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.
The young girl’s 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.
They both sat in thoughtful silence, ignoring the group of girls in black school uniform imposing on them with loud morning greetings and taking seats right next to them. The group of girls quickly fell into arguing over the menu but they didn’t pay any mind, not just yet. Elena had barely met those girls, yet they act as though they have known her her whole life. The two were still reeling from the events that have occurred just a few days ago, and just as though they were in sync, they both took another sip of their 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.
"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!"
A week prior, on the outskirts of that same city, the streets were so dark that it would have been impossible to see anything if not for the military camp lights set along the road and garrisoned buildings. Banners of white and light blue hung off the buildings, on the ground were soldiers in white uniform setting up base and guarding the perimeter. Beyond the zone controlled by the military, the streets were empty, buildings were only lit up by dim lanterns occupied by civilians who had nothing to do more in their lives than to sleep the day awake and hope the next one would be better.
Elena sat alone against the wall of a dark alleyway as she saw two soldiers walk past her, chatting idly about meager food rations they had been receiving.
“I hope they do end up giving us half rations. The Major said he’d permit us requisitioning the farms if that’s the case.” One soldier said, “Whatever their crops are growing, far better than the expired shit they keep giving us.”
“Hah, you got that right.” The other replied.
As the two made it out of earshot, she stood up, lugging a heavy pack along with her. Three trucks drove down the road and she saw them get immediately surrounded by soldiers as it approached the checkpoint to the garrison. As they were inspecting the trucks, she saw that there was no going through this point.
“Hm…” She picked up the pace and walked into the apartment building ahead of her. Inside, two eyes glowed a dim golden orange, like faint embers in the pitch black of this seemingly empty building. For Elena, seeing in this darkness was no trouble whatsoever, as though it were as clear as day. Each passing floor had a story of its own to tell, Elena heard the clanging of utensils on the first floor, shouting and arguing along the second, but the third was filled with the hushed conspiratorial chatter. The fourth, fifth floors were abandoned, or at least gave the impression of being abandoned. After waiting quietly to confirm that the apartment was empty, she snuck inside, her hand under her dark grey cloak gripping a concealed pistol.
She checked every corner, nothing was out of place. This apartment was without furniture, empty, dusty without even flooring to walk on. There were signs that this place was lived in, with empty bottles in a corner, a bloodied mattress and dusty clothes in a room, and empty bullet casings strewn at the doorframe. She strained to look out of the window at the garrison below, seeing soldiers in black and grey uniform disembarking from the trucks. An officer came to greet the incoming soldiers with a curt salute reserved for to check out the base formalities between officers of different nations.
So this is Major Foulon and… Captain Dietrich.
She took out two ID photographs and stared at them, one was of a hard-faced and bearded officer in white uniform, the other was an older man in a white mustache and glasses in black uniform with red trimmings. One look back at the group at the ground, she saw the two officers match the description from this distance. They start their walk down the street surrounded by their respective escorts.
Stepping away from the window, Elena reached around to unsling her Vector submachine gun and gear bag. Spreading out a small tarp on the ground, she lay down and inspected her equipment. The Vector was seemingly too big for her small frame and was made all the bigger when she went and attached a modified fourteen centimeter long suppressor barrel to it. Her other weapon was a standard-issue Luger pistol, on it was engraved a small Edelweiss flower overlayed on a Steel Cross, underneath it in small text etched ‘In The Emperor’s Divine Name’.
There was one last step in her preparations. She dragged the mattress over to the window, piling the clothes on top of it, along with any of the set-up gear that she no longer needed such as maps and unimportant documents. Mixing two reagents and winding up a timed fuse, she left as silently as she came.
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..."
The underground of the city was not too complex according to the plans on the map. There were several buildings that lead into the sewage system which was long non-functional, leading it to have a distinctly musty smell as Elena navigated it. It was once populated with vagrants and drifters, but dried bloodstains on the well and junk strewn about has shown this to have been a fact of several years ago. With a city as dead as this, there was no reason to take refuge down here.
Elena continued down a straight path to one of the buildings in the garrisoned region, climbing up a built-in ladder in through a hole in the building’s basement. Immediately, she noticed the distinct metallic tang of blood coming from one of the basement doors. She didn’t have much time, but curiosity was nagging at her. With her Vector at the ready, she clicked the door open and cautiously opened it with the barrel. She turned her nose up in disgust as the smell only grew in intensity, focusing back into the room, she saw the dozen or so bodies strewn about on the floor, in olive drab uniform. The bodies were twisted and mutilated but Elena noticed them to be still moving, just barely clinging onto life.
They must be the captured soldiers that Dietrich wants.
She slowly closed the door behind herself as she proceeded up the stairs. As planned, there was commotion outside about a fire. The building was largely empty as soldiers stood outside and pointed at the fifth floor apartment. The building was more well-lit than Elena had anticipated, with lights set up along the floor and leading up to the staircase. There were still two soldiers in white inside, seated playing a card game with a third one marching in from the entrance to join them.
“What’s going on out there? Any idea?” Asks one of the soldiers.
“Some kind of fire. Looks pretty bad from what I see.” Responded the other as he took a seat by them, “Doesn’t look like it’ll spread though. Civvies should get it under control themselves.”
From where Elena was hiding, one of the soldiers would be facing her if she walked into the open. With her finger over the trigger, she had to make a quick choice before the fire no longer becomes a viable distraction.
Faced with this dilemma, she was also uncertain whether her two targets were outside or still inside the building. If they were inside, her job would be much easier. If outside, Elena would have to come up with a second plan on the fly.
“Hey, how about you deal?” One soldier asks.
“What? I don’t know how to…”
“You’re kidding, right? You don’t know how to deal cards?”
There was no more time for hesitating. Elena stuck close to the walls and moved in the shadows, silently running to a column while the soldiers were talking.
“How did you-?! How the hell are you a surgeon if you can’t even hold cards right?!”
Elena slid into the staircase, flashing a victorious grin as she started her climb up. Though, this is where the easy part of the ordeal ends. She reached into her cloak taking out another fuse and charging it, leaving it at foot of the staircase before bringing her submachinegun forth again.
“One, two, three, four…” Elena muttered to herself, taking a deep breath before getting out of cover.
There were two soldiers guarding the door, it didn’t take less than a second in between to dispatch both of them with gunshots to the head. Suppressors didn’t do much to actually silence guns, and really were effective in either loud environments or simply buying a few more extra seconds of time.
The bullet casings fell on the floor in sync in the bodies, the people on the ground and the floor above were now alerted to the presence of an intruder.
“Get up. I’m sure you heard it too!”
Elena braced herself for the upcoming fight. Running over to the two corpses, she leapt inside the room they were guarding, firing at two radio officers as they were rushing off of their seats. Hearing a sound coming from an adjacent room, she swiveled over and fired as the door opened, never missing a single beat and not taking any chances with her environment. Taking two cautious steps back, she found that this part of the floor was cleared.
Elena rushed out of the room, firing a burst at one of the soldiers in black rushing in from upstairs then firing another at the ones in white from the ground floor. The ones from upstairs started to fire back as she climbed, misjudging the size of their mysterious intruder and narrowly missing as Elena started shooting from in between the bullets whizzing past her. Those soldiers in black where an indicator she was headed in the right direction.
The second fuse she planted went off, blowing up thick smoke to stave off the forces on the ground for just another minute. She ran up to the second floor, letting go of her submachinegun and immediately switching to her Luger, firing off single-handedly with her free hand a few inches over her face, shielding herself from the sound of the gunshot and the muzzle flash that she couldn’t get used to. She hit the soldiers before her in the chest before firing another bullet to the head, then paused to reload her submachinegun.
She ejected the magazine, putting the other in place as soon as the first slid out. With a flick of the magazine, she saw there were still bullets in. Not wanting to discard it, she threw it in her cloak as soon as bullets started to rain down from the floor above.
“Tch…!” She flinched as she jumped back, firing back her pistol wildly as she retreated out of the soldiers’ line of sight. With her Vector back in hand, she fired off several suppressive bursts before correcting her accuracy and landing her shots.
She returned her gaze to the door, bursting in and clearing it the room as how she had in the floor below. She fired several bursts at the group of three at the office, again letting go of her Vector and switching to the Luger to finish off the last enemy at the far left. Before she had known it, she already had shot her two targets. Dietrich was still in his seat, Foulon was slumped over his desk. Looking the room over from left to right, she let herself breathe a sigh of relief before walking on over to positively identify her targets.
Captain Dietrich of the 42nd Division West’s SKVK attache, Edelweiss Imperial Army…
She then looked over to see the officer in white still moving his arm, his face down on the table. With the pistol trained at him, she walked around to take a look at his face.
Major Foulon of the 79th Special Operations Battalion, Irisian White Legion… That makes the two of them.
She heard more footsteps coming in from outside. With no time to admire her handywork, she started to prepare her last stand and escape.
“Now… how do I get out of this…?”
She walked over to one of the soldiers on the ground, taking a grenade off him and pulling the pin and throwing it out the door. Stepping back, she opened the window behind the desk and jumped onto the sill. The soldiers didn’t seem to be looking up and the lack of lighting offered Elena just enough cover to climb outside. With her back to the wall, she shifted along the ledge before finding a pile of crates underneath her to jump on top of.
She pushed herself off, her knees bending as she landed and she used the extra momentum to hop off again onto the city streets. There were still a few more soldiers between herself and the checkpoint ahead. She took one look behind herself before taking aim ahead, firing again as she lurched forward to take cover behind a truck.
“Contact at…! They’re firing from inside, can’t tell whe-!”
Elena started firing again before the soldiers could make it to their respective covers to shoot back from.
Five… Two left, two right, one center… I can go around them…
She took off from the left, running against the wall with her brightly burning orange eyes. Gunfire was exchanged between each other as Elena as she kept moving forward, only grounding to a halt as she fired around one of the soldiers’ covers, hitting him but never stopping to confirm a kill. Finally, she slid through an opening between two concrete barriers of the checkpoint and then made her escape out through an apartment building, exiting out of the other end.
“Ah… ah…” Elena started panting as she saw that she was finally putting the distance between herself and the danger. She kept on running until she found more streets and alleyways to take, going all the way until it would be impossible for a search party to find her, if there even was one dispatched in the first place.
Her pace slowed down to a walk, eventually collapsing, finding herself sitting just the way she was just before this whole ordeal had started.
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...?
Elena saw the figure rewarding her disappear into the dark, like a silhouette blending in with its surroundings. For her troubles, all she had was the meager payment of a few bars of chocolate, a clear can of stew, and a small pouch of coffee sachets. All those, and her weapon and gear expenses were compensated for.
Milk chocolate and dark chocolate… I told him that…
“Hmph. Whatever. I’ll save the milk chocolate for Julie…” Elena shrugged, peeling back the bar of dark chocolate.
“Ahhhh…! This is the best…!”
Bar of chocolate in her mouth, she knelt down to pack her bag. She put the chocolates in their own compartment in the bag, keeping them safe from being crushed or melted, the can at the bottom besides another can of hers, and her ammunition safely hidden under her cloak. Getting up with a smile on her face, she walked down into the darkness, merrily eating her chocolate.
And now, a mere few days before the present day, 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. While he was still recognizable, he could barely be as seen as the same Leone who was just before he entered service, he looked battle hardened and stern as a man no longer capable of smiling. Siegfried in his own right was barely recognizable as well. 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 can very much say the same thing to you.” 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 an unusual scrap of paper, on one side full of symbols she could not recognize arranged in a certain pattern, and on the other 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.
Merci pour la lecture!
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