The day after they fought, Blake accosted Peter in the hallway, stretching the skin around his eyes and chanting “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. “You okay?”
Blake snorted. “Why wouldn’t I be, Chahrry Chan?”
Peter glanced right and left, at Kora and Eun. His expression said: Are you seeing this? He turned back to Blake. “Um…I just thought with everything that happened yesterday…”
Blake stuck his fingers under Peter’s nose. “Yesterday I was sticking these phalanges into Cynthia Carver. Want a whiff, you fucking homo?”
Eun grabbed the offending digits, bending them back toward his shoulder. The jock yelped and contorted, arching with the hold to relieve the pressure.
“Manners, Blake.” Eun cranked the lock, earning another yelp. “Your insult doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. Think before you speak.” She bore down harder, dropping him to his knees. “Answer the question: do you remember what happened yesterday?”
“Hrrh..AH!” Sweat sprang out on Blake’s forehead. “I was chilling at home, I swear! After school I played X-box with Chase Horton! Fuck!”
Eun, Peter, and Kora exchanged puzzled looks.
“Please…” Blake’s face turned beet-red. “It fucking…hurts…”
Eun let go. Blake bent over, clutching his hyperextended fingers with a shaking hand.
“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 lurched forward. Blake screeched and fell on his butt. He scurried to his feet and ran down the hall.
Peter stared at his retreating back. “Can’t believe he doesn’t remember.”
“Too traumatic?” Kora ventured.
Eun looked down, deep in thought. “Why do we remember stuff? To learn, right?”
Peter rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I guess…”
“So by wiping Blake’s mind, Dissona keeps him in a static state. She keeps him from learning. From evolving, really.”
“But that would make him less effective,” Peter argued. “Why hamstring your own servants? They don’t pose a threat. Not to her, anyway.”
“Because it’s personal,” Eun said. “I think—”
“Transcendence.” Kora’s eyes lit with understanding. “Evolution leads to transcendence.”
“Exactly.” Eun nodded. “And if there’s one thing Dissona can’t stand, it’s that.”
“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.”
“Close but not quite,” Eun said. “It’s not that she can’t, it’s that she doesn’t want to. Her fear of change manifests in her minions; they mirror their mistress.”
Peter stroked his chin. “Makes sense…” His hand dropped away. “So will Blake try and fight us again?”
“Absolutely,” she replied. “He can’t learn from past experience, so he’s going to attack us over and over. Wouldn’t be surprised if he said the same things…tried the same moves, even.”
“Are we gonna lead him back to the 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 stick with the Locker. The setting won’t change, but our strategy will. Unlike Blake and his stunted cock-magnons, we can learn from each encounter. We’ll diagram strengths and weaknesses, then refine our knowledge with each iteration.”
“Theorize, experiment, conclude.” Peter shook his head, grinning. “You should have been a scientist.”
“We’re all scientists—we all do that.” Eun smiled wryly. “Some of us choose to ignore the data.”
“Can’t wait.” Kora cracked her knuckles. “This is right up my alley.”
Eun’s smile turned a notch wryer.
“I’m not surprised.”
As Holly fled from a pack of horse-sized spiders, she cast Senkilo’s Cannon around her wrist.
“Get away from me!” She swiveled back and shot two glowing orbs. One of the spheres hit the ground to their right, blowing up a funnel of dirt that rattled down around them. The other round landed in their midst, briefly obscuring them in an eruption of sod.
Holly, certain she was about to be dismembered and eaten, cast Shindalthi’s Cloud. Black smoke poured from her lips, flowing past her head in an ever-expanding stream. For dozens of miles in every direction, artificial night swamped the land. The spider-beasts skittered and scampered, filling the air with their frustrated screams.
She was now ensconced in an opaque miasma, unable to see her own hands. She broke right—as good a direction as any—and found herself running up a steep incline. Her hands and feet churned up scree. She kept climbing, 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 as the murk below, but dim and shadowy all the same.
A cave, she realized. I’m in a cave.
She blew gently into her open palm, funneling her will into a marble of light that materialized in her hand. Her rocky surroundings became apparent; she was standing at the edge of a flat stone floor. Ten yards in, it gave way to a field of stalagmites.
A cat-sized insect halted before the stalagmites, regarding her with buggy, stalk-mounted eyes. Its transparent torso—glowing organs pulsed from its see-through carapace—was oval-shaped, divided into segments, and had more legs than Holly could count.
“AAAAHHH!!!” She backpedaled furiously, banging against the wall. The insect emitted a matching cry. As it turned to run, Holly snatched a dagger from her belt and flung it at the pallid creature. The blade slid into 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.
Her belly emitted a querulous grumble. She was suddenly struck by a harsh reality: she was hungry. Ravenous. And whatever she’d killed was going to waste. Unless…
She needed to eat.
She needed to feed.
Holly pushed off the wall and strode forward. Her mouth was watering.
Lobster. Bet it tastes like lobster.
Outside, the spell-born fog began to evaporate. The wasteland sun shone glaringly bright, but Holly didn’t care. The cave protected her from its ruthless light.
She dropped to her knees and began carving apart her kill, tearing ragged chunks from its pale carcass. In a matter of seconds, her lips were coated in white viscera. Her loud smacks and beastly grunts were nothing short of animalistic.
The cheerleader had found a temporary home.