Magical Girl Policy- Chapter 13

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Mallory shoved her hands into her pockets as they passed the fountain in the middle of the food court. She didn't like it. This Robert guy shows up, Eli and Cory end up at a monster attack at Eli's work. Robert is supposed to be alone with the Spirit Guard to explain his glowing, Eli and Cory end up watching from the shadows. Now, Robert goes to get a comic, there could be a monster in the mall, and, of course, Eli and Cory are accompanying him. "Something feels off about Robert."

Angela stopped scanning the mall and glanced up at Mallory. "What? He seemed like his usual self. Frankly, I was encouraged by his willingness to help us."

"It's not that," Mallory sighed. Maybe she was just being paranoid. "I just, I don't know, he always seems to find himself in trouble, and for some reason, my brother and his idiot friend always seem to be there with him."

Angela raised an eyebrow. "Are you saying he's leading your brother and his friend into danger intentionally?"

"No, I'm not saying that." However, Mallory knew that, basically, that was kind of what she was saying. She was blaming Robert for her brother being in danger. Blaming Robert only made sense if he was doing that on purpose, and he clearly wouldn't do that. Robert was, in the end, a Spirit Guard after all. Spirit Guards wouldn't endanger anyone on purpose.

"Then what are you saying?" Angela asked.

"I guess... I don't know," Mallory admitted. "I just don't like that Eli and Cory have been near so much danger. I know Robert's not trying to... but I feel like he's endangering them just by being with them. It's kinda like he's somehow attracting it. Like a... danger magnet or something."

Angela nodded, a hint of a grin at the corner of her lips. "You have a point. For someone who doesn't want to deal with all our issues, he sure does seem to have a knack for finding himself in the middle of things. I feel as though this could be Fate's way of trying to nudge Robert in our direction, maybe."

Mallory didn't like to think about "Fate" all that much. While, yes, Mallory had been given magic powers based upon some past life reincarnation stuff, she didn't enjoy the concept that some super being from the beyond was guiding her life.

When Mallory first became Spirit Guard Tenacity, Angela was bursting with enthusiasm about their destiny. It made Angela feel important that someone so powerful was taking an active role in her life. To Mallory though, it made her feel smaller. Like she was just a pawn in some bigger game.

For that reason, Mallory could completely identify with Robert's decision to not join the Spirit Guard. She couldn't begin to imagine how insanely weird all this talk must be to him. It was strange enough for her to find out she had been a Soldier of the Empathic Empire millennia before her time and would be defending the Earth from Platicore in a cheer uniform. Robert was finding out he was a Shrine Maiden of a now dead religion and needed to drop his entire life in order to do battle armed with feelings and pompoms. How could someone be expected to even begin to wrap their heads around that, let alone accept that as their destiny?

It was stuff like this that really made Mallory second guess the things Kunapipi had said about Fate being so "wise" and "far-seeing." If she was so donuted smart, why did she go with a plan that reincarnated a girl into a boy and then require him transform back into a girl. It was so convoluted, so unfair to Robert, and, in her eyes, more than a little silly.

Then again, if their dreams of their past life were to be believed, and Mallory had no reason to disbelieve them since all four girls' dreams had matched up so far, then it was the Shrine Maiden who had been in charge of this whole reincarnation thing to begin with. So, it was technically Robert's own fault that this situation was so awkward since it was his past self that mucked it up in the first place. As if the issue couldn't get any stranger. Maybe it wasn't Fate's fault after all.

Angela spun around broke Mallory out of her reverie. "Did you feel that?"

Mallory turned in the direction Angela faced and felt the same hum they had been chasing for the past hour. Donut. Why did she always feel this stuff after Angela, Vivian, and Kara. Honey, Robert seemed to have a keener feel for it than she did, and he hadn't even transformed at all. "Yeah. I feel it."

A pit settled in Mallory's stomach. That was in the direction Eli and Cory had gone. And they were with Robert the Danger Magnet. As if to justify the bad vibe, a shock of electricity shot down Mallory's spine: the sure sign that always accompanied someone being drained by one of Platicore's monsters.

The pit in her stomach sunk deeper as the shock was followed by a scent of a flower in the same location. The vague aroma of a flower was the same feeling that radiated off of Robert when he glowed at the arcade. Robert was at ground zero, and those two dweebs would, of course, be right next to him.

"Couldn't even stay out of danger for fifteen minutes? Seriously? We have to move now, Ang," Mallory insisted.

"Indeed," Angela agreed as looked around for somewhere to transform.

Elijah was in danger. They didn't have time to be picky about where they transformed. Anything with even a little privacy would have to do. Mallory made a beeline for the bathrooms.

Angela hurried after her. "You sure? What if people are in there?"

"It's my brother, Ang," Mallory snapped. "I have to take that chance." She ran past the men's and handicapped bathrooms and was about to dash into the woman's' when she felt someone grip her wrist and yank her backwards. "Ack!"

Mallory spun around and glared at Angela. "What was that for? We have to hurry!"

Angela ducked into the handicapped bathroom and waved Mallory to follow her. "This door will have a lock and is less likely to be occupied. Hurry!"

Mallory berated herself as she ducked into the handicapped bathroom and locked the door behind her. Why didn't she think of that? She had such terrible tunnel vision when she stressed out. This was clearly the faster and safer choice. Thank Fate that Angela was able to keep a clearer head.

Angela reached into her oversized purse and pulled out both her and Mallory's Spirit Sticks. Mallory was grateful that Angela always carried around something big enough to hold a Spirit Stick. Mallory didn't like reaching into things like garbage cans to find hers.

Angela tossed Mallory her red-hued Spirit Stick. Mallory deftly snatched it out of the air and swung it over her head. Mallory gripped both ends of the stick, she yanked it apart in synch with Angela. The small bathroom was bathed in a burst of violet and red light.

"Foundation of Valor, Spirit Guard Power Up!"

"Charge of Tenacity, Spirit Guard Power Up!"

* - * - *

Robert had to keep Day LaMode and her army of mannequins out of the Current Subject storefront. If they got inside, quarters would be cramped, and the odds of the Spirit Guard being able to get the boys out wouldn't be very good. But Robert also needed to buy the Spirit Guard time to arrive.

With the blue symbol of Serenity glowing on his head, Robert stepped towards Day LaMode. He had to delay her. So, though he was loathe to admit it, he decided to dip into the bag of tricks used by damsels-in-distress since the dawn of comic books and movies. He was going to try to distract the villain with a conversation that let the villain gloat and feel superior.

"All right, you have us cornered. What do you want with us?" Robert asked.

Day LaMode raised her left eyebrow slightly and grinned. Well, she tried to grin. Robert's skin crawled as this thing attempted to mimic human emotions with it's plastic face. Polygal had been unsettling with it's strange biology that involved arcade game components seamlessly integrated into its body, but it hadn't ever looked human enough to Robert to truly freak him out. It had blue skin for crying out loud.This mannequin woman, on the other hand, was just human-looking enough to give Robert a major case of the willies.

"Us? Us, glowy boy? No no no, glowy boy. Just jou. Zee othzer two are of no eenterest to Day LaMode. Jou, on zee othzer hand, somehow eegnored Day LaMode's attempts to take jour Investeeture. Lord Plateecore will be so pleased wiz Day LaMode when Day LaMode brings jou back to heem for study."

"Dear God," Cory exclaimed behind Robert. "The words are I, me, and my! This Platicore dude obviously programmed you with second and third person pronouns because I've heard you use them! Why in the blinking blue blazes do you obsessively use your own name instead of pronouns?"

Eli pleaded for silence, "Cory, I will buy you so many booster packs to stop talking right now."

"I'm legitimately curious," Cory explained. Robert glanced backwards, careful to not lose sight of the mannequins. There was a mischievous glimmer in Cory's eyes. He couldn't be sure, but Robert had a feeling that Cory understood what it was that Robert was trying to do. "I mean, if Platicore is making these monsters, why would he give them verbal tics? That can't be on purpose because this is as annoying as hell. It has to bug him too."

Robert nodded. "Yeah. Uh, I mean, Polygal also made all those video game puns too. Is Platicore contractually obligated to put a verbal tic in all you monsters." Day LaMode squinted her eyes and almost frowned. What was that emotion she was trying to convey? Confusion at what they were talking about? Anger at what Cory said? Disgust at them sullying Polygal's name? It was so hard to read that face.

Day LaMode's voice dripped with scorn. "Monzterz? Day LaMode iz zee only soldier zat Lord Platicore haz."

Robert paused to consider her words. Could Day LaMode be be implying what he thought she was? "You mean that he has currently. Because the Spirit Guard killed another one of you on Tuesday. A video game one. At an arcade. She called herself Polygal."

Day LaMode's plastic face scrunched further. "What are jou talkeen about? Day LaMode iz zee only one zat zat zee master has created."

Robert smirked. So Platicore let his minions think they were the only ones. This was interesting. Did the Spirit Guard know this? It made sense though. Each monster had failed. If the monsters knew that they were the next in a long line of failures, they might hesitate to fight the undefeated Spirit Guard.

Now was not the time for theorycrafting. He had to delay the monster further. It seemed the best plan was no longer to get the monster to gloat, but to attack it's ego directly. "Well, unless there is someone other than Lord Platicore making monsters in Kessia City, then you're wrong."

The monster contorted it's face into a full scowl. "Day LaMode iz not wrong, glowy boy."

Cory chuckled. "Day LaMode is wrong. We were there. We saw it."

Eli's fists shook with nervous anticipation. "Stop doing that!"

Robert shot Cory a look that told him to back off. While Robert was now basically taking Cory's idea of antagonizing the monster, Robert didn't want the monster to go after Cory. If someone was going to get attacked, it should be him. "He speaks the truth, Ms. LaMode." Robert stepped forward, the mannequin woman's hateful eyes moving away from Cory. "And Polygal isn't the only other one either. There have been well over a dozen fellow... constructs such as yourself created by Platicore for the purpose of wiping out the Spirit Guard."

"Stop wiz jour lies," LaMode demanded. The monster stepped within arm's reach of Robert. He swallowed hard and tried to estimate how far away the "smells" of the Spirit Guards' transformations had been. With their heightened speed he would have thought they should be here by now. Maybe they had gone to where Day LaMode drained the girls instead of their current location? That wasn't that far away, they would have noticed the walking mannequins. Whatever the holdup was, Robert would send them a signal to make sure they arrived.

Robert focused on the symbol of Serenity shining on his forehead. He attempted to make it "burn" brighter. He wasn't sure if he could do that, but he could swear that as he focused, his vision became slightly obscured by blue light. "It's not a lie. The Spirit Guard have been active for over a year now. They have been taking down Platicore's constructs one by one."

LaMode snarled and Robert thought he could sense something triggering his extra sense nearby. He wasn't sure what it was, but he had to keep all eyes on him, so he kept talking. "All you are, Ms. LaMode, is just another in stream of constructs that have been defeated. The Spirit Guard will come, they will use their weapons to separate your consciousness from your mannequin body, and you will die a screaming, shattering crystal."

"No," Day LaMode protested.

"Yes," Robert insisted. "You're just corpse number nineteen waiting to happen." Robert wasn't sure exactly how many monsters the Spirit Guard had actually defeated, but nineteen sounded about right. At the very least, judging from Day LaMode's barely restrained rage, it was having the effect he desired.

Day LaMode screamed and picked up Robert by his biceps. She lifted him off the ground as if he weighed no more than a pillow. She yelled in his face, "Day LaMode will not be corpse numbar nineteen! Day LaMode iz ze peeneecle of ze Master's work! Jou will explain what jou are to Day LaMode, glowy boy! Zen, after Day LaMode haz brought jou to ze Master, Day LaMode will..."

A shock of determination tickled Robert's extra sense. It was close: across the walkway, up a floor, somewhere to his left. That was Tenacity; he could feel it. Robert knew he shouldn't look, but instinct got the better of him, and his eyes flickered in that direction.

Spirit Guard Tenacity, her brown hair flapping behind her, shot off the second floor like a bullet from a gun. Her comically oversized sword sizzled with red lightning. Her face was a mask of implacable, righteous fury. Big sister had come to protect little brother.

The head of the mannequin at the back of the pack spun around. Was it the only one that had noticed Robert glance away? Without seeing Tenacity's oncoming attack, the army of mannequins jumped into action. A couple leapt at Tenacity without even turning their heads to look at her. The others hopped between Day LaMode and Tenacity, then braced for impact.

"...crush ze Spireet Guard and zen ze Master will 'ave no need for..." Day LaMode stammered on, unaware of Tenacity's presence. She hadn't notice Robert glancing away. More importantly, she didn't sightlessly react to Tenacity's presence like the other mannequins had. What did that mean?

"Intrepid Blade!" That snapped Day LaMode out of her monologue and her head swiveled around just as Tenacity cut through the mannequins that leapt at her. The monster's eyes went wide as Tenacity slammed into the ground. The Spirit Guard's momentum caused her to skid across the tiles. She cut through the first line of defensive mannequins. Day LaMode let go of Robert and tried to pivot away from the oncoming attack, but before Robert had even hit the ground, Tenacity's swing had cut through the entire mass of mannequins blocking her way to Day LaMode. Her blade had sliced into Day LaMode's right shoulder by the time Robert landed.

Day LaMode grimaced and yelled, "Follow ze Trend!"

In a blink of an eye, Day LaMode was replaced by the original mannequin that had drained those girls in front of the store front. Another hum scratched at Robert's extra sense somewhere above him and to the right. Tenacity's blade crashed into the lifeless mannequin and it shattered to pieces.

Behind Tenacity, the trail of defeated Day LaMode clones were consumed by red lightning and burned to ash. Tenacity came to a stop and spun around to look directly at Eli and Cory. Her eyes had a spark of anger to them that put the lightning dancing across her blade to shame. "What the honey are you all still doing here? Run, you idiots!"

Cory didn't hesitate to dash out of the storefront. "For the record, not my fault!"

"Totally your fault," Eli insisted as he staggered out of the store. "As soon as we got cornered you started antagonizing the monster. Again!"

The sound of glass shattering echoed down the hallway. More mannequin soldiers. Robert needed to make sure he relayed what little intel he had. "Tenacity, I think the other mannequins share sight or have some sort of telepathic communication thing going."

Tenacity threw her free hand in the air. It seemed to Robert that tactics weren't on her mind at the moment. "Get out of here! Now!"

Robert turned to run, but Day LaMode dropped right in front of him, trapping him in the store once more. "Jou are not going anywhere, glowy boy! Day LaMode's fashionistas will kill ze Spireet Guard and you..." Her second monologue was cut short as one of her mannequin soldiers slammed into her and sent them both skidding across the floor.

Spirit Guard Valor landed beside Robert with her shield in her left hand and Eli and Cory being carried like sacks of potatoes under her right arm.

"This is so undignified," Cory whined.

Valor dropped her shield, which faded from existence. "Robert, I'm sorry for this." She then grabbed Robert around the waist and bounded for the second floor. Robert saw three mannequin soldiers rushing Valor from the left. There had to be about a dozen more following them.

Valor unceremoniously dropped the boys on the floor, and pompoms formed in her hands. With a clap, she was rearmed with her sword and shield. She faced down the second wave of enemies and commanded the boys, "Head to the food court! No mannequins there! Hurry!" With that, she jumped back into the fray.

Cory rubbed his neck. "Ugh! I think she gave me whiplash."

Eli shoved Cory off of him and stood up. "You heard the woman! Let's get to the food court!"

Robert paused a moment and surveyed the battlefield. Day LaMode was trying to slip past Tenacity, but the Eli's sister kept getting in Day LaMode's way and cutting off her advance towards the boys. Valor stood in the middle of a group of mannequins as she tried to keep them at bay with her sword and shield.

The mannequins didn't move as individuals, but as if they were all part of the same organism. One would sacrifice itself to Valor's sword to open up a blind spot. Another would slam itself into Valor's shield to stop her momentum while another kicked her in the shin. This was nothing like the Polygal fight.

"Generous Barrage!" Four arrows streaked across the hallway opposite the boys, and each one struck a mannequin that was assaulting Valor. Robert followed the trail and found Spirit Guard Charity standing on the railing of a walkway with her bow drawn back to release more arrows. Despite the urgent need to escape, Robert couldn't help but wonder how she balanced on the railing so effortlessly in heels.

Before she could even release the other arrows, more mannequins crashed out of their displays. She turned left and shot down two mannequins. That left her back exposed though, and three more tackled her off the railing, sending them her crashing to the floor below.

Spirit Guard Felicity burst onto the scene. "Inferno of Happi..." Pink flames danced at the ends of her staff, begging to be released as if they were children waiting for a school day to end.

Felicity pulled the flames back in. Felicity dropped down and kicked away a mannequin as she attempted to extricate Charity from the bottom of the pile.

A voice in Robert's head screamed at him to move his legs, but as the chaos unfolded before him, he found himself unable to move. The Stick buzzed at his extra sense. Eli shoved Robert in the shoulder and brought him out of his trance. "Robert! C'mon! We gotta move!"

Robert shook his head and willed himself to follow Eli and Cory. The Spirit Guard were super heroes. They had mystical powers from an ancient civilization. It was as he had said to Day LaMode: they had never lost. She would just be another corpse.

Yet Angela's words from that night at the Standridge Circle lurked in the back of his mind. The Spirit Guard always received their next member when they needed them. And at that moment, the girls didn't exactly look like they were winning.

More glass shattered. More copies of Day LaMode jumped into action. Robert crouched, ready to dodge. Instead, the mannequins completely ignored the boys and went straight into the fight. Could Day LaMode only set them to one task?

As he sprinted towards the food court, Robert felt a hum in the far distance. Then another hum in a hallway to his right. Then another hum a floor down and in the hallway behind them. The hums came one right after another like blips on a radar all over the mall. The hums he felt before had coincided with Day LaMode jumping from one mannequin to another. Why was she suddenly jumping around so much? Was she trying to escape her fight with Eli's sister?

No. She wouldn't need to jump so many times to escape. She had already proven she could project herself to a mannequin across the mall. She'd only need one jump to do that. The only other reason Robert could think of was she might be looking for something.

Or someone.

A hum buzzed directly to Robert's right. Acting on instinct alone, he dove to the ground and tackled Eli and Cory. Glass sprayed over them as something jumped right over them. It crashed through the railing and fell to the floor below.

"The hell is it this time?" Eli shouted.

Robert got off his friends and stood up, dusting the spray of glass off of himself. Though he was pretty sure he knew what he'd find, he looked over the now broken railing anyway. Sure enough, Day LaMode was picking herself up off the ground. "Oh hell." He had just barely avoided being speared by her. He had a feeling he wasn't going to get far.

Eli helped Cory off the ground and the pair booked it. Eli glanced down and saw Day LaMode and groaned. "Not her again."

The trio tried to run, but before they could even take three steps, the mannequin monster landed in front of them. Robert noticed a "scar" on her right shoulder where Tenacity had struck her with her blade. But that didn't make sense. Day LaMode had moved into at least two different bodies since then. Did her form somehow retain damage?

"Glowy boy. Jou 'ave been a terrible pain in Day LaMode's ass."

Cory and Eli stepped away from her. Robert stood his ground. "Gee. Really sorry about inconveniencing you."

Day LaMode smirked. "Now zat Day LaMode's seesters 'ave your precious Spireet Guard contained, glowy boy, jou shall be comeen wiz Day LaMode to meet Lord Plateecore."

Robert had to hope that Day LaMode was wrong about being able to contain the Spirit Guard and that they'd be able to follow the hums of Day LaMode's rapid fire projections to this location. Without their help, the boys were trapped like rats. So, it was time to go back to stalling. "That's a real neat trick you got there. Projecting yourself into various mannequins. That work just here or could you do that anywhere?"

"Ze mall is Day LaMode's domain." The monster reached for Robert as if that explained everything he needed to know. He had to continue the conversation. Guess he'd resort to picking at a scab.

"If the mall is your domain, then how would you know there are no other monsters? You've never left here. This is all you know."

Day LaMode hesitated. "Ze Master said Day LaMode iz ze only one."

"And that's it? Platicore says something and there is no way he'd ever lie? He's the god damned villain crusading against Fate herself. You think there is no way he'd ever lie to you?"

Day LaMode grit her teeth. "Ze Master makes ze only sane choice. To fight zose who would seek to control his destiny."

"And who controls your destiny, dummy?" Robert smirked. "It sure as hell ain't you. Face it, you're a toy soldier. You are expendable. You are as expendable to him as your little mannequin minions are expendable to you."

Just as she had before, she grabbed Rob by his shoulders and held him above her. "Jou take zat back, glowy boy!"

Another spark of determination tickled Roberts extra sense: one floor lower and a bit behind him. "You know, I really don't think I will."

"Determined Arc!" Lighting cut through the floor below Robert, narrowly avoiding his feet. It sliced through Day LaMode's arms and curved towards her face. The monster staggered backwards and barely escaped but lost its nose in the process.

The cut floor groaned, and Cory and Eli jerked Robert back before it could give way and drop him down a story. Despite the cut, the walkway remained steady.

Tenacity, battered and bruised, didn't give Day LaMode a chance to recover. She was above the monster before it could stand. Her sword crackled like a thundercloud.

"Follow ze Trend!" Day LaMode shouted as Tenacity buried her sword into the chest of a lifeless mannequin. The resulting hum of Day LaMode's escape from another doomed body sounded from the storefront across the gap across second story walkway.

Day LaMode punched through the glass and glared at Tenacity. The monster's nose had scar that completely encircled it. "Jou beetch. What 'ave jou done to Day LaMode's beautiful face?"

Tenacity said nothing as she pulled her giant sword free from the floor as easily as pulling a weed. She stepped in front of Eli and raised her blade above her. "Just find a way out of here, guys. I've got this."

"Sparky girl! Jou really want Day LaMode's attention, don't jou? Day LaMode wuz content to let jou fight through an army of Day LaMode's fashionistas. But jou could not leave well enough alone. Fine. Day LaMode will geev you all ze attention jou deserve, sparky girl. Jou can have glowy boy. All Day LaMode wants now iz jour head!"

The monster bounded across the gap. Tenacity swung the blade directly in Day LaMode's path, but the mannequin was somehow able to twist her body and kick off the flat of the blade. LaMode jumped straight towards the ceiling and flipped over. The monster "landed" on the ceiling feet first. Tenacity was still trying to regain her balance when LaMode rocketed downward like a comet. She crashed into Tenacity and the floor collapsed beneath them.

* - * - *

Tenacity a rib crack. When she fought this mannequin earlier, it hadn't moved this fast. If only she had been a fraction of a second quicker earlier. She would have gotten the monster's head instead of just its nose.

She could feel Day LaMode standing on top of her. It was probably just as dazed from the crash as Tenacity was. She couldn't see a thing in the dust cloud of wreckage. If she could just get free, maybe she could...

Three swift jabs to her gut made it clear to Tenacity that the monster was not dazed. Where was her sword? No time. Tenacity caught a fourth punch with her hands and kicked Day LaMode in the chest. She tried to hold the monster's wrist firm and hoped she could separate Day LaMode from her arm. Despite her hopes though, Tenacity lost her grip and Day LaMode flew out of the cloud.

Tenacity felt around the wreckage and finally felt the familiar hilt of her sword. She pushed herself to her feet and lifted it off the ground. It felt heavier than normal. Each breath came with a stab of pain. This was bad. Eli and Cory better have started running.

Tenacity blundered her way out of the dust and saw Day LaMode snapping her mannequin arm back into place. At least she had done that much. The monster did not smile. She just held her plastic face in something that resembled a snarl. "Day LaMode will not be corpse number nineteen. Jou will be corpse number nineteen!" What the honey was she she blabbering about? She suspected Cory or Robert knew the answer to that.

Day LaMode charged forward. Tenacity moved to block with her sword, but her cracked ribs sent a stab of pain across her entire chest. Tenacity flinched and the monster punched her square in the jaw. Her entire body lurched to the side, but before she could hit the ground, she was yanked back towards LaMode by her hair. She gasped as a knee buried itself in her side.

Tenacity's sword was too slow. She couldn't swing it like normal in her injured state. This monster was faster than anything she had ever fought. She dismissed her blade and two pompoms formed in her fists. Day LaMode hesitated. An opening. Tenacity jabbed Day LaMode in her left armpit. That dislodged the monster's arm just enough to allow Tenacity to rip her hair free from the mannequin's surprisingly strong grip.

Day LaMode popped the arm back in place and smiled a terrible smile. "What iz ze matter, sparky girl? Can't ztand ze spotlight?"

"Screw you." Were Cory and Eli running like they should? She swore to herself that if they weren't, she'd kill them herself.

"Zuit jourself." Day LaMode charged again. With her hands gripping her pompoms, Tenacity would be unable to do any grappling. She was limited to blocking with her forearms and punching. But she needed the pompoms in hand to summon her blade. Without her blade she wouldn't be able to land a finishing blow on this thing. She'd have to hope that she could create an opening, summon the blade, and end the fight with a...

Day LaMode didn't come at her in a straight line. It instead traced a curved path to Tenacity. She tried to twist her body into the path of the attack. but her ribs screamed in pain. She once again flinched. That's when she felt her rib fully snap as LaMode punched her right in the chest.

She thought breathing had been painful before this. Now, each breath brought not only a horrible, biting pain, but a lack of air. Her lung was punctured. Where were her pompoms. Had she dropped them with the punch? Two open palms crashed into her ears. Her vision blurred and she fell backwards.

She felt a hand wrap around her ankle. What was happening? Was she spinning? No. She was flying. Dear God she hoped Eli had escaped.

* - * - *

Robert was supposed to run. They were all supposed to run. That was what Tenacity had told them all to do. But he couldn't make his feet move. He could only watch as Day LaMode grabbed Tenacity by the ankle, spun around twice, and threw her across the mall. Robert winced as he Tenacity crashed into the food court, sending a spray of table and chairs into the air.

Day LaMode chased after her prey, leaving the boys alone for the first time since she appeared. "Mallory," Eli whispered.

"What do we do?" Cory asked.

"I... I don't..." Eli rushed forward as if he had forgotten about the collapsed walkway in front of them. Luckily, Robert reacted quickly enough, grabbed Eli by the shoulder and yanked him back.

"I gotta help her!" Eli protested as he thrashed against Robert's grip.

Robert pinned him to the wall. "Help her how, Eli? That thing she's fighting is not human! We can't do a damned thing to it!"

"She's my sister!" Tears began streaming down Eli's face. "I have to do something!" Robert's friend choked back as he tried to stop himself from bawling. "I can't... I can't watch her die, Rob."

Die. The word hit Robert like a linebacker. Spirit Guard Tenacity was about to die. Eli's sister was about to die. Somewhere along the way, Robert had convinced himself the Spirit Guard would win the day. Bruised, yes. But not beaten. They were heroes after all.

But this wasn't a comic book. Justice didn't just prevail in the real world. The real world was messy, cruel, and unfair. Villains could win here. Heroes could die here.

Behind him, he could hear Cory choking back his own tears. "Why are we so useless?"

Robert stared into the turmoil of Eli's sobbing eyes. They were eyes that begged Robert to let go. To let Eli chase after Mallory. To let him do something. To try.

But Cory was right. They were useless. They were just regular guys in a world of malevolent arcade games, super cheerleaders, and living mannequins. That was why they couldn't do anything. They were just normal.

"But that's not true," Robert could almost hear his Uncle say in his mind. Eli and Cory were just normal. Robert wasn't.

Robert let go of Eli and ran into the nearest storefront he could find without a mannequin. He didn't think Day LaMode could see through the eyes of her mannequins, but he didn't want to chance it.

"Rob?" Cory hurried after him. "Rob where are you going?"

Robert found a shoe store that they had passed and ducked into it. "Hello? Anyone in here?" No one answered. Good. It was empty. Last thing he needed was there to be some person hiding in here.

Eli and Cory followed Robert into the store. Robert's sudden sprint seemed to have broken Eli from his suicidal drive to fight against a supernatural being. "Rob," Eli said, still fighting through his tears, "what are you doing?"

Robert focused on his extra sense and found the annoying buzzing that had been bugging him for days. He tossed aside several boxes of high heels off their shelf and pulled his Spirit Stick from behind them.

Cory's eyes went wide. "Woah. Rob. Don't... you know... l-let's think about this."

Robert shook his head. "I've spent far too much time thinking. It's time to act."

Eli wiped his tears away. "Rob. I'm not asking you to do this. I just..."

Robert nodded his head. "I know you aren't, Eli." Robert could feel tears welling up in his eyse now. He turned away. "But your sister is gonna die. None of us can do anything to stop it... except me. I'm the only one who can do anything."

"My uncle always told me that a man's gotta make the decisions that allow him to look himself in the eye when he looks in a mirror. If I let your sister die, Eli, knowing I could have done something about it... I'd never be able to live with myself."

Robert stared down at that stick. It buzzed at him as though it was demanding him to release its power.

"But Rob... you'll never be able to go back." Robert could hear the conflict in Eli's voice.

"We play with the hand we're dealt, Eli." Robert, Eli, and Cory said nothing for a few moments. They let the generic pop music the shoe store played fill their silence.

Robert swallowed down a lump in his throat the size of a baseball. "Your sister told you to get out of here. Plus, I kind of want to be alone for this. You guys should find another way out of here. The mannequins are busy with the other Spirit Guards and that monster..." Robert squeezed down hard on the Stick. "Well, she's goiing to have to deal with me."

Despite his words, Robert didn't hear Eli or Cory move an inch. "Guys. Please. Go."

More silence.

Cory cleared his throat. "Rob... give her hell." Cory took a few quick steps before stopping. Eli hadn't moved.

Robert finally turned around. Eli's eyes gushed like a waterfall. There was a sea of emotions in those eyes: regret, gratitude, anger, shame, love... he could see Eli searching for words that would somehow convey them all.

Robert didn't have the time to wait for Eli to find the words. "It's my choice." They were the only words Robert could think to say. Eli looked at the floor and simply nodded. His friend then turned around and faced the exit.

Cory waited for Eli, who stopped at the exit. "Rob," Eli whispered so quietly Robert almost couldn't hear it, "thank you."

Robert watched his two best friends sprint off. How had they become his best friends so quickly? He couldn't make sense of it. But nothing made sense anymore. Robert pushed aside his emotions and tried to focus. Eli's sister was about to die. He stared at the Spirit Stick and searched for the words he needed to unlock its power. The words he needed to become a hero.

But Robert needed to be serene for that to work. He was anything but serene at the moment. He was a whirlpool of emotion. His mind was clouded. This wasn't serenity. Serenity was staying calm amidst the chaos. It was the eye of the storm.

He had to find something to focus on. So he focused on his anger.

He cursed Fate for forcing his hand. He cursed his Uncle for raising him right. He cursed Angela for saying all the things that let him know, in his heart, that this was the only way. He cursed the Spirit Guard for being unable to find Day LaMode before she found him. He cursed Tenacity for losing to a mannequin. He cursed himself for setting foot in that damn arcade.

But that had been his choice. He had felt terrible things. He had known something was wrong the moment he felt an icy chill in his bones. And yet, instead of walking away from the danger, he went towards it. That had been his choice.

No one had forced him to do anything. Talking wallabies, Spirit Guards, monsters, nor Fate herself could ever force him to do a thing. He wasn't some powerless victim. Sure, circumstance conspired against him, but he was the one grabbing this stick. He was the one who was sacrificing to save the day. But he wasn't sacrificing himself. No matter what, he wouldn't sacrifice who he was. He'd always make the decisions because they were his to make and no one else's.

The words came to him. They were like a song he had heard long ago but never forgotten. Robert held his Spirit Stick above his head. He pulled at both ends. The stick burst with a sky blue light that flooded the shoe store.

"Fountain of Serenity, Spirit Guard Power Up!"


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