William really is hardworking. It's the day after our trip to shelter 1, and he's already back to work.
The mission this time is a job from the Valkyries, in a location known as the Storm Creek. Miss Aine sent the details to us after one of their pilots ran into trouble in that area.
It had quite a few surprises, like weird crystal formations emanating void particles, as well as a Quark more powerful than what my boss fought so far. Still, his fighting skill seems to have improved, and he managed to handle the beast without any significant damage to his machine's systems.
"Void particle readings have reduced to near zero. There shouldn't be anymore Quarks in the area, commander. Great work as always!"
I could almost hear him groan when I called him "commander".
He puts the Corec Mk2 on automatic RTB mode, and leaves his seat.
"Thanks, Reina. Could you please transfer a recording of the mission to my room ? I want to see if I can improve my fighting style further."
"Of course, William."
Something's wrong, I feel it.
"Wait, are you alright ? You don't look so good."
"Don't worry, Reina, I'm fi-"
He loses consciousness and falls.
I immediately call doctor Enhg's office. He's quick to respond.
"What is is, miss Reina ?"
"Please, doctor, come quickly! William just collapsed!"
"I'm on my way."
A magic circle appears out of thin air a few seconds later, and the doctor arrives from it.
He starts carrying William's limp body, and turns towards the circle before talking to me.
"I'll bring him to my office. You can come with me if you want."
I follow Enhg without a word, and go through the circle. It feels like passing through some kind of thin veil.
The doctor sets William up on the operating table.
"Alright, let's see what's wrong with him. Miss Reina, would you kindly remove his pilot suit ? Well, just the top part. I'll prepare the hardware to examine him."
Enhg's take on the pilot suit is in two parts instead of just one, so the top can be removed independently from the bottom, but in exchange, it requires more skin contact for an improved connection compared to the standard WDF suit.
I'm nearly done removing William's top when various tools start deploying around the table. I take a glance at Enhg, who's at the table's terminal.
"I recovered all that from my old office yesterday, while you two were away. While the system works on humans, it's invaluable when dealing with dragonbloods, as it's able to automatically notify of changes to mana and dragon blood fluxes, and respond to them too if needed."
I step away from the table with the suit top in my hands, and let the doctor get to work.
"You might want to wait outside, miss Reina. I'll likely need to operate, which means things can get a bit bloody. Oh, and please leave the top around here. He'll need it once he wakes up."
"Yes, doctor. Please, do what you can so he can get better."
"I can guarantee William will get better."
I go into the waiting room. It's the afternoon, so there are no patients.
I sit there alone for what seems like an eternity, even though the clock shows only ten minutes passed.
Enhg opens the door. He has a few small spots of blood on his gloves, and nowhere else. Looks like he managed to keep the operating to a minimum.
"Miss Reina ? I got results. Seems he was really exhausted, and I'm surprised he managed to keep standing for so long until his body gave up."
"Exhausted ? How ?"
"Magic overdose. He burnt all of his mana reserves, and was basically running on fumes when he collapsed."
"I don't really understand. All of this is unfamiliar to me, after all."
"For humans, mana is a secondary source of energy. They could exhaust it without issues, and keep going. Dragons don't have normal stamina, and mana plays that role. Dragonbloods combine both. If they exhaust their stamina, they'll collapse like a human would. If they exhaust their mana, they'll collapse like a dragon would. Hence, they need to learn to manage both energy sources properly."
"So, William did something that consumed all of his mana, then still went to work instead of resting ?"
"If I understand his body's readings correctly, yes."
"Do you know what he did ?"
"I'd say it's because of Corec II's grimoire, which he got from Alexander yesterday. He likely wanted to get some magic practice, and didn't pace himself."
"Damn. So, what now ?"
"He'll be weak for maybe seven or eight days until he recovers all of his mana, so, I want you to prevent him from piloting to limit the strain on his body. I'll keep him here until tomorrow to keep an eye on him, then I'll see if he needs to stay for a bit longer or if he can go home."
"Thanks for taking care of William, and sorry for the trouble. I know he's in good hands, so I'll go home and drop by tomorrow."
"No problem. I'm glad to see you care about him, by the way."
"Well, I do lo- ahem, like him."
I suddenly turn away from Enhg and leave his clinic. My tongue slipped just now, and I hope the doctor didn't notice that.
~ ~ ~
I wake up.
Is this... Enhg's office ?
Looks like it.
I look around.
Seems like I'm on his operating table. Did I pass out or something ?
Hey, dragon. You there ?
Yeah. I'm exhausted as fuck, no thanks to you, but I'm still around.
What do you mean ?
I know magic is new to you, but please, don't just use up your magical energy reserves like that. I'm reliant on them too.
I understand your anger. I'm sorry.
"Ah, looks like our careless apprentice mage woke up."
Enhg's tone doesn't hide his disappointment.
"Yeah, looks like I really went too far, Enhg."
"That's one Hell of an understatement, my friend."
"What do you mean ?"
"You nearly died, yesterday. Not only were you out of mana for hours, which is a feat no dragonblood has ever managed before, but you also went and piloted a M.A.S.S., putting extra strain on yourself."
"Lesson learned, I guess."
"Here, eat some of the food I grabbed at the market today. One of the stalls there does homemade ready-to-eat dishes."
"Oh, thanks! I go there too, once in a while."
"Now, now. Don't move around too much. I'll adjust the table."
He fiddles with his computer, and the "table" moves and transforms to become like a chair.
"Kusnathogom tech, recovered from my office at the fortress. Anyway, pick your food."
I can get a good look now. Both look tempting, but...
"I'll take the pizza."
"Good choice. I actually don't like pizza myself. Here you go."
I grab the box Enhg hands me, open it, and start eating. Damn, I lowkey missed that stall's pizza.
"By the way, Enhg. You said I nearly died yesterday. Does that mean I was unconscious for hours ?"
"Well, I hope I'll be able to get back to it soon."
"If you mean practising magic, give it a week for your mana to fully regenerate. You'll be much weaker than usual for that whole week too."
"And in the future, when you'll want some magic practice, don't do sessions longer than two hours until you've learnt to keep track of your mana reserves. You can also come see me and I'll help you with training."
"One last thing. I want to teach you a combat skill that relies more on finesse than strength. Shooting guns."
"Ugh, I hate guns."
"I know, but should you get attacked in the upcoming days, you would be in no shape to fight in melee, and magic is a no-go too. And by the way, I'd like to inform you that before I became a scientist, I was a sharpshooter and gunsmith in an army, so you'd learn from an expert, too."
"I'm willing to learn. It's just that, it's not the same as being close to your enemy, and driving your blade through their guts. See what I mean ?"
"Corec was the same. And Corec II too, but he ended up embracing guns later when he joined the Wings of Justice."
I finish eating the pizza when Reina comes in.
She runs towards me and pulls me into a hug. Damn, she's stronger than she looks.
"I was so worried about you. Whatever you did, don't do it again, please."
I hug her back and pat her head.
"I'm fine, Reina. And I learnt the lesson now."
"So, doctor ? Will he be able to go back home now ?"
"This evening, maybe. If you want to accompany him back home, miss Reina, you could drop by later. 19 o'clock should be good. Oh, and bring his normal clothes."
She turns towards me.
"See you later, William."
"See you, Reina."
She leaves the room, probably to go back to work.
She really is a caring girl.
Indeed, dragon. Back at the orphanage, she was the older sister type for the other kids.
You should ask her if she wants to be your girlfriend. You really need someone to care for you, and she'd be perfect.
She's only seventeen, and there's no way I'd try to be the boyfriend of a girl that's that young.
So you will ask her out in the future ? I knew it!
Listen here, you little shit...
I regret nothing. Hehehe...
"Anyway, Enhg, I feel that there's something you're not telling me."
"I didn't want to say it while there was the risk of Reina arriving at any moment, but now that she's gone, I can. First, I'll be honest, I'd want to keep you here all week."
"You're weak, and people might want to take advantage of it."
"Is the WDF after me ?"
"No. Or at least, I'm not aware of them doing any plotting against you. But, there's another faction at play. Alexander called me yesterday evening, and I recorded the conversation."
Enhg types something on his keyboard, and the recording starts playing.
~ ~ ~
Von Einzberg's voice is the first to be heard.
"Can I talk to you, Phineas ? It's about William."
"I presume it's serious, Alexander, if you're calling me by my first name."
"Indeed it is. I've seen what happened to him, and I have some grave news. He recently became the target of a cult."
"A cult ?"
"Yeah. They don't really have a name I can use to refer to them. Their shtick is, they worship Quarks as gods."
"Damn. What's William's role in the matter ? Why would he be a target ?"
"I don't know why, as there's literally nothing connecting him to that cult, whether directly or indirectly. No one in his family was part of it, or dealt with it at all. Anyway, they started thinking he's some kind of traitor, and they want to kill him."
"I don't get it. I mean, he's entirely unrelated to them, so why would they think he's a traitor ?"
"I wish I knew. I'm as clueless as you here. I can't see the reasoning behind actions unless it's spelled out during an event."
"Yeah, yeah, I know that. How concerned should we be ?"
"Very. This morning, a member of that cult arrived in shelter 7. I can't track him because he interferes with the planet's memories. All I know is that he's here to kill. I've sent my wife to try and deal with that cultist, but please, keep William safe for now. Our king is in no condition to fight, and we literally have no plan B should he die."
"Why don't you have Amelia defend William, either as a normal bodyguard, or from afar ?"
"That was my original plan, Phileas, but I prefer a more proactive approach."
"I guess I could teach William how to shoot, then. It would still allow him to defend himself, even while in a weakened state."
"That could work. Amelia has her old Wing Shooter with her. I'll tell her to drop it at your place."
"She can keep it. I have a few here too, just in case, as well as mags and shoulder holsters."
"Impressive. What's next, you having a firing range at your clinic ?"
"As a matter of fact, I do, Alexander. And I'm surprised you didn't know about it already."
"I don't keep tabs on all of your antics, Enhg. Anyway, keep an eye out for anything suspicious."
"I'll limit appointments to those that are already scheduled this week and can't be moved. Nothing on the list would put William at risk, as all of them are for long-time patients."
"If you keep him at your clinic, make sure he's in a separate room."
"I do have a hidden room."
"You are full of surprises today."
"I've always planned in advance when building my workplaces. If you had kept tabs on my antics, to use your wording, you'd be aware of that too."
"Fair enough. I'll talk to you later, Enhg."
The recording stops.
Yeah, I wish I knew too. I've always been loyal to causes I believe in, and never joined or supported the rest.
Not like you have a choice in the first place, dragon, as I'm the one with the body here.
"So, my friend, I hope you understand why I'd like to keep you here."
"I do understand. And about shooting, the sooner we start, the better."
I get up.
"Then get dressed, and follow me."
The bookshelf on the back wall slides away, revealing a staircase headed downwards. Enhg goes first, and disappears into the depths.
A few seconds after I pass the threshold, the shelf goes back into place.
~ ~ ~
The firing range is huge. There are lanes for short and medium range shooting, as well as a lane that goes up to four hundred metres, which would most likely be for sniper rifles.
I also notice a few doors seemingly leading to kill houses.
I'm sure most of what I see goes under Kusnathogom Inc's premises.
"I'm in awe, Enhg. Just how did you manage to get all of this built without anyone noticing ?"
"Anyway, please put some hearing protection on, and go to the first station. The pistol is ready for you."
I put noise-cancelling headphones on, as they seem to be way better than the simple earplugs.
At station 1, an elegant pistol, as well as two magazines, are waiting for me. A shoulder holster is also on the station's left divider.
"This is the fourth iteration of the Wing Pistol, my friend. Also called Wing Shooter, it's a pistol designed for the Wings of Justice, and inspired by Heckler & Koch's VP70 handgun. Lightweight, accurate, has a very tame kick, and uses caseless 9mm ammunition fed from a 18-round magazine."
"Sounds nice on paper. Let's see how it goes in practice."
I bring my hand closer to the pistol.
"Rule number one of firearm safety, my friend: always treat a firearm as loaded, even if it's not. The only way you can be sure it's unloaded is if the magazine is out of the gun, and the chamber empty."
"I did hear something about that, yeah."
"To do th-"
I take the gun, press the magazine release, rack the slide, lock it, and put the gun down, while making sure the barrel is pointing towards the target the whole time.
Enhg is speechless.
"Did... did you do that before ?"
"No, but I've played an old, pre-war game with a focus on gun simulation. I think it was named Receiver or something like that. Or maybe it was a sequel ? Dunno."
"Ah, yes. Well then, I presume you know the other basic three rules of firearm safety, then. But, I'd like you to confirm that first."
"Rule two: never point a gun at something you're not willing to destroy. Rule three: keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target. Rule four: know your target, and what's near or beyond it."
"Good. You did remember that. Let's hope you're able to follow those rules both here and out there."
A target appears fifteen metres away.
"Okay, my friend, I want you to load the pistol and fire three shots."
I take the pistol in my right hand, a magazine in the left one, and insert the latter into the former, before releasing the slide lock.
I put my right index on the trigger, align the sights, then pull the trigger once.
Enhg wasn't lying. It really doesn't kick much.
I make sure I'm still on target, and pull the trigger twice more.
I put the pistol down. Enhg brings a tablet in front of me, showing the target from up close.
"For your first three shots in real life, that's rather good."
Twenty-eight points. Ten and two times nine.
"I don't have a lot to teach you, I guess."
He withdraws the tablet, then thinks for a bit.
"Okay, mag dump, fast."
I nod, then start firing the remaining 15 shots as quickly as possible.
When I'm done, Enhg is shocked. I look at his tablet.
All of my shots landed on nine or ten.
What the Hell ?
I wish I knew, dragon.
The doctor finally speaks again.
"This is a first for me. I never saw someone with such a tight grouping at that range on a first mag dump ever. You might be lucky too, though, but that's less likely."
I once again make sure the gun is unloaded before setting it down.
"My friend, there's one more thing I need to tell you. As I said, the pistol was made for the Wings of Justice. While they were assassins first and foremost, they were also knights, and needed ammo to fight their enemies should an open battle start."
He takes the holster hanging on the divider.
"All ammo pouches on the standard issue rigs are equipped with ammo replenishers. The magazine holders on the shoulder holster are no exception, being made for Wing Pistol magazines."
He inserts the empty magazine in one of the two holders. A few seconds later, he takes it back. Cartridges can now be seen through the mag's witness holes.
"I'm surprised you don't take credit for most of the stuff you make."
"Because I wasn't alone when most of those were made. I had full teams, working with me to help make my ideas reality."
"Anyway, I want you to have that holster, gun, and magazines on you whenever you're outside of your home and this office. It's for your own safety."
"I'm gonna need different clothes, though. The pilot suit is nice and all, but not really great to hide a gun under."
"I presume your normal clothes are in your locker at the PMC, am I right ?"
"Okay, take the equipment to a patient room upstairs, and lend me your locker key so I can grab your clothes for you."
"Can I stay behind to take a few more shots ?"
"I'll leave the tablet, as it contains the controls for the target. Anyway, your key, please."
I throw the key at Enhg, who catches it without even looking at it.
"Heh. If anything, that was rather tame from me, my friend."
Enhg leaves the shooting range.
I try my marksmanship at ten and twenty metres, with a magazine for each.
Not a single eight or lower. Just more or less tens than nines compared to my score at fifteen metres.
I once again make sure the pistol is unloaded, grab the gear and go up the stairs.
~ ~ ~
Patient room 1 is free, so I pick that one.
Two minutes later, Enhg is back with my normal clothes.
"Here you go, my friend. Put everything on except the vest for now, then I'll adjust the holster to your body frame."
I do as instructed. I'm still weak, so it takes me longer than usual. At least it feels good to be in something else than the pilot suit.
The holster's straps are on the small side, so Enhg uses his magic to increase their length.
"There. Fits perfectly. That reminds me I should work on an improved design that can auto-fit its wearer."
"Do you stop working once in a while, Enhg ?"
"I used to, before the war. But now ? Not really. The Quarks need to fucking pay for taking my family from me."
Yep, he's pissed.
"You loved them a lot, I know."
"That's a massive understatement, my friend. You could rewrite reality to remove the concept of science, and I'd be completely fine with that. But take the people I love away from me, and you'll have one hell of a bad time. That's why most of my research is focused on anti-Quark weaponry."
"I wish I could be a M.A.S.S. pilot, but I simply don't have the time for that. I hope you won't hate me because I lowkey use you as a proxy, my friend."
"Don't worry, I hate the Quarks too. And if that cult that wants me dead gets in my way, I'll take care of them too."
I take the pistol from the bed, load it with a fresh magazine, rack its slide, and put in the holster.
"Just, be careful, my friend. He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster."
"Is that a quote ?"
"It's from Beyond Good and Evil, a book by Friedrich Nietzsche. But still, keep that in mind. It's scarily easy to become as bad as your enemies."
"Personal experience ?"
"Secondhand. Corec II himself was a victim of that. He recovered, but he never was the same after."
"What happened ?"
"He became more and more ruthless and violent, until he snapped and accidentally killed a close friend of his."
"But wait, there's more. His sorrow was so great he fled the kingdom, and ended up devolving into a feral dragon."
"See the classic fictional depictions of dragons ? Those huge, lizard-like creatures with big wings ?"
"Those are feral dragons. They evolved into the form we know, but devolution can happen because of a sudden and particularly intense surge of negative emotions. Only Corec II managed to come back from that devolved state. All other dragons who turned feral had to be killed."
"How did he recover ?"
"His two wives. Their love for their husband made them go to his hiding place and confront him. They got badly hurt in the process, but they managed to get him to revert. Good thing, too, because I don't think anyone would have been able to kill him."
I guess I'll have to be careful. I don't want to imagine what could happen to you or everyone around you should I become feral myself, William.
If I survive, I'd give you a hug.
"Remember when I told you I still had a lot to learn about dragons, my friend ? Outside of my own case, every time my knowledge was put into question, it was because of a Corec. And Corec II was very good at that."
I put my jacket on, and turn towards the mirror in the room. Only someone looking for it would be able to notice the barely visible bulge the holster makes.
"Can I ask for a favour, Enhg ?"
"Anything you need, my friend."
"If I ever start to walk down that path, give me a strong slap."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Anyway, if you don't mind, I'll go to the office to put my pilot suit back and take a look around."
"Remember, no piloting."
"Don't worry about it. If anything, I'd rather help Reina with paperwork than get into the pilot seat. I can feel I'm too weak for the latter."
"Take care, my friend."
"You too, Enhg."
I leave the clinic.
~ ~ ~
It's been four days since I learnt I was in danger, and nothing happened each time I went out. Not saying it's a bad thing, but at the same time, the faster this cult business is taken care of, the better.
The commerce district is still as busy as usual, but I'm hanging out in the less-travelled parts, as that's where my favourite media store is.
I make sure I'm out of sight, and quickly check the gun. Mag's in, with a bullet in the chamber. Good.
The store is close, and gets closer as my feet bring me there.
A man walks the opposite way, and passes me without a second glance.
The sound of a knife being drawn can be heard, then a voice.
I start running, and the man follows suit.
I try to lead him away from a populated area, so I won't have to deal with potential witnesses should I need to shoot him.
Even in my weakened state, I'm still fast enough he can't close the distance with me. Good.
After a few minutes of running, I find an empty construction site for a new residential block. I guess the shift has ended, as no workers can be seen.
I increase my speed. I know Enhg told me to limit the strain on my body, but I need the extra distance.
The building is very incomplete. Only some walls are built, which should allow me to hide, or at the very least lose him temporarily.
Or you could just shoot him.
Yeah, but I promised Reina I wouldn't spill human blood if I could avoid it.
True, you can avoid it. But the question is... should you ?
You're right, dragon. As long as both he and I are still alive, he'll try to kill me. Better get rid of him as soon as possible.
Believe me, I'd like things to go differently, but you said it yourself. Sometimes, there's no other choice but to take up arms against your own kind.
I reach into my jacket and wrap my hand around the pistol.
At a glance, there's 10 metres between my pursuer and myself. Should leave me enough time to turn around, take aim, and shoot. But if I miss...
I have an idea. Turn a corner, quickly go through the first doorway on the inner side of the corner, let him pass that doorway, and shoot him in the back.
That could work. I could also summon the Soulheart in spear form, use the shaft to trip him as he passes the doorway, and shoot him at point blank range.
I like that.
Then let's do this.
As I approach the next corner, a hooded figure arrives on the other side, sword and suppressed pistol in hand.
What strikes me the most are the mechanical dragon-like wings on the figure's back.
"Sire! Get down!"
I do as I'm told.
I barely hear the gunshot, but the hit is audible. Damn, that suppressor is good.
I turn to look at the cultist. He's lying on the ground, unmoving.
"Stay down, he might still have some fight left into him. Humans are impressive on that front."
The figure empties the mag into the attacker, then, for good measure, also drives the sword through the enemy's heart.
"Okay, should be good now. You can get up."
Wait, I recognise that pistol. And I also notice the long, silvery braid exiting the back of the hood.
"Mrs Itsuo ?"
"Please, sire, call me Amelia."
"And please, call me William. I might be the king of Kusnathogom, but I hate formalities."
She removes her hood while I get up.
"Okay, first thing, Amelia. What's with the getup ?"
"Well, you already know the basics. I'm Alexander's wife, secretary, and enforcer. What might be news to you, however, is that I'm also a former Wing of Justice. That's why I have that armour and equipment with me."
"Well, now I understand why the order was called Wings of Justice. Anyway, let's get out of here before the shelter's police force arrives."
"Agreed. While I used a suppressed weapon, and I'm sure my husband is already taking care of them, I'd rather not take chances."
~ ~ ~
After leaving the construction site, I turn towards Amelia, whose armour disappears to reveal a more casual outfit.
"Not gonna lie, I never expected to see a Wing of Justice, especially since I thought the order was effectively dead and buried."
"Well, it is. The ideal is still alive, but the Wings themselves are gone. Except me, of course."
"Of course. To be honest, I've been wondering about ways to bring the order back alongside Kusnathogom. While humans are mostly better than in the past, I still think the Wings' focus on hit and run tactics could be useful against the Quarks as well."
"So, if I understand correctly, you want to train people into both assassin knights and M.A.S.S. pilots, right ?"
"I'm willing to support such a program, once you're ready to launch it. Though I'd need pilot training myself first."
"I don't think I'd be good at it, but I could try teaching you. Anyway, before I could work on that, there's something I need to do first."
"Got it. Whenever you're ready, give me a call, William."
She hands me a simple card, with just her name and phone number on it.
"Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to accompany you back to your place. I'll keep my weapons close, and you should do the same too."
"I don't mind. There might be more enemies, after all. However, you should follow me from a distance, in case I encounter someone I know. While it wouldn't be an issue if it's Reina, my other employees might get the wrong idea."
"I understand. Very well."
"Let's go, then."
The walk back home is uneventful. While I did spot Ellenier from afar, she luckily didn't see me.
When I finally open the door to my apartment, I turn towards Amelia.
"Thanks for today. While I think I would have been able to take care of that cultist, your help was much appreciated."
"I only did my duty, William. No need to thank me."
"I insist. Anyway, maybe we'll see each other again soon."
"Indeed. My husband ordered the construction of multiple branches for the First World Bank, including one here in shelter 7, so you'll most likely be invited to the inauguration party."
"Have a good evening, William."
"Good evening to you too, Amelia."
I enter my room, and close the door behind me.
Sudden exhaustion overwhelms me. I guess I really ran a lot, huh.
Yep. I'm tired too, not gonna lie.
So, shower, instant dinner, and watching TV. Fine by you ?
Fine by me.