16.4: Brother, 0650 Filial Affliction (1)

Re-cap:

Cvetka greets Cadence and Werner’s unit in Aquarius and reveals that they are in the palm of her employer’s hand. On the Kaiser’s orders, they are sent back to the capital to report into said employer to deliver Werner and Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augen movement. However, they are forcefully detoured to Werner’s hometown along the way. 

Meanwhile, Werner finds himself on a detour as well through what appears to be childhood memories of the other five. He must cut the intrude out of him, but Shion keeps putting up roadblocks around the way and contradicting herself.


Filialleiden » Filial affliction brewing at 0650 hours

Eisburg, Capricorn

Ludwig Waltz, eldest son of the esteemed Waltz family, had a routine. Every morning he greeted the sun with a cup of coffee: two teaspoons of sugar—no more, nor less. And that’s how he started this morning.

Continuing on with his morning ritual, he read the political column of the morning paper and nibbled on a slice of bread spread with jam and ham. His wife sat beside him and rubbed circles into his bad hand until it was time for her to leave for work at the local newspaper. A local branch of the Enlightenment Committee, to be exact.

After he finished up breakfast, he made his way to his work station just a room over. It was as meticulously kept as he’d left it: a single desk pressed against the wall; a low, dustless shelf housing tools and metal gears; and a small window to let light in. His most recent project rested on his work desk, his lenses and apparati hanging on metal extensions and appendages with alligator clips. A train ticket to the capital balanced at the corner of his desk, paired with a letter that ended with an ‘innocent’ question—

‘You’ll be a good son and support your father with us, won’t you?’

Bypassing the letter and ticket, he retrieved his toolkit from his shelf, parked himself in front of his desk, and tinkered away.

He used to view this as menial work—a secondary profession taken up by family members who couldn’t be exemplary—but now he loved the delicateness and intricacy of it all.

Of course, he wasn’t as good as his sister Viktoria. She had years of clockmaking on him. But, he supposed even if they’d started at the same time, she’d still be better. She had a steadiness about her and had inherited the same sharp eye his brother had gotten from their mother. It had taken months for Ludwig to get over the fact that he would never be the best even at clockmaking. But he was coming to terms with it: there was no need to be the best. And the words that had started the journey to this realization were told to him by a Transmutationist at a field hospital during the Reservoir War:

“You’ll never be able to walk or use a conductor ever again.”

Even so, Ludwig’s subordinates had still respected him and had treated him no differently when he’d received his honorable discharge. He’d thought home would offer the same.

It had taken a month after he returned for reality to settle in. It started when Mother began deferring her expectations of him to Werner, who irritatingly met all of those expectations head on. As time passed, Mother had even asked off-handed questions whenever he was in earshot: “Werner, you want to be like how your brother used to be, don’t you?” Her disappointed sighs whenever he had to ask Werner or Viktoria to get something from a higher shelf for him were just the icing on the cake. But her ever watchful, judging ice-blue eyes—flecked with the prettiest of golds and silvers—had been the real terror.

The last straw was when he’d made his way into their household trophy room and saw a newspaper article clipped above all of his medals and honors. The headline was still burned into his mind to this day—“War hero makes the ultimate sacrifice: saves subordinates so they can fight another day.” The article was encased in a golden frame.

Several nights later when Werner had come with the results of his V-Type test, Mother had thrown a fit. She’d sobbed, wailed, demanding that he get re-tested, asking him why he had to be a Projector. And after Werner had no answer prepared for her, she had bemoaned to herself: “Why do I have three uselesschildren? Why do I have to have such terrible luck? What will people think about me…?”

That night had also been the first time Werner had ever sought comfort from Ludwig. But instead of offering it, Ludwig had cruelly reveled in his brother’s failure and had left him only with: “There’s no such thing as luck or chance, Werner.” In other words, it’s all your fault.

Ludwig’s words only became crueler from them on, his anger hotter, his jealousy more potent. And as a result, he’d lost his siblings through his own volition. Eventually, he’d left home and never came back. No. He’d abandoned his siblings and left them in that house to fend for themselves.

It had taken Ludwig years to come to terms with it—his injury, the war, his family. But by that time, it was too late. The thing was, once a bridge was burned, there was nothing left that could be used to build it back up. All he could do now was amend from a distance in any way he could.

Ludwig blinked out of his thoughts and checked the clock resting at the foot of his desk. Three hours had already passed. Damn.

“Dwelling on it won’t do anything,” a peacekeeping agent who’d been assigned to do psychological evaluations on Conductors after the war had told him. “I recommend you find something to keep yourself occupied. You’ll lose your mind otherwise.”

And so Ludwig started tinkering away. Piece into piece, gear into gear, smooth and concise.

A knock at the door half an hour later drew him from his work. 

Odd. 

He hadn’t been expecting any visitors.

He put down his tools and made his way through the kitchen to the entrance. When he opened the door, he found a young woman with wispy platinum blonde hair perfectly combed to her waist. A blemishless white sunhat rested on her head, and a pure white dress enveloped her thin figure.

“Viktoria…?” Ludwig did a double take. “What are you doing here?”

“Didn’t you hear?” Viktoria cast down a tight, distant smile. “Werner’s coming home.”

* * *

Ludwig Waltz, eldest son of the esteemed Waltz family, was dressed in his best Sunday morning wear. Even though it was a Tuesday. Even though he had two large orders to be finished with at the end of the day.

Ironic. He made things that told time but didn’t have enough of it on his hands.

At the moment he was waiting on the small train platform in town beside Helga Wolff, maid of the Waltz house and mother to Gilbert Wolff who was one of his brother’s friends. Ludwig had never understood how Gilbert and Werner got along. 

Ludwig checked his wrist watch.

His sister was still not here despite being the one who informed him of Werner’s arrival. Neither was Mother. Even though she always stressed the importance of timeliness. Hypocrite.

Ludwig himself wasn’t ready for the reunion. Usually, he’d get at least two weeks’ notice in a curt but detailed letter whenever Werner was to come home. Today he’d only had two hours to prepare and wrangle out his apprehension and work out conversations in his head.

A horn bellowed loud and clear as click-clacking resounded down the shaking tracks in front of him. A sleek black train with clear tubing running down its body slowed to a stop a meter away. The clear tubes which had been pulsating with blinding white light dimmed as the locomotive let out one last horn.

Ludwig’s heart hammered.

A man stepped out from the closest train compartment. Not Werner—Ludwig felt mild relief at this—but someone familiar still: Gilbert. The young man looked older than Ludwig remembered, now sporting mild stubble and a scar just below his right eye.

When they locked eyes, Gilbert stiffened and started towards him almost aggressively: “What are you doing here—ow!”

Frau Wolff smacked Gilbert upside the head again. “You haven’t seen your mother in months and you don’t even greet her first?! What kind of son are you?!”

“Ma, I’m sorry—ow! Ma!”

Instead of accepting the apology, Helga pulled Gilbert into a tight hug and buried her face into his chest. Without hesitation, Gilbert returned the gesture and melted into the embrace.

Feeling somewhat uncomfortable, Ludwig looked away from them and towards the train just as a duo boarded off the same cart. Ludwig recognized Werner first.

His brother’s uniform was even more immaculate than usual. Some of his medals were missing though, causing Ludwig to wonder if they’d gotten dirty. Beside Werner stood a wiry young man with curly black hair and a medic band sewn onto his sleeve. The duo whispered to each other as they paced forward, amusement flickering on the medic’s face and a smile on Werner’s. Upon noticing Ludwig’s presence, however, the smile slid from Werner’s face.

Ludwig tensed and made his way over to them.

Werner stared at him in response. Stared at his wheelchair. Only for a brief second. But he stared at it. “It’s good to see you, Ludwig. I wasn’t expecting to see you here. I was going to visit once I was situated.”

Ludwig opened his mouth, raised his hands, but froze and clenched his fists. Damn. “It’s good to see you too.” He nodded at Helga. “Frau Wolff heard from Gilbert that you were coming home and told Mother.”

Both Werner and the medic stared at Gilbert.

Werner then gestured to the medic: “This is Nico L. Fabrizzio, a combat medic in my unit. Nico, my brotherLudwig.”

Nico brightened and extended a hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Ludwig accepted the shake, noting how Nico didn’t flinch at the sight of his hand. “I’ve never met someone from Werner’s unit before. Are you local to the area or…?”

“Not exactly…” Nico chuckled.

Peeling out of the train came a man in a captain’s uniform. Behind him filtered out a cluster of uniformed soldiers of varying rank. The soldiers were caged around two figures with cloaked hoods pulled over their heads.

It had to be an operation of some kind, Ludwig figured. Only reason for an entire unit to come to this town.

One of the hooded figures turned in their direction. An older man with a gaunt face. Ludwig recognized him immediately, and his heart thundered as Friedhelm Heimler stared back at him with eyes widening in recognition. The man’s gaze flicked to Werner and then back to him again. He shook his head once.

Before Ludwig could digest the action, his attention was drawn away by twin shadows falling along the platform. He looked up to see Viktoria drifting on towards them in a dress that was impossibly whiter than the one she’d worn when visiting him. Right beside her came Mother: tall, thin with perfectly tied up blonde hair and a floral-printed dress. Her ice blue eyes were crinkled with practiced sweet warmth and tender affection. Each step she took was gentle and precise. Between them padded a single dog with dark fur and pointed ears: Fenrir.

While Mother kept as far from the dog as possible, Viktoria held her loosely on a leash and allowed Fenrir to guide her along—at least until Fenrir suddenly charged forwards and ripped the leash right out of Viktoria’s hands. The dog bounded towards them, target locked and loaded: Werner.

Werner stumbled—no, scrambled—backwards into Nico who took one look at Fenrir and scrambled away himself. They crashed to the floor together as Fenrir launched herself onto Werner and began monstrously, viciously licking his face.

Ludwig ogled the scene.

“Fenrir!” Viktoria exclaimed as she bounded over and pulled Fenrir away. “Sorry, Werner, she’s just so excited to see you—”

“Werner, honey,” came the soft, feathery voice, as sweetly sick as always. “What are you doing…? The floor is dirty.”

Nico rose first and offered Werner a hand, but Werner bypassed it and stood himself.

Eyes lingering on the gesture, Mother continued, “Viktoria, you need to take better care of that thing. It’s embarrassing to see it slobbering around.”

Viktoria dipped her head and pulled Fenrir aside. The dog whined in response, tail wagging, eyes still glued to Werner. “Right, I’m sorry.”

Ignoring the discomfort in the air, Mother took a step forward and pulled Werner into a tight embrace. “Welcome back, honey.”

Werner tensed, causing Mother, Viktoria, and Ludwig himself to stiffen. A beat after, however, he returned the gesture as he normally would—one arm around the back. The embrace lasted twenty seconds exactly. When the two peeled away from each other, a man was standing just behind them wide-eyed. The captain.

Tense, the man looked between them all. “Is… this your family, Waltz? How did they know we would be here now? Did you tell them?”

“I wouldn’t have the means to, sir,” Werner replied before gesturing to Gilbert who was still being embraced by his mother. “It seems as if Second Lieutenant Wolff let news of our arrival travel.”

The captain relaxed slightly and turned to them. “I’m sorry. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Volker Weingartner. You can just call me Volker”—He eyed Werner and Nico—”Of course, that’s only because you’re not in my division.”

Very funny, sir,” Werner said.

“Oh my, a humorous captain!” Mother chuckled pleasantly before introducing herself. She then squeezed his sister’s arm: “This is Viktoria, my daughter.” And placed a hand on his shoulder: “And Ludwig.”

Weingartner regarded Ludwig for a moment before nodding and offering a salute. Ludwig startled before returning the gesture. It felt good.

Mother pressed, “Werner, you usually write when you’re coming home. I had to learn from Frau Wolff that you were comin—”

“This isn’t a routine leave,” Werner interjected curtly. “We’re on a delivery operation. Although it hasn’t been labeled as covert, the implication is clear.”

Ludwig tensed as did Victoria.

Had Werner interrupted her?

Mother placed a hand over her mouth. “Oh no… I didn’t realize. Oh, honey, I wish you would’ve told me. Now I feel terrib—”

Werner’s lips dipped. “That would defeat the purpose of the meaning ‘covert.’”

“We’ll only be staying for a day,” Weingartner inserted before addressing Werner: “I’ll leave you to catch up, Waltz. We’ll be checking in at the local inn in the meantime. Meet us there in two hours—”

Mother gasped. “Oh, with all due respect, Captain Weingartner, that’s nonsense. He’s just come home, and you’re taking him away from me already?”

A tense pause.

“I’m joking, of course.” Mother chimed before addressing Werner: “But I’ve just had Helga and Viktoria tidy up your room, dear. You should stay the night at home. I’m sure Gilbert is planning to spend the night with Helga too.” Turning back to Weingartner, she clasped her hands together and gasped. “Oh, I know just the thing! Your Werner’s superior officer, aren’t you? Why don’t you join us for dinner? Helga’s already preparing more than we can eat.”

Weingartner and Werner exchanged looks.

Something akin to guilt flickered in the captain’s eyes, before he complied, “Well, if you insist, Frau Waltz—”

“If I may, would it be alright if my combat medic”—Werner gestured to Nico—”join us? He’s never had a Capricornian dinner before.”

Mother’s lips tightened at this suggestion. She turned Nico over with her eyes, the corners of which crinkled with disgust. It was all very subtle, so Ludwig doubted Nico even noticed. But, of course, despite her evident displeasure, she smiled brightly and said, “Why, of course, Werner.”

* * *

Dinner was awkward.

Frau Wolff made a fantastic feast, as always. Presentation was spot-on: white-laced tablecloth beneath colorful dishes of golden pasta, browned meat, lightly-seasoned vegetables—Maultaschen, Sauerbraten, Spätzle, and so on. The food looked picture-perfect. Almost too good to eat. Mother wouldn’t have it otherwise.

Once they were all seated—Mother, Viktoria, Ludwig himself, Werner, Nico, Gilbert, Helga, and Weingartner in that order—around the long rectangular table that Ludwig had grown to hate, conversation began.

The conversation was trivial. Weather, work, how their duties were going, and so and so forth. The captain made compliments about the house decor: the large windows that took up half the wall, the grandfather clock resting above the archway leading to the stairs, the dustless chandelier above their heads, and the white piano placed just down the hall in the visitation room.

As usual, Ludwig lost focus halfway through only to return at a random time:

“Are you the one who designed this all?” Weingartner was asking good-naturedly. When Mother answered affirmative, he said, “Well, I must say, Werner takes after your precision and work ethic.”

“He really takes after his father,” Mother responded. “He retired to clockmaking after the war. He’s quite good at it.”

“Yes, that would be Ulrich Waltz, Cold Wall of the South, right? I never had the pleasure of fighting beside him during the war, but I’ve heard stories.”

“Oh, I’m very lucky. We’re so blessed that he can still serve Capricorn even though he’s retired. He was invited to Die Hauptstadt, you know?”

“To the capital?” Weingartner pressed. “For the conductor convention I’m assuming?”

“Yes, he actually just asked us to come along to the capital recently,” Mother explained. “We’re taking the Zweiblitz-43 at 4:55 tomorrow morning.”

Gilbert and Weingartner tensed, while Nico and Werner continued working on their meals.

“Oh my! Is that the same train you’re leaving on?” Mother gasped, before her lips curled into a smile. “Well, this is all the more reason to come, Ludwig!”

Ludwig put a piece of goulash in his mouth, chewed, swallowed. “I have a lot of orders to get through, Mother.”

Mother hummed and cut through a piece of meat with one stroke of her knife. “Well, we can’t all be on top of things, can we?”

Silence stretched on.

Nico cleared his throat and gestured down the hall. “About that piano—does it work? If it does, you should play somethin’, Werner. I haven’t heard you play in forever—”

“You haven’t practiced in a while, honey,” Mother interrupted sweetly. “Are you sure you want to play? I mean, everyone’s tired. I’m sure they want to have a nice, quiet dinner to enjoy—”

“I’ve been practicing,” Werner answered, rising to a stand. “Of course, I’ll defer the choice of entertainment to the audience.”

“Oh, I’d love to hear you play, Werner!” Viktoria gave a slight applaud. “I don’t think I’ve heard you play since we were young!”

There it was again. That steadiness Ludwig didn’t possess himself.

Weingartner tensed but then smiled thinly. “I’ve always been interested in the cultural differences in the musical arts.”

What?

Werner inclined his head and made his way to the piano. He slipped off his gloves, sank into the chair, and rested his hands on the keys. After a dramatic pause, Werner’s fingers began gliding across the keys slowly, fluidly. Slow, methodical. A Capricornian classic.

Ludwig was rather surprised.

Werner’s playing was actually… good. While Werner had always been good at the piano, he’d always ‘missing something’—or so Werner’s piano tutor had said to Mother years ago. Not too long after that, Mother had ended Werner’s piano lessons; and Werner had never touched a piano again. Or so Ludwig had thought—

—suddenly, Werner slammed his hands down on the piano and ran his fingers down the keys before chaotically jumpstarting into an entirely different song. His hands leapt up and down the keyboard, crisscrossed over each other, and danced dizzyingly. The notes that hit the air were upbeat, short, jumpy, fast.

“Hey, Gilbert,” Ludwig whispered to him across Werner’s empty seat, “did something—”

Gilbert quietly sighed, closed his eyes, and rested his head against the back of the chair. “Better not to think about it. It’ll only hurt your head, Ludwig. Trust me.”

Before he could probe further, Ludwig’s attention was drawn away by the combat medic. Nico was subtly tapping his fingers on his legs beneath the table as Werner played. It took a moment for Ludwig to realize that Nico was playing imaginary notes on piano—different from what Werner was playing. A duet, maybe?

At some point, the song reached a crescendo, and after seeming to hit an imaginary set of chords, Nico rested his hands. Werner seemed to follow suit. For three seconds. Abruptly, Werner picked up the song again, hands flying out in a musical flurry.

Nico stared and froze, looking almost a bit hurt.

The song reached a closing with another crescendo and a powerful chord. Applause followed. Werner turned and dipped his head slightly.

“That was… different, Werner,” Mothersaid as the applause died. “Very… raunchy. It’s good to dabble in more unrefined song sometimes.” She sighed. “Say, Viktoria, you’ve actually had some practice recently, haven’t you? Why don’t you play us something to help dinner go down?”

Viktoria tensed subtly before she smiled softly. “Of course—”

“I would enjoy listening, but I have to make a business call,” Werner said, rising from the piano and putting his gloved back on. “Please excuse me.” He stopped short, glancing down both ends of the hall. “The phone was…”

“Down the hall to the left…” murmured Viktoria.

Werner nodded before heading down that way. Ludwig watched him go as Viktoria settled by the piano and began playing.

Ludwig excused himself to use the bathroom a couple minutes after. Instead of heading to the area, however, he headed to the living room where their main phone was located. He paused by the door leading to the room and pressed his ear to the wall. Although it had been some time, he still had muscle memory and recalled his espionage training from his younger years during the war. That and the war stole his legs but not his hearing:

“—I understand.” Werner’s voice.

A pause.

“No, it’s fine. I can handle it. I was just being dramatic. Honest. Besides, Nico is here with me.”

A stretch of silence.

“Right? Who knows how long it’ll be before he chases after the next thing…. Yeah, and how broke you’d be if you came at my every beck and call too, Allen.”

A beat.

“No, really. The family business comes first.”

Another pause.

“Right… That’s what I meant—‘your family comes first.’”

And then an extended stretch of quiet.

“Dammit!” A clang and rattle resounded—the phone slamming back down on the receiver. “What did I even want from them anyways? Stupid…”

Ludwig pulled away and made for the restroom. He waited in there behind the door as he listened to the clock tick over the sink. After seven minutes had passed, he peeled out and headed back into the living room. Bypassing the numerous open windows that let in way too much light, he approached the phone resting on the main table and picked it off of its receiver. After turning the dial, he connected with the operator and requested to be connected to the line that had been called previously.

“Alright,” the operator popped cheerily, “and that would be the Capricornian General Military Historical Archives, right?”

What…?

Ludwig’s mind raced before realization hit. He was certain it wouldn’t have dawned on him if it weren’t for his former experience: “No… Connect me to the line that you connected to just before the previous call.”

There was a crackle then a pause followed by, “Is this some sort of joke?”

The sudden curtness of the operator’s voice caught Ludwig off guard.

The operator sighed. “Whoever was calling from this line last started talking to himself before I could connect him to anyone. He spoke over me too when I was trying to get him to clarify.”

Ludwig tensed. “What did he say?”

“I don’t really know. It didn’t make any sense, but it sounded like he was trying to get help.”

* * *

Dinner ended with the same false niceties it began with. Being the only victor of the night, Weingartner left for the local inn with a bottle of wine and a container full of leftovers after pulling Werner, Nico, and Gilbert aside for a private chat.

Afterwards, Werner excused himself, the combat medic, and Gilbert up to his room to discuss a ‘subject of importance.’ Meanwhile, Helga left to tend to the dishes. This left Ludwig alone in the dining room with Mother and Viktoria. The silence was heavy. Ludwig wanted to at least bid Werner a farewell before leaving but being in her presence was unbearable so he excused himself early.

Instead of winding down the garden path connecting to town after he departed, however, Ludwig made his way around the back of the house. He grabbed hold of the vines growing up along the arbor there and pulled himself up along the wall. His legs dangled uselessly below him, but he’d trained himself to not rely on them. He eventually hoisted himself up onto the roof that extended out just beneath Werner’s bedroom window. He lay there for a moment, catching his breath.

Back in the day, he would climb up here and knock on Werner’s and then Viktoria’s windows after their curfews and make them stargaze with him. They’d lay for hours staring up at the sky. But never when there was a full moon out.

Shaking off the memory, he pulled out a compact mirror from his pocket and held it away so that he could see the interior of the bedroom.

Espionage training really had its uses. Manipulators weren’t the only ones who could do it.

Ludwig watched as the door creaked open through the mirror. Three stiff figures stepped into the room: Werner, Nico, Gilbert.

“Man, talk about exhaustin’.” Werner sighed as soon as the door was shut. “I’ve been in rooms with bosses from Gemini, Sagittarius, and Aquarius—all at once. Those meet-n-greets have nothin’ on this.” He threw a look over his shoulder at Nico. “Thanks for stickin’ with me.”

Ludwig stared.

What? Why was Werner talking like that?

“Always,” Nico replied. “Kinda interested in Werner’s family myself, to be honest.”

Werner turned on his heels and arched a brow at Gilbert. “Anyone else ya gonna invite ta the party, Gil?”

“Well, it’s my mom, alright? Of course I’m gonna ring her up and tell her I’m coming home.” Gilbert shrugged. “She’s old. Don’t want to give her a heart attack. Told her to keep it on the down-low, but I forgot how much of a chatterbox she is…”

“I gotcha. I ain’t pointin’ fingers.” Werner walked around the room, inspecting the bed, the desk and its chair, and then the shelves along the walls. “I like a man who’s dedicated ta his family. Hate a man who ain’t.”

“Hm, I like the sound of Werner stroking my ego. Only if it was actually him, and only if you were sincere.” Using the chair to rest his feet, Gilbert sat up on the desk. “Well, whatever.”

What…?

“Hey, I am bein’ sincere. Honest.” Werner fell back onto the bed, kicked his legs up on the bedpost, and folded his hands behind his head. “Anyway, this is a cute town. Not what I expected. Can see where ya got your small-town boy charm from.” He stretched out his arms and framed the ceiling. “Ya know if I ever retire from the biz, settlin’ in this kinda place doesn’t sound too bad.”

Gilbert scoffed. “The town’s alright. Haven’t had leave since the border conflict with Aquarius. Feel kinda guilty. Not only is Werner not here, but neither are any of the locals out serving who’re form the area. Not on leave yet. No one to drink with. Greta isn’t here either.”

“Greta?” Werner squinted before his face brightened. “Ah, right, the Specialist medic. Your girlfriend—”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Gilbert grumbled.

Werner yawned. “Ever thinkin’ of actually askin’ her out? Like to a dance or somethin’? Ya know the Twin Cities isn’t known for just its bars and casinos. Not as good as Cancer for romance but we still have our dance halls.”

“Uh, after what happened back in October when we were there”—Gilbert crossed his legs—”I think I’ll pass. Anyway, you rang your underworld overlords in the Twin Cities earlier, right? Any news?”

Nico stiffened. “Carl and Allen—what did they say?”

All of the names were unfamiliar to Ludwig.

Werner stared back up at the ceiling. “Ya know I had this sorta weird scenario in my head where when I’d ring them up, they’d say”—he cleared his voice and suddenly his voice and tone changed—“‘Cadence? What are you talkin’ bout. Cadence is standin’ right here, talkin’ and walkin’. Who the hell are you?’”

“What kind of scenario is that?” Gilbert arched a brow.

“I mean, I still don’t understand a lick about vitae. The others’ve explained it ta me, but it’s over my head. Who’s ta say that we all haven’t had a psychotic break at the same time, and I’m just a figment of Werner’s imagination? Could be possible. In fact, the more time I have my thoughts just ta myself, the more I think it.”

“Hell, don’t say shit like that.” Gilbert picked up a soft-cover book laying on the desk and threw it at him. “I don’t even want to imagine dealing with the possibility that you’re some permanent resident in Werner’s brain.”

Werner caught the book with ease and seemed surprised at the fact. “Still holdin’ that grudge, aren’t ya?”

“Not a grudge,” Gilbert replied, shrugging. “Just don’t forgive you.”

“Well, that just means you’re a good friend.”

Nico hung his head and gave Werner a sympathetic but exasperated look. “Cadence… can you stop avoidin’ the subject?”

“Ya know me so well. Anyway, it’s kinda embarrassin’. Seems like that my body’s about passed out right now back in Gemini. Allen and Carl kinda threw me in a hospital for the time bein’ and went about business as usual. Wish I could be nappin’ over there instead of here.”

Nico frowned.

“But I feel kinda selfish for just up and leavin’ ‘em with all the kids though.”

“It’s good that your body is gettin’ rest at least,” Nico supplied. “But… I sorta noticed you haven’t been… I haven’t seen you sleep, Cadence.”

“Well, I haven’t been,” Werner admitted, pulling himself up into a sit. “I’ve been havin’ a hard time sleepin’ since Cvetka made her dramatic entry. Can fall asleep just fine. Stayin’ asleep is a different story.”

Gilbert frowned. “What is it? Like… dreams? No, nightmares? Werner said you guys share dreams sometimes. But Atienna said something else.”

“Well, it depends on the person,” Werner replied. “I’d like ta think the dear lieutenant and I share a more profound bond than the others, so we connect more and share more and stuff. Not intentionally, ‘course.”

Gilbert scoffed. “Profound bond?”

“We share the same bad history with older women.”

Gilbert froze then grunted: “Hey, now that I think about it, why the hell did you run from Fenrir like that?”

Werner flinched. “Hey, dogs are evil, okay—”

“You should never trust someone who says they hate dogs.”

“Pretty sure the sayin’ is ‘never trust someone who hates cats,’” Werner returned. “Ya’ve never been chased down an alleyway at the black of night by a pair of huntin’ dogs before, have ya?”

“There was a candy store we’d go to all the time,” Nico explained. “Well, we’d steal from it actually. Eventually, the owner bought a couple of huntin’ dogs and we were all chased down ten city blocks. Don’t think I’ve ever seen Francis run so fast in my life.”

“Actions have consequences,” Gilbert returned before nodding at Werner. “Doesn’t explain why it happened though. I thought pretending to be other people was your skill set. And I mean, Werner’s the one who adopted Fenrir way back when. Didn’t he tell you or something?”

Werner tensed. “Well… I can’t…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Alright, I don’t want any of ya ta freak out now—”

“Whenever someone starts off with that, I can feel a migraine coming on,” Gilbert muttered.

“See what I mean?” Werner offered a lazy grin before shrugging. “Anyway, I think I’m startin’ ta lose some of the memories that I’ve gotten from the others. Like, they’ve been teachin’ me ta read Common, I think. I know that ‘cause I can read it, but I didn’t actually remember them teachin’ me it. But I was relyin’ on Atienna and the lieutenant for written Capricornian, and—well—can’t read it anymore. Forgot Werner’s brother was in a wheelchair too—”

It didn’t make any sense to Ludwig. Did Werner have a brain injury—

“This isn’t giving you damned brain damage… is it?!” Gilbert surged to his feet and gestured to Werner’s hand. “Why’re you just telling us this now?!”

Werner smiled again, apparently more amused than upset. “Panickin’ ain’t doin’ nothin’. Plus, was afraid ya’d hire out another Monadic priest to exorcise me out or somethin’.”

Gilbert glowered. “You remember that but not the other details?”

“What can I say? You’re a memorable guy.” Werner swung his legs over the bed and faced the window. “But you should go home now, Gil. Ya haven’t seen your ma in forever. She seems like a sweet lady. Ya’know, ya could always try at jumpin’ ship here and—”

“Don’t even suggest it.” Gilbert waved him off. “I complain a lot but a stipend is a stipend. My mom relies on me. We’d be broke without me serving.”

Werner gave him a look of odd sympathy.

“Anyway, I’ll wait around until Werner gives me a direct order to get off his ass himself—which hasn’t happened in the past ten years.” Gilbert checked the watch hanging above the bedroom door. “But, my ma’s almost done with her shift here so I might dip now after all… Are you sure you’re good to be here by yourself, Cadence?”

“You’re Greta’s knight in shinin’ armor. Not mine.” Werner arched a brow. “As long as that dog doesn’t come here.”

“Fenrir usually stays with one of Viktoria’s friends. Your mom can’t stand dog fur.”

Werner spread his arms. “Then we’re all set.”

Rolling his eyes, Gilbert departed with a wave.

Nico lingered.

“You too, Nic. Ya look like ya had a late one.”

“You too, Cadence. Even if you can’t, you’ve gotta try sleepin’.”

“Got it.”

Nico took in a deep breath. “But, about the song you played…”

A scowl ripped across Werner’s face. “I’m all for critics ‘cause they’re good for publicity but what in saint’s name was that—she called my song ‘raunchy’? Even I’m insulted. What is wrong with that woman?”

“Don’t mind her. The song was really great, Cadence.” Nico frowned. “I wonder if she’s always like that…”

“Weird that she and Werner’s family are ridin’ the same train as us to the capital, ain’t it?”

“Definitely.”

Man… 

After a long stretch of silence, Nico pressed, “Hey, that was our song though, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. It was. Why?”

“Oh…” Nico stared at the floorboards. “I thought… we were going to—I don’t know—finish it together some day. I thought that was the whole point of writin’ it.”

“Well, you weren’t around, and I got a bit of inspiration. Can’t wait for ya ta come back and waste that rare spark of brilliance, can I?”

“True.” Nico chuckled, strained. “Well, it was fantastic. Ophiuchian Way material.” After another pause, he continued, “Y’know… if something… if you need…” He rubbed his arm. “I’m always here for you, Cadence, y’know that, right?”

Werner’s back was to Nico, so the combat medic couldn’t see Werner’s expression. But Ludwig could. The look of hurt, anger, disgust, and pain on Werner’s face contrasted so greatly with his parting statement: “Thanks, Nico. Can always rely on ya, can’t I?”

* * *

Ludwig wasn’t able to focus on his work when he returned home that night. He couldn’t even fall asleep. And this time it wasn’t because of the nightmares. He’d told his wife his worries when she arrived home: the unexpected arrival of his brother, Heimler at the station, his brother’s behavior.

“You don’t think the reason your brother is back is because something happened at the front, do you?” she whispered in response. “You don’t think they’ve found out, do you?”

He reassured her that that wasn’t the case. But once she was asleep, he crept out of bed and made his way out the house.

Their town was small. All the houses still maintained the old Capricornian design: white paneled-walls fitted over with thin, wooden crisscrossing lacings with little space in between them. They all looked the same—the houses. The only way Ludwig had been able to tell whose house was whose when he was younger was by peering into the gardens. Those were always different. His mother’s garden always held the most beautiful of flowers, no matter how impractical.

But Ludwig wasn’t headed to anyone’s house in particular. His destination was a bit more uninhabited:

There were rolling golden wheat fields a little ways away behind the town. They’d only recently started growing in the past couple of years because the government had built a series of vitae-fed ley-lines and insulatub tubes cutting through the country that just so happened to go right through town. Ludwig enjoyed admiring the fields and the glow of the vitae from inside the transparent ley-lines and tubes whenever he couldn’t sleep. It calmed him—

Ludwig stopped short on his stroll as his nostrils curled.

It smelled like smoke.

His heart hammered as he rushed forward along the dirt path until he found a single stamped-out cigarette laying on the ground at the entrance of the fields. After making his way past the wooden fence post guarding the area, he found a figure illuminated in gold before the rows of wheat.

Werner. His brother stood there facing the field in silence.

The tiny hulls and sleek bodies of the plants reflected back the pulsating glow of the vitae encapsulated in the tubes and ley-lines cutting straight through its center. The warmth of the vitae meeting the natural cold of the environment caused the fields to ripple like a golden sea.

A dumbstruck expression of awe was cut clear across Werner’s face. There was a glimmer of wistfulness there too. Longing. He almost looked lonely.

The wheels to Ludwig’s chair snapped against a stray twig on the ground as he crept forward, causing Werner to turn to him in surprise. There was a beat of silence as they locked eyes.

“Ludwig. You’re out late.” The stolid mask was back on.

“So are you.” Ludwig fell into place beside him. “Can’t sleep?”

“I needed to collect my thoughts.”

“So do I.” Ludwig faced the fields. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s an important resource to Capricorn.”

Ludwig looked back at his brother. Up close, there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. But that was just a skill that Mother had taught all of them. Ludwig almost laughed at the thought. At least she’d taught them something useful. But—

“Do you come here often?”

Ludwig stiffened, struggling to find his voice. “Every other night.”

“I can see why.”

Ludwig’s mind went to the cigarette—

“Ludwig, what does family mean to you?”

—and his mind went blank again. He stared up at Werner and found the man staring back down at him—just like that night when he’d had sought comfort in him after the results of his V-Type test had come in.

Ludwig didn’t really understand it, but this was his chance. He was certain. A redemption. But—

Say somethingLudwig urged himself. Say something! 

No words came out.

Eventually, Werner excused himself and returned home, leaving Ludwig to himself in front of the field.

* * *

Ludwig took the long way back home to let the numbness make its way out of his mind. On his way back, he passed by the local inn. It was a stone-faced building with crisscrossing wooden beams lacing its front. A sign reading simply Rastplatz stood guard at the entrance.

Although the inn was usually dark, tonight its windows were bright. Faintly, he could make out conversation—maybe a bit of laughter—resounding from within.

He went over the grass and approached the back of the building. His wife would fuss about him getting his wheels dirty, but that wasn’t important at the moment. Keeping low, he made his way to the nearest window and cautiously peered inside and found a large room.

The room’s walls were wooden, and it was well furnished with leather cushions and rows of beds. Gauging by the amount of furniture inside, it could probably house five people. Even so, only two figures occupied it.

Ludwig’s heart nearly shot out of his chest.

Sitting rigidly at the center most table in the room and facing each other were Friedhelm Heimler and Marionette Engel herself.

After recovering from the sight of them, Ludwig knocked on the window.

Marionette and Heimler startled and stared at him before both coming to the window and shoving it open.

“Ludwig?!”

Although Ludwig was disturbed to see them in his hometown, he was relieved to see them unharmed. He considered them allies, after all.

He had stumbled upon one of the meetings of the group that would eventually become the Augen when travelling to the capital for the required annual ‘Health Assessment for Non-Service’ check-up a couple years ago. It had been much smaller back then—too small and unfocused to be called a ‘movement.’ Just a collective of bitter, retired Conductors who came together to speak about their grievances. He’d met Heimler there and the love of his life too. It was much later that Marionette took the reins and harnessed their feelings. Ever since then, his wife had been hard at work weaving the Augen’s messages into the newspapers. Meanwhile, he’d been gifting esteemed officers limited edition watches for joining the movement.

Ludwig managed, “Why are you here? Are you… being detained?

“A private named Stein was on guard over us, but he left just now to drink with the others,” Heimler supplied. “I’m not sure when he’ll come back.”

Ludwig pulled himself closer. “What’s going on?”

Heimler and Marionette exchanged looks, Heimler’s more of a glower than anything else. Marionette then elaborated on their failed demonstration, her capture, and their journey through Argo. Ludwig felt faint after hearing the story’s end.

Everything they had worked for—everything he had been doing to make up for his mistakes, to serve his country—was crumbling away. But. Something didn’t make sense:

“Why would they send such a small unit to transport someone with a high profile like you, Marionette?”

Heimler and Marionette exchanged looks again.

“Ludwig.” Heimler opened his mouth, froze seemingly in fear, shook his head, sighed. “About your brother…”

* * *

Ludwig Waltz, eldest son of the Waltz, had a train ticket in his hand and a suitcase on his lap. Before him stood a sleek black train no different from the one he’d seen last morning.

Werner and his military unit boarded half an hour before Ludwig had even gotten to the station. After hearing the exact details of the unit’s ‘delivery operation,’ Ludwig could understand the rush.

As soon as he was allowed, Ludwig boarded the train himself. He didn’t bother to wait for his sister and mother to load on with them. He was going to spend several hours in Mother’s presence anyways. He was going to shorten that time any way he could.

As he was making his way to his compartment, a woman who was squeezing by stopped short and stared at him.

“Oh, we’re the same,” she said.

He glanced at her.

She had fiery red hair tied up in a ponytail and wore a white-polka-dotted blue dress. A white bandana was wrapped around her head. And. She was missing an arm.

But Ludwig didn’t stare. Because he didn’t like it when people stared at him.

“You look kind of familiar…” She peered at him. “Have we seen each other before?”

Now that Ludwig thought about it, she did seem a bit familiar. But where from? She obviously wasn’t a local and had probably been on this train when it had arrived here. It didn’t seem like she was off-boarding yet either.

“Oh.” The woman pulled back, eyes narrowing. “You’re from that time. Disgusting…”

Ludwig recoiled. “What?”

The woman brushed past him, waving her good hand in the air. “Well, it’s good that you don’t use a conductor anymore. You can see where that got you.”


Threshold

“Come on, Maria,” a fifteen-year-old Conta sighed. Despite the exasperation in her voice, there was fondness in her eyes. “You’re always saying strange things. First about Virgoan myths and now about Capricornian fairy tales…. Where do you get this from?”

Sunlight was bleeding through the wooden planks overhead. The ground was muddy and damp. The air was thick and lingered on the tongue.

Werner wiped sweat from his brow and regarded Conta silently. A sudden tightness gripped his chest as he observed her. The admiration in the girl’s eyes was clear. How Maria had never noticed it—Werner didn’t know.

They were tucked beneath a seaport deck in an unknown location. He wasn’t sure why they were here: hiding, resting, unknown. Everything was fuzzy, but still Werner’s purpose was clear. He had to get out of this predicament and return to that moonlit room. Anything else was a mere distraction. He had managed to find an escape route out of Cadence’s memories earlier and had ended up here. The details of that event were unclear.

But he wanted to stay here with Conta a little longer.

No. That wasn’t it.

His head was pounding, his mind foggy. But he needed to find an—

—exit.

He blinked.

Suddenly the air had cooled, and there was an earthy scent on his tongue. A book rested on his lap, and heavy vines draped down around him. The wind whistling through the vine leaves reminded him of whispers. The chirps of birds filled up in the beats of silence. That sound and the ground which was littered with black feathers was the only evidence of the flock’s presence.

Werner studied the book in his lap. The title was written in Virgoan. Aries: From City-State to Feudal-based Monarchy.

“You’ve been very interested in Aries recently, Atienna,” a milky voice whispered from above.

Werner looked up as a shadow spilled over his face. An older woman with dark skin and a warm brown gaze sparkling with intelligence smiled down at him.

Mother.

Werner blinked and then winced at the bleach-white brightness that suddenly greeted him.

It was hot again, but hotter than Olive’s memory of Aries. A dryness had thinned out the air, and Werner could feel grit in-between his toes. When his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he found sandy dunes stretching out endlessly before him. The sun’s reflection off the grains of sand was blinding.

“Jericho, what are you doing?”

Werner turned and found a woman draped in a white cloak extending a hand out towards him. A familiar snake tattoo graced the right side of her face.

“Are you unwell?”

Werner caught Theta’s hand before it reached his cheek and stared over his shoulder at the figure hovering there.

“You’re the one pulling me away,” Werner stated. “What’s your intention?”

Shion regarded him as she met his gaze. There were black feathers scattered at her feet. “You never relax, do you?”

That simple sentence was confirmation. So that meant that at the moment, he was simply being dragged around. In other words, he was powerless and without control. 

Shion took a step forward. “No!”

Sharp pain rang through Werner’s temple at the shout, forcing him to squeeze his eyes shut. When he opened them, he found himself sitting upright and pinching the bridge of his nose. A solid wall stood rigid before him. To his left and right were a set of bunk beds. The trench. No, a memory of the trench.

Shion was nowhere in sight.

“Are you feeling alright?”

Werner lowered his hand. Nico was standing at the entrance looking concerned as always.

“Another headache?”

Werner recalled this event. It had occurred approximately fifteen days after he’d turned in his report regarding the events in the Twin Cities to the capital. The following days had been proceeded by intense headaches lasting several hours and by flashes of Cadence’s childhood memories. Maria, Atienna, and Jericho had also been subject to this, so their collective assumption had been that being physically at the place where Cadence had spent most of her life had allowed for more of her memories to spill into them. Of course, as it usually happened, he had received a larger sum of it all than the others had.

That aside, since this was his memory this time, perhaps this indicated that he was closer to returning to that blue moonlit room. Presumably, if he assumed that this pattern of events followed the previous patterns, playing along with this memory would allow him to reach his destination.

It was an unstable, untrustworthy set of rules. And Werner disliked assumptions. However—

“It’s manageable,” Werner replied just as he’d done one month ago.

Nico didn’t appear convinced, approaching him and holding out a bottle of large white pills. “Here, try this.”

Werner inspected the pill bottle and read the description. “Drowsiness is a side effect. I can’t risk not being alert at this time.”

Nico chuckled. “You wouldn’t be missin’ out on much. It’s just trainin’ and a routine conductor check-up this mornin’, right? I’m sure Gil can handle it. He was complainin’ about bein’ bored earlier.”

“No, it’s my responsibility. This isn’t a medical hospital, Nico. There could be an attack at any moment.”

“You sure?” Nico held out the bottle again. “I mean, Stein and Vogt are always takin’ naps around this time. That doesn’t seem really fair.”

Werner paused. “Is that why they’re always late?” He frowned. “I’ve been too lenient with them recently.”—and this Werner still believed.

Another sharp pain shot from temple to temple. This was when a memory of Nico tending to a wound on Cadence’s cheek after she’d tripped and cut herself while helping Nico escape from his childhood bullies had played through Werner’s mind. This time, the memory did not come but the sensation remained.

“The trainin’ routines and check-ups are long though, aren’t they?” Nico peered at him worriedly. “I don’t doubt that you can handle it, but do you wanna really deal with all of their grumpy faces when your head is screamin’ at you? I love them to death, but even I need a break sometimes.”

“Avoiding something just because it’s painful is irresponsible.”

“Irresponsible?” Nico considered this. “That’s a heavy word. Responsibility can be shared sometimes, can’t it?”

“Not when it’s delegated. That’s unacceptable.”

“That’s an even heavier word. Why isn’t it acceptable?”

Werner paused, feigning consideration. “In this circumstance, it’s selfish.”

Nico hummed. “Okay, that’s a fair point, but still… Avoiding things you don’t like isn’t always a bad thing.” He pointed to the entrance, faintly beyond which the pitter-patter of rainfall could be heard. “That’s what umbrellas are for, right?”

Werner counted fifteen seconds before saying, “You say strangely philosophical things sometimes.”

Nico chuckled. “I’ve actually been keepin’ that one in my back-pocket for a while now. Never think of the right thing to say until the moment’s passed, but I guess today I got lucky.”

“There’s a Capricornian word for that,” Werner informed him. “Treppenwitz.”

Nico repeated the word before offering a smile. “Well, did my treppenwitz work?”

This was when Maria and Cadence had barged in at a 75% synchronization and had convinced him or perhaps influenced him—he still wasn’t able to tell even now—to accept the medication. But now, they did not come.

There was simply dead silence.

Werner hesitated before reaching out to accept the bottle. Relief cut across Nico’s face as Werner popped open the lid and downed the pills with water from a canteen Nico offered.

Nico sank down on the bed opposite and began to rifle through the medical pack he’d brought along with him. Werner watched him for a minute before his eyes began to feel heavy and the pounding in his head lessened.

How far did he have to play this out?

“Nico,” he said, “I’m going to rest my eyes for a moment. Could you wake me up when it’s time for the morning session?”

“No problem, Lieutenant,” Nico popped, brightening. “And should I tell Gil to start preparin’ for the exercises if you don’t wake up then?”

“I will wake up,” Werner said—this time with more determination than he had said with originally. “Because you will wake me up.”

Nico blinked and then offered a wan smile. “‘Course, Lieutenant.”

Grimacing inwardly, Werner laid back down on the bed and used his hand to block the rays from the v-lights glowing along the side of the walls. He shut his eyes, counting the seconds ticking by as his pocket watch thumped above his chest.

This was pathetic and embarrassing: ‘resting,’ while things were developing on the surface without his knowledge. But there was no point in dwelling. Focus and forward: out of this place.

Despite not exerting himself, Werner suddenly became aware of a fatigue hanging over his body. This was different from the drowsiness he’d gotten as a side-effect from the medicine. This sluggishness hung heavy in his limbs and hazed over his thoughts.

Was it one of the others on the surface in the override?

His mind started to drift—

Avoiding things, are you?

Werner forced open his eyes, and was met with a blinding blue orb above. The moon—no. It was the iris of an eye—ice blue with flecks of gold and silver—gazing down at him.

A nightmare. And an exit.

16.( ): ELPIS Leader & Crime Leader, 0007 Filial Affection

Re-cap:

The Twin Cities is still recovering from the ELPIS attack headed by the ELPIS leader Theta who was initiated into Francis Foxman, a leader of the Foxman crime organization. Allen Foxman and Carl Foxman, his brothers, are given the responsibility of caring for Specialist children that were once in Theta’s care. As the city just begins to heal, however, an intruder finds its way in.


Filial Zuneigung » Filial affection witnessed at 0700 hours

Twin Cities, Gemini

“So, we gonna use it or what? I mean, this is a good time to use it, right? Not like there’s any better time to use it.”

Stomp, stomp. Sigh.

“Well, maybe we’d need to lie low or something, but it ain’t like we ain’t gonna be able to use it again if we use it now, right?”

Stomp, stomp, sigh.

“And if we used it up, Francis’d give us another… right?”

Like always, when Carl couldn’t solve problems with his hands, he floundered around running his mouth until some unfortunate soul wandered into his path and met head-on with his fists. Usually, this would be when Francis would intervene and diffuse the situation, but Francis was not around.

And Allen didn’t have the time to step in. Time was another form of currency, and he was short. A third of his funds were being saved for future troubles; another third was being spent on the children that Francis had dumped on them before running off just like their mother did when things got rough with their father; and a decent portion was being invested in the medical expenses of one Cadence Morello.

Cadence Morello, who was residing in the next room over. A real sleeping beauty. So deep in sleep that it’d been over a week since she’d cracked open an eye. After she’d keeled over in the warehouse the other day, they’d immediately dropped her off at the doc. They’d expected her to wake up and dash away to avoid paying back expenses, but she remained unconscious for days that were now bleeding into weeks.

At the moment Allen was seated in the halls just outside of the doc’s main office. The peeling walls and chipping phone booth set off to the side brought a vague sense of nostalgia. Maximillian and Stefano were discussing a recent football game by that phone booth, while Muccio—a newer hire-on—was following behind Carl as he paced.

“I mean, the doc’s doing his third round of mumbo-jumbo Specialist medical stuff, and he still hasn’t found a damn thing,” Carl continued, pushing Muccio aside. “Maybe it’s gotta do with that thing that Cadence mentioned a while back. “‘Real Conductors.’”

“True Conductors.”

“Yeah. That’s what I said—”

“Let’s get him then.”

Carl stopped and turned. “Really?”

“No point in talkin’ about it instead of doin’ it. If Francis can fix whatever’s happening with Cadence, then that means I won’t have to pay the doc anymore. If Cadence recovers, then I won’t have to pay extra for the other men to watch the children. She’s good with ‘em.”

Carl snapped his fingers. “Like that word Cadence keeps tossin’ around nowadays. ‘Cost-benefit analysis.’” He motioned for Muccio. “The hell are you waiting for? Get it out!”

Muccio stiffened before digging through the satchel slung at his waist.

“Hurry up, dammit!”

Muccio whipped out the proto-conductor he’d been entrusted with, but its tip got caught on the strap of his bag. In a panic, he jerked the proto-conductor hard and freed it from the strap. It flew from his hand with the effort and went flying through the air. Carl lunged for it but it slipped through his fingers and hit the ground. The glass shattered, spewing dark liquid all over the wooden floorboards. Allen still hadn’t a clue why the doc still hadn’t changed it out for tile. Blood didn’t stain too easily on tile compared to wood.

Muccio took a step back but there was no escape from Carl’s wrath. Carl grabbed him by the scruff with one hand and shook him.

“The hell is wrong with you, Muccio?! How the hell are we supposed to reach my brother now, you bastard?!”

“I-I’m s-sorry—”

There was a sudden updraft of wind.

“Carl, wait.” Allen motioned towards the splatter of black liquid.

It was beginning to pulsate with light. Carl released Muccio as a figure rose out from the glow. It was a young man dressed in a maroon sweatshirt with a suit jacket carefully pulled over it as if to appear professional. A white snake graced the right side of his face, while a book rested in his left gloved hand. Heavy, reserved, dark gloom seemed to ooze out every fiber of his being. Darkness that kept as the light below him dimmed.

Francis greeted them casually as he stepped out onto solid ground: “Good eveni—”

A gunshot went off. A streak of red blossomed across Francis’s right cheek, nearly splitting his tattoo in half. A bullet was wedged into the wall just behind his ear.

There was a beat of silence.

“Who the hell fired that damn gun?!” Carl roared, whipping around. He locked eyes with Muccio standing just behind him. There was a gun still billowing from smoke held loose in the man’s hands.

“I-It was an a-accident!” Muccio stammered. “H-He surprised me. I thought—”

“Who do you think you shot at?!” Carl roared, grabbing Muccio by the scruff and shaking him hard enough to give him a concussion. “I thought you had more brains than that! Did that last shoot-out knock out your last brain cell?!”

“I-I’m sorry—”

“You forget what your boss looks like?! Huh?!”

“Let’s not overreact, Carl,” came Francis’s reply as he rubbed away the streak of red with his thumb. “The pain is minimal.” The tattoo remained blinding white.

Carl stared. “Er…”

Allen asked after a beat, “How’d you know to come here?”

“When my gate is opened, I hear everything,” Francis answered. “Is it not customary to come when you are called?”

“You…” Carl grumbled, releasing Muccio. “You’re still talkin’ like that?”

“Talking like what?”

“Well—”

“It’s about Cadence. That’s why we were lookin’ for you,” Allen interjected. “There’s something up.”

“The True Conductor…” Francis murmured.

“Yeah.” Allen reached into his pocket. “Cadence.”

Francis’s face finally folded with concern. Allen figured one of the positives about Theta was that Theta was awfully honest with emotions. No more trying to guess what was behind Francis’s calm facade all the time.

“What’s happened?” Francis scanned the area. “This is the doc’s place, isn’t it?”

“She randomly passed out a little over a week ago,” Carl explained. “Not drunk, not nothing. Thought you’d have a clue since you’ve got all that smarts tucked in your brain now.”

Francis placed a thoughtful hand over his mouth. “It could have to do with the nature of the True Conductor. Because of their defects, they’re able to increase the flow of their vitae into the one they’re connected with and—for the lack of a better word—‘possess’ them. Due to the re-directed vitae flow, they lose consciousness when they do this… I believe Cadence calls it an ‘override,’ but the correct term for it is Inverse Vitae Anisotropy Polarization.”

“Hell, Francis, just say ‘override.’”

“… But you said she’s been unconscious for over a week now?” Francis blinked. “That’s unusual…. May I see her?”

“Well, the doc is doin’ his usual mumbo-jumbo stuff with her right, so you’d have to wait.”

Allen shook out three v-cigarettes from the packet he’d drawn out from his pocket. He lit one for himself, handed one to Carl, and offered the last to Francis. “You have a moment?”

Francis stared at the v-cigarette for a long time. After a while, he accepted it, ignited it, and took a drag.

* * *

“You sure you don’t wanna play?”

They were now all sitting at a table that Muccio pulled out from one of the doc’s offices. The poker game was near its end. Muccio and Stefano had already folded, while Carl, Max, and Allen himself were still going strong. Although Francis was sitting with them, he was engrossed in the book he’d brought along.

Francis flipped a page without looking up. “I have no interest in dishonest games.”

“You’re just afraid to lose.” Carl scoffed.

Francis responded thoughtfully, “I suppose I am now… It’s interesting how an entire perspective shifts with just a single addition or subtraction. Perhaps that’s truly why we choose people who are about to reenter the cycle. ‘Goodwill’ can conceal many things. Apprehension to shift viewpoints; fear of whittling away at determination. Although… to change or not to change—and whether that is actual change in the first place… I think that’s the key to understanding everything. But only time will tell.”

Carl stared. “The hell are you talkin’ about…?”

Francis shut his book. “Forget I said anything.”

“Forgotten,” Allen said in unison with Carl.

“So,” Francis continued, “how’s the business?”

Out of habit, Stefano, Muccio, and Maximillian put down their cards and left the table. Francis watched them go.

“It’s been tight,” Allen explained. “Our bars and casinos aren’t making half as much as they used to. And since we’ve been having to lie low, we haven’t been gettin’ that additional income. And kids are expensive. We’ve been lookin’ into a new product though. Cross between sorrowheat and morrowheat.”

Humming in thought, Francis took a drag. “Have you tried contacting Mr. Sieler?”

“The gook that owns that jewelry shop on Pungale?” Carl arched a brow. “Spoke to him last week. The bastard kept yappin’ about the fact that he’s openin’ ten stores in the city. It’s like he forgot who got him there.”

“He started investing in vitae cigarettes roughly half a year ago.” Francis flicked ash off his bud. “I gave him three months’ worth of free rent since he was in a tight spot last year. Selective generosity, if you will.”

“The market’s gone up for v-cigs lately,” Allen noted.

“So we should push him?” Carl looked between them hesitantly.

“Say it’s interest and collect,” Francis affirmed. “He may not budge on the first try, but he’ll probably bow on the second. He’s… a pushover.”

Allen took a drag. “If we don’t go by check and do it under the table to subtract the taxes… we’re lookin’ at about fifteen thousand cens. And that’s just the down payment.”

“That’s what I’m talking about.” Carl cracked a grin. “Thanks, Francis.”

“Anything for the children,” Francis replied. He took a long drag and smiled wanly. “And for the family business.”

“Man, it ain’t the same without you around.” Carl threw his cards on the table revealing that he’d somehow gained two ace-of-hearts. “What’ve you been up to, anyway?”

Francis glanced down at the cards with judgment. “I’ve been looking into my hometown.”

“You mean y’ve been back in Aries?” Carl arched a brow.

“No, Ophiuchus.”

Frowning, Allen gathered the cards and shuffled them.

“You went back to Ophiuchus?” Carl did a double-take. “You crazy, Francis?”

“I wasn’t able to enter the Serpens Establishment through my gates. They were very thorough after what I did here…” Francis murmured, brows creasing. “This city is filthy as it always is and reeks of corruption. Every time I think about the generator conductor humming beneath the temple, I’m disgusted… but it’s also where I grew up. And after what I’ve done, I should take responsibility for this too.”

Carl cleared his throat. “That’s great, Francis. Really great. Y’know if you come back, we can work on that, but why the hell did you go back there? To Ophiuchus?”

“The Ophiuchus that came after my time as Theta and before my time as Francis—I’m interested in that. Rather, the people.”

“All you need to do is pop open any history book.” Carl swallowed a yawn. “Most mixed-Ophiuchians ended up siding with the other countries when the Ophiuchians declared war back then. Pure-blooded Ophiuchians ‘fought the good fight’ or whatever they say.”

“And what happened to them afterwards?”

Carl shrugged. “The pure-bloods? Maybe in the Black Constellation Detention Center down in the Serpens Establishment still? War crimes and all that.” He jabbed a finger at Francis. “Didn’t you keep records on that stuff?”

Francis leaned forward, hands clasped, eyes narrowed. “But what isn’t recorded…?”

“So”—Allen pocketed the cards—”your head on straight now?”

Francis hummed, took another drag. “It’s like constantly peering through a looking glass. It’s foggy. Can’t tell whether it’s a mirror or a window, but I can recognize the shapes and have a vague feeling about what’s there.”

Allen flicked off his v-cig. “And which side of the glass you standing on?”

Francis smiled as if amused. “Who knows.”

* * *

“My, that’s a face I haven’t seen in quite some time.”

Sounding very much unalarmed by Francis’s appearance, Doctor Fabrizzio welcomed them all into his office.

“It’s good to see you, Doctor Fabrizzio,” Francis greeted him cordially before locking eyes with the bed resting beside the backside wall.

Cadence lay there sleeping soundly. Would’ve looked peaceful if it weren’t for all the medical equipment around her. The last time Allen had seen her this relaxed was about eight years ago after she, Fortuna, Nico, and Carl had downed an entire crate of sweetbread they’d stolen from a bakery shop. They’d eaten themselves sick and into a coma.

Approaching the bed, Francis reached for his belt and pulled out the knife holstered there. He drew it across his bare palm and re-sheathed it in one fluid motion. He dribbled blood into Cadence’s mouth and smeared it over her chest. Didn’t even hesitate or blush.

“Intriguing,” the doc said, leaning in closer.

Francis paid him no mind and pressed his gloved hand against Cadence’s chest. The area began to glow familiarly, and Francis’s hand sank into the light. Eyes half-lidded, he reached deeper and deeper, until his entire body suddenly tensed. He jerked backwards, ripping his hand out and stumbling back. His body went rigid.

Carl startled. “What is it—”

Without warning, Francis lunged for Carl—no, for the gun holstered to Carl’s waist. Carl barely had the time to shout before Francis whipped the weapon out and pointed it squarely at him. Although Carl was the one at gunpoint, Francis was the one who took three steps backwards.

“Stefano, Max, and Muccio, don’t move”—Francis pointed the gun at the trio as they started reaching for their belts. When they froze, he aimed the gun back at Carl—“or I’ll shoot and drop you through one of my gates fifty meters above the city.”

“Dammit, Francis!” Carl snapped. “You said you had your head on straight!”

“Carl, please shut up for a minute,” Francis said calmly, sounding oddly more like himself than he had in a long time. “Strip.”

Allen remained silent.

Carl did a double-take. “… What?!”

“I said strip. All of you.”

“The hell, Francis?!” Carl snapped. “Is this some weird ELPIS—”

“Just do it.” Allen shrugged off his blue suit jacket and slipped off his shoes and socks.

After doing a double-take and shouting a couple of profanities, Carl obliged. When he noticed Muccio, Max, and Stefano staring dumbly, he snarled at them, “The hell are you just standin’ there for? You deaf?!”

The trio scrambled to whip off their clothing. Doctor Fabrizzio complied nonchalantly, casually, like he was taking off clothing to sunbathe at the beach.

When they were down to just their boxers, Francis looked at them up and down, tilted his head left and then right. “Turn around.”

Hands in the air, Allen turned. He signaled for the others to follow suit.

A pair of footsteps approached him from behind, and a shadow spilled along the floor. Allen turned his head and met Francis’s gaze. The worry there was clear.

After studying their backs for a minute, Francis lowered the gun. His shoulders loosened. “Good. That’s a relief—”

Carl stormed up to him and ripped the gun from his hand. “Saints, Francis—”

Francis frowned.

“—if I wanted to have a gun pointed at me this early in the morning then I would’ve taken a damned stroll down Pungale alley!”

“Has anyone around you been acting strangely?” Francis asked unperturbed.

“Fuckin’ hell, Francis. Yes!” Carl snapped, holstering his gun and then jabbing a finger at Francis’s chest. “You!”

Francis looked at Carl as if he was stupid. “Don’t be ridiculous, Carl. I’m talking about any of the other men.” He met the doc’s gaze. “Any patients. Or—” His eyes widened a fraction of an inch as his gaze trailed to the side towards Stefano who was now standing only a foot away. He stared at Stefano’s feet—no, at Stefano’s socks which he had yet to take off.

Francis tensed, placing a hand on Carl’s shoulder. “Stefano, take off your socks.”

“Mr. Francis, come on. This is too much.” Stefano chuckled nervously, glancing at Carl then at Allen. “Boss, y’ve gotta admit that this is ridiculous.”

It was ridiculous. Even Allen’s ex-girlfriend hadn’t stripped him down to his boxers before. But when Allen eyed Francis’s hand on Carl’s shoulder, he said, “Still your boss. Take it off.”

Stefano stiffened, swallowed, peeled off his socks, and tossed them to the side. Francis tensed, and Allen followed his gaze to a dark blue mark wrapped around Stefano’s ankle. It held the shape of a scorpion.

“Yeah, Stefano got himself a tattoo when we sent him to Capricorn for some errands a couple weeks back,” Carl explained, following Francis’s line of sight. “Is ELPIS anti-tattoo now or somethin—”

And then it moved. The tattoo scrambled up and around Stefano’s leg to his bare chest to the nape of his neck. Almost as if it were alive. Muccio and Maximillian immediately startled away.

“Why’re you lookin’ at me like that, boss?” Stefano stepped forward, chuckling nervously. “After I’ve been sticking with you for this long after everything? You’ve just been planning to off me, haven’t you?”

Carl grimaced. “The hell are you sayin—”

“Stop looking at me!” Stefano snarled. “Leave me alone!” Without warning, he whipped out the knife at his belt and leapt at Francis.

A streak of blood blossomed in the air as Francis brought his hand out in alarm. The red bloomed with light and consumed them, and suddenly—

—they were all tumbling down the side of a building in free fall. The sun was eclipsing the horizon, and the air was familiarly humid and damp. The side of the building they were falling beside was of white limestone, and there was a familiar crimson red banner rolled down its side. Screeches resounded below where men and women manning stalls pointed up at them in alarm.

New Ram City?

Just above him, Francis and Stefano scuffled as they fell before disappearing in a blink into a gate that opened below them. The white limestone building and red flags disappeared from Allen’s sight a second later as he fell through a gate himself.

When he spilled out, it was darker, the air chilled. Tree brambles scratched at his face and chest as leaves whirled around him. His back cracked against a branch, and he flipped over and caught a glimpse of a glowing white tree in the distance before falling through another gate.

And now he was tumbling down the side of a metal slope. Dusk air whipped at his face as his knees and then arm cracked along the slope’s surface. He could hear Carl swearing, but it was deafened by the wind and a rumbling that resound below.

It was only after his head smacked against cold metal that he came to realize where exactly Francis had now sent them. Several meters beneath them, parallel v-lights began to flicker on and illuminate the body of a hurtling v-train. The Dioscuri Bridge.

Just as he was about to splatter against the surface of the train, a liquid line of pale tangerine light opened up underneath him again. He fell through it and smacked flat against a cold, hard surface. It took a moment for him to shake the throbbing pain out from his limbs, but he was still able to take in his surroundings.

Psychedelic warmth bled up from the v-lights lining the Dioscuri. It cast strange shadows across the small platform he’d landed on.

His shirt was wet. Blood. Probably Francis’s. It still churned Allen’s stomach. He was fine with spilling the blood of people who pushed too far, of greedy hired hands who took without asking, of competition, but… family blood was different.

Carl was on all-fours beside him, while the doc laid a foot away looking like his lights had been knocked out. Muccio was rolling around groaning. Maximillian lay unmoving a step away. Francis was nowhere to be seen.

“Look!” Carl jabbed a finger to the sky.

At the steel beam hanging a couple of meters above them stood Francis. Stefano was perched at the very edge of the beam across from him, balancing haphazardly.

“You’re dyin’ for a beatin’, Stefano!” Carl surged up to his feet, feeling fruitlessly around his waist for his gun. He seemed to have dropped it during their fall, but that didn’t stop him from cursing profusely.

Allen felt for his waist. Still there.

Francis called down to him. “Stop, Carl. You aren’t helping—”

Carl scowled at him. “ Me stop?! How ‘bout you stop throwin’ us off damn buildings—” He looked to Stefano’s knife then back to Francis. “Francis, get your ass down here!”

Ignoring him, Francis addressed Stefano, “When did you get here?”

Stefano stiffened under their gazes before snapping, “I’ve been here since the beginning, Mr. Francis! I was always here workin’ beside you—even through what happened with Verga and even through what you did with ELPIS—”

“I’m not speaking with you, Stefano…” Francis’s lips tightened. “Although I sincerely apologize for what’s happened.” His gaze darkened. “I’m speaking to that whisper at the back of your head.”

Stefano’s face contorted in confusion, and he looked down to Carl for assistance and then to Allen himself. Then, he lowered his gun and chuckled“I’m surprised you didn’t drop me to my death as soon as you realized. I heard you were incorrectly initiated into a serial killer, so I assumed you’d have no problem doing that.”

Francis didn’t falter. “You exaggerate as always.”

“And you?” Stefano smiled blindly. “‘As always’ is something that applies more to you lot.” He waved the knife through the air. “But it looks like something’s changed—not your hypocrisy obviously… Why don’t you throw me through another one of your gates?” The smile intensified. “What are you so afraid of?”

“What’s going on, Francis?” Allen called out. “Another one of the ELPIS leaders?” He wasn’t in the mood to lose more to that cult.

Don’t insult me,” Stefano snapped before his head drooped. “You’re always looking down on me… All I ever wanted was t’work alongside all of you. Be part of the family. Really a part of it—but I’m just as disposable as the next person! You’re always fixin’ t’find a way to get rid of me.” He lifted his head, his eyes cool and his lips curling into a smile again. I’m something much more.

“And something much worse,” Francis explained calmly. “That is a Manipulator. Both in name and conducting. Rather, it’s an offshoot—a vessel for a spore—of one. Stefano probably encountered one of the Manipulator’s offshoots when he went to Capricorn.”

A Manipulator?

Allen didn’t care much for conductors and conducting since the logistics were usually what Francis handled, but he’d seen cases of living manipulation before. He’d never seen a person being manipulated capable of speech. Not good for interrogations.

“That’s rude, Theta, but you’ve never been tactful with your words. I suppose that’s why Omicron was always good for you.” Stefano’s brows knitted, and he placed a hand over his heart. “I heard what happened. I truly am sorry. Omicron—Altair—was an honorable, good person.”

The pain that tightened Francis’s face was clear even in the darkness.

Altair’s death was your doing though, wasn’t it? The brothers of that person you’re wearing spoke about it. You dropped a building on her. You also dropped a building on a little girl who frequented a toy store just across the street. You probably didn’t know or chose to avoid knowing—but I see everything and know everything.

The pain was crushed into despair.

Carl took one look at Francis’s face and snapped, “Okay, fine, let’s blame your attitude on a Manipulator then, Stefano! But you’re still gettin’ a beating after we transmute that vitae outta you!”

“It isn’t that simple, Carl,” Francis stated after shaking himself. “This isn’t a normal manipulation. The amount of vitae that needs to be removed would be impossible for a normal Transmutationist to do. Even if it’s removed and Stefano survives, the damage has already been done.”

Always so nihilistic.” Stefano hung his head before popping up again. Just like those war dogs in Capricornoh, but I see that you’ve abandoned your anti-materialistic tendencies. Greed is seeping through every pore in your body. You’re attached. To me—he pointed with his knife down to them—and to them. Stefano suddenly brought the knife up to his neck, and his eyes went wide as he sobbed. “I-I’m so sorry, M-Mr. Francis. I-I was just scared. I didn’t mean to. Please don’t bring my family into this. Please. They rely on me—”

“Stefano.” Francis held out a calming hand. “Nothing’s going to happen to you or your family. I promise. You’re good; you’re loyal. If you’re seeing something unusual, it isn’t real—”

“Please don’t! I’ll make up for it I promise. I’ll—” Staring wildly past Francis, Stefano pressed the knife deeper into his skin and drew blood. He took in a shaky breath and sighed. You really haven’t changed. That same look in your eyes. Clinging to that same hope. Unfortunately—

“Don’t—”

There was a gush of red as the knife sliced through Stefano’s jugular. The knife tumbled down into the station below, but Francis caught Stefano’s body before it met the same fate. There was gurgling for a fraction of a second—maybe even a quiet I’m sorry—before the rumble of the train intensified beneath them.

Allen suddenly remembered that Stefano was only seventeen. Francis had hand-selected him two years ago, half out of pity and half out of interest. The days were good back then. Before this ELPIS nonsense. Before Nico was carted out to Capricorn. Before Cadence became a True Conductor. Before Fortuna set her sights on the family title.

Carl’s voice cut Allen out of his thoughts. “Muccio, what’re you—”

Out of the corner of his eye, Allen registered that Muccio was now standing and wielding a knife he’d drawn out his knife from his boot. The man’s left sleeve was dripping with blood. He must’ve been cut—Allen realized—by Stefano during the confrontation in the doc’s office.

Without warning, Muccio leapt at him, blade drawn.

Allen had a bad feeling about that knife—got a feeling that he shouldn’t let it even scrape him—but Muccio was unearthly fast and the distance was too close to dodge. Silver glinted in the darkness, followed by warmth blossoming from Allen’s chest—

—and out from the glowing pale tangerine light that burst from that area rose Francis who caught the charging blade with his bare, ungloved hand. Francis pulled out fully from the gate and shoved Allen back.

I never thought I’d see the day! Muccio laughed, pushing the knife deeper.

Francis flinched.

“You’re finally afraid of losing something, Theta.” Muccio’s eyes were afire. “But that’s a good thing. That’s what passion’s about. Progress! If you stick around long enough, maybe you’ll even get to see the ending scene—”

Carl roared and flung himself at Muccio sending the man flying off the edge of the platform. Carl swore a second later and darted to the edge only to pull back with a grimace of possible remorse.

Francis ripped the knife out of his hand and threw it on the ground. When Carl approached him, his eyes widened. “Stay away from me!”

“Wha—Francis—” Carl stopped short. “If you’re worried about Manipulators and stuff—I don’t understand much about conducting—but Muccio wasn’t a Conductor. Wasn’t even using a conductor—”

“They don’t need a conductor to do what they do,” Francis interjected.

Without waiting to explain himself, he dashed to the edge of the platform, dipped his gloved hand in the blood pooling in his bare palm, and drew a circle around his wrist just below the cut. Without hesitation he placed his conductor over the circlet of red.

Allen’s heart leapt. “Wait—”

There was a burst of pale tangerine light followed by a spurt of crimson as Francis’s left hand was sliced clean off. The appendage tumbled down to the tracks below.

“Saints!”

“Stay away,” Francis reaffirmed, hovering at the very edge. He swayed slightly but didn’t seem to be in pain. Seconds ticked by agonizingly as blood dribbled down from his open wound. Finally, his shoulders lost tension, and he took a step back. “So, they didn’t enter… And I’m the fool?”

He stumbled to the ground but caught himself with his good gloved hand. Placing his conductor over the puddle of red formed beneath him, he created a gate. He locked eyes with them before his body gave way and he was swallowed by his own portal. Without hesitation, Allen and Carl darted followed.

When they stepped out of—rather, fell out of—their brother’s gate, Allen was blinded by the brightness. When his eyes adjusted, he could tell they were in a cavern. Rock formations grew up at their feet and reached down from the ceiling, while light spilled in from a small hole opening up above. It was hard to say whether that light was coming in from a natural source or from the glowing waterfall cascading down from the opening.

A vitae stream.

The stream splashed down onto a series of archaic-looking, toppled white pillars that littered a pool of vitae below it. An overgrowth of green ate away at the pillars, giving it a decrepit look. Still, it had a sacred feel.

At the very lip of that pool lay Francis flat on his back.

Allen darted to his side with Carl just a step behind. That nightmarish night in the alleyway all those months ago gnawed at Allen’s memory.

“Saints, Francis!” Carl swore when they reached him. He made for Francis’s stump but hesitated. “What do we do? Allen, we gotta drag him through that portal thing and get the doc—”

A pair of footsteps resounded, and out from behind one of the toppled pillars came a woman wrapped in a white gown. Her wavy brown hair was disheveled, and she had a dazed look on her face.

Carl tensed, but Allen calmed him with a hand on the shoulder.

The woman approached them swiftly, studying their faces before blinking down at Francis. There was a familiar tattoo running from her chin to the nape of her neck and a glove conductor on her left hand.

“Oh…?” The woman tilted her head sleepily, foot skirting the edge of the red gathering below Francis’s body. “Is that Theta…?”

“Lambda…” Francis managed.

Lambda sank to her knees and inspected the bleeding stump. “This wasn’t done by the same suitcase peacekeeper that attacked Iota, was it? Suitcase is scary. He conducts just like the Saint Candidate of Libra, you know? I couldn’t fully heal Iota’s hand after that…”

“No. I did it to myself.”

“That’s not good…” She lifted his injury and stared. “How many vitae particles… Maybe 3.72 x 10 10? Lifespan truncated about ten years for me and five years for you. Is that acceptable?”

“That’s fine.”

Lambda placed his arm on her lap, drew out a knife, and cut across her palm. She placed both of her hands over his wound. As blood dripped down from her cut, her conductor began to hum with white light. Her blood began to glow a second after as did the blood seeping from Francis’s injury. The two glowing liquids stretched out and connected to each other before fluctuating and condensing into a familiar shape. A hand.

Living conjuring?

Again, Allen didn’t care much for conducting, but he knew enough to understand that living conjuring wasn’t possible.

“Lambda is what you would consider a Specialist nowadays,” Francis explained. “I’m aware that living conjuring is not only outlawed but viewed as impossible in this era.” He stared up at the ceiling. “Don’t you find it ludicrous that your laws condemn conducting that prolong life yet allow conducting that shortens it? Though, of course, in a philosophical sense perhaps this wouldn’t be considered creating something that is truly ‘living’. Besides, this too is…”

Francis was talking nonsense again but at least he was talking.

The white vitae dimmed, solidifying into a full-on, flesh-and-blood hand. It looked funky, but it was a hand.

Carl let out a sigh of relief and snorted. “Hell, with all the Specialists you’ve got on board, we could make it big with the business.”

“Don’t get any bright ideas, Carl.” Francis sighed. “It only works for those whose vitae has been bleached.”

“You should rest.” Lambda hummed as she rose to her feet. “You lost a lotta blood.”

“I appreciate the concern.” Francis flexed his new hand.

“Hey.” Allen nodded at Lambda. “Thank you.”

Lambda blinked at him slowly, before humming to herself and drifting away towards the pillars.

“Please excuse Lambda,” Francis said, staring up at the ceiling calmly as if he hadn’t just been bleeding out a second ago. “The nature of Lambda’s ability causes her to expel large amounts of her vitae—”

“Theta…?”

Allen turned and found a man standing behind them. The man wore a crisp, gray uniform and had a metal gorget reading Militärpolizei dangling from his neck. A pair of square-glasses rested on the bridge of his nose, while a curled mustache occupied the space above his lips.

It took Allen a moment to realize that he was staring at the former police commissario Vincente Giustizia himself. Well, Tau.

Tau’s face contorted as soon as he locked eyes with them, and he fumed. “What is this?! How could you bring these pieces of filth here?!”

“Calm down, Tau.” Francis’s eyes narrowed as he pushed himself up into a sit. “Those are my brothers you’re talking about.”

Stiffening, Tau shut his mouth. His face remained beet red.

“You should know why I’m here.”

The color left Tau’s face and he looked Francis up and down, gaze lingering on the blood staining the ground. “Did you encounter…”

“In the Twin Cities.”

“So, they’re expanding their influence…” Tau concluded.

“When?”

“I’m assuming it started shortly after our work in the Twin Cities.” Tau sighed. “Still a wasted opportunity if you ask me.” He sent Carl a glare. “Anyway, we were already looking into Capricorn since that country is working on those damned insulating ley lines. We were planning to dismantle the ones closest to the capital, but—”

Sounded like a waste of money, Allen thought. And a flippant way to speak about acts of terrorism too.

“—a couple of our recruits encountered offshoots of Scorpio and became infected offshoots themselves. We had to deal with them, of course… Anyway, Kappa was initiated recently so we sent them to Die Hauptstadt to look into it, and now—”

“Kappa is missing,” Francis concluded. “That doesn’t seem like a risk Gamma would take: sending only one to investigate. That is if I’m correct in assuming he’s the one you selected as leader this time?”

“Yeah, he’s leader.” Tau pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Gamma, Beta, and Iota are headed to Capricorn as we speak. The recruits have been called back, but…”

The next part of their conversation, Allen didn’t understand. A different language. Probably the original Ophiuchian language. He caught onto familiar words like ‘Leona’ and even ‘saint candidate of Libra.’ Not much else. Halfway through the conversation, Tau placed a hand on Francis’s arm.

“Gamma is still looking for you, Theta,” Tau continued in Common. “He’s set on sending you back to your resistor. I can’t say I disagree with him seeing the failure of what happened in the Twin Cities and the people you’re hanging around with—”

“The hell you say,” Carl challenged.

“You shut your damned mouth!” Tau snapped, jabbing a finger at him. “You criminal! The only reason you’re not behind bars is because you’re only second-rate to the issue we have now. The rule of this land is corrupt! Even if we can’t deal with you, your damned local law enforcement should! But even death isn’t enough punishment, since you’ll just return to the cycle anyways!”

“Enough,” Francis interjected. “That isn’t how that belief functions, Tau.”

Tau shut his mouth and grimaced. “I’m aware.” He shook his head again. “I can’t even understand whatever’s going through your head… but I do understand your sentiment towards Omicron, so I respect your decision. There isn’t precedent for people who choose to remain in faulty initiations, so I digress.”

Francis bent down and placed his conductor over the red stain on the ground beneath him. He opened a gate, pulled out a pair of proto-conductors, and dropped them into Tau’s hand.

Tau accepted the items with a frown. “Well… I’m heading out myself then, but don’t let these criminals stay here any longer. Loitering can easily turn into trespassing.” He tapped the proto-conductor on the stain on the ground, glowered at them, before locking eyes with Francis who clenched his glove-conductor. A second later, Tau disappeared through the gate.

“Good to see Giustizia is as friendly as ever,” Carl grumbled.

Allen nodded at Francis. “What’s goin’ on? Who are we lookin’ at?”

“… The enemy is the saint candidate of Scorpio. The Saint of Passion,” Francis replied, somewhat hesitant. “The danger is everyone. In everyone—”

“What?” Carl did a double-take. “Saint of Passion? You mean like that Monadism thing? Didn’t hear any news about any new saint candidates being chosen… not that I pay attention to the news. Is it like a religious movement we’re up against?” He held up a hand. “Wait, before that—was that really manipulation? Never seen anything like that before. Without a conductor?”

“There is no point in explaining. You would need at least a basic knowledge of vitae theory to understand the saint candidates and how they conduct.”

“I know enough,” Carl challenged.

“How many vitae particles are in a human being?”

“One billion.”

Francis stared and then chuckled before continuing morosely, “I would teach you, but we don’t have time for that.”

“At least give me a rundown—”

“Why do you want to know? This topic rarely interests you.” Francis studied him. “Knowledge that isn’t used has no purpose. It merely collects dust. And since you aren’t getting involved—”

“‘Cause I wanna understand what’s goin’ through your damn head,” Carl half-grumbled, half-snapped. “And you don’t get to say anything about that.”

Francis’s brows rose before he sighed. “Scorpio’s abilities at base-level are exactly what you would expect of a Manipulator. However, unlike a typical Manipulator, Scorpio can manipulate living things due to the volume and nature of their vitae. We call the person or thing being manipulated an ‘offshoot,’ like an offshoot of a tree. We call the Manipulator’s vitae inside that offshoot a spore. Those offshoots are also capable of creating additional offshoots through the implantation of more spores. As you can see, it spreads quickly. Like a disease.”

“So…” Carl scratched his head. “The scorpion tattoo—”

“—marks the entry point but isn’t a facet of their conducting,” Francis explained. “It’s Scorpio marking territory.” He rubbed his palm. “Cutting the tattoo off will do nothing. If anything, it’s akin to the fruiting body of a mushroom. The living body—the mycelium—is invisible to the naked eye but is deeply embedded.”

“You really like analogies now,” Carl grumbled before eyeing Francis’s hand. “So when you sliced off your hand…”

“Yes, I removed the spore before it could germinate,” Francis replied. “I was very… lucky.”

Allen stared at Francis’s hand and frowned. “And Cadence?”

“Is a True Conductor.” Francis placed a hand over his mouth. “It’s different with her as you can see… I don’t believe Stefano was the one who infected Cadence. It was most likely someone she was connected with. But if this state remains, Cadence and those she is connected to will die. That’s a certainty.”

Carl did a double-take. “And you just gonna… let that happen?”

A look of hurt crossed Francis’s face. “Of course not. Although that would be the easiest solution…” He dropped his hand. “Don’t be concerned. I’ll handle it.”

“Alright!” Carl punched a fist into his palm. “So what do we do? How much money? Where do we start?”

His enthusiasm was kind of sad.

“There’s no ‘we,’ Carl. Scorpio is a skilled manipulator and torturer—”

“Well, I’ve been beaten senseless a bunch of times before. Know how to beat people senseless too—”

“You misunderstand me, Carl. It’s not physical torture.” Francis stared. “Physical torture is something you can escape. Once Scorpio enters you, they’re able to access your very surface-level thoughts and memories. You may think that’s not much, but that’s all Scorpio needs. Stefano’s words on that rooftop were his deepest fears. They might’ve been twisted by Scorpio, but those were his true thoughts… Scorpio rarely fully takes control of an individual, and yet the damage is clear. It doesn’t matter if you’re an ally, an enemy, or a neutral party—that person will try to break you.” He glanced at them morosely again with a faint, familiar glimmer of admiration in his eyes. “Even if it’s you or Allen, you wouldn’t stand a chance. Neither would I. But at least with me, I’d be harder to reach and infect.”

Carl grimaced. “I don’t like this… Doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

Francis said nothing for a long time. Carl tapped his foot impatiently but remained silent.

Finally, Francis said, “Allen, Carl, I’m going to ask you to do something for me. I know you won’t like it, but I need you to trust me—”

“You’re gonna ask us to be locked up in that room of yours again,” Allen concluded.

Francis blinked in surprise. “I understand if you’re apprehensive after what happened before, but I assure you my intention this time is to—”

Carl picked up Francis by the scruff. Despite Francis remaining impassive, Carl roared, “You think we’re going to let you just—”

“Stop it, Carl.” Allen frowned, lighting himself a v-cig. “No point in investin’ in somethin’ that you know’s gonna hit red.” He nodded at Francis. “We need to protect our assets.”

“But…” Carl glared at Francis, sighed, and released him. “As long as you’re not gonna throw us off another building or go off dyin’, then fine.”

* * *

Half an hour later, Allen and Carl were fully dressed and let into a familiar windowless, doorless room by Francis. Pi—Francis’s only friend now apparently—was there waiting for them. So were all of the children from the warehouse. Frankly, Allen was relieved to see them there. Good to see that both Francis and Theta shared efficiency.

The room was more well-furnished than it had been months ago. It was still missing v-lights and lit only by candles, but there was a record player set beside all the bookcases and even a liquor cabinet in the corner by the board game table. Looked like good brands to boot.

There were actual sofas and chairs scattered around too—luxurious ones that the children used as their playground. Upon noticing Carl, the children screeched and launched themselves at him. A beat later, they noticed Francis and abandoned Carl in favor of him. Francis greeted them calmly as they cheered Theta’s name. But despite being freed from the brats, Carl looked sour about it.

Francis departed with Pi without warning not soon after.

“I don’t like it,” Carl grumbled as he went through the bookshelves with the children dangling from his arms. “He’s the youngest but he’s runnin’ around actin’ like he’s callin’ all the shots…”

Allen understood the sentiment.

Francis and Pi returned three hours later looking mildly disheveled. Francis’s cheek was red with a handprint. Something about it screamed Fortuna. The children abandoned Carl and swarmed him again.

“The hell happened?” Carl asked.

“The doctor, Max, and Cadence are being kept separately in a place similar to this,” Francis answered without answering.

“Uh… And the Romanos?”

Instead of replying, Francis pointed to a small phone-box built into the corner. “If you find it necessary to conduct your business or if you wish to communicate with the others, you may use that.” He smoothed out his suit-jacket. “I’ll be leaving for some time to Capricorn. If you require anything, ask Pi. He’ll be moving in-between locations.” Turning to said Pi, Francis finished with, “The True Conductor is to be kept safe, but if signs of Scorpio appear, do what you must.”

Pi nodded, waving.

With that, Francis approached the familiar black-drawn door on the wall and pressed his conductor up against. The children moped back to Carl. Once it lit up, he stepped through. Allen held a hand up to Carl who was mid-protest and then followed Francis out.

A gray sky and a mist of rain greeted Allen as he stepped out onto what appeared to be the roof of a small building. He found Francis—no, Theta—standing at the very edge.

“You’re a ridiculous person.” Theta didn’t turn to look at him. “My filial affection towards you as Francis only extends so far. If you become infected by Scorpio while you’re here, I will do what is necessary. But reassured, you will return to the cycle. Although… perhaps that’s just a personal comfort and fallacy as the True Conductor has said.”

“No one around. Not planning to stick around either,” Allen replied, joining him. He peered over the edge of the building and found people dusting the streets below. “This saint candidate sounds like big fish. Y’know a lot about ‘em. From those records of yours?”

“No. It’s something that I remember.”

“Sounds complicated but not what I’m here to talk about.”

Theta turned to him.

Allen gestured to the man’s hand. “You’re always doin’ stupid, reckless things whenever you get really heated. And you’ve been doin’ it a lot more recently. Not sure if that’s from Francis or Theta but doesn’t matter. Don’t ever do that again.”

“This—”

“Doesn’t matter if it doesn’t hurt or if some woman can make it magically better. You find the smartest way to solve the problem with the least cost.” He pulled out a slender pistol from his waist and held it out to him. “Risk is okay. Bein’ stupid isn’t. Like I taught you.”

“… You have a lot of pride for a man whose brother has been labeled a terrorist.” Theta dipped his head. When he lifted it a second later and offered Allen a practiced smile, he was Francis again. He accepted the weapon. “Got it. Thanks for the reminder, Al.”


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

‘Francis’—because he was feeling a little less like Theta since visiting his brothers—paced through the gray alleyways of the Capricornian capital with mild interest. Because he was feeling a little more like Francis, he had no issue covering up his tattoo with a fine dusting of white powder. There wasn’t any sense in keeping the tattoo visible just because it was a somber symbol of honor, pride, and promises at the risk of being identified by it.

That act of sacrilege aside, he’d spent the past half hour wandering the residential area of the city. After finding nothing too out of the ordinary, he’d traveled here to the centermost military district.

This city had changed greatly in the past several centuries, the stone walkways having been flattened into asphalted roads and the small limestone buildings having grown into towering gray monuments that bled rigidity. Black flags dotted every building and lamppost in sight. The grand Capricornian symbol paraded every street corner. Men and women in military uniforms paced the sidewalks. 

Something was happening here.

Francis was very well-aware of the fact that he was being watched, but it didn’t seem as if it was by any of Scorpio’s eyes. Once when he saw a shadow passing overhead, he caught a glimpse of a tall figure wearing a wooden mask of Sagittarian origin. That shadow hadn’t kept to him long, receding as soon as he’d cast an innocent glance upwards.

Nothing to be concerned about at the moment.

As he passed beneath a large Capricornian banner, a flash of blue caught his eye. When he peered up, he found a large painted cartoonish eye staring down at him. The paint was still wet, bleeding down the banner and dripping onto his face.

He wiped a fleck of blue off his cheek and studied the banner in thought. It looked like the eye was shedding a tear.

Francis had seen this symbol during his recent research. The anti-military, somewhat radical Verbundene Augen. Many movements like this came and went. That was the wheel of time. However, if the Manipulator was here, then perhaps this movement was…

He muttered under his breath, “You really are cruel—”

A thunderous boom trembled through the ground nearly knocking Francis off his feet. A series of shouts resounded in the distance, followed by the crescendo of shattering glass.

An explosion. Near one of his gates. He was certain.

Francis quickly drew blood, painted a gate on the ground, and slipped through it. He emerged a second later from a gate not too far from the one he’d entered.

The first thing he was met with was a cloud of smoke. Shadows drifted around him through the fog. He caught glimpses of panicked civilians wielding signs, military police officers wielding conductors, and medical Conductors with armbands marked with red crosses dipping in and out of the shroud. It was hard to tell who was chasing who.

As he advanced deeper into the smog and passed by a series of crumpled iron gates, a small body collided with his own. It was a breathy woman with wispy blonde hair and doe-like brown eyes.

Upon catching her, Francis asked, “What happened?”

The woman gushed, “Oh, it was awful! An entire hospital just came down! Can you believe it? People were arguing and all of a sudden there was a big flash of light and—boom!”

Light? Conductor. Disgusting.

“Wait—you’re!” The woman’s eyes widened. “Mr. Foxman! From the Rosario Round!” She pointed at her face. “It’s me! Remember? Louise!”

Francis had never seen this woman before in his life—neither as Francis nor as Theta. He was certain.

“You should leave.” He moved her aside to continue deeper.

“Wait! Mr. Foxman! Wait!”

The woman chased after him as he entered a clearing dotted with rubble and bodies. Police officers, civilians, men and women dressed in lab coats—they were scattered everywhere. Alive or dead, unknown.

One particular body caught Francis’s eye: a man dressed in military police gear. He was draped across the remains of an iron gate with a blade-conductor protruding from his back. The vitae was white.

Francis approached him and pulled out the blade-conductor. It hadn’tt de-activated yet meaning that it was a proto-conductor. Disgusting.

But whose was it? Perhaps it belonged to Kappa since Kappa was a Projector and was active now. But why would Kappa use a proto-conductor? Gamma was especially conservative, so it couldn’t have been on his directive. Was this one of the regular members? A different sect? Or—

“A setup…?”

“Put that conductor down!” came a shout from the gloom.

A wind whipped through the clearing, unveiling a toppled building surrounded by a grave of bricks to Francis’s left. In front of what once had been a stairway leading to the entrance of the building lay a metal plate with a red cross engraved into it. Beside it was a sign in Capricornian with the Augen’s symbol painted at its corner. Beside that rested a rifle conductor of Capricornian-design.

And in front of all the chaos stood a woman dressed in a monochrome suit. The symbol on the white armband she wore mocked him from the distance. A peacekeeper. A familiar one.

Gabrielle Law stared at him with her extended glove-conductor just beginning to spark with magenta flame. “Aren’t you… Francis Foxman?”


Inverse Vitae Anisotropy Polarization is a symptom of True Conductors. Due to their ‘leaky channel’ attribute, a True Conductors’s vitae can bleed into another True Conductor they are connected with. Oversaturation of this vitae can lead to one True Conductor suppressing another True Conductor’s will and consciousness. This state also allows for usage of the oversaturated vitae and conducting-type. However, as this puts pressure on the True Conductor being affected, staying in this state prolonged leads to death.

True Conductors appear to have coined other terms for this word. Among them are the following: dissociative resonance, vitae possession, overlap, flooding, override.

10.12.1702, Entry 1115, ELPIS Records. Amended 10.10.1941.

16.3: Swindler, 0707 Homebound

Re-cap:

Cadence finds herself in enemy territory along with Werner’s unit and Captain and familiar Aquarian soldiers. After sealing a deal and laying down a couple of threats, Cadence manages to contain the knowledge of Werner being a True Conductor. Using her skills from living in the Twin Cities, she manages to escape Argo with Werner’s unit and the Aquarians. When they arrive back in Signum, however, Cadence comes face-to-face with Cvetka Akulova, a True Conductor and True-Conductor-hunter working for Leona


Heimatgebunden » Homebound at 0707 hours

Aquarius

Cadence Morello couldn’t believe her luck

She wasn’t the type to swear, but as soon as she laid eyes on Cvetka Akulova, she had to suppress her inner sailor. If it weren’t for her profession constantly forcing her to be in situations like these, she might’ve turned tail and run. Hell, if it wasn’t for the fact that she owed Werner a whole lot, she might’ve done so despite her experience.

Cvetka Akulova, self-proclaimed True-Conductor-hunter and stone-cold fatale, stepped right in front of her with a gaze that trailed up and down.

Instead of running, Cadence saluted—“First Lieutenant Werner Waltz, 212th Squadron of the Border Force”—and extended a hand.

Cvetka flushed before accepting the gesture. Red cheeks, but hands so cold. The iciness seeped through the leather of Werner’s glove like melting snow. It was a shame that Cvetka was so pretty. Seeing her through Atienna’s eyes was one thing, but seeing her up close and personal made Cadence’s heart flutter. Like a Cancerian oil-painting. She really did look like Alma. The childish paper-star earrings that dangled above her fur scarf were a bit odd though.

At the thought of first Atienna and then Alma, Cadence felt an uncomfortable pang in her chest.

“I’m Cvetka Akulova,” Cvetka murmured. “You look different from the pictures… and from what I’ve heard.”

“I apologize for my appearance.” Cadence kept her voice even. “It’s difficult to keep looks in order when treading through enemy territory.”

Wait. No. Stupid. Werner would never even try to crack a joke like that in any situation.

Cadence gestured stiffly to Weingartner and said, “This is my captain. I defer questioning to him.”

“Hm.” Cvetka’s eyes flicked to Werner’s captain. “Well, I don’t want to keep you that long. We should get going.”

Cadence’s mind raced as Cvetka led the entire group through the port-side town. Compared to the port back in Argo, it barely smelled. Cadence figured it was probably due to the cold.

A thin layer of sandy snow dusted the ground and the fishing nets strung up along jutting poles. Ice crept up in-between the spaces of wood and brick of every storage house and creased the gutters of every roof in sight.

Cvetka couldn’t know about Werner, Cadence thought, could she? Werner was careful. And Cadence had practiced caution in turn. Anyways, when in saint’s name had Cvetka been promoted to ‘Ophiuchus liaison’? What even was that? And was this even something Ophiuchus usually got their hands into?

Cadence cursed herself for not paying more attention to Ophiuchians politics. Technically though, it wasn’t all her fault. Jericho was the Ophiuchian peacekeeper. He was the one who should’ve been keeping tabs on things.

She’d been dealing with a constant stream of stress, fatigue, anxiety, and the whole shlock of things since she’d come to. The persistent adrenaline had muddled her memory so much that she couldn’t recall the last update Jericho had given about what was going on in Ophiuchus. The thought of the peacekeeper pressed against Cadence’s chest.

She was completely and utterly alone surrounded by a bunch of stab-happy, overly-prideful Capricornians in the middle of a hellish, southern autumn with an encroaching winter. First time really outside of the Twin Cities, and this was the vacation she got?

As they peeled into a large tent at the very edge of town, Cadence glanced at Nico and then Gilbert.

Well, she wasn’t completely alone.

The tent was more like a palace than a tent. A mahogany table eclipsed by a series of blue, cushioned chairs sat at the center. A lacquered cabinet with glass doors that allowed the numerous wine bottles within to be on open display was nestled at the back. White-armbanded peacekeepers in monochrome suits circled the walls like bars of a cage. More than twenty of them.

“Heard about the promotion, Akulova, but this is something else,” Knovak said in Aquarian, whistling as he inspected the area. “Maybe I should become a peacekeeping agent, no?”

Saints. If Cadence had known being an ‘Ophiuchus liaison’ led to this lavish a lifestyle, she’d have signed up right away. Convincing the prince’d probably take some time, but cost-benefit analysis made the path clear. She’d get enough money to support the kids back in the Twin Cities too.

Her admiration died quickly as she counted the chairs encircling the table. Sixteen to be exact. Four on each side. The exact number of chairs needed for the number of people entering. The wine bottles and glasses resting on top of the table indicated that the intention here was not interrogation but discussion.

Cvetka took a seat at one of the chairs closest to the wine cabinet before beckoning them to join.

The captains exchanged looks. Obviously, this was not how routine military debriefings went nor was it how the routine Ophiuchian debriefings went—Cadence had primary sources to pull from about this.

Kramer tried sitting across the table from Cvetka but Cvetka clicked her tongue, shook her head, and then motioned to the seats beside her. Following this not-so-subtle gesture, Kramer and Weingartner filled in the seats to Cvetka’s right and left. Cvetka then directed Knovak to seat himself on the last chair in that row while Sigrid and the other Aquarian soldier were directed to the left side of the table alongside Bergmann and Brandt. Stein, Heimler, Marionette, and Fischer were invited to occupy the right side of the table which left the seats directly across from Cvetka as the only option available.

Not good.

Cadence glanced at Weingartner. The captain merely nodded.

Screw it.

Cadence took the remaining seats with Nico, Gilbert, and Kleine as Cvetka poured herself a glass of wine.

“We’re here to discuss the events that landed us working together in Argo,” Weingartner said as he declined Cvetka’s offer for a drink. “I don’t think it’s necessary to have everyone here for this, especially since we have someone here who’s under military arrest.” He glanced at Marionette. “I understand that you’re just doing your job, but that’s an internal affair beyond Ophiuchus. That aside, I can represent Capricorn and disclose my side of the incident. We’ll save time that way. My men just want to go home—”

“Have you ever heard of focus groups, Captain Weingartner?” Cvetka asked, beckoning one of the peacekeepers standing behind her forward. She accepted a manila folder from him and placed it delicately on her lap. “They’re best for seeing all sides of a story.”

Weingartner frowned. “And what exactly did you say your position was? Ophiuchian liaison? My apologies but that’s the first time I’ve heard of it.”

Cvetka chuckled, digging into her coat pocket and pulling out a slip of laminated paper. A State Conducting License. Beside Cvetka’s monochrome shyly smiling photo on the license was a slew of demographic information with the Aquarian national symbol watermarked just behind it. At the very corner of the card was a stamp of the Ophiuchian symbol.

“Yes, it’s a new profession. But rather than being called a ‘liaison to Ophiuchus’, I think it might be more appropriate to call me a liaison of the ELPIS Department.”

Really not good.

“But, before that…. Dunya Kramer.” Cvetka tilted her head as if listening to something and then gestured to Nico. “That man sitting there is the reason for why your country lost its supply of modified conductors half a year ago. I’m… sure you’re at least a little bit aware of who he is.”

Cadence’s hairs stood on end.

Nico serving as the link between the Romano Family and both militaries was another headache that Cadence hadn’t been wanting to deal with. The Aquarians who knew of Nico—Kramer and Knovak—hadn’t seemed too put off by his presence. Cadence had figured that as long as weapons were being supplied to Argoan enemies, the Aquarians didn’t care who the Romanos were selling to.

Kramer tensed. “Is that why you’re here? Aquarius has already closed that case with Ophiuchus.”

“Ophiuchus was very lenient recently with Aquarius regarding the modified conductors… right? Just a light tap on the wrist. Aquarius was very lucky… especially since we’ve now lost support from Virgo.” Cvetka slipped her license back into her pocket. “Like how Capricorn was lucky when Ophiuchus was lenient about Capricornian military presence in the Twin Cities a couple months ago… even though it’s not too hard to connect the dots of why certain members were present—”

“I don’t know what theories you have, Miss Akulova,” Weingartner interjected, “but cases presented without evidence are conspiracies.”

There ya go! Go, Captain, Cadence thought as she pushed her lips down to a frown.

Cvetka hummed before lowering her gaze. “Well, even if that’s so, that’s not what I’m here for. And I’m not here to discuss your time in Argo either…”

Cvetka slid the manila folder off her lap and laid it onto the table. Hand-delivering the final omen.

“Ophiuchus’s ELPIS Department is searching for a particular subset of individuals, and I’ve been helping them. One of the minor reasons for why they’re looking for these individuals is because these individuals are actively being targeted by ELPIS.” She flipped open the folder revealing a thick bundle of stapled documents inside. The title page of the paper sitting frontpage read, TRUE CONDUCTORS.

Despite the cold sweat that instantly broke out at the back of her neck, Cadence kept her expression tight and even. Not too hard of a feat. If only Kleine, Fischer, and Bergmann didn’t immediately snap to look at her in response before quickly diverting their attention away to random objects in the room.

Dammit. Couldn’t they have at least tried not to be so obvious about it?

Cadence herself couldn’t comprehend it. Other than this muck up, she and the others had been so careful in hiding. Maria didn’t count. How did Cvetka…?

Sigrid. It had to be Sigrid. Cvetka was after Sigrid. But Cadence didn’t dare look in the woman’s direction in fear of giving herself away.

“The ELPIS Department of Ophiuchus was made aware of your interest in these people, Captain Weingartner,” Cvetka continued. “I heard you’ve garnered a lot of unwanted attention recently because of it. Would you like to disclose what you’ve discovered? Anything helps.”

Weingartner remained silent.

“Well, that’s alright,” Cvetka amended after a stretch of silence. “This is all very confidential anyways. These individuals are capable of both upholding and disrupting the peace in Signum in an instant.”

If it was so confidential, Cadence wondered why in saint’s name Cvetka just telling it like it was nothing? And ‘disturbing the peace of Signum’? Cadence wished she had that much power.

Always yearning for something unattainable.

Cvetka flipped to the next page. Clipped to a type-set paper were three grayscale photos. Yulia Kriska, posing beside the departed Alexei Drei. Colonel Fritz von Spiel, puffing a cigar and surrounded by uniformed Capricornians. And finally an unsmiling Kovich, wearing a white shirt and holding a metal sign stamped with an identification number.

“Some of you are familiar with these three individuals.” Cvetka looked up, meeting first Knovak’s gaze, then Sigrid’s, and finally Cadence’s. “These people were True Conductors…. You knew of Fritz, right, Lieutenant Waltz?”

Cadence frowned. “I knew of him. From my understanding, he was working with ELPIS. Why would he be working with them if he’s being hunted by them, as you say?” After a practiced pause, she said evenly, “You mention confidentiality, but Colonel von Spiel was a Capricornian, not an Ophiuchian. Any details regarding Von Spiel should’ve been disclosed to the state. Ophiuchus is a peacekeeping agency, not a sovereign power.”

Cvetka stared up at her, chuckled, and reached to turn the page again. “You surprise me with your forwardness. I was told that while you’re strict with your subordinates, you’re very… respectful to superiors.”

Cadence felt like she was being played with but replied evenly, “You aren’t my superior, Miss Akulova.”

Cvetka flushed. “Pardon me. I’m still new at this, so I’m trying to get my bearings. Sorry if I’ve overstepped my boundaries… But for your questions—well, is it strange that I get the feeling that you’re not really expecting an answer for it?”

“A question wouldn’t be asked if an answer wasn’t expected, with all due respect, Miss Akulova,” Cadence tried, recalling the words Werner had spoken to Olive not so long ago. “I believe I’m speaking for everyone here when I say that I’d like to get to the purpose of this meeting.”

“Right. I should get to the point. I’m sorry for the detour. I’m not very fond of conclusions… But the thing about these True Conductors is that they always somehow come to flock together. I would know. Because I’m one too.”

Cadence tensed. What in the world…?

“And because I am one, I know for certain that I’m not the only True Conductor sitting here.” Cvetka turned the page again and smoothed it out.

Another monochrome photo was clipped to a dense document. Captured in the photo was a group of children standing in an open flower field with a tall woman smiling brightly behind them.

Cadence remembered exactly when this picture had been taken. It’d been a sunny day, and the council meeting had been let out early. After playing in the halls just outside of the meeting room, they had all gathered outside to take this picture. ‘They,’ as in Atienna, her siblings, Safiyah, and her parents.

Sigrid and Knovak straightened.

“This is a Virgoan advisor and a confirmed True Conductor: Atienna Imamu,” Cvetka explained. “I encountered her in the Zatmeniye Caverns several months ago.”

Cadence felt faint.

Why Cvetka was laying everything out in the open?

She side-glanced at the Aquarians.

She knew that Werner’s unit was on leashes, but she hadn’t looked into any of the Aquarians here, not to mention Marionette. But she didn’t have anything on them. Atienna’s normalcy and life would be uprooted if any of them ran their mouths. And…

“As those who were present are aware, a Specialist from ELPIS was able to open up a portal that connected Zatmeniye to the Twin Cities. The advisor entered that portal, and I followed her,” Cvetka continued. “Now, during that incident, the advisor’s personal bodyguard was swept into the portal because of a confrontation with Yulia. It’s natural to assume that she followed in after them to help him what little way she could.”

Cadence looked back to Cvetka.

“But, you see…” Cvetka tilted her head again as if listening. “At the center of the incident in the Twin Cities were three crime organizations: the Campana Family, the Foxman Family, and the Romano Family. You’re familiar with them. They supplied you both with weapons and helped clean up the modified conductor mess at the Aquarian-Capricornian border.”

Nico clenched his fist beside Cadence but his expression was eerily calm.

“Another important aspect about True Conductors is that they come in groups, so to speak… Through vitae and through approaching death together, connected True Conductors can access each other’s thoughts, feelings, and… memories. And yes, that means that I’m implying that the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis is true, but that’s not important here.”

Cadence drew her brows up in mock surprise. The Aquarians did the same, while the Capricornians tensed. Terrible actors. And a terrible situation. The dots were connecting to form a crosshairs target mark, and Cadence didn’t like where the bullseye was landing.

“So, this big incident in the Twin Cities with ELPIS that Miss Atienna ran into…” Cvetka continued. “Well, it’s most likely that another True Conductor she was connected with was also present. You see, I don’t believe in coincidence.”

When Cvetka turned the page again, Cadence’s head buzzed.

“So with the crime organizations in the Twin Cities being the centerpiece of this event, we investigated them thoroughly. The telling-signs of a True Conductor can be easy or hard to see depending on the nature and personality of that True Conductor. But we…. received some intel recently that helped solve this mystery.”

Cvetka reached forward and tapped the photograph clipped to the new document. There, Cadence found a side-profile of herself captured in monochrome. The TwinStars Pub was in the background, and the city lights bleached the edges of the photo white.

Good photo. Bad situation.

“This is a swindler from the Twin Cities who works closely with the Romano and Foxman group. We’re certain that she’s a True Conductor connected to Miss Imamu.”

Werner’s gloves began to feel unbearably sticky

“And since we found that Cadence Morello was one, we began to look into her recent activities. There’s always a pattern. So we asked ourselves, ‘what unusual activities has she been involved in’? Anything crossing border lines?” Cvetka locked eyes with Nico. “And what we found was a person crossing border lines. From Gemini to Aquarius to Capricorn and back.”

Cadence felt bumps prick up along her arm as Cvetka reached to flip the page again. Slowly, torturously, the woman peeled back the page fully. Cadence didn’t even need to look at the photograph clipped there. She felt it—

The piercing gazes from all angles stabbing her through the chest. The sluggish, insect-like pin-pricks that crawled up her spine. Hyper-awareness kicked up to notch ten.

“We were already starting to investigate this individual because he was involved in multiple incidents with ELPIS. Cadence Morello simply served as the missing, sealing link.”

Cadence kept her voice even and interjected, “I don’t appreciate these baseless accusations. The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis is pseudoscience. And this is the first time I’ve heard of—”

“—of the term ‘True Conductor’?” Cvetka finished.

“It is,” Cadence affirmed, eyes narrowing. “If we’re to believe that the hypothesis is true and that this subject affects the whole of Signum as you say, then Ophiuchus keeping it undisclosed is—”

“—irresponsible.”

Cadence felt faint. “This isn’t something that Ophiuchus should conceal. This information should be disclosed to—

“—to all of the countries of Signum, including Capricorn,” Cvetka finished.

Cadence kept her mouth shut.

“Like I said, I do find your argumentativeness a bit strange, Lieutenant. Though, I think it can be explained. The one other caveat about True Conductors is that due to the nature of their crossed vitae and memories, they are capable of… in a sense… ‘taking over’ another person. Some call it an overlap, others call it an override, others dissociative-interference, and so on.”

Here it was. The dreaded royal flush. And this time Cadence wasn’t the one holding that hand. Talk about a reversed hook, line, and sinker.

“So, what do you think, Miss Morello?” Cvetka held her gaze. “Is my deduction right?”

She wouldn’t be able to talk herself out of this one. Conviction beat deception.

Cadence considered activating her conductor and making a run for it—

Run for what? Where would she go? 

Not only that but what the hell would happen to Nico and Werner’s men if she left? Not like she could grab them all in time.

Well, it wasn’t like they were her problem anyways, right? It was just the situation. Just like before.

Screw that.

Cadence bit the inside of her mouth as her head began to pound.

“Please don’t try to use transmutation to escape,” came Cvetka’s voice. “My employer knows everything about you. It’ll be more difficult for you than for us.”

The silence that droned on buzzed around Cadence’s head, and the static that had invaded her spine spilled out into her limbs. It felt like she was caged in her own skin, and it took all of her willpower to move. She broke the silence with a sigh as she crossed one leg on top of the other, saying, “So you were playing me with this the entire time. That’s kinda sadistic.”

The stares of the others within the tent didn’t bother her as much as Cvetka’s stare did. The woman’s eyes were bottomless pits, drawing in all light, pulling everything in deeper and deeper. Definitely nothing like Alma.

“I didn’t mean to draw it out this long. I just thought it’d help soften the blow,” Cvetka murmured. “You were actually very difficult to find. If it weren’t for my employer, you probably would’ve remained hidden for quite some time… You’re very clever, you know. It was only after we found out about you that Astante realized you were keeping tabs on him.”

“The information broker…?” Nico murmured.

“I don’t understand.” And Cadence really didn’t.

“It’s not your fault. My employer sees everything. Like how you’ve been stuck in your current predicament for several days now.” Cvetka’s lips dipped into a frown, and her brows became knitted with sympathy. “It must’ve been very hard for you.”

What? How? Manipulator? What medium? No, that wasn’t it. 

“Makes me think we should’ve just accepted your offer as—what is it—an Ophiuchus liaison?” Cadence chuckled.

Cvetka remained silent.

“So you got all of us then. You were callin’ Atienna clever this entire time, but turns out the clever one was you all along.”

Cvetka murmured, “‘All of you…’? Maybe. Maybe not. And I’m not the clever one. My employer is.”

Bad. Time to switch gears.

“What’s with all this confrontation now? I always got the feelin’ that ya were the type ta keep everything discrete,” Cadence pressed. “Something must’ve happened, right? You keep mentionin’ that employer of yours.”

This didn’t seem like something Leona would order. Despite the woman’s overzealous, proud nature, Cadence could tell Leona was discrete and private. Leona had threatened Gabrielle and Alice to keep confidentiality back in the Twin Cities, after all. But as much as Cadence wanted to mention the peacekeeper, only Jericho and Olive had ever encountered her. Mentioning it would just draw suspicion. But she was certain…

New employer?” Cadence tried. “Trouble in paradise?”

Cvetka’s smile dipped, and instead of addressing the topic, she turned to the Aquarian side of the room. “Now, Sigrid—”

Sigrid flew up to a stand immediately, kicking up the mahogany table and sending the wine bottles and champagne glasses hurting into the air. As they shattered on the ground sending up a rain of red wine and shards, Sigrid lunged for Knovak’s pistol and pulled it out of its holster.

Cadence startled to a stand, unable to register the events that followed.

Suddenly, Sigrid was on the floor being pinned down by one of the stationed peacekeepers. Weingartner’s gun was out, but he wasn’t able to aim it since another peacekeeper had conjured up a gun and was now pointing it to the back of his head. Stein had also snapped up, but he too was held at conjured gunpoint.

Weingartner tensed, but there was no fear in his eyes. “Do you realize what you’re doing?”

Kramer rose to a stand, eyes hard as she regarded the peacekeepers. “An Ophiuchian is an Ophiuchian, and an Aquarian is an Aquarian. Do you know who you’re representing when you’re pointing that gun at an Aquarian soldier and a captain of Capricorn, peacekeeper? You’re pushing your boundaries. Stand down—”

She was cut off short as another Ophiuchian who had been standing idle whipped out a blade-conductor, ignited it in a burst of pink light, and held it to her throat.

Something about the blade of vitae that protruded out of the Projector’s blade-conductor looked strange, Cadence realized as she stared at the scene in disbelief. She could very faintly make out blue lines running up the blade’s body. It looked like it was going to shatter at any moment. She wondered if it was broken. Olive would know.

The Ophiuchian who had handed Cvetka the folder and the only one who had yet to pull out a weapon approached Cvetka slowly and reached to caress her face. As Cadence resisted gawking, Cvetka rose to a stand only to be slapped so hard that she fell onto the ground. Blood pooled below her hands as the glass on the floor became embedded into her skin.

“You speak too much, Useless,” the Ophiuchian said, lowering his hand. He turned to Cadence. “Anyone moves, your captains die, all you tin soldiers die.”

He made a hard bargain.

“Take off your gloves,” the Ophiuchian ordered, pointing at Cadence from across the toppled table.

Cadence stared. “I don’t strip for just anyone.”

The Ophiuchian closed the distance between them causing Cadence to take a step back and nearly fall back over the chair behind her. The man reached for his belt and whipped out the conducting rifle clipped there. Instead of pointing it at her, however, he pointed it at Nico who tensed. Without saying a thing, he moved his finger to the trigger as Gilbert reached for his pistol.

“Wait!” Cadence snapped.

Conductors were greater than normal weapons in any equation.

The Ophiuchian paused as did Gilbert. Then came the repeated demand, “Take them off.”

“Okay, okay, okay.” Cadence began peeling off Werner’s gloves. “Can’t take a joke? Come on.” She tucked them into her pocket. “Now what?”

She wasn’t sure if she felt uncomfortable about the bareness of her hands because her once hidden proto-conductors were now out in the open or if it was because she still felt faint memories of Werner’s personal shame regarding them.

Sorry, Lieutenant. 

The Ophiuchian reached forward causing Cadence to flinch. He ripped her rings off of her fingers before gesturing to Nico with the conductor. “Look at her hand. The injured one.”

What? They knew about that too?

Cadence gave Nico a reassuring nod. He drifted to her side before he began to undo the bandages wrapped tightly around her hand.

Once Nico undid the bandages, they both studied the knife-wound. He’d given the injury a check-up right before they’d headed to the Argoan casino earlier. But despite her profession, Cadence had always disliked the sight of blood and any injury, so she hadn’t paid attention during his initial inspection. It was gross. Things meant to be in the body should stay inside the body. Plus, Werner had always been self-conscious about his hands, and she’d wanted to give him at least that bit of dignity, Now, as she peeked at it, she did a double-take.

It was difficult to see the reason—the physical marks—for why Werner had always kept his hands hidden beneath his gloves. This was because the reason was hidden by a dark-blue-ish, bruise-like splotch that filled in the crater of Werner’s palm. Cadence couldn’t even see the scar of the knife-wound above it all nor the scars lying beneath it.

Had there been poison on that crazed Augen member’s knife? No, Nico would’ve found out if that were the case.

“It’s gotten worse…” Nico murmured, running his thumb along the dark splotch. “I noticed it was gettin’ darker and bigger but this is—”

The dark area began to move.

Cadence yelped, jerking back slightly only to be held firmly in place by Nico who held up a hand. She followed his gaze to the mark and almost fainted when she saw the mark sprout nine buds—four on opposing sides and one extending long out the back. The shape floundered around for a heart-stopping moment before remaining still.

“The hell is that…?” Gilbert whispered.

“Remove it,” the Ophiuchian ordered, signaling a standby female peacekeeper forward.

The peacekeeper brought out her gloved hands, conjuring up a pair of conducting gloves in a flash of blue-purple light. She handed Nico the gloves before stepping to the side. Cadence nodded, and Nico hesitantly slid on the gloves in response.

“Transmute that off,” the Ophiuchian ordered again.

“I second that,” Cadence murmured with a grimace. “…But then again, I never liked the doc doin’ stuff ta me with me really knowin’ what it’s all about honestly…”

“I don’t know, Cadence.” Sweat began to drip from Nico’s brow. “It’s deep, whatever it is. I can tell. It’s risky. Werner might lose his hand. I need a donor at least before I try anything. And again—I don’t even know what this is. I thought it was purpura then blue nevus, but this is—”

The Ophiuchian pressed the gun to Nico’s temple and then extended his free palm. “I’m the same blood-type, and I meet the requirements. No questions. Do it now.”

“He makes a hard bargain.” Cadence swallowed, arching a brow. “A real Carl on our hands. It’ll be alright.”

Ignoring the Ophiuchian, Nico gave Cadence an exasperated look as he cupped her hand with one hand and hovered over her palm with the other. “This is a bad time for jokes, Cadence…”

“You’re starting to sound like the dear lieutenant.” Cadence chortled. “Well, anyway, we’re obviously pretty valuable to this group, so I doubt they’d want us ta do anything wild like dyin’. Go ahead.”

Instead of responding, Nico got to work. Always without warning. Fuzzy light pooled out from his gloved hand, and her palm began to numb as if being were pricked with invisible needles. It felt nice—

But then a shooting pain ricocheted from the base of her wrist up her arm to her head. It was unlike anything she’d ever felt before. Bullet wounds, scrapes and bruises from childhood fights, strangled bruisings around the neck from her mother, injuries experienced from the other five, her near-death experience at the TwinStars—nothing compared. A pain that ate its way from inside-out. It was indescribable.

Cadence’s knees gave away, and she fell forward onto Nico who caught her in alarm. As soon as he stopped his transmutation, the pain faded like it’d never been there in the first place. They sank to the ground together, Cadence left panting heavily. Sweat dripped from her head to the floor, and she swore she could taste blood.

Saints. Cadence, are you okay?!” Nico held her tightly before he checked her pulse. He apparently didn’t like what he found because he whipped to the Ophiuchian and snapped uncharacteristically, “What’s going on? What’s wrong with her? What is that?!”

Cadence lifted her head just in time to see the Ophiuchian jab the point of the pistol at Nico’s forehead.

“Remove it.”

Gilbert finally pulled out his pistol fully and pointed it at the Ophiuchian while ignoring the fact that he now had five conductors trained on him. “Fuck it. If you blow his brains out, then I’ll blow yours out, and then everyone can blow mine out, and it can be an entire damned chain!”

“Gilbert, stop.”

Gilbert stiffened.

“I appreciate it, Gil,” Cadence continued. “But I really can’t afford ta have you dyin’ so please cool it.”

“Stand down, Wolff,” came Weingartner’s affirmation.

Gilbert reluctantly obeyed.

“Cadence,” Nico pressed. “This isn’t a good idea.”

“Damn it, Nico. Didn’t ya hear me? They don’t want me dead. Doesn’t mean they want me happy.” Grabbing a fistful of his shirt, Cadence flashed him a tight smile as nausea swept over her. “Just do it already, would ya? Let’s just get this over with. Gettin’ it over with is how we get by, right?”

Nico paled but nodded. He cradled her hand in his before reaching forward with his conductor once more.

The excruciating pain returned as soon as Nico’s glove began to glow. Every single nerve in her body felt like it was being snapped in two. Instead of blood pounding through her veins and arteries and hearts and lungs, it felt like hot lava was searing through it all instead. She remembered Allen hiring out a Specialist who was able to make the vitae particles hooked to a person’s blood cells vibrate to the point where their blood cells ruptured. Beneath all the hazy pain, Cadence wondered if the poor sap who got the brunt end of Allen’s wrath felt something similar to this.

She doubled over on the floor as tears pricked her eyes. Her mind raced for an exit.

Werner

—was not here. Neither was Atienna, Maria, Jericho, or Olive. They couldn’t lend her a helping hand.

A ‘helping hand’…?

How dare she try to even think of getting any of them to take her place here?

But that was just how she was. There was no helping it. It was just the situation.

No. Constantly pinning it on the situation was what got her into her situation back in the Twin Cities. Everything that was cast aside was just built up until it could no longer be contained. Living more freely and without consequence wasn’t a party in the long run.

Another wave of pain pulsated out from her palm, but this time she didn’t cry. She had to keep up Werner’s appearances, after all. They were everything to him—

Cadence dry-heaved, covered her mouth, tasted iron, felt something wet sip in-between her fingertips. When she blinked open her eyes, she saw red.

She just had to hold it. Just a little longer. Either whatever the hell was on her hand would pop off or the Ophiuchian would call it off if it went too far. Just a little longer. She couldn’t lose Nico.

‘Lose Nico?’ 

She couldn’t lose anything because she didn’t own anything.

The realization felt like a slap to the face.

The more she owned, the more she owed. It was a bad investment.

“Enough.”

The pain stopped as Nico immediately pulled his conductor away at the order. When she collapsed again, Nico caught her.

“I-I’m so sorry,” came Nico’s wavering voice. “Saints, Cadence, I…”

Wiping the blood from her mouth, Cadence blinked blearily and watched as the Ophiuchian turned on his heels and exited the tent. The other peacekeepers minus Cvetka followed him out, bringing the Aquarians along with them. Cadence managed to hold Sigrid’s gaze for half a second before she was guided out of the tent forcefully by the Ophiuchian.

“Are you alright?” Asking this with a sweet and gentle voice, Cvetka picked herself off the floor, closed the distance between them, and sank beside Cadence.

“More concerned about the Aquarian who just kicked the table and was pinned to the floor,” Cadence returned.

Cvetka eyed the tent’s flap. “She’ll be in good hands. It’s just an extra protective measure. We’re all very important…”

Cadence feigned ignorance. “Are ya sayin’ she’s a True Conductor too?”

Cvetka opened her mouth, paused, remained silent.

“I’m guessin’ your new employer might be a little in over their head, and my situation’s unexpected? What’s happenin’ ta me right now isn’t the usual thing that happens ta True Conductors, right?” Cadence flexed her hand. “Usually the person who knows the most about it is the one who’s behind it. Do I get any hints?”

Cvetka didn’t take the bait and instead lowered her gaze. “Being stuck like this alone for so long… How can you even stand it? I’d rather die than be alone without Astante and the others.”

Cadence didn’t take the bait either and instead cocked a brow. “Well, that’s a pretty sad thought. Was worried about the Aquarian but now I’m more worried about you.”

“And why would you be concerned with me?”

“When I see a pretty lady in trouble I can’t help but ta offer a helping hand.”

“I’m not the one in trouble. You are.”

“Appearances are deceivin’.”

Cvetka’s eyes darkened before she rose to a stand and pulled away. “It seems like you’ll have to see my employer directly to get this issue resolved…” She pulled a slip of paper out from the manila folder laying on the floor and paced over to Weingartner. Handing it to him, she said, “Captain Weingartner, your unit has been assigned to transport First Lieutenant Werner Waltz to Die Hauptstadt. A member of the ELPIS Department will be there waiting for you to assist with Lieutenant Waltz’s current condition.”

The capital? In Capricorn? Why even ask Werner’s division? Why not just escort her there themselves? Cadence knew ‘why.’ They were playing games. But she didn’t know why.

Seeming to have recovered from being at the point of a vitae-blade, Fischer fumed, “We’re not Ophiuchians. We don’t take orders from—”

“‘Joint Command by the Grand Military Command of Capricorn in Tandem with Ophiuchus’s ELPIS Department’—it has the Capricornian command seal,” Weingartner interjected as he scanned the paper inside the folder. “It’s been signed by the Kaiser.” He frowned. “‘…refuse to complete the objective will be subject to a court-martial and will be tried for treason’?” Jaw tightening, he stared at Cadence and then at Cvetka before folding the paper. “What’s going on here?”

“What’s been going on since the very beginning,” came Cvetka’s response as she drew to the flap of the tent and threw a look over her shoulder towards Marionette Engel. “The train leaves in three hours.”

Silence fell as Cvetka’s click-clacking footsteps faded into quiet crunches against ice and snow.

Cadence was guided to a stand by Nico and was soon joined by Gilbert. Their lips started moving, but all Cadence could hear was a distant, muffled buzzing. Instead of addressing them, she approached the cabinet at the back of the tent and pulled it open. She scanned the bottles within before plucking one from the very back. The bottle’s year was 1821, the brand Aqcua Di Vita. She was familiar with it since it was the boss’s favorite brand. Apparently, the grapes the wine was made from grew only in a vineyard in Gemini that blossomed alongside a vitae stream. Expensive stuff. She grabbed a glass from the row lining the back wall before passing by Werner’s men who were swarming her like how flies swarmed the poorer alleys of the Twin Cities. Taking a seat back on the leather cushion, she popped the cork with a coin from her pocket, poured herself a glass, and sipped.

Mm. Fruity with a cinnamon aftertaste. Sweeter than Francis or Allen would like though. Still, Gemini really did make the best wines.

She downed the red liquid with four more sips before she poured herself another glass. She downed this one in three gulps. The next glass was downed in two. And as Nico tried to take her champagne glass away from her, she began to down the bottle. She was on her seventh gulp when her vision faded.

* * *

When Cadence drifted back into awareness, she could hear a faint chugging in the background paired with a clink-clink-clink. Cvetka’s shoes—no. Something else. Cadence was familiar with this sound. She’d always hear it whenever she’d cross below the Dioscuri Bridge. A train.

Her head pounded with every click and clack.

A warm shadow pooled over her face. Nico.

“Saints, Cadence, are you crazy? Are you alright? How are you feelin’…?”

“How much did I drink?”

“…half the bottle.”

“Werner must be a lightweight then, huh?” Cadence pulled her hand out of his hold and stared at the dark-splotch on her palm. It didn’t move this time. “Well, probably something in the alcohol.”

“You passed out more from the pain than the alcohol, Cadence.”

She slowly dug the heels of her palms into her eyes as she felt them burn. “Pretty sure there was something in the alcohol.”

Nico remained silent for a beat. “Yeah, must’ve been the booze.”

It was all falling apart. All of it. The worst part was that she didn’t know the who, what, or why. All she had was a general sense of everything breaking to pieces around her. Atienna’s normalcy, Werner’s normalcy. After all the others had done for her, she had somehow…

Everything would’ve turned out better if she hadn’t worried about Werner’s men. If she had just been a little bit more selfish—

Saints. What would happen to them now? The same thing that happened to all those other True Conductors Claire had mentioned that had disappeared?

“You couldn’t have known, Cadence…” Nico murmured. “This is bigger than all of us. It was just—”

“What? The situation?” Cadence scoffed. “I wish it was that easy. Can you believe the first thing I thought of was just grabbin’ you and Gilbert and deckin’ it outta there? I thought, ‘Screw the other Capricornians. Werner can live without ‘em.’ Twin Cities through and through. Probably wouldn’t have gotten far anyways.”

A pause.

Nico then said, “I’ve heard stories about an Aquarian combat medic who goes into every single battle without a gun. Saves the enemy even when they’re bein’ shot at.”

Cadence had heard this before from Nico. Through Werner’s ears.

“But y’know what I think when someone points a gun at me? I think of the best place to shoot and kill them without causin’ them pain.” Nico squeezed her leg. “You’re not the only one, Cadence. But your first thoughts aren’t what define you. Your actions are. Even if you mess up along the way…” He chuckled. “Anyways, ‘Twin Cities through and through’ just means we can make it out of whatever this is.”

“When did ya become such a pep-talker?” she asked, despite knowing the answer. “Well, thanks for sayin’ that I messed up.”

“You have really selective hearin’ don’t you?.”

Cadence peeked at him from between her fingers. “It’s good ta see ya again. I mean, really see ya.”

“I’d say the same, but…” Nico gestured at her with a lopsided but fond smile.

Cadence sat up and scanned the small cabin. Wooden, ugly walls; an elongated leather seat on opposing sides of that wall; a wooden door behind; and not a window in sight. “Where are we?”

“On a train,” Nico explained, hands hovering. “We crossed the Capricornian border an hour ago. Does it still hurt anywhere?”

“Oh, Nico, ya’d know if it hurt.” She noticed Werner’s gloves resting on the seat across from her, grabbed them, and slid them on. They fit better now that she was no longer bandaged nor wearing her proto-conductor rings underneath.

“Hey…” Nico began, eyes lingering. “Do you know…”

There he went again.

“Why?” Cadence asked. “What’s it to ya? Ya super close ta the lieutenant or somethin’? I mean, if he wanted you ta know, he woulda told ya. Kinda weird how you’re askin’ outta the blue. Doctor’s bad bedside manner that your dad taught ya seepin’ in again?”

What in the world was she saying…?

Instead of waiting to see how Nico reacted, Cadence swung her legs off the seat and peeled out the door despite Nico’s resounding protests. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the light bleeding in from all the windows out in the train hall. When they finally adjusted, she found Gilbert, Brandt, and Stein seated at a booth drinking whiskey across from her. At the booth just to their left sat Heimler and Marionette who were being stared down from across the table by Kleine, Fischer, and Emilia.

“Captain…” Stein called when he noticed her.

The door to the cabin beside the one Cadence had just popped out of creaked open. Captain Weingartner, looking more like a school teacher than ever with his baggy eyes and messy peppered hair, stepped out and studied her.

“Morello… right?” Weingartner greeted her calmly. “How are you feeling?”

So that was how he was playing it. With that false kindness to try to win her over. Well, she didn’t blame him. That was how the cards fell.

“Like I died a second time again, but that’s pretty good all things considered.” She approached an unoccupied booth and propped open the window there. “Appreciate ya askin’.”

Captain Weingartner joined her side. “How far does this go, Morello…? How did they know everything? You said that you’ve been concealing yourselves and being careful….” He glanced down at her gloved hands. “And what was—”

“Captain, ya think I know anything?” Cadence popped her head out the window. “I’m probably more clueless than you are. All that big talk from me, and now all my cards are folded…” She trailed off as her eyes adjusted to the stale brightness in full.

A gray sky unfurled in rows high above her head. Beneath that, archways popping up as far as she could see extended above the railroad tracks and train like monoliths. They almost reminded her of the archways guarding the Monadic temples back in the Twin Cities, except here they were square instead of rounded and so much larger. Almost the size of entire buildings. Adorning the left and right sides of the archways were enormous black flags gilded with the Capricornian insignia in silver.

As the train passed beneath one of the archways, everything became shrouded in black. The darkness was cold, the wind whipping at her face like razors as the echo of the train’s locomotion became boxed in around her. As they neared the light at the end of the archway and her eyes adjusted again, Cadence came to realize that there were words engraved on the walls of the archway. It took her a good minute to sound out all the letters—

Für den Ruhm. Für die Ehre. Der Sieg liegt bei uns. 

Over and over again.

Really…? The patriotism was almost comical at this point.

“We’re headed to Eisburg.”

Cadence pulled back inside as they broke out of the archway-tunnel. “Werner’s hometown?”

Gilbert stared at her head and snorted.

She smoothed out her hair. “That doesn’t sound like ‘Die Hauptstadt’ ta me. I’m all for home leave, but are ya sure ya should be makin’ pit stops, Captain? Cvetka might look like a pushover, but she’s one scary lady.”

Weingartner studied her, before elaborating, “The train leading straight to the capital was closed due to construction. They’re finally laying down new insulating ley-lines that they’ve been collaborating with all of Signum on. This was the next best option, but there are some detours along the way.”

Cadence recalled Atienna speaking about the insulating ley-lines back when they’d all visited the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs with Jericho. But she couldn’t quite remember what Atienna said about them. The memory was blurred, like smudged ink.

Cadence glanced at Marionette. “So, why is Miss Love-and-Peace still here? Don’t know how your law system works, but shouldn’t she have more security on her or somethin’ or be transported somewhere else? Didn’t ya tell your superiors ‘bout her when you arrived?”

Although now that Marionette knew that Werner was a True Conductor, Cadence preferred to have her close by.

Marionette stared at her from across the train-cart. Cadence imagined the woman was trying to make heads-and-tails of the whole True Conductor business. Maybe trying to even figure if she could use this to support her movement. When Cadence flashed her a smile, however, Marionette averted her eyes.

Weingartner pulled out a folded slip of paper and handed it to Cadence. She unfolded it and vaguely recognized an official-looking, horned-and-tailed seal stamped across its top. She scanned the letter slowly, but in an eerily mind-buzzing moment, she realized she couldn’t make heads-or-tails of it. It was gibberish. She imagined receiving disappointed looks from both Atienna and Werner. Instead of panicking, however, she handed the paper back to Weingartner with a shrug as she sank into the booth.

“My… readin’ skills aren’t that good. The others’ve been teachin’ me but all this”—She made a circle in the air with her finger—“is makin’ it hard to concentrate.”

Weingartner’s brows rose, and he seemed to evaluate her differently before he said, “The Kaiser also ordered us to escort Engel to the capital to make our report… After we deliver you.”

“No need ta look guilty, Captain. Orders are orders.” Cadence rested her head against the window and watched as Nico slid down to sit beside her. She flexed her marked hand. “Plus I get free healthcare. ‘Course the most important thing in life is ta always be cautious of things that’re handed ta ya free, but I’m pretty sure I already paid the price.”

Weingartner frowned and sat down across from her. “They somehow knew Engel was with us. And they had the tent prepared perfectly. I don’t like this.”

She knew what he was implying but that didn’t seem like a reasonable idea.

“A Manipulator? But what would the medium be? And who would it’ve been on?” Cadence sighed, pulled out Werner’s pocket watch, and inspected his reflection on its surface. “Never taken the State Conductor’s Exam, so most of what’s beyond the super basics is beyond me. Anyway, if there was a medium planted, it had ta have been sometime after Werner checked out because I ain’t messy when it comes down ta business… most of the time.”

Weingartner gave her another look. His sympathy was as clear as day. It seemed like that little spiel in the tent had shifted his opinion of her. Just like that. He was soft for a captain, but she could use this. 

“Well, what I can tell ya is that whoever’s callin’ the shots at the moment likes ta play games. Askin’ all of ya ta escort me, revealin’ everything…” She waved a hand in the air and sighed. “But no use thinkin’ about things ya can’t change.

“Saints. You say stuff like that all the time, Cadenceno wonder Alma didn’t choose you.”

Head buzzing, Cadence turned to find Nico staring at her. “What did you say…?”

Nico blinked. “Huh? Nothing…?”

Cadence turned away from him slowly and stared at Weingartner across from her and then at all of Werner’s subordinates who were peeking at her from behind him. She sighed.

“Look. I’m sorry all of ya got dragged into whatever this is,” she said, rubbing the back of her neck. “Honestly, I was just plannin’ to scare ya a bit and make ya keep quiet. You go about your daily life, and we go about our own daily lives. Nothin’ more than that. This is probably a lot bigger than your spiel with the Argoans—no offense.” She ran her hand down her face. “I really am sorry. Not like all of ya don’t have enough on your plate already.”

After a stretch of silence, Gilbert shrugged. “Not like we don’t live a day without almost dying.”

16.2: Private, 0405 No Honor

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

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


Keine Ehre » No honor noted at 0405 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Formation-45.”

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

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

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


Argo

Only two weeks or so ago before they started this operation in unoccupied territory, the lieutenant had commended Wilhelm’s dedication, saying something along the lines of, “I always thought this, but I feel like it needs to be said. Your dedication is not unnoticed.”

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

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

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

“A lie sounds more likely than the truth,” had been one of Cadence’s closing notes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why were you being friendly with Engel?”

“I wasn’t being friendly with her—”

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

“Are you serious…?”

“Answer me—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence turned. “That, Stein?”

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

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

“Misdirection?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on, Waltz,” Weingartner urged.

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

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

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

Wilhelm stammered, “Sorry, sir—”

Wait. Damn.

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

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

“Right. Everyone. Uniforms off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence chuckled and thumbed back towards them in the woods. “My friends and I were having a party back in Stonbo, and our seniors dropped us off in the middle of nowhere when we were asleep. Part of a hazing type deal.”

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

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

“Where are we anyways?” Cadence pressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence’s smile dipped slightly.

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

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

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

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

“Think higher.”

The man paused. “Elysian University?”

“Bingo!” Cadence snapped her fingers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man thrummed his fingers on the wheel in thought.

“I’ll pay. What do you charge?”

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

“To Stonbo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And…

Cadence Morello. Wouldn’t. Stop. Talking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coward.

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

Bergmann frowned. “Stop it, Stein.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A spy?

A hand brushed his shoulder.

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

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

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

Wilhelm wondered why. Not like she knew him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what do we do?”

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

“I’ll come too,” Gilbert interjected.

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

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

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

It almost sounded like she was trying to convince herself.

* * *

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

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

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

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

“A casino?” Weingartner inquired.

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

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

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

This was ridiculous.

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

Coward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Royal flush.”

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

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

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

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

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

Ten minutes into the first round and Cadence won.

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

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

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

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

“Mallory.”

* * *

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

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

It aggravated Wilhelm to no end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stand down,” Weingartner ordered.

Kramer nodded.

Three weapons were lowered.

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

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

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

Cadence merely side-glanced at Nico.

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

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

The disrespect…

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

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

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

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

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

Saints. Wilhelm wanted to put a bullet through her. 

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

Wilhelm startled, and he heard Bergmann gasp.

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

What? How dare she…?

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

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

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

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

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

Cadence’s and Mallory’s conversation continued undisturbed.

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

“Go on.”

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

Mallory’s brows rose. “Expensive…”

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

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

“No problem.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

At 0200 hours, they were loaded beneath the tarp of a caravan attached to a vehicle at the back of the casino. There were no words exchanged as they situated themselves in the caravan nor were there any words exchanged when the vehicle started rolling forward. Wilhelm sat in tense silence listening to the labored breathing of the others as the vehicle bumped along the road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was like Cadence was baiting him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right…”

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

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

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

“Fischer,” Gilbert warned.

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

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

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

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

His words drowned in the silence that followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief spark of satisfaction beat in Wilhelm’s chest

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

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

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

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

How did she know…?

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

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

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

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

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

The ship horn blew.

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

* * *

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

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

Damn. They were in Aquarius.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Threshold

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

Aries…?

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

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

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

What was she playing at?

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

Olive’s voice.

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

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

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

“You brought me here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Appearances are everything.”

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

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

Right. He had a task to finish.

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

No—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Werner swallowed a sigh and paced forward.

Childish.

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

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

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

“Find something?”

“Anything that looks out of the ordinary.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

16.1: Captain, 0500 Insubordination

Re-cap:

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

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

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

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

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


Gehorsamsverweigerun » Insubordination documented at 500 hours

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

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

And now here he was again. A soldier.

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

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

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

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

Truly, it was a cyclic process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t. I don’t have a choice.”

“You always have a choice, Erwin…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, Weingartner held to both of his promises and had spent the rest of his time at the capital researching. It had felt good to oil that wheel. But there were no such records of ‘True Conductors’ in any of Capricorn’s libraries. Even after visiting the oldest libraries, even after speaking to the oldest librarians, the term remained a mystery save for a couple of associated words here and there. Nothing concrete. And so, he’d taken to researching the terms he’d discovered to be involved with the word: ‘loss of self,’ ‘personality change,’ and ‘out of character behavior.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weingartner had paused more out of confusion than fear.

“How do I know? My employer sees everything,” Dämon continued. “They see you, they see me, they even see your daughter back home. She’s due in a few months, isn’t she? Writes to you every day? The Enlightenment Committee members that read over all the circulating mail letters find her handwriting very cute by the way.”

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

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

Then… the Kaiser? It was a threat. But why? 

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

Weingartner had remained silent.

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

Weingartner had reached for the butter-knife.

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

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

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


Argo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…T-Two months?”

“Voluntary or drafted?”

“I… volunteered.”

“And why did you do that?”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How despicable…

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

“Leave them.”

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

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

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

Werner stiffened.

A Geminian word…? Weingartner frowned.

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

There it was again—that term. What in the world?

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

Werner frowned. “What are you talking about?”

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

“What are you playing at?” Werner pressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Werner called out, “Fabrizzio.” No answer.

Weingartner watched as Nico’s body remained motionless.

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

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

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

Weingartner stiffened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weingartner stared in disbelief.

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

The others became reappeared in the same manner only a second after.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just what in the world was Werner playing at?

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

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

Bergmann and Stein tensed.

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

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

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

The door remained still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

No concrete reasoning. Just intuition, it seemed.

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

The stage now set, Werner extended a hand out to Weingartner who accepted the gesture before extending his hand out to Gilbert behind him. The chain continued until they were all linked, hand-in-hand. With a snap of his fingers, Werner sent copper light cascading down their chain. And with that, they slowly pressed out the door and into the hallway.

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

The Argoans didn’t even notice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The illusion coating them shattered in an instant.

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

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

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

Werner nodded.

* * *

They continued on through the woods opposite the setting sun as planned for nearly two days straight, never stopping for rest even once. The ghost of the Argoans felt like a constant at their heels. No rest. Only anxiety. 

On the third day, however, he and Kramer agreed to stop for rest. They came to a small creek, foraged for food there, and settled for a tense three-hour repose as night fell.

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

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

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

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

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

Weingartner remained silent, clenching his fists.

Kleine started shaking his leg. Gilbert glared at him.

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

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

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

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

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

The addressed remained silent.

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

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

Silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one moved. Rank and order—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just this once, Nico.”

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

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

“I told you!”

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

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

Hey,” Gilbert warned.

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

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

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

The disrespectful, casual tone was disconcerting.

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

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

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

What?

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

Third-person.

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

Weingartner’s heart thundered. A Manipulator?

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

Ersatz’s words rang in Weingartner’s head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cadence Morello,” the unknown replied, eyes glinting with amusement.“Let’s use truth as currency.”


Threshold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right. He hadn’t truly broken any rules.

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

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

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

Werner blinked once.

The phantom was gone.

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

Right.

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

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

Someone was coming up the stairs.

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

“Hello, Werner.”

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

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

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

“How was your time at the front?”

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

Werner stiffened, heart hammering.

“What’s that? A conductor toy?”

“That’s—”

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

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

I have entered.

When Werner faced his brother again, he frowned.

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

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

Right…

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

“Luddy,” came a whisper by the doorway.

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

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

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

Allowing this to go any further benefited no one.

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

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

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

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

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

Someone was coming up the stairs.

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

There was no escape. There never had been.

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

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

15.[]: Peacekeepers, 0700 Verschlimmbesserung

Re-cap:

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


Verschlimmbesserung » Improving for the worse beyond 0700 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Miss Law.”

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

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

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

“Well, you are older than me—”

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

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

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

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

“Ah, like a disease control?”

“What…?”

“Your policy that you mentioned. Prevention.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Make yourself a likable candidate,” Alice finished.

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Gabrielle asked.

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

Take me with you ♥︎

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

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

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

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

I’m here ♥︎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A signature?

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

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

Gabrielle tensed.

Talib gaped obviously. “How did you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pause.

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

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

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

“And also…” Talib continued.

“Flannery,” Alice finalized.

The failed saint candidate of Libra.

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

Gabrielle shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

Alice paused, glancing at him.

Gabrielle arched a brow.

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

Gabrielle watched him fold ten more cranes in silence.

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

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

* * *

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

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

A protest.

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

NO MORE! NOT OUR WARread one sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Argo?” Gabrielle did a double-take.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, boy.

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

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

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

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

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

Trystan tensed and shared a look with Claire.

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

* * *

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

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

“Roberto?” Gabrielle arched a brow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was around the time Jericho collapsed then.

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

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

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

Politicians…

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

Virgoans…?

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

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

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

“Fine. Jericho knocked in too?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?

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

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

Well, that was certainly a way to put it.

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

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

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

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

Gabrielle resisted yawning.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, saints

Gabrielle resisted scowling as she seated herself.

She hated reporters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whenever you peacekeepers become involved, bad situations always become worse, and readers tend to eat that up,” Hilton finished. “And for the record, I write for the most popular newspaper in Signum, so your comment is an insult.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What else would I care for?”

The plexiglass window groaned as the light behind it shifted.

Born September 1st. Blood type O. Vision, 20/40 in both eyes. Height, 168.3 cm. Weight, 54.4 kg. Left-handed. Personality, INFP-Turbulent. Father, alive. Mother, awakened. Siblings, younger brother and two younger sisters, alive. Occupation, Virgoan Advisor for multiple relations. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you mean?

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

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


“OphiuchUS is not uniting Signum, but slowly pushing countries towards an us versus them mentality!”

A thought piece written by Hilton Tyler

15.5: Second Lieutenant, 0310 Captured

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

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


Genfangen » Captured at 0310 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two taps. Message finished.

What?

Gilbert arched a brow.

Atienna tapped her side three times. Another message.

M. A. N—

“What the hell are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

Asshat stopped, boot still raised.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Yuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up and move,” Asshat ordered.

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

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

Argo

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

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

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

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

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

Saints. Gilbert wished he had a gun.

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

Gilbert …!” Nico whispered from opposite of Atienna.

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

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

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

“Werner?” Nico tried, expression brightening.

Werner stiffened and turned. “ Nico?”

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

Stein spat on the ground. “Aquarians.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilbert’s gaze flitted back to Werner.

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

“I decide what’s pertinent here.”

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

Man, it was good to have him back.

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

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

An Argoan soldier stormed over and slammed the butt of his rifle in Knovak’s stomach, but the Aquarian remained standing firm and unflinching. Gilbert figured the man’s abs were as hard-steel as his guts.

“You want fight?” Knovak challenged, arching a brow and glowering down at the offending Argoan.

“Knovak.” Kramer sighed before muttering something in Aquarian. Stand down, it seemed.

Knovak shrugged and returned in Common, “Yes, ma’am.”

The vehicle reversed and started rolling back in the direction where it’d come from. Gilbert watched it go with a grimace as Asshat saluted and waved. He then turned to Werner and found the man switching between staring at Nico, staring at his subordinates, staring inquisitively at Marionette Engel, and staring at the rifles held steady in the Argoans’ hands. Analyzing, probably.

“Need a debriefing or are you getting debriefed already?” Gilbert joked. “And mind trading me one?”

Werner glanced at him before returning his attention to Nico. “Now is not the time, Gilbert.”

* * *

After walking a kilometer or so further down the road, they were led to a dirt trail through a patch of woods that opened up to a clearing occupied by a singular square building with a tiled roof. It was caged in by a metal fence guarded by two Argoans who allowed them in after the Asshat waved a hand.

A large hall with a floor smeared with a sludge of ice and dirt greeted them upon their entry. The dim overhead lights cast the wooden doors dotting the hall and the uniformed men and women guarding them in an amber sheen. Kleine stared up at the lights, dazedly fascinated.

They were made to wait by one of the doors alongside the Aquarians as the Argoan woman stationed there searched for the keys in her pockets under Asshat’s watchful gaze. A pair of Argoans straddling a wooden, splintering crate came pacing on down the hall. As they passed by, Gilbert was able to catch a glimpse of the crate’s contents. Small rings, bladeless hilts, metal gloves—all lined with large glass tubes.

Proto-conductors, Gilbert realized. He had heard from Werner that one of the crime families in the Twin Cities had been selling them to the Argoans. He’d figured after Ophiuchus had barged into the city that the Argo had been cut off from the supply. He hadn’t seen any of them wielding conductors recently either, so he’d seen it as a small victory. But it seemed like the bastards still had some scraps left after all—

Werner abruptly slipped on the ground and crashed into the pair carrying the crate. The duo stumbled backwards, barely managing to steady themselves. Werner and the crate weren’t as lucky, both hitting the floor in synchrony. The crate burst upon impact, sending the proto-conductors clattering onto the ground. Gilbert gawked at the scene, before shaking his head and extending a hand to Werner. But Nico beat him to it, aiding Werner to his feet as the Argoan pair began to gather the scattered proto-conductors.

“Stop,” came the clipped order from Asshat. He motioned Emil forward and pushed Nico aside. “Check Cold Eye’s pockets.”

“I did, sir,” Emil said. “Before we—”

“Check them again.”

Emil stiffened and nodded, swinging his rifle over his shoulders before searching Werner’s body bottom-up. His hand paused above Werner’s pants pocket, and he pulled out a familiar-looking pair of chocolate bars.

The Argoan lieutenant eyed the things and sneered. “Let him keep it.”

Emil nodded, placing the chocolates back into Werner’s pants pocket. He moved on to searching Werner’s belt. Nothing. As his fingers brushed over Werner’s chest pocket, however, he stiffened. Hesitantly, he reached into it and pulled out the object occupying it. The silver of it glinted even in the dull overhead lights. Werner’s pocket watch.

Asshat motioned for it, and Emil slowly walked over and placed it in his waiting hand. Asshat then examined the watch, turning it over and tossing it in the air. He pcaught the item, pocketed it, and approached Werner. “Seems suspicious, so I’ll keep it.”

Werner’s expression remained impassive, his eyes narrowing only a fraction of a second.

The woman guarding the door finally managed to find the keys, inserted one into the door, and pushed it open. Gilbert found himself and the others swiftly ushered inside. They were greeted with a damp, dim room housing an island table at its center. A jail cell was nestled in each corner, one of them already occupied by a man and a woman.

“Captain!” Kleine exclaimed, shaking out of the stupor that had kept to him during their long trek to this place. “Bergmann!”

Captain Weingartner rose from where he sat cross-legged on the floor of his cell and approached the bars. Incredulity folded over his tired face. “Kleine? Waltz?”

Bergmann peeled out from behind Weingartner and pushed herself beside him. Her face brightened as she registered them but a brief expression of puzzlement took over her as she searched all of their faces. Worry lines crested her brow as the full weight of their predicament seemed to dawn on her. When their gazes met, Gilbert looked away. He knew exactly who she was searching for.

“Seems like you all know each other,” Asshat noted, looking between them all.

No shit.

“He’s my commanding officer,” Werner affirmed, inclining his head in the captain’s direction.

“Well, it’s unsurprising that you all ended up being caught by us then. Birds of a feather flock together,” Asshat responded. “You’ll get to know each other quite well here— and our interrogators.”

Asshat directed Dunya Kramer, Nikita Knovak, and the two other Aquarians into a cell located diagonally across from the captain’s. Gilbert was shoved in one of the remaining empty cells alongside Werner, the rest of his men, and Marionette. Just as Nico was filtering in behind them, however, one of the Argoans grabbed him by the arm and jerked him away.

Gilbert whipped around. “Hey!”

Stein lunged forward only to be sent back into the cell with a kick to the gut. The cell door clicked shut as the keys turned in the lock. The keys were then handed over to Emil who paled.

Werner paced up to the bars. “That is a combat medic. He has no information on the details of our operations. If your methods border on torture, then you will be in direct violation of the Treaty of—”

“Cold Eye, we didn’t fight in your grand war,” the Asshat responded. “We don’t abide by any of your treaties. Just be glad that we’re sensible enough not to have you executed on the spot.” He chuckled wryly. “I’ve heard from down the pipeline that your unit is fond of those things.”

“It’ll be fine, Lieutenant,” Nico responded tightly. “See you soon.”

Werner pulled away from the bars before offering a curt nod. Although his expression was calm and collected as ever, Gilbert could feel the irritation, annoyance, and worry emanating from his rigidly stiff back. The stiffness seemed forced and exaggerated which—Gilbert now realized—was very worrying. As worrying as Nico’s current predicament.

“Keep steady, Nic,” Gilbert managed.

Damnit. They couldn’t catch a break, could they?

Asshat and all of the other Argoans besides Emil exited the room with Nico in tow. As the cellar door clicked shut, Emil seated himself at the center island table and stared at his hands. He then lifted his head and studied Werner.

“You can talk to each other,” Emil murmured, absentmindedly shifting through the papers laid out on the desk. “I won’t say anything. If you need water or food, just ask me.”

Atienna’s magic no doubt.

Werner stared back at him silently before gazing at the door.

Captain Weingartner approached the bars of his cell and spoke quietly across the distance, “Waltz, are you and your men alright?”

Werner peeled his eyes away from the door, surveyed Gilbert and the other men in their crowded cell, before acknowledging the captain with a nod. “Yes, sir.”

Captain Weingartner let out a quiet sigh before he peeked past Werner. “I don’t see Vogt with you. He was a part of your unit. Was he not captured?”

Werner glanced back at the men again, evidently scanning their faces in search of one that was buried half a meter under the earth. His gaze flicked to Marionette Engel who was tucked away in the corner of the cell shielding her face with an upturned collar. Heimler was stationed beside her.

Gilbert frowned, that itching suspicion returning. Had Atienna not told Werner what had happened yet? No, she wasn’t the type from what he’d seen so far. The only person Gilbert knew that would go to nonsensical extremes to withhold information would be…

“Captain, Werner got a head injury midway through the operation,” Gilbert explained as he went up to the bars. “His head is still kinda jumbled, so I was given command, sir.” He side-glanced at the Aquarians jailed across the room before briefing the captain on everything that had occurred since Atienna’s override. Coming across their fallen camp; discovering Marionette Engel, Henning Rath, and the Argoan Emil; engaging with an Argoan unit on their way back home; and, losing Otto Vogt to a crazed Henning Rath.

Werner paled and his lips pulled into a tight line as he digested the information. Shoulders sagging, Bergmann released her iron grip on the bars of the cell and took a step back.

“I see,” Weingartner said after a beat. “Otto’s loss is unfortunate. I’m sorry. He was a good man.” He allowed a solemn, momentary pause of silence to pass before he eyed Marionette standing stiffly in her corner. “It’s fortunate that you caught Engel but we can’t do much with that in our current situation. But the Augen’s infiltration into our military is something that needs to be reported—”

“We aren’t infiltrating anything.” Marionette unfurled herself from her corner and stormed over to the bars to face the captain. “We were here from the very beginning. Things don’t exist the moment you notice them, Captain. And our voices are more common than you think. I’m sure you’ve thought about it too. I mean, look at where our military has gotten us.”

Emil tensed at the island table before glancing nervously between them. “I said you could talk… but if you argue my superiors might overhear and come in and—”

“—and what?” Werner interjected, meeting Emil’s eyes. “You’re offering us empathy and solidarity, but it’s a useless gesture given your position.”

Emil’s brows furrowed, and he rose to a stand. “Look! I’m trying to—”

“We’re the ones in the cells. Look where you’re standing.”

Emil’s shoulders deflated.

“You said that you would get us food and water if we needed it. That would be the best way for you to ‘assist’ us. Anything else is just empty words.”

Gilbert’s stiffened.

Emil stood silent there for a tense moment, holding Werner’s gaze. He then absentmindedly touched his cheek with one hand and plucked the keys from where they rested on the table with the other. “Water and food, right? I’ll see what I can do about that.” And with that, he swept out of the room.

Weingartner stared holes into Werner in the silence that followed. Gilbert didn’t blame him. What had just happened was—

“Waltz,” the captain finally whispered, “that was extremely dangerous.”

Werner placed a hand on Marionette’s shoulder, guiding her away from the bars. “I apologize, sir, but I thought it would be the best route to get a discussion alone.”

“A discussion?”

Werner blinked. “Yes, for us to discuss our escape plan.”

The Aquarians in the cell across from them all turned their heads at this. Stein, who had laid down after kicking the wall several times moments earlier, jerked up to a stand. Fischer straightened to attention. Gilbert wasn’t surprised by their reactions. The two of them were poster boys for Capricornian military might, after all. But—

“An escape plan?” The captain frowned. “Werner, now is not the time for that. We don’t know this area enough to even remotely begin to plan anything.” He sighed with some semblance of understanding. “I’m aware of your injury, Werner, so I’ll chalk it up to—”

“I have a plan, sir. I ask that you trust me—”

Weingartner’s brows furrowed.

Shit. 

Gilbert grabbed Werner’s shoulder and whipped him around. He studied the man’s face before he found his gaze drawn down to the man’s chest pocket. Without hesitation, he reached into it. Something was there, round and cold. Gilbert stiffened, pulled the object out, and held it out to the light. In his palm rested Werner’s pocket watch that the Argoan lieutenant stolen away from him only minutes before. A sleight of hand had probably returned it into Werner’s— not -Werner’s—possession.

“I said ‘another time,’ didn’t I?” Not-Werner pressed, eyes glinting as he reached over and closed Gilbert’s fingers over the pocket watch. “Trust me.”

Gilbert felt a headache coming on.

Saints. Not this bit—


Threshold

“How will I find where this intruder is ‘embedded’?” Werner Waltz inquired. “The information you’ve given me is subjective. Are their specific locations?” He paused, staring down at Lavi and reconsidering his words. “I would appreciate a more concrete explanation.”

Shion’s lips moved but Werner couldn’t hear her. He cautiously approached the stream of light only to be stopped by a hand around the wrist. Lavi.

“Be careful,” she said. “It’s easy to go over the line at this point.”

“I’m aware of the danger,” Werner replied, eyes narrowing. Just as he was fully aware of the questionability of Lavi’s and Shion’s intentions.

Pulling his wrist out from her grip, he continued forward, drawing short just one exact step away from the stream of light. The touch of the stream was warm, but he knew it was not real.

“I said, ‘nothing precise about it.’” Shion’s milky voice carried over the distance. “Sorry. I know that probably bugs the heck out of you but that’s how it is here.”

That was an unsatisfactory response but acceptable given the situation.

“This incident involves saint candidates and the syzygy.” Werner studied her. “I know you’re aware of this.”

“Sure, I’ll tell you about it,” Shion popped with a shrug. “But not now because time’s a ticking—” She reached across the divide towards him, her pale hand catching a white and almost translucent sheen from the light below.

Werner grabbed her wrist to stop her—rather, he attempted to. Her hand phased right through his, and she tapped the pocket watch above his heart.

“—Don’t lose track of it.”

The stream of light in between them burned bright at that moment, blinding Werner and forcing him to reflexively squeeze his eyes shut. When he opened his eyes, it was dark. A jail of trees imprisoned him in a musty clearing. Before him kneeled a bow-headed Magda Rath. His hand was gripping a gun, his finger hovering above the trigger.

This was most likely one of the ‘memories that needed playing out’ that Shion had mentioned. The very concept was borderline fantastical, but standing by and doing nothing was unacceptable. If it was needed, he would play out his role. However, even with this resolve in mind, Werner couldn’t help but note Magda’s trembling shoulders. Ridiculous. There was no need for hesitation—there hadn’t been any when he initially had taken this action. This was not real—

“How can you even do this to people?”

Werner stiffened, feeling a gaze prick his back. He didn’t need to turn his head to identify the speaker. That voice filled with grievance, that question asked in the same tone as always—Olive. The very first question the prince had ever asked him. The question began to buzz back and forth in his mind like a broken record.

Werner’s finger twitched—seemingly without his will—and moved away from the trigger.

“How can you even do this to people?”

It wasn’t a matter of ‘can.’ It was a matter of ‘must.’ The ‘how’ came easily with practice.

Werner forced his finger back to the trigger.

“Have you ever considered a different profession, Werner?  —Another voice, another question that was asked in passing not so long ago. Asked by Atienna, eyes half-lidded as she listened to the click-clacking of the railroad tracks that pointed in the direction of Capricorn. “You know Olive’s been meaning to ask you all this time. I’ve been meaning to ask this to you and Jericho too. But Jericho—I understand his ‘why’. But… I’m wonder what the ‘why’ is with you. Is it because of conscription—the draft? You don’t have a choice?”

Again, his finger moved away from the trigger.

It wasn’t a matter of choice. It was a matter of duty. And also appearances and therefore expectation which all fell in line with that former concept of duty.

You can meet the expectations of your superiors but can’t meet their expectations? What would they think of you doing something like this? 

They would understand—

… but do they really understand? Do they understand why you did thisWhy did you do it?

Werner’s gaze focused on the woman kneeling before him.

Because Magda Rath was a coward and a traitor to Capricorn, putting herself and her family before her country.

No. Why did you really do it?

Because it was his duty.

No. There’s no need for appearances here. They’re deceiving. Why did you do it?

Because he hadn’t wanted to see Gilbert executed for failing to follow orders and for deserting his post.

A cold sweat broke across Werner’s forehead.

So you admit it. When you took away Gilbert’s task, you indirectly performed an act of insubordination. You should’ve reported Gilbert to begin with! You chose a person over your country.

“I told you already so many times, Werner,” came a familiar, hot whisper ghosting the back of his neck, “you shouldn’t associate with useless people or other people will think you’re useless too. Appearances are everything. Useless people will always be put in their place, and you can’t let that become your place.”

In a rational mind, this was fact.

“Are you happy when you disappoint me?” The voice slithered down his back again. “It’s okay. As long as you keep up appearances, I’ll—”

Palms burning, Werner pulled the trigger. The sound was hidden by a boom of thunder overhead. Magda Rath’s entire body spasmed, her head snapping forward crookedly. She swayed for a moment before falling forward. As her body hit the ground, it shattered like glass, the fragments taking the shape of scorpions. Hundreds of them, black-bodied and glistening. The arachnids scrambled over each other’s bodies, writhing in a mass of shining blackness.

Werner frowned, shaking one back into the swarming pile as it crawled up on his shoe. Then, something in the body of that pulsating mass caught his eye: a scorpion with an iridescent, cerulean exoskeleton that shone like a sapphire gem. Its stinger was sharp and dripping a dewdrop of venom.

Why do you always disappoint—

Werner crushed the blue scorpion with the sole of his boot, silencing the daunting thoughts in the process. He scraped off the excess against the earth. And as he did so, the woods fragmented around him again and fell away revealing the familiar empty void occupied by a familiar pair and by a familiar stream of light.

“Wow, that was fast! It looked pretty tough too.” Shion clapped. “But that’s expected. Congratulations, one down!”

Lavi, still standing beside him, peered at him curiously. “Are you okay? How’d it go?”

Werner took one second to collect his thoughts and steady his breathing.

That had been an unpleasant experience. That unpleasant memory—paired with other unpleasant ones—had started bleeding into the ones he had quietly dubbed as ‘pleasant.’ It was only recently that he had started taking the time to separate the two from each other—this was to better handle situations where one of the other five would inevitably receive some of the memories.

That aside, he would rather not experience it again. But if it was necessary, he would do it once more. However…

A whisp of faded green light suddenly sank down from the blackness above his head and sauntered on towards him. He attempted to side-step the whisp but it rushed forward, passing through him and imparting a brief warmth in his chest.

Simultaneously, a sharp pain shot up the back of his neck to his temples where it built in pressure, almost threatening to explode. He jerked his head subtly but did not bow to the pain—not even as it increased ten-fold, exploding at the back of his head.

Lavi peered up at him inquisitively, while Shion frowned.

And then came the images. Photographic, monochrome snapshots that tumbled down inside his mind without order or context:

Gilbert offering a reluctant hand on a moonlit night in front of a lamia tree. Shifting through Argoan corpses only to discover that they were Capricornian. Nico offering company to a riverbank where a conversation with Heimler and Vogt was held. Traversing through a marshland laced with bitter cold in search of the meeting point with Captain Weingartner. Discovering their fallen camp and Emil, Marionette Engel, and Henning Rath among the carnage. Fleeting battle. A conversation with Heimler and Engel. Capture. And then Henning Rath’s eyes full of rage and hatred as he pulled the trigger to a rifle conductor. And finally, Otto Vogt, lying on the ground, covered in dirt, mud, and blood, paling beneath the graying sky. 

The photographs collaged, the blank spots filled, the lines connected.

The images faded as did the pounding pain in Werner’s head but the heavy hanging dread that squeezed his chest remained. It reminded him of the heaviness that would press upon Chance from time to time.

Werner rubbed the stars out of his eyes and drew his fingers to pinch the bridge of his nose. Memories, most likely. Had all of this occurred while he had been down here?

Atienna had…

He didn’t blame her for the developments. She had little experience with these types of things, after all. The sole responsibility lay with him.

“I’m sorry.”

Werner lowered his hand and registered Shion wearing a somber expression.

“Atienna must’ve been in an override while you were down here. She’s probably fallen out of it since you removed part of the intruder— maybe,” Shion elaborated. “All of that”—she pointed to a whisp of vitae sauntering down from above and joining the river of light—“must’ve come down because of it… I’m really sorry about Otto. About your friend.”

Werner straightened himself and replied evenly, “It’s not unexpected in this occupation. And he was my subordinate—”

Another memory flitted into his mind:

Otto, approaching him with a sloppily wrapped bundle of mint-smelling leaves in the middle of the night when they were stationed in unoccupied territory. “I heard that you were starting to have migraines again,” he’d said. “These… act as anti-inflammatory agents. It might help until we can get back. I promise that I know what I’m talking about. Well, my parents… Er, nevermind, sir. Just. Here. Take it… please? With all due respect, sir.” 

The black abyss began to blur and fragment as the memory with Otto began to solidify within Werner’s mind—

No. Werner shook his head, focusing on the present. He knew he had to ground himself. It was easy to slip here, as Shion had said—Shion who had someone known he’d received these memories. Shion who’d known of Atienna just as she’d known of him.

“I’ve been trying to make it back up there for a very long time,” said Lavi suddenly, twirling a lock of hair. “Only a little bit of me ever gets out, so it’s kinda frustrating to see you guys come here and leave… but that’s the cycle.”

Cycle… Briefly, Werner wondered if Otto’s vitae had somehow made it down to this place and if it would enter that glowing stream. A wishful, ridiculous thought.

Abruptly, out from the stream only five meters down from where Shion stood blossomed a small sapling made of vibrant, white light. That sapling spiraled upwards, blooming out into a large, white, glowing tree that seemed to be at least ten stories tall. Its trunk was thick, its branches reaching far across the black abyss.

The Great Tree of Virgo?

Lavi hummed. “That tree in Virgo was birthed from a vitae stream, so it’s not surprising to see it here. It has nothing to do with Atienna or your presence, if you were thinking about that.”

A full moon blinked into existence just behind the tree’s branches. The circle of light burned blue and consumed the entire skyline of the abyss, its rays burning at the touch, its pressure suffocating, heavy.

“Now that…” Lavi peered at him. “Probably has to do with you.”

Shion grimaced and shielded herself from the brightness as Werner stared up at it. From this distance, it reminded him of an eye.


[…]

In conclusion, due to their common, shared enemy found at the southern border of Signum, Capricorn and Aquarius hold not only a significant relationship that serves as a cornerstone of peace within Signum but also hold the potential for an alliance that may change the tide of both countries for years to come. With the military might of both, the encroaching country of Argo will surely falter.

Therefore, I ask the Grand Military Generals and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, the Kaiser, to consider putting forth a request for a mutually beneficial military dual pact with Aquarius.

Proposal: DENIED by the Grand Kaiser Kafke Netzche

Proposal on Southern Border Joint Military Efforts, submitted by Fritz von Spiel

Proposal on Southern Border Joint Military Efforts, submitted by Fritz von Spiel

15.4: Advisor, 0101 Distance Pain

Re-cap:

Atienna is locked in an override with Werner and scours the unoccupied territory with Werner’s unit in attempt to meet up with Captain Weigartner for a pincering operation against the Argoans.

Atienna and Werner’s unit discover that the meeting point camp that they were supposed to the captain at, however, has been decimated. The Verbudnene Augen leader Marionette Engel, a fellow Capricornian soldier named Henning Rath, and an Argoan named Emil are the only found survivors. As the group heads back to camp to report their findings, they are ambushed by Argoans. And although they win the battle, Otto Vogt is felled not by an enemy weapon but by fellow Capricornian soldier Henning Rath. The cracks in the Capricornian army have become clear.

While of this has been unfolding, an antagonistic voice pounds at the back of Atienna’s mind.


Fernweh » Distance pain at 0101 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

No matter how hard Atienna scrubbed, the blood wouldn’t come off. Rubbing her gloves against the overgrowth eating away at the stream bank failed her as did plunging her gloved hands into the stream’s icy depths. All it did was numb her hands to the point where they felt as if they belonged to another. Which they did.

It was nighttime now. She and Werner’s unit were almost within reach of Capricorn. “About half a day’s walk,” Gilbert had said before they had settled here for the night. They had already passed the lamia trees crowning the area that greeted her at the beginning of the override, and now they had found camp beside a thin stream nestled within a patch of woods.

Nico, Gilbert, Marionette, Emil, and Werner’s subordinates were a meter back behind a line of trees. Atienna had started a campfire for them before secluding herself to this area. “To refill my flask,” she’d told them, gently dissuading Nico when he’d offered to accompany her.

A waxing gibbous moon hung low in the sky, spreading its quiet blue light through the branches weeping overhead. It spilled along the rippling waters, giving the illusion that the river itself was emitting light. The trickle was quiet, crystalline, much like the streams back home.

Their walk to this scenic place had been cloaked in absolute, respectful, somber silence—something akin to a funerary march. They had left Otto’s body in a shallow grave marked by his conducting rifle. Apparently, there existed a special Capricornian division that would come back along these tracks, exhume Otto’s body, and return him home.

Home…

Atienna scrubbed her gloved hands in the water again. When she pulled them back out, the moonlight illuminated the red caked in between the leather. It was different from fighting in the Night Circle—the blood easily washed away from her bare hands there, and there was no death there either. Only hurt pride.

So, the best thing to do would be to peel away these gloves and do away with them altogether. But Werner wouldn’t like that very much and…

How cruel, Atienna thought, for her to wash away Otto like this.

But that was how she was. Always watching from afar and washing her hands of things when they became unpleasant. Only involving herself when it affected the people close to her or when she was pushed to the edge. Playing by curiosity otherwise. Curiously delving into mysteries—into the appendix—when it was a distant affair. But as soon as it was something close to the heart, averting her eyes and peeling away. 

But she was moving instead of remaining still—

—but was she really? And were the results any better?

Otto again flashed into Atienna’s mind. She had heard about people dying every day—read about it, saw it through the eyes of the others. But she supposed that until it was someone one knew, until it was someone one loved, it was all just noise, ink on paper, a distant look through another’s eyes.

And she had seen so clearly with Werner’s eyes at that moment. Even now. Everything defined, detailed, crystalline: Otto’s slowly paling face, his bluing lips, his searching eyes. He must have been utterly terrified, she thought. Dying in front of people he’d probably only known for a handful of months. Dying away from his family.

Did she even know Otto that well to be feeling like this?

Werner did. Diligently attending training exercises, and a quiet presence in the trenches—that was Otto. A space filled. And that was enough.

Oh, Werner. He would blame himself, Atienna knew. But she didn’t know that—

Why was she always feigning ignorance? Didn’t she know everything?

No, she only wished she did.

No, she chose to be ignorant. Knowledgeable when pleasant, selectively ignorant when unpleasant—

“Isn’t that right, Miss Imamu?”

Atienna’s blood ran cold at the familiar voice as red spilled on down towards her from upstream. As she followed that line of red upwards, dread began to build in her stomach. The first thing Atienna saw were her eyes, wide open and blue. Then Atienna saw her throat, bulleted through with a small hole and pouring out red into the blue. 

In the frigid moonlight, Yulia Kriska lay across a rock bed jutting up from the waters. Her ashen face was several shades paler than Otto’s had been, but her eyes were sharp and terrifyingly clear. Despite the odd angle her neck was bent at, she was able to crane her head towards Atienna.

Atienna shot up to a stand.

It was the same thing she had seen when she had been getting water with Nico at the stream bank just the other day. The same thing that appeared in her nightmares. A ghost; a mirage; a trick of the mind possibly due to the override or trauma; an illusion —Atienna knew this. But despite all logic and reason, she couldn’t help but stumble backwards as her heart thundered.

“You pushed me into this,” Yulia said, her voice hollow and gravelly. “I had no other choice.” She began to pull herself forwards along the shallow waters—arms bent at inhuman angles. “ Wecould’ve been free, but you stole my choice from me. Even though you’re just like me.” Her bones cracked as she dragged herself closer and closer. “Did it feel good to win against me? Did it feel good to be ‘right’?”

Atienna took another step backwards, slipped on mud, and fell flat on her back.

“You!” Yulia hissed even closer now—so close that Atienna could see her breath fogging up the air. “ You— ” 

A pale hand wrapped around Atienna’s ankle. Heart pounding, she followed that pale hand to a pale arm to a pale and blemishless neck, to a round and painfully youthful face.

“—took everything from us,” Kovich seethed.

Atienna swallowed a scream, squeezed her eyes shut, and kicked hard. As soon as the grip around her ankle fell away, she jumped to her feet, arms raised, body tense, eyes open. But—

—there was one. Nothing. Just the silent, quiet stream bathing in moonlight and the trees stretching up to the sky like hands.

The hairs on the back of Atienna’s neck stood on end.

That had felt like a synchronization reminiscent of when she had first started crossing over with the other six. No, it was nothing like that. Here, she was alone. Here, there was no one to experience that with her.

A result of the prolonged override.

Was it…?

All Atienna wanted to do was run into someone’s arms—to Sefu who was always ready at request, to Cadence who would make her laugh, to Werner who would offer her reason and calm, to Maria who would highlight the minisculity of her problems, to Olive who would offer her company, to Jericho who would always listen—but that was impossible in the present situation. And she couldn’t run to Gilbert or any of Werner’s subordinates.

Atienna drifted back into the direction of camp but paused as a thick bush overgrowing with white, star-shaped flowers caught her eye. Absentmindedly, she crouched down by the thrush and inspected the flora. After a moment of consideration, she sank to her knees and crawled into a small space beneath the brambles. Once hidden away, she tucked her knees beneath her chin and buried her head.

In her childhood, she would frequently do this with Safiyah and Bachiru—stowing away into the shrubberies around the meeting halls of Virgo, telling stories, whispering to each other in the damp quiet. Maria too would do this all of the time, Atienna recalled. Yes, Maria and her dear—who? Atienna couldn’t recall at the moment—her mind was so muddled.

Why did she even leave Virgo, to begin with? What had she hoped she could accomplish? Every choice she’d made since putting Usian down had led to terrible outcomes. Even her choice to handle Usian and Virgo’s withdrawal from isolation was questionable. And all of those choices—she had made on her own. But of course now—like always—she was trying to distance herself from her choices. Regrets? Pathetic. 

It was so lonely. She hated it.

Her father’s warm face, her mother’s gentle eyes, her brother’s boisterous laugh, and her sisters’ mischievous giggles as they ran around the estate—those images seeped into the edges of Atienna’s mind.

She missed home. She just wanted to go back, to return to her book reading in the gardens, to return to her visiting the Great Tree weekly and resting her head on her mother’s lap. Even if it meant turning back to the days where she would lift her fists in the Night Circle. 

What…?

Was that what she really wanted? What she truly missed? No, as much as she missed her family, she fearedreturning to Virgo. She didn’t want to be the only one out of all six of them who remained unchanged, unmoving. Right, all she wanted right now to be anywhere else but here—here where Werner, Gilbert, Nico, Klaus, Otto, and the others spent half of their lives. It was selfish but there was a difference. Still, she was avoiding things again.

Well if she didn’t want to be here and she didn’t want to be there, where exactly did she want to be? Want, want, want, want. And the only way to achieve what was desired was to choose the extreme. 

Why couldn’t there be a path down the middle? If there had been a path like that available maybe then Otto… Yulia… Usian… her mother…

Tears leaked from Atienna’s eyes before she could stop them. They spilled out molten hot, and she put out her hands to catch them. She had not spilled tears for herself in some time, she realized. She didn’t think she’d ever done so. Her tears were usually for someone else, and the last time she had cried for someone else was six years ago after her mother had…

No, she didn’t want to think about that.

“Hey, what are you doing under there—oh… Shit.”

Atienna startled and looked up. She’d been so distracted by her own thoughts that she hadn’t even noticed she had been approached and discovered. What a dangerous position to be in if it wasn’t a familiar face that was looking down at her.

Gilbert stared, one hand prying up branches to her hiding place, the other finding repose on his holster. “Uh… You sure you don’t want me to try hitting you over the head to see if that works? Don’t blame you for not wanting to be here.”

Atienna couldn’t help but chuckle. “Is… that how you usually solve your problems, Gilbert?”

Gilbert gave a noncommittal grunt, sliding himself beside her and kicking up his boots.

His nonchalant directness didn’t surprise her, although she felt shy of it. She wiped her cheeks and hid her face. “This is… a bit embarrassing. I’m sorry. I feel like a child.”

“Nah, you’re pretty good for seeing your first body.” He ripped a flower from one of the brambles hanging overhead and inspected it. “You should see half of the floppies they send here—new recruits, I mean. Get a bit of blood on their uniforms and they’re asking for bleach. Otto was the same. Grew into it though.”

Atienna studied the flower in his hand and thought of OttoAfter a beat, she drew, “This… is not the first time I’ve seen something like this.”

Gilbert squinted at her, dropped the petals. “And… what exactly do you work as again?”

Atienna hesitated but she didn’t quite know why. Although Werner did not admit it, he trusted Gilbert wholeheartedly—and yet, an odd sort of apprehension unfurled in Atienna’s chest at the prospect of divulging everything to him. A flitting nervousness. The type of feeling that would only blossom in her chest when speaking to a stranger.

“I’m an advisor,” she finally said, “for a Virgoan diplomat.”

Gilbert’s eyes widened, and he swore under his breath. “No wonder you’re good with words. Did some weird silver-tongued thing to that Argoan Emil too… I get what Werner means now by your happy-go-lucky possession group being a security issue.”

Atienna suspected that Gilbert’s reaction would be much more dramatic if he realized Olive was a….? Prince—Olive was an Ariesian prince.

There it was again. That fleeting feeling.

“… I heard from Werner that you don’t like them very much. People in my profession, I mean.” Atienna plucked one of the fallen petals from the ground. “Would it reassure you if I told you that I don’t have a direct influence over anything?”

“That’s what they all say. Ask ‘em to change something and they say their hands are tied—either the opposition is pushing back, it’s too much money, or it’s too complex to do.”

Oh. Atienna looked away. She supposed he had a point.

Gilbert sighed and rummaged for something in his pocket before pulling out two rectangular bars wrapped in wax paper. He placed them in her hand. “Here.”

She turned them over and inspected the golden print on brown there. Schokolade.

“Werner’s sister and mother sent these down for him. He didn’t want it, so I stole it from him,” Gilbert explained. “Guys out here would kill for this stuff.”

“Comfort food,” Atienna surmised.

“Go ahead.”

She hesitated before carefully peeling away the wrapping and breaking off one of the six square chocolate blocks. She popped it into her mouth, and her tongue immediately curled. Wincing, she quickly chewed and swallowed.

“Oh, that must be the bitter chocolate.” Gilbert snorted. “His mom’s kind of a health nut. The other bar’s from his sister. Probably milk chocolate if that suits you better.”

“I think I’m satisfied…” Atienna drew, folding the wrapper over itself and handing both bars back to him. “I appreciate your kindness.”

“Keep them.”

Atienna hesitated again before moving to tuck the bars into her front pocket. She paused as she felt something already stored there—round, slender, smooth. The pocket watch, she realized. She reverently pulled her hand away before storing the candies in Werner’s pants pockets instead.

“I can see why Werner relies on you.”

Gilbert stiffened, scoffed. “Trying to butter me up now?”

“He does rely on you, Gilbert,” Atienna murmured, lips curving upwards. A distant memory that was not her own clouded the edges of her mind. Although the image was not clear, the feeling was. “He’s… very grateful for you just being there. Truly.” And because Werner had felt this way, Atienna felt the same. The fleeting feeling from earlier faded with the thought.

“Yeah, well….” Gilbert shrugged with a grimace—perhaps even a slight flush. “I owe him a lot, so it’s good to know that I’m making good on dues.” He sighed. “Third time I’m talking to someone who looks like Werner but isn’t, and I’m still not used to it.”

Humming, Atienna took a sip of Werner’s canteen to wash the bitter taste out from her mouth. “If you don’t mind me speaking about this… You’ve known each other since childhood, right?”

“Yeah. My mom worked as a cleaning lady for his parents.” Gilbert scoffed. “I helped my mom out from time-to-time. ‘Course Werner’d always shove me to the side because I didn’t do a good enough job. Honestly, the guy’s so ‘straight-laced’ that the military probably doesn’t even have to pay him to be out here… He was originally supposed to do stuff in the capital but here he is…”

A complicated friendship. Perhaps as complicated as Cadence’s and Nico’s. Atienna realized she was lucky to have an uncomplicated one with Safiyah.

“You’re a woman of many words.”

Atienna lifted her head, offering a wan smile. “And you’re a man of few.”

Gilbert regarded her before muffled shouting in the direction of camp behind them caused a frown to crease his face. He sighed, getting on his knees and then crawling out of their hiding place. “Can’t leave them alone for one minute,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

He disappeared into the moonlight, his footsteps fading in the direction of camp. The silence that he left did not last long. A stomp of boots crunched a minute afterwards and was followed by hushed whispers. Atienna peered through the spaces between the leaves and made out two figures creeping along the water’s edge. A tall man with red hair and a woman with brown curls—Friedhelm Heimler and Marionette Engel. There was little space between them, and their expressions were tight, their hand gestures animated. Atienna, however, could not overhear them from this distance. Although Werner’s sight was sharp, it appeared that his sense of hearing was not.

Atienna hesitated before slinking quietly through the bushes and approaching them from behind. She made sure not to step on any fallen branches nor any frosted patches dusting the earth. The feat was a bit harder carrying Werner’s weight but she managed to keep to the shadows beneath the overhanging trees. Friedhelm and Marionette continued conversing, bodies turned towards the river.

“— murdered Vogt!” Friedhelm hissed. The moonlight accented the age-lines on his face. “What in saint’s name is going on?”

Marionette pulled away from him, turning away from the river. “I don’t know—” She stopped short as she stared out into the darkness in Atienna’s direction.

Mildly impressed, Atienna peeled out from the dark. “What appears to be the issue here, Friedhelm?”

Friedhelm stiffened, took a step back, shared a look with Marionette before grabbing her arm. “Sorry, sir. Miss Engel said she needed to use the restroom. I—”

“And you’re planning to watch her?”—it did feel a bit nice to be more direct, Atienna thought, although it still seemed too sharp.

Friedhelm cleared his throat. He pushed Marionette roughly towards the thrushes and jerked his head. “Make it quick, Engel.”

Marionette sent Friedhelm a callous look before studying Atienna. She then dipped behind the shrubberies a meter away, tucked into a squat, and went silent. The noise from the trickling stream gave her some privacy.

“How are you feeling, sir?”

Atienna turned to Friedhelm, unsurprised. It was a question asked over and over, each inquirer expecting a different answer. How troubling.

“Er, sorry, if this is overstepping my bounds, sir, but I was just curious. My son was a combat medic, you see. He said head injuries were the worst type.”

Hm. Werner had deemed it unnecessary to investigate why Friedhelm Heimler had decided to re-enlist in the Capricornian army despite holding anti-militaristic views. This was because the military had approved Friedhelm, and that protocol was sufficient. Werner was still straight-laced and law-abiding despite everything, and Atienna found that charming. However, she personally deemed investigation very necessary. Friedhelm’s motivations were… quite curious. Atienna’s fingers itched at the thought—wait.  Was a combat medic,” he said? Perhaps, it would be best to approach this in a Cadence-like manner.

“I… appreciate your concern, Friedhelm. I’m feeling alright.” She side-glanced at him. “How are you feeling? After that…”

He side-glanced back at her. She could see the gears in his head turning, calculating.

“I’m alright, sir. Thank you for asking.”

“You mentioned your son was a combat medic,” Atienna continued, trying her best to keep the hesitation out of her voice. “I recall reading that he was serving in the Border Force. My memory is still fuzzy…” She took note of the way his eyes sharpened again, though they appeared pained. “Is your son serving out here with us?”

Friedhelm’s lips pulled tight, his gaze flicking left towards nothing. “He passed away, sir. During the border conflict with Aquarius.”

A coldness gripped Atienna’s chest tight and squeezed. “I… I’m sorry. I didn’t realize… I’m sorry for bringing up something painful.”

It had been recent too. The wound of having his son carved out from his life was still exposed, fresh—perhaps even festering.

“Not bringing it up doesn’t change the fact that it happened,” he interjected, bending down to pick up a rock at the stream’s edge. “With all due respect, sir.”

Truth and… motive. 

Their gazes met. The whites of his eyes seemed to accentuate the black of his pupils. Out of habit, Atienna looked away.

“I thought I was fighting in that war—the Reservoir War—so my son wouldn’t have to fight in another one.” He threw the rock in his hand. It skipped once across the shallow waters. “But look what happened. We’re still fighting. I’ve been at this for years, so I know how it’s going to turn out. If we win whatever piece of land that’s here, they’ll just send us out again. It’s like a drug.” He scoffed. “Cheers to living to fight another day in another man’s war.”

It seemed as if he was very steadfast in his beliefs. And it all appeared to have been sparked by— “I truly am sorry, Friedhelm, for what happened to your son…”

Friedhelm’s eyes glinted again, but then he snorted, undignified. “What are you saying, sir? I served with your father during the Reservoir War. I’m sure he feels the same way….” He paused. “Except you’re still alive. Just think about how your father feels with you out here.”

Atienna wondered about that.

“I mean, look at what happened just now to… to Vogt. What are you going to tell his parents…? No parent should outlive their child.”

Atienna gazed down into her distorted reflection in the stream.

“And before that too. With you. You’re still young in my book, sir. In your current state… it’s only going to get harder for you.”

A rustle from the shrubberies detracted Atienna’s attention. She glanced to the side and found Marionette peeling out from the shadows.

Atienna regarded the woman for a moment before turning to Friedhelm and asking quietly, “Are you thinking of taking advantage of my current condition, Friedhelm?”

Glistening sweat began to trail down the man’s face immediately. “A-Advantage, sir? I apologize if I’ve overstepped my bounds. I was merely stating my opinion—”

Atienna glanced back at Marionette who had stopped short in her tracks. The woman’s stiffness reminded Atienna of the aghast surprise that would grace her younger sisters’ faces when she would catch them sneaking out from their chambers late at night.

“Do you think my mental faculties are so far gone from my injury that you could easily sway me? What do you think influencing me as I am now will even do?” Atienna turned back to face Friedhelm whose face was white. “You’re… part of the Verbundene Augen, aren’t you, Friedhelm? You tried to hide Miss Engel from us when you found her earlier. Perhaps… you knew she was there—”

Friedhelm reached for the pistol strapped at his waist, ignoring Marionette’s hiss of alarm. Before he could pull out the weapon, however, Atienna placed a hand over his—gentle but firm.

“Please don’t be too rash, Friedhelm,” she said, meeting his eyes. “It would be a bit strange if you went against your beliefs right now and drew your weapon, don’t you think? Moral beliefs aside, given your suspicious behavior earlier… I don’t think it would end very pleasantly for you. Gilbert is very sharp.”

Friedhelm stiffened.

“While I believe you have the right to your own beliefs, what you do with those beliefs… is a different matter, don’t you think?” Atienna paused in thought, before continuing slowly, “But right now I’m just trying to understand what’s happened here. Believe me. Many people have lost their lives, and I think it would be sad if we didn’t uncover the why.”

Then the anger came to Atiennathe anger that this man had almost lifted a finger against someone dear to her. Without hesitation, even. If Cadence or Olive had been here in her place instead, what would have happened? This man was a coward attempting to draw a weapon against someone whom he thought was not at full mental capacity. 

Atienna, however, swallowed the bitter pill and waited for Friedhelm to release his weapon before she released his hand. “What were you planning here?”

Silence filled in the lapse in their conversation. Friedhelm glanced past her shoulder towards Marionette.

After a beat, he responded tightly, “Sir, it was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration. I swear on my blood. This is my country—I love it—and I’ve served here far too long to do it any harm.”

“Henning Rath… the other soldier you found… he was a part of the movement too,” Atienna surmised, “wasn’t he? There are many more of you in the Capricornian Army.”

Friedhelm hesitated, eyed Marionette.

“I understand your hesitation. But as I said, Friedhelm, all I want right now is to understand. Lack of understanding is what causes these problems, don’t you think? Politics can wait. It’s only fair to Otto.” —Otto whom Friedhelm might have viewed as a surrogate.

Now Friedhelm looked away. “I received information from a Twin Cities broker about a route here that wasn’t traveled by the Argoans or us, so I told Miss Engel and she took a small group of our members along that route for our demonstration.” He turned back to face her. “I was supposed to meet with them when we met up with the captain for the operation. Then, our members were supposed to join hands and stand together in an act of solidarity, sir. I promise. We weren’t breaking any laws with this demonstration.” He shook his head before frowning and Marionette. “What happened with Rath and Otto, what happened with our meeting point—what the hell was thatMari?”

Marionette studied Atienna hesitantly. The stream seemed to roar behind them.

Finally, the woman said, “I already told you what happened. One of the ones in your division took the first shot…” Her expression was tight yet flat. “I’m not sure how they found out about us. But one of ours retaliated… The situation got out of hand. And that was the result.”

Moment passion could drive people to such extremes—Atienna knew this well. She had experienced this herself six years ago in front of the Great Tree. Words, ideas, or weapons—each could lead to conflict, but one was more dangerous than the others.

Atienna weighed the truthfulness of Marionette’s words before she tried, “When Gilbert—Second Lieutenant Wolff—asked you earlier, you said that this attack happened two days before we arrived.”

Marionette’s brow twitched.

“Would it be a correct assumption to say that you were stretching the truth? To make us think that it had been too long for us to chase after your members that might’ve escaped…?” Upon noticing Marionette’s apprehension, Atienna elaborated, “This is for the sake of the people in your movement too. This is a dangerous place for them to be wandering around, don’t you think? So if they’re closer than we believe, we might be able to retrieve them before someone else does…”

Marionette hesitated. “… I think it was just a day before you came.”

The timeline lined up.

“There was a member of your group dressed in Argoan uniforms,” Atienna continued. “Was this also part of your demonstration?

Friedhelm and Marionette exchanged looks of confusion.

Atienna elaborated, “The Argoans that we encountered several days before coming to Captain Weingartner’s camp—right before I was injured… there was a Capricornian among them. One of the members of your group may have disguised herself as… the enemy. I’m still wondering the ‘why’.”

What?” Marionette’s eyes widened. “You and your second lieutenant never mentioned this to me—”

“And you never mentioned that you had fellow Augen members in this division, Miss Engel, and you stretched the truth on when your conflict with the captain happened. And—”

And this would’ve never happened if their Augen group hadn’t been there.

Refraining from speaking those unpleasant thoughts, Atienna let out a quiet breath. “But I don’t believe in a lie for a lie or an eye for an eye… So we should try to find an understanding as I said. I don’t believe it would make sense for highly-trained soldiers to attack so rashly nor do I believe that it would make sense for members of an anti-military peace movement to react violently—not unless something pushed them to that point.”

Another encompassing silence.

Marionette finally said, “Argo wasn’t included in our demonstration plan, though a group of them had the misfortune of coming across us during the shootout and got pulled in.” She folded her arms. “But… Recently, I’ve heard rumors. Maybe Capricorn restarted the Watch but made it domestic. Spying on citizens and sewing unrest in organizations that oppose them. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of your soldiers stationed at the camp was involved in something like that. Or maybe even that ‘member of ours’ that you mentioned.”

Oh, conspiracy… not even questioning her own people. Typical. 

Marionette’s nails dug into the skin of her forearm. “Who was it? The woman you found—can you describe her to me?”

Oh. She had more reason than that.

“…The Capricornian was a young woman—perhaps, mid-twenties,” Atienna replied. “She was blonde… And her fingernails painted with your movement’s symbol.”

Marionette sighed. “It must be Angelika… She’s from Grünland and came here with me for the demonstration. I lost sight of her during the shootout at the camp… “ She glanced at Friedhelm. “You wouldn’t know her, Friedhelm. She was a new recruit.”

So, that lowered the possibility of it being an Argoan machination.

Marionette shook her head. “I have no idea what Angelika was doing. She must have panicked or…” She let out a quiet sigh. “Since Angelica isn’t with you, then…”

“She…” Atienna glanced at Friedhelm. “I don’t quite recall, but I believe it may have been a suicide…”

“You mean the Argoan that attacked me?” Friedhelm’s brows rose. “The one that cut you?” He turned to face the other woman. “Mari, she bit her own tongue off.” His gaze darkened. “If you’re moving onto tactics like that—”

Marionette paled. “What…? Don’t be ridiculous. I already told you. I would never ask them to do something like that.”

“Then what was that with Rath and Angelika?” Friedhelm hissed.

And Otto…

“I don’t know,” Marionette replied quietly before shaking her head. “It just got out of hand.”

It was a bit startling to see Friedhelm speak so vehemently, Atienna thought. His docility seemed to have been just a facade. That aside, this was rather perplexing. Marionette didn’t seem to be untruthful here…

“Lieutenant Waltz, they—we—were only trying to… stand up for our rights, for our children, for our country. Believe me. Whatever happened here wasn’t supposed to happen,” Friedhelm urged. “If you explain it to the higher-ups then maybe…”

Feeling a frown press against her lips, Atienna turned to the man but then froze. She couldn’t recall his name. She knew she had known it just a moment before because Werner had known it. But as she continued to stare at the man whose name she could not recall, she realized she could also not recall a single thing about him other than the information he’d just given her regarding his son and his beliefs. Nothing from when he’d joined Werner’s unit, nothing about what he’d been doing serving in Werner’s unit these past few months.

Atienna swallowed, heart racing. Olive had mentioned in passing that he’d lost the ability to understand and speak Capricornian during his override of Werner several months prior. His knowledge—perhaps memory—had been snipped off cleanly during that period. Olive also had said that his comprehension of Capricornian had returned once the override had ended. Knowledge—sewn back on.

Atienna wondered faintly—did overrides lead to a slow and complete disconnect with the knowledge and memories of the others?

How frightening…

Was that really how she felt? Or was she relieved at no longer being put under the pressure of the memories of those who were constantly making her choose? All choices led to misfortune. There was no such thing as satisfaction. 

Relieved ‘at no longer having the others forcing her to choose’…? What…?

And then it dawned on Atienna.

“Who… are you…?” she whispered in reserved disbelief, staring past the shoulder of the man whose name she could not recall and into the moon-streaked woods.

That voice inside her head—although it sounded like it—was not her own. She knew this with absolute certainty. It did not belong to any of the others either.

That was ridiculous. What voice would it be if not her own?

Yes, it was a bit of a stretch. Perhaps it was that she’d gotten so used to the others buzzing around inside of her head that she had forgotten what it’d felt like to be alone with her own thoughts. She supposed it was a relief—

Exactly. 

There it was again. The misstep. The incorrect assumption. The truth of the matter was that it was the five who were pushing her forward. Without them, she knew she would remain firmly rooted to the ground. No different from The Great Tree, eternally growing. That was one of the reasons why she needed them. She was glad that they were making her choose.

I wouldn’t be me, she thought, if I didn’t think like this. I would like it if you didn’t test me like this… whoever you are. 

There was a beat of silence and her ears rang.

She really was a clever one. 

Atienna’s chest tightened.

Cvetka was right about you.

Cvetka? Atienna’s mind raced. Cvetka’s employer— 

“Er… sir…? I’m Friedhelm Heimler.” The ginger-haired soldier whose name she had forgotten gestured to himself in front of her. “Do you not recognize me? Should I get Fabrizzio or Brandt?”

The memory came back instantly but Atienna was in no state to feel relieved.

When did you get here? Atienna’s eyes narrowed. Her nerves lit on fire as she suddenly became hyperaware of both Friedhelm’s and Marionette’s un-averted gazes. What are you trying to do? 

Why are you acting like I’m doing something? It’s their choice and their actions. Your actions. You all did this to yourselves. 

‘Their’ choice? ‘Their’ actions? Whose? No, those words had been bait. A distraction. What she needed to focus on was the important facts:

Cvetka’s employer. Saint candidacy, which was a possible criterion for conducting without a conductor. Werner’s cut. The blue cracks spreading along Rath’s blade when he’d attacked Wilhelm. Displaced Capricornians. The misplaced anger. These thoughts that were not her own. How terrifying it would be if these were all connected.

Oh, you really are clever.

All this speaking of ‘cleverness’—Atienna was certain that this wasn’t so much as her own cleverness as this intruder’s foolishness.

Who do you think you are calling me foolish? The thought seemed to boom out from all around her—a scraping voice of vehement. Take a good look at yourself!

The world suddenly spun, the moonlight sheering through the trees and burning her skin silver. The light painted the branches white in a way that made them reminiscent of the ever-glowing Great Tree. The branches looked like they were scratching across the clearing towards her. A suffocating feeling like she was being watched crept along her spine as she buckled beneath the overwhelming feeling of dread.

Friedhelm caught her. “S-Sir?”

Calling me a fool when you go skirting around hard decisions and expecting your choice to be the righteous one that’ll satisfy everyone. A person like you can never be happy nor can the people around you ever be happy. Even the choice of happiness is just too much for someone like you to even bear. And that will just drag down everyone else around you.

Atienna’s head pounded. Her mind reeled. How deep did this intrusion go?

I don’t need you highlighting my flaws, Atienna managed calmly. I know exactly how I am. More than you do.

Then that makes everything you do… the voice continued. And Atienna’s heart plummeted in her chest as the venomous words rang out in her mother’s gentle, warm tone— …so much worse.

Friedhelm startled at something past her shoulder. The white of his eyes glowed in the moonlight, and his lips pulled back into a grimace. Tensing, Atienna whipped around and froze. Out from the trees in the direction of camp slinked men and women garbed in Argoan uniforms. They peeled out from the dark, rifles ready and aimed, eyes sharp and murderous.

So close to the border…?

Atienna tensed. Too many. She couldn’t risk injuring Werner like this. She couldn’t face them alone.

And you will continue to be alone. That’s what happens to people like you. You can never be happy because you refuse to make a choice—

No… She did make choices. With Usian. With… Yulia.

What’s the point of making a choice when you start pulling back at the last moment?

Atienna bit the inside of her cheek as her fingers began to itch. She stopped herself before the heat of the moment possessed her, however, and lifted her hands into the air Friedhelm and Marionette eyed followed suit.

But it’s okay. I will continue to watch over you even though you’re all so ugly. 

One of the Argoans approached her and nudged the tip of his rifle to her back. The silent ‘ move’ was clear. The Argoans led Atienna back through the woods at gun-point along with Friedhelm and Marionette.

The voice remained silent all the while, but Atienna still felt nauseous.

Despite their gradual approach to the warm firelight of camp, Atienna felt only coldness in her chest. Once they arrived, they found another ring of Argoan soldiers interspersed among the rolled-out sleeping bags dotting the trodden ground.

Gilbert was bound, gagged, and kneeling at the center of the clearing beside the smoldering campfire as were all of Werner’s subordinates. The formerly bound Argoan Emil was standing behind the group and holding a rifle. When he met Atienna’s gaze, he tensed and looked away towards a tall, thin man kicking up dirt into the campfire.

When that man noticed Atienna’s guided approach, he turned and eyed the medals on her uniform. Then, he sneered. “You must be Werner Waltz. I’ve heard many things about you, Cold Eye. Everyone keeps their head low back home because of you. But look at you now. You can’t even look at me in my eyes!”

Oh dear... Atienna stared at Gilbert past the Argoan’s head. She didn’t think she had time to deal with someone like this. There were more pressing matters at hand.

The man spat in the dirt and jeered. “All you Capricornian pigs should be happy. As of today, you’re Argoan property.”

15.3: Lance Corporal, 0610 Enemy Encounter

Re-cap:

Atienna is locked in an override over Werner. After discovering that a Capricornian was disguised among their Argoan attackers, she follows Gilbert’s lead to complete the mission assigned to them–to meet with Captain Weingartner in the unoccuppied territory. As they near their point of destination, however, they find that the captain’s camp has been ransacked and three survivors remain: an Argoan named Emil, a fellow Capricornian soldier, and Marionette Engel of the Verbundene Augen movement.

Meanwhile, Werner finds him at the supposed threshold of life and death where he untangles himself from a memory only to encounter Lavi and the owner of the mysterious voice that always escapes his memory.


Feindliche Begegnung » Enemy encounter at 0610 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine was accustomed to seeing dead bodies. He’d seen his first five years ago in his city-town of Buchstadt before he’d even been officially deployed. That day, the newspapers had praised Capricornian victory against an Argoan onslaught from Abschnitt 45 to 51, pushing forth celebrations all across the country. What the government gifted their citizens for their victory and sacrifice were caskets. They were of polished black wood, engraved with rigid gold lines, and embossed with the Capricornian sea-goat. No names designated.

The first casket to arrive in Buchstadt contained the body of Klaus’s senior at the military academy, Ulrich Stoeffman. Klaus had been witness to Stoeffman’s mother’s tears as the Militärpolizei peeled away the coffin lid to reveal his body. She had caressed Stoeffman’s pale face and wailed for hours—all in the town square.

That night, a resident fire Elementalist Conductor set all the bodies and caskets aflame as they sang the country’s national anthem.

For mother, for father, 
 For glory, for honor, 
 Victory is upon us…”

Fear thundered through Klaus’s bones as he’d repeated the hymn ingrained in him since primary school. As his childhood friend Charite—before she became Omicron—had gripped his arm tightly, he could hear her thoughts echoing his own. I don’t want to die; I don’t want to die.

When Klaus had seen his first dead body on the battlefield—one felled by his own conjured rifle and fresh with ichor pouring out from all bodily orifices—he had puked. Stein had tormented him all the while, urging him to conjure a self-help book “to help him grow some balls.” Klaus had continued to heave on the ground until First Lieutenant Werner Waltz ripped him up to a stand with an iron grip.

“Enough, Private Kleine,” Werner had said coldly. “You’re a Capricornian. If you have time for regrets, then you’re wasting my time.” In other words, there was no time for regrets.

And it was true.

Even here at their mysteriously fallen camp, as Klaus joined the others in collecting the name tags from their own and the Argoans, there was no time for regrets—no time to wonder if they could’ve done anything more, if they could’ve come earlier.

Stein swore from beside Klaus suddenly. He plucked a tag from a corpse draped over a log. “It’s fucking Lukas. He owes me twenty marks from poker.”

Klaus glanced down and registered the face of the man he had lent a book to only a week prior. He grimaced and gave an internal Monadic prayer before his gaze trailed over to a clearing in the campsite where Gilbert, Nico, and Werner—Atienna—stood in front of three seated individuals. The first was the captive Argoan Emil. The second was the survivor Heimler had found, Henning Rath  a soldier from the 212th Division whom Klaus was not familiar with. Lastly, there was Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augen.

Klaus had been keeping a sharp eye on her political movement for some time now. He happily ate up the group’s surprisingly uncensored news pieces in his free time.

A Capricorn without war. It sounded nice.

* * *

At dusk, Klaus handed off a dozen tags to Second Lieutenant Wolff at the center of camp. Nico, Marionette, Emil, and Rath stood in a cluster just a meter away from Gilbert. Vogt was stationed behind them, watching like a hawk. Atienna was not present.

“Kleine.” Gilbert jerked his head and motioned him closer.

Kleine swallowed and complied.

“Go keep an eye on ‘Werner’ for me. He was collecting the tags and moving the bodies with the others, but I had him start the campfire instead.” Gilbert nodded across the field where Atienna was collecting pieces of wood from desecrated tents within eyesight.

“Yes, sir.” Klaus eyed Marionette Engel. “Sir, can I ask… how she even made it past the border?”

“Don’t think too hard, Kleine, and keep your damn lieutenant company,” was Gilbert’s response.

And that was that.

By the time Klaus made it over to Atienna, her fire was already crackling away. She was seated before it, knees pulled up to the chest, staring into the flames. At his approach, she lifted her head and offered him a small smile:

“Oh… hello, Klaus.”

It was odd hearing his first name used out here. But it was nice. Made him feel like more than a cog in the machine. Made him feel a little bit more human.

“Hi…” Klaus fumbled with his glasses. “Er… you’re good at making fires.”

“Oh, I’ve had quite a lot of practice.” The corners of Atienna’s—the lieutenant’s—eyes crinkled. “Is there something I can do for you?”

Weird but pleasant.

“I… was just wondering what Miss Engel, the Argoan, and Rath said about what happened here.” —A half-lie. He didn’t think she’d like the idea that he’d been sent over to keep an eye on her, after all.

“Oh…” A soft hum. “Did Gilbert not tell you this himself?”

Klaus stiffened. When he locked gazes with her, however, her lips were turned up slightly.

“But…” She averted her eyes. “A friend of a friend of mine advised that if you can’t solve a problem, you should ask a friend for a different perspective. And I agree.” Before Klaus could digest what she meant, she continued, “The three have differing stories… Miss Engel says that she came with a group of protesters. They planned to form a line at the middle of the unoccupied territory… She didn’t elaborate on her plans much further than that and demanded a lawful representative.”

A demonstration? One that seemed dangerous and stupid.

“She says that the Capricornians discovered her group and started attacking, so they tried defending themselves. Mr. Rath says that Miss Engel’s group attacked them first, and they defended themselves. He lost sight of Captain Weingartner during the confusion but suspects that he retreated. That Argoan—Emil—is still in shock… poor thing.”

‘Poor thing’—coming from the lieutenant’s mouth was very weird. Especially when it was in regards to an Argoan.

“Miss Engel didn’t mention anything about why she was in a Capricornian uniform—not even the possibility that it was used for her demonstration … which is a bit strange, don’t you think?”

“It’s like someone was trying to hide her identity,” Klaus realized, sinking down beside her. “Or maybe they were trying to blend in with us? Did she do it herself? What’s the point?”

“That’s exactly what I’m wondering,” Atienna murmured. “An elaborate political demonstration that’s gone wrong…?”

Klaus studied her and found himself figuring randomly that she was probably a pretty person. He cleared his throat. “It’s best to leave this to higher command. This isn’t really your problem to solve.”

“Are you saying that I’m an outsider looking in?” She side-glanced at him, Werner’s eyes piercing and cold. “And what makes you think you know who I am? I’ve seen you through Werner’s eyes, but you haven’t seen me. I might be closer than you think.”

Klaus stiffened beneath that frigid gaze.

“I’m sorry. I was just teasing you.” Atienna chuckled, looking away sheepishly. “I know exactly where my place is. It’s not something I wonder about.”

Klaus liked Atienna. A lot. And he also knew his place like she did. Cog in the wheel. Part. Replaceable. Easy to do it—as easy as it was to conjure a single part of a conductor.

“I’m sorry you had to see all of this,” Klaus said after a beat, adjusting the strap of his conjured rifle. “It’s ugly…”

“It’s something Werner and the rest of you have to face every day. It seems a bit wrong that you’re apologizing to me… I’ve only collected fifteen tags so far, but you’ve collected so many more.” A hum. “Gilbert is more careful than he appears to be—sending you over here like this. Although I do enjoy the company.”

So she knew.

“I know Werner already gave you his condolences about Omicron—Charite…” Atienna continued. “But I would like to offer you it myself. I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds by saying this… but Charite was heroic in her last moments. I’m certain her encounter with you was one of the things that spurred her on.”

A slight heaviness entered Klaus’s chest as faint memories of his childhood wandering his hometown with Charite filtered into his mind. He wished he could mourn her more—mourn more for the others in his unit who had died too. But it was hard. A waste of time, even.

Wait. ‘Condolences’?

Klaus thought back to the lieutenant’s words just before they had left the Twin Cities.

“The ELPIS leader Omicron passed away,” Werner had said, after pulling him aside. “I’m heading to the capital with the second lieutenant, Bergmann, and Stein. While you’re expected to make a report yourself, the report isn’t due until a week from now. The train ride to the capital will take approximately two to three days.” He’d paused. “Take as much time within that allotted period that you require. Just be sure to report to the capital before the deadline. You’ll be marked if you don’t, Lance Corporal Kleine.”

Now that Klaus thought about it, the lieutenant had been unusually considerate in his approach. Klaus himself had been too dazed by the revelation of Charite’s death at the time to register it. Afterwards, he’d used the allotted time before the reporting deadline to visit Charite’s parents in his hometown. He couldn’t tell them anything, of course, but he’d thought his presence was better than nothing.

“Are you alright, Klaus?” The lieutenant’s voice in Atienna’s tone jarred Klaus from his thoughts.

“I’m just… a bit confused,” Klaus replied. “This… override is lasting a very long time.”

Atienna nodded, sullen.

“I just want to preface this by saying that this is a complete compliment.” Klaus squeezed his knee. “But this isn’t a place for someone like you… Not a place for Bergmann, Vogt, or me either. People who are here collect enemy military tags like they’re trophies. They hold scoreboards for who’s killed the most.”

Vogt and Heimler approached the fire from behind them and took a seat across the flame.

Atienna asked, “Do you really think they are excited about taking another life?” Her eyes seemed to ask—Do you think Werner is?

Klaus eyed the two newcomers before shrugging. “Stein said that he’d be happy to shoot even a half-Argoan Capricornian if he could… sir.”

Atienna hummed, placing a hand on her cheek. “…Things said out loud aren’t able to fully reveal what lays behind, don’t you think? And I’m not referring to just lies and self-deception.”

Klaus realized Atienna was a bit odd. Her way of speaking was very roundabout.

“Even though I’m speaking honestly with you now, I’m not able to fully convey my thoughts. Words simply aren’t enough. Neither are actions.” Atienna side-glanced at Heimler. “Perhaps that’s why there’s so much conflict… That small bit of discrepancy is all that it takes to switch something from being perceived as ‘right’ to being perceived as ‘wrong.’ Justice and vengeance. Maybe that’s why we can’t achieve peace. Because we can’t fully convey everything to each other.”

Heimler stiffened. Klaus couldn’t dissect the exchange.

Atienna’s gaze lingered a moment longer before she turned back to the flame. “Maybe… you would think that being able to know another’s thoughts—without needing to use words—would resolve this issue.”

Was she referring to her connection as a ‘True Conductor’ with Lieutenant Waltz and the Geminian redhead?

“You can liken it to reading the appendix or a glossary of a book… But seeing those types of book sections just makes you more aware of everything you don’t know, don’t you think? …Or is it better that way?”

Klaus figured it was a question that didn’t require an answer—

“It would make it harder, sir, I think,” Vogt interjected—Klaus assumed the silence had compelled him to respond. “The appendix… If you have too much information… it could make you hesitate. You wouldn’t be able to do as you’re told.” He eyed Atienna’s shoulder. “… That was one of my problems when I first started. I know that now, sir”

“What do you think the correct answer is then, Otto?”

“T-The… answer?” Vogt blinked, perplexed. He glanced at Klaus then at Heimler before meeting Atienna’s gaze. “Find… a balance?”

Atienna didn’t respond, averting her eyes ever so slightly.

Vogt melted. “I didn’t mean to interrupt the conversation, sir—”

“You… didn’t interrupt. You contributed.” The corners of Atienna’s eyes crinkled again. “There is a difference.”

“Right…” Vogt scrubbed a chunk of dirt off of his boot with his heel. “By the way… are you feeling any better, sir? With your head injury, I mean.”

There was a glint in Atienna’s eye. “Are you alright, Otto? You’ve been working hard today…”

Vogt perked up. “I’m fine, sir.” He reached for his neck and ran his fingers along the tag that hung there glinting silver in the firelight. “I… It’s nothing. Thank you for asking.” He scuffed his shoes again and tried hesitantly, “I hope this doesn’t affect our leave….”

“Leave?” Atienna murmured.

“Military leave.” Vogt nodded, relaxing fully. “To go home. I haven’t been back in over three months. They keep increasing the number of operations I have to take every time I meet the quota.”

“Yes… It would be nice… to go home.”

“Home with all the booze,” came a singsong voice from behind. It was Stein, squeezing himself in between Vogt and Heimler. “With all the home-tied beauties ready to admire all my medals.” He shoved Vogt to the side. “Heard Heimler got loaded after the Reservoir War and lives in a mansion. What’ve you got to look forward to returning to, Vogt? Your mom?”

“Your botanical store-school, right, Otto?” Atienna interjected.

Vogt’s fallen expression brightened. “Yes, sir. But… Stein is right. I miss my mom’s potato pancakes more than anything else. She made the best in the town. Grows her own. Potatoes, I mean.”

Stein snorted.

The corners of Atienna’s eyes crinkled again. “Do you not miss your family, Derik?”

Stein stiffened and then shrugged. “Well, of course, I miss my parents, sir. It’s just not something to think about out here.” He held a mock gun, aimed it at Vogt, and fired. “Here, I’m just thinking about the number of Argoans I can shoot down with one vitae ray.”

Klaus regarded Stein silently.

* * *

At the crack of dawn, Gilbert made the call for them to set off back to the border to report in their findings. After tallying up all of the tags overnight, it was clear that a handful of soldiers in Captain Weingartner’s platoon were missing. This included the captain himself, Emilia Bergmann, and several others. Gilbert had surmised that the missing had either retreated or had been captured. Klaus was relieved beyond belief at the possibility of Bergmann and the captain still being alive—and at the fact that they were returning home.

Their route back to the border was accompanied by lightning clapping through the sky. By the smell of the air, Klaus forecasted rain within the hour. The occasional booms of thunder shaking through the trees stretching around them made Klaus wonder if they would have to find a hole-in for the night. No one looked like they were ready to entertain the idea.

Emil and Marionette Engel sauntered on sandwiched in-between Stein and Heimler. Rath limped just behind them with the Gewehr-43 conducting rifle Klaus had conjured for him dangling in his hands. Usually, Klaus would feel disrespected by the mistreatment of creations, but at the moment he was in decent spirits. After all, he could almost taste and smell home—

A loud crack resounded again, but not from above. It thundered out from the thicket of mist and trees to their left. A high-pitched whine accompanied the sound and was followed by a snap as one of the branches from the trees to their right splintered off from its base. Then came the barrage. Bullets peppered down on them like torrenting rain. One whizzed by Klaus’s ear, while another struck the ground a centimeter away from his foot.

“Take cover! The trees!”

Instinct moved Klaus before Gilbert’s orders reached his ears. He dove behind the tree-line to his right and swung himself behind a thick trunk before falling into a crouch. He pulled his rifle from his shoulders and wrapped his fingers around the trigger—ready to fight. But as the trunk behind him shook with pounding bullets, he shrank further into himself.

Wait.

How many made it?

Atienna.

Klaus stiffened and scanned the area to his left. The combat medics Nico and Alwin were hidden behind a cluster of thin trees just a drop away. Behind a thick fallen log to his right, Fischer and Stein were caged around Marionette and Emil. A shaking Rath was pressed against the floor in front of them. It looked like he had somehow lost the conducting rifle. A waste.

Klaus glanced right. Relief came soon afterwards as he rounded off survival numbers in his head.

Vogt and Gilbert were pressed back against the tree stump beside him while Atienna was seated low in-between them. There was sweat beading her brow but her eyes were eerily calm, her breathing even. Almost like Werner.

For a moment, the barrage of bullets halted.

Maybe the lieutenant was back—

“Are you all alright?” Atienna asked quietly under her breath.

The illusion shattered.

Before Klaus could reply, another storm of bullets sprayed just above their cover. Stein and Vogt both lifted their rifle conductors and returned fire, only to be hampered down by another flurry of metal. Machine-gun? Klaus had heard about the Argoans developing higher-caliber artillery in the past few months, but this was something else.

“I need a headcount! How many of them are there?” Gilbert shouted, whipping around the trunk to fire off into the fog before pulling back again as a barrage of bullets ricocheted just above his head. “Dammit… how the hell did they get around us?” He swore. “This is why Werner wanted some damn Manipulators in this unit! Is that too much to ask for? Just a bit of damned medium-surveillance?!”

Vogt gave him an odd look before glancing at Atienna.

“Stein, Vogt, help me give Fischer some cover fire,” Gilbert ordered before nodding at the plethora of short-ranged conductors clipped to the latter’s belt. “Fischer, put those things to damned use.”

Atienna stiffened.

“Don’t worry,” Gilbert muttered to her. “He’s trained for this.”

Not seeming to hear the exchange from the short distance, Fischer nodded, locked eyes with Rath, and tossed the man his conducting rifle. He then pulled out a bladeless hilt from his waist and ignited it in amethyst with a flick of his wrist.

“Kleine.” Gilbert nodded. “Grenade.”

Klaus lifted his conductor-gloved hands, closed his eyes, and concentrated. He pictured the strike lever, the detonator, the percussion cap, the filling hole. Everything exact. One wrong ingredient and the entire thing could go off in your hands, as the instructors at the military academy had said.

His palms warmed and his arms became heavy. He, however, kept his concentration sharp. One last detail. One last serrated, cast-iron shell and—there. Klaus opened his eyes as the grenade solidified from the sky-blue light emitting from his palm.

Gilbert nodded at him. Signaled one, two, three. “Now!”

Klaus pulled the pin, drew out from cover, locked eyes with shadows moving through the smog, threw. A boom rang out a second later, followed by a gust of smoke and heated wind. Stein and Vogt immediately opened fire into the opposing tree-line. Fischer darted out from behind the protective cover fire and zipped through the mesh of fog and smoke. He slipped into the gray shroud, the light from his ignited blade serving as the only indication of his position. The faint amethyst line of light slithered through the smog in an arc before swinging up in a circle. A hissing sound as vitae tore through metal followed this motion, and the gun-gattling ceased. Then came the minute pops of gunfire followed by howling screeches.

It was a bit funny how they all sounded the same, whether they were afraid or dying—whether Argoan or Capricornian.

Gilbert signaled them to move forward. Projectors first. Combat medics last. Stein on Marionette and Emil, and Atienna ‘keeping an eye out’ behind the trees.

Rifle ready, Klaus filtered out behind Gilbert in a low crouch alongside Vogt. He kept close to the latter private as he always did—ready to conjure another conductor if Vogt cracked his insulation system or his conducting core as he usually did. He scanned for movement in the smoke. There. Just two meters away. A woman was trying to reload her rifle. This was where conductors dominated.

Vogt fired his conductor at her before the woman could get the bullet into the chamber. She folded onto the ground. Gilbert gave a firm nod before disappearing into the gray. One down. Unknown number to go—

“Kleine, behind!”

Klaus whipped around at Vogt’s shout just in time to see an Argoan charge at him from behind with a bayonet. Less than a meter away. This was it—

But there was a loud crack, and suddenly the bayonet was spinning up into the air. The Argoan grunted, staggering backwards away from the one who had kicked up his weapon: the lieutenant—no, Atienna.

She grabbed the Argoan, swept his legs out from underneath him, and then drove his face into the ground in one swooping motion. Swinging her rifle off her shoulders, she cracked the butt of it against the back of the Argoan’s head before swinging it out and jabbing it into the gut of another Argoan coming up just behind her. She uppercut him with the rifle a second later, and when he fell to the ground, she pounded down on his face twice, thrice, until he was no longer moving. She pulled back, panting heavily before turning around—

“Are you alright, Klaus?”

Beneath all of that odd concern, her eyes were afire. She looked like how Stein looked after he made a headshot. Absolutely…. alive.

The Argoan she had just incapacitated abruptly whipped out a pistol from his holster. Before he could fire it off, however, an arc of shimmering amethyst light severed his gun-wielding hand from his arm. The Argoan screeched in alarm but was soon muted as the amethyst light drilled its way through his chest.

Panting heavily, Fischer pulled his blade conductor out from the Argoan’s torso, turned to Atienna, and searched her face for approval. The only thing he found there, however, was wide-eyed shock. But before anything could be said, another figure lunged out at them from the smokescreen with a roar. It was—

—Rath?

The Capricornian tackled Fischer to the ground with a snarl.

“I’m friendly!” Fischer snapped, deactivating his conductor as he held up his arm to defend himself. “Look at my uniform! My conductor!”

Rath let out a guttural growl as he ripped Fischer’s conductor from his hands. Stumbling backwards, he flicked his wrist and activated the blade with a shimmer of light yellow. “You! It was one of you! My Magda!” And then he swung it down.

Fischer swiftly drew out another blade-less conductor from his belt and activated it just in time to block Rath’s oncoming attack. Sparks erupted as the blades screeched against each other. The steam from the heat and their panting breaths filled in the space between them.

Before Klaus could react, another pepper of gunfire came down in their direction. He ducked low, rolled into a wave of smoke cloud billowing towards him, and aimed his rifle at three Argoans who peeled out from the smog. Two shots. One to the chest, one to the face. Vogt took down the other one with a vitae-ray straight through the head. The Argoans dropped dead. Danger eliminated.

When Klaus turned back to Fischer and Rath, he found that their two vitae blades were still scratching against each other. But—something about Rath’s vitae blade looked odd. Cracks ran along its body—cracks that reminded Klaus of the vitae cracks that had run along the lamia tree Atienna had taken an interest in the other day. The cracks along Rath’s blade were dark blue instead of white, however, and they were pulsating, spreading. In an eerie fashion, the cracks crept forward along Rath’s blade towards Fischer’s blade—

Atienna kicked both Fischer’s blade conductor and Rath’s conductor up out of their hands before the strange cracks were able to complete whatever course they were taking. Without skipping a beat, she lunged forward and kneed Rath in the abdomen before grabbing him by the scruff and throwing him over her shoulders. He hit the ground with a thud before groaning and remaining motionless. Pulling away from him, she turned her attention to Fischer.

“Sorry, sir.” Fischer panted.

Atienna offered him a silent hand. Fischer startled before accepting it as if it were a gift from a saint. Klaus had never understood Fischer’s gushing admiration for Werner. While Klaus did respect his lieutenant, he wasn’t fanatical.

A movement from behind the two cut the moment in half. A bloodied-face Rath had pulled himself up into a sit and was now pointing a weapon he seemed to have pulled out from nowhere at them. The conducting rifle Klaus had conjured for him earlier.

Rath fired off two bursts of vitae without hesitation before Fischer charged at him with a newly drawn dagger conductor. Klaus dodged the blasts as did Atienna—her movements swift and fluid. Fischer drove the conducting knife into the man’s gut before pulling it upward in one clean slice. There was a splurge of red followed by the smell of unnatural iron and then silence.

Heaving, Fischer pushed Rath’s divided corpse off himself before turning to face them. Then, he stared past them. Klaus froze and followed his gaze right to Vogt—no, to Vogt’s stomach.

Klaus took in a breath. “No…”

Vogt whimpered as he stumbled backwards. He unbuttoned the front of his singed uniform, peeled away the fabric that had melted into his skin, and gripped his abdomen. “Oh, saints. Oh no… please no.”

It was an ugly, gushing wound, and for a faint moment, Klaus thought he could see right through it.

Atienna was at Vogt’s side in an instant, catching him before he hit the ground.

“M-Medic!” Klaus shouted hoarsely, running up to their side. “Alwin!”

Atienna pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket, placed it over Vogt’s wound, and applied pressure. Klaus found himself looking to her—to the person who wore his lieutenant’s face—out of habit for direction but instead found her looking to him for reassurance.

The world blurred; the background popped with spits of gunfire; Vogt’s sobs cut in out of the deafening sounds; and then came the pounding footsteps. Klaus whipped around with his rifle drawn but stopped short. Finally.

Nico and Alwin, conducting gloves already equipped, seated themselves on opposite sides of Vogt. Atienna’s gaze flicked from medic to medic, but all Klaus could focus on was Vogt—Otto.

“Get the morrowheat from my left lower pocket,” Nico said. “It’s the liquidized version. Inject it in his left leg. Keep applying pressure, Ati—Lieutenant. You’re doing good.”

Klaus fumbled through Nico’s orders, pulling out a capped needle from the man’s pocket and injecting it into Otto’s leg as instructed. As he did this, Alwin pulled a combat knife from his belt and tore open Otto’s pants leg. While Atienna continued to apply pressure to the wound, Nico and Alwin began to run their conducting gloves from the skin of Otto’s exposed lower leg to the gaping wound at his abdomen.

Another set of footsteps crunched on towards them from behind causing Klaus to finally realize that everything had fallen deathly quiet. No gunfire, no screams, no booms.

Gilbert emerged from the fog a moment later, rifle still gripped in his hands, but with loose shoulders and hop in his step. “The lot of them are retreating. We—” His eyes widened as he registered Rath’s corpse and then Otto bleeding out on the floor. He turned to the opposite woods and whistled sharply. “Stein, if you’re still alive, bring those two out here. Now!”

A smirking Stein came out from the wooded cover a second later with Marionette and Emil in tow. Upon laying eyes on Otto, however, the man swore. He then swiveled around and drove the butt of his conductor against Emil’s head. “You damn Groan! This was a trap, wasn’t it?!”

Emil yelped and hit the ground before curling up into a ball. “It wasn’t! It wasn’t! I don’t know anything!”

“Dammit, Stein! Enough!” Gilbert ordered. “One headache at a damn time. Keep a damn eye out.” He sank to a crouch beside Nico and glanced between him and Alwin. “How’s it looking?”

“We’re almost done with the graft,” Nico replied, forehead dripping with sweat as he continued to move his conductor from Otto’s leg to his stomach, “but he’s lost too much blood.”

During Stein’s ordeal with Emil, Atienna had been ushered aside by the combat medic and now hovered beside Klaus. She looked between them all with a painfully hopeful expression.

Alwin nodded at Nico in agreement. “We need to get him to a dressing station.”

“He…” Nico hesitated. “He might not make it.” He shook his head. “We need to stabilize him for transport. Klaus, get a gurney ready.”

Conjuring the gurney wasn’t as difficult as conjuring a grenade. Fewer parts, less dangerous. It took less than a second for Klaus to create it, and with Atienna’s help, he situated it parallel to Otto’s body.

Nico and Alwin peeled away from Otto as they finished their transmutation. Beneath all of that blood, they had managed to pull over a thin sheet of skin over his stomach. The transmuted area glistened in the dull light looking like it’d tear at any moment. Otto looked like a corpse.

Klaus had seen this many times. It was always strange—how fast the color was drawn out from a person’s face as they were dragged closer and closer to death. Pink to pale white to ashen gray.

“We need a transfusion,” Nico muttered. He glanced up at Alwin. “Otto is type-O, right?”

Alwin nodded and grimaced. “No one in the unit is—”

“I… I am…” Atienna whispered, placing a hand on Nico’s arm.

Nico’s eyes widened and then softened, and he consoled her: “ Werner is type-A. Otto is the only type-O in the unit. “ He called out to Marionette and Emil. “Type-O! Are any of you type-O?!”

No one answered. No one moved.

“None of you are type-O?!” Nico swung around wildly before his face crumpled. “Let’s just move him as fast as we can. Help us get him onto the gurney.”

Stein came around, swinging his conductor over his shoulder and locking eyes with Klaus as he hooked his hands underneath Otto’s arms. Klaus nodded, grabbing Otto by the legs. One, two, three—

Otto cried and kicked and squirmed as they hoisted him up. “Let me down! Let me down! Please! It hurts!”

“F-For, saint’s sakes, Vogt!” Stein snapped. “We’re trying to save you, you pussy!”

“Put him down!” Alwin shouted. “His transmutation graft is tearing!”

Klaus stiffened and turned his eyes towards Otto’s stomach. The thin, shiny flesh there had split into two and a geyser of red spurted out from it.

Saints.

“Gently, you guys, gently!”

With great difficulty, Klaus placed Otto back on the ground with Stein’s help. Alwin didn’t move forward, however. He merely sank to his knees and ran a hand down his face. Nico did, hands extended. His face contorted as he began the effort to transmute more of the skin from Otto’s leg to his abdomen.

“There’s not enough left for grafting,” Alwin said calmly. “Nico, you’re wasting your energy.”

Nico stiffened. “Then we use the other leg—”

“It’ll just tear. And I know you saw it. The amount of blood. The abdominal aorta—”

Klaus stared at Alwin in disbelief. “Don’t just sit there and—”

“I-I’ve been hit,” Otto stammered, eyes fluttering. He searched Nico’s face and then Klaus’s as he placed a hand to his stomach. He stared at his bloodied hand. “Klaus, Nico, I’ve been hit…”

Delirium.

From the corner of his eye, Klaus saw Atienna slowly, silently pulling away as she averted her gaze. Before she could make her escape, however, Otto grabbed a hold of her arm.

“A-Am I dying, Lieutenant…?” came the cracked sob.

Atienna’s eyes widened and her fingers trembled as she wrapped them around Otto’s hand. No words came from her mouth. No confirmation.

“Yes…” Nico said quietly. “Yes, you are, Vog—Otto. I’m sorry.”

There was a stretch of silence as the reality sunk in.

“T-Talk to me. Please,” Otto whimpered. “Someone please talk to me.”

Talk? With what? Empty words? Emptier than the pages of poetry that he always dove into to ignore the sound of gunfire and stupid, senseless chatter when he was stationed in the trenches at Abschnitt 45?

Atienna leaned forward, her face eclipsing Otto’s. She whispered, “You… You did good, Otto. You did very good.”

Empty words. And another empty stretch of silence.

“Will you write to my parents for me…?” Otto murmured after a long quiet. “It would mean a lot coming from you.” A shaky breath. “Tell mutti that I love her. Can you tell them I was good? Just… like you said now… Even if it can’t convey everything. It’s enough.”

Atienna side-glanced at Gilbert before nodding and placing a steady hand to his face.

“I’ll write, Otto,” she whispered. “I’ll write. Anything you want. About your plan for your botanical garden. About your horticulture class—”

Atienna was cut off by a hand on the shoulder. Nico, eyes calm but somber. She didn’t look away from Otto to meet those eyes but the message was clear. The one her words had been intended for was gone.

And the only thing Klaus could do was try to remember if he had lent Otto a book back at Abschnitt 45.


Threshold

The threshold between life and death’? That was ludicrous. That threshold was not a location. It was a state of being.

Cacophonic flapping and chirping resounded across the divide of light.

Werner squinted past the darkness towards the origin of the voice. There, he found a humanoid shape inching closer and closer to the stream of light between them. Its form was undefined, devoid of color, and pitch-black. Rippling, shifting, quivering—breaking apart at its edges. Breaking apart into something that fluttered, that flapped, that sent thin jet-black feathers swirling through the air. Blackbirds.

Werner’s eyes widened then narrowed.

A dream?

He glanced down at Lavi briefly. Her eyebrow was arched, her face impassive.

“It’s not a dream,” the voice across the divide continued, milky but clear. “Not in the literal sense.”

She could hear his thoughts, he realized.

“Yep,” the figure popped, her voice resonating above the chirping of the birds enveloping her body. “But not in the literal sense.”

It made logical that she could hear him and knew his name. If this was a dream, anything beyond the realm of reality was possible. This surreality.

“I mean this in the gentlest way possible, but the more time you spend thinking that this is a dream, the more dangerous your current situation becomes.”

Current situation?

“You’re in a perilous position right now, Werner. You and the other five.”

At the mention of the others, Werner tensed and moved his hand towards the gun clipped to his belt.

The blackbirds crowding the figure peeled away slowly, fluttering upwards into the darkness. As the birds dissipated, her features slowly became revealed. First came the black of her suit jacket, then came the white of her armband. Next, her short black hair was freed from the swarming birds, followed by her almond-shaped black eyes and round nose. Her appearance vaguely stirred Werner’s memories, although he was certain he had never met her before. Perhaps one of the other five had.

The unknown appeared to be a woman of Sagittarian descent and affiliated with Ophiuchus, Werner surmised as he felt the cold tip of his pistol at the tip of his fingers. Normally, it would not be wise to engage with foreign peacekeeping bodies. The consequences would be severe. The evidence that this was not normal circumstance, however, was clear.

“Like I said, you’re on the threshold,” the woman said. “You’re here but you’re not really here, so you don’t need to be worried about those kinds of consequences. And that gun you’re reaching for isn’t really there either.”

Werner paused, glancing down to his waist where his holster sat empty. He lowered his hand.

It appeared as if certain assumptions would have to be made.

“Exactly!” The woman nodded. “I know you’re a logical person, so if you see it right before your eyes, then you have to assume it’s real. If we want to get metaphysical about it, it became real as soon as you laid your eyes on it.”

You’ve been invaded, Werner,” Lavi said, her fingers ghosting his hand that still gripped her arm. “You’re being strangled by an idiot who doesn’t know how to stop. You and the others. If you don’t do something, you really will all…”

Werner released his hold on her. Was this truly Lavi? His eyes narrowed. “What do you mea—”

“Well, she’s a truer Lavi than the one you’ve seen,” the woman across the divide interjected as she pointed upwards. “While it’s pretty easy to make it down here, it’s pretty hard to make it back up without crossing this line. And, well, if you cross this line—I’m sure you know what that means. Of course, being a True Conductor does make it easier for you to return in the direction you came from.”

If she could hear his thoughts, it was unsurprising that she knew his position as a True Conductor. It was also unsurprising that she knew of Lavi. And if the presumption that this place was truly a ‘threshold’ was accepted then a reasonable theory could be made as to why Lavi was with him. This other woman’s presence, however, was unexplainable.

“Identify yourself,” he said calmly. “You’re a peacekeeper. Why are you here?”

The woman’s lips pulled tight but then she shrugged. “I’m Shion Myosotis. Weird name, I know. Mother was Sagittarian; father was one-third Ophiuchian. Kept the surname. And I, my dear, am here because I kinda died and got stuck. I’m just the result of doing too little too late.”

It’s too little, WernerA soft, stern voice whispered at the back of Werner’s mind. A faint memory, expanding like a fractal sheet of ice. And it’s too late—

Shion tutted loudly. “Be careful now. Like I said, you’re at the place where vitae enters and leaves the cycle. And since vitae stores memories, memories hold more power here than normal. You can easily slip into something you’ll have a hard time crawling out of. Metaphysical stuff.”

Werner stiffened despite himself. It had already been difficult to adapt to the other five being able to access his thoughts and memories. A sixth intruder was—

“Memories make up reality,” Lavi argued. “There’s nothing metaphysical about it. It’s fact.” Her words were sharp and direct, so unlike the airy and timid girl that would ghost their synchronization meetings. “Just take a look at your history textbooks,” she continued. “We all know those types of things aren’t fully accurate. They’re based on the recollections of people who wrote them. But because they’ve been recorded and remembered, they’ve become fact—”

“Enough,” Werner interjected. “What is happening?”

“Always down to business with you.” Shion sighed. “Like I said earlier, I’m the result of doing too little too late. I’m stuck here—kinda like how Miss Chance is stuck here. And if you don’t act soon, you’ll be stuck here too—”

“No,” Lavi interjected. “You’ll die. You and the others. My brother.” She turned, pushed herself up on toes, and grabbed hold of his shoulders. “You need to free yourself.”

Die? Free himself?

Werner tensed. “Explain.” He studied Lavi for a moment—faint memories of running through sun-dappled courtyards hazed the edges of his mind—before he provided a respectful, “Please.”

Shion pointed to her open palm. “You had an accident, you see. It’s not your fault, but the moment it happened, you and the people you’re connected to were visited by an intruder’s vitae.”

Werner stiffened, before tightening his gloved hand into a fist. The memory was faint but he could still vaguely recall the ghost of the knife cutting into his palm. The knife had belonged to Heimler, and Werner was certain it had not been a conductor. Unless… An individual who was able to use vitae without a conductor was involved and had wielded the weapon.

Werner frowned.

He hadn’t even considered the possibility. A miscalculation. So if everything said was true, then this occurrence was his fault. Unacceptable and shameful. He would need to rectify it.

“Invaded by what?” Werner pressed. “A Specialist? A saint candidate?”

Lavi answered, “You can compare it to something like a monster. The point is that True Conductors are like channels. Each True Conductor group serves as one channel. When something else is added to it or if something that is part of it breaks away, the channel is either put under pressure or crumbles in on itself. What entered you is slowly constricting you and the other five— my brother.” Her eyes narrowed. “It’s playing with you. Loosening, constricting, loosening, constricting.”

Werner studied Lavi carefully. He already had suspicions about her nature, her history as a failed saint candidate, and Olive’s ability to conduct without a conductor. He hadn’t addressed it for reasons that he realized now were unclear to him. Influence from Chance, most likely. And now Lavi’s knowledge here was highly disturbing, but he couldn’t make himself think of her as anything but an ally. Again, Chance.

“Right now,” Shion continued, “you’re the only one here. Most of the others are probably caught somewhere between here and the surface. Maybe one of them is on the surface. Your surface. Meaning, only you can fix this.”

Was she referring to an override? Then that was even more disconcerting given the physical position of his body in the unoccupied territory and his mission. And if Olive or Cadence were on the surface then…

He pressed, “And how exactly do I rectify my mistake?”

“You’re reacting really well to being told you’re dying,” Shion noted with a grin before frowning. “And I told you, it isn’t your fault…”

There would be no point in panicking in this situation. And responsibility always needed to be accounted for. They needed to get to the matter at hand.

Shion gave an abrupt laugh. “Well, since you’re so eager—think of it like this. Right now, whatever’s invaded you has its fingers embedded in you—in your vitae. Meaning, in your memories. All you need to do is cut off those fingers.”

An unclear answer, but first—

“You know a significant amount of information regarding this,” Werner said. “How did you obtain this information? You told me your name, but that isn’t proper identification.”

He felt ridiculous—questioning something that might as well be a part of his own subconscious. But he had taken enough risks already and had possibly put the others in danger due to those risks. He would not make the same mistake again.

“Well, Miss Lavender and I have been stuck here for quite some time. You tend to pick up a thing or two. Sometimes things come on down here just like you did now. But, look, trust us, don’t trust us. We’re here to help you regardless.”

Trust—Werner thought of his men. Here, however, that was an empty word. Too many variables. Too much uncertainty. Too much risk.

Shion clasped her hands together. “The deal is the longer you stay at this threshold, the closer you all are to dying. Because of that constriction. Eventually you’ll be constricted to the point where you’re no longer connected with the others—and that connection is what’s keeping you all alive. The clock is ticking, Werner.”

Tick, tick, tick, tick—Werner’s pocket watch abruptly began to thrum away over his heart in his chest pocket. He refrained from reaching for it—refrained from thinking of the one who made it—and kept his pose firm and his ears peeled.

“The only way to get out of this mess—to remove the hold it has on you,” Shion continued, “is to find exactly where it’s embedded in you—in your vitae. A.K.A., which memories it’s embedded in. Pretty easy to find ‘em since we’re at the threshold.” A frown creased her lips, and she folded her right hand into a mock gun which she rested in her left. “After you find the memories, you need to wade your way through them, and break it—the finger, I mean.” She pulled a mock trigger. “It’s as metaphysical as that.”

A distant memory resounded within Werner’s mind at Shion’s motion: the bang of the bullet exiting its chamber as he’d pulled the trigger of the gun aimed at the back of Magda Rath’s head.

15.2: Combat Medic, 0705 Head Trauma

Re-cap:
Atienna is locked in an override over Werner. The events surrounding this are clouded in mystery. After investigating the Argoan woman who injured Werner, Atienna discovers that the woman was in fact a Capricornian who was involved with the anti-military Verbundene Augen movement. The woman’s purpose remains unknown, but as per Werner’s personal request to Gilbert, the unit pushes forward to complete their objective of cutting off the Argoan line and meeting up with Captain Weingartner. As they push forward into the battlefield, Werner…


Schädeltrauma » Head trauma reported at 0705 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

Underground doctor-turned-combat medic Nico Fabrizzio’s mind was always full of ‘what if’s. For example—what if Cadence was his little sister? What if flowers fell from the sky instead of snowflakes—instead of ash? What if conductors didn’t exist? What if the pictures at the theater were in color? What if Wilhelm Fischer was second lieutenant instead of Gilbert? What if Argo and Capricorn and Aquarius got along? What if his father had never gone into the underground business? What if Nico himself had never grown up in the Twin Cities? What if Werner had grown up in the Twin Cities with the rest of them? What if Werner…

As Nico brushed aside these thoughts and continued trudging forward along the marshy ground, his gaze drifted to Atienna who was pacing alongside Gilbert. The rifle that Kleine had conjured for her was swung up on her back, but it looked like it was weighing her entire body down.

A fog rolling up from the south snaked its way in between the thinning tree line around them and covered up the muddy ground that was patched over with a network of ice. The high-hung sun could not pierce through the veil of clouds shrouding the sky, and so everything felt cold, gray.

Nico sighed, his breath fogging up the air and adding to all the drabness.

A couple more kilometers and they’d reach the captain. While that was definitely a reassuring thought, it still wouldn’t be some time until they reached ‘true safety.’ They had been walking for several hours now and had thankfully not come across any additional Argoan pockets. Gilbert had suggested for Atienna keep to his side just in case the worst-case scenario came knocking. Atienna had not objected—merely offered words of gratitude. Gilbert reveled in it a lot more than he should have. A shameless guy. A lot like Cadence. But…

There was definitely something wrong, Nico knew. This ‘override’ was lasting longer than any other override Werner had told him about before. The longest one Werner had referenced had been Maria’s cheery-eyed override during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict. The shortest had been Cadence’s override in the Twin Cities to save Alma two months prior. And now… how many hours had it been? Six? Seven? If only there was a telegram line so he could use a conjured radio to call up Cadence to see what was going on on her end.

Atienna seemed to share his concerns but did not address them directly. Instead, she had approached him earlier this morning, asking him to re-evaluate Werner’s hand injury. Maybe she thought the injury had to do something with the override. Nico did as she requested before they were set to leave. 

After removing the glove that was constantly kept over Werner’s hand, he’d undone the bandages and inspected the injury. Thin grafted-skin ran diagonally across Werner’s palm where the cut had once been. The skin at the area hadn’t yet split indicating that enough skin had been transmuted to hold. Upon further inspection, however, Nico found a tiny dark spot he hadn’t noticed before beneath the transmuted skin there. Most likely petechiae or purpura as a result of the injury. Would probably disappear within a few days. Leaving it at that, Nico had resolved to assess it periodically.

As Nico had re-bandaged the hand, however, he couldn’t help but stare at Werner’s palm. He hadn’t ever had to treat the area—or even Werner, in general—so he had been… alarmed when he had first seen it. He had contemplated addressing it after Werner awoke, but when Atienna awoke instead…

“I… may be making a baseless assumption here,” Atienna had interjected during his rumination, “but if you’re thinking what I’m assuming you’re thinking, then perhaps it would be best to wait to address it face-to-face instead.” She’d stared right through him. “Middlemen—from your personal experience—aren’t too good, don’t you think?”

Nico was drawn out of his memories of that event as Stein, Brandt, and Fischer approached him from the side. He greeted them with a slight nod.

“So?” Stein took a drag of his v-cig and passed it to Brandt. “What’s really wrong with the lieutenant, Fabrizzio?”

Although the question had been asked casually, Nico could see the glint in Stein’s eyes. Stein had been present in the Twin Cities during the ELPIS incident, after all. He’d witnessed Werner’s confrontation with Colonel Fritz von Spiel and the fallout of Francis’s rampage—but he still hadn’t been given the down-low on what was what with True Conductors. Neither had Bergmann. Stein himself never asked for the details but he’d been keeping one eye keenly peeled ever since.

“It’s like Gilbert says.” Nico flashed a practiced smile. “The lieutenant is fine. He suffered light head trauma from when he fainted from exhaustion earlier. He’s still disoriented.”

“Poor lieutenant…” Combat medic Alwin Brandt sighed, passing the v-cigarette to Fischer beside him. “Are you sure there’s nothing you missed? I’ve been on leave since that border conflict with Aquarius, so I wouldn’t mind checking for you if you’d like. Been itching to get my hands into something. It’s not a bother.”

Nico frowned. The statement in itself was an insult. “No, I’ve got it. Thanks though, Brandt.”

It wasn’t that Nico didn’t like Brandt. It was just that since they were in the same occupation in the same working space, they often butted heads on how to handle certain procedures. “Competition is bad for business,” as Allen would say.

“And still the lieutenant marches on,” sang Stein suddenly. “That’s a Capricornian through and through.” He craned his neck around and jeered. “Unlike some people here.”

Heimler and Vogt who were walking beside one another behind them shared a grimace.

“A bunch of pansies.” Stein spat.

Stein reminded Nico a little bit of Feliciano Donato, one of his many personal childhood bullies. Same aggressiveness, same condescending tone, same swagger. Except Stein had some redeeming features. Definitely a lot more honor. But still.

“Knock it off, Stein.” Nico sighed before he hummed. “You never know. You might be in a situation where Stein or Heimler are the only ones who can bail you out. Pretty sure you won’t think that they’re that then. As we always say, ‘never throw all of your cards away because you’ll end up chucking a card that wins a hand.’”

Stein scoffed. “Those two are joker cards. If anything I’ll be the one’s saving their asses.”

“I’ll raise you one on that.”

Stein’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t feel comfortable doing that when it’s with you of all people.”

Nico shrugged but then paused as a chill went up his spine. It seemed as if their conversation had gained the attention of Atienna. Nico locked eyes with her across the path, and she flashed him a smile in turn. It was a very nice smile, but… There it was again. That look. As if she was looking on at Stein’s malicious behavior from a far distance. Like it didn’t truly involve her. Just like how she’d looked that previous night while inspecting the Argoan’s corpse.

Initially that night, despite Atienna’s attempts to hold her expression steady, her horror, disgust, and sympathy upon gazing at the pile of corpses had shone through clearly—so clearly Nico had almost felt ashamed that he hadn’t been nearly as affected as her.

But then, that changed.

Nico could still picture it now.

The way the moonlight had bled through the spaces between the trees, streaking Werner’s face in splashes of silver and highlighting that curious fascination as Atienna had examined the corpses. Like a detective observing a crime scene. No. Like an outsider looking in. No. Like a movie-goer watching the flickering monochrome film reel. A reader flipping through pages of a book.

Truthfully, Atienna unnerved Nico.

The dichotomy of warm sympathy and cold curiosity reminded Nico too much of his own father.

* * *

Gilbert had them take a short break when they passed by a slowly trickling stream. Nico knew that Werner probably wouldn’t have made this less-than-scenic stop but was appreciative of the opportunity to rest his legs.

While the others sat and puffed their v-cigs, cleaned their weapons, or opted for an additional wink of sleep, Atienna hovered around uncertainly before settling beneath a large tree. She rested the conjured rifle against the trunk before gazing at Gilbert who was inspecting a map a meter or so away. Nico studied her from where he lounged puffing a v-cig with Kleine and Stein before pacing to her side.

Atienna greeted him with a pleasant smile at his approach. Like she’d been expecting him. “Oh, hello, Nico.”

Unnerving.

But Nico offered a genial smile and thumbed behind him. “Want to refill your water with me?”

Atienna’s gaze swept the area, and she seemed to take note of the glances she was receiving from the others. With a thoughtful hum that made Nico think she was evaluating the meaning—the worth—of those stares, she inclined her head.

They walked down a slope towards the stream in silence. Only the sound of crunching leaves and iced dirt, the occasional slosh as Nico misstepped into a deep puddle, and the trickling of the stream as they drew nearer and nearer. Atienna did not walk with the same sense of rigidity and purpose as Werner did, Nico noted. If anything, she floated.

Heimler and Vogt were crouched side-by-side by the bank when they arrived. The two men were conversing quietly with one another, so engrossed in their conversation that they didn’t even notice his and Atienna’s approaches. But Atienna didn’t make her presence known and settled down further along down the bank. Nico crouched down beside her, uncapped the bottle, inspected the stream hesitantly. The water ran clear. He turned to back to Atienna but found her attention elsewhere—she was staring down the stream bank towards Vogt and Heimler.

Nico arched a brow. If she was interested in them, why didn’t she sit closer to them to begin with?

After a pause, she asked, “Do you mind if I ask, Otto—”

Vogt snapped up to a stand. He scanned the area, locked eyes with Atienna, stiffened. “Sorry, sir! I didn’t even notice you were there. I was distracted. It won’t happen again!”

A very quiet, brief chuckle almost akin to a sigh passed Atienna’s lips. An accident, probably, given by how her mouth pulled into a tight line afterwards. Nico couldn’t tell if the two had seen the slip.

“I was wondering how you knew about the sternblume we found on that Argoan’s…boots,” Atienna continued, voice even but still way too soft. “If I recall correctly, you’re from the Felsenberg region. Far west from the area that sternblume grows.”

“Er, yes, that’s where I’m from.” Vogt nodded. “My mother is a botanist, you see. My father’s a florist. Know about all sorts of plants.”

“Botany…” Atienna’s brows rose. “Is that what you want to pick up again when your military service is over?”

“When my service…?” Vogt blinked.

Heimler, eyes suddenly sharp, drew up to a stand.

Nico arched a brow at him, but paused when he noticed Atienna regarding the man carefully with that look in her eye again. Was she honestly curious about Vogt’s situation, or did she have another intention in mind?

Vogt finally nodded, cracking a nervous smile. “I have a lot of catching up to do when I get back. I was hoping to do a duel-business where I sell and teach people about different flora.”

“Have you thought of bringing along a book to study…” Atienna paused. “…while you’re here?”

Otto grimaced. “I don’t like reading much…”

Atienna rose to a stand, capping her now filled flask of water. “Well, that’s a shame, don’t you think? You can miss out on a lot of things by avoiding things you dislike… But you could always ask one of the others to read to you. It would be good practice for both parties.”

“Like a bedtime story, sir…?” Otto chuckled nervously, glancing at Nico in slight confusion.

Not a very good joke, but Nico didn’t blame him given the strangeness of the situation.

“If that’s what you perceive it to be,” Atienna responded. “But—”

Nico glanced up at her.

Atienna was staring across the river—wide-eyed, pale. An almost imperceptible shiver slithered down her entire body as she took one small step backwards.

Nico followed her gaze but only found a patchwork of trees and rock at the opposite end of the stream. He rose to a stand. “Lieutenant?”

Atienna snapped to him, tightened expression lessening slightly before she glanced past the stream again. She turned back to him slowly and held up her flask. “Are you done, Nico?” As if nothing had occurred.

Nico nodded, tense.

“Should we head back then?”

Again Nico nodded.

Atienna bid farewell to Vogt and Heimler before heading up the slope leading back to the forest clearing. Vogt offered a wide-eyed wave in turn, while Heimler gave a curt, one-worded goodbye with lingering eyes.

“Did you see something?” Nico asked as he caught up to her from behind. “Was it one of the others…?”

She stopped short, turning to him. Her brows were beaded with sweat. “No… I… saw…” She raised a hand to her mouth. “I thought I saw someone I used to know. But it couldn’t be because she died several months ago…”

Nico paused.

“I suppose if none of you saw it then…” A frown creased her lips. “I… need to look further into this…” She flashed a distant, tired smile with almost a faint glint of mischief. “I hope I didn’t scare you.”

* * *

The unit started off again half an hour later after checking their conductors, weapons, guns.

Taking on the occupation as a combat medic meant that Nico had to learn how to use a gun. The ‘correct’ way. It was one of the things he’d been looking forward to the least when he’d decided to come on out to serve here—bullet, chamber, gunpowder, bang.

It wasn’t like Nico was unfamiliar with it. He’d used a gun once before when his father’s clinic had been raided by city newcomers trying to make a name for themselves. Missed every shot. Fortunately—or unfortunately—the Romanos had handled the rest so it hadn’t mattered in the end. But here, Nico had been taught the ‘correct’ way to hold and fire the weapon. It was one of the perquisites he had to complete before shrugging into his role as liaison for the Romano Family. Werner had been the one to teach him—and saintswas he a strict teacher. But now Nico was certain he would at least get one shot in if the time ever called for it. And he hoped it wouldn’t.

It seemed like an oxymoron—the term ‘combat medic,’ but so had the term ‘underground doctor.’ This was better, Nico was certain. Much better than before. These people weren’t fighting greedily, selfishly for themselves. They were fighting for their country. Each other.

“We haven’t come across any Argoans this entire time,” Kleine said suddenly. “It’s weird.”

Although the glasses-wearing Conjuror usually hung back with Otto or Heimler, Nico noted that today he paced just a step behind him, Atienna, and Gilbert.

“You know what they say about rats in a sinking ship,” Stein quipped.

Fischer smirked. Otto chuckled.

“… They say you should follow them.”

There was a stretch of silence.

Seeming to not notice the stares she received, Atienna continued walking along beside Gilbert examining the tree line. Nico had a feeling she wasn’t scanning them for enemies. And he realized a beat afterwards that she was very aware of the stares she was receiving because finished her comment with—

“…Don’t they?”

“Yes, they do.” Kleine nodded.

“They do,” Fischer agreed immediately despite his prior laughter. A boot-licker, as Gilbert liked to say. A guy who knew where to play his cards, Cadence would most likely argue contrarily. “Happened all the time when I was on those boats with my dad off the coast of Pisces. Every time we had a leaky hole, the rats would scramble, sir.”

Stein snorted. “How the hell did you get off the coast of Pisces if you’ve got holes in your ship—”

Gilbert held his up hand and brought it into a fist. Nico immediately halted as did the others—save for Atienna who stopped short three steps afterwards. Everyone pulled out their weapon or their conductor. Nico himself swung his rifle off of his shoulder and moved his finger to the trigger. Then Gilbert jerked his head up. Telling smoke trails bled skywards in the distance right above where they were to meet Captain Weingartner.

* * *

It was a kilometer or so through the thicket of trees that they found the designated point they were intended to unite with Captain Weingartner. Rather, they found what was left of it.

Toppled tents were pounded into the ground in between pyres of smoking flame. Steam drifted upwards from spaces of bulleted earth. Vitae-ray marks were scorched into the dirt and filled with bullet shell casings. Around them lay conductors and guns and combat knives. Gripping those weapons were uniformed men and women—some in Capricornian dark gray, others in Argoan forest green.

The air smelled stale yet sharp, felt thick but thin. The only audible sound was the crackling of the dying embers. No birds, no animals, no breathing.

Nico’s stomach churned.

The two things that were different about the Twin Cities and here were the amount of bodies and the way those bodies were handled. Back in Gemini, all the stiffs were buried ten feet under. Here, they were always out in the open.

Gilbert held Atienna back with one arm. “Stick together—”

Heimler suddenly darted off into the campsite without warning. He slipped several times in his mad dash but managed to pick himself up before disappearing into the carnage. Gilbert began to shout after him but bit his tongue and swore under his breath.

“Next person that runs off, I shoot!” he hissed. “Stick together, dammit!”

Gilbert locked eyes with Nico and then Kleine and jerked his head. Nico drew closer to Atienna as did Kleine.

They threaded their way through the campsite quietly, cautiously, eyes peeled, muscles tense. Whenever they would pass a body that didn’t look completely mutilated and riddled with either vitae-ray singes or bullet holes, Nico would draw near and assess the pulse. Every single time there would be nothing.

It hurt. His profession was one of healing and saving people. Each body ticked another failure. Of course, he knew that there was no way he could have saved them, but that nagging feeling remained. “Don’t be naïve. There are more pertinent things to concern yourself with,” Werner would say, “than things that are truly beyond your control.”

As they drew deeper and deeper into camp, it became harder and harder to tell what was blood and what was mud. Everything melded together into one. Iron, smoke, dampness. And then—

A groan emanated from just beneath a collapsed tent to their left. The tarp strung above the broken metal frame shifted and groaned before a man dragged himself out from beneath the entangled mess. Nico broke off from formation and ran to the man’s side. He flipped the man over before pausing as he studied the man’s face and then the color of his uniform. Realization settled in a second later. The injured person was not a man, but a boy—barely touching on adolescence. And not a Capricornian, but a—

“It’s a damn Argoan!” Stein spat, shoving Nico away and aiming his conducting rifle squarely at the adolescent’s face.

In a flash, Atienna was beside Stein and shoving the point of his conductor down. The shot went off with a flash of blue and burned a fist-sized hole into the dirt beside the boy’s head.

“It’s discourteous to shoot without question. Especially during a surrender.” The glint in Atienna’s eyes was almost Werner-like. “Nico, would you mind?”

Nico nodded before moving onto his usual medical assessments with the Argoan. The boy tensed under his searching hands and barely stuttered answers to his assessment questions. Pulse, 85 beats. High—but probably from anxiety and stress. And fear. That was clear. Gilbert approached them from behind meanwhile, dealing a slap upside Stein’s head. Nico pulled back a minute later after finishing his run-through.

The Argoan was uninjured. Merely in slight shock. All in order—although Nico figured the boy would appreciate a blanket. He informed Gilbert and Atienna of this, but it was Stein who spoke:

“With all due respect, Lieutenant Waltz—” Stein jabbed a finger at the Argoan. “—but your head’s still not right. He’s the enemy and just a foot soldier. We won’t get anything from him than blubbering and—”

“The conductors are still here,” Atienna drew calmly. “Whatever happened here, the Argoans didn’t have the time to collect them all. None of the tags have been taken off any of the soldiers either. I imagine that the Argoans would want to collect both of those things. In other words, whatever happened here was unexpected for both parties.” She studied Stein for a moment. “I understand where you’re coming from, Derik, but…”

Stein stiffened at the mention of his first name.

“So interrogation,” Gilbert tried, searching her face for Werner.

Atienna responded by sinking to her knees in front of the Argoan who shakily propped himself up in response. “What happened here?” Quietly, gently in Common.

The young Argoan shook his head ferociously, wide eyes flitting back and forth as if expecting something to pop out from behind them—no, as if expecting them to lunge at him. He scooted back, looking to Nico desperately as if asking for rescue.

And then Atienna placed a hand on the Argoan’s cheek causing not only him to stiffen but also all of the other men. “It’s okay,” she continued, nonplussed. “You’re safe.”

The Argoan shook his head, eyes wide. “T-They…” The words seemed to be stuck in his throat.

“What’s your name?”

“E… Emil.”

“Okay, Emil, you’re safe. I promise. My name is Werner. I’m a first lieutenant. I’ll make sure you get home, okay? You can trust me.”

Emil nodded dazedly, focusing in on Atienna’s—rather, Werner’s—face. Nico could see everyone besides Gilbert and Kleine exchanging looks.

Atienna pulled her hand away slowly. “How did you end up here, Emil? You… weren’t directly involved in this attack… correct?” A pause. “It’s okay. Take your time—”

“No!” Emil sucked in a breath, reaching to grab Atienna by the arm before she could fully fold into herself. “The Capricornians—you—were attacking each other.”

What…?

“My unit and I… we saw this camp… we were too small to engage, so we were just going to go report to our superiors.”

Stein clicked his tongue and shared a heated look with Fischer.

“W-When we were trying to slip past you—you just started attacking each other. First, it was one, and then it was everyone.” Emil’s eyes went wide. “My captain wanted to take advantage of the chaos and had us wait… had us wait… but… but…”

“He’s obviously lying!” Stein snapped, kicking up mud with his foot. He whipped around, gesturing wildly. “The Argoans ambushed us but we fought back and they ran off! This guy got left behind and is just trying to scramble! He doesn’t know anything!”

“Stein, shut up,” Gilbert muttered back. “Cool off.”

The sound of sloshing footsteps came at them from behind before anything else could be said. Fischer and Stein raised their conductors while Nico’s hand went for his rifle. He lowered his hand a second later, however, as he registered the figure approaching them.

Heimler. And he was not alone. To his left stood a freckled man dressed in Capricornian dark gray. To his right stood a woman dressed the same, although she kept her head dipped low and her chin buried in the collar of her coat.

Survivors.

“T-They’re ours,” Heimler said, voice trembling with odd nervousness. “I found them—”

Nico stepped forward but was quickly pushed to the side by Gilbert who first stared—as white as a sheet—at the freckle-cheeked man before turning to the woman. He pulled down her collar exposing her face. Nico recognized the woman immediately. He’d seen her before in the Capricornian newspapers once or twice. In the papers, she’d be posed with her fist raised up in the air, her wispy blonde hair popping out of a tight bun, her prominent brow furrowed, her signature woolen scarf billowing behind her like wings. Behind her would be a flag with a cartoonishly drawn symbol of an eye flapping in the wind. 

“What the hell…?” Gilbert seemed to recognize her too. 

Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augden movement.


???

Werner Waltz returned back from his post at dusk, 2021 hours exactly. He slipped back past the line, reported his numbers to Major Ersatz, and made his way through the trenches. It had rained approximately 13 centimeters that morning, and the entire trench was flooded up to the knees. The gutters had become clogged with debris, so the sewage system was not running properly. Unsightly.

As he maneuvered through the waterlogged trenches, the gazes of the soldiers tucked away in the walls bore into him all the while. News of his success in breaching the Argoan stronghold at Abschnitt 46 must have made its way here to Abschnitt 45.

It was nothing to be praised.

He had merely assisted the offense there alongside the others in his division. If anything, his numbers were lower in this operation compared to his previous performances. Improvements needed to be made.

After locating his designated bunker through the watery maze and tucking down into it, Werner found his bunk bed as orderly as he had left. His bed was at the top rung so it had not been affected by the rising flood. Gilbert’s bed that rested just below his, however, was completely submerged. Gilbert himself sloshed around in the waters lugging his bag and throwing clothes and shoes up onto a bunk parallel to theirs. He was by himself, the v-lights accentuating his loneliness as they flickered on and off.

Werner frowned. “Wolff, what are you doing? You’re making even more of a mess.”

Gilbert tensed, back still turned. “It’s Magda.” He threw down his bags. “They sentenced her to death. Just an hour after you left. I’m supposed to be the one to do it. ‘Cause I was the highest-ranking rifleman around at the time. As if being a lance corporal means anything.”

Werner digested this information. “Yes, I heard about Magda. She deserted during the Schwarzer Streifen operation and was found by Rittberg’s unit in Abschnitt 24. Deserters are to be executed by article—”

“I don’t give a damn what article says what!” Gilbert snapped. “That’s too much!”

“She deserted, Wolff.” Werner folded his hands behind his back. “They were generous not to have her executed by firing squad or hanging.”

Of course she deserted! She has two children waiting for her at home! A sick father! Her husband in the 44th was nearly killed in that skirmish at Abschnitt 21! They won’t get their damn pension until the end of the month!”

“We all have to make sacrifices. That’s what it means to be a part of a functional society like Capricorn. Once she turned her back on her country, she became an enemy of a state. She is no different from the Argoans standing on the opposite side of this line.”

“Saints, Werner, do you hear yourself?” Gilbert whipped around and gestured wildly. “I was just sharing a drink with her yesterday! And now they’re asking me to murder her?”

Werner paused, glancing over his shoulder to the entrance. “Gilbert, calm down. You were given a task, and you have to follow through.” He repeated from memory, “You have to do what’s expected of you.”

Gilbert scoffed, turning back to his bags and resuming his packing. “No, I don’t. I’m done with this. All of this. If you ever see me again, it’s gonna be in the Twin Cities drunk on life—”

Werner’s eyes narrowed. “Or beside Magda being executed with her.”

Gilbert froze. “And I’m guessing you’re going to be the one aiming the conducting rifle at us?”

“Don’t be irrational, Gilber—”

“Don’t be this, don’t be that. Do this, do that.—I can’t flip a damn switch in my head and kill one of our own like it’s nothing!”

“You’re a Capricornian. You’re a soldier. This merely falls in line with duty. Don’t act like this is unexpected—”

“Give me a BREAK!” Gilbert snapped, whirling around like a storm. “Don’t tell me you actually believe that bullshit—”

“If you can’t serve your country as a Capricornian,” Werner interjected coldly, “then I will.”

Gilbert froze wide-eyed, water dripping from his sleeves and his hair into the pool below. He did not speak; he did not move forward. In other words, he did not object. And so Werner locked eyes with him, reached over to draw the man’s pistol from his belt, and exited the barracks to fulfill his duty.

Werner picked up Magda Rath from the bunker where she was guarded by two enlisted women. Few words were exchanged before he took her from them. The path they took to the soon-to-be execution ground was a short one. A path without spoken words. A path without resistance.

When they arrived at the thickly forested area, he ordered Magda to kneel. She obeyed and didn’t tremble as he loaded Gilbert’s pistol. Despite the brave face shown here, she had still chosen to desert instead of serving her country. Regardless of her well-meaning intentions, she appeared a coward to outsiders. Cowardliness was unacceptable, unsightly, and anti-Capricornian.

Werner lifted the gun to the back of her head. Only then did Magda start shaking. Her trembles reminded Werner of Otto Vogt’s trembling—and Vogt’s refusal to comply and open fire—when they had come into conflict with the Aquarians at the Ziegenberg Ridge. Unsightly cowardice.

But…

Chance often solved his problems by running away. At times, that choice had led to acceptable outcomes: the escape from the Watch, the escape from the battle between Leona and Jin, and even ordering that tactical retreat during the override.

Werner froze.

Something wasn’t right.

His finger moved away from the trigger.

This had happened already. He had executed Private Magda Rath one year and two days before the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict broke out along the east—before the skirmish with the Aquarians at Ziegenberg Ridge with Vogt’s hesitation.

What was—

The world spun, inverted, blackened. When color bled back into his awareness, Werner came to realize he was somehow lying on his back. Light from a campfire encircled by his subordinates—Vogt, Fischer, Stein, Heimler, Brandt, Kleine, Bergmann—and Gilbert flickered in the distance.

A face eclipsed his own. “Are you alright, Lieutenant? Do you have any pain anywhere?” The voice was instantly recognizable.

“Nico?” Werner tried. “How long have I been unconscious?”

Nico reached into his right pocket and pulled out his conducting gloves. He slipped them on quickly and said, “Let me check something—”

Werner grabbed the man’s wrist and rose to a slow stand.

Nico blinked up at him in confusion. “Werner, you’re injured. You shouldn’t—”

“Nico stores his conducting gloves in his left pocket, not his right. The right pocket is to store additional ammunition,” Werner said, eyes narrowing. He inclined his head towards the campfire but did not look away from the imposter. “Bergmann is not in this unit for this operation, and they are all wearing our previously issued uniforms.” He tightened his grip. “You will tell me what this is. And where this is.”

The imposter regarded him for a moment before sighing: “Well, memories are a bit subjective so you can’t blame it for not taking the shape you remember it to be. Who says the way you remember things is even correct?”

Before Werner could respond, the imposter rose to a stand and took a step back. Fine, hairline cracks appeared across their face—cracks that were reminiscent of the white fragmentation that appeared along anything Jericho’s conductor touched. The cracks spilled down from the imposter’s head to their toes. The pieces of the facade fell away from their face, their torso, their legs slowly, until Werner was able to identify—to recognize—who it was that truly stood before him.

“Lavi,” he realized, loosening his hold.

Lavender Chance’s dark hair fell like a cloak around her pale face, and her dark eyes bore into him with a sharpness that he had never seen in her before. The white cracks continued to spill out from her feet and onto the ground before spreading endlessly into the distance and splintering the environment. Like a shattered mirror. The fragmented pieces fell away revealing almost complete and utter blackness. It seemed to extend infinitely above, below, behind, and in front of him. The expansiveness made Werner’s stomach flip for a brief moment but he grounded himself.

Panic did nothing. Observe.

There was a singular source of light in the abyss. Just behind Lavi glowed a large river of light that stretched out endlessly into the distance east and west. Every so often wisps of light—at times blue, at times green, at times red—would float down from the darkness above and enter the river from one side. Periodically, light would also exit it from the opposite side and disappear upwards.

“To answer your earlier question,” came a voice from the darkness on the opposite side of the glowing divide, “you’re at the point where vitae enters and leaves the cycle, so not exactly physically anywhere.”

It was a voice Werner recognized. The same voice that had whispered to him not to reveal the modified conductors to Major Ersatz—Pi—at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. The same voice that had consoled him after he had been injured in the Twin Cities following Morello’s override. The voice that he had heard right before coming to wherever this was. The voice he had forgotten up until this point.

“In other words,” that voice continued, “First Lieutenant Werner Waltz, you’re standing right on the threshold between life and death.”


The position of combat medic is open to all Conductors within the Capricornian army. Preference is however deferred to those whose conducting-types fall under the Conjuror or Transmutationist category as their natural abilities are more equipped for the profession. Upon completion of service, combat medics are encouraged to seek employment as researchers in the Institution for Military Vitae & Conductor Scientific Research.

Enlistment Information, published by the Iron Horn Recruitment Comittee & edited by the Capricorn Chamber of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, 1936