Peter, Eun, and Kora walked into Atherton with a great degree of trepidation. An interdimensional predator had morphed into a teenage girl, and was going to attend their goddamn high school.
“Fuck.” Peter scanned the hall like a spooked prey animal. Students were chilling by their lockers. Some were bullshitting with their friends, while others were getting ready to go to class. “Guys, Dee Sonay is a motherfucking Pain Lord. I bet that’s a hundred times worse than the Demigorgon. What if she—”
Eun slapped his shoulder with a light backhand. “We have a few months. We shouldn’t waste them by—”
“Peter is right.” Kora looked suspiciously from side to side. “We must be vigilant, lest that evil blaggard catch us una—”
Eun sighed loudly and rolled her eyes. “Guys, you’re gonna burn out. That’s what she wants—can’t you see that?”
Kora scowled at Eun. “So what do you suggest?”
Eun returned Kora’s stare, her gaze level and steady. “For starters, we shouldn’t be walking around in threatcon charlie—”
“Worst one’s delta,” Peter muttered.
“Whatever,” Eun said irritably. “If we’re constantly paranoid, it’ll keep us from being creative and perceptive.”
“Point,” Kora ceded grudgingly. “I guess we should tone it down a little…”
Eun nodded approvingly. Kora was using Earth-side lingo, meaning she was throttling back on the Kor’Thank SMASH! mentality. Both she and Peter had noticed weeks that their interdimensional friend’s mode of speech was a rough indicator as to how she was feeling.
“Exactly,” Eun said. “Right now, there’s too many variables flying around. We have to assess the problem, and plan accordingly.”
“Strategy…not my forte,” Kora said.
“Don’t worry.” Eun smiled. “I’ve got an idea where we can start.”
Eun walked up to Blake Turner and his gaggle of jock buddies, all of whom were clustered around his 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—a highly insecure roid-monkey who’s clinging to the last vestiges of his self-importance. Deep down, he knows that as life progresses from frat boy keggers into quiet, desperate misery, he’ll spend his remaining years contemplating where it all went wrong. Take comfort in your racist insults, because existence is going to take everything of importance from you.”
She paused for a second, then repeated herself: “Everything.”
There was a long, pregnant silence. The jocks exchanged uncertain glances: what the fuck just happened? And why do I feel so alone and empty?
“Damn,” Blake muttered, looking down and rubbing the back of his head. “I was just joking. Shit.” He closed his locker and threw his buddies a quick, furtive glance. “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 disbanded with some ape-like hoots and a scatter of chest bumps.
“I’m flattered you think I’d want to talk with you,” she said to Blake, “but I’m sorry to say that’s not the case.”
“What?” Blake stared at her with narrowed eyes. “So why are you here?”
Eun raked her gaze across the cluster of nervous jocks. They were still standing around, despite Blake’s dismissal.
They promptly dispersed, revealing Dee Sonay, clad in a black belly shirt and a matching skirt. She’d been standing in their midst, concealed by their hulking physiques.
“Her.” Eun nodded at the interdimensional Pain Lord.
“How did you know she was—”
Eun interrupted him with an open hand. “Leave.”
“Impressive.” Dee smiled at Eun, her goth mascara deepening the shadows around her eyes. The hallway was emptying—it was just Eun and the Pain Lord, staring each other down.
“So you’re a student now.” Eun didn’t look away.
Neither did Dee. “I am.”
“What do you want?”
“Really, Eun?” Dee gave her a mildly 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’s smile returned. “I’m here to end you, but don’t take it personally—I’m here to end everyone. You, Peter, Kora…”
“Because you’re hungry.”
“And you think that’ll sate you?” Eun studied her intently. “You think you’ll be satisfied after you kill us all and devour our essence? Because I don’t think so—if you actually succeed, I think you’re going to get 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, bitch.”
Dee stiffened. “The only thing I need are your dying screams. Why the hell would you think I need someone to ‘actively push against?’ ”
“Because the only companionship you experience is in the presence of your enemies. You’re a sad, lonely creature who’s forgotten that she—”
“I don’t need ANYTHING!” Dee snarled. She kept her eyes fixed on Eun and punched the locker to her right, crumpling it 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 glanced at him and snapped out a single word:
He dropped to the floor in a jumble of clothes and limbs. His chest rose and fell in time with his snores.
Dee turned her attention back to Eun. A second later, the Pain Lord gave her a sly smile.
“You’re smarter than you look. Got me to waste a little of my power…delayed my ascendance by a couple of seconds. Well played. But it won’t keep me from blooming into my full form.”
“Until then, you’re going to ingratiate yourself with Blake and his ape-cronies. You’re going to use them make sure everything is nice and secure for your…what did you call it?” Eun was fishing, but she was reasonably confident in hazarding a guess. Why else would Dee link up with Atherton’s pool of brainless jocks?
The Pain Lord studied her with narrowed eyes.
Uh-oh, Eun thought. She’d been counting on Dee’s unstoppable nature to make her arrogant and get all loose-lipped. But maybe she’d pushed it too far. Maybe she’d—
But then Dee gave her a smug smile. “I know what you’re doing. You think you can get me to reveal all my plans, and then find a hole in them. Cute, Eun. Real cute.”
Eun tried not to let her anxiety show. Shit—she had pushed it too far. She’d gotten cocky and—
Dee scoffed; a light puff of air blew threw her nose, as if she wanted to laugh, but it wasn’t worth the effort. “Yong-Thothin’s maw, you are a simple creature, Eun Yin. This isn’t a movie, this isn’t a fairy tale—this is real life,”
Eun stayed silent. She’d overplayed her hand. Now she had to switch to damage control. Okay, so Dee wasn’t the cocksure idiot that she’d thought, so what was the next—
“I’ll tell you my plan,” Dee said, smirking. “Want to know why?”
Wait a second—Eun shifted back to her old play. May she had read her correctly.
Dee leaned in. “It’s because you and your little band of fucktards have no chance of beating me. No chance in hell.”
“Really.” Eun’s voice stayed even and level, with just a mild hint of curiosity.
“Yes—really.” Dee screwed up her face, mockingly repeating what Eun had just said.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
Dee crossed her arms and kept smirking. “You’re correct—Blake and his idiots are going to make sure that you and your friends won’t be able to cause me any trouble.”
Eun asked a stupid question. “You sure about that?”
Dee took the bait. “ ‘Are you sure about that?’ ” She looked mildly amused. “Of course I’m fucking sure. I’m a goddamn Pain Lord, Eun.”
“And a Pain Lord has no weaknesse—”
Dee sighed and inspected her nails. “Is there a point to our chat, or are you just playing the brave, defiant hero? Because believe me—I’ve seen all this before, from billions like you, and it never ends well for you. Not when you’re going up against me, at any rate.”
“Kora knows magic. Maybe she’ll be able to—”
“Stop me?” Dee snorted. “Doubtful. Human glamours have no effect on me. You’re armed with peashooters. I’m a goddamn tank.”
“That’s not what Atriya said. He said we have everything we need.”
It was like someone had slapped Dee across the face. She took two steps back, her hands rising in a gesture that said, stop–you’re freaking me out.
“You…you spoke to…” Her features went through a storm of emotions. She tried again: “You spoke to…you…you…”
“That’s right.” Eun favored her with a smug, confident grin. “The Celestine Paladin. That’s why I know we’re going to beat you. Atriya said that—”
“Don’t say his name!” Dee gasped. Her expression resolved into one of utter loathing. “Or I’ll order Blake and his friends to go on a murder spree, then feast on each other’s severed genitals!” She raised a shaking finger and stepped forward. “Say it again and I will turn this school into a goddamn killing field! Is that what you want, Eun? Is it?”
It wasn’t. Eun raised both hands, palms out. “Easy there, Dee—easy. I won’t say his name. Don’t freak out, okay?”
Dee tried to wipe her brow with the back of her hand, but it was shaking too hard, so she swiped her face against her shoulder. “It doesn’t matter,” she muttered. “It doesn’t matter what he said. I’ll still 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 erupted with high, manic laughter. “Flanked? HAHAHAHA! Bitch, please. There’s no such thing as flanking a Pain Lord. Billions have tried, and they’ve all fucking failed. All of them. You and your band of wannabe heroes is 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 may have consumed billions, but I’m betting there’s a few people that have managed to stop you. We freed you from some kind of stasis, didn’t we? Someone trapped you in an extradimensional prison, and whatever we were doing at the warp gate accidentally freed you.” Eun was fully aware that she was playing poker.
Dee’s eyes narrowed again. “How could you possibly…” she shook her head. “Impossible. There’s no way you could’ve known that.”
“Really? Are you sure about that, Dee? Are you positive?”
Fear flickered through Dee’s eyes. “You couldn’t have. A fleshling like you wouldn’t have access to that kind of paradi—”
“Whether I did or I didn’t, you just confirmed it for me.” Eun smiled serenely, like a teen girl Buddha. “Thanks for the intel. This might 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 regarded her with cool aplomb, playing the cat to Dee’s mouse. “Do you really want me to say his name? We could just call him ‘A’ if you’d like. I know you’re touchy; you wouldn’t want me to fuck with your ascendance, and I wouldn’t want you to lay waste to Atherton. It’s kind of a mutual interest thing, right?”
Dee’s fists shook in minute quivers. “You…you…” A strangled snarl escaped her lips, popping the bubbles of saliva that had congealed around the corners of her mouth.
“You’re fucking dead,” she said evenly.
“Don’t I know it.” Eun’s voice was just as even. “The question is: am I going to live long enough to fuck up your plans? Or maybe…” Eun leaned in close and smiled again. This time, her expression was positively beatific. “Or maybe, me and my band of fleshlings are gonna win, and we’re gonna cheer and laugh while you get sucked back into your boring-ass cage. Ever think of that, Dee? Ever think of the badass heroes who’ve put you in your place? Sure, you’re made to destroy, but there’s people—good people—who are made to stop you.” Eun spread her arms and looked from side to side. “Here’s my advantage—I know all this is going away. I know that I’m temporary. I’m not sure about past lives, but I know that whatever suffering I’m going to endure…well, ‘this too shall pass,’ right? Can you say the same?”
Dee was livid. “I am going to fucking eviscerate your whole fucking family you fucking—”
Eun held up a finger. “I’m not done yet. Here’s the thing, sweetie—you’re a miserable excuse for a conscious being, and I’ll tell you why: you only know unending hunger, and the empty rush of consuming your prey. You only know me me me. Well guess what bitchcakes—” Eun put her hands on her hips. “We’re the closest thing you’ll ever have to real friends, so enjoy interacting with us. It’s the only taste of friendship that something like you could ever experience. And goddamn,” Eun shook her head in seeming regret. “I don’t hate you for it; I pity you.”
This last part was true. Eun let the smugness fall from her face, and looked upon Dee with genuine compassion.
Dee’s hands opened into claws, then clenched into fists. Finally, she closed her eyes and took several deep breaths through her nose. She straightened up and opened her eyes, fixing Eun with a cold, dead glare.
“I’m backed by the odds. I just got out of limbo, meaning that in all likelihood, I’ll devour countless universes before somebody manages to thwart me again. You’re fighting statistics.”
“I’m comfortable with that,” Eun said. “When it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go. You’re the opposite, though, aren’t you…you’ll wallow in every bit of pleasure that you possibly can, so you can ignore the truth about what you really are. You’re no different than Blake and his dickheads. Kind of appropriate you’ve become their leader—you’re all cut from the same cloth. Dee Sonay is just a few steps up on the food chain.”
“Once I enhance Blake and his idiots, there’s no way that you, Peter or Kora will be able to thwart my ascendance.”
Eun raised an eyebrow. “Dee, do you really think we can’t outmaneuver a bunch of juiced-up paste-eaters?”
Dee sighed in exasperation. Now that their conversation had shifted away from existential futility, the confident predator had re-emerged. “Blake and his morons are less than ideal, but they’re more than adequate. I plan on gifting them with otherworldly strength—enough to crush your puny human frames. According to an Akashic grimoire—the closest approximation for it in your vibration-centric language is the Exterius Arcana—a minor injection of my psychospiritual essence will amplify their strength by several orders of magnitude. I tested Blake first; apparently he can deadlift two thousand pounds with his newfound strength. He was quite pleased.” She looked smugly at Eun.
“That’s it?” Eun asked, deadpan. “You went the wrong direction, Dee. Blake’s already strong, but he’s dumb as shit. We can outthink, outmaneuver, and outperform his ass any day of the week. You should’ve tried to enhance his intelligence.”
“Oh that’s not all.” Dee’s smile became decidedly smug. “I’ve given him and his followers a nonhuman form—you’ll be fighting the equivalent of thirteen demons, or at least their equivalents.”
Eun wasn’t fazed. “Not a problem. Atriy—the paladin’s got us covered.”
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 all of my energy into a single point of—”
“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?” She slowly shook her head. “I don’t think so. In fact, I’m willing to bet my life on it.”
Dee’s mouth worked for a few seconds. Finally she snarled, “He’s weak. You’ll see—he isn’t even visible, for the most part. Cowardly fuck can’t be bothered to funnel his essence into a tangible—”
“But he’s everywhere, isn’t he?” Eun’s voice remained level, turning her question into a statement of fact. “He’s everywhere. That’s what’s important.”
“That may be…but it won’t be enough. He’s let plenty of people down, and you’re going to be no diff—”
“Not in the long run.” Eun was smiling again. “He’s never lets anyone down in the long run.” No one had told her this, but she could feel the truth of what she was saying deep in her gut. Not just in her gut—in her very bones. “He’ll come through. He always does. You answer to him, don’t you?” Eun cocked her head. Her teasing gave way to genuine curiosity. “When all is said and done, you answer to him. You’ve purposefully forgotten that—purposefully denied it, I imagine—so you could indulge in your boring little fantasy of being a world-devouring titan.”
A shadow of fear flickered through Dee’s eyes. “That’s complete and utter bullsh—”
Eun cut her off. “But that’s all you are, Dee: boring. In the end, you’re a boring little footnote. I’d say you’re a piece of shit, but even that has a bit of romanticism to it. You know—the self-aware dirtbag that pisses everyone off in funny and clever ways, then finally displays a little bit of heroism? Yeah—you’re not that.”
Eun paused. Then: “You’re just boring.”
Dee was quiet. Eun imagined that if she wasn’t wearing a thick coat of pitch-black lipstick, her lips would have been revealed as pale and bloodless; that’s how hard she was pressing them together.
After a few seconds, she snickered. “I see what you’re doing—trying to get me all riled up again. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…I’m not going to fall for your stupid tricks.”
“Huh.” Eun raised her eyebrow. “Interesting—I thought you’d get all worked up again, but you saw right through me. Maybe you’re not the machine that I thought you were.”
“Don’t patronize me, Eun. You’re better than that.” Dee crossed her arms. “You say I’m boring, but I suggest you look in the fucking mirror. Is this all you’ve got? If it is, then devouring your world is gonna be a cakewalk.”
Eun smiled. “You’re not an idiot, obviously. And you’ve been around long enough to pick up some basic clues as to how all this works. All this…” Eun looked around, turning her palms up in a casual gesture that indicated the whole of existence. “All this craziness. So you know, Dee—you know that we’re caught in a cycle, and even though you’ve had a damn good ride, it’s guaranteed to end. It’s pretty fitting that you linked up with Blake and his meatheads—their lives have already peaked, they just don’t know it yet.”
“Eloquent insults—is that all you’ve got?” Dee cycled a hand by her ear. “Blah bluh blah bluh blibbity blah. Might as well speak in tongues—everything you’re saying is sounding like gibberish.”
“My apologies. Forgot how smart you were.”
“Patronizing me. Again. You really think that’s going to help you?”
Eun smirked. “Here’s the breakdown, cunt-booger: you have a couple months until your ascendance. Senior prom, right? Until then, you’re going to train up your goon squad and keep me and my friends from causing too much trouble. Meaning you’re going to invest your 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 a moment later, when a tiny little tic sprang into existence under Dee’s right eye) “So you’re gonna have to keep some of your energy all to yourself, just for security. You also know that me and the others will be poking around, trying to discover a weakness and how to exploit it. You’ll direct some resources toward gathering intelligence, but not too much—your ascendance takes priority, and if you start spending your energy willy nilly, you’re going to slow everything down by spreading yourself thin across multiple battlefronts. You’d slow yourself down by years…decades, maybe?”
Dee’s expression turned stony and cold.
Eun’s voice grew surer. “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. You keep a good poker face, but you’re nervous as hell, aren’t you?”
By the looming silence and her hateful death-stare, it was clear that Eun had struck a chord.
So Eun kept going. “But me, Peter, and even Kora have experience with this. We’re intimately familiar with scarcity and surplus, with chance and fortune. Not you, though…you’re accustomed to constant gluttony, constant power. People think they want to be something like you, but they don’t—not really. I think deep down, you don’t want to be you. I think once you’re finished with this predictable, world-devouring bullshit, you’ll become something entirely different. Something like me or Peter, or Kora, maybe. Maybe even something like Atriy—”
Dee’s face quivered with rage. “Don’t say his fucking NAME!”
Eun hadn’t been planning to; she’d only wanted to get a rise out of Dee. “Okay, okay,” she said in a soothing tone. “My mistake—just a slip of the tongue.”
Even though it had been anything but.
Dee studied her with beady intensity—was this bitch 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 times. Those few times when a fleshling upstart had managed to thwart her, and trap her in a hellish purgatory…it had only happened a few times, but still…
Was it going to happen again? Was Eun Yin going to fool her somehow? Was she going to be the next one who—
Eun saw it flash across her face in the span of a second. Uncertainty, arrogance—even the hidden desire to transcend the cycle—all contained within a monotonous repetition of gorge and sleep, gorge and sleep.
Dee’s expression hardened into a disdainful sneer, a sneer she’d worn so many times it had become reflexive. “You and your friends? I’ll save you for last. You’ll see me rip apart everyone you love—friends, family, pets—before I toss their remains to my demon lieutenants. Maybe I’ll leave a few of them alive, so you can hear them scream as my lesser minions strip them of meat. As I said before: the odds are against you. Doesn’t appear to have hit you yet, but just you wait—you’ll start losing sleep…get a little paranoid…that’s gonna feed me too, Eun.” Dee gave her a malevolent smile. “I like a little appetizer before the entree. You know…” she assessed Eun with a speculative gaze. “Blake and his peons aren’t ideal. I’d rather employ someone like you, or Peter, even. You two are much more capable, you have so much potential. Ever thought about switching sides? My team comes with a hell of a lot more benefits.”
“But you’re stuck in a losing game. Poor, deluded Dee.” Eun shook her head in seeming regret. “Stuck in the same, endless maze.”
“I could say the same for you.”
“You ready to play?” Eun’s gaze was even and level.
There was nothing more to say. They faced away from each other and went their separate ways, caught in an eternal cycle of polar conflict. Eun understood this at a bone-deep level; maybe she couldn’t fully articulate it, but she could still sense it in the depths of her soul. Dee couldn’t; some desperate, needy part of her had to believe that she was the absolute top of the existential food chain. That’s why she couldn’t tolerate Atriya’s name; she couldn’t stand knowing that she was simply a piece on a multidimensional game board. Eun, however, had no issue with it. She’d always known she was subject to forces beyond her control, that the best way forward in this ridiculous, arbitrary life was to do the best with what she could. She was hoping that 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 didn’t, that was okay.
Because Eun knew it was just a game.