Peter and his friends raced back to his house.
“Fuck! Fuck!” Peter stomped into his bedroom, clutching his hair 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.
“Thank you,” Kora said.
“No problem,” Eun replied. She looked Peter squarely in the eye. “Do you want to throw a tantrum, or do you want to solve the problem?”
He rubbed his cheek and stared at the ground. “What do you have mind?” he muttered.
“We need intel. Let’s go Bloom-side and do some research.”
Peter looked doubtful. “Taking on Insectoids is one thing, but Pain Lords? Poking around the Bloom could make things worse.”
“Which is going to happen anyway, if we sit on our hands and don’t do a thing,” 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 blessed with the opportunity to make a difference. We three have arrived at a critical juncture, worthy of bards’ tales and minstrels’ songs. 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. His brow creased as he thought of his teachers: Ms. Hoaglund, Mr. Perez, Mrs. Peschard…he’d never had to pay attention in 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 had just referenced: 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 dismissal and judgment. If you were brave enough to accept the phrase: There, but for the grace of God, go I.
It was only now, after he’d traveled between dimensions, after he’d watched his friends nearly die, did Peter Lee understand.
“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.” They caught a brief glimpse of their physical bodies before they were thrown into a 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.
[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 roiling boil 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, and—]
Kora: [—or when you’re sparring at half-speed, so you can see your own weaknesses and—]
Eun: [—like when you really listen to someone, so you can really 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 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, staring at Kora and Eun, who now looked like their human selves. The two girls were sitting on their butts, just like he was.
He brought his hands to his face, turning them back and forth and 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?]
They 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.
[Where are we?]
Kora’s eyes ticked back and forth across the artful arrangement of 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 person.
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. Yeah, Connecta Agora…there’s supposed to be a place around here where you 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 Connecta 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 off the drool..]
[Oh—whoops.] He swiped at his lips with the back of his wrist. A string of glowing, morphing characters—chained together along a silver strand of fluid glimmer—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 and dressed in priestly robes. Instead of arms, it had a pair of tapered, worm-like tentacles.
[Steady.] 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 interest.]
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 them all a toothy grin.
[Welcome to Connecta.] it projected. [My name is 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 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 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, as if someone had traced a cut-line onto a sheet of paper—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 smiled but it 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.
Atriya gave them an amiable smile. [Are you here for a reason, or—]
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!]
Still smiling, he 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 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 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 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?]
He shook his head. [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 a being called the Timekeeper, and he was able to hurt her. If she’s weakened, could we—]
[Let me check.] Atriya’s outline blurred and fuzzed. Glowing veins stretched out from his contours, printing incandescent jags onto the air around him. A second later, the veins formed into a purple gleam that ran across Atriya 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 that allowed her to escape.]
[And we’ll boot her from our dimension?]
Atriya nodded. [Yes. The interplanar spin would be restored, and resultant pressure would suck Dissona back into the Dark. Word of warning—] his face became serious. [The more time she spends on Earth, the stronger she becomes. Switch bodies as soon as possible.]
[How long do we have?] Peter asked.
Peter looked at Kora and Eun. [Three months…that’s senior prom.] He turned back to Atriya. [Does she have any weaknesses?]
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—]
[But he came back, didn’t he?] Atriya gave him an even look.
[I…but…] Peter sputtered for a couple of seconds, then turned his head and spat at the ground. [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. [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 sat Peter, and his eyes filled with mind-fraying light. The teen’s anger melted away and was replaced by fear; 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 and looked at Kora.. [I do have something for you. I almost forgot. Open your hands and hold them out.]
Kora did as he asked. 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, and bone-thrumming notes crashed through the air. The melody was indescribable—like an existential harp playing Pachelbel’s Canon, only way more intense. As each note shook the aether, blurring it into a haze of indistinct lines and wavy colors, the three teens experienced an intense body high.
[Whoa.] Peter stumbled, 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 melodic blast, she morphed into a dancing 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, 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 it back and forth, staring at the doppleganger blades as they moved in tandem with their metallic locus.
[Your weapons.] Atriya projected. [You look the same as I did, when I received my armor and blade.]
She stopped studying her weapons and gaped at the Paladin. [Are you…Alantil Fairwind?]
He smiled wryly. [I’ve worn many guises throughout the eons. Comes with the job.]
[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 to show you’re worthy. More often than not, you demonstrate your worth through day-to-day challenges. We like to glorify that climactic moment when the hero has to worry about ‘giving up,’ but you and I are soldiers Kora—you know all to well that if you’re doing things right, you shouldn’t reach that point. Sometimes its inevitable, 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 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.] 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 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 have 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 right before 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 a respective function. 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 a second.] 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 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, out, and through each other. Their gorges rose but they had no gorges and there was no “I” and suddenly—
Peter’s eyes cracked open. They were back in his room.