“If we’re going to accomplish this, we’ll have to call in some favors, since the boss-man isn’t wanting us to cheat.” stated Aaliyah. Ai and Mai were glaring at me, which was made all the more creepy by their identical posture. Aaliyah was explaining how this event was meant to be unlocked much farther into the game by more powerful players who had access to the “traveling stones”, allowing them to keep up with the demon’s flight. She now would be activating certain NPCs to give quests that should quickly unlock all of these stones, but she was certain that more demons would be freed before we could raise an army large enough to fight them, hence the need for “favors” as she put it. We were supposed to contact everyone we know who might play the game and ask them to contact their friends, so we could organize a gathering as quickly as possible. I could hardly believe the scale of battle she was talking about implementing. Forty man raids were known to cripple slower computers, and Aaliyah was talking about wanting a thousand players versus each demon. I knew the numbers were possible with the millions of players, but I couldn’t fathom how such a battle would work with modern technology.
Panning my camera to see around Ashenwake, I was taken in by the stark contrast between this dying world and the one I knew just a day before. Plants were no longer a vibrant green, having spots and a slimy substance on them, the latter sticking to Ashenwake’s clothes wherever he touched them. Though the sky was still blue, there was a distinct, unnatural darkness to it as if I were perceiving the sky through a smoky filter. With a single demon’s freedom causing such dramatic differences, I anticipated that the lot of them could turn the world into a wasteland in a day. I looked at the tiny, bright-eyed girl who was still explaining what needed accomplished to win this event and could scarcely reconcile her adorable demeanor with the mind who could think up such a vast world with its hidden darkness. Never before had I seen such startling realness in a game’s graphics or NPCs that were as amazingly interactive, both of which bespeaking the genius of their creator, but what could the diminutive girl have seen to create such a dark tale in this game?
Aaliyah’s giggle, being in such contrast to my thoughts, broke my reverie and sent my mind scrambling to figure out what I missed. She was now sitting on Emma’s lap while eating another kebab; I couldn’t recall how many she had already consumed, much to my concern. Sudden pain in my shoulder had me shooting out of my chair, preparing to defend myself. “Wow, dude. Having an off morning?” asked Jarod, who was standing by my chair. Aaliyah giggled all the more. Jarod looked completely disheveled, which was about par for the course with Jarod when he just woke. I laughed as I told him “You caught me completely off-guard, but at least I know what Aaliyah was giggling about. Your hair’s amazing!” He shrugged and grinned ear-to-ear, completely at peace with himself. Then he said, “I can’t believe you started doing battle planning without me though. Decided you can take the beastie on by yourselves?” Ai responded “Quite the contrary.” before Mai started listing off what they expected of him. He walked over and casually sat on her lap, and the look of surprise on her face was priceless as she cut off mid-sentence.
“But I don’t wanna do chores.” whined Jarod in a child-like impression. “I wanna kill the bad thing!” he exclaimed, keeping the tone. Ai and Mai both looked even more shocked. My eyes were tearing from laughter, having seen Jarod pull the same stunt on his mother when she was attempting to scold him before. I couldn’t remember what she had been upset about precisely, but I could remember the blatant disbelief as she gazed at her muscular son complaining like a child. Mrs. Davis had been hopelessly pinned by him, but Mai literally tossed him off her with impressive strength. The Jarod I knew from a few months before would have been sent sprawling, so I was a bit bewildered to see him roll, stand, and laugh with apparent ease. “Be serious!” exclaimed Ai, moving at him with lightning speed… and falling to the ground with the same swiftness. Jarod had barely moved but somehow managed to trip her. He did not, however, catch Mai coming from behind him and was quickly on the ground himself, laughing and saying, “I give up!” I would have loved seeing the expressions the twins bore, but the mirrors in the room were all being utilized as monitors.
Leaping forward, Ai obviously wasn’t going to let Jarod off so easily, though she was obviously moving slower now than she had initially. I couldn’t help wondering how much the twins held back when they sparred with me. I also was in awe of my long-time friend, who was landing blows on Ai with surprising frequency ― a feat I couldn’t accomplish despite years more experience. In addition, I realized that I would not want to be hit even once by him, since each of his blows should have crippled or even killed Ai. Somehow, she kept on fighting even as he took advantage of countless pressure points. Once more I was reminded how I truly did not know the twins very well, but I also wondered how my friend managed to become so dangerous in such a short period, especially when I watched Ai stagger back, a hand held to her chest. “Please stop,” begged Jarod as he breathed heavily, attempting to catch his breath. Only when Ai knelt down, did I realize little Aaliyah had wandered over by Mai. Aaliyah whispered something to her, and Ai nodded as in reply. “Wow. That was really something,” muttered Brandon around a mouthful of food. I had missed him and Brenna entering the room.
Gently placing a hand on Ai’s shoulder, Jarod said, “I’m sorry. Are you alright?” Then another strange thing happened; Ai and Mai were hugging him and smiling. For a moment, I felt something odd, like I was wishing they were hugging me. If they weren’t the evil twins, I might have thought myself jealous. I just had never seen them so excited when hugging someone else, though Ai still seemed slightly off. What was happening? Aaliyah had warned Brandon, Brenna, and I against sparring with Jarod, but I could hardly believe what I just witnessed, especially how it ended. “Redheads!” exclaimed Aaliyah, who came our way. “Hey, miss know-it-all. Know why the boss guy here is acting all weird?” asked Brandon, drawing my attention back to him. He and Brenna were still in pajamas, and I was curious how no one had jobs this morning. Aaliyah explained “Well, Jarod almost killed Ai, so she’s decided he’s alright. The boss-man seems to be deciding whether or not he’s still dreaming. Look how hard he’s staring at everything!”
I was not… well, maybe I was staring. She was definitely right about me wondering if anything was real at the moment. I doubted that Jarod almost killed Ai though. She seemed perfectly fine now. I could hear her telling him “So now that you’re being serious for a second, can’t you see that Ancient Tribes of Earth is in peril! We could already be working on gathering an army if it wasn’t for you distracting us” Then Mai added “Now you’re all sweaty and icky, so you’ll need to shower.” To which Jarod responded while waggling his fingers at them “Couldn’t you, you know, magic me clean or something if it’s so important?” Ai rolled her eyes and informed him “You’ll still be sweating. Cool off, and I might consider it.” I lost track of their conversation when Brenna touched my arm and asked me “So are we going to learn to defend ourselves like that?” I told her “Maybe not quite like that, but you’ll get better and better if you keep practicing.” Then Aaliyah piped up, saying, “You probably won’t ever beat Jarod, but the training course is available to everyone in Best Friend For Hire. You people would know these things if you just read the memos!”
Much to Ai and Mai’s chagrin, I took Brandon and Brenna to the gym for martial training, since even Brandon seemed more enthusiastic about it than on previous days. Ai and Mai didn’t complain too much when Aaliyah stayed to help them. Training went fairly well, though Brandon’s enthusiasm waned as he repeated exercises. I was surprised when he stuck around to watch his little sister practice magic. Brenna still struggled, but her desire to learn was obvious in her determination. When we rejoined the others in the ballroom, Ai and Mai were busily trying to gather a following in the game’s official forums. Jarod’s character was in a town, trying to convince passersby to heed his call for aid, which he was getting some attention. Aaliyah skipped over to me and said, “Boss-man, sir! We get to go to stores! The twins and I agreed that you could get some attention by posting flyers at the game stores, so I designed one and printed copies!” I was a bit surprised that they’d want me trying to get help in real life rather than in the game itself, but the idea was worth a shot. Most people who played were likely to stop at a game store sooner or later, so I accepted my quest and hoped for the best.