Spirit Guard Valor desperately needed to get to Felicity and Charity. Their entire battle formation was backwards; Valor and Tenacity should be on the front lines warding the mannequins from getting anywhere close to their ranged fighters. Instead, Charity and Felicity were surrounded, and Tenacity was off trying to protect Robert, her brother, and the other guy from Day LaMode. If only Valor could find a way to get free of her circle of attackers. How was she supposed to make progress when these mannequins would sacrifice themselves to her sword just to create another opening for a different mannequin to attack?
Valor narrowly avoided a punch to her jaw only to take a shot to her kidney. She grimaced but fought through the pain. They moved as a swarm; there were no openings. Plus, they fought tactically; they isolated Valor from the other two girls, but they kept Charity and Felicity bunched up, preventing Felicity from being able to use some of her more explosive attacks without hurting Charity. On top of all that, they seemed to share vision which precluded any form of sneaking away.
Where was Tenacity? Valor had felt the spark of Tenacity’s Determined Arc a bit ago but nothing after that. If she was still fighting Day LaMode, she would have expected to feel more attacks. If she had defeated Day LaMode, why were these mannequins still attacking? Valor’s heart sunk as she pondered the alternative.
No. The Princess didn’t let the chaos of battle cloud her vision so neither would she. The end goal was to kill Day LaMode. Valor couldn’t worry about Tenacity right now. Tenacity had been fighting by her side for over a year and was the best fighter they had. Valor would just have to trust that Tenacity could handle herself. She had to get back to Charity and Felicity first. Then, once she freed Felicity up to use her bigger attacks, she could help Tenacity… wherever she was.
“Please be okay,” Valor whispered.
How was she going to get free of this swarm? She had tried jumping away twice now, but both times there had been mannequins in the back ready to intercept her and knock her back to the ground. Valor supposed the girls could try to turn this into a battle of attrition and simply slay all the mannequins in the mall, but there were well over two-hundred storefronts. Even if there were only an average of one mannequin per store, there was no way they had even cut through even a third of Day LaMode’s potential army. Attrition would be a very time consuming plan. No. Valor would have to try to cut a path through her enemies and get to her friends’ side.
She parried away two mannequins’ punches and aimed her shield at the biggest cluster of enemies she could find. “Avalanche of Truth!” A spray of diamonds spewed from her shield. The attack sliced two mannequins to ribbons, but the rest were able to jump out of the way. A path. Valor leapt through the opening and twisted herself around. She slid along the floor on her back and aimed her shield at the swarm to fire more diamonds. With luck, she’d be able to cut up even more mannequins as they pursu–
Valor grimaced as she was yanked off the floor by one of her pigtails. What was happening? Something swung her in the air like she was a nunchaku; some other mannequin had grabbed her. Of course. They all shared vision. The moment she escaped her swarm, one of the mannequins from Charity and Felicity’s swarms jumped into action. Why hadn’t she thought of that?
The mannequin tossed her back to the circle she had just escaped. As Valor hung in the air and watched the gaggle lifeless automatons ready to pounce on her, she got the distinct impression that this was what a worm felt like being dropped into a nest of baby birds.
But she wasn’t a worm. Valor held her hands out and righted herself so that she’d land on her feet ready to fight. The Princess didn’t give up when she was beset on all sides by the forces of Platicore, the Queen, and the Other Power. Valor certainly wouldn’t give up to a bunch of stupid mannequins.
Valor’s empathokinetic sense flared with the scent of fresh cut roses. Odd. The only time her empathokinetic sense ever triggered smells was when the Spirit Guard transformed. But none of the girls’ transformations smelled like roses and they had all completeed their transformations. As she thought about it, the “smell” sort of reminded Valor of the feeling she got when Robert’s symbol flared up. But this was much more intense than…
Valor smiled. Tenacity would be just fine. Guilt tainted her sense of relief and joy; she knew what kind of sacrifice had just been made on Robert’s end. However, for the moment, she’d push the guilt aside and fight. She felt reinvigorated by the assurance that Tenacity would be safe. The team was complete. The cavalry was coming. This day would be won. Spirit Guard Serenity was coming to save the day.
The shoe store was gone. Though Robert couldn’t be sure of where he stood, he felt like he was inside a bubble: a vast, sky blue bubble that had waves crashing against it while stars, comets, and galaxies whizzed about the surface as if it was some sort of psychedelic combination of a new age album cover and a screen saver. He also swore he could hear some stringy music just beyond the edges of the bubble.
“What the hell?” He glanced around, trying to get his bearings. He could stand just fine, so it seemed gravity was behaving normally. But then what was he standing on? The surface rippled like water, but he wasn’t sinking and his feet weren’t wet. Was he even still in the mall?
All thoughts of his location disappeared as he examined himself. His body was glowing the same bright, sky blue color as the symbol of Serenity on his forehead. And he was naked. Well, naked-ish. He didn’t feel like his junk was exposed, though he couldn’t exactly see himself wearing any boxers either. Was the Scholar a prude or something so she designed the empathokinetic focus so it kept its users decent? Who were they being kept decent for? He was the only one here.
Robert shook his head. He couldn’t afford to waste anymore time wondering about his paradoxical nudity. “Just add it to the pile of all the things that don’t make a lick sense.” He was in the bubble… now what? Nothing was happening. He needed to become Spirit Guard Serenity somehow, but the Stick hadn’t come with an instruction manual. He could feel his extra sense screaming at him; the power he needed to save the day was all around. So how did he get it?
Robert focused on the string-music lilting off in the distance. As he honed in on the music, he could feel the power there in the music. The tune struck him as being somewhat familiar. Soothing. Graceful. Serene.
These empathokinetic foci, these… Spirit Sticks, were tools forged by the Scholar. She was supposedly one of the greatest minds of the Empathic Empire. Emotions were their weapons. Robert had thought of the Spirit Guard’s swords, bows, and staves as their weapons, but Angela seemed to indicate that was incorrect. It was their emotions they wielded. So if he was a super-smart academic who made emotion-weapons, what would be the process you’d come up with to equip an emotion? A password? A speech?
No. Robert could feel that wasn’t the case. He couldn’t be sure how, but he definitely could feel the the power was tied to the music. Robert racked his brain. What was a way someone could “wear” an emotion that tied in with a song?
Then it all seemed so clear, like someone had just told him the solution an obvious riddle. “Oh this is so ridiculous.” A dance. Dances were an expression of human emotions in physical forms. A dance, he figured, was a reasonable medium where you “wore” an emotion all over your body. It made sense; Robert hated that.
“If this was a weapon meant for the Shrine Maiden,” Robert mused to himself, “the dance would be something she’d be familiar with.” Despite Angela’s insistence, Robert was not the Shrine Maiden. Even if Angela was right and Robert was some sort of reincarnation of the Shrine Maiden, they still weren’t the same person. They had different life experiences, educations, and genders. Assuming he was even right about his dance theory, he wouldn’t know the Shrine Maiden’s dance moves. This was a problem.
He had to empty his mind. Right now he was just too Robert to save Eli’s sister. He had to find the piece of the Investiture that supposedly connected him to this mysterious priestess from a long dead empire. He had to let himself go long enough to find the Shrine Maiden… whatever that meant.
Robert closed his eyes, forced himself to forget the immediate danger, thought of nothing but that music.
It was definitely some kind of string instrument that played that music. But it wasn’t the plucking of a guitar or a harp. It was more like the sound of a bow being drawn across a violin. But not quite a violin. It wasn’t an instrument that Robert was familiar with. It was an alien sound yet, strangely, it also seemed familiar. Hauntingly familiar. Like he knew both the instrument and the song intimately well.
The tune sounded outwardly hopeful and triumphant, but there was regret sewn into the melody. Resignation. Sadness. In that moment, as he truly examined the music for the first time, he could feel his connection to the Shrine Maiden.
This was a song that celebrated a glorious purpose but mourned for a damned people. It was an expression of confidence that the Shrine Maiden was doing the right thing. That her actions would, in the end, be correct and righteous, but that thought did little to console her troubled heart.
Platicore fought them to the brink of extinction. The Other Power was coming. To escape their hell, her corrupt people were fleeing to other worlds. There, they would not enlighten the local inhabitants but enslave them. They had abandoned the noble path for petty tyranny. It hurt the Shrine Maiden so much to see a once beautiful, righteous people become so self-absorbed and callous.
But this tune was only tinged with sadness. The Shrine Maiden saw the end goal. She was sure of her purpose. The tune, much like Robert, pushed aside the distracting thoughts and focused on the eventual triumph. That was the Shrine Maiden’s eye of the storm. She focused on what had to be done to achieve her goals.
“She wrote this for me,” Robert realized. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but he knew it was true. He could feel it in his bones. She wrote this song for him. She wanted to remind Robert of her purpose. Their purpose. Robert had to forget his troubles, insecurities, and doubts, then get to work.
Robert raised his hands high in the air and turned his wrists so that the backs of his hands faced one another. The Shrine Maiden’s song wash over his mind. Robert let go of the indignity and frustration inside him and simply flowed with the current of the music.
He dropped his left arm parallel to the ground. The power crash against Robert’s hands, running along his forearms. For a moment, the liquid-like power rippled before it solidified into fingerless evening gloves. The power sunk into his arms; Robert could feel his biceps shrinking, yet feeling impossibly stronger. Robert had to remind himself to keep his mind on the music as his body changed. He had to stay in step with the song.
He kicked his left foot behind him and somehow balanced all his weight on the very tip of his right toes. The power gushed up as if from a geyser. It snaked up his legs and formed thigh high socks. He could feel his legs, the thick legs of a running back, shrink and reshape into something you’d see on a female gymnast; still very strong, but definitely not what you’d see on a football field.
The music pulsed faster, remaining calm but also stressing an urgence with its beat. The power bubbled around his feet. He pranced to his left, impossibly keeping all his weight on his toes with each increasingly more dainty step. After the fifth step, the music burst into a dramatic melody. Robert leaped into the air and thrusted his legs as high as they would go. Impossibly, they lifted not just parallel with the ground but even higher. The power fit hit feet into new shoes, lacing them up past his ankle. Robert landed on the ground, his weight on the balls of his feet. He was wearing a heel of some kind, though he didn’t dare open his eyes. The music still sung with power.
The music lifted into a joyous refrain. He lifted all his weight onto his left toes and kicked his right foot out. He pirouetted like a toy ballerina in a music box. The power swirled around his waist like a whirlpool. His waist shrunk and his hips expanded, as if he were a piece of clay on a potter’s wheel being molded to the shape of its sculptor’s desire.
The music paused for the briefest of moments. Robert froze with it, perching himself on his left toe, leaning forward and holding his arms aloft like a swan landing on a still lake. The power around his waist solidified and formed itself into a simple skirt that was entirely too short for Robert’s tastes. A discomforting sensation of something shifting within himself accompanied the skirt.
Robert had the distinct impression she didn’t need to worry about her junk being on display anymore and it had nothing to do with the skirt. No. Thinking about it was breaking her out of the flow of the music. She knew that this would be a consequence of her decision. No sense in dwelling on it.
Robert pushed against the floor like an ice skater, propelling herself forward in step with the flow of the song. She skated in a small circle as the power crashed around her chest. She arched her back and extended her right arm behind her, like a lovesick soul reaching wistfully for the hand of her lover. Her chest exploded outward with a new weight that Robert found disturbingly familiar.
The power around Robert’s new chest crystallized and wrapped her torso in cloth. It exposed both her midriff and some cleavage. Robert reminded herself to stay serene but she couldn’t help but feel at least a little angry that she was in a two piece outfit. She hoped her uniform would be a single piece of cloth like Tenacity’s or Felicity’s outfit.
The music carried into a triumphant finale. Robert leaped into the air and pulled her arms close to her chest. She spun like top and her hair whipped out dramatically. With each turn it spiraled around her body like thread on a spool.
After three complete turns Robert landed on her left foot. The momentum of her spin carried her right foot past her left. She firmly planted it on the ground, stopping the rotation. Her hair unwound itself from around her body. When it finished unraveling, Robert was surprised to feel it resting just past her much posterior, which felt much rounder than she remembered. A long tuft of hair spilled over her face as she opened her eyes for the first time. Her left eye’s vision was completely obstructed by the hair. “This will be inconvenient,” Robert thought.
The music reached it’s conclusion. The power splashed against Robert’s face, reshaping it, though exactly how much Robert couldn’t be sure. She finished with a twist of her waist. Robert glanced over her left shoulder as the power settled in Robert’s hands. She gripped the power as it shaped itself into two blue pompoms.
The music stopped and the blue light gave way to the shoe store. Spirit Guard Serenity felt the glowing of her body wane. Strange. She felt the glowing wane before she saw the glowing wane. That wasn’t all she felt, too. Her extra sense hummed with a clarity she hadn’t fathomed before. It was like she had finally gotten over a cold and could truly smell for the first time in ages. Serenity could feel three bright presences contending with an entire army of frozen contempt. The valorous presence struggled against a sea of coldness. The generous and cheerful presences stood side by side, abetting wave after wave of ice.
A final presence, one of grim determination dimmed against a growing glacier of frigid rage. They were in the direction of the food court. Tenacity. Serenity didn’t have much time.
Serenity ignored the urge to inspect her new body, though she couldn’t help but notice her new hair. It covered her left eye and was red. Not the orange-ish natural red hair Serenity was used to though. This was a red as deep and vibrant as a rose in full bloom. “Wonder what name Eli and Cory have for this color?”
Serenity recoiled at the sound of her voice. She now had breasts and hair the color of blood but the most startling change was her voice. It was… a girl’s voice. That shouldn’t have shocked her. But the sound of someone’s else’s voice coming from your own throat was jarring. Plus, she could hear a faint country twang to it. Robert had always been told that he had a very slight accent. He could never quite hear it but given the thick drawl of his Uncle Taylor, it had never surprised him that people heard something a little country in his voice. With entirely different vocal cords though, Robert could finally hear her faint accent as clear as bell. That was going to take some getting used to.
Serenity clapped her pompoms together, eager to exchange them for actual weapons. They evaporated into two identical daggers. Serenity smirked. “Just like when I play Aspect Realms.” Serenity decided to spend a quick moment examining them. She had to know exactly what she was working with if she was going to win. They were finely crafted. The blades were angular, and perfectly balanced. A simple blood groove ran along the full length of the blade. Near the hilt, the blade’s edge was serrated. The metal itself had a strange, almost watery sheen to it, but was otherwise very simple in design. The only ostentation the daggers bore were the the deep sapphire hilts engraved with intricate, foreign symbols.
She tested the daggers’ weight by twirling them in her hands. Serenity let out a low whistle. Despite never holding them before, these daggers didn’t feel awkward in her hands. Their heft was perfect. It was as though they were extensions of her hands. Without any training in dagger combat, Serenity knew these weapons as well as a mother knew her child.
That made sense, though. These daggers were made for the Shrine Maiden. “No,” Serenity corrected herself with a grin, “these were made for me.”
It was time to move out. Serenity turned on her heels as if she had worn them her entire life. She dashed forward. The world became a blur.
She stopped. The speed was incredible. All at once she felt the power this body possessed. It was as if every muscle was a compressed spring begging to have its potential unleashed. Yet it moved with the precision of a cat. She felt invincible. It was almost enough to make her not notice how much bigger the doorway to the shoe store looked. Just how much had she shrunk?
No time for that. She let her supernaturally quick body get to work and the world once again blurred past her.
Serenity stopped again. This wasn’t right. Charging forward was Tenacity’s tactic. Tenacity lost. Also, if Serenity charged headlong into battle, Day LaMode would see her coming, allowing Day LaMode to easily teleport to a different mannequin’s body. Or maybe give the monster enough time to stop simply beating Tenacity and go for a killing blow before Serenity could save the day.
A different tactic would be necessary. Serenity considered that she had seen three attacks connect with Day LaMode: Tenacity’s bullrush from behind to start the fight, Valor knocking a mannequin into Day LaMode, and Tenacity’s lightning cut through the walkway. All three had been surprises. Serenity nodded to herself. Sneak attacks were Robert’s specialty in Aspect Realms and, though she wasn’t sure how, she could feel that subterfuge and stealth were how the Shrine Maiden preferred her combat.
Serenity crossed her daggers in front of her. Two words entered her mind. “Placid Mist!” Water sprayed from her daggers then curved back towards her. The mist wrapped around her body like a blanket. In an instant she could simultaneously see through herself yet see herself clearly. It made no sense logically but her brain was somehow able to process the conflicting information her eyes and extra sense were giving. Serenity chalked it up to empathokinetic nonsense and rushed towards the food court.
The concealing empathokinetic mist peeled off of her body like a snake shedding it’s skin. She was visible and close enough to the food court she could make out the figure of Day LaMode. Serenity dove to the ground, hoping the railing would conceal her and the mannequin-woman hadn’t seen her.
Serenity held her breath, wanting to be as silent as possible. She heard the sound of plastic hitting flesh and Tenacity scream in pain. Serenity snarled. The empathokinetic mist finally caught up to Serenity and her invisibility returned. Day LaMode would pay for hurting Tenacity, but she couldn’t rush forward at full speed if she wanted to stay invisible. This was stupid. Why did nobody ever design a stealth mode you could run full speed in? It was as if whoever designed empathokinesis had the same balance philosophy as the the programmers of Aspect Realms.
Serenity crawled to her feet and shuffled forward. When the mist didn’t relent she increased her speed to a regular walk. Still invisible. So she began jogging lightly. She could feel the mist on the edge of peeling away again. This was her limit. “Strange,” she thought, “this jog would be a dead sprint for me normally.” But as Spirit Guard Serenity, with this curvy but supernatural body, she moved as quickly and quietly as the wind. Her speed and dexterity were far beyond what she could even have fathomed. Even with her heeled boots, she didn’t make a sound. It was everything Robert had dreamed being a comic book hero would be like… minus the heels.
She was almost to the food court. Serenity could see more than few upended tables and chairs. Tenacity sat in the fountain at the center. Serenity wasn’t close enough to make her out perfectly, but Tenacity looked like crap warmed over. Tenacity’s entire body posture was that of a wounded gazelle.
Day LaMode loomed over Tenacity. Her face, that terrible, almost expressive face, was a mask of psychotic joy. Tenacity’s right hand was pinned under Day LaMode’s left heel. Tenacity weakly punched Day LaMode’s stomach with her pompom, but it was having no effect. Tenacity was simply too battered and broken for that punch to have any force behind it.
Day LaMode laughed and said something that Serenity couldn’t make out. Then the monster woman lifted her right foot and aimed her stiletto-heel at Tenacity’s eye. Serenity felt the presence of determination Spirit Guard Tenacity wither to a mere spark. Tenacity stopped punching and let her arm fall to the ground.
The Spirit Guard’s paragon of persistence, Eli’s sister, had given up.
Serenity gave up all pretence of stealth, unleashed every ounce of supernatural strength her legs had and shot herself at Day LaMode feet first like she was a bullet from a gun. She screamed from the top of her lungs, “No!”
Tenacity tried to breath. A trickle of air came in. It wasn’t enough. It was like she was drowning in open air.
Tenacity crashed to the floor again, this time feeling her body slam into something wet. The food court fountain maybe? It was difficult to be sure because every time Day LaMode tossed her somewhere else or punched her she’d see stars.
The mannequin chuckled as she splashed into the water fountain. Gummi how Tenacity hated that sound. She glared up at at the monster with her left eye. Her right eye had long since swollen shut with bruises. “Oh eef only jou had just let well enough alone, sparky girl. Zen Day LaMode would have just takeen ze glowy boy and left jou alone.”
“Whatever,” Tenacity wheezed out. Day LaMode was lying. Not that it mattered. Her head pounded with the worst migraine ever and her entire sense of balance was completely gone. Tenacity was pretty sure she could add “concussion” to her list of injuries. But she couldn’t let that distract her. She had to think of something.
“Do jou regret what jou have done to Day LaMode’s face yet?” The monster loomed over her with an almost-grin. Tenacity couldn’t believe it; after all the insane, surreal monsters she had fought, she was finally going to finally lose… to a mannequin. That just wasn’t going to fly with her.
Her only options were to wait here for a rescue from the other Spirit Guards or to make something happen. Earlier, Tenacity thought she felt something with her empathokineitic sense, but no one had ever shown up. Given how battered she was she wouldn’t have been surprised to find out whatever organ it was that helped with that extra sense was somehow injured too. With no hint that the cavalry was coming, she’d have to make something happen herself.
Mentally, Tenacity dismissed her pompoms. She had no clue where they were; she had long since lost them. With the pompoms now dismissed, she could resummon them into her hands for her last ditch attack. She wheezed and mumbled something barely audible, trying to make her noise sound like a potential answer to Day LaMode’s question.
“Hmm?” The monster leaned in close, turning her ear to Tenacity. “Jou’ll have to speak a leettle louder, sparky girl. Day LaMode cannot hear jou when you’re chokeen on jour own blood like zat.”
Perfect. This was her best chance. Tenacity summoned her pompoms to her hands. She would clap them together right next to Day LaMode’s chest. The Spirit Guard’s huge sword would form inside the monster, instantly impaling it. Then her Intrepid Blade attack would finish her off.
Tenacity groaned and clapped her hands together. Only problem was her right hand didn’t move. As Day LaMode cackled, Tenacity glanced down at her right wrist with panicked confusion. Her right wrist pinned between the toes and stiletto-heel of ithe monster’s boot. “Oh poor zweet leetle, sparky girl. Jou are truly deserveen of jour title. Jou do not geev up. Day LaMode admirez jour spark. Eet wuz a good idea, but jou’re far too slow and weak now. Eet ees over.”
Tenacity tried to wrest her arm free. It wouldn’t budge. She had to settle for trying to punch Day LaMode in the gut with her left hand. The monster didn’t even bother to block it. Tenacity punched with every ounce of strength she could; she might as well have been punching stone. Day LaMode was right. She was far too spent to muster any kind of force.
Day LaMode continued to cackle. “Eet has been fun beating jou like a rug, sparky girl. But Day LaMode haz wasted enough time on jou. Day LaMode really does need to track down zat glowy boy jou were dieing to protect.” The monster lifted her right leg and pointed her heel a few inches above Tenacity’s non-swollen eye.
Mallory stopped punching. This was it. She was going to die. She couldn’t believe it. She always felt so invincible when as Spirit Guard Tenacity. But Mallory had finally bit off more than she could chew. She should have stuck with the girls. They had always won when they stuck together. But she had been so worried about Eli and Cory that she…
Eli. She hoped he made it out. What would he tell Mom and Dad? He’d have to give them the news of what happened. Guilt overwhelmed her.
“Au revoir, Spireet Guard Tenazity. Eet eez as Day LaMode told you: jou would be corpse number nineteen, not Day La…”
“Nooooo!” Day LaMode stopped talking and turned to face a screaming voice. Who was that? Definitely a female voice but that wasn’t any of the Spirit Guards. It was too high for Valor and Charity and not nasally enough to be Felicity. If it wasn’t one of those three, who would be stupid enough to try to attract the attention of a monster?
A flash of blue and red crashed into Day LaMode feet first. The mannequin woman crumpled around the foot of this girl before rocketing away. The noise of dozens of tables and chairs toppling over echoed through the food court, punctuated by the sound of something solid collapsing.
The red streak that had trailed behind the girl caught up and crashed against her back like waves on a beach. Wow, this girl’s hair was beautiful! She wasn’t just a redhead, but a scarlette whose hair reached past her butt. Odd, even though she held still now, her hair seemed to flow and ripple like a stream. The mystery girl turned and and looked down at Tenacity with a pair of pretty green eyes.
Donut but this girl was gorgeous. She was short but this girl had more curves than a race tack. She leaned over and propped Mallory up against the edge of the fountain. In doing so, Mallory was looking straight at this girl’s chest. This girl was stacked like she belonged in a Hollywood blockbuster film… and wearing a two-piece cheer uniform? “Sorry I’m late.”
Who would be stupid enough to try and attract the attention of a monster? The same idiot who had already done it twice today. Apparently third time was, indeed, a charm. Tenacity had a lot of questions for Serenity but only had enough breath to huff out one. “Eli?”
“Should be safe,” Serenity assured her. “Got them away from me, after all.”
“Good.” Tenacity couldn’t believe it. Robert had actually made the sacrifice. It had been way too much for Fate to ask of him. But he did it anyway. Guess he was made of tougher stuff than she realized. Tenacity closed her eyes and leaned her head against the edge of the fountain. She could finally rest.
Tenacity felt a hand tap her on the cheek. “Hey, don’t go to sleep now. You look injured. Probably not a good idea to fall asleep.”
“Yeah.” She forced her one good eye open. Serenity was probably right. She just needed to stay awake and focus on her breathing. It hurt, but it’d keep her awake and make sure oxygen kept getting into her system.
“Good. Just, whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.” Serenity got up and pulled two daggers from the bottom of the fountain. Strangely, despite being in the fountain with her, Serenity nor her daggers looked wet. Weird. The new, impossibly dry girl flashed a grin. “Besides, if you fell asleep, no one would witness me kick this mannequin’s angelcake. I mean… angelcake?” The sound of rubble shuffling in the distance stopped Serenity’s introspection. “Nevermind.” Serenity bounded away.
Tenacity silently chuckled, not daring to test how much laughing would hurt. Her brother and Cory were safe. She was alive. And Robert actually used his Spirit Stick to transform into Spirit Guard Serenity. That possible solution had never once occurred to her. Now she just had to hope the rookie defeat a monster that had beat her like a drum. She wasn’t out of the woods yet.
Still, Tenacity’s brother was safe. She was still breathing, though not very well. Plus she’d now have someone to commiserate with over the lack of therapeutic profanity. With the exception of her black eye, body littered with bruises, concussion, cracked ribs, and breathing that was both mind-blowingly painful and unsatisfying, things were looking pretty good to Spirit Guard Tenacity.
“Angelcake? Why did I say angelcake back there? I don’t kick angelcake; I kick angelcake. It’s…” Serenity paused and considered her words. “Did I actually just say that?” Something beyond weird was going on in her head and at the back of her mind a little voice told Serenity that either the kangaroo rat or Spirit Guard Valor was to blame.
She dismissed the thought. Serenity had to focus. Day LaMode was picking herself out of the wreckage of what used to be Kung Pao Kwik. Donut. Why couldn’t she have aimed better and destroyed the Ándale Taco storefront? Kung Pao Kwik was greasy, sure, but it at least tasted good. Ándale Taco used meat paste and it deserved destruction a lot more than cheap, unhealthy, yet delicious Chinese food did.
The mannequin’s leotard hung loose around the right hip, as if an entire portion of its body had caved in. Serenity smirked at seeing the monster’s attempt at a frustrated face. Upon meeting eyes with Serenity, the expression of anger morphed to something that approximated confusion. “What? Who are jou? Zhere are only four Spereet Guards!”
Serenity knew she should just attack. Right now Day LaMode was confused and likely disoriented. But something inside Serenity pushed her to monologue: a side effect of the transformation maybe? She guessed it didn’t matter since she was going to ignore what she knew she should do and instead do what she wanted to do: banter like Collider would. “Me? Oh, I’m from the other team of supernatural cheerleaders, the Pep Knights. Yeah, we work just a few towns over. Spirit Guard needed some help so they gave me a call.”
Day LaMode’s scowl deepened. Serenity could feel that cold anger growing. It was incredible how much clearer the extra sense was in this form. “Day LaMode asked who jou are. Ze Master told Day LaMode zhere are only four Spireet Guards. Where deed you come from, wavy girl?”
Serenity rolled her eyes and idly twirled her daggers between her fingers. She wanted to look as unconcerned as possible. Plus she loved the feel of twirling daggers. It made her feel hardcore. “I see first-person pronouns are still quite the hurdle for you. And, again, you believe every single detail Platicore tells you? You really are ridiculous. You know that? I mean, I’ve met pastors with less faith in their boss than you.”
Day LaMode tried to narrow her eyes, but its plastic face only allowed for a slight scrunching. Serenity had been too focused on surviving as Robert to notice how odd the creature looked when it talked; it had no lips, so it had to move its entire jaw like some sort of puppet or animatronic robot just to make any sounds. Plus, it had no teeth to speak of. Just how did the biology of these monsters work? “Are still quite ze hurdle? Have we met, wavy girl?”
“Oh yeah. We’ve met.” Serenity pushed the hair out of her right eye. Her hair responded by dropping her bangs in front of her left eye. Serenity sighed and pushed the hairs now obstructing her left eye back, only for her right eye to get covered again. It seemed her hair was empathokinetically predisposed to obstruct her vision. She sincerely hoped her heightened extra sense could make up for the hit she was taking to depth perception.
“We have met? Zat seems unlikely.”
Serenity felt something on the edge of the food court. She glanced over and examined what she felt. It was an aura of a guilty conscience centered on top of a garbage bin. Serenity squinted, trying to piece together what this was, but she saw nothing. “Yeah. Unlikely. But we have.”
Day LaMode glanced over to see what Serenity was looking at. “So who are jou then?”
The guilt fled from the food court. As it did, the strength of the impression grew weaker until it disappeared entirely. Something was happening but she couldn’t piece out exactly what that something was. Day LaMode didn’t seem to be reacting at all to it so it either was some trick of hers she was trying to play off or Serenity’s empathokinetic sense giving her an impression of… something. She’d keep that feeling in mind as she fought. “The name is Spirit Guard Serenity.”
“Day LaMode told jou, wavy girl, there are only four Spireet Guards. You cannot be one of them.”
“Count again,” Serenity smirked as she decided to throw the monster a hint, “Number Nineteen.”
Day LaMode took a step back. “Number Nineteen?” The mannequin leaned forward, examining Serenity as if she was seeing her for the first time. “Qu’est-ce que c’est? No. Zis cannot be.”
Serenity’s smile widened. “So the dummy starts to figure it out.” So what was that guilt she felt? She better not give away too much. Maybe there were eyes on her.
“Zat is not posseeble. You were a…”
“Yeah. I know. But as a wise man once said, ‘things change.'” Serenity lowered herself into a crouch. “And the biggest change is that I’m more than capable of fighting back now.”
Day LaMode laughed. “Please, ze beeggest change are ze two giant changes on jour chest.” Serenity grit her teeth; that wasn’t what she wanted to hear. “Besides,” Day LaMode mused, “jou land one zurprise keeck and zuddenly jou zink you stand a chance? Day LaMode just feenished adding some nice black and blue to jour sparky girl’s look and she eez ze best ze Spireet Guard had to offer in terms of fighting. What chance do you have?”
“Please,” Serenity scoffed. “Haven’t you been paying attention, Nineteen? Every time one of your monster friends shows up and overwhelms the Spirit Guard, that always happens to coincidently line up with the Spirit Guards getting their newest member. Now you’re here, giving the four Spirit Guard too much to handle, so I show up to punish you for what you did to Tenacity.”
“Zhere have not been ozhere constructs! Ze Master told me zat…” Day LaMode stepped forward, dropping out of a combat ready stance to yell at the new combat cheerleader. This was exactly what Serenity had been waiting for.
Serenity charged forward, running low to the ground like she was some character from an anime. Each step was short and quick. That distance would have taken a few seconds to cross as Robert; as Spirit Guard Serenity she closed the gap in the span of a heartbeat. Day LaMode staggered back into a defensive posture. Serenity pulled her left dagger up to Day LaMode’s throat.
The mannequin slapped the strike away as Serenity had anticipated. She didn’t want to get a killing blow off the bat; if she did, Day LaMode would just teleport away to another body. If she was going to kill this thing it’d have to be with a blow she didn’t see coming.
With instincts born of the Shrine Maiden’s training, Serenity turned and exposed her back to Day LaMode. She could feel the monster go in for a blow to the back of her head. She was beginning to see how the Shrine Maiden could fight with this ridiculous hair in her eyes; she didn’t need to rely on them nearly at all.
Serenity waited until she could feel the fist of Day LaMode grazing her hair. In a flash of motion, Serenity spun away from the attack, her hair whipping behind her. Using the momentum of her spin, Serenity became a whirl or daggers striking up and down Day LaMode’s entire right side partially dislocating the monster’s right arm from it’s shoulder joint.
Day LaMode had obviously not anticipated this fight. The monster had been able to overwhelm the slower, stronger Tenacity with its speed. Serenity smirked, knowing that she had turned the tables. Her blade nearly cut through Day LaMode’s neck, but her prey leaped away.
She was in the air and wouldn’t be able to dodge easily. Serenity needed a ranged attack. Words formed in her mind. She pressed her daggers together and simply let her voice flow with the words. “Geyser of Tranquility!” She thought of her quiet rage at having to see Eli and Cory suffer through watching Tenacity get the living sugar beat out of her.
A torrent of steaming water gushed from her daggers like they were a fire hose. It was too slow. Having to say those three words didn’t take up much time, but it was just long enough that it let Day LaMode land and easily dodge to the side.
Serenity kept her mind on those thoughts of quiet rage and separated the two daggers, creating two streams with less power. She flicked her daggers as if they were whip handles. The water-whips cracked through the air, tearing up tiles, tables, chairs, and Andale Taco but Day LaMode carefully danced between the twin streams, moving further and further away until Serenity could no longer reach her without moving.
With a sigh, Serenity let go of her quiet rage and Day LaMode laughed. “Jou scared Day LaMode for a moment zhere, girly boy. But jou have ze exact same problem az sparky girl. Jou can’t feenish Day LaMode off without jour special attacks. No matter how fast jou are, jour special attacks are just too slow to keel Day LaMode.”
Her opponent was right. The restriction of having to speak the attack name was crippling. Why on earth would they design empathokinetic attacks that were activated vocally? And even if it was an unavoidable design flaw, why on earth would you use a polysyllabic word like “tranquility” as part of the phrase? The more Serenity thought about it, the less sense it made.
Sense or no, she needed a plan. The only saving grace was the fact that Day LaMode’s teleporting required her to say something as well. But even with that silver lining there was a gray cloud: if Serenity was able to get in at point blank range and surprise Day LaMode with an attack, the monster had a much shorter phrase to complete and the teleportation was instantaneous. Serenity likely would need some way to shut Day LaMode up if she was going to kill it.
A plan formed in Serenity’s head. This was like fighting any caster in Aspect Realms; he had to silence them before attacking. And in Aspect Realms, he’d never start a combat out in the open. “You’re right. My special attack is too slow. But I have something that will help with that.” Serenity crossed her daggers in front of her; Day LaMode took a defensive stance, ready to move at the slightest hint of an attack.
“Placid Mist!” Just as before, mist sprayed from Serenity’s daggers then enveloped her body. Along with it came the odd duality of not being able to see herself with her eyes but “see” where she was with her empathokinetic sense. Concealed by the mist, she retreated towards the fountain, just to make sure she was between Tenacity and Day LaMode.
Day LaMode stared at the spot where Serenity had been standing. She could practically see the gears turning in the monster’s head as it started looking around, trying to figure out what was going on. “Inveesibileety. Cute. But zat will not zave you from Day LaMode.”
Somehow, Serenity knew that talking wouldn’t give away her position. Logic would have dictated the opposite be true, but Serenity had long since passed the point where she’d ignore the instincts the Spirit Stick had given her. “Save me from you?” Serenity’s voice echoed throughout the food court as if she was a ghost. The sound seemingly came from from all over. “You have it backwards, Nineteen. You’re not the hunter here. I am the hunter, and you are the prey.”
Day LaMode’s inhuman head spun 360 degrees, scanning the room for any sign of Serenity’s location. “Zis eez a parlor trick. Nozing more.” Serenity had to be careful how she played this. She inched closer to Day LaMode, careful to not step on any rubble or discarded food.
“Not a parlor trick, dummy. This is strategy, pure and simple. Trust me. I know strategy. My attacks are too slow to kill you so I need the element of surprise to finish you off.” Serenity moved to within a few steps of Day LaMode and waited to see what Day LaMode’s next move would be. She had to hold back a chuckle at how exhilarating it felt to be right in front of her opponent’s eyes without them knowing.
“Puh, zink you can surprize Day LaMode? Jou are funny to me.” Day LaMode was trying to play it cool but her tone oozed with concern. The monster had no idea how to approach this kind of problem.
“Then why is your head on a swivel? No, you know this is a huge threat to you. I’ve got you totally figured out.”
“Do jou now?”
“Oh yes.” Serenity needed to start fanning some panic into this creature. “You see, Platicore programmed you for a very specific type of fight. You use your mannequin minions to swarm all but one opponent. Then, you isolate that opponent and use your teleporting every time you make a misstep. It’s like having extra lives in a video game. You trial-and-error your way through single combat.”
“What are jou babbleen about? Vijeo games? Zis eez no game jou play wiz Day LaMode.” The monster kept her head spinning, but began to kick tables and chairs around the food court. Serenity moved with Day LaMode, deftly avoiding being hit by the debris of the monster’s flailing attempts to find her. As she flowed with her opponents movements, Serenity was surprised how much the dodging felt like a dance. A dance with an incredibly violent and erratic partner to be sure, but the principle was the same.
Serenity smirked. “Not like a video game? Then why are you behaving exactly like it is? Whenever someone in an MMO is stealthed and the caster can’t find them, it’s time to blindly AoE all over the place.”
“MMO? AoE? What are zees letters jou are spouteen?”
“I’d explain them but you’re going to be dead in a few moments. Why waste my breath? The point is that the only way you find me is by getting lucky with one of your thrown objects. But we both know I’m too fast for that. I do a lot of PvP combat so I know when it’s time to say ‘good game’ and we’re rapidly approaching that.” Serenity smiled as she watched Day LaMode flail about more.
“You see, dummy, right now the only way for you to find me would be for you to bring a few mannequin minions over here to help you. But I’m pretty sure you can’t do that, otherwise you would have done that by now. I think maybe they have shared processing power or something like that. That would mean you can only activate so many at a time and have them remain effective. It would explain why you cycled through about thirty or so at time rather than just attack with every mannequin in the mall. At any rate, they aren’t coming..”
Day LaMode screamed and threw around the contents of the food court with feracity. It looked to Serenity that she hit the nail on the head with that one. The monster was becoming unglued. Good. “So if you can’t get help, that means you’re on the defensive. And I could be anywhere. Behind you. To your side. Above you.” Day LaMode’s head darted in each direction as Serenity listed each angle of attack off. That gave Serenity a mischievous idea. “Honey, maybe even below you. You really have no way of knowing I couldn’t become intangible with this attack. And, given you haven’t hit anything with that temper tantrum you’re throwing, that possibility is actually more plausible than you first thought, isn’t it?”
The mannequin panted. Even with the monster’s face not being fully expressive, Serenity could see fear its eyes. Day LaMode jumped backwards, landing on one of the few tables that remained standing. Serenity hadn’t thought Day LaMode would buy the intangibility angle. It seemed too much of a stretch, but at this moment the mannequin clearly wasn’t thinking straight.
“Even eef what jou say eez true, girly boy, zen zis is a stalemate. You cannot keel Day LaMode and Day LaMode cannot keel you.”
“Correct.” Serenity found herself nodding her head, even though her opponent couldn’t see her. “But you see, I am in no rush to kill you. There are only so many mannequins in the mall. I just need to wait for the other Spirit Guard to go through all your possible minions. Then you’ll have no bodies to jump to. At that point, my daggers end you. I just have to draw this out until then.”
Day LaMode gave a scoff that projected more confidence than the monster’s eyes did. “Bah! Zhere eez no way my seesters lose to jour pazetic allies!”
“Oh spare me the bravado, dummy. They have killed eighteen other monsters and you don’t think they can off a few hundred minions?” Serenity hoped she was right on that point; the fight with the minions hadn’t looked like it was going too well when the fight started. It was too late to back off now though. She needed Day LaMode to make her fatal mistake.
“Day LaMode eez ze only construct ze Master has made!”
“So you keep saying, Nineteen. But we both know that’s not true. Let’s face the facts, I’m just going to keep you busy here until you run out of extra bodies to retreat into. You have no way of hurting me or forcing me to show myself. I have nothing to lose by just dragging this out longer and longer.”
Day LaMode’s eyes filled with pure terror; then that terror stopped. An almost smile crept over her face. Serenity hoped the monster was coming to the conclusion she wanted it to. “Notheen to lose jou zay?”
Serenity moved to just out of arm’s reach of Day LaMode, staying between the monster and the fountain. With the mannequin standing on the table, this was going to be an excellent angle of attack. Serenity made sure to make her voice sound slightly confused to help sell Day LaMode on the idea that the monster knew something that the Spirit Guard didn’t, “Uh, yeah. Nothing.”
“Well zen, Day LaMode zinks zat jou forgot about jour friend I broke earlier!” Day LaMode crouched and leaped straight for the fountain.
Serenity thrust her left dagger up to intercept the mannequin woman just as her feet left the table. Now airborn, Day LaMode had no way to dodge. The concealing mist evaporated from Serenity’s body as if the act of attacking was abhorrent to it. Day LaMode’s eyes shot as wide open as her inflexible plastic face would allow. “Follow ze Tr-”
Serenity stabbed straight through Day LaMode’s jaw, snapping it shut. She had noticed earlier that the monster had no lips; Serenity’s theory was that in order to talk, Day LaMode had to move her entire jaw like a ventriloquist’s dummy. For a heartbeat, Serenity held her breath, praying that she was right about Day LaMode having to speak in order to teleport. When no hum sounded on Serenity’s extra sense, she knew that this match was over.
Kicking her left leg over her head, Serenity struck at Day LaMode’s the arm that her dagger had slightly dislocated earlier. The arm dislodged from the socket and flew harmlessly behind the pair. With her free hand she ripped Day LaMode’s other limb clean off.
With a grunt, Serenity took a kick from Day LaMode’s flailing legs. Time seemed to stand still as she absorbed the force of the monster’s jump, pushing her backwards. Serenity dug in her heels and after a few feet stopped Day LaMode’s momentum and shoved her armless, silent foe to the ground, pinning it’s thrashing legs with one knee.
Serenity leaned down and whispered, “Good game. Well played.” She then focused her mind upon Eli’s and Cory’s faces as they watched Day LaMode rain blows down upon Eli’s sister. Serenity focused on the quiet rage that scene brought to her mind. “Geyser of Tranquility.”
Scalding hot water erupted out of Serenity’s left dagger. The plastic shell that was Day LaMode’s head exploded into dozens of pieces. Over the sound of the gushing stream of water, Serenity could both hear and feel the screaming of Day LaMode. The new Spirit Guard watched as a black pearl rose from the monster’s body. Just like it had with Polygal, the pearl hung in the air for a moment then shattered.
The screaming stopped. The day was saved. Spirit Guard Serenity had won.
Whew! Now that was a big chapter!