As Holly was getting ready to learn Indashi magic, Peter, Eun and Kora raced back to Peter’s house so they could figure out what to do about the extradimensional Pain Lord they’d loosed on Atherton.
“Fuck! Fuck!” Peter yelled as he strode into his bedroom, clutching his hair with both hands. “We are fucking fucked!”
“Calm down,” Kora said. “If you give in to panic, then—”
“Oh am I panicking?” He turned to Kora, his wide-eyed face slick with sweat. “I’m sorry—did you miss the part where a motherfucking Pain Lord broke into our goddamn dimension? I guess we should all start chanting ‘Serenity Now!’ Or we should—”
Eun slapped him across the face. Hard.
“Thank you,” Kora said.
“No problem,” Eun replied. She turned to Peter and looked him in the eye. “Do you want to throw a tantrum, or do you want to solve the problem?”
He rubbed his reddening cheek and stared sullenly at the ground. “What do you suggest?” he muttered.
“We need intelligence. The Timekeeper’s trapped in an astral cocoon, right? But that doesn’t keep us from going Bloom-side and doing some research.”
Peter looked doubtful. “Guys, we’re in over our heads. This is…look—taking on Insectoids is one thing, but Pain Lords? Poking around the Bloom could make things work.”
“Which is going to happen anyway, if we don’t do anything,” Eun countered. “This is the big leagues, Peter—we need to ante up.”
Kora clapped him on the shoulder. “Our worlds have come together, and it is no accident, Peter of Clan Lee. Our association, has blessed me with meaning. Blessed me with purpose. And you—you have been blessed with the chance to make a difference. In the end, they are one and the same. We three have arrived at a critical juncture, worthy of bards’ tales and minstrels’ songs. Do we rally together and become something more? Or do we hide behind rationalized fear and toxic comfort? We would die slowly, poisoned by the relentless smolder of time and regret.”
Peter stared at the ground, his brow creasing as he thought of his teachers. Ms. Hoaglund, Mr. Perez, Mrs. Peschard…due to his intelligence, he’d never had to pay attention in any of their classes, but still—they’d been teaching him a lesson through their beaten faces, their weary demeanors, and their resigned spirits. The faculty at Atherton had succumbed to exactly what Kora was referencing: the “relentless smolder of time and regret.” They hadn’t helped him with math or history, but nevertheless, they’d shown him something deep—something profound. Something beyond the dry, tradition-bound curriculum.
An epiphany dawned in his hormone-addled mind: you could learn from anyone—any thing—if you set aside your dismissal and judgment, and you were brave enough to accept the phrase: There, but for the grace of God, go I. It was only now, after traveling through the bleed between dimensions, after watching his friends almost perish, did Peter Lee finally understand.
“Peter?” Eun asked softly.
His eyes steeled over. “Let’s do it.”
His chin lifted, and he directed a level gaze at both his friends.
The three teens ate a fresh dose of zen zaps, and kicked free of the “real world.” They caught a brief glimpse of their physical bodies lying down before their astral forms were sucked into a synesthetic whirl of color and sound. Music became taste, taste became heat, heat became mandalas…this time around, they were brisk and businesslike. They did not give in to astonishment.
[You guys good?] Peter’s dimorphic visage flickered between white and black, blue and red, then elongated into a spiraling strand of double-weave green.
[Good.] Kora appeared as a monolithic, obsidian face, kinda like an Easter Island statue. A second later, she morphed into a gleaming katana.
[Where to?] Eun was a roiling boil of liquid streams, arcing out and up, then crashing back down into an aqueous center.
[Um…try this: think of that feeling when you’re trying to find an answer. You know when you’re searching on the internet, and—]
Kora: [—like when you’re sparring at half-speed, so you can see your own weaknesses and—]
Eun: [—or when you really listen to someone, so you can understand what they’re truly getting at—]
Peter projected a nod. [Yeah. Focus on that. That should do it…I think.]
Kora—she now looked like an empty suit of samurai armor—projected a wave of doubt. [You think? Or you know?]
[This isn’t a science, remember?] Eun chided. [We have to work with what we’ve got.]
[Sorry.] Kora morphed back into a katana, lit by a fresh cluster of anime-sparkles. [Okay—let’s do it.]
Their psyches, still caught in a maelstrom of color, floated away from each other as they each concentrated on their respective activities—whatever directed them toward a spirit of inquiry. Gridded wireframe ran up their thought-forms, transforming them into a mechanistic collection of gears, hinges, and sparking transistors. They floated back toward each other, merging their intricate nodes into a recognizable shape:
A circuitry-threaded key.
A second later they were blasted apart.
[Fuck, that was wild!] Peter was sitting on his butt, leaning back on his hands. He stared at Kora and Eun, who both looked like their human selves. The two girls were sitting on their butt, just like him.
He brought his hands up to his face, turning them back and forth as he examined them one after the other. [We’re still in the Bloom…but now we look human. Fucking crazy.]
Eun got to her feet and helped Kora up. She looked around, brow wrinkling in puzzlement. [Where ARE we?]
Kora and Peter stood up and assessed their surroundings. They were standing in the middle of a cobbled street. In between the cobbles’ seams, blips of light were flashing up, down, and sideways. It was like a Tron-style diagram of citywide traffic. From what little was visible through the seams, it appeared that the street they were standing on was floating in the sky; cloud-dotted heavens shone beyond the antiquated stonework.
Peter gazed at long rows of townhouses on either side of the road. They simultaneously appeared modern, archaic, and fantastic. A bit of Victorian, a bit of steampunk, and a bit of Apple-style simplicity mixed together in a folksy blend of magic, tech, and quaintness.
[Where are we?]
Kora’s ticked back and forth across the artful arrangement of golden balconies, well-oiled pistons sliding in and out of their chrome sheaths, and the shingled roofs that topped the buildings. There were entities as well; animal-headed bipeds, and staticky bundles of electric energy that were vaguely humanoid.
[I have heard of this realm before, I think. In Basic Arcana, our instructors told us of a place called Connecta Agora.]
[Cool name.] Eun remarked, continuing to stare at the buildings like an awestruck tourist.
[Yeah.] Kora replied. [The cobblestones…the machinery…the architecture…we saw drawings of this in picture books, but man…seeing it up close is something else. Yeah…Connecta Agora…there’s supposed to be a place here where you can gamble with ideas. I think it was called ‘The Magisterium Exchange.’]
[Whoa!] Eun stopped looking around and grinned at Kora. [That’s even cooler!]
Kora grinned back. [I know, right? Back at the Forge, we used to talk about how awesome it would be if we could come to Connecta and come back to Elithia with a badass concept. We’d always fantasize about some kind of phase-shift ability, so we could sneak into the girl’s barracks and watch them change.]
Eun rolled her eyes and projected, [Typical.] at the same time Peter clenched his fists and exclaimed, [AWESOME!]
Eun crossed her arms and gave him a dry look. [Wipe the drool off your mouth.]
[Oh—whoops.] He swiped at his lips with the back of his wrist. A strand of glowing, morphing characters—they were chained together by a silvery strand of liquid-like glimmer—bowed from his lips to his hand, catching the light as they flashed and winked.
[Whoa…] he whispered.
[Look.] Kora pointed up the street.
Peter’s eyes caught on an ornate, domed structure, but that wasn’t what she was pointing at; a rat-like humanoid was walking toward them. It was four feet tall, dressed in robes, and had tentacles for arms.
[Steady.] Kora angled her body into the beginnings of a fighting stance.
[Easy.] Eun projected. [We just got here. Getting into a brawl isn’t in our best interest.]
Peter smirked. [Could be fun, though.]
[You’re both idiots.] Eun hissed. [Don’t start anything, got it?]
Before they could respond, the rat-creature stopped ten feet away and gave them all a toothy grin.
[Welcome to Connecta.] it projected. [I’m Saccular. I work as a guide around here. If there’s anything you need—]
[What are you offering?] Eun asked at the same time Kora projected, [We don’t need anything. Not from you.]
[Hold on.] Peter put his hand on Kora’s shoulder. [Maybe we can—]
[Are you blind?] she spat. [He looks like a rat, Peter!]
[I don’t know…] Eun gave Saccular a doubtful once-over, then turned to her friends. [Appearances can be—]
[Deceiving the tourists, eh?] A man of indeterminate age—he could have been mid-twenties or mid-forties; his features appeared smooth and timeless—walked up beside Saccular, hands folded behind his back. He was dressed in a plain black long-sleeve and dressy but functional-looking trousers. Long white hair swept back from his forehead and stopped a few inches short from the base of his neck. A blinking katana—its hilt and sheath were made of glowing dashes, as if someone had traced its outline onto a sheet of paper so a child would know exactly where to cut—hung from his left hip.
[Atriya!] Saccular nervously twiddled the tips of his tentacles. [I was just talking to them. I wasn’t trying to—]
[You tried this with me, remember?] Atriya smiled, but it wasn’t friendly; a hint of warning played through his eyes.
Saccular laughed, a little too loud. [That was a joke! I would never—]
[You’re trying my patience.]
[Right.] Saccular turned toward the teens and performed a hurried curtsy. [Pleasure making your acquaintance.] Then he walked rapidly away.
Atriya gave the teens an amiable smile. [You seem a bit lost. Are you here for a specific purpose, or—]
Kora’s eyes blazed with recognition. [Atriya!] she gasped. She dropped to a knee, bowed her head, and placed a fist over her heart. [It is an honor to meet you, Celestine Paladin.]
He closed his eyes, still smiling, and gave a slight shake of his head. [You only think it is, because you haven’t realized that we’re one and the—] he saw her puzzled stare, and he cleared his throat. [Come on—stand up. I’m not a god and I’m not a teacher. I’m a…concerned friend, if you have to put words to it.]
Kora stood. [We’re trying to re-unite my mind with my original body. And the owner of this body’s mind—] she waved an open hand down the front of her torso, [—with her physical form. In the course of doing so, we made a terrible mistake, and unleashed an ancient evil. Her name is Dissona.]
[Dissona…] Atriya staircased his fingers over his mouth. [She was always bratty, can’t say I’m not surprised…from your clothing and mannerisms, you’re definitely from Earth…twenty-first century, correct?]
He shook his head. [So there’s nothing you can do. Your weaponry is still confined to solid projectiles and concussive explosives.]
[I’ve been working on a directed-energy firearm.] Peter projected. [Do you think that maybe I could—]
Atriya shook his head again. [In all likelihood, she’s already laid waste to everyone you know and everything you care for.]
[Hold on.] Eun projected. [Before she materialized, she fought a being called the Timekeeper. He was able to diminish her power. That being the case…]
[Let me check on that.] Atriya’s eyes went blank. His outline blurred and fuzzed, and a network of glowing veins stretched out from his contours and printed incandescent jags onto the air around him. Looking at them, Peter was reminded of the Mirror Dimension from the live-action version of Dr. Strange. A few seconds later, the veins shrank inward and formed into a purple gleam that ran across Atriya in a quicksilver flash.
He opened his eyes and smiled at Eun.
[Your world is still intact. She can still cause mischief, but if you put Kora’s mind back in her body—and Holly’s mind in hers—then you’ll repair the rift that allowed Dissona to escape.]
[Will that boot her out of our dimension?]
Atriya nodded. [We’re referencing acausal principles, which are a pain in the ass when you try and verbalize them. In order to do so, I’d have to recite a poem that lasted several millennia. But the answer to your question is yes—the interplanar spin would be restored to its original setting, and that would suck Dissona into her home dimension. Word of warning….] his face became serious. [The more time she spends on Earth, the stronger she becomes. It’s in your best interest to pull off the switch as soon as possible.]
[How long do we have?] Peter asked. [Before she becomes too much to handle?]
[I’m not sure. But judging by your current incarnations, I’d say three months, Earth-time. Maybe four.]
[Senior prom.] Peter lookrf at Kora and Eun. [We have until senior prom.] He turned back to Atriya. [Does she have any weaknesses?]
Atriya smiled. [You have everything you need. And remember this: Holly Dent is on your side. She may not seem like it, but—]
[She KILLED BITEFIGHTER!] Peter exploded. [How the fuck can you say she’s—]
[But he came back, didn’t he?] Atriya gave him an even look. [So why are you angry?]
[I…but…] Peter sputtered and twitched, trying to think of a reply. Eun laid a calming hand onto his shoulder.
Peter turned his head and spat at the ground. [She is not a good person!] He stared angrily at Atriya. [You don’t get it, man. If you only knew—]
[—what you knew?] Atriya finished dryly. [Trust me when I say I know exactly what you’re talking about.]
Peter stepped forward, his teeth bared. This was a sore subject for him, and hearing a stranger—Celestine Paladin or not—dismiss it as trivial pissed him off to no end.
[Oh, is that so? You think you know me, motherfucker? Well, let me tell you something you self-righteous piece of—]
[Peter!] Kora exclaimed, horrified.
[—astral shit. You don’t. You probably don’t even know what it means to be human. What gives you the right to—]
Atriya’s eyes became distant and aloof. Kora and Eun flinched back in terror without meaning to; the Paladin’s deadened, emotionless face was way more scary than a rage-filled scowl. He looked past Peter’s shoulder, as if the teenager was unworthy of his interest.
[Mind your tongue, %Ξπ.]
[That’s not my name,] Peter emoted coldly.
Kora tried again. [Peter—]
[It is your name.] Atriya projected. [You work for me.] He leveled his gaze at Peter, and his eyes filled with a mind-fraying light. The teen took an involuntary step back; this wasn’t just a disembodied guide; this was a living embodiment of pure transcendence.
[I…I…] Peter’s mouth worked in a soundless whisper.
Eun laid a hand onto his shoulder. [I’m sorry, Mr. Atriya. Peter can get a little aggro.]
[It’s all right.] Atriya smiled and his eyes normalized. [I was the exact same way. Oh!] He straightened up. [I do have something for you. I almost forgot.] He gave Kora a meaningful look. [Open your hands and hold them out.]
Kora followed his instructions. He held his fists above her palms and closed his eyes. Light flashed from his clenched fingers, spiking out from their slits in rainbow spears, then he dropped something into Kora’s palms.
When his hands opened, brilliance poured forth in a dazzling, eye-searing wave. At the same time, bone-thrumming notes crashed through the air. They sounded like an existential harp was playing Pachelbel’s Canon, only way more intense. Each note shook the air, blurring it into a haze of indistinct lines and wavy colors. Every time this happened, the three teens experienced an intense body high.
[Whoa.] Peter stumbled sideways, clutching his head. Eun grabbed his shoulders and he leaned into her.
[I’ve got you.] she projected. But even though she was taking it better than Peter, the strain showed in her furrowed brow and clenched jaw.
Kora, however, stood firm. She was affected by the sound—with each melodic blast, she morphed into a dancing fritz of staticky lines—but not like Peter and Eun; the expression on her face was calm and resolute, and her eyes remained steady and level.
Atriya sang a few more notes, then his voice trailed off into a pleasant fade. Connecta Agora resolved back into a series of recognizable shapes and figures.
[Sorry.] the Paladin emoted. [I had to fragment reality—a necessary precursor to an acausal shift.]
[What are you—] Peter began, but Eun pointed at Kora.
Kora was standing erect, marveling at a fantastically designed shield on her left forearm. Its front was emblazoned with gorgeous, metallic curves. Swooping curls of clarion gold, intermingled with twists of oceanic blue. Each contour shone with bright, pulsing light; they seemed synced to the heart of existence.
In her right hand she held an exotic sword, roughly two and a half feet in length. It curved slightly back. Its scimitar-like edge was accompanied by two phantom blades; the one to its right was smoky black, while the one to its left was a blazing whoosh of royal purple. Kora turned the sword back and forth, marveling at the doppleganger blades as they moved in tandem with their metallic locus.
[Your weapons.] Atriya gestured at Kora’s arms with an open-palmed hand. [I remember when I received mine—your expression is the exact same as the one I wore back when I received mine.]
She looked at him, eyes wide with wonder. [Are you…are you Alantil Fairwind?]
He smiled. [I’ve worn many guises throughout the eons. Comes with the job.]
Kora’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. [Wait a second—the prophecy implied I’d receive these when I demonstrated my worth. How have I—]
Atriya shook his head and chucked. [Real life isn’t like the holos, it’s—] he caught himself and chuckled again. [Sorry, I meant to say it isn’t like the movies. You don’t have to accomplish some giant feat or change the world. More often than not, it’s to small problems, the day-to-day challenges that offer no immediate reward. Stories tend to glorify that climactic moment when the hero has to worry about ‘giving up,’ but you and I are soldiers, Kora—you should know that if you’re doing things right, then you shouldn’t reach that point. Sometimes its unavoidable, but usually it’s the ‘little quits,’—those tiny mistakes borne from laziness and complacency—that combine into a giant interest payment. That’s typically when someone has to worry about ‘giving up.’]
[But how have I—]
His eyes became filled with celestial yin/yangs—embodiments of harmony comprised of galactic stardust.
[Kora. You embraced a new identity with an open mind and a full heart. Maybe not immediately, but like I said, it’s the little steps—the everyday choices that position us to take the ‘big leaps’—that everyone ignores. You took things problem by problem, instance by instance, and that makes all the difference.]
[I…thank you.] Kora was at a loss for words, but her eyes said it all; they were shining with gratitude, reflecting the gleam from her sword and shield.
[Holly is doing the exact opposite.] Atriya crossed his arms and scanned the teens. [She’s forcing the environment to cater to her. Bending the world into a distorted facsimile of its true self. She does so at her own peril; if you twist reality so it suits your desires, it’s only a matter of time before it snaps back into place. If she’d set aside her childish appetites and become a conduit for the True, then she would already have arrived at her world’s version of an interdimensional warp gate. Oh well.] He shook his head, amused and saddened. [Sometimes, we are destined to play the knave—it’s an integral part of our learning process. Enthimy…] he shook his head again. [Regardless, all that is in the past. Be ready for Holly; my acausal sight tells me she’ll attempt a return to her body around the same time Dissona’s at her strongest.]
[Senior prom…] Peter murmured. [It all centers around senior prom.] He looked excitedly at Kora and Eun. [Guys, you know what this is like? This is right out of—]
Eun rolled her eyes. [Carrie, Back to the Future, Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer…Christ, Peter—take your pick.]
[Just saying.] he muttered sullenly.
Atriya gave Eun a knowing smile. [You’re right, Tao-rider. It’s all been done before. But keep in mind that you and Peter serve your own respective functions. You preserve balance, he pushes progress.]
[‘Tao-rider?’] Eun wrinkled her brow. [What does that mean?]
The Paladin shook his head. [You’ll find out. Not in this life…maybe in the next. You remind me of my soul mate—she’s configured with the same causal circuitry as you are. She’s a lot more vicious, though.] His smile turned rueful. [Some of the fights we’ve had…never mind. Are you ready to return?]
[Wait a second.] Peter projected. [What about Bitefighter? How does he figure into all this?]
[You have what you need, Peter. I can’t give you all the answers.]
[Wait!] Peter protested, stretching a hand out. [Just tell me if—]
The Paladin crossed his arms. The world began rippling and blurring, as if the air was a pond and someone had thrown a stone into its center. Sound became color and color became sound, enveloping the teens in a synesthetic maelstrom. Their identities yawed in and out of each other, blasting them with nausea. Their gorges rose but they had no gorges and there was no “I” and then suddenly—
Peter cracked his eyes open. They were back in his room.