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 266

Watching Jarod and Alma fight was incredible. Following their movements was quite easy, given that Jarod was human, but his skill was all the more obvious due to it. I wondered if Izumi was keeping up as well. Some of the counters Jarod performed were very subtle.

Alma, of course, was going to win. He couldn’t injure her, and she had ample time to plan graceful landings when he would have knocked her to the ground. They had been exchanging blows for at least five minutes, and Jarod was sweating profusely. On the other hand, I would have hated to see the mess Alma would be if she were human. Every hit against Jarod had a consequence that would leave most people with a broken bone or worse, and even Alma hadn’t found a real weakness in his defense.

I glanced toward the door when a rattling sound jarred me from my concentration. “Raine!? Are you alright?” I asked.

“J-James… i-is…- is s-she r-really… d-did she… c-come to t-take… the t-twins?” she asked.

Her eyes seemed narrower than normal, and there was an edge to her voice that worried me. She seemed tense. I glanced back at Izumi, surprised to see Ai and Mai standing in front of her. They were scared. Izumi seemed even more surprised.

“Ah. Raine. Thank you for delivering us our tea. Was Marco busy?” asked Alma as she walked over to us.

“W-we can’t… c-can’t let I-Izu-m-mi… A-Alma… t-the wedding…” complained Raine.

“Why don’t I take these for you?” stated Alma as she used a spell to set the tray Raine carried on the table. “Word does travel fast around here, doesn’t it. Lady Izumi, how do you feel about your daughters’ engagement?”

“To whom am I speaking?” she inquired.

“Oh. My apologies. Allow me to introduce Raine Vance, possibly the most timid werecat on the planet. Raine, this is the mother of Ai and Mai, Lady Izumi.” explained Alma.

“I think I better have a word with Raine in private. Please feel free to continue in my absence.” I stated, tentatively stepping toward Raine. I reached to place a hand on her shoulder, despite seeing residual energy pouring off her, but I might well have attempted to grab a shadow.

I looked around, trying to spot her. The smooth facade was gone from Alma’s face, replaced by wariness. Everyone looked concerned as they searched the room with their eyes as well.

I did a double take at the far corner. I didn’t really see Raine exactly, but there were glowing feline eyes in the shadows. Wait, there shouldn’t even be shadows there. The way the room seemed to be twisting around that area made me certain. I took a step toward her, saying, “Raine! Please, just calm down! I know you don’t want to hurt anyone. I promise you that things will work out.”

She was suddenly next to me, staring up at me. I hated to see her so distraught. Even covered in needle-like fur, I could tell she was scared.

“Y-you p-promise?” she asked, her voice sounding distorted.

I slowly reached out to her, saying, “I promise.” My hand touched a very human shoulder, and I relaxed.

There were tears in her eyes as she continued staring up at me for a moment. Then she looked to the floor and said, “I-I w-was… I-I’m sorry.”

I gave her a hug and told her “Don’t be sorry.” Then I tilted her chin up and told her “Just go find something to distract you for a bit. I seem to recall you being behind on your orders for the guild in Ancient Tribes of Earth.”

“I-I was w-working… l-last n-night. W-well, I-I f-felt… I… n-napped. S-sorry. I-I’ll get… f-finish t-them.” she muttered before running out of the room.

I turned to apologize again to Izumi, but was somewhat surprised to find her mouth silently working. She still looked scared.

“Sorry about the interruption, but Raine can be rather forceful in a way. “ I admitted.

“F-forceful? You’re harboring a d-demon.” she replied, speaking in Japanese now.

“She’s only half-demon. She really is half-werecat. Don’t worry. Adelmar keeps himself apprised of my staff.” I informed her in English.

“He is well aware that I am a vampire and still offered me France.” stated Cosette with a smile. “He can be quite generous, don’t you think?”

Izumi seemed to unconsciously step away from Cosette as she turned toward Alma and asked in English “Adelmar is aware of this?”

“Of course. Are you insinuating that I would keep things from my cousin?” asked Alma.

“N-no.” she blurted. Turning to me, she said, “You have interesting companions, Mr. Somerset.”

I nodded, but told her “Call me James, please. I still think of my father as ‘Mr. Somerset.’” Then I smiled and asked “What did you think of Jarod’s performance before the interruption?”

“He is a remarkable man, and I would be quite happy to accept him as the husband of one of my daughters.” she stated.

I sighed, not wanting to believe I just heard what I did.

“Okaasama, careful!” urged Ai.

“She’ll hear you.” warned Mai.

Alma used a spell to serve everyone tea as she said, “Your daughters are trying to keep you alive. I am quite certain that Raine has better hearing than James and me.”

The blood that had been returning to Izumi’s face seemed to depart again, and I refrained from informing her that Raine probably wouldn’t kill her over the matter, being a gentle person at heart.

“Even knowing your daughters as you do, how can you insist on marrying separate people?” I asked.

“They are two people, and polygamy is illegal.” she replied.

Alma sighed dramatically and then said, “Adelmar has just granted James permission to challenge you over the matter with me presiding over the challenge. James, please leave some life in her. A light flick will probably be enough.”

“But… James isn’t one of us, not yet.” she muttered before closing her eyes. She quite visibly winced.

“My cousin is having a little talk with Izumi. Her stubbornness failed to amuse him in this matter.” explained Alma with a wry smile.

Quickly handing her tea to Mai, Izumi dropped to her knees, placing her palms and head on the floor in dogeza style as she said, “I concede and ask your forgiveness.”

“Please rise. I’m happy that we could reach peaceful settlement on the matter.” I told her.

Izumi rose and nodded, but she seemed fatigued now, as if all her energy were spent.

“If you’ll excuse me, I want to check on Raine. Mila will inform you when dinner is ready if you’ll dine with us.” I stated before walking toward the door. I had enough with Slayer business for today, though I was relieved that I didn’t have to press the issue further.

Raine was curled up in her chair, looking almost as if she were napping with the game running, but one of her hands deftly moved around the keyboard. Her character was hammering away at a sword, each stroke under her command. She apparently had crafted enough to memorize every position on the screen. If she peeked to find the bucket when she doused the blade, I didn’t notice.

I told her “Izumi has conceded on the matter of her daughters’ engagement. Hopefully, there won’t be any other opposing parties.”

Without looking up or even opening her eyes, she said, “T-thank you. I-I’m s-sorry… about…”

“Don’t worry about anything, Raine. Just talk with me if you have a problem. We’re friends, right?” I insisted.

She smiled as she looked at me, and I found myself hoping that I really would be able to help her.

“Everything will be fine.” I assured us both.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 261

“Why don’t I use up some of this excess energy, so someone else can have a turn showing off?” I suggested.

Without waiting for a response, I started forming several spells, loading each with an abundance of energy. I had pulled in too much earlier for such a short demonstration. Oh. Alma’s protections were down… I sighed, pausing for a moment midway through the spells. Now I would wonder if…

“Don’t worry, boss-man, sir. Yes, you affected her, but she already loved you. The love she projected to everyone was no less real.” insisted Aaliyah as she hugged me.

Everyone was frozen in place, except for Aaliyah and me. I knelt down and hugged her.

“Thank you. Do you think we’re getting through to my parents?” I asked.

“You always do just fine, boss-man, sir. Don’t worry. Your parents aren’t as adventurous as you. They won’t get in too much trouble.” claimed Aaliyah.

“That doesn’t sound too reassuring.” I admitted.

Letting go of me, Aaliyah walked over toward my father. “Well, there is this…” she stated, reaching up toward him.

I lifted her and asked “What?”

Her hand seemed to pass through my father’s chest, emerging a moment later, covered in something.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Alpy noticed your father’s heart beating a bit irregularly. She’s planning on talking to you about it later. I just pulled out some clogs. Icky, aren’t they!?” she exclaimed, grinning at me as she held her hand toward me.

“What!? Is there something I can do?” I asked.

Aaliyah stared into my eyes and said, “Most everyone dies eventually, James.”

Looking into her eyes, I became aware of something vast before me, an endless ocean with unfathomable depths. Yet, I was holding this tiny girl who stretched on and on for eternity. I wasn’t ready to lose my father. Not yet. I knew she was right, but… Was she taking him soon?

“Are you kidding, boss-man, sir? I just put many years of happy eating back on his life!” she exclaimed. Leaning closer, she whispered “I may have done a bit more than you just saw.” Then she grabbed my face in her tiny hands, somehow clean again, and said, “When the time does come, I’ll still be taking care of everyone. You worry too much, boss-man, sir. I took care of your mother too.”

“What was wrong with mother?” I asked.

“Nothing yet, and now that ‘yet’ is fixed. I’m an expert at parental health.” she told me with a wink. “Just take a deep breath, and get on with the show!”

I did as she said and heard the others come back into motion while I finished my spells.

“Oh. That looks eerie, dear.” stated mother. “What did you do?”

“I redirected light around the area, and then created a dim light within. There’s also a spell that will light up the ground wherever it’s touched.” I explained.

“I’m guessing you wanted me to demonstrate a bit more then.” surmised Cosette. “Very well. Even this shade’s been difficult on me though, so let me just check on Portentia first. I’ll be right back.”

“Let’s show them what we can do, sis. No need for an intermission.” suggested Brandon.

Brenna rolled her eyes and said, “Fine, but I’m going to cheat too.”

As he walked away from the group, Brandon grew in size till his clothes were taught again. His giant footprints glowed as he passed into the area of my spell. Brenna followed, preparing a spell as she went.

Brandon attacked, bringing two giant fists down toward his sister. She flipped backward, and unleashed her spell on Brandon’s legs, knocking them out from under him. He managed to catch himself with his hands enough to turn his fall into a roll. Brenna cartwheeled out of the way, and then quickly created a fire between them.

Even knowing that Brandon could heal himself from a burn, I felt a little uncomfortable with that spell present. At least she hadn’t used it on him.

As Brandon stepped around the fire, Brenna created a flash of light in front of his eyes and ran behind him. When Cosette and Portentia sprinted out of the house toward them, Brenna fell backward as she tried stopping herself.

Brandon turned around to find Portentia staring up at him and visibly gulped. “Emma! Tree me!” he yelled.

“Fine! Just a sec!” she replied, throwing a seed toward him and creating a gust of air to blow it farther.

Portentia, however, didn’t wait. She ran to Brandon’s side and kicked the back of his leg. Then she jumped at his descending arm, and used it to toss him. I had to admit that watching someone her size throw a ten foot tall man was very impressive.

Brenna and Cosette were doing more traditional martial arts against one another, but Brenna was too outmatched physically. She couldn’t really even harm Cosette with a physical blow. When she knocked Cosette back with a spell, Cosette leaped back at her, twisting out of her clothes and changing into a black wolf midair. Brenna was so startled that she fell backward, allowing Cosette to land on her, baring her fangs.

“Is that what you do, Raine?” asked mother.

Raine shook her head negatively.

“Raine’s transformation is even quicker and more dramatic.” I told them.

“Her clothes tend to shred instead of slipping off. Therianthropes don’t have the type of control Cosette’s showing.” explained Alma. “Ai. Mai. Go help the redheads.”

“Yes, Lady Pendreigh.” they replied.

As they sprinted into action, they started casting spells to melt the distant snow. Then Ai created a force to push Cosette off Brenna while Mai used a spell to trip Portentia. Brandon used the distraction to dive for the branchless tree Emma had grown, attempting to pull it out of the ground.

Emma giggled.

“Oh, stop teasing the poor boy.” ordered Alma with a smile.

“Fiiine.” replied Emma.

The tree tore free, and Brandon immediately tried clubbing Portentia with it, almost hitting Mai.

“Careful, soulless! I’m helping you if you didn’t notice!” exclaimed Mai as Portentia flipped over the tree at her.

Water surged through the air into the fray, slamming against Portentia. Cosette seemed to melt before the water hit, but then appeared as an exceptionally quick bear, swiping at Ai.

“Just put your clothes back on already.” snapped Ai as she dodged the swipe.

I never had thought to see a bear shrug before, but this one did. Then she dove at her clothes, her shape contorting into them. Even more surprising to me was Midnight being pulled out from nowhere, severing Mai’s control over the water as it connected.

“James, did you see that!?” asked Alma.

“Yes. She just touched the ground and pulled out her staff.” I replied.

“We probably should stop this if that’s involved.” stated Alma.

“Have a little faith. She’s very skilled now.” I told her.

“Yes, she is, which is why the twins might do something rash.” she cautioned.

The light diminished around me, and I barely glimpsed Raine before she moved. A deeper darkness briefly moved throughout the area I had darkened. A large circle formed from everyone who had been fighting, with each of them staring around.

“T-that’s e-enough.” muttered Raine from the center, back to her human form.

“Whoa.” stated father, looking shocked.

Alma was peering at him inquisitively but said nothing.

“Did you feel that?” asked mother, looking startled.

“If you felt afraid for a moment, don’t be too alarmed. That was just Raine. She can’t help it.” I told her. Was this why Aaliyah had appeared, why she helped my father?

“Maybe.” came her voice as a whisper on the wind.

I smiled, grateful for my friend.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 251

The snowball fight ― which commenced after Ai, seeing Brenna hit her brother with a snowball, magically formed one to strike Jarod ― would probably be the stuff of legends for future generations, but I expected such antics to ensue many times throughout my company’s future.

Instead of retaliating against the twins, Jarod threw a snowball at me, and I redirected it at Mai, knowing that not just one of the twins was ever guilty. Hundreds of snowballs flew toward me, but I ducked behind Alma, who created a wall around us from the snow on the ground. She cheated a bit, in my opinion, reinforcing the wall with a telekinetic spell.

After impact, the wall exploded into snowballs, aiming at everyone in the vicinity, excluding me. Aaliyah seemed to unknowingly duck at just the right moment to dodge, obliviously picking up a decoration from the ones her aunt had made. Ariadne, on the other hand, was able to create a very decorative-looking wall of ice from nothing, despite her close proximity. Portentia acrobatically dodged several with incredible grace, not getting hit once. Mila blocked hers with the umbrella she carried out, and Cosette seemed to reflexively block one with her arm, knocking it to the side. I found myself wondering at how she developed such a reflex, given her novice performance at our daily exercises.

Raine, seeming to be asleep in the snow near Cosette’s feet, barely even twitched when she was hit by some of the snow from the snowball Cosette blocked. Ai and Mai caught theirs with their natural magic while Jarod caught the one aimed at him during a spinning dodge. Brandon, who was still making his snowball to attack his sister, was hit soundly in the back as Brenna took one to the arm. Emma, grinning, just let herself be hit. I couldn’t tell if my little fairy friend was disappointed nothing came at her or simply confused by the situation. Either way, she was excited when the retaliation came at Alma and me.

Vines erupted from the snow covered ground, using leaves to pack snowballs as they grew. The barrage they threw would have been considered quite formidable by most if that were all, but Ai and Mai were easily matching Emma as they caused snowballs to leap from the ground at us. Brandon was a little disturbing to watch, barely fitting in his clothing as he grew and threw something more akin to a snow-boulder than snowball. Brenna managed to magically hurl two snowballs at us while throwing a third. Portentia, Mila, and Cosette weren’t holding back their speed, rapidly lobbing snowballs at us as well.

As Alma and I were busy dodging, blocking, and redirecting snowballs, Aaliyah calmly worked away at the base of her snowman, appearing completely engrossed in the task. I felt Ariadne’s magic as I saw the flash of light just above me, but I wasn’t quick enough to dodge the snowballs that appeared already in motion. Alma didn’t do any better, an obvious hole was in her latest snow wall. How did one fight Ariadne? We found out a moment later when one of the fey appeared from nowhere, striking Ariadne from behind as she turned.

Alma, looking somewhere between amused and annoyed, created a mist to cover the creature and said, “If she’s going to come play, would you mind providing her with clothing?”

“I don’t mind, but I make no promises about her keeping anything on.” replied Ariadne, creating the clothing as she spoke.

“There aren’t any footprints.” I stated, realizing what was missing.

“She is a mystery.” admitted Alma.

Meanwhile, my little fairy friend was emulating Aaliyah and rolling a tiny ball of snow across the ground. Then she laboriously lifted the ball in her arms, flew to the other fey girl, and dropped it on her head.

With the others continuing to attack us, I called for a time-out, feeling we should divide into teams and establish some ground rules, mainly assigning a “fort” to each team and setting a victory condition in a capture the flag sort of manner. We also decided on preparation time to reinforce each base. Ariadne was kind enough to provide actual flags.

For obvious reasons, both sides wanted the newly arrived fey girl. Ariadne, thankfully, was interpreting for me, so the fey might better understand what I was meaning. Alma created a second little village for her team’s fort, including the fey girl, Brenna, Ai, Mai, and Mila. I was with the rest in the original village.

With Ariadne’s help, I created an enchantment around our flag that might keep Alma from detecting it too easily.

Once resumed, the snowball fight quickly escalated again. Aaliyah, still making her snowman, agreed to be the arbiter and timekeeper for when people were allowed back into play after being hit.

My little fairy friend proved more useful than I expected. Given her exceptionally tiny stature, the other team didn’t often notice her until she was dropping a tiny snowball on them. Of course, she still got distracted pretty easily and the beams of light when she blasted snowballs out of the air were very obvious.

The battle raged back and forth with both teams scoring. Many methods of victory were eliminated after the point, such as Emma pulling the the flag through the ground to our base with a plant and Alma vaporizing any snowball that came near her as she casually walked our flag back to her base.

Things took an unexpected turn when Raine was hit with one of Brandon’s stray snow-boulders. At first, I thought she was angry, transformed as she was. She looked around for a moment, and then started rapidly making piles of snowballs. I was quite certain nobody managed to dodge as Raine actually fought back, seeming to appear next to people as she attacked with snowballs. Even Alma was too stunned to even move. Maybe “startled” would be more appropriate.

When Brandon protested being out, Aaliyah declared “Fair game! Two points for team Raine, since you don’t have a snowball’s chance of guarding your flags with no players to defend against her. Boss-man, sir, our little fairy friend’s looking for Raine over there.” She pointed to one of the snow buildings.

“Okay, but Raine… You fought back!” I exclaimed.

She transformed back to her human form. “I-I… D-don’t h-hit me when… wh-when I-I’m napping. I-it’s r-rude.” she mumbled.

“Yeah, Brandon!” exclaimed Brenna as she punched him. “No picking on the kitty.”

“Why so nervous, child? We’re all friends here.” stated Ariadne.

Raine backed away from her, saying, “I-I’m s-sorry. I… I… I…”

“You probably wouldn’t guess how frustrated and amused you make me. I’ve spent over two thousand years healing people, and I can’t do a thing to help you.” replied Ariadne.

Raine seemed to fight with herself for a moment before taking a step forward and assuring Ariadne “D-don’t worry. I-I’m f-fine. I… I just… y-your m-magic feels i-icky.”

Laughing, Ariadne replied “I suppose that would be the case for you.”

Life here was never dull. That was my certainty.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 245

“Raine!? What’s wrong?” I asked, having noticed her partially under a table, but not asleep as normal.

She cringed at my voice, sinking farther under the table, so I knelt down next to her and tentatively placed my hand on her shoulder.

Realizing she was covering her ears, I took a guess and said, “The screams… you can hear them, can’t you.”

She looked at me, tears streaking down your face. “Y-you c-can… c-can hear them?” she asked.

I nodded and told her “Mai’s in great pain right now, but we’re trying to find a way to help her.”

“T-the voice… is real?” she asked, looking scared as well as surprise.

I stopped myself from asking why would the voice not be real. Raine had her own demons in her past, at least one literally. What mattered now was helping her, since I couldn’t be of help to Ai.

“Come with me. I have something that might help you.” I told her, offering her a hand.

Raine reached out, withdrew her hand, and then forced herself to take mine. I was somewhat shocked at the strength in her grip. If she squeezed any harder, my hand might break.

“Can you manage to be a little more gentle?” I asked.

She instantly let go and withdrew, looking horrified.

I showed her my hand and wiggled my fingers as I said, “Look. No injuries. I don’t break very easily these days.

More tears ran down her face as she said, “S-sorry. I-I… I-I… EEE!”

The last, high-pitched noise was rather adorable, brought on by me lifting her out from under the table. I ran to the third floor with her, so no one would see us like this. I frowned, thinking Alma might notice, but I would explain the situation later.

I used a spell to open my office door and set Raine in my chair while saying, “Office, noise cancellation on. Environmental setting: random alien beach.” The interface felt clunky without Mila.

The room became slightly darker, lit by three moons in a night sky. Raine’s look of wonder was very cute.

Smiling, I asked “Better?”

She nodded.

“Why don’t you stay here a while and go over some of the company’s training courses?” I asked.

“O-okay. Umm… h-how?” she asked.

“Oh, yes.” I replied, realizing one might assume my office’s interface was different than the rest of the house. “Just state the commands as you do in any other room, and the desk’s monitor will illuminate for you.

She tried, and I was surprised despite myself. In her short time here thus far, I mainly found Raine sleeping when I came across her, yet she was already quite far along in the company’s primary coursework.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it then.” I told her, but she already seemed immersed. Given how quickly the text was flowing on the screen, I felt she could easily get through tremendous amounts if she stayed awake.

As I opened the door, Raine said, “J-James?”

“Yes, Raine?” I asked.

“T-thank you.” she replied.

I smiled and nodded.

But again she said, “J-James?”

“W-why did you… d-did you s-say… Aaliyah?” she asked, a degree of reverence coming through with how she said the name.

“Huh? When?” I asked.

“W-when I… w-when I w-went sc-scary.” she informed me.

“Oh. Sadly, I rely on Aaliyah whenever I have a problem. I was wishing she was there, because I was certain she’d be able to come up with a way to calm you down. Lucky for us, she was there already.” I told her, doing my best not to lie.

Raine nodded, and I waved and slipped out. Aaliyah had warned me that Raine would want to know. Did she sense something in Aaliyah? I had virtually no idea what Raine’s limits might be. What was being half-demon even like? Of course, many here were far more than they appeared.

Realizing I needed to tell the others at least something, I decided to first see Alma. Given that this was seen as “Slayer business”, I didn’t want to accidentally disclose something I shouldn’t.

“No, I don’t have any news yet.” stated Alma as I approached her.

“I see. I actually wanted to find out if there was anything in particular I shouldn’t disclose to the others.” I explained.

“Ah. Why must you tell them anything yet?” she asked. Each of her screens had multiple conversations going with text simultaneously being inputted on several at a time.

“I found Raine covering her ears under a table. She could hear the screams, so I’m letting her use my office to avoid them. I don’t know if any of the others can, but even Portentia will notice the absence of Ai, Mai, and Jarod.” I told her.

“Aren’t frequent absences rather common around here?” she inquired.

Nodding, I said, “Well, yes, but not for extended periods. We might not be able to recover Ai soon, so I…”

Interrupting me, Alma insisted “I will find her, James. I must.”

The stress in her voice was obvious. I hugged her.

“James, I’m…” she started, but then she took a deep breath and sighed. “Please feel free to explain the absence however you wish, but do not mention the connection between Ai and Mai. That’s their secret.”

“Thank you. Please tell me if there’s anything I can do.” I told her.

“Hire the assassin.” she stated flatly.

What?” I asked.

“If I hire her, things would get complicated quickly. You, however, are not part of the family. There’s nothing against you hiring her.” she informed me.

“Hire her to do what exactly?” I asked.

“To kill Ai’s captors, obviously. I would wager my family’s estates that she knows precisely where Ai is.” claimed Alma.

After taking a moment to find the words, I said, “Alma, I am well aware of what Aaliyah’s other profession is, but I can’t condone…”

“You can’t condone killing? They’re torturing Ai and Mai, James. Are those two not your friends? She could end this with ease, and I am quite certain she would do this for you.” she told me.

I didn’t doubt the truth of what Alma said, but Aaliyah was far more than a killer, more than a tool. If she really wanted to intervene, she would have already. Ai and Mai were my friends, but I couldn’t force Aaliyah to save them. There was always more to what Aaliyah did than I knew.

“When I called for Aaliyah before, she apologized to me. She doesn’t want involved, and I am not going to try forcing her. You know quite well how trying to force her turns out. Tell me if there’s anything else I can do.” I stated before walking toward the door.

After leaving her wing, I did something rare for me, though I could never admit as much to father. I walked to the nearest mirror and opened the administrative option to browse everyone’s schedules. I wanted to tell everyone at once what was happening, so I wouldn’t have to repeat the words. Nothing in my life had prepared me for a friend being kidnapped and tortured. I wasn’t even sure how I’d tell the others what was happening, especially without mentioning the link between them. I needed to check on Jarod again as well. Being in the room with Mai pained me. Seeing Jarod hurt pained me. Still, attempting to use Aaliyah as a tool for slaughter was out of the question. She had her reasons not to be involved. She always had her reasons.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 243

“Look, Raine! Good as new. Well, save for the missing paint.” stated Emma.

“What happened to our ceiling?” demanded Ai as she stepped into the room and looked to where Emma was pointing.

Emma quickly dropped her arms, looking sheepish.

“Nooothing.” she claimed in the most guilty voice I ever heard from her.

Coming up behind her sister with Jarod hand-in-hand, Mai said, “Don’t worry. We’ll bill you for it.”

I rolled my eyes and said, “Don’t bother. I’ll touch up your paint, and I’m quite certain the boards are better than new.”

The twins shrugged.

“This is probably the strangest practice I’ve seen.” claimed Jarod.

“Ha! Sure, man. As if you practice with us.” remarked Brandon.

Grinning and shrugging, Jarod said, “True, but I have seen some and don’t recall any involving James petting a kitten while the rest of you watch.”

“Hey! I was fixing a ceiling here, not staring at the adorableness.” argued Emma.

Partly over Emma, Portentia said, “You wouldn’t believe what you missed if we attempted to tell you.”

Laughing, Cosette insisted “I think he really would, but he’d probably be sad he missed it from only hearing.”

“It’s not funny. He wouldn’t want to see.” whispered Brenna.

Alma strode back into the room and said, “I’ll show them anyway.”

I was going to tell her that wasn’t necessary, but the imagery entered my mind as surely as it was entering everyone else’s. I had to admit to myself that Raine looked even more terrifying from Alma’s perspective than mine, as if every feature had been exaggerated slightly. Ai and Mai looked startled, but Jarod was smiling and shaking his head.

“The kitten has claws, so don’t you three dare push her.” commanded Alma as she looked them each in the eye. Then she continued, saying, “I still have not begun to heal, and I was only scratched. Imagine if she really wanted to kill me.” Then Alma came over to me, knelt, and held out her hands, asking “May I?”

I hesitated. Raine felt so fragile in my hands, and she had cringed when Alma started speaking. I wished Aaliyah had come back, but whatever she had said seemed to have cowed Alma. I mouthed “Be careful.” as I handed Raine over. There was a look to Alma’s gorgeous eyes that I hadn’t seen before, and I felt she was done causing harm for now.

Alma was obviously being gentle as she held Raine in her small hands. She then whispered “There, there. I’m sorry that I took things too far. I thought to show James that you were quite capable of defending yourself, but I never even considered there could be a reason for you to restrain. Aaliyah… explained… a few things to me, and I won’t push you so far again. Please consider earnestly training with us. Every strength needs the restraint of discipline, and I am quite certain you can learn to control yourself.”

I wasn’t the only one staring at the two of them. I had seen Alma apologize sincerely before, but she was usually quite guarded even when doing so. She seemed vulnerable at the moment. The moment passed as I thought about it.

“Well now. Let’s get back to practice, shall we? I obviously don’t mean you, Raine, unless you’re feeling up for it. The rest of us, however, cannot afford to slack.” insisted Alma, casting a spell to gather Raine’s clothes from the floor.

I was going to let everyone leave, actually, but most everyone seemed ready enough to go, getting back to their positions without hesitation. I walked over to Brenna, who was staring around, and told her “You can take a break today if you want.”

Looking up at me, Brenna asked “How can you be so calm? Even w-when Alma was hurt, you seemed… relaxed.”

“I really have seen Death, and nothing short of her seems frightening these days. Besides, I believe that Raine has a good heart. If she really were a monster, she would have started slaughtering us, but she didn’t even cut Alma very deeply. On some level, Raine still didn’t want to hurt anyone.” I assured her.

Brenna nodded but said, “She looked so terrifying. Alma’s version of her was scary but nothing compared to the reality. I couldn’t handle looking at her.”

“Don’t worry. She’s a good kitten.” I insisted. “Why don’t you take a walk to the kitchen? Marco would surely love to hear about the development, and I can assure you that his knowledge of sundaes is very extensive.”

Brenna nodded again and left. I was expecting to see a disapproving stare from Alma, but she was holding Raine in one arm while allowing Cosette to grip the injured one.

“That’s working! Cosette, you’re incredible.” stated Alma as she stared at her arm.

The wounds were closing. I jogged over to watch, but the wounds were gone.

“Vampires are protectors after all. Looks like my father was right again.” claimed Cosette.

“About what?” I asked.

“He said that vampires were given their abilities by a demon, so I thought our magic might work to cure a wound from one.” she replied.

“Slayer records claim that vampires were given their abilities by a deity.” stated Alma.

“Slayers believe in deities?” I asked, surprised.

“We all came from somewhere.” she replied.

“Even your own records claim that vampires were given a divine mandate, and you still oppose vampires?” asked Cosette incredulously.

“Didn’t you say that you wanted to avoid the politics of Slayers and vampires? You seem quite bias considering your heritage.” retorted Alma. “Vampires were a flawed plan from the start, since they feed on those whom they’re meant to protect.”

“But the feeding doesn’t have to be lethal or even dangerous.” argued Cosette.

“Yes, but how often is it from many vampires? Great protectors, casually slaughtering the helpless to slake their thirst.” asserted Alma.

“The Slayers aren’t so perfect either.” insisted Cosette. “My parents are both dead.”

“Cosette, I am sorry for your loss, but weren’t your parents associated with some less savory sorts?” asked Alma.

“What? Of course not. I mean, they knew some. How could they not given their lifespan, but… Hang on. How would you know?” she asked.

Alma sighed.

“You killed them?” asked Cosette in a whisper.

Raine jumped at her from Alma’s arm. Cosette easily caught the small cat, hugged her, and started petting her, but her gaze never left Alma.

“Did I just heal my parents’ murderer?” she asked.

“Yes, and I’ve felt the guilt every day. James certainly hasn’t let me forget, not that I could. I witnessed a murder and followed the killer back to your parents. I assumed, however wrongly, that your parents were like him.” admitted Alma.

“You knew and didn’t tell me?” demanded Cosette, staring at me.

Alma grabbed hold of my hand, and I felt her magic surge as energy poured into me.

“James is innocent in this. I asked him not to tell you.” she lied.

“No, I’m not innocent. I simply didn’t know how to tell you or even if telling you was the right thing to do.” I insisted.

Cosette shocked us both by giggling. “You two really are the strangest of couples. I’ve known for a while. Aaliyah told me just after I moved here, so you can stop abusing James’ powers, Alma.” she informed us.

“What? You don’t care?” asked Alma in shock.

“Oh, I had plenty of plots to kill you go through my head. I’m still missing my parents daily. I forgive you. You made a terrible mistake and didn’t even bother attempting to make amends, but I still forgive you. I refuse to be like the Slayers, bent on destroying everything that looks dangerous without thought, and I hope one day you’ll see the error of our family’s ways, but I forgive you for being a slow learner. Now you must forgive me for this, because it’s your own fault. Vive la révolution!” exclaimed Cosette as she hugged me with her free arm.

I stood there, letting her words run through my mind again and wondered for just a moment if I was dating the wrong girl. I looked into Alma’s eyes, still filled with shock and wonder, and felt my heart start racing. She had a multitude of faults, but Alma had a tremendous capacity for good as well. Furthermore, I was already in love with her.