.

“Lieutenant Waltz,” Fischer said as they walked down the cold, empty streets together with the Militärpolizei. “I knew you would follow through and choose Capricorn no matter what. I knew it. I knew it wasn’t really you too and that you’d never go against Capricorn and the Kaiser. Even if vitae conversion is true, it’s worth—”

“Vitae conversion?” Werner frowned. The term sounded familiar.

Fischer opened his mouth, then closed it. “Sorry, sir, if you don’t know it… then… Well, they said I shouldn’t speak about it to anyone who didn’t know.”

“Then don’t speak of it,” Werner ordered tersely, glancing around the dilapidated streets, the boarded-up windows of the buildings, and the bullet shells scattered in-between bits of rubble. “If it’s that classified, you shouldn’t have mentioned it to begin with.”

Fischer stiffened. “Yes, sir, I—”

“And if you had suspicions I was not myself, then you should have acted on them and reported me immediately.”

Fischer cleared his throat. “Yes, lieutenant, it was a mistake.” They continued through the streets in silence until Fischer continued, “About the others…”

“I’m sure the investigations will find out the truth behind the situation.”

Fischer nodded. “Yes, sir… er. They made a mistake and a misjudgment—I agree, but the punishment should only be equal to the crime, shouldn’t it? It wouldn’t be too serious, would it? Where do you think they stand, sir?”

“What I think doesn’t matter. I’m not the one assigned to make the judgment.”

Werner spent no more time on the subject and moved on to complete the task he was given: disposing of Verbundene Augen pockets around the city, whether or not they were being manipulated.

Eventually, his sweeping of the area led them to the building that had formerly hosted the diplomatic conductor convention. The glass dome of the building had fallen in, leaving shards floating above the flooded, tiled floor. Among the shards drifted torn pieces of Augen flags, other similar paraphernalia, and several abandoned suitcases. As he waded through the waters, Werner found a small cage containing a blackbird chirping weakly on top of one of these suitcases at the very corner of the dome.

It felt surreal.

He stared at the bird with curiosity, suddenly becoming hyper-aware of the tick-toking of his pocket watch over his chest. Two of the Militärpolizei walked over to the cage and rattled it while snickering.

“Leave the bird alone,” Werner ordered. “It most likely belongs to one of the international officials or a diplomat. We’ll take it to storage.”

The police officers grumbled, but he silenced them with a hard look. As he watched them transport the cage out from the dome, he frowned. The Militärpolizei here were undisciplined and disrespectful. Nothing like his own subordinates.

There it was again: sentiment—which he methodically folded away and set aside.

Just as Werner finished ordering the dome, another block of Militärpolizei officers arrived to take over. The block was headed by a colonel who first introduced himself as Oskar Müller and then drew Werner aside to speak privately.

“You’re Kaltes Auge?” the colonel asked once they were alone. “You had the debacle with Fritz in Gemini, right? I always thought that Fritz was off. Fortunately, his documentation, files, and reports were precise, so when I took over his office, I didn’t have too much trouble.”

“He was very thorough, sir,” Werner agreed, though he didn’t think this was the situation to be making small talk.

“You look tired, Waltz,” the colonel said, reaching into his chest pocket and pulling out a carton of v-cigarettes. He shook one out and held it out to him. “Here.”

“I appreciate the gesture, but I don’t smoke.”

“It’s an order,” the colonel continued, continuing to hold the v-cigarette out. “It’ll wake you up. Help you perform better. You don’t look alert. We can’t have that.”

Werner tensed.

An order was an order. And appearances were everything. He hadn’t had the time to check himself since leaving with his new unit, but he did feel fatigued. Self-negligence. Unacceptable.

Feeling the colonel’s stare, Werner took the v-cigarette between his fingers, inspected it, and took a puff while hiding a grimace. Much to his surprise, he didn’t hack and cough. The way the smoke curled in his lungs felt somehow familiar.

As soon as he blew out the smoke, he felt it. He felt awake. Sharp. Alert. More so than he had felt before. A drop of vitae for this sort of feeling. Incredible.

“See. I told you.”

The colonel took back the v-cig, his lips pulling up into a smile. For a moment, Werner thought he could see something dark blue on the colonel’s skin peeking up from beneath his collar.

* * *

As Werner moved from the convention to further out in the city, he came across Major General Martin von Spiel who was maintaining a base in the outskirts of the district.

Major General von Spiel was vastly different from Colonel Fritz von Spiel—Werner soon came to realize—in both his demeanor and words. He greeted Werner with a firm handshake and congratulated him on his recovery as soon as they addressed each other. He then proceeded to pull Werner aside to study a map of the city beneath a makeshift tent built in front of a small abandoned bakery. Precision, resources, distribution. All in order. But—

“So, it ends up being that we’re playing this game of soldier,” Von Spiel said to him suddenly while they were planning how to distribute conductors to less stable areas of the city.

“There’s no ‘playing’ soldier, sir,” Werner replied, somewhat confused by the turn in conversation.

Von Spiel nodded. “I suppose you’re right, Waltz. These roles have become reality. Me, some whistleblower unveiling a whole ‘dastardly, treasonous’ plan by Weingartner against the Kaiser. You, a loyal man to the Kaiser. Our lies turned against us.”

“Are you implying you didn’t investigate me and my unit, Captain Weingartner, and my unit…?” Werner observed him. “I’m not sure what you’re suggesting, sir. I haven’t lied.”

Von Spiel, sighed, his gaze distant. “Fritz probably felt the same way: being forced to act a certain way and being caught in a lie. I wonder if whoever it was that he was connected to—that Yulia and Kovich—forced him into that corner.”

Werner had no clue what Von Spiel was referring to, but—”With all due respect, Major General, Colonel von Spiel embezzled Capricorn’s treasury for his own wants. The amount taken could’ve damaged Capricorn’s economy. Whatever his circumstances were, he made his own choice.”

Von Spiel stared at him, eyebrows knitting together slightly, lips pulling downwards. Then his eyes widened and he let out a breath. “I see… So this conversation was going nowhere to begin with. My apologies. Forget I said anything. I’m just an old man who’s made too many wrong choices now… though at least I’ve made those choices on my own.”

Werner paused.

“And I refuse to lay down arms now. A head-on war is foolish, but a war of attrition and coversion—maybe that we can win.”

Werner frowned slightly, considering whether or not he should report in Von Spiel’s odd ramblings.

“Let’s carry on, Lieutenant. Which station would be best to supply rifle conductors to?”

* * *

Werner was called into the Kaiser’s office again not too long after this encounter. The atmosphere in the man’s office was much colder than before, and the three peacekeepers were no longer present. Already standing at attention in front of the rectangular meeting table was Fischer. Hazy light from the full moon bled through the clouds and seeped into the room from the window, drowning everything a luminescent blue.

Despite feeling somewhat lightheaded in the light, Werner stood rigid beside Fischer and clasped his hands behind his back.

“The investigation of the 11th unit of the 212th Division of the Border Force has concluded,” the Kaiser said from where he stood facing the window. “They’ve been found guilty of working with the Augen in a mass living manipulation effort. The verdict is treason. The punishment is execution by firing squad at the execution tower. This will apply to Captain Volker Weingartner, Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff, Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine, Private Derik Stein, Private Friedhelm Heimler, Combat Medic Alwin Brandt, and Combat Medic Nico Fabrizzio.”

For a moment, Werner thought the watch ticking over his chest had stopped.

Keeping his voice even, he tried tried, “Has the possibility of them also being manipulated been considered—”

“They were acting on their own will,” the Kaiser responded. “We’ve checked. Not a single other person’s vitae was found in them by our Transmutationists and medical Conductors.”

Werner had difficulty keeping his face and voice unwavering. “With all due respect, sir, this could be a ploy to further turn the public against you. The execution of enlisted men will most likely receive public outcry. The briefing I received about the developments during my manipulation was unconcise, so I question how thorough the investigation truly was.”—He knew he was stepping out of bounds now but his chest squirmed— “Additionally, Nico Fabrizzio is not a Capricornian citizen. If he’s to be included in the line-up for execution, then this might affect our relations with Gemini. I’ve served with these men. They aren’t—”

“You’re forward-thinking. I appreciate that,” the Kaiser replied. “But do you believe you’re thinking about scenarios we haven’t thought of—we, your superiors who have many years on you? We’ve considered everything within the realm of that possibility. And Nico Fabrizzio was given to us, Werner, so now until the term’s change, he is owned by us. We can’t let foreigners step over what we stand for.”

Clenching his fist behind his back, Werner replied steadily: “I apologize. I was trying to offer a different perspective.”

“You shouldn’t be defending people who’ve wronged you, Lieutenant Waltz,” the Kaiser said. “At least, you shouldn’t be defending people who’ve wronged Capricorn. I hope you haven’t forgotten the needed distance between a superior and a subordinate.” The man turned to face him then, his eyes as piercingly bright as the moonlight surrounding him.

Now, Werner felt his heart thrumming along with the ticks of his pocket watch. A continuous sound, drowning out his own thoughts as his palms itched almost unbearably. The moonlight was blinding.

Always watching, a voice whispered at the back of his mind

The Kaiser was right.

The logical reasoning behind that statement made sense, but still it gave Werner discomfort. It was not a comprehensible feeling. After all, the investigations had found conclusive evidence. Werner himself was not a member of the military investigative police, so it wasn’t his place to question it. He knew his subordinates only from their performance on the field and didn’t know their true character—that was the distance between superior and subordinate. 

But Gilbert—Werner thought—he’d known Gilbert for even longer than that. Although Gilbert was not fond of taking up arms—which Werner had consistently berated him for—he still believed in serving the people. He would never turn against them. And Gilbert wouldn’t betray him to the Augen either. Werner was certain. He’d even trusted the man to keep him in line—

Werner frowned.

Why had he asked Gilbert to keep him in line again?

Something wasn’t right—

“I’m assigning you and Fischer here to serve on the firing squad,” the Kaiser said suddenly.

Werner saw Fischer visibly stiffen out of the corner of his eye.

“Sir—” Werner tried.

“We need to set an example,” the Kaiser continued. “Those in a unit who betray Capricorn will be brought to justice by those in the unit loyal to Capricorn. You’re familiar with executions, correct, Werner? I’m aware that you’ve executed deserters—treasoners—from your unit before you were even given an officer position.”

“Yes, sir, I’m familiar with them—”

“And you’re a soldier—an officer—serving in the Capricornian Army, are you not? I don’t understand why I’m hearing these objections. From what I’ve heard about you, you always follow through with everything on the field no matter what it is.”

An expectation to be met.

Werner suddenly recalled Magda Rath’s last moments, and suddenly the daze and fog that clouded his mind and the pain that was wrenching his chest dissipated. The confusion and struggle were gone. Everything was clear. Practice made perfect. Gilbert was a subordinate, just like the others. This was what a Capricornian soldier would do and how one would think; and he was a Capricornian soldier, so he would do it and how he would think. This was correct. This was to be followed. Appearances.

“I’m aware Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff is a childhood acquaintance of yours, Lieutenant Waltz, but you can’t choose favorites. You can’t afford to. As a position-holding officer in the Capricornian army, your loyalty should not be to a single person or a group of people. Your loyalty is to the land that you stand on.”

“Yes, sir.”

“They’re your subordinates, Werner; and your fellow unit soldiers, Fischer. You have a responsibility and duty as a superior officer and a fellow unit member. Do your duty.”

Right, Werner agreed. He was a Capricornian soldier at his core. Duty, glory, honor, and service. Orders needed to be followed. If not, then things would fall into disarray just like it had now with the Augen. Simple but effective. ‘Simple’…?

“The execution will take place in three hours. I suggest you get ready and head to the execution tower as soon as possible.”

“So soon…?” Fischer asked.

“There’s no point in waiting,” the Kaiser replied. “It’s merely delaying the inevitable.”

With that, the Kaiser dismissed them.

Werner exited the Kaiser’s chambers with Fischer at his side. Once the door closed behind them, he turned to the man and found him pale and sweating. Unsightly—and yet Fischer was the only one who had not betrayed Capricorn. Betrayal? No… Something wasn’t right—but it wasn’t his place to think whether something was right or wrong.Easier.

“Lieutenant…” Fischer whispered.

“What is it, Fischer?”

“Lieutenant, I know what the investigation pulled up, but believe me: the captain and the others were not working with the Augen. I’m not at leisure to say it out loud, but it has to do with a disagreement on vitae conversion. They did talk about a coup d’état but it was just in passing… I don’t think…” Fischer’s eyes were wild. “Being put in a penal unit is a better punishment, isn’t it? Or in jail? An execution is—”

“Are you objecting against orders directly from the Kaiser?” Werner replied automatically. “We should take responsibility and complete our duty.”


Gilbert had always found it funny that executions in the capital were grandiose events. Back at the border, everyone was hush-hush about it. Caught an Argoan partisan or a Capricornian deserter? Sneak ‘em out back, put a bullet through ‘em, and return to camp like nothing happened. Werner did it all the time like it was nothing—even did it for him in his place once. At the thought of Magda Rath, Gilbert’s mood soured.

Damnit.

The Militärpolizei officers came for them at around midnight, putting gags over their mouths and bags with eye holes cut out over their heads. Next came shackles around their ankles—cold, but not rusting at least.

The officers led them out of their cells single-file and into a small room containing two pews against the wall. A Monadic prayer room, so poor souls who were of the faith could ask for forgiveness and whatnot before they met their end.

Hell, Gilbert thought, as if they were going to say a damn Monadic prayer after everything they’d learned. And so, in the end, Brandt, awkwardly kneeling on one leg with a hand placed over his heart, was the only one who prayed—and in some language Gilbert couldn’t understand.

Afterwards, the Militärpolizei officers moved to shackle their hands behind their back. For Gilbert, they simply chained his one hand behind his back in a chain loop—which in itself was pretty humiliating. He didn’t have time to wallow in his self-pity, however, because the police soon guided them out the room and down a dimly lit hallway. Gilbert could barely see where he was going with the bag over his head, nearly tripping and cracking his head when they reached a long twist of concrete steps at the end of the hall. Up and up and up the stairs they were guided until they reached a set of heavy metal doors at the very end. The Militärpolizei officers leading them up pushed open these doors, letting out a cold gust of wind.

Gilbert followed behind his captain and his subordinates as they were ushered inside the room that lay behind it. The floor inside was tiled and splashed with glowing dapples of red, blue, green, yellow, and every color in-between. It took a moment for Gilbert to realize that the kaleidoscopic light was seeping in through the stained-glass windows that took up the left sidewall. Catching some of this light were a series of high-reaching stone arches looped overhead. Although Gilbert was not one for fine arts, he figured he would’ve spent some time admiring it all if it weren’t for what occupied the right-side wall. All along that pillar-embedded wall stood Militärpolizei officers dressed in crisp uniforms and all wearing grim expressions. Perfect for a funeral.

Before Gilbert could admire any further, he was shoved towards the stained-glass windows and made to kneel before them along with the others. Seemingly endless silence followed this. It wasn’t until he counted to five-thousand in his head that those heavy metal doors creaked open again.

From the stained-glass windows, Gilbert caught the faint reflection of their executioners—all with rifles slung over their backs—filing into the room behind him. The first four, Gilbert didn’t recognize. The fifth caused Gilbert to scowl: Vash Something-or-other, the Scorpio puppet. The sixth caused Gilbert to grimace: Wilhelm Fischer in the damn flesh—the bootlicking asshole. Unlike the others before him, Fischer looked pale and nauseous. Served the bastard right, Gilbert thought. If spirits and ghosts were real, he hoped his spirit would come back after this and haunt the hell out of Fischer.

Gilbert’s thoughts dissipated as soon as the seventh executioner stepped into the room. His heart dropped his stomach while Scorpio’s taunts rang through his mind.

As each of the other six executioners stepped into place behind them, one executioner to each man, Werner stepped into place directly behind Gilbert.

As soon as Gilbert met Werner’s eyes in the reflection of the stained glass, he realized that Werner knew it was them. The man might not have known who was kneeling in front of him, but he knew who it could be. And still, he chose to pick up arms.

Damn.

Gilbert couldn’t believe it, but at the same time, he did. Despite all their years of friendship and service, he still hadn’t managed to crack through any layers. He wondered if Werner had even considered him a friend at all. Part of him wanted to be bitter about it, but in the end, he still couldn’t repay that damned debt so what could he complain about? All those debts…

Gilbert let out a sigh. Really should’ve listened to ma. He cast a glance at the others kneeling beside him. One was trembling; another was kneeling straight-backed and tall; someone at the far end was bowing their head.

Aw, hell, Gilbert thought. So this was how it ended after serving for years, huh? Losing a damn hand. Betrayed by his own country. Slandered as being part of some puppet political organization. And blasted backwards by his superior—no, his one-sided best friend. Ha. The least they could do was give him a smoke beforehand.

Usually during these kinds of situations, he thought, weren’t people supposed to start having flashbacks of their lives? He figured since he wasn’t having them meant he wasn’t knocking on death’s door just yet—

“Present arms!”

Gilbert looked up to see that Werner was now pointing the mouth of his rifle against the back of his head. 

Ha.

He found himself thinking of Werner, of Greta, of his mother, then his father, and then of his past classmates and his passed subordinates. Really should’ve listened to ma, he affirmed. And yet here he was about to make her cry all over again, just like his father did. A real shit son.

Just outside the stained-glass window, Gilbert saw a blackbird flutter up to the sky, its ebony feathers cascading down onto the streets below. Werner glanced up slightly, seeming to catch sight of the feathers too. Then, Gilbert heard a familiar, resounding bang!


The Execution Tower was first built at the dictation of Kaiserin Selma Schubert Netzche in the year 1910 during the Reservoir War. It was designed to execute foreign war criminals in full display of the public in order to fill fellow Capricornians with a sense of unity and retribution. In later years as the war dragged on, it was used to publicly execute domestic usurpers and deserters to bolster a sense of unity and strength in standing at the line of duty. 

Since the war’s end, it’s use has been seldom and far between. The open windows that once displayed the executions openly have been built over with stained-glass windows designed by Capricornian artist Gretchen Howser. It stands as a symbol of Capricornian determination.”

Military Buildings, The Foundation of Capricorn 5th edition

20.3: Pirate, Swindler, & Peacekeeper » Mercy, Greed, & Justice

Re-cap:

Five out of the six have reunited in the capital of Capricorn. While Atienna and Olive deal with a death and matter of diplomacy, Cadence, Maria, Jericho, and Emilia Bergmann head out in search for Werner’s family in hopes that Ludwig will be able to tell them the location of Marionnette Engel.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

When Cadence felt Leona’s icy hand wrapping around her own, she knew Francis was going to be pissed. Maria had been leading them to the building where she’d claimed to have spotted Werner’s family when the exchange had occurred. Cadence had immediately skidded to a halt—not from the shock of it but—because Jericho and Maria, who were a meter ahead of her, also slammed on the breaks. She crashed into Jericho and stumbled back to catch her footing. The pain and anguish at losing Trystan and Marta were still very poignant, so it took her a moment to get her bearings.

“—but the saint candidates.” Jericho stared at Maria, then turned back to Cadence. “They are the enemy. Why did Atienna—”

Bergmann peered at them in confusion from where she’d stopped a meter ahead. She jogged back to them. “Did… something happen?”

Distant gunfire peppered in the distance, causing Jericho to grab Cadence by the scruff and pull her into an adjacent alley alongside Maria and Bergmann. A handful of men and women holding pickets and flags stormed past them down the road. Bergmann made some hand signs that Cadence only vaguely recognized, and they remained silent until Bergmann let down her hand.

Cadence figured she’d definitely lost her common sense along with her mind agreeing to come along like this. “It’s nothin’ by the way, ‘Milia.”

It is ‘wrong’? Jericho stared down at her. Not nothing. 

“We’re in a tight situation,” Cadence drew, peering at Atienna from the distance and feeling Olive’s horror and disbelief curl in her stomach. It took a moment for her to get her head around it. “Like I’ve been sayin’, we’re in over our heads. Atienna’s coverin’ us for whatever comes after this play.” She grimaced. It’s just a proposal. Nothin’s set in stone yet. But Cadence wondered if Atienna would laugh or frown if she brought up ‘circumstances.’

Maria’s perturbed expression brightened. “So it is like a pretend play? And Atienna is concerned and wants to keep us safe? Well, there is no need to be when I am here, yes? I will—”

“‘—not lose anyone else.’ Don’t doubt ya a bit, sunshine,” Cadence said. “But let’s just focus on the ‘now,’ and leave that for the more politically-inclined ta think ahead and clean it up, okay?”

* * *

When they reached the building in question, Cadence managed to convince Jericho and Maria to hang back while she transmuted over herself the appearance of a ranked watchmaster Militärpolizei officer—one ‘Gevehard Baasch,’ which was a mouthful to say—who was in command of the police force of this section of the city. Bergmann’s specifications of the man were alarmingly precise, despite her saying that she’d only met the man twice. Personally, Cadence still really didn’t understand the whole Capricornian political rank-and-file scheme, but she understood the concept of there always being a top dog.

After getting the details of the elder, curly-mustached Baasch’s demeanor from Bergmann—it was quite clear that Bergmann was not a fan of the man—Cadence hobbled her way into the building—rather, the hotel. It wasn’t a shabby one either. Nice wallpaper, red-carpeted floor, a chandelier here and there. The emptiness of the hotel halls, however, gave the entire place a disorientingly creepy feel. The mahogany-framed photos of eerily empty scenes—a couple of unoccupied chairs surrounding a lace-clothed dining table and an empty ballroom—hanging along the walls didn’t help with the creepiness either. Hotel needed a better decorator, Cadence decided.

Upon reaching the second-story floor, she rolled her neck and approached the only door that was spilling out light from its cracks. As soon as she opened that door and stepped into the room, she was greeted by half-a-dozen salutes, all given in unison. She returned the gesture stiffly, taking the time to survey the room. The walls were cream-colored, and it was sparse of furniture. Just a three-person sofa—an expensive-looking one—fitting Viktoria, Werner’s father, and Werner’s mother in that order. Ludwig was pulled up to the singular window on the opposite wall. Six guards total—two who had that ‘fresh from the academy’ feel.

Not threats. 

Good to know.

Casually, as she approached the youngest officer and inspected his uniform, she asked, “Have you all been holding up well?”

“Yes, sir,” came his reply as he stiffened. “Thank you for your concern, Watchmaster Baasch. We weren’t expecting you…”

“Good,” she said, nodding, then pulling away and folding her hands behind her back. She eyed the gold wristwatch on his arm. “Have any of you received word on whether or not the others who were accompanying the Waltz family will be under our watch?”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ludwig turn and look up at her at this.

“We’re not sure, sir. I wouldn’t think so since those guys are being investigated for treason,” the officer said. “Besides, wouldn’t the riot police have that information…?”

“All the Border Force knows how to do is shoot things down,” another officer grumbled. “It’s not surprising they got pulled into that nonsense.”

Indignation flared in Cadence’s chest at the insultbut she shoved it aside. Not the time. 

Cadence plucked a name from memory—one of the names Bergmann had provided to her when describing Baasch—and said, “Blitzfeld has been asking me about it nonstop.”

“It’s always Blitzfeld,” one of them grumbled. “Poking his nose in where it doesn’t belong just because he got promoted to watchmaster too? The nerve. It wasn’t too long ago that he was just stuck on desk duty.”

Hm. So they disliked Blitzfeld. Talk about lucky.

“Blitzfeld is bringing his own unit to take over here,” Cadence continued. “You’ve been ordered to pull out and return to the station.”

An eruption of protests resounded.

“That’s not fair, sir, “ the younger officer argued. “They just want us to take their place out there risking our lives—”

So that was how it was. Eh.

“Well, it’s duty,” said another.

Cadence placed a hand on the younger officer’s wrist and gave him a pat on the back. She undid the latch of his watch, thought better of it, and reclasped it. “I’ll keep watch until they arrive. I heard that most of the riot police have taken care of those Augen disrupters, so I doubt you have much to worry about.”

Clear relief broke across their faces, causing her to feel a bit of guilt. The officers then gathered together and filtered out of the room in an orderly fashion. Sparing Werner’s family a half-smile, she peered out the window and tuned her ears. When she closed her eyes, she could see through Jericho’s and Maria’s—although it was fuzzy and dizzying. The two were perched outside the exit of the building alongside Bergmann; and when the door swung open and the grumbling military poice officers stepped outside, the two launched themselves at them. A butt of the hilt of Maria’s sword there, an uppercut from the edge of Jericho’s suitcase there, Bergmann slamming a couple of them against the wall with conducted earth here, and suppression cuffs all around.

With a nod of content, Cadence rolled up the window and stepped back. It took just a minute for Jericho, Maria, and Bergmann to climb into the room from the fire escape. Behind her, she could hear Viktoria and Werner’s mother gasp in unison.

Maria paid them no mind, sweeping into the room and twirling out one of Francis’s proto-conductors. She spilled the black liquid out on the carpet, tapped the proto-conductor against it, and reached into the gate that appeared there. When she pulled her arm back out, Lita was dangling from her hand. Maria tugged her up into the air, caught her before she fell, and then placed her on her feet on the ground.

“Surprise!” Maria sang, turning to Werner’s family sitting stiffly on the sofa. “Lita is here!”

Cadence had to admit that Lita’s and Maria’s reunion when Maria had first stepped into Francis’s windowless room when traversing through one of Francis’s gates earlier had been a bit cute. The two were clearly fond of each other, leaving Cadence to wonder if it was possible for her and Nico to have a reunion similarly. Bah. She brushed the thought aside. Lita was still a brat though.

Maria guided Lita around to Werner’s family, and the girl touched them and inspected them through her conducting glasses.

Lita shook her head. “They’re not ‘infected.’”

Maria beamed. “Thank you, my dear Lita. Now you will return for a little while longer, yes? This is a big country, no? Let us not lose you!”

Lita looked somber at this but obliged, hopping back into the gate. Werner’s mother, on the other hand, looked faint as she watched the gate dim into nothing.

“So you’re…?” Ludwig began, coming up to them slowly, completely unalarmed by their intrusion.

Made sense. He was a Waltz.

Intuition, came Jericho’s thought. His response indicates he knows that Scorpio’s spore was cut out of Werner, meaning he has met and spoken to Werner.

Agreed, detective.

Cadence studied Ludwig for a moment.

The memories were very faint, but she recalled the day Ludwig had stormed out of the Waltz house, leaving behind a startled Werner and Viktoria. To pursue his own path and dreams and all that. She didn’t particularly blame him. She doubted he would’ve been able to do anything with the way he was back then. That time apart allowed him to pull himself together—

Cadence suddenly thought of Nico.

Or maybe it was all an excuse, she rebutted. Or maybe she was making the excuse. Bah—not the time to be thinking about that—

You are afraid of being left behind, my lovely Cadence?

Cadence winced. That’s a private thought, sunshine.

You do not have to worry about that, my dear, Maria continued. We are connected, yes? And Jericho and I are strong. We will not leave anyone behind. Not you, especially, yes? I will always be here because I will not die. Do not worry.

“I agree,” Jericho said out loud.

Cadence sighed and rubbed her neck. You two are definitely somethin’ else. Charmin’ and leg-puller—the both of ya. It’s more complicated than that. But she couldn’t deny what a comfort those words were.

Shrugging, Cadence snapped her fingers to dispel her transmutation and then bowed at Werner’s family. “Cadence Morello, at your service. We had a nice dinner and part of a train ride together if I’m rememberin’ correctly.” She pointed at Jericho, who was looking around the room carefully. “Peacekeepin’ Agent Jericho. Ya vibed together in that shelter according to him.” She gestured to Maria, who was still hanging half-out of the window. “And pretty sure all of ya are familiar with Maria here.” She nodded at Bergmann. “Then there’s darlin ‘Milia. Werner’s corporal.”

Werner’s mother visibly stiffened. “What is this? Are we being held hostage?”

“You were before,” Jericho stated, pulling out his identification badge and flashing it to her—right-side-up for once. “You are now under the care of Ophiuchus.”

Nice one.

Jericho nodded.

“You’re all real… ” Viktoria whispered, rising from the sofa.

Cadence arched a brow. “What ya thought we were some fairytale? Ya were workin’ with us, weren’t ya? Or did ya think it was a psychological vitae mishap thing?” She thought for a beat. “Kinda is.”

“I’m not sure what I thought…” Viktoria murmured. “But to think that you’re all living, breathing people…”

Cadence chortled. “We’re better in person, right?” She glanced at Werner’s father, eyed his unchanging expression, and grimaced inwardly. What an unapproachable guy. She paused, moving on to study Werner’s mother. Not as unapproachable as her though. Crazy lady. She grimaced inwardly as memories of her own mother flitted to just below the surface of her mind.

“Don’t be worried, my dear Cadence!” Maria sang as she approached the windowsill. “I took care of that!”

Cadence arched a brow. What does that mean, sunshine…? Anyways. She turned to Ludwig. “Anyway, why’ve they got ya separated from the other loyal folk? In such a nice place too? Have ya seen the lieutenant? Ya seen, Nico?” She glanced at Jericho. “And Alice—the peacekeeper?”

Ludwig nodded, studying her very carefully. “I saw most of them when the military police rounded us together in some interrogation room—Captain Weingartner and Major General von Spiel too. Not the peacekeeper. She wasn’t detained with us. I haven’t seen her since we were rounded up.”

Jericho’s grip on his suitcase tightened.

Cadence arched a brow. “Von Spiel and Weingartner? Heard from Francis that those two guys split…”

“The ELPIS Leader…?” Ludwig frowned. “So he got away…” He cleared his throat. “Weingartner and Von Spiel weren’t so lucky. I’m not sure if it was through one of Scorpio’s mediums or if they slipped up somehow, but they were being questioned with us. But… ”

Saints. Why was there always a ‘but’?

“When we were being questioned, Von Spiel made up some elaborate ruse that he was taking point on some covert operation and gathering information for the state against Weingartner’s ‘treasonous actions’.”

“So, he threw all of ya under the bus,” Cadence noted.

“He’s a very shrewd man…” Ludwig agreed.

A shrewd man or a smart man?

“Von Spiel, huh?” Cadence glanced at Jericho then Maria. Not surprised seein’ how his son went out. “Well, ta each their own…”

“After they finished detaining and questioning us, they decided that we—” Ludwig nodded back to his family. “—weren’t involved. The way they were talking about it…” He clasped his hands together. “It looks like they’re going with some story about the Augen using illegal manipulation methods provided to them by ELPIS to indoctrinate members.”

“That is technically true,” Jericho stated. “The Augen are being used to transmit Scorpio’s spores.”

Ludwig’s expression darkened.

Time to switch gears.

“So… does Ophiuchus have enough of this ‘probable cause’ thing ta really intervene, detective?” Cadence pressed. “The ELPIS Department’s already here, but they seem a little suspect and don’t seem to be doin’ much—no offense. Havin’ actual peacekeepers here cuttin’ down Scorpio’s spores and offshoots would make me feel a lot more comfortable.” She glanced at Jericho. “I mean, that’s why Alice, Gabrielle, and… that’s why they’re here, right? Ta get all the deets ta make the decision. Ain’t it enough details at this point?”

“Unsure,” Jericho replied—and Cadence could see his mind turning over law, cause, and a bunch of other fancy legal terms. “Violation of the living manipulation cause would bring in the Conductor Regulation Department. But the Augen movement is a national political movement confined to inside Capricorn. If Capricorn makes the report and request to Ophiuchus, then they will intervene. Definite.”

Of course. It was all complicated to the point of not working. Made Cadence wonder what the purpose of Ophiuchus was sometimes, especially with all the new information they’d been learning about it recently.

Jericho’s face fell slightly.

Hey, I didn’t mean it like that, Cadence reassured him. And despite it bein’ convoluted, ya still make it work. You’re good, detective. I ain’t lyin’.

Jericho acknowledged her with a nod before shifting his suitcase to his other hand. She could faintly sense another unease there, but she couldn’t tell exactly what it was caused by—because even Jericho didn’t know.

“So Alice is still a no. But Nico and the lieutenant…” Cadence turned back to Ludwig. “Ya got at least an inklin’ of where they are?”

“Werner… I spoke with Werner briefly after that,” Ludwig drew slowly, confirming Jericho’s suspicions. “But he didn’t seem to remember anything that happened these past few weeks.” He looked up at her. “He didn’t even have any idea about True Conductors, but I was barely able to get a word in so—”

“He was normal,” Werner’s mother interjected in a whisper, eyes narrowing into a glare. When Maria glanced at her, however, she quieted and looked away.

“Yeah… There’s been an issue with that.” Cadence sighed, scratching her head. “The not rememberin’ thing, obviously.”

“Ah, so Werner is grumpy again?” Maria wondered from the windowsill.

“I don’t know where he is now though,” Ludwig muttered, staring at Maria. “The police are keeping communication channels closed to ‘protect’ us. The last time I spoke with him earlier, he was being assigned a military police unit because they’re short on hand.”

Ah, damn.

“How about Nico and the others?” Cadence pressed, feeling her stomach beginning to do flips.

“I don’t know either. They’re being detained somewhere separately. Unlike us, they weren’t given a pass,” Ludwig muttered. “I’m sorry. I wish I could be more helpful.”

“Marionette Engel,” Jericho pressed, walking forward. “The Augen. Where are they? You said you knew the movements. Tell us.” He glanced at Cadence and added, “Please.”

After arching a brow at him, Ludwig put a hand to his chin. “One of our scheduled demonstrations—our largest one—was supposed to be in the Herz District—two districts away from all the main government buildings…” His eyes widened, and his hand fell to his lap. “Are you planning on cutting out Scorpio’s spore from Marionette…? We planned for that demonstration to have over 75 people participating. And if it’s just you four… How—”

“Not sure if ya’ve seen sunshine and detective in action, but they can probably handle twice that amount of people.” Cadence hobbled forward to stand beside Jericho and rapped against his chest with the back of her hand. “Trust me.”

Ludwig stared at Jericho then Maria before leaning back in his chair. “So this is how it ends…” He grimaced. “The Verbundene Augen is more than a puppet. Marionette’s vision is beyond Scorpio. I know. I was a part of it. All we wanted was the people we care about to not have to… to not have to go through the same things we did. Was one war not enough?” He clenched his fists. “All the people who are talking about ‘sacrificing for the greater good’—the people who’re war fanatics—are the ones who push people like us onto the frontlines while they sit at their desks and spend their days filing paperwork. If you’re that far away from the frontlines, how can you see that it’s not worth it? We weren’t wrong. We weren’t.”

Ideas might not be wrong, but perhaps the people implementing those ideas were—even if they had the best intentions.

Bergmann sent Ludwig a sympathetic look as she studied her conducting glove.

“Ludwig,” Werner’s mother hissed, her voice causing a strange chill to shoot up Cadence’s spine, “enough—”

That was how movements came and went. They seldom stayed the way they were intended and instead were changed as the ideas of the movement were passed on down to different members. And if a bit of violence entered into the equation to push the movement forward…Was that justice? Was that right if the end goal was met? To the members of the Augen right now, it was a wonder if they would be considered ‘evil’ by their standards.

“Atienna…” Jericho murmured.

Cadence perked her head up and followed his gaze to the corner of the room where Atienna’s and Olive’s images stood flickering. Cadence could barely make out their surroundings in the intense haze of Olive’s tumultuous emotions.

That’s why ELPIS opted for resistors, isn’t it? Atienna continued. So their ideals and purpose remain pure and unchanged. 

Cadence shrugged. We could always ask Francis if you’re interested. Ya know he likes talkin’ a lot about that stuff now.

The corner of Atienna’s eyes crinkled before she looked aside. We have to start thinking about what will happen after this. If we truly want to be able to live safely and comfortably for now until we decide what to do next—

Olive stared at her with a mixture of disbelief, apprehension, and confusion.

The Kaiser can’t be in his position anymore… Atienna continued, wrapping her arms around her stomach. I mean, I don’t believe he will hold his position much longer with everything that’s been occurring. If he still is the head of the state after this by using an iron fist, then… I wonder what that will mean for not only Capricorn but for us… and for Werner.

Nothing good obviously, Cadence knew, but since Atienna had struck a deal with Leona, then…

I… have a suggestion, Atienna continued.

Shoot.

The two generals that Werner’s unit held captive… Francis said Scorpio let them go. They’re most likely no longer loyal to the Kaiser and his plan after his betrayal. Since they’re in the chancellery cabinet, they have a high chance of taking his position after all of this—especially since the Kaiser is unmarried and doesn’t have an heir. So if we offer them protection until this ends maybe… Her brows furrowed. On another note, after these sorts of events happen in history, a scapegoat is always needed. Whether we try to change things or not, that will most likely be Marionette or the Kaiser… Well, we should try our best to keep them alive then, don’t you think?

“Man… that’s really scrappin’ the bottom of the barrel though, ain’t it?” Cadence sighed, ruffling her hair. “Not that I’m one to talk. All this political stuff is givin’ me a headache. We’d have ta find ‘em first too, right? The generals?”

“Find who?” Ludwig looked at them in confusion. When Cadence explained it to him, he bristled. “If old members of the chancellery take the Kaiser’s place, then nothing will change!”

“Change is already happening all around us, my dear Ludwig,” Maria spoke suddenly. “Change does not happen on the surface but from within—just like strength, yes? If you think nothing has changed, then that just means what is inside has not changed.” She pulled herself in from the windowsill, stepped in front of the man, and then studied his face. Her own face softened strangely. “But do not worry. We will take care of everything—I know you are thinking about joining us, but I think Werner will be happy if you find someplace else.”

Ludwig made a face. “What—”

“I think Werner has regrets like me. Things that should have been said, but weren’t, yes?” Maria reached out and tapped his nose. “But I will tell you instead—‘Be safe.’”

Cadence reached into her pocket, dug out Francis’s proto-conductor, and dropped it into Ludwig’s waiting palm. “Good luck protectin’ the family, Colonel.”


Francis’s gates were truly exciting. Maria wished she could explore that white ‘space between the gates’ forever, but Francis had become boringly strict since he’d become Theta and had forced her out when she’d tried staying.

Now, alongside Cadence, Jericho, and Bergmann, Maria stood on the edge of the roof of a medium-sized, gothic-esque building that oversaw a large courtyard surrounded by closely stacked buildings. There were only four entrances into this courtyard—four thin alleyways barely visible between the north, south, east, and west buildings. And all of them were blocked by stacked wooden chairs and wooden signs. Makeshift barricades. At the center of this barricaded square stood a large group of men, women, and even some children. Some of them held picket signs, some of them were painted blue from head to toe, and even more some stood gallantly in military uniforms. Most had weapons. Among them Maria spotted one or two who were dressed in a general’s uniform. Several of the Augen members were injured, laying on gurneys and being attended to by others. And at the center of all of them stood Marionette Engel, hair frazzled, signature scarf billowing in the wind, a bandage wrapped around her bleeding head, proclaiming something fiery and passionate that Maria could not hear from this distance.

“It reminds me of the border…” Bergmann whispered from where she knelt at the edge of the roof. “I… can’t believe all of this has happened so… fast. It feels like we were just crossing back over back from Argo a couple of hours ago.”

Maria watched as Cadence fell into a crouch beside Bergmann and peered over the roof’s edge with her.

“Do you think… we can get close enough to Marionette without getting caught?” Bergmann mumbled to herself. “From what I understand… the lieutenant and you all are critical assets to this ‘Scorpio,’ so he wouldn’t be willing to infect you again, right?” She peered down towards the crowd. “But that’s risky too… So, I could try creating an earth pit beneath them to trap them, but I’d need to be close enough to do it… and they’re too spread out… and I’m sure they’d shoot me before I could get them all under.”

Maria chuckled. “Why are we discussing when we can just go down and cut Scorpio out of Marionette just like that?”

“Yeah, I’m not suicidal enough to charge headfirst into things, sunshine,” Cadence interjected. “Not even for you, ‘Milia. We don’t even know how many people down there are actually infected and willin’ ta spare us for one.”

“Does it matter?” Maria inquired, smiling. “I can cut them down before they cut me.”

“I don’t doubt ya, sunshine,” Cadence said, “but ya gotta remember. Not all of us are as amazin’ or as strong as ya.”

“Oh, that’s right…” Maria murmured.

Yes, she needed to be more careful when speaking and acting, didn’t she? ‘ Considerate,’ was the word Atienna liked to say all the time. She was strong, but there was strength of words outside of strength of mind and body. If she said something that caused someone to run off again and if that someone was taken away from her when they ran off—Maria knew she would not be very happy. Happiness was not just her own—

“—so, we need to lure the Augen members away from Marionette…” Bergmann was saying when Maria tuned into the conversation again.

Cadence scratched her head.  Ya know I’m not a strategist, but I say let’s ‘Twin Cities’ it.”

“‘Twin Cities it’?” Bergmann repeated slowly. “Oh—you mean those piano keys that appeared all over the city that day… That was you…?”

“Yours truly,” Cadence replied with a half-wink. “Hope ya enjoyed the light show.”

Bergmann chuckled. “I’m not a strategist either—hated it at the academy—but… We could combine both tactics. My conducting and yours. Most of Lieutenant Waltz’s strategies come from fitting together different textbook tactics, so it could work.”

Cadence arched a brow. “Wait—ya don’t come up with all those strategies and tactics on your own?”

Bergmann chuckled again. “Of course not. Aren’t you connected to Lieutenant Waltz? It’s hard to think of entirely new tactics that actually work on the spot, so you reference old tactics used in the past and adapt them to the situation.” She shook her gloved hand. “The pitfall idea is something the lieutenant had me use before on a different operation.”

“What an educational experience,” Cadence replied.

“My idea is that we go down there invisibly—like how you did in the Twin Cities. I can create pitfalls behind the Augen members at certain areas, and then we can lure them into them with your illusions. We’ll stay at a safe distance by having you transmute your illusions through Mr. Foxman’s gate…”

“Oh, you are smart, my dear Emilia!” Maria sang. “Say, would you like to join my crew? You will still be a part of Werner’s crew, of course, but you can come with me whenever Werner is being too grumpy, yes?”

Bergmann offered another shy, confused chuckle at this before turning back to Cadence. “What do you think?”

Like hell, I’m goin’ down there—but still, Cadence smiled charmingly. “Well, can’t deny a great idea.” She turned away from Bergmann and eyed them. Saints, let me channel both of ya somehow. I’m pissin’ myself.

Jericho gave her a thumbs up.

While Bergmann and Cadence slipped into a gate that let them out in the alleyway just outside the courtyard, Maria and Jericho entered another gate that popped them out of a building closer to Marionette. When Maria peered over the building’s edge and spied Marionette just below her, she was tempted to launch herself forward and take the woman down just like that. But, instead, she waited. She was not quite used to letting others do things first and let them ‘take the lead’ but—as Werner said—‘ patience.’ She had to make sure she didn’t lose anyone else—

“You say that frequently. ‘I will not lose anyone else.’” Jericho whispered, coming to stand beside her and then staring. “Intuition. It is because of Conta.”

Maria blinked at him before humming in thought.

“Intuition…” Jericho continued. “You are… not as happy as before. You are still happy, but not as happy. You are bright, but not as bright. You are… sad?”

Maria tilted her head in thought, continuing to hum. “Well, yes, I’m a little bit sadder—but that is natural, no? I mean, if you lose something, would you not be sad? Especially if you are strong enough not to lose those things?”

Jericho shifted in place. “You came and stayed. Even though you have another goal. Thank you.”

“What are you talking about, my dear? Isn’t it the same for you?” Maria chuckled.

Jericho nodded, then tilted his head back at her. “We… both lost things. And we don’t understand things.” He looked troubled and sad just as Conta had been that night in the Twin Cities.

Maria hummed. “Understanding? Yes… but you understand when you go along the journey, no? Besides, we will find those things, yes? I will find Conta and that adventurer who took me from the orphanage, and you will find the one who forced you into this ELPIS.”

“But it’s more than that. With understanding.”

Maria peered at him.

Jericho stared down at his suitcase. “And I am not sure. If that is what I want. Revenge, yes, because that is justice. Or everything will be for nothing. But how to do it. ELPIS… Theta.”

“Well, you will figure it out eventually, my dear Jericho,” Maria replied. “You do not have to decide now, yes? I am taking the long way around too, you see? It is the journey, not the destination, as they say.”

Jericho’s shoulders relaxed slightly, then he side-glanced at her. “You want to go after that adventurer because he was the one point in your life where you did not feel in control. I remember you said that. Do you feel in control now?”

Maria fell into a crouch in response. Jericho followed suit, sinking beside her. She reached out into the moonlit dark and closed her hand into a fist. “If I ever don’t feel like I am in control, my dear Jericho, I reach out and take control. We are at the center of our own world. We shape and change it with our own hands. No one controls you, Jericho, but you. And no one controls me but me.”

Jericho copied her gesture, holding out his closed fist parallel to hers. He then eyed her fist before shifting slightly and bumping his against hers. She blinked in surprise at this.

“Is that not customary?” Jericho stared at her, perplexed. “We are… making a team commitment. Or is this something else?”

Maria’s lips pulled up higher. “My dear—”

“—and done,” came Cadence’s voice. I know I was the one down there in the pits, but are the both of ya okay?

Maria turned to see Cadence and Bergmann rise out of the gate behind her before beaming brightly. She then opened another gate with Francis’s proto-conductor and pulled Lita from it. Upon request, Lita hopped onto her back, wrapping her arms around her neck and her legs around her waist. Lita’s hammering heartbeat bled out from her chest and into Maria’s back, and then into Maria’s heart. It was quite exhilirating.

Nodding, Cadence sank to the floor in front of Francis’s gate and held her ringed fingers over the pale tangerine glow. Copper light spilled into the gate from her hands, reappearing in a burst of copper from down the alleyway opposite of their building. As a cool draft of wind flooded the courtyard, a handful of figures began to stumble over the barricade and pour out from the alleyway into the square where the Augen gathered. Men and women in military officer uniforms, all wielding various conductors. But all of them were illusions. Cadence’s conducting was truly something else.

One of the Augen members below let out a shout of alarm as they caught sight of the approaching police officers. Some fled down the other alleys, while others shouted to bear arms and began firing at the officers with conducting rifles.

Maria turned to glance at Cadence’s progress, but—

No, keep lookin’ at ‘em, so I can adjust my transmutation, sunshine.

Maria returned her attention to the scene and found that several of the illusionary officers were now on the ground ‘dead’ with vitae-ray marks scorched into them, while the ones who were still standing were retreating back into the alleyway they’d emerged from.

Finally, some of the Augen members who were firing their weapons took the bait and chased after the retreating officers. Moved by the first pursuers, more and more of the Augen members followed suit. One Augen man reached the officers first, swinging his conducting blade at a female officer only for it to phase right through her. The Augen man barely had the time to react as he stumbled forward, because shortly after he phased right through the ground—the illusion of the ground.

“It’s a trap!” one of them exclaimed, but it was too late.

They toppled over each other as they scrambled back and fell blindly into the invisible pitfalls. Maria imagined that the ones who were trying to climb back up out of the pit were being knocked back down by the tumbling bodies of other Augen members. By the end of the chaos, only thirty or so of the Augen remained, a quarter of them being the ones lying in stretchers. The illusory police officers that they’d been fighting faded into nothing in a burst of copper light as did half of the ground of the courtyard which revealed pitfalls full of groaning Augen members.

“I’m beat,” Cadence panted, falling flat on her back.

“You are amazing!” Maria cheered before placing a firm foot at the edge of the building and drawing out her blade from her sheathe. She whispered to Lita over her shoulder. “And now we will show them how amazing we are, yes?”

Lita nodded.

“Wait—” Bergmann began

But Maria scaled down the building quickly, leaping from fire escape to iron ladder to fire escape as she descended. Marionette turned to her at the sound of the metal clangs, eyes widening as she registered Maria’s approach. Before Maria could greet Marionette, however, a large, balding, and burly man stepped defensively in front of her. Maria used the man’s chest as a springboard, launched herself backwards, and landed deftly on her feet. She cracked the hilt of her blade against a man who was charging at her from behind with a conducting blade after she’d dodged his initially downwards swing. She then charged and slashed at another Augen member who was trying to stab her with a knife before noting that yet another was aiming a conducting rifle at her a meter or so away. Before she could get to the man, however, the edge of a suitcase cracked against his temple, and he fell to the ground like a ragdoll. After slapping a pair of suppression cuffs around this man’s wrists, Jericho ran up beside her and stared at the large man in front of Marionette. The man’s muscles were bulging out from the sleeves of his shirt and his neck seemed almost thicker than her own waist. He towered for above her. A titan. 

Absoltuely amazing!

Jericho nodded, seeming to agree.

Continuing to admire the breadth of the large man, Maria stabbed through the leg of a woman who was reaching for her with a conductor-gloved hand. She then stole the conducting blade from the man who had charged at her earlier, activating it with some difficulty in a burst of gold and bringing it up to block the swing of another conducting blade. After kicking back the woman wielding that blade and sending her stumbling back into another man, Maria found herself almost back-to-back with Jericho who had taken out his conductor from his suitcase but had yet to activate it. A glance over her shoulder had informed her that Jericho had taken care of quite a few Augen members.

“This one now, Jeri!” Maria declared, discarding her stolen conducting blade and pointing her other blade at the large man.

Jericho nodded as she charged forth. The large man whipped out a conducting rifle and fired at her, but she quickly ducked below it and came up at his side. As she dodged a swing of his fist, she wrapped her arms around his arm and scaled him quickly until she swung herself up to a seat around his shoulders. Jericho meanwhile had come at the man from the opposite direction and had successfully slapped a suppression cuff around one of his wrists during her distraction. As the man reached for Jericho, Maria quickly slashed at the man’s back with her blade causing him to abandon his pursuit of Jericho in favor of her. As he reached for her instead, she scaled down his body and stabbed her blade into the back of his leg. He staggered forward causing Jericho to throw his body at the man’s other leg. With that, the man stumbled to his knees, giving Jericho the opportunity to slap the other cuff over the man’s other wrist. As he did this, Maria hopped up to a stand and offered Jericho a high-five which he returned with slight confusion.

Saints… Ain’t that excessive—

As the large man fell forward, Marionette who was still standing behind him took a step back. Another Augen member rushed forward at them from behind Marionette, but Jericho darted past Marionette and met the Augen member with edge of his suitcase. Before Marionette could escape any further, Maria grabbed a hold of her arm, jerking her close as Lita reached forward. She called out excitedly—“Jericho!”


Jericho felt uncomfortable. He knew he needed to use his conductor on Marionette—even though he’d promised Alice only to use it against ELPIS. Because he had to. But whenever he thought of even activating his conductor, his head spun and his stomach tightened as memories of those Capricornian men and women disintegrating into nothing barraged his mind. Cycles but not the same. The past threatened to spill over into his present.

Now as he held it in his right hand and his suitcase in his left, he tried his best to focus on Maria beside him and Cadence above him. It made things simpler, made it easier to focus on the present reality. But when Maria called out his name and he saw that she had Marionette in her hold, he felt his head spin again. As he approached the two women, images of Marionette shattering into dust plagued his mind and sent him spiraling into the past. In his confusion, he reached out desperately for Maria—

—and she reached back.

Like I said, my dear Jericho, her voice resounded in his ears, you are strong. And because you are strong, you can show her mercy and all of the ones who are connected to her tower too, no? Is that not justice? Scorpio is doing the same things to them as he did to you, no?

Justice. And mercy…? To think his conducting ability could offer the latter was odd.

“Don’t…” Marionette’s whisper reached Jericho’s ears from Maria’s.

Jericho flicked on his conductor and watched as his vitae spilled out into an off-white whip. He flicked it again, causing the vitae to straighten and thin like a needle.

Viewing the front of Marionette’s chest and the area Lita was pointing to through Maria’s eyes, Jericho stepped forward and drove his conductor—guided by Maria’s ghostly but steady hands—through the woman’s back. Marionette gasped and stiffened immediately. Jericho’s blood roared in his ears, but he relaxed when he saw her still standing before him.

A series of resounding thuds echoed around the courtyard as several of the lingering Augen members fell to the ground unconscious—among them, the generals. A handful of them remained standing, staring at the fallen with fear and confusion.

Heart still hammering, Jericho pulled out his conductor and flicked it off. Marionette turned to him, her expression filled with such pain and horror that he for a moment thought he had stabbed her through incorrectly.

“Our movement… my movement…” Marionette whispered, switching to her native tongue, her knees buckling beneath her as her gaze swept the desolate courtyard. “Don’t you see? Nothing will change…! Absolutely nothing… He’ll win.”

He’s already won, sweetheart,” Jericho found himself saying, the words feeling strange on his tongue.

What’s all this about ‘my’ movement, anyway? came Cadence’s continuing thought. Ain’t that a little too greedy?

“Not Scorpio,” Marionette whispered. “The Kaiser.”

Frowning, Jericho slapped a pair of suppression cuffs over her and then caught her as she fell. As he lowered her to the ground, a burst of cool air tickled his back and the sound of soft, wet footsteps came from behind him. Maria’s face brightened and she waved wildly. Jericho turned his head and felt shame curl in his stomach.

“Francis,” he said.

Francis merely nodded, ignoring the surrounding confused Augen members as he crouched beside him and examined Marionette. “You performed well. Another tower has been removed.”

‘You performed well’? Man, Francis’s people skills still are kinda shot, huh? Talk about waitin’ until the last minute ta enter the scene.

“Now only one more tower remains,” Francis continued, staring at Jericho. “But I’m here to tell you something else. I’ve found Nico, Cadence. And the True Conductor connected to you too.”

Feeling Cadence’s relief curl in his chest, Jericho pressed, “And Alice?”

Francis shook his head, before continuing: “It’s bad. I don’t have gates on the actual site location—they’ve been removed—so I wasn’t able to see Nico’s or the others’ conditions.”

“Where?” Jericho pressed.

“The execution tower at the military central district.”

20.2: Prince & Advisor » Death & Diplomacy

Re-cap:

As the six start to slowly re-unite, they turn their eyes towards Capricorn and think about their interactions with Scorpio. While Olive recalls Trystan and Marta who have been converted into an elevated level of vitae and of P.D. Oram whom he’d nearly killed, Atienan thinks of home, family, and an agreement.


Eisburg, Capricorn

Olivier Chance had awoken to fussy royal guards and medical Conductors prodding him this way and that with stethoscopes, wooden sticks, and thermometers. In between the ‘how many fingers am I holding up’ and ‘are you sure you feel fine,’ they explained to him that he had fallen into a sudden coma while visiting the capital of Capricorn for the conductor convention. Trystan, who had been accompanying him on his Signum-wide travels, had abruptly left, acting on orders that Olive himself had apparently given him prior. Alexander Charming—somehow re-instated in his position—pressed Olive for what exactly he’d tasked Trystan with, but Olive had no clue. In fact, Olive figured that Trystan just had enough of him and had secretly quit the position.

Frankly, Olive didn’t care. Trystan could do what he wanted. Moreover, Olive didn’t understand why he’d decided to come to this foreign country or why he’d decided to get his State Conducting License in the first place. After Alexander had crowed over the ‘accomplishment,’ Olive had ordered him and the other guards out from his cabinet. They obeyed, of course. That was their job.

Once he was alone, he took out his conducting license from his pocket and studied it as he laid on his bed. His picture was ugly, and the entire thing felt wrong. Having a license, having this opportunity. It was something Lavi couldn’t have.

Lavi—he remembered suddenly. He had wanted to get his license so he could research about her ‘condition’—even though only he could see her, even though she might not even be real. Well, he supposed it was the least he could do for her.

Stupid.

However, everything became crystal clear as soon as he felt a warm hand rest on top of his head. His reasons became clear as memory after memory burned at the edges of his mind, clearing away the mistaken loneliness.

Relief came swiftly—followed shortly after by embarrassment. His self-loathing and self-pity were poignant, but it didn’t matter as long as he kept moving forward.

Not so soon after that reassurance was made came his memories of his override. Trystan’s loyalty and words of wisdom, the relief at being able to disclose his nature as a True Conductor to someone he could trust outside of the other five. Claire, Louise, and Werner’s unit. Finding his way to the belly of the capital with the others.

The images stayed with Olive even after he’d reopened the connection with Atienna and they all filtered into the room. His mind buzzed with the memory of Trystan and Marta melting into each other and P.D. Oran melting beneath his touch. Saints —he’d nearly killed someone. And Scorpio had been right. After the Tragedy, he’d wanted everyone around him to disappear more than he’d wanted himself to. Part of him now wanted to return to not remembering—

“—heard about everythin’ that happened in the capital, kid.”

Olive looked up as Cadence—who was disguised as his least favorite guard of all people—placed a hand on his shoulder.

“—I know it doesn’t mean much, but I’m sorry.”

Olive shifted in place. “There’s no reason to say sorry when what happened isn’t permanent.” He was going to fix it—return them both to normal.

The corner of Cadence’s mouth pulled upwards. “That’s the spirit, kid.”

“Atienna, what are you saying? This must be the lingering effects of the morrowheat—”

Olive glanced up and saw Atienna conversing with a gawking Sefu at the corner of the room.

“Everything I am saying is true,” Atienna said to him. “And because of this connection, I have to go back to Capricorn.”

Sefu fell back against the wall behind him, holding his head. After a moment of silence, he said, “Then allow me to accompany you. It is my duty.”

Olive felt a stabbing pain in his chest at the words, but he managed, “So we’re definitely going… right?”

Jericho and Cadence exchanged looks.

“Ta get the lieutenant and the captain,” Cadence drew slowly “And Nico too. And ya know… other important people… Why? Ya on board or something?”

Olive nodded—

But Scorpio was too big to handle. 

Jericho blinked at Cadence. “But Francis wants to handle Scorpio too. He said it’s responsibility.”

Cadence ruffled her hair. “I… think Francis’s head still isn’t tickin’ right. We’re all in over our heads. I mean, think about it. This ain’t just one city, ain’t just one plot, ain’t just about one person. There’s some all-powerful Manipulator revin’ an entire country up, and we’re just—what—six people tryin’ ta face up against a whole political mishap? The best thing we can do right now is just get Nico, Werner, and Werner’s folks and high-tail it outta here. It’s self-contained right now, but if we go bargin’ in… Best to leave it ta the peacekeepers. Werner might throw a fit, but…” She nodded at Olive and Atienna. “Plus, both of ya are high-profile people. Can’t be pullin’ your own countries into another country’s mess, right—” 

Bergmann frowned. “What…? I thought our main objective was to rescue my unit and remove Scorpio. Capricorn is rotting from the inside out because of Scorpio. My country is not perfect—I know. But this is too much!”

Rather than Scorpio causing it to ‘rot from the inside out,’ perhaps it was more akin to Scorpio festering a rot that was already there.

Olive shook the thought away and glanced at Atienna.

“I’m concerned about the diplomats that will be leaving Capricorn,” Atienna drew slowly. “There’s one matter of Scorpio’s spores spreading to the diplomats, and there’s another of the diplomats being harmed by Capricornians. That would cause quite a lot of trouble for Werner’s country, don’t you think? And for Signum as a whole… for you all…”

Cadence arched a brow at Atienna, studied her carefully, then sighed and shrugged. “Well, it ain’t like I can say no if all of ya are on board. Democracy, unfortunately.”

Olive looked between them in confusion before he was struck with a sudden realization. “Wait… Alexander is going to get in trouble if I just disappear. He just received his position back after what happened. I—”

“Just pretend ta throw a fit and lock ‘em outta this room,” Cadence suggested. “They’ll never know ya left.”

Olive arched a brow.

Cadence proceeded over to the door, pulled it open, and slammed it shut so hard that it rattled the walls. As footsteps resounded down the outside hall, she locked the door with a click. A second after, the door pounded and Alexander’s voice boomed—

“Your Highness? Your Highness, open the door!”

The rapping continued until Cadence placed her ringed fingers over her throat and allowed copper light to spill over the area. She opened her mouth and said in Olive’s own voice—

“Just leave me alone for one day. All of you keep coming in and going out—I can barely sleep. I know you don’t want to check up on me all the time, so stop forcing yourself to.”

Olive grimaced.

“… as you wish, Your Highness,” came Alexander’s quiet reply.

Cadence shrugged off her suit jacket and laid it on the floor, revealing a black smudge staining the insides. “Your carriage awaits.”

* * *

    )

Francis’s strange windowless, doorless room unnerved Olive, even though he remembered the place vividly from Cadence’s experiences. The children running around without care just added to the surreality of it all. 

As Olive took it all in, he came to reason that the memories they shared only went so far. For instance, even though he had memories of Allen and Carl, he found himself rather intimidated by them. Despite wanting to get off on somewhat of a right foot with them—even though the two were criminals—he had unconsciously sent Carl a glare when he’d first arrived. Since then, the man had been staring bullets into his back. Carl didn’t bother rising from his lounge on the sofa beside Allen, however, which just unnerved Olive all the much more.

“If only we had a Specialist conducting ability capable of teleporting like this at the border…” Bergmann murmured suddenly from where she was crouching in front of some of the children and letting them examine her glove conductor.

Francis frowned at her slightly.

“We could’ve saved so many more people,” Bergmann finished. “Like Otto… Immediate transport to medical.” She glanced over her shoulder towards Francis. “The Manipulator was behind Otto’s death, right? He was controlling Herr Rath?”

Francis nodded at her. “Since that man was a member of the Augen, perhaps. Although, it could have also been of his own volition.”

Olive tensed and looked away with a grimace.

“We should try to move quickly,” Francis said after a pause. “Most of our operations in ELPIS functioned by splitting up our workforce so we could tackle multiple… objectives at once. I’m sure you follow a different way of doing things, but I suggest we divide and conquer.”

“And…” Cadence leaned against her crutch. “What exactly is our objective here? Still kinda unclear on that. Know I sound like a broken record, but we are in over our heads.”

“Eliminating Scorpio’s remaining towers,” Francis replied, “ensuring that the True Conductors connected to you still in the city are alive, and making sure Dämon Forstchritt’s work—”

Olive’s head buzzed at the mention

“—and, Miss Imamu,” Francis continued. “Your concerns are valid. More conflict will lead to the formation of more reservoirs… I will assist you in that as well.” He glanced at Olive. “However, I have concerns about your involvement, Prince Chance. You’re still a child—”

“I’m the crown prince of Aries,” Olive interjected. “It’s… It’s my responsibility.” As Werner would say. After a beat, he scowled. “Just because I’m a ‘child’ doesn’t mean you can just go throwing me wherever you want. I’m going.”

“That was not my intention,” Francis murmured in response. “But I understand.”

“I have some concerns about Werner’s condition,” Atienna said slowly after a beat. “I understand we can’t exactly prioritize him at the moment because we don’t know exactly where he is, but Scorpio’s influence…”

“The dear lieutenant was with the blue guy the longest, right?” Cadence nodded, locking eyes with Atienna.

“Right… I’m just concerned about what actions Werner will take before we can reach him.”

Olive looked between the two of them in confusion and saw Jericho do the same.

An image of Werner lifting a pistol and pointing it to the back of a familiar brown head flashed through Olive’s mind.

“—Werner wouldn’t do that, Atienna,” Olive interjected, heart hammering.

“She’s not sayin’ he would,” Cadence said, lifting her hands, wobbling over to him, and placing a hand on his shoulder. “But let’s just all agree that—for better or for worse—we were very different people before we lost our collective marbles.”

In the end, they decided to split into two groups. Since they didn’t know the location of Werner, Maria, Nico, and Werner’s subordinates, Francis offered to traverse his gates in search of them and transport them across the city upon request. Cadence—half-heartedly—Jericho, and Bergmann agreed to search the city for Marionette Engel and cut away any spores along the way. They would keep Lita in Francis’s room until her eyes were needed. Olive himself agreed to go along with Atienna and Sefu to ensure the safety of the diplomats. But even though all of this was set in stone, Olive’s mind kept going to his memories below the city.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

The moon was full and the dust particles hanging in the sky made the light coming down around the rigid buildings take on a blue hue.

Supporting Olive with one arm, Atienna Imamu stepped uncertainly out from Francis’s gate behind Jericho, Cadence, Sefu, and Bergmann and onto the gray and wet road. A bridge hung over their heads connecting one pointed spiraling tower to another. The shadows cast by the towers spilled over the courtyard to her left. Resting there lay what remained of a metal statue depicting gallant soldiers aiming their rifles at unseen enemies.

It felt as if she had just been in this city a moment ago, despite it having been weeks. This was—

—crazy. Absolutely crazy. She needed a drink.

Atienna glanced at Cadence who was now relying on just one crutch to hobble around. Atienna knew that out of all of them Cadence wanted to be here the least. But she also knew that Cadence knew her conducting ability was valuable.

As Atienna surveyed the stretching sidewalk and the v-tram with shattered windows to her right, she recalled Bergmann’s earlier explanation of the city’s layout. Francis had presented a map of the city’s entirety during the explanation, but Atienna had never been quite good with object-orientation.

Trying to recall the path to the train station where Gabrielle had told Francis the diplomats were preparing to depart from, Atienna stepped out beneath the shade of the bridge into the courtyard. Fear and anxiety bled in from Cadence and Olive, but Atienna knew that she herself was at peace—perhaps even a bit exhilarated.

Before she could think of a parting word—rather, wait for someone to say a parting word—a stampede of footsteps on the bridge above them drew her attention away. Upon glancing upwards, Atienna spotted an inhuman-looking silhouette peering down at them from the lip of the bridge. She wasn’t given the opportunity to even flinch because the silhouette suddenly launched themselves downwards.

Sefu whipped out his spear. Bergmann turned in alarm, flexing her conductor-gloved hand and reaching towards the ground while grasping her holster with her other hand. The figure, however, half-fell, half-soared over Bergmann’s head and hurtled towards Jericho who reflexively brought up his suitcase. The figure merely used the suitcase as a springboard, flying upwards again in a backflip before landing directly on top of Cadence who was waving her crutch wildly in the air.

As soon as the figure landed on top of Cadence, however, Atienna knew immediately who it was.

“It’s Cadence!” Maria sang, leaping back up to a stand and pulling Cadence back up along with her. She pulled her in close by the arm and inspected her face. “Your freckles are even more lovely up close!”

“Saints, Maria—” Cadence stammered, still clenching her chest. “Ya scared the hell outta me and nearly killed me too—”

“Is… this another one?” Bergmann asked tentatively, rising to a stand, hand still resting on the gun at her hip.

Maria whipped around, faced the Capricornian, and approached her quickly before walking a circle around her. “You are Emilia? It is nice to meet you! Such a lovely name! Say, I met an ‘Emil’ before on my travels to Argo many years ago! Do you know him?”

Standing at attention, Bergmann glanced fretfully at Cadence who was rubbing her shoulders. “Er, no—”

“Well, you should meet each other so you can know each other,” Maria continued. “Someone who is mine and someone who is Werner’s—”

Bergmann made a face. “With all due respect, I don’t belong to anyone—”

Cadence sighed, dusting off her suit jacket. “Okay, sunshine. Ya don’t wanna scare her.” She shook her head. “I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but how did ya find us—”

“What an amazing experience,” Maria rattled on, throwing her hands up into the sky as she twirled in a circle. “I was very confused only a minute before with my crew telling me strange stories about spirits and possessions and ‘manipulators,’ but now everything is crystal clear!” She swiveled around and gestured to the statues. “Well, after I woke up, my crew and Veles told me everything, and I wanted to see for myself. I heard that something happened in this place from rumors, but it turns out that I— of course—did this!”

“Wait. Veles?” Cadence perked up. “Veles is with ya?” She brightened. “This is great! We got a bangin’ fire Elementalist, a dazzlin’ earth Elementalist—” she paused to wink at Bergmann “—and now we got a water Elementalist on the roster. It feels like—”

“Well, he was set on finding Conta and he heard from Simon and Emmanuel that Conta and that other one left, yes? So he left too. A head start without me! Make no mistake—I will find Conta and I will be right there with him. But I must come for this crew first, no?”

Cadence sighed, lifting her hat and scratching her head. “Ya ever heard of ‘the more the merrier,’ sunshine?”

Atienna cleared her throat and interjected, “And where is the rest of your crew now, Maria?”

“Oh, you know Emmanuel and Simon cannot fight!” Maria’s smile thinned slightly. “I left them back where it is safe, yes? I—” She glanced around at them. “—We will not lose anyone else, yes?”

Bergmann stiffened then nodded. Olive followed suit.

Maria leaned in close to Cadence. “And you are watching over my dear Lita, yes?”

“She’s in safe hands don’t worry,” Cadence reassured her. “But—”

“Oh?” Maria cocked her head, listening. “You are looking for that Marionette Engel? I think Ludwig said he knew where the Augen was. We can ask him!”

“Francis did say Ludwig had the deets,” Cadence confirmed, “but he also said that the guy got nicked with the others by the military police after the whole blow out.” I need a drink—

“No, I saw Ludwig! Just now! When I was coming here!” Maria interjected. “I did not recognize him—no—but he was there.”

There?” Bergmann pressed.

A faint, blurred memory of peering into a light-warmed window of a second-story building came to Atienna. A man bound to a wheelchair stared glumly out from that window; and behind him on the red sofa along the backside wall of the room sat another man, a woman, and a younger woman. Posted around them were uniformed officers.

“Werner’s family has separated from the others…” Atienna placed a hand to her chin in thought as the memory faded. “As I thought…” Scorpio was setting the stage on a microscale level too.

“We can go get where the Augen is from Ludwig and then take down the tower in that Marionette Engel person, no?” Maria continued, pointing to Jericho’s suitcase which caused him to stiffen. “And then after that, we can get where Werner is from Marionette or from Francis—whichever one comes first. And then we’re almost done!”

Maria’s vibrancy was—as always—too bright for Atienna. Although her brightness accentuated Atienna’s feelings of stagnation as usual, Atienna sincerely hoped at least that would stay the same.

“We don’t even know if Marionette has access to that information… She’s connected to Scorpio, but that doesn’t mean the connection goes both ways.” Olive arched a brow. “Anyways, doesn’t that entire thing seem convoluted to you…?”

“Nope,” Maria popped. “We go in, we go out, we find the tower, we find Werner, we find Scorpio, and we win!”

“Perhaps we can leave Scorpio for a little bit later,” Atienna pressed gently.

Maria glanced at her with contemplative consideration before brightening again. “Oh, Cadence and Jericho are going to handle this ‘tower,’ yes? And Emilia too? Then I will come with you!”

Bergmann frowned slightly. “I think it might be better if we evenly divide our unit—”

Maria whipped around and pointed at Cadence. “I am hearing from Cadence here that Francis is helping us, yes? So if anyone needs me, I can jump around—” She quieted suddenly, her gaze sweeping slowly from Jericho to Olive to Cadence and then finally to Atienna herself. “This is the first time I am seeing you all like this, no…?”

Atienna nodded.

Cheeks flushing, Maria abruptly threw her hand straight forward. “I have seen people do this recently, yes? I wanted to save this up for when I found Conta and then do it with my crew on the ship, but you are my crew too, no?”

Atienna realized what Maria was aiming for and couldn’t help but smile faintly, despite the gravity of the situation.

“This isn’t some tournament or sport event,” Olive grumbled.

Cadence shrugged, throwing her hand forward and placing her hand over Maria’s. “Eh, why the hell not.”

Jericho looked between them before copying Cadence and Maria in confusion and putting his hand forward too. Atienna followed suit slowly before inclining her head and indicating Sefu to do the same. Bergmann looked around at them in slight confusion before putting her hand down as well. Begrudgingly, and perhaps moved by their own wishes, Olive put his hand down last.

“Let’s go, spirit crew!” Maria shouted without embarrassment as she threw her hand into the air.

* * *

Atienna heard the commotion from the train station before she saw it. The sound was quite familiar. If she closed her eyes, she would be transported to those past days where she’d stood in front of the glowing white Great Tree of Virgo with her mother following the Tragedy of Aries. Yes. In moments of desperation, people always stepped over each other unwittingly—sometimes metaphorically and physically.

As expected, as she approached the station with Olive and Sefu, she found that it was crowded to the brim. Men, women, children, civilians—all were pushing against each other and a thin line of officers that barricaded them from the singular, sleek black train that stood cold on the tracks.

“Let us leave!” some of them cried. “This is a warzone!” and “Why do they get to leave first? They’re not even Capricornians!”—to which the military officers responded with a simple, “Back, back, back! Step back!”

Behind that line of officers gathered a familiar cluster of well-dressed men and women in suits, silk outfits, and satin drapes despite the chill in the air. Despite the chaos unfolding before them, they all looked as if they were distant from the affair.

Distance…

“Olive…?”

Atienna turned towards the call and found Claire standing at the lip of the crowd. Behind him stood his two masked royal guards—Soha and Felix—and one Gabrielle Law who looked more tired than usual.

“Claire!” Olive stared at the prince. “Are you an idiot? Why are you still here?” He ignored the glare of indignation Felix gave him, glanced at Gabrielle, and looked away quickly. “Is Eunji still here too?”

“No, my sister left on an earlier train—but, hey, I tried to leave too, you know,” Claire returned half grumbling, half good-natured despite the situation. He glanced over at the crowd. “Unfortunately, a bunch of other people got the same idea because of everything that’s been happening. The only train conductor that’s willing to operate right now is a ‘good-hearted’ man who won’t move the train until all the people here are on board. They don’t have train passes though, and the military police are trying to keep the diplomats… ‘safe.’”

Olive tensed, glancing at the military police officers. “Why didn’t you just use your conductor and fly out?”

Claire muttered, glancing back at Soha and Felix, “I can’t leave my vassals behind, Ollie.”

Olive’s face paled, and Atienna could feel his stomach drop as Trystan and Marta flashed through her mind.

“It’s good to see you back as yourself,” Claire continued. “I was worried about you, you know. That was a very long overlap… and…”

A faint image of P.D. Oran kneeling in a wreath of crimson flames flashed through Atienna’s mind.

Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I’ve been trying to get some sense of order here, but I guess having just one peacekeeper here isn’t enough. Most of the diplomats just want to save themselves. They’re afraid of the Capricornians dragging their political movement onto the train.” She nodded at Olive. “So, is everyone well? Are you well?”

Olive opened his mouth then closed it. “Yeah… Scorpio’s been removed.”

“Good.” Gabrielle nodded after a pause. “Anyway, Your Highness, do you have any updates for me?”

As a grimacing Olive disclosed everything that had unfolded since Gabrielle and Claire had left the dome of the convention, Atienna surveyed the two groups pushing against each other on the platform. She thought, considering solutions, considering what was ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ before an idea came to mind.

“We have to publicly make them choose—force them to decide the eyes of the public, ” Atienna drew slowly. “It’s quite a cruel way to go about things, but it’s a necessary choice, don’t you think?”

Gabrielle waved a hand. “Shoot.”

After explaining her idea to the others, Claire flew her up to the top of the train—Sefu surprisingly didn’t make a complaint—after handing her a makeshift megaphone that he had Felix conjure for her. As Atienna observed the shifting, pulsating crowd from below her, she took in a deep breath and felt her palms itch.

“There are sixteen region-states in Capricorn,” Atienna drew slowly into her megaphone. “We should…” She trailed off as she realized no one was listening.

A burst of crimson flames exploded up into the sky causing the crowd to gasp, shriek, and turn. Once Olive held their attention, he lowered his hand and extinguished the flames before pointing over directly at Atienna. The crowd followed his gesture to her.

“Miss Imamu?!” came an exclamation from below.

Atienna glanced down and saw her diplomat Niymbo Dimka standing at the very lip of the platform and staring up at her incredulously.

“As I said, there are sixteen region-states in Capricorn,” Atienna continued through the megaphone, feeling her cheeks flush at the attention. “There are over sixteen train compartments here. We all want to return home. I suggest we load all people from a specific region from specific train carts.”

“What?!” exclaimed a distinctly Cancerian-looking man from behind the police line in accented Common. “What about us? What about us who are not from Capricorn?”

“As I’ve said,” Atienna repeated, “there are over sixteen train compartments here. Those who are not from Capricorn like myself can take to the other compartments.” Perhaps effectively separating the possible infected Capricornians from the uninfected from other countries. She looked down at Dimka and the other diplomats. “The diplomats here have many trained guards with them. I suggest that they use them to help load and organize everyone onto the train—” Atienna could feel the glares from below. “Is that not what diplomacy is about?”

“Who will have priority?” one of the diplomats asked from below.

“Everyone will get on the train. Let’s not think of priority.” Atienna took in a deep breath. “However, we are working outside of political boundaries. Anyone who visibly supports the Augen, I ask that you put away your beliefs for now. No symbols, no mantras. If you can do that, I’m sure everyone will find a sense of reassurance.” Her words felt heavy and distasteful on her tongue—this choice, uncomfortable.

Atienna could feel Cadence peering in—

Ain’t that a bit risky…? What if a couple of Scorpio’s offshoots and spores spring into action and jump compartments?

The spread of passion versus the spread of possible conflict… Atienna thought back after quiet consideration. I’m not sure if I’ve made the right choice but… hopefully, Scorpio is dealt with before then.

Eh, I’ll gamble for ya, Atienna.

“She’s right!” Dimka shouted over the crowd. “We all want to return home safely. There is enough room on the train for all of us. Tickets and allowances matter little in a time of distress. Let’s work together!”

Whispers and affirmations spread through the surrounding station as Gabrielle pushed through the crowd and began to speak with the diplomats and military police. Atienna herself was brought back down from the top of the train with Claire’s help and rejoined Olive.

I wish the feudal lords back home were as convincing as that, Olive provided.

Atienna chuckled for him and then watched as the civilians were lined up into neat blocks and ushered into the train by a mixture of guards and police officers.

It was always astounding how efficient—as Werner would say—things ran when… when things operated under ever-watchful eyes. She’d read many dystopian books about societies that on the surface operated smoother with heavy surveillance. In reality, such things were deemed cruel. Regardless of method, coming together never lasted long. Pride, stubbornness, national loyalty, and all things laid in-between would not allow such a thing to pass. Or perhaps she was just being pessimistic.

Soon the train’s platform was empty with almost everyone having loaded into the train compartments. All who remained standing on the platform were the diplomats and other international officials. As the last civilian filtered into the train, the diplomats and internationals also began to head into their compartments, leaving just Dimka and his guards and Claire and his guards.

“I’m glad to see you well, Atienna,” Dimka said, wiping the sweat from his brow. “I have to wonder how in the world did you make it here?” Before she could answer, he waved his hand. “Well, no matter. We will depart now. Come along—”

“I… still have work that I’d like to finish here,” Atienna drew slowly.  I am an advisor for you. I’ll collect as much information here as possible so we can improve relations with Capricorn.”

“You are a Virgoan advisor, not a Twin Cities information broker,” Dimka said gravely.

Atienna averted her eyes from him and instead met Olive’s eyes. “I’ll find another route back to Virgo.”

“Miss Imamu, this is madness… This country is falling apart.” Dimka glanced at Olive, then at Claire. “And you too both. You are princes of your countries. While I do appreciate your hand in this—and I may be overstepping my bounds by saying this—but I’m sure your… parents would be very concerned about your well-being. You should return home.”

To return home…

Atienna nodded, looking away from Olive and back to Dimka. The choice was clear. “Please go, Niymbo. I will be with you soon. I promise.”

The diplomat regarded her for a while.

“I’ll look after them, Mr. Dimka,” Gabrielle drew slowly, studying them carefully.

“As will I,” Sefu interjected. “Since it is my duty still.”

Although Sefu’s determination was quite endearing, Atienna wondered what exactly was going through Gabrielle’s head. Gabrielle’s raison d’être and goal had just been stripped raw, after all.

Dimka let out a hefty sigh before shaking his head and signaling for his guards to board the train. Before he left, he offered her a tight squeeze on the shoulder and a “Return safely.” Atienna watched them disappear into the train compartment as the train horn blared and smoke began clouding the air.

“Claire,” Olive tried hesitantly from beside her, glancing at the other prince, “do you think you could—”

Claire visibly stiffened, causing Atienna’s stomach to churn.

It’s nothing against you, she reassured Olive.

“Nevermind. It’s fine. You should go, Claire,” Olive muttered. “This is… different from before. I don’t think there are any political benefits to helping me this time around. Besides, you were found out because of me…”

Claire’s guards exchanged looks and studied Claire. At the sight of their concern for their prince, another pang stabbed her chest.

“True,” Claire agreed, causing Olive to grimace. “But I’m not sure how long we would’ve been able to pull this charade off anyway with the way things are going.” He chuckled before his expression became somber. “Hey, I’m sorry about what happened to Trystan and Marta… If that happened to Felix or Soha, I don’t know what I would do…”

Yes… Claire had been looking after his vassals from the very beginiing—all the way back when Olive had first met him in Aries—hadn’t he? Atienna wondered how the nature of royalty and guard relationships was viewed and how it developed at such a young age.

—people keep saying ‘sorry’ about Trystan and Marta like there’s nothing I can do for them. I can do something still. I know it. I—

He means well.

“It’s fine, Claire.” Olive waved him off, glancing at her. “I get it…”

“Hey.”

Olive looked back at Claire.

Claire tapped the fold of his loose blouse where a series of photographs were poking out. He glanced at Gabrielle, who was frowning, and then played a politician’s smile for her. When he looked back at Olive, he said quietly, “When I find out where the two of us stand in this, I’ll tell you. I promise.”

Atienna felt the apprehension in Olive’s chest lessen slightly. She smiled as Olive offered Claire a stiff handshake, which the latter accepted, and watched as the Sagittarian prince departed on the train with his vassals.

Atienna. Olive turned back to her slowly. I… I have to find Trystan and Marta.

We will, Atienna reassured him.

Now…?

Atienna let out a quiet sigh and nodded. She glanced at Sefu faintly, then looked away, not wanting to imagine what he’d look like if the same thing that happened to Trystan happened to him.

As the train began to roll forward along the tracks, Atienna followed Olive out of the station and back onto the road. Before they reached the end of it, however, a shout came from behind—

“Wait, Your Highness, where do you think you’re going?”

Atienna turned to find Gabrielle trailing them. Olive scowled.

“You’re going back there, aren’t you?” Gabrielle asked as she neared them. “That’s not something politicians should be handling.”

Olive opened his mouth.

“Let me come with you.”


Olive still vividly remembered the way to the underground facility. Although he had taken an aerial route to the location, the layout of the streets was still burned into his mind. However, if he had to retrace the entire route there, he was certain he would vomit.

At his request, Francis opened a gate for them a block away from the location and even offered to accompany them. Atienna politely declined the offer— “Mr. Foxman, I wouldn’t say I’m quite an expert on war tactics, but Werner’s has shared quite a few books regarding them with me… I believe that you are quite an important asset here and having you out frolicking with us would be a bit foolish, don’t you think?”

Atienna could be rather sharp-tongued sometimes.

As they emerged from Francis’s gate in a dimly lit alleyway, Olive found himself starting to become afraid of Atienna’s thoughts bleeding into him. ‘There’s no point in doing this,’ she’d maybe think. Or even, ‘Poor Olive. This is all he can do.’ But—

Olive, I’m with you, came the reassurance.

Olive glanced to his left. Atienna who was standing there in the dark met his gaze. Sefu, who was just behind her, arched a brow. Olive tensed, cheeks flushing. But he accepted her words and even found a sense of embarrassing comfort in them However, he did not find the same in Gabrielle who was a quiet presence beside him. He was rather unnerved about how she’d willingly come along with them. Olive wondered if she was just desperately trying to find a reason and purpose now. 

Just as they were about to spill out onto the road, pounding footsteps resounded around them. A figure passed the mouth of the alleyway. They were moving slowly and sluggishly due to precariously balancing stacks upon stacks of folders stuffed with files in their hands. It took a moment for Olive to register who that figure was. Gabrielle on the other hand—

Gabrielle hurtled out of the alley and tackled Dämon Forstchritt to the ground. The woman’s papers cascaded down around them in the aftermath, catching a psychedelic light emitting from the right side of the road. Gabrielle seemed to catch sight of this oddity and slowly turned her head in the direction. Her eyes reflected a terrifying sight, causing Olive to tear out of the alleyway and onto the road.

When he registered the familiar, groaning mass of vitae spilling in-between the buildings and crawling towards them from several yards away, he stumbled back and fell to the ground. 

Trystan and Marta…

Atienna and Sefu were at his side immediately, the former pulling him back up onto his feet.

“What the hell have you done…?” Gabrielle whispered.

“I was just trying to transport my creation… the insulation cube broke… “ Forstchritt muttered faintly, staring at the mass of gelatinous light. “I need to preserve my research.” She turned to the approaching molten monstrosity. “Most of this batch has returned back to the third level of energy! It’s okay . We only need to wait a little while longer and it’ll turn back into a reservoir!”

What…?

“Turn into a reservoir…?” Gabrielle repeated incredulously. “It’ll turn everyone it touches into a reservoir!” She turned to the mass of vitae and flexed her gloved hands. “We have to take care of it here.”

No! There had to be another solution, Olive thought as his mind raced. He could melt insulation tubes together and block the mass of vitae from spreading any further. Or he could burn a hole in the ground. Or—

“That’s a brilliant, valiant decision,” Dämon replied to Gabrielle casually. “We actually recorded in one observational study that despite not having any pain receptors—or even cells—for that matter, it somehow can still feel pain when it’s in the super-elevated-level state of vitae. Perhaps it’s because of the properties of vitae particles… but regardless, you’d be doing it a mercy.”

Olive swallowed bile climbing up his throat as the world spun and realization settled in. Hot tears were threatening to spill from his eyes but he tried to keep his emotions contained because he didn’t want to throw off the others. He could barely even feel them above the pain squeezing his chest.

Gabrielle glared at Forstchritt, face twisting. “How… can you say it like it’s nothing?” When she received no response, she stepped forward and extended her conductor-gloved hand out towards the moving mass.

“No!” Olive shouted, grabbing Gabrielle’s arm and pulling her back. “Don’t!”

“Your Highness,” Gabrielle said tightly through gritted teeth. “That’s not Trystan and Marta anymore. If that thing escapes—”

“I know that!” Olive snapped, fists clenched, feeling his voice crack. “I know that…”

Gabrielle turned back to him in surprise.

The guilt of Trystan and Marta no longer being in the world versus the guilt of hundreds—no, thousands—of people being absorbed into a painful state of agony. The feeling of having Oran’s life dangling at his fingertips. And “the value of a human life” —

Olive knew he couldn’t be selfish. Trystan wouldn’t want him to be selfish; and a small part of him had wanted to show —to prove to—Trystan that he hadn’t made a mistake in choosing to continue guarding and protecting him.

It wasn’t fair … It just wasn’t fair! But… That was what happened to people who cared that much. The ones who desired the most change were the ones who were crushed under the weight of their ideals—well, fine. Olive decided he’d be crushed along with them then.

I’m with you.

Olive took a deep breath and grimaced. “My vitae is at a higher energy level than yours. I’d be able to shoot the energy of the vitae up and back down to the fourth level faster than you.” He let out a shaky breath. “And they’re citizens of Aries. was the one who brought them to this country. I’m the crown prince. It’s myresponsibility. You’re a peacekeeper. This goes beyond your jurisdiction.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she clenched her gloves into a first. She studied him for a moment before nodding. “But if you can’t do it, then I’ll step in.”

Olive took in another deep breath, turning to face the warmth of the glowing vitae. He extended out his hand and tensed. And then, with a cry, he sent out a whip of crimson flame. As the whip touched the mass of vitae, an inhuman groan emitted from its body. The hot tears finally spilled out from Olive’s eyes at the sound, but he increased the output of his vitae until the entire roadblock was engulfed in crimson flames. The heat of his fire dried the wetness on his cheeks.

Sending out another torrent, he squeezed his eyes shut as he recalled stumbling before Trystan’s cell and being taken aback by the passion in the man’s eyes, as he recalled the sight of Marta’s back as he watched her toil away with her conductors in her shop, as he recalled Trystan’s wistful and hopeful gaze and loyalty on that train as he spoke of his hometown, as he recalled Marta’s fervent excitement as she spoke of her newly acquired position in that Capricornian library—as he extinguished what remained of both of them with his own hands.

A hand on his shoulder caused Olive to open his eyes. When he turned, he found Atienna staring at him with warm eyes. He lowered his hand as the flames around him died and then turned back to face the result of his immolation. As the smoke that clouded the air cleared, he was able to see a large, unmoving puddle of vitae staring back at him from just a yard away.

A confirmation.

Olive fell to his knees, digging his nails into the ground and fisting the stray pebbles and dirt in his hands, tears continuing to spill from his eyes as his mind continued to race endlessly.

What if… What if there had been another option that he hadn’t thought of? What if there was a way to separate Trystan and Marta and keep them contained and away from everyone in the city? What if… they had never come to this city in the first place? No—what if they’d never met him? Would they still be standing here today? Endless what-ifs—

Letting out a cry, he slammed his fist into the ground and then curled into himself. He squeezed his eyes shut but all he could see was Trystan and Marta and then Lavi, his parents, and everyone in the palace on that day. 

It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair! Everyone around him kept crumbling away to ashes.

The air was sweltering with smoke, making his sobs and gasps for breath all the more desperate. He cursed himself as he gasped for air—

Get yourself together! You’re going to drag the others down with you. Stop crying! Get yourself togeth—

A hand rested on his back. Atienna. He knew. Comforting pity. He wanted to push her away—push them all away and go back to the way things were before, back to his room, back to being locked away in the palace. Stagnant in place but peaceful.

But that would be the easy way out.

Olive turned and clung to Atienna desperately, buried his face into her chest to hide the tears, and continued to cry for not what he had lost but what others had lost. He cried for so long that he almost didn’t notice Flannery Caertas and Leona approaching them out from the shroud of smoke.


Tears threatening to spill from her eyes as she held Olive in her arms, Atienna tensed as the two saint candidates approached them from down the road. Pushing aside Olive’s anguish that closed a tight fist around her chest, she grabbed Olive by the arm and began to drag him back with Sefu’s help. Gabrielle, however, remained planted firmly in place in front of Forstchritt.

“Step away from Dämon Forstchritt, Gabrielle,” Flannery said. “This is somethin’ y’don’t want t’get yer hands in. Trust me.”

Gabrielle eyed the knife and gun in the woman’s hands, before raising her own hands and backing away. “I don’t remember you being this bossy, Flannery. You both took your sweet time though.”

Flannery didn’t respond and instead stepped in place in front of Forstchritt whose back was facing her. She lifted her gun and pointed it at the back of the woman’s head. Before she could pull the trigger, however, a burst of golden light lit up the smoky area and Flannery’s gun-wielding flopped onto the ground. Flannery stared down at her severed hand, unperturbed.

“ELPIS has P.D. Oran, Flannery,” Leona said calmly. “We need someone to help with the final preparations of the syzygy. After what ELPIS did to the Aurora reservoirs, Gemini and Capricorn are far from being able to assist us with the ley lines.”

The blood pooling out from the severed hand began to glow with an intense dark pink light before slowly being pulled by an invisible force back onto Flannery’s arm. The glowing dark pink blood and ligaments reattached to each other; and once everything was connected, Flannery tightened her grip on her gun again.

“Y’can find other talented minds ‘round Signum, Leo,” she said. “Ones who haven’t committed as many misdeeds as this one.”

“Her work—although disgusting—has helped us draw even closer to the syzygy,” Leona replied. “Her actions fall inside our free will agreement. Even without our influence, she would have eventually done the same thing. Intervening would go against that agreement.”

“If we go along with that precedent,” Flannery said after a pause, “I take it that yer pride would be alright with applyin’ the same t’Scorpio.” She jerked her head at Olive and Atienna. “By the way, I get the feeling’ y’might get a little antsy so let me just give ya a hint in case ya get ballsy and get ta it first.” She crossed her fingers over her chest directly above her heart. “Aim for the bullseye.”

“That’ll be your decision to make, and you shouldn’t encourage them,” Leona replied before turning her gaze to Olive and then Atienna herself. “Atienna Imamu, daughter of the former chieftain of the Imamu tribe—”

Sefu tensed.

“—and Ariesian crown prince Olivier Chance. I’m glad to see you all well and in order. Although Scorpio’s machinations were filthy, at least we know of you now. I’m sure you know by now how important your safety is to us.”

Atienna felt tense, but alive. She replied quietly, “Olive and I may be important to you enough and in the public eye enough for you to turn a blind eye to us, but what of the others? What of the ones who don’t hold high political status? What of Werner, Cadence, Jericho, and Maria? What happened to all of those True Conductors who weren’t of high status that you found?”

“Well, we’ll protect the other four just as we protected them .”

“Protection doesn’t mean happiness, does it…?”

Memories of the dying Fritz von Spiel and Yulia Kriska and Kovich twisted on top of each other bled into Atienna’s mind.

Leona’s lips pulled upwards, and she looked down at them almost with amusement.

“I… have a proposal,” Atienna continued.

Leona arched a brow.

“Cvetka is employed by you. Although she holds an important status now, I believe that was not the case when you first discovered her, correct? Because she agreed to do something for you in turn. She… agreed to hunt down other True Conductors.”

Leona nodded, silent.

“I think it’s a good time to speak of what we can do for each other, don’t you think?” Pulling away from Olive, Atienna rose to a slow stand and approached Leona. Once she was in front of the woman, she extended a hand. “My circle is more than suitable enough to perform the same, wouldn’t you agree?”

—what was she doing…?

Atienna looked over her shoulder and met Olive’s wide-eyed gaze of horror. Protecting what I truly truly care about. 

Cadence’s image appeared behind Olive, and she placed a hand on his shoulder before offering Atienna a nod of approval. Gotta do what we gotta do.

“And your position in your group is where you can make this choice and final decision for them?” Leona inquired.

Atienna considered this before drawing slowly, “Yes… I suppose since Werner’s not here, I am.”

Leona reached out and accepted her gesture with a thinning smile.

Leona’s hands were cold.

20.1: Swindler & Peacekeeper » Rhyme & Reason

Re-cap:

With the help of Werner’s subordinates and those outside of the six, the six are finally free from Scorpio’s influence. However…


(     )

Ariesian-Geminian Swindler Cadence Morello gagged on the metal pipe lodged in her throat. She tried to lift her hands to remove whatever it was, but her arms felt like noodles—so did her legs. Hell, even her head was pounding and her throat felt like the desert. Not that she’d ever been in a desert before.

After a moment of struggling, she finally pried the contraption from her mouth and rolled over onto her side with a groan. She glanced back at the device and realized it was one of those feeding tubes she’d seen the doc lugging around for those poor saps who got their jaws punched sideways.

What the…?

She clenched her hand. No conducting rings. Damn. She ran her fingers along the hemming of her inner pants. The extra conducting ring she’d recently decided to store in that area wasn’t there either.

Huh. Storing a conductor there was a brilliant idea, but she had no idea how she’d come up with it. When she tried to recall it, her head throbbed ferociously from the back of her neck to her temples.

With effort, she lifted her head and carefully scanned her surroundings. She was lying on a cotton mattress ringed by metal stands housing IV bags. The room she was in was small, damp-looking, and square—lit only by candles on the floor. A single table stood at the room’s center with a weird-looking board game set up on top of it. There was a familiar brass tune trilling from a record player set to the far-right corner.

Definitely not the doc’s office.

Damn. How long had she been out, and why was she out? Bad drinking at the bar? No. She didn’t get drunk—she got other people drunk. Had she pissed anyone off lately?

Wait.

She scanned the room again.

There were no doors, no windows, and—

“Awake!”

Cadence swallowed a yelp as a bright-faced man suddenly leapt into her view. He was tall, muscular, with distinctly sharp-looking Aquarian features. Kind of familiar-looking too.

“Theta—succeeded!” the man continued cheerily. He clapped once, then frowned. “Scorpio…”

“Theta…?”

Francis.

Memories of running through the cold, dark streets of the Twin Cities on that night came to Cadence abruptly. Francis, standing on top of the spire of the Dioscuri Bridge. The pale tangerine glow that had replaced the v-lights of the city. Herself, running through the spider-webbing streets, riding up to Francis on a block of earth controlled by a Capricornian Elementalist who had come from nowhere.

She had nearly died that night, Cadence realized. Saints. What the hell had she been thinking? Francis had been out of his mind. And—

Her head pounded as she thought of that earth Elementalist again. The Elementalist sure was pretty, but where the hell had she come from?

Something wasn’t right.

The Aquarian abruptly pointed to his face, then held up his index finger. “Pi. Met… once. Remember?”

Cadence searched her memory and then recalled meeting the man for the first time in the remains of the Sognare—

The Sognare? Alma.

Cadence’s heart roared in her chest and she struggled to sit up, but fell back weakly. Pi quickly rushed to her aid and helped prop her up against the wall behind the bed.

She stiffened at his touch but still offered him a friendly smile. “Thanks, Pi.”

Pi nodded, eyes bright.

Easy pleaser.

But, as Cadence tried to recall the last thing she remembered, she didn’t get it. Why the hell had she been working off-beat odd jobs that barely paid a cens these past couple of months? What in saint’s name had she been doing? Staying on the ‘better path’ was the mindset… But in the Twin Cities? What for?

Cadence thought again as the memories of the past couple of months trickled into her slowly—the Specialist children’s smiles that went from ear-to-ear, late nights hanging out at the TwinStars Pub, and shilling out a portion of her earnings to Carl and Allen. But why? For a bunch of kids? For… Francis? But—what about Alma?

Memories of Alma’s faint smile and her parting words—“Where will I play, Cucciolo? No—who will listen when I play? People are just starting to know who I am. If I leave and disappear now, they’ll surely forget me”—bled into Cadence’s mind.

Alma had left her again, she realized. Wait no. It wasn’t Alma’s fault. It was just the situation—the circumstances.

A draft of cool air wafted through the room.

“You’re awake. So it worked.”

Cadence looked up and found Francis sweeping into the room from a glowing door on the wall. Hand-in-hand with him was a young girl with a pair of conducting-glasses dangling on her neck. They were both drenched from head-to-toe.

“Success!” Pi exclaimed.

“Francis…” Cadence stared at his tattoo. “I can’t believe it—”

He closed the distance between them. “Strip.”

The girl at his side blushed.

Cadence arched a brow. “This ain’t the Casa, Francis…” She gestured around the room. “What’s with the setup? I ain’t a valuable hostage, ya know? What’s with the kid?”

“She was the only one I was able to retrieve…” Francis’s gaze darkened for a moment. He placed a hand over his mouth. “But you’re right. Whether or not the tattoo is present is no longer a telling factor. Things don’t stay the same. Even though Scorpio says otherwise. Still, we should be careful…”

Scorpio—the country? Tattoo? Spore? Francis was talking nonsense again.

He dropped his hand. “Are you able to speak with the other True Conductors?”

“True Conductors?” Cadence tried the familiar word out on her tongue.

Francis paused. “Do you recall what that is?”

She studied him carefully, cautiously. “Sounds familiar… You mentioned it before…”

“I see… It will take time for you to recall things from your polarization.” Francis reached out for her with an extended hand.

She tensed, but played it off as a wince and rubbed her shoulder.

Francis sank beside her. “Where is the pain?” His eyes widened with realization. “It’s me, Cadence. You can trust me.”

Trust? Well, this was the Twin Cities. Trust didn’t get you that far. Sure, Francis had been her childhood friend, but if circumstances called for it—wait. No, that wasn’t right. She knew that wasn’t right. Besides, Francis had been initiated against his will and had stuck his neck out for her plenty of times.

“I know that, Francis. I’m just tryin’ ta get my bearin’s is all.”

“I see.” Francis suddenly looked very gloomy. Before Cadence could think of something to say to lessen the gloomy atmosphere, he gestured to the doorway. “I will tell you everything that has transpired so far.”

“So, ya didn’t kidnap me…” Cadence drew slowly.

The atmosphere around Francis became even more gloomy. “Cadence, it’s not like that. I’ll explain.”

Cadence held up a hand. “I’m just pullin’ your leg, Francis. Ya clearly got your head on straight.” A lie.

Francis said something in some odd language to Pi who quickly went to the corner of the room and returned with a pair of wooden crutches.

“Weapons?” Cadence chortled jokingly as she accepted them from Pi.

Francis remained unsmiling. “I had Pi move your limbs when he was free, but you haven’t moved for weeks. You’re still weak.”

Weeks? Saints. 

“It was a joke.” Cadence sighed.

* * *

Cadence followed Francis, Pi, and ‘Lita’ through the gate and found herself in another room that had no windows and no doors. Unlike the previous one, however, this one housed a collection of bookshelves that were stuffed full. Tiny children were running around the stacks of books, while older ones whispered to each other alongside the walls. Allen and Carl—of all people—sat along the back wall on a sofa. A distinctly Capricornian boy sat on Carl’s lap.

“Theta!” the younger children squealed as they crowded around him.

Francis bent down and picked up the smallest one and held him with one arm—which was weird to see.

The children then looked at Lita.

“It’s… you,” one said. “We worried about you… We thought the Campanas got you!”

“I-It’s not ‘you,’” Lita stammered, staring ahead at nothing with flushing cheeks. “It’s Lita.” She lifted her head. “Is everyone here…?” Before she could ask anything else, she was pulled away by half the children.

The other half crowded around Cadence and started speaking over one another:

“Are you okay, Cadence…?”

“Is your face okay? You fell…”

“Did you have a good nap—”

“The hell you been, Francis? Just droppin’ this brat off and leavin’ right after,” Carl grumbled, jerking his head towards the boy on his lap. “Kid doesn’t speak a lick of Common.”

“Carl? Allen?” Cadence stared, perplexed.

The two men looked over at her, finally noticing her presence.

“Cadence!” Tucking the kid under one arm, Carl stormed over to her. “Welcome back to the world of the damned living.” He then wrapped her in his free arm and gave her a shake.

Cadence wondered if being cooped up in this place had made Carl lose his marbles too. Still, she returned the gesture by giving him a pat on the back. He slapped her harder, causing her to cough and nearly fly forward out of her crutches.

Francis quickly caught her and sent Carl a frown. “You alright, Cadence?”

Francis’s concern was strange. All of their concerns were strange. The damn kid who was now clinging to her leg was strange.

“It’s all a little overwhelmin’ is all. I’m clearly missin’ somethin’ here. Feels like a bad morrowheat trip.”

Francis nodded and then explained some backwards story about a Capricornian lieutenant named Werner Waltz, a pirate who had previously worked for the three brothers, the prince of Aries, and a peacekeeper named Jericho. Connections, polarizations, the Anime-Vitae Hypothesis, vitae conversion, etcetera. And some all-powerful Manipulator saint candidate who was disguised as a peacekeeper, who was exacerbating political unrest in Capricorn.

“The hell, Cadence?” Carl made a face. “You didn’t tell us you had a prince in your lot—a peacekeeper too. Could’ve squeezed them for money.”

“I didn’t know myself…” Cadence scratched the top of her head.

“That why you hate conductors so much?” Allen asked, jerking his head at Francis.

Francis glanced at him. “Yes, that’s one reason. They’re unnatural… even though they make a hefty cens…”

“Kinda like recyclin’ though if you think about it,” Carl noted.

Francis sent Carl a glare.

“What?” Carl shrugged. “It does.”

Cadence hobbled over to the boardgame table and sank into the chair there. “This ain’t some prank, is it?”

“You don’t remember,” Allen said more than asked.

“I mean I remember everythin’ that happened here.” She side-glanced at Francis. “The whole… mystic vitae stuff… sounds like a bad morrowheat trip.”

“I’d like to tell you more, but I only learned you were a True Conductor recently,” Francis replied, sitting down at the table across from her and resting the child on his lap. “This is actually our first time talking since then, isn’t it?

“Yeah, ya went on that retreat of yours,” Cadence offered casually despite her nerves. “How was it by the way?”

“Think your time in Capricorn did a lot more for you than that retreat did.” Carl grinned, slapping Francis on the back too. “Seem more like yourself now.”

“Well, I did see Nico while I was there,” Francis noted before his face visibly folded. “I wasn’t able to transport him away in time…” He glanced at Lita who was being shown the little nooks and crannies of the room by the other children and then frowned. “He’s in the hold of the Capricornian military.”

“It’s always one of you.” Allen shook his head.

Nico…?

Cadence’s temple pulsated and her stomach twisted in knots. “Saints… Nico’s always gettin’ himself in himself into ta bad stitches.” She startled. “They’re not goin’ ta… execute him or anythin’ are they?”

Francis stared at her for a moment, lips pursing together. Not very reassuring.

“I need to return,” he finally said, setting the child down and picking up a game piece from the board. “I have my doubts about Libra’s and Leona’s intentions. Nico is still there too. Scorpio… his towers need to be dealt with—”

“The hell—that’s crazy, Francis!” Carl snapped. He pointed to a radio sitting on a stack of books at the corner of the room. “You know what they’ve been sayin’ about Capricorn? They say it’s basically on the brink of a damn civil war!”

“I was a leader of ELPIS before I was your brother,” Francis returned. “I made a pact. I need to take responsibility—”

“Responsibility?” Carl snapped before gesturing to Cadence. “Come on, Cadence, talk some sense into him.”

“Francis, it ain’t your country,” Cadence agreed without skipping a beat. “You’re still confused. Maybe more than I am.” She gestured to Carl and Allen, then the children. “You’re with family. Ya’ve got kids who’re always askin’ for ya here. Are ya really gonna go off and abandon ‘em? Again?”

Francis studied her for a moment before reaching across the table and dropping a handful of familiar conducting rings into her hands. “If you expel your vitae slowly, your memory of the connection may return faster due to increased vitae flow. This is, of course, a hypothesis.”

Cadence arched a brow and slid them on. Comfy. “Er… Thanks, Francis.”

“Oh, tricks!” some of the children running around her exclaimed as they surrounded her. “Show us, please, Cadence?”

Right…

Cadence recalled transmuting illusions for them many times before. Entertaining a bunch of children. Not charging a dime. Not like she hadn’t done something like this before Francis went nuts in the city, but it was always for her own entertainment and not the entertainment of others.

Brushing the oddity aside, Cadence began to transmute the illusion of whatever the children wanted over her as Francis conversed with Allen and Carl. Each illusion she made seemed to get the children continuously more excited. A clown, a mermaid, a witch, and so on. After the tenth transmutation—where she took on the appearance of one of the boys in the group—she waved her hand in the air and threw herself back into her chair.

“Cadence is tired now,” she sighed, waving her hand at them. “Let Cadence rest—”

“Your cheeks are all rosy,” said boy cooed suddenly as he reached over and pressed his palms against her cheeks.

“Thanks. I got a skincare routine.” She winked. Man, she thought contrarily. Kids were really weird nowadays, weren’t they—

Cadence felt her heart skip a beat, and her hand went to her cheek where the boy’s hand once was—where she could feel another cold ghostly hand. 

When she looked up, she found not the kid, but a familiar pale man with platinum-blonde hair. Her heart hammered in her chest as she stared into his ice-blue eyes before realizing that it was the man’s gloved hand that was pressed against her cheek. She could feel tight rope pressing against her arms and a cold chair pressing against her back.

“It’s time, Cadence,” he said calmly as always. “Are you ready?”

Cadence remembered this. She had been pulled aside by Donato and Feliciano, tied to a chair in a freezer, and beaten within an inch of her life. But, she hadn’t been the one that had taken the hits. Not really—

Suddenly, the man and the room disappeared. Cadence found herself standing at the center of the Sognare which looked just like it had before ELPIS raided the city. Her favorite ivory piano was at her side, and a beautiful woman with dark skin and dark eyes that crinkled with amusement stood in front of her. The scenery rippled like a puddle of water, and suddenly Cadence felt her cheek stinging again. The woman was now frowning at her with disappointment in her eyes, while the walls of a cold cavern rose around them.

“You won’t get anything from me, Cadence,” the woman said. “Not forgiveness nor reassurance nor a perpetrator. The only person you can get things like that about in this situation is from Werner.”

Before Cadence could respond, the woman morphed into a tanned adolescent who put his hands over hers. 

“Claire said something…” the boy muttered. “He told me that there’s something special that True Conductors can do when it comes to vitae right before you overrode Werner… Since I’m able to conduct without my conductor—no, since I am a ‘conductor’—it might be different, but…” He closed his eyes.

Cadence arched a brow at him, wincing at the pain that followed the motion.

And then she felt warmth. A buzz at the base of her palm that spread to her fingertips.

She turned slowly and managed to catch a glimpse of her bruised hands right before copper sparks of light erupted into copper flames beneath her palms and consumed her vision.

When the flames faded, a tall, tanned woman basking in sunlight sauntering down from somewhere stood in front of her. Smile blazing, the woman lifted the blade in her hand and pointed it at Cadence’s throat—

“You are weak, no?”

Cadence winced as a ray of sunlight reflected off from the woman’s blade. When her eyes recovered, she found that a tall peacekeeper wearing glasses was now standing before her with a suitcase in his hand. Around them unfolded a chaotic warehouse filled with men and women in monochrome suits chasing after children and other men and women draped in white cloaks.

Cadence looked the tall peacekeeper up and down incredulously before hesitantly reaching forward with her hand. She pressed it against his hand.

Electricity surged through her entire body at the contact—

—yelping, Cadence toppled out of her chair and hit the ground with a thud. Francis was at her side immediately. She was in pain, but everything was clear. How the hell could she forget all that?

“Saints…” Cadence threaded her fingers through her hair as he helped her to a stand. “Francis…” She searched his face. “Ya said ya helped Jericho, the kid, Werner, and Maria?”

“My main intention was to remove Scorpio from you and Scorpio from Capricorn,” Francis replied. “My actions were merely a result of that. At least… that’s what I’d like to think. That poor prince was just a child…” He paused, eyebrows rising slightly. “Wait. You remember…? That was rather fast.” He placed a hand to his chin. “Perhaps me telling you paired with you expelling your vitae—”

Cadence wrapped her arms around him, cutting him off short. “Saints. Ya pull a disappearin’ act and then come sweepin’ in for a rescue. I owe ya, Francis, big time.”

“You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?” Francis returned the gesture with little embarrassment and hesitation before releasing her and helping her back onto her feet.

She fell back into her chair and rubbed her eyes. Memories of her override of Werner, the escape from Argo, and her fight with Nico slapped her across the face. She grimaced, shame burning in her chest. “Aw, hell…” Before she could answer the confused looks Carl and Allen gave her, the memory of her nightmare—of that haunting tune, of Alma, Atienna, and Werner being consumed by scorpions—grabbed hold of her. “That was Scorpio? That Manipulator?”

Francis’s eyes narrowed. “So you remember him too. I see.”

“…Talib? Really?” Cadence frowned, hiding her shiver by fixing her shirt. “Damn… Jericho’ll be really upset.” She was too. Talib had been funny. Stupid funny. Goofy. Like Izsak. “I still need a minute, if ya don’t mind.” Cadence stared at the record player trilling out saxophone in the room’s corner—it was the one she’d gifted Francis.

Saints, so they’d been found out, she thought. Everyone and their aunt knew they were True Conductors now. Werner was in the middle of it all and Nico too—

Her eyes widened as realization struck. “An entire city is one thing.” She hobbled back and forth in the room on her crutches, one of the younger children and Pi tailing worriedly behind her. “An entire country ? Why can’t we get a break? Why can’t shit hit the fan for one of us at a time—ya know, so we can have time ta process it. The doc—the other doc from Ophiuchus—says ya gotta have time ta process things—” She skidded to a halt. “The others.” She whipped around and stared at Francis. “I know Jericho’s probably in the Medical Department in Ophiuchus, but who knows what happened ta the others with us passin’ out left and right.” She held her head. “I can’t even hear or feel any of ‘em—”

Francis nodded. “Scorpio’s intrusion disrupted your connection. The others are in the same semi-amnesiac fugue condition as you were, but your channels will slowly readjust… I expect that Scorpio has increased his offshoots and spores around the ones you’re connected to.”

“Did… he do the same things to them that he did to me?” Cadence asked, tense.

Francis’s lips pressed into a firm line. “I saw it firsthand.”

Cadence felt faint and nauseous. She hadn’t felt this unsafe and unbalanced since before her connection with the others began. But if the others didn’t even remember all of this, then they were ripe picking—

“Saints, Cadence, what’s with the dramatics?” Carl arched a brow. “You’re out of whatever it was now. Relax.”

“Hey, ya didn’t have some creep diggin’ inside of ya. I feel like I’ve been violated—” Pausing in her rant, Cadence took a look around and realized she was receiving wide-eyed stares from the children. She shrugged her shoulders. “Right, ‘course. Ya know me. Can’t help with the dramatics sometimes. Ya always talk sense, Carl.” She tapped her chest. “The reason in the room.”

“Yeah, I am.” Carl nodded, rubbing his nose.

The children settled back down and began to amble around again.

“I… I got an idea,” Cadence drew slowly, “but it’s a pretty stupid idea. Not much of an idea but just gatherin’ ‘resources’ together really.” Felt like a death wish just bringing it up.

The vicious words that she’d spat at Nico abruptly came back to the surface of her mind. Damnit. Nico always got into bad situations. And she always rescued him from it. That was their dynamic. She liked it. Made her feel like he was relying on her. A necessary part of his life and all that. There was a comfort in the idea that she would be the first one he’d always run to. Probably not the best friendship, but the best the Twin Cities had to offer. Right?

Bah. Focus!

“Jericho’s vitae is crucial to Scorpio’s removal,” Francis said. “I would like to ask for his help or at least for his vitae, so if you’re suggesting is what I think you’re suggesting—”

Cadence arched a brow. “No offense, Francis, but even with me there, I think the detective would punch ya sideways. I get you’re not that same Theta, but the detective can be hard-headed sometimes.”

“Jericho and I had something akin to a reconciliation when I met him in Capricorn… although putting it that way is too optimistic,” Francis replied. “Of course, I doubt he would welcome me now since he is in the same state as you were. However, if you were present with me, then maybe you’ll be better able to open his channels and he’d regain his connection with you quicker.”

“You’ll be with me?” Cadence arched a brow, feeling the tightness in her chest lessening slightly.

“You’re planning on going?” Francis returned, surprised.

“You’ve both lost it…” Carl grumbled, settling back down beside Allen with the child still tucked under his arm. “You, Nic, Cadence. Dumb, crazy bastards.”

Cadence interjected, “Hey. Cost-benefit analysis. If they die, I die. If I die, then you’re down your best money maker for the kids. If I die, then Nic—the only doc in this country who’ll do work for you for free—might kick the bucket too. Ya know Francis is gonna go regardless, so—”

“You’re adults,” Allen interjected, lighting himself a v-cig. “Don’t need our approval.”

True, Cadence thought, but she’d still like it—though she’d never admit it.

Allen jerked his head at Francis. “We’re brothers, Francis, but we’re also business partners. You can’t go disappearing without notice as you choose and please. You gotta take care of our assets too.” He took a puff. “If you and Cadence are gonna go, you need to come back. You’ve got that slick conducting ability. There’s no excuse for not returning. I get you said you need to work things out, but don’t turn that into an excuse. You talk a lot about responsibility, but I don’t see you taking it on things that’re close to home.”

Allen was pissed—Cadence could tell.

Francis reached for an object at his side and showed it to them. It was a pistol and not just any pistol. It was Allen’s favorite pistol. “This came in handy, Al. Thanks.” He studied the children around the room before he holstered his weapon and nodded. “Okay, it’s a deal.”

Allen flicked ash off his bud. “You too, Cadence.”

Cadence snapped her fingers, creating an illusion of a hat at the top of her head which she then proceeded to tip at him.


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Ophiuchian Peacekeeper Jericho sipped from the glass of apple juice Wtorek Elizabeta had provided to him before handing it back to her.

Accepting the drink, she shined a handheld v-light in his eyes. “What’s the last thing you can remember?”

“Reading letters in Gabrielle’s office.” Jericho thought. “From Leize from Cancer. With Ferris, Gabrielle, Alice and you. Talib too.” His chest suddenly felt heavy, and he rubbed the area uncomfortably.

Jericho was not fond of the Medical Department. The walls of all of its offices were whiter than the walls of all the other departments in the Serpens Establishment, and it always had a strong lemon scent in the air that caused him discomfort.

But Elizabeta’s office was slightly better than the other offices here. It smelled more like flowers than lemons; and instead of having certificates and charts hanging on her walls, she had monochrome photographs of her family and drawings made in crayon and graphite. Her desk also contained similar photographs captured in stand-up frames. He couldn’t see the exact details of them because he was not wearing his glasses, but he liked them.

At the moment, Jericho was sitting on a small bed draped in thin, white sheets at the corner of the room. His IVs had been removed earlier and stowed away by Elizabeta’s assistant. Wtorek Csilla sat at the far corner on a wooden chair reading a book. In the opposite corner sat his suitcase, waiting patiently for him.

He turned to stare at the notebook in his hands. His journal. He had flipped through it earlier and had found odd sketches he’d drawn over the past few months. He didn’t understand them: chicken-scratch of a stick figure shooting out fire from its mouth and shaded sketches of a distinctly Virgoan-looking woman peering over a book. Theory: Alice asked him to draw these things, and he had just forgotten about it.

Jericho looked back up at Csilla and found her staring at him, so he waved. She returned the gesture. He thought he saw her smile, but he wasn’t sure.

“I’m in the ELPIS Department,” he realized suddenly. “I can bring ELPIS to justice. Finally.”

There was no time to rest now.

Elizabeta tensed then switched off the handheld v-light before handing him his glasses from her lab coat pocket. Csilla stared at him, stiffened, then continued reading.

Jericho rose from the bed as he put on his glasses. “I am functional—”

She pushed him gently back down. “You’ve been unconscious for weeks. We don’t know why. I’d like to keep you under observation for 48 more hours…” She looked him up and down. “We helped to exercise your limbs, but I was expecting you to still be weak… You’re resilient, Jericho. However, you’re not invincible—”

The door to the room slid open suddenly, and two women stepped in. Jericho recognized them from the bi-weekly meetings the ELPIS Department held. Two non-chair-holding members of the department.

“Excuse me—do you have an appointment?” Elizabeta cleared her throat, stopping the two with her body before they could come in any further.

“We’re here to speak with Agent Jericho,” replied one. “About a case. We need him immediately.”

Jericho tilted his head. “I am… assigned a case?” Already? That was good. He was closer.

The woman who spoke brushed past Elizabeta, approached him, and extended a hand out to him. “Remember me?”

Jericho tilted his head and accepted the gesture because it was customary. Immediately, a surge of electricity went up his arm. It was a familiar jolt that drew his mind spinning back to the past: meeting Cadence in the small warehouse in the Twin Cities; sitting in his apartment with Atienna as she posed for his sketches; listening fastidiously to Maria’s tales on her rocking ship; watching over Olivier as he tinkered away on another conductor; and Werner, grasping his shoulder tightly in Die Hauptstadt as rain poured around them. Everything. 

The static shock was quickly followed by a sense of overwhelming relief—relief that was not exactly just his own.

“Cadence,” Jericho realized, tightening his hand around hers. “You are Cadence Morello.”

Ya remember me! Cadence’s eyes glimmered familiarly beneath her disguise. Her voice and thoughts were a comfort. Francis was right about the ‘close proximity’ thing, after all! I was thinkin’ I’d have ta prepare a whole dramatic speech and everythin’ for ya. Actually had one written up in my head if ya ever want to hear it—

Yes, I would.

It was a joke, detective—

Talib flashed through Jericho’s mind at the word.

Concern and a hint of sadness bled through from Cadence’s end.

Heard about your partner. It’s a shame.

How did you get here?

He felt Cadence wink. Ophiuchus needed better security then.

Hey, now. Don’t go suggestin’ any ‘helpful’ ideas—

“Cadence?” Elizabeta inquired with a frown, studying the illusory nametag on Cadence’s chest that read Edna Park. 

Jericho quickly replied, “My mistake. This is not Cadence. This is Edna Park. She does work in the ELPIS Department. I know her. We have business together.”

Tryin’ a little too hard, detective.

“How do you have business together when you just woke up?” Elizabeta frowned.

Let me take care of this.

“We were introducing a case to him just before his accident,” Cadence said. “News travels fast. And, given our department’s strained resources at the moment, we need all hands on deck.”

“Well, he’s not allowed to leave for cases without approval from the Medical Department,” Elizabeta replied. “I’d like to keep him under observation for—”

“Wait… you’re Izsak’s wife, aren’t you?” Cadence interjected. “I’m so sorry for what happened…”

Csilla looked up, while Elizabeta paled. Jericho stared at the former. Saint candidates, he realized. Alice said…

Don’t stare, detective!

Jericho looked away from Csilla and stared at the other woman who had come with Cadence. She too was staring at Csilla. Francis, Jericho realized a second after.

Good intuition. 

“The case is actually about Mr. Wtorek.” Cadence covered her mouth. “Oh, I shouldn’t say… but we’ve been looking at other factors that might’ve brought him into ELPIS. Maybe a way to readjust thing to undo it. We might be able to help him, but—”

“Other factors…? Readjust things?” Elizabeta whispered. “You can help him?”

Cadence nodded. “When we find him.” She indicated Jericho. “He’s been a big help. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I… understand,” Elizabeta said quietly after a moment, squeezing her arm. She frowned, eyes hardening. “Do you really think my integrity is that low?”

Jericho glanced at Cadence.

“But if you’re this adamant about working on the case, Jericho, then I’ll sign off on the papers…” Elizabeta amended, brows furrowing slightly. “But only for office work. Fieldwork will still need to be approved.”

* * *

After picking up his suitcase from the corner of the room and checking its contents, Jericho led Cadence and Francis out of Elizabeta’s office and down the hall.

Saints. It’s good ta see ya! came Cadence’s voice which was filled with excitement despite her flat expression. I was stressin’ ‘cause I have no idea where anyone else is and I was just guessin’ about you. If ya weren’t here, then…

Their footfalls echoed in the quiet hall of the department.

He noticed that she was walking with a slight limp. She was weak, he realized.

Anyway, I was thinkin’ of doin’ a rendezvous with the others, ya know? Since everythin’ is hittin’ the fan, and we’re kinda screwed? Might as well have a reunion, right? Well, more like a ‘union,’ since we haven’t really met in person before. 

Jericho nodded. We can defeat Scorpio together. Fix Talib. Help the others.

Cadence smiled slightly, although her eyes were tired. Sure thing, detective. Aren’t you a good guy? Makin’ me feel like I need to step up. Anyway, pretty sure the lieutenant and sunshine are in the capital of Capricorn right now, but we gotta be strategic before we go in guns blazin’, right? Ya wouldn’t happen ta be able ta use those investigatin’ skills ta find out where Atienna and the kid are right now, would you?

Train, Jericho recalled. Alice told me when we were in the shelter. She said the Capricornians found Olivier’s and Atienna’s on a medical train. Medical Train 467.

Nice, detective! Thing is we don’t know where that train ended up—

“The Assignment Department has routinely updated information about train routes running through Signum,” Jericho said aloud which earned a couple of stares from passing agents and a side glance from Francis.

Cadence presented all this information to Francis in Geminian. Jericho then began to lead them through the stretching halls to the department. As they traversed, Francis looked tense, scanning the white walls and glass walls with a deepening frown. Cadence was clearly concerned, continually sending him looks.

Don’t think he likes this place much.

It felt strange having Cadence this close to him, Jericho thought. He had only come this close to her once or twice before. He felt somewhat ‘self-conscious’ as Olivier would call it. Especially since…

Jericho tightened his grip on the handle of his suitcase.

I broke a promise. With Alice. I—

Memories of Capricornians crumbling into nothing beneath a glowing white sun and above burning white sand at the hand of his burning white vitae came at him in bright, hot flashes.

—I used my conductor on people who weren’t in ELPIS. They are gone. I was tricked. Again.

Cadence remained silent for a moment.

Jericho waited.

“Eh, we all break promises and we all make mistakes. We shouldn’t, but we do. Well, mostly it’s less muderous, but—ya get what I mean,” she finally said aloud, causing Francis to glance at her as they rounded a corner. “Saying ‘it wasn’t your fault’d’ probably not do much for ya—I can tell. So here’s my two cens: if ya know that ya did wrong and ya try to improve it, then that’s different. Beatin’ yourself up over it doesn’t do anythin’. No rhyme or reason to it. Gotta pay dues and move on. ‘Course, I’m not makin’ excuses. I promise.”

Nico Fabrizzio flashed through Jericho’s mind causing him to realize—“You fought with Nico.”

Francis turned to them slightly.

“I can help,” Jericho offered. “If you would like.”

Cadence smiled wanly. Thanks, detective.

After climbing several floors and walking through another long-stretching narrow hall, they finally reached the Assignment Department. It was as busy as Jericho remembered it with endless rows of cubicles stretching out as far as he could see. Smoke from v-cigs and cigarettes clouded the tiled high-ceiling, while the air was filled with the ringing of phones, the flutter of paper, and the pat-pat of typewriter keys.

He began to lead them forward again when—

“J-Jericho?!”

Jericho turned and found Ferris Hart standing just a step away in-between two cubicles and balancing several stacks of files haphazardly in her arms.

“Ferris,” Jericho greeted her, catching a file that fell from the top and returning it to its place. “Hello.”

She’s cuter in a person, Cadence noted, studying the woman’s hair which was now dyed green. There’s dolls, and then there’s dolls.

“Y-You’re awake!” Ferris squeaked, eyes brightening as she set her stacks of files aside and came up to him. “I heard from Elizabeta, but… It’s good to see you! It’s been so quiet in Gabrielle’s office since everyone’s…”

“I need assistance,” Jericho said. “About train routes.”

“Oh—I’d be happy to help!” Ferris brightened immediately but then studied him. “Are you sure you should be up…?”

“Elizabeta gave me approval.”

Ferris accepted this explanation with a hesitant nod before leading them to the back of the office and into a room behind a large black door. The room inside was large and spacious and filled with just as many desks as the previous room had been. There were many more telephones in this room than the previous, however, with phone lines and wires flooding the floor haphazardly.

At the very back of the room hung a large billboard that was filled up with rectangular white tabs printed with a slew of words and numbers. ‘Sagittarian Commercial Train 405, Departure: 3:45 pm, Arrival: Est., Location: Thousand Name City, Cases: 0,’ read one line of tabs. Every so often the tabs indicating time would be flipped to different ones by a passing agent.

“So what train are you looking into?” Ferris asked once she brought them within half a meter of the billboard.

“Capricornian Medical Transport 467,” Jericho replied.

Ferris tensed, before lowering her hand. “That’s… That’s one of the fifty locomotives that’ve been disrupted in Capricorn because of the protests that are happening there….”

Perfect…

Ferris put her hand to her lips. “I heard one had a Capricornian general, a Virgoan diplomat, and the prince of Aries stuck on board waiting for escort…” She glanced at him. “You probably haven’t heard the news, but this new political movement is—”

“The Augen,” Jericho finished.

“So you’ve read the reports…” Ferris’s face fell. “I heard that the Kaiser’s sent out medical Conductors and officers to help the medical trains that’ve been stuck. But he’s… refusing our help, of course.”

‘Politics.’

“They’re still deciding on a ruling on if Ophiuchus should get fully nvolved,” Ferris said, folding her hands in front of her. “People are saying that we should intervene because there are politicians from all over Signum in Capricorn for the convention and they’re getting caught up in all of this. The other half are saying that intervening would be going against Capricorn’s autonomy… ‘Bad precedent,’ they say… I mean, the ELPIS Department is already there, because they think there might be some ELPIS involvement, but…”

Talib’s—Scorpio’s—words rang through Jericho’s mind then: Ophiuchus was not right.

Everyone’s a little wrong, Cadence interjected, glancing at him. Not blamin’ it on circumstances but it changes with circumstances. Perspectives, I mean. It’s not all ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘black’ and ‘white,’ detective. She sighed internally. Don’t know what I’m sayin’. Atienna is better at this stuff than me.

Jericho nodded.

Cadence squinted up and scanned the board. “I’m not too familiar with this board. I usually receive all the information in a neat file from your department… You know your department is so efficient that it makes us all practically useless sometimes.”

Ferris chuckled. “Oh, you know we’re all needed to make Ophiuchus work…”

Cadence returned the chuckle in kind. “Well, would you mind showing me where exactly that train ended up…?”

“No problem.” Ferris nodded at a corner of the board. “Medical Train 467 is currently in Eisburg.”

That’s Werner’s hometown… 

“Wait—” Ferris turned. “You’re not actually headed there are you—”

“Top secret,” Jericho said. He thought again. “But Gabrielle might disclose it after all of this.”

“Gabrielle…?” Ferris let out a quiet sigh. “I hope Talib, Alice, Roberto, and her are okay over there…” She stared at the billboard. “I was speaking with my grandmother the other day, and she says everything that’s been happening this past year is reminding her of all the tension before the Reservoir War started… I don’t mean to be a pessimist but…”

Jericho stared at her until Cadence suggested something ‘comforting’ for him to say. And so he placed a hand on Ferris’s shoulder and offered her a thumbs up. “We are peacekeepers. We fight war.”

* * *

Eisburg, Capricorn

Francis’s gate transported them to a rooftop that oversaw a field of golden wheatgrass. As soon as Cadence stepped out of the gate, she slipped on a roof tile and stumbled forward. Jericho quickly grabbed her by the scruff and pulled her back onto the roof. She peered down at the steep drop before craning her neck and sending him a grateful look.

Francis pointed into the darkness past the field. “There’s the train. From the information Miss Hart gave us, I’m assuming that the prince and the advisor are inside.”

Jericho followed his gaze and found the indicated train sitting in the darkness in front of a thick of trees. It was surrounded by a crowd of men and women holding picket signs and waving blue-painted black flags. Even from this distance, Jericho could hear them shouting over and over again:

“No peace in Signum without peace in Capricorn!”

Every so often the crowd would be ushered back by men and women in either Capricornian military uniforms or Ariesian royal guard garments.

Jericho squinted past them and at the train in an attempt to see inside, but—

They covered up the windows. Paint? Really? Damn.

We break the windows—

Let’s not, detective.

Jericho agreed and then inspected the front and back of the train. The tracks at the front were melted into the ground, while the tracks behind it had been sheared apart by jutting rock. Locked in. He turned back to Cadence and noticed her crutches. His stomach twisted.

“I can carry you,” Jericho suggested after a moment. “Or you can stay behind and I go. With your conductors. You can override me—”

“I suggest you hold off on polarization activities,” Francis interjected. “Your channels were strained by Scorpio’s invasion, and they’re slowly healing. If you attempt to use each other’s vitae or perform an override without making sure all of your connected channels are open… Put it simply: just by the theoretics, it’d be messy.”

Swallowing and shrugging, Cadence flashed a practiced smile and wiggled her ringed fingers. “Don’t get yourself in a knot, detective. Don’t ya like my company?”

Jericho nodded seriously.

Cadence stared then chortled, snapping her fingers. “Well, it’ll be aight. We’re gonna just slip in and out just like that.”

Jericho considered this.

“It’s kinda inelegant, but I got an idea.”

* * *

Instead of maneuvering through the crowd of protesters and into the train, they made their way to a tall nearby house that oversaw it. Francis then handed Jericho a vial of his blood to throw at the train’s roof. It took several attempts since Jericho’s own aim was not as good as Werner’s, but eventually he got a vial to shatter right on top of the train’s third compartment.

Francis then transported them to the location and quietly agreed to wait hidden on the rooftop for them. He painted the inside of Cadence’s and Jericho’s suit jackets with his blood as an escape option.

“A trick I picked up from a Capricornian veteran when we were freeing that lieutenant from Scorpio’s spore,” Francis explained. “I dislike deceptive things, but I guess that changes with convenience. Can’t believe I’ve never thought of using it like this—oh, I’ll pay for dry-cleaning, of course.”

“Slick,” Cadence complimented him before transmuting herself with the disguise of an Ariesian guard. She extended her hand out to Jericho and transmuted the same over him.

After handing Francis one of the many pairs of suppression cuffs he’d brought along with him, Jericho casually slipped into one of the compartments with Cadence beside him. They were hand-in-hand to prolong the transmutation and so she wouldn’t have to continuously reconfigure it when it broke down.

The first compartment they entered was filled to the brim with the elderly and sickly. Around those people were Capricornian medical Conductors with dark circles beneath their eyes.

Jericho stared at them, but Cadence pulled him forward and into another compartment.

This is kinda cool, ain’t it?

‘Cool?’ Jericho glanced down at her as they continued forward.

Ya know. Us workin’ together physically. You gettin’ along with Francis. Think we deserve a breather once in a while… Just gotta ignore the whole revolution thing, us bein’ exposed, Werner and Maria bein’ locked in that wonderful city—

Jericho would describe it more as ‘warm’ than cool.

Aw, detective. Cadence cracked a grin. When did ya become so swee—

Jericho tensed as they entered the next compartment which was emptier than the others behind them. It contained only four men and three women in Capricornian military uniforms seated at the tables alongside the walls and windows. They all wore the signature bands marked with red crosses on their arms.

One female officer stood up and held up a hand. “We’re not allowing entry past this point.”

“We’re royal guards serving under the Ariesian crown,” Cadence replied in a steely tone.

“I understand that,” the medical officer said, “but we’ve received strict orders not to allow anyone past this point.”

“This is ridiculous.” Cadence bristled dramatically. “You’re barring us from our duty!”

Eh. It’s fine. We’ll just go up and around—

“Wait…” The officer abruptly reached forward for Cadence—

—and Jericho promptly stepped forward, cracked the officer against the jaw, and sent her flying into the male officer behind her who caught her awkwardly.

“Reflex,” Jericho replied, shaking his hand. “Sorry.” He then noticed something dark and blue peeking out from beneath the collar of the officer’s shirt. “They’re infected.”

Without hesitation, Jericho tightened his grip on his suitcase and uppercut the startled male officer who was still holding the groaning female officer with the edge of it. The man hit the roof with a gasp before falling to the ground unconscious.

Saints! Haven’t ya heard of bein’ discrete, Jericho—

The officers reached for their waists and pulled pistols from their holsters. Cadence snapped her fingers again in alarm, transmuting a distorted illusion of invisibility over them.

Don’t want ta get shot at, do we—

Jericho picked Cadence up, tucked her under his arm, and brandished his suitcase as the medical officers looked around the compartment in tense confusion. He swung his suitcase sideways at the officer closest to him and knocked him unconscious against the edge of the table there. The other officers began backing away and firing blind shots, so Jericho hopped onto the closest table and then launched himself onto an officer beneath him. He pulled the officer into an arm lock with his free arm, releasing her once she stopped moving. Another officer coming up from behind Jericho was quickly knocked unconscious by Cadence with a swing to the temple with her crutches.

This feels damn ridiculous…

Jericho made quick work of two other officers who pointed their pistols blindly around the room. A crack against the head there, a slam against the wall here. He then set his eyes on the remaining officer who was slowly backing away towards the door. Before he could strike the officer down, however, the window closest to him shattered and something round flew in from it and cracked the officer at the side of the head. The man hit the ground unmoving.

Jericho turned to the window in confusion and saw a dark figure crawling in. A familiar woman. “You are…”

“Corporal Emilia Bergmann, 212th Division of the Border Force.” The woman saluted as soon as she was inside. She searched the compartment for them and said in a hesitant voice: “Cadence and Jericho, right…? You’re here…?”

She’s okay, came Cadence’s relief. She then tensed. What if she’s—

“I’m not infected,” Emilia said.

And how does she know what infected is and that we’re here? Pretty sure that whole arc happened after me and Emilia both kicked the bucket.

Jericho agreed.

“You can test the cuffs on me first if you’d like, and I’ll explain after,” Emilia suggested before nodding down to the groaning medical officers, “but… I think maybe you should take care of these ones first.”

After Jericho slapped suppression cuffs over the wrists of the medical officers, he proceeded to test them on Emilia. Once the cuffs were on her, she didn’t flinch even when he poked and prodded her sides, so he decided she was telling the truth and removed the cuffs.

Cadence transmuted the Ariesian guard disguises over herself and him as Emilia collected her bearings.

“…I recovered a couple of days ago,” Emilia explained, rubbing her wrists. “I heard everything that was happening with the Augen from the radio… And all the medical officers were acting strange so I slipped out and started performing reconnaissance locally when the train was stopped here.” She rose to a stand and dusted herself off. “I was doing reconnaissance when I came across that ELPIS leader—Francis Foxman—on the roof just now. We… had a misunderstanding but he explained everything that’s been happening—”

Footsteps resounded suddenly from behind the left-hand door.

Jericho tensed, bringing up his suitcase.

Throwing out a halting hand, Cadence quickly snapped her fingers and pressed her palm against the floor. Her vitae spread over the entire compartment of the train, concealing the glass and bodies there from sight. When the door opened, an Ariesian guard dressed in red drapes poked his head out. The man scanned the room with an arched brow before shrugging and pulling back behind the door.

Cadence pulled back with a sigh and wiped her brow.

“With all due respect—” Emilia began suddenly.

“No need for all the formality,” Cadence assured her.

“Please let me come with you on this. I’m an earth Elementalist. I can help you,” Emilia urged. “This is my country. That’s my unit. That’s my superior. I don’t want any of this to reach my family—”

“I’m not one for tactics, but I think increasin’ our numbers is a good thing. You’re a sweetheart, Emilia,” Cadence replied, extending a hand. “‘Course if ya wanna join the group, we gotta get a transmutation on ya. And if we wanna keep the transmutation goin’, we gotta hold hands. Hope ya don’t mind.”

Emilia looked Cadence up and down before accepting her gesture.

“Welcome, on board.” Cadence winked.

Flirting, Jericho decided.

* * *

With all of them now in disguises and no medical officers popping up along the rest of their route, the rest of the journey through the train was uneventful.

It became apparent when they were nearing the compartment where Olivier and Atienna were housed because the number of Ariesian guards present steadily increased. Jericho recognized several of them, including one Alexander Charming who sat at a booth with crossed arms and a displeased look on his face.

Eventually, they reached a window-less corridor that housed private rooms alongside the left-hand wall. Five guards were stationed in front of it. Cadence proceeded to talk them out of their posts by directing them to the compartment where they’d encountered the medical officers earlier. As the guards passed her by, she plucked a set of keys from one of their belts.

Probably creatin’ some Ariesian-Capricornian tension, but I’m sure the politicians’ll work it out.

Jericho wasn’t as sure.

After fumbling with the keys for half a second, Cadence unlocked the private room door and they filtered inside. The room inside was small but well-furnished with a bed, small desk, and coffee table. Laying on that bed curled up with his back to them was a familiar figure. Olivier.

Jericho paced over to the bedside, dragging Emilia and Cadence with him.

“You must really not have much to do if you’re coming to check up on me all the time,” Olivier spoke suddenly, voice muddled and groggy. “You don’t get bonuses for caring.”

Jericho stared at Olivier’s back for a moment before reaching out and placing his hand on top of the prince’s head. A familiar jolt of electricity ran through Jericho’s body at the touch, and Olivier stiffened beneath his palm. The prince immediately shot up and whipped around, eyes wide, cheeks flushed. He scanned all three of them before he reached out and touched Jericho’s chest.

“You’re… really here.”

Bingo, kid, Cadence greeted him with a mock salute.

Jericho felt an uncomfortable heaviness weigh down his chest. 

“Trystan…” Olivier whispered, pulling back his hand. “Trystan and Marta. Oran… Saints… I…”

A flame of tight anguish burned at Jericho’s stomach paired with a sense of dread, guilt, and loss.

“Atienna’s here….” Olivier murmured after a beat. “I saw her a couple of times earlier… but we… didn’t recognize each other.” He struggled up to a stand with the help of Jericho’s steadying arm, then glanced at Emilia. “Emilia…?” He sighed, then mumbled, “Well, I’m glad you’re okay…”

“I should be thanking you,” Emilia interjected quickly. “Without your medical Conductors, I’d be dead for sure. Even though you don’t know me… I… thank you, Your Highness.”

“It’s nothing really… and don’t call me that,” Olivier grumbled back before making his way to the door with Jericho supporting him. “If I touch Atienna, then everything will come back… right? You can… leave it to me then. It’d be weird if you did it.”

Emilia opened the door for him but startled when she found someone already standing behind it. Jericho startled too as he registered Atienna and Sefu at the threshold. Atienna’s gaze was distant and formal, her hands clasped together in front of her.

“Oh, hello, Prince Chance,” Atienna greeted him formally with a slight dip of her head. She averted her gaze slightly. “I hope I’m not disturbing you. I was wondering if you would like to join me for tea. Given everything that’s happened so far, I thought we both could use some… reprieve with everything that’s been happening in this country lately.”

“Uhm.” Olivier blankly reached out and touched her arm. He jolted immediately as did Atienna who took a step backward. Before either of them could say anything, Sefu immediately stepped between them with a glare.

“Sefu, it’s alright…” Atienna interjected, as she steadied herself and peered around him into the room. The corner of her eyes crinkled as she locked eyes with Olivier, Cadence, then Jericho himself.

Well, this is a very troublesome situation, don’t you think?

19.5: Outsiders, 2400 Log Close

Re-cap:

After Werner and Alice manage to calm Jericho, Jericho gains some closure with Francis/Theta and provides his vitae to the Capricornians. Before Scorpio’s spore can be removed from him, however, Scorpio forces himself to the surface and lashes out.

Those outside of the six within the Capricornian capital make their final struggle. 


Protokoll Schließen » Log closed at 2400 hours

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Nico wasn’t quite sure what happened. One moment, he was trying his best not to eavesdrop on Jericho’s, Doctor Kingsley’s, and Francis’s conversation; the next he was mentally preparing himself to use a proto-conductor containing superhuman vitae on Werner’s body; and then the very next moment he was suddenly blasted backwards by an intense wave of heat. He barely caught sight of blazing crimson embers floating lazily through the air before those embers torrented outwards like an inferno. The hairs on his skin curled up in the humidity, causing him to brace himself as the feverish wave cracked his skin—

—then his stomach flip-flopped and a burst of cold air whipped at him from behind him as the ground fell away beneath him. A second later, the back of his head cracked against something hard and wet. Stars flooded his vision as he tried to adjust to the new darkness around him.

A face eclipsed his own.

“Are you alright, Nic?”

It was Francis. And if it was Francis, then Francis must have opened a gate. The dots connected. What a rescue.

“I think my vitae left my body,” Nico said, panting. He accepted Francis’s extended hand, sat up, and surveyed the area.

They were crouched in a narrow alley that connected to the road that housed the entrance to the underground bunker. Hidden in the shadows of the alleyway across from them were familiar, shifting silhouettes. Weingartner, Heimler, Martin, two of Martin’s subordinates, and Maria’s group—though Nico could barely make them out.

“I was unable to retrieve everyone,” Francis said to him.

Nico tensed and looked back over his shoulder. Much to his relief, he found Gilbert, Kleine, Brandt, Stein, Agent Kingsley, and Werner’s family clustered behind him—all crouched low, save for Ludwig who had fallen out of his chair. Nico rushed over to help the man back into his seat with Viktoria’s assistance. He then glanced at Werner’s parents tucked away beside the two siblings. While Werner’s father was sharp and alert, his mother was stiff, still, silent.

Wait.

Nico froze as the gears in his head turned.

What about Fischer and the two generals—

“I’ve never enjoyed the actual art of war.”

Werner’s voice rang out down the street. Across the road, Weingartner signaled them to stop moving and stay silent with a closed fist. Nico darted back, grabbed Francis by the shoulder, and pulled him back just before the man was about to peer around the corner. Francis turned to look at him with blank confusion just as crimson flames flooded the adjacent road centimeters from his face.

Sweat poured from Nico’s face in the smoky aftermath; his heart hammered in his chest; and he could barely breathe—he couldn’t tell whether it was from the heat or the fear. This was the Ariesian prince’s conducting, wasn’t it? How in the world had Aries kept under wraps for so long?

As the embers faded away and the alleyways and road became dark again, a hand wrapped around Nico’s arm. He startled and turned to find Gilbert beside him then watched as the man put a finger to his lips and jerked his head forward. Nico followed Gilbert’s gaze to a long puddle stretching across the road at the lip of the alley. Captured in the puddle’s reflection was Werner—Scorpio—standing at the road’s center in front of the entrance to the underground shelter and looking down the opposite direction. The man threw out his left hand and sent a crimson inferno out that way—the sound it made as it crackled forward was unnerving.

He didn’t know where they were, Nico realized with relief but then paused. What about his mediums…?

He then tensed as he registered the object in Scorpio’s hand. A proto-conductor blade spitting out unstable, flickering, indigo, molten light. Kneeling in front of Scorpio were three men—Fischer and the two generals. Scorpio’s hand was gently resting on one of the general’s stiff shoulders.

“The politics and mechanics behind it are what’ve always intrigued me. Kingdoms into empires into republics and back again. It’s interesting to see what sort of justifications people will use in promoting the good fight—energy, resources, alliances, human rights, justice, glory, honor, ‘for the greater good.’”

Scorpio waved his blade-wielding hand in the air, a familiar set of proto-conductor rings glinting on each of his fingers.

“But with this kind of conducting ability… Well, I can understand why. It’s so easy to be frivolous when you have so much.” 

He placed the blade loosely to the general’s neck, then flipped the proto-conductor up in the air. When he caught it, it spilled out off-white light instead of indigo. He tapped the tip of the blade against the cuffs binding the general’s wrist causing them to shatter. He did the same for the other general’s wrists and Fischer’s too. When they turned to look at him completely befuddled, he chuckled.

“Your Kaiser has betrayed you. Half of your citizens hate you. I’m eager to see what you’ll do in these conditions. Either way, know that I’ll always be watching over you. Go along now.” 

Nico tensed as he locked gazes with Fischer in the reflection of the puddle. Fischer glanced back up at Scorpio in front of him and pressed his lips into a thin line. But he said nothing.

Clicking his tongue, Scorpio whipped out his free hand sending out an arc of flames at the trio— “I said go!”

The three men ducked out of the path of swirling crimson embers and disappeared down the road as booming and peppering vitae-ray fire rumbled in the background.

“Fucking piece of shit traitor coward,” Stein spat.

Nico turned to see Brandt clamp a hand over the man’s mouth and then returned his attention to the puddle.

“I see you’re working with the same kind of people you say you despise again, Theta,” Scorpio said, staring after the three men’s retreating backs as the crimson embers faded. He covered his mouth and hacked a wet cough. “People who sell those conductors you hate. People who use them. People who refuse to take accountability. People who blame things on circumstances—or ‘orders’ in this case. People.”

Nico glanced at Francis who was staring down at the reflection impassively. He then reached over and squeezed the man’s shoulder.

“Saints,” Gilbert whispered, “the bastard really likes to talk, doesn’t he?” He peered at Francis. “Does everyone who’s into this possession shit like to talk this much—”

“We both think we’re doing things for the greater good too though, don’t we? Who’s to say we’re right or wrong? We do have more years of experience on them though—I moreso than you. Wisdom leads to ignorance which leads back to wisdom. And, like you always say, ‘how can those who have never known peace hope to implement it’? The thing is, even if they did know, the result would be the same. I mean, why do you think we’re standing here today, Vega?” 

Scorpio lifted his ringed hand loosely above his head and snapped his fingers. The rings there began to spark with copper light.

Nico tensed at the sight of the familiar color. His fight with Cadence still burned at the edges of his mind and her words still stung. But—but how dare this bastard use her conducting like this—how dare he do this to her—

Scorpio abruptly disappeared from the road in a burst of copper light. An illusion, just like Cadence’s.

Nico looked across the road to the captain and Martin who were both tense and pale. They signaled for everyone to draw weapons with a couple of hand signals. Nico’s hand went for the proto-conductor still strapped to his waist, while he saw Gilbert hesitantly reach for his pistol out of the corner of his eye.

The puddle at the entrance of the alleys rippled causing the gears in Nico’s head to turn. Just as he reached the realization, a burst of indigo light lit up in a line above his head and swung downwards. Gilbert shouted something incomprehensible and launched himself at Nico and Francis beside him. They all hit the ground collectively together, just barely managing to dodge the blade of vitae. The burning light cracked into the sidewall before being ripped out by an invisible hand and then hovering in the air.

A familiar snapping sound echoed through the alleyway; and, in a burst of copper brilliance, Scorpio appeared in front of them. As the shattered light faded away, Werner’s—Scorpio’s—smiling face became illuminated. Nico could tell that the saint candidate’s eyes were focused on him, Francis, and Gilbert beside him—and it made Nico’s skin crawl. Not even someone as slimy as Verga or Feliciano back home had ever looked at him like that.

“Capricornians are known for their military might. I’ve seen it myself many times before. But you’re all afraid. The ones who’ve seen the most of those kinds of things always are—”

A high-pitch whine whistled from behind Scorpio as a flash of verdigris light lit up the area. Scorpio turned immediately, flicking the proto-conductor in his hand and causing the indigo blade of vitae to shiver out into an off-white whip. He flung it out just in time to disintegrate the verdigris vitae-ray hurtling at him from behind. He then lazily extended out his other hand and sent out a wreath of crimson flames out down the opposite alleyway.

At that same moment, a patch of glowing pale tangerine light opened up below Weingartner and the others over there and below Nico himself and those around him too. Nico squeezed his eyes shut as he fell through the gate and winced as his stomach did flip flops.

When he opened his eyes, he was flat on his back. He scrambled up to a crouch quickly and noted that he was now on the roof of some building. It was dark—the city bleak and gray—so he could just make out the faint indigo reflecting off the walls of the building across from him. Faintly below, he could hear the slap of rubber against concrete as Scorpio walked along the road.

He looked over his shoulder. Everyone who had been crowded in his side of the alley and the alley opposite now sat scattered there. Just a step in front of him crouched Francis who was pulling his hand away from a patch of dimming tangerine light on the roof.

Another gate. Another save. Doctors were all about saving lives, Nico mused, but here Francis was doing that work. At this thought, Nico grimaced and recalled the Transmutationist Renée’s conducting. An indescribable sense of discontent bubbled in his chest.

“I’m not giving any of you older folk memories of the war, am I?” Scorpio’s voice rang out from below them.

“We need to incapacitate him,” Francis whispered calmly.

“How do we incapacitate him if we can’t get near him?” One of Martin’s remaining two subordinates grimaced. He turned to Martin beside him. “Major General, we’ve lost so many men already and we haven’t even done anything yet.”

Martin nodded. “I’m aware. We can’t take any more losses.”

“This is going against Scorpio’s modus operandi,” Alice said. “We have to figure out what he wants—”

Martin’s other subordinate—a woman with pale blonde hair tied up into a tight bun—frowned and drew slowly, “With all due respect, Major General von Spiel, we have the proto-conductors already. Lieutenant Waltz is a danger now. We need to get to the Kaiser. I think we should—”

Stein cracked the woman so hard across the face that she flew backwards and slammed against the barely visible metal vent shaft behind her. Martin’s other subordinate quickly aided her to her feet; but before she could say anything else, a burst of crimson flames skirted the edge of the roof—shooting up from below.

Nico dove to the ground as did everyone around him. They remained quiet for a stretch of time. No other flames came.

“If you fucking mention killing the lieutenant again,” Stein finally hissed at the woman from where he lay, eyes filled with a familiar yet unfamiliar insanity, “I will fucking kill you.”

Brandt reached over and patted Stein’s back. “Let’s take it easy now…”

“Control your subordinate,” Martin whispered to Weingartner.

Weingartner nodded at Stein. “Enough, Stein.”

After a tense moment, they—aside from Werner’s family and Maria’s group—gathered together in a crouch at the center of the roof.

“As I was saying,” Alice continued, seemingly unperturbed. “I don’t believe Scorpio’s objective is to kill us. Not unless he decides that we want him to.” She paused. “He clearly went for Mr. Fabrizzio, Mr. Foxman, and Herr Wolff here. While I assume he went after Francis due to a personal vendetta, the other two have strong connections to Werner.”

She was talking like they weren’t even there. Not something that Nico was unused to, but still.

“He also revealed himself when attacking,” she continued. “I’m certain he’s playing with the relationships Werner has… He’s putting on a show and trying to prove a point—for who and what about, I don’t know. The issue is that Scorpio has been shown time and time again to lack self-control. He’ll take it too far.”

“If we leave Herr Waltz like this with the way Scorpio is releasing his vitae, he will die,” Francis said. “And everyone he is connected to will die. I am not the best in combat. And with the way my vitae is now, I am almost as susceptible to infection as you are. Still, I am going to try since we have the means to do it—although I see the sentiment is not shared.” He looked around at them. “You Capricornians only think of supply and supply, and you exchange loyalty for orders. It’s no wonder that you were so willing to work with unsavory people like u—”

Nico winced as he noticed pointed glares directed at Francis and moved to place a hand on his shoulder. He squeezed. “Okay, Francis. I think there’s somethin’ else you want to say maybe?”

Francis glanced at him and then cleared his throat. “I apologize for my rudeness. Still. You may have Jericho’s vitae in those proto-conductors, but I assure you that is not enough for whatever you have planned nor for what lies ahead.”

There was a lapse of silent agreement.

“We could try to wait until he’s worn himself out,” Stein suggested.

“He literally just said Werner would die if he did that, Stein,” Gilbert replied. “Pay attention, dammit—”

“Or we can lure him in and ambush him using those teleporting proto-conductors,” Ludwig interjected suddenly, causing Nico and everyone else to turn to look at him. He pushed himself forward on his chair and entered their circle. “I’m obviously not the most important resource here, I’ve served so I have experience, and… I’d like to think that being Werner’s brother marks me as someone important enough for Scorpio to go after. Since finding the Augen’s been postponed, let me help here at least.”

“Ludwig…” Viktoria murmured, tense as she rose to all fours. She looked back to her parents but her mother seemed grim and silent and her father looked directly at Ludwig without objection—and even with a hint of pride.

Nico was queasily reminded of his own father.

“What’s your conducting-type, Ludwig?” Weingartner asked after a beat of silence.

“I was an Elementalist, sir,” Ludwig replied before he gripped the wheels of his wheelchair. “I’m no longer able to conduct properly. But I can still use a rifle and combat knife.”

“Against your brother?” Martin asked testily.

“If we do this correctly, Martin,” Weingartner pushed, “then that won’t have to happen.”

“We still can’t put all of our assets in one area.” Martin grimaced, pinching the bridge of his nose. “You have to realize that this is just one step on a larger scale.”

There was a pause of silence.

“Captain Weingartner,” Gilbert interjected. “I… have a suggestion. You, the major general, Maria’s lot, and the rest of Werner’s family should go. You’re both higher ranking than all of us. You’ve done more service. Whatever this ends up being—people will listen to you.”

“You’re suggesting that we fall back?” Weingartner pressed quietly.

Gilbert nodded. “To gather resources. To recollect, sir. If you approve.” He grimaced.

Weingartner opened his mouth and then frowned. He glanced at Martin and then began to converse in whispers with him. Finally, he turned back to Gilbert and nodded. “Alright. We’ll try to contact you again at 0600 hours. Phonebooth 23.” He glanced at Alice.

“I’ll be going with them to handle Herr Waltz,” she replied. “My combat experience may be lacking since I’m not a field agent, but my conducting ability and suppression cuffs will be useful. The presence of a peacekeeper is more valuable than you realize.”

Gilbert shrugged then swept the otheres with his gaze. “Kleine, Brandt, Stein, Nic. With me?” He glanced at Heimler. “Heimler?”

“Gil,” Nico drew cautiously, “you’re not looking good. You should probably go with them—”

Brandt nodded in agreement beside him.

“Don’t start with me, Nic,” Gilbert interjected before looking at the others in the unit. “Anyway. It’s an order but let me hear what you have to say.”

Nico exchanged a brief look with Kleine and saw Stein do the same begrudgingly to Brandt.

“Werner is our superior…” Kleine mumbled. “It’s only right that we handle this, sir. I mean, our unit only lasted so long at the border because of him… And True Conductors…” He glanced at Francis. “And ELPIS. I… we have to know more.”

“Agreed.” Brandt glanced at Francis. “And I’m with you, Theta.”

“The reason Waltz is infected is because of me,” Heimler drew, lips drawn tightly, hand fisting. He didn’t say anything more.

“If you wish to split your resources like this, then I can assist you with the transportation,” Francis said after a beat. “I want to highlight that I’ve only been helping you since we share similar goals and an enemy in Scorpio and because this involves Jericho and Cadence. Do not expect an extension.” He glanced at the others. “But your loyalty is something I respect.”

Martin gave him a curt nod before glancing off to the side. “And we can’t forget the most important aspect.” He turned his gaze to Maria’s group huddled away from them—specifically Lita. Again. “I would feel more comfortable with her coming with us, but—”

“We won’t be able to cut the spore out without her,” Gilbert said.

Martin grimaced.

“Maria,” Lita whispered, crawling forward. “I want to help Maria. Let me come with you.”

“I—” Viktoria began before glancing over her shoulder towards her mother and quieting.

Nico crawled over to Lita and took her hand in his own. He looked at Simon, the Monadic priest, who studied him then nodded. Out of the corner of his eye, Nico could see Francis’s grim acceptance.


Ludwig Waltz now sat at the center of the empty road that Scorpio had once been standing in and ran his fingers along the conjured rifle resting on his lap. The first time he he’d held one of these in years was back of the dome, but he still had remembered the weight and feel. Still remembered it now.

His mind was still wrapping around the conducting feat his brother was capable of. It was astonishing; and some of that old, bitter jealousy simmered in the pit of his stomach at the thought of it, despite the situation. It had boiled there when he’d caught sight of that Ariesian’s free-handed fire-conducting back on top of the train too. But as his wife always said, “Don’t be silly. You’re you.” He’d managed to call her earlier in between the dome and the shelter, and she’d agreed to lie low for a while. “This isn’t what I wanted,” she’d said. And he agreed.

With a grimace, Ludwig suddenly thought of Gilbert. And then of Gilbert’s arm. Gilbert had always been a rowdy kid. Ludwig distinctly remembered thinking that he’d be a bad influence on Werner and Viktoria. Oh, how wrong he was. If somehow Gilbert came out of this with his reputation intact, the man would probably be given a medal, some marks, and be shoved aside and forgotten. Just like they all were. Just like how they would do to all future soldiers in service. Care and reverence only mattered when someone was poster child material after serving—

“I know what your plan is.”

Ludwig tensed at the familiar voice and looked down the road. His brother—no, Scorpio—stood there, his proto-conducting blade illuminating the surrounding buildings and the faint blood— his blood—staining the front of his blouse. Dark circles crescented his eyes, and he was deathly pale. Nauseous worry bubbled in Ludwig’s stomach at the sight of it.

“If you know what the plan is, then you have to be a masochist to come out here,” Ludwig replied, steely, tense, as Scorpio came to stand in front of him.

Scorpio lifted his proto-conductor in the air, the molten indigo light splattering into the floor. Then he lowered the weapon and sank to a crouch. Just as that peacekeeper had predicted.

“I enjoy watching people struggle until the very end. It’s very sad and beautiful at the same time. Even in the simplest of times, you people struggle to live and to find meaning in what you do. It’s only in times of tumult that you grasp it—whether that’s serving in a time of war or being a generous soul in a time of poverty. True peace is too dull and too much for you to bear. And that’s why the cycle continues. Anyway, my good man, if the Augen isn’t made into a martyr movement, then it’ll turn into exactly what it was made to combat against somewhere down the line. Marionette Engel’s parents must have seen the future when they named her.”

Scorpio met his gaze.

“Don’t you think so, Former Colonel Ludwig Waltz?”

Ludwig stiffened as he saw a dark blue scorpion tattoo crawl up his brother’s face. It felt like something out of one of those grim fairy tales Werner and Viktoria used to sneak-read together when they were younger. Grimacing, he tightened his grip on the rifle resting in his lap.

“Who will run, who will stay, who will be the one to cut me out.” Scorpio made a cross shape over his chest with his free hand before reaching out and tapping Ludwig’s rifle. “This is for show, obviously. If you used that on me, the next person you’d use it on is yourself.”

Part of Ludwig wanted to vocally deny it, but he realized there was no point.

“Werner would be upset if you did that, of course. And when Werner is upset, I’m upset too.”

“How… can you say that after what you’ve done?”

“Wouldn’t you say the same?” Scorpio’s grin grew. “You would think that the people who care for you the most would be the ones to offer you fortress, but those are the ones who also hurt you the most. I’ve seen it time and time again. Just because you’re that close to each other, you think everything that you say and do will be forgiven. And that just spirals everything further. Some people mistake that pain as passion—as an act of love—while others reject everything similar to it that comes their way. And the cycle turns another revolution. Even on a smaller scale, it’s all quite—”

Using his arms as a spring, Ludwig launched himself off his chair and threw himself at Werner—Scorpio—with all of his might. The man caught him awkwardly in surprise before toppling to the floor beneath his weight.

Ludwig squeezed Scorpio’s blade-wielding hand tightly, forcing the man to drop his weapon. He then quickly wrapped one arm around the man’s, while placing his other hand against the man’s face and pushing, pushing, pushing as he pinned him beneath his elbow.

He turned to his wheelchair, the seat of which was painted over with a dark spot.

“Hurry up!” he snapped in the direction—

Scorpio laughed. “What? This is your plan? It’s so inelegant… What happened to Capricornian innovation and tactics?” He lifted his ringed hand and stretched it out towards Ludwig’s face. Sparks caught around the grooves of his knuckles.

Before Scorpio could continue further, the black splotch on the chair erupted with bright pale tangerine light. Leaping out from that light came Heimler, knife drawn—how the old man could still move well, Ludwig had no clue. Heimler forced Scorpio’s free hand down before proceeding to pin it to the ground by stabbing it through with his knife.

Ludwig sent Heimler an intense glare. Heimler returned with an apologetic grimace before he began to pull the proto-conducting rings from Scorpio’s fingers one by one. Gilbert and Alice crawled out from the gate next, suppression cuffs in both of their hands.

Scorpio grunted as he glowered at Alice and threw himself forward causing Ludwig and Heimler to be jerked forward themselves. In the struggle, Scorpio broke free from their grasps and ripped the knife out from his palm. Gilbert stiffened and dove for the man’s legs, wrapping his entire body around them. As Scorpio began shaking him off, Stein emerged from the gate and threw his entire body against Scorpio, sending them all to the ground. Ludwig lunged for Scorpio’s hand again and held it down so Alice could wrap her conducting glove around his arm. Scorpio’s entire body stiffened at her contact, but he started to struggle forward rigidly—

“How much vitae do you think a True Conductor with all channels open contains? Especially when I’m here?” Scorpio continued to laugh. “I was impressed before that you could hold both my spore and Jericho down earlier, but—Alice, you always assume you know everything. About me, about Jericho, about Gabe, about Flannery too.”

Alice tensed but then slapped the cuffs over Scorpio’s wrist. “You always jump ten steps ahead.”

Nico emerged from the gate next with Lita in his arms and Kleine and Brandt at his side. The three men jumped at the man, grabbing for his wrists and locking them with multiple suppression cuffs. It was only after the seventh one was slapped over his wrist that he stilled completely. Lita was then lowered to the ground, her hands guided by Nico to Werner’s face.

It was almost funny, Ludwig thought, how the future of Capricorn lay in the hands of a child and an odd peacekeeper. This problem was hidden way beyond Capricorn itself.

“I… I can barely see anything…” Lita whispered, eyebrows furrowing as she squinted at Werner’s body through her conducting glasses. She shook her head. “I’m sorry—I can barely even see any vitae at all—”

“It’s the suppression cuffs.” Alice frowned after a moment. “They’re restricting the flow of vitae…”

“You’re shitting me.” Gilbert panted, his one arm still tightly wrapped around Werner’s legs. “That Libran saint candidate tracked down Leona and cut Scorpio out of her even though she was cuffed. Is this a prank?”

Alice frowned, eyes narrowing, sweat dripping from her brow. “Lita is not a saint candidate clearly, and you’ve seen the gap between people like us and people like ELPIS, True Conductors, and saint candidates.”

Ludwig’s stomach twisted.

Gilbert sighed. “You’re saying we have to try to cut that spore out of him while he’s conscious?”

Alice glanced at him.

Gilbert grimaced and then nodded at Kleine. At his and the peacekeeper’s direction, Kleine began to conjure up heavy bindings—titanium and tungsten, he said. With the help of the others, they began to place Werner in these bindings—around the wrist and around his legs and waist. Ludwig watched them stiffly, still wrapped around his brother’s arm. Once all the bindings were in place, Alice walked over to Lita’s side and placed her hands around the cuffs closest to her.

“Are you ready?” Alice asked Lita quietly.

The girl nodded.

Letting out a quiet breath, Alice released the first suppression cuff. Nothing happened. Lita shook her head—she couldn’t see anything either. Alice released the second one slower. Nothing, a head shake. At the third one, Werner’s lids began to flutter, but still Lita shook his head. The fourth, fifth, and sixth were undone next.

“Okay. Okay.” Lita’s voice trembled slightly. “The vitae looks like it’s starting to… be thicker. But…”

Tensely, Alice removed the last cuff.

“There! I can almost see it—”

Scorpio’s eyes snapped open, and at the same moment, the bindings that covered his hands glowed a bright orange. Before Ludwig could give a warning shout, an intense heatwave threw him back as the bindings exploded. He smacked against the building wall behind him before collapsing to the floor. He barely rolled out of the way of the shrapnel that cometed the wall a second after. When he shook himself and scanned the clearing, he found the others had been blown towards the wall opposite.

“I’m insulted on Aries’s behalf and on the behalf of all the ones who make up Aries that you thought that could contain her.” Scorpio rose to a stand, back facing Ludwig, his voice distorted by the crackling flames that melted away his bindings and the smoke that thickened the air. He covered his mouth with his elbow and coughed before grimacing. “And you all find purpose and victory in this.” He threw out his hand again and sent another wreath of crimson flames crackling out like a whip. 

Memories of struggling against similar flames during the war beneath bombshelling and vitae-ray fire flashed through Ludwig’s mind. Then came the words he’d said to Werner and Viktoria when he’d returned home after his injury. His heart seized in his chest.

Ludwig clenched his fist, tears stinging his face from the heat and ash, and crawled forward. Scorpio paid him no mind and continued to throw out his hand and send out poorly-aimed flames in the others’ direction. The air thinned to the point where Ludwig felt like he was breathing in gravel. Still, he pulled forward and forward until he grabbed a hold of Scorpio’s leg again. Lowering his hand, Scorpio turned and blinked down at him.

“You’re all so pitiable—”

Viktoria appeared from the gate in the chair behind Scorpio, face flushed and panting heavily.

What? Ludwig thought. Why did that ELPIS leader let her go through—

He locked eyes with Viktoria incredulously before glancing at Lita who was just beginning to pick herself up from the ground across from him. Viktoria followed his gaze to the girl before running over to where Lita had fallen and pulling her up onto her back. She then charged at Scorpio from behind, wrapped her arms around his waist, and squeezed tight, while Lita clambered forward and looped her arms around the man’s neck.

Scorpio merely laughed. “You all look so ridiculous!”

Before he could reach for either of them, however, Stein, Kleine, and Brandt dashed forward and grabbed hold of his arms. Gilbert came next, delivering a quick blow to the back of the man’s legs, causing his knees to buckle. As Scorpio fell to the ground in a kneel, Alice stumbled over and placed her conductor-gloved hand on his shoulder. Scorpio stiffened but continued to struggle rigidly.

“R-Right there!” Lita shouted, reaching around and jabbing her finger at his chest directly above Scorpio’s heart. “It’s dark blue, big, and ugly! Three millimeters in diameter—”

“Hold him!” Nico shouted, flipping the proto-conductor on and stumbling up and forward from where he’d crashed against the wall. He skidded to a halt in front of the man and poised the proto-conductor—

“Why do you always charge into things you don’t understand and call it bravery? One slip, and you’ll kill Werner.”

Nico froze.

Ludwig stared up at him incredulously. Do it, he wanted to say but Scorpio’s words dug into his mind.

You’re a Transmutationist. I’ve seen everything. You’re constantly wanting to become something you’re not—a saintly doctor, a fearless warrior, etcetera. You’ll never be satisfied. I assure you that you will never be what you want to be—”

“The lieutenant asked me to wake him up,” Nico interjected, tightening his grip on the blade, “and that’s exactly what I’m going to do, so I don’t know what all this other talk is about, to be honest. And—trust me—this is not the most dangerous operation I’ve ever done.” With that, Nico slid the blade with a steady hand into and through Scorpio’s—Werner’s—chest just below where Lita was pointing.

Scorpio jolted as the blade slid through his chest. White cracks began crawling up the man’s neck, just barely brushing the scorpion tattoo that was scrambling to the upper corner of his face by his eye. And then, he smiled thinly—“You’ll see”—before slumping forward.

Ludwig felt a dread overtake him at the sight of this.

Wide-eyed, Nico switched off the proto-conductor, caught Werner with the help of the others, and lowered him to the ground.

Ludwig dragged himself closer to his brother just as Nico scrambled on top of the man and placed an ear to his chest. A painfully long stretch of silence proceeded. Then Nico’s eyes widened, and his cheeks flushed with relief. He let out a sigh.

“He’s oka—”

A storm of boots slapping against the water cut him off short.

Ludwig propped himself and looked around in confusion. Men and women in military police officer uniforms were filtering onto the road from the connected alleyways around them. Before he could comprehend what was happening, the bottom of a boot was slammed down against his face, pressing him into the puddle of water below him.

Two of the military officers grabbed Werner by the arms and began to drag him away. Nico lunged for him, but the nose of a rifle stopped him short.

Ludwig snarled. “Let go of him—” He was cut off by a shaky yelp and whimper. Startling, he searched around wildly for the source. All around him he saw the others being shoved to the ground and against the building walls by the military officers. Only the peacekeeper was untouched by them, and she skirted back with a frown of confusion. Ludwig’s gaze was torn from her as the whimpering yelp reached his ears again. When he followed the sound, he found Viktoria being pinned to the ground by two large officers. “Let go of her!”

If only he could use his damn legs and conductor, then—

Another boot on the back stomped him to the ground, driving him further into the puddle as a voice rang out with absolute authority—”Arrest them all for suspected involvement with the Augen and treason!”


Threshold

Proceeding up above to the surface the second time around had been even more excruciating than it had been the first time. Werner had steeled himself for the experience prior to his ascension, but he could barely think when he actually arrived on the surface. It was as Lavi had told him. Only one vague feeling and pulsating thought kept him going. Still, he managed to help Jericho get himself in order.

However, as he had calculated, it had not taken long for all the thoughts of all the Capricornians Scorpio was still connected with to strike down on him. They submerged him in their weight and intensity and drowned him with their desperation.

Change—there needs to be change. Down with the Kaiser. The military police are going too far. We should follow orders. If we keep following orders, we’ll be jumping right off the cliff like lemmings and sheep. I’m afraid. I want to get this over with. It’s time to finish things. We need to hold this country together.

Werner held steadfastly onto himself and onto his own thoughts with all of his might as one foreign thought bled into another

Protect.

Protect.

Protect.

But still, the weight of all the others continued to bear down on his shoulders to the point where he ashamedly could not bear it any longer. The last thing he saw before he spiraled back down into agonizing darkness was Jericho’s expression of concern. The image stayed with him as did the pain that remained throbbing at his temples and seizing his chest even as he sank back down. The swirl of pulsating confusion seemed unending.

And then abruptly—almost as if it never existed—the tight and agonizing pain and cloudy confusion ended.

Suddenly, Werner became aware that he was lying on his side. Sweat clung to his back, and his breathing was labored. His shoulder pulsated with a familiar pain as did the palm of his left hand, and he could taste iron and an oddly sweet bitterness in his mouth.

A shadowy figure peered over him, their locks of dark hair spilling down onto his face.

“It’s time to return to reality.”

Shion?

Werner studied the figure until his gaze finally focused. The face above him was youthful, their eyes round, theeir cheeks ever so slightly tanned.

Lavi.

“Scorpio’s been removed,” she informed him, letting out a sigh as she rose from her crouch. “Somehow… I guess sometimes all of that struggling and fighting does result in something.”

He followed her gaze up to the abyssal sky. Cracks were running through it again, splitting the black. However, this time the cracks glowed an indigo blue and extended to the ground far off in the distance.

Lavi glanced back at him. “That was risky.”

Werner agreed. Taking a risk like that was unlike him. The parameters had been unknown, the range of the probability of the success wide, however—the outcome was acceptable.

Werner pulled himself up to all fours and calmed his breathing. He then searched the divide of vitae at his left and found Shion poised there at the very edge. She was in a crouch, the worry furrowing her brows just beginning to lessen.

“Are you okay…?” Shion whispered. “I tried calling to you, but…”

“I’m fine,” Werner replied, rising to a stand and straightening himself before making his way over to her with Lavi trailing behind him. “This is most likely due to the efforts of my subordinates. As expected, they remain efficient and reliable.”

“You proved you were reliable too, you know.” Shion smiled thinly, joining him in a stand.

Her words squeezed something inside of his chest, and he felt a little less concerned about how unsightly he’d appeared before laying down in a heaping mess before her.

A groan resounded above. A glance upwards informed Werner that the indigo cracks had spread even further, causing the black in-between them to shrink.

“I’ll be returning above soon,” he stated, meeting Shion’s eyes again. “As myself.”

“Yes…” Shion’s gaze lowered before the corners of her eyes crinkled. “Yes, you will.”

“Up and down, a crescendo followed by a diminuendo,” Lavi hummed beside him, her eyes narrowing slightly. “And the cycle turns again—”

“Olive will free you from this place,” Werner interjected, turning to her. “The means may be unethical to him from what I’ve observed now but… we can discuss where you stand after.”

Lavi studied him before squinting and puffing her cheeks out childishly. “I see you’re back to your usual self.” She slowly trailed him up and down with her eyes. “At least… you’re acting like it.”

Regarding her for a moment, Werner pondered what he would do if Viktoria were in this position instead of Lavi. Viktoria, who had given him that first expectation.

Absentmindedly, as he recalled the past with that singular thought pulsating at the back of his mind, he placed a hand on top of Lavi’s head. Lavi stiffened, then looked back up at him, a mixture of appreciation, pity, and reluctance in her eyes.

“I’m glad you have people up there that you can rely on outside of us,” Shion drew slowly. “Just in case, you know? I’m sorry for lying to you in the beginning. It was pretty… stupid.”

“Agreed.” Werner nodded, moving his hand from Lavi’s hand and clasping it behind his back. “However, given the situation, I doubt that you disclosing that information would change anything.” After a second, he clarified. “That was meant to be reassurance, Shion.”

The corner of her eyes crinkled again. “I know, Werner.”

A lapse of silence fell between them.

Werner, for a moment, considered if he could extract any additional information about the syzygy from Shion in the little time he had left here. However, he then realized that she wouldn’t be able to give him any information that he would be able to retain. In other words, it was a poor use of time. On other hand, shewould be able to retain everything he said to her here. As he thought about it, he found it quite sad.

“I know this is asking a bit much,” Shion spoke suddenly. “Probably selfish too. And it’s probably pointless to ask.”

Instead of agreeing, he listened.

“But since I’m not there anymore…” She hesitated. “Could you maybe take my place up there instead?”

Werner stared at her as faint memories—of hers, not his—flitted in his mind’s eye: synchronizations on wet and hot summer days, faded words of reassurance during late nights under the light of a full moon, a faint yet ever-constant presence. ‘Warm’ things never to return.

Werner considered this for a moment, then thought of Otto and Emilia. “While it’s easy to replace the parts of a conductor, it becomes increasingly difficult to replace members that were integral to a unit. It won’t function the same even if most of the parameters are matched.” He nodded. “But I’ll meet those standards to the best of my ability even though these specifics will be difficult to recall.”

Shion stared and then laughed, covering her hand with her mouth. “‘Standards,’ Werner?”

He studied her as her laughter quieted and she drew nearer to the threshold dividing them. The light from the river warmed her face, and he could see himself reflected in her dark eyes.

After seeming to study his face, she reached across the river of vitae in between them. “One more selfish request…” She tapped his forehead causing him to stiffen. “Since you can’t remember me here—” She then tapped the pocket watch still ticking above his chest. “—Maybe you could try remembering me here instead…?” She chuckled with a shrug, pulling her hand back as if stung. “Or not.”

Werner regarded Shion quietly. Memories weren’t truly stored in the heart nor were feelings, but for a moment he wished they were. The reality of vitae—as efficient of a resource as it was—was a troubling thing. Especially if those around him—

“The syzygy is approaching,” Shion continued, face tightening, her voice starting to shake ever so slightly. “It’s only going to get harder from here on. I wish I could be up there to tell you everything and be with you—I really wish I could, but I… I was stupid.”

Werner remained silent.

“There are things that you shouldn’t hide. There are things that you can’t compare with numbers too. I mean… the time I spent with all of you was so tiny, but I still think it was the most important time of my life—” She took a moment to recollect herself, before continuing: “There’re things you have to rely on others to do in order to… ‘succeed’ like you say.”

Werner could see past regrets folded in her expression.

“I mean—I’m sure with being a dashing commander you already know all this… but it’s more than just on the battlefield. It’s not always ‘unsightly.’ Sometimes… you have to do it. Right, Werner…? You’ve seen it? Promise me?”

He nodded slowly to reassure her.

“Anyway… I’ll still be right here if any of you end up falling back down. Until the very end.” Sighing fondly, she moved her hand across the divid to cup his face again. Although it felt strange, he held still for her. “Hopefully that doesn’t happen.”

Werner could feel that she wished it did deep down and that she despised herself for it. He studied the face of the woman whom he had met only a short while ago yet whom he had somehow known for years. Although he could not recall it himself, he felt as if he owed something to her. For a moment, he almost wished to keep her company down here. But that was not realistic nor reasonable. And so, he thought, thiswould only be something he would show to her.

Werner cupped her hand in his own, startling her. Carefully, he said, “These are merely words, Shion Myosotis. I’m aware they can’t be equated to something physical.” He squeezed her hand. “But from what you’ve shown me—back then, I’m sure that to all of us you were something akin to a mothe—”

Shion’s eyes lit up just as the abyss around them shattered into an indigo blue.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Capricornian First Lieutenant Werner Waltz opened his eyes.

19.4: ELPIS, 2315 Reason

Re-cap: 

Jericho who is manipulated into rampaging through Capricorn by Scorpio is calmed by Werner and Alice. Werner, however, shatters before Jericho’s eyes as Scorpio’s noose tightens. Meanwhile, allies begin gathering at a bunker below the city. The two who have left ELPIS now…


Einsicht » Reason neared at 2350 hours

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

“Here.”

Rubbing his wrists, Jericho looked away from the sign hanging on the back wall that read Schutz #45. Alice stood in front of him, holding a towel. He took it from her and wiped his face before pocketing the two bars of chocolate and proto-conductor rings he had taken out from his pockets earlier when searching them. At the moment, he was seated alongside a dusted wall on one of five chairs conjured up by a man who had introduced himself as Klaus Kleine.

Alice had explained to Jericho that they—including Werner’s subordinates, Werner’s captain, a major general and his subordinates who were working with them, a couple of captured Capricornian generals, Maria’s crew members, and Werner’s own family—were taking momentary shelter in this old war bunker in an abandoned area of the city. According to her, he had been unconscious for many weeks now because Werner had been cut by a powerful Manipulator. She had also elaborated that the powerful Manipulator was Talib—who was no longer Talib. Talib was Scorpio, a saint candidate. And saint candidates were ancestors in the same way ELPIS leaders were original Ophiuchians.

TalibPartner.

Alice abruptly sighed and then took the towel from him. Jericho looked up at her as she dropped the towel back on his head.

“Your hair, Jericho.”

Jericho dried his hair as instructed but kept the towel over his head. It served as a curtain to hide from the stares that everyone in the room was giving him.

They were afraid. It was clear. He was no longer in the many suppression cuffs Alice had put him in—so, in their minds, he could strike at any moment, despite not having his suitcase or conductor nearby.

The only person who seemed at ease was the man currently seated next to him and fastening a makeshift cast over his arm. “Nico FabrizzioBelieve it or not—I’m a doctor” was how the man had introduced himself. Despite Nico’s relaxed appearance, there was a pair of suppression cuffs resting on his lap. Given to him by Alice.

Jericho felt uncomfortable. Maybe the correct word for it was ‘ashamed.’ He had broken his promise with Alice and used his conductor on people who were not with ELPIS. Gone. Olive would be angry at him if he found out about it. Atienna would be sad. Werner had almost looked disappointed. And although Jericho could not feel them, he felt these feelings in himself. Very uncomfortable. Because for a moment he had become like them—like ELPIS—taking away home, family, friends. No. He had become what he’d been before Ophiuchus took him in.

Frowning, Jericho instead tried to focus on other things like Alice had taught him and studied the others in the bunker. Although there were many people in here, Jericho only really knew a handful of them.

Gilbert was lying on a mattress on the left-hand wall. He was surrounded by a handful of other Capricornians and being tended to by a medic. Then there was Alice standing by the ladder that led to the surface and speaking to three men whom she had named for Jericho earlier: Martin von Spiel, Friedhelm Heimler, and Volkner Weingartner. Theta was speaking with Kleine in the opposite corner—Jericho noted that the tattoo on the right side of the Theta’s face was concealed by a skin-tone powder. Across from Theta clustered a foreign-looking group including a child, a Monadic priest, a sailor, and one other. In the farthest corner sat four Capricornian civilians—one of whom was in a wheelchair. Werner’s family—uncomfortable. In-between these different groups idled other Capricornian soldiers whom Alice had explained were under Martin. Most stood guard around a trio of bound-and-gagged Capricornian men at the bunker’s center—two of whom were highly decorated with medals.

Every so often when there was a lapse in conversation, some of the soldiers would turn to stare at Jericho. Their stares weren’t so different from the ones he’d received from people in Ophiuchus who knew. Unpleasant.

“Suggestion. If I make everyone feel uncomfortable, you can put the suppression cuffs back on me. I don’t mind,” Jericho said. When everyone who was staring looked away, he sensed he had said something unusual, so he dipped his head. “I apologize.”

Nico nudged him with his elbow and chuckled. “Hey, isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? You’re a peacekeepin’ agent, right? Cuff us instead.”

Jericho stared at Nico’s elbow. “Why are you doing that?”

Nico blinked. “Uh—well, it’s a friendly gesture…”

Alice crossed the room with Kleine following shortly behind her. Once she was in front of him, she sighed with a frown and pulled the towel from his head: “Jericho, we can’t have you in suppression cuffs right now. We need your vitae to cut out Scorpio’s spores.”

“Yes. Werner said that.” Jericho stared at Kleine and then at the metal-lined, cylindrical objects in Kleine’s hands.

Startling, Kleine stepped forward, hands tightly wrapped around the proto-conductors. “Er,” he tried in Capricornian. “Are you okay using—”

“I know how to use proto-conductors. I can fill them,” Jericho stated, holding out his good hand. “I will do it. To help.”

Kleine looked over his shoulder towards Weingartner who gave a curt nod. He then placed one proto-conductor into Jericho’s hand—a blade conductor with a cylindrical glass handle wrapped in metal.

“I tried my best to make them to what Alice said were your specifications,” Kleine said nervously. “I haven’t had much practice conjuring proto-conductors or conductors for Specialists… We don’t have many in the unit.”

Jericho gripped the handle and concentrated. Slowly, wisps of off-white light began to spill into the glass until it was filled to the brim with the color. “It is functional, Kleine.” He handed the proto-conductor to Alice and then accepted the other empty proto-conductors from Kleine. He began to fill those too.

Whispering began:

Saints… Look at that color.”

“Not even that ELPIS leader’s vitae is that white.”

“That’s Kaltes Auge, isn’t it? ‘Cold Eye’? Isn’t he a Projector?”

“How do you think a person can have multiple conducting-types like that?”

More staring—but no gaze was as intense as the one belonging to the one Gilbert had named as being Werner’s mother.

Gilbert rose from where he lay on his mattress and sent the whisperers a glare as did the Capricornians gathered around him.

“Enough,” Martin snapped from the ladder, silencing them all immediately. “This isn’t a circus.” He approached Jericho and held out his hand.

Jericho glanced at Alice who nodded, before he handed over one filled proto-conductor blade to the man and then the rest to Alice. Martin flicked his on, examining the off-white blade when it emerged. He then pressed the tip of the blade against the unoccupied chair in front of him.

Jericho watched as white cracks spread from the blade’s point of contact with the back of the chair to the chair’s rickety legs. The cracks thickened and joined together, tightening, tightening, until the chair shattered into nothingness in a burst of white light.

A long silence followed.

“What a terrifying conducting ability…” Martin muttered, before extinguishing the blade and studying the wisps of light captured in its insulation tubes. “It makes you wonder how quickly we would have defeated the Argoans if only Waltz had told us about his ability. Imagine having a True Conductor serving on the fronts… Capricorn would be unstoppable.”

“Do you think they’d let us go that easily, Martin?” Weingartner asked grimly from beside the ladder.

Martin held Weingartner’s gaze before turning back to address Jericho—“Fritz had this same ability to switch conducting types then too?”

“Fritz?” Jericho tilted his head, thinking. “Who is Fritz?”

Martin frowned, tensing.

Jericho stared at him, then turned back to Alice. “Alice. Talib is…” He searched for the word. “We are… partners. Talib—can he be fixed?”

“You and Talib are partners,” Alice affirmed, expression tight. “But Scorpio isn’t.” She looked over towards Theta. “I’m not sure if helping Talib is an accomplishable short-term goal for us at the moment.”

“We need to move along,” Martin interjected, turning to the corner of the room. “Now that we have the proto-conductors, we should test if they actually work combined with Lita’s ability.”

The girl in that corner was encircled by the Monadic priest, the sailor, and the other man who all tensed at the address.

“I don’t think she’s ready yet,” the priest said. “She’s still disturbed after meeting the saint candidate. She—”

“Unfortunately, Simon,” Martin replied, “we don’t have the luxury to be worrying about feelings. She’s been gifted with being a Specialist. These types of responsibilities come with it. It’s good to use it.”

Jericho glanced at Theta and found him glowering at Martin. Theta then stiffened and glanced back at Jericho. Jericho looked away.

Lita cleared her throat as she hesitantly stepped out of the priest’s—Simon’s—shadow. “I can do it. I can speak for myself too. I can do it.”

Simon tensed, glancing at Jericho before nodding and guiding Lita over to him. For a moment, the girl stood tentatively in front of him, shifting from foot to foot. Jericho noted how small she was. As small as Ayda was in his dreams.

“You aren’t Maria anymore…?” Lita asked.

Jericho shook his head.

“She’s blind, jackass,” someone muttered.

“No,” Jericho replied out loud. “I am not Maria.”

Lita’s shoulders slumped, but she shook herself and turned to Martin beside her. “So I just have to tell you where I see something unusual? Then what?”

“That’s when we’ll have one of the medics take the proto-conductor and cut the foreign item out,” Martin explained, his voice softer than earlier. He nodded at Nico before glancing back at the Capricornian medic. “It’s either you or Brandt—”

“I’ll do it, sir,” Nico interjected, extending his hand and glancing at Jericho. “I’ll… I’ll do it.”

Martin nodded and passed him the proto-conductor.

Wrapping his fingers around it and letting out a quiet sigh, Nico murmured, “Whenever you’re ready, Lita.”

Simon eyed Jericho warily before guiding Lita’s hesitant hands forward. Squeezing her eyes shut and pulling her conductor glasses up above her eyes, Lita took it the rest of the way and placed her hand on Jericho’s cheek. She slowly opened her eyes after a moment, peering through her conductor-glasses at him. Paling, she took a step back.

Jericho could feel the trembles of her hand. He felt exposed under her gaze.

Lita opened her mouth, lips quivering, and pointed towards his chest. Before she could indicate an exact location, she ripped away from him and threw herself into Simon’s arms. “S-Simon,” she stammered, voice breathy. “He’s not right. Something’s not right with him.”

Jericho touched his cheek where Lita’s hand had once been. “I… will not hurt you. I promise.” He began reaching for her—

“You should take Lita elsewhere and let her calm down,” Alice said to Simon, placing a hand on Jericho’s extended arm and pushing it down gently. “We’ll try again later—”

“Do you understand what’s happening in this country right now, Agent Kingsley?” Martin interjected. “We do not have the time to take breaks.”

“Since this is the first time we’re doing something like this, we need to be cautious,” Alice responded. “Jericho is the only one who we’re aware of who has this conducting ability that’s… on our side. The same applies to Lita. You’re a man of the military, Major General von Spiel. You should know more about the importance of resources than I do.”

Martin frowned at her. After a long stretch of silence, he nodded at two Capricornians standing beside each other by the opposite wall. “Einswach, Grimm, accompany them. Stick to the alleyways. Return if you encounter any signs of trouble immediately.”

The two addressed soldiers saluted before guiding Simon and Lita up the ladder and out of the bunker.

One of the Capricornians perched by Gilbert’s side abruptly stomped over to them. “I still don’t get it. So are you ELPIS or not?”

“I am not ELPIS,” Jericho replied immediately.

“Stein,” Gilbert grumbled to the man from the mattress, “read the damn room.”

“I can’t be the only one who’s confused, sir,” Stein grumbled back. “And not the only one who feels offworking with terrorists.”

“I am not—” Jericho started.

“Yeah, wasn’t talking to you.” Stein jerked his head towards Theta standing behind him. “So what’s your deal? Why are you hunkering down with us? You hate conductors, don’t you? From what I get, True Conductors are the ones you’re trying to off too.”

Theta regarded Stein for a minute before replying calmly, “Yes, because True Conductors are required for the syzygy. It is a reasonable response to carefully excise the most easily removed component of a machine. But that is no longer a goal of mine. At this point, True Conductors and reservoirs will continue to appear—albeit slowly—despite all of our efforts. It is a fruitless cycle that will continue until we are no longer here. A better approach is needed.”

Stein grimaced. “Something just doesn’t add up—”

“You’re not the best at math, Stein,” the Capricornian medic said from beside Gilbert.

“Shut up, Brandt. Damn traitor,” Stein fired back before facing Theta again. “So you’re centuries-old half-immortals. The way you talk makes it sound like you’ve been doing your crazy shit for centuries. How come the name ELPIS hasn’t popped up until then? Why is all this shit happening if you’ve been at it for that long?”

Theta’s eyes narrowed and an unfamiliar flame of anger sparked in his eyes. He relaxed a second after and looked familiarly gloomy again. “Our strategy and action have been the same throughout history… which further highlights our failure. I must admit… I believe we have become more extreme over the years. That may be the result of the outcome of your war—the Reservoir War.”

Martin, Heimler, and Weingartner exchanged looks.

“Ophiuchus was our home. To have it turned into a mocking puppet…” Francis glanced at Alice. “I still do not believe peace can be achieved by those who have never known it.”

Peace. Home.

“If you’re wondering why you have not heard of us until now, look to those who have governed this continent over the centuries,” Theta continued. “That’s an answer you should be able to deduce from what you’ve experienced here.”

Stein grumbled, then said, “So you’re not going to off the lieutenant or any person he’s connected to.”

“As I have said. That is no longer my intention.”

Stein rubbed the back of his neck with a nod. Then abruptly, he stormed over to the sidewall and kicked it multiple times with his foot— bam, bam, bam. “This is still bullshit! We’re stuck down here, while they’re up there fucking everything up—”

Martin sent Weingartner a look.

“Stein,” Weingartner said warningly. “Calm down. We still don’t know all the side-effects of post-infection.”

Brandt nodded, holding up a placating hand. “It’s good not to get too riled up, Stein. I don’t remember ever treating anyone who’s been freed from Scorpio’s control before, but I’m guessing high BP isn’t a good thing for it.”

Stein froze and tensed, looking around the room before heading to the ladder. “Fuck it. I’m going out for a damned smoke.” He stopped short in front of the ladder and looked back to Gilbert, then Weingartner. Only when the latter gave him a nod did he ascend.

Jericho watched Stein disappear above before turning back to stare at Theta who remained impassive across the room.

“Until Lita returns,” Martin said, gesturing to the suppression cuffs on Nico’s lap, “we should take precaution—”

“You seem to misunderstand the purpose of suppression cuffs,” Alice interjected. “They’re to help pacify people who are actively wielding a conductor and posing a danger to themselves and others. At the moment, none of those apply. Keep in mind: Jericho is still a peacekeeping agent.”

Martin frowned. “And we are in Capricorn, Agent Kingsley, with an incident that on the surface looks very confined within national borders. ELPIS’s involvement is keeping that Leona here, but not you. Besides, by how Scorpio was speaking, I doubt you hold as much authority as you believe you do.”

“With all due respect, Martin,” Weingartner inserted, “I think it’s better to remain negotiable with the way our situation is now.”

Martin stared at Jericho, gaze narrowing. Something akin to pain flitted across his features, before he said, “I understand. I just advise that we remain cautious and alert.”

“Duly noted,” Alice responded. “I haven’t become the third chairwoman of my department for lack of caution.” She crossed her arms. “That being said, Mr. Fabrizzio, Herr Kleine, Herr von Spiel, would you all please give Jericho and me a moment?”

The three men exchanged looks of confusion.

Nico was the first to peel himself out of the chair, tucking the proto-conductor into a holster at his belt as he did so. Kleine hesitantly followed not long after. Martin remained, however, hands folded quietly behind his back. Alice, in turn, pressed her palm against her belt where another pair of suppression cuffs were clipped. Martin gave a curt nod before heading back towards where he had been standing initially by the ladder.

“Jericho, I don’t believe I can be a suitable doctor for you anymore,” Alice said suddenly once Martin was on the opposite side of the room.

Jericho felt his stomach twist as a coldness gripped his chest. He stared down at his hands and tried to collect his thoughts. It was clear that Alice was angry. She was leaving him because he had broken the promise. He had disappointed her. Like he had disappointed himself.

“I won’t be able to effectively evaluate you and treat you with the neutrality and professionalism needed in patient-doctor relationships,” Alice continued. “I can be there for you in other ways but not that one. I… want you to get better, Jericho.”

Jericho paused and looked up at her. Her icy blue gaze no longer felt mindreading. And so, he nodded.

Alice uncrossed her arms. “So let’s have one last session.” She turned slightly, inclining her head at Theta. “Mr. Foxman, I’m sure you’re aware of what I’m implying. This isn’t healthy to ignore. We all need to address the elephant in the room.”

Kleine who was idle at Theta’s side tensed, winced, and then paced over to where Gilbert was laying. He found a place beside Nico who was now hovering there and then tucked his head down as did the other men in the circle.

Theta regarded Alice. “Since you’re a clever girl, Alice Kingsley, you can see clearly this is not the opportune moment to address—”

“Don’t ‘clever girl’ me, Mr. Foxman,” Alice cut in. “If you have as many years on you as you say you do, then you should know that this is necessary.” She looked around the room with narrowing eyes. “I’d much prefer for us to do this elsewhere in a space that’s less… public, but delaying this any further will just increase the chances of this never being addressed.”

Theta paused then chuckled—musical. “I suppose you’ve got a point.” Holding her gaze, he crossed the room slowly and came to a halt in front of Jericho. “What’s the agenda?”

Jericho couldn’t tell who was more intimidating: Theta for facing off against Alice’s ice-y gaze or Alice for standing against Theta.

Alice turned away from the man and asked Jericho quietly, “Would you feel comfortable with Francis sitting next to you? And do you feel comfortable continuing?”

Jericho looked around the room, eyeing all the Capricornians who looked away as soon as he met their gazes, then nodded. Theta studied Alice blankly before slowly sinking into the chair beside him. His presence felt like a shadow.

“Do you have something you’d like to ask Francis?” Alice sank into the opposite chair.

Jericho studied Theta’s face. “You covered your tattoo. Why?”

Theta cleared his throat, touching his cheek. “I thought it would make you more comfortable.”

“I do not want to attack you,” Jericho agreed. “As much.”

“Well, I’m glad I did it then.”

Something was off as Jericho had suspected: the picture didn’t fit. He asked, “Are you that Theta? A little bit of that Theta?”

“No, I don’t think I am,” Theta replied, “but that doesn’t mean I won’t take responsibility for that Theta’s actions.” He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a packet of v-cigarettes, and offered him one.

After a moment of consideration, Jericho accepted it, then watched as Theta—Francis—lit one for himself with a flick of his hand. The man took a drag and let it out slowly.

Theta wasn’t a smoker, Jericho thought—at least his Theta wasn’t.

After momentary hesitation, he copied the man and took a deep drag. The smoke curled in Jericho’s mouth oddly and clung to the roof of his mouth and the back of his throat. It tickled and burned—the sensation so unfamiliar to him that he doubled over, coughed, and gagged. The taste was bitter—at least, Jericho believed Olive would describe it that way—and not the good kind.

Frowning, Alice swiped the v-cig from his hands, discarded it on the floor, and then extinguished it with her boot.

Jericho rolled his tongue around his mouth. “Bad taste.” He reached into his pockets and pulled out the two chocolate bars from before. He broke one of the last two squares of chocolate off the bar that was already mostly eaten and popped it into his mouth.

“How is it?” Francis asked. “Any nuts?”

“No nuts. Bitter. But good bitter,” Jericho replied. “Olivier would like it.” He moved to eat the last piece but then paused as he thought of Werner. After some consideration, he wrapped it back up in its wrapper and stuffed it in his pocket to save for the man later.

“I’m surprised Herr Waltz isn’t a smoker,” Francis noted. “I’ve heard Capricornians and Aquarians are the biggest consumers of v-cigarettes—aside from Geminians, of course.” He pulled the v-cigarette away from his lips and twirled it between his fingertips with a frown. “How disgusting these things are. All for a brief moment of indulgence… a habitual addiction.”

A distant rumbling resounded above. Thunder or a skirmish. Impossible to tell.

Francis resumed puffing.

Jericho studied the ceiling before facing Francis again: “That Theta. That ELPIS. Why did they attack us? Vitae and generator conductors. Okay. But why people?”

“Not pulling punches, are you?” Francis glanced at him. “Unfortunately, Omicron destroyed the records from back then. Omega was the only leader that was active with me during that time. At least, I believe that is the case. I am unsure of the reason why you all were attacked. It may have been because you resisted. I apologize for my ignorance, but will knowing the reason change anything—”

“I killed Omega.”

Francis’s lips pulled down slightly. His brows furrowed before he nodded. “Yes. Yes, you did…”

“She wanted revenge for the others. The others with me. We were children. I thought I was returning them to the cycle. They would not stop any other way.” Jericho scanned Francis’s face. “I said the prayer you taught us after Omega died. I said it for Ayda and the others too back then.”

Francis took a drag and didn’t respond for a moment. After a beat, he said, “And the cycle of vengeance continues to drag in everyone who touches it. It truly is an endless spiral that is bottomless.”

“I started the cycle of vengeance?” Jericho tried, thinking.

“No.” Francis’s eyes narrowed slightly. “That responsibility falls with us… but I believe it is persisting still through you and the rest of the others—Gamma, Beta, me…” He flicked ash off his bud. “‘Vengeance’… I haven’t really thought about it like that until now.”

There was another stretch of silence. Jericho was unsure of whether he should continue to speak.

“Is there anything else you would like to ask Francis, Jericho?” Alice pressed.

Jericho nodded, appreciative of the direction. “How did you feel”—he struggled—“when you took us in. Towards us. How did you feel? No. Correction. How did you think you felt?”

Francis studied him before taking a puff and staring over Alice’s shoulder. “My answer will not change a thing.”

“That’s not answering the question, Francis,” Alice interjected tersely. “As Theta, you were a teacher, weren’t you? You should know the importance of answering questions.”

Theta—a teacher? Yes, Jericho could see that.

“We cared about you,” Jericho said. “After you died. We did it for you. They said it was what you wanted. Even though you were wrong. Even though you took everything. You cared for us. We thought you did.”

A familiar gloom crept back over Francis’s shoulders. Ash dribbled down from his v-cig as he spoke—“Children should be cherished. I believe that if any person cares for the future, they should care for the ones who inherit it. Teaching, guiding, protecting—these are mechanisms of action that should be maintained and fostered. Pushing on past responsibilities and grievances onto them… Well, naturally, the past bleeds into the future, but…” He lifted his hand and stared at it, gaze sobering. “But forcing the past into the present is quite a foolish thing. After all, children are not the ones who begin everything, and yet they have to bear the weight of continuing on with everything. A path is changed forcibly. It is quite a sobering thing.” He clenched his hand into a fist and then glanced at Jericho’s bare palms. “Sometimes instead of knowledge, ignorance is passed on.”

Jericho blinked, frowning.

Francis met his gaze. “I am certain that version of Theta cared for you because you held the future in your hands. And if that Theta taught you about the reversus oratio incantation, then you were someone close enough to be important. I doubt that Theta would have wanted you to do the things that Cadence said you were forced to do when you were younger, but I understand that is no fault of your own. These are not meant to be words of reassurance nor an excuse—this is the truth. But… it should be left in the past.”

Something in Jericho’s chest squeezed tight then lessened. He felt weightless and lightheaded.

“The cycle,” Jericho pressed, hoping Francis would understand.

Francis nodded. “Yes, I see. I probably told you then about mourning and the cycle. ‘Everything returns, so everything that has passed will still exist around you, so there is no need to mourn’—I said something along those lines, I’m assuming?”

Jericho nodded.

“I did hold that thought for myself for a while up until now.” Francis lowered his clenched hand. “But things will not be the same when the cycle turns. What has passed on will leave only a faint imprint of what it was. Who it was. If it does return, it will not be the same. Paradoxically, only when something disappears—only when it is ephemeral—will its value and meaning increase.” He closed his eyes as an expression of what appeared to be pain and loss passed over his face. Then he let out a sigh and met Jericho’s eyes again. “But that in itself is a sign of change—little by little. There is hope in that.”

Alice had already highlighted that fact about the cycle for Jericho. But hearing Theta—the one who had taught him that aspect—confirm it helped to seal in the cracks. But it also felt like something else was cracking its place.

Jericho drew slowly, “Everything we did really—”

“It is good to reflect on past actions,” Francis continued. “That is a method of learning. But agonizing and obsessing over it is only an affliction of the self. The human condition is something—oh, I derailed the conversation again. Sorry.” Clearing his throat, Francis turned to him again and said, “I apologize that your childhood was taken from you and that Theta took you in without taking responsibility for it… You don’t have to forgive that Theta. Your anger is something that is most likely justified. I just ask you take caution on how you use that anger. I don’t think Cadence or any of those connected with you would like to see you hurt. I feel responsible for you, so neither would I.” He paused in thought. “Aside from that, I am coming to understand that I have a problem of leaving people behind.” He then chuckled half-heartedly. “Not sure if that’s the ELPIS in me or the Twin Cities in me.”

Jericho didn’t quite understand Francis’s words, but he did feel their meaning and intention. Abruptly recalling their confrontation only a couple hours ago, he pointed to Francis’s hand. “Is it okay? After I stabbed it?”

Francis lifted his hand revealing a perfectly in-tact glove conductor. “Yes, that Klaus Kleine is a bright boy. He conjured it to the perfect dimensions after only a short explanation. Unfortunately, that practiced-honed talent is concealed by his passive demeanor…”

“I meant your hand.”

“Oh…” Francis smiled. “Well, Nico’s always been talented with this kind of thing, so I wasn’t too worried about that. It’s healed.”

“I am sorry.”

“It didn’t hurt that much. Perks of partially bleached vitae.” Francis’s smile slid from his face. “I hope this conversation helped at least a little bit.”

“I think. It is still unclear.” Jericho thought. “After the Twin Cities, I wanted to find something new. The others said I should. But it is still there. Anger. I need to do it. I need to finish it. Bring ELPIS to justice. False hope. If I don’t, then… everything I did both as ELPIS and a peacekeeper… I am not ‘good.’ I do not want to forget what happened. I cannot. Ayda. The others.”

“‘False hope’…?” Francis stared at him for a while, before murmuring, “If the destination is too difficult, then think of the path instead. Good and bad are all relative anyways. Labeling things as black and white is a luxury. Or maybe it’s insanity.” He took a drag. “I admit we ELPIS are relics of the past. Our continual pursuit of destroying conductors, True Conductors, and reservoirs—as I’ve said, we planned to do it for eternity if necessary, but we cannot win that way…”

Jericho lowered his gaze.

“I am not saying you present Conductors are correct in any way, shape, or form. The sight of those thingsstill disgusts me. But… Perhaps by combining the past that is us with the present that is you… perhaps through that, we can take on this obstacle that is the future together.”

One of the Capricornians snorted, but Jericho ignored it, instead nodding deeply. Francis placed something cold in Jericho’s hand a second after. When Jericho uncurled his fingers, he found a familiar, knife-shaped pendant with a glass handle in his palm. Unlike the pendant that Francis had offered Gamma earlier, the hilt of this one was empty and cold.

“That is my resistor,” Francis explained. “Gamma’s surprisingly easy to pickpocket—or maybe I’m just better at it now.” He stared across the room. “I had no intention of continuing to live on in another initiation since I would not be able to remember my last moments with Omicron. I intended this time to be my last… but I want to do right by you. You’ll live long—I can tell. Longer than me. When I die, if I return to my resistor, you can destroy me then or… If you’re feeling particularly vengeful, you can initiate me into someone who’s near-death and kill me at that moment. My future is in your hands. It’s only right since I took yours.”

Alice tensed across from him.

Jericho curled his fingers around the resistor. It felt so fragile in his hand. These resistors contained the catalyst for everything that happened in his life, and yet they were so fragile. He briefly wondered if saint candidates were the same.

“Alice,” Jericho said, “can you activate one of the proto-conductors? For me. I want to do something.”

Alice hesitated before she nodded and pulled out one of the proto-conductor blades clipped to her belt. She held it upright and pressed her index finger down on the switch. The white blade grew upwards, casting a pale glow across the walls of the room.

Jericho felt as if the atmosphere in the room had tightened. Ignoring this and leaning forward, he pressed the resistor’s handle against the white light and watched as glowing cracks formed up along the resistor’s glass hilt to its pointed blade. As the white lines completed their course, the resistor crumbled into specs of light and then into nothing. Jericho stared at his empty hand before looking back at Francis.

Francis was also staring at his hand. But slowly, his gaze rose to meet his. Then he smiled lightly and let out a sigh. “You’re a ridiculous person, I see. You and Cadence must get along very well. You’re both people pleasers.”

Jericho shook his head. “Cadence says I need to be a people pleaser. Practice, she says.”

Francis chuckled again before he took another puff and studied him. “We’ll get you both back to normal. I promise.” He placed a hand over his mouth before continuing slowly, “If you would like, I can help you in that pursuit of yours. I can help in finding who it was exactly that made you do those things. Not the unconquerable entirety but a single part.”

Jericho stiffened.

“We can see whether it was one of us or if it was another child sect that became carried away. And if you find whoever that was that indoctrinated you still alive… Well, I will be there too. Perhaps you will find peace in that. Of course, perhaps, I am just projecting. In the end, that is something to decide for yourself.”

Jericho considered this as a ghostly image of the old Theta flashed through his mind. He nodded slowly as the memory faded into white. “Okay.”

They sat in comfortable silence for a while.

Francis eventually turned to Alice: “Miss Kingsley, I have something for you too—other than my gratitude, of course.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a monochrome photograph, and handed it out to her.

In the dim lights, Jericho was able to briefly glimpse the silhouette of a man, a woman, and a young girl captured in the photo.

Alice’s eyes widened as she scanned it. “What… does this mean?”

“I’m not sure,” Francis muttered, puffing. “I am absolutely certain Gamma was initiated correctly… I don’t want to get your hopes up—”

A series of metallic clangs resounded from the opposite end of the room. Down the ladder came two Capricornian soldiers, Simon, and Lita. Nico rose from where he was sitting beside Gilbert and touched the proto-conductor at his waist.

After a momentary pause of silence, Lita—hand-in-hand with Simon—approached Jericho again. She stopped short only a step away from him, lifted her chin, and let out a shaky breath—“I’m sorry that I didn’t perform up to standards. But… I’m ready now.”

Jericho rose to a stand and blinked down at Lita who then reached out to him with a steady hand. He prepared to reach back—when his shoulder abruptly began to spasm and pulsate. It took a moment for him to realize what the sensation was because he barely remembered what it was from the other five: pain. It exploded out like a ring of fire, spreading from his shoulder to his arm and fingertips and then to his neck and head. He stumbled towards the ground beneath the throbbing but Francis caught him with alarm.

Jericho. Born November 30th. Blood type B. Vision, 20/40, prescription glasses required. Height, 192.1 cm. Weight, 91.5 kg. Left-handed. Personality type, ISFP-Assertive. Parents, deceased. Siblings, deceased.

“Alice.” Jericho stiffened. “Something’s wrong.”

Occupation, Ophiuchian Peacekeeping Agent in the ELPIS Investigations Department. Formerly a member of ELPIS. Number of people returned to the cycle, 541. 

Heart hammering, Jericho shoved Francis away and to the ground.

Described by coworkers as “odd, peculiar, not right in the head.” Described by friends as “attentive, unique, humorous, good listener.”

Unusual activity: involvement in assassination investigations of True Conductor Olivier Chance, and active engagement in the ELPIS incident occurring in the Twin Cities.

Probability of being a True Conductor, 100%.

Probability of disrupting the syzygy, unknown. Reason, unpredictable.

“I’m sorry, Francis,” Jericho said before whipping around to face Alice. “Alice. I need suppression cuffs. Now. Please.”

Alice immediately pulled her pair from her waist and snapped one of the cuffs over his left wrist. At that exact moment, Jericho felt a hot breath tickle the back of his neck. Dark, shadowy, ghostly hands snaked out from behind him, their cold touch wrapping around his throat.

“The most human emotion is passion—no, vengeance,” a familiar voice whispered in his ear. “Meanwhile, the most human action is self-destruction. So, you shouldn’t abandon your humanity, Jericho. Not for anyone.”

Talib. 

“Well, all for all, help me set the stage before the final act—what do you say, partner?”

Everything cut to black.


Francis had felt rather nervous about speaking with Jericho. He was quite familiar with such nervousness—not as Theta but as Francis. Whenever he and his brothers were preparing to cut big business deals with the Romanos or the smaller underground entities around Signum, he always suffered nerves the day before. He’d go through two packs of v-cigs during those times, but he’d always managed to collect himself and present himself as a force to be reckoned—negotiated—with. He had to match Carl and Allen, after all. Couldn’t afford to be left behind.

That hadn’t been the same case for Theta. Nerves were something Theta didn’t experience often—but that was probably because Theta themselves had reached a point where there was nothing to be nervous about. Cycles broke fear and anxiety because they offered comfort, after all. Both a strength and a weakness.

Francis still recalled meeting Jericho for the first time in the Twin Cities when the man came to investigate Agent Leona—Leo. Francis had thought Jericho was quite peculiar and amusing back then. Their second encounter was also amusing when Jericho revisited the city to help the ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus with their investigation. And the last time they’d encountered each other was in that small warehouse in the Twin Cities. Then came Cadence’s revelation on top of those skyscrapers. The feelings from that terrible moment when she revealed that the suitcase peacekeeper—Jericho who had taken Omega’s life—had been taken in by some version of himself—of Theta years ago—and had subsequently been drawn into the fold of ELPIS was horrifying, sickening. The realization that he had indirectly, irresponsibly caused the suffering of children just like the ones he’d condemned followed him all the way here to Capricorn.

Guilt towards Jericho? A sense of responsibility to him? Those were things that no Twin Cities resident in their right mind would feel towards anyone. As for a teacher? Yes, those matters were important. Accept everything, reject nothing—the Twin Cities way.

Unfortunately while the part of him that was ‘Francis’ felt comfortable accepting the nervousness that came with eventually confronting Jericho, the part of him that was ‘Theta’ felt otherwise. In fact, he had gone over what to say in mind countless times in-between reading books on how to best approach apologies and condolences.

After his first friendly interaction face-to-face with Jericho had progressed decently, Francis thought his efforts had paid off—although the whole therapy-esque setup Alice had in place was peculiar. So—when Francis found himself suddenly shoved to the ground by Jericho after the fact, he was left rather jarred. Realization came soon after when Jericho requested to be placed in suppression cuffs.

However, just as Alice was about to slap the second shackle over his wrist, Jericho reached out and wrapped his free hand around her thin arm. Crimson flames sparked at his fingertips a second after. Francis barely had the time to lunge forward, jerk Alice backwards, and knock Simon and Lita down before the heatwave spiraled outwards like a tornado.

When the red flames died away, Francis picked himself up off the ground and found that the arm splint and the suppression cuffs that Jericho had been wearing had crumbled away into ash. Not -Jericho waved off the smoke clouding the ceiling absentmindedly before he covered his mouth and hacked a cough. Blood seeped between his fingers but he waved this off too.

“Well, this is a first,” Not-Jericho said. “It was a bit risky too, but I guess too much of Aries is left down there to really cause me any trouble.” He curled his hand into a fist and watched as crimson sparks danced around his knuckles. “So this is what it’s like to be a True Conductor.”

“Scorpio,” Francis realized, reaching for the knife holstered at his belt.

Scorpio smiled thinly, extending out a pale hand. “I see you’re still suffering, Vega. While I’m setting the final act of this revolution, let me help return you to nothingness.”

A burst of crimson red flooded the room.

19.3: Peacekeeper, 1500 Annihilation

References to (60) Part II | 9.6: Jericho’s (Lost) Raziocinio & (16) Part I | 2.6: Jericho Raid. 

Re-cap:

Jericho rampages through the streets of the Capricornian capital. He comes across Gamma, Tau, Beta, Oran, and Forschritt and attacks them relentlessly. Francis, Alice, Gilbert, and Klaus try to step in but Jericho’s powerful conducting dampens their efforts. When Jericho turns on Francis, Alice tries to stop him—but the distance she has maintained over the years is unreachable. And so, Werner rises to the occasion. Meanwhile Jericho is…


Vernichtung » Annihilation neared at 1500 hours

“Focus on a physical object you know is real.”

That was what Alice had told Jericho to do if he ever became confused about the present versus the past. But that was what Jericho had been doing, and still he was uncertain.

He vaguely remembered awakening on top of a wave of glowing purple water with a foreign-looking man dressed in a woolen cape at his right. His very first thought was Conductor. His second thought was purge. And so, he flung himself at the man without hesitation. As he tumbled through the air with the man, what he thought was the present came back to him in full force: He was a peacekeeper, not part of ELPIS. An upholder of peace, not hope.

“Sorry,” Jericho said to the man, once they had landed on the ground on top of each other. He righted himself and tried to offered the man a hand but noticed that one of his arms was slung in a cast. He promptly removed it and tossed it aside. “I just woke up.”

There was a light drizzle coming down from the gray sky, and it made the gray street below them shiny and reflective. The street itself was empty.

After picking himself off the ground, the man brushed himself off, straightened his woolen cape, and studied him. “You’re not Maria then? Is it an overlap? Well, retrieve her at once! We must find this Conta and—”

Jericho tilted his head. “I know Maria, but not Conta. I do… not think I can get Maria for you. I don’t know where she is.”

Jericho turned to survey the area. He was unfamiliar with this place. The square buildings built tightly side-by-side, the spotted trees dotting the sidewalk islands, the v-tram tracks on the ground and the wires hanging above them—it wasn’t a place he remembered coming to before. He couldn’t remember if the others had come to this place either.

Jericho turned away from the man and began to wander down the street. A strange pop-popping echoing in the distance gave him a sense of nostalgia. Firecrackers or gunfire.

“Hey—wait. Where do you think you’re going?” The foreign man’s voice boomed so loudly that it bounced off the buildings lining the street. “You dare walk away from Veles—”

But Jericho continued walking until he could no longer hear the man. Eventually, as he continued down the street, he tucked into a small open patio in front of a building with bread displayed at its windows and seated himself at one of the iron tables at its front. The woman peering out the bakery shop window gave him a fearful look. He waved back at her since it was the polite thing to do, but she pulled away inside her store. He stared after her for a moment before he suddenly became aware of the absolute silence around him. The others—he couldn’t hear them.

Abruptly, his head began to spin and his stomach gurgled uncomfortably. The wave of nausea took him out of his seat and sent him tumbling to the floor where he landed haphazardly in a puddle of water.

When he picked himself out of the puddle and peered at his reflection, Werner stared back at him.

An override?

The last thing Jericho remembered was reading letters in Gabrielle’s office back in Ophiuchus. And then—

“You forgot your promise, didn’t you?” 

Jericho froze.

The puddle was gone. The gray streets were gone. In their place were fine grains of sand shifting with the wind. The grains sparkled like diamonds beneath the sun which was now beating against the back of his neck. The air was thin but comfortable and familiar.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see colorful tents glowing beneath the morning sun. Silk carpets were laid out on the ground, while hanging tarps billowed in the wind. Camels dotted posts set up outside the makeshift village, while silhouettes drifted from out behind the tents.

Jericho’s gaze became drawn to a particular tent set up at the very center of all the others. A figure stood just behind the hanging tarp at its front. A woman with dark curls and a thin, boney frame. She pulled back the tarp and called out—

Jericho!”

Jericho’s heart hammered wildly in his chest as he reached out in that direction.

Home…?—

“Traitor.”

Jericho stopped short and slowly turned his head as a shadow passed over his face.

Beside him stood a girl with a mole kissing her shoulder—a girl who visited him in his dreams with her last visit being the time she came to him during his train ride to the Twin Cities. She’d stopped visiting him after that, but Alice had said it was a good thing.

“Ayda.”

Jericho couldn’t tell if she was taller than him or if he was taller than her.

“Conductors aren’t natural,” she said. “Peacekeepers are bad. But look at what you’re doing now. Traitor.” 

“A lie,” Jericho returned. “They told us that so we would kill for them. They made us use conductors too. Hypocrites. They told us it did not matter. That everything returned to the cycle. They convinced us conductors were bad. Never told us why. Did not have a reason. But I will get revenge. For you.”

No. That wasn’t right. Wait—

“But they do return to the cycle,” Ayda said. “Everything returns to the cycle.”

A wind started to pick up along the ground.

“But conductors stop things from returning to the cycle.”

The wind dug its fingers into the sand, sketching outlines that formed into shapes that formed into people who formed into a scene:

A man holding a conducting rifle pointed it squarely at the head of a child. A vitae ray shot out from the man’s conductor and struck the child who collapsed to the ground. Her body began to bubble and then melted into a familiar item: a reservoir pool. The sandy faux pool expanded all around Jericho and began to bubble just as the girl had. Human faces emerged from the popped bubbles—all wearing expressions of agony, pain, anguish. There was no sound.

“Conductors are evil. See. That’s what they do.”

Jericho’s head spun.

This was not real. Ayda was in the past. Right?

He dug his fingers into the sand, and he could feel each and every grain sticking to the cracks in his skin. This was real?

“If we were right to begin with”—the girl’s voice cracked, and her entire body sprouted hairline fractures in the blink of an eye— “why did you do that to all of us?”

Before Jericho could think of a response, Ayda crumbled to dust, the wind sweeping what remained of her away. In the quiet heat, he still tried to search his mind for an answer. ‘Why?’ Why had he done that to them?

Because ELPIS was evil. Because he had felt—had intuition —deep down on that day that they were in the wrong. The villagers in that town surrounding the conductor generator had been on their knees, sobbing and begging for the lives of their families. He had felt like he had been looking into a mirror. But the others wouldn’t stop—Ayda and his friends. Everyone had been determined back then. And so he had to do it. In order to stop them. It was the only way. He returned them all to the cycle. And he had sworn to avenge them by destroying the false hope that pushed them to that extent. By destroying ELPIS—

“But ELPIS is made up of people like me.”

Jericho turned at the voice and found a familiar man dressed in a maroon-toned suit standing behind him. A white snake was blazed onto the right side of his face—

Theta?

Home…?

No.

Jericho recalled meeting this man during his first visit to the Twin Cities. This was Francis Foxman, a calm and collected young ‘business’man.

Disjointed memories of him holding Francis hostage in a leaky warehouse in order to exchange the man for Alice flooded Jericho’s mind. At that time he had known Francis was ELPIS, but he had not immediately executed the man—why?

Jericho could not understand himself, and so he thought and thought. His memories and thoughts of that time were disjointed, but he managed to bring them together:

Why? Because the people who were ELPIS leaders were initiated unknowingly. Not their fault. And for Cadence. Francis was important to Cadence.

“Well, if you’ve given up on going after ELPIS,” came an airy voice, “Why in the world did you return me to nothingness?”

The new voice brought to Jericho memories of an abandoned warehouse, of cold fury snapping through his limbs and fingers, of a prayer, and of Werner guiding him on strategy and attack.

Omega.

Stepping into his view, the woman chuckled and flipped her hair. The snake tattoo at the back of her neck became revealed, causing Jericho’s heart to throttle in his chest.

“Oh my… you didn’t return me to the cycle, did you? I can’t return. You sent me into nothingness. And all I wanted to do was to get justice for Ayda and the others poor children you killed.” Sinking to a crouch beside him, Omega sighed, then smiled thinly. “Oh, but nothingness is the perfect place to be. That’s where true peace is.”

Jericho tensed, confused as the fire in his chest was dampened by something heavy and suffocating—no. He tried to burn the feeling away. This person didn’t deserve the feeling. She—they—had taken everything. Lied. Tricked. But… Theta was Francis—

Omega’s smile fell, and she reached out to tap his nose. “If you pity me or feel guilty, then why did you kill me? Not even Iota is left to remember how I was now. So why?”

Just like Ayda before her, Omega crumbled into dust before he could answer.

Jericho head pounded. Something didn’t connect. He couldn’t understand it. There were too many contradictions. Alice said—

Another shadow flitted past him.

Tensing, sweating, Jericho looked up and found yet another familiar face staring down at him—Talib. Relief spread through Jericho’s chest at the sight of him.

“Hey, partner,” Talib greeted him with a two-fingered salute. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

“Talib, something is wrong,” Jericho said. “This place is wrong. The information is wrong.”

“It’s true, Jericho. All of it is.” Talib sank to a crouch in front of him. “Alice, Gabrielle, and I just found out about it. Weaponized conductors can elevate vitae to a higher level equal to what’s in reservoirs to some degree. Thirty-or-so percent is the conversion rate. People can be harvested for reservoirs, and when that happens, they can’t return to the cycle.”

Can’t return?

“There’s even people out there who’ve found a way to directly convert people into vitae for the reservoirs. One-hundred percent conversion. The chairs of Ophiuchus know about vitae conversion too.”

The sand in front of Jericho sifted upwards and took the shape of a human. The faceless figure turned towards Jericho as its skin blistered, the flesh from its head drooping onto its arms. Desperately, it reached out for him with a melting hand and touched his face before dissolving into a sickly puddle of dust.

No. Peacekeepers were good.

“Alice didn’t want me to tell you though. See, I’ve always had a hunch that she was working for the Organization. Had a hunch that Ophiuchus wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows too.”

Alice? Ophiuchus? Why? ELPIS was right.

“‘ELPIS is right’? Oh, come now, Jericho.” Talib chuckled. “They’re fools. Look at the damage that they’ve done in the pursuit of their passion. They say they’re the last hope, but they’re just like every other person out there. Self-righteous and pitiable. They made you use conductors too and use them themselves. Well, at least most of them have stayed true to who they are since the very beginning.”

A chorus of wails and cries erupted behind Jericho. When he turned, he saw flickering red flames consuming the place he had once called home. The fire ate away at the colorful tents and tarps, graying them away into ash. Silhouettes darted out from the tents and screeched as rays of white light struck them down. The parched sand soaked up all the red spilling out beneath the tarps, tents, and cloth.

Home

“It doesn’t matter if they’re ‘not the same people.’”

Jericho tore his eyes away from the decimation and found Talib rising to a stand.

“They’re still ELPIS. It was still some version of them that did all of those things. And even if they weren’t the exact same people who did those things to you, your family, and those children, they still influenced the people who did. Without them, all of this would’ve never happened. Wouldn’t you say so, Jericho?”

Yes. Correct. ELPIS was wrong. But—

“Saying ‘it wasn’t them’ or ‘things are different now’ just because you learned something new about them… What does that make everything you’ve done until now? Senseless murder? That’s not very peacekeeper-like.” 

Jericho stomach churned at Talib’s words. He didn’t understand why Talib was saying these things. Being around Talib usually was ‘pleasant.’ But not now. Intuition. Something was wrong with Talib—

“I’m not the one who’s wrong, partner,” Talib said gently. “But we can figure out who’s wrong together. And make sure they’re brought to justice.”

Justice?

But—no. Jericho did not want to think about justice or ELPIS or the past. He wanted to find something new. He wanted to see Atienna or Alice. They always said things that made sense.

“Focus on something new?” Talib frowned. “Can you really leave behind things that easily? You wouldn’t be so different from ELPIS if you did that. Pushing everything into one idea and then abandoning it. Over and over again.”

No, Jericho thought. He wasn’t ELPIS. Not anymore—

Another shadow passed over him. But it was not a shadow from the past—not exactly. Standing only a meter away from him was a small child with tanned skin and jet-black hair. His charcoal-colored eyes contrasted the whip of white vitae spilling out from the conductor in his hand. “Once something is a part of you, it can never leave you.”

The boy disintegrated into the sand, revealing Talib standing behind him.

“Don’t you want to bring peace to Signum? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do as peacekeepers? Realpeacekeepers, I mean. Everyone lies, Jericho. Ophiuchus, ELPIS. To themselves and other people. And because people believe in those lies—that’s why there can never be peace.”

Jericho looked up at Talib as he neared.

“‘Fortunately’ everything returns to the cycle—for the most part anyways.” Talib grimaced.

Yes. The cycle was real. The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis was real. ELPIS was right. Conductors were evil. Just like ELPIS was evil. And peacekeepers who knew about vitae conversion were evil. And Jericho knew he was both of those things. Therefore—

“You have the conducting ability to wipe out everything that’s wrong with the world just like that—without the eyes that make you see too much and hesitate.” Talib extended his hand, chuckling. “That’s why they say justice is blind, right? But the question is what are you going to do about it?”

Jericho hesitantly accepted the gesture and rose to his feet.

If everything was wrong, then the only way to make things right was by erasing all of that wrong. Yes. Erase everything. Reset to what was right. That was justice.

“If that’s what you think is right.” Talib nodded, smiling genially. “Whatever you do, partner, I’ll be on the ride with you.”

If Talib agreed to it, then it had to be the right path. Talib was ‘good’ when it came to these things. And they were partners. Yes. But how would they achieve their goals?

“I’ve got you there, partner.” Talib pulled out his knife pen conductor from his pocket and twirled it. “Gamma, Beta, and Tau actually abducted someone I was looking into. Dämon Forstchritt. They’re quite a smart bunch so they’ve been trying to hide from my view for the most part. But I actually gifted Dämon with a pair of earrings that I turned into my mediums much earlier. Bright woman swallowed them as soon as they caught her, so I found them and put another medium on them. We can track them that way.”

Yes. Talib was reliable. Talib made sense.

“If you lead,” Jericho said, turning to survey the sand, “I will follow—”

“Wait…”

Jericho turned back to Talib.

The man’s head was bowed low, his lips pulled downwards, his eyes narrowed. “Well, maybe this is all a bit too much. You’re… confused. This doesn’t make sense, does it? You should probably find Alice—”

Jericho could hear the blood roaring in his ears. “No. I need to finish it.”

Talib stiffened before his lips curled upwards. “Well, if you say so, partner. You were always the passionate sort. Say, do you remember what I said to you about passion the very first time we met?” 

Jericho shook his head.

“‘Passion is neither good nor bad,’” Talib recited. “‘Without it, there would be nothing driving a person to dream.’ So let’s complete your dream, partner.”

* * *

Jericho followed Talib through the orange-tone sandy dunes with the yellow sun beating over his head. Occasionally, he would see flashes of gray and black, the sound of static, a flash of men and women, and blue flags and picket signs. He wasn’t sure if they were real, but that didn’t matter. His end goal did.

Eventually, he and Talib stumbled across a Capricornian with one arm who seemed to have come out from nowhere. Although Jericho did not recognize the man, the man recognized him—recognized Werner. The man said his name was Gilbert and he went on to speak of things Jericho did not understand. 

Before Jericho could question Gilbert further, strange men in Capricornian uniforms rose from the sand around him, their bodies solidifying from grain into man. In their hands, they gripped conductors—ready to use without remorse.

Sinful. Breaking the cycle.

Talib whispered into his ear saying, “Look at them, partner. They’re disrupting the cycle of vitae. There can’t be any peace when people like them are around.”

Erase. 

And so Jericho disposed of all of them, returning them to the cycle so that they wouldn’t disrupt the cycle. They would be at peace that way. Everyone would be at peace that way. Real peace.

Despite holding this thought in mind, however, doubt curled in Jericho’s stomach as he watched Conductors crumble away beneath his conductor. But then Ayda appeared out from the sand beside Talib and reminded him—“You need to keep your promise, Jericho. Let’s focus.”

Correct. If he didn’t focus, then he had killed her back then for nothing. And so Jericho did just that, refocusing his attention on Gilbert who remained standing stiffly before him.

A Conductor? he wondered. But—

“Wait. Not him,” Talib interjected from behind him before Jericho could reach a decision. “He’ll be for later. Trust me, partner.”

Right. Gilbert knew Werner. Gilbert seemed to care for Werner. Conclusion: Gilbert was Werner’s friend. Not to be touched.

Leaving Gilbert alone, Jericho continued following Talib’s direction through the arid, sandy dunes until he eventually came face-to-face with them. He did not see those tattoos on their bodies, but his heart throttled with a familiar hatred. He knew it was them.

Izsak. No. Gamma. Beta. Tau. ELPIS Leaders. Wrong. 

Their names pounded into his skull—and so he began pounding into them. Sliding along the weak sandy ground, rolling down the mounds, crashing into the occasional cactus and barren tree—he gave them chase. He felt no pain as he crashed left and right. And he knew they didn’t either. And yet still they ran, their footsteps leaving faint impressions in the sand.

As he cornered them on a slope, he thought to himself, How dare they run from what they’d done—

Abruptly, Alice appeared out from nowhere, calling his name from a sandy hill in the distance. Her frigid gaze pierced him through and caused him to become hyper-aware of his every action. He felt as if she could read his mind, and for some reason, he felt ashamed.

Then, he noticed a peculiarity: despite there being no rain, Alice was drenched from head to toe. The water droplets that fell from her hair and clothes were swallowed by the parched sand beneath her feet. Intuition. Something was wrong 

Distraction. 

Right.

The next few moments came in a blur of beige and gray. Then suddenly, Jericho came across a man dragging himself away from him along the ground. The man was bandaged, the sun’s rays barely touching his pink skin that peeked out from beneath the wrapped cloth on his arms and legs.

“That’s P.D. Oran,” Talib informed him.

Oran was the one who broke the cycle. He discovered a way to turn people directly into vitae. Oran needed to be brought to justice.

Just as Jericho was about to bring the man to justice, however, a voice called out to him once more. It was Alice again, standing on that far-off sandy hill. Staring into him. She proceeded to tell him things that didn’t make sense. She said it wasn’t real, that he was being fed everything by a Manipulator, that the cycle didn’t matter.

But Alice was a peacekeeper, Jericho thought. And peacekeepers were wrong. Alice didn’t know. No, she knew, but she kept it from him. A liar.

And so he continued, wrapping his hands around Oran’s throat for the sake of peace. But just as the man’s bones were about to crack beneath his hand, Oran disappeared into the sand. Jericho clawed at the ground desperately, but it was no use. Gone.

Jericho stood, turned, and then saw her. Saw Theta. She stood in front of him, basking beneath the desert sun just as she’d done all those years ago. Her head was hidden by that same white cloak, and the tattoo on the side of her face glowed a familiar white in the heat. The one who had brought him in. Right before him.

“If anyone needs to be brought to justice, it’s Theta,” Talib said from behind him.

Jericho agreed. But as he went for Theta, Alice tried to stop him by putting her conductor around his wrist—still he continued forward after the ELPIS leader relentlessly. He pinned Theta down, stabbed through her conductor-gloved hand with a stray piece of glass he’d found in the sand, and lifted his whip conductor in the air.

The heat from the sun intensified, matching the heat surging from his chest to his head. Pounding, pounding. Just one touch. If it was in long enough. Gone—the beginning of everything. The end would come if the beginning didn’t exist.

Jericho brought the whip down with all of his might—

But then a hand around his wrist stopped him short.

Jericho turned, half-expecting to see Alice there again. Instead, he found another:

“Werner?”

The Capricornian stood beside him, eyes distant, lips drawn firmly into a frown. The sun’s rays beating down from above did not touch the man’s skin, so he looked trapped in shadow and unnatural.

He wasn’t real, Jericho concluded.

“I am real, Jericho,” Werner assured him. “You need to stop at once.”

Werner was real. He was here. Relief flooded Jericho’s chest at this. But—

“Stop?”

Jericho turned back to stare at Theta, only to find that her skin had abruptly softened into wet sand. The sludgy material slid from her face and revealed Francis Foxman’s face beneath it. The man stared up at Jericho with furrowed brows and tight lips. Something was not right. Jericho’s confusion, however, dissipated as soon as he laid eyes on the snake tattoo again. The one thing that did not change.

“You did not stop me before,” Jericho said. “You helped me. With Omega. But not with Theta. Why? You said it was better to complete what you start. No problem later. I need to finish.”

“That was a different circumstance,” Werner replied, tightening his grip. “Omega was an adversary. Francis is a potential ally. You need to calm down and stop using your vitae. From what I understand, the Manipulator’s presence in my body is stretching us thin. If you continue to expel your vitae, my condition will deteriorate and so will yours.”

“Manipulator?”

No—“deteriorate”? Werner deteriorate? Jericho did not want that. But—

“Francis is with ELPIS—

Werner grabbed Jericho’s left shoulder, jerked him back, and squeezed. “You do not have time to be engaging with ELPIS, Jericho. The highest priority enemy is Scorpio, the Manipulator that’s infected all of us through me. He’s fueling animosity in my country and is using it to harvest vitae for the reservoirs. Your duty as a peacekeeper is to protect and preserve the peace in Signum. Participating in and fueling the unrest in Capricorn is going against that. Regardless of what Ophiuchus as a peacekeeping agency may be, you must uphold your personal standards. Is that clear?”

“I became a peacekeeper to destroy ELPIS….”

“You won’t be able to destroy ELPIS by going after them like this,” Werner replied. “It needs to be torn out at the root and its supply cut off. If not, it will only regrow.” His eyes narrowed. “Like a spore.”

Jericho didn’t understand the analogy.

“We need to adapt, Jericho. All of us.” Werner tightened his grip on Jericho’s slightly and moved Jericho’s fingers to the switch on the conductor. “Jericho, enough.”

Head buzzing, Jericho allowed the man to switch his conductor off. The hilt of it still burned hot in his hand.

“What do you think you’re doing, Werner?”

Werner stiffened.

Jericho stared over the man’s shoulder and found a thin, pale woman standing beside Talib and Ayda there. The woman’s gaze was piercing just as Alice’s was. But instead of feeling as if she was reading his mind like Alice, Jericho felt more like she was putting thoughts into his mind. He looked back at Werner. It was the first time he had seen the man so tense and uneasy.

“What are you doing, honey?” The woman sighed. “Jericho is a peacekeeper. You’re interfering. It’s none of your business. It’s embarrassing! Look at him, Werner. What do you think he’ll think of you if you—”

“Ignore it,” Werner urged.

“What? You’re really deciding to become what she thinks you should be? It’s not even really you. You don’t even realize it.” The woman grimaced, half in disgust. “If you keep this up, there won’t be anything of you left.”

Both the woman and Ayda both melted into sand as Talib looked on expressionlessly.

Jericho tightened his grip on his conductor again. “But, Werner—conductors. ELPIS was right. Talib showed me. Told me.”

“That is not Talib, but an illusion that Scorpio is trying to use against you.”

An illusion? Like Cadence? But that didn’t change the fact that conductors—

Werner continued slowly, “The existence of ELPIS and conductors may not be acceptable to you from your standpoint, but both are still assets. If you want to achieve something, you need to do it methodically and pragmatically.”

Jericho stared.

“I understand you’re confused, Jericho, but acting out when you’re confused is not the correct course of action.”

That… made sense, Jericho thought: He should stop because he was confused. But his chest still burned with rage, and his limbs were on fire. He felt like he was going to explode if he pushed any of this down anymore. ELPIS. Conductors. Peacekeepers. And—

Jericho looked into Werner’s eyes, searching, “You are… not lying to me?”

Werner met his gaze evenly. “I’m not. I’m here to assist you, Jericho. You can trust me.”

Assist. Help—but why? Answer: Werner wanted to prevent his body from dying. To prevent a political disaster from the others dying from his death. To save his country.

“Yes, those are some of the primary reasons,” Werner agreed. There was a long stretch of silence. But I also don’t want you to be hurt. 

Jericho couldn’t comprehend the thought—the feeling. Werner had been the one out of them who wanted to cut the connection off the most. “Inefficient, risky, unacceptable in the long term, dangerous” was what he’d called it. But Werner had also helped him with Omega. Werner was…? Confusing.

Werner opened his mouth, hesitated, and then pressed his lips into a thin line.

I care about your well-being, Jericho. I want to protect you.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and rain drizzled down as the sky began to gray.

Although Jericho could not comprehend how Werner had suddenly come to that conclusion, he could feel it. The words not said out loud. They seeped faintly through an unseen crack into him.

“If you continue acting recklessly, you will regret it,” Werner continued. “You need to control your emotions. There is no benefit in continuing this.” He glanced down at Theta. “Responsibility should be taken by the person who committed the action, but this is not the Theta who took you in. Pursuing the past when it’s no longer there is a poor investment of time.”

Jericho nodded slowly, feeling the pounding in his heart sizzle away as the drizzle thickened into dolloping droplets of water.

Right. Werner was reliable. Werner made sense. And Werner stated it himself: Werner… cared for him.

Reality slowly began to dawn on Jericho, and he suddenly became aware of the heat and weight of his conductor. He grabbed Werner’s phantom hand and squeezed. The man did not pull away.

“But then if you are… not lying. If you are real, then I—”

“Jericho. You’ve made a mistake,” Werner agreed calmly, “but it… isn’t your fault. This Manipulator is strategic. It can dissect and target weaknesses with ease. Regardless, you can’t change what you’ve done. Acknowledge what happened, then—”

Werner abruptly winced, pulled his hands away, and gripped his chest. Beneath his fingers, blue cracks appeared and began to expand across his body. Before Jericho could understand the development, Werner sank to his knees and began to hack and cough as he held the side of his head. He heaved and gagged and then—out from his mouth splattered a handful of shiny, iridescent, blue bodies. Scorpions.

The rain was coming down hard now, rinsing the grains of sand down the sloping hills.

“You’re hurt. I can’t feel you. I don’t understand.” Jericho reached out for him in confusion. “I can take some of the pain.”

Werner snapped his head up and met his gaze. “No. You need to be able to provide your vitae to the others to handle Scorpio’s towers and spores. It’s the only solution. And—”

A blurry image passed through Jericho’s mind. No, a single word. A message.

Before Jericho could fully digest the meaning of the word, the blue cracks enveloped Werner’s body completely. A terrible, crystalline sound like glass cracking echoed through Jericho’s mind before Werner’s image shattered to pieces before his very eyes—just like the way the people he used his conductor on shattered.

Then there was silence. Dead silence.

Suddenly, Jericho became aware that there was no sand. There was no sun. There was only rain—cold and pouring down in sheets. Beneath him was Theta, swimming in the puddle of water beneath him. Behind him was Alice. Glass was scattered on the ground. Cold, square buildings stood rigid at his left and right. Several steps away, he spotted Gilbert and another man rising to twin stands. Across from them stood two of the ELPIS leaders. Gamma, Wtorek Izsak. Tau. Another one pulled out from an alley to his right and stood behind Gamma. Beta, familiar.

There was no heat outside or inside. There was no hollowness. There was numbness. And there was heaviness, like an anchor pulling down his chest. Familiar.

Jericho pulled himself off of Theta and stared at him. At the tattoo on his face. Before Jericho could speak to the man, however, the man suddenly launched himself at him as a metallic bang rang out above the sound of the rain. Theta landed on top of Jericho as they fell, but the man quickly picked himself up and turned to face Gamma whose drawn pistol was still billowing with smoke.

“I will not let you harm this True Conductor. There is no point in targeting them,” Theta said, before gesturing loosely to Jericho. “Look at him, Gamma. He is a byproduct of what we’ve done in this era.”

“ I am not the one who took children in, Theta,” Gamma responded, cocking his pistol. “I’ve always known why we’re here.”

Across from Gamma, Gilbert reached for his own pistol. Theta seemed to notice him, and he held out a halting hand and shook his head. Gilbert scowled, brow arched, but stopped short and remained stiff.

“Returning them to the cycle is more generous than ‘saving’ them and having them suffer through enduring the aftermath,” Gamma said. “You should have known what was going to happen to them if you took them in.”

Jericho’s head swam at the phrase. Returning to the cycle—

Theta’s eyes narrowed, but then he smiled calmly and spread his arms. “Let’s make a deal.”

Gamma frowned. “What.”

Theta reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a knife-shaped pendant with a glass handle that emitted white light. He dangled it from its chain on his index finger.

“That belongs to Iota.” Gamma frowned. “You—”

“No. Scorpio did it,” Theta responded calmly. “Zu was initiated—incorrectly. He goes by Alwin now. Anyway, he encountered Iota on the train ride here. She gave her resistor to him since she was incapacitated by the Capricornians. I’ll give you it in exchange for a temporary… laydown of arms.”

“You—”

“And I’ll hand Oran over to you too.” Theta held up his crumbling conductor glove, the blood from his hand trickling down his sleeve. “After this is fixed, of course. You intend to keep him alive, which is a wise choice given his research and development work in this era—”

Francis,” Alice drew warningly. “We can’t just hand over—”

Theta glanced back at her and frowned. “I apologize, Agent Kingsley, but this is how business is done—”

Gamma interjected, “Do you think this is enough to—”

“I know where the daughter is,” Theta replied, turning back to face him.

Gamma froze, tense as he reached for his chest pocket and pressed his palm flat against it. He tensed after. Beta stared at him, eyes narrowing.

“The suitcase peacekeeper can conduct like Libra,” Theta continued casually. “He doesn’t have her eyes, but we’re in contact with someone who does. They’ve got more of a chance handling Scorpio than the rest of you do. No point in trying to educate the masses and prove a point in a situation like this either. No one will listen. Besides stopping Scorpio wasn’t why you came around here, right? We should divvy up the work to be productive.”

Gamma’s brows furrowed, and he did not lower his pistol. “That suitcase peacekeeper is infected.”

“And he can remove the infection.”

Gamma’s eyes narrowed.

“I understand your determination, Gamma, but I know you’re not unreasonable. Oran, Iota’s resistor, and my proto-conductors in exchange for allowing me to handle this problem we have here—for a time period of your choice, of course. What do you say?”

After a moment, Gamma held up three index fingers with his pistol-wielding hand.

Gamma,” Beta pressed but then fell silent and shook her head.

Theta tossed Gamma the resistor which the other man caught with ease. Gamma pocketed it, then they held each other’s gazes. In the distance, Jericho could hear the faint pop-popping sounds again in the rain-peppered tension. It sounded far off, like a dream. Finally, Gamma turned and began to stalk off down the street with Tau and Beta in tow.

Don’t let them go!

Jericho clutched his chest as his heart began to hammer wildly. No. Werner said not to act if he was confused.

Get them. Get them! I said get them! How can you let them go? Going after ELPIS is your only reason for livin—

“We should probably find somewhere to get out of the rain,” Theta said, turning to Jericho once the trio were out of sight. “I assure you that Gamma will not harm Oran if he’s kept Oran alive for this long—” He paused. “Are you alright?”

Jericho stared at the tattoo on Theta’s face again. The man held his gaze for a moment before staring over his shoulder. Jericho turned and found Alice approaching slowly him from behind.

“Who stopped you?” Alice asked once she was only a step away. She scanned his face. “Was it one of the ones you’re connected to?”

Alice knew? Alice knew. Knew about the truth about conductors too but did not tell him. A liar. Wait. No. Incorrect. Werner said not to act out if he was confused.

Jericho nodded stiffly. “He helped. Then he disappeared. Synchronization. He was in pain.”

Gilbert and the other Capricornian approached them slowly, cautiously, keeping a countable distance.

“Who’s ‘he’?” Gilbert asked. “Werner?”

They were afraid, Jericho realized. He dipped his head. “Unsure. I tried to take the pain, but he didn’t let me.”

“Sounds like Werner,” Gilbert grumbled before he searched his face and snapped, “Well? How is he?”

“I am alive, so he is alive. Unsure. I am…” Jericho searched for the word. “…worried.”

“Well if you’re worried, then I’m fucking screwed,” Gilbert muttered.

“I am sorry.” Jericho looked to the ground. “I… was… not me. I was me, but—” He gestured around himself “—this wasn’t here. I was somewhere else—”

“You turn a bunch of people into vitae particles and all you say is ‘sorry’?” Gilbert arched a brow. He paused, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Wait— what?”

Jericho opened his mouth, then closed it. “I… am not sure what else to say. Those people. I thought I was…. Returning them. But it won’t be the same. Alice said that. I remember now. I was confused. I am still confused. But I know where I am. Not back there. Here. I—”

—took people away from the people that cared about them. Just like before. Gone. All gone.

You haven’t changed.

“I am sorry”—this time Jericho’s words were not to those who currently stood before him but those who had once stood before him and his conductor. “I am sorry.”

Thunder rumbled across the darkening sky.

“‘Confused’?” Gilbert looked less angry now.

“But I… I will not act,” Jericho pressed. “I promise. Not when I am confused. I… am sorry. Again.”

Gilbert remained frowning, looking him over carefully before sighing. “Saints. Forget it…”

Jericho glanced down at Alice as he felt her gaze prick his skin. She was staring into him again, reading his thoughts.

“I knew I should have pushed harder against them when they approved you to take on cases.” Alice shook her head as she pulled the suppression cuffs from her waist. “I knew you weren’t ready, but I let it slip because you were so… enthusiastic about it. I gave in. You—”

Jericho felt his chest pound again but not with anger or a pumping drive. The pounding felt tight and constricting, making it hard to breathe in the cold, damp air. It was unpleasant. He did his best to not meet Alice’s mind-reading eyes.

Abruptly, Alice reached forward, not with her conducting glove or her suppression cuffs, but with her hands. She reached not for his wrists but for his waist. Before he realized what was happening, she’d wrapped her arms around him. He lifted his arms in surprise, stiff and uncertain.

“I’m sorry, Jericho,” she said through gritted teeth. “I let you go when I shouldn’t have. I didn’t notice the things that I should’ve noticed. You were too close. No, I was. I failed you as your doctor.”

Jericho hesitated, unsure of how to respond. He looked to those around him, but they avoided his gaze. After a moment of thinking and wishing he could consult Cadence, he slowly lowered his arms and returned the gesture. In turn, Alice tightened her embrace, and he rested his chin on her shoulder. Her warmth in the cold caused the pounding in his chest to slow to a steady beat.

“This is… good,” Jericho said after a moment.

Something out of the corner of his eye drew away his attention. Talib was still standing on a pile of sand a couple steps away, his trenchcoat and hat soaked completely with the rain.

When Jericho met his eyes, Talib bowed his head, pulling the lip of his fedora down. “I’m sorry, partner.”

Jericho stared at the man in confusion.

‘Sorry’?

Alice pulled out of Jericho’s arms slowly and showed him the suppression cuffs in her hand. Meeting his eyes, slowly, she said, “Jericho, I’m sorry, but we need to take precautionary measures.”

Recalling his first arrest by the peacekeeping agents many years ago, Jericho stared at the cuffs, then nodded slowly as he offered his wrists.

19.2: Doctor, 1130 Distance

References to (69) Part II | 10.5: Jericho’s Cycling (Vendetta).

Re-cap:

While Scorpio basks in his personal foreseen victory, a feverish Gilbert encounters Jericho who is being guided by Scorpio and destroying everything in his path. After following after the peacekeeper, Gilbert finds him engaged in combat against the ELPIS leaders Tau, Gamma, and Beta who have captured Dämon Forstchritt and P.D. Oran. Doctor and peacekeeper Alice Kingsley, pressed on by Scorpio’s taunts, nears the scene.

Meanwhile, Werner has reached a resolution at the threshold.


Abstand » A distance still unbreachable at 1130 hours

Alice had bought Jericho the blackbird as a form of therapy during the second year of him being in her care. To nurture another living being taught responsibility and the sanctity of life. Her coworkers, who occasionally shared Jericho as a patient, had thought it a brilliant idea. Deep down, however, Alice had known that she had been showing bias instead of discretion. The distance between patient and doctor quietly and irreverently breached, despite its maintenance being a necessity.

Her decision had not been motivated wholly by logic. She had simply seen Jericho admiring the local birds through the window of his room one day. Seeing him like that had stirred a sense of guilt in her since she’d received news from her department head that they wouldn’t be able to continue to have him in the department’s care due to budgetary concerns. Off to some other facility, he would be sent—which put a sour taste in Alice’s mouth since she knew the department head was aware of the poor conditions and state of such facilities outside of Ophiuchus. This paired with Jericho’s sudden relapse in behavior one day and the news one of her patient’s ‘suicide’ solidified Alice’s decision.

To this day, Alice still didn’t quite understand it. One evening, she had visited Jericho for one of their sessions only to find him glowering at her with an animosity she’d seen only when she’d gotten a glimpse of him when he’d first arrived in Ophiuchus. She’d conjectured that he’d somehow caught word of the ELPIS attack on the royal family of Aries and that had set back his progress.

Only when she’d given him the bird did he stop his glowering. He had been absolutely enamored with the bird, so much so that he’d dedicated his full attention to her when she’d explained how to care for it. He’d even shown great sadness, worry, and concern when the animal—which he’d cleverly named ‘Bird’—had broken its wing after a flight mishap. But then, on a warm evening in the middle of summer, she’d come into his room to find Bird resting in his hands with not only a broken wing but also a broken neck.

Alice had not approached Jericho with anger then—only requested an explanation. Much to her surprise, he had started talking about ‘cycles’ and returning things to the cycle. It was the first time she had heard such a concept from him; and she had to consult her co-workers’ notes for more information. There, she had found it all jotted down absentmindedly in the margins of one of their notes: ‘nothing truly died because everything returned to the cycle.’

It took her some time to gather her own notes, thoughts, and address the matter properly:

“‘You killed it to put it out of its suffering, and it doesn’t matter if it’s dead because it’ll return to the cycle’? Do you really believe that?” She’d looked him right in the eye then and said clearly: “That’s ridiculous. Even if that were true, even if someone’s vitae were to return to the ‘cycle,’ it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be ‘them’ anymore. Not really. The situation, the parts, the components will never be the same. That’s why they say life is precious. Do you understand?”

Jericho stared at her. “They… do not return to the cycle?” He stared at Bird in his hands. “Bird will not return to the cycle?”

“It doesn’t matter whether or not Bird returns to the cycle,” Alice had clarified, eyes narrowing. “It won’t be the same. The other birds who care for Bird won’t be the same. There will never be another Bird.”

“I returned people,” Jericho had responded. “With my conductor. The people with me in ELPIS too.” He had stared blankly ahead before his eyes drifted to her face. “What happened to them then? I thought they would return. But if not… then what did I do? I was wrong. I—” His searching gaze had stirred something in Alice’s chest.

After a moment, she had managed to gather her thoughts and settled on: “Forced ignorance is not willful ignorance. It wasn’t your fault back then, Jericho. But now that you know, it will be your responsibility from now on. Do you understand?”

Jericho’s brows had furrowed, reaching out for her arm with his hand. “No.”

Alice had pulled away. “If you don’t understand it, then you should refrain from using your conductor. Never act without understanding.”


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

The rain was pouring down in sheets. Perhaps if it was any other circumstance, Alice Kingsley would have been reminded of home. Now, as she ran through Die Hauptstadt’s abandoned streets, it only registered as a nuisance. She’d already exchanged her high heels for a pair of boots she’d found discarded carelessly on the corner of a street earlier, but they were two sizes too large so running with them was difficult.

“How many of your patients relapsed back into the same old patterns, Alice?” Talib—no, Scorpio—had pressed when they’d been back beneath the leaking dome of the convention. “As you say, ‘the only person who can help yourself is you,’ so what are you even trying to do?”

Alice knew those had been merely words intended to incite a reaction. By belittling her work, Scorpio had hoped to whittle her will and confidence away. It was textbook. She also knew that it was not Talib but Scorpio saying those words, but the taunts still twisted her stomach.

The fact that Scorpio had led them go so freely also put her at unease. The memory of the pieces of his—Talib’s—imploded skull slowly fitting back together haunted her when she closed her eyes. It defied everything she understood about human biology—about humanity.

Obviously, there had to be some means for saint candidates to ‘die’ in order for their vitae to be passed on to another candidate—but given the extremities of a candidate’s capabilities, she knew they were nowhere near able to pull a feat like that off. So, rather than all of them leaving the convention intending to find a secondary solution to their problems, it seemed more like they were fleeing from him. And Scorpio surely lavished in that idea.

Alice knew her original purpose as a peacekeeper here was to evaluate the Augen movement and report any signs of potential threat and danger to the peace in Signum. She had obviously failed in that aspect. Just like, by not seeing and realizing the obvious, she had failed Flannery, Talib, Olive, and—no.

A shadow flitted ahead, causing Alice to duck behind the side of a building. Francis’s empty proto-conductor felt cold in her palm as she pressed against the wall with bated breath. She’d tried to use the proto-conductor numerous times already but with little result. She’d taken it from Gabrielle earlier when the woman had decided to split off and check on the safety of the diplomats who were apparently set to leave this evening at the train station. Gabrielle’s priorities were clear.

“You’re still trying to be peacekeepers?” Scorpio had chucked at this. “I guess we’re all habitual creatures even if it’s meaningless. Ophiuchus is a puppet.” 

Alice still wasn’t certain if Scorpio’s implication of Ophiuchus’s involvement and knowledge of the vitae conversion process was the truth. Scorpio’s intention in saying such things was to make them feel as if their efforts were meaningless. However, even if it were true that chairs of Ophiuchus knew of saint candidates and vitae conversion as Scorpio said—which in itself would partially explain how it had remained hidden for so long—it didn’t immediately imply that the entirety of Ophiuchus was involved.

Alice let out a quiet breath, watched as it fogged up the cool air, and re-centered her racing thoughts.

Although that was a pressing issue, at the moment it was a distant issue. The most prominent issue here for Alice now was Jericho. Her concern centered mostly around him gaining knowledge about the truth of conductors. If there was no one there—or perhaps if the wrong person was there—to help him process that revelation then…

The painful pops of gunfire peppered right by Alice’s ear as bullets chiseled away at the stone of the street. She squeezed her eyes shut as memories of huddling together with Talib and Flannery beneath bombardments whirled through her mind. Once the pattering rain was all she could hear, Alice returned to reality, opened her eyes, and peered around the corner. Faintly through the mist rolling down the street, she caught sight of the retreating slick back of a v-ehicle she hadn’t seen in years: a tank with a squarish body and a mounted v-cannon at its forefront.

When it disappeared from her sight fully, she pulled out from her hiding place. She continued down the road quickly, pausing only when a whimpering reached her ears. Alice stopped short and turned towards the sound just as she neared the street corner.

Nestled in the arch of a doorway was a young boy in suspenders and a cap that was soaked thoroughly through with the rain. The boy was draped over the pale, prostrate, unmoving body of a young woman in an evening dress.

Alice darted over to them and sank to the woman’s side. The woman’s dress was riddled with bullet holes, while red stained the blue ribbon tied into a bow at the front of her chest. Her neck was bent at an awkward angle, her glassy and open eyes filled with rainwater.

The boy blubbered in Capricornian but it was nothing coherent.

Something warm splattered onto Alice’s face as she tried to comprehend the scene. Upon looking upwards, she spied a deep blue Augen flag that was also riddled with bullet holes hanging from the highest window. A streak of red that ran down the flag was steadily dripping down onto her face. The banister hidden just behind the flag was soaked in the same color.

Alice concluded that this woman had been hit by a stray bullet because she had been standing behind the Augen flag and had subsequently fallen here. Dead upon or before impact. A civilian. An accidental casualty.

“Is this your mother?” Alice asked the boy in Capricornian.

“M-Mutti…” the boy whimpered.

“I understand you’re afraid,” Alice drew, extending her conductor-gloved hand, “but we need to leave now.”

The boy shook his head, drawing close to his mother’s corpse and clinging tightly.

“Your mother is dead,” Alice informed him calmly. “She died trying to protect you. Let’s not waste her efforts.”

The boy’s tears simply came out harder, and his wails nearly drowned out the rain. Before Alice could think of another solution, a burst of pale tangerine light warmed her back. Upon turning, she found Francis hovering just behind her. She tensed at the sight of him.

Offering her a nod, Francis sank to a crouch in front of the child, reached forward, and wiped a tear from the boy’s cheek. “Your mother has returned to the cycle, but I will still take her somewhere safe. Will you allow me to take you somewhere safe as well?”

The boy sniffled, then nodded.

Francis swept the boy into his arms and returned the boy’s death-like cling gently. “When kids are pulled into the fights that adults start, then that’s when you know you’re beating down the wrong path.” He rose up to a stand with the boy in tow. “That’s common sense, isn’t it? But there are some causes that people believe are important enough to ignore that common sense.” He glanced at her, smiling thinly. “I suppose I’m talking about us in ELPIS too.”

“And what do you plan on doing with that boy?”

Francis frowned, seeming to understand her implication. “I’ll take him somewhere safe. Once things settle in this country, I’ll find his family and return him to their care. If they have a home, they should be returned to their home. But right now it’s too dangerous.”

Alice stood up. “I tried reaching you earlier. Scorpio was Talib. He was hiding in plain view the entire time. He revealed himself at the convention.”

Francis’s gaze narrowed. “Mr. Al-Jarrah? That’s a shame…” He lowered his head. “I apologize. My focus was on finding Maria—rather, the peacekeeper. I didn’t think to pay attention to the convention… Where is Nico?”

Alice studied his face. “He went with the Capricornians.”

Francis relaxed slightly, his expression returning to its impassiveness. “I apologize for not getting to you sooner.” He turned to her, extending his hand. “I’ve found him. The suitcase peacekeeper. Agent Jericho. The situation isn’t looking too good. Miss Law said to come to you regarding him, but I’m not sure your presence or words will suffice. Although… I believe your suppression cuffs, in this case, will be especially useful.” He pointed to her conductor-gloved hand. “And perhaps that thing as well.”

* * *

After Francis dropped the boy off at some place he wouldn’t disclose to her, he took Alice through his gate. Passing through it again brought Alice back unpleasant memories of her time in the Twin Cities.

Personally, Alice did not hold Francis or Theta in high regard. Francis Foxman—although he hid it well—was the leader of a criminal organization operating out of the Twin Cities, after all. Theta, on the other hand, was a terrorist—perhaps even a cultist. Theta had been the one to hold her for ransom too, while a past version of Theta had been the one who had taken Jericho in. Although Alice felt some form of sympathy for Francis, she held less for Theta. Ironically, from her observations, she concluded that it was ‘Theta’ that disinclined Francis from acts of reckless violence.

Gabrielle’s ease working with less than savory parties like this had always put Alice at un ease but this alliance was pushing boundaries and felt unsaintly. Just being near the man put Alice on edge. Right now his calm, collected lack of urgency was unsettling and signaled a sense of detachment which didn’t help the discomfort she felt around him.

“What makes a peacekeeper a good peacekeeper?”  Scorpio had goaded. “Is it rigidity of morals or flexibility or morals? Flexibility or rigidity in beliefs? Does a good peacekeeper keep their standards the same when facing a group with different values or does a good peacekeeper adapt their standards to the situation? Well, in one case, you would be the perfect peacekeeper, Alice. In the other case, you would be the worst. The opposite goes for you, Frau Law.”

“You can open your eyes. We’re here.”

Alice hadn’t realized that she had been squeezing her eyes shut, but she didn’t need to open her eyes to know of their arrival. She could feel it in the air. There was a heaviness yet an electricity to it that made it suffocating.

Alice opened her eyes.

Toppled buildings missing either their top halves or sides barely stood on their legs around her. Smoke rose from them as thinning, faint off-white lines either dulled into nothing in the remaining stone walls or spread further and ate away at each brick. The street beneath her feet was scorched with claw-like marks and riddled with bullet holes.

“This way,” Francis said as he led her down the street. “I found the peacekeeper at the Kaiser’s rally. Gamma and the others were there too—their intentions were most likely to execute the Kaiser publicly due to his involvement and his property as a tower… Jericho most likely was tracking them. In the chaos, the Kaiser escaped—if you have lingering concerns about him.”

Eventually, Francis led her out from the street onto a narrow, metal bridge. Two familiar-looking men were standing at the bridge’s mid-section looking down the left-side railings. Klaus Kleine and Gilbert Wolff, if Alice recalled correctly. The last time she had seen Second Lieutenant Wolff was when they’d been below the city. It had only been a night or two ago since then, but it felt like an eternity, especially since the lieutenant was now clearly missing an arm.

Alice followed both men’s gazes to a v-tram that was rolling just below the bridge.

Wtorek Izsak—no, Gamma—stood on one end of the rain-slick v-tram. Behind him was a man barely identifiable as P.D. Oran. The bandages wrapped around the latter man’s arms and legs were weeping and soaked through.

Alice grimaced as the memory of the Ariesian prince standing in that blazing crimson inferno flashed through her mind. She folded it away and glanced to the other end of the tram.

On that end stood a familiar man dressed in a military police officer’s uniform—Tau. Beside him stood a woman Alice recalled seeing accompanying Gamma: Beta. White tendrils of vitae protruded from a large gash running down the woman’s forearm. Behind the both of them sat an almost unrecognizable Dämon Forstchritt, hair dampened, lab coat stained with mud. And yet, despite her less than put-together appearance, Dämon’s eyes were bright, her body tipped forward, and her mouth slightly parted. Fascination.

The object of her fascination seemed to be the man who stood in-between both ELPIS leaders at the center of the v-tram roof. Alice recognized him immediately from his body language: the stiffness, the rigidity, the tenseness—like a dam waiting to break. The off-white whip of vitae pouring out from his steaming conductor was the final identifier. Jericho.

Every other second, Beta would send out a tendril of white towards Jericho which he would simply disintegrate into nothing with a whip of his conductor. The sound that both lights made when crashing up against each other was something in-between a screech and a whine. The bullets Gamma and Tau fired off at Jericho met the same fate. The one who held the advantage was obvious.

As the v-tram rolled beneath them, Francis briskly walked to the opposite side of the bridge. As the tram came out from under that end, he dribbled his blood from a cut on his bare palm over the railings onto the tram. Gilbert joined Francis with a grimace. Instead of observing the tram with Francis, however, Gilbert dragged his body over the rails and made to fling himself down at the v-tram.

Alice darted to his side, grabbed him, and pulled him back down before he jumped—at least, she tried to. He was a rather muscular man, so the weight of him throwing himself off the bridge nearly took her down with him. Thankfully, Kleine grabbed her around the waist and pulled them both back up with a grunt. Once they were all collapsed back on the bridge safely, Gilbert stared at her.

“You’re the peacekeeper,” he noted as if just noticing her presence. “Lending us a helping hand finally?”

Alice frowned at him from where she sat panting. Despite the cold rain, his cheeks were deeply flushed and his eyes were half-glazed.

“Don’t be a fool, Herr Wolff,” she returned calmly in his native tongue. “You’re in no condition to do anything at the moment. Look at yourself. Stay here.”

Gilbert paled as if he’d been slapped, then grumbled, “Well, you peacekeepers sure are tactful.” He nodded over the railings. “Where’s the ELPIS Department when you need them? Normally I’d say to hell with those ELPIS bastards, but that guy is blasting out his vitae like he’s popping a damn champagne bottle. Werner’s looking more and more like shit with every second. Whoever that is, he’s dangerous and out of his mind.”

“T-That’s not Maria anymore, Agent Kingsley,” Kleine stammered, shaking the water from his glasses as he joined them. “It’s—”

Alice wiped her glasses too. “I know who it is.”

Kleine’s lips thinned.

Francis dribbled some of his blood onto the ground, then sank down, and pressed his gloved hand against the rainwater-diluted pool of red. The puddle lit up with murky pale tangerine light as did a spot on the v-tram behind Jericho’s back in front of Tau and Beta.

“Wait—”

But Francis sank into the light before Alice could stop him. As she expected, when Alice peered over the railings she saw Jericho abruptly swivel around and send out a whip of his vitae out towards the glowing tangerine gate on the v-tram behind him. A terrible, metallic screech filled the air as the colors clashed against each other. Both vitae shattered with a burst of blinding light.

Francis flew back out from the gate he’d entered beside Alice and then cracked against the opposite railings. Kleine darted after him and steaded him.

“A-Are you okay?” Kleine stammered. “What happened?”

“There is no pain,” Francis reassured him as he accepted the gesture and brushed himself off. “The suitcase peacekeeper broke apart the vitae particles that made up the exit gate. When there’s no exit, the only way is back… which is most likely why Gamma and the others haven’t made it through any of my gates.”

“So… Scorpio is just using whoever that is to add more to the reservoir?” Kleine asked tentatively. “And to take down ELPIS? Is that what he’s trying to do? Or is this all just…”

Francis’s eyes narrowed. “Bleaching of the vitae makes it impossible to return to the cycle. This property also makes it so that the probability of elevating vitae to the higher level is significantly lower. Our conductors paired with the way we conduct further decrease that rate. But the color of Jericho’s vitae now…” He shook his head. “Regardless, I believe all Scorpio is doing now is putting on a show.”

Alice could see that clearly. She grimaced, clenching her conductor-gloved fist, then eyed the pistol strapped to Francis’s side.

Another terrible screeching sound filled the air as a tendril of white light shot up to the sky only to disintegrate into nothing a second later.

Francis abruptly came up beside Alice and said, “I understand that ELPIS is your enemy. I understand you view us as terrorists. I understand you don’t like me as either Francis or Theta because of what we’ve done to you and what we are. I apologize although I know my apology means little. But I am…” He frowned. “…here to help—admittedly for reasons separate from yours, I’m sure. Gamma is the only one initiated who knows everything about the syzygy. We need him alive in the long run—”

“If what you need is a distraction so you can get them, then just say it.”

Francis’s eyes widened before his expression fell flat. “I need a distraction.”

Alice nodded before popping above the railings and shouting, “Jericho!”

“Crazy woman,” Gilbert hissed between gritted teeth, as if he hadn’t just been about to launch himself down at the man.

Jericho paused and looked over his shoulder towards Alice and then through her. His distant gaze was familiar and reminded her of the first time she’d ever seen him. Still, she held his gaze—although she tensed when she saw Beta lift her hand and send white tendrils into the air.

Before the tendrils could strike, Francis sank back into his gate. He reappeared behind Jericho’s back and pulled Tau, Beta, and Forstchritt back into the gate. Although Alice felt a draft of cold air behind her, she didn’t turn and instead continued to hold Jericho’s gaze. She supposed she would have held his attention for hours if Gamma hadn’t so obviously stiffened at Francis’s reappearance and disappearance.

Jericho whipped around and registered that the trio was no longer behind him before flinging his whip conductor back out at Gamma. Just before the tip of the whip made contact, Francis reappeared in front of Gamma and shoved the man down out of the whip’s way. The whip of off-white continued along its path, crashing against the buildings to the left, scoring off-white cracks into them. The cracks expanded and ate away at the brick and mortar and as structures gave way, falling into dust and rubble.

The rainfall was too loud for Alice to tell if anyone had still been inside. She felt faint. She knew Jericho was always reckless when it came to ELPIS. This was why she had been so against him taking up cases in the first place. A chance encounter could lead to destruction. She had thought that perhaps by joining with Gabrielle, he could find a new purpose and goal to strive for. After the Twin Cities incident, she’d even seen signs of improvement in Jericho’s obsession. But perhaps all that had been was the influence of these other ‘True Conductors’ he was connected with. Regardless, it was still progress. But now all of it was—

Before Jericho could raise his conductor again, Francis reappeared and dragged Gamma and Oran down through the gate. Alice pulled away from the railings as another burst of air brushed against her back and turned to find Gamma pointing his gun at Francis, who remained just as impassive as he had been when facing him earlier.

Betta snapped at Gamma, “This is not the time to be doing this.”

Alice looked over to Oran then Forstchritt who were being pinned down by Tau. Both conductor engineers were in poor condition—covered in bruises and panting heavily. Getting them out here safely for questioning was a priority.

Beta continued, “We need to handle the True Conduc—”

A spear of off-white light abruptly penetrated the bridge from below in-between where Francis and Gamma stood. White cracks immediately spread along the metalwork of the bridge.

Alice’s stomach flip-flopped as the bridge fell away beneath her, and she was sent tumbling through the air. She barely had the time to blink before her entire body jolted and her limbs seized as she cracked against the road below. She lay there for a moment, winded, eyes blurred, face pelted by rain, ears ringing as she tried to get a hold of her situation. Ignoring the pounding in her back, she rolled onto her stomach and dragged herself up into a crawling position. Scattered pieces of glass presumably from nearby buildings were embedded into her forearm, but she ignored the pain. The crackle of Jericho’s conductor reached her ears before the light of it reached her eyes.

Jericho was standing less than half a meter away from Oran who had hit the ground far from where the ELPIS leaders and the Capricornians had fallen behind Alice. Slowly, like a predator stalking its prey, Jericho crept on towards Oran who whimpered and began to drag himself away.

“Jericho!” Alice shouted, stumbling up to a stand. “That’s enough! Stop it now! Look at me!”

Jericho paused and turned to stare at her, then through her. “Alice. I know how to obtain it now.” The conductor crackled in his hand. “I need to excise all evil in order to bring peace to Signum. Everything fake and false needs to be removed. Conductors, false peacekeepers, false hope. People can be good then. Nothing to fight over. Everything is clear. When everything is gone.”

Alice stomach churned as she became aware of the rain seeping into her skin. Shivering in the cold, she managed, “Jericho… you’re being fed that nonsense by a powerful Manipulator. We talked about this. It’s notthat simple.”

Jericho nodded slowly. “Everyone is trying to manipulate me—manipulate everyone. First ELPIS and Theta, then the peacekeepers.” His eyes flitted to the side again.

Realization dawned on Alice as she followed his gaze and found only empty space. Not too much was known about living manipulation since it was outlawed, but the possibility that a Manipulator could influence the senses was not completely unsound. The human brain itself was not fully understood, after all.

“Jericho…” she drew, inching towards him with a placating hand, “what are you seeing right now?”

He glanced at her then looked around. “Sand. There’s sand everywhere. The sun is still in the east. Morning.” He glanced to the side. “Talib is here. Ayda too.”

Hearing his name felt like a knife to the chest. But Ayda—Jericho had mentioned her before. Ayda was a girl who had been indoctrinated with him.

“Jericho,” Alice said calmly, continuing forward, feeling the rain seep in-between the metal and glass tubes of her glove conductor, “it’s raining. There’s no sand here. We’re in Capricorn. Whatever you’re seeing isn’t real.”

Jericho’s gaze flitted to the side again.

“Jericho, look at me.”

His gaze refocused on her.

“You promised me. We compromised. I wanted you to stop using your conducting on living things. You wanted to pursue ELPIS. We agreed that you would not use your conductor unless you were facing an actual ELPIS member. Oran isn’t with ELPIS.”

“Right. Promise.” Jericho stared at the conductor in his hands before he slowly lowered it—but didn’t extinguish it. He covered his mouth and began to hack and cough, blood seeping between his pale fingers. Before Alice could digest the sight, he sank to his knees and wrapped his hands around Oran’s neck. “I need to return him properly.”

Alice started forward in alarm, but froze as Jericho turned to glower at her. The whip of his conductor sizzled along the ground and lazily spread white cracks along the gray ground, while its hilt smoked in the cold rain.

He still hadn’t gone all the way, Alice tried to reassure herself. At least not without his conductor. She could still salvage this—

“I told you,” she said. “Even if something returns to the cycle, it won’t be the same. If you want justice, then you hold those people accountable. How can they be held accountable if you—”

“You are defending him,” Jericho interjected, searching her face. He tightened his grip on both his conductor and Oran’s neck causing the man to flail desperately beneath him. “Even though he is evil.”

Alice tensed, inching even closer. “Jerich—”

A burst of pale tangerine light opened up below Jericho and Oran. Only the latter man fell through the formed gate, leaving Jericho to claw at the ground. Alice searched the clearing for Oran but couldn’t find him. She startled back to attention when Jericho leapt to his feet. He turned around with his conductor in hand; but when he registered the man standing behind him, he froze like a statue.

“Theta…” Jericho realized, eyes wide.

The sky lit up with a crack of lightning and illuminated the snake tattoo on Francis’s face and the scorpion tattoo crawling across Jericho’s.

Jericho put a hand over his chest and began to chant in a language Alice only understood because Jericho had recently transcribed to her its meaning:

“There is no end, 
 There is no beginning, 
 There is only a cycle. 
 Whether enemy, whether friend, 
 Whether family, whether stranger, 
 Whether on land, whether on sea, whether in sky, 
 Whether alone, whether in company, 
 Whether in peace, whether in war, 
 May all return to where all began—”

Francis frowned then interjected, “That’s only something that should be said when you’re preparing to return something living to the cycle. “

“I am,” Jericho stated. “I have.”

Alice’s blood ran cold at his affirmation.

“Theta. You took everything. Family. Friends. Home. From me. From others—” Jericho’s face and voice were flat, yet his eyes were wide and burning. “—And then you cared for us. You took us in. Then you left. And we did everything for you and to save everyone. Conductors destroyed, and the people using them. The peacekeepers told me you were wrong after, but you were right.” His gaze flitted to the side and then returned to Francis. “You destroyed everything, but not us. Why…?”

Francis’s brows furrowed slightly. He side-glanced at Alice, then nodded subtly. A signal. “I’m sorry, Jericho. I wouldn’t be able to answer that for you.”

While Francis held Jericho’s full attention, Alice slowly crept behind Jericho and flexed her conducting glove.

“You always had all the answers before. I need an answer.” Jericho’s gaze darkened. “No, the answer does not matter. Justice does.” With a grunt, he cracked his whip at Francis—

At that moment, Alice leapt at him and wrapped her conducting-gloved hand around his arm just before the whip’s tip reached the other man. She felt her glove buzz with warmth and then felt Jericho become rigid under her touch.

“Jericho, I’m just using my conductor,” she told him slowly, calmly. “You won’t be able to move, but I’m not hurting you. Let’s calm down together.”

Jericho’s eyes widened as he turned to stare at her. “Talib told me what that person did—what Oran did. What conductors really do.”

Alice felt her heart fall into her stomach. “Jericho—”

“You were wrong. You defended him. And you defend Theta. So you… you are evil—wrong—too.” And then Jericho’s voice cracked, his brows furrowed, and he grimaced. “Y-You make me think the way you think I should think. So I can act the way you want me to act. Without knowing the truth. Like everyone. Right, wrong. You say, then switch. You all take until there is nothing. Nothing is right. I can’t forgive it. There will only be peace when there is nothing else.”

More than anything else, in that exact moment, as Alice stared into Jericho’s searching eyes again, she had the urge to embrace him. But then Scorpio’s grin burned into the edges of her mind, and she refrained. No. She refused to abandon her standards. And so, she instead reached for the suppression cuffs clipped to her waist.

A tendril of white abruptly snapped through the rainfall towards them. Alice’s mind raced, but with a grunt, she shoved Jericho forwards and threw herself back onto the ground just in time to dodge the strike of the Beta’s vitae. Beta herself barely dove out of the way when Jericho returned her attack with a whip of vitae that shot out above Alice’s head towards her. Beta darted for cover down an alleyway, which was when Alice caught sight of Dämon Forstchritt darting into an alley opposite.

After shaking her head and pulling herself up onto her knees, Alice registered Jericho straddled across Francis who was flat on his back two meters away. Somehow during the chaos, Jericho had pierced through Francis’s conducting-gloved hand with a stray shard of glass. His other hand was wrapped around his whip conductor—ready to strike down. Francis’s free hand was touching the pistol at his side but did not move any further.

Alice struggled up to a stand again but her arms and legs wouldn’t obey her. With a cry of frustration, she slipped in the rain and collapsed beneath the weight of her fatigue and exhaustion. She couldn’t reach him—not with her hands nor with her words. The distance was too great.


Threshold

Off-white lines ran through the sky of the abyss and pulsated as if they were living veins. The crackle of what sounded like radio static interference seeped through the cracks downwards. Upon listening closely to the noise, however, Werner came to realize it was the sound of rain not static. In-between the pitter-patter, he was also able to faintly hear voices, disjointed and echoing:

“Theta. You took everything. Family. Friends. Home. From me. From others. And then you cared for us. You took us in. Then you left. And we did everything for you and to save everyone from conductors. Conductors destroyed, and the people using them too. The peacekeepers told me you were wrong after, but you were right. You destroyed everything but not us. Why?”

It was Jericho’s voice. The biting, venomous anger was clear beneath the facade of calm.

“I’m sorry. I wouldn’t be able to answer that for you.”

And Francis’s voice as well.

It wasn’t difficult to deduce from the tone of voices that they were facing each other antagonistically.

“Jericho…” Shion placed a hand to her mouth and clenched her fist. Anger and desperate anguish radiated from her in waves. “How dare Scorpio—”

Werner glanced at Shion with a frown.

If he was able to hear Jericho’s surroundings from down here, he thought, then the situation above must have declined considerably.

“Your body is falling apart,” Lavi confirmed from where she stood beside him. “Whoever is up there is probably expelling your vitae like crazy. It’s all collapsing now.” She grimaced, looking upwards. “Scorpio really is a fool. Always throwing himself into things and losing sight of everything else.”

When Werner looked down at her, he could see the fear in her eyes despite her apparent serenity. He didn’t need to have access to her thoughts to know she was worrying not about him or herself but Olive.

“Lavi.”

She turned to him, face tight.

“Brief me on how to return temporarily above like before,” Werner said.

“What…?” Lavi startled, eyes widening then narrowing. “I saw what happened to you when you went up there last time. Because you’re a True Conductor and infected, you’re more susceptible to all the other spores in Scorpio’s… network. It’s a different situation from back then. You’re like a balloon, overfilled with air. Any extra pressure might really be the end.” She mimicked a popping sound with her mouth and an explosion with her hands. “If you go up there through yourself instead of through Scorpio, I don’t know what’ll happen. I don’t even know if it’ll work.” She frowned. “You barely look like you’ve recovered from your previous trip up there…”

Yes—Werner agreed: it was a risky measure. But against the obstacle they were facing, it was a necessary measure.

Francis, whom Scorpio was most likely pinning Jericho against, was not only an asset with his knowledge, skills, and clear allegiance to Cadence, but he was also someone important to Cadence. At the moment, he was an individual that they couldn’t afford to lose. Additionally, Jericho was required to counteract Scorpio and excise him from Capricorn. Therefore, Jericho needed to be clear-minded and stable enough to take the appropriate steps against Scorpio. And—

“If I don’t attempt to handle Jericho now, the end result may be the same regardless,” Werner informed her. “If my body dies, the others including Olive will die too. Let’s not waste time. Please tell me the steps.”

At Olive’s name, Lavi frowned. “Even if you go up there,” she muttered, “do you think you’ll be able to stop him? It’s the peacekeeper, right?”

Werner considered this. “I’ve aided him before, although the situation was different. This will just require a different method of approach.”

Lavi paused, seeming to think, before she nodded.

Werner stared past her towards Shion who was looking at him as if he were on that side of the threshold instead of her. “Shion, in this situation, we must look at the long term,” he said. “I understand your concerns, but it’s impossible to go through life without getting hurt. This is the best approach.”

Shion smiled wanly. “I didn’t say anything, Werner.”

She didn’t need to.

“If this gives you any reassurance, I have subordinates who are capable of handling this situation if I’m incapacitated along the way,” Werner said evenly. “Rather, I trust them in handling it. You’ve seen them yourself.” He paused. “Jericho is a special case that would be better handled personally.”

The words felt strange in Werner’s mouth, and he still felt a sense of unease leaving matters in the hands of others if the situation declined to that point but—

“There are people outside of us that you can rely on…?” Shion whispered, hands dropping to her sides. “You’re sure?”

Werner met her gaze, thinking of the trenches, then of his time in the Twin Cities, and then of the faint memories that had trickled down from the other five—memories of his subordinates maneuvering without him. Finally, he nodded.