Peter and his friends raced back to his house.
“Fuck! Fuck!” He stomped into his bedroom, clutching his head with both hands. “We are so fucked!”
“Calm down,” Kora grumbled. “If we give in to panic, then—”
“Oh, am I panicking?” He fixed her with a wide-eyed gaze. “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. It shut him up immediately.
“Thank you,” Kora said.
“No problem,” Eun replied. She looked Peter squarely in the eye. “You gonna throw a tantrum, or do you want to solve the problem?”
He rubbed his cheek and stared at the ground. “What’s the plan?” he muttered.
“We need intel. Let’s go Bloom-side and poke around.”
Peter looked doubtful. “In case you don’t remember, I almost died in there less than an hour ago. Poking around the Bloom could make things worse.”
“Which is going to happen anyway, if we sit on our hands and do nothing,” 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. My sojourn on Earth has blessed me with meaning…blessed me with purpose. And you—you have been similarly blessed: with the chance to make a difference. We three are at a critical juncture. Do we rally together and rise as one? Or do we cower behind fear and comfort, poisoned by the smolder of time and regret?”
Peter’s gaze dropped again. He thought of his teachers: Ms. Hoaglund, Mr. Perez, Mrs. Peschard…he’d never had to pay attention to 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 what Kora was referencing: the smolder of time and regret. They hadn’t helped him learn math or history, but they’d shown him something deeper—something that transcended scantrons and essays.
An epiphany dawned in his hormone-addled brain. You could learn from anyone—any thing, really—if you set aside your dismissal and judgment. If you were brave enough to accept the phrase: There, but for the grace of God, go I.
“Peter?” Eun asked softly.
His chin lifted. His eyes steeled.
“Let’s do it.”
The three teens ate a fresh dose of zen zaps and kicked free of the “real world.” Music became taste, taste became heat, heat became mandala…but this time around, it didn’t surprise them. They did not give in to astonishment.
[Everyone good?] Peter’s visage flickered between white and black, blue and red, then stretched into a spiral of double-weave green.
[I’m 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 roil of liquid streams, arcing out and up, then crashing back into an aqueous center.
Peter thought about it. [Um…try this: think of that feeling when you’re trying to find an answer. Like when you’re googling something, or—]
Kora: [—when you’re sparring at half-speed, so you can see your own weaknesses or—]
Eun: [—when you really listen to someone, so you can truly understand what they’re trying to say.]
Peter projected a nod. [Yeah. That should do it. (I think.) ]
Kora—now an empty suit of samurai armor—projected a wave of doubt. [You think? Or you know?]
[This isn’t a science, remember?] Eun chided. [Let’s work with what we’ve got.]
[Sorry.] Kora morphed back into a katana, lit by a cluster of anime 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 whatever triggered their spirit of inquiry. Gridded wireframe ran up their thought-forms, turning them into a fantastic collection of gears, hinges, and sparking transistors. Then 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 on his hands. He stared at Kora and Eun, who now looked like their human selves. The two girls were sitting on the ground, just like he was.
He brought his hands up to his face, examining them closely. [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?]
The teens were standing on a cobbled street. Blips of light were flashing between the cobbles, like a Tron-style diagram of citywide traffic. There were rows of townhomes on either side; they simultaneously appeared modern, archaic, and fantastic—a bit of Victorian, steampunk, and a dash of Apple-style simplicity.
Kora’s eyes ticked back and forth across the golden balconies, the well-oiled pistons sliding in and out of their chrome sheaths, the shingled roofs that topped the buildings. Entities were walking on the light-limned street: animal-headed bipeds, staticky bundles of electric energy that appeared vaguely humanoid, and the occasional human.
Recognition dawned in Kora’s eyes. [In Basic Arcana, our instructors told us of an astral realm called Connecta Agora. I think this is it.]
[Cool name.] Eun remarked, staring at the buildings.
[Yeah.] Kora replied. [The cobblestones…the architecture…we saw this in picture books, but man…seeing it up close is something else. There’s supposed to be a place where you can gamble with ideas. The Magisterium Exchange.]
[Whoa!] Eun grinned at Kora. [That’s even cooler!]
Kora grinned back. [Back at the Forge, we used to fantasize about visiting the Exchange and coming back with a badass concept. Usually it was a phase-shift ability, so we could sneak into the girl’s barracks and watch them change.]
Eun rolled her eyes. [Typical.] Peter clenched both fists and exclaimed, [AWESOME!]
Eun gave him a dry look. [Wipe the drool off, Peter.]
[Oh—whoops.] He swiped his lips with the back of his wrist. A string of glowing, morphing characters arced from his lips to his hand, catching the light as they flashed and winked.
[Whoa…] he whispered.
[Look.] Kora pointed up, directing their attention further up the street.
Their eyes caught on an ornate, domed structure, but that wasn’t what she was pointing at; a rat-like humanoid was walking toward them—four feet tall, dressed in priestly robes. Instead of arms, it had a pair of tapered, worm-like tentacles extending from its sleeves.
[Get ready.] Kora shifted 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 interests.]
Peter smirked. [Could be fun, though.]
[You’re an idiot.] Eun hissed. [Don’t start anything, got it?]
The rat-creature stopped ten feet away. It gave the three of them a toothy grin.
[Welcome to Connecta.] it projected. [I’m Saccular. If there’s anything you need, I can help you fin—]
[Like what?] Eun asked at the same time Kora projected, [No thanks.]
[Hold on.] Peter held up a hand. [Maybe we can—]
[Are you blind?] Kora spat. [He looks like a rat, Peter!]
[I don’t know…] Eun gave Saccular an iffy once-over, then turned to her friends. [Appearances can be—]
[Deceiving the tourists, eh?]
A man of indeterminate age walked up beside Saccular. He was clad in a black long-sleeve and dressy-but-functional trousers. Long white hair swept back from his brow, stopping a few inches short from the base of his neck. A blinking katana—its hilt and sheath were made of glowing dashes, like a cut-along-here line—hung from his left hip.
[Atriya!] Saccular twiddled the tips of his tentacles. [I wasn’t trying to—]
[You tried this with me, remember?] Atriya’s smile wasn’t friendly; a hint of warning shone in his eyes.
Saccular laughed, 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.] He walked rapidly away.
Kora’s eyes blazed with recognition. [Atriya!] she gasped. She dropped to a knee and placed a clenched fist over her heart. [It is an honor to meet you, Celestine Paladin!]
Atriya smiled and shook his head. [You only think it is, because you haven’t realized that we’re one and the—] he saw her puzzled expression and cleared his throat. [Please don’t kneel. I’m not a god and I’m not a teacher. I’m a…I’m a concerned friend, if you want to put a name to 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 a 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’s forehead crinkled in thought. [Can’t say I’m not surprised…she was always a brat.] He looked at them again. [From your clothing and mannerisms, you’re definitely from Earth…early twenty-first century?]
[Then your weapons aren’t enough. She’s already laid waste to everyone you know and everything you care for.]
[Hold on.] Eun protested. [Before she materialized, she fought with a being called the Timekeeper. He was able to weaken her. Is it possible that—]
[Let me check.]
Atriya’s outline blurred and fuzzed. Glowing veins stretched from his contours, printing incandescent jags onto the air around him. A second later, the veins formed into a purple gleam that ran across the Paladin in a quicksilver flash.
He opened his eyes and smiled at Eun. [Your world is 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 between planes.]
[And we’ll boot her from our dimension?]
Atriya nodded. [Yes. If you restore the interplanar spin, the resultant pressure will suck Dissona back into the void. Word of warning—] his face became serious. [The more time she spends on Earth, the stronger she becomes. Make the switch as soon as possible.]
[How long do we have?] Peter asked.
Peter looked at Kora and Eun. [Three months…senior prom.] He turned back to Atriya. [Does she have a weakness?]
He smiled again. [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—]
[He came back, didn’t he?] Atriya gave him an even look.
[I…but…] Peter sputtered for a couple seconds, then turned his head and spat at the ground. [You don’t get it.. If you only knew—]
[—what you knew?] Atriya finished. [Trust me when I say I know exactly what you’re going through.]
Peter stepped forward, teeth bared. [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. He looked past Peter’s shoulder, as if the teen 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 at Peter, and his eyes filled with mind-fraying light.
The teen’s anger was replaced by fear; Atriya 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 and looked at Kora.. [I have something for you. Open your hands and hold them out.]
Kora did so. He held his fists above her hands and closed his eyes.
When he opened his hands, brilliance poured from them in an eye-searing wave. It was accompanied by a series of bone-thrumming notes. The melody was indescribable—like an existential harp playing Pachelbel’s Canon, only way more intense. As each note blurred the aether, the three teens experienced an intense body high.
[Whoa.] Peter stumbled back, clutching his head. Eun grabbed his shoulders and they leaned into each other.
Kora, however, stood firm. She was affected by the sound—with each blast of melody, she morphed into a fritz of staticky lines—but unlike her friends, 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.
[Sorry.] the Paladin emoted. [I had to fragment reality—a necessary precursor to an acausal shift.]
[What do 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, mingled with 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 the right was smoky black, the one to the left was 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 projected.
Her eyes fell away from her weapon and she gaped at the Paladin. [Are you…are you Alantil Fairwind?]
He smiled wryly. [I am. I’ve worn many guises throughout the eons. Comes with the job.]
[The prophecy said I’d only receive these 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. Everyone glorifies that climactic moment when the hero has to worry about ‘giving up,’ but you and I are soldiers; we know all too well that if you’re doing things right, you should rarely—if ever—reach that point. Sometimes it’s inevitable, but usually it’s the ‘little quits,’—those tiny mistakes borne from laziness and complacency—that combine into a giant interest payment.]
[But how have I—]
His eyes filled with celestial taos—yin-yangs comprised of galactic stardust. [Kora. You embraced a new identity with an open mind and a full heart. 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.] Her eyes said it all; they were shining with gratitude, reflecting the gleam from her sword and her shield.
[Holly is doing the exact opposite.] Atriya scanned the teens. [She’s forcing the environment to cater to her. If she’d set aside her childish appetites, she would have already arrived at an Elithian warp gate. Oh well. Sometimes, we’re destined to play the knave; it’s an integral part of our process. Enthimy…] he shook his head again. [Be ready for Holly; she’ll attempt to return when Dissona reaches the peak of her powers.]
[Senior prom…] Peter murmured. [It all centers around senior prom.] He looked excitedly at Kora and Eun. [Guys, this is right out of—]
Eun rolled her eyes. [Carrie, Back to the Future, Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer…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 the True. You preserve balance, he pushes progress.]
[‘Tao-rider?’] Eun asked. [What does that mean?]
[You’ll find out. Not in this life…maybe in the next. 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.] Peter projected. [What about Bitefighter? How does he figure into all of—]
[You have what you need. I can’t give you all the answers.]
[Just tell me if—]
The world began rippling, 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, out, and through each other. Their gorges rose but they had no gorges there was no “I” and suddenly—
Peter’s eyes cracked open. They were back in his room.