Peter closed his locker and glanced at Kora. “Who’d you commune with yesterday?”
Kora shrugged. “Not sure you’d recognize them. Yon-Karnis—mid-tier demi-urge. Hildani Lilliander—assistant conductor for The Hellfire Legion.”
Peter gave her a quizzical glance. “Hellfire Legion?”
“A choir of fallen angels. I also spoke with a dozen Supernals and a couple of muses. They all said that something big is coming down the pike.”
For a few seconds, his mouth worked in silent wonder. “Fallen angels…holy shit.”
Eun hooked her thumbs into her backpack, resetting it with a jounce of her hips. “ ‘Do not give in to astonishment.’ ”
“Who said that?” It was Kora’s turn to look quizzical.
“Terence Mckenna,” Peter stated. “A psychedelic pioneer. He created a conceptual structure around transcendent chemicals; it provided me with the necessary reference points I needed to—”
“Peter fucking Lee!” Blake marched down the hallway, trailed by his retinue of brainless dick-swingers. “Just who I was looking for! Oh look—” He stopped ten yards away and threw disdainful glances at Kora and Eun. “Hysterical Holly and his geisha fuck-buddy. Bet y’all have some crazy-ass threesomes—like meth’d up retards fucking on top of a trampoline.” Snorts, laughs, and faux-gangsta handshakes erupted from his minions.
“Today’s the day.” Kora stepped forward, smacking a fist into an open palm. “Today’s the day we put you in your place, fuckstain.”
“Ooooh.” Blake shook his hands up by his face, bugging his eyes out in mock-fear. “The fuck you gonna do, Holly? Drown me in juices with your pretty little snatch?”
Kora started forward again, but Eun stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Not here.”
“Where, then?” Kora’s eyes remained fixed on Blake.
“The Pain Locker.” Eun’s gaze shifted over to the jock. “You good with that?”
“Hell yeah I am. You couldn’t have picked a better spot.” Blake sneered. “Because you three cock nuggets are in for a world of hurt.”
Atherton High boasted a trio of cutting-edge gyms. All three facilities possessed cryo chambers, elevation masks, DEXA scans, and a host of other techno-goodies. But despite having access to the latest and greatest fitness equipment, some of the students stuck with the tried and the true.
The basement housed a fourth facility—a small weightlifting room nicknamed the Pain Locker. The Locker was a throwback to the Schwarzenegger days, when gyms were filled with rusty weights and chalk-streaked mats. The mirrors were speckled with blotchy smears, and giant ventilation fans sat in the corners. They were kept on to maintain airflow; an unpleasant side effect was their constant, skull-rattling drone.
Despite the worn equipment and dilapidated fixtures, everything in the Locker was simple and guileless. Dumbbells, squat racks, kettlebells, pullup bars…no battle-maces, air assault bikes, or concept 2 rowers. When you entered the Locker, you knew what to do—you didn’t need a manual or an online tutorial.
Which was exactly why Eun had picked it as their battleground.
“Oh you wanna do this old school, Geisha Girl?” Blake leaned in, bringing his mocking face an inch away from hers. “I can roll wit dat.” He straightened up and threw some cringe-worthy gang signs. His jock minions hooted and clapped, shouting played-out phrases like, “DAAAAYYY-UMMM!” and, “OWNED!” One of them even said, “Bitch got SERVED! Woot WOOT!”
“I’ll take that as a yes?” Eun’s voice remained calm and level.
Blake imitated her in a party-girl whine: “ ‘I’ll take that as a yes?’ ” He looked over at his buddies, prompting them to respond with overexaggerated expressions of what-the-fuck puzzlement, or dismissive waves and accompanying noises that conveyed the sentiment: pshhh; bitch is crazy.
Blake crossed his arms and stared her down. She didn’t budge.
The jock began to fidget; he wasn’t good at anything that required a modicum of patience. The muscle under his right eye began to twitch. A second later he blurted, “See you at the Pain Locker, bitch!”
Eun smiled. “Great. I’ll lead the way.”
“Nah, skank. I’ll lead the way.”
Eun shrugged. “Fine. Whatever.”
A flash of displeasure. It was clear he’d been hoping to get a rise out of her. He covered it up with a few more gang signs and a triumphant declaration of, “Tha’s right, Geisha Girl. Know your role!”
Kora sighed and crossed her arms. “Are we done with the posturing? Because if not—”
Blake shouldered past her. “Shut the fuck up, Holly.”
As the rest of his goons swept by, Kora flashed a smile at Peter and Eun.
Peter grinned back and started walking. “You’re enjoying this.”
Kora fell into step. “Back on Elithia, I used to get in at least one fight a day. Here, it’s more like one fight a month. I’m itching for a workout.”
“Workout.” Peter turned to Eun. “You hear that? She calls this a workout.”
Eun’s smile wasn’t as wide as Kora’s, but it was close. “There’s a reason I pressured Blake into meeting us at the Locker.”
Peter raised an eyebrow. “I was wondering about that.”
“Dee’s juiced them up, right? We need to take advantage of everything we can. And the Pain Locker comes with plenty of advantages.”
“Weapons.” Realization dawned in Kora’s eyes. “You mean weapons.”
Eun’s voice turned slightly mischievous.
“You’ve got yours. It’s only fair that me and Peter get some too.”
Blake thrust-kicked the door leading into the Locker. As it swung back toward him, he shoved it forcefully away and let out an obnoxious “WHOO!”
While they’d been walking, Peter had slipped Eun a tablet of double O negative and taken one himself. It was starting to kick in; auric haze shone around everything, colorful designs leapt off contours and edges. For some reason—maybe it was the impeding confrontation—the psychedelic seemed extra strong this time.
“Eun,” he whispered, stopping in the middle of the gym. “You feel it?”
She was staring at the ceiling. “Yeah…there’s a dragon up there.”
“What’re you—” He looked up. Sure enough, a Chinese-style dragon was coiling across the ceiling, regarding them both with a knowing smile. Glances of light shone off its scales.
“Holy shit,” he breathed. “What do you think it means?”
“That we’re in for some awesomeness. Come on.” She flicked his shoulders with the tip of her fingers. “Let’s punch evil in its stupid fucking face.”.
“The fuck is up, cuntpunters?” Blake was bouncing around, throwing his arms out like a talentless rapper. “You ready to get lit the fuck up?”
Kora crossed her arms. “Your move, dick-smudge.”
“Don’t I know it.” Blake’s eyes flickered red.
“Eun,” Peter whispered. “Did you—”
[—see that?] Her communication wasn’t telepathic, but it was close enough. The double O negative had elevated their psyches; Peter and Eun could now read each other through a nuanced chain of somatic cues. Through body language, they were able to exchange long-form thoughts in the blink of an eye.
[Fuck.] Peter looked at her, astonished. [I’ve never gone this deep. This is—]
Blake walked up to Kora. “You think you’re hard, Holly? You’re a goddamn cheerleader—you prance around in a watered-down stripper outfit. What makes you think you’re gonna—”
Kora’s aura shifted from placid blue to a green-orange blend. Peter instantly intuited what it meant; she knew she had to incentivize Blake. He wasn’t going to attack on his own.
So she leaned back, gathered some phlegm—hhhHKKKK—and launched it right in his face.
“You BITCH!” He swung with his right.
Kora leaned back and hit him with a two-fingered jab, connecting just below his adam’s apple. He stumbled back, coughing and gagging.
“Gross.” Kora wiped her fingers on her right thigh. “Douche juice.”
Blake’s buddies caught him by the armpits. “Fucking—” (due to Kora’s throat-strike, sounded like Fhhhngg). He pointed a finger at her. “GET HER!”
Blake’s goons surged forward. Chase Horton yelled, “Oh no you did not!” Logan McAllister couldn’t produce anything witty, so he yelled a phrase he’d heard from Meet the Parents. “You are going DOWN! You are going DOWN TO CHINATOWN!”
Kora ducked Logan’s punch and bowed forward, until the crown of her head was almost touching the floor. Her inverted torso allowed her left leg to come up in a vertical split, bent at the knee in a perfect scorpion kick. Logan, who was expecting a punch or an evasion, was taken completely by surprise; Kora struck him in the face with the flat of her sole.
He careened back into the other jocks, tripping up two more minions as he fell to the floor. Eun was moving, grinning savagely as she ran through a mess of psychedelic fractals. Each slash of her arms, each push of her legs, carved a splash of chroma into the air.
Peter’s mouth curled into a dreamy smile. Beautiful—she’s fucking beautiful.
Eun leapt into the air, drop-kicking Cole Johnson in his ugly fucking mug, then hit the ground in a judo breakfall, slapping the floor with both palms. [PETER!] She kipped her legs and flipped to her feet. [DO SOMETHING!]
Peter shook his head. Head in the game, Pete. His sense of time had slowed significantly. Not to a crawl, but to the point where he could form fully developed thoughts in the midst of the action. As Eun jumped up and wrapped her legs around Hector Sanchez’s neck, Peter dropped to a knee and ducked a haymaker from Aiden Cordley.
“Fucking kill you, Lee—”
That was all he managed before Peter threw a karate-style reverse punch into Cordley’s nuts, screaming with every ounce of fury he could possibly muster. Peter’s mouth yawed open in a protracted scream—RUAAAAHHH—and his eyes and cheeks shook in a savage, triumphant war-cry.
“FUCK you, Cordley!”
Peter stole a move from Neo in the only good Matrix movie; he shot up into a spectacular jump, flashing his feet three times in a badass triple-kick. Each one caught Aiden on the chin, snapping his head back in three quick jerks. The jock went flying into a wall, smashing through it at the exact same moment that Peter landed in a sideways stance: right fist low and out, left fist close and high. He looked like an eighties martial arts star.
Yeah, bitch. He couldn’t help but smile. Like Chuck fucking Norris.
His moment of triumph was short lived. Every meathead dropped to the ground, growling and writhing. Their skin began rippling and bulging, splitting open as crags of carapace cut through their flesh. Their letterman jackets tore with grating rips, and tiny, nubby horns sprouted from their foreheads. Dark spheres formed in the jocks’ auras around their stomachs—staticky collections of pitch-black frazzle.
Peter’s arms drooped to his sides. [Eun, are you—]
[—seeing this?] She’d adopted a badass fighting stance just like Peter, but unlike him, she’d kept her hands up. [We’ve known for a while that Dee’s enhanced them. Game face, Peter.]
[Right.] He set his jaw and re-assumed his stance.
Demon Blake pointed his index claw at them. “RUC RUUK ARAH!” He turned his head to either side, locking eyes with his cadre of douche-monsters. “ARAAAHHH!!!” They beat their chests and let loose with screams.
And then they charged.
Peter’s perception slowed even further. This time, each second seemed like an eternity, like in that corny-ass Spidey movie with Tobey Maguire (Peter had never gotten over the cheesy dialogue; Aunt May lying in the hospital bed wailing: the horror—the HORROR! Come the fuck on.). Flash had tried to punch Parker (Spidey), but Parker had moved so fast that he could look back and forth between Flash’s fist and his neander-fuck face, marveling at how easy it was to dodge the strike.
That was how Peter felt right now—like he could study everything in slow motion.
As the demons charged forward, tromping the ground with their scaly feet, Peter could see every mote of dust that sprung from their steps. He could see the breeze from the fans rippling their knuckle hair, he could see their clothing rustling and waving. He could also see radiant purple lines projecting from their auras. Each one was surrounded by a series of numbers and complex symbols; the characters changed with each movement, with each dip and rise of their hulking bodies. His mind recognized a good chunk of it—calculus, sentential logic, theoretical physics—but some of it was alien: musical notation from other dimensions, codified energy that existed somewhere out there in the vast unknown.
It didn’t matter. It might have been foreign to his mind and body, but his being knew it. Peter Lee—who was more whole than he could ever remember—saw it all.
He knew it all.
And it wasn’t overwhelming. With each shift and dance of possibility, the info funneled into a probable outcome. Potential moves shot through Peter’s mind with slot-machine speed; he was able to discard or affirm them instantaneously. In the time it took Blake and his goons to take a step, Peter saw a thousand counters, a thousand evasions.
Hayes Burdock tried for a grab, but Peter responded with Neo-like composure; he sidestepped, blocked, and unleashed a chain of Wing Chun short strikes. Stinging pain ran through his palms and elbows, courtesy of Hayes’ hell-armored skin.
Fuck, he thought, ducking a cross and spinning into a sidekick. His heel hit Hayes flush in the sternum, but the demonically enhanced jock didn’t budge. Despite his impeccable technique, Peter was the one who went flying back.
He hop-skipped twice on his support leg, barely managing to keep his balance. Breathe, Peter. Reassess. His dilated pupils flicked to either side, absorbing a wash of augmented data. Eun was faring better; she was an aikidoka. She was positioning and moving with dance-like precision, lining up her opponents so they struck or obstructed each other. Still, due to her opponents’ size and strength, she wasn’t able to grab or throw.
Gotta step it up, Peter thought, dropping and rolling as Hayes threw a cross.
As he squirted to his feet, Kora dodged a punch by leaning back and to the side, then reached in her pocket and withdrew her keychain. She chucked it in the air at the same time she leapt into an aerial twist and shouted a magic phrase that sounded like Ilindio DeLLIPDIA! It shook the air with sonorous force, pouring from her mouth in a weave of colorful strands. They braided tightly around her airborne keys, infusing her miniaturized birth weapons with eldritch splendor.
Everyone in the gym stopped fighting. They stared at Kora as she twisted and flipped, transformed into an iconic silhouette by the blinding discharge. A few of the jocks raised their forearms to shield their faces, grunting out a series of guttural protests: RUUUHH! RUUUUHH!!!
The light built and peaked, then culminated with a sharp, resounding clap.
Kora was kneeling; right knee down, left knee up. On her left arm was a glimmering shield, formed from gorgeous slashes of gold-white metal. In her right hand she was holding an elegant sword, curved on the blade-side, straight on the other. Its edge sloped inward near the hilt, creating a concave dip before it surged upward into a convex ridge. A pitch-black opal was mounted in the center of the guard, which branched into a pair of dragon-esque tines.
Her lips widened in a ferocious smile.
“Bring it, dick-sniffers.”
Blake straightened up and drew in a lungful of air. Something bright and oval-shaped kindled in his belly, burning with enough heat to project a red-orange glow through his reptilian skin. It pushed up his chest, into his throat, and illuminated his head with a brief, searing glare. Then he pitched forward and it leapt from his mouth. Kora ducked behind her shield, just before the fiery orb crashed into its surface.
Crackling green lightning erupted from the impact, washing the gym with air-warping pressure. Peter leaned forward and covered his eyes with a forearm, trying to keep from falling over. Off to his right, Eun was doing the same.
Seconds later, eleven jocks were scattered across the floor, in varying degrees of disorientation. Blake and Kora, however, were still going at it. She was on a knee, holding her shield above her head, weathering a storm of heavy blows. Blake’s claws were working like pistons, striking showers of sparks off the metal disc.
“Peter! Eun!” Kora peeked out from behind the shield, her face tensing with each hit. “I need time to charge my blade! Can’t dispel with an uncharged sword!”
“On it!” Eun sprinted to a rack filled with various weightlifting bars. Chaz Bowman shambled toward her. She picked up a curl bar, ran at a wall, kicked-jumped off it, and—
—swung the bar like Barry fucking Bonds. It caught Chaz flush on the jaw, sending him spinning into a downward twist.
Peter’s breath caught in his throat. If he’s dead…
There was nothing to worry about; Chaz bounced to his feet and charged her again. She took two giant steps forward, swinging the curl bar in a rising chop. It cracked Chaz under the chin, lifting him bodily off his feet before he slammed down onto his back.
[Peter! Fucking HELP ME!]
[Yep, sorry!] Peter mentally kicked himself and looked around for a weapon.
Cole Johnson came barreling toward Peter, who dove through the jock’s legs and thrust his hands into a box of weight pins. Two of them protruded from each hand. He rolled to his feet, and bent backward, ducking a swipe. At the same time, he threw a punch with his right fist, poking Cole in his red-veined eyes with the ends of a pin.
“RHAAARRHH!” Cole clutched his face.
“Peter! Eun!” Kora thrust-slammed her shield into Brodie Anders’ nose. “I need some FUCKING ROOM!”
“Coming!” Eun ditched the curl bar and snatched up a pair of thirty-pound kettlebells. She held them close to her chest until she was five feet away from the demons surrounding Kora. “Hey!” She twirled her body into an angled spin. “Come and get some, you ugly fucks!” The centrifugal force powered through her arms, punching the weights out to full extension. Each one became a cast-iron mace, cracking skulls in rapid-fire time. For a brief moment, Eun became a badass whirlwind—a badass whirlwind equipped with kettlebells.
She clobbered three more jocks, then hit Dylan Rabe in the head with both bells at the same time, like the Ewok log-trap from Return of the Jedi. He crumpled to the floor like an over-muscled sack of shit. She ditched the weights and rolled across the floor, picking up a barbell and planting one end of it firmly on the deck, holding the other end up like a Scottish pikeman standing firm against English cavalry.
“Hi-yo fucking SILVER!” Peter jump-kicked Chaz Bowman right in the back, shoving him forward onto the barbell. Chaz’s forehead smacked the steel end—WHUNG!—and he pitched backward.
Eun hoisted the barbell up, longspear-style, and locked eyes with Peter. [I need an—]
[—assist? Got you.] He dropped to his knees and flattened his spine so she could jump off it. She broke into a sprint, stepped on his back, and—
—thrust the bar forward like a one-handed spear, scissoring her legs to add torque to the strike. She hit Thad smith flush in the sternum and he collapsed into a handful of demon-jock brethren, sending them all into a disorganized scatter. Eun landed in a cool-ass stance, barbell at the ready. She looked back at Peter.
[—push? Absolutely.] She turned the barbell sideways. He took the left, she took the right.
“RAAAAAHHHH!!!” They both drove forward, clotheslining the jocks with forty-five pounds of machine-smithed steel. They hit three in the neck before the bar bent and curled into a steely horseshoe. Peter broke left and Eun shot right.
Kora, meanwhile, was taking full advantage of her newfound breathing room. She spun three times with balletic grace, alternating high-low slashes with her sword and her shield. None of them hit, but she was forcing the jock to steadily retreat.
“Ruh! RUH!” Demonized Blake swiped and flailed, trying to catch her with a lucky strike. It wasn’t gonna happen; her technique was perfect.
She finished by uppercutting him in the nuts with the edge of her shield, then kick-flipped back, hitting his chin with the ball of her foot. She landed in a crouch and began chanting, shaking the air with eldritch power. Incandescence poured off her sword, flooding the Locker with undiluted brilliance.
At that moment, the school’s intercom flared to life: Paisley the yoga captain was saying something something something about bliss and peace, and how you couldn’t trip harder than you could on yoga. To spread awareness of this ancient art, she was now going to play some industrial metal outta the 90s: Filter and The Crystal Method’s Trip Like I Do.
If you only knew. Peter’s lips curled into a smile.
The speakers churned out music: “Can’t you…”
Kora’s mouth yawed open in a slow-motion roar.
“Can’t you trip like I do…”
Dylan Rabe threw a sloppy hook, but Kora ducked his claw and scored his body with several cuts.
By the time he finished his swing, Kora had inflicted five wounds across his torso and legs and whirled past him. Each cut left a burning slice of ragged light.
“Can’t you trip like I do…”
Dylan cast his red-veined gaze down at his body, claws turned up, as if to say What the fuck? Spears of luminescence shot from the gashes. He threw his head back and clutched the air, howling in fury as white blaze erupted from his mouth and eyes.
The light in Dylan built into a bright, dazzling flash. Everyone in the gym—demon and human alike—turned away. Dylan fell to his knees, smoke wisping from his mouth and ears. He’d reverted back to human form.
“Can’t you trip like I do…”
Kora didn’t notice. She was snarling triumphantly, plunging her sword into Chaz Bowman. She yanked it from his sternum and whirled into a descending elbow-strike, smashing his upper back and forcing him to his knees. The music picked up as she pattered her feet and accelerated toward Thad Smith.
“Laid out on my back I can’t sleep ’cause I’m slumming,
Eyes on my teeth I can’t see ’cause I’m eating,
Head full of noise I can’t think ’cause it’s crushing,
Back on my feet like a freight train I’m coming,”
Dylan Rabe fled from the gym, wailing and blubbering. A second later, Chaz Bowman followed in his wake. Then Thad, then Logan. Every one of them now human.
Holy shit, Peter thought as Kora ran through the jocks, dispelling Dee’s enhancements with fillips and slashes, thrusts and low cuts. She finished by twirling on her knees and slicing Blake cleanly across the belly. She held the pose—sword-arm and shield-arm extended back like wings, right knee down and left knee up—like a samurai duelist who’d just delivered a killing blow.
Blake’s momentum carried him a few steps past her before he clutched his light-riven belly and bent over, shaking and trembling. Guttural moans bled from his mouth. Blaze spilled from between his claws; it caught on the dust motes floating in the air and was made into harsh white spears, like sunlight spilling through a dusty house. Kora was rendered into a cool-ass silhouette as Blake burned with star-like brilliance.
When the light faded, he was sitting on his butt and his hands, his clothes hanging off him in tattered strips, his hair tossed into an unruly mess. “What the fuck?” He looked around, dazed and uncertain, watching the last of his minions flee out the door. “What just happened?”
Kora slowly rose from her action-hero crouch. “Run, Blake.”
He gave her a blank, uncomprehending stare, then his eyes widened as he took in her sword and her shield, flashing with the remnants of arcane energy. He clambered to his feet and sprinted out the door, holding his drooping pants as he made his retreat.
For a surreal moment, Peter and his friends looked straight ahead and didn’t say a word. The heavy fans droned on in the background.
Then Peter’s face broke into a wide grin. “Guys, we did it. We fucking did it.”
Eun grinned back. “That we did.”
Kora dropped her sword and her shield onto the dusty rubber mat. A deep, timeless instinct was flooding through her, telling her to revel in the moment, to enjoy this victory. Peter and Eun perceived it as a liquid swirl of sparkling radiance, washing up and down the princess in stunning, multicolored streams. Peter shook his head and smiled wider, at a complete loss for words. Eun, on the other hand, knew exactly what to say.
“Come on guys—bring it in.”
And so they came together and clasped each other’s shoulders, forming a three-person circle. They bowed inward and touched foreheads.
“We kicked their fucking ass, didn’t we?” Peter chuckled.
“That was fucking awesome,” Kora stated proudly.
“We should eat something tasty,” Eun said. “To celebrate our first victory against Dissona.”
“Ooh!” Peter’s eyes lit up. “Pizza!”
“Pizza?” Kora gave him a puzzled glance. “What’s that?”
Peter reared back, as offended as a hoity-toity butler who’d been tricked into stomping on a flaming bag of dogshit. “You’ve never eaten pizza?” He dropped his arms, breaking the huddle.
“Peter,” Eun chided, “she’s from another dimension.”
“If this ‘pizza’ is half as delicious as fresh-roasted akorax, then I’m sure I’ll like it.”
Peter threw his head back and roared with laughter. “ ‘Half as—’ ” He shook his head, chuckling bemusedly. “Kora—pizza’s the most delicious food ever invented.”
“On your world, maybe. No way it can beat fresh-roasted akorax.”
Peter snorted. “Oh it absolutely could. I’d bet my dick on it.”
Eun punched him lightly in the arm. “Those are hella small stakes.”
“Fucking Eun.” Peter shook his head again, still smiling. “Come on—let’s get some Arinell’s.”
They put their arms around each other’s shoulders in a rare display of heartfelt camaraderie: Peter in the middle, Eun on the left, and Kora on the right. After a long period of confusion and chaos, the three teens had finally come together. So they didn’t say a thing. They walked out of school in a loose embrace, grinning unabashedly.
The winter sun had painted the horizon with bold streaks of pink-orange streaks. Despite that, the air was warm; it felt like a balmy summer night due to the Bay Area’s schizophrenic weather. Mild wind blew in from the north, tousling their hair and widening their grins.
An hour later, the three heroes claimed their reward: extra-large, with pepperoni, olives, and mushrooms. Thanks to their adolescent appetites, they were able to guzzle three liters of mountain dew, maow down a tray of breadsticks, and polish off four orders of spicy chicken wings.
And much to Kora’s delight, the pizza was exactly as Peter had described.
It tasted way better than fresh-roasted akorax.