After returning home, I played Ancient Tribes of Earth for a bit with the others, but I slipped off after a few hours, despite the grumbles I received from some of the others. Alma merely gazed at me curiously as I left the room. My mind just wasn’t into the game at the moment. I wanted to be doing something real, since I once again encountered a real problem. At this point, I was confident that I could take out the man in the white, mechanical suit if I were to face him prepared, but I wasn’t certain I could do so without killing him. If I were to crush even part of the suit with a spell, I could do serious harm to the wearer. I could try ripping off parts of the armor, but I hadn’t noticed any seams. Pinning the guy down was an option, but I wasn’t sure how long I could maintain such a spell, not with the suit fighting against it. I really wasn’t cut out for helping Portentia with her vigilante endeavors, but I hated the idea of such a villain being out there unopposed. Sure, Portentia was tireless, literally, in her pursuit of justice, but she wasn’t anywhere close to a match for the mechanized monster. At first, I had intended to train with magic, but I found myself standing in my seldom-used study.
Before starting my business, I would’ve wanted to stay in such a room as this twenty-four seven. I couldn’t imagine a better room for solo gaming. Now I rarely found the time to even come in here, doing most of my gaming in the ballroom with my friends. My education was falling farther and farther behind. I asked Mila to change the room to appear as a beach, and I soon found myself enjoying the soft breeze as I watched the ocean stretching past my desk. Feeling a bit more relaxed, I went ahead and picked up where I left off on my last course. I truly did want to get a college degree eventually. Besides, Alma would be drilling me later in magic techniques I wouldn’t even imagine on my own. There was no point in fumbling around aimlessly. I wasn’t certain how long I had been at work when part of the ocean suddenly swung open, revealing Jarod and Portentia. “We need to talk,” said Jarod, looking a bit wild. I was betting he ran up here from how much he was sweating, but he didn’t appear out of breath like he would’ve been back in high school. “Sure. Found out about the robbery earlier?” I asked.
Jarod nodded at me and said, “Yeah. Portentia caught me just after I entered the house and mentioned you two were there. I can’t believe Maxine’s finished her suit already. I’m getting close, but mine isn’t ready yet. I wish I had a clue what she was using to power the thing. I’ve made some progress recreating the storage used in the designs I have, but I still haven’t figured out precisely what materials were used. I’m going to give up and ask Aaliyah for help now. If she’ll create a power source similar to what’s inside Mila for me, I’ll have my suit running in no time.” Jarod was pacing, but Portentia obviously caught part of what he said. “You’re building a suit too? Are you planning on helping me bring criminals to justice? I really could use a sidekick, but I don’t think we should get a kid involved.” claimed Portentia. Jarod glanced at me before telling her “I’m just wanting her help to finish my suit, not to fight. You’ve played Ancient Tribes of Earth on the system Aaliyah designed. She’s brilliant.” Portentia shrugged. “You already guessed that she made your suit, right? It’s no different, really.” I argued, wondering if I should’ve said anything a moment after. I didn’t really want to encourage these two to be superheroes. Jarod, at least, could get killed.
“Wait a moment. Did you say Maxine finished her suit a bit ago?” I asked Jarod. “Huh? Yeah. Maxine.” he responded. “Was there a second robbery? The one we were at had some guy in a suit. He had at least a foot on me.” I told him. Jarod shook his head and said, “No, that was Maxine. Didn’t you notice the double ‘M’ monogram on the chest?” Portentia nodded, but I hadn’t seen a thing. “That stands for ‘Marvelous Max’. She pretends to be a guy while out causing trouble. This isn’t a coincidence, James. I have a folder of evidence showing that Maxine is always in the same city that Marvelous Max hits.” finished Jarod. I didn’t doubt him, but I had to ask “Why not give the evidence to the police and let them arrest her then?” Jarod rolled his eyes and told me “Yeah, sure. I give them a bunch of circumstantial evidence, they get a warrant, and then they have a lawsuit against them after finding nothing. Maxine’s smart. She’s really smart. There’s no way she’ll have any incriminating evidence somewhere they could find. If not for her ego, I’d have never suspected she was in that suit. The name, Marvelous Max, pops up too much in relation to that suit for it not to be her.” I wanted to argue that we should just try to find more solid evidence if anything, but Jarod surely tried already.
“Boss-man, sir, I need signatures!” stated Aaliyah as she walked into the room wearing a business suit, her secretary glasses, and her pink backpack. “Oh?” I asked dumbly. I rarely needed to sign anything for her. “Maxine Montgomery is hosting a charity event in two weeks and has asked Best Friend For Hire to contribute. I thought we could donate one of the vases from storage to the auction.” she explained. “Vases? Storage? What?” I asked, having no clue what she was talking about. “I might have forgotten to mention it, but a large number of very valuable, historical artifacts were discovered in a vault on this property after your acquisition of it. Many are decorating the house, but most are still in storage. They’ve all been authenticated and catalogued for insurance purposes. Pretty cool, huh?” she asked with a grin. “Mother will really want to see this vault if she finds out. Care to show us before we let Maxine auction anything off?” I asked. “What? Why would Maxine be auctioning something?’ asked Portentia. She apparently missed everything Aaliyah had said, since Aaliyah was facing me. Jarod gave her the gist of it, which caused Portentia to say, “You can’t seriously be thinking of helping her!” Aaliyah looked up at her and said, “The charity is for a children’s hospital, not for Maxine’s pockets. I’ll be donating an American Longrifle I acquired a while back, and Alma’s donating some old clothes. The evil twins haven’t decided yet.”
Portentia was still grumbling about anything involving Maxine being suspicious, and Jarod was right with her. I understood their discontent at the idea, but I trusted Aaliyah. I also knew that not even the Slayer family broke contracts with her, so I sincerely doubted Maxine, who worked with the Slayers, would risk breaking a contract where Aaliyah was involved. When we stopped at a wall, I wasn’t remotely surprised there was yet another hidden passage in my home. This one was at the bottom of the staircase I frequently used to get to my room. I was, however, surprised that there wasn’t any lighting inside. Instead, there was a rack of flashlights. I quickly lost track of time as I followed Aaliyah through a maze of corridors. At several points, she opened up more hidden doorways. I easily imagined myself getting lost down here, unable to find my way back. When we finally reached our destination, there was a large, round door blocking our path with three combinations on it. Aaliyah twisted the two she could reach and had me lift her for the third. With each combination, a distinct click could be heard. After the final click, a hole, several inches in diameter was revealed in the center of the door. Aaliyah then reached into her backpack and pulled out several odd bits of metal before assembling them together. “Yes, boss-man, sir, entering your vault required a quest to attain the key shards.” she told me with a grin.
Jarod started laughing from behind me, causing the light from his flashlight to bounce around. The sound of his voice echoed, and I wondered what could be heard farther back into the maze. Aaliyah handed the overly heavy “key” up to me. The thing appeared more like a steering wheel with an oddly shaped shaft. I inserted the key, slowly twisting it till it slid into place, and then had to follow Aaliyah’s instructions for a fourth combination. When, at last, there was a resounding click, Jarod and I pulled back the vault door together. I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the sudden light. The room was enormous and very well-lit from flickering orbs along the walls and ceiling. The elaborate shelves seemed to be carved from stone, as if the entire vault was carved from a giant rock. Aaliyah acted as a tour guide, telling us about the various pieces inside, and I felt guiltier and guiltier as she talked. There was so very much here that would be great for exhibits in a museum rather than tucked so far away. I needed to consider what I could do with these treasures now that I was aware of them. My to-do list always grew heavier.
The vase Aaliyah thought would be great for the charity was apparently given as a gift from a Chinese Emperor to someone with an equally difficult name. I didn’t really catch all of the history, but I did feel the vase was beautiful. With pale green, black, and gold along the body, the Chinese dragon seeming to chase a bird through flowers on the side seemed rather captivating. Even after seeing my collection, I didn’t argue with Aaliyah about what should be donated. She worked financial miracles regularly, and I had no hope of keeping up. After resealing the vault, I wondered if I should get an easier path made. I really didn’t feel comfortable navigating this maze, especially without better lighting. Before long, Jarod and Portentia were talking about ways to fight Maxine once more. The light held under Jarod’s face seemed creepy given our surroundings. I was surprised when Aaliyah told him “I’m not going to help you when you’re so close to success. You’ve got this.” Then she surprised me more by looking into the light to tell Portentia “You, on the other hand, could use a weapon. Learn to use a staff, and I’ll give you something special.” Aaliyah’s big grin was priceless. I wasn’t that great at using a staff myself, but I agreed to teach Portentia the basics when she asked. She didn’t seem too thrilled when I mentioned that I’d probably have to get the twins to help after she was past the basics, but she seemed pretty enthusiastic still.
I looked at the time after we finally were back to the main part of the mansion and wasn’t sure whether to be excited or to groan. After hours wandering around in the depths, I barely had time to get ready for my lessons with Alma. I excused myself, not wanting to risk being late, and rushed to change. Though I was disappointed about not getting farther with my lessons today than I did, there was always something wonderful about spending time with Alma. I was constantly learning from her. Sure, I wished she was gentler in her teaching, but I enjoyed spending time with her one-on-one. There was something different about her when we were alone, making me feel I was getting to know her better. I could just be deluding myself. She was so incredibly strict that I might be desperate to have a saving grace. I knew I enjoyed seeing her move, and not just because she was beautiful. Every movement she made was exceptionally graceful, like watching a superb ballet dancer give me a private show each night. I saw that I was blushing as I passed a mirror on my way down the corridor. My thoughts had wandered past her grace and onto her perfect skin, how it felt touching me when our arms crossed. Martial arts involved contact. I couldn’t help my thoughts at times, especially when learning from a girl whose eyes were such a startling shade of violet. Those eyes made clear thinking very difficult.