Over the next few weeks, Peter and Eun worked with Kora, building their basic understanding of tactical arcana. They weren’t experts, but they were able to execute some rudimentary attacks and hip-pocket defense; they could knock people down, create a sigil-formed shield that could deflect or reduce damage, and a few other things of similar nature.
Kora also taught them evasive enhancements; they could slide across the floor like they were wearing roller-skates, run up walls, twist through the air, and jump ten feet high if they put their mind to it. Peter, who already had an excellent grasp of body mechanics and spatial orientation due to years of breakdancing, was a natural at it.
“This is fucking awesome!” he exclaimed, launching into an aerial cartwheel and spinning three times clockwise as his body inverted. He landed with a light thump and grinned broadly. “Fucking magic, man—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 gleamed brightly for an eye-catching second, then blew apart with loud, horrendous cracks. Each one exploded with the force of a flashbang, sending all three of them 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 and Eun lifted their heads. They looked at her with wide, glassy eyes, trying to comprehend what had just happened.
Peter shook his head, trying to clear it. “Yeah…” he mumbled, “yeah, I’m okay. What the fuck.” He shook his head again.
“Barrion’s Blind,” Kora said. “In a lot of cases, it works better than direct offense.”
Peter turned to Eun. “Maybe that spell’s not for you—it doesn’t really fit your personality.”
“There’s a time and place for everything,” she retorted. She propped herself onto her hands, then rose to her feet.
“Use it carefully,” Kora cautioned. “Give us a warning. If you cast it at the wrong time, you’ll—”
“—take away your sight and your hearing,” Eun finished. “Got it.”
“Can I try?” Peter asked Kora. “Maybe I can—”
“Absolutely not,” Kora stated. “You’re way too reckless. It’s better left in Eun’s hands; she’ll remember when to warn us. You’d 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 your physical reality will let you capitalize on that.”
“Point taken,” he said. “In the meantime, what’re we gonna do about Blake and his hench-monkeys? They’ve been unusually quiet—no bra-snaps, no wedgies…should we mount an offensive, or—”
“I’m handling it,” Eun said. “They’re gonna come for us. And they’re gonna do it 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, let alone her mousey Asian gal-pals.”
“Whoa…” Peter regarded her with newfound respect. “You’re running a spy network? Mousey Asian girl spies?”
“Call me Mochizuki Nobumasa.” Her smile widened. “Since I know you like ninjas.”
“Fuck yeah!” Peter turned to Kora with an excited expression. “Female ninjas were called kunoichi. Mochizuki Chiyome was the most famous one, originally from the Koga ninja clan. She set up an extensive network of dispossessed women—orphans, prostitutes, refugees…trained them in disguise, espionage, and assassination. She was so…so…” Peter’s face became beet red.
“Badass?” Kora asked, grinning wryly.
“Yes!” Peter looked at her with a fanatical gaze.
She made a patting motion with both hands. “Easy on the ninja-boner. We’ve got 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 were tracing out martial arts movements; he was fantasizing about fighting off legions of samurai, beating their uptight asses while he was disguised as an old man or a humble farmer.
“Peter.” Eun’s voice cut through his daydream.
“Huh?” He abruptly straightened.
“My friends. Prostitutes. No.”
“Yeah yeah,” he muttered. “Got it.”
“Have you gone Bloom-side?” Kora asked.
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Spoke to some entities—they just confirmed what I already suspected: I need to brew up a fresh batch of Fuckrising.” He bit his lip, suddenly looking nervous. “But I gotta tell you, it scares the shit out of me. That goddamn chemical is the whole reason you and Holly switched bodies.”
“Who did 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 asked.
“Yeah!” His eyes lit up. “That was it. Chrysalis Vira…or something along those lines.”
“You were speaking to 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.”
“I’ll get on it.” Fear flashed through his eyes. “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 favored 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 were ever something approximating God, then—”
“Then we chose this,” Eun finished. “If you don’t know why you need it, then it’s because you—we—chose that ignorance. We’re in a no-lose game; all we have to do is play the game 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 said.
Over the course of their discussion, electric resonance had built in Peter; his brain felt like it had been freed from long-standing weights, and his soul felt immensely at ease. They were still in danger, but the truth remained: this too shall pass. Everything happens for a reason. And all that other stuff you could only ignore for so long, before it tapped you on the back and gave you an forcible reminder of how things worked.
Peter took a deep breath. “Okay—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?” She nodded. “Apparently, my birth weapons are configured to discohere Dee’s enchantments. I won’t be able to vanquish every one of them, but I should at least be able to slow them down, or reduce their effectiveness.”
“Your weapons are good for one hour a day,” Peter stated. “As far as the other twenty three, we’re Fucksville.”
“Just means we’ll have to plan,” Eun chided. “Assess the terrain and navigate it accordingly. That’s the best we can do.” She thought for a second. “The best we can do in any situation, really.”
“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.”
He rolled his eyes. “Of course—what was I thinking? Being a strategic genius must get so old.”
Kora cleared her throat. “We’ve got the Fuckrising, enchanted weaponry…anything else?”
Peter said, “I’ve been working on something, but I’m not sure if it’ll pan out. We’ve gotta wear prom clothes, but when things get hairy…” His eyes flicked back and forth. “I can fit our garments with quick-release mechanisms—yank some tabs, and your prom dresses fall off like an altar boy’s robes after his repressed-as-fuck priest has—”
“Peter.” Eun wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Don’t be gross.”
“Sorry.” He shook his head. “I’m pretty sure I can whip up a badass fighting uniform.”
“You’re not gonna make us robo-suits, are you?” Eun’s voice was dry and knowing; she knew all about his fetish for all things robot.
“If only I could. 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 glanced studied its screen. “One of my spies,” she explained. “Blake and his goons are ready to move on us. According to my source, it’s gonna be tomorrow.” She looked at Kora. “I know you’re ready.” Then at Peter. “What about you? Is your head on straight?”
“Yeah, I’m good,” he replied. “You have a plan, don’t you? On how to beat them.”
Eun gave him a small, knowing smile. “Not how to beat them, per se, but yeah—I’ve thought of a couple of things that may tip the odds in our favor. 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. How much do you have?”
Peter’s eyes widened as her implication hit home. Then he grinned. “Enough to turn you into Bruce fucking Lee.”
“Good.” Her gaze dropped to the floor 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. “Call the plays. I’m just the gear guy.”
“Reductive,” Eun said, “but accurate. In this context, anyway.”
Kora leaned against the wall, arms crossed, one ankle resting lightly atop the other. “I’ll focus on training—brush up on the sword and shield stuff.”
Eun nodded. “I’m going to rework our schedule—make sure we’re getting in some team training.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off with: “Peter. You’re not going down a robot-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 bit of slack?”
Eun snorted. “Think about what you just said: ‘we’re about to face off against a world-devouring entity.’ When would that statement 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 them. For now, let’s mind our Ps and Qs. We’ll play fast and loose when the pace picks up.”
“No one’s plan survives the first slash,” Kora said.
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. 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, war, high school…everything in life was an immersive game. Deeply complicated and deadly serious, but a game nonetheless.
But existence itself…well, that was a game without any rules.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.