I ran down the street at a full sprint and was still losing ground, but I knew he just made a wrong turn. That alleyway lead to a dead end, so I slowed to a walk when I reached it and took a moment to catch my breath. He would have no choice but to face me now… or so I thought. The werelion was scaling the building, long claws tearing through the brick with ease. Though I couldn’t follow him up, he wasn’t out of my reach. I carefully prepared a spell to throw the werelion to the ground. I wanted the beast to land hard, so I could finish him off before he could recover. Before I could release my spell, a cold sunk into my bones. “Dooo it.” came a raspy voice from over my shoulder. “Finish him, or need I show you how?” My lips started to form a reply, but my teeth chattered too hard to talk. I felt like my teeth were going to break against each other and that my heart was falling into an abyss. Then the werelion’s torso ripped open as an enormous scythe impaled him to the wall. The voice came again, saying, “You’re too weak to survive, little boy. Run home to your mommy. RUN!” The last part came as an ear-piercing scream, a great wail of thousands in anguish, from a disembodied skull yelling at my face.
I took a moment to stop screaming and still gripped my covers for a long time after I realized I was awake, that I was in bed. The image of that disembodied skull with its endless black maw yelling was still fixed in my mind. I looked at my clock to find that I had slept four hours tonight. Better than some. I focused past the screaming in my head, past the howling wind, past the icy cold, and I forced myself to piece by piece arrange the most complicated light spell I knew. If I released it, anything touched in the room would leave a faint glow for nearly an hour. Ai and Mai had to research the spell in one of their many old books before they could teach me. I had asked for a way to know if something faster than my eye could see moved through a room while I was present. This spell was the best they could find. Beyond my original intent, the spell kept my mind busy enough to help push out the nightmares for a time. There was no real point to knowing the spell though. If Death came for me, the twins knew of no way to stop her. I could hardly keep myself from shaking when I thought of her. Arms wrapped around my waist, embracing me tightly.
“I’m sorry. I woke you again, didn’t I,” I said. Emma shrugged, still holding onto me, so I gently rubbed her back. She had started coming to my room at night to talk when she woke up from her own nightmares, and eventually she stopped bothering to go to her room first, except to change. I couldn’t complain. Having someone nearby to offer a consoling hug was nice, especially when I dreamed of Regina. My eyes started to water, so I pushed her out of my mind again as best as I could. “I’m going to go train some more.” I told Emma, who merely nodded and curled up around a pillow. Despite her nightmares, having Emma nearby helped my body to heal more quickly, so I was able to push my body much harder than ever before. I often lost track of how many hours I spent exercising mind and body each day. Marco ingratiated himself to me more than ever, by bringing me my meals to wherever I was. Then he went a step farther and trained with me a little each day. I never would have guessed that my chef of all people was adept at martial arts. I even stopped caring about performing magic in front of him eventually.
I found out Marco knew of magic, though he claimed he didn’t have the knack for it, when I caught Emma reducing the size of tomatoes she brought him. I had walked into the kitchen to see if he was free, and she nonchalantly shrunk tomatoes that were as big as two fists down to under half that size. Marco simply thanked her and said, “Girl, you’re the best thing that could ever happen to a kitchen. Don’t you think, James? I can get precisely the right vegetables at any time!” When I asked him about how long he knew she could do magic, he told me “Didn’t little miss Aaliyah tell you? She had believing in magic and other supernatural things as a job requirement in the post for the position.” I never really thought about talking with the little genius about discretion, so I decided to do that next time I saw her. I didn’t really know when I was going to see her again, until I received a notice on my phone one day about a job. I was irritated at the interruption from my practice until I saw that I was supposed to be babysitting Aaliyah at my home. She was easy enough to entertain and might help in my training with that strange style she had been teaching Jarod.
I frowned. I couldn’t remember the last time I did anything with Jarod, save for waking him up on accident in the oddest of places. He had stayed over at the mansion numerous times now, but I don’t think he had tried a bed yet. I accidentally tripped over him when I was on my way to the twins’ gym a day or two ago. He had fallen asleep in a hallway on the first floor. Another time I had noticed him under the table in the dining room as I was passing through. I even found him in a closet once when I was looking for an umbrella. I didn’t actually ask why he was in such odd spots. I probably should. I probably should check on how work was going sometime soon too. I wasn’t sure when last I did that either. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I wasn’t focusing very well. I needed to keep my mind on the moment, on training, if I was going to get better. I needed to be able to defend my friends. I needed… Regina. I was crying. I punched again, sending a tear flying from my face with the motion. Then another. Punch. Punch. Kick. Spin. Someone pushed my leg as I was turning, and I fell to the floor.
“You’re off-balance, boss-man, sir, and you’re too tired to be exercising.” came Aaliyah’s voice. She walked over and sat on my chest. “I’m fine, Aaliyah. Sorry that I missed you arriving. Mind letting me up?” I inquired. She ran one of her tiny hands along my cheek, brushing away the already forgotten tears. “Boss-man, sir, I’m not the largest person ever. Surely you can stand,” she said. I rolled my eyes and tried lifting her in my arms. She didn’t move. I felt like I was trying to lift a mountain. “You’re tired, boss-man, sir. I’ll make sure you get to bed.” she stated before kissing my head. I was going to argue, but I realized she was right. I was utterly exhausted and didn’t know how I had been fighting it. The tiny sweetheart hugged me as I started crying again. I was too weak to even move. How was I going to save anyone if I couldn’t even save myself? I tried to fight against my eyelids as they started to shut, but they were far too heavy as well. The world was dark, and I was scared to be alone.
I found that I wasn’t alone though. I was sitting with Emma and Regina at the pond. Aaliyah was there too, chasing the water as we made it dance. The twins entered my view, and Ai rolled her eyes at our water spells. Then Mai formed half the pond into an elaborate castle with people, carriages, fireworks, and countless other details, more than I could take in at once. How was I lucky enough to know so many talented girls? Jarod came from nowhere, lifting Mai and running into the water as her spell crashed over them. Aaliyah’s wide eyed awe changed to delight as they swam. Regina leaned over and kissed my cheek. Then she whispered “I need to go now, James. It’s time.” I held onto her hand, not wanting to let her go even as she stood. Then I saw Death. I knew I was dreaming, but I couldn’t wake. Slowly my shaking subsided. I wasn’t actually cold at all, I realized. Death… I could see her… There was a silver tiara upon her head, giving off a soft light that matched the moon. She wasn’t hideous. She wasn’t cruel. I still panicked as Regina took Death’s hand. “Why must you go?” I asked, still holding on. “Don’t be afraid, James. You have a long, wonderful life ahead of you.”
I woke crying, but not screaming for once. “I miss her so much,” I said. I felt someone’s hand touch my head, and looked over to see Aaliyah sitting on my pillow. She held her phone in one hand and started wiping away my tears with her other. “I know, boss-man, sir. I miss Regina too.” I looked over at my clock and saw it was nearly midnight. “You slept over ten hours. Emma stopped in a little while ago, but I sent her to bed too. Why would she be coming in here to sleep, boss-man, sir?” I looked at Aaliyah’s wide-eyed, quizzical expression and was glad that she was still childlike enough not to jump to conclusions. I was surprised to feel the smile form on my face and said, “She’s been having a rough time sleeping too. We saw something scary that has bothered us both.” Aaliyah kissed my head and told me “Don’t worry, boss-man, sir. I won’t let anything get you. I’m mighty!” Seeing Aaliyah look so serious while flexing her tiny arm, I started laughing and couldn’t get myself to stop for quite some time, much to her chagrin. “But I’m mighty, boss-man, sir!” she kept telling me. Life was always more entertaining with a little Aaliyah.