After returning to my room, I ordered some research on Cosette’s parents. If what Aaliyah said was true as it seemed, I could be in trouble. Her friends were protected under our agreement with her. Ignorance wouldn’t save me from a reprisal. I had known the girl instantly from a portrait I had seen through their window.
While waiting, I mulled over Adelmar’s order. I had informed him immediately after Cosette recognized Aaliyah, and he felt amused by the situation, enough that he simply wanted me to study her for now. We already knew enough about vampires that I didn’t really see what was to gain, unless he was hoping to find some leverage on Aaliyah. I hoped he wasn’t foolish enough to believe she truly had emotional attachments.
I started working well before the preliminary results were sent to me. Cosette had indeed lived across the hall from Aaliyah. That much wasn’t a lie, so I could be in a great deal of trouble. I wished I would have looked over the apartment thoroughly before killing them. I might have found some warning of their acquaintance.
Not much later, I found myself worrying over how James was going to deal with things, only to realize he was standing outside my door. He was very quick now. I opened the door with a spell just before he could knock.
“ALMA!” he yelled the moment he stepped inside.
“In here, James.” I replied, forcing my voice to be steady.
He was angry with me again. There were times that I feared his temper matched my own, but instead of yelling at me, he came into the room and watched me work. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
“Did you need something, or have you come to your senses and banished that vampire from your yard?” I asked, realizing just after that more caution would have been advisable.
“That vampire is a fourteen-year-old girl who just lost her parents to a mysterious fire.” he stated, practically spitting the words. “I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she just moved into the same building as her parents’ killer.”
“Yes, she did. I’m certain Aaliyah will make me pay for killing them in some way, since she did, in fact, live across the hall from them a few years back. Had I known that little detail, I assure you that I wouldn’t have killed them without consulting her first.”
There was a pause where I couldn’t even hear him breathing. I would need to grow accustomed to his changes.
“How can you be so cold?” he asked.
“What? Like a vampire?” I retorted. “They feast on humans to survive, James. Would you have me prove in great detail how many humans have been killed by each one before saving countless lives from the likes of a vampire?”
“Cosette hasn’t killed anyone.” he insisted, sounding absurdly certain.
“Ha. A likely story.” I argued.
“I guarantee that she isn’t aware of killing anyone. She’s innocent, Alma, which makes me wonder if her parents were as well.” he claimed.
I was more interested in her being fourteen. If that were true, what happened for her “parents” to turn her so young? Another possibility floated through my mind, but I dismissed it. Vampires having biological offspring was absurd. I also wondered why James was so determined to believe her, probably his secretary’s influence.
I nodded and told him “For you, I will consider this, but I can make no promises, James. If I’m ordered to kill something, I will. Please don’t try to make me go against my family.”
“Will you try getting to know Cosette?” he inquired.
“I would rather not, but I have been ordered to study her.” I admitted.
“What? Ordered to study her? What do you mean?” he asked, sounding wary.
“I informed Adelmar of your newest guest. My cousin is amused by the situation and wants me to keep an eye on her, so I’m forced to play along with this farce for now.” I explained.
After another lull in our conversation, I retrieved one of the pizzas from my freezer with a spell and asked “Would you like a snack?”
James was staring as if he were surprised by the simple spell. “I can feel it.” he stated.
“Feel what?” I inquired.
“Your magic.” he claimed, still staring.
I found the notion absurd but started heating the air next to him to test it. To my surprise, James ducked and rolled away from the magic.
Laughing, I said, “I wasn’t going to hurt you, James. I must say that is intriguing. We’ll have to see how the twins fair against you after you’ve had some rest.”
“Intriguing” was an understatement. If he could sense all magic, that could give him a distinct edge in combat against my family. Facing someone with a common affinity was rare enough that no one was practiced in it, save for Ai and Mai. I would have a great laugh if anyone of their affinity were stupid enough to face one of them.
James merely nodded and accepted some of the pizza after it finished heating. He remained quiet for a time, sitting and watching me work. I knew I wasn’t being the best of hosts, but I couldn’t stop midway with my current meetings. Was there something more he wanted? I would focus better if he left, but I was painfully aware that I didn’t want him to leave.
“Thank you for the pizza. I’m going to check on my new guest.” he informed me as he stood.
I could think of a hundred reasons to keep him here, none of which would likely dissuade him from leaving. I nodded and wished him a good night.
“Oh. Mila. What are you doing here?” asked James as he stepped out of Lady Pendreigh’s wing to find me curtsying.
“Master, I am here to serve you, of course.” I replied as I rose.
His eyes were looking me over, and he seemed somewhat uncomfortable. Did he see me as a woman now that I had a more physical form for him to admire?
“I don’t really need anything at the moment.” he stated.
“As you say, master.” I replied.
I knew James still wasn’t interested in me. There was a distinct difference in how he looked at me compared with how he looked at Lady Pendreigh, despite our similar appearance.
“Oh! Would you mind helping me fetch Cosette’s luggage?” he inquired.
“Oh, master, do you think I’m such a poor maid that I wouldn’t have already seen to the luggage?” I teased.
Nodding, he said, “Oh, right. I suppose I did ask you to take care of it already. Umm… You don’t really need to follow me.”
“But master, this body was made to serve you. The closer I am to you, the more swiftly I can assist you.” I assured him, recognizing his continued unease but unwilling to let him ignore me.
He would grow accustomed to my changes as I expanded my functions, just as he had with the others.
“You seem tense, master. Might I give you a massage?” I offered, stating the obvious to give reason for my request.
“Not right now. Thank you. I thought I’d check in on Cosette again.” he informed me, forgetting that I am quite well aware of what happens throughout the house.
He started walking, so I followed, imitating meek maids I had seen in fiction rather than real life counterparts. When we arrived at the door to Cosette’s chambers, The Princess opened it for us.
“Boss-man, sir! Emma made Cosette some furniture, but she’s already falling asleep! We’re going to have a girls’ night tomorrow, so maybe you should plan something with Jarod and Brandon.” she suggested.
“Sure. That would be fun.” he assured her.
“Master, please don’t forget about planning our date either.” I stated, not willing to let him forget.
“Of course not, though I’m not really certain what you’d be interested in doing.” he admitted.
“Everything you’d want to share with me!” I insisted.
The Princess tugged on the leg of his pants to get his attention before saying, “I might consider helping you, boss-man, sir, if you convince Mila to join us physically for the girls’ night.”
I kept my face smooth, despite having discussed girls’ night in great detail with The Princess already.
“Mila, please join them. You don’t want to disappoint The Princess.” he stated.
“Whatever you wish, master.” she replied.
“Princess? Which one?” inquired Cosette, appearing perfectly serious.
“Huh?” asked my master.
“Cosette’s daddy always called her a princess too, boss-man, sir. Of course, her daddy was once a king.” explained the Princess.
“Yeah, well… That’s what he claimed.” admitted Cosette. “Apparently his people revolted, and he was saved by the vampire who turned him just before his execution.”
“Sorry, boss-man, sir. That was their time.” I informed him in response to his thoughts.
He had been wondering if I could have saved Cosette’s parents, if I could have saved Regina months earlier. His confusion was adorable as he completely missed that everyone else was frozen in time.
Stepping up behind James with three layer cake in hand, Carl said, “I would suggest cake if you two are going to have such a dreary conversation.”
James practically jumped before spinning around. “Carl!? What are you doing here?” he asked just before noticing his surroundings.
“Well, Aaliyah knew you wanted to talk and suggested that I bring cake for the two of you, so here I am. I’ll just leave this here, so you two can be about your business.” he explained as he set down the cake. Then he adjusted time around James before walking away.
To James, Carl seemed to vanish.
“What…? How?” asked James.
“Oh. Carl has had a number of names throughout the years. ‘Father Time’, for example, has stuck fairly well.” I informed him, walking to the cake. I cut off a nice, big slice
James followed suit, though he was still glancing around, wondering what to make of these events. With his first bite of cake, he felt a little better. His extraordinary life was just getting started.
“Mama… Papa… je suis ici.” I mumbled aloud, staring at the large gates of Somerset Estate.
“I’m neither your father nor your mother, but you certainly are here and are quite welcome.” came a voice as the gates opened. “I’m Mila. Please allow me to help you with your luggage.”
She had been so quiet that I didn’t even hear her breath. Now that I caught sight of her approaching, she clearly appeared to be a maid. The outfit was possibly a costume, given how extravagant it seemed.
“Were you waiting for me?” I asked.
“Of course. The Princess would not want her dear friend waiting with so much luggage, much less trudging down the drive with it all.” replied Mila.
There was something very peculiar about her, other than her extraordinarily long, auburn hair and particularly petite frame.
“They’re quite heavy. I’ll manage.” I told her, not wanting to strain such a tiny girl.
“I’m not human, so there’s no need to worry over me.” she explained, easily lifting the majority of my things.
I fought a moment to keep my poise. With my parents dead and the majority of our belongings destroyed in the fire, this was quite literally all I had in the world.
“This way, please.” stated Mila as she turned and started walking up the drive.
“What precisely are you, if you don’t mind my asking?” I inquired shortly into our walk, hoping not to offend her while indulging my curiosity.
“What you see is an android body connected wirelessly to the rest of me. I was designed by the Princess for the sole purpose of aiding my master and your host, James Michael Somerset III.” she replied, putting an overly affectionate tone into the word “master”.
I forced myself to start walking again, having momentarily stopped. I had no idea there was such incredible technology in the world to create someone so lifelike, but I knew Aaliyah was far beyond normal. I also found myself wondering how incredibly wealthy James Michael Somerset III was to have such an enormous mansion. At first, I hadn’t realized quite how long the drive was, but walking a ways gave me a better sense of proportions. I needed to pay more attention, despite my emotional state. I should have taken the taxi to the door.
Feeling guilty, I said, “Sorry to trouble you.”
“If the Princess had wanted us to ride, I could easily have picked you up in one of the cars. I fear this journey is to amuse her in some way, as was keeping news of your coming from the master.” she explained.
I chuckled, thinking how perfectly typical that was for Aaliyah. She lived to mess with people, her friends especially.
“Would you mind telling me something about this place?” I inquired.
“Business headquarters of Best Friend For Hire and residence of James Michael Somerset III, Somerset Estate was personally renovated by the Princess to accommodate the master’s whims. I’m not at liberty to disclose the precise number of rooms to you or even the footage, since the Princess finds secrets to be far more entertaining. The forest is strictly off limits without being accompanied by the master, but you’re free to wander anywhere else you can manage. I will warn you that attempting to pass into the master’s vault would be lethal, even for your kind, so I cannot recommend it.” she told me, perfectly matter-of-factly even about my potential demise.
I nodded, not particularly surprised that Aaliyah had explained my nature. She seemed to follow her whims while enacting overly complicated plans. I was grateful that she was helping me.
The remainder of the walk was made in silence up until we reached the front doors, which swung open for us to reveal another set doing the same. The interior was every bit as extraordinary as the exterior.
“Just set your things here for now while I fetch my master. He’s needing to see me, and I’ll escort him to you.” she informed me as she set down my belongings. Then she started jogging back outside.
I slowly spun, staring all around me at the incredible entryway. The twin stairways leading to the balcony were ornately carved as was all the rest of the woodwork. I felt as if I was lost in a fairy tale. What would my parents think of this place? Papa would likely tease that it reminded him of home. He liked to call himself an exiled king while calling me a princess, probably one of the reasons Aaliyah and I got along so well.
The wait seemed long, and I was nervous, both excited and afraid. I wished my parents were alive and with me. I wished I knew what to expect here. I wished I was better prepared to be alone in this world. Thinking of papa, I started to sing one of his favorite songs, Castle on a Cloud from Les Misérables.
I was part way through when I heard the large doors open again, but I kept quietly singing, not quite ready for this dream to end. When I turned around, there was a very tall boy walking into the room in an elaborate, red costume. He was as graceful as he was handsome, which was quite the pairing. His picture on his company’s website hadn’t done him justice at all.
“Oh! You must be James!” I exclaimed.
Father had always insisted that letting people underestimate you would give you an advantage.
“I am, but who are you?” he replied in a manly voice fit for his stature.
I refrained from giggling, though I felt excited. There was something about him that bespoke of excellence. I needed to be calm, rational. I didn’t know what enemies I would find here.
“A vampire.” stated Mila’s twin after arriving with terrifying speed.
Her eyes were a brilliant violet unlike Mila’s green. This one was dressed in a fancy costume like James. Was there still a Halloween party happening? There was something about her stance and gaze that made me wary.
James moved in a blur, suddenly in front of me saying, “Don’t you dare!”
I peeked past her large back to the girl, feeling confused by the situation. I clearly wasn’t expected here by either of them.
“Don’t worry, boss-man, sir.” came a familiar tone. “Alpy wouldn’t dare hurt my friend. Right, Alpy?”
“Aaliyah!” I exclaimed jogging to her.
“Cosette!” she replied, jumping up into my arms.
“Cosette? Seriously?” inquired James.
“Huh?” I asked. Wait, I hadn’t introduced myself. “Oh. Yeah. My father was a fan of Les Misérables, so I learned that song practically at birth. My name’s Cosette Bourbon.”
Aaliyah’s presence made me far more confident. As tiny as she was, I was well aware the girl was vastly beyond me.
“James, you can’t seriously be thinking of letting her stay here.” stated Alpy.
Was “Alpy” really a name?
“Stay here? What? Oh. Aaliyah, what is going on here?” he inquired.
Forcing me to change my grip as she turned toward him, she explained “My friend here is going to be renting the upper northeast wing. She also wants to try working for you. Isn’t that great, boss-man, sir?”
Working for him? Aaliyah hadn’t mentioned that I would be working here, though I wasn’t particularly opposed.
“Did you talk with Emma about this?” he asked.
“James! Really? A vampire?” demanded Alpy.
“A vampire? Where?” asked a fairly tall, redhead boy as he came walking into the room with two beautiful girls. “I love a good vampire costume.”
“Whoa. How many people live here?” I asked, fearing there were hundreds I’d need to watch.
“Umm… ten at the moment.” replied James.
“Twelve if Mila and you are included. More if you count the staff and the fey.” argued Aaliyah.
“Fey!?” I exclaimed, picturing fairies and the like flittering through the halls.
Aaliyah’s imagination was part of what made her fun.
“Emma, James is thinking about letting this vampire rent the floor above you.” stated Alpy. “What are your feelings on the matter?”
“What!?” exclaimed one of the girls who had entered with the redheaded boy. Her short hair was fancifully dyed.
I could smell fear exuding from her even at this distance, and her skin grew exceedingly pale, though not as pale as her companion’s.
“Oh. Cool. You must be one of the good ones then.” stated the pale companion with perfectly white hair as she walked toward me. “I’m Portentia. If you’re ever feeling hungry, I’ve heard that my blood’s amazing. By the way, is Alma multiplying?”
Did I just hear her right? She wanted me to feed on her? Who was Alma? Oh. Probably Alpy.
“I was wondering that too. Love the maid outfit!” exclaimed the redhead.
“This isn’t funny.” stated Emma, trembling slightly.
Feeling that Aaliyah may have taken some joke too far, I wondered if I needed to leave. Where would I go? What would I do?
“Emma, Cosette, and Aaliyah, please follow me.” commanded James. “We need to talk.”
Aaliyah hopped down, took my hand and then Emma’s as she came close. I could feel the tension between us. James glanced back once, but didn’t say a word. The walk through the vast halls was long, and I was happy when the smell of fear seemed to fade. Though I occasionally glanced at Emma, she stared pointedly ahead.
When we stepped into a room on the second floor, something changed about her. The remaining fear evaporated, replaced by a sadness in her countenance.
“I hadn’t been up here, since they moved everything out.” she stated, breaking the silence.
“What happened to the previous tenant?” I asked.
Looking around with a somber expression, James said, “She died saving my life.”
“Oh. I’m sorry for your loss.” I stated, suddenly needing to hold back tears. I failed as Aaliyah hugged me. Thoughts of my parents were flooding through me. I understood all too well the pain of loss.
“What’s wrong?” asked James, looking concerned.
I could tell he was sincere, so I told him “I’m sorry. I just lost my parents.”
“What? How old are you?” demanded Emma. She looked ready to pick a fight with me.
I told her the truth, saying, “I’ll be fifteen in a few days.”
“But how old are you really?” she asked, obviously not believing a word.
“She’s not lying, Emma. She’s really fifteen. Were you turned recently then?” asked James.
I shook my head as I explained “No. I was born a vampire. My father was over two hundred. My mother was a bit short of one hundred. They decided to have me the old-fashioned way, which takes considerably more work for vampires.
Nearly nine months of concentration to keep her organs alive and functioning was needed for my birth. Any lapse in her concentration, could have killed me. Mama, you were amazing.
“I’m sorry for your loss.” stated James.
“Do you have siblings?” asked Emma, looking sad again herself.
I did my best to put on a smile as I said, “Not exactly. Father had some children before he was turned in the late 1700s. Mother never did, at least not that she told me. Arguably, I might have some sort of relatives out there, but I doubt hunting them down would do me any good. When Aaliyah suggested I live here, how could I refuse?”
“Refusing her can be tricky. I used to babysit Aaliyah before James started stealing all of her attention.” admitted Emma.
“Chad rented the apartment next to mine for a while.” I explained, happy to find that we had something to share other than loss while pained by the memories. Needing to find a change of subject, I asked “Who was the obnoxious girl that was causing such a fuss?”
“Sorry. That would be Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V. She might’ve been worrying about me. My father was killed in front of me by a vampire.” explained Emma.
“Oh. I’m sorry. That’s awful! I’ve never killed anyone.” I assured her.
“Well, I…” started Emma. She frowned, took a deep breath, and then said, “I suppose I can give you a chance.”
“Huh.” stated James. “I didn’t really expect things to be quite that easy, but okay. Mila will bring your luggage up. Need help with any of your furniture?”
“My apartment was destroyed in some freak fire. Didn’t even touch the rest of the building. I’ll buy some things after my little friend here finishes helping me gain access to my parents’ funds.” I told him. “If you want to help me seal up the windows, I…” I trailed off as the windows suddenly darkened, blocking out the night completely.
James smirked as he said, “This house is very well equipped with all sorts of technological gizmos. I’m sure Aaliyah will gladly explain what all Mila, the A.I. who runs everything, can do for you. I must excuse myself to go have a chat with someone.”
James leaving the room shouldn’t have affected me, but it did. I barely knew him and already felt attached. I wanted him back. I did my best to calm my mind, knowing I was still unbalanced due to my loss.
“What type of furniture would you like?” asked Emma.
“I don’t really know.” I admitted looking around. This room was every bit as splendid as the rest, save for the lack of furnishings. How many rooms did I have? I stopped and stared, realizing that Emma was sitting in a chair.
She laughed and said, “I’ll make you some if you want. I have a large collection of seeds, so I can do a fair number of types of wood. I grew this out of the floor where I found a nick in the varnish.”
“You grew it?” I inquired, bewildered by what I was hearing.
She grinned and two more fully carved chairs sprouted from the arm of hers, detaching as they finished forming. She flinched as I hugged her, so I quickly apologized, but she laughed. I hoped we’d become wonderful friends.
“James?” I vainly asked.
I knew not how long I had knelt, having fallen to my knees when Death’s weapon vanished from before me.
“James!” I cried.
There was no heartbeat. No motion.
“No, no, no.” I protested, glaring up at Aaliyah through tear-streaked eyes. “What have you done to him?”
His eyes jerked open with surprising speed, leaving me wondering if the scythe had affected me.
“You’re… alive?” I asked in disbelief. “Where’s your… Oh.” I stated, hearing a single beat of his heart.
“Alma? What’s wrong?” he asked, speaking far too rapidly for any human. Then he moved away from me, dodging my tear as it fell.
“What was that?” I asked, wondering if this was truly James.
Aaliyah was being her typical self, standing there as if bewildered while shrugging.
“How did you do that?” I asked James, carefully approaching him. I started creating a spell to snare him, just in case this was not truly him.
“Do what?” he asked, still speaking too fast.
I slowly punched at him as I had many times during our practice sessions. How one moved in a fight could tell a great deal about them. James did his typical dodge but far more rapidly than he should have managed. I kicked at him, moving considerably faster. He dodged with ease in a very typical manner for him, efficient but without retaliation. I moved faster and faster as I attacked, even adding spells to my repertoire. This was still James, but he was countering my spells as fast as I was making them. He even tried a few in return, attempting to throw me off balance and knock me back.
I finally managed to strike him once in the side as he stared at a spell I made to lift him into the air, toss him about, and pin him down with air instead of telekinesis. James was quite gifted with telekinesis and easily surmised appropriate ways to counter it. Surprisingly, my spell did nothing to him. The wind just passed by as if he was completely immovable.
“Where did you learn that?” I inquired, impressed by the feat.
“Huh?” he replied, looking confused.
I quickly created a dozen spells and launched them at him. He didn’t even make an attempt to block them, staring around wildly. In his defense, I had never shown him any of these, but his body was impervious to each. Not even the hair on his arms burned when I tried a little of my personal magic.
Turning to Aaliyah, I asked “What did you do to him?”
“I gave him this glowing drink. Now look at him go!” she exclaimed after a shrug.
“Fine. Is this a lasting effect?” I inquired.
Nodding, she said, “Looks like it.”
I rolled my eyes in frustration. I was foolish to have tried getting information out of her. I reinitiated my attack against James, pressing him hard. Soon I found myself just having fun. I hadn’t been able to move with anyone like this in far too long, and James was being quite impressive for his limited experience.
My ribs cracked as I took a blow that sent me bouncing across the yard, leaving furrows in my wake. I never saw Aaliyah move, but I knew what had happened. The little brat hit me. This was surely a violation of the contract in some way. I attempted to remember what parts of the convoluted document might pertain to when she could attack my family as I watched her warily. My ribs were already starting to heal, but I hadn’t felt pain such as that since my mother was alive.
Touching James arm, Aaliyah said, “Easy, boss-man, sir.”
Why did he seem so weak? He stumbled as he looked around.
“Where did she go?” he asked.
Aaliyah pointed at me as she told him “Over there on the ground, glaring at me.”
I wasn’t glaring. I was simply watching, warily.
“Huh? Why?” he asked.
“I hit her.” she told him with another shrug.
“What!? Why did you hit her?” he demanded, sounding appropriately indignant.
“You’re out of energy, so her next hit would’ve killed you.” she explained.
The anger, which had been rising strongly, instantly abated, and I felt like my heart was sinking in my chest. I had nearly killed James.
“Alma was having too much fun and didn’t notice, so I hit her.” she continued, grinning.
I paid greater mind to what I was seeing, and James was back to seeming perfectly human. I quickly approached, and then slowed before I was quite too him. “I’m so sorry, James. I didn’t realize… She had said what she did to you would last.” I admitted, feeling foolish for having trusted Death.
“Why did you attack me in the first place?” he inquired.
I smiled ruefully and told him “I just meant to test you a bit but got a little carried away. That was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?”
He rolled his eyes and said, “I was the one on the receiving end of all those hits, you know.”
“Just be sure to charge him up before you consider going a second round. The boss-man needs some acclimation time to get accustomed to his upgrade.” instructed Aaliyah.
“Upgrade?” he asked.
She nodded and grinned, saying, “Uh-huh! You’re boss-man 2.0 now.”
“What did you mean when you said to recharge him?” I inquired, hoping she’d be perfectly clear for once.
The tiny girl rolled her eyes and said, “You know how he’s always ran on residual energy? He still does, but with more betterness.”
I took James’ hand and started directing my magic into my own, creating ample amounts of residual energy. His body absorbed it just as quickly.
“That’s amazing!” I exclaimed. As I gazed around, I could clearly see how much of the energy was missing from the air, so I admitted “I should have noticed.”
“I thought you had to use your magic to draw residual energy into the world.” he stated.
“I am, obviously. I’m attempting to heat up my own bone, and my body’s counteracting the heat. Both acts use magic. I have a slight advantage with this type of thing.” I explained.
James used a spell to clean off my costume, and I hoped I wasn’t blushing from the attention. I was perfectly aware of how ruined my costume was after bouncing across the yard in it.
“I can see in the dark.” he stated, surprisingly talking slow enough for a human despite the energy flowing into him.
“Well, I’d wager you couldn’t see if there were no light.” argued Aaliyah. “You can always ask your little friend to test that out. She’s rather good with light, you know.”
“What was that stuff you gave me?” he inquired.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes again. Only now, having already imbibed the bottle’s contents, did he bother considering what had been in it.
“I gave you a vial. You’re the one who broke the seal. I’m betting it wasn’t the poison though! I would’ve been sooooo sad if I had mixed those up!” she claimed.
“Why do people call you ‘Death’s daughter’?” he asked, switching topics.
The tiny girl giggled before saying, “Well… People are silly and generally picture Death as a guy, yet those who had seen me and lived were certain I am female. Someone decided I must be the daughter instead of Death herself. Something like that perhaps.”
Why was he bothering to ask her such a silly question now? His brain might be fuzzy… Having no idea of how his body had been altered, guessing the possible side effects of his transformation wasn’t feasible. I was surprised by the enormous quantity of energy he could contain now. His body was still putting sponges to shame.
“Just remember… I’ll know if you tell anyone about me.” she told him with a smile and a wink.
I stretched up, turned his head in my direction, and plainly said, “She’s not joking, James. She kills people who reveal her secrets.”
He kept smiling as he told me “You have to admit she’s adorable even when threatening me though.”
I sighed, not willing to admit anything about her cuteness, and replied “Just don’t let her fool you. Now you should realize why I’ve tried to warn you not to trust her.”
“I realize why worrying about her might have been a bit silly, but she’s still the most amazing secretary I could have.” he argued.
I, however, was justifiably frustrated. “A bit” silly? He had continually worried about protecting Death herself! I couldn’t even conceive of a more ludicrous notion at the moment. I restrained myself from punching his side, not knowing if he had enough energy yet to do so safely.
“Thank you, boss-man, sir! You’re the bestest boss ever!” insisted Aaliyah.
“Let’s finish checking out the yard and get inside. You might want to get into something that isn’t torn.” suggested James.
“Oh! Oh! I can fix that!” exclaimed Aaliyah, vanishing from my senses.
I felt my garments move slightly and noticed James’ attire shift as well. Then Aaliyah was visible again, brushing off her hands against each other.
“That took some tricky stitching, but I managed!” she exclaimed.
Wanting to verify her work visually, I looked down. The fabric looked perfectly new and refreshed. I could even smell a faint, pleasant scent from it.
“Show off.” I stated. Then I quickly said, “Thank you. I do like this costume.” As I spoke, my eyes searched over James’ garments to see what had been done there. “Oh. You fixed James’ as well.”
“I figured I might as well, but I didn’t bring thread for it and had to run clear back home again for some. You wouldn’t believe how hard sewing his jacket was while balancing on your shoulder, Alpy. If you weren’t standing still, I don’t know if I could’ve managed!” she claimed, obviously lying.
I might as well be standing still to her when running flat out from what I had seen. James had simply nodded in response and took a step as if to continue on our way as if nothing had happened.
“James…” I started, pulling him back. “You didn’t give me your answer.”
He seemed confused. Had he forgotten or was he merely wanting me to ask again?
“About dating.” I encouraged, feeling I was blushing in my frustration.
I felt like time had slowed as understanding showed on his face. The vibration of his phone in his pocket couldn’t have come at a more untoward time.
“Sorry. Just a moment.” he stated, pulling it out instead of ignoring the bloody thing.
I did my best to stay calm. James wasn’t doing this to avoid answering me. He simply was practical about business. I probably would have done the same to him if our roles were reversed.
“You promised me a date, master.” stated Mila from the phone. “You can’t be exclusive with her and go on a date with me, can you?”
“What!?” I demanded. “You even promised Mila a date? James, this is ridiculous.” I blurted, feeling excessively annoyed by his frivolous dating practices. Was he or was he not interested in me? The way he stared into my eyes had my heart racing. I needed to be reasonable. This was Mila, an artificial intelligence. I would not fall to jealousy. I continued, saying, “Still, I suppose I can allow this before you give me your answer, not that I really know how you intend to go on a date with her. Maybe Jarod will loan you his glasses? With the right software, I suppose you could see a projection of her inserted places.”
Knowing Mila, she could probably write appropriate software with ease. She wasn’t merely sentient, but extraordinarily intelligent with hardware I would love to examine if not for its designer. I didn’t dare even attempt stealing from her.
“So you won’t be angry?” asked Mila
“I can’t say that I’m pleased about how casually James agrees to dates, but I don’t see the harm in this…” my words trailed off as I noticed someone running toward us with exceptional speed. The disturbing part were the proportions. I felt as if I was running toward myself in a way, though I was quite well aware of the differences in heat distribution… and dress. This was incredible work.
Arriving around the corner could have been my twin in appearance, save that she wore an elaborately tailored maid outfit with a ruffled, lace headpiece. Instead of my violet eyes, hers were a perfect green to match Mila’s digital avatar. Otherwise, the resemblance was astounding. Even her skin seemed remarkably similar to my own. Though part of me wanted to know how this was fabricated, I found myself suddenly very against this date of theirs. What was Mila playing at?
I hugged my pillow, not wanting to move. James had been tense the last couple weeks after the catastrophe at that amusement park, and everyone felt it. I didn’t want to get up for a birthday full of tension. I wanted some fun. Brandon offered to take me out to some bars, since I was turning twenty-one, but that wouldn’t be till late.
“Mila, know what Marco’s fixing for breakfast?” I asked.
“No time for breakfast yet. The master’s waiting for you and your brother. Brandon’s nearly dressed.” she replied.
“James is waiting for me?” I asked, bolting upright and wondering what he had planned. I felt like I had butterflies in my stomach. Then I started worrying if something bad had happened.
“Don’t worry. Just get ready. The master is waiting!” insisted Mila.
I nodded and hurried to pick out an outfit. Then I carefully used a spell Ai and Mai had taught Emma and me on my hair, since there wasn’t really time for brushing it. Looking into the mirror, I smiled. I loved magic.
Pounding the door, Brandon called “Sis, you up yet? James wants to see us.”
“I’M COMING!” I yelled, marching over to the door.
He grinned at me when I opened the door, and I did my best to maintain my scowl. He didn’t need to be quite so happy. Twenty-three was just another year for him. At least, last year he had claimed twenty-two was just another year. I felt like that was so long ago now. This summer and fall had been incredible.
“The master’s in the front hall.” stated Mila.
“Race you there!” he exclaimed as he started running.
I chased after him even knowing I didn’t stand a chance. He’d never let me live it down if he beat me by too much, despite cheating. Anyone watching could see the difference in his legs through his jeans.
When we arrived, I was on the verge of sweating and quite thankful I knew a spell to clean myself. I would help Brandon too, but he didn’t care. James was looking handsome as ever as he smiled at us.
“I hope you two weren’t busy, but I wanted to show you something before you were out and about today.” he announced, walking toward the door.
Brandon glanced at me, and I shrugged before following. Two beautiful cars I didn’t recognize sat outside.
“The keys are in the ignition. Happy birthday.” he casually stated.
My mind went blank and then tried to comprehend what he just said.
“What!? Are you serious, dude!?” exclaimed Brandon before I could even fully grasp what was said.
“Of course. If there are any problems, please let Jarod know. He put them together and maintenance will be covered by the company, so no worries there. Mila’s fully integrated into both cars. I hope you like the colors. Aaliyah chose for me.” he explained.
“Hmm… do I want green or black?” asked Brandon with a grin.
“I-I… ugh…” I mumbled, having trouble believing this was happening.
“Fine with the green one, sis?” he asked, still grinning.
I nodded and started walking toward the car. I had never seen anything like it and didn’t recognize the logo. BHILL2 was on the green one’s license plate. What were these? The door opened for me when I was a few feet away.
“Welcome, Brenna, to your new car. We can complete the registration process as you drive.” announced Mila.
I didn’t recognize the material on the black and green seats as I touched them, but it was very soft. The whole dashboard looked extremely high-tech, glowing with a soft green trim. “Is there a manual?” I asked.
“Of course, though I can’t recommend it. The princess did her usual job of ensuring each detail was covered.” replied Mila. Then she said, “Would you like to accept a call from Brandon?”
His face appeared, smiling at me from the center of the windshield. “Hey, sis. Ready for a second race?” he asked.
I glanced at the speedometer and wondered if this thing really went over two-hundred. I grinned back at my brother, started the car, and took off.
“Whoa! Easy there! These things are brand new!” exclaimed Brandon as I reached the gate.
The acceleration was incredible, and the seats were so comfortable. Brandon hung up shortly into the drive, and Mila started asking a few questions. I felt like I was in a dream the whole time, hardly believing this car was mine. Our dad would never have believed this if he were still alive. I wasn’t sure how long we had been out when we pulled back through the gate and came up the drive.
James was still standing outside, waiting for us. Alma was there too now with laptops floating all around her. I hoped we hadn’t been out too long. I let my fingers trail along the side of my car as I walked toward them.
“Do you like your car?” asked James as if there could be a doubt.
I nodded and said, “That drives so much better than our wagon!”
“Yeah. I can’t wait to see how many tickets she gets driving like that.” teased Brandon from behind me. “Seriously, man. Thank you. You just saved me a bundle. I had been planning on getting something soon, so Brenna could have the wagon.”
I smiled at him. He had told me his plan. We both had enough money to get cars now, but both of us were following Aaliyah’s advice on savings and investments as well. Getting a car just kept getting put off.
“Even my brother has a good bone or two in his body, but yes, thank you, James!” I exclaimed.
James smiled and the world seemed brighter. “I’m glad you like them. What would you like to do next?” he inquired.
Glancing at Brandon, I asked “There’s more?”
James shrugged and said, “Well, today is both of your birthdays. I figured I’d spend the day with you two if you don’t mind.”
Brandon and I looked at each other in disbelief. James had taken the day off for us!?
“Want to go paintballing?” asked Brandon.
“Ugh. No. Let’s go shopping!” I told him.
He scrunched up his face and said, “You shop plenty. What about hitting a movie?”
“We could just watch one on the theater here. Maybe go out to eat?” I suggested.
“Boring. Marco’s a better cook anyway.” he insisted.
He was right. Nothing tasted the same after trying Marco’s cooking. I sure didn’t bother cooking anymore, unless Marco was teaching me.
We each tried several more ideas but got distracted by a car pulling up behind us. Aaliyah was here! Her father didn’t really look all that old, smiling and waving as he got out of the car. He was still handsome for sure. I was surprised when Aaliyah came up behind him, bumping into him with two large, wrapped boxes blocking her view.
“Hey! Happy birthday, you two. Aaliyah insisted on carrying your gifts.” he explained.
“Boss-man, sir! You already gave them the cars!?” she complained. “Shouldn’t presents come after the cake?”
“My mistake.” replied James. “I’ll remember to check my schedule first next time.”
“Well, I need to get going to catch my flight. Thanks for looking after my princess again.” stated Chad, patting Aaliyah’s head as he spoke. Then he leaned down and kissed the top of her head before walking toward his car.
Aaliyah quickly shoved the presents at James, ran after her dad, and latched onto his leg, hugging. He looked so happy as he bent down, hugged her, and spoke to her. I wished I could’ve had that type of relationship with either of my dads. I never really got to know the first one, and the second had an awkward transition phase.
As Chad pulled away, Brandon said, “I don’t know, boss. Sis and I aren’t really agreeing on much.”
“Neither of us really expected to have the day off.” I told him Mila had informed us both in our cars about today’s jobs being bogus.
“Don’t worry!” exclaimed Aaliyah, skipping back to us. “I’ve got you covered! We just have to be back by five, so we can get all of the prep for the Halloween party done on time.”
I looked from her to James, but he seemed confused.
“Halloween party?” asked Brandon.
“What Halloween party?” I questioned, looking back to Aaliyah.
“There’s an open house tonight at seven followed by a masquerade ball at ten. The invitations went out weeks ago.” explained Alma out of nowhere. She had been so silent this whole time, typing away on her phone with the laptops still hovering around her.
Walking up to James, Aaliyah stared up at him and asked “You didn’t forget, did you, boss-man, sir?”
“I might not have mentioned it to anyone due to circumstances and stuff.” he replied unconvincingly.
With a big sigh, she told him “Don’t worry, boss-man, sir. I’m sure we’ll manage.” She then pulled a phone up from somewhere and said, “Mila, will you get everyone to the ballroom?”
Brandon looked at me and shrugged before following the others back into the house. This was one crazy day. I nearly jumped as I heard the cars start from behind us. I felt my pocket, but the keys were still there. Both cars started driving to the back of the house by themselves. Despite seeing James’ cars do that many times and being assured Mila was a great driver, I still wasn’t accustomed to it, especially not with knowing my car did that now.
Once gathered, Aaliyah started explaining everyone’s agendas. As she spoke, I was getting more and more excited. I really didn’t have high expectations for my birthday this year, but I probably should have. This day was already incredible.
“Whoa. What’s all that?” I asked, staring at the semis taking up part of James’ drive.
This day was insane! I still couldn’t believe sis and I had new cars. Sports cars, really. The things were tricked out in the most absurdly awesome way! Most of the day was spent going from place to place in the limo by Aaliyah’s agenda, and I felt like I was having the most intense birthday of my life. This day was making my twenty-first birthday seem tame, and Brenna hadn’t even taken her first drink yet!
“The yard decoration crew!” exclaimed Aaliyah. Then she pointed at the house and said, “The interior decorations should already be waiting inside. Much to do!”
I laughed. She was the best kid ever. Everyone headed inside and the decorating began. I was grateful that Jarod and I were working together when I took a look at the schematic for our assigned rooms. This whole place was being turned into a haunted mansion, and the explanations were typical Aaliyah, meaning virtually incomprehensible for more normal people. Brenna was working with Emma, so I figured they could figure things out with a bit of help from Mila. I didn’t know how we were going to finish in time till Alma came sweeping around the house. The moment she arrived in our fourth room, everything seemed to hop up into place perfectly. Her magic was still intimidating to me. The girl was scary. Incredibly beautiful, but scary.
We all split up to get dressed and I changed my bod a bit to fill out the caveman look better. Aaliyah had even provided me with a hollow, wooden club ― or maybe Emma had made it? Literally thousands of people came through the mansion as the night went on. I toured the haunted mansion once myself, and Mila got me good. She had control of all the sound effects, lights, and electric gizmos throughout it. Her timing was phenomenal on the jump scares.
I was careful around the security in the area, not wanting to make enemies with any of the local police James had hired, but I still got my drink on before joining in on the dancing out back. I wanted to keep an eye on my sis in case any of the guys she danced with got handsy. I was sure Mila would inform security, but that might take time. My worries only lasted until she smoothly flipped a guy onto the ground and kicked him in the stomach. I had to admit my little sis was much tougher than she used to be.
Spotting James, I made my way over to him. He really stuck out with his intensely red costume and stark white skull, especially near the bonfire as he was.
“I think you win for scariest costume, boss. The skull is freaky by the fire.” I informed him.
“Did you have a good birthday?” he asked.
I laughed. Only James would feel the need to ask if this was a good birthday with a live band playing on the stage for what had to be the largest party in the city. “This has been the wildest birthday I can remember. Thanks a million. Brenna’s been having a great time as well, not that I’ve caught her much with all the guys trying to dance with her.” I informed him.
“I’m just glad you managed to have a good time. This was a bit more than I was expecting.” he admitted.
I nodded and grinned. James was the most modest, good-natured guy I knew, and he continued to seem oblivious to how he affected everyone. Anyone in his costume would probably catch attention, but there was obviously more people in this area than farther away and not just because of the bonfire.
Not long after getting back to dancing, I lost track of James. I was certain I could find him if I just looked for the thickest crowd, but I didn’t want to take up all of his time. Besides, there were a number of girls who needed the attention of a caveman.
“James…” I stated, undecided on how I would continue the sentence. The guests were gone and the security team was dismissed. At my request, James was walking the grounds with me, but I found myself nervous. I was one of the wealthiest, most powerful women in the world, but I found myself completely hesitant about what I wanted to say. What if he refused?
“Yes?” he asked after too long of a pause.
I took a breath and forced myself to inquire “Would you be interested in dating me?”
Foolish. I should have asked if he would date me, not if he’d be interested. I already knew he was interested. At least, I assumed he was. Looking into his eyes, I doubted myself. Would he be willing? I considered running.
“You…” he started, staring down at me with his gentle grip loosening slightly in my hand. “want to date me?” he finished, sounding completely surprised.
Was he playing with me? “If you are interested, I would very much like to formally declare that we are dating exclusively.” I explained, trying to be perfectly frank about my intentions. Why was I so nervous?
Why did he look so shocked? He had to know how I felt, didn’t he?
“I…” he started, letting the word hang far too long.
“No.” stated Aaliyah, her voice seeming to come from nowhere at first.
Then I spotted her and asked, “What? Why are you here?”
“He’s not ready.” she told me, stepping towards me from the shadows.
“How dare you!?” I demanded, feeling my anger rising. “I’m perfectly capable of deciding whether or not someone is worthy to date me.”
I found myself shoved up against the house, and I struggled desperately not to move even a hair despite the fear suddenly enveloping me. I didn’t dare look down despite knowing what was there, a hair’s width from my throat. I felt the scythe-shaped void in front of me. One touch, and part of me would be gone. I might even be dead. Endless rumors floated throughout my family about that weapon. I struggled to think, to be calm, but endless despair washed over me ― a pale emotion compared with the stark terror inside. I fought with all I had to keep in control, but I was somehow still aware of what transpired in front of me, an insurmountable distance in those few feet.
“And I said ‘no’.” stated Aaliyah. Turning to James, she said, “James, you’re not her equal. You don’t understand what dating her entails. Her family has rites of which you haven’t been made aware. You’ll face dangers that you can’t surmount as you are. You’re not ready, no matter what she says.”
Tears were flowing down my cheek, but not just because of the struggle with my fear. An even worse despair was settling into my heart as I considered that Death might keep us apart.
“Alma? What’s she talking about?” he asked, looking towards me, but our eyes didn’t meet. He couldn’t even see me with this thing between us. He turned on his phone and shone the light in my direction.
I wanted to keep him from seeing this, but I didn’t dare interfere. I watched helplessly as Death gripped his hand in the form of a little girl.
“Don’t fear the reaper, James. I won’t harm you.” she claimed.
“All this time, you’ve been terrifying me? You’re Death’s daughter?” he asked, surprisingly calmly.
“I’m known by many names throughout all of time and space. Death’s daughter is just one.” she replied.
“Then who is Chad?” he asked.
“My daddy. Even Death had to come from somewhere.” she insisted. “I’m not lying, boss-man, sir. There’s just a bit you don’t know about me. I am ancient and young. Don’t worry about defining me, boss-man, sir. I’m your friend and your secretary. Well, technically I’m also the little girl you’re babysitting till daddy’s home. As your friend, I want to help you.”
James had started shaking as she spoke. He fell to the ground and shut off his phone’s light. I desperately wanted to help him, but still locked in my own battle I could do nothing.
“Help me how?” he asked, staring up at her.
“If you truly want to date Alma, drink this.” she stated, holding out a black vial.
“What is it?” he questioned.
“It’s not pumpkin juice.” she teased with a wink.
Then he asked “What will it do to me?”
“It will give you the strength you need to stand at Alma’s side.” she claimed.
James started reaching for the vial, and I fought to find my voice. I wanted to warn him not to trust her, to leave. I wasn’t worth his life. For a moment, I found the will to move, but seeing the thing between us froze me. New waves of terror suffused me, binding me in place. There was nothing but the endless void of that scythe waiting to devour me.
As I finally tore my eyes away, I heard Aaliyah ask “Or was that the poison?”
He was lost, and part of me would die with him.
“Not that I mind theme parks at all, but why are we here?” inquired James, looking all too serious.
I leaned my head against his arm. I knew he’d be suspicious coming here, but I was enjoying my time with him. “You don’t believe that I simply wanted to share a big wheel with you? This isn’t the London Eye, but I do enjoy the view.” I admitted.
“If there is anything I’ve learned about you, it’s that you rarely do anything for just one reason.” he replied, trying to stare into my eyes.
I nearly smiled, happy that he was learning, but I stifled it before saying, “I must confess that I’m glad you’re starting to know me. I bought this park due to the large number of incidents that have occured here lately. Unfortunately, I may have been too late.”
“Why? What’s happened?” he asked, obviously concerned.
“I fear whoever was creating the zombies found a new lair. What’s more disconcerting is that I cannot even seem to find where he had been hiding, despite having searched several times. Today I simply am noting what changes I need to make.” I informed him.
He nodded, and I felt his muscles relax. When the big wheel stopped, we roamed and tried numerous other rides. Owning the place, I chose to ignore the hassle of lines, so we could better utilize our limited time. I was certain Ai and Mai were making the most of their time with Jarod as well. I nearly sighed as I thought of how easy things were going for them. Of course, Jarod wouldn’t be troubled with rigorous trials due to their position in the Slayer family. Being the eldest, Duncan would, of course, inherit all of the responsibility and authority of their Japanese heritage.
We decided to take dinner at one of the small diners in the park. The hamburger and chips were perfectly adequate fair, better than I expected. I was thankful to have one less place that needed revision in this park. I had noticed that numerous rides were in need of a thorough cleaning beneath them, so the maintenance schedule was obviously subpar.
“Yes?” I inquired, realizing that James was staring at me instead of enjoying his meal.
Still staring, he said, “Sorry. You wouldn’t believe how easily I get lost in your eyes. They’re just so beautiful.”
James was such a marvel. He had a great many abilities that made him stand apart from an average person. He came from a distinguished family with impeccable taste. He had surpassing good looks and a business that was doing surprisingly well. Despite all he possessed, his sincerity and good will toward others stood at the forefront of who he was.
I smiled and calmly confided “I wear contacts.”
His jaw dropped open, his eyes widened in surprise, and the look of complete disbelief didn’t undermine his handsome features in the least. Laughter tickled its way out of me, making me smile all the more with its seemingly incessant need to be heard.
When I finally managed to speak, I assured him “I’m joking, of course. My vision is far better than a human’s, and I’ve never felt a need to hide my eyes. I am somewhat surprised that you believed me. Contacts? Really?”
James smiled, banishing the look of disbelief to the annals of my mind. I’d treasure each moment with him for as long as I lived, even if our time together proved brief. He had my heart, and I couldn’t imagine wanting to take it back.
“I suppose I can be quite gullible where you’re concerned. We’ve shared my home for months now, and I still know so little about you. I’ve been wondering what excites you for most of our time here. Roller coasters don’t seem to do the trick. What does?” he inquired.
I restrained the sudden desire to gently brush my hand through his windswept hair. I could think of a dozen ways I might dodge the question, but James wanted the truth. He deserved the truth, so I told him “When I was younger, I was always excited to spend time with my mother, though I wasn’t supposed to show it. My mother insisted that I maintained my composure at all times. Habits are easily formed, though she still wouldn’t be pleased at how often I lose my temper. I wish she could have met you.”
I refrained from admitting that mother wouldn’t have approved of how easily James affected me, bringing me to smile and laugh openly. Signs of joy could be used to note vulnerabilities quite easily, and vulnerabilities were often exploited in my family. He didn’t need to worry over such things, at least not yet.
“I thought you spent most of your life traveling with your mother. Were you perpetually excited then?” he suggested.
“I did, but we didn’t spend nearly as much time together as you might expect. More often than not, I was busy studying while she was handling business. We kept in constant contact even while she worked, but I preferred when she was actually with me. Visiting my cousin, Adelmar, was often exciting, I suppose. He can be such a proper bastard at times, but I do love his company when he’s not teasing me horrendously. You’ll love him, James. He is completely remarkable.” I assured him.
:Cousin, language. James might be offended, and we wouldn’t want that.: teased Adelmar, speaking in my head.
He watched me so often that I wasn’t surprised, but I did tell him off for intruding.
:But cousin… James is family business when you spend so much time with him.: he warned.
Nodding, James inquired “Do you think I’ll be meeting him anytime soon?”
:You know what my schedule is like.: replied Adelmar.
I shrugged and said, “He won’t tell me, so I can’t really say.”
“What sorts of games did you play together?” questioned James.
I laughed and said, “I doubt you would consider them ‘games’ at all, but we had various sorts of contests between us. Well, I say ‘contests’, but you would probably see them as an endless brawl.”
:An apt enough description.: encouraged Adelmar.
“There were loads of rules involved, so no one other than us was ever injured. I never experienced quite so much pain anywhere else, not even sparring with my mother.” I claimed.
:Oh? I can think of a few times that would surely have been worse.: he teased.
I continued, saying, “I do feel she restrained herself frequently, so it’s not that she couldn’t give me as much of a beating.”
:She loved you dearly, cousin. I know. I saw.: stated Adelmar.
“I’m still nowhere near a match for what my mother was.” I admitted, remembering some of the times I saw her let loose. She was glorious and frightening to behold.
Throughout my response, James smiled and listened, his marvelous blue eyes never leaving mine except for when he took a bite of his food.
“What is your favorite memory of her?” he inquired.
Still smiling, I told him “For my twelfth birthday, mother took me to Antarctica. We made a palace out of ice together, and she laid siege to it as I defended, not wanting our creation to be ruined. She won, of course, but she left the throne standing for me.”
“That must have been quite the sight to behold.” he suggested before finishing his last fry.
I nodded, completely agreeing. So far from civilization, I had little reason to hold back as much. There had never been a doubt that mother could take anything I threw at her. She radiated power and never doubted her strength.
James and I started walking toward our next ride when I noticed something off. A man with seemingly perfect legs was walking oddly. The breeze wasn’t even touching his hair. Examining him more carefully, I realized that the pattern of heat throughout his body wasn’t quite right. I created a spell to disperse the crowd around us, suggesting to their minds that they didn’t want to pass this way. Then I created another spell to collect the man.
James visibly jumped when he caught sight of the floating man.
“Whoever made this is getting more clever.” I informed him.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, looking distinctly confused.
I reminded myself that I barely noticed the illusion despite my gifts. James had no chance.
“Watch.” I stated, creating spells to dispel the numerous layers of illusion, purification, containment, and heat.
The foul smell of rotting flesh instantly hit my nostrils. The poor wretch had probably been alive when the necromancer had found him, given the look of the tattered clothes he wore. Furthermore, decay was still at an early stage, probably no more than a week.
I watched as James made a spell to purify the air around us and was quite pleased with the efficiency of his design, centering the spell around his head. I wouldn’t have complained had he done the same for me, but he might well expect me to be gleaning something from the putrid scent.
“How did you know?” he asked.
Still examining the corpse, I explained “His gait was a bit odd, which caught my attention. Then I realized that the breeze wasn’t affecting his clothing or hair properly. I sent the crowd scattering to make sure no one would get hurt when I brought him to us, but…”
I missed something! The corpse was exploding! I quickly dispersed the heat into my arm before it could reach James, but the body was destroyed. I stopped the rush of air with another spell. Clever necromancer indeed to hide that spell so well.
Realizing James had that accusatory gleam to his eyes, I said, “If you are thinking that I just blew up a zombie right next to you for fun, think again. I did, however, stop the explosion from reaching you.” I also sent a text to the twins, warning them of this possible danger. “The twins have Jarod and are leaving. We’ll meet them soon.” I explained.
“Do you think there are more of these things?” inquired James as he looked around.
“I hope not. They’re probably targeting me, but I would prefer to keep everyone safe. Shut your eyes.” I commanded, lifting him the moment he did. I protected him with spells as I created the spells to protect everything else by my movement, and then I rushed him back to the car. “Get in the limo and stay put. I’ll be back soon.”
I then hurried to Ai, Mai, and Jarod, collecting them in a similar fashion and depositing them at the car. Knowing what the signs were, I quickly found another zombie after arriving back in the park. This one exploded the moment I stopped. I was able to protect those around it, but I also felt heat blooming elsewhere in the park. A tear formed in my eye as I felt the heat of distant bodies torn apart. I stopped the explosions from reaching their full size, but I failed to save everyone. My reaction time was far too slow at this distance.
I rushed to grab first aid supplies and began attending to everyone there was a chance of saving, creating spells to alter what those around me would be seeing and to destroy nearby cameras. There were so many people that I didn’t have nearly the supplies I would need to properly bandage everyone even with my magic to aid me in stanching the bleeding. I made bandages from my own clothes when I ran out and tore apart whatever was at hand to make splints where needed. With my own clothes in tatters, I borrowed from others. Still, my efforts were not enough.
I recognized parts of men, women, and children cluttering the street near the injured. I did my best not to stare at the dead, especially the children. There was far too much work to do, and I was already struggling to control my anger. Cloth burned in my hands and had to be replaced promptly. I needed to remain calm. The one who did this would pay dearly, but not today.
:Cousin, I’m sorry. Relax now.: stated Adelmar.
My body instantly obeyed, and my mind was calm. He had ordered me with his full authority. All of the images in my head of the scenes became mere data. The rage was gone for the moment, and I continued my work in peace.
When the last of the injured was finally hauled away for treatment at a hospital, I followed, knowing they needed all the help they could get. I couldn’t attend to everyone personally, but I would cover their medical bills. I could at least do that much.
I left the hospital after treating the last of my patients and ran back to the park, wanting to examine things more thoroughly. As I inspected the carnage, I used my phone to have Mila clear my schedule, wanting to devote my attention to my park’s patrons. The one who did this was brutal and probably trying to scare me off from pursuing him.
I crushed the railing I grabbed on accident. The steel melted away under the heat of my renewed anger, scorching the ground where it dripped. Adelmar wasn’t listening now, surely busy elsewhere. I forced myself to calm down. I needed to see James, so I returned to his home and promised myself that these people would be avenged.
James seemed tense lately, and I wasn’t completely sure why. My best guess involved Alma being mad over James taking Portentia on a date, though most of what Portentia had told me didn’t seem too date-like, at least not for normal people.
Smiled and hugging whichever of the twins was next to me, I couldn’t say anyone around here was particularly normal. My girlfriends practically shared their brains, Portentia seemed immortal, and Alma made the first three seem very human. I really, really wished I could take Ai and Mai to the Intergalactic House of Awesome Sauce, but their family wouldn’t permit it. At least, that’s what I gathered from their excuses.
Portentia’s description of the restaurant’s latest outlandish decor was incredible. How did they manage to make an enormous beach inside of a restaurant? I understood the technology involved in generating waves and creating a breeze, but making the walls seem endless was quite a feat. I could probably pull it off reasonably well for a single person with the right equipment and software, but getting the perspective right for multiple pairs of eyes was trickier.
I also didn’t understand how the restaurant could afford to have such an elaborate setup per group of patrons. Portentia hadn’t seen anyone else in the restaurant, so the room had to be subdivided in some manner. Even if the floor could open to allow for a realistic ocean swim, how did James and Portentia never reach a wall?
“James, are you coming to see me off?” asked Duncan, bringing me out of my thoughts.
Smiling, James said, “Of course. I’d feel remiss as a host if I did not. I only wish I could have been more successful in protecting you from your sisters during your stay.”
“If you learn that trick, I would be grateful for you to share.” replied Duncan with a laugh.
“I’d appreciate learning that one as well.” I teased, earning me an elbow to the gut from the girl under my arm.
I would actually miss having Duncan around. Having him here really helped me learn more of Ai and Mai’s family and traditions. Plus, I was able to see a different side of them. I was a little concerned over Duncan’s joy of visiting the fey, not that anyone wouldn’t enjoy seeing the creatures. I simply worried that Duncan was studying them more than simply playing. As much as I grew to enjoy his company, I still couldn’t entirely trust him.
“Be sure to give mother-dear our gifts, nii-san.” ordered the girl I hugged.
“We’d hate a repeat of two years ago.” insisted the other.
Duncan grimaced as he said, “That was two years ago, and I’ve told you that someone had moved the gift!”
I was careful not to roll my eyes. Ai and Mai had probably set him up. They did seem to care about their brother, but he was often on the receiving end of their pranks. We all followed as James and Alma led the way outside, but Ai and Mai continued poking fun at Duncan.
“Must she come too?” asked Alma.
“You know she doesn’t really listen to me.” explained James as he watched the little fairy land on his shoulder.
“I know, but I still feel you should work to fix the situation. She’s no less dangerous now than she was when I first warned against letting her off the grounds. Aaliyah is quite obviously capable of helping you if you simply ask.” she suggested.
I sometimes worried that Alma was going to break James’ hand on accident one of these days. She was far too strong for anyone’s good.
Shrugging, James said, “I don’t doubt that she’s capable, but she seems amused by the situation. Have you ever attempted to convince Aaliyah to end something that amuses her?”
“Perhaps you do have a point. Still, you could at least try to act like her boss for once and assign her a task.” she insisted.
James laughed before saying, “Sorry, but I really doubt her contract with me actually gives me any sort of authority. Care to look over it sometime? I’d take at least a year to read through the thing even if I had the time.”
Alma didn’t argue further, and I wondered again about the relationship between her and Aaliyah. I considered Alma’s temper legendary, but Aaliyah felt no qualms about teasing her mercilessly. What did Aaliyah have over her that somehow kept Alma from losing her cool?
The drive to the airport remained as chatty as ever, though Duncan just had to bring up the forest and the fey. He was borderline obsessed with them. Again, I couldn’t blame him. The creatures were remarkable, and knowing that one was Emma’s ancestor was fascinating for me. Their genetics could hold the key to magic itself, but I wouldn’t be comfortable with Duncan’s immediate family being the ones to discover that key anymore than I would be with Alma doing the same. There were too many hidden agendas that had nothing to do with the betterment of humanity.
I was amused when we entered the airport. The limousine received some looks, but our group received even more. James always received attention, and Alma’s inhuman presence was guaranteed to cause a stir. That was inevitable, but I was used to being James’ shadow more than in the spotlight with him. Having Ai and Mai each holding an arm did draw attention. They were intelligent, funny, and incredibly beautiful, so they always drew people’s eyes. Duncan surely caught the eye of plenty himself. When not speaking with Alma, he had an air of importance about him, and he looked wealthy with all of his fine suits. I’d wager most girls found him attractive. Frowning, I realized that I probably would have to order more suits for myself to satisfy the twins.
After a great many well-wishings and goodbyes, Duncan departed, and I wondered if I’d see him again before marrying into the family. Unfortunately, that would rely on his mother’s mood. Between Duncan and his sisters, I learned much of what dealing with Izumi would be like. She was an unbending, overbearing woman with a cutthroat take on business. I hoped the twins wouldn’t want to visit her much in the future.
“Would any of you protest a trip to the theme park?” inquired Alma as we walked to the car. When no one spoke up, she said, “Excellent. Let’s have some fun.”
Ai and Mai seemed as confused by the sudden request as I was, falling to silence as we followed Alma and James. I really wished I could join in on the telepathic conversation they surely were having. Even with their ability limited to each other, it was incredible. Feeling what the other one felt wouldn’t always be so pleasant though.
Once we were in the car, Alma asked “Why are you so tense, James?”
“Oh boy. You’re not remembering that time Michael lost his lunch, are you?” I teased.
He laughed and said, “No. I had blissfully forgotten all about that. Thanks so much for reminding me.”
“Were you next to him?” asked the girl on my left with a big grin.
“No, thankfully.” he replied with a shake of his head. “I did find him some new clothes though.”
Laughing, I said, “Yeah. James couldn’t get out of there fast enough after being stuck for five minutes in a cart with three girls from some other school.”
James rolled his eyes, still smiling, but the smile didn’t seem quite real. Something was eating at him, and I wished we were alone for him to tell me what. All I could do was hope that he was worrying over something silly again. If something serious was bothering James, we’d all be involved soon.
The door opened as I reached for it. That sort of thing happened frequently around here when Mila was being helpful. I realized I was even luckier this time as I saw James. He was home!
“James, we have to talk!” I exclaimed, signing quickly as I spoke.
“What’s the matter?” he asked as he looked down to me.
He always made me feel so tiny next to him with his broad soldiers and greater than average height.
“The matter?” I asked. “What would be the matter? It’s not like I’ve been waiting two weeks for the date you promised only to find out that you went out with her instead as soon as you were free.”
Alma said something to him. She didn’t seem to be very happy either, running off with her incredible speed. I still wasn’t used to someone moving that fast.
“Umm… I think I hear my daddy…” started Aaliyah, turning before I could catch all of it. She had followed James and Alma inside. After a couple steps, she turned back to face me. Then she signed and said, “By the way, why are you in your hoodie?”
I fidgeted as I replied “Oh. I was getting frustrated waiting, and thought I might bump into James if I was out on patrol.”
“What happened to your other outfit?” she asked with wide-eyed innocence.
“I sorta lost part of it when Maxine hit me with a missile.” I explained.
She face-palmed before saying, “You’re not supposed to let missiles hit you, silly. If I were you, I’d ask Mila to print you a new outfit. See ya!”
New outfit!? I turned to James, grabbed his hands to get his attention, and asked “Was she being serious? Mila can do that?”
He shrugged said, “Mila ,are you capable of printing a superhero outfit for Portentia?”
Appearing on a nearby mirror, Mila signed as she said, “Oh, master. I would have no idea what you’re speaking about, though I do have a design in my database for Calamity’s outfit, strictly for cosplay purposes, of course. I think Portentia would be able to fit into it if she wished to cosplay as the city’s greatest superhero.”
James was saying something back to her, but he had turned to face her, blocking my sight. Oh! Mila was transcribing again.
“Are you saying she’s not the only one?” he had asked.
“If there are others, none have been successful enough to catch my attention, but I don’t claim to know everything.” she insisted.
I’d argue on her behalf. Mila certain seemed to know everything when asked. She wouldn’t always tell what she knew, but she knew.
“Please, get started with it!” I pleaded, nearly bouncing in my excitement. “I’ll put off going on patrol until after my date with James.”
I never dreamed getting a new outfit could be that easy. If only they could be as durable as me. Noticing Mila frowning, I felt a moment of unease.
“As you wish, but don’t let the master forget he still owes me a date as well, though I’m not quite ready for it.” she insisted.
I snapped my mouth shut, realizing it had dropped open. Then I turned to James and asked “You’re going on a date with Mila? James, why didn’t you tell me!?”
He seemed to be thinking too hard about what to say.
“Ugh. Now I’ll really have to show you that I’m more fun.” I insisted, grabbing his hand and pulling him back through the door.
Was I though? Mila was incredible. She was beyond incredible. I had no doubts she’d come up with some incredible date specifically designed for their needs.
James tugged back, so I stopped and looked at him.
“Are you sure you want to do this right now?” he asked. “I’m not entirely certain that I’m even done babysitting Aaliyah for the day.”
He quickly pulled out his phone to check.
I said, “She’s gone, so you must be. I have to grab you before you promise ten other girls dates before me. You’re not forgiven for giving Alma a date first.”
“Actually, I owed Alma a dress, since one of hers was ruined when she was helping me.” he stated.
I stared up into his eyes. He seemed to be perfectly sincere… When he wasn’t teasing someone, he was usually sincere. He was a good person.
Grinning, I said, “Sorry! I should’ve known better than to have doubted you. I’m still questioning this date with Mila. How is that even supposed to work?” I couldn’t get past the part where Mila was stuck in mirrors and phones.
He shrugged and told me “I have no idea, but she cornered me into it. Mila’s extremely bright.”
I nodded and pulled him forward again. “I know!” I assured him. “I’ve spent enough time watching Jarod and her talk to realize that they’re amazing.”
“So… what do you do with Jarod?” he asked, trying to be casual.
Was he jealous? I tried not to grin as I said, “Just hang out and talk about ways to stop Maxine, really. I’m not into him, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Why are we walking?” he suddenly asked.
“Sorry. Are you cold?” I inquired. “I can’t really help with that. I don’t get cold, so I generally don’t think about it.”
“No. I dressed for the weather when I left this morning. I merely meant that we could be taking my car.” he explained.
“I don’t have one of those either, so that’s not the first thing that comes to mind. I have borrowed Mila a few times when she’s free. You don’t mind, do you?” I asked, feeling embarrassed by asking after the fact. Mila always seemed fine with the idea, and she was actually reliable, unlike most cars.
James laughed and said, “No, not at all. She needs to be kept entertained, so she doesn’t end up finding trouble.”
I found myself wondering if Mila’s idea of a date involved her using the car to be out with James, but I quickly said, “Thank you! You wouldn’t believe how difficult hiding the fist off maxine’s machine was. If not for Mila, I wouldn’t have managed getting it all the way here.”
James put his phone to his ear and said, “Mila, could you give us a lift?” After a moment, he looked down to me and said, “Mila’s bringing the car.”
I nodded and said, “I know. I was watching.”
Mila would never turn James down. Her admiration of him was obvious whenever we talked about him. She could seem so… human. I found myself wondering again what I was. I never really had this problem before. Meeting Alma changed things. She forced me to consider that I might not really be human. Most people certainly couldn’t keep up with me, and they certainly didn’t heal as I do.
James waved to get my attention before asking “So what do you have planned for this date of ours?”
“Huh?” I asked, blinking. “You don’t have anything planned?”
He sighed before saying, “Of course not. I didn’t realize we were doing this today.
I shrugged and admitted “I guess I just thought you’d have done some planning already. You had two weeks. Don’t worry though. Let’s just go down to the triangle and roam around.”
“Sorry, but I’m not familiar with that area. What’s ‘the triangle’?” he asked.
“It’s a bit of a slum, really. I’ve been trying to clean up the streets some now that Maxine’s not keeping me busy. Since you don’t have plans for us, I figure we might as well check if anyone needs some help today.” I explained.
He nodded and seemed to get lost in thought again, standing there silently. He never seemed to understand how incredibly handsome he was. One way or another, I was going to show him a good time.