“Fuck! Fuck!” Peter stomped through his bedroom, clutching his head and pulling his hair. “We are so FUCKED!”
“Calm down,” Kora chided. “If we give in to panic, we’ll—”
“Oh, am I panicking?” He fixed her with a manic gaze. “I’m sorry—did you miss the part where a fucking Pain Lord entered our dimension? You’re right—we should all smoke up and chant ‘Serenity Now!’ Or we could—”
Eun slapped him. Hard.
“Thank you,” Kora said.
Eun looked Peter squarely in the eye. “You wanna throw a fit, or you want to be productive?”
He rubbed his cheek and gave her a baleful stare. “What’s the plan?” he muttered.
“We need intel. Let’s go Bloom-side and poke around.”
Peter looked doubtful. “Poking around could make things worse.”
“Which happens regardless, if we sit on our hands and stay reactive. 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 time on Earth has blessed me with meaning; blessed me with purpose. And you—you are 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 eyes dropped to the floor. He thought of his teachers: Ms. Hoaglund, Mr. Perez, Mrs. Peschard…he hadn’t paid attention in their boring-ass classes, but still—they’d been teaching him through their beaten faces, their weary demeanors, their resigned spirits. The faculty had succumbed to the very thing that Kora was talking about: the smolder of time and regret. They hadn’t helped him with math or history, but they’d been teaching him a lesson nonetheless—way more impactful than 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.
“Peter?” Eun asked softly.
His chin lifted. His eyes steeled.
“Let’s do it.”
The three teens ate some zen zaps and kicked free of the “real world.” Music became taste, taste became heat, heat became mandala…but this time, it wasn’t surprising. They did not give in to their own astonishment.
[Everyone good?] Peter 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 face—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: reach for that feeling when you’re looking for answers. Like when you’re googling something, or—]
Kora: [—sparring at half-speed, so you can see your own mistakes or—]
Eun: [—when you’re really listening to someone, so you can 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. [Work with what you’ve got.]
[Right. Sorry.] Kora morphed back into a katana, lit by a cluster of anime sparkles. [Okay—let’s do this.]
Their psyches, still caught in a maelstrom of color, floated outward as they focused on whatever triggered their spirit of inquiry. Gridded wireframe ran up their thought-forms, turning them into a collection of gears, hinges, and sparking transistors. They floated closer, merging their nodes into a familiar shape:
A circuit-coated key.
A second later they were blasted apart.
[Fuck, that was WILD!]
Peter was on his butt, leaning back on his hands, staring wide-eyed at Kora and Eun, both of whom looked like their human selves. The two girls were sitting on the ground, just like he was.
He turned his hands back and forth, looking from one to the other. [We’re still in the Bloom…but now we look human. Far fucking out.]
Eun got to her feet and helped Kora up. [Where are we?]
The teens were standing on a quant-looking road. Blips of light streaked between the cobbles, like a Tron-style diagram of citywide traffic. There were rows of townhomes on either side of them; simultaneously modern, archaic, and fantastic. A bit of Victorian, steampunk, and Apple-style simplicity all mixed together.
Kora studied the golden balconies, the well-oiled pistons pumping in their chrome sheaths, the shingled, old-timey rooftops. Otherworldly beings roamed the street: animal-headed bipeds, staticky bundles of electric energy that appeared vaguely humanoid, and the occasional man or woman.
Recognition dawned in Kora’s eyes. [In Basic Arcana, our instructors spoke of an astral realm: Connecta Agora. I think this is it.]
[Cool name.] Eun stared at the buildings.
[Yeah.] Kora replied. [We saw this in paintings, but man…seeing it up close…this 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 going to 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. Instead of saliva, a string of glowing, morphing characters arced from his lips to his hand, reflecting the light in flashes and winks. [Incredible…] he whispered.
[Look.] Kora pointed, directing their attention further up the street.
An ornate, domed structure stood by itself, a hundred yards away, but that wasn’t what she was pointing at. A rat-like humanoid—four feet tall and dressed in priestly robes—was walking toward them. Instead of arms, it possessed tapered, worm-like tentacles that extended 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 fight isn’t going to help.]
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. [Welcome to Connecta. 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 up.] Peter raised 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. [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 nervously twiddled the tips of his tentacles. [I wasn’t about 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 just a joke! I would never—]
[Right.] Saccular curtsied and scurried away.
Kora’s eyes widened abruptly. [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 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 on a quest: 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 Earthlings…twenty-first century, I’d say?]
He shook his head. [Then your weapons aren’t enough. She’s already laid waste to everyone you know and everything you care about.]
[Hold on.] Eun protested. [She fought with someone: the Timekeeper. He was able to weaken her. Is it possible that—]
[Let me check.] He closed his eyes.
Atriya’s outline blurred and fuzzed. Glowing veins stretched from his contours, printing incandescent jags on the air around him. A second later, the veins formed into a purple gleam that ran across him 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 fix the rift between your worlds.]
[And we’ll boot Dissona out of our dimension?]
Atriya nodded. [Yes. Restore the interplanar spin, and the resultant pressure will suck Dissona back into Void. Word of warning—] his face turned serious. [The more time she spends on Earth, the stronger she becomes. Make the switch as soon as possible, before it becomes impossible.]
[How long do we have?] Peter asked.
[Exactly three months, according to your reckoning of time.]
Peter looked at Kora and Eun. [Three months…senior prom.] He turned back to Atriya. [Does she have a weakness?]
[You have everything you need. And remember: Holly Dent isn’t evil, just misguided. 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, 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 and bared his teeth. [That so, asshole? Well, let me tell you something, you self-righteous piece of—]
[Peter!] Kora exclaimed, horrified.
[—astral shit. You don’t. You don’t even know what it means to be human. What gives you the right to—]
Atriya’s face turned distant and aloof. He looked past Peter, 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 directly at Peter, his eyes filling with mind-fraying light.
The teen’s anger was replaced by fear. Standing before him was a living embodiment of pure transcendence. [I…I…] His mouth worked in a soundless whisper.
Eun grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back. [I’m sorry, Mr. Atriya. He can get a little aggro.]
[It’s all right.] Atriya smiled. His eyes normalized. [I was the same, not so long ago. Oh!] He straightened up and looked at Kora.. [I have something for you. Show me your hands. Hold them waist-high.]
Kora did as he asked. He positioned his fists above her palms. When he opened them, brilliance flooded out in eye-searing waves, accompanied by a series of bone-thrumming notes. The melody was indescribable—like an existential harp playing Pachelbel’s Canon, only way more intense. Each note blurred the aether, slamming the teens with an intense body high.
[Whoa.] Peter stumbled back. Eun steadied him and they leaned into each other. Kora, however, stood firm. She was affected by the sound (with each blast, she momentarily fritzed into a mess of static) but unlike her friends, she remained composed. Atriya sang a few more notes, then his voice trailed off in a pleasant fade.
[Sorry.] the Paladin emoted. [Had to fragment reality—a necessary precursor to an acausal shift.]
[What do you mea—] Peter began, but Eun pointed at Kora.
Kora was marveling at a fantastic shield on her left arm. Its front was emblazoned with gorgeous, metallic curves: swoops of clarion gold, mixed with twists of oceanic blue. In her right hand she held an exotic sword. Its curved edge was accompanied by two phantom blades; the one on the right was smoky black, the one on the left was royal purple.
Kora turned the weapon back and forth, staring at the doppelganger blades as they moved in tandem with their metallic locus.
[Your birth weapons.] Atriya projected.
She gaped at the Paladin. [Are you…you’re Alantil Fairwind?]
He smiled wryly. [I am. I’ve had many names throughout the eons. Comes with the job.]
[The prophecy…I’m only supposed to get these after I demonstrate my worth. How have I—]
Atriya chuckled. [Real life isn’t like the holos, Kora, it’s—] he caught himself. Chuckled again. [Sorry—I meant to say it isn’t like the movies. People like to glorify the climactic moment when the hero is at the brink of ‘giving up,’ but you and I are soldiers; we both know that if you’re doing things right, you should rarely—if ever—reach that point. It’s inevitable, sometimes, but usually it’s the ‘little quits,’—the tiny mistakes borne from complacency—that combine into a giant interest payment.]
[But how have I—]
His eyes filled with celestial taos—yin-yangs made of stardust. [Kora. You embraced a new life—a new identity, really—with an open mind and a full heart. You took it 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 shone, reflecting the gleam from her sword and her shield.
[Holly is doing the exact opposite.] Atriya scanned the teens. [If she set aside her childish impulses, she would already be at an Elithian warp gate. Oh well. We’re all destined to play the knave; it’s an integral part of our eternal process. Enthimy…] he shook his head again. [Be ready for Holly. She’ll attempt her return when Dissona reaches the peak of her powers.]
[Senior prom…] Peter murmured. [Everything centers around 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, at one time or another, in one manner or another. But keep in mind that both you and Peter serve the True. You preserve balance, he forces progress.]
[‘Tao-rider?’] Eun asked. [What’s that?]
[You’ll find out. Not in this life…maybe the next. You’re a lot like my soul mate—she has 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 this?]
[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 a stone had been dropped in its liquid 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.