Robert reached into his back pocket and pulled out a map of campus. He rubbed his eyes and studied the map. Despite not sleeping well, he couldn't help but smile. The early morning crowd of students, bustling about to classes made him feel energetic. No more high school drama and worrying about who is dating who and what people did in their spare time. He could just be one of twenty thousand students and no one would give him a second look. He was truly free.
Consulting the map, he trudged north towards the building where his world history class would be. He was surprised he couldn't see the building yet, as the map made campus feel so small. Robert shook his head and chuckled at himself. Of course a map made campus feel small. That's what maps did.
Tucking the map back into his pocket, he continued walking. Taking a deep breath, he filled his lungs with the crisp, early-morning air. It could almost make him forget about the gash along his face and bruises from the monster attack. He had tried to act unaffected around Cory and Eli, and truth be told, he wasn't really all that shaken by the attack. But the glowing on his forehead continued to nag at him. What did it mean? And why did everyone around here treat monster attacks and magical cheerleaders like that wasn't strange?
As if the universe wanted to let him know it knew what he was thinking about, a pair of cheerleaders walked past him in full uniform. He blinked, and turned his head to follow them as they passed. Why did they not have to abide by the dress code like everyone else? Every other girl was having to wear a blouse and skirt combo. Not that Robert was complaining. He enjoyed the sight of a bare-midriff as much as the next man. And as he thought about it, he was certain he had seen a football player or two sporting their jerseys. Maybe if you were on one of the athletic teams you had permission to wear your uniforms and not adhere to the dress code? He decided he'd ask Eli's sister about that next time she came over. Being a member of the volleyball team, she was sure to know.
Robert, unlike the loud and vociferous Cory, didn't mind the dress code. It had, in fact, been one of the reasons he chose Schuyler University. He felt it helped maintain a more professional atmosphere. He intended to fully enjoy his college years, but he didn't want a college where every night was like a scene out of a fraternity film. He was here to learn what he needed to, get a slip of paper proving he knew his stuff, make a few, long-lasting friends, then get on with the rest of his life. If the Board of Directors thought a dress code would help him get that degree, he wasn't going to complain.
Robert entered the Humanities building, glad he decided to head up to campus fifteen minutes early. The building looked like it had been constructed thirty years ago, undergone half of a renovation, then the renovation was halted. The result was a mishmash of hallways and stairs that made Robert feel like a rat in a maze. After a few minutes of walking down wrong corridors, he found the large, heavy double-doors of the auditorium his lecture was in.
The walls were simple brown bricks with rectangular holes cut in a regular pattern. Judging from the worn seats and lack of an overhead projector, Robert decided this must be part of the older half of the building. He wondered to himself what the holes were for. No one was in room but an older, female student writing some things up on the chalkboard at the front of the room. Probably the teacher's assistant. The TA glanced up from the board, gave Robert a friendly hello, then went right back to her writing without giving Robert a chance to even reply. Guessing she was too busy to answer any questions, Robert went looking for an outlet to power his laptop.
After a fair bit of searching, he found one along the wall near the back. He hoped the newer sections of campus had more power outlets as he did not want to have to fight for outlet space every class. As he sat down and started connecting to the campus wifi, a girl walked through the class doors. She was cute. Her wavy blonde hair hung just past her shoulders. She wore a tight, pastel purple blouse that displayed her trim figure. Instead of a backpack, a shoulder bag that hung at her hips.
She scanned the room with a smile. Her eyes fell on Robert and she blinked. The after a second blink the smile disappeared. She stared at her feet intensely, as if fearing eye contact with him. Nervousness practically radiated from her body.
Unsure of what that was about, Robert looked down at his computer screen, making no sign that he had been eying her. Maybe she had felt he was ogling her and she was embarrassed by it? Whatever it was, she was uncomfortable and that made him uncomfortable. Averting his eyes was probably a good idea. Still, he kept watching her from the corner of his vision curiously.
She pulled out a little notepad from her pocket and thumbed through it. She muttered to herself as she read and shook her head. She put the notepad back and looked up towards the ceiling and muttered something else, as if asking the heavens a question. Scratching her golden locks, she sighed and affixed her gaze on Robert. She proceeded to march straight towards him, each step filled with grim purpose.
He figured she would just take a seat near the front, far away from him, and pretend the awkward staring had never happened. Instead, she was now standing right in front of him. Unsure of what to do, he kept staring at his screen, clicking the mousepad occassionaly to keep the illusion of distraction up. She, in turn, bit her bottom lip, and made a show of sitting next to him and looking straight ahead at the TA. It was apparent she wanted to say something but didn't seem to know what that was. Conversely, Robert knew she could see he was intentionally avoiding her gaze. It only made the silence between the two, more awkward and Robert knew it. He knew he should greet her in some way but felt the moment had already passed. If he just stayed quiet, maybe the awkward moment would go away.
She cleared her throat and put on an apologetic smile. "Good morning."
No such luck. Now he had to deal with the awkwardness he had helped create. "Morning."
She reached into her bag and held a power chord in front of her as if it were a shield from the nervous tension both felt. "Excuse me, hate to be a bother, but mind if I use that power jack too? My computer doesn't have much of a battery."
Was that what this was all about? Robert had taken the only power jack in the entire room? Why had she looked at that notebook? Even if it was a strange way to go about it, he decided he could do much worse than sitting next to an attractive blonde on the first day of classes. "Sure."
He took her power chord and plugged it. She exhaled as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
"Thank you so much."
"Don't mention it. Didn't plan to hog all the current to myself anyway."
She held out her hand. "My name is Angela Warrant. A pleasure to meet you." She smiled ear to ear, but Robert could see it was a mask. He wasn't sure what it was exactly masking, but it was there. Perhaps she was still nervous from the awkward beginning to their conversation. Maybe she was a freshman like him and was just a little excited about the first day of classes.
He shook her hand, smiling back, but more than a little confused. Why was she insisting on shaking his hand like they were business partners? He was just another student. "Robert Dreese." He handed her the computer-end of her power cord as she pulled out a laptop smaller and even more beat-up than his own.
"So, uh, Robert..." She glanced down at laptop, tapping at her keys. "It's okay if I call you Robert?"
She was worked-up, that much was certain. What was she so skittish about? It felt like she was treating this before-class introduction as if it was one of the most important interactions ever. He didn't have the slightest idea why, but he thought he'd try to cut the tension and gave her a quick grin. "Is it okay for me to call you Angela?"
She bit her bottom lip and pushed some of her hair to the side. Was she actually having to think about this? She gave a barely audible gasped and smiled, like she just understood he was making a joke. "Oh! Hehe, yes, you may call me Angela."
She sat down and scratched her elbow. She stared very intensely at her computer screen. She hadn't even hit her power button. She nervously pulled out her notebook and wrote something down. "So, um, Robert how have you..." She trailed off, her voice filled with worry.
Robert blinked at her. The longer this conversation, if you could call it a conversation, went the more confused Robert was. "Have I--what?"
She shook her head. "Sorry, I was distracted by your, um, cuts on your face." She swallowed hard on her next sentence. "May I inquire as to how you got them?"
Robert sighed. He had known he'd get this question. You don't have a couple of deep gashes along your face without a few question. And he wasn't about to tell her the truth. She was acting strangely enough without having to hear about monster attacks. And he didn't like how she was holding that little notebook. A lie was definitely the best choice here. The truth would only invite more questions. "I fell into some thorny bushes. Cut me up pretty bad."
She nodded, and to his surprise didn't write anything down. She did grin however. "They did indeed cut you up a lot. And fairly deep. How recent was this?"
"Yesterday," Robert said casually as he faced his screen again. He tried to deflect the topic towards the blonde. "So what are you taking this class for? General history credit?"
She smiled, "No. I'm a law major but I'm going for an archeology minor. I'm in love with ancient cultures. So I have to have a lot of history courses."
Robert nodded his head turning back to his screen. He was glad the conversation was away from him. His uncle had always told him the way to a great conversation was finding what someone was passionate about, then letting them go off. "Really? Archeology? Doesn't really fit with a law minor. What makes you so passionate about archeology."
Angela smiled and shrugged, looking a little guilty for some reason. "Well, I guess I just love knowing how ancient cultures lived. Especially mysterious ones."
Robert raised an eyebrow at that. "Mysterious ones? Like, mysteries like how were the pyramids built?"
She shrugged. "Kind of. Like, you heard of the stone circle on top of Standridge Hill? The one built by the Atsah?"
Robert nodded. The Standridge Hill Stone Circle was a famous landmark that was on the outskirts of Kessia City. No one knew how, but somehow a group of people had erected it despite the fact that when it had been erected would have been somewhere around when humans were just starting to use tools. Though most of the outer stones had fallen over, a giant, nearly spherical bolder stood in the center, supported by three other, smaller stones and had somehow lasted the test of time. He had never heard of these "Atsah" before as he had heard that it would have been erected long before there was any record of the ancient tribes ever moving into the area.
"Of course I know about them. Hard not to. They're one of the greatest mysteries on this hemisphere. But I didn't know the Atsah built them. Never heard of them before. They some sort of tribe?"
Angela sat up rigidly, as if making a realization. "Huh? Oh, I mean, it's just an ancient tribe. Yes." She giggled nervously. "That just fascinates me! Why would a group that was, most likely, struggling to just get enough food to survive, erect a giant stone monument?"
Robert shrugged. "Maybe it was of some sort of religious item. Maybe for sacrifices or something."
Angela held up a finger. "Possibly, but if it was for sacrifices, why put a sphere in the middle? Why not something flatter and less tall. The top of the stone is nearly five feet high. Not very convenient for sacrifices."
Robert shrugged again. "True, but it could maybe have some sort of seasonal or astronomical significance?"
Angela nodded. "I have heard the astronomical argument. There is some evidence that the shadow on the center stone could have cast some shadows on certain stones during equinoxes."
Robert bit his thumbnail, a bad habit of when he was thinking. Though he had never pondered the Standridge Stones much before, he was growing curious as he noticed one very large problem with his statement. "Yeah, but they definitely could have made something to predict astronomical events with something easier than a one-ton boulder."
Angela laughed. "I agree."
Robert continued his thought. "The only reason you would erect something that difficult would be for religious reasons or as a sign of power."
Angela grinned and Robert thought he saw a twinkle in her eye that seemed to suggest she knew something he did not. "A sign of power? What do you mean by that?"
"Well," Robert knew what he meant but struggled to put his meaning into words, "like, people go and climb the highest mountain not because it's easy but because they want to show they can conquer anything. I mean, how many people died before someone finally got to Mount Everest? But, no, that's not a good comparison. The point is you don't spend time pushing stones around unless you have the free time to do it. You don't have free time unless you are adequately fed and defended. So if these Atsan or whatever-you-call-thems had that free time, they could have sort of used the stone circle as a sign of, 'hey, look at this! Look at what we can do. While you're scrounging up crops we can get all these super heavy stones up a hill and arrange them in a neat way. Can you do that? I don't think so. We're both strong enough and smart enough to do this. You are not. Don't mess with us.'"
Angela grinned from ear to ear and looked about ready to laugh. Robert frowned at this. "Well I didn't say I could solve all the mysteries of antiquity."
Angela put up her hands defensively. "No! No. I wasn't, I mean, I wasn't trying to be derisive. I just, well it's just how you said that. It was funny to me."
The corner of Robert's lip curled up, his pride somewhat placated. "What about it was funny?" He immediately chastised himself for asking that. He hated it when he sounded like he was fishing for compliments, even if it was exactly what he had just done.
Angela giggled. "I don't know. I guess just the thought of a Neolithic people telling saying, 'Don't mess with us!' is kind of funny." She leaned back in her chair. She nodded to herself, as if she had come to some form of a decision. "But that's not quite what I think it is."
Robert could tell she obviously wanted him to hear her theory. He really hated it when people tried to manipulate you into getting you to do or say what you wanted. Then again he had just unintentionally fished for a compliment so it probably wasn't his place to judge. Plus there was just something in the tone of her voice that made it sound like she might know something that no one else did. "What's your theory then?"
She lit up with excitement. "Well, I think you're onto something that they were trying to impress someone. The center stone is far too big to just be something simply for astronomical purposes. But at the same time, the precision with which the stones were stacked indicate a level of sophistication. So if not a tool, the Standridge Stones must have been to impress their..." She quirked her jaw to the side, pondering her next word.
"Their gods?" Robert offered.
"I, well, I suppose so. Their gods. Yes." She nodded her head and wrote something down in her notebook. "But I don't think it's just trying to impress. I think it was designed in such a way that it was meant to catch their attention. Like, draw them to that spot. Why else build it with such precision?"
Robert raised an eyebrow. "You mean like some sort of godly beacon?"
She nodded with a smile. "Yes. That's a good way of putting it!"
Robert shrugged. "Neat theory and all, but it still doesn't explain the bigger mystery of how they did it." Angela flashed a guilty grin. Robert rolls his eyes. "But of course you have a theory on that too."
She shrugged, seemingly not wanting to give away much. "Well, not really an explanation, but a theory nonetheless. There are only three real explanations on how you could move stones that big and that precisely during that time period. One would be they had access to tools that predated their history. There would be evidence of those tools somewhere if that were the case. Another would be they had access to some technique with known tools at that time to get the stones up the hill. There have been several theories of how they could manage that, but none have proven fruitful."
Robert nodded. "And correct me if I'm wrong, whatever tools they had in this time period, they would have been limited to things like hammers and such. I don't think they had pulleys and other lifting tools at that point in history, yeah?"
"Precisely. So that leads me to the only other theory I can see... magic."
Robert blinked. "What?"
"Magic!" She said more enthusiastically.
"No, I-- I heard you just fine. It's just... um... seriously? That's what you're going to go with? Magic? Not very academic."
She laughed. "No? I guess you're right. Consider it more of a hunch I guess."
Robert sighed. The conversation had been going well despite the rocky start. "A hunch. That it's magic? Not exactly following proper research protocols here, are you?"
She leaned forward, her blue eyes teeming with excitement. "It's just a theory I'm thinking about. But I think there is a connection to the Spirit Guard and the the Stone Circle."
"Of course you do." The Spirit Guard. Why did it always come back to the Spirit Guard? "Why wouldn't you equate random, monster fighting, over-monologuing cheerleaders spewing fire from staffs to ancient wonders of the world?"
His sarcasm didn't seem to penetrate the way it had intended. "I know! I've mapped it out and, do you realize, that each of those monster attacks," she puffed herself up a little, "and subsequent defeats by the Spirit Guard are all within eleven miles of Standridge Hill? And when you plot it out, they actually center around the circle itself. I find that..." She trailed off, and Robert chuckled to himself as he saw his words had finally sunk in. "Over-monologuing?"
Robert's chuckle faded as he realized that detail implied a bit more than what you could read in media reports. "Uh, yeah, I read in some of the stories that the cheerleaders had a flare for the dramatic speech before fighting the monsters."
Angela's eyes narrowed. Robert couldn't decide if that was a sign of anger or suspicion. He decided for the time being it was probably safest to assume both. "I've been following the Spirit Guard very closely. I don't remember reading anything about speeches."
"You don't?" Robert replied, his voice not changing pitch at all. "I swear I read that somewhere."
Angela's eyes remained fixed on Robert. She was deciding whether to follow this thread at all. He had gotten under her skin with that line. Why would she take seemingly so personally. A thought occurred to him, "Have you ever seen them in action yourself?"
She opened her mouth, then froze, as if she hadn't been prepared for that question. "Oh." She tapped her desk. "Uh, yeah, you could say that."
Robert congratulated himself. The reason she would respond so defensively was if she was a fan. The most logical fans of the Spirit Guard would be those they saved. And since he had been in town for only a week and been rescued, it wasn't ridiculous that someone else could have been. Then again, Eli's sister had been here an entire year and never been in an attack. If not Eli, Cory would have definitely brought it up during last night's conversation if she had. "I could say that? Were you at a monster attack or something?"
She scratched her elbow. "Uh, yes. Yes I was. The, uh, the fight against Saturationa." When Robert didn't give a knowing look she leaned in, a little annoyed. "Saturationa? The water monster at the campus swimming pool? It's the only monster attack that ever happened on campus?"
Robert shook his head. "Sorry, I'm not familiar with that one." He thought for a second and decided to try the excuse Cory and Eli had used for him last night. "I'm from out of town so this Spirit Guard thing is a little new to me. I've only read about their more recent exploits."
"Ah." She nodded her head. "I see then." It still bugged Robert that everyone from around here seemed to think that was a valid excuse. This wasn't a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that only locals should know about it. It was super-human cheerleaders fighting actual monsters! "Well, basically I was swimming in the campus pool for exercise..."
"You can do that?"
"Sure. They have open time between six-thirty and eight A.M. Anyone can swim during that time."
Robert recoiled a little. "Sheesh. I thought I was a morning person."
Angela smiled. "Well, I was there and everyone was sort of... I don't know, there was a normal group of us who would come in and everyone was just sort of," she paused and considered her words, "milling about aimlessly."
Robert sat up straight. "Sort of like zombies?"
"Well, I wouldn't put it in such fantastical terms..."
Robert smirked. "Said the girl who equates the Standridge Stones to magical cheerleaders."
She pouted at that, but didn't rise to Robert's goading. "...but yes, they were sort of zombie-like. I called a friend of mine when a bunch of the," she sighed, "zombified people attacked me and tried to force me into the water."
Robert bit at his fingernail. "That's different." Angela narrowed her eyes again. "Different from the stories I've read I mean."
Angela snorted. "Uh huh. Anyway, I fought off being drowned for a while, trying to get to my bag to get my Spir... er... pepper spray. That's when Spirit Guard Fortitude showed up." Her eyes lit up. "She had such speed and power. I was free in a second, but she didn't hurt any of the people trying to attack me, just knocked them out. That's when Saturationa emerged from the water. She created a tidal wave from the pool and dragged all her unconscious puppets into the pool. Fortitude was able to grab me and save me from being dragged in but with everyone else in the pool."
Robert nodded. "Clever move by the monster. Pulling hostages in the water prevents Fortitude from using her lightning attacks. I mean, I guess she could, but she'd risk killing everyone in the pool along with the monster. And the girls in the Spirit Guard seem unlikely to do that."
Angela frowned. "It was not clever. It was dastardly and cowardly."
Robert shrugged. "Of course it was. But it was also clever."
"Don't compliment an evil monster," she protested.
Robert smiled, trying to keep his tone playful, but also communicating that he didn't appreciate being bossed around. "I'll compliment who I want to. I'm an adult now. Legally, at least."
Angela pouted. He had expected, from her previous tone to be upset. Instead she looked worried. Very worried. Like something was incredibly wrong. "I-- how can you say that?"
"That I'm an adult?"
"No. That it was clever. Saturationa was willing to let others die so that it could live. That's evil!"
Robert squinted and shook his head. He rolled his eyes and chastised himself. He was normally better at hiding dismissive tones. "Something can be both clever and evil. If not, no one would ever buy the evil genius motif they use in cinema all the time.."
"True enough, but," Angela's pleaded, "don't you find it at least disgusting that the monster would do that?"
Robert held his hands and shrugged again. "I mean, yeah. It's terrible to take hostages. I just don't see why disgust matters at all. Emotions cloud up your ability to think objectively. In the middle of a fight, emotions don't matter. All that matters is tactics. What will be efficient in rescuing the hostages and what will be effective in taking down the water woman."
Angela responded with more force than Robert expected. "Emotions certainly do matter! Emotions are what drive people and give them power. Cowardly acts like that rob you of dignity and power."
"I disagree. At least on the power part. By that monster's cowardly act, it gained a ton of power. Suddenly Saturationa had robbed Spirit Guard--what's her name again?"
Angela frowned. "Fortitude."
"Right, the monster had robbed Spirit Guard Fortitude of a valuable offensive weapon and now put her under time pressure because even if she doesn't use the lightning, the people in the water now are beginning to drown. If her goal is to save them, she is going to have to put herself in a compromising position."
Angela's shoulders sagged. Her face was a mask of confusion and disappointment. What was up with this girl? It was obvious she had high moral standards but it was absurd to expect everyone to get their panties in a twist over the battle strategies employed by a water monster. There was reason it was called a monster. Why was it so important to her that Robert be shocked and appalled? He tried to ease the tension. "So how did it end? I'm assuming since you're sitting before me, Fortitude saved the day?"
Angela blinked. She sighed, "Fortitude alone didn't solve it. Spirit Guard Valor showed up." Her face brightened a little. "Using her Plateau of Nobility attack, Valor summoned a giant rock from beneath the pool, lifting the hostages out of the water. At that moment Fortitude struck Saturationa with her Intrepid Blade and killed it, thus saving the day."
Robert nodded. "Ah, teamwork then. Divide the problems up and work in tandem. I'm assuming this 'Plateau of Nobility' was made of some kind of stone?"
Angela nodded. "Yes, Valor uses the element of earth in battle."
"Another good move. Even wet it was probably a good resistor so any stray electricity from the lightning attack wouldn't end up traveling up to the hostages."
Angela tapped her chin. "I had never considered that."
This girl obviously had a bad case of heroine worship. Robert figured it wouldn't hurt to throw in some kind words to smooth over the conversation. "Yeah, well, I'm sure the Spirit Guard did. They are heroes after all."
Angela bit her lip nervously. "Yeah, I--I'm sure they did too."
"Still," Robert continued, "I don't see how any of this ties to the Standridge Stones and you thinking they are made by magic or some such."
Angela glanced up, seemingly having forgotten all about her theory. "Oh. Right. Well, as I was saying, at the center of all the attacks are the Standridge Stones, geographically speaking. We obviously don't know the exact motivations of whoever the monsters' master are, but you would think if it was some sort of invasion or attack, you'd center the attacks on what was most important."
Robert nodded. "Sound logic as far as the monster attacks go. But have the monsters made any moves on the Standridge Stones themselves?"
Angela pouted. "No, but their location is at the center of all the attacks. I've plotted it out. I think location and proximity have something to do with the Stones and the monsters are trying to weaken its magic."
Robert lifted an eyebrow. "So you believe the Stones themselves are magical?"
Angela shrugged. "Magical, maybe channeling the magic, it doesn't matter really. The point is the Spirit Guard use magic and so do the mosnters so there is clearly something magical going on. If so, then it would stand to reason the Stones have some magical property that make them important. If they were magically important, they were probably moved with magic as well."
Robert shook his head. Class was ready to start and this girl had already given him a headache. "Still a lot of stretches for that to be true. And that's assuming all these monsters and cheerleaders are using is mystic stuff when I think it's more logically explained as exotic technology or techniques that we don't yet understand."
Angela smiled. "Arthur C. Clark."
"Any system of technology suffiently advanced enough is indistinguishable from magic. That's what you're referring to, right? Arthur C. Clark's quote?"
"Huh? Oh, um, not really but I guess so. I feel calling something magic is lazy. Even if magic were a thing, we'd call it science because it'd work on simple principles that, even if we couldn't explain them, would be existing in our universe. Working with forces that we don't fully understand but can harness isn't called sorcery but, rather, engineering. And I think the Spirit Guard and their monster enemies must have some pretty impressive engineers working with them."
Angela smirked as the teacher walked into the now full classroom. "That they do." Robert raised his eyebrow one more time. "I'm willing to bet you're dead on the bullseye with that one, Robert. Who knows, maybe we'll all know more about them soon enough."
Robert sighed. Though he thought he might have imagined it, he could have sworn his forehead itched. "I hope so. A lot of things need to get cleared up."
Like this story? I always have the latest chapter up on my website at taralynn.sincomics.com. Go there for my other stories, fanart, commentary, and news! Hope you enjoyed the chapter!
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.