Peter and Eun tried to teach Kora how to act like Holly, but they quickly realized it was a futile endeavor. Not only was she patently uninterested in employing up-speak or learning teen-queen cattery, she had no aptitude for it. Her expression rarely deviated from a fixed, burning stare.
“I was taught to be a warrior,” she informed them, her eyes narrowing into a ball-withering squint.
“Well you can’t talk old-timey or act all aggro,” Peter replied. “That’s not who Holly is, dammit!”
“I am not Holly.” Kora crossed her arms.
Eun stepped between them. “Maybe if we come up with a convincing explanation—”
Peter gestured disgustedly at Kora. “Who’s going to believe that Holly Dent went from gaw-gawing over Manolos to suddenly being interested in broadswords and great-axes?”
“She was dosed with psychedelics,” Eun said. “Everyone saw it.”
“What does that have to do with—“ He stopped speaking. His gaze ticked back and forth, and his voice lowered to a speculative murmur. “An expansion in consciousness…complete rewiring of Holly’s nervous system, inducing a permanent change in her personality…” He nodded to himself, his voice growing surer by the second. “We don’t convince them she’s Holly Dent; we reinvent their perception of her altogether!” He threw a few punches at no one in particular. “Yes!”
“What do you speak of?” Kora rumbled skeptically.
Eun put a hand on her shoulder. “If anyone asks why you’re acting all weird, then just tell them it’s because of the uh…the Fuckrising. It messed with your mind, and now you’re trying to figure out who you are. Part of that process is adopting a new name.”
“What is ‘the Fuckrising?’ ” Kora asked suspiciously.
“It’s…it’s like a magic potion.” Eun forced a smile.
“As far as I can tell, it’s what made you and Holly switch bodies.” Peter looked sideways. “Although I’m not sure how.”
“Magic potion…” Kora scratched her brow. “Yes.” She nodded slowly. “This is far better than learning the way of…the way of…what did you call it?”
“The Way of the Valley Girl,” Eun said.
Peter knocked three times on Holly’s door. Her dad answered.
“Oh, hey,” he mumbled, barely making eye contact with the three teenagers. “Come in.”
Holly’s dad took a seat on an ergonomic easy chair, and stared intently into the depths of a touch-intuitive holo-tablet. Peter exchanged pleasantries with him, then proceeded to stumble through an awkwardly worded, slap-dash explanation: the three of them were working on an extracurricular activity, a time-intensive project that would require Holly to sleep at Peter’s. Beads of sweat formed on his brow as he informed her dad it would probably be for a couple of months, but they couldn’t be sure of exactly how long it would ta—
Holly’s father didn’t look up from his glimmering tablet. “That’s fine.”
Peter looked nervously from side to side. Where was Holly’s mother? She was the second part of this whole—
“Don’t worry about mom,” Holly’s dad said, still looking at the tablet. “I’ll let her know what you’re up to. Go have fun, Sweetie.”
Whew. Peter almost blew a sigh of relief.
The three teens walked outside. “That went a hell of a lot smoother than I thought it would.” Peter glanced nervously at Kora and Eun. “Goddamn.”
“So for the time being, I will bunker in your fortress,” Kora said.
“Yeah.” Peter wiped his face with the brim of his shirt. “Until we can sort everything out.”
Upon hearing those words—until we can sort everything out—Kora deflated. “I am not sure of how to do that,” she whispered.
Eun patted her on the back. “Don’t worry—we’ll help you figure it out. Ever been to school?”
Kora looked doubtful. “Not for a decade.”
“Well it’s time to go back.”
When Holly Dent walked out of Calculus BC, no one said a thing. She wielded enough power—even among the faculty—to do whatever the fuck she wanted. Mr. Mendelhauser threw a cursory glance at her as she slipped out of class, then continued to expound on the numerous vagaries of parametric equations.
Kora spent the next several hours wandering the halls. One of Atherton’s security guards, Hank Everston, turned the corner and asked her where she was going.
Kora responded with a dead-eyed stare. “Fuck off.”
When Hank saw who it was, he gulped without intending to. “Of course, Ms. Dent. Have a nice day.” A bead of sweat had formed on his brow.
She regarded him with a mixture of disgust and pity. “You require training. You wouldn’t last a day at the Forge.” Then she walked away, allowing herself a hint of a grin. She’d learned the phrase fuck off from observing Peter. Judging by the guardsman’s reaction, she’d used it correctly.
It was her first day at school, and Kora was learning.
She looked into dozens of rooms, cupping their vertical glass slits with both hands, and canvassing the desks with a steely gaze. After an hour of wandering, she spotted Peter facedown on his desk, snoozing contentedly into his folded arms.
“HO!” She banged on the door with the meaty part of her fist. “HO—PETER!”
Peter jerked awake as his history teacher, Ms. Gladwell, tromped over to the door and swung it open.
“Young lady, just what in the hell do you think you’re—”
Kora glared at her. “Girdle your tongue, sow.”
“What?” She placed her hands on her hips. “Holly Dent. Don’t think your father’s reputation will keep you from being sent to the—”
“The boy.” Kora jerked her chin at Peter. “I require his presence.”
Ms. Gladwell’s eyes narrowed into bright, glinting sparks. “If you think I’m just going to let you—”
Peter rose from his desk and sidled up behind her. He cupped her ear with his hand and whispered into it. Her lips tightened into a thin, white line. A second later, she assented with a grudging nod.
“Fine,” she hissed. “But I also want fifty thousand in untraceable bills, stashed under the bleachers in the Einstein gym.”
Peter nodded. “Look for a blue duffel. There’ll be mechanized tasers sewn into the lining, keyed to your biometric resonance. Once they sense you, they’ll shift into auto-sleep.”
“Pleasure doing business.” She crooked an arm to her chest, offering her hand.
He promptly shook it. “Always.”
“What did you promise her?” Kora asked as they strode down the hall.
“Money and drugs.”
“What are ‘drugs?’ ”
Kora grimaced. “Potions are tricksy. Some are good…but those are few and far between. The majority of them…” She shook her head. “Brute refinements of the natural world, perverted beyond any semblance of balance and harmony.”
“It’s the same here,” Peter said. Then he halted in his tracks, caught off guard by a sudden epiphany: Earth and Elithia were linked by a common dilemma. He chuckled softly and resumed walking. Why is that a surprise?
Kora crooked her head. “What amuses you?”
A rueful grin. “Nothing. It’s just…”
“Nothing,” he repeated. “Tell me about your past.””
Kora acquiesced with a surly grunt. “Very well.”
A powerful sorcerer—Alantil Fairwind—had foretold the king’s birth. According to Alantil, three vast stampedes of velociraptors—over a million strong each—would herald Kor’thank’s arrival.
News of the stampedes had swept the lands, evoking great excitement amongst the Indashi. A kingdom wide search had been launched by Ruk’Thar, the Royal Steward (in the absence of a king, a Steward was declared until the correct individual was found and anointed). In the months leading up to Kor’Thank’s birth, Ruk’Thar had ensured that a network of couriers had been hard at work, spreading knowledge of the birth omens far and wide. Consequently, the midwife knew exactly what to look for: an overly muscled infant, complete with shoulder-length hair and a five-o-clock shadow, equipped with a miniature sword and shield that emerged in tandem with his hulking body. The shield had a large skull mounted in its center. The sword had one affixed to its crosspiece. Both skulls had ruby-red gems in the hollows of their eyes, lit by the ever-present glow of eldritch magics.
The mother, Shilinthia Skylesweep, died shortly after she gave birth. No woman could pass a giant, bodybuilder-esque baby through their nether parts and expect to survive, especially if that baby was accompanied by a sword and a shield.
As Shilinthia breathed her last, an arcane glow had gathered in her chest, traveled in long pulses up her throat, then streamed outward from her mouth and her eyes. Her life force had flowed into the enchanted rubies, imbuing the gems with her joy-sweetened essence. The midwife would later swear that each skull had grinned a little wider at the moment of Shilinthia’s passing.
“Wait.” Peter halted. “You were born as a roided-out baby with a badass mullet?” He looked Kora up and down. “And you had weapons?”
It was Kora’s turn to look puzzled. “Do you find this strange?”
“Strange? Strange?” He threw his arms out, his eyes bugging cartoonishly. “Dude…do you not get how incredible you are?”
Kora’s eyes narrowed. “I am fairly certain that ‘dude’ is the incorrect pronoun.”
Peter was thrown. “Wait, so you’re saying you’d rather be—I thought you were pissed that you were a chick. I didn’t mean to—”
Kora sighed. “I do not know. I am still…I still need to…” She rubbed her eye with the heel of her palm, as if she was suffering from a bad headache. “We will discuss this later.”
“Uh…okay—cool. So your mom’s spirit was funneled into your sword and your shield. What about your dad?”
“A kind, simple man.” She appraised her polished nails like feral animals, as if they might suddenly try and bite her. “A hunter and a farmer. He died when my mother’s belly had barely begun to swell.”
“Damn, that’s rough,” Peter offered. “My folks as well. Car accident.”
“There are no accidents, Peter of Clan Lee; there are only opportunities. Some arise in a manner that is contrary to our preference, but it is our responsibility to coax fortune from sorrow.”
“That’s absurd,” Peter stated flatly. “Sometimes you’re fucked no matter what.”
“Whether you are or you aren’t, the best course of action lies in assuming you’re not, and venturing forth with victory in mind.”
He opened his mouth to retort, but she cut him off with a wave, then continued with her story. “Alantil cleansed the sword and the shield with a sacred ritual. After consulting his scrying pool, he declared he would guard them until I had proven I was ready. Apparently, they would grow in tandem with my spirit.”
“What does that mean? How do you prove yourself?”
She directed her stare down the empty hallway. “According to Alantil, I must master my demons. Only then would I be ready to wield my birth weapons. No one knew exactly what he meant; he vanished shortly after my second birthday.”
“A wizard,” Peter muttered, shaking his head in muted astonishment. “An honest-to-God, no shit wizard.”
A gentle smirk. “Your world is brimming with magic. You wield a fair amount of it yourself.”
“It’s not magic, Kora, it’s science. Science is governed by mundane principles.”
“And what do these principles say about the birth of your universe?”
“Fourteen billion years ago, something triggered an expansion of energy, then it cooled into the universe as we know it. There’s a lot of stuff we still don’t know; we haven’t accounted for the presence of dark matter or the continual expansion of space-time. We’re still—”
Her brow wrinkled. “So unknown forces gave birth to your universe, formed every construct and substance that you currently know of, and continue to drive all phenomena?”
“How is that different from magic?”
Peter threw his hands up in the air. “Kardashians! Mcdonald’s! Internet spam! THAT’S NOT MAGIC!” He slammed his palm into the nearest locker, eliciting a loud, rattling CLANG.
Hank the security guard came running around the corner. He opened his mouth to unleash an epic ass-chewing, when he spotted Holly Dent for the second time.
Not again, he thought.
She narrowed her eyes. “Walk away, fucker.”
Hank gulped, about-faced, and promptly disappeared.
Peter laughed. “Nice. You learn fast.”
“And you, for all your knowledge, do not,” she replied. “There is magic within your world, Peter; you just have to open yourself to it.”
He didn’t know how to respond, so he kept his mouth shut.
As they continued down the hall, walking in silence, they became dimly aware of a strange, fundamental change occurring deep within their minds. They weren’t quite sure of what it was, but they knew it was good, and they knew it was necessary.