After a week spent with Aaliyah, not having her around felt odd, as if something important was missing. She woke me on Saturday by dancing on my footboard while singing about her daddy’s eminent arrival. I rushed to get myself presentable and then walked to the entry hall as she skipped along in song. Even singing the silliest of things, Aaliyah’s voice was breathtaking. Perhaps I was the only one affected by her singing in such a way, but her singing seemed to reach inside of me, take hold of my emotions, and guide them through the endless depths of her imagination. Then the song ended as she swung open the door and leaped at her daddy, who struggled to catch her before hugging her tight. The happiness and love shared between the two of them was so completely obvious that I felt on the verge of tears, possibly for the loss of the music as well. Chad greeted me and thanked me for looking after his daughter for such a period. I assured him that looking after Aaliyah was a rare pleasure which I would gladly accept anytime. Then she was gone, and I wasn’t sure how long I stood there after Chad’s car had disappeared from sight.
Mila informed me that breakfast was still waiting and started reading off my schedule as I walked to the kitchen. Things were busy. Very busy. I had three jobs scheduled for that day alone. Between the first and the second, and then again after the third, I found myself on Ancient Tribes of Earth working toward a safe world with the help of my friends and guildmates. Days passed in this fashion. Then weeks. When I wasn’t working or gaming, I was training myself, teaching Brandon and Brenna, or sleeping. I did manage to fit in a few meals with my parents as well, and spent all of mother’s birthday with them. When Aaliyah was online, she helped guide the guild toward finding the traveling stones, which were then divided amongst officers to help hasten things further. The portable traveling stones allowed any number of people to travel from one to another as long as the person holding the destination stone accepted the travel request. In combat, this allowed reinforcements to instantly arrive where needed, provided the stones were distributed well. Unfortunately, the growing number of demons in the world were becoming a problem. Exacerbating things, a few other guilds had heard about the stones and were working to attain them as well. Though my guild was vastly larger than any we came against, hunting down skilled players was more than a little difficult.
Aaliyah assured me that we were making good progress, but I still worried about winning. Leading people in the game had fun moments, but there were also times I felt like yelling at everyone who spoke up. When you get enough people together, there will always be some who refused to get along. Instead of letting the officers over them mediate, people would often want to hear from me. Then there were the people who just wanted to chat with me, which wouldn’t be a problem if there weren’t literally thousands. Even subdividing the chatter into countless windows couldn’t slow the text enough for me to catch more than a fraction of what was being said at any moment. I didn’t want anyone to feel ignored, but explaining that I was only one man countless times was getting old. Each person seemed to feel that they should be the exception to whom I gave my undivided attention. Mai ended up convincing me to just give ten minutes to several divisions per day, enough that I’d be seen talking with them without losing my mind in the process. I vaguely recalled starting my business to avoid schedules, yet here I was making yet another even in my fun time.
Three weeks had passed in a blur of real life and gaming, and I hardly felt my army in the game was ready for the upcoming battle with the nine demons roaming the world. Yes, the majority had a couple weeks of practice in running formations, cooperative casting, and tactics on defending areas, but there were so many new members. A large guild from Brazil joined us when a demon in their area was freed, and I had to delegate a platoon to help train. I let Ai train their former guild leader as an officer, since she was fluent in Portuguese and seemed to enjoy it, which led me to realize that the game was translating numerous languages on the fly. All I ever saw was English. Though Brandon was a very competent player, Brenna was by far the better officer, being the more diplomatic of the two. Brandon tended to settle disagreements with duels more often than not from what I saw, which caused several of the less competent fighters to quit the guild. One of them had very high crafting skills, so I had Emma persuade him to rejoin under her command. With the need to strike growing more eminent, I asked Aaliyah to schedule a few noncontiguous days without work for everyone in the business, so we could have time for the long, pitched battles against the demons.
The night before the first battle, I decided to walk home, since the night was pleasantly cool for August. I wanted time to clear my head before jumping into discussions about battle preparations. Mila seemed disappointed when I sent her home without me. Emma’s influence on my car’s A.I. seemed to make Mila ever more lifelike. I could imagine Mila making a better guild leader than myself in that she could simultaneously talk with countless guildies without a hitch. As I walked, I mused about what life was like for Mila. I never really asked her about preferences, but I was more and more convinced she had them. Perhaps I should ask Aaliyah if she would consider Mila a true sentient being, or if much of that was in my head. I realized then that Aaliyah’s answer didn’t truly matter. I enjoyed Mila and would try to treat her well even if she couldn’t understand it. There was no reason not to treat her as a person… unless she wanted to be treated differently. What if she thought people were beneath her? I doubted she would treat me so well if that were the case, unless, of course, she were deviously manipulating me. I couldn’t really give much credence to that line of thought. Mila was always so…
I quickly shielded my eyes from the sudden brightness nearby. A fire was blazing on the second floor of the building across the street. I was about to call it in when another thought came to mind: Alma. I ducked behind a trash can and peeked out to look around the nearly empty street. This part of the city was nearly abandoned at night due to all the offices, but my client had wanted to treat me to dinner at a restaurant down the street before we had parted ways. There was a couple down the street on their phones and pointing at the fire. A late night jogger had stopped to stare at the blaze. My heart stopped. Barely visible in the dark of an overhang was Alma. I didn’t want to underestimate her and face her alone, especially with bystanders nearby. What if she used them as hostages.. or shields. After a brief moment of gazing up at the fire, she turned and started casually walking down the street. To my surprise, the fires in the building quickly subsided and were gone. I wouldn’t have expected her to clean up instead of letting the fire department stop the fire from spreading. After a second’s hesitation, I crossed the street and watched from around the corner as she continued on her way.
I followed her as carefully as I could, trying to keep barriers between us whenever possible. I casted a spell over me to deflect light away, making me a shadow in the shadows when I was in the open. She walked carefree, never even glancing behind her, and there were numerous times when I wondered if I should just strike while she was unprepared. I kept myself from being so reckless with constant reminders of how I took a beating from the twins when I fell for such deceptions. They were always watching, especially when they seemed not to be. Alma was very skilled with fire, so I imagined she was well-trained in magic. There could be any number of spells around her for protection, some of which might not be visible. If there was any way to see magic such as that the twins used to control water, I certainly didn’t know it. I knew next to nothing about Alma’s personality, but I truly doubted that she was putting on a display of false bravado as she headed into a building that appeared abandoned. This part of town was creepy at night. If there was anyone else around, they weren’t in sight. The shadows hanging over me should have made me feel safely hidden, but the eerie sounds around me might be far more sinister than the wind.
I watched for a while and carefully made my way around the building, but I didn’t see any sign that she had left. I crept closer to the building, hoping to see something therein, but I stopped quickly when I realized what I was seeing. I had attributed the light between the building and me to residual energy floating in the air. After moving closer, I realized I was seeing wards covering the entire structure. They looked extremely complicated. I could pick out a symbol occasionally that I recognized, but that was all. I quickly backed away, not wanting to be caught nearby. If I called the twins, they would come. I was certain that the others would gladly try to help as well. Although I had faith that the twins would be able to get us past the wards and into the building, I wasn’t certain that we should attack just yet. Calling the twins now would probably bring everyone here. I felt competent enough with fire magic to protect myself, but what about Brandon and Brenna? I definitely didn’t want Jarod near the place. Emma would want to come, but I didn’t want to risk her getting injured or worse. On the other hand, this could just be a temporary stop. Who would die next if I didn’t put a stop to Alma now? One way or the other, I would be the one deciding.