As Holly was preparing to learn magic, Peter, Eun and Kora raced back to the house so they could figure out what to do about the extra-dimensional Pain Lord they’d loosed on Atherton.
“Fuck! Fuck!” Peter yelled as he stomped into his bedroom, clutching his hair with both hands. “We are so fucked!”
“Calm down,” Kora said irritably. “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 dimension? I guess we should all start chanting ‘Serenity Now!’ Or we could—”
Eun slapped him across the face. Hard.
“Thank you,” Kora said.
“No problem,” Eun replied. She turned to Peter and looked him squrely 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 have mind?” 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? Forgive my assumption, but I’m pretty sure they’re named that way for a reason. Poking around the Bloom could make things worse.”
“Which is going to happen anyway, if we sit on our hands,” 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 fear and toxic comfort? We would slowly wither, 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, their resigned spirits. The faculty at Atherton had succumbed to exactly what Kora was talking about: the “relentless smolder of time and regret.” They hadn’t helped him with math or history, but nevertheless, they’d shown him something deeper—something profound. Something beyond dry, tradition-bound curriculum.
An epiphany dawned in his hormone-addled brain: you could learn from anyone—any thing—if you set aside 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 nearly perish, did Peter Lee finally understand.
“Peter?” Eun asked softly.
His eyes steeled over. “Let’s do it.”
His chin lifted. 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, and then their astral forms were sucked into a synesthetic whirl of color and sound. Music became taste, taste became heat, heat became mandala…this time around, it didn’t surprise them. 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.
Peter thought for a moment. [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 Edo-style 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-style 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 fantastic 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 now looked like their human selves. The two girls were sitting on their butts, 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, her brow wrinkling in puzzlement. [Where are we?]
Kora and Peter 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, 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 studied the 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 cultured quaintness.
[Where are we?]
Kora’s eyes 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. Entities walked the light-limned streets: animal-headed bipeds, and staticky bundles of electric energy that were vaguely humanoid.
[I have heard of this realm. In Basic Arcana, our instructor mentioned a place called Connecta Agora.]
[Cool name.] Eun remarked, staring 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 around here where you can gamble with ideas. I think it was called ‘The Magisterium Exchange.’]
[Whoa!] Eun 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 visit 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 both 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 string of glowing, morphing characters—they were chained together by a silver 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 priestly 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 in a brawl isn’t in our best interest.]
Peter smirked. [Could be fun, though.]
[You’re an idiot.] Eun hissed. [Don’t start anything, got it?]
Before he could respond, the rat-creature stopped ten feet away. It gave them 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.]
[Hold on.] Peter put a 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 clad in a plain black long-sleeve, and dressy-but-functional trousers. Long white hair swept back from his brow 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 anxiously twiddled the tips of his tentacles. [I was just talking to them. I wasn’t trying to—]
[You tried this with me too, remember?] Atriya smiled but it wasn’t friendly; a hint of warning played through his eyes.
Saccular laughed, just a little too loud. [That was a joke! I would never—]
[You’re trying my patience.]
[Right.] Saccular faced the teens and performed a hurried curtsy. [Pleasure making your acquaintance.] Then he walked rapidly away.
Atriya gave them all an amiable smile. [You seem a bit lost. Are you here for a reason, or—]
Suddenly, Kora’s eyes blazed with recognition. [Atriya!] she gasped. She dropped to a knee, bowed her head, and placed a clenched 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 cleared his throat. [Please—stand up. I’m not a god and I’m not a teacher. I’m…a concerned friend, if you want to put a label on 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 unleashed an ancient evil. Her name is Dissona.]
[Dissona…] Atriya straightened up and staircased his fingers over his mouth. His forehead crinkled in thought. [She was always bratty…can’t say I’m not surprised…from your clothing and mannerisms, you’re definitely from Earth…what year, thought? Early twenty-first century, I’m guessing?]
He shook his head. [Then your weapons aren’t enough. In all likelihood, she’s already laid waste to everyone you know and everything you care for.]
[Hold on.] Eun protested. [Before she materialized, she fought a being called the Timekeeper. He was able to diminish her power. If she’s weakened, could we—]
[Let me check.] Atriya’s outline blurred and fuzzed, and a network of glowing veins stretched out from his contours and printed incandescent jags onto the air around him, reminding Peter of the “Mirror Dimension” from the live-action version of Dr. Strange. A second later, the veins shrank inward and formed into a purple gleam that ran across Atriya in a quick, momentary 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 her to escape.]
[Will that expel her from our dimension?]
Atriya nodded. [We’re dealing with 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, it will. The interplanar spin would be restored to its original setting, and the negative pressure 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 make the switch as soon as possible.]
[How long do we have?] Peter asked. [Before she becomes too much to handle?]
[I’d say three months, Earth-time. Maybe four.]
[Senior prom.] Peter looked 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 shouted. [How the fuck can you say she’s—]
[But he came back, didn’t he?] Atriya gave him an even look.
[I…but…] Peter sputtered and twitched, trying to think of a reply. Then he 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. [Trust me when I say I know exactly what you’re talking about.]
Peter stepped forward, teeth bared. [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; the Paladin’s deadened, emotionless face was unbelievably scary. 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 stared sat Peter, and his eyes filled with mind-fraying light. The teen took an involuntary step back; this wasn’t just an astral guide; this was a living embodiment of pure transcendence.
[I…I…] His mouth worked in a soundless whisper.
Eun laid a hand on his shoulder. [I’m sorry, Mr. Atriya. He 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 turned to Kora. [Open your hands and hold them out.]
Kora did as he bade. 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 from them in an 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 the air shook, the three teens experienced an intense body high.
[Whoa.] Peter stumbled sideways, clutching his head. Eun grabbed his shoulders, and he leaned into her. 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 unlike Peter and Eun, the expression on her face was calm and resolute. Her eyes remained steady and level.
Atriya sang a few more notes, then his voice trailed off in a pleasant fade. Connecta Agora resolved back into a series of recognizable shapes.
[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 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 rich twists of oceanic blue. Each contour shone with bright, pulsing light.
In her right hand she held an exotic sword, two and a half feet long. Its slightly curved 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, staring at the doppleganger blades as they moved in tandem with their metallic locus.
[Your weapons.] Atriya gestured with an open-palmed hand. [Your expression mirrors mine, when I received my armor and blade. You’ll have to let them go, eventually…but for the coming battle, you’ll need them to win.]
She looked at him, her eyes wide with wonder. [Are you…Alantil Fairwind?]
He smiled wryly. [I’ve worn many guises throughout the eons. Comes with the job.]
Her brow furrowed in puzzlement. [Wait a second—the prophecy said I’d receive my weapons when I demonstrated my worth. How have I—]
Atriya 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 to show you’re worthy. More often than not, you show it by tackling the small problems, the day-to-day challenges. 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, 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. Typically, that’s when someone has to worry about ‘giving up.’]
[But how have I—]
His eyes filled with celestialized yin/yang symbols—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.] Atriya shrugged. [Didn’t mean to rhyme, but there it is.]
[I…thank you.] She 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. If she’d set aside her childish appetites and tried to be 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, seemingly amused and saddened. [Sometimes, we’re 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 to return at the exact 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 her a knowing smile. [You’re right, Tao-rider. It’s all been done before. But keep in mind that both you and Peter serve a respective function. 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…in the next, maybe. You remind me of my soul mate—she’s configured with the same causal circuitry She’s a lot more vicious, though.] His smile turned rueful. [Some of our fights…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.]
[Just tell me if—]
The world began rippling and blurring, as if the air was a pond and someone had thrown a stone in 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 suddenly—
Peter cracked his eyes open. They were back in his room.