Over the next few weeks, Peter and Eun worked with Kora, building up their knowledge of tactical arcana. Soon they were able to knock people down, create sigil-formed shields that could deflect or weaken hostile enchantments, and a few other things of a similar nature. They also learned evasive magic; they could slide across the floor like they were wearing roller-skates, run up the walls, twist through the air, and jump ten feet high if they put their mind to it. Peter, who had an excellent grasp of body mechanics due to years of breakdancing, was a quick study.
“This is awesome!” he exclaimed, launching into an aerial cartwheel and spinning three times clockwise while his body was inverted. He landed with a light thump and grinned broadly. “This shit is fun.”
“Keep in mind what it’s for.” Eun waved her hands in snappy flicks. Marble-sized orbs drifted up from her fingers.
“Barrion’s Blind.” Kora nodded at the orbs. “If you funnel your will into them and visualize an erupting volcano—”
“Like this?” She closed her eyes at the same time Kora yelled, “NOT YET!”
The orbs blew apart with loud, horrendous cracks, sending the three teens diving to the floor. Each detonation shook their bones, rattling their tissues with painful vibrations. Peter covered his ears and screamed at the top of his lungs. Neither Eun nor Kora could hear what he was saying; the orbs were still popping off. A few seconds later (it seemed like an eternity), the noise stopped. The three teens remained on the floor, a piercing keen ringing in their ears.
Eventually, Kora poked her head up.
“Everyone okay?” she asked shakily.
Peter shook his head, trying to clear it. “Yeah…” he mumbled. “What the fuck.” He shook his head again.
“Barrion’s Blind,” Kora repeated. “In a lot of cases, it works better than direct offense.”
Peter turned to Eun. “Maybe it’s not for you—it doesn’t really fit your personality.”
“I actually think it fits me well,” she said. She propped herself onto her hands, then rose to her feet.
“Use it carefully,” Kora cautioned. “And give us a warning next time. If you cast it at the wrong time—”
“—I’ll make you blind and deaf,” Eun finished. “Got it.”
“Can I try?” Peter asked Kora. “Maybe I can—”
“Absolutely not,” Kora stated firmly. “You’re way too reckless. Eun will tell us before she casts it; you’ll just pop it off and fuck us all.”
“Not true,” Peter muttered, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’d—”
Eun said, “Stick with acrobatics—they’re more your style. You’re already a great dancer; tweaking physical reality will allow you to capitalize on that.”
“Point,” he conceded. “On a related note, what’re we gonna do about Blake and his hench-monkeys? They’ve been pretty quiet—no bra-snaps, no wedgies, not even an ear-flick or a homophobic sign taped onto an unsuspecting back. Should we mount an offense, or—”
“I’m on it,” Eun said. “They’re coming for us. Soon.”
Peter cocked his head. “Do you know for sure, or—”
“I’ve been spying on them.” Eun smiled. “No one suspects a mousey-looking Asian girl, much less her mousey-looking gal-pals.”
“Whoa…” Peter regarded her with newfound respect. “You’re running a spy network?”
“Call me Mochizuki Nobumasa.” Her smile widened. “Since I know you like ninjas.”
“Fuck yeah!” Peter turned to Kora, overflowing with childish glee. “Mochizuki Chiyome was the most famous kunoichi in all of history.”
“Female ninja. She established a network of dispossessed women—orphans, prostitutes, refugees—and trained them in disguise, espionage, and assassination. She was so…so…” Peter’s face turned beet red with excitement.
“Badass?” Kora grinned wryly.
“Yes!” Peter fixed her with a zealous glare.
She made a patting motion with both hands. “Easy on the ninja-boner. We have business to discuss.”
“Don’t ever call my friends prostitutes,” Eun warned. “I mean it Peter—I will kick your fucking ass.”
Peter wasn’t listening. His eyes were ticking back and forth, his hands and feet tracing out the vague outlines of exotic martial arts moves; he was deep in a fantasy where he fought off legions of samurai, beating their uptight asses while he was disguised as an old man or a humble farmer. Classic ninja shit. Yeah, he’d pack a ninjato, that shit was standard, but he’d also carry a blowgun and shuriken. A lot of shuriken. Maybe some shuko too; those things were so fucking coo—
“Peter.” Eun’s voice cut through his daydream.
“Huh?” He straightened abruptly.
“My friends. Prostitutes. No.”
“Yeah yeah,” he muttered. “Got it.”
“Have you gone Bloom-side?” Kora asked.
“Yeah.” He cleared his throat. “Spoke to some entities, and they only confirmed what I already suspected: I need to brew up a fresh batch of the Fuckrising.” He chewed his bottom lip, suddenly nervous. “But I gotta tell you, it scares the shit out of me.”
“Who’d you talk to?”
“A bunch of mind-forms.” Peter scratched his temple. “One of them seemed super important. Royal, even.” He stared at the floor, his brow wrinkling in concentration. “Her first name started with a ‘C.’ ”
“Chrysalis?” Kora prompted.
“Yeah!” His eyes lit up. “That was it. Chrysalis Vira…or something along those lines.”
“She’s an eternal archetype.”
“A demigod. Comparable to beings like Atriya and the Timekeeper.”
“So does that mean I can—”
“Yes, Peter,” Kora said irritably. “You can trust what she said. Make a new batch of…” she closed her eyes and sighed. “Of the Fuckrising.”
Fear flashed through his expression. “She said to make it extra potent. But why would we need a roided-out version of the most potent psychedelic known to m—”
Kora regarded him with a critical eye. “Part of you knows. The part you share with the rest of existence.”
Peter relaxed. “Yeah…you’re right. If we’re all something approximating God, then—”
“We chose this,” Eun finished. “We’re in a no-lose game; all we have to do is play it to the hilt, because it’s way more fun when we forget it’s a game. The True, right?” She looked at Kora.
“Amen,” Kora replied.
Peter took a deep breath. “Got it. You can’t argue with an archetypical force, right?”
“Eternal archetype,” Kora corrected. “But close enough.”
“What about you? Dig up any info?”
“In the Bloom? Yep. Apparently, my birth weapons are capable of discohering Dee’s enchantments.”
“Your weapons are good for one hour a day,” Peter said. “For the other twenty-three, we’re Fucksville.”
“Just means we’ll have to plan,” Eun said. “Assess the terrain and navigate accordingly. That’s the best we can do.” She thought for a second. “The best we can do in any situation, really.”
“You ever get tired of being right?” Peter groused. “Fuck.”
Eun cracked a smile. “I do, actually. I’ve been waiting for your angry Korean ass to grow the hell up—maybe throw me for a loop one of these days.”
He rolled his eyes. “Silly me—what was I thinking? Being a strategic genius must get so old.”
Kora cleared her throat. “The Fuckrising, enchanted weaponry…anything else?”
Peter said, “I’ve been working on something, but I’m not sure if it’s gonna pan out. We’ve gotta wear tuxes and dresses for senior prom, but when things get hairy…” His eyes searched the air. “I can modify our getups with quick-release some tabs. Give em a yank, and your dresses fall off like an altar boy’s robes after his repressed-as-fuck priest has—”
“Peter.” Eun wrinkled her nose, disgusted. “Don’t be gross.”
“Sorry. I meant to say that I’m pretty sure I can whip up some fighting uniforms.”
“You’re not gonna make robo-suits, are you?” Eun’s voice was dry and knowing; she was fully aware of his love of all things robot.
“If only I could.” A regretful sigh. ’I don’t have the resources, so I’ll try for the next best thing.”
Eun’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She took it out and studied its screen. “One of my spies,” she explained, sliding it back in her pocket. “Blake and his goons are ready to move. According to my source, it’ll be tomorrow.” She looked at Kora. “I know you’re ready.” Then at Peter. “What about you? Your head on straight?”
“Yeah, I’m good. You have a plan, don’t you? On how to beat them.”
“Not how to beat them, per se, but yeah—I’ve thought of some things that might tip the odds. Kora can hold her own—she’s got enchanted weapons—but you and I are gonna have to up our game.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Double O negative. You have any?”
Peter’s eyes widened as her implication hit home. “Enough to turn you into Bruce Fucking Lee.”
“Good.” Her gaze dropped and she studied the hardwood. “I’ve got something else in mind as well.”
“Yeah?” Peter was curious; his voice lilted upward.
“Yeah.” She met his eyes. “But we’ll see. Blake may or may not go for it. We’ll play it by ear.”
“You’re the boss.” Peter shrugged. “I’m just the gear guy.”
“Reductive,” Eun said, “but accurate. In this context, anyway.”
Kora was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, one ankle resting lightly atop the other. “I’ll focus on weapon-work—brush up on the sword and shield stuff.”
Eun nodded. “I’m going to look at our schedule—make sure we get some team training in.”
Peter opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off with: “Peter. You’re not going down a robo-suit rabbit hole. Not on my watch.”
“ ‘Not on my watch,’ ” he scoffed. “Cheesy, Eun. Totally eighties.”
“Cheesy but appropriate,” she said. “Don’t forget—the fate of humanity rests in our hands. We can’t afford to fuck around. You tend to get lost in—”
“Come on, Eun.” Peter groaned. “We’re about to face off against a world-devouring entity. Can’t you cut me a little slack?”
Eun snorted. “Think about what you just said: ‘we’re about to face off against a world-devouring entity.’ Under what circumstance would that warrant any slack whatsoever?”
“Yeah yeah. Eun the all-knowing.”
Eun laughed. “Don’t worry—there’s a time for rules, and a time to break ’em. For now, let’s mind our Ps and Qs. We’ll play fast and loose when the pace picks up.”
“ ‘No plan survives the first slash,’ ” Kora intoned.
Eun glanced at her. “We say ‘punch’ instead of ‘slash,’ but yeah—couldn’t agree more.”
“Fuck.” Peter sighed in exasperation. “Rules for this, rules for that…might as well be in the goddamn military.”
Eun laughed again. She did it softly this time, beneath her breath. Because she knew, in some nameless corner of her eternal soul, that rules had been made so conscious beings could enjoy a plethora of games. Games of finance, games of war, games of art…everything in life was an immersive game. Deeply complicated and deadly serious, but a game nonetheless.
And nearly every game had its own set of laws. Existence, however…well, that was a game without any rules—none whatsoever.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.