"Ah, an old friend told me to hang onto this for you. I don't quite get it but, I'm sure you would know how to make sense of it. You are the right guy, right? Oh well, if it's not you, then that's fine. It's really none of my business anyways... Oh, and by the way, what's with the... y'know, the whole get-up anyways?"
This is the tale of a young girl, from birth she is said to have been cursed by fate. Two men, one consumed by guilt, another by anger and vengeance. In all truth, their paths should never have crossed. In all truth, they should have all been dead a long time ago. However, fate did not allow this. For reasons that may seem cruel, or perhaps merciful, fate has allowed them all to live. And in its twisted cruelty or mercy, it had brought them together.
Elena looked down at her cup of coffee, still swirling after it had been served. It was thick and black, the bitter scent could be almost tasted by smell alone. She sat against the window, looking at her own reflection while ignoring the world outside. Her skin was pale and greyish, just teetering on looking sickly. Her eyes were a bright golden orange, looking as though they were low-burning embers amidst the ashes. Her hair was black, voluminous, and reaching just below her shoulders.
Her small hand reached out and grabbed a silver fork, then she made a clean-cut slice out of the cheesecake, the sweet blueberry sauce on top now oozing into the crevice. By her side was a matte black violin case, one that she would almost never be caught without.
Two police officers in dark blue uniform walk into the café, a waiter runs up to greet them. Elena sighs, wondering why she couldn't just enjoy a coffee in peace here. She places her fork on the platter and reaches for the pistol holstered inside her olive green parka. Taking another calm sip of her bitter coffee, she sees the waiter directing them at a table away from her. Perhaps they were just here on break after all. She let out a sigh of relief and let go of her pistol, going back to her cheesecake slice. She wondered... what exactly it was that brought her to this point.
What was it...? Or when was it?
Was it last year when I picked up that violin?
Was it three years ago in the trenches of Iris?
Or was just five days ago when I tried to kill the man sitting just before me?
Siegfried likewise breathed a sigh of relief, having noticed Elena's hand leaving her jacket. He looked down on his coffee, dark but with some milk. He blinked his tired brown eyes and brushed back his similarly brown hair, then took another sip of his coffee.
But what exactly was the day that brought her to this point? Well, Elena's fate had always been set in stone, but it was just one year ago when it just so happened that fate took a strange twist.
On the day the gears of fate are gathered up, all falling into place and winding up... Some unusual feeling hung in the air. Every year is different from another. While one can predict what may happen to the world one, two years down the line, one can never predict with true certainty what direction their lives would take just one week in advance.
It was near the end of summer. At a day like this, there should be sunny, cloudless skies, a light breeze to go with the warm radiance of the sun. The twilight of summer is the perfect season for relaxation, taking the time to bask in the sun and reminisce over memories made, people met, and days gone by. With a cold drink, perhaps with light snack, and with nothing to do or worry about, perhaps a smell would make its way to one's mind and remind them of a time once treasured.
This is what Siegfried thought of as he stood at the ledge of the Astarte Hotel. But this summer day was anything but. It was in the afternoon but piles of thunderclouds stacked up so high that it was as good as nighttime in this city. The torrential rain was unrelenting, storm drains were flooding over, and the streets were mostly empty. What Siegfried was seeing just now, was his life flashing before his eyes.
"For a while... it was a good life." Siegfried said to himself. He looked down, deeming the seven floor drop to be sufficient for what he was about to do.
From this up high, I can kiss the hard asphalt with no second thoughts. What's it, twenty-five, thirty meters? That high is good enough for me to-... wait.
Siegfried opens his eyes and takes a closer look at the ground below. There was a grouping of what seems to be six individuals standing right underneath him.
Ah. This is bad.
Siegfried waited for a few moments, and those moments turned into minutes, and then Siegfried just realized that this group was just going to loiter around here... right underneath him in this downpour.
As if my luck is not rotten enough...!
"HEEEEEEY!!!" Siegfried called out, "HEEEEEEYYYYY!!! YOU OVER THERE!!!"
The group seems to have moved slightly. With this rain and umbrellas, he couldn't clearly see them for who they are. They seemed to be looking up at him.
"CAN YOU MOVE OUT OF THE WAY?!"
"WHAT?!" One voice responded. It seemed to belong to that of a girl or a young woman.
"I SAID... CAN YOU MOVE OUT OF THE WAY?!"
"Agh... you've got to be... MOVE OUT OF THE WAY, I'M GOING TO JUMP!!!"
This... is going to be a long day isn't it...?
"Eh... what are we looking for?" Asked Elena, following Julie down a dusty grey corridor. Dull light shone through the broken windows, shattered glass and crumbs of the wall were scattered all about. Her long black hair bobbed as she jumpily looked around while her eyes curiously darted left and right.
"You'll know when we find it." Answered Julie, glancing over into the doors as she passed them by "Schools like these have all sorts of goods that go overlooked. We could snag ourselves a nice treasure if we're lucky!"
Elena peered into one of the rooms along the corridor. Desks were roughly lined up in columns facing an empty wall. The scene looked familiar, it felt as if she had been to a place like this before, but she couldn't bring herself to remember.
"Ah... I miss school sometimes. It's a shame what happened here." Julie commented, dismayed at the sight of the classroom.
They continued on towards the end of the corridor, stopping by a hole in the wall that showed the outside world. Elena looked out, taking in the view of the world from the building. Outside, it was grey from where she stood all the way to the horizon. There were dilapidated buildings, ruins, wreckages, and in the far distance were husks of towers, skeletal structures made of petrified steel and concrete reaching up to the hazy grey sky.
"Exactly... what can we find here?" Asked Elena. With all those buildings out there, what exactly made a school building any unique? The world was desolate, grey all over. Elena could not think up a single thing in this building that would make their lives any different "If it's not food or bullets or... medicine... why did you take me here for, Julie?"
"Good question, Elena. All color in the world must come from some place. Schools like these were just the perfect places for hope and ambition to bloom. Tell me, Elena, you think someone just wanders in here looking for that?"
Elena and Julie were like night and day. Elena was gloomy, her hair black and unkempt, her skin sickly pale, her clothes dark, and all she could do is blend in with this depressing world. Julie was the opposite, her optimism was radiant, her hair blonde and straight, her skin a healthy and fair complexion and her eyes were the only blue that Elena had seen for days. But as night and day, one couldn't exist without the other. Elena walked down a dark path, unwelcome in any form of society, having to live her life knowing that it can only exist at the expense of other lives. Julie simply was not that; she was the optimist Elena couldn't be, she was cultured, she was a girl that belonged to a brighter world. But as night and day, one could not exist without the other. Elena's path could only have gone darker, and darker without Julie. Without her, Elena's last shred of humanity would have been as good as gone. For Julie, she was a girl that just did not belong. She couldn't accept the fate of being bound to one place, but wandering out there, she became lost. It was not until she had met Elena that she finally found her footing again, perhaps joining her on her travels was what she needed to find the place that she was looking for.
"I wouldn't know..." Elena simply responded.
"Come on, this is where one's life begins." Julie ruffled her hair and continued on walking. And just as she looked into the next class, she found just what they were here for, "Ahah! We just may find something here!"
She danced into the room, looking at the pile of instruments at the end of the room. Most of them were already broken or decayed, but there could still be something that could be used or fixed up. Elena stood behind her, wondering what any of those tools were for.
"And..." Julie took a black case out. Opening it up, she found a similarly black stringed instrument, "voila! Violin!"
"A-a? Voi... voi... what?"
"No, no... voi la, this is a violin! It's a musical instrument!"
"A violin..." Elena looked at this so-called musical instrument. It did look familiar to her but among this pile, it may as well have just been a piece of industrial equipment.
"Alright! I've been waiting for this! Ehh, I've only learned to play the violin a little but... see here! You draw this bow against the strings, and the vibrations it makes creates a sound! Basically, you can make music if you play the violin right!"
"Oh..." Elena could only barely get the gist of what Julie was saying, but she had already moved on to a book that was on a desk by the pile.
"Ah! And musical notes! Those are a script of their own! If you learn how to read those, you can follow the notes to make music! This is just perfect, we can both read those! Well... hm?" Julie trailed off as she noticed Elena fixated on the violin. It looked as though he was just about to reach out to ask for it. With a smile, Julie handed it over to her, "Here, you can have it if you want. I'm actually much better on the piano, that instrument makes sounds by pressing keys on it... but there doesn't seem to be any piano around here... wait, what're you...?"
"I feel like I've done this before..." Elena put the violin up between her collarbone and chin, with a form so good that it caught Julie by surprise. She drew her bow, and Julie stood wondering what Elena's next move was and just as she brough the bow to the strings...
"Hm?" Elena drew the bow against the strings, but no sound came out.
"Ah. It needs some rosin." As though Julie was the expert, Elena entrusted the violin back to her "I mean, you need to rub it on the strings to make some noise. And before you play, you also do need to-"
A string snapped, whipping upwards then falling limp as Julie had her hands on the pegs, taking the two girls by surprise.
"...tune it. Eheh... That's what happens when you have bad strings. N-no worries! Those can be replaced! And the violin itself... looks like it's made of a sort of metal, or special fiber, it's pretty solid. Well, it can be fixed up. And besides... The violin suits you, Elena"
"Mhm! Your form was... so elegant. And for someone like you, I'm sure you could make some beautiful music with it! Now, hm... let's take a walk around. I have a feeling that we aren't done just yet! There still are a few more buildings we can check out!"
What the... Where am I? What is this noise?
Disorientation. Muffled screams and explosions could be heard but couldn't be made sense of. Vision faded in and out and the sense of touch came back to his fingers.
He lifted himself up, blood dripped from his face onto the white flower of the black, white, and gold banner of the Edelweiss Empire. Like the flag, he was thrown unceremoniously onto the street floor.
What just happened...?
His memories were all jumbled up, his life was already flashing before his eyes as he tried to make sense of where he was.
"Stroheim...!" A voice called out. He could barely hear it through the ringing in his hears "Stroheim! Sergeant!"
He was on his knees. Looking over to the left was a tank turned upside down, spewing flames from every opening. The sounds of gunfire and soldiers shouting filled the air as it all started coming back to him. With a glimpse of his jacket and the soldier approaching him, he realized that the uniform was black with red trimmings.
That's strange... most regular soldiers wear grey... I am... am I a soldier...?
"Stroheim! Leone! Are you alright?!" The soldier grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. He was alive and conscious alright, but there was no telling to what extent.
Ah. Yeah. How could I forget...? My name is Leone Stroheim. Sergeant in the 42nd Division West of The Edelweiss Imperial Army. I've been serving the Order of The Steel Cross and the House of Edelweiss for... two years now. How could I forget...?
"Shit... What just happened? How long was I out?" Asked Leone, looking over to the tank.
I was on that tank spotting for mortar teams. A sewer mine must've blasted us off. No wonder why I'm so rattled. I still feel as though my insides are all shattered...
"One minute. Good thing you still aren't dead. The regulars are still holding but we need to find a way around with that Arthur up ahead!"
The regulars were the soldiers around them, either taking cover and firing back or dead in the streets. Unlike Leone and the soldier before them, they had plain grey uniforms, just mere pawns of wars whose value measure down on what the day's war goal may be. As for Leone and the other soldier, their uniforms were black, indicative of a more elite standing in the army. That did not make them any less expendable, it just meant that their operations are far riskier. The 42nd Division West, 6th Deep Operations Battalion, the division name and designation were simply embroidered on the sleeve as 42W6. For some, it is a mark of honor. Others, a mark of death.
The soldier lead on ahead, the two running to an alleyway away from the fighting. The floor was littered with more wounded soldiers, most of them having no medical attention. The sight was so common at this point that all he could do is look forward so they sat there groaning, crying and pleading for help. At the end of they alleyway, they had met up with more 42nd Division West soldiers and regulars. With his face covered in dust and ash, Leone could only be recognized by his green eyes.
"Well, I'll be damned. You look like shit Leone. Picture perfect Iron Demon!" Exclaimed the soldier.
"Told you to stop calling me that. And speak for yourself, Alan. Where'd your arm go?" Leone nodded at him, seeing that he was gripping a pistol and missing an entire left arm.
"It slipped off, ahahah! Rock fell on it and I had to dump it. Gotta ask the Kommandant to get me a new one."
As the soldiers spoke, their checked their load outs. Leone made sure the bayonet was fixed on his StG-74 assault rifle. Alan made sure his C80 pistol was fully loaded; it'll be trouble to reload if he runs out of ammunition down the line. Other soldiers had Gew-67 semi-automatic rifles, Gew-70 bolt-action rifles, and MG-57k machine guns, and MP-80L submachine guns. Those weapons were all standard for an Edelweissan fireteam, but this sight was a rarity. Generally speaking, production and logistical strains would mean most soldiers wouldn't end up with StG-74s or Gew-70s.
"It's your second arm this month. Kommandant Rubenstein's gonna be pissed if you keep pushing above your paygrade." Another soldier interjected, holding up Alan's empty sleeve.
"I know where I put it, alright Hans? I'll see if it can get repaired."
"Alright cut the chatter," entered the squad leader, bringing everyone back to the reality of their situation, "The Arthur has our boys pinned and we need to punch through if we're going to complete the encirclement around the Albion stronghold within the hour. The Arthur's armor is too thick up front, so plan is to rush them through this alley and hit it up close. Machine gunners will lay suppressive fire on the left and right, we'll run from cover to cover until we get close. We can take it out with a plastic bombs or our panzerfausts, whichever gets closer. Any questions?"
"Erm. Sergeant Peter, I got one." Alan spoke up, raising his one arm as attention went his way, "How about using the cover of that building? Or are we just doing a suicide charge right at the Tommies?"
"Room to room clearing would take forever. We don't have the time, ammo or the manpower. Hug the wall and take cover, and you're golden. Anything else?" Peter looked around, being met with silence that he took as acknowledgement, "Alright. We'll move on my mark! And there are no suicide charges in the Edelweiss Empire, only glory charges! One, two... go, go, go!"
"Laying suppressive fire!" Machine gunners would fire down both sides of the road as both military regulars and members of the 42nd Division West file out of the alleyway running across the street and sticking to the wall of a building carrying all sorts of weapons, from bolt-action rifles to submachine guns to assault rifles. One shouted to take cover behind a pile of rubble and provide supporting fire, another signaled to the machine gunners to let more regulars join in on the charge.
As they kept up their charge towards the blown-out intersection, the soldiers kept dispersing as they started firing at the enemy. Those behind cover started firing into the apartment, using up their grenades and rockets to blow out the windows while the rest kept charging. Nobody stopped for those that were shot, and those that slowed down while out of cover became easy pickings.
Leone found himself in the lead, now close enough to see the faces of those soldiers in dark green drab uniform. Now they were in a range where he couldn't miss. Likewise, he was just right where they couldn't miss either.
Julie and Elena walked along the schoolyard, having scoured most of the school. They paused as they heard the distant sound of gunshots, so far away that Elena didn't care enough to check to put her guard up.
"This doesn't sound good..." Julie commented as she looked around, finally finding the direction of the gunshots to be away from the city.
"Trouble there means that there's no trouble here," Elena commented, holding her P06 pistol up and pointed in the general direction of the shooting, "but it won't hurt to be prepared."
Elena walked on ahead, with Julie frowning as she saw her back, violin case slung over her shoulder. This was the reality Elena had lived in. Other people were trouble, and that was all that there was to that.
"It sure feels lonely around here." Said Julie as they continued walking, the sounds of gunfire already having died down, "Don't you think so, Elena?"
"Lonely? Why would I ever feel lonely?"
"No... unless if you're trying to say that you feel lonely... Around me." Elena stopped and looked back at Julie, staring up at her trying to discern where Julie was going with this conversation.
"I'm talking about you, Elena. You're lonely."
"How do I put it... We've been traveling together for almost a year now, right? Besides me and that... one guy... who else do you have?"
"Nobody. Why should I have anyone besides you? What're you trying to say, Julie?"
"It's just that... I think there'll be a time where I won- I mean, I should say that there'll be a time where you'll need other people. Being alone is good. Being alone forever though... that's sad."
"Sad? But I already have you! Who else would I need?! Why would I need anyone else?!"
Julie could tell Elena was offended. Besides the occasional person that wouldn't try and kill her, Elena only knows two people, that being her, and a mysterious figure who would step in when she was not around.
As I am the light in her life, that other person is the darkness. And I could just tell that this other person is going to win one way or another...! I can change things right here. I just need the right words for it!
She knew that Elena's humanity hung by a thread, and today may very well be Julie's last chance at saving it. Finding that instrument in this condition was nothing short of a miracle, from Elena's aimless wandering leading her here to Julie getting the idea to check the classrooms. Then... There should be a way to redeem her right at this spot. Julie prided herself on her ability to answer all of Elena's questions, her words and wisdom guiding Elena whenever it could. So, a question like this only frustrated Julie as she stood there wondering. With a deep breath, she gestured for Elena to walk with her as she decided to lay it down for her.
"Elena... You'll understand on your own. I've been around for longer than you have, and have met way, way more people that you have too, so I've learned a few things. The biggest difference between the two of us is that I've learned to dream, but that dream is mines. You still haven't found yours. You can only find it for yourself. If we both want to escape from this grey world, we must help each other but... We can only help each other so much. And you can only learn so much from me. Someday, you'll have to learn how to depend on yourself and to depend on others. One day you could be in the same shoes as me, teaching someone else about this world. I just don't want your world to begin and end with me, Elena. This is unfair to the both of us. You... Are too young to decide that. And I won't accept my-"
Julie was interrupted as another round of gunfire broke out, this time from another direction. The reality of the world was not going to let her have it her way, not so long as this was Elena's definition of "other people". Her sigh was like a balloon slowly deflating as she realized that it looks like the world won't allow her to use her word alone to sway Elena.
"You won't accept what?"
Julie looked over to one of the buildings and walked in its direction, leaving Elena to huff and groan in frustration as she stomped behind her. The building was part of the school campus, but its outer structure was skeletal rather than made of stone or concrete most of the other buildings. She walked inside, there was a sign pointing to a short path reading "Salle". Following it, she found the door to the auditorium. There, Julie found just exactly what she had been looking for this entire time...
"Ah... there it is..."
The auditorium looked far more decrepit than any other place on the school campus, the walls were made of rotting wood, the seats were nearly all reduced to more metal skeletons, and the ceiling was already partially collapsed, revealing more of the grey sky above. But the centerpiece of the auditorium was on the stage, and every from all the way there she could tell what kind of condition it is in...
"Julie...! I said we shouldn't separa-... what are you looking at?" Elena caught up with Julie, but she saw that she was just staring off somewhere.
"A piano... a pristine piano..."
Leone dashed around an old car wreckage, firing at the soldier taking cover behind it then moving on to the next before he could see his first target drop. Hiding behind cover as the Edelweissan soldiers fired at them from two streets, the Albion soldiers would only peer over to see one in black uniform lunging at them with a bayonet affixed to his assault rifle. A soldier raised his hands to defend himself but Leone stabbed through them down to his chest and fired, freeing one arm to shoot his pistol at the next soldier. With how deeply lodged the bayonet was, he'd swerve over in the direction of a soldier taking aim at him, ignoring the pained and horrified look of the man before him that he was using as a shield.
Leone took the soldier's SLR-279 Tudor, running over to a nearby ammunition crate and starting firing from there at the soldiers taking cover behind the tank. The Albion soldiers were confused now, being fired at from two sides of the intersection with one more Edelweissan soldier fighting amongst them. He looked down the street, noticing that another Albion truck was headed to reinforce the checkpoint. He shot up at the soldiers at the windows above, not giving them any chance at letting them take aim at him.
The Arthur tank could no longer focus on shelling the soldiers across the street. After firing again at the knocked-out halftrack and tearing it apart, the turret shifted right to see the Edelweissan soldiers attempting to go around the intersection.
"The bosche to the right! The right!" The tank commander shouted as he looked at Leone through a glass, kicking the gunner to change his aim.
"I can't spot him!"
"He's at the...!" The commander tried to step away from the hatch, but it was already shot through. As the crew turned around to find his corpse dropping, what followed was a certain package falling right on top of him.
Leone jumped off the tank's turret and ran up against the wall of a building, falling to the ground and covering his face, hoping that he was just far away.
The Arthur tank went up in a fiery blaze, the turret flying straight off and landing on top of the roof of a five-floor apartment building. Leone peeked over to see the tank still cooking off as a jet of flame shot above the buildings. The fighting seems to have just barely died down as Edelweissan soldiers started advanced and mopped up the remaining soldiers who were disoriented by the explosion, and before he knew it, the encirclement was finally complete with the fall of this barricade. He stood up as the flames died down, looking over to the 42nd Division West soldiers coming into sight and securing the area.
"That's another one for the books... Iron Demon..." Peter caught up with Leone, out of breath. He looked up, seeing the ash on his face mixed with blood, "That, I will tell my kids."
"I've been shot, Peter." Leone responded. There was no expression to his statement. It was a simple matter of fact that Peter wouldn't have been able to confirm until he looked closely. Leone fell back to the wall, slumping over and leaving a streak of blood, where Peter would then confirm he had been shot in his back shoulder, under his chest, and in the leg.
"In your case, it's nothing some gauze and morphine won't fix." Peter knelt down and looked him over, signaling for a medic over to him, "You'll be good to get back to fighting in a few days I bet."
"Easy for you to say. You should try getting shot someday, Peter."
"Unlike you, I don't have a demon possessing me. Come on, hurry on over here!"
"And where's my praise?!" Shouted another bloodied soldier as he walked up to them, emerging from a building down the road.
"While we were getting shot, you went fighting through a building! You want some praise go back to the punishment battalions!" Shouted Alan, who was helping an injured Hans towards the medic, "Hey, medic! Look at him too! Doesn't look too serious but he's in a lot of pain!"
There was only a moment of reprieve for the soldiers of the 42nd Division West. Those that were wounded got to see the end of the battle, while those that can still fight had to prepare for the last push to completely take the city. As Leone was loaded onto a car to be taken to a field hospital, Peter came to send him off with a few words.
"Stroheim, I don't get to say this but... Whatever it is that's in you, it's saving lots of lives. When this war's over, some of us just might get back to family thanks to you. Taking that Arthur like that really saved us."
"Ah... Glad to help. Though..."
"Nothing. Stay safe, sarge. 42nd's not the same without you. See you on the flipside."
Leone was hauled off. As his consciousness was slipping away and the painkillers started taking effect, he struggled to get the sight of those soldiers' dying faces out of his mind.
I did think I could save more lives this way... but it really is all the same. No matter where I go... it is all the same. This war has created a hell for all of us. More accurately, our own beloved Order of The Steel Cross and House of Edelweiss have created this hell to start with...
Elena took a seat near the front row of the auditorium, using a pillow over the metal skeleton as a cushion, her eyes were set on Julie inspecting the instrument that she had come to learn to be a piano.
Julie walked around the black piano, up close she realized that it was caked in dust but she was the interior to be pristine. The fact that it seemed to be in perfect condition on the inside perplexed her all the more. It was a simple, classical piano.
Unlike the violin, it isn't encased and protected from the elements. The wood seems to be... in good condition. Someone must have been taking care of it but with all this dust...? Where did the caretaker go? Why was it left in here...? Well for whatever reason it's here, it seems to be waiting for me...
Julie dusted off the seat and sat on it, passing a glance to Elena then back to the piano keys. The keys were a perfect white and black, no dust on them either, which made things all the stranger. Julie nervously extended her arms over the board, and tested the keys.
Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding.
It seems to work...
She tried a few other keys, they also seemed to work fine as well.
Poor Elena... If she had the same luck with the violin strings...
Julie had a song in mind, she hovered her hands over the keys in position to play but froze again.
What's this? Isn't this the strangest form of stage fright...? This is the first time in ages... How come?
Julie turned to look at the auditorium seats. Hundreds of seats but an audience of one. Elena looked apprehensive, like an excited child, befitting her nature better than her usual disposition.
She felt a sense of familiarity come over her. Her nervous expression turned to a calm smile as realization hit her.
I get it now. I see how it is.
Julie well knew how this auditorium once looked like. Red velvet seats, the walls wooden, lights along the edges and over the stage. Sound would reverberate perfectly here. Would. But it isn't. The seats have decayed, wood on the walls are rotted, the lights have long ceased to function, and the chamber only can do its best to allow sound to pass. But...
An auditorium is an auditorium,
An audience of one is an audience,
No matter how pristine or rotten,
If there are a thousand watching one just a single soul,
It is all the same.
Julie did not need notes to play, she still remembered all those classical pieces that were long lost to time. There was one song that she wanted to play again, to hear again. It's been a while, but she wanted to play it. To show her audience of one what a serene night sounds like. The song of calm breezes, starry skies, and a calm tiredness where one only wishes to be lulled into sleep to enjoy sweet dreams. Julie doesn't know if it is taught anymore, or if she was the only person in the world that knew it. Whatever the facts may be, those old songs won't be lost to thin air.
Elena watched and listened on, mesmerized by the sight before her. Music as she had never heard it. Song that did not struggle to make their way out of radio, which Julie already far outdid with her voice over a night fire, but the song of an instrument unadulterated by static and faulty electronics. It was music by a real person before her, the process of its creation and the passion put into it. There was a feeling that Elena was not quite sure what its nature was.
What does Julie think about when she makes music?
What am I feeling watching Julie make music?
What would it be like for me?
She looked to the violin by her side, Julie had said it'd be a perfect fit for her. More so than the piano? Elena wondered. She would have to trust Julie's word on that. Elena ceased her introspection and listened on, enjoying the sounds and being captivated by Julie's movements as her fingers struck each key, as if it were her fingers that have taken control over her body.
Julie was stolen by her own music, flashes of starry nights, audiences, lessons, and her mentor made their way to front of her mind. But that starry night keeps coming back to her the most. That haze took the stars away, leaving the Earth in total darkness at night. Sometimes that haze may clear up for some stars, but one could not know how to properly cherish those few moments of skylight. It is a tragic way to enjoy the sky, grasping every moment of it not knowing when is the next time you'll get to see it... Elena... I'm afraid she won't understand it. Not anytime soon. But she'll have an idea. And some night, when the sky is clear, I'll play this again for her.
Elena felt something strange as she sat there, listening to music being created. On this day, something from within her had just awoken.
Is this was Julie was talking about... a dream that is hers...? Then, could I have a dream that is mines...?
Leone's senses started coming back to him. Dazed, he opened his eyes to see...
A beautiful woman with brilliant red hair and green eyes stood over him, a cautious look was on her face as she saw Leone opening his eyes.
"So... I'm in Heaven, huh...?" Leone barely managed to utter. He couldn't see anything else besides white brightness surrounding the woman.
"As close as you're ever going to get." She responded. The flashlight shut off and he quickly realized from the green canvas background that the was the field hospital, "You never cease to amaze the doctors around here, Stroheim. But, taking bullets out of you is starting to bore me..."
"But how else am I going to get to spend time with you, Karla?"
"The fact that you still get to act this coy means... Johann didn't use enough morphine. How's the pain? Trouble breathing? You got more bullets in than the usual..."
"Eugh... chest hurts. But I can breathe just fine. My back is killing me though..."
"I'll check with Johann if I can up the dose for you. Though... if you feel like you can handle it, then that's fine too. We've been running low, and I'd rather not resort to the harder stuff. That, and I don't want you getting a dependency once this war's over..."
"Worrying about my life after this war... Why don't we settle together, live by a vineyard in Edenland? Eheh... I know this niiiiiice village by Teverra..."
"What a charmer you are... Well, my job's to assume we're all making it out alive."
"Corporal Hausen! ICU! We got a critical! Collapsed lung!" A doctor called out for Karla. It was just a few meters away, but to Leone it sounded as though it was coming from several rooms over.
"Yes sir!" Karla called back, passing one last look to Leone as though to tell him 'you better take care of yourself!' before running back out.
"Ahhh..." Leone turned his eyes up to the ceiling, breathing out as he tried to ignore the pain.
Karla Hausen... just two years ago she was a promising university student on the track to becoming a doctor. The war very well may rob her of that... She was like so many who did not sign up for this war but still had to heed the call to arms. Her job was to save lives... now when she isn't doing that, she's out killing along with the rest of us. If we live through this, if she lives through this, we all come back bearing scars and sins that we can never wash of... A woman like her... doesn't deserve this fate.
There were two more soldiers, in neat, light grey formal uniforms standing at the entrance of the tent. They made way for Karla before returning to talking to each other. They felt so out of place as they didn't seem to have so much as a speck of dust on their outfits. On top of that were the unusual white armband with a golden symbol that Leone couldn't quite make out. He turned away from them to see Hans laying in bed, his lucky engraved lighter in hand, likely just waiting for the right time to sneak in a smoke.
You have the right idea... heh...
"They're surrendering already?" one of the wounded asked the medic tending to him.
"They hardly put up a fight from what I heard. This is good... we'll be in Lumiere in no time." Responded the medic, standing up and writing some notes, "Then, the real hell begins..."
Leone noticed the two soldiers, or more likely, officers walking into the tent, looking over the injured trying to identify them. They stopped over Leone, looking over him.
"That's him." The larger of the two officers said, picking up the medical clipboard left at his bedside.
"Right," The other followed, "he's still conscious."
"Not for long..." The officer put the clipboard down and produced a syringe.
"S-sirs...?" Leone could only muster in confusion, eyeing the two mysterious officers.
"Don't mind us, Mister Stroheim." the officer injects Leone with a sedative. He then took out a letter, placing it in Leone's pocket, "Count Otto von Edelweiss sends his regards. You'll be hearing more from us soon."
"Otto von...!" Leone's eyes widened in surprise. This was a name Leone had thought he'd never hear again, and yet... at a time when he no longer expected it... He felt hot again, the same rage he felt when in combat started to bubble up but he was helpless to move.
"Rest well, soldier." The officers walked away. Leone realized that the symbol on their armbands was an Edelweiss flower with black and gold outlines. Before he could say anything else, the sedative took its effect. His surprise, his rage didn't last long as the sedative took hold, and he was knocked out before he could even raise his arm. As his eyes shut, he was knocked back out before he could fester any longer in his rage.
It got darker as evening rolled around and the storm was not letting up. This day could not get any stranger for the man who simply had grown tired of it all.
"Let go!" Screamed Siegfried as he hung over the building's ledge, the only thing keeping him from plunging to the city streets below was the desperate grip on his hand. The hands holding onto him were slipping but would never give out "I have nothing to live for!"
"If you have nothing to live for... then live for me!" Cried out Arielle, never letting go of him. No matter what... she won't let go of him.
And with that, the gears of fate were set in motion a whole year later. In a small city just on the border between the Edelweiss Empire and the nascent Republic of Iris, the haze seemed to be clearing up just enough to see bits of the blue sky.
"Berna!" Siegfried exclaimed, stretching his arms outwards to embrace the cool breeze of the city sitting at the foot of the Alpine mountains. His brown coat blew back against the wind, "What a wonderful place to die!"
Berna was a fairly small city reminiscent of an old medieval town. It was populous, clean, quiet, and peaceful. There was hardly any bustle in the streets, even in the more densely populated parts of the city. Across the river, there were a few simplistic settlements along the bank with farms among the ruins. In the distance were snowcapped mountains where the freshest air and water across the entire continent would be sourced. It was the perfect city to be out and about in, with seemingly nothing to ever be worried about, and yet only in the Traders' Quarters people would be out in droves.
"Don't say that." Leone said in a low voice, "It'll bring bad luck."
The two walked down the street side by side, looking as though they were from completely different worlds. Leone wore his black 42nd Division West uniform while Siegfried wore the same brown coat he always had worn. Leone's face was scarred all over, with burn marks, and cuts running down and across his face. Grafting brought back most of his face, but was only barely recognizable as the same Leone who was just before he entered service, it looked battle hardened and stern as though it belonged to a man no longer capable of smiling. Siegfried in his own right was barely recognizable. He may not have had the same scars as Leone had, but his face had long lost its color and his eyes have been baggy and tired for as long as he could remember. Siegfried was smiling alright, but it looked more cynical if anything.
"Ehhh? But am I wrong? Such a beautiful city... Not a chaotic mess like Donastrom, not deathly quiet either. It's the perfect place to be and to no longer be!"
"Psht... If you keep saying that you'll 'no longer be' real soon, you know."
"You're such a bore, Leone. Ah whatever, let's go." Siegfried said, continuing on walking.
"First we'll check in the hotel, make sure everything is dropped off. Then... We'll go sightseeing. I got a day until the Pact meetings start."
"Sightseeing... I heard the Teverran Church has been contributing a great deal to the culture of this city. I have a few ideas..."
"Great! Me too. Now the hotel should be- oh!" Siegfried exclaimed, almost jumping back after he saw that he bumped against a child.
"Hrmm..." The child, a little girl grumbled as she turned away in a mixture of pain and embarrassment. Her features were completely obscured by the scarf that she wore over her head, with her black hair peering out in the end.
"E-eh? Are you okay, kid? Are you hurt?" Siegfried knelt down to be at level with the girl barely half his size.
"Y-y-ye..." The girl nervously responded, opening one of her eyes to meet Siegfried's face.
Golden orange, almost shining in the shadow.
"I'm okay, sorry!" She cried out and then ran away.
"Hm..." Siegfried got back up, turning to Leone "An aschekind..."
"An aschekind? Here in Berna, of all places?" Leone asked as he looked up a building, not paying attention.
Aschekind, child of ash. A name attributed to a race of people whose skin is sickly and greyish, their eyes a range between crimson red to a bright yellow, and their hair ranging from snow white to jet black. They are said to resemble the low-burning embers of a flame as their eyes glowed in the dark. Their origins were a mystery, and their history is said to be drenched in violence and atrocities. They were not seen as human, in most places rarely even treated as such.
"Would you believe it?! Hah! How lucky do I have to be for that?"
"Lucky? Looks like a bad omen if true." Leone said.
"Bad omen? A cute little aschekind all the way out in Berna?"
"It's like... Seeing a black cat. That kind of bad omen."
"I do hear that soldiers get real superstitious during the war. I guess to you anything counts as a bad o- w... wait..." Siegfried froze, his face twisted to an expression of confusion and shock as his hand dug into his pocket, "Ehhhh?" Siegfried twisted around, now frantically searching his pockets.
"You alright there?" Leone chuckled at Siegfried, who now was looking strangely animated as opposed to how exhausted he had been looking just moments ago.
Siegfried turned to the direction of where the girl ran, finding that she has long disappeared "Ahaaaah..." He sighed, now returning to his usual self with a weak smile, "I've been pickpocketed"
"Hmph" Leone smiled back and shrugged, having just been proven right.
"Ehh no worries... I already paid the hotel in advance and my stuff's all there. A kid's gotta eat."
"You've changed, Siegfried."
"Eh? I have?"
"I thought you were going to run and torch the kid then and there."
"Then, I might have. But now, I'm above that kind of petty punishment. It just... won't feel right." Siegfried kept looking on in the direction where the girl had gone. Leone's eyes were on him, trying to discern what he was thinking at the moment.
"Ahah, you're right I suppose. Then, let's get a move on."
"Eheh..." Elena smirked to herself, pulling out the wallet that she snatched once reaching a safe distance. With her other hand she pulled out a small photo that she was given days earlier.
I got close enough to make sure it was him. Now to see what else I can know about him...
Elena found money in the wallet, several thousand marks mixed in with currencies from other countries in fact. But there were no cards, no personal belongings of any sort. Digging further she did find a single scrap of paper with some writing on it. She stopped in her tracks, her fingers began to tremble as she tried to make sense of what was written.
What the...? What is meant by this? Could it be directed at me? No... That's... Impossible.
Elena pocketed the photo and wallet, leaving only the scrap of paper in her hands.
Whatever you do, wherever you are in your travels, good luck.
Thank you for reading!
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