“Fuck.” Peter scanned the locker-lined hallway like a spooked prey animal. “Guys, Dee Sonay is a goddamn Pain Lord. I bet that’s a hundred times worse than a fucking Demigorgon. What if she—”
Eun slapped his shoulder with a light backhand. “We have a few months until senior prom. We shouldn’t waste it by—”
“Peter is right.” Kora looked suspiciously from side to side. “We must be vigilant, lest that evil blaggard catch us unawa—”
Eun sighed. “Guys, this is exactly what she wants—can’t you see that?”
Kora scowled at Eun. “What do you suggest?”
“For starters, we shouldn’t be living in threatcon charlie—”
“Worst one’s delta,” Peter muttered.
“Whatever,” Eun said. “If we give in to paranoia, we’re gonna burn ourselves out.”
“Point,” Kora ceded grudgingly. “Maybe we should tone it down…”
Eun nodded approvingly. Kora had switched back to Earth-side lingo, meaning she was throttling back on the Kor’Thank SMASH! mentality. Both she and Peter had noticed that Kora’s speech was a rough indicator as to how she was feeling.
“We should,” Eun agreed. “Right now, we’re dealing with too many variables. We have to assess the problem, and plan accordingly.”
“Strategy,” Kora grumbled. “As I said before, not my forte.”
“Don’t worry.” Eun smiled. “I’ve got you covered.”
Eun walked up to Blake and his jocks. They were clustered around his open locker. Blake looked her up and down.
“Oh, look,” he sneered. “It’s Eun Yin—Peter Lee’s geisha fuck-buddy.”
“Oh, look,” Eun retorted, “It’s Blake Turner—an insecure roid-monkey clinging to the last vestiges of self-importance. Deep down, he knows that as life progresses from frat boy keggers into quiet, desperate misery, he’ll increasingly contemplate where it all went wrong. Take comfort in your racist insults, because existence is going to take everything of value from you.”
She paused for a second, then repeated, “Everything.”
The jocks exchanged uncertain glances. What just happened? And why do I feel so alone and empty?
“Damn,” Blake muttered. “I was just playing. Shit.” He closed his locker and glanced at his buddies. “I’ll see y’all later, a’ite?” There were some muted nods and a couple Fo sho Fo shos.
Eun smiled. Typically, they would have acknowledged Blake with ape-like hoots and a scatter of chest bumps.
“I’m flattered you think I want to talk with you,” she said to Blake, “but that’s not the case.”
His eyes narrowed. “So why are you here?”
Eun raked her gaze across the jocks. They were still standing there, despite Blake’s dismissal. “Leave.”
They promptly dispersed, revealing Dee Sonay, clad in a black belly shirt and a matching skirt. She’d been standing in their midst, concealed behind their hulking physiques.
“Her.” Eun nodded at the Pain Lord.
Blake’s mouth dropped open. “How’d you know she was—”
Eun interrupted him with an open hand. “Leave.”
“Impressive.” Dee smiled, her goth mascara deepening the shadows around her eyes. The hall had emptied. It was just Eun and Dee, staring each other down.
“You’re a student now.” Eun didn’t look away.
Neither did Dee. “I am.”
“What do you want?”
“Really, Eun?” A disbelieving look. “You can’t figure it out?”
“I’m a dumb-ass human. We’re slow on the uptake.”
“Points for being honest.” Dee smiled again. “I’m here to eat you, but it’s nothing personal—I’m here to eat everyone. You, Peter, Kora…”
“And you think we’ll sate you?” Eun studied her. “Because I don’t think so—I think you’ll get hungrier and hungrier, but you’ll also be lonely, because you won’t have anyone to actively push against.” It was Eun’s turn to smile. “You need us, Dee.”
Dee stiffened. “The only thing I need are your dying screams. Why the hell would I want someone to ‘actively push against?’ ”
“You don’t have friends—your only companions are your enemies. You’re a sad, lonely creature who’s forgotten that—”
“I don’t need ANYTHING!” Dee snarled. She punched the locker to her right without looking away, crumpling its steel face into a wrinkled mess. “ANYTHING!”
Hank the security guard came racing around the corner, ready to let loose with a Why the hell aren’t you kids in class? Dee snapped a single word at him: “Sleep.”
He dropped to the floor in a jumble of limbs.
Dee gave Eun a sly smile. “You’re smarter than you look. Got me to waste a little power—delayed my ascendance by a couple seconds. Well played.”
“You’ve ingratiated yourself with Blake and his cronies. You’re going to use them, make sure that nothing stops your…what did you call it?” Eun was fishing, but she was reasonably confident in hazarding a guess.
The Pain Lord studied her with narrowed eyes.
Uh-oh. Eun had been trying to play on Dee’s arrogance and loosen her lips to glean some info, but she’d pushed it too far.
Dee smirked. “You’re trying to get me to reveal my plans. Cute, Eun. Real cute.”
Eun kept her poker face. Shit. She’d gotten cocky and fucked the pooch.
Dee scoffed; a light puff blew threw her nose, like she wanted to laugh, but it wasn’t worth the effort. “Yong-Thin’s maw, you are a simple creature. This isn’t a movie, this isn’t a fairy tale—this is real life.”
Eun stayed silent.
“I’ll tell you my plan,” Dee said, still smirking. “And here’s why:”
Whew. Eun had read things correctly.
Dee leaned in. “Because you and your little band of fucktards have no chance of winning. None whatsoever.”
“Really.” Eun’s voice was even and level, with just a mild hint of curiosity.
“Yes—really.” Dee screwed up her face, repeating what Eun had said in a mocking tone.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
Dee crossed her arms. “You’re right—Blake and his idiots will make sure that you don’t cause trouble.”
Eun asked a stupid question. “You sure about that?”
Dee looked amused. “Of course I’m fucking sure. I’m a goddamn Pain Lord.”
“And a Pain Lord has no weaknesse—”
Dee inspected her nails. “Is there a point to this, or are you just trying to play the brave, defiant hero? Because believe me when I say that I’ve seen this before, and that it never ends well for you wannabe saviors. Not when you’re fighting me, at any rate.”
“Kora knows magic. She might be able to—”
Dee snorted. “So do I. You’ve got peashooters. I’m a fucking tank.”
“That’s not what Atriya said. He said we have everything we need.”
Dee recoiled, like someone had slapped her across the face. “You…you spoke to…” Her features went through a storm of emotions.
“That’s right. The Celestine Paladin. That’s how I know we’re going to beat you. Atriya said that—”
“Don’t say his name!” Dee gasped. “Or I’ll order Blake to go on a goddamn murder spree!” She leveled a shaking finger at Eun’s nose. “I will turn this school into a fucking killing field! Is that what you want, Eun? Is it?”
Eun raised her hands, palms out. “Easy, Dee. You win—ixnay on the Ayatrisay.”
Dee tried to wipe her brow, but her hand was shaking, so she swiped her face against her shoulder. “It doesn’t matter,” she muttered. “I’m still going to win.”
“Really?” Eun raised an eyebrow. “Because judging by your reaction, I’d say we’ve got you flanked. You may not see it, but—”
Dee burst into high, manic laughter. “Flanked? FLANKED? HAHAHAHA! Bitch, please—you can’t flank a goddamn Pain Lord! You and those two other fucksnacks are going to—”
“Win.” During the course of their conversation, Dee had been the one who’d interrupted Eun. Now it was her turn. “We’re going to win, Dee. You’ve consumed billions, but I’m betting there’s a few people who’ve managed to stop you. We freed you from some kind of stasis, didn’t we? Someone trapped you in an extradimensional prison, and we accidentally freed you when we messed with the warp gate.”
Dee’s eyes narrowed again. “How could you possibly…” she shook her head. “Impossible. You couldn’t have known.”
“Really? You sure? You positive?”
Fear flickered across Dee’s face. “You couldn’t have. A fleshling like you doesn’t have that kind of Akashic access.”
“Whether I do or don’t, you just confirmed it for me.” Eun grinned serenely, like a teen girl Buddha. “Thanks for the intel. This’ll be a whole lot easier than I first thought.”
Dee clenched her fists and leaned forward. An unnatural shadow fell across her eyes. “Tell me,” she hissed. “Tell me how you knew.”
Eun stayed cool, playing the cat to Dee’s mouse. “Thought I couldn’t say his name. We could just call him ‘A’ if you’d like.”
Dee’s fists shook and quivered. “You…you…” A strangled snarl escaped her lips. “You’re fucking dead,” she said evenly.
“Don’t I know it.” Eun’s voice was just as even. “We all are. But maybe…” Eun smiled again. “Maybe us fleshlings are gonna win—laugh and cheer when we boot your ass back into your boring-ass cage. Sure, you’re made to consume, but there’s people—good people—who are made to stop you.” Eun spread her arms and looked from side to side. “Plus I know I’m temporary. I know that whatever suffering I’m going to endure…well, ‘this too shall pass,’ right? Can you say the same? As far as you know, your condition is permanent isn’t it?”
Dee was livid. “I am going to eviscerate your whole fucking family you fucking—”
“You’re a miserable excuse for a conscious being. All you know is gnawing hunger, and the empty rush of consuming prey. All you know is me me me. Newsflash bitchcakes—” Eun put her hands on her hips and cocked her head. “Me and my buddies are the closest thing you’ll ever have to real friends. And goddamn,” she shook her head in seeming regret. “I don’t hate you for it; I pity you.” This last part was true. Eun regarded her with genuine compassion.
Dee straightened up and glared. “I’m backed by the odds. I just got out of limbo, meaning that in all likelihood, I’ll devour countless universes before someone manages to imprison me again.”
“I’m fine with that,” Eun said. “When it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go. You though…you’ll wallow in all the pleasure you possibly can, so you can ignore the truth about what you really are. When you get right down to it, you’re no different than Blake and his dickheads. They’re clinging to their high-school glory days, right? You’re doing the same, only on a grander scale. And now you’re their leader. Fitting.”
“Once I enhance them, there’s no way that you, Peter, or Kora can—”
“You think we can’t handle your juiced-up paste-eaters?”
This evoked a rueful laugh. “Blake and his morons are less than ideal, but they’re more than adequate. I plan on gifting them with otherworldly power—enough to crush your puny human frames. I tested Blake first. Apparently, he can deadlift two thousand pounds with his newfound strength.”
“That’s it?” Eun asked incredulously. “Blake’s already strong, Dee. You should’ve enhanced his intelligence.”
“Oh that’s not all,” Dee said. “I’ve given them nonhuman forms—you’ll be fighting the equivalent of thirteen demons.”
Eun wasn’t fazed. “Not a problem. We’re covered by the Paladin.”
Dee’s smile faltered. Not by much, but it was definitely noticeable. “His power is spread ridiculously thin; it encompasses every plane in the entirety of existence. He can’t help you directly, whereas I’m able to channel my energy into a single point of time-space continui—”
“And that’s his strength, isn’t it?” Her eyes ticked across the Pain Lord’s face. “Like you just said—he’s woven into every configuration of matter, energy, and possibility. He’s always there; he’s always relevant. Can you say the same?” Eun slowly shook her head. “I don’t think so. Betting my life on it, in fact.”
Dee’s mouth worked for several seconds. Finally, she snarled, “Most of the time, he isn’t even visible. Cowardly fuck won’t funnel his essence into a tangible—”
“But he’s everywhere, isn’t he? And that’s what’s important.”
“He’s let countless people down, and you’re going to be no diff—”
“Not in the long run.” Eun was smiling again. “In the long run, he always comes through.” No one had told her this, but she could feel the truth of it deep in her gut. Not just in her gut—in her bones. “You answer to him, don’t you?” Eun’s teasing gave way to curiosity. “When it’s all said and done, you answer to him. You’ve purposefully forgotten—purposefully denied it, I’m guessing—so you could indulge in this boring little fantasy of being a world-devouring titan.”
“That’s complete and utter bullsh—”
“In the end, you’re just a drab little footnote. I’d call you a piece of shit, but even that’s kind of romantic. You know—the self-aware dirtbag that pisses everyone off in funny and clever ways, then finally displays a modicum of heroism? Yeah—you’re not that.”
Eun paused. Then: “You’re just boring.”
Dee snickered. “I see what you’re doing—trying to get me riled up again. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…I’m not falling for your stupid-ass tricks.”
“You’re not an idiot, obviously. And you’ve been around long enough to pick up some clues as to how all this works. All this…” Eun extended her arms, palms up, and looked around, encompassing the entirety of existence. “All this craziness. So you know, Dee—you know we’re in a cycle, and even though you’ve had a damn good ride, it’s guaranteed to end.”
Dee circlecd a hand by her ear. “Blah blah blah. Might as well speak in tongues—everything you’re saying sounds like gibberish.”
“My apologies. Forgot how smart you were.”
“Patronizing me. You really think that’s gonna help you?”
Eun smirked. “Until your ascendance, you’re going to invest energy into Blake and his dumbasses, but the question is: how much? Right now you’re vulnerable to other entities.” (Eun wasn’t sure, but her suspicions were confirmed when a little tic materialized under Dee’s right eye) “So you’re gonna keep some energy all to yourself, just for security. You’ll direct some resources toward gathering intelligence, but not too much—your ascendance takes priority. If you spend your capital willy nilly, you’re going to slow yourself by years…decades, maybe?”
Dee’s face turned stony and cold.
Eun’s voice grew surer by the second. “Eons, I think. Something like you deals in eons. So right now, you have to play by our rules. Limited resources, limited time, and a lot of uncertainty. You don’t like that, do you? You’re used to a .99 batting average.”
By the looming silence and Dee’s death-stare, it was clear that Eun had struck a chord.
So she kept going. “You’re accustomed to constant gluttony, constant power. People think they want to be you, but they don’t—not really. I think that deep down, you don’t want to be you. I think once you’re finished with this world-devouring bullshit, you’ll become something else. Something like me or my friends, maybe. Maybe even something like Atriy—”
The Pain Lord’s face quivered with rage. “Don’t you say his fucking NAME!”
Eun wasn’t going to; she only wanted to get a rise out of Dee. “Okay, okay,” she said in a soothing tone. “My mistake—slip of the tongue. Sorry.”
The Pain Lord scrutinized her. Was Eun for real? Dee had ripped through reality after reality, dismantling countless minds and sucking them into her ravenous essence…but there had been those few occasions. Those few occasions when a fleshling upstart had managed to thwart her. It had only happened a handful of times, but still…was Eun the next—
Eun saw it all in Dee’s face: uncertainty and arrogance. And beneath it all, the hidden desire to transcend her design.
Dee’s expression became a disdainful sneer. “I’ll save you for last. I’ll rip apart everyone you love—friends, family, pets—before I toss their remains to my demon lieutenants. I’ll leave a few alive, so you can see my minions strip the meat from their bones. As I said before: the odds are against you. Doesn’t appear to have sunk in just yet, but give it some time—you’ll start losing sleep…get a little paranoid…that’s gonna feed me too, sweetie.” Dee gave her a malevolent smile. “I like a little appetizer before the entree. You know…” she assessed Eun with a speculative gaze. “Ever thought about switching sides? My team comes with way more benefits.”
“But you’re stuck in a losing game.” Eun shook her head. “Stuck in the same, endless maze.”
“I could say the same for you.”
They both knew there was nothing more to discuss. They turned away from each other and went their separate ways, caught in an eternal cycle of polar conflict. Eun knew it in the depths of her soul, but the Pain Lord pretended not to—Dee had to believe she was the apex predator. That’s why she couldn’t stand Atriya’s name; she couldn’t stand knowing she was just another piece on a multidimensional chess board.
Eun, however, had no problem with it. She’d always known she was subject to forces beyond her control, and that the best way forward in this ridiculous, arbitrary life was to do the best you could with what you had. She was hoping her approach would be enough—that it would allow her and her friends to defy the odds, and somehow find a path to victory. But if they failed, that was fine too.
Because Eun knew it was all just a game.