The first demon faced three thousand strong when we went to destroy it. Things didn’t go smoothly, and over two thousand were slain in the fight. Unlike most MMORPGs, repairs weren’t an instantaneous thing in Ancient Tribes of Earth. You needed someone with the right skill set to repair damage, the right materials for your gear, and time enough per piece. Few of those who died would be at the front lines of the next battle, but more of the guild was awake and assembled. With over ten thousand assembled, we still lost over a thousand before slaying the beast. The second demon’s tactics and abilities were vastly different than the first one. Aaliyah was at my home, but not aiding in the fight directly. She didn’t want “the experience to be ruined by forewarning” of what the fight would be like. After each battle, she brought up a video and pointed out flaws in our tactics as well as things for which to look out. I felt slightly uncomfortable as she talked, relating her advice and cunning in creating the game to a life as an assassin. As the world’s only living assassin, she could probably come up with plans to kill things in her sleep, but she used that knowledge to create an exceptionally intense game.
There was no glowing warning for where an area of effect attack would land as in some games. Instead, Ancient Tribes of Earth required you to look for shifts in the wind, to have detection spells against various offensive spells, and to predict your opponent’s movement. When played in slow motion, I did see similarities between how the demons moved, but I didn’t believe for a second that I could notice the specifics in the heat of battle. In addition to the demons themselves, each one commanded armies of corrupted animals, plants, and even non-player characters, generally shortened as NPCs. The animals and plants were very straightforward in their attacks, but they slowed up would-be heroes quite well. Every NPC in the game fought uniquely with spells and abilities suited to their specific backstory. The corrupted versions were just less worried about self-preservation. I actually felt bad about NPC deaths in Ancient Tribes of Earth, since they didn’t simply respawn like a player could. The villages from whence these came would be without blacksmiths, bakers, or even guards until replacements became available. Despite the enormous complexity of the system, I still had not seen a single player complain about lag during the battles.
The first two demons took over three consecutive hours each to fight, and we took a two hour break between them. Despite thousands having to log off or being unable to participate again for other reasons, there were still twelve thousand guild members ready to do battle when we faced the third demon, and we killed it quickly. Listening to Aaliyah’s hints about the fight, Eseld was able to predict the third demon far more easily than I could, and she managed to shackle the beast in ice with the help of numerous other spellcasters. The precious seconds the demon was held still allowed us to vanquish it in just under thirty minutes. I wondered what all the girl could accomplish if she had voice chat instead of having to try typing commands in the middle of intense fighting. Even the twins didn’t try being at the front of the battle while running the strategic command interface. Eseld was truly remarkable to pull off such a feat. One of the benefits of defeating the demons was an enormous treasure horde. All three had worn, carried, and even swallowed countless valuables that helped replenish the guild coffers. I asked Aaliyah as treasurer to make sure everyone who participated got a fair cut. If only I could assemble such an army for my next battle, the unpleasant feeling in my gut might subside.
Through all the merriment, I knew my laughs held little mirth, my jokes didn’t bring me joy, and my heart wasn’t into the celebration. In the game, my character was dancing on a table in the new guild hall. I sat watching the jovial scene with a straight face and a queasy stomach. Within a few hours, I would be helping to kill someone, ending a life that could never be replaced. Even Regina in all her beauty had never captivated my thoughts like Alma, and I would soon be planning Alma’s death. What was this world that allowed a dear friend to be murdered by monsters from myth, a little girl to be an assassin, and me to kill the one girl whom I couldn’t get out of my head? Aaliyah hopped up onto my lap and hugged me. “Thank you for killing some of my demons, boss-man, sir. The world’s been made a little better with each of their deaths.” she told me. I hugged her back and wondered if I should ask for advice from the self-proclaimed expert on death. The poor girl would probably denounce that title and all killing entirely if she ever were to meet Death’s daughter. The thought of that unstoppable, scythe-wielding entity made me shiver even now. Not knowing my thoughts, Aaliyah smiled up at me, at least until Mai approached.
“James,” started Ai, whom I hadn’t noticed approach on my other side, “we’ve been thinking.” I looked back and forth between them and replied “That’s definitely a dangerous habit. Might want to consider giving it up.” Aaliyah giggled, but both twins remained completely serious. “We should get everyone’s advice for tonight. The big, blue eyes staring up at me from the tiny girl on my lap were like pools of curiosity waiting to be filled with answers. I shook my head negatively and said, “I would rather not endanger anyone else.” I heard Jarod speak from behind me and turned as he was asking “What’s this about danger? You know we took out a third of the demons already, right? Why so glum?” I laughed halfheartedly and said, “Yeah-yeah. We’re getting there, but we still have a long ways to go.” Jarod didn’t seem convinced, and Mai loudly said, “Mila, please log everyone out of the game.” After the screens went blank, she continued with “We’re going to fight a very dangerous girl tonight and want everyone’s input.” Before I raised my jaw from where it had fallen, Ai added “My sister and I don’t often ask for help, but you all did remarkably well commanding thousands tonight. We would be interested if you have any ideas we missed.” I fought my anger, but I felt betrayed by them blurting out what I had ask them to keep hidden.
Aaliyah put her hand to my cheek and told me “Boss-man, sir, don’t be upset. You have talented friends who can help.” I still felt upset, but a tear came unbidden, rolling down to Aaliyah’s hand as if beckoned to be brushed away. I lifted her up in an arm as I stood. “First, I want you to be aware that Alma is extremely dangerous and has murdered a large number of people already. Brandon. Brenna. You’re not ready and won’t be joining us.” Brenna looked worried. I thought Brandon was going to argue, but he looked at the twins and nodded instead. I continued by saying, “I’ve spent over a month learning to control fire and hardly feel prepared, but she needs to be stopped before she kills again. Jarod, I know you can fight now, but you have no protection against the magic.” He wasn’t happy, but he didn’t argue with me. “Mila, will you please bring up presentation 4365921 from my private drive?” asked Mai. What was with the funky number and one of the twins being polite? “Yes, evil one. Just for you, since you asked nicely.” replied Mila, bringing up a picture on every wall.
The twins explained the layout of the area where Alma was taking refuge, and then pointed out where they had found protective spells beyond the building’s wards. I was so distracted by the building last night that I had failed to notice the other spells entirely. Neither Ai nor Mai were certain why the spells would be blocking doors on other buildings, but they wanted to check each before entering Alma’s residence. They had found various clips of fires throughout the city that we had attributed to Alma, several bringing back memories to me. I remembered the deaths like Georgina and the girls at the school all too well, but I also remembered how Alma’s long hair moved when walked and her strange, violet eyes. I even remembered the nightmare I had where Alma was working with werewolves against me. Evil could be so very beautiful and enticing even as it killed you. As the twins started explaining how they wanted us to enter, I was relieved to see there was no splitting up, but Jarod was surprised. “Wouldn’t you want her to have to keep spinning? If you’re all on one side of her, won’t she just blast the area with as much fire as she can muster?” he asked.
Emma argued that we would be able to help protect one another more easily in a group, but the twins hesitated. “Our magic is strongest when we’re together,” stated Ai, but Mai said, “but I do agree that we need to keep her from being able to focus on one area.” Jarod shrugged and suggested, “Why not have Emma attack her from every other side with her plants?” Mai shook her head negatively while Emma explained “There isn’t much vegetation in the area, and I need there to be a physical link between the plants to control them.” He rolled his eyes and said, “Fine. Just drop a bunch of seeds clear around the building and get them started before you go inside. You can make their roots burst up through the floor, right?” I could easily forget how brilliant Jarod was when he was being silly, but I was very glad that he was on my side. Aaliyah, who had scrambled off me during the conversation, was scribbling away in a notebook. When I asked if she had any input on the plan, she didn’t even look up as she started pointing out how the plan could be better. She disagreed with scouting the other areas first, the entry point on the main building, and pretty much everything except what Jarod had said.
When Ai started arguing, Aaliyah showed the first page of her notebook, which spelled out word-for-word what Ai was saying. Mai started talking, and Aaliyah had her argument written out word-for-word as well. The twins weren’t happy and walked up to her as they spoke, revealing to the rest of us a page taped onto each of their back’s. Ai’s said, “Predictable”. Mai’s said, “Me too.” The twins turned back toward us when we all started laughing. I did my best to stop, since they were obviously upset. While the twins were glaring at the rest of us, Aaliyah told them “You two know every move in your family’s playbook, but you really need to think outside of it. Assuming this Alma girl is clever, she could have placed those seemingly random spells up to send her a warning if anyone messed with them. If she’s really clever, they’re part of a bigger spell, like this.” Aaliyah held up a page where a pattern I didn’t recognize was drawn out connecting various dots that looked similar to the warded spots on the map. “Personally,” she continued, “I’d want to do both as well as ward the doors. Ai opened her mouth but closed it again when she saw that Aaliyah had flipped a page. “Where did you learn magic, runt?” was followed by “I read.” on it.
After the twins settled down a little, they started giving more credence to the little girl’s advice. All of us, even Brandon and Brenna, followed them as Aaliyah and the twins left the room for the East Wing. In the library there, Aaliyah had me reach down a book for her, one with a title I couldn’t understand. Part of the book talked about layering spells according to her translation, and another part talked about how to create a spell over a large area. Then I had to fetch a couple other books which Aaliyah referenced to show the twins various patterns that could all be created using those same spots. If Alma was half as good as Aaliyah, she was still far, far more knowledgeable about magic than I was. I was completely lost as the discussion went into how the spells might be undone. Ai and Mai were committed enough to the scheming that they were floating books over to Aaliyah with spells as the tiny girl named them. After Brandon started snoring, I wondered if we even stood a chance against someone who knew this much, not realizing that I had spoken out loud. The twins looked back at me and said in unison “Perhaps we wouldn’t have, but we do now. If you want to back out, feel free, but we’re going tonight.” There wasn’t any chance I was abandoning them. One way or another, we would end this.