* – * – *
The entire reason Robert had played football was that he enjoyed the feeling of physically pushing himself to his limits. Well, also to connect to his deceased father in some small way, but mostly he enjoyed competition.
Competition. Both Robert and his Uncle were convinced it made people find out who they truly were. That had ended when Robert found himself suspended for letting the star runningback injure himself trying to intimidate Robert. Not getting into games defeated the whole point of football to Robert. Ever since then, Robert and later Robynne turned to gaming for that rush.
Robynne liked Aspect Realms PvP. She liked it a lot. Picking fights she shouldn’t and seeing if she could weasel out kills that shouldn’t be possible… it pushed her to the edge of her technical skill, reaction time, and tactical prowess. Those rare moments when she was just one step ahead of a bad situation, with death breathing down Waveform’s neck- those moments brought an endorphin rush that gave her a taste of what it was like on the football field.
But it lacked the physicality of football. There was something to be said for pad-hitting-pad and straining your muscles against another guy whose sole purpose was to grind you into the dirt. Feeling the wind blow by as you deftly avoid a tackle provided an adrenaline high gaming just couldn’t produce for Robynne.
Even against Cell-celia and Day LaMode, she hadn’t been pushed to her physical limits. Day LaMode was a strategic beatdown. Cell-celia was too strong for Serenity to directly attack but also too slow to really force her to the edge of her ability. That had turned a stalemate until Valor arrived.
At this moment though she was free to once again push herself physically. Her empathokinetically enhanced muscles surged with a strength she never could have fathomed. Despite their power though, they moved with a delicate finesse. Indeed, as Serenity ran from a gummi donuted police helicopter, she got the distinct impression she flowed more than she sprinted.
She would make sharp turns to be sure, sharper than even the helicopter could take, but even if she took a ninety degree turn it felt more like a river bending around a mountain. She couldn’t describe it, but it felt beautiful to her and somehow reminded her of her ballet lessons… if those ballet lessons had been given at ten times their normal speed and a trail of law enforcement behind it.
Part of her was tempted to lead the chase towards the freeway. There she could get some straight-line speed going. She could measure her own speed versus the cars and get a good gauge for her actual top velocity. She was already leaping over houses and darting through alleys with ease despite her heels. How much faster could she be if she could just go at a dead sprint?
Serenity put the idea out of her head. The freeway plan was, as her uncle would say, as smart as using a colander as an umbrella. People had dashcams on their cars. That would create a lot more footage of her from cars traveling at relative speeds close to her own. She had the Disconnection Effect to protect her identity but Ms. Kuna had said too much exposure could weaken it.
But Then there she’d be dragging cops onto the freeway in the middle of rush hour. That would not be safe… and be bad press for the Spirit Guard. Serenity knew how humanity worked: supernatural vigilantism would be excused, but delaying their commute half-an-hour was definitely an unforgivable sin in the eyes of the public.
Snaking through multiple apartment complexes, Serenity lost the cops on the ground. She wanted to keep them out of the picture as much as possible. The most dangerous thing here was high speed cars pulling hard turns. If they had to rely on the copter relaying info, they’d be forced to slow down… or so Serenity thought. Her only actual experience with police chases were from films and the perps in those situations weren’t usually superpowered cheerleaders.
She leaped into a neighborhood, running along the backyard fenceline. Admittedly, she was showing off. But the fact she could run full-speed along a fence, in heels mind you, was too cool to not show off at least a little.
After running along the alleyway fences for half a block, the copter nearly caught up again. The sounds of police sirens grew louder. She bounced into the backyard and onto the house’s roof as easily as walking up stairs. With a smirk she kept her momentum up, with a powerful jump, sailed over the neighborhood street. For a moment she felt weightless, with her hair trailing behind her, flowing like ink in water. This part of the job… this part she could enjoy.
With her EKP she felt eyes on her from below. She glanced down, less out of a need and more out of the courtesy for eye contact. Five kids stood in the street playing what looked like four-square. All of their jaws hung open in amazement. She smiled down at them. She had to say something cool to them so they could tell their friends at school tomorrow. What would a magical cheerleader say to elementary school kids though?
She landed on the roof of the house across the street and winced. “Donut.” She ducked into that alleyway and kept sprinting. “Stay serene? That was the best I could come up with? Why didn’t I just fudging say, ‘Don’t do drugs’? That would have been less dorky.”
It was Valor’s fault, Serenity decided. Her corny lines were rubbing off on her. She didn’t panic under pressure. Nope. Couldn’t be that. After all, her one-liners to Day LaMode had been spot on. Clearly all Valor.
Serenity tried to put the bad line out of her mind as she serpentined between alleys, backyards, and neighborhoods. She wasn’t losing the helicopter but the police sirens were growing quieter. She could keep those at bay all day… though if she was honest she wasn’t really sure where she was technically going.
She hadn’t exactly mapped out all of Kessia City in her mind yet. And the existence of the Standridge Circle wasn’t helping. When everything was within walking distance, Robynne lost a lot of motivation to study a map. Besides, it wasn’t like she was actually lost. She could feel she a Stone nearby…ish.
The Stones “hummed” with empathokinetic potential that was unlike how humans and monsters did. It was a “sound” more similar to the Spirit Sticks and definitely had an artificial quality to them though she had a difficult time explaining exactly how she knew that. Though, by her logic, shouldn’t monsters be similar since they were artificial too? Then again, they stole human Investiture. That might have an effect. However, with her actual knowledge of how any of this worked, the phrase “that might have an effect,” could apply to an awful lot.
She continued to dart through neighborhood after neighborhood with the police helicopter chasing her like a guy who couldn’t take a hint… it was a depressingly familiar feeling given how aggressively casual Dale tried to act whenever she hung out with Cory and Eli. Never had anyone put forth so much effort into looking like he wasn’t trying…
That wasn’t important.
She focused her EKP and tried to find the Stone’s hum. It was a lot like trying to figure out what was making “that smell” in the fridge. As she thought about that though, she supposed all that comparison did was point out that she was raised by a single man. Regardless, even though she was describing finding a “hum” with a “scent” she new it was the better comparison. It was sometimes hard to place the location of a smell as it just sort of permeated a space until you were right on top of the source.
Serenity angled towards an alley that backed up to a small glen with a ravine running through it. There were a lot of trees there should could use for cover and… there. Somewhere down in that greenbelt was her Stone. She leapt down to the trees that lined, careful to be sure she didn’t land in any muddy patches. She could maneuver in heels just fine, but no amount of super reflexes or unnaturally light feet would prevent her heel from getting stuck in mud. Plus that would leave a footprint they could use to find out her shoe size and a rough estimate of her weight. Disconnection Effect or not, she’d rather leave as little forensic evidence as possible.
The limb snapped. Too much speed. She leapt for heavier limb. This one held and she paused a moment as she watched the helicopter turning and catching up.
Curious, Serenity reached out with her EKP into the helicopter’s cockpit. She felt two distinct emotional signatures within. One signature felt “quieter” than the other. The quieter signature was agitated yet also somehow resigned. It was focused, but not intense. Serenity guessed this wasn’t the pilot.
The other, louder signature was as tense as tightrope. Definitely the pilot. His signature was a cacophonous blend of ecstasy, resentment, appreciation, and anxiety. Serenity grinned. That mix of emotions was a familiar one. It was like when she found someone in Aspect Realms battlefield who was her equal. Every time she would be bested she would grow to dislike them even more. Yet, the thrill of the challenge would push her to do better, to improve herself. She’d feel alive and that would cause her to have a strange fondness for this person who was the source of annoyance at the same time.
Though she couldn’t physically see the pilot through the cockpit, she stared at where she could feel his emotions. She gave a casual two-finger salute, an acknowledgement of game well played. But well played or not, the game was about to be over. The sun was about to set and though she was confident Placid Mist would work on an infrared camera, she didn’t want to risk it.
Glancing up and downstream, Serenity tried to figure out which direction would bring her closer to the nearby Stone. She honestly still couldn’t tell, though she decided to try downstream. Even if she was wrong on direction there was bound to be more cover downstream and give her an opportunity to go invisible.
She waited until the helicopter was directly over her. Then, with a smirk, she shot through the trees, jumping off trunks and swinging off limbs like Tarzan. What kind of training had the Shrine Maiden gone through to pass these skills down to Serenity? Where did high speed acrobatics fit into the Ardentian religion? Nothing about her past life made any sense.
Then, like opening the crisper drawer and being hit by the horrid stench of rotten lettuce, Serenity felt the hum of the Stone. She glanced to her left as she sped by and saw it laying flat in the dirt under a small grove of trees.
She kept moving downstream. She’d need to make a grand disappearance away from the stone so they didn’t connect the dots. She continued downstream for about another minute before seeing her opportunity. Up ahead the trees gave way to a wide cement viaduct with the freeway passing over it. Serenity couldn’t help but chuckle at the fact that, in the end, her plan had taken her to the freeway anyway.
Swinging like a gymnast from the lowest branch she could find, Serenity arched towards the viaduct’s shadow. She couldn’t help herself but perform one last flip before disappearing beneath the freeway. Despite the darkness, her EKP let her see the ground clearly… it was nothing but mud. To avoid leaving footprints she caught the edge of a girder.
She felt her fingers depress into something that was both soft and crunchy. Birds flew away from the girder and she realized her right hand was covered in bird sugar. She forced the acid that bubbled up from her stomach back down her throat. “Oh Gummi donut that’s disgusting.”
Pushing down her nausea, she focused on the sounds above her to see if she could place the helicopter’s location. However, she couldn’t make out anything above the rumble of rush hour in her ears. Even her hands shook as the weight of traffic paraded across the bridge. She doubted she’d be able to hang on if she didn’t have super strength.
So instead she reached out with her EKP. She could feel hundreds of emotions fly past her in both directions. She would have thought it too “loud” to pick out a single person amongst the noise but the helicopter pilot’s competitive frustration cut through the static like ref’s whistle in the middle of raucous stadium. The helicopter had passed over the freeway and judging by the panic that was rising in his emotions, was starting to figure out his mark may have double backed.
This was her chance. Ignoring the squishing between her fingers, she rocked back and forth until she had enough momentum to leap back into the trees of the ravine. As she hung in the air and flicked her disgust, Serenity pushed away the thrill of the chase and the revulsion of what was wedged under her fingernails. “Placid Mist.”
Letting calmness wash over her, a spray of water apperated in front of her and wrapped her body like cloth around a mummy. The only way anyone would have seen her was if they had carefully watched the limb of the tree she landed on bend under her weight. “Blech.” She ripped a leaf off the tree and desperately tried to clean away as much of the gunk on her fingers as she could.
She could hear the helicopter turning and heading back. She rushed and jumped off the tree and onto the grass beyond the trees. There, fully invisible, she let the helicopter circle around as she attempted to ablate a bit more of the sugar off her hand in the grass. After about a minute of that she decided they were as clean as they’d get. Besides, the helicopter pilot had given in to defeat it seemed and was now circling the area rather than focusing on where she currently stood.
Pleased that she was safe to do so, she jogged back to the Stone. Well, what she called a jog as Spirit Guard Serenity would have been a dead sprint for Robert in peak football shape. She would have marveled at it more if the fact her Serenity form’s physical prowess in comparison to her normal body wasn’t almost becoming passe at this point.
Almost. She would try to never get jaded about being an actual superhero, even if it came with a set of breasts. As she reached the Stone she kneeled down to knock the activation code.
She stopped. Unlike every other Stone connected to the Standridge Circle, this one was laying on the ground. How would that affect the portal? Sure, in every video game, movie, and show where perpendicularly angled portals were used, the direction of gravity would only change as you passed through them.
But this was real life. Gravity didn’t arbitrarily stay on it’s side of a line. Gravity waves permeated all space and time. If she used the Stone, would it suck her in upon activation as the perpindular gravity waves collided?
Then again, she had to admit she was thinking out of her angelcake on this one. She was an engineering undergrad. Not a theoretical physicist. She basically only understood that gravity waves existed and that they warped space. She decided the empathokinetic engineers of the Ardent Empire must have had a better understanding of how these things worked than her and wouldn’t be so reckless that they’d create a device that could kill a person if it was laying on the ground.
She kneeled back down and tried to remember which Stone this had to be paired with back in the circle. “Okay… Stones Two, Five, and Eleven aren’t active. The one by the mall was Six. The ones Valor and Charity used were… Three and Nine? And 1 is linked to Ms. Kuna’s office. The one in Angela and Mal’s place is Four. The one in our place is Seven. So this one is… Eight? Yeah, Eight or Ten.”
So what was song number eight on that album? Robynne had been forced to memorize all the songs on Lyric Victory’s “Satisfaction Guaranteed” album. Apparently that specific album had exactly eleven songs on it, same as the number of stones in the Standridge Circle. Each stone had been synched to the corresponding track. Even as Robert, Serenity had known a few of their songs because Top Forty radio was amazing at shoving catchy hints down society’s throats but she hadn’t known all the songs exactly.
The scariest part was she found herself liking the inane songs. Curse that dumb boy band for being scientifically proven to be fun to listen to! “Okay, song Eight. That was… Bombshell?”
Serenity placed her palm flat onto the stone’s face then rapped her knuckle against it. She sung the chorus along with her knocks to make sure and get the rhythm right, “Baby girl, you’ve blown my mind! Let’s head back to my hotel. Our love’s like a field of mines, ’cause you’re a-a-a-a bombshell.”
The Stone lit up a soft blue and Serenity braced herself… luckily she didn’t feel any force pulling through the portal. “Huh.” She stuck her hand through… still nothing. Then again, from what she could tell, the way the actual portals worked was you didn’t come out the other side until you were completely through the portal. That made some sense. In a way the blue light could be acting like a “waiting room” for the matter that had passed through the portal while waiting for the rest. It might not be too far from he concept of the bubbles their transformations take place in.
The sound of the police helicopter circling back around rumbled in the air. No more dawdling. She jumped through the Stone, adding a slight twist as she did so she’d rotate face down as she exited the portal on the other side for an easy three point landing.
Her stomach lurched as gravity made a right turn. It was a sensation that just felt wrong. Another thing that was wrong was the fact that instead of twisting towards the ground for an easy landing she was twisting away from it. “Donut.”
She pushed her heels to the ground. They dug in and quickly shot her upright. She leaped into the air, bounding over the sphere in the middle of the Standridge Circle she had orginally pulled her Spirit stick from. She couldn’t quite cancel out the momentum of her original twist so she simply tapped into the tumbling training she had been given by Angela and turned what would have been an odd landing into a simple half-twist front flip… over an object that was easily seven feet tall.
“Huh. I guess that training is coming in handy.”
She reached down into the Standridge Stone grass and wiped what she could of her hand a little more. She wasn’t sure it would ever feel clean again. She placed the hand flat on the northmost Stone and then knocked the rhythm to Ms. Kuna’s office. “What we’ve got is so right, this I know to be true, all the proof I need is how I feel with one look at you!”
The Stone turned the same soft blue they always did and she casually walked into Ms. Kuna’s office. “–if that’s true then… oh! Serenity! Excellent timing.” Ms. Kuna was in her wallaby form and talking. Serenity really hated when she did that. So unnerving and…
And the wallaby was standing on her desk. A desk that had a nice, tall bottle of hand sanitizer on the corner. Serenity took a deep breath and let go of the power of Serenity. Robynne staggered at the sudden loss of power and insight. Like taking off glasses and wearing weights.
Her hand was now clean in the technical sense. None of the dust or grime of battle stuck with them after they powered down. But Robynne’s hand didn’t feel clean to her mind. She rushed to the desk and squirted enough sanitizer in her right hand to degrease an industrial-sized deep fryer.
Angela cleared her throat. “Everything all right, Robynne? Is something wrong with your hand?”
Robynne worked the sanitizer into every pore of her right hand, taking care to get a healthy amount under her nails as well. “Let’s just say my go-it-alone plan with Cell-celia wasn’t the only thing I didn’t think through today.”
“Six hours,” Trace grumbled to herself. “How that dumb monster not last six hours even?”
Her entire night had been shot. She had planned to visit something called a comedy club. Apparently in this world they had so much free time they could just go somewhere, drink, and hear someone tell jokes. This entire world was soft. Why hadn’t some tyrant like Platicore taken it over already?
Regardless, Platicore’s prized, human-monster had not even made it to dinnertime. He was going to be pissed. Not that her mood was any better. The freaky-ass thing had been a pain to get set up in that store without anyone questioning her existence. Platicore’s instructions on how to manipulate perception filters were nowhere near as clear as he thought. And now that it had been destroyed so fast, clearly he’d blame her and she was going to have to talk her way out of a beating when his brittle mind snapped.
She walked past the police line without a care. Tonight she had her stealth band fully charged, so she didn’t need to be careful. She had enjoyed sneaking around to find Day LaMode’s core; it had been like better times from back home. But she was in a bad mood and didn’t have anything to drink. Tonight was a lazy night.
She stalked around from cop to cop. Lazy cops. Just standing around and not really doing anything. What was the point of them even coming to clean up after monsters? It was clear they didn’t know what they were doing. Still, one of them usually hid a… there. The one with a mustache.
She picked his pocket and took a swig from the flask she nicked. Bleck. Sweet. Far too sweet. It wasn’t as bad as the fruity swill that Platicore liked but… well, okay, it was a far cry from that shit. It at least had a warmth to it. But very little kick to it.
Well, it wouldn’t help when Platicore blew his gaskets, but at least she would have something in her. She took another sip and walked into the Buy Bright. It was easy to do as something had blown away the glass in the front doors. And the counters. And the displays. Several chunks out of various pillars. And there was a giant hole in the back wall of the store leading to… it looked like the bathroom. “Ten castes! Cell phone lady not die quietly.”
She took another swig of the cop’s flask and ambled about the store looking for Cell-celia’s corpse… well, shell. That thing had never technically been alive. Still, it had talked to her as she set her up. That was unnerving. Especially how it had droned on about becoming a god.
Trace arched her back and groaned to the sky in frustration. “Where is monster?”
Then she saw it. Pinned to the ceiling by purple crystals. “Oh. Just wonderful! Some god you turned of being! Now how I get your energy?” Trace mulled over her brain for a curse she had heard uttered in Rusty’s Tavern. She felt now was a good time to try it herself. “Piece of shit! You couldn’t even die right!”
This was going to take all night.