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.”
“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.
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?”
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—
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—”
“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.
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.