Part of me cringed inside as I slid Aaliyah’s pink backpack onto my shoulder, but carrying her inside would be easier this way. I then gently scooped her up, shut the car door, and balanced her on one arm as I went inside. “Jaaames!” whined Mai. “What took you so long?” complained Ai. I shushed them and pointed at the sleeping girl I carried, which only seemed to sour their expressions. “Oh, don’t worry. She can sleep through anything.” they told me in unison as they came to my sides. I kept trying to get a word out in protest, but they were interrupting me at every turn while guiding me into the ballroom. I appreciated the compliments they gave regarding my parents, but a sleeping child should be placed in bed. A moment after sitting with Aaliyah still in my arms, I wasn’t entirely certain how they had maneuvered me into the chair. In my defense, something interesting was happening on Ancient Tribes of Earth. Brandon, Brenna, and Emma seemed to be involved in total darkness. Jarod’s character was in a cave, heading toward a bright light that reflected off the walls ahead. Despite knowing that two in the morning was upon us, my curiosity was peaked.
I maneuvered Aaliyah into a more upright position, her head resting against my shoulder, as I logged into the game. Mai’s character surprised me, staring up at me from a hair’s breadth away. Her character grabbed Ashenwake’s hand, and I accepted the “Invitation to Follow” that appeared on my screen. Then our characters were running hand-in-hand across the green fields. Within moments, my character was being outpaced, seeming to float behind Mai’s character as she pulled me along. When I commented how this was the least realistic thing I had seen in the game, she told me how Ashenwake was floating through a spell she made, but then had to go into how much faster he’d be able to run if I just played more often. After several minutes, I repositioned Aaliyah, hoping she wouldn’t be drooling into my shirt as much. I watched the others arriving and gathering around a large, brightly luminescing crystal that caused the gem-encrusted walls to dance in rainbow hues. “How did you find this place?” I inquired, admiring the beauty portrayed on the enormous mirrors of the ballroom. Aaliyah truly knew how to make a world that engrossed the imagination.
“Well,” started Mai before Ai leaned over and covered her mouth. Ai quickly explained “I happened across a hole in the earth, and we decided to explore.” Brandon, who started laughing, then said, “She fell into a hole, and the rest of us went down to rescue her.” Elf Hottie, Brandon’s character, started getting viciously attacked on the screen by Ai’s character, but the display became disturbing quickly as Brandon kept typing “/laugh” to mirror his real life laughter. Poor Elf Hottie seemed to be laughing gleefully as she took blow after blow. Mai, who had her mouth free now that Ai was busy attacking Brandon, stuck her tongue at her sister before explaining to me that they were running along, looking for crafting material, when Ai let out a gasp. Everyone except Ai apparently had a great laugh at how Ai’s character flailed through the air as she fell. “It was great,” exclaimed Emma, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ai so embarrassed before. Then she started trying to claim she did it on purpose after Brenna asked what the light in the distance was.” Jarod, seeming quite earnest, said, “I believe her. No one could look that ridiculous by mistake. She obviously meant to step into that hole. Ai only gasped in surprise for effect, and the flailing was far too panicked for such a dignified person to do on accident.”
Jarod ducked when Ai’s slipper came flying at his head a moment later, causing him to lose his serene facade in laughter. His expression went from jovial to pained when the slipper caught him in the back of the head three times before returning to Ai’s foot, but he only seemed to laugh all the harder afterward. Life truly was more difficult to anticipate with magic in the real world as well as the games, but the fun was as exceptional as the pain. Not wanting to further disturb Aaliyah, I created a spell to pour tortilla chips from a nearby tray onto a plate, another for the salsa, and then made the plate float over to me. Carefully grabbing the plate from the air and setting it on Aaliyah’s lap, I placed her little hands around the edges, thinking it’d be fine as long as she didn’t move. I looked up with a chip in my mouth in time to see Mai leaping into a hole and using poor Ashenwake as a balloon to slow her fall. My character looked completely ridiculous as I slowly descended with Mai hanging from his hand. Why did we have to arrive just as I was enjoying a snack?
Though I had seen the great crystal on the other mirrors around the room, seeing its beauty on my own made the magnificent gem seem all the more real to me. Now my own character was within arm’s reach of touching it. I absently took another chip from my plate as I stared and was still chewing as I asked “So do you have any idea what it does?” Quite matter-of-factly, Ai and Mai took turns explaining how they believed that the crystal was a node of magical energies, something they believed could enhance our magic if utilized properly. “And since our resident expert appears to be out of commission, we might as well try some trial and error with it.” concluded Ai. “Sounds good to me,” stated Brandon as Elf Hottie twirled through the air, slamming her greatsword into the crystal. The sword fell out of her hands and Elf Hottie went sprawling. The crystal seemed to vibrate and a loud, reverberating tone echoed throughout the cave. “Perhaps we should try a slightly more organized approach.” suggested Jarod. He then asked me to try encompassing the crystal in fire. Since no one protested, I did as he asked and was surprised when the crystal changed color.
Jarod smiled and then told different people to utilize their magic, and the crystals colors continued to change. “Oooh…,” said the twins in unison. “Oh, what?” I asked, feeling confused. “The gems!” exclaimed Emma. As I looked to the wall again, I realized that the gems weren’t randomly arranged around the cave wall. There was a pattern in their colors that Jarod had been clever enough to catch. As the last spell was being cast, I heard a vibrating sound and a voice coming from Aaliyah’s backpack. I lifted the bag up and placed my ear against it to listen. The voice inside was saying, “Alert! Alert! Alert!” I quickly unzipped it while watching the beautiful display on the game where the crystal spun incredibly fast, creating images on the cave walls with its light. When I pulled out Aaliyah’s phone, I was surprised the talking stopped for a moment. “James Michael Somerset the Third, boss-man and investor, recognized,” stated the phone. Then the screen lit up and displayed a notice similar in appearance, though not in content, to what I had seen posted on billboards when I was last in town.
“World Event: The Trial of Siaubus initiated. 22/23 demons remain.”
I was still staring at Aaliyah’s phone when a cracking sound got my attention. Looking to my game screen, I saw that the crystal had stopped spinning and had cracks forming across it. “Guys, run!” I called as I started heading out of the cave with Ashenwake. “Why would we do that?” asked the twins in unison. “Aaliyah’s phone just received a notification of some world event starting in the game, and I think a demon is about to escape that crystal.” Glancing at the other screens, I saw that Brandon and Brenna’s characters were right behind mine. Jarod and Emma were just starting to move. The twins stayed put, obviously unpersuaded by my warning. I led the others down countless tunnels, hoping that we would be safe for now if we ran far enough. Looking quickly to their screens, I saw that both Ai and Mai’s characters were slain instantly as the crystal exploded outward. The creature rocketed out through the earth above them, leaving a trail of smoke in its wake. “Jaaaaames,” cried Ai, “why didn’t you warn us that would happen?” I rolled my eyes ineffectually when she looked at me. “I gave you as much warning as I could. I can’t force you to run.” I stated.
The rest of us headed back and guarded Emma as she resurrected the twins’ characters. “Next time, let’s not play with strange, shiny things when the Princess isn’t with us,” said Brenna. “You really don’t need to call her that,” snapped Ai, seeming sore about her character dying. “But Mila calls her ‘The Princess’, and that tiara she has looks really expensive,” muttered Brenna. “A little dying never hurt anyone, sis.” laughed Brandon. Ai and Mai both pulled down one eyelid while sticking their tongues at him. “Let’s see how you like being a little dead, soulless,” they said in unison, but that didn’t seem to dampen his spirit remotely. “On the bright side,” asserted Jarod, “we managed to figure out the puzzle without needing support from the designer.” I gave him a smile and observed “If we do that too often, the world may not survive it.” He laughed and gave me a shrug. Then he declared “I’m done for the night. Let’s start the demon hunting tomorrow. “The gems,” started Brenna, “They’re all black now.” I gave Ashenwake a command to clean the wall, but his rubbing didn’t seem to have any effect. If containing the demon involved such an expensive spell that it needed all of these gems, killing the thing might be beyond us. Only tomorrow would tell.