Peter had lost all track of time. As the music came to an end, it simultaneously felt like he’d been dancing forever and also as if he’d just started. He gave Wreckage a giant, unselfconscious grin. She threw it right back at him.
“Whoa…” He looked around and blinked dazedly. Everyone in the room was cheering or whistling. Blake and his followers were clapping grudgingly; Peter’s dance-hall performance had been that good.
Peter kissed his fingertips and flung them out to all and sundry. “Y’all are some bad motherfuckers! Thank you!” Wreckage was performing curtsies with an imaginary dress and taking large, exaggerated bows.
Dee Sonay’s voice boomed through the gym: “Yawn. Seen it all before.” Her words were followed by a squelch of feedback.
Everyone looked toward the DJ stand. Dee had commandeered the stand and was speaking into a mic. She grinned at the students from behind the turntables.
“This is the lamest prom in the history of proms. Let’s kick this shit into high gear.”
Holly had entered the pyramid ten years ago. The dusty halls were plain and featureless, an endless maze of torch-lit corridors.
She’d run out of food and water a month after she’d entered. Surprisingly enough, she didn’t need either one. Every time she became hungry or thirsty, she’d start walking again, and the urge to eat or drink would disappear. The magic inside the pyramid wasn’t that magical—all it did was keep her alive so she could keep moving. A dim part of her found this amazing, but by and large, she was too worn to care. A lifetime—
—of tedium had drained her of passion, bled her of curiosity. She had become a brutish ghost, wandering the halls of an empty monument. Who was I? she’d wonder. Who am I? Her previous life felt like a dream. A fantasy of someone who’d barely existed, or worse—someone who’d existed but didn’t matter.
I matter. I do. Even after all she’d lost, all she’d forgotten, she clung to the thought with stubborn obstinacy.
I matter. She believed this down to the core of her being.
But her endless slog made it into a lie.
Dee’s aura began to shift, exploding with jags and spikes.
Peter glanced to either side, locking eyes with Kora and Eun. [Zen zaps!] he projected in body-language somatics. [Now!] He reached into his pocket and stuffed a handful of mushrooms into his mouth, crunching them down with aggressive chomps. A snap of his fingers, and their perception went Slideways; the double O negative had already done it to a mild degree, but now their senses went full-on extradimensional.
An eight-leg clutch of ten-foot spider limbs erupted from Dissona’s belly, pressing the floor and lifting her up. Her entire body was covered in violet flames—purple-black lashes that flailed about in whip-like tendrils. The three teen-heroes couldn’t tell if what they were seeing was purely psychic, or if it was also physical.
Their confusion vanished a moment later. A guy called out: “Holy shit—her eyes are glowing! And she’s got SPIDER LEGS!”
Dissona’s leg plunged into the dude’s mouth (Peter saw it was Jeff Gormley) and his body began withering in greedy lurches. Dissona’s legs were apparently proboscis—the one inside Jeff was drinking his essence like a thirsty athlete might gulp down a glass of water.
“AHHHHHH…FINALLY!” she declared in a double-toned voice. “I’VE BEEN WAITING TO FEED ON YOU INSECTS FOR THREE GODDAMN MONTHS!”
Prom-goers scattered in all directions, screaming and shoving as they tried to flee. Dissona simply grinned as she absorbed the last bits of vitality from the dry, mummified husk.
Peter’s eyes steeled over. [Go-time.] he projected to Eun and Kora. [Battle-suits.]
The three teens grabbed the tabs on their dresses (tuxedo, in Peter’s case), and yanked them outward. Their formal wear slid off in a whispery ruffle, revealing their sleek-as-fuck, diode-lined uniforms.
“YOU THINK YOUR PALTRY HUMAN TECH CAN DEFEAT MY SORCERY?” Dissona thundered. “THINK AGAIN, FUCKWITS!” Her right foreleg withdrew from Jeff’s body with a wet SPLUTCH. She waved it dismissively at the three teens. “KEEP THEM BUSY,” she ordered Blake and his goons. “I’M HUNGRY AS HELL, AND I’M ABOUT TO GO CHEAT-DAY CRAZY.”
Blake and his followers dropped to the ground and started spasming, tuxedos shredding as their demonic carapaces began pushing through their skin.
Peter smirked. [Ain’t nothing new, guys. We’ve beaten these fuckers a thousand times over.]
“YOU DON’T THINK I KNEW WHAT YOU WERE DOING?” She decapitated Sophie Alonzo with a swipe of a foreleg, and wrapped its spiny length around the spasming corpse. ‘I WAS KEEPING YOU BUSY, COCKSUCKERS—BLAKE AND HIS IDIOTS WEREN’T TAPPING THEIR FULL POTENTIAL. PREPARE TO GET BEATEN AND FUCKED TO DEATH.”
She arched back, lifted Sophie’s body into the air like an upturned water bottle, and drank from her gushing neck-stump with greedy fervor. Her glowing eyes bulged obscenely wide as freshets of red poured down her face and painted her dress completely red.
As Blake and his companions rose to their feet—hulked up, red-skinned, and sporting small pairs of protruding fangs and forehead horns—Dissona busted through the wall and out int downtown San Francisco. Yells of “Oh my God!” and “What the fuck is THAT?” filtered in from outside.
Her parting words were loud and clear: “AU REVOIR, FUCKSTICKS. HAVE FUN GETTING TORTURED!”
The thing called Holly had spent a thousand years inside the pyramid. She was now convinced that her previous life had been a dream, and this endless trudge was her only reality.
She vaguely recalled she was supposed to find something. The Eye of Skylor? Scylish?
She couldn’t remember. All she knew was she had to keep going. Even though she’d lost track of who she was, she had to continue. Her whole being was designed around that need.
(Everyone’s beings were, come to think of it).
After another millenia, Holly’s desire finally gave way to curiosity. Why was she searching? Why was the pyramid keeping her alive? Was she alive? Had she been slaughtered by one of the face-stealers, and simply fallen into a strange, maudlin limbo?
And the question that nagged her with increasing persistence:
Should she stop walking? Should she sit down and just stop?
No. She shook her shaggy, white-haired head and continued trudging. She was supposed to punish someone. She was supposed to return to her home world and rule its people with an iron fist.
She was supposed to be in control, goddammit.
And just as that thought bubbled to the fore—the only thought that had evoked any passion in over five hundred years—she found what she’d been looking for.
[Here they come!] Peter projected. [We don’t have weights, but we know their movement patterns. Also, watch out for whatever Dee was talking about—she implied they’ve got some new tricks up their sleeves!]
Blake and his demons rushed the teens. Through some trick of their enhanced psyches, Peter, Eun, and Kora suddenly heard the Star Wars Attack theme, the same piece of music that cued up when Han and Luke were in the Falcon and engaging TIE fighters with a pair of AG-2G quad laser cannons.
[Oh FUCK yeah!] Peter ran toward the first demon-jock—Bryce Kelsey—and leapt high into a Bruce-worthy side kick. His battle-suit’s diodes lit with a flash—its cutting-edge circuitry converted kinetic energy into channeled light—and hit the ground rolling. Bryce stumbled back and let out a frustrated growl (as he always had in their previous fights) but this time, instead of charging, he rooted his weight and aimed his fist at Peter. Dark, misty calculus ran up and down his forearm, forming into a hellish version of Senkilo’s Cannon. Machine-gun bursts of uneven shards erupted from the construct, following Peter as he cut diagonally into another roll, then flowed to his feet and jackknifed over the DJ stand. Infernal munitions cut apart turntables, mixers, and DJ Wreckage’s open laptop. Peter kept running, veering left and heading for the wall.
[Guys!] he projected. [They’re packing arcane firearms!]
Kora reached into her utility belt for her key-ring weapons, tossed them in the air, yelled the magic phrase that caused them to change into a full-size sword and shield, and jumped into a somersault. On her second flip, she grabbed her gear and landed lightly on her feet, taking a pair of lunging steps and slashing two demons across their chests. Ragged scars of light opened on their torsos, flaring into blinding supernovas as she charged past them and spun onto her knees, sliding forward and briefly transforming into a waist-high whirlwind. Her body served as the locus for her sword and her shield, which flashed and glimmered as they twirled around her. The barbarian princess become a weaponized cyclone; she took out three more jocks by slashing them across their thighs and shins. They reared back and howled at the ceiling, just before their wounds erupted with star-like brilliance.
Kora jammed the ball of her right bootie against the floor, and exploded up like a sprinter from a starting block. She coiled her body, readying herself to leap into an aerial twist, but a barrage of black and green bolts forced her to skid to a stop and duck behind her shield. She leaned into its curve and gritted her teeth, rocking back and forth with the percussive force of each blast.
[Come on Peter!] Eun yelled. [Let’s fuckstart these assholes in their stupid fucking heads!] She sprinted into a Matrix triple-kick, striking Larry Helsinki in the center of his neck with her tech-bootied sole. Her battle-suit’s weave redistributed the impact throughout its circuitry, then channeled it back into Larry’s neck, amplifying the power of her strike by orders of magnitude. Bright sparks of purple leapt off her feet, singing the air in front of Larry’s face.
‘RUAH!” he screamed, swiping the air as he backpedaled from the strike. “RUK KRYAK TIEYAKH-KIKH!” Angry red swells arose on his face. Unlike the rough, craggy tissue that constituted his demonic skin, the boils on his cheeks were weepy and pustulent. They spat and hissed with thick, yellowish goo that stank like brimstone and rotting meat.
Peter ducked a swing and chin-checked Blake with a rising uppercut. The contact from his fist evoked a sizzling flare of dazzling green light. The feedback lit his suit up with a Tron-style gleam. [We can hurt these assholes! This is a helluva lot better than using dumbbells!]
[Watch out, Peter!] Eun spear-tackled him right as two demonoids leapt at the space he’d just occupied; their horned heads colliding with a painful THUNK.
Peter rolled right, Eun rolled left. They sprang to their feet and ran for their lives as Blake and his demonoids unleashed a scattershot blast of magical ordnance. Spellcrafted wrist-guns, rifles, and shoulder-launchers tore apart the ballroom with fantastic bursts of symbol-threaded rays. Studs and drywall blew apart into explosive showers of wood and powder.
The three teens were now focused on evading the blasts. Kora was running sideways, hunched behind her shield, occasionally cutting through a magic projectile with her enchanted sword, while Peter and Eun were sprinting towards opposite sides of the room. Eun ran up a wall and flipped off it, landing on Jayce Wilson’s shoulders in a sitting position—her shins were draped down the front of his chest, her thighs squeezed tight around his ears—and arched backwards, touching the floor with her hands and using her thigh-squeeze to throw him by his head. He landed on the crown of his skull, punching a small pair of holes in the oak-paneled floor with his tiny forehead horns. His ponderous body rebounded off the deck as Eun rose to her feet and spun into a side kick.
“FUCK you!” she yelled, kicking him square in the chest while he was still in the air. The kinetic feedback manifested as a pixelated blast of glowing tendrils. Jayce went flying back into the unattended DJ stand, smashing it into a bajillion fragments.
Peter, meanwhile, was making full use of his battle-suit’s enhancements, whirling across the floor like a breakdancing dervish. He threw a flurry of chops and kicks, putting Eddie Gordo from Tekken (the Capoeira fighter) to absolute shame. Glinting sparks flew from each contact; his blows weren’t as decisive as Eun’s or Kora’s, but for each strike his friends threw, he threw dozens. The air lit up with a rapid-fire web of cracks and pops, marking the space around him with a razzle-dazzle storm of blinding incandescence.
“RUK QARTHOT YIKH THANTER!” Blake screamed, grabbing demons by the shoulders and throwing them left and right. A second later Peter realized it wasn’t random; the head jock was arranging them into a firing line.
[Eun! Kora!] he projected as they finished forming up. [WE NEED TO—]
[Cover your ears, close your eyes and GET LOW!] Eun shouted.
As the demons’ weaponry charged up with a high pitched eeeeEEEEEEEEEE, Eun whirled in place, slicing her arms around her like an anime ninja and casting Barrion’s Blind. Shimmering, marble-sized orbs zipped from her fingers, right into the midst of the demonoid jocks. The three teen-heroes dropped to the floor and flattened out. Kora couldn’t completely cover her left ear (due to the fact she was holding a shield), but she followed suit as best she could. Peter flinched and swore as the innocuous-looking orbs detonated with skull-shattering pops. Even though his eyes were closed, he could still see bright, sunfire radiance leaking past his lids. The concussive force of each detonation rattled his insides and physically pushed him with miniature gusts of artificial wind. He could only imagine what was happening to the demonoids.
Peter, despite being blasted and rocked by the thunderous spell, still managed to keep his composure. He paid attention to the pops, waiting for the explosions to abate so he could—
[Go!] Eun projected.
Peter surged to his feet and charged the nearest demonoid: Aiden Hansley. He threw a fusion combo that mixed wing-chun short-strikes with Keysi elbow slashes, driving the jock back a dozen feet before dropping to a haunch and kicking both feet out with a kung-fu backsweep.
[They’re not going down with a single slash!] Kora emoted. [Dee’s juiced them up! They’re a helluva lot tougher than—]
Peter looked over and saw her soccer-punt a demon full-force in his crotch—it would have smashed a regular pair of testicles and guaranteed a trip to the emergency room if she’d done it to a regular person—and catch his chin with her knee as he bent over in pain. She circled her blade into a reverse grip, point facing down, and plunged it into the center of the jock’s back.
[HYAAAH!!!] She pulled the sword out and spun away.
Peter felt a flash of horror—Kora had thrust a goddamn sword through the dude’s chest—but it disappeared a split-second. Not only was the fate of the world at stake, but the just-stabbed demon was starting to morph into Todd Murphy.
[Okay—got it. I need to impale them.] Kora whirled her blade back into guard and skip-stepped into a forward lunge, thrusting the point of her blade through Chet Walker’s red-skinned chest. [Slow the others down for me, will you?] She ducked beneath a pair of claw-swings and kick-flipped a jock beneath his chin. Her battle-suited boot lit with a dynamite flare of kinetic feedback as one leg followed the other, somersaulting her torso fully around. She landed lightly on her feet and smashed a demon across the face with a shield-assisted backhand. As her assailant recoiled, she swiveled into a wicked thrust, punching her sword in and out of his rib cage with ruthless efficiency.
[Eun,] Peter began, [We need to—]
[—protect her flanks.] Eun finished. [I know!]
The two teens fell in on either side of Kora, beating the shit out of any dickhole who tried to close with her. Peter and Eun now looked like life-size, quick-flashing diodes; the circuitry on their battle-suits was erupting with near-constant feedback. The air was filled with sizzling gleams as their gloved fists and bootied feet amplified the force of their psychedelically augmented strikes. Forget the dance-floor lighting—the three-teen heroes were putting on an arcane lightshow that would rival Disney World’s gaudiest fucking attraction.
[We’ve almost got ’em all!] Peter shouted.
Kora was providing a decent span of cover from magical ordnance with her Alantil-blessed shield—a transparent, blue-green barrier had expanded from its edges, a ten by twenty oval—while Peter and Eun were making sure that no one could engage her from the sides or the back. Kora was pushing forward, knocking jocks off-kilter with a lightning-fast combo or decisive throw. Once they were stunned and exposed, she’d ram her sword into their hell-skinned chests, cutting through their carapace and inflicting a wound that would restore them to their human forms.
[Blake’s the last one!] Eun powered into a spinning roundhouse kick that cracked the side of Drew Bilderberg’s crimson neck. His arms flew up, he half-stepped sideways, and Kora speared him through the chest with the point of her sword.
Blake was equipped with a hip-held machine gun that appeared to be made out of squirming black mist. It looked like a gothic, steampunk firearm whose insubstantial outline shifted and flowed. It shot spiky little rounds—pitch-black jags that chattered and sparked off Kora’s shield-borne forcefield. The surrounding architecture was torn to shreds by the snapping ricochets.
[Peter! Eun!] Kora projected. [He’s firing too fast—keeping me pinned! I need you to distract him so I can lower my shield and stab him in the chest!]
[On it.] Peter and Eun replied simultaneously.
He rolled right and she rolled left, breaking from the cover of Kora’s barrier. They darted toward Blake from both sides, running in long, looping arcs across the floor. His head swung from side to side as he watched them rush. His fanged mouth opened in a furious snarl as he realized he couldn’t target either one while suppressing Kora with his demonic machine-gun.
Peter leapt into the air, cocking his left foot beneath him and extending his right toward Blake’s head. Eun did the same, only from the other side.
Peter started: [You are—]
[FUCKED!] Eun finished. Her foot hit at the same time as Peter’s. Their tech-bootied soles elicited a pair of basketball-sized sparks from the demon’s ears.
“RUUUHH!!” The demon swung around, peppering the walls around him with hellish bullets. Peter and Eun ducked while Kora drove forward. For a brief moment, the air appeared to be filled with confetti, due to the drywall and detritus that was bursting and popping all around them.
The zen zaps kicked into high gear, slowing their perception to a lazy crawl. Peter and Eun jumped, twisted, and hit the ground rolling like slo-mo action stars. Each of Kora’s steps echoed loudly off the dance floor, accented by the steady choom-choom-choom of Blake’s Faustian hip-cannon. Her mouth yawed open in a protracted roar, her sword cocked back high above her head. It caught the light like a gleaming scorpion’s tail.
Blake saw her coming, but he couldn’t do a damn thing about it. His red-browed eyes twitched wide with fear. Kora’s sword came down toward his chest, blazing like an exploding star, then—
—plunged into the base of his throat. The blade slid down through his body and skewered his organs. He stumbled back, the hilt of the sword protruding up from between his clavicles.
“Dude.” Peter’s face twisted in a mixture of disgust and fascination. “Demon shish-kebab.”
Kora strode forward like the badass she was, then yanked out her weapon from Blake’s body. Light poured from the wound in an increasingly bright flare, then culminated in a wash of pale luminescence that made the three teens cover their eyes. When they opened them, they saw that Blake had reverted to his human form.
“Wha…what just…” He was on his knees, looking from one upturned hand to the other. His eyes drifted up and he regarded his three former enemies as if he was seeing them for the first time.
“How did I…what did you…” A flicker of recognition twisted his expression into a complicated mess—horror, anxiety, and a deep, unwanted knowledge that had echoed across eons and woven itself into the fabric of existence—but it all dropped away in the next instant.
“I…I.. don’t remember,” he said slowly. But this was a lie; they could see it in his eyes.
What happened next sent a shiver of revulsion racing through the teens.
Blake closed his eyes and became absolutely still. He was already on his knees, but now he sat on his haunches like a samurai kneeling in seiza. His face was composed, his body unnaturally calm. To the psychedelically augmented teens, his aura started going batshit crazy. It had previously been stuffed with gloating face-emojis and boastful little muscle men, all circling around him in a clockwise gyre, but now it began to reverse—every symbol surrounding Blake began spinning backward, whirling left instead of right. Their movements reversed as well; everything they’d been doing a few seconds prior was reiterated through their bodies, only in contrary order, like they were being forced to rewind. They settled into place, noticeably smaller and less angry than they had been a second ago. Peter, Kora, and Eun took an instinctive step back.
[Whoa…] Peter murmured.
Blake looked around, puzzled. “What just happened? Why is the dance floor all…” He got to his feet and dusted himself off. “Where is everybody? Did I miss the after party?” He regarded his former enemies with bewilderment and concern. “What the fuck?”
The three teens exchanged glances.
[Holy shit—] Peter began.
Kora interjected with: [He forced himself to—]
[—forget what he did.] Eun finished. She looked him up and down with astonishment and horror.
Blake Turner had forced himself to forget who he was.