Verbrannte Erde » Scorched Earth utilized at 0100 hours.
Corporal Emilia Bergmann was secretly in love. She still remembered the first day she saw her destined one. It had been a cold autumn evening. She had just come off of her last class of the day at her first year at the military academy in a small northeastern village in Capricorn that wasn’t even on some maps. She’d been thinking about her most recent Capricornian philosophy class on that day.
“Courage, heart, loyalty, glory, victory, and honor,” the teacher had said. “Those are the principles of a true heroic Capricornian.”
Emilia hadn’t paid it any mind until the teacher exclaimed mid-lecture:
“Isn’t this great? The new Kaiser’s made it so that you don’t have to come from a wealthy military family to rise in the ranks. Background doesn’t matter. Skill and the principles of an individual Capricornian does.”
As she’d crossed down the dirt road and the swaying reeds that connected her school to her house out on the prairie, she’d come across a large cluster of her classmates gathered in front of a man standing at a podium. Uniformed soldiers stationed before the podium were handing out cardboard containers and plastic forks.
The smell in the air had been unbelievable. Rich, heavy, poignant. The bread, jam, and ham at home had nothing on it—not even the buttery Bienenstitch that her mother made once a month. The scent had beckoned Emilia to line up with all the others. And although the line had moved quickly, Emilia’s stomach still had grumbled with impatience.
“The Kaiser would like all those who serve to be rewarded and provided with all they deserve for their commitment,” the man at the podium had said to one of the military students as a soldier had handed them a container. He’d repeated this too to Emilia as she’d received a container herself.
After stowing away from the crowd in a spot in front of the reeds, Emilia had hesitantly popped open the box, only to be blinded by the golden decadence that awaited her within. It had taken a moment for her eyes to adjust to the glittering beauty. But when she’d laid eyes on it, it had been love at first sight. Käsespätzle.
She’d only seen it in pictures in the newspaper since cheese was scarce in a location so far away from the vitae reservoirs and cities of Capricorn. The pictures had nothing on its actual appearance. In fact, Emilia had difficulty even putting it into her mouth because it looked so beautiful. But her stomach had dictated her actions, and she’d shoved a spoonful in her mouth before she’d even realized what she was doing.
Savory, cheesy gooiness had melted in her mouth with every bite. But she’d resisted shoveling the entire thing down her throat. Instead, she’d stowed it away in her backpack and continued on her long trek home through fields, woods, and thickets.
Once at home on her grandparents’ farm, she’d combed through the barnyard for her younger siblings. All seven of them, all handfuls, all with their own unique school bullies that she’d had to fend off constantly.
They hadn’t been at the house nor in the barn when she’d arrived, but she hadn’t been worried. They always played soldier in the afternoon, pretending they were on opposing factions of the Reservoir War, combing through the trees, and pretending they were either snipers or spies. It had taken about half an hour for Emilia to comb through the trees and bushes and find them. A remarkable achievement. When she’d handed them the Käsespätzle, they devoured it in the blink of an eye—faces warm, bellies a bit full.
If the newly coronated Kaiser was making all of this possible, Emilia had supposed she was in love with him too. Even though her parents hated him.
Upon becoming a licensed Elementalist Conductor, Emilia had received not only the baseline pay of all licensed Conductors in the Capricornian Army but also a surplus conducting-type pay. Elementalists received the second-highest pay out of all Conductors in the army on a multiplicative percentage-based scale. Of course, earth Elementalists and internalists received pay on the lower end of that spectrum, but Emilia knew money was money.
Emilia’s first deployment was to the Sagittarian border. Life there had been uneventful. Instead of feeling like she was serving on the Border Force, she’d felt more like she was serving on ‘Border Patrol’. However, she’d enjoyed seeing all the different products Sagittarian merchants brought across the border and always purchased something from passing by food carts to send home to her family along with 2/3rds of her stipend.
Needless to say, she’d been surprised when at her transfer to Captain Weingartner’s squadron and Lieutenant Waltz’s unit at the Aquarian border. Her surprise hadn’t been so much the result of the transfer as it had been of the gaunt and cold faces that greeted her. There had been word of brewing unrest at the border with Aquarius, but there hadn’t been battle yet so their pessimism made no sense to her. It wasn’t until later when she’d served south herself that she’d realize.
Upon boarding the unit, she’d hastily befriended Klaus Kleine and then Otto Vogt and Alwin Brandt too when they’d transferred in after her. Not so much with Stein and Fischer who reminded her siblings’ bullies. On the other hand, she’d thought the second lieutenant was charming. And as for the first lieutenant—well—she was terrified of him. Most of the unit was.
Still, she’d enjoyed her time getting to know them all during the lapse of peace that none of them seemed to have been accustomed to—at least until the first shot rang across the border.
Courage, heart, loyalty, glory, victory, and honor, Emilia had thought as she’d marched to the border with Aquarius and flattened those soldiers left and right, as she’d raised earthen leverage points for long-range Projectors to fire from, as she’d put up the earthen wall to defend her unit as Major Ersatz turned against them.
But what was the glory and victory in defeating someone who was from her own country?, Emilia wondered as she’d watched Ersatz be guided into detainment in cuffs along with a dozen ELPIS members.
“You don’t even know what you’re fighting for,” the major had muttered, half-laughing then. “We have to change. We have to change.”
Courage, heart, loyalty, and honor, Emilia had thought to herself in the Twin Cities as Lieutenant Waltz had disclosed that Capricorn had been enlisting the aid of underground organizations to supply them with modified conductors.
But what was so honorable about buying illegal weapons from criminals?
Later she’d wondered if there was any honor when they had confronted Colonel Fritz von Spiel in that dark alleyway and the lieutenant had allowed the man to walk. Perhaps it had been courage.
A month after, the lieutenant had pulled her aside voicing concerns about her recent performance. Her numbers had declined significantly, and the most recent operation had seen to her being separated from her conductor and entering a close-ranged shooting match with a wounded Argoan. None of her shots had landed, and they’d tangled in the muddy dirt for what seemed like hours when their bullets ran out. It was only after Otto had sniped through that Argoan’s head did Emilia manage to catch her breath.
“I heard from Fischer that you lost your conductor during the last skirmish and you had difficulty maintaining even ground with an Argoan. Mistakes like that are unacceptable in this occupation, Bergmann,” the lieutenant had told her when they were back in the trenches. “Your non-conducting skills are subpar, so we’ll work on them.”
He had taken her to the firing grounds after that, had handed her a gun, and had ordered to hit at least five targets.
Emilia had known she was not the best at target practice, but her first shot in front of the lieutenant had been particularly terrible—as in ‘missed the entire target board by half a meter’ terrible. She had been nervous because frankly she’d still been a little bit afraid of the lieutenant, and she’d only had a one-on-one with him twice before. For the same exact issue.
“The entire unit functions at the highest performance when everyone is at highest performance,” he had said after adjusting her stance and then firing five rounds exactly into bullseye with his own gun. “You need to be able to adapt in combat situations without relying on your conductor. We must be prepared for everything.”
She’d expected him to conclude with something like “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and so she was surprised when he instead said, “A rusted part slows down the cogs turning in the machine. All it needs is polish.”
Courage, heart, and loyalty, Emilia had thought as Second Lieutenant Wolff broke the news of Otto’s death during their imprisonment in Argo. The details about the Verbundene Augen hadn’t sunken in until later. All of it seemed so trivial compared to the sharp pain of realizing that there would no longer be anyone huddling beside her during the long stretches of nothing in the trenches. She was certain the last time she’d spoken to Otto he’d promised to send her fresh basil from his parent’s herb garden.
A broken promise.
Emilia was used to seeing and hearing about people in the squadron dying. It was expected. But the thing was—as terrible as it sounded—she hadn’t known them. They were passing faces she would occasionally smile at or a pass a packet of cigarettes to. But Otto—Otto was different. She knew Otto.
But despite the dull pain in her chest, Emilia couldn’t shed a tear for him and she despised herself for it. It was like saying he hadn’t been important to her. And most of all she despised Marionette Engel for bringing her movement where it didn’t belong. If Emilia ever got the chance, she knew she would definitely...
But where was the heart in that?
Courage and loyalty, Emilia reminded herself as she witnessed Cadence lunge for Nico in the otherwise empty train compartment. The sight of the lieutenant red-faced was both startling and horrifying. The idea of Cadence who’d been nothing short of amicable if not a bit overly friendly was capable of making such an expression was terrifying.
But Cadence recollected herself quickly, cleaned up the mess of glass and liquid on the floor, before making her exit. It was scary how well Cadence mimicked the lieutenant. It made Emilia wonder if she could be just as easily replaced by a talented doppelgänger.
After Captain Weingartner ushered back the crowd that had formed at the end of the cart, Emilia was ordered to follow after Cadence along with Gilbert, Stein, and Fischer. The second lieutenant was already out the door before the order was even made. Emilia followed last behind Stein and Fischer.
As she trailed behind them, she heard Lieutenant Wolff swear about losing sight of Cadence. Emilia stopped short then as she watched the trio stampede ahead with more fervor than before.
It was on a vague hunch that Emilia decided to double back and comb through their previously passed train carts. That was when she witnessed Viktoria Waltz climbing up onto the roof of one of the train compartments. Emilia hadn’t spoken to the woman before—only had a glimpse of her when they’d arrived in Eisburg. Viktoria was very pretty and very delicate-looking. Quite the opposite of the lieutenant. And more daring than the lieutenant too—recklessly climbing up there like that.
Filled with worry, Emilia followed Emilia up the train cart. As she pulled herself onto the roof, she found herself blinded by white light. When her eyes adjusted, a familiar clink-clink-clink resounded in her ears.
White chains. They were everywhere, crisscrossing across the sky like shooting stars and twisting like snakes on the horizon. Mediums. Manipulator. ELPIS.
The maestro of the chaotic scene was one red-headed woman who stood in front of a grimacing Cadence and a shaking Viktoria who were crowded together.
Iota—Emilia still recalled the woman’s name from that night months ago. Swallowing, she reflexively reached for her pants pocket.
Her conductor was back in the storage unit of the train. But it wouldn’t do any good here even if she had it, Emilia reasoned. If she tried to use her conductor on the metal roof, she would destroy it and possibly destabilize the entire cart.
She tested the idea of retreating for backup or at least retrieving a gun from the storage unit. But no. There wouldn’t be enough time. Cadence and Viktoria were non-combatants. They wouldn’t last. But engaging in combat against a Conductor without a conductor was...
Her siblings flashed into her mind, and fear gripped her insides. When Otto flashed into her mind, tears burned in her eyes.
She didn’t want to die. She wanted to go home, to eat Käsespätzle, to pet her farm sheep, to see her siblings and grandparents.
Why did she have to be dragged into whatever this was? For what purpose? For what people? For what person?
Emilia bit her inner cheek.
Courage and loyalty.
The chains were rising in the air again, but Cadence was frozen on the spot as was Viktoria beneath her.
When the points of metal hurtled down, Emilia threw herself forward and tackled the duo to the side, nearly sending them all off the train. She grabbed hold of Cadence’s arm when the woman nearly rolled off the side while she kept Viktoria tucked beneath her. As she gathered her bearings and looked back up at Iota, she froze.
“You were there too!” Iota hissed at her, face contorted with either rage or grief. “I’ll make you wish you died that night.”
Emilia stiffened before a loud horn blaring to her left tore away her attention. There was another train with red-crosses decorating its sides that ran opposite there. A medical train. Odd to see one heading out from the direction of the capital instead of heading towards it.
Wait, no. No getting distracted during battle.
Emilia faced forward again only to find Iota staring at the medical train too.
“That’s coming from the capital, isn’t it?” Iota muttered.
The look in her eyes sent chills down Emilia’s spine.
Iota lifted her gloved hand and sent another wave of chains flying into the air. The metal links did not hurtle towards Emilia, Cadence, or Viktoria however. Instead, they shot outwards and bulleted their surroundings: the forestry and the train that was chugging parallel. The chains pierced through the windows and shattered glass there. Shouts of terror and alarm followed.
When Iota clenched her gloved conductor into a fist, the chains tightened and dragged half of the carts right off the tracks. A storm of dust was kicked up as metal scraped against the earth. The rest of the train was locked into the tracks by snaking chains that constricted the train's body.
Very faintly, Emilia could hear moaning and desperate shouting from the toppled carts. Civilians. Injured. People she was bound by her duty as serving. It was different than casualties on the field. Those casualties had happened in enemy territory. This was in her home.
“They could be infected,” Iota muttered to herself. “Better to get rid of them now.” Despite her voice sounding remorseful and her eyes looking somber, her lips were twisted into a grin.
Emilia paled. “You monste—”
Chains rained down around Emilia, cutting her off short. She curled instinctively into a ball around Viktoria and shouted in alarm to Cadence. But the piercing pain never came even as an ear-splitting grating howled through the whipping winds. When Emilia lifted her head, she found white bars shooting up out from all the edges of their train cart.
A cage of chains.
“Omega probably was trapped just like this with that damned suitcase peacekeeper,” Iota growled. “I’ll make you suffer the same.”
Emilia picked herself up immediately and rushed forward to grab a hold of the chains that had nearly impaled Cadence and Viktoria earlier. They were still embedded into the center roof of the train but were no longer glowing white and now whipped uselessly in the wind. She tore them from their resting spot and gripped them tightly. Without hesitation, she whipped the chain out towards Iota.
That was the problem with Manipulators. The more mediums they manipulated, the less control and awareness over the individual mediums they had. That and their mediums were only viable for as long as the Manipulator’s vitae was present in them. Too many mediums, less vitae to go around, less long-lasting mediums.
Iota blocked the attempt with a single glowing chain and laughed above the crash of metal. “What? Don’t have your conductor on you? Talk about useless—”
This woman liked to talk a lot, Emilia thought as she whipped the chain around again. The point of it swung around this time and hurtled towards Iota’s back. But a quick wave of the hand sent up another barrier.
Oh, Emilia thought. This was just embarrassing. But there wasn’t much else she could do.
“This is what happens when you rely on these things so much,” Iota growled as she swept her conductor-gloved hand in the air. “You can’t live without them.”
This time it wasn’t the sharp point of the chain that came at them. Instead, the body of a chain swept all three of them right off of their feet and into the air above the tip of the chain bars—and off the train. Emilia’s stomach somersaulted as the carts and forest rushed beneath her. She eyed the chain that had thrown them into the air. They were no longer glowing and whipped wildly in the wind. In other words, they were no longer effective mediums.
Emilia grabbed hold of the chain with one hand and Cadence’s arm in the other hand. Cadence, now swearing profusely, grabbed a hold of Viktoria in turn. For a moment, they were all in the air clinging tightly to the chain and each other. In the next, they were crashing smack flat against the roof. Their hands unlinked at the force, and Emilia was sent flying against the bars of the chain cage. The metal cut into her skin, wetness dampening the back of her uniform. Still, Emilia picked herself off the ground. Viktoria was shakily rising to her knees half a meter away while Cadence remained flat and motionless.
Stay calm and think of a solution. There is always a solution, Lieutenant Waltz had lectured during the required weekly ranked-officer meeting weeks ago. Although the meetings themselves were required, most unit officers had put them off or marked the meeting minutes complete preemptively. There is no such thing as an unsolvable problem. Advantages can be found in weaknesses.
And a Manipulator had many weaknesses.
Emilia’s heart thundered as she balled her fists and took in a deep breath. Poising herself on the ground, legs bent, knees relaxed, she let out a sigh and thought of her siblings, her grandparents, her farm, and Käsespätzle. And then she sprinted forward towards Iota.
Glowing chains shot outwards at Emilia but she was expecting this and slipped beneath them easily. The hurtling chains rattled against the bars of the makeshift jail before rebounding and coming back after her. Ignoring them, Emilia pounced onto Iota. The chains stopped short just a centimeter behind her as Iota willed them to.
Too many mediums, not enough control, not wanting to get skewered too, Emilia figured as she grabbed hold of Iota’s hand. She kicked the woman twice in the stomach before driving her back against the bars of her own jail. Sweeping Iota’s legs out from beneath her, she then pinned the woman to the roof and gripped the pointed spike of the chain that she’d carried with her all this way. With a grimace, she drove it into Iota’s side and twisted. Warm liquid dyed her hands red.
But there was no fear or desperation in Iota’s eyes, Emilia realized. It didn’t look like she felt any pain either.
Hadn’t Cadence briefly mentioned that most ELPIS leaders were impervious to pain…? And cared little for bodily damage and harm?
That just meant she was being toyed with—
Warmth suddenly spread across Emilia’s abdomen. She could feel wetness seeping down the cloth of her uniform both at her front and her back. Upon glancing down, she found a glowing chain running clean through her stomach.
Emilia gripped her chain-spike and drove it down again—this time to Iota’s throat. But before she could make contact, she was thrown backwards by another sweeping line of metal and crashed back against the bars. She felt the chain slide out from her gut as she slid down to the roof with a groan. An excruciating hot pain erupted at her stomach only a second after. She placed a hand over the area, feeling wetness seep through. She glanced down at her damp hand and saw red. Red on her hands, red pooling on the metal below her, red soaking her beloved medals and uniform.
The pain amplified tenfold at the sight of the wound, and her fingers trembled.
She was terrified. Absolutely terrified. She didn’t want to die. She wanted to go to her siblings, to go home to the farm, to eat Käsespätzle, to sheer the sheep with her grandparents. How would her siblings and grandparents afford clothing and food and school books without her stipend? How would they react if they saw her return home in a casket?
No, no, she couldn’t do that to them.
Otto, she thought, oh, Otto. Had he felt like this too, hadn’t he?
Emilia’s vision blurred, but she managed to catch a glimpse of Cadence stirring and shaking her head.
The train lurched to a halt abruptly, causing Emilia to jerk forward. When she gathered her bearings, she came to realize that Iota had sent her mediums all around the train, effectively locking it in place on the tracks. The carts groaned with the train, the horn screaming several meters away.
But this was good. There was a chance of escape now.
“Cadence,” Emilia heaved. “Use your proto-conductor and hide.”
Cadence stiffened and snapped up to look at her. The swindler’s wide-eyed gaze flattened into a startling glare. “How do you know…” She stopped short as her eyes went to Emilia’s abdomen. “Saints, you’re hurt—”
The clink-clink of chains resounded above the howling wind as the bars of their cage shot upwards and lit up the night sky in a dozen streaks of white.
Viktoria curled up into a ball beside Cadence, but Emilia stared up at the chains tearfully. She couldn’t be courageous in the end, she thought, but at least she’d been loyal.
And that was when she saw it out of the corner of her eye—blue sparks that leapt into copper embers that burst into crimson flame. They flurried out, consuming the chains hurtling at them and turning them to molten liquid in an instant.
Smoke clouded the air in the inferno's aftermath. When it cleared, Emilia registered the captain and Gilbert hanging on the side of the cart. Back up. Finally. Relief warmed Emilia’s hands at the thought as her gut twisted. But then she realized they were staring at her. No, past her.
The whites of Iota’s eyes glinted in the moonlight. “You.”
Emilia followed all of their gazes.
Cadence stood there panting heavily with a grimace. She was cradling her hands, the leather of her gloves flaking off in ashen pieces. There was nothing in her actual hand, however. Nothing hanging at her waist; nothing by her feet. No conductor, no weapon.
Iota threw her hand out again, and a trio of spiked white chains hurtled out to them. Cadence whipped her hand out, fingertips sparking with crimson. Flames torrent outwards, catching onto the metal links and melting them in an instant.
A Fire Elementalist? Not Cadence. Not the lieutenant either, Emilia realized. Then who—no, that wasn’t what was astounding.
Emilia stared at the Elementalist as the faint wisps of embers still lingering in the air were battered away by the wind.
Emilia wondered if she was hallucinating now because of the blood loss.
Without a conductor…? Like magic.
“I can’t believe my luck!” Iota laughed, somehow completely unphased by the sight of the conductor-less conducting. “Three birds with one stone! It’s not that I want you to die anymore either—it’s that you need to die!”
“You all sound like broken records…” Not-Cadence-nor-the-Lieutenant muttered. “Is monologuing the only strategy you have?”
“You’re the True Conductor Gamma came across in New Ram City. I didn’t believe it at first, but it’s true.”
Not-the-Lieutenant tensed, and his face became folded with clear regret and—fear.
Iota’s ecstatic grin became cruel. “The saint candidates really did mess up with you. I wonder if you can hear me, Aries.”
“Saint candidates…?” Not-Lieutenant stiffened. “Aries? What are you talking about?”
Instead of answering, Iota flung out her conductor again. This time the chains came from behind. Not-the-Lieutenant whipped his hand out in response and crimson flames shot out from his fingertips. Again, the chains were incinerated.
Lowering his hand as smoke streaked the sky, Not-the-Lieutenant looked over Iota with a frown. “Aren’t you embarrassed…?”
It was only because Emilia was so close to him that she could see that he was trembling. But Emilia figured that she had to be hallucinating because it didn’t make sense for such a powerful Conductor to be afraid in a situation like this.
Iota let out another roar and flung her conductor outwards. This time before the chains even began to rise in the air, they crumbled to ash in a burst of crimson.
“Give it a break already….” the Elementalist muttered before glancing back towards Emilia. His eyes were filled with worry and that fear again.
Another non-combatant, Emilia realized. There was no other reason why he would turn his back on the enemy.
“Look… out…” she managed as Iota threw out her conductor once more.
Not-Lieutenant stiffened and turned just as chains jetted at him from behind. Before they pierced him through, however, a gunshot whistled through the air followed by a grunt as Iota fell to the ground. Her conductor shattered to pieces on the ground as her mediums lost their glow and clattered lifelessly onto the roof.
The second lieutenant was standing on the roof now with Klaus and the captain just beside him. There was a gun still billowing with smoke in Gilbert’s hands. Klaus must’ve conjured something quick for the second lieutenant, Emilia realized, vision swimming.
The Elementalist lifted his hand and drew an encircling wall of fire around Iota as she turned on her heels and lunged at Gilbert. Iota winced back from the heat and whipped around to glare at him.
“You don’t understand,” Iota snapped in her flame jail. She extended her hand past the wall of flame and her skin began to bubble and blacken.
The Elementalist tensed, paling in the deep red light as he increased the width of the flame.
Eventually, Iota recoiled back inside the cage but continued seething, “It’s not about Omega anymore. You have to die. You have to! Can’t you see that you people being alive is going to be the end of everything?”
There was a beat as the flames crackled.
“Well, too bad,” Not-Lieutenant murmured as Emilia’s vision began to fade. “Looks like I’m going to have to live.”
Courage and loyalty.
Werner Waltz, a child in body only, stood in his bedroom with the dustless table, the neatly made bed, and the smearless windows that let in soft moonlight. Unlike the previous time he was here, he knew exactly what he needed to do. He waited patiently, gaze fixated on the open door as footsteps resounded up the staircase.
A shadow was perched like a bird in the corner of his room at his desk. Feathers gathered beneath the shadow’s feet. A mess.
“You were going to end up here anyways,” Shion muttered, sounding exasperated. “I was just trying to give you a break. You’re more stubborn than anything else.”
He did not want her here to bear witness to this memory, but he hadn’t yet found the ability to remove her. He’d never found the ability to push away the other five either.
Werner regarded the peacekeeper for a moment before speaking calmly: “There are many people entering and leaving the vitae cycle, but of all places, you’ve ended up here with me. You said you’re here to help, but all you’ve been doing is apparently wasting my time. If you truly wanted to help me, then you would tell me exactly what’s going on here.”
Shion hummed with a shrug. “I already told you everything. You were invaded, you're on the edge of life and death, and you need to cut out the invader. You’ve been succeeding so far. Nothing more and nothing less.”
No, there was something else. The events—the memories—he had to wade through to get back to this point felt too real to be figments, yet the inaccuracies and anachronisms were disorienting. While he did believe that memories were faulty—which was why detailed reports were needed—those childhood memories had contained vague mentions of their True Conductor unit, despite their first synchronization not occurring until almost a year ago. And that was too strange. Shion’s ability to traverse this place against Lavi’s inability to was too coincidental.
And there was no such thing as a coincidence.
“How did you end up here?” he probed.
“... I have an inkling the papers said it was suicide,” was all she said.
Werner withdrew his attention from her as a shadow spilled out across the floor that was painted blue by the moonlight. A thin figure, face shadowed over, stood at the doorway.
“Show me,” Mother ordered without repose.
Werner went over to his desk and gingerly pulled out the black box he’d kept hidden for over a year there tucked away. The surface glinted in the light, its internal gears and maze of insulators gleaming inside its black casing. He took it over to her and presented it.
“What is that?”
“It’s... a vitae illumination box. A conductor,” he explained, just as he’d done years ago. “It’s a pictograph that uses v-lights powered by vitae that you put in it to draw a picture.”
He wrapped his small hand around a protruding metal handle. At the motion, the insulation tubes visible above the gears of the box glowed with indigo light. Werner twisted the knobs on the other side of the device and directed his vitae to flow to different areas of the box. Shakily, he drew a misshapen smiley face.
“It’s a toy.”
Werner remained silent, just like how he’d done years ago.
“Whose idea was it?”
It had been an idea of a friend, but Viktoria had been the one who had begged him to build it. On the weekends, she would sneak over to his room from the window, and they’d work together sometimes until dawn.
He’d known at the time that Viktoria had been likely waiting out in the hall. He’d imagined that she was frozen to the spot, and he’d recalled all the times she’d looked to him for protect—
“Mine,” he said.
“Will it help you in the future?”
Werner had remained silent then and remained silent now.
“I asked if it will help you in the future? With your military career as a Capricornian? Make people think more of you? Make you an exceptional officer?” she repeated. After he continued to remain silent, she said, “There you go. You have better things to focus on than useless things like this.”
She spoke lightly but her voice weighed heavily on his shoulders.
“Break it. Now. Here.”
Werner froze despite himself as the memories and feelings regarding this incident flooded his mind.
The illumination box had been a piece he had spent an entire year working on: hours upon hours toiling away after school and staying up late nights to ensure each component fit in with the other. He had fond memories of working on it alongside his siblings. It was something they’d all had and shared outside of what was expected of them.
But an order was an order; and he was very well aware now that this temporary hobby had been useless and a waste of time. There truly were better things he could have spent time on. And yet the hesitation from the past still bled into him.
Regardless, he nodded and released the conductor from his grasp. It hit the floor with a heavy thud and its surface cracked. His stomach dropped with it.
“I said break it, Werner.” Mother sighed. “I told you that you shouldn’t ever leave a job unfinished.”
Werner did as he was told, blankly stomping on the thing over and over again until it was in shards and fragments.
“Good,” she said, pulling out something from behind her back.
He already knew what it was—knew its length, its splinters, and its sharpest areas very well. And so he held his palms out in preparation. But instead of bringing down the wooden stick to his palm, his mother let out a gasp and grabbed a hold of his hands.
“Oh your hands…honey,” she said. “They’re so ugly, Werner… I told you to take better care of it and clean it after every single time! What will people think if they see this?” Her fingernails dug into his skin. “Does it hurt…?”
“It doesn’t hurt,” he’d said. “I’ll hide it. No one will know.”
A grin split her shadowy face as she rested her hand on top of his head. “That’s right. You should take responsibility for your mistakes.”
After a beat, he repeated the question he couldn’t help but ask then: “How did you know?” About his project.
Her lips curled up into a smile.
“I’m always watching you, Werner,” Mother said, lovingly as she stroked his hair. “Well, everyone is. That’s why appearances are everything… They’re all always thinking about you and whispering about you. Trust me. I know… And I only want what’s best. Do you understand?”
“What would be a good example to really drill the lesson home…?” Mother murmured before her gaze turned towards the window.
Werner followed her face and found the bright orb of the moon stark against the black sky.
“Oh, yes, like that. You see that moon out there, honey? Imagine that’s me. I’m always there looking down on you even if you don’t see me.”
The moon cracked in the sky beyond the window and fell to pieces on the snow gathering on the trees and ground just below it. What was unveiled beneath the moon was a large eye that took up the entire sky. It stared down at him unblinkingly.
I see you.
Werner held its gaze for a moment before turning away and looking down to the ground. The pieces of the shattered conductor had changed shape and had become living, breathing scorpions that were skittering across the floor.
Werner extended his foot and stomped on a blue, iridescent scorpion that was scrambling just by his mother’s foot. The exoskeleton of the arachnid cracked beneath his stomp. His surroundings too shattered and fragmented with the impact.
When those pieces fell away, Werner found himself back in the endless stretching abyss. The weight of the moon was off his shoulders, and the soft glow of the white vitae stream greeted him approximately two meters in the distance. His mother was not in sight, and he spied Shion standing behind the stream again.
“That took longer than last time,” came a hum to his right. It was Lavi who was crouching with a bored expression. “I’m guessing Shion had something to do with that. All of you are so stubborn, like Ollie. I was starting to get worried.”
She popped up to a stand and drifted back towards Shion and the stream. Werner hesitantly followed her and came to a stop in front of the stream before meeting Shion’s gaze.
“Are you hurt?” Shion pressed.
“It was a memory,” Werner said. “Memories can’t hurt you.”
Shion frowned again. It was almost a pout.
A swirl of copper suddenly seeped down from above hazily. Werner was aware he couldn’t escape it, so he let it come. As it drifted towards and through him, intense images, sounds, and feelings flashed through his mind. It came more chaotically than before, so it was difficult to make sense of it:
Imprisoned in Argoan territory. Encountering the captain and Bergmann. Revealing the nature of True Conductors to the unit and the captain. Escaping back to Signum through an enemy Argoan criminal organization.
He’d been compromised, Werner realized. His unit and his superior were now aware of his nature as a True Conductor. This thought did not alarm Werner as much as he thought it would, nor did he feel particularly upset at Cadence. Although she had taken a colossal risk, she dealt with the situation in a way she saw fit. At this rate, it was only a matter of time before the unit had discovered his nature. It was better to be on top of matters than caught off guard.
The outcome was acceptable, but her deceptiveness was undesirable. What did alarm Werner, however, were the reactions of his men and his captain—
Stumbling into Cvetka Akulova’s tent in Aquarian territory. Cvetka revealing that she knew that Cadence, Atienna, and Sigurd were True Conductors. Nico’s attempted transmutation of the black mark on his hand. Cadence’s pain. Cvetka’s deal with the captain to transport Cadence to the capital. And an order signed by the Kaiser.
Additional memories and feelings seized Werner without warning, and it took a moment for him to recollect his thoughts.
Pushing down a regretful grimace at Cadence’s pain and a growing sense of apprehension, he stared at his gloved palm.
They had all fallen into the hands of Cvetka’s new employer, which brought up questions regarding Leona’s current status. Additionally, Cvetka’s new employer’s knowledge of the override brought up many questions on how they’d obtained that information.
But why was the Kaiser involved in all of this? The possibility of him working with the ELPIS Department wasn’t a far reach given the nature of Ophiuchus. He also seemed to hold knowledge of True Conductors.
But if that were the case, why had no mention of True Conductors been made by the government? And why did Colonel von Spiel escape detection for so long, despite his increasingly erratic behavior?
But an order from the Kaiser had the highest authority.
Yes, and Werner knew his duty was to serve beneath the Kaiser as a Capricornian. That was his position from the very beginning and hadn’t changed.
In fact, Werner had always wondered if his failure to report his status as a True Conductor to higher command had been a mistake. After the events in the Twin Cities, he’d thought he’d taken the correct course of action. But now doubt began to grow—
Additional memories cut through his thoughts:
Taking the detouring train back home. Seeing Viktoria, Ludwig, Mother, and Fenrir. Reboarding the train. The sleepless exhaustion. The argument with Nico. The escape to the roof of the train. And finally, Iota. And then a snapshot of Bergmann whipping out a chain.
Cadence—Werner swallowed a sigh. She’d let her emotions get the better of her again. And this had indirectly led herself, his sister, and Bergmann to be put in danger. No, the danger was already there.
That aside, judging by Bergmann’s actions, Werner deduced that she didn't have her conductor on her. Werner estimated that the corporal would be able to hold her ground for at most six minutes and thirty seconds. Fortunately, Iota had been causing enough of a disturbance for the unit to be alerted. Back up should arrive swiftly. But relying on chance was undesirable.
Werner reasoned that if Cadence’s memories indicated that she had stepped out of the override, then that meant one of the others was taking her place. And if he were to assume that there was a pattern to these overrides, there was a high probability that one of the other five who had not taken the position of overrider yet would take point from here. The most favorable outcome would be if it were Jericho stationed up there. The least favorable outcome would be an override by Chance due to the boy’s non-combatancy, his particularly distinguishable conduct, and his status. If it was Chance, however—
Werner glanced at Lavi.
—perhaps he would be able to open a communication channel through Lavi. But—
They knew. They all knew.
The thought cut through Werner’s mind like ice.
It was only a matter of time before his mother found out too. What would they think of a lieutenant whose mind was frayed in different directions? A man who wasn’t in full control of his actions? A Capricornian who lied to his subordinates and superiors about it? What sort of leader was that?
Cold sweat broke out across Werner’s back without warning. It was not a feeling he was unfamiliar with but he had not felt it with such intensity in years.
No. What sort of person was that?
“Werner,” came Shion’s voice. “That’s not important.”
Right. Stay calm and think, he told himself. That wasn’t what was pertinent here for now. Those were useless and egocentric thoughts. He had to focus on the ways he could progress and be useful, not the opposite.
His thoughts turned to the cause of the predicament. Firstly, his own actions. And secondly…
Cvetka’s employer had somehow been able to track Cadence down. The only logical explanation for this was a traitor or a Manipulator…? Not a Specialist. And the medium would be...
The cut on his hand.
That was ludicrous.
But if the cut had been made by a Manipulator capable of conducting without a conductor and capable of living manipulation, this was not a problem centralized to himself. His entire country could be at risk. The Kaiser’s actions could also be explained.
But he didn’t have enough information to draw a sound conclusion and working with far-fetched assumptions and vague memories from Cadence Atienna was near baseless. Admittedly, he didn’t like it. His beliefs and reason were being tested lately.
He had to move onto the next stage and exit this place quickly to regain a firm handle on the situation—
Werner was pulled out of his thoughts as a wisp of ember flared out of the corner of his eye. His eyes widened one second later as he registered Lavi’s ghostly form. Her entire body rippled and flickered as if made out of flame. Parts of that flame floated upwards to the sky.
So it was Olive then.
“Is this what happens when Chance conducts without his conductor?” Werner inquired evenly. “The vitae he uses belongs to you. Because you’re a saint candidate.” Without Olive here to weigh him down, the accusation and analysis came out more smoothly.
“Most of the time, yes,” Lavi affirmed. “He’s using me.”
- Town of Morioh
- Luckiest Unlucky Person Alive
Hobbyist writer, epidemiology graduate student, case investigator, retired weeb. I don’t have flashbacks; I have cringebacks. And the person who rings me up the most is Spam Likely ♡
(If you’re reading this, have a great day!)