They tried teaching Kora how to act like Holly, but quickly realized it was a futile endeavor. Not only was she completely uninterested in up-speak and cattery, she didn’t have the aptitude for it. Her expression rarely deviated from a fixed, burning stare.
“I was raised as a warrior,” she stated flatly, 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. “An expansion in consciousness…complete rewiring of Holly’s nervous system, inducing a permanent change in personality…” He nodded slowly, growing surer by the second. “We don’t convince them she’s Holly Dent; we reinvent 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 weird, tell them it’s because of the uh…the Fuckrising. It messed with your mind, and now you’re exploring 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 temple. “Yes.” She nodded slowly, just like Peter had a moment prior. “That 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 sat down on an ergonomic chair and resumed fiddling with a touch-intuitive holo-tablet. Peter proceeded with an awkward explanation: the three of them were working on an extracurricular activity, a time-intensive project that meant Holly would be sleeping at Peter’s house. Beads of sweat formed on his brow as he told her dad it would probably be for a couple of 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 glanced nervously from side to side. Where was her mom? She was the second part of this whole—
“Don’t worry about mom,” her father said. “I’ll let her know. 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 his face with the brim of his shirt. “Until we sort things out, anyway.”
Kora deflated. “I am not sure of how to do that,” she whispered.
Eun gave her a reassuring pat. “Don’t worry—we’ll help you. 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 perfunctory glance as she slipped out of class, then continued expounding on the vagaries of parametric equations. One of the security guards, Hank Everston, saw her turn a 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 require training, peacekeeper. You wouldn’t last a day at the Forge.”
She walked away, allowing herself a hint of a smile. She’d learned that phrase—fuck off from—Peter Lee. Judging by the guardsman’s reaction, she’d used it correctly.
Her first day at school. She was already learning.
Kora stared into dozens of classrooms. She cupped their doors’ glass-slit windows, and canvassed the desks with a steely gaze. Soon enough, she spotted Peter at his desk, snoozing into his folded arms.
“HO!” She banged the door with a clenched fist. “HO—PETER!”
He jerked awake. The 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 put her hands on her hips. “Holly. Dent. Don’t think your father’s monetary influence will keep me from sending you straight to the—”
“The boy.” Kora jerked her chin at Peter Lee. “I require his presence.”
Mrs. Gladwell’s eyes narrowed with anger. “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 want fifty thousand in untraceable bills, under the bleachers in the Einstein gym.”
Peter nodded. “Look for a blue duffel. There’ll be mechanized tasers sewn in the lining, custom-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 Elithia, 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 harmony or balance.”
“It’s the same on Earth,” Peter said. He halted in his tracks, struck by a sudden epiphany: both their worlds, bound together 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, 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.
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 ordered a network of couriers to inform the populace. Consequently, the midwife knew exactly what to look for: an overly muscled infant with shoulder-length hair, a five-o-clock shadow, tightly clutching a sword and shield. The shield had a skull on its center stud, the sword had one affixed to its crosspiece. Each skull had ruby-red gems mounted in their eye sockets, lit by the glow of eldritch magics
The mother, Shylidia Skysweep, 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 weapons. As Shylidia died, arcane light had gathered in her chest, traveled in long pulses up her throat, then streamed out through her mouth and eyes. Her spirit had filled the enchanted rubies, imbuing their cores with her joy-sweetened essence.
The midwife, Yarbinia Rathgard, later swore 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, eyes bugging 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—her spirit anyway—goes into your sword and shield. What about your dad?”
“A kind, simple man.” She appraised her polished nails with suspicion and distrust. “A hunter and a farmer. He perished while I was still gestating.”
“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, simply 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 said. “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 tried to retort, but she continued with her story. “Alantil cleansed my birth weapons with magic elixirs. He announced he would guard them until I had proven myself ready.”
“And how do you do that?”
Her eyes turned speculative. “According to Alantil, I must master my demons. No one knew exactly what 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 has magic, Peter of Clan Lee. You wield a fair amount of it yourself.”
“Not magic—science. Governed by mundane principles, boring as fuck.”
“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 created 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.”
No response came to mind. They lapsed into silence.
As they continued down the hall, the king and the upstart became dimly 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.