Peter had lost all sense of time. As the music ended, it simultaneously felt like he’d been dancing forever and like he’d just begun.
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.
Peter kissed his fingertips and flung them out to all and sundry. “Y’all are some bad motherfuckers! Thank you!” Wreckage was curtsying with an imaginary dress and 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 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.”
It had been ten years 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 food or water. Every time she was hungry or thirsty, she’d start walking again, and the urge to eat or drink would disappear. 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 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. After all that she’d lost, all she’d forgotten, she clung to this 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 nasty 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. 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 were full-on, no-shit extradimensional.
An eight-leg clutch of ten-foot spider limbs erupted from Dissona’s belly, pressing against 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 motherfucking SPIDER LEGS!”
Dissona plunged a foreleg down a dude’s mouth (Peter saw it was Jeff Gormley) and his body began withering in greedy lurches. The Pain Lord’s limbs were apparently probosci—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. “BEEN WAITING TO EAT YOU FUCKERS FOR THREE GODDAMN MONTHS!”
Prom-goers scattered in all directions, screaming and shoving as they tried to flee. Dissona grinned as she absorbed the last bits of energy from Jeff’s 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 garments 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 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, their tuxedos shredding as demonic carapaces pushed through their skin.
Peter smirked. [Ain’t nothing new. 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 spiny-legged swipe, then snatched up her spasming corpse. ‘I WAS KEEPING YOU BUSY, COCKSUCKERS! BLAKE AND HIS IDIOTS HAVEN’T YET TAPPED THEIR FULL POTENTIAL! PREPARE TO GET BEATEN AND FUCKED TO DEATH!”
She arched back, lifted Sophie’s body into the air, and drank from her neck-stump with greedy fervor. Her glowing eyes bulged obscenely as freshets of red poured down her face and painted the remains of her dress completely red.
Blake and his companions rose to their feet—now transformed into beast-ass demon-jocks—as Dissona busted through the wall into downtown San Francisco. Yells of “Oh my God!” and “What 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 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. Even though she’d lost track of who she was, she had to continue. Her whole being was designed around that need.
(Everyone’s being, 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 sit down and 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 as that thought bubbled to the fore—the only thought that had evoked any 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 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 top of 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’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 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 she twirled them around her. 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 the blocks. 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 jerkily with the percussive force of each blast.
[Come on Peter!] Eun yelled. She sprinted into a Matrix triple-kick, striking Larry Helsinki in the center of his neck with her tech-bootied feet. Her battle-suit’s weave redistributed the impact throughout its circuitry and channeled it back into Larry’s neck, amplifying the power of each 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 desperately. “RUK KRYAK TIEYAKH-KIKH!” Angry red swells arose on his throat. Unlike the rough, craggy tissue that constituted his demonic skin, the boils on his skin were weepy and pustulent. They spat and hissed with thick, yellow goo that stank like brimstone and rotting meat.
Peter ducked a swing and 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 just with our suits! This is a helluva lot better than using dumbbells!]
[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. They sprang to their feet and ran like hell as Blake and his goons unleashed a scattershot blast of magical ordnance. Spellcrafted wrist-guns, rifles, and shoulder-launchers tore up 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 utterly focused on evading the blasts. Kora was running sideways, hunched behind her shield, 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—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 landed on the crown of his skull, punching a small pair of holes in the oak-paneled floor with his devilish horns. His ponderous body rebounded 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 was rendered into a pixelated shower of glowing tendrils. Jayce went flying 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 (the Capoeira fighter) to absolute shame. Glinting sparks flew from his feet and hands. His blows weren’t as decisive as Eun’s or Kora’s, but for each strike his friends threw, he threw dozens. The air was ablaze 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 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 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 assaulted his body with miniature gusts. He could only imagine what was happening to the demonoids.
Despite being blasted and rocked by the spell, he still managed to keep his composure. 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 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 yards before dropping to a haunch and kicking Aiden’s 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 right in his crotch (under normal circumstances, it would have smashed a regular pair of testicles and guaranteed the guy a trip to the emergency room) 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 later. Not only was the fate of the world at stake, but the just-stabbed demon was starting to morph back into Todd Murphy. Still breathing, still alive.
[Okay—got it. I need to impale 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. She ducked beneath a swinging claw and kick-flipped a jock beneath his chin. Her battle-suited boot lit with two flares of dynamite 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-enhanced backhand. As her assailant recoiled, she swiveled into a wicked thrust, punching her sword in and out of his ribs with ruthless speed.
[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 giant, quick-flashing diodes; the circuitry on their battle-suits was erupting with near-constant feedback. The air popped 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’s gaudiest fucking attraction.
[We’ve almost got ’em all!] Peter shouted.
Kora was providing decent cover with her Alantil-blessed shield (a transparent, blue-green barrier had expanded from its edges, a ten by twenty oval that deflected the demons’ munitions) while Peter and Eun were making good and damn sure that no one could engage her from the sides or the back. The barbarian princess 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 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.
Blake had equipped himself with a hip-held machine gun that appeared to be made out of squirming black mist—like a gothic, steampunk firearm whose insubstantial outline shifted and flowed. Its spiky little rounds—pitch-black jags that chattered and sparked off Kora’s shield-borne forcefield—tore the surrounding architecture to bedraggled shreds.
[Peter! Eun!] Kora projected. [His weight of fire—it’s 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 dance floor. Blake’s 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 created a pair of basketball-sized sparks as they hit the demon’s ears.
“RUUUHH!!” Blake swung around, peppering the walls 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.
At that moment, the zen zaps kicked into higher 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 floor, accented by the steady, atonal thunder 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 directly into the base of his throat, sliding down through his body and skewering his organs. He stumbled back, the hilt of the sword protruding up from 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 her weapon from Blake’s body. Light poured from the wound in an increasingly bright flare, making the three teens cover their eyes. When they opened them, they saw that 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 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 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.
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.
His aura started going batshit crazy. It had previously been stuffed with gloating face-emojis and boastful little muscle men, all circling him in a clockwise gyre, but now it began to reverse—every symbol surrounding Blake began spinning backward, whirling left instead of right. Then they slowed down and settled into place, noticeably smaller—and less angry—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?” 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…he—]
[—he erased his own memory.] Eun finished. She looked him up and down with astonishment and horror.
Blake Turner had just forced himself to forget who he was.