Disclaimer: The following is from a new version of Nova’s Blade I wrote. It is different in many ways significantly from the original Nova’s Blade. This is not the same one as the one that I already published on Amazon.
Will Scifi Word count: around 90,000
By Will Scifi
Showered in a cascade of confetti, the ecstatic cheers reverberate through the vast arena. Seraphine, battered and bruised, stands in the center of the oval-shaped ring. Blood streams from her broken nose, her arm slashed and wounded. She triumphantly raises the severed head of her fallen adversary, its eyes and mouth still gaping in horrified surprise at the moment of its demise. In her other hand, she brandishes her bloodied sword, a symbol of her victory.
A holographic image of Seraphine materializes in midair, emblazoned with the word ‘WINNER.’ Reporters swarm the ring, their camera flashes illuminating the scene. Hannibal Blackwood, the charismatic host, enters the ring with a broad grin, revealing his immaculate white teeth. His perfectly styled toupee and aqua blue suit with an orange tie complete his flashy appearance. He grasps the severed head by its hair, swinging it before tossing it into the frenzied crowd, eliciting even more raucous cheers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the valiant victor and the 74th champion of Last Valkyrie, Seraphine!” Hannibal proclaims.
Davion Omega, a tall, statuesque man with a lean physique, boasting alluring features that naturally draw attention, joins Seraphine in the ring, carrying a bouquet of flowers. Their eyes meet, and a spark of understanding passes between them.
“Seraphine, now that you’ve earned your place beside this dashing gentleman as a member of the prestigious 5 families, what do you have to say?” Hannibal inquires.
The crowd hushes, anticipation hanging in the air. Seraphine and Davion continue to gaze into each other’s eyes before Seraphine abruptly wraps her arms around Davion’s face and pulls him into a passionate kiss. The arena erupts once more, applause and cheers shaking its very foundation. Hannibal moves closer to the camera, his expression captivating as the two lovers remain locked in their embrace.
“Behold, ladies, this could be your fate if you cease your games and strive for victory. So rise to the challenge, for this is a love truly worth killing for!”
1 Year Later – 2175
Nova’s feet pound against the treadmill, her face and afro glistening with sweat as she breathes quietly. On the television, a news report shows a woman rushing into her home, shielding her face from the flashing cameras of reporters. The headline reads, “Journalist Eve Clapper Released by Hades Legion After Company Paid Ransom.”
Wearing her paramedic uniform, Nova stands in a long line, her head bowed. She moves forward in sync with the other paramedics. At the front of the line, a black orb embedded in the wall scans each worker, blinking green and chiming as it approves them for duty.
“You are fit to work!” the orb exclaims.
As the paramedics pass, they each drop an envelope into a ballot box marked ‘vote.’ All except Nova. When her turn arrives, the orb scans her and emits a harsh sound, blinking red.
“I’m sorry,” the orb says sadly. “Based on your chemical readings, you are not emotionally fit to work. Please try again in ten minutes.”
Giggles ripple through the line of paramedics behind her. Frustrated, Nova stomps away and purchases a vaping pen from a nearby vending machine. Inhaling deeply, she closes her eyes and tries to find her center.
The orb scans Nova again as she stands expressionless. This time, it chimes and blinks green.
“You are fit to work!”
Torin, also dressed as a paramedic, approaches her.
“Are you alright?” he asks, concern in his voice.
Nova meets his hazel gaze and smiles.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Torin hesitates before nodding, and they head out together.
Nova pilots the hovering ambulance, with Torin in the passenger seat. Ahead, a line of police in riot gear faces a crowd of angry protesters.
“We should join them sometime,” Torin suggests. “Help them bring some change to the city.”
“I don’t have time to protest,” Nova replies. “I’ve got to make money.”
“But it could make a difference,” Torin insists.
The ambulance turns at the intersection, avoiding the police and protesters. A gunshot rings out, and a crowd gathers near a store. Nova activates the ambulance’s sirens.
“This is how we make a difference,” she says with determination.
As they disembark and weave through the throng, Torin calls out,
“Paramedics coming through!”
In the center of the crowd lies a man, blood seeping from his chest as he struggles to breathe. Bystanders film the scene. Nova scans him quickly, and the device turns red. The screen displays the man’s name, Marco, along with his face and the words: “SUBSCRIPTION ENDED 12 HOURS AGO”.
Torin approaches with a stretcher, and Nova stows the scanner on her belt before rushing to Marco’s side. She examines the bullet hole in his back.
“Did you scan him?” Torin asks.
“Yeah, he’s good to go,” Nova lies.
They lift him onto the stretcher, and Marco gasps,
“I can’t breathe. Am I going to die?”
“Just stay with me, Marco,” Nova urges, locking eyes with him.
A cop car descends from above, and two officers saunter into the crowd.
“First the protesters, now this,” one of them grumbles. “It’s too early in the morning.”
“Could be worse,” the other smirks. “We could be this guy.”
They chuckle heartlessly.
“No suspects so far,” Nova informs them. “The victim’s been shot.”
“Less work for us, more for the detective,” the second cop remarks.
The first cop scans Marco, and the scanner turns red.
“Did you forget to scan him? This guy isn’t going anywhere.”
“His subscription ended yesterday. Give him a break,” Nova pleads.
“Hey, buddy,” the first cop addresses Marco. “We can’t help you or go after whoever did this without you paying your subscription. Do you want to renew it?”
“I lost my job to AI,” Marco wheezes. “Give me a week to find another one, please.”
His face ashen, Marco trembles and coughs up blood.
“Sorry, pal,” the second cop says coldly. “Should have thought about that before you decided not to pay your dues.”
Nova tries to move the stretcher forward, but the cops block her way, their hands hovering over their guns.
“You’re not taking him anywhere except the morgue!” the second cop barks. “Let him go before you cost our company.”
Nova hesitates, gripping the stretcher tightly.
“Can a few people cover this man?” Torin calls out to the crowd. “I’ll take the charge as well.”
But no one in the crowd moves. Nova frowns at Marco.
“Please don’t let me die,” he begs, tears streaming down his face.
With a heavy heart, Nova slowly loosens the straps on the stretcher.
“Here, let me help you with that,” the second cop says, yanking Marco off the stretcher.
“What’s your problem?!” Torin yells.
“You know what they say,” the second cop sneers. “‘If they ain’t our customer, they ain’t our problem.’ You feel me?”
The cops stroll away, laughing. Nova takes a step towards Marco, but Torin grabs her arm.
“Walk away, Nova. It’s not your fault.”
Marco trembles on the ground, and Nova can’t tear her eyes away from him.
In a high school classroom, the teacher speaks solemnly to the students. “Everyone, please be silent as we honor the victims of the Siege on Firestone Industries from twelve years ago.”
Faces appear on the television screen, including one with the name Leander. Gaia averts her eyes, and a fellow student smirks at her.
“Hey, freak,” the student taunts, “how are you celebrating your anniversary?”
The student and her friends laugh, while Gaia looks down, trying to ignore them.
Later, in art class, Gaia paints a portrait of a man. The teacher, impressed, praises her work.
“Gaia, that’s an excellent portrait!”
Gaia manages a small smile, her gaze focused on her painting.
“It’s just a picture of my dad.”
“It’s not just a picture,” the teacher insists. “You have great skills.”
“Thank you,” Gaia says softly. “I’m going to put it with flowers when I get home.”
The teacher walks away, leaving Gaia with her painting. The same student from before watches Gaia, her expression filled with disdain.
When the bell rings and students leave the classroom, the student deliberately shoves Gaia from behind. Gaia stumbles, dropping her painting and losing her glasses.
“Oops, sorry about that,” the student mocks as her friends snicker and a crowd of students gathers.
Gaia scrambles to find her glasses, but the student grabs her painting and tears it up, delighting the onlookers.
“Now it’s broken, just like your family!”
Enraged, Gaia leaps to her feet and punches the girl, and the two exchange blows as the crowd cheers them on.
Meanwhile, Torin and Nova leave a sandwich shop when Nova’s phone rings. She listens, her eyes widening in shock.
“She did what?!”
Back at the school, Gaia sits outside, fixing her necklace and putting on her glasses. There’s blood on her shirt, but her glasses are unscathed. A cat approaches and rubs against her leg. She pets it, and it purrs contentedly.
Nova and Torin pull up in a truck.
“Come on, we only have a few more minutes left for our break,” Nova urges.
Gaia climbs into the backseat, and she and Torin exchange smiles. Nova, however, is not amused.
“There’s nothing to smile about,” she scolds.
“She ripped up the painting I made for Dad and made fun of our family,” Gaia protests. “What was I supposed to do?”
“Professionally, tell a teacher. Personally, give her a beating,” Nova replies. “But you got caught.”
“Mom’s going to kill me,” Gaia sighs.
“She won’t find out as long as you come with me to work until you go back to school,” Nova reassures her. “She doesn’t need any more stress.”
“You got a lot of blood on you,” Torin observes.
“It’s not mine,” Gaia responds coldly.
Torin grins at Gaia.
“We got ourselves a fighter!”
Nova slaps his arm.
“Don’t encourage her.”
“What? You were a kid once too,” Torin laughs as they pull into the hospital.
“Stay in the hospital no matter what,” Nova instructs Gaia. “We’ll buy a painting from an automatic painter later on.”
Gaia slouches in a chair inside the hospital, watching the clock and tapping her foot impatiently. The hours pass, and Gaia checks her phone constantly. Finally, unable to wait any longer, she sighs and leaves the hospital.
Emerging from the store with a painting of her father cradled in her arms, Gaia navigates the busy streets, her head bowed. A masked figure, arms laden with clothes, collides with her before sprinting away. Unfazed, Gaia continues on, passing a homeless man sitting on the ground with a sign. She glances between him and a nearby grocery store.
Returning with a bag of food, Gaia approaches the homeless man, whose face lights up at the sight of her offering.
“Thank you so much, dear! God bless you!” he exclaims, gratefully accepting the food and departing. Moments later, a woman storms out of a store with her young son, casting a suspicious glare at Gaia.
“Hey, you! Stop! You stole my son’s phone!” she accuses.
“What?” Gaia stammers, taken aback.
“Don’t play dumb. You were nearby when my son’s phone went missing.”
Gaia shakes her head. “It wasn’t me.”
As Gaia tries to walk away, the woman blocks her path, refusing to let her pass.
“Mom, just leave it alone,” her son pleads.
“You’re not going anywhere until you return my son’s phone!”
Meanwhile, Nova and Torin are driving in an ambulance.
“Flint said he saw Seraphine at the nightclub a few days ago,” Torin mentions.
“Yeah right! He’s-.” Nova catches sight of the altercation between Gaia and the woman. “What did I tell her?!” She steers the vehicle toward them.
“Fine, if you don’t want to hand over his phone, let’s see what the police have to say about it,” the woman threatens.
Gaia’s hands tremble as Nova and Torin race over to intervene.
“Hey, what are you saying to my sister?” Nova demands.
“She’s a thief. She took my son’s phone,” the woman insists.
“I didn’t steal anything,” Gaia protests.
“My sister wouldn’t take your son’s phone. Call it and see,” Nova suggests.
The woman hesitates. “I… uh… I did, but I didn’t hear anything. She probably turned it off when she took it.”
“That’s convenient for your claim,” Torin retorts, rolling his eyes.
“You two weren’t here. I know what I’m talking about,” the woman snaps.
“Come on, Gaia. We’re leaving,” Nova says, guiding her sister away from the escalating situation.
But as they move to leave, the woman grabs Gaia’s arm, her voice rising. “You’re not going anywhere, you thief!”
In response, Nova’s fist connects with the woman’s face, sending her sprawling to the ground.
“Mom!” the boy cries out.
Blood pours from the woman’s nose as she gapes at them. “How dare you!?”
A store employee emerges, holding a phone. “Miss, your son forgot his phone!” he calls out.
Furious, the woman points at Nova and Gaia. “You made a big mistake, young lady! You and your sister!”
“Let’s go!” Nova orders to Gaia and Torin.
. As they make their escape in the ambulance, Gaia murmurs, “I didn’t take anything.”
“I don’t care! I told you to stay at the hospital!” Nova scolds.
“I just wanted to get Dad a vase,” Gaia explains, her voice small.
“I’m not hearing that! You already knew we were going to go after work!”
Nova shakes her head, and Gaia lowers hers. Torin pats Gaia’s shoulder, offering a silent comfort. Later, Nova finds herself seated in an office, facing her manager, who stands with a disapproving shake of his head.
“You assaulted a board member for a major company,” he informs her.
“She accused my sister of stealing her son’s phone and grabbed her,” Nova defends. “It turned out the phone was in the store the whole time.”
“Unfortunately, there are no marks on Gaia’s arm, but there’s blood on the lady’s nose. The police are siding with her,” the manager says.
“Is that the only reason they’re taking her side?” Nova challenges.
The manager pauses, sighing. “She wants both of you arrested, claiming Gaia told you to hit her.”
Nova shoots up from her chair, and the manager raises a hand to calm her. “You’re one of us, so we protected you from facing charges, but we can’t protect Gaia.”
“She can’t go to jail,” Nova gasps.
“I know. That’s why your other option is a month’s suspension without pay. The woman will back down if she sees there’s some punishment,” he explains.
“Are you serious?” Nova slams her fist on the desk. “This isn’t right, and you know it!”
“Hey! You know how it works around here. Money and power talk. I’m giving you a choice to decide what happens next.”
Outside the office, Torin waits in the hallway. Nova storms out, her uniform shirt discarded, revealing her t-shirt beneath. “I’m suspended for a month without pay!”
“Can they even do that?” Torin asks.
“Money and power talk,” Nova mocks bitterly. “Forget it. I’ll fight for you. We’ll talk to the others and organize a protest.”
“Save your energy. Don’t lose your job trying to unionize,” Nova advises.
Torin sighs, frustrated. “We shouldn’t let things just happen to us.”
“What can we do?” Nova asks, throwing her hands up.
As Nova walks away, she notices two women embracing and crying, a doctor standing solemnly beside them. She pauses to take in the scene, her heart heavy.
Gaia fidgets with the vase by the car, and Nova approaches her. “This is all my fault,” Gaia mumbles.
Nova pulls Gaia into a hug. “Blaming you won’t end my suspension.”
Gaia gasps, her eyes widening.
“I’ll figure it out. Let’s just get a plant for the vase and go see Dad,” Nova suggests, her arm draped over Gaia’s shoulders as they walk to the car together.
Gaia tenderly places the vase filled with a plant by a headstone, the name Leander etched into the stone. She leans her head on Nova’s shoulder as they stand together, silently paying their respects.
Later, Nova and Gaia drive toward a vast expanse of storage units, seemingly stretching on forever. They pull up to a series of connected units, and Gaia catches sight of the vaping pen peeking out from Nova’s pocket.
“I thought you quit,” Gaia comments, her voice tinged with concern.
Nova lowers her head, guilt flickering across her face. “I tried,” she admits.
Reaching over, Nova retrieves mail from the mailbox, noticing an envelope from ‘Firestone Industries.’ She rips it open, quickly scanning the letter before tossing it aside, revealing a check for a meager 600 dollars.
“Dad fought for that company, and all they can give us is 600 dollars for his service!” she exclaims, frustration evident in her tone.
The sisters enter a unit to find their mother, Atira, seated in a floating chair, an IV packet attached to her frail arm. Her hair is thin, her arms bony, and dark circles surround her eyes as she watches television. On the screen, Seraphine and Davion, a famous couple, are being interviewed on a late-night show. A recap plays, showcasing their charity work, visiting children in hospitals, building homes, and feeding animals. Nova rolls her eyes in disdain.
“Tell me you’re not watching that garbage,” Nova chides.
“They’re a fine couple. It’s okay to be happy for people,” Atira counters, defending her choice.
“Not those people,” Nova insists, but the sisters each hug their mother in greeting.
“So Gaia, why did you start going to your sister’s job after school now? What about your homework?” Atira asks, eyebrows raised.
“I… uh…” Gaia stammers, unsure of what to say.
“She’ll do it at the hospital,” Nova interjects, defending her sister. “She just wants a break for a few days.”
Atira smiles warmly. “If you step out of your comfort zone and socialize more, I’m sure you’d make a lot of friends.”
Gaia returns the smile, her gaze drifting to a pamphlet on the counter. It’s an advertisement for Bay Assisted Living, featuring images of droids caring for elderly patients who appear much happier and healthier than before.
“If I go there, I’ll get better faster,” Atira says, hope in her eyes. “My insurance won’t cover it, though. Would you be able to help with some of the cost?”
“Yeah… of course… I have the money,” Nova swallows, trying to sound confident.
“It’ll just be for three months,” Atira adds, attempting to alleviate her daughters’ concerns.
Nova and Gaia exchange nervous glances, and Nova forces a bright smile. “Don’t you worry about a thing,” she assures her mother, leaning in for a kiss. “I don’t know what I’d do without you two.”
“You’d be less stressed,” Nova jokes, her laughter filling the room. But as she retreats to her bedroom, her smile fades.
In her modest room, an unadorned bed, a tiny dresser, and a dusty bookshelf share the space. On the wall, a poster of a cartoon spaceship reaching for planets, with ‘Our Dream’ written beneath, adds a touch of color to the room.
Nova gazes through her open window while vaping, the Golden Gate Bridge a distant silhouette. As the vapor escapes her lips, she appears lost in thought, her eyes distant and unfocused. Suddenly, her attention is captured by a plane rising vertically, shooting towards the cosmos. Her eyes widen and a faint furrow forms on her brow as she follows its ascent, her fingers tracing the windowpane, her breath momentarily held. When the spacecraft finally disappears into space, she exhales, her shoulders sagging, and lowers her head before closing the window.
Clothes litter the floor, and Gaia’s open drawers reveal haphazard disarray. Her pink walls are decorated with drawings and posters. Clad in her underwear, Gaia carefully measures and packs bags of weed on her desk. Nova opens the door to her sister’s room.
“Hey, Gaia—” she starts, but halts abruptly. She moves closer to Gaia’s desk, observing the bags of weed. Gaia retreats into a corner, her voice trembling.
“It’s nothing. I just… I was going to sell it at school.”
“Why are you doing this?” Nova asks, her voice laced with concern.
“Mom needs help,” Gaia whispers.
“That’s my responsibility.”
“She’s my mom too. Plenty of students at my school do it, even a teacher.”
“You’re not like everyone else. Don’t waste your gifts.”
“My gifts don’t pay the bills,” Gaia sighs.
Nova wraps her arm around Gaia, her voice gentle. “They could one day.”
Gaia sighs as she tosses the weed to the ground. “What are you going to do now?” she asks her sister.
Nova sits at the table across from Fable, both nursing glasses of water. Fable’s short hair, nose ring, and tattoos, including the sun and moon on her neck, give her a fierce appearance.
“I’m sorry that you got suspended, but there’s nothing I can do for you,” Fable tells her.
“No work? No drugs to sell, no cars to boost, nothing anymore?” Nova asks, desperation creeping into her voice.
A little girl, Saylor, bursts into the room, her pajamas hanging loosely on her small frame, and several teeth missing from her grin. “Nova’s here!” she cheers, throwing her arms around Nova.
“You’re getting big on me. How old are you now, 25?” Nova teases.
“Five,” Saylor replies, proudly holding up five fingers.
“You should be in bed, Saylor,” Fable admonishes.
“I was trying to, but I heard Nova come in,” Saylor protests. Nova pulls out a stuffed bunny, which Saylor’s eyes widen at the sight of.
“Look what I brought you.”
“Really? I can have it?”
“Only if you go to bed,” Fable says, her voice softening. Saylor takes the bunny and dashes off to her room.
Fable’s expression turns somber. “I know your mom is really sick, but I can’t do any of that stuff anymore. Saylor needs me.”
“I understand. Thanks for the water,” Nova mumbles, heading toward the door. Fable’s gaze falls on a picture of her and Nova in graduation gowns and then drifts to the stack of overdue bills on the table.
“Wait!” Fable calls out. “I know a dealer with a lot of e-dope we can sell to Shed Court. We can go after I drop Saylor off at my sister’s.”
“You want to put more of that stuff on our streets?”
“It’s not going to stop, so don’t you want to help your mom?” Fable challenges. Nova hesitates before responding.
“We’re taking your car or mine?” she asks.
Nova and Fable sit in the car at an abandoned refinery, the tension palpable. Fable pulls out a pouch containing USB drives filled with different colored liquids. She inserts the red one into the USB port in her forearm, breathing heavily as her pupils dilate. She offers the pouch to Nova, who shakes her head and reveals a small scar on her forearm.
“I got my port removed years ago,” she admits.
“Good girl. Stay away from this stuff; it’ll kill you,” Fable chuckles, a hint of sadness in her eyes.
A black car with tinted windows pulls up, honking its horn. “That’s him,” Fable says, her voice wavering slightly. They walks towards the car, and a man in a suit steps out to meet them in the middle.
“Fable, my girl, wassup!” he greets her warmly.
As they extend their hands for a handshake, the air is suddenly pierced by the shrill whistle of a rocket. The car explodes, flames and debris flying in every direction. The man, his face a mix of shock and fear, wastes no time sprinting away from the wreckage.
“Oh my god, run!” Fable screams, her voice tight with panic.
Nova and Fable make a break for their car, but before they can reach it, another rocket soars through the air, obliterating the vehicle.
A white van screeches to a halt, blocking their escape. Figures clad in body armor and masks emerge, wielding cattle prods with menacing intent. In an instant, Fable and Nova are stunned, their world fading to black as they crumple to the ground, unconscious
Nova bolts upright, gasping for air. She finds herself in a stark white room, disoriented. The walls appear identical, and she wears a tight-fitting white jumpsuit. Panic rising, she pounds on each wall, her voice echoing through the space.
A wall slides open with a hiss, revealing a dim hallway filled with similarly dressed individuals, their faces etched with confusion and fear. Some bear bruises, while others exchange hushed words. Drawn to a distant light, they file into a vast, seatless auditorium, the stage and microphone the only furnishings.
Nova and Fable lock eyes, their expressions questioning. “What is this?” Fable murmurs.
“I don’t know,” Nova responds, scanning the room. “It’s just women here.”
A door near the stage swings open, and a stern woman with cropped black hair marches onto the stage, trailed by armed guards wielding assault rifles. She clears her throat.
“Excuse me,” the woman calls out, her voice barely audible above the murmurs and whispers filling the room.
Everyone continues talking, either ignoring her or not hearing her in the cacophony of voices.
“I said, excuse me!” she bellows, her voice cutting through the noise like a knife.
The room falls silent, every eye now fixed on her, as she commands their undivided attention.
“My name is Irma. You have been brought here to perform a series of tests. There are 150 of you. By the end, only 32 will remain. The rest of you will simply… vanish. Any questions?”
A woman scoffs her voice dripping with contempt. “What is this, a joke? A twisted game show? You’ll be hearing from my lawyer, you–”
Before she can finish, Irma’s gun rings out, and the woman crumples lifelessly to the floor. A collective gasp fills the room as the other women recoil in horror, some even stifling screams.
“Now it’s 149. Anyone else?”
The women remain silent, their faces pale, eyes wide with shock and disbelief. The atmosphere is thick with tension and unspoken terror.
The stage suddenly extends, stretching out into a vast expanse reminiscent of a football field. The enormity of the space only adds to the women’s growing unease, as they begin to understand the gravity of their situation.
“All you have to do is make it across, and you pass. Begin.” Irma instructs, now on the other side.
No one moves. A brave soul takes a step, only to be struck by an arrow in the throat. Arrows fly from the walls, striking down women as they sprint towards the stage. Blood and bodies litter the floor.
As Nova races across the blood-soaked floor, her heart pounds in her chest. Each leap and dodge feels like a ballet of death, her movements instinctive and desperate. A terrified woman nearby calls out for help, her plea cut short by an arrow that burrows into her skull. The sound of flesh and bone tearing haunts Nova’s ears.
Fable, ruthless in her determination to survive, shields herself with the bodies of others as she advances. She reaches the stage and stretches her hand out for Nova, her face a mix of determination and concern.
“Come on!” Fable yells, her voice cutting through the cacophony of screams and arrows.
Adrenaline surging through her veins, Nova leaps towards Fable’s outstretched hand, their fingers interlocking just in time. Together, they pull each other onto the stage, joining the remaining survivors who have managed to defy the lethal storm of arrows. The air is thick with fear, and the survivors share trembling breaths, their eyes reflecting the horror they’ve just endured.
The floor, once a battlefield of blood and arrows, has become a chilling graveyard littered with lifeless bodies. Suddenly, the walls slide open, and the floor shifts, dragging the corpses into the gaping darkness beyond. The stage lowers to the ground, and a section of the floor opens, unveiling a vast body of water. The once grisly scene has been replaced by a sterile, eerie emptiness.
“It’s time for the next test,” Irma announces coldly. “We’ll see how long you can hold your breath underwater. Do not come up until it’s time.”
A woman lies on the ground, her face contorted with pain and fear, an arrow embedded in her leg. “No, this isn’t happening. I can’t do this!” she cries.
Irma marches toward the injured woman, flanked by armed guards. “What is your problem?”
“I can’t do this! Please, just let me go home!” the woman begs.
“You better get up now, or I’m going to send you to a permanent home,” Irma threatens, her voice devoid of empathy.
“Please! This isn’t right,” the woman pleads. But Irma is unmoved and shoots her in the head. The survivors freeze, staring in shock and horror.
“I swear if you all aren’t in the pool in 10 seconds, I’ll send every last one of you to your ancestors!” Irma snarls.
With no choice but to comply, the remaining women dive into the pool. They submerge themselves, their lungs burning for air. One woman, unable to withstand the pressure, resurfaces, only to have her head sliced off by deadly lasers. Nova swims to the bottom, seeking refuge in a shadowy corner. Some women, their bodies pushed to the brink, lose consciousness. They float to the surface, only to be dismembered by the merciless lasers.
As the moments stretch on, Nova’s vision begins to blur. Blood trickles from her nose, and her eyelids grow heavy. Suddenly, the floor rises, pushing the water out and leaving the gasping survivors sprawled across the damp surface. Nova coughs up water, and Fable grabs her hand, pulling her up.
“The numbers on your suit represent your room number. Go back there for your next test,” Irma orders, her voice cold and indifferent.
As the women trudge away, Irma fires a shot into the air, barking, “Move it!”
The women scatter, and Nova rushes into her assigned room. The walls seal her inside. A figure wearing a bull mask and a suit sits in a chair, flanked by two tables. On one table lies a gun, while the other holds a syringe injector filled with a mysterious blue liquid.
“Sit,” commands the figure, his voice unnervingly calm.
Nova hesitates, then takes a seat opposite the masked figure, her gaze darting between the gun and the syringe.
“I’m going to ask you a series of questions. Do you understand?” Bull Face inquires.
Nova hesitates, her heart pounding, then nods.
“Would you rather have a sword or a shield in combat and why?”
“A… shield… because… I can block and attack with it?” Nova stammers.
“It’s the present day. A poodle is thrown in a pit with a tiger and elephant. Who walks out alive and why?”
Nova gazes at the ceiling, searching for the right answer. “The poodle, because the tiger and elephant are extinct.”
“You’re on stage being booed, how do you react?”
“See why the audience is booing me? And change my performance based on that.”
“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the terrorist group known as Hades Legion?”
“Do you think everyone should be given service to the police?”
“That’ll be the day, but yeah.”
“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the terrorist group known as Hades Legion?”
“You asked me that already.”
The interrogation continues, some questions looping back as if to test her consistency. Finally, Bull Face stands up and grabs the syringe. Nova recoils, eyeing the needle warily.
“Hold still,” he warns.
Despite her fear, Nova remains motionless as he injects the syringe into her neck. She springs up from her chair, furious and terrified.
“What was that?!” she exclaims, touching her neck and finding a trace of blood on her fingertip.
Bull Face collects the gun and disappears through a hidden door in the wall. Moments later, another section of the wall slides open, revealing a dimly lit passage. Nova hesitates, then steps out into the unknown.
The auditorium feels cavernous, the once sizable crowd now reduced to a mere few. Fable stands among them, her eyes scanning the room nervously. The door by the stage creaks open, and Hannibal Blackwood emerges, accompanied by Irma and the guards. Hannibal smirks at the women and claps sarcastically.
“You all look surprisingly well, considering what you’ve just been through!” Hannibal announces. “But I’ve got some good news. You’ve passed the tryouts and will now be featured in this season of Last Valkyrie!”
The women exchange confused glances, their eyes wide with fear.
“See, where’s the fun in volunteers?” Hannibal continues, his voice cold and calculating. “They could quit, demand changes, even abolish the death rule. Or they’ll just treat it like a game, not taking it seriously. And neither will the fans.”
He produces a tablet computer, its screen displaying dots, each featuring a picture of one of the women.
“With listening devices in your necks that can detonate at the touch of a button,” Hannibal says, “it’s far more thrilling to watch you fight for your lives under these involuntary circumstances.”
The women gasp, their hands flying to their necks. Hannibal strokes his chin and smirks, his eyes gleaming with sadistic delight.
“Seems we have 34 women. Unfortunately, the rules call for just 32,” he muses, drawing out his words to heighten the tension. “Let’s start subtracting then, shall we?”
Panic erupts among the women, who begin to cry out and scatter in every direction.
Hannibal’s lips curl into a cruel smile. “Why do they always run?”
A desperate woman approaches Hannibal, tears streaming down her face. “Please, I have a daughter–”
Irma shoots her in the head without hesitation. Hannibal chuckles, his laughter echoing through the auditorium.
“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe; catch a tiger by the toe,” Hannibal sings, his voice dripping with malice.
Paralyzed with fear, Nova doesn’t move. She stares blankly as the haunting screams ring in her ears. Fable shakes Nova’s shoulder, bringing her back to reality. Nova blinks and looks at her, their eyes locked in a moment of shared dread.
“If it’s me…” Fable whispers, her voice trembling. “Tell Saylor I love her.”
Nova remains silent, unable to speak through the terror that grips her.
“Do you hear me?” Fable asks, desperation in her voice.
Irma fires her gun into the air, silencing the room. The women stop running. Hannibal presses a button on his tablet, and the women look around, trembling.
A woman’s neck glows. She gasps. Moments later, her head explodes, leaving her headless corpse in front of Nova.
“Get the message now? We own you,” Hannibal says, his grin widening. “Most importantly, I own you. But don’t be sad – you can do whatever you want on the show as long as you fight and keep this secret between us. Because if you don’t, then boom! But for the lucky one who wins the show, you’ll have the bomb removed in the end. Any questions?”
A woman timidly raises her hand, her body shaking.
“When do we go home?”
Hannibal nods at Irma, who grabs a guard’s baton and marches over to the woman. Irma gets in her face, her eyes blazing with fury.
“You go home when we say you go home. You fight when we say you fight, and you die when we say you die. Got that, you pathetic excuse for a contestant?”
Irma thrusts the baton into the woman’s gut. The woman crumples to her knees, gasping for breath.
“Get up. I didn’t hit you that hard,” Irma sneers, her voice cold and unfeeling.
“Now run along to your rooms,” Hannibal orders, his tone mocking. “There’s a gift waiting for you there.”
The women, their faces etched with terror and defeat, scatter toward their rooms. Fable and Nova share a final, desperate glance before heading to their own quarters, their hearts pounding with fear and uncertainty about the nightmarish reality they’ve been thrust into.
Nova sits on the cold, hard floor, her gaze fixed on the ground as if it holds answers to her predicament. A piece of flesh clings to her hair, a grisly reminder of the horrors she has just witnessed. She trembles, her body racked with fear and confusion.
“Take off your clothes now and get up. Or we’ll take them off for you,” Irma’s voice booms through the speaker, emotionless and detached.
Nova hesitates but eventually complies, disrobing under the watchful eye of the unseen audience. Water jets from the walls, assaulting her exposed skin as she attempts to shield herself. The water ceases, replaced by a blast of air that dries her shivering body. She crumples back to the floor, hugging herself for comfort.
The walls part, revealing a tall, slender woman with a powdered complexion and elaborate bow-shaped hair. She saunters in, her hips swaying with each step, the click of her high heels echoing through the chamber. A subdued camera crew trails behind her, carrying briefcases and a chair.
Nova’s eyes remain downcast, her mind racing with thoughts of her own mortality and the well-being of her loved ones. The woman inspects her, a look of disdain on her face.
“My name is Venus, and I will be your manager. Right now, we’re going to make you look presentable so we can shoot your introduction video for the show. Have a seat in the chair, please, so we can begin.”
Nova’s voice is barely audible, her eyes flicking up to meet Venus’s for a moment. “This isn’t happning.”
“I said this isn’t happening!” Nova’s defiance flares, fueled by her pent-up emotions. She leaps to her feet, her fists clenched.
Venus remains composed, her eyes narrowing. “You will not survive if you don’t pull yourself together.”
“I have a bomb in my head! You expect me to act normal?!”
The air in the room grows heavy with tension as Nova vents her frustration, kicking the chair and collapsing to the floor in a heap. Venus’s voice softens, a hint of sadness creeping into her words.
“It won’t stop after you’re dead. They’ll just get someone else for your replacement. Someone you know… like Gaia.”
“But she’s only 16.” Nova gasps, the mention of her sister striking a chord within her.
“Two years will go by fast. Your face will be on missing signs. When Gaia turns 18, so will she.”
Nova’s resolve hardens as she thinks of her sister, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. She picks up the chair and sits down, her posture rigid. Venus signals to her entourage, who bustle around Nova, transforming her into a presentable figure for the cameras.
Her hair is combed and straight, her face subtly glossed. She dons her white jumpsuit and faces the camera, her heart pounding in her chest. The crew sets up a green screen behind her. Venus counts down, her fingers ticking off the seconds.
“My name is Nova. I’m from San Francisco,” Nova says, her voice flat and devoid of emotion. “I’m an EMT.”
Venus switches off the camera, a frown etched across her face. “Please, say it with some energy,” she implores.
“Energy?” Nova snaps, her eyes flashing with anger. “You expect me to have energy?”
“I expect you to do what it takes to survive,” Venus replies, her tone firm yet gentle. “The words don’t have to be true, as long as people believe them.”
Nova sighs, her frustration palpable. She straightens up in the chair, squares her shoulders, and tucks her hair behind her ears. Meeting the camera’s gaze head-on, she awaits Venus’s signal. As the countdown reaches zero, Nova takes a deep breath and begins again.
“My name is Nova, and I’m not here to make friends or trends. I’m here to make a stand against the so-called warriors you call Valkyries. I will be the last one standing,”
Venus nods her approval, leaving the room with her crew. Alone again, Nova’s anger erupts as she hurls the chair at the wall, her scream reverberating through the chamber. She glares at the ceiling, her voice raw with emotion. “Is this entertaining enough?!”
Overcome by her helplessness, Nova drops to her knees and weeps, her body convulsing with each sob. A nozzle emerges from the wall, releasing a fine mist into the air. As the sedative takes effect, Nova’s body sways, her vision blurs, and she collapses onto the cold floor, succumbing to a fitful, dreamless sleep.
Torin clutches a pile of papers, each emblazoned with the word ‘MISSING’ above Nova’s face. Atira sits nearby, her eyes red and swollen, surrounded by a pile of used tissues. “I’m going to bring her home,” Torin declares.
He enters Gaia’s room, finding her lying on her bed, staring at the wall without her glasses. “I could use your help,” Torin says.
“The police said we have to wait 96 hours,” Gaia replies.
“And then what? They do a press conference, ask questions, post leads, and repeat? I’m not waiting.”
“Nova will come back. We just have to wait. Besides, will a poster really make a difference?” Gaia asks, her voice tinged with doubt.
Torin drops his head. “Yes,” he sighs.
Torin’s determination drives him door-to-door, showing the flyers to everyone he encounters. Most people shake their heads, offering no help. Later, he walks out of a gas station, his stack of flyers dwindling. Sweat beads on his forehead. Two men in their twenties stand outside the station, drinking beer.
“Excuse me, have you two seen this girl?” Torin asks.
One of the men grabs the flyer, his eyes lighting up. “Dude, I’ve seen her before!”
“Where?!” Torin demands, desperation creeping into his voice.
“On my jock!” the man laughs crudely, tearing the flyer and high-fiving his friend. Enraged, Torin punches him. The man’s friend retaliates, striking Torin from behind. Together, they beat Torin to the ground, leaving him battered and bruised.
As Torin struggles to his knees, Gaia appears beside him, helping him gather the scattered papers.
Back at the house, Atira sits in her chair, crying as she scrolls through photos of Nova on her phone. She looks at images of Nova as a child, and photos of their family together, blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Atira manages a smile. A knock on the door interrupts her reminiscing. She dons a wig before floating over to open it. Hannibal stands outside, a smile on his face.
“You must be Nova’s mom.”
Atira and Hannibal sit down, and she listens in shock as he speaks. “Last Valkyrie?” she gasps.
“We never have them answer their phones because we want it to be a surprise. This is a big opportunity for her. She’s more than welcome to quit at any time,” Hannibal explains. “I like the show, but to have my own child in it is terrifying.”
“I have a daughter too, so I understand,” he replies, placing a comforting hand on Atira’s. “You see all this glamour, but behind the scenes, the families can get emotional. That’s why we seek to involve the families in the experience – the Valkyries need the support. It’s better than them facing it all alone.”
“Nova is going to do what she’s going to do, but I can’t support this. I’ve lost too much,” Atira admits.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” Hannibal inquires. Atira nods. “How bad is it?” he asks gently.
Removing her wig, Atira sighs. “Stage 4.”
“There is a way we can help you,” Hannibal offers.
“I appreciate it, but this won’t buy my support.”
“It’s not meant to. My wife died of cancer. I watched her struggle, and it pains me to see anyone else go through the same. Please, let us help.”
Atira’s eyes flicker with a mix of hope and distress as she considers her options. She hesitates, taking a deep breath to steady herself. Hannibal watches her carefully.
“Take your time,” he says gently, a sincere look in his eyes. “I’ll be here when you’re ready to decide.”
Atira sits in silence, mulling over her options.
Nova finds herself suspended in a dreamless slumber, being cradled by the hover car as it glides smoothly above the rippling waters below. Her heartbeat is synchronizing with the hum of the engine, a strange harmony in the silence of the night. As the hover car approaches the glimmering skyline of San Francisco, she remains in the same clothes she was kidnapped in, worn and frayed with the passing days.
The hover car continues to soar without a pilot, guided by unseen forces towards its destination. As the first golden rays of dawn breach the horizon, Nova stirs from her sleep. Sunlight caresses her face, a warm invitation to the world of the living. She shields her face with her hand, her eyes flutter open as she blinks rapidly, adjusting to the sudden brightness. The dashboard glows with an enigmatic command: ‘Press’.
Curiosity piqued, Nova presses the dashboard, and Irma’s face materializes before her.
“You are being dropped off at your home address. In 4 days at 8am, this car will come pick you up at your home to take you to the location for Last Valkyrie. Do not tell anyone the truth; we are listening.”
As the hover car descends, Nova nervously checks her pockets and discovers her wallet and a cracked phone that refuses to work. She lands in front of her house, where another hover car and her own car are parked. With a deep breath, she approaches the door and knocks. It swings open to reveal Gaia, her eyes reddened and swollen, her glasses removed. Nova envelops her sister in a tight hug, but Gaia’s arms remain limp by her side.
“Is that my girl?” Atira’s voice calls from within.
Overwhelmed by emotion, Nova rushes into the house. “Mom, I-“
She stops short, her mouth agape at the sight of Atira standing, the once-familiar wheelchair dismantled and abandoned in the corner. Atira embraces Nova, lifting her off her feet, her once-thinning hair now slightly thicker and healthier.
“It’s been years since I’ve been able to do that. It’s only been 2 days, but I feel like I haven’t seen you in years.”
“What happened?” Nova asks, her voice barely a whisper.
“You took the words right out of my mouth,” Atira chuckles. “We’ve seen your video. They told us you signed up to be on Last Valkyrie and were chosen.”
“I mean you. Your hair and skin. You’re-“
“Cured?” Atira’s eyes shimmer with unshed tears. “They put me in a healing tank free of charge. I didn’t need the facility.”
“It was the least we could do!” Hannibal’s voice booms as he enters from the kitchen, a glass of milk in hand. Nova instinctively backs away.
“Atira, I love your milk,” Hannibal chuckles.
“The show covered our expenses to make up for your suspension. Gaia told me about your job when we saw you on TV. Speaking of which, they gave her lots of material for her painting,” Atira explains.
“Why are you here?” Nova demands to Hannibal, her voice wavering.
“Nova, that’s no way to speak to our guest.”
“It’s fine,” Hannibal says, his voice softening. “I always stop by the homes of the Valkyries to help them get used to the changes. It’s a mix of different feelings. I just wanted to see your mom again to see how her health is.”
He drapes his arm over Atira’s shoulders, the gesture casual and affectionate. “Even though it’s still nerve-wracking, I understand and support you,” Atira tells Nova, her eyes full of love and determination.
“They’re always free to quit anytime. And Nova, if you do decide to leave us, don’t worry.” Hannibal smiles. “We’ll take care of you and your family.”
“You’re such a sweet man,” Atira says, her voice thick with gratitude.
Hannibal hugs Atira, planting a tender kiss on her cheek before heading out. As he leaves, Nova notices a stack of missing person posters bearing her face. Atira sighs, a sad smile on her lips.
“I’m inviting Torin and his family over for dinner tonight,” Atira announces, attempting to restore normalcy.
“This is too much for you to handle too fast,” Nova protests, concern etched on her face.
“I’m not mad,” Atira reassures her. “I’ve come to terms with many losses. If this is what you want to do, then I stand behind you. We should rejoice in what God has given to us.”
Atira pulls Nova and Gaia into a tight embrace, her love for them a tangible force. Gaia’s eyes lock onto Nova’s, an unspoken question lingering in the air.
Gaia paints furiously, her brushstrokes a whirlwind of emotion on the canvas. Nova approaches her hesitantly, trying to find the right words.
“That’s cool you got new material,” Nova says softly.
“Yeah, it is,” Gaia replies, not looking up from her work.
“What are you painting?”
Nova notices two pairs of broken glasses on the desk and frowns. “Gaia, are you alright?”
Gaia turns to face her, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. “What do you think?” she asks bitterly.
“This is a lot to take in, but please bear with me. It’s a lot for me too.”
“I bet,” Gaia scoffs. “Mom is well, you have all the tools you need, what else do you want?”
“My sister!” Gaia’s voice cracks. “I want my sister to be with me and not out there, risking her life to chase some one-in-a-million dream. Watching that show is not the same as being part of it. I don’t want to lose you.”
Nova hugs Gaia tightly, feeling her sister’s body tremble against her own. “You won’t,” Nova whispers.
“Can you promise me?”
Nova looks away, her silence saying more than words ever could. Gaia buries her face in Nova’s chest and sobs, her heart aching with fear and uncertainty.
Saylor’s eyes light up as she lets Nova in.
“You and Mommy are going to be on TV together! I can’t wait; this is going to be so fun!” she cheers, bouncing with excitement.
Nova scratches her head, unsure of how to respond.
Fable enters the living room, looking noticeably different. Gone are the spikes in her hair and the nose ring, replaced by a more subdued appearance. She takes a drag from a vaping pen.
“Saylor, let Mommy talk to Nova, please. Go play your new video game console Mr. Blackwood brought you.” Saylor prances off, her joy undiminished.
“Does she not know how the show works?” Nova asks, concerned.
Fable shrugs. “She’s 5; what do you expect? To her, it’s all fun and games, and everyone respawns.” She glances down at her forearm, revealing a surgical scar. “They even got rid of my USB port. God, once you go to e-dope, you don’t wanna go back,” she complains.
“I want to take you and Saylor out.”
Fable hesitates. “Shouldn’t you spend these four days with your family?”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
“I’m talking about your actual family. You shouldn’t waste time with me.”
“You’re my friend, things won’t be the same in a few more days.”
“Exactly. I don’t want to be reminded of that when I’m with Saylor.” Fable opens the door, her eyes glistening. “It’s for the best for us.”
“I’m sorry for putting you in this situation. If I hadn’t brought you—”
“Nova, I don’t blame you.”
Nova trudges away, her heart heavy with guilt. “Tell the family I said hi,” Fable adds, trying to lighten the mood.
Nova stands outside Fable’s home, feeling like a fool. “Such an idiot!” she yells at herself.
Nova stands over her father’s gravestone, her eyes tracing the engraved letters. She drops to her knees, her fingers brushing over the cold stone, tears threatening to spill.
At a park, children laugh and play, their parents watching with fond smiles. Fable pushes Saylor on a swing, her eyes never leaving her daughter’s face.
“Again, Mommy, again!”
Fable spots a man with a bumpy, sweaty, and pale face, watching them from a nearby bench. Her expression hardens, and she stops pushing Saylor. “I’ll be right back,” she tells her daughter.
Fable marches over to the man, anger radiating from her. “Richie, what are you doing here?” she demands.
“I came to see you two,” Richie replies, feigning innocence.
“Well, you see us, now leave.”
“You’re on TV. Everyone should see us together as a family.”
Fable folds her arms, her gaze narrowing. “So you can get your fifteen minutes of fame?”
“This is about Saylor. She needs both of us.”
“What she needs is a parent who cares about her. Not that you know anything about that. It’s too late.”
Fable’s eyes flick to the black sores around the USB port on Richie’s arm. “How much have you been using?” she gasps.
“1000 gigs. If you won’t let me be with my daughter, the least you can do is give me some free drive.”
Fable clenches her jaw. “The store’s out of business.”
Richie leans in, his breath hot on her ear. “You’re going to die alone,” he whispers. “And nobody will be there for that brat.”
Richie storms off, purposely bumping into Fable as he passes. Saylor runs to her mother, concern etched on her face. “Mommy, who was that?”
“Just a stranger, sweetie,” Fable reassures her, swallowing the lump in her throat.
Fable’s phone buzzes, and she glances at the screen. A news alert shows a demolished building with black smoke billowing out of it. The headline reads, ‘Firestone Robotic Factory Destroyed in Explosion – Hades Legion Takes Responsibility.’
In the bathroom, Fable struggles to hold back tears as she scratches at her skin, craving the e-dope she can no longer use. She picks up a USB of e-dope, holding it to the scar where the port used to be, then throws it away in frustration. She slides to the floor, her body wracked with sobs.
Saylor, sensing her mother’s distress, enters the bathroom and hugs Fable tightly. “Mommy, what’s wrong?”
Fable holds her daughter close, trying to regain her composure. “I’m fine, sweetie. Mommy’s just having a bad day, that’s all.”
Saylor’s eyes brim with love and admiration. “It’s okay. You’re the best mom in the world! Even if you don’t win, I will always love you!”
“I’ll always love you too!” Fable kisses Saylor on the head, grateful for the small ray of sunshine in her life.
A large flag bearing the symbol of a skull with a three-pronged, burning trident piercing through it hangs on the wall of a dimly lit basement, casting an eerie shadow on the damp concrete floor. The musty scent of mildew lingers in the air, and the echo of dripping water punctuates the tense silence. A camera focuses on an individual, garbed in an all-black ensemble. Their face is hidden by a sleek, form-fitting helmet with a seamless visor that completely conceals their features. The reflective surface of the visor captures the dim light in the room
Behind the figure, a group of individuals stand in formation, dressed in cutting-edge tactical gear. Their faces are also concealed by streamlined helmets, though less ornate than their leader’s. Their rigid posture and clenched fists betray the tension in the room.
The figure’s voice, modulated and deep, booms through the basement, creating a sense of urgency. “This world is sick, and nothing exemplifies its wretchedness like the United Oligarchs of Earth. For over a century, people like the five families of the Corporate Syndicate have put a thumb on our society. They use their circuses to hide the truth that they control all of us, puppeteering our lives for their own gain.”
As he speaks, a countdown clock in the background ticks closer to midnight. “These are the demands of Hades Legion,” he continues, his voice laced with passion. “If you want our attacks to stop, give in to our demands. Start with the release of every person in a reeducation camp convicted for corporate terrorism. There is no terrorism against an evil corporation.”
The figure pauses, allowing the weight of the words to sink in. “You have until midnight to meet our demands. Your time is running out, and so is your grasp on our society. The flames of rebellion will consume you if you don’t act now.”
The figure steps into another room in the basement. The stark space holds only a glass desk and chair, devoid of any decoration. He places his hand on the smooth surface of the desk, and as the name ‘Taranis Kane’ appears in a digital display, a hidden wall slides open, revealing an elevator. A member of his crew approaches him.
“Boss, are you sure you don’t want us to come?” the member asks, concern evident in his voice.
Taranis enters the elevator without a word. The doors close, and the elevator shoots downward, its violent shaking causing the dim lights to flicker. Taranis clenches his fist, his face fixed on an invisible point in front of him. After seemingly endless seconds, the elevator grinds to a halt and the doors slide open, revealing a bustling underground club.
The club is a cacophony of music, laughter, and movement. Strobe lights dance across the space, casting fleeting shadows on the revelers. Guards armed with submachine guns keep watch from the top floor, their eyes scanning the crowd below. Suspended from the ceiling in glass containers, dancers twist and contort their bodies to the beat of the music.
Ignoring the stares of surprise and admiration that follow him, Taranis strides confidently toward a staircase leading to the second floor. A massive guard, easily twice Taranis’ size and armed with a gun, stands at the top of the stairs, blocking his path.
“Take off your mask, so we can verify your identity,” the guard instructs, his voice deep and menacing.
“No,” Taranis replies, his tone icy.
“Either that, or I’ll do it.”
“If it comes off, so will your jawbone,” Taranis threatens, the tone of his voice darkening.
The guard chuckles, unimpressed. “Do you not see where you’re at? I got the size, the gun, and the backup.”
Taranis tilts his head. “Tell me, can any of you make a move before I tear your eyes out and leave you crying in a pool of your own blood?”
The guard’s laughter dies in his throat. He swallows hard, stepping aside and bowing. “Saul’s waiting for you,” he murmurs, his voice shaking.
Taranis enters an office, the tinted windows obscuring the chaos outside. Saul sits behind his desk, several empty bottles of alcohol strewn across it. Two scantily clad women cling to him, their lips locked with his. Behind Saul stands a much younger man with short-cropped hair and a lean, athletic build, his face expressionless as he watches the scene unfold. A large painting of a younger, unscarred Saul dominates the wall behind them.
“There he is! Have a seat, my friend,” Saul greets Taranis, disentangling himself from the women, who retreat to a corner of the room.
Taranis remains standing, his posture tense. “You wanted to see me.”
“Never one for pleasantries, straight to the point,” Saul chuckles before his demeanor turns serious. “Your bombing on the Firestones wasn’t sanctioned. You can’t go after the five families. It’ll bring too much heat from them.”
“I’m just getting started. After tonight, things are going to pick up,” Taranis replies, his voice steely.
“No, they won’t. You’re going back to those smaller jobs. Raid a synthetic meat farm or poison the water supply of a poor neighborhood. Just stay away from the five.”
“Smaller jobs don’t bring change fast enough.”
Saul leans forward, his face inches from Taranis’. “It’s a marathon, not a race, and you’ve been running far too fast for way too long, my friend. We don’t need any more attention from the Corporate Syndicate.”
Taranis’ voice takes on a biting, venomous tone as his body tenses. “There was a time when our movement wanted their attention, before old men lost their courage and tucked their tails between their legs.”
“What did you say?” Sal gasps, his face turning red.
Taranis’ voice remains calm and cold. “Your breed is dying, old man. We don’t need dinosaurs holding our potential back any longer.”
Sal shoots up from his desk, slamming his hands down on its surface. “How dare you come down here and insult me?! After all I’ve done for you!”
“You’ve done nothing but hide down here, drowning in booze and women. You’ve lost your way,” Taranis retorts, his voice dripping with contempt.
Sal’s eyes narrow, and he barks an order at the young man behind him. “Get the guards! It’s time that mask comes off.”
But the young fellow doesn’t move, his eyes locked on Taranis.
“Franco, I gave you an order!” Sal roars, his face turning an alarming shade of red.
Without a word, Franco plunges a knife into Sal’s back, the blade slicing through his chest. Sal gasps, his eyes wide with shock. Guards file into the room, but they don’t attack Taranis. Instead, they stand behind him, their allegiance clear.
“That’s how I know you’re weak,” Taranis says to Sal, his voice calm. “If you were twice the man you used to be, you would have done it yourself.”
As Franco withdraws the knife, Sal crumples to the floor, gasping for breath.
“If you want people to follow orders, they must follow you first,” Taranis continues.
Back on the dance floor, the music screeches to a halt, and the crowd falls silent. The tinted window slowly lowers, revealing Taranis standing in the office, his expression impassive.
“Weak leadership has damaged our liberation movement. But that ends today.” Taranis raises Sal’s severed head for all to see, and the crowd gasps in shock. A wave of disbelief and horror washes over the faces of the club-goers. Some cover their mouths in surprise, while others exchange wide-eyed glances with those around them.
“We are different groups, all sharing the same belief: to restore the world that was. It’s time to unite as one under the Hades Legion, so we can destroy the five families that make up the Corporate Syndicate and bring down the U.O.E.”
The room is silent for a moment, the tension palpable. Some people in the crowd shift uncomfortably, whispering among themselves, while others seem to be holding their breath, waiting to see what happens next.
Then, one woman in the crowd smiles, raising her hands to form a triangle over her chest. Her face is resolute, her eyes shining with determination.
“Death to the U.O.E.!” she yells, her voice ringing out clear and strong.
The rest of the crowd seems to come alive at her words. More and more people follow her lead, raising their hands and joining the chant. The entire club unites in a deafening chorus, their voices proclaiming their shared goal: the downfall of the U.O.E.
Floating above Earth, a colossal and sleek space citadel casts an imposing shadow, its angular architecture illuminated by the glow of shimmering panels and pulsing lights that blend seamlessly with the structure. Inside, an expansive room is dominated by a pentagonal table, each side occupied by a figure. The vast window offers a breathtaking view of Earth, bathing the room in an ethereal glow.
Leaning slightly in his chair, Nero Firestone’s fingers deftly adjust his cufflinks as his sharp, observant eyes survey the room. His assistant hands him a report, which he skims with a nod of approval.
Lugh Omega gently swirls the water in his glass, his glasses perched on the bridge of his nose as he leans back in his chair. He shares a quiet word with his assistant, who adjusts Lugh’s tablet to display a specific document.
Wolf Vortex’s snow-white hair frames his long nose, while his eyes dart between the others, his fingers tapping rhythmically on the table. His assistant reviews data on a tablet, showing it to Wolf.
Hermes Lumina’s striking makeup accentuates her lifted cheekbones as she lounges back in her chair, her gaze steady and unflinching. Her assistant whispers something in her ear, eliciting a knowing smirk.
Cata Feronia’s enigmatic smile plays on her lips, drawing attention to the deep lines on her face. Her assistant hands her a cup of tea, which she sips thoughtfully before the meeting begins.
Each of them sits with an armed guard standing nearby, their respective company’s flag patched on their shoulder sleeve.
“We have a problem with Last Valkyrie. Part of our base is not watching in protest to police brutality,” Hermes says, her voice laced with annoyance.
“We’ll hold a meeting with each of our chiefs of police and celebrities. You own the celebs, so you can coach them in ‘promising change’,” Nero offers, his voice steady and persuasive.
Hermes smirks, nodding in agreement. Wolf, however, furrows his brow, leaning forward.
“But that’s going to alienate a portion of our base for looking like we’re soft on crime,” he interjects.
“Not if we plant Hades Legion flags in the homes of the recent shooting victims. We’ll execute their families on live tv. Hermes’ media can craft the story,” Nero replies, his eyes glinting with determination.
“And what about Hannibal? He’s been more sporadic,” Wolf continues, his concern evident.
“He’s been off the rail since Uma died of cancer. I’ll speak to him about making the show more exciting,” Hermes says, her voice softening for a moment.
They all nod, and Nero claps his hands.
“Time for trading,” he announces, his voice commanding attention.
Nero raises an eyebrow, a smirk playing on his lips. “Wolf, I’ll give you 100 drones to help the guards secure your banks, and you temporarily freeze the assets of my competitors. Say you found ties to illegal activities. It’ll give me enough time to acquire them.”
Wolf narrows his eyes, his voice tinged with skepticism. “They couldn’t protect your facility, how can they protect my banks?”
Nero clenches his teeth, frustration briefly flitting across his face. “It was an old facility,” he grunts.
Wolf nods, and the two press their tablets.
Lugh turns to Cata. “If you lower the prices of your cancer drugs and healthcare, I will triple your company’s intake of our solar power, for half the original charge.”
Cata arches an eyebrow. “Your family’s healthy, why do you care?”
“Seraphine visits children’s hospitals. It won’t look good if there are protests against your companies there.”
Cata chuckles, her eyes twinkling. “That girl spends so much time with them kids, she might as well adopt them. Keep your solar, I’ll do it for free.”
“That’s going to make your kids and grandkids mad,” Nero interjects, swiping on his tablet.
“They need the lesson,” Cata asserts, her voice firm. “Send out a post to your followers to invest in our stocks because you heard we’re developing a new drug. I’ll give half the revenue to you, and the other half to some charity.”
Nero smirks, nodding. “I’ll tell them your stocks are going to the moon. Anyone else?”
Silence fills the room. Everyone turns their attention to the holographic projection displaying votes. The percentages reveal Nero as the winner with Lugh as the frontrunner, while the others are behind. Everyone claps for Nero, except for Hermes, who clenches her fist, frustration etched on her face.
The immense door opens with a resonant, imposing sound. A poised figure steps into the room. “The others are arriving,” the person announces, their voice crisp and clear.
As they step through the doorway, they find themselves on a grand stage with the spotlight on them, overlooking a sprawling auditorium. Elegant rows of seats curve around the stage, each one filled with an air of prestige. As the figures take their positions, holograms of people clad in tailored suits flicker into vibrant, shimmering existence. Alongside each hologram, a virtual name tag displays a company’s name. The atmosphere in the auditorium crackles with anticipation, every gaze fixed intently on the stage, poised for the unfolding of the momentous next steps. Wolf steps up to the podium with poise.
“Welcome, members of the United Oligarchs of Earth,” he says, his voice confident and commanding. “Let’s talk business.”
Hannibal lies next to a young woman in her early 20s, their bodies still warm from their recent intimacy. The dimly lit room is filled with a charged silence. The timer on the wall reads 59 seconds. With a sigh, he reluctantly disengages from her, swiping his debit card, and the timer jumps to 30 minutes.
As Hannibal looks around the room, an alarm pierces the air, and a hologram pops up, displaying Hermes Lumina’s name. Startled, Hannibal hastily separates from the woman. “Quick, cover yourself up! And don’t speak!” he orders, his voice tense.
The woman wraps the covers around her body. Hannibal wipes his face, fixes his hair, and dons a robe before tapping the hologram. Hermes appears.
“Mrs. Lumina, you look beautiful as always. What can I do for you?” Hannibal asks, anxiety evident in his voice.
Hermes glances at the woman but remains focused. “Hannibal, the intro videos’ viewership is down from last year, both online and on TV. We need you to make it more exciting than ever,” she says in a monotone.
“Of course! Anything for the families and the show. Perhaps once this season is over, I could be more valuable in an executive role at the company?”
“Hannibal, you’re a wonderful host. That’s where we need you. Okay? Have a great day.”
The hologram cuts off.
“Why!?” Hannibal yells, his frustration boiling over.
“What’s wrong? You don’t like your job?” the young woman asks, her voice trembling.
“I need more. I want more,” Hannibal replies, his eyes blazing with ambition.
He punches the bed, and the young woman nervously chuckles, causing him to glare at her.
“You think that’s funny?”
“No… no! It was just a joke. I’m sorry!”
Hannibal approaches the young woman, his expression dark. “Yeah, you are sorry!”
In an empty alley, a homeless man rummages through a trash can. He recoils in horror at the sight of the young woman’s lifeless body, discarded among the garbage. Dark, telltale marks mar her neck, a haunting and chilling sign of the brutal end she met.
The table is laden with a mouthwatering assortment of dishes, the golden-brown turkey taking center stage, accompanied by steaming vegetables and fluffy mashed potatoes. Nova, Gaia, Atira, Torin, Mr. Ryker, and his teenage twins, Xander and Ellis, gather around the table.
Soft, golden candlelight fills the room, casting flickering shadows on the walls. Comfortable, cushioned chairs encircle the table, and the aroma of home-cooked food envelops everyone, creating a sense of warmth and familiarity. Yet, amidst this coziness, an undercurrent of tension makes itself known through brief, uneasy glances, tightened lips, and restless fingers drumming on laps.
Atira attempts to lighten the mood with a smile as she glances around. “It’s been so long since we all ate at the table together. Who wants to say grace?”
No one responds.
“Can I?” Gaia ventures, her voice hesitant.
Atira smiles and nods. They all join hands and bow their heads, except for Nova, who keeps her head up, lost in her thoughts.
“Dear Lord… thank you for bringing home Nova and healing my mom,” Gaia begins.
Torin looks up, catching Nova’s eye. They share a brief, meaningful glance.
“We are grateful for your blessings. Please continue to watch over us as we put our lives in your hands. Amen.”
“Gaia, that was beautiful,” Atira says, her face beaming with pride.
Gaia smiles shyly.
“Let’s eat!” Xander exclaims.
Xander and Ellis dig in, heaping their plates with generous portions.
“Slow down, boys. Act like you’ve been somewhere!” Mr. Ryker chides.
Gaia takes small portions and bites, savoring her food. Everyone eats and chats, except Nova, who remains silent, her gaze distant. Torin notices her unease.
“Nova, I thought you hated the show,” Torin remarks, attempting to engage her.
“I needed the money.”
“But with the bills paid, you could quit anytime.”
“Winning could change the family’s life, yours too.”
Ellis, his eyes wide with excitement, interjects, “If you win or make it far, can you buy me a car?”
“No, work and save up like everyone else. She isn’t a bank,” his father scolds.
Nova softens. “It’s fine. You can have anything you want.”
Torin, unable to contain his concern, presses on. “And you’re still okay with the fact that Nero’s family won the vote and now his own son will be the Chosen One? You’ll be fighting to marry Octavius Firestone.”
The room falls silent as everyone turns to Nova. She takes a deep breath.
“What happened is in the past,” she states firmly.
Seeking to break the tension, Mr. Ryker asks, “Gaia, how’s school?”
“I have all A’s,” she replies, her face lighting up.
“Right on! Leander would be proud of his little girl.”
Nova suddenly stands up. “I’ll be right back.”
Torin watches her leave, worry etched on his face. The others continue talking and eating. In her room, Nova vapes, tapping her foot nervously. She catches sight of a spaceship heading into the sky, and her frustration reaches its peak. She throws her books on the ground and tears her poster. Torin appears in the doorway.
“It’s fine,” she insists, her voice strained.
Nova storms past him, heading back to the living room. “I’m heading out,” she announces.
“This late at night? You barely ate,” Atira says, concern in her eyes.
“I just have to run and get something real quick.”
Nova leaves the house, Torin trailing behind her. “Nova, wait.”
She stops and turns to him, forcing a smile. “I’m fine.”
“You didn’t seem fine back there.”
“It’s just a lot to take in, and I need a moment.”
Nova gets in the car, leaving Torin standing there, deep in thought.
Gaia washes the dishes as Torin approaches her. He glances over his shoulder, making sure everyone in the living room is preoccupied with talking and watching TV.
“I can’t be the only one who sees what’s wrong with this picture,” Torin whispers.
“My mom’s healed, and now Nova’s in danger. One loved one’s safety traded for another. Seems normal to me,” Gaia responds, her tone heavy with sarcasm.
“Don’t pretend this is normal.”
“She already told you why. And who’s this ‘we’?”
Torin turns off the faucet, causing Gaia to sigh and turn to face him. “I spent time around police as an EMT; I know how to investigate. But you’re the only one close enough to Nova to get better information. She would never go on that show, especially to stay for a Firestone, not after what they did to our families,” Torin explains.
Gaia’s expression softens. “Since you want to help so much, how about you finish these dishes?”
She walks away, leaving Torin to contemplate her words. He sighs and picks up a sponge, resuming the chore.
With few cars on the neon-lit streets, Nova’s grip on the steering wheel is tightening as she drives just above the 45 mph speed limit. The music in her car is blaring, drowning out the sound of her racing thoughts. Glancing up, she spots a spacecraft launching into the sky, stealing her focus from the road. She blows through a red light, narrowly missing an incoming car that honks angrily at her. In a panic, Nova swerves and crashes into a sign.
A few stories above in a sleek, pilotless hovercar, Seraphine and Davion are witnessing the accident. Seraphine’s eyes widen, her heart pounding as she presses a button to lower the vehicle.
“What are you doing?” Davion asks, concern etched on his face.
“There’s an accident,” Seraphine replies, her voice urgent.
Davion furrows his brow, saying, “I’ll call 9-1-1, but we shouldn’t get involved.”
“We can always help.”
The hovercar descends next to Nova’s wrecked vehicle. Seraphine, her dress hiked up, sprints in her high heels toward the smoking car. She finds Nova rubbing her head, the airbags deployed around her. With a mix of relief and concern, Seraphine opens the door and helps Nova out.
“Are you alright?” Seraphine asks, her voice soft.
“I took my eyes off the road for just a second,” Nova groans, wincing. “Thank—”
Her words catch in her throat as she recognizes Seraphine. “You’re—”
Seraphine nods, understanding the unspoken realization. “Let me cover the expenses,” she offers.
“Thanks, but I can cover it with the card Last Valkyrie gave me,” Nova replies, her voice wavering.
“Last Valkyrie?” Seraphine’s curiosity is piqued. She studies Nova’s face, and her eyes widen with recognition. “I’ve seen your introduction video. You’re a Valkyrie too, Nova.”
Nova looks away, shame and vulnerability evident as she lowers her head.
“The police are coming. Seraphine, we should go before we’re late,” Davion interjects.
Seraphine steps closer to Nova, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Good luck,” she whispers.
As Seraphine leaves, Nova takes out her phone, Torin’s contact displayed on the screen. Her finger hovers, uncertainty clouding her decision.
The lavish ballroom is filled with the enticing aroma of exquisite cuisine and the soft murmur of conversation. Gleaming chandeliers cast opulent light on the baby angel sculptures that pour water into an elegant pool. Holographic displays project dazzling scenes on the walls, adding to the grandeur of the event. People dressed in luxurious ball gowns and sharp tuxedos, mingle and chat.
Seraphine and Davion sit at a table with a diverse array of guests. Each person’s expressions and laughter revealing glimpses into their lives. Seraphine and Davion indulge in gourmet dishes like lobster, shrimp, and sip fine wine, served by robotic waiters that glide effortlessly around the room.
Richard Taft, a charismatic man with a stylish mustache and a gold pinky ring, dominates the conversation. He sits next to a curious gentleman, who listens intently.
“You’re handling the current events remarkably well, especially with your hands full of those protestors,” the man remarks.
“They’ll get what’s coming to them. They want to protest over water; let’s see them do it without electricity,” Taft retorts confidently, puffing his chest.
Seraphine clenches her jaw, and Davion senses her growing discomfort.
“Are you serious?” the gentleman asks, eyebrows raised in disbelief.
“Peasants need to know their place. Store profits are plummeting due to the protests,” Taft says, lighting his cigar with a futuristic lighter.
Seraphine exchanges a glance with Davion, her eyes filled with determination.
“Have you considered a different approach?” Seraphine inquires, her tone serious.
The laughter dies down, and everyone falls silent, their eyes shifting between Seraphine and Taft.
“To what?” Taft responds, his eyebrows raised in surprise.
“The protestors. Perhaps you should negotiate with them and reach a compromise,” she suggests, her gaze unwavering.
Davion buries his face in his palms.
Taft scoffs, “What am I, a politician? I don’t need their approval.”
“But you need their money. The least you could do is show them you value their voice and listen.”
The table watches the exchange, their reactions varying from shock to curiosity.
Taft leans in, eyes locked on Seraphine, “It’s all about money. It costs money to filter the water, to pump it through those pipes and into their homes. The more you pay, the better the service. I have to make a profit.”
The air grows thick with tension as Seraphine holds Taft’s gaze, unyielding.
Nessa, sensing the need to diffuse the situation, asks, “So, Seraphine, how was Last Valkyrie for you?”
Seraphine and Davion exchange a glance, her hand finding his under the table.
“It was the third-best time of my life, right after marrying him,” she says, her voice soft but filled with warmth.
The table fills with appreciative coos as Seraphine leans in to kiss Davion, the tension melting away for now.
Nova sits on the curb in a quiet residential neighborhood, her shoulders slumped in defeat as a tow truck hauls her car away. The night air is chilly, and the scent of damp earth lingers after a recent rain. Torin pulls up in his car, its headlights casting long shadows on the pavement. Nova trudges toward the vehicle, her head down and heavy with disappointment. She slides into the passenger seat, and as the car pulls away, she gazes at the stars above. A single tear escapes, gliding down her cheek like a fallen star.
Upon arriving at her home, the silence between Nova and Torin is thick. They sit in the car for a moment, looking out the window at the modest house, the warm glow of the porch light offering a sense of comfort.
“Thank you,” Nova murmurs, her voice barely a whisper. She manages a small, sad smile that reveals the hope she’s trying to hold onto.
Torin opens his mouth, but the words don’t come. He simply nods as Nova leaves the car. He watches her until she disappears inside the house, the door closing with a soft click.
Nova drops onto her bed, her body heavy with fatigue. She stares blankly at the ceiling, her thoughts a turbulent storm. Gaia enters the room, hesitant but determined.
“I shouldn’t be mad at you for going on the show,” Gaia says softly.
“You have every right to be,” Nova replies, her voice laced with guilt.
Gaia takes a deep breath, remembering their mother’s words. “What did Mom say about being mad? It’s your life. As your sister, I should support it.”
“But you don’t, do you?” Nova asks, her eyes searching Gaia’s face.
“You stuck up for me a couple of days ago, just like you always have. It’s time for me to return the favor.”
Nova opens her arms, and Gaia rushes to embrace her sister. The warmth of their hug chases away the lingering cold.
“I’m going to do what’s right for you, no matter what,” Gaia promises, her voice steady and resolute.
Later, in her room, Gaia dials a number on her phone. Her heart races as the call connects. She glances at a photo of her and Nova on her nightstand, the sisters grinning and wrapped in each other’s arms.
“Gaia?” Torin’s voice comes through the receiver, cautious and curious.
“I’m going to help you,” she says, her words measured and deliberate, “but only once Nova leaves. I want to spend these days with her.” Gaia’s voice trembles slightly, betraying the depth of her love and the weight of her decision.
In a mansion floating high above the clouds over San Francisco, Seraphine stands by the open window of her luxuriously furnished bedroom. Gazing at the sea of clouds stretching to the horizon, she’s lost in thought. The wind gently rustles the silk curtains, caressing her face. In her hand, she clutches a wine glass, her knuckles turning white as she hears phantom screams echo in her mind. Her grip tightens, and the glass shatters, snapping her out of her daze. Blood oozes from a small cut on her hand, which she sucks clean as the door creaks open.
Davion enters the room, his eyes filled with concern. “You don’t have to look like that when I talk to our friends,” Seraphine says, her voice cracking.
“Friends?” Davion snorts. “You know how I am about social issues. That’s all your thing.”
“I’m talking about when people ask me about the show. I see how it worries you,” she replies, her eyes searching his face.
Davion moves behind Seraphine, wrapping his arms around her. “I don’t want to relive those memories,” he murmurs into her ear.
“Then let’s make some new ones,” she says, determination flashing in her eyes.
Seraphine turns, placing her hands on his chin, and pulls him in for a passionate kiss. They lose themselves in each other’s embrace. Clothes fall away as they make their way to the bed, their love a refuge from the world outside. As Davion gently caresses the old stab marks on her stomach, Seraphine flinches and pulls away.
“They don’t bother me,” he reassures her.
“What about how I feel about them?” she asks, vulnerability in her eyes.
“They’re a reflection of you, and that’s beautiful,” Davion says, his voice warm and tender.
Seraphine moves closer to Davion, their love a powerful bond that transcends the scars of the past. Later that night, as Davion sleeps, Seraphine slips out of bed and dons a sweat jacket and leggings. Silently, she enters a room adorned with flower decorations. In a crib, a baby sleeps peacefully. Seraphine gazes at the child, her heart swelling with love. She smiles, a single tear rolling down her cheek, and leans in to plant a soft kiss on the baby’s forehead.
Taranis Kane stands tall and defiant in front of the camera, the clock behind him reading 12:30. His voice is filled with passion and anger as he speaks.
“The U.O.E. continues to treat its citizens like pawns, ignoring our demands for freedom. They dismiss us, but now they’ll see the cost of their indifference.”
As the camera pans over to Richard Taft, his wife, and their two children, Taranis’ words strike a chilling contrast to the horrifying scene. Bound to chairs, their lifeless bodies slumped, the Taft family’s eyes appear glassy and vacant, with streams of blood flowing from the bullet wounds in their foreheads.
Taranis’ voice grows cold and determined. “This is the price they pay for their neglect. We will fight until the U.O.E. crumbles and justice prevails. “This is the beginning of our increased aggression. We will not rest until the U.O.E. is dismantled and destroyed.”
Under the glare of stage lights, Nero, Lugh, Cata, and Hermes maintain a stoic facade as they line up behind Wolf, who stands confidently behind the podium. The persistent clicking of reporters’ cameras punctuates the tense atmosphere.
“My fellow customers,” Wolf begins, his voice quivering with emotion. “I have been selected by the respected members of the Corporate Syndicate to deliver this speech to you.” He takes a deep breath, steadying himself. “This morning, the world is mourning the brutal deaths of the Taft family at the hands of the evil terrorist group known as Hades Legion.”
Wolf’s eyes narrow as he continues, reading from the teleprompter with determination. “They are a ruthless militant organization that seeks to destroy the way of life of the U.O.E., which has allowed its customers around the world to prosper for almost a century.” He pauses, fists clenched. “The man leading this group, Taranis Kane, has declared war on the CSA – and therefore, the world. Make no mistake, we will bring these thugs to justice, and they will pay by the full might of our corporations. God bless the CSA.”
As the members walk off stage, they’re bombarded with questions from the reporters. A press secretary quickly jumps on the podium, eager to answer.
Backstage, the five members exchange worried glances. Hermes checks her phone and gasps, “All of our shares have dropped over 20 percent since the video!” She shivers.
A reporter on the television screen announces, “And some people are calling for Last Valkyrie to be canceled this year over safety issues.”
“She’ll be out of a job tomorrow for that line!” Hermes snarls.
While the others engage in hushed conversation, Nero and Cata remain silent, lost in their thoughts. Nero gazes out the window into space, smirking at the sight of Earth. Cata notices his expression and approaches him.
“You’re awfully calm considering what’s happening,” Cata observes, her voice tinged with curiosity.
“I can say the same about you,” Nero replies with a knowing grin.
“Oh please. Loud men with guns. When you live as long as I have, they all sound the same. I have to give Taranis props, though. He’s succeeding in causing fear.”
“We’ve dealt with terrorists and low stock prices before. We’ll take care of them and come out on top like always.” Nero’s voice is resolute, but his eyes betray a flicker of uncertainty.
They nod in agreement, and Nero addresses the entire group. “Couple raids in neighborhoods with ties to some terrorist groups always work for public approval. Outside of that, we should increase efforts and patrols in locating Taranis’ main hideout.”
Lugh interjects, his expression serious. “Everyone, just make sure each of our troops and police lessen the force used on civilians that aren’t armed.”
Nero nods, his smirk returning. “Good point, Lugh. Thinking about the cameras.”
“I’m thinking about the civilians,” Lugh counters, his gaze unwavering.
Raising an eyebrow, Nero smirks at Lugh, acknowledging their differing perspectives.
Back at Shed Court, Atira, Gaia, Mr. Ryker, and his sons gather around Nova, whose bags are packed and ready for departure. The clock reads 7:55am. Nova’s eyes shimmer with unshed tears as she speaks, her voice wavering slightly, “I’ll stay in contact.”
She embraces the twins, her grip tight and comforting. “Don’t get in too much trouble. And I’ll send back a car for you.” The twins laugh, their smiles bittersweet.
Nova hugs Mr. Ryker, gratitude etched on her face. “Thank you for being here for my family.”
“We’re all one family, Nova,” Mr. Ryker replies, his voice warm and fatherly.
As she hugs Torin, memories of their friendship flood her thoughts. “What you did for me while I was gone, all these years, I couldn’t have asked for a better friend.”
“It’s what friends do,” Torin says softly.
With determination, Nova promises her mother, “Everything is going to be okay. I’ll win.” Atira hesitates, a tear rolling down her cheek, and smiles through her sadness. “I know you will!”
Their hug is long and fierce, a testament to their bond. Nova puts her arm around Gaia, drawing everyone into a group embrace. “Be strong, please,” she pleads.
“I’ll try,” Gaia whispers.
Together, they follow Nova out the door. A large group of residents waits outside, their expressions a mix of admiration and concern. A little girl in a sunflower dress approaches Nova and hands her a small flower. Nova accepts it, a gentle smile gracing her lips.
As the hover car arrives, the crowd parts to let Nova and her loved ones pass. The air is filled with the sounds of applause and the scent of flowers. “Nova!” the crowd chants in unison.
Reaching the hover car, Nova turns to her family and Torin’s, her eyes glistening with tears. “I love you all,” she chokes out.
She steps into the hover car, and as it ascends, she gazes out the window. The car soars away, and Nova watches Shed Court recede into the distance. Overwhelmed, she finally allows herself to weep, her tears flowing freely.
At the funeral, a somber crowd gathers around the casket of the Taft family. Their picture stands in front, eliciting tears from some, while others maintain a heavy silence. Seraphine steps forward, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.
“Richard Taft was a complex man,” Seraphine begins, her voice wavering. “Though the world may remember his darker actions, his friends and family knew him as a devoted husband, father, and public servant.” She pauses, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “We mourn not only him, but his wife Nessa, and their precious daughters Tessa and Kaida.”
Swallowing hard, Seraphine continues, “Such a vile act – taking the lives of innocent children – is beyond comprehension. I leave the pursuit of justice to the Corporate Syndicate . As for myself, I will pray alongside you and contribute to the Taft Foundation, a charity I’ve established to support orphans. Their deaths won’t be in vain.”
Seraphine lifts the CSA flag from the casket, presenting it to Cyrus, the young man left behind. “I’m so sorry, Cyrus.”
Cyrus’s eyes fill with anguish. “Why? They were just kids!” He collapses to his knees, sobbing. Seraphine wraps her arms around him, holding him close. “I want to kill the monster who did this!”
After the funeral, Seraphine and Davion stand with Cyrus and Detective Ulysses. Seraphine offers her support, “If you need anything, just let us know. We’re here for you.”
Cyrus manages a smile, “Thank you. My sisters adored you on Last Valkyrie. They had posters of you in their room.”
“Cyrus,” Detective Ulysses speaks up, “during the autopsy, we found metal balls inside your sisters. Do you know what they might be?”
Cyrus nods, his expression pained. “They’re trackers my father placed inside them. He was overprotective and paranoid because of the increasing threats. I should have mentioned it earlier.”
“Don’t worry,” the detective reassures him. “Though the trackers were damaged by gunshots, my team can repair them. We just need the password to access the data.”
Cyrus looks hopeful. “What for?”
“We can trace your family’s movements before they died,” the detective explains. “With that information, we might be able to find Taranis.”
Seraphine interjects, “Is it difficult to retrieve the data?”
“Not if we have the password and the trackers are repaired,” replies the detective. “We could locate Taranis within 24 hours.”
Cyrus seems more at ease. “I know a few passwords my father used. They might work.”
“Excellent,” the detective says. “Once our techs fix the trackers and we have the right password, we’ll be one step closer to justice.”
Seraphine smiles. “That’s good news.”
As they part ways, Davion shakes his head, his voice filled with disbelief. “That Taranis Kane is a devil. Can you imagine someone like that raising a child?”
Seraphine’s eyes narrow for a moment, and she swallows hard. “No, I can’t.”
Taranis Kane strides into the underground base, his footsteps echoing through the dimly lit hallway. Franco greets him with a grin. “Ready to see the remodeling?” he asks.
Taranis nods, following Franco onto a bridge that overlooks the vast space below. Members of Hades Legion move about, tearing down the gaudy decorations that once adorned the club. They pass by a room where several members haul carts filled with weapons, while in another, they sort through stacks of cocaine.
“Burn it,” Taranis orders, his voice cold.
The members freeze, looking up in surprise. Franco hesitates. “But we could make so much money from it and fund our operations.”
“Drugs are an ugly business. They’re poison,” Taranis replies, his eyes hard. “We start selling, and we’ll get addicted to our own supply. Just look at Sal. We’ll continue with the old ways and weapons.”
“You heard the man! Burn it!” Franco barks.
As the members hesitantly prepare to follow the order, Taranis catches one of them trying to discreetly stuff a bundle of cocaine into their jacket. Without a moment’s hesitation, Taranis shoots the member in the head. A chilling silence fills the room.
“Any questions?” Taranis asks, his voice icy.
The remaining members, now fully focused, quickly douse the cocaine with gasoline and set it alight. Taranis and Franco continue to the dance floor, where more decorations are being dismantled. A few computers have been set up.
Detective Ulysses enters the bustling police station, the dim overhead lights casting long shadows across the room. The murmur of conversations and the clacking of keyboards fill the air as he makes his way towards the technician’s lab table. A small metallic tracking device lies connected to a computer, humming softly.
“Good news, Detective. I’ve fixed the trackers as you requested,” the tech says, an eyebrow raised in curiosity. “What’s the deal?”
“Taft’s kids were tracked. Now we can access the history and find Yagna,” Ulysses replies, his voice low and cautious.
The tech frowns, concern etched across his face. “But we need a password.”
Ulysses hands him a slip of paper, his eyes never leaving the tech’s face. “Taft’s son gave us these. Try ’em and let me know.”
The tech nods slowly, doubt flickering in his eyes. As Ulysses walks away, the tech’s smile fades, his eyes darting around nervously. He types in a password, gaining access to a map on the screen displaying red dots at various locations with different dates. He hesitates, then quickly deletes the last few entries, adding new ones and altering the dates.
Ulysses and a squad of officers storm a barn, weapons at the ready. “Check everywhere. The tracker says this is the last known location,” Ulysses orders, his voice tense. The officers move with precision, their boots crunching on the hay-strewn floor. They methodically search the area, checking every nook and cranny.
Ulysses spots a pink box on the ground, his heart pounding in his chest. “I think I’ve found something.” They all approach the box cautiously, guns drawn. Ulysses slowly opens it and backs away. A sickening green mist sprays out, filling the area. Inside lies Sal’s decapitated head, his eyes gouged out.
The officers cough, covering their faces, panic rising in their eyes. They drop to their knees, choking until they fall unconscious. Two shadowy figures in hazmat suits enter and carry Ulysses out to a white van.
Ulysses awakes, strapped to a chair in a dimly lit concrete room. He struggles against the metal chains, but to no avail. The tech steps into the light, revealing himself. Ulysses gasps in surprise, betrayal twisting like a knife in his gut.
“You! You gave us wrong coordinates, you’re with Hades Legion.”
The tech remains silent, his eyes cold and unyielding.
“Are they threatening you? Is that why?” Ulysses asks, desperation seeping into his voice.
“I don’t need threats. I’m here by choice.”
“But… why?” Ulysses stutters, his voice choked with emotion.
“My brother… Cops wouldn’t save him ’cause he missed one damn payment on his subscription,” the tech reveals, bitterness seeping through his words.
Ulysses’ eyes flicker with a mix of rage and heartache, a storm brewing beneath the surface. He fights to maintain control, his hands trembling at his sides.
A shadowy figure emerges from the darkness behind the tech, footsteps echoing ominously in the room. As the figure draws closer, the light reveals Taranis Kane. Ulysses’ eyes Hannibal with fury, a hurricane of emotions threatening to break free.
“You monster! Kill me now, ’cause I’ll never break my oath!” Ulysses snarls, defiance lacing his voice.
Taranis stands unfazed. “We’ll see about that.”
He plays a video on his phone, revealing Ulysses’ wife and daughter, their eyes wide with terror, mouths gagged and bodies bound. Menacing figures in masks prowl around them, guns at the ready. The fear and helplessness in their eyes cut deep into Ulysses’ heart.
“No, please!” he pleads, the horror in his voice palpable.
Taranis taunts him, “Still feeling so strong now?”
Ulysses’ gaze drops, his spirit crushed. “What do you need?” he whispers, the fight gone from his voice.
Students chatter and munch on their lunches. Gaia sits by herself, her focus on the drawing in front of her. A group of students, led by the one she previously fought, approaches her. Gaia swallows hard, her heart racing as they fix their gazes on her. The lead student crosses her arms.
“So, your sister’s on Last Valkyrie now?” she inquires.
“Yeah,” Gaia mumbles, her voice barely audible.
Instead of the expected hostility, the student breaks into a grin and throws her hands up. “That’s awesome! Your sister is so cool!”
The students around her erupt in cheers, their enthusiasm contagious. “Your family is hardcore!”
More students swarm around Gaia, joining in the jubilant celebration. Gaia looks around, stunned by the unexpected support. As the warmth of their acceptance washes over her, she can’t help but let a small, shy smile form on her lips.
Octavius Firestone, a man with a chiseled jawline and piercing eyes, awoke in a luxurious high-rise apartment. The room was adorned with opulent furniture, and the stunning New York City skyline stretched beyond the window. He stretched his long arms into the air, sandwiched between two sleeping women with tousled hair.
The first woman stirred and gazed at Octavius with admiration. “There’s the chosen one, no pun intended.”
“What can I say? I’m blessed,” he replied, a smirk playing on his lips.
Her eyes glinted with ambition. “Maybe some of that blessing can rub off on me, and I get accepted into Last Valkyrie next year.”
Octavius chuckled playfully. “Where would the fun be in competing for someone who isn’t me?”
“Perhaps we can have our own little tournament right now,” the woman suggested, her voice sultry and a seductive smile gracing her lips.
Octavius laughed, his eyes dancing between the two women. “I like you both too much to have to choose.”
He draped a plush robe over his shoulders and sauntered into the kitchen. The remnants of a wild party lay scattered about, with people strewn across the floor and couch, and red cups, food, and paper plates littering the space. Sebastian, his butler, stood over a long table, immaculately dressed in a uniform complete with a stylish mustache, as he prepared breakfast.
“Good morning, sir,” Sebastian said smoothly. “How did you sleep?”
Octavius winked at his loyal servant. “Let’s just say it was very heated if you know what I mean.”
“I know you too well and long to not know,” Sebastian replied, setting a plate of breakfast before him. “I hope I’m not spoiling your breakfast when I tell you, sir, but your father called for you to meet with him in his office this morning.”
Octavius sighed, dropping his utensils. “Can’t he just call me?”
“You know when it’s important, he likes to do it face to face,” Sebastian reminded him, a hint of concern in his eyes.
“Yeah, the only time he bothers to see me is when he wants to give me a lecture. Save the breakfast,” Octavius said, taking a bite of toast and sipping orange juice as he headed out of the apartment.
Outside the high-rise, Octavius, now impeccably dressed in a tailored suit, strolled with Sebastian toward a sleek hover car.
“I’ll pass on the hover today. I need some speed to get me up this morning,” Octavius decided, a gleam in his eye as he emerged from the garage in a red sports car that roared to life.
Sebastian’s brow furrowed with worry. “Might I caution against driving such a powerful car at high speeds on the road without autopilot, sir.”
“If the speed doesn’t kill me, life will!” Octavius shouted, accelerating with a wild laugh. He weaved between cars, his speedometer shooting past 70 miles per hour. He narrowly missed a car as he blew through a red light, his laughter echoing through the air.
“Get the hell out of the way!” he hollered, his voice filled with adrenaline.
A police drone turned on its sirens and pursued the car. “Pull over now!” it demanded. Octavius waved his ID at the drone, which scanned it and then apologized. “Sorry for the misunderstanding, Mr. Firestone. Have a wonderful day.”
Octavius pulled into the parking lot of a striking building, its glass and metal facade reflecting the sunlight and casting an impressive glow. As he entered the immaculate lobby, dynamic holographic displays danced and swirled around him. Atlas, a man in his early 30s with glasses perched on his nose, stood by a door, engrossed in a holographic tablet. He adeptly multitasked, keeping an eye on various floating screens. As Octavius approached, Atlas’s gaze lifted from the tablet. His eyes briefly revealed a veiled hint of disapproval as he took in the sight of the Firestone, before swiftly regaining composure.
“The prodigal son returns,” Atlas sighed, his voice laced with sarcasm.
“Return? I never left. I’m just back from indulging in some… pleasure,” Octavius retorted, smirking.
Atlas narrowed his eyes. “Does it take practice to be this arrogant, or is it a natural talent?”
“When you’re as gifted as I am, it comes effortlessly,” Octavius fired back, his voice brimming with confidence.
“Right, because you never have to work for anything, do you?” Atlas scoffed.
“Ahh, Atlas. Cheer up. My father will always need someone to polish his shoes and attend to his needs,” Octavius said dismissively, brushing past him toward the office.
“I can’t believe 32 women want to kill each other just to marry you,” Atlas muttered, shaking his head in disbelief.
“I know, right? It should be at least 40,” Octavius quipped, his arrogance unfazed.
But as he reached for the door panel, he took a deep breath, and for a brief moment, his confident façade wavered. He straightened his tie and smoothed down his suit jacket, his playful demeanor giving way to a more solemn expression. With one last steeling breath, he stepped through the slider doors.
Inside the laboratory, the high-tech, visionary space hums with luminous holographic displays and gleaming chrome accents, which intermingle with the minimalist furnishings, creating an atmosphere of innovation. An array of sophisticated equipment and intricate devices fills the space, each component breathing life into the lab.
Nero stands at a workbench, his suit jacket draped over a nearby chair. His lean arms are exposed by his tank top as he wears protective goggles, carefully wiring a complex device. Octavius, his son, rolls his eyes with a sarcastic smirk.
“You’re the wealthiest man alive, Dad,” Octavius scoffs, crossing his arms. “Why bother with tinkering when you could just hire someone or use a machine to do it for you?”
Nero, without looking up, replies in a stern tone, “A man must never allow his wealth to make him complacent. I must keep my mind and body honed. Prosperous times breed weak men—”
“And weak men create difficult times, yes,” Octavius interrupts, waving his hand dismissively. “You’ve quoted that ancient internet meme to us a million times growing up.”
Nero looks up, his eyes locking onto Octavius’s. “There’s wisdom in those words, Octavius. Especially now. Sebastian informed me about your constant partying.”
Octavius leans against the wall, smirking. “I’m just enjoying life, Dad.”
Nero narrows his eyes. “Not when the show is about to begin.”
Octavius pushes away from the wall, frustration in his voice. “Why must we participate at all? We already control the world. Isn’t that enough?”
Nero sets the device down and removes his goggles and gloves before turning to face his son, his expression serious.
“Power is never guaranteed, which is why we must constantly work to maintain it. So we can pass it to our children, and they to theirs. We have to fight to protect our legacy and avoid the fate of the Arcadians.”
Octavius’s face hardens. “We’ll never end up like them.”
“That’s what they believed, too. It’s time for you to step up and do what’s right for our family.”
Octavius lowers his head and sighs, his shoulders slumping. Nero places a reassuring hand on his son’s shoulder, his voice softening. “You’re a Firestone. My son. There’s nothing we cannot accomplish.”
Octavius glances over his shoulder, his voice barely a whisper, fear in his eyes. “But what if they don’t like me?”
Nero locks eyes with him, his posture firm and resolute, radiating unwavering conviction. “They won’t have a choice, my son.”
Irma sits on a bench, surrounded by ducks that eagerly gather for the food she scatters for them. She smiles as she gently pets one of them. He sniffs occasionally, a faint trace of white powder lingering just below his nostril.
“You look like a mess,” Irma comments, her eyes filled with concern.
“Hermes is on me about getting ratings up this season,” Hannibal admits, his voice strained.
“It’s bothering you,” she observes astutely.
“It’s killing me. The pressure is increasing. I don’t know how I can manage it all.”
Irma rises from the bench and stops feeding the ducks. She turns to face Hannibal, her gaze steady and reassuring.
“You’re the host of the most-watched show ever, commanding billions of viewers. You hold the reins of the Valkyries’ destinies, shaping the future of the world. No one else could possibly fill your shoes.”
“You really believe that?” Hannibal asks, his voice barely a whisper.
“Nobody can do it better.”
Hannibal embraces Irma, tears streaming down his face as he smiles through his gratitude.
“You don’t know how much that means to me,” he murmurs.
Irma sheds a tear as well, her heart swelling with pride and affection.
“And if it’s ratings you’re worried about, I have an idea.”
Torin stands impatiently outside Nova’s house, hands in his pockets and eyes scanning the street. The door open and Gaia appears, her expression a mixture of solemnity and determination.
“We waited until she left as you asked,” Torin says cautiously. “Ready to help now?”
Gaia nods, her eyes flickering with resolve. “Yes. Last time I saw Nova before she vanished, she said she was going to Fable’s place.”
Torin furrows his brow, connecting the dots. “Hold on. Nova visits Fable, and then they both end up on that show? This can’t be a mere coincidence. We need to talk to her sister; maybe she knows more.”
Gaia hesitates, her voice tinged with doubt. “We’re not Peacekeepers, Torin. I doubt she’ll just hand over information to strangers.”
Torin smirks and tilts his head confidently. “We share a past, Gaia. Let’s hope that’s enough to persuade her.”
The sleek hovercraft cuts through the sky, its streamlined form gliding effortlessly above the azure ocean. It is approaching a cluster of islands, each more breathtaking than the last. One boasts verdant, tropical mountains that pierce the clouds like the fingers of a giant. Smaller islets, scattered like jewels across the sea, form a stunning backdrop for the grand mansion that dominates one of the larger islands. The hovercraft touches down near the mansion, its engines humming softly.
Nova steps out, joining the other Valkyries as they proceed through an ornate gilded gate. The mansion’s massive double doors open automatically, revealing opulent interiors that hint at a world of wealth and power. Nova and Fable catch each other’s eyes and fall into step beside one another, their gaze fixed forward, both aware of the challenges ahead.
“How is Saylor?” Nova inquires, her voice low.
“Excited, like any little girl would be. What about your mom and Gaia?” Fable replies, her tone cautious.
“They’re trying their best to accept it,” Nova admits, her eyes betraying a hint of worry.
“Like any concerned mother and sister would,” Fable agrees, giving Nova a supportive squeeze on the arm.
A ghost of a smile flickers across Nova’s face, but it is short-lived.
As the Valkyries stride down a hall adorned with marble flooring, the strains of a haunting classical piece fill the air. The walls are lined with golden statues of former winners of the Last Valkyrie, a grim reminder of the competition’s high stakes. Nova pauses in front of one labeled ‘Nokomis the Great,’ which features gold-plated armor marked with battle scars. A petite woman bustles past, bumping into Nova.
“Watch it!” she snaps before hurrying away, leaving Nova with a growing sense of unease.
The women file into a living room, where Hannibal and Irma stand on a balcony, surveying them like predators. Hannibal grins lasciviously.
“Y’all look like some snacks I could just eat up!” he announces, chuckling darkly.
“Drop your phones in the slots on the walls,” Irma instructs, her voice cold and distant.
Each woman complies, and chrome phones emerge from the slots in return.
“These will be your new phones,” Irma says, her eyes scanning the room.
A door opens, and a group of people in gray tunics emerge. They wear metal face masks, their expressions unreadable, and stand beside a Valkyrie, each with a barcode tattooed on the back of their neck.
“These are your servers. They’ll show you to your rooms,” Irma informs them, her voice clipped.
“Tonight, we’ll be on the late show for the interviews. Until then, make yourselves at home. After all, for thirty-one of you, this will be your last,” Hannibal adds, his laughter echoing like a harbinger of doom as he and Irma depart.
Nova’s server, a young woman in her early twenties, bows and leads the way. Nova follows her into an elevator, her heart heavy with apprehension. The server maintains a stoic expression, staring straight ahead.
“What’s your name?” Nova asks, attempting to connect with the young woman.
The server remains silent, her eyes devoid of emotion. She guides Nova down a corridor to a door equipped with an eye scanner. It scans Nova’s eyes and opens.
Nova enters her room, her eyes widening as she takes in the luxurious suite. The door opens again, and Venus strides in with her entourage, her confidence palpable.
“How did you get in?” Nova questions, her voice tense.
“Managers have access, too,” Venus replies with a smirk.
“That ‘s not private at all,” Nova protests.
“You’re on TV with a bomb in your head, sweetheart. You have no privacy,” Venus reminds her, a cruel glint in her eyes.
“Oh, please. Don’t you watch the show?” Venus scoffs. “There’s no cameras here. They don’t start rolling until the interviews. It already knows.”
Venus gestures to the side. Nova turns and sees the server still standing there, head bowed.
“You haven’t left?” Nova asks her, her voice gentle.
“Aye, girl, since you want to be a statue, how about you fix me something to drink? A Martian Martini, on the hop!” Venus orders, her tone mocking.
The server remains still, her posture rigid.
“That’s right, you have to order them. Can you?” Venus challenges, her eyes narrowed.
“It’s fine. You can leave now. Thank you,” Nova says politely, her gaze on the server.
The server departs, leaving Nova alone with Venus and her entourage.
“We could have used her,” Venus comments, unfazed. “Anyway, we need to get you ready soon.”
Torin and Gaia walk towards Fable’s sister’s house. The air is heavy with the scent of burnt metal and distant sirens linger. Torin bangs on the shed. The door slightly slides open, revealing Richie’s sweaty, bloodshot-eyed face. Torin, furrows his brow, puzzled by Richie’s nervous demeanor.
“Where’s Jazz?” Torin demands, his voice sharp and commanding.
“She went out to eat with her friends,” Richie stammers, his gaze darting around anxiously.
“She went with her too.”
“Then why are you here?” Torin inquires, suspicion etching lines into his face.
“Uhhh… she wanted me to watch her house. You know how bad things can get around here.” Richie’s voice trembles, betraying his fear.
Torin narrows his eyes, the weight of his past experiences fueling his distrust. “Fable and Jazz would never allow you anywhere near them or Saylor.”
Richie glances back nervously. “I have to prepare dinner for them when they come back.”
Torin retorts, his voice tense and accusatory, “I thought you said they went out to eat. Why would they need dinner?”
Richie remains silent, cornered. He attempts to close the door, but Torin’s strong arm pushes it open, allowing them to barge in.
Richie darts to the couch, brandishing a gun at the duo. They freeze, their hearts pounding in their chests.
“You shouldn’t have come,” Richie quivers, his finger twitching on the trigger.
“We just want to know that Jazz and Saylor are alright,” Torin insists, trying to keep his voice steady despite the rising panic.
“They would have been if they had stopped talking,” Richie replies, his voice trembling with desperation.
“What have you done?” Torin demands, urgency lacing his words.
Richie cocks the gun, determination and fear warring on his face. “I have no choice.”
Gaia interjects, “You don’t want to shoot us. You’ll go to prison.”
“No one will ever know,” Richie insists, his eyes wild.
Gaia’s voice remains calm and steady as she counters, “They already do. I put a hidden camera on my necklace that’s been live-streaming since we got here.”
“Bullshit!” Richie exclaims, shaking with the gun.
“My sister is on Last Valkyrie. I thought I’d start a vlog,” Gaia explains, her voice unwavering.
Richie hesitates, the gun trembling in his grip. “You can’t afford good cops.”
Gaia’s composure never falters. “Anything happens to me, and she finds out, she’ll use the resources on the show to put you away.”
Terrified, Richie flees the house. Gaia exhales heavily, her body trembling with adrenaline.
“I didn’t know you were recording,” Torin admits, his voice tight.
“I wasn’t,” Gaia admits, her breath coming in heavy gasps. “But he wasn’t smart enough to call my bluff.”
With urgency driving them, Torin and Gaia search the bedrooms, calling out for Jazz and Saylor. Each room is filled with guns and mysterious chemical equipment, evidence of darker plots unfolding. Gaia enters one room and halts, gasping with a cold stare.
“Torin,” she calls out, her voice strained with concern.
Torin rushes in, his heart pounding with dread. “Oh, God.”
Before them, Jazz and Saylor are gagged and tied to chairs, struggling to break free. Their eyes, wide with fear, plead for help.
The blue and red lights of police cars and an ambulance cast a surreal glow on the front of the house. Jazz and, sit on the back of the ambulance, both trembling from the recent events. A medical droid examines them with a high-tech flashlight, its voice synthetic yet soothing.
“You two are good. There’s no physical trauma,” it says.
Jazz pulls Saylor close, wrapping her arms around her. “I want mommy,” Saylor whispers, her voice breaking.
“I know,” Jazz replies, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.
Torin, approaches them, his eyes filled with concern. “Are you alright?”
Jazz looks up at him, her face a mix of relief and anguish. “Physically, yes, but mentally, it may take a while. Richie just barged right in.”
Torin’s expression hardens. “He won’t be coming around here anymore. In the meantime, use Fable’s funds from the show to afford a lengthy search for him.”
Jazz nods, her gaze searching his face. “So, why did you come here?”
“We wanted to see if you knew anything about the night Fable left.”
Jazz’s voice falters as she speaks. “She said she was going out with Nova. I know now it was just a story for them going to get picked up by the show.”
Torin studies her, his jaw clenched. “She didn’t say anything else?”
Jazz shakes her head, but Saylor chimes in, her eyes wide and innocent. “Mommy was going to get some highlighters!”
Torin frowns, puzzled. “Highlighters?”
Jazz chuckles, though it’s tinged with sadness. “Never mind her. You know kids.”
Saylor, undeterred, continues. “She sent me to bed, but I overheard her and Nova talking about getting highlighters to sell.”
Jazz and Torin exchange worried glances. Gaiasteps forward, her brow furrowed. “Highlighters is what the kids at my high school call e-dope. It’s slang.”
Jazz’s eyes narrow as she turns to Saylor, her tone stern. “Saylor, you shouldn’t know anything about that!”
“The kids at school showed me a video of it,” Saylor says defensively.
Jazz sighs. “We’ll talk about this later. Go back inside, and this time go to bed.”
Saylor reluctantly obeys, and Jazz rubs her temples, her face drawn. “I didn’t know Fable had been selling e-dope again.”
“Who would she get it from?” Torin asks, his voice tight with worry.
Jazz hesitates before answering. “A man named Vex. I can text you his info.”
Torin nods, grateful. “Thank you so much. If you need anything, please let me know.”
As Gaia walks to the car, Jazz turns to Torin, her eyes searching his face. “What’s this about?”
“None of this bothers you? Fable and Nova go out to get drugs, tell you they’re hanging out, and they end up on Last Valkyrie?” Torin questions, his frustration evident.
Jazz’s voice is soft but steady. “Of course it does, but I realize that despite how much we love them, they’re their own person, and they’ll make their own decisions. We just have to live with it.”
Torin’s jaw clenches. “I don’t.”
Jazz reaches out and places a comforting hand on his arm. “Torin, I know how you feel with her leaving all of a sudden. Imagine how Gaia feels inside. But don’t waste time trying to get an answer to satisfy yourself. Just enjoy these moments because you don’t know when they will end.”
Torin’s eyes glisten with unshed tears, and his jaw clenches as he struggles with the emotions raging within him. Finally, unable to contain the turmoil any longer, he shakes his head and whispers, “I can’t.”
Atira sits in the coffee shop with her friends Sydney and Diana, sipping on their warm beverages, the rich aroma of coffee filling the air
Sydney smiles warmly, her eyes crinkling at the corners. “We’ve missed you, Atira. It’s great to have you back with us.”
Atira raises her cup in gratitude. “I thank God for bringing me here.”
Diana chimes in, her voice laced with excitement. “And we have Nova to thank as well. It’s incredible that she’s on the show, isn’t it?”
Atira’s eyebrows lift, a hint of surprise in her eyes. “You really think so?”
“Absolutely!” Diana exclaims. “Not only did you get healed, but now she’s going to be on TV. Nova’s a tough girl; I’m sure she’ll sail through the first few rounds. And if she starts having doubts, she can always leave.”
Sydney leans in, concern etched on her face. “How are you handling all of this?”
Atira sighs, her expression a mix of emotions. “It’s a lot to adjust to, especially with the constant fear of losing her. But Diana’s right—Nova’s strong, and she knows when to step back.”
Sydney furrows her brow, probing further. “But there can only be one winner. Does that not worry you?”
A determined glint appears in Atira’s eyes. “It’s her choice, and I support her completely.”
Diana nods reassuringly. “Besides, now that Nova’s a Valkyrie, your family is well taken care of. Life is finally looking up for you.”
Atira smiles and raises her cup. “Amen to that!”
The three friends clink their glasses and drink, sharing a moment of solidarity. But as Atira takes a sip, her smile fades. A man with a bald spot approaches their table.
“Atira?” the man questions.
Atira’s face lights up with joy. “West! How have you been?”
They embrace warmly, and West replies, “I’ve been great. Vicky is off to college now.”
Atira beams, genuinely happy for him. “That’s wonderful. I’m proud of her.”
West grins, “You look amazing! Not that you weren’t before, but even better! I see Nova is on Last Valkyrie now.”
Atira nods, “Yeah, it’s a blessing, isn’t it?”
West’s expression darkens. “Is that what you tell yourself to go to sleep at night?”
Atira frowns, taken aback. “I’m sorry?”
West leans in closer, his voice angry. “After what the Corporate Syndicate and especially the Firestones did to your family, she wants to get in bed with one?”
Sydney snaps, “Excuse you?”
West ignores her, his face inches from Atira’s. “Who does that rotten child think she is?”
Diana rises, her face red with anger. “You need to leave now!”
West storms off, leaving the women shaken. Diana tries to comfort Atira. “What a jerk! Don’t listen to him.”
Atira remains silent, her gaze fixed on the floor, lost in a daze. The once lively atmosphere around her now feels heavy and oppressive. As her friends continue to chat, Atira’s mind races, her heart aching as if it’s been ripped out. She clutches her cup tightly, trying to steady herself amidst the whirlwind of emotions.
Nova stands in her suite, naked and vulnerable, as she hastily covers herself up.
“Oh, put your arms down. We’ve already seen what you look like,” Venus scoffs, her voice dripping with condescension.
Nova hesitates but slowly lowers her arms, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment. The team of stylists gets to work, transforming her into a vision of radiant beauty. They apply makeup to her dark skin, making it glisten and dewy. Her eyelids and cheeks sparkle with gold, and her lips shine with a rich, chocolate lipstick.
Next, they give her a meticulous manicure, perfecting her nails before coating them with gold. Venus takes care of Nova’s hair, braiding the sides and curling the rest of her afro, running it through the center of her braids on top. They spray her entire body with a shimmering oil, making her skin gleam in the soft light of the room. Venus then brings over a briefcase.
“Close your eyes,” she instructs.
Nova complies, her heart racing with anticipation. She feels the silk of the dress envelop her, followed by the delicate sensation of high heels being placed on her feet. She fidgets, unused to the sensation.
They fasten a gold necklace composed of several rings around her neck before Venus gives her permission to open her eyes.
“You can open them now.”
Nova gasps, her reflection in the mirror taking her breath away. Her skin and eyes sparkle with the purple dress, adorned with gold, pink, and blue star-shaped gems.
“Nova the Star,” Venus proclaims, a hint of pride in her voice.
As Nova tiptoes and wobbles, the gems light up with each step.
“Haven’t you worn a dress and high heels before?” Venus asks, raising an eyebrow.
“At prom and a funeral,” Nova replies, her hands beginning to sweat.
As she goes to wipe her palms on her dress, Venus interjects with a firm “No” and hands her a handkerchief instead.
“There’s going to be a lot of patrons in the crowd tonight. You want to impress them if you want them on your side throughout the show. Don’t be boring, play an angle, get a reaction. I’ll be in the front row, so if you get stuck, look at me,” Venus advises.
Nova takes a deep breath, her nerves fraying at the edges. She glances out the window, watching as the sun dips below the horizon, casting the world in a warm, golden glow. The night is just beginning, and with it, the start of the Last Valkyrie.
Inside Fable’s opulent suite, the soft glow of neon lights bathes the room as she slips into her stunning dress, crafted from shimmering fabric that seems to change color as it moves. She joins a video call withSaylor and Jazz, their holographic images flickering into existence before her.
“Richie’s been found,” Jazz announces, her voice edged with relief.
“Good. I hope he pays for what he did,” Fable responds, her tone icy. “How’s my little girl?”
Saylor’s face lights up, her eyes shimmering with excitement. “I’m okay! I can’t wait to see you on TV tonight, Mom! Are you going to win?”
Fable hesitates, glancing at Jazz, who gives her a subtle nod. Smiling reassuringly at her daughter, she replies, “You bet’cha.”
“You’re wearing it!” Saylor chirps, her holographic image waving energetically.
“Of course!” Fable says, her heart swelling with love as she holds up a unicorn pendant around her neck. “It’s going to be with me always to remind me of you.”
Just then, Fable’s manager strides into the room, the door hissing open to admit him. “It’s almost time,” he informs her, his voice tinged with urgency.
“I’ll be thinking about you, sweetheart. Mommy has to go. I love you,” Fable says, blowing a kiss toward the hologram.
“I love you too!” Saylor exclaims as the call ends, her image dissolving into thin air.
Fable’s smile fades, and her eyes betray her anxiety as she gazes at the spot where her daughter’s image once stood.
Meanwhile, Hannibal sits in a sleek hover car, its exterior adorned with glowing lines that trace its contours. He engages in a hologram call with Hermes. “Remember what we talked about, Hannibal,” Hermes reminds him, her face stern.
“Yes ma’am,” Hannibal replies, his voice firm. As the call ends, his confident smile fades. He wipes the sweat from his face with a towel and snorts a line of cocaine, seeking solace in the temporary rush it provides.
In another hover car, Nova and Venus watch through the tinted windows as Valkyries and their managers walk the red carpet, waving at the crowds while reporters snap photos. The vehicle lands in front of the red carpet, its thrusters humming softly. Venus turns to Nova, her eyes glittering with excitement. “Just smile and wave,” she advises, her voice a practiced whisper.
As they step out, the barrage of camera flashes overwhelms Nova. She blinks, holding her hands up to shield her eyes. Venus, ever the consummate professional, smiles and waves. Nova attempts to mimic her, but she wobbles in her towering heels. Venus grabs her arm for support, her grip steady and firm.
“Here, just walk with me at my pace before you embarrass yourself,” Venus chides gently, her words tinged with amusement.
As they strut down the red carpet, a reporter calls out to Nova. “Hey, Nova! How about a picture?”
Confused, she looks to Venus, who sighs and leans in. “Put your hands on your hips and lean,” she instructs, her voice a soft hiss.
Following her mentor’s guidance, Nova strikes a pose that captures the attention of the eager reporter. Together, they continue their journey down the red carpet and into the building.
Back at Nova’s house, Atira and Gaia sit in the living room, the glow of the television casting flickering shadows on their faces as they watch
As Gaia curiously watches the scene, Atira stands behind her, a shadow of worry flickering across her face. Catching her daughter’s glance, Atira’s expression transforms into a subtle smile, masking her concern with practiced ease.
In the backstage area, Venus and Nova enter an elevator together, the soft hum of its anti-gravity system filling the small space. Venus’s foot taps nervously as they ascend. She pulls out a capsule and snorts a line of cocaine, seeking to steady her nerves. Offering it to Nova, she raises an eyebrow in challenge.
Nova, however, declines with a wave of her hand. Venus’s eyes narrow. “You think you’re better than me?” she challenges, her voice laced with bitterness.
“What?” Nova replies, taken aback by the sudden hostility.
Venus pauses, then smiles, her face softening. “Nothing. Just remember what I told you. You got this, girl!” With that, Venus steps out of the elevator, leaving Nova behind to gather her thoughts.
Nova eventually finds herself backstage behind the curtains, where the Valkyries wait according to their assigned numbers. The air buzzes with anticipation, and she can feel the energy of her fellow competitors. She spots Fable, who is lined up in front of her, her face a mixture of determination and apprehension.
“Are you ready for this?” Fable asks her, her voice barely audible above the murmur of the crowd beyond the curtain.
“I don’t know,” Nova admits, her heart pounding in her chest.
“I don’t think any of us are,” Fable reassures her, offering a weak smile of camaraderie.
An announcer’s voice booms through the curtains, capturing the audience’s attention and sending a ripple of excitement through the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, now the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Welcome Pegasus Storm!”
Pegasus Storm, with silver long hair, a metal-plated jaw, and glowing blue cybernetic eyes, strides confidently onto the futuristic stage, basking in the spotlight as the crowd roars with excitement. Holographic banners and neon lights illuminate the auditorium.
With a broad smile, Pegasus announces, “It is so great to have my show chosen as the host for the interviews this year! Let’s begin!”
The Valkyries, each a unique blend of skill and charisma, take turns on stage, giving interviews as Pegasus asks them engaging ‘get to know you’ questions. The audience reacts to their stories and their goals, the energy in the room palpable.
Ember, the petite but fierce fighter, confidently declares, “I may be small, but my enemies’ blood loss won’t be!” The crowd gasps in awe.
Helga, a tall, muscular woman with a thick chin, stands tall on stage. “I’m going to annihilate everyone but not before I find out what god they pray to,” she says with a smirk.
Pegasus laughs nervously, chuckling, “Say your prayers, everyone.”
The crowd laughs along with him.
As the interviews continue, Bella, a striking woman with flowing, silken hair that cascades down her back and eyes that shimmer like twin galaxies, takes center stage. Her presence is immediately magnetic, and the audience can’t help but be drawn to her.
Pegasus looks at her curiously, “Bella, what sets you apart from the other contestants and what would you bring to this competition?”
Bella smiles warmly, her eyes twinkling with determination. She takes a deep breath and begins, “Growing up as an orphan in poverty, I faced abuse and constant struggle. But through the hardships, I discovered an unwavering spirit within me and the power to overcome.”
She pauses, her voice filled with emotion. “I’ve dedicated my life to helping the less fortunate: sick children, the homeless, and disabled vets. Win I win this, I will use my influence and power to help those without a voice on a greater level.”
The audience listens intently as Bella continues, “I dedicate this to my rescue dog Max and my adoptive daughter Jani. Mom’s coming home babies.”
As she finishes, the audience erupts in applause, touched by her sincerity and moved by her story. A few even wipe away tears, clearly moved by her words. Pegasus grins, impressed by her.
As Fable takes the stage with a confident stride, her dress lights up with the vibrant audience. Saylor and Jazz watch the show from home, Saylor’s eyes wide with excitement. “That’s mommy!” Saylor exclaims as Fable takes center stage.
Pegasus grins at Fable and dives into his questions, his cybernetic eyes twinkling. “Did your daughter give you that necklace?”
“Yes she did,” Fable says confidently.
“Everyone, take a look at this 5 year old sweetheart.” A holographic picture of Saylor materializes above the stage, eliciting awestruck murmurs from the audience. “What would you like to say to her?”
Fable gazes at the image, her eyes shining with pride. “Saylor, I’m going to win this for you, and we’ll be able to eat all the ice cream in the world.”
“Yeah!” Saylor shouts back at the house, her face alight with joy.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Fable!” Pegasus announces when the buzzer sounds. The crowd claps, but their reaction pales in comparison to the thunderous applause given to the other Valkyries, like Helga and Ember.
“Next, from San Francisco as well, Nova!” Pegasus calls. Nova hesitates for a moment, then gathers her courage and strides through the curtain. She waves and smiles at the crowd, and Pegasus embraces her warmly.
“Doesn’t she look beautiful?” Atira says back at the house, her eyes soft with admiration.
Torin and his family watch the show, the twins bouncing up and down in excitement. Torin’s gaze remains fixed on Nova, captivated by her presence.
“I must say, this dress is stunning! What are these gems made of?” Pegasus inquires.
“They come straight from Mars,” Nova replies, her voice steady.
“Your name is Nova, and you’re rocking gems from another planet. You truly are from the stars, aren’t you!?”
The audience erupts in applause, and Pegasus laughs while Nova chuckles hesitantly.
“What can I say? Our parents loved astrology,” Nova says, a hint of warmth in her voice.
“Speaking of parents,” Pegasus continues, his tone growing somber. “You had a father who died serving Firestone Industries, didn’t you?”
Nova swallows hard and nods, her eyes glistening. “Yes.”
“Let us all take a moment to honor the brave fallen of the Corporate Syndicate . Where would our society be if not for their sacrifice?”
The audience claps solemnly, a heavy silence settling over the room.
“Nova, why did you join the Last Valkyrie?” Pegasus asks, his voice gentle yet probing.
Nova hesitates, her eyes flicking to Venus, who twirls her finger in a circling motion. Taking a deep breath, Nova steels herself and opens her eyes, a newfound determination shining within them.
“As you all know, Fable and I are both from Shed Court. We’re best friends, actually,” she says, her voice tinged with warmth. “We signed up together, hoping that we both would be chosen so that at least one of us could win.”
Pegasus raises an eyebrow. “You’re okay with the fact that at least one of you won’t make it?”
Nova’s expression grows somber, her eyes welling up with unshed tears. “Coming from where we are, life is hard. That’s why we made a vow: if one of us wins, we’ll help the other’s family. It’s the sacrifice we’ve chosen to make, in order to support the ones we love, even if it means death.”
The auditorium falls silent, the weight of Nova’s words hanging heavy in the air. The buzzer sounds, signaling the end of her interview, but the audience remains hushed for a moment longer. Finally, Pegasus leads the crowd in applause.
“That was wonderful, absolutely heartfelt! Ladies and gentlemen, Nova!” he exclaims.
The crowd rises to their feet, the applause thundering through the futuristic hall, as holographic banners and spotlights create a dazzling display. Nova bows slightly and walks to her seat, her eyes downcast. As soon as she sits, she glances toward Fable, who watches her with a mixture of confusion and concern.
“Now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The man, the apex, the Chosen One—Octavius Firestone!” Pegasus voice thunders through the colossal stadium, as anticipation hangs thick in the air.
As the stadium’s massive doors open, a blinding light fills the arena, as if the heavens themselves are welcoming Octavius. He descends on a gleaming levitating disk, his enigmatic face hidden behind sleek, light-reflecting shades. The crowd erupts into a deafening roar of applause and cheers, their excitement tense as sparks dancing in the night sky.
“Octavius, look at this electrifying sea of humanity!” Pegasus exclaims, his voice brimming with awe. “There’s no doubt they’re thrilled to have you as the Chosen One!”
Grinning, Octavius replies, “Well, it’s like what they say—Octavius fever is running wild! When I got the call that our family was chosen, I knew destiny had come knocking. So I embrace this opportunity. I’m the Chosen One. I’m the man. This is greatness!”
The crowd’s cheers reach a fever pitch, a tidal wave of adoration, before gradually subsiding.
“Now, Octavius, who will you choose to be your Shield Maiden tonight?” Pegasus asks, his eyes gleaming with curiosity.
Octavius gazes at the line of Valkyries, women of unparalleled beauty and strength.
“You’re all awe-inspiring women with incredible stories, but there’s one who caught my eye tonight.” The crowd holds its collective breath. With an air of unshakable confidence, Octavius declares, “Bella.”
A spotlight illuminates Bella, her dimples deepening as she smiles. She gracefully strides towards Octavius, her gaze lowered in humility until she reaches him. They embrace, two bodies entwined, their hands locked together. Pegasus announces,
“We have the results of the audience vote for your first adventure together!” He pauses for dramatic effect, the crowd eagerly awaiting his announcement. “And the winner is… the halo jump from space!”
The room buzzes with excitement as the audience digests the thrilling news. With a nod and a smile, Octavius and Bella prepare for their daring escapade.
“Well, there you have it, folks. They’re off to a night of wonder, and we’ll see you at the reception!” Pegasus says, signing off.
After the Valkyries exit the stage, Nova bursts into the bathroom, her breaths shallow and ragged. She stares at her reflection in the mirror, a ghost of her former self, before rushing into a stall and retching violently. Fable storms in after her, a tempest of anger and concern.
“What the hell was that story out there?” Fable demands, her voice strained with emotion.
“I- I didn’t know what else to say. It just… came in my mind,” Nova stammers, her voice trembling.
“Did you forget, I have a daughter watching this show? Now what is she going to think?”
“You can’t keep shielding her,” Nova whispers, her eyes brimming with unspoken pain.
Fable’s eyes widen, her mouth agape with offense, as if she’d been slapped.
At that moment, Fable’s manager Zane, clad in a vibrant yellow suit and a powdered face, strides in with Venus, an air of cunning surrounding them. “It was a masterstroke for the two of you,” he says, a sly grin on his face.
“What are you talking about?” Fable asks, her voice laced with confusion.
“It’s all about how much the fans are invested in the story,” Venus explains, her voice as smooth as silk. “Nova created a narrative of two friends, bound by loyalty so strong they would face the very fires of hell for each other.”
“How does that help us?”
“The fans are rallying behind you two, so the patrons will back you and send you state-of-the-art weapons and armor. You’ll both need that if you want to make it far in this cosmic dance of life and death,” Venus says knowingly.
“Right now, we should all work together and help them ascend as high as possible,” Zane chimes in.
“An alliance?” Fable proposes, her eyebrows arching in surprise.
“That’s what managers do.”
“And you’re not worried we won’t be pitted against each other?” Nova asks cautiously.
Nova and Fable exchange nervous glances, their hearts heavy with unspoken fear.
“It’ll eventually happen. But as long as the fans root for you, the show will want to prolong it as much as possible, assuming you two survive—which you will, with the help of patrons,” Venus reassures them.
“I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to say, so I lied,” Nova admits, her voice shaking.
Venus chuckles warmly, placing a comforting hand on Nova’s shoulder. “Dear, it’s show business. Haven’t you realized by now, everything we do is a finely woven tapestry of illusion? Now come on, we’ve got stars to align and galaxies to conquer.”
With that, they leave the sanctuary of the bathroom, preparing to face the vast world that lay before them.
In the opulent ballroom, a kaleidoscope of colors dances across the walls, casting an enchanting glow on the eclectic crowd. The air is perfumed with a heady mix of exotic spices and expensive perfumes, further adding to the intoxicating ambiance. Animated conversations fill the room, the sound of laughter and clinking glasses creating a symphony of merriment. Hovering discreetly above the revelers, camera drones capture every moment, ensuring that audiences around the world can experience the extravagance and indulge in the festivities vicariously.
Among the attendees, cybernetic enhancements and robotic limbs glint in the dim light. Valkyries, mingle with the influential patrons, their managers expertly guiding them through the maze of introductions. Nova clings nervously to Venus’s arm as Venus gently chides her.
“Darlin’, lift your feet, straighten your back, and walk like you own the room. Let ’em see your confidence.”
Nova’s gaze drifts upwards to the camera drones, causing Venus to chuckle warmly.
“Don’t worry about those cameras,” Venus reassures her. “You’ll just have to get used to them being around, except for a few private spots. Not that your privacy matters here.”
As they approach a group, Venus confidently steps forward.
“Folks, meet Nova.”
Her voice rings out like a bell, capturing the attention of those nearby.
Meredith, a woman adorned with diamond facial implants that shimmer like a constellation of stars, grasps Nova’s hand.
“So, this stunner is yours?” she purrs.
Meredith gently presses a lingering kiss on Nova’s hand, prompting Nova to withdraw it. Amused by Nova’s surprise, Meredith lets out a soft laugh.
Chester, clad in a sleek, form-fitting astronaut helmet offers a handshake, his grip firm and warm.
“You’re one brave woman, willing to risk turning your best friend’s daughter into an orphan.”
Emerson smirks, a fox tethered by his side.
“It’s not all bad. She could adopt the kid if she wins.”
They share a knowing look, while Nova tries to mask her shock.
Venus, ever the saleswoman, steps in.
“I know you’re all taken by Nova’s story. An investment in her would be a wise move.”
“We’re on board as her patrons,” Emerson assures them. “She’ll have the finest armor and weapons.”
Venus gives Nova a subtle, encouraging nod, and Nova follows her lead.
“Thank you,” she says, her voice quavering slightly.
As Nova tries to shake their hands, they back up.
“It’s not personal,” Meredith explains, her voice honeyed. “We like you, but we have certain… preferences. You understand.”
As the group departs, Venus consoles Nova. “Don’t take it to heart. Many in Delos look down on those from humble beginnings.”
“I’m used to it,” Nova replies, her voice tinged with sadness.
Throughout the evening, Venus introduces Nova to more patrons. Laughter and delight accompany each exchange, but Nova’s smiles are fleeting, her thoughts elsewhere.
Venus pats Nova reassuringly and glances towards the bar. “You’ll be fine for a few minutes, right? I could use another glass of wine.”
As Venus departs, Nova observes Fable captivating a large group. Fable’s dress sparkles as she twirls, drawing admiring gazes. Feeling out of place, Nova retreats to one of the other bars. A hefty, slovenly man, swaying slightly as he grips a champagne bottle, ogles Nova. He snaps his fingers to get her attention.
“Damn, you’re lookin’ fine!”
Nova attempts to evade his stare, but he persists. “It’s Luna, right?”
“Nova,” she corrects.
“Yeah, somethin’ like that,” the stranger slurs, placing a hand on hers. He leans in, his breath saturated with the pungent aroma of alcohol. “How ’bout I show you my hover-yatcht?”
Nova recoils. “Not interested.”
The stranger’s grip intensifies, his lecherous gaze unwavering.
“No need to be scared. I’ll take care of you.”
“Get off me!” Nova snaps, forcefully removing his grasp.
Wine cascades onto the floor, a vivid contrast against the metallic surface. His astonishment is swiftly replaced with fury
“How dare you?!”
He raises a hand to slap her, but Seraphine intervenes, seizing his wrist with calculated precision.
“I suggest you leave” Seraphine warns before releasing him.
He lunges at Seraphine, but she easily dodges and delivers a resounding blow, sending him sprawling to the ground. Attendants look on with concern as he staggers to his feet and stumbles away.
Seraphine orders a drink and takes a seat beside Nova.
“Thank you. I guess that’s two I owe you,” Nova says, her gratitude genuine.
“To fate,” Seraphine chuckles, raising her glass in a toast.
Their glasses clink together, the sound crisp and clear.
“Not much of a drinker?” Seraphine inquires, noticing Nova’s hesitation.
“Only when I’m nervous. I don’t want to slip up.”
“Don’t worry. There’ll be plenty of time to be on your toes. For now, relax. Everyone seems to like you so far.”
“But for how long?” Nova wonders aloud, her gaze drifting over the crowd.
“As long as you keep giving the fans what they want, patrons will support and bet on you,” Seraphine says confidently.
“Is that how you won?” Nova asks, curiosity piqued.
Seraphine’s smile fades, her eyes lost in distant memories. She stares at the bar counter, her thoughts a world away. Nova rises to leave, but Seraphine’s hand suddenly grasps hers. Seraphine’s gaze locks onto Nova’s, her voice low and steady.
“Survival is the only thing that matters.”
Nova pauses, considering Seraphine’s words, then nods solemnly before departing. As Nova walks away, Hannibal’s voice booms through the speakers, electrifying the atmosphere.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the death-defying Halo Jump!”
The audience focuses intently on the large holographic screen, their breaths held in anticipation as whispers of excitement fill the room.
On the space station, Octavius, confident and electrifying, helps Bella into her advanced exosuit. The suit’s weight is evident as it forms a second skin. “You ready for the adventure of a lifetime?” he asks, grinning.
Bella, her eyes shimmering with excitement and fear, nods.
“I’ve never done anything like this before, but I know we can do it together.” She squeezes his hand, reassured by his presence.
Smiling, Octavius guides her through the suit’s controls.
“We’ve got this. Just remember what I told you about the thrusters and navigation.”
As they stand at the airlock, Earth’s breathtaking view leaves them in awe. The countdown begins, echoing through the chamber. The airlock opens, revealing the void of space. They exchange a quick glance and leap into the abyss, the coldness of space enveloping them.
Their exosuits activate guidance systems and thermal shielding as they plummet. The wind whistles past, and they sense the heat intensifying. Octavius navigates the descent with precision, locking his gaze on the target, while Bella follows, unwavering.
“Bella, keep your eyes on me and follow my lead,” Octavius urges, guiding her through the turbulent atmosphere.
In the ballroom, the audience watches in awe, gripping their seats as the pair hurtle through the atmosphere. A mixture of amazement and concern fills the room. In the media room, Blaze stands with an air of sinister satisfaction, shadows casting an eerie aura around him. Beside him, Irma remains still, her face void of any expression, her eyes locked on the screen in a monotonous, mute gaze. People behind computers monitor the event intently. On the big screen, the Halo Jump unfolds, the viewer count nearing the high hundreds of millions. Blaze’s eyes gleam with dark excitement.
As they enter the lower atmosphere, Bella’ suit comes alive with flashing red warnings and urgent beeping. The heads-up display in her helmet indicates a critical malfunction with the parachute deployment system.
“Octavius! My chute won’t deploy!” she cries over the comms.
Octavius remains calm.
“Bella, take a deep breath. Try to manually release the chute. You can do this.”
The ballroom audience watches in horror, their eyes glued to the screen as Bella struggles. Faces contort with fear, hands cover mouths, and the atmosphere thickens. Blaze’s lips curl into a twisted smile, his hands clasped in a predatory manner.
“Wow!” he hisses with perverse delight.
Mid-air, Bella fumbles with the release mechanism, gasping in terror. Octavius stays close by her side, as he continues guiding her with determination in his voice.
“Bella, focus. Remember the training video, and trust yourself,” Octavius encourages her, his voice strained with worry.
As the ground rushes towards them at an alarming speed, Bella’ panic intensifies, and the landscape below becomes more distinct. Octavius, still free-falling, expertly maneuvers himself around Bella, trying to assess the malfunction. Desperate to help her, he attempts to reach out and grab her. However, strong air currents and turbulence push them apart, making it impossible for him to hold onto her. Realizing that time is running out, Octavius finally pulls his chute, slowing his descent.
“Bella, you have to find the manual release! It’s your last chance!” Octavius shouts, his voice cracking with desperation.
“I’m trying, Octavius! I can’t find it!” Bella cries out, her hands frantically searching for the elusive release as she hurtles towards the ground.
Time seems to slow as Bella continues to struggle. Panic turns to terror as she realizes her fate. As the ballroom audience watches with bated breath, Bella plummets towards the ground at terminal velocity. The force of her descent sends a chilling silence through the room as her body collides with the unforgiving ground. The sickening crunch of her bones shattering echoes in the air, her limbs contorting in unnatural angles, the result of the sheer force behind her impact. In mere moments, the once-elegant figure transforms into a crumpled mass of broken dreams and shattered elegance.
Octavius lands nearby, his face contorted in anguish, staring at the horrific aftermath. The surrounding landscape is a vast, sprawling grassland with rolling hills and lush greenery, a serene contrast to the horrific scene before him. The audience is speechless, reeling from the tragic events.
“Oh God!” Octavius cries.
Unable to contain his revulsion, he removes his helmet and succumbs to the urge to vomit, his body heaving as he tries to process the horror before him.
In the media room, Blaze watches, the shadows dancing across his face as his sickening grin grows, enthralled by the violence. The view count underneath the video shoots up from the high hundreds of millions to well over 2 billion and counting, fueling Blaze’s dark satisfaction.
Finally, the showing of the Halo Jump ends as the screen turns black with the message – We’ll resume broadcast shortly. The room buzzes with shock and disbelief. Blaze turns to the workers behind the computers, his grin still plastered on his face.
“Excellent job, everyone. The ratings are through the roof!” He claps his hands together, completely disregarding the tragedy that just occurred.”Get the extraction team ready, and have them snatch a girl who looks like Bella.”
The workers exchange uneasy glances, their faces a mix of horror and guilt. One brave soul musters the courage to speak up.
“Sir, a young woman just died. Shouldn’t we… I don’t know, show some respect?”
Blaze scoffs and waves the comment away. “Respect? This is the business of entertainment, my dear. It’s all about the thrill, the spectacle! The audience craves it. We merely provide what they want.”
In the ballroom, the audience slowly disperses, their expressions somber and eyes downcast as as the harrowing scene continues to unfold on the screen. The atmosphere is heavy with grief and shock. Whispers fill the air as they try to process the tragedy they’ve just witnessed.
Octavius towers over Bella, his eyes fixated on the horrifying wreckage of her body. Blood seeps from her eyes and mouth, a crimson stain on the once immaculate exosuit. Gory details reveal themselves as he looks closer: shattered bones protruding through torn flesh, her once beautiful face now a disfigured mask of agony. The twisted metal of the suit gnaws into her body, creating deep gouges that expose raw muscle and tissue. Her limbs, contorted beyond recognition, seem to silently scream the tale of the brutality that extinguished her life. Octavius can barely look at her. He bows his head in mourning, his tears falling on her lifeless face.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispers, tears streaming down his face.
Unseen above, the floating drone camera continues to broadcast the entire heart-wrenching scene to the world, capturing every raw emotion and somber detail.
Nova stands on the rooftop balcony, her hair dancing in the gentle breeze as she gazes at the cityscape. The metropolis stretches out before her, a maze of gleaming towers and hovercars humming through the air like metallic bees. The weight of recent events etches itself onto Nova’s face. In this moment, the absence of camera drones in the sky provides her with a slight and rare sense of privacy and solitude.
The soft sound of footsteps draws Nova’s attention to Fable’s approach from behind on the empty balcony. “Had to escape the relentless gaze of the cameras too?” she asks softly, her voice laced with empathy.
Nova shakes her head, her voice a fragile whisper as tears threaten to spill. “I can’t believe it. She’s gone, just like that.”
Fable releases a mournful sigh, her eyes shimmering with unshed tears. “It was inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”
Nova’s eyes widen in disbelief as she turns to face Fable.
“Look, nobody wanted this, but we can’t afford to cry about it, not now,” Fable asserts, her voice a mix of gentleness and resolve. “We have to watch out for each other.”
Nova lowers her head, her gaze wandering back to the city below. A memory flickers to life, causing her voice to tremble.
“Remember that field trip to the candy factory?”
A melancholic smile tugs at Fable’s lips. “Yeah, your dad was a chaperone. We made a game of outrunning him, and it was priceless to see his panic when we hid in the candy pool.”
Nova manages a weak chuckle. “That is, until he whooped my ass when we got home.”
“I shared in the parental wrath too,” Fable admits with a grin.
I’d give anything to return to those times,” Nova says.
They exchange bittersweet smiles before Nova’s expression turns somber.
“Doesn’t it scare you? The thought of one or both of us dying, never seeing Saylor again?”
Fable inhales deeply, her voice thick with emotion.
“Yes, it terrifies me.”
She places her hand on Nova’s shoulder, her eyes brimming with determination.
“But until that time comes, I’ll be right beside you.”
In that moment, the two friends embrace, their arms wrapped tightly around one another, seeking solace and strength amidst the uncertainty of their fate.
Octavian sits silently in the hovercar, his face etched with grief. The neon lights of the cityscape flicker outside the window, casting a melancholy glow on his features. He seems lost in his thoughts, the weight of the recent events heavy on his shoulders.
As the hovercar smoothly glides to a stop in front of the grand ballroom, Octavian takes a deep breath, wiping his tears. With a final glance at his reflection in the window, he settles into a composed and serene expression, determined to face the world.
Stepping out of the hovercar, Octavian stands tall and poised, his demeanor now calm and collected. The door automatically swings open, revealing the bustling scene of laughter and chatter in the grand ballroom.
The ballroom quiets as Octavian enters, the attendees surrounding him with concern and anticipation. The silence hangs heavy in the air. A heavy silence engulfs the ballroom. In that instant, Octavian’s demeanor shifts. His face lights up with a practiced smile, his eyes sparkling with a well-rehearsed charm.
“You know what they say, there’s always more fish in the sea,” he quips, his words dripping with charm.
His remark acts like a spell, effortlessly uplifting the mood. The crowd responds with laughter and delight, their concerns momentarily cast aside. As the atmosphere becomes lively once more, the partygoers eagerly return to their conversations and festivities. Meanwhile, Octavian mingles with infectious enthusiasm, entertaining people and spreading cheer.
As Nova glides across the grand ballroom floor, the shimmering chandeliers casting a soft glow, Venus suddenly grasps her arm, halting her in place.
“Nova, darling,” Venus murmurs, her tone sharp but hushed, eyes fixed on Octavius, who dazzles the crowd with his magnetic charm. “This is your moment. Seize it.”
“But… he just witnessed a death. It doesn’t feel right,” Nova replies, her voice quivering with uncertainity.
“Does it seem like he’s sad?” Venus challenges, gesturing towards Octavius who throws his head back in laughter, cradling a glass of wine as he dances with fluid elegance. “Opportunity has presented itself, my dear. Bella’s passing has created a void, and you have the power to fill it. Win Octavius’s favor, and the world will be at your feet. Fail, and you’ll fade into obscurity. The choice is yours.”
With a gentle yet insistent nudge, Venus propels Nova forward. Nova hesitates, her steps uncertain, and she casts a pleading glance back. Venus offers a reassuring nod, silently urging her to seize the moment and approach Octavius, who remains unaware with his back turned toward them.
Taking a deep breath, Nova slowly closes the distance, her heart pounding like a drum in her chest as determination battles with her nerves. As Octavius turns around, his warm smile still lingering, he meets Nova’s eyes, now filled with a mix of determination and anxiety. He opens his mouth to speak, his eyes sparkling with curiosity.
“Octavius Firestone!” a voice thunders.
Heads swivel towards Detective Ulysses, who stands opposite Octavius, sweat trickling down his temples as his chest heaves in trepidation.
“What do you want?” Octavius inquires, his interest aroused.
With quivering fingers, Ulysses aims a gun at Octavius. Screams of panic pierce the air as a suffocating tension envelops the room. “Taranis Kane sends a message.”
Octavius’s eyes widen in shock as Ulysses pulls the trigger, the gunshot echoing throughout the ballroom. He crumples to the floor, his hand clutching at his chest. Almost simultaneously, a hail of bullets tears through the air, shredding Ulysses’s body. The security guards, their weapons still smoking, stride purposefully toward the lifeless form of the detective.
“He’s dead!” a guard announces, his voice filled with grim certainty.
A horrified scream cuts through the ballroom, all eyes shifting to the injured Octavius. Nova, her face splattered with blood, stands frozen in shock.
“Please… don’t let me die,” Octavius gasps, his bloodied hand reaching out to Nova, desperation etched on his features.
The chilling memory of Marco’s cold stare flashes through Nova’s mind, jolting her into action. Dropping to her knees beside Octavius, Nova’s hands tremble, but she forces them steady as she assesses the wound. The scent of blood and gunpowder fills her nostrils, sharpening her focus.
With urgency, Nova snatches a cloth from a nearby table, the coarse fabric rough against her fingers. She presses it firmly to Octavius’s gunshot wound, her heart racing as she strives to staunch the bleeding. Checking for an exit wound, she finds none. Her eyes dart around the room.
“I need a belt!” she demands.
A hesitant attendant hands her one. Swiftly, she wraps it above the wound to fashion a makeshift tourniquet, meticulously adjusting the pressure to minimize blood loss.
Throughout the ordeal, Nova continuously checks Octavius’s pulse and respiration. He trembles, fear clouding his eyes. Meeting his gaze, she reassures him,
“You’re going to make it.”
The onlookers watch in disbelief, unable to assist. Paramedics charge into the room, armed with cutting-edge equipment. They scan Octavius’s face, the device beaming a green light upon recognition. They assess his vitals.
“He’s stable!” a paramedic announces, relief flooding his voice.
With expert precision, they transfer Octavius onto a hovering stretcher and whisk him away, the awestruck crowd parting to let them pass. A heavy silence descends upon the room, the magnitude of the event weighing on everyone present. An attendant breaks the silence with a grin, clapping her hands together.
“Way to go, Nova!”
A throng of people encircles Nova, their expressions beaming with pride and admiration. The applause catches on, spreading like wildfire throughout the crowd, growing louder until all join in. Nova, overwhelmed by the attention, offers a timid smile. As the applause continues, Fable stands slightly apart from the cheering crowd, her hands hesitating and remaining still by her side, a subtle shadow flickering across her face.
Blood smears across her face as Lyssa’s eyes flutter open. At first, they open slowly, but soon widen as she takes in the desolation around her. Fear and disbelief course through her veins. Flames consume the once-bustling plaza, now reduced to rubble by the explosion as charred bodies litter the ground, a testament to the disaster that has unfolded.
In the distance, individuals clad in black armor stalk the plaza, sweeping through the bodies. Their movements are calculated and precise, reflecting their ruthless intent. Survivors crawl away, desperately trying to escape. One of the armored individuals lingers over a survivor and raises their gun.
“No, please!” the survivor begs, his voice trembling with terror.
Ignoring the plea, the individual shoots them in the head. A woman runs and screams, but the individuals gun her down. Lyssa’s heart races as she slowly walks in the opposite direction, unnoticed by the armored assailants. Her breath comes in ragged gasps, adrenaline pumping through her body.
As she starts to run, one of the individuals spots her and gives chase. Lyssa ducks and weaves through the wreckage, trying to evade her pursuer. They corner her, pointing their gun at her.
“Stop now!” the male voice commands through the modulated speaker.
“How could you do this?!” Lyssa cries, her anger mingling with fear. “These are innocent people.”
“This is a royal plaza of the U.O.E.where they have corrupt and shady dealings. There are no innocents here.”
Lyssa’s gaze locks onto a gun on the ground. She reaches for it, and the individual raises their weapon at her.
“I’m just a secretary. You’re going to kill me?” Lyssa guesses, her voice shaky but defiant.
“Hades Legion will sell you off on the black market.”
She grunts and grabs the gun. The individual fires, and so does Lyssa. The armored figure collapses, and Lyssa remains standing. Blood stains her stomach, the pain registering only as a dull ache. She continues walking, her legs growing weaker with each step, until she leaves the plaza.
Stumbling into an alley, Lyssa’s exhaustion overwhelms her, and she collapses against the cold, unforgiving concrete. The sounds of chaos fade into the distance, but the haunting memories of the carnage remain etched in her mind. As she struggles to catch her breath, the faint, rhythmic sound of footsteps approaching grows louder, leaving her uncertain about who or what may be coming her way.
A horde of figures garbed in gleaming silver armor, wielding electrically charged stun batons, gather outside a large bank building. The perimeter is marked by police tape, and police cars and officers keep watch as the armored individuals form a battle-ready line outside the building. A rhythmic war chant resonates through the air between the figures, led by a towering man in matching armor, but helmetless. His crimson robe drapes over the armor, and his mature, commanding face is etched with wrath.
“When I first encountered you, you were merely captives and barbarians who fought ruthlessly for mere sustenance. But I elevated you, imbuing you with a greater destiny, and now you stand as formidable hunters, prepared for the chase!” the man proclaims, striding among their ranks. “My family’s enterprise is under siege by marauders and the lawless.” The man dons a gilded helmet, distinguishing him from the rest. They all wield their batons, their tips crackling with electricity. “Once more, the world shall tremble at the sight of our crimson.”
The group roars and marches into the bank, boldness in every step. Inside, red emergency lights flicker, casting an ominous glow on the polished marble floors. Panic-stricken employees flee, their terrified screams echoing through the halls, as masked intruders lay waste to the interior. The intruders swing bats at computer terminals and glass display cases, shattering them, while others attack fleeing employees with their bats, causing shattered bones to protrude from their limbs and leaving bloodied, bruised bodies behind them.
The silver-armored warriors confront the intruders, striking them down with their electrified batons, showing no mercy as they pursue every masked individual in sight. Their relentless resolve and rage are evident in their swift, brutal movements.
Floor by floor, they methodically quell the anarchy. Bursting into rooms, they savagely attack the intruders, their batons sending jolts of electricity through the victims’ bodies. Bones snap, and anguished cries reverberate through the halls. The leader annihilates his opponents with ruthless force, crushing skulls and snapping limbs, his eyes ablaze with rage. Their savagery is cold with no remorse.
The leader pins an intruder to the cold, marble floor, his face twisted with fearsome grit. With a steady hand, he digs his fingers into the victim’s eye sockets, gripping the fragile orbs with a vice-like grip. He then wrenches them free in a single, swift motion, a sickening wet pop accompanying the act. The victim’s blood-curdling screams pierce the air, a horrifying symphony of pain and terror.
The other silver-armored warriors follow suit, their expressions stoic and unyielding as they disfigure their opponents. One warrior grips an intruder’s hand firmly, positioning their blade at the wrist. With calculated efficiency, they slice through flesh and tendon, severing the hand as blood spurts from the wound. Another warrior, armed with a pair of pliers, grips an intruder’s tongue and yanks it forward, stretching it taut. They then slice through it with a jagged knife, the intruder’s muffled screams adding to the cacophony of anguish, each gruesome act painting a portrait of their merciless nature.
Amidst the chaos, emotions ripple through the scene. The intruders’ faces contort with anguish and fear, while the silver-armored warriors embody an unwavering resolve and fury. The air is thick with tension, the contrasting emotions colliding like a storm.
In their wake, the silver-armored warriors leave a trail of battered and broken intruders. Some lie motionless, while others writhe in pain, suffering from the aftermath of the vicious assault. Minutes later, the building is secure, and the group exits, leaving the unconscious intruders behind. The leader approaches the police, his voice steady and assertive.
“You can take them.”
The leader strides toward a hover ship, accompanied by his comrades, as onlookers cheer and applaud. He acknowledges their admiration with a solemn nod, the gravity of his mission visible in his eyes.
The leader, steps out of his hover car onto the rooftop of a gleaming New York City skyscraper. The wind tugs at his sharp suit as he strides through the ultramodern building, taking in the floor-to-ceiling windows that reveal a breathtaking view of the city below.
A stunning female assistant, her eyes sparkling with admiration, greets him. “Welcome home, Ajax Vortex,” she says, her voice soft and melodic. “I saw on the news you cleared the building.”
“It was necessary. Where’s my family?”
“In the meeting room.”
In a spacious, high-tech room adorned with sleek furniture, Wolf, his wife Solana, and their daughter Kaida – a young woman with striking features and a determined expression – talk as Ajax enters. Solana, a mature woman with silver hair surveys the room with a calm and measured gaze, exudes an air of quiet authority.
“He crossed the line again, and now I have to do damage control once – again,” Kaida argues, her eyes flashing with anger.
“I’ll talk to him,” Wolf sighs, rubbing his temples.
“Please,” Solana rolls her eyes, the corners of her mouth curling into a knowing smirk. “We all know it was needed.”
“Am I late?” Ajax asks, his tone casual but authoritative.
“What were you thinking?” Kaida snaps, her voice laced with frustration. “Everytime you and your thugs leave people crippled, I have to make sure our E.S.G. scores don’t drop.”
“Nobody wants to invest in a company that can’t handle it’s own problems,” Ajax retorts, his voice icy.
Solana’s smile broadens as she glances at her son, while Kaida stares at Wolf, her eyes pleading for support.
“Kaida does have a point,” Wolf says, his gaze flicking between the holographic tablet floating above his palm and the tense faces of his family members. “It’s not the first time your Crimson Blades have been accused for brutality. The public doesn’t like that, and investors go with the public.”
Ajax smirks, his eyes cold and calculating. “Those people complaining are a bunch of loud mouths who have never dawned any armor. There’s many who love strength.”
“Of course,” Wolf agrees hesitantly, glancing at Kaida’s furrowed brow. “Besides we have other things to act on.”
Kaida shakes her head in disbelief, her lips pressed into a thin line
“What do you have planned?” Ajax asks, his expression unreadable.
“While the Firestones are focused on the show and Octavius who is well now, we need to monitor their industrial operations closely,” Wolf explains. “I want you to initiate a series of strategic investments and acquisitions to strengthen our position in the banking sector. And, if possible, undermine their control over key resources.”
Ajax nods, understanding the gravity of the situation.
“Meanwhile, Kaida, continue with public relations. Make sure our family maintains a positive image during this time especially with growing fears of Hades Legion.”
She nods reluctantly, and the siblings walk away, leaving their parents to discuss further plans.
“We all have a role to play in our family, just keep playing yours sister,” Ajax says, his voice softer but still assertive.
“It’s hard to play mine when you keep interfering,” Kaida retorts.
Ajax’s lips curve into a sly smirk as he taunts, “Need help with outreach? Why not hit up lover boy Octavius? He could certainly use the extra sweetness.”
Kaida’s nostrils flare, and her voice takes on a steely edge as she growls, “Don’t you dare suggest anything between me and him.”
The siblings part ways, their emotions simmering beneath the surface.
Sunlight streams through the window, casting warm rays across Nova’s face as she awakens. The distant sound of birds chirping filters into her room, and she stretches her limbs, shaking off the remnants of sleep. She glances at her itinerary, which says “trainer day.” Anxiety mingle within her as she rises from the bed.
Entering the kitchen, the mouthwatering aroma of a gourmet breakfast wafts through the air, making her stomach rumble. Her server stands by the table, the emotionless figure with an elegant attire. A mixture of gratitude and unease sweeps through Nova at the server’s silent presence.
“How long have you been here, and do you just come in as soon as I wake up?” Nova asks.
The server remains silent, her eyes downcast in submission.
“Oh, that’s right,” Nova whispers to herself.
She hesitates for a moment before digging into the delicious meal, her taste buds exploding with flavor. Midway through, she glances at the server, who still hasn’t moved.
“Do you want some?” Nova offers, pushing a plate towards them.
The server’s eyes linger on the food before they take a step back, declining the offer without a word. Nova sighs, conflicted.
“Thank you; you can leave now,” she says.
As if on cue, a wall panel slides open, and the server disappears into the darkness, leaving Nova to ponder their enigmatic existence. She dresses in athletic wear for her training day and exits the mansion, where a hover car awaits her. As it takes off, the wind whips through her hair, and she marvels at the sensation of acceleration. The city of Delos stretches out below her, the metropolis with towering skyscrapers and gleaming surfaces. Her destination, a lone complex on a neighboring island, looms ahead.
Nova steps cautiously into the training gym, her senses assaulted by the whirring of machines and the scent of sweat and grit. She checks her phone, finding her designated floor, and ascends in an elevator that offers glimpses of Valkyries-in-training and their trainers on each level. The variety of equipment dazzles her: holographic sparring partners, advanced weaponry, and high-tech armor.
Finally, she reaches her floor, a quiet space scattered with an array of training tools. In the center stands a man, alone. With apprehension, Nova approaches him from behind.
“Alistair?” she ventures.
The man pivots, unveiling a jagged scar cutting across his face, close-cropped silver hair, and piercing eyes that must have witnessed a lifetime of battles. His stance is poised and assertive, radiating an aura of unwavering authority. Nova is momentarily taken aback, but remains resolute.
Alistair nods. “Correct. Are you ready to begin?”
She hesitates, her heart pounding with reluctance but then nods slightly. “Sure.”
“Well then,” he says simply, his voice even. “Let’s begin.”
Nova’s ears prick at the sound of a holographic sparring partner materializing in the corner of the room. The hum of the gym’s machines fades as she focuses on the hologram shifting into a fighting stance. The air is thick with the scent of sweat and determination. Alistair, his face impassive, turns his attention back to her.
“Start with the basics,” he instructs, his voice calm and steady. “Show me your stance.”
Hesitantly, Nova adopts a fighting stance, her legs slightly apart and her fists raised. “Is this right?” she asks, her voice wavering.
Alistair observes her carefully before making slight adjustments to her posture, ensuring her feet are firmly planted and her hands properly positioned to protect her face. “Better,” he says. “Now, let’s see your block.”
As the holographic opponent throws a punch, Nova’s movements are slow and clumsy as she tries to block. Alistair watches, his gaze unwavering and critical.
“Again,” he commands, his voice devoid of emotion.
Time passes, and Nova’s thoughts race, her determination to improve overwhelming her. She practices blocking, dodging, and throwing punches until her arms ache and her breath comes in ragged gasps. Alistair remains relentless, pushing her to her limits.
Throughout their training, Alistair’s demeanor remains stoic, but there are fleeting moments when his eyes betray a hint of concern for her well-being.
“Now, let’s move on to energy weapons,” he says, leading her to a table displaying an array of futuristic weaponry that glints menacingly under the dim lights.
He hands her an plasma-sword, a sleek weapon emitting a radiant, humming blade of charged particles. The vibrant energy dances along the edge, a testament to the technology powering it. He shows her the proper grip and stance.
“Focus on your target and strike,” he instructs.
Nova takes a deep breath, steadies herself, and swings the plasma-sword at a holographic target. Her strike is off-center and unsteady, but the target sustains a minor hit. Alistair doesn’t flinch or offer praise, merely stating, “Again.”
“Am I making progress?” Nova asks, her voice laced with fatigue.
Alistair says nothing. As the hours wear on, Nova’s precision gradually improves under Alistair’s watchful eye. His demeanor remains calm and collected, but the intensity of his gaze never wavers, demanding nothing less than perfection.
Next, Alistair straps a device around her wrist that wirelessly syncs with strategically placed emitters in the training area. The emitters release a series of quick pulses, forcing her to react at lightning speed to block or dodge the incoming energy.
“Focus,” he urges, his voice never rising but carrying an undeniable weight. “Anticipate the pulse.”
Sweat drips down Nova’s face, her muscles screaming in protest, but she persists , driven by the fear of falling behind. As the sun sets and the gym’s lights flicker, Alistair finally calls an end to their first training session.
Nova’s legs tremble, her body drenched in sweat and exhaustion gripping her like a vise. She steadies herself, trying to catch her breath, and looks at Alistair expectantly, seeking some acknowledgement of her efforts.
Alistair surveys her, his expression as stoic as ever. The silence in the gym is deafening, and Nova feels her heart pounding in her chest. Finally, he speaks, his voice even and devoid of emotion. “Tomorrow, we begin again. Be here at dawn.”
With that, he turns away from her and walks towards the exit, leaving Nova standing alone in the dimly lit gym. As he strides away, a shadow of anguish and longing flickers across his face, unnoticed by Nova.
On another floor of the training facility, Lyssa is drenched in sweat as she removes her workout shoes. The faint hum of machinery echoes in the background as an earpiece in her ear crackles to life.
“Are you nervous about your match?” the female voice asks, concern lacing her tone.
“A little bit,” Lyssa admits, her grip on the shoes tightening.
“You’ll win, you’re tough. After all, you survived the Royal Plaza,” the voice reassures her, a hint of pride in her words.
Lyssa’s heart races as she falters, her breath catching in her throat. A brief, vivid flash of an older woman smiling at the Royal Plaza, surrounded by people, flickers through her mind. She tries to push away the lump forming in her throat. “We both did,” she says, her voice wavering.
“Yes, we did,” the voice agrees, though something seems off about the affirmation.
Lyssa’s fingers dig into the sides of her shoes, sensing the subtle discrepancy.
She takes a deep, shaky breath, forcing a smile she knows the voice can’t see. “I’ll talk to you later, love you.”
“I love you too,” the voice replies before the line goes silent.
Lyssa’s chest heaves as she tries to steady her breathing, her emotions a tumultuous storm within her. She takes a moment to regain her composure, attempting to shake off the lingering feelings from the conversation and the haunting memory of the dark day.
Torin raps his knuckles against the weathered shed door of Nova’s home. Gaia, her face etched with fatigue, opens the door. Torin raises his hands, the frustration evident in his voice.
“I texted you and got no response back,” he says, trying to sound casual.
“Sorry, I was busy,” she replies, her voice strained and apologetic.
“Well, I got the address for Vex. You ready?” he asks, excitement flickering in his eyes.
Gaia glances away, biting her lip hesitantly.
“I’m sorry, not tonight. I have things to do.”
“What are you—”
“I’ll talk to you later,” Gaia interrupts, her voice firm as she closes the door.
Disappointed, Torin sighs and trudges away. Later that day, Gaia emerges from her room, transformed – hair straightened, makeup applied, and wearing flattering clothes. Atira, her eyes wide with surprise, smiles at her as waters a plant.
“Where are you going?” Atira asks, curiosity piqued.
“I got invited to a party.”
Atira’s eyes sparkle as her smile broadens.
“Really? Look at you, making some friends.”
Gaia blushes, feeling a mix of excitement and nerves.
“Just don’t drink or do any drugs. And if a strange boy tells you he wants to show you something, you better show him your fist.”
Gaia laughs, the tension melting away.
Torin arrives at a rundown apartment building complex, where the grimy walls crumble and a damp, musty scent pervades the air. The heavy silence hangs like a weight, amplifying the sound of his footsteps on the creaking floorboards. He hesitates before knocking on a door with a barely legible number.
A woman with tattoos snakes up her arm and a steely gaze opens the door, sizing him up with disdain. Her dark hair falls in messy waves around her angular face, framed by a pair of silver hoop earrings.
“What’s your business here?” she demands, her voice sharp.
“Um, is Vex around?” he stammers, trying to maintain a polite tone despite his nerves.
Her eyes narrow, suspicion lacing her voice. “What for?”
Torin hesitates, his eyes flicking to the side before returning to meet her gaze. “I’m here for the stuff. Vex knows me,” he says, his voice firming up.
She scrutinizes him for a beat before smirking. “Why didn’t you say so earlier? Get in.”
As Torin steps into the apartment, he’s assaulted by a room filled with squalor and narcotics. The stench is nearly unbearable.
She crosses her arms, her tone laced with doubt. “So, what exactly are you after?”
“E-dope, ChromFlux, whatever you have to make me go places,” he replies, trying to steady his voice.
When she shuts the door, he spins around, only to find a gun aimed at him. Heart pounding, he raises his hands in surrender.
“Who the hell are you?” she snarls, her voice deadly.
“Just looking to buy from Vex,” he stammers.
“You’re too clean-cut for this scene. I’ve never seen you before. And if you really know my brother, you’d know he’s been gone for some time,” she retorts, her grip on the gun unwavering.
Sweat beads on Torin’s forehead as he scrambles for an explanation. “Okay, listen! I’m friends with Nova and Fable. They went to buy some e-dope off Vex but vanished for weeks,” he blurts, desperation seeping into his voice.
Her eyebrows rise. “From Last Valkyrie? They seem to be doing fine, so what’s your issue?”
“Your brother went to meet with them and disappeared, meanwhile they’re on tv. Doesn’t that strike you as strange?” he pleads, hoping to connect with her.
She tilts her head, considering his words. “You’ve got a point,” she concedes, her grip on the gun easing. She aims it back at him, eyes narrowing. “So, maybe they did something shady and split.”
“No, I swear! They’d never hurt anyone.”
“And yet, they’re on Last Valkeryie.”
Torin’s voice cracks. “Fable has a kid, Nova’s mom was sick. They’d never leave their family. None of this adds up.”
The gun trembles in her hand, and her eyes well up.
“I want to help find your brother, so I can find out what happened to Nova and Fable,” Torin says earnestly.
She holds the gun on him but softens her expression. Finally, she lowers it.
“How’re we gonna find them?” she asks, skepticism creeping into her tone.
Torin sighs, his gaze dropping to the floor, and his shoulders sagging with uncertainty. “First, we need to retrace their steps,” he suggests. “Maybe we can find some clues about what happened to them and where Vex might be.”
She studies him for a moment, her eyes flicking over his tense posture and the worry etched into his features. Then she nods, determination shining in her eyes. “If I find out you’re not being honest, we’re going to have a problem. You can call me Skyla.”
“Torin,” he replies, extending a shaky hand.
She hesitates before shaking it, then pulls away.
“Let’s get to work,” she announces.
Gaia hesitates at the entrance of the house, the pulsating beat of music washing over her. Teenagers are crammed into every corner, chatting animatedly and puffing on vaporizers. As she tiptoes inside, a girl with a radiant smile spots her and exclaims, “There’s Gaia!”
The room erupts in cheers, and Gaia manages a shy nod in response. The girl approaches her with a red cup, her eyes glittering with excitement. “So, what’ll you have?” she asks, her voice raised to be heard over the music.
“Uh, just water?” Gaia mutters.
The girl scoffs playfully. “Come on, live a little.” She pours an amber liquid into the cup, its aroma sharp and pungent. “You’ll love it.”
Gaia stares at the concoction, her hand hovering over the cup. The girl gives her an encouraging grin, and Gaia finally takes the cup, her fingers trembling. As she lifts it to her lips, the crowd chants her name, egging her on. Gaia takes a sip, her face contorting at the bitterness.
“You’ll get used to it,” the girl laughs, clapping Gaia on the back.
As Gaia wanders through the throng, people approach her, hugging and greeting her warmly. “Let me get a picture with the sister of a Valkyrie!” someone shouts, and Gaia reluctantly poses with a group, their phones flashing like tiny stars. Even the girl Gaia fought, smiles at her, and Gaia returns the gesture with a cautious wave.
Gaia sinks into a couch, seeking refuge from the overwhelming scene. Next to her, a couple is lost in a passionate embrace. At first, she averts her eyes, but curiosity compels her to take a longer glance before quickly looking away again. A girl beside her rolls her eyes, staring at the revelers with disdain.
“High school parties,” she scoffs. “A place where kids play grown-ups, only to ask for permission to use the bathroom the next day.”
Gaia looks up at her, curiosity piqued. “Why did you come here then?”
“I didn’t,” the girl replies, nodding to a muscular boy chugging alcohol through a tube as the crowd cheers him on. “This is my house. My idiot brother decided to throw a party while our parents are gone. I’m Leni, by the way.”
Gaia nods, and Leni chuckles. “Don’t worry, I won’t ask you a million questions about your sister on Last Valkyrie. I couldn’t care less about that.”
A small smile tugs at Gaia’s lips as she turns to Leni. “Didn’t we have art class together in middle school?”
Leni’s eyes widen. “Oh, yeah! You were incredibly talented!”
“You too, if I remember correctly.”
Leni waves a dismissive hand. “Not as good as you.”
Blushing, Gaia glances down at the cup still clutched in her hand. Leni spots the alcohol and grimaces. “Here, let me get you something that won’t hinder your intelligence,” she says, handing Gaia a water bottle. “So where’s your date?”
Gaia shrugs. “I don’t have one. I guess nobody found me interesting enough.”
Leni brushes her hair back, smiling. “I find you interesting.”
A warm sensation spreads across Gaia’s cheeks, and her eyes widen slightly in surprise as an appreciative smile blooms on her face. They move in closer, eyes locked, fully engaged in each other’s presence.
Atira stands in front of a nondescript building with large, tinted windows. The faint hum of city traffic fills the air around her. It looks like a typical office building, but she knows it’s anything but ordinary. Her hands tremble as she clutches a small, crumpled piece of paper holding an address. Taking a deep breath, she pushes open the door and steps inside.
The air-conditioned chill of the reception area washes over her, a stark contrast to the cool morning outside. The receptionist at the front desk greets her with a smile. “Welcome to the Unity Center. How can I help you today?”
Atira’s voice catches in her throat. “I’m here for the meeting,” she says hesitantly, her fingers fidgeting with the edge of her jacket.
“Of course, it’s in Room 3B, just down the hall and to the left,” the receptionist directs her.
Atira nods and walks down the dimly lit hallway. The scent of lavender wafts through the air, an attempt to create a calming atmosphere. She finds the room, pausing at the door before entering. Inside, a circle of chairs with worn, velvety cushions sits under soft lighting, a holographic projection of a calming waterfall playing in the background. Several people are already seated.
A woman with short, salt-and-pepper hair notices Atira and beckons her over. “Come, join us. We’re just starting.”
As Atira sits down, her heart pounds like a drum in her chest, drowning out the soothing sound of the waterfall. Atira’s eyes dart from one parent to another as they share their harrowing experiences. A mother, her hands shaking, speaks up.
“At first, I felt a rush of excitement. Who wouldn’t, right? Money was tight, and this seemed like such an opportunity,” the mother says, a faint smile flickering across her face. Her expression quickly shifts to one of pain and sorrow as she’s consumed by the memory. “But then the first round… I’ll never forget how Rhea’s head was split open by that axe…” She takes a shuddering breath, tears filling her eyes. “Every time I close my eyes, I see it happening. It’s like a nightmare I can’t escape from.”
A father, his voice cracking with emotion, forces out his words through a veil of tears.
“My Wendy… she had such a strong will to make a difference. She dreamed of opening an orphanage if she won. With each victory, my confidence in her grew, and I truly believed she could conquer it all. But then, the victories stopped…” He swallows hard, his eyes welling up. “All that was left was the sight of her blood, and our dreams shattered into a million pieces.”
With each story, Atira feels the heaviness in her chest grow, and she subconsciously rubs her sternum as if to alleviate the pressure. Her breaths come in shallow, anxious gasps, mirroring the emotions of the parents around her. The air in the room feels thick with sorrow and fear, and Atira struggles to keep her composure as she listens.
“The most unbearable part of losing my sister isn’t just her death,” a young man confesses, his voice trembling with pain. “It’s the relentless reminders when I’m at the store, on the freeway, or catching a glimpse of those ads in the sky for Last Valkyrie.” He takes a shaky breath, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. “Every time I see it, her beautiful smile flashes before me, and it’s a reminder that I’ll never see that smile again.”
Atira’s throat tightens as she listens, her eyes filling with tears. When it’s her turn to share, she hesitates before finally finding the courage to speak.
“My daughter, Nova, is currently in the competition. I want to believe she made the right choice, that she did it for our family. But it’s hard to ignore the nagging feeling that there’s something wrong,” her voice wavers as she chokes back tears.”Part of me feel guilty for convincing myself that it’s alright, that it’s for the best.”
The group listens attentively, their eyes filled with compassion. One woman reaches over and gently squeezes Atira’s hand, offering silent support.
The woman with salt-and-pepper hair takes a deep breath before speaking, her voice steady but laced with emotion.
“We have to remember that our loved ones are their own individuals, with their own dreams and desires,” she says, her eyes searching the faces of the others in the room. “As painful as it may be, it’s crucial to accept their decisions and not fight against them. The most loving thing we can do is support them and hope for the best.”
As the sun rises, Nova enters the gym, her body aching from the previous day’s training. Alistair stands there, his expression an unyielding mask. The air in the gym crackles with anticipation.
Alistair gestures at a holographic screen, his voice low and measured.
“Study your opponents,” he commands.
The screen displays past Valkyriesm, their strengths and weaknesses highlighted in vivid detail. Nova watches intently as Alistair navigates through the data, absorbing every nuance.
Nova furrows her brow, noting the pattern. “These are all past winners of the Valkyries series,” she remarks, her curiosity piqued.
Alistair nods, his voice crisp and potent. “Exactly. They’ve proven themselves in battle. Learn from them, and you’ll stand a better chance of becoming a champion yourself.”
Nova’s eyes are drawn to a video clip of a previous champion, her movements fluid and precise as she expertly parries and counters her opponent’s attacks. Nova observes the subtle shift in weight and the expert timing that allows the champion to exploit her adversary’s weaknesses.
As she continues to study the footage, Nova takes note of the patterns and strategies employed by the past winners. She pays close attention to their footwork, the way they feint and adjust their stances to throw off their opponents, and how they swiftly change tactics when facing different adversaries.
Moving on, Alistair demonstrates a series of defensive techniques with his plasma-sword. His movements are fluid and precise. Nova attempts to mimic him, her muscles straining under the unfamiliar motions. “Keep your stance low,” Alistair advises, his voice cold and detached.
The atmosphere in the gym grows tense as Alistair and Nova face each other, swords in hand. Alistair’s eyes are like ice, his face a picture of stoic determination. Nova braces herself, her mind racing through the techniques she’s learned so far.
Their swords clash, the hum of energy echoing through the gym. Alistair’s attacks are swift and brutal, leaving no room for error. Each time his blade comes dangerously close to Nova, he skillfully halts, demonstrating his mastery and control. Nova grits her teeth, pushing herself to the limit. Sweat drips down her face as she struggles to keep up, her body battered and bruised from the relentless assault.
“Again,” Alistair commands, his voice steely. Day after day, they engage in intense sword fights, the gym a cacophony of plasma-swords clashing and labored breathing. With each duel, Nova’s footwork becomes more agile, her defense more instinctive, and her strikes more powerful.
Alistair’s relentless critiques and stoic demeanor betray no emotion, but his unwavering belief in Nova’s potential is evident in the intensity of their training.
“Focus, Nova!” he barks, pushing her to her limits.
Throughout the training, Alistair exposes weak points in her defense but stops his blade just in time. One morning, as they spar, Nova finally manages to parry one of Alistair’s attacks, her movements fluid and controlled. His eyes narrow, a flicker of approval flashing across his face. “Better,” he grunts, acknowledging her progress.
Alistair halts their training session and strides over to a concealed compartment within the gym’s wall. He retrieves a container, handling it with care as he opens it.
“A gift from one of your patrons,” he reveals, presenting a striking crimson sword.
The weapon masterfully combines the aesthetics of a traditional blade with advanced technology, its edge pulsating with radiant energy that forms intricate, mesmerizing patterns along the surface. Nova grips the weapon, feeling its agile and responsive movement as she swings it through the air, the energy coursing from the blade.
As the days pass, Nova’s skills begin to take shape, her emotions a whirlwind of frustration, determination, and growing confidence. She’s far from mastering the art of sword fighting, but each small victory fans the flames of her resolve.
In the pristine medical room, Lyssa perches on the edge of an examination table as a sleek, silver medical droid diligently repairs a gash on her hand. The room buzzes with the faint hum of advanced machinery, and the air carries the unmistakable scent of disinfectant. The droid’s nimble, mechanical fingers manipulate a cutting-edge laser stitch, sealing the wound with precision. As the laser flares, Lyssa winces and unintentionally exclaims, “Ouch!”
Her mother’s concerned voice crackles through the earpiece. “What’s the matter, sweetie?”
“Just a cut from training, Mom. It’s no big deal,” Lyssa replies, attempting to minimize the situation. She averts her eyes from the droid, focusing on the gleaming white walls that surround her.
“Are you sure this isn’t all too much for you? You know, you can always come home,” her mom gently suggests.
Lyssa’s chest tightens at the mention of home, and she clenches her fists to steady herself. “I’m fine, really. I’ve got this under control,” she insists, forcing a smile.
“Of course, darling. Just remember, I’m always here for you,” her mom says with an almost too-perfect cheerfulness.
As the droid completes the wound treatment, Lyssa’s mind drifts to a cherished memory of her and her mom, sitting on the porch on a warm summer evening. They share laughter and ice cream as the sun dips below the horizon, their smiles illuminated by the fading light. The memory feels like a lifetime ago, but it provides a small measure of comfort.
“Is there anything else you want to talk about me?” Lyssa asks softly, her eyes brimming with tears.
“You’re the best daughter anyone could ask for,” her mom’s voice responds lovingly, just before the earpiece falls silent.
Lyssa takes a deep breath, her chest heaving as she slides off the examination table. She fidgets with the earpiece, a subtle frown creasing her brow. The medical equipment and the cold, sterile environment only seem to magnify her feelings of isolation as her heart races, and a thin layer of sweat forms on her brow.
She hesitates, her hand trembling as it hovers over the door panel, her eyes darting around the room. With a shaky exhale, Lyssa swallows hard and steps out, shoulders slump, as uncertainty consumes her.
Nova limps to her suite, drenched in sweat and exhausted. Her damp afro clings to her forehead. As she reaches her floor, she freezes upon seeing Octavius leaning against the wall, waiting. She hesitates, her hand gripping the railing, then timidly approaches him.
“What are you doing here?” she asks cautiously.
He flashes a charming smile, straightening up from the wall. “I came to thank you for saving my life.”
“I’m a paramedic; it’s what I do,” she replies, avoiding his gaze and nervously shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
As the retinal scanner scans Nova’s eye, unlocking her door, Octavius steps forward, invading her personal space. “I’m not just here to say thank you. I want to show my gratitude. How about a date today?”
“A date?” she echoes, eyes widening in surprise.
“Yes, with cameras and an audience,” he says, smirking. “People already admire you for what you did. This will boost your popularity even more.”
“I’m sorry, but I have to train,” she responds firmly, her voice trembling slightly.
Octavius stretches his arm across the door opening. “Well, it’s all part of the—”
Nova steps inside, and the door slides shut in his face. She leans against the door, sliding down to the floor, trying to hold back tears.
Outside, in the dimly lit hallway, Octavius blinks in surprise, his eyes darting around, confusion painted on his face. A woman with a sly smile and wicked glint in her fox eyes stands near the elevator, having witnessed the entire scene. Her calculating gaze lingers on the disheartened Octavian.
“Hey pretty boy!” she calls out, her voice dripping with both charm and menace, capturing his attention. “Forget her. I can show you a much more thrilling time.”
Octavius grins and swaggers towards her, his bruised ego on the mend.
Torin and Skyla approach the abandoned refinery on the outskirts of San Francisco, where rusted structures cast eerie shadows on the cracked concrete below. The air is heavy with the scent of decay, and the faint hum of distant machinery creates an unsettling atmosphere.
As they walk through the crumbling industrial landscape, Skyla’s eyes scan the surroundings, her shoulders tense.
“This place,” she says, her voice low, “is known for where people go to do deals, like the ones Vex was involved in.”
Their footsteps echo as they scour the area for clues, their eyes darting from one detail to the next. Torin spots a small piece of debris hidden by a bush and crouches down to examine it.
“Skyla, check this out,” he says, holding up the burnt and twisted piece of metal.
Skyla scrutinizes the debris, her fingers brushing over the scorched metal.
“This looks familiar,” she mutters, her brow furrowing in concentration eyes narrowing as she examines the wreckage. “I think this is from Vex’s car,” she concludes, glancing at Torin. “Like it blew up.”
Skyla’s face contorts with grief, her voice barely above a whisper.
“That means……” she chokes. “That means he didn’t-.”
Torin places a reassuring hand on her shoulder a steady anchor of support. He meets her gaze with compassion.
“Don’t jump to conclusions. We have to keep looking.”
Their search continues until they come across a disheveled homeless man sitting against a wall, mumbling to himself. His unkempt appearance and erratic behavior suggest he’s under the influence of something. Torin and Skyla exchange a glance before cautiously approaching him.
“Excuse me,” Torin says, his voice firm yet gentle. “Did you witness anything unusual around here recently?”
The man squints at them, his bloodshot eyes unfocused. He smirks and replies, “Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. What’s in it for me?”
Skyla’s eyes narrow, and she takes a menacing step forward. “You’ll still have a few of your teeth if—”
“Skyla, wait,” Torin interrupts, placing a calming hand on her shoulder. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a few crumpled bills, holding them out to the homeless man. “Here, this is for your help.”
The man’s eyes widen, and he greedily snatches the money. He licks his chapped lips, struggling to form words.
“Yeah… A bird, a big bird!”
Torin raises an eyebrow, confusion evident in his voice.
“No, not a bird… it was metal, man.” He laughs wildly, his voice uneven and erratic. “It flew and—BOOM! Big explosion! Flames everywhere!”
“Forget him,” Skyla sighs, her tone a mix of disappointment and resignation. “It’s obvious he’s crazy.”
Torin shares a worried look with Skyla before crouching down to the man’s level. He plays along with his delusions.
“So, this metal bird, did it have any markings or logos?”
The man scrunches up his face, deep in thought. “Not a bird… No, it was something else. White, or some light color. Fast, too! Had some… squiggly lines? Circles, maybe? Can’t remember, but it was somethin’.”
“What?” Torin asks, completely baffled, shaking his head in disbelief as the man rambles on.
Skyla’s eyes widen.
“A drone!” she exclaims, then turns to Torin. “He’s talking about a drone. The markings he mentioned, they match the style of a drone maker in the city. He’s known for producing drones for the black market.”
“You seem well-versed in the world of illegal activities, don’t you?” Torin remarks, raising an eyebrow.
Skyla lifts her hands defensively, a wry smile playing at the corner of her lips.
“What can I say? Comes with the territory.”
Nova lounges on her couch, her eyes fixed on the television screen as the charismatic Hannibal, presents in front of a bracket of names..
“And there you have it, folks – the first-round match-ups. This weekend is going to be exciting!
Nova’s heart skips a beat as her gaze locks onto her own name, paired with that of her opponent, Lyssa. Without hesitation, she leaps off the couch and heads towards the training complex, the moonlight casting an eerie glow on her determined face.
Once inside the deserted training complex, Nova activates the holographic system, which projects a lifelike opponent before her. She grips her sword tightly, her eyes narrowing as she prepares to strike.
Gaia and Tara sit beneath a tree during lunchtime, the wind rustling the leaves above them. Tara, concern etched on her face, asks, “How are you feeling about this weekend?”
Gaia hesitates, her gaze drifting towards the bustling crowd of students nearby. She bites her lip before responding, “My feelings don’t matter. Whatever happens, happens.”
Leni reaches out and gently touches Gaia’s shoulder, her eyes full of empathy. “I didn’t ask about what’s going to happen. I’m asking about you. How do you feel?”
Gaia attempts a smile, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’m fine,” she insists, though her voice trembles slightly.
“You don’t have to hide it,” Leni says softly.
Gaia looks away.
“I’m not hiding anything.”
Leni’s voice is firm.
“You’re scared to get your hopes up, so you’re trying to distance yourself from the situation.”
Silence falls between them, filled only by the distant laughter of their classmates. Finally, Gaia speaks, her voice barely above a whisper.
“I feel the same way I did when I first saw Nova on television, like my sister is gone forever.”
Leni places her hand on Gaia’s hand.
“You can still have hope.”
With a sigh, Gaia stands up. “Everyone has hope until life happens. All the other 31 women and their families have hope, but it doesn’t do them any good in the end.”
As the bell rings in the distance, Leni rises to her feet.
“I want to show you something important.”
Gaia hesitates, glancing towards the building.
“But we have to go to class.”
Leni grins playfully.
“Come on, Ms. Einstein. The wonderful lectures on the old civilizations’ history can wait.”
She tugs at Gaia’s arm, urging her to follow. Gaia takes a deep breath, her curiosity pulled, and she nods in agreement, running alongside Leni as they leave the school grounds.
They catch a bus, heading towards the outskirts of San Francisco. As the bus carries them further from the city, the towering skyscrapers fade into the distance, replaced by a desolate, barren landscape. Drones buzz overhead, their metallic bodies glinting in the sunlight as they monitor the area. Eventually, the bus slows to a halt near a small, heavily fortified compound. Its imposing walls, adorned with surveillance cameras, dominate the otherwise empty expanse.
“Why are we here?” Gaia asks, stepping off the bus and squinting at the sun-bleached surroundings.
“You’ll see,” Leni replies, her voice mysterious and enigmatic.
They walk along a dusty path, their footsteps muffled by the dry earth, until they reach the base of a hill. Together, they climb the incline, their breaths growing heavy as they ascend. The compound comes into view as they reach the hilltop, revealing the stark reality of what lies below.
Countless people in white suits labor tirelessly, digging holes under the watchful eyes of armed guards. The entire scene is illuminated by the harsh, unforgiving glare of artificial lights, casting an eerie glow that contrasts with the encroaching darkness of the sky.Gaia’s eyes widen, taking in the sight below, as she tries to comprehend the purpose of the grim scene unfolding before her.
“A corporate prison… Why did you bring me here?” Gaia asks, her voice wavering with uncertainty.
Leni’s expression softens. “This place has been my parents’ home since I was three.”
“But I thought-.”
“My real parents. The ones who thought they were making a change in leaking corporate secrets of their employer.” She turns to Gaia, her gaze intense. “Everyday I hope they come back. That hope and my brother is what keeps me going. You can have that hope too.”
As their eyes lock, a wave of understanding and connection surges between them. They lean in closer, the warmth of their breaths mingling as they inch towards each other. The faint scent of dust and dry earth hangs in the air. Slowly, deliberately, their lips meet in a tender, lingering kiss. Gaia’s hand finds Leni’s, their fingers intertwining in a silent affirmation of shared strength and emotion.
Gaia’s phone buzzes with Torin’s name flashing across the screen. Lost in the moment, she ignores the call and continues kissing Leni. Across town, Torin sits in a restaurant, clad in his EMT uniform. He stares at his phone, his expression a blend of disappointment and understanding. The call log on his screen reveals a series of unanswered calls from him to Gaia. With a resigned sigh, he mutters under his breath,
As the hover car slices through the morning air, an uneasy silence envelops the cabin. Nova, Alistair, and Venus are en route to the arena, each absorbed in their own thoughts. Nova’s heart races, and goosebumps prickle her skin as her fight draws nearer. She replays the words of encouragement from Torin, her mother, and Gaia, each offering support in their unique ways.
The car deftly navigates around towering mountains, unveiling a breathtaking island. Dominating the landscape is a colossal coliseum, more magnificent than anything Nova has ever seen. The structure spans the entire island, dwarfing the surrounding landmasses and buildings. The scent of the ocean and the sound of waves crashing against the island fill the air.
Scattered across nearby smaller islands, hotels accommodate spectators from around the globe who have gathered for the Last Valkyrie. The event draws thousands to Delos each year, contributing an astonishing fifty billion dollars to the local economy through tourism and advertising. The world’s attention is fixed on the event.
Exiting the hover car, the trio approaches the coliseum’s main entrance. Hundreds of excited fans press against barricades, their cheers and chants barely contained. Cameras flash relentlessly. Though Nova wishes for a more discreet entrance, her managers insist on the exposure.
A man dressed in an eye-catching suit greets them warmly. “I am delighted to welcome you to the Battleborn Arena,” he exclaims. As they follow the man, Nova surveys the charged crowd, a mix of eager reporters and fans hungry for action.
“Nova over here!” a reporter calls out. “How long do you think your fight will last?”
Struggling to find the right words, Venus steps in confidently, replying, “Faster than her entrance.”
They continue, tension simmering between the trio. Alistair grumbles, “I thought you were supposed to make her ready for the cameras.” Venus shoots him a sharp look and retorts, “You do your job, and I’ll do mine.”
The man leads them to a dressing room beneath the arena. Alistair’s eyes reveal a subtle glint of anticipation as he calmly announces, “I have another gift for you.”
Alistair presents a small box, opening it to reveal a palm-sized, iridescent circular disk, its surface shimmering with an array of colors. He gently places it on Nova’s chest, and instantly, a sleek, mechanical suit of armor begins to materialize around her. Nanoparticles, glinting like tiny stars, swarm and bind together, weaving an intricate lattice that adapts to her body’s contours and movements like a second skin.
As the suit forms, Nova feels a cool, tingling sensation on her skin, the nanoparticles humming softly as they come together. She shivers, both from the unexpected chill and the awe of witnessing the advanced technology at work. Her eyes widen, and a mix of excitement and apprehension fills her thoughts as she realizes the power she now possesses with this state-of-the-art armor.
Simultaneously, a helmet begins to take shape around her head, the nanoparticles seamlessly interlocking to create a lightweight yet sturdy protective layer. The visor offers her an unobstructed view of her surroundings while providing enhanced visuals and real-time data, further amplifying her abilities in the arena.
Venus admires the ensemble, complimenting, “You look stunning, my dear.”
Alistair, his composure unwavering, explains, “The times we trained with increase gravity were meant to get you use to fighting in a suit of armor.”
Nova starts experimenting with the suit, testing its capabilities and limitations. Alistair hands her the crimson sword. She swings the blade with precision, feeling the energy course through it, and practices rapid movements to test the suit’s responsiveness. The suit feels natural and weightless, as if it had been tailored specifically for her, and she grows more confident with each passing moment.
As the countdown on the TV screen hits zero, they turn their attention to a montage depicting the history of Last Valkyrie. The evolution of the event, from a battle royal in the nuclear wasteland of New York City to the globally renowned tournament it is today, unfolds before them.
The montage concludes, and the live aerial feed of the arena showcases thousands of cheering fans.
“Everyone please rise as we honor the U.O.E. and play the Song of Juturna,” Hannibal’s voice booms through the stadium.
A young girl, no older than twelve, steps up to the microphone, her presence commanding the attention of the arena. Dressed in white and with an angelic face, she takes a deep breath before her voice soars, filling the air with the opening lines of the Song of Juturna.
“Rise, valiant souls, from the ashes we’ve sown,
Through the fire and the darkness, our strength has grown.
In unity, we stand, our spirits high,
As the beacons of hope light up the sky.”
Her voice resonates with the audience, stirring emotions in the hearts of all who listen. The crowd falls into a reverent hush, their eyes fixated on the young performer.
Nova, still new to this world, feels a little overwhelmed by the grandeur of the ceremony. Her gaze flickers between the screen and the dressing room, not quite sure where to focus. She absentmindedly fidgets with her suit as she listens, her heart pounding with anxiety.
Alistair stands tall and straight, his face betraying no emotion. His eyes, however, reveal a hint of pride for the young girl who so expertly carries the weight of the anthem on her shoulders.
Venus, attentive and appreciative, smiles warmly as she listens, her eyes glistening with emotion. She is moved not only by the girl’s powerful voice but by the knowledge that this shared moment of unity carries great significance for everyone present.
Cameras pan, showing people watching from all over the world: New York, London, Tokyo, the outer colonies. As the song concludes, the arena erupts into a thunderous applause, the audience’s cheers echoing throughout the stadium. The young girl gracefully acknowledges their praise before descending from the stage, leaving a lasting impression on all who witnessed her performance. Nova feels a surge of adrenaline coursing through her veins, her nerves on edge as she mentally prepares for the fight.
The arena buzzes with anticipation as the screen displays the upcoming match: Ember versus Cora. The two warriors stand in the center of the ring, facing each other. Ember’s eyes burn with intensity. In stark contrast, Cora’s gaze remains downcast, her tears betraying her fear. As they retreat to their respective corners, Cora’s sword hangs limply by her side, her hands trembling.
“What are you doing? Put your weapon up!” her trainer barks, his face contorted with concern.
“I can’t do this!” she sobs, her voice cracking under the weight of her despair.
The bell rings, its shrill sound echoing through the arena. Cora remains frozen in place, her tears streaming down her face. Ember charges forward with a battle cry, her face a mask of determination.
“No, please!” Cora pleads, her voice barely audible over the roar of the crowd.
In a moment of desperation, Cora leaps out of the ring, plummeting towards the bed of spikes below. Her body is impaled, and a collective gasp escapes the audience.
In the media room, Blaze watches the scene unfold, his lips curling into a sinister smirk. The workers around him stare at the screen, their expressions a mixture of shock and horror.
“Put that on replay,” he commands, his voice cold and detached.
Back at the ring, Ember stands at the edge, looking down at Cora’s lifeless body. The sharp spikes have pierced through her torso, leaving dark crimson stains where they’ve punctured her flesh. Blood drips slowly from the points of the spikes, pooling beneath her broken form.
With a sneer, Ember spits on the corpse, then raises her weapon triumphantly. The crowd erupts into cheers, relishing in her victory.
“Pathetic,” Ember mutters, her eyes glinting with contempt.
After everyone clears the ring, the arena lights dim, casting the space in an eerie glow. A single spotlight illuminates the entrance ramp, revealing Helga with her muscular and imposing figure. She stomps to the ring, her footsteps echoing through the space. The crowd remains silent, sensing her no-nonsense demeanor. Clad in light armor and gripping a menacing spiked mace, her warrior-like presence is awe-inspiring.
As Helga reaches the ring, the sound of heavy drums fills the air, adding to the tension. Meanwhile, a series of pyrotechnics explode at the top of the ramp, and the fiery Asha steps out, wearing a fireproof suit. She takes off her suit and helmet, revealing her bright and thick armor. A pulsating electronic beat accompanies her entrance, matching her energetic personality.
The spirited fighter dances to the ring, swinging a long metal chain with a curved blade at the end. She hurls taunts at her opponent and the crowd, boasting, “I’m on fire tonight!” The audience responds with a mix of cheers and jeers, reveling in her charisma.
During the faceoff, Helga maintains her calm composure, staring ahead into her opponent’s eyes. The fiery Asha bounces up and down with a smirk, trying to rattle her enemy. The droid ref begins to recite the rules, but Asha interrupts.
“You don’t like to speak, but I’m going to have you screaming by the end of this,” she chides, stepping into Helga’s face. “I’m going to knock that thick chin looking–”
Suddenly, Helga headbutts Asha in the helmet, the force of the blow sending her stumbling backward. Trainers and reporters scramble out of the ring as Helga charges, landing a brutal kick to her opponent’s gut. Asha gasps for air, blood trickling from her mouth, as she glares at Helga.
“Alright, you orc, playtime’s over,” Asha snarls.
She swings the blade with all her might, but Helga effortlessly raises her mace, absorbing the impact. Before Asha can react, Helga seizes the chain and yanks it forward, propelling Asha toward her. Asha screams in fright, her eyes widening in disbelief.
Helga strikes her rival in the face with her mace, the impact creating a sickening crunch. The once-fiery competitor collapses to the ground, blood pouring from her broken nose and dislodged teeth. The crowd gasps as Helga mounts her, mercilessly bashing her face with the mace.
With one final, brutal blow, Helga brings the mace down on her opponent’s throat, severing her head completely with the spikes. The audience erupts into stunned silence as the severed head rolls across the canvas, leaving a trail of blood. Helga lifts the grisly trophy in the air, her bloody mace held high, and the crowd’s shock transforms into deafening cheers.
Enraged, the defeated fighter’s trainer rushes into the ring, snarling at Helga. “You can’t start the match before the–”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Helga drives the spikes of her mace into the trainer’s throat, slicing through flesh and muscle with chilling precision. The impact resounds with a sickening crunch, and he crumples to the ground, hands desperately clutching at the gaping wound. Blood gushes forth in a torrent, pooling around him as he writhes in agony.
The trainer’s breaths come in ragged gasps, each inhalation bubbling and wheezing through the mangled flesh of his throat. His eyes widen with terror as the life drains from his body, limbs trembling and twitching in a futile struggle against the inevitable.
Helga, unfazed, storms out of the ring with her trainer, her impassive expression betraying no remorse or satisfaction. Reporters clamor for her attention, but she pays them no heed, leaving behind a macabre tableau of blood and broken bodies. Holographic images of Nova and Lyssa appear in the air, signaling the next bout.
“Nova,” Venus says softly, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder back in the dressing room. “You’re stronger than you think.”
Alistair nods in agreement. Nova takes a deep breath, her eyes locked on the wall. The roar of the crowd, now a distant rumble, seems to grow louder with every passing moment. She steadies herself, gripping her sword tightly as she feels the energy humming within the blade.
Hannibal’s voice booms once more, echoing throughout the coliseum. “Ladies and gentlemen, the fierce and fearless Nova!”
As the announcement concludes, the wall of her dressing room begins to morph and retract, revealing an energy barrier shimmering with light. The barrier dissipates, unveiling a seamless pathway that leads directly to the arena. Nova takes a determined step forward, her heart pounding in her chest. The cheers and applause are deafening, but she remains focused on the task at hand. Her mechanical suit of armor glints in the sunlight, giving her a sense of power and confidence.
She approaches the edge of the platform and steps onto a floating disk, which levitates her into the air. As she rises, she catches a glimpse of the futuristic ring, its sleek metallic surface embedded with glowing energy lines that pulse with life. Below the floating ring, razor-sharp spikes loom menacingly, a deadly reminder of the high stakes.
Nova reaches the ring and gracefully steps off the disk, taking her position in the center of the arena. Her eyes scan the crowd for a moment before fixating on the stage where her opponent will enter.
At home, Atira sits on the couch beside Torin, their eyes glued to the television as they watch the upcoming match. Torin gently squeezes Atira’s hand, sensing her nervousness. “It’s going to be alright,” he reassures her.
In another house, Gaia and Lori sit close together, their attention focused on the television streaming the event. ori’s brother and their friends watch as well, eyes fixed on the screen as they eagerly watch the unfolding competition.
In her dressing room, Lyssa paces back and forth, her earpiece in place. She is clad in form-fitting armor that appears to be made of lightweight, flexible materials, allowing for her agility to shine in combat. The suit’s design features strategically placed energy-absorbing plates. She grips her quarterstaff, which emits a soft hum as its energy core pulses, indicating its readiness for battle. Taking a deep breath, she mentally prepares herself for the fight ahead.
“I was thinking about something you once said,” her mother’s voice echoes through the earpiece.
Lyssa stops, focusing on the conversation. “About what?” she inquires.
“About how life is unpredictable, and we must bend like reeds in the wind to survive. Is that right?” the voice asks.
Lyssa shakes her head, frowning. “No, that’s not what you, the real you, said. You said that life can be harsh, but we must remain true to ourselves because that’s all we can control.”
A memory floods Lyssa’s mind. She’s at the royal plaza, sprinting as people run past her. “But you never had to face this world because you didn’t make it.”
Her mother lies on the ground, blood pouring from her mouth. Lyssa rushes to her side, grasping her bloodied hand. Panic and chaos surround them as gunshots echo and people flee. Sobbing, Lyssa clings to her mother’s hand until an explosion sends her flying.
“I wish you were here, Mom, but you’re not,” Lyssa chokes back tears.
“Okay then, what do you want to talk about next?” the voice asks, devoid of emotion.
“Look, I appreciate what you’re trying to do for me, but I think it’s best that we move on from each other,” Lyssa says, her voice wavering.
“You have to say the words, Lyssa.”
With tears in her eyes, Lyssa takes a deep breath. “Cancel subscription,” she confirms.
The voice transforms into a different, more elegant tone. “Your subscription has been canceled. Thanks for being a valued customer.”
Her trainer approaches, his expression serious. “It’s time.”
Gaining composure, Lyssa focuses on the wall as the energy barrier dissolves. Taking a deep breath, she steps out into the blinding lights and deafening roar of the expectant crowd.
Nova and Lyssa stand face to face in the center of the arena, their eyes locked in a serene yet determined gaze, piercing through each other’s visors on their helmets. The droid referee, a sleek and efficient machine with a streamlined metallic body, hovers above the ground nearby. Its optic sensors, resembling eyes, scan the fighters with unerring precision, capturing every minute detail.
The synthesized voice of the droid referee echoes throughout the arena as it announces, “This fight will not end until one of you is dead. Any questions?” The tension in the air is palpable, and the crowd watches with bated breath.
Nova and Lyssa exchange a brief, knowing glance before touching weapons in a gesture of respect. The sound of metal meeting metal rings out, a brief clang.
They retreat to their corners, their faces a mix of determination and anticipation as everyone else hurriedly clears the ring, sensing the intensity of the impending battle.
As the fighters prepare themselves, the droid referee’s sensors flicker, capturing the energy of the moment. With a hum, the referee ascends higher into the air, obtaining an optimal vantage point to oversee the duel.
The referee raises its mechanical arm, and a holographic countdown timer materializes above its head. “Valkeryries, brace for battle,” it declares, its voice tinged with an otherworldly tone. The digits on the timer begin to count down: “Let the duel begin!”
Lyssa wastes no time, her legs a blur as she sprints towards Nova, quarterstaff charged with energy, poised for action. As she closes the gap, she swings the staff in a wide arc, targeting Nova’s head. Nova, anticipating the strike, ducks with grace, barely avoiding the blow.
Lyssa’s momentum carries her forward, but Nova spots an opening and retaliates with a quick jab using her crimson sword, the blade crackling with plasma energy. Lyssa, however, deflects the attack with her staff, the collision sending sparks flying, casting eerie shadows on the arena floor.
The two combatants circle each other, their eyes scanning for any sign of weakness. Lyssa makes the first move, her quarterstaff a whirl as she unleashes a barrage of rapid strikes. Nova parries and counters, her plasma-sword humming in the air as it clashes with Lyssa’s staff, each strike accompanied by flashes of light and bursts of energy.
In the midst of their struggle, Nova feints to one side, drawing Lyssa’s attention. The arena, bathed in the light of their battle, reflects off their advanced armor. Nova strikes from the opposite side, landing a glancing blow on her opponent’s shoulder. Lyssa winces in pain but retaliates with a swift kick, her agility shining through, knocking Nova off balance.
Nova stumbles back, her advanced combat boots desperately gripping the ground. She knows she has the upper hand in weaponry, but Lyssa’s agility and skill with her quarterstaff make her a formidable opponent. As they continue their deadly dance, Nova’s heart pounds, the knowledge that only one of them will leave the arena alive gnawing at her.
Lyssa, sensing her opponent’s hesitation, presses her advantage, delivering a flurry of blows that force Nova on the defensive. The two exchange a series of rapid strikes, their weapons blurring into a whirlwind of energy and motion, pushing their physical limits.
In a moment of desperation, Nova focuses on her footwork and anticipates Lyssa’s next move. As Lyssa lunges forward, Nova sidesteps and slashes her plasma-sword through the quarterstaff, rendering it useless.
Lyssa’s eyes widen in shock as she stares at the two broken halves of her weapon. She backs away, her breaths coming in ragged gasps. Nova’s heart aches as she looks at her opponent, knowing what she must do.
She Nova hesitates, her grip tightening around the hilt of her crimson sword. Lyssa, driven by desperation, tackles Nova to the ground. Lyssa is on top of her, raining punches down on Nova’s helmet. Lyssa’s hands move to choke her, determination in her eyes.
Gasping for air, Nova scrambles for her sword and, with a surge of strength, thrusts it into Lyssa’s neck. Blood spurts out, painting Nova’s visor with a crimson mask. Lyssa goes limp, lifeless.
The crowd erupts into a frenzy. As Nova lies on the ground, her holographic image in the air declares her the winner. The cheers of the crowd do little to mask the emptiness within her. The heaviness in her chest betrays the consequences of her actions, and her breaths come in ragged gasps, struggling to comprehend the reality of her first kill.
As the cacophony of the crowd engulfs her, Nova gradually rises to her feet, her legs quivering beneath her. She steels her expression, feigning strength, yet a glimmer of shock and anguish betrays her true feelings, flickering in her eyes. A storm of emotions brews within her, the dissonance between her triumph and the haunting recollection of Lyssa’s life fading away, tearing at her soul.
The droid hovers ominously over Lyssa’s body, its mechanical claws extending to grasp her lifeless form. It silently flies away with its somber cargo, clearing the stage for the next event. Jaxon Roark, a short, stocky, bald commentator, enters the ring with a microphone in hand. He stands beside Nova, who towers over him. Her helmet has retracted, unveiling her sweat-drenched face as she struggles to maintain her composure.
“Nova! What an incredible fight,” Jaxon exclaims, his voice reverberating throughout the arena. “We noticed some hesitation from you, but you managed to push through. What caused that moment of doubt?”
The crowd hushes, their gaze fixated on Nova’s image displayed on the holographic monitors. She hesitates, her chest tightening.
“Uh,” she stammers, her voice quivering.
Venus intervenes, pushing Nova aside with a steely expression. Allistair seizes the opportunity to lead Nova out of the ring. They step onto levitating disks and descend to the arena floor. Cheers for Nova blend into a haze as they head backstage.
Meanwhile, Venus addresses the crowd. “Hesitation?” She scoffs. “A momentary lapse, that’s all. Nova corrected it, and it won’t happen again.”
In the dressing room, Nova slumps into a chair, staring at the floor. Muffled voices surround her like a fog, gradually becoming clearer as she tunes in to Allistair and Venus’ conversation.
“First-timers always need some time to adjust,” Venus murmurs.
“But if she doesn’t pull herself together, it’ll be her last time!” Allistair snaps. He turns to Nova, his voice stern. “Do you want to scrape by, or do you want to win this thing?”
Nova locks eyes with him. “I don’t know what happened. I just froze,” she admits, her voice shaking.
“Tomorrow morning, be there. And don’t let it happen again!” Allistair storms off, leaving Nova to grapple with her fears.
Venus sighs and lays a comforting hand on Nova’s shoulder. “I’ve never seen him this furious,” Nova whispers.
Venus leans in, her eyes filled with determination. “Nova, these Valkyries… they’re not like us. You have to remember that.”
Alone in the room, Nova’s attention is irresistibly drawn to the flickering television screen. On it, the triumphant figure of Fable stands resplendent, her moment of victory immortalized. The scene replays her breathtaking duel, where she had danced with deadly precision around her opponent, her movements as fluid as they were lethal.
Her sword, a gleaming extension of her will, had traced a lethal arc through the charged air, its song a silver whisper of impending doom. With a ferocious strike to the jugular, Fable had silenced her adversary, the finality of her victory echoing in the cheers that followed. The defeated opponent crumpled, vanquished by the relentless storm that was Fable.
Now, she stands victoriously, the echoes of her deadly ballet still hanging in the air, the taste of her triumph lingering. The screen transitions to the interview, the triumphant warrior’s eyes still aflame with the thrill of her recent conquest.
“Saylor, honey, this one’s for you!” Fable proclaims, her eyes glistening with prideful tears as the audience erupts in applause.
“Joining us now on The Storm Show, the dynamic duo from The Last Valkyrie, who’ve been lighting up the circuit since their debut,” announces Pegasus Storm with a charismatic smile. “Please welcome, Nova and Fable!”
A thunderous applause swells as Nova and Fable, clad in their dresses, make their entrance. They exchange courteous hugs with Pegasus and take their seats, the studio audience’s cheers simmering down into anticipatory silence.
“You both look radiant, especially considering recently was your first… execution,” Pegasus begins, his tone subtly shifting.
Fable leans in, her eyes glinting mischievously. “Who says it was our first?” The audience erupts into laughter, while Nova offers a shy smile, quickly receding into the backdrop.
Pegasus continues, “So, how does it feel to be on top of the game? I mean, just look at the ratings!” The screen behind them illuminates, revealing the Valkyrie rankings with Nova and Fable comfortably positioned in the top five—Nova, one notch above Fable.
“You’ve both captured the audience’s heart, particularly with Nova’s heartwarming story during the interviews,” Pegasus addresses them, “And you’ve managed to keep that momentum alive, which should attract quite a few patrons to support you.”
“Well…” Fable begins to respond, but Pegasus smoothly cuts her off.
“Actually, the question was for Nova, given her slightly higher rank,” he clarifies with a sincere smile.
Taken aback, Fable nods, a flicker of surprise—and perhaps, envy—crossing her face. Nova, meanwhile, hesitates, clearing her throat before speaking.
“What would you like to know?”
“How are you handling the sudden stardom?” Pegasus queries.
“I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s still early days,” Nova replies, her voice soft yet firm. “Every round, every training day matters. I’m grateful for the fans, patrons, and most importantly, my family’s support.”
Pegasus grins, “Ever the humble one!” The audience claps in agreement.
When the interview concludes, Fable and Nova retreat backstage, Fable striding ahead, her energy undiminished. Both of their managers, Venus and Zane, await them.
“Fantastic job, both of you,” Venus praises, her eyes gleaming with satisfaction. Zane, engrossed in his tablet, looks up, “You’re trending everywhere. The patron requests for Fable are pouring in.”
Nova offers a brief nod, her attention already on Fable, who’s moved considerably ahead. “Fable!” Nova calls out.
Fable halts, allowing Nova to catch up, out of earshot from their managers. “Is everything alright between us?” Nova asks, her voice tinged with concern.
“Of course, Nova. Why wouldn’t it be? We stick to the plan, make each other look good, and we’ll go far in this,” Fable assures, her smile a tad forced.
Nova nods hesitantly. As Fable turns to leave, her smile dissolves into a hardened mask, revealing a glimpse of the intricate tapestry of emotions beneath her spirited exterior.
Octavius, garbed in a robe, stretches languorously, his gaze drawn to the expansive ocean view from the window. From the plush bed behind him, the fox-eyed womanobserves him with a playful smile.
“Enjoying the view?” she quips, a subtle tease in her tone.
He pivots, meeting her gaze with a smirk. “Ever since I started waking up next to you.”
A chuckle escapes her. His attention shifts to the television, the screen flickering with Nova and Fable’s interviews and the updated rankings. She sighs, her name conspicuously absent from the top five.
“What’s the matter Morgana?” Octavius probes, his casual demeanor belying his curiosity. “You put on a fight in the first round.”
“Sure,” she scoffs, her eyes fixed on the screen. “But who’s talking about it? They’re all fawning over the ‘friendship’ between those two. It’s not doing me any favors with the patrons. I need that support.”
Her gaze flickers to him, an idea sparking in her eyes. “How about you be one?”
His laughter fills the room. “You know it’s against the rules for the Chosen One to be a patron.”
“But bedding a Valkyrie isn’t?” she retorts, a challenging glint in her fox eyes.
Still chuckling, Octavius leans back. “If you want them to talk about you, Morgana, you need to give them something unforgettable to talk about.”
She turns back to the screen, her gaze hardening on Nova and Fable’s. Octavius, catching her determined expression, nods approvingly. “Give them a reason to remember your name.”
Morgana flashes a chilling smile, her lips curling with an almost rapacious delight.
“Could you be a darling and do me a small favor?” Morgana purrs, her icy eyes fixed unwaveringly on Fable, a glint of a sinister scheme lurking within their chilling depths.
With a predatory grace, she leans in to plant a kiss on Octavius. As their lips meet, she keeps one eye cracked open, her focused gaze never straying from Fable.
Zane luxuriates in the heated embrace of an opulent bath, cocooned within the grandeur of his penthouse. Iridescent tiles sparkle under the chromatic lights of the bath, casting a mesmerizing glow around him. An earpiece nestles in his ear, humming with ongoing negotiation.
“Your generosity towards Fable’s cause won’t go unnoticed,” Zane assures smoothly into the earpiece, his voice a practiced blend of charm and business-like efficiency. “She’ll put your gifted weapons to excellent use in the upcoming battles.”
His tranquil solitude is suddenly pierced by the sharp ring of the doorbell. A frown creases Zane’s forehead, disrupting the otherwise serene expression.
“Apologies,” he murmurs into the earpiece, his eyes darting towards the entrance. “There’s someone at the door, likely more relentless reporters.”
He allows the doorbell to ring a second time, unanswered, intending to dissuade the intruder. However, when the ringing sound persists, an uneasy sensation prickles at the base of his neck.
“I need to handle this,” Zane speaks into the earpiece, “I’ll reconnect with you shortly.”
Wrapping a robe around himself, Zane pads towards the entrance. He squints at the semi-opaque glass panel of the door, discerning an unsettling silhouette. The figure is tall, their posture rigid, emanating an aura of quiet menace.
“Hello?” Zane’s voice echoes in the vaulted foyer.
Silence answers him; the figure remains unmoving. He tiptoes closer to the door, his heart pounding a rhythmic alarm against his ribs. He leans towards the peephole.
“If these are more reporters, I told you, you had to-,” he begins speaking.
His sentence is cut short as a dagger pierces through the peephole, shattering the glass and driving deep into Zane’s brain. He manages only a strangled gasp as his body convulses, the world around him crumbling into darkness.
The shadowy figure pulls back, the dagger slick with red. Zane’s lifeless body crumples onto the opulent marble floor. The assailant steps into the house, their figure cloaked in a black hoodie, a ski mask obscuring their face. The ominous silence of the penthouse seems to devour their presence, leaving behind only the chilling ring of Zane’s phone reverberating in the still air.
The outskirts of a grand mansion stretch out, perched on an elevated island, a beacon of opulence amid the haunting stillness of the morning. An imposing plaque, sturdily erected, bears a constellation of names etched deeply into the cold metal. The scent of nearby flowers wafts through the air, mingling with the faint smell of the sea, a bittersweet tapestry of life and death.
Under the radiant glow of the sun, the Valkyries stand, assembled like a murder of crows, their gazes slicing through the morning fog, watching attentively as Hannibal claims the spotlight. He is flanked by stern guards, their icy stares scanning the crowd, their fingers restless on the triggers of their weapons. A somber melody trickles out from hidden speakers, a melancholic tune that winds its way around the gathering, seeping into the cracks of the silence. The tune plays subtly in harmony with holographic images of the fallen Valkyries dancing ethereally in the air, their faces flickering with spectral light.
Nova, standing amongst the crowd, finds her gaze drawn towards Fable. She is tapping her foot rhythmically, like a metronome ticking away anxiously, the gravel crunching beneath her heel. Her face is a mask of calm, but the slight furrow of her brows betrays her worry.
“You alright?” Nova asks, her voice barely above a whisper.
“I misplaced the necklace Saylor gave me,” Fable admits, her voice wobbling with worry.
Nova glances at Fable, her eyes reflecting concern. “It’ll turn up,” she reassures her, her voice confident, even as her mind begins to worry.
However, her attention is swiftly captured by a whispered conversation occurring away from the crowd. Octavius, his face half-hidden in the shadows, is whispering something to Morgana. As Nova watches, a smirk blossoms on Morgana’s face, her eyes sparkling with concealed amusement. The sight of them together, their laughter echoing eerily, sends a jolt of curiosity through Nova. But she quickly redirects her attention upwards, to a drone camera floating aimlessly in the sky, its red light blinking ominously.
Hannibal’s voice rings out, reverberating with a somber note. “We gather here to honor the fallen Valkeries. Their strength and bravery will not be forgotten. Anyone wish to say something?”
The silence that follows is deafening, punctuated only by the distant cries of the sea birds. Then, a hand is raised, and all eyes turn to Morgana. She stands, her smirk wide and threatening. Raising her hand with a schoolgirl’s innocence, she wears a smirk that seems to hold a thousand secrets.
“Nova, Fable,” Morgana’s voice cuts through the silence, a predatory glint in her eyes as she addresses them, “You two carry yourselves like you’re invincible, bolstered by your tragic histories. But let me assure you, by the time I’m done, you’ll be nothing but echoes of your former selves,” her tone drips with a saccharine menace.
Fable begins to walk away, each heartbeat echoing in her chest. “Your theatrics bore us, Morgana,” she shoots back, her voice laced with scorn. Despite her dismissive demeanor, an undertone of anxiety pulses within her.
“Oh is that so?” Morgana’s voice slices through the air, her words ringing out with a chilling clarity. “Perhaps this will change your mind.”
Fable turns around. From her pocket, Morgana pulls out a delicate pendant, a dainty unicorn studded with tiny gems, the sunlight catching it as it sways in the wind. Fable freezes, her heart pounding in her chest, the world around her going silent.
“How… Where did you get that?” Fable’s gasp is nearly inaudible, her eyes wide with shock.
“A change of heart, dear Fable?” Morgana teases, her voice mimicking a child’s, her laughter bouncing off the shocked silence.
“Give it back!” Fable’s words are as sharp as shards of glass, cutting through the tension-filled silence.
With a malicious grin, Morgana lobs the pendant into the ocean’s abyss.
“No!” Fable’s cry is filled with desperation. She sprints to the edge of the island, her footsteps a frantic rhythm against the cold ground. But as she peers over the steep cliff, all she is met with is the sight of the vast, uncaring sea. Tears well up in her eyes, blurring her vision, and she drops to her knees in despair.
“Perhaps you can fashion this into a necklace,” Morgana’s voice drips with cruel amusement.
From within the depths of her pocket, she retrieves an object that sends a chill down the spines of the onlookers. It’s an eyeball, grotesquely real, its cord serving as a macabre tether. With a nonchalant flick of her wrist, she tosses it to the ground where it lands with a soft thud next to Fable.
Startled, Fable looks down at it, the dismembered eye seeming to stare back up at her, its iris mirroring her horrified expression.
“Recongize it perhaps?” Morgana taunts.
Morgana’s laughter rings out like a cruel taunt, filling the air as everyone watches in stunned silence.
With a sudden burst of fury, Fable rises to her feet and charges at Morgana, her face aflame with rage. But before she can reach her target, security guards jump in, their strong arms restraining her.
“I swear, Morgana, I’ll tear your tongue out and feed it to you!” Fable’s words hang in the air, a volatile threat that only spurs more laughter from Morgana. “I want you for the 2nd round!”
Before anyone can react, Nova’s fist connects with Morgana’s face. The sudden impact sends Morgana reeling backward, her laughter abruptly silenced. Nova’s heart pounds in her chest, her gaze locked on Morgana as a strange mix of satisfaction and unease churns within her.
Crumpled on the ground, Morgana gingerly touches her lip, now smeared with blood. Slowly, her gaze lifts to meet Nova’s, her eyes glinting with an eerie mix of amusement and defiance.
“Eager for a dance already,” Morgana taunts, her words slurred through her bloody lip, yet laced with a chilling certainty.
A chill runs down Nova’s spine. The sight of Morgana, bloodied but still defiant, is unsettling as she takes a step back. Her mind is racing, thoughts colliding and overlapping, as she tries to make sense of what just happened.
Octavius rushes to Morgana’s side in an instant, helping her up. “Not the time or place,” he murmurs, guiding her away from the scene.
Seeing Fable’s distress, Nova breaks away from her thoughts and swiftly moves towards her. She slips her arm around Fable, pulling her into a comforting embrace. Fable clings onto her, her body trembling as sobs wrack her frame.
“How did she even get it?” she cries, her words muffled against Nova’s shoulder.
Nova’s eyes trail Octavius as he recedes into the background with Morgana, her gaze sharpening with suspicion. Her attention then shifts to the dismembered eyeball resting on the ground.
She bends down to inspect it, the iris reflecting the turmoil in her eyes. The peculiar detail of the eye, the hint of familiarity in the unique color, and Octavius’s hasty departure all seem to collide in her mind.
In the corridor of the mansion, Octavius corners Morgana, his fingers biting into the silk of her sleeve. His breath is ragged, the stone wall cold against his back.
“What was that?” he demands, his voice barely a whisper.
A chuckle bubbles up from Morgana’s lips, as if amused by a private joke. “Just as you advised, darling – give them a reason to remember your name,” she taunts.
“No, not like that,” Octavius insists, the words tumbling out. “How could you do that to her… to Fable’s daughter?”
A cruel smile plays on Morgana’s lips. “Oh, do cheer up, Octavius. You want me to win this game, don’t you? Besides, you’re not entirely innocent yourself.”
His eyes narrow, the mere insinuation sending waves of dread through him. It only serves to fuel Morgana’s laughter.
“Have you forgotten already? You were the one who handed me the addresses of all the managers,” she reminds him.
Octavius recoils, horror spreading across his face. “The eye,” he gasps. “I thought you wanted the addresses to intimidate your competition, not… not to… “
“Kill Zane for his eye, so I could enter Fable’s room and steal her necklace?” Morgana finishes his sentence, her voice lilting with malevolent satisfaction. “Tell me there’s more brains to that cute face of yours.”
As Morgana saunters away, her laughter echoes ominously through the deserted hallway, leaving Octavius alone. A drone hums into view, its camera flashing red.
“Interview commencing,” it intones, starting a countdown from three. “So Octavius tell us what your reaction to what Morgana just did.” The voice is now energetic with humanlike excitement.
Suddenly, Nova approaches, her appearance is like a ghost, her eyes wide with shock, tinged with a hint of fear.
“Octavius,” she begins, her tone calm yet imbued with a quiet repulsion. “Did you… were you involved in any of this?”
His throat tightens, and he barely manages to choke out a response. “I had no idea Morgana would…”
“I’m not surprised,” Nova sighs, gaze dropping to the floor. “You’re just like him.”
As she leaves, her words hit Octavius like a physical blow, leaving a chill that seems to seep into his bones. The drone continues its merciless watch, capturing every nuance of his reaction. As he turns to face the camera, a pang of hurt flashing across his features, he forces a broad grin.
“Well, as you can see, things are getting quite exciting!” he announces, forcing a chuckle. His voice is hollow as he continues to talk, trying to mask the turmoil within.
The quiet suburban neighborhood seems to swallow up any noise, leaving an eerie silence that settles on the quaint florist shop at the corner. A bell tinkles as Torin and Skyla push open the door, the scent of roses and lilies flooding their senses, a fragrant cover-up for the sinister operations behind the storefront.
An older gentleman with gnarled hands and suspicious eyes glances up from his task of snipping stems, his gaze flickering over their tense postures. “Can I help you?” he asks, his voice a gravelly murmur that barely disturbs the heavy silence.
“I want to see him,” Skyla replies, her voice slicing through the floral-scented air.
A flicker of apprehension crosses the man’s face before he regains composure. “You know where he is,” he grumbles, nodding towards a nondescript door at the back of the shop.
Skyla shares a glance with Torin before they traverse the narrow path, opening the door to reveal a stark contrast. The room is a hive of activity, full of people assembling weapons and packaging drugs with mechanical precision. At the far end, a man with glasses hunched over a drone, his tools tinkling against the metal with a rhythmic melody.
“Skyla, what brings you here?” he asks without looking up, his voice echoing in the high-ceilinged room.
“It’s about Vex,” she replies, her voice steady.
A woman at a table, her hands busy with a packet of narcotics, visibly winces. Torin’s sharp gaze catches the sudden change in her demeanor, storing it away for later.
Skyla continues, “His car was destroyed by a drone. And the drone came from here.”
The man finally looks up, a hint of amusement in his eyes. “Oh, really?”
She shoots back, “There aren’t many illegal drone makers in the city, so I need to know, who did you sell it to?”
He smirks, pausing his work to give her his full attention. “What’s so funny?” Skyla snaps, irritation coloring her voice.
“Because the one I sold it to was your brother.”
Her eyes widen. “What?”
“Yeah,” he sighs, reaching into a drawer to pull out a ledger, sliding it across the table to her. There among the lists of names, in Vex’s unmistakable handwriting, is his signature. “You know I make receipts for…..insurance.”
Skyla pales, her voice barely above a whisper, “Then that would mean, he destroyed his own car, but why?”
The man shrugs, resuming his work, leaving Skyla and Torin in stunned silence.
Torin’s eyes drift back to the woman, her expression a mask of sorrow before she busies herself with her work again.
“I don’t understand, none of this makes sense,” Skyla murmurs, her voice hollow.
Torin leans in closer to her, his voice a soft whisper, “There was a woman over there in the corner, she seemed affected when we mentioned Vex.”
Skyla starts to move towards her, but Torin quickly grabs her arm. “No, if you confront her now, we may not get anything. I have a plan.”
He glances back at the woman, a steely resolve setting into his features.
The metallic scent of determination and the rhythmic clang of steel on steel fills the air of the training room. Nova and Alistair move as if part of a deadly dance, their swords slicing through the air, blocking, dodging, and striking with practiced precision. As Nova ducks a high swing, she notices an opening in Alistair’s defense, but finds herself hesitating, her mind suddenly elsewhere.
In the split second her focus wavers, Alistair takes advantage, delivering a swift kick to her abdomen that sends her tumbling backward.
“Nova!” His voice echoes around the room, stern and demanding, yet measured. “Why the hesitation?”
Struggling to regain her footing, Nova can do little but defend against the relentless onslaught. Alistair’s blade comes at her in a series of swift, precise strikes that push her back, the fear evident in her wide eyes and the beads of sweat trailing down her face.
“Do you think our enemies will show mercy?” Alistair probes, each word punctuated by the sound of clashing steel.
Nova’s breaths come in ragged gasps, her grip on the sword trembling. She can barely defend against Alistair’s fury, each near miss making her heart skip a beat. She almost feels like he might actually kill her. And then, with a swift kick, he disarms her, leaving her on her knees, defenseless.
As Nova looks up, her eyes widen in shock as Alistair’s blade darts forward, stopping just inches from her throat. She freezes, her heart hammering in her chest.
“A moment’s hesitation can cost you your life,” he advises, his voice calm yet serious.
With a swift move, he sheathes his sword. “We’re done.”
Nova gasps, her chest heaving. “What? It’s not time yet.”
“For you it is. You’re not ready, Nova. If your current state is any indication, you won’t make it to the next round. I see no point in continuing like this.”
He turns to leave, his footsteps echoing in the quiet room.
“Alistair,” Nova calls out, her voice trembling.
He pauses, glancing over his shoulder. “Return when you’re ready. If.”
Left alone in the echo of his words, Nova stands, feeling the weight of his disappointment like a punch to her gut. She grabs her fallen sword, the cold steel a stark contrast to the heat of her embarrassment and anger. With a guttural yell, she hurls it across the room.
Nova stands outside, the weight of her recent encounter with Alistair still lingering. A camera drone hovers into view, its lens zooming into her face as the lights on its body start a silent countdown for the interview.
“So, Nova,” the drone’s voice echoes with an artificial enthusiasm, “How does it feel to be facing Morgana in the next match?”
“What?” Nova’s brows knit together in surprise.
She pulls out her phone, her fingers scrolling over the screen quickly. There, amidst the list of the next round’s pairings, her name sits right next to Morgana’s. A shiver of anticipation runs down her spine, her breath hitching slightly.
“Some think you’re going to die against her? Any comments,” the drone prods, its tone still irritatingly peppy.
In response, Nova strides past the drone, her jaw set and her eyes focused. She doesn’t need to answer. Actions, after all, speak louder than words.
Fable leans against the wrought-iron railing, her gaze piercing through the bustling crowd that swarms the Delos café. She sips her lukewarm coffee, its bitter taste mirroring her irritation.
“Can anyone tell me how this stupid match system works? Is it Hannibal, the patrons, the viewers, or what?” she snaps.
Nova and Venus sit across from her, their faces bathed in the gentle sunlight that filters through the café’s parasol. Venus, her fingers dancing around the rim of her coffee cup, exhales softly, her eyes unfathomable.
“The mechanism behind the matches is shrouded in ambiguity, Fable. Some whisper it’s a cold, calculating algorithm, while others think it’s the workings of the producers. But one thing is crystalline after your showdown with Morgana—Hannibal will serve the fans the fight they’re hungry for.”
Nova looks at Venus, her voice barely above a whisper, laced with anxiety.
“But Morgana’s issue was with Fable, not me.”
A faint, cryptic smile plays on Venus’ lips.
“Perhaps Hannibal or the fans think that by putting you in the ring first against Morgana, it’ll stoke the flames of drama. Just imagine, if you were to fall, it would create more anticipation, more suspense for Fable’s fight.”
Fable’s eyes narrow, her grip tightening on the coffee cup until her knuckles turn white. The waves of anxiety rolling off Nova are palpable, and it fuels her frustration.
“It should have been me,” she spits out, her voice laced with bitterness. She slams her fist onto the table. “I’m the one who wants to give Morgana what she has coming to her.”
Venus’s smile widens slightly at Fable’s outburst. Fable’s fiery gaze softens as she turns to Nova, her hand landing reassuringly on Nova’s shoulder. Her voice holds a rare hint of gentleness,
“Please do us all a favor and make her pay.”
Nova nods, her expression pensive and slightly resigned as she stares into her coffee. The tension hangs heavy in the air, the buzz of the café suddenly feeling distant and muted.
Alone in her suite, Morgana gazes into the mirror, her eyes seemingly vacant, lost in their own reflection. The dazzling sunlight, filtered through the oceanic haze, dances across her skin, casting shimmering reflections on the azure waves.
She runs her fingers across her face, feeling the odd sensation of her perfect skin. With a sudden resolve, she grips a piece of skin on her cheek, tugging at it gently. It yields, peeling away like a synthetic mask. It comes off, revealing her true visage – a canvas of burn scars and old wounds. The scars, a myriad of discolored patches, mar her skin in a convoluted pattern. Her grotesque reflection stares back at her, a stark contrast to the beautiful lie she’d been wearing.
Her gaze lingers on the distorted mirror image. Her eyes, now devoid of their earlier sparkle, bear a sullen, haunted look. As she traces the jagged lines of her scars, her mind begins to drift back, her gaze unfocused, as though looking not at the mirror, but into the past.
Posters of galactic rock bands adorn the walls. Morgana sits by an open window, her voice intertwining with the song of the city-birds outside. She’s recording a live stream, her phone propped up on a stack of books. As she sings, comments light up her screen – words of praise and adoration.
Without warning, the door swings open. A man enters, his bald head gleaming in the soft light, a mouthful of metallic grills reflecting a distorted image of the room, tattoos snaking up his muscled arms. The music in Morgana’s voice dies away, her hand reaching out to kill the live stream. The birds outside scatter, their song replaced by the hum of flying cars in the distance.
“What are you doing?” the man growls, his voice echoing in the suddenly quiet room.
“Nothing,” Morgana whispers, her voice barely audible.
He spots the phone. “When are you going to give up on that pointless dream of yours?” he snaps.
“It’s not pointless,” she retorts, defiance flaring in her eyes.
He dismisses her with a wave of his hand.
“Meet us in the hall now.”
With that, he leaves, and Morgana is left alone in her room. She glares at the closed door before her gaze lands on a poster of a musician, performing under a sky full of stars.
In the dining room, the older man takes his seat at the head of a large table. Flanking him are a stern-looking woman, his wife, a young man with strikingly similar features of the two. Others are seated as well. Holographic charts flicker to life above the table, displaying intricate layouts of city maps and transit routes. Morgana and the young man who looks like her as well exchange a knowing glance. His eyes hold a softness and understanding that seems out of place in the room.
“Operations have been hindered by the increased police presence,” the older man begins, his finger tracing a glowing path on the chart. “We’ll need to use the subterranean transit system to distribute our merchandise.”
“What about the police drones Mr. Galante?” a man asks.
“We’ll deploy our own drones for surveillance.”
Lost in her own world, Morgana’s eyes are glued to her phone screen, scrolling through the waves of adoration from her livestream. A soft chuckle escapes her lips, a fleeting moment of joy amidst the stern atmosphere. Suddenly Mr. Galante’s voice cuts through the air.
“Are you going to pay attention, Morgana?” His tone is sharp, a razor against the hum of conversation.
The woman, her mother, chimes in gently, “Dear pay attention.”
Morgana sighs, turning to Galante, “What do you want?”
His glare bores into her. “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”
Morgana’s laugh is bitter. “So you can dump your failed dreams on me too?”
In a flash, Galante’s hand connects with her face. The room falls silent, save for the whir of drones outside. Morgana reels from the impact, blood trickling from her nose. The room’s icy silence is shattered by Silas’ outraged voice.
“Dad, you have no right!”
“Sit down!” Galante orders.
Their mother puts a trembling hand on Silas’ shoulder, urging him to obey. Her eyes are fearful but resigned, forever trapped in the shadow of her husband. Galante glares at Morgana, his voice dripping with contempt.
“Get out of my sight,” he seethes.
Silas rushes to Morgana’s side, guiding her out of the room. His eyes burn with suppressed anger as he glances back at his father. “She’s your daughter.”
Exiting the suffocating atmosphere of the meeting, they find themselves in an orchard outside, the air rich with the scent of alien fruits. Silas turns to Morgana, his concern evident.
“Are you alright?” he asks.
Morgana’s response is a scream of pure frustration, her voice echoing in the stillness. “I hate him! Why is he like this! I wish he was dead!”
“No, don’t say that. He just…he has an anger problem,” Silas attempts to defend their father, but his words ring hollow.
“Oh, but when I don’t want to play along, I am the problem,” Morgana spits out, her voice laced with bitterness.
Silas wraps his arms around her, a comforting presence amidst the turmoil. “Don’t you ever wish we could leave this business behind, the family, and just start anew?” she murmurs.
“Always,” Silas admits with a sigh, his gaze lost in the sky, a universe away from their grim reality.
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