Vanilla Secret

“You think that’s all?” Billy asked Cherry as he lowered his arms. He raised them to protect his head from an onslaught of stones that came flying out of small black holes; they seemed to stop coming.

“For now, probably,” Cherry said. “But, I think you can count on Ballisea terrorizing you for a while.”

“It was Vanilla’s decision,…” Billy grumbled. He relaxed and appraised Cherry again. She arrived only moments before the stoning began. The girl’s white hair matched Vanilla’s; she wore a blood-red hoodie and held a small potted plant.

“She knows,” Cherry smiled and knelt to the ground. They were atop a small hill surrounded by white and orange flowers. It was where Billy buried Vanilla. “That’s why you’re not dead.” She dug a hole in the ground with her hands. When she was satisfied she turned her attention to the potted plant and began to pull it out for transplant. Initially, Billy thought Cherry brought a flower for Vanilla. As she placed it in its new home he realized it looked more like an herb. Billy recognized it somehow. He did not know how but assumed it was due to the knowledge he gained from Vanilla’s soul.

“Is that Peppermint?” Billy asked. Cherry nodded and rose to her feet. “Can you give him a boost?” she asked while clapping the grass and dirt off the knees of her black jeans. “It needs to take root.” Billy nodded and knelt by the peppermint plant.

“Is he mad at me too?” Billy asked. He touched one of the rounded leaves and accelerated time for the plant to speed its growth.

“Nah,” Cherry dismissed his concerns with a hand-wave. “Holding grudges is how Ballisea has fun,” she said. Billy felt like he’d done enough for the plant and stood back to see what would happen next. He bumped into someone behind him.

“I did my part,” Cherry said. She sank into a black hole that appeared at her feet. “See ya’ around, Billy.”

“Peppermint?” Billy asked and turned around to see who he bumped in to. A tall, lean man with a neatly parted white hair and a full, groomed white beard bowed as an introduction to Billy.  He wore an elegant forest-green suit with a white vest and white bow-tie. After the bow he stood up straighter; he had a ’37’ tattooed on his cheek directly under his right eye. Instead of an eyeball, he had what looked like a glass eye painted like the Earth; the ball was turning slowly in its socket. His left eye was a normal green eye.

“Ah, you’re the new one. Hello, Billy. I don’t actually walk out of the plant, you know,” a green portal appeared behind him. Instead of the flat black portals Billy was used to, this one shimmered like the surface of a pool. The black portals looked empty to Billy, like they led to nowhere. This portal looked more like a proper wormhole to a distant destination. Green light washed across its surface in pulsing waves. He could almost see another Earth on the other side.

“Thanks for coming,” Billy said. He offered Peppermint a handshake. “I know Vanilla wanted me to meet all of you, thanks for making it easy.” Peppermint nodded and shook Billy’s hand. “So how about the Luna?” Peppermint shrugged.

“No one’s seen him or her. We’re not sure there’s one out there.” Billy shook his head. He knew something. In the back of his mind, Billy felt certainty. Vanilla’s certainty.

“Vanilla was sure. I think she met…,” Billy paused and listened to his mind. “…him. I feel like Vanilla met him already,” he said.

“Wonderful,” Peppermint said dryly. “I’m sure she has her reasons for not telling the rest of us; but, if she didn’t tell them to you either that might be a problem.”

“We’ve got some time,” Billy said. “We’ll figure it out by then,”

“I hope so,” Peppermint said. “This experiment of hers is starting to get old.”

Vanilla Burial

Billy placed Vanilla’s body in the shallow hole gently. He lowered her legs first, being extra careful not to dirty her bright orange dress more than he needed to. Then, he guided her head to rest on a green, leathery pillow that Billy made himself. The leather belonged to a T-rex that Vanilla kept time-locked for most of their time together. Somehow it made him feel better knowing she would always be resting on it. He sat back on the earthen edge of the grave and looked around at his chosen spot.

Billy was on a short hill surrounded by a lush, colorful garden. White flowers circled the hill with a band of orange flowers beyond that one. Vanilla introduced him to the spot as one of her favorite places. He knew it meant a lot to her considering she could go anywhere.

“She picked you?” A girl’s voice said from behind him. Billy wasn’t startled; he was expecting a visit from someone. He turned to face the voice and saw a young girl with long white hair that mirrored Vanilla’s; except, the girl’s was tied in a ponytail. She wore a blood-red hoodie and held a small potted plant.

“You must be Cherry,” Billy said. The girl nodded. “Yes,” he said. “She picked me.” A baseball-sized black hole appeared in front of Billy’s face; a stone flew out of the hole and hit his forehead. “Ow, hey.” Cherry giggled. “Fine…,” Billy rubbed the sore spot on his forehead.  “Did you get it out of your system?” he asked. Cherry shook her head and immediately five black holes appeared in the air around Billy’s head. Rocks came flying out of them. Billy raised his arms to shield himself. “Can you stop?” he asked. Cherry grinned.

“It’s not me.”

Vanilla Life

Billy followed Vanilla into a black stone castle and through the wide open hallways. She led him to an indoor swimming pool filled with crystal clear water. A tall pale woman floated on her back in the center of the pool with her eyes closed; strands of her vibrant red hair floated around her.

Her?” Billy asked. Vanilla nodded.

“She’s half fairy…,” the white-haired woman said. “…and a Calavera.” Vanilla shrugged. “If it weren’t for her bond with Ballisea, Flutter wouldn’t be as strong as she is.”

“She’s got great hearing though,” Flutter said from the center of the pool. She opened her eyes but continued to float and stare upward. “Hey, Vanilla. What’s the occasion?” she asked. Vanilla stepped into the pool room and walked along the outer edge to get closer; Billy followed.

“This is Billy. The strongest Muerte I could find,” Vanilla said. Flutter straightened herself in the pool and stood up. She focused her attention on Billy and climbed out of the pool. Billy waved at her awkwardly.

“Can he do it?” Flutter asked Vanilla. Billy looked at the white-haired woman too; to see her reaction. She half-nodded.

“With more training. That’s why I brought him to meet you.”

“Do what?” Billy asked.

“I told you,” Vanilla said. She placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it gently. “If you can stop Flutter, you can stop Ballisea.” As soon as Vanilla said Ballisea’s name a tall black portal appeared next to Flutter. The giant woman sighed.

“She’s calling me,” Flutter said. She looked down at Billy and nodded at him with a smile. She extended her hand. “Find me anytime you want to test yourself.” Billy shook her hand and noted her frequency so he could find her again; it seemed like that’s why she offered him a handshake.

“Thanks,” Billy said. He did not know what else to say, or what was happening exactly, but he trusted Vanilla to explain it.

“So, he’s your pick?” Flutter turned her attention back to Vanilla. Vanilla nodded. Billy was surprised when Flutter stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Vanilla; the lean woman returned the hug.

“Goodbye, Vanilla.” Flutter said, then she disappeared into the portal without another word.

“I thought I was going to try and stop her?” Billy asked. Vanilla shook her head.

“You’re not ready yet, but I wanted you to meet her now. You asked about time feeling like sandpaper?”

“Yeah..?” Billy nodded but he was confused. He did not know what his question had to do with meeting Flutter. Vanilla lifted her orange dress slightly and stepped out of her white high heels. She walked to the edge of the pool and sat down with her feet in the water. She patted the stone floor next to her and looked up at Billy. He sat down, in jeans, cross-legged.

“I think of time like a river,” she said while staring at the water. “When you freeze time; the river stops flowing.” Vanilla leaned forward and scooped up a handful of pool water. “Hold your hand out.” Billy did; Vanilla turned and dropped a ball of water in his hand. It did not wobble or come apart.

“I’m going to let go; hold it,” she said. Billy nodded and concentrated on the ball of water.

“Ready…3…2…now.” When she said, “now” most of the water rolled off Billy’s hand; he was left with a round drop floating in the center of his hand. He immediately looked at Vanilla.

“What happened?” he asked. Vanilla smiled and scooped up another handful of water. She held the solid-liquid ball between her thumb and forefinger as if she were inspecting a large jewel.

“You’re good at moving around large chunks of time like rocks or people, but…,” She smiled and held the ball of water in front of him with one hand. With her other hand, she grabbed part of it and pulled them apart like an orange. She tossed one half back into the water, then grabbed the other part and broke it in half again. “…you need to remember that all the big pieces are made from smaller pieces.”

“Huh?” Billy asked. He kind of understood how to shape the water now, but didn’t see how it tied to his question.

“When you took in Steven’s soul, your ability grew stronger. You’re more sensitive to the smaller pieces of time.”

“So.. the sandpaper feeling is time?” he asked Vanilla giggled.

“No dummy,” she said playfully, then sighed. “Absorbing a Muerte soul like you did boosts your power. You can feel air molecules now because you’re powerful enough to control them,” she grabbed his shoulder again and squeezed. “You’re powerful enough to kill-,”

“Ballisea,” Billy said. Vanilla shook her head.


Vanilla Visit

“Whoa…,” Billy sighed when Vanilla finished her tale. He looked out giant bay windows in the living room at the never-ending ocean. Glacier-like chunks of ice dotted the horizon. There was no trace of the mountaintop Vanilla claimed they were on, but he trusted her implicitly. “This is that Earth? Those are all your tears?” Vanilla nodded.

“What happened to them?” Billy stood from the couch and wandered to the window.


“Your dad, everyone on the Earth.”

“Nothing,” Vanilla shrugged and stood from her seat to join Billy by the window. “They’re still down there stopped in time from the moment first moment I stopped it.” Billy noticed her shake her head slightly. “I can’t undo it. Whatever I did, it completely derailed time. Besides…,” Vanilla wrapped an arm around Billy and gave him a gentle hug. “…at least this way he won’t ever die.” Vanilla’s long white hair tickled Billy’s neck and it reminded him of a different sensation.

“Hey!” he said and looked up at her. “Time’s stopped here, right?” he asked; she nodded. “Why can’t I feel it?”

“I just told you I broke time,” she said with a smirk. Billy shook his head.

“Right. Sorry, what I meant was at the lake after I took that guy’s soul, -“

“Steven,” Vanilla reminded him.

“Yeah, Steven. After that, I could feel time. It feels like there’s sand everywhere. And when it’s stopped it feels like walking through a sandpaper hallway. THAT was new to me. But I didn’t remember until I couldn’t feel it here.”

“Great question, C’mon.” Vanilla wiggled her fingers at the air and opened a tall black portal. “We’re going to visit a dragon,” she added as she stepped into the portal and disappeared. Billy followed. He found himself drenched in sweat the moment he exited the portal on the other side. He stood at the shore of a giant molten lake. Its bright orange glow was almost blinding if he tried to look directly into the lava. He looked around.

Dozens of figures lined the beach. They were gathered in groups and it wasn’t until a red-skinned young girl in a one-piece bathing suit ran up to Vanilla that he realized where he was. The girl’s long orange hair flowed through the air like fire as she ran; her red, scaled skin shimmered in the sunlight. The bright golden light reflected off her in a way that reminded Billy of a ruby; the girl’s skin was almost crystalline. The girl was a dragon enjoying a day at the beach with her dragon family. Several of the group she came from waved in their direction.

“VANILLA!!” the girl screeched as she dashed across the dark black sand. The girl leaped off the sand at Vanilla but the air caught her. The red girl hovered in the air; stuck inches in front of the tall white-haired woman. Vanilla reached up and grabbed the girl’s tiny hand. She pulled the girl along the shore like a balloon until she was at the lava’s edge. She stayed out of the way and started time again. Billy watched the girl’s momentum carry her into the lava.

The girl surfaced spluttering molten rock and giggling. She wiped the liquid fire from her eyes and looked up at Vanilla.

“Who’s he?” she asked and gestured at Billy by rolling her eyes in his direction while treading lava.

“He needs to talk to Flutter,” Vanilla replied.

“And?” the girl shrugged, then she swam forward and walked out of the orange lake.

“And it won’t be the last time,” Vanilla said. “Billy, this is Ruby,” she finally gave a proper introduction, then looked at Billy. “If you ever want to know anything about a dragon, Ruby’s family is who you ask.” She produced a small white silk pouch and opened it. “Information is expensive but…,” Vanilla pulled several golden coins and a couple of large sapphires from the pouch. “Ruby charges significantly less than her older family members.” Vanilla dropped the coins and gems into the girl’s small, outstretched hand.  “Where can we find Flutter?” Vanilla crossed her arms and asked formally.

“Inside!” The girl screeched then immediately popped the loot in her mouth and jumped back into the lava.

“That little sneak!” Vanilla cursed with a chuckle.

“Who’s Flutter?” Billy asked.

“According to Ruby’s family, and they know everything about dragons, Flutter is the strongest dragon they’ve ever seen.” Billy tilted his head at Vanilla and narrowed his eyes with a confused look.

“That sounds like someone we want to stay away from,” Billy said.

“We can’t, you need to talk to her,” Vanilla started walking up the beach.

“Me? Why?”

“To use her as a benchmark. If you can stop her in time, you can stop Ballisea,” Vanilla said.

Vanilla Childhood

Billy stared in awe at the plain below. Thousands of skeletons stood in a formation. Each individual one seemed to be fighting an imaginary attacker. Every punch and kick they launched disappeared into a small black hole. Billy noted several times that the boney limb did not return from the hole but the skeletons did not slow at all. They continued to attack the black holes with what they could.

“How does she control them all?” He asked Vanilla, then gave his head an extra shake. “That’s not even all of them is it?” Vanilla laughed softly then patted Billy’s head with playful patronization.

“How do you grow your hair?” she asked as she parted his black hair.   Billy enjoyed the tingle he felt down his spine. She almost never touched him; but, he felt affection when she did.

“I don’t grow my hair,” Billy smiled. “It just does.” Vanilla nodded then lifted her hand from his head and ‘nodded’ at Billy with the tip of her index finger.

“And when you do this, do you control each and every muscle fiber?” she asked. Billy shook his head.

“Of course not,” he grinned but his eyes slowly widened as he began to grasp what Vanilla was saying about Ballisea. “Let’s say she wanted a hand to pop out right here and…”  A small black hole appeared in the air between Vanilla and Billy. A skeleton stuck its hand out and nodded its finger at Billy like Vanilla had. Then it retreated into the hole again and disappeared.

“Remember, don’t ever underestimate her.” Vanilla pointed at the dark red sky. “Especially on one of her own Earths.” Vanilla rolled her eyes. “Anyway, for that action, she doesn’t pick a skeleton; she has more of them then you have cells. The skeletons can tap into her magic to make their own portals as long as it’s near her. They’re a hive-mind that know everything she does. Basically, anything she wants done; they do.” Vanilla wiggled her fingers to open a black portal. “To answer your other question; no, that’s not all of them.” Vanilla spread her arms to gesture at the fenced in, barren field around them. “This whole Earth is hers, not just the plain. It’s full of her skeletons. If we use the analogy of a human body again to give you a better idea of how many she has. This Earth could be thought of as one of Ballisea’s atoms.” She took a step towards the portal but Billy stopped her.

“Wait. How do you know so much about Ballisea?” He asked. Vanilla sighed and waved her hand at the black portal to dismiss it. She gave Billy a sad smile.

“I hoped I still had some more time with you before you asked that question,” she said. She wiggled her fingers and opened another black portal; Billy guessed his question changed their next stop. “Before I answer that…,” Vanilla waved at Billy to follow her then stepped through the portal. On the other side, Billy exited the portal into a large, spacious living room. Giant windows lined three sides of the living room, flooding it with golden sunlight. Billy saw water and several small icebergs surround them. The water extended as far as the horizon in all directions. “… I want to tell you about my father,” Vanilla said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with Ballisea, but  I want to share this with someone.” Vanilla never talked about herself or her family; Billy looked forward to learning about her.

“Is this the arctic ocean?” Billy asked. Vanilla shook her head.

“This is Mount Everest on my home Earth. When I was little my dad would take me to this playpark that had a rock wall. I loved it so much we started talking about mountain climbing together when I was old enough.” Vanilla sat down on her orange couch. Billy sat next to her. “Then, he got sick. Bedridden for more than a month. My mother died giving birth, so it was just me and dad. Luckily money wasn’t an issue so I focused on taking care of him. I always tried to bring him breakfast in bed.” Vanilla shook her head. “I think it made him feel worse; like he was helpless. One day I heard him talking to someone on the phone. He was feeling sad about missing so much time by being stuck in bed and he didn’t seem to be getting better. I wanted to help him and I wished time would stop so he could get better…,” Vanilla looked at Billy. She had tears gathering in the corners of her orange eyes. “…and it did.”

Death’s Mystery

Alliane narrowed her eyes at the bright red numbers on the clock; she urged them to change. After several seconds she realized the colon was missing; and, it did not seem to be coming back. She rolled over in the bed and pushed at her sleeping boyfriend, Jonah. He slept on his back and was not breathing. Alliane glanced out the window and noticed the patio light was on; she herself turned it off before going to bed. With a sigh, she stood from the bed.

She knew it would be a while before she got to bed and stopped in her closet to change. After dressing in jeans and a t-shirt she made her way out of the bedroom, through the hall then into the kitchen. A lean young man in a navy-blue pinstripe suit was waiting on the patio for her. The patio lights illuminated him from behind and cast his shadow onto the white kitchen tiles.

“It couldn’t wait ’till morning?” Alliane asked as she slid the glass door open. The young man smiled.

“It is morning,” he said.

“I meant when the sun’s out,” she said as she joined him on the concrete slab outside her back door. She closed the sliding door behind her, then crossed her arms and gave Billy her full attention. Billy shook his head.

“There’s nothing to see when the sun’s out,” he replied. “Before Vanilla died she showed me something. She promised we’d talk about it later but…,” Billy gave a sad shrug. “…she died before that. I wanted to show you.”

“Okay,” Alliane nodded. She was glad she changed clothes.

“Thanks,” Billy smiled and turned to walk toward Alliane’s back yard. “Time is stopped right now, right?”  He looked at her over his shoulder and asked.

“As far as I can tell,” she replied. She did not have the power to stop time like Billy, but she guessed it was him when she noticed her alarm clock didn’t move.

“Then take a look through this…,” Billy stopped next to a telescope. Alliane didn’t recognize it and assumed he brought it with him. “… and see if you can explain it.”

“Explain what?” Alliane asked as she made herself comfortable by the lens and peered up at the night sky. The telescope was trained on a single glinting, twinkling star that winked at Alliane. She stared at the star for several seconds waiting for something to happen. It did not do anything other than glimmer like a star. She pulled away, looked up at Billy and shrugged. “What am I looking at?”

“If time is stopped here on Earth…,” Billy pointed up at the sky. “Why isn’t it stopped out there?”

Vanilla Suggestion

“By the way,” Vanilla pointed at the time-stopped skeleton several feet away. “When you are powerful enough to stop one of Ballisea’ s skeletons…,” A tall black portal open next to the skeleton. “…she’ll notice.” Billy watched a single leg step out of the darkness. He moved to step back, but he blinked.

“C’mon, sleepy,” Vanilla said with a wink after Billy opened his eyes. She was standing next to the portal now instead of beside Billy.

“What happened?” He asked as he walked toward the portal. He could tell he was only stopped for a few minutes and was curious.

“I asked Ballisea for a favor.” Vanilla replied. She walked into the portal and Billy followed. He exited the portal and stepped into a dried, barren landscape with a dark red sky. They stood in a fenced-in hilltop over-looking a vast dried plain. He looked around the enclosure and saw a faded, worn sign with a pumpkin logo; it was easy to imagine the area consumed by a pumpkin patch.

“What favor?” Billy asked. Vanilla walked to the edge of the property and looked out over the plain and encouraged Billy to come closer. He walked to the fence and stared out across the plain. Hundreds of skeletons stood straight up at attention facing forward. They stood in a spacious formation about 10 feet from each other. “You know Ballisea?”

“I asked her to let me bring you here,” Vanilla pointed at a single skeleton. “Watch.”  Billy focused on the figure she indicated. It sprung into action as he watched. It whirled in place extending its limbs at various angles. It’s sharp, practiced movements reminded Billy of the martial arts movies he watched growing up. Its arms and legs disappeared into black holes that appeared long enough to allow the skeleton’s limbs through; then they disappeared when the limbs were retracted.

“What’s she doing?” Billy asked.

“Look at all of them, not just that one,” Vanilla said. Billy had been focusing on the individual one Vanilla pointed out. Billy looked at the wider plain and noticed dozens of skeletons dancing in place the same way. They seemed to be fighting invisible attackers.Billy looked up at Vanilla.

“Who’s she fighting?” she shrugged.

“I don’t know. I asked her to pick a fight so you could see this.”

“What? Why me?” Billy asked. He noticed a look of sadness flash across her face; the same one that she’d been wearing recently. She shook her head.

“Later. Right now you’re here to learn how powerful Ballisea is.” Billy nodded and turned to look out at the field of skeletons. “Ballisea doesn’t like to fight. She can, but she doesn’t like to. She prefers to let her skeletons do the work. She can use them as quickly and easily as her own limbs. Don’t ever under-estimate her.”

Summary B.

Billy wasn’t ready. He focused on his thoughts and shut out the still, time-stopped world around him. He ignored the pristine, glassy lake. He relaxed his limbs and concentrated. He expected Vanilla’s next word to magically reveal some secret knowledge hidden inside him.

“Ballisea,” she said. A violent shiver ran down Billy’s spine. His slack arms flailed and knocked over the telescope beside him. All warmth left his body completely, then returned slowly; as if she frightened his soul out of his body for a moment. Billy’s eyes shot open and he wrapped his arms around himself. He looked up at Vanilla standing next to him.

“What just happened?? Who is she?” he asked her.

“One question at a time. Think about what you need to know next.” Billy searched his mind for the same gnawing sensation the word “Void” gave him that morning. He realized he knew who Ballisea was, then noticed a sound in the back of his mind. Every thought of Ballisea came with a clacking, clattering sound. He imagined the sound belonging to laughing skulls.

“Why does she make me think of skeletons?” Billy phrased the question as broad as he could. Vanilla smiled and opened a black portal next to her.

“That’s a great question.” Vanilla walked into the portal and Billy followed. Billy stepped out of the portal to an Earth unlike any he’d ever seen. The sky was dark red and the ground was dry and barren as far as Billy could see. Then he spotted a single skeleton standing still; it stared up at the red sky. “This is one of Ballisea’s conquered Earths,” Vanilla said. Her words attracted the skeleton’s attention. It lowered its head to look at Vanilla then began to walk toward her.

“Can you stop it?” Vanilla asked Billy.

“No prob-” Billy said as he stopped time. He cut off his own statement when he realized the skeleton was still shambling in their direction. “No,” he sighed. He wasn’t surprised when the skeleton froze mid-step. Of course Vanilla could stop it.

That is what Ballisea turns Zeros into when she takes over.”

“It’s a Zero?” Billy asked. “Why couldn’t I stop it?” Vanilla shook her head.

“It’s animated, and protected, by Ballisea’s magic.” Billy nodded as he listened. He felt like his question about skeletons had been answered but he also realized he’d been going about it the wrong way. He was asking the wrong questions.

“Hey, Vanilla? What do YOU know about her?” Vanilla smiled broadly and wrapped her arm around his shoulder.

“There you go!” she said and gave him a gentle squeeze. “I was afraid you were going to ask me one by one all the way,” she giggled. Billy saw a faint sparkle in her eyes that he had not seen in a long time. “I’ll give you a broad view then answer any questions left after that, okay?”

“I haven’t met anyone that can explain it but Ballisea was formed, born you could say, in the Void. She grew into a powerful, evil witch but then she fell in love with a Zero. She changed her ways and settled down, lowering her guard in her new life,” Vanilla said.

“One day a cocky Diablito wizard caught her alone, by surprise. He put her to sleep and left a child in her. She took her revenge the moment she woke up but the damage was done. She wanted the baby gone and found a spell that would purge her flesh while binding her soul to her bones.” Vanilla nodded at the un-moving skeleton. “That’s where she learned that trick.”

“She destroyed her flesh. Even though she was an undead skeleton her husband still loved her. They stayed together until Ballisea was able to kill another Unique and get her flesh back. And when she did…” Vanilla paused for effect. “…she was still pregnant.”

“Whoa…” Billy was amazed. He’d seen a lot of unbelievable things by now, but that was something else entirely. The more Vanilla said the more sympathetic Billy felt for Ballisea.

“Plan B involved a sword, but that didn’t work out either. Her child, a Unique obviously, defended itself against the attack. Ballisea’s husband was the only casualty. I’m sure you can imagine she didn’t take it well.”

“I’ll bet,” Billy nodded.

“On any given day she’s conquering hundreds of Earths,” Vanilla said. “Most Uniques think she’s just evil and wants to…,” she made air quotes. “…’conquer the multiverse.’   The real reason she slaughter Zeros is because she’s trying to find her husband again.”

“He was a Zero, how hard can it be?” Billy asked. Vanilla shook her head.

“She’s not looking for his Zero. She thinks she can cycle through every soul to get to her husband again.”

Unique Answer

Billy woke in an instant; his eyes flew open the moment a question popped in his mind. He sat up in his sleeping bag and looked around for Vanilla hoping she had the answer. Vanilla was sitting at the edge of the lake looking through a telescope. It was pointed upward at the purple sky above the orange band of the rising sun. As he stood up to walk to her Billy wondered why time was stopped. He could feel the slight resistance around him as he moved. It felt almost like he was moving in water but not as severe. Despite moving through frozen time often this was the first time he noticed the sensation. Now he had two questions for Vanilla.

His footsteps crushed dozens of twigs and leaves as he walked. Vanilla turned from the telescope to face him. Over the past few months, Billy noticed Vanilla getting sadder. She still made the effort to wear a smile for him, but he could tell it was a mask. That morning the mask was gone entirely. She looked like she’d been crying, but she gave him a friendly, sincere smile when she saw him. She stood up and gestured for him to sit at the telescope.

“You have questions,” she said in a tone that would have made him feel embarrassed if he didn’t. He nodded. Before he could ask Vanilla held her finger up to keep him quiet. “Look through there,” she pointed at the telescope. “Tell me what you see.” Billy leaned into the eyepiece. He saw exactly what he expected to see.

“Black sky and twinkling stars,” he said. He shrugged and leaned back from the eyepiece to look at Vanilla. He felt the resistance of frozen time around him again as he moved. “Heeeeey. How does that work?” he said. Vanilla winked at him.

“There you go,” she said. “Think about that,” she pointed at the sky. “…for a while. We’ll talk about it after your questions. What do you want to know first?” Billy narrowed his eyes and tilted his head.

“Well, now I want to know why you’re so sure I had questions?” He asked. Vanilla nodded.

“That’s a good one,” she said. Vanilla thought for a moment then held her hands out in front of her as if she were holding an invisible box. “Okay, let’s say you have an organized drawer of whatever. Socks, soup cans, a place for everything and everything in its place, right?”  she asked. Billy nodded. “Great, now. One day you go out and buy a lot more stuff. You come home and throw all the new stuff in the box on top of everything that’s already organized. Your plan is to kind of sort it out it little by little every time you reach in the box.”

“No. That’s a horrible plan I’d organize it then and there,” Billy said. He sounded insulted. Vanilla giggled and dropped the invisible box.

“Maybe. The point is that’s how your mind works. Last night you got a lot of new information dumped on your brain. So much that you don’t even know what you know yet. That’s why you have questions.”

“How much could he have known? He wasn’t even Awakened yet.” Billy asked about last night’s victim.

“You absorbed his soul, not his brain,” Vanilla said. “What else is on your mind?” Billy decided to finally ask the question that woke him up.

“What’s the Void?” he asked.

“Ha!” Vanilla laughed then wiggled her fingers at the space between them and opened a small, apple-sized portal. The small black hole hovered in the air facing Billy.

“On the other side of that portal is a different Earth. But to get there we travel through the Void.”

“Huh,” Billy scratched his head. “I was so curious that I thought it’d be more interesting.”

“It is,” Vanilla said. “but you’ve never heard of her.” Billy swiveled his head around to scan the lakeshore but did not see anyone.

“Her who?” he asked.

“I’ll tell you right now, but this is a fantastic learning opportunity,” Vanilla said. She placed a hand on his shoulder and smiled down at him. She did not look as sad as a few minutes ago. “Last night you learned something you didn’t already know. When you asked about the Void that was the first in a long line of questions that won’t end until you hear her name.” Vanilla tapped his forehead. “And then you’ll have a million more. So I want you to pay attention to how you feel when I say it. Okay?” she asked. Billed looked up at her and nodded, then he closed his eyes to listen.

“Ready,” he said.


Waking up Dead

Vanilla gave a small gasp then stopped walking. Billy stopped next to her and looked out over the black lake. A perfect bright blue circle glowed on the water’s surface and mirrored the night sky perfectly. Billy stared at the horizon; if he were not standing up he might not be able to tell which moon was in the sky. The white-haired woman had spent the last couple of weeks showing off some of her favorite Earths. This Earth had no humans on it. Most of the Earths she took him to were devoid of humans; Vanilla preferred solitude. She turned to face him with a smile on her face.

“Wait here,” she wiggled her fingers at the air and opened a black portal. After she opened the portal she waved her hand at the forest around them. “Make a fire. I’ve got a surprise for you, I’ll be right back.” She disappeared into the portal.

“Surprise?” Billy mumbled to himself as he walked to the nearest copse. As he used the skills she taught him to build the fire he realized their relationship had changed. He mastered what she taught him then she began treating him less as an equal. Even their current tour of Earths felt like a road trip with a friend.

Billy reached for a thick green branch; he began to age it the moment he settled on it. The point where the branch met the tree became brittle. The dried old branch came loose in his hand as he wrapped his hand around it; he did not use an ounce of force.

The moon climbed higher in the sky by the time he collected several solid branches from different trees. Billy did not want to feel guilty for picking on a specific one. Moonlight lit up the path and he spotted a clearing a few feet away near the water’s edge. He carried his bundle of branches to the clearing them dropped them. He looked down and found a smooth, lemon-sized rock. He grabbed it and tossed it into the pile of wood. He used another skill Vanilla taught him to time-stop the rock in the air inches above the wood. He vibrated it in place to heat it up to a bright orange glow then he let it finish its journey. It landed and ignited the dried wood. Billy sat down to wait. He felt mildly impressed with himself.

Throughout the process of putting the fire together, Vanilla occupied his mind; he’d done it all almost subconsciously. Just as he began to wonder how long he would have to wait a black portal opened near the fire. Vanilla walked out of it pulling a black leather strap behind her. A large orange mine-cart followed Vanilla out of the portal; it was attached to the strap. A tall man with wide eyes and an open mouth stood, obviously time-stopped, in the cart.

“Sorry I took so long,” Vanilla said. “I needed something to carry him,” she pointed at the stranger. “This is Steven,” Vanilla said to Billy. The man wore a confused look on his face and his mouth hung open as if he were in the middle of speaking. “Steven is a slumbering Muerte, but he doesn’t know that.”

“Where’d he come from?” Billy asked as he stood up from the grass. “And why?” He began to wonder if Vanilla was going to replace him with Steven. He considered that she might be showing him different Earths so that he could go on alone while she trained a new student.

“I have my eye on a few different Earths waiting for a Muerte to be born. He’s here to help me demonstrate something for you.” Vanilla said. “You already know that killing other Uniques gives you a power boost,” Vanilla said. She paused; Billy nodded. “But it goes deeper than that. If you absorb the right kind of soul in the right kind of way you’ll get much stronger than if you just killed any Unique.”

“Does it make much of a difference?” Billy asked.

“Definitely,” Vanilla nodded. “#33, La araña will grow stronger if it eats other arañas. If they eat enough they can even become Celestials and learn to Traverse. But it has to physically consume them, it’s not enough to just get the killing blow. Now if an animal soul can become a Celestial, just think how powerful we could be.”

“Whoa…” Billy looked at her. “I don’t have to eat him, right?” he asked. Vanilla shook her head with a smile.

“No. If you, a Muerte, kill another Muerte while you’re both controlling time you get their soul and all their time powers. So I’m going to wake him, Awaken him, get him to use his powers, then you kill him. Okay?”