The Bloody Kingdom
"An expedition ? Where ?" Reina asks.
"The kingdom of Kusnathogom," I reply. "I'd like to see the place my ancestors lived in, and maybe even grab some records in the archives."
"I disapprove, commander. With the Quarks around, it's too dangerous, and you shouldn't leave the shelter undefended."
"In case you forgot, Reina, Enhg did some nice work on those WDF-provided defences, and the AI he made is good enough to handle the spare Vanguards we have in the hangar. The shelter would be far from defenceless. And if you are that worried, you could still call the WDF or another PMC.
"Last but not least, I'm sure I told you to stop with the formalities back when the company was founded."
"Yes, comman- William. Sorry."
Reina stops talking for a second, then resumes.
"Anyway, I still think you shouldn't go."
"Are you worried about the shelter ? Or about me ?"
Reina doesn't answer and blushes. I think that she has a crush on me, but is unable or unwilling to admit it.
Not that it would matter anyway. Being loved isn't my thing, and loving isn't either.
Actually, I think I should start looking for a partner. Living alone has perks, but it's kinda boring too. Thing is, none of the girls I met so far appeal to me. And none of the guys do either.
"Anyway, Reina, nothing's set in stone yet. I still need some time to establish a plan of action with Enhg. See you."
I leave my secretary's office, towards the hangars.
~ ~ ~
As expected, the doctor is in hangar 1, overseeing the repairs of the Corec Mk1.
"You know, Enhg, I never expected the Mk1 to still be in one piece, after the beating it took during that last mission. Those EMP mines were treacherous, not gonna lie."
"I told you those improvements of mine would make a difference, William. The Corec Mk2 and the spare Vanguard units are now equipped with them too, since the test run was a success."
"Wait, test run ? Didn't you test them before the mission ?"
"There's testing, and there's field testing, my friend. The former was already done, you helped with the latter."
"Makes sense. Anyway, I have something in mind that might interest you."
"Go ahead, tell me."
"You told me a lot of stories about Kusnathogom, and now I really want to visit it. What do you think, Enhg ?"
He takes a few seconds to ponder, then replies.
"I think it's worth a try, if any of the old access points are still open, and if it's safe now. I'll work on a scouting drone, then give you the results ASAP."
"Can't you use your powers to do the scouting ?"
"I could, William, but I try to limit their use," Enhg says with a serious expression. "I still don't know how Quarks react to magic, and I presume it might act like a beacon for the Quarks. When they landed on Earth, the kingdom was quickly attacked despite being located far underground."
"But, didn't you tell me the kingdom used a lot of tech ?"
"Magitech, yes. The perfect fusion between magic and technology. Though, it's not like there was any other option. Anything less than perfect, and... boom."
"Such a mistake is the reason I'm still alive. You've heard of things going horribly wrong ? Well, things can also go horribly right."
The emphasis on the last word disturbs me. What if the Quarks were an attempt by an alien race to make an army that couldn't be defeated ? One that could strike anywhere, at any time ? That turned against their creators, in a twisted demonstration of the experiment's success ?
My thoughts quickly focus on reality again, and I ask Enhg one final thing.
"Back to the matter at hand. Are you in ?"
"Of course I am. There's a lot of stuff I left behind I'd like to recover. Tools, materials, computers, that kind of stuff.
"Anyway, give me around a week and I'll be able to give you scouting intel. One day to make the drone, the rest to explore."
"I didn't become Kusnathogom's chief of science without a valid reason, my friend."
"And you didn't become Kusnathogom Inc's CTO without a valid reason either," I say jokingly. "Anyway, I'm off for now. That mission was exhausting."
"If you need a doctor, don't hesitate to call me."
"What I need is a good shower, a good meal, and a good movie for the evening.
"Still, thanks for the reminder, Enhg, and for everything you do for me."
I start turning towards the door when he replies.
"No problem, William."
The last thing I hear as I close the door is Enhg telling Waltz and the other engineers to take a break.
~ ~ ~
Three days passed, and outside of medical examinations, I haven't discussed with Enhg a lot. To be honest, work is a more common sight now, especially since Molewarp introduced the PMC to what the WDF calls "hunts". Not gonna complain, though, as my PMC needs funding, materials, and research on Quarks to be able to make those 18-metre tall killing machines more efficient. And while the control system for M.A.S.S.es isn't the most optimised yet, it's still good enough for training my own weapon skills.
Anyway, it's time for me to go back home. Hunting Quarks is a fun sport, but piloting a M.A.S.S. still takes a toll on my stamina. Corec's blood flowing in my veins ? Bullshit. If it truly did, I think I'd have more stamina than I do now.
Or maybe the dragon needs to be awakened first ?
Nah, I'm just effing tired.
Enhg is waiting for me in front of my room, his laptop under his arm. Does that mean he already has results ?
"Do you mind if we talk privately, my friend ? There's something you need to know, but it's for your eyes and ears only."
"Can it wait ? There's a shower waiting for me."
"It can, yes, but it'd be better if it could wait inside your room."
Enhg follows me inside and takes a seat on the couch, while my feet take me to the bathroom.
Hot water starts flowing as soon as I get into the shower. Not gonna lie, that feeling will always be welcome. My eyes close for a few seconds.
Is that a sleeping dragon ?
Huh. Must be my mind playing tricks. No time to be daydreaming anyway, so I start reaching for the soap.
My thoughts drift towards Reina's potential crush towards me. I wonder what part of me would appeal to her. My looks ? Average at best. My personality ? I've been kinda cold towards her since the beginning. Enhg says I have some natural charisma, but if that's true, I really can't see it.
It's not important anyway.
Yeah. Just, let me grab a towel and get myself dry. I have a guest, after all.
As I leave the shower, the mirror on the wall grabs my attention for some reason. While there's nothing visibly wrong with my naked body, it still feels somewhat off, as if I was some kind of creature wearing human skin. Not a dragon, that's for sure. I'm a hundred percent sure dragons are actually feral beasts, and not the intelligent and civilised beings Enhg described. On the other hand, it's not like "intelligent and civilised" applies to me either. Oh, well, time to get dressed and see what Enhg has in store.
~ ~ ~
The doctor has readied his laptop on the low table, so I take a seat beside him.
"So, what was that thing you wanted to tell me, Enhg ?"
"The reason I'm here is that I got results, my friend, and I want you to be the only one to know them."
"Aren't you worried about potential bugs in this room ?"
"I was. Then I fried them all."
"Goo- wait, what ?"
"Yes, this room was bugged. Microphones and cameras. None remain, though."
"What the fuck ? I mean, why would it be bugged in the first place ?"
"I presume the WDF wants to keep a close eye on you, my friend. The equipment's manufacturer works directly for them."
"I haven't done anything sensitive in this room, so it doesn't matter that much. Well, except..."
I stop speaking before I say something inappropriate, then continue.
"Anyway, does that mean they also listened to us last time we talked about the expedition ?"
"No, the hangar was clean. One of the engineers is on the WDF's payroll, but he was busy working on another unit. I still used magic to prevent the remaining folks from hearing us, though."
"And before I went to see you, I talked about it to Reina..."
"Don't worry about her, she's loyal to you. As for her office, I haven't checked it yet, as she doesn't really like me, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was bugged too."
"I have a question. Are you sure you're just a scientist ? I mean..."
"When did I say I was just a scientist ?"
He smirks. I guess I can't deny the obvious.
"You got a point there, Enhg."
"Kusnathogom's most loyal and connected informant is still alive, so, I can get info whenever I need.
"Anyway, here are the results."
Enhg gestures towards his laptop's monitor, where a map of the world is shown, along with dots indicating the location of the shelters.
"Out of all the old access points to the caverns of the kingdom," he says as new dots start appearing, "the four closest to shelter 7 are caved-in," followed by those dots disappearing. "The fifth one is likely compromised, as the security systems didn't respond when I tried accessing them, so I caused a cave-in there."
"What about the rest ?"
"The sixth one is a good one. It's big enough for vehicles, even a M.A.S.S. or two, and its security systems are still running."
"What's the catch ?"
"See the area it's in ?" Enhg traces a rough shape using his finger. "It's a WDF no-fly zone, due to a nearby research centre. Calling the informant I mentioned revealed it's a small-time gig, working on analysis of the flora and fauna in the region."
"Nothing to worry about, then."
"Nothing except the double-A sites that cover the whole zone, of course. Still, we'll have a stealth VTOL, equipped with optical camo on top of that."
"Your connections really run deep."
"Not really. It was a surplus craft, which I bought in the name of the PMC. Using my own funds, before you start worrying about me stealing money. And the upgrades are mine. However, the stealth tech means one thing. No weapons, so we'll have to rely on M.A.S.S.es for that. I can equip the Corecs with a similar optical camo, which should last long enough to get in and out of the zone unseen, while still allowing weapon systems to be carried."
"If I go on that VTOL, who will pilot the units ? I'm Kusnathogom Inc's only pilot."
"The same AI I installed in the Vanguards. I'll just train it using your own fighting data, instead of WDF data, so they should be able to defend the aircraft appropriately."
"Last question. Who will be the mission control ? I presume Rei-"
"Let me stop you right there, my friend. I'd like as few people involved as possible."
"You said it yourself. Reina is loyal."
"Yes, but she hasn't been trained to endure torture. While the WDF hasn't tortured anyone yet, anything could happen. While Kusnathogom is still vulnerable, I'd advise against letting people know its location."
"Fair point, but I still want her as my mission control, whether you like it or not."
"You do you, my friend. I swore loyalty to the kingdom of Kusnathogom and its ideals, and you are the current bearer of those ideals. But, it doesn't mean I'll agree with you every step of the way."
"And I'm thankful for that.
"Still, I trust Reina. She's stronger than she looks."
"I'll be honest, every single Corec family member I interacted with was an excellent judge of character, so I don't doubt you. But everyone has limits, and Reina is no exception."
"Can't disagree with that. Mind if I call her and ask her to come here ? After those revelations about the WDF spying on us, I'd rather play it safe by not going to her office."
"Go right ahead."
I reach into my pocket and pull my phone out. Another one of Enhg's designs, it supposedly uses some magical uncrackable end-to-end encryption, even if the other end doesn't have the same model. Looks like one of those old indestructible brick phones, too, but it has a certain charm to it.
Reina picks up quickly.
"What is it, comm- I mean, William ? Sorry..."
"Don't be, Reina. Anyway, I have something to discuss with you, but it's not something I can talk about at the office. Would you mind coming to my place in... let's say five minutes ?"
"I had some work left to do here, but I guess I can do it later."
"Of course. By the way, before you get the wrong idea, what we need to discuss is PMC work."
"Oh. Anyway, I'll be there soon, William."
Judging by that "oh", she did get the wrong idea. Sorry to disappoint you, Reina, but I can't risk this plan getting overheard by the WDF.
~ ~ ~
The door bell rings quickly. A quick glance at the clock on the wall shows it's been four minutes since I called my secretary. I'm almost tempted to give her a raise. Sadly, funding is still quite tight, especially with R&D being a huge money sink. I don't make her wait longer than necessary, and open the door for her.
"Come in, Reina."
She seems wary, but still wastes no time crossing the threshold.
"I came as quickly as I could, William. What's the matter ?"
"Enhg and I will explain everything. Take a seat. I'll brew some tea."
Enhg greets her with a bow.
"Good afternoon, miss Reina."
"Good afternoon, doctor," she replies with a cold tone. She also picked the armchair, as far away from Enhg as possible. Oh, well, can't please everyone, I guess.
Anyway, tea's brewing.
"Do you happen to have any sake, my friend ?"
"Sorry, Enhg, I don't."
Once the tea's ready, I offer a cup to Reina, and get some for myself too, before I take back my seat on the couch.
"Alright, let's go. Enhg, please cast to the TV, so Reina can see better."
"On it, my friend."
The world map appears on the big screen as the doc gets up and takes position near it.
Enhg and I take turns explaining the plan to Reina. When she finally learns the reason I called her here instead of doing a traditional briefing at the PMC, her eyes widen in shock.
"I reacted in the same way when I learnt about it, Reina. This is fucked up, plain and simple.
"So, Kusnathogom Inc's goal going forward is to gain enough power to be able to cut ties with the WDF without impacting the PMC's future. Then, we'll restore the kingdom to a functional, self-sufficient state. Of course, we'll also take down a ton of Quarks along the way, as they're still a significant threat.
"I have one last question for you, Reina. Are you with me ?"
"Count me in, William."
"Good. Future discussions about the plan will take place here for now.
"Enhg, I want you to set a magical barrier up. If the WDF shows up to bug the room again, make sure they either get junk data and/or the bugs break down."
"Yeah, I can do that, my friend."
"As for you, Reina, I want you to gather information on Quark movements between the shelter and the access. Don't make it obvious, though. Like, see if there are any missions we could take in the vicinity of the access point, and watch Quarks at similar distances from the shelter."
"Sir, yes, sir!"
I didn't expect that from her, but it was kinda cute, to be honest.
"Okay, people, you're dismissed."
Enhg bows, picks his laptop up, and leaves quietly, while my secretary finishes her tea.
"One last thing before you leave, Reina. I'm giving you the rest of the day off, so feel free to get some rest."
"Thanks, William. For the tea, too. It was wonderful."
"I'm glad you liked it. See you tomorrow at work."
It's Reina's turn to leave the room. After going through the door, she turns towards me.
"By the way, William, I want you to know that I believe in you. I think you have the potential to turn this war around like no one else before, and I'll help you get there to the best of my ability. So, please, stay alive."
"I will, Reina."
I put my hand on her shoulder to reassure her, which makes her smile. I'll do my best to protect that smile.
As Reina finally leaves, I realise that I still need some rest. The shower did help a bit, but I guess I'll go lie down and read a book.
The dragons' kingdom will rise again.
Indeed it will.
~ ~ ~
One week passed since that first planning session. Enhg made some new upgrades to the Corec units, which will be useful for the upcoming expedition. Also, after saving one of their M.A.S.S.es, I struck a deal with the Valkyries for more jobs. While I don't really like doing business with a PMC that works directly for the WDF, finances are still on the tight side of things.
Oh, and Ellenier came back for a bit, too. Despite her being the one who funded the PMC, I have to keep her in the dark about the upcoming op. I don't want her to be a blabbermouth and make everything go down in flames.
"Want to get some tea at my place, Reina ? That last week was a bit stressful."
"A bit, William ? Anyway, I can't say no to tea."
"Shall we, then ?"
Reina and I start making small talk on the way to my apartment, which we reach relatively quickly. I unlock the door, and let chivalry take over for a bit.
"Ladies first," I say with a bow.
Reina smiles and enters the room. I follow her, lock the door, and get started on brewing tea.
"By the way, I got a rare kind of tea, which I'm sure you'll like, Reina."
"You didn't have to do that, though."
"Well, it's not like I had a choice. I ran out of tea two days ago, and when I went to buy more of the usual, they didn't have any left in stock. So, I bought that rare one. 'Twas more expensive, but it's very good."
"Well, that's what you get when you go shopping at the last minute."
"I never said I went to the store at the last minute."
"No, but you implied it. And, well, I saw you running to the store back then."
Her smile's aura changes for a second. I'll have to be careful with what I say, lest she starts spreading rumours around.
"Yeah, I did that one time. So ?"
"That one time ? Are you sure ?"
Wait a minute... I think I can turn this to my advantage.
"But your presence in the commerce district of the shelter at those times hints that you go grocery shopping at the last minute too."
"Well played, William Corec III."
Reina's expression doesn't change, but her aura does change again. Oh, boy... I hope she's not planning my demise right now. As they say, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Ah, looks like the tea's ready. As soon as I set the cups on the table, the doorbell rings.
"Expecting company, William ?"
"Nope. I'll check."
A quick glance at the camera shows it's only Enhg, so I let him in.
"Sorry I came without warning, my friend, but I wanted to see you in person. Oh, and good afternoon, miss Reina."
"Good afternoon to you too, doctor."
Her tone is warm, compared to last week. She does seem to have a better opinion of Enhg by now, which is a good thing.
"What's the matter, doc ?"
"We'll be ready to roll tomorrow, my friend!"
"Tomorrow ? That's some short notice."
"I'm not saying that we'll leave tomorrow, just that everything is ready, so tomorrow's the earliest we could launch. Now, if you don't mind, please take a seat. You prepared tea, so it would be a shame if it got cold."
The TV on the wall lights up as Enhg casts some schematics from his laptop to it.
"Environment protection suits, I guess ?"
"Indeed. I wanted something that offered good protection against void particles without being too bulky, and this is the design I came up with."
"They remind me of the armour worn by some of the figurines from that overpriced tabletop game."
"I admit I did use that as an inspiration, but, while my design is not made for combat at all, it's still way less bulky."
"Oh, for sure. Now, about the VTOL, I'll pilot it. The onboard AI is not suited for the upcoming flight at all, so I removed it entirely."
"I presume the one in the Corec units is a custom one, then."
"Yes. Now there's one last matter to discuss. When do we do this ?"
"That's a good question, Enhg. Nier came back, and even though I'm grateful for her help with funding the PMC, I don't want her breathing down our necks."
I turn towards my secretary, who's busy finishing her tea.
"Reina, do you know of a way to get her out of the way for an entire day that would allow you to still act as mission control for the op ?"
"Not really, no. But maybe we could give Quin a day off, and ask her to spend it with Nier ?"
"Which could make both girls suspicious."
Enhg makes a very good point, and continues.
"May I suggest giving the entire PMC staff a day off ? Since I'm officially an external contractor, I'm not bound by days off. As for you, my friend, you're the leader of the PMC, so you're free to give days off to your employees and not take one yourself."
"Problem is, if Nier wants to hang out with Reina, it'd be troublesome."
"I could say I have a full health check-up to do. Enhg's office is very close to the PMC's, after all."
"That could work. My excuse would be that I'd like to spend some time training in the hangar, which is something I actually do on restless nights.
"Now that we all have our reasons to get Nier off our respective backs, I'll send a message to the staff ASAP, telling them they get tomorrow off."
"Yes, Reina. Tomorrow. So, get some rest too. I want to see you two ready in the VTOL's hangar at 0700 hours."
"Aye aye, sir!"
Reina starts giggling as soon as she sees me glare at her.
My two guests start leaving, so I see them off. Time to send that message, and get some rest for tomorrow.
~ ~ ~
I open my eyes.
I'm standing in a black void. In front of me, a dragon is sleeping. He's roughly as big as a human. He does look kinda anthropomorphic, too.
I get close and crouch next to him.
He's incredibly beautiful. His scales are mostly black, with a few white areas on half his face, his chest, the back of his left hand, and the tip of his tail.
Sometimes, tiny white flames travel from one part of his body to another, moving over the scales.
My hand reaches towards his face, but withdraws when he opens his eyes.
He looks at me for a second or two, unsuccessfully tries to suppress a yawn, then shifts to a sitting position.
He beckons me to get closer. I hesitate, then sit right in front of him.
He takes my hand in his, and holds it gently. His scales are surprisingly soft. Not as soft as human skin, but close.
My glance goes upwards. His face looks sad.
I can't help it. I take advantage of the very short distance between him and me to pull him into a hug.
He lets out a small surprised yelp, but quickly relaxes, then puts his arms around me.
~ ~ ~
I open my eyes.
Looks like my room alright. Seems I was dreaming. But, I do remember the feeling of that dragon's scales upon my skin.
Yeah. The white ones seemed to be harder and rougher, too.
Anyway, I'm thirsty. I get out of bed, and walk towards the small kitchen.
As I pour myself a glass of water, I take a look at the clock on the wall.
I drink the glass' contents, and go back to bed.
Minutes pass. Nope, can't sleep at all. Ugh, another restless night. First time that's caused by a dream, though.
I get up again, get dressed, and leave towards Kusnathogom Inc's hangars.
As expected, they're empty. I take a look at my watch.
I go shirtless, then start training.
I managed to beat my record thrice. Without using the hangar's support beams, I climbed to the top of the Corec Mk1 in a mere 23 seconds. Previous times were 42, 34, and 28 seconds. Weird.
I managed to break all of my wooden spears and swords on the training dummy. All 20 of them. While some of them were already worn out, the others were brand-new. What the Hell ?
I did various exercises, and I don't even feel tired. How did I get such a boost to my abilities ?
I clean the hangar up, then go back to my room for a shower.
I'm back in the hangar. I'm just gonna wait for Enhg and Reina.
Reina's voice can be heard coming from behind me.
"We're here, William."
~ ~ ~
"I thought I said 0700, though. You're both fired."
"Just kidding, Reina."
I grin wildly, while Reina looks pissed.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
I know. 'Twas worth it, though.
Enhg starts speaking.
"I personally decided to arrive earlier just in case. I met miss Reina in front of my office, as she apparently had the same idea."
"Yeah, I thought it would allow me to avoid Ellenier. Apparently, it did."
"Good. Okay, let's get started.
"Reina, I'll help you get the operations room set up. Enhg, get the VTOL and suits ready, then go to Ops to help with the Corecs' AI."
Both answer in unison.
I follow Reina, who looks nervous.
"I know this op is a first, but please, relax. It's not the first time I leave the shelter, and we'll have an escort."
"I'm not worried about that, I'm worried about us being discovered."
"I admit this is a huge risk. Two M.A.S.S.es leaving the hangar on a day off will most likely look suspicious, especially with no one in the pilot seat for one of them. Though, I could argue that it is an unscheduled test of the AI, and that I assume full responsibility for it."
"But you will be away in a VTOL that belongs to the PMC. What if they ask for flight plans, or interrogate eyewitnesses ?"
"The loaded flight plan on the VTOL is a simple round trip throughout the area surrounding the shelter. As for the eyewitnesses, I took a look at Enhg's documents on the stealth system. That thing is pure genius. Let's just say that people won't even be aware they saw the VTOL or the Corec units outside of the flight plan."
"I do not agree with it being genius, or with the idea at all, but messing with people's brains sure beats assassinating those same people just because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Indeed. Getting blood on our hands would be bad. I might be a good M.A.S.S. pilot and decent warrior, but against the might of the WDF ? We wouldn't stand a chance right now."
"Does that mean you wouldn't be against killing people ?"
"You don't have to kill your enemy to defeat them, Reina. I've heard of great warriors who never took a single life. But if push comes to shove, and there is no other option, then yes, I would kill."
Ops is now up and running. Only the bare essentials are on. That is, Reina's computer and all systems she'll need to monitor the craft and units. My secretary puts her earpiece on.
"Testing. One, two, three."
"I hear you loud and clear, miss Reina. Everything's good here, so I'm on my way. Over and out."
Despite his bulky suit that does make him look like one of those tabletop space marines, Enhg arrives quickly.
"I won't be able to type the AI's commands due to these gloves, miss Reina, so I'll guide you."
"I'm gonna put that suit on, Enhg. I'll see you in the VTOL."
I pat Reina on the shoulder on the way out.
"We'll be fine, don't worry."
The hangar is eerily quiet. More than before, at least. I do a quick sweep to check in case someone sneaked in.
Nope, no one.
I start putting that suit on. Huh. Bulky, but actually comfortable to wear and move around in. Must be some powered stuff. And the helmet even has a very good field of vision.
Should I try climbing the Mk1 again ? Actually, no. It could launch at any moment.
Engines starting up can be heard. Yep, good call right there.
The Mk1 is the first to go to the launching bay, closely followed by the Mk2. When both finish launching, Enhg comes back from the operations room.
"Ready to go, my friend ?"
"Then take a seat in the cockpit. Either of them, there are no dedicated pilot and copilot seats. A rather nice feature, as aircraft way before the Quarks used to have some instruments only on one side of the cockpit, and others on the other side."
I nod and walk into the VTOL
GODDAMMIT! I hate being tall.
Oh, well. I try again, keeping my head down this time.
Ugh, the next opening is even smaller.
Hmm... left or right seat ?
Let's go with left.
Enhg enters the cockpit right after I fasten my seatbelt. The suit made that harder to do, not gonna lie.
Switches are flicked, a key is turned, and the VTOL starts up.
I press the radio's button and send a message to Reina.
"Corec to mission control, the dragon is taking flight. I repeat, the dragon is taking flight. Over."
"Copy. Please be safe, William. Over."
"I will, Reina.
"Over and out."
~ ~ ~
The flight is mostly uneventful. Reina gives us updates on Quark movements, and the M.A.S.S.es deal quickly with whatever small fry we meet.
"Do I really fight like that ?"
"The AI was trained using mission recordings. If you watched them, you'd have seen whatever you saw sooner, my friend."
"Yeah, I think I'll start doing that when we come back. I found flaws in my fighting styles, both with the Mk1 and Mk2. Though I won't be able to practice without weapons. I broke all of my wooden ones during training this night."
"That's... rather weird, especially since some of them were still brand new."
"I know, right ?
"Also, what kept me awake was a dream. It took place in a black void. There was this anthropomorphic dragon sleeping on, well, dunno, some kind of ground, if you could call it that. At one point, he woke up, then we sat in front of each other. I looked at his face and saw he was sad. I... couldn't stand seeing him like that, so I hugged him. Next thing I know, I was awake in my room."
"Can you describe that dragon ?"
"Mostly black scales that were quite soft. Not as much as human skin, but close. Some spots were white. Those were rougher and harder. His height was equivalent to mine. His wings stayed furled most of the time, so I couldn't take a good look at them, but he did spread them to wrap them around the two of us."
"So it finally happened. Though, things aren't exactly as I expected."
"Finally ? Not as expected ? What are you talking about, Enhg ?"
"I was honest with you from the get-go, my friend. You have dragon blood flowing into you. And it finally awakened. That increased strength of yours is a good indicator. I presume you're also faster, and got better stamina, right ?"
"I would like to add that the dragon waking up wasn't the only trigger. It's never the only trigger. The final push the blood needed came after. You accepted the dragon's presence by hugging him. In other words, you embraced that part of your nature."
"Makes sense. What about the rest ? What is, I quote, not exactly as you expected, Enhg ?"
"Your description of your dragon form. Black, soft body, but with harder white scales on some spots. Doesn't it remind you of anything else ?"
I take some time to think. Now that he mentions it...
"Don't get me wrong. It doesn't mean that your dragon form incorporated void particles, or that it's a dragon-Quark hybrid. It's just because you were born during the war.
"After all, Corec II, the Knight of the Blue Flame, was born during the resurgence of a powerful trio of entities. Their main colour was a beautiful azure blue, and his dragon form also used the same colour for its accents. Yet, he was only chosen as their champion some time after he revealed he was a dragon, close to thirty years after his birth."
"What happened to those three entities ?"
"I don't know, but I presume they got killed by the Quarks. They left Earth for some unknown reason, and Corec II lost the power they gave him shortly before humanity spotted that weird crystal drifting in space towards Earth."
"Three powerful entities, lending their powers to the most powerful dragon of all time, couldn't do anything against the Quarks ? Just, how strong are these monsters ?"
"While they were powerful relative to you and me, my friend, they were still weaker than Corec II. And I'm talking about the trio as a whole here. Maybe they thought they could do something before the crystal would arrive on Earth ? Unlike dragons, pure magic beings don't need to breathe, so they could travel through outer space unhindered."
"Yeah, I guess it makes sense."
The radio beeps, and Reina's worried voice comes through.
"William, Enhg, there's an unidentified Quark moving at a very high speed towards the VTOL. It's coming from your 2 o'clock."
Enhg immediately performs an evasive manoeuvre, which proves to be ultimately useless. As the Quark passes above the VTOL, it emits some kind of shockwave.
The rest follows quickly. In an instant, the M.A.S.S.es shut down and the VTOL loses power. The ground gets closer and closer. I brace for impact.
~ ~ ~
I open my eyes.
I'm in that black void again, lying down.
I try to get up, but something is preventing me from doing so.
The dragon is there, lying on top of me, with his head on my chest. He seems to be asleep.
I start patting his head. A few minutes later, he opens his eyes.
"You're finally awake, big guy."
I could say the same to you.
"What do you mean ?"
You were unconscious for a few hours, I'd say. I used my power to protect you from that crash, but you still got knocked out. And, as I was watching you, I was so tired from that intervention, that I couldn't help but fall asleep on you.
"About that, you might be a bit heavy, but, your scales feel nice."
Thank you! And, to be honest, I like your body's warmth.
He gets up, goes to sit besides me, and smiles. Or at least, it looks like he's smiling.
I spend some time just looking at him. Damn, he's really beautiful.
I switch to a sitting position too, and start speaking again.
"I have a question, by the way. How do you speak to me ? I don't see you move your mouth, and your voice sounds like it comes from within me."
Well, I'm a part of you. But the thing is, while I should be able to talk normally here, I can't. I'm actually mute, so I need to use telepathy to communicate with you.
He looks sad again. Goddammit, I can't help it, I have to hug him.
I have to say, you really know how to make me feel better.
"Thanks, dragon, but I must apologise, as my question made you feel sad in the first place."
Dragon ? Though, I understand why you'd call me that. We're the two sides of the William Corec III coin, but calling each other William would be weird.
"You have a point."
Anyway, don't worry about it.
He smiles widely again. Just like when he commented on my body's warmth, this smile is sincere.
I like it, to be honest, so feel free to call me that again.
"If you want, dragon."
We stay silent for a few minutes.
You know, I thought about it, and I'm starting to think that this Reina girl might be a good partner for you.
"I'm not sure, to be honest. I still need some time to think about such things. There's just... so much to do, and so little time."
Believe me, there's a lot of work ahead of you. But you're a dragonblood, so you don't really have to worry about your own age. And Reina is still on the young side, too. Take your time before starting a romance, with her or anyone else.
"Anyone else except Nier. Don't get me wrong, she's a decent girl. Just... not really for me."
Yeah, I don't think she'd be a good fit for you either.
Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to rest a bit more.
I pat his head again.
"Go right ahead."
He puts his head on my shoulder and closes his eyes. A few seconds later, I do the same.
~ ~ ~
"-o you copy ?"
"-peat. Do you copy ?"
"Enhg! William! If you can hear me, please respond!"
She's audibly crying.
"I'm alive, Rei-"
"Thank the heavens, you're still alive, William! I was so worried about you."
Yeah, I'm alive. At least, I think I am. And it looks like the VTOL switched to emergency power after the crash, which would explain why the radio is working.
"I heard, yeah. Loud and clear."
"Sorry for that.
"Anyway, do you know what happened ?"
"Probably an EMP. I didn't know Quarks could do that too. Ugh."
I check my suit. Fuck, it's damaged. Better not tell Reina, in case she worries even more.
On my right, the old man's suit looks intact.
"What about Enhg, William ?"
"I can see him breathing, so I'd say he's out cold like I was. On that subject, how long did I stay out ?"
"Ten minutes. The VTOL's radio came back online around seven minutes ago, and I had been trying to get a response from either of you ever since."
"Good thing you didn't lose hope. I wouldn't have wanted to come back and find out I died while I was gone."
"This is no time to be joking, William. I'll call for med-"
Enhg wakes up and interrupts Reina.
"No need. I see the mountain with the entry point. We can still do this."
"Quarks are headed your way. ETA, around 2 minutes more than what it would take for you to get evacuated. If you really want to do it, you better do it fast."
"The Corecs will take care of the threat."
"They rebooted, but they seem to be stuck."
"I should have had more foresight. They're basically trying to find an escort target that doesn't exist anymore.
"Okay, miss Reina, are you listening ? You'll need to enter some commands to give them new orders. I'll guide you the whole way, don't worry."
While Enhg gives instructions to Reina, I unfasten my seatbelt and open the VTOL's hatch. I gesture towards him, so he can patch the VTOL's radio to my suit.
The units are standing outside, motionless. Perfect for climbing.
The armour slows me down, but I still manage to reach the Mk2's top of the left shoulder in 35 seconds. Not bad.
That suit is damaged enough to allow some void particles through, but I'm protecting you using my powers. Don't worry, I'll be fine.
I hope you're right, dragon. Void particles are nasty, after all.
"My friend, please get down from the Mk2. Reina is about to launch the final command, which will make the M.A.S.S. move."
I jump straight down, and nail a perfect three-point landing.
Wow, that was awesome!
And on the first try, too. Being a dragonblood sure ain't bad.
I hear machinery working. The Corecs are finally moving again.
"Good job, Reina."
"Thanks, William. I wish Quin was there, though. She's better at that computer stuff than I am."
"Don't worry, you're doing fine."
"Sorry to interrupt you, William, miss Reina, but I can now control the units now using the PDA in my suit, so we'll be able to reach the foot of the mountain before the Quarks arrive."
"On that matter, doctor, ETA is 30 seconds."
"Combat mode it is, then."
Enhg does something on his PDA, and the M.A.S.S.es get ready for battle.
If you want to get ready for battle too, William, you'll need to prepare. Get rid of all inner conflicts in your body, mind, soul, and heart. By having no conflicts within, you'll be able to focus entirely on the conflict without.
But, how ? How do I identify those conflicts ? And how do I get rid of them ?
You'll know in due time. Trust me.
I start looking within. My body seems fine. Mind ? Check. Soul ? Yeah, might have to take care of that. As for the heart... what the Hell ?
"Any second now!"
Quarks appear all around us, and the fight's on. The M.A.S.S.es take care of the enemies expertly, but they keep coming.
Goddammit, I need to take care of that heart of mine, just in case a Quark manages to slip through.
As soon as I get rid of that last conflict, I feel power surge throughout my whole body.
When I finally manage to control and focus that power where it matters, a Quark jumps towards the VTOL's cockpit, where Enhg is located.
It happens in an instant. When I come back to my senses, I'm standing in front of the aircraft with my leg outstretched, and the formerly-pouncing Quark is now ragdolling in the air, away from our position.
What the fuck happened ?
Enjoy your new powers!
I look around. The Quarks have stopped attacking. In fact, they're retreating. Did my show of strength do that ?
"I see on the monitor the Quarks are falling back, with no signs of anything else on the way. What happened ?"
"I wish I could tell you, Reina. All I know is that something seemed to have scared them."
Enhg leaves the VTOL.
"I think we should start moving, my friend. They might have retreated for now, but others might come."
"Good point, Enhg."
"Miss Reina, I have to inform you that our radio link will be broken once we'll start moving towards the entrance. In fact, I'll have one of the units destroy the craft, as I don't want to leave a trail that would lead back to the PMC."
"Got it, doctor. Do you have any plans to re-establish contact after that ?"
"I'll see what I can do once we're at the entrance. The tunnel has a radio relay, so I'll try to link the suits to it. If it doesn't work, we'll have to see once we reach the fortress. The comms hub was there, so if it's mostly intact, we'll then be able to restore contact from there. If that fails, you'll have to wait until we're out."
"Fingers crossed the first option works, or at the very least the second one works. How long until you'd be able to reach the fortress after entering ?"
"We could reach it just after reaching the relay I mentioned, because it's at the tunnel's teleport pad. Both the pad in the fortress and the tunnel one still work because I used them with the scouting drone."
"Seems fine to me. Also, on the matter of transportation, should I send backup or not ?"
"If the Quarks didn't do too much damage to those, there should be some cargo crafts in working order. I know there's a lot of ifs, but I have a good feeling. The hangar looked fine when I scouted the area."
"I trust your judgement, but if you can't secure transportation, try to get in touch with me, I'll find something."
"While I'd like to not involve other parties, I'll keep it in mind, miss Reina. Over and out."
"Good luck, you two. Get home safely."
The radio goes silent.
"Alright, my friend, let's move away."
As soon as Enhg says that, the Corec Mk1 raises its foot. I start moving alongside the old man.
"Twenty metres should be far enough."
Welp, I guess that's it for the VTOL. I feel bad for Enhg's wallet. It was probably some cheap surplus, but still.
"Now that I think about it, Enhg... couldn't we have recovered it on the way out ?"
"I didn't want to take any chances. We don't know how long we'll stay down there, my friend."
"Yeah, makes sense."
The Corec Mk2 lowers and opens its hand, so it can be used as a platform.
"Let's climb aboard, shall we."
~ ~ ~
"So, my friend, now that Reina is out of earshot, what happened back there ? Your suit is ruptured, meaning you got exposed to void particles, yet you're still standing with no adverse effects. Not only that, but you shouldn't have been able to punt that Quark like you did."
"Well... it's a long story, so I'll try to make it short.
"First, when I was out cold, I spent some more time with my dragon form. Among other things, he told me that he protected me, which is why I didn't die from the crash.
"When I woke up, he told me telepathically that he was also protecting me from the void particles that managed to get through the suit.
"Then, when the Quarks attacked, he told me to do something about inner conflicts or something. I did it, and power surged through me.
"Last, but not least, I saw that beast jump towards the cockpit while the Corecs were busy with other Quarks, I used that power to fight.
"That's about all I know or understand."
Enhg is dumbfounded.
"I guess I still have a lot to learn about dragons, despite being one myself."
"Wait, what ? Didn't you tell me that failed experiment gave you draconic abilities ?"
"It did. By turning me into a dragon. I am biologically a dragon, I could have dragon offspring with a female dragon, my late daughters were dragonbloods, that kind of stuff. I just didn't get a dragon form at all."
"I know, right ? On the bright side of things, it allowed me to become more than just a scientist."
Now that I think about it, Enhg does have a slightly similar aura to my inner dragon.
"Ah, we've arrived, my friend."
"I don't see an entrance."
"From the rule of William Corec II onwards, Kusnathogom was always isolationist in some way. Very few foreigners were allowed entry. So, we built hidden tunnels linking to the surface."
He fiddles with his PDA, and the base of the mountain starts opening right in front of us. Not like a door, though. It looks like a spell is drilling through the rock, until the tunnel reveals itself.
It took around ten seconds for the opening to fully form. But, it felt like it lasted longer. If that's a sample of Kusnathogom's and Enhg's magitech, I want to see the rest.
Is that an excited dragon I hear ?
Maaaayyyybe just a tiny bit...
A tiny bit. Riiiight...
I smile as the Corec Mk2 carries Enhg and me inside, while the Mk1 follows. The opening is big enough to allow both mechas to enter standing. The doctor didn't lie.
As soon as we're through, the "door" closes. The M.A.S.S.es continue to walk down the winding path.
Enhg turns towards me and speaks.
"A little bit of trivia, my friend. Kusnathogom used to be called the kingdom of blood by foreigners, back during the reign of Corec, and later William Corec. The reason why was simple. Dragon blood is very potent, as you noticed yourself, and dragons were rather obsessed with it, to the point cross-breeding was common. Even I dabbled in it, despite it not being my intention.
"But, now, I guess Kusnathogom could be called the bloody kingdom."
"Because of the Quarks' attack."
A heavy blast door stands in our way, but it opens just in time to let us pass.
The room beyond is large enough for multiple vehicles, or maybe a few M.A.S.S.es.
A slightly glow-y circle lies at the centre of the room. Inscriptions I can't even read are on the border of it. Considering it was made by dragons, maybe it's the dragons' language.
I have a grasp of its verbal form, for obvious reasons, but I don't know how to write or read it, so I can't teach you that part.
Don't worry about it. I'm sure we'll be able to learn it in due time. Together.
"Is that the teleport pad, Enhg ?"
"Yes. And the radio relay is right there, on the left. I'll see if it still works."
Enhg jumps down from the Mk2's hand gracefully, and lands on his feet as if he simply jumped down a single step in a staircase.
Yeah, you can't compete with that, William.
"Damn, the relay is down. I mean, it's still in working order, but it's not powered."
"Is the cable cut or something ?"
"A quick analysis of the grid shows the main generator is off. The power crystal ran out of energy, but thankfully, there's a backup generator that should have enough energy left in its crystal for our purposes."
"Crystals used as power sources sound like something from a fantasy world, or maybe a sci-fi one."
"Maybe, but they're real. We usually change them once a century, so I should have expected that. My bad. At least the generator can still be turned on, and the comms hub is most likely still intact."
"Are the pads on the same grid ?"
"No, those are made from pure magic. No tech at all here. In fact, all the pads are located along mana lines, so they're always powered."
"I see. Well, let's go, then."
I jump down too, but don't try another fancy landing.
"Do we keep the Corecs on standby here, or do we bring them with us, Enhg ?"
"While we should be safe, I'd say they can come with us just in case."
The four of us take place on the pad.
The magic circle activates, and light envelops us.
~ ~ ~
The light finally fades.
In front of us, a majestic fortress stands. Each of its light grey stones is elegantly crafted. The building as a whole has "try and take me, I dare you" vibes, while still radiating a wish for peace.
But, I wonder something.
"If the Quarks attacked, Enhg, why does the fortress look intact ?"
"Self-repairing enchantment. It's a slow process, due to the size of the structure, but, it just works. Also, it focuses on the outside first, so there might still be some damage inside."
"Wait until you see the archives. It's perhaps what I'm most proud of."
"That's part of why we're here, too."
"Indeed. By the way, everything we need to secure, including our way back to the shelter, is, or at least should be, in the fortress. I know you'd like to see more, but I recommend to do that later."
"I agree completely, Enhg. The faster we can go back, the better. We already lost too much time because of that crash, let's not waste even more."
"In that case, go ahead, and enter the fortress."
"Don't you feel like there's something wrong, though ? Air's kind of heavy down here."
"Agreed. Well, it's not the air. It's the mana."
"It's polluted, actually. In a way that's harmless to us, I might add, but I'd say a normal human wouldn't last long. Still, I wonder what happened here."
"Probably was intentional. I mean, if it's harmless to dragons and dragonbloods, then the pollution is most likely designed to keep someone or something out.
"Anyway, let's go."
I start walking towards the main entrance, but stop when I notice Enhg stays behind.
"Why are you standing back ?"
"You'll understand soon enough, my friend. Trust me."
I shrug, then get closer, without stopping this time.
As soon as I start climbing the steps leading to the double doors, they open automatically. Or, is that automagically ? Oh, well, it's Kusnathogom, so, same difference.
I step through the opening.
The entrance hall manages to be both modest and grand, with simple but still beautiful decorations. It was made to impress, and it does just that.
"The fortress recognised its new master, and opened its doors to welcome him."
I was so focused on admiring the hall that I didn't notice Enhg had caught up with me.
"New master ?"
"The fortress opens its doors to three categories of people. The king, citizens of Kusnathogom, and foreigners that have been explicitly granted access by the king.
"Last time I checked, you're neither of the last two."
"But I'm not the first one either."
"There is an old law in Kusnathogom, that the fortress is aware of. The law is old as the kingdom itself, too. The law states that should the king need a successor, either because of death or retirement, the order of succession is the following: a dragon from the Corec bloodline, a dragonblood from the Corec male line, a dragonblood from the Corec bloodline, or, failing any of those conditions, any dragon or dragonblood chosen in advance by the former king."
"So, I fit either the second or third, then."
"The second, to be accurate."
"But what if no one fits any of those ?"
"It's an eventuality no one could have predicted, not even myself. No one imagined that there would be a threat capable of wiping dragons and dragonbloods out."
"Well, we'll have to change that law one day. Even if the Quarks end up being defeated, there might be a bigger fish somewhere."
"Indeed. Now, if you don't mind, sire, I'd like to give you a partial tour of the fortress, starting with the generator room."
"I know you're just joking around, Enhg, but, please, avoid using that word."
"Don't worry, my friend, as I'm actually used to not saying it. Your predecessors asked the same of me. Anyway, let's go."
I wouldn't mind if you were to command me, my king.
Oh, not you too, dragon! And why did you say that with a flirty tone ?
Oh, I just wanted to tease you, that's all. Hehehe...
I follow Enhg to the fortress' underground levels. The trip lasts a few minutes, as it's a huge building that housed most of the army, a significant amount of businesses, as well as around ten thousand people, according to the stories he told.
Hey, maybe it could be reconverted into a shelter. Not one affiliated with the WDF, but a shelter nonetheless. Of course, we'd need good defences against the Quarks and void particles, but once it's ready.
For fuck's sake!
"Fun fact, my friend, you're the first person taller than Corec II to enter this room. Or rather, try to enter it."
"Oh, shut up."
The room beyond the opening is smaller than I expected. I thought it would be a huge complex. Instead, there are only two generators that are about the same width as a M.A.S.S., while being twice as short.
The left one looks like the main, while the right one seems to be the backup, judging by the fact the latter's power crystal is smaller but still glowing.
I let Enhg perform the required manipulations, as all of that machinery confuses me. Still, it's interesting to see they're able to extract electricity to power an entire kingdom from such small crystals.
"Okay, there should be enough juice to run all essential stuff for a year across the whole kingdom. Ready to move, my friend ?"
"But, we're only there for the radio, archives, and transportation."
"Don't worry, I disconnected the rest of the grid for now, so the crystal will last longer. Mind your head, please."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. No need to twist the knife."
~ ~ ~
On the way to the archives, we pass in front of a door with an intact nameplate.
"Baron von Einzberg ? Name's familiar. Isn't there a bank owned by a certain von Einzberg ?"
"Indeed. He's the informant I told you about. The title of baron doesn't indicate any nobility, it was just to indicate important people in the kingdom. Corec and von Einzberg were best friends, and the latter decided to provide the former with intelligence and other kinds of information. The relationship with Kusnathogom continues to this day."
"He's a dragon or dragonblood too ?"
"He made some kind of pact with Corec that granted him dragon-like immortality, but outside of that, he's just human."
"Huh. I'd like to meet him. His services could be useful. Could you set an appointment up when we get back ?"
"I'd like to, but I can't. If anything, he's the one who'll get in touch with you. I'm sure he's already been made aware you're in the fortress, so, expect him to contact you in the near future."
"Did you tell him about today ?"
"Not in the slightest. And he doesn't have any connection to Reina either. All I know is that he somehow can get info no one else should be able to get. And to be honest, you're a descendant of Corec. Do you really think he won't keep an eye on someone related to his best friend ? I'm a hundred percent sure he's been watching your career with great interest."
"Anyway, we're here. The biggest bank of knowledge about Kusnathogom is beyond this door."
I take a peek, and...
Just after the door, there's a reading area that's about as big as a M.A.S.S. hangar, at least for floor surface. There are many desks laying around, each having two computer screens, as well as a pair of headphones, and enough space to have maybe three rows of seven A4-sized paper sheets.
The reading area is also a mezzanine. Below and beyond it, shelves as far as the eye can see. Each is tightly packed with books, folders, and other boxes.
"Tell me, Enhg, how are we supposed to get all that back ?"
"We aren't. What you see are physical copies, but Kusnathogom also stored digital copies of everything on these shelves. We'd just need the assistance of- speak of the devil."
A robot floats through the air to get in front of the doctor.
"Welcome to the archive room, doctor Enhg. How may I assist you ?"
"On behalf of the king of Kusnathogom, I, doctor Phileas Enhg, invoke emergency protocol FDAR. Identification code is PE100751, authorisation code is C161148."
Nothing happens for roughly twenty seconds.
"One moment, sir."
The robot flies away, then many similar robots start moving below.
"It's the first time I have to invoke an emergency protocol, my friend. That one is for a recovery of all digital archives, hence the name. They're gonna put all of the data capsules in a special container, and will also ship a consultation desk alongside it. Everything will then be brought to the hangar, where we'll have to choose which craft to load it into."
"How big will the package be ?"
"I hope it'll be small enough to fit on a TS-class Pelican craft. They're the only cargo transports that are roughly the size and shape of the VTOL we lost. And the only way we'll be able to fit a TM-class into the hangar will be through the M.A.S.S. launch bay."
"Yeah, I understand the concern, especially since this op is off-the-record stuff."
"Indeed. Shall we go to the comms hub now ? It's close by, don't worry."
~ ~ ~
The trip to the hub is rather uneventful. No notable locations, no bits of trivia, anything.
While I don't mind a little bit of quiet, it's a bit eerie. This place was probably full of life. And now, nothing, except a dragon and a dragonblood.
"We're here, my friend. Oh, the condition of the equipment is way better than I expected."
The radio room is also an impressive one. Roughly thirty percent smaller than a M.A.S.S. hangar.
"Will we be able to get in touch with Reina with that ?"
"Yes. Of course, the radio relays in the various access tunnels also help."
It takes a good while for Enhg to reconfigure the system, as current day radios are on a different band than those from the past. I ignore most of the technobabble, though.
"Should be working now. Would you mind giving it a spin, my friend ?"
I turn the mic on.
"Corec to KSN mission control, do you copy ?"
"William ? Is that you ?"
"Yeah. How are things on your side ?"
A girl interrupts Reina.
"William Corec. You're a sneaky bastard, you know that ?"
Great, just great... Nier found out.
"I know you're worried about my safety, Ellenier, but we'll be fine here."
"Who are you with ?"
"Enhg's with me. Before you get started on a rant, I'm the one who got the idea. I am the one responsible for the whole expedition. And I don't care if you disapprove. You might have funded the PMC, but I'm the boss, and I'm doing what I think is right for the future of humanity."
"Just, where are you exactly ?"
"My family's home."
"You mean, Kusnathogom ? What are you doing there ?"
"Retrieving archives. Everything should be packaged by now, and needs to be loaded in a transport. We should be back to the surface in around..."
I turn towards Enhg, who silently mouths "thirty minutes".
"...an hour, I'd say."
"Another question. Why are there two units missing from the hangar ?"
"We took them with us to help defend the VTOL. While the VTOL is wrecked, the units are fine. If you see Kael or Waltz, you can tell them they won't have a lot of work. The paint is a bit scratched, but that's all.
"Oh, by the way, Reina, you have my permission to tie Nier to a chair and gag her if she's too much of a bother."
Nier is quick to protest.
"Wait, what ?"
"With pleasure, William. Over and out."
As I turn the mic off, I wonder if she'll actually do it.
"Don't you dare, Reina!"
"Okay, now that's taken care of, Enhg, I have one request before we go."
"What is it ?"
"Show me the throne room."
"No wonder you doubled the ETA I told you, my friend. Anyway, this is a reasonable request, and I'm happy to oblige. It might be a bit of a mess, though. I knew Corec II, and I am certain he had his last stand there. And he's the fiercest warrior Kusnathogom ever had, so it's possible he went very wild."
"Actually, I'll use a teleport spell. Much faster than walking there."
"As you wish."
"We'll teleport right outside, though, so you'll still be able to walk through the room's doors."
He snaps his fingers, and a magic circle appears on the ground. In two seconds, in a similar way to the teleport pad, we now find ourselves in front of doors as big as a cathedral's.
~ ~ ~
A grand door stands in our way.
"The throne room was also used for major ceremonies, hence the size of the door and what's beyond. Even people being knighted took place there."
For a kingdom that was highly proud of its troops, I'm not surprised.
"After you, my friend."
Unlike the fortress' front door, there's no automagical mechanism, so I push hard.
The room beyond, which is as large as a cathedral's interior, is in a strong state of disrepair. The red carpet has seen better days, and is torn in multiple places. Armour pieces are scattered. Statues lay in pieces around the place. Windows are broken. Even the floor is dented.
But what catches my attention, is the throne at the end.
"Corec II ?"
I walk forward. I quickly move to a jog, then stop right in front of the throne, while Enhg follows closely.
A decomposed male-looking corpse is sitting on the throne. The armour he's wearing is simple, but still obviously the work of a master.
In his right hand lies a longsword, most likely the Soulheart Enhg told me about. The craftsmanship of the handle, shaped like a dragon, is impressive.
"It is him indeed, my friend. I'd recognise that armour no matter what. He made it himself."
"It's quite fancy. I mean, it's not flashy, but it's one good-looking armour."
"If you look closely, you'll find that outside the emblem on the shoulder, it matches the pieces around the place. They're the only traces of the knights who were part of Corec II's own knightly order of the Blue Flame. It was founded before he revealed his nature and took over the throne, and had only the very best knights as part of its ranks. After that, it became his personal guard.
"The reason the armours are almost identical is that he didn't want to look like a leader on the field, so the enemy wouldn't easily know who to target first."
"They're the highest quality armour I've ever seen."
"The best armour for the best knights. He was an exceptional blacksmith, to be honest. If it had been up to him, he'd have remade every weapon and every armour for each Dragon Knight, using his own techniques. Sadly, even the best wasn't good enough to protect him and his guard against the Quarks."
Enhg starts praying.
"May God preserve your soul, old friend."
"Is it me or do you always call people friends ?"
"Well, friends of mine only. And Corec II was a fellow man of science, too, so I took a liking to him extremely quickly. While I still appreciated William Corec II, I never had a friendship with him. Our relationship was mostly business."
"Also, are you religious in some way ?"
"Not really, no. During the reign of William Corec II, which was extremely long, Heaven declared war on Kusnathogom. It was a stalemate, and both William and God decided to give up after a century of not being able to gain any ground at all. The ceasefire ended up turning into an alliance. After that, Corec II's deeds earned him God's blessings, which also came with a privileged spot in Heaven's equivalent of the underworld.
"Oh, and the name God is a misnomer. It's the Christians who insisted on calling him that, so he went with it. He's just the most powerful archangel."
"Dragons, angels, Quarks... what's next ? Dwarves, elves, and demons ?"
"Funny you say that, because dwarves were a thing a long time ago, but they died out because of their politics, and demons just keep to themselves now, after their rightful ruler finally decided they really needed an authority figure. Elves didn't exist, though."
I take another look at Corec II's body, and my eyes are drawn to the sword.
"I almost want to take it, but I don't know if I should disturb the body or anything."
"He'd most likely be fine with it, my friend. You'll notice if you're its rightful owner anyway. According to him, when he got the Soulheart, he felt a deep connection with the weapon, but never got into details."
I reach for the sword, remove it from my ancestor's grip, and put my hand on the handle.
"There is some kind of connection indeed, but I don't know if I'd qualify that as deep."
Wait, let me help.
How do you plan to do that, dragon ?
I almost feel like his body is fusing with mine, down to each knuckle's position.
Then it hits me.
~ ~ ~
I still am in Kusnathogom's throne room, which is still intact.
The doors open with a crash, and people wearing armour enter in a hurry. The Blue Flame can be seen on the left shoulder of each, except on one man's. I presume he's Corec II, as his armour displays the Corec bloodline's emblem, the Flame of Vengeance.
Quarks quickly follow, and a slaughter ensues. The knights fall one after the other. Only the king is still standing, mostly likely powering on through sheer force of will.
As the last of his comrades fall, he lets his rage take over. He moves extremely fast, and manages to kill all of the remaining monsters in the room all by himself.
He's visibly exhausted, but still manages to gather power. His arm gets slowly covered in a mesmerising blue fire. Whatever he has planned, it's gonna leave a mark.
More Quarks start appearing.
"I hope you'll enjoy this, you empty FREAKS!"
As soon as he says that last word, he unleashes the energy he gathered. The beasts don't waste any time leaving.
Corec II then gets up, and slowly moves to his throne. He sits in it with great difficulty, then collapses.
~ ~ ~
I still am in Kusnathogom's throne room. It's less wrecked than how it ended up in the previous memory, but just a bit.
The dragon king is still on his throne, barely alive. I don't know how he manages to endure the void poisoning, but he does. At least he straightened up, making him look like he's waiting for something or someone.
He doesn't wait for long, though, as the door quickly opens. A hooded figure gets in, and rushes towards the throne. I can't get a good look at the person's face.
"Ah, you finally came, Alexander."
"I arrived as quickly as I could, sir. Humanity is disorganised, and those creatures, called Quarks, wreak havoc on the surface, so everything is a mess."
"I presume you're helping, right ?"
"Yes, of course. Phineas and I have been doing our best to help the world organise against the threat."
"Why did you call me here, by the way ?"
"As you know, I'm dying. As much as I'm resisting, the void particles will claim my life sooner or later. I know I have descendants who are still alive out there. I want you to find a worthy successor, as I really can't do that myself anymore."
"I will. Any traits I should look for in particular ?"
"Preferably one that has an unnatural resistance, or even an immunity, to void particles. But, it's fine if you can't find that, as long as they're worthy."
"As you wish, sir."
"Oh, and one last thing, Alexander. Don't tell Enhg I'm still alive. I don't care if he learns it from someone else, though."
"It shall be done."
~ ~ ~
I still am in Kusnathogom's throne room. The walls are almost repaired by now.
Corec II and von Einzberg are together again.
"I never expected you to still be alive, sir."
"Never have I. Any news from your search ?"
"Yes. I couldn't find anyone that fit the criteria you mentioned, but I did find a very promising young boy."
"What's he like ?"
"His name is William, and he's currently in an orphanage at a place the WDF calls shelter 7. Smart, strong, with good charisma, and a knack for leadership. Here's a picture of him."
The baron shows a photo of me from when I was ten or something.
"Ah, another William Corec. When was this taken ?"
"Yesterday. He's around ten years and seven months old."
If only I could see under von Einzberg's hood, maybe I could search within my memory if I saw him or not.
"Is there anything wrong ?"
"No, not at all. I do think he might be a good one. Wait around ten years. If he seems just as fitting or more by then, tell Enhg you found a good candidate, as well as the name and location. But no mention of our meetings."
~ ~ ~
I still am in Kusnathogom's throne room. The walls are fully repaired, and the rest of the room looks a bit closer how it is to the present.
"Sir, the boy is very much fitting, as you guessed. Enhg is already on his way to shelter 7 as we speak."
"Do you have a more recent picture ?"
"Incidentally, I do. Here you go."
Yep, I do look like I'm twenty in that photo. Looks like it was taken in the commerce district of the shelter, which is always busy, so I wouldn't be able to search my memories and identify anyone in particular.
"Ah, a fine young man indeed. I can't say I agree with his clothing style, though. On the other hand, he does live in different times than I did."
"Do you require anything more ?"
"Well, I want you to continue providing your services to Enhg. Extend them to William when he comes across Kusnathogom in his travels. He'll need them should he want to revive the kingdom."
"As you wish, sir."
"You can now take your leave. I'll transfer ownership of the Soulheart to him, and I'll store a few memories of mine within the weapon."
The baron starts walking towards the exit, when Corec II speaks once more.
"One last thing, Alexander. I know for sure I'll be dead by tomorrow, so, you won't have to come here again for a while."
"Goodbye, sir. It has been an honour to serve you."
"And it was an honour to have you by my side, especially in these trying times."
~ ~ ~
Looks like my idea worked.
"Okay, I might have spoken too early, Enhg. It does go deep."
"I guessed as much, you zoned out for a minute or so."
"I'm willing to give you more details, but I'll do that on the way to the hangar."
"Alright, my friend, let's move."
I pay my respects to Corec II one last time for now, unsummon the weapon, then follow Enhg.
"So, the Soulheart's ownership was transferred to me by my ancestor."
"How do you know that ?"
"He put four of his memories in the weapon."
"Which ones ? If you don't want to say more, fine by me."
"The first memory was the last stand of the knights of the Blue Flame. Near the end, Corec II gathered magical energy, which he then released. While it didn't do anything directly to Quarks, they ran away."
"Interesting. Do you think it might be the explanation behind the polluted mana ?"
"Maybe, but at the same time, I'm sure I didn't pollute mana in any way when the Quarks ran away back at the VTOL, but then again, I'm not knowledgeable in magic at all."
"Also, you said it was the first memory. Did the others take place before, or after ?"
I start telling Enhg about the other three memories. With each word I say, his stare becomes more distant.
"I guess he never changed. Even as he was dying, he was the same sneaky bastard as way back in the past. Still, he was an excellent friend, and one really tough guy."
"He wanted the best for Kusnathogom, I presume."
"And for his bloodline, too. After all, baron von Einzberg did find someone who has unnatural resistance to void particles, even if that was involuntary."
"Looks like it."
We go silent again as we continue moving.
After some time, we finally reach the hangar.
Four rows of transport crafts can be seen, each with twenty units of a size class.
"So, where is that container... ah, right there."
Enhg points towards a white cargo container, which looks like it's around ten metres long, two metres wide, and two metres tall.
"Small enough to fit in a TS-class, too. Very good."
Enhg fiddles with the closest terminal, and the container gets picked up by a loading robot, in the direction of the first available craft.
"Uh, Enhg, did you check if the crafts were in working order ?"
"Now that you mention it, no."
More fiddling ensues.
"Oh, well, time to load it into the thirteenth one."
The container switches places.
"Okay, my friend, you can go take your seat, while I make sure the container is properly secured."
I climb into the cockpit, on the same side as in the VTOL. I make sure I avoid hitting the top of the opening this time, and fasten my seatbelt.
Hmm... not as comfy.
Enhg is quick to come back, which means we'll most likely be fine.
"Sorry, my friend, but you'll have a bit of work to do. Some controls are not duplicated on each side of the cockpit, unlike our previous mode of transportation."
"Don't worry about that. As long as it doesn't use names I don't know anything about, I should be fine."
"The start-up sequence for your side should be on your left, in some kind of pocket. It uses the same text as on the controls' labels, so the issue is finding the controls themselves."
I look around.
"Yep, found it."
Seriously ? I just have to press a button that's at the centre of the cockpit ?
Enhg is grinning widely.
"I should have told you Kusnathogom prioritised ease of use and safety compared to almost everyone else at the time. The actual sequence is controlled by the transport itself. Some crafts did have a more manual process, but only training models, and, on request, privately-owned ones."
I push the button.
It's fast to start, too. Noice. Anyway, I guess I'll call HQ.
I grab the radio.
"Dragon Force One to KSN Inc HQ, do you read ?"
"This is KSN Inc HQ. We read you loud and clear, Dragon Force One."
"Good. Anyway, Reina, we're on the way home. Enhg will send you the ID of the tracker on the transport, so you'll be able to follow us once we leave the cavern."
"Got it, William. I'll be watching Quark movements as usual."
"See you soon, Reina. Over and out."
I hang up. Since I couldn't hear Ellenier, I presume Reina did bind and gag her.
That might take her down a peg or two.
Agreed. By the way, I noticed you were more quiet than I expected, dragon.
Well, I kinda wanted to see more weapons. You know, like artillery and stuff. The Soulheart is nice, but it's just a tiny bit of Kusnathogom's arsenal.
There's more to life than war, you know ?
Yes. Like love.
Once again with the flirty tone... ugh, what did I do to deserve a dragon form like that ?
"Time to go home, Enhg."
"Agreed, my friend. Let's just get the Corecs active again on the way out, then we'll be ready to leave the kingdom of blood behind. For now."
"Our work is far from over indeed."
~ ~ ~
The trip is uneventful, and we arrive at the base safely in the evening, during a magnificent sunset.
The M.A.S.S.es get back to their respective hangars, while we land close to the storage area.
Reina is waiting for us alongside Quin, Waltz, and Kael. Only Nier is absent, for a reason I can easily imagine.
I get off from the transport, and quickly get rid of the suit.
"Welcome home, William."
I turn towards the rest of the crew.
"Why are you here, by the way ? I'm sure I gave you a day off."
"We're here because Reina called us, commander. I don't know where you went or what you did, but it seemed to be important for you to do that without telling any of us."
"We went to Kusnathogom. Initially, just to recover archives. But, during our travels through the fortress, I got my hands on this lil' beauty."
I summon the Soulheart in sword form.
"This is the Soulheart. The weapon that inspired the ones the Corec units are equipped with."
It switches into a spear form on just a mental command.
"It can be morphed into whatever I'm familiar with, which only includes swords and spears at the moment."
And on a similar command, I unsummon it again.
"But, as I said, the archives were our priority.
"Enhg, Kael, Waltz. Let's get all that unloaded and stored in the right place."
The four of us manage to get it off the Pelican (though I presume Enhg's and my combined strengths did most of the work), then I open it.
The doctor wasn't wrong. There's a reading desk indeed, as well as a bunch of boxes containing the data capsules.
"Now, where do we store this ?"
"Good question, my friend. Actually, I planned in advance. Do you see where my office is, misters Kael and Waltz ?"
"The back room will be a good place for that. I anticipated the possibility of doing an archive recovery, so I have enough space for all of that."
It takes us around half an hour to get everything in Enhg's back office. Once we're done, I dismiss the two engineers while he casts a spell on both the door and the capsules.
"There. I made it so only you or me, or any authorised person, can access the new archives, my friend."
"Good. To be honest, I'm glad we're done. I might have more stamina than before, but so much happened today that I still need some rest."
"I can't blame you. I'm not gonna stay here long, just enough to glance at some old research papers I wrote before the war."
I leave Enhg's office and go back to the PMC's operations room. Reina and Quin are there, discussing potential jobs I could take later, while Nier is indeed bound and gagged.
"Don't let me interrupt you, girls."
I remove the tape used to gag Ellenier, and summon the Soulheart in dagger form.
"I'll free you, Nier. But don't cause trouble like that again, please. I already have a lot on my plate, and handling you on top of that is not really a pleasant experience."
I cut the tape binding her to the chair, as well as the one holding her hands together.
Nier leaves the room, visibly angry.
Reina talks to me.
"For a moment, I was worried you'd kill her, William."
"I wouldn't have. She's an invaluable ally, and a somewhat decent friend."
And my weapon goes back to its resting place once more.
"Anyway, I'm off, girls. I think I'll take a day off of my own, not gonna lie."
I leave the operations room and go back to my place for a good meal, a good shower, and a good night of sleep.
I didn't expect what would be waiting for me, though.
~ ~ ~
The doorbell is what wakes me up from my slumber.
What time is it ?
Let me take a look.
Yeah... anyway, there's someone trying to see me.
I turn the coffee machine on, then go open the door.
"You sure took your time, William."
"Good morning to you too, Reina."
Reina takes a quick look at my outfit. I'm wearing just a T-shirt and underwear, and she did just wake me up, so I didn't really have time to change into proper clothes.
"Good morning... I guess ?"
"Sorry for that, Reina, I overslept. Do you want to come in ? I could brew some tea for you if you want."
"Thanks for the offer, but maybe later. I'm only here to deliver a letter."
"A letter ? People still use that pre-war way of sending messages ?"
"Yeah, I don't understand it either. Anyway, it has your name on it, but the PMC's address, so it arrived at the office earlier."
I take the envelope Reina hands me, and open it.
"What does it say, if you don't mind sharing ?"
"Get in and close the door."
Reina does so after a second of pondering.
"It's a letter from the First World Bank."
"With a name like that, they're just begging to be robbed."
"Yeah. Anyway, it's about an account I supposedly opened there."
"Yeah, they're telling me the manager scheduled an appointment with me in a week from now, and they want me to call them back to confirm the appointment."
"That's weird. Why would a bank schedule an appointment with someone who's not a customer there ? Don't they have a database to look into ?"
I take a look at the bottom of the paper, and see a familiar name.
"Reina, call them back, and tell them I'll be there. And, please, don't ask questions."
Looks like you and I will meet at last, baron Alexander von Einzberg.