Peter had lost all sense of time. As the music ended, it felt like he’d been dancing forever and simultaneously, it felt like he’d also just begun.
Everyone in the room was cheering or whistling. He kissed his fingers and flung them out to all and sundry. “Y’all are some bad motherfuckers! Thank you!” Wreckage was curtsying with an imaginary dress, taking large, exaggerated bows.
At that moment, Dee’s voice boomed through the gym. “Yawn. Seen it before.” Her words were followed by a squelch of feedback. Everyone looked toward the DJ stand. Dee, who holding a mic up to her face, 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.”
It had been three decades since Holly had walked into the golden pyramid. The dusty halls were plain and featureless, an endless maze of torch-lit corridors. She’d run out of provisions long ago.
Surprisingly, she didn’t need to eat or drink. The magic in the pyramid kept her alive, seemingly so she could keep moving and never stop. A dim part of her found this amazing, but by and large, she was too worn down to actually care. A lifetime—
—of tedium had drained her of passion, bled her of curiosity. She had become a brutish ghost, haunting the guts of an empty monument. Who was I? she’d wonder. Who am I? Her previous life was a fanciful dream. A fantasy of someone who’d barely existed.
Or worse—someone who’d existed but didn’t matter.
I matter. I do.
She clung to this thought with stubborn obstinacy.
But her endless slog made it into a lie.
Dee’s aura shifted abruptly, exploding with jags and nasty spikes.
Peter glanced to either side, locking eyes with Kora and Eun. [Zen zaps!] he projected in body-language somatics. [Now!] They reached into their pockets and stuffed handfuls of mushrooms into their mouths. 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 psychonaut.
Ten-foot spider legs erupted from Dee’s belly, pressing down and lifting her feet above the floor. Her entire body was covered in violet flames—purple-black lashes that flailed about in whip-like tendrils.
A guy called out: “Holy shit—she’s on fire! And she’s got motherfucking SPIDER LEGS!”
Dissona plunged a foreleg into the dude’s mouth (Peter recognized him as Jeff Gormley) and his body withered in greedy lurches. The Pain Lord’s limbs were proboscis, apparently—the one inside Jeff was drinking his essence like a thirsty athlete gulping water. Seconds later, he was reduced to a dry, mummified husk.
“AHHHHHH…FINALLY!” she declared in a double-toned voice. “BEEN WAITING TO EAT YOU FUCKERS FOR THREE GODDAMN MONTHS!” Prom-goers scattered in eery direction, screaming and shoving each other as they tried to flee.
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 garments slid off in a whispery ruffle, revealing their sleek-as-fuck, diode-lined uniforms.
“YOU THINK YOUR PALTRY TECH CAN DEFEAT MY SORCERY?” Dissona thundered. “THINK AGAIN, FUCKWITS!” Her right foreleg withdrew from Jeff with a wet SPLUTCH. She waved it dismissively at the three teens. “KEEP THEM BUSY,” she ordered Blake and his goons. “I’M ABOUT TO GO CHEAT-DAY CRAZY!” Blake and his followers dropped to the ground and started spasming, their tuxes shredding as demonic carapaces pushed through their skin.
Peter smirked. [Ain’t nothing new. We’ve beaten these fuckers a thousand times over.]
“I KNEW WHAT YOU WERE DOING, ASSWIPE!” She decapitated Sophie Alonzo with a spiny-legged swipe, then snatched up her spurting corpse. ‘BLAKE AND HIS IDIOTS HAVEN’T YET TAPPED THEIR FULL POTENTIAL! PREPARE TO GET BEATEN AND FUCKED TO DEATH!”
Dee arched back, lifting Sophie’s spasming, headless body into the air, and drank from her neck-stump with greedy fervor. Dee’s eyes bulged obscenely as freshets of red poured down her face, painting her tattered dress with crimson streaks.
Blake and his companions, now transformed into beast-ass demon-jocks, rose to their feet as Dissona busted through the wall into downtown San Francisco. Yells of “Oh my God!” and “What is THAT?” filtered in from outside.
“AU REVOIR, FUCKSTICKS. HAVE FUN GETTING TORTURED! AHAHAHA!!!”
The thing called Holly had now spent a thousand years inside the pyramid. She vaguely recalled she was supposed to find something. The Eye of Skylor? Scylash?
She couldn’t remember. All she knew was she had to keep going. Her entire being had congealed around that singular need. After another millennia of aimless wandering, her desire gave way to faint curiosity. Why was the pyramid keeping her alive? Was she alive? Had she been slaughtered by one of the face-stealers, and fallen into a strange, maudlin limbo?
And the question that nagged her with increasing persistence:
Should she sit down and stop?
No. She shook her shaggy, white-haired head and kept trudging. She was supposed to punish someone. She was supposed to rule with an iron fist. She was meant to control, goddammit.
As that thought bubbled to the fore—the only thought that had evoked any form of passion in the past five centuries—she found what she’d been looking for.
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 he 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 wrist, forming into a hellish version of Senkilo’s Cannon.
Machine-gun bursts of uneven shards spat from the barrel, following Peter as he cut diagonally into another roll. Hee flowed to his feet and jacknifed over the top of the DJ stand, but the munitions followed, cutting apart turntables, mixers, and DJ Wreckage’s open laptop. Peter rolled again and kept running, veering left and heading for the wall.
[Guys!] he projected. [They’ve got arcane firearms!]
Kora reached into her utility belt for her key-ring weapons, tossed them into the air, yelled the magic phrase that made them 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, light-filled scars opened on their torsos, flaring into blinding supernovas as she charged past them and spun onto her knees, briefly transforming into a waist-high whirlwind and slashing three more jocks across their thighs and shins. They reared back and howled at the ceiling, their wounds erupting with star-like brilliance.
Kora exploded from the floor like a sprinter from the blocks. She coiled her body, readying herself to leap into an aerial twist, but a barrage of black-green bolts forced her to skid to a halt and duck behind her shield. She leaned into its curve and gritted her teeth, rocking jerkily with each blast.
[Come on Peter!] Eun whirled into a spinning wheel-kick, catching Larry Helsinki in the center of his neck with her tech-bootied foot. Her battle-suit redistributed the impact throughout its circuitry and channeled it back into Larry’s neck, amplifying the power of her strike by orders of magnitude. Bright purple sparks leapt off her toes, singing the air in front of Larry’s face.
‘RUAH!” he screamed, swiping the air as he backpedaled wildly. “RUK KRYAK KIKH!” Angry red swells arose on his throat. Unlike his rough, craggy skin, the boils on his neck were weepy and pustulent—they spat and hissed with stinky yellow goo.
A few yards left of him, Peter chin-checked Blake with a rising uppercut. The contact evoked a sizzling green flare and lit his suit with a Tron-style gleam. [We can hurt these assholes with our suits’ kinetics! This is a helluva lot better than using dumbbells!] he crowed.
[Watch out, Peter!] Eun spear-tackled him before two demonoids leapt at the space he’d just occupied. Their horned heads collided with a painful-sounding THUNK.
Peter rolled right, Eun rolled left. It was just in time—magic wrist-guns, rifles, and shoulder-launchers tore up the ballroom with fantastic bursts of symbol-threaded rays. Studs and drywall blew apart all around them in explosive showers of wood and powder. Kora ran sideways, hunched behind her shield, while Peter and Eun sprinted towards opposite sides of the room.
Eun ran up a wall and flipped off it, landing on Jayce Wilson’s shoulders—shins draped down the front of his chest, thighs squeezed tight around his ears—and arched backward, touching the floor with her hands and using her thigh-squeeze to throw him by the head. He flipped upside down and landed on the crown of his skull, punching a small pair of holes in the oak-paneled floor with his devilish horns before he rebounded fiercely off the deck. 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 became a pixelated shower of glowing tendrils. Jayce went flying back into the unattended DJ stand, smashing it into a bajillion fragments.
Peter, meanwhile, was whirling across the floor like a breakdancing dervish. He threw a flurry of chops and kicks, putting Eddie Gordo from Tekken to absolute shame. The air around him was set ablaze by his suit, cracking and popping, a razzle-dazzle storm of blinding incandescence.
“RUK QARTHOT YIKH THANTER!” Blake screamed, grabbing demons by their shoulders and throwing them left and right. It wasn’t random; the head jock was arranging them into a firing line.
[Eun! Kora!] he projected. [WE NEED TO—]
[Cover your ears, close your eyes, and GET LOW!] Eun shouted. She whirled in place, slicing her arms around her like an anime ninja and casting the spell known as 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 did her best, hoping it was enough.
The innocuous-looking orbs detonated with skull-shattering pops. Even though Peter had closed his eyes, bright, sunfire radiance leaked past his lids. Concussive force rattled his insides, assaulting his body with violent tremors. He could only imagine what was happening to the demonoids. He almost felt sorry for them. He paid attention to the pops, waiting for the explosions to stop so he could—
[Go!] Eun projected.
Peter surged to his feet and charged Aiden Hansley, throwing a fusion combo that mixed wing-chun short-strikes with Keysi elbow slashes, driving the jock back a dozen yards before dropping to a haunch and kicking Aiden’s feet out with a kung-fu backsweep.
[They’re not going down, even when I cut them!] Kora emoted wildly. [Dee’s juiced them up! They’re a helluva lot tougher than—]
Peter looked over and saw her soccer-punt a demon right in his crotch (under normal circumstances, it would have smashed a regular pair of testicles and guaranteed a wince-inducing surgery) and knee him in the chin when he bent over. 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 impaled him, for fuck’s sake—but it disappeared a split-second later. The just-stabbed demon was starting to morph back into Todd Murphy.
Still breathing, still alive. Whew. He blew an involuntary sigh of relief.
[Okay—got it. Just need to pierce them.] Kora whirled her blade back into guard and skip-stepped forward into a deep lunge, thrusting her sword through Chet Walker’s red-skinned chest, then ducked a claw-swing and kick-flipped Tagg Hansley beneath his chin. Her battle-suited boot lit with two flares of feedback as one leg followed the other, somersaulting her torso fully around. As her assailant recoiled, she landed lightly and punched her sword in and out of his ribcage.
[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 quick-flashing diodes; the air popped with sizzling gleams as their gloved fists and bootied feet amplified the force of their psychedelically augmented strikes. The three-teen heroes were putting on an arcane lightshow, one that would rival Disney World’s gaudiest fucking attraction.
[We got ’em on the ropes!] Peter shouted.
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, inflicting a wound that would force-revert them to human form.
[Blake’s the last one!] Eun powered into a spinning roundhouse kick and cracked the side of Drew Bilderberg’s crimson neck. As he half-stepped sideways, Kora speared him through the chest.
Blake was equipped with a hip-held machine gun that appeared to be made out of squirming black mist. Its spiky little rounds—pitch-black jags that chattered and sparked off Kora’s shield—tore apart the surrounding architecture.
[Peter! Eun!] Kora projected. [He’s got me pinned! I need you to distract him so I can lower my shield and make a run at him!]
[On it.] Peter and Eun replied simultaneously.
He rolled right, she rolled left. They darted toward Blake from both sides, running in long, arcing loops across the dance floor. Blake’s head swung from side to side. His fanged mouth opened in a furious snarl as he realized he couldn’t target them while suppressing Kora with his demonic machine-gun. Peter leapt high in the air, cocking his left foot beneath him and extending his right toward Blake. Eun did the same, only from the other side.
Peter started: [You are—]
[FUCKED!] Eun finished. They kicked Blake’s head at the same time, lighting a pair of basketball-sized sparks by the demon’s ears.
“RUUUHH!!” Blake swung around, peppering the walls with hellish bullets. For a brief moment, the air was filled with drywall confetti. All around them, fragments and shreds burst and popped.
Peter and Eun hit the ground rolling. Thanks to the zen zaps, their perception decelerated. Each of Kora’s steps echoed loudly off the floor, accented by the steady, atonal thunder of Blake’s hip-cannon. Her mouth yawed open in a protracted roar, and her sword cocked back above her head, catching the light like a gleaming scorpion’s tail.
Blake saw her coming. His eyes said it all; he knew he was fucked.
Kora’s sword came down toward his chest, blazing like an exploding star, then—
—plunged directly into the base of his throat, sliding through his body and skewering his organs. He stumbled back, the hilt of her sword protruding up from his clavicles.
“Dude.” Peter’s face twisted in a mixture of disgust and fascination. “Demon shish-kebab.”
Kora strode forward, yanking her weapon out from Blake’s body. Light poured from the wound in an blinding flare, making the three teens turn away and cover their eyes. When they opened them, they saw Blake had reverted to human form.
“Wha…what just…” He was on his knees, looking down at one hand, then the other. His eyes drifted up; he regarded his three former enemies as if he was seeing them for the first time.
“How did I…what did you…” His expression twisted into a complicated mess—horror, anxiety, and a deep, unwanted knowledge that echoed across eons—but it 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.
Blake closed his eyes and became absolutely still. He was already on his knees, but now he sat back like a kneeling samurai. His face was composed, his body unnaturally calm.
His aura started going batshit crazy. It had previously been stuffed with gloating emojis and boastful little muscle men, all circling him in a clockwise gyre, but now it began to switch directions—every symbol began spinning backward, whirling left instead of right. Then they slowed and settled into place, noticeably smaller than they’d been a moment 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?”
The three teens exchanged glances.
[Holy shit—] Peter began.
[—he erased his memory.] Eun finished. She looked him up and down with astonishment and horror.
The jock, through sheer force of will, had forgotten who he was.