The air was heavy with… Robert wasn’t exactly sure. But something definitely felt odd about the air that day. The smell of freshly cut grass tickled at Robert’s nose, but that wasn’t it. He bit on the inside of his lip, attempting to discern the sensation he felt. He was knocked out of his thinking by the sound of Cory panting up the hill. He chuckled “C’mon Cory. You can’t be this out of shape. Eli’s been making this walk every day the past few days. I can’t imagine he’s in any better shape than you are.”
Cory hunched over, wheezing. Robert held in another laugh, seeing his hunched over roommate gasping for air, looking like a worn-out scarecrow. “Eli’s scrawny but he’s actually,” Cory huffed, “pretty in shape. He plays a lot of HDM.”
Robert raised an eyebrow. “HDM?”
“Hop Dance Mania.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t look like much but he’s got pretty good stamina.” He wiped a bead of sweat out of his eye. “Damn it, why did Eli have to get a job at the very top of the hill?”
Robert shrugged and pressed the button to the crosswalk. “Hell if I know. I only met you two a week ago. You’re the one who has known him since kindergarten.” Robert scratched at his chestnut brown hair. “Why were you so insistent we go bug him at work today anyway? We haven’t gone any other day he’s been working.”
It was Cory’s turn to shrug as they crossed the street and continued their accent up the hill. “I don’t know. Last day before classes started. Plus bothering Eli is always something I’m up for. Though this walk is making me really regret moving into Burton Hall.”
“Oh please. From what I’ve observed of you two, you’re bored when he’s not nearby for you to pester.”
Cory chuckled. “And you’ve only known us for a week. You catch on quick.”
The hill leveled off as they approached Loose Change, an arcade on near Schuyler Adamson University campus. “I wonder if the owner thought Loose Change was a clever name for an arcade,” Robert mused.
Cory smirked as they walked through the arcade’s parking lot. “I bet he just had a kid in middle school who came up with it.”
Robert inspected the yellow-painted building as they approached. It’s exterior was stucco and didn’t have a single dirty mark on it, unlike all the other aged, bricked buildings that tended to surround campus. He had been told it was recently renovated, but he didn’t realize how recent it was. The building looked as good as new. “I wonder how someone actually gets into the arcade business. I mean, I just can’t see some Mr. Moneybags type saying, ‘Ah yes, a small building filled with video game machines. This is a good investment.'”
Cory opened the door, flicking some sweat off his bangs before walking in. “You analyze things too much. Now where’s Eli?”
As Robert followed Cory in, a coldness scratched at his bones. The air, once again, felt heavier. It wasn’t painful, mind you, but he gasped nonetheless. He shook his head, unsure of what had just happened. He glanced at Cory, but his dormmate quickly went back to scanning the arcade for Eli. Was Robert getting sick? If he was sick though, why did he feel fine except for brief moments?
Cory’s entire body perked up and he pointed to a short, stout employee of the arcade wiping down the screen of a fighting game. “There he is.”
Even though Cory had only spoken at a normal volume, Eli’s head immediately lifted at the sound of Cory’s voice. Robert momentarily forgot about the chill he felt and chuckled as Eli turned and looked right at Cory from across the arcade. Cory and Eli may have been friends, but at times they responded to one another as if they were twins, having a keen sense of what the other was about to do from the years of hanging around one another. “Oh no. What are you doing here, Cory? I don’t have time to goof around. I’m working.”
Cory casually strode over to his friend. “Here for you? What makes you say that?”
“Because you love to torture me.”
“Nonsense,” Cory dismissed. “,we’re just here for the ample entertainment that your place of employment provides!”
Eli rolled his eyes. “Whatever, liar. You were just bored and dragged Rob here so I’d entertain you.”
Cory’s look of confidence melted into desperation. “You don’t understand! All he was doing was playing that stupid MMO he always plays! It was so boring!”
Robert took his turn rolling his eyes. “First of all, it’s called Aspect Realms and it’s the most played computer game in the world right now. Secondly, Eli, I was the one who did the dragging. I practically had to carry him up the hill. How did you let him get in such poor shape? You really need to feed him more often and take him on a walk once in a while.”
Eli smirked and pointed at the sweat-marks on Cory’s shirt. “Maybe I should. Geez, how can you be sweating so much? It’s not THAT big of a hill.”
“Maybe not to you, but it’s a pretty damn big hill if you ask me.”
Robert opened his mouth to chime in but quickly found himself sucking in heavy air. He shivered as the chill filled his bones again. Strangely, this time the cold coming from somewhere. As he turned towards the source, the sensation faded again. It was difficult to make out, but he felt as if it came from a corner of the arcade. There were some dull voices coming from that end of the store.
It was only then that Robert realized that Cory and Eli were staring at them. “Rob, you okay?”
Robert quickly faced them. “What? Yeah. I’m fine.”
“You really looked zoned out there for a moment.”
He waved them off dismissively. “Was just thinking.”
Cory chuckled, eager to get the subject away from his lack of any sort of conditioning. “While wincing?”
Not wanting to dwell on the icy sensations, he deflected the comment away. “I was just wondering why there aren’t too many people here. I’d have figured the day before classes start this place would be full.”
Eli groaned. “Yeah. You would, but these stupid middle-schoolers are ruining everything.”
Cory raised an eyebrow. “Middle-schoolers? How? They being obnoxious or something? Can’t you kick them out?”
Eli shook his head and nodded towards a corner of the store, the corner Robert had felt the sensations come from. “No, they haven’t been obnoxious. They’ve just been, well, creepy. We got this new game today named Zombie Mansion and…”
“Sounds like another cookie-cutter horror shooter.”
“Figures. Creativity is taking a nosedive in the industry.”
“Not everything can be an indie film, Cory.”
“I’m not saying it has to be but these generic cloned games are…”
Robert wasn’t interested in hearing the duo argue. He wanted to hear about the game. “Anyway,” Robert interrupted, “what about this group of kids?”
Eli turned away from Cory. “Yeah, anyway, they aren’t doing anything wrong. They just, sort of, I don’t know, look sickly. And they will play another game for a minute or two but they keep coming back to Zombie Mansion after a while. They don’t talk or anything. They just, shamble about. Like zombies. And it has weirded out more than a few customers.” He gave Cory an annoyed look. “Including that HDM girl I told you about a week ago.”
Cory raised an eyebrow and gave a wide grin. “So she came back, huh? Find out her name yet?”
Robert squinted and frowned. Cory and Eli were very tight and could, without realizing it, easily exclude him from their conversations. “And who are we talking about?”
Both turned, both with apologetic expressions. Eli turned to the next machine and started cleaning the screen. “Sorry, the day before you arrived in the dorm I was working. It was my first day and this gorgeous girl with blue hair was here…”
“He loves naturally blue hair,” Cory interrupted.
“But not blue hair. A sort of sky blue color. Anyway, she played HDM for like an hour before leaving and… damn, she’s hot.”
Robert scratched his head. “Naturally blue hair? I don’t think they come blue naturally.”
Cory raised an eyebrow. “Of course they do. They’re just rarer. We had a blue haired girl in our grade for a few years before she moved away in eighth grade.”
“I was crestfallen.”
“He was. True story.”
Robert thought about it for a moment. He had seen more than a few people with blues, greens, and purple hair. There couldn’t be that many people using hair dye. But then again he wasn’t from around here. Maybe they could get more exotic hair colors back west? Though he still felt something was off about that, he decided to play along. “Oh, well, we didn’t have any at my high school then.”
Eli shrugged. “Makes sense. You’re further from the coast and mountains.”
Robert wasn’t sure why that would matter but decided to play along. “So, basically she’s your dream girl?”
Cory chuckled and ribbed Eli with his elbow. “Yeah, according to the story last week, she’s got quite the ass.”
Eli smiled guiltily. “More leggy, but yeah. She does.”
Robert wasn’t as worried about the HDM girl. “So what does this have to do with the middle school boys you were talking about?”
“Oh, right. Yeah, so she was here an hour last week but this week she came, danced for only a few songs, then started watching those boys and got weirded out. She left after only like one round of stomping on the pad!”
Cory chuckled. “Wanted to ogle her some more?”
Eli frowned, though Robert noticed a slight blush. “I was going to try to talk to her. She looked like she might be around our age.”
Cory took a step back and folded his arms. “Woah! Seriously? You’re normally much shyer than that. What’s got you so bold all of the sudden?”
Eli shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s college. Time for a change, maybe?”
Robert moved from behind the row of games that had hidden these middle-schoolers from view. On first glance, Robert decided Eli was a bit quick to say they were middle-school age as they could pass for high school freshmen. But everything else Eli had said was dead on. They were all pale and sweating, as if running a fever. A few were playing other games, but they leaned against it, as if needing the support to be upright. Those that weren’t playing games sat languidly around an enclosed arcade booth.
Robert squinted at the booth. It didn’t look that impressive. Generic, bloody letters spelled out the title of Zombie Mansion. Other than a few simple zombie images splattered on the side, there were no other decorations to differentiate the game. A dull green light glowed beneath the curtains into the gaming booth. What was it about this game that made these boys get sick but keep going into play?
Another wave of cold flowed through Robert. The icy chill in his bones pointed towards Zombie Mansion like a compass. The wave passed and Robert exhaled, unaware he had been holding his breath.
“Dude, you okay?”
Robert jumped a little, having forgotten about his friends talking to his side. “Yeah, I… was just wondering why those guys look so sick.”
Cory glanced over and scoffed. “Yeah, I mean, if they’re all sick why are they playing some stupid rail shooter.” Cory blinked and his eyes went wide, as if a light bulb had just gone off. “Unless it’s actually awesome!”
Robert shook his head and squinted. “What?”
Eli stopped wiping down the machine he was cleaning. “You must be joking.”
“Think about it. What kind of game do you play over again if you’re sick: one that is awesome or one that blows?”
Eli frowned. “It’s just a generic horror rail-shooter.”
Robert watched two boys stagger out of the game. They looked paler than the rest and sweat stained their shirts. Their breathes were labored, as if they breathed the same heavy air Robert did during his chills. One of the boys fell to the ground but picked himself up. A thought occurred to Robert, “Just to make sure, they aren’t getting high in there, are they?”
Eli chuckled. “I thought about that too. But I checked, no funny business going on in there. No smoke, no smell. Still, a better theory than Cory’s good game theory.”
Robert nodded. He didn’t think these boys were lighting up either. It wouldn’t have explained the chills. Then again, what would explain chills that kept pointing in a direction? Maybe the machine reacted strangely to people around it? Then why didn’t it seem to affect any of the employees that had been around the machine like Eli? Regardless, Robert felt a need to figure it out. He pulled a few quarters out of his pocket. “Regardless, let’s test Cory’s theory.”
Cory slapped his hands together and approached the game with Robert. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
“You’re just wasting your money,” Eli shouted after them.
Robert stepped over a boy crouched against one of the neighboring arcade games. It was only as he pushed the curtain aside to step into the arcade booth that Robert started analyzing whether this was a good idea or not. Something was definitely wrong with these boys and something about Zombie Mansion was the cause. And if he wasn’t imagining these cold spells, then the same arcade game was also causing him issues. Being in the belly of the machine that was having these odd effects probably wasn’t smart.
“Something wrong?” Cory asked.
Robert slid into the booth. “No. Just examining the setup.” There was no point in going back now. It made no sense that this game could make him sick along with these kids. He didn’t show any of the same symptoms of whatever sickness they had. At least he didn’t think he did. Besides, why would his bones feel cold and why would they be “pointing” him in the direction of the machine? There was no logical explanation that Robert could think of and he was certain just sitting back and watching younger, dumber boys play the game wouldn’t solve the problem.
He tried to find a comfortable position in the rigid seat. Logically, Eli or some other Loose Change employee would have turned the game off by now if something was wrong with the game. Eli had already examined it and just determined these kids were acting weird. Logically, he knew if an arcade game had been making these kids sick, they would have stopped playing it. But they kept coming back for more. Logically, he knew a video game couldn’t be behind the odd chilling sensations he’d been feeling. After all, that wouldn’t make sense. But despite all the logic of it, Robert knew something was going on with this game.
He could feel it in his bones.
What could it be though? Robert was not superstitious nor a hypochondriac. He prided himself in dealing with the cold reality and keeping calm under pressure. But he couldn’t explain what was going on with any phenomena he knew. So it was time to do the only thing he could think of. It was time to try an experiment.
Robert put in enough quarters for both him and Cory. “Oh, thanks dude.”
He nodded, picking up the gun and taking slow deep breath, unsure what would happen. “No problem. Easier than both of us fumbling through our pockets.” His muscles tensed in anticipation. He reminded himself to relax, not wanting to look too intense should Cory glance at him. Though he had made fast friends of Cory and Eli, their friendship was still young enough that he knew he could set bad impressions.
Cory took a deep breath. “Yeah, no smell whatsoever. I was sure those kids were smokin’ something.”
Robert smirked, eager to let Cory’s jokes ease some of his tension he felt. “Is that why you were in such a rush to get in here?”
Cory clutched at his heart as if wounded. “I’m surprised you think so little of me!”
“Because I’m a sucker for schlocky rail shooters. Guilty pleasure.” Cory winked and pressed the start buttons for both players. “Let’s get this train a’rollin’!”
Robert smiled, leaning back against the still uncomfortable seat. Blood dripped from the top of the game’s screen. A woman’s shrill scream spilled out of speakers with all the sound quality of a broken walkie talkie. The title popped up with pixelated, bloody letters. “Wow, can’t get much more generic than that.”
Cory chuckled. “Yeah, this is going to be awful!”
As the blood trickled down the screen, a pair of blue, feminine, polygonal hands parted the blood like it was a curtain.
Cory scoffed. “Wow? Um, these graphics are a touch dated. I don’t think I’ve seen stuff this bad since I was in elementary school.” Robert nodded, but wasn’t as confident as Cory. Something looked off about these boxy hands. He could almost swear they were actually coming out of the screen.
The blue woman’s elfin voice filled the booth, clear as a bell. “Welcome to Zombie Mansion. I’m Polygal. Thank you for playing.” The hair on the back of Robert’s neck stood on end. Something was wrong with this.
Cory chuckled and shook his head. “Wow, I thought this game might be bad but… Polygal? Seriously? And what the hell is up with this intro? I thought this game was about zombies.”
“Just remember, my children, this is not a simulation.” Her voice didn’t belong. It didn’t ‘fit’ the game at all. But why?
Her hands reached out, and for a moment, Robert could almost swear they were coming towards him. Cory seemed equally impressed. “Well, okay, I take it back. That’s kind of authentic looking!”
“Everything you see from here on out, is no delusion, my children.” It hit Robert; the reason her voice didn’t fit was the other game sounds were coming out of very low-quality speakers. Her voice was pitch perfect and authentic. And her hands really did look like they were getting closer.
“Cory, we need to…” Robert froze. ‘Polygal’ caressed his face with her unnaturally flat fingers.
Cory went as stiff as Robert. “Okay, this… this is different.”
Oddly, Robert’s first thought was that he hadn’t shaved that morning as he felt this… thing dance it’s box-like fingers on his stubble. Why was that his first thought? He should be swatting the hand away or calling for help or running or…
“Now, give Polygal your energy.” Polygal grinned viciously, her teeth a jagged-mess of sharp triangles with no width to them. Stunned, Robert marveled as a green light effervesced out of her right hand, enveloping Cory.
Robert watched a dopey smile overcome his friend’s face. The icy sensation returned to his bones with a force as cold as a blizzard’s fury. The arctic shock shook him from his stupor. He struggled against Polygal’s grip, but her flat fingers wouldn’t budge, holding his head in place like an iron vice. He felt as if a pieces of icy, steel wool grated against every joint in his body. He tried to howl in pain, but the air in his lungs was as thick as sludge.
Unable to move from the pain, unable to scream, Robert could only watch as green bubbles seeped out of Cory. They hung in the air until they popped and swirled in the booth like watercolor paint. The green wisps flowed into Polygal, who moaned delightfully. She faced Robert. “Now your turn, little boy.”
The same green glow that had enveloped Cory enveloped him. He could feel Polygal reaching for him, but not in a physical sense. She already had him firmly in her grasp. No, Robert wasn’t certain where, but it was reaching for him in a different place. This part of him was no less real than his physical body, though it felt further away.
What was happening? How was this possible? He needed air. Women didn’t come out of arcade screens. They couldn’t touch him. His bones felt like they were being ground into dust by a glacier. This wasn’t possible. There was no way that…
No, panic was not a luxury Robert had right now. He cleared his head of all the emotions that tried to take hold of his faculties and pushed them aside. As his mind cleared of the haze of panic, he focused on this other piece of him that Polygal was combing over. “Ah, here we are. Yours was hidden well.”
Polygal’s reach seemed to clutch at a part of Robert, trying to pluck it like a weed. As she did so, Robert became distinctly aware that whatever it was she was grabbing, it was some Facet of himself. A surge of energy burst through every fiber of Robert’s being. With that surge, he cut through the sludgy air, and sucked in a deep, desperate breath. “No!” Acting on instinct as natural as pulling his hand from a hot flame, Robert willed the ice in his bones into action.
The ice melted and gushed towards the Facet that Polygal picked at. “What?” The monster’s eyes narrowed into a mix of confusion and anger, as the current of water washed Polygal’s presence away from the Facet. “What did you just do, boy?” She tried again to grab hold of the Facet. Robert imagined in his mind the current of water enveloping the Facet and freezing into a spiked ball. The monster howled in pain her presence impaled itself against the frigid mace. She tossed Robert down as if he were a spider that had just bit her.
His head struck the back of the booth. Dazed, Robert could no longer feel the ice, the Facet, or Polygal’s presence in that other place. His awareness of that other place’s existence seemed to fade to the back of his consciousness. Noises were dulled slightly as he tried to sit upright. His vision blurred. Strangely, it was the tired, addled voice of Cory that refocused him. “Dude, your forehead is glowing blue.”
“Huh?” He then remembered the danger they were in. Cory’s words of a glowing forehead made no sense to him, but at the current moment, little did. He only knew he had to escape. “Right!” He tried to jump out of the booth, hopefully dragging the languid Cory with him. But before he could even twitch a muscle, Polygal clasped her fingers around Robert’s head and squeezed.
The monster’s eyes were aflame with rage. “You resist me? How? How do you keep me from what is mine?” He was once again all too aware of Polygal’s presence in that other place as she tried to wrest control of the Facet away from him.
Her nails dug into the skin on his face a little, drawing blood. The air started to thicken in his lungs. A chill stung at his bones. But Robert knew he couldn’t focus on the pain. Pain was a distraction. He pushed it aside, and focused on the other place; the place where Polygal was focusing on his Facet with renewed vigor. “That. Isn’t. Yours.” Robert again summoned the ice in his bones to the Facet’s defense. This time, he imagined in his mind the water spinning wildly. Polygal’s presence was immediately met by a vortex of movement.
Polygal began to shake Robert about, pounding his body against the arcade booth interior. Robert saw this for what it was: a distraction. Though his body was being shaken like a ragdoll, he kept himself as calm as the eye of a storm. The game screen cracked. Polygal tried again and again to snatch the Facet from from the whirlpool. The cracks in the screen spread, beams of green light pouring out. Again and again she was met by his will, as solid as forged iron. The cracks shook, as if something behind the screen desperately wanted out.
Robert was so focused on the battle in that other place that he didn’t even notice the cracks. Cory shook his head, still obviously tired. “Oh. That can’t be good.” Robert felt Polygal’s presence growing. She was penetrating deeper and deeper into the vortex. But at the same time, he felt her presence growing unstable. He had the distinct impression something big would happen soon.
“What are you two doing in there?” The agitated voice of Eli seemed so far away. Polygal’s presence shook violently, as if the presence itself was having a seizure. The screen pulsed, the cracks stopping just long enough for Eli to part the curtain to the side. “It sounds like you…” Eli blinked. First at Robert being shaken violently. Then at Cory, slumped over. Then at the blue woman coming out of the game screen. “What the f…”
Polygal screamed. Her presence from that other place disappeared. A wave of green energy threw Eli away from the game entrance, and Cory and Robert against the back wall. Robert could feel energy from behind the screen about to burst outward. He slammed his eyes shut and turned away from the screen just as it exploded outwards.
The back of the booth gave way. For the faintest of moments he felt like he was in freefall, though the illusion was quickly ended by his feet scraping the carpet, rolling half-a-dozen times and banging his left shoulder into something hard. “ARGgggwrrr.” He held his breath for a second and exhaled as he opened his eyes and surveyed the arcade.
Several arcade cabinets had been knocked over and a dozen or so younger boys groaned on the floor. A freshly formed rug burn throbbed at Robert’s left elbow. He was quickly losing count of all the bruises on his body. Where were Cory and Eli?
He found Cory slumped over the remains of a knocked over fighting game. Ignoring his wounds, Robert pushed himself off the floor to go and help his friend. He hadn’t noticed it in the dark booth, but Cory was just as pale as all the sickly boys they had encountered before starting to play themselves. Before Robert could get there, Eli was walking over the game and helping Cory up. “Cory? Cory!” He smacked his friends cheek five times. “Snap out of it, pal! What the hell just happened?”
“That game.” Robert shook his head, trying to sort it out himself. “There-there was a monster inside it.”
“That blue woman coming out of your screen? That was real?”
Robert nodded and surveyed the boys sprawled across the arcade floor. What was ‘Polygal’ doing to everyone? Why was he able to escape the same fate? His concentration was broken by the sight of shards of Zombie Mansion vibrating. They floated off the floor and melted into green globules that hung in the air like oil on water. With a flash, half of the globules flew into all the boys on the floor. A single globule flew into Cory’s chest and the black-haired man gasped like a corpse woken from the dead. “That. That was the worst!”
Eli sighed. “Of all the games you play, you pick the one filled with a real monster?”
“Robert picked it, not me!” Cory winced and pushed Eli away. Groaning, he rose to his knees. “I’m at worst indirectly culpable!” The color was returning to his face. “Why does your arcade have possessed games? An arcade should not have possessed games!”
All the boys who had been sickly looking before stopped sweating and, like Cory, began to regain their color. They started standing up, looking around with scared expressions worn all over their faces.
Robert frowned. Half of the globules had reinvigorated the victims of Polygal. The other half were coalescing into a single blob. He wiped a streak of blood off his chin and snorted. “Guys, I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet.”
The blob started taking shape, growing legs and hands. The kids, as if all having the same thought, scattered. They screamed and flailed as they swarmed towards the exits. The few who kept their heads followed the Loose Change employees out of the emergency exit. Robert knew he should follow them, get out of the arcade. But something else made him stay.
Something in his bones.
He could sense it, the malice that blob had for him. It was Polygal and she wanted him. After all, Robert had denied her his Facet. Whatever it was, she felt it was hers to have and he denied her. With all her hatred pointed at him, he knew if he ran that he’d pull those who had already escaped the arcade right back into the conflict. But if he stayed…
Shouldn’t he be nervous? The monster-woman might kill him after all. Yet he wasn’t nervous or even scared. Something told him if he remained, if he stood his ground, that everything would turn out just fine. He wasn’t normally one to go off of instincts or hunches, but this one he was sure of.
Eli, the only employee who hadn’t scurried away, helped Cory off the ground. Cory staggered, as if his legs had fallen asleep and were just waking up. “That was trippy.”
“What is going on?” Eli demanded.
“Hell if I know! Monster woman poured out of your screen, touched my face, and I suddenly needed a nap. Then it blew up. This is not how I thought this day would go!” He leaned up against one of the few games that hadn’t been knocked down and glanced at the blob. “Uh, Eli. I think we should get the hell out of Dodge.”
Eli nodded and supported Cory on his shoulder. “That I can agree on.” He started walking, then turned and waved Robert to hurry up and follow him. “Robert! C’mon! We need to get out of here before—before—what the hell?” Eli stared directly at Robert with his mouth completely agape. It was as if he was an alien.
Cory turned around and sighed. “Yeah, he was doing that in the game booth too.”
“I mean, I saw it when I opened the curtain but I thought it was the blue woman doing that!”
Robert raised an eyebrow, not sure what they were talking about. “Guys! Just get back! Don’t worry about me. I got this!”
“Dude,” Eli yelled, “you’re glowing blue!”
“Huh?” Robert glanced down at his hands. All thoughts of the blob disappeared. A neon blue aura completely enveloped his hands. As he further examined himself, his entire body had the same blue glow rippling outward. Did Polygal cause this? Even more confusing was the fact that, no matter how he turned his body, he could see the glow coming out from the edges of his body, rather then pulsing out of his skin. It was as if the aura started at the edges of his silhouette, regardless of what angle he looked at himself.
A sound similar to an old computer monitor turning off, only much louder, cut through the air. Robert’s fascination with the aura disappeared and his attention was right back where the blob had been. Now there stood a woman with blue skin. It was the woman who had come out of the screen: Polygal.
She was much less pixelated now, her feet covered with thigh-high combat boots. She wore shorts and a midriff-exposing breastplate made out of the same plastic as the game booth. Where her abs should have been, there instead were coin slots embedded in the skin without any hint that they didn’t belong there. Two wires snaked out from her back and lead to holstered, cheap, arcade pistols on either side of her hips. Ticket dispensers were mounted seamlessly into her wrists. Her hair was a dark green, came down to her shoulders, but was flat and boxy, as if it were an origami wig.
Her entire biology seemed too fantastic and alien to be real. Anyone could have stared at these odd features and been completely justified, but what Robert couldn’t look away from was Polygal’s eyes. Where there should have been white there was instead black. Her red iris’s smoldered against that dark backdrop, a mix of curiosity and barely-tempered rage. Her left eyelid twitched. “You. You should have run.”
Cory and Eli, with uncanny unison, took a step back. “Robert…”
Robert dropped his chin down, but did not break eye contact with the monster. “What are you?”
Polygal laughed. “I think I should be the one asking that question. I drained dozens of boys. No one fought against me or complained. They just gave up their energy as good boys should and left. Some came back and gave me more even! But you,” she took a step forward, “somehow defied me. What are you?”
“Energy?” Robert squinted his eyes and bent his knees. He didn’t know when he’d have to move, but he knew he’d need to move soon. “Is that what we were fighting over?”
Polygal stopped walking towards him, and lifted her chin as if she was examining him for the first time. “You don’t know? Oh interesting. How interesting. And here I thought you must be some ally of theirs.”
“Ally of who?”
The monster stopped and squinted incredulously. “You really do have no idea.” She began to laugh. “Oh my! I wonder if you are supposed to be an ally of theirs. Maybe you’re even meant to be their aloof protector or-or-or perhaps just a simpler, non-combat ally. Either way, you’re absolutely radiating Ardent Resonance. That means you’re special. And if you’re special, that means Lord Platicore will want you.” A chain of tickets slithered out of the dispensers on her wrists.
Robert needed to delay her. Keep her talking. Help was on the way. He could feel it. “Special? Who is Lord Platicore? What would he want with me?”
“Robert get out of there!”
Neither Robert nor Polygal paid Cory or Eli any attention. “If you don’t know what it means that you’re special then you’ll know soon enough.” She flicked her wrists, the wave of movement traveling down the ticket streams. “As for who Lord Platicore is, he is your soon-to-be master.” She flicked her wrists a second time, the ticket stream growing to easily six feet in length. “And as for what he wants with you, someone as ‘special’ as you would make an even better servant than I am!” She flicked her wrists a third time, but this time, Robert knew an attack was imminent. “Ticket Snare!”
He was never really sure why, but Robert always felt the calmest during times of great stress. His uncle had told him it was because he always felt antsiest before a decision was made. Now that he new he was being attacked, he no longer had to worry about what happened. He could just react.
He became all at once, aware of the fact his two friends were out of Polygal’s reach and he was not. A little twitch of her right wrist gave away that the whip-like tickets were going to come from above. He jerked to the side. The air cracked just to his left. He was shocked how quick the attack had come. No human could have moved that fast. Her right wrist twitched. This attack would be horizontal.
He tried to duck, but Robert barely had time to think about dodging before tickets wrapped around his chest and forearms. He stretched his arms out, trying to break the tickets. Instead of tearing as they should have though, they constricted tighter. Robert gasped as the other ticket stream wrapped around his legs. Against gravity and all reason, the tickets lifted him into the air, supporting his full weight as Polygal approached him slowly, a wicked smirk across her blue face.
“Let him go!” Cory and Eli rushed Polygal. One of the guns holstered to her hips sprang to life, it hung in the air like a charmed cobra. Robert sucked in a deep breath as the trigger drew back, as if being fired by a ghost.
“Gah!” The flash of black energy burned the ground right in front of Eli’s left foot. He staggered and Cory stumbled over him. As the two fumbled on the ground to get back on her feet, the other gun came to life. Each one pointed at Robert’s new friends.
Cory backed up. “This wasn’t the best idea we ever had.”
Eli sighed, his hands in the air. “Yeah.”
“No! Leave them alone!” Robert struggled against the tickets, his aura burning brighter. Yet his tbonds would not budge.
“Oh? Leave them alone? I’m afraid not, little boy.” Robert stared straight into her soulless, black and red eyes. “You see, all that energy I drained from all those pathetic little rats got ruined by you. Trying to get at yours caused some horrible feedback and caused me to lose containment. I’m back to nothing and Lord Platicore will not be happy with that. So I’m going to drain them and kidnap you so he can empower you. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
Cory gulped. “No.”
Eli sighed. “Jokes? Now? Really?”
“It’s a defense mechanism.”
Robert glared at her. He had, up until that point, been able to hold back his anger and fear. But threatening his friends let the fear and anger crack his calm exterior. He wasn’t frothing at the mouth or screaming, but it was there on his face. “Leave my friends alone.”
Polygal laughed at Robert the same way an adult laughs at a child. “Or else what, boy? Do you think you can…”
Something broke the monster’s train of thought. At first Robert thought it was his glare, but he knew that made no sense. He was under her power and there was no question about that. Next the thought maybe she was searching in that other place again where she had tried to take his Facet. But he felt nothing there so that couldn’t be it. No, she was staring straight at his forehead. “Can I help you?”
“You have a symbol glowing on your forehead. I was warned about what that meant. But that can’t be right unless you’re—ARRK!” A flash of yellow pierced the air. The sensation of falling briefly disoriented Robert, but hitting the floor squarely on his back fixed that. On instinct, the tried again to break his bonds. Surprisingly, they tore as simply as normal tickets should.
Glancing up, he saw Polygal facing the entrance of the arcade. Her ticket streams were burned at the end. Had that yellow flash been a bullet? No, there would have been a gunshot. Was it Cory or Eli? No, they would have used a gun already if they had a concealed weapon.
Regardless, Robert knew an opportunity when he saw it and dashed to he feet and put some distance between himself and Polygal. As he ran, Polygal growled. “You! You just had to show up!”
Robert slid over the counter to the register. He fell right on top of Cory and Eli.
The trio untangled themselves. “How did you two get over here before me? I never even saw you run.”
Cory scoffed. “You kidding? Moment the super cheer-team showed up, we were gone! And why the hell you still glowing?”
“Super cheer what?”
A proud, female voice echoed over the counter. “Of course we showed up! This establishment was designed as a joyful place where diversion and challenges brighten the spirits of all who walk in!”
“The hell?” Robert pushed off of Eli and poked his head over the counter. Though he had been attacked by a video game, the sight before him was the craziest by far.
“But you seek to defile it with your tainted investiture!” A gorgeous, blonde, pigtailed cheerleader in a purple top and skirt leveled a sword and shield straight out of a fairy tale at Polygal.
Robert rubbed his eyes, still unsure what it was he was staring at. “Guys, am I crazy, or is a purple cheerleader lecturing the video game monster at swordpoint?”
Cory and Eli popped their heads over the counter. “Nope, I’m seeing it too.”
“We are the Spirit Guard and it is our duty to let you know that this is ‘game over’ for you and your evil deeds!”
A very tall, athletic brunette with hair swept to the side strode behind the blonde. Her gait was confident and her eyes were filled with determination. At nearly six feet tall, the woman had the look of an Amazon. She wore a similar cheerleader outfit, though hers was red and exposed no midriff. Her most distinctive feature though was the sword that rested on her shoulder. It looked to be nearly as tall as herself though she carried it like a normal person would a shovel. “Valor,” she muttered as she leaned in closer, “I want to make sure those two stay safe.”
‘Valor’ nodded. “I know, Tenacity. We’ll keep them safe. I promise.
‘Tenacity’ cleared her throat. “And the third one—you notice the…”
Valor cut her off, her voice trying to be quiet. “Yes. I saw the mark.” Polygal had referred to a mark on his forehead. He rubbed it, but it didn’t feel odd in any way. He studied his hands and saw that, while very dim, the neon blue aura that glowed around him was still there.
“What does this mean?”
“I don’t know.” Valor shot Robert a quick glance but did not linger as she made sure to keep her eyes trained on the monster in front of her. “Regardless, we can sort that out later. Right now, I know you want to stay back but I might need your offensive power on this. If Felicity would just show up on time for once maybe we could…”
A voice squeaked above the red and purple duo, “I can go on defense. I’m better better suited for it anyway.” Robert looked up and found a girl with feathered, sky blue hair standing on top of the Hop Dance Mania machine. She was in a two-piece cheer outfit similar to Valor’s but hers was a bright yellow. She held a recurve bow in her left hand with the bowstring drawn back by her right. Strangely though, the arrow the girl was holding seemed to be made of pure light. Robert realized it was likely one of these arrows that had cut through the tickets that had held him.
Tenacity gave a sigh of relief. “Thanks Charity.” Why was Tenacity more concerned with protecting him, Cory, and Eli? She seemed more worried about that than the monster.
Charity hopped off the Hop Dance Mania machine and landed in front of the counter. She gave Robert a curious look but, not wanting to appear as if she was staring, she smiled warmly. “Everyone doing okay back there?”
Eli stuttered, obviously not sure how to approach the situation. “Yeah, uh-uh-uh just fine Ms. Spirit Guard.”
She giggled. “Spirit Guard Charity. And I’ll protect you three.” She gave Robert a look that just reeked of motherly concern. “Just stay behind me and nothing will hit you, okay?”
Robert had no clue who these three were. But he remembered that his instincts had told him help would come. He could have never have predicted that the help would come in the forms of three attractive cheerleaders wielding medieval, possibly magical, weaponry, but given the situation, he was not going to get picky.
Polygal screamed, obviously not happy with how casually everyone was chatting. “Now is NOT friendship time! You think you can take me so lightly?” She snapped her wrists and the ticket streams spewed out to over twelve feet in lengthand the pistols came to life. “Ticket Snare!” Nearly faster than Robert could see, Polygal charged at the cheerleaders.
Valor braced behind her shield. “Tenacity?”
Tenacity lifted her humongous sword over her head, bringing it level with the ground. “Right behind you.”
Robert blinked and the pair of cheerleaders were upon the arcade monster. They split onto opposites sides, moving with such speed that they somehow surrounded the inhumanly quick Polygal. She kept them at distance with her ticket-whips, but they kept prodding her defenses with exploratory attacks. To say their motion was a blur wouldn’t have been accurate. Robert had no problem watching or comprehending the fight. But they moved faster, way faster, than they should be able to. Burdened by their heavy weapons, they still somehow flipped, dashed, stabbed, parried, twirled, blocked, dodged, and attacked at speeds that couldn’t have been achieved if it had been choreographed for a film.
Tenacity’s movements with her sword showed her confidence. Her attacks were bold and powerful. With the sheer size and force of the swings, Polygal was forced to stay defensive and start utilizing the pistol blasts to keep Tenacity at bay.
That’s where Valor charged in. She absorbed a hit on her shield and charged forward, trying to cut off one of the pistols. Robert saw the briefest of openings for Polygal to counter-attack, but doing so would have opened herself up for the oncoming strike with Tenacity’s much bigger sword. Polygal didn’t take the bait, instead opting to leap into the air. She flipped upside down and , improbably, landed on the ceiling as simple as landing on the floor. “Very clever girls! But I’m not falling for that ploy! Quarter Jam!”
A flurry of quarters spewed out of the coin slots in Polygal’s abdomen. As thick as a winter storm, they rained down upon the ground-bound cheerleaders. “Scatter!” Valor hunched under her shield to avoid the barrage of currency. Tenacity’s sword, oversized as it was, performed well as a shield. They ran in opposite directions, Polygal choosing to keep the deluge of quarters on Tenacity. Using her increasingly longer tickets, she whipped at Valor, trying to keep the blonde on the defensive.
Charity raised her bow and tugged back on the bowstring. A luminescent arrow materialized, but before she could let go, Polygal opened fire upon the yellow-clad cheerleader with her pistols. It was obvious from the trajectory she was trying to shoot the counter behind the girl and endanger the boys that Charity had promised to protect. Robert was initially horrified to see her lift her bow in the air, as if about to allow the shots connect. “Altruistic Barrier!” A dome of sparkling yellow light enveloped Charity and the black streaks of laser light glanced off the ethereal shield.
Polygal grumbled. “You pests are annoying. Yet still you three can do no better than to stay defensive! What do you think you will do now?”
Robert caught sight of movement by the arcade entrance. A diminutive girl with hair as black as night kicked the doors. She was wore a bright pink cheer outfit and had her bangs dyed to match. She twirled a staff in the air, pink fire dancing on each end. She wore a grin befitting a Cheshire cat. “Sorry to disappoint you, bytes-for-brains, but this is a four player game! Encircling Joy!” She twirled, her knee-length hair wrapping around her as she did so. A chain of pink flames snapped out of the staff. They tumbled through the air, right at Polygal.
“No!” The chain of fire looped around Polygal like a bola. The monster screamed and she fell off the ceiling. The tickets burned and pistols melted. The stream of quarters continued out of her abdomen, but they were all singed black. “NOOOO!”
Before the monster could even hit the ground, Tenacity charged forward. Red lightning danced across her enormous sword. “Nice timing, Felicity! Intrepid Blade!” Robert could feel his hair standing up on end as the blade cut through Polygal cleaner and quicker than a hot knife through butter.
Polygal screamed in agony as pink fire and red lightning consumed her body, leaving nothing but a pile of ash. Robert thought that would end the screaming but it continued. A single black pearl floated out of the ash. It hovered six feet in the air, cracked, then shattered. Polygal’s screams were silenced.
Tenacity held her striking pose for a moment before sighing and relaxing. She clapped her hands together and her sword turned into a pair of red pompoms. “Glad that’s over. Thanks again, Charity.”
Charity smiled and clapped her hands together. Her bow became yellow pompoms. “The least I could do, Tenacity.”
The girl in pink marched up to Tenacity and poked her finger into her chest. Robert almost laughed at the sight. If she was even five feet tall, Robert would have been surprised. Seeing her crane her neck to stare up at the Amazonian brunette. “You! You totally stole my kill.”
Tenacity chuckled, apparently finding the small girl’s antics as funny as Robert. “I totally confirmed your kill. Besides Felicity, if you’d show up when summoned instead of…”
Valor held up her hand to hush Tenacity. “Not the time for this.” She pointed at the three boys behind the counter, though Robert felt she was pointing specifically at him.
Felicity turned to see where Valor was pointing and jumped a little. “Woah! I didn’t even notice they were here.”
Cory sighed. “Beautiful women not noticing us. That’s all too familiar.”
Eli shook his head. “Arcade destroyed. Monster-video-game-woman-thing attacking. Robert glowing. If there is a time for them not to notice us, this is the time.” Robert examined his hands. The aura had almost faded.
Felicity placed her hand over her heart in a display of mock-coyness. “Beautiful. Oh you’re such a flatterer!”
The past few minutes had been absolute chaos. Polygal and these cheerleaders obviously understood something about his glowing. He needed answers. He slid over the counter towards the color-coded, weapon-wielding cheerleaders. “Yes. Eli is a regular ladies’ man. But more to the point, thanks for saving us.”
Tenacity and Charity gave Valor looks of concern. Felicity stepped right up to Robert and stared at his forehead. She was entirely too close for his comfort. “Say, your forehead is glowing.” She turned and waved the other girls foreward. “Have you guys seen this? His forehead is glowing. Sort of like how—ack!”
Tenacity yanked the long-haired girl away from Robert. Valor stepped forward.
“Your certainly welcome, citizen. We were happy to be of service and…”
Robert eyes narrowed. They definitely were hiding something. “Yeah. Thanks and all but I had some concerns.”
Valor winced. “What concerns?”
“Yeah, you see, everyone seems to be very interested in the fact that I’m glowing.” Valor nodded but her eyes were darting everywhere, obviously searching for the next thing she’d say. “I’m actually rather interested in the fact I’m glowing as well.”
“Yes, well, that certainly is understandable.”
“And you seemed to be quite familiar with it. Plus Polygal said some interesting things about me that I didn’t know what she was talking about. Maybe you can clear this up for me?”
Valor wrung her hands together. “Who is Polygal?”
“That was what the blue video game woman called herself.”
“Well, I mean, it’s really impossible to trust fully the word of a minion of Platicore and…”
Robert stepped forward. “You see, Ms. Valor, that monster-woman told me that she was very surprised I didn’t know what she was doing. She told me, and I think I’m getting this right, that she ‘thought I was an ally of theirs.’ Now, I didn’t know who ‘they’ where at the time but I now suspect it’s you ladies.”
“Oh, well, I don’t know why you’d suspect that.”
Robert held up his hand. “Look, I know you’re hiding something. I heard you when you walked in comment that my forehead was glowing and that you’d have to deal with that later. You seem to have some idea that it means something.”
Valor bit her thumbnail. “I… so you heard that, huh?”
Nodding, Robert continued. “Look, you saved my life and I’m grateful. I really am. Actually, to tell you the truth, when I walked in here, I had a really bad feeling. Like, ice in my bones bad feeling.” Robert pointed at the empty spot where Zombie Mansion used to be. “That bad feeling lead me to that game.”
Cory hopped over the counter. “Wait, you mean you lead us to that death trap on purpose?”
Eli elbowed Cory. “Not the time.”
Cory grumbled. “Well if I develop some sort of psychosis, he’ll hear from my lawyer.”
Eli shook his head. “No one would be able to tell the difference. You already suffer from something undiagnosed.”
Tenacity groaned and rubbed her eyes. “I can’t believe I have to hear this.”
Valor squinted. “Wait, so you’re telling me you sensed the monster was in the machine?”
Robert shrugged. “Well, I didn’t know it at the time but, I guess so. Yeah. Come to think of it, the sensation came in waves. I think maybe when she was draining those boys?”
Valor nodded, obviously confused and impressed. “That… is certainly possible.”
“Polygal said something about me being your ‘aloof protector’ or a non-combat ally. What was she talking about.”
Valor shook her head. “I don’t think that’s right.”
“Okay then, what DO you think is right?”
Valor looked away. “Hard to say. We’d have to conduct some research… tell me. The monster, did she try to drain you of investiture?”
“Energy. Did she try to take your energy and couldn’t?”
Robert nodded slowly. “Yeah. I think she basically said that word for word.” Valor glanced back at the other three cheerleaders. All of them had confused looks. “So this means… what?”
The entire ‘Spirit Guard’ was silent. The sound of police sirens in the distance broke it. Valor cleared her throat. “We might have a theory but, given what has transpired it’s impossible to be sure. Given the nature of what this is, it might be best if you let us do some research and get back to you.”
Robert rolled his eyes. “Oh, so what, I just give you my number and you’ll get back to me? Sorry if I’m less than trusting that this will actually happen.”
Eli tapped Robert on the shoulder. “What?”
“Have you really not heard of these girls before? They’re kind of famous.”
Robert raised an eyebrow. “Kind of famous? I think I would have heard about magical cheerleaders that fight monsters. Seems like something that would get out on the news.”
Cory shook his head. “No, seriously, they’ve been doing this for over a year now. They have saved a lot of lives.”
“You must be kidding.” Robert glanced back and forth between the two and saw they were completely serious. “You’re not kidding! How has this not gone national.”
“Sir,” Valor looked very eager to leave, “we have put a lot of resources into keeping a low profile. But rest assured we will contact you when we know if it means anything. I am not given the name Spirit Guard Valor for no reason.”
The sirens grew louder. Robert stared down Valor. He had always been a good read of people. Her deep blue eyes didn’t betray a hint of a lie. He groaned and pulled a pen out of his pocket. He hastily grabbed a stray napkin that must have fallen off one of the tables during the fight off the ground and wrote his phone number. “Here. Not sure why I’m doing. My name is Robert Dreese.” He held out the napkin but held it back a little bit. “I expect to hear back very soon, Ms. Valor.”
She nodded her head. “My word is as sure as stone. You will hear back from us.” The police sirens were nearly at the entrance of Loose Change. Valor grabbed the napkin. “That’s our cue.” All four of them dashed to the emergency exit. “You’ll hear back from me, Mr. Dreese! You have my word!”
Charity bowed a little towards Eli before exiting. “Hope it doesn’t take too long for you to get this arcade fixed up!”
Tenacity adroitly spun around the stationary Charity. “Yeah, hope you have a job next week!”
Felicity giggled. “And good luck with that psychosis thing, black-haired guy!”
As the door shut, Robert sighed. “So. That happened.”
Cory hurried over to a stream of quarters. “Quick, line our pockets before the cops come in!”
Eli glared. “We just met the actual Spirit Guard and this is what you think about. Cops are about to come in here.”
Cory rolled his eyes. “Yeah, and it’s completely unlikely a guy has a pocketful of quarters in an arcade. They’ll never buy that. Given our recent ordeal here, we’ve earned a little spending money.”
Eli scanned the arcade and his shoulders slump. “I don’t think I’m going to be getting anymore hours to work this week. I hope they give me hazard pay for this.”
Robert stared at his hands. The aura was now gone. “Guys. Did you get a good look at the thing on my forehead everyone was so interested in?”
Cory glanced up from the stream of quarters. “Yeah. It was just a bunch of blue circles and I think a semi-circle attached to it.”
Robert nodded. “When we get back to the dorms, I’ll want you to show me what it looked like. I want to know everything I can.”
Oh yeah, MGP is back, baby! And yes, we are moving this to college-age setting. I don’t want to get into too much of a discussion as to why, but ultimately I think the setting change to a college setting opens us up for more fun scenarios.