Peter and Eun tried to teach Kora how to act like Holly, but quickly realized it was a futile endeavor. Not only was Kora patently uninterested in up-speak and cattery, she had no aptitude for it. Her expression rarely deviated from a fixed, burning stare.
“I was taught to be a warrior,” she stated, 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 the barbarian. “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 countered. “Everyone saw it.”
“What does that have to do with—“ He stopped speaking. His gaze ticked back and forth across his bedroom. “An expansion in consciousness…complete rewiring of Holly’s nervous system, inducing a permanent change in personality…” He nodded slowly, 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 suspiciously.
Eun put a hand on her shoulder. “If anyone asks why you’re acting all weird, then 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 the process is adopting a new name.”
“What is ‘the Fuckrising?’ ” Kora asked suspiciously.
“It’s uh…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.”
“A magic potion…” Kora scratched her brow. “Yes.” She nodded slowly, just like Peter had. “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.
Holly’s dad answered the door. “Oh, hey,” he mumbled, barely making eye contact. “Come in.”
He took a seat on an ergonomic easy chair and went back to fiddling with a touch-intuitive holo-tablet. Peter proceeded to stumble through an awkward explanation: the three of them were working on an extracurricular activity, a time-intensive project that would require Holly to sleep over at Peter’s. Beads of sweat formed on his brow as he told her dad it would probably be for a couple months, but they couldn’t be sure of how long it would actually ta—
Her dad kept staring at the glimmering holo-tablet. “That’s fine.”
Peter looked nervously from side to side. Where was her mom? She was the second part of this whole—
“Don’t worry about your mother,” Holly’s father said, still looking at the tablet. “I’ll let her know what’s going on. Go have fun, sweetie.”
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 sweat off his face with the brim of his shirt. “Until we sort everything out.”
Kora deflated. “I am not sure of how to do that,” she whispered.
Eun patted her back. “Don’t worry—we’ll help. Ever been to school?”
Kora gave her a sideways look. “Not for a decade.”
Eun smiled. “Well it’s time to go back.”
When Holly walked out of Calculus BC, no one said a thing. She wielded enough power, even among the faculty, to do whatever she wanted. Mr. Mendelhauser gave her a disinterested glance as she slipped out of class, then continued expounding on the mind-numbing vagaries of parametric equations. One of the security guards, Hank Everston, saw Holly turn a hallway corner and asked where she was going. Holly responded with a dead-eyed stare.
When he saw it was Holly, he gulped without intending to. “Of course, Ms. Dent. Have a nice day.”
She regarded him with a mixture of pity and disgust. “You need more training. You wouldn’t last a day at the Forge.”
Then she walked away, allowing herself a hint of a smile. She’d learned the phrase fuck off from observing Peter. Judging by the guardsman’s reaction, she’d employed it correctly.
Her first day at school. She was already learning.
Kora looked into dozens of classrooms. She cupped their doors’ vertical glass slits with both hands, pressed her face against them, and canvassed the desks with a steely gaze. Soon enough, she spotted Peter facedown on a desk, snoozing into his folded arms.
“HO!” She banged the door with the meaty part of her fist. “HO—PETER!”
Peter jerked awake as his history teacher, Mrs. Gladwell, tromped 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 influence will keep me from sending you to the—”
“The boy.” Kora jerked her chin at Peter Lee. “I require his presence.”
Mrs. Gladwell’s eyes narrowed into bright, glinting sparks. “If you think I’m just going to let you—”
Peter sidled up beside her, cupping her ear with a hand so he could whisper into it. Her lips tightened.
“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 a hand.
Peter shook it. “Always.”
“What did you promise her?” Kora asked as they strode down the hall.
“ ‘Drugs?’ ”
Kora grimaced. “On my world, potions are tricksy. Some are good, but they are few and far between. The common ones…” She shook her head. “Brute refinements of the natural order, perverted beyond any semblance of balance.”
“It’s the same on Earth,” Peter said. He halted in his tracks, struck by a sudden epiphany: Earth and Elithia were linked by a common dilemma. He chuckled softly and continued walking.
Why is that surprising?
Kora crooked her head. “What amuses you?”
His chuckle gave way to a rueful grin. “Nothing. It’s just that…” He trailed off.
“Just that what?”
“Nothing,” he repeated. “Tell me about Elithia.””
Kora acquiesced with a raspy grunt. “Very well.”
A powerful sorcerer named Alantil Fairwind had foretold the king’s birth. According to Alantil, three stampedes of wild velociraptors—over a million strong each—would herald Kor’Thank’s arrival into the physical plane.
News of the stampedes had swept the lands, evoking great excitement among 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 spread news of the impending omens. Consequently, the midwife knew exactly what to look for: an overly muscled infant with shoulder-length hair, a five-o-clock shadow, equipped with a miniature sword and shield. The shield had a skull mounted in its center, the sword had one affixed to its crosspiece. Each skull had ruby-red gems in the hollows of their eyes, lit by the ever-present glow of eldritch magics. The mother, Shylidia Skysweep, had died shortly after giving birth. No woman could pass a giant, bodybuilder-esque baby through their nether parts and expect to survive, especially if said baby was accompanied by a sword and a shield.
As Shylidia breathed her last, arcane light had gathered in her chest, traveled in long pulses up her throat, then streamed out through her mouth and 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 as Shylidia passed into the Unbound Realm.
“Wait.” Peter halted. “You were born as a roided-out baby with a badass mullet?” He looked Kora up and down. “And you also had weapons?”
Kora looked puzzled. “Why is that strange?”
He threw his arms out, his eyes bugged cartoonishly wide. “Dude, do you not get how incredible you are?”
“I am fairly certain that ‘dude’ is the incorrect pronoun.”
Peter looked stricken. “Wait, so you’re saying you’d rather be—I thought you were pissed at being in a chick’s body. I didn’t mean to—”
Kora sighed. “I do not know. I am still…I need to find out…” She rubbed her eye with the heel of her palm. “Let us discuss it later.”
“Uh…okay. So your mom’s spirit was funneled into your sword and shield. What about your dad?”
“A kind, simple man.” She appraised her nail polish like it was dangerous and feral, as if it 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 tough,” Peter sympathized. “My folks died in a car accident, so I know what it’s like to—”
“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 sacred duty to coax fortune from sorrow.”
“That’s absurd,” Peter snapped. “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 continued with her story. “Alantil cleansed my birth weapons with magic elixirs. He announced he would watch over the artifacts until I had proven myself ready. Apparently, they would grow in tandem with my spirit.”
“How do you prove you’re ready?”
Her eyes turned speculative. “According to Alantil, I must master my demons. No one knew what exactly he meant; he vanished after my second birthday.”
“A wizard.” Peter shook his head in muted astonishment. “An honest-to-God, no shit wizard.”
“This world brims with magic, Peter of Clan Lee. You wield a fair amount of it yourself.”
“Not magic—science. Which is governed by boring as fuck, mundane principles.”
“What do these principles say about the birth of your universe?”
“Fourteen billion years ago, something caused an expansion of matter and light. 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—”
“So unknown forces gave birth to your universe, formed every construct throughout its breadth, and continue to drive all phenomena?”
“How is that different from magic?”
Peter threw his hands up. “Kardashians! Mcdonald’s! Internet spam! THAT’S NOT MAGIC!” He slammed his palm into the nearest locker, eliciting a rattling CLANG. Hank the security guard came running around the corner, intent on unleashing an epic ass-chewing, when he spotted Holly for the second time.
She narrowed her eyes. “Walk away, fucker.”
He gulped, about-faced, and promptly disappeared.
Peter laughed. “You learn fast.”
“And you, for all your knowledge, do not. There is untold mystery within your world. You simply have to open your mind to it.”
No response came to mind. He lapsed into silence.
As they continued down the hall, the teens became aware of a strange, fundamental shift occurring deep within them. They weren’t quite sure of what it was, but they knew it was good, and they knew it was necessary.