Werner pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open. It was hard to read in the setting sunlight that was dispersed by the brambles rising around them, but he could still make out the hands of the clock.
They had been walking for exactly eight hours, thirty-two minutes, and twenty-two seconds since they had set off from their first rest stop at exactly six in the morning. At this point, they were ahead of schedule.
Odd. It seemed as if they’d been walking for longer than that.
Snapping his watch closed and tucking it into his breast pocket, Werner observed the skyline. It would be best if they continued on at a steady pace from here. They would reach the nearest populated town within four hours.
“Stop it, Stein!”
Werner turned his head.
Private Klaus Kleine was sandwiched in-between Derik Stein and Wilhelm Fischer. They were pressing up against him from both sides. Derik was wearing a sneer and Fischer a grimace. Beside Fischer stood disappointed and frowning Emilia.
“Enough, Fischer!” Emilia said, pulling on the man’s shoulder. “Leave him alone already!”
Otto was observing the entire confrontation from behind them with a nervous expression. He toyed with hands as his gaze flicked from the dirt floor to the unraveling scene. Brunhilde walked slowly beside him, her attention and interest seeming to be elsewhere.
Werner nodded at Gilbert who had been walking beside him. The man let out a dramatic sigh before falling back towards the other group. Alwin who was walking just a step behind him fell back as well.
“Fischer, Stein, knock it off,” Gilbert snapped, pulling the two men off of the bespectacled, shorter soldier. “My legs are already sore from walking all day. Don’t make my ears sore too.”
“Er, sorry, sir,” Fischer apologized.
Stein merely rubbed his neck and shrugged the strap of his conductor up his shoulders. Klaus bowed his head, readjusted his glasses, and fell back in step next to Otto and Brunhilde. Gilbert laughed dryly and shook his head.
“Aren’t you guys tired of going through the same routine every time you’re around each other?” He asked. He glanced at Klaus and Wilhelm and found them looking away with embarrassment. He shook his head. He paused before nodding at Alwin. “Speaking of routine, do you have any more of your bootleg stories for us?”
Alwin comically rubbed his chin in thought. “Well, I do have one that I’ve been waiting for the right moment to tell. Heard it while I was in the Twin Cities a while back.” He peaked at Werner. “But…”
“You’ll waste your energy, and we still have four more hours until we reach our next resting point,” Werner informed him quietly, coolly as he turned away from them and looked forward. He could feel his squad’s displeasure at this information but he continued nonetheless: “And we must tread carefully and quietly and be attentive. We don’t know if there are any Aquarians nearby. It’s not worth the risk.”
Gilbert jogged up to Werner’s side and matched his pace. “Oh come on, Werner, Aquarians out this far? Almost all of them got caught up at the Zeigenberg Ridge.”
“You just said it yourself. Almost. That’s not an absolute.” Werner continued forward at a steady pace. “There should be nothing left to chance, Second Lieutenant Krauss.”
“With all due respect, First Lieutenant Waltz,” Gilbert pressed, “I think they could use a bit of a morale boost. I mean, we’ve been walking for hours and we’re due to walk for several more hours.” He leaned in close and muttered, “And it’s not like there’s a spa at the end of this happy camp journey. I know that even someone like you isn’t fond of it when Ophiuchus gets involved.”
Werner glanced at the man. “Gilbert, morale has nothing to do with life or death.”
Gilbert quirked a brow as if challenging the idea.
Werner looked away from him and addressed those behind him: “Private Brandt, you said you heard your story when you were in the Twin Cities, correct? Then it must be your story about the Golden Beast. I’m sure everyone has heard it by now. There is no meaning in telling it again.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alwin start in surprise. The man quickened his pace and fell into step beside him.
“Lieutenant, how did you know about the Golden Beast?” He asked.
“As I’ve said,” Werner replied quietly, “I overheard you telling it before.”
Alwin frowned. “But I’ve never told it before, sir.” He exchanged a look with Gilbert across from him. “Right?”
Gilbert half-nodded, half-shrugged.
“Guess you must be a mind reader then, sir,” Alwin chuckled.
“I am not a mind-reader, Brandt,” Werner replied coolly, “but if you and Second Lieutenant Kraus cannot remember the story that you told, perhaps it was not a story worth telling.”
Gilbert rolled his eyes and fell back. Eventually, Alwin did too.
They walked on in silence.
The only sounds were the wind whistling its way through the trees and the crunch of sticks and fallen leaves beneath their boots. The grayness of the darkening sky draped a dreary and eerie atmosphere over their route, and Werner could see why Gilbert had mentioned ‘morale’. However, comfort was not a priority here. Success was.
Suddenly, a faint sound that did not seem to belong to nature reached his ears.
Werner held up his hand signaling his men to stop. Most conformed instantly while others stumbled in surprise. Werner glanced at them before straining his ears and carefully examining the woods around them and the path before them. A fog had rolled in from the east threading everything in a haze. The faint sound seemed to bounce off the fog and resounded around them.
Music, Werner realized as he inclined his head and unstrapped his conductor from his back. He exchanged a look with Gilbert who was frowning. Before Werner could interpret that frown, the distant sound suddenly grew in volume and the echo seemed to concentrate in a single area.
There, just behind a jail of thin black trees to his left. Werner lowered his conductor in both awe and confusion. He did not understand how he or any of his men could have missed something like this.
There right before him blossomed a large, white, glowing tree that seemed to be at least ten stories tall. Its trunk was thick, its branches reaching far across the skyline. At its roots glowed a pool of light. A vitae stream…? Impossible. There was no such thing in this area.
In front of this impossibility knelt a woman with dark hair, dark skin, and a dark dress. Her head was resting on the lap of an older woman was sitting on what appeared to be a wheelchair. Beside them was a record player that twirled out a slow, melancholic tune sung with garbled words by a somber singer.
Werner took a step forward and attempted to make out the features of the older woman but stopped when he realized that her back was to him. The kneeling woman, however, lifted her head and locked eyes with him. A thin, almost coy smile slowly crept up her face.
“It’s funny,” she said, “how close you can be someone and yet so far away. You’d think that things like painful and traumatic memories will bring people closer together—all hearts coming together as one—but they can pull people apart too.”
Werner brought a hand to his ear. Rather than her voice echoing from the distance, it sounded as if her voice was resounding in his head.
The woman slowly broke eye contact with him and turned her eyes back towards the tree. “You know,” she began, “they say that memories—”
A hand was clapped on his shoulder. He started and turned. It was Gilbert. The man was searching his face with concern and confusion. Odd behavior, seeing that there was an anomaly before them. Werner returned his attention to the tree and the women but only found the black matchstick trees caging an empty, foggy clearing.
There was a sharp prick at his temple and a ringing at his ears. The black brambles swam around him as did the faces of his soldiers.
“It was just an animal,” Werner said, shouldering his conductor. “Let’s keep moving.” Without waiting to see if protest followed, he continued onwards down the path. He was grateful for the chilled breeze that came with dusk. It cooled the sweat that was still trickling down the back of his neck.
Once again, a dissonant silence that was not complete reigned. Rubber crunching against gravel, wind whistling through leaves, bated breaths.
They were watching him, Werner knew. His squadron. He could feel their gazes glued to his back. What they were thinking, however, he did not know. What he did know was that as soon as he completed this assignment—this mission—he would check himself in with a medical Conductor immediately. It seemed as if something had been left to chance without his knowledge.
A barren hill came into view. The slope of it was gradual and dotted with boulders and fallen logs. It was slick with mud.
Werner held up his hand signaling his men to stop again. This time Gilbert came to his side and glanced around the area.
“Up there.” Werner nodded at the hill that rolled up ahead of them. Very faintly on the hill-line glowed the light from a cluster of buildings.
“Houses,” Gilbert murmured. “That can’t be right. There’s nothing about this on the maps.”
Werner almost let out a sigh of relief. So, what he’d been seeing this time was indeed real. Pushing the feeling aside, he motioned for Brunhilde and Fischer.
“Scout the area,” he ordered. “Who, what, why.”
Both saluted before making their way up the hill. They returned exactly forty-five minutes and thirty-two seconds later. Their legs were soaked through and caked with dirt.
“It’s an Aquarian base. Mostly injured men,” Brunhilde informed Werner upon their return. “The town has been abandoned since the end of the War. They took advantage. There was no Red Star noting it as a field hospital.”
Werner took this information in without speaking. Lawfully, medical camps and hospitals that displayed the Red Star were under the protection of international humanitarian law prohibiting them from being attacked. A rule both written and unwritten during the War. Where that rule fell during this time of tumultuous pseudo peace when there was no Red Star… well, it was obvious. Besides, the uphill trek would be tumultuous. It would be best if they went around it instead. It would save his men energy.
But then Major Ersatz’s orders came to mind. ‘Eliminate any Aquarian pockets on their side of the border’. These orders too were sensible, logical. Even if these Aquarians were injured, if they recovered and remained on this side of the border they would surely become a threat. No Red Star. No protection. No remaining Aquarians. No threat.
“Maybe around twenty-ish.” Fischer said. “There were about five who looked like they could maybe put up a fight, sir.”
“Maybe?” Werner frowned.
“I-It was hard to tell, sir. But I’m pretty sure it’s around there,” Fischer returned.
Werner mulled over this and then they set out.
They crept upon the small settlement with the fog as their cover. They approached the town from all directions. Werner had the long-range externalists position themselves in vantage points that allowed them to scope out the five uninjured Aquarians. Werner himself found a slab of rock overgrown with thrush that oversaw a small building. At the farthest left window of the building sat a man outlined in a yellow light backdrop. He sat with his hands buried in his head. One of the uninjured Aquarians. According to Fischer’s report, within the building, there were three more Aquarians. Injured. Werner could deal with them swiftly.
A three-note whistle indicated they were all in position.
Werner peered through the scope and aimed his conductor at the man’s temple. He pulled the trigger. The silencer on his conductor deafened to the blast of blue light to a windy whistle. Glass shattered. The ray met its target. A splurt of red followed by a thud.
Werner moved his scope to one of the upper floor windows where a man who had been curled up on a metal bed shot up to a sit. An easier target. He aimed and pulled the trigger. The ray whistled, cracked through the mirror, and shot through the man’s head like a pin needle. The corpse hit the floor with a thud, and the sound was followed by a shout of alarm from within.
Shadows started streaking across the windows. Scrambling, panicking. Werner easily followed them through their path with the scope. One strayed too close to the window. An aim and a twitch of a muscle ended the shadow in a blur of blue.
Then there was silence. Faintly in the darkness, Werner could make out the faint glows of fired conductor bolts.
Werner waited there peering into the building, peering around in the darkness before he lowered his scope. Pressing his fingers to his lips, he let out another whistle which was met by a chorus of similar whistles.
After twenty-two seconds more of careful observation, he lowered his conductor and made his way down to the building. He creaked the door open with his conductor and peered inside. Red bled onto the wooden floorboards, and a body rested by the window at the very corner of the room.
Werner knelt down beside the corpse to check the pulse and the ID before continuing on. He continued on inside, taking mark of the other bodies scattered through the room as well as the supplies within.
After making his way through the first floor, he carefully, quietly climbed the stairs. As he reached the final step and entered the hall thee, he saw a shadow flicker out of the corner of his eye. He raised his hands just as a shout ripped through the air and a body launched itself at him from the darkness. He was slammed against the wall by the shadowy figure and felt them attempt to wrestle his conductor away from him. A quick kick to the chest sent the person flying backwards into the dark.
“Don’t move,” Werner snapped, pointing his conductor into the dark.
Suddenly, from the opposite end of the hall, silver light began to spill in from the windows. Moonlight unveiled from the clouds. It slowly cascaded down, inching closer and closer, until it reached the area where Werner’s assailant was hidden. The shadows pulled away from the area and revealed his assailant’s freckled face as well as the face of the man his assailant was hovering over protectively. The man was injured. The bandages wrapped around his head and torso were stained red. His breathing was labored. He would not last long.
The freckled man abruptly raised his hands in the air. “Please. We surrender.” He gestured slowly, cautiously to the man behind him. “He needs help. Please.”
It was pathetic, surely. Unsightly even. But orders were absolute.
Werner raised his conductor, aimed it at the man, and moved his finger towards the trigger.
What are you doing…?