The day after the fight, Blake sneered at Peter in the hallway, stretching the skin around his eyes and saying “Me so horny” in a cartoonish accent. Peter stopped and stared; he wasn’t shocked by the racist caricature (par for the course when you were dealing with Blake) but at the jock’s seeming obliviousness to yesterday’s ass-whooping.
“Uh…Blake?” Peter asked cautiously. “Everything okay?”
Blake snorted. “Why wouldn’t it be, Charlie Chan?”
Peter looked at Kora and Eun, standing to his right and his left. His expression said it all: Are you seeing this? He turned back to Blake. “Um…I just thought that with everything that happened yesterday…”
Blake stuck his index and middle finger under Peter’s nose. “Yesterday I stuck these phalanges into Cynthia Carver. Want a whiff, you fucking homo?”
Eun grabbed his fingers and bent them back toward his shoulder. The jock yelped and contorted his body, arching with the hold to relieve the pressure.
“Manners, Blake.” Eun cranked the lock, earning another yelp. “And your insult doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. Think about what you say before you say it.” She bore down on his fingers, dropping him to his knees. “Answer my question: do you remember what happened yesterday?”
“Hrrh..AH!” Blake started sweating. “I was chilling at home, I swear! After school I played X-box with my buddies! Fuck!”
Eun, Peter, and Kora exchanged puzzled looks.
“Please…” Blake’s face was now beet-red. “It fucking…it fucking hurts…”
Eun let go and Blake bent over, clutching his hyperextended fingers with a shaking hand. Heavy, labored breaths issued from his mouth.
“He doesn’t remember,” Kora said. “Why would Dissona wipe his memory?”
“The fuck are you talking about?” Blake mewled. “I just told you—I was at home playing X-box!”
“Scram, cunt-sludge.” Eun raised her fist and lurched forward. Blake screeched like a beaten dog and fell back on his butt. He scurried to his feet and ran down the hall.
Peter stared at the jock’s retreating back. “Can’t believe he doesn’t remember.”
“Too traumatic?” Kora suggested.
Eun looked down, deep in thought. “What’s the purpose of memory? It’s to learn, isn’t it?”
Peter rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I guess…”
“So by wiping his memory, Dissona keeps him locked in a static state. She keeps him from learning. From evolving, really.”
“But that would limit his effectiveness,” Peter argued. “Why would she hamstring her own servants? They don’t pose a threat. Not to her, anyway.”
“I think it’s personal,” Eun said. “I think—”
“Transcendence.” Kora’s eyes lit up. “Evolution leads to transcendence.”
“Exactly.” Kora nodded. “And if there’s one thing Dissona can’t stand, it’s transcendence.”
“She wants to be on top. To stay where she is.” Peter was nodding too. “She can’t evolve. It would be anathema to her.”
Eun said, “Close but not quite—it’s not that she can’t, it’s that she’s doesn’t want to. Her fear of change manifests in her minions. She can’t let them evolve, because the prospect terrifies her. They’re mirrors of their mistress.”
Peter stroked his chin. “Makes sense…” His hand dropped away. “So you think Blake will try and fight us again?”
“Almost certainly,” she replied. “He can’t learn from past lessons, so he’s going to come at us again and again. I wouldn’t be surprised if he said the exact same things, tried the exact same attacks.”
“Are we gonna keep leading him back to the Pain Locker?” Kora asked. “That’s where we hold the advantage, right? Since it’s full of weapons.”
“I call them tools,” Eun said. “But yes—we’ll keep using the Locker. The setting won’t change, but our strategy will. Unlike Blake and his cock-magnons, we can learn from each encounter. Diagram skills and weaknesses, then refine our knowledge with each iteration.”
“Theorize, experiment, conclude.” Peter shook his head, grinning. “You should have been a scientist Eun.”
“We’re all scientists, Peter—we all do that.” Eun smiled wryly. “Some of us just ignore the data.”
“Can’t wait to start studying.” Kora cracked her knuckles. “This is right up my alley.”
“Not surprising.” Eun’s smile turned a notch wryer. “You ready to start?”
Peter and Kora spoke in unison: “Absolutely.”
One dimension away, Holly was fleeing from a pack of eight-legged horrors.
Over the last few months, she’d trekked hundreds of miles across the Shattered Territories. After she’d eaten Estilian and her velociraptor mount, she’d started consuming weeds and bark.
Now, as she ran like mad from a dozen horse-sized spiders, she instantiated Senkilo’s Cannon around her wrist. It was pure instinct; if she’d stopped and thought about it, she would have realized there was no way in hell she could have hurt them with her half-ass magic.
“Get away from me!” She swiveled around and shot two orbs from the end of her fist. One of the spheres hit the ground to their right, blowing up a funnel of dirt that rattled down around the spider-beasts. The other one landed in their midst, briefly obscuring them with a scattershot eruption of crumbly sod.
Holly, still in the grip of nerve-shredding terror, cast Shindalthi’s Cloud. Black smoke poured from her lips, flowing past her head in an ever-expanding stream. She’d cast it perfectly; the vapor was thick and dark, robust and impenetrable. For dozens of miles around, artificial night fell across the land. Frustrated cries rang through the air; spider-beasts skittered and scampered, trying to find their elusive prey.
They sound like babies, Holly thought with a shiver. Like crying babies.
She was now ensconced in an opaque miasma, unable to see her own hands. She broke right (it was as good a direction as any) and found herself running up a steep incline. Her hands and feet churned against scree, digging into the tough earth with her fingers and boots. She continued climbing, dozens of yards up the hill, breaking through the ebony murk into—
What the fuck?
—she glimpsed a bewildering slice of sky and sun before she was plunged into another hole. Not as dark, but dim and shadowy all the same.
A cave, she realized. I’m in a cave.
She blew into the center of her palm, funneling her will into a marble of light that materialized in her hand. Her rocky surroundings made themselves apparent; she was standing at the edge of a flat, stone floor. Ten yards in, it gave way to a field of rough stalagmites, poking up from the ground like conical teeth.
A cat-sized insect skittered to a halt in front of the stalagmites, regarding her with buggy eyes that rose from its body on a pair of stalks. Its torso was oval-shaped, divided into shelled segments, and it had more legs than Holly could count. It was completely transparent; glowing organs pulsed from its see-through carapace.
“AAAAHHH!!!” She backpedaled furiously, banging against the wall.
The insect emitted a matching cry. As it turned to run, Holly’s hand darted to her belt and flung her dagger at it. The blade arrowed through the air and buried itself in the insect’s head, quivering like a diving board.
Its legs splayed out in a lazy spread. Its torso sank and abruptly relaxed.
Holly stayed pressed against the wall, chest heaving. She wasn’t sure if it was still alive. Maybe it was related to the spider-beasts outside, or…
Her belly emitted a querulous grumble, and she was suddenly struck by a harsh reality: she was hungry. Ravenous. And whatever she’d killed was going to waste unless she consumed it.
She needed to eat.
She needed to feed.
Holly pushed off the wall and strode forward. Her fear had vanished; her body felt sure and steady. By the time she’d made it to the cave dweller and snatched her dagger from its brainstem, her mouth was watering.
Lobster. Bet it tastes like lobster.
Outside, the fog from her spell began to evaporate. The wasteland sun shone glaringly bright, but Holly didn’t care. The cave protected her from its ruthless light.
She dropped her to knees and began carving apart her kill. Blue blood spattered her mouth as she tore ragged chunks from the pale carcass. In a matter of seconds, her lips were surrounded by a gruesome halo of cerulean gore and white viscera. She sounded more like an animal than a human being.
The cheerleader had found a temporary home.