16.[]: Peacekeepers, 0900 Sehnsucht

Re-cap: 

Alice, Talib, and Gabrielle are on a mission assignment in the capital of Capricorn to look into the Verbundene Augen. While there, they come across Flannery Caertas who is there for business regarding the conductor convention and Roberto who is there on a case. 

They come across an comatose Olive who is under Claire Yuseong’s care but is soon set to be transferred back to Aries and then a scheming news reporter by the name of Hilton Tyler who holds negative views of Ophiuchus. Along with these things, they learn that Leona is also in the city.

As their investigation continues, the diplomatic conductor convention looms in the background.


Sehnsucht » Yearning for the ideal at 0900 hours.

Peacekeeper Alice Kingsley still remembered the sound of the conducting grenades pounding above her head as she’d huddled between her parents in the shelter. The sound had been a deep bellow—always proceeding a high-pitched whine and a brief skip of silence. 

She had known at the time that there had been nothing to be afraid of. The shelter was state-of-the-art, designed to keep the wealthy families that supplied the East-Western Powers safe from the most powerful Projectors and conducting grenades flying in from the north and south. 

Usually after the bombardments stopped, they would be advised to remain underground for three hours. During this period, Alice had been free to wander around the bunker. She often spent the time exploring. 

However, there had been little to explore besides the cement walls and wooden shelves stocked high with dryfoods in brown packaging or glass jars. There had been multiple rooms to the shelter, but one room looked no different from the other. And so, when she explored, she’d often bide her time observing the people threading in and out of the rooms in the connecting hall. Duchesses, dukes, heirs, businessmen and businesswoman—her parents had all introduced her to them. There had not been a face she didn’t recognize, until that one day she stumbled upon two faces that were unfamiliar— 

A girl with startling fiery red curls wearing a pair of sunglasses and a boy with barely-tamed black curls. When Alice had found them, they had been walking hand-in-hand, the boy leading the girl. 

Flannery Caertas and Talib Al-Jarrah, Alice would soon come to know. 

“Are yer sure it’s this way?” Flannery had asked to which Talib had answered, “Yes, of course, I’d never lead us astray. We’re almost there!” 

Alice had followed them from behind curiously, holding Talib’s gaze whenever he’d look back in her direction until he’d looked away. 

“What are you doing?” Alice had eventually inquired after she’d followed them around the hall in three loops. 

Flannery had turned her head and snickered. “We’re escapin’ this hellhole.”

Unsophisticated, Alice had thought before stating plainly, “You’re just walking in circles.” 

Talib had stiffened, shaking his head profusely and smashing his fingers to his lips.

“Circles?!” Flannery had gasped before turning and swatting at Talib’s head. “Yer a liar! Y’said we were almost there! Admit it—y’only led me around ‘cause ya wanted t’be m’friend!”

Talib had stammered. “M-My mom says there’re monsters outside! Real monsters! We can’t go out! I’ve seen them myself!” 

“Monsters aren’t real,” Alice had rebutted him. “Your imagination is too hyperactive.” 

“Hyperactive…?” Both Talib and Flannery repeated the word in confusion. 

“When did you guys meet?” Alice had asked after a beat of silence. “I’ve never seen you around before.” 

“We met just yesterday, actually,” Talib had replied before Flannery had interjected with an exclamation— 

“But we’re already tighter than two peas in a pod!”

“Your eyes…” Alice had gasped then. 

Flannery’s eyes had been milky in color—almost indistinguishable from the whites of her eyes in the dark. Blindness. 

Flannery had merely pulled at her lids and had grinned widely. “What? Do they look funky or somethin’? ‘s what happens sometimes when y’spend t’much time directly lookin’ at pure vitae from the reservoirs when yer so young, y’know? They came up with a new word for it. Got t’name it m’self. Vitae Caecas.”

“Then why would you want to leave so badly?” Alice had asked then, rather rudely. “You think you’re being brave, but that’s just because you can’t see. Literally.”

“It’s not about bein’ brave. S’bout not bein’ fair,” Flannery had pouted. “All the grownups are makin’ it a mess up there and forcin’ us t’stay down here. Why do we have to be punished? Really hate bein’ left behind—”

That was when the alarms had gone off again and the bombardments returned. 

Boom, boom, boom —even now Alice still remembered the sound. 

The adults around them back then had shouted over each other as they’d rushed back and forth in the halls. All of the noise had caused Talib to fall into a cowering crouch. Alice herself had frozen in place, terrified since she usually was with her parents during these times. 

But Flannery had been all smiles. “Finally!” She’d grabbed both of their hands before placing them against the wall. “Feel! Isn’t it cool?”

Cool? Alice had thought, feeling the rumbles through the concrete. It had tickled her palm and made her more aware of the fragility of the shelter than anything else.

But Flannery had continued to grin as she’d pressed her entire face against the wall. “It’s calming.”

After watching Flannery for several minutes, Alice had closed her eyes and pressed her head against the wall too as the trembling of the shelter engraved itself into her body.


Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Pinching the bridge of her nose to dispel the memories of childhood, Alice B. Kingsley returned her attention to the files laid out on her lacquered desk. She had gone through approximately 50 of them. Name, age, occupation, etc. The sample size was smaller than what she preferred but it was what they had to work with. 

From the door-to-door interviews she’d conducted over the past couple of days, she’d come to the realization that the Verbundene Augen had started quite some time before the Capricornian Watch was made public. It was only after the Watch became known that a name had finally been put to the movement.

Many of its members were veterans of the Reservoir War or spouses and parents who had lost their children to conflict at the southern border. Most didn’t hold extreme ideology. In fact, most didn’t support full demilitarization—rather, they wanted the government to invest in increasing the number of generator conductors instead of weaponized conductors. There was also a theme of wanting slowly to withdraw from the Argoan border and for the Kaiser to sign an armistice between the two countries. Animosity against peacekeepers was surprisingly at a minimum. 

Of course, there were radicals but they were the vocal minority. 

The only similarity between the radicals and the moderates she’d interviewed was that they shared a particular interest in the diplomatic conductor convention. It seemed as if they were planning to gather together to meet or to protest there. This was of particular interest to Alice, and she wanted to sit down and observe one of these meetings. She supposed, however, once the military police got word of this, they would be eager to shut it down instead.

Pity. 

Well, it wasn’t her position to judge. Merely evaluate. 

That aside, what interested Alice the most was the profile of Marionette Engel, the leader. The woman had served near the end of the Reservoir War, had earned several distinguished honors, and had even come from a wealthy family with a strong presence in the military. Her father had a chair in the country’s Commerce Chamber and had recently pushed policy to increase funding of a regional conductor manufacturing company. 

It just didn’t add up. 

Either way, Alice already had an approach model and an assessment typed up to hand into the Capricornian government on the most effective measures to take regarding the movement. She was going to let Talib look it over before handing it off to Gabrielle to present in front of the needed parties. And that was it. 

They would stay for a couple more days to aid with suggestions and policy implementation then they would depart back to the Serpens Establishment. Perhaps, Alice reasoned, Gabrielle would extend their stay even longer than that to ensure the Ariesian prince boarded the train back to Aries successfully from the hospital.

Ironic. 

When they had been sworn in to become Ophiuchians, they had sworn service to Signum and had renounced their former alliances to their respective countries. Yet Gabrielle still had personal concerns regarding the Ariesian prince. 

But moving that matter aside… 

Alice put down the files and picked up the notepad at the corner of her desk. A series of sentences were scribbled there beside names. 

Laughing and lamenting with youReceived by Ferris.

Be there for you. Received by Roberto. 

There was a line drawn beneath the last sentence and below it came additional sentences: 

Always there for youGabrielle.

I am here. Talib.

I see you. Jericho. 

Jericho… Alice pinched the bridge of her nose and recollected her thoughts:

Moraeni hadn’t received any letters but that was unsurprising given his lack of contact with those outside of seeking to obtain a conducting license. 

The thematic pattern of all these letters—presumably written by the same person—was ‘being present.’ Unfortunately, Roberto had been the one to call Ferris in and had forgotten to ask if there were any lotus symbols drawn on the back of the cards that were still back in the Serpens Establishment. So for now, it was all inconclusive. 

A groan drew Alice away from her analysis. She paid it no mind at first, even as it grew into a moan. It was only when the moan grew to yelling and the sound of thumping did Alice rise from her desk. She turned her attention to the three large beds set just across the room. Her bed—unfolded at the moment—rested at the left wall, Gabrielle’s at the center, and Flannery’s along the right wall. 

Gabrielle was tossing, turning, arms flying out as she shouted incomprehensibly. Alice quickly approached her, dodged her blindly swinging arm, before gently nudging her leg and whispering into her ear. Eventually Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open, and she blinked into the dark in confusion. 

“You were having a nightmare again,” Alice whispered. 

“Oh…” Gabrielle gave a noncommittal grunt before murmuring, “I’ve always wondered why we don’t have nightmares of nice things instead. Would kill for a nightmare about a beach vacation.” 

“They wouldn’t be called nightmares then.” 

Gabrielle yawned and rubbed her eyes. “You two didn’t end up serving until the near end of the war, right? You and Talib. I know Roberto was drafted right when he reached the age. Moraeni and Izsak served in my joint unit. Never thought to ask.” 

“We were more involved with the after-war fallout,” Alice affirmed. “Our family’s contributions allowed us to be kept away from most of the fight.” 

“Espionage and reconnaissance?” 

“Service and volunteering.” 

Gabrielle snorted. “Of course, you and Talib are saints.” 

“It’s a bit of reach calling it that.” Alice paused in thought. “But is that why you asked Talib and me to join you?” 

“Of course not. I chose you both because you were the only ones who didn’t look away…” 

“From what?” 

Gabrielle looked across the room towards the bed pressed against the wall. “We would’ve been enemies, you know? Back in the war.” 

Alice followed her gaze to the bed and found Flannery entangled in the sheets there—legs half-hanging off the bed, head buried into her pillow. “Let’s not jump to conclusions.” 

Abruptly, Flannery lifted her head, cracked open her clear cerulean blue eyes, locked gazes with Alice from across the room, and flashed a smile.

* * *

The kitchen to Flannery’s villa was just as Alice remembered it. A cobblestone hearth crackled away perpendicular to the kitchen stove, while a large window taking up the entire wall opened up to the left and let in gray light. At the center of the kitchen stood a glass table toppled high with a mix of Libran and Capricornian dishes: fish, chips, meats, and potato dishes. From the maids, most likely. 

Talib, bedhead somehow even more curly than usual, was already sitting at the table and shoveling eggs into his mouth. Gabrielle made her way to the chair across from him, picked up a piece of buttered toast, and nibbled at it as she sank down. 

It was tradition for them to stay at one of Flannery’s villas whenever they happened to take on missions and assignments in the same location Flannery was in. 

Suddenly, Roberto stormed into the kitchen from the arched door leading to the bedroom halls and tossed a newspaper onto the dining room table. “It’s not looking good with your assignment, Gabrielle.” 

The headline read: Shots Fired Across the Southern Border—And not at the Argoans! 

Gabrielle picked up the newspaper and scanned it, while Alice read over her shoulder. It detailed in Common a purportedly ‘covered-up’ incident occurring at the Argoan-Capricornian border in which soldiers were ordered to fire on Augen protestors…? 

Alice resisted pinching the bridge of her nose. Gabrielle did, however, throwing down the newspaper. 

Talib picked up the article, scanned it, choked. “Written by Hilton Tyler? That’s your newspaper friend, isn’t it, Flannery? The one who you invited to dinner with us that other night?”

“The one that insulted us under the table?” Gabrielle arched a brow. 

Flannery’s smile dipped for a moment before she winced. “Is it? Sorry. M’parents wanted me t’get some good publicity for the company, and he runs one of the most popular newspapers in Signum.” 

“Don’t worry about it.” Gabrielle yawned and chugged an entire cup of coffee with one gulp. “But this isn’t good. Whether it’s true or not, this will definitely cause the Augen to retaliate—” 

A sudden boom trembled through the kitchen—no, the building—rattling the windows in their frames. Alice’s mind flashed back to the days in the bunker, and she shot up to a stand reflexively. Gabrielle was already storming out the door of the villa with Roberto trailing behind her. Alice exchanged a look with Talib before following the two out the door with him at her tail. 

“B’careful!” Flannery shouted as she lingered behind.

* * *

When they poured out onto the streets, they were nearly stampeded by screeching civilians running in the direction opposite of where a smoke pillar was rising into the gray sky. They worked against the tide of bodies and headed in that direction. As they drew nearer and nearer, the screaming grew louder and the dust screen grew thicker. Eventually, Alice came to realize that the smoke was coming from the direction of the hospital they’d visited earlier—where Olive was residing. 

Gabrielle caught a man who crashed into her. “What’s happened?”

“An explosion!” the man stammered. “The damned Augen and the military police just opened fire on each other. The Augen—they’re working with ELPIS! They brought down the main wing of the hospital! Half of it was in flames!”

ELPIS…? With the Augen? No, impossible. 

Alice had completed a thorough opinion assessment, and all those she interviewed had scored low on ELPIS-ideological leanings. She’d even multi-layered those questions too to not seem biased— 

“Are you hurt?” Gabrielle pressed. 

“I’m fine. We’re fine. A water Elementalist put out the fire. The doctors and the military police are—” 

“A water Elementalist?” Gabrielle gripped the man. “What was his name?” 

The man blubbered something senselessly before ripping himself free of Gabrielle and dashing away. 

Gabrielle didn’t seem too deterred by this and instead shouted at them as she gestured around the area. “Split up! Let’s get as many people out here as we can!” 

Roberto shot out immediately in the direction opposite. Meanwhile, Talib remained at Alice’s side as he sent out a handful of paper crane mediums to presumably guide civilians out from the dust cloud. 

Grabbing a hold of his arm as his eyes glazed over, Alice marched forward through the smog. During her combing, she helped a cowering woman out from beneath a flight of stairs and aided a man in guiding his children out from the smokescreen. 

As they drew closer to the hospital, Alice spied doctors, nurses, and medical Conductors scattered around the area tending to the wounded. Around them ran a handful of unaccompanied children. Before Alice could decide on which group needed her assistance the most, Talib grabbed her hand and started pulling her through the smog without warning. She didn’t resist, and eventually, he tugged her past a twisted, toppled iron gate to a clearing where Gabrielle stood stiff, tense. 

After joining Gabrielle’s side alongside Talib, Alice followed her gaze to two figures opposite of her—one of whom Alice recognized immediately. 

Francis Foxman, one of the heads of the Foxman crime organization. Or perhaps it was Theta, ELPIS leader. Possibly both. His face wasn’t marked with his identifying tattoo—a touch-up? A white vitae blade was gripped in his hand. Proto-conductor. 

Alice’s mind buzzed as she recalled those days in that windowless, doorless room. She still remembered the sensation of the rope digging into her wrists, still remembered Theta’s apathetic gaze, still remembered the darkness and the cold. 

It took a moment for her to recollect herself, but when she did she noticed that beside Theta stood a young woman with straw blonde hair and caramel brown eyes. She clung to Theta’s unarmed arm. The tourist, Alice recalled. 

“Didn’t think ELPIS would be fond of proto-conductors,” Gabrielle said calmly, clenching her gloved fist. “Didn’t think you were the type to use a Projector’s conductor either. Always thought you were more of a ‘drop them from ten feet’ type. Not a ‘slice-n-dice’ type.” 

“This was not my doing, Miss Law,” Theta explained calmly. “Although justifying myself in front of a peacekeeper whose work involves deception and bowing her head seems…” 

Gabrielle remained in startled silence for a moment, before humming, “Well, I figured you were still alive after what happened in Gemini, so it’s good to see my deduction skills are still sharp. Sad to see your courteousness has gone downhill.” 

“I apologize for my rudeness, Miss Law,” Theta said, lowering the blade. “I’m trying to ascertain what happened here.” 

“You’re saying this wasn’t you?” 

“It was not,” Theta affirmed. “And I don’t believe this was Gamma’s work either. Another sect, perhaps, but given the recent developments that is unlikely.” 

“Recent developments?” Gabrielle continued, spreading her arms. “Look, I’m not pointing fingers. If you come with me, maybe we can work together and you can help us figure out exactly what happened here. A lot of people are hurt. What do you say?” 

Theta almost seemed to chuckle. “I don’t think I will. I don’t deny my faults, but I also don’t see the point in turning myself into a corrupt, puppet organization.” He locked eyes with Gabrielle. “October 30th. Think about it.” 

Alice frowned but noted that Gabrielle had stiffened. 

Abruptly, out from the haze of smoke sparked a burst of gold light. A short vitae blade. It hurtled towards Theta without warning, and the man barely had the time to raise his own blade conductor before it nearly took off his head. There was a spark of blue as the two blades collided and then a loud clatter as the golden blade deactivated and hit the ground. The woman standing beside Theta’s side yelped and clung to him tighter.

Out from the dust cloud stepped Leona, chairwoman of the ELPIS Department. Her golden hair seemed to glow in the smog now just like how it had done in the darkness of the Twin Cities. 

“I see you’ve made a gamble,” Theta said, lowering the weapon slightly. “You’re reckless.”

As Leona ran at him with another vitae blade drawn, he sank to his feet and touched the black spot on the ground there. He disappeared into the portal in the blink of an eye—but not before the tourist leapt in to join him. Leona stopped short in her dash, de-igniting her blade before slowly turning to face them all. 

“Good to see you, Leona.” Gabrielle extended her hand. “I caught word that you were in Capricorn when I first arrived here. It’s a pleasant surprise.” 

Leona approached her, hand extended. There was a dullness to her amber eyes that seemed unnatural. “Yes, I heard you were in this city too, Gabrielle. It looks like we’re destined to keep crossing paths—if there were such a thing as destiny.” 

There was something unusual on Leona’s back neck just below her shirt, Alice realized. It almost looked like a bruise—no, a tattoo. The shape vaguely reminded Alice of a scorpion. 

“That being said, I’m aware that you were assigned to investigate the Verbundene Augen on behalf of the Capricornian government, Gabrielle,” Leona continued, voice cutting through Alice’s thoughts. “Your assistance is no longer needed. Clearly, the Augen is associated with ELPIS. My department and I will take things from here, although we would appreciate your assistance with the relief effort.” 

Peacekeepers suddenly flooded the grounds, stampeding this way and that. Alice didn’t recognize any of them. The ELPIS Department, most likely. 

Gabrielle frowned. “I know it looks like ELPIS, but isn’t it weird that proto-conductors are being used instead of regular conductors? Theta was carrying one, and I spotted a couple of them when I was helping the civilians… Theta mentioned he had no idea what was going on too—” 

“Gabrielle. You would trust the words of a terrorist over the words of your fellow peacekeeper?” Leona’s eyes narrowed. “You said you conversed with him…?” 

Gabrielle didn’t frown and instead held up her hands. “Never said anything like that. Jurisdiction is jurisdiction. I’m just putting in my two bills.”

Leona smiled thinly. “I understand, Gabrielle. Enjoy your return trip. Hopefully aiding in the relief effort now will show that you made at least some effort here.”

And with that, she turned on her heels and departed into the smog. 

Peculiar behavior. 

“Well, she seems more charming than usual,” Gabrielle muttered, rubbing her neck. “Definitely not how I wanted to start the morning.”

Alice crossed her arms. “I suspect that you’re not planning on leaving Capricorn any time soon?” 

“Not even thinking about it,” Gabrielle returned. “Say, Talib, you were talking about wanting to see the diplomatic conductor convention earlier, weren’t you? How about we finally cash in that vacation time?”

* * *

When they arrived back in the villa the next morning after spending the entire night helping with relief efforts, Gabrielle received a return call from Trystan. The royal guard respectfully apologized for not getting in contact despite Gabrielle’s numerous attempts to reach him and then informed them that the Ariesian prince had made it out from the hospital safely and that they were now on board a hospital train heading out of the capital. 

Alice felt relief. 

And old patient was still a patient. 


The military police officer wouldn’t stop laughing. He was on the floor, practically rolling around as he held his shaking abdomen. 

Dämon frowned down at him. “What do you find so amusing this time?”

“Cadence Morello. Born between June 2nd and June 4th. Blood Type AB. Vision, 20/32. Height, 156 centimeters. Weight, 47 kg. Ambidextrous. Personality type, ESFP-Assertive. Parents, dead. Blood siblings, none. Other considered ‘siblings,’ four elder brothers and elder sister, alive.

Occupation, swindler, con woman, freelancer, too many to list. Known by seventy-two different aliases. Owes gambling debts under twenty aliases. Is owed gambling debts under forty-two aliases. 

Described by friends as ‘easygoing, fun, sociable, life of the party.’ Described by employers as ‘skilled, charming, worth-the-money.’ Described by locals as ‘deceitful, crass, cheating, unreliable.’ Described by tourists as ‘lovely, kind, helpful.’ Described by children as ‘the best one, their favorite, funny, cool.’

Unusual activity: involvement in underground modified conductors deal with Capricornian government and involvement in the Twin Cities incident with ELPIS. 

Probability of being a True Conductor, 100%. 

Probability of disrupting the syzygy, 6%.” 

Dämon hummed. “And what did you do to this one?” 

I didn’t really do much.” The officer rose to a sit causing the scorpion-shaped tattoo resting at the nape of his neck to become visible. “It was something she’d been feeling deep down this entire time. It seems like she thought she’d conquered her self-deception already. ‘But that was also a lie.’” He threw his head back and laughed again at some inside joke Dämon didn’t understand. The arrogance—poor thing! I just helped bring that realization to the surface. People can’t change. Not really, not permanently.” 

“Aren’t you going through them too fast? I always thought you were a person of pleasure.” 

Hm? Not really. The first one to take the wheel was way too clever, admittedly, so I had to do away with her. Though… I suppose it would’ve been more fun to keep her around to see how far we could go. This political atmosphere suits her. ” 

“And I’m guessing you adjusted your approach with this Cadence?” 

Sleep deprivation and lack of inhibition tend to bring out the purest form of human nature. You always put on a face and mold yourself to expectation—so much so that you continue despite no longer under another person’s gaze.” 

“Forcing sleep deprivation to get what you want seems very unlike you, I have to admit,” Dämon said, turning back towards the swirling pool of light contained by the glass case behind her. “I’m a bit disappointed—” 

She stopped short as she felt cold fingers wrap around her neck from behind and remained still as she felt hot breath ghosting the back of her neck. Something cold prick against both of her ears. When the officer pulled away, she felt a weight pulling down her earlobe. 

Hesitantly she reached for the area. Dangling earrings. She couldn’t tell what shape they were in but they were made of paper and wet from the blood dripping down from her newly pierced lobe. 

“Me as well? Are you classifying me in the same department as Cvetka then? Someone who needs constant surveillance and advising?” Dämon arched a brow. “I do enjoy my privacy.”

“There’s no such thing as privacy,” the officer said, before he added quietly, “By the way, they’ll be coming down here soon.”

“The True Conductor?” 

The officer smiled. “No, the peacekeepers.”

Dämon hummed, unconcerned. “Well, you still didn’t answer what you found so entertaining.” 

The officer blinked before smirking and glancing off to the side in the distance. “Oh… right… Well, who would’ve thought such a familiar face would be hiding in plain sight?”

“A familiar face?” 

One of her former patients just entered my sights. I’ve always had an inkling about him, but I would’ve never expected this. And if he’s a True Conductor, then it means that other peacekeeper under her wing is also a True Conductor in the same group. And that means that two of her patients—former and current—are in my hand.”

“Her again?”

“Of course. That cold arrogance, that cool-headed defiance, acting as if everyone is beneath her and that she can see into them. Her approach to her practice is ‘only you can save yourself.’ Wrong from the very beginning.” The officer bit his thumb. “I can’t get her out of my head. Even though she denies it, I can see it. I’ll just show her all of her work was fruitless from the very beginning.”


Following the attack on the city’s main hospital, the diplomatic conductor convention was moved from outdoors to indoors—with increased security bolstered by the ELPIS Department. Gatherings of ten or more people aside from state events were now prohibited. 

Alice admitted that she much preferred it this way—the interior-hosting, that was. No mud on her shoes, no rainwater soaking her purses and dresses, no wind messing up her air. And much easier to hide conversation. 

The convention was now being held inside a large building with tiled marbled floors and a series of pillars that held up a large glass dome. Gray light bled in through that dome illuminating the people filtering through within. They were colorful people—some wearing silken garments with embroidered flowers, others wearing tight leather clothes that concealed everything, more wearing tight and crisp business suits, and more yet wearing cloaks clipped with tassels. 

The booths propped up evenly throughout the building were just as colorful. Signs in languages ranging from Common to Capricornian to Sagittarian and Geminian were posted above wooden tables hosting various contraptions of varying length and sizes: v-batteries and small v-generators and other devices Alice didn’t recognize. Some even stood as tall as the ceiling. 

“My, do you see that, Alice?” Talib whispered from beside her. “They’ve even developed a vitae-powered clock! Waltz & Tick, ey? Well, that certainly is a name to remember. You know… it’s suspicious that their initials W&T sound almost the same as that dismantled spy agency, right…?” 

Alice glanced at the sign Talib was gesturing to and found a grim-looking elder man with russet brown hair and ice-blue eyes standing beneath it. The desk behind him was spotless save for a cylinder-like contraption with flipping digital numbers typed on small white cards. It appeared to be vitae-powered.

“Talib, we need to keep an eye out for members of the Augen,” Alice said. “Keep the games and charades for some other time. Preferably when I’m out of ear’s reach.”

“I’m being covert, dear Alice,” Talib whispered. “They taught me back in the day that being the most noticeable person in the room is the best way to blend in.”

Alice eyed the passersby who were giving Talib odd looks. “I think your interpretation leaves much to be desired.” 

“I gotta agree with Tal here, Alice,” Flannery interjected as she looped one arm over Alice’s neck and the other around Talib’s. “People’ll always look away from bright, flashy lights.” 

The three of them—all in civilian wear—had decided to come here together to save them multiple trips. Gabrielle, however, had left the villa earlier to come to this place, while Roberto’s assignment here had him trapped back in the villa running over tax paperwork. Too many people in one place would be suspicious, so Alice supposed that was fine. They were pushing the limit as it was. 

Alice’s attention was drawn away by a large crowd gathering around a stage that sat centermost in the open space beneath the dome. She tugged on Talib’s sleeve, prompting him to abandon his tirade and follow her to the area. As she neared the lip of the crowd, she spotted Gabrielle and drew near to her with Flannery and Talib. For once, Gabrielle was not in a suit but a comfortable pair of slacks and a loose blouse. Her Ophiuchian armband was nowhere in sight—and neither were Alice’s or Talib’s. 

“Looks like this is the main show on the itinerary,” Gabrielle said. 

At the center of the stage stood lead scientist Dämon Fortschritt in front of a large rectangular object cloaked by a red curtain. Beside her stood a vaguely familiar woman with a wiry frame and a pair of overalls that seemed to go against the sophistication in the room. 

Marta, if Alice recalled correctly. Alice had seen the woman in a photograph taken in one of Gabrielle’s written reports and had heard of her from time to time back when she had been speaking with the Ariesian prince. Alice had gotten the impression that Marta was hard-headed, but right now all Marta seemed like was nervous. 

Alice looked past Marta back to Dämon who seemed to bask in all of their gazes before abruptly spreading her arms wide and signaling for the red curtain to be dropped. When it fell away, Alice instinctively winced at the brightness. It was a glass case filled with what appeared to be vitae. 

“You all look at this here”—Dämon rapped against the glass—”and you think that I’ve merely brought you something from one of the vitae reservoirs. But I tell you that isn’t the case! What you see here is an artificially induced pool of vitae.” 

A chill ran down Alice’s spine, and she uncrossed her arms as she shared a look with Gabrielle. 

“As we all know—hopefully since we all have our licenses here, right?—vitae falls into two distinct and broad classifications depending on what in particular the vitae particles are associated with: soft and hard; living and non-living. We know that we ourselves contain both hard and soft vitae, while the rocks beneath our feet are hard vitae completely. Our reservoirs—we know—are hard and naturally occurring.” 

Dämon rubbed her hand against the glass. 

“But things that occur naturally tend to be difficult to come by. Vitae researchers and conductor engineers all over Signum have dedicated their lives to understanding the formation of vitae reservoirs—even going so far as to try and extract hard vitae from things like rocks and earth to try and create an artificial reservoir but to no avail.” 

Dämon pulled away, gesturing to Marta: 

“But together with my special team and partners—including Marta John who is here today—” 

Marta smiled weakly. 

“—we’ve done it! This vitae you see here was induced from the stone gravel just outside of our buildings.” 

Alice couldn’t believe her ears. 

“I know a demonstration is in order, but the reaction needed for this to happen requires a very stable environment. If you’d be willing to travel, I’d be happy to show you in my lab.”

Now Alice was skeptical. 

But when Alice looked over her shoulder towards Gabrielle, she found the woman looking both hopeful and horrified. Alice didn’t blame her. Gabrielle had fought in a long war over this energy source. To now find out there was now possibly an easier way to obtain that energy probably brought into question in Gabrielle’s mind the worthwhileness of the sacrifices she’d made up until this point.

Upon turning to Flannery, however, Alice found that she was absolutely pale—almost grimacing.

“This form is also not quite stable yet, however, which is why we’ve only brought a small sample of it,” Damon continued, drawing away Alice’s attention. “Nothing is ever perfect. But this is just a preview. I hope to show you soon the full potential of my research, so we can move together towards a more sustainable, peaceful Signum.” 

And with that, Dämon bowed. 

A chorus of applause erupted. 

It almost felt like a dream. 

As the crowd dispersed when the curtain was put down over the glass case, Gabrielle approached the stage. Alice followed after her with Talib, while Flannery excused herself to her own ‘business-y affairs.’ They made it to Gabrielle’s side just as Marta was descending the steps of the stage to the ground floor. 

“How’s it going, Marta?” Gabrielle greeted her with a nod. 

Marta took a step back, pale. “Who are you…?” 

“It’s Gabrielle,” Gabrielle explained. “We had a quick chat in Aries after the prince’s… incident a while back. Put in a word for you about your vitae spectrophotometer after his majesty and her majesty mentioned it to me. Glad to see you making your way up the ladder.” 

“Peacekeepers…” Marta murmured before her eyes widened. She glanced over her shoulder towards Dämon who was speaking with a cluster of wealthy-looking investors onstage. Abruptly grabbing a hold of Gabrielle’s hand, Marta whispered quickly: “The real research facility is at 43th street. Beneath. Just keep walking. Look closely. You need to see it… T-This isn’t why I became a conductor engineer—” 

“Woah, what?” Gabrielle placed her hands on the woman’s shoulders. “Look, slow down. I don’t understand what you’re saying—”

Marta abruptly shut her mouth and stared at something past Gabrielle’s shoulders. When Alice followed her gaze, however, she found nothing.

“I-I should go,” Marta whispered, before peeling Gabrielle’s hands away and darting back up the stairs to Dämon’s side. 

“What was that about?” Gabrielle arched a brow after a beat. 

Alice stared after Marta for a moment before turning her attention back to the covered glass case. 

Could it really be that easy?

* * *

When the convention temporarily closed its doors for a two-hour repose, Alice, Gabrielle, and Talib took to the streets in search of any suspicious gatherings. There were clusters of military police scattered around all the sidewalks and alleys, alongside peacekeepers—presumably from the ELPIS Department. 

Gabrielle requested Talib to send out some of his mediums to scour the area, so Alice was left with once again guiding a glazed-eyed Talib around by hand.

It was while they were combing down an alleyway behind a restaurant that they overheard a peculiar conversation in Capricornian between chefs crowding the backdoor of the restaurant:

“—eren’t meant to attack the hospital!” 

“I understand that, but all I’m saying is that it wasn’t unjustified. You saw what they did at the border! They’ve turned us into their very own target practice! You know that that hospital is used mostly by military officials! The ones who sent us out there in the first place! After we fought in their other war!” 

Gabrielle immediately stowed away behind a trash bin diagonally across the Capricornians. Alice did the same, dragging Talib down along with her.

“But there were normal people there too!” argued a man wringing a chef’s hat in his hands. He paced back and forth, running his fingers through his hair and rubbing his face—half of which was consumed by burn marks. “What about them?” He stopped short and flung his hands out. “This isn’t why I became a member of this. I wanted to serve my country—not become an enemy of it!”

“Enemy? No, no, no—can’t you see?” another, shorter chef returned. “They’re taking us seriously now!”

“They think we’re working with ELPIS! That we’re terrorists!” the other man laughed, clearly irritable. “Of course they’re going to take us seriously!” He shook his head. “Why the hell did we take those proto-conductors from her? We’re not criminals. Marionette would never—”

“Well, Engel isn’t here.” 

“Talib,” Gabrielle whispered back to them, “plant one of your mediums on—” 

A high-pitched whining followed by a soft ca-chack! resounded just behind Alice and cut Gabrielle off short. 

The Capricornians snapped to look at them—no, behind them. Alice followed their gazes and found a man crouched just a little ways behind her. He was poised at the very center of the alley—open, exposed. 

It was the news reporter whom Flannery had invited out to eat with them several nights ago and who had written the Augen-border article. Hilton Tyler. 

Hilton lowered the camera before leaping to his feet and taking a step back. 

Alice faced forward and found Gabrielle standing with raised hands. The Capricornians were now ringed around them, the shorter one looking them up and down. 

“What’s this?” he asked, eyeing Hilton’s camera. “News reporters?” 

Now that they were closer, Alice could better distinguish their features. Thankfully, none of them were any of the people she had interviewed recently so she knew she wouldn’t be recognized. However, this also highlighted how poor her sample size for her interviews had been. 

She quickly noted that all six of the chefs had the Augen mark tattooed somewhere on the bodies. For the chef who had been wringing his hat, it was just peeking out below his collarbone, while for the shorter chef it was barely visible behind his neck. But paired alongside those tattoos were—Alice squinted—scorpion tattoos. Much like Leona’s. 

Peculiar.

A new fad?

“Hey! What’s going on down there?” came a shout in Capricornian from down the alley. “No large gatherings of over ten people!”

At the lip of the alley stood four military police officers. 

“Militärpolizei!” the shorter chef shouted.

“Wait—” Gabrielle interjected.

But it was too late because the shorter chef was already escaping down the alleyway. Without skipping a beat, Hilton dashed out of the alleyway opposite and flashed a reporter’s badge at the policemen. The befuddled police officers looked between the departing Hilton and the chef in confusion.

After a beat of hesitation, the other Augen members fled down the alley, some heading back into the restaurant and others dashing after the shorter chef. The military police started after them, pushing Alice to the side as they brushed past. Two of them followed the ones who went into the kitchen, while the other two darted after the short chef and the duo that had followed him. Abruptly, however, the shorter chef skidded to a halt mid-pursuit, turned on his heels, and pulled out something from his waist just as a female officer reached his side. As said officer reached for his shoulder, the chef swung out with a slash of white light. 

A blade conductor. No, gauging by the wavering light of the blade, it appeared to be a proto-conductor much like the one Theta had held in front of the hospital. It split the fabric above the officer’s chest, disconnected her hanging gorget from its chain, and blossomed a red streak at her chest. 

“Oh, great,” Gabrielle grumbled before dashing to the scene. 

The wounded officer stumbled backwards, cradling her injury with a groan. The other officer caught her and lowered her to the ground before reaching for his belt. 

Gabrielle reached the scuffle just as another one of the Augen members drew out a knife and lunged for the standing officer’s legs. He dragged the blade across the officer’s back leg just before Gabrielle grabbed his wrist, threw him over her shoulder, and ripped the blade out of his hand. She kicked back the shorter chef and sent him flying into the alley wall before dragging the grimacing officer back. Without skipping a beat, she pounced on the formerly dagger-wielding Augen member and slapped a pair of suppression cuffs on him from her belt. 

“Haven’t been in service recently, right, sir? It can get you a little rusty.” Gabrielle rose to her feet, reached into her suit pocket, and pulled out her conducting license and Ophiuchian badge. 

The remaining chefs froze at the sight of it.

“Two things you should notice. One, I’m a peacekeeping agent. Two, I’m a fire Elementalist. You’ve served; you know how this’ll end. Plus, I don’t want to have to write about extra reports of having to use my conductors on civilians either, so…” 

The chef lowered the proto-conductor. 

“Great,” Gabrielle popped. “I’m going to cuff you, but I have a couple of questions for you later. Especially about that fancy proto-conductor.”

Alice walked over to the officer whose back legs had been cut and assessed the damage. She couldn’t tell whether or not the tendon was damaged but she could tell that the officer was putting on a brave face. When she pressed a handkerchief she drew out from her purse against his injury, he whimpered. He looked young—perhaps still in adolescence. 

Talib scrambled over to them and tended to the other officer before sending out several mediums—presumably to get help. 

“Good call,” Gabrielle said. 

Alice turned her attention back to the adolescent officer. As she inspected his wound further, she noticed something peculiar. Imprinted on his skin just above the cut was a familiar blue-inked tattoo of a scorpion. 

Twice was a coincidence. Thrice was a pattern. Or so Talib said. 

“You’ll be fine,” she said before asking:”Where did you get this tattoo?”

“T-Tattoo?” The officer grimaced. “What are you talking about? I-I don’t have any tattoos…”

Alice frowned. “It’s right—”

The officer stared at the female officer across from him before turning to glower at the Augen members who Gabrielle was busily detaining. “They don’t know when to stop.”

Alice followed his gaze.

Peculiar. Not even one of the Augen members was resisting. Mob mentality was certainly possible. However, given their violent actions earlier, Alice had expected at least some of them to put up a fight, but… 

The shorter Augen member slumped as Gabrielle slapped suppression cuffs over his wrists. She caught him and lowered him down onto the ground before moving to the final member.

“They don’t even deserve to be arrested,” the young officer growled suddenly, clenching his fists. “My best friend was in that hospital. He was just supposed to have a daily check-up, but now they say they don’t know if he’s gonna wake up because he was caught up in the explosion…”

“Your justice system will handle their situation accordingly,” Alice informed the man curtly. 

“Justice system?” the officer’s face contorted before he struggled to a stand. “If they—”

Alice pushed him down, reaching into her purse again for a thin cloth glove lined with metal. “Sit down—”

The officer suddenly whipped around and spat in her face before raising his fist at her.

“Hey!” Talib shot up to a stand and grabbed his wrist. “What do you think you’re—” 

The officer whipped around and cracked Talib so hard against the jaw that he went flying back to the wall.

“Hey!” the wounded female officer grimaced as she held her bleeding chest wound. “Tom, what do you think you’re doing?!”

“These peacekeepers are the reason why we’re like this in the first place!” the officer—Tom—spat. “My dad says if it weren’t for them—”

Alice took the opportunity to slip on her conductor. As Tom turned and lunged for her again, she grabbed his wrist with her conductor-gloved hand. There was no doubt that he had much more physical strength than her. However, when she activated her conductor, he froze in place, eyes wide.

Tom’s facial muscles twitched, his eyes flitting back and forth. His mouth barely formed words: “Wh… at happ… ing?”

“I’m a Specialist,” Alice informed him calmly. “The vitae particles inside your body are now frozen in place. They will continue to be frozen in place until I release you. Do you understand?”

The officer let out a breathy sigh in response. 

“Now, I’m going to ask you to take a deep breath and—”

A loud bang resounded from just behind the officer, and he abruptly fell forward onto Alice’s body. Tensing and keeping her grip on his wrist, Alice slowly lifted up his head. A bullet hole marked his forehead. Feeling her blood run cold, she released him and remained frozen there, the dead man in her lap. She slowly lifted her head to see who had fired the gun and registered a familiar man standing at the mouth of the alley. 

Familiar square-rimmed glasses were perched on his prominent nose—a different one than what he usually wore meaning it was a recent purchase. He’d cut his hair short since she’d last seen him nearly over a year ago, and he was dressed in a raincoat. Crawling up from his neck onto the lower part of his right cheek was a snake tattoo. 

Izsak. No, Gamma.

Why was he here?

“Izsak…” Gabrielle called out from behind.

All the Augen members who she’d been tousling with were now the ground—suppression cuffs faintly glinting around their wrists. The military police officer was staring wide-eyed at her fallen comrade but trembled rigidly in place. She looked young too.

“Peacekeepers?” came a voice from behind Gamma as a woman stepped out around him. 

The woman had mousy brown hair tied back into a tight bun and had an unbuttoned Capricornian officer’s uniform shirt thrown over her shoulders. 

Although Alice didn’t recognize her, Gabrielle clearly did—

“…Conta? I see that got you too, huh?”

“….I recognize that peacekeeper.” Conta nodded to Gabrielle. “She was investigating the Campanas several months ago. I believe her name is—”

“Gabrielle Law.”

Conta glanced at Gamma. “Yes. I don’t recognize the other two though. Are they—”

“They’re not with the ELPIS Department,” Gamma answered. “General Investigations and Psychological Evaluations. They must be here to investigate the Verbundene Augen.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Conta said. “Anyone here is a possible host. We should act accordingly.”

“Agreed.”

“Hey, hey, now, at least involve us in the conversation if you’re planning to off us,” Gabrielle interjected, fingers inching slowly towards her pants pocket where her conductor was stored. “You, Izsak, and Conta both—”

A groaning emitted from behind Gabrielle cut her off short. Alice stared past her and froze as she saw one of the Augen members who was cuffed begin to stir and groan. 

Impossible. Suppression cuffs constricted the flow of vitae in a person and effectively rendered an individual unconscious. The only way a person could remain conscious with suppression cuffs on was—

There was a burst of bright white light. 

Arching through the air now were four glowing white appendages. Their origin was Conta’s bleeding hand, which tightly gripped a knife also dripping with blood; their director was the conducting glove on Conta’s extended hand; and their targets were the remaining military police officer and the three cuffed Augen members. The Projector-like vitae ran through each of their heads like a hot knife to butter. 

Alice felt nauseous. 

Abruptly blue cracks began to crawl along Conta’s vitae starting from the Capricornians she’d bulleted through. The cracks crept back towards her slowly as if fighting an uphill battle. 

“Conta,” Gamma said tersely.

“I know.” Contra lowered her extended hand, her vitae disintegrating before the blue cracks made their way to her.

During the distraction, Alice noted that Gabrielle had been reaching for her pants pocket again.

Locking eyes with Gabrielle, Gamma pointed the gun at Alice. “Don’t.”

Gabrielle froze. Talib almost glowered.

Gabrielle’s face contorted then, and in an instant she pulled out her glove conductor and shoved it on. Alice ducked as Gamma fired off a shot in response and then pressed against the walls as a torrent of magenta flames erupted in the alleyway. However, only a second after, the flames died abruptly. 

When the smoke cleared, Alice registered Gamma and Conta standing stiffly in the same place they had been standing before.

Alice hadn’t been expecting Gabrielle to kill them, but she had been expecting her to at least incapacitate them. When she turned her attention to Gabrielle, however, she came to realize the reason for this.

Gabrielle’s conductor-gloved hand was stuck in the alleyway wall. Rather, it was embedded in a familiar pale-tangerine portal that glowed there. Gabrielle tugged against the portal to no avail. 

A sudden draft of familiarly cool wind whistled through the alley, and the smell of v-cigarettes curled in the air. Turning her head again, Alice registered a figured half-covered in shadow standing at the opposite end of the alley. To the wall at his left glowed a familiar portal out from which Gabrielle’s gloved hand protruded. The figure gripped Gabrielle’s protruding wrist tightly, prying off her conductor slowly with one hand before releasing her. Gabrielle fell back onto the floor away from the other portal with a gawk—now conductorless.

“You came,” Gamma said. “Theta.”

Tucking Gabrielle’s conductor under his arm, Theta stepped out into the light and removed his gloved hand from the wall. “And you’ve seen what’s been developed in this country.”

Gamma’s eyes narrowed. “You should have killed P.D. Oran when you had the chance. It’s clear that this is the result of his research.” 

Theta tensed. “You’ve lost Oran? Tau didn’t mention—”

“Of course not. His pride won’t let him admit that he’s done wrong,” Gamma pointed his gun at him. “Your actions in the Twin Cities were flawed due to your faulty initiation. I have your resistor with me. If we return you now, I can find a suitable person quickly—”

“I refuse.” 

Without hesitation, Gamma fired a round. At the same time, however, Theta pulled out a silver pistol from his waist and fired a round too. A whine screeched through the air for a split second as their bullets collided and ricocheted against opposite walls. 

“If we are speaking of experience, I have more of it in wielding this type of weapon than you, Gamma,” Theta said, cocking his gun. “This would be a poor time to be returning to your resistor.” His gaze shifted to Conta. “Beta? It’s good to see you again.”

“And you as well.” Conta—Beta—dipped her head. “But I can’t disagree with Gamma’s opinion.”

“You’re wearing a dead man’s skin and pretending to be him,” Gamma said, lowering his gun. “You’ve pretended so much that you’ve convinced yourself that you are him.”

“Regardless, I plan to live out the rest of my life like this,” Theta replied, almost as if amused. “I refuse to have merely a record of my last time with Altair. For me, this will be the last chance. Perhaps that way, I’ll give it my all.” Theta reached into his suit pocket and threw something at the duo.

Beta immediately sent out projections of vitae. The glass object twirling through the air shattered just above their heads. Black liquid and glass rained down on them and onto the floor beneath their feet.

Beta tensed, glancing down at the stains. “You’ve become a fool.”

“There’s no ‘becoming’ one.” 

And with that, Theta placed his gloved conductor against the alleyway wall beside him again. In the blink of an eye, Gamma and Beta were swallowed up into a portal that opened below them. 

Theta lowered the gun a beat after and then inspected it. “This really is Al’s lucky pistol. Always thought he was being dramatic about it but that doesn’t seem like the case. I got really lucky there.” 

“Any reason you decided to break up the party?” Gabrielle asked, tense and eyeing her conductor in his hand. “Where did you send them? 

“You already know why but you don’t need to know where,” Theta replied. He approached her slowly, holding out her gloved conductor. “Though I suspect you won’t be able to relax until I give this back—” 

Gabrielle hesitantly extended her hand to accept it but Theta did not release it from his hold.

“—which I will do after you take off your clothes and I confirm you are not infected. After that, we can work together.”

Alice paused, heart hammering, suddenly aware of the officer’s blood staining her dress. 

Gabrielle frowned. “Who said we were going to work together?”

Theta paused. “I apologize. That’s on me. I thought my message when we met at the hospital was clear—’October 30th,’ the day we agreed to work together to investigate the Campanas. Allow me me state this clearly then: I’d like for us to work together. A partnership.”

His accent was fluctuating, Alice realized through a haze of tension. Interesting. 

“Oh yeah.” Gabrielle eyed her conductor. “I’ve been giving that some thought.” 

Talib finally shook himself from his daze and slowly inched over to Alice as she picked herself off the ground. She stared at the lifeless officer at her feet. 

“What is going on…?” Talib whispered. 

Frankly, Alice had no clue. And she despised the fact.

“Under normal circumstances, working with peacekeepers would be something I would consider abhorrent,” Theta said. “But perhaps a change of pace and perspective is needed. As you can see, I am not a very combatively adept individual. I would like your assistance in that department. And your perspective and resources as well.” He paused. “We have worked together previously.”

“I get what you’re saying,” Gabrielle drew, “but I was working with Francis Foxman and his brothers.”

Theta paused, frowning slightly. “Who do you think is standing in front of you?” He studied them. “I understand you’ve got questions, Miss Law, Mr. Al-Jarrah, Miss Kingsley. I’ve been watching you ever since we came across each other at the hospital. I’ve got answers.”

“Is that supposed to be convincing?” Gabrielle arched a brow. “And what does that have to do with the stripping?” 

“So I can determine whether or not you have been infected by the Manipulator,” Theta explained. “If you have the scorpion mark, then this won’t work.”

Scorpion mark? Alice tensed. Did he mean a scorpion tattoo? Her mind went to the Augen members, the officer, and then to Leona.

“A Manipulator?” Gabrielle scoffed before composing herself and shrugging. “We’re standing here and talking normally. Obviously, we’re not being manipulated.”

Theta loosely gestured to the bodies on the floor. “And what of them? You saw it yourself. Fully coherent and feeling, but clearly being manipulated.”

Gabrielle stared past Theta towards the bodies with a grimace. 

“Gamma and Beta knocked them because they were infected by the Manipulator. Would infect others. It was what they viewed as necessary,” Theta said before he abruptly, rapidly explained the concept of offshoots and spores and compared the Manipulator in question to a basically a mushroom.

It was ridiculous. As ridiculous as believing that the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis was true—which Alice had gradually, begrudgingly come to accept. 

“But how is that possible?” Talib interjected hesitantly, “You explained it, but living manipulation—”

“I mean this with respect, Mr. Al-Jarrah, but you all have much to learn regarding vitae theory.”

Theta took out a v-cig from his suit, lit it, before continuing: 

“Important associates of mine have been afflicted by this Manipulator which is what prompted me to come here in the first place… But that’s not the subject that concerns me the most at the moment nor is it the subject for why I’m approaching you here today.”

He took a drag.

“I need to find the Capricornian conductor engineer Dämon Forstchritt’s research facility. After witnessing her presentation today, I have reason to believe she and her research may be involved with this Manipulator. And that research is more pressing than the Manipulator themselves.”

“Priorities aside, what if we decline the offer?” Gabrielle pressed. “I mean, you’re not offering a lot of concrete evidence. Doesn’t mean you’re going to drop concrete on us, are you?”

“No. If that is the case then I will investigate on my own, and you can continue out here running into situations you will have difficulty understanding… And then you will most likely become infected yourself.”

“Like Leona?” Alice tried.

“Clever girl,” Theta said after a beat. “You’ve seen it then.” 

Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose. “Wait. You’re saying the chairwoman of the ELPIS Department is being… manipulated?”

Theta took another drag. “If you accept this offer, then I will answer the questions you have to the best of my abilities.”

“Why not work with your ELPIS friends?”

“Clearly you can see that our ideals no longer coincide. And I do believe doing something different might be the best option. Perhaps this is something Omicron would do…” 

After seemingly recollecting her thoughts, Gabrielle said, “My friend Izsak Wtorek was looking into saint candidates and reservoirs before he became your Gamma. Would you be able to tell me about that? The usual textbooks aren’t really doing much.”

“Yes, I would be able to,” Theta replied. “That much, I still do recall.”

Alice’s heart skipped a beat. “And failed saint candidates?”

“There’s no such thing as a true failed saint candidate,” Theta replied, echoing the words Talib had said Leona had said on the train. “But if you have questions about them, I can answer those for you too.”

“Hey, Gabrielle…” Talib said tersely as he readjusted his beaten hat. “You’re not seriously thinking about this… are you?”

“I’ve been seriously thinking about it for a while now,” Gabrielle muttered. “Sure, I don’t mind licking a couple of boots to get where I want to, but I’d like to at least be thrown a treat or a bone here or there. And so far, there’s been a famine and a leash.” She glanced at them. “I did say right before you joined me that I was going the villain route, didn’t I? You don’t have to follow me.”

And with that, Gabrielle began to strip. 

Alice watched her in utter shock before she swallowed her pride and did the same. It wasn’t for Gabrielle that she was doing this, however. It was for herself. 

Talib immediately covered his eyes, grumbled something about this being a necessary part of defeating the Organization, and also stripped. Despite his words, Alice was certain Talib’s intentions were a bit more selfless than hers. 

After inspecting all three of them and seeming to be satisfied, Theta handed Gabrielle back her conductor. “You can put on your clothes now.” 

“Thanks for the permission,” Gabrielle grumbled, quickly sliding on her conductor before moving onto her clothing. “And why don’t you strip? To reassure us too?” 

“You didn’t seem like you believed me about the Manipulator earlier, but now you do…” Theta regarded her carefully before he began to peel off his coat jacket. “As you wish—”

“No, stop!” Gabrielle held out her hand halting. “Saints, I was joking! Mr. Foxman, come on. It is, Mr. Foxman, right?” She extended her hand out to him—not the conductor-gloved one. “Second time’s the charm.”

Theta stared at it before accepting the gesture. 

It felt unholy. 

“My mediums made contact with the military police,” Talib said. “They’ll be here soon.”

“Right. Mr. Foxman, you mentioned wanting to look into Dämon, right?” Gabrielle asked. “Actually, we were in contact with a conductor engineer who’s been working alongside Dämon just recently. She said some things that didn’t really make sense earlier but might make sense to you. It was a location.”

“I may have a gate placed there.” Theta extended his hand to the wall. “Tell me. Let’s go.”

* * *

When Alice reemerged from Theta’s portal alongside the others, she found herself stepping out in front of a series of brick buildings labeled in gold-gilded numerals. She had been half-expecting Theta to lead them back to the windowless room and trap them, so she was pleasantly surprised. 

The buildings were guarded by white pillars and the street sign read 43rd. The roads were empty, the clouds gray, the Capricornian flags billowing in the wind. 

Hands on hips, Talib twirled around. “If I recall correctly, Roberto mentioned that the buildings on 43rd are where the Capricornian government keeps its old war relics from the Reservoir War. I didn’t think it would be so easy to get to this place without jumping through hoops; and I didn’t expect it to be so empty either. The Organization must’ve spirited away the common folk.”

“No. Either we’ve been expected and this is a game,” Theta said. “Or they simply don’t care. If you could control everyone, would you care what people knew or care what to protect? Whichever way—it doesn’t matter.”

“Reassuring…” Gabrielle noted. 

Alice looked from the buildings to the ground. Right in front of the building on the gray-bricked road was a lidded storm drain. She nodded to the area. “I suppose you don’t have one of your gates placed down there, do you?”

Theta frowned. “It’s putrid. Of course not.”

Gabrielle and Talib both worked to lift the storm drain cap. A ladder extended into the dark down the hole beneath it. Talib, drawing the short end of the stick as always, descended first after sending down a medium to scope the area. Theta stared at him all the while.

What they found down below was not a running sewage system tunnel but a small room that barely fit them all in it. Unfolding opposite to the ladder was a single doorway hosting a staircase that seemed to descend endlessly.

Without any reluctance, Theta stepped through the doorway and began walking down the steps. Yawning with a stretch, Gabrielle ignited her gloved conductor to provide light and followed down after him. Alice exchanged a look with Talib and followed suit. 

Pipes and insulating cables ran alongside the narrow walls. Occasionally, a humming or buzzing sound would emanate from them. And even a nostalgic boom, boom, boom. Other than that, there was dead silence.

During their descent, Theta would frequently pause, cut his hand, and run the injured area along the lower space of the wall.

“An exit,” was all he replied when asked for an explanation.

“Okay, no more beating around the bush,” Gabrielle finally said as they continued down. “Do you mind if we try to get on the same playing field now?”

“That was what was agreed. Ask your questions.”

“Izsak…” Gabrielle’s face twisted. “Is there anything of him left? Anything?”

Theta stared at her. “The brain is a complex organ. Its neuroplasticity is something to be admired. How much information is preserved after a person’s vitae leaves their body and another’s enters? How many neurons survive after hypoxia? In the end, every person is different.” 

“It’s really just a yes or no question.” Gabrielle arched a brow. 

“When your friend shows you a photograph they’ve taken and tells you the circumstances of the picture, can you say that you’ve experienced the same? It all falls under your perspective, Miss Law.”

Gabrielle remained silent for a while. “He has a wife. A kid.”

“If it disturbs you so much, I suggest you kill him to give yourself peace of mind.”

“That’s an awful thing to say about someone you’re buddy-buddy with.”

“Gamma will simply return to his resistor if you kill him. He doesn’t use his vitae often, so there will still be enough of him left to form him.” Theta glanced at her. “Of course, preferably, you won’t kill him. If you just remove a problem without addressing it, the problem will only return the same as before.”

Alice interjected, “And how do you think the brothers of Francis Foxman feel?”

Theta stopped in his tracks. “Miss Kingsley, I apologize if I’ve been a little less than cordial. Please believe me when I say that I am trying my best”—he turned and stared into her much like how he had back in that windowless, doorless room—“but I ask that you refrain from bringing my brothers into this.”

Interesting. 

Alice regarded Theta from a moment before nodding. “Fine. But which do you prefer to be called?”

Theta faced forward slowly. “Either.”

“Omicron. The Specialist children. That woman who was with you,” Talib interjected. “What happened to them? They all disappeared without a trace. You had something to do with the children, didn’t you?”

Theta’s face tightened for a moment. “I’ve laid Omicron to rest. Those children are none of your concern, but they are safe. The woman is safe as well, although I had a difficult time getting away from her… She has no association with me.”

“I figured as much.” Gabrielle yawned. “You brothers are really loyal to each other, aren’t you? I trust you won’t be dropping any buildings on them—the children, I mean. Ideally, they’d be under the protective service agencies of their respective countries.”

“They would only be taken advantage of…” Theta frowned. “I’m beginning to realize that vitae reservoirs are only an overarching problem this time has. So much has changed for the worse…” 

Gabrielle studied him before pressing, “Anyway, I think it’s about time I ask what’s going on with the vitae reservoirs and the saint candidates.”

“Have you witnessed someone conducting without a conductor before?” Theta returned without skipping a beat. 

Alice tensed and exchanged a look with Gabrielle as Olive flashed into her mind. 

“By the silence, I’m assuming yes. That is exactly how that Manipulator can influence living things with ease. It’s something only a saint candidate can do.” Theta ignited his v-cig from his pocket again and took a drag. “You all have conducting licenses meaning you understand vitae theory basics—or at least what you believe to be the basics—correct?”

“I would hope so,” Gabrielle replied.

“Okay, I will explain now. Keep an open mind since I’m certain what I’m about to tell you will partially go against what you’ve been taught.” He turned to Alice. “I’m sure you will have much to say. You are very clever, but also very stubborn.”

Alice tensed. “Don’t assume things about me.” 

Theta turned away from her before beginning, “On average, there are 7×10 27 vitae particles in a single human body. Up to 1/4th of this vitae is in dynamic equilibrium—constantly being burned off from the body in the form of energy while being replenished through ingestion of vitae particles found in food.” 

The fraction was new but nothing else was.

“But three-fourths of that is what is considered uniquely you. It is what is expelled when a conductor is used, and this cannot be replenished. You can try to replenish this by ingesting vitae particles found in food but it is not the same because it exists at a different energy level.” 

Different energy level? Was he referring to vitae’s constant state of energy fluctuation? 

“Now I will switch to a different topic. There is a term you use for the amount of vitae particles an object can contain at maximum.”

“Yeah, vitae capacity,” Gabrielle provided. “Unknown number.”

“Human beings have a high vitae capacity but they generally aren’t able to reach full capacity because they are closed channels—unless it is done forcefully, but that requires an exceptional amount of energy and a catalyst. The exception would be True Conductors but that’s an entirely different topic.”

Alice’s mind went to Jericho.

Gabrielle tensed. “True Conductors—”

“Like I said, that’s a different topic,” Theta interjected. “As I mentioned earlier, vitae does in fact have different levels of energy. They do not exist in a state of flux as you’ve been taught. To keep things simple, I will categorize it into four levels. The lowest is what you consider hard vitae. This is the baseline, and when a living thing dies, the vitae particles temporarily enter this level before returning to the cycle. The second level is what you would consider soft vitae—what you consider living vitae. The third is the 3/4ths vitae within you that I mentioned. And then there is the fourth.” 

Alice began to feel a warm draft rising from below.

“This fourth energy level of vitae is highly volatile and unstable. Vitae particles in this state naturally coalesce together due to their similar energy states. Without the use of a conductor due to this coalescing, these vitae particles are visible to the naked eye. Also due to the high energy level these particles are in, they are unable to return to the cycle until their energy level drops down.” 

Gabrielle pressed, “Are you saying that vitae reservoirs are at this fourth level of energy?”

“There is no suggestion. This is fact.”

“But it’s still hard vitae…” Gabrielle tested. 

Ignoring the comment, Theta continued, “Saint candidates—”

Alice’s heart skipped a beat.

“—contain in themselves vitae particles that are at this highest energy level and therefore contain a much higher volume of vitae particles than a normal human being. In fact, you could say that the number of vitae particles they contain is equivalent to several hundreds or thousands of humans. This is possible because of a human’s naturally high vitae capacity—” 

Theta suddenly tripped forward over a large insulating cable that ran down the length of the steps. Gabrielle caught him and guided him back up to his feet. 

They were getting close.

Brushing himself off without so much of a blush, Theta continued: “The issue with living manipulation for normal Manipulators is that they aren’t able to expel a high enough amount of vitae or vitae at a high enough energy level to completely overcome their living target’s vitae without a dilution effect occurring. This doesn’t occur with saint candidates. This elevated energy level in their vitae also allows them to freely expel vitae without a conductor. 

Faintly, Alice made out light at the bottom of the steps. “And how…”

“For us, it’s called initiation. For them, it’s called a baptism. I believe you would call it a ‘saint candidacy ceremony.’ A different name, a different series of steps, a somewhat different end result, but the general mechanism and purpose is the same.”

There it was. The itching suspicion, the uneasiness that had been gnawing away at Alice’s stomach for months now. To hear it confirmed did not bring her relief.

“Even at that highest energy level,” he continued as they reached the doorway at the very bottom of the steps. “Vitae still is capable of storing memories. However, since this vitae is still in an elevated state of energy, it tends not to return to the cycle. As centuries pass by, this vitae continues to collect, continues to store memories. Nothing is forgotten. I suppose that’s the true immortality people tend to seek.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Supposing this is all real,” Alice pressed, “how exactly did you come to find this information…?”

“We didn’t find it,” Theta replied. “We were the ones who developed and refined it. The parts of the vitae theory that you’ve been taught and have come to know were developed by us.”

Alice felt a chill run down her spine.

Gabrielle pressed her ear to the door. After apparently hearing nothing, she clenched her gloved-conductor and pushed open the door.

They were immediately blinded by the light pouring out from the room but Theta and Gabrielle didn’t hesitate. They stepped into the room in unison and called back to say that the room was clear. Despite this, Alice found herself lingering to collect her thoughts. However, her head was empty. Nothing came to mind. 

Talib abruptly pressed his arm against hers. When she looked up at him, his brows were furrowed slightly but he was half-smiling.

“We still don’t know everything yet,” he said, tapping his nose. “I say we wait before we draw conclusions.” He paused, frowning. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around the elevated vitae levels. It’d be nice if we had some actual proof and evidence behind it, but I guess we have to lean on intuition.” He sighed. “You know… do you think Jericho’s condition has to do anything with this or am I reaching again?”

Frankly, Alice had never expected Talib and Jericho to develop any sort of relationship besides a professional one, but their camaraderie was a pleasant development. 

Alice frowned. “I don’t believe anything is reaching at this point.” With that, she entered the room alongside Talib.

The appearance of the room was rather anticlimactic. At the center beneath a series of low-hanging pipes and insulating cables sat a large, square table toppled high with files. 

The room’s walls appeared to be made of glass with small metal divides rigidly running parallel in-between them. Upon closer inspection, however, it became evident that the walls were actual glass cases similar to the one Dämon had presented to the crowd. And much like the case Dämon presented to the crowd, all of the cases lining the room were also filled with psychedelic pools of vitae.

That was really all there was to it.

Wandering around the room and inspecting everything, Theta continued, “This has never been a conflict between your countries nor has it been a conflict between your ELPIS Department and us…”

Alice approached one of the glass walls and peered into the vitae there. 

“… It has always been between us and them.” 

boom, boom, boom resounded from the pipes. 

Not quite absentmindedly, Alice pressed her ear against the glass and felt warmth and vibration bleed into her. 

And then she heard a groan.


“The Diplomatic Conductor Convention is a technological, engineering, conductor symposium held in a select country of Signum on a rotating schedule once a year. This event started back in 1925 as a way to unify and promote cultural exchange in Signum following the Reservoir War. 

It is at this convention that engineers and researchers from across Signum gather to present their research and inventions to the public eye in hopes of garnering the attention of the powerful political circles of Signum.” 

‘Events of Signum’, Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition 
Leona, art by adalhyde

16.6: Elementalist, 0100 Scorched Earth

Re-cap:

Cadence is on her way to the capital alongside Werner’s family and his unit. Influenced by insomnia, a voice at the back of her head, and her own suppressed feelings, Cadence lashes out at Nico for his abandonment before escaping up to the roof of the train. There she has an encounter with Viktoria and Iota. 

Meanwhile, Shion finally stops leading Werner astray, and he confronts his second obstacle. 


Verbrannte Erde » Scorched Earth utilized at 0100 hours.

Corporal Emilia Bergmann was secretly in love. She still remembered the first day she saw her destined one on a cold autumn evening. She had just come off of her last class of the day at her first year at the military academy in a small northeastern village in Capricorn that wasn’t even on some maps. 

Emilia’s mind had been on her most recent Capricornian philosophy class at the time. 

“Courage, heart, loyalty, glory, victory, and honor,” the teacher had said. “Those are the principles of a true heroic Capricornian.” 

Emilia hadn’t paid it any thought until the teacher exclaimed mid-lecture: 

“Isn’t this great? The new Kaiser’s made it so that you don’t have to come from a wealthy military family to rise in the ranks. Background doesn’t matter. Skill and the principles of an individual Capricornian does.”

As she’d crossed down the dirt road and the swaying reeds that connected her school to her house out on the prairie, she’d come across a large cluster of her classmates gathered in front of a man standing at a podium. Uniformed soldiers stationed before the podium were handing out cardboard containers and plastic forks.

The smell in the air had been unbelievable. Rich, heavy, poignant. The bread, jam, and ham at home had nothing on it—not even the buttery Bienenstitch that her mother made once a month. The scent had beckoned Emilia to line up with all the others. And although the line had moved quickly, Emilia’s stomach still had grumbled with impatience.

“The Kaiser would like all those who serve to be rewarded and provided with all they deserve for their commitment and dedication,” the man at the podium had said to one of the military students as a soldier had handed them a container. He’d repeated this too to Emilia as she’d received a container herself.

After stowing away from the crowd in a spot in front of the reeds, Emilia had hesitantly popped open the box, only to be blinded by the golden decadence that awaited her within. It had taken a moment for her eyes to adjust to the glittering beauty. But when she’d laid eyes on it, it had truly been love at first sight. Käsespätzle.

She’d only seen it in pictures in the newspaper since cheese was scarce in a location so far away from the vitae reservoirs and cities of Capricorn. The pictures had nothing on its actual appearance. In fact, Emilia had difficulty even putting it into her mouth because it looked so beautiful. But her stomach had dictated her actions, and she’d shoved a spoonful in her mouth before she’d even realized what she was doing.

Savory, cheesy gooiness had melted on her tongue with every bite. But she’d resisted shoveling the entire thing down her throat. Instead, she’d stowed it away in her backpack and continued on her long trek home through fields, woods, and thickets.

Once at home on her grandparents’ farm, she’d combed through the barnyard for her younger siblings. All seven of them, all handfuls, all with their own unique school bullies that she’d had to fend off constantly.

They hadn’t been at the house nor in the barn when she’d arrived, but she hadn’t been worried. They always played soldier in the afternoon, pretending they were on opposing factions of the Reservoir War, combing through the trees, and pretending they were either snipers or spies. It had taken about half an hour for Emilia to weedle through the trees and bushes to find them. A remarkable achievement. When she’d handed them the Käsespätzle, they devoured it in the blink of an eye—faces warm, bellies a bit full.

If the newly coronated Kaiser was making all of this possible, Emilia had supposed she was in love with him too. Even though her parents hated him.

Upon becoming a licensed Elementalist Conductor, Emilia had received not only the baseline pay of all licensed Conductors in the Capricornian Army but also a surplus conducting-type pay. Elementalists received the second-highest pay out of all Conductors in the army on a multiplicative percentage-based scale. Of course, earth Elementalists and externalists received pay on the lower end of that spectrum, but Emilia knew money was money.

Emilia’s first deployment was to the Sagittarian border. Life there had been uneventful. Instead of feeling like she was serving on the Border Force, she’d felt more like she was serving on ‘Border Patrol.’ However, she’d enjoyed seeing all the different products Sagittarian merchants brought across the border and always purchased something from passing by food carts to send home to her family along with 2/3rds of her stipend.

Needless to say, she’d been surprised at her transfer to Captain Weingartner’s division and Lieutenant Waltz’s unit at the Aquarian border. Her surprise hadn’t been so much at the transfer itself as it had been at the gaunt and cold faces of the soldiers that greeted her. There had been word of brewing unrest at the border with Aquarius, but there hadn’t been battle yet so their pessimism made no sense to her. It wasn’t until later when she’d served in the south herself that she’d realize.

Upon boarding the unit, she’d hastily befriended Klaus Kleine and then Otto Vogt and Alwin Brandt too when they’d transferred in after her. Not so much with Stein and Fischer who reminded her siblings’ bullies. On the other hand, she’d thought the second lieutenant was charming. And as for the first lieutenant—well—she was terrified of him. Most of the unit was.

Still, she’d enjoyed her time getting to know them all during the lapse of peace that none of them seemed to have been accustomed to—at least until the first shot rang across the border.

* * *

Courage, heart, loyalty, glory, victory, and honor, Emilia had thought as she’d marched to the border with Aquarius and flattened those soldiers left and right, as she’d raised earthen leverage points for long-ranged Projectors to fire from, as she’d put up the earthen wall to defend her unit as Major Ersatz turned against them.

But what was the glory and victory in defeating someone who was from her own country?, Emilia wondered as she’d watched Ersatz be guided into detainment in cuffs along with a dozen ELPIS members.

“You don’t even know what you’re fighting for,” the major had muttered, half-laughing then. “We have to change. We have to change.”

* * *

Courage, heart, loyalty, and honor, Emilia had thought to herself in the Twin Cities as Lieutenant Waltz had disclosed that Capricorn had been enlisting the aid of underground organizations to supply them with modified conductors.

But what was so honorable about buying illegal weapons from criminals?

Later she’d wondered if there was any honor when they had confronted Colonel Fritz von Spiel in that dark alleyway and the lieutenant had allowed the man to walk. Perhaps it had been courage.

A month after, the lieutenant had pulled her aside voicing concerns about her recent performance. Her numbers had declined significantly, and the most recent operation had seen to her being separated from her conductor and entering a close-ranged shooting match with a wounded Argoan. None of her shots had landed, and they’d tangled in the muddy dirt for what seemed like hours when their bullets ran out. It was only after Otto had sniped through that Argoan’s head from a distance did Emilia manage to catch her breath.

“I heard from Fischer that you lost your conductor during the last skirmish and you had difficulty maintaining even ground with an Argoan. Mistakes like that are unacceptable in this occupation, Bergmann,” the lieutenant had told her when they were back in the trenches. “Your non-conducting skills are subpar, so we’ll work on them.”

He had taken her to the firing grounds after that, had handed her a gun, and had ordered to hit at least five targets.

Emilia had known she was not the best at target practice, but her first shot in front of the lieutenant had been particularly terrible—as in ‘missed the entire target board by half a meter’ terrible. She had been nervous because frankly she’d still been a little bit afraid of the lieutenant, and she’d only had a one-on-one with him twice before. For the same exact issue.

“The entire unit functions at the highest performance when everyone in it is at their highest performance,” he had said after adjusting her stance and then firing five rounds exactly into bullseye with his own gun. “You need to be able to adapt in combat situations without relying on your conductor. We must be prepared for everything.”

“Yes, sir.”

She’d expected him to conclude with something like “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and so she was surprised when he instead said, “A rusted part slows down the cogs turning in the machine. All it needs is polish.”

* * *

Courage, heart, and loyalty, Emilia had thought as Second Lieutenant Wolff broke the news of Otto’s death during their imprisonment in Argo. The details about the Verbundene Augen hadn’t sunken in until later. All of it seemed so trivial compared to the sharp pain of realizing that there would no longer be anyone huddling beside her during the long stretches of nothing in the trenches. She was certain the last time she’d spoken to Otto he’d promised to send her fresh basil from his parent’s herb garden.

A broken promise.

Emilia was used to seeing and hearing about people in the squadron dying. It was expected. But the thing was—as terrible as it sounded—she hadn’t known them. They were passing faces she would occasionally smile at or a pass a packet of cigarettes to. But Otto—Otto was different. She knew Otto.

But despite the dull pain in her chest, Emilia couldn’t shed a tear for him and she despised herself for it. It was like saying he hadn’t been important to her. And most of all she despised Marionette Engel for bringing her movement where it didn’t belong. If Emilia ever got the chance, she knew she would definitely…

But where was the heart in that?


Capricorn

Courage and loyalty, Emilia reminded herself as she witnessed Cadence lunge for Nico in the otherwise empty train compartment. The sight of the lieutenant red-faced was both startling and horrifying. The idea of Cadence who’d been nothing short of amicable if not a bit overly friendly was capable of making such an expression was terrifying.

But Cadence recollected herself quickly, cleaned up the mess of glass and liquid on the floor, before making her exit. It was scary how well Cadence mimicked the lieutenant. It made Emilia wonder if she could be just as easily replaced by a talented doppelgänger.

After Captain Weingartner ushered back the crowd that had formed at the end of the cart, Emilia was ordered to follow after Cadence along with Gilbert, Stein, and Fischer. The second lieutenant was already out the door before the order was even made. Emilia followed last behind Stein and Fischer.

As she trailed behind them, she heard Lieutenant Wolff swear about losing sight of Cadence. Emilia stopped short then as she watched the trio stampede ahead with more fervor than before.

It was on a vague hunch that Emilia decided to double back and comb through their previously passed train carts. That was when she witnessed Viktoria Waltz climbing up onto the roof of one of the train compartments. Emilia hadn’t spoken to the woman before—only had a glimpse of her when they’d arrived in Eisburg. Viktoria was very pretty and very delicate-looking. Quite the opposite of the lieutenant. And more daring than the lieutenant too—recklessly climbing up there like that.

Filled with worry, Emilia followed Emilia up the train cart. As she pulled herself onto the roof, she found herself blinded by white light. When her eyes adjusted, a familiar clink-clink-clink resounded in her ears.

No…

White chains. They were everywhere, crisscrossing across the sky like shooting stars and twisting like snakes on the horizon. Mediums. Manipulator. ELPIS.

The maestro of the chaotic scene was one red-headed woman who stood in front of a grimacing Cadence and a shaking Viktoria who were crowded together.

Iota—Emilia still recalled the woman’s name from that night months ago. Swallowing, she reflexively reached for her pants pocket.

Empty. Dammit.

Her conductor was back in the storage unit of the train. But it wouldn’t do any good here even if she had it, Emilia reasoned. If she tried to use her conductor on the metal roof, she would destroy it and possibly destabilize the entire cart.

She tested the idea of retreating for backup or at least retrieving a gun from the storage unit. But no. There wouldn’t be enough time. Cadence and Viktoria were non-combatants. They wouldn’t last. But engaging in combat against a Conductor without a conductor was…

Her siblings flashed into her mind, and fear gripped her insides. When Otto flashed into her mind, tears burned in her eyes.

She didn’t want to die. She wanted to go home, to eat Käsespätzle, to pet her farm sheep, to see her siblings and grandparents.

Why did she have to be dragged into whatever this was? For what purpose? For what people? For what person?

Emilia bit her inner cheek.

Courage and loyalty.

The chains were rising in the air again, but Cadence was frozen on the spot as was Viktoria beneath her.

When the points of metal hurtled down, Emilia threw herself forward and tackled the duo to the side, nearly sending them all off the train. She grabbed hold of Cadence’s arm when the woman nearly rolled off the side while she kept Viktoria tucked beneath her. As she gathered her bearings and looked back up at Iota, she froze.

“You were there too!” Iota hissed at Emilia, face contorted with either rage or grief. “I’ll make you wish you died that night.”

Emilia stiffened before a loud horn blaring to her left tore away her attention. There was another train with red-crosses decorating its sides that ran opposite there. A medical train. Odd to see one heading out from the direction of the capital instead of heading towards it.

Wait, no. No getting distracted during battle.

Emilia faced forward again only to find Iota staring at the medical train too.

“That’s coming from the capital, isn’t it?” Iota muttered.

The look in her eyes sent chills down Emilia’s spine.

Iota lifted her gloved hand and sent another wave of chains flying into the air. The metal links did not hurtle towards Emilia, Cadence, or Viktoria however. Instead, they shot outwards and bulleted their surroundings: the forestry and the train that was chugging parallel. The chains pierced through the windows and shattered glass there. Shouts of terror and alarm bled out and were lost to the wind.

When Iota clenched her gloved conductor into a fist, the chains tightened and dragged half of the carts right off the tracks. A storm of dust was kicked up as metal scraped against the earth. The rest of the train was locked onto the tracks by snaking chains that constricted the train’s body.

Very faintly, Emilia could hear moaning and desperate shouting from the toppled carts. Civilians. Injured. People she was bound by her duty as serving. It was different than casualties on the field. Those casualties had happened in enemy territory. This was in her home.

“They could be infected,” Iota muttered to herself. “Better to get rid of them now.” Despite her voice sounding remorseful and her eyes looking somber, her lips were twisted into a grin.

Emilia paled. “You monste—”

Chains rained down around Emilia, cutting her off short. She curled instinctively into a ball around Viktoria and shouted in alarm to Cadence. But the piercing pain never came even as an ear-splitting grating howled through the whipping winds. When Emilia lifted her head, she found Iota’s mediums shooting up out from all the edges of their train cart. A cage of chains.

“Omega probably was trapped just like this with that damned suitcase peacekeeper,” Iota growled. “I’ll make you suffer the same.”

Emilia picked herself up immediately and rushed forward to grab a hold of the chains that had nearly impaled Cadence and Viktoria earlier. They were still embedded into the center roof of the train but were no longer glowing white and now whipped uselessly in the wind. She tore them from their resting spot and gripped them tightly. Without hesitation, she whipped the chain out towards Iota.

That was the problem with Manipulators. The more mediums they manipulated, the less control and awareness over the individual mediums they had. That and their mediums were only viable for as long as the Manipulator’s vitae was present in them. Too many mediums, less vitae to go around, less long-lasting mediums.

Iota blocked the attempt with a single glowing chain and laughed above the crash of metal. “What? Don’t have your conductor on you? Talk about useless—”

This woman liked to talk a lot, Emilia thought as she whipped the chain around again. The point of it swung around this time and hurtled towards Iota’s back. But a quick wave of the hand sent up another barrier.

Oh, Emilia thought. This was just embarrassing. But there wasn’t much else she could do.

“This is what happens when you rely on these things so much,” Iota growled as she swept her conductor-gloved hand in the air. “You can’t live without them.”

This time it wasn’t the sharp point of the chain that came at them. Instead, the body of a chain swept all three of them right off of their feet and into the air above the top of the chain jail. She eyed the chain that had thrown them into the air. It was no longer glowing and whipped wildly in the wind. In other words, it was no longer an effective medium.

Emilia grabbed hold of the chain with one hand and Cadence’s arm in the other hand. Cadence, now swearing profusely, grabbed a hold of Viktoria in turn. For a moment, they were all in the air clinging tightly to the chain and each other. In the next, they were crashing smack flat against the roof of the train. Their hands unlinked at the force, and Emilia was sent flying against the bars of the chain cage. The metal cut into her skin, wetness dampening the back of her uniform. Still, Emilia picked herself off the ground. Viktoria was shakily rising to her knees half a meter away while Cadence remained flat and motionless.

Stay calm and think of a solution. There is always a solution, Lieutenant Waltz had lectured during the required weekly ranked-officer meeting weeks ago. Although the meetings themselves were required, most unit officers had put them off or marked the meeting minutes complete preemptively. There is no such thing as an unsolvable problem. Advantages can be found in weaknesses.

And a Manipulator had many weaknesses.

Emilia’s heart thundered as she balled her fists and took in a deep breath. Poising herself on the ground, legs bent, knees relaxed, she let out a sigh and thought of her siblings, her grandparents, her farm, and Käsespätzle. And then she sprinted forward towards Iota.

Glowing chains shot outwards at Emilia but she was expecting this and slipped beneath them easily. The hurtling chains rattled against the bars of the makeshift jail before rebounding and coming back after her. Ignoring them, Emilia pounced onto Iota. The chains stopped short just a centimeter behind her as Iota willed them to.

Too many mediums, not enough control, not wanting to get skewered too, Emilia figured as she grabbed hold of Iota’s hand. She kicked the woman twice in the stomach before driving her back against the bars of her own jail. Sweeping Iota’s legs out from beneath her, she then pinned the woman to the roof and gripped the pointed spike of the chain that she’d carried with her all this way. With a grimace, she drove it into Iota’s side and twisted. Warm liquid dyed her hands red.

But there was no fear or desperation in Iota’s eyes, Emilia realized. It didn’t look like she felt any pain either.

Wait.

Hadn’t Cadence briefly mentioned that most ELPIS leaders were impervious to pain…? And cared little for bodily damage and harm?

That just meant she was being toyed with—

Warmth suddenly spread across Emilia’s abdomen. She could feel wetness seeping down the cloth of her uniform both at her front and her back. Upon glancing down, she found a glowing chain running clean through her stomach.

No…

Emilia gripped her chain-spike and drove it down again—this time to Iota’s throat. But before she could make contact, she was thrown backwards by another sweeping line of metal and crashed back against the bars. She felt the chain slide out from her gut as she slid down to the roof with a groan. An excruciating hot pain erupted at her stomach only a second after. She placed a hand over the area, feeling wetness seep through. She glanced down at her damp hand and saw red. Red on her hands, red pooling on the metal below her, red soaking her beloved medals and uniform.

The pain amplified tenfold at the sight of the wound, and her fingers trembled.

She was terrified. Absolutely terrified. She didn’t want to die. She wanted to go to her siblings, to go home to the farm, to eat Käsespätzle, to sheer the sheep with her grandparents. How would her siblings and grandparents afford clothing and food and school books without her stipend? How would they react if they saw her return home in a casket?

No, no, she couldn’t do that to them.

Otto, she thought, oh, Otto. He’d felt like this too, hadn’t he?

Emilia’s vision blurred, but she managed to catch a glimpse of Cadence stirring and shaking her head.

The train lurched to a halt abruptly, causing Emilia to jerk forward. When she gathered her bearings, she came to realize that Iota had sent her mediums all around the train, effectively locking it in place on the tracks. The carts groaned with the train, the horn screaming several meters away.

But this was good. There was a chance of escape now.

“Cadence,” Emilia heaved. “Use your proto-conductor and hide.”

Cadence stiffened and snapped up to look at her. The swindler’s wide-eyed gaze flattened into a startling glare. “How do you know…” She stopped short as her eyes went to Emilia’s abdomen. “Saints, you’re hurt—”

The clink-clink of chains resounded above the howling wind as the bars of their cage shot upwards and lit up the night sky in a dozen streaks of white.

Viktoria curled up into a ball beside Cadence, but Emilia stared up at the chains tearfully. She couldn’t be courageous in the end, she thought, but at least she’d been loyal.

And that was when she saw it out of the corner of her eye—blue sparks that leapt into copper embers that burst into crimson flame. They flurried out, consuming the chains hurtling at them and turning them to molten liquid in an instant.

Smoke clouded the air in the inferno’s aftermath. When it cleared, Emilia registered the captain and Gilbert hanging from the ladder on the side of the cart. Back-up. Finally. Relief warmed Emilia’s hands at the thought as her gut twisted. She then realized they were staring at her. No, past her.

The whites of Iota’s eyes glinted in the moonlight. “You.”

Emilia followed all of their gazes.

Cadence stood there panting heavily with a grimace. She was cradling her hands, the leather of her gloves flaking off in ashen pieces. There was nothing in her actual hand, however. Nothing hanging at her waist; nothing by her feet. No conductor, no weapon.

Iota threw her hand out again, and a trio of spiked white chains hurtled out to them. Cadence whipped her hand out, fingertips sparking with crimson. Flames torrent outwards, catching onto the metal links and melting them in an instant.

A fire Elementalist? Not Cadence. Not the lieutenant either, Emilia realized. Then who—no, that wasn’t what was astounding.

Emilia stared at the Elementalist as the faint wisps of embers still lingering in the air were battered away by the wind.

Emilia wondered if she was hallucinating now because of the blood loss.

Without a conductor…? Like magic.

“I can’t believe my luck!” Iota laughed, somehow completely unphased by the sight of the conductor-less conducting. “Three birds with one stone! It’s not that I want you to die anymore either—it’s that you need to die!”

“You all sound like broken records…” Not-Cadence-nor-the-Lieutenant muttered. “Is monologuing the only strategy you have?”

You’re the True Conductor Gamma came across in New Ram City. I didn’t believe it at first, but it’s true.”

Not-the-Lieutenant tensed, and his face became folded with clear regret and—fear.

Iota’s ecstatic grin became cruel. “The saint candidates really did mess up with you. I wonder if you can hear me, Aries.”

“Saint candidates…?” Not-Lieutenant stiffened. “Aries? What are you talking about?”

Instead of answering, Iota flung out her conductor again. This time the chains came from behind. Not-the-Lieutenant whipped his hand out in response and crimson flames shot out from his fingertips. Again, the chains were incinerated.

Lowering his hand as smoke streaked the sky, Not-the-Lieutenant looked over Iota with a frown. “Aren’t you embarrassed…?”

It was only because Emilia was so close to him that she could see that he was trembling. But Emilia figured that she had to be hallucinating because it didn’t make sense for such a powerful Conductor to be afraid in a situation like this.

Iota let out another roar and flung her conductor outwards. This time before the chains even began to rise in the air, they crumbled to ash in a burst of crimson.

“Give it a break already….” the Elementalist muttered before glancing back towards Emilia. His eyes were filled with worry and that fear again.

Another non-combatant, Emilia realized. There was no other reason why he would turn his back on the enemy.

“Look… out…” she managed as Iota threw out her conductor once more.

Not-Lieutenant stiffened and turned just as chains jetted at him from behind. Before they pierced him through, however, a gunshot whistled through the air followed by a grunt as Iota fell to the ground. Her conductor shattered to pieces on the ground as her mediums lost their glow and clattered lifelessly onto the roof.

The second lieutenant was standing on the roof now with Klaus and the captain just beside him. There was a gun still billowing with smoke in Gilbert’s hands. Klaus must’ve conjured something quick for the second lieutenant, Emilia realized, vision swimming.

The Elementalist lifted their hand and drew an encircling wall of fire around Iota as the woman turned on her heels and lunged at Gilbert. Iota winced back from the heat and whipped around to glare at the Elementalist.

“You don’t understand,” Iota snapped in her flame jail. She extended her hand past the wall of flame and her skin began to bubble and blacken.

The Elementalist tensed, paling in the deep red light as he increased the width of the flame.

Eventually, Iota recoiled back inside the cage but continued seething, “It’s not about Omega anymore. You have to die. You have to! Can’t you see that you people being alive is going to be the end of everything?”

There was a beat as the flames crackled.

“Well, too bad,” Not-Lieutenant murmured as Emilia’s vision began to fade. “Looks like I’m going to have to live.”

Courage and loyalty.


Threshold

Werner Waltz, a child in body only, stood in his bedroom which hosted a dustless table, a neatly made bed, and smearless windows that let in soft moonlight. Unlike the previous time he was here, he knew exactly what he needed to do. He waited patiently, gaze fixated on the open door as footsteps resounded up the staircase.

A shadow was perched like a bird in the corner of his room at his desk. Feathers gathered beneath the shadow’s feet. 

A mess.

“You were going to end up here anyways,” Shion muttered, sounding exasperated. “I was just trying to give you a break. You’re more stubborn than anything else.”

He did not want her here to bear witness to this memory, but he hadn’t yet found the ability to remove her. He’d never found the ability to push away the other five either.

Werner regarded the peacekeeper for a moment before speaking calmly: “There are many people entering and leaving the vitae cycle, but of all places, you’ve ended up here with me. You said you’re here to help, but all you’ve been doing is apparently wasting my time. If you truly wanted to help me, then you would tell me exactly what’s going on here.”

Shion hummed with a shrug. “I already told you everything. You were invaded, you’re on the edge of life and death, and you need to cut out the invader. You’ve been succeeding so far. Nothing more and nothing less.”

No, there was something else. The events—the memories—he had to wade through to get back to this point felt too real to be figments, yet the inaccuracies and anachronisms were disorienting. While he did believe that memories were faulty—which was why detailed reports were needed—those childhood memories had contained vague mentions of their True Conductor unit, despite their first synchronization not occurring until almost a year ago. And that was too strange. Shion’s ability to traverse this place against Lavi’s inability to was too coincidental.

And there was no such thing as a coincidence.

Shion frowned.

“How did you end up here?” he probed.

“… I have an inkling the papers said it was suicide,” was all she said.

Werner withdrew his attention from her as a shadow spilled out across the floor that was painted blue by the moonlight. A thin figure, face shadowed over, stood at the doorway.

“Show me,” Mother ordered without repose.

Werner went over to his desk and gingerly pulled out the black box he’d kept hidden for over a year there tucked away. The surface glinted in the light, its internal gears and maze of insulators gleaming inside its black casing. He took it over to her and presented it.

“What is that?”

“It’s… a vitae illumination box. A conductor,” he explained, just as he’d done years ago. “It’s a pictograph that uses v-lights powered by vitae that you put in it to draw a picture.”

He wrapped his small hand around a protruding metal handle. At the motion, the insulation tubes visible above the gears of the box glowed with indigo light. Werner twisted the knobs on the other side of the device and directed his vitae to flow to different areas of the box. Shakily, he drew a misshapen smiley face.

“It’s a toy.”

Werner remained silent, just like how he’d done years ago.

“Whose idea was it?”

It had been an idea of a friend, but Viktoria had been the one who had begged him to build it. On the weekends, she would sneak over to his room from the window, and they’d work together on it sometimes until dawn.

He’d known at the time that Viktoria had been likely waiting out in the hall. He’d imagined that she was frozen to the spot, and he’d recalled all the times she’d looked to him for protect—

“Mine,” he said.

“Will it help you in the future?”

Werner had remained silent then and remained silent now.

“I asked if it will help you in the future? With your military career as a Capricornian? Make people think more of you? Make you an exceptional officer?” she’d repeated. After he continued to remain silent, she’d said, “There you go. You have better things to focus on than useless things like this.” She spoke lightly but her voice weighed heavily on his shoulders—“Break it. Now. Here.”

Werner froze despite himself as the memories and feelings regarding this incident flooded his mind.

The illumination box had been a piece he had spent an entire year working on: hours upon hours toiling away after school and staying up late nights to ensure each component fit in with the other. He had fond memories of working on it alongside his siblings. It was something they’d all had and shared outside of what was expected of them.

But an order was an order; and he was very well aware now that this temporary hobby had been useless and a waste of time. There truly were better things he could have spent time on. And yet the hesitation from the past still bled into him.

Regardless, he nodded and released the conductor from his grasp. It hit the floor with a heavy thud and its surface cracked. His stomach dropped with it.

“I said break it, Werner.” Mother sighed. “I told you that you shouldn’t ever leave a job unfinished.”

Werner did as he was told, blankly stomping on the thing over and over again until it was in shards and fragments.

“Good,” she said, pulling out something from behind her back.

He already knew what it was—knew its length, its splinters, and its sharpest areas very well. And so he held his palms out in preparation. But instead of bringing down the wooden stick to his palm, his mother let out a gasp and grabbed a hold of his hands.

“Oh your hands…honey,” she said. “They’re so ugly, Werner… I told you to take better care of it and clean it after every single time! What will people think if they see this?” Her fingernails dug into his skin. “Does it hurt…?”

“It doesn’t hurt,” he’d said. “I’ll hide it. No one will know.”

A grin split her shadowy face as she rested her hand on top of his head. “That’s right. You should take responsibility for your mistakes.”

After a beat, he repeated the question he couldn’t help but ask then: “How did you know?” About his project.

Her lips curled up into a smile.

I’m always watching you, Werner,” Mother said, lovingly as she stroked his hair. “Well, everyone is. That’s why appearances are everything… They’re all always thinking about you and whispering about you. Trust me. I know… And I only want what’s best. Do you understand?”

Werner nodded.

“What would be a good example to really drill the lesson home…?” Mother murmured before her gaze turned towards the window.

Werner followed her eyes and found the bright orb of the moon stark against the black sky.

“Oh, yes, like that. You see that moon out there, honey? Imagine that’s me. I’m always there looking down on you even if you don’t see me.”

The moon cracked in the sky beyond the window and fell to pieces on the snow gathering on the trees and ground just below it. What was unveiled beneath the moon was a large eye. It stared down at him unblinkingly.

I see you. 

Werner held its gaze for a moment before turning away and looking down to the ground. The pieces of the shattered conductor had changed shape and had become living, breathing scorpions that were skittering across the floor.

Werner extended his foot and stomped on a blue, iridescent scorpion that was scrambling just by his mother’s foot. The exoskeleton of the arachnid cracked beneath his stomp. His surroundings too shattered and fragmented with the impact.

When those pieces fell away, Werner found himself back in the endless stretching abyss. The weight of the moon was off his shoulders, and the soft glow of the white vitae stream greeted him approximately two meters in the distance. His mother was not in sight, and he spied Shion standing behind the stream again.

“That took longer than last time,” came a hum to his right. It was Lavi who was crouching with a bored expression. “I’m guessing Shion had something to do with that. All of you are so stubborn, like Ollie. I was starting to get worried.”

She popped up to a stand and drifted back towards Shion and the stream. Werner hesitantly followed her and came to a stop in front of the stream before meeting Shion’s gaze.

“Are you hurt?” Shion pressed.

“It was a memory,” Werner said. “Memories can’t hurt you.”

Shion frowned again. It was almost a pout.

A swirl of copper suddenly seeped down from above hazily. Werner was aware he couldn’t escape it, so he let it come. As it drifted towards and through him, intense images, sounds, and feelings flashed through his mind. It came more chaotically than before, so it was difficult to make sense of it:

Imprisoned in Argoan territory. Encountering the captain and Bergmann. Revealing the nature of True Conductors to the unit and the captain. Escaping back to Signum through an enemy Argoan criminal organization.

He’d been compromised, Werner realized. His unit and his superior were now aware of his nature as a True Conductor. This thought did not alarm Werner as much as he thought it would, nor did he feel particularly upset at Cadence. Although she had taken a colossal risk, she dealt with the situation in a way she saw fit. At this rate, it was only a matter of time before the unit had discovered his nature. It was better to be on top of matters than caught off guard.

The outcome was acceptable, but her deceptiveness was undesirable. What did alarm Werner, however, were the reactions of his men and his captain—

Stumbling into Cvetka Akulova’s tent in Aquarian territory. Cvetka revealing that she knew that Cadence, Atienna, and Sigrid were True Conductors. Nico’s attempted transmutation of the black mark on his hand. Cadence’s pain. Cvetka’s deal with the captain to transport Cadence to the capital. And an order signed by the Kaiser. 

Additional memories and feelings seized Werner without warning, and it took a moment for him to recollect his thoughts.

Pushing down a regretful grimace at Cadence’s pain and a growing sense of apprehension, he stared at his gloved palm.

They had all fallen into the hands of Cvetka’s new employer, which brought up questions regarding Leona’s current status. Additionally, Cvetka’s new employer’s knowledge of the override brought up the issue of howthey’d obtained that information.

But why was the Kaiser involved in all of this? The possibility of him working with the ELPIS Department wasn’t a far reach given the nature of Ophiuchus. He also seemed to hold knowledge of True Conductors.

But if that were the case, why had no mention of True Conductors been made by the government? And why did Colonel von Spiel escape detection for so long, despite his increasingly erratic behavior?

But an order from the Kaiser had the highest authority.

Yes, and Werner knew his duty was to serve beneath the Kaiser as a Capricornian. That was his position from the very beginning and hadn’t changed.

In fact, Werner had always wondered if his failure to report his status as a True Conductor to higher command had been a mistake. After the events in the Twin Cities, he’d thought he’d taken the correct course of action. But now doubt began to grow—

Additional memories cut through his thoughts:

Taking the detouring train back home. Seeing Viktoria, Ludwig, Mother, and Fenrir. Reboarding the train. The sleepless exhaustion. The argument with Nico. The escape to the roof of the train. And finally, Iota. And then a snapshot of Bergmann whipping out a chain. 

Cadence—Werner swallowed a sigh. She’d let her emotions get the better of her again. And this had indirectly led herself, his sister, and Bergmann to be put in danger. No, the danger was already there.

That aside, judging by Bergmann’s actions, Werner deduced that she didn’t have her conductor on her. Werner estimated that the corporal would be able to hold her ground for at most six minutes and thirty seconds. Fortunately, Iota had been causing enough of a disturbance for the unit to be alerted. Back-up should arrive swiftly. But relying on chance was undesirable.

But…

Werner reasoned that if Cadence’s memories indicated that she had stepped out of the override, then that meant one of the others was taking her place. And if he were to assume that there was a pattern to these overrides, there was a high probability that one of the other five who had not taken the position of overrider yet would take point from here. The most favorable outcome would be if it were Jericho stationed up there. The least favorable outcome would be an override by Chance due to the boy’s non-combatancy, his particularly distinguishable conduct, and his status. If it was Chance, however—

Werner glanced at Lavi.

—perhaps he would be able to open a communication channel through Lavi. But—

They knew. They all knew.

The thought cut through Werner’s mind.

It was only a matter of time before his mother found out too. What would they think of a lieutenant whose mind was frayed in different directions? A man who wasn’t in full control of his actions? A Capricornian who lied to his subordinates and superiors about it? What sort of leader was that?

Cold sweat broke out across Werner’s back without warning. It was not a feeling he was unfamiliar with but he had not felt it with such intensity in years.

No. What sort of person was that?

“Werner,” came Shion’s voice. “That’s not important.”

Right. Stay calm and think, he told himself. That wasn’t what was pertinent here for now. Those were useless and egocentric thoughts. He had to focus on the ways he could progress and be useful, not the opposite.

His thoughts turned to the cause of the predicament. Firstly, his own actions. And secondly…

Cvetka’s employer had somehow been able to track Cadence down. The only logical explanation for this was a traitor or a Manipulator…? Not a Specialist. And the medium would be…

The invader. 

The cut on his hand.

Living manipulation…?

That was ludicrous.

But if the cut had been made by a Manipulator capable of conducting without a conductor and capable of living manipulationthis was not a problem centralized to himself. His entire country could be at risk. The Kaiser’s actions could also be explained.

But he didn’t have enough information to draw a sound conclusion, and working with far-fetched assumptions and vague memories from Cadence and Atienna was near baseless. Admittedly, he didn’t like it. His beliefs and reason were being tested lately.

He had to move onto the next stage and exit this place quickly to regain a firm handle on the situation—

Werner was pulled out of his thoughts as a wisp of ember flared out of the corner of his eye. His eyes widened one second later as he registered Lavi’s ghostly form. Her entire body rippled and flickered as if made out of flame. Parts of that flame floated upwards to the sky.

So it was Olive then.

“Is this what happens when Chance conducts without his conductor?” Werner inquired evenly. “The vitae he uses belongs to you. Because you’re a saint candidate.” Without Olive here to weigh him down, the accusation and analysis came out more smoothly.

“Most of the time, yes,” Lavi affirmed. “He’s using me.”


Conducting-type pay: is a payment system used in Capricorn in military services. Conductors who fall under what the government views as a more useful conducting-type will receive an additional payment on top of the basic stipend. The highest conducting-type pay add-on is given to Specialists while the lowest to Projectors.  

Amendment clarification made by the Economic Chamber of Capricorn, 1929

16.5: Swindler, 0630 Filial Affliction (2)

Re-cap:

Cadence finds herself stuck in an override over Werner and guided towards the capitol of Capricorn by Cvetka’s employer. On the way there with Werner’s unit and captain, she makes a stop at Werner’s hometown and has an unpleasant encounter with Werner’s family who are also bound to the capital on the very same train. In the background, Cadence’s animosity boils, while Werner’s brother Ludwig has an encounter with a strange woman while boarding the train.


Filialleiden » Filial affliction erupting at 0630 hours

Capricorn

“That was embarrassing, Werner! How could you do that to me? Didn’t you think of how I’d feel? You’re no different from your brother!” 

Cadence had been at the brunt of those words following the awkward dinner with the captain, Gilbert, and Werner’s family. All she’d wanted to do was at least keep up Werner’s appearances in front of his family, and that had been the result.

After the free feast had ended and everyone had left, Werner’s mother had stormed into the bedroom, demanding an explanation for why the door to the bedroom was closed.

At first, Cadence had thought it was a joke. Closing a door? Really? Werner was an adult, for saint’s sake.

But when Werner’s mother went on a rant about the rules of the house and feeling disrespected, Cadence came to realize that his mother was completely serious. Some nonsense about responsibility and how important it was to keep up appearances and how the way ‘he’ acted affected the entire family followed. Then came the finale of the disappointed sigh, the pinching of the nose, and the quiet departure.

Viktoria had hovered in the hall during the entire ordeal. Cadence couldn’t quite recall what Werner’s relationship with her was like, so she’d just slipped back inside her room after—careful not to close the door.

A couple of hours later, Werner’s mother had returned with an apology that wasn’t even an apology:

“I haven’t seen you in so long, honey. You understand how stressful it is waiting here for here. I just want you to be the best. I don’t want anything more.”

That was when Cadence had excused herself out the window—after Werner’s mother had left, of course. She’d felt a bit like the prince as she’d made her escape. It was a kind of a thrill, so she could see why Olive had done it all the time. She’d stumbled over those gorgeous wheat fields not too long after that and had for a moment found peace—at least until Ludwig rolled along with his awkward temperament.

Just remembering the previous night gave Cadence a migraine on top of her migraine. At least she knew that her own mother hated her. Hard to tell with Werner’s. Cadence seldom hated anyone but now prayed that she wouldn’t have to see that woman before they arrived at the capital.

No wonder Werner was so anal all the time, Cadence thought—though she had the feeling that the man didn’t think it was anything more than discipline. Which was pretty depressing. She wondered if she’d be able to convince him otherwise.

“—Morello?”

—Cadence blinked out of the memory and her thoughts and found Gilbert, Stein, and Nico staring expectantly at her from across the table. There were cards in their hands. Just beyond the rattling train window to her left, gray scenery flitted by.

Right… They were on the train now.

“Cadence…?” Nico’s voice cut through her thoughts hazily.

He sounded distant, fuzzy. Well, everything was fuzzy. She just wanted to sleep. But she couldn’t. No. She wouldn’t.

Now that she thought about it, this was probably the longest all-nighter she’d ever pulled in her life. How many hours had it been? 49? 56? 78?

Dammit.

She was so tired that she couldn’t even remember who’d started this poker game to begin with. Which was bad. Too add to the mayhem, after studying the cards in her hands, she realized she couldn’t remember who had the bad hand either.

When she glanced up to read all their expressions and determine the state of affairs in this card world, she felt her blood run cold. Gilbert’s and Stein’s faces looked blurred—smudged like a smear of oil on canvas—as were their other features. Their medals, their uniforms, their hands, their legs—she couldn’t make out any details about them. The only thing that remained crystal clear was Nico.

It was happening again, Cadence realized. Just like back in Argo. Back then she’d thought it was a symptom of the botched, prolonged override. Now…? Exhaustion?

“Thinking of another way to pull one over on us?” Gilbert’s voice came out monotone, flat.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Cadence had seen Gilbert sit down in that spot across from her earlier, she wouldn’t have been able to tell it was him. She couldn’t read him. Couldn’t read any of them. Frustrated? Excited? Smirking? Frowning? She didn’t know, so she couldn’t tailor her responses smoothly. That meant she couldn’t trust anyone here either because she had no one here. Not even Nic—

Ah, screw this.

Cadence stood up. “Actually, ya know what. I just had a brilliant idea.”

She swung herself to the booth behind her. Two indistinguishable figures resided there in opposite seats. She was certain at least one of them was Klaus Kleine because she’d seen him sitting there earlier. Probably.

Leaning towards the blob closest to her, Cadence asked, “Mind if I ask ya a favor, Klaus?”

“Oh, I’m not Klaus,” came the light response. Monotone again. “I’m Emilia. Emilia Bergmann. We’ve met but… I’m a corporal. I’ve served in this unit for about a year. I was at the border with Sagittarius before that. Attended the Norden Military Academy in—”

Cadence had no clue why Emilia was sharing her autobiography now. Well, it was still cute—even though Cadence couldn’t see her face.

“I’m just pullin’ your leg, ‘Milia,” Cadence interjected. “But I’d be happy ta sit and talk whenever ya’ve got the time. Norden, ya said? Heard that’s a good place ta vacation to.”

“Do you need something, Cadence?” came the gray mass sitting across from Emilia-blob.

Oh. There he was.

“Hey, Klaus, would ya mind conjuring up some Transmutationist proto-conductors for me?” Cadence asked. “I’ll transmute ya anyone ya like in exchange. Any crushes ya got in mind? Or popular musicians? Actresses—from different walks of life? Heard those types of books—if ya know what I mean—are all the rage here.”

“Uh—I—t-there’s no need for that, Cadence,” Kleine-blob stammered. “I memorized the components of the general proto-conductor, and I think I might be able to adapt it to your preference… But I haven’t trained much on it, and I usually have at least a blueprint if I’m unfamiliar with it. It’s pretty complicated—”

“Application is the best practice. Besides, I have faith in ya.”

“Oh, well… of course then.”

Although Kleine-blob’s voice was monotone to her, Cadence imagined the man enjoyed the praise.

“I—” Kleine-blob fell silent. “I should probably get approval from the captain first…”

Cadence understood the hesitation. It wasn’t like she was his actual superior or anything.

Just as the thought left her mind, a pair of footsteps came up from behind her. It was another faceless figure, no different from the ones sitting in front of her. Maybe… the captain?

“What’s going on?” the new blob asked.

“I just had a spark of brilliance,” Cadence explained. “How about I fill a couple of proto-conductors for ya?” She gestured to herself. “My skillset is pretty rare. Heard that only 15% of Transmutationists are internalists like me, so I think havin’ a couple of proto-conductors with my vitae in it’ll help ya in the long run. Whatdya say?”

“Kleine hasn’t studied the engineering behind nor structure of proto-conductors fully yet,” the blob replied. “But… I do agree that your skillset is… valuable.”

Sounded like the dear lieutenant, Cadence thought.

“If you’d be willing to provide your conducting for us, we’d greatly appreciate it,” the captain continued. “There’s no obligation of course.”

He was being a bit easy, she realized. Probably felt some order of guilt for playing the tin soldier and treating her as a package. Well, she didn’t blame him.

“I’m offerin’. ‘Course I’ll put a long-term favor token in my back pocket in exchange.”

“Go ahead, Kleine,” captain-blob affirmed. “And, Morello, if the proto-conductor begins to feel in anyway hotter than normal when you try to fill it with vitae, you should stop, alright? A misconjured wire is all it takes to turn a conductor into a bomb. Just be careful.”

“Got it, Captain,” Cadence responded, offering a two-fingered salute.

“Alright, sir. I need to go get my conductor from the storage cart.” Kleine-blob rose and squeezed himself out of the booth and out of the cart. “I’ll be back.”

Blob-Klaus returned ten minutes later with a handful of proto-conductors and an apology for his tardiness. Cadence accepted them graciously before excusing herself into one of the private rooms “ta better concentrate” on her work.

She glanced over her shoulder just as she slid into the room set to the side of the corridor. Nico was still sitting in between Stein-blob and Gilbert-blob. Chuckling lightly. Not looking too concerned or worried for once.

Irritating.

* * *

Once inside the room, Cadence shut the door, sank into the bed provided, and pulled off Werner’s gloves. Drawing from faces she’d encountered in the past few months, she began to spill her vitae into the proto-conductors and store the illusions inside of them. After a while, she transmuted her own red-headed image over herself and pulled out Werner’s pocket watch to study her reflection.

Funnily enough, she wasn’t sure if she’d gotten the details right. Freckles, check—but had her nose always been that small? Even funnier than that was that she remembered other people’s physical characteristics better than her own. If Atienna were present, Cadence figured she’d probably say something philosophical about identity.

After filling the last ring with vitae, Cadence slipped all the proto-conductors into her pocket and studied her bare palm. The black spot hadn’t changed at all, so Cadence didn’t pay any mind to it. Instead, she ran her fingers along the deep, red, bumpy lines that were barely visible beneath it.

“If anyone should be ashamed, it should be her, not you,” she mumbled before rocking back and stretching out her limbs. “And I’m really talkin’ ta myself now. Fantastic.”

She held out Werner’s pocket watch again. Her eyes were so foggy that she could barely read the hands. 6:30.

Just a minute of sleep wouldn’t hurt, right…?

Right

Cadence stretched out her limbs and fell back against the bed. Folding her arms behind her head, she closed her eyes—

—and opened them a second later.

However, it wasn’t sight that returned to her first but sound. A hopping piano trill paired with some dampened trombone notes and violin strokes.

When her vision returned, she found herself standing in a narrow alleyway with walls that extended up so high that she couldn’t even see the crack of the sky. She glanced down into the puddle at her feet and found her nine-year-old self staring back at her. A quick check of her hands and limbs confirmed she had indeed somehow turned back the clock of time.

A dream.

The music suddenly amplified and crashed down in disjointed echoes across the grimy walls of the alley. A milky, sultry voice in Common wafted down:

“Presenting this heart for you—”

“Alma?” Cadence whispered, staring upwards at the sky she couldn’t see.

A rumbling resounded down the far end of the alley. When Cadence turned her head in the direction, she found only endless darkness—a haze of black that seemed to creep closer and closer. Deep, throaty growling and barking resounded from within the shadows.

“—against all those who you can choose.”

Suddenly filled with body-numbing terror that she’d only ever experienced in childhood, Cadence ran in the opposite direction. The rumbling, barking shadow followed her as she scrambled away—gaining ground with every step.

An exit. She needed to find an exit.

In the distance, she saw light spilling into the alleyway from doors that were ajar along the walls. Relief blossomed in her chest, as she threw herself to the nearest doorway. She froze as she registered what was inside.

Mom. Dad. Sitting at a round wooden table in front of a copper fireplace that crackled away. Cadence almost couldn’t believe the sight of them because they were both smiling, hands intertwined, cheeks rosy with life—that was, at least until they turned their eyes on her. Their smiles dropped, their stares piercing through her skin.

Cadence took a step back and blinked.

The table was gone—the fireplace too. Her mother was now dead on the ground entangled in sheets with a fistful of morrowheat in her hands just like that night many years ago. Her father stood right by the doorframe, glaring down at her.

Your mother died by morrowheat, his eyes seemed to say as he shut the door in her face. How could you go around flaunting it like that?

Cadence shook her head before dashing to the next door.

Fortuna was standing there with all the Romano capos and the boss sitting behind her at a round table. The Romano heiress stared down at Cadence with large, unnatural eyes too big for her face and with an inhumanly cold gaze. Without saying a word, she too shut the door.

The rumbling, howling behind Cadence grew louder and louder.

She stumbled to the next doorway and found Allen, Carl, and Francis sitting on a stack of crates within. They looked younger—probably around the age when they’d all met. Cadence threw herself at them in relief but was shoved back to the ground by Carl. She gathered her bearings only to see Allen pulling the door to a close.

You expect us to let you back in after what you did? came their silent words.

However, before the door shut completely, Francis stopped it and pulled it back open. There was sympathy on his face but not pity. But just as relief began to seep back into Cadence’s body, Francis’s face began to bubble and blacken as if someone was putting cigarettes out all over it. Eventually, his face crumbled away into ash.

Before Cadence could reach out to him, the door slammed shut. She stepped back in horror before throwing herself at the closed door, struggling to pull it open and then pounding on the door when she failed. She only tore herself away when the howling reached her ears again.

Only one door left at the dead end.

A child was already standing there eclipsed in light. Nico. He held his hand out to her, his face folding with its usual worry. Upon reaching him, she grabbed a hold of his hand—warm like the sun—and stepped into the doorway only to find herself stepping back out into the alley. When she turned, she found a glass door behind which an older Nico stood chattering with Stein and Fischer—all the while smiling straight at her.

Against all these ones that’ll abandon you,”

The door disappeared in a blink.

No more doors left. All of them were closed. No exit.

The rumbling, howling grew louder behind her, almost completely drowning out the cheery tune still trilling out. As it descended upon her, Cadence tucked herself into a squat, squeezed her eyes shut, and covered her ears.

Then there was nothing.

Hesitantly, Cadence cracked open her eyes, uncovered her ears, and unfurled herself. She winced against the harsh, singular, indigo spotlight pouring down on her from an unknown source. The dissonant jazzy tune was resounding around the black emptiness that extended out around her.

Well, this definitely wasn’t what she had in mind when she’d said she’d wanted to play on the Ophiuchian Way.

A soft click echoed in the distance.

Turning towards the sound, Cadence found another indigo spotlight cast on a single woman draped over a stack of books far away. Surrounding the woman was a series of closed doors.

It was… Atienna? Looking lovely as always.

Cadence’s heart nearly leapt for joy at the sight of her. She wasn’t the type to be sappy, but finally —

Terror seized her a moment afterwards as Cadence registered that there were small, shiny black bodies crawling all over the Virgoan. They were in her hair, all over her limbs, and pattering across her face. Scorpions, tails raised and poised, ready to strike.

Shoving her cowardice down, Cadence started forwards. “G-Get away from her!”

“So I’m presenting the one who doesn’t ever choose,”

As Cadence neared Atienna, the bugs suddenly burst open and out from them grew red flowers. They had thin, dripping petals that seemed to act as fingers crawling along Atienna’s skin.

Chills running down her spine, Cadence stopped short. Only for a second. She started forward sa second after. But just as she was within reach of Atienna, the light above the woman suddenly went out leaving Cadence panting in complete darkness again.

A soft, familiar click resounded just a second after.

This time a spotlight formed farther away in the distance. It was brighter and harsher this time, illuminating a figure leaning against an upright rifle conductor.

Cadence recognized that broad back immediately. Werner. The apprehension and fear eased from her shoulders immediately. Good to see the real him instead of staring at his reflection.

“Presenting the one who will become whatever you choose,”

A figure was draped over his back. A tall, thin woman with sinewy limbs enveloping his neck. The crazy woman—his mother.

The woman’s form rippled suddenly, blue cracks forming along her body until she shattered. What was left of her was a glowing mass of blue. The thing barely held a humanoid shape, but Cadence could tell that it was smirking at her. And as it seemed to laugh haughtily, it began to seep and dig into Werner. It was painful—Cadence knew—but he didn’t even flinch.

“Werner!” Cadence snapped, glowering. “Get outta him, ya creep!”

As she took a step towards him, however, another burst of indigo flared out from the corner of her eye. When she turned, she found an additional spotlight shining directly behind her. A woman wrapped in a thin silken black dress stood below it—Alma, humming the tune of the echoing song in front of a stand-up microphone. At her feet crawled scorpions that were slowly making their way up her leg to her chest. No, they were crawling beneath her skin—writhing, squirming under all that porcelain. But she was still smiling in song.

Cadence’s chest seized at the sight of Alma—heart soaring and mind-numbing. When she managed to tear her gaze away from Alma and back to Werner, her heart dropped to her stomach. The distance between them had suddenly increased tenfold. He was almost a speck now. And when Cadence turned back to Alma, she found that the same distance had grown between them.

Cadence hesitated for only one moment before she started towards Werner as the music rose into a cacophony.

Alma was Twin Cities through and through, Cadence knew. Alma’d claw her way up and drag people down to get to the top just fine. To Alma, Cadence had the sinking feeling she’d just been a beloved stepping stone too. But Werner…

Just as Cadence reached the spotlight and extended her hand past the blue rays, the light cut to black. Again.

“Choosing the one you love,” came a sing-song voice in Cadence’s ear.

Whipping around, Cadence found Alma less than half a meter away from her.

“No….” Cadence took a step back. “I didn’t choose ya—I didn’t!” She turned around and searched the dark, cupping her hands and shouting—“Werner! Atienna!”

“It doesn’t matter how much everything changes,” Alma sang into the mic. “ Deep down, your choice and heart will stay the same.”

Cadence froze and locked eyes with Alma just as a scorpion popped out from the corner of the woman’s eyes. Her attention was drawn away from the horrifying sight by an itching at her palms. She looked down in terror to find something squirming beneath the black mark on her hand.

“Can’t you see that none of them are for you because the only one will ever love you is—”

“Cadence.” A woman suddenly appeared behind Alma in the darkness. She had a dark rope of hair, a monochrome suit, and a white band wrapped around her left arm. Feathers rained down from above her. Wake up.”

Alma extended her hands out and cupped Cadence’s cheeks as she sang the last word.

“—you.”

—Eyes flying open, Cadence jerked up to a sit and looked around wildly.

The wooden walls of the train’s private room greeted her as did the dampened click-clacking of the train tracks. The v-lights to the room flickered on and off as the compartment rattled with each bump. Beyond the door to her left, she could hear muffled chattering. It smelled like v-cig smoke too. Normally she appreciated the smell, but now it turned her stomach.

Cadence stiffened. “Kid?” She scanned the room, half-desperately. “Olive…?”

Silence answered.

Wiping the sweat from her brow, she checked the pocket watch that had fallen on the floor. 6:30–still? Only fifteen seconds had passed? And she still felt so tired.

Cadence was ready to kill for a drink but she didn’t want to accidentally turn Werner into an alcoholic. Bad enough that she’d been chain-smoking nonstop since getting here.

Shoulders sagging, she buried her head in her hands.

What the hell was she doing here with all of Werner’s men anyways? She should’ve run when she had the chance, she knew. If she had just taken Werner’s body, Nico, and Gilbert and run then—

—then Weingartner and Werner’s men would’ve been stuck with the consequence of the situation she’d put them in.

The others weren’t important. Self-preservation was the law of the land. That’s just how it was.

But they were important to Werner.

He would’ve gotten over it.

No, he wouldn’t have. She knew him and knew he wouldn’t. On the surface, yes, to keep up appearances he’d rattle on about numbers and statistics. But not really. Besides, she doubted she could convince Gilbert to come along. She had imagined that maybe she could convince Nico, but she could see now that—

Why was she caring about people who didn’t care about her? Who didn’t know her? What was she trying to prove? It was a bad investment.

That she—

In the long run, what was she trying to accomplish here? What about in the Twin Cities? With all of those children? Just involving herself was causing her to fall into a negative balance—a deficit. Cost-benefit analysis pointed to that.

No, the money was third-rate. She’d wanted to help the Foxmans in any way she could—

Even though she’d always be second-rate to them?

Cadence’s chest squeezed.

Well, that was fine, she thought. As long as she could just make all of those children have a childhood better than hers then that would be enough.

But that was also self-deception. Because in realityshe was just using that as a way to make her feel like a better person. 

And so what if she was?, Cadence rebutted. She was sure that she wasn’t doing that. But if she was, at least she was doing some good by it. If everyone acted only on intention, the world would be crapsack.

But she was only thinking like this because of the others. This altruism wasn’t really hers.

True. Cadence had often imagined what it would be like to think clearly without the other five’s sense of morality or amorality pressuring her all the time. Life would be simpler.

“Easier,” she agreed. To be free from all that … all this …?

But cost-benefit analysis painted a clear picture. Being buddies with literal royalty, a guy who was the definition of reliable, a pretty dame who could think and fight, a beast ready to get her out of sticky situations, and a get-out-of-jail-free card peacekeeper? Working with the other five was worth the payment of all this extra weight.

So that’s not the route to go then.

The thought gave Cadence pause.

Something wasn’t right… Cadence knew something wasn’t right from the very beginning. But she was so tired and she couldn’t think. And—

A quiet tune seeped into the room through the cracks in the door.

Cadence felt numbness spill out into her limbs as she turned towards the sound.

Presenting this heart to you,” came the familiar milky, sultry voice, barely audible singing behind the door. “Against all the ones you can choose… ”

Cadence leapt to her feet and threw open the door. Faceless figures were gathered at the tables in the train hall. She couldn’t tell whether they were staring at her or ignoring her, but she paid them no mind. Instead, she scrambled towards the whispering melody, brushed past the passengers crowding the compartments, blazed from cart to connecting-bridge to cart.

Eventually, she made it to the cart the music was emanating from. The compartment was empty, the only signs of former occupancy being the stray glasses of whiskey on the table.

Presenting the one that won’t ever choose.

Where was it? There. In the corner resting on the farthest table.

Cadence very vaguely recalled seeing it in Ophiuchus through Jericho’s eye—a portable radio, powered by vitae through some mechanism she again only vaguely recalled Olive reading about. It was wooden and small with a fenced-looking front and numerous small knobs and buttons lining its body.

Cadence grabbed the radio and jabbed at the buttons and turned the knobs, but the damned thing wouldn’t turn off. Alma’s voice only blared louder and louder and—

Lieutenant, what’s wrong?”

Cadence straightened and turned.

“Against the ones who will abandon you…”

Nico stood there looking worried as always.

“Lieutenant.” Nico glanced nervously through the window of the door behind him. “What’re you doing?”

Cadence pointed to the radio. “Who put that on? Did you do that?”

Nico shook his head. “I think it was Stein. He likes her singing. I thought you’d like it too…”

Why was he so clear while everyone else was blurry?, Cadence wondered. She couldn’t stand it. She’d rather she not see him at all. Because right now she could see that all he was concerned with was—

“Werner—”

“Werner, Werner, Werner—that’s all you say,” Cadence scoffed before she could stop herself. “I thought you’d at least pick up a bit more Capricornian when you were out here, but that’s all ya seem to know.”

Nico startled. “What? What are you talkin’ about…?” He glanced through the window and ducked his head again. “This isn’t the place, Cadence. There’s passengers in the other carts. If something’s wrong, we can talk somewhere else—”

“There you go again. You’re always playin’ the tender-hearted, responsible, innocent, carin’ victim,” Cadence muttered. “I know ya’ve always thought ya were better than us, but ya gotta quit flauntin’ it.”

What was she saying…?

What she truly felt

“That’s not true—” Nico stiffened, glancing over his shoulder again. “Where is this even comin’ from—”

“There ya go again. Ya always talked about how ya wanted ta leave the life. Talkin’ about how ya’d get outta workin’ under your dad.” She spread her arms. “Well, congratulations, Nic. Ya did it in the most backwards way possible. Ya happy?”

Nico’s eyes widened.

She knew his buttons like the back of her hand. Hook, line, sinker.

“Why’re you bringin’ him into this…? What does that have to do with anything?” Nico almost snapped, fists clenched. “I’m helpin’ good people. It’s my choice. What my dad’s doin’ is—”

“Ya think those guys are any better than us ?” Cadence scoffed. “At least we’re honest about who we are and what we do.” She jabbed a finger at the door behind him. “They’re out here foolin’ themselves. For glory? For honor? For the paycheck, more like it! Ha—what kind of paper-thin reasonin’ is that?! What’s yourreasonin’?”

“My—”

“Bendetto ordered a hit on a group of delinquents who tried ta take advantage of all the chaos after what happened back home. Ya know what he said when he strung up all those kids by the docks? He said it was for honor.”

“You’re not here—you don’t know what they go through or their reasons. You don’t have to know. And you don’t have to know mine,” Nico interjected. “But I can you tell that it’s more than just a paycheck. For their families—”

Red hot anger throttled through Cadence’s chest. Before she even realized what she was doing, she grabbed a whisky glass from a nearby table and threw it at him. Nico dodged it with wide-eyed alarm, and it shattered against the window behind him.

“For family?! Rich comin’ from you! How can ya even say that?” She slapped her chest. “And I am here! How do ya think this whole thing works? I see almost everything he sees. Remember half the things he remembers. And because of that, I know the real reason you’re stayin’ here. Not ‘cause you’re a damned saint—that’s for sure.”

“Who said I was a saint to begin with—” Nico stopped short, pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed before raising his hands again. “Look, I’m sorry for yellin—”

“Please, just stop with that act. I see how ya look at him,” Cadence spat. When she registered Nico’s stricken expression, she felt a surge of thrill. “What? Do you always have to have someone you cling to? First it was your dad, then it was me, and now him?”

Nico’s ears began to burn red. “Stop bringing my d—”

“I really thought you’d changed but you’re still the same old crybaby Nico clingin’ ta whatever poor sap treats ya nicely,” Cadence interjected. “You’re always expectin’ someone ta come get ya out of whatever mess ya get yourself into—”

I’m not expectin’ anythin’ from anyone,” Nico interjected, gesturing to himself. Basically—‘You’re selfish.’

“But ya admit that’s the reason why you’re out here—”

What?” Nico recoiled. “No! How could you even say that? Is that really what you think of me? You don’t even know me! Stop actin’ like you do! You always do this!”

“Stop changin’ the subject. ‘Cause you know what?” Cadence glowered at him. “It’s all for nothing! I’ve seeninside his head. I know what he thinks of you.”

Nico’s face became tight. “Cadence, stop—”

“You’re just a tool that’s lost its use,” she pressed on despite the lie twisting in her stomach. “The only reason he tolerates ya is ‘cause he remembers me savin’ your ass all the time. It’s the only reason he cares about ya even. That and you’re a decent Transmutationist. But besides that”—she mimicked Werner’s icy expression—“you’re just an annoyance.

Nico paled as if slapped. But after a beat, he scoffed, “At least… At least I’m not chasing after someone who clearly doesn’t care about me. I’m not a masochist unlike you. I’m not addicted to people leavin’ me out to dry.”

He knew what buttons to push for her too.

Cadence moved before she thought, launching herself at him like she’d launched herself at his bullies back with the Foxmans years ago. Nico caught her fist in alarm before they tumbled back against the table.

“I don’t care how ya feel about Werner. And ya know what? I don’t care why you’re out here—” Cadence spat, her frustration forming tears in her eyes. “But ya should’ve been back home! We needed you! Back when Francis was losin’ his shit. After he lost it. Before he lost it! Back when Verga and his lot were makin’ a mess of the Romanos and pinnin’ it on Matilda’s gang. But you left! And I had ta put my neck on the line ta get Werner not ta murder ya!”

Nico’s face crumpled, and he held her by an arm’s length. “Werner said… he said you said everything was fine back home.”

“That was a lie!”

Nico paled before his brows furrowed and he fired back, “Do you hear yourself…? A lie—you said it! I can’t read your mind, Cadence!”

“Don’t give me that bull. I can’t read your damn mind either!” Cadence snapped. “But I still came ta your rescue whenever ya said ya were fine when you were really gettin’ a shakedown down by some holier-than-thou kid from the Monadic District.” She scoffed. “Are ya seriously tellin’ me that ya heard about Verga kickin’ the bucket, heard about Francis literally becomin’ a damn terrorist, heard about all of ‘em bein’ kidnapped and held for ransom—and ya thought, ‘Oh, they’re just damned fine.’ Ya knew we needed help but ya just pretended not ta know! What kinda damn doctor are you when ya ignore people like that!”

“If you would’ve just asked for my help, I would’ve come home!”

“Okay, then go home,” Cadence hissed, meeting his gaze and fisting his shirt into her hands. “Right. Now.”

“You… You know I can’t do that, Cadence,” Nico stammered. “Look at the situation. I’m sorry—”

Frankly, the statement brought relief to Cadence. She was glad that there was someone else reliable by Werner’s side. But with the relief came the bitter realization that in turn that meant no one would be by her side. “ See.

“You can’t say it like that…” Nico’s face twisted into a grimace. “Why do you expect me to know when you’re lyin’ and when you’re not…? You lie all the time! And you—you always lie to me! It’s like you can’t livewithout lyin’.”

The words wouldn’t have stung if anyone else had said it.

“Not just that. You’re always twistin’ me this way and that—ever since we were kids! You keep draggin’ me along like I’m some pet. But I still went along with it ‘cause I lov—”

“Oh, I’m dragging you along?” Cadence scoffed. “You’re the one draggin’ me along. You just kept me around— all of us around—‘cause none of the normal kids wanted ta hang out with ya since ya were the doc’s kid and a pushover. Ya hear that? Ya were—and are —the doc’s son. Ya were practically livin’ the high life when you were a kid. Ya had food on the table—even brought food ta us sometimes—and ya had clothes on your back. Ya didn’t need to be around us, but ya still went around pretendin’ ya were a street rat until ya didn’t need us anymore! But that’s the city, ain’t it—”

“Are you serious?!” Nico recoiled. “You’re the one who does that. You drop everythin’ as soon as it involves Alma! Doesn’t matter if it’s me or Francis or Fortuna or—” His eyes narrowed. “Or even Werner.”

“I apologized for that already—”

“You think an apology does anythin—”

“That’s between me and him, not you!” Cadence paused, grip loosening, as she grimaced. “And I’m sorry for playin’ ya like that all those times. I just wanted ta protect ya—”

“Oh, there you go. Pretendin’ you’re a white knight in shinin’ armor?”

Cadence winced and then glowered. “Well, that seems ta be your type.”

“See. You’re not sorry. Not really,” Nico scoffed. “Because you’re still doin’ it. You’re the same. This right now. And, I mean—our song? Really? You don’t think I can tell you did it on purpose—”

“Well, like ya said—I can’t know if upsets if ya if ya don’t tell me!” Cadence snapped.

Nico opened his mouth, shut it, then glowered. “You’re a hypocrite. You’re selfish.”

You’re a hypocrite. You’re selfish!”

No matter where she went or who she was with, she would never be the most important person for anyone; and that meant that when push came to shove, she had no one. And nothing to lose.

“The hell is going on here,” came a monotone voice from behind before Cadence found herself pulled away from Nico.

Nico was aided to a stand by two blobs. There were blobs crowded by the entrance to the cart too.

Crap.

Cadence blinked as her vision blurred and then stiffened as the blobs became recognizable human beings again. Stein and Kleine were the ones helping Nico up, while the one who had pulled her off of Nico was Gilbert. Werner’s other men crowded in the doorway. His family was there too—from the crazy woman to Viktoria to Ludwig. Cadence had no clue how long they’d been standing there.

Gilbert grabbed her arm and whispered, “The hell are you doing…?”

The tired fog returned to Cadence as the adrenaline left her.

Shoot.

She cleared her throat. “Everything is in order. There was a minor dispute.”

“Everything is obviously not in order,” Gilbert hissed “Half the train heard you shouting. What’s going on? If you want to fight, take it to a damned private room—”

“I said everything was in order, Second Lieutenant.”

Gilbert stiffened reflexively and loosened his grip.

Cadence pulled her arm away. She picked up a trash can resting nearby the opposite entrance, swept the shards of whiskey glass scattered around into it, and then turned to the ones crowded by the left entrance. “I apologize for the disturbance.”

She made her exit through the opposite door before anyone could respond. The frosty night air of the connecting bridge greeted her and slapped some of her fogginess away before she entered the next compartment.

Sloppy, she knew. She’d messed up. Big time.

Cadence continued from cart to cart to cart. She had no idea where she wanted to go. All she knew was that she needed to find an exit. To get her thoughts together. And to sleep.

Eventually, she found herself stopping short just outside one of the last compartments on one of the metal walkways linking the carts together.

A half-moon hung low in the night sky, illuminating both the forestry rushing around her and another train running opposite and parallel to here. Said train looked no different from the one she was on besides the red cross stamped onto every other cart. Medical transport, probably.

A stampeding of footsteps behind her drew her attention away.

They were following. She needed to escape. Go where they couldn’t find her. Quickly.

She reached for the ladder fixated beside the door on the next compartment over and climbed. Once she pulled herself onto the top of the cart and stumbled forward to the center of the roof, however, she paused. Blinking back tears from the whipping wind, she peered over the edge and felt nausea at the sight of the ground rushing below her.

Cadence sank to all-fours.

Why the hell had she thought this was a good idea? The only reason she’d been able to confront Francis on that spire of the Dioscuri months ago was because she had been running on adrenaline and pure determination. All she was running on now was regret and fizzled-out anger. Matter-of-fact—why the hell had she thought taking it out on Nico was a good idea?

Guilt coiled in her stomach at the thought.

It was true that she’d always thought those things deep down. In fact, she’d be filled with frustration, hurt, and anger whenever she spied Nico through Werner’s eyes. It was a miracle that Werner hadn’t acted on her feelings. But despite her animosity, she’d understood Nico’s perspective. To an extent. She’d been planning to talk it over with him—Atienna’s go-to solution—but she’d pushed discussion back every single time.

“Werner!”

Cadence turned to see a flash of blonde catching the moonlight just at the edge of the train cart. It was Viktoria, shakily pulling herself up on the roof. Her hair was whipping wildly in the wind, her pale cheeks reddened with the cold.

Seriously…?

“Do not come up here, Viktoria,” Cadence ordered, keeping her tone hard and cold.

Viktoria continued climbing and crawled to Cadence swiftly. When their eyes locked, Cadence suddenly became aware of Werner’s pocket watch ticking away in her pocket. Viktoria abruptly cupped Cadence’s face. Her icy blue eyes were identical to Werner’s.

“Viktoria—”

“I knew it. I thought something was strange when you didn’t ask me to check on the pocket watch when you came home. It was an important gift, don’t you know?” Viktoria’s face crumpled. “Where did you go this time…? Who are you?”

Cadence froze.

What?

Before Cadence could think of a way to respond, an oddly familiar clink, clink, clink emanated loudly from behind her. At first, she thought the clinking was from the train itself, but then she saw the white glow reflecting in Viktoria’s widening eyes.

“I knew it,” came a voice from behind. “I thought that the Capricornian in the wheelchair looked familiar. Are you two related or something?”

Cadence felt her stomach drop. The chilly air had nothing on the cold that washed through her entire body. With effort, she broke free of the ice entangling her limbs and grabbed hold of Viktoria’s hands before throwing herself at Viktoria. They tumbled along the slope of the roof just before a flurry of white, spiked chains bulleted the area they’d just been sitting at.

“Are y’alright?” Cadence asked Viktoria below her who responded with a wince.

A woman with wild, fiery red hair barely tamed into a ponytail stood at the edge of the cart eclipsed by the moonlight with her polka-dot blue dress billowing in the wind. She was missing half an arm. But her good hand was gloved and extended outwards. At the gesture, a torrent of chairs unfurled out from behind her in a pattern that vaguely resembled wings.

Although everything else was fuzzy, the terror that had seized Cadence the night she’d worked alongside Werner’s men and Jericho to try and rescue Donato from this ELPIS leader was still crystal clear.

“You were working with that suitcase peacekeeper, weren’t you?” Iota whispered, eyes so wide that Cadence could see the whites—it seemed as if Iota hadn’t forgotten that night either. “Back in Gemini.”

Always bad luck with women.

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