Robert was surprised with how crowded the mall already was. Sure it was a Saturday, but it was eleven in the morning, and it wasn’t a holiday weekend. Holidays were the only time the mall back in Deepwater ever got crowded. Then again, to compare that small shopping center back home to the Rale Valley Mall was a mistake. This thing was enormous.
Eli groaned as he exited the car and said, “Do you always have to park so far away?”
“These malls are littered with stupid high school drivers,” Cory pointed out. “I don’t want them dinging my car.”
As Robert stepped out and stretched, he felt a hum with his extra sense. He paused and considered the sensation. It was unlike anything he had felt before with his new sense. Then again, the only sensations he had felt that he understood the meaning of were the icy, chilling in his bones caused Polygal draining people and the annoying, consistent looming of his Stalker Stick.
He had experienced other sensations intermittently over the previous days, but nothing that was similar to this hum. Robert tried to focus on whatever was humming, but it was too far away to make out. It reminded him of a cricket’s chirp because though he could tell that it was far away, the actual direction of the feeling was impossible to make out.
In any case, the humming didn’t feel anywhere nearby or threatening, so he decided to not worry about it until one of those two conditions were met. If he freaked out at every small tingle this new sense produced, he’d go insane. Instead, he’s just enjoy hanging out with his friends. “Dude, weren’t you a stupid high school driver not more than four months ago.?”
That got a chuckle out of Eli. Cory instead pointed at Robert. “I was never a stupid high school driver. No wrecks. No tickets. No dents. I have a perfect record.” Cory puffed his chest out. “Besides, now that I’m a mature college driver I can look down on high school drivers.”
Eli rolled his eyes. “The mature college driver said as he went to buy more Invoker cards.”
“Hey!” Cory protested, “there are plenty of adults who play Invokers. You go to the same tournaments I do. You’ve seen them.” Cory paused and then shrugged. “Besides, you’re buying my Invokers cards this week as recompense for your trespasses.”
“Trespass. Singular. I only gave away one game system,” Eli groaned.
Robert just shook his head and smiled. “I just can’t believe you guys have a comic book store here in your mall. I had to drive to the next town over whenever I wanted to get the latest issue of Collider.”
Eli looked surprised by that. “Next town over? Just how small is the town you’re from?”
“Deepwater only has a little over ten-thousand people in it, and that was after the town boomed,” Robert said as he idly kicked a pebble across the parking lot. “Bremhaven is the big city near us. They got nearly a hundred-thousand people there. That’s where I’d go to get comics and such. I think they had Invoker tournaments there too, though that was never my thing.”
“Huh.” Eli rested his arms behind his neck. “I guess I just didn’t realize you lived that far in the boonies.”
“I don’t live in the boonies.”
“Compared to here you do,” Eli chided. “I’m surprised your accent isn’t thicker.”
Cory raised a finger, “But onto the more interesting topic of Invokers. While it currently isn’t your thing Robert, it could be your thing if you wanted. Eli and I have enough cards that we no longer use that I’m sure you could build a decent deck of your own.”
Robert held the door open for a pair of middle-aged women. They casually thanked him with a smile and Robert continued the conversation. “Yeah. While I’m interested in the game as a concept I’m really don’t see me getting into it. I already spend enough money on Aspect Realms and comics as is. If I get into card games on top of those, I’m going to break my budget, I’m sure.”
Eli nodded. “I hear you. I’m not sure if I’m buying any of my own packs today. I’m saving up some cash in reserves in case I get lucky and Kara’s willing to go on a date with me here soon.”
“Must be nice to get back into a girl’s good graces by giving away someone else’s GameStation,” Cory groused.
Eli shook his head. “Dude, I said I’m sorry. You’ve been on about it since Thursday. I agreed to buy your booster packs today to make it up to you. Would you please let it go?”
Cory grinned. “You haven’t actually bought me the booster packs yet though. That means I still have about fifteen or twenty minutes of justified belly-aching.”
“I really hate you sometimes.”
Robert smirked. “You’re going about this all wrong, Cory. By letting him buy the packs you’re letting him off. I’d just loan Eli’s computer out to Vivian for a month and see if that gets you back in her good graces.”
“Really, Rob?” Eli sighed, “Don’t you think he’s hard enough to deal with right now without your help?”
Robert thought Cory would eat up a chance to plot against Eli like this; instead, he turned the conversation back to Vivian. “Yeah. I just don’t know. She wouldn’t even talk to me at class yesterday.”
Eli put his hands in his pocket and shrugged. “We found out a secret of hers that she didn’t want anyone to know. It must feel really invasive to her that you snuck behind her back and found it out.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Cory grumbled.
Eli nodded. “Preaching to the choir, but regardless of intention, we know something they didn’t want us to know. They just aren’t going to be okay with that. Especially since we were sneaking around doing stuff they felt we shouldn’t be doing.”
“Yeah,” Cory said as he shoved his hands into his pockets and trudged forward. Robert didn’t like being around Cory when he got into these mopey moods. He couldn’t blame Cory for being a bit depressed though. Cory had met a girl who seemed to be into all the same things as him, laughed at his jokes, and seemed just as interested in him as he was in her. But suddenly, due to the strangest of circumstances, she was giving him the cold shoulder.
“So, not to change the subject,” Robert said, trying to change the subject away from Vivian, “but you sure about this place having comics, right? I mean, you guys make it sound like its more of a board game, tabletop RPG, gaming type store. And if it’s in a mall it can’t be that big.”
Eli smiled. “It’s bigger than you’d think, and, yeah, I’m pretty sure they’ll have the Collider series. I mean, they might not have some of the more off-brand comics, but Collider, even I know who she is. You should be fine.”
Cory nodded. “Yeah, I seem to remember they also had some super hero tabletop tournament something or other a while back where they were giving away comics for winning stuff.”
“You know,” Eli said with a grin, “it’ll be interesting to go to the tournaments now that we aren’t high schoolers. Aren’t some of the guys who go to these Invokers tournaments attending SAU?”
Cory nodded. “That’s a good point. I think there are. In fact, I know there are. I just don’t remember their names. We should find out if…”
Robert let his mind wander away from Eli and Cory’s conversation as he felt the Spirit Sti– empathokinetic focus move again. He refused to call it a Spirit Stick even if it was easier to say. As he honed his new sense in on the focus, he started to feel a little paranoid. Like there was another monster nearby that might attack him.
Angela had explained that as he got used to having an empathokinetic sense, his mind would stop associating anything tripping his new sense with a monster attack, but, for now, the more he thought about the focus, the more he felt like a monster was nearby. Maybe that was why he had felt Polygal’s presence despite not being a Spirit Guard. At that point, he hadn’t had his focus to distract his empathokinetic sense. He’d need to remember to bring this up with Angela later to get her thoughts on it.
“Here we are,” Eli announced.
Robert followed Angela’s advice and pushed his worry aside. He needed to focus on the task at hand: buying Collider #187. The store didn’t look very big to him. No bigger than your average mall storefront. Above the door hung the words “Dungeon Direct” in gothic lettering. Robert thought the name was kind of silly for a gaming and comic book store, but, then again, the comic shop he went to back at home was simply named “Ben’s Comic Book Shop.” At least this location was trying to have some kind of flavor.
As they walked in, Robert felt the stick teleport into the poster bin in front of the front counter. Behind the counter was a cashier that had the body frame of a praying mantis. The cashier’s eyes didn’t move from the clipboard he was going over. “Hey boys. Looking for anything in particular today?”
Eli gave him a casual wave. “We’ll be fine, Devon. Just going to the back to pick up some booster packs.”
When he heard his name, Devon glanced up, and his eyes flashed with recognition. “Oh. You two.” Devon’s eyes lingered on Robert for the briefest of moments before he corrected himself, “Er, three. That’s new.” His eyes went straight back to the clipboard. If this Devon guy had any curiosity about Robert, it seemed rather limited. “Don’t mind the mess back there. We had a big LoreThunder event last night and we still haven’t cleaned up. I’ll be getting to that later today.”
“When do you guys ever clean up back there?” Cory chuckled.
Devon only responded with a grunt.
Eli grinned and turned to Robert. “Devon’s worked here for years. We’re pretty sure he can’t remember which one of us is Cory or Eli, so he always just refers to us as ‘you two’ as if we were one entity.”
Robert smirked. “It makes sense. At times I wonder that myself.” Robert glanced around. He didn’t see a door to this mythical back area Devon had spoken of. Then he realized it was because their wasn’t a door; just a wall divider that was open at the sides. It prevented whatever was in this back area was from being seen from the store entrance. Given how shy nerds tended to be and how sweaty they could get, Robert thought it was a good way to keep it open air without losing the privacy they’d all want.
Cory walked around the large divider to the back room. “Hardy har har. You’re a regular comedian.”
Robert followed him and was greeted by more than just a bit of a mess. He had thought they hid this area for privacy, but he could now see it was because the back room was a pig pen.
Four tables had a mishmash of LoreThunder miniatures, paint, terrain, and food strewn about them. Rulebooks from a menagerie of different tabletop systems were piled in random stacks between the tables and forced Robert to step over them to get anywhere. Board game boxes were piled into corners without any hint of organization. And to top it all off, the floor was littered with enough crumbs and soda cans that you would have thought it was a kindergarten class room after snack time.
Robert shook his head. “Ugh! He wasn’t kidding.” The shelving in this room looked like a home improvement project that had been abandoned halfway through. A lot of the shelves were sagging under the weight of the books they were holding up. Worst of all, the comic book section just had the comics in various cardboard boxes along a wall. Robert was going to feel lucky if they were in anything close to alphabetic order.
Eli shrugged. “This is how it normally looks after a big event.”
“I’m not talking about just the food and the figurines,” Robert clarified. “I mean, look at this.” He pointed to the nearest sagging shelf. “You have Keeps and Kobolds rulebooks mixed in with Argentum adventure modules and a couple of Invokers card catalogs. How do you guys find anything?”
Cory and Eli looked at one another and just shrugged. “We don’t do any of the tabletop or comic stuffs,” Eli explained.
Cory nodded. “Yeah, we just get the stuff for Invokers here.” He pointed towards the wall of various card decks. “They can’t really mess up the things that just come in pre-packaged boxes.” He ran his index finger along the top of the Invokers selection of booster pack. “Now, to find which packs feel the most lucky.”
Robert rolled his eyes with a smile as he trudged over to the comic book section while Cory and Eli argued. “Do we have to do this everytime?” Eli complained.
“Hush, Eli. My power to detect which packs have key cards is, indeed, potent, but I can’t focus my power whilst I’m being nagged at.”
“You don’t have that power, and even if you did, it’d be the lamest power in the history of ever.”
Robert was used to comic books being aligned on the wall with their covers displayed proudly, separated by printing company, and organized in alphabetical order. Here, they were on a table all in cardboard boxes where you couldn’t see the covers. They looked like they used to be in alphabetical order, but that had been abandoned over time.
After a frustrating search, Robert finally found the Collider section between the Knightmare and Portent comics. It did make sense in a strange way: both were heroes Collider had been romantically involved with at some point, though the Portent storyline had been dropped almost a decade ago. Knightmare was the better love interest anyway given how they both–
Robert felt the hum set off his extra sense once more. It was closer than before but still distant. Though, as he examined the hum, maybe not as far as he originally thought. Could it be inside the mall? It felt too far away for that, but, then again, the mall was huge, and they were on the far north end.
He shrugged to himself and hoped that whatever had caused the humming was a non-issue. He really didn’t know what this extra sense was good for other than detecting monsters and feeling where his empathokinetic focus was. Were there other things that could set it off? If empathokenesis truly dealt with emotions, could those set it off? He really wished he had thought of those questions on Thursday when he was talking with Angela.
Robert decided to ignore it for now. Freezing ice didn’t run down his spine like it had when Polygal had drained people at Loose Change. If it had involved a monster, Robert figured it would have been painful in some way. Once he convinced himself everything was fine, Robert grabbed his comic and walked out of the back room to the front desk.
Robert plopped down the copy of Collider #187 in front of Devon. The scruffy-faced cashier examined the comic for a moment before he put down his clipboard and finally scanned it. “I would have thought you’d be here for Invokers stuff.”
“Not really my thing,” Robert said as he fished for his wallet.
“You a friend of theirs? I’ve never seen those two come in with anyone else.”
“I’m their new roommate,” Robert explained. “When I asked about a place to buy the latest issue, they suggested we go here.”
Devon glanced up with surprise in his eyes. “Wait, they’re in college now?”
Robert handed over his debit card. “Well, I’m living in the dorms of SAU with them, so, yeah. Seems to be the case.”
Devon shook his head and swiped the card. “Crazy. When I started here, they were the annoying junior high kids that always showed up to Invokers tournaments that everyone wanted to kick out for being annoying junior high kids. Time flies, I guess.”
“Guess so.” Robert really wasn’t sure what else he could say to that.
Devon handed Robert his card back along with his receipt. “You know, if you think you’ll be doing this monthly, I could put the comic on hold for you so that when it comes in…”
Robert stopped listening to him as he heard a familiar voice outside the storefront. “…doesn’t seem to be in this wing either. Did it move again?” He turned and saw Angela looking around the mall with Mallory by her side.
“Sorry,” Robert apologized as he left Devon’s sales pitch dangling, “but I just saw someone I recognized.”
As he walked towards the exit Mallory caught sight of Robert. She sighed, “Please tell me that my brother is not in that store again.”
Angela looked quite shocked to see Robert. “Robert! What are you doing here?”
Robert held up his comic in an attempt to answer both questions. “Just came here to buy the most recent issue. Eli and Cory are in the back just grabbing some booster packs for that Invokers card game.”
Mallory scratched the bridge of her nose. “They are such hopeless dorks. They are supposed to be adults now. Why do Kara and Vivian have any interest in them at all?”
Angela put her hands behind her back and shuffled her feet. “So… you didn’t come here because you, uh, felt anything out of the ordinary?”
There was only one reason why Angela would ask a question like that. Robert used his extra sense to probe around and see if he could feel anything. All he could feel was his focus in a nearby garbage can. The hum had seemed to fade away too. “Well, I don’t know if it was out of the ordinary,” Robert said as he glanced around making sure no one was listening in on their conversation, “but I did feel a slight, uh, humming while I was looking for my comic. What’s this about?”
“Humming,” Angela pursed her lips and considered Robert’s description. “That’s a good word for it. We all came here this morning for some shopping and we felt a–” Angela glanced around, picking her words carefully, “humming as well.”
Robert really didn’t like where this was going. “My understanding was that these presences don’t normally show up so close to one another.”
“Not usually.” Angela winced. “But once or twice we have discovered presences soon after another. Though we aren’t really sure if there is a presence here. We haven’t felt anything other than the humming.”
Mallory eyed Dungeon Direct suspiciously. A glint of dark hope sparked in her eyes. “Say, Rob. Did, uh, did you feel this ‘humming’ inside that place?”
Robert thought Eli’s sister looked a little too eager for him to answer in the affirmative. “No. No. Not in there. I definitely felt it off in the distance. Though I really couldn’t get a feeling for a location other than, well, far away. Probably the other side of the mall or further.”
Mallory blew her bangs away from her eyes. “There goes the solution to that problem.” Robert had severe doubts that the problem Mallory was referring to was related to a monster.
Angela sighed. “We just can’t seem to get a bead on this one at all. I hope Kara and Vivian are having better luck.”
Robert held his hands up. “Hold the phone here. Could this be something else? I mean, I never felt anything like this at the arcade.”
“It could very well be something other than a presence,” Angela explained. “The Standridge Stones attract many people with strong, well…” Angela searched for a word that worked in public.
“Personalities?” Robert suggestions.
Angela smiled. “Yes. Personalities. Very strong personalities. Sometimes these strong personalities can set off our unique talent. I’m again surprised you can feel it as well given your, uh, situation.”
“You keep saying that, but the main question should be ‘is there a risk to the people here?’ Like, should we be pulling the fire alarms or something?” Robert asked.
Mallory glanced around, apparently searching for a sign of the source. “Maybe. Maybe not. Things like this are usually nothing. I mean, it is a bit odd that it’s the exact same feeling repeated in different locations, but we don’t want to go in guns blazing and causing a scene if it’s nothing.”
Robert nodded. That made sense. More people could get injured in a stampede if people thought there was trouble. Still, he was in a rather unique position. “Do you need help figuring this out? I could act as another set of eyes… ears… well, you get it.”
Mallory smirked. “Cute.”
Angela examined Robert thoroughly as though she was trying to see into his soul. “I thought you didn’t want to be involved with this.”
Robert stepped back and looked at his feet for a second. He needed to say this the right way. He didn’t want them to think he was waffling on his earlier decision. “I haven’t changed my mind on… on the issue of turning my entire life upside down. That’s something I’ve got no interest in.” He glanced up and looked Angela and Mallory in the eyes. “I didn’t say I was unwilling to help where I could. I mean, it may be nothing, or it may be something that could get more people drained or hurt. I don’t want to just turn my back on those people if I can help.”
Mallory raised her eyebrows, seemingly surprised by Robert’s words. She and Angela exchanged glances, and Robert could tell a conversation’s worth of information was shared in those looks. Mallory sighed, “Robert, thanks for being willing to help.”
Angela beamed with pride. Robert prayed he wasn’t getting her hopes up. “It’s really comforting to know that.”
“But, if it’s all the same,” Mallory continued, “we’d appreciate it if you’d leave this to us and get out of here as soon as possible.”
This wasn’t the response Robert had expected. “Really? I guess I thought that since you all couldn’t find where this humming was, you’d want all the help you can get.”
Mallory gave a conciliatory nod. “Another set of eyes would be nice, but that’s not my main concern at the moment. I’m worried about Eli and Cory.”
Robert squinted in confusion. “Eli and Cory wouldn’t mind helping. Especially now that they, you know, kinda are aware of the situation.”
“That’s exactly the problem,” Mallory explained. “Robert, those two have been inseparable since kindergarten. As long as I’ve known them, they’ve done everything together, oftentimes at the exclusion of their other friends. It’s never on purpose, but it’s always been Eli and Cory.”
Robert shook his head and asked, “What does that have to do with the humming?”
Mallory put her hand to her forehead and sighed. “They have always been loyal to one another. Stupidly so. They’d risk their lives for each other, and somehow, in the short time you’ve known them, you’ve penetrated their tight knit friendship and become part of that. Part of that loyalty. When the incident happened earlier this week, they should have run as fast as they could. Instead, they stayed and tried to help you.”
“Noble as that is, it could have gotten them killed had we arrived a few seconds later. They don’t need to be taking those risks,” Mallory said as she put her hand on Robert’s shoulder. He really didn’t like her touching him, but he had long since learned that not everyone shared his distaste for contact. “Pompoms or not, you’re part of this. Your willingness to help us at least shows us that you get that.You’re willing to take those risks. But my brother and his friend aren’t part of this. They just know a lot of people who are part of this. I don’t want them taking those risks, and if you involve yourself, they might. So I’m begging you, please, get your nerd crap together and take them with you out of here. On the off chance that something is going down, I want them away from the danger this time.”
Robert wanted to protest. Cory and Eli clearly had a stake in this game as far as Robert was concerned, but he held his tongue. He knew what Mallory meant, and more importantly, that she said what she said out of love and concern. He just didn’t appreciate that she had made it sound like it was a bad thing that Robert had made fast friends with Eli and Cory, but that was just Robert taking things personally that weren’t meant to be personal. You had to be able to separate such things. “Yeah. That makes sense.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Robert saw Eli and Cory exiting Dungeon Direct. Robert could see concern on Eli’s face. “Fancy running into you two here.”
Cory’s face was equally concerned, but it seemed that he couldn’t resist taking a shot at Eli. “‘You two?’ You forgot the blonde one is named Angela, didn’t you?”
Mallory tried to feign nonchalance. “Coming out of Nerd Central? How much money did you waste this time?”
Eli didn’t take the bait and cut right to the point. “Is something going on?”
Mallory sighed since she obviously had hoped her ribbing would change the topic. “Probably not. But maybe.”
Cory stepped up, “Does that, uh, does that mean Vivian is here?”
Mallory rolled her eyes at him. “I wouldn’t go there if I were you, Cory. It’s still a fresh wound.”
Cory slumped forward. “Yeah. Okay.”
Mallory smirked and shook her head. “Just give her time, dude. I think she’ll come around.”
Cory’s posture immediately corrected itself as he popped up like a prairie dog out of its hole. “You think so?”
Mallory gave him a supportive nod. “Just be patient, kid.”
“You’re one year older than us, Mallory. We’re hardly kids,” Eli protested.
Mallory took a step back and held her hands out as if to defend herself, though her smirk told Robert that she was anything but on the defensive. “I’m just saying not everyone can give away a friend’s stuff to make good with their prospective girlfriends.” Robert had to hand it to Mallory; she sure knew how to change the subject.
Cory grinned from ear to ear, and Eli’s shoulders sagged. “How do you know about that?”
“Easy. All Cory’s SpaceLook page talked about yesterday was complaining that someone gave away his game thing. Kara’s mentioned how sweet you were to let you borrow yours. It’s not rocket science. I keep telling you to quit being stubborn and get a SpaceLook of your own,” Mallory teased.
Robert chuckled, but noticed how annoyed Angela looked. At first, Robert thought she was bothered by Mallory stopping their search to tease her brother, but as he examined her expression further, Robert could see he was wrong. Angela wasn’t annoyed; Angela was tired.
She had mentioned that they had been searching for this humming for an hour. That was an hour of uncertainty whether they’d be going into battle or not. She and her friends had wanted to take a break from a stressful week and just go shopping, but they were having to deal with humming. Then, on top of having that pre-battle anticipation working on them for an hour, Robert, Eli, and Cory show up to further complicate things by arriving in a potential battlefield.
If Robert couldn’t help with scanning the mall, the least he could do was help by getting out of the Spirit Guard’s way so they could go back to worrying about their jobs. “Ladies, as pleasant and informative as this chat has been, we probably shouldn’t keep you tied up given the task at hand. We’re just going to get out of your way.”
Mallory gave Robert an appreciative nod. “Thank you, Rob.”
Angela also visibly relaxed some. “Indeed. Thank you for offering to help though.”
Cory and Eli gave Robert a sideways glance as the girls hurried off. “What was that about?”
“Yeah, they didn’t explain anything, and they made it sound like…”
“I’ll explain on the way out.” Robert let Cory and Eli lead him and after a few steps he lowered his voice. “When we arrived I felt a ‘hum’ on my special radio station.”
Cory froze at that news. “Like when you felt something as we walked towards the arcade but said nothing and we almost died?”
Robert pushed Cory forward. “No, not like that. Look, this station gets a lot of weird signals. That day was just the first time I felt anything on it, but that sensation was painful, like an icy hand along my bones. This is, well, it’s just a humming.”
Cory pouted. “The hum of our demise?”
“No. Not the hum of our demise. Just, like, a hum.” Robert clenched his teeth and breathed out a long sigh. How did he explain this without making them worry. “I asked Eli’s sister about it. They’ve been trying to find the hum for about an hour or so but it keeps moving around. When I pressed her and Angela about it, they said they don’t think it’s dangerous. It’s just, well, new. For them too apparently. And whenever they feel something new they just have to do their due diligence.”
Eli didn’t seem fully convinced. “If it’s not a, well, you know, a ‘person of interest’, then what could it be?”
Robert threw his hands in the air. “Hell if I know. I’ve had plenty of random things pop up now and again, all at some distance. The stuff is related to emotion. Maybe super large outbursts of emotion can trigger it? Your sister doesn’t seem to fully understand it, and she’s been using it for a year.”
Cory sighed. “Well, can you at least explain better what this hum is then? I mean, like, how does it feel? Is it like a constant low droning like being near power lines or something?”
“No,” Robert said, “it’s not like that. Like I can’t feel the hum right now. It’s more like… it’s more like how when you ring a bell. You know how like when you ring a bell there is that initial ding sound and then there is the faint ringing sound that emanates afterwards but slowly fades. The two times I’ve felt the hum, it’s sort of been like that. Big hum followed by a quickly fading small hum.”
Eli nodded. “Sort of like a blip on a radar. Do you know where it’s coming from?”
Robert shook his head. “The girls seem to think its here in the mall but, I didn’t really get a location. It just felt sort of far away. Given the size of the this mall though, it might very well be someone in here.”
“Yeah, this is the biggest mall in the state,” Cory added.
Eli sighed. “It just doesn’t seem like a good idea.”
“What? Not letting me help out with the search?” Robert had to agree with that.
“No,” Eli said. “Why put a… well, you know, a thing here? If you were the bad guy, wouldn’t you want to hide your monster as best as you could? Like, an arcade makes sense because what were the odds a girl would be there? But a mall? That’s like a drug ring setting up a meth lab in a donut shop. The cops are gonna find it.”
Cory scoffed. “Sure, go straight for the cops-donut stereotype.”
Robert paused and considered Eli’s point. “Yeah, that’s a good question, Eli. I mean, there are really only two explanations I can think of. One is that there isn’t a ‘presence’ here at all and the villain is aware of that. If there is though, it must be that something about this location that makes it a prime target.”
Cory chuckled. “Or maybe the villain is just an idiot? Why doesn’t anyone ever consider that?”
Eli punched Cory in the shoulder. “Because that would imply my sister can’t beat a moron.”
“Ow!” Cory rubbed at his shoulder. “I guess you’re right though.”
Robert laughed as they turned right towards a long hallway. The exit stood at the end, the bright sunlight reflecting off the cars in the parking lot. Robert chuckled at the thought that this was the light at the end of the tunnel. “Yeah, I just can’t imagine that anyone would be able to present the threat to an entire empire like the girls were talking about if they were that tactically stupid. Besides, the easier explanation is that it’s not a presence at all. Why would a bad guy put a monster where it would be easily found by the–”
Robert felt the hum directly to his left. He stopped dead in his tracks and scanned the area. The only storefront to his left was a large womens’ formal clothing boutique with various mannequins posed in a variety of colorful dresses. A gaggle of high school girls walked by, discussing how cute the dresses were and how they could never afford them. However, one mannequin in particular had caught their eye. The one in the little black dress.
The one that was humming.
Cory turned around with a raised eyebrow. “Robert?”
Eli turned as well. “Everything okay?”
Robert shook his head while his eyes were glued to the mannequin in the black dress. “No. That mannequin is humming.”
As if on cue, Robert felt every bone in his body seize up with icy chills. He felt the familiar feeling of something reaching for his Investiture, and by instinct, he once again swatted the attempt away. This time he could feel a light welling up inside of him. He desperately tried to suppress it and hoped this monster wouldn’t notice him.
Robert fell to a knee and focused all his efforts on preventing the light from breaking through. Despite it all, Robert felt the light burst through his forehead, which he was pretty sure was now displaying a radiant blue symbol of Serenity. “Shit.”
Adrenaline surged through his body. He became keenly aware of the gaggle of girls who suddenly seemed very tired. He couldn’t help them now. He could feel their investiture being siphoned off and feeding into the mannequin.
He was in public. He couldn’t be seen glowing in public. He pushed aside his panic and focused only on the Serene Investiture inside him. As he calmed down, he found the strength to to push the light back within himself.
With the light suppressed and his nerves calmed, Robert now had to focus on the next issue: the mannequin in the window that ceased posing and turned it’s head to look directly at him.
Eli swallowed down a giant lump in his throat. “This is bad.”
Cory grabbed Robert by the shoulder and helped him to his feet. “Mannequin’s staring at us. Yup. It’s official. We are now in a horror story.”
There were a billion ideas racing through Robert’s mind. The monster had moved right next to him; was that a coincidence? Mallory was going to kill him for getting her brother involved again. Where had he dropped his comic book? Why did he have the ability to push the light back this time? Why the hell had he insisted they get food before leaving?
With the myriad of thoughts running through his head, Robert knew only one thought mattered. That would be the one that would maximize their chance of escaping. Just as he pushed the light back into himself, he pushed unhelpful thoughts away. When he was done, only one thought was left: the exit is so close.
Robert sprang to his feet and Cory and Eli were right behind him.If they could just get outside, the Spirit Guard could catch up with their insane maneuverability. Here in this low-ceilinged hallway, the monster had the advantage. He just prayed the Spirit Guard felt the same icy chill he did.
Glass shattered behind the trio. Against his better judgement, Robert looked over his shoulder. People screamed and scrambled away from the shattered glass. The drained girls fell to the floor as they were sprayed with the window’s shards. Despite the spray of glass, Robert couldn’t see the mannequin anymore.
Robert felt the wind burst over his head. A distinct click echoed in front of him. Robert faced forward. There stood the mannequin; it was a mere ten feet away from them and directly in front of the backlit exit. The light of the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train.
The mannequin’s little black dress morphed into a black leotard with a turtleneck, and its strappy heels snaked up and formed into thigh high boots. It robotically ran it’s greyish-pink hand through its false hair as it’s face morphed, gaining more expression which served to make it even creepier.
It pointed at Robert and scowled with it’s almost human eyes. In an over-the-top French accent, the mannequin asked,”Where iz eet zat you zink you are going, glowy boy?”
The monster had jumped over them to prevent them from getting out, but there wasn’t much clearance between Robert’s head and the ceiling. It was six feet at most. This thing could move quickly and precisely. Maybe just as quick and precise as the Spirit Guard.
The Spirit Guard. Robert wasn’t getting past this monster. But the Spirit Guard could create an opening. So he’d have to get closer to the Spirit Guard, but the girls could be anywhere in the mall. Still, how far could Mallory and Angela have gotten? They couldn’t have been walking more than five minutes. Their best bet would be to backtrack.
“To the comic book store!” Robert spun on his heels and booked it as fast as he could. He thankfully heard Eli and Cory rush after him. He was glad to see they weren’t paralyzed by fear.
The mannequin laughed behind him and yelled after them, “Jou cannot escape Day LaMode here, boyz. Zis iz my world!”
Robert, Eli, and Cory came up on a t-junction where the ceiling raised and opened into the part of the mall that had two levels. Just ahead of them was a sporting goods store with a few mannequins in various tight sportswear. Two of their mannequins faced the boys and their outfits and body frames morphed into copies of the Day LaMode mannequin; however, they were without the almost-expressive face she had.
As they turned left, Robert noticed all down the hallway, various mannequins were facing them and morphing into Day LaMode copies. Glass shattered all across the mall as the army of mannequins leaped from their stands and onto the ground floor. Robert counted seven in front of them and with a quick glance behind him he found four more. They all started marching towards the three young men.
Cory took a step back. “Yup. Definitely a horror film.”
“Quit saying we’re in a horror movie!” Eli shouted.
“It’s a coping mechanism,” Cory sighed.
Robert split his attention between the mannequins advancing on them and the one that had called itself Day LaMode. She was chuckling to herself and walking towards the trio while the mannequins were quickly forming a circle to prevent their escape. This was bad.
That’s when Robert felt two new sensations on his extra sense. Strangely, they didn’t remind him of sounds like he had recently been experiencing. This time they felt like scents. Like two fragrant candles being lit. Two more scents followed the first pair. Robert was glad to know he wasn’t the only one who had felt that gaggle of girls getting drained.
The Spirit Guard were on their way. That was good, but Robert, Cory, and Eli were about to be surrounded. That could pose several problems for the Spirit Guard’s approach. The girls would have a hard time keeping the boys out of the crossfire if they had to engage all these mannequins encircling them. Plus, with enemy eyes looking in all directions, there wouldn’t be a single angle of attack the girls could take and have the benefit of surprise.
So Robert decided to improvise and do something that could be potentially very stupid if the girls couldn’t arrive fast enough. “I have an idea! Follow me!” Robert dashed into the nearest storefront, a newly evacuated Current Subject. That store at least had no mannequins in it.
“I hope this plan involves a theoretical escape route,” Eli grunted as he chased Robert into the store.
Robert stopped at the entrance and faced the approaching army of creepy mannequin women. “Sorry, but it doesn’t. We’re standing our ground here.”
“What?” Cory staggered into the store and panted as he rested on a display of band shirts. “Standing our ground? This is the worst plan ever! You’re banned from plan making from here on out!”
A haunting chorus of laughter erupted from the hallway.The hairs on the back of Robert’s neck stood up as the vacant faces of each mannequin giggled at the boys’ predicament. Though he didn’t want to say it outloud, he was starting to wonder if Cory wasn’t right about the horror movie thing.
“Now zat iz funny. Ztand your ground?” The lead mannequin stepped through her army and laughed again. “Really? Zat iz zee best plan you can fashion? Fight Day LaMode? You don’t ztand a chance against Day LaMode.” The monster pushed a strand of stringy, fake black hair behind her ear, her smile growing wider by the second. “Whezer or not you fight iz of no conseequence. You zomehow rezeesteed Day LaMode’s attempt to drain you. Zat means az far az Day LaMode iz concerned you are zee belle of za ball. You are comeen wiz Day LaMode, glowy boy. Whezer or not you like eet, you have just scheduled a photo zjoot weet Lord Plateecore.”
Cory stood up straight. “Talking in the third person with that horrible French accent? Well that is already annoying.”
Eli backed himself up against a rack of clothing. “Please don’t antagonize the monsters, Cory.”
“What? I’m just saying, I took a semester of high school French and my accent is better than that!”
Robert grit his teeth together. He counted twelve total mannequins, including the main one with the expressive face that was doing all the talking. Despite Cory’s prattling, all twenty-four of their vacant eyes were on him. He needed to keep it that way. He let the light welling up inside him escape out of his forehead once more. Hopefully that would keep their attention for a good sneak attack when the Spirit Guard arrived.
They just really needed to arrive soon.
And here we go. Monster attack #2 in the same week. Things really start to pick up now.
Looking forward to hearing from you all,