The bed is uncomfortable, and Noriko Null soon finds out she can’t move. Her eyes take a few seconds to adjust to the brightness, and when they do the first thing she sees is her mother’s face.

-You look good, Noriko. Despite a few… shortcomings – Leiko says, passing one hand through Noriko’s hair and the other one caressing what’s left of her amputated arm. Noriko feels a shiver through her whole body, not just for her touch but because it’s freezing cold and she’s in her underwear, immobilized by leather straps. She tries to call for help, but the Neural Transmitter isn’t working and she can’t feel the connection to any of her technology.

-I exiled you into space. How did you survive? How did you kidnap me? – she asks.

-The Winter King was kind enough, or naïve enough, to take me as his trusted advisor. As for the reason you’re here at my mercy, I had some help from the inside – Leiko reveals, signaling another person in the room to get close enough to let Noriko see him: it’s her date, Yong-Su Kim.

You. How did you get past my security clearance!? – she asks, her silver eyes shining in anger.

-Only three members of the Empire of Shadows ever contacted Kim, not enough to be picked up by your abilities. As for him not showing any external signs of having ulterior motives, I believe you are familiar with the concept of hypnotic commands? Kim didn’t even remember he worked for me until I gave him the order to kidnap you – Leiko calmly explains, while her hand still caresses Noriko’s body and stops just below the navel. Noriko feels like throwing up right now.

-Why keep me alive? You’ll never get a better chance of killing me.

-I still have a use for you. When I kill you in front of billions of your believers, I’ll convince them that I am a goddess. But that doesn’t mean I can’t even up the score – Leiko explains, lifting up her shirt to show the scars on her abdomen, right below her bellybutton.

-Remember when you did this to me? You made sure I would never have children again.

-That wasn’t me. Abyss was in control of my body; she wanted to kill you and I stopped her.

-We all have our regrets – Leiko comments, joined by the third and last person in the room: a Lampyrian woman who hands her a scalpel.

-This will hurt. But be thankful that you’ll never suffer the pain of childbirth – Leiko tells her, lowering the scalpel dangerously close to her abdomen until a blue hand stops her.

-That’s enough – the Lampyrian woman tells Leiko before punching her in the face.

Yong-Su Kim jumps at her, but she’s fast: she uses his momentum to throw him off balance, using something that looks like judo. Without missing a single second, she takes the scalpel and uses it to cut Noriko’s restrains.

-I’m Lily of the Blue Rose. We have to get out of here! – she tells her.

-Yeah, no kidding – Noriko responds, jumping off the bed only to see Yong-Su get back up again and pull out a gun. At this distance he can’t possibly miss.

-SOUL DISTRUPTION!!! – Noriko shouts, her eyes crackling with electricity.

Everyone in the room feels a sudden migraine, but Leiko and Yong-Su are the main targets: they can’t move a single muscle, writhing in pain while Noriko takes the gun and tosses it to Lily.

-You know a way out of this place? – she asks her.

-Y-yes, there’s a teleporter on this deck. What was that!?

-A trick I learned from Viper. It’s a toned down version, it won’t keep them down for long.

-Why didn’t you do that before?

-Look, I panicked, okay!? Now let’s go!!! – Noriko tells her, and both run out of the room.

Very soon, Yong-Su is helping Leiko get back up. She pushes him away.

-Get. Her – she orders, breathing through her teeth.

The man runs to follow Noriko, while Leiko catches her breath and takes an object out of her pockets: the Black Box.

-Run all you want, Noriko. I’ve already won.

 

Mediterranean Sea, near the costs of Egypt

The Winter King is angry. He wasn’t met with the respect owed to a monarch, he was utterly ignored by Null, and the locals had the audacity to attack him on sight.

He blocks a punch from Vesta, grabbing her by the hair and pushing her under the water, helped by the large block of ice he created above her head. He’s standing on an ice block floating above the sea; as soon as he’s pushed Vesta under, he lowers the temperature to the point of freezing the sea.

He takes a moment to rest. The warships can’t navigate the frozen waters, so those that weren’t destroyed by his ice serpents are stuck; and the blizzard surrounding him makes any sort of attack from the air impossible. Still, somebody is still willing to fight: Quantum appears before him, holding in his hands a shining sword similar to a katana.

-Alright, that’s enough. What do you even want from us?

I came here for the hand of Noriko Null. However, now that I have discovered that this planet is hiding ancient Lar technology, honor dictates that I annex Earth to my kingdom.

-You have a weird-a## concept of honor.

Do you plan to defeat me with a simple blade?

-You know this thing killed a Primordial Goddess, right? I bet it can handle a creep like you.

The Heaven-Slayer is a formidable weapon in the hands of Null, yes. Do you know how to access its full power?

-It’s a sword. I’m not as smart as she is, but I think I can figure it out.

Very well. The Winter King accepts your challenge – he declares, creating a sword of ice for each hand and charging towards Quantum. He’s surprisingly quick for a man in a full-body armor, but Quantum is still able to parry: both ice swords shatter once they touch the Heaven-Slayer.

What… how is this possible!?

-Dude, this is a god-killing sword, and you’re using ice – Quantum mocks him, taking a swing. He has no idea of what he’s doing, since this is the first time in his life he wields a sword, but the Winter King steps back to clumsily avoid his attacks. He creates a wall of ice to protect himself, but Quantum is easily able to cut through it as soon as it forms.

-What’s the matter, you ran out of tricks? Maybe you’re not as hot as you thought you were? – he keeps teasing him, avoiding an ice javelin by transforming into energy for a split second and moving in close enough to hit him.

The Heaven-Slayer slices through the Neutral Matter like it was butter. Quantum has no experience in swordfight and no clue about Lar physiology, so it’s no surprise that he only manages a superficial wound… but still, there’s a thick black substance on the blade.

You… you dare to hurt the Winter King? – he asks, inspecting the wound: his blood looks more like motor oil than human blood, but he’s clearly bleeding through the armor.

-Yep. Just be glad she doesn’t have the sword – he answers, trying to keep his balance as the ice sheet they’re standing on starts to shake violently.

Something emerges from beneath the ice, accompanied by a geyser of extremely hot water vapor. Vesta floats above the Winter King, her body surrounded by blindingly red plasma.

It was cold down there. I HATE feeling cold.

-Well, Your Majesty? Ready to give up? – Quantum asks, while Vesta gets closer and closer.

I admit, you are honorable fighters. But I am the last of the Lar monarchs, heir of a dynasty that goes back a billion years: I will NEVER admit defeat – the Winter King insists, and his armor starts to glow while surrounded by bolts of electricity.

Nothing can withstand the power of this armor. This is your last chance to avoid my wrath.

-Get him! – Quantum tells Vesta, and both charge towards the Winter King.

ENDLESS WINTER!!! – the alien shouts, emanating a wave of absolute coldness.

It’s completely different from everything else he’s done before: Quantum can’t stay in human form for more than a second, feeling that his blood would freeze otherwise. Vesta isn’t doing much better: her flames are being pushed back, her skin is covered in ice particles, and it’s taking all of her willpower to slowly walk towards the Winter King. She can feel the skin of her bare feet are getting frostbite for the contact with the ice beneath her.

-Can’t… freeze… me – she struggles to say, with the air inside her lungs being frozen solid.

I can. I am the Winter King – he boasts, placing his hand on her shoulder.

His armor returns to its natural state. Vesta is now immobilized in a statue of white ice that reflects all light that comes in contact with it, covering her completely. The Mediterranean Sea is frozen solid, it’s snowing as far as the eye can see, and there isn’t a single living soul in sight.

And Earth is now part of the Winter Kingdom.

 

Inside the Winter King’s capital ship

The Lar soldiers inside the room are quick to reach for their laser weapons, but Lily is faster: she shoots the first one with the gun she took from Yong-Su, then disarms the second one by pushing him using her wings. Noriko Null doesn’t pay much attention to her: she jumps over the workstation and goes straight to the console. She could use the exercise to warm up a little bit: she’s in her underwear and it’s below zero.

-They sounded the alarm. Do you even know how to use a teleporter? – Lily asks her, knocking the second soldier unconscious and stealing his weapon.

-It’d be easier if I could use both hands. Gimme a minute – Noriko answers, frantically typing on the console with her right hand.

-We don’t have a minute! – Lily tells her, dodging the laser shots coming from the hallway. Yong-Su Kim and two Lar soldiers are running towards them, and Lily is too far away from the panel she needs to access to close down the entrance door. Worse, the human gun has one bullet left.

-How much time do you need!? – she complains, providing some cover fire.

-Don’t rush me. I’ve done this before – Noriko answers, keeping her cool.

-That’s reassuring – Lily jokes, removing the laser gun’s magazine and tossing it towards the hallway: she aims at it with the human gun and fires at it. The resulting explosion takes care of the Lar, but Yong-Su was a little too fast and he’s able to jump at her.

-I’m done. Hold tight – Noriko warns her, activating the teleporter while Lily and Yong-Su are still wrestling with each other.

 

Null Tower, New York City

There’s a sudden flash of light in front of the skyscraper. Lily doesn’t immediately realize what just happened, especially since Yong-Su is holding his hands on her throat, but they’re freefalling.

-A little help here!? – she hears Noriko shout: they’ll both hit the ground in a few seconds.

Lily scratches Yong-Su’s face with her nails, forcing him to let go. She pushes him away, then spreads her wings and flies as fast as she can towards Noriko.

She manages to catch her; her Lampyrian wings aren’t normally strong enough to let her carry someone, but Noriko doesn’t weight much for a human.

Her heart is beating so fast that Lily can feel it through her skin; she prefers not to watch Yong-Su plummet to his death, but she hears him screaming all the way until he violently hits the street.

-Nice catch. Can you take me to the roof? – Noriko asks her.

-I think so. Sorry I could not save him; did you know him?

-Yeah. That was my date.

-I hope you don’t get out often – Lily answers, unsure if that was a joke.

-Thank you for saving me. I have a lot of questions, but they’ll have to wait.

-I have a question too… why didn’t you teleport us inside the building?

-I didn’t have time to delete the coordinates from the system, meaning they’re bound to follow us; I had to improvise – Noriko explains.

Lily slowly flies upwards, and she quickly understands what she means: there are other multiple flashes of light, teleporting other Lar soldiers to the same spot where they appeared.

None of them has wings, and one after the other they suffer the same fate of Yong-Su.

Noriko is horrified at her disappointment of not finding her mother among those who are falling to their deaths.



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