Eun blurted, “What the FUCK is that th—”
“I DON’T KNOW!” Peter screamed. [TIMEKEEPER!]
[I’m a little busy right now, Peter!] The demigod’s voice boomed through their minds in a staticky fritz. [Why’d you open the gate? Holly isn’t ready! Both parties have to be at an equivalent step in their psychic development before—]
[What the FUCK!] Peter yelled. Eun grabbed his sleeve and yanked him into a left turn. [We couldn’t hear you, you cryptic-ass douchebag!]
[Eun was trying to stop you! Why the hell did you jump the gun when she was—]
[The fault is mine.] Kora projected as she raced down the corridor. [If I hadn’t—]
[Later!] Eun snapped. [We need to focus on getting the hell out of here!]
They took another right and locked eyes with a pair of guards. Their hands shot to their holstered pistols. Their other arms flew up in halting gestures.
“Hey!” one of them shouted. “You’re not allowed to—”
“RUN!” Peter slashed the air with his arm. “FUCKING RUN!”
The guards zeroed in on the slobbering horror that was crashing down the hallway. Their eyes widened, but to their credit, they didn’t freeze—they flicked their guns up and started firing. The halls filled with bone-quaking laughter.
Peter threw a glance over his shoulder and screamed, “RUN!” one last time but it was too late. The guards were enveloped by a grainy black mist; it was brimming with fangs, pincers, and slick-suckered tentacles. Frantic yells turned to panicked screams. As their bones cracked with resounding snaps, their piercing death knell became animalistic; they barely sounded human.
“Fuck!” Peter’s heart was beating a million miles a minute. “FUCK!” He almost took a wrong turn—he almost went right—but Kora pulled him back.
“Straight ahead!” she yelled. “You’re going the wrong—”
“Both of you are wrong!” Eun screamed, pulling her friends into a left-hand turn.
They pounded ahead for a dozen yards, then Kora threw her shoulder into a double-door entrance. The teens piled through, churning past the hallway of cells they’d encountered when they’d first infiltrated the gloomy facility. The haze-monster followed hot on their heels, ripping at their minds with hissing skitters and growling burps.
“Oh my God!” Peter shouted. All around them, the things in the cells were pounding on their doors, filling the air with murderous wails. “OH MY GOD!” The doors were clicking open—somehow, the haze-monster had freed ANOS’s hideous detainees. It was killing (eating?) some of them—a few of the battle-snarls turned into grating squeals—but others were rejoicing, adding their gibbering laughter to their liberator’s guffaws.
The teens burst into the trash room, pitching backward as the haze-monster swooped past them and hooked around to their exit, blocking their way out. At the same time, it surrounded John Sabo—the guard with the action hero name—within its miasmic tendrils.
Peter, Eun, and Kora watched in horror as Sabo levitated five feet up, arms extended to either side, fingers twitching. Long, jagged slits appeared across his button-down long-sleeve; it fell off his body in loose, baggy flaps. His eyes rolled back until the bottom edge of his irises were all that was visible. His lips began to quiver and jump, then brimmed with pinkish-red foam which spilled down his chin and onto his collar. The skin on his chest and belly began to split, forming into a large red X—it was as if a giant talon had scraped its way from his left shoulder to his right hip, then vice versa.
The invisible talon hooked the bottom flap of skin, and—skkrrRRIIP—yanked it down.
Eun clapped both hands over her mouth, stifling a scream as chunks of gore slopped out from Sabo’s middle. They landed on the trash room’s floor with a sickening plop.
“Oh my God,” she whispered. “Oh my God.”
Peter stared disbelievingly at the gurgling piece of meat that had once gone by the name of John Sabo, then took an instinctive step back. The assortment of organs speckled across the haze-monster’s—bug eyes and pincers and slick, millipede-like carapaces—were splitting open. Each part was bursting and cracking, ejecting viscous streams of oily ichor. At the same time, pustulent bubbles emerged from its body, popping open and giving birth to new organs.
And then it projected words into their minds—like a gritted knife being dragged over the surface of roughened cement.
[Delicious mortals succulent morsels pieces of meat oh so sweet come to me come to me. I have cunts with teeth and thorned, acid-leaking cocks…I want you to see so beautiful come to me.]
Eun clutched her belly and bent over, vomiting forcefully onto the deck. Tears trickled from Peter’s eyes and his lips worked in a soundless whisper, trying to express how much terror—nearly sublime in its paralytic intensity—was coursing through his being. There was nothing he could do, there was nothing he could—
“You need to back off.” Kora raised her right fist and uttered something melodic. Twisting blades of color formed up and down her arm, weaving together into a fantastic piece of ordnance. It was the same gun she’d used before, but this time, it looked extra heavy: twice the circuitry, twice the whup-ass. Kora’s eyes lit and sparked. Her pupils vanished in a wash of energy.
The haze-thing’s laughter clawed at their minds. [You think you can stop me with your paltry magics?]
Kora opened her mouth to reply, but at that moment, alien screams erupted from behind them.
The three teens turned and saw a trench-coated man. His skin looked like liquid sunfire, coated in a gleaming network of disconnected armor plates. He was moving with the grace of an angry panther, dispatching the cells’ previous inhabitants—shadow-creatures, bugmen, and boil-coated lizard-people—with a bright staff made of searing orange light. Each time it made contact, it would blast one of the creatures into pixelated fragments.
He hit a wide-legged stance and killed the last one—a seven-foot dog-man who had pitch-black eye sockets—with a one-two combo from the ends of his staff, then spun around and pointed his weapon directly at the haze-monster.
[Let them go, Dissona.] the Timekeeper ordered.
Dissona’s answer was a livid howl—a pure expression of hate and frustration. It distorted the air into a gut-churning shimmer. Peter, Eun and Kora dropped to their knees and vomited onto the deck. Fresh blood sprang from their ears and eyes, and rashes exploded across their skin. The Timekeeper remained unaffected; his armor flickered and dimmed—like a stubborn flame before a strong wind—but he stayed right where he was, pointing his weapon right at Dissona.
“Ulk…ULK…” Peter tried to ask if his friends were okay, but his throat was caught in an involuntary spasm. Each swallow felt like a giant rock was forcing its way down his throat.
The Timekeeper swung his arm at them in a sweeping backhand, releasing a twist of radiance from the center of his palm. Five motes of purple light shot from his fingers, zipping toward the teenagers in zig-zag patterns. They cut a circle above their heads while releasing a drift of fat, glowing snowflakes. When they alit on the teenagers, they dissolved into long, flashing pulses.
The boils and pain disappeared. Their skin went from clammy and pale to healthy and vibrant, and their rheumy eyes now shone with undiluted clarity.
Their impromptu savior didn’t miss a beat; he went right back to work, smashing pincers and eyeballs with one-two slaps from either end of his fantastical staff. His feet and head worked in perfect rhythm—stepping, ducking, slipping—as he simultaneously attacked, deflected, and evaded. With each strike, a fire-breather whoosh of funneled combustion would leap outward from the impact.
Kora leveled her cannon at Dissona. The Timekeeper saw it and roared, “GO! SHE’S TOO MUCH FOR YOU!” He leapt into an aerial twist, flashing his staff around his body, ensconcing himself in a whirl of arcane fire, then landed on the floor in an anime-style crouch—one knee down, the other foot planted—but had to stumble back onto his butt so he could duck beneath a slashing tentacle.
“COME ON!” Eun grabbed the backs of Kora and Peter’s shirts and pulled them toward the exit. Right as they were about to sprint out the door, one of Dissona’s fragments spilled across the ceiling and blocked their way forward.
[Ah ah AH!] Her connective black haze formed into a malevolent smile—two foggy eyes and a giant, wispy grin. [The party’s just getting—]
“FINISHED!” Kora blasted away with her arm-cannon. Three rounds—glowing blue orbs that expanded to the size of basketballs as they shot from the muzzle—impacted in rapid succession, eliciting goopy splashes from Dissona’s shroud-woven body. The monster responded with nerve-shredding laughter.
[Keep going!] she thundered. [Once you’re good and drained, I’ll cut apart you with my favorite rapes, my bets tortures, and play tic-tac-toe with your eviscerated psyches. AHAHAHA!!!]
“What do we do?” Peter looked wildly over at Kora. “WHAT DO WE DO?”
Kora’s eyes ticked back and forth across the chitin and intestines, the tentacles and fascia. Her mouth worked several times, trying to form an answer.
Dissona projected a toothy smile into the teenagers’ minds. [Pain Lord got your tongue? Not a problem—I’ll rip them out of your mouths soon enou—]
“Not so fast!” The Timekeeper roared. He whirled his staff in figure eights, creating a pair of flame-lined rings to either side of him. Within each ring, green-blue circles began to flash in rapid time. The circles became increasingly bright, filling the trash room with their flickering glare, lighting Dissona’s body with muted reflections.
“Leave them be, Dissona!” The Timekeeper cried. “As a sworn ally of the Enochian Order, as a designate sword-bearer of the Celestine Paladin, I command you to LEAVE THEM BE!”
Then he whirled his staff above his head, and the two glowing circles flew like saw-blades toward Dissona, crashing into her body and dissolving into a laser-like network of hot-glowing veins, etching their brilliance into her dull, miasmic form.
Dissona howled again. Dozens of trash bins buckled inward into shriveled puckers, spewing rot-coated detritus from their crumpled tops.
Mother of FUCK, Peter thought. This shit is WAY beyond Stranger Things. This is—
The Timekeeper cut off him off with a burning glare. [YOU NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE!] he reminded them. [SHE’S NOT FINISHED!]
The three teens swung back toward the door. A piece of Dissona was still blocking their way, but her body had weakened; there was less grossness crawling through and around it, and the fog seemed way less solid, courtesy of the magic circuitry the Timekeeper had grafted across its breadth.
Kora fired three more rounds. This time, the glowing orbs tore apart the fabric of Dissona’s being, rendering them into taloned slashes of dissipating black.
Peter leapt for the door, but just as he was about to grab the handle, a decaying set of mandibles materialized in front of it and snapped at his hand. He snatched his fingers back and pedaled his feet, falling onto his rump and scooching sideways on his palms.
“Timekeeper!” Eun shouted, throwing a wild look over her shoulder. “She’s still too strong! We can’t get through!”
The Timekeeper was standing erect, hands clawed and raised before him, his fingers moving in tiny lurches. Five strands of laser-thin light ran off their tips. They split off into another five, another five, another five…the strands had bifurcated into countless lines, connecting to the circuitry he’d stamped onto Dissona. Every one of the robotic nodes was linked to the Timekeeper. Immense strain played across the his face as he moved his fingers in small, tense tics.
[Can’t…hold her…she’s…too damn…STRONG…]
The circuits across Dissona began blowing out, erupting with sparks and crumbling into ash. Every time one of them blew, its corresponding line would flicker and vanish.
“Fuck!” Peter yelled. “WHAT DO WE DO???”
Kora leveled her cannon at the door. Eun looked around, trying to find something that—
The roar of a high-rev engine sounded from just outside the compound. An instant later, the Bite Mobile (now a motorcycle, Peter noted with dim amazement) burst into the trash room, punching through Dissona in a scatter of black-weave tendrils. The three teens dove out of the way as it came barreling in. It braked sharply a few yards behind them, swinging its back end out in a screeching semicircle.
“What the—” Peter began.
He fell silent as it began to transform. Plates and cylinders emerged from its frame, snapping and clacking, running outward at different angles. On its lower half, a quartet of radiant, cyclic blurs formed into four badass wheels. It began to expand, twitching outward in sharp, lurching clunks.
Holy shit, Peter thought. It’s a motherfucking car.
A reflective glare slid up its windshield and across the passenger-side windows, narrowing into a sparkling twinkle before it disappeared.
Peter, Eun and Kora found themselves staring at a sleek, low-built automobile. Its gull-wing doors folded straight up—like a Delorean, not a Lotus—revealing an interior filled with black leather seats. Peter’s techno-boner rose to full mast—Tron, Iron Man, and the Batmobile could suck take a big ol’ suck on this thing’s girthy-ass cylinders.
A melodic voice spoke to them through the interior speakers:
Peter tried to protest. “The Timekeeper—”
“GO!” the demigod roared. Eun and Kora grabbed Peter’s sleeves and yelled, “COME ON!”
Peter hopped in the driver-side seat, Eun in the passenger’s, and Kora in the back. The gull-wing doors lowered smoothly down, ensconcing them in a serene, tranquil world lit by otherworldly holographics: ocean-cool blues and soothing emerald greens. Atop the dashboard, a six-inch tall, three-dimensional representation of Bitefighter gave them a wide grin and a double thumbs-up. He reached behind him and pulled out his whiteboard.
You Ready? it read.
A trio of flexi-sectioned seatbelts telescoped down from their left shoulders to their right hips. They resonated with three crisp clicks as they snapped into place.
Bitefighter bent over, scribbled on his whiteboard, then held it back up.
Hang on to Something.
VRRRRMMM!!!! The three teens reached out and braced against the dashboard (the back of Peter’s seat, in Kora’s case) as the Bite Mobile leapt forward, cutting a sharp left around one of Dissona’s spider-coated tentacles.
Peter yelled, “Holy FUCK-gobble!” as a rain of arachnids jumped off the tendril and landed with fat, grotesque thumps on the Bite Mobile’s windshield. Each one was the size of a grapefruit, and mother of shitballs, their eyes were visible. Each one had a mouth on its belly that looked like a puckered little asshole surrounded by fangs.
The spiders tapped at the glass with their taloned forelegs, squealing and hissing. As the car spun into a quick 360, Bitefighter raised his right hand. He made a gun with his forefinger and thumb, clutched his wrist with his left hand, and pantomimed pistol-fire. Each time he fired a “shot,” a glowing blue outline materialized on the outside of the windshield and began to solidify into a six-inch humanoid. As the nose of the car crashed through Dissona’s fog-body, a legion of robo-cowboys and mecha-samurai instantiated across the Bite Mobile.
Bitefighter’s army of tiny warriors began slicing and shooting with light-limned techno-katanas and laser-blasting six-shooters. Short, sharp cries rang from the samurai, while the cowboys shouted old-fashioned epithets like “Come and get some, ya dirty varmints!” in their miniaturized voices. The spiders responded with gnashing snarls and spine-chilling shrieks.
“Holy fuck holy fuck holy FUCK!” Peter chanted, gripping the dashboard as the car took a hard right into ANOS’s parking lot. From the corner of his eye, he saw one of Dissona’s tentacles reaching out from the trash hangar and arrow toward them. The Bite Mobile jerked the other way, sending the three of them hurtling to the side. The tip of Dissona’s tentacle smashed into the road, sending a spout of concrete flying up from the impact. The resulting debris descended on the car, rattling down in nerve-jarring clacks.
The Bite Mobile swerved out of the parking lot and onto the main road leading out of ANOS.
“We good?” Peter turned around in his seat and looked back. “Shit!” He swiveled around—he was supposed to be steering—when Eun laid a hand onto his shoulder.
“We’re good, Peter. Look.” She nodded at the wheel, which was moving back and forth on its own.
“Oh fuck,” he breathed, his eyes drooping in relief. His left hand fell to his lap, and he covered his heart with his right. “Oh fuck.”
“We’re good,” Eun repeated. She pointed at the windshield. “See?” The miniature warriors had killed every spider. The samurais sheathed their swords and bowed at the teens, while the cowboys holstered their guns and tipped their hats. They all disappeared in a twinkling flash.
“The Timekeeper!” Peter swung around again and looked back again. “We have to help him! We have to—”
“He just sacrificed himself so we could get away!” Eun snapped.
“We’re not strong enough to go back and save him. Not yet.” Kora laid a calming hand on Peter’s arm. “Don’t worry—we’ll get our chance.”
“No!” Peter blurted. “I already failed with Holly! I can’t…I can’t…”
“Peter.” Kora held his gaze with a level stare. “We’ll get our chance.”
“Dammit!” Peter cocked his fist at the dashboard. Eun caught the punch before he could throw it.
“This isn’t a regular car,” She nodded at Bitefighter’s hologram. The six-inch figure had raised its arms and crouched down in a please-don’t-hit-me stance.
“I…I…” Peter lowered his arm. He clenched his fists by his sides and squinched his eyes shut. “FUCK!”
“Perhaps there’s another way to see if he’s still alive,” Kora offered. Eun’s eyes lit with understanding.
“What are you talking about?” Peter hissed. He couldn’t keep the frustration out of his voice.
“The Bloom,” Eun said. When he gave her an uncomprehending stare, her expression twisted with irritation. “The Bloom, Peter! Go Bloom-side and see how he’s doing!”
“Not all the way,” Kora warned. “A being like Dissona will be a hell of a lot stronger if you’re fully astral. Arcana 101.”
“Slideways, then,” Eun said. “Go Slideways and see if you can make contact with him.”
Kora threw her a doubtful look. “Might still be dangerous.”
“We have to try,” Peter said. “Just me, though. There’s no reason for you two to risk—”
Eun rolled her eyes. “Spare me the action hero bullshit. Maybe we can help you by providing you with grounding—like a psychic anchor. Is that even possible?”
They were now on the Interstate 101, rushing by the rolling, built-up hills of Southern San Francisco. Peter wasn’t paying attention to them; he was too focused on Eun’s question.
“Yeah…I mean, I think so…”
Kora leaned forward, poking her head into the space between the driver and passenger seat. “Would we visualize something, or—”
“Yeah…yeah…” Peter scratched his temple and looked down, his brow furrowed in thought. “I’ve haven’t fucked that much with causal symbology, but if we instantiate a premise and prop it up with a conjunctive scaffold…okay.” He met their eyes. “Think I’ve got it. You guys still Slideways?”
Eun and Kora both nodded.
He nodded back. “Visualize a Triforce. You know what that is? Legend of Zelda?”
They shook their heads.
“Like three triangles, joined at the tips to form a larger triangle with an inverted, triangle-shaped void right in the center.” He popped the glovebox and rummaged through it. “If we’ve got a pen and paper, I might be able to draw it for you…
Bitefighter bent over on his holopad and started sketching onto his pint-sized whiteboard. When he was done, held it up. Drawn on its surface was a crude approximation of the video game artifact.
Peter shut the glovebox with a quick, upward swipe. “That’s it. All right—you guys ready?”
Kora and Eun nodded again.
“Okay.” He took a deep breath. “It’s not that hard—just an adult version of make-believe. Think back to when you were a kid—when you used to pretend you were an animal, a Space Marine, an astronaut…” He threw an uncertain glance at Kora. “Or whatever. Use your imagination. I’ll go first.”
He let his eyes fall halfway closed, then formed a triangle in front of his chest with his thumbs and forefingers. The gesture wasn’t something he’d consciously intended. When it came to psychogenics, instinct and feeling played a much bigger role than they did in the “real world.” Kora and Eun followed suit. Their eyes fell halfway shut, and they replicated Peter’s mudra with their thumb and forefingers.
“Concentrate,” Peter whispered. “Concentrate.”
A hazy outline began to form in front of his hands. At first, it was just a wavy set of lines, then it took on color and substance.
Eun broke character. “Whoa.” Her eyes widened as she stared at the ruby-red wedge floating in front of Peter.
“Concentrate.” Peter continued staring at his construct with half-lidded eyes, a bead of sweat trickling down his cheek. Eun nodded hurriedly, then went back to focusing on the air in front of her palms.
“Mine’s almost ready,” Kora said calmly, belying the electric excitement that was building in the car. An ephemeral triangle was crackling and twitching in front of her hands. Hers was blue instead of red.
“Think I’m good,” Eun said. Her gaze was riveted on the glowing green triangle that was now thrumming before her conjoined fingers.
Bitefighter chirped—it sounded like a cross between a caw and a squeal—and three pairs of eyes slid toward him. The cartoonish entity had joined his four-fingered hands, mimicking their gestures. His head was bowed in concentration. His triangle was solid black, but it was also vibrant.
Carefully, oh so carefully—it was the mental equivalent of walking on eggshells—Peter directed his attention onto his triangle, letting his perception slip a notch more Slideways. Without consciously intending to, he began humming the opening theme from Legend of Zelda. A second later, Eun joined in. Kora bobbed her head, syncing her mind with her friends’ melody. Her eyes narrowed a notch further, then she began singing with them. Bitefighter joined them a second later; he complemented the three-toned sets with an accompanying echo, adding his tinny little warble to the main chorus.
And then, as the music reached its triumphant climax, the Bite Mobile’s stereo system kicked into high gear, booming out the theme with orchestral force. Their hearts lifted in a rising tide of auditory resonance. The triangles flew from their hands and spontaneously assembled in the space between them, slightly higher than head level. Blue on the left, green on the right, red on top, and Bitefighter’s black one—his was the only piece that was pointing downward—in the middle.
Kora, Eun, and Bitefighter all stared at Peter, their eyes ablaze with their respective colors.
[We’ve got you.] they projected simultaneously.
And then he was ripped free of his body.