Thoughts rushed through Robynne’s head: Where was the monster? What object is it this time? Why does this one feel different? Why didn’t it feel like an icy chill down her spine? Why did it feel like biting on aluminum foil…. but down her spine? Why was it always down her spine? Stacy. Oh fudge, where was Stacy? Was she near the monster?
However, amidst the cacophony of thoughts racing through her mind, an angry whispered conversation was happening. “Seriously, Cory? You’re three-for-three. Are you trying to steer us into monsters?”
“You cannot possibly blame the Arcade on me.”
“Like hell I can’t! Everything was fine. I was earning money and watching Kara stomp on HDM pads. Rob was a dude. The annoying junior high kids were being quiet-”
“Because they were being drained by a monster.”
“Yeah, it didn’t work out too well for the monster either. You really should be more considerate of other people’s lives.”
Cory blinked. “Wait, that sounds like an argument I normally make.”
“Yeah? Well normally you aren’t driving me into the waiting jaws of some abomination, so it might be time for a role reversal.”
“Well, what about the mall? We mutually agreed that…”
“Guys, shut up!” Robynne whispered loudly as she scanned the Buy Bright. “I can’t get a bead on this thing.”
Eli turned away from Cory. “Isn’t that normal? I mean, at the mall you couldn’t find that… humming. None of the others could either.”
Robynne shook her head. “My empathokinetic sense is stronger since I… changed. But…” She pushed harder, biting her lip through the pain in her spine. Then it stopped. She let out a long, relieved sigh. “Okay… whatever did that stopped.”
“So… it’s gone?” Cory asked.
Eli rolled his eyes. “Aren’t you the one always lecturing us on knowing the rules of movies. The monster never just leaves.”
“I am seriously uncomfortable with this role reversal. You’re throwing off my feng shui.”
“You two,” Robynne hissed, “Quit fooling around. Message the girls… and Noriko. I need to figure out where this is coming from.”
Eli nodded. “Good idea… I only have Mallory’s and Kara’s cell numbers though.”
“I only have Mal’s and Vivian’s. Isn’t Mal in the middle of a volleyball game too?”
“Oh yeah. Crap. Um…”
Robynne sighed and whipped out her phone. “I’ve got Angela and Noriko. You two need to get all the numbers in there.”
“Yeah, I totally meant to before then… um…” Cory trailed off. “Is this a bad time to mention Vivian is likely doing a lab for her biology class in the Kessler Building… and that sometimes that building gives you no bars?”
Robynne shoved her phone into Eli’s hands. “Send the text to me along with Mal and Kara. Then use my contact list to forward it to Ang, Noriko, Nick, Will, and the Kangaroo Rat.”
“The Kangaroo Rat?”
“I didn’t know how to spell Kunapipi. I feel we’re past the point I can ask without it being rude..”
“Doesn’t she go by Ms. Kuna officially?”
Robynne frowned. That was a good point… though she didn’t have to admit to that. “Why do I not hear texting?”
“Because I don’t have the annoying click of fake keys being pressed activated like some maniac. Seriously, I can’t stand that.”
Robynne scanned the store like a hawk. The bitten-foil feeling was gone but something else was lingering… like a radio station being drowned out by static. She finally found Stacy in the crowd, talking to some employee in the cell phone area… but that employee wasn’t wearing the same uniform as the other Buy Bright employees. It wasn’t completely different… but it looked a bit too form fitting and less “company generic” than the others. And her hair was styled in an odd side-ponytail on the left with her bangs completely covering her right eye look that just… well it just looked weird.
Then Robynne realized she had just noticed the cut of another woman’s shirt and critiqued her hairstyle. In the middle of a dangerous situation. Sugar. The fashion training Vivian and Kara had been giving her was starting to affect her brain.
The woman was putting a case over Stacy’s phone. A thick pink one. Probably a Dolphin Crate. Robynne was glad to see Stacy had listened to her advice. But that’s when she felt the biting-aluminum-foil sensation along her spine. She instinctively winced again and grabbed the back of her neck, though she willed her eyes to stay open. She was quite shocked to “see” the biting-foil feeling flow from the woman into Stacy’s phone. “Something’s wrong.”
“You mean other than monsters in a Buy Bright?”
“Yeah… I think the monster is that woman.” Robynne groaned as the sensation passed. These things were a lot more painful now with her amped up empathokinetics. She ducked behind a display of DVDs, not wanting everyone to see her in pain and to avoid staring too much.
“Wait. Monster is a woman? I thought the monster was always some kind of object.”
“I know,” Robynne agreed. “But the signal is coming from that woman Stacy is talking to. I’m positive.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. But the signal flowed into Stacy’s phone. Almost like staining a pool of water with watercolor-” A sting of ice shot down Robynne’s spine. “-paaaaaint.” It was like a mosquito’s bite if the mosquito’s… biter… thing was made out of pure ice. However, while the pain was acute, it was also brief. The icy sensations created by Polygal and Day LaMode had protracted durations even to Robert’s less keen empathokinetic sense, like an initial burst of pain that came from bumping a funny bone, it then radiated for a few moments.
Then something different happened quite unlike anything Robynne had experienced with the previous two monster. That icy pain dulled and “split” into two different ephemeral pains. One remained icy cold and flowed in the direction of the woman. The other turned into the biting-aluminum-foil pain and shot out of the store and beyond Robynne’s range. Both sensations were incredibly small compared to the original pains. In fact, had she not been “looking” in their direction she would have never noticed them. There was no way Robynne could have sensed those as Robert. They were so faint that she barely noticed them amongst…
Dozens of these split signals were everywhere in the store. Robynne stood up and looked around. She hadn’t noticed it before. The split-signals were so faint… if that initial burst from whatever that woman did to Stacy’s phone hadn’t caught her attention, she wouldn’t have noticed it. But now that she knew what to look for, it was all she could see. It was like when her Uncle had pointed out at a baseball game one time that if people had alcoholic drinks and someone was taking a picture, everyone would hold up their drinks to make sure they could be seen in frame. Ever since then, every sporting event or party that there was alcohol at, Robynne couldn’t help but notice how every person held their drinks up.
And now that she knew what to look for, Robynne could see these split signals everywhere. She watched Stacy look at her phone. For a moment, she shook her head. She started walking to the exit, tapping on her phone’s screen as she did. Robynne watched as a squirt of bitten-aluminum-foil style static darted out of Stacy’s phone and into the world outside of the store. That same moment, a pinprick of ice flowed out of Stacy and into the woman. Though it was slight, in exchange, Robynne could feel her friend lose something of herself and the woman… no, the monster, grow that much more. Investiture.
That monster was hurting her friend.
Well… Robynne was just going to have to do something about that. “You send that text on my phone yet?
“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Eli stammered. “You need it?”
“Yeah.” Robynne practically snatched the phone out of Eli’s hands. Robynne snapped off a quick text to Stacy, congratulating her on picking the Dolphin Crate brand she had recommended earlier. She needed data if she was going to take this thing on. She stayed crouched behind the display. “You two, look down, like you’re examining the DVD’s here. Act like you’re talking to one another, but watch the woman at the cell phone kiosk.”
“Look at the DVD’s or the woman?” Eli asked. “Those are kind of mutually exclusive.”
“Observe casually,” Cory chided Eli. “It’s like you have no spy background at all.”
“That’s because I don’t. Have a spy background.”
“Nonsense! We spied at the Standridge Stones.”
“And we got caught doing that.”
“Details. Details.” Cory scanned the DVDs in front of him. “At least we had the good sense to skulk about the anime section. Oh hey, Dance of Blossoms. I’ve heard good things about this anime… huh, and the lead is a busty scarlette with long hair. Robynne could totally cosplay as her.”
“Cory, not right now,” Robynne groused, staring at her phone.
“Yeah dude, there’s another monster. Now is not the time.”
“It’s a defense mechanism.”
Robynne was mad at herself for snapping at Cory. Sure, he was just trying to lighten the mood as he usually did, but this was serious. The monster was some kind of human doppelganger instead of a possessed item. Or maybe it was a possessed item that the woman was wearing and it was an object? Still, she couldn’t shake the impression that it was the woman. Something in her bones told her she was right.
As she thought about it, Robynne wondered if the reason she was feeling so on edge had less to do with the monster and more to do with the fact that, if her theory was right, Stacy was about to lose a little more Investiture. Kunapipi wasn’t sure if there was long-term ramifications to losing it. She wasn’t even really sure what Investiture was. All Kunapipi knew was that every living thing had it, the more sentient something was the more Investiture it had, some individuals, like the Spirit Guard, had an additional “divine” Investiture bestowed upon them by Fate or other supernatural means, and if something lost all its investiture it would die.
Robynne was relying on the fact that they had learned one more thing from the girls’ experience as the Spirit Guard and their visions of their past lives: that Investiture that was lost would “heal” back. What they did not know, however, was if there was a lasting negative effect from having to heal a loss of Investiture. With their empathokinetic sense, they had examined people who had been drained by monsters and hadn’t noticed any lasting effects, but that was hardly a medical study.
And now, Robynne needed this monster to drain Stacy a little more. She felt awful. Sure, it was only a little bit and, yes, it would heal, but if she ever found out later that there were lasting effects and Stacy suffered… Robynne couldn’t think about that right now. She needed to know what this monster was and how it worked. Besides, she couldn’t take back that text to Stacy after it already had been sent. Her course was laid in. As Uncle Taylor would say, “She couldn’t cry over sour milk once it’s been spilled.” So Robynne stared at her screen and waited, her finger hovering over the power button.
Further away, Robynne felt another split of Investiture about where she expected Stacy to be. The icy half of it flowed into the monster-woman. The aluminum-foil half shot into Robynne’s phone. She glared at the phone… it was like the whole device crackled like… well, like aluminum foil being crinkled.
Stacy’s text popped up on Robynne’s screen. “Spying on me? Sneaky. Bit bulky but case is sturdy. Thx 4 the suggestion. See u in class!”
She quickly turned the device off. “Did the lady do anything?”
Eli held up a DVD and turned it around, as if he was reading the back. “She did glance over in this direction. However she doesn’t seemed too focused on us. Robynne, could you please tell us what is going on? I’m kind of getting freaked out. We’re not suddenly going to be running from an army of mannequins again, are we?”
“Yeah,” Cory chimed in, “we don’t have magical girl-vision like you do.”
“This thing is different. The other monsters, they just did all their draining in a big chunk. Not this thing. It took an initial burst from Stacy but that was accompanied with it… I don’t know… infecting her phone with something.”
“With monster malware?”
“I’m not sure how… but when she sent me a text back my phone suddenly felt like how Stacy’s phone felt.” Robynne nodded, confident in her theory. “I think Platicore is changing his strategy. Instead of taking a big chunk we can sense he has tried to go with a method that takes a little bit, then spreads to others.”
“Huh,” Cory mused, “He’s crowdsourcing people draining.”
Eli bit his lip. “That isn’t as horrible a description as I’d like that to be.”
“This interaction… it’s really low key. If I hadn’t felt the initial burst from whatever that thing did to Stacy’s phone I would never have noticed this and my empathokinetic sense is the most keen out of all of us. There’s no telling how long this has been going on.”
Eli tapped his chin like he was considering his DVD of choice. “Actually, I think we can, and it can’t be that long. If it’s spreading anytime someone sends a text, this thing would be on everyone’s phones in town in a day or two. Seriously, I’ve had to look at viral marketing studies for one of my business courses: viral growth is an exponential function. If this thing is spreading with every single text… everyone in the city with a cell phone would be infected in two days tops. The fact that someone like Stacy, a cheerleader who, if I stereotype a bit, texts a lot wasn’t infected until she let the monster touch her phone suggests we are still early in its growth cycle.”
“Yeah. Okay, that makes sense…” Robynne watched as the dozens of “blips” of Investiture flowing into the mystery lady seemed be increasing rapidly. “Though it also means I need to act fast. We cannot let Platicore get access to this amount of power. Investiture is apparently what he uses to make these monsters in the first place. The more he has, the more complex and powerful a monster he can make. Any response from the girls?”
Eli looked at his phone. “Kara said she’s on her way. No word from Mal.”
“No word from Viv either.”
“Okay, what about Angela and Noriko?”
“Uh, we texted them from your phone,” Eli reminded her.
Robynne’s shoulders sagged. “Which I just let get infected and turned off. Brilliant. Okay… backup is coming though. Here is the plan.” She handed Cory her phone. “You two leave and take that to Kunapipi. She’ll need to give it to the Twins to examine after I kill this thing to make sure it’s not permanent.” Robynne got to her feet though she remained hunched behind the DVD displays.
“Woah, you’re going to take this thing on alone?” Eli asked incredulously. “That’s more than a bit reckless, don’t you think?”
Cory stood up straight, “Hey, she took on Day LaMode alone and won handily.”
Robynne smiled, “Stealth gives me options the other girls don’t have. I can take her out cleanly.”
Eli frowned, “Rob, I believe in you, I really do, but I think you should wait. I mean, you didn’t take Day LaMode on alone. Not really. The other girls were holding all her duplicates at bay while you got to deal with the main one. If you had really been on your own you would have never gotten the chance to use your stealth.”
Robynne glanced away. That was a better point than she cared to admit. “I can’t stand here and do nothing while she’s draining my friend, Eli. Besides, the other girls are fast. They’ll be here soon.”
“You don’t even know if anyone other than Kara is coming.”
“And if I don’t act fast, that exponential spread of this phone virus thing could envelop the town and give Platicore enough energy to make ten more monsters just like this. More importantly, Mal will kill me if she finds out I let you two stick around yet another monster for as long as we’ve been deliberating.”
“Yeah,” Cory agreed. “Mal will kill us if we’re actually involved in another monster attack.”
Eli let out a little annoyed groan. He looked at the woman then back down at Robynne. “You’re absolutely sure about this?”
“Kara’s on the way. I’ll be fine.”
Eli took in a long drawn in breath. He didn’t like the plan. Understandable. It wasn’t a particularly well thought out plan. But this thing was draining Stacy. She couldn’t dawdle. Besides, she had stealth on her side. She’d just transform, sneak in behind the monster and end this fast. Still, Eli looked unconvinced and she wanted to ease his discomfort. “Look, if things go pear shaped I can just stealth and hide until backup arrives. That’s the great thing about being sneaky.”
“Okay,” Eli sighed. “Okay. Just… just stay safe, okay?”
Cory smirked. “Kick her ass.”
Her two friends turned and headed towards the store’s exit. After they had moved from Robynne’s view, she darted between the aisles, keeping towards the outer edge of the store until she got to much taller displays that let her stand up. Once there, she chanced a look at the monster-woman. To her dismay, her eyes were following Cory and Eli’s exit. Robynne clenched her fist and mentally felt for her Spirit St… empathokinetic focus. It was behind a stack of blank CDs… who still bought CDs nowadays?
The woman made no move towards Cory and Eli. Robynne gave a sigh of relief and continued along the edge of the store until she got to the very corner where the bathroom was. She stepped into the women’s bathroom and crouched down to see if there was anyone in either of the two stalls. Robynne was pleased to see no one’s feet. She was alone.
Robynne jumped up and swiped her Spirit Stick off the top of the tampon dispenser. It still confused Robynne that these these things were in women’s restrooms. Then again, she supposed, it was a hygiene issue and she might need one herself very soon. Kara had confirmed, much to Robynne’s chagrin, that the healing factor being a Spirit Guard provided did not stop the menstrual cycle as, after all, the cycle was a natural, healthy part of being a woman. She said it wasn’t as horrible as it was portrayed in media. Regardless, Robynne didn’t like the idea and she especially didn’t like the idea of using products found in some public restroom. When the time came, much like her policy on toilet paper, Robynne would be sure to buy quality. Some things you just didn’t go bargain hunting for.
Robynne walked into the handicapped stall and closed the latch. She didn’t technically need the extra space a handicapped stall gave, but why turn it down? She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Then, holding the empathokinetic focus above her head, she ripped it apart and let the power of Spirit Guard Serenity wash over her. “Fountain of Serenity, Spirit Guard Power Up!”
With a flash she was once again in the odd extra-dimensional space that Vivian had given the names of Starry-Elemental-Musical-Vortex-Bubble-Land or, more laconically, the Transformation Station. Robynne was no longer awestruck at the galaxy of stars that spiraled as waves crashed against the “sky” of the bubble or perfectly still pool of water she “stood” on. Angela had encouraged her to practice transformation so she could be battle ready quickly. Robynne had practiced the transformation several dozen times now. She knew the song that played in the background by heart and each of the dance moves that enabled transformation by memory. It was strange how, after doing it three dozen or so times, even powering up into a super-magical-cheerleader with a ritualistic dance in a subspace of pure nonsensical physics seemed mundane.
In the end though, Robynne and Vivian had determined that how fast she performed the power-up dance didn’t matter. They had performed experiments and found that no matter how long they spent in Transformation Station, a set period of time would pass in the real world. For Robynne, it was a little over thirty seconds, the longest of the Spirit Guard as Vivian had timed it.
The physics of such an interaction were well beyond their understanding, but it wasn’t long before the pair were trying to find a way to abuse the mechanic to save time on homework. However, those plans were quickly dismissed when they remembered came with them to Transformation Station. Once inside, all they had were stars, their associated element, the music, and psychedelic-sparkly-nudity.
Well, not technically nudity. The glowing caused by the transformation prevented her naughty bits from being seen. She felt like there had to be a word for being naked yet not, somehow, indecent. There had to be a word for this. If there wasn’t then what good were the Humanities anyway?
Robynne flowed with the music. Her music. The music the Shrine Maiden had created on her…. her… whatever that violin-like instrument was called. Whatever it was, Robynne liked it. It was a pure, classic sound and she liked how the dance she performed flowed with it. Yes, Robynne liked dancing. Not the gyrating and thrusting you’d see at a club but the smooth, refined dancing she had learned at that small ballet studio in preparation for football. It encouraged balance, strength, and fluidity. An expression of calm self-control. Serenity.
As she danced, water flowed over her body and solidified into her uniform. The strength of Serenity filled every sinew of muscle. Her body rippled with power. She hated the outfit and the pompoms and the general silliness of everything that came with being a member of the Spirit Guard… but this feeling of calm invincibility was a rush unlike anything she doubted she’d feel any other way.
She had tasted this feeling before while dodging would-be tacklers on the football field or clicking her way through a hellish battleground in Aspect Realms. Those bursts of adrenaline would cause the world to slow down. Her mind and body would sync in a beautiful harmony in those moments. But this… being Spirit Guard Serenity made those harmonious moments sound like a xylophone band made up of elementary school kids. Being Spirit Guard Serenity was a symphony of mind, body, and soul that made her feel alive in a way she never had before.
Robynne finished her final twirl and her hair unwrapped around her body. A curtain of scarlette locks draped over her right eye. Though Robynne didn’t like it, she knew she didn’t need her eyes; her empathokinetic sense “saw” the world much more clearly. Several times during her fight with Day LaMode she could have sworn her empathokinetic sense showed her how the mannequin-woman would move before she even twitched. She wondered if the emotions of her opponents betrayed their movements. Another subject to be experimented on with Vivian.
Robynne gripped the splash of power in her hands and looked over her right shoulder with a smirk. She was fully arrayed with her power. Her body felt as powerful as a river. Her mind was as sharp as a rose’s thorn. She felt unstoppable.
The Transformation Station faded. The women’s bathroom returned. Spirit Guard Serenity frowned. Something was wrong. As she stood in the handicapped stall of the women’s bathroom, she could feel the blips of stolen Investiture far more keenly than before. But they weren’t flowing towards that cell-phone kiosk in the middle of the Buy Bright store anymore.
They were flowing to through the door of the bathroom stall… into the dark, malevolent entity that stood there. Serenity tried to jump back. She tried to clap her hands together to transform her pompoms into daggers. Too slow. The monster burst through the door and struck her in the chest. “Vibration Setting Strike!”