New York City

Noriko Null is standing on the roof of her skyscraper, looking at the sun disappearing below the horizon. The city looks just fine, showing no effects of the invasion. But she can feel something, buzzing just below the collective consciousness that is the constant background noise of her life.

Humanity is feeling uneasy. Despite all attempts to carry on with their lives as if nothing happened, people know this isn’t the world they knew before the Scribe’s arrival.

They saw proof that aliens exist, proof that they interfered with human history, proof that their power makes them formidable opponents. And proof that a twenty year old Asian-American girl wields technology that makes her vastly superior to anyone they know.

Noriko sighs. It’s cold up here; she zips up her green leather jacket, standing on the corner of Null Tower. On top of the world, unchallenged and unchallengeable.

With Leiko gone, no one on Earth comes close to being a threat to her. But she knows that, as much as the invasion was scary, there’s infinitely worse things out there… things that the general public isn’t ready to know.

She has something in her hand. A golden necklace, with a pendant showing a lightning bolt inside a cog. She has to say just a word to activate it:

-Athena.

The answer comes very quickly. The necklace projects the holographic projection of a goddess, the luminous shadow of a being on the other side of the galaxy.

Noriko. One doesn’t have to be the Goddess of Wisdom to know the reason for this call.

-And I’m not surprised to know that news of the Guild’s fate reached your Federation, Athena.

When one of the Galaxy’s oldest and most powerful organizations vanishes overnight, I make it a point of learning everything about it. Regretfully, there are many details still missing, and I would appreciate it if you could fill the gaps. But to tell you the truth, I expected this call weeks ago.

-Has there ever been a point in your life when your every word wasn’t just a lie or a half-truth?

Those are harsh words, Noriko. I have never lied to you.

-You think I’m stupid? – Noriko asks, her silver eyes shining. Athena doesn’t budge.

You never asked me about the Scribe’s origin. And if you recall, I did tell you that I had experience with the Nexus. Don’t let your newfound peace of mind fool you: I am your closest divine ally.

-And yet you lie again. You just said that you don’t know all the details, but you know that I used the Heart to fix my brain, don’t you? What else do you know?

I know your use of Drylon technology is increasingly reckless. The Nexus and the Palladium came too close to fall into the wrong hands, and the Heart Of The Universe and the Scarab are now lost.

-I won’t take lessons from someone who allied herself with a madman like the Scribe.

Anger clouds your reasoning again, Noriko. Do you not remember your own alliance with him?

-Void was his ally, not me. I want to believe that your heart is the right place, Athena, and I know that I have a debt of gratitude towards you for activating the Nexus. But I have worked hard and sacrificed a lot to be where I am today. If you want our alliance to continue, you will stop treating me like a child and be honest with me. Remember…

There’s a loud thunder above the Tower, coinciding with Noriko’s eyes shining brightly.

-…I am still the Slayer of Gods.

Athena hesitates before giving her response. Whether she feels intimidated or if she’s just weighing her words carefully, the difference from her usual composure is striking.

Be careful, my child. Your power may rival some gods, but remember: being at the top of your class means being at the bottom of the next.

-The heck’s that supposed to mean?

You’ll find out. Enjoy ruling this world; the rest of the galaxy will not be so tame.

The hologram disappears, leaving Noriko Null with a lot of questions and a planet to fix.

 

A secret government facility

Kayla Black feels uncomfortable. Not because she’s the only person in the room wearing a superhero costume, while all the other people are either wearing business suits or military uniforms. It’s because of the images projected on the wall while a scientist is providing the details of the autopsy of Scarab: Kayla may have fought her as Blue Star, but she didn’t want to see her internal organs displayed in detail.

-The subject lacks the appendix, has a second gallbladder, unusually high bone density and a vestigial nictitating membrane, also known as a third eyelid. And of course, as you can see, the uterus has been surgically removed to connect her ovaries to the alien device – he explains calmly, pointing at the bronze scarab that used to be on her navel, now shown with all the wires that were previously hidden beneath her skin.

-You haven’t answered my question, doctor. Was she an alien? – General Anderson asks him.

-No. But she wasn’t human either: while we initially thought of her as being of Arabian descent, genetic testing shows she belonged to a different species.

-Another species? You mean, like a Neanderthal or something? – Kayla asks.

-She’s not Homo Sapiens, no. But while we share about 99.5% of our DNA with Homo Neanderthalensis, we share only 97% with hers. It’s difficult to be precise, but our last common ancestor would have lived between 600,000 and 1 million year ago. This is consistent with what Eris told us during her captivity: the galaxy is populated by the descendants of early humans, transported to other planets by aliens that they considered gods.

-What about the device? Is it still functioning? – the General asks.

-No sir, it is completely inert. There are some similarities with the Heart Of The Universe, but it appears that its internal circuitry has been fused together. Based on Blue Star’s testimony, we believe “Scarab” died as soon as the device stopped functioning.

-It was the same energy that fixed the city. I’m sure of it – Kayla states.

-However, as much as we were able to learn from “Scarab”, her colleague is proving a more interesting case – the scientist continues, switching to the next pictures: the charred black body of a woman burned alive, and a naked woman with blue hair and perfectly smooth skin laying motionless on an operating table.

-The image of the left shows the subject known as “Naiad” after the fight with Red Star and White Star: third degree burns over her entire body. The image on the right is from the following morning.

-I wasn’t told she was still alive – the General laments.

-She isn’t… we think. She’s not breathing, her heart’s not beating, and she’s not responding to stimuli. However, she’s not showing any other signs of death: she should be well past rigor mortis, but she’s not even gone through algor mortis… she’s not even cold. According to what we know about biology, this shouldn’t be possible.

-This isn’t happening to Scarab? – another suit asks.

-No, because as different from us as she was, Scarab was still undeniably human. Naiad… we don’t even have a word for her kind of lifeform. She’s anatomically human, but many organs seem to have never been used… she either didn’t need to eat and drink, or could live several years without it.

-What about genetics? If we share 97% of our DNA with Scarab, what about Naiad?

-Zero percent, because she doesn’t have DNA. Her cells are completely alien: they superficially resemble human cells, but they’re unlike anything we’ve ever seen. How they’re able to function is well beyond our current understanding, just like the source of her water powers… or the reason for her death.

-Wasn’t she burned alive? – Kayla asks.

-And all the damage was repaired in a matter of hours. As far as we can tell, there’s no reason a lifeform like this couldn’t live forever.

-The real question is: what are we going to do the next time someone like her comes and we haven’t figured out a way to stop her? – General Anderson asks.

 

Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

Shinobu Tanaka has lived in the shadows for so long that nobody knows his weaknesses, but it’s a double edged sword: nobody can respect his strengths. When he enters the room of his family’s villa, with a breathtaking view of Mount Fuji, he’s confronted with what most people would consider a scary sight: the leaders of the most powerful Yakuza families are waiting for him. One of them, a very old man whose eyes have seen the worst humanity has to offer, is the first to comment.

-How the mighty Tanaka clan has fallen. First a woman, now the bastard son of a drug addict.

-I remember your dismissal of Leiko at the time of her rise to power. She was skeptical that the death of your grandchildren would teach you humility, and I see that she was right – Shinobu is quick to answer, and his stare is as harsh as his words.

-You aunt had political influence, errand boy. You may have her money, but without her power…

-Now that’s funny! – a voice interrupts him.

A Westerner man enters the room, laughing. He’s wearing Westerner clothes, but his shirt is open to show off his perfect abs. Two scantily clad women are holding his arms, laughing with him.

-You guys actually think you know what power is. How cute!

-You brought a foreigner to this meeting!? – another Yakuza leader protests.

-I am not as lenient as my aunt. Swear allegiance to me, or you will die tonight – Shinobu offers, as calm and collected as always. The exact opposite of the Yakuza’s reaction.

-You think you can insult us like this!? You have nothing against us!!!

-I have Hermes.

-Excuse me, ladies – the Westerner says; as soon as the two women let him go, he snaps his fingers.

For the Yakuza leaders there are two instantaneous changes. One, Mount Fuji is replaced by Olympus Mons. Two, they can’t breathe because they’re now on Mars.

Hermes looks at the beautiful red sky, ignoring the people asphyxiating around him, and he sighs.

-I always liked this place. I need to fix it up a bit when I have time – he muses.

He’s back in Japan a microsecond later, taking off his jacket now covered in Martian dust.

-Done. I may end up appreciating this alliance, Black Knight, you know?

-I trust you will keep your end of the bargain. Keep Null out of my sight, and I will provide you with a base of operations here on Earth.

-You won’t have to worry about your sexy cousin, believe me. And since I need to keep a low profile for a while, what better place that the only planet in the galaxy that is both protected by the Palladium and by the fearsome reputation of the Slayer of Gods?

-Just remember how my family deals with betrayal, and our experience with treacherous gods.

-You’re my host, Black Knight, and my family respects hospitality above all else. Now, if you’ll excuse me, these lovely ladies must help me get rid of all the sand over my clothes – Hermes says, disappearing in the blink of an eye with the two prostitutes.

Shinobu is left alone, wondering how his aunt would react to his rapid rise to power.

 

In the cold

Leiko Tanaka doesn’t know how long it’s been. When was the last time she felt the warmth of the Sun on her skin? When was the last time she ate something that wasn’t snapped from frozen carcass? When was the last time she felt anything that wasn’t coldness?

The snow reaches her knees, and it’s so thick it’s like walking through molasses. She can’t feel her feet, or the tip of her fingers, and it’s hard to keep her eyes open: there are icicles on her eyelashes.

Something roars. Camouflaged in the snow, it casts a large shadow over Leiko; it looks like a white bear, but it’s twice the size of an elephant. She looks at it in the eye.

-Go ahead. Take your best shot – she taunts it. If this is her death, she will be defiant until the end.

The bear lifts its gigantic paw, but doesn’t strike: a javelin made of ice pierces its heart, and it falls.

Leiko loses her balance and falls in the snow, sinking. She doesn’t have the strength to rise on her own, but the snow moves of its own will and lifts her until she can look at the man in front of her.

The only thing colder than her heart is his blue armor.

This is not your time to die, woman. The Winter King has plans for you.



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