Best Friend For Hire, Entry 285

I had forgotten how vile the lands looked when a demon inhabited them. I was only human when last I fought one, and my eyes surely did not pick up on all the minute details. Even knowing Aaliyah as well as I did now, I was deeply impressed by what she created. The idea of even brushing up the sickly looking foliage was unpleasant, and I could imagine the faint odor of death all too well, having faced a real life necromancer.

I could barely see Raine with how she had pushed farther and farther into her chair. Cosette was still all cheer, untouched by any horrors in her past. I worried about Raine. I would never forget her cowering, hiding under a table from the screams of Mai and being surprised that the screaming wasn’t in her head. I never asked her why, why would she think that the screams weren’t real. Was she plagued by the voices of another place?

“Yes, she is.” stated Aaliyah.

Things were frozen again as Aaliyah casually lounged across my lap, resting her head on the arm of my chair.

“What is she hearing?” I asked.

“She feels the suffering of a god and the cries of his demons, so full of rage and despair that they have no concept of happiness or beauty.” she casually explained in a sing-song voice.

“Have you been there, where they are?” I asked.

She laughed and said, “Of course I’m there, silly. Even demons die.”

“Can you do something to help Raine?” I questioned.

“I have. I brought her to you. You’re doing wonderfully, boss-man, sir.” she claimed.

Shaking my head, I said, “Ha. There’s so little I can do for anyone. I’m just lucky Cosette isn’t holding a grudge against me for trying to keep knowledge of her parents’ deaths from her.”

“You’re right about one thing: Cosette doesn’t hold a grudge against you, not even a little one. I wouldn’t call it luck though. You’re just too charming, boss-man, sir.” she teased. “You do help people, all the time. The ‘little’ you do helps in big ways.”

I looked down into those big, blue eyes of hers. She was too adorable. “Why do you choose to look as you do?” I asked.

“Prefer me like this?” she teased, suddenly older and wearing far too little.

“As much as I enjoyed your company as Trix, no.” I firmly told her.

She reverted back to the tiny girl in her mismatched clothes much to my relief. Then she said, “I was born, I grew, and I became a cyborg. You remember. This is me. I’m my daddy’s little girl.”

“And so many other things.” I stated.

Sitting up, she poked my nose, looked me in the eye, and said, “But always my daddy’s little girl. He needs me, boss-man, sir.”

“What do you think of this area?” I asked, nodding toward the game.

“It’s gross!” exclaimed Cosette, sounding quite giddy.

Aaliyah was gone. Things were moving again.

“T-the animals are m-missing.” stated Raine.

“Ah. Yeah. They’ve probably been warped and are now following the demon, wherever he is.” I told them.

“Is he as cute as Raine?” teased Cosette.

I chuckled and said, “No, not even close. He’s quite horrific to behold.”

“That’s good. I don’t think I could summon up the will to attack Raine, except for hugs.” claimed Cosette.

“Att-attack hugs are qui-quite vi-vicious.” mumbled Raine, but she sounded like she was smiling.

“Oh, you know it!” exclaimed Cosette, just before leaping out of her seat at Raine.

There was much giggling, so I did my best to defend their characters.

“You’re lucky she didn’t pull the smithing hammer like she did on that goblin.” I teased.

“She uses the frying pan on me. Doesn’t hurt nearly as much.” claimed Cosette.

Giggling more, Raine said, “M-makes a n-nice sound.” She abruptly went silent.

I looked over at her in concern, realizing a moment later that she was hearing something. There was movement around us.

“C-Cosette! En-enemies!” exclaimed Raine in a loud whisper.

Cosette hopped into her seat with casual grace, instantly on the move as she landed. Without a word, all of us started sneaking along. We couldn’t talk. Talking in real life would carry through into the game and alert our foes. I made my character cast one of his few utility spells, further muffling the sounds of our passage. I wished I had powerful illusion magic at the moment. I might be able to incinerate the bears, but there was a chance the demon had granted these ones high fire resistance.

Raine’s character uncorked some sort of vial and dropped liquid behind us. Text appeared on my screen describing a pungent stench. I hoped she knew what she was doing. I caught sight of giant, mutated bears a couple times over the next couple minutes, but we continued avoiding them, not wanting to alert their master of our presence. He might well remember me.

The front doors of my home swung open, and I heard someone enter. Portentia was home. I could tell by her footsteps.

“Oh wow. Where are you, guys?” she asked shortly after walking into the room.

I turned to her, explaining briefly in sign language. The game had voice recognition along with other features to ignore extraneous sound, so Portentia’s voice shouldn’t alert enemies, though mine would.

I rapidly signed to my screen, asking Mila to explain in more depth. She was always watching. I should’ve thought of asking her sooner. Another of the large mirrors lit up, showing Mila’s avatar signing away.

More minutes stretched by before the bears finally wandered off. Cosette breathed out loudly before saying, “I never thought I’d feel so tense playing a game.”

Portentia laughed and said, “The game is pretty awesome. I never thought I’d get into a video game till I started. Looks like you guys are too far away for me to catch up.”

“Oh. Go to the guild hall. You can use the traveling stone to come straight to us.” I suggested.

“Nice!” she exclaimed. “I’ll be right there!”

Glancing at the time, I said, “You’re home early.”

“Quiet night. Captured a mugger, but that’s it.” explained Portentia.

I just nodded. A single mugger would be a quiet night for her. Feeling relatively safe where we were, we waited for Portentia to join us. Once she arrived, the four of us continued toward where the meteor had landed.

“Meteors can be pretty small. How are we going to find it?” asked Portentia.

“Cr-crater.” stated Raine.

“Yeah. I guess that makes sense if it’s a big one.” replied Portentia.

“I think we’re almost there.” asserted Cosette. “We’ll show you!”

I stopped, catching something out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look and saw the enormous demon walking toward the same place as us.

“Guys, we need to run.” I insisted.

“Noooo!” whined Raine.

I could see that she had turned to face it as well.

“Gather around, and I’ll use the stone.” I told them.

“No!” exclaimed Raine. Her character was shoving her backpack at mine, offering a trade.

“What!?” I asked.

“G-get my m-mats. I-I’ll show him a r-real d-demon.” stated Raine.

I accepted the trade and opened my mouth to talk her out of it, but she was gone. Her character was far, far faster than mine. I couldn’t believe how quickly she was gone.

“Let’s go!” I exclaimed, running toward the meteor site.

Portentia and Cosette followed. We weren’t even halfway there when the sky became even darker. I could see spells flying from the demon and explosions even after. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on Raine’s screen.

The raid boss who wiped over twenty thousand people was getting hit by garden tools, smithing tools, kitchen tools, and a number of things I didn’t even recognize. The damage was laughable compared with its health but impressive for a single person. No doubt she had enchanted every last implement.

I hadn’t doubted that Raine’s reaction time was far beyond what any character could manage, but the way her character moved was really bizarre. She had strange sidesteps that moved her great distances nearly instantly, allowing her to avoid area of effect attacks that I could never dodge. She had some sort of instant duck move that allowed her to dive under swings at her head with ease. There was some roll move she used that ended in her character raising its arms as if presenting something.

“James, that’s a tree!” exclaimed Cosette.

Oops. I hoped I hadn’t been running into the tree for long. Bit distracted. Incredibly, Raine was still alive when we finally reached the crater where the meteor had landed, though the demon had called in its minions for reinforcements.

“Raine, can you make it to us?” I asked.

“J-just g-go.” she ordered.

I told the other two to hug the meteorite

“It’s too heavy to come with us. Give me a sec.” stated Cosette. She used a spell to boost our strength.

“U-use a p-potion too. In m-my b-bag.” muttered Raine.

I did as she said, passing out strength potions. I needed to get Raine to make me a new bag. Hers was vastly larger, mostly filled with crafting materials, but also holding potions, elixirs, and tools. Still, we were lucky Portentia came home. Cosette and I wouldn’t have been able to carry the meteorite without her, despite the boosts. Only items carriable by the group being transported could be taken along.

“I think that’ll do it. Hug the stone.” I ordered.

Nothing happened. I quickly typed in guild chat asking who online had the stone from our guild hall. I really should’ve given the guild a heads up several minutes ago.

“No, I’m not mad. I’m in a hurry. Nekopawpaw’s soloing a raid boss. We found the last of the demons, and I need to get her mats to safety.” I explained in guild chat.

That was the first time I saw guild chat stop moving for any length. There were several seconds with no response at all. Then chat erupted back to normal with several people saying they were “on it”, and many more asking if I was messing with them.

“Hey, Mila, could you put Raine’s fight on the guild’s magic mirror?” I asked.

“No, master, but I can instruct you how to scry with it.” she replied.

“Good enough. Let’s do this.” I told her.

Several of the nearby guildies were already staring at the meteorite, but Cosette and Portentia were guarding it.

In guild chat, I typed “No one goes near the meteorite, or you’ll earn Nekopawpaw’s ire. I’m putting what that entails on the magic mirror for any who doubt me.”

I was pretty sure most people in the area had hurried over, since the hall was filling quickly. Guild chat was alive with talk about our prized crafter facing off against a demon.

“J-James, I-I’m almost… almost out of p-potions.” stated Raine.

“I wondered what you were using to heal. I would’ve given you mine had I known you needed some.” I told her.

“I’ve u-used several h-hundred.” she mumbled.

Ouch. That was expensive.

“Think you can run away?” I asked.

“I-I… only had o-one speed p-potion, b-but I-I can… try.” she told me, weaving through enemies to dodge a giant fist.

The demon had killed countless of its own minions just trying to kill Raine. The thing was lucky her character couldn’t keep up with her in real life. Watching her bonking heads with hammers, pans, and other non-combat implements was somewhat comical as she took off.

“You’re heading the wrong way.” I mentioned.

“N-no. I d-don’t want it… f-following me h-home.” she stammered.

I guess that made sense. I had no idea how far this thing would try following her now. I’d muster our army, but there simply weren’t enough of us on at the moment to kill it. Most of our guild wouldn’t even be awake.

“What have you guys been doing?” asked Alma just after running into the room.

I nonchalantly told her “Raine’s been demonstrating how to solo a demon.”

“I hardly believed the messages I was receiving, but seeing her… what are those moves?” she asked.

Nearly at the edge of the demon’s horde with it on her tail, Raine started explaining where various things she was using were obtained. The strange roll maneuver she had was “Present the Dish.” from cooking. “Check the Oven” and “Stove Dash” were also from cooking.

As she continued, every last move came from one type of crafting or another, but her crafting skills were far higher than even my combat skills, granting her huge boosts to the effectiveness of the moves.

“For someone who abhors violence, you certainly understand it.” stated Alma.

“W-why else would I ab-abhor it.” replied Raine.

I chuckled even as Alma rolled her eyes.

Cosette and Portentia were both standing by Raine, watching her screen and cheering her on.

Several tense minutes later, Raine was still running, but the demon was too fast. Luckily, all of its horde was left behind, allowing her to dodge more easily.

“You should’ve stayed behind for her.” stated Alma, gripping my hand.

“Then the meteorite couldn’t have gone through.” I told her.

“Oh. I see.” she replied. “We could go meet her.”

“Even if everyone drops what they’re doing and comes to join us, do you think we’d stand a chance?” I asked.

She sighed and said, “No, we would not.”

“I-it’s okay. W-we have m-my mats!” exclaimed Raine.

“You mean that I have your mats!” teased Cosette, trying to laugh villainously.

“Don’t worry, Raine. I wouldn’t let Cosette steal from you.” stated Portentia.

Cosette lunged at Portentia, who easily dodged.

“James! Help! My food is avoiding me!” exclaimed Cosette, fangs now evident in her mouth.

I caught Alma’s mouth twitch while I started laughing.

“Shh… y-you’re startling Pufflewink.” warned Raine.

A quick blast of energy partially caught Nekopawpaw, damaging her again.

“A-all out.” muttered Raine. Then she turned and attacked the demon with a giant frying pan. “B-bad demon.”

“It’s..” I started, hardly believing the stars now floating around the demon’s head.

“You dazed it! Run!” exclaimed Alma, gripping the back of Raine’s chair.

Mila then said, “Wow. There’s a less than one percent chance of that move ever effecting this demon at your current skill level. If you dive into the cave northwest of you, the demon won’t be able to follow.”

“There’s a cave?” I asked.

“Oops. Mother’s going to yell at me for giving away spoilers.” claimed Mila.

Raine hadn’t hesitated at all. She quickly veered northwest and took off into the cave, using some sort of charm to create light as she hurried deeper. When she looked back, the demon was clawing at the entrance, ripping it apart and causing part of the cave to collapse.

Guild chat was still busy with people talking about what just happened. People were cheering her on.

“What!? You’re logging off there?” demanded Alma, upon seeing Raine hit the logout button.

“I-I w-work soon.” she mumbled.

“Oh. I can try distracting your boss if you like, so you can call in sick.” offered Alma.

“Th-thank you, but I-I’ll be okay. We g-got it!” she exclaimed.

“I’ll see that the meteorite makes it to your shop.” I told her.

She got up, thanked everyone again, and headed off toward her room.

“I must say that I am most impressed.” stated Alma.

“Think you could really distract me?” I teased.

She rolled her eyes before staring up into mine and saying, “You, my darling, are quite easily distracted.”

I had to admit that I felt distracted already.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 284

As Raine purred to Pufflewink, I worried that she might fall asleep before we even headed off, but Raine merely yawned and started on her way. Cosette and I quickly followed on our characters.

Listening to Raine ramble on about the different types of materials we might find was priceless. She was obviously quite excited at the prospect of getting any of them. “Eternite”, a stone harder than any steel, was my favorite of the possibilities, since she’d be able to craft a new type of forge which would grant bonuses on all things she crafted or repaired at it. “Stardust” was actually a possibility. Stardust was an irradiated mineral that could be used for many types of fire enchantments on weapons. “Celestine” was a metal that granted “heavenly properties” to any items forged with it.

There were so many times I was tempted to ask Aaliyah for spoilers, but I wasn’t going to give into that temptation, not with how unfair that would be to other players. Running the largest guild on the server, I had considerable impact on the world with everything I did already. If I started using spoilers to boost my guild further, the other guilds would be left too far behind, spoiling the fun for everyone.

“Are you two ready for this?” I asked as we reached the edge of the civilized area.

“Of course.” insisted Cosette.

I heard Raine take a deep breath and looked over to see her nodding. Had she been out this far even since the beginning?

The wilderness of Ancient Tribes of Earth could be a dangerous place with such a small group. The farther from civilization one adventured, the more dangerous the creatures that would lurk around.

We hadn’t traveled very far when a group of goblins set upon us. I easily incinerated them on sight.

“T-that was… t-that was kinda… m-mean.” mumbled Raine.

“Huh? They were going to attack us.” I replied.

“B-but w-what if… if t-they w-wanted to… to t-talk.” she suggested.

“I’ve never seen goblins wanting to talk before, and we need to be careful.” I insisted.

She huddled down more in her chair, not looking very happy.

“I’m sorry. I’ll try talking first next time.” I assured her.

Cosette was doing her best not to laugh, which was somewhat disturbing to see. Her lips had vanished entirely. The idea of altering one’s own body in such a way was bizarre to me, but I kind of envied the ability. Having seen Cosette turn into a bear in real life made me wonder how it felt. Could a person sleep more comfortably as a bear?

We pressed onward, eventually encountering another group of goblins. I dodged their first couple attacks while trying to speak with them quite unsuccessfully when I heard something strange coming from Raine’s mouth.

“Whoa. You actually speak goblin?” asked Cosette, having a mouth again.

I caught Raine nodding out of the corner of my eye as I continued avoiding attacks. Surprisingly, several of the goblins stopped to scratch their heads, staring at Nekopawpaw, Raine’s character. Some dialogue was exchanged between Nekopawpaw and one of them.

“T-they… t-they…” muttered Raine. “w-want to eat us.”

“I guess we kill them first then.” I stated, preparing to strike.

“N-no!” exclaimed Raine. “I-I’m g-giving them food… i-instead.”

“Oh. Sorry.” I told her.

After the exchange was made, most of the goblins cautiously backed away. One little fellow lunged at Nekopawpaw though. I panicked, knowing my character wasn’t that fast even though I was.

I found myself staring, replaying what just happened in my mind. Nekopawpaw had stepped backward, drawn out a giant smithing hammer, and bonked the goblin on the head midair. Stars swirled around its head, indicating the creature was dazed.

“B-bad goblin.” rebuked Raine.

“How did you learn to speak goblin?” asked Cosette.

“T-the l-library. M-most languages c-can be f-found there.” she explained. “Aalilyah t-told me. H-her c-character always t-talks her way out of t-things.”

“I honestly had assumed that was just some GM ability.” I admitted, watching warily as the goblin stood and ran off.

“N-no. I-I’ll get b-better.” insisted Raine.

“I’m sure you will.” I assured her.

“Know any of the other rare languages?” asked Cosette.

“All t-that are in the g-guild library.” mumbled Raine.

Looking impressed, Cosette said, “Whoa. You’ve been busy. Mind showing me sometime?”

“I-I’ll g-glady show you.” replied Raine with a smile.

“Mila, how many books on languages are stored in our guild library?” I asked.

“Three hundred and one, master. I would be happy to teach them to you.” she replied.

“Not right now.” I told her.

“Three hundred and one!? That’s crazy!” exclaimed Cosette with a grin. “And they’re really full languages?”

“Y-yes.” stated Raine.

At the same time, Mila said, “Of course. What else would you expect from mother? Her father is a linguist, you know. I will warn you that their use in everyday life will be slightly cumbersome, since she created no words for things that are not found outside of the game. Some of the languages are limited even within the game. Goblins, for example, have no word for ‘door’. They don’t use doors, make doors, or care about doors, so they never bothered with naming it.”

“Aww… I still feel we could have fun with it.” insisted Cosette.

“I should also warn you that learning the language yourself doesn’t count as your character learning it.” explained Mila. “If you were to speak goblin as Raine did, your words will sound like nonsense to those around you unless your character has the skill.”

“Why did you offer to teach me then?” I asked.

“Because you know I’m far better than a book, master.” she teased.

Cosette giggled and said, “Who can argue with that?”

I certainly wasn’t willing to try. We continued farther and farther into the wilderness, letting Raine talk down numerous creatures on the way. Though even Raine couldn’t talk to giant frogs we encountered near a river, she actually didn’t complain about killing them. She did, however, insist on us killing them without magic, since she wanted their meat for cooking.

Hours after we set out on our journey, we were finally getting close. Seeing what was ahead, I wanted to turn back. The land was corrupted precisely like what had happened when demons entered the world.

“We’re so close though! Can’t we just be careful?” asked Cosette.

“We can try, but we’re goners if we encounter the creature. This might be the one that escaped last summer.” I told her.

“Wasn’t playing yet. How bad was it?” she asked.

“The guild formed to fight them, and every last one of us died during the last battle, trying to fight two demons at once. We did manage to kill one of them though.” I explained.

“What!? How much of the guild was there?” she asked.

“Over twenty thousand members.” I stated. “Ancient Tribes of Earth somehow manages full army combat without crashing the server or causing low end PCs to freeze.”

“I kinda want to see this. That sounds so cool!” she exclaimed.

“Y-you d-didn’t have to d-do so many r-repairs for people.” muttered Raine.

“Oh. Yeah. I suppose we did make you a bit busier than normal even.” I admitted. “Sorry!”

“I d-don’t mind.” she replied.

“Let’s do this!” exclaimed Cosette, heading onward.

I sighed, hoping I didn’t lose all of my gear. Worse would be losing the traveling stone I carried. Even the loss of one would make conquering this demon harder. Following Cosette into the tainted lands, I felt we most certainly were having an adventure.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 283

“Pufflewink? What are you doing here?” I asked, bending down to pet the small, black kitten.

She nuzzled my hand briefly and then started walking away.

Where was Raine? She rarely let Pufflewink out of her sight. She would even take the kitten with her on jobs when possible, but I didn’t see her anywhere.

Pufflewink had stopped and looked up at me. My little fairy friend darted over to Pufflewink, and a vision entered my mind of me following the kitten. Who was I to argue with a fairy? Well, I did frequently, but not today! Pufflewink actually did start walking again once I took a couple steps behind her.

I quickly looked to the side, thinking I saw something there, but the curtains in the room we were passing were moving in the breeze from the vent. I really wasn’t good at taking things slow anymore. There were numerous times when I’d find myself partially distracted in the middle of listening to someone and had to take a moment to register what was just said.

Exceptional eyesight being a detriment at times was not something I ever would have considered before my change, but I could get distracted by a missed stitch in someone’s shirt that I vaguely noticed before focusing on it. When away from home, I could get startled by dust in the air if something seemed to be blowing toward me. The fighting over the last couple months had left its mark on me.

Pufflewink was obviously burdened by a sense of distraction as well. She’d happily march several feet with her tail flicking in the air, and then suddenly pounce at my little fairy friend, who easily dodged the kitten.

I pictured my little friend straddling the kitten, riding her like a mount. A confused feeling came to me along with an image of the fairy flying through the air. I tried again, trying to impart a sense of happiness with the thought. More confusion. This time I tried showing how happy I would be at seeing the little fairy with a kitten mount. No luck. The faint smell of food from this evening’s meal lingered near the kitchen, which gave me an idea. I pictured the fairy being fed if she were on the kitten, since I had never seen my little friend without appetite.

She finally granted my wish! I darted into the kitchen, grabbed some bacon, and used a spell to start cooking the bacon in air. My attempt at even cooking was blasted by a laser from my little friend, scorching part of the meat. Poor Pufflewink jumped at the flash of light, but my little friend easily soothed her, promising her bacon as well. Great. Now I felt bad. Raine had taught me that bacon wasn’t good for cats, though she’d eat plenty even in her kitten form. Poor Pufflewink would have to be denied.

“Mila, please say you’re recording this.” I stated.

“Of course, master. Mother, Lady Pendreigh, Cosette, and Raine are already watching.” she replied.

“Tell your mother it’s past her bedtime. Chad wouldn’t approve.” I teased.

“Quite right, master.” agreed Mila. “Mother wishes for me to inform you that she does what she wants. She hashtagged the response, reiterating that she does what she wants. There are also a very large number of GIFs attached if you wish to view them. Mother will surely complain if you don’t, but I warn you that the substantial sum would even take you a good minute to view in their entirety.”

I laughed, causing the pair before me to look back. An image came to mind of my little friend being fed, so I used a spell to feed her the burnt part first. Pufflewink’s attempts to catch the bacon were anticipated, but quite amusing to watch with a fairy on her back.

“Uh oh… Master…” started Mila.

Too late. Raine jumped through the air as a kitten, eating the rest of the bacon mid-leap before darting away.

“I should’ve known I was teasing two kittens.” I laughed.

Raine had proven capable of smelling food cooking from any part of the house. After she became more familiar with Marco’s dishes, she was even able to tell us what he was cooking. without Mila’s help.

My little friend flew off the kitten and up to my face, demanding to know why her bacon was gone. I pictured Raine’s theft in my mind, trying to leave out my sense of amusement by it. Raine had been moving slowly for her, but my little friend probably only caught a blur at best. The tiny fairy crossed her arms and mounted the kitten again, much to my delight. She projected an image of charging after Raine, but there was a question to it, asking for Raine’s location.

“Mila, where’s Raine?” I asked.

Pufflewink charged ahead.

“In the ballroom, master. Pufflewink knows. She was sent to fetch you.” explained Mila.

“Raine sent Pufflewink to fetch me?” I questioned, surprised by what I was hearing.

“She speaks cat, master. You’ve seen it.” replied Mila.

“Well, yes, but why wouldn’t she just ask you to call me or come find me herself?” I asked.

“Master, we’re speaking of Raine. You can’t really expect her motivations to be like most.” she stated.

“Fair point.” I acknowledged.

Though Raine was reasonably acclimated to living here now, she still was hesitant when speaking with most of us. Luckily, the jobs she took for my company all had shining reviews, though they were a bit more scarce than average.

I took off to the ballroom, dodging past Pufflewink on my way. Cosette and Raine were playing Ancient Tribes of Earth together. Raine, back to human, sank into her chair upon my arrival.

“I-I… I w-wanted Pufflewink t-to h-have an… an adventure.” she mumbled.

Oh. Right. She probably heard Mila and me speaking. Raine’s senses were beyond me by a very considerable margin.

“That’s fine. I was just surprised is all.” I assured her. “So what’s up?”

“Raine and I saw a meteor fall and thought you might help us go check the crash site.” explained Cosette.

“I suppose I can play for a bit. Why are we interested in a meteor?” I asked.

“M-materials.” muttered Raine.

“According to an old book she found, meteors occasionally bring rare ores to the world. She might be able to make some fancy weapons, armor, or jewelry from it!” exclaimed Cosette.

Cosette focused on healing magic in Ancient Tribes of Earth, but she had some combat skills as well. Her character, Madeleine, was a blonde halfling vampire whose face seemed to be modeled after Cosette’s own. Being part of the small vampire clan within our guild seemed to amuse her greatly, but I didn’t really see the appeal. Vampires had to use their magic or magic items to protect themselves from the sun during daylight hours and had penalized stats in bright light. They were pretty lethal in the dark, especially at night.

Given that Raine’s character still didn’t have any combat-related skills, I could see why the two wanted help. Alma was surely working, like always, and Portentia was probably out patrolling the city. There were plenty of guildmates on even this late, but many of them would probably be begging for Raine to craft something for them in exchange for help. She was still our best craftsman by far.

“Quest accepted.” I told them, sitting down as Mila logged me into the game. There was nothing quite like adventure to pass a night.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 282

I looked cool. I knew I looked cool, but the tightness of the suit wasn’t remotely comfortable, and I couldn’t really claim to look heroic. My suit was straight black. The material was textured with the center of my chest having an emblem that matched Calamity’s. “The Shade of Calamity” was the agreed upon name between my friends. The name was meant to further demonstrate that I was just a sidekick, since I shouldn’t be outshining the hero herself.

I was using magic to bend light around me inconsistently, creating dark areas in deeper darkness over the whole suit. Alma had helped me tailor the spell to cover the cape well, since my initial attempt was less than perfect. In a darkened room, I’d practically be invisible. In the light, I looked as an ever-shifting shadow free of any person projecting me. Due to how the light was being shifted, I didn’t actually cast my own shadow, which I thought was pretty neat.

“James, I see him.” stated Portentia.

“I’m coming.” I replied.

Both of our suits had a large number of electronics built into them, letting Mila track all sorts of information as well as project speech onto Portentia’s eyepieces. I didn’t even realize Mila was helping in Portentia’s crime-fighting until tonight. With Mila’s aid, Portentia was able to find out where crime was happening in real time, greatly increasing the number of crimes she stopped per day.

The only reason Portentia used her ticket tonight was because she had confronted a “supervillain” last night after Jarod’s reception. The man was stronger and faster than her, able to elude her easily. Oddly, her account of the encounters made no mention of the man attempting to fight her. He just broke free of her grip and ran repeatedly.

I crouched next to Portentia on the second floor balcony of the abandoned church. Then I touched her shoulder to make sure she knew I was there. A faint, red circle surrounded a man’s head through my suit’s lenses.

“That’s him?” I asked in a whisper.

She nodded.

The man was overweight, possibly in his mid-fifties. His balding head had a mix of brown and grey hair. His suit was surprisingly immaculate, save for being a bit large on him.

“What has this guy done?” I asked.

“Watch, master.” stated Mila.

The lenses of my suit illuminated with poor quality video, probably from a security camera. The man grabbed a woman as she was passing an alley, pulling her into it. The poor quality of the video made me question whether this was the same man, but the clothes and recognizable features were very similar if not identical.

“They might have known each other.” I suggested.

“All I found was her phone and one of her shoes.” replied Portentia.

“Who’s the other guy?” I asked.

“Michael T. Williams, a petty thief with a large rap sheet.” replied Mila, displaying his convictions for me.

“Fine-fine. Shall we jump down and greet them then?” I asked.

Portentia grinned and jumped.

“You again? I told you to leave me alone!” exclaimed the balding man.

I jumped behind them.

“Hey! I haven’t done anything!” exclaimed Michael.

“Today.” stated Portentia. Then she pointed to the balding man and said, “You still haven’t told me what happened to that woman?”

“What woman?” he replied with an amused tone.

“Marla Allen.” she told him.

“You keep following me, and I’m going to have to hurt you, Calamity.” he claimed. “Yes, I’ve heard about you.”

I grabbed his shoulder and said, “Just don’t.” The distortion provided by the suit was pretty neat sounding.

The man sneered and seemed to melt under my grasp. I clutched his wrist, but his body might as well have been a thick goo. I quickly created a spell Alma had shown me for dealing with slippery vampires, hoping it’d work as I tried to grab him a few more times. Releasing the spell, I took a step back and watched the man float into the air. His eyes went wide and he made a few attempts to force his way out, but there wasn’t a way without magic as long as I could maintain the spell.

“What are you people!?” exclaimed Michael.

“Superheroes, Michael T. Williams. We know where you live. Don’t go back to crime. We’ll know.” stated Portentia. Then she motioned for him to leave.

He ran quickly, stumbling over debris in his haste.

The balding man was still fighting to break free, but the spell reacted to motion, creating a telekinetic force to oppose any movement that would break its boundaries. Against humans, the spell was dangerous, potentially cutting them off from air. Fortunately, this man didn’t seem very human.

“Are you a vampire?” I asked.

He glared at me.

“If you’re not, I don’t want you to suffocate.” I told him.

“I’m not then. Release me.” he replied, obviously lying.

“We can’t hand him over to the police.” I stated.

Portentia nodded but said, “We can’t let him go either if he’s a murderer.” She sounded determined.

“Master, a phone just turned on, possibly inside him.” stated Mila. “He attempted to call a John Smith, probably an alias.”

“Who are you calling?” asked Portentia. “Your boss?”

Shock was quite evident on the man’s face.

“I’m sorry, but this is probably the worst city for whatever endeavors you hope to accomplish.” I told him.

Portentia stepped between the man and me and started signing <Should we turn him over to Alma?  She’ll just kill him.  I haven’t actually caught an older, bad vampire before.  You’re sure he is one, right?>

I nodded. :Aaliyah, is this man a murderer?: I asked in my head.

:Oh, he’s killed people, boss-man, sir, but he always believes in his reasons. He came to town planning to avenge his boss, his friend, whom Alma had killed.: she replied.

Back and forth they went. Slayers killed vampires, vampires killed the family of the Slayers.

“Call Zachary Blood.” I stated.

“Who’s that?” asked Portentia.

I smiled and said, “He knows. His new jailor.”

“Jailor? What’s this? Are you in town?” asked Zachary.

“No, but I was hoping you could speak to a vampire for me about coming to visit you. He murdered someone, upset the local superhero, and is going to get himself killed at this rate.” I explained.

“Oh, I see. Thank you. Please, put him on.” stated Zachary.

“Mila, can you add him to the call?” I asked.

“Of course, master.” she replied.

“Hello?” asked the man, his voice quivering.

The conversation was brief, but I simply let the man go afterward.

“That’s it? Why wouldn’t he run?” demanded Portentia.

“He won’t. He gave his word to one of the eldest vampires in the world, someone I believe he respects.” I told her.

“But…” started Portentia.

I interrupted her, saying, “I trust him. Trust me on this. He won’t cause any more trouble.”

“Fine, but there are still some bad guys out there. Is Mila showing you the gunfire near the docks?” asked Portentia.

“Let’s go stop a gang fight.” I told her, lifting her and running.

With my help, Portentia made a new personal record for crimes stopped in a night. The gang members were fortunately human and easily subdued. We left them for the police and ambulance after a bit of first aid and plenty of duct tape. Mila was great at leaving “tips from Calamity” through anonymous texts, calls, and emails, which she did repeatedly as we stopped a number of smaller crimes before the sun rose. Overall, I felt good about the night.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 281

I felt a touch guilty in the morning when so many people headed groggily to the airport. We had been up fairly late, playing Ancient Tribes of Earth together. Our visiting guildmates loved seeing the setup we used after the ballroom had been cleared of the wedding supplies. I hoped the lack of sleep didn’t cause them issues as they headed home.

Jarod and the twins departed as well, already leaving for Japan. I was certain Ai and Mai would take advantage of his sleep-deprived state in some way, but he wouldn’t mind. He married them after all. Well, I didn’t really know if this counted for marrying both yet or not. Only one went through the ceremony as a bride so far, but with minds linked as theirs were, they both would have experienced it. The idea still seemed a bit odd to me. I didn’t really think I’d like experiencing multiple bodies, but that was all they knew.

“James, are you ready?” asked Alma as she stepped into my office.

“Ready?” I asked.

“We need to start planning our wedding.” she stated.

“Here you are, Alpy!” exclaimed Aaliyah as she ducked around her and handed her paperwork.

“What are these?” asked Alma, already looking through them. “Oh.”

“Yep. All the paperwork you need to sign as well as a few for your father. Everything’s booked and ready to go.” stated Aaliyah.

“Wait. What? You picked a date for us?” I asked, feeling a bit startled. I did want to marry Alma, but was I really ready to be a husband? I hadn’t been ready to become a fiancée just yesterday. I could feel Alma’s magic boiling within her hidden away from most as her temper was hidden behind the impassive expression she bore.

“Aren’t you getting a little presumptuous?” demanded Alma, her temper coming through in her tone.

“Want to fight about it?” offered Aaliyah, cracking her neck and knuckles simultaneously as she turned to Alma.

For a moment, I thought Alma might try, but good sense apparently won out. Fighting Death would always be a terrible plan.

After a long pause where Alma stared down Aaliyah, she said, “Did you even bother considering how much I’ll have to rearrange make this date work?”

Nodding, Aaliyah said, “Yep! I started preparations for you months ago. You’ll find the day and following week surprisingly clear, the perfect day for a wedding.”

“What? That’s preposterous. How could you possibly have known that…” started Alma, before being interrupted.

Aaliyah spoke over her, saying, “If you really want to know the variables that could be considered in determining that exact date from the moment I started preparations, you’ll need to clear your schedule for the next month. I assure you that you’ll give up trying to follow along by that time.”

“James! Help me here. You simply cannot be okay with this.” insisted Alma.

“What’s the date?” I asked.

“March twenty-third.” snapped Alma.

“Oh, look. My schedule’s free.” I told her, not bothering to actually check. I knew Aaliyah would have taken care of whatever was needed.

She sighed and stated “You’re incorrigible. You’ve let her control your life for too long.”

“No, I simply trust her to know what’s best far better than I’d ever manage. We traveled in time yesterday to make Jarod’s wedding. How often do you think Aaliyah takes advantage of Carl’s abilities? I imagine that Aaliyah’s already seen our wedding.” I told her.

Aaliyah nodded enthusiastically and asked “Want spoilers!?”

“No!” exclaimed Alma, though her anger was subsiding.

“She’s tempted to ask for a peek.” teased Aaliyah.

“I most certainly am not!” snapped Alma as she blushed.

“Oh, Alpy… I said you were tempted, not that you’d give in to your temptation.” explained Aaliyah, reaching up to pat her arm.

“There’s that as well.” I stated. “Knowing what everyone is thinking has to make planning easier.”

“James, she cannot possibly know what everyone is thinking. There are far too many people in this world.” she told me.

“No spoilers, boss-man, sir.” stated Aaliyah.

I had been thinking about the other worlds I had visited, considering if Aaliyah could read each civilization’s thoughts. Wait… spoilers… did that mean Alma would see them eventually? I would love to share them with her.

“Spoilers? What do you mean?” demanded Alma.

“Spoilers!” exclaimed Aaliyah. “I know a great guy who has trouble resisting spoilers. You wouldn’t believe in him either, Alpy! He’s a time traveler.”

“Lovely. Another one.” stated Alma with a frown.

“Oh, no. He’s not like Carl. He’s just a youngin’. Wonderful person though.” claimed Aaliyah.

“Great. Now she’s coming. I really was hoping she was heading elsewhere.” muttered Alma.

“Who?” I asked.

“Portentia, boss-man, sir. She wants to use a ticket tonight.” explained Aaliyah.

“Oh. Do I have plans?” I asked.

“Yes, master. Mother scheduled you to be out with Portentia tonight, so you have plans with her.” Mila stated over the speakers.

I had no clue where her bodies were at the moment. I hadn’t seen her since she brought me tea a bit ago.

“She’s cooking with Marco and instructing Aurora.” replied Aaliyah.

“Correct!” exclaimed Mila.

“Aurora? Is that Jarod’s lab assistant?” asked Alma.

“Also correct!” exclaimed Mila.

“I still haven’t met her. Jarod had mentioned her to me a while ago. He apparently thought I might be concerned about a girl frequenting the garage. Surely, he knows I trust him by now.” stated Alma.

Knowing Jarod, he probably figured out that Alma had some means of sensing people. I wasn’t surprised that he’d be a step ahead of any assumptions Alma might make, but how would Alma take Aurora’s tendency to remove her clothing?

Alma then went on to say, “I’m quite interested in meeting her at some point. Anyone Jarod would accept as a lab assistant simply must be fascinating.”

I wasn’t certain Alma would approve.

“She’s quite fantastic, I assure you.” insisted Mila.

“Oh. You’re busy.” stated Portentia disappointedly from the doorway.

I waved for her come in and said, “I have a moment. What do you need?”

“I was just wondering if tonight would work for you to be my sidekick. I wanted to use one of my tickets.” she told me.

“Sounds wonderful.” I assured her.

“Thank you! Mila’s fabricating a costume for you.” she informed me.

“Oh, this I simply must see. Shall we all head to Jarod’s lab?” inquired Alma.

I quickly tried coming up with an excuse not to go there, since I wasn’t inclined to have Alma meet Aurora when Jarod wasn’t around.

“Only if we get to force James into his costume! I want to see it!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

Well, maybe things would work out.

She winked at me.

Standing, I said, “Fine-fine. Let’s go.”

We all headed down to the lab under the garage, and I was quite thankful that Aurora was fully dressed for the moment, though I wondered if Mila somehow managed to get her that way in preparation for our arrival. If Aurora noticed us, she made no sign of it.

“How old is she?” asked Alma.

At nearly the same moment, Portentia inquired “Who is she?”

“She’s sixteen.” stated Mila. At the same time, she signed

While the group of us coming down the lift didn’t catch Aurora’s attention, Mila signing did. The girl started making hand motions herself, though nothing that had meaning to me. At that point, Mila turned her to face us. Aurora’s only reaction was to tilt her head as if trying to figure out what we were.

Smiling, Alma said, “Hello, Aurora. I’m Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V.”

No reaction.

Portentia introduced herself as well.

Aaliyah held up a paper, but I couldn’t see what was on it.

Aurora walked over to her, picked her up, and went back to working on something.

“Did Jarod mention that Aurora’s not socially adept yet?” I asked.

“No, but I guessed as much” replied Alma.

“Is something wrong with her?” asked Portentia, sounding concerned.

“I wouldn’t say anything was wrong, but she is different.” I told her. “She’s an autistic savant who Jarod says has remarkable potential.”

Alma, who had walked over to where Aurora was working, said, “I’m inclined to agree.”

“Oh?” I asked.

“Do you see what Aaliyah drew?” she asked.

I looked and said, “Some sort of schematic.”

“Aurora understood it at a glance and is implementing the design into her own work already, some sort of propulsion system going by the arrangement of the fans.” stated Alma.

“Correct!” exclaimed Mila. “Aurora’s helping Jarod design a lightweight flight system. Mother just pushed things forward a bit with her suggested revision to the power control circuit.”

“Couldn’t you do this even faster?” asked Alma.

“I certainly could do some of it faster, but Aurora’s also here to learn.” replied Mila.

As she talked, Aurora walked over to me, seeming to examine me. Then she grabbed the front of my shirt and walked back to where she was working, pulling me along. She let go the moment we were back at her computer, so she could move the mouse with her free hand.

“Does she want me to see something?” I asked.

Aaliyah looked up at me and said, “Nope. You were in the wrong place is all. She didn’t want you electrocuted.”

“Huh? By what?” I asked.

“She’s picturing a very large version of the machine in the room.” explained Aaliyah.

“Master, your suit’s finished!” exclaimed Mila.

I wasn’t honestly looking forward to tonight’s excursion, but looking like a superhero might be fun. Things could be worse.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 280

I took my time dressing, making sure everything looked right. I knew I wouldn’t be late, time was still frozen for most. When I finished, I had Mila show me to Jarod, since she had waited outside my door. Well, she had tried coming in at first, but I was still against her help for a number of reasons. Luckily, her other body wasn’t already in my room. She was with the twins, having been assuring them that Alma would be there shortly when time was frozen. Aaliyah must have let her in on the plan ahead of time.

Alma had insisted that Aaliyah came with her after noticing that Aaliyah was also frozen in place in the other room. Two Aaliyah’s was far too much for Alma to take at the moment. She had a great many questions, and I didn’t really blame her. I just hoped that she could eventually allow herself to go with the flow ― a far safer course for one’s sanity concerning the things Aaliyah did.

Partway down the hall toward the kitchen, I could suddenly hear voices, meaning time was proceeding normally once more. Hmm… Carl might not really see anything he did as abnormal. I probably should stop avoiding the topic with him, considering how much he did for me. Perhaps he’d enjoy talking about it with someone other than Aaliyah.

When Mila stopped to open a door, I took a moment remembering what was in that room. I never used it. Jarod was in there now, looking relaxed, save for the sweat. A number of the guildmates from the bachelor party were in there as well.

“How is everyone?” I asked.

“Dude, you made it!” exclaimed Jarod, grinning ear-to-ear.

“With a little help, I managed to get here on time.” I replied.

“How’s it going?” asked Damien.

“The master is engaged now!” exclaimed Mila.

A number of them congratulated me.

“Thank you, but try not to tell anyone else yet. I haven’t had a chance to tell my parents.” I told them. “Alma’s not even wearing a ring yet.”

“Whoa. Stop right there. You got engaged without even putting a ring on her finger!?” questioned Jesse.

“Her family’s complicated, and things happened to play out that way.” I replied.

“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame her for accepting and all, but wow… Rich people are weird.” stated Jesse.

I almost argued, but I found myself unable to come up with an argument that sounded valid even to me. I was wealthy now, and my life was certainly not normal. Normal people didn’t have to fight through death matches as part of a courtship. Normal people didn’t have Adelmar announcing an engagement that the couple never discussed. I hoped Alma didn’t mind this group knowing. Luckily, our chatter turned toward other things for a while.

“Master, the time.” whispered Mila.

“Ah. Yes. Looks like you’ll need to be taking your seats. Jarod and I are supposed to be entering soon.” I informed everyone.

A number of them started giving Jarod last minute encouragement as they headed out the door.

Marlin put her hand on Jarod’s shoulder and said, “Just relax. You’ve got this.” A spell slowly formed by her for creating a small gust of air on Jarod.

The footsteps of the others were continuing down the hall, so I felt reasonably safe using a little magic as well. I created one to clean Jarod of sweat and salt, watching Marlin’s reaction. The shock was evident as she jumped backward with her eyes wide.

“You don’t use magic much, do you.” I stated, thinking she should have noticed some of the spells around Alma and the twins when we were out on ATVs together.

She shook her head, appearing speechless.

Jarod looked from me to Marlin and seemed to be putting things together, but he said, “Wedding, guys. You can discuss what just happened later.”

“Yes. Sorry, Jarod.” I told him. Turning to Marlin, I said, “I’ll be happy to discuss things with you later if you’re up for it.”

She stared for a moment before quickly nodding and hurrying out. Mila shut the door behind her.

“Exposing yourself as a wizard now?” teased Jarod.

“I have a feeling that she could use a teacher. I wish you could have seen her spell.” I replied.

“Me too. How did things go with Hyun-woo though? The twins made the guy sound pretty tough.” he commented.

“Things could have gone better, but they worked out.” I told him.

“He actually was able to put up a fight then?” he inquired.

“He’s stronger and faster than I am, and I believe him to be far more experienced with magic as well.” I admitted.

“Then how did you win?” he asked.

“Hyun-woo was distracted during the fight. I ended up cutting off his hand and claiming his weapon.” I replied.

“Oh.” stated Jarod, his face scrunching as he gripped his right wrist with his left. “Can I see his sword later? The Demon Blade… that has to be amazing!”

“You can have it as an extra wedding present as far as I’m concerned.” I replied. “I bet the twins will love it as well.”

What!? Are you serious?” he asked, jumping to his feet.

“I need to make sure there is no strange family custom against it, but sure. I never want to use that sword.” I told him.

“Oh, man… That’s… Thank you!” he exclaimed, brushing his hand through his hair.

“Jarod, you need to look presentable for your wedding.” chided Mila as she stepped over to him and pulled him down enough for her to run a comb through his hair.

“Yeah. Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” he replied.

I checked the time again. We needed to get to the door before I got in trouble for having the groom late. The moment Mila finished, we all headed out. The time had come.

I was surprised when we had done the rehearsal that Jarod had forgone most groomsman, but I supposed that was easier than having to pick between friends. I had expected Alma to be Ai’s Maid of Honor, but Mai had that spot, walking in at my side. Alma sat near Izumi, who came for the sake of appearances.

Izumi didn’t consider this to be her daughters’ real wedding. She only counted the one they were to have in Japan next week, one which I wasn’t to attend. Jarod would probably tell me about it later, but Alma had already given me the gist of what will transpire, a mix of Slayer traditions along with Japanese customs.

Today’s wedding had an emerald, cream, and gold theme. The twins insisted Jarod looked great in any green, and I was opposed to their thoughts on remodeling my ballroom for their wedding, which has small amounts of gold trim. The mirrors were certainly going to be used to interesting effect. After everyone entered, they would switch modes to display an ocean view from a cliffside for the ceremony. I found the image quite spectacular during the rehearsal.

Once Mai and I were in place, Jarod’s turn to walk the aisle came. I wondered if all the time he spent in suits of late helped him feel more comfortable in a tux. He seemed more relaxed now than he had waiting.

When Ai’s turn came, she easily stole the show. Alma had designed the gown, and she did beautifully. There were some gasps in the audience when the mirrors changed, but I was certain that was precisely the effect Jarod and the twins wanted. The ceremony was beautiful and seemed quite well received.

The reception thereafter took place in the back yard. Emma had prepared additional flower beds specifically for it, matching the theme with cream and gold colored flowers that certainly couldn’t be grown elsewhere, at least not without her gift with plants. I wasn’t certain if the cream-colored wood of the chairs and tables were more natural or not, but she had done a fantastic job with engravings on both. The twins had opted not to use the table cloths after seeing Emma’s initial tests.

Cosette sat in the shade of some trees Emma had grown specifically for her and was able to attend the reception easy enough, though she did excuse herself occasionally to “freshen up” with Portentia. Marco’s cooking held its usual place of honor, and his cake had Aaliyah’s full approval.

Marlin and I chatted a little about magic during the reception, which was interesting. She had learned a little from her grandmother, whom she obviously admired. Her mother had been against her learning magic at all, feeling it brought nothing but trouble. She was shocked to hear that I only started under a year ago, since the spell I had used to clean Jarod was quite beyond her. I admitted to a need for constant practice, though I didn’t elaborate on the need.

When Alma approached us, Marlin excused herself, probably thinking we couldn’t discuss more at the time. I used the opportunity to inform my parents about my sudden engagement. Mother was overjoyed, and father took the news well enough. He had been expecting it.

During the dance, I quietly questioned Alma about giving Muramasa to Jarod and the twins. She seemed surprised that I would give up such a weapon, but assured me there was no rule, custom, or otherwise that prohibited me from doing it. Ai and Mai embraced me while practically yelling their thanks when I informed them.

As the sun set, bioluminescent plants surprised the guests again, but the party soon drew to a close. Surprisingly, Izumi wasn’t even staying the night, leaving immediately after the reception with excuses of business that needed handled, though she did congratulate me on my latest victory. I wasn’t disappointed. All of the guildmates who were in attendance were staying the night, so we had the freedom to indulge ourselves in virtual adventure to end the night. Overall, I felt the wedding was quite a success.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 279

 When I finished changing back into my normal attire, I hurried to catch Alma, so we could leave.  To my surprise, the large room was filling rather than emptying.  Adelmar beckoned me toward him.  Great.  What now?

 Adelmar took my hand and Alma’s, placing them together as he said, “And here is our champion.  As I can sense no further rivals willing to face James in honorable combat, let me officially declare the engagement of James Michael Somerset III to Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V.  May your coming year…”

 Engagement?  Adelmar continued droning on with pleasantries, but I was stuck on that one word.  I knew he had said that we would be required to marry, but I had imagined us dating for a while before being engaged.  I also had certain thoughts concerning a ring and a proposal.  I was not prepared for this.  Alma was smiling beautifully, so I did my best to appear pleased as well.

 Embarrassing Alma in front of her family would anger her greatly, and I didn’t want any of them to think me unwilling.  I was in love with her…  I just didn’t really know if I was ready to be married.  I’d have to talk with her about how soon we’d be expected to marry.  I would certainly need to inform my parents.  Please, let my wedding not be here and today.  I needed to attend Jarod’s still, assuming I could arrive before the wedding was completely over.

 I felt a wave of relief when Adelmar finished speaking, since there was not one word about a wedding today in his lengthy speech.  I was even more surprise when, after guiding Alma and me out, Adelmar apologized for keeping us.

 Then he went on to say, “I do know of your friend marrying into the family today, and I do not wish you to miss it entirely.  Please excuse me.  I need to have a chat with Hyun-woo about his recent behavior.”

 Alma surprised me, jumping up to kiss me.  The moment was all too brief.  She pulled back and stared into my eyes as I held her.

 “James, we must be off… the wedding.” she stated.

 I sighed and set her down.  Then I took her hand, and we ran from the Slayer estate.  Just after passing the gate, we both came to a stop, shocked by our surroundings.  Where were we?

 “My home?  How?” asked Alma.

 “As the future Mrs. Somerset, you will be granted certain privileges, such as better traveling arrangements.  You will, of course, need to sign this confidentiality agreement.” explained Aaliyah as she held up an electronic tablet.  She looked like her typical self again, no longer appearing as Death.

 Alma stared at her for several seconds before even touching the tablet.  Then she took time reading through it.  I was more preoccupied by my surroundings.  The hallway looked very well kept but still seemed very old due to the style.  The floors were stone and had elaborate, red carpet runners stretching across them.  Paintings decorated many areas similar to my own home, but there were large tapestries here as well.

 Dishes dropped nearby after a maid rounded the corner.

 “I beg your pardon, my lady.  I wasn’t aware you returned.” she stammered.

 Alma smiled and looked up, saying, “Good evening, Poppy.  Don’t worry about making any arrangements.  I won’t be here for long.”

 Poppy curtsied and then started cleaning up the mess.  I used a couple spells to give her a hand.  Cleaning up liquids from carpet could be tricky without magic.  She smiled and curtsied again after everything settled on her platter.  Then she hurried around the corner.

 “Sebastian, James and I are going to visit my father.” stated Alma as a man rounded the same corner as the maid earlier.

 “Very well, my lady.  Might I have a word with you in private after you are finished.” he replied.

 “No.  My fiancée and I must attend Ai and Mai’s wedding, so we’re more than slightly pressed for time.” she informed him.

 Fiancée… I felt I grew accustomed to the idea of Jarod being wed more quickly than I was acclimating to my new position.

 Nodding, he said, “Very well, my lady.”  Then he stood there, waiting expectantly.

 Alma sighed and signed Aaliyah’s contract.  Aaliyah had wandered over to Sebastian and seemed to be inspecting him.

 “I’m terribly sorry, miss Aaliyah, but I do not have any sweets on me today.” he informed her.

 She pouted adorably.

 “Come along, James.  We’re here so that you may meet my father, given our engagement.” explained Alma as I followed her through the halls at a very human pace.

 “Eventually, I would like a tour of your home.  This place seems magnificent.” I told her.

 “I’ll arrange a tour on our next visit.” she assured me.

 After passing through several halls and greeting a large number of staff, we came to a stop in a very large library.  Sebastian locked the door after we entered.  Alma walked over to a worn copy of Inferno by Dante and pulled it off the shelf while casting a number of spells.

 “Traps?” I asked.

 She smiled and winked.  Then placed the book on a pedestal near the far wall.  Part of the wall dropped into the ground, revealing a passage.

 “Your home isn’t the only one with secret passageways guarded by spells.” she informed me.

 “The only spells I recall are on the vault.” I replied.

 “There are others.  You probably just set them off without a care, don’t you.” she claimed with a frown.

 I couldn’t deny the possibility, although there was also a chance that Alma had actually done more exploring than me.

 Sebastiaan stood by the passage as if he meant to guard it.

 “I’m going to stay here with Sebastian.  I smell chocolate.” stated Aaliyah as I followed Alma into the passage.

 Just past the first turn, the passage ended in a hole descending into the earth.  There was a surprising amount of heat coming up from it.  I could feel the spells in the area which cooled and purified the air.

 “Your father’s in a hole?” I asked.

 “My father spends all of his time guarding what we believe to be a magical focal point, or node.  I’ll protect you from the heat, so don’t worry.  Please try not to absorb too much energy.  My father’s staff wouldn’t be able to get anything done for half a day.” she explained.  “Just follow my example and descend carefully, since my spells won’t affect you.”

 I nodded and created the spells as she did, following her down into the earth.  I wasn’t sure how far we went, but I felt a great amount of surprise when a familiar pressure came to mind.  There was a fey here?  Alma hadn’t seen one before coming to my home though.  I opened my mind to it.

 Fire… fire everywhere!  I saw a man dancing through it with tremendous joy emanating from him.  He hugged me and wanted to dance.  The image suddenly changed, showing me years of isolation… pain.  His mouth moved when he saw Alma, but he couldn’t remember the words he wanted to speak.  There was a wildness to his mind beyond that of most fey i encountered.  The image changed again.  The man was crying.  I felt his pain, his loss.  Someone had died.  Left?  Something was missing from him.  Alma was there, but she left immediately.  Over and over.  There was little sense of time.

 “Your father…  The Duke… is a fey?” I asked, surprised by the notion.

 “What?” she demanded.  “He’s…”  Then her face went slack…  Numerous protective spells left her.  Tears started flowing down her cheek.

 “I am so, so sorry…” she muttered.  “Tad…  Yr wyf yn dod.”

 I knew she wasn’t talking to me.  She was telling her father that she was coming.  She hadn’t known.  Her father had been trying to speak with her for a while, and she never knew, always sealed away behind her spells.  Alma sprinted through the inferno ahead of us the moment we landed, and I followed.  The man we encountered was naked, save for the soot covering his skin.  Alma quickly covered him in smoke.  

 No more words were spoken, but I knew everything being exchanged between them.  Years of silence were finally broken.  Images and feelings were flickering between their minds.  I felt for them both.  I didn’t know how much time passed as the two caught up with one another.  The fires raging around me had no need for time.

 Eventually, images of me fighting my challengers appeared.  Then Adelmar’s speech was shown, seeming even longer the second time.  Alma thought of herself in a wedding gown, and I wondered if that was the type of gown she’d really be choosing.

 I wasn’t entirely certain the concept of a wedding got through to the Duke.  He seemed so confused in his thoughts, but he was happy.  When we did leave, his sadness at our departure was quite evident.  Alma had tried telling him that we would return, but I wasn’t certain he understood.  I wiped another tear from her cheek as we ascended back up the tunnel.

 Alma stared up into my eyes and said, “I might have been able to help him, to save his mind…”

 “Don’t blame yourself.  You couldn’t have known.” I told her.

 “Adelmar had tried communicating with him several times for me, but he said it was hopeless.” she explained.  “He never got a response and said he couldn’t pull anything intelligible from my father’s mind.”

 “Be thankful.  You can be there for him now.” I assured her.

 “Unless you want to move to England, I can’t be here often, James.” she argued.

 “Why not?  You just signed a confidentiality agreement that allows for swift passage anywhere.  I’m rather certain that Aaliyah will take you here daily if you wish.” I insisted.

 She shook her head and said, “No, you still don’t understand her.”

 “I understand her far better than you do.  I’ve become more and more certain of it.” I admitted.  “If I’m understanding her intentions with that last agreement, we might soon be able to speak of things I haven’t revealed to you.  There are reasons I put so much trust in Aaliyah.  You’ll see.”

 “She will!  It’ll be exciting and new!  Fun for everyone!” exclaimed Aaliyah, suddenly floating beside us.

 Alma looked disturbed.

 “Aww… come on, Alpy.  You always believed I could fly.” claimed the tiny girl.

 “I suspected, but I didn’t expect proof.” replied Alma.

 “Stop right there.  No reporting.  You agreed.” stated Aaliyah.

 “You can read my mind.” commented Alma in a whisper.

 Aaliyah rolled her eyes and said, “Duuuh.  How am I supposed to fulfill my duties as Death if I don’t know everything?  I can’t misjudge folk.  It’d be improper, and I know you wouldn’t want me to be improper!”

 “Shh… Sebastian might be listening!” exclaimed Alma in a whisper.

 Aaliyah shook her head and sighed dramatically.

 “She’d know if he were.” I told her.  “She’d probably prevent him from hearing one way or another if there was the possibility he might hear something she didn’t want him to hear.”

 “She’s not all powerful, James.  Even Death has her limits, and I do not want Sebastian murdered over something he cannot help.” argued Alma.

 “Oh, Alpy… you’re so adorable.” replied Aaliyah as she gave Alma a hug.

 “I am not being adorable.  One of us has to at least attempt being sensible.” insisted Alma.  “James, she kills people over infractions of a ridiculously complicated agreement that most people could never even hope to understand.”

 “I’ve never taken anyone before their time.  Some people just die younger than others.” stated Aaliyah.

 “And you should get to choose when everyone dies then?” demanded Alma.

 “Yep, unless you can find a better judge of it.” replied Aaliyah.

 “Might we table this for now and get onto the wedding?” I suggested.

 “What time is it?” asked Alma.

 “After two.  We’ve got plenty of time!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

 Alma grimaced before saying, “We missed it…  I’m so sorry, James.  I didn’t realize we had been talking quite that long.”

 “Oh, Carl!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

 “Carl?” asked Alma.

 “Yes?” inquired Carl.

 “Oh.  You.  How did you get here?” questioned Alma as she stared at him.

 He was standing at the top of the hole as we finished the ascent.

 “I walked, of course.  Not everyone has incredible means of transportation.” he replied.

 “Carl, would you mind putting us back to the wedding?” asked Aaliyah.

 “Back to the wedding?” demanded Alma.  “What are you… talking about…” she asked as she stared around.

 We were back at my home, obviously earlier in the day by the light.

 “Welcome home, master!” exclaimed Mila.  “Lady Pendreigh needs to change into her dress if she’s to help the twins.  I’ll gladly help you change, master, if you need help with your tux.”

 Time was still frozen.  There were people already seated in the ballroom.

 I gently pushed Alma’s chin up, closing her gaping mouth while saying, “Carl is also known as Chronos, if that helps.  He runs the Intergalactic House of Awesome Sauce.”

 “I knew that he ran that infernal restaurant.” she snapped.

 I could tell by Alma’s expression that she was having difficulty in believing what she was seeing.  I was sure she’d catch on soon enough, but she had all the time in the world.