The day after the fight, 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 obliviousness to yesterday’s ass-whooping.
“Uh…Blake?” Peter asked cautiously. “You okay?”
Blake snorted. “Why wouldn’t I be, Chahrry Chan?”
Peter glanced to either side, 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 stuck 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, 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. He dropped to his knees. “Answer the question: do you remember what happened yesterday?”
“Hrrh..AH!” Sweat sprang out on Blake’s forehead. “I skipped school and stayed home, I swear! 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 like she was going to hit him. Blake screeched and fell on his butt. He scurried to his feet and ran down the hall.
“Can’t believe he doesn’t remember,” Peter muttered.
“Too traumatic?” Kora ventured.
Eun looked down, deep in thought. “Why do we have memory? To learn, right?”
Peter rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I guess…”
“So by wiping Blake’s, 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. Gotcha.”
“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. I 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. “We have the advantage there, right? Since it’s full of weapons.”
“I prefer to 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 horde of cock-magnons, we can learn from each encounter. We’ll diagram their strengths and weaknesses, then refine our knowledge with each iteration.”
“Theorize, experiment, conclude.” Peter grinned. “You should have been a scientist.”
“We’re all scientists—we all do that.” Eun smiled wryly. “Some of us just choose to ignore the data.”
“I 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 horse-sized spiders, she cast Senkilo’s Cannon around her wrist.
“Get away from me!” She swiveled back and fired twice. The rounds hit the ground to their left, blowing up geysers of dirt that rattled down around them. They didn’t slow down; their angled legs clicked and clacked like mechanized needles.
Holly cast Shindalthi’s Cloud. Black smoke poured from her lips, flowing from her mouth in an ever-expanding stream. For dozens of miles in every direction, artificial night swamped the land. She was now ensconced in an opaque miasma, unable to see her own hands. The spider-beasts—suddenly deprived of their juicy prey—skittered and scampered every which way, filling the air with their frustrated screams.
She hooked 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 inside 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, gazing at 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 wildly, banging against a wall. The insect emitted a matching cry. As it turned to run, Holly snatched a dagger from her belt and flung it at the creature. The blade slipped into the insect’s head, hilt quivering like the end of 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 started watering.
She dropped to her knees and carved 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.