Nick pushed open the door and strutted into Valeriya’s office in Moscow. Without paying heed to the owner of the room, who was sitting behind her desk with a tired expression, he made his way to the sofa and flopped onto it.
“I hope you don’t mind?” asked Nick while flashing a smug grin and putting his feet up on the coffee table. “My legs are tired. I had to travel a long way to get here.”
Valeriya’s face did not change in the least. “Not at all. Make yourself comfortable.”
Seeing Valeriya so meek, Nick felt a surge of euphoria. Her behavior could not be more different from the last time they spoke, but that was to be expected. He had eliminated Arashi Tanizaki, one of Valeriya’s targets for revenge. Viktor was the one who dealt the fatal blow, and Noelle had been killed in action, but those matters did not change the fact that he contributed in the joint operation. Losing his representative in the mission also showed that he sacrificed something for victory. It was only natural that Valeriya had asked to meet and thank him personally.
The Russian leaned forward on her chair, lifting her blond top bun from the leather headrest. “I want to express my gratitude to you for joining the operation against Ageha and Arashi.”
“Don’t mention it. I was just fulfilling my duty. We’re allies, aren’t we?”
With the U.S. faction in turmoil, Nick had decided to get back on Valeriya’s good side, at least for now. By using this success to his advantage, he planned to be considered as her equal, or at least a cut above her other subordinates.
“Allies. An interesting way to put it.” Valeriya took a cigarette from a sleek metal case and lit it with a lighter.
Nick watched her every move from the corner of his eye, trying to see how he could push the conversation in his direction. The Russian had lost her previous vibrance. Her red shirt and suit were wrinkled and disheveled. The hair balled up on her head looked as messy as a bird’s nest, and most of all, her eyes had lost their vigor. She had gained a new cybernetic arm, but everything else had degraded drastically.
Losing a child, huh…
Guess even rotten assholes can be miserable.
“You know, Nick, I was wrong about you. I thought you were a small fry, a tool to be used.”
Oh, an apology?
Nick almost licked his lips in anticipation. Nothing would soothe his ego more than an apology from the arrogant bitch in front of him.
“To be honest, I didn’t think you had what it took to achieve anything, but I was clearly mistaken.”
“Please. No need for such words. It’s all water under the bridge.”
“No, I need to set things right.” Valeriya extended her right hand, still holding a cigarette, and pointed to a large container on the other side of the room. “A gift. For your efforts.”
“Can’t say I expected this. I never figured you to be the type.”
“Credit where credit is due.” Valeriya smiled, albeit lacking energy.
“What is it?”
“Go see for yourself.”
Nick examined the box from the sofa. It was about his height and twice as wide as his shoulders. The material appeared to be metal or plastic, maybe a mixture of both. Further delaying would be rude to his host, so he stood up and walked over to the box. A handle protruded near the corner of the front side. Taking it in his hand, he opened the door with surprising ease.
In it was a female figure with red hair.
No, it was the skin from her head and neck, wrapped snugly on the corresponding parts of a gynoid with shiny metallic limbs.
Nick almost fell backward in shock. “W-What the hell is this!?”
“Oh?” Valeriya raised an eyebrow. “You don’t recognize your own subordinate? Say hi.”
The gynoid moved its left hand and waved. Nick scrambled away from it in fear, almost crashing into the coffee table as he did so. Valeriya laughed boisterously from her chair, as if she savored his every reaction.
“What is that thing!!?”
“Oh, it’s just one of Gen’s old toys. A failed project. AI isn’t advanced enough to control combat robots yet, but I digress. I just thought it’d be funny to spook you with it.”
Nick regained a semblance of calm after seeing Valeriya’s mischievous expression. “What about Noelle? What happened to her? I heard she was killed by Arashi.”
“That’s a long story, but what the heck, I’ve got some time on my hands. You’re half right. She was shot by Arashi during the operation, but it wasn’t fatal. The rifle bullet hit her armored vest, so she got off with just a broken collarbone. She’s lucky Arashi was using a normal rifle back then.”
Nick tore his eyes away from the morbid doll and focused on Valeriya. “Then why is her face… her skin on this thing?”
“Don’t be so impatient. I can’t spoil the ending just like that, can I? Back to my story. Arashi actually shot Viktor too, but only hit his rifle. The shrapnel cut his head, but that’s about it. The strange thing was, he was also shot in the shoulder at the same time! What a mystery, right? Who would do that?”
Nick felt a cold sweat forming on his back. His legs urged him to run away, but he resisted. There was nowhere for him to run to in Valeriya’s building.
“So Viktor’s team took out the bullet and did some tests. What a surprise, it came from your ginger’s suppressed rifle. How mysterious. So they checked the bodies of those killed in combat, just to be sure. Get this, some of them died from the same rifle! How weird is that?”
Nick did not need to hear the climax of the story to realize he was in big trouble. They were alone in the room, but Valeriya’s men were probably blocking the exit.
What do I do!?
Sweat rolled down his forehead as he racked his brain for a solution.
As if not noticing, Valeriya continued speaking in a nonchalant, almost jovial tone. “They tortured your subordinate for information and learned a lot of interesting tidbits. Apparently, you ordered her to shoot Viktor. Well, that part wasn’t very interesting. I mean why else would she have shot him?”
Should I take her hostage?
Valeriya was an expert martial artist and killer. Nick did not stand a chance if they fought fairly.
She blew out a puff of smoke and stared at Nick’s eyes. “The shocker was what that redhead did a while back.” Her left hand pressed onto her ample breasts, wrinkling her deep red dress shirt. “She was the one who shot me right here. On your orders. She was the one who made me lose to Ageha.” Valeriya closed her eyes for a moment before glaring daggers at him. “She was the one who stopped me from saving Mitsuki.”
I’m going to die here.
That was inevitable. Valeriya would not let him leave alive no matter what. He had only one choice. He would keep holding onto his pride until the very end.
“And all of that, was ordered by you, Nicolas Estrella. I was so wrong about you. Had I known you were this pestilent, I would’ve snapped your neck long ago.” She shook her head with a disappointed expression.
But I’m taking you with me!!!
Nick reached for the heel of his left shoe and pressed a button. The heel detached from the sole, revealing a tiny gun that looked no different from a child’s toy, but his state-of-the-art plastic pistol was no doubt real and perfectly lethal. It had safely passed through the weapon inspection and metal detectors in the building, justifying its exorbitant price. The pistol only had four ceramic rounds, but that was enough.
Surprise flitted across Valeriya’s face as she hurriedly tried to stand up, but Nick was faster. He shot her in the chest three times. She fell back into her chair from the impact. Not delaying for a second, Nick used the last of his ammo to shoot her in the forehead.
The bullet easily found its mark.
Valeriya’s head snapped backward from the impact, her messy bun untangling. The emancipated long golden locks fanned out and fell limp, curtaining her face as her head lifelessly tipped forward.
Silence returned to the room. Nick, robbed of energy upon realizing his end was near, released the tiny pistol, which fell to the floor with a clack.
All that was left was to wait for the Russian mobsters to burst into the room and shoot him to death. He gazed at Valeriya’s corpse and consoled himself by thinking he had brought down a giant before ending his ambitious run. Her lit cigarette still rested between the middle and index fingers of her right hand. Wispy smoke tendrils gently rose from the cinders before vanishing, as if they carried her soul to the afterlife.
Valeriya raised her head and continued her story. “So now that I’ve finally seen your true worth, I figure I should treat you with the respect you deserve.”
“Like I said, credit where credit is due.” She combed up her loose locks with her free hand, unveiling her face and bosom.
Nick stared at her, utterly dumbfounded. Her chest had three holes in it, and her forehead had a tear near the middle. A tiny stream of blood trickled from it.
“H-How…” His entire body trembled like a twig in a typhoon.
“Oh you meant this?” Valeriya pointed at her forehead. “I had my skull replaced, along with the rest of my body. I had them reattach my skin and hair after some modifications to stop decomposition.” Her finger swung over to the gynoid. “Just like Gen’s toy over there. But that’s not important. What is important, is I’ve decided to treat you the way you deserve to be treated. I decided to deal with you myself.”
Valeriya closed her eyes as she tried to suppress her throbbing headache.
Did I get a mild concussion from that?
Meh, who cares.
Warm water rolled down her bared voluptuousness as she scrubbed away what remained of the ambitious Filipino from her fair skin. The bathroom floor dyed pink as blood mixed with soap suds. The damage on her forehead and chest still remained. She had removed the bullets from her breasts herself, but a visit to the lab was required to fix the artificial skin and tissue.
After drying herself with a towel, she donned a red bathrobe and left her spacious dressing room. A quick check of her mobile revealed that Viktor had almost fully recovered from his injuries and wanted to return to duty. She had considered whether to punish him for conducting an operation without her permission, but the results lined up with her final objective, so she decided to be lenient. It did not matter to her in the least who delivered the final blow.
She muttered the words, “Get back to work,” as she typed the same message on her terminal, followed by a few emojis to annoy the old man.
Although still far from peak condition, Valeriya had been feeling better recently. After Mitsuki’s death, she had repeatedly questioned herself about what to do from then on, only to arrive at the same conclusion each time. Life had lost meaning to her, and that brutal truth had shown itself in all her actions. Viktor had clearly been worried about her mental condition, which was why she could forgive his unpermitted attack against Ageha and Arashi. Even she had believed her self-destruction was inevitable, that was, until she found it.
Valeriya opened the top bedside drawer and reached for a folded piece of paper inside. It was a letter from her daughters, handwritten on scented paper. She carefully unfolded it as if it were centuries old papyrus. Her fingers, slightly cut up from her Q and A session with Nick, ran across the rather clumsy handwriting.
The letter had been hidden inside the polar bear plushie gifted by Ageha. Mitsuki had opened up the toy and slipped the letter into the white stuffing before sewing it shut. The piece of paper slept there undisturbed until Valeriya had torn apart the languid polar bear in one of her numerous hysterical fits. She could only call it good fortune that the letter had come out of it unscathed.
Her eyes rested on each word one by one, as if savoring them. She had read the letter countless times by now, but it had never failed to breathe life into her heart and put a smile on her face.
In it lay the answer she had been seeking.
Mitsuki’s written words and their final farewell on that ethereal beach had coalesced into a jewel within Valeriya’s heart. That jewel had become her core, pushing her towards the future she envisioned.
Was that future foolish and naive? Maybe.
But she had decided to seek it.
And Arashi’s death had brought her one step closer.
A few minutes later, she finally reached the postscript. Reading the letter had become a daily habit for her, true, but that was not why she had brought it out this time. She reread the final gift her daughters had given her.
“P.S. Kaika killed her sister~”
It was a rather vague sentence and could be interpreted in a number of ways. The word sister could refer to Saya or Arashi, and killing could mean stealing their humanity or future. Although Kaika actually had a sister named Kureha, Valeriya had never heard Mitsuki or Sakuya mention her. Because of these reasons, She had not given the postscript much thought.
Viktor had personally disposed of Noelle and Arashi, a laudable feat, but his victory spoils did not end there. Noelle’s interrogation had also yielded some unexpected information.
Arashi had told Noelle that Kaika killed her real sister, a story that spilled from the redhead’s lips during torture. That by itself meant very little because it could be the enemy camp’s propaganda or a desperate attempt to survive by faking information, but Valeriya’s conversation with Nick had corroborated the story.
There was no longer room for doubt.
Kaika Nikaido had killed Kureha Nikaido.
Ageha Shikimi had deeply cared for Kureha Nikaido, perhaps he still did.
The devil’s heart was finally in her hands.
She still needed to obtain proof, but that was no challenge. Everything left a trace. She just needed to sniff it out and hunt it down. A wolf-like grin blossomed on her face as she lovingly held the letter to her bosom.
“Thank you, my cute daughters.”
Saya approached Kaika’s desk with a mobile terminal in hand. Her mistress rested her chin on her entwined fingers with both elbows on the table.
“So, how are things going?”
It was a casual start to a formal report, but that had always been her mistress’s style. Despite having learned numerous forms of formal etiquette in the modern world, Kaika had always maintained her haughty frankness, a demeanor that sharply contrasted with her true self. That had not changed even after she had achieved her grand objective.
The world had changed.
“Butler has lost most of his supporters because of the incest and child abuse scandal. A coalition crossing both political parties forced him out of office. He and Walker have gone underground.”
“Funny how two parties that are always at each other’s throats can suddenly team up like that.”
“The heaviest opposition actually came from the masses after the news spread. Incest and child abuse are very sensitive topics in that country. No American soldier would fight for a leader accused of those. I believe that is why you chose this strategy, Ojousama.”
“You believe correctly. What about the presidential seat?”
“After rallying opposition against Butler, the former Vice President Selena Hill has risen to the role of leader. She will be inaugurated as president in the next few weeks. That should also signal the end of martial law.”
Kaika nodded in approval. “What about the other side?”
“As promised, Mei Xing’s organization launched a covert attack on a U.S. base in the United Republic of Korea last night.”
“He actually did it, huh? His guilt towards what happened in the Altai mountains worked in our favor.”
Saya failed to hide a grimace. Even without hearing the girl’s name, the wounds from that time still throbbed painfully each time her mind wandered near those memories. A deep breath allowed her to regain focus and continue her report.
“China has yet to claim responsibility for it, but according to my sources, it is only a matter of time. The U.S would demand major compensation in the form of policy changes and trade deals if China admits rogue elements from their country are responsible for the attack. Such a move would also show weakness in handling internal affairs. Since the Chinese and Russians are already planning to attack the U.S. during its political upheaval anyway, it would be better for them to just go ahead and admit they did it.
“It’s about time China made a move. Those politicians are such cowards. Everyone wanted the bomb to go off, but no one dared to light the fuse. Can’t believe I had to dirty my hands with such trifles.”
Kaika’s success had not come easy. Ageha and Saya, even while grieving for Arashi, had gritted their teeth and devoted everything to work. Ageha had personally negotiated with Mei Xing to gain their assistance, on top of getting rid of hindrances through overwhelming violence. Saya had focused on the political aspect and assisted Kaika in managing their various ventures. They had not allowed their suffering to deter them from achieving their goal, just like Arashi had done in the mountains.
Among the three of them, Kaika had been acting most like herself. She required no comforting and spent her time efficiently. That facade had not fooled Saya, but she had done nothing about it. Something had happened to Kaika’s heart that day, but she was too busy with her own emotional turmoil to reach out to her.
Saya barely slept at all since the incident. Each time she did, she dreamt of her times with Arashi. She dreamt of the happiness she had stolen from her due to her petty jealousy. She dreamt of how her carelessness had led to Arashi’s death.
Her waking moments were not much different.
Why didn’t I close the helicopter door myself?
Why didn’t I arrive five minutes earlier?
Why wasn’t I together with them on that plane?
There was no end to her scathing reflections. Even as she gave her report, her mind was battered by torrents of regret and shame.
Her mistress’s voice gave her a respite from self-scorn, or so she thought.
“Have you found him?”
Saya clenched her teeth while doing her best to remain unfazed. “No, not yet.”
“That selfish jerk. What the hell is he doing? We’re already shorthanded as it is.”
After ensuring the success of Kaika’s grand plan, Ageha had left the mansion, parting with a short “I’ll be back soon.” He had yet to return.
“He is probably… grieving.”
“…I know that much.”
“He said he will come back.”
“Do you believe him?”
“Then I’ll wait a bit more.”
“Is this about Valeriya?”
Kaika’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, but her voice underwent a frigid drop in tone. “What else?”
As expected, the tiny tyrant was just as, if not even more damaged than her two remaining pillars.
“Ageha does not desire revenge.”
“Revenge?” Kaika scoffed so hard beads of spit flew from her mouth. “Killing Ria isn’t about revenge. It’s about hate. I hate her. I hate her for killing Arashi, sure, but that’s not why I’m going to purge her from the world. Do you seek revenge when you crush a cockroach under your heel? No. You just kill it because you hate it. The reason you hate it doesn’t matter. You probably don’t even know or care why you want to kill it. You just do it because it’s there even though you don’t want it to be.” She shook her head. “I don’t need relief or justice. I just want her gone.”
“He does not want to be a part of that.”
“Because it isn’t fair? Who the fuck cares!?” Kaika slammed her shaking fist on the table.
“I think he just does not want to lose anyone else. He killed Mitsuki, and Valeriya killed Arashi. He wants everything to end with that.”
“Do you think that Russian wolf will just agree to that? She’s coming for us. So I’ll kill her first. What about you? What do you think I should do?”
“…I trust in your judgment and follow your will, as always.”
Hearing those words, the expression on Kaika’s face softened a little. “Sorry… for shouting.”
“Such words are unnecessary, Ojousama. I will always be your ally.”
Saya did not know whether her decision to stay with Kaika and fully support her was the right one. Was she helping her move forward? Or was she leading her astray? Her own feelings about the matter were still in disarray.
Even so, the butler would never abandon her mistress.
Kaika slumped in her chair after Saya left the office. While rubbing her temples with her fingers, she tried to calm her rough breathing.
I can’t let anyone see me like this.
Kaika hated a lot of things. She hated boredom. She hated rap “music.” She hated stagnation. She hated milk soda. She hated losing. She hated her father. She was quite accustomed to it.
But nothing could have prepared her for what she felt right now.
Kaika hated nothing more than Valeriya Varrenikov. In fact, hating that woman was all she could think about. It had been life changing. It had felt like tasting real white truffle after settling with truffle oil all your life.
Everything else had become mere distractions to prevent the muddy, jet black emotion from devouring her entirety. The moment she stopped her hands, she began sinking into a swirling sludge of loathing. That was why she kept moving, trying frantically to keep herself afloat.
Despite her predicament, she could not show weakness to anyone. She had to act the swan on the surface, not because she wanted to avoid worrying them or some form of petty pride.
She needed to look collected so people would follow her, no matter what hell she led them to. No sane person would heed the words of a lunatic. Therefore, she could not be seen as one.
Whether she truly was insane or not was of little consequence.
A call alert from her phone saved her from slipping into the darkness again.
She took a deep breath before accepting the call. “Congratulations, Selena! I hear your inauguration is coming soon.”
“Stop it with the bullshit. I did as you told me. I tricked that Mashiro kid. Butler is gone. I’ve done my part, so do as you promised.”
“So impatient.” Kaika clicked her tongue mockingly. “That’s why you get in such deep trouble. If you had more self-restraint, you would’ve avoided having an affair, much less actually falling in love.”
“Say what you want. I want to speak to Diego, now.”
“Um, about that. I can’t.”
“Stop playing coy. Just connect me to where you’re keeping him, like you did before.”
“I’d love to, but it’s impossible because I’m no god. You see, your beloved Diego is already dead.”
“…I have no time for jokes.”
“In fact, he’s been dead for a week now. Actually, I’m glad you didn’t ask to speak with him until now. Even you can’t back out of the presidency at this point.”
Kaika recognized the emotion emanating from Selena’s voice. It was the same as the tar silently bubbling in her chest recently.
“I killed him myself. I took a gun and shot him in the face a couple times. I was having an especially bad day, and he kept asking me not to hurt you, again and again and again. So I just snapped. You get it, right? It happens sometimes.”
Although she exaggerated a bit, the story was mostly true.
Selena’s voice shook as she forced air out of her throat. “Why? Why did you do that? If you kept him alive, I would’ve done anything you wanted…”
“I don’t need him alive for that.”
Kaika hung up.
Selena was right. If Kaika had kept Diego alive, she would have had a decent amount of control over America, but that was too temporary. As long as Selena abused her power under Kaika’s orders, someone else was bound to usurp her, removing all influence Kaika had in the States.
Staying in power was extremely difficult, as proven by Butler’s fall. That was why dictators resorted to any means necessary to keep their position for as long as possible. A certain desperation was required to be a tyrant, and that was something Selena lacked.
She was doing it for her lover, but if that love eventually wavered, she would betray Kaika at the drop of a hat. Love could not be trusted.
Hatred, however, was eternal. It could cool over time or hide itself from view, but it never ended. Kaika believed that with certainty. After all, she felt it intensely even now, and it showed no sign of waning. Selena would definitely stop at nothing to kill her.
Why would being on top of the hit list of one of the most powerful figures in the world be advantageous?
If America went to war against China and Russia, the first country that would get crushed was Japan. It was allied to America but in close proximity to both enemy superpowers. Kaika would be placed in a very disadvantageous position if that happened. Mei Xing and his triads also operated in China, resulting in an unavoidable clash.
So Kaika decided to switch sides.
She had attained enough political clout in Japan to change its direction, and the right path to take was obvious. Japan only needed to betray the United States and ally with China. With a united front in the east, the United Republic of Korea would quickly succumb to the pressure. The European countries, addled by decades of peace and prosperity, were too weak militarily to even factor in the conflict.
Since Selena had no chance to defeat Kaika in her hostile homeground, she would naturally resort to acquiring control of that land. The United States would have no choice but to fight against Japan, and its ally, China, until one side was completely defeated, or Selena was removed from office. That was why Kaika made sure Selena acquired the desperation to stay in her seat.
Or that was the excuse.
Maybe Kaika really had snapped and killed the poor guy.
The world had changed.
And Kaika had too.
Her enemy stood at the peak of a high tower with unbreakable walls around it. What better than an endless mad melee below to hide approaching shadows?
I’m coming, Ria.