8.6: Atienna’s Warmth (Refreddato)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

Atienna is acting as an advisor to the Virgoan diplomat Chiamaka for Virgo’s tripartite meeting with Aquarius and Pisces. With them are Atienna’s guard Sefu and Chiamaka’s guard Kabal. They encounter a strange Cancerian tourist named Louise who joins them on their journey. However, they are caught up in a storm prior to their arrival at the meeting and stow away in a cavern. Fortunately, they find that the diplomatic parties of Aquarius and Pisces are also stowed away there. From Pisces are the diplomat Moana, the guard Afu, and the advisor Kalama. From Aquarius are the diplomat Alexei, the advisor Cvetka, the secretary Yulia, and the two guards Nikita Knovak (whom Werner encountered at the border) and the quiet Sigurd. Just as things are about to look up, however, Atienna awakens to find the advisor Kalama murdered before her eyes. 

Zatmeniye Caverns, Aquarius

The storm continued to rage outside as they moved Kamala’s body away from the campsite.

The wailing of Afu, the Piscese guard, as he was pried from Kalama’s body was something that Atienna wished to never hear again. It reminded her too much of her father’s wails on that night six years ago. The pain of having someone close to you flicker out of existence just like that was truly an unbearable thing. Remembering how they used to be and thinking back on how their little quirks filled in a space in your life—truly, excruciating. A pain that she herself had a hard time looking away from. Her pain was not the same though, Atienna knew. At least her mother was still alive.

They were careful when they moved the body—both to preserve Kalama’s dignity and the evidence. They set her aside behind one of the larger rock formations several meters away from the campsite.

Moana and Afu were given time to perform their cultural funerary rites away from prying eyes. Atienna, however, prospected that they were most likely unable to complete the entire thing in fear of damaging any evidence they might have missed in their preliminary checks of the body.

Leave it to the diplomats not to resort to finger-pointing and senseless shouting in a tense situation. Instead, Chiamaka, Moana, and Alexei calmly discussed how they should proceed. They had all agreed it would be in ill taste to move forward with their meeting of diplomacy and had voted to stall it until a proper investigation could be carried out. “Our personal, unresolved feelings could introduce bias to the investigation and negatively impact the future of our countries,” was something along the lines of what was said.

Despite the agreement, the Aquarian and Piscese groups started to keep their distance from each other and from Atienna’s own group as well. The only time the fire was occupied by all groups was at night time and even then their groups sat far apart. The only person who was able to freely go between groups was the only uninvolved party: Louise Beaumont. She went around somberly offering handfuls of various consumable goods to each party with tearful eyes.

Out of all them, Louise should have been viewed as the most suspect, but her bumbling nature had made most of them turn their gazes away from her. Too harmless to hurt a fly was the saying.

At the moment the diplomats were discussing what Atienna assumed were additional measures near the mouth of the cavern alongside their respective guards. Atienna had been present for a portion of it as was the Aquarian advisor Cvetka but they were both politely excused. Sefu had nearly made to follow her but a stern hand on the shoulder prevented him from leaving Chiamaka’s side. Rewritten duties, it seemed—although it seemed a bit odd. The one who had died was an advisor just as she was, after all. Then again, Atienna knew she could manage herself.

As Atienna pondered these things, she approached the fire to warm herself.

Louise was huddled there beside Cvetka. The former woman’s somber expression seemed a bit out of place on her face—a face that Atienna could only remember being rosy with a smile. The Cancerian tourist had been surprisingly affected by Kalama’s death and had only recently stopped shedding fitful tears every hour.

“May I join you two?” Atienna asked quietly.

Cvetka smiled slightly, tucking a dark lock of hair behind her ear as she nodded her head. Atienna took a seat beside the woman and stared into the flame.

“She was such a nice girl…” Louise murmured, staring into the fire as well as she nibbled on a bag of nuts she’d pulled out from her coat. “I didn’t know her that well at all, but I knew she was a nice girl…”

Cvetka nodded her head. “She was using this as an opportunity to travel the world. That was what she said.”

“I don’t really understand politics much…” Louise glanced at Atienna and then at Cvetka. “But I hope this doesn’t cause problems for you all or anything. I don’t think Kalama would want that at all… I mean…. she was such a nice girl.”

“What do you think, Atienna?” Cvetka asked abruptly.

“She was a nice girl,” Atienna agreed.

Cvetka smiled wanly and stared back into the fire. “I meant about what happened. Obviously, someone here had to have done it. There’s no other explanation.”

Louise paled from beside her and looked around. “Everyone here is so nice though, Cvetka. Please don’t say that. I don’t want anyone to fight… It had to have been an accident.”

Hm.

While Louise was focused on what was to happen next, Cvetka seemed to be focused on what had happened before. Strange. Shouldn’t it be the opposite way around?

Atienna pondered this for a moment. “I’m not much of a detective…”

There were a lot of factors involved in Kalama’s death after all, but there were several things for certain. Firstly, the way Kalama died was most definitely conductor-related. Secondly, her death was either an accident or a message—a threat. Kalama had informed them at the fire the previous night that she had only recently become an advisor, meaning her political enemies would be far and few between. Additionally, due to her rookie nature, she had not been given many duties regarding this affair and therefore her death would not impact Moana’s diplomacy abilities. Either someone had ill intention personally towards Moana and Afu or—Atienna’s mind went to the blue coat that Kalama had been wearing at her time of death—or towards Alexei. But why? That was the question. Whoever did such a dangerous thing must not have feared the consequences their actions would have towards their country. A detached person.

But saying all of these things without acting on them or reaching a conclusion would be—as Werner always put it—a waste of time—

“How dare you say that!”

Cvetka and Louise both startled from beside her as the shout resounded around the cave. Atienna exchanged a look with Cvetka before they both rose and headed towards the mouth of the cave where the diplomats and their guards were gathered.

It was a rather startling scene.

The Piscese guard Afu stood wielding what appeared to be a feathered spear above a fallen Alexei. The tattoos on the man’s face were twisted alongside the expression of absolute hatred stretched across his face. So much hatred—he didn’t seem to even notice Nikita pointing a conductor rifle at him nor did he notice Kabal and Sefu aiming their conducting spears at his chest. Chiamaka and Yulia stood behind their respective guards, the former with an expression of disappointment and the latter with an unreadable one.

Standing slightly offside from them was Sigurd who held what appeared to be a halberd-shaped conductor behind her back. Despite all the chaos, her expression was blank. Like that of an observer.

“Afu!” the Piscese diplomat Moana shouted from where she stood in between Chiamaka and Yulia. “What are you doing? He was only trying to propose a solution—”

“By desecrating Kalama’s body?!” Afu screeched. “He wants to get rid of the evidence! Trying to hide the fact that he was the one who killed her!”

“T-That’s not what I intended!” Alexei stammered from beneath him. “I’m sorry for your loss. I truly am but—”

“She was wearing your coat!” Afu seethed, before he jabbed the weapon at Alexei’s throat. “And you—you wear that face of goodwill, but I’ve seen the types of things you support in your country! You think you’ve hidden it well but your closest allies even—”

“He gave it to her last night when we were around the fire,” Sigurd said calmly, tightening her grip on her conductor.

“And why should I believe you?!” Afu hissed. He glowered at Alexei. “You… What kind of monster—” He lifted his spear and—

Sigurd swung her halberd in an arc immediately and from the after-image of the swing appeared a razor line of water—it glowed a psychedelic wisteria hue—that rushed at Afu’s chest. Before the water reached him, she swung her halberd again, and out came a burst of frigid wind that iced over the line of water in an instant. The now frozen solid ice razor slammed into Afu’s chest sending him flying backwards. He managed to hold his ground, though he looked dazed.

Fascinating. Two elements? That should be impossible, shouldn’t it? But then again there was no such thing as impossible.

Sigurd swung her halberd twice again—this time aiming it at Afu’s feet. The ice encased his legs in an instant, grounding the man to the spot. Alexei scrambled away in the chaos, just barely making it out of Afu’s reach.

But then Afu whipped out his hand—gloved—and flicked his wrist. In his palm in a flash of coral light appeared a pistol.

A Conjuror.

Atienna’s gaze flicked between them. These were diplomats, and they still could not find a resolution. How unpleasantly frustrating. If only everyone would calm down and listen then—

Atienna rushed forward, ducking beneath the blast of his conductor which he fired off at her in alarm; and then sweeping her legs beneath his feet, she drove the palm of her hand up his chin. A crack resounded through the air before the man fell backwards unconscious onto the floor.

Adrenaline lit her veins on fire as she stared down at him. The rush was incredible as it always was.

Atienna could feel Sefu and Cvetka staring at her back with wide eyes. Out of the corner of her own eye, she could see Chiamaka remaining impassive. Unpleasant. As she backed away from the scene, Moana darted forward and pried Afu’s conductor away from his hands. Sigurd slipped beside her and generated cuffs of ice around him with the two flips of her conductor.

“I… I apologize, Alexei,” Moana stammered as she pulled away from the unconscious man. “I-I don’t know why he… he is just deeply affected by Kalama… I—”

“I understand, Moana,” Alexei said as he was guided to his feet by Nikita. “No one is harmed. Save for Afu.” He glanced at Atienna. “We just need to detain him to—”

“Detain?” Moana frowned lightly, rising to a stand as well. “Afu is not a criminal.”

“I understand where you’re coming from Miss Moana,” Alexei said gently, “but how do we know that Afu will not act again?”

The light in Moana’s eyes died in that moment, and her smile flickered. “We know because I have known Afu for years just as I have known Kalama.”

Alexei tensed and held up a hand. “I meant no disrespect, Miss Moana. I’m merely just trying to be cautious—”

“I do agree with Alexei on this matter,” Chiamaka said suddenly, peering at them both from beneath her glasses. “As I’ve said before, we can’t allow our personal feelings to affect the future developments of our countries. We’re merely cogs in the wheel.”

Eventually, an agreement was made to have at least two guards—one from Virgo and one from Aquarius—on Afu at all times.

Olive’s incident with the Sagittarian assassins occurred only a minute after, so Atienna was not able to fully focus on what was being discussed.

Startlingly enough, Cvetka had come to stand beside Atienna while the proceedings went underway and had even gone so far as to loop her hand around her arm—whom the gesture was meant to comfort remained a mystery to Atienna. Obviously, Cvetka’s was not at all deterred by her show of violence.

“That’s the problem,” Cvetka murmured beside her. “We can never understand each other no matter how hard we try.”

***

After witnessing Olive’s reaction to the massacre on Maria’s side, Atienna couldn’t help but wonder if something was wrong with her. Olive had been so affected and disgusted by the bloody scene that he had nightmares of it combined with flashes of the young assassin he’d burnt in the days following. She did feel sympathy for the fallen bounty hunters’ friends and families who would never see them again just as she felt sympathy for Afu and Moana for their loss of Kalama. But that was all her feelings amounted to. Sympathy. A distant feeling.

Did she only feel that distant feeling because they had nothing to do with her? Perhaps it wasn’t that simple.

Atienna mulled over these things to herself as she sat before the fire again a day later. She was joined by Cvetka and Louise again as well as Sefu who sat beside her. Yulia was with later, although she sat on a different stone slab a meter or so off. She was jotting notes down in her notebook.

“I can’t believe Afu did that…” Louise mumbled suddenly in a lull in their conversation, nibbling on a bag of pecans and stretching her arm across Atienna and Cvetka to offer Sefu some from the bag.

Sefu accepted graciously and through a mouthful of nuts, he said, “Yes, I was surprised. He seemed very level-headed.”

“That’s how it happens,” Cvetka mumbled from Atienna’s right, staring across the fire at Yulia. “No matter how good your intentions, as soon as you start valuing one person or one group more than another, you automatically become a villain to the other party.”

“That’s from The Endless Cycle by Kovich, isn’t it?” Atienna asked quietly. “It’s a popular read in Aquarius or so I have heard.”

“You really do know everything,” Cvetka replied. And then a smile tugged the corner of her lips. “Or at least you wish you did.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I only know about him because Yulia recommended his book to me.”

Yulia did not show any indication that she’d heard her name mentioned.

Cvetka stared at her before she turned to Atienna and continued, “Have you read his other works?”

Atienna nodded. “Yes, I’ve read his entire To Man collection. Do you have a favorite?”

Thus began a lengthy conversation around literary matters, and Atienna was rather impressed by how well-read Cvetka was. She seemed to know literary works originating from all over Signum—both recent and old. It made Atienna feel as if she was outclassed in that category.

After a while, they fell into a comfortable silence.

“I wish I brought some of Kupika’s seasoned jerky with me,” Sefu grumbled suddenly from beside her. He glanced at Louise. “No offense, Miss Louise, but your food is not as hearty as what we have at home.”

“Perhaps, you and your country should have stayed in isolation,” Yulia interjected, not looking up from her task. “This world is filthy. You step outside from home, and you become dyed in the grime.”

Atienna was surprised by her sudden entry into the conversation but not so much by her words.

Frowning and clearly perplexed, Sefu replied, “It is our country. We are the ones who can speak for it. Not you.” After being nudged in the ribs by Atienna, he amended. “Of course, I am sure you feel similarly about your country—”

“I don’t care what happens to my country,” Yulia interjected. “I don’t understand people like you who do. You are only valued if you can become what they deem as a useful member of society. Happiness is a commodity. If you are useful but do not capitalize on your usefulness, you’re simply sold to people who can.”

“Those are interesting words for a secretary to a diplomat,” Sefu huffed.

The exasperated indignation reminded Atienna of her brother Bachiru. At the thought of him, her mind drifted to the letter resting inside of her pack.

But then Yulia laughed loudly, abruptly with wide eyes that held no light. It was a long and hollow laugh that seemed out of place. After what seemed like an eternity, she quieted and continued on jotting down notes in her book, leaving them only with, “If you don’t come to your senses, you will fall apart. You and your country.”

The ghost of her laugh, however, continued to bounce around the rock formations in the cave.

It was unnerving to say the least, and Atienna found her gaze lingering on Yulia as she thought on the woman’s words. Sefu scooted a bit closer to her afterwards. Cvetka meanwhile gave her an apologetic look.

***

It wasn’t so long after that conversation that their weekly synchronization meeting was held. The revelation that there were other groups similar to them did not come as a surprise to Atienna. And after it had concluded, she secretly listened in to Werner and Olive’s conversation. It hadn’t been her intention to, of course. Merely an accident spurred on by a single thought of curiosity.

An interesting conversation generated by light misunderstandings.

“We can never understand each other,” was what Cvetka had said, wasn’t it? But Atienna wondered if that was the case with those she was connected with. They kept things from each other, avoided each other, averted their eyes from unpleasant things—she wondered if she would be able to truly ever understand any of them.

And the sense of self topic was an interesting point as well. How could a person hope to understand another person when the latter person couldn’t even understand themselves?

That was why on a night when she snuck away to explore the cavern not so long after the meeting, Atienna addressed the topic when Werner happened to synchronize with her. He appeared beside her during her stroll, and it was evident that he was working on those reports of his again. Still, he put down his pen to listen to her.

“Yes, the sense of self aspect is revealing,” Werner said after she brought up the subject, “and it should be looked into thoroughly. But that wasn’t the most significant information we received from Prince Yuseong.”

“It does make you think though, doesn’t it?” Atienna whispered. “What exactly defines you as you and me as me? It would be quite easy to say that we are defined by our experiences, wouldn’t it? But if there were someone out there who had the same exact experiences as me, would they also be qualified as me? And if I were to somehow accumulate the experiences of another person, could I still be considered Atienna Imamu? Would they be considered Atienna Imamu? I wonder…”

Werner remained silent.

“If that’s not the case, if we don’t put experiences and memories as our definition of who we are, then would it be our goals that define us? Olive’s goal is to return Lavi to normal. Cadence’s goal… well, to be honest, it seems to flip back and forth between fame, just getting by, and that Alma….” Atienna smiled thinly, knowing that Werner knew that it did not meet her eyes. “Isn’t that amazing? Having someone dedicate their entire life to you?”

Werner said after an internal sigh, “That dedication is not one that I think about.”

“That may be so. But Werner, what about you?” Atienna continued. “What exactly is your goal?” Perhaps she had gone far enough, she thought to herself—but that itching curiosity spurred her forward.

“It’s simple,” Werner replied. “My goal is to serve Capricorn to the best of my abilities.”

“Right?” Atienna smiled, resting her cheek on her hand. “That’s exactly the kind of goal I’d expect the perfect military officer to have. Someone who isn’t after the money or the glory. Someone whose sole purpose is to serve their country and their country alone and rise in the ranks. It’s almost as if you fit the template perfectly. When I first met you, I couldn’t help but think ‘amazing, people like this truly exist.’ You are orderly, pragmatic, strict, and you follow through on everything that is asked of you.”

“That’s what’s expected of a Capricornian soldier,” Werner replied, although there was a pause before he spoke. “If I was not this way, then I would have never been promoted to this position.”

Atienna hummed in agreement. “That’s right, isn’t it? That’s exactly how you should be… rather—”

What in the world was she saying? Why in the world was she saying these things? She knew she should stop, but she wanted to keep going, to see, to get to the bottom of it. She couldn’t avert her eyes again.

“—that’s how ‘you should appear to be’, should I say?” She continued. “Is that just how I see you or is that how the others see you as well?”

Werner studied her silently. She could see it in his eyes—he was trying to gauge what she thought of him.

“I think…. perhaps… Olive sees you as—well, expects you to be—someone who is stern yet forgiving,” Atienna pondered aloud. “Maybe even something akin to a guiding hand. Cadence expects you to be someone who is a voice of reason, someone who is a stable balance to her own instability. I personally don’t hold any expectations for you at all, Werner.”

Werner again remained silent.

“We do tend to bend ourselves slightly to what people expect of us. Like a piece of hot metal. Molded and shaped.” She shrugged her coat more over her shoulders. “I wonder if it’s able to ever return to its original form.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Sorry… I’m rambling again but what I really wanted to say was… recently I’ve been wondering Werner, who exactly are you?”

When Atienna turned and registered Werner’s expression. Why did she say such things? She wished he would just—

“We are both adults, Atienna,” Werner said, expression falling flat. “We have more important matters to handle than philosophizing all day.”

Just as she’d hoped and expected him to say.

Werner seemed to sigh internally again. “If there is nothing else to discuss then—”

Then it struck like lightning. The burning hot feeling compressing in her chest expanding outwards. The feeling she hadn’t felt in months, snapping through every muscle in her body. Pure hatred.

“Jericho,” Atienna whispered.

“Yes, something is happening on Jericho’s end.” Werner nodded. His eyes became distant.

He was trying to synchronize with the peacekeeper. How dutiful. She attempted to do so as well but was met with an iron wall. Every time, she neared it she was met with a surge of hot anger and a barrier that seemed unpassable.

Werner frowned and shook off his dazedness before meeting her eyes. “He’s being reckless. He’s not listening.” His frown deepened. “That style of conducting… it’s dangerous.”

The image of it flashed through her mind. The black streaks that glowed tangerine. Omicron. The Specialist.

Atienna put her hand to her mouth as her stomach began to twist into knots. “Will he be—”

A high-pitched shriek pierced her ears. For a moment, she thought she was hearing something that was spilling in from Jericho’s end, but then she was abruptly tackled to the side and wrapped in furry arms. Werner disappeared from her line of vision at the impact, their synchronization dropping in an instant.

“It’s terrible, Atienna! Terrible!”

Atienna lifted her head to peer over the bundles of fur and registered warm caramel eyes framed with straw blonde hair.

“There’s two people hurt over there! Oh, Atienna, it’s terrible!”

Atienna’s eyes widened. Another attack? A murder?

Louise shook her head. “I don’t know who they are or where they came from. Oh, this is awful—”

Atienna placed a reassuring hand on Louise’s shoulders and smiled gently. “Please calm down, Louise. Where are they?”

Shakily, Louise pointed into the darkness behind her. In the direction of the painted walls. Painted walls. Two people.

The dots connected within Atienna’s mind.

It couldn’t be.

Atienna immediately started towards the direction, glancing back in slight surprise as Louise clasped her hand from behind.

“I-I’ll show you…” Louise stammered.

Although Atienna was familiar with the direction she allowed the woman to guide her. As they drew nearer to the black painted door, Louise’s steps slowed and Atienna began taking the lead. Despite the darkness increasing its depth as the black-painted cave wall loomed before them, Atienna’s eyes were able to adjust to it quickly as she was quite used to maneuvering in the shadows.

There were two bodies strewn over each other beside the black painted wall there. Atienna’s heart thundered as she came closer and realized she recognized them. Louise tightened her grip on her hand.

The one closest to the wall—Atienna could tell—was most definitely dead. He was a heavyset man with a receding, graying hairline, and deep black eyes that stared listlessly up at the ceiling. His cheeks were still a deep, frost-bitten red.

Major Ersatz…

White cracks that were sprawling out from the glowing white wound at his shoulder had nearly consumed his entire body.

At least he was not in any pain.

The other was a tall, lean man with a strong and prominent brow and a light mustache. He was dressed in a familiar monochrome uniform paired with a pale white armband. Mladen. He was bleeding from the shoulder but most definitely alive given the labored rise and fall from his chest. And—

—and there was a knife embedded into his abdomen. The one Omicron had handed Ersatz. The handle of the knife appeared to oddly be made of glass. Cracked glass. There was something inside of the handle encasement—a swirl of white light that was slowly beginning to dim and sinking to the point where the hilt met the blade. Some of the light seeped out from the cracks and bled out into the dark of the cave.

What in the world? Was that vitae?

Spatial distortion. The black markings. The dots connected. Those two men had fallen through one of the pools of light and had come here. It was hard to believe but fact was fact.

Conductors were truly terrifying.

But was the Specialist here? She needed to be cautious. Analyze. Think. Calculate.

Yes, Atienna had to agree, caution was important, but she had a gut feeling that this event had been a miscalculated fluke. These two men were not supposed to end up here just as—the memory flashed into her mind—Omicron and Alice were not meant to end up wherever they were.

And that knife in Mladen’s chest—no, that conductor—

Before Atienna could move forward to inspect the knife, a stampede of footsteps resounded from behind her.

“What is going on here?” came a familiar voice from behind. Chiamaka.

Atienna turned her head and found the woman and everyone else minus Afu and Sefu gathered behind her. The newly arrived party seemed to assess both her and Louise for a moment before their eyes fell on the two men.

Alexei ogled the two bodies and did a double-take. “Where in saint’s name did they come from?!”

“They’re injured,” Moana observed with a frown before turning around and heading back to the campsite.

Stiffening beside Alexei, Nikita stared at Mladen. “That’s—”

“You know him?” Alexei pressed.

“Yes,” Nikita stated, surprise and confusion plastered across his face. “He… He is Mladen. We worked together. Before he join Ophiuchus.” Nikita’s gaze fell onto Ersatz and his eyes narrowed. “I know him too. Capricornian major on border. Crazy. Worked with ELPIS. Supposed to be locked… in Ophiuchus.”

“ELPIS?” Yulia repeated, grabbing Nikita’s arm. Her eyes widened when the man gave her a confused nod of confirmation, and she looked around at them wildly, desperately. “Transmutationist—is anyone a Transmutationist?!”

“I am,” Moana said, as she returned to the scene panting heavily, hands now gloved in a conductor. “Remove his shirt for me.”

Without hesitation, Yulia moved forward and ripped open the man’s suit shirt with a strength that almost seemed unnatural.

Moana got to work immediately, sinking to his side placing her hands over the man’s upper arm. His skin under her gloves began to glow a hot pink. Almost immediately, a frown took over her controlled expression. “Something isn’t right. I’m having trouble moving the vitae particles to… ” She shook her head, flicking her hands slightly and causing the light to glow more intensely. Finally, she seemed to make progress. Letting out a sigh of relief, she guided the glowing splotch to the open wound on the man’s shoulder. When she removed her hands, the area was covered over with a thin stretch of skin. She then assessed the knife embedded into the man’s abdomen. She nodded and addressed the closest person to her—Yulia: “When I say go, pull the knife out.”

Yulia inclined her head, wrapping her hands around the cracked glass handle.

“This is difficult…” Moana wiped her forehead with the back of her hand before placing it over the man’s chest again. “I don’t understand. It’s like it’s resisting me.” Her brows furrowed, and the salmon-pink light brightened beneath her hand brightened. “Now!”

Yulia ripped the knife out from the peacekeeper’s chest as Moana brought up the glowing patch of skin to cover the newly opened hole. The light dimmed as she removed her hand revealing that the wound had been successfully closed. Moana gave a sigh of relief as she fell back, while Yulia clutched the broken handle of the knife as if it was a lifeline.

There was a beat.

Mladen’s eyes fluttered open, and he stared up at the cavern’s ceiling blankly. And then he shot up immediately.

Yulia jumped back with him in surprise, while Moana leaned forward with concern.

What? Atienna startled. How had he recovered so quickly? She had read the books. She had seen the wound. It was deep. Even the most skilled Transmutationist wouldn’t be able to—

Moana seemed to agree. “Mr. Mladen, sir?! What are you doing?! You must rest! I have not assessed your internal injuries yet—”

Mladen turned to stare at the Piscese diplomat with an owl-like expression cutting her off short before he looked to Major Ersatz lying beside him. No sooner did the peacekeeper flinch away from the corpse did the white cracks expanding across his finally finish their journey. In an instant, Ersatz’s body crumbled away into nothing.

“What the…”

Moana retracted herself in alarm as did Alexei.

Yulia, however, paid the occurrence no mind and drew near to Mladen. She placed a hand on his shoulder and pressed the odd knife to his chest. Her eyes were wide, and she seemed dazed. “Can you tell me if—”

Before she could finish the statement, Mladen ripped the knife out from her hands and stared at the thing in horror. “Broken!” Mladen shouted, running panicky fingers through his hair as he gripped the thing. “Terrible!”

“What in the—what’s wrong with him?” Alexei grimaced, skirting backwards.

“Maybe he has a concussion,” Moana murmured, inching closer with raised hands. “Where did you come fro—”

Mladen shook his head and his face twisted with frustration. “No. No concussion.” He held his head with his free hand and gripped the knife tightly. “Initiation. Faulty. Terrible.”

“And here I was hoping for a voice of reason from a peacekeeper…” Alexei muttered under his breath.

Something must have happened when he was stabbed with the knife, Atienna conjectured. The knife was most definitely a conductor. Perhaps manipulation? No, despite his erratic behavior, his actions were still comprehensible. Plus, he was still able to vocalize somewhat properly—an attribute not found in those who were manipulated. Besides, Ersatz was a Conjuror, not a Manipulator.

“Peacekeeper?” came Mladen’s questioning tone. “Peace? Syzygy?”

At the word, Atienna was immediately drawn out of her thoughts. She slowly lifted her gaze to Mladen who was now staring blankly at Alexei who was frowning back at him in confusion.

What…? Atienna thought. Why in the world did he say that word? No—how did he know it? Her mind spun round and round.

“Syzygy? Over?”

Before she could fully comprehend his words, she saw it. Rather, she saw them—their reactions. Cvetka’s eyes narrowed for a moment, while Yulia looked as if she had been slapped. Sigurd who had been quietly standing behind Alexei the entire time with an air of disinterest snapped her attention forward.

“That sounds familiar…” Louise murmured quietly from beside her as she tapped her chin. “Is that a peacekeeping word?”

What was this?

Atienna’s heart began to hammer wildly in her chest—but it was not unpleasant. Like the thrill right before stepping into the ring.

This already precarious situation had turned dangerous.


(    )

Sitting in the room without any windows and doors, the one known as Theta slowly shut their book. A smile touched their lips—

“Let’s begin.”


8.4: Maria’s Capture (Fuga)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

Maria has a bounty on her head, but she is not concerned with it. Instead, she has focused her attention on retrieving a package she is to deliver to the Campanas from Pisces. Upon arrival at Pisces, however, she has discovered that the package holder Elele has been murdered by the bounty hunters after her head and that the package is now missing. Maria thus begins a hunt for the bounty hunters, while Conta’s aloofness weights on the back of her mind. Her mysterious new crew member Ley also seems to know more than she’s letting on. Amongst everything, there is a tale swirling around about a “beast of the deep”. 

Hapaira, Pisces

“We’ve been on this so-called hunt for over three days now, Captain,” Morandi grumbled from where he sat at the foot of the steps. “This isn’t looking good. If the Campanas were to…”

“Nonsense, my dear Morandi!” Maria laughed, wiggling her bare toes and feeling the smooth stone beneath her feet. She reached down into the river which ran up to her thighs, cupped a puddle of it in her arms, and then flung it in Morandi’s direction.

Ley and Simon who were seated to his left managed to leap away just before the wave of water crashed onto shore, but Morandi and the others at his right were not as lucky and were barraged by the torrent.

“Captain!” came the shouts of exasperation.

Morandi sighed before he pulled off his shirt and wrung it over the river and laid it out on one of the steps to dry.

Maria had discovered this waterway during one of their many searches for the bounty hunters. The water here was crystalline making the rock bed beneath it visible to the naked eye. The rush of the river was barely audible, and the entire thing was bordered by a pair of short staircases that ran along its length. Beyond the stairs on the left was a strip of empty, small, and colorful brick buildings; and beyond the stairs to the right was a patchwork of marshy overgrowth.

Upon their arrival, Maria had staked a claim on the land and labeled it as hers. Simon had informed her that it wouldn’t be possible for her to claim the land legally to which Maria had responded with “that’s why we do it not legally, no?” That had all been in good jest, of course. There was no way she would trap this piece of gorgeous land under her title. Something as beautiful as this deserved to be free and unclaimed. In a sense. It was still hers, of course. If anyone would dare to defile it, she would show them the terror that was the Golden Beast.

“I wonder what is taking my dear Giorgio so long?” Maria sighed as she ran her hand along the surface of the water. “He is surprisingly energetic when it comes to this stuff, yes?” She recalled Giorgio’s excitement when they’d first found this river. He had floundered around with her, kicking up the water with his feet.

“He’s a river boy at heart,” Morandi explained as he picked up a stray stone and tossed it into the river. “His village—before it was attacked by ELPIS—was renowned for its fishing industry. He’s practically married to any flowing body of water. It’s a bit of a strange interest, now that I think about it.”

Married, hm?

Maria paused in her play to glance over her shoulder. Sitting on the steps at the opposite side of the river was Conta. The woman stared at Maria with a blank expression which deepened into a frown when Maria wadded across the river to join her.

“What are you looking at my dear, Conta?” Maria asked, falling to a crouch in the stream in front of her so they were at eye level. “I was looking for you earlier, you know? Usually, you are already one step behind me, but this time I had to go in search of you! It’s fun to switch things up from time to time, yes?”

Conta averted her gaze. “I suppose, Captain.”

Maria chuckled lightly, resting her chin on her knees. “You know, it is strange. I am actually sort of glad that you are mad at me, Conta. It’s more funny than strange, actually? I mean…” She paused to stare at Conta’s reflection in the rippling water. “It is from that distance that I truly realize how much you mean to me.”

Conta’s reflection stiffened, and her eyes narrowed. “Captain, I…”

Maria beamed and popped her head up. “Even though I say that, I still hope that your next words are going to be ‘I am no longer upset with you.’ I truly did not mean to say that—” Maria paused, rose, and turned around.

Giorgio was coming along the strip of trodden land lining the stairs at the opposite side of the river. In his hands was a brown bag which looked full of food. A gift from Raul, probably. The chef had decided he felt comfortable enough not accompanying Maria several days ago and had returned to the ship to continue his cooking duties. Since the stores and stalls dotting the pier were still devoid of people, it was not so hard to raid them for food ingredients. In fact, it had been rather boring. But Raul was happy with that so Maria supposed it was fine.

Maria drifted back across the river and popped up back onto the stairs on the opposite side just as Giorgio came down the stairwell. When she approached him, he flinched away from her while holding the brown bag of food high above his head.

“Captain! Captain!” Giorgio stammered. “The food! You’re dripping wet!”

Maria neared him still, placing one finger to her lips as she reached for something at his belt. “You said you sleep with a knife, my dear Giorgio, but I see you have started carrying it with you all times! You are starting to get the hang of me being your captain, yes?”

“Wha—”

Maria plucked the knife from his side, flipped it and caught it by the tip of its blade, before hurtling in the direction of one of the buildings behind him. The knife whistled through one of the open windows—a sound followed by a loud grunt and then a thud.

Maria brushed past the others and headed to the building she had sent the knife into. She leapt in through the window and landed deftly on the wooden floor inside. There was a trail of blood there leading to the corner of the room, and within that corner resided a panting man who was clutching his left arm. He was tall and dark with bottle green eyes. He tensed as Maria approached him.

Her gaze flicked to his sides. No weapons.

Wait. Had she gotten the wrong person?

Pay attention. Observe.

Her gaze drifted to the man’s wound—rather, the hand clutching the wound. And then she smiled. This was definitely the right person. What was it that Cadence always said? ‘Bingo.’

“You are not a very good spy, yes?” Maria asked, reaching forward and wrapping her fingers around the hilt of the knife that protruded from his arm. “I could see you following my dear Giorgio from far away, my friend.”

The man’s bandaged hand gripped his wound and what little of the blade protruded from his arm. He was evidently missing several fingers.

Without hesitation, Maria ripped the knife out from his arm and watched as the man yelped and slid to the ground with a groan.

That’s terrible.

Not really.

Maria fell into a crouch in front of the man and tapped the knife at his cheek. “What exactly were you doing, my friend, following Giorgio like that?” She smiled and pressed the edge of the knife against the man’s face. “Mm… that’s not the right question. The right question is what were you planning to do to my dear Giorgio?”

Gritting his teeth, the man remained silent.

“You see, I have lost quite a few things recently, and I’ve been starting to think that the feeling of losing things is not fun, yes? So this is important to me, do you understand?”

Again, silence.

“Hm. How about this? One of my friends likes reading books, you see,” Maria continued. “There is one book she read—it is quite funny—where this one character who was a cannibal, yes? He ate other people and was able to get their memories from eating them. It was a horror story, but I found it very funny. ” She leaned in close and whispered into the man’s ears: “Shall I give it a try?”

“Captain!”

Maria turned her head and found Ley, Morandi, Simon, and Giorgio storming into the room behind her. While Simon, Giorgio, and Morandi came in through the door, Ley leapt in through the window and was at Maria’s side at an instant.

Ley’s gaze flicked from the knife in Maria’s hands to the wounded man. Her eyes then narrowed from above her magenta mask, and she sank to the floor beside Maria while placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Do you mind if I try a crack at it, Captain?” Ley asked, voice barely muffled. “I used to be called a villain back in the day, so I’m sure that I might get some more out of him with just a little less loss of appendages.”

Maria considered Ley’s proposal for a moment before she nodded and peeled away from the bounty hunter’s side. Ley took her place, falling into a crouch in front of him.

“Where are your bounty hunting pals?” Ley asked after either a yawn or a sigh. “You came alone even after you saw her tear through you guys that other night. That doesn’t seem like a very bounty hunter-like thing for you to do.”

The nameless bounty hunter glowered, but something else flickered in his eyes. What was that look? Pain—a different one than physical. That pain was of someone who had lost—

“Piscese bounty hunters don’t tend to operate in groups so I was pretty surprised when I saw you guys working together.” Ley yawned again, rubbing the tears out of her eyes. “Sorry. Tired. Anyway, that’s a pretty murderous vibe you’ve got there in your eyes. Makes me wonder if the bounty is all that’s on your mind.”

The flicker in the man’s eyes sparked into a flame and he launched himself up at Maria only to be swept to the ground by Ley who had kicked her feet beneath his own. He hit the ground with a thud and then went limp.

Ley swore under her breath and reached over to check the man’s pulse. “He’s just passed out.” She glanced at Maria. “We could use a Transmutationist if you’ve got one.” She gestured to his bleeding arm. “It’s not deep, but what do I know?”

“You really know how to take the reins, huh, my dear Ley?” Maria chuckled before she glanced over her shoulder at Simon. “No Transmutationists here!”

Ley shrugged and began to search the man’s clothing. She paused and pulled out something from the folds of his shirt. It looked like a keychain. A rather cute one of a blue mini surfboard. “Either a lead or a dead end.”

Maria hummed.

“It might be too good to be true,” Ley drew, “but there was that surfboard shop we passed by earlier.” She tossed the item to Maria. “Surfboard. Water. The Elementalist. The beast of the deep. Bounty hunters. The package. There’s too many coincidences.”

Maria inspected the keychain before swinging it by the ring around the point of her knife. “So the surfboard store is the way to go, yes?” She threw it up in the air, caught it, pocketed it.

Ley rose to her feet. “That seems the case. I think we should wait until princess here wakes up before we check it out though—”

“No, you will all stay here while I go now,” Maria said, wiping the knife off on her shirt. She twirled it around as she approached Giorgio who was hovering by the doorway and slid the thing back into his belt. “If there really is a beast out there, then it only makes sense for another beast to face it, no?”

***

Oddly enough, excitement was not brewing in Maria’s chest as she wove her way back through the colorful town of Hapaira. Instead, an emotion that was a bit unfamiliar to her was growing there. She couldn’t quite place a finger on it, but it was quite unpleasant—tying her stomach into knots.

At a fork in the red brick road beneath one of the town’s infamous arches, Maria paused to look left and then right. “I don’t remember which way to go…”

Left.

It was Werner!

She looked around but could not see him.

Wait—

He sounded unhappy.

Unhappiness has nothing to do with this. I am advising you to think your actions through thoroughly. Going into an unknown location without the proper support is—

Maria laughed, feeling the odd knot in her stomach lessen. “Do not worry, Werner, I am strong, and I will never die.” She turned down the left path and began to wind down the narrow stone walkway there.

Everyone dies, came Werner’s thought. You should refrain from speaking out lou—

“Not me.” Maria hummed as she continued onwards. “And not you. We won’t die.” Ever. “I won’t let you.”

She reached the surfboard store not so soon after. It looked the same as before with bright colorful surfboards lining its front and seashell trinkets hanging from its extended roof. It was a very open store with its shutter door pulled all the way up to allow in sunlight. Upon closer inspection, however, Maria noticed that behind all of those displays at the very back wall was a small and narrow blue door.

After a moment of consideration, she reached out and pushed over one of the upright boards decorating the front. It crashed into the surfboard behind it which knocked into another surfboard—all in a domino crescendo. The crashes echoed through the silence surrounding her for a moment but quietness reigned in a beat after.

Hm. No one was coming through the door. That was a bit boring.

She was crazy.

“Oh, Ollie!” Maria greeted him and threw her hands up in the air. She looked around but she could not see him either. She didn’t mind it though, as the knot in her stomach disappeared completely leaving her feeling light and pleasant as always. “Are you here to join me on this adventure?”

‘Course he is, doll. It’s hard ta ignore that kinda spirit, came Cadence’s voice drifting down into her thoughts. I was wonderin’ why I couldn’t stop shakin’ my leg. Turns out your excitement is just that infectious.

Cadence was here too! Well, that was wonderful. All that was needed was Atienna and Jericho, and it would just be like the synchronization meeting minus all the long boring talk.

“Well, onwards we go!” Maria cheered.

Wait—

Maria paced up to the narrow blue door at the back of the store. When she pulled it open, she found a staircase descending downwards. While the path down was entirely pitch black, she could see a very faint light glowing from the bottom. Without skipping a beat, she dashed down the stairwell. When she reached the floor below, she found herself standing in a very small room lit only by a single v-bulb that swung from the ceiling. But—

Maria could feel Olive pale immediately with fear, disgust, and horror. She could even feel the chill that ran up his spine. It was an unfamiliar sensation to her.

How awful….

It was Atienna, and with her came a wave of apprehension and worry. Something weighed down in Maria’s chest at Atienna’s thought. An uncomfortable weight.

There were bodies everywhere in front of them. Bodies on top of bodies. Bodies drooping over the small circular tables that dotted the space. Red staining into the wood.

Ignoring Olive and Atienna’s apprehension, Maria continued forward and glanced around. These were most definitely some of the bounty hunters that came at her the previous week. This was definitely peculiar.

Maybe they all killed each other, Cadence suggested. Like a shootout. Bang, bang.

Why would they do such a thing? Atienna pondered.

Bounty greed? Cadence tried. I mean, they are after the money.

Atienna seemed to think about this deeply. As strong and as terrifying desire is, it’s a bit strange that they would all be cooperating with another only to turn on another so suddenly, isn’t it? Even though they haven’t obtained what they’ve come for…

Well, when ya put it that way…

Intuition. The same weapon was used to kill all of them. It was Jericho, solidifying before Maria’s eyes with absolute clarity. He was crouched down inspecting one of the bodies. It was riddled with fist-shaped holes as was the body beside it. They have similar markings. Not a shootout. One person.

Werner solidified beside him as well and gave a firm nod. I would say that a Projector did this, but these markings seem different. He gestured to a woman draped across one of the tables. She had a hole drilled straight through her forehead. Look at the singe marks of the exit holes. It’s too controlled and clean.

The one who killed your package holder Elele. Jericho nodded. “That person was an Elementalist. This is another party.”

Maybe it’s another bounty hunting group, Cadence reasoned. Killin’ off competition. And Mr. Fingerless there thought it was you, so that’s why he went after ya alone. Kinda weird for a bounty hunter though. Never thought they’d be the type for camaraderie.

Was this really about Maria’s bounty? Atienna thought. I know you have quite a strong personality, Maria, and you draw attention everywhere you go, but it’s a bit strange that the bounty hunters knew exactly where you would be… plus, we still don’t know the chronology of these events. If one event is moved slightly out of order then…

That’s a valid point, Atienna, Werner agreed.

Wow, ya both are risin’ detectives ain’t ya? Cadence snickered. Gonna give Jericho a run for his money—

‘Run for my money’—what does that—

It’s awful, came Olive’s abrupt thought.

Jericho and Werner exchanged looks.

Don’t get me wrong. Olive continued, hesitant. I get that they’re out for Maria and that they’re dangerous. But when you talk about them like that, it’s like they’re not even human. A pause. These were people.

Olive… Atienna began.

Maria noticed something black flicker out of the corner of her eye. “Hey, what’s that?”

Sitting in the back corner of the room was a polished black crate that reminded Maria of one of the fancy cabinets she had stolen from a Cancerian estate several months prior. Surrounding it was a ring of corpses—some still clutching what appeared to be conductors, knives, and guns.

Ignoring the hesitation she felt curling in her chest, she strode over to the crate and popped the lid open. The interior was lined with bright pink padding, and it was filled with silk white pillows and stuffed animals.

It looks almost like a coffin… that is a bit ominous, don’t you think?

Looks like a good place ta take a nap. The container looks kinda familiar though—

There was a creak from behind Maria.

Hm.

Maria kicked up a knife that one of the corpses was holding, caught it, and spun around slashing. The figure that was standing behind her, however, ducked backwards from the swing and missed it by a hair’s breadth.

Oh! Maria thought as she studied the person. That is sort of impressive—

“Geeze, Captain. It’s just me.”

It was Ley, standing with her hands held up in the air.

“Wow,” Maria hummed, lowering the knife in surprise. “You are quite skilled, Ley!”

Skilled or creepy? Olive thought. There’s a difference.

I’m the one who’s skilled?” Ley chuckled, straightening herself and adjusting her scarf mask.

“What are you doing here?” Maria asked. “I said to stay behind, yes?”

Ley opened her mouth to speak but was cut off by another voice coming from behind—

“Who’s there?”

Maria cocked her head. Ley’s gaze focused on a point behind her. Following that gaze, Maria turned around.

There was something beneath one of the tables over which two corpses were draped. Rather, it was a someone. A person who was huddled there on all fours. After a beat of silence, that person crawled forward from out beneath the table and rose to a stand.

There was alarm from Werner, Olive, and Atienna’s end but Maria herself was simply curious because—

—standing amongst the corpses was a girl no older than twelve. Her skin was a pale white which was only several shades lighter than the milky white of her eyes. The colors contrasted with her dark brown hair which was graced with a red bow. The bow itself reminded Maria of the ones that would be placed on top of her birthday presents back at the orphanage.

The girl turned her milky eyes in their direction.

“Are you here to pick me up for Mr. Campana?” the girl asked, brushing off her wonderfully expensive-looking sequined blue dress before crossing her arms with a huff. “I’ve been waiting all day, you know?”


Twin Cities, Gemini

Swallowing, Matilda pressed down on the folds of her dress and checked her reflection on the window to her left. Her hair wasn’t as dolled up as it had been that night at the Romanos-Foxman meeting, and so it frizzed out like a lion’s mane. Her butterfly shaped birthmark seemed even more prominent beneath the dim v-lights of the cafe, and she couldn’t help but nervously pick at the chipping wood of the table in front of her. It wasn’t her fault, really. She hadn’t been expecting this meeting at all.

“What’s wrong?”

Matilda startled and turned forward as her invitee slipped back into the seat across from her. She stared down at her hands. “Uh, nothing, I…”

“You seem nervous.” A chuckle that sounded off. “There’s no need to be.”

“Right,” Matilda said nervously, toying with a thread that was coming loose at the bottom of her skirt, “so why… did you… erm—”

“Do you… want to leave the city?”

Matilda froze and looked up.

The man was dressed in a black turtleneck sweater which was much different than his normal wear, but his easy smile was familiar.

Matilda’s mind raced. What was he saying? Why was he saying it? Did he want her to leave the city? Was she not doing a good enough job with her group? “Why would I want to do that? I mean, I wouldn’t find a better opportunity than this here…”

“Opportunity?” The smile began to slide from his face.

“I mean, even if I left the city, where would I go?” Matilda tried. “I’m not even sure I’ll be able to even go anywhere. I don’t think I’m on any records. And records are important, right? I mean, I know people who left the city trying to make a name for themselves, but they end up coming back here with even less than before. This is the only place for people like me.”

There was a pause. The chatter of those around them reached Matilda’s ears. It was worse than silence.

“I see. If you look at it that way, I can see how you would want to stay forever,” he said quietly. “You are very well-spoken, Matilda.”

Matilda found herself flushing at this, and she didn’t quite know why. She was never like this around him usually. She cleared her throat. “Thank you, but can I ask why you’re asking, Mr. F—”

Her voice caught in her throat, and it took her a moment to find her words again:

“A-Are you… is everything okay…?”

“You really are well spoken…” The man gently rubbed the wetness from his eyes. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask. Have you come across anything strange with the items you’ve been delivering?”

The question was so odd that Matilda for a moment forgot the man’s tears. “What do you mean?”

“Items that maybe aren’t conductors or conductor parts is what I’m referring to.”

Matilda shook her head. “Were we missing some of the items we handed off? I know some of the recent deliveries haven’t made it to the drop-off locations, but I already explained everything to you…”

The man remained silent for a moment, turning to look out the window. “Your current occupation is very dangerous,” he drew, “and it’s going to become even more dangerous soon. You should leave. I’m sure the children working under you have already started to voice their dissent.”

Matilda stiffened. “I-I can take care of them. I don’t know why some of the others acting up suddenly and quitting, but I can always look for others. There’s a lot of kids like me on the street looking for some cens so—” Her voice caught in her throat again as she registered the gaze that the man fixated upon her. Something about it was unnerving. Unnatural. “Is there something wrong?”

“The only thing chaining you to your circumstances is yourself,” he murmured, rising to a stand, “and if you can’t break those chains yourself then allow me to destroy your circumstances.” He tossed a handful of cens onto the table and turned to leave. “As I’ve said, you should leave.”

Scattered among the Geminian Cens that were still clattering back and forth on the table were a handful of strange black and white game pieces imprinted faintly with the shapes of stars.


8.3: Werner’s Diligence (Rilassamento)

Re-cap:

The dominoes are beginning to fall.

First Lieutenant Waltz was out near the southern Argoan border when he was overridden by Olive. Given Argo’s sudden obtainment of conductors, Werner is sent along with several of his men (Kleine, Gilbert, Bergmann, and Stein) and Nico to the Twin Cities of Gemini to initiate a new deal. Waiting for them there is Colonel Fritz von Spiel, the main negotiator.  

Twin Cities, Gemini

The train ride to the Twin Cities was uneventful. The passage required two stops to switch train cars. One stop was at a medium-sized town in Pisces, and the second was at an outpost on the border Leo shared with Gemini. Due to the sizable distance between northeast Gemini and southern Capricorn, the traversal period not including rest stops took 36 hours, 15 minutes, and six seconds.

As soon as the train docked into the station on the Dioscuri Bridge of the Twin Cities, Werner became synchronized with Morello. Rather, she synchronized with him. An 80 percent value of synchronization: her form was present and her environment was in his mind’s eye. Her excitement was on par with Maria’s regular emotional state: energized. 

“So what are ya gonna visit first here?” Cadence asked as he unloaded his belongings from the overhead compartments. “I recommend the Gamma Geminorium. It’s buffet style but the good kind. It’s got a great pasta bar and even better wine bar. I’d recommend the Casa de Bambolle, but you don’t seem like the type to like that kinda stuff if ya know what I mean.”

I am here strictly for business, Morello, Werner informed her. You should be more concerned about the issues on your end. 

He had already informed Nico that their meeting would most likely be delayed. He did not inform Nico of the reason why as it was irrelevant, and Nico didn’t need to be bothered by that information. Gilbert was overly pleased with the fact. “More vacation time,” he’d said. Since Gilbert was not to be involved with the negotiations, the delay didn’t seem to bother him at all. 

“Saints, Lieutenant,” Cadence sighed as she accompanied him off the train, “you’re in sin city. Ya gotta indulge at least a little bit.”  

I’m not interested in such things, Werner returned. It took him a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness outside of the compartment, but it did not take long. The faint orange glow from the skyline provided an agreeable light. If he had not known the exact hour and if this had been the first time he’d seen this city, he would have thought that the light was emanating from a sunrise. He knew, however, that the glow was from the city lights beneath the bridge.

Cadence did not respond.

The synchronization had been cut off it seemed. That was fine. If the subject were truly important, Cadence would attempt a resynchronization at all costs. 

His men had already boarded off the train and were crowded around the railings of the bridge that oversaw the glittering city and river below.

He had seen it all before through the memories that had trickled down from Cadence and Jericho these past few months. There was no need to admire it again, although he was quite impressed with the architecture of the buildings and the networking of the sidewalks and streets. Geminian architecture was something to marvel at. A perfect balance of practicality and aesthetic. 

And so he drew out his pocket watch, allowed five minutes to tick by, and then addressed his men curly, “The colonel arrived two hours before us. He will have already checked in at the hotel and is waiting for our arrival. Let’s not make him wait longer.”

The only one who voiced protest was Gilbert. The only one who appeared relieved was Nico. The latter had been quiet since they had arrived and had looked out at the cityscape rather sullenly. 

As they wound their way down the long stretching staircase to the bottom of the city, Werner was able to taste for himself the soot from nearby manufacturing plants and salt from the nearby seaport. It was unpleasant. 

The crowded walkways were also unpleasant. Every so often a passerby would brush past him, eye his uniform, and either glare or stare. The stores, however, were pleasant enough. There were several passatier shops dotting this strip, each one with a display case more extravagant than the next. Competition was high, Werner conjectured. And since everything was judged based on appearance it was best to be as eye-catching as possible. 

There were also unsupervised children running amuck everywhere. They scurried around the sides of buildings, ducked underneath the swinging arms of passersby, and snickered to one another as they bumped into adults.  

Pickpockets. Taking advantage of tourists. 

The adolescents among them were more reserved, watching the ongoing from afar. 

Pickpocket ring leaders. Street rats—orphans. 

Werner frowned. But this was not any concern of his. He was here for one purpose and one purpose only. Regardless of how minuscule that purpose seemed, he would follow through with his duty. 

“Wait for me!” came a desperate plea that was nearly drowned out by the bustle of the crowd. 

Werner turned his head as a warm haze swept over him. 

A child with an unruly mop of black curls was weaving his way through a cluster of pedestrians behind him. The boy managed to squeeze past a plump woman and a skeleton-bone thin and broke out onto a clear area on the sidewalk. 

“Francis! Fortuna!” the boy cried as he dashed past Werner. “Cadence, wait!”

Werner felt his blood run cold.

The boy in question tripped over his own two shoes and face planted onto the ground. Hesitantly, Werner approached the boy as the latter rose to his feet and began dusting himself off. Werner reached for the boy’s shoulder—

—and a fully grown Nico Fabrizzio turned back to face him. 

“Werner?” Nico asked. “What it was?”

Head pounding, Werner removed his hand from the man’s shoulder. “It’s nothing.”

*** 

When they arrived at the Abaccio Hotel, they were greeted by a polite bellhop who escorted them to the fifth floor which hosted their rooms. After unpacking their things in their respective rooms, Werner ordered everyone to gather in the lobby of their floor. 

When he made it back down to the lobby room, Werner found Gilbert, Bergmann, and Stein already clustered near the window opposite the fireplace. Nico hadn’t joined them and instead seated himself at the grand piano that was set just off-center from a  fireplace crackling alongside the left side wall.

Was he late? 

Werner checked his pocket watch. 

He was on time. 

Which meant that he was late. 

“Werner, come check this out,” Gilbert called from the window, “they activated the v-lights on the Dioscuri Bridge. You can barely see it from here, but it’s amazing.”

Werner declined the offer and sat down beside Nico. He glanced at the keys, feeling a familiar itch. 

“Everyone marvels at the city when they first arrive,” came a voice from behind the piano. “Do take your time to take in the sights. I’ve also furnished your rooms with the best this hotel has to offer, so even if you’re not the type to go out and sightsee, you’ll be able to enjoy the comfortably equivalent to Ariesian royalty.”

Werner peered over the piano. 

A pale man with perfectly combed dirty blonde hair stood there in front of the hearth. He was dressed in a blemishless white, long-sleeved blouse fitted over with a pin-striped vest. One hand was in his pocket, and the other was holding an expensive-looking cigar. Despite the formal dress and lack of uniform, Werner recognized him immediately. 

“Colonel Fritz von Spiel.” Werner greeted the man with a salute after rising to a stand. 

The others clustered by the window straightened themselves and offered salutes. As per usual, Stein’s and Gilbert’s salutes were loose and half-hearted. Gilbert even gave him a once over. 

“No need to do that formality here.” Fritz waved them off as he approached Werner and offered him a handshake. “This is vacation time, right?” He nodded at the four gathered by the window. “Those who work the hardest and prove themselves should be rewarded, isn’t that right, Werner?”

Werner accepted the gesture. “Of course, sir.”

Fritz took a puff of his cigar and hummed. Gesturing to those gathered at the window, he said, “I’m sure you’re all famished. Well, don’t worry. I’ve reserved our dinner at a particularly luxurious location. The Geminorium Gama—have you ever heard of it?”

The restaurant owned by the Foxman Family. 

***

The Geminorium Gamma was as presentable on the inside as it was on the outside. Chandeliers painted the white walls of the room in a golden light, and the round tables were spaced perfectly equidistant to each other. 

It was—as Cadence had said—a buffet-style restaurant. The food lines took up the entire left wall while the right wall was occupied by a large stage. On that stage performed an orchestral ensemble of sharply dressed men and women. 

It was a pleasant melody. 

Werner and the other soldiers were placed swiftly at a table at the room’s center. 

The colonel was seated to Werner’s left, Nico to his right, and Gilbert to the latter’s left. Bergmann was seated in between Kleine and Stein and was giving Stein a look of contempt as the latter attempted to throw a light-hearted joke in Kleine’s direction. It appeared as if Stein was earnestly trying to spark camaraderie with Kleine for whatever reason, and Bergmann was doubtful. However, Stein’s friendliness was understandable. Kleine had proved himself in the past several months, after all. 

Kleine…

Light conversation about recent military achievements began as a waitress brought them glasses of water. 

“Bring us your most expensive wine,” Fritz said with a laugh as he looped an arm around her waist. “We’re here to celebrate!” 

The waitress flushed and then nodded before heading off to comply with the request. She returned a minute later with the requested items and departed just as quickly. 

They were receiving stares from fellow restaurant-goers who were evidently marveling at their uniforms and who were intrigued by Fritz’s demeanor. A celebration, Fritz had called it. In regards to the Argo’s development, this was anything but a celebration, but appearances needed to be kept. 

“Why don’t Bergmann, Kleine, and you go get a head start on the food,” Fritz said, addressing Stein who had just concluded his tale of how he’d taken out an entire squadron of Argoans on his own with a normal sniper rifle. “I want to hear a story from Wolff now. That one about the Aquarians on Zeigenberg Ridge.”

Gilbert was visibly disgruntled and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s not a very interesting story.”

“Everything is interesting if you know how to make it interesting.” Fritz chuckled. “Of course, that requires the right skill set.”

What a douch—

Werner shook his head, dispelling the thought before it finished. Kleine was gazing at him curiously and quickly looked away when Werner made eye contact. Ruffling his hair, he quickly departed the table and was followed by Stein and Bergmann. 

Gilbert watched them go longingly. 

This left the table to Werner himself, Colonel von Spiel, Nico, and Gilbert. 

“Second Lieutenant Wolff, you would be aware of our true purpose here in the city, correct?” Fritz inquired, reaching for his glass of wine. 

Gilbert tore his eyes with great difficulty away from the buffet line and gave a half-shrug, half-nod. “The issue about the modified conductors, right? With Nico and that one organization?” He glanced somewhat tiredly around the table. “I might know about it, but I’ve got nothing to do with it so I hope you’re not gonna ask me to attend some meeting, sir.” 

“Of course not, Gilbert. You’re free to enjoy yourself, but I thought you’d appreciate information on what’s been going on.”

Gilbert shrugged again. 

“Our meeting with the Romano and Foxman organization has been rescheduled to next week,” Fritz informed them as he swirled the glass and took a sip. “So we’ll be here for a slightly lengthier period of time than planned.” He locked eyes with Nico. “Mr. Fabrizzio, do you happen to know the reason why?”

Nico stiffened. “I honestly have no idea why this happened. I’m as confused as you, Mr. von Spiel.”

“And you’re the liaison?” A scoff. 

“I…” Nico faltered and made eye contact with Werner. 

“If this was a recent development, sir,” Werner interjected, knowing that it was, “then I believe it’s not out of the ordinary for him to be unaware of the situation. We arrived only an hour and forty-five minutes ago.”

Fritz took a sip of his wine, seeming to gauge Werner carefully. “Yes, it was rather recent. My sincere apologies, Mr. Fabrizzio, I don’t mean to be rude.”

Nico waved him off with a sheepish chuckle. “No, it’s all—”

“Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise?” The question was paired with a musical laugh. 

Werner’s head pounded at the sound. 

A shadow spilled over their table, and Nico’s eyes lit up instantly. 

“Francis!” Nico shot up to a stand, nearly knocking over his glass of wine. 

Werner caught it before it spilled and ruined the table cloth and exchanged a look with Gilbert who was arching a brow. He then turned his attention to the man who was now the focus of the attention of the table. 

Francis Foxman stood across from them. He was dressed in his usual dark maroon suit, crisp and clean, and the dark circles under his eyes had lessened somewhat. 

“It’s good to see you, Nico,” the man said, rounding the table to Nico’s side and giving him a pat on the side of the arm. “You look well. Unfortunately, Carl and Allen are caught up with their usual hobbies right now so they won’t be seeing you this week.”

A nauseating sensation of deja vu throttled his mind, and his stomach began to somersault. Paired with it came a lightheadedness that made the room spin. The words Francis and Nico were exchanging became muffled, indiscernible. 

What was this?

Werner hadn’t felt this way since the incident at the Aquarian-Capricornian border. He clenched his fists beneath the table and kept his expression stolid as he tried to get a hold of himself. Eventually, the nausea lessened and he forced himself to focus on the conversation. 

Francis was now addressing the colonel: “Mr. von Spiel, I hope you and your fellow men are finding everything to your tastes. On behalf of Mr. Romano and my brothers, I apologize for the delay. We are happy to provide you with anything you need during your extended stay.”

Right. The crime organizations were trying to keep the conditions of the dons quiet. This most likely meant not only the colonel but Nico too was going to be intentionally kept in the dark about the affair. And that was fine

“Feel free to speak openly, Mr. Foxman. Everyone here has knowledge of our business relations,” Fritz said, waving him off. “And there’s no need to apologize. Things happen.”

“I see.” Francis offered a pleasant and courteous nod to the others gathered at the table. “While I understand that may be the case, we may not know who’s listening. For professionalism’s sake as well as both of our sakes, I think it’d be best if we discussed these types of things privately.”

“Francis, are you feeling alright?” Nico interjected as he inspected his friend’s face. “You look pale. Have you been getting enough sleep?”

Francis cleared his throat loudly. “I’m fine, Nico. It really is good to see you again, but I think it’d be better if we caught up personally at some later time.”

Nico faltered. “Right…”

Kleine returned to the table with two large plates of lobster and looked between Francis and the colonel in confusion. 

“Well, I’ll leave you to enjoy your dinner then,” Francis said, giving Nico one last cuff on the shoulder before he departed. “Please do enjoy.”

Werner gazed at Francis’s back as the man departed, and his head began to pound once more. There were no other sounds besides that pound, pound, pound. 

A hand on his back startled him. Nico—smiling cheerfully just before an expression of concern took over his features. As always. His nostalgic expression, however, did nothing but exacerbate the pounding in Werner’s head. He excused himself from the table and made his way to the bathroom that he knew from Cadence’s memories was located at the back of a restaurant down a brightly lit hallway. 

He entered the farthest stall, removing his gloves as he entered and pocketing them. He sat on the closed seat, leaning forward as he placed a hand over his face. The roughness of his bare palms was unpleasant, but it brought him focus. 

The pounding began to subside. 

The door to the bathroom squeaked open abruptly, and someone entered. Werner did not hear them move towards the stalls which caused him to tense. He rose from his seat before quietly pushing open the stall. 

The colonel was hunched over the sink, knuckles white as he gripped the basin’s edges. His hard gaze was fixated on his reflection in the mirror. The intensity in his eyes matched that of someone who was ready to shoot someone down on the battlefield.

His lips were moving.

“It’s okay,” Fritz whispered to himself. “It’ll be okay. Everything will work out.” His gaze drifted to the basin of the sink. His eyes were wide, and he appeared to be staring at something deep down the drain. “No. Think, you fool. If you don’t come to your senses, you’ll fall apart.”

He’s crazy. 

Crazy stressed maybe.

Fritz locked eyes with Werner through the reflection in the mirror and whipped around immediately. 

There was a beat of silence.

“Are you feeling alright, sir?” Werner asked. 

Fritz cleared his throat. “I’m still getting used to the air in this city. I’m from Cologart, you see. It’s very open there. The fumes from the capital don’t reach it, so I’m not accustomed to…” He waved his hand in the air. “…this suffocation.”

Douche. 

“I see, sir.” Werner approached the sink.

Fritz opened his mouth to speak but then closed it and headed out the door without another word. Werner stared after him for a moment before washing his hands. When he slipped his gloves on and stepped back out into the hall, he found the colonel leaning against the wall opposite and puffing a cigar. 

“Walk with me, Waltz.”

That’s usually the right signal ta skedaddle. 

“Of course, sir.”

Instead of walking out through the entrance, however, Fritz led Werner through the back door of the establishment. The waiters and waitresses threw them furtive looks, but Fritz silenced them with a handful of Geminian Cens. 

The night outside was cool and dark. The v-lights of the skyscrapers and stores were dimmed by either the smog or the clouds hanging low in the sky. The faint glow from the lights on the Dioscuri Bridge gave the clouded sky a hazy orange glow.  

In silence, they spilled out from the musty alleyway onto the open streets. It was less crowded now given the later hour. 

“Waltz, I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Fritz said calmly as they walked. 

“What is it, sir?”

“You were close to Ersatz, weren’t you?”

Werner answered without hesitation: “He was my superior.”

“Yes, on the Aquarian border and at the Argoan border before that,” Fritz continued. “I heard that he was the one who recommended you to be promoted to First Lieutenant.” 

“That is true, sir,”  Werner affirmed. “I detailed all of this information in my report regarding his misconduct.”

“Yes, a very thorough report. I read it,” the colonel noted, taking another puff of his cigar. “Detailed every single one of Ersatz’s points of misconduct and suspicious activities perfectly. You even recommended bi-annual screenings for enlisted officers which the capital is taking very seriously among other things.”

“Yes, sir. I thought that those were appropriate measures.”

Fritz hummed and twirled his cigar. “You’re thorough and dedicated—I’ll give you that, Waltz. ‘An exemplary soldier’ is what they’re throwing around at the capital. That must give your reputation and ego a power boost, no?”

“It’s my duty, sir.”

The colonel threw his head back and laughed, startling a rather familiar-looking Sagittarian man who passed them by. The man laughed along with the colonel for a beat before continuing on his way with a lighthearted whistle. Werner stared after the Sagittarian before he returned his attention to Fritz. 

“It’s like you’re cut out from one of the capital’s propaganda posters.” The colonel clapped his hands loudly, sending ash from his cigar onto the sidewalk. “Fantastic!”

‘Propaganda?’ 

Werner frowned. 

Abruptly, Fritz’s smile dropped from his face and he stopped in his tracks. “Ersatz didn’t happen to mention anything about any associates he may have been engaged with on our end, did he? You know if there’s one rat, there’s always more.”

“Everything I experienced was detailed in my report, sir,” Werner answered.

Fritz hummed at this and puffed his cigar again. “Always more rats…”

What the…

Werner studied Fritz from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t help but think that there was a pattern when it came to his superiors ranking higher than captain in that—

—they all had a couple of screws loose.

Frowning, Werner shook the disrespectful thought off. 

“By the way, since I have you here alone,” Fritz continued as they rounded the corner, “I would like to mention a recent development. The Romanos and the Foxmans are not the only organizations operating in this city who are selling valuable…” —There a pause and a strange expression flitted over his face. It disappeared as quickly as it came, however, so Werner was not able to dissect it— “…products. Products that may be of use to the Capricornian Army. No, products that will be of use to us.”

A v-ehicle passed them on the road to the left,  its headlights painting the colonel’s face white. 

“It’s taken quite some time for me to arrange it, but I’ve managed to set up a meeting with this organization. They are referred to as ‘the Campanas’.”

With the Campanas?

“Is there an issue, Waltz?”

It took a moment for Werner to realize he had spoken the grievance aloud. 

“No,  sir,” Werner returned curtly. “I wasn’t made aware of business with the Campanas, and I was merely surprised.” 

“So you’ve heard of them then.” Fritz hummed in response. “Anyway, they have a specialization different from the Romano Family. A more organic specialization, you could say. I was referred to them by an associate of mine.”

An associate? It couldn’t have been someone from the capital. The Geminian underground was more discrete than that. Perhaps it was the information from the information broker then—the one Cadence mentioned off-handedly sometimes. Astante, was it? But the colonel had mentioned only arriving in the city recently. He wouldn’t have been able to contact the information broker so soon, would he? Curious. 

Werner shook his head.

Atienna. 

“With the recent developments at the southern border, I think it’d be best practice to engage with the Campanas too. Really, your proposal about the Romano Family has opened many doors for Capricorn.”

When they made their round back to the restaurant, a commotion was unfolding just at the front. 

“We don’t want people like you in here disturbing our guests!”

Shouting such a thing in Geminian, a large, bulky waiter who was standing at the threshold of the entrance shoved an adolescent boy to the ground. The boy had been holding what appeared to be a board game and a bag full of game pieces, and so when he hit the ground, the game pieces scattered across the floor. 

“Get your shit and get out!”

The boy scrambled to his feet, gathering a handful of game pieces and bringing the game board close to his chest before dashing off teary-eyed. 

Much to Werner’s surprise, Fritz walked right up to the cluster of waiters and waitresses crowded at the front and addressed them in a cold voice: “What seems to be the problem? Throwing children around like that. Is that how Geminians operate?”

“Hey, we’re just doin’ our job. A bunch of kids just started making a ruckus outside the restaurant,” one of the waitresses explained in thickly accented Common, rolling her eyes. “Lookin’ for some person in the restaurant. Sounded like they were searching for their parents or somethin’ but they look like street rats, so I’m sure they’re just aimin’ to steal some scraps. Maybe they’re with Matilda’s gang.”

Fritz’s gaze darkened. “Gang?” 

“That’s quite an assumption to make, Miss Lane,” a voice replied from behind. 

It was Francis. He stepped out from the restaurant and parted the crowd with his presence.  

“Uh, Mr. Francis, I—”

“Maybe it’d be best for you to not speak so callously about things you most likely don’t understand,” Francis spoke calmly in Geminian but there was a dangerous glint in his eye. “You’re working for us, Miss Lane, and you represent us. Please take care not to tarnish our reputation.”

The waitress stammered wordlessly before she muttered an apology and headed back inside.  

“I’m sorry for the disturbance,” Francis said in Common, inclining his head in their direction when she had left. “I hope this doesn’t disrupt your evening too much. You are valued patrons, after all.”

The meaning was clear. 

“It would take more than that to ruin my day.” Fritz laughed and puffed his cigar again. The coldness that has gripped him earlier seemed to have folded away somewhere. 

“Hey, boss, look at this,” the bulky waiter who had thrown out the boy said, bending down to pick one of the fallen game pieces and tossing it to the younger Foxman brother. “Kids are playing all sorts of weird games these days. What do ya reckon this one is?”

Francis caught it and then inspected the piece with a raised brow. 

Werner blinked, and suddenly he too was holding one of the game pieces. It was circular and flat, somewhat resembling a checkerboard piece and a casino token. There was a faint imprint of a star on its surface, and at the center of the star was a strange singular character: ‘Θ’. 

He didn’t recognize it—

Theta. 

Werner turned his head. Jericho’s image was standing behind him. An override then. 

The peacekeeper glanced between Werner and the game piece. “Sorry. Accident.” Responsibility. 

It’s fine, Werner returned, as long as it doesn’t happen again. What was the reason? 

Unsure… 

Jericho flickered out of sight before he elaborated. 

The peacekeeper was peculiar. He was difficult to read in a way that was different from Cadence and Atienna. 

“Here, let me take that,” Francis said suddenly, hand extended. He was standing in front of Werner now wearing an easy smile. “I’ll throw it out for you.”

Werner’s head buzzed again and the pounding began to return. Without another word, he held the item for the man. 

After accepting the piece, Francis turned over it in hand and then pocketed it with a faint smile. 

***

It was near the weekend that they held their synchronization meeting. The week had comprised of his men and the colonel inviting him out to bars, casinos, and other Geminian attractions. Werner was not interested in such things, and so he declined a majority of the invitations. Out of courtesy and formality, he accepted the colonel’s invitations of dinner and breakfast only. 

Prior to the synchronization meeting, Werner made certain his hotel room door was locked and his windows were bolted before he attempted reaching out to the others. It took three attempts to bring all of them together.

Almost immediately upon their synchronization, Olive’s thoughts and recent memories crashed down like a waterfall. Werner had been vaguely aware of the prince’s whereabouts up to that point and had been synchronized enough to witness the prince’s encounter with the Sagittarian assassins earlier. The prince’s discussion with Yuseong, however, did not reach his knowledge until now. The other four appeared to be in the same circumstances. 

“There’s more of us?” Cadence looked around bewildered from where she stood at the corner of his room. After a beat, she shrugged her shoulders. “Well, that kinda validates Kleine there, doesn’t it? Not too hard ta believe. I mean, it’s a small world. Better that there’s more of us though, ya know?”

At the mention of Kleine’s name, Olive paled and guilt bled out through their connection. 

Atienna gave the prince a sympathetic look from where she rested at the foot of Werner’s bed before pondering out loud:  “So Claire says he is one of us, and he also believes this to be something akin to the Anima-Vitae Hypothesis.” She placed a hand on her chin and stared out of his window that opened up to the city nightlife. “But some of the points he mentioned do not match up with what we experienced.”

“The time frame between our transference of memory—for the lack of a better word—is notably different,” Werner agreed. 

Atienna thrummed her fingers along her cheek and hummed. “And then there is that ‘sense of self’ topic Claire seems to be fixated on.” She glanced at Werner briefly with a small smile. “What do you think?” 

“Different people experience different things,” Jericho stated, although it seemed more of a suggestion and a question. 

Maria abruptly reached out for the peacekeeper and pulled him in close to her. Jericho stared at her blankly as she guided him through a strange waltz that spanned the entire room. 

“This is amazing!” Maria laughed merrily as they spun round and round. “More True Conductors! My dears, this is exciting! I want to meet them all!” 

The wave of positivity was dizzying but Werner managed to hold onto his reason. After all—

“He literally said, ‘you can’t trust anyone,’’ Olive muttered, arching a brow at the spinning duo. 

Werner nodded. “This information indicates that we should be even more cautious moving forward. We need to keep an eye out for tother True Conductors who may be targeting us as well. Not just ELPIS alone.”

Jericho remained expressionless at the mention of ELPIS, despite having been released from the distraction that was and Maria’s dance.

“Seeing as how Wtorek and Major Ersatz were both indoctrinated into ELPIS at some point—manipulated or not—we cannot rely on those in authoritative positions unless we are completely certain they are not involved with that group.”

Cadence whistled. “Good ta hit your rebellious streak finally, Lieutenant.”

“This has—”

“Nothing ta do with rebellious streaks. Got it.”

Ignoring Cadence, Werner continued: “The unknowns that still remain are why we are being targeted, how to remove this connection, how this connection began, and how Agent Leona is involved in this. There is a possibility that she and the hostile True Conductors may also be involved with ELPIS, but that is merely an assumption as well and not a conclusion.”

“This is makin’ my head hurt,” Cadence complained, pulling off her hat. “Why can’t there just be one group after us? Why can’t life be easy?”

“‘That’s life’ is what people say,” Jericho answered her rhetorical question.

Cadence smiled wanly. “Thanks, detective.”

“And then there is the syzygy that Claire seems to not be unaware of…” Atienna murmured after giving the two a fond smile. “And it is a bit strange that people like us have been around for quite some time and Ophiuchus hasn’t noticed, isn’t it?” 

There was a beat of silence. 

“For the time being, we should try our best not to be in physical proximity with one other,” Werner finally said. “So far, Chance and Jericho have made contact as have Jericho and Morello. Morello and I are in the same area, but we should try to be as uninvolved with each other as possible.”

“Got it, Lieutenant.” Cadence saluted. “And what about the prince?” She glanced at Olive. “The other one, I mean.” 

“Prince Yuseong is a viable source of information,” Werner said in thought, “but you should be cautious too, Chance. He says that there are people that are not trustable, but there’s nothing separating him from that group.” 

The prince stiffened from where he stood beside Atienna and nodded as he avoided Werner’s gaze. “I know…” 

“Can I just quickly ask,” Cadence said suddenly, whirling around, “why in saint’s name do crazy things happen to us all at once? Like can’t we take turns goin’ through stuff? I mean, it’s fun and all—keeps me on my toes—but ya gotta admit that this is pushin’ the bar a bit here.”

Olive discovering Claire being a True Conductor. The attack on the Romano Family’s don. His own situation. Atienna’s cavern conflict. Maria’s bounty. Yes. Things were piling up, weren’t they.

“There is nothing happening on my end,” Jericho stated. 

“Yet. Don’t jinx yourself, detective,” Cadence replied, and then she chortled. “Unless ya’ve got some amazin’ luck then feel free to share.” 

There was no such thing as luck. Jericho needed to be careful as well.  

“You’ve got too little faith, Lieutenant.” Cadence hummed. “The universe works in mysterious ways, ya know that? Gotta keep a positive outlook.” She thumbed Maria who had been oddly silent during their conversation after her waltz with Jericho. “Like sunshine here.”

Maria offered a beaming smile from where she sat on his desk, and by her demeanor Werner could tell that she’d only picked up about half of the conversation. “I did pay attention, my dear Werner,” she sang. She placed a hand on her chest. “I will be discrete, my dears, in order to protect my favorite things, yes?” And leaving that odd statement hanging in the air, she blinked out of existence. 

Maria’s departure marked the slow filtering out of the others. They did have personal matters to after all, and Werner was not surprised to see them filter out quickly. However, Olive remained before him, loitering by his bedside.

A long stretch of silence passed.

Werner did not speak, merely inspected the boy as the boy stared up at him. 

“Werner, I…” Olive took a step forward and stared at the ground. “Look. I’m… sorry for what happened. I didn’t mean to. Really—I. I… well, look.” Olive lifted his head. “I’m sorry for overriding you, but I’m not sorry for retreating. Holding your ground was crazy—I don’t care how talented and strong you are. You said it yourself—nothing can be left to chance and—”

The explanation was nonsensical, but acceptable.

“I understand, Chance,” Werner said, raising a hand to stop the prince from unraveling further. “I accept your apology but not the tardiness of it.” He studied the prince for a moment. “Still, I can’t deny that despite your actions being rash, they did end up assisting me in the end. For that portion, I do thank you.”

The boy stared, evidently baffled. “Really? That’s it? You’re not… angry?”

“I’ve already told you how I feel about the situation, Chance. Do I need to repeat myself?” Werner allowed a beat of silence before he added after some thought: “And this is a warning since I’ve noticed this as a re-occurring issue: good intentions and self-righteous beliefs need to be paired with planning and management in order to be effective. If not, it’s a hindrance.”

Chance tensed and then grimaced. “I… okay. Sorry.”

Werner resisted a sigh. “Just be cautious around Prince Yuseong, Chance. And don’t forget to notate the details of this meeting. Just because we didn’t run the minutes today doesn’t mean we won’t in the future.”

Olive mentally rolled his eyes but nodded. He seemed to mull over something and glanced back up at him. “And Colonel Douche?”

“Colonel Fritz con Spiel is my superior,” Werner said, “but I’m planning to look into him. His behavior is… strange.”

I knew it. Werner’s too reliable and strong to have a weak ‘sense of self’. It has to be something else. Claire was wrong. 

Olive startled suddenly, cheeks flushing. “Did you…”

“Yes, I did.”

Olive’s cheeks deepened even further, sending a heated wave of embarrassment tumbling down Werner’s chest. The boy blinked out from his sight not even one second after. 

And that left Werner by himself. 

Sense of self, he thought. The topic they had skirted around during their discussion.  Three words. Meaningless by themselves but together held so much power. 

Claire had implied that having a weak sense of self led to a True Conductor being more easily influenced by those they were connected with. 

Werner could not deny it. He was the one in their party who had been overridden the most. Still, some of Claire’s statements didn’t seem to hold true to them so perhaps this ‘sense of self’ was also along the same line of things. Whatever it was, Werner knew he had to correct himself. 

A knock at the door drew Werner’s attention away from his thoughts. When he undid the lock on the door and cracked it open, he found Gilbert standing there and holding two bottles of wine and four empty champagne glasses. 

“Is there something you need?” Werner inquired, pulling the door open a bit further. 

“Great! You’re in a friendly mood!” Gilbert hummed as he brushed past and slipped into the room. “Did you have one of your meetings or something?” 

“Can we come in?” Kleine asked. 

Werner checked his pocket watch and nodded. “I have three hours to spare before I need to finish my report.”

“Come on, Werner,” Gilbert groaned, throwing himself on the bed, “relax a little. Does the capital really have that much paperwork for you to do?”

“I have 72 reports due by the time we return to the front.”

“Saints.” Gilbert rose up from the bed and stared. “Do they want you to write an essay or something?”

“Evaluations,” Werner replied. 

Kleine walked in hesitantly, throwing curious glances around the room. “Wow… your room looks like it’s barely been used.”

Nico offered Werner an almost apologetic smile and slipped in as well.  

“Werner’s just fond of cleaning,” Gilbert explained, pouring a glass of wine for himself. “You should’ve seen how he was when he was younger.”

Werner shut the door behind him and fastened the lock. “Is there a reason for why all three of you are here?”

“Kleine wanted to ask you some things about your possession circle thing,” Gilbert replied, downing the wine in two quick gulps. “More details on his lady friend—what was her name? Charite.”

“More questions, actually,” Kleine nodded and mumbled, adjusting his glasses.

After a moment of thought, Werner decided to divulge his recent discovery to the three men. It was not a notable discovery nor endangering information. In fact, it served as an exceptional opportunity. 

And so as Werner informed them of the confirmed existence of other True Conductors, he studied Kleine’s expression carefully. He had chosen Kleine for this mission solely to isolate the man in order to keep a closer eye on him.

Kleine brightened immediately. “This is great! I mean, it’s great that we know that they’re people like you out there—I mean. That means my friend could really be one. I knew it.”

“Oh, so you were telling the truth, Klaus?” Gilbert downed another glass of wine, “Guess I can call off the bounty hunters I sent after you. Heard about them from Brandt. Apparently, they’re really good.”

Kleine paled. “What?” He took a step back, tripped over nothing, and fell flat on his back. He then laid there unmoving. 

A sense of suspicion began to creep into Werner’s mind. The lackadaisical demeanor with which Kleine spoke and Gilbert’s extreme looseness was telling. He frowned. “Are you drunk, Lance Corporal Kleine?” 

Kleine flushed deeper and stared up at the ceiling. 

Werner turned away from him and studied Gilbert who was on his fifth glass of wine.

“You’re both inebriated,” Werner concluded with a frown. 

“Sorry, Werner,” Nico murmured from beside him, “I was actually trying to bring them back to their rooms. We were at the casino earlier. I managed to get Stein back to his room with Bergmann’s help, but…”

Werner sighed. “I see.”

“I… can try to drag—I mean, bring—them back now. Uhm—”

“No. Gilbert is a terrible drunk. It’s best to leave him be for now.”

Gilbert mumbled something incomprehensible in response as he inhaled another glass. 

***

Gilbert and Kleine managed to down the entire bottle of wine by themselves within an hour and passed out only twenty-five minutes later. Given their inebriation upon their arrival, Werner was not surprised at this development. Nico fretted over them, but Werner advised him to leave them be. Self-inflicted punishment would arrive for them in the morning in the form of a piercing headache.

“But really… should we get them back to their rooms, maybe?”

“And allow them to take advantage of your generosity after they’ve done this to themselves?” Werner inquired from his desk. During the two men’s drunken ramblings, he’d managed to complete four additional reports. It was surprising how he was able to get through them faster in the presence of their distraction. 

Nico chuckled at his rhetorical question and then remained silent. The silence stretched on for half an hour before Werner decided to address it. 

“There’s something on your mind,” Werner observed, putting down his pen and turning to face the man. “Something other than Gilbert and Kleine.”

Nico was leaning against the drawers set off to the side of the room and perked up at the statement. “How did you know?”

It was essential to know these types of things as a commanding officer. And it was obvious. 

“You’ve been quiet since the train ride,” Werner said. “And you’re here.”

“It’s kind of stupid… It’s really nothing.”

“If you think it’ll affect you at the meeting next week then it’s not nothing.”

“I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but I didn’t think I’d be back here so soon.” Nico half laughed with a wry smile. “Seeing Francis was nice and all but…”

“You aren’t happy that you’ve returned.”

Nico paled somewhat. “Cadence isn’t listening in is she…?”

“My synchronization is low with everyone at the moment, but I can’t say for certain if the memory of this will trickle down to them or not.”

Nico’s brows furrowed, and he seemed to weigh his options before he finally relented: “I know that my main reason for even being in your division is to be a liaison, but I enjoyed being out of the city. Helping you all.”

“Are you planning on leaving those duties when we’re finished here?”

Nico shook his head fiercely, hands raised. “N-No, of course not! I mean, I don’t want to… it’s just that I feel like someone’s is just going to come up to me and rip me off the streets and drag me back.” 

There was a beat of silence, and Nico flushed. 

“Well, when I say it like that,” he mumbled, “it does sound pretty stupid.”

“It’s good practice to be vigilant.” Werner capped his pen. “And you’re wearing a Capricornian officer’s uniform. No one will approach you.”

“You say stuff like that so confidently sometimes, I can’t help but believe you.” Nico chuckled. 

“It’s fact, Nico. Not confidence.” Werner replied. 

Nico chuckled again, rubbing his arm. After a pause, he asked, “Is Cadence alright? I’ve been trying to reach her and my dad, but the lines must be bad or something. They’re not picking up.” Nico stared at him, amber eyes wide and filled with worry like usual. “Is there something going on?”

And then Werner could feel it. A pressure at the back of his neck—a pair of arms wrapping around him. A phantom. A weight. 

He shouldn’t tell him. Nico would worry. And if Nico worried, he would act rashly. 

But it would be best to tell him. To clear the ground so the issue would not create complications later. Complications of trust.

This had nothing to do with trust. 

And after a cold, long drawn out moment, Werner realized that he couldn’t tell which thought belonged to him and which thought belonged to one of the others. 

“Werner?” 

“She’s fine. She’s just busy,” Werner said, tugging at his collar. “There’s no need to worry about it.”


(    )

“I’m home! And with a special delivery!” Shouting such a pleasant thing, the young woman stepped into the room that had no windows and no doors. “It was hard getting to him, you know? It was like that. Yeah.”

Tau sighed, arms crossed, from where he sat by himself at the makeshift board game table. “Do you mind clarifying, Omega? You always talk like everyone can read your mind.”

Letting out an airy giggle, the woman called Omega flipped her bleached hair lazily. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could?”

“You’re still going on with that air-headed act?” Tau lifted a brow. 

Omega smiled. “Is it not cute?” Not waiting for a response, she stretched out her arms and leaned side to side with a groan. She then pounded her shoulder lightly with a sigh. “That was a bit more exhausting than I thought it’d be.”

“You’re complaining about being tired all of the time when I’m the one who’s doing all the hard labor?” came a grumble from behind. 

Out from the darkness behind Omega stepped Iota dragging along a squirming, sobbing man bound with thick chains. Iota’s polka-dotted dress was stained with blood, and her bow was beginning to slip off of her head. 

“You managed to get him,” Tau said, rising from his chair and walking over to them. “Did Leona finally leave?”

“Yep,” Omicron popped, threading her fingers through her hair. “Iota had a lot of fun picking off the peacekeepers.” She whispered behind a hand to Tau, “I think she might be a sadist.”

Iota shrugged, fixing the bow in her hair.

“It looks like Leona’s heading back to Ophiuchus,” Omega continued, eyes somewhat glazed over. “Hopefully, Omicron will leave before then.”

“Did you check him for hidden weapons?” Tau interjected.

Omicron absentmindedly ran her fingers through her again, and Iota gave him a pointed glare.

“W-Why…? Why’re you here?” the chained man at Iota’s feet stammered suddenly, staring at Tau wide-eyed. “Y-You’re the co—”

Tau glanced down at the man. “You’re one of the mayor candidates the Romanos were looking at to replace the recently deceased Mayor Vargas. Depa something. The candidate most likely to be selected.” He sank down into a crouch in front of the man and grimaced. “How much are they paying you? How many underhanded things did you have to do in order to get on that candidate list, huh? Do you feel even a little bit guilty, huh?”

Depa gaped at him.

“What?” Tau scowled. “Can’t talk? What’s the issue? You morally reprehensible pig!”

“Tau, you can reprimand him after we’ve gotten the information we need,” came a voice from the dark corner of the room. 

Depa’s gape widened as a figure holding a book stepped out from the corner, and he remained wordless as the figure came to a stand in front of him.

“This must be the first time you’ve ever been this terrified isn’t it?” Theta asked, staring down at the chained man. A pleasant smile. “Rest assured. It will only become more of a nightmare for you from now on.”


7.5: Atienna’s Journey (Soggiorno)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occurred.

Former chieftain’s daughter of the Imamu Tribe, Atienna Imamu’ lives in the country of Virgo which has existed in a state of isolation for many years following the Reservoir War. Her mother was a prominent political figure during this time but was gravely injured during one of her demonstrations which left Atienna fraying between right and wrong, correct and incorrect. She has skirted this line this by averting her eyes from unpleasant things and then beating out her frusterations in the fighting ring known as the Night Circle. However, upon witnessing her former teacher Usian’s machinations and manipulations of her younger brother Bachiru to incite a revolution, Atienna moves forward and crushes—quite literally—Usian’s attempts. Ultimately, however, she is left with the decision to follow through on Usian’s desires or to return to the way things were before. A choice is made, and Virgo begins to peel out of its isolation. Atienna vows to continue on in her mother’s footsteps and reach out to the world as well.

Whether this is the correct choice is…

Zatmeniye Mountain Range, Aquarius

“Saint’s! Stupid! V-ehicle!”

Atienna peered over her book into the front seat of the v-ehicle. The driver’s seat was empty, but the seat beside it was occupied by a man with an unreadable expression. Unreadable, because his bald head was wrapped around numerous times with a colorful bright blue scarf and because another scarf hugged the lower half of his face. Atienna turned to the woman sitting beside her. She too was wrapped in a shawl of many layers and was peering down at a book through her glasses. The lenses were fogged up by the breath captured in her makeshift scarf mask.

“I’m sure Sefu can handle it,” the woman replied to Atienna’s unasked question.

Atienna considered this for a moment before she tried slowly, “I suppose I’ll keep him company then…” With that, Atienna closed her book and set it down gently

Atienna greeted the Aquarian morning chill with a shiver and pulled her blanket closer around her shoulders as she stepped outside of the v-ehicle. The frost nipped at her nose, and the cold brought tears to her eyes—tears that soon iced over and crystallized on her lashes. She wiped them away with the back of her mittened hand and stared out into the dawning brightness.

Everything was white—the mountainous mounds of shoveled snow that formed a short wall on either side of the road, the evergreen trees that poked up in between those mounds, and even the v-ehicle she had just stepped out of. Well, rather than being buried by a layer of the whiteness from on top, the v-ehicle was buried from the bottom. To be exact, its wheels had become one with the ground. It appeared as if the snow had melted somewhat around the rims due to the heat from them initially, but the water had frozen over again once the temperature had dropped encasing the entire thing in ice.

A tightly bundled, unrecognizable Sefu was pounding down on that ice with the butt of his conducting spear. He continued to pound and pound, seeming to not notice her presence. Abruptly, he let loose an agitated sigh before turning the spear around and slamming its bottom into the ground. He then began to mutter under his breath. A prayer. After letting out a quiet sigh, he whipped his spear around again and pointed its tip at the encasement of ice. The tip began to glow a bright yellow.

“Sefu…. I wonder if that’s a good idea.”

Sefu startled and quickly flipped his spear behind his back. “Miss Atienna—I—”

“Before you move onto that,” Atienna said, drifting to the front of the car, “maybe we should try checking to see if the engine conductor is still in working order? It was making strange sounds earlier. I wonder if something’s wrong with it…”

Sefu stiffened before he stumbled over the snow ruts to the front of the car. He popped the hood and stared. Atienna followed along after him while reaching out to Olive. It took several tries, but she managed to synchronize with him strongly enough for his physical form to appear before her eyes.

“I think it looks fine,” Sefu said, looking down at the device.

Olive shook his head, shivering slightly. The cold cracked the conducting core. There’s no saving it once it’s cracked like that. He gave Sefu a side-eye. Maybe in some fantasy universe you can still use it.

Atienna relayed this information to Sefu—minus the last part—and thanked Olive who mumbled an incoherent thought before disappearing from her sight.

“You cannot be serious…” Sefu stared at the generator conductor listlessly before staring past it towards the stretch of white road behind them. The tracks their v-ehicle had made were already filled in by the snow.

The doors to the v-ehicle opened, and the man sitting at the front of the car and the woman sitting at the back stepped out with a crunch, crunch onto the snow.

“So for all of that praise for the functionality of these v-ehicles,” the now shivering man said, pulling out a long spear conductor from the v-ehicle and fastening it to his back, “they cannot even endure a short journey.”

“Enough, Kabal,” the woman with the reading glasses replied, shrugging her garments closer to her body. “Miss Imamu, what is the nearest town?”

Atienna pulled out a map from the satchel that hung at her waist. Out with it came an envelope that fell onto the snow. In a panic, she picked it up, checked it for damages, and with a relieved sigh placed it back into her satchel. She then inspected the map—

“The nearest town is about eight kilometers away. Vlatgrad. We should be able to reach it if we continue north from here.” She folded the map back into her satchel and began to recall the details of the book she had been reading in the v-ehicle. “It’s a mining town. They speak both Aquarian and Common, so communication shouldn’t be an issue.” She chuckled lightly. “Although, I cannot say the same for hospitality…”

“Well, we’ll just have to convince them to be hospitable,” the woman returned.

The woman was named Chiamaka, and she was of the Maneo Tribe. She was a member of the chieftain’s family of that tribe and had spent her younger years before the war studying social sciences and diplomacy. Her focus was on the governments and politics of the countries of south-eastern Signum which included Aquarius and Pisces. For this reason, she was chosen to act as the diplomat to those countries following Virgo’s slow return from isolation.

That was where they were headed. A tripartite diplomatic meeting between Pisces, Aquarius, and Virgo. A formality of sorts. A prelude to open up better relations between their three countries.

Kabal—currently polishing his spear conductor while still grumbling about v-ehicles—was a royal guard of the Maneo Tribe and was accompanying Chiamaka on this journey as her protector. He was a man of few words, and he never minced them.

Sefu was here to guard Atienna herself which she found a bit strange as her family was no longer considered the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe. Therefore Sefu, being a member of the royal guards strictly serving the chieftain family of the Imamu Tribe, had no need to protect her any longer. And yet here he was. Curious.

And Atienna’s own purpose here? It was not diplomacy, that was certain. Her purpose was not as impressive as that. But a purpose was a purpose.

“Well, Miss Imamu,” Chiamaka said, peering at Atienna through her glasses as if evaluating her, “you are my advisor for Aquarius, are you not? So please do advise us on the way.”

Atienna bowed her head and—after they gathered what they could carry from the v-ehicle—started them along the path north.

It was a strange sensation—feeling the heat from her extraneous movements piling up inside her chest yet feeling the biting cold whip at her cheeks and limbs. Despite her sweating, she knew that the moment she pulled her hood down, she’d be bitten senseless by the whipping winds.

She glanced up when she noticed white specs floating down from the gray sky. More snowflakes.

She had never seen snow before. Not even from Werner’s or Maria’s side. It seemed as if their memories of such things had yet to make their way down to her. For this reason, she found this detour rather lovely.

It was a bit surreal. The quietness. The expanse of white. She imagined herself lying flat on the snow and staring up at the sky as they walked on. Absolute stillness. A spec in the middle of everything. Peaceful. The insignificance of herself if she were in that moment—comforting.

“How. Do. Aquarians,” Sefu panted suddenly from in front of her, each step making his voice breathier than the last. “Live. Like. This.”

Atienna chuckled. “Is it really that awful, Sefu?” She extended a mittened hand to catch one of the snowflakes and inspect its intricacies before it began to melt with her breath. “Was it not you who said there is beauty in everything when you requested that we stop by that Aquarian customized conductor store?”

“It was an exaggeration,” Sefu said, teeth clacking.

Atienna hummed. Sefu might think it awful, but to her it was—

“A-absolutely astounding!”

Atienna tensed and turned her head in the direction of the exclamation. Sefu whipped out his spear conductor as did Kabal. Atienna exchanged a look with Chiamaka before Chiamaka signaled for the men to lower their weapons.

“Hello?” Atienna tentatively called out as she advanced towards the direction the sound had come from—a mound of snow that rose up in-between a cluster of pine trees alongside the road.

“Bonjour!” came a muffled voice from within the mound. “Who’s there?”

Atienna stared for a moment before she rushed forward and began digging at the snow pile. She was soon joined by Sefu and Kabal, and she stepped back in order to allow them to pick at the snow with the butt of their conductors. Slowly they began chipping away at the whiteness layer-by-layer until the petite face of a young woman with caramel brown eyes and wispy pale blonde hair frozen to her cheeks became revealed to them.

After blinking away the snow clinging to her long lashes, the woman looked at Sefu, then at Kabal, and then directly at Atienna. She did not appear to be very alarmed by her predicament, beaming at them as she spoke, “Oh, hello there! Are you tourists too? Here to see the infamous Tonkaya Liniya Lights or maybe the Zatmeniye caverns?”

Sefu and Kabal exchanged looks, obviously hesitant to continue their unburial.

“Are… are you okay?” Atienna tried.

“Oh, I’m spectacular!” the woman exclaimed. “This Aquarian rejuvenating technique is really something else. You should try it. It’s supposed to do wonders for your skin!”

Atienna took a moment to digest this information before she smiled gently. “Ah, yes, I’ve heard very good things about those techniques. Although I’ve also heard that it’s recommended that a person only submerges themselves in the cold for fifteen-minute increments. Is this perhaps a new method?”

“Well, yes, fifteen minutes would rejuvenate you, so if you bury yourself for an even longer amount of time it will extra rejuvenate you,” the woman said matter-of-factually, her Cancerian accent coming out in her Common. “I have heard that if you do this often enough, you can practically look young forever!” The woman tried to nod in affirmation, but the snow packed around her head acted as a cage.

Sefu crossed his arms over his conductor. “Well, eternally young in death maybe—”

The blonde woman’s delicate brows rose, and her eyes darted from left to right. “D-Death? W-Why are you saying death? This isn’t dangerous, is it?” Before anyone could respond, the woman began to wiggle in place. The snow packed around her pulsated and cracked.

“Wait—”

The Cancerian woman burst out from the snow pile in a flurry of white and landed on top of Atienna in a tangle of limbs and a bundle of fur.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that!” the woman exclaimed as she pried herself off Atienna and helped pull her up to a stand. Before Atienna could get another word in, however, the woman began to walk around her in circles. “Your clothing is so pretty! Where did you get that from? Is it Aquarian?”

Atienna smiled pleasantly. “It’s Virgoan silk. But I have to say, your clothing is just as marvel worthy as mine.”

The woman was bundled up head to toe in numerous fur accessories. A black Aquarian ushanka topped her head, and several leather fur-lined coats of numerous shades were thrown over her shoulders. Beneath it all, she wore a pair of bright red leather boots that hugged her legs all the way up to her knees.

“Thank you! I—” The odd woman abruptly snapped her mouth shut and pulled back. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’ve been so rude.” She put a hand to her cheek before extending it out to Atienna. “My name Louise Beaumont. I’m a tourist from Cancer.”

Atienna accepted the gesture, more amused than confused. “Atienna Imamu. I’m an advisor from Virgo.”

“An advisor?” Louise studied her for a moment. “You must have loads of knowledge then. Could you possibly spare me some advice?”

It took a moment for Atienna to realize what Louise had misunderstood.

“Here is some advice, miss,” Sefu said from behind her. “It is dangerous for someone to be trekking here by themselves.”

“Oh, I’m not by myself. I am never alone,” Louise responded, before digging into the folds of her coats and pulling out two perfectly round red apples. “When you have food, you’re never alone!”

What an… interesting perspective, Atienna mused.

A screws-loose perspective.

Chiamaka and Kabal regarded the Cancerian with expressions that seemed to coincide with the previous line of thought. Sefu, on the other hand, was salivating. Louise noticed him and offered an apple to Sefu without a thought. Also without a thought, Sefu accepted it graciously.

“But now that you mention it…” Louise trailed off as she watched Sefu devour the apple in two large bites. “I think I am a bit lost. It’s just that I keep seeing all of these wonderful things and—oh, well—getting distracted.” She looked around. “I swear just a minute ago I was near the city…”

Chiamaka spoke suddenly from behind them, “We’re headed to Vlatgrad. It’s a nearby village. They do speak Common, so I’m sure they’ll be able to point you in whatever direction you’re looking for.”

Louise glanced past Atienna, stared at Chiamaka, and then brightened. “Are you sure? Would you be so kind?”

“Accompanying us would make both of our journeys more bearable, don’t you think?” Atienna offered.

***

They continued their trek onwards, their group having increased from four to five. The snow that had been sprinkling down lightly from the sky at the beginning of the day began to pelt harder as they continued further. The white coldness crept upon them slowly and soon they were consumed by the flurry. The howling winds and whips of icey hail and snow that burst out from nowhere made it impossible for Atienna to see more than a meter in front of her face.

Atienna quickly advised for them to walk forward holding hands in a chain in order to not lose sight of one another. Through the storm they continued on, gripping each other like lifelines, with Sefu at the head and Kabal at the tail. Atienna herself was sandwiched in between Chiamaka and Louise.

“I see something!” Sefu shouted after what had seemed like an eternity. “It looks like a cave! We could take refuge!”

“I’ve never been in a cave before!” Louise exclaimed.

Atienna turned her head to find Louise smiling steadily behind her. She faced forward again and found Chiamaka frowning backwards. After offering Chiamaka a smile of reassurance she doubted the woman could see, Atienna squinted past her and into the storm.

A mouth of blackness loomed like a monolith in front of them. It was so large and towering that Atienna couldn’t help but imagine that it was the mouth of a giant waiting to swallow them up. The icicles that lined the ceiling of the cave and the ground floor almost resembled jagged teeth.

As soon as they stepped within the vicinity of the cave, the howling deafened and became replaced by the echoing tap, tap of their footsteps. The cold left them as well, and Atienna was able to peel down her hood to inspect the cave further. Large ice stalactites hung low from the ceiling with some even extending all the way to the ground. Ice draperies crisscrossed in between them, while below them grew pale bluish-white stalagmites. The back of the cave was pitch black and seemed to extend forever into emptiness.

But, there was light. In the far-left corner of the cave behind a cluster of flowstone and stalagmites glowed orange warmth. Atienna and her group exchanged looks before they rounded the cluster of stone structures to investigate.

A fire crackled there just behind the rock formations. And huddling around that fire was a party of eight people.

It wasn’t one large party—Atienna realized this upon closer inspection. Rather, it was a collection of smaller groups that were distinguishable from one another by their members’ clothing. There were two groups total.

The first consisted of three women and two men dressed in fur coats and fur caps. The firelight made their pale skin glow white and gave their angular faces an accented look. Aquarians.

The second group consisted of two women and one man who were all draped in thick, leather hooded cloaks. Their sun-kissed cheeks were an almost frost-bitten red, and their bare forearms were inked with dark, swirling tattoos. Piscese.

Oh? What a strange coincidence.

“It can’t be—are you the diplomats from Virgo?” one of the fur coat-wearing women murmured.

Chiamaka stepped forward and pulled down the scarf obscuring her mouth. “I am Chiamaka of the Maneo Tribe of Virgo. I am here for the southeastern tripartite meeting.”

“This must be fate,” one of the women dressed in the thick leather cloaks said in lightly-accented Common as she lowered her hood. Her dark curls popped out from beneath it and framed her round cheeks that were marked with black ink. She closed the distance between their two groups. “I am Moana of Pisces. I am the diplomat here to discuss improving relations between our countries.” She gestured to the man and then to the woman behind her who were also dressed in thick leather cloaks. “With me are my advisors Kalama and my guard Afu.” She then extended her hand out to Chiamaka. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

Chiamaka accepted the handshake firmly. “And I you, Moana.”

One of the Aquarian men dressed in fur coats stepped forward, removing his gloves and extending a hand in Chiamaka’s direction. He had gunmetal blue eyes, a narrow nose, and wispy hair curling out from his hat. His fur coat was a vibrant blue color that served as a startling contrast to the dull brown coats of his Aquarian companions.

“I am Alexei Andrei,” the man said in Common, and there was barely an accent in his words. “I’m the diplomat representing Aquarius. I thought that this storm would put off our meeting, but it looks like it’s brought our meeting to an earlier time instead.” He chuckled good-nature day.

Another man wearing a fur coat joined Alexei’s side, whipped off his fur hat, and dusted it before nodding curtly at them. He was a head or so taller than Alexei, and his gaze was rather unfriendly.

“You’re…” Atienna trailed off as she registered his features.

Nikita Knovak. The Aquarian sergeant whom Werner had captured along the Aquarian-Capricornian border four months prior. So he was still alive.

Knovak arched a brow. “Yes? I am Nikita Knovak. Sergeant. Just here to make sure no harm for Yulia or Alexei. Nice to meet you.” He remained stiff, did not offer a hand nor inclined his head.

Yulia?

The three women of the Aquarian group stepped forward next.

One of them stood as tall as Knovak and had almost skeleton-like features: high arched brows, high cheekbones, and a high nose. “I am Yulia Kriska. I am Alexei’s secretary and will be recording everything that will be spoken at the meeting.” Her voice was razor-sharp, nasally, and her words—

—well, they almost sounded like a threat. Atienna supposed that words could be a reasonable weapon of choice. Words were powerful, after all—and even more powerful when one used another’s own words against them. A secretary was quite a terrifying thing in that perspective.

“I am Alexei’s advisor.” The woman who stood to Yulia’s left smiled gently as she introduced herself. Even though most of her features were obscured by her fur clothing, Atienna could tell that she was quite beautiful. The black curls that popped out from her fur cap framed her pale face, and the bright red lipstick she wore brought out the fullness of her lips. Atienna couldn’t help but think that something about this woman reminded her of Cadence’s Alma. “My name is Cvetka Akulova. ”

Their eyes met and Atienna offered her a small smile. Cvetka returned the gesture and lowered her gaze.

“Sigurd,” the last Aquarian woman introduced herself. “Yulia and Cvetka’s guard also.”

Sigurd was the shortest one in the entire Aquarian group—although she was still taller than any in the Piscese group—and was also the only one in the Aquarian group who was not wearing a fur cap. Her light blonde hair was tied up into a bun, her eyes an ice blue, and her nose hooked and prominent.

“Oh, don’t undersell yourself, Sigurd,” Alexei said with a light chuckle. “Sigurd here is from one of Aquarius’s special administrative regions. They operate under us, albeit a bit independently, so you’re in for a rare treat. She was born and raised in one of the mountainous tribes…. Which mountain was it? Valdol?”

“Valholl,” Sigurd corrected flatly.

There was tension there. How unpleasant.

“Could it be that you’re from the Valkyrja Tribe?” Atienna interjected with a polite smile. “That is the main tribe that resides in the Valholl mountain rage, right?”

“Yes, I am from the Valkyrja Tribe,” Sigurd answered. She studied Atienna for a moment before crossing her arms and looking away. “That is my home.”

“T-That’s impressive,” Cvetka said after a beat, biting her red lips and tucking a dark lock of hair behind her ear. “Not a lot of people know about our native special administrative territories. And when they do, they tend to only pay attention to our seaside ones.”

“Thank you for the compliment, but I honestly only know about that because I am serving as Miss Chiamaka’s advisor,” Atienna explained genially. “I’m Atienna Imamu.”

“Oh, I see.” Cvetka smiled with her eyes. “Well, I hope we can learn a lot from each other then.”

Sefu and Kabal introduced themselves next, and with that the formalities concluded.

“Well, I hope you’ve all brought sleeping bags,” Alexei said good-naturedly after a beat of silence. “The storms in this region can last for quite some time.” He glanced at Chiamaka. “And by any chance, would you have brought any food—”

“It’s all right! There’s no need to worry about the food!” Louise pipped suddenly from behind Atienna.

Everyone turned to stare at her.

Unperturbed, Louise reached into the folds of her coat and pulled out a bag of what appeared to be oats with her left hand and a bag of apples with her right hand. “I’m always prepared for situations like these! That’s what extreme tourism is all about!”

“And who is this?” Yulia asked plainly.

“She is a Cancerian tourist,” Chiamaka explained. “We found her wandering around these parts and offered to guide her to the nearest village. Unfortunately, it appears that we’ve led her more astray than anything else.”

“Nonsense.” Alexei waved a dismissive hand. “These storms make even the most coldblooded in our country lose their heads.” He gestured to all of them. “Besides, this has worked out quite well. Call me a foolish optimist but I find this storm more a blessing than a curse—now, would one of you happen to know how to cook?”

***

That night dinner was a sweet porridge of oats, fruits, and nuts.

It was rather startling to see how much food Louise was able to carry inside of her coats. Atienna couldn’t help but think that the woman had magical, bottomless pockets. In fact, Sefu had started looking at Louise rather reverently—almost as if she were some mystical creature not of this earth. Regardless of Sefu’s admiration, however, he still taste-tested everything Atienna ate. Kabal, witnessing Sefu’s behavior, mimicked it in regard to Chiamaka’s food.

“No,” Atienna heard Cvetka whisper to Alexei, “it is not tradition.”

When dinner was over, Yulia, Chiamaka, and Moana checked out early for the night after formal plans were made by the diplomats to initiate the beginnings of negotiations the following morning. Knovak, Kabal, and Afu held to their duties as guards responsibly and followed on after them. This left Alexei, Cvetka, Sigurd, Kalama, Louise, Sefu, and Atienna to speak amongst themselves. They were using the rock formations that grew around the fire as makeshift seats, and the atmosphere felt more like that of a friendly dinner party than anything else.

They spoke mostly about themselves. Nothing of politics.

A relief, came an intrusive thought.

Alexei started the autobiographical conversation by informing them that he had grown up in a rather impoverished region of Aquarius. Although he received food rations from the government at the time, the Reservoir War had brought with it constant shortages so the rations shrank every week. He received a shining opportunity when the war ended, and the government began seeking out individuals with a strong background in foreign relations and social sciences moving forward—which just so happened to be his area of study when he’d been in school.

He received an admirable “wow, amazing!” from Louise who then explained that she was an extreme tourist who was seeking all the world’s wonders. She listed off all the places she’d been to before which left Atienna feeling rather dizzy, impressed, and wistful.

The Piscese advisor Kalama chattered her way through her origin story but only managed to get halfway through it before she flushed profusely and apologized for stuttering, chattering, and stammering. Alexei offered her his thick fur coat and cap with words of reassurance, and she accepted both graciously.

‘A charming man,’ an outsider would think. But this too was a formality, wasn’t it? The kindness, the generosity. If circumstances were different, if this were not a meeting of diplomacy, would he be so generous? Whether that was right or wrong was up to perspective still.

Atienna refrained from speaking about herself and merely kept to the background. Sigurd kept her history confidential as well, although Louise’s persistence made her divulge that she was an Elementalist Conductor.

“How long do you think this storm will last?” Sefu asked after a pause of silence.

“Maybe several days,” Sigurd answered. “When they come without warning, they last for a longer time.”

Atienna saw Sefu smile slightly out of the corner of her eye. Ah, could it be that Sefu saw this as a vacation of sorts?

Many productive things could be completed within that time frame.

Atienna pondered this thought before politely excusing herself to the restroom.

Instead of heading to the area they had designated as the bathroom, however, Atienna strayed further into the back of the cave. It wasn’t on a whim that she did it, really. Part of her had been thinking about peeling away from the dinner group during the entire discussion. Avoidance, discomfort, exhaustion—perhaps, a mixture of all three. One step forward and another step backward. A dance to some, lack of progress to others. Hm.

Atienna sighed and glanced behind her in the direction of their campfire. While its glow hurt her eyes even from this distance, its warmth did not reach her. Shivering, Atienna considered heading back. But then something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. Something on the cavern walls.

Atienna froze and stared.

For a moment, she thought it was the opening to a passageway that was on the wall—it was rectangular, black, and just the right size for someone to slip through. The discordance of the sight threw her in for a loop. Upon closer inspection, however, Atienna came to realize that it was a painting. A painting of a rectangular-shaped passageway done in black.

How interesting.

Atienna approached the wall slowly, extending a hand out to touch its surface. She recalled reading about these things somewhere, although she couldn’t quite remember where.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

Atienna startled and turned. It was Cvetka, the Aquarian advisor. The woman was quietly inspecting the dark painting on the wall a meter or so away from her. Curious—Atienna hadn’t even noticed her.

Atienna hummed and tapped her cheek. “Yes, I’ve read that these paintings are very common in the caves of Aquarius. They date back to before Signum was split into thirteen countries, right? Wonderfully mysterious, don’t you think?”

“I see that you really do know everything,” Cvetka said after a pause.

Atienna lowered her hand, looking away. “Oh, I wish I did.”

“Really?” Cvetka reached out and traced the edge of the painted door. “I think not knowing is the best thing in the world.”

“That’s an interesting viewpoint for an advisor,” Atienna noted with a smile. “Unless you are referring to surprises.”

“Oh?” Cvetka glanced at Atienna before she chuckled lightly. “You are quite the teaser,” she said. “But I’m talking about ignorance. What is that Common saying? It escapes me…”

“Ignorance is bliss?”

“Yes.” Cvetka pulled away from the wall. “Well, ‘ignorance avoids disappointment’ is a better way to say it, I think. It’d be nice if we could live in a world where we could ignore everyone outside of us. It’d be peaceful. But that’s not possible—they say human beings are social creatures—so I guess that’s what diplomacy is for.” Pausing, she flushed and tucked a lock of dark hair behind her ear. “Sorry, sometimes I talk without really knowing what I’m saying…”

Atienna wondered about both things—the former monologue and the latter statement. A line of thought akin to Atienna’s own. How unpleasant…

“You’re very well-spoken for not knowing what you are saying,” Atienna drew with a soft chuckle, “but speaking of avoidance, is it possible that we came here for the same reason?”

Cvetka flushed deeper. “Guilty as charged…”

“It is a lot—meeting everyone at once…” Atienna glanced back to the glow of their camp and then whispered quietly, “I don’t think I remember half of their names…”

“Oh—good—I thought I was the only one who had a hard time keeping up.” Cvetka sighed. “I’m just relieved that I’m not the only who thinks that way.” She wrapped her arms around her waist and offered a small smile. “Well, I’m going to try sneaking off to bed then.” She inclined her head. “It was nice speaking with you, Miss Imamu.”

Atienna bowed her head deeply in acknowledgment. “And I you, Miss Akulova.”

Atienna watched the woman go for a moment before turning her attention back to the cave painting. Why of all things would they paint this peculiar shape, she wondered. After a bit more wonder, she decided that she should get some rest too and headed back to the camp.

She found a spot for herself close to the fire beside a sleeping Chiamaka and a somewhat dozing Kabal who were both spread out on thick blankets. She reached into her satchel, pulled out a blanket of her own, and spread it across the ground.

So how are you doing, Werner? Atienna thought as she laid on her makeshift bed. I thought you’d unsynchronized after making that comment at dinner, but you’re still there, aren’t you?

“I apologize for intruding, Atienna,” came Werner’s voice from beside her. His image appeared before her standing. Their synchronization was strong enough for her to see that he was currently sitting in a train compartment. Bound for the Twin Cities. “It was not my intention.”

I don’t view it as an intrusion. It’s nice to have company you can speak to without putting up a front, don’t you think? Atienna returned. I enjoy our talks, Werner.

There was a pause.

They are informative. Another pause. And pleasant.

It looks as if things are picking up for all of us, don’t you think? Atienna thought. I’m worried for what’s happening on Maria’s, Cadence’s, and Olive’s end of things. And, of course, there’s you…

I’ve already warned Maria. Cadence will be fine if she doesn’t involve herself in things that she doesn’t need to be involved in.

—which Cadence normally did. Never taking risks unless a large enough benefit was involved. But that was just another way to live, Atienna supposed.

And Olive? Atienna pondered.

He is skirting responsibility.

His intentions were well-meaning Werner, Atienna tried. He just wanted help, and he probably did what he thought was best. And… how should I say this… Olive isn’t very… combat pragmatic, so perhaps his decision was…

Intentions are intangible, Werner answered. Actions are. He seemed to sigh internally but his expression remained stolid. I’m not blind to the fact that his split-second decision-making was commendable. He did not freeze. As for the retreat… I must admit it was the proper course of action for him logically. Regardless.

So, perhaps all Werner wanted was an apology regarding the override? It was a bit of a childish wish, and Atienna could not help but smile slightly at the thought of it. It humanized him a bit.

Well, at least in all of this you were able to get a vacation from the front.

“It is not a vacation,” Werner insisted coolly, glancing into the flickering flames of the fire.

Atienna covered her smile with her hand but knew Werner had seen it already.

“If you’re going to rest, I advise you to insulate yourself better,” Werner said, turning away from her. “Many people have died in their sleep from cold exposure.”

“Hypothermia, paradoxical undressing, and cardiac arrest,” Atienna whispered. “The world is quite a frightening place, Werner. And that’s without people.”

Werner turned back to her, unsurprised. “That is correct.”

Atienna reached into her satchel and pulled out another bundle of blankets. She spied that envelope inside as well but averted her eyes from it. Instead, she buried herself in a makeshift fort of blankets and let out a sigh before she closed her eyes.

Good night, Werner.

There was a long beat of silence.

“Good night, Atienna.”

***

When Atienna greeted the Aquarian morning chill the next day, the first thing she noticed was that the ground was wet—so wet that her makeshift bed was crusted with the cold ice. There was a steady drip, drip, drip from somewhere. Perhaps, one of the ice formations that draped across the cave ceiling was melting. That was Atienna’s first thought.

But then she smelled iron. It was a familiar scent. And as she struggled into consciousness in the cold, she half-dreamt for a moment that she was back in the Night Circle. In the ring, standing against another opponent, fingers itching for more. Adrenaline shot through her veins, and she snapped up in her bed.

The dimming embers of the fire glowed before her and informed her of her reality. She shivered, rubbing her arms, and then went rigid. There was a red substance soaked into her blankets, leaking in from a stream of red that led to a puddle of red to her left.

Atienna turned her head slowly as she continued to follow the trail of crimson and then she felt her breath hitch.

Kalama, the Piscese advisor, laid beside her still bundled up in Alexei’s bright blue fur coat. Her eyes were wide, her lips blue, her skin an unnatural shade of ash. At the center of her chest—at the center of all that blur dyed fur—was a crystalline formation of red that erupted like a flower from the center of her chest.

Aquarius is a large southeastern country in Signum. It is, in fact, the largest country of Signum and is home to several specially governed semi-independent states categorized as either mountainous tribes or seaside tribes. Due to its large size, it also hosts the greatest number of vitae reservoirs out of all of Signum. Although the area around such vitae reservoirs experience high-levels of almost eutrophic growth, Aquarius itself is a cold country holding a record-breaking temperature of -26 degrees Celsius on  January 3rd, 1921. Its southeastern beaches are considered tourist attractions. 

Countries of Signum by Various Authors, 20th edition

7.4: Maria’s Hunt (Cacciatore)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occured.

Four months ago, Maria raided a cargo ship belonging to a sailor named Morandi. Onboard that ship, she found a golden woman in a packing container. Calling herself Oros, the woman sowed unrest  on Maria’s ship and eventually inspired a mutiny. Only Morandi and his crew, Maria’s childhood friend Conta, the Monadic priest Simon, the engineer Emmanuel, and the chef Raul remained by Maria’s side. After removing the traitors under the guise of the Golden Beast, Maria confronted Oros and found out that she was, in fact, the missing peacekeeping agent Leona. Leona informed Maria that she was a ‘True Conductor’ before claiming to spare Maria’s life…

Now, Maria sets off to Pisces to pick up a package for the Campana Family of the Twin Cities.

Onboard Gloria’s Grail, Piscese Waters

When Maria opened her eyes, she found that moonlight was still spilling in through her window and that her entire ship sounded as if it were still asleep. Only the creaks and groans of the wooden floorboards as the ship tilted back and forth, and the occasional tap of the waves against the side of the ship. 

Strange. 

Maria stared up past the streak of silver moonlight that cut through the darkness and squinted up at the ceiling in thought. It had been quite some time since she had awoken in the middle of the night. She usually slept into the early morning and liked to be awakened by chef Raul’s shouts of “breakfast is ready!” as he’d bang his ladle against his pot. 

Annoying was always Ollie’s thought on that. 

Shrugging the oddity off, she swung herself off of her hammock and approached the circular window built beside the pole that hosted her dangling prized possessions. She flicked a medal that hung from a nail and then peered through the window.

The moonlight made the black sea glow white. The moon itself was hanging low near where the sky met the sea—so low that Maria was sure she could reach out and pluck it from the air. She absentmindedly glanced at the exterior side of her ship through the porthole and paused.

There was something there. Pressed right up against the side of her ship. She peered closer and came to vaguely recognize the shadowy shape of what appeared to be a smaller ship roped to her own. It was a tiny thing that was probably only able to hold five men, or two horses, or maybe even the great bell of the Monadic orphanage she’d grown up in.

Maria hummed. “Isn’t that the opposite of the usual thing?” She attempted to lean a bit closer to get a better look but found herself unable to because the window was suddenly reflecting back her face. Her curious expression appeared there, illuminated by a deep lime green light from behind. The light also illuminated the face of the one who stood behind her. Those eyes that glowed there on that face were filed with an intent Maria was quite familiar with—the intent to kill. 

Without skipping a beat, Maria spun around and threw out her foot knocking the Projector’s vitae blade right out from their hands. The conductor landed somewhere in the darkness, and the Projector made for it. Maria, however, rushed forward, grabbed the Projector, and threw him across the room. He flipped through the air and crashed into the pole hosting all of her favorite treasures before sliding to the ground. The medal dangling from the hammered nail fell down onto his body. 

Maria plucked her sword from where it rested beside her door frame and pulled it out of its sheath. She drifted to the Projector as he stirred and with a flick of her wrist she picked the medal up with the tip of her blade and tossed it into her hand. The Projector lunged forward in that instant, and she threw her blade out again where it slipped into their mouth. The Projector froze immediately, eyes wide. 

“I have many friends who are Conductors, you see. And I have been putting much thought into whether I should become one too, my dear.”

She pressed the edge of the blade forward and leaned it a bit towards the corner of the Projector’s mouth. The Projector followed the push of her blade to the best of his abilities, but blood still began to dribble from his mouth. 

“But I think using something like this is much more cool, yes?”

Maria pressed the sword further with a thin smile. 

A shout of alarm echoed from above deck, however, halted Maria from the execution. She pulled the blade out from its human scabbard and then smacked the intruder at the temple with the butt of her blade. She did not wait to see them him against the floor, instead charging through her bedroom door and out into the hall. 

Shadows were floundering around in the darkness. Bodies on top of bodies. Flashes of light—conductors. 

Maria whistled down the hall, pulling bodies off of bodies, slashing bodies with blade, slicing hands wielding conductors with fluid ease. She broke up through the stairwell and onto the deck and was welcomed by a wonderfully chaotic scene. 

A flurry of swinging fists—even a swinging wooden plank being used as a makeshift weapon. Occasionally, there would be a burst of light and a shout. 

Maria slipped through the crowded deck, sliding her foot underneath legs and her blade into bodies with graceful ease. Her current crew compared to her previous one four months ago was a bit lacking in the combat arena. She had only picked up a handful of additional members since the incident with Leona, and so a large portion of her ship consisted of just Morandi and his men who were still sailors at heart. What they lacked in physical prowess, however, they made up for in steely determination.

More fun for herself, Maria supposed as she plucked one of the invaders off of the former sailor Giorgio who was fending off two knife-wielding attackers with a broom. She disarmed them with a swish and flick of her blade and used their weapons to pin them to the side of the ship by stabbing right through their hands. 

She spotted another invader on top of Raul—the chef onboard the ship—who was scrambling away on all fours. Maria quickly dispatched the invader by grabbing him by the scruff and tossing him over the side of the ship. There was a loud splash and then a beat of silence and then—

“There she is!” came a shout from one of the invaders across the ship who pointed what appeared to be a conducting rifle in her direction. 

A blast of light shot out from the nose from the rifle, but Maria had already ducked low in anticipation of the attack and rushed beneath it. She closed the distance between herself and the Projector and swung her blade up in an arc. There was a splatter of red, and the Projector let out a wail as he stumbled backward cradling his what remained of his fingers

“Captain!” came a shout from behind.  

Maria whipped around just in time to see someone leap at her from the railings beside her. Her attacker was, however, abruptly tackled to the side by a woman whose face was concealed by a dull magenta scarf and shawl. The woman quickly flipped the invader over her shoulder and knocked them unconscious by slamming their face into the wooden floorboards.

Maria turned away from the scene and locked eyes with the final target of her hunt—a tall and thin man standing at the center of her ship. He was wielding a normal pistol which he held to the head of a young woman with mousy brown hair. Conta. He was whispering something in her ear, and her expression darkened as his words continued. 

Tossing her blade to the side, Maria charged at the man full force. The man startled in response and whipped his pistol in her direction. Maria couldn’t help but laugh at this, reaching for a knife that hung on the belt of a woman she rushed past. 

Just as the man’s finger pressed down on the trigger, Maria swung the knife up in a circle effectively separating the man’s fingers from his hands. He released the weapon immediately but then reached for something at his belt with his still usable hand. 

Maria took the opportunity to rip Conta from the man’s hold and then stabbed the knife into the side of his leg. She swept her legs beneath him, grabbed his arm as he fell, and then flung him off the ship in one swooping motion.

After listening in for the telling splash, Maria dusted her hands, twirled around, and inspected Conta who had fallen onto the floor during the entire dance. 

“Ay, Conta,” Maria said, offering her an extended hand, “you always find yourself in these situations, yes? At least we didn’t have to go for a swim this time!”

Conta wordlessly picked herself off the ground and brushed herself off. Maria retracted her hand with a slightly cocked head. 

A thunder of footsteps resounded behind Maria before she could say anything more. When she turned, she found a panting Morandi and a panting Simon standing behind her. Morandi was covered in blood, but Maria assumed it belonged to the man who had been on top of him in the dimly lit hallway—the man whom she’d lacerated with her blade. 

“Are you alright, Captain?” Simon pressed, placing a tender hand to his heart. 

“Look at the smile,” Morandi sighed from beside him. “Of course she’s all right.” He dug into his pocket and handed something to her. A wad of paper. “It’s them again.”

Maria uncrumpled it and stared at the thing for a long and hard minute. And then she chuckled. “Only 750,000 common coins? That’s only a little more than last time, no? Say, my dears, is that a lot or a little for a person?”

Printed on the paper she held in her hands was an image of her face and below that her name and below that a name—WANTED. 

“Captain, that’s more than I’ll ever make in my lifetime,” Morandi said pointedly. “And this is the tenth time that this has happened this week. This is getting ridiculous. My men and I have to practically sleep with one eye open.”

“I sleep with a knife by my side, Captain,” one of Morandi’s former crew members, Giorgio, responded. “Er—I mean—Mr. Morandi.” 

“You can call him captain, Giorgio,” Maria chuckled and then hummed. “As long as I’m first Captain.”

Morandi grimaced. “That’ll just confuse people, Captain, although I do appreciate the gesture.”

“Nonsense!” Maria rebutted. “In Capricorn, they have things like First Lieutenant and Second Lieutenant! Do you mean to tell me you do not miss the cool title?”

“I don’t tend to think about it anymore, Captain,” Morandi responded. 

“If you say so, my dear.” Maria turned her attention back to the paper. “I wonder why there’s a bounty on my head…”

“Plundering. Stealing. Arson. Assault,” Morandi began. He gestured to the men and women scattered around the floor. “I heard one of them address another familiarly. They may be all from the same group—the same one as before. These bounty hunters.”

For a moment, Maria thought she could hear Olive listing those things along with Morandi. Olive always seemed to dislike it when she’d engage in these types of things for whatever reason. He was not fond of it at all, and she could always feel him flinching whenever she engaged in combat while they were synchronized. 

“It’s called valuing human life,” he’d grumble. “You should try it sometime.” 

It wasn’t as if she didn’t, so she didn’t understand his point. 

It would be fun though, she thought, for this crew to meet that crew. Chuckling at the idea, she turned to Conta who was standing silently. She pointed to her own face and held up the wanted poster. “Say, Conta, do you think that this picture looks like me?”

Conta stared at her for a long moment, before she replied flatly, “I wouldn’t know, Captain.” With that, she turned on her heels and disappeared below deck. 

Maria stared after her with a slight frown. “Is she still upset…?”

Simon placed a hand on her shoulder. “Just give her time, Captain. She’ll come out of it eventually.” 

“Each time they bring more people and each time the bounty ends up being higher,” Morandi grumbled from behind her. He glanced at Maria when she turned to look at him.  “I couldn’t help but wonder if this is related to our current package we’re to pick up from Pisces.”

“Why would that be when my face is the one on the posters?” Maria inquired. “Is it that you are bothered by us taking this job from the Campanas? I know you used to work for the Foxmans, and they do not like the Campanas, yes? And you dislike them just because the Foxmans dislike them?”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand the complexities of the Twin Cities,” Morandi said, not unkindly. “There’s a certain level of loyalty required, but at the same time discrepancy is accepted.” He crossed his arms, paused, and then arched a brow at her. “How did you know the Campanas and the Foxmans had ill blood? I didn’t think you were one to pay attention to matters like that.”

Maria thought about Cadence’s meeting with the Foxmans and the Romanos that had occurred just the other day. While she had not been synchronized strongly with Cadence at the time, the memory of it had trickled down to her in her sleep as most of their memories tended to do. When Maria inquired about the debacle the next day, Cadence had waved it off as small family drama. Maria didn’t quite understand why people did not speak their honest thoughts; and when Maria asked Cadence this, the Geminian just laughed loudly. 

“It came to me in a dream,” Maria finally said. “But all right, Morandi, if you feel so strongly about it then we will no longer accept offers from the Campanas after this. Even if it is the most exciting offer in all existence,” she exclaimed, bowing low and placing a hand over her heart, “I swear to you that we will not accept it.”

“…Really?”

Maria popped up from her bow. “Of course, my dear. I am no liar and I never break promises. I don’t really understand it fully… but if you don’t like working with the Campanas because Francis, Allen, and Carl hate them, then this will be the one and only time.  At least while you and your crew are onboard, yes? I like to keep things that are mine happy. Is that such a strange thing?”

Morandi regarded her with an unreadable expression. 

“Besides, a friend of mine also doesn’t like them, although she lies about that for some reason, so it’s like that, yes?”

“A friend of yours?” Simon inquired from where he’d been watching the exchange beside them. 

“A lovely friend!” Instead of elaborating any further, Maria clapped her hands loudly and addressed Morandi: “Well, since all of the excitement is over, could you tell the others to tie all of our visitors up and throw them back onto their ship? Let’s send them on their merry way!” 

Morandi’s men grumbled a bit before he gave them a wave of dismissal and joined them in the task of gathering the bodies.

Maria watched them go before she turned on her heels and registered the magenta scarf-wearing woman kneeling on the floor behind her. The woman was busily tying up one of the intruders with some rope she seemed to have procured from nowhere. Maria approached her and dropped down to a crouch to watch her work. The woman arched a brow at Maria before giving either a grunt, a chuckle, or a yawn, and continued on with her work.

“Hey, Ley, yes?” Maria asked. “Those were some pretty amazing-looking maneuvers you did there, my friend! Where did you say you were from again?” 

Ley had been introduced to Maria through the Foxman brothers. She was a very mysterious person, always keeping her face hidden by a scarf and always covering her head with a shawl. She did not speak much but when she did, she always said something entertaining. 

“To these people here,” Ley said, tapping one of the unconscious perpetrators with her foot, “I’m from their worst nightmare.”

Maria chuckled. “That is pretty funny. That is what people usually say about me!”

“They might die, you know. Most of them are injured. If they don’t die of blood loss, they’ll die from hypothermia,” Ley said, nodding to the side of the ship where Morandi’s men were throwing the bodies over the railings into the attached smaller ship below. “While they are criminals, isn’t that a bit cruel? 

Maria cocked her head and chuckled. “Well, I am already showing them enough mercy as it is, yes? And if they come back—well if you are worried—” She gestured to herself widely. “—I am strong, my dear, so I will protect you.”

Ley chuckled. “If you’re that powerful, then why not tie them and keep them on board? Drop them off to authorities when we get to land.”

“I don’t want anything on this ship to hurt or to take what is mine,” Maria said, and that was that. 

***

Pisces was one of Maria’s favorite countries to visit because it was filled with more colors and sounds than any other country she’d ever visited before. Within the borders of Pisces was an even more spectacular port town which—according to Atienna—topped the lists for the number one tourist attraction sites of Signum. 

The city town Hapaira.

It was commonly known in Common as the ‘town of sapphire’ but it was often referred to as the ‘town of hunters.’ The slogan was that “whatever you were looking for, you could find it here.” And Maria found that those words certainly rang true. 

Excitement was always around every corner. Each turn, a chase or a scene. Each encounter, a door opening to a new and exciting adventure. All sorts of people from all walks of life—those from within Signum and those from without—passed through here. 

Maria remembered the first time she came to the Piscese town almost as if it was yesterday— 

The deep blue sea had brightened to a cerulean hue as she had neared the docks that had been spotted with numerous colorful ships of all shapes and sizes. Piscese women and men had cheerfully greeted her arrival before she had even neared shore. They had swung by using surfboards and sailboards and had climbed onboard bringing with them small, tourist-like trinkets like hand-carved pendants and seashell bracelets. Some even performed small water tricks.

Using conductors, the Piscese Elementalists had dipped their hands into seawater and had made the liquid twist into all sorts of shapes—birds, squares, circles, flowers. Then came the festivities. The night of their arrival so happened to be the night of an annual Piscese summer festival. There was chanting, singing, and dancing—all around a large bonfire fueled at the meeting point of sea and land. In the firelight, the darkly inked tattoos of the Piscese seemed to come alive on their skins—dancing, twisting, telling stories.

That night occurred only a week or so after she’d been taken from the Monadic orphanage. And it had certainly been a night to remember. 

And so, on the morning of the day they were to arrive at Pisces, Maria called all members of her ship onto the deck. It was barely dawn so most of them stumbled around groaning and yawning and grumbling. 

“We’ve been here before,” Giorgio grumbled. “It’s not anything new, Captain.” 

“But not with this ship, these people, and this atmosphere!” Maria had rebutted. 

The protests silenced when Raul brought them a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage, chorizo, and coffee. Soon the entire crew was contentedly sipping from warm cups with full stomachs and looking out towards their destination. They weren’t able to see anything, however, since the horizon was veiled by a thin layer of mist, but Maria thought that just added to the excitement. 

Maria tried to reach out to the other five to show them the beauty as well but only managed to get Werner and Cadence synchronized with her. 

Werner appeared to be riding on a v-train of some sort, and Cadence seemed to be sitting by herself in an empty, white hallway that smelled a little bit like alcohol. They seemed like they certainly needed some cheering up. 

Maria drew near to the railings of the starboard port of the ship so they could all get a better look at the sea line. Neither of the two spoke. 

Maria glanced over her shoulder and smiled as she registered Conta standing there. “Do you remember, Conta? Right after the orphanage, they took us here, yes? The pirates.”

Conta stiffened at the address but then replied just as flatly as before: “Yes, Captain, I remember.”

“It’s not like you to reminisce, Captain,” Simon said as he joined them, coffee mug in hand. “Although I understand why. The town is really something else. It almost reminds me of home… the Monadic Temple.” 

With that, they all turned their attention forward just as the ship pulled through the misty veil revealing the city that glistened white on the blue horizon. But—

It was easy to see even from their distance the ruin.

The bay was littered by overturned ships, splintered pieces of wood, and metal cargo containers that jutted up like cliff faces from the seabed. In between all of these things lay fallen palm trees that bobbed up and down in the water and wooden crates that bounced back and forth in between them. The sandy white beaches in the distance were empty and strewn with fallen trees, and the docks looked desolate. 

Saints, that’s not good, Cadence thought with a grimace. What happened there?

“It must have been a storm,” Morandi said from behind Maria as he neared the railings. 

Captain Gloria-Fernandez, came Werner’s gravity. You should be cautious. Just because a storm has passed doesn’t mean the danger has passed. 

“Ay, your worry too much, Lieutenant,” Maria chimed, ignoring the look of confusion Morandi gave her. 

You worry too little, Werner returned before fading from her vision along with Cadence. 

***

It was quiet as they pulled in. Navigating around the wreckage was an exciting event for Maria, although Morandi and Simon didn’t seem to share the same sentiment. Maria cheerfully consoled them all the while and safely docked her boat at the pier. Her voice carried across the waves and seemed to be swallowed up by the void of dead silence around them. 

“Something isn’t right here, Captain,” Morandi muttered under his breath, squinting up at the sky as he followed her off the ship onto the pier. “The seagulls are too quiet. The ocean is too calm.” His leather footsteps against the wood beneath them accentuated his words. 

“You are always saying how you want everything to be more calm and quiet,” Maria returned. “Is this not what you wanted? And, as you said, there was a storm. And—Raul? What are you doing?”

Raul the chef had followed them off of the ship. His sunburnt cheeks were clammy with sweat, and he was wringing his white chef’s hat in his hands. She’d never seen him without his hat before and was enamored by his blonde curls. 

Raul shook his head. “This place gives me the creeps, Captain. I’d feel much safer going with you.” 

Before Maria could even digest the statement, her attention was drawn to the handful of her crew members who had followed the chef off of the ship. Simon, Conta, Ley, and a handful of Morandi’s men including Giorgio were standing nonchalantly behind him. 

“We’re tired of staying on board,” said one. “Time to stretch the legs.”

“I want to sightsee,” said another. 

“I’m the one who knows the location of our package holder,” Simon provided, nonplussed.

“I’ve never been to Pisces before,” Ley explained with a yawn. 

“Emmanuel and some of the others will keep an eye on the ship,” Simon added, “so there’s no need to worry about that.”

Maria shrugged, not really concerned about the ship at all. 

They set off in a cluster. 

Simon tried his best to speak about the best the town had to offer as they walked along the pier, but eventually, he trailed off. The bright and colorful straw-roofed stalls that usually dotted the walkways along the pier were empty. The tent flaps of the barren stalls slapped noisily against the wind in the quiet. 

There was not a single person in sight.

As they drew near the lip of the town, Maria took in the familiar sights. Little shops and buildings—some with stuccoed roofs and others with straw roofs, some with wooden structures and others made of colorful limestone—dotted the red brick path before them. Many of the buildings had extended roofs that oversaw patios spotted with small tables and chairs. 

But once again there was not a single person in sight. 

“Hello!” Maria called out, cupping her hands. 

When Maria turned, she found a pale Morandi and even paler Raul standing behind her stiff as stone. The others who had come along with them were also rigid save for Conta and Ley who were both looking around curiously. 

“Captain, please refrain from doing that,” Morandi said. 

“How will people know we are here if I don’t shout?” 

“That’s not—”

“Aw, my dears, are you possibly frightened?” Maria asked cheerfully. “You all know you are safe with me.”

If there was a response, Maria did not hear it and continued into the town. The others followed quietly behind her.  

The deeper they went into the town, the more the silence became evident as the crashing of the waves onto the sandy beach faded away behind them. The buildings here were wooden and painted with bright vibrant shades of reds, blues, yellows, and even greens. They had open, glassless windows, and many had doorways that were covered only by colorful pieces of hanging leather tarp. 

Maria spied someone peering in through one of the windows of the buildings. She waved at them, but they flinched away and shut their shutters. Strange.

“Captain, there’s someone sitting over there.”

Maria followed the direction of Ley’s gesture to a very pretty man who was seated at a table in front of a sweets shop. He had silky blonde hair that was tied up in a loose ponytail and was dressed in a loosely buttoned blue blouse over which a checkered suit jacket was thrown. There was a teacup in his left gloved hand and a newspaper in his right gloved hand.

The man continued to calmly sip his tea and read the paper at their approach and only set the cup back on its platter when Morandi cleared his throat. 

“Hello there!” Maria greeted him as she took a seat across from him. The chair was wet, but she didn’t mind it. “You look like you know many things, my dear. Do you know why you are the only one sitting here when it is such a lovely day?”

“I’m afraid I’m as befuddled as you are, miss.” The man smiled politely. He spoke in Common, his accent thick and Cancerian. “It appears as if something has occurred in this town.” His cerulean gaze swept the area. “People are afraid, no?” He paused to take a sip of his tea. “I’ve only heard rumors, but it appears as if this town has been visited by a monster of some sort. A beast.”

“The Golden Beast?” Maria perked up.  

“No.” The man shook his head with a perplexed expression. “I don’t believe that’s what it was.” 

Maria felt a bit disappointed at that revelation, but curiosity soon followed. “If it is not the Golden Beast then what beast is it?”

“I believe they called it the beast of the deep,” the man answered slowly. He then chuckled and shook his head. “Just a series of terrible storms. People always supernaturally explain away things they don’t understand. My, in fact, I know a Libran who—”

“You speak as if the supernatural is not real. Super means ‘cool’ and ‘best’ in Common, yes? So supernatural should mean the best cool of the natural, yes? Natural as in normal, so supernatural as in the best normal! Do you follow?”

The man stared at her silently. 

For some reason unknown to her, Simon and Morandi sighed from behind her. 

Abruptly, the Cancerian man reached across the table and grabbed hold of Maria’s hand and placed a kiss on top of it. “Miss, I tried my best to resist, but your beauty is too captivating. And your words have captivated me further. May I perchance have your name?”

Maria flipped the man’s hand in her own and then tugged it forward so she could return the gesture. “Maria Gloria-Fernandez.”

The man stiffened at first but then smiled genially. “I am Chevalier Renée LeBlanc.”

“Chevalier…” Maria turned the word over in her mouth.

Renée flipped his ponytail over his shoulder

“Why does that sound so familiar?” 

For some reason unknown to her, Renée looked as if he’d been slapped. 

“That’s because Chevaliers,” Ley began from behind her with a stifled yawn, “are Cancer’s best Conductors. They’re knighted—which is a big deal there—by the monarchs and receive medals from the prime minister.”

“Wow, you are so knowledgeable, Ley,” Maria praised. 

Renée cleared his throat loudly. “Yes, that is me. Chevalier Renée LeBlanc. I know I have been in the papers quite a few many times, but it is nothing, truly.” He paused to flip his ponytail again. “Anyone can do that. That is nothing in the face of your beauty, my lovely miss, so I must ask if you would like too—”

“Thanks, Renée!” Maria chimed as she shot up to a stand and slapped him on the back. “Those were some interesting things you’ve said!” She squeezed his shoulder and added as if an afterthought: “Oh, would you like to accompany us on the journey, Renée? It is always more fun with more people, yes?”

A pause.

Morandi cleared his throat. “Captain—”

“No, Miss Gloria-Fernandez, I apologize but I must decline,” Renée interjected with a faint smile. “I am here in this town of hunters in search of something myself. As much as your radiance blinds me, I cannot lose sight of what I am here for.”

Renée was rather… dramatic.

Maria stared at him for a long, silent moment before she chuckled at the thought. “Well, alright then, Beene, I think I understand.”

“It’s Renée,” Renée corrected, still smiling, before he returned to his tea and newspaper reading. 

As they walked away from the man and his table, Morandi approached Maria’s side and whispered into her ear, “Captain, don’t you find it strange that he was sitting out there by himself?”

“Not really,” Maria said. “It is a nice day, my dear. Who would not want to enjoy this weather?” She then pointed to the sun beating above their heads in the clear blue sky. 

“Of course you wouldn’t…”

*** 

Simon led them straight through the town while continuing on pointing out where attractions usually were.

 It was certainly a unique experience—seeing all those brightly painted houses and stores with no people in them, and seeing those grand white limestone, intricately designed arches that connected one side of the street to the other without tourists posing for pictures in front of them. There were four of them total along this road and each one was more detailed than the next.

The first time Maria had seen the arches, she had been awed by their detail. Her favorite one was the one carved ocean currents that flowed up both sides of the arch and met at the top to form a splashing wave that resembled a smiling face. On her first night here, after enjoying the Piscese festivities, she had climbed on top of the second arch to better see the design. Conta had been in a panicked worry, fretting from below as Maria had made her ascension. 

From even this distance, however, Maria could tell that the designs had been worn by the weather. Although the designs were still mesmerizing, they were now a bit faded. 

They passed a store that sold surfboards out front, and Maria pondered whether she should go pluck one off of its stand and carry it with her. She brushed the idea aside after a bit more thought. 

It was about fifteen minutes later that they arrived at their destination, a small wooden house painted a bright blue shade. A sign hanging from the extended roof of the store read Post Office. Its red-painted door read the same thing as did the sign at the window. 

Humming, Maria approached the door, pushed it open, and stepped forward. A squelching sound beneath her leather boots gave her pause. At first, she thought it was blood but then realized it wasn’t sticky enough to be that. She peered down and saw her reflection staring back up at her. 

Water. 

The entire floor was sopping wet with puddles of water. No—the entire building was. It dripped down from the waterlogged counter at the back of the shop, dribbled down from the flickering v-light fixtures hanging overhead, and glistened on the peeling walls.  By the smell of it, it was seawater. 

“An Elementalist…” Ley muttered. “But to cause this much damage…”

Maria held up her hand and entered the building. She stopped short when she heard footsteps following behind her and turned to see the others huddled only a meter away. 

Maria turned forward again and approached the empty counter at the back. The mailing slots behind it were clumped with soggy stacks of newspapers, envelopes, and folders. She peered over the counter. 

There was a body there on the floor. A large man with a balding head and black tattoos inked onto his bare, dark arms. He was laying on his stomach, face planted into a puddle. 

Maria leaped over the counter and crouched beside the man. She turned him over. Morandi and a couple of the others gagged from behind her, and Maria spared them a glance before she peered closely at the man’s face. His cheeks were pale and bloated, his eyes a bulging milky white. 

“That’s Elele,” Simon murmured, placing a hand over his heart. “He’s the one who was supposed to be holding the package for us.”

There was something in his mouth, and she reached over to pry it from his lips. A wad of paper. She unfurled it and came to a familiar sight—her own face printed with bleeding ink. 

“You don’t think those bounty hunters did this, do you?” Raul asked. He was standing beside her stiffly on his tippy toes as if he thought he’d fall right through the puddles if he put his full weight down. 

Maria slowly rose to her feet, turned to them, and then smiled. “Well, if that is the case, it is time to hunt instead of be hunted, yes?”

Pisces is a vibrant country with a rich culture and people. Rivers, canals, lakes, and other bodies of water comprise 75% of its land. Due to the constant sunshine that falls upon the land, many of its locations are listed in the official top ten tourist attractions list of Signum. Numerous conservation groups have been put in place by its government to perseve its beauty.

Countries of Signum by Various Authors, 20th edition

7.3: Werner’s Efficiency (Esitazione)

Re-cap:

Synchronization has occurred. Werner has uncovered the insurrection plot orchestrated by Major Ersatz who had been working with the terrorist organization ELPIS to eliminate the Ophiuchian peacekeepers sent over to negotiate the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict. Ersatz is brought down and arrested with the assistance of Nico Fabrizzio, a childhood friend of Cadence Morello whom Werner discovered amongst his Aquarian prisoners during the conflict. Nico arrives as a combat medic at Werner’s division following the conflict’s conclusion. With Nico comes an underground agremeent between the Romano Family and the Capricornian Army regarding modified conductors.

Not long after, Werner finds himself back on the battlefield. While in the middle of a volatile mission, he is overriden by a well-intentioned Olive who orders a hasty retreat from combat. The before and after surrounding this event are… 

Abschnitt 45, Capricornian-Argoan Border, Capricorn

Thirty-four days after Major Ersatz’s arrest at the Capricornian-Aquarian border by the Ophiuchians, Werner and his squadron were deployed back out to the southern border. They were ordered to take up station at the Argoan border outpost they were positioned at prior to their rerouting to the Capricornian-Aquarian border. The tactility of this particular outpost was a topic Werner considered often. 

A trench stretching one thousand kilometers to the east and seven-hundred fifty hundred kilometers to the northwest gouged the ground at the location. Another fifty kilometers had been added to the line since they had left. 

The construction of the new area was as remarkable as the previous areas: equipped with living space cleared out many meters below the ground. The network of stairs beneath the surface was also commendable and allowed swift and easy transversal. The Elementalists and Conjurors tasked with construction had also managed to run insulating cables through the entire network, so generator conductors were able to power the v-lights strewn through the tunnels. 

Behind the trench on their side of the border grew the last bits of the Welschen Woods and past that was their main camp. On the opposite side was a strip of bulleted land that stretched for 220 meters. Beyond that would be trenches dug out by Argoans. The Capricornian Border Force—regardless of unit, standing, and ranking—rarely ever came close enough to that side despite the decades they had spent defending against it. A stalemate stretching from near the end of the Reservoir War until now. And a stalemate stretching from a southeastern section of the Capricornian border into a southwestern quarter of Aquarius. 

Werner supposed that was one reason the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict was resolved so efficiently. Both countries were already busy skirmishing on the southern front with Argo, a large country beyond Signum that was hungry for more land. Despite their common enemy, however, there had been no word of negotiation or partnership between the Aquarius and Capricorn against Argo. Not even a proposal. Werner reasoned that their cultures, militaries, and military strategies were too different for those developments. Catastrophe and lack of coordination through union. But maybe in time… 

The southern trenches would often fill with rainwater due to cold fronts from the north meeting warm fronts drifting up from the south. Fortunately, this too had been accounted for and there were drainage systems built into the construct. 

Are you sure this is a battlefront? Olive had thought when he had first laid eyes on the trench. It’s pretty luxurious… 

Efficiency and luxury were two different things. 

But the misconception was understandable. Battle was not around every corner, so it was easy for an onlooker to think this way. Waiting around for things to come was commonplace. The times between offensive mission assignments and defensive battles varied inconsistently, sometimes stretching for days and other times existing for mere minutes. 

Many of the soldiers spent the time staring off into the distance, working on small handcrafts, or playing cards. 

Werner, however, bided his time on matters that would prove useful in the future. Going over past movements, inventorying conductors, running through training exercises, and holding weekly meetings with the other five. 

When battle did come, it often came without warning. A single shot cracking in the distance could mean either another long day of silence or a short day of a firefight. Neither tended to have beneficial outcomes when compared to the cost

Conversely, Werner knew exactly when mission assignments would come to him. It was always after a storm or after a new surge of soldiers would arrive at the front. Opportunity or resources. This time, it came after a rainstorm that lasted three days. 

For this particular assignment, Captain Weingartner had ordered Werner and his division to take hold of a breach in the Argoan line caused by a flash flood from the storm and to send for reinforcements once the area had been secured. And so Werner had taken his best men—including the ones who had accompanied him through the Wechseln Woods four months prior—and two water Elementalists who had just been transferred in for the journey.

It was not a long trek, although it was a waterlogged one and one filled with corpses. The Elementalists cleared the area out easily, sweeping away small puddles of rainwater with a flick of their gloved conductors and drowning the Argoans who straggled along the path. 

They slowed their pace when they neared a patch of boulders that seemed to have been swept out of Argo by the flood. It was not a perfect vantage point, Werner thought, as it was barely above level to the Argoan trench. 

Regardless.

It would not be efficient to press forward before the area was secure, and it would not be efficient to lose his men. And so, Werner ordered his Projectors forward and his Conjurors and Elementalists backwards. He sent a pale-looking Otto Vogt back down the line to inform the command center that they’d secured a vantage point. Then, they began firing. 

This particular Argoan trench had flooded over completely and resembled more of a river than anything else. The Argoans who dotted the area were busily emptying it out one bucket at a time.

When the first vitae bolt hit its target, the Argoans scrambled away. However, they had nowhere to run. Some jumped into the flooded trench to try to swim across it while others ran along its length. 

All of them, Werner picked off easily with his fellow Projectors. 

Through his scope, he followed a particularly young Argoan who fell over the body of one of his comrades whom Werner had sniped prior. The boy scrambled over the corpse for five long seconds, before he appeared to give up and resigned to covering his head with laced fingers. 

It was sad.

Werner hesitated. A grave mistake. 

The young Argoan abruptly reached for something pinned beneath the body of his fallen comrade and whipped it around. Werner recognized the sleek shape and the glint of the glass almost instantly. There was a flash of vermillion. 

And then came the barrage of vitae bolts. Argoan reinforcements, all wielding conductors, pouring in from the opposite side of the flooded trench. 

The sight was startling. The occurrence, almost improbable. 

Outside of Signum, conductors were exceedingly rare. In fact, they were considered luxuries rather than commodities. This had always put Signum—and Capricorn—at an advantage when compared to its exterior, neighboring countries. Of course,  what Argo had lacked for in conductors, Argo had made up for in numbers and production. But now, even though these Argoans were clearly inefficient at using conductors, their numbers… 

As Werner ducked below the barrage of sloppily aimed vitae bolts, he digested the gravity of what this meant. 

One of the water Elementalists was caught by a ray of vitae and hit the ground dead. The other Elementalist was sent scrambling away on all fours before curling up into a ball. Useless. A miscalculation. Those two were evidently not trained well enough for this. A mistake on Werner’s own part. 

And that was when Olivier Chance showed up, green eyes glowing in the dark grayness around him. Just like that night in that small town in Wechseln Woods four months ago during their first synchronization. At that time, Werner had felt the prince’s revulsion and disgust as if they were his own. But this time was different. This time Werner felt Chance’s fear, terror, panic. They were foreign feelings. 

The detonation of a conductor grenade thrown over the rocks provided him some clarity, although also some injury. He managed to get a hold of himself and ordered one of his men to go back to camp and inform the other officers of the Argoan conductors and call for reinforcements. His voice barely carried over the booms of the vitae rays.

The Argoans had more numbers, he knew, but they were untrained. They would be able to hold them until reinforcements arrived. The odds were 0.78 to 1 in their favor. Right? 

And then, in the middle of all of that chaos, Olive reached out for him—

—and he was swallowed into blackness. 

Werner struggled against the darkness for an uncountable amount of time but it was fruitless. Eventually, exhaustion seeped into his bones dragging him deeper and deeper under. 

Goodnight, Werner. 

It was a peaceful voice. One that he recognized. The voice that scratched at the back of his head four months ago when he’d omitted the fact that he’d come across modified conductors to Major Ersatz at the Capricornian-Aquarian border. But it was not a voice that belonged to the other five. 

Who was that

—and in a heartbeat, he was pulled back into consciousness. 

Faint yellow light drifted down from a v-light fixture above him, and the faded curtains drawn around him swayed gently. It would have been peaceful if it were not for the voices and sensations that flood his mind. The other five: all synchronized at varying levels, all shouting inside of his head. 

He could barely discern who was who amongst the chaos. From what he could gather from Atienna’s explanation, it appeared as if the group had lost contact with both him and Chance. 

There was a useful revelation in this. That was the first thing Werner realized. Even if it was for the briefest moment, the connection he and Olive had with the other four had been severed. This was a key. However, his memory of those events was hazy as if lost in a fog. A dream. There was something important he was forgetting, he knew. A thorough debriefing was in order. From Chance especially. 

But there was silence from Chance’s end. The Ariesian prince was certainly there but he was keeping away with all he could. Werner could feel this. Before Werner had the chance to address it, the curtains opened and a figure peered in at him. It was Nico who let out a sigh of relief with brows furrowed with worry.

“Werner…?” Nico tried.

Who else would it be? Came Morello’s amused thought. Y’know—

The synchronization he had with all of them abruptly weakened before Morello’s could finish the thought. A positive event in this case. He needed to get his bearings. 

“What happened?” Werner asked. And then the memory of battle came at him in full force. The success, the failure. He recognized that he was in a medical tent now, so he knew he was behind the trench lines. In other words, it must have been a disaster. “The mission was unsuccessful. The Argoans…”

How many had he lost?

Nico opened his mouth and then closed it before he opened the curtain a bit further and glanced behind him. 

Gilbert was standing there with crossed arms. The man searched his face with a frown before relaxing and placing his hands on his hips. Then he sighed and looked to his left. 

Werner followed Gilbert’s gaze and froze. 

Klaus Kleine. The Lance Corporal stood beside Gilbert and nervously toyed with the nodules on his conducting gloves. He met Werner’s eyes and then glanced back at Gilbert. 

Cold realization swept down from Werner’s head to his toes. The answer was clear. It had happened again. An override.

“What happened,” Werner repeated.

Gilbert and Nico exchanged looks before Gilbert gave him a debriefing. Short, concise, but thorough. 

Shame coiled red and hot inside of Werner’s chest. A retreat. He had ordered a retreat. Against orders. And he had been discovered by Kleine. How did he appear to them now after what he’d done?

His palms itched at the thought. 

“Hey, I know this looks bad, but whoever that was really saved our asses,” Gilbert said after he finished his explanation. “While you were enjoying your nap, I got word from the other divisions who were ordered forward too… the Argoans wiped out half of ‘em with those conductors. They barely managed to get your message around fast enough. They’re shit usin’ ‘em but there were just so many that…”

Sighing, Gilbert shook his head before he continued:

“You know the one positive I thought we had about being sent back here was that we wouldn’t have to face Conductors. That’s the one thing I was looking forward to about this place when we were out near Aquarius. Call it homesickness. But at this rate, the higher ups’ll never let us retire.”

Werner folded his shame away carefully. This was not the time to be thinking of such things. 

Argo’s acquisition of conductors was something momentously consequential. It spelled a changing tide for Capricorn. In the scope of that, even Kleine’s knowledge seemed minuscule. But it could not be disregarded. 

“Kleine,” Werner said slowly as he rose to a stand. The man flinched under his gaze, but that did not reassure Werner at all. “Follow me.”

Werner shared a brief look with Nico before he led Kleine out of the tent and deep into the woods. Werner could hear Kleine’s hesitation increase with every progressively heavier, slower step. Once they reached a sparse patchwork of trees ten or so meters so away from the medical tents, Werner stopped short and turned to face him. The Lance Corporal stiffened in turn and took one step back. 

“So you are aware of the details surrounding my current circumstance.”

Kleine swallowed and nodded. “Not fully, sir, but Second Lieutenant Wolff told me about how you are… uhm… er… somehow connected… mentally?  To others around Signum. And how it started when you were injured on the eastern front.”

Werner allowed a long stretch of silence to pass before he asked, “What will you do with this information, Kleine? Why does it interest you?”

Kleine floundered, looking everywhere but Werner’s face. “I… sir, I’m just… interest—curious. Not in any malicious way. For research—” 

A phantom pain throbbed at Werner’s abdomen. 

“Research.” Werner’s eyes narrowed. “Research implies that you plan to make this information public. Is that your intention, Kleine?” 

Kleine shook his head stiffly. “Sir, it’s not like that—”

That is diligent of you, Lance Corporal,” Werner found himself saying as he leaned in. “I don’t blame you for doing that. You’ve recently received a promotion. It’s only natural that you’d want another one even if it means doing something underhanded like this. And for a person like you, the easiest way would be through—”

“Sir, it’s not like that!” Kleine’s flushed shout was somewhat startling.

Werner pulled back. “Then what is it, Kleine?”

“Sir! It’s because I think I know someone like you!”

Werner froze as Kleine’s exclamation rang out loud and clear. 

“Kleine, lower your voice,” Werner said, scanning the clearing. “And explain yourself fully.”

Kleine glanced around the area before nodding. He continued in a voice that was only slightly louder than a whisper: “She was a girl in my village. Düllenberg. It’s small. Just off the border with Ophiuchus. Uhm. We grew up together—me and her. School—uhm. We were friends… But she just… changed suddenly. I didn’t understand it.” He stared at the ground like it was a distant memory. “Like a different person. She left. Disappeared. My village said that she just went crazy but—”

Werner frowned. 

“—I knew it was something else. I just couldn’t understand it. But then I saw you in the woods that night with the Aquarian captain. I knew it had to be something. I… I need to know… what happened to her.” 

“And this is the truth?” Werner pressed, voice even.

Kleine stiffened once more but then met Werner’s eyes and nodded deeply. “Yes, sir, this is the truth.”

Werner took a minute to digest this information and its consequences. First, there was the matter of whether this was a truth or a lie. Then there was the matter of the result of the lie or the truth.

Another group like theirs? That did seem possible if one looked at the statistics at large. It would be naive to think that they were the only ones who were in this circumstance. 

But there was also a possibility that this was a lie or a mistaken observation. If it was a lie, then…

Major Ersatz flashed into Werner’s memory, and again a ghost pain throbbed at his abdomen. 

There was no use panicking over this situation. Execution was unreasonable and traitorous. Blackmail, unobtainable. Torture, highly consequential, unreliable, unsound, cruel. Careful observation and control would resolve this issue. If there was ill intention here, Werner would excavate it carefully. 

“I understand from Second Lieutenant Wolff’s debriefing that you’ve agreed to keep this issue a secret,” Werner finally said. “I appreciate your discretion and hope that you will maintain it. I ask that you be transparent with me in the future, and I will be transparent with you. I also would like more details on this friend of yours if you are willing to provide it.”

Kleine brightened almost instantaneously, like Atienna when she would discover a book she found particularly fascinating. 

“Of course, sir,” Klaus almost shouted, throwing up an unneeded and awkward salute. “We can find out more about this together. I-I’m sure of it! Thank you for trusting me!”

This was not a matter of trust. 

***

Werner knew that his behavior had been absolutely unacceptable. Although Chance had been the one to enact those actions of retreat and disrespect, Werner knew that he himself had been the one to allow it. Therefore, he himself would have to take responsibility for it. And so, ignoring Gilbert’s objections and Nico’s advisement of rest, Werner headed to the main tent to speak with the captain after his conversation with Kleine. 

The walk to the command tent was one that was lined with silent men and women. They kept their heads bowed low and did not speak with one another as he passed. Some did stare, however, and Werner found himself wondering exactly what they thought of him. Of his recent actions. 

The captain was sitting at his desk at the center of the tent when Werner arrived. He was mulling over documents and did not seem to register Werner’s arrival until he was only a meter away from the desk. 

Weingartner paused and looked up somewhat dazed. “Waltz, what are you doing here? I thought Fabrizzio put you in for three days bed rest.”

Werner offered a salute. “Captain Weingartner, Fabrizzio has cleared me for duty. I am here to address what happened during the mission prior.”

It was a lie. A ridiculous one that didn’t need to be said. Morello…

Weingartner looked skeptical. “Fabrizzio cleared you?”

“With all due respect, sir, I am fine,” Werner replied. “I am here to take responsibility for my earlier actions.”

“Responsibility for…?” Weingartner frowned before realization lightened his features. “Oh, right.” He rose, rounded the table, and came to a stand in front of his desk. “Well, I’m sure you’ve heard the news trickle down already. We’ve lost half of our battalion because of it. The Argoans and the conductors. We’ve lost…” Weingartner abruptly slammed his fist on the table behind him and sent the papers resting on it fluttering into the air. A pen rolled off and landed beside his foot. Muttering an apology, Weingartner bent down to pick it up. 

There was a beat of silence, and Werner was able to hear gentle patters tapping along the top of the tent. It was starting to rain again. 

“Are you alright, sir?” 

Weingartner froze and studied Werner with raised brows before he murmured, “Yes…” He placed the pen back on his desk, before he continued slowly, “You made the right call on the retreat, Waltz. We were unprepared for the Argoans. The capital is sending more units down now. This is going to look more like the Aquarian-Capricornian conflict than anything else.”

The hot tightness that had been gripping Werner’s chest lessened slightly. So he was not seen as a coward then. This was good. 

Regardless, this spelled danger for Capricorn. 

“So you’ll understand the urgency of this next mission I have for you,” Weingartner continued, “I understand that after everything, you may want to recover…” 

“Like I’ve said, sir, I am fine.”

“As always,” Weingartner said with a gentle smile. “This involves the deal Capricorn made with that organization in the Twin Cities. The Romano Family. The one you forwarded to the capital.”

Werner didn’t allow himself to tense and remained silent.

“There have been certain changes made to the agreement on our end of things. I informed Fabrizzio of this several weeks back.” Weingartner turned away from him. “Fabrizzio has already contacted our associates in Gemini about the change, and they are expecting Nico to come up there alongside a particular representative of ours in several days.”

Nico hadn’t mentioned anything like that. Part of Werner was upset at the fact, but part of Werner could see the logic behind it. He assumed the former feeling belonged to Cadence. 

Wait. “Representative”? The dots connected.

“I see. With all due respect, sir, I believe there are more qualified officers available.”

Captain Weingartner nodded in agreement. “It was a request by the Romano organization. I can only guess that they want to have the person who sparked this deal present for… cultural purposes? I’ve heard that Geminians tend to value friendship and family very highly. There’s no need to worry though, Waltz, you won’t be delegated the duty of negotiating the affair. Just a formality.”

Weingartner waved his hand to dismiss the thought before he continued:

“On the official papers, it will be marked down as a temporary leave offered to enlisted soldiers who have recently performed exceptionally. That way Ophiuchus won’t be inclined to look into it and rumors won’t start among the men. Similar to how we handled Fabrizzio’s transfer.” Weingartner grimaced. “It’s all so convoluted. Ophiuchus seems to regulate things so tightly and somehow underground modified conductors slip right beneath their noses.”

“I’ve heard that Ophiuchus allows the operations of those organizations because the organizations prevent more dangerous, less controlled groups from taking over,” Werner provided. “Ophiuchus’s blind eye has helped organizations like the Romano Family better control the city and lower the crime rates, but it has also made Ophiuchus oblivious to the organizations’ more criminal actions.”

“It’s impossible to achieve clean peace then, hm?” Weingartner gave a noncommittal grunt and smiled slightly. “Well, it certainly looks like your head is in order now which is reassuring.” He paused to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Even if that’s the case, we still have to go through these precautionary measures. Due to the cover up, you will need to select some from your division to accompany you.”

“I will take Second Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff, Emilia Bergmann, Derik Stein, and Klaus Kleine,” Werner said after a brief moment of thought. 

“Second Lieutenant Wolff is aware of our agreement with the Romano Family. That’s a good choice.” Weingartner smiled briefly. “Kleine’s performance has improved recently, and Bergmann and Stein are due for a promotion.”

“Yes, sir.”

Weingartner picked up a manilla folder from his desk and flipped through it. “A colonel by the name of Fritz von Spiel will be joining you at the Twin Cities. He will be acting as the main negotiator. You’ve heard of him, yes?”

Werner had come across Fritz von Spiel only once before. It had been at a dinner party following his graduation from the military academy. Fritz von Spiel had been an alumnus at the academy and had prepared a grand, patriotic speech at Werner’s graduation prior. He had congratulated Werner for completing his coursework at the top of his class and had then proceeded to blatantly flaunt his money at the women whom Werner had graduated with. 

Fritz von Spiel was from an extremely wealthy family and lived in an extremely wealthy state. Von Spiel’s father had been an accomplished officer during the war, and von Spiel carried that like a badge of honor. As Gilbert had put it, “bastard flaunts all that status and wealth like it’s his own or something.” When Werner had initially heard Gilbert say this, Werner had voiced his disagreement with the disrespect. Now when Werner thought on it, however, he supposed Gilbert did have a point. The last time Werner had heard of von Spiel was through a news article detailing the man’s recent military failure a year or two back. But if von Spiel was to be a negotiator on this matter, perhaps that indicated that the man had improved himself.  

“Yes, I’ve met him once.” 

“Good, well, the train departs tomorrow evening, so it’s best that you inform the ones you’ve chosen now. I’ll fill out the paperwork and send it up to the capital in the meantime.”

A pressure on Werner’s shoulder drew his attention away. He turned his head slightly. It was Cadence. 

Her synchronization was at a high enough percentage to ensemble him to physically see both her and her surroundings. A dimly lit bar, it seemed. The Sognare. Again. 

“Just happened here accidentally,” Cadence said before winking. “But your transmigration to the Twin Cities ain’t no accident. Put in a word for ya with the heads a while back. Thought you could use some vacation time. Didn’t expect it ta come so soon, but hey. It works.”

You have more pressing matters on your end than my situation, Morello, Werner returned. The Romano-Campana meeting that was only one day away. And this is not a vacation. 

Yeah, yeah, whatever ya say. Anyway, I think I’m kinda understandin’ what’s goin’ on right now so… what are ya gonna do about glasses? Cadence quirked a brow. Do ya really believe his spiel about knowin’ someone that might be like us? 

I don’t believe in things until I see proof of it. I will investigate Kleine and handle the matter accordingly. 

No trust for your fellow soldier, ‘ey?

Major Ersatz flashed into Werner’s mind. And then Usian and then Wtorek Izsak.

This had nothing to do with trust. 

***

The rumors spread throughout the line quickly. Pointless rumors filled with words of envy and spite. A waste of energy. Werner and his selected group did not stay to hear such rumors and departed the following morning. 

They took a v-ehicle to the nearest town with a v-train station. Werner requested Wilhelm Fischer’s assistance in operation of the locomotive as the v-ehicle needed to be returned to the border afterwards, and Fischer happened to be one of the few in the division who knew how to operate a v-ehicle.

Halfway through their journey to the town, the generator conductor to their v-ehicle ran empty. There were no vr-stations around due to the remoteness of their location, so they had to resort to the extra generator conductors they had stored at the back of the v-ehicle.  

Fischer struggled for half an hour with replacing the thing before Werner found himself rather excitedly stepping in for him. 

Werner deduced it was Olive’s knowledge and enthusiasm that spurred the excitement, but the boy was still keeping at a distance. 

Inefficient and pointless, Werner thought as he worked away at connecting the insulating cables to the new conductor.

An unasked-for synchronization would happen between them sooner or later, and a confrontation would occur regardless of the prince’s wishes. Putting it off did nothing. 

When Werner finished with the ordeal, he was covered in sweat, a thin layer of soot, and a thick layer of grime. Usually when it came to dirty matters like these, he would make due to quickly clean himself of the filth so he would be presentable. This time, however, he found himself taking a step back and taking in the results of his labor.

When he turned, he found Gilbert smugly smiling, Nico smiling lightheartedly, Kleine looking on curiously, Stein looking on somewhat impressed, Fischer with embarrassed admiration, and Bergmann with confusion. Wiping his hands of the oil and grime with a spare rag as nonchalantly as he could, he ordered them to dispose of the old generator conductor so they could be on their way. 

When they reached the town, Fischer wished them luck before loading into the v-ehicle and slowly rolling away into the setting sun. 

“He’s probably jealous.” Stein snickered, nudging Kleine on the shoulder with his elbow. “Right, Kleine?”

Kleine startled and glanced at Stein with slight fear before chuckling nervously. “I-I guess…”

They boarded the train, loaded their baggage swiftly, and found their way to their seats. Half an hour later and the train departed. An hour in and Gilbert had fallen asleep. Three hours and five minutes in and Werner’s eyes began to droop. Three minutes later he was asleep and fell into a twisted dream. 

He was standing at the center of an empty room. A large window with frost eating up its edges stretched from the ceiling to the floor in front of him. A silver moonlight spilled in from the outside. The touch of it was cold, draining the color of everything it reached. Faintly he could hear a rumbling from just beyond. Thunder.

He heard her enter the room from behind him, and he turned.

There she stood. Long, thin, pale. In her hands was a stick. Long, thin, pale. 

There was a crack of thunder that hid away a more frightening sound. 

“How many times have I explained this to you, Werner?” There was tender love yet disappointment in her voice. “Without the opinions of others, you are nothing.” 

Another crack of thunder and a flash of lighting that bleached everything white—

Werner startled into consciousness and straightened himself. He looked left, right, and forward. Gilbert, face pressed up against the dark window of the train, was snoring away at his left. At his right was the train hall and beyond that a booth occupied by a dozing Kleine, a quietly snoring Bergmann, and a loudly snoring Stein. 

It was like Gilbert and Stein were competing to see who was snoring the loudest. Any louder and they’d shake the entire train apart. Annoying, really. 

Werner immediately recognized the thought as belonging to Olive and reached out to him. Again, the prince skirted away. 

Avoiding responsibility and confrontation like this did no one any good. It created more complications than solutions. 

Shaking his head, Werner glanced at the seat across from him. It was empty. Nico was nowhere to be seen.

Werner reached into his uniform and pulled out his pocket watch. He flipped it open, studied the hands. Five hours, seven minutes, and forty-five seconds had passed since they had boarded the train.

The tapping of footsteps drew his attention away from the ticking of his pocket watch. He turned his head to find Nico who was approaching their booth from down the hall. The man slid quietly back into his seat beside Kleine. They locked eyes as he eased himself in.

“Sorry,” Nico whispered. “Did I wake you?”

“I was awake before,” Werner responded curtly. “We aren’t going to the Twin Cities for recreation, so I advise you rest too.”

“I tried.” Nico offered a rare grimace. “But—I hate to say it—I’m nervous to go back.”

“Then you need to conquer your anxiety, Fabrizzio,” Werner returned. “Nerves will create unreliability during our meeting, and we need everything to proceed smoothly.”

Nico paled and then grimaced. “Sorry, Lieutenant, but I don’t have a stomach of steel like you. I’m sure Cadence has told you—or shown you—a lot of my less than stellar moments.” 

Werner shut his watch and slid it back into his pocket. “Nico, you will most likely only need to speak a few words at the beginning of the meeting. The rest will be handled by Colonel von Spiel and Ricardo, Francis, and the others. To put it simply, we are mere decorations for the meeting. Reuniting with your old… acquaintances will only be stressful if you make it so. You’ve only been gone for four months.” When he looked up, he found Nico staring. “What is it?”

“Sorry…” Nico mumbled. “It’s just interesting seein’ you talk about Ricardo and Francis like you know them. Now I’m trying to picture what it’d be like if you grew up with us in the Twin Cities.” He chuckled. “All I can see is you lecturing Carl and Cadence. You’d probably be Allen’s favorite.” 

“… That’s a ridiculous thought.” Werner frowned. 

“Yeah, I guess.” Nico glanced out the window. “I still can’t believe Fortuna got proposed to…” He grimaced again but this time childishly. “…by someone from the Campana Family of all things. Everything’s changed so fast…” His reflection was somber. “Thanks for that update by the way. Can’t believe how hard it is to get a good line at the southern border. When they do get through to me, it’s just business.”

Werner had indeed informed Nico about Ambrose’s initial proposal to Fortuna at Cadence’s request. Cadence had claimed that she needed a “gossip buddy” and had promised to help keep synchronization meetings on track if Werner were to act as a line between them. Prior to this, she had requested him not to inform Nico of Francis’s stabbing, so he had been surprised at this. “It ain’t worth gettin’ him worked up about it,” she had said. 

A lie of omission. 

It was not his concern, however. It was not his intention to inform Nico of the development to begin with, so he had complied with that request as well. 

“Whoever that was that overrode you…” Nico drew suddenly. “… he had… an interesting way of speaking.”

Werner resisted tensing. “Yes, I once again apologize for his behavior.”

“I thought he was charming.” Nico chuckled. 

Werner couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not. 

“Are you all right after all of that though?” Nico continued. A frown was pressing down on his lips. “I mean, it’s the second time that this has happened… and from what you’ve told me… this mostly happens to you—the override…” 

Werner’s palms began to itch. “I appreciate your concern, Nico, but I will resolve this issue on my own.”  He turned away from the man and ended with, “As I’ve said, get some rest.” 

It was only after Nico drifted off that don Ricardo Romano was stabbed. 

Argo is a southern country beyond the continent of Signum. It is a large country with a population equivalent to that of all of Signum’s countries combined. There are no vitae reservoirs within its border, and its means of garnering energy relies on an older method that has been long abandoned by Signum’s countries. It shares its border with both Capricorn and Aquarius but frequenty encroaches into the former two territories. As a result, there are constant skirmishes at the south of Signum.

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, Beyond Edition

7.1: Olive’s Bravery (Codardia)

Re-cap:

Ariesian Prince Olivier Chance, having spent the past six years rejecting everything after the Tragedy of Aries took away of his family, is now accepting that he must move on forward. After surviving an assassination attempt by the Watch and an attack by the former peacekeepre Izsak Wtorek, Olive has decided that he must complete the State Conductor Exam and leaves the royal palace life behind him. He hopes by completing the exam, he will be able to gain better access materials that may help in understanding his sister’s condition–his bodyless, ghostly sister whom only he and the over five can see.

Three months have passed since he’s left New Ram City with Trystan at his side and now…

Thousand Name City, Sagittarius

“Chance, the minutes from last week’s meeting.”

This was pointless.

“Chance, if we don’t clarify what topics were discussed last week then this meeting and subsequent meetings will be meaningless. We need to understand what each of us has been doing and what we will be doing in order to not interfere with one another.” A pause. “Besides, this will aid you in the interview portion of your Conductor Exam.”

Olive didn’t see Werner’s logic but he figured he’d humor Werner like they all had been doing for the past three months.

Werner’s image resided in the corner of Olive’s room. The man was sitting at the round table, hands clasped in front of him. A gray rain cloak caked with dirt, mud, and grime was thrown over his shoulders. The uniform and medals beneath his cloak were, however, as immaculate as always. 

“Fine,” Olive sighed walking over to his desk drawer. After arching a brow at Jericho who was standing beside it, he pulled out a bound notebook, flipped it open, and began to read: “The first five minutes of last meeting were spent reviewing what happened in the meeting before that. I summarized my arrival at Sagittarius and how my studying and research and search have been going, Cadence talked about the Campana-Romano drama that’s been going on, you gave a very detailed report on the Argo…” Olive frowned and looked to the side. “…front. Atienna just left for Aquarius with—”

“Sorry, Olive, but may I ask Cadence something before we move further?” Atienna interjected. Her image was sitting across the table from Werner. She was bundled up tightly—wrapped head to toe—in swaths of colorful silken cloth. The only part of her that he could see were her eyes that twinkled with their usual inquisitiveness. 

Olive shrugged.

“Cadence, have you gotten any farther in that book I gave you?” Atienna pressed. “I believe it was thirty pages long, so I was hoping it wouldn’t be too much…” Olive could feel her smiling beneath her scarf. “But I understand if you’re a bit busy with everything going on…”

“Do not give her excuses, Atienna,” Werner interjected. He sighed, offered her an almost apologetic look. “I understand your perspective, but we all have things we need to do regardless of our circumstances.” He raised his head in Cadence’s direction. “Well, Morello?”

Cadence was leaning against the wall with crossed arms. “Guys, come on, what’s the point? I mean, if I need ta read somethin’ I can always get one of ya to help me with that.”

Olive was still rather surprised that Cadence was illiterate. She seemed to be verbally fluent in almost every other language in Signum, so Olive had assumed that had applied to her reading ability too. He’d only found out about her illiteracy two months ago when he had synchronized with Jericho at random. At that time their random synchronizations were still a bit awkward—not that they weren’t awkward now—and the peacekeeper had let slip that Cadence had called upon him to help her read a notice that had been posted outside her favorite bar. The news traveled fast after that.

Werner frowned. “We still don’t have a complete handle on this synchronization. You may be put into a situation where you will be required to use those skills without our assistance.” 

A life-or-death situation where Cadence would need to read to survive? That sounded like the plot to a terrible book.

Werner gave Olive a pointed frown. The man really did believe that a situation like that was a possibility. Made sense. ‘Nothing could be left to chance’ was his law. 

“I mean, we’ve got enough of a handle on the synchronization to have meetings like this once a week.” Cadence shrugged.

“We can make it happen approximately 65 percent of the time. We cannot prevent it from happening. And while we are beginning to grasp the ability to decrease synchronization, we still can’t prevent the desynchronizations that occur at random,” Werner amended. 

“Exactly.” Cadence unfolded from the wall, hands wide-spread. “If I’m in a pickle I’ll just keep throwin’ out a line till I connect to one of ya.”

There was a mental sigh from somewhere. Although Olive couldn’t quite pinpoint who had given off the feeling, he knew which of them hadn’t. Jericho and Maria. 

During his entire note reading routine, Maria had been wandering around the room marveling at the different types of furniture. Her first comment had been about his bed which was a thin but fluffy mattress laid straight across the wooden floor. While rambling on about how marvelous it was to see a Sagittarian-style bed again, she had strayed over to his bird’s cage and was now inspecting the animal inside.

“Captain Gloria-Fernandez,” Werner began.

“My turn, yes?” Maria hummed before she threw herself back on Olive’s bed. She folded her hands beneath her head and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m off to Pisces to pick up something mysterious!”

“Ya can just say that ya got a delivery pick up for the Campanas,” Cadence said, peering down at her. “I’m not the type to hold that stuff against ya. I mean, like I’ve said I’m just a Romano associate. No hard feelins.” 

Maria twirled her hair. “Hm? What do you mean? Did I not mention that?”

“‘Course. Forgot who I was talkin’ to.” Cadence chuckled. She then nodded to Jericho. “And how ‘bout you, slicker?”

During the entire conversation, Jericho had been doodling away in a small leather journal. He’d been doing that a lot lately, and Olive attributed it to either Doctor Kingsley’s work or Atienna’s suggestion. Werner had lectured the peacekeeper on the importance of paying attention during meetings a while back but had given up about two months ago. The reason? Despite the supposed distraction, Jericho always seemed to be able to keep track of what was going on in the meetings. A weird sort of multi-tasking ability. And with Werner, as long as things were efficient, then they were acceptable.

Closing his journal, Jericho said, “I received the letter about my ELPIS Department application. Yesterday.” A pause. “I’m unsure if you already know this. But I was rejected.” Stated concisely without a hint of shame or embarrassment. Not so much as a flush even after a long stretch of silence passed. 

“Right.” Werner ruminated. “I will coach you on your next interview then.”

Jericho cocked his head slightly. “My last interview went well.”

It had not gone well. 

They had all bared witness to Jericho’s one-on-one interview two weeks prior. The first chairman of the ELPIS Department, Agent Leona, had still been in the Twin Cities at the time, so the second chairman of the ELPIS Department had conducted the interview. The first thing Jericho had done was follow through on Cadence’s advice of complimenting the interviewer. So Jericho had complimented the second chairman on his wonderfully balding head. “It sparkles nicely,” he had said. Then Jericho had considered Werner’s advice of exemplifying his personal strengths by connecting them with his previous accomplishments. Jericho took this literally and informed the chairman of how he’d beaten an ELPIS member to the point of unconsciousness with only his strength and his suitcase. It had only spiraled further from there. 

“Improvements could be made,” Werner finally said.

He was being gentler than usual.

Cadence drifted over to Jericho and gave him a tight squeeze on the shoulders. “Don’t overthink it too much. We’re all a bit lackin’ somewhere—”

Cadence was cut off as she appeared before them, floating down from nowhere like usual with her dark black hair falling into place just as they turned to face her.

“Hey, Lavi.” Cadence offered a tilt of her hat and a grin.

“Hey, Cadence.” Lavi waved. She peered at Werner. “How are you doing, Werner?”

“I’m doing fine, Lavi,” Werner answered curtly. “Thank you for your—”

Maria shot up from the bed and bounded over to Lavi’s side before taking the girl’s hands in her own. “I’ve been waiting for you to appear, Lavi! Really! I wish we could speak freely without my dear Olive having to be present all the time.”

Before Olive could even react to the unintended insult, Maria continued:

“I saw something magical two days ago! It was a sea creature! I know you like these types of things, yes? So I tried to catch it, you see. My men said it was impossible, but nothing is impossible, yes?”

“When it comes to you, yes,” Lavi agreed with a chuckle.

Maria was a dangerous influence for sure. But Lavi…. 

Lavi was different from them. The more Olive spent time with the others, the more he started to realize it. The fact was that Lavi did not seem to be connected to the others at all. She could not synchronize with them nor did any of their memories seem to trickle down to her. The only connection she had with them was through him. 

“Enough. We need to stay on the subject at hand,” Werner stated clearly, concisely. It was amazing how his voice carried despite him not actually shouting. Olive supposed that was something one picked up when they were in a position of leadership.

“—fifty cens worth if you find the right market. ‘Course, you can transmute that kinda stuff and fake it but that takes the fun out of it.”

And somehow, during Olive’s split-second of distracted introspection, the conversation had derailed to this extent. He arched a brow at Cadence who appeared to have joined in on Maria’s antics. Despite being connected to the former woman, he had a hard time telling whether or not she was truly invested in these meetings. 

“Enough,” Werner repeated, turning to Atienna almost as if for assistance, “we need to at least get through this meeting—” He trailed off.

And Olive could see exactly why.

With even Atienna looking more amused than concerned, it was already too late to salvage this meeting.

Abruptly, a loud boom echoed from Werner’s end, and the man shot up to a stand staring off into the distance. Olive hesitantly peered deeper into Werner’s surroundings. The man had been sitting on a small boulder hidden behind a cluster of rotted trees. The sound had caused the ground to shake and sent the droplets of water collecting on his cloak to splash up into the air.

Without another word, Werner bent down to pick up the conducting rifle he’d set beside him and turned away from them all. And just like that, as if by a pair of saintly pliers snapping down on a single link, the chain between them all disintegrated. 

Olive swallowed, half-tempted to reach out and start another synchronization. He paused, however, when he saw Lavi standing beside the bird cage with her hands folded by her back. Peering at him, she quirked a brow. 

He held out his free hand in turn, palm up. For a moment, there was nothing. And then pops of crimson light danced around his fingertips. Pops that sparked into embers that twirled around his fingers. 

The sight of it was still nauseating, the smell kickstarting a headache at his temple. But… with practice every single day like Werner had recommended then maybe—

Lavi’s gaze brightened, and she gave him a small applaud. 

A knock at the door jolted Olive causing him to dispel the flame vitae with a wave. He turned back to his sister only to find that she had apparated into thin air once again.

After snapping his meeting notebook shut and shoving it back into his drawers, he walked across the room and pulled open the door. It was Trystan Carter, the former Ariesian head royal guard turned his personal guard. Even though Trystan had shed the honorable Ariesian title, he hadn’t yet shed the demeanor that came with it. Straight backed with furrowed brows even though he didn’t have anything to prove. Pointless. 

“Are you ready, your highness?”

***

The afternoon sun hung low, shrouded by a thin layer of clouds that crawled across the skyline. The wind was fresh, clean, and light, almost like a glass of cold water on a particular hot Ariesian day. 

Olive took in a deep breath. And then sneezed. He shivered and accepted the coat Trystan pulled out from his travel pack.  Shrugging it on, he took in the cityscape.

It was much more open here in this Sagittarian city than in the tight network of interconnected marketplaces of New Ram City. The flattened dirt roads were wide and lined with medium-rise buildings that had tiled roofs that sloped down in a curvature. In-between the v-streetcars that rolled along the crisscrossing tracks pedaled men and women on bicycles. Half of them were dressed in neck high buttoned shirts and silk dresses that went to their calves, while the other half wore loosely folded garments. There were a couple of bicyclists around his own age, all dressed in what resembled black sailor uniforms. Students, probably.

“What will it be today, your highness?” Trystan asked. 

Olive inclined his head across the street, and Trystan followed him over to a restaurant there. 

While Trystan went in to grab a table, Olive wandered over to the newspaper stall across the street. As he approached, he took in the two large posters that hung from the sides of the stall. A water-color portrait of a man with an elegantly long beard and a cone-shaped crown at the top if his head. There were characters underneath the portrait that Olive could not read but he assumed it said something along the lines of “All Hail the Emperor!”

The stall vendor there peered down at Olive through his circular glasses at his approach, stroked his graying mustache, before grunting and disappearing behind a stack of papers in the back.

Crossing his arms, Olive perused the displayed papers. Each rack boasted the same article albeit in a different language. But not Capricornian, not Geminian, not Virgoan. Not even Common. The newspapers were in the different languages of Sagittarius

Upon Olive’s decision to come to this country, Werner had questioned him on which languages of Sagittarius he was familiar with. Olive’s subsequent confusion resulted in Atienna gently and Cadence amusedly informing him of his ignorance. Atienna had then further elaborated on the diversity of the Sagittarian languages in a lengthy lecture. Each one of the ten clans of Sagittarius had its own respective language paired with its own unique characters, dialects, and alphabets. 

This resulted in this particular city having eleven names. Ten in the different languages of Sagittarius, and one in Common. The Common name for it was Thousand Name City. 

Whoever had come up with that name was ahead of their time, Olive had thought when he’d read the Common sign that was stacked up on top of ten other signs at the city’s north entrance upon his initial arrival. 

The stall owner abruptly popped back up at the counter and waved a newspaper in Olive’s face. It was in Common. The man gave a surprised but pleased grunt as Olive handed him five Sagittarian wuen-dongs in exchange before the former dipped back into the depths of his stall again. 

Tucking the paper under his arm, Olive joined Trystan back at the restaurant. They were seated by one of the open paper windows and were served two cups of piping hot corn tea. After taking a sip, Olive began to peruse the newspaper.

The first article detailed Ophiuchus’s adoption of a highly advanced vitae-spectrophotometer that would enable them to solve cases more efficiently through vitae-color identification. A small time Ariesian conductor engineer had spent months developing the device and found recognition upon debuting it at New Ram City.

The second article was a political opinion piece about Virgo’s current diplomatic relationships with Libra, Pisces, and Aquarius and how everything was still in the preliminary stages. About how everything was so uncertain. 

The third was about a weaponized proto-conductor that was able to store a Conductor’s vitae in a way that made it available—properties, abilities, and all—for another Conductor who was not of the same conducting type.  At the moment, only Conductors who were able to utilize vitae intraneously were able to store their vitae within the device.

Olive wanted to dig his nails into this proto-conductor. He had caught a glimpse of them on Cadence’s end when she’d been tasked to keep tabs on Matilda and her delivery crew a month or so back. The proto-conductors has been among the deliverables. When he had pressed Cadence for details—about whether it operated similarly to conducting grenades—Cadence had merely responded with an impish smile. 

“Well, wish ya’d be that enthusiastic when you were taking to me about normal things,” she had said. 

“Your highness—” Trystan began, bringing Olive out of his thoughts. 

“Not here.”

“Sir—”

“Weird for someone older to be calling someone younger sir.” Olive could see Trystan taking a deep breath from the corner of his eye.

Finally, Trystan said, “I still think finding a translator would be best, Olivier.” He waited until the waitress brought them two bowls of soup and left before continuing. “I admit that your understanding of the Sagittarian languages is… impressive. But we need to find someone who can translate the written word for us. You’ve only been reading the Common texts, but I truly believe that Sagittarian ones would be very beneficial for your exam studying.” He glanced around the restaurant and continued in a quieter voice, “Besides, the way Sagittarian wind Elementalists utilize vitae through their conductors might—”

“Be helpful in showing me how to control the way I use vitae without a conductor?”

Trystan stiffened, eyes darting around the room. “Olivier, please, don’t talk about your ability so loudly. Someone might be listening.”

“Why?” Olive arched a brow. “Everyone’s going to see it when I take the practical portion of the exam anyways.”

Trystan looked as if he wanted to argue further. But instead, he said, “We should still find a translator.”

“I know,” Olive grumbled, lowering the article and tapping his fingers on the table, “but I’d rather get a translator who can also get us access to that Sagittarian temple that the guide mentioned.”

Bodhi Temple.

“A temple not of religion but of wisdom,” the guide had said. “It has sovereignty over itself, and Ophiuchus the Sagittarian government barely touch it. It’s a sacred place. If you’re seeking knowledge, you’ll find it here—of course, gaining entrance is no easy feat. That’s why Ophiuchus hasn’t ever reached that place!”

“Of course, Olivier. I see your point.” Trystan picked up the bowl and began to sip before he paused and said hesitantly, “I understand your apprehension, but perhaps we could ask—”

“Only when I’m desperate,” Olive interjected quickly.

*** 

After they finished breakfast, they boarded one of the nearby v-streetcars enroute to the heart of the city. The scenery flitted by in streaks of reds and blues and flashes of yellow. The same colors greeted them when they boarded off of the tram, albeit suffocated by a thin cloud of haze that hung low in the air. Bodies were pressed up against bodies, stalls pressed up against stalls, tea stores on top of tea stores. Shops filled with bright and colorful fruits Olive had never seen before dotted the spaces in between them all. 

It was an almost familiar atmosphere to him. Almost.  Despite the familiarity of it all, Olive felt uncomfortable. It was much colder here despite the close proximity of everything. The wind seemed to find its way through even the narrowest of spaces, but the people did not seem to so much as shiver. 

Olive spent the entire day with Trystan scouring the city’s center looking for a freelancer who met their qualifications. There were many who claimed they did, but a quick questionnaire from Trystan shut many of them down.  

They finally found their man just before they boarded the last tram of the day. The Sagittarian was a former monk of the temple they were in search of and had studied the written language of all the clans there exclusively. He was an old, wiry man with a long, white beard and with a wisdom in his eye that twinkled every time he smiled. In other words, he fit the image of what they were looking for perfectly. He also was, however, a worldly man and requested a down payment of 400 Sagittarian wuen-dongs. 

Suspicious.

But Olive was tired and annoyed and nearing the point of no longer caring. It was just money. 

Trystan seemed a bit concerned on putting down such a large down payment but conceded when the Sagittarian provided to them with documentation proving his residence and his studies there. Trystan, who also seemed tired and rather annoyed, happily provided the man with the sums. 

After receiving the funds, the man informed them that he would need to quickly pack his things and that he’d be back shortly. Before they could put in another word, he disappeared from their sights. 

After waiting for two hours, Olive said, “Our two brain cells work wonders together.”

Cadence appeared then and with a somewhat sympathetic expression confirmed for Olive that they had been swindled. And that was the end of that. Let me lend ya a hand next time, kid. Just call out ta me. I know a liar when I see one. 

***

As Olive was winding through the city in defeat the next day with Trystan in search of a breakfast place, he found his thoughts straying to Werner. The booming sound that had cut off their meeting from Werner’s end was still engrained in his memory. It had sounded like thunder almost, but slightly more mechanic. 

Werner hadn’t synchronized with him above the thirty percent level since the incident. While Olive knew the man was alive and unharmed, Olive couldn’t help but feel anxious. He hoped Werner didn’t know that. 

Out of all six of them, Werner, Cadence, and Jericho were the ones who got their hands the dirtiest. Maria didn’t count since her view of the world was a complete outlier. But those three—their lives were filled with violence and death every single day, and yet they didn’t seem to pay it any mind. Or maybe they were just pretending. Or maybe…

Olive absentmindedly wandered into a small bookstore as he continued mulling and selected a book from the first shelf he saw without so much as a thought. Trystan followed him, patiently studying the spines of the books crammed into the small shelves. 

And what about me, Olive thought to himself, all I’m doing is studying for this stupid exam. I’m not even close to finding out about what I can do for Lavi.  It didn’t feel fair at all. Olive brought the book to his face and buried his head into it. Stupid exam. Stupid Sagittarian temple. Stupid guide. I’m really… 

“Your highness?”

With a sigh, Olive lowered the book from his face. And then he froze. 

Storm clouds were slathered across the sky. Low, overbearing, like they could drop down and crush him at any moment. There was a terrible smell in the air, and the dirt beneath Olive’s feet felt wet. Stretched out before him was a muddy marsh that was peppered with small craters and fallen trees. Jutting out in-between the scattered trees and waterlogged holes were boulders that stood as tall as him. 

A crack of thunder rumbled on the horizon. No. Not thunder. A conductor. A Projector’s vitae ray. A flash of light blue. 

This was not the bookstore. 

Chance?

Olive turned his head to the left.

Werner was tucked up behind a boulder there. His cloak was dripping with dirt and rainwater, and his usually combed back platinum blonde hair was falling into his face. The rifle conductor in his hands gave off steam. It had been fired recently.  

Their gazes met.

Werner’s eyes were terrifying. They almost seemed to glow an ice blue in the darkness. A razor sharp focus. Eyes that had just taken a life. 

 Olive could still feel the tightness of the man’s finger on the trigger of his conductor. 

You shouldn’t be here. 

“I didn’t mean to…” Olive managed. He glanced behind him and saw a group of Capricornian soldiers huddled against a cluster of rocks. And—

—a body. There was a body lying right behind Werner. Rather, it was half a body. The uniform was Capricornian. The blood staining the periwinkle uniform was beginning to wash away with the rain, and the mud seemed to be consuming what little was left of the Capricornian’s body. It looked as if the mud was going to swallow it hole. 

A bright flash of light and a terrible whine exploded just behind Olive pulling his attention away. A jolt of pain throttled every limb in his body, and he was left gasping for breath. But this wasn’t his pain. It was Werner’s. But Werner wasn’t harmed. Olive knew this. He felt this. But.

Olive shook his head, attempting to dispel the ringing in his ears and searched the swampy ground for Werner. There.

The Capricornian had been thrown back several feet by the blast and was now beginning to bring himself back up into a crouch. Without glancing at Olive, he returned to the cover of the boulder—half of which had been annihilated by the blast—and signaled his groaning, recovering men to lay low but move forward.

“I need three men on that target,” Werner ordered. “They may have gotten their hands on conductors, but they don’t know how to use them efficiently. Otto, go back to base and report that the Argoans at the twenty-third section have conductors. We need reinforcements.”

“But—”

“Go!”

The ordered man scrambled to a stand and darted back through the muddy swampland. Werner, however, remained pressed up against the rock. He locked eyes with Olive and answered the unasked question—

I’m staying. I was ordered to gain control over this section. I will hold here until we have reinforcements.

Without another word, Werner turned his back to Olive, aimed his conductor, and fired. 

What? But this was crazy. Why were they still pushing forward? There was no way they’d win. No way. 

Olive had seen it because Werner had seen it. They were outnumbered. Even if they came out of this with a win, it wouldn’t be worth it.

Run away. They all had to. If they didn’t then they would—Werner might—

Olive reached out for Werner’s back but—

—then slipped forward and face-planted into the mud. He scrambled to his feet and reached for Werner again. But Werner was nowhere to be found. Realization dawned a beat after as he registered that his outstretched hand was gloved. Werner’s hand. 

“Lieutenant?!” 

Someone scrambled to Olive’s side. A familiar-looking man with dark black hair and glasses splattered with mud and water droplets. There was blood running down his face. 

“Lieutenant…?”

Olive stared at him, and the man stared directly back.

“How many grenades should I conjure, Lieutenant?! Do you need another conductor?!” 

Olive opened his mouth and then closed it. 

“Lieutenant?!”

And then Olive reached out and grabbed the man’s wrist. The man stiffened, looked down at Olive’s grip, and then back up at Olive.

“Retreat,” Olive said slowly, quietly, so quietly that he wasn’t sure whether he’d said anything at all.

“… what?”

“Retreat!” Olive snapped, jerking the man towards him as he scrambled to a stand.  “Do you not know what that means?!”

Without waiting for a response, Olive began to run, dragging the man along with him. They had barely made it a foot away from the rock before there was another flash of light and the entire thing exploded into fragments. One of them fragments caught Olive’s temple, and he stumbled forward blindly. When he caught himself and looked up, he found a cluster of Capricornian soldiers staring at him wide-eyed and gaping. 

“Retreat!” Olive shouted at the flabbergasted soldiers huddled in front of him as he tugged the glasses-wearing man along. “What will staring do? Retreat—now!”

There was only a split second of confusion and hesitation before the soldiers scrambled upright and began to flee backwards. Olive followed after them, tugging the glasses-wearing man along with him for only a little while longer before he shoved him forward to run on his own.

Their flight was met with a rain of light from the direction that the grenade had come from. Vitae rays. 

Olive didn’t know what was worse. The boom they made as they pelted the ground around him, or the moment of blindness he had when one hit an area in front of him. He didn’t know at all. All he knew was that he had to run.

 Run. Run. Run. 

Olive wasn’t sure how long they ran for but eventually his knees gave out and he collapsed on all fours. Everything was a haze. Footsteps around him, panting, gasping. Was he even still alive? He fisted the mud and felt the cold seep in between his gloved fingers. Something wasn’t right. He felt sick. Saints. He felt sick. He wanted to heave but couldn’t. 

A pair of feet entered his periphery.

Olive struggled to a stand, still panting.

A man with peppered grayed hair was in front of him. The man looked like he could be a schoolteacher if it weren’t for the dead look in his eyes and the mud and blood caked to his military uniform.

Olive recognized this man. He was Werner’s captain. Captain Weingartner. The man’s lips were moving—

“—retreat?”

What?

“Werner, what’s going on? Why did you retreat?”

“Werner.”

Olive blinked at Weingartner through a haze of heat, dirt, and sweat. In the background, he could make out the shapes of heaving, shifting soldiers. He swallowed, panted, blinked. Wiped the sweat from his face. What in the world was going on? 

He could feel the wetness of the air, feel the grit of dirt rubbing in between his toes and the rubber of his shoes. The squelching of rubber against mud, the absence of the open breeze, the cling of cloth against his sweaty back.

Something was definitely wrong. Why was he still here? Why—

“Lieutenant Waltz, answer me—”

“If you really like the sound of your voice that much you should be a politician.”

As soon as the words left Olive’s mouth, his heart stopped. In the place of the thrumming of his heart, he instead felt the beat of Werner’s heart. Hammering, thumping, beating.

The full weight of what he had done sunk in. 

Olive stared at the captain, and the captain stared back. And then the captain’s eyes narrowed.

“Lieutenant Waltz, would you care to repeat that?”

A stampede of sloshing footsteps from behind Olive cut him off before he could retort.  Someone clamped a hand on his shoulder and jerked him backwards. Olive turned his head. 

Brown hair and slate gray eyes. A half-grin, maybe smirk. Gilbert Wolff. Werner’s Second Lieutenant and childhood friend. Someone who knew about the synchronizations. Vague memories came to Olive’s mind.

“Captain Weingartner.” Gilbert gave a salute. “I think Lieutenant Waltz may have a concussion. I saw him hit the ground pretty hard earlier before the retreat.  I think I should take him to medical.”

Captain Weingartner looked apprehensive.

And so, for effect, Olive promptly bent over and puked. 

***

Gilbert guided Olive through a ridiculously slippery path. Every step led to a mudslide that the Capricornian had to rescue him from. Olive had resisted at first but eventually conceded to the man’s help when he ended up slipping right into a five foot pit at one point. After a mile or so of silent treading, they came across a large stone slab. When they rounded the rock, Gilbert grabbed Olive’s shoulder and spun him around. 

“Werner?” The man’s eyes searched Olive’s for something he evidently did not find. He then tried again in Common: “… who are you?” Gilbert opened his mouth again in the silence that followed but paused and continued to stare.

Olive felt uneasy under the man’s gaze, but then realized why the man was gazing at him so intensely. Olive was shaking. His shoulders were trembling. He wasn’t sure if it was from the frigid cold that was burning his cheeks or—

 Saints. He was pathetic.

Olive jerked himself away. “Don’t touch me.”

Gilbert recoiled and raised his hands, eyes wide with surprise. He paused and swallowed, before he said, “My bad.” His gaze lingered. “The tent’s this way. Nico’ll probably know how to handle this better.”

They found Nico in the first of a series of lined up tents that were set up behind a cliff face a mile deeper into the forest. When they entered, Olive was immediately overwhelmed by a putrid smell. The smell wasn’t an overwhelming alcohol-filled slap to the face, but it wasn’t a nauseating wave of suffocating iron either. It was a terrible mixture of both.

Pulling the crook of his elbow up to his face, he recoiled away from the tent’s flap. Gilbert paused and turned back with a raised brow. Undeterred. Olive dropped his hand and frowned.

“It smells.”

Gilbert nodded. “Well, yeah.”

After a beat, he followed Gilbert into the tent. Blinking away the tears that formed at the smell that permeated within, he surveyed the interior.

There was a row of beds lining each side of the tent with nothing between them besides an occasional metal cart. The beds were occupied by uniformed men and women who were pale yet sweating. Some of them looked like if they moved even an inch they would die from exhaustion. 

A coldness gripped Olive’s insides at the sight of them, and he felt as if just by breathing in the same space as them he was decreasing their chances of survival—  

“Hey, you home?”

Olive ripped his gaze away from the groaning woman on the bed closest to him and came face-to-face with a frowning Gilbert Wolff and a pensive Nico Fabrizzio. 

Olive regarded Nico. Cadence’s longtime, childhood friend. Olive had only seen flashes of Nico from the handful of Cadence’s memories that had trickled into his mind since their six-way connection began. In those memories, Nico had been a teary-eyed, curly-haired mess of a boy who followed Cadence around like a lackey. Now he stood before Olive tall and almost dignified. Almost intimidating.  

“So you’ve switch places? You guys call it an override or something, right?” Nico drew slowly in Common, wiping his gloved hands on a rag at his side. “You can’t switch back?”

Olive’s teeth were clacking inside of his mouth, and he was sure if he tried to answer he’d bite his—Werner’s—tongue right off. Nico’s eyes widened, and he headed to the back of the tent.

“Nico’s the only medic in here,” Gilbert provided. “So you don’t need to hold your breath.”

When Nico returned, he was holding a folded blanket which he held out to him. After a long beat Olive accepted it and threw it over his shoulders. He shrugged into its warmth. 

“So.” Gilbert crossed his arms. “Why’re you here?”

Olive scoffed. “You’re acting like I want to be stuck in the middle of a mud swamp in the middle of a death zone. We obviously don’t share the same interests.” When he registered Nico’s wide-eyed stare, he clarified. “I’m not a masochist.”

Nico’s gaze softened. “Right. This must be pretty terrifyin’ for you.”

The pity in Nico’s eyes was infuriating. 

“I’d be more terrified of someone who wasn’t terrified of something like this,” Olive returned. 

Nico and Gilbert exchanged a look. Right. After the whole fiasco with Major Ersatz, Cadence, ELPIS, and the Aquarians, the two men had somehow struck up some weird sort of friendship. Olive personally didn’t understand it. From what he’d seen from Cadence’s and Werner’s memories, Gilbert and Nico were almost complete opposites. Weird. Creepy. 

Then again, these were two people that Werner trusted. And Olive himself could feel that trust the man felt for them so—

“This is the first time I’ve overridden someone, so I’m on edge.” Olive shrugged the blanket closer around him. “Maria’s the only one who’s done it like this before, but she’s something else so I can’t draw from her or anything.”

“Okay. That’s alright.” Nico nodded encouragingly. “Do you know what you were doing before this happened?”

“I doubt it’s going to help, but all I was doing was looking for books to study for the Conducting Exam,” Olive recalled. “And then I synchronized with Werner. And I—”

“Study for the—how old are you?!”

Olive sent Gilbert a pointed glare before looking away. “Not as old as you are obviously, old man.”

“Old man?!”

“Look, I just wanted to…” Olive grimaced, fisting the blanket. “…help. I wanted to help. Excuse me for not wanting to jump into a suicide run.”

“So you were the one who ordered the retreat then. Not Werner.” Gilbert pulled back and sighed. He ruffled his hair and rolled his neck. “Well, that makes more sense.” He gestured to Nico and then to Olive. “So, what do you make of this, Nico? Can you fix it?”

Nico’s shoulders sagged. “I… I honestly don’t know. Sorry. But… Werner is all right, right? What are the others in your group saying about what’s going on?”

“The others…” Olive reached out for them as he’d done countless times before and then froze. He reached again—this time a bit more desperately.  There was a vast stretch of cold emptiness in the intangible space they’d always hazily occupied. It wasn’t like those times when their synchronization fell below thirty percent. Even then, he was able to feel them in the distance. Nothing like now. Nothing like this pit that reminded him too much of those six years after the tragedy. He covered his ears hoping that maybe all the groans of the death and dying were just too loud for him to hear them, but— “I can’t feel the others…. I can’t.”

“It’s okay. Calm down.” Nico was easing him down onto a crate at the corner of the tent. “Just relax.”

Olive lowered his hands, suddenly feeling weak. He was glad that he was sitting. If he wasn’t, he probably would’ve just fallen to—maybe even through—the ground then and there. “What if…” What if he was stuck like this? What if Werner was—

A brush on his shoulder cut the thought off. 

“Look, kid. If you’re really connected with Werner, you should know he’s much tougher than that. Don’t worry about things that don’t need to be worried about.”

Olive glanced up. It was Gilbert. The man looked uncomfortable, and his hand was barely, delicately resting on Olive’s shoulder—like he thought that even the slightest touch would make Olive crumble to ash. Olive wasn’t sure whether he should be annoyed or laugh at the ridiculousness of it. He’d seen Gilbert’s demeanor through Werner’s eyes, after all, and delicate was definitely not a word to describe the man.

“I really don’t need reassurance from someone who’s been stuck as a Second Lieutenant for four years,” Olive said after a beat as he pulled away from the man and unfolded from himself. 

“Hey!” Gilbert pulled his hand away and then frowned deeper, rubbing the back of his neck. “Did Werner tell you that or something?”

Clownishness aside, Gilbert was right. There was no use feeling sorry for himself.

Olive held out his gloved hand. Clenched it and unclenched. The leather that was sticking to his sweating palm felt like it was ripping his skin right off. Why did Werner even like wearing these things? “Atienna said something about emotional state having to do with it but—”

“I-Is Lieutenant Waltz, alright?” came a question asked in Capricornian.

Olive felt his nausea intensify as he lifted his head. Standing at the flap of the tent was the Capricornian soldier with flattened black hair and a pair of round glasses—the soldier Olive literally dragged through the mud in his escape. The blood had been cleaned up off the soldier’s face, and he was now sporting bandages around his head. The man’s name was coming to Olive now. Klaus Kleine. A Conjuror in Werner’s squadron who was present during the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict.

“What are you doing here, Kleine?” Gilbert asked in Capricornian, stepping in front of Olive casually. “You know Nico can’t fix your glasses if you’ve broken them again. Can’t you conjure yourself a new one?”

Flushing, Klaus Kleine pushed his glasses up the bridge of his short nose and stammered, “I-It’s not that, sir. I just wanted to see if the Lieutenant was alright. He helped me during the retreat.” Klaus looked up. Their eyes met. 

Olive reflexively glared. 

“Is the Lieutenant—”

“Look, Kleine,” Gilbert sighed in Capricornian as he drew to the tent’s entrance, “it’s great that you’ve got yourself promoted to Lance Corporal, but don’t get ahead of yourself. You still have a couple more ranks to go before you can be friendly with the First Lieutenant. Hell, look at me. I’m only one rank under and—” 

“Does this have to do with what happened to the Aquarian Captain three months ago?”

Olive’s heart skipped a beat. Before Olive could even think of what Klaus was implying, Gilbert grabbed the man by the scruff and dragged him into the room. Klaus stared wide-eyed at Gilbert and struggled to stay on his toes as he was lifted off the floor. 

Werner was going to be so pissed. 

“Hey, saints, calm down—” Olive began to mutter with a frown. A sharp pain abruptly struck his temple, cutting him off short. 

“Yeah, Gilbert, let’s hear what he has to say first,” Nico agreed. 

Gilbert and Klaus glanced at the combat medic, before the former released the latter. Klaus stumbled back and steadied himself before he said something quickly in Capricornian. Clipped and harsh as usual. But—and a chill crept up Olive’s spine as he realized this—Olive could not understand what the man was saying. His head buzzed at the revelation, and he tried his best to hang onto the words the two Capricornian soldiers exchanged. But it was gibberish.

What was going on?

Even at the very beginning of their connection, Olive had been able to understand vaguely what the Capricornians had been saying on Werner’s end despite only speaking Common fluently. So now why—

Gilbert had turned to him was now addressing him in Capricornian. 

The sounds meant nothing to him. 

Gilbert seemed to have recognized his confusion, because his brows rose and he asked in Common, “Oh yeah, you don’t speak Capricornian, right?”

Olive shrugged and didn’t comment on the oddity. There was no point in panicking about it. It’d just cause more problems not worth the trouble.

“Well,” Gilbert continued in Common, “Kleine here says that on the day the Aquarian Captain disappeared, he saw a certain someone with that Aquarian Captain waltzing through the woods. Apparently there was a confrontation between that someone and Kleine, but Kleine here decided to keep his mouth shut for curiosity’s sake.”

Maria. Of course it was Maria.

 Olive narrowed his eyes first at Klaus and then at Gilbert. “What did you tell him?”

“Only what Werner told me.” 

Olive stiffened further. His mind raced. Werner would definitely not want to involve any more people he knew in this mess. Out of all six of them, Werner had become the most stringent about keeping things discrete and quiet after the events following Ersatz. 

Swallowing his alarm, Olive muttered, “You must be the type of person who tells people where you hide your money. Might as well tell the entire world at this point.”

“Kid, enough with the brattitude already.”

Klaus said something again in Capricornian before he got a nudge on the back by Gilbert. Klaus startled, glanced wearily in between them, and then spoke in accented Common: “Ever since then, I have been…” He seemed to struggle to find the word. “… keeping an eye out. I knew it was something else. The Lieutenant is good at appearing normal, but I watch. Carefully. I thought Lieutenant had condition.” He gestured to Nico and Gilbert. “I thought Doctor Fabrizzio transferred here to help with condition. But then secrecy between you three so I figured something else. Did not expect this. Phenomenon.”  He mumbled to himself a bit more before he gave a salute and hesitantly extended his hand. “Lance Corporal Klaus Kleine.”

Olive frowned at the extended hand before pointedly crossing his arms. “I know who you are.” He looked away and found his gaze fixated on the unconscious woman on the bed again. He wasn’t sure if she’d become several shades paler since he’d walked into the room or if his eyes had adjusted to the light. He squeezed his arm and muttered, “It’s too convenient. That you’d be interested in helping Werner. It’s suspicious as hell.”

Klaus stared at him wide-eyed before giving an uncertain look to Gilbert who shrugged nonplussed.

“Look, Olive, right?” Gilbert gestured to him offhandedly. “I don’t know where you’re from, but here, we don’t have time for that. Save that for the politicians. If Kleine really wanted to run off with this info, he’d have done it three months ago. Besides, the only thing you’re doing right now, kid, is making Werner look crazy.”

“Well, then at least now Werner will blend in with the crowd here,” Olive offered nonchalantly. “But whatever. This is your place, not mine.”

Klaus was gaping again.

Gilbert flourished his hands sarcastically. “Thank you.”

Olive shrugged the blanket closer around him. He was certain now. It wasn’t just his nerves that had him shaking. It was freezing out here. He couldn’t understand how Werner and the other soldiers could stand it. 

“Stop looking so stressed, kid. I get that your little possession group likes to keep things tight and under the table. Makes sense. But still—” Gilbert grimaced and shook his head as he looked Olive over. “This is so damned weird. I’m looking at Werner but I’m not.”

“Don’t look at me then,” Olive returned. He thought back to the incident with Izsak and Leona and then to Usian, Ersatz, and Verga. “It’s not like we don’t have a good reason to be cautious.” Before Gilbert could respond, Olive addressed Klaus with a slight nod. “So what’s in it for you? Do you want to blackmail us or something? Money? Promotion?” Olive squinted. “Eye surgery?”

Klaus’s eyes widened to comical proportions, and he shook his head wildly. “No, no, no, of course not! I—” He dug into his uniform pants pocket and then shoved something into Olive’s hands. A small, leather-bound journal no larger than his hand. Reminiscent of Olive’s own journal. “Here. Notes in here.”

Olive arched a brow and opened it. “It’s in Capricornian,” he stated flatly but continued to flip through it anyways. He did recognize a couple of words. Oberleutenant, First Lieutenant. Morgen, morning. Geheimnis, secret.  Each page was marked with a date at the top. While the initial entries were short and concise, the latter entries following July 5th were much more detailed. July 5th. When Maria overrode Cadence and Werner. 

“Want to know. I like to observe—”

“You don’t need to try to defend your hobbies to me. I don’t really care what you do in your free time.” Olive interjected.  Klaus would probably get along well with Talib, he thought to himself as he turned another page.  

“I—er—” Klaus glanced at Gilbert who shrugged. He flushed in turn.

“It’s still weird.” Olive continued to flip through Klaus’s observations. He paused halfway through on a page that contained a sketch of what appeared to be a conductor. It was a set of thick ring conductors connected together by insulation tubes. “You’re trying to design your own custom conductor?”

Klaus flushed again. “Yes. Military conductors not tailored to Conductor. Hard to use sometimes, it is. New conductors shipped in recently—”

Olive figured he was referring to the conductors the Romanos and the Foxmans were shipping to the Capricornian Army as a part of the new deal Cadence and Werner initiated. The idea didn’t sit well with Olive at all. Illegally producing conductors and selling them to fuel a war. Cadence had of course wiped her hands clean of the matter, and whenever Werner spoke of it he merely said that it was none of Olive’s concern. 

“—said we can request our own custom conductor—”

“The concept is good but there is no way that this’ll be able to handle the amount of vitae particles you expel as Conjurer to create things,” Olive said. “You’ll overheat the thing. Conductors who conduct intraneously will never be able to use something like this. If you’re a Transmutationists, then maybe… but other than that…” Olive handed Klaus his journal back.

“Thank you…” Accepting the journal, Klaus glanced between them all. “So… what now? With Lieutenant? Solution? Idea?”

A beat of silence. 

Olive stared at his hand. “Well, I’ve never actually been overridden myself before. Not completely, I mean.”

“Maybe if you to be… knocked unconscious….” Klaus drew. “Then there would be… recalibration?”

Olive resisted doing a double-take. For someone who presented himself as a bookworm, Klaus sure was violent. But then again, Klaus was a soldier. Violence was on the roster. 

“We can’t do that!” Nico objected, startling Olive with the intensity of his voice. “You might really injure Werner. Head injuries are serious!”

“Well, it’s better than me being stuck here like this,” Olive finally mumbled. “I can’t do anything. I’ll just end up getting Werner killed or something.” His gaze was once again drawn back to the woman lying on the bed. “Besides, you don’t look like you have the time to waste here—ow!” Olive jerked forward as something sharp cracked against the back of his skull. When he turned, he found Gilbert standing behind him with the butt of his conducting rifle still in the air.

“Gilbert!” Nico exclaimed. 

“What is wrong with you…?” Olive muttered, rubbing the bruise that was beginning to blossom at the area of impact. 

Gilbert lowered the  rifle and swung it back over his shoulder. “You agreed.” A pause. “So feel any different?”

“Well, yeah. The back of my head hurts now,” Olive grumbled. He frowned as the pain throbbing at the back of his head abruptly dulled. “I feel sort of—”

The world lost focus, and Olive was reminded of the watercolor paintings Maria had stolen from a ship bound to Cancer. Smears of brown, yellow, and gray. 

Olive stumbled forward, reaching for the support of the crate behind him. Just as he reached it, however, it fell away from his sights. As did the beds in the room, as did the dirty ground beneath his feet, as did the cold and the nauseating smells within the tent.

And then there was deep black.

*** 

When Olive opened his eyes, he did not see the gray of the clouded skyline nor did he see the tan of the Capricornian medical tent. Instead he saw sky blue silk drapes and the top of a mahogany bed canopy.  

He held his hand in front of him. Sunburnt and gloveless. He was back. Back on a bed. A comfortable bed.

Saints, there ya guys are! You and Werner—

—wow, where did you all go? Is this some sort of new trick? I would like to learn it!

—it was strange not feeling you—

—how are you all feeling?

The synchronization was low level but came with such force that Olive nearly leapt out of the bed. He could feel them again. All of them. The hollowness had been filled.

Fine, fine, I’m fine, Olive thought back as he sat up.

Werner was there. Olive could feel him too. But Olive did not venture any further than that. He knew it was fruitless, but he tried his best to pull his thoughts and feelings away from the man as much as possible. He couldn’t face him after what he’d done. 

“Your Highness!” 

Olive glanced to his left and found Trystan sitting on a chair at his bedside. The man unfolded himself quickly and drew nearer. 

“Are you feeling alright?”

“I look how I feel,” Olive grumbled, “but I’m fine. What happened?”

“You passed out at the bookstore suddenly. You were out for the entire day…”

Olive swallowed, studying the sky-blue drapes. The color was familiar. “This isn’t our inn. Where are we?”

“Well…” Trystan pulled back and inclined his head.

Olive followed the man’s nod to the left side of the wall where a paper window stood wide and open. There was a cherry blossom tree growing just outside there, and a soft wind plucked the pink petals from its branches and tossed them into the room. 

“Claire?”

Plucking a stray cherry blossom petal from his hair, the Sagittarian prince turned away from the window and offered a pleasant smile. “Morning, Olive.”

Sagittarius is a rich, diverse, and windy country and the largest country of Signum. It consists of ten clans and is ruled by one emperor. Each clan hosts its own unique language, culture, and way of life and is governed by one royal family whose members share blood relations to the emperor.

Countries of Signum by Multiple Authors, 20th edition 

6b: Crimson Volition

Re-cap:

The Watch has been stopped. Wtorek Izsak has been revealed to be affiliated with ELPIS and has been apprehended by Gabrielle Law. Due to the efforts of the swindler, the soldier, the chieftain’s daughter, the pirate,  the peacekeeper, and the prince himself, the prince has survived. They have survived. But questions and choices still need to be made. It is time to move on forward.

Olive felt like he’d been picked up by a whirlwind, tossed around in the air for the better part of a week, and then gently placed back down onto the ground as if all was in order. Everything fell into place the next couple of weeks after the Watch’s attack so perfectly that Olive couldn’t help but feel unnerved.

Gabrielle and Jericho left a week after the incident with Izsak in cuffs. Other Ophiuchian Agents, including Leona and Talib, arrived to apprehend the remaining members of the Watch and to bring them in for questioning. Samuel and the other guards present during the attack were making a recovery at the hospital. Olive had visited them for the most part during the stay, but as soon as they were well enough to make lengthy conversation, he stopped visiting.

Trystan was released from prison and was re-offered his position, but he declined the offer. Meanwhile, the feudal lord heading the Ariesian Investigation Bureau was called into questioning in his place. Olive figured that if he looked hard enough, he might find poetic justice in there somewhere. 

Olive learned from Cadence that the Romano Family and the Foxmans were working with Ophiuchus to find out exactly what else Verga had been shipping for ELPIS. Ricardo and the Foxmans had also rented out Matilda and her crew’s services. They were delivery men again, although they now transported conductor parts from facility to facility instead of whole conductors to civilians. It was stupid, Olive had thought, for them all to end up right back where they started. 

“That’s how the city works,” Cadence answered with a shrug as she attended the party celebrating the new partnership. “They had nowhere else to go anyways. Rinse and repeat.”

In the middle of a toast at the aforementioned party, Francis had coyly offered to Cadence a packet of normal cigarettes and a bottle of wine.  But after casting a glance in Olive’s direction, Cadence accepted only the wine.

Werner appeared to be ending on a slightly more positive note. After extensive interviews from Ophiuchian Agents and Capricornian officials, it was decided that Werner acted appropriately in the situation regarding Ersatz and ELPIS and that he was uninvolved with Ersatz’s plan. A statement by the Aquarian Captain Dunya Kramer also proved his and his division’s innocence. The Capricornian government was ruled to be involved in the ELPIS machinations as well.

Major Ersatz had survived the battle and was brought to Ophiuchus to be detained and questioned about his ELPIS involvement. He was given a dishonorable discharge by Capricorn, and the Watch was dismantled shortly after—per order of Ophiuchus. Werner was revered as a hero and given temporary leave, which he extended to the rest of his division.

The Ophiuchians also mediated the border conflict, and it was resolved with the vitae reservoir being declared as belonging within Capricornian borders. There were reparations to be made on both sides. Gilbert had derised the swiftness of it all and had something akin to “if it was solved that easily then why fight over it to begin with” to which Olive couldn’t help but agree. 

Soon after that, a new combat medic was introduced to Werner’s division. His placement was followed by a sudden influx of weaponized conductors. The oddity was questioned by common soldiers but remained unquestioned by high-ranking officers. On the surface the medic’s responsibilities seemed to merely be tending to the injuries of those within the division. However, his true responsibility lay in acting as a liaison between “the Capricornian army and certain organizations in Gemini” or so stated the official documentation Werner received a week prior to the medic’s arrival.

Cadence was worried, but they all knew Werner was reliable. Nico would be fine.

Maria’s side was surprisingly more subdued. Her ship had been quiet and empty since Olive’s incident. She pulled back into Pollux Bay a few days following the event, and the Foxmans greeted her warmly, much to the surprise of Morandi and his men. After hearing about her circumstances from Conta, the Foxmans offered her the services of Morandi and his men with condolences. Although there was some resistance at first, a flash of Geminian cens sealed the deal for Morandi’s group. They set out to sea the very next day.

When Olive asked what Maria’s goal really was on a stormy night at sea, she had laughed and said, “There was only one moment when I was not in control of my life, and I am in the search of the person responsible for it.” When he asked why in the world she would chase after someone like that, she simply responded with her usual ‘why not?’ Olive didn’t think he’d ever understand Maria.

Atienna’s conclusion made a bit more sense to Olive. Virgo ended its isolation two weeks after Usian’s arrest. Atienna’s father, however, resigned from the Tribal Council and stepped down as chieftain of the Imamu Tribe. Bachiru was upset, but Atienna thought it was for the best. She was planning to take a step forward, after all. Not as chieftain, of course. That responsibility was for someone else more worthy. Now that Virgo was ready to reach out to the world again, a diplomatic party needed to be formed to interact with the other countries. And Atienna was determined to have a foot in it. Despite the strength of her words, however, Olive could feel the falter through the link that they shared. He decided not to address the matter. 

Atienna herself spent quite some time researching the meanings behind ‘syzygy’ and ‘True Conductor’, but it seemed as if without a Conducting License she could barely scratch the surface of anything. How ELPIS and Leona knew of these words was also a mystery. And since there were so many dangerous unknowns involved, the six of them agreed to keep their connection under the table until they figured out how to resolve it. This agreement occurred following Atienna’s long-winded proposal, of course.

A small resolution came with Claire as well. With the conclusion of the Capricornian-Aquarian border conflict and the promise of reparations, Claire graciously returned home. But not after solidifying Sagittarian-Ariesian relations with the king and queen and then insisting that he and Olive become pen-pals during the same meeting. No tact at all, or perhaps too much tact. Olive had declined the offer point-blank in front of his aunt, uncle, and the feudal lords. Of course, Claire had just laughed the entire ordeal off.

While Olive’s personal relations did not seem to improve much, Olive discovered that Jericho’s relations did.

When Jericho returned to Ophiuchus, he did his best to avoid the commotion that came with his mission completion. The mystery of what had unfolded was the new buzz of the Serpens Establishment, and wiithin the first few days of his return, Jericho was approached by over a dozen peacekeepers pressing him for details. Thankfully, the ELPIS Department made a statement on Leona’s disappearance and Izsak’s involvement not long after.

According to the report, Leona had been ambushed by ELPIS after a fellow peacekeeper disclosed her location to them. A traitor to the upstanding, philanthropic Romano organization of the Twin Cities was then tasked by ELPIS to handle her imprisonment, but the traitor was discovered by the organization and was dealt with swiftly. Meanwhile, Leona managed to break free of her captors and successfully stopped the assassination of the Ariesian prince. The assassination was orchestrated by a recently ELPIS-converted Capricornian major with the assistance of the aforementioned peacekeeper. There was no mention of Maria’s ship.

Talk about paintin’ a pretty picture, Cadence thought as Atienna read the article in the newspaper. Not givin’ credit where credit is due.

The traitorous peacekeeper involved in the assassination attempt and Leona’s capture, the ELPIS Department elaborated, went by the name of Izsak Wtorek. A Taurusian who had served in Ophiuchus since its founding. Izsak was believed to have been under the influence of a Manipulator Conductor and was currently undergoing treatment in Ophiuchus through the Medical Department and the Psychological Evaluations Department.

Jericho and Talib’s names were mentioned only briefly at the end of the article. When pressed by Cadence, Jericho informed the group that he felt neither pleasure nor displeasure at this.

Shortly after the article was published, Talib invited Jericho to a party to celebrate a successful case closed and led Jericho into an office at the very back of the Serpens Establishment.

Within the office, Gabrielle sat at a desk with Alice Kingsley at her right and the pink-haired Ferris at her left. On a couch in the room sat three men and two women. All assessed Jericho with differing expressions upon his entrance.

“How would you like being my minion?” Gabrielle had asked, extending a hand. “I’m planning to become head chair of Ophiuchus and bring real peace to Signum, and I could really use someone like you on my team. You have a thing against ELPIS, right? Well, if you work with me, I can get you to them.”

Truly, a terrible personality.

Even so, Jericho accepted Gabrielle’s hand.

And with that, an entire month passed by.

Now Olive found himself kneeling before his uncle and aunt in the throne room of the royal palace. He had bowed upon entering and remained prostrate despite their insistence that he stand.

The red of the carpet below his feet was nostalgic. Almost alluring. Beckoning him to stay. To reconsider. To return to how things were before—skipping classes at the university, watching council meetings with disinterest, escaping to Marta’s shop to sleep for hours. It really was tempting. An easier way. Drifting through days with indifference.

But—

Mustering all of his courage, Olive lifted his gaze from the carpet to his aunt and uncle.

“I’ve decided to take the State Conducting Exam.”

Both his aunt and uncle beamed.

“That’s wonderful, Olive!” Terra hummed. “Now that this is over with, you can return to the university and—”

“I’m going to study on my own,” Olive said. “I’m leaving the Capital.”

“What?”

“Olivier, you can’t—”

There was a flicker of black out of the corner of his eye. Not any of the others. Lavi.

“I don’t care if it looks like I’m running away. If I stay here, I’ll fall back into the same patterns over and over again. I won’t change,” Olive continued, rising to a stand. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and I’ll never be able to repay you. I know it seems selfish of me leaving like this, but I have to take responsibility.”

His uncle and aunt remained silent. There was disappointment in their eyes. But he could live with that. Letting out a small breath, Olive turned away from them and exited the chambers with his sister following right behind.

“My brother’s been looking weirdly determined recently. Usually, I’d think that’s a bad thing but he looks kinda cool so maybe it’s a good thing this time.

Lavender Chance, unknown time

6a: Chance Ignition

Re-cap:

The Capricornian Watch, and the truth behind the assassination. Yuseong Haneul. Lavi Chance. 

Prince Olivier Chance’s mind is swirling with these recent revelations and with everything he has revealed to the others about that tragedy six years ago. Meanwhile, peacekeeper Wtorek Izsak has disappeared after making a mysterious, startling discovery. Unbeknownst to Olive, a spark has ignited and New Ram City braces itself for the flame.

New Ram City, Aries

“Run and hide.” That was what Werner said right after admitting he knew of the secret Capricornian organization behind Olive’s assassination attempt. Ten out of ten. Still, there had been regret in the man’s eyes and guilt too. And…

It was weird feeling concern coming from that man. A Capricornian soldier who executed people without a second thought.

No. Olive knew the situation wasn’t as black and white as that. It had just been easier for Olive to think of people that way. It made rejecting people easier, which made it easier for people to keep their distance. No loss for either party. But Olive wouldn’t be able to do that now. He wouldn’t be able to reject and run away. Not with this connection. Not with the others.

He still felt raw and exposed from his earlier outburst, and part of him just wanted to bury his head beneath the ground. The embarrassment was almost too much. Sleeping forever and forgetting all about this—it’d be easier if he just did that. Even better if he just disappeare—

Olive stopped the thought before it fully formed. He focused on the road ahead. It was a dusty, dirt road reaching from the mansion gates to the royal palace. As he glanced between the iron bars to the palace that was no bigger than his fist in the distance, he realized how isolated it truly was. The only people who travelled this path were maids, butlers, and guards coming and leaving work. Occasionally a merchant cart would roll by selling goods, and Olive could see one approaching them on the road now. Nowadays, merchant carts visited the mansion more often than his aunt and uncle. So, in reality, this place had been home for Olive alone. A fact he hadn’t noticed before.

Olive turned his head and glanced at Samuel beside him. The guard was conversing with the other guards posted at the gate. They were marveling at the v-ehicle they had pulled in from the palace. Olive had to resist rolling his eyes.

Fifteen minutes earlier, Olive had informed Samuel he had found a lead on the assassination plot. But Samuel didn’t seem alarmed by his information. Samuel’s casualness was most likely linked to Olive’s past unreliability. Even still, the guards were so casual about the entire affair that for a moment Olive felt he’d been overreacting about the entire thing. Werner did seem the type to over-worry anyway. It was ridiculous—Werner worrying about this when the man had just barely made it out of a battle alive. Really—

Before Olive even finished the thought, an arrow whizzed right past his head and ricocheted off of the iron bars behind him. Olive turned his head in confusion and found a familiar arrow resting on the ground at his feet.

He looked up. The traveling cart that he’d seen only a moment before was parked right across the road. A man dressed in a chef’s uniform and wielding a conducting bow peered out from behind the cart. A handful of people Olive recognized from his days spent wandering the Ariesian markets were beside him. Shop owners. Customers. Beggars. All holding conductors.

“Forward! Forward! Forward!” They spoke Capricornian.

There was a flash of periwinkle light.

“Your highness!”

Samuel rushed at him.

There was a burst of blue, and they both flew backward to the ground. The world spun. Olive’s ears rang.

Shaking off his stupor, Olive lifted his head. The blast had sent him back onto mansion grounds. The gates were now twisted and bent out of shape. He scanned the area around him and froze. Samuel was beside him. Unmoving.

No. Not again.

Olive stumbled to Samuel’s side but was abruptly jerked backward by a hand around his wrist. His heart leapt to his throat before he realized who it was. Cadence. Even though he knew she wasn’t actually there, he could feel her fingernails digging into his wrist.

“Hey, your highness, their job is ta put down their lives for ya, yeah?” Cadence pressed. “Don’t go wastin’ their efforts.”

“Bu—”

“Those guys are here for you, kid! If ya wanna play hero, then ya should be gettin’ as far away from them as possible!”

Olive stiffened.

She was right.

He started toward the gate but stumbled back when he saw a cluster of the Watch blocking his path. Inside was the only way. But there were non-Conductors within the mansion. He needed to warn them.

Olive sprinted into the mansion and was met with perplexed looks from workers and guards alike. “Intruders!” He snapped. “Run! All of you!”

The mansion guards rushed to the door without hesitation, while maids and butlers scrambled away. A guard shoved Olive back and ordered him to climb the stairs.

Before Olive could argue, a ray of vitae blasted through the window next to the door and sent out fragments of wood and glass.

Olive’s ears rang.

Run.

Olive clambered to his feet and darted up the stairwell behind him.

He could hear them following. The stomp, stomp, stomp of their steady footsteps. Their panting breaths. Their shouts in Capricornian. He just barely managed to duck as a bullet ricocheted off the wall behind him. As he reached the last step, his foot caught on the rug beneath him. He face-planted on the floor before scrambling to his knees. He lifted his head and turned to a Capricornian pointing a rifle at his face.

“Pathetic,” came the accented Common.

Olive scoffed despite the fear. “I may be pathetic, but wouldn’t that make you—the person who’s trying to kill someone as pathetic as me—even more pathetic?”

A grimace. “Die, prince.”

Atienna appeared before Olive and guided his hand up to grab the Capricornian’s wrist. The man froze in confusion and Atienna used the opportunity to make Olive flip the man backwards and kick him in the face. The gun clattered to Olive’s side before the man tumbled down the stairwell. A handful of the Capricornians rushing up the stairs stepped to the side as the man fell, while others further went down to assess the damage.

“Keep going, Olive!” Atienna said before flickering out from his vision.

Olive grabbed the gun and ran down the hall. He ducked as a bright green ray of vitae whistled just above his head. He stumbled again and rolled, scrambling around a corner. He remained there for half a second to catch his breath, only to be startled as a vitae bolt barely missed the top of his head and gouged a hole in the wall above. Plaster rained down onto his hair and into his eyes. Taking a deep breath and gagging on the dust that clouded the air, Olive wiped his eyes and peered around the corner.

The Ariesian guards were holding off the Watch. Both sides were struggling. Projectors taking advantage of Conjurers on both ends. Elementalists blasting through them. Their numbers appeared even.

But Capricornians are more combat-ready. That is fact. Even after War’s end, they’ve been heavily trained. Many have seen real battle at the southern border with Argo.

As if to highlight this, a Capricornian Projector’s vitae bolt shot through the shoulder of an Ariesian flame Elementalist who had just gained the upper hand against a Capricornian Conjurer.

Olive bit his lip, heart hammering. He had to help. Somehow. He couldn’t be useless.

Werner appeared then, synchronizing in front of him with absolute clarity.

“Chance, calm down,” came Werner’s voice. He crouched down to Olive’s eye level. The man’s eyes were cold. Calm. He wrapped his hand around Olive’s own, which wielded the gun. “May I?”

Olive nodded.

Werner moved to cover Olive’s eyes with his other hand.

There was a silence in the darkness, then a handful of cracks. Shots fired.

The hand was removed from Olive’s eyes. A number of Capricornians were now on the floor cradling their legs. Confused Ariesian guards stood over them.

“One centimeter off,” Werner clicked his tongue. He turned to Olive. “I merely incapacitated them. I won’t kill another Capricornian. I’m only aiding you because your death will harm Capricorn.”

Uh.

“But I apologize that I didn’t inform you of this sooner. I have put you and Capricorn in unnecessary harm.” After a moment of staring, he said, “What are you doing? Run.”

Olive swallowed, nodded, ran. He stumbled down the hall and clambered up the next staircase before reaching the top floor. It was simply attic space, containing a handful of crates and valuables and a large open window at the end.

This had been a terrible idea.

Abruptly Maria appeared before him. Olive startled in surprise.

“Ollie, you are afraid, yes?” Maria asked. “I think I understand.”

“This really isn’t the time to be realizing your character development,” Olive snapped, whipping his head around toward the staircase. He could hear them coming up now. How many of them were there? Werner had listed some large number earlier, but Olive was in no state of mind to recall it.

“Do you trust me, Olive?”

Olive turned his head back to Maria.

Trust. That was a strong word. But…

“I guess…”

Without warning, Maria took his and guided him—

“Wha—”

—right out the window.

As the open sky rushed past Olive, his only thought was that he should have expected this from someone like Maria. The earth mocked him as he hurtled down toward it.

Olive squeezed his eyes shut and braced for impact but was abruptly jerked backward by a hand around the arm. At first, he thought it was one of the others, but then realized that would be impossible. Olive opened his eyes. The ground danced only inches below his dangling feet. Mocking again. He looked up. A hand was wrapped around his wrist. A familiar hand.

It was Claire. No, Haneul. Floating in midair on a staff. Wind sparkling with sapphire specs of light whistled out from the holes beneath the center of the staff.

“Y-You! Haneul!” Olive stammered as he dangled from Haneul’s grip. “You are a Conductor! What else have you lied about?!”

“That’s what you want to talk about?!” Haneul exclaimed. “And it’s still Claire!” With that, he pulled Olive up onto the staff. “Why do I always find you in situations where you’re running from something—”

He was cut off as a ray of vitae hurtled toward them from the window. He grabbed ahold of Olive’s shirt and blasted them out of the ray’s trajectory and up into the sky with a gust of wind. They whistled forward like an arrow, and the city flitted past them in smears of reds and browns. The wind whipped at Olive’s face, stinging his cheeks and his eyes, and the city blurred further with his involuntary tears.

“We have to get help! The royal palace!” Olive shouted. “Samuel and the other guard—”

“They’ll be waiting for you! Disguised! I need to keep you away from them! Trust me!”

He’s right.

“You haven’t exactly proven yourself to be trustworthy!”

“Yes, yes, I get it,” Claire sighed. “I’m actually a prince. I lied. I’m sorry. Seriously, I am. But honestly, I didn’t just approach you just because you were the Ariesian Prince. You’re actually a pretty okay person to hang out with.” He glanced at Olive. His eyes were remorseful but determined—although Olive wasn’t sure how much of either of those emotions were true. “Still, I would do it again. For my country.”

“And you said that I didn’t seem like a prince…”

“Well, I’m nothing special. There’s a prince or princess for each clan in Sagittarius. It’s actually pretty complicate—”

“Where are we going?” Olive asked as he realized their trajectory. They were heading to the city walls. “You’re going in the opposite direction of the royal palace! We have to—”

Claire remained silent before leaning forward and dipping the nose of the staff down. The air rushing them lessened and became almost pleasant as they descended. Eventually, their descent led them to an area along the city’s wall undergoing construction. There was a deep hole there in the wall—an unhealed scar from the War—and a wooden platform strung up by a rope alongside it for construction. Waiting for them on the platform were Claire’s masked vassals. Olive tensed as he saw them and recalled the night he had first met Claire.

“My lord!” the white mask exclaimed as they hovered on the conductor beside the platform. “What is going on? Why are you not at the royal palace—”

“The assassins have come,” Claire said. “I’m taking Olive away from the city. I want you and Felix to go to the royal palace and inform them that I have the prince in my custody.”

So this was another political ploy then.

At least he’s helping ya, kid.

“But, my lord,” the wooden-mask—Felix—objected. “Shouldn’t one of us come with you? What if they have an air Elementalist Conductor among them?”

“It’d be too heavy to carry someone else,” Claire sighed. “Besides, Capricornian Elementalist Conductors are rare.”

“Yeah, if you ignore the one who fired the flaming arrow,” Olive scoffed.

“The insolence!” Abruptly, Felix stepped forward threateningly. “My Lord, allow me to cut out his tongue!”

“A good way to kickstart an international incident,” Olive said with disinterest.

“Yeah, don’t do that.” Claire waved Felix off.

The man immediately stiffened. “B-But—”

“We’re going now. Be swift,” Claire ordered with an air of finality. The light and easygoing tone he had been using earlier had dissipated. His dark eyes were sharp and harsh—almost like Werner’s.

Felix tensed and then bowed his head.

With that, Claire kicked them back up to the sky. They ascended in a blur and burst above the clouds. The city was barely visible from this height, and the sun’s already unbearable rays whipped out mercilessly without the cover of the clouds. “I’m going to exit on the opposite side of the wall to throw off the Watch,” Claire continued as he moved them forward.

Olive frowned and watched as the city streamed underneath them. “Hey… even if there’s a second motive for why you’re helping me… thank you.”

Claire glanced back at him and smiled.

“I’m not talking to you,” Olive clarified.

Claire arched a brow before shook his head and chuckled. “Hold on to me.”

“What?” Olive frowned, peeling away. “Why?”

“In case you pass out,” Claire supplied. “The air is thinner up here. I’m used to it but—”

He was cut off as an arrow whistled out from below and knocked him right off the staff. Olive barely had time to discern where the arrow had come from before they were both in free fall.

“Claire!” Olive shouted as they tumbled through the open sky. He reached for the Sagittarian and just barely grabbed a hold of him.

His conductor!

The wind whipped at his eyes, but Olive blinked the tears away as he searched the skyline for Claire’s conductor. There. Only a centimeter away from his hand. How lucky. He grabbed it and fought the wind to bring it to Claire’s chest. “Claire!”

Claire’s eyes fluttered open and widened. He wrapped his fingers around his conductor and sent a burst of air out of it just as they were about to hit the ground of the bazaar below. But they were still too low. They crashed through a fruit stall in the marketplace before tumbling across the pavement.

Screams filled the air. Olive ignored them, wiped off the fruit juices that had splattered onto his face, and turned to Claire who lay beside him. The Sagittarian’s brows were furrowed in pain, and he gripped his shoulder where the arrow protruded. The arrow was still surrounded in flame-like vitae.

“The vitae’s spreading,” Olive realized in horror. “We need to get you to a Transmutationist.”

The guards ringed around them.

“Isn’t that the prince…?” one of them whispered uncertainly.

“Assassins!” Olive snapped for the fifth time that day. “We’re under attack! Evacuate the civilians!”

The guards barely had the time to exchange looks before a deep green vitae bolt exploded the flower stall next to them. Splinters shot out, petals fluttered, bystanders shouted and scattered.

Across the street, four Capricornians emerged from a dark alleyway. Two ducked behind the fallen stalls and pulled out long-ranged conductors: three rifles, one bow. The other two charged the Ariesian guards who had also drawn out their conductors amidst the chaos. There was a pause as the guards and the assassins locked eyes, then a flurry of dizzying light.

Four guards. Four Capricornians.

Another flurry of light.

A pottery stall imploded just feet away, sending shards of clay and ceramic cracking against the walls of nearby buildings.

Two guards. Three Capricornians.

Another flurry of light—

A dark green vitae bolt tore through the extended brick roof of a bakery, and a rain of blasted brick cometed the dusty square. The debris floated down into a soup shop just below it and knocked a steel pot right off of its nesting place above a fire. Its contents spilled across the ground and lapped at the feet of the two Conductors remaining.

One Ariesian guard. One Capricornian assassin.

The Capricornian who remained was the bow wielder. As the guards closed in around him, the assassin abandoned his bow for a melee conductor hanging at his hip. He ignited the weapon and produced a blade of vitae flames. The remaining Ariesian guard, a Conjurer, produced a haphazard sword that locked with the Capricornian’s blade. But the Capricornian’s sword was blazing, and the Ariesian’s began to melt against the heat. Globules of molten metal dribbled from the point of contact onto the ground.

Just as the Ariesian was about to collapse beneath the weight of the other’s sword, a bang rang out from the alley. A gunshot. The Capricornian fell to the ground. Relief spread over the Ariesian guard’s face as he squinted into the shadows of the alleyway. A figure stepped out.

A monochrome uniform and a white sash. It was—

“Mr. Wtorek…!” Olive sighed in relief. He turned to Claire who was still tense beside him. “It’s okay. He’s Gabrielle’s partner. Gabrielle’s the one who was in the throne room.”

The Ariesian guard approached Izsak while clutching his conjured blade like it was a lifeline. “Sir, I don’t know how many are left but they appear to be Capri—” The guard was cut off as Izsak brought up his gloved hand to the man’s mouth. “Sir—”

There was a bright flash of light at the base of Izsak’s glove conductor followed by a squelching sound that Olive found vaguely familiar. It was a sound that echoed within Werner’s and Jericho’s memories. A terrible sound.

The Ariesian guard stiffened, then went limp. Izsak released the man from his grip, and the man hit the ground spluttering. Protruding from the guard’s mouth was a mass of barbed wire.

“M-Mr. Wtorek?”

Get away from him.

Olive wasn’t quite sure which of the others had shouted it, and he couldn’t see any of them either. He wished he could. This didn’t make any sense.

Izsak coolly stepped over his victim before flicking his wrist. There was another flash of light, and a circular shape formed at his palm. But Olive was entranced by something else.

White. It was white.

Izsak’s vitae.

It was a pure white.

It didn’t make any sense. How—

Damn, Jericho was right, came Cadence’s thought. Everything really is ELPIS. But isn’t this guy your peacekeepin’ pal? Why would he—

What—

Grenade.

Werner’s thought sharply cut through Olive’s horror. Izsak casually dropped the conjured grenade and watched as it rolled to a stop a few feet away from Olive’s foot.

Olive grabbed Claire by the scruff and threw him backward before leaping away himself. It was a pretty useless and pathetic attempt. It probably wouldn’t have mattered whether he had made the escape attempt or not. But screw it, he thought. After all of the efforts the others had made to ensure his survival, he figured it would be even more pathetic if he didn’t try anything.

The grenade detonated, sending both Claire and Olive flying through the air.

Olive was thrown back into another stall. In the dazed confusion that followed, it took him a second to comprehend the colors that surrounded him: the flash of a blue bed sheet, the cotton plush from a mattress, and the red silk of a carefully woven blanket. By some means of ridiculous luck, he had been sent crashing into a stall that sold bedroom furniture.

A large tarp fell over his head from behind, and he fought against it for a panicked minute before he broke through the surface. Feathers from imploded pillows fluttered down around him obscuring the skyline. He stumbled over a bundle of silken pillowcases before tripping over a body. Claire. Olive darted to the Sagittarian’s side and shook him hard. Claire only groaned.

Olive opened his mouth to snap at him only to get a mouthful of feathers. He spat and gagged and spat again.

Pay attention.

Olive froze and looked up.

Out from the storm of fluttering white stepped Izsak Wtorek. His glasses were gone. And without them, he looked unnatural as he stood before the backdrop of raining feathers. In the man’s left hand was another grenade and in his right was a conjured pistol which he pointed in Olive’s direction.

“M-Mr. Wtorek, w-what—”

The man’s finger pressed down on the trigger of the gun.

Olive kicked up the thin blue mattress lying at his feet. He wasn’t quite sure if he had done it on instinct or if one of the others had overridden him to do it. Regardless, he was grateful for the mattress that exploded in place of his head.

Olive stumbled to his feet, grabbed Claire by the arm, and pulled him out of the mound of blankets, pillows, and mattresses. He tripped and stumbled and cursed with every step. Claire’s added weight paired with the sweltering Ariesian sun made the fatigue building in his legs almost unbearable.

“You’re so. Heavy,” Olive panted as he dragged the Sagittarian to the corner of the street. He was half-tempted to just leave Claire there. He was a two-faced bastard, after all. But Olive knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself, so he continued pulling and panting.

Olive barely managed to drag Claire to the mouth of the alleyway before another grenade casually rolled to a stop an inch away from his foot. Without thinking, Olive kicked the thing as hard as he could. It flew a couple feet in the air before it erupted into flames and smoke.

The blast wave sent Olive into and through another stall that featured mechanical parts and accessories. There was no mattress to break his fall this time around. And Olive began to feel knob-like bruises pulsating at his rib cage where he had landed awkwardly on a small generator conductor. His ears rang, his body ached. His hands were sticky with a black substance.

Get up, Chance. Get up.

No. He couldn’t. It hurt.

Get up, Olive!

Olive bit his lip and pushed himself up. He stumbled over the remnants of the stall in front of him and assessed his surroundings. A canister filled with a black substance to his left. A couple of stray metal parts, an insulating tube, and a kick-starter were scattered hazardously across the ground.

But where was Claire?

There—only a couple feet away. And only a couple inches from Claire: Izsak. Izsak who was approaching Claire with his conjured pistol.

No.

Olive desperately scanned the area for anything he could use.

Not again.

This didn’t make sense.

The pieces didn’t fit. His thoughts didn’t either. Blurs of the past and the present. Heat from an unstoppable fire in his mind’s eye—heat from the sun whipping down from above his head. A memory. A reality.

And the reality was that Olive couldn’t let Claire die. Not when Claire had risked his life for him. Even if Claire was a dirty politician, even if Claire was just like the feudal lords who had whispered things behind his back after the Tragedy.

Olive knew that even with everything the other five had told him just that morning, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if Claire died. But he couldn’t let himself die either.

There was only one way. He didn’t know how to control it, but he would have to.

Olive reached down for the canister filled with the black substance and threw its contents onto the peacekeeper. Izsak lifted his hand in surprise as a strip of oil painted him half black.

Sorry Izsak. Sorry Izsak. Sorry Izsak.

Olive repeated the endless mantra in his head as nausea and terror built up in his stomach.

Control it. Small.

Olive extended his hand out, and sparks erupted at his fingertips. Izsak’s eyes widened just as a stream of fire raced right toward him. The fire ate up the oil trail leading up to the man and consumed him in an instant. Smoke clouded the air.

Stop, Chance. You’ll exhaust your vitae reserves!

It was too late. The flames at his fingers died.

Olive’s head spun, and he felt faint. He staggered to the ground, squinting up past the smoke as it peeled away with a breeze that drifted through. The acrid smell still made him sick. But not as sick as he felt when he realized what he’d just done. Hot bile climbed up his throat, and he heaved onto the floor before wiping his mouth.

Kid, ya had to.

He rejected this thought and forced himself to look up.

Standing in the place Izsak had been was a large metal shield singed at its center. Out from behind that shield stepped Izsak, coated in the oil but perfectly unharmed.

Olive felt both relief and horror. The relief faded as Izsak’s gaze focused on him. The man approached Olive with purpose. There was no light in his eyes, and Olive knew from Cadence and Werner’s end that there was an intent to kill glistening there.

No. He couldn’t die. Not when all of their lives were tied to his. Not when Lavi was—

Olive scrambled backward desperately.

Izsak came to a stop a foot away from him.

“M-Mr. Wtorek…” Olive stammered wide-eyed. “Why…?”

Izsak stared holes into him. “What you did just proves it. You really are one of them.” He reached forward—and for a stupid moment, Olive thought that the man was going to offer him a cuff on the shoulder and shout ‘just kidding!’ Instead, the man wrapped his glove conductor around Olive’s throat.

Tears pricked Olive’s eyes as he scratched at the Izsak’s hand. He couldn’t breathe. Suffocating. Throat-crushing. A pressure. Just like that time six years ago.

“A saint candidate—no. You’re one of the connected. A True Conductor.” Izsak’s eyes seemed to glow white as his grip tightened. “You can’t be allowed to live… The Tragedy of Aries. You should have died then.”

Something inside Olive’s chest crumpled at the words and he felt tears prick his eyes. Olive wasn’t sure whether the tears were from the man’s words or from the fact that he was on his last breath.

“If the syzygy happens, then—”

—and from nowhere a black suitcase cracked against Izsak’s head, sending the man stumbling away. Olive fell to the ground and gasped for air. He rubbed his throat and looked up. Standing in Izsak’s place was Jericho, suitcase and all.

Olive felt the fear gripping his stomach release. “How—”

“I regained consciousness,” Jericho explained. “Doctor Fabrizzio Senior’s treatment.”

“I can see that…”

“The ELPIS initiates in the cargo warehouse are in custody. They informed me that the ELPIS leader went to Aries. Capital city. Intuition.”

Olive nodded slowly.

“Atienna convinced… me to abandon the ELPIS initiates. To come to you. Talib is at the port in Gemini to pick up Leona. Now I’m here.” He paused in thought. “Without jurisdiction. Off mission. Doctor Kingsley will yell at me.” Jericho clicked open his suitcase and turned toward Izsak, who was just rising to his feet.

Olive tensed.

A familiar, nightmarish-looking stuffed animal popped out from Jericho’s suitcase first and fell to the ground. Izsak stared at it for a moment before returning his attention to Jericho, who had pulled out a slim, cylindrical conductor from his briefcase.

“Wtorek Izsak,” Jericho said, activating his conductor with a flick of his wrist. “I’m apprehending you for involvement with ELPIS.” He glanced at Olive and Claire. “For making an attempt on the lives of the Ariesian and Sagittarian princes.”

Light spilled out from Jericho conductor’s tip forming the shape of a whip. The color. Pure white. It was blinding just looking at it.

“So you’re the traitor that Omicron was talking about,” Izsak said as he observed the conductor. “The traitor she met in Gemini.” He glanced at Olive. “The fact that you knew to come here means that you’re connected to him. You are a True Conductor too.”

Olive could barely grasp what was happening.

Why was Izsak…? Why was Jericho’s vitae color…?

Jericho’s past was hazy to Olive, but he had seen flashes of it. Memories of rolling sandy dunes, of a person in a white cloak extending a hand, of the very same hand offering a pat on the head as Jericho pulled the trigger on a trembling young Conductor.

You were indoctrinated into ELPIS when you were young… came Atienna’s realization that was filled with a wave of sympathy.

“Yes,” Jericho affirmed. “But I am here now to eliminate them.”

Jericho swung his conductor, and it hurtled out toward Izsak’s side. Izsak quickly conjured a thick pipe to block it. The whip wound around the pipe’s body. Izsak glanced at it with disinterest. Disinterest quickly morphed into surprise as white cracks appeared along the steel. Izsak released the pipe just as it crumbled to dust.

“You’re a Specialist,” Izsak realized.

“Stay back,” Jericho said as he threw Olive a look over his shoulder. “I am able to break apart vitae particles with my conductor.”

“You could’ve told me that before you swung that thing!” Olive snapped as he struggled to a stand. “Something isn’t right. You know Izsak… This is…”

Jericho’s glowing white whip straightened into a blade and Jericho quickly thrust it in Izsak’s direction. Izsak barely managed to dodge the jab, but he did not make it out untouched. The blade caught onto his Ophiuchian band which disintegrated in an instant. In a split second, the white blade of the sword splintered and shot out in all directions.

Rather than a whip or a sword, it seemed formless.

One of the splinters pierced Izsak’s leg, but the man quickly ripped himself away from it.

Not in long enough, came Jericho’s thought. He then recalled the splinters of light back with a flick of his conductor. The next moment he was charging at a crouching Izsak who was nursing his leg. Jericho transformed his vitae into a blade and raised it high.

Wait! This doesn’t make sense. Mr. Wtorek is—

Jericho hesitated.

Izsak took the opportunity to roll out from beneath him. He rose to his feet and glowered at them. “I’m outmatched,” he confirmed. “But I can’t allow you to live. Your existence is unnatural.” With that he brought up his hand and conjured an object.

A conducting grenade. A whole handful of them.

Get away—

A great wave of heat exploded out from the alleyway and a torrent of magenta flames enveloped Izsak’s hand. The man let out a yelp before ripping off his glove conductors that were beginning to melt in the oil-fueled heat. Before he or Olive or Jericho could react, Gabrielle burst out from the alley and tackled Izsak to the ground. The two Ophiuchians tousled around, throwing punches and kicks and snarls. Eventually, Gabrielle managed to deliver a well-aimed crack to Izsak’s jaw which dazed him. Grimacing, she hoisted herself up on top of the man and pinned his hands behind his back with an unreadable expression.

“Stay down, Wtorek,” she whispered.

Izsak struggled a bit more before going limp.

“We were just informed of the Watch by the Capricornian military. It’s a special-ops group of theirs that’s been given orders by a dissenting officer,” Gabrielle panted as she studied Izsak’s face. “Half of the royal guards have been dispatched around the city and are cleaning them out. The order from the Kaiser has been sent out for Watch members to ceasefire.”

As if on cue, the square became flooded with Ariesian guards. Some rushed to the fallen guards while others rushed to aid Gabrielle, civilians, Olive. Medical Conductors and palace guards surrounded him and barraged him with a flurry of questions.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Olive snapped, waving them away. “The others need more help than me. Samuel at the mansion and…” Claire.

Claire was attended by several Ariesian guards and had been joined by his vassals, who were frantically shouting at the Ariesians in Sagittarian. Claire appeared more amused at the situation than anything else.

Their eyes met. Claire cracked him a grin and gave him a thumbs up. Olive glared and looked away. Jericho was still standing beside him, staring holes into Izsak.

“You okay?” Olive eyed Jericho’s conductor which he had deactivated as soon as Gabrielle had burst through the alley.

Jericho blinked at him. “Yes.”

They stared at each other for a long while before Olive bent down to pick up the fallen stuffed animal off the floor. He stared at Izsak for a beat, felt something crumple in his chest, before he handed the plush to Jericho.

They stood in awkward silence.

Jericho asked, “Hug. Would that be customary?”

Saints. Jericho was weird.

“No.”

What a terrible week.

Specialist: a Conductor who does not fall into one of the five general conducting-type categories. Their ability to utilize vitae ranges with each manner of utilization vastly different from the next. There is still not much known about them as they consist of only 1% of the Conductor population.

Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran

5.3: Waltz Lock-on

Re-cap:

Werner Waltz is suffering from the effects of the synchronization and has encountered Nico, Cadence’s childhood friend, among his Aquarian prisoners. Memories of childhood blur and Werner releases the man with a promise of modified conductor exchanges being made between Capricorn and the Romano Family ensured on Cadence’s behalf. Gilbert stumbles across the debacle and learns of Werner’s condition and is ordered by Werner to keep him under control. And then just as things look as if they are going to be resolved, Major Ersatz arrives with a troop of soldiers. Orders: to wipe out the Ophiuchians who have come down to mediate the border conflict.

Abandoned Town, Capricorn

“What the hell is going on here?!” Cadence repeated.

Sequentially, the events leading up to this moment where Werner was now bashing in the head of one of the soldiers Ersatz had brought along with him had been simple.

When the major had reiterated that they were to take on the Ophiuchian Agents sent down to handle the border conflict, Werner respectfully asked if this had been an order from the General. The major had responded with a sigh of disappointment.

“There is no turning back now, Waltz,” the major had said. “The moment the War ended, there was no turning back.” He had rubbed his eyes before staring into the distance. “There’s only one hope left.”

Hope…?

“Anyways, you do understand the repercussions and punishment the Border Force doles out to those who run from battle and disobey orders?”

“Yes, sir,” Werner had responded.

Werner’s group had responded as expected when he gathered them inside to debrief them. Stein had been the first to complain and pointed out that going against the peacekeepers was insane, while Fischer had followed up with asking if this was something the Generals approved of. Werner had simply repeated what the major had told him, although he voiced his understanding of their concerns.

Chance’s turmoil following Yuseong’s betrayal had thrown Werner in for another loop. The self-hatred and self-loathing were scalding. That paired with the boy’s desperation and guilt toward his younger sister’s current circumstance had put Werner on edge. So on edge that he’d almost divulged information about the Watch.

He left the cabin to clear his head and ordered Stein and Gilbert to guard the building holding the prisoners and restrict access to the soldiers Ersatz had brought with him. He ordered Kleine to keep an eye on the cabin holding the modified conductors.

Upon return, roughly half an hour later to the cabin with the prisoners, he found one of Ersatz’s soldiers standing at its front. The man was in a heated argument with Stein, and Gilbert was standing between them.

Werner approached them swiftly and was greeted with salutes by Gilbert and Stein and an ogle by the other soldier.

“What is the meaning of this?” Werner had pressed.

Stein had responded first, jabbing a finger in the unknown soldier’s direction. “This guy keeps insisting to go in even though I told him it was the Lieutenant’s orders! He’s just a private! Who do you think you are?” Stein edged forward and pushed the soldier backward. “Now that I think about it, I don’t recognize you at all. What are you—a newbie? What squadron do you serve with?”

“Does it matter?” the soldier snapped. He pointed a finger to the door of the cabin. “I want to see what you’re hiding in there!”

“Enough. Where is your discipline?” Werner interjected coolly. “You are in the presence of your superior—”

Abruptly, the soldier swung his rifle conductor off of his shoulders and aimed it at Werner. Werner and his men froze in confusion.

“What do you think you’re—”

The soldier pulled the trigger.

Werner had dodged on reflex. And the vitae bolt that shot out from the barrel of the conductor hurtled out past his ear and into the dark of the forest. A quick, blink of light. But Werner had seen it.

White. That was clear. A pure blinding white. The color of the soldier’s vitae.

“They’re—”

“ELPIS!”

Out of the corner of his eye, Werner could see Jericho sharpen into focus. There was white hot rage there. A burning anger that radiated outward from the peacekeeper’s core—no, from Werner’s core. It was suffocating. The world was drained of color.

The soldier lifted his conductor to fire another round, but Werner was on him in an instant. He shoved the man back against the cabin wall before ripping the conductor out of his hands. Without hesitation he brought the butt of the conductor to the ELPIS member’s temple. There was a crack, and the man’s body slumped the ground. But that was not enough.

Werner straddled him and brought the butt of the conductor down on his head over and over again.

Die. Die. Die—

That was when Cadence appeared, looking horrified. As their synchronization strengthened, realization dawned on her face and she paled considerably. “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me—”

“Werner!” Gilbert grabbed Werner by the shoulder and jerked him backward. “Werner, enough!” The man’s dark gray eyes drilled into him and cut the monochrome world in half.

The rage that had been boiling immediately dissipated.

Werner lowered the conductor and then grimaced as he held his slightly pounding temple. He then noticed that his loss of self-control had managed to garner the attention of the rest of his company. Bergmann, Fischer, Brandt, Kleine. They were all standing in front of him now. Wait. Kleine?

“Kleine,” Werner drew slowly, “what are you doing here?”

“I—sir—the men that came with Ersatz—I couldn’t stop them—they—”

Before Kleine could finish, Werner rushed forward and pushed him to the ground just barely sparing him from a bright white conducting bolt hurtling toward his head. The firer of the bolt was another soldier—no, an ELPIS member. A woman. She stood at the clearing of the town square. Behind her near the rest of the cabins were the other ELPIS members Ersatz brought with him. And Ersatz himself.

But that didn’t matter. What mattered was—

The ELPIS woman was out in the open.

Werner aimed the conductor and pulled the trigger. The vitae bolt pierced the night and hit its target head-on. The ELPIS members dispersed immediately, taking cover behind the cabins.

“So, you lied to me, Waltz!” Came the familiar booming shout of the major from behind one of the cabins. “You told me you had nothing else to report! And what do I find when I come here? Modified conductors!”

“In the cabin, now!” Werner ordered as he shot another round. His company obeyed and scrambled inside, and Werner followed after, firing several more rounds.

The Aquarian soldiers within the cabin looked around in confusion at their entrance and muttered amongst themselves.

Werner ignored them. “Ready your conductors. Man the windows. Shoot on sight. Those are not Capricornian soldiers, but members of ELPIS. Major Ersatz has committed treason and is now working with them. Do not hesitate.”

Fischer and Bergmann froze in place while Stein swung his rifle off his shoulders and settled into a vantage point by the windows. Gilbert gave Werner a deep nod and followed suit. As soon as they settled down, they began firing. The familiar thundering booms of the v-bolts echoed through the room.

Cadence ducked slightly, covering her ears and widening her eyes.

Werner frowned. She should leave. Desynchronize.

“I can’t, y’know…” Cadence chuckled, lowering her hands. “Besides, looks like ya need moral support.”

One of the Aquarians—the Sergeant, Nikita Knovak—limped to Werner. “What… going on? ELPIS…? Major…?”

Werner nodded. “They have roughly thirty men with them. Their aim is to ambush the Ophiuchian Agents who are here to regulate the peace negotiations.” He paused, feeling lightheaded as Maria’s laughter tickled the back of his mind. He shook the dazedness off and asked curtly, “Will you help us? And can you help us?”

The Sergeant looked startled for a moment before he exchanged a look with one of the Aquarians on the bed. He nodded.

“Kleine, figure out what conducting-types they are and conjure conductors for them immediately. After you are finished, conjure grenades.” Werner continued, checking the insulator of his rifle: “Brandt and Fischer, you will launch grenades in-between rounds of fire. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir!”

Ducking low, Werner approached the window closest the door and aimed his conductor outward. “Bergmann, go to the front of the cabin and conduct the ground up for cover on my mark. We will provide cover fire.”

Bergmann stiffened and then nodded, falling into a crouch and moving toward the door.

A moment passed. And then—

“Now!”

The Projectors in the room including Werner fired their weapons. In the confusing light display that followed, Bergmann threw the door open and rolled out onto the ground. She slammed her conducting glove on to the ground, and the dirt and rock beneath her touch cracked and shot upward, forming a tall wall of earth. There were several high square windows cut into the wall and a makeshift set of staircases leading to them. The thud of Projector conducting bolts and gunfire resounded against the wall. It shook but remained standing.

“Shit, Werner,” Cadence chuckled nervously after giving a low whistle. “You Capricornians sure are efficient. Everything’s good, right?”

Werner signaled them to advance out of the cabin one by one. The Projectors aside from Werner went first with Kleine and Brandt providing cover with grenade throws. Werner provided cover fire for the duo before he exited. He climbed up to the centermost bird’s nest and aimed his conductor.

An ELPIS member poked their head around the corner of the cabin, and Werner easily sniped him off. He then turned to finally answer Cadence: “No. They have us outnumbered and they are utilizing modified conductors. Although Kleine can conjure conductors for us, they are nowhere near the real things. And he can’t conjure them forever. He’ll become exhausted.”

Cadence remained silent before saying, “The higher the risk, the greater the reward?”

Werner ducked his head to avoid an incoming bolt and then aimed and sniped another ELPIS member.

“Damn, you’re good,” she noted.

“There’s too damn many of them!” one of the Aquarians snarled. A Projector. He lifted his head to get a better aim at the enemy below, but a shot rang out and he fell backward, blood spurting out of his shoulder

“Conducting grenade!” Bergmann shouted. But it was too late.

There was a bright flash of white light, then a terrible high-pitched whirr. The rock wall exploded in a fiery wave of heat that sent Werner flying backward. He hit the wall of the cabin behind him with a thud before falling to the ground.

Werner coughed and gagged on the dust and smoke clogging the air. He brought the crook of his arm to his mouth to filter it.

He was only lightly bruised. Which was good. But—

He glanced around. He could no longer see Cadence. Was she—

—fine. I’m fine. But damn that hurt.

Their synchronization had weakened to the point where her projection was no longer visible to him.

Werner struggled to a stand and peered into the dust cloud. A silhouette appeared abruptly in front of him. He took a cautious step back and reached for his conductor which had fallen at his side. He had just wrapped his fingers around the barrel when a sharp flash of silver swung at him. A combat knife.

Werner dodged backward and found himself pressed against the wall of the cabin.

Close combat. Not good.

The point of the knife hurtled toward him again.

Abruptly, Atienna appeared before him and grabbed the wrist of his assailant. She flipped the assailant over her shoulder and slammed his head into the ground. Unconscious.

Werner knew in reality that she had overridden him and that he’d performed all those actions, but he was still reeling from the sensation. Nonetheless, he was thankful.

They were abruptly desynchronized again. Werner was so distracted by the oddity that it was too late when he saw a figure rushing from behind. He felt a searing pain in his abdomen where the man had stabbed him with a conjured blade.

Werner winced and grunted as he glared at the man from behind. “Major…”

Major Ersatz twisted the knife further into Werner’s gut. “You disappointed me, Waltz. I hoped that you would be honest with me, that you would understand.”

Werner delivered a swift kick to the man’s chest and set him back against the wall. “There is no understanding… when it comes to betraying Capricorn. Working with ELPIS.” He tasted iron and he just wanted to crumple then and there, but he could not show weakness.

Ersatz conjured a gun and pointed it at him. “I’m working with ELPIS to help Capricorn, Waltz. Can’t you see that? They showed me. We can’t trust Ophiuchus. Conductors are despicable. We need to destroy them all, but we can’t destroy them with Ophiuchus in the way.”

Werner couldn’t comprehend it.

Ersatz lowered the gun. “Waltz, if you’d just understood then… about Ophiuchus and the Ariesian prince—”

Werner tensed.

“The Watch has existed for this moment, Waltz. Can’t you see? They can’t be allowed to exist. The syzygy. We saw it during the Tragedy of Aries—”

A flash of purple light whistled from behind him and it hit its mark right through Ersatz’s shoulders. The man crumpled to the ground instantly.

Footsteps resounded. Another group in different uniforms appeared from the cloud of dust and rushed past him. Those monochrome uniforms. That sash. Ophiuchians.

One straddled Ersatz and restrained him.

Werner stared at them in confusion and continued to press his gloved hand against his wound. They paid no mind to him, however, and continued through the dust cloud in pursuit of what Werner assumed was their mission: the take down of the ELPIS members.

“Are you all right?!” came a faint voice to his left.

Nico. It was Nico Fabrizzio.

“Wha…?”

Before Werner could even register, the man was on top of him. Fabrizzio had conducting gloves on.

“Move your hands,” Nico ordered.

“Second Lieutenant Wolff and the others—”

“Are fine. Now move your hands.”

Werner obeyed and watched as Nico quickly pulled out the blade and used his gloved hands to transmute the area immediately. There was pain, but nothing that was unbearable. Werner was concerned for his men, but this was not the time to think about such things.

“Why are you here?”

“I went to get the Ophiuchians like you said,” Nico explained. “But I… you said your major was acting strange and I had a bad feeling, so I told them your location.”

“I understand that,” Werner said. “But why are you here?”

“They needed a guide,” Nico mumbled. He looked away and reached into his pocket, pulling out a familiar pocket watch. “And I forgot to return this.”

Werner stared at Nico for a beat before holding out his hand. Nico put the pocket watch down reverently, and Werner’s gloved fingers closed in around it. He flipped open the watch. Four hours, twelve minutes, five seconds. Before he could say anything, another figure emerged from the dust cloud.

It was a gaunt-looking, middle-aged man who was a bit heavy set. The man was dressed in a tight suit and had that familiar white sash on his arm.

“Are you the commanding officer?” the Ophiuchian asked in Common.

“Yes.” Werner saluted with difficulty. “First Lieutenant Werner Waltz of the Border Force.”

“Explain to me what happened here.”

Werner did to the best of his knowledge, and the Ophiuchian’s eyes narrowed. He then gave a firm nod and turned to leave.

“That’s not the only thing,” Werner grunted.

The peacekeeper paused and turned to him.

“There is a military program in Capricorn called the Watch. Major Ersatz helped create it and partially heads it,” Werner said. “It was created to keep an eye on the political developments in other countries through planted spies.” He paused, feeling the eyes of the other five on him. His palms itched. “It was also created to help Capricorn covertly intervene in affairs if deemed necessary. Recently, Sagittarius has been seeking aid from other countries including Aries. To make sure Aries did not intervene, Ersatz activated the Watch to fake an assassination attempt on the prince of Aries.”

The Ophiuchian’s frown deepened.

“The Watch that is stationed in the Ariesian capital now consists of fifty men,” Werner concluded. “And Ersatz moved them forward before he came here. I believe he ordered them to finish off the assassination though I don’t know why. Prince Chance needs protection immediately.”

Chance, Werner thought, you need to run and hide.

The Watch. Established 7 Jan 1926. 

Goal: To observe the activities of other countries through specialized covert operations to ensure that Capricorn does not face unexpected developments it is not prepared for and to execute political maneuvers if deemed necessary.

Notes: The existence of the Watch will be made known to a select few comissioned non-comissioned officers. Members of the Watch will integrate themselves into the culture and country they are assigned. They are to report bi-annuallly of their observations. 

Founders: Major Erwin Ersatz, Major Kurt Flugel, Colonel Emil von Spiel, Sergeant Major 

Excerpt from The Nachkriegszeit Papers, Capricorn, 1926