15.4: Advisor, 0101 Distance Pain

Re-cap:

Atienna is locked in an override with Werner and scours the unoccupied territory with Werner’s unit in attempt to meet up with Captain Weigartner for a pincering operation against the Argoans.

Atienna and Werner’s unit discover that the meeting point camp that they were supposed to the captain at, however, has been decimated. The Verbudnene Augen leader Marionette Engel, a fellow Capricornian soldier named Henning Rath, and an Argoan named Emil are the only found survivors. As the group heads back to camp to report their findings, they are ambushed by Argoans. And although they win the battle, Otto Vogt is felled not by an enemy weapon but by fellow Capricornian soldier Henning Rath. The cracks in the Capricornian army have become clear.

While of this has been unfolding, an antagonistic voice pounds at the back of Atienna’s mind.


Fernweh » Distance pain at 0101 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

No matter how hard Atienna scrubbed, the blood wouldn’t come off. Rubbing her gloves against the overgrowth eating away at the stream bank failed her as did plunging her gloved hands into the stream’s icy depths. All it did was numb her hands to the point where they felt as if they belonged to another. Which they did.

It was nighttime now. She and Werner’s unit were almost within reach of Capricorn. “About half a day’s walk,” Gilbert had said before they had settled here for the night. They had already passed the lamia trees crowning the area that greeted her at the beginning of the override, and now they had found camp beside a thin stream nestled within a patch of woods.

Nico, Gilbert, Marionette, Emil, and Werner’s subordinates were a meter back behind a line of trees. Atienna had started a campfire for them before secluding herself to this area. “To refill my flask,” she’d told them, gently dissuading Nico when he’d offered to accompany her.

A waxing gibbous moon hung low in the sky, spreading its quiet blue light through the branches weeping overhead. It spilled along the rippling waters, giving the illusion that the river itself was emitting light. The trickle was quiet, crystalline, much like the streams back home.

Their walk to this scenic place had been cloaked in absolute, respectful, somber silence—something akin to a funerary march. They had left Otto’s body in a shallow grave marked by his conducting rifle. Apparently, there existed a special Capricornian division that would come back along these tracks, exhume Otto’s body, and return him home.

Home…

Atienna scrubbed her gloved hands in the water again. When she pulled them back out, the moonlight illuminated the red caked in between the leather. It was different from fighting in the Night Circle—the blood easily washed away from her bare hands there, and there was no death there either. Only hurt pride.

So, the best thing to do would be to peel away these gloves and do away with them altogether. But Werner wouldn’t like that very much and…

How cruel, Atienna thought, for her to wash away Otto like this.

But that was how she was. Always watching from afar and washing her hands of things when they became unpleasant. Only involving herself when it affected the people close to her or when she was pushed to the edge. Playing by curiosity otherwise. Curiously delving into mysteries—into the appendix—when it was a distant affair. But as soon as it was something close to the heart, averting her eyes and peeling away. 

But she was moving instead of remaining still—

—but was she really? And were the results any better?

Otto again flashed into Atienna’s mind. She had heard about people dying every day—read about it, saw it through the eyes of the others. But she supposed that until it was someone one knew, until it was someone one loved, it was all just noise, ink on paper, a distant look through another’s eyes.

And she had seen so clearly with Werner’s eyes at that moment. Even now. Everything defined, detailed, crystalline: Otto’s slowly paling face, his bluing lips, his searching eyes. He must have been utterly terrified, she thought. Dying in front of people he’d probably only known for a handful of months. Dying away from his family.

Did she even know Otto that well to be feeling like this?

Werner did. Diligently attending training exercises, and a quiet presence in the trenches—that was Otto. A space filled. And that was enough.

Oh, Werner. He would blame himself, Atienna knew. But she didn’t know that—

Why was she always feigning ignorance? Didn’t she know everything?

No, she only wished she did.

No, she chose to be ignorant. Knowledgeable when pleasant, selectively ignorant when unpleasant—

“Isn’t that right, Miss Imamu?”

Atienna’s blood ran cold at the familiar voice as red spilled on down towards her from upstream. As she followed that line of red upwards, dread began to build in her stomach. The first thing Atienna saw were her eyes, wide open and blue. Then Atienna saw her throat, bulleted through with a small hole and pouring out red into the blue. 

In the frigid moonlight, Yulia Kriska lay across a rock bed jutting up from the waters. Her ashen face was several shades paler than Otto’s had been, but her eyes were sharp and terrifyingly clear. Despite the odd angle her neck was bent at, she was able to crane her head towards Atienna.

Atienna shot up to a stand.

It was the same thing she had seen when she had been getting water with Nico at the stream bank just the other day. The same thing that appeared in her nightmares. A ghost; a mirage; a trick of the mind possibly due to the override or trauma; an illusion —Atienna knew this. But despite all logic and reason, she couldn’t help but stumble backwards as her heart thundered.

“You pushed me into this,” Yulia said, her voice hollow and gravelly. “I had no other choice.” She began to pull herself forwards along the shallow waters—arms bent at inhuman angles. “ Wecould’ve been free, but you stole my choice from me. Even though you’re just like me.” Her bones cracked as she dragged herself closer and closer. “Did it feel good to win against me? Did it feel good to be ‘right’?”

Atienna took another step backwards, slipped on mud, and fell flat on her back.

“You!” Yulia hissed even closer now—so close that Atienna could see her breath fogging up the air. “ You— ” 

A pale hand wrapped around Atienna’s ankle. Heart pounding, she followed that pale hand to a pale arm to a pale and blemishless neck, to a round and painfully youthful face.

“—took everything from us,” Kovich seethed.

Atienna swallowed a scream, squeezed her eyes shut, and kicked hard. As soon as the grip around her ankle fell away, she jumped to her feet, arms raised, body tense, eyes open. But—

—there was one. Nothing. Just the silent, quiet stream bathing in moonlight and the trees stretching up to the sky like hands.

The hairs on the back of Atienna’s neck stood on end.

That had felt like a synchronization reminiscent of when she had first started crossing over with the other six. No, it was nothing like that. Here, she was alone. Here, there was no one to experience that with her.

A result of the prolonged override.

Was it…?

All Atienna wanted to do was run into someone’s arms—to Sefu who was always ready at request, to Cadence who would make her laugh, to Werner who would offer her reason and calm, to Maria who would highlight the minisculity of her problems, to Olive who would offer her company, to Jericho who would always listen—but that was impossible in the present situation. And she couldn’t run to Gilbert or any of Werner’s subordinates.

Atienna drifted back into the direction of camp but paused as a thick bush overgrowing with white, star-shaped flowers caught her eye. Absentmindedly, she crouched down by the thrush and inspected the flora. After a moment of consideration, she sank to her knees and crawled into a small space beneath the brambles. Once hidden away, she tucked her knees beneath her chin and buried her head.

In her childhood, she would frequently do this with Safiyah and Bachiru—stowing away into the shrubberies around the meeting halls of Virgo, telling stories, whispering to each other in the damp quiet. Maria too would do this all of the time, Atienna recalled. Yes, Maria and her dear—who? Atienna couldn’t recall at the moment—her mind was so muddled.

Why did she even leave Virgo, to begin with? What had she hoped she could accomplish? Every choice she’d made since putting Usian down had led to terrible outcomes. Even her choice to handle Usian and Virgo’s withdrawal from isolation was questionable. And all of those choices—she had made on her own. But of course now—like always—she was trying to distance herself from her choices. Regrets? Pathetic. 

It was so lonely. She hated it.

Her father’s warm face, her mother’s gentle eyes, her brother’s boisterous laugh, and her sisters’ mischievous giggles as they ran around the estate—those images seeped into the edges of Atienna’s mind.

She missed home. She just wanted to go back, to return to her book reading in the gardens, to return to her visiting the Great Tree weekly and resting her head on her mother’s lap. Even if it meant turning back to the days where she would lift her fists in the Night Circle. 

What…?

Was that what she really wanted? What she truly missed? No, as much as she missed her family, she fearedreturning to Virgo. She didn’t want to be the only one out of all six of them who remained unchanged, unmoving. Right, all she wanted right now to be anywhere else but here—here where Werner, Gilbert, Nico, Klaus, Otto, and the others spent half of their lives. It was selfish but there was a difference. Still, she was avoiding things again.

Well if she didn’t want to be here and she didn’t want to be there, where exactly did she want to be? Want, want, want, want. And the only way to achieve what was desired was to choose the extreme. 

Why couldn’t there be a path down the middle? If there had been a path like that available maybe then Otto… Yulia… Usian… her mother…

Tears leaked from Atienna’s eyes before she could stop them. They spilled out molten hot, and she put out her hands to catch them. She had not spilled tears for herself in some time, she realized. She didn’t think she’d ever done so. Her tears were usually for someone else, and the last time she had cried for someone else was six years ago after her mother had…

No, she didn’t want to think about that.

“Hey, what are you doing under there—oh… Shit.”

Atienna startled and looked up. She’d been so distracted by her own thoughts that she hadn’t even noticed she had been approached and discovered. What a dangerous position to be in if it wasn’t a familiar face that was looking down at her.

Gilbert stared, one hand prying up branches to her hiding place, the other finding repose on his holster. “Uh… You sure you don’t want me to try hitting you over the head to see if that works? Don’t blame you for not wanting to be here.”

Atienna couldn’t help but chuckle. “Is… that how you usually solve your problems, Gilbert?”

Gilbert gave a noncommittal grunt, sliding himself beside her and kicking up his boots.

His nonchalant directness didn’t surprise her, although she felt shy of it. She wiped her cheeks and hid her face. “This is… a bit embarrassing. I’m sorry. I feel like a child.”

“Nah, you’re pretty good for seeing your first body.” He ripped a flower from one of the brambles hanging overhead and inspected it. “You should see half of the floppies they send here—new recruits, I mean. Get a bit of blood on their uniforms and they’re asking for bleach. Otto was the same. Grew into it though.”

Atienna studied the flower in his hand and thought of OttoAfter a beat, she drew, “This… is not the first time I’ve seen something like this.”

Gilbert squinted at her, dropped the petals. “And… what exactly do you work as again?”

Atienna hesitated but she didn’t quite know why. Although Werner did not admit it, he trusted Gilbert wholeheartedly—and yet, an odd sort of apprehension unfurled in Atienna’s chest at the prospect of divulging everything to him. A flitting nervousness. The type of feeling that would only blossom in her chest when speaking to a stranger.

“I’m an advisor,” she finally said, “for a Virgoan diplomat.”

Gilbert’s eyes widened, and he swore under his breath. “No wonder you’re good with words. Did some weird silver-tongued thing to that Argoan Emil too… I get what Werner means now by your happy-go-lucky possession group being a security issue.”

Atienna suspected that Gilbert’s reaction would be much more dramatic if he realized Olive was a….? Prince—Olive was an Ariesian prince.

There it was again. That fleeting feeling.

“… I heard from Werner that you don’t like them very much. People in my profession, I mean.” Atienna plucked one of the fallen petals from the ground. “Would it reassure you if I told you that I don’t have a direct influence over anything?”

“That’s what they all say. Ask ‘em to change something and they say their hands are tied—either the opposition is pushing back, it’s too much money, or it’s too complex to do.”

Oh. Atienna looked away. She supposed he had a point.

Gilbert sighed and rummaged for something in his pocket before pulling out two rectangular bars wrapped in wax paper. He placed them in her hand. “Here.”

She turned them over and inspected the golden print on brown there. Schokolade.

“Werner’s sister and mother sent these down for him. He didn’t want it, so I stole it from him,” Gilbert explained. “Guys out here would kill for this stuff.”

“Comfort food,” Atienna surmised.

“Go ahead.”

She hesitated before carefully peeling away the wrapping and breaking off one of the six square chocolate blocks. She popped it into her mouth, and her tongue immediately curled. Wincing, she quickly chewed and swallowed.

“Oh, that must be the bitter chocolate.” Gilbert snorted. “His mom’s kind of a health nut. The other bar’s from his sister. Probably milk chocolate if that suits you better.”

“I think I’m satisfied…” Atienna drew, folding the wrapper over itself and handing both bars back to him. “I appreciate your kindness.”

“Keep them.”

Atienna hesitated again before moving to tuck the bars into her front pocket. She paused as she felt something already stored there—round, slender, smooth. The pocket watch, she realized. She reverently pulled her hand away before storing the candies in Werner’s pants pockets instead.

“I can see why Werner relies on you.”

Gilbert stiffened, scoffed. “Trying to butter me up now?”

“He does rely on you, Gilbert,” Atienna murmured, lips curving upwards. A distant memory that was not her own clouded the edges of her mind. Although the image was not clear, the feeling was. “He’s… very grateful for you just being there. Truly.” And because Werner had felt this way, Atienna felt the same. The fleeting feeling from earlier faded with the thought.

“Yeah, well….” Gilbert shrugged with a grimace—perhaps even a slight flush. “I owe him a lot, so it’s good to know that I’m making good on dues.” He sighed. “Third time I’m talking to someone who looks like Werner but isn’t, and I’m still not used to it.”

Humming, Atienna took a sip of Werner’s canteen to wash the bitter taste out from her mouth. “If you don’t mind me speaking about this… You’ve known each other since childhood, right?”

“Yeah. My mom worked as a cleaning lady for his parents.” Gilbert scoffed. “I helped my mom out from time-to-time. ‘Course Werner’d always shove me to the side because I didn’t do a good enough job. Honestly, the guy’s so ‘straight-laced’ that the military probably doesn’t even have to pay him to be out here… He was originally supposed to do stuff in the capital but here he is…”

A complicated friendship. Perhaps as complicated as Cadence’s and Nico’s. Atienna realized she was lucky to have an uncomplicated one with Safiyah.

“You’re a woman of many words.”

Atienna lifted her head, offering a wan smile. “And you’re a man of few.”

Gilbert regarded her before muffled shouting in the direction of camp behind them caused a frown to crease his face. He sighed, getting on his knees and then crawling out of their hiding place. “Can’t leave them alone for one minute,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

He disappeared into the moonlight, his footsteps fading in the direction of camp. The silence that he left did not last long. A stomp of boots crunched a minute afterwards and was followed by hushed whispers. Atienna peered through the spaces between the leaves and made out two figures creeping along the water’s edge. A tall man with red hair and a woman with brown curls—Friedhelm Heimler and Marionette Engel. There was little space between them, and their expressions were tight, their hand gestures animated. Atienna, however, could not overhear them from this distance. Although Werner’s sight was sharp, it appeared that his sense of hearing was not.

Atienna hesitated before slinking quietly through the bushes and approaching them from behind. She made sure not to step on any fallen branches nor any frosted patches dusting the earth. The feat was a bit harder carrying Werner’s weight but she managed to keep to the shadows beneath the overhanging trees. Friedhelm and Marionette continued conversing, bodies turned towards the river.

“— murdered Vogt!” Friedhelm hissed. The moonlight accented the age-lines on his face. “What in saint’s name is going on?”

Marionette pulled away from him, turning away from the river. “I don’t know—” She stopped short as she stared out into the darkness in Atienna’s direction.

Mildly impressed, Atienna peeled out from the dark. “What appears to be the issue here, Friedhelm?”

Friedhelm stiffened, took a step back, shared a look with Marionette before grabbing her arm. “Sorry, sir. Miss Engel said she needed to use the restroom. I—”

“And you’re planning to watch her?”—it did feel a bit nice to be more direct, Atienna thought, although it still seemed too sharp.

Friedhelm cleared his throat. He pushed Marionette roughly towards the thrushes and jerked his head. “Make it quick, Engel.”

Marionette sent Friedhelm a callous look before studying Atienna. She then dipped behind the shrubberies a meter away, tucked into a squat, and went silent. The noise from the trickling stream gave her some privacy.

“How are you feeling, sir?”

Atienna turned to Friedhelm, unsurprised. It was a question asked over and over, each inquirer expecting a different answer. How troubling.

“Er, sorry, if this is overstepping my bounds, sir, but I was just curious. My son was a combat medic, you see. He said head injuries were the worst type.”

Hm. Werner had deemed it unnecessary to investigate why Friedhelm Heimler had decided to re-enlist in the Capricornian army despite holding anti-militaristic views. This was because the military had approved Friedhelm, and that protocol was sufficient. Werner was still straight-laced and law-abiding despite everything, and Atienna found that charming. However, she personally deemed investigation very necessary. Friedhelm’s motivations were… quite curious. Atienna’s fingers itched at the thought—wait.  Was a combat medic,” he said? Perhaps, it would be best to approach this in a Cadence-like manner.

“I… appreciate your concern, Friedhelm. I’m feeling alright.” She side-glanced at him. “How are you feeling? After that…”

He side-glanced back at her. She could see the gears in his head turning, calculating.

“I’m alright, sir. Thank you for asking.”

“You mentioned your son was a combat medic,” Atienna continued, trying her best to keep the hesitation out of her voice. “I recall reading that he was serving in the Border Force. My memory is still fuzzy…” She took note of the way his eyes sharpened again, though they appeared pained. “Is your son serving out here with us?”

Friedhelm’s lips pulled tight, his gaze flicking left towards nothing. “He passed away, sir. During the border conflict with Aquarius.”

A coldness gripped Atienna’s chest tight and squeezed. “I… I’m sorry. I didn’t realize… I’m sorry for bringing up something painful.”

It had been recent too. The wound of having his son carved out from his life was still exposed, fresh—perhaps even festering.

“Not bringing it up doesn’t change the fact that it happened,” he interjected, bending down to pick up a rock at the stream’s edge. “With all due respect, sir.”

Truth and… motive. 

Their gazes met. The whites of his eyes seemed to accentuate the black of his pupils. Out of habit, Atienna looked away.

“I thought I was fighting in that war—the Reservoir War—so my son wouldn’t have to fight in another one.” He threw the rock in his hand. It skipped once across the shallow waters. “But look what happened. We’re still fighting. I’ve been at this for years, so I know how it’s going to turn out. If we win whatever piece of land that’s here, they’ll just send us out again. It’s like a drug.” He scoffed. “Cheers to living to fight another day in another man’s war.”

It seemed as if he was very steadfast in his beliefs. And it all appeared to have been sparked by— “I truly am sorry, Friedhelm, for what happened to your son…”

Friedhelm’s eyes glinted again, but then he snorted, undignified. “What are you saying, sir? I served with your father during the Reservoir War. I’m sure he feels the same way….” He paused. “Except you’re still alive. Just think about how your father feels with you out here.”

Atienna wondered about that.

“I mean, look at what happened just now to… to Vogt. What are you going to tell his parents…? No parent should outlive their child.”

Atienna gazed down into her distorted reflection in the stream.

“And before that too. With you. You’re still young in my book, sir. In your current state… it’s only going to get harder for you.”

A rustle from the shrubberies detracted Atienna’s attention. She glanced to the side and found Marionette peeling out from the shadows.

Atienna regarded the woman for a moment before turning to Friedhelm and asking quietly, “Are you thinking of taking advantage of my current condition, Friedhelm?”

Glistening sweat began to trail down the man’s face immediately. “A-Advantage, sir? I apologize if I’ve overstepped my bounds. I was merely stating my opinion—”

Atienna glanced back at Marionette who had stopped short in her tracks. The woman’s stiffness reminded Atienna of the aghast surprise that would grace her younger sisters’ faces when she would catch them sneaking out from their chambers late at night.

“Do you think my mental faculties are so far gone from my injury that you could easily sway me? What do you think influencing me as I am now will even do?” Atienna turned back to face Friedhelm whose face was white. “You’re… part of the Verbundene Augen, aren’t you, Friedhelm? You tried to hide Miss Engel from us when you found her earlier. Perhaps… you knew she was there—”

Friedhelm reached for the pistol strapped at his waist, ignoring Marionette’s hiss of alarm. Before he could pull out the weapon, however, Atienna placed a hand over his—gentle but firm.

“Please don’t be too rash, Friedhelm,” she said, meeting his eyes. “It would be a bit strange if you went against your beliefs right now and drew your weapon, don’t you think? Moral beliefs aside, given your suspicious behavior earlier… I don’t think it would end very pleasantly for you. Gilbert is very sharp.”

Friedhelm stiffened.

“While I believe you have the right to your own beliefs, what you do with those beliefs… is a different matter, don’t you think?” Atienna paused in thought, before continuing slowly, “But right now I’m just trying to understand what’s happened here. Believe me. Many people have lost their lives, and I think it would be sad if we didn’t uncover the why.”

Then the anger came to Atiennathe anger that this man had almost lifted a finger against someone dear to her. Without hesitation, even. If Cadence or Olive had been here in her place instead, what would have happened? This man was a coward attempting to draw a weapon against someone whom he thought was not at full mental capacity. 

Atienna, however, swallowed the bitter pill and waited for Friedhelm to release his weapon before she released his hand. “What were you planning here?”

Silence filled in the lapse in their conversation. Friedhelm glanced past her shoulder towards Marionette.

After a beat, he responded tightly, “Sir, it was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration. I swear on my blood. This is my country—I love it—and I’ve served here far too long to do it any harm.”

“Henning Rath… the other soldier you found… he was a part of the movement too,” Atienna surmised, “wasn’t he? There are many more of you in the Capricornian Army.”

Friedhelm hesitated, eyed Marionette.

“I understand your hesitation. But as I said, Friedhelm, all I want right now is to understand. Lack of understanding is what causes these problems, don’t you think? Politics can wait. It’s only fair to Otto.” —Otto whom Friedhelm might have viewed as a surrogate.

Now Friedhelm looked away. “I received information from a Twin Cities broker about a route here that wasn’t traveled by the Argoans or us, so I told Miss Engel and she took a small group of our members along that route for our demonstration.” He turned back to face her. “I was supposed to meet with them when we met up with the captain for the operation. Then, our members were supposed to join hands and stand together in an act of solidarity, sir. I promise. We weren’t breaking any laws with this demonstration.” He shook his head before frowning and Marionette. “What happened with Rath and Otto, what happened with our meeting point—what the hell was thatMari?”

Marionette studied Atienna hesitantly. The stream seemed to roar behind them.

Finally, the woman said, “I already told you what happened. One of the ones in your division took the first shot…” Her expression was tight yet flat. “I’m not sure how they found out about us. But one of ours retaliated… The situation got out of hand. And that was the result.”

Moment passion could drive people to such extremes—Atienna knew this well. She had experienced this herself six years ago in front of the Great Tree. Words, ideas, or weapons—each could lead to conflict, but one was more dangerous than the others.

Atienna weighed the truthfulness of Marionette’s words before she tried, “When Gilbert—Second Lieutenant Wolff—asked you earlier, you said that this attack happened two days before we arrived.”

Marionette’s brow twitched.

“Would it be a correct assumption to say that you were stretching the truth? To make us think that it had been too long for us to chase after your members that might’ve escaped…?” Upon noticing Marionette’s apprehension, Atienna elaborated, “This is for the sake of the people in your movement too. This is a dangerous place for them to be wandering around, don’t you think? So if they’re closer than we believe, we might be able to retrieve them before someone else does…”

Marionette hesitated. “… I think it was just a day before you came.”

The timeline lined up.

“There was a member of your group dressed in Argoan uniforms,” Atienna continued. “Was this also part of your demonstration?

Friedhelm and Marionette exchanged looks of confusion.

Atienna elaborated, “The Argoans that we encountered several days before coming to Captain Weingartner’s camp—right before I was injured… there was a Capricornian among them. One of the members of your group may have disguised herself as… the enemy. I’m still wondering the ‘why’.”

What?” Marionette’s eyes widened. “You and your second lieutenant never mentioned this to me—”

“And you never mentioned that you had fellow Augen members in this division, Miss Engel, and you stretched the truth on when your conflict with the captain happened. And—”

And this would’ve never happened if their Augen group hadn’t been there.

Refraining from speaking those unpleasant thoughts, Atienna let out a quiet breath. “But I don’t believe in a lie for a lie or an eye for an eye… So we should try to find an understanding as I said. I don’t believe it would make sense for highly-trained soldiers to attack so rashly nor do I believe that it would make sense for members of an anti-military peace movement to react violently—not unless something pushed them to that point.”

Another encompassing silence.

Marionette finally said, “Argo wasn’t included in our demonstration plan, though a group of them had the misfortune of coming across us during the shootout and got pulled in.” She folded her arms. “But… Recently, I’ve heard rumors. Maybe Capricorn restarted the Watch but made it domestic. Spying on citizens and sewing unrest in organizations that oppose them. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of your soldiers stationed at the camp was involved in something like that. Or maybe even that ‘member of ours’ that you mentioned.”

Oh, conspiracy… not even questioning her own people. Typical. 

Marionette’s nails dug into the skin of her forearm. “Who was it? The woman you found—can you describe her to me?”

Oh. She had more reason than that.

“…The Capricornian was a young woman—perhaps, mid-twenties,” Atienna replied. “She was blonde… And her fingernails painted with your movement’s symbol.”

Marionette sighed. “It must be Angelika… She’s from Grünland and came here with me for the demonstration. I lost sight of her during the shootout at the camp… “ She glanced at Friedhelm. “You wouldn’t know her, Friedhelm. She was a new recruit.”

So, that lowered the possibility of it being an Argoan machination.

Marionette shook her head. “I have no idea what Angelika was doing. She must have panicked or…” She let out a quiet sigh. “Since Angelica isn’t with you, then…”

“She…” Atienna glanced at Friedhelm. “I don’t quite recall, but I believe it may have been a suicide…”

“You mean the Argoan that attacked me?” Friedhelm’s brows rose. “The one that cut you?” He turned to face the other woman. “Mari, she bit her own tongue off.” His gaze darkened. “If you’re moving onto tactics like that—”

Marionette paled. “What…? Don’t be ridiculous. I already told you. I would never ask them to do something like that.”

“Then what was that with Rath and Angelika?” Friedhelm hissed.

And Otto…

“I don’t know,” Marionette replied quietly before shaking her head. “It just got out of hand.”

It was a bit startling to see Friedhelm speak so vehemently, Atienna thought. His docility seemed to have been just a facade. That aside, this was rather perplexing. Marionette didn’t seem to be untruthful here…

“Lieutenant Waltz, they—we—were only trying to… stand up for our rights, for our children, for our country. Believe me. Whatever happened here wasn’t supposed to happen,” Friedhelm urged. “If you explain it to the higher-ups then maybe…”

Feeling a frown press against her lips, Atienna turned to the man but then froze. She couldn’t recall his name. She knew she had known it just a moment before because Werner had known it. But as she continued to stare at the man whose name she could not recall, she realized she could also not recall a single thing about him other than the information he’d just given her regarding his son and his beliefs. Nothing from when he’d joined Werner’s unit, nothing about what he’d been doing serving in Werner’s unit these past few months.

Atienna swallowed, heart racing. Olive had mentioned in passing that he’d lost the ability to understand and speak Capricornian during his override of Werner several months prior. His knowledge—perhaps memory—had been snipped off cleanly during that period. Olive also had said that his comprehension of Capricornian had returned once the override had ended. Knowledge—sewn back on.

Atienna wondered faintly—did overrides lead to a slow and complete disconnect with the knowledge and memories of the others?

How frightening…

Was that really how she felt? Or was she relieved at no longer being put under the pressure of the memories of those who were constantly making her choose? All choices led to misfortune. There was no such thing as satisfaction. 

Relieved ‘at no longer having the others forcing her to choose’…? What…?

And then it dawned on Atienna.

“Who… are you…?” she whispered in reserved disbelief, staring past the shoulder of the man whose name she could not recall and into the moon-streaked woods.

That voice inside her head—although it sounded like it—was not her own. She knew this with absolute certainty. It did not belong to any of the others either.

That was ridiculous. What voice would it be if not her own?

Yes, it was a bit of a stretch. Perhaps it was that she’d gotten so used to the others buzzing around inside of her head that she had forgotten what it’d felt like to be alone with her own thoughts. She supposed it was a relief—

Exactly. 

There it was again. The misstep. The incorrect assumption. The truth of the matter was that it was the five who were pushing her forward. Without them, she knew she would remain firmly rooted to the ground. No different from The Great Tree, eternally growing. That was one of the reasons why she needed them. She was glad that they were making her choose.

I wouldn’t be me, she thought, if I didn’t think like this. I would like it if you didn’t test me like this… whoever you are. 

There was a beat of silence and her ears rang.

She really was a clever one. 

Atienna’s chest tightened.

Cvetka was right about you.

Cvetka? Atienna’s mind raced. Cvetka’s employer— 

“Er… sir…? I’m Friedhelm Heimler.” The ginger-haired soldier whose name she had forgotten gestured to himself in front of her. “Do you not recognize me? Should I get Fabrizzio or Brandt?”

The memory came back instantly but Atienna was in no state to feel relieved.

When did you get here? Atienna’s eyes narrowed. Her nerves lit on fire as she suddenly became hyperaware of both Friedhelm’s and Marionette’s un-averted gazes. What are you trying to do? 

Why are you acting like I’m doing something? It’s their choice and their actions. Your actions. You all did this to yourselves. 

‘Their’ choice? ‘Their’ actions? Whose? No, those words had been bait. A distraction. What she needed to focus on was the important facts:

Cvetka’s employer. Saint candidacy, which was a possible criterion for conducting without a conductor. Werner’s cut. The blue cracks spreading along Rath’s blade when he’d attacked Wilhelm. Displaced Capricornians. The misplaced anger. These thoughts that were not her own. How terrifying it would be if these were all connected.

Oh, you really are clever.

All this speaking of ‘cleverness’—Atienna was certain that this wasn’t so much as her own cleverness as this intruder’s foolishness.

Who do you think you are calling me foolish? The thought seemed to boom out from all around her—a scraping voice of vehement. Take a good look at yourself!

The world suddenly spun, the moonlight sheering through the trees and burning her skin silver. The light painted the branches white in a way that made them reminiscent of the ever-glowing Great Tree. The branches looked like they were scratching across the clearing towards her. A suffocating feeling like she was being watched crept along her spine as she buckled beneath the overwhelming feeling of dread.

Friedhelm caught her. “S-Sir?”

Calling me a fool when you go skirting around hard decisions and expecting your choice to be the righteous one that’ll satisfy everyone. A person like you can never be happy nor can the people around you ever be happy. Even the choice of happiness is just too much for someone like you to even bear. And that will just drag down everyone else around you.

Atienna’s head pounded. Her mind reeled. How deep did this intrusion go?

I don’t need you highlighting my flaws, Atienna managed calmly. I know exactly how I am. More than you do.

Then that makes everything you do… the voice continued. And Atienna’s heart plummeted in her chest as the venomous words rang out in her mother’s gentle, warm tone— …so much worse.

Friedhelm startled at something past her shoulder. The white of his eyes glowed in the moonlight, and his lips pulled back into a grimace. Tensing, Atienna whipped around and froze. Out from the trees in the direction of camp slinked men and women garbed in Argoan uniforms. They peeled out from the dark, rifles ready and aimed, eyes sharp and murderous.

So close to the border…?

Atienna tensed. Too many. She couldn’t risk injuring Werner like this. She couldn’t face them alone.

And you will continue to be alone. That’s what happens to people like you. You can never be happy because you refuse to make a choice—

No… She did make choices. With Usian. With… Yulia.

What’s the point of making a choice when you start pulling back at the last moment?

Atienna bit the inside of her cheek as her fingers began to itch. She stopped herself before the heat of the moment possessed her, however, and lifted her hands into the air Friedhelm and Marionette eyed followed suit.

But it’s okay. I will continue to watch over you even though you’re all so ugly. 

One of the Argoans approached her and nudged the tip of his rifle to her back. The silent ‘ move’ was clear. The Argoans led Atienna back through the woods at gun-point along with Friedhelm and Marionette.

The voice remained silent all the while, but Atienna still felt nauseous.

Despite their gradual approach to the warm firelight of camp, Atienna felt only coldness in her chest. Once they arrived, they found another ring of Argoan soldiers interspersed among the rolled-out sleeping bags dotting the trodden ground.

Gilbert was bound, gagged, and kneeling at the center of the clearing beside the smoldering campfire as were all of Werner’s subordinates. The formerly bound Argoan Emil was standing behind the group and holding a rifle. When he met Atienna’s gaze, he tensed and looked away towards a tall, thin man kicking up dirt into the campfire.

When that man noticed Atienna’s guided approach, he turned and eyed the medals on her uniform. Then, he sneered. “You must be Werner Waltz. I’ve heard many things about you, Cold Eye. Everyone keeps their head low back home because of you. But look at you now. You can’t even look at me in my eyes!”

Oh dear... Atienna stared at Gilbert past the Argoan’s head. She didn’t think she had time to deal with someone like this. There were more pressing matters at hand.

The man spat in the dirt and jeered. “All you Capricornian pigs should be happy. As of today, you’re Argoan property.”

15.3: Lance Corporal, 0610 Enemy Encounter

Re-cap:

Atienna is locked in an override over Werner. After discovering that a Capricornian was disguised among their Argoan attackers, she follows Gilbert’s lead to complete the mission assigned to them–to meet with Captain Weingartner in the unoccuppied territory. As they near their point of destination, however, they find that the captain’s camp has been ransacked and three survivors remain: an Argoan named Emil, a fellow Capricornian soldier, and Marionette Engel of the Verbundene Augen movement.

Meanwhile, Werner finds him at the supposed threshold of life and death where he untangles himself from a memory only to encounter Lavi and the owner of the mysterious voice that always escapes his memory.


Feindliche Begegnung » Enemy encounter at 0610 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine was accustomed to seeing dead bodies. He’d seen his first five years ago in his city-town of Buchstadt before he’d even been officially deployed. That day, the newspapers had praised Capricornian victory against an Argoan onslaught from Abschnitt 45 to 51, pushing forth celebrations all across the country. What the government gifted their citizens for their victory and sacrifice were caskets. They were of polished black wood, engraved with rigid gold lines, and embossed with the Capricornian sea-goat. No names designated.

The first casket to arrive in Buchstadt contained the body of Klaus’s senior at the military academy, Ulrich Stoeffman. Klaus had been witness to Stoeffman’s mother’s tears as the Militärpolizei peeled away the coffin lid to reveal his body. She had caressed Stoeffman’s pale face and wailed for hours—all in the town square.

That night, a resident fire Elementalist Conductor set all the bodies and caskets aflame as they sang the country’s national anthem.

For mother, for father, 
 For glory, for honor, 
 Victory is upon us…”

Fear thundered through Klaus’s bones as he’d repeated the hymn ingrained in him since primary school. As his childhood friend Charite—before she became Omicron—had gripped his arm tightly, he could hear her thoughts echoing his own. I don’t want to die; I don’t want to die.

When Klaus had seen his first dead body on the battlefield—one felled by his own conjured rifle and fresh with ichor pouring out from all bodily orifices—he had puked. Stein had tormented him all the while, urging him to conjure a self-help book “to help him grow some balls.” Klaus had continued to heave on the ground until First Lieutenant Werner Waltz ripped him up to a stand with an iron grip.

“Enough, Private Kleine,” Werner had said coldly. “You’re a Capricornian. If you have time for regrets, then you’re wasting my time.” In other words, there was no time for regrets.

And it was true.

Even here at their mysteriously fallen camp, as Klaus joined the others in collecting the name tags from their own and the Argoans, there was no time for regrets—no time to wonder if they could’ve done anything more, if they could’ve come earlier.

Stein swore from beside Klaus suddenly. He plucked a tag from a corpse draped over a log. “It’s fucking Lukas. He owes me twenty marks from poker.”

Klaus glanced down and registered the face of the man he had lent a book to only a week prior. He grimaced and gave an internal Monadic prayer before his gaze trailed over to a clearing in the campsite where Gilbert, Nico, and Werner—Atienna—stood in front of three seated individuals. The first was the captive Argoan Emil. The second was the survivor Heimler had found, Henning Rath  a soldier from the 212th Division whom Klaus was not familiar with. Lastly, there was Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augen.

Klaus had been keeping a sharp eye on her political movement for some time now. He happily ate up the group’s surprisingly uncensored news pieces in his free time.

A Capricorn without war. It sounded nice.

* * *

At dusk, Klaus handed off a dozen tags to Second Lieutenant Wolff at the center of camp. Nico, Marionette, Emil, and Rath stood in a cluster just a meter away from Gilbert. Vogt was stationed behind them, watching like a hawk. Atienna was not present.

“Kleine.” Gilbert jerked his head and motioned him closer.

Kleine swallowed and complied.

“Go keep an eye on ‘Werner’ for me. He was collecting the tags and moving the bodies with the others, but I had him start the campfire instead.” Gilbert nodded across the field where Atienna was collecting pieces of wood from desecrated tents within eyesight.

“Yes, sir.” Klaus eyed Marionette Engel. “Sir, can I ask… how she even made it past the border?”

“Don’t think too hard, Kleine, and keep your damn lieutenant company,” was Gilbert’s response.

And that was that.

By the time Klaus made it over to Atienna, her fire was already crackling away. She was seated before it, knees pulled up to the chest, staring into the flames. At his approach, she lifted her head and offered him a small smile:

“Oh… hello, Klaus.”

It was odd hearing his first name used out here. But it was nice. Made him feel like more than a cog in the machine. Made him feel a little bit more human.

“Hi…” Klaus fumbled with his glasses. “Er… you’re good at making fires.”

“Oh, I’ve had quite a lot of practice.” The corners of Atienna’s—the lieutenant’s—eyes crinkled. “Is there something I can do for you?”

Weird but pleasant.

“I… was just wondering what Miss Engel, the Argoan, and Rath said about what happened here.” —A half-lie. He didn’t think she’d like the idea that he’d been sent over to keep an eye on her, after all.

“Oh…” A soft hum. “Did Gilbert not tell you this himself?”

Klaus stiffened. When he locked gazes with her, however, her lips were turned up slightly.

“But…” She averted her eyes. “A friend of a friend of mine advised that if you can’t solve a problem, you should ask a friend for a different perspective. And I agree.” Before Klaus could digest what she meant, she continued, “The three have differing stories… Miss Engel says that she came with a group of protesters. They planned to form a line at the middle of the unoccupied territory… She didn’t elaborate on her plans much further than that and demanded a lawful representative.”

A demonstration? One that seemed dangerous and stupid.

“She says that the Capricornians discovered her group and started attacking, so they tried defending themselves. Mr. Rath says that Miss Engel’s group attacked them first, and they defended themselves. He lost sight of Captain Weingartner during the confusion but suspects that he retreated. That Argoan—Emil—is still in shock… poor thing.”

‘Poor thing’—coming from the lieutenant’s mouth was very weird. Especially when it was in regards to an Argoan.

“Miss Engel didn’t mention anything about why she was in a Capricornian uniform—not even the possibility that it was used for her demonstration … which is a bit strange, don’t you think?”

“It’s like someone was trying to hide her identity,” Klaus realized, sinking down beside her. “Or maybe they were trying to blend in with us? Did she do it herself? What’s the point?”

“That’s exactly what I’m wondering,” Atienna murmured. “An elaborate political demonstration that’s gone wrong…?”

Klaus studied her and found himself figuring randomly that she was probably a pretty person. He cleared his throat. “It’s best to leave this to higher command. This isn’t really your problem to solve.”

“Are you saying that I’m an outsider looking in?” She side-glanced at him, Werner’s eyes piercing and cold. “And what makes you think you know who I am? I’ve seen you through Werner’s eyes, but you haven’t seen me. I might be closer than you think.”

Klaus stiffened beneath that frigid gaze.

“I’m sorry. I was just teasing you.” Atienna chuckled, looking away sheepishly. “I know exactly where my place is. It’s not something I wonder about.”

Klaus liked Atienna. A lot. And he also knew his place like she did. Cog in the wheel. Part. Replaceable. Easy to do it—as easy as it was to conjure a single part of a conductor.

“I’m sorry you had to see all of this,” Klaus said after a beat, adjusting the strap of his conjured rifle. “It’s ugly…”

“It’s something Werner and the rest of you have to face every day. It seems a bit wrong that you’re apologizing to me… I’ve only collected fifteen tags so far, but you’ve collected so many more.” A hum. “Gilbert is more careful than he appears to be—sending you over here like this. Although I do enjoy the company.”

So she knew.

“I know Werner already gave you his condolences about Omicron—Charite…” Atienna continued. “But I would like to offer you it myself. I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds by saying this… but Charite was heroic in her last moments. I’m certain her encounter with you was one of the things that spurred her on.”

A slight heaviness entered Klaus’s chest as faint memories of his childhood wandering his hometown with Charite filtered into his mind. He wished he could mourn her more—mourn more for the others in his unit who had died too. But it was hard. A waste of time, even.

Wait. ‘Condolences’?

Klaus thought back to the lieutenant’s words just before they had left the Twin Cities.

“The ELPIS leader Omicron passed away,” Werner had said, after pulling him aside. “I’m heading to the capital with the second lieutenant, Bergmann, and Stein. While you’re expected to make a report yourself, the report isn’t due until a week from now. The train ride to the capital will take approximately two to three days.” He’d paused. “Take as much time within that allotted period that you require. Just be sure to report to the capital before the deadline. You’ll be marked if you don’t, Lance Corporal Kleine.”

Now that Klaus thought about it, the lieutenant had been unusually considerate in his approach. Klaus himself had been too dazed by the revelation of Charite’s death at the time to register it. Afterwards, he’d used the allotted time before the reporting deadline to visit Charite’s parents in his hometown. He couldn’t tell them anything, of course, but he’d thought his presence was better than nothing.

“Are you alright, Klaus?” The lieutenant’s voice in Atienna’s tone jarred Klaus from his thoughts.

“I’m just… a bit confused,” Klaus replied. “This… override is lasting a very long time.”

Atienna nodded, sullen.

“I just want to preface this by saying that this is a complete compliment.” Klaus squeezed his knee. “But this isn’t a place for someone like you… Not a place for Bergmann, Vogt, or me either. People who are here collect enemy military tags like they’re trophies. They hold scoreboards for who’s killed the most.”

Vogt and Heimler approached the fire from behind them and took a seat across the flame.

Atienna asked, “Do you really think they are excited about taking another life?” Her eyes seemed to ask—Do you think Werner is?

Klaus eyed the two newcomers before shrugging. “Stein said that he’d be happy to shoot even a half-Argoan Capricornian if he could… sir.”

Atienna hummed, placing a hand on her cheek. “…Things said out loud aren’t able to fully reveal what lays behind, don’t you think? And I’m not referring to just lies and self-deception.”

Klaus realized Atienna was a bit odd. Her way of speaking was very roundabout.

“Even though I’m speaking honestly with you now, I’m not able to fully convey my thoughts. Words simply aren’t enough. Neither are actions.” Atienna side-glanced at Heimler. “Perhaps that’s why there’s so much conflict… That small bit of discrepancy is all that it takes to switch something from being perceived as ‘right’ to being perceived as ‘wrong.’ Justice and vengeance. Maybe that’s why we can’t achieve peace. Because we can’t fully convey everything to each other.”

Heimler stiffened. Klaus couldn’t dissect the exchange.

Atienna’s gaze lingered a moment longer before she turned back to the flame. “Maybe… you would think that being able to know another’s thoughts—without needing to use words—would resolve this issue.”

Was she referring to her connection as a ‘True Conductor’ with Lieutenant Waltz and the Geminian redhead?

“You can liken it to reading the appendix or a glossary of a book… But seeing those types of book sections just makes you more aware of everything you don’t know, don’t you think? …Or is it better that way?”

Klaus figured it was a question that didn’t require an answer—

“It would make it harder, sir, I think,” Vogt interjected—Klaus assumed the silence had compelled him to respond. “The appendix… If you have too much information… it could make you hesitate. You wouldn’t be able to do as you’re told.” He eyed Atienna’s shoulder. “… That was one of my problems when I first started. I know that now, sir”

“What do you think the correct answer is then, Otto?”

“T-The… answer?” Vogt blinked, perplexed. He glanced at Klaus then at Heimler before meeting Atienna’s gaze. “Find… a balance?”

Atienna didn’t respond, averting her eyes ever so slightly.

Vogt melted. “I didn’t mean to interrupt the conversation, sir—”

“You… didn’t interrupt. You contributed.” The corners of Atienna’s eyes crinkled again. “There is a difference.”

“Right…” Vogt scrubbed a chunk of dirt off of his boot with his heel. “By the way… are you feeling any better, sir? With your head injury, I mean.”

There was a glint in Atienna’s eye. “Are you alright, Otto? You’ve been working hard today…”

Vogt perked up. “I’m fine, sir.” He reached for his neck and ran his fingers along the tag that hung there glinting silver in the firelight. “I… It’s nothing. Thank you for asking.” He scuffed his shoes again and tried hesitantly, “I hope this doesn’t affect our leave….”

“Leave?” Atienna murmured.

“Military leave.” Vogt nodded, relaxing fully. “To go home. I haven’t been back in over three months. They keep increasing the number of operations I have to take every time I meet the quota.”

“Yes… It would be nice… to go home.”

“Home with all the booze,” came a singsong voice from behind. It was Stein, squeezing himself in between Vogt and Heimler. “With all the home-tied beauties ready to admire all my medals.” He shoved Vogt to the side. “Heard Heimler got loaded after the Reservoir War and lives in a mansion. What’ve you got to look forward to returning to, Vogt? Your mom?”

“Your botanical store-school, right, Otto?” Atienna interjected.

Vogt’s fallen expression brightened. “Yes, sir. But… Stein is right. I miss my mom’s potato pancakes more than anything else. She made the best in the town. Grows her own. Potatoes, I mean.”

Stein snorted.

The corners of Atienna’s eyes crinkled again. “Do you not miss your family, Derik?”

Stein stiffened and then shrugged. “Well, of course, I miss my parents, sir. It’s just not something to think about out here.” He held a mock gun, aimed it at Vogt, and fired. “Here, I’m just thinking about the number of Argoans I can shoot down with one vitae ray.”

Klaus regarded Stein silently.

* * *

At the crack of dawn, Gilbert made the call for them to set off back to the border to report in their findings. After tallying up all of the tags overnight, it was clear that a handful of soldiers in Captain Weingartner’s platoon were missing. This included the captain himself, Emilia Bergmann, and several others. Gilbert had surmised that the missing had either retreated or had been captured. Klaus was relieved beyond belief at the possibility of Bergmann and the captain still being alive—and at the fact that they were returning home.

Their route back to the border was accompanied by lightning clapping through the sky. By the smell of the air, Klaus forecasted rain within the hour. The occasional booms of thunder shaking through the trees stretching around them made Klaus wonder if they would have to find a hole-in for the night. No one looked like they were ready to entertain the idea.

Emil and Marionette Engel sauntered on sandwiched in-between Stein and Heimler. Rath limped just behind them with the Gewehr-43 conducting rifle Klaus had conjured for him dangling in his hands. Usually, Klaus would feel disrespected by the mistreatment of creations, but at the moment he was in decent spirits. After all, he could almost taste and smell home—

A loud crack resounded again, but not from above. It thundered out from the thicket of mist and trees to their left. A high-pitched whine accompanied the sound and was followed by a snap as one of the branches from the trees to their right splintered off from its base. Then came the barrage. Bullets peppered down on them like torrenting rain. One whizzed by Klaus’s ear, while another struck the ground a centimeter away from his foot.

“Take cover! The trees!”

Instinct moved Klaus before Gilbert’s orders reached his ears. He dove behind the tree-line to his right and swung himself behind a thick trunk before falling into a crouch. He pulled his rifle from his shoulders and wrapped his fingers around the trigger—ready to fight. But as the trunk behind him shook with pounding bullets, he shrank further into himself.

Wait.

How many made it?

Atienna.

Klaus stiffened and scanned the area to his left. The combat medics Nico and Alwin were hidden behind a cluster of thin trees just a drop away. Behind a thick fallen log to his right, Fischer and Stein were caged around Marionette and Emil. A shaking Rath was pressed against the floor in front of them. It looked like he had somehow lost the conducting rifle. A waste.

Klaus glanced right. Relief came soon afterwards as he rounded off survival numbers in his head.

Vogt and Gilbert were pressed back against the tree stump beside him while Atienna was seated low in-between them. There was sweat beading her brow but her eyes were eerily calm, her breathing even. Almost like Werner.

For a moment, the barrage of bullets halted.

Maybe the lieutenant was back—

“Are you all alright?” Atienna asked quietly under her breath.

The illusion shattered.

Before Klaus could reply, another storm of bullets sprayed just above their cover. Stein and Vogt both lifted their rifle conductors and returned fire, only to be hampered down by another flurry of metal. Machine-gun? Klaus had heard about the Argoans developing higher-caliber artillery in the past few months, but this was something else.

“I need a headcount! How many of them are there?” Gilbert shouted, whipping around the trunk to fire off into the fog before pulling back again as a barrage of bullets ricocheted just above his head. “Dammit… how the hell did they get around us?” He swore. “This is why Werner wanted some damn Manipulators in this unit! Is that too much to ask for? Just a bit of damned medium-surveillance?!”

Vogt gave him an odd look before glancing at Atienna.

“Stein, Vogt, help me give Fischer some cover fire,” Gilbert ordered before nodding at the plethora of short-ranged conductors clipped to the latter’s belt. “Fischer, put those things to damned use.”

Atienna stiffened.

“Don’t worry,” Gilbert muttered to her. “He’s trained for this.”

Not seeming to hear the exchange from the short distance, Fischer nodded, locked eyes with Rath, and tossed the man his conducting rifle. He then pulled out a bladeless hilt from his waist and ignited it in amethyst with a flick of his wrist.

“Kleine.” Gilbert nodded. “Grenade.”

Klaus lifted his conductor-gloved hands, closed his eyes, and concentrated. He pictured the strike lever, the detonator, the percussion cap, the filling hole. Everything exact. One wrong ingredient and the entire thing could go off in your hands, as the instructors at the military academy had said.

His palms warmed and his arms became heavy. He, however, kept his concentration sharp. One last detail. One last serrated, cast-iron shell and—there. Klaus opened his eyes as the grenade solidified from the sky-blue light emitting from his palm.

Gilbert nodded at him. Signaled one, two, three. “Now!”

Klaus pulled the pin, drew out from cover, locked eyes with shadows moving through the smog, threw. A boom rang out a second later, followed by a gust of smoke and heated wind. Stein and Vogt immediately opened fire into the opposing tree-line. Fischer darted out from behind the protective cover fire and zipped through the mesh of fog and smoke. He slipped into the gray shroud, the light from his ignited blade serving as the only indication of his position. The faint amethyst line of light slithered through the smog in an arc before swinging up in a circle. A hissing sound as vitae tore through metal followed this motion, and the gun-gattling ceased. Then came the minute pops of gunfire followed by howling screeches.

It was a bit funny how they all sounded the same, whether they were afraid or dying—whether Argoan or Capricornian.

Gilbert signaled them to move forward. Projectors first. Combat medics last. Stein on Marionette and Emil, and Atienna ‘keeping an eye out’ behind the trees.

Rifle ready, Klaus filtered out behind Gilbert in a low crouch alongside Vogt. He kept close to the latter private as he always did—ready to conjure another conductor if Vogt cracked his insulation system or his conducting core as he usually did. He scanned for movement in the smoke. There. Just two meters away. A woman was trying to reload her rifle. This was where conductors dominated.

Vogt fired his conductor at her before the woman could get the bullet into the chamber. She folded onto the ground. Gilbert gave a firm nod before disappearing into the gray. One down. Unknown number to go—

“Kleine, behind!”

Klaus whipped around at Vogt’s shout just in time to see an Argoan charge at him from behind with a bayonet. Less than a meter away. This was it—

But there was a loud crack, and suddenly the bayonet was spinning up into the air. The Argoan grunted, staggering backwards away from the one who had kicked up his weapon: the lieutenant—no, Atienna.

She grabbed the Argoan, swept his legs out from underneath him, and then drove his face into the ground in one swooping motion. Swinging her rifle off her shoulders, she cracked the butt of it against the back of the Argoan’s head before swinging it out and jabbing it into the gut of another Argoan coming up just behind her. She uppercut him with the rifle a second later, and when he fell to the ground, she pounded down on his face twice, thrice, until he was no longer moving. She pulled back, panting heavily before turning around—

“Are you alright, Klaus?”

Beneath all of that odd concern, her eyes were afire. She looked like how Stein looked after he made a headshot. Absolutely…. alive.

The Argoan she had just incapacitated abruptly whipped out a pistol from his holster. Before he could fire it off, however, an arc of shimmering amethyst light severed his gun-wielding hand from his arm. The Argoan screeched in alarm but was soon muted as the amethyst light drilled its way through his chest.

Panting heavily, Fischer pulled his blade conductor out from the Argoan’s torso, turned to Atienna, and searched her face for approval. The only thing he found there, however, was wide-eyed shock. But before anything could be said, another figure lunged out at them from the smokescreen with a roar. It was—

—Rath?

The Capricornian tackled Fischer to the ground with a snarl.

“I’m friendly!” Fischer snapped, deactivating his conductor as he held up his arm to defend himself. “Look at my uniform! My conductor!”

Rath let out a guttural growl as he ripped Fischer’s conductor from his hands. Stumbling backwards, he flicked his wrist and activated the blade with a shimmer of light yellow. “You! It was one of you! My Magda!” And then he swung it down.

Fischer swiftly drew out another blade-less conductor from his belt and activated it just in time to block Rath’s oncoming attack. Sparks erupted as the blades screeched against each other. The steam from the heat and their panting breaths filled in the space between them.

Before Klaus could react, another pepper of gunfire came down in their direction. He ducked low, rolled into a wave of smoke cloud billowing towards him, and aimed his rifle at three Argoans who peeled out from the smog. Two shots. One to the chest, one to the face. Vogt took down the other one with a vitae-ray straight through the head. The Argoans dropped dead. Danger eliminated.

When Klaus turned back to Fischer and Rath, he found that their two vitae blades were still scratching against each other. But—something about Rath’s vitae blade looked odd. Cracks ran along its body—cracks that reminded Klaus of the vitae cracks that had run along the lamia tree Atienna had taken an interest in the other day. The cracks along Rath’s blade were dark blue instead of white, however, and they were pulsating, spreading. In an eerie fashion, the cracks crept forward along Rath’s blade towards Fischer’s blade—

Atienna kicked both Fischer’s blade conductor and Rath’s conductor up out of their hands before the strange cracks were able to complete whatever course they were taking. Without skipping a beat, she lunged forward and kneed Rath in the abdomen before grabbing him by the scruff and throwing him over her shoulders. He hit the ground with a thud before groaning and remaining motionless. Pulling away from him, she turned her attention to Fischer.

“Sorry, sir.” Fischer panted.

Atienna offered him a silent hand. Fischer startled before accepting it as if it were a gift from a saint. Klaus had never understood Fischer’s gushing admiration for Werner. While Klaus did respect his lieutenant, he wasn’t fanatical.

A movement from behind the two cut the moment in half. A bloodied-face Rath had pulled himself up into a sit and was now pointing a weapon he seemed to have pulled out from nowhere at them. The conducting rifle Klaus had conjured for him earlier.

Rath fired off two bursts of vitae without hesitation before Fischer charged at him with a newly drawn dagger conductor. Klaus dodged the blasts as did Atienna—her movements swift and fluid. Fischer drove the conducting knife into the man’s gut before pulling it upward in one clean slice. There was a splurge of red followed by the smell of unnatural iron and then silence.

Heaving, Fischer pushed Rath’s divided corpse off himself before turning to face them. Then, he stared past them. Klaus froze and followed his gaze right to Vogt—no, to Vogt’s stomach.

Klaus took in a breath. “No…”

Vogt whimpered as he stumbled backwards. He unbuttoned the front of his singed uniform, peeled away the fabric that had melted into his skin, and gripped his abdomen. “Oh, saints. Oh no… please no.”

It was an ugly, gushing wound, and for a faint moment, Klaus thought he could see right through it.

Atienna was at Vogt’s side in an instant, catching him before he hit the ground.

“M-Medic!” Klaus shouted hoarsely, running up to their side. “Alwin!”

Atienna pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket, placed it over Vogt’s wound, and applied pressure. Klaus found himself looking to her—to the person who wore his lieutenant’s face—out of habit for direction but instead found her looking to him for reassurance.

The world blurred; the background popped with spits of gunfire; Vogt’s sobs cut in out of the deafening sounds; and then came the pounding footsteps. Klaus whipped around with his rifle drawn but stopped short. Finally.

Nico and Alwin, conducting gloves already equipped, seated themselves on opposite sides of Vogt. Atienna’s gaze flicked from medic to medic, but all Klaus could focus on was Vogt—Otto.

“Get the morrowheat from my left lower pocket,” Nico said. “It’s the liquidized version. Inject it in his left leg. Keep applying pressure, Ati—Lieutenant. You’re doing good.”

Klaus fumbled through Nico’s orders, pulling out a capped needle from the man’s pocket and injecting it into Otto’s leg as instructed. As he did this, Alwin pulled a combat knife from his belt and tore open Otto’s pants leg. While Atienna continued to apply pressure to the wound, Nico and Alwin began to run their conducting gloves from the skin of Otto’s exposed lower leg to the gaping wound at his abdomen.

Another set of footsteps crunched on towards them from behind causing Klaus to finally realize that everything had fallen deathly quiet. No gunfire, no screams, no booms.

Gilbert emerged from the fog a moment later, rifle still gripped in his hands, but with loose shoulders and hop in his step. “The lot of them are retreating. We—” His eyes widened as he registered Rath’s corpse and then Otto bleeding out on the floor. He turned to the opposite woods and whistled sharply. “Stein, if you’re still alive, bring those two out here. Now!”

A smirking Stein came out from the wooded cover a second later with Marionette and Emil in tow. Upon laying eyes on Otto, however, the man swore. He then swiveled around and drove the butt of his conductor against Emil’s head. “You damn Groan! This was a trap, wasn’t it?!”

Emil yelped and hit the ground before curling up into a ball. “It wasn’t! It wasn’t! I don’t know anything!”

“Dammit, Stein! Enough!” Gilbert ordered. “One headache at a damn time. Keep a damn eye out.” He sank to a crouch beside Nico and glanced between him and Alwin. “How’s it looking?”

“We’re almost done with the graft,” Nico replied, forehead dripping with sweat as he continued to move his conductor from Otto’s leg to his stomach, “but he’s lost too much blood.”

During Stein’s ordeal with Emil, Atienna had been ushered aside by the combat medic and now hovered beside Klaus. She looked between them all with a painfully hopeful expression.

Alwin nodded at Nico in agreement. “We need to get him to a dressing station.”

“He…” Nico hesitated. “He might not make it.” He shook his head. “We need to stabilize him for transport. Klaus, get a gurney ready.”

Conjuring the gurney wasn’t as difficult as conjuring a grenade. Fewer parts, less dangerous. It took less than a second for Klaus to create it, and with Atienna’s help, he situated it parallel to Otto’s body.

Nico and Alwin peeled away from Otto as they finished their transmutation. Beneath all of that blood, they had managed to pull over a thin sheet of skin over his stomach. The transmuted area glistened in the dull light looking like it’d tear at any moment. Otto looked like a corpse.

Klaus had seen this many times. It was always strange—how fast the color was drawn out from a person’s face as they were dragged closer and closer to death. Pink to pale white to ashen gray.

“We need a transfusion,” Nico muttered. He glanced up at Alwin. “Otto is type-O, right?”

Alwin nodded and grimaced. “No one in the unit is—”

“I… I am…” Atienna whispered, placing a hand on Nico’s arm.

Nico’s eyes widened and then softened, and he consoled her: “ Werner is type-A. Otto is the only type-O in the unit. “ He called out to Marionette and Emil. “Type-O! Are any of you type-O?!”

No one answered. No one moved.

“None of you are type-O?!” Nico swung around wildly before his face crumpled. “Let’s just move him as fast as we can. Help us get him onto the gurney.”

Stein came around, swinging his conductor over his shoulder and locking eyes with Klaus as he hooked his hands underneath Otto’s arms. Klaus nodded, grabbing Otto by the legs. One, two, three—

Otto cried and kicked and squirmed as they hoisted him up. “Let me down! Let me down! Please! It hurts!”

“F-For, saint’s sakes, Vogt!” Stein snapped. “We’re trying to save you, you pussy!”

“Put him down!” Alwin shouted. “His transmutation graft is tearing!”

Klaus stiffened and turned his eyes towards Otto’s stomach. The thin, shiny flesh there had split into two and a geyser of red spurted out from it.

Saints.

“Gently, you guys, gently!”

With great difficulty, Klaus placed Otto back on the ground with Stein’s help. Alwin didn’t move forward, however. He merely sank to his knees and ran a hand down his face. Nico did, hands extended. His face contorted as he began the effort to transmute more of the skin from Otto’s leg to his abdomen.

“There’s not enough left for grafting,” Alwin said calmly. “Nico, you’re wasting your energy.”

Nico stiffened. “Then we use the other leg—”

“It’ll just tear. And I know you saw it. The amount of blood. The abdominal aorta—”

Klaus stared at Alwin in disbelief. “Don’t just sit there and—”

“I-I’ve been hit,” Otto stammered, eyes fluttering. He searched Nico’s face and then Klaus’s as he placed a hand to his stomach. He stared at his bloodied hand. “Klaus, Nico, I’ve been hit…”

Delirium.

From the corner of his eye, Klaus saw Atienna slowly, silently pulling away as she averted her gaze. Before she could make her escape, however, Otto grabbed a hold of her arm.

“A-Am I dying, Lieutenant…?” came the cracked sob.

Atienna’s eyes widened and her fingers trembled as she wrapped them around Otto’s hand. No words came from her mouth. No confirmation.

“Yes…” Nico said quietly. “Yes, you are, Vog—Otto. I’m sorry.”

There was a stretch of silence as the reality sunk in.

“T-Talk to me. Please,” Otto whimpered. “Someone please talk to me.”

Talk? With what? Empty words? Emptier than the pages of poetry that he always dove into to ignore the sound of gunfire and stupid, senseless chatter when he was stationed in the trenches at Abschnitt 45?

Atienna leaned forward, her face eclipsing Otto’s. She whispered, “You… You did good, Otto. You did very good.”

Empty words. And another empty stretch of silence.

“Will you write to my parents for me…?” Otto murmured after a long quiet. “It would mean a lot coming from you.” A shaky breath. “Tell mutti that I love her. Can you tell them I was good? Just… like you said now… Even if it can’t convey everything. It’s enough.”

Atienna side-glanced at Gilbert before nodding and placing a steady hand to his face.

“I’ll write, Otto,” she whispered. “I’ll write. Anything you want. About your plan for your botanical garden. About your horticulture class—”

Atienna was cut off by a hand on the shoulder. Nico, eyes calm but somber. She didn’t look away from Otto to meet those eyes but the message was clear. The one her words had been intended for was gone.

And the only thing Klaus could do was try to remember if he had lent Otto a book back at Abschnitt 45.


Threshold

The threshold between life and death’? That was ludicrous. That threshold was not a location. It was a state of being.

Cacophonic flapping and chirping resounded across the divide of light.

Werner squinted past the darkness towards the origin of the voice. There, he found a humanoid shape inching closer and closer to the stream of light between them. Its form was undefined, devoid of color, and pitch-black. Rippling, shifting, quivering—breaking apart at its edges. Breaking apart into something that fluttered, that flapped, that sent thin jet-black feathers swirling through the air. Blackbirds.

Werner’s eyes widened then narrowed.

A dream?

He glanced down at Lavi briefly. Her eyebrow was arched, her face impassive.

“It’s not a dream,” the voice across the divide continued, milky but clear. “Not in the literal sense.”

She could hear his thoughts, he realized.

“Yep,” the figure popped, her voice resonating above the chirping of the birds enveloping her body. “But not in the literal sense.”

It made logical that she could hear him and knew his name. If this was a dream, anything beyond the realm of reality was possible. This surreality.

“I mean this in the gentlest way possible, but the more time you spend thinking that this is a dream, the more dangerous your current situation becomes.”

Current situation?

“You’re in a perilous position right now, Werner. You and the other five.”

At the mention of the others, Werner tensed and moved his hand towards the gun clipped to his belt.

The blackbirds crowding the figure peeled away slowly, fluttering upwards into the darkness. As the birds dissipated, her features slowly became revealed. First came the black of her suit jacket, then came the white of her armband. Next, her short black hair was freed from the swarming birds, followed by her almond-shaped black eyes and round nose. Her appearance vaguely stirred Werner’s memories, although he was certain he had never met her before. Perhaps one of the other five had.

The unknown appeared to be a woman of Sagittarian descent and affiliated with Ophiuchus, Werner surmised as he felt the cold tip of his pistol at the tip of his fingers. Normally, it would not be wise to engage with foreign peacekeeping bodies. The consequences would be severe. The evidence that this was not normal circumstance, however, was clear.

“Like I said, you’re on the threshold,” the woman said. “You’re here but you’re not really here, so you don’t need to be worried about those kinds of consequences. And that gun you’re reaching for isn’t really there either.”

Werner paused, glancing down to his waist where his holster sat empty. He lowered his hand.

It appeared as if certain assumptions would have to be made.

“Exactly!” The woman nodded. “I know you’re a logical person, so if you see it right before your eyes, then you have to assume it’s real. If we want to get metaphysical about it, it became real as soon as you laid your eyes on it.”

You’ve been invaded, Werner,” Lavi said, her fingers ghosting his hand that still gripped her arm. “You’re being strangled by an idiot who doesn’t know how to stop. You and the others. If you don’t do something, you really will all…”

Werner released his hold on her. Was this truly Lavi? His eyes narrowed. “What do you mea—”

“Well, she’s a truer Lavi than the one you’ve seen,” the woman across the divide interjected as she pointed upwards. “While it’s pretty easy to make it down here, it’s pretty hard to make it back up without crossing this line. And, well, if you cross this line—I’m sure you know what that means. Of course, being a True Conductor does make it easier for you to return in the direction you came from.”

If she could hear his thoughts, it was unsurprising that she knew his position as a True Conductor. It was also unsurprising that she knew of Lavi. And if the presumption that this place was truly a ‘threshold’ was accepted then a reasonable theory could be made as to why Lavi was with him. This other woman’s presence, however, was unexplainable.

“Identify yourself,” he said calmly. “You’re a peacekeeper. Why are you here?”

The woman’s lips pulled tight but then she shrugged. “I’m Shion Myosotis. Weird name, I know. Mother was Sagittarian; father was one-third Ophiuchian. Kept the surname. And I, my dear, am here because I kinda died and got stuck. I’m just the result of doing too little too late.”

It’s too little, WernerA soft, stern voice whispered at the back of Werner’s mind. A faint memory, expanding like a fractal sheet of ice. And it’s too late—

Shion tutted loudly. “Be careful now. Like I said, you’re at the place where vitae enters and leaves the cycle. And since vitae stores memories, memories hold more power here than normal. You can easily slip into something you’ll have a hard time crawling out of. Metaphysical stuff.”

Werner stiffened despite himself. It had already been difficult to adapt to the other five being able to access his thoughts and memories. A sixth intruder was—

“Memories make up reality,” Lavi argued. “There’s nothing metaphysical about it. It’s fact.” Her words were sharp and direct, so unlike the airy and timid girl that would ghost their synchronization meetings. “Just take a look at your history textbooks,” she continued. “We all know those types of things aren’t fully accurate. They’re based on the recollections of people who wrote them. But because they’ve been recorded and remembered, they’ve become fact—”

“Enough,” Werner interjected. “What is happening?”

“Always down to business with you.” Shion sighed. “Like I said earlier, I’m the result of doing too little too late. I’m stuck here—kinda like how Miss Chance is stuck here. And if you don’t act soon, you’ll be stuck here too—”

“No,” Lavi interjected. “You’ll die. You and the others. My brother.” She turned, pushed herself up on toes, and grabbed hold of his shoulders. “You need to free yourself.”

Die? Free himself?

Werner tensed. “Explain.” He studied Lavi for a moment—faint memories of running through sun-dappled courtyards hazed the edges of his mind—before he provided a respectful, “Please.”

Shion pointed to her open palm. “You had an accident, you see. It’s not your fault, but the moment it happened, you and the people you’re connected to were visited by an intruder’s vitae.”

Werner stiffened, before tightening his gloved hand into a fist. The memory was faint but he could still vaguely recall the ghost of the knife cutting into his palm. The knife had belonged to Heimler, and Werner was certain it had not been a conductor. Unless… An individual who was able to use vitae without a conductor was involved and had wielded the weapon.

Werner frowned.

He hadn’t even considered the possibility. A miscalculation. So if everything said was true, then this occurrence was his fault. Unacceptable and shameful. He would need to rectify it.

“Invaded by what?” Werner pressed. “A Specialist? A saint candidate?”

Lavi answered, “You can compare it to something like a monster. The point is that True Conductors are like channels. Each True Conductor group serves as one channel. When something else is added to it or if something that is part of it breaks away, the channel is either put under pressure or crumbles in on itself. What entered you is slowly constricting you and the other five— my brother.” Her eyes narrowed. “It’s playing with you. Loosening, constricting, loosening, constricting.”

Werner studied Lavi carefully. He already had suspicions about her nature, her history as a failed saint candidate, and Olive’s ability to conduct without a conductor. He hadn’t addressed it for reasons that he realized now were unclear to him. Influence from Chance, most likely. And now Lavi’s knowledge here was highly disturbing, but he couldn’t make himself think of her as anything but an ally. Again, Chance.

“Right now,” Shion continued, “you’re the only one here. Most of the others are probably caught somewhere between here and the surface. Maybe one of them is on the surface. Your surface. Meaning, only you can fix this.”

Was she referring to an override? Then that was even more disconcerting given the physical position of his body in the unoccupied territory and his mission. And if Olive or Cadence were on the surface then…

He pressed, “And how exactly do I rectify my mistake?”

“You’re reacting really well to being told you’re dying,” Shion noted with a grin before frowning. “And I told you, it isn’t your fault…”

There would be no point in panicking in this situation. And responsibility always needed to be accounted for. They needed to get to the matter at hand.

Shion gave an abrupt laugh. “Well, since you’re so eager—think of it like this. Right now, whatever’s invaded you has its fingers embedded in you—in your vitae. Meaning, in your memories. All you need to do is cut off those fingers.”

An unclear answer, but first—

“You know a significant amount of information regarding this,” Werner said. “How did you obtain this information? You told me your name, but that isn’t proper identification.”

He felt ridiculous—questioning something that might as well be a part of his own subconscious. But he had taken enough risks already and had possibly put the others in danger due to those risks. He would not make the same mistake again.

“Well, Miss Lavender and I have been stuck here for quite some time. You tend to pick up a thing or two. Sometimes things come on down here just like you did now. But, look, trust us, don’t trust us. We’re here to help you regardless.”

Trust—Werner thought of his men. Here, however, that was an empty word. Too many variables. Too much uncertainty. Too much risk.

Shion clasped her hands together. “The deal is the longer you stay at this threshold, the closer you all are to dying. Because of that constriction. Eventually you’ll be constricted to the point where you’re no longer connected with the others—and that connection is what’s keeping you all alive. The clock is ticking, Werner.”

Tick, tick, tick, tick—Werner’s pocket watch abruptly began to thrum away over his heart in his chest pocket. He refrained from reaching for it—refrained from thinking of the one who made it—and kept his pose firm and his ears peeled.

“The only way to get out of this mess—to remove the hold it has on you,” Shion continued, “is to find exactly where it’s embedded in you—in your vitae. A.K.A., which memories it’s embedded in. Pretty easy to find ‘em since we’re at the threshold.” A frown creased her lips, and she folded her right hand into a mock gun which she rested in her left. “After you find the memories, you need to wade your way through them, and break it—the finger, I mean.” She pulled a mock trigger. “It’s as metaphysical as that.”

A distant memory resounded within Werner’s mind at Shion’s motion: the bang of the bullet exiting its chamber as he’d pulled the trigger of the gun aimed at the back of Magda Rath’s head.

15.2: Combat Medic, 0705 Head Trauma

Re-cap:
Atienna is locked in an override over Werner. The events surrounding this are clouded in mystery. After investigating the Argoan woman who injured Werner, Atienna discovers that the woman was in fact a Capricornian who was involved with the anti-military Verbundene Augen movement. The woman’s purpose remains unknown, but as per Werner’s personal request to Gilbert, the unit pushes forward to complete their objective of cutting off the Argoan line and meeting up with Captain Weingartner. As they push forward into the battlefield, Werner…


Schädeltrauma » Head trauma reported at 0705 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

Underground doctor-turned-combat medic Nico Fabrizzio’s mind was always full of ‘what if’s. For example—what if Cadence was his little sister? What if flowers fell from the sky instead of snowflakes—instead of ash? What if conductors didn’t exist? What if the pictures at the theater were in color? What if Wilhelm Fischer was second lieutenant instead of Gilbert? What if Argo and Capricorn and Aquarius got along? What if his father had never gone into the underground business? What if Nico himself had never grown up in the Twin Cities? What if Werner had grown up in the Twin Cities with the rest of them? What if Werner…

As Nico brushed aside these thoughts and continued trudging forward along the marshy ground, his gaze drifted to Atienna who was pacing alongside Gilbert. The rifle that Kleine had conjured for her was swung up on her back, but it looked like it was weighing her entire body down.

A fog rolling up from the south snaked its way in between the thinning tree line around them and covered up the muddy ground that was patched over with a network of ice. The high-hung sun could not pierce through the veil of clouds shrouding the sky, and so everything felt cold, gray.

Nico sighed, his breath fogging up the air and adding to all the drabness.

A couple more kilometers and they’d reach the captain. While that was definitely a reassuring thought, it still wouldn’t be some time until they reached ‘true safety.’ They had been walking for several hours now and had thankfully not come across any additional Argoan pockets. Gilbert had suggested for Atienna keep to his side just in case the worst-case scenario came knocking. Atienna had not objected—merely offered words of gratitude. Gilbert reveled in it a lot more than he should have. A shameless guy. A lot like Cadence. But…

There was definitely something wrong, Nico knew. This ‘override’ was lasting longer than any other override Werner had told him about before. The longest one Werner had referenced had been Maria’s cheery-eyed override during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict. The shortest had been Cadence’s override in the Twin Cities to save Alma two months prior. And now… how many hours had it been? Six? Seven? If only there was a telegram line so he could use a conjured radio to call up Cadence to see what was going on on her end.

Atienna seemed to share his concerns but did not address them directly. Instead, she had approached him earlier this morning, asking him to re-evaluate Werner’s hand injury. Maybe she thought the injury had to do something with the override. Nico did as she requested before they were set to leave. 

After removing the glove that was constantly kept over Werner’s hand, he’d undone the bandages and inspected the injury. Thin grafted-skin ran diagonally across Werner’s palm where the cut had once been. The skin at the area hadn’t yet split indicating that enough skin had been transmuted to hold. Upon further inspection, however, Nico found a tiny dark spot he hadn’t noticed before beneath the transmuted skin there. Most likely petechiae or purpura as a result of the injury. Would probably disappear within a few days. Leaving it at that, Nico had resolved to assess it periodically.

As Nico had re-bandaged the hand, however, he couldn’t help but stare at Werner’s palm. He hadn’t ever had to treat the area—or even Werner, in general—so he had been… alarmed when he had first seen it. He had contemplated addressing it after Werner awoke, but when Atienna awoke instead…

“I… may be making a baseless assumption here,” Atienna had interjected during his rumination, “but if you’re thinking what I’m assuming you’re thinking, then perhaps it would be best to wait to address it face-to-face instead.” She’d stared right through him. “Middlemen—from your personal experience—aren’t too good, don’t you think?”

Nico was drawn out of his memories of that event as Stein, Brandt, and Fischer approached him from the side. He greeted them with a slight nod.

“So?” Stein took a drag of his v-cig and passed it to Brandt. “What’s really wrong with the lieutenant, Fabrizzio?”

Although the question had been asked casually, Nico could see the glint in Stein’s eyes. Stein had been present in the Twin Cities during the ELPIS incident, after all. He’d witnessed Werner’s confrontation with Colonel Fritz von Spiel and the fallout of Francis’s rampage—but he still hadn’t been given the down-low on what was what with True Conductors. Neither had Bergmann. Stein himself never asked for the details but he’d been keeping one eye keenly peeled ever since.

“It’s like Gilbert says.” Nico flashed a practiced smile. “The lieutenant is fine. He suffered light head trauma from when he fainted from exhaustion earlier. He’s still disoriented.”

“Poor lieutenant…” Combat medic Alwin Brandt sighed, passing the v-cigarette to Fischer beside him. “Are you sure there’s nothing you missed? I’ve been on leave since that border conflict with Aquarius, so I wouldn’t mind checking for you if you’d like. Been itching to get my hands into something. It’s not a bother.”

Nico frowned. The statement in itself was an insult. “No, I’ve got it. Thanks though, Brandt.”

It wasn’t that Nico didn’t like Brandt. It was just that since they were in the same occupation in the same working space, they often butted heads on how to handle certain procedures. “Competition is bad for business,” as Allen would say.

“And still the lieutenant marches on,” sang Stein suddenly. “That’s a Capricornian through and through.” He craned his neck around and jeered. “Unlike some people here.”

Heimler and Vogt who were walking beside one another behind them shared a grimace.

“A bunch of pansies.” Stein spat.

Stein reminded Nico a little bit of Feliciano Donato, one of his many personal childhood bullies. Same aggressiveness, same condescending tone, same swagger. Except Stein had some redeeming features. Definitely a lot more honor. But still.

“Knock it off, Stein.” Nico sighed before he hummed. “You never know. You might be in a situation where Stein or Heimler are the only ones who can bail you out. Pretty sure you won’t think that they’re that then. As we always say, ‘never throw all of your cards away because you’ll end up chucking a card that wins a hand.’”

Stein scoffed. “Those two are joker cards. If anything I’ll be the one’s saving their asses.”

“I’ll raise you one on that.”

Stein’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t feel comfortable doing that when it’s with you of all people.”

Nico shrugged but then paused as a chill went up his spine. It seemed as if their conversation had gained the attention of Atienna. Nico locked eyes with her across the path, and she flashed him a smile in turn. It was a very nice smile, but… There it was again. That look. As if she was looking on at Stein’s malicious behavior from a far distance. Like it didn’t truly involve her. Just like how she’d looked that previous night while inspecting the Argoan’s corpse.

Initially that night, despite Atienna’s attempts to hold her expression steady, her horror, disgust, and sympathy upon gazing at the pile of corpses had shone through clearly—so clearly Nico had almost felt ashamed that he hadn’t been nearly as affected as her.

But then, that changed.

Nico could still picture it now.

The way the moonlight had bled through the spaces between the trees, streaking Werner’s face in splashes of silver and highlighting that curious fascination as Atienna had examined the corpses. Like a detective observing a crime scene. No. Like an outsider looking in. No. Like a movie-goer watching the flickering monochrome film reel. A reader flipping through pages of a book.

Truthfully, Atienna unnerved Nico.

The dichotomy of warm sympathy and cold curiosity reminded Nico too much of his own father.

* * *

Gilbert had them take a short break when they passed by a slowly trickling stream. Nico knew that Werner probably wouldn’t have made this less-than-scenic stop but was appreciative of the opportunity to rest his legs.

While the others sat and puffed their v-cigs, cleaned their weapons, or opted for an additional wink of sleep, Atienna hovered around uncertainly before settling beneath a large tree. She rested the conjured rifle against the trunk before gazing at Gilbert who was inspecting a map a meter or so away. Nico studied her from where he lounged puffing a v-cig with Kleine and Stein before pacing to her side.

Atienna greeted him with a pleasant smile at his approach. Like she’d been expecting him. “Oh, hello, Nico.”

Unnerving.

But Nico offered a genial smile and thumbed behind him. “Want to refill your water with me?”

Atienna’s gaze swept the area, and she seemed to take note of the glances she was receiving from the others. With a thoughtful hum that made Nico think she was evaluating the meaning—the worth—of those stares, she inclined her head.

They walked down a slope towards the stream in silence. Only the sound of crunching leaves and iced dirt, the occasional slosh as Nico misstepped into a deep puddle, and the trickling of the stream as they drew nearer and nearer. Atienna did not walk with the same sense of rigidity and purpose as Werner did, Nico noted. If anything, she floated.

Heimler and Vogt were crouched side-by-side by the bank when they arrived. The two men were conversing quietly with one another, so engrossed in their conversation that they didn’t even notice his and Atienna’s approaches. But Atienna didn’t make her presence known and settled down further along down the bank. Nico crouched down beside her, uncapped the bottle, inspected the stream hesitantly. The water ran clear. He turned to back to Atienna but found her attention elsewhere—she was staring down the stream bank towards Vogt and Heimler.

Nico arched a brow. If she was interested in them, why didn’t she sit closer to them to begin with?

After a pause, she asked, “Do you mind if I ask, Otto—”

Vogt snapped up to a stand. He scanned the area, locked eyes with Atienna, stiffened. “Sorry, sir! I didn’t even notice you were there. I was distracted. It won’t happen again!”

A very quiet, brief chuckle almost akin to a sigh passed Atienna’s lips. An accident, probably, given by how her mouth pulled into a tight line afterwards. Nico couldn’t tell if the two had seen the slip.

“I was wondering how you knew about the sternblume we found on that Argoan’s…boots,” Atienna continued, voice even but still way too soft. “If I recall correctly, you’re from the Felsenberg region. Far west from the area that sternblume grows.”

“Er, yes, that’s where I’m from.” Vogt nodded. “My mother is a botanist, you see. My father’s a florist. Know about all sorts of plants.”

“Botany…” Atienna’s brows rose. “Is that what you want to pick up again when your military service is over?”

“When my service…?” Vogt blinked.

Heimler, eyes suddenly sharp, drew up to a stand.

Nico arched a brow at him, but paused when he noticed Atienna regarding the man carefully with that look in her eye again. Was she honestly curious about Vogt’s situation, or did she have another intention in mind?

Vogt finally nodded, cracking a nervous smile. “I have a lot of catching up to do when I get back. I was hoping to do a duel-business where I sell and teach people about different flora.”

“Have you thought of bringing along a book to study…” Atienna paused. “…while you’re here?”

Otto grimaced. “I don’t like reading much…”

Atienna rose to a stand, capping her now filled flask of water. “Well, that’s a shame, don’t you think? You can miss out on a lot of things by avoiding things you dislike… But you could always ask one of the others to read to you. It would be good practice for both parties.”

“Like a bedtime story, sir…?” Otto chuckled nervously, glancing at Nico in slight confusion.

Not a very good joke, but Nico didn’t blame him given the strangeness of the situation.

“If that’s what you perceive it to be,” Atienna responded. “But—”

Nico glanced up at her.

Atienna was staring across the river—wide-eyed, pale. An almost imperceptible shiver slithered down her entire body as she took one small step backwards.

Nico followed her gaze but only found a patchwork of trees and rock at the opposite end of the stream. He rose to a stand. “Lieutenant?”

Atienna snapped to him, tightened expression lessening slightly before she glanced past the stream again. She turned back to him slowly and held up her flask. “Are you done, Nico?” As if nothing had occurred.

Nico nodded, tense.

“Should we head back then?”

Again Nico nodded.

Atienna bid farewell to Vogt and Heimler before heading up the slope leading back to the forest clearing. Vogt offered a wide-eyed wave in turn, while Heimler gave a curt, one-worded goodbye with lingering eyes.

“Did you see something?” Nico asked as he caught up to her from behind. “Was it one of the others…?”

She stopped short, turning to him. Her brows were beaded with sweat. “No… I… saw…” She raised a hand to her mouth. “I thought I saw someone I used to know. But it couldn’t be because she died several months ago…”

Nico paused.

“I suppose if none of you saw it then…” A frown creased her lips. “I… need to look further into this…” She flashed a distant, tired smile with almost a faint glint of mischief. “I hope I didn’t scare you.”

* * *

The unit started off again half an hour later after checking their conductors, weapons, guns.

Taking on the occupation as a combat medic meant that Nico had to learn how to use a gun. The ‘correct’ way. It was one of the things he’d been looking forward to the least when he’d decided to come on out to serve here—bullet, chamber, gunpowder, bang.

It wasn’t like Nico was unfamiliar with it. He’d used a gun once before when his father’s clinic had been raided by city newcomers trying to make a name for themselves. Missed every shot. Fortunately—or unfortunately—the Romanos had handled the rest so it hadn’t mattered in the end. But here, Nico had been taught the ‘correct’ way to hold and fire the weapon. It was one of the perquisites he had to complete before shrugging into his role as liaison for the Romano Family. Werner had been the one to teach him—and saintswas he a strict teacher. But now Nico was certain he would at least get one shot in if the time ever called for it. And he hoped it wouldn’t.

It seemed like an oxymoron—the term ‘combat medic,’ but so had the term ‘underground doctor.’ This was better, Nico was certain. Much better than before. These people weren’t fighting greedily, selfishly for themselves. They were fighting for their country. Each other.

“We haven’t come across any Argoans this entire time,” Kleine said suddenly. “It’s weird.”

Although the glasses-wearing Conjuror usually hung back with Otto or Heimler, Nico noted that today he paced just a step behind him, Atienna, and Gilbert.

“You know what they say about rats in a sinking ship,” Stein quipped.

Fischer smirked. Otto chuckled.

“… They say you should follow them.”

There was a stretch of silence.

Seeming to not notice the stares she received, Atienna continued walking along beside Gilbert examining the tree line. Nico had a feeling she wasn’t scanning them for enemies. And he realized a beat afterwards that she was very aware of the stares she was receiving because finished her comment with—

“…Don’t they?”

“Yes, they do.” Kleine nodded.

“They do,” Fischer agreed immediately despite his prior laughter. A boot-licker, as Gilbert liked to say. A guy who knew where to play his cards, Cadence would most likely argue contrarily. “Happened all the time when I was on those boats with my dad off the coast of Pisces. Every time we had a leaky hole, the rats would scramble, sir.”

Stein snorted. “How the hell did you get off the coast of Pisces if you’ve got holes in your ship—”

Gilbert held his up hand and brought it into a fist. Nico immediately halted as did the others—save for Atienna who stopped short three steps afterwards. Everyone pulled out their weapon or their conductor. Nico himself swung his rifle off of his shoulder and moved his finger to the trigger. Then Gilbert jerked his head up. Telling smoke trails bled skywards in the distance right above where they were to meet Captain Weingartner.

* * *

It was a kilometer or so through the thicket of trees that they found the designated point they were intended to unite with Captain Weingartner. Rather, they found what was left of it.

Toppled tents were pounded into the ground in between pyres of smoking flame. Steam drifted upwards from spaces of bulleted earth. Vitae-ray marks were scorched into the dirt and filled with bullet shell casings. Around them lay conductors and guns and combat knives. Gripping those weapons were uniformed men and women—some in Capricornian dark gray, others in Argoan forest green.

The air smelled stale yet sharp, felt thick but thin. The only audible sound was the crackling of the dying embers. No birds, no animals, no breathing.

Nico’s stomach churned.

The two things that were different about the Twin Cities and here were the amount of bodies and the way those bodies were handled. Back in Gemini, all the stiffs were buried ten feet under. Here, they were always out in the open.

Gilbert held Atienna back with one arm. “Stick together—”

Heimler suddenly darted off into the campsite without warning. He slipped several times in his mad dash but managed to pick himself up before disappearing into the carnage. Gilbert began to shout after him but bit his tongue and swore under his breath.

“Next person that runs off, I shoot!” he hissed. “Stick together, dammit!”

Gilbert locked eyes with Nico and then Kleine and jerked his head. Nico drew closer to Atienna as did Kleine.

They threaded their way through the campsite quietly, cautiously, eyes peeled, muscles tense. Whenever they would pass a body that didn’t look completely mutilated and riddled with either vitae-ray singes or bullet holes, Nico would draw near and assess the pulse. Every single time there would be nothing.

It hurt. His profession was one of healing and saving people. Each body ticked another failure. Of course, he knew that there was no way he could have saved them, but that nagging feeling remained. “Don’t be naïve. There are more pertinent things to concern yourself with,” Werner would say, “than things that are truly beyond your control.”

As they drew deeper and deeper into camp, it became harder and harder to tell what was blood and what was mud. Everything melded together into one. Iron, smoke, dampness. And then—

A groan emanated from just beneath a collapsed tent to their left. The tarp strung above the broken metal frame shifted and groaned before a man dragged himself out from beneath the entangled mess. Nico broke off from formation and ran to the man’s side. He flipped the man over before pausing as he studied the man’s face and then the color of his uniform. Realization settled in a second later. The injured person was not a man, but a boy—barely touching on adolescence. And not a Capricornian, but a—

“It’s a damn Argoan!” Stein spat, shoving Nico away and aiming his conducting rifle squarely at the adolescent’s face.

In a flash, Atienna was beside Stein and shoving the point of his conductor down. The shot went off with a flash of blue and burned a fist-sized hole into the dirt beside the boy’s head.

“It’s discourteous to shoot without question. Especially during a surrender.” The glint in Atienna’s eyes was almost Werner-like. “Nico, would you mind?”

Nico nodded before moving onto his usual medical assessments with the Argoan. The boy tensed under his searching hands and barely stuttered answers to his assessment questions. Pulse, 85 beats. High—but probably from anxiety and stress. And fear. That was clear. Gilbert approached them from behind meanwhile, dealing a slap upside Stein’s head. Nico pulled back a minute later after finishing his run-through.

The Argoan was uninjured. Merely in slight shock. All in order—although Nico figured the boy would appreciate a blanket. He informed Gilbert and Atienna of this, but it was Stein who spoke:

“With all due respect, Lieutenant Waltz—” Stein jabbed a finger at the Argoan. “—but your head’s still not right. He’s the enemy and just a foot soldier. We won’t get anything from him than blubbering and—”

“The conductors are still here,” Atienna drew calmly. “Whatever happened here, the Argoans didn’t have the time to collect them all. None of the tags have been taken off any of the soldiers either. I imagine that the Argoans would want to collect both of those things. In other words, whatever happened here was unexpected for both parties.” She studied Stein for a moment. “I understand where you’re coming from, Derik, but…”

Stein stiffened at the mention of his first name.

“So interrogation,” Gilbert tried, searching her face for Werner.

Atienna responded by sinking to her knees in front of the Argoan who shakily propped himself up in response. “What happened here?” Quietly, gently in Common.

The young Argoan shook his head ferociously, wide eyes flitting back and forth as if expecting something to pop out from behind them—no, as if expecting them to lunge at him. He scooted back, looking to Nico desperately as if asking for rescue.

And then Atienna placed a hand on the Argoan’s cheek causing not only him to stiffen but also all of the other men. “It’s okay,” she continued, nonplussed. “You’re safe.”

The Argoan shook his head, eyes wide. “T-They…” The words seemed to be stuck in his throat.

“What’s your name?”

“E… Emil.”

“Okay, Emil, you’re safe. I promise. My name is Werner. I’m a first lieutenant. I’ll make sure you get home, okay? You can trust me.”

Emil nodded dazedly, focusing in on Atienna’s—rather, Werner’s—face. Nico could see everyone besides Gilbert and Kleine exchanging looks.

Atienna pulled her hand away slowly. “How did you end up here, Emil? You… weren’t directly involved in this attack… correct?” A pause. “It’s okay. Take your time—”

“No!” Emil sucked in a breath, reaching to grab Atienna by the arm before she could fully fold into herself. “The Capricornians—you—were attacking each other.”

What…?

“My unit and I… we saw this camp… we were too small to engage, so we were just going to go report to our superiors.”

Stein clicked his tongue and shared a heated look with Fischer.

“W-When we were trying to slip past you—you just started attacking each other. First, it was one, and then it was everyone.” Emil’s eyes went wide. “My captain wanted to take advantage of the chaos and had us wait… had us wait… but… but…”

“He’s obviously lying!” Stein snapped, kicking up mud with his foot. He whipped around, gesturing wildly. “The Argoans ambushed us but we fought back and they ran off! This guy got left behind and is just trying to scramble! He doesn’t know anything!”

“Stein, shut up,” Gilbert muttered back. “Cool off.”

The sound of sloshing footsteps came at them from behind before anything else could be said. Fischer and Stein raised their conductors while Nico’s hand went for his rifle. He lowered his hand a second later, however, as he registered the figure approaching them.

Heimler. And he was not alone. To his left stood a freckled man dressed in Capricornian dark gray. To his right stood a woman dressed the same, although she kept her head dipped low and her chin buried in the collar of her coat.

Survivors.

“T-They’re ours,” Heimler said, voice trembling with odd nervousness. “I found them—”

Nico stepped forward but was quickly pushed to the side by Gilbert who first stared—as white as a sheet—at the freckle-cheeked man before turning to the woman. He pulled down her collar exposing her face. Nico recognized the woman immediately. He’d seen her before in the Capricornian newspapers once or twice. In the papers, she’d be posed with her fist raised up in the air, her wispy blonde hair popping out of a tight bun, her prominent brow furrowed, her signature woolen scarf billowing behind her like wings. Behind her would be a flag with a cartoonishly drawn symbol of an eye flapping in the wind. 

“What the hell…?” Gilbert seemed to recognize her too. 

Marionette Engel, leader of the Verbundene Augden movement.


???

Werner Waltz returned back from his post at dusk, 2021 hours exactly. He slipped back past the line, reported his numbers to Major Ersatz, and made his way through the trenches. It had rained approximately 13 centimeters that morning, and the entire trench was flooded up to the knees. The gutters had become clogged with debris, so the sewage system was not running properly. Unsightly.

As he maneuvered through the waterlogged trenches, the gazes of the soldiers tucked away in the walls bore into him all the while. News of his success in breaching the Argoan stronghold at Abschnitt 46 must have made its way here to Abschnitt 45.

It was nothing to be praised.

He had merely assisted the offense there alongside the others in his division. If anything, his numbers were lower in this operation compared to his previous performances. Improvements needed to be made.

After locating his designated bunker through the watery maze and tucking down into it, Werner found his bunk bed as orderly as he had left. His bed was at the top rung so it had not been affected by the rising flood. Gilbert’s bed that rested just below his, however, was completely submerged. Gilbert himself sloshed around in the waters lugging his bag and throwing clothes and shoes up onto a bunk parallel to theirs. He was by himself, the v-lights accentuating his loneliness as they flickered on and off.

Werner frowned. “Wolff, what are you doing? You’re making even more of a mess.”

Gilbert tensed, back still turned. “It’s Magda.” He threw down his bags. “They sentenced her to death. Just an hour after you left. I’m supposed to be the one to do it. ‘Cause I was the highest-ranking rifleman around at the time. As if being a lance corporal means anything.”

Werner digested this information. “Yes, I heard about Magda. She deserted during the Schwarzer Streifen operation and was found by Rittberg’s unit in Abschnitt 24. Deserters are to be executed by article—”

“I don’t give a damn what article says what!” Gilbert snapped. “That’s too much!”

“She deserted, Wolff.” Werner folded his hands behind his back. “They were generous not to have her executed by firing squad or hanging.”

Of course she deserted! She has two children waiting for her at home! A sick father! Her husband in the 44th was nearly killed in that skirmish at Abschnitt 21! They won’t get their damn pension until the end of the month!”

“We all have to make sacrifices. That’s what it means to be a part of a functional society like Capricorn. Once she turned her back on her country, she became an enemy of a state. She is no different from the Argoans standing on the opposite side of this line.”

“Saints, Werner, do you hear yourself?” Gilbert whipped around and gestured wildly. “I was just sharing a drink with her yesterday! And now they’re asking me to murder her?”

Werner paused, glancing over his shoulder to the entrance. “Gilbert, calm down. You were given a task, and you have to follow through.” He repeated from memory, “You have to do what’s expected of you.”

Gilbert scoffed, turning back to his bags and resuming his packing. “No, I don’t. I’m done with this. All of this. If you ever see me again, it’s gonna be in the Twin Cities drunk on life—”

Werner’s eyes narrowed. “Or beside Magda being executed with her.”

Gilbert froze. “And I’m guessing you’re going to be the one aiming the conducting rifle at us?”

“Don’t be irrational, Gilber—”

“Don’t be this, don’t be that. Do this, do that.—I can’t flip a damn switch in my head and kill one of our own like it’s nothing!”

“You’re a Capricornian. You’re a soldier. This merely falls in line with duty. Don’t act like this is unexpected—”

“Give me a BREAK!” Gilbert snapped, whirling around like a storm. “Don’t tell me you actually believe that bullshit—”

“If you can’t serve your country as a Capricornian,” Werner interjected coldly, “then I will.”

Gilbert froze wide-eyed, water dripping from his sleeves and his hair into the pool below. He did not speak; he did not move forward. In other words, he did not object. And so Werner locked eyes with him, reached over to draw the man’s pistol from his belt, and exited the barracks to fulfill his duty.

Werner picked up Magda Rath from the bunker where she was guarded by two enlisted women. Few words were exchanged before he took her from them. The path they took to the soon-to-be execution ground was a short one. A path without spoken words. A path without resistance.

When they arrived at the thickly forested area, he ordered Magda to kneel. She obeyed and didn’t tremble as he loaded Gilbert’s pistol. Despite the brave face shown here, she had still chosen to desert instead of serving her country. Regardless of her well-meaning intentions, she appeared a coward to outsiders. Cowardliness was unacceptable, unsightly, and anti-Capricornian.

Werner lifted the gun to the back of her head. Only then did Magda start shaking. Her trembles reminded Werner of Otto Vogt’s trembling—and Vogt’s refusal to comply and open fire—when they had come into conflict with the Aquarians at the Ziegenberg Ridge. Unsightly cowardice.

But…

Chance often solved his problems by running away. At times, that choice had led to acceptable outcomes: the escape from the Watch, the escape from the battle between Leona and Jin, and even ordering that tactical retreat during the override.

Werner froze.

Something wasn’t right.

His finger moved away from the trigger.

This had happened already. He had executed Private Magda Rath one year and two days before the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict broke out along the east—before the skirmish with the Aquarians at Ziegenberg Ridge with Vogt’s hesitation.

What was—

The world spun, inverted, blackened. When color bled back into his awareness, Werner came to realize he was somehow lying on his back. Light from a campfire encircled by his subordinates—Vogt, Fischer, Stein, Heimler, Brandt, Kleine, Bergmann—and Gilbert flickered in the distance.

A face eclipsed his own. “Are you alright, Lieutenant? Do you have any pain anywhere?” The voice was instantly recognizable.

“Nico?” Werner tried. “How long have I been unconscious?”

Nico reached into his right pocket and pulled out his conducting gloves. He slipped them on quickly and said, “Let me check something—”

Werner grabbed the man’s wrist and rose to a slow stand.

Nico blinked up at him in confusion. “Werner, you’re injured. You shouldn’t—”

“Nico stores his conducting gloves in his left pocket, not his right. The right pocket is to store additional ammunition,” Werner said, eyes narrowing. He inclined his head towards the campfire but did not look away from the imposter. “Bergmann is not in this unit for this operation, and they are all wearing our previously issued uniforms.” He tightened his grip. “You will tell me what this is. And where this is.”

The imposter regarded him for a moment before sighing: “Well, memories are a bit subjective so you can’t blame it for not taking the shape you remember it to be. Who says the way you remember things is even correct?”

Before Werner could respond, the imposter rose to a stand and took a step back. Fine, hairline cracks appeared across their face—cracks that were reminiscent of the white fragmentation that appeared along anything Jericho’s conductor touched. The cracks spilled down from the imposter’s head to their toes. The pieces of the facade fell away from their face, their torso, their legs slowly, until Werner was able to identify—to recognize—who it was that truly stood before him.

“Lavi,” he realized, loosening his hold.

Lavender Chance’s dark hair fell like a cloak around her pale face, and her dark eyes bore into him with a sharpness that he had never seen in her before. The white cracks continued to spill out from her feet and onto the ground before spreading endlessly into the distance and splintering the environment. Like a shattered mirror. The fragmented pieces fell away revealing almost complete and utter blackness. It seemed to extend infinitely above, below, behind, and in front of him. The expansiveness made Werner’s stomach flip for a brief moment but he grounded himself.

Panic did nothing. Observe.

There was a singular source of light in the abyss. Just behind Lavi glowed a large river of light that stretched out endlessly into the distance east and west. Every so often wisps of light—at times blue, at times green, at times red—would float down from the darkness above and enter the river from one side. Periodically, light would also exit it from the opposite side and disappear upwards.

“To answer your earlier question,” came a voice from the darkness on the opposite side of the glowing divide, “you’re at the point where vitae enters and leaves the cycle, so not exactly physically anywhere.”

It was a voice Werner recognized. The same voice that had whispered to him not to reveal the modified conductors to Major Ersatz—Pi—at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. The same voice that had consoled him after he had been injured in the Twin Cities following Morello’s override. The voice that he had heard right before coming to wherever this was. The voice he had forgotten up until this point.

“In other words,” that voice continued, “First Lieutenant Werner Waltz, you’re standing right on the threshold between life and death.”


The position of combat medic is open to all Conductors within the Capricornian army. Preference is however deferred to those whose conducting-types fall under the Conjuror or Transmutationist category as their natural abilities are more equipped for the profession. Upon completion of service, combat medics are encouraged to seek employment as researchers in the Institution for Military Vitae & Conductor Scientific Research.

Enlistment Information, published by the Iron Horn Recruitment Comittee & edited by the Capricorn Chamber of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, 1936

15.1: Advisor, 0001 Log Open

Re-cap:
The psychic connection between the six is abruptly cut as an intruder eerily states that they have entered. 


Protokoll Geöffnet » Log opened at 0001 hours

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

“—stop bullshitting, Vogt.”

“It’s the truth…”

“Stein’s right. Why in saint’s name would you lie about something like that? What’s wrong with you?”

“Fischer, it’s the truth!”

“Like how you said it wasn’t you who woke up screaming about the damn Aquarians three nights ago?”

A cackle. “Vogt’s still dreaming about the border mix-up. What? You wanna go back and kill some Aquarians? No, be friends with some Aquarians? Kleine, he wants to go back and be friends with Aquarians! Why don’t you go and conjure him a bouquet of flowers so he can hand it over to ‘em.”

“Don’t involve me, Stein… Besides, you know it’s impossible to conjure living things.”

“Says who?”

“Did you not actually pass your State Conductor’s Exam, Stein?” A different voice, a different sort of sigh. “I’m still a ranking officer. If it seems to me that you’re unfit—physically or smarts-wise —then I’m gonna have to write you up.”

“It was only a joke, Wolff.”

“Who said you could talk to me that way? I’m your second lieutenant.”

“But you said—”

“That was then. This is now.”

“Yes, sir…”

A pause.

Then laughter.

“I’m just messing with you, Stein.”

The familiar pop and crackle of wood in between beats of unpleasant conversation drifted into Atienna Imamu’s awareness. The ground was cold beneath her back, but her face was warm. The sensation caused her mind to wander back to the past, back to her month within the frozen Zatmeniye Caverns, back to the pleasant conversations turned sour, back to Yulia’s cold and open lifeless eyes—

With great difficulty, Atienna forced open her heavy eyelids and dispelled the nightmarish image. A dark, starless sky greeted her awakening. Faintly out of the corner of her eyes, she could make out the soft glow of fire a couple of meters away. Around her stretched a network of black trees holding up a cold, yet damp air that smelled of moss and dirt. Familiar.

“You’re up.” A shadowy face eclipsed her own. “How are you feeling, Lieutenant? Does your shoulder still hurt? Can you sit up?” And then more quietly, “Did something happen to the others? Was it Cadence?”

Those dark curls and amber eyes were instantly recognizable. The scrapes and bruises seemed a bit new and foreign, as did the half-moons beneath the eyes—but this was undeniably Nico Fabrizzio, Cadence’s childhood friend turned Werner’s left-hand man.

What a surreal dream, Atienna thought. Or perhaps this was a memory.

It was a bit unusual though. She rarely saw Werner’s memories. As accessible as that man was, everything surrounding his past was shrouded thickly by the smell of gunmetal, soot, moss, and iron. The only clear, resonant thing was that memory of that pale woman standing in that white room. And what an unpleasant thing that was.

“Werner…?” Nico frowned in the dark. “Can you hear me?”

Loud and clear—oh.

“… is this not a memory?”

At the sound of Werner’s voice coming from her own mouth, Atienna pressed a hand to her throat. Her hands were gloved, she realized. Leather-gloved. She could feel bandaging just beneath the leather over her right palm.

So, that was how it was… How troubling. How had this happened? The last thing she recalled was attempting to make that phone call in the capital of Capricorn. And then…

“Werner?”

“I don’t mean to alarm you,” Atienna said quietly after a pause, “but I believe something may have gone wrong…”

Nico pulled back and studied her face with wide eyes before he called for Gilbert over his shoulder.

* * *

Atienna waited patiently by a thick cluster of bare-bone trees that jutted up from the ground away from the campfire. The campfire itself was ringed by a half-circle of familiar uniformed men who were chattering quietly as they sipped from tin cans. Their slurping was quite thunderous in light of the silence that now occupied her mind.

To feel fully her own thoughts, to hear only the whistle of wind through the tree branches and not the distant trickle of commotion from the others, to feel only her—rather, Werner’s—heartbeat was… a bit lonesome. To think this was how she had felt prior to their connection… A foreign familiarity.

So, this was an override, Atienna continued to ponder. It seemed as if Maria and Olive’s experience of being ‘cut off’ from everyone else during overrides was a certainty now. However… There were several discrepancies here, and that worried her.

Atienna turned her attention back to the trees.

Strange…

She recalled reading about these particular trees before. They were even more lovely up close since she could see the identifying white veins of vitae threading through their black bodies. But…

A leaf fell from one of the branches and landed by her feet. She followed its cascade downwards and spied at Werner’s boots. They appeared immaculate despite the marshy landscape. She supposed she should try to keep them clean like this for him until he returned.

If he returned.

The crunch of leather boots against leaves and twigs drew Atienna’s attention away.

Gilbert Wolff and Nico Fabrizzio came to a stop just before her—close enough to see the dirt dusting their faces but too far for her to make out the color of their eyes in the dark. Both of their collared uniforms were eclipsed with a single silver-woven bar at the shoulder pads designating their rank. Nico’s arm was adorned with a crimson cross, while a billed cap similar to Werner’s rested on top of Gilbert’s head. The same yet different. But together they seemed to share some sort of mutual hesitance and uncertainty. Together, they scanned her quietly.

“Hello,” Atienna greeted the second lieutenant with a dip of her head.

If Nico was the left hand, then Gilbert was the right hand. “Proficient in different aspects,” as Werner would say.

“Er, hi…” Gilbert looked her over again and then spoke in Common. “It’s happened again?” He pulled the cap off his head, tucked it under his arm, and extended his hand. “Gilbert Wolff.”

“I know who you are, Herr Wolff.” Atienna couldn’t help but smile. “I should be the one introducing myself.” She reached out and accepted the gesture. “I’m… pleasantly surprised at how gentlemanly you are.”

“You’re a different one than the last couple of times,” Gilbert confirmed, not at all appearing offset. “Haven’t gotten along so well with some of the others before. Figured I should try a friendlier approach.”

“I do appreciate the effort,” Atienna returned genially, pulling her hand away as he released it. “I am…” She paused, considering. “… Atienna. Although, it’d be strange if you started calling me that, don’t you think?”

“You’re a woman?” Gilbert stared. “Well, I mean, Cadence was one, but she wasn’t…” He gestured towards her—rather, Werner’s—body.

“That’s a beautiful name,” Nico interjected quickly in an obvious attempt to save face. “It’s got a nice ring to it. Like from a romance novel. I bet Gil’s just jealous he doesn’t have as nice of a name as that.”

Atienna chuckled despite herself. The duo’s responses were rather predictable. Charmingly crass and charmingly polite. It was certainly a comfort. Her response—she realized—was not as predictable, however. At least not for them. The two stared, ogled.

“Thank you, Nico,” Atienna said, before addressing Gilbert. “But are you concerned about something in particular, Gilbert?”

Gilbert continued to stare at her, mouth slightly ajar.

“I do have a younger brother,” Atienna provided. “And I’ve had to care for him when he was younger—if that answers your concerns…”

Gilbert stared at her again but this time the stare ended with him snickering. He nodded. “You speak Capricornian?”

“It’s a beautiful language,” returned Atienna in said language.

Gilbert offered a nod of approval and then continued in his native tongue. “So, we should—”

“I don’t mean to interrupt, but shouldn’t we invite Klaus to discuss this with us?” Atienna interjected quickly, inclining her head in the direction of the campfire—rather, towards the soldiers gathered there in a ring. “It would make things flow a bit smoother… I believe.”

Gilbert regarded her for a moment before shrugging. He then gave a sharp, ear-piercing, two-fingered whistle causing Atienna to startle slightly— “Kleine!”

The glasses-wearing man stiffened from where he sat at the foot of the campfire. After quickly shoving the book he’d been reading into his pack set beside him, he jogged on over.

When Klaus reached them, Gilbert explained the recent developments. Although—in Atienna’s opinion—Gilbert put it a bit more forthright than she would have. The term ‘possession’ and ‘physical recalibration’ were thrown around several times but Atienna politely requested a reconsideration of the latter idea. She doubted being hit upside the head would resolve this issue regardless of what Olive had experienced when he’d overridden Werner several months ago.

“So, how long’ll this one last?” Klaus tried after a pause. He studied her but would not meet her eyes.

“I’ve never overridden anyone before, so I’m not too sure. But I’m… questioning if this is what you would actually consider one.” Atienna studied the frost decorating the scattered leaves on the ground. She placed a thoughtful hand on her cheek. “Usually, there is intent when that occurs…”

“And there wasn’t ‘intent’ or whatever this time?” Gilbert arched a brow.

Werner’s recent memory of the Argoan woman lying in a pool of red came to Atienna slowly. The colors—pale white and silver against all of that crimson… A terrible thing. But the Argoan’s behavior had been quite odd. Atienna had heard of extreme patriotism before—patriotism to the point of suicide upon capture, but….

This was what choice did to people. And now no one could tell the deceased Argoan woman whether she was right or wrong.

“We’ve…” Atienna met Gilbert’s eyes for a moment before looking away. “We reached an agreement in a prior meeting to stay at a low level of synchronization for the rest of the week unless it was a dire circumstance.” She paused in thought before staring at her right gloved hand. She had considered stepping in when Werner’s palm had been cut, but her intention then had only been to console not to intrude. The desire to override had not been remotely present. “Still, there’s so much we don’t understand about what it means to be a True Conductor. This could be an entirely different development… or…”

Or what? Why was she always looking for reason and rhyme where it didn’t exist? Some questions didn’t have answers. 

“And you can’t communicate with any of the others right now, right? Not Werner?” Nico tried. “That’s what the… last one said…”

“Olive did say he couldn’t hear nor feel any of us when he overrode Werner during that one incident,” Atienna confirmed in thought. “It wouldn’t be so strange to imagine that the same thing would occur here.”

“Olive?” Gilbert arched a brow. “That the name of the brat?”

Atienna felt her lips dip slightly, but she supposed that was just his opinion. Olive was a bit… cheeky at times.

“H-He saved my life,” Klaus stammered, “back when Argo got their hands on conductors. I’ve been wanting to thank him, but uhm…”

Basically, Werner was too intimidating to approach in person.

“… Yes, Olive is a very kind-hearted person,” Atienna agreed. She offered Klaus a smile of reassurance. “I’ll be sure to convey your thoughts to him.” Pausing, she glanced at Gilbert. “You’re in the middle of an operation…?”

“Right. We’re doing a pincering movement,” Gilbert explained, fitting his cap back on his head. “Meeting with two platoons headed by Captain Weingartner. Cutting off the Argoans from their supplies and sweeping down the line. At the moment, we’re in unoccupied land. Wider strip than what’s in front of our trenches in Abschnitt 45.” A scoff. “Called ‘unoccupied,’ but the capital insists that it’s our land. Anyway, other platoons went ahead of us. We’re just picking off any stragglers.” He gestured behind him and then behind her. “Stretches roughly fifteen kilometers.”

‘Picking off stragglers’…

Of course, Atienna had been aware that this aspect had existed even before she’d been connected to Werner: a profession to protect ultimately crossed over with a profession to kill. She glanced at Nico and thought, even in the profession of medicine… Right, because, ‘As soon as you valued one person more than another, you automatically became a villain.’

Absentmindedly, she glanced back at the tree cluster growing beside her. It really was strange…

“What?”

She blinked up and found Gilbert frowning at her.

“It’s…. nothing.”

“Come on. If it was nothing, then you wouldn’t be caught up about it.”

What a difficult person…

“I didn’t think that there would be vitae streams beyond Signum…” She reached out and touched the brambles. The gloves prevented her from feeling its rough surface. “This is a lamia tree. They grow in areas of Signum that don’t receive a lot of sunlight, and they gain energy from vitae streams underground—runoffs from reservoirs. However, if this is unoccupied territory then…”

“Oh. Well, it’s why we’re out here…” Gilbert drew after a pause. “The Kaiser claims this was our land before the Reservoir War broke out ‘cause there’re vitae reservoirs here. Argo says otherwise. I say fuck both of ‘em. And Ophiuchus? Well… “ He cleared his throat when he noticed her stare.

There went his gentlemanly guise, she supposed.

“…Ophiuchus has no say in countries outside of Signum,” Atienna finished, more to herself than the others. “I do recall reading about this issue of unoccupied territory, but I always thought…”

“Thought it was propaganda?” Gilbert seemed to be asking himself instead of her. He scoffed. “‘Reading’ about it, huh? Well, we’re living it. Propaganda galore.”

“I don’t believe that’s what Werner would call it…” She felt the corners of her lips tug upward.

“Can you not refer to Werner as ‘Werner’?” he grumbled.

She had done it on purpose but inclined her head regardless.

“So what do we do?” Nico pressed, concern knitting itself across his brow and lips. “I mean… you are—Werner is…. a first lieutenant. A leader. A soldier. And this is a battlefield… And right now…”

“We’re only going to go deeper in to meet up with the captain.” Gilbert shifted on his feet. “It’s going to be dangerous. But Werner specifically asked me to complete this operation. Plus, this entire thing relies on units like us clearing away the debris—”

‘Debris’…?

“—We can’t leave them high and dry as much as I’d like to. We can’t stop moving, so—”

“We can’t leave Werner behind…” Nico interjected. “There could still be Argoans escaping back this way. What if we miss them? And… there aren’t any units coming up behind us for another day.”

“I wasn’t saying that we should leave him.” Gilbert grimaced, placing a hand on his hip and casting a glance towards the campfire. He nodded back at Atienna. “I’m assuming you’ve never killed anyone before?”

“Does that always have to be one of the first questions you ask people?” Nico sighed, exasperated. He turned to Atienna apologetically.

“I didn’t ask you that when you first joined up,” Gilbert interjected pointedly.

“Right. You asked me if I’ve ever dissected a person alive before.”

“Good icebreaker though.”

Atienna supposed Gilbert’s directness could be considered endearing, and she had often wondered how well Bachiru or Sefu and Gilbert would get along. At this particular moment, however, his behavior was not very endearing at all.

The image of Yulia’s and Kovich’s and Alexei’s bodies draped over one another on that damp street beneath the illuminated night sky forced its way into Atienna’s mind as she considered Gilbert’s words. That trio had been all alone. Unable to reach. Their choices, neither right nor wrong.

“I find things like this… unpleasant,” Atienna admitted, “but it isn’t my place to say…”

However, Werner would be very displeased if he thought people viewed him as too much of a burden.

“But if you’re looking for a way for us to all be satisfied…. perhaps, we could say that I’m—Werner is—suffering from head trauma from the fall,” Atienna suggested after a pause. “And you could take the lead for a little while… I’d hate to put this burden on you, but I’m not very well equipped to handle leadership positions like this… Your experience far exceeds mine, don’t you think?”

Gilbert stared. “Damn… wish I could record those words coming out from Werner’s mouth. The bit about me exceeding him. Mind repeating that again so I can keep it in memory?”

Atienna chuckled lightly, hiding her smile with her hand out of habit.

“Anyway, you know how to use a conductor?”

“I… don’t personally have a license,” she responded slowly.

Klaus’s eyes widened to comical proportions.

“That’s fine.” Gilbert held up a hand. “We’ll just have to keep a tight circle around you in case anything goes south—”

“I don’t have a license, but I do know how to handle myself in unpleasant situations,” Atienna returned. “I’ve… thrown quite a few people around…”

Gilbert snorted as if amused, and the atmosphere seemed to lighten. “Well, all in all, it seems like an idea worth trying. Werner probably won’t be happy being temporarily stripped of his position though, I reckon.”

“I reckon not,” she returned pleasantly.

He scuffed her shoulder and then hesitated. “You’ll be safe under Capricornian eyes, don’t worry.”

She wasn’t too worried at all. Not about that at least. Handing off the torch to Gilbert had relieved a fragment of her unease.

Because the truth was that she just didn’t want the responsibility of having all of their lives in her hands.

* * *

Atienna hung back behind Gilbert as he informed Werner’s unit that he would be taking point on the operation. They had both been saluted at upon approaching the campfire which Atienna found rather strange. It was a different feeling from the respectful greetings she had received when her father had still been chieftain of the Imamu tribe. There was warmth with each greeting back then—although she had personally held her distance. Here, there was a distance without her even having to skirt away.

Her father… Her family…

She hadn’t seen them in months. And now here she was even further away from home than before…

“—leave at 0500 hours. So get your rest,” Gilbert finished.

A chorus of ‘ Yes, sir ’s erupted at the end of speech which was followed by Werner’s men dispersing—though, Atienna could feel their gazes linger.

Gilbert drew back to her afterwards. “You should get some rest too. Maybe Werner’ll come back when you wake up.”

Atienna touched his arm just before he brushed past her. She felt him stiffen, and so she quickly removed her hand. Displays of consideration and affection were different for different people, she supposed. And even though she knew Gilbert, he didn’t know her.

“Can I ask a favor?” she asked. “I… would like to… see the one you were facing before this all happened. The Argoan…”

* * *

“W-We put them over here, sir,” Otto Vogt stammered as he and Wilhelm Fischer guided Atienna, Nico, and Gilbert through the tree lines.

“Your stutter is worse than Heimler’s,” Wilhelm scoffed. “And you’re only one-third his age. What kind of Capricornian are you?”

Atienna peered at Wilhelm, feeling a frown touch down on her lips.

How unpleasant. Werner had deemed this as ‘necessary’ hazing. Pressure to break the layer of insecurity that enveloped a person. Hatching into something stronger. Coal to diamond. But Atienna herself wasn’t so sure.

But truly, she was so judgmental for someone who still remained the same after everything. Always keeping quiet until it was almost too late and averting her eyes like always. One step forward. Two steps back. The unpleasant thing here was herself. No one else. She was—

“Is there anything wrong with a stutter?” Atienna questioned, despite knowing it would be best to remain silent. “If the meaning gets across?”

Wilhelm stiffened and whipped his head back to face her. His reaction was akin to someone having been slapped. Otto stared too, wide-eyed.

“Er, sir,” Wilhelm managed, “of course not. I was just—”

“Just knock it off, Fischer,” Gilbert ordered.

They eventually came to a circular clearing where moonlight sauntered on down through the trees. If she were to stand at the center of the clearing, Atienna was certain the waxing gibbous moon would act as a spotlight. However, the center of the clearing was already occupied.

“Right here, sir.” Wilhelm nodded as he rounded the mound of bodies casually with Otto.

Pale-faced, blue-faced men and women laid there, cold like porcelain. Limbs were entangled with limbs. Eyes stared out vacant and glass-like, like the eyes of dolls. Dark red caked the ground below. Inhuman. Really, like dolls.

This wasn’t like the times she had seen through Werner’s, Maria’s, Cadence’s, and Jericho’s eyes. No, she was here. And the smell was…

Nico and Gilbert followed on behind Otto and Wilhelm just as nonchalantly.

Atienna remained at the edge of the clearing, unmoving. She averted her eyes from the scene. “You haven’t buried them…?”

How many bodies had there been? She would have to take another look to count. Another look at that terrible scene. How awful…

“We just haven’t gotten around to it yet,” Gilbert explained. “Don’t have to worry about wild animals. This area doesn’t have a lot of them.”

That wasn’t what she’d been referring to. Still, she nodded.

Otto and Wilhelm dragged one of the bodies away from the pile and brought it before her. They dropped it in front of her without care, although Otto appeared pale. He avoided looking at anyone, anything.

Atienna sank to her knees and studied the Argoan woman’s corpse carefully. The woman was young—most likely only in her early-20s. She had a sharp and angular face that death still had not hollowed out. Dried blood stained her jaw, contrasting the light blue of her vacantly staring eyes.

How sad.

Yulia flashed into Atienna’s mind, sending a wave of nausea throttling through her stomach. Letting out a quiet breath, Atienna reached out and closed the woman’s eyes. She then checked the woman’s hands, turning them over in her own. Her eyes narrowed.

“We already did a strip, sir,” Wilhelm said. “Got some supplies from the Groan—

A derogatory, Common term. ‘Groan.’ Used to refer to Argoans because of the way their war cries tended to sound like groans from a distance. An anagram also. Clever, but cruel.

“That’s enough. Thank you for that information, Wilhelm,” Atienna said more tightly than intended. “One moment.”

She inspected the woman’s nails before rising and moving towards the woman’s feet which were adorned in muddied, military-grade leather boots. Kneeling down slowly, Atienna began to examine the spiked soles of the woman’s boots.

There.

Atienna reached forward and plucked something that had been impaled on a spike. Leaning backwards, she inspected it in the moonlight. A white petal.

“What is it?” Gilbert asked.

“It’s a bit strange….” drew Atienna as she held out the petal for them to see. “This is a sternblume. It only grows—”

“In the Grünland region of Capricorn,” Otto realized, brows rising.

Atienna regarded him in surprise for a moment. “Yes, exactly, Otto.” She moved forward, gently turning over the woman’s hand before she showed them the woman’s polished fingernails. Each nail hosted the same design painted white on black. “This symbol…”

“Wait a minute.” Wilhelm startled, squinted, leaned closer. “I’ve seen that somewhere before, sir.”

“It’s the trademark for a Capricornian political organization. Verbundene Augen.”

“Those anti-military zealots?” Wilhelm frowned.

“Fischer, shut up,” Gilbert snapped.

“Yes, sir,” came the automatic response.

Unpleasant…

Otto inched forward. “What are you saying, sir?”

“I…” Atienna pulled away.

How would Werner put this? Certainly, he would be direct and to the point. Even if the words troubled the heart. ‘Cold Eye.’ She wondered about that.

“This woman is not an Argoan. She is a Capricornian,” Atienna finally said. “For whatever reason, she chose to disguise herself as an Argoan soldier. That’s my theory.”

No one spoke nor objected.

“It may also be possible that this is a tactic being used to sow dissent and confusion among the Border Force….” she continued. “But I believe if that were the case, there would be a more blatant attempt than this… And I have heard that certain sects of the Verbundene Augen can be…” She shook her head. “This warrants some investigation, don’t you think?”

Still, what was the intention here? An organization promoting peace that utilized violence? Was this some sort of extreme demonstration by the Verbundene Augen? Did Argo actually have any involvement? If not, then where else would the Augen movement be able to procure these uniforms?

Curious…

“Why?”

When Atienna looked up, she found Gilbert, Otto, and Wilhelm staring down at her—rather, at the Capricornian woman—wide-eyed. She wanted to apologize for not only her rambling but also for this revelation, but she knew that words would not suffice.

Why…?” Wilhelm pressed, searching her face for an answer. “We’re out here fighting for… fighting for them!”

Atienna looked away.

“There’s… There’s another tattoo, sir.” Otto gestured to the woman’s forearm.

Atienna inspected the area and paused. At the base of where the woman’s palm met her arm was a dark-blue-inked tattoo of a scorpion. It was not a very detailed tattoo—it bordered on almost cartoonish—but something about it unnerved her. How had she not noticed it before?

Wilhelm stomped his foot on the ground and kicked up a flurry of ice, leaf, and dirt as he spun on his heels. “Unbelievable!” He turned to Atienna. “Sir, we have to report this to the capital immediately. We should send a runner. This is treason. That organization should be dismantled. The traitors punished!”

For some reason, it looked as if he wanted praise.

“Okay, enough, Fischer. One thing at a time.” Gilbert waved him off. “You and Vogt head back to camp. And keep your mouths shut, will you?”

Both men exchanged a look before nodding affirmative and heading back into the direction of camp. No protest. Rank-and-file. Such a powerful thing obedience was.

Atienna waited for the crunch of their boots against the frost laden ground to recede before she let out a quiet sigh. After a moment, she inquired, “Would you like me to inspect the other bodies, Gilbert? To see if there are more involved?”

The man gave her an odd look before he nodded. “That’d probably be a good idea.”

Nico remained silent.

Atienna glanced at the mound of corpses. “Will you… send a runner like Wilhelm suggested?”

“We’re already down one man. I don’t feel comfortable moving forward with two gone. Probably best to just meet with the captain and let him decide on what to do.” Gilbert sighed, rolled his neck. “Damn, I hate thinking.”

A pause.

Atienna slowly rose to a stand. “Do you think you’ll tell your subordinates about this, Gilbert?”

“You ask a lot of questions, you know that?” Gilbert arched a brow before he shrugged. “Wouldn’t do good for morale. Finding out the people you’re supposedly fighting for could be mixed in with the people you’re pointing a conductor at.” He frowned abruptly, waved his hand. “Inspect the bodies tomorrow. You should get some sleep. Maybe Werner’ll return from his vacation by then, and he can deal with this mess.”

* * *

But Atienna awoke several hours later to the sound of grumbling, packing, and stomping leather boots. Peeling herself off up Werner’s thin sleeping pack, she blinked blearily as she observed his men shuffling back and forth around the campsite.

The campfire had been long extinguished, any evidence that it had once been burning carefully hidden away by a pack of dirt. The soup cans and paper ration wraps that had been scattered across the forest floor the previous night had also been hidden away somewhere.

Atienna was rather pleased with the latter development. She’d spent the last couple of minutes before sleep gathering what she could of those items in a bag. The earth needed to be treated with respect, after all. Despite war’s strangulation.

Werner’s men had done impressive clean-up work. The area almost looked as if it had not been occupied at all. But still… the emptiness of the campsite gave everything an odd sensation of desolation and seemed to make the morning chill feel even colder.

Atienna shivered, feeling the gazes of all of Werner’s men pressing upon her. She sighed.

By the look and sound of things, it seemed as if she had been the last to wake up…

But despite all the noise of morning bustle, it was all still too quiet.

Absentmindedly, she lifted a hand to her ear. All too quiet…

Her palms abruptly itched as a creeping apprehension crept from her stomach to her shoulders. She tensed and pulled the blanket closer around herself. She was forgetting an important detail, she knew. What was it…?

She spotted Gilbert at the very lip of the forest’s edge conversing with Wilhelm. Gilbert seemed to have felt her stare because he turned towards her and arched his brow. She shook her head slowly in response, causing him to offer a mere shrug-nod in acknowledgment. However, his concern was now clear beneath the gray overhead sunlight seeping in through the clouds. Atienna glanced away from him when something floating down from those clouds caught her attention. A snowflake sauntering down lazily. She held out a hand to capture it—off-white against her gloved hand.

It did not melt.

She realized it was ash.


Lamia trees, classified under genus Lux, are native to Signum. They are known for their unique characteristic of emitting light from their bodies and are usually found in areas that see sparse or little sunlight. Due to their reliance on natural vitae as their source of energy, they have yet to be found outside the continent of Signum.

Notes on the Botanical Curiosities of Signum, Unknown Author

14.4: Soldier, 0000 Miscalculation

Re-cap:
Werner Waltz was sent to the Twin Cities of Gemini to participate in a new deal between Capricorn and the Romano Family. There, he discovered that his superior for the mission, Fritz von Spiel, was a True Conductor aiming to utilize Capricornian presence in the city for his own goals. The incident ended with the death of Von Spiel and the annulment of the deal between Capricorn and the Romano Family. 
Skirmishes at the southern border with Argo continue as expect two months later, but something begins to creep closer.


Fehleinschätzung » Miscalculation, unrecorded.

Unoccupied Territory, Argoan-Capricornian Border

From his perch in the trees, Capricornian First Lieutenant Werner Waltz scanned the clearing through his scope. Bodies littered the marshy ground below, painted over with silver from the moonlight slithering in between the skeleton forestry. The light could not pierce through the fog that crept along the fallen leaves and branches. The veil blanketed the corpses, hiding them from sight.

It was quiet. The birds had flown away at the first gunshot. The Argoans had not. They had put up a fight—a fruitless one, since they had not been able to find Werner and his unit in their newly-issued, dark-gray uniforms among the branches above their heads. The light from the Capricornian conducting rifles had exacerbated the Argoans’ confusion leading to a break in formation which was followed by their deaths in a concise blitz of light.

As always during these execution events, nausea bubbled at the pit of Werner’s stomach. He couldn’t recall the last time he had been able to pull the trigger without hesitation. Every time he conquered this obstruction, it resurfaced during the next battle. He was certain that this had not been an issue prior to the synchronization. It did not affect his numbers, however. They remained the same in the high double digits. A number. A statistic. Quantifying lives so easily...

Werner tensed and peered through his scope as he spotted movement from below. Out from the thrushes stepped a lone woman wrapped in an Argoan gray. Gauging by the single star stamped on the shoulders of her uniform, she was most likely only a private. Her hands were held high in the air. Surrender, it seemed. But appearances were deceiving. Caution needed to be kept. That aside, if her surrender was genuine, it would be an inconsequential development. He most likely would not be able to extract any valuable information from her.

“Heimler,” Werner addressed the older man balancing on the branch just below him.

Friedhelm Heimler was a new addition to Werner’s unit. Although he was new, he was much older than the rest of them and had peppered orange hair and brow creases to show for it. He had served in the Capricornian Army during the Reservoir War and had obtained the rank of captain but was subsequently stripped of the position after he had voiced his anti-military rhetoric against the Kaiser in the years following the war’s conclusion. And yet, despite being renounced and over the age requirement for the draft, Heimler had voluntarily signed up to re-join the army. And—out of all services—he had opted to enter the Border Force. The man held years of experience and had passed all prerequisite tests for enlistment, so Werner held no doubt in his abilities, but…

Heimler’s reenlistment was a curious mystery to Werner. Perhaps it had to do with the man’s son who also happened to serve in the Border Force in the 312th Division. But that wasn’t pertinent. It would be a waste to dissect reason and rhyme.

Heimler fumbled at Werner’s address before dropping his conducting rifle. It scored down the branches before hitting the pile of leaves below with a soft thud.

Werner tensed, training his rifle on the Argon. The woman did not make any movements for the conductor. Heimler shot Werner an apologetic wince.

Werner shook his head and instead signaled to Fischer who was balanced in a tree over. Fischer nodded firmly before descending. Werner kept his conductor trained on the Argoan while Fischer approached her, forced her into a kneel and searched her for weapons. Two shakes of the head indicated that she was unarmed.

Werner gave one last careful sweep of the area through his scope before he signaled for his unit to descend to the forest floor. After swiftly scaling down the trunk behind Heimler and landing on the ground, he was greeted by a chorus of whooping cheers. A quick scan of his subordinates and the kneeling Argoan informed Werner that it was a celebratory gesture.

Private Derik Stein and Private Wilhelm Fischer were jeering down at the woman, while Private Otto Vogt and Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine looked on at them with both apprehension and relief. Combat medic Alwin Brandt was passing a v-cigarette to Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff while Nico circled the area and checked the bodies for pulses. At the center of all this, Heimler looked between the groups uncertainly, torn between a smile and a grimace.

Werner admitted that he was pleased with their performance on this operation so far. With only nine men including Werner himself to the unit, they had successfully cleared away the leftover Argoan companies along their route with no casualties. A satisfactory feat.

Werner clicked open his pocket watch and allowed the men to revel in their victory for another minute. It was 2250 hours. They were forty-five minutes ahead of schedule which he still found to be a rather tight window. If their trajectory and timeline remained the same, then they would meet up with Captain Weingartner’s platoon in 18 hours and 14 minutes. Then it would be operation complete, though he would have to take another look at the map to be completely certain.

“Enough.” Werner pocketed his watch. “There still may be hostiles in the area.”

“Oh, come on, Werner,” Gilbert said from behind the Argoan as he swung his conducting rifle over his shoulders. “We’re all getting leave after this. Let the men enjoy a little bit.”

“Celebrations are reserved for when something of merit is accomplished. We still haven’t completed this operation yet.” Werner paused in thought. “But good work.” He motioned for Stein. “Sweep the area with Kleine. Half a kilometer radius.”

Stein and Kleine gave the formal responses of confirmation before heading off into the surrounding thicket of trees.

Werner approached the Argoan prisoner and tried, “Common?”

The woman looked up and nodded.

“How many units are southeast of here?”

Her eyes narrowed before she answered in Common, “Don’t know, warmonger.”

Gilbert arched a brow from behind her while Fischer raised the butt of his rifle up and swiped it at the back of her head. The woman grunted, staggering forward on her knees.

“Enough, Fischer.”

Gilbert arched a brow. “Can’t question her if you smack the last two damn brain cells out of her head, Fischer.”

Fischer stiffened. “Sorry, sir.”

Stein and Kleine returned to report no hostiles in the area. A good development, although Werner considered ordering a double-check.

Werner motioned for Heimler who was now loitering by a thrush bush a meter away from everyone else: “Heimler, assist Fischer.”

Heimler cleared his throat, dipped his head, and started over to them. Just as he neared Werner’s side, however, he tripped forward and landed face-first in front of the Argoan. As he picked himself off of the ground and bared the brunt of disapproving stares, the Argoan locked eyes with the man’s waist—no, the sheathed combat knife that hung at the man’s belt.

The woman lunged at Heimler, ripping the combat knife right out from its holster and driving it without hesitation toward his gut. Werner darted forward in turn, hand extended. Acting before thinking. And—as always—such a pattern of events lead to unfortunate, unpleasant results.

The blade of the knife cut into and through Werner’s gloves as he wrapped his fingers around it to stop its course. The woman stared at him wide-eyed before she attempted to jerk the knife away from him. Werner merely tightened his grip. Although the blade budged ever so slightly with her tug and drew blood, it moved no further.

The Argoan released the weapon and fell backwards. Fischer and Stein were on her in an instant, pinning her to the ground beneath their knees.

“Are you alright, Heimler?” Werner inquired, wiping down the knife before handing it back to him by the blade.

“Y-Yes, sir,” stammered the man, sheathing his knife with effort. “Your hand—”

“You need to be alert,” Werner interjected. “I’m aware you’ve served in the Reservoir War before, and I’m not calling into question the experience you hold. But, this is a different war. A mistake like this cannot be tolerated more than once. Since the Argoans—”

“Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”

The Argoan suddenly screeched the word as she kicked her legs out from beneath Fischer and Stein. Her face was pale in the moonlight, her eyes wide, her black pupils small, her white teeth bared. And then blood leaked out from behind her gums and poured out from the corners of her lips. She spewed out red and spat something out onto the ground.

A mound of flesh, twitching.

She had bitten off her own tongue, Werner realized. He held his bleeding hand, ears roaring as the young woman gurgled on her own blood. Nico was on her in an instant, brushing the other men aside and ripping out his conducting gloves from his pocket.

“Wrong… wrong…” she managed between mouthfuls of crimson red. “War…monger.”

“The hell are you doing, Fabrizzio?!” Fischer snapped, grabbing Nico by the shoulder. “She’s a—”

“Stand down, Fischer,” Werner ordered calmly despite the indignant annoyance that flared in his chest.

“But—yes, sir…”

Nico reached for the woman’s mouth, his gloves already emitting their usual glow. Before he could place a hand on her, however, she shoved him back and kicked and clawed at the air. She spat again, sending blood spraying out from her mouth like mist.

I will enter,” the woman wheezed before her eyes snapped to the back of her head.

Nico fell back, panting heavily, the woman’s blood still dripping from his chin.

“The hell was that….? Crazy lady…” Gilbert grimaced at the blood pooling into the damp ground as he looped around the scene. He nodded at Werner. “You alright?”

“It’s a minor injury,” Werner replied as he elevated his hand above his heart. He nodded at the combat medic still seated on the forest floor. “Nico, are you alright?”

Nico stumbled up to a stand, wiping the blood from his face with the back of his hand. “Sorry…”

“Are you hurt?” Werner asked.

Nico assessed himself slowly before he shook his head.

“Good. You and Brandt are the only Transmutationists we have in this unit. Be aware of your role and importance.”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” Nico drew faintly before rising to a stand and gesturing to his still bleeding hand. “Do you need me to look at that?”

“As I’ve said, it’s minor.” Werner frowned, scanning the thicket of trees. “Search the perimeter. If she was willing to put up this much of a fight, there will be others.”

Kleine and Stein exchanged looks.

“We just did, Lieutenant,” Stein said.

Kleine asked, “Would you like us to… do another sweep?”

At that moment, a sharp, terrible pain exploded at Werner’s shoulder. He stumbled backwards, gripping the area with a grimace. He surveyed the pain site but found no wound. Still, the area was numb―from the cold or the pain, he didn’t know. It didn’t matter.

Ridiculous. Of course, it mattered. If the other five felt this pain then it could compromise—

The other five. There was no response from them. Radio silence. White noise.

Something had gone wrong.

Werner’s gaze flitted from the stares of confusion from his subordinates to Gilbert’s increasingly prominent frown and then to Nico’s unrestrained concern.

Where had the miscalculation been? What had been the error?

He locked eyes with the Argoan’s body.

“Werner, what’s wrong?”

The throb of pain—Werner realized hazily as he continued to stare at the Argoan—was hauntingly similar to the pain he’d felt when he had been struck by that vitae-ray at the Ziegenberg Ridge. Gilbert stepped into his view, reaching out to remove his hand from his shoulder. No injury.

“What’s going on? Were you hit—”

“Keep moving,” Werner ordered, keeping his voice steady and even. His heart thundered in his chest as the pain spread. “Meet up with the captain. Complete our operation.”

“What? Werner—”

Werner turned to Nico. “Nico, contact—”

He didn’t have the energy to say much else as the pain throttled from his shoulder to the rest of his body. He fell forward onto the forest floor.

Faintly in his mind’s eye, he saw phantoms of colorful letters fluttering downwards in-between ghostly pages of hand-written notes. He felt cold water swirling around him, heard the pitter-patter of a distant rain, tasted soot and salt.

Although there was no actual rain, he could feel the ghost of it from his memory of that day where it all began on the Aquarian-Capricornian border. That memory of cold rain seeping through the fabric of his uniform, deep into his skin, and reaching his core, where it slowly stole away his movement and sight.

The last thing he saw was all of his men staring down at him, the whites of their eyes matching the shade of moonlight pouring in from between the trees.

Oh, Werner, came that voice. It’ll be alright.

14.3: Advisor & Pirate, 0000 Lost Connection

Re-cap:
Atienna has freed herself from the conflict in the Zatenminye Caverns of Aquarius. At a cost. True Conductor, Aquarian secretary Yulia Kriska has passed away along with the others in her connected group. Atienna has been confronted by True Conductor(-hunter) Cvetka Akulova and has been offered an opportunity (?) to work alongside Cvetka’s employer. Two months later, Atienna’s uncertainty remains…

Maria has suffered her first defeat. Having lost her childhood friend Conta to ELPIS, she has set off to find Conta and fulfill her promise. Despite this tragedy, Maria has found an odd  kinship with fellow almost-saint-candidate and True Conductor Veles (a bounty hunter who claims to be a guild leader) and also with Chevalier Renee LeBlanc, another True Conductor. Two months later, Maria’s search leads her…


Verlose Verbindung » Lost connection, unrecorded

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

“Papers,” the man ordered in accented Common, hand extended. “Papers, please.”

Rainwater trickled down the brim of his charcoal-colored cap onto the metal gorget hanging around his neck by a thick chain. The imprint of a sea-goat lined the top of the accessory with the word Militärpolizei stamped in bold, capital letters just below it. A baton, a holstered gun, and a conductor of an unknown type hung at the belt around his waist.

Military police.

Balancing her small evergreen umbrella above her head, Virgoan advisor Atienna Imamu searched the small satchel that hung from her shoulders. After shifting aside three thick books and a stack of folded papers, she pulled out a slip of paper stamped with a Virgoan M-seal and her tribe’s seal.

The man accepted the identification and scanned it. Despite his hard eyes, his neatly trimmed ginger mustache brought some color to his face.

At the moment, they both stood at the corner of a sidewalk with steady traffic. A very large and gray stone-laden square unfolded before them. It was dotted with just-as-square v-trams that rolled along the tracks and around medium-sized, closely packed, just-as-square buildings. Several of those buildings were capped off with mint-colored domes, but the predominant colors in the area were beige and gray—gray from the clouding skyline. Despite the low, overbearing clouds, however, there was a sense of extended space to the square—an openness. Although there were most likely hundreds of people bustling around, it was not very crowded.

“Ah, I see. You are an advisor, Atienna Imamu.” The man nodded, handing back her slip and flashing her a cordial smile. “You are here for the Leitertechnik Diplomatisch Konvention! The conductor diplomatic convention! Is it true that people from even Libra and Sagittarius are coming over here?”

“Well, you’re very knowledgeable, Herr…?”

“Herr Schmidt,” replied the man with a grin, tipping his cap and sending some rainwater pattering onto the sidewalk. “Are you not with a bodyguard?” He glanced down the brick-stone walkway. “While it is quite safe here, there have been a couple of… incidents because of a… certain political group as of late. It would be best to travel with someone who can protect you, Frau Imamu. We would not want harm to come to a diplomat visiting our city.”

Atienna dipped her head. “I am just out to make a quick phone call.” She pointed to a building marked with long windows and capped with a triangular maroon roof just across the street.

Sefu was in there on the fourth floor being hustled around by the newly appointed Virgoan diplomat to Capricorn—Nyimbo Dimka of the Maneo Tribe. The man was much younger than the former diplomat Chiamaka had been and was much more energetic too. Thus, Atienna had used Nyimbo’s overzealousness to her advantage and had slipped away from them all minutes prior.

“I am just in there, so it is not so far.” She flashed the officer a genial smile. “I do thank you for your concern.”

“Enjoy your stay here, Frau Imamu.” The military police officer tipped his hat before pointing down the road. “There is a phone booth just down this street and to the left. It will be right across from the… how do you say… newspaper booth.”

Atienna dipped her head in thanks as the officer departed before following on down the road as the officer instructed. Her leather shoes click-clacked against the path, accentuating the subdued chatter ghosting the square.

After rounding the corner, she found the telephone booth as the military police office had described—rectangular, green-painted, straight across from the newspaper stand. Closing her umbrella, she slipped inside and took a moment to admire how clean and well-kept it was. She even thought she caught a hint of lemon-scented, cleaning-agent near the windows. She paused in her admiration to eye the phone box resting alluringly in front of her.

Her palms itched.

Atienna took in a deep breath and pulled out a slip of folded paper from her pocket. She had treated it with care ever since she’d received it from the True Conductor—rather, True Conductor hunter —Cvetka Akulova, and so it looked the same as it had when she’d accepted it two months ago. Though, she supposed she hadn’t so much treated with ‘reverent’ care as with ‘fearful’ care. Fear of deciding to use it. Fear of deciding not to. She had discussed this numerous times with Cadence and Werner. But the choice, Atienna knew, was ultimately her own.

She picked the phone off the receiver and waited to connect to the operator. After offering a polite word of greeting, she read the number off to the woman and waited as the phone trilled a ring before the line connected.

“Hello. Secretary speaking,” came the voice on the other end. Clipped, almost mechanical.

“Hello—”

“This is a private line that is being recorded for quality assurance purposes,” the voice continued. “At the moment, I’ve been directed to transfer all calls to a separate receiver. Please hold while I send you on over.”

Before Atienna could answer, the line rang again.

Oh. Okay.

“Hello,” came another voice—cheery—a second later. “You’ve reached the General Investigations Department of Ophiuchus! This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes. Are you calling to submit a new request or to address an old case? If it’s the former option, I’d be happy to direct you to the Assignment Department. If it’s the latter, may I please have your case number or the name of the peacekeeper you’re in contact with?”

Atienna paused. “Oh… I suppose I have the wrong number. I’m sorry. Goodbye.” She slowly placed the phone back onto the receiver. And then she let out a sigh—of both disappointment and relief.

It seemed as if she had narrowed her number of tasks considerably after having only been in the city for a day. Still, it was odd. Had something happened to Cvetka’s contact or had it all been a taunting ploy….? It was something that definitely needed to be addressed… Perhaps, at a synchronization meeting.

Atienna spied the newspaper stand across the square and contemplated giving it a gander. Eventually, she pulled out her umbrella and started across the square. She politely addressed the vendor within and paid for the daily newspaper with one Capricornian mark.

The newspaper headline detailed the diplomatic conductor convention. Hosted below the informational article was a rather passionate, anti-military piece written by Marionette Engel, leader of the recently popularized Verbundene Augen movement:

—the political aficionados refuse to admit that the reason they support our constant skirmishes at the southern border is because it lines their pockets with money. In short, the Capricornian military is overfunded. Some economists may argue that these monetary resources trickle over to other economic sectors. While this may be true, they must acknowledge that, with every large investment, there is always a large down payment. And that down payment is the lives of our sons and daughters—

A sharp prick at the base of Atienna’s palm distracted her from her reading.

Werner, it seemed. But they had all promised to keep a low level of synchronization whenever he and Jericho were on operations or assignments. Atienna contemplated reaching out for him regardless but thought better of it. She didn’t want to distract him. And so, she returned her attention to the newspaper.

She blinked.

That was odd…

The words were a bit hard to read. Fuzzy. Out of focus.

Several words seemed to stand out from all the blurred ink. One from the headline article, one from the demilitarization piece, and another from an ad printed at the bottom corner.

‘I—’ 

‘will—’ 

‘enter.’

Now, everything seemed out of focusThe noise around her. The movements of the pedestrians and vendors around her. Her own movements. The movements of the other five—no…. The others were drifting away from her. She could feel it, feel them pulling away, leaving her in cold, cold darkness.

The newspaper slipped from her hands and fell onto the floor. Her knees buckled, and she followed it to the ground a moment after. As she lay cold on her back, she blinked up at the gray sky in confusion and studied the shape of the clouds. They almost looked like eyes, peering down at her unyieldingly.

Dark faces ringed around her like a halo. Capricornian words shouted in alarm and concern. Beside her, the rainwater bled into the pages of her newspaper.

This sensation… the heat at the pit of her stomach and the cold enveloping her skin…. It was like when she had been poisoned by sorrowheat back at the dinner meeting in Virgo. Exactly the same.

The others…

She couldn’t complete the thought. Heaviness weighed down on her eyelids. As she drifted away, the pitter-pattering of the rain sounded like whispering in her ears.

I see you. I see you. I see you.


Slidr River, Aquarian-Capricornian Border

“Am… Am I really walking on water?”

“Yes, this is called a blessing, child Lita. I—Veles—have made it so!”

Maria Gloria-Fernandez threw her head back and hummed as she gently took both of Lita’s hands in her own and guided her forward in a slinking dance. “You are certainly amazing, my dear Beast of the Deep!”

At the moment, Lita was indeed walking on water. As was Maria. As was the bounty hunter Veles, as was the Monadic priest Simon, as was the sailor-turned-pirate Morandi, as was the foreign conductor engineer Emmanuel. Barefoot and walking along the surface of a crystalline river speckled with particles of glowing purple light.

There was an encroaching winter chill in the air, and the rocks guarding the side of the riverbank were lightly frosted. Overhead, grayed sunlight bled in through the archway of branches and barely touched their skin. Every so often a chunk of ice would roll on down the stream towards them. In response, Veles would offhandedly wave his conductor-gloved hand and the current would change causing the ice to flow around them.

It was quite strange feeling the water pushing up against her toes and keeping her afloat, Maria thought. It reminded her of that time she had stolen a hot-air balloon from Cancer and had ridden on its top all the way to Taurus. The airy buoyancy, the feeling of exhilaration of being at the divide two different terrains. It was peaceful.

“Golden Beast, your words are too kind!” Veles returned as he marched forward in front of them. Every so often, he would flick his hand and the glow of water beneath their feet would expand further ahead of them and recede a bit behind them. Despite the cold, Veles was still bare-chested, although he had taken up a much thicker fur-lined cloak that concealed his entire body.

Maria herself had a similar cloak wrapped around herself. She had gotten it in exchange for some of her medals back at an Aquarian port.

“I-It’s too bad Giorgio couldn’t come…” Lita mumbled, her words muffled in the fur-lining of her thick leather coat.

Maria moved forward to pull up the girl’s hoodie.

“Yes, well, he and the others have to take care of all the children,” Morandi said, gazing with uncertainty at the water flow below him. “It’d be precarious to bring them all along…” He glanced down at the girl. “Just as it is precarious for us to bring you along—”

Lita turned in his direction and frowned. “More precarious than when I was under the Campanas?”

Morandi grunted. “Well, dear, ELPIS and the Campanas are completely different organizations…” As he said this, his eyes widened and he hung his head. “What in saint’s name are we doing? This is crazy.”

“I still can’t wrap my head around it…” Emmanuel scratched the back of his neck as he shrugged his cloak more over his shoulders. “I have studied the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. For my license. But my impression was that it was… not real? But you say memories can be stored in vitae? So… your Ophiuchus… is wrong?”

“There is only one truth you need to know, Emmanuel,” Veles boomed. “And that is that I—Veles—will avenge my fallen guildmates!”

“Yes, we will find Beta, and I will rescue Conta,” Maria affirmed with a nod. She cocked her head at Emmanuel. “Was that not clear when we left the ship?”

Morandi choked and coughed, hard.

Maria blinked back at him, brow arched. “Are you alright, Morandi…?”

“Yes, Captain,” Morandi managed, pounding his chest. He glanced at Veles then back at her. “I was just concerned about whether or not we’re all on the same page…”

“Same page?” Maria inquired.

“I know we’ve been working together for several weeks now, and we and Veles share similar goals…” Morandi elaborated. “But the execution of those plans seems a bit… different.”

Maria recalled the day two weeks prior when she’d bounded into Veles’s hideout in Hapaira after dropping off the Chevalier Renée LeBlanc. She had quickly dismantled Veles’s bounty hunting associates—without any deaths included, since ‘that wouldn’t be a good way to make friends’ as Atienna had pointed out—and had approached Veles who reclined at the back of his hideout on a leather sofa. There, she had graciously bowed before him and requested his assistance in locating Conta. He was not interested in her request at first—at least, not until she explained that Beta was most likely the one who had executed his underlings. After that, he had immediately packed his bags and left with her.

It was through Veles’s efforts paired with Cadence’s trickle of information from the Twin Cities that they had made it to this river that ran along the Aquarian-Capricornian border. Maria had left her ship in the Aquarian bay that this waterway poured into and had then left their canoeing boat behind too as the river had narrowed to the point where it was no longer accessible by it. The river had widened since then, but they had decided to settle on a more scenic route instead of opting for locomotive transportation.

Their destination?

The capital of Capricorn!

Yes, the trail of ELPIS sightings across Signum led there. A destination in sight. Die Hauptstadt.

Emmanuel was coming along to the capital due to his interest in the conductor convention there, while Lita wished to offer the assistance of her eyes in finding Conta. Morandi was there as a ‘nanny’ as Olive had put it. And as for the silent Simon who was taking in the scenery beside her—Maria supposed he was concerned about Conta. Or perhaps….

“Well, we both wish to protect what is ours…” Maria murmured, releasing Lita’s hand and fingering her blade beneath her cloak. “Is that not—ow…!”

Maria jerked her hand away from the blade before blinking down at her bare, tanned palm. She shook it absentmindedly and looked up to find Veles and the others studying her.

“Ay, that was strange…” She chuckled.

And suddenly, she became winded, her lungs igniting with intense, burning pain. Before she could even comprehend the situation, she was face down on the water. Its press against her cheek was both warm and cold, both wet and dry.

“Maria?! What—”

She didn’t hear the rest because she abruptly broke through the barrier and fell into the depths of the river. The cold gripped her tightly, forcing her to release her held breath and sending air bubbles out from her mouth. Her limbs would not obey her, frozen stiff in the cold of the dark waters.

The memory of being caught in that conducting grenade explosion onboard Morandi’s ship over half a year ago seeped into her mind intrusively.

The only difference was that now she was not bleeding and that now she was in the middle of seeking something that had been stolen from her instead of stealing from other people. And—the air bubbles too. They were different. They almost looked like eyeballs, staring directly at her as they rose to the surface.

Maria sank deeper and deeper into the frigid dark.

Right.

All she needed to do was kick her legs a bit, and she’d break through the surface to rejoin her crew.She had to. She had to find Conta. To fulfill that promise.

An intrusive thought invaded her mind as black dots pricked her vision.

I don’t want to lose again—


“The Verbundene Augen is a new political movement that is seeing steady growth. Its foundation in the Die Hauptstadt appears to be in relation to the recent publicization of the Capricornian military Watch. Its strong stances on demilitarization and criticism of the Kaiser can be problematic for future progressive development. Proposals of defaming the group through associating it with ELPIS have been suggested due to both groups’ apparent anti-conductor stances. The leader Marionette Engel, however, has denounced ELPIS publicly so this may prove to be difficult. Further investigations into this group are suggested and to be approved by General Falke Sperber.” 

Report from Capricorn Chamber of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, 08/1941

14.2: Prince & Swindler, 0000 False Ignorance

Re-cap:

Olive has received his State Conductor’s License after clashing with the Sagittarian saint candidate Ilseong Jin at the Prognoikos Aurora Reservoirs of Ophiuchus. Now he is able to access the notes of Pema (a Sagittarian saint candidate who once served in the Body Temple) who was able to conduct without a conductor. Olive is certain the answer to his sister’s condition coincides with this ability. As Olive delves into his research two months later, he is drawn to…

Cadence Morello has made a promise. As Francis/Theta leaves the Twin Cities after it’s near destruction to recollect his mind, the Specialist children who have been taken advantage of by the deposed Campana crime family are left in Cadence’s, Allen’s, and Carl’s care. Now with more to care for (and more to lose), Cadence…


Falsche Unwissenheit » False ignorance, unrecorded 

Die Hauptstadt, Capricorn

Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance was onto something. At least, he thought he was onto something. If he wasn’t actually onto something, he figured he might as well leap out the window to make up for the twelve hours he’d just wasted.

At the moment Olive resided on the third to highest floor of the Beobachter Library. It was an old building with wooden floorboards that creaked and groaned whenever Trystan Carter would walk over to bring him the books he requested. Having just brought over a rather large stack of gothic-looking books with yellowed pages, Trystan now sat across the table—reading a book instead of staring, as per Olive’s request. At the moment, the man was going through a thick anthology of Capricornian fairy tales with unusual interest.

Although Olive hated to admit it, even after holding a license for two months, he still found coming up onto these limited-access floors nerve-wracking. Everything here had an air of professionalism to it compared to the lower levels, from the robust round tables, to the glass bookcases, to the stained-glass windows, and to even the people. Suited men and suited women, scholarly and serious, threaded around the study tables around him with purpose beneath the drooping stone chandeliers that hung down from the dome-shaped ceiling. Orderly. Executive. Intimidating.

Olive wondered if this was just Capricornian design, engineering, and culture at work. Truthfully, he’d been a bit excited to come to this country. And not just for research. It was embarrassing to think about it, but he’d spent more time than he’d liked when he first came to this country admiring the old gothic-looking, gray-bricked, many-windowed buildings and ‘squareness’ found in the design of everything. He’d gotten a glimpse of this place through Werner’s memories, but it wasn’t the same as seeing it for himself.

“Excuse me, sirs,” came a voice in Common as a shadow spilled over the table, “are you foreigners?”

Glancing up, Olive found an auburn-haired young man holding a handful of pamphlets. Not waiting for an answer, the young man reached forward with one of them. Before he could deliver the item, however, Trystan grabbed him by the wrist and squeezed. The man stiffened, staring wide-eyed at Trystan. Olive nodded and signaled the guard to release his grip. Upon being freed from Trystan’s iron hold, the Capricornian offered a genial smile and handed Olive the pamphlet.

FIGHT FOR THE PEOPLE NOT FOR THE COUNTRY, it read in Common. Just below it was the image of the curly-mustached Kaiser aiming a conducting rifle at some enemy in the distance. Half of the Kaiser’s body peeled away like torn paper to reveal a skeleton hidden beneath. Part of his conducting rifle peeled away in a similar artistic style to reveal that what the Kaiser ‘truly’ held was a death certificate. Tiny letters were printed just below the image: ‘Sponsored by the Verbundene Augen.’ Beneath that print was a cartoonish drawing of an eye with three lashes.

The imagery was provocative, to say the least. The meaning was clear.

“We’re having a meeting later today,” the young man continued. “The founder—Frau Marionette Engel, I mean—won’t be on-site, but we’d appreciate all the support we can get from—”

“Who exactly do you think they’re out there fighting for?” Olive asked, glancing up at him. “It’s easy to say all this when you’re here, right?”

“What…?”

It wasn’t like Olive disagreed with the idea. He just disagreed with people speaking about it without doing anything about it. Empty words. Just like the politicians back home. Saints, Olive could hear them now, filibustering in the meeting chambers about the same thing over and over again without actually implementing any policies. Not that Olive himself knew any better.

For a moment, he considered crumpling the pamphlet and tossing it over his shoulder. But then he thought better of it, smoothed it onto the table, and folded it into a rectangle.

“Bookmark,” he said in Capricornian when the man arched brow.

The man frowned before walking off without another word. Olive didn’t bother watching him go and refocused his attention on his work.

Laid out on the oak table in between him and Trystan were stacks upon stacks of books and papers. Werner had synchronized with him several hours prior when Olive had initially arrived at the library and had spent several minutes organizing everything into a manageable, efficient set-up to streamline Olive’s research process. The entire thing had fallen into disarray since then but Olive figured as long as nothing was scattered on the ground it was fine.

To Olive’s left rested translated pages from Pema’s journal that he had snuck out from the Bodhi Temple in Sagittarius. As Cadence had pointed out, “They said ya can’t bring a book down. Doesn’t mean ya can’t bring a copy ya made yourself down. Loophole !”

It had been a touchy task. A risk. He was still the prince of Aries, after all. He had expectations riding on his shoulders.

But he had ta do what he had ta do. 

And Olive knew he couldn’t stay cooped up in one place forever. The answers never pooled together in one place— or so was Atienna’s thought. And that line of thought had marked Olive’s decision to leave the Bodhi Temple behind.

It had taken Olive several weeks to find a library that hosted P.D. Oran’s works regarding the topic he’d taken interest in since the incident at Ophiuchus two months ago. Weeks of looping through the tightly structured bookstores of Libra, through the libraries squeezed between the weeping canals of Pisces, through the art galleries that dotted every street in Cancer, and finally to here. The capital of Capricorn.

The topic that evaded him so? That would be the one regarding the two different forms of vitae in existence. The ones Olive had known about since it was taught to him upon starting classes at the Royal University. Soft, living vitae and hard, non-living vitae.

And so Olive had turned to P.D. Oran, whose publications regarding vitae basics were taught universally in Signum. Most of P.D. Oran’s other works were censored or redacted by the Literary Department of Ophiuchus due to their provocative and anti-conductor rhetoric, insistence on the Vitae-Anima Hypothesis, and constant criticism of Ophiuchus’s state in Signum. Oran’s works regarding vitae theory beyond the basics were therefore practically non-existent. The only advanced books about it that Olive had seen were Conductors: Who is Using Who? which Atienna owned back in Virgo and the one that currently sat opened on the right side of Olive’s table. Between Vitae.

Former crime executive-turned-ELPIS leader, Francis Foxman, had told Cadence that True Conductors were like open channels, constantly accepting and releasing a flow of vitae. He’d said that normal people were not like that. He’d also obsessively talked about cycles. Olive figured it was all a metaphor, but….

There was a broken link in theory here. And Olive was certain it wasn’t on Francis’s end. The man had taken on the memories of Theta after all. And Theta probably knew a lot more about vitae than even the top professors at New Ram City’s Royal University.

That being said, the general, widely accepted belief was that vitae was merely energy—burned off after usage through a conductor—and could be replenished through ingesting soft, living vitae in food. But if the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis were true—if vitae was representative of the soul—then replenishing it seemed impossible. How could someone even replenish a soul? Quantify it? Was that why ELPIS was so against conductors? Because it utilized ‘the soul’? And where did hard, non-living vitae fall into this? The vitae reservoirs even?

Jericho had only vague impressions of conductors being evil, and Francis still hadn’t contacted Cadence since the Twin Cities incident. No answers from the most viable sources.

And what about conductor usage? Holding the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis true, vitae returned to the cycle after it was used by a conductor, didn’t it? The only time in theory that it didn’t return to the cycle was when vitae was bleached white. So, in theory, Lavi had returned to the cycle during the Tragedy of Aries and had somehow entered him—which was an old hypothesis that Olive was on the verge of confirming. But had Lavi entered him because he was a True Conductor and had an ‘open channel’? But that was before he’d become a True Conductor.

On another note, Pema’s notes had suggested very annoyingly vaguely that her ability to conduct without a conductor—like Olive himself could—had to do with her utilizing vitae that was in a different state than soft and hard. Which was completely off the books. But P.D. Oran’s Between Vitae also stated the possibility of there being a third form of vitae that was the ‘missing link’ between soft and hard vitae. A highly-energized state of vitae.

Of course, Oran’s words bordered on the line of pseudoscience, and half of his proposals on it weredenounced. Paired with Pema’s drunken ramblings, it didn’t seem very reliable, but still…

And so after constantly turning these topics over inside his head—and with Atienna’s assistance—Olive had come to develop a hypothesis over these past few weeks:

This third state of vitae mentioned in both Pema’s notes and P.D. Oran’s texts had to do something with what happened to Lavi. And that third state of vitae involved saint candidates and his own ability to conduct without a conductor.

At the thought of his sister Lavi, Olive frowned. She’d been appearing around him less and less recently. His stomach churned with worry and apprehension at the thought. He hated thinking about it. But at the same time, he was somewhat relieved by it. Lack of question and confrontation.

Stupid, Olive thought, drawing a hand down his face.

Where was the line between pseudoscience and science drawn anyway…? Reality and fantasy?

Ugh. I’m becoming like Talib… he thought.

“Olivier,” Trystan said suddenly, “I know that your research is very important to you… But I really believe you should pay the king and queen a visit, especially since you’ve managed to obtain your Conducting License. I’m certain they would be glad to receive a visit. Plus, your future prospects—”

Olive grimaced, no longer listening.

That was how it always was with Trystan nowadays. Always talking about going back home. Always wanting to push him back towards the royal palace. That had probably been Trystan’s agenda to begin with, Olive figured. Probably wanted to push his political agenda onto him. Probably the only reason Trystan had insisted on bodyguarding him.

Oh, Olive, you know it’s not like that… It’s more than that, don’t you think?

Right.

Olive shook his head. That was a stupid thought—

A woman suddenly slid into the chair across from him right beside Trystan. Her hair was wiry, her face smudged with oil, the goggles resting around her neck fogged over with soot. The overalls she wore were in a similar state.

Trystan didn’t make any moves towards the woman. Merely gave her a tight frown of disapproval.

“Well.” The woman blinked at Olive expectantly. “Let’s see it!”

Here sat the second reason for Olive being in this capital. Marta John, the Ariesian conductor engineer whose shop Olive frequented back at New Ram City whenever he’d run away from his guards. He liked her because she never cared much for his royal status nor his history and she was blunt. Several months ago, she had been called into Ophiuchus to implement her new vitae-spectrophotometer invention, and her name had been in the papers ever since.

Olive had written to Marta upon receiving his physical State Conducting License. He’d been writing to his aunt and uncle at the time and had just done it on a whim, really. And frankly, writing to Marta had been much easier than writing to his aunt and uncle. Olive hadn’t been expecting to receive a card back from her, but lo-and-behold, he did. Paired with Marta’s congratulatory letter came an invitation to the diplomatic conductor convention in Capricorn.

Two birds with one stone, Olive figured.

Olive dug into his coat pocket and pulled out the plastic card that he personally thought held too much power. His half-smiling, half-frowning portrait was captured on the left-hand side of the card while his personal details were listed to the right.

Olivier Chance / 1925 / M 
 License Special Class Royalty 
 Conducting Type Elementalist (Sub: Fire) / Intraneous User 
 Color Crimson 
 Most used c.a. N/A 
 Conducting No 16-81-55-14-924 
 Issued Year 1941 / Expires Year 1945

The Ariesian ram horn was watermarked in red just behind the slew of information, while the Ophiuchian stamp of approval was slapped right over his portrait.

“Well, look at that…” Marta arched a brow. “You actually went out and got one. You know, I need someone to keep an eye out on my shop in New Ram City since I’ve been so popular lately. You heading back to the royal life after your research spree, or do you want a job?”

Olive gave a non-committal grunt. Not something he wanted to talk about. “So you said you’re here for that convention, right?”

Marta returned the shrug with a nod, adjusting her goggles around her neck. “Was invited by Dämon Forstchritt, leading face of Capricornian conductor engineering, herself. Head conductor engineer of the state and all that.”

“Never heard of her…” And Olive had heard of everyone in the conductor engineering sphere.

Marta nodded, half-heartedly. “Her work in previous years was mostly in the pseudoscience realm, but she’s made a name for himself recently since she’s one of the ones who helped to develop the proto-conductor.”

Olive perked up at this, frowned. “…. Literally have never heard of her.”

“Well, anyway, I’m working with her on a new project,” Marta continued. “Word is that P.D. Oran might also be involved.”

“P.D. Oran…?”

Olive recalled his encounter with the somber, reclusive, fidgety man back at the Bodhi Temple. He hadn’t seen Oran when he’d returned to the temple after completing his exam and had figured Oran was just avoiding him. Olive would’ve never guessed that Oran had returned to the public realm. Maybe to repair his reputation?

“You gonna stick around for the conductor diplomatic convention thing?”

Olive shrugged, but then paused in thought. If he could directly speak to P.D. Oran now, then maybe he could get a word in with him about Between Vitae.

“Hey…” Olive grimaced. “Look. I hate asking for favors. I’m not demanding it. Not pulling the prince card. But… do you think you could…” He grimaced harder, looked away, rubbed the back of his neck. “Can you maybe introduce me to him?”

Marta blinked, returned his earlier shrug. “Well, like I said… It’s all rumor, but I can put in a word for you. I mean, you are the Ariesian prince, like you said. Flash that badge of yours, and I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

A pressure came off of Olive’s chest. “Thank—”

A sharp prick at the base of his palm cut Olive off short. He gripped his right hand with a wince before glancing down.

Nothing.

Did Werner—

Absolutely nothing. Dead silence. Radio static.

Olive’s ears rang as he came to realize he could no longer feel or hear any of the others. It was like a void had opened up and swallowed them whole leaving him completely—

—alone.

Before he could digest the feeling, his shoulder suddenly erupted with burning pain—like it was on fire. He tumbled out of his seat and onto the floor sending the papers cluttering his study table fluttering into the air. Trystan shouted in alarm before coming to his side.

“Your Highness! Your Highness!”

Olive had told Trystan many times not to call him that. But he couldn’t even focus on grumbling about it because—

There was that all-consuming, deathly silence. And the terrible burning heat eating away at his shoulder.

Olive stared wide-eyed at the high-rise ceiling as the papers rained down around him. Some of the pages caught the light spilling in from the stained-glass windows, causing several words to become illuminated,

I.

Will. 

Enter.

The pain felt exactly like the pain he’d felt when he’d fallen out onto the brick pathway outside the Royal University over half a year ago. The memory forced its way into Olive’s mind, painting over the library’s ceiling, over Trystan’s concern, over Marta’s alarm.

The memory of air that was no longer thin and dry but heavy and cold. The memory of a dimming sun. The memory of shouting guards. The memory of thinking it was all a bother.

The present returned a beat later as Trystan and Marta’s shouts rang in his ear. And then, she finally appeared before him.

As he lay on the floor, her dark hair fell like a canopy over his face as darkness crept in at the corners of his vision. He couldn’t help but think the reason she was here was to watch this unfold—

What? No. He couldn’t. Lavi. The others. Trystan.

He had to fight.

“No, Ollie, it’s too late,” Lavi whispered down to him.

Her dark hair dragged him into black.


Twin Cities, Gemini

“Again! Again! Again!”

Ariesian-Geminian, part-time swindler Cadence Morello clawed her way out from beneath the tangle of arms and limbs as she gasped for air. Her assailants were cruel, however, dragging her back into their clutches as they stomped on her legs and shoulders.

“Again! Come on, Cadence! Do it one more time! Please?”

The dock warehouse’s metal walls and closed windows threw back their sadistic cries at her.

“Ya know, just because I can make myself look like a horse doesn’t mean I’m actually one!”

“Giddyap! Giddyap!” were their responses to that as they pounded on her back.

Damn brats.

A creaking paired with a soft gust of wind indicated that the warehouse doors had been opened. Twin shadows spilled over Cadence’s face.

“Cadence,” was the first greeting.

“Good to see you’re in good company, Cadence,” was the second paired with deep laughter and a grin.

Cadence cracked open an eye, flashing that same grin back in the latter speaker’s direction. “‘Course—oh, wait! Carl, were ya serious when ya told me that you were gettin’ the kids a buncha candy from Ferrari’s store?”

Carl arched a brow. “What are you talkin’ about—”

Hook. Line. Sinker.

“Candy!” the children screeched as they scrambled off of Cadence’s body and mobbed Carl with their tiny fingers.

Carl let out a shout of alarm, stumbling backwards as they dangled from his arms, clung to his waist, darted between his legs.

Cadence picked herself up off the ground, dusted off her beaten suit, and stepped into place beside Allen. She watched with a cheery-eyed amusement as Carl transformed from a crime executive into the best new playground on the block. All without a conductor.

“Ya know,” she said to Allen, “for all that complainin’ that Carl did about Maria only takin’ the older bunch of kids, he gets along with ‘em all better than the both of us. Think it’s ‘cause they’re on the same wavelength?”

Allen gave a noncommittal grunt.

Carl spent five minutes trudging back and forth across the warehouse with the children acting as ball-and-chain before finally handing off the babysitting task to two of his lackeys who happened to enter the warehouse just then. Maximillian and Stefano. Poor saps. As Carl stomped away from the children and approached them, Cadence offered a smirk and a tip of her hat.

“Business ain’t good, Cadence,” Allen said suddenly. “We’re barely reigning in profit at this point. People’ve been conservative with spending since what happened with ELPIS. We’d be more than comfortable if we were just looking out for ourselves, but…” He eyed the children who were dragging Maximillian and Stefano to the ground.

Cadence glanced at him. “What are ya suggestin’, Allen…?”

“Ain’t gonna break the deal with Francis,” Allen explained. “But we gotta find a different way to deal with this. Another business opportunity. Something.”

Damn. Back to the black path?

Cadence figured she could probably take a couple more odd jobs here and there. Maybe even one from Fortuna. But the caveat of it all was that if she found herself kicking it with a not-so-nice employer, she actually had something they could use against her this time. Something to really lose. Something other than… Alma.

“Any word from Nico?” asked Carl. “From your weird psychic-link thing?”

Allen and Carl were both privy to her status as a True Conductor. They’d nonchalantly asked her about it the last time they’d met up with Francis at the Sognare two months ago. And she’d told them. They didn’t know more than the fact that she was connected to five other people across Signum and that ELPIS didn’t like True Conductors much, but the two brothers didn’t bother asking too many questions.

Accept everything. Reject nothing. Twin Cities motto.

“Geeze, not so loud, Carl. Anyone ever tell ya that ya’d make a terrible spy?”

“That’s why I ain’t born as a Manipulator.”

“And how would ya know that if ya never used a conductor or one of ‘em V-Type Tests before?”

“Can feel it in my bones. Hell, you’ve never takin’ one either. Why you boggin’ me?”

Cadence chortled. “Well, just wanted ta point out that ya can make a bangin’ cens if ya sell that skill on the market. Probably.”

“Cadence.” Allen frowned.

She rolled her neck in thought.

Nico, unlike them, had made a successful escape from the city. Nothing holding him back here anymore. The past buried behind him. In between the Foxmans, Nico, Fortuna, and herself, Cadence wondered if Nico had somehow managed to get the best hand in the game. But good for him. Right?

She sighed. “Doesn’t look Nico’s comin’ back any time soon. He’s in the deep necka the woods. Fully into his combat medic life.”

Allen took out a v-cig and shook it. Took a drag. “Could really use his help. ‘Specially with the sick kids. ‘Least he won’t charge like a damn debt collector like his father.”

Cadence absentmindedly played with the rim of her hat as she listened to the children squealing. Finally, she said, “Hate to say it, but it looks like Nico’s moved on—”

She was cut off as a sharp pain pricked her right palm. Swearing, she doubled over and cradled her hand.

“The hell, Cadence?” asked Carl.

“It’s nothin’.” Cadence waved him off as she studied her bare, unblemished palm. “Looks like the lieutenant got a minor injury is all.”

I will enter.

Suddenly, Cadence found herself face-first on the floor. Her limbs ached, her chest burned, her eyes stung. It felt she had just been pounded against the ground. Almost like when Feliciano and his gooks had nearly beaten her— Werner —within an inch of her life. No. Like when she’d been thrown sideways by that explosive conductor in the TwinStars Pub months ago. Back when this whole schtick began.

With a hell of a lot of effort, she cracked open her eyes. Allen, Carl, and a ring of children were looking down at her.

Did one of the others—

Others?

Saints.

She couldn’t hear or feel any of the others. A nauseating, dizzying sensation. Like she’d been pushed down into an endless abyss. Stomach-flipping, puke-inducing. Not pretty. She wanted to puke so bad but everything hurtso much that she couldn’t. She wished someone would just knock her out to put her out of her misery.

“Cadence! What’s goin’ on with you?!” came a shout from one of the faces above.

She couldn’t quite make out their expressions anymore. They were all clouded over by a memory. A memory of air that was clouded in smoke. A shroud of it, suffocating her with its gray hands.

She couldn’t breathe.

Not only that.

She couldn’t move.

Really, just like that time when it all began in the burning TwinStars Pub over half a year ago.

Memories of flames danced on the outskirts of her vision. In her mind’s eye, those flickering embers were reflected in the shards of glass scattered around her. 

No. It couldn’t be. Not like this. Not when she had all these people to take care of, all these people relying on her. Not when she’d made that promise with Francis.

She gagged, hacked, coughed.

The last thing that crept into Cadence’s mind as the past blurred into reality was an unnerving distorted image.

Captured in those shards of glass on the bar floor in her memory was the reflection of dozens of eyes all gazing back at her.


State Conducting License Format [FOR LICENSING DEPARTMENT USE ONLY]

Name / Year of Birth / Sex
Licensee Special Status
 (ex. royalty, diplomat, foreign alien, military, peacekeeping agent, conductor engineer, etc.)
Conducting Type (ex. Projector, Manipulator, Elementalist, etc. PLEASE NOTE: Elementalist’s subcategory required.) / Extraneous vs Intraneous -user
Color (of vitae)
Most used c.a. (Most used conductor apparatus. In general terms: glove-conductor, rifle-conductor, blade-conductor. Specific brand and model not required but may be added upon request.)
Conducting No (Examinee number)
Issued Year / Expires Year (Renewals required every four years.)

* Licenses are to be watermarked with an emblem of the licensee’s country of origin. Ophiuchian seal is required to differentiate from counterfeits. 

14.1: Observer & Peacekeeper, 0000 Unusual Activity

Ungewöhnliche Aktivität » Unusual activity, unrecorded 

Werner Waltz. Born January 1st. Blood type A. Vision, 20/6.6 in both eyes. Height, 193 cm. Weight, 90.1 kg. Ambidextrous. Personality type, ISTJ-Turbulent, changing. Parents, alive. Siblings, elder brother and younger sister, alive. 

Occupation, First Lieutenant of the 212th Division of the Border Force of the Capricornian Army. Nicknamed, ‘Cold Eye’ or ‘Kaltes Auge.’ Badges awarded; Iron Horn, Periwinkle Cross, Border Force Combat Clasps, Order of Duty [Rank II], Badge of Marksmanship [Rank V], Border Force Saturn Ring of Honor for Valor. 

Described by superiors as “efficient, accomplished, hardworking, orderly, pragmatic, driven, loyal, professional.” Described by subordinates as “strict, skilled, unyielding, cold, intimidating, focused, rational,” and “occasionally, surprisingly kind.”

Unusual activity: involvement in dismantlement of Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict, presence in Twin Cities during large-scale ELPIS-related event, association with deceased True Conductor Fritz von Spiel, association with deceased 98th Pi Erwin Ersatz. 

Probability of being a True Conductor, 89%. 

Probability of disrupting syzygy, 1%. Reason, obedient and cautious. When adjusting for influence from connected parties if assumption of being True Conductor holds, 56%. Reason, obedient but cautious. Resulting course of action…?

Turning over this particular topic in mind, the Saint of Passion spun his pen in hand as he studied the bulletin board on the wall across from him. The red strings crisscrossing the clusters of newspapers, photographs, and sticky notes there glowed in the light sauntering through the partially drawn blinds. 

“What’s the best way to steal sheep and a guard dog from a shepherd?”

The woman sitting straight-backed beside the bulletin board remained silent.

“A sheep is mindless. A dog is loyal.” He flipped his pen. “Therefore, the correct answer is not to directly deal with either of them. The best thing to do is to break the shepherd.” 

Again, silence.

“… Having a law that makes it so that conductors allotted to a country is inversely proportional to their vitae reservoirs was truly an ingenious strategy. A sensible, cruel law,” the saint candidate continued. “But it’s not enough. Capricorn isn’t in the state it should be in. Their vitae reservoirs are…” 

“Capricorn has only one major reservoir,” the woman finally spoke. “Near the border with Aquarius. Additional reservoirs are forming along the south.”

“When was the last major conflict again?”

“The Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict—”

“That was barely a conflict. How many died?”

“Approximately 150 Capricornians and 240 Aquarians.”

“Definitely not enough…” He let out a sigh. “Oh, Capricorn—a country graduated from war but still relishing in it. From the failed Watch to the southern borders shared with Argo to the eastern borders shared with Aquarius.” His lips curled. “Well… if they wish for war, then let’s give them a civil one, shall we?”

Rising from his sofa, the Saint of Passion glided over to the bulletin board and uncapped his pen. 

“Let’s seat the audience, set the actors on stage, and yell ‘fire’!”

With vehement glee, he drew large arcs across the map that was pressed flat below all of the photos, strings, articles. Over and over again he went at it until the tip of his pen snapped off and struck the window blinds. Dark blue ink dripped from his hands and trailed down the walls. 

“Can you hear it? It’s almost here.”

Panting, he took a step back to admire his masterpiece. 

“The pulse of the syzygy…”

A knock on the door drew his attention away. 

He rolled his eyes and sighed. 

“I suppose we can take a lunch break.”


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“Partner, it’s good to see you! I haven’t heard from you in days!”

Upon entering Gabrielle’s office, Ophiucian peacekeeper Jericho was met with this exclamation. He chose to remain unmoving as Talib Al-Jarrah fervently shook him by the shoulders. He did not remain still out of discomfort. He simply did not want to drop the stack of files he carried in both hands. 

“I thought the Organization almost had you for sure!” Talib continued, gesturing widely towards the occupied sofas before them. He curled his hand into a fist. “Recently, they’ve installed this diabolical device in the cafeteria that transmits strange sounds in up and down undulations in between stretches of static. Now, listen here, Jericho. I’ve done my research. Those sounds send subliminal messages right to our brainstems and increase our aggression so that we go at each other’s throats! It’s a ploy to dismantle our Ophiuchus!” 

Jericho cocked his head. Interesting supposition. Intuition: tinfoil hat conspiracy theory. 

“Saints! You mean the radio, Talib?” Ferris sighed from her usual spot to the left of the island table. Her lunch today was a tuna sandwich which she paused her exasperation to munch on. “I’m actually glad that they’ve finally installed one there. It’s been so… quiet since what happened down at the detention center.” She glanced at Wtorek Elizabeta who sat silent beside her before clearing her throat. “There’s that new singer I really like. Alma Miraggio. Her song ‘Red Fern’ is so good! I wish I could carry it with me everywhere! She’s on a tour, right? I wish she’d stop by here.” 

Red was also the color of Ferris’s hair now. She had dyed it three times in the past week and had settled on this color for two days so far. Jericho conjectured it would last two more days. 

“Oh, my sweet naive, Ferris.” Talib shook his head, detaching from Jericho’s side. “Your innocent trust of the public is—”

“Don’t call me that please, Talib.” Ferris sighed again.

“That is a bit absurd, Talib,” came the reply from the sofa opposite. “Even for you.”

Doctor Alice Kingsley sat there nibbling on her usual fruit salad. She had gotten a short haircut recently, and her blonde hair now fell well above her ears. Although Jericho liked the new haircut, he did not like how it made it more difficult for him to escape her mind-reading eyes. No bangs to curtain her gaze. Everything, clear. 

Talib joined her on the sofa while continuing on about how sound waves could change brain patterns. Alice rebutted every one of his theories. 

Again, their luncheon was missing three of its formal members. First, there was Roberto Gonzalez who was still investigating a case in Capricorn. Then there was Moraeni, still ensnared in the busiest department of Ophiuchus: the Licensing Department. Lastly, there was Flannery Caertas whom Jericho had recently discovered the reason behind her nickname “money bags.”

Flannery’s parents were from an old family in Libra with a lineage extending well before the Reservoir War. Her “great-to-infinity”— as she’d put it—grandparents started one of the first conductor-manufacturing-slash-research companies in Signum. The business was passed down for generations and produced 2/3 of the conductors—generator and weaponized—currently in circulation. 

Flannery was in the process of inheriting the company herself and had taken a trip down to Capricorn to attend a diplomatic convention regarding the distribution of said conductors. But this was not of interest to Jericho—although the family company name was…. unique.

Pure Balance, it was called. 

Upon learning of Flannery’s ‘secret’ identity, Jericho had been bombarded left-and-right with questions from Olivier. The questions were filled with the prince’s indignation on how Jericho had not realized such a ‘high-up’ person could be in his presence.

“You’re a prince, kid,” Cadence had said in response to that. “Ain’t that even higher up?”

Werner had also shown interest in Flannery’s status. But Jericho suspected his intentions were not as academically-inclined as Olivier’s. 

“So,” Gabrielle drew after a yawn from where sat at her cornerstone desk, “how’s the new department treating you?”

Jericho took his usual position beside Ferris and set his stack of files onto the island table. Alice stared into him the entire time.

Alice had made her displeasure and disappointment regarding his choice to enter the ELPIS Investigations Department upon his acceptance known at every one of their sessions. Yet she still spoke with him ‘pleasantly.’ She would move on from the unpleasant topic after voicing her disapproval of it and would address other topics such as his journaling and his daily activities. 

This was just concern, Jericho had learned. It always had been.

“I have not been put on any cases,” he replied. “Paperwork. Deskwork. Only that.” He pointed to the paper stack. “A lot of that.”

“And…” Wtorek Elizabeta peered at him over Ferris and then eyed the files. “Are any of the files…”

“They mention attempts to find Gamma,” Jericho answered. “But they do not mention contact with him.” He paused, thinking. “It is supposed to be confidential.”

“Keyword is ‘supposed to be,’ right?” Gabrielle returned, leaning back in her seat. She closed her eyes and remained silent for a very long time before she tried, “And Leona?”

“Has not contacted me since accepting my application.”

“Well, she is chair of the ELPIS Investigation Department.” Gabrielle sighed. “It’d be weird if she kept tabs on you.”

“Well, I say we should all enjoy the reprieve from all of the cases we’ve been bombarded with since that ELPIS incident, partner,” Talib interjected, arms crossed behind his head. “That way we can focus on what’s truly important. That nefarious radio—”

“Actually…” Ferris nibbled on her sandwich again before she finally said, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the Assignment Department is starting to see an influx of requests and cases. We’re handing out over three dozen assignments starting tomorrow.”

Talib lifted his hat to scratch his curly dark head. “This wouldn’t happen to be due to the diplomatic conductor convention going on in Capricorn, would it?” 

Gabrielle answered, “Sort of. A couple of agents from International Relations are already in the Capricornian capital overseeing it in light of what happened in the Zatmeniye Caverns in Aquarius two months ago.” She rolled her neck. “The main problem is that there’s a political organization that’s starting to make some noise in the capital because of that. Verbundene Augen—” 

“Connected Eyes,” Jericho translated to Common. He did not like that wordRather, that organization. Correction: Werner did not like it. 

She nodded. “It’s a party supporting demilitarization of Capricorn that formed after the Capricornian Watch was made known to the public. No ELPIS ties from what we’re aware of…”

Jericho nodded his head in confirmation.

“They’ve been around for a while, but they’ve become popular recently,” Gabrielle continued after offering Jericho a nod back. “They’re planning a demonstration around the same time as the convention. The Capricornian government requested Ophiuchus to give ‘em a bit of a gander. So, here we are.”

“Haven’t been to Capricorn on a case in sometime…” Talib mused, rubbing his chin. “Well, Gabrielle, hopefully we’re assigned together. It gets quite lonely without someone there to appreciate my ideas.”

“I’m assuming, Talib—” Alice arched a brow. “—that you’re referring to how agents outside of ourselves tend to evaluate you in a negative light when you go on about your conspiracy theories?”

“Theories that will soon become fact!”

Jericho frowned. 

He… missed going out on cases with Talib. The feeling was similar to how he’d miss Werner when the man would lower synchronization to focus on his operations or how he’d miss Atienna when she did similarly to focus on diplomatic meetings. 

A knock on the door cut the conversation short. 

“I got it!” Ferris rose from her seat, rounded the table, opened the door. 

An agent wearing a cap that read DELIVERY SERVICE stood there holding a large wooden basket filled with festively wrapped boxes that were buried beneath a mound of envelopes. Letters. 

“Heard you all usually hang out together,” the man said, “so thought I might as well bring everything at once.”

“Oh!” Ferris brightened, taking the basket from him and beaming. “Thank you!”

The man tipped his hat and left down the hall. 

“Is it a mistake?” Jericho asked, staring. 

“No, silly.” Ferris laughed lightly as she walked over and set the basket on the island table. “People always send letters to peacekeepers after they complete cases. They come in such volume that the Communications Department usually sends them all in bulk semi-annually to save time.” 

Send letters?

“They’re ‘thank you’ letters,” Alice elaborated. “You started taking cases near the end of the last lettering season which is why you haven’t received any before now.” She leaned forward and selected an envelope from the basket. 

To Alice was written in swirling Common letters. 

Elizabeta silently pulled out a letter addressed to her and skimmed it without expression. After shooting her a sympathetic look, Ferris plucked a stack of envelopes from the basket, paced over to Jericho, and handed him half as she took a seat beside him. She flashed him a smile before digging through her own letters. 

Ferris had been very ‘friendly’ to him recently. Intuition told him she still felt bad about voicing her fear of him to Roberto. Unneeded. He had told her it was okay before. But he understood her. Almost. She did not want misunderstandings. She wanted to improve their relationship. Relatable. 

Jericho glanced left to see Alice already peeling open the envelope and scanning the letter inside. Jericho moved forward to do the same. Gingerly, carefully, he undid the first envelope which was cream-colored and hosted a stamp featuring a crab. 

There was a small piece of wrapped candy inside paired with a thin, folded letter. It read inked in black:

Dear Agent Jericho,

You probably don’t remember me, but I do remember you. I was the man who was manipulated into fighting you in Lepischau, Cancer. Thank you for your heroic actions on that day. I cannot put into words how terrible it feels to be manipulated. I feared the worst. I thought I would never see my family again. I thought I would be killed by the pursuers of the Manipulator. But you saw me. Saved me.

There are not enough words to express how grateful I am for your help either. I will always remember you, Monsieur Jericho. 

I own a small but very renowned candy store within Lepischau that has been awarded numerous Cancerian golden stars. Within this envelope, I have sent you one of our finest confections made from the sugar trees of Virgo (Quite rare, and since Virgo is just beginning to open its doors to trade, you will taste nothing like it!) and the milk of the finest Taurusian cow. We only make twenty of these a year. I hope you find it to your liking even though I know it will not be enough. Thank you again.

Sincerely, 
Leize Artigue

Jericho unwrapped the confection and popped it into his mouth. It melted like honey on his tongue. He knew Olive enjoyed the phantom taste, although he believed he himself enjoyed the letter more.

That’s lovely, Jericho, came Atienna. Since they had improved their control over synchronization levels within the past few weeks, she always hovered within a reachable distance. You should frame it. The letter, of course.

Yes. Jericho supposed he would. If it was customary. It was important too. It was his first.

He folded the letter gingerly and slipped it into his pocket before reaching for another one. The next envelope was dark blue and sealed with paraffin wax. A small card rested inside it with a singular sentence penned in blue ink.

I’ve got my eye on you! 

Beneath it was a cartoonish drawing of a pair of eyes. One was closed as if winking. The other was almond-shaped with three eyelashes protruding from its top. 

“Looks like you’ve got a secret admirer!” Talib crowed, leaning over the table to peer at the card. “Quite the swooner, you are!”

“Secret admirer?” Jericho stared. “Why would they keep it secret? They are hiding something. A threat.” 

“No, they just really like you, Jericho,” Ferris amended, carefully peeling open another envelope.

“I know.” Jericho stared down at the card and then back up at her. “It was a joke.” 

“Oh!” Ferris’s eyes widened for a second before her face lit up and her cheeks became a rosy pink. She chuckled squeakily, like a mouse. 

Cadence and Olivier had been providing him tutorials on humour. ‘Sarcastic’ and ‘dry’ were his favorite types from what they had shown him.

Ferris continued to chuckle, wiping a tear from her eye.

It was… pretty, Jericho thought. The shade of her cheeks. He wanted to sketch that color in his journal. Though—he realized now—he’d never used color in his drawings before. 

It’s a good time to start.

Yes, it was. 

A dull pain suddenly pricked the base of his right hand. When he studied the area, he found split leather and an open wound that ran across a pale, bleeding palm.

Werner?

He blinked.

The mirage disappeared. His dark skin remained unblemished and ungloved beneath the overhead lights. 

Yes. A minor injury on Werner’s end, it seemed. No problem—

But then Jericho felt nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Not the rain drizzling down in the capital of Capricorn, not the cold moonlight spilling through the trees at the southern Argoan-Capricornian border, not the soot and salt of the Twin Cities, not the creaks of an old library, not a single buzz at the back of his mind. 

Silence.

Something was…

A clattering sound drew his attention away. Talib had tripped over the desk, sending all the letters he had been carrying fluttering into the air. They cascaded downwards in a psychedelic, hypnotic, rainbow array, occasionally catching glow from the overhead v-lights. Like rain. Tumbling down. Like how Jericho himself had tumbled down those stairs all those months ago. 

Alice stared at him. “What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing,” Jericho replied.

The truth. 

Absolute silence. 

There was nothing. 

A falling letter landed at his feet. In curling dark blue letters, it read—

I will enter.

Pinpricks dotted Jericho’s vision as his knees suddenly gave way. He stumbled forward as he lost his footing. His knees cracked against the floor first followed by his shoulder and then his head. 

Someone shouted in alarm. 

He did not feel pain. Not really. Just numbness along his head, neck, limbs. In other words, he could not move an inch. But. This sensation. It was the same. The same as how he’d felt when Omega had pushed him down the stairs of the Serpens Establishment before this all began. The only difference was that this time he was not alone. Faces ringed above him as his vision dimmed. 

He would not succumb to this, he knew. 

He clenched his fists tightly as the memory of lying in a pool of his own blood at the bottom of the steps of the Serpens Establishment seeped into his mind. 

Not until he’d reached the answer. Not until then. He had to hold on.

An unfortunate cut to black.


“Gratitude Baskets are now being accepted within the Serpens Establishment of Ophiuchus. Citizens of Signum, you may now send letters and gifts to peacekeepers who have aided you in the past and to whom you wish to provide appreciative compensation. All gratitude items are to be sent to the Communications Department of Ophiuchus accompanied by the properly completed forms. Due to high volume, gifts may not arrive to the designated peacekeeping agent until several months after the submission date.

Please note there are restrictions to this service and certain items cannot be given. For more information please check Article 13.41.1 of the Ophiuchus Informational Packet.” 

Ophiuchus Informational Packet, circa 1935

13c: Outsiders Laughing Above

Cvetka Akulova checked her make-up in a small handheld mirror before she entered the small office within the Serpens Establishment. The room was rather unpleasantly jumbled with books and small sheets of paper that were scattered across the floor. Light spilled in rays from the pulled blinds, and they illuminated the bulletin board on the left wall. The board was cluttered with photographs and spider-webbed with red string. The photographs captured the close-up profiles of men and women in black-and-white. There were names on sticky notes pasted below each photo alongside clippings of news articles. Beneath all of this clutter was a large map of Signum.

Categorized by country, she realized.

Cvetka’s eyes went to the Aquarius section. Sure enough, her picture and name were pinned there alongside Yulia Kriska’s. There were two red strings tied around the pin above her photo, and she followed one to Gemini, to the pinned photo of a very familiar-looking man. Astante Aurlio , read the note beneath him. Beside his photograph was the picture of a smiling, freckled, ginger-haired, boyish young woman. Cadence Morello , the note below it read. There were three red strings tied to the pin on the redhead’s photo. Cvetka followed one of the strings down to—

“Are you admiring my work?”

Cvetka startled and turned.

A man was lounging on a leather blue sofa against the wall behind her. He was twirling a pen with one hand and resting his cheek against the other. There was a beauty mark just below his left eye. 

“I… I’m impressed.” Cvetka turned back to the board. “The amount of True Conductors you’ve discovered is—”

“It’s the work you should’ve done in the first place.”

Cvetka swallowed before calming herself and nodding. “I do admit that I’ve been slow recently in tracking down—”

“I don’t understand why Leona lets you run free when you’re so… useless. You find nothing, and the things you do find, you let die. And you think you’re clever enough to be playing games.”

“Games? I’m not sure what you—”

The man pointed his pen at her. “If it were up to me, I’d have you chained up in that prison of ours downstairs. All of you True Conductors. Until the syzygy.” He twirled a finger around a lock of his hair. “So, why are you here, Useless?”

“Leona wanted me to introduce myself since we’ll be working together from now on,” Cvetka replied, extending her hand. “I’m—”

“Cvetka Akulova. Age, 24. Birthday, June 24th. Blood-type, AB. Aquarian with a Capricornian father—parents both alive. Conjuror. Left-handed. Vision, 20/20 in right eye, 20/15 in left. Height, 165 centimeters. Weight, 60 kg. Occupation, false Aquarian advisor.” He flipped his pen. “Occupation, useless.”

Cvetka swallowed, clenching her left hand. “That’s very impressive, although it’s not very polite to comment on a person’s weight.”

The man twirled his pen. “Why are you complimenting me when I just insulted you? Do you think it’s impressive? It’s not. Are you only here to introduce yourself?”

Cvetka shook her head. “Leona wanted me to tell you to come down to the detention center.”


A woman with a rope of dark hair sat bound to a white chair. Her hands were locked together in front of her by a series of ten white suppression cuffs, but her smile was light and casual. Before her stood a woman with golden hair and a somber-looking man.

“Oh come, you guys,” the bound woman sighed. “Don’t look at me like that.”

The door behind the golden woman and the somber man creaked open, and a thin man entered the room and came to a stand between them.

“Oh, welcome back to the party, Saint Candidate of Scorpio, Saint of Passion,” Jin greeted. “Your welcome for the invitation. I don’t mind getting passionate with you this time around despite our last fiasco.”

“That look is very becoming of you, Jin,” was the thin man’s greeting paired with a smile that dipped into a frown. “How could you do something like this? With them? It’s pathetic. Pointless! Against everything we’ve worked for! You traitor.”

Jin sighed and rolled her eyes. “There’s the usual dramatics…”

“It’s not like you to go back on your word, Jin,” the somber man drew from the side. “Why would you go and do something like this?”

“Like I said, I wanted to try for a change in direction.” Jin shrugged. “Not like what I did really made any noise.” She smiled. “Unless you’re saying that I did make some noise. Enough to throw things up in the air.”

“Your arrogance never changes,” Leona murmured.

Jin threw her head back and laughed. “My arrogance? Look who’s talking.”

“Where is P.D. Oran?” the Saint of Passion interjected, arms crossed, fingers thrumming.

“Who?”

“You found him. I looked. In the Bodhi Temple. Where did you put him? Did you give him to them?” The Saint of Passion reached forward, gripping Jin by the scruff. “I can rip it from you if I had to.”

“Let’s tango then,” Jin offered, flashing a lackadaisical grin. “Just slide your vitae right into me.”

The Saint of Passion stared at Jin before a smile curled on his face. He leaned in close and whispered into her ear, “Oh, I will. And we’ll return you right back to the cycle after that.”

Jin continued smiling, unperturbed. “And around we go.”


Leona paced down the long, empty hallway as she flipped through her file in hand. As her heels clipped against the tiled floor, however, she became aware that she was being followed. An instinct. When she turned on her heels, she found the familiar, thin Saint of Passion approaching her from behind.

She greeted him with a pleasant smile as he came to a stop in front of her. “Is there something you need—”

A sharp pain exploded at her abdomen, and she looked down to find a pen embedded there.

She was better than this, she knew. The only reason he’d slipped past her defenses was because she had trusted him. An embarrassment.

“I’m sorry, Leona, but you’re just moving things along too slowly now,” the man said, pulling out the pen and catching her as she fell limp in his arms. “You should rest. I’ll take things from here.”

He picked up a photograph that had fallen out of Leona’s folder as he held her in his arms. Captured in black and white was the image of a stern-looking man dressed in a crisp Capricornian uniform. Slipping this photo into his pocket, the Saint of Passion finished with, “Let’s move up the syzygy, shall we? Capricorn seems like a good place to start.”


Part II End.

13b: Solitary Maidens

Re-cap:

The Twin Cities lives to see another day. Fritz von Spiel and Yulia Kriska are dead. The man formerly known as Wtorek Izsak has escaped from Ophiuchus. Ilseong Jin, the saint candidate, is in custody. The Twin Cities thus enters a period of change as Ophiuchian agents sweep through the streets. 


On Monday the following week, Eunji received the results of her State Conducting Exam. She passed with flying colors and received a printed certificate detailing her accomplishment, along with a note informing her she would receive her physical license within a few months. Her brother, Soha, and Felix congratulated her, while Olive offered her his usual shrug-nod of nonchalance. He didn’t personally think that this alone would satisfy Eunji.

Olive, of course, hadn’t been able to finish his practical portion of the exam, having been carted off alongside Claire, Trystan, and Felix for questioning following the incident with Ilseong Jin. And after that was all over and done with, he dreaded having to retake the written portion. After all, he had placed second out of all the test-takers, and he knew that achievement was unrepeatable. Maybe even a fluke, he thought to himself.

Cadence reassured him, “Come on, Your Highness, ya got the brains. Maybe this next time ya take it, you’ll score first since Eunji won’t hog that position.”

The Ariesian prince waved the idea off, but Cadence could tell he was pleased with her comment. Still keeping the facade of apathy despite everything. Very prince-like.

The prince even kept the facade in place despite his obvious concern about how Claire was dealing with Jin’s confirmed betrayal. But Claire merely voiced his own concerns regarding how Jin’s actions would affect his clan’s social standing. The betrayal seemed far from his mind.

“Right after Eunji was licensed too,” Claire had said with a casual sigh. “Things will get complicated again.”

Like a politician, Olive thought.

Or pretending to be one, Cadence amended.

The two princes bid each other farewell again at the Grand Snake Station after shaking hands—an action Olive initiated himself. And when Claire suggested that they meet up again sometime soon, Olive didn’t deny the suggestion—though, he didn’t address it either. Eunji seemed pleased with this development, but Olive couldn’t wrap his head around why.

As Olive made his way back inside the Serpens Establishment with a bandaged Trystan after the farewell, he was pulled aside by Leona. Without speaking a word, the woman handed him a manila envelope sealed with wax. When he opened it up, he found a printed certificate stating that he had successfully completed the State Conductor’s Exam.

“I don’t think it’s fair for you to have to take the written exam again because of circumstances beyond your control. Especially given how well you performed,” Leona had said. “And I’ve witnessed your conducting myself.” She smiled. “I have to say, if that were the practical, you would certainly pass. The interview too.”

Olive was rearing to refuse it. He’d wanted to earn the license on his own right and was unnerved by Leona’s gesture. Werner shared a similar sentiment, but—

“Come on, you guys,” Cadence had interjected through a synchronization. “Ya accept what comes ta ya. Can’t reject everything because of pride. The faster ya get your license, the faster ya can figure out what’s goin’ on with Lavi, right? Your promise, your responsibility.”

And so, Olive accepted the gift and gave a polite word of gratitude.

*

Monday was also the day when Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents from the Conductor Regulation Department and the Conducting Law Department poured into the Twin Cities in droves. They raided the warehouses of both the Campanas and the Romanos, tore through cargo containers full of modified conductors, cracked open warehouses housing Specialist children in transit, and promptly brought in all associated parties for questioning. Unsurprising, since the Specialist children owned by the Campanas had been running through the streets during that night of chaos and modified conductors owned by the Romano Family had been the ones that nearly sank the city. There was no turning from it.

While most associated parties were questioned within the city, those executives found to be associated with ELPIS were brought into the depths of the Black Constellation Detention Center for further questioning.

Probably to never be seen again, Cadence figured.

Cavallo, with one arm slung up in a cast, acted as the main representative of the Romano Family. He was joined by the surviving Caporegimes Agape Rosario, Bendetto, as well as Fortuna Romano.

Following this meeting, the Romano Family’s modified conductor operations were swiftly dismantled. In exchange for a lesser sentencing and a form of protection, the don and the caporegimes offered up the files of the parties they had made business deals with. This included Argo, Aquarius, and many other wealthier, smaller parties. The files regarding Capricorn had already been tossed out as per Cadence’s request so there was no proof of their involvement, and the Romanos didn’t feel inclined to mention it. Another aspect of the lesser sentencing involved a sworn agreement to keep their discovery of ELPIS’s nature under wraps.

The entire thing was sketchy to Cadence. But that was the way the dominoes fell.

The aforementioned lesser sentencing was imposed on all executives of the Romano Family, and this included house arrest that would initially be implemented by Ophiuchian agents aided by the city’s police.

The Twin Cities police force was undergoing a power shift. Police Comissario Vincente Giustizia who was confirmed to be an ELPIS leader had disappeared from the city alongside a number of the policemen and policewomen serving under him. It took less than a week for the mayor to select a replacement, and—as suspected—they were both in the Romano Family’s back pocket.

The Romano Family went through a shift of power within itself as well. Despite losing their main product of modified conductors, they still had their money-laundering fronts and land leases to fund their operations. Fortuna re-organized the truncated Family, delegating new seats herself, and even went so far as to offer Matilda a higher position due to the girl’s work in the city on that night.

The Foxman Family was not charged, on the other hand. This was in part due to the little evidence found regarding their exporting and importing of the modified conductors and due to their part in assisting Gabrielle Law with her case regarding the Campanas. They were, however, extensively questioned regarding the whereabouts of their brother turned business partner turned ELPIS leader. But neither Allen nor Carl had seen Francis since that night. And neither had Cadence. Omicron’s body hadn’t turned up either.

The Campana Family’s operations were also swiftly dismantled. Due to Gabrielle’s preliminary investigations and due to the nature of her findings, the Campana Family wasn’t offered lesser charges. Their assets were stripped from them, and they were found guilty on all accounts of trafficking. The don and associated executives were given life sentences in a Geminian specialized prison, while an investigation was launched to find connected parties and buyers. Ambrose was found not-guilty, despite his access to the organization’s files and records. And why this happened became clear as Jericho read the report that circulated through the Serpens Establishment not too long after: the files and records of the Campana Family merely identified the children by “item #”. Discovering this sent shivers down Olive’s spine.

“Good riddance,” the prince had spat with a scoff more to himself than the others.

But Cadence wasn’t too sure if the Campanas were getting the justice Olive thought they deserved. After all, the Campana executives had been locked in a rather well-furnished prison equipped with state-of-the-art showers, bedding, and a five-star chef to boot. But she tried her best to hide this from the prince.

Cadence, Atienna, Werner, and Jericho had also been brought in for questioning by the ELPIS Investigations Department. Atienna and Werner were questioned regarding their reason for being in the city and for their connection to Yulia Kriska and Fritz von Spiel respectively—both who had both been reported as having been in communication with ELPIS. Atienna and Werner were in suitable positions to deny their knowledge of ELPIS’s activities and highlighted their personal motivations—helping Sefu who had been caught in the crossfire; and arresting the colonel for suspected collusion with ELPIS and embezzlement of military funds, respectively.

Cadence and Jericho, on the other hand, were questioned about how they came to work together on that night the city nearly sank. Cadence and Jericho both informed their questioners that they had merely met up at a bar and realized they shared similar problems and goals. Cadence, wanting to help her childhood friend Francis Foxman who had gotten involved in ELPIS. Jericho, wanting to detain an ELPIS member for questioning.

It was a loose lie. A not very well crafted one, Cadence knew. But… Surprisingly, their answers were accepted.

The headline of the newspaper released that night pretty much wrapped up the city’s knowledge and perspective on the entire ordeal—

“Ophiuchian Crackdown on Crime Following TERRORIST Attack. IS ELPIS STILL IN OUR CITY? BEAUTIFUL PIANO KEYS LIGHT UP THE NIGHT SKY. Another Day in the Twin Cities?”

Cadence wondered about that.

* * *

On Tuesday, Maria paid Allen and Carl a visit at the docks. She brought with her Lita and was surprised to find their warehouse full of children. They seemed surprised themselves as did their lackeys as over a dozen children filled out all of the corners of the warehouse. Some skirted far from them. Others darted up daringly and tugged on the hemming of their suits.

“They just keep appearin’ outta nowhere,” Carl grumbled as he swatted them away. He muttered to himself, “Dammit, Francis. We’re tryin’ not to draw attention to ourselves.”

“Money’s still coming in from our casinos, bars, and dance halls,” Allen said with a grimace, “but we lost a major source of our income since the Romanos aren’t makin’ conductors for us to ship now. We can’t keep them here. Can’t afford it.”

But despite all their talk, the warehouse was filled with small makeshift beds. Still Cadence was pretty sure that they weren’t acting so much out of the generosity of their own hearts but out of their desire to honor their brother’s wish.

Lita recognized about a dozen or so of the children, and they recognized her. In other words, Campana Specialist children made up half the lot. A problematic development for Allen and Carl, since Ophiuchus had been sweeping the city for the children. The reason as to why Francis didn’t want the children to fall into Ophiuchus’s hands remained largely unknown.

Maria thus offered to take some of the Specialist children out of the city on her ship for some time. She knelt before the children, sang about adventures and the sea, and then asked each of them one-by-one if they wanted to come along with her.

Cadence could tell though. Despite all of Maria’s brightness and cheer, her mind was fixated on Conta. And as Maria boarded her ship with Lita, Renée, and a handful of the Specialist children in tow, Cadence knew that one of Maria’s first touristing destinations would be Hapaira. Rather, Veles. The bounty hunter, the tracker.

Werner thought it was too dangerous. Cadence thought it was worth the risk.

“I will get my Conta back,” Maria had responded. “So please be patient with me…. yes?”

* * *

On Wednesday, several days after being released from questioning by the Ophiuchian agents within the city, Werner visited the Sognare. The bartender still hadn’t returned, and the shelves behind the bar were clear of all the wine bottles and liquor. The raiders hadn’t thought to dismantle the piano on the backstage, however, and it remained standing upright and tall. Werner drifted over to this stage and approached the piano, inspecting the dusty keys of the instrument with a frown.

As soon as the city was safe again, Werner had used the radio Kleine had conjured to contact the Capricornian capital. He informed them that the colonel had been caught in the crossfires of the city’s war while attempting to escape arrest—a white lie Cadence helped Werner craft and transmit. He also informed them that the colonel had confirmed that he had been embezzling money from the military’s funds and was indeed working with ELPIS. The capital officials were unhappy with this information and requested that Werner bring the colonel’s body back to Capricorn.

But this was impossible. The ELPIS Investigations Department had collected not only Fritz von Spiel’s body but also Yulia Kriska’s and Kovich’s as well. The peacekeepers reasoned that the bodies served as evidence regarding ELPIS.

And so, the Capricornian government stepped back to allow Ophiuchus to do their work. Cadence wasn’t surprised. Their underground dealings had nearly been dragged out to light, after all. She’d half-expected Werner to receive a promotion since he’d been indirectly behind saving face for Capricorn. But as Werner said, “Avoiding a problem isn’t worth praise.”

Hearing him say this made her feel a bit sad.

In the end, Cadence wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to feel uneasy about the Ophiuchian authority. Cadence also found herself wondering where Nico would fall in the Capricornian ranks now that the deal between the country and the Romano Family was no longer in action.

Thinking about all of these things, Cadence found herself strongly synchronized with the Capricornian as he examined the keyboard inside the bar.

“That rests on Nico,” Werner replied, resting his hands on the keys. “He has proven himself an asset in service, and the capital may believe he still serves as a possible liaison to connect them to the Romanos for future projects.”

There wasn’t much left for Nico in this city anyway.

Cadence grimaced. “It sucks that ya didn’t get the deal with the Romanos. The old deal is null and void now too.”

“Seeing as how Argo was being supplied by the Romano Family, this simply means we’re back on even territory. Fortunately, you had the Romano and Campana Family destroy those records,” Werner replied evenly. “I appreciate your actions.”

Cadence stiffened at the mention of Argo. “I honestly had no idea about the Romanos supplyin’ to Argo, Werner. I’m really sorry… Ya don’t even need ta thank me for that other thing either, really. I was just makin’ up for what I did… Or at least tryin’ ta.”

“I’ll accept your apology, Cadence,” Werner returned. “Since you’ve helped Capricorn escape a precarious situation.”

Cadence showed him a C-chord, and he copied. “It’s over with, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve won anything, Lieutenant.”

Werner remained silent for a moment before he said, “A battle is never won. Not truly. It’s simply that you’ve gained a tactical advantage over the enemy. Sometimes that merely means that you’ve lost less than them even if your loss is substantial. And still, people consider this winning.”

“And what do you think this is, Lieutenant? A battle?”

Werner didn’t answer.

“Ya know even with everything happening…” Cadence chuckled after showing him a couple more notes to play. “I’m still expectin’ Alma ta come through those doors. Ain’t that pathetic or what?”

Werner studied her for a moment before he lifted a gloved hand towards her head.

The door to the Sognare swung open before he could complete the gesture, however, and in came Nico and Gilbert.

“The guys are getting one last round at the TwinStars,” Gilbert explained, jerking his thumb backwards, “before we head home.”

Nico smiled a bit morosely. “Do you wanna come?”

“I won’t join you,” Werner said, rising from his seat, “but I will buy everyone a drink before we return as a reward.”

* * *

On Thursday, Atienna made it back to Aquarius alongside a properly healed Sefu and a properly amused Cvetka. They reached the location where they were meant to originally attend their tripartite diplomatic meeting and found Moana and Chiamaka waiting there for them. Ophiuchian peacekeeping agents from both the ELPIS Department and an International Relations Department were also present and re-subjected them to a full questioning regarding their experience in the Twin Cities. Additional questions were asked regarding the mysterious Cancerian tourist who slipped away into the gates.

Atienna wondered how many Ophiuchian agents were questioning members of the Aquarian military as she herself was being questioned. She wondered how many scapegoats would be sacrificed for the betterment of their country. She wondered if their sacrifice would be worth anything.

After Sefu and Atienna were released from their interrogation, Chiamaka greeted them—“It is good to see you both safe. But what you did was dangerous and foolish. You could have put Virgo’s international relations in jeopardy.” She did not mince words. “We must remain professional for the rest of this meeting, but we will discuss the ramifications afterwards.”

While all of this had been occurring, Aquarius had sent another diplomat down in Alexei’s place. Sigrid and Knovak guarded the diplomat tightly. And other than exchanging one long look, Atienna and Sigrid didn’t speak to one another for the rest of the time.

After brushing Chiamaka up on the customs of Aquarius and Pisces, Atienna waited in the hall outside of the meeting room alongside Cvetka and Sefu. Cvetka remained calm and quiet, acting as if everything that had just occurred were someone else’s predicament. She approached Atienna only once to hand her a slim index card with a number jotted down onto it.

“My employer,” she said, smiling as if in victory.

Three hours later, Chiamaka exited the meeting room with Kabal in tow.

“We’re continuing our relations with Pisces, but temporarily halting our negotiations with Aquarius,” Chiamaka informed them as they left the meeting building. “Their recent activities do not coincide with what Virgo stands for as a country. That being said, we will no longer be working together either, Atienna.”

As suspected, Atienna thought to herself, but not quite unhappily.

“Because I will be retiring from this position,” Chiamaka finished. “I admit, studying and teaching these subjects is very different from engaging in it. You can continue in this profession if you wish, Atienna, but you will be continuing without me.”

Atienna was somewhat startled by Chiamaka’s decision and felt someone responsible for it. However, she supposed it was an understandable choice. And this left her with her own choice.

As she gripped the index card tightly in her gloved hands, Atienna wondered if this entire time she had still been standing in place and averting her eyes. Frozen in place.

“Our first diplomatic outreach in years, and it ends like this.” Chiamaka shook her head. “We’ve stepped out into a dangerous world.”

* * *

On Friday, Jericho was finally able to have a session with Alice. Usually, he held no opinions of these sessions but this time he attended with alertness. He even had his journal ready and open.

Alice was, however, for once not alert. She remained silent, arms crossed, gaze distant.

“Was your questioning by the ELPIS Department…” Jericho began. “Unpleasant?”

Alice regarded him curiously for a moment before she sighed. “The ELPIS Department was very thorough with their questioning, Even more thorough with their threats. They put it fancifully, but they’ve practically threatened to put a case forward to have my license revoked if I were ever to speak of my experiences with external parties. For ‘endangering the countries of Signum by divulging sensitive information.’ I’m sure they’ve told you the same.”

Jericho nodded. “Talib and I. Our licenses—”

“Yes, I heard.” Alice clasped her hands together. “And I also heard from Talib that Gabrielle’s now very interested in your application to the ELPIS Department.”

This was fact. During their luncheon the previous day, Gabrielle had brought up how Jericho’s recent actions would put him in good standing to work in the ELPIS Department. Elizabeta who had also been present at the time had stared holes to and through Jericho when Gabrielle had said this. Jericho hadn’t been sure if she’d been informed of Gamma’s identity, but he didn’t ask. It didn’t seem appropriate.

“Leona might personally approach you for a job offer,” Gabrielle had said. “I reckon you take it. We need someone in there. Especially now.”

“Yes,” Jericho confirmed to Alice as he recalled the memory. “Gamma. Izsak. It is important to Gabrielle.”

“And she needs someone in that department because of the department politics. It’s the least accessible department in all of Ophiuchus.” Alice leaned forward in her chair. “You’ve faced several ELPIS leaders in such a short amount of time, Jericho.” She clasped her hands together. “And you met the one called Theta too. Given the recent developments, I’m concerned about your stability in your continual pursuit of this department. What are your thoughts?”

“… I have a friend,” Jericho said after a moment of quiet, causing Alice to perk up. “He said there are things after. So I’ve been thinking about what to do after. I’ve been thinking about that. Even though I will still finish what I started.”

“And what is it that you want to do after?”

Jericho stared at her and then stared at the journal in his hands. “I don’t know.”

“It does take time to discover what you want to do next after accomplishing a goal that you’ve set for yourself,” Alice said, more gently than usual. “But as humans, it’s good to set goals. They help in moving forward.” She then frowned. “Although it is ultimately your choice and as much as I respect Gabrielle, I don’t think entering the ELPIS Department will be good for you, Jericho. Something isn’t right.”

Jericho agreed. Something wasn’t right.

Not so long after his session with Alice, Jericho was approached by Leona as Gabrielle had predicted. The woman merely greeted him and handed him a manila folder before departing. Upon opening it, he found his application to the ELPIS Investigations Department. Stamped across the top in big letters was APPLICATION ACCEPTED.

“Told you.”

Jericho turned and found Gabrielle leaning against the wall, arms crossed.

“Hello, Gabrielle.” Jericho offered a small wave.

“Hey, Jericho,” she returned, unlatching herself and approaching him. “Congrats on the acceptance.”

He stared at the file. “Thank you—”

“By the way, I’ve been meaning to mention this. Some ship captain named Maria said you were a part of some club with her. A ‘True Conductor’ club. Can’t help but think our Ariesian prince is also part of the club. Maybe even that swindler. Since you all seem to know each other.” Gabrielle waited for a reaction, but Jericho merely stared at her. She hung her head and sighed. “Alright. Well, if you ever feel like talking, I’m always ready to lend an ear.” She motioned Jericho forward. “Let’s grab lunch. Talib is treating with some homemade falafel.”

* * *

On Saturday, Boss Romano made his first public appearance.

Ricardo Romano strolled through the streets of the Twin Cities wielding the same aura he did from before he’d been stabbed. He didn’t even seem to care that there was an Ophiuchian agent at his left telling him he could only go so far from his property.

Cadence met Ricardo at a small park just outside of his residence with the bottle of wine he’d requested. She then accompanied him back into his manor and poured a glass for them both in his living room. The peacekeeper remained just outside of the room—perched like a hawk.

“So, Cavallo has told me everything. About Francis. About ELPIS. About Theta.” Ricardo said as he swirled his wine glass. “You’ve met Theta, Cadence?”

Cadence tensed. “Yeah… I did. Briefly. Ya know. Like the others said. Met him while tryin’ ta capture Francis ta get him some help. Haven’t seen him since he went berserk at Warehouse 13.”

Ricardo hummed, taking another sip of wine, and the conversation lapsed into silence.

Finally, the boss said, “I was like you before, Cadence. An orphan on the street. Before the the war.” A pause. “I was taken in by a kind man who wasn’t from the best walk of life. Still, he was generous. He took me and many other children in. He even went so far as to offer us home and education.”

Ricardo took another sip of his wine, and the realization slowly dawned on Cadence.

“He passed during the war, but I thought that I would try to live up to his life. Of course, as you know, Cadence, this world is quite difficult to navigate and some things had to be sacrificed and exchanged along the way.” Ricardo set his glass down on the table in between them. “I had hoped taking individuals like you and Fortuna under my wing would suffice.” He folded his hands over his stomach and closed his eyes for a moment. “What do you think Theta thinks of what I’ve done with this extra life he’s granted me?”

Cadence looked away from the man she’d admired for years, the man she’d feared, the man she’d almost seen as her father. And she felt disappointment. “I think Theta’d be pretty sad…”

* * *

On Sunday, Cadence received a letter slipped under her door. She recognized the handwriting immediately. Those curling letters belonged to none other than Francis Foxman. He must’ve forgotten she wasn’t savvy with reading with his mind all jumbled up. Still, she managed to get through the thing with Atienna’s occasional help.

It was an invitation. To the Sognare.

*

When Cadence arrived at the Sognare, she found Allen and Carl lounging at the bar there all casual-like. A look at the back of the bar informed her that the raiders had finally gotten to the piano. The empty stage made her chest crumple.

“No Fortuna?” she asked.

“No Fortuna,” Allen affirmed.

“Probably didn’t want a headache.” Carl scoffed.

“Probably figured she was too busy,” Cadence reasoned.

“And we’re not?” Carl snapped before he frowned, considering. “Yeah.”

The door creaked open, and two familiar figures stepped into the bar. Cadence personally recognized only one of them. The other she recognized through Atienna’s memories.

“You’re late, Francis,” Allen said before nodding at the person standing beside him. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Pi,” Francis said, gesturing to the tall Aquarian standing beside him. “It seems he was initiated recently and somehow stumbled into one of my gates and ended up here during my…” He shook his head. “He’s a good person. We have similar mindsets regarding what we’ve become.”

While Francis was dressed in a turtleneck with a suit jacket thrown over his shoulders, Pi was dressed in an out-of-sorts, oversized shirt with tight suspenders. They looked out of place next to each other.

“He ELPIS?” Allen arched a brow.

Pi nodded. “Friend. Nice to meet.”

“What’s wrong with him?” was the first thing Carl asked.

Pi frowned, looking hurt.

“He wasn’t initiated properly,” Francis explained, placing a thoughtful hand on his chin and examining Pi. “I still haven’t dissected the specifics of what’s occurred, but you don’t need to be concerned about his behavior. Pi is still the person I remember him to be.”

“Nice ta meet ya.” Cadence offered Pi a hand with a grin.

Brightening, Pi accepted the gesture.

“What’s this about, Francis?” Allen asked grimly. He took out a box of v-cigarettes and shook one out for himself. He offered one to Cadence—which she refused—before offering them to Carl, Francis, and Pi. Carl and Francis accepted the v-cigs, igniting them with a shake, while Pi stared at Francis in slight shock and horror.

Francis took a drag of the v-cigarette before answering, “A friend… Rather, another ELPIS leader by the name of Gamma is searching for me. I came across him the other day.”

Izsak…?

“I think he’s planning to kill me,” Francis said casually, taking another drag of his v-cig. He glanced down at it with a grimace of disgust before puffing again.

Carl started forward, punching his fist into his palm. “The hell? You need us to sack him?”

Pi made an X with his arms, shaking his head. “Angry man. Want big boom. Again in city.” His frown deepened. “Not like. Before. Dangerous.”

“I refused his suggestion to target the reservoirs and generator conductors here again,” Francis elaborated, ignoring Carl’s outburst and Pi’s interjection. He puffed. “The guy didn’t seem to be too happy about that. Said I was only saying those things because I wasn’t initiated right.” He took another drag, shaking his head. “He wants to kill me here and now so I’ll return to my resistor. He wants to re-initiate me ‘properly’.” Francis’s gaze darkened. “I won’t let him take my last moments of Omicron away from me. And I’m not too keen on dying as Francis either. I also have some things I need to set straight. So you won’t be seeing me for a while.”

“You’re in trouble,” Allen concluded after a beat. “You need a place to lie low? We’ve got a couple places out of the city.”

“Yeah.” Carl nodded, almost desperately. “Got one in Cancer. Got another in Aries—”

“You misunderstand…” Francis drew, placing his gloved hand over his face and staring at them between his fingers. “I can’t be around any of you. When I look at you, I’m torn between disgust and affection. I need time to get my head on straight. And I need to figure out the next course of action…. It’s a mess.”

Silence stretched.

“Disgust and affection? That’s me at my reflection every day,” Cadence said good-naturedly. “It ain’t so bad.”

Francis blinked at her before offering a musical chuckle as he lowered his hand. “That’s why I didn’t invite Fortuna. She’s… a bit of a handful.”

“And Nico?”

Francis stared blankly at them before his eyes widened and he held his head. “I forgot Nico…”

“Eh, I doubt he’d want to come anyway,” Carl said, giving Francis a reassuring wave. “Been busy with his Capricornian pals. The bastard—”

But Francis turned away from Carl suddenly and turned to face Cadence fully. “I understand you have many questions. And I have only some answers given how much of my vitae has been lost through my many times of returning to the resistor. If you give me time, I will tell you what I know to the best of my abilities.” He shook his head. “My brain’s still a mess… but I will tell you this…”

Cadence perked up.

“True Conductors are like conductors themselves.” Francis tapped her chest lightly. “Human beings operate like their bodies when it comes to vitae. When people are born, vitae from the outside world flows in through a door that closes shortly after. When people die, a different door opens and vitae leaves your body. Some call it decay and loss of energy through the cessation of bodily function. But it’s not so simple.”

“Like blood,” Pi added suddenly, making a swooping gesture with his hand. “Flow through veins. Through valves. Open and close.”

“But you are different. Both doors are open constantly with True Conductors. You’re like open channels,” Francis elaborated. “It’s a defect. And because of that defect, extraneous vitae can easily enter. Connected True Conductors act as a very large channel. And when utilized properly, that channel can conduct a very large amount of vitae. You are more-or-less a tool. That is all.”

Cadence arched a brow. “Well, that’s one way ta flirt.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to come off that rudely,” Francis apologized, looking somewhat dazed. “But that’s as much as I can give at the moment.”

As much as Atienna’s curiosity scratched at Cadence’s mind and as much as Cadence selfishly wanted to push Francis further, Cadence let out a sigh and nodded. “Guess I gotta toss out the 100 questions I wrote down then—”

Abruptly, Francis pointed to Cadence’s pocket. “You have one of my proto-conductors.”

Cadence opened her mouth to whittle out another lie but thought better of it as she met Francis’s calm eyes. This was someone she wanted on her side. Not only for strategic purposes but because she genuinely did.

After digging into her pocket, she procured it for him. He gingerly plucked it from her hand and inspected it.

“It didn’t shatter with my outburst because there’s not enough vitae in it,” he said. Flipping the thing in hand, he rolled up his sleeve and pushed its needlepoint into his arm. The glass vial filled with blood as he pulled up the plunger. He pulled it out from his arm and then grasped it in his gloved hand. His palm and the red liquid within the vial began to glow with pale tangerine light. When the light faded, the liquid was pitch black.

“This is good for roughly six uses,” he said, dropping it back into her palm. “If you place the tip of this down on a drawn gate while the vial is full and speak of the place you wish to go, I will be able to hear you through my gate and send you as close as I can to that location. If not, you could end up anywhere.”

Cadence arched a brow. “It’s that easy?”

Francis didn’t answer and instead reached into his pants pocket to draw out two more similar proto-conductors. He gingerly handed one each to Carl and then to Allen before taking a step back. “I want you to have a way to leave,” Francis said, “if the worst comes into fruition…”

“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Carl arched a brow. “Stop being so ominous, Francis.”

Cadence patted Carl on the shoulder and arched a brow. “And what’s the catch?”

Francis dipped his head. “I know this is a lot to ask, but while I’m away, could you please look for and after the children who are looking for me? I need to focus on the task at hand, and I need to get my mind in working order… At the moment, I’m not suitable to care for them.”

“And we’re suitable?” Cadence nearly burst out laughing as she thumbed herself and then Carl and Allen. “Us?”

“Yeah.” Carl crossed his arms. “Why not hand ‘em over to the Ophiuchians? I mean—”

Pi blanched and paled, while Francis glowered for half a second.

Francis took a moment to compose himself before he continued, “You can become suitable. Better than those peacekeepers.” He looked away. “I assure you, I am not abandoning them as I did in the past. But it will be dangerous with me. Just temporarily… Would you mind doing me a favor?”

Cadence curled her hands around the proto-conductor and met Francis’s eyes. “Ya got it, Francis. Didn’t even need ta ask.”

And so, on Sunday, Cadence made a promise.


“You know, Cadence, people might think you’re untrustworthy because of your profession, but I think it’s because of your profession that you’re as trustworthy as they come. You put on a sign saying that you’re untrustworthy with just your job title and your conducting type.”

“What in saint’s name is that supposed ta mean, Francis?”

Francis Foxman (?) and Cadence Morello, unknown time