Peter and Eun tried to teach Kora how to act like Holly, but they 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 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 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 said. “Everyone saw it.”
“What does that have to do with—“ He stopped speaking. His gaze ticked back and forth. “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.
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 and muttered, “Although I’m not sure how.”
“Magic potion…” Kora scratched her brow. “Yes.” She nodded slowly to herself, 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 walked inside, 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 over 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 actually ta—
Holly’s father kept his eyes on the glimmering holo-tablet. “That’s fine.”
Peter looked nervously from side to side. Where was her mother? She was the second part of this whole—
“Don’t worry about mom,” Holly’s father said, still looking at the tablet. “I’ll fill her in on what you’re doing. Go have fun, Sweetie.”
Whew. Peter turned away and let out a quiet sigh.
The three teens walked outside. “That went a hell of a lot smoother than I thought it would.” Peter said, glancing 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, Kora seemed to visibly deflate.
“I am not sure of how to do that,” she whispered.
Eun patted her on the back. “Don’t worry—we’ll help you. Ever been to school?”
Kora looked doubtful. “Not for a decade.”
Eun smiled. “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 went back to expounding on the vagaries of parametric equations.
Kora spent the next several hours wandering the halls. One of the security guards, Hank Everston, saw her turning a corner and asked her where she was going.
She responded with a dead-eyed stare. “Fuck off.”
When Hank saw it was Holly, he gulped without intending to. “Of course, Ms. Dent. Have a nice day.”
She regarded him with a mixture of disgust and fascination. “You require training. You wouldn’t last a day at the Forge.”
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.
It was her first day at school. Kora was already 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 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 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.”
Mrs. 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 beside 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 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. After they sense you, they’ll shift into auto-sleep.”
“Pleasure doing business.” She crooked an arm to her chest, offering her hand.
He shook it. “Always.”
“What did you promise her?” Kora asked as they strode down the hall.
“What are ‘drugs?’ ”
“Magic potions.” Peter smiled.
Kora grimaced. “Potions are tricksy. Some are good…but those are few and far between. The common ones…” She shook her head. “Brute refinements of the natural world, perverted beyond any semblance of balance.”
“It’s the same here,” Peter said. He halted in his tracks, struck by a sudden epiphany: Earth and Elithia were linked by a common dilemma. Then he chuckled and resumed walking.
Why is that a surprise?
Kora crooked her head. “What amuses you?”
The chuckle gave way to a rueful grin. “Nothing. It’s just that…”
“Just that what?”
“Nothing,” he repeated. “Tell me about your world.””
Kora acquiesced with a raspy grunt. “Very well.”
A powerful sorcerer—Alantil Fairwind—had foretold the king’s birth. According to Alantil, three stampedes of wild velociraptors—over a million strong each—would herald the king’s arrival.
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 knowledge of the omen far and wide. 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 skull mounted in its center, the sword had one affixed to its crosspiece. Each one 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 giving 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 their cores 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?”
Kora looked puzzled. “Do you find this strange?”
“Strange? Strange?” He threw his arms out. His eyes bugged cartoonishly wide. “Dude…do you not get how incredible you are?”
Her eyes narrowed. “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 that you’re 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, as if she was suffering from a pounding headache. “Let us discuss it later.”
“Uh…okay—cool. So your mom’s spirit was funneled into your sword and 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 said sympathetically. “My folks died in a 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 up to us 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 continued with her story. “Alantil cleansed the sword and shield with arcane elixirs. After consulting his scrying pool, he declared himself their guardian until I had proven myself ready for them. Apparently, they would grow in tandem with my spirit.”
“What does that mean? How do you prove you’re ready?”
Kora looked down the empty hallway, and her eyes turned speculative. “According to Alantil, I must master my demons. Only then will I be ready to wield my birth weapons. 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.”
“Your world is brimming with magic. You wield a fair amount of it yourself.”
“It’s not magic, it’s science,” he replied. “Science is governed by mundane principles.”
“What do these principles say about the birth of your universe?” Kora raised an eyebrow.
“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—”
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 rattling CLANG from its metal surface. Hank the security guard came running around the corner, about to unleash an epic ass-chewing, when he spotted Holly Dent for the second time.
She narrowed her eyes. “Walk away, fucker.”
The beleaguered guard gulped, about-faced, and promptly disappeared.
Peter laughed. “You learn fast.”
“And you, for all your knowledge, do not,” she replied. “There is untold magic within your world, Peter. You simply have to open yourself to it.”
He didn’t know how to respond, so he kept quiet.
As they continued down the hall, they became dimly aware of some strange shift 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.