“Master, must you really get up so promptly? I prepared numerous methods of waking you should you fall back asleep and don’t want them to go to waste.” complained Mila. When I went to bed last night, I had asked Mila to make sure I didn’t oversleep no matter how tired I seemed. I never considered she would go beyond making loud noises at me. “Sorry, Mila. I do appreciate your efforts, but they really are unnecessary at this point.” I told her. No one could have slept through the rush of cold air I felt, sirens and gunfire I heard, and flashing lights I saw. I literally dove out of bed in fear for my life first thing this morning. When I asked her what that was, she calmly explained clear through my shower what all inspired her to wake me in such a manner. An A.I. with tremendous processing power, internet access, and an abundance of time was capable of doing a vast amount of research. Throwing Mila’s quirky personality into the mix, I was forced to cut off the stream of horror movie references far before she was finished explaining her inspiration. “Sorry, Mila. I don’t want to be late for my date. Do I look alright?” I asked. “Oh, master… If I had a body, I’d…” she started. I cut her off quickly, asking her to bring the car around.
There was a chance that Mila was about to say something humorous, not suggestive, but those words coming out of the Alma-like avatar sent my mind down the wrong track all too quickly. I wasn’t entirely certain why I let Mila turn her avatar on again. She seemed to miss it was the best explanation I had, but I didn’t really feel I could handle it, at least not when she talked in such a way that I felt hot in a few words. On the way to meet my date at the mall, I attempted to engage Mila in safer conversation, asking how the Institute of Autodidacticism’s training was going for Brandon, Brenna, and Jarod. I really needed to step up my game if I wasn’t going to be the last one to get a degree through the program. “Please, take over driving, and don’t randomly be showing me pictures of Brenna in a bikini without reason,” I said after swerving a bit out of my lane. “But master, employee records should have pictures included.” pouted Mila. I started explaining that having such a picture as part of Brenna’s company profile would look bad, but Mila then informed me that the picture was from a recent photo shoot Brenna did when she was hired as a model through Best Friend For Hire.
I was tempted to complain to Aaliyah about adding things like that to our repertoire without informing me, but I noticed Brenna’s salary was good and none of the pictures were indecent in any way. I started perusing through job records to see what else everyone was doing. Most of the jobs were fairly run-of-the-mill, helping countless people who didn’t have any other friend available when they were in need. Some were far more surprising. In the past week, Jarod started doing consulting work for a couple different car companies. Asking Mila about how we were contacted by them, she explained that Jarod’s electric engine design incited a bidding war for who would have rights for its use. The bidding war sparked global interest in his design, which earned Jarod a considerable number of contacts. I was surprised he never mentioned this to me, but maybe he was waiting for the right time. Things were rather tense lately between the fear of Alma burning us to death and the realization that she was just manipulating us. Alma. She was the most infuriating girl I ever met, and I was currently stuck with her residing in part of my home. I was somewhat tempted to look into throwing her out, but I was probably safer not trying it. Besides, I was more capable of keeping my eye on her with her nearby.
After verifying with Mila that Alma had not set foot in the central section of my home, I transformed her dashboard back to its classic look and walked toward the mall. Much to my surprise, my date, Phèdre Rivera, was waiting outside the door instead of in the food court as she had stated in the email. As I approached, I noticed all too well how lovely the girl looked in a black dress with lace sleeves and trim. Her wavy, dark brown hair hung past her shoulders, and a silver crucifix drew my eyes somewhere I didn’t want to be staring, even with the dress covering her. “You’re late.” she told me. “Actually, I believe I’m still at least five minutes early.” I replied. She smiled and grabbed my arm as she leaned against me and started pulling me forward, into the mall. “Haven’t you been told that if your date beats you to your destination, you’re late? You should live by that.” she claimed. “Does that mean you arrived extra early to try making me late?” I asked. Laughing softly, she said, “Maybe, but that doesn’t mean you’re not late.” I stopped walking, which brought her to a stop as well. “Hold on. What if I would have came through a different entrance?” I asked. She smiled and said, “Then you would have been on time, since I would have been making you wait.”
I considered arguing that we would both be late, since neither of us had made it to the meeting spot yet, but I decided against it. This girl was weird. Thinking of the others I knew, perhaps they all were. Maybe, if I was generous, I might concede that every person was quirky in their own way, but I currently preferred the idea that girls were the weird ones. Jarod never really cared if I was late for anything. We could hang out, have fun, and enjoy the memories later. Girls complicated everything with romance and their feminine attractiveness. The way this girl was holding my arm against her chest was not helping me relax at all. “Phèdre! How are you?” asked a girl who came at us from a nearby store. “I’m doing wonderful as you can see. How are you?” she replied. Though the new girl whose name I didn’t catch was obviously looking at me occasionally, neither girl really invited me to the conversation, leaving me standing stupidly for several minutes with Phèdre still clinging to my arm. When the other girl left, Phèdre pulled me along and told me “Sorry about that. Renée will be my roommate when college starts. I remembered reading on her profile that she was studying to be a pharmacist, so I asked her how rough the chemistry courses were.
Phèdre then said, “Oh! I forgot to tell you in my email that I haven’t actually started yet. I put in my profile that I was a sophomore, so college guys wouldn’t think I was too young. I’m also not nineteen. I graduated early, and won’t be eighteen for a couple months still.” Huh. Did that actually work? “Wouldn’t being honest from the start be better for a relationship?” I asked. “Not really. It’s not like I’m looking for anything long term. I just want to have some fun, ya know?” she declared somewhat nonchalantly. I was fairly certain that her profile had claimed she was only interested in long-term commitment. Aaliyah expressed my intentions beautifully, clearly stating that I wasn’t opposed to long-term commitment but was only looking to start with a friend. “I guess I can’t say too much. I didn’t even write my profile.” I confessed. “Who did?” she asked, pulling me to a stop again. “My…” I started, and then wondered if I should admit to having a secretary. Who would believe that someone my age did? Even less people were likely to believe in Mila without me taking them to the car and showing them. I ended up lamely saying, “friends,” instead of admitting the whole truth. “Were these friends girls?” she asked, looking into a store we passed. “Yes.” I told her.
“Oh, so are you one of those types that mainly hangs out with girls?” she inquired. Uncertain of the right thing to say, I told her “No, not really. Well, I suppose I have since graduation, but I did do stuff with my track team regularly before that. There are a couple guys with whom I still hang out often.” Instead of responding, she pulled me into a jewelry store and said, “I love this place! My earrings are from here.” She pulled back her hair to reveal a diamond stud in her ear. “Lovely.” I told her, not knowing what else to say. “They’re princess cut. A lot of girls prefer the round brilliant cut, but I just don’t see it. There’s less diamond there. Might as well get as much sparkle as possible!” she enthusiastically asserted. I was at a bit of a loss. Mother made me look at jewelry before, trying to explain the different types Regina liked, but I never had much interest in looking at it, probably because I didn’t want to be buying Regina jewelry. This was the type of place for committed couples to… “Are you hungry? I’m feeling famished, since I skipped breakfast.” I told her, suddenly feeling a need to be elsewhere. “We can get something in a bit. I want you to look at this ring I found. It looks perfect on me,” she said, sliding a ring onto her finger the moment the assistant handed it to her.
I replied “I really think we should be going. I, unfortunately, don’t have terribly long for our date today.” Just a few hours left to kill before the fight with the demons in Ancient Trials of earth. Then I added “Let’s have a nice dinner and get to know one another better.” I was shocked to see a tear go down her face. “Don’t you care about me at all? You’re probably sleeping with one of those other girls, aren’t you. I’ll forgive you, but you have to show me that you really care.” she said, making one of the store clerks gasp and another hide a smile behind her hand. This was ridiculous. I started walking away. Phèdre had things in her life she needed to sort out long before dating, and I wasn’t such a part of it to try helping her. I looked back in time to see her coming after me and started running away. Very few people I knew, excluding the girls living in my home, could keep up with me, and Phèdre wasn’t one. By the time I reached Mila, she wasn’t even in sight. Nonetheless, I drove away far more quickly than I probably should have, luckily not running into a cop on the way. By the time I was almost home, I was smiling again. I once had heard that everyone needed to have a bad date at least once in their lives, so they could treasure what came after all the more. Mine was now behind me.
Monday found me waking up slightly late yet still feeling exhausted. I rushed to meet with Brandon and Brenna for their morning training, ate a quick breakfast afterward, and then hurriedly got ready for a job today. I never would have guessed how much of a blessing a capable cook would be, but Marco always seemed to have food ready, no matter the odd times my friends and I arrived in the kitchen. Still, having a complicated life wasn’t a good enough excuse to keep a friend waiting, especially if that friend was paying you to be a best friend willing to tear out part of a wall, fix leaking pipes, and bring the wall back to its pre-ruined state. I had Mila find the quickest route, since her information on traffic congestion was extremely accurate. Assuming that my client was right about the problem, I was hoping to get the job done within six hours. Less would be far better considering that I needed time to get ready for my date afterward.
When I sent Addison Wright a message inquiring about her availability, I wasn’t expecting to be going on a date the very next day. I was expecting a bit of discussion first, perhaps a rejection. I always heard that getting a date was difficult. There was still something nerve-racking enough about a date that I hardly got any sleep, although getting up after noon the day before truly didn’t help one sleep early. I spent a fair amount of time searching through date ideas, since Addison only gave me a location and time to meet her. Though she liked video games, I couldn’t precisely invite her to my place, and the better arcades were too noisy for conversation. There were numerous locations throughout the city, such as museums, aquariums, and parks, where I could take a walk with a girl, but I didn’t feel she seemed like the type to enjoy a stroll through the park. I was leaning toward the stereotypical movie date if she didn’t have any suggestions herself. I felt inept. I knew people were supposed to have a good time on dates, but how? For well over a month now my main pastimes included martial arts, magic, and Ancient Tribes of Earth. I really needed to get out more.
After finishing with the wall, I was running very short on time. The work on the wall didn’t take me any longer than I expected, but buying the paint was a bit troublesome. The girl working in the department was extremely nice, but she somehow ended up mixing the wrong color two times before getting it right. I hoped my irritation wasn’t showing too strong, because the poor girl seemed extremely nervous for some reason. I really needed to watch my temper. Dealing with Alma over the weekend really wound me up, and I needed to relax, especially for my date. Literally sprinting out of the house after getting cleaned up, I hopped in Mila and sped off to meet Addison. I’d feel horrible if the was waiting long for me, but there was no way I could meet her quite on time. I had Mila send her a text, apologizing and saying I would arrive shortly. Arriving six minutes late, I knew mother would be disappointed if I told her about it later. I hated to think what father would say. Addison’s frizzy hair was quite easy to spot when I entered the cafe. She sat toward the back, biting her lip and staring at a menu. I smiled as I saw that she was wearing a “Princess Power” gamer tee depicting Zelda holding the Master Sword aloft.
“I’m terribly sorry for my late arrival. Have you been waiting long?” I asked as I sat across from her. “Oh!” she exclaimed, ducking behind her menu. She seemed more nervous than I did, not even looking at me. Maybe she was angry? “I’m sorry if I offended you. Work ran late due to a mishap, and I just couldn’t get here in a more timely manner.” Still hiding behind her menu, she said, speaking rapidly, “You’re fine. I mean it’s fine. I mean don’t worry. You’re gorgeous.” Then she made a sort of whimpering noise and said something under her breath. I obviously had upset her, but I wasn’t sure what to do. “I’m feeling a bit parched. Mind if I buy us a couple drinks for starters?” I asked. “I’m underage.” she blurted. “Umm… alright. I was thinking tea or coffee. Whatever you like that they serve here.” I told her. I barely heard her as she said, “I’ll have what you’re having.” I knew some people became really offended by late arrivals, but I did try to arrive on time. How was I suppose to recover from this? I knew girls could be tricky from dealing with the twins, but I never encountered someone quite like this before. I went to the counter, glanced at the menu, and ordered two peach teas along with a couple chocolate chip cookies.
I grabbed a couple straws and napkins before returning to the table. I didn’t feel I was on the road to being forgiven yet. Addison had returned the menu to its holder, but was looking everywhere but at me as she sucked down her tea. At least I picked something she seemed to enjoy. “I like your t-shirt.” I told her, hoping an honest compliment could warm her up to me a bit. She quickly glanced at me and thanked me. Then she inquired “Why are you here?” I felt a bit dumbfounded, but said, “For our date, though I feel I got off on the wrong foot.” She put her glass down, but still held it in both hands as she responded “But why are you on a date with me? Did someone put you up to this? Don’t think I didn’t notice that your profile is new.” What was with this girl? “You sent me a message, remember? After I looked at your profile, I felt we had enough in common to give it a shot. Sorry that I’m not too good at this. You’re pretty much my second real date ever.” I confessed. She stared at me with her mouth hanging open long enough that I was feeling a bit nervous. What was with her?
“You CAN’T be serious. There’s no way,” she said rather forcefully. “Why would I lie to you? We both signed up to that site in hopes of dating, right? If you really would rather not, I can’t force you to give me a chance.” I replied, feeling a bit offended. I took a couple deep breaths and told myself to be calm. At least she wasn’t trying to own me like Alma. She started speaking with each word coming swifter than the last, saying, “But you’re… you’re… beautiful! Like really, really attractive. I thought it’d be funny to send you a message, ‘cuz I thought you were one of those phony profiles. I didn’t expect a response, much less a date. Now you’re telling me we have stuff in common? Are you serious? I have enough trouble walking without tripping, and you seem more, well, like a jock, really. Guys like you belong on posters advertising underwear, not on dates with me! This is a prank, right? Please, be honest.” I stared at her in complete confusion for a moment. Then to try easing the mood I said, “I can’t say I really expected you to be picturing me in my underwear on a first date, but I really do enjoy video games. I was thinking that you might enjoy going to see a movie after this.”
Addison snorted as she started laughing, but at least she seemed to open up after that. I got her talking about games. We both agreed on seeing The Bourne Legacy after walking to the theater, and I couldn’t help thinking about how numerous people I knew could outperform the characters. I asked Addison about her opinion of the movie afterward. She talked a bit about how the original three movies were better, since Jason Bourne was in them. I agreed with her, but I wasn’t feeling into the date. She seemed like a really nice girl, but something was definitely off. I felt like I was having to try far too hard to make conversation. Not long after, she told me that she needed to get to work. Apparently, she didn’t try getting the night off, because she really didn’t expect me to show up. When I returned home, I played Ancient Tribes of Earth with the others, but the twins seemed upset at me still. I had every right to be upset with Alma after what she did, or so I told myself again. Even Eseld seemed a bit down, and she only interacted with the rest of us through the game.
I spent some time trying to cheer Eseld up, but she wouldn’t open up and tell me what was bothering her. Part of me wondered how I would fair with her on a date. At least I could be fairly certain that she wasn’t associated with Alma, since we met her randomly in game. After further preparations for fighting the next two demons in the game were finished, I logged off and went to bed. Though still exhausted, I didn’t really feel like sleeping yet, so I had Mila bring up the dating site and started reading through messages. One really stuck out to me, written by a short, dark-haired girl who had quite the pretty smile. I was a bit startled by the end of her message though, since she was asking if I would meet with her the very next morning. Being a day for demon battling, Aaliyah didn’t schedule jobs for anyone, so I was actually free. What sort of girl wanted to meet with a guy without even hearing from him first though? I read through her lengthy email several times before finally deciding that I didn’t have anything to lose, save for a bit more sleep. I did my best to write a lengthy enough reply to demonstrate my earnest will to meet her, and then realized I should thank Mila, which I did. I never wanted to become so accustomed to her transcribing things for me that I unintentionally mistreated her. If the girl tomorrow was half as remarkable as Mila, I would be in for a wonderful date indeed
I sat in my office, feeling as if I was drifting in space due to the environment setting which portrayed the universe around me. My one companion was the disembodied voice of Mila; I had told her to disable her avatar, not wanting to see the all too Alma-like figure right now. What I needed was freedom from that girl, something to force her into realizing we were not dating. Perhaps the time was here for me to actually attempt to date someone. My mother excluded, most people seemed to feel that dating several people provided valuable life experiences. I needed to be careful though. I definitely couldn’t bring a girl here with most of the residents possessing supernatural abilities. Supernatural? Could I even use that term anymore? Ugh. Whatever the term, I would need to protect anyone I dated from Alma’s schemes, so I couldn’t risk my date meeting her. I didn’t want to see her face if she caught me with someone either. If I hurt her, seeing tears in her enchanting violet eyes would be too much for me to handle. Too many months were spent thinking about that girl. Getting her out of my head really would be good for me.
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. Planning to date a girl to spite Alma wasn’t right, but doing this for myself truly was. I’d just keep this endeavor quiet, so as not to upset anyone. I could trust Jarod though if I needed to talk things over. “How does one go about finding a date?” I asked aloud. Mila replied “Most guys your age would be meeting girls in classes or at parties, master, but I cannot recommend enrolling yourself into college. No curriculum compares with that written by the Princess for educational merit or flexibility. A large enough percentage of girls within your age range utilize online dating for you to be successful through that route, master. Should the Princess and I prepare profiles on the appropriate sites?” Meeting someone online might be safer for me. As long as the profiles were at least a few months old, the girls couldn’t be spies placed by Alma even if she found out. “Do you really need Aaliyah’s help with the profile?” I asked, not entirely certain about the tiny twelve-year-old being involved in my dating life. “The Princess will need to adjust your schedule to allot time for dating, master, and her linguistic skills are simply unparalleled. If you have any doubts, I encourage you to read through any of the contracts she’s written for Best Friend For Hire.” explained Mila.
I never doubted Aaliyah’s skill with words and would rather not attempt to decipher any of the contracts she wrote, despite how father would be horrified if he heard me admit that. I really didn’t have good reason to doubt Aaliyah’s ability to portray me well. There was just something inherently wrong with letting an adorable little girl deal with matters pertaining to love. She was too young to worry about those things. Well, she looked too young at very least. I wasn’t entirely certain how young I was when I first had a crush, but I guiltily thought I might have been younger than twelve. “Master, should we begin?” inquired Mila again. I sighed and said, “Go for it. Thank you, Mila.” I would just have to proofread my profile after it was posted to alleviate my fears. There couldn’t be too many hits within the first day anyways, and, I realized, I was just being lazy by not writing the thing myself in the first place. Gazing off at the stars above me, I sat and wondered about all of the things I was simply accustomed to now. A year ago I wouldn’t have been able to definitively tell you a career path that appealed to me. Now I literally lived at my business headquarters, regularly talked with an A.I. vastly beyond any others known to me, and depended largely on a secretary who barely stood higher than my knee.
Then there were the absolutely amazing people with whom I lived, most of which needed to keep secrets from normal people for the safety of those they met. I shivered as I thought of the hell Alma would reign down on scientists that would want to experiment on her. The amount of fire Alma controlled within the warehouse could easily torch a platoon quickly, and she hadn’t even appeared remotely strained by it. Beyond her magic, the tremendous speed she possessed would surely allow her to physically kill numerous people before they were even aware of an attack. I wondered at how the girl knew where we were so quickly. Emma never even came out in the open, and Jarod was spotted without her even looking in his direction. Why did such a conniving girl have to possess such extraordinary abilities? Why couldn’t I stop thinking about how completely perfect she looked? I obviously did need more experience with girls. Surely there was one who could compare with Alma without being so manipulative. I sighed. Alma was not going to be my standard for what I wanted it in a girl.
“Oh, master! You already have a message waiting for you.” announced Mila. Someone neglected to mention my profile was even complete, but I was the one who didn’t tell her that I wanted to proofread it. I responded “Thank you, Mila. Please bring it up for me to see.” The message consisted of nothing but “U r hawt! <3”. I rolled my eyes, knowing I needed a better profile already. “Please filter messages similar to that in the future. I’d like to see the finished profile.” I told her. The pictures of me were quite decent, but I had no clue when they were taken. When I asked, Mila explained that the Princess tooks clips from the surveillance system and edited them. I wouldn’t have ever thought to do that, but I also didn’t realize how crisp the videos for the surveillance system were. Perhaps the same mirrors for video calls were also utilized for security. As I read through the profile, I resisted the urge to immediately start making changes. I expected my profile to be more of a fluff piece talking about my good qualities, but Aaliyah and Mila pointed out numerous flaws as well, though I had to admit they weren’t cruel or wrong about any of them. In the end, I decided to leave the profile unchanged. Being honest about myself was probably the right thing, considering I was trying to run from deception.
As hours passed by, I was amazed at how many messages I was getting even as I told Mila more and more things to filter for me. I never would have dreamed that I could get quite so many responses in the first day. Most of them were complete garbage, but a couple looked somewhat promising. I was slightly worried that Aaliyah hacked the website to boost my presence there. Considering how easily the girl altered secured video game streams, I didn’t doubt her abilities to get into a dating website at all. Even if she did, all I could really do was thank her after telling her that was unethical. I really did want to give this a shot, right? As I read through the latest response, I felt nervous about the idea. The girl looked pretty in a somewhat nerdy way. Her frizzy, brown hair had tremendous volume, and her glasses seemed slightly large. She seemed really laid back for a girl, dressing in t-shirts for most of her pictures. The only one without a t-shirt showed her wearing a hideous, orange dress, but I could forgive her lack of fashion sense. She liked video games, enjoyed reading, and was currently majoring in fine arts at the nearby university. I sent her a message asking if she would be interested in hanging out sometime this week. This could turn out to be fun.
I opened my eyes and looked around, realizing something was missing. When I realized what, I laughed at myself. “Mila, where’s Aaliyah?” I asked, stifling a yawn. I was so accustomed to Aaliyah waking me up when she stayed over that not finding her in my room seemed extremely odd. “The Princess is at home, taking a bath, master. Want me to bring her up for you, great lord of the house?” she inquired, sounding all too teasing. “Of course not. Wait a moment. If she’s at home, how do you know where she is?” I asked. I wasn’t informed if Mila had been integrated outside of my house and car. She said, “I asked her, master. The princess is always available for a conversation. Are you sure you don’t want me to bring her up for you?” Whether I was too groggy for this or just being slow, I had to think for a minute about what Mila was meaning, which wasn’t aided by the Alma-esque form staring at me from the mirror. I told myself not to think about Alma and tried to focus. Aaliyah… Aaliyah was a cyborg and demonstrated before that she is perfectly capable of sending out phone signals. That would, for practical purposes, give her and Mila telepathy with one another. My secretary truly resembled a super hero, save for the killing and her having the height of a very small child.
“Boss-man, sir, I don’t think daddy would approve of you sharing my bath!” Aaliyah told me, her bubble covered hair appearing by Mila on the mirror. “Cut the video! I never said to call her!” I exclaimed, caught completely off-guard. “You don’t want to talk with me, boss-man, sir!? Mila said you were talking about me,” she said. I facepalmed and told her “I’m sorry. I had no intention of interrupting your bath. I was just asking Mila for your whereabouts because you generally wake me up when you stay over. I really don’t need anything at the moment.” I heard her gasp before she inquired “Boss-man, sir… are you saying you only want to talk with me when you need something?” Why did Aaliyah have to be such a girl at times? “No. I truly do enjoy your company, princess. That being said, I’m not even out of bed yet and was just wondering where you were.” I explained. She was giggling, and I wasn’t entirely certain I wanted to know why. Nonetheless I kept talking with her until I noticed that I missed a call from my mother while I was sleeping.
“James, is there something you want to tell me.” asked mother. With all the secrets in my life now, there were too many possibilities for me to guess what she found out. “I honestly have no idea to what you’re referring.” I told her. “James, dear, have you been dating someone without bothering to tell me about her?” she asked. “What? Of course not,” I said. Mother continued, saying, “Well, a very… interesting girl stopped by today to commission a painting. She was beautiful but rather intimidating. Even your father seemed at a complete loss around her. I’ve never met someone quite so… so…” I had a horrible thought and interjected “short” before mother decided on the word she wanted. “Well, she was taller than Aaliyah, and obviously older. I was more thinking… regal. From how Ai and Mai introduced her, I believe she’s some sort of aristocrat. She definitely had quite the presence. I was just wondering if you two were dating because of how she spoke about wanting to meet your father and me for some time now. She talked about you quite a bit, dear, and I can’t say all of it was flattering. I do think she is interested in you though.” I did my best not to let my anger show in my voice as I apologized to my mother for the intrusion and said my farewells.
“Mila, where’s Alma?” I asked. “She’s taking tea in the ballroom, master. Shall I bring her up for you?” replied Mila. “No, thank you.” I told her as I set off down the stairs at a jog. What was the girl thinking to bother my parents? Was there no end to her trying to control my life? My heart was racing as I bolted into the ballroom. “James! I’m happy to see that you’re finally up. Care for some tea?” asked Alma. “What do you think you’re doing!?” I demanded. “Having tea, as I said.” she told me before taking another sip. “I just got off the phone with my mother. What were you doing at my parents’ house?” I asked. “I’ve been longing to meet them ever so much and wanted to commission a painting of us. I didn’t imagine you would mind me bringing your mother business.” she explained. “Of us? There is no us! Get that through your head. We are NOT dating!” I exclaimed, feeling more and more angry. “Will you please calm yourself. You’re starting to irritate me. All I did was make pleasant conversation with your parents while offering your mother work.” She was standing now, and glaring at me. Her tea saucer broke in her hand and dropped before she shoved the cup away, leaving it casually floating through the air.
“I don’t want you near my parents. They don’t need to be mixed up in your world of manipulations and destruction.” I told her. “You’re being entirely unreasonable. The main reason I spoke with your parents was to try understanding how I might placate you. All I do is to help you. Can you not get that through your thick skull? Really. I thought Regina had trained you better than this.” I was furious, but tried not to let the beast out anymore. “Don’t you dare say her name, Alma.” I whispered. “What? She was a lovely girl,” she said. “She’s dead because of you.” I told her, a bit too loudly. “I beg your pardon,” she replied. “If you never manipulated my life, we wouldn’t have been there for Regina to die. Worse off, I’m sure killing a werelion was part of your training plan, but you didn’t bother coming along to keep us safe. You were living here at the time, weren’t you!?” I asked, all my anger coming out in my voice. Alma looked shocked but said, “I never wanted her to die, James. She was a very gifted girl, and the loss of her was tragic. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there.” She didn’t even deny it. I told her “You’re banned from entering the central part of my home. Stay out of my life. I can’t personally keep my parents safe from you, but I think we both know someone I can hire to take care of that.”
“James!” exclaimed Mai. “You’re going too far.” added Ai. Alma’s face was as expressionless as stone when she silenced them with a wave. Her tea cup landed gently on the platter next to the tea set while she turned to the door. “I’ll, of course, cover the damage to your tea set. Have a lovely evening.” she told me before walking out. I cringed inside as I noticed the despair plainly written on Ai and Mai’s faces. I never wanted to upset them, but Alma just walked over everyone from what I saw. I didn’t understand why Ai or Mai would be so disturbed, or why they chased after her. Hadn’t she caused them pain as well with her schemes? Emma walked over to me and placed her hand on my shoulder, looking sad as I pulled away. “Emma, be honest with me. Are you just her lapdog as well, or are we friends?” I asked. She gave me a small smile and said, “I’ll always be your friend, James. Though I do some work for Alma, I’m not in her family’s employ. My mom made a deal with them to get me out of it after my dad died. I don’t know who you were talking about to keep Alma at bay, but threatening someone that important isn’t prudent, especially since she really has helped you.”
“I can’t let her hurt my family, Emma. She’s done enough damage in my life.” I told her. She shook her head and said, “What damage? Sure, she could’ve vaporized all the werelions we fought, but she didn’t know there would be that many. None of us did. As much as we always try to get good intel and plan things out, stuff goes wrong at times. Throwing around blame doesn’t help. With Alma’s help, you’ve learned to use magic, learned to fight better, and got a magnificent home. I couldn’t afford my share without her income, and the twins definitely wouldn’t be here.” She reached up and brushed her fingers through my hair before continuing with “Alma isn’t the easiest person to be around, but she isn’t as horrible as you’re trying to say. She cares about you. We all do.” I briefly rest my hand on her shoulder and said, “Thank you, Emma, but I really don’t like the idea of someone taking over my life. She needs to realize that she doesn’t own me and can’t control me. I’m not entirely sure that learning magic was for the best, since it only makes others with the talent more aware of me.” I turned and left for my room, feeling miserable. I did act rashly, but I never met someone so infuriating before. I needed to get some normal people back in my life before things got worse. This wasn’t working out.
As I drove back home, my mind worried over the past several months. When I met Alma, I was enchanted by her, perhaps literally if there existed magic to meddle with thought. Was the meeting a coincidence or had she already decided to mess with me before I even knew she existed? Either way, what was the point of such a trick? Why bring the other girls into it? With how the twins showed her deference, they were surely acting under her instruction. I doubt Emma would risk her mother’s career by opposing her mother’s boss, so she might well be trapped in Alma’s plot. She might well be using the girls to spy on me but to what end? I wasn’t anyone important. My business was a bit unusual in nature, but I hardly saw anything about it that would draw the attention of such a person. Supposing she really was studying my business, why would she reveal herself now? Did she already have what she wanted and was now gloating? I really didn’t have nearly enough information on her. “Mila, will you take over driving and bring up all you can on Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V?” I asked.
Images of Alma flooded the windshield as Mila started reading off articles pertaining to the images. Born February twenty ninth, Alma was over two years younger than me, but the girl was definitely busy. She had been present at countless charity works, was infamous for her business dealings, and met the Queen on numerous occasions. I started staring out the window after a while. I couldn’t handle looking at her due to countless conflicting emotions. Even after finding out that the girl was manipulating me, I couldn’t deny her exceptional beauty and found myself wanting to… to do so many things with the girl that I wasn’t sure one lifetime was enough for all of them. Then there was also the anger, still boiling away in my gut, each bubble bursting only to be followed by another as I pondered yet another way she might be affecting my life. I might love her. I might hate her. I needed to cleanse my life of her touch and make sure no one else ever gained such a hold on me.
“Does that mean we’ll no longer be practicing magic?” asked Brenna, sounding worried. I supposed that Emma and the twins might have taught me to use magic at Alma’s request, but I was capable of it before that. Turning to speak to everyone present, I said, “Whatever their reasons for teaching me, being competent enough not to blow ourselves up makes sense, but I feel we should go beyond that still. Even though this threat wasn’t what we thought, there truly are werewolves, werelions, and countless other dangers out there. I want everyone in Best Friend For Hire to be able to defend themselves and our clients if the need arises. Aaliyah would probably pout if we let all her hard work in training programs go to waste.” I winked at Aaliyah on the last part, which made her grin. Jarod smiled slightly, and I found myself missing his usual ear-to-ear grin. He was obviously concerned about what was revealed tonight as well. Mila was still reading articles on Alma aloud, and none of it alleviated my confusion at all. Why was this girl even in the U.S.?
My thoughts left me as I stepped outside of Mila to find Alma standing on the steps with her arms crossed, looking as if she teleported from where we were to here. “What are you doing here?” I blurted. “Alpy rents the west wing, boss-man, sir,” said Aaliyah as she stepped out beside me and hugged my leg. “Wait. I thought that wing wasn’t finished yet.” I replied. “I moved in around the same time as the twins.” stated Alma. Another bubble of anger came bursting out. “So you’ve been living under my roof all this time and didn’t even bother saying anything to me?” I inquired fiercely. “Says the man who wouldn’t even give me a lift.” she coldly responded. “Why would I help a girl who’s been playing with my life for months!?” I demanded. “Do you really think I wanted to go without seeing you for months? I’ve been doing my best to help you prepare!” I realized my hands were in fists again as I yelled “Prepared? For what!?” She looked tense with her hands clenching and unclenching as well. “Don’t be daft! Prepared to date me, of course,” she said, raising her voice. “If someone is not good enough for you, leave them alone! Don’t go trying to change people at whim!” I told her. To date her? The girl wasn’t making any sense at all.
Alma was glaring at me. The others were slipping by us into the house, save for Aaliyah who still clung to my leg. Alma took a deep breath and said, “James, I didn’t mean for us to have a row. Please understand that I could not date you without you having at least some training first. Let’s sit down, have some tea, and put this behind us, so we can get started on the right foot.” Part of me was curious, but I mostly felt dumbfounded. The girl looked perfectly serious. “You’re completely nuts. I don’t know why anyone would consider dating you after being manipulated, and I’m not staying up to listen to this. I’m heading to bed.” I told her before lifting Aaliyah up and walking around Alma into the house. As I shut the door, Alma remained motionless, save for the wind in her hair. Aaliyah’s head was slumped against my shoulder, and I wondered if she had managed to fall asleep so quickly. The poor girl couldn’t have slept much before tailing me to face Alma. She must have been worried to have followed at all, which only added to my feeling that Alma couldn’t be trusted. I probably should look into evicting her, but I didn’t want to do anything rash.
I tucked Aaliyah into bed, and then headed to my room. I needed to find out whether the twins and Emma were just lackies or if, in some part, they were true friends as well. If I asked them, could they be honest with me now, or would I just be getting what Alma wanted me to hear from them? I wasn’t sure. Trusting them again would take time if I ever managed it at all. Life had just started seeming like it was going well again. Why did things have to turn out like this? Because of Alma, obviously, but I wouldn’t be know the twins or Emma at all without her. I thought for a while that the Ai, Mai, and Emma each might have been interested in me. Was that all part of Alma’s plan? Assuming that was true, why would she want me attached to other girls if she wanted to date me herself? I really wanted to throw that out as crazy, so I could believe those three honestly liked me. Nothing Alma did really seemed to make sense though, so crazy might actually be all too accurate. I barely had started working again, and I already felt like I needed to take a break from my life. When would I find peace once more?
Alma held Aaliyah at arm’s reach, looked her in the eye, and asked “Must you do that?” Aaliyah, whose arms were still outstretched, reaching for a hug, grinned and said, “Hugs are like cake. They’re necessary. They make you feel warm and loved, and they simply make the world a better place.” Alma sighed, embraced Aaliyah with one arm, and patted her back with the other, looking more resigned than entertained. “You may rise, James. We are quite obviously done here for the day.” stated Alma. As she spoke, the fires stretching from her back like wings went out. Then I saw the twins and Emma floating over to her as if they were carried by unseen stretchers. “Are they dead?” I asked, feeling my gut tighten as I looked at them. My voice sounded far too hoarse. “Dude, what’s going on?” asked Jarod through the communicator in my ear. I ignored him as Alma turned to look at me incredulously and said, “These two are my cousins, and Emma is the daughter of a valued employee. Why, precisely, would I wish them dead?” I carefully chose my footing on the ruined cement floor and approached her before saying, “We came here to kill you, and you seemed like you were trying to kill us as well.” The pure, beautiful sound of her laugh echoed off the walls, distinctly at ends with my unease.
“Oh, darling, that’s rich. This was simply a training exercise, so I might see how well my cousins have learned these past several months. They are awake, you know.” claimed Alma. “Alpy!” yelled the twins, as they dropped to the ground. The glare they received in return had them quickly standing, curtsying, and saying in unison, “Sorry, Lady Pendreigh.” Alma’s regal bearing only seemed slightly downplayed by the wiggling, giggling girl she held. She then said, “My dear cousins truly mean well, even if their manners need some polish. Speaking of which, won’t someone introduce me to the gawkers in the corner? I have been looking forward to meeting your employees, James.” I took a moment figuring out to whom she was referring, but I eventually spotted Jarod and Brandon peeking out from behind a pallet. I waved them over, despite feeling uneasy still. If Alma wanted any of us dead, we obviously would be. Mai, who quickly leaned against Jarod said, “Jarod Roland Davis, I would like to introduce you to my esteemed cousin, Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V, daughter of Duke Gruffydd Aiden Pendreigh.” Ai casually pointed at Brandon with his thumb and said, “And this is one of the redheads, soulless of Somerset Estate. No clue what he did with his sister.”
Jarod awkwardly waved with his free arm, since Mai was holding his other. Brandon seemed to be extremely confused, looking from Alma to the wreck of a warehouse. As Alma was greeting them, I walked around them over to Emma, who was just waking up. “How are you feeling?” I asked. “Other than a pounding headache and a really sore spot, I’m fine. I see Alma’s in fine form.” she told me. “You knew!? You really are working for her?” I yelled. I hadn’t meant to be so harsh and felt guilty when Emma winced, but I felt a terrible anger bubbling up inside of me. My rage continued bursting out as I said, “All this time that I’ve been talking about hunting down Alma you were working with her? Did you not listen to me when I told you about the people she killed?” Emma looked miserable, but before she could say anything, Alma said, “I killed Georgina Martin. I killed those girls at the dance you attended. I’ve killed countless people for you ever since I arrived.” Her calm confession only heightened my anger. My fists were tight and muscles were taut. I could feel my body trembling. “For me? Why would I want any of those people dead? Georgina was a client of mine, a friend.” I yelled. I knew I should keep my voice down, but I wanted revenge. There was nothing I could do to harm Alma, but she deserved to pay for all the lives she took.
Alma’s vibrant, violet eyes seemed so calm as she said, “They were going to kill you, James. Georgina was obviously hairy at the heel, but you carelessly let her drug you. She planned to sacrifice you in a spell to increase her power. The girls at the school were on the verge of killing off everyone at the dance. There have been many others who were out to kill you. You know the world is a dangerous place, yet you still stumble around looking for a right royal night out without considering what could happen.” Her speech shocked me. I never had considered Georgina to be dangerous. I found myself staring at little Aaliyah who was gazing at me while still holding onto Alma’s neck. She looked sad. “I suppose you knew as well.” I told her, managing to sound a little more calm. “Boss-man, sir, every transaction Alma has made with Best Friend For Hire is written in the books. She’s hired you anonymously numerous times. Even tonight is being paid for at her expense as training. You’ve never turned her down.” she explained. I really couldn’t blame Aaliyah at all. She always did her job to the letter. Since Aaliyah became my secretary, I was too lazy to ever read through my own company’s ledger. “Let’s go home, princess.” I told her, offering her my hand. Alma let her drop down, and Aaliyah squeezed two of my fingers in her small grip.
I walked along with Aaliyah toward the car and knew the others followed me by the numerous footsteps I could hear. “Hey, Jarod, why didn’t you flee?” I asked. He laughed half-heartedly and said, “We started to but only got half a block before we heard Aaliyah, so we decided to pull up here instead. “You abandoned our bikes!?” yelled the twins. I turned toward them and realized I was glaring when they grimaced. “Well, we’ve been had, guys. I’m sorry. Alma is right about me needing to pay more attention. I’ll try to do better,” I said. “Hey, man, Aaliyah said we’re getting paid, and everyone needs a friend at times, right?” observed Brandon. I gave him a smile though I still felt anger burning within me. Ai, Mai, and Emma felt like real friends to me all this time, so finding out that they were working for someone this entire time left me feeling betrayed. How could I ever know how many of the laughs and smiles we shared were just them putting on a show for their job? I need time to think things through. Perhaps I should be looking for other people willing to rent wings in my home.
Brenna was standing nervously by the car as she watched us approach. She would have heard everything through the communicators, so I couldn’t blame her. Things certainly took a shocking turn. I opened the door for her to get back in the car. I turned to Emma and asked “Are you coming? I’m not going to leave you stranded while you’re staying in my house.” Her smile was small, but present. “I’ll get a ride from Mai. Thank you though.” she told me. I shrugged, lifted Aaliyah, and passed her off to Brenna. “Make sure she stays buckled up,” I said. Brandon shrunk slightly from his normal size, leaving his clothes sagging a bit as he stepped into the back. Then Jarod hopped in the passenger side. “Aren’t you going to offer me a lift, James?” inquired Alma. She was tiny, beautiful, and absolutely horrible. “Sorry. Full car,” I said, before stepping inside and driving away. I looked in my rearview mirror as I drove and saw her arms crossed as she tapped her foot. She truly might have saved my life on numerous occasions, but I could hardly regard someone who spent months at deceiving me as a friend. I was far too tired to deal with another lecture. I wanted nothing more than to get home, put Aaliyah back to bed, and go to sleep. Life was crazy enough without someone else forcing crazy upon you.
With Ai and Mai’s magic, a stream of water could move rapidly enough to cut steel, bind you like a cable, or plunge into your lungs to asphyxiate you. None of these things happened. I was too late noticing the spell forming behind Alma which turned their weapon to steam. I threw a spell in front of her eyes to blind her and a kick at her head, but she managed to step back before my foot connected. In the split second I distracted her, water crashed through all the windows and plants crashed through various parts of the walls. Shards of ice shot from the floating water at Alma while vines moved to trip her. A spell was forming quickly, so I did my best to steal the energy from it. She barely resisted and flipped backward, weaving her body around the ice in midair. Of all the times to be distracted, I couldn’t help staring stupidly for a moment when I realized this was the first time I ever saw her not wearing a dress. When a ball of fire came hurtling at me, I barely managed to jump out of the way. I somersaulted back to my feet and saw water descend on her from all directions, like giant waves crashing through the air. Drowning wouldn’t be a swift way to go.
A large chunk of the water turned to steam, and Alma came flying through the air with a kick aimed at my head, which sent me stumbling backward as I barely blocked it. I quickly found myself fighting for dear life as her assault continued. Vines, roots, and other plant parts started attacking Alma from behind, but she blocked them and severed them with magic while maintaining her assault on me. I tried throwing her backward with a spell, but she kept interrupting the magic. Then the twins were there as well, attacking from two sides while Emma’s plants continued to attack Alma from behind. The girl was unbelievably fast. I did my best to interrupt some of her magic, but she was countering the twins, physically and magically, and my own attacks while casting additional spells to handle Emma’s plants and to attack us. Before we managed to overwhelm her, a powerful blast of air threw me backward, knocking me into a pallet of toys. The twins didn’t appear to have been moved, but Alma had jumped onto a pallet and was throwing fire down at them. A wall of water intercepted the fire, hissing when it hit, and more plunged down at Alma from above.
Again the water near Alma turned to steam, but trees had sprouted beside her, swinging their branches like clubs. She leapt between the branches, and the pallet on which she had been standing went flying at Mai. When a wall of plants shot up in front of Alma, I realized where she was heading. “Emma!” I yelled, darting after Alma and throwing my own fire at her. The spells were ineffectual, save that they gave Alma another thing to fight. Despite how fast Emma’s plants regrew, Alma seemed to be getting headway. I barely caught sight of spells flying at Alma, a telekinetic force meant to slice through things, but Alma was deflecting those as well. A giant block of ice dropped from the mass of water, and I helped it gain momentum with a spell, hurtling it at Alma. Vines twisted around her, grabbing her arms and feet. I thought we had her, but the ice suddenly shifted direction, flying toward Ai before becoming water once more. Alma cut herself free of the vines and started cutting through the plants once more. A giant fist of water came down at her, forcing her to jump to the side as it cracked the cement floor where she had been. Then more fists of water kept her moving, occasionally darting to the side after her when she dodged. Emma tried to trip Alma up with plants as I did similar with telekinetic spells, but the girl almost seemed to dance in the chaos.
I tried to encase Alma in walls of fire as one of the fists of water plummeted at her. My spell was moved and intensified, boiling the mighty fist as it hit the fire over Alma’s head. “You need to be careful when playing with fire, James,” said her voice, booming through the air, “and I see someone has been playing with my enchantments.” The fire above her grew larger, blocking more fists of water, and I realized that I no longer was seeing her cast anything. Her skin was now glowing with magic, similar to the twins but even more intense. “She can control fire like you control water!” I yelled at them, realizing only after that this was probably obvious to them as well. The twins clasped hands, and the enormous body of floating water started spinning, creating an upside down whirlpool. Other spells formed rapidly around them, some of which I recognized for controlling airflow. Most I didn’t catch at all. The fires above Alma started moving upward, into the whirlpool. I tried taking advantage of the moment, creating a spell to throw a pallet of soil at Alma as she gazed upward. Emma must have had similar thoughts, because a tree appeared to catapult the pallet with greater force as vines lashed out to capture Alma’s feet.
Alma tore threw the vines as she jumped, turned, and started to deflect her body off the pallet I threw. Emma’s tree ripped through the pallet and bags of dirt to wrap a branch around Alma’s legs. As the branch swung Alma at the ground, I thought again that we might have her. Alma’s hands touched the ground, and she casually flipped upright as the tree became ash. The fire in the whirlpool exploded outward, vaporizing the entire body of floating water and then continuing down the sides of the building. I heard a brief scream that sounded like Emma and saw her body roll across the floor moments later. When I looked up, Alma was calmly examining a tear in her pant leg. Then she stood, took a stance as if to fight, and waggled her fingers at the twins. They moved to attack her as I never had seen them move before. I felt queasy trying to watch the blur of motion and knew I would only be in the way if I tried to assist. I didn’t even have the faintest hope of catching what spells were being cast with them forming and disappearing in the blink of an eye. When Ai’s head put another crack in the concrete floor, I stared in horror. I never really believed there was someone who could keep up with the twins. They always seemed so haughty and invincible compared with the rest of us.
Mai paused, staring at her sister, when Alma punched her forehead with a closed fist. If the world was just, the fist would’ve broken. Instead, Mai went flying backward and bounced off a pallet with enough force that the pallet shifted. I stood there, staring at her, with clenched fists and the certainty that there was nothing I could do to defeat this girl. She casually walked toward me, and I saw spells cleaning her of ash and soot. As she stepped closer, I noticed that we literally didn’t even make her break a sweat, and then I berated myself for checking out the girl who was about to kill me. The hellish blaze lighting up the building moved closer, creating a sphere of fire around us. I reinforced the spell I made before we left which helped protect me from heat. I wasn’t such a fool as to think such a spell would help, but I didn’t want to be dripping sweat while she got to look like a fashionista on her way to an exhibit. She didn’t attack me, though I stood ready. She just looked me up and down with those magnificent, violet eyes. I gazed in Emma’s direction, unable to see her body through the flames, and felt my muscles tighten.
There wasn’t a thing I knew that could stop this girl, but I wasn’t going to die without fighting. I charged her and tried to kick her. She was so short compared with me that I felt almost like I was fighting a child. The girl seemed to move like Aaliyah now, teleporting from one spot to another more than moving. Eventually, she attacked back, putting her hand to my chest and shoving. I flew three feet back and landed on my backside. The sphere of fire had parted, making her appear to have wings like an avenging angel. What horrible world was this that a psychotic killer could be so unearthly beautiful. I stared up at her, awaiting my fate. I should have gone to see my parents one last time. Alma smiled at me, and I knew this was the end. Remembering the communicator, I said, “Jarod, if you can hear me, run.” My voice already sounded lifeless to my own ears. Alma took a step forward, and then I saw a shadow fly over me and heard Aaliyah’s voice yelling “ALPY!!!” I knew I was gaping as I watched my tiny secretary hugging the psychotic beauty, but I couldn’t get my mouth to close. Alma, the crazy killer who burned people alive, was the infamous cousin, Alpy? What was going on here?
With a big yawn and bleary eyes, Aaliyah offered to come along. Though I fully believed in her abilities having seen how the twins reacted to mention of her profession, I didn’t want to be the reason this tiny girl killed. I carried her off to bed, tucked her in, and kissed her head, possibly for the last time. I was certain that I lacked Alma’s expertise and doubted either of the twins could match her after seeing Aaliyah teach them about magic. My tiny secretary’s profound knowledge of seemingly everything armed us far better than we would have been, and Alma wouldn’t be facing any of us one-on-one. Emma was bringing large bags filled with seeds, so she would have countless plants under her power. The twins planned to bring enormous volumes of water to the area and help drown out whatever fires Alma created. I was to help counter Alma’s magic to the best of my ability, which was probably the weakest point of the plan. I knew that every spell I managed to stop would help, but every spell Alma managed to cast could harm someone I cared about. As we prepared to depart, I kept trying to reassure myself that there was no way anyone could keep up with four combatants, but doubt remained.
Brandon, Brenna, and Jarod insisted on coming along but assured us that they’d remain in Mila with all her weapons ready to fire should Alma attempt to flee. I hoped against hope that they kept their word and stayed safe. Jarod’s skill at combat was completely astounding for his short period of practice, but he had as much chance against a skilled magic user as an ant had against a boot. Brandon and Brenna were learning well, but they both had very long ways to go, especially Brandon who showed no signs of being able to use magic at all. Thinking of them, I realized more than ever that I needed to return alive. At eighteen, who has a will and testament? I certainly didn’t make one. There was nothing saying what would happen to my business and belongings should I die. I hadn’t asked specifics from Brandon or Brenna, but I had the impression from them that their lives were pretty rough before they came under my employ. I didn’t want them to suffer more if I failed. I knew Jarod would be alright. He was brilliant and had supportive parents. Jarod… Looking from him in the the passenger seat to Brandon, Emma, and Brenna in back, everyone seemed caught up in their own thoughts as Mila drove us.
I quickly wrote an email to Aaliyah on my phone. That girl obviously had an unbelievable understanding of the law, and could surely make this work as a last will if I didn’t come back. If I died, I wanted Jarod and Aaliyah to take over the company. They always got along and could surely make the business prosper. Aaliyah already did more for Best Friend For Hire than I ever managed. As for my personal effects, I wanted my parents to distribute those as they saw fit, knowing they’d probably want at least something of mine. I did my best to hold back tears, not wanting the others to see me cry, but I felt like a horrible son. If I died, they would never know that I was fighting to save people. Jarod could tell them, but how would they believe in a world of magic I kept hidden from them? He couldn’t demonstrate it. If the twins or Emma were alive, I doubted they’d be willing, not wanting to endanger my parents with such knowledge. Alma hadn’t even left bodies of her victims. There was only ever ash, missing persons reports, and occasionally an identifiable possession. Would my parents even be able to accept that I was dead with so little evidence? Would they even know? If everyone stuck to their training, I would just become a missing person with no body to be found.
I pulled myself together as best as I could, and started running through spells in my head. I could redirect and move heat. I knew how to create some reactive spells, such as causing a surface to burst into flame if touched using a variation of light spells I learned. There were numerous things I could seek out with magic if needed. Creating telekinetic effects was definitely in my repertoire, having shattered cement with a werelion’s body once. The spells I knew to manipulate and create light were numerous now, which could be useful in attempting to temporarily blind Alma. There were numerous ways I could manipulate water, though I looked feeble and harmless next to the twins in that area. While using such spells, I could see if Alma knew anything about physical combat to distract her further. I doubt there were too many people in the world who trained as vigorously as the twins in martial arts combined with magic, and I was a fair degree more confident in my body than in my magic. Where I had been fairly competent in Tai Chi, I was now far more competent as a mixed martial artist, though I still wouldn’t want to face Jarod. The lethal fighting style he was learning intimidated me with its brutal efficiency.
“Let’s watch something relaxing, like Die Hard, when this is over,” said Jarod as he playfully punched my arm. I gave my dear friend a smile and told him “We might have to make the snacks ourselves. I doubt Marco will still be awake.” He smiled, but I could tell he was worried. I helped Emma as she crawled past Brenna to get out. “Are you ready for this, man-slave?” she asked while pulling the large bags of seeds from the trunk. I nodded and replied “You bet. I’ll try to make sure your hair doesn’t get ruined.” She gave an attempt at a serious look, which was completely ruined by her grin, as she said, “You better, or Aaliyah will kill you for letting her hard work go to waste.” I must have grimaced because she was looking at me inquisitively. Poor Emma didn’t know our tiny friend was an assassin. “Imagine how the bookkeeping would suffer if I earned her ire.” I told her with the best smile I could manage. She laughed, and I grabbed two bags of seeds to help her out. After shutting the trunk, I noticed the twins were back from scouting for Alma. Mai was telling Jarod “and if there’s one scratch on our bikes, we’ll be blaming you.” I chuckled and asked if they were ready. They nodded, and the four of us started walking the two blocks toward the warehouse.
I gained focus on the residual energy in the air as we walked and kept an eye out for trouble, but we arrived undisturbed. The twins set to work taking care of the large enchantments Aaliyah warned might be over the area, and I followed Emma’s instructions to dump the seeds into a pile. Then she slipped off her sandals and stepped into the pile. Greenery quickly enveloped her, and layers of bark formed armor around her. Catching more movement at my feet, I looked down to see the thousands of seeds intertwining as various plants grew out of them. Then the mass started moving outward, walking across the ground with roots and slithering with vines. Before long, a thick mass of foot-high plants encircled the building. Emma and I waited in silence for the twins to arrive, but I was worrying each minute. What if they failed to dispel the enchantments? What if Alma had slipped out when we were on our way here? We were wearing communicators as we had when we went to hunt Luke, but the twins demanded that we remained silent until they were finished, saying this would be extremely taxing.
“We did it!” exclaimed the twins, nearly giggling. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “There was actually less than the twerp had considered, but not by much,” said Ai. “We’ll be starting on the building’s wards shortly. Get ready to enter.” commanded Mai. I patted the bark surrounding Emma’s shoulder and told everyone “Stay safe.” Then I headed around the building to a backdoor. If the twins spell worked as it should, the wards around the entire building would be unraveling quickly. Sure enough, they did, recurring patterns quickly unraveling as the twins’ spell spread across the wall. I looked up to see how their water magic was working and found enough water to flood the entire building. I had seen the twins detour a stream before, but a flying lake was another magnitude of power. Perhaps Alma was the one who didn’t stand a chance. When the signal was given, I casted a spell to create silence around the door handle, and another to wrench out the lock. I didn’t hear a thing, so Alma shouldn’t either. I created a spell of silence around my feet, one of shadows around my body, and entered the building, carefully sticking to the shadows as I maneuvered around pallets of wrapped goods on the ground.
What happened to whoever worked here? I doubted any company abandoned a building stocked with merchandise, so how was she staying here? Did she claim the building recently after slaughtering everyone? I found myself quickly worrying about the possibility of walking across ash on the ground. “We see her. She’s laying on a sleeping bag while reading by a light spell on the ground.” whispered the twins in unison. I quietly replied “I don’t see her yet. Give me a moment.” My heart was beating fast as I crept around pallets looking for a light. Soon those enchanting, violet eyes would see no more, and the world would be marginally safer. There was light ahead. I moved closer and closer, careful not to disturb anything. When I saw her, my breath caught in my throat. She quickly stood, and spun toward me, her long, auburn hair whipping around her body. I could see her brilliant eyes staring into mine and the small smile playing on her lips. “I am happy to finally see you again, James. Sorry for the circumstances.” she told me, seeming completely sincere. “As am I,” I said, watching a stream of water flying toward her back. In moments, this would finally be over.
The first demon faced three thousand strong when we went to destroy it. Things didn’t go smoothly, and over two thousand were slain in the fight. Unlike most MMORPGs, repairs weren’t an instantaneous thing in Ancient Tribes of Earth. You needed someone with the right skill set to repair damage, the right materials for your gear, and time enough per piece. Few of those who died would be at the front lines of the next battle, but more of the guild was awake and assembled. With over ten thousand assembled, we still lost over a thousand before slaying the beast. The second demon’s tactics and abilities were vastly different than the first one. Aaliyah was at my home, but not aiding in the fight directly. She didn’t want “the experience to be ruined by forewarning” of what the fight would be like. After each battle, she brought up a video and pointed out flaws in our tactics as well as things for which to look out. I felt slightly uncomfortable as she talked, relating her advice and cunning in creating the game to a life as an assassin. As the world’s only living assassin, she could probably come up with plans to kill things in her sleep, but she used that knowledge to create an exceptionally intense game.
There was no glowing warning for where an area of effect attack would land as in some games. Instead, Ancient Tribes of Earth required you to look for shifts in the wind, to have detection spells against various offensive spells, and to predict your opponent’s movement. When played in slow motion, I did see similarities between how the demons moved, but I didn’t believe for a second that I could notice the specifics in the heat of battle. In addition to the demons themselves, each one commanded armies of corrupted animals, plants, and even non-player characters, generally shortened as NPCs. The animals and plants were very straightforward in their attacks, but they slowed up would-be heroes quite well. Every NPC in the game fought uniquely with spells and abilities suited to their specific backstory. The corrupted versions were just less worried about self-preservation. I actually felt bad about NPC deaths in Ancient Tribes of Earth, since they didn’t simply respawn like a player could. The villages from whence these came would be without blacksmiths, bakers, or even guards until replacements became available. Despite the enormous complexity of the system, I still had not seen a single player complain about lag during the battles.
The first two demons took over three consecutive hours each to fight, and we took a two hour break between them. Despite thousands having to log off or being unable to participate again for other reasons, there were still twelve thousand guild members ready to do battle when we faced the third demon, and we killed it quickly. Listening to Aaliyah’s hints about the fight, Eseld was able to predict the third demon far more easily than I could, and she managed to shackle the beast in ice with the help of numerous other spellcasters. The precious seconds the demon was held still allowed us to vanquish it in just under thirty minutes. I wondered what all the girl could accomplish if she had voice chat instead of having to try typing commands in the middle of intense fighting. Even the twins didn’t try being at the front of the battle while running the strategic command interface. Eseld was truly remarkable to pull off such a feat. One of the benefits of defeating the demons was an enormous treasure horde. All three had worn, carried, and even swallowed countless valuables that helped replenish the guild coffers. I asked Aaliyah as treasurer to make sure everyone who participated got a fair cut. If only I could assemble such an army for my next battle, the unpleasant feeling in my gut might subside.
Through all the merriment, I knew my laughs held little mirth, my jokes didn’t bring me joy, and my heart wasn’t into the celebration. In the game, my character was dancing on a table in the new guild hall. I sat watching the jovial scene with a straight face and a queasy stomach. Within a few hours, I would be helping to kill someone, ending a life that could never be replaced. Even Regina in all her beauty had never captivated my thoughts like Alma, and I would soon be planning Alma’s death. What was this world that allowed a dear friend to be murdered by monsters from myth, a little girl to be an assassin, and me to kill the one girl whom I couldn’t get out of my head? Aaliyah hopped up onto my lap and hugged me. “Thank you for killing some of my demons, boss-man, sir. The world’s been made a little better with each of their deaths.” she told me. I hugged her back and wondered if I should ask for advice from the self-proclaimed expert on death. The poor girl would probably denounce that title and all killing entirely if she ever were to meet Death’s daughter. The thought of that unstoppable, scythe-wielding entity made me shiver even now. Not knowing my thoughts, Aaliyah smiled up at me, at least until Mai approached.
“James,” started Ai, whom I hadn’t noticed approach on my other side, “we’ve been thinking.” I looked back and forth between them and replied “That’s definitely a dangerous habit. Might want to consider giving it up.” Aaliyah giggled, but both twins remained completely serious. “We should get everyone’s advice for tonight. The big, blue eyes staring up at me from the tiny girl on my lap were like pools of curiosity waiting to be filled with answers. I shook my head negatively and said, “I would rather not endanger anyone else.” I heard Jarod speak from behind me and turned as he was asking “What’s this about danger? You know we took out a third of the demons already, right? Why so glum?” I laughed halfheartedly and said, “Yeah-yeah. We’re getting there, but we still have a long ways to go.” Jarod didn’t seem convinced, and Mai loudly said, “Mila, please log everyone out of the game.” After the screens went blank, she continued with “We’re going to fight a very dangerous girl tonight and want everyone’s input.” Before I raised my jaw from where it had fallen, Ai added “My sister and I don’t often ask for help, but you all did remarkably well commanding thousands tonight. We would be interested if you have any ideas we missed.” I fought my anger, but I felt betrayed by them blurting out what I had ask them to keep hidden.
Aaliyah put her hand to my cheek and told me “Boss-man, sir, don’t be upset. You have talented friends who can help.” I still felt upset, but a tear came unbidden, rolling down to Aaliyah’s hand as if beckoned to be brushed away. I lifted her up in an arm as I stood. “First, I want you to be aware that Alma is extremely dangerous and has murdered a large number of people already. Brandon. Brenna. You’re not ready and won’t be joining us.” Brenna looked worried. I thought Brandon was going to argue, but he looked at the twins and nodded instead. I continued by saying, “I’ve spent over a month learning to control fire and hardly feel prepared, but she needs to be stopped before she kills again. Jarod, I know you can fight now, but you have no protection against the magic.” He wasn’t happy, but he didn’t argue with me. “Mila, will you please bring up presentation 4365921 from my private drive?” asked Mai. What was with the funky number and one of the twins being polite? “Yes, evil one. Just for you, since you asked nicely.” replied Mila, bringing up a picture on every wall.
The twins explained the layout of the area where Alma was taking refuge, and then pointed out where they had found protective spells beyond the building’s wards. I was so distracted by the building last night that I had failed to notice the other spells entirely. Neither Ai nor Mai were certain why the spells would be blocking doors on other buildings, but they wanted to check each before entering Alma’s residence. They had found various clips of fires throughout the city that we had attributed to Alma, several bringing back memories to me. I remembered the deaths like Georgina and the girls at the school all too well, but I also remembered how Alma’s long hair moved when walked and her strange, violet eyes. I even remembered the nightmare I had where Alma was working with werewolves against me. Evil could be so very beautiful and enticing even as it killed you. As the twins started explaining how they wanted us to enter, I was relieved to see there was no splitting up, but Jarod was surprised. “Wouldn’t you want her to have to keep spinning? If you’re all on one side of her, won’t she just blast the area with as much fire as she can muster?” he asked.
Emma argued that we would be able to help protect one another more easily in a group, but the twins hesitated. “Our magic is strongest when we’re together,” stated Ai, but Mai said, “but I do agree that we need to keep her from being able to focus on one area.” Jarod shrugged and suggested, “Why not have Emma attack her from every other side with her plants?” Mai shook her head negatively while Emma explained “There isn’t much vegetation in the area, and I need there to be a physical link between the plants to control them.” He rolled his eyes and said, “Fine. Just drop a bunch of seeds clear around the building and get them started before you go inside. You can make their roots burst up through the floor, right?” I could easily forget how brilliant Jarod was when he was being silly, but I was very glad that he was on my side. Aaliyah, who had scrambled off me during the conversation, was scribbling away in a notebook. When I asked if she had any input on the plan, she didn’t even look up as she started pointing out how the plan could be better. She disagreed with scouting the other areas first, the entry point on the main building, and pretty much everything except what Jarod had said.
When Ai started arguing, Aaliyah showed the first page of her notebook, which spelled out word-for-word what Ai was saying. Mai started talking, and Aaliyah had her argument written out word-for-word as well. The twins weren’t happy and walked up to her as they spoke, revealing to the rest of us a page taped onto each of their back’s. Ai’s said, “Predictable”. Mai’s said, “Me too.” The twins turned back toward us when we all started laughing. I did my best to stop, since they were obviously upset. While the twins were glaring at the rest of us, Aaliyah told them “You two know every move in your family’s playbook, but you really need to think outside of it. Assuming this Alma girl is clever, she could have placed those seemingly random spells up to send her a warning if anyone messed with them. If she’s really clever, they’re part of a bigger spell, like this.” Aaliyah held up a page where a pattern I didn’t recognize was drawn out connecting various dots that looked similar to the warded spots on the map. “Personally,” she continued, “I’d want to do both as well as ward the doors. Ai opened her mouth but closed it again when she saw that Aaliyah had flipped a page. “Where did you learn magic, runt?” was followed by “I read.” on it.
After the twins settled down a little, they started giving more credence to the little girl’s advice. All of us, even Brandon and Brenna, followed them as Aaliyah and the twins left the room for the East Wing. In the library there, Aaliyah had me reach down a book for her, one with a title I couldn’t understand. Part of the book talked about layering spells according to her translation, and another part talked about how to create a spell over a large area. Then I had to fetch a couple other books which Aaliyah referenced to show the twins various patterns that could all be created using those same spots. If Alma was half as good as Aaliyah, she was still far, far more knowledgeable about magic than I was. I was completely lost as the discussion went into how the spells might be undone. Ai and Mai were committed enough to the scheming that they were floating books over to Aaliyah with spells as the tiny girl named them. After Brandon started snoring, I wondered if we even stood a chance against someone who knew this much, not realizing that I had spoken out loud. The twins looked back at me and said in unison “Perhaps we wouldn’t have, but we do now. If you want to back out, feel free, but we’re going tonight.” There wasn’t any chance I was abandoning them. One way or another, we would end this.
I couldn’t ask Aaliyah to kill someone, but I was so tired and so worried. After returning home from finding Alma, I spent the next couple hours finishing plans and preparations for tomorrow’s demon raids. I did my best to stay on task, but Jarod obviously noticed my mind wandering. At one point, he had leaned over my chair and asked if I was alright. I told him that there was a lot on my mind but that I’d be okay. I wanted everyone to go to bed, so I could have a chat with Ai and Mai. Everyone was working so hard at their preparations that they lingered longer and longer. Brenna was the first to start nodding off in her chair, but that wasn’t till nearly two in the morning. By the time Brandon and Jarod left, I was feeling exhausted but still too anxious to sleep. I gave up on outwaiting Emma, and told her and the twins that we needed to talk somewhere private. They all looked surprised, but I didn’t wait for responses. I walked out of the ballroom and headed toward the east wing. The twins were at my sides, taking my arms, in just a few steps. Ai asked in a whisper if this chat would be safe for Emma. I nodded affirmatively and a brief moment of hesitation. I really didn’t want Emma to come along, but I didn’t want to keep her in the dark. Emma caught up shortly thereafter.
After we all took seats in the twins’ war-room-like office, I took a moment to wrangle my tired thoughts together into something coherent. None of them spoke. They just stared at me expectantly. “I found Alma.” I told them, giving pause to let the words take hold. They looked to one another, seeming shocked and worried. I then continued, saying, “She appears to be staying in an abandoned building which she covered in wards that are far beyond me, so she’s definitely been trained in magic. We need to move quickly, so she doesn’t have time to relocate. If I was any less tired, I’d want to go now. As things are, I want to go tomorrow. We’ll rest, carry out the attacks in Ancient Tribes of Earth, and then try to catch Alma before she gets behind her wards.” Ai and Mai were staring at one another and both looked nervous. “Are there any plants in the area?” asked Emma. I reached over and gently touched her shoulder before saying, “Emma, I don’t want you there. She’s dangerous and obviously doesn’t mind killing people. If she was staying in the woods, that’d be one thing, but your talents are much more limited indoors.” Emma grabbed my hand from her shoulder and squeezed it tight in both of hers before glaring at me and saying, “I am going with you.”
“Take us there. We want to do some scouting tonight. Then we’ll plan tomorrow before our attack,” demanded Ai and Mai in unison. They looked too determined to brook argument, so I followed them to the garage with Emma in tow, still squeezing my hand. When I started walking to Mila, Ai grabbed me and pulled me over to her bike. “But Mila’s much quieter” I argued, eyeing the motorcycle dubiously. The seat looked too small for two, and I wasn’t certain the thing could support the weight. “You’ll be fine. Just put a helmet on, get on behind me, and hold on tight.” she demanded. She pointed where she wanted my feet and sat practically on my lap. This machine was not made for my long legs, and having her pressed so tight against me wasn’t making me anymore comfortable. I glanced over at Emma behind Mai and smiled. She seemed to be enjoying herself. Then Ai asked me which way to head, I replied, and all thought was lost as she took off. I held on for dear life as she whizzed through the streets. The speedometer was often reading over one hundred and fifty, and I took a while to realize that was in kilometers per hour. They never stopped for a sign or a light, merely driving around any obstacles they came across. I thought we were dead when a semi blocked the path, but we somehow ramped off nothing and flew over it.
Ai slowed down when we reached the area I had told her, and asked for directions from there. Then she pulled onto the sidewalk, told me to watch the bike, and took off with Mai. My hands were trembling as I sat there, still straddling the bike. “That was some crazy ride, man-slave!” exclaimed Emma, somewhat breathlessly. “Yeah. You could say that. Things like that look far more exciting in movies.” I told her. She laughed nervously and said, “I can’t argue that, but they can handle it. I’m pretty sure that cop we passed is flipping out though.” I looked at her, surprised, and responded “I didn’t even see him. Much of that was a blur. Did you see the speedometer on these things?” She giggled and said, “Yeah. Goes over two-eighty. My poor bug would never keep up.” I wasn’t completely sure on the conversions, but I was certain Mila would leave them in the dust on a long enough straightaway. Her speedometer went up to three hundred and eighty in miles per hour. I wouldn’t have had a chance at keeping up through the city though, not with how the twins disregarded all traffic laws. After a while, our conversation died, leaving Emma and I looking around nervously at the eerily empty streets.
When the twins returned, they didn’t say a word before hopping on the bikes and taking off in the same crazy fashion they drove us here. I tried to enjoy the ride as I would a rollercoaster, but I was far too aware of how helpless I was if Ai made one slip. In the garage, they told us that they had some work to do if they were going to get past the wards, and then they darted off before I could hope to follow. I needed sleep, but I was far too wound up. “Care to join me for a swim before bed?” I asked. Emma smiled and said, “Sure. The pond? I’ll meet you out back after I change.” I hurried to my room and found my trunks neatly folded away, even though I had no clue where I put them after last time. I really needed to figure out who did laundry and thank them. Emma was in yet another swimsuit, this one a ruffley, black bandeau covered in little, pink hearts with a matching bottom. I never really understood why girls wanted so many swimsuits, but I couldn’t complain when I saw them worn. My tiredness was already starting to take hold when we reached the pond. Looking at the statue of Regina, I told Emma “Promise me that you won’t die. If things go bad, run.” She touched my arm and said, “James…” I turned to her, and interrupted her by saying, “Promise me that you’ll run. I…”
I couldn’t finish. Tears were running down my cheek. Emma hugged me and told me “I understand. I truly do. Trust me in this: we won’t die. The twins will be at our sides this time, and they’re very gifted. Remember what they did to my trees or Brandon’s leg? Can you imagine getting hit like that? Neither of them will be holding back this fight, and neither will I. I’m so sorry I was underprepared against the werelions. That won’t happen again. Alma will have to face this.” She backed away from me, and plants wrapped up around her. Dead twigs were lifted against her, came to life, and became large, wooden panels until at last Emma wore what was obviously armor. Held in one hand was a smooth staff that seemed to glow slightly. “I’ll have countless seeds tucked away in this to create countless plants.” she told me. I took some residual energy from the air and made a fire on her staff. When the staff appeared unharmed, I intensified the flame more and more. Emma’s magic was able to heal it as fast as it was damaged. “If you or the twins put spells over me to help protect against fire, I’ll be able to handle far more. Alma will have to protect herself against all of us, so she won’t be able to focus on any single person for too long.”
Underestimating Emma’s magic was a bad idea, and I shouldn’t have doubted her. I still couldn’t help worrying. The plants receded, revealing the spunky girl with her lively hair, and I hugged her. I truly couldn’t handle losing someone again, at least not so soon. We swam for a while, and then just floated in the water and talked. My eyes were closed, and I felt a gentle kiss which I enjoyed. Then I realized the sun was shining and opened them to find a pale girl with overly large, slanted eyes over me. As I stared in shock, she gave me a shy smile. Then Emma murmured something, and the girl sprinted away into the labyrinth. “Emma! Wake up! There’s a girl running in the labyrinth. Find her.” I implored as I shook her shoulder. I didn’t care to explain that the strange girl wasn’t wearing even a stitch on her. Emma looked up at me, bleary eyed, and said, “I don’t feel anything except animals, man-slave.” With a big yawn, she then continued “I can’t believe we fell asleep out here though.” I felt surprisingly good and looked back to where I was sleeping. A thick layer of moss bore my imprint. “I think that girl did this,” I said. Emma shook her head and told me “That sort of thing always happens when I sleep outside. Can’t help it. Surprised you haven’t noticed before.”
I couldn’t recall ever seeing Emma nod off in the grass, but I didn’t doubt her word. I let the matter of the girl drop and jogged with Emma to the house. She split off to freshen up, but I was obeying my stomach and heading to the kitchen. Today would be busy enough without worrying over some mystery nudist. We could always pursue her a day when there weren’t three demons and a fire witch to be slain. Part of me still rebelled against the idea of killing. I just couldn’t think of any other choice. Average prisoners and guards wouldn’t stand a chance if I went psychotic in prison. Someone far more knowledgeable about magic could easily escape. There just wasn’t any place in the world for someone so dangerous. First things first, there were three demons we were scheduled to fight today, and my guild needed me. I tripped over Jarod and barely caught myself. “Ow! Dude!” he yelled. “Why are you sleeping in the hallway?” I asked. “I blame your house. I never have this problem at home. What time is it?” he asked with a yawn. “No clue. I fell asleep by the pond and my phone’s dead.” I told him. Around another yawn, he then said, “Oh. Thought you were walking around in your boxers at first. Guess those are trunks. Breakfast?” I nodded, helped him up, and walked with him to the kitchen. This was going to be quite the day.