Robert laughed as he admired the picture of the blue-haired girl on Eli's phone. "You have to be kidding me? She's friends with your sister?"
Eli nodded with a wide grin. "Yeah, her and that Vivian chick are both friends with Kara."
Cory shook his head and snatched the phone from Robert's hand. "This doesn't bode well for us."
"This doesn't bode well for us? You have to be kidding me! I just found the girl I've been crushing on all summer."
"And you just got done telling me that you and Vivian hung out a bit after your theater class and just talked!"
"So we both have an in with two cute girls on the first day of college! How does this not bode well for us?"
Robert chuckled and went back to his PvP match. A lone Gargoyle Shadewarden, cornily named NightKnight, approached the control point; the Gargoyle seemed unaware that Rob's Deviling Windwhisper was cloaked right by the point he needed to capture. With a smirk, Robert de-cloaked Bluster and planted her daggers into the Shadewarden's back, scoring several critical hits. NightKnight spun around to fight back, but before he could even swing his massive hammer, the Gargoyle was down to zero hit points.
Before Robert could even re-cloak Bluster, NightKnight was spewing his frustrations into the game's chat. "You camping WHORE! Try actually fighting!"
Robert could only roll his eyes and smile. Though he wasn't one of those die-hard players who were big in the Accord vs. Pact rivalry, he did enjoy making Accords rage nonsensically. He was playing a stealth class. He'd be an idiot to fight a tank head on. More importantly, it was a control point map. What was Robert supposed to do? Not protect the objective and hope the Accords left their control point alone? He just didn't understand people who lost their cool and spouted such stupidity in a game.
"It doesn't bode well because of karma, man!" Cory wagged his finger at Eli. "Think about it. We've never had luck like this before. It means something terrible is probably around the corner!"
"Unless," Robert cut in, "this is karmic repayment for having to go through the monster attack yesterday."
Eli grinned. "Now, you see, I like Rob's interpretation better."
Cory tapped his chin. "I admit it is an angle I hadn't considered. A much more attractive angle."
"And," Eli noted, "it also makes sense since we both are making progress with women we had contact with yesterday; I saw Kara at the arcade, you met Vivian last night."
Cory shook his head. "But wait, by this logic Robert should be making progress with some girl he met that day too."
"Don't drag me into you two's little social, karmic fantasy." Robert leaned forward. Off in the distance he saw NightKnight had re-spawned and was coming back for Robert's control point. This time he was coming with backup though: a Seraphim Cloudmender.
Eli nodded. "You're right, Cory. Means we need to set Rob here up with some girl he saw that day."
Robert bit his bottom lip. He hated it when his enemies learned from their mistakes. Trying to take down a tank and a healer simultaneously was not going to be a piece of cake. Robert tiptoed Bluster past the Shadewarden to get behind the healer. His plan was simple: go nova on the squishy Cloudmender and then try to take NightKnight one-on-one. Any plan that required him to face a tank in single combat wasn't an ideal one, but with no other teammates at the control point, it was the best one he had. Robert readied his ambush.
Cory flashed his most wicked grin. "What, you mean like your sister?"
Robert exploded with laughter. This resulted in a costly misclick, causing him to walk through the Cloudmender and reveal Bluster's position. He tried to recover, but he was laughing too hard to maneuver well. Without the element of surprise, NightKnight was already slamming his hammer into Bluster's back before Robert could kill the healer. He tried to use Galestep to sprint away, ceeding the control point to them, but NightKnight was ready for that. He cast Gripping Shadow to roote Bluster in place. It wasn't long after that before Bluster was down to zero hit points.
"No, not my sister, you twit!"
"Well I was with Rob the entire day, pretty much. He was just playing his dumb game and chatting with me so the only females that came over here were Vivian and Mallory. Seeing as I have dibs on Viv, that means Rob is pretty much destined to hook up with your sister. Fate has spoken! Who are we to argue?"
Eli huffed. Robert's laughter did not seem to improve his mood. "You forget some pretty obvious candidates that aren't my sister, Cory. The Spirit Guard were there at the attack. They qualify in this scenario."
Robert regained his composure as he re-spawned. "Excuse me?"
"Ooo! Good point, Eli! So which one should he pursue?"
"I say Spirit Guard Charity."
"Of course you do! She's a bluenette. You're obsessed with bluenettes."
Robert quirked his eyebrow up. "Bluenette? What's a bluenette?"
Cory responded by raising his own eyebrows up. "What's a bluenette? A girl with blue hair? You seriously have never heard that term?"
Robert still couldn't figure out how people could have blue hair in this region. Luckily, Eli was too defensive over that accusation to let Cory continue his inquiry. "It has nothing to do with that, though she is absolutely gorgeous. No, she's the one who protected us. That was very kind of her, and I think Rob deserves a kind girl. Don't you?"
"Yeah, yeah, it was nice of her to protect us and all, but that girl had this major motherly vibe thing going on. And, besides, Rob's more about offense. I think Spirit Guard Felicity is much more his type. She's lively, funny, and excitable. I mean, look at Rob, he just plays on his computer all day. He needs a girl that will drag him around and get his blood flowing."
Robert glanced at the score, the Pact was going to defeat the Accord with or without his help at this point. They were too far ahead not to. Rather than try to scrounge up a few more kills in the waning seconds on the match, he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. "Don't I get a say in this?"
Cory made a shooing motion with his hands. "Not now, Rob. Eli and I are busy trying to marry you off."
Robert chuckled. "That's kind of what I'm afraid of." A short sequence of 8-bit sounds filled the air as Robert's phone let him know he had received a text.
"Rob's never going to go for someone that hyperactive. Felicity is a terrible match for him."
"Fine, fine. I recommend Tenacity then. She was every bit as offensive-minded but still wanted to make sure someone was protecting us. Plus," Cory added with a wistful look, "I could stare at her legs all day."
Eli shivered. "I'll admit she was attractive, though just not as hot as the others."
"Dude, she was just as hot as the other three. I don't know why you're so adamant she's not."
Eli shrugged. "I just don't see it. But she is the most athletic looking one there. Rob could use a little more activity."
Rob smirked as he turned his phone's screen on. "First of all, it's Cory who could use a little more activity. Not me. Secondly, you guys do know I was on my high school's football team, right?"
Cory and Eli both performed a double-take. "What?"
"Yeah. I was the backup running back before I quit sen..."
"Wouldn't that be a running backup?" Eli punched Cory in the shoulder. "Ow!"
"Terrible pun. You deserved it."
Robert nodded as he opened his new text. "He's absolutely right, Cory."
"You both just don't appreciate great humor."
Robert checked his caller ID. He squinted as he recognized the number the text came from. It was his phone number. "This is weird."
"My phone is telling me I just texted myself."
"Yeah." Robert opened the text to see what the glitch was:
Robert, we figured out what the glowing meant. Be at the Standridge Circle at 8pm tomorrow. Don't worry about park security. Just walk in. Please come alone -SGV
Robert pushed in his desk's keyboard tray and leaned forward. "It's the Spirit Guard."
He handed his phone over to Eli. "The text. It's the Spirit Guard getting back to me."
Cory chuckled. "Wow, speak of the she-devils. Looks like we can resolve your female companion issue quicker than thought. What do they want?"
Eli handed the phone to Cory. "They want him to meet them at the Standridge Circle."
Cory started laughing. "Seriously? Robert, didn't you tell me that weird girl in your History class was going on about the Spirit Guard and the Circle?"
Robert groaned. "Angela. Yeah. I'm sure if she heard about this she would be further convinced it means something."
"Couldn't it actually mean something? Maybe there is a connection."
Robert rolled his eyes. "What it means is that the Spirit Guard recognized I was from out of town since I made it a point to say I wasn't even aware of their existence. Thus they picked a location that even someone from out of town would know about."
"Fair enough. So, the important question is how are we going to get you a date out of this?"
Robert's eyes narrowed as he exited Aspect Realms. "A date?"
"Yeah, since you're destined and all to get one of these girls. Frankly, given we're ceding all four mega-hot super heroines to you, I feel you should be more grateful."
Robert rubbed his temples. "Guys, I'm more worried about what they might do at this meeting."
Cory and Eli raised eyebrows in unison. "What?"
"Look, I know you two say they are heroes and everything..."
"Because they are," Cory added.
"Yeah, but all your stories are about them swooping in and saving the day." Robert clicked open a few stories he had saved on the Spirit Guard as he had been doing research. "I've been going through these stories and not a single one mentions one of the kids glowing and what the Spirit Guard do with them. Polygal made it sound like my glowing meant something. Hell, the Spirit Guard affirmed it was important in some way. The fact that they want to meet me and let me know what it means, means that it means something."
"I don't think you could have said the word 'means' any more in that sentence."
Eli shrugged. "Yeah, it means something. But you're talking about this like they should be distrusted."
"I do think we should go as far as NOT trusting them." Cory and Eli looked skeptical. Robert tapped his screen for emphasis. "Yes they've been rather heroic, stopping monsters, saving lives. That kind of thing. They also are somehow always there before police and ambulances. Doesn't that seem a bit odd?"
Eli shrugged. "They ARE superheroes, Rob."
Robert nodded. "Even allowing for that, you'd think out of the seventeen attacks there have been, you'd think there'd be at least one where the monster attacked, the police responded, and the Spirit Guard saw the news, showed up, then saved the police's asses, right? In every witness account except for three of them, four if you include Polygal, the monster hasn't appeared until the Spirit Guard have shown up. That seems a little suspicious to me."
Eli threw his hands in the air. "Well, what are you saying Rob? That the Spirit Guard are causing the monster attacks?"
"I'm saying that we don't know what is causing the monster attacks. We only know that they started a little over a year ago. We can't just make assumptions that they are the benevolent heroines in our little fantasy story. What if something deeper is going on?"
Cory scoffed. "Deeper how?"
Robert sighed. "I don't know, but there aren't very many pictures or videos of these girls' fights. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to keep the public from, by and large, seeing them."
Eli rolled his eyes. "Right, because why would they want to keep their identities a secret? Must be something nefarious!"
Robert held his hands up defensively. "I know. Believe me, I know. I read just as many comic books as you do."
Cory bit his bottom lip. "I'd wager more, Rob. I don't know anyone other than yourself who actually collects them."
Robert frowned. "I only collect the Collider series."
Cory smirked. "One more series than anyone else I know."
Robert groaned. "Anyway, I'm saying there are perfectly legitimate reasons for wanting to stay out of the public eye. There are also illegitimate reasons. What if they are part of some government project? What if they are a distraction for a larger, worse epidemic than monsters and this whole magical cheerleader angle is just some way to keep us from looking at what we should look at?"
Eli rolled his eyes. "Rob, I hate to say it, but you're starting to sound like a conspiracy nut."
Robert took a deep breath. It was important in these types of discussions to not let emotions get ahead of logic. "Eli, think about what it is we are a talking about." He started counting on his fingers. "These are, one, very attractive women who fight monsters. Two, they do so with some form of unexplainable technology that might as well be magic. Three, they do so while dressed as cheerleaders, for God's sake. Four, no one can seem to take a picture and video of them. And five, no one outside of Kessia City has seemed to have heard of them."
Eli and Cory leaned back while they considered Robert's points. He continued his argument. "If you look at this objectively, how can you not be convinced that something is going on? It's pretty god damn weird if you ask me! And now, for some reason, at a monster attack, I started glowing blue, had some sort of beacon shining on my head. That drew the attention of monster and cheerleader alike. That means the MONSTER and the COMBAT CHEERLEADERS thought I was the strange thing! I'm somehow stuck in the middle of this entire nonsensical intrigue, and, yes, I'm a little on edge about this. And though they seem, for all intents and purposes, a decent, heroic lot of cheerleaders, I don't want to walk into this with blind optimism."
Cory and Eli glanced at one another before Eli sighed. "Well, when you put it like that, I think you have a point. Maybe we aren't being paranoid enough. Maybe we shouldn't just take everything at their word."
"But," Cory added, "what is it you're specifically worried about Rob? I mean, what do you think the Spirit Guard will do?"
Robert slumped back into his chair. "I... don't know. That's what bothers me. I mean, let's say they are completely heroic and have pure intentions. What if that glowing means I could become a monster or something weird like that?"
"Become a monster?"
"Just follow me here. Polygal was after my 'investiture' and the Spirit Guards protected it. They compared investiture to energy. What if it's the energy needed for this Platicore dude to make more monsters? Could you not see, maybe, a scenario where a hero might try to get rid of something his enemy could use?"
Eli winced. "You're worried they are going to off you?"
"Not really, because, as dorky as it sounds, they seemed genuine. I typically have a good feel for that. But let's say they have a way to make it so I can't be harvested for energy. Could you see the heroes of this story doing that?"
Cory nodded. "To protect you, yes. I could see that."
"Now what if that process had some side effects? Could you still see them being able to justify it?"
Eli shuffled uncomfortably. "Depending on the side-effects, yes."
"So you can see why I'd like to figure out what is happening and prepare for it."
"Still," Cory interrupted, "you came up with that entire scenario on your own. You have no idea if you should even be worried about this or not. I mean, you could come up with a billion different theories for what investiture is, what you can do with it, and what the cheerleaders might do about it."
Robert smirked. "I know. I've been worrying most of the day about it. So I did some research."
Eli gulped. "Dare we ask what the research turned up?"
"Check this out." Robert pulled up a spreadsheet. "This is a spreadsheet I made covering all the attacks."
"What a nerd."
Robert ignored Cory. "Remember how I said only four of the attacks had the monster appear before the Spirit Guard did?" Cory and Eli nodded. "Check this out. The first time this happened was roughly ten months ago during the attack of the weightlifting monster, Barbella."
"And yet another lame monster name."
"This was the first sighting of Spirit Guard Tenacity. Before that it had only been Spirit Guard Valor."
"Tenacity. Neat. Your future girlfriend."
"You two really aren't going to let go of this idea are you?"
"It's a fun bit."
"We like fun bits."
"Plus, we can tell it annoys you a little."
"Anyway," Robert groaned, "the next instance was seven months ago at an outdoor theater. When the monster attacked, Spirit Guards Valor and Tenacity showed up, but the one who saved the day was Spirit Guard Felicity. Coincidentally, this was her first appearance as well."
"What was that monster's name?"
Robert gave Cory a flat stare. "Does it really matter?"
"I like hearing the terrible names."
Robert sighed and looked at his screen. "If you must know, it was Dramatica."
"Wow, that's worse than Barbella."
Eli chuckled. "You'd think that a theater monster could have been more creative."
"Maybe she was, but it's still probably this Platicore guy who names them."
Robert tried to continue his point. "Next time a monster attacked before the Spirit Guard arrived was four months ago, at the local Kessia City High School bake sale fundraiser. The monster," Robert pointed to Cory, "before you can ask, was named Confection Cathy."
"The monster was attacked, and we got the first appearance of..."
Eli sighed and finished off Rob's statement. "Spirit Guard Charity. But you said there were four times. And the fourth time..."
"The fourth time was Polygal. But we know one thing for certain; there wasn't a new Spirit Guard member who showed up. Something about the Polygal attack broke the pattern."
Cory scratched his brown hair. "So what does this mean? You trying to say you're the new Spirit Guard or something?"
Eli rolled his eyes. "No, because that would be stupid."
Robert chuckled. "I don't think people at the attacks are becoming cheerleaders. If that was the case, it'd be easy to narrow down who was at what attack and figure out who the Spirit Guard are. Personally, I don't buy the secret identity theory anyway. Their faces are completely exposed. Someone would recognize them."
"Did anyone else glow at these attacks? You know, like you did?"
Robert shook his head. "No. Not according to the stories. But, then again, our story didn't mention me glowing either. We certainly didn't tell the cops and if there was any surveillance footage of it, the Spirit Guard already got to it. If people are glowing, they aren't broadcasting it to the world."
Eli tapped his chin. "So the question is, why didn't a new Spirit Guard show up at our attack and is the glowing connected?"
"The monster implied you might be some ally of the Spirit Guard," Cory pointed out. "Maybe it's because Robert isn't a Spirit Guard but some other ally. The Spirit Guard have to maybe awaken that ability though."
Robert gave Cory his best incredulous look. "Oh, and, what? I'm some super hero destined to fight by their side for the sake of justice, righteousness, and the power of love?"
Cory frowned. "Don't be an ass. In each of those other examples the Spirit Guard got more allies. What if you're just another ally somehow? Like it's your destiny or something?"
"You know how I feel about the magical, mystical angle of this."
"Just TRY to keep an open mind about something you can't explain, Rob. You were the one just lecturing us about this being a ridiculous situation."
That one hit Robert pretty hard. "You're right. Sorry."
Eli cleared his throat. "So the question is: are you going to Standridge Circle tomorrow?"
"Hell yes." Robert stood up. "I need to find out what that glowing meant. But I got to find a way to sneak you two there to watch."
"Because," Robert explained, "you two are the only other people I trust who know about the attack. In case they are duplicitous I need someone who has my back."
Eli snorted. "So, in case they try to steal your soul we'll, what, stop the superhuman cheerleaders? Us? Might I point out a flaw in that plan?"
"Yeah, Rob, our special abilities are being snarky and being good at Hop Dance Mania. We're about as badass as a cucumber."
Eli shook his head. "A cucumber?"
Cory glanced at the floor. "Yeah, I don't know. It was the first thing that came to mind. Can I get a do-over?"
Robert tried to get the conversation back on track. "You're my friends, and if something does happen, I want someone I trust to know. Besides, I don't think they have any right to hide what happens from you two any more than they do me. You guys were attacked as well. I think you deserve answers too."
Cory smiled. "I like your attitude."
Eli shook his head. "Yeah, I appreciate the sentiment, but you were still told to come alone."
Cory held up a finger. "Technically he wasn't 'told' to come alone. They said to 'please come alone.' Technical difference."
Eli ignored Cory. "If we show up, they probably won't show. And it's not like we're ninjas who could hide from them."
Robert shrugged in dismay. "I don't have any ideas at the moment."
Cory swallowed hard. "I may have an idea."
"Eli, remember in middle school when I... borrowed... that camera from my dad's business."
Eli narrowed his eyes. "You never returned that?"
"Oh right, what was I going to do? Put it back into the warehouse I borrowed it from? How am I going to get an excuse to go back there? It was a fluke my dad took me back there that one time. Plus, that thing is so out of date now I doubt he has any more of that model. It'd be more suspicious if it turned up again rather than stay missing."
"Uh," Robert held up a finger, "what are you two talking about?"
Eli was disgusted. "In middle school, Mr. I'm-So-Suave here wanted to try and sneak video of the girl's locker room." Cory's face slowly turned beet red. "So he stole from his dad's private security business."
"Borrowed. I still intend to give it back. I just have to figure out how to do it in a way my dad won't find out I 'procured' the item. Because he'd kill me if he found out I borrowed from his company."
"Give it back? Cory, it's been six years since you did this! Not to mention it was a disgusting goal to try back when you did it."
"I was a pubescent boy who wanted to see boobs and be a hero to the other pubescent boys! So sue me!"
Robert held his hands out, trying to stop the argument. "As interesting as this 80's teen flick drama is, what did Cory steal?"
Cory shuffled his feet for a second and took a deep breath. "A high resolution, fiber-optic digital camera with video and photographic capabilities that can wirelessly pair with a computer at a range up to five hundred feet."
Robert let out a low whistle. "Holy shit. How expensive is this thing?"
"I totally intend to give it back."
Eli did not look happy. "You promised me you'd get rid of that."
Cory backed up defensively. "I promised not to take pics of your sister. And I didn't. And that was six years ago!"
"The only reason you didn't get pics of Mallory was because the cinderblock walls were too thick for you to get your signal."
"I wasn't trying to get video of Mal naked! Honest!"
"You were totally crushing on her in middle school! Who else would you be trying to get naked pics of?"
"Every other female athlete and cheerleader! Duh! I was twelve! I wasn't exactly getting picky!"
Robert stepped between the pair. "Guys! Let's not fight about what happened six years ago." Cory and Eli glanced up at Rob. They seemed surprised to see him there in the midst of their age old argument. "Whether or not Cory was a letch as a teenager isn't important. What's important is how we use this camera." Robert smirked and faced Cory. "Tell me, you sure this camera still works?"
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