Peter closed his locker. “Who’d you talk with yesterday?”
Kora shrugged. “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 muses. They all said the same thing: something big is coming down the pike.”
His mouth worked in silent wonder. “Fallen angels…holy shit.”
Eun reset her backpack 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 said. “A psychedelic pioneer. He created a conceptual structure around transcendent chemicals; it gave me the necessary reference points to—”
“Peter fucking Lee!” Blake Turner marched toward them, trailed by a retinue of brainless dick-swingers. “Oh look—” He gave Kora and Eun a disdainful sneer. “Hysterical Holly and Peter’s geisha fuck-buddy! Bet y’all have crazy-ass threesomes—like meth’d up retards having sex in a bouncy-house.” Snorts, laughs, and faux-gangsta handshakes erupted from his minions.
“Today’s the day.” Kora smacked her fist into her open palm. “Gonna put you in your place, fuckstain.”
“Ooooh.” Blake shook his hands up by his face, bugging his eyes in mock-fear. “The fuck you gonna do, Holly? Drown me in juices with your pretty little snatch?”
Kora started forward, but Eun stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Not here.”
“Where, then?” Kora’s eyes stayed fixed on Blake.
“The Pain Locker.” Eun looked at Blake. “You good with that?”
“Couldn’t have picked a better spot,” he sneered. “Because you three fucks are in for a world of hurt.”
Atherton High had badass gyms. All three sported cryo chambers, DEXA scans, and a host of other cutting-edge goodies. But despite having access to the latest and greatest, some stuck with the tried and the true.
The basement housed a fourth gym: the Pain Locker. The Locker was a throwback to Arnold’s glory days, when gyms had rusted weights and chalk-streaked mats. Blotchy smears adorned the mirrors. Giant fans sat in the corners, constantly on for the sake of ventilation. The air shook from their skull-rattling drone.
The Locker was simple and guileless. Dumbbells, squat racks, and kettlebells. There weren’t any battle-maces, air assault bikes, or concept 2 rowers. When you walked in the Locker, you knew exactly what to do—you didn’t need a manual or online tutorial.
That was why Eun had picked it as their battleground.
“Oh you wanna do this old school, Geisha Girl?” Blake leaned in, his sneering face an inch 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 even said, “Bitch got SERVED! Woot WOOT!”
“I’ll take that as a yes?” Eun stayed calm and level.
Blake parroted her in a party-girl whine: “ ‘I’ll take that as a yeth?’ ” He looked at his buddies, prompting them to respond with overexaggerated puzzlement, dismissive waves, and accompanying scoffs. Pshhh—this bitch is crazy.
Blake crossed his arms and tried to stare her down. She didn’t budge.
The jock began to fidget (patience ranked low on his list of virtues). The muscles under his eyes began to twitch.
A second later he blurted, “See you at the Pain Locker, bitch!”
Eun smiled. “Great. I’ll lead the way.”
“Nah, ho. I lead the way.”
Eun shrugged. “Fine. Whatever.”
A flash of displeasure—he’d been hoping to get to her. He covered it up with a few more gang signs, along with a triumphant declaration of: “Tha’s right, Geisha Girl. Know your role!”
Kora sighed. “Are we done with the posturing? Because if not—”
Blake shouldered past her. “Shut the fuck up, Holly.”
As his goons swept by, Kora flashed a smile at her friends. Peter smiled back as they started walking. “You’re enjoying this.”
“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 glanced at Eun. “You hear that? She calls this a workout.”
Eun winked. “There’s a reason I want to do this at the Locker.”
Peter raised an eyebrow. “I was wondering about that.”
“They’re juiced up, right? We need to even the odds. And the Pain Locker comes with plenty of options.”
“Weapons.” Realization dawned in Kora’s eyes. “You’re talking about weapons.”
Eun’s voice turned slightly mischievous. “You have yours. It’s only fair that we get ours.”
Blake thrust-kicked the door leading into the Locker. When it swung back toward him, he shoved it forcefully away and let out an obnoxious “WHOO!”
As they’d walked, Peter had slipped Eun a tablet of double O negative and taken one himself. It was starting to kick in; designs and colors bled off contours. For some reason, the psychedelic seemed extra strong this time.
“Eun,” he whispered. “You feel it?”
She stared at the ceiling. “Yeah…there’s a dragon up there.”
“What’re you—” He looked up. Sure enough, a Chinese-style dragon was coiling and snaking, regarding them both with a knowing smile. Quicksilver light glanced off its scales.
“Holy shit,” he breathed. “What does it mean?”
“That we’re in for some awesomeness. Come on.” She flicked his shoulder with the tips of her fingers. “Let’s punch evil in its stupid fucking face.”.
“The fuck is up, cuntpunters?” Blake bounced around, throwing his arms out like a talentless rapper. “Y’all ready for the motherfucking BEAT DOWN???”
Kora yawned. “Your move, dick-smudge.”
“Don’t I know it.” Blake’s eyes flickered red.
“Eun,” Peter whispered. “Did you—”
[—see that?] It wasn’t telepathy, but it was close enough. The double O negative had elevated their psyches; Peter and Eun were able to commune through somatic cues. Using body language, they could 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 tromped up to Kora. “Think you’re real hard, don’t you Holly? Think again, skank—you’re a goddamn cheerleader. You prance around in a watered-down stripper’s outfit.”
Kora’s aura shifted from placid blue to bright orange. Peter instinctively 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 dead center into his face.
“You BITCH!” He swung with his right.
She leaned away and threw a two-fingered jab, connecting just below his adam’s apple. He stumbled back, coughing and gagging.
“Gross.” She wiped her fingers off on her thigh. “Douche juice.”
Blake’s buddies caught him by the armpits. “Fucking—” (due to the throat-strike, it sounded like Fhhhngg). He pointed at Kora, sputtering and spitting before he managed to yell: “GET HER!”
The goons surged forward. Chase Horton yelled, “Oh no you did not!” Logan McAllister couldn’t think of anything witty, so he yelled a phrase he’d learned 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 nearly touched the floor. Her inverted torso allowed her left leg to rise 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.
Eun took the hint. She sprang into action, running through a mess of psychedelic fractals, carving splashes of color into the air.
Beautiful, Peter thought, smiling dreamily. Fucking beautiful.
She leapt high in 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 blinked. Head in the game. His sense of time had slowed significantly—he could think and assess amidst the action. As Eun wrapped her legs around Brady Sluder’s unguarded neck, Peter ducked a haymaker from Aiden Cordley.
“Fucking kill you, Lee—”
That was all he got out before Peter punched him in the scrote. Peter’s mouth yawed open in a protracted scream: RUAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH! 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 jumped head-high, flashing his feet in a badass triple-kick, snapping Aiden’s chin in three quick jerks. The jock flew back into a wall. Peter landed in a sideways stance: right fist low and out, left fist close and high. Like an eighties martial arts star.
Yeah, bitch. He couldn’t help but smile. Chuck Norris can eat my dick.
His moment of triumph was short lived. The jocks dropped to the rubber-matted ground, growling and writhing. Their flesh rippled and bulged, splitting open as craggy red carapace shredded their skin. Nubby little horns sprouted from their heads. Dark spheres formed in the aura around their chests and bellies—staticky collections of pitch-black frazzle.
Peter’s arms drooped to his waist. [Eun, are you—]
[I see it.] Just like Peter, she’d assumed a badass fighting stance. [Game face, Peter.]
[Right.] He set his jaw and lifted his hands.
Demonized Blake pointed an index claw. “RUC RUUK ARAH!” He turned his head to either side, locking eyes with his squad of douche-monsters. “ARAAAHHH!!!” They beat their chests and screamed in fury.
And then they charged.
Peter’s perception slowed even further. Each second was a seeming eternity, like in the high school fight from 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 thrown a shitty jab, but Parker (Spidey) had moved so damn 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 see everything in slow motion.
As the demons charged, Peter saw the dust springing up from each of their steps. He saw the breeze from the fans rippling their hair, he saw their ripped-up clothes rustling and waving. The jocks were covered in radiant numbers and glowing symbols; the characters changed with each movement, with the dip and rise of their hulking bodies. Peter recognized a good chunk of it—calculus, sentential logic, theoretical physics—but some of it was alien. Musical notes from another dimension, codified energy that existed somewhere out there in the vast unknown.
It didn’t matter. It might have been foreign to his physical brain, but his being knew it. Peter Lee—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 potential, the info funneled into a probable outcome. Throws and strikes shot through his mind; he could discard or affirm them instantaneously. In the time it took Blake 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, courtesy of Hayes’ hell-armored skin.
Fuck, he thought, ducking a cross and spinning into a sidekick. He hit Hayes flush in the sternum, but the demonically enhanced jock didn’t budge. Despite his perfect technique, Peter was the one who went flying back.
He hop-skipped twice atop his support leg, barely managing to keep his balance. Breathe, Peter. Assess. His dilated pupils flicked to either side, processing a wash of augmented data. Eun was faring better; she was an aikidoka. She positioned and moved with dance-like precision, slipping between opponents so they struck or obstructed each other. Still, due to their 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 surged to his feet, Kora reached in her pocket and withdrew her keychain. She lobbed it up, leaping high and shouting a magic phrase that sounded a lot like a roaring ocean wave. It shook the air with sonorous force, pouring from her mouth in a weave of color. The arcane mesh enveloped her keys, infusing her weapons with eldritch splendor.
Everyone in the gym stopped and stared. Kora twisted and flipped, silhouetted by the blinding discharge. A few of the jocks shielded 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 slashes of gold-white metal. In her right hand she held an elegant sword, curved on the blade-side, straight on the other. A pitch-black opal shone from the guard, which branched into a pair of dragon-esque tines.
She looked up at the jocks. Her lips widened in a ferocious smile.
“Bring it, dick-sniffers.”
Blake reared back, inhaling mightily. Something bright and circular kindled in his belly, burning with enough heat to project a red-orange glow through his armor-like skin. It pushed up his chest, into his throat, and illuminated his head with a brief, searing glare.
He pitched forward and spat it out.
Kora ducked behind her shield, just before the fiery orb crashed against it. Green lightning burst from the impact, flooding the gym with air-warping pressure. Peter leaned forward and covered his eyes with a raised forearm, trying to keep from falling on his butt.
A second 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 worked like pistons, striking sparks off the metal disc.
“Peter! Eun!” Kora peeked out from her shield, face tensing with each hit. “I need some time to charge my blade! Can’t dispel with an uncharged sword!”
“On it!” Eun sprinted over to a loaded gear rack. Chaz Bowman shambled after her. She picked up a curl bar, ran at a wall, kicked off it, and—
—swung the bar like Barry fucking Bonds. It caught Chaz flush on the jaw, sending him spinning in 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 and swung the bar in a rising chop. It cracked Chaz under the chin, lifting him bodily off his feet. He landed on his back with an enormous THUMP.
[Peter! Fucking HELP ME!]
[Yep, sorry!] Peter thrust his hands in a box of weight pins, gripping two in each hand so they protruded from his knuckles. He ducked a swipe and threw a looping right, poking Cole in his red-veined eyes.
“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, snatched up some kettlebells, and ran at the demons surrounding Kora. “Hey!” She twirled her body in an angled spin. “Come and get some, you ugly fucks!” Centrifugal force powered through her, 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 with thirty-pound kettlebells.
She clobbered three more jocks, then hit Dylan Rabe with both bells at the same time, like the Ewok log-trap from Return of the Jedi. As he crumpled to the floor, she ditched the weights and grabbed a barbell, planting its end firmly on the ground. She held the other end up like a medieval pikeman, ready to meet a heavy cavalry charge.
“Hi-yo fucking SILVER!” Peter jump-kicked Chaz Bowman, shoving him forward onto the barbell. Chaz’s forehead smacked the end—WHUNG!—and he pitched backward ass over teakettle.
Eun cocked the barbell, javelin-style, and locked eyes with Peter. [I need an—]
[—assist? Got you.] He dropped to his knees, flattening his spine so she could jump off his back. She stepped up on him, and—
—thrust the bar forward like a one-handed spear, scissoring her legs and adding torque to the strike. Thad Smith took it right in the sternum. Eun landed in a cool-ass stance, barbell at the ready, and looked back at Peter.
She turned the barbell sideways. He took the left, she took the right.
“RAAAAAHHHH!!!” They both drove forward, clotheslining jocks with weight-room steel. They hit three in the neck before the bar curled into a steely horseshoe.
Kora, meanwhile, spun three times with balletic grace, alternating high-low slashes with her sword and her shield. None of them hit, but she was driving Blake back, forcing him to backpedal. “Ruh! RUH!” Demonized Blake swiped and flailed, trying to catch her with a lucky strike, but it wasn’t happening. She uppercutted his nuts with the edge of her shield, then kick-flipped away, hitting his chin with the ball of her foot. As soon as she landed she started chanting, shaking the gym with arcane power. Incandescence poured off her sword.
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 gonna 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 in a smile. The double O negative kicked up a notch, decelerating his perception even further.
Kora’s mouth yawed open in a slow-motion roar.
“Can’t you trip like I do…”
Dylan Rabe threw a sloppy hook. Kora ducked it and scored his body with a flurry of cuts. By the time he recovered his balance, Kora had inflicted five wounds across his torso and legs and whirled completely past him.
Dylan looked down at his slashed-up body, claws turned up in a what the fuck gesture. Spears of light shot from his wounds. He threw his head back and clutched the air, howling in fury as white blaze erupted from his mouth and his eyes.
“Can’t you trip like I do…”
The light in Dylan built to a flash. He fell to his knees, smoke wisping from his mouth and ears.
He’d reverted back to human form.
Kora didn’t notice. She threw a backhand-slash, running her sword across Chaz’s face. He clutched his face and howled in pain. The music picked up as she turned on her heel and ran at Thad.
“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 followed in his wake. Then Thad, then Logan. Every one of them now human.
Holy shit, Peter thought as Kora dispelled their enhancements with fillips and slashes, thrusts and low cuts. She twirled on her knees, slicing Blake across the belly, and finished the attack by holding her pose—sword and shield extended back, 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. He clutched his light-riven belly and bent at the waist, shaking and trembling. Blaze spilled from between his claws; it caught on the dust floating in the air and formed into harsh white spears, like sunlight flooding a dirty house.
When the light faded, Blake was sitting on his butt and his hands, clothes hanging off in tattered strips. “What the fuck?” He looked around, dazed and uncertain, watching the last of his minions flee out the door. “What happened?”
Kora rose from her action-heroine crouch. “Run, Blake.”
His eyes widened as he registered her sword and shield, flashing with the remnants of magical energy. He clambered to his feet and sprinted out, holding the back of his drooping pants.
For a surreal moment, the three teen-heroes didn’t say a word. The heavy fans droned in the background.
Peter’s face broke into a grin. “Guys, we did it. We fucking did it.”
Eun grinned back. “That we did.”
Kora let go of her sword and her shield; they hit the mats with a muted thump. A deep, timeless instinct had taken control. It told her to revel in the moment, to enjoy this victory. Peter and Eun perceived it as a liquid swirl of sparkling radiance, limning Kora in stunning, multicolored streams.
Peter shook his head, at a loss for words. Eun, on the other hand, knew exactly what to say.
“Come on guys—bring it in.”
They threw their arms around each others’ necks. Bowed inward and touched foreheads.
“We kicked their fucking ass, didn’t we?” Peter chuckled.
“That. Was fucking. Awesome,” Kora stated.
“We should eat something tasty,” Eun said. “To celebrate our first victory against Dissona.”
“Ooh!” Peter’s eyes lit with glee. “Pizza!”
“Pizza?” Kora was puzzled. “What’s that?”
Peter reared back. “You’ve never eaten pizza?” He dropped his arms, breaking the huddle.
“Peter,” Eun chided, “she’s from another dimension.”
“If ‘pizza’ is half as delicious as fresh-roasted akorax, then I’m sure I’ll like it.”
Peter snorted. “ ‘Half as—’ ” He chuckled knowingly. “Kora—pizza’s the most delicious food ever invented.”
“On your world, maybe. No way it can beat fresh-roasted akorax.”
“Oh it absolutely could. I’d bet my dick on it.”
Eun punched him lightly on the arm. “Those are hella small stakes.”
“Fucking Eun.” Peter shook his head, still smiling. “Come on—let’s order us a pie.”
They exited the school, encircling each other’s shoulders in a loose embrace. The winter sun had painted the sky with pink-orange streaks. Despite that the air was warm, like a balmy summer night. Mild wind blew in from the north, tousling their hair and widening their grins.
An hour later, the three teen-heroes claimed their reward: extra-large, with pepperoni, olives, and a shitload of mushrooms. They guzzled three liters of mountain dew, maowed down two trays of breadsticks, and polished off four orders of spicy chicken wings. Much to Kora’s utter delight, Peter’s claim was proven true.
Pizza was better than fresh-roasted akorax.