“Fuck.” Peter scanned the hall like a spooked prey animal. “Dee Sonay is a goddamn Pain Lord. I bet that’s a hundred times worse than a fucking Demigorgon. What if she—”
Eun flicked his shoulder with a light backhand. “We have time, Peter. We shouldn’t waste it by worrying ourselves to—”
“Peter is right.” Kora looked suspiciously from side to side. “We must be vigilant, lest that evil blaggard catch us unawa—”
“Guys, this is exactly what she wants,” Eun stated. “Can’t you see that?”
Kora scowled at her. “What do you suggest?”
“For starters, we shouldn’t walk around in threatcon charlie—”
“Worst one’s delta,” Peter muttered.
“Whatever,” Eun snapped. “If we’re constantly paranoid, we’ll burn ourselves out.”
“Point,” Kora ceded grudgingly. “Maybe we should tone it down…”
Eun breathed a sigh of relief. Kora had switched to Earthling lingo, which meant she was throttling back on the Kor’Thank SMASH! mentality.
“We should,” Eun agreed. “Right now, there’s too many variables. We have to assess and plan accordingly.”
“Strategy,” Kora grumbled. “As I mentioned before, not my forte.”
“Don’t worry.” Eun smiled. “I’ve got it covered.”
Eun walked up to Blake and his jocks, clustered around his open locker. Blake looked her up and down.
“Oh, look,” he sneered. “It’s Eun Yin—Peter’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 life will progress from frat boy keggers into quiet, desperate misery, and he’ll start wondering 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.” He closed his locker and glanced at his buddies. “I gotta talk with Eun. 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 their leader with ape-like hoots and a smatter of chest bumps. “You think I want to talk to you—flattering. But that’s not the case.”
His eyes narrowed. “So why are you here?”
Eun glared at Blake’s entourage. They were still there, despite his earlier dismissal. “Leave,” she ordered.
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 gaped at her. “How’d you know she was—”
Eun interrupted with an open hand. “Leave, Blake.”
“Impressive.” Dee smiled. The hall was empty. It was just her and Eun, staring each other down.
“So now you’re a student.” Eun didn’t look away.
Neither did Dee. “I am.”
“What do you want?”
“Really?” Mild disbelief. “It’s pretty obvious.”
“I’m a dumb-ass human. We’re slow on the uptake.”
“Points for being honest.” The smile returned. “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 just get hungrier, but once we’re gone you’ll also be lonely, because you won’t have anyone to actively oppose you.” 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 oppose’ me?”
“You don’t have friends. You’re a sad, lonely creature who’s forgotten that—”
“I don’t need ANYONE!” She punched a locker without looking away, crumpling its steel face into a wrinkled mess. “ANYONE!” she snarled.
Hank the security guard came running 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 smirked at Eun. “You’re smarter than you look. Got me to spend a little bit of power, delayed my ascendance by a couple seconds. Well played.”
“Blake and his cronies…you’re using them, aren’t you? They’re gonna 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. She’d been trying to play on Dee’s arrogance—loosen her lips and glean some info—but now it was obvious she’d gone too far.
“You’re trying to get me to reveal my plans, like some kind of comic book supervillain. Cute, Eun. Real cute.”
Eun managed to keep her poker face, but inwardly, she was fighting to stay calm. Shit. She’d gotten cocky and fucked the pooch.
Dee scoffed; a light puff blew through 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 smirked again. “And here’s why:”
Whew. Eun was still in the game.
Dee leaned in. “Because you and your little band of fucktards have no chance of winning. None whatsoever.”
“Really.” Eun’s voice stayed calm and level, with just a mild hint of curiosity.
“Yes—really.” Dee screwed up her face, repeating Eun in a mocking tone.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
Dee crossed her arms. “You’re right—Blake will keep you from making waves.”
Eun asked a stupid question. “You sure about that?”
Dee looked amused. “Of course I’m sure. I’m a Pain Lord, Eun.”
“And a Pain Lord has no weaknesse—”
Dee inspected her nails. “This never ends well for you wannabe saviors. Not when you’re fighting me, at any rate.”
“Kora knows magic. She can—”
“So do I. You’ve got peashooters. I’m a tank.”
“That’s not what Atriya said. He said we have everything we need.”
Dee recoiled. “You…you spoke to…”
“That’s right. The Celestine Paladin. Atriya told us—”
“Don’t say his name!” Dee gasped. She leveled a shaking finger at Eun’s face. “Or I’ll turn this school into a fucking killing field! Is that what you want? Is it?”
Eun raised her hands. “Easy, Dee—easy. Ixnay on the Ayatrisay.”
Dee tried to wipe her brow, but her hand was shaking too hard, so she swiped her face against her shoulder. “Doesn’t matter,” she muttered. “I’m still going to eat you.”
“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 erupted with high, manic laughter. “Flanked? FLANKED? HAHAHAHA! Bitch, please—you can’t flank a goddamn Pain Lord! You and your fucksnack friends are about to—”
“Win.” During their conversation, Dee had been the one who’d interrupted Eun. Now, however, the tables had turned. “We’re going to win, Dee. You’ve killed billions, but I’m betting there’s a few souls who’ve managed to stop you. We woke you from stasis, didn’t we? Someone trapped you in an extradimensional prison. 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?”
A flicker of fear. “You couldn’t have. A fleshling like you isn’t cleared for Akashic access.”
“Whether I am or not, you just confirmed it.” Eun grinned serenely, like a teen girl Buddha. “Thanks for the intel.”
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. “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 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. Sure, you’re made to consume, but there’s people—good people—who are made to stop you.” Eun leaned in. “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—or pretend, I suspect—your condition is permanent, isn’t it?”
“I’m gonna eviscerate your whole fucking family you fucking—”
“You’re a miserable excuse for a conscious being. All you know is gnawing hunger, the empty rush of consuming prey. All you know is me me me. Newsflash bitch—” Eun put her hands on her hips. “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 just left limbo, which means in all likelihood, I’ll devour thousands of universes before someone gets lucky and manages to beat me.”
“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 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. So are you, only on a grander scale. And now you’re their leader. Fitting.”
“Once I enhance them, there’s no way that you and your friends can—”
“Beat some juiced-up paste-eaters? Please.”
Dee laughed. “Blake and his morons are less than ideal, but they’re more than adequate. I’ve gifted them with otherworldly power—enough to crush your puny human frames. Blake can deadlift two thousand pounds when he’s fully transfor—”
Eun looked incredulous. “He’s already strong, Dee. You should’ve made him smarter.”
“They have nonhuman forms—you’ll be fighting the equivalent of thirteen demons.”
Eun wasn’t fazed. “Not a problem. We’re backed by the Paladin.”
Dee’s smile faltered. Not much, but it was definitely noticeable. “His power is spread ridiculously thin; it encompasses every plane in the goddamn multiverse. He can’t offer direct support, whereas I can channel energy into a single point of time-space continui—”
“And that’s his strength, isn’t it?” Her eyes searched the Pain Lord’s face. “Like you just said—he’s woven into every configuration of matter, energy, and possibility. He’s always there, Dee. He’s always relevant. Can you say the same?” Eun shook her head. “I doubt it. I’m betting my life on it, in fact.”
Dee’s mouth opened and closed. Finally, she spat, “Most of the time, you can’t even see him. Cowardly fucker won’t funnel his essence into a visible—”
“But he’s everywhere, isn’t he? And that’s what’s important.”
“He’s let billions down, and you’re going to be no diff—”
“Not in the long run.” Eun said calmly. “In the long run, he always comes through.” No one had told her that, but she could feel the truth of it deep in her gut. “You answer to him, don’t you?” Her voice turned curious. “When it’s all said and done, you answer to him. You’ve purposefully forgotten—purposefully denied it, I imagine—so you can indulge this boring-ass 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 that’s too romantic. You know—the self-aware dirtbag that pisses everyone off in funny and clever ways, then finally displays an iota of heroism? Yeah—you’re not that.”
Eun paused. Then: “You’re just boring.”
Dee snickered. “I see what you’re doing—you’re trying to rile me again. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…I’m not gonna fall for your stupid-ass tricks.”
“You’re not an idiot, obviously. And you’ve existed long enough to pick up some clues as to how all this works. All this…” Eun spread her arms and looked around, indicating the whole of existence. “All this craziness. So you know, Dee. You know you’re caught in a cycle, and even though you’ve had a damn good ride, it’s guaranteed to end.”
Dee circled a hand up by her ear. “Blah blah blah. Might as well be speaking in tongues—everything you’re saying sounds like gibberish.”
“My apologies. Forgot how smart you were.”
“Patronizing me. Think that’ll help?”
Eun studied her. “You’re going to empower 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’ll keep some energy all to yourself, just for the sake of personal security. You’ll invest a bit into gathering intel, but not too much. If you spend your capital willy nilly, you’ll slow your ascendance by years…decades, maybe?”
Dee’s face stayed stony and cold.
Eun was becoming 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, 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 deep down, you don’t want to be you. I think once you’re done 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 soothingly. “My mistake—it was a slip of the tongue.”
The Pain Lord scrutinized her. Dee had ripped through countless realities, dismantling trillions of minds and sucking them into her ravenous essence…but there had been those few occasions. Those few occasions when a mortal upstart had managed to thwart her. It had only happened a handful of times…but still…was Eun the next—
Eun saw it all on Dee’s face: uncertainty and arrogance. And beneath it all, the hidden desire to transcend her design.
Dee’s expression settled into a disdainful sneer. “I’ll rip through everyone you love—friends, family, pets—and toss their remains to my demon lieutenants. I’ll leave some alive, so you can watch my minions strip them of meat. The odds are against you, skank. Doesn’t appear to have sunk in, but give it time—you’ll start losing sleep. Get a little paranoid. That feeds 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. “You ever consider switching sides? My team comes with a lot more benefits.”
“Nah. You’re stuck in a losing game, Dee. Stuck in the same, endless maze.”
“Ironic—I could say the same for you.”
There was nothing more to say. So they turned and went their separate ways, caught in a cycle of polar conflict. Eun knew it, but the Pain Lord had chosen willful ignorance—Dee had to believe she was the apex predator. That’s why she couldn’t stand Atriya’s name; she was loath to admit that she was just a piece on a multidimensional chess board.
Eun, however, didn’t have a problem with it. She knew she was borne from a greater good, and she knew the best way forward in this ridiculous life was to do the best you could with what you had. She hoped that she and her friends could defy the odds—somehow find a path to victory. But if they didn’t, that was fine too.
Because Eun knew it was all just a game.