Eric and Ragna leaned against a lamp post. Its light drew a halo on the asphalt of the “Seoul Street” and created a white spot in the dark. Not that he and Ragna needed it.
Eric looked at the skyscraper on the opposite side of the street.
The HAL Curiosity Zaibatsu's main building dwarfed every other construction in Utgard’s financial district “Teukbyeolsi” and radiated purple light. The surrounding glass structures reflected the shining, bathing the night in the same glimmer. No one else was traversing through the financial district. The streets were empty.
Eric’s phone vibrated. He took it out, and the screen displayed the name “Agent X”.
Who might that be? And why did his phone display a name that wasn’t on his contact list? Did the tower temper with his phone? Even for a seemingly almighty structure that went too far. If it could manipulate his technology, could it affect their minds or souls? Had they any way of knowing if it had?
Eric looked at Ragna. She shrugged, he pressed the call button, and Altera’s face appeared on the phone's display.
“Hello, Agent M. Hello, Agent G. As I see through your background, you have arrived at your destination. Our information network determined that Astro Elvex, CEO of HAL Curiosity Zaibatsu, is plotting something evil. He is currently in his office on the top floor of the building.”
Altera’s face disappeared, and a blue map popped out. It displayed outlines of the building with a structure of all floors. Red and green dots appeared on the map marking the soldiers and the cameras, and one black circle on the highest floor revealed their target’s location.
“Elvex’s private army is guarding every level of the building, and cameras are also everywhere. If you engage, you will be dead. Find a way into Elvex’s office, stop him, and put an end to his nefarious plans. Do you copy?”
“Copy and out,” said Eric, and the call disconnected. “Looks like we got the task for the level.”
“Wish finding it out was always this easy.” Ragna looked up. “HAL Curiosity deals with robotics and space travel, right? They’re also deep into void theory, from what I’ve heard. Say, you once body guarded the head of their Midgardian branch, wasn’t that so? Any clues what this evil plan could be?”
When people spoke of the void, they had one of three concepts in mind. From a religious perspective, people described the border that supposedly separated the world of the living, Hel, and Valhalla. Then, there was space, and lastly, it was nothingness: the chaos and entropy at the beginning, the birth of the universe. As such, void theory attempted to address what properties Mana, souls, Fylgja, and the universe possessed – and their origins. If scientists could, they would have studied Twice and Yggdrasil as well. But the Allfather forbade any attempts.
“Him and Völund Smith, actually.” Eric massaged his temple. “They didn’t tell much, but going by them, the CEO’s the kinda guy who could go either world savior or supervillain. And before you ask, they didn’t tell me what he looks like either.”
“Well, we're gonna see his face today. Maybe we should take a photo and reveal it to the press? We would make good money.”
“Are you crazy? That would be a death sentence. Do you know how many fanatics I had to deal with during that mission? I swear. People would rather accept a doctor performing abortions.”
Ragna made big eyes. “Seriously? Like at least with abortions, I get where people are coming from, but this?”
“It was a fucking headache. Second worst mission I ever had.”
While void theory led to several accomplishments like matter teleporters or the digitization of Mana, it also led to the Mana Bomb, and more religious conservative people saw it as defiling god’s territory. Some had decided that void theory pioneers deserved death, and people like Elvex had to hide their identity from the public.
“Only second worst? What could be –“ Ragna stopped herself and looked away. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”
Eric blew his nose and frowned. “So, you know?”
Ragna nodded and looked at him. “Your name sounded familiar, so I muggled for cadets with the surname Mort. And I found your brother. When I saw his face, I remembered.”
Eric arched his eyebrow. “Remembered what?”
“Did you know that Valkyries also have command over platoons? My father commanded your brother’s platoon. When my mother died, my father succumbed to depression. Your brother and his comrades visited him to get him back on his feet. I only saw his face once, but they seemed close.”
Eric widened his eyes. “So, your father and my brother…”
“I should have told you sooner. I was afraid that you could hold my father or me responsible for his death and leave.” Ragna shook her head. “I’m sorry. That was selfish of me. I can’t imagine that your brother could’ve betrayed Midgard. There has to be a logical explanation.” She put her fist before her chest. “By the honor of my family, I swear that I’ll help you find out that secret. My father must know something, and we’ll get it out of him.”
So, there was a connection between Ragna and him. No, not just him. Drake Griffin, his brother, Altera’s mission, the war, the assassination: It all seemed to connect. He stumbled upon the one girl who could deliver him clues to his brother. This mission had become his too. Was it a coincidence that Altera and Ragna happened to fall in the Rising Forest and land in the same cell as him? His two goals had been to learn about Aes’ history and his brother’s motivation. In the few days since he had joined these two girls, he had found out more than he would have after a decade on his own. That the three of them met and banded together had to be fate. Twice must have spun a red string that would bring them to their destination.
“Hmmh?” He looked at Ragna and chuckled. “It’s just…I can’t believe that you muggled my ass. What is this? A date?”
“Do you want us…to date?” Ragna stepped forward, and with her face, she leaned towards Eric. Her eyes brimmed in an electric light that her black eyeliner pronounced. They were like blue islands amidst a sea of darkness.
Was Ragna serious, or was she joking? He couldn’t tell with her. It wasn’t like he had never entertained the possibility. Ragna drew others to her, and she was gorgeous. But could they work out with their personalities? How would that go? They would start dating and, eventually, a family. Maybe with two kids. Now that he thought about it, it didn’t sound too bad.
“Just kidding.” Before Eric could open his mouth again, Ragna pulled out her tongue and performed a pirouette. “You’re kinda hot, but I don’t think we would work out.”
Eric grinned and, clicking his tongue, shook his head. “You know that Eric Junior would be disappointed.”
Ragna laughed. “It’s cute that you think that you would decide our children’s names. But we should concentrate on the task. What do you say? Trying to invade the building from above would be a good start. You could use your Fylgja to bring us up.”
“Can’t do.” A line of blood dropped from Eric’s hand to the ground. It slithered towards the building, crawled up the windows, and reached the roof's edge.
“Looks good to me.”
Eric raised his pointy finger, and a shot emerged. Glass shattered, blood splattered, and the shards rained down. A red dome manifested around Eric and Ragna. The shrapnel dropped into the blood's surface and stopped moving, their points sticking out of the substance.
“It’s a glass building. Everyone inside can see us if we try to climb up. As huge as that building is, someone would notice us eventually. Besides, I can’t carry the two of us that high. The rope would tear, and we would become salsa.
“I wish my gravity manipulator would work.” Ragna raised her left hand and held the wisteria-colored glove in front of Eric’s eyes. “I don’t get it. I feel that the glove connects with my soul. It should be working, but when I activate it, nothing happens.”
“Honestly, I still can’t believe that a rookie like you got something so broken. You’re a level one rouge with a level 90 weapon.”
“If you wanna complain, go to that schmuck who lost it to my mother. Their grave ought to be somewhere in Vaix. “Ragna stretched her arms and cracked her neck. “Since we can’t go up, we try out the normal way. The front door it is, then.”
Eric peeked through the glass door on the other side of the street.
From their vantage point, it didn’t seem that clearing the ground floor should be an issue. The only person in the entrance hall was the receptionist who stood behind her desk. None of Elvax’s soldiers patrolled the floor.
“Still, she could raise the alarm if we try to go all bazooka here.”
Ragna nodded. “And we still would have to go all the way up.”
“I think I know how to get us to the top floor.” Eric adjusted his hat. “No idea how to deal with the soldiers there, but as long as we don’t have bad luck, we should be fine.”
Ragna snickered. “Since when are you so optimistic?”
“Dunno. I feel like it.”
The glass door slid open, and Ragna entered the building.
Plotted plants decorated the floor's six corners, and the walls displayed a sequence of figures marching a parade. An ape followed two ape-like humanoids walking progressively straighter. Then, a man carried a spear. After him, a modern human walked alongside a tiny robot. A Valkyrie beat its wings while an android continued the march, and the sequence ended with an android flying.
Ragna rolled her eyes. Besides the delusion that machines could overturn humans or achieve transcendence, the artist had misunderstood how evolution worked. It wasn’t a linear progression of events towards a goal. Alternatives branched out and co-existed.
At the hexagon’s center, a fountain spat out liquid bullets. They hopped into the air and splashed into the water before they started to jump again like a juggle play.
Ragna walked to the receptionist. Her heels echoed over the glass floor and created alongside the bullets leaving and entering the water, the only sound within the room.
The receptionist stood behind a platinum desk in the left corner of the room. She wore a striped navy-blue blazer and a champagne-colored silk blouse with a cravat that reached her rips. Going by her face, she would be around 25 years old. In the room's right corner was a door that led to the staircase and the emergency exit, and between the reception desk and the stairs was the elevator facing the entrance.
If they wanted to progress further and clear the level, they had to get behind the doors.
Ragna put on a smile and folded her hands over the desk. “Good evening.”
“Good evening, Madam.” The receptionist smiled as well. “How may I help you?”
“I am here for an appointment with Mr. Elvax. It is in about five minutes.”
“I understand. Can you please give me your name so that I can check his schedule?” The receptionist slid her finger on her tablet.
“Of course. The name should be Frida Sieg.”
“Okay. One moment please.” The receptionist tapped the screen multiple times. She scrolled the list down and up and looked back at Ragna. “I am sorry, madam. But I couldn’t find your name on Mr. Elvex’s schedule.”
“Can you please look again and search for my initials? Mr. Elvex might have abbreviated my name.”
“Of course, let me check...I am sorry, but I can’t find your name.”
Ragna crossed her arms and pressed her fingers against her chin. “That is strange. He wrote me multiple times that we should meet at this exact time. I can show you.” She pulled out her phone and pretended with her finger to scroll down. “I have the messages right here…”
The woman shook her head. “I am sorry, madam. But I can’t let you in without an appointment.”
Ragna sighed. “You are right.” With a smile, she leaned closer. “You are doing your job.” She put her hands on top of the receptionist’s and deepened her voice to the sweetest tone she could produce. “I couldn’t in good consciousness risk getting you fired for my own benefits. That you don't allow me in shows that you are doing a wonderful job.”
“I...I…” the receptionist stammered.
Ragna raised the woman’s hands and put her own under hers. Her fingers caressed the receptionist's palms. “If I may ask, what is your name?”
“Gióng.” She straightened her back and started to blush. “Eh Thánh Gióng”
“Ah. What a beautiful name. It fits you, Thánh. I will discuss a new appointment with Mr. Elvex, then. And I will make sure to mention your wonderful work ethic.” Ragna leaned in with her face and kissed Thánh’s ring finger.”
“A token of my gratitude.” Ragna removed her hand. “It was lovely meeting you, Thánh. I hope we will see each other again. Next time.”
Swinging her hips, Ragna walked away and left the building. Outside, she turned around and crossed the street where Eric was leaning against the lamp post.
“How did it go?” Ragna asked.
“All’s clear. Now, we just have to wait a few minutes.”
Ragna put her thumbs up. “So, anything you wanna talk about?”
Eric hawked. “Well, there’s actually something.” He looked away, his words turned into gibberish, and he fumbled his thumbs. “Ah, forget it, it wasn’t –“
Ragna groaned. “Dude, just spit it out.”
Ragna looked at him aghast and threw her hands in the air. “Is this tower messing with your brains, or am I the only adult here?”
“Well…I’m…Well…It’s…It’s about your…”
“I’m pretty sure you changed the topic, but fine. If you wanna know about my period, just ask.”
Eric grimaced. “You think any guy wants to know about that?”
“Then, don’t bring it up.”
“Unbelievable…” Ragna counted to five and opened her mouth again. “But if you must know, I had my period while you cleared the level. And Altera probably too.”
“Ah.” Eric grinned. “So, we were all bleedin.”
Without wasting a second or saying a word, Ragna rammed her elbow into Eric’s rib cage.
Eric winced. He groaned and pressed his hand against his rips.
“You deserved that.” With her hand, Ragna flipped her twin tails. “Anyway, how long till it activates?”
“Just give it a few moments.”
The crimson Naudiz rune on Ragna’s nape flared up, and the buildings disappeared from their sight.
To muggle someone: To search someone online. The phrase is named after the most used online search engine in Aes: Muggle