While Enhg did tell me I'd be contacted by von Einzberg quickly after visiting Kusnathogom, I never expected it to happen so soon after coming back, nor did I expect it to take the form of a letter.
I change from my nightwear to normal clothes, drink my coffee, then leave my room towards Enhg's office.
I turn the last corner, and a patient can be seen leaving. Did he already resume work ? Then again, he's a dragon and a workaholic, so I don't know why I'm surprised.
I ring the doorbell, and the doctor is quick to open.
"I'm sorry, we're clo- oh, it's you, my friend. What do you need ?"
"Mind if I enter first ?"
"Oh, no, go ahead."
I go through the threshold, and the door is quickly closed.
I hand the letter over.
"Please take a look at this, Enhg."
He takes a few seconds to read it.
"I guess he was aware indeed. I'm surprised he sent a letter, though, especially when we have better forms of communication. On the other hand, physical forms of communications like letters are harder to trace. Old habits do die hard."
"So, do you have any advice ?"
"If you haven't already, get in touch with the bank to confirm the appointment."
"I asked Reina to do that on my behalf. She's the one who brought me the letter in the first place."
"Good. Since that's taken care of, second piece of advice. Get a suit, my friend."
"You mean like a tuxedo or similar ? Ugh..."
"The First World Bank isn't a small-time gig. Not only is its HQ in shelter 1, but it's also in one of those high-class business districts. And believe me, I hate such suits too, hence why I never went to the FWB in one."
"You have an account there, Enhg ?"
"Officially, yes. But, like you, it's merely an excuse to see Alexander."
"Makes sense. Anyway, I have another request. Can I access the archives ?"
I follow Enhg to the back room where the archives are stored.
~ ~ ~
The room is poorly lit. In fact, the only lamp is a fluorescent tube on the ceiling, with a shade on it to redirect most of the light towards the ceiling. I guess light-sensitive stuff is stored there.
The reading desk is at the far end of the room, alongside the storage for the data capsules. I presume the storage acts as a server, as the desk is connected to it using a singular cable.
I take a seat at the desk. The monitors light up and displays a welcome screen.
"You remember when I said the archives are what I'm most proud of, my friend ?"
"Go ahead, put your hands in a typing stance."
I do as instructed, and an holographic keyboard appears under my fingers.
"And that's not all. Search for anything in the archives."
I type Enhg's name, and a summary of him pops up on the right monitor.
"Not what I expected, but it'll do. Anyway, you can also use gestures to move content away from the monitors, and place it how you want on the desk or making it float above it. Just aim for that protrusion with the circle in it."
I give it a spin, and place the summary in front of me.
"This is some really good tech, not gonna lie."
"And I made that back in... ugh, can't remember the year, but it was before the birth of the ancient Egyptian civilisation for sure. The old reading desks were nice, but much more limited. Only the monitors, and a traditional keyboard and mouse combo to interface with the terminal."
I experiment with what can be done with gestures. Resizing and scrolling are doable, and it's even possible to use the holo keyboard to search content within pages.
"I have a question, Enhg," I say as I touch the cross button that appeared when I popped the display out of the monitor. "Is there a quick way to catch up on Kusnathogom's history ? I'd like to know at least the basics for when I'll meet von Einzberg."
"You'll need to search for the first school year's history curriculum. The archived version of the course includes links to historical records and later years' courses, so you can easily find what you want."
"Got it. I think that's all I need for now."
"Should you want to listen to some music while studying history, the archives include a complete collection of every single piece produced by Kusnathogom's artists. I'd personally recommend The Epic of Corec, a massive two-hour collaboration between the Royal Symphonic Orchestra and Corec II's band."
"I guess I'll look it up. Anything about it I should know ?"
"Search by track name. While it could be divided into individual parts, each seamlessly flows into the next to form a monolith. Also, the whole thing contains a narration of Corec's origins and history, starting from his grandparents. Let me tell you, it was a huge hit, both nation- and world-wide."
"Thanks for the info. Time to get to it, then."
"If you need me, my friend, I'm in the other room."
I'm not really in the mood for music right now, but maybe later.
I pull the curriculum up, and start reading it.
The kingdom of Kusnathogom originated after Corec helped get a revolution gain traction. The people forced the ruler off the throne, and put Corec on it, despite his small (but still decisive) influence overall. Corec ruled benevolently, reached towards his fellow dragons, united them under a single banner, then renamed the kingdom to Kusnathogom (which can be roughly translated to "dragon blood").
There was a gap of around five hundred years between the reign of Corec, who stayed on the throne for nearly a thousand years, and the one of his grandson William Corec. The kingdom's domain had vanished during that time, and judging by how William was a mere twenty-four years old when he restored the kingdom, it means that his mother, Corec's only daughter, got pregnant very late.
Fifty years later, William Corec was killed by a hitman simply going by the name of Fencer, and William Corec II, the former king's brother, took his place. According to rumours, Fencer and the latter Corec were one and the same. The former Corec was highly unpopular too, so there was no investigation.
Wait. Brother ? Then why were both named William ?
I check the files, and all I can find is that William Corec was an only child. Weird.
I search deeper, and according to what I can read, he had one body, one mind, one heart, but two souls. He then used a spell to create a duplicate of himself to host the second soul.
I start looking at Enhg's research on various kinds of magic, but I can't find anything relevant to something I'd like to try. Or maybe I'm just using the wrong keywords.
Aren't you supposed to catch up on Kusnathogom's history.
Oh, sorry. I'll get back to it.
After William Corec II took the throne, he went on to be the longest reigning ruler, with many millennia under his belt. He was highly popular, due to his policies which empowered citizens as much as possible.
The archives mention that he's the one that initially moved the kingdom and fortress underground, just before a supervolcano called the World-Forge (which was later known as Yellowstone) erupted and effectively "re-forged" the Earth's higher levels into the ones we know.
The files state it was due to an overuse of magic by the humans of the time. Also, humanity as we know it is the second one that walked the planet.
Then, in the year 2018 AD, Corec II took the throne of Kusnathogom. At first, he continued leading the kingdom like his predecessor, but he then went a step further by working alongside citizens, helping them with their day-to-day work, and treating them as equals. He's also the one that re-established contact between Kusnathogom and the surface countries, at least for a while.
The school curriculum stops to some time before the arrival of the Quarks, but I think I have a decent grasp of what happened during that blank, thanks to more recent records and Corec II's final memories.
I close all of the open pop-outs, then leave the back room.
"So, my friend ? How was it ?"
"If you're talking about browsing the archives, I found some interesting stuff. I still need to check Alexander's file, which I could do tomorrow. If you're talking about the Epic of Corec, I haven't listened to it yet."
"Don't worry, I could send the audio file to your media centre, so you'd be able to listen to it when you want."
"That could work, yeah. See you tomorrow, Enhg."
I leave Enhg's office behind, and decide to spend the rest of the day at the PMC to see if everything's in order.
~ ~ ~
"Ah, William, I wanted to see you."
"What is it, Reina ?"
"So, as you asked, I called the bank, and the appointment is confirmed."
"Good. I'm wondering, did the person on the other end say or hint if the account was tied to my name or the PMC's ? After all, the address on it points here, not to my room."
"No, there wasn't anything in particular that could indicate one or the other."
"Hmm. Start another call, I'll ask personally."
The other side responds quickly, and a female voice speaks.
"This is the First World Bank, how may I help you ?"
"Hello, madam. I'm commander William Corec III, of the private military company Kusnathogom Inc. My secretary called you on my behalf earlier to confirm an appointment with the bank's manager, but there's one thing I want to know about the account in question. Is it a personal account, or a company one ?"
"A company one, commander, but you're the head of Kusnathogom Inc. This is why the letter was addressed to you, and not the company itself."
"Oh, and one last question. Would it be fine for my secretary to come with me ?"
Reina looks at me with a surprised expression.
"Yes, of course. Oh, and one last thing. The manager will pay for the trip and whatever expenses you'll incur during it."
"No, we thank you for your trust in our establishment. Have a nice evening, sir."
"You too, madam."
The call ends.
"Well, Reina, looks like we'll be going on a business trip next week."
"Same day next week, 10:00, to be accurate. That's when the appointment is scheduled."
"Kinda early. I don't think there are passenger shuttles that could make the trip quickly enough, since the first flight takes off from the shelter at 08:00. We'll likely need to book a room in a hotel."
Reina blushes a bit, but I act as if I didn't notice it. I don't want her to get the wrong idea.
"It's 10:00 local time, William. Even at the speed the shuttles travel, we'll be there on time."
"Right, forgot about time zones. Anyway, my earlier offer for tea still stands."
"To be honest, I'd really like one to help unwind after yesterday's events, so I accept."
"Then let's go."
~ ~ ~
I set a cup of tea in front of Reina.
"You know, Reina, I'm surprised you're able to deal with how secretive I am when I do some things."
"Me too. Though, we know each other since the orphanage, so it's not like this is new to me either. I guess I just got more used to it."
"Sorry for that. About today, the reason I'm secretive is that I don't trust anything else than this place."
"Yet you could have told me earlier."
"You're not wrong. But back on topic. Do you know who the manager of the First World Bank is ?"
"Mister von Einzberg ? I've heard of him. He helped humanity organise against the Quarks, and decided to become a banker instead of accepting a position of power in the WDF."
"He's also a very old ally of Kusnathogom. The kingdom, not the PMC. In fact, he was Corec's best friend even before the kingdom was a thing, according to Enhg. He's specialised in information gathering and brokering, and he's supposedly extremely good at the gathering part. He knows I visited the fortress of Kusnathogom, for example, despite no one in our group, not even Enhg, telling him."
"Which would explain the letter."
"I wouldn't be surprised if the account it mentions was real. As a banker, I'm sure he'd find a legal way to redirect money into it to help fund us."
"That wouldn't be a bad thing, William. We're in the black, true, but money is always tight. And I'm glad the trip to shelter 1 will be free for us. Even for just two people, it's not on the cheap side, due to the risk of Quark attacks."
"Yeah... ugh, I wish we had more jobs, but I think it would be a vicious circle. More jobs means more damage to repair and more fuel to buy, which means more money spent on paying engineers, which means taking more jobs to pay..."
"We'd either need low-risk but high-paying jobs, or for doctor Enhg to make tougher shields to avoid damage to the units, or improve the units' fuel efficiency."
"And with the Quarks, low-risk jobs aren't really a thing."
Reina finishes her tea.
"Thanks for the tea, William."
"You're welcome, Reina. Oh, by the way, I'll be at Enhg's office tomorrow morning to consult the archives again. If something needs my attention during that time, don't hesitate to call me. I'll be at the PMC the rest of the day. See you tomorrow."
"See you, William."
Reina leaves my apartment, and I lock the door behind her.
~ ~ ~
One week passed, it's time to meet the baron.
After an uneventful trip, where Reina and I watched a recording of the first live performance of The Epic of Corec, we're now in shelter 1's business district.
Reina is wearing a different uniform today. Instead of her usual form-fitting dress, gloves, and boots, she's now wearing a white jacket with purple accents and integrated gloves, what seems to be a dark grey bodysuit, and white knee-high boots (also with purple accents). While she looks less like a secretary, she looks a bit more like a PMC employee.
As for myself, I'm just wearing a standard formal black uniform, with Kusnathogom Inc's logo on the breast pocket.
"Man, I never thought I'd wear that uniform again. It's not comfortable at all."
"That's a problem with formal wear, to be honest. That's why I went with a more practical design myself."
"While I wish the colour scheme was closer to your normal uniform, it does fit you, and I think you could wear it more often."
"Thank you, commander."
"I know you don't like when I don't call you by your first name, but we should seem as professional as possible."
"You're not wrong, Reina. It's just that the current society, especially here in this shelter, reminds me of the pre-war world, when people rarely showed their true selves. Ah, looks like this is it."
The First World Bank headquarters stands in front of us. The building isn't that big, but it's still impressive. Offices are on the two above-ground levels, and it's known to have a big vault underground.
Security seems tight, as I can count four guards surrounding the main door alone, and the two smaller doors on the sides have two guards each.
As we attempt to go through the door, the guards scan us, probably to check for hidden weapons. I do have the Soulheart with me, but it's technically not on me.
On the other side, we immediately get greeted.
"Are you commander Corec, from Kusnathogom Inc, sir ?"
The voice's owner is a mature woman. While her face looks like she's in her forties, or fifties at the very most, her silver hair hints that she's older than she lets on.
"Yes, I am. And this is my secretary, Reina Stormtrail."
"Amelia Itsuo. It's an honour to finally meet you. Please, follow me. The manager is ready to see you."
Reina and I go after her.
Itsuo... the name is familiar.
Yeah, it does ring a bell.
As I try searching in my memories, we enter a room that looks like a secretary's off- oh, the desk has a plaque with Amelia's name on it.
"Please go in, he's waiting for you."
The entrance to von Einzberg office has two doors, presumable to help with soundproofing.
As I close the second door behind me, a voice can be heard.
"Please, take a seat."
~ ~ ~
The chair on the other side of the desk rotates, revealing a man that looks like he's in his seventies.
"Welcome to the First World Bank, mister Corec and miss Stormtrail. You both know who I am, but I'll introduce myself again. I'm baron Alexander von Einzberg, loyal servant of the kingdom of Kusnathogom."
"It's an honour to finally meet you, sir. Enhg told me about you when I went to the fortress of Kusnathogom."
"Please, call me Alexander. Also, about Enhg, I'd ask how he's doing, but I already know he's fine."
He gets up from his chair, and opens a cupboard that's full of drinks, mostly alcohol.
"Do you want something to drink ?"
"I'll take a whisky. Scotch, if you have that."
"I do, actually. It's getting rarer due to there being only one small distillery producing it for the whole world, but they plan to upscale soon. Miss Stormtrail ?"
"If you have tea, I'd take that."
"I don't have that in my office, but..."
He turns the intercom on.
"...Amelia, dear, would you kindly brew some tea for miss Stormtrail ?"
"It'll be ready soon."
The intercom turns off again.
"Amelia used to be just my secretary when my front was an adult entertainment business, back in the 2010s AD. I fell in love with her, and we got married not long after."
"Is she a dragonblood ?"
"Yes, miss Stormtrail. She's from the Itsuo bloodline. The most extensive draconic bloodline, with so many branches no one wouldn't be able to keep track of them all alone. No one except me, of course."
Huh. That's why it feels familiar.
Amelia arrives in the room, and puts the cup of tea in front of my secretary, then leaves again.
"Anyway, I don't know if you've been made aware of it in some way, but the reason I called you here, mister Corec, is because I am offering you my services, both as a banker and as an informant."
"So, the account is real ?"
"Yes, it is. I've funnelled a small sum of money into it to help you fund your war effort. Two hundred thousand credits, to be accurate."
"Should be enough to pay employees and maintenance for quite a while. And you call that a small sum ?"
"Well, for me it is. Information brokering is a lucrative business, after all."
"It must be a dangerous one too."
"Oh, yes. I've got my fair share of enemies, but thanks to my connections, I can stop them dead in their tracks before they can make a single move against me."
"I wonder if you could get the WDF off my back, too."
"If you're talking about the bugging, that's already taken care of. That was some nasty business, if you ask me."
"How nasty are we talking about ?"
"They took advantage of a time where I couldn't do anything to stop them. I was in Kusnathogom to recover an item for Enhg. When I came back and saw what happened... well, let's just say I wish Amelia didn't have to get blood on her hands, but, none of the peaceful methods worked."
Reina looks scared.
That's kinda fucked up.
Agreed, dragon. While I don't really agree with those methods, he is loyal to Kusnathogom, and denying ourselves a powerful ally like him would be a mistake.
"Anyway, when Enhg fried the bugs in your room, sire, they weren't monitored anymore."
"Still, it's no wonder you have targets on your back."
"To be honest, even if I were to be killed, it wouldn't be the end of me. If you kill a puppet, the puppeteer doesn't die, and can just make another puppet."
"What do you mean ?"
"Corec gifted me the lifespan of dragons and dragonbloods. Corec II gifted me the ability to create a duplicate of my body, which I can control remotely. The Alexander in front of you is not the original body, but a mere puppet."
"Indeed. Oh, and one more thing."
"What is it ?"
"Around a month ago, Enhg noticed that you had zero magic sensitivity, unlike most dragonbloods. As a result, the only power you genuinely have to yourself is your ability to reach a state Corec called the pinnacle of warriorhood, which you noticed around a week ago. Thus, our mutual friend asked me to go to Kusnathogom, recover the item I mentioned earlier, and give it to you when the time is right."
Von Einzberg takes an old-looking book from one of his desk's drawers, and puts it in front of me.
"If I understood Enhg correctly, this book, which was made by Corec II, should allow you to learn and practice magic. I do not know more about it, and neither does Enhg, to be honest."
I take it off the desk, and start flipping through its pages. Looks like I can summon it and put it away similarly to the Soulheart.
"I'll take a longer look at it when I'm home."
I make it disappear, so I won't have to openly carry it with me.
"Anyway, that's about everything I had to say or give, commander. I presume Enhg gave you one of his special phones, so please use one of these or magic to get in touch with me in the future."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Reina and I get up.
"Since it's nearly lunchtime, I can recommend you a nice restaurant in the area. Considering the time offset between shelters 1 and 7, you'll need a good meal before your return flight."
"Yeah, that wouldn't be a bad idea. What do you think, Reina ?"
"To be honest, I wouldn't be against it, as long as it's not too expensive."
"Don't worry about that, miss Stormtrail. I'll call them and tell them to send me the bill once you're done. Here's their card with the address."
Alexander hands a business card over.
"No, I thank you for accepting my offer. Farewell, commander, miss Stormtrail."
Reina and I leave his office and the bank behind.
~ ~ ~
Not gonna lie, the restaurant von Einzberg suggested is actually quite nice.
Reina doesn't seem too happy, though.
"What's wrong ?"
"I can't believe that you'd accept working with such a dangerous man, William."
"I wish I had any other choice. We don't have a lot of allies in this world. And you heard him. He tried the peaceful solutions first, but they didn't work."
"Still, I don't think he'll be a good ally, especially considering your principles."
"Quite the contrary, Reina."
"What do you mean ?"
"Remember the inauguration speech ? Our enemy doesn't understand the language of peace, thus we'll use weapons instead of words when speaking with them. We have no other choice when dealing with Quarks, just like how our new ally had no other choice when dealing with his opponents. Peace first, war second was Kusnathogom's and Corec's way of dealing with conflicts, just like it's the PMC's and mine."
"I think I understand your reasoning better. And, well, I did join you out of my own free will, which means I do accept that idea. But, it's the nature of the targets that disturbs me. We deal with the beast-like Quarks. The baron, on the other hand, dealt with humans. This is what I have trouble accepting."
"I personally think humans and conflict go hand in hand, Reina. There was a time where nations were constantly fighting each other for various reasons. Then, at some point, a time of unprecedented peace and unity happened. Then the Quarks arrived, creating conflict once more. And I think that, sooner or later, this unity against a common enemy will snap, and humans will go back to fighting each other again. We need to do our best to help maintain the status quo for as long as possible, but there will be a time where we will have to take up arms."
My secretary looks conflicted.
"You are free to resign and leave Kusnathogom Inc if you want to, Reina. I won't hold you back, and I will respect such a decision. You are also free to stay and work with me. The choice is yours, and you can make it at any time."
She looks away for a bit, then finally gives her answer.
"...I'll keep working for you, William. We were wronged by humans, and they might try again in the future. But please, promise me you'll do your best to avoid spilling human blood."
"I promise you, Reina. Now, let's not take too long to finish our meal, the return flight is in..."
I check my watch.
"Yeah, you're right."
Reina's stomach rumbles, so she starts eating again. She pauses a minute later, and starts speaking.
"I have a question, William."
"Could we watch The Epic of Corec again, in the shuttle ?"
"Of course, Reina."
I have to agree the song is beautiful, and the orchestra and band did put on a really good show. Maybe one day, Kusnathogom will host such concerts again. And if the rest of the world could see them too, it'd be even better.
We have a long road ahead of us.
Long indeed, dragon. But at least we have a powerful new ally.
- Sequel: Bullseye