Over an hour passed while Brenna, Emma, and I practiced magic together. Then we joined Jarod and Mai, swimming for at least an hour more. I could hardly believe how friendly Mai was being without her sister around, but I hardly had spent time with either twin alone. Maybe their sass stemmed from the competitiveness I had observed in the aquarium months ago. The more I thought on it, the more I realized that I truly didn’t know Ai or Mai yet. I knew some of their tastes and how they teased. There were many situations in which I could predict their actions, but I didn’t have a clue what went on in their heads. Every serious conversation I had with them revolved around training or killing. Sometime I would have to try talking about something else and seeing what happened. Living under the same roof with such mysteries was disconcerting once I became aware of the situation, just like that strange apparition seen when ghost hunting. Unlike the so-called ghost, I was fairly certain I could get to truly know the twins if I tried. Despite their antics, they seemed like decent enough girls to be worth truly knowing.
Emma and I led the way back out of the maze, each of us carrying some of the picnic supplies. We all were talking about nothing really, just playfully bantering as we walked. Though Mai was as quick as ever, she still seemed almost distracted somehow. Jarod and I were taken off-guard when she started laughing about nothing, only to say “Sorry. Something just struck me funny.” Brenna obviously still thought Mai was nuts. I was still mulling over her apology, not certain that an apology from one of the twins could be real, when Mai started inquiring about how Brenna’s lesson in magic went. She even went so far as to test what Brenna had learned as we walked. I let Mai get ahead of me as I stopped to see her demonstrate a spell to Brenna. Poor Brenna tripped while trying to duplicate the spell as she walked. Mai was the first to react, tossing what she carried into the air, casting a spell to catch everything, and steadying Brenna. I still had a long way to go if I was ever to catch up to Mai or Ai in using residual energy. Even then, I would never have their natural gift with water magic. After dropping the dishes off in the kitchen, I split off to shower and dress for the evening.
When I asked Mila, she told me that Aaliyah was still in the ballroom, playing Ancient Tribes of Earth, so I went down to join her, feeling slightly guilty about having left her alone with Ai for a couple hours when I was supposed to be babysitting her. As Aaliyah ran up and gave me a hug, Ai and Mai said in unison, “Jaaaames, you’re late!” Then Ai asked “What took you so long?” Mai told her “I didn’t think I had worn him out that much in the pond.” Ai started glaring at her, but Jarod spoke up, saying, “Oh please. You hardly got a chance to speak with him, since you were busy learning how to swim properly from me.” Ai covered her mouth as if to whisper and inquired mockingly “Dear sister, is it true that this boy had to teach you to swim? I realize being the younger sibling must be difficult on you at times, but I hadn’t thought you were falling so far behind.” Mai stuck her tongue at Ai and looked annoyed at Brenna and Emma’s mirth. “Boss-man, sir, will you play with us all now?” I acquiesced with pleasure and logged onto Ignus Ashenwake once more.
I was surprised when Ai and Mai both had gifts for me in the game, considering Mai didn’t have much time to do crafting if she cleaned up as well. Then I realized that she probably cleaned with magic to save time, since she was obviously eager to learn more about crafting in the game. Mai gave me a special amulet to increase the potency of my fire magic. Ai gave me ingots of a metal with a nearly unpronounceable name and told me that Aaliyah had said that metal would make an exceptional staff for my character. The others weren’t without gifts from the twins either. Each of them had at least something new. Though Aaliyah knew the pattern for my staff as well as other items, gathering the materials for what everyone wanted would require us to embark on a quest across the country, which was absolutely enormous by video game standards. Despite the daunting size of our task, we set out with high spirits. Unlike most people in the game, we had a very capable guide to at least show us the direction where materials could be found. Aaliyah explained on the way how most people would have to go to libraries and lost dungeons to research such locations, but she didn’t mind giving “her friends and the evil twins” a slight advantage.
When Brandon returned from his job, he was disappointed that we had traveled so far without his character, since he would have no hope of catching us in a reasonable time, especially considering that moving in the game increased the character’s speed and skill. Both Ai and Mai’s characters were noticeably faster than anyone else, save for Aaliyah. After listening to Brandon complain about being left behind for a few minutes, Aaliyah sighed and typed something on her keyboard. Her character vanished, returning a moment later with Brandon’s character on her shoulders. “How did you do that?” asked Ai and Mai in unison. Aaliyah smiled at them and said, “The GM fetch command. You didn’t REALLY think I’d be playing a normal character, did you?” The twins muttered for a bit, but Brandon expounded about how he had the sweetest mount in the game. I could hear the grin in Jarod’s voice when he told Brandon “I know she’s amazing, but you realize that Aaliyah’s twelve, right?” Brandon looked over at him and said, “Yeah, but her character’s gotta be at least a month older than mine, despite looking… tiny.” I was really wondering about that guy at times.
As we traveled, we took breaks off and on to fight random monsters, delve into old fortresses, and explore caves. Beyond moving more swiftly than most everyone, Ai and Mai’s skills at combat had improved to such an extent that I was feeling as outclassed by them in the game as I did in real life combat. I knew the girls were intelligent, but I never dreamed they’d take to gaming like a fish to water. Emma seemed determined to catch up on the magic, since that was still her character’s complete focus. I wanted to catch up on everything, but I didn’t have a clue how I would find the time. I needed to get back to a regular work schedule, and I still wanted to train as much as possible in martial arts as well as magic. There just didn’t seem to be enough time in a day to keep up with everything going on in my life. I supposed that falling behind in the game wouldn’t be too bad as long as we all go to spend time together, but the game was just so addictive. Aaliyah had really outdone herself in creating it.
By the time I was ready to stop for the night, the group managed to get two different types of materials and were logging out in a cave halfway to a third, assuming that we had Aaliyah’s directions right. She had crawled onto my lap and passed out a couple hours ago, leaving a drool spot on my shirt. I wished everyone a good night and carried her up to a guest room without her waking. After tucking her in and setting her backpack beside the bed, I went back to my own room and asked Mila to play “Hmm?” for me as I prepared for bed. With the song playing a second and then third time, I lay in bed, thinking about my day. Other than training Brenna some and learning some new spells, I couldn’t really say that I had done anything significant, but the day seemed special all the same. I learned a little more about Brandon and Brenna. My estate’s size and contents were less of a mystery to me now. Jarod told me of his breakup. Then I found the beautiful statue of my lost friend, forever giving me a place to remember her. Then there was music, glorious music, to which I woke and now would sleep without fear of a nightmare.