Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 255

“Son, what happened to you?” I asked after a time, having wanted to think through what my son had been telling me. I knew he wasn’t always like this. If he had been superhuman as a youth, I would have noticed. Children don’t have that much restraint.

“Well, I learned that I was capable of doing magic shortly before I graduated. Regina and I were practicing together.” replied James.

“What!? Regina knew about this?” asked Rachel, sounding alarmed.

“I found out she was capable of using magic when we attended Prom, though I suspected as much a little sooner.” replied James as if that explained everything.

“But son… how did you find out that you were a… magic user?” I pursued, at a loss for the right words for this absurd situation.

James looked over to Lady Pendreigh, who nodded slightly. He then said, “Emma tested Jarod and me after demonstrating her own abilities.”

“Emma is on this as well?” questioned Rachel.

“Everyone who works for me knows about magic, though not all of them can use it.” stated James.

Everyone knew? No. “I refuse to believe there can be that many people throwing spells around. Everyone would know about it.”

“There has always been a fear in such people that they would be persecuted if they should show their power. I assure you the fear is quite valid.” insisted Lady Pendreigh.

First glancing at her, my son said, “Even if they would be accepted by most of the world, there’s a group that actively seeks out the more dangerous types of people you’d deem to be supernatural. Draw too much attention, and they will intervene.”

“Back up a minute. You said Jarod could do magic, right?” I inquired, wanting something more tangible to grasp. I knew Jarod, had watched him grow with my son.

“No. Emma tested him, but he can’t do a thing with residual energy, much to his chagrin.” replied James.

“Residual energy?” I questioned, wanting to understand.

James nodded and said, “There are different types of magic. The type I use takes leftover energy from different types of magic and forms it into spells.”

“So you can only do magic when someone else is casting spells around you?” I asked.

“Well, no. There’s a great deal of energy in the world. A great deal more is available throughout this house now that I’m not living here. I was born a bit unusual in that my body will actually absorb the energy and create a potent spell around me.” he replied, seeming a touch embarrassed.

I frowned, not liking his claim to have always done magic. “What sort of spell?”

“James emits a type of enchantment that causes those in his vicinity to be endeared to him.” explained Lady Pendreigh. “I took notice of him primarily because of it.”

I looked at my wife to see if she was finding this as hard to believe as I was. If what they were saying was true, we had been under a spell for James’ entire life. Squeezing back as Rachel took my hand, I knew she was thinking the same thoughts. James always had a way with people…

“Trust me, the news came as a bit of a shock to me as well. I inadvertently affect everyone and don’t have a reasonable way to stop it.” he reaffirmed.

“There is a way though?” questioned my wife.

He shrugged and nodded slowly. “Well, yes, to an extent. If I want to walk around completely defenseless, I could.”

“James would be in grave danger if that were to happen, so he doesn’t really have a choice.” insisted Lady Pendreigh.

“James, dear, how did Regina… how did she… die?” inquired Rachel, staring up at him.

I squeezed her hand more, wishing to comfort her. Rachel had taken Regina’s death very hard.

Looking serious, James stated “She was killed by a werelion. Regina died saving my life.”

“A werelion!?” I asked, wondering why he would say something so ludicrous.

“Yes. You’ve surely heard myths about werewolves. Think of a similar creature related to lions instead of wolves.” explained Lady Pendreigh matter-of-factly. “There are many types of therianthropes.”

Ignoring her, I said, “Son, you can’t possibly expect me to believe this.”

James smile looked sad as he said, “You’ve seen some of what I can do. Is there really no room for werewolves and werelions? What about vampires? I know a couple. I can introduce you if you like, assuming they don’t mind. Would you like to meet a fairy? My little friend spends a great deal of time around me.”

“James… what were you doing near such a creature?” questioned Rachel, sounding worried.

“Luke, my trackmate, was one of many werelions. He killed Nathan at school in a fit of rage, and I came across them. We hadn’t known there were so many… We wouldn’t have stumbled into their trap if we had.” insisted James, sounding sincere.

“I’m sorry, son, but why would you pursue such a creature? What were you planning on doing? Kill him?” I asked, knowing my son wasn’t a killer.

“If necessary. We couldn’t exactly tell the police.” he stated with a grim solemnity.

No… Hesitating slightly, I asked “Son, did you…”

“No. I’ve never killed anyone.” he replied, cutting me off.

“Then they’re still out there?” asked Rachel, her voice rising slightly in pitch as she spoke.

James shook his head and said, “No. They’re dead. The entire group is dead.”

“What?” I questioned, trying to wrap my head around this dangerous group’s death.

“This will probably be the hardest thing for you to accept, but Death is real, scythe and all. I had nightmares for that entire month after seeing her. When Regina fell, Death appeared. She lifted her scythe, and they were gone. There weren’t even bodies left.” There was a haunted look to my son’s eyes as he spoke.

What had he really seen?

Rachel nodded and told him “I remember you being out of touch… I just thought you were taking Regina’s death hard.”

“I really was, but the nightmares were beyond the death of a friend. You don’t ever want to know how terrifying Death is.” he assured her.

“Son, people often have terrible dreams after the death of a loved one. I know you don’t want to hear this, but you probably imagined it.” I told him, looking for a rational explanation.

“He didn’t imagine anything. Even I…” Lady Pendreigh stopped, seeming to be remembering something. She was shaking. “Even I am terrified of her. Meeting her was the single worst moment of my life. There are accounts of people literally dying of fright just from seeing her. Do not take this so lightly.”

I stared at her long and hard, shuddering involuntarily. Lady Pendreigh was an incredibly competent business woman with absolutely no mercy as I had found out. Seeing her so shaken from a memory was shocking, but I still had my doubts.

“I’m sorry, son, but this is hard to accept.” I admitted. I took a little while to sort my thoughts, trying to fit the pieces together without being too critical. Things weren’t fitting properly. “With you being so fast, how could the werelions best you? Are they equally fast?”

“Oh. I wasn’t actually this fast when I faced them. I doubt they could even scratch me now.” he explained with a casual tone that surprised me.

“They couldn’t. You took fifty caliber rounds with ease.” insisted Lady Pendreigh.

“What!? You were shot?” I asked, shocked that that hadn’t been mentioned.

Nodding, he said, “Yes, actually. I can’t say that was a pleasant experience, but the injury didn’t last.”

Lady Pendreigh rolled her eyes as she smiled at him. “The bullets didn’t even pierce his skin. I’d hardly say you were injured, James.”

“Well, I did feel a little bruised at first.” he argued.

“James, dear, why would someone shoot you?” asked Rachel, still sounding worried.

“Oh… umm…” he started, looking as if he was trying to find the words to explain.

“There are people who don’t want to see James and me be wed, so they’re protesting. The abduction attempt against you was also a result of this.” stated Lady Pendreigh as if quoting common knowledge.

I knew that she was extremely wealthy and influential, but I didn’t think she was someone whose presence put others at risk.

Continuing, she said, “As you are aware, I am Lady Alma Lucy Pendreigh V of the United Kingdom, but my estates and influence stretch well beyond my country’s borders. In marrying me, your son will gain lands, titles, and influence, making him the envy of any other potential suitors. They don’t take such things lightly.”

“You’re… engaged?” questioned Rachel.

“Well, no. Her family has some unique customs, but there is a strong possibility of that happening in the near future.” replied James.

“Be sure to tell us when you are, but isn’t this rushing things a bit?” I asked him, knowing the two had only known each other for half a year.

“The laws of her family are a bit rigid, father, and you and mother should know that I will most definitely tell you when the time comes.” he assured us. Then, seeming a touch annoyed, he said, “I feel that we’re avoiding the point here. If, by some twist of fate, you happen to come across something you feel to be supernatural, don’t investigate. Your lives depend on it.”

“Investigate? Why would we do such a thing?” asked my wife, brushing the thought away as she spoke.

“Mother, you attempted to touch the first magic you saw.” stated James.

“James, dear, it was just a light.” she replied.

Letting his annoyance into his voice, he told her “I feel I’ve demonstrated that things aren’t always what they seem. Since finding out about magic, I’ve seen minotaurs and zombies right here in the city. Though the minotaurs stood out, the zombies were disguised in illusions that made them pass as living people. I’d be incredibly impressed if you’d recognize a vampire. You can’t trust things to be safe based simply on what you see.”

“What would you have us do, son? Are we supposed to be scared of everything? I’ve lived here for my entire life without encountering anything like what you’ve described.” I argued, not wanting the shut-in life I imagined.

“Before even being trained in magic, Regina could alter luck to her favor. Did you ever find it strange that she won at so many board games?” questioned James.

“You won just as many, dear.” insisted Rachel.

“Regina did a great deal for me without me knowing.” he replied, now sounding a little sad.

Approaching us on the couch, Portentia smiled and said, “You don’t have to be scared. Just be careful. Though there aren’t any other superheroes to my knowledge, many of the creatures out there aren’t so bad. Your son’s always just a call away, and I try to look out for everyone. Feel free to call me as well if you need help.”

James reached out and rested his hand on her shoulder. “Thank you.”

I trusted my son as well as my own eyes. I knew he meant well and could tell he was legitimately concerned. We were almost abducted, but I was still struggling. I couldn’t deny his speed or Portentia’s… strangeness. Believing that I had missed so very much was still a struggle. If all this was true, I… I didn’t know what to think of my life.

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Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 254

The events from the store had replayed in my head over and over. Portentia’s speed and strength were incredible, but regrowing her head seemed an even greater feat. She wasn’t human. I was absolutely certain of it. Furthermore, James knew… How could he keep such a secret from me?

If he knew about her, he might well know about the weapon as well. That staff she had possessed some means to cut the security gate faster than a cutting torch would manage. How? I didn’t doubt what I saw happened, but I couldn’t figure out how any of this could be real.

Still, pacing, I was circling around again. I was also certain this wasn’t a prank. Most of this I could write off as a prank and imagine how it was performed, but Portentia’s head had exploded when that lady yelled. I knew of ways to fake something like that, but her height hadn’t changed. I didn’t see her pulling off the acrobatics prior to her head’s destruction while hiding her real head under something either.

My son knew… What else was he keeping from me? James had always seemed like such an honest boy and never really caused trouble. Was he actually a terrific liar? Had I been missing what he was hiding his life?

I turned, surprised when there was a knock at my door. Rachel wouldn’t be bothering me. Did Portentia want something? I walked over and opened the door.

Lady Pendreigh smiled and said, “Sorry to disturb you, but James and I have arrived.”

“Couldn’t let him come alone?”

“No. I love your son and want to become part of your family.”

I stared at her, surprised by the blunt statement.

“I also know about that you need to keep your blood pressure down, not get yourself wound up.” she stated.

“What? How?”

She shrugged and said, “I bribed your doctor’s secretary.”

I frowned, unsurprised that she’d use such underhanded tactics.

She laughed, and the sound was so delightful that my irritation almost slipped. “I didn’t really bribe anyone. I’ll tell you the truth soon, but your son would like to speak with you first. Let’s join him and your wife.”

How could she tease me at a time like this? I followed as she walked away. She seemed entirely too comfortable striding through my home.

“Safer? My home isn’t even safe.” claimed Rachel, sounding as stressed as I felt.

“Actually, I had a security system installed here months ago. Aaliyah designed it, and I liked the idea of you two being protected.” stated James as he glanced at me.

“Son, we turned the men away when they came to do the work. I had thought the idea was ridiculous at the time.” I informed him. The whole idea had annoyed me at the time.

“Sorry, but it’s still installed. I guarantee it.”

What!?” I asked, shocked that my son would go over me like this.

He looked at me in the eye and said, “As you saw today, a little extra security doesn’t hurt.”

“What are you saying, son? You knew we might be attacked and didn’t warn us? How could you not have told us about her?”

He sighed and took a step toward me. “I’m not prone to disclosing the secrets of others, father. You taught me that much. As far as your attack, I didn’t have a clue. When I had asked Aaliyah to have a security system installed here, I was being paranoid more than having any credible notion that you might be in danger.” He had grown so tall.

“Then how can you account for Portentia, your employee, conveniently being there?” I questioned.

“Aaliyah assigned Portentia as protection for you while I was out of the country. She had anticipated another abduction attempt where I did not.”

“Another?” questioned my wife.

I was glad she caught onto that as well.

“Ai was recently abducted by someone opposed to me being close to your son.” stated Lady Pendreigh.

“And why did you never mention this?” I asked. “Your employee isn’t even human, son. How could someone like her exist and work for you without you thinking of mentioning it to me?”

My son sighed and said, “Because I’m having to keep an extraordinary number of secrets. Portentia’s secrets are quite clearly her own. Everybody has secrets, father. Becoming privy to a few does not give me the right to reveal them.” He looked a little tired.

“You didn’t have to tell me her secrets, son. You could have told me a person with such abilities existed without telling me anything about who had them.” I argued.

He turned and stared into my eyes. “You actually think you would have believed me without some sort of evidence?”

I wanted to tell him that I would have, but I doubted it. I always wanted evidence. I shut my mouth, not knowing what to say.

“Magic exists.” stated James. A light appeared over his hand as he lifted it. “There’s something you can believe.”

As I tried processing what I was seeing, Rachel reached toward the light.

“And that is precisely why I didn’t tell you. Knowing about magic can be dangerous, especially for an inquisitive mind. You’ll reach out and poke things before understanding them.” he insisted. The light took the form of a flame.

I felt the heat of it. This was too much. Magic exists… I moved to sit. Only as I started to fall, did I remember there wasn’t a chair behind me, but I felt tremendous strength as Lady Pendreigh easily caught me and pushed me upright. She didn’t seem to strain at all, easily holding my weight. She wasn’t human. I stared at her, looking into those violet eyes. She had always seemed like she stepped out of a story into this world without ever really belonging here. Was that the case?

“I agree that I probably should have told you sooner, but, as I’m sure you’re starting to imagine, there’s a great deal to tell. Shall we take this to the living room?” questioned James.

The world lurched, and I was there next to my wife and son. Lady Pendreigh was standing by him now. Portentia sped into the room as I tried to figure out what just happened. “How…?”

“You were carried. Alma and I are rather quick. As I had said, there’s a great deal to tell.” claimed my son.

I took my wife’s hand and squeezed it, wanting to feel something real in this absurd world. Had I lived my entire life with blinders?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 253

“Targets marked. Let’s do this quickly.” I ordered, wanting that bonus. We were being sent to capture a middle-aged couple with no magic or combat training of any kind. I loved easy money like this.

After several blocks, the couple finally picked a store to enter. I listened for reports on security measures, but there was a single locked door in back and no silent alarm. Walking inside and pretending to be a customer, I carefully scrutinized the room for potential threats. None found. When my team entered, I used a spell to knock out the bystanders whenever our targets looked away. This was too easy. No resistance.

The security gate was drawn closed, and I pretended to be scared as Samuel pointed a gun at me. A few seconds of terror here, we’d bag them, and then be on our way to collect our pay. Easy.

My head jerked to the side too slowly to catch what had made the hole through the gate. My team was half down. I desperately formed a spell to create an explosive burst, wanting to kill this intruder immediately. The rest of my team was down before I finished. I screamed and unleashed my spell, stunned when the pale woman fixed her gaze on me. How was she alive!?

,,,^._.^,,,

I stared in disbelief at Portentia, standing there with her white hair flowing unharmed over the crimson cloak she wore. There were fleshy chunks on the ground behind her. How!? “Portentia?” I asked in a quavering voice, wanting to verify this was her, as my husband asked how she was alive. Everything had happened incredibly fast.

She ignored us, turning her back to us as she looked around the room.

I took a moment to remember she was deaf.

When I reached to tap her shoulder, she spun around and said, “This way quickly. We’ll take a shortcut to your car. Explanations have to wait. You’re still in danger here.” She turned and started walking away.

I glanced at my husband to see what he was going to do, but he was already grabbing my arm and following behind Portentia. We passed into the employee area where Portentia paused, looking at a body on the ground. She seemed anxious, but moved as soon as we caught up, leading us to the emergency exit.

“Try to walk as normally as possible. Turn left at the end of the alley, walk to the end of the block, cross the street, turn left, and then take a right into the alley.” ordered Portentia, staring at us as she talked. Then she pulled the hood of her cloak over her head.

My husband quickly asked “Where will you be?”

“Above you, looking for danger.” she replied just before leaping rapidly back and forth between the buildings. She was on the roof in no time.

My husband and I followed her directions, and she easily beat us to the alley, though I never caught her crossing the street.

“At the end of this alley, cross the street, and you’ll be in the park. I’ll meet you at your vehicle.”

I nodded and started to move, but I was caught by my husband’s grip. I could tell by his face that he wanted answers. Portentia was already gone.

My husband sighed loudly and started walking. “I don’t like this.” he muttered.

“I trust her. She’s protecting us.” I reminded him.

“I do believe that, but she’s not human. I don’t know what she is, but she’s not human.” he reiterated as if trying to convince himself.

“Makes her a better protector.” I suggested. “I don’t think a human would have… um… survived.”

He nodded. We reached the end of the alley and crossed into the park just after a car drove by. I caught a glimpse of Portentia in one of the trees as we walked, but she was gone in a blur. She beat us into the parking garage too. I caught a glimpse of her heading through the door and then saw her watching us from the second level where she hung from the railing.

I breathed a sigh of relief when we made it to the car, but my husband muttered about the car being unlocked.

“Sorry.” stated Portentia, wearing a new mask now.

“How..?” asked my husband, looking back at her. “I thought you were deaf, and how is your mask back?”

She nodded and said, “I carry spares. Mila transcribes speech onto the mask’s screen. We need to get to your house. Mila, please give us a route.” She pulled a small tablet from under her cloak and handed it to me.

My husband tersely stated “I know how to get to my own house.”

“Yes, but Mila will get us there quickly, adjusting for traffic and temporarily adjusting the lights. The city’s system is inefficient.” insisted Portentia.

My husband sighed again, but he started the car and followed the directions. “The city needs better security. I might bring this up at a city council meeting.”

Replying from the tablet, Mila said, “I’ve already increased their security after I installed numerous devices to allow me to hack it. I’d fix the poor light schedule, but some of it seems to be implemented due to the desire of certain officials. I’ve filed the appropriate complaints as well as my suggestions. This will get addressed eventually.”

“Oh. That will be nice.” I replied, pointedly ignoring how my son’s computer ― employee? ― didn’t have an issue with being a hacker.

My husband just grumbled, but we didn’t have to stop the entire way home, except for at the stop signs in our neighborhood. I was surprised that he didn’t try asking her more, but I decided to wait as well.

“Sorry, but I’ll be coming in with you for your protection. We need to get in touch with James.” stated Portentia after we arrived.

My husband sighed again, marching into the house and heading to his study. I went inside with Portentia and asked if she wanted a refreshment. I was tempted to pull out some wine.

“No, thank you. Just call James.” she replied.

I did as she asked. When my son answered, I said, “James! You wouldn’t believe what happened.”

“Are you okay?” he questioned.

“Yes. Well, no… I’m not injured. Really. A certain superhero you know saved us.” I informed him. “James, dear, please come visit us as soon as possible. We have much to discuss. I have a feeling that you’ll believe what your father and I saw. He’s… not taking this well.”

“I will.” he stated. “I’m not in the country at the moment, but I promise to come see you as soon as I’m home.”

“Why aren’t you in the country? Are you taking spontaneous vacations now?” I wondered aloud.

“Oh. Not exactly. I was meeting with some of Alma’s family.” he informed me.

“You two aren’t engaged without telling us, are you?” If they were, I hoped they wouldn’t keep me out of the planning.

“No, mother. I’ll let you know when that day comes.” he promised.

“So you are planning to marry her?” I replied, having mixed feelings about the idea.

“She’s right next to me. Let’s talk when I get home.” he told me, sounding a touch exasperated.

I sighed and said, “Tell her ‘hi’ for me, dear. I love you.”

“I love you too. Tell father I’ll be there as soon as I’m able. Bye, mother.”

“Bye, dear.” I hung up the phone and turned back to Portentia. “Now what?”

“We wait.”

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 252

Two days after the letter of challenge arrived, a courier delivered the key to disarm its trap. Now James was off to do battle, and I couldn’t do anything to help him, except investigate this plot. There might be meaning behind the two days that I was missing, but the large wait period was probably meant to test James’ patience. The sender obviously underestimated him.

When the challenge was read, I was surprised that Alma had no clue who the sender was. Anyone below her notice had to be a little suicidal to even think of entering her circle of pursuers, which meant someone else really was pulling the strings. What could they know of James?

His company would certainly stick out as an oddity. Such a business model shouldn’t be this profitable within a year, but Alma obviously encouraged her associates to make use of him. Then there was Aaliyah… My friend was famous and more influential than most would guess. She surely helped as well beyond being his secretary. Could the mystery puppeteer think James is just a showpiece to keep suitors away?

If James was suspected of being nothing more than smoke and mirrors, then the mastermind might be attempting to dispel the illusion without the embarrassment of challenging someone far below his station. If, on the other hand, James was suspected of being a worthy rival, this devious engineer could be using this match to appraise James.

I felt so frustrated. This was getting me nowhere, and James could already be fighting. I felt so useless.

“Done pacing?” questioned Aaliyah from where she was sitting on the floor. “Doesn’t really suit you.”

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“A couple minutes. You’re slipping, Cosette.” she teased, grinning at me.

“I want to do something to help… Aren’t you worried?”

She shook her head and said, “Nope.”

“Confident that James will win?”

“Yep!” she exclaimed.

“You already know who’s behind this, don’t you.” I stated flatly.

She winked and told me “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. I even taught James Chinese, so he can accept Xiu Enlai’s surrender.”

“He didn’t speak Chinese yet? There’s a full course available through Mila.” I was speaking aloud. I was quite aware that Aaliyah would already know.

“James doesn’t often have as much time as he’d like for studying. He’ll get there after some more acclimation to his abilities.” she assured me.

I nodded. I had heard of James being far more human before I arrived here, but what he could do now was remarkable. If James were to get serious in a fight, he’d have to be fighting someone of at least Alma’s caliber, someone trying to kill him. James was far too kind to wish harm upon anyone.

“Yep, you’re still nervous. I’ll go with you to ask Alpy about the fight after they return, okay? We’ll get all the juicy details!” promised Aaliyah.

“Would she tell us?” I asked.

“You think she’d refuse!?” questioned Aaliyah with a sinister grin.

I was one of the few people privy to that type of smile from her. She had first worn it back when we met, after persuading my parents that her secrets would be kept. I still didn’t have any idea what her limits were, and I didn’t want to find out. Unlike me, this girl had killed, and I was certain she had never even lost a fight.

,,,^._.^,,,

I was bored by the proceedings as everyone prepared for the fight, but I felt a certain excitement in knowing that my cousin couldn’t poke around my head to tease me. Usually, he was insufferable, trying to alleviate his own boredom.

The time came for his opening speech, the exact same speech written by our ancestors who founded these matches, making the whole thing seem too dated these days. Still, the family loved our traditions, especially the violent ones.

James didn’t show his annoyance, for which I was thankful. Disrespectful actions here would reflect poorly on both of us, and annoying Adelmar too much would negate his good will towards us. I didn’t expect him to seem so calm. Most people were nervous even when they were certain they’d win, since fighting before a Slayer was risky. Occasionally in the past, the head of the family killed victors for wasting time. Adelmar never had, but he wasn’t at his best these days, too close to the change…

With the chime, the fight started. Xiu Enlai’s spellcasting was like watching a snail race. I was surprised that he was even attempting to create three at once.

James altered them with ease, releasing them upon his opponent to trip and blind him. I felt James was too kind in letting the air spell brush over him when he could have used it to give extra force in the trip. He knew. He was being gentle despite my warnings.

To my surprise, James started speaking to the man in Chinese, berating him for not admitting defeat when James so easily pinned him to the ground. He even went so far as to tell the man he was unworthy to die.

The man finally submitted, and Adelmar declared the “duel” over. I was anxious to leave and speak with James again, but I was held up speaking with the others who attended. Adelmar wasn’t going to slight them after they traveled here to observe, and I was certain a representative of the one behind this challenge would be here.

Unfortunately, I had no real leads. All of us had spies hidden throughout the world, some of which could manage spells that would deceive the mind well enough to make Xiu Enlai’s honest account a joke. Adelmar would know, but he wasn’t going to tell me. The game needed played to its conclusion.

There were only a handful of active players who could rival me in physical strength and even fewer in magic. I was the daughter of a Slayer, so who would dare? Who wouldn’t fear my wrath when discovered? My mind continued drawing a blank.

When we finally reached the car, Adelmar smiled at me and said, “Cousin, you look annoyed. No, don’t argue. Even with your… protections… I can tell how you feel.”

“I should be able to work out the culprit here, but I haven’t yet.” I admitted, hoping he might slip me a hint.

Instead, he just smiled knowingly. Then he went on to discuss James’ choice of attack, gushing over how clearly everyone knew the victor before the spells were even unleashed.

James’ choice did send a message about the distinct difference in magical talent, but I was certain that wouldn’t be enough to stop further problems. With a single punch, James could have splattered his opponent against a wall, demonstrating his resolve to kill and forcing people to question what was worth stepping into that arena. Honestly, I was thankful he remained the benevolent man I loved.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 251

“You don’t have to hold back so much in front of me, child.” stated Ariadne with a compassionate smile.

I should have known fooling her would be impossible. She was far too old to be fooled by my act. “Force of habit.”

She laughed and said, “That I believe. You should go to Hollywood. Your act is perfect. I warded this room myself, so even the Slayer’s brat doesn’t know what we’re doing.”

If she was making a joke, I couldn’t figure it out. A perfect act would have fooled her.

“Fine-fine. Almost perfect. I can sense the energy within you with my magic, so I know how strained you are despite your act.” she explained as she reached over to grasp my soldier. “Your skills are incredible for your age. Mind telling me about your parents?”

I didn’t even hesitate. This woman was everything a vampire should be, something too few were. She was ancient and wise with vast skills she had honed for the good of the world, not herself. Being allowed alone with her was a privilege. In the past forty minutes, she had used her fey telepathy to demonstrate hundreds of techniques with our vampire magic. Some were clearly beyond me, others I knew, and a few were purely exciting, such as variations on healing a human’s wounds with little loss of my own energy.

All too soon, our time was up. Ariadne, without even glancing at a clock, said that she must be off. I thanked her for her time and promised to continue practicing.

She laughed and said, “Child, I’m sure you’ll master what you didn’t know far sooner than most would manage. You are very gifted.”

I thanked her again as we walked to the front doors where I saw her out. To my surprise, Aaliyah was there, waiting for her. The tiny girl winked and waved before taking Ariadne’s hand and walking away.

Knowing the others were in the ballroom, I hurried in there, expecting them to be curious about what Ariadne and I were doing. I told them some of it, letting my excitement of the past hour show as I spoke of various tricks and possible uses for them.

Jarod, of course, was full of questions, but I was more satisfied when Alma’s relief slipped past her mask-like expression. I knew she had been anxious about leaving me alone with Ariadne. We were still speaking of Ariadne when a strange visitor arrived. The man appeared to be in his thirties and was very well dressed. After being shown into the room by Mila, he simply bowed to James and held out a glowing envelope, which James accepted. Then the man bid him “Good day.” and left.

The envelope triggered a memory of Papa’s lessons. James was being challenged.

“Don’t open that envelope.” warned Alma.

“I was about to ask you what this spell is.” replied James.

“Of course. My apologies, but I didn’t want anyone to be injured. This is a formal letter of challenge. The glow is meant to be a courtesy, warning those who look upon it that this letter will kill them if opened.” she explained.

“What?” he asked in surprise. “That seems extreme.”

Alma merely shrugged as she said, “Thousands of years ago, my family developed a system for ensuring the safety of our correspondence, since the head of the family can’t be bothered with every last detail. Even using spells to examine the contents will likely unleash a spell. If the letter isn’t delivered in a timely manner, the last of the seal’s energy will destroy it.”

“Then how am I supposed to read it?” he questioned, sounding concerned.

“Ideally, the key should have arrived first. Hopefully, a second courier will arrive soon.”

“Great.” he muttered. “Any suggestions on what we do with the letter in the meantime?”

“With your permission, I’ll hold onto it.” she offered, holding out her hand.

“Is that safe?”

She smiled slightly as she said, “Perfectly. Fire is the most common means of destroying letters, which I could stop. The others aren’t lethal to the bearer.”

“What kind of challenge are we talking about?” inquired Brandon.

“Let’s say that someone disapproves of James and me dating, so they’re going to fight him.” replied Alma.

Brandon scoffed in disbelief before saying, “Wow. That’s crazy.”

“We find it romantic.” argued the twins.

“You’d want me to fight someone for you?” teased Jarod.

“No.” replied one of them.

The other walked over to him, saying, “The idea of the fights is romantic. The actuality is…”

“Tragic.” stated Ai. “Someone usually ends up dead.”

I agreed with that completely. As I considered the stories of my father, the games of the Slayers seemed absolutely brutal.

“Dead? What!?” exclaimed Brandon. “That’s crazy!”

“People don’t do things like that anymore. They… they just don’t.” insisted Brenna.

Alma shook her head slightly as she informed them “Such events are rather common in my family. The crowd that will gather for it are supposed to act as witnesses to the fight’s validity, but many are there for sport.”

“What happens if he refuses?” questioned Brenna with obvious concern.

Refused? He couldn’t! He mustn’t “James and Alma won’t be allowed to date.” I told her, hoping James was paying attention. When I glanced at him, I realized everyone seemed to have heard. “Well, if things are as they were in my father’s time at least.”

“Your father taught you a great many things about our family, didn’t he.” stated Alma as she seemed to appraise me yet again.

I smiled and said, “I didn’t really believe half of them.” Who would really believe that a family would be that barbaric? Papa told tales of the Slayers as some told tales of monsters in the night. I doubted he meant for me to believe them entirely. He always had so many plans.

“What I don’t get is the timing of the letter.” asserted one of the twins.

“Is the letter arriving now, one day after my sister returned to us, a coincidence?” inquired the other.

Was that Mai or Ai pretending to be Mai then? Their act was incredible.

“This seems far too soon.” insisted the first one.

“You’re suggesting that the sender might be responsible?” suggested Alma. She was proud they noticed. “You might be right, but there might well be a bigger player involved, someone who encourage both acts and controlled the timing.”

Always scheming…

“I want to know who abducted Ai as much as the three of you, but aren’t we ignoring something more pressing? James can’t kill someone.” insisted Jarod as he stepped toward James.

“He’s perfectly capable.” insisted Alma defensively.

“Sure, he’s strong and fast. He seems to have a knack for magic.” admitted Jarod as he spared her a glance. Then he turned back to James and said, “But I know you. You aren’t a killer. What are you going to do?”

“They’re allowed to submit.” replied James nervously.

Jarod quickly pointed out “If you’re too busy trying to be gentle, you’re vulnerable. You shouldn’t enter a fight like this if your heart’s not in it.”

James smiled and said, “That’s the problem. My heart is in it. I’m not giving up Alma, Jarod.”

“See.” stated one twin.

That’s the romantic side.” agreed the other.

I understood where they were coming from, having a valiant hero fight for their hand like some old romance, but I didn’t want to see James dead, not that I’d want to meet someone who might be able to kill him again. Adelmar had seemed so confident in his own abilities, but his skills at persuasion weren’t a match for me. I’d just have to trust that James would take this seriously, in case a formidable opponent for him appeared. Someone willing to face Alma daily would certainly need to be mighty.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 249

I was certain this must be what feeling high is like. My birthday party had been completely off the hook, but partying with the fey was on a whole different level. I felt like I was still ready to go even after an entire night of dancing, singing, and eating. The music, as old-fashioned as it was, made me feel as if I was the lord of the dance. There was no way I should have known the moves I was pulling, but everything seemed so natural at the time.

A single night taught me how the strangely beautiful creatures might have lured my ancestors. I mean, I already thought some of them were hot, but last night made everyone seem ten times as attractive.

“What?” asked Brenna, catching me glance at her.

I shrugged, knowing sis was excluded from that thought. Emma, Portentia, and the twins had seemed hotter than hot. Knowing that I didn’t stand a chance with any of the beauties here killed me a little. Even Raine, who I found unbelievably terrifying at times, had let loose last night and really showed that she knew how to have a good time.

She caught me looking at her in one of the ballrooms mirrors, so I casually turned my head, not wanting her to think I was staring. I honestly couldn’t see myself dating her even if she was interested. She was super pretty in a cutesy way, but knowing what her other form was like would keep me on edge around her.

“Sorry for my ignorance, but will everyone be fine to work today?” asked James, breaking into my thoughts. Something about him always caught attention. “I don’t know how long the effects of your magic linger.”

He was talking to Ariadne. She was out of my league as well, not that I was into child-like faces or old people.

She smiled at him in a grandmotherly fashion that seemed wrong on her youthful face. “I’m certain they’ll feel awake partway into the night. Please accept my apologies if I’ve thrown off their sleep schedule.”

James laughed and said, “Sleep schedules get a little odd around here at the best of times.”

“I can imagine. Alma here…” She gestured as she looked at Alma. “Do you mind me calling you Alma?”

“Not at all. I’d hate to burden you with the names my family would put upon you.” replied Alma with a small smile.

Ariadne laughed. “Rumors do have a tendency to grow over the years. I doubt you sleep much at all, given your family, but your fey blood is strong, child. If ever you give up on the Slayer childishness, the fey will accept you.”

I felt that I had just missed a joke, and was thankful that Brenna seemed to have missed it as well.

Alma didn’t seem to like Ariadne’s reply, since her smile vanished entirely, leaving her face looking inhumanly calm. “I appreciate the offer, but my loyalty is to my family.”

“We are your family too.” insisted Ariadne.

“Yes, and you claim to be Aaliyah’s aunt.” stated Alma.

Had that been in question? The two looked nearly identical, save for the obvious difference in age.

Ariadne nodded and said, “I am, after a fashion. She’s descended from my brother’s line. I watched over all of them throughout the years, though not as closely as I’d have wished at times. My failings…”

“Were beyond your control, so not really failings at all.” replied Aaliyah, smiling up at her aunt.

Ariadne smiled slightly as she poked Aaliyah’s nose.

“Do you really want the whole story of my family?” asked Aaliyah in a teasing tone.

Alma glanced at James before saying, “I think not.”

Best choice. Aaliyah’s explanations were hopelessly complicated.

“You’ll still have it in time.” insisted Aaliyah before sticking her tongue out at Alma.

I’d feel sympathy for Alma if I thought she could actually be forced to listen.

Ariadne patted Aaliyah’s head and said, “You’re rude as ever, child.” Then she stared up toward the ceiling. “Oh. Snow.”

“Yes, the temperature’s been dropping throughout the night.” stated Alma.

“Do you wanna build a snow-man?” asked Aaliyah, making snowman sound like two words.

“I do!” exclaimed Emma as she stole Aaliyah from the cluster. “We haven’t done that in ages.’

“There won’t be enough accumulation for hours.” explained Ariadne apologetically.

“Would you like to put that to a wager?” asked Alma, smiling again.

“The sun is only going to rise higher, so I will have to sit this out.” complained Cosette, steppingstone up beside Ariadne.

I hadn’t really caught sight of her too much. I didn’t know if she used some sort of vampire power or what, but Cosette had a way of just blending into the background and surprising people when she appeared. The girl was certainly another hottie, despite being a vampire.

“Don’t be silly. The clouds are plenty thick now for us to see if Alma’s correct.” argued Ariadne.

“I don’t have your resilience.” replied Cosette.

Alma gently touched Cosette’s arm and said, “I’m sure James will help, since we’re at home.”

“Oh. Sure.” stated James, seeming apologetic for not offering himself.

“Ai. Mai. You’re both helping.” commanded Alma imperiously.

The twins sighed in unison before saying, “Yes, Lady Pendreigh.

I was glad those two were fine. I knew they were interested in Jarod, but there was something exciting about their twisted sense of humor.

“Where will you be? I’m already cold just thinking about snow. I need my coat.” insisted Brenna as she hugged herself.

Alma laughed. “You’d be fine set for a beach. I promise.”

Brianna didn’t seem convinced, but her frown quickly gave way to surprise. Alma must have been doing some sort of magic on her.

“Shall we?” questioned Alma as she took James’ arm.

“We shall!” exclaimed Emma, bouncing Aaliyah on her shoulders.

James smiled and nodded. Then he looked to Cosette and said, “Tell me if you start feeling any discomfort.”

She laughed. “There’s always discomfort for a vampire, James. Light burns at our skin, blood calls to our nose, and even our magic taxes us. Still, we live to serve, and serve we shall.”

“I thought you wanted to avoid vampire politics.” stated Alma in a teasing manner.

Looking serious, Cosette replied “I don’t have to be political to help people.”

“I think the brothers would like you.” commented Ariadne.

Cosette’s serious expression changed to shock. “I… I… You know… them?”

“I told them that I refused to get involved in any plotting as well, and they like me just fine.” insisted Ariadne.

I wished I had a clue who they were talking about. Cosette didn’t normally stumble over her words in excitement.

“How did you meet them?” questioned Alma. “I hear they don’t get out much.”

“They don’t, but they arrived too late to stop an army when I was young and found me there instead.” replied Ariadne as if she were telling Alma a secret.

“I… see.” stated Alma, seeming uncomfortable.

“You guys are killing me here. I’m practically bursting with spoilers. If I wasn’t being held back, I’d be running ahead.” claimed Jarod, looking smug with the twins clinging to him.

James laughed and said, “You look so put upon with a girl on each arm. I’m sure your parents love your visits.”

Jarod shrugged and grinned. “They always knew I’d have an interesting life if I stuck around you.”

Alma leaned against James, apparently saying something that surprised him.

“Old lady present.” announced Ariadne. “Don’t forget my ears have just grown sharper with age.”

James blushed instantly, and Alma looked embarrassed before that unnatural calm returned. I liked Ariadne. She was the sweetest young-looking, old lady I knew.

“I’m sorry, child.” apologized Ariadne as she laughed. “I really should stop myself, but seeing someone in your family be so prudish is hilarious.”

“I see.” stated Alma, obviously not amused.

Emma and Jarod laughed the loudest. I had suppressed mine, not wanting to get on Alma’s bad side. I often wondered where she hid the good side, but then she’d do something nice, like helping someone out on Ancient Tribes of Earth.

I followed the group as we made our way out to the backyard. There were times when I felt this place was entirely too big, but I wouldn’t change anything about it. The bragging rights alone for living here were surely worth something.

When we got outside, there was barely any snow on the ground. Then this insane downpour of snow started from around forty feet in the air, piling up with incredible speed as if someone had turned on a giant, invisible snow blower and blasted the yard. The snowfall stopped abruptly, leaving a good foot of snow on the ground.

Jumping free of Emma, Aaliyah shouted “Yippee!” Her faceplant was terrific.

Jarod, however, seemed dissatisfied. “But what about the…”

One of the twins quickly covered his mouth with her finger.

The other then said, “Lady Pendreigh, we may have mentioned to our boyfriend some of the tricks you pulled when we were younger.”

“Would you mind decorating?” questioned the first, still covering Jarod’s mouth.

Alma sighed. “I suppose.”

I didn’t have to wait for something to happen. Snow shifted and ice formed, creating buildings across the yard until we had a miniature village.

Aaliyah’s sat up and gaped. “Wow! Auntie, I need stuff for a snowman.”

In a flash of light, her request was answered. Carrots, coal, scarves, hats, glasses, pipes, and other pieces appeared next to the shrimp.

“How does she do that?” asked the twins in perfect unison.

“I show off a bit, and you show me up in a flash.” teased Alma.

Ariadne smiled and winked.

I felt like I was a little boy who was about to play in the snow for the first time. Magic had always been part of my life, but life didn’t feel magical until I moved here.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 248

The strange melody emanating from the other room was beautiful and probably ancient. Ariadne had stopped drinking over a minute ago, and was now dancing to her own melody. She was very fast and equally graceful. I found her altogether terrifying. There was no known way to combat her magic if she were to become homicidal, and being Aaliyah’s aunt crushed the faint hope of striking first. Who would emerge from that door: the kind healer or the butcher of an army?

The door slammed open and what shot out of the room was neither healer nor butcher. The ancientness seemed to have been left behind as this two-thousand-year-old woman giggled, dancing rapidly across the ground. As she danced, decorations started to cover the wall beyond her as if the house itself was attempting to partake in her joy. How could someone who could do this be stopped?

“Boss-man, sir, you should probably get them to the forest.” commented Aaliyah with a smile as she watched her aunt dance.

“But the sun…” I reminded her.

“Is setting and won’t even bother her slightly at the moment. Better hurry.”she insisted.

James seemed to notice the decorations at last. He darted to the fairy, staring at her for a fraction of a second before grabbing Ariadne’s hand. The moment the fairy flew into his pocket, James seemed to tug against Ariadne to no avail as she danced around him. I moved to help, grabbing Ariadne’s other hand. We needed to hurry before the house was transformed instead of decorated. I banished my protections, imagined us heading to the forest together, and projected the image.

She finally moved. Despite our speed, a very obvious trail was left in our wake, filled with balloons, streamers, confetti, and other decorations fit for a history museum in their antiquated style. Knowing the ease with which Ariadne could transform and mend flesh, I could imagine how easily destroying someone would be for her. The possibilities for aiding and ending life were merely bound by her imagination, an imagination with the past two thousand years of experience to draw upon. What could my family do if she ever moved against us?

The moment we stepped into the forest, the fey responded to Ariadne’s presence. I felt their recognition in the hundreds of images coming to us. Raine had joined us, smiling and dancing, though keeping an obvious distance from Ariadne. The forest around us became adorned with decorations not seen in millennia, finely crafted in a way that made them seem grown into being. Emma could probably make a business out of selling these if she chose to learn the patterns.

Joining Ariadne’s radiance was a dust-like coating that came to rest across the forest, creating pinpricks of light all around us. Prisms appeared, casting rainbows in every direction. Odder yet, my head felt fuzzy, but I felt jubilant. Some part of me knew that I was being affected by Ariadne’s magic, but I wanted to dance and celebrate with the others. The fey were here, and my other friends were coming.

Long wooden tables appeared around us, fully decorated and laden with a tremendous variety of foods. The fey weren’t even startled, simply grabbing up food while continuing their dance. They shared with us thoughts of other parties, wild and beautiful. I stopped resisting my urges and grabbed James for a dance.

,,,^._.^,,,

“Raine, beat them there. One of us should witness this.” suggested Aaliyah with a smile.

I stopped hesitating and dashed after the trio, leaving the others behind. I followed the trail, carefully examining both the familiar and unusual decorations. Fighting the icky feeling Ariadne’s magic gave me was a profound happiness, like being dipped into a vat of joy and letting it suffuse me.

When I arrived in the forest, I felt all of the minds reaching out and let their happiness add to my own. These beings weren’t bothered by a monster crossing into their realm, they only cared about this moment in which a party was being held. There was no past or future concerns as they wanted to make the most of the present. To them, Ariadne was a missing part of their community finally reunited.

I was slowly dancing in time with the music as I wandered through the mindscapes of place these fey had seen. The pace of their thoughts elated me. With hundreds of minds sending images, feelings, and desires to me, things were slightly less slow-pace than normal. I had time to treasure each one individually before focusing on others. For the first time, a forest was added to my mental fortress, a place to remember this moment with these wonderful creatures.

Food appeared sometime later, and I swore to try each and every type as the aromas caught up to my sight. Some of the fruity drinks were fermented while others seemed to be the most perfect examples of freshly squeezed juice. There were also several types of milk. At least, I was fairly certain those were each milk. I didn’t know the scents well enough to know what the differences were.

Surprisingly, the animals weren’t running. I could smell them nearby and occasionally caught sight of them prancing along. Were they as captivated by this as me?

Long after the others joined us, I found myself questioning whether or not a monster such as myself had any right to be this happy. Not one person here seemed to hold my presence against me, despite knowing what I am. I knew the fey could sense my nature, I felt their knowledge in the thoughts they shared, but they only cared about the joy they felt dancing with me. Was this really okay?

,,,^._.^,,,

When I first saw Ariadne, I was excited. Meeting an elder vampire was a treat that surpassed Papa’s tales of them. I wasn’t prepared for her magic. She was literally a radiant being when she chose, and the light burned as keenly as sunlight, making me grateful as ever for Portentia’s presence.

I felt slightly guilty at making Portentia wait a minute for me to feed, but she didn’t seem to care. The girl continuously surprised me with her clear raison d’être and nonchalant pride in her role as a hero. If there were others with power like hers, I doubted they’d be half as humble.

After thanking Portentia, I lagged behind long enough to touch some of the new decorations, surprised that they weren’t an illusion even as I smelled the natural scents of some. Power such as this was absurdly useful.

While I considered the childish uses I’d have for such a gift, I followed the long trail of decorations. One step was the difference between the real world and a crazy forest of music, light, and gaiety. Catching scents on the wind, I added a banquet to the list. I couldn’t begin to comprehend the magic around me. The barrier around this forest was immense, and the amount of residual energy around me made the outside world seem like a desert compared with this verdant forest.

In under a minute, I was swept away into the party, high on the merriment even more so than my modest consumption of Portentia’s blood. The foods were incredible, the drinks were divine, and the company was intense.

Over the course of a seemingly endless dance, I was kissed by Emma, laughed with Brandon, and danced with… well, everyone! Seeing Alma act so carefree was bewildering, like meeting a talking dog, thought here might be one of those too in this forest. Some of the creatures were incredibly similar to humans. Others seemed all the stranger due to their similarities. Then there were ones who occasionally resembled a human before becoming something else entirely. Even as they transformed, the fey danced with complete ease. Were parties like this once common when the fey roamed the lands?

Catching a fey’s thoughts about pranking another of its kind, I laughed. Before I could respond, James appeared with Alma.

“The sun’s rising.” he warned.

I sighed and asked “Already?” Only as I looked around did I realize I had absolutely no clue where I was in relation to the house. “Which way is the house? I seem to be a little lost.”

“That way.” stated Alma as she pointed. She was still smiling from the night’s merriment and seemed far closer to my age than normal.

“We need to make sure Ariadne’s aware, or we’d show you.” added James apologetically.

I doubted Ariadne needed help after what I saw tonight, but I didn’t argue. Someone was running toward me.

“I’ll see that she gets there, master.” stated Mila after arriving. “I don’t believe the fey wish any of us to go.”

James laughed and said, “Probably not.” Then he took off with Alma in a blur of motion.

“Shall we?” asked Mila, gesturing in the same direction Alma had pointed.

“Yes. Thank you.” I told her with a smile. I was very, very thankful to have Mila back with us.

,,,^._.^,,,

“Sorry to bother you, but did you realize the sun is rising?” questioned James after he arrived with Alma.

I nodded and said, “Of course, child, I was born far before alarm clocks. Shouldn’t you make sure the young one… Cosette, was it? Shouldn’t you make sure she’s indoors?”

“She is already on her way. We simply didn’t want anything to happen to you.” insisted Alma.

I feigned surprise as I looked the two over. Then I said, “My, my… you seem a bit more lively than last time I met you. Did you and James have a bit of fun out in the woods?” With a wink and a smirk, I enjoyed seeing Alma turn bright red.

“No, we most certainly did not do anything indecent.” she insisted.

I knew, of course. I would’ve been able to tell her if she’d be pregnant had they, even ensuring it if she wished to be. Even after this party the likes of which hadn’t been seen for an age, she underestimated me.

I sighed and said, “Live a few lifetimes, and you’ll see what is considered decent change over and over. Aaliyah, make sure everyone gets inside before anything indecent happens.”

My niece grinned as she told me “Of course, Auntie!”

With those words, all was well. The entire world wasn’t a match for my niece’s whims, and her given word was as absolute as her existence.

I dashed to the house, catching sight of the first rays of dawn, and I smiled. Seeing my friends again was such a treat that I could die happy on this spot, though I knew I’d be missed. I hurried inside, already wanting to tell Vito and his brothers of this discovery. Why hadn’t my niece told me sooner? Perhaps her fey whimsy was even stronger than I liked to believe.