Custom Footwear

“So he’s fast?” Jenny asked with a smirk. “There’s not a lot he can do in the AlterNet with just speed,” she said. She stood next to an aluminum picnic table in the park meeting with a client. Her hands hovered above the picnic table; a swarm of golden nanos swirled between the table and her hands. Dirge and Dread stood on each side of her while the client, Alliane, and her friend Billy were seated at the table. “But, thanks for the heads up. At least now we know about the new roster,” Jenny smiled at Billy.

“In fact…,” Jenny dropped her hands to her sides; the golden swarm fell to the table like dust. Gold powder completely covered the sneakers she was trying to import for Alliane. “As a wedding gift to you…,” Jenny handed a small golden cube to Alliane; she returned the woman’s payment. Then, she looked at Billy. “…and to say thank you for the tip about LaughTrack…,” Jenny positioned her hands over the gold-covered sneakers. The nanos immediately rose into the air as if she were magnetizing them. Then they began to swirl around the sneakers again like they were trapped in an invisible snow globe. “…you get the guinea pig special.” Everyone except Jenny looked confused.

[What’s the guinea pig special?-Dread] Jenny felt the Whisper from Dread tickle the back of her neck. Somewhere Alliane and Billy would not accidentally notice.

“What’s the guinea pig special?” Billy asked at the same time.

“It’s when I’m working on something new and need to test it out, I do it for free.

“Wait, what are you trying out?” Alliane asked. She sat up straighter and fought the impulse to grab the sneakers off the table. She had no idea what was happening in the cloud of nanos but she did not assume it was harmless.

“Like I told your friend,” Jenny nodded at Billy. “There’re a dozen different ways to import items into the AlterNet. Thanks to hearing about LaughTrack; I just invented a new one.” Jenny continued talking when no one asked any followup questions. “The other ways involve covering the object in a layer of nanos that the AlterNet recognizes. But, with my spec I can make anything out of nanos.” Jenny reached down into the golden cloud and pulled out the pair of old white sneakers Alliane brought. The golden dust settled to the table then disappeared. They left behind a gleaming white pair of sneakers. They looked almost exactly like the ones Alliane wanted imported; but, Jenny held those in her hand.

“Instead of making these usable I made a brand new pair using AlterNet crafting materials. They’re made from Soul Serpent leather so they’re great at channeling Unique energy.” Jenny smiled as she handed Alliane both pairs of white sneakers. “Everything else being equal they’ll be faster than other boots imported the normal way.”

Clowning Around

“I want to give these…,” Alliane waved her hand over a pair of old white sneakers. They were frayed, faded and held together by strips of tape. “…the powers of this.” She placed a single brown leather boot on the metal picnic table next to the sneakers. Jenny, one of the three girls standing next to the picnic table, looked at the trio of shoes and tilted her head slightly.

“For what?” Jenny asked.

“You told me 100k?” Alliane placed a tiny golden, glowing cube on the table next to the shoes; it was smaller than a dime. Jenny nodded and swiped the cube from the table.

“Right, that’s what I’m going to do it for. Why do you want them imported?”

“Does it matter why? You already took the money,” Billy snarked at the girl with dark, spikey hair. She turned to look him in the eyes.

“I’m providing a service, and I like to do my best to help my clients. There’re a dozen ways to do what she wants and I want to find the one that suits her best. Is that okay with you, sunshine?” Billy straightened his back and sat up. He gave the girl a curt nod.

“They’re a wedding gift for my fiancé We’re going to join a derby team after the honeymoon.”

“Awwww that’s so sweet!” Dirge, a girl with black curly hair winding down her shoulders, said. “You should give them a wedding present!” she told Jenny. Then, she turned to face Billy. “Are you the  fiancé?” He shook his head. Dirge turned back to Jenny. “You have to give her a wedding present.”

“I will,” Jenny said. She waved her hand at the air in front of her to call her slate. A glass panel that only she could read appeared in front of her; to everyone else, it looked transparent. Jenny placed her fingers on the slate and began typing. A swarm of golden nanos gathered around the three shoes.

“Derby? What classes are you?” Dread, a tall girl with spiky white hair, asked.

“I’m a swordmage,” Alliane said. Then she pointed at the glowing golden sphere around her boots. “Fiancé is a scribe.” Dread nodded.

“We’re on a team too,” she said with a small, proud smile. “I’m a beastmaster,” Dread pointed at Dirge. “She’s a bard,” then she pointed at Jenny. “Programmer.”

“Ohhh yeah, I thought you girls looked familiar,” Billy said. “Luchadoras, right?” he asked. All three girls flashed him bright smiles. “Nice job against the Magi-knights,” Billy smirked. All three girls stared daggers at him then each focused on something else.

“It was our first match as a team, but we’re getting better,” Jenny replied while her fingers danced on the glass slate. “The next match’ll be an easy win for us. We’re going up against Clown Patrol.” she giggled. “Those bozos don’t take themselves or the game seriously.”

“What?” Billy asked in surprise. “You’re going up against Clown Patrol next week?” All three girls nodded. Billy shook his head.

“I need to warn you girls, be careful against LaughTrack.” Jenny laughed while typing; a swarm of nanos swirled inside the golden sphere.

“The bard? No sweat, Dirge can take him out,” she replied.

“No. He’s not a bard, there’s been a substitution. The LaughTrack you’re facing is a Calavera named Red. He’s a rubber slime clown with an air elemental soul, but that’s not the dangerous part.” All four women stared at Billy with their full attention. Alliane hadn’t heard anything about Billy’s ‘charge’ other than he was dangerous.

“The body he was born into has super speed,” Billy sighed. “I’m sure you can imagine what that’s like when you boost it with the power of a Calavera. But if you can’t,” Billy looked at Jenny in the eyes. “He killed everyone on an Earth in less than a minute.”  Jenny stopped typing entirely, the swirl of nanos stopped spinning. “I asked him one time how he could have possibly enjoyed something that happened so fast.” Billy took a moment of silence to look at each of them in the eyes.

“He said that he was moving so fast each second felt like a decade. He took time to enjoy every… single… kill; but, none of them knew it was happening.”

Vanilla Origin

She was beautiful,” Alliane said then returned the node to Billy. He gave it to her to show a picture of a white-haired woman in an orange dress sitting atop a t-rex. “But she looks so sad in that photograph.”

“Yeah. But I absolutely love her,” Billy paused. He took dropped the node into the breast pocket of his navy blue suit. Alliane’s attention darted around the park. She looked every jogger and Sunday-stroller up and down hoping to recognize someone she’d never met. When Billy went quiet she immediately turned to look at him and nodded her head.

‘I’m listening, sorry. You love her…,” she made a rolling ‘continue’ gesture with her hand.”

“When she smiles,” Billy said with a wistful look.

“Why isn’t she there?” Alliane nodded at Billy’s pocket; then, she used the action to start scanning the park again.

“That was the day she died.” Her attention focused on Billy instantly.

“I’m sorry,” she reached across the concrete picnic table to give his hand a short, comforting squeeze. “But why was she sad? She knew something was going to happen that day?”

“Yes,” Billy said. “I don’t feel like talking about that right now if that’s okay…” he said. Alliane nodded. “But can I talk to you about her?” he asked. Alliane was only his second friend; he still questioned everything.

“Of course,” she turned her body to face him as a sign that she was done only half-paying attention. “Tell me your favorite memory.” Billy smiled. “Take all the time you need,” she added. Billy nodded and stopped time around them

“Slumbering Estrellas…,” Billy nodded at Alliane. “… accidentally traverse all the time, right?” She nodded. “It’s the same for Slumbering Muertes. We accidentally stop time. It happened to Vanilla when she was eight. Stopping time is more granular than you might think. Every thing has its own time, and a lot depends on the Muerte’s notions of what time is.” Billy knocked on the metal table; Alliane heard the low echoing vibrations run through the metal. “If we think stopped time should mean no sound waves…” Billy knocked on the metal table again. Alliane did not hear a sound. “Then it means no sound waves. Generally speaking, we only stop as much as we think about.” Billy took in a deep breath, then released a heavy sigh.

“Vanilla stopped every thing. At eight years old. While still slumbering.”

“Everything?” Alliane asked. “So?” She had trouble seeing the trouble if nothing was moving.

“Everything around her. She was terribly frightened and started crying.” Billy shook his head. “She time-stopped gravity too. Her tears just stayed in the air whenever she moved. She tried wiping her tears away with tissue but they wouldn’t absorb. Time passed and they wouldn’t evaporate either. Every morning she woke up with hope, but she only found tears. She traveled the world leaving giant floating pools of tears everywhere she went. She doesn’t know how long it took, in the neighborhood of a thousand years or so,” Billy shrugged. “She drowned the world. Once she had no other place on that Earth to go her body let her traverse to a different one.”

“Whooaa..” a girl neither of them noticed said. They looked up and found three girls. A tall, pale, white-haired girl, a shorter girl with raven curls, and the shortest girl with black spiky hair. The girl with black curls in a black and orange dress was the one that sounded awed. “Your friend sounds amazing!”

“Alliane?” the shortest girl asked. “I’m Jenny. You had some boots you wanted to import?” Alliane nodded, then looked at Billy.

“I thought you stopped time,” she said. The curly-haired girl smiled.

“I’m Dirge. #14, La Muerte.”

“Alliane. #35, La Estrella.” Alliane was compelled to reply, though the introduction answered Alliane’s question. It seemed Dirge was as powerful as Billy.

Death & Friends

“Thanks again for the upgrade,” WaterJet said. She lovingly cradled the blue ceramic pitcher in her arm like a newborn while they walked through the outdoor bazaar back to the guild hall. “But are you sure giving LaughTrack that boot is a good idea? He’s already faster than Hermes without them.”

“Oh, you guys have that myth on your Earth too?” Billy asked. He enjoyed learning about the mythologies of different Earths. WaterJet shook her head.

“Probably not, I was talking about an ex-guildie. He joined another guild but he’s got super speed. In derby he would get three laps before anyone else got one,” she said.

“Only three? LaughTrack killed everyone on an Earth in less than a minute; that seems a lot faster.”

“Oh right, you don’t know how the AlterNet works,” she said with a smirk. “Hermes is a lot faster than that but there’s a limit to how far ahead you can get. It’s usually three laps, but different rules can be agreed to.”

“Huh,” Billy stopped walking. The flow of people behind him started going around him and WaterJet. “I bought him this…,” He held up a single brown leather boot. “…because I thought it’d help your team if he got more laps.” Billy shrugged. “But if he can already get the max without it; it’s just redundant.” He looked at WaterJet. “Will this help him in any other way besides speed?” She shook her head.

“Negligible stat boost, nothing special.” Billy sighed.

“I probably should have asked you before I bought it. Is it any good for you?” He asked her. WaterJet shook her head.

“I’ve got good boots for my spec.”

“I’ll be right back,” he said. Billy wiggled his fingers at the air and opened a black portal. He walked through it then WaterJet waited several minutes for him. Finally, he came back without the brown boot.

“Where’s the boot?” she asked.

“Gave it to a friend of mine,” he said. WaterJet smirked; one corner of her blue lips tugged upward.

“You don’t seem like the type to have friends.” Billy nodded.

“I’ve got one.”

Gift of Death

“So why don’t you have an AlterNet character?” WaterJet asked Billy.  The pair wandered through a crowded bazaar. Humans, goblins, trolls, mermaids, centaurs and more manned various stalls to sell their goods. The white-faced clown with bright blue tears painted under her eyes was there to help him make sense of the hustle and bustle.

“Not interested,” he said with a shrug. She stepped in front of him with wide eyes.

“Not interested?? Do you know how strong you’d be?” She bit her bottom, baby-blue lip as if debating something; but, she decided quickly. “I heard about what you did to LaughTrack…,” she paused to wait for a reaction. None came. “You’re already the most powerful Muerte I’ve ever seen; the AlterNet can ramp that up even more!” Again, Billy shrugged.

“If I ever need to be stronger, I’ll consider it,” he smiled at her; the first time she’d ever seen him smile at all. “Like you said, I’m already the most powerful Muerte.”  WaterJet rolled her eyes.

“That I’ve ever seen, I said.” WaterJet turned around and continued to guide Billy through the crowd.

“Besides,” Billy continued. “I don’t know a thing about it, that’s why you’re here. Thank you again, by the way.” She nodded.

“No sweat, I’m glad to get out of the diner for a bit. The way they all worship LaughTrack is annoying. I just wanted to join a fun guild but lately, they’re more like a cult. Anyway, here we are,” she stopped and pointed at a colorful wooden sign that stood next to a pink tent. It read: “Lasting Laughs”.  “This is the best crafter I know.”

“I’m the best crafter on this server!” a small, high-pitched squeak replied; he sounded offended. A tiny person, no taller than a foot, hovered in front of them to protect his honor. He wore overalls and a small leather apron. His insect wings fluttered like a rainbow blur and rainbow specs of pixie dust rained under him.

“Billy this is Beau.”  Billy nodded.

“Have any #22’s available? Speed variant,” he asked the pixie.

“Whoa!” WaterJet grabbed Billy’s arm. “Excuse us a second, Beau.” She pulled Billy several steps away from under the pink awning. “Do you know how expensive speed boots are?!” she asked. Billy shrugged. He was about to say something but she interrupted him.

“No, you don’t, because you don’t play in the AlterNet. I brought some of the guild’s funds since you’re getting equipment for LaughTrack, but I don’t have enough for those.”

“I appreciate the concern,” Billy replied with a hand on her shoulder. “And, thanks for the help; but, I’ve got the nanos to cove it. Don’t worry.”

“Where’d you get nanos from?”

“I do taxi jobs on the side.”

“Oh. Okay. Then nevermind.” They returned to the stall; the pixie had a single brown leather boot waiting on the counter for them.

“Still interested?” Beau asked. Billy nodded. “Anything else?”

“What about you?” Billy nudged WaterJet with his elbow.

“No thanks, I’m good.”

“It’s on me,” Billy added. “If you need any gear upgrades now’s the time.”

“No, I couldn’t. Thanks though.” She shook her head.

“She comes here a lot, right?” Billy asked Beau. The pixie nodded. “Is there anything she has her eye on?”

“No there isn’t,” WaterJet shook her head. Beau answered by falling down below the counter. After several seconds he floated back up carrying an ornate blue ceramic pitcher.

“#44 will make her water attacks hit a lot harder. She always spends a few minutes pining over it whenever she visits. Now, I just keep it under the counter for her.”

“I’ll take both of them.”

“50 million,” Beau replied.

“I know you don’t have 50 million just from running taxi,” WaterJet turned to Billy ready to pitch in her guild funds. She watched him produce a golden, apple-sized cube on his palm and place it on the counter.

“I never said it was just from that,” Billy said, then winked at her.

Vanilla Treats

“Better hurry,” Leo checked his watch. “10 seconds. She’s really punctual.” He stood with his friend in a small, dim back room. Leo’s friend, Steven, was hunched over a counter scrambling a pen across an official-looking form.

“Not helping,” Steven grumbled while he tried to initial every checkbox on the form. Finally, he dropped the pen and pushed the form to the young woman behind the safety glass.

“Four,” Leo began the countdown.

“Hand, please,” she said. Steven placed his hand on the counter palm up; then, pushed it through the small arched opening he sent the paper through.

“Three.”

“This is going to hurt,” the woman said. She grabbed something that looked like a single-handed stapler and pressed it against Steven’s wrist.

“Two,” Leo’s grin grew larger with every count.

“Yeah! I’m READY!” Steven used his other hand to slap the counter from the excitement.

“One.” She pulled the trigger. Leo heard the familiar crunch as the device shoved a metal rod through Steven’s wrist. He screamed and yanked his hand out of the window to rub it. He saw no blood, just a small orange dot, like the one on Leo’s wrist. The pain dissipated quickly as he rubbed the dot.

“Did it work?”  Leo smiled and pointed at the clerk on the other side of the counter. She remained still; and, still held the mechanical device inches off the counter as if Leo’s wrist were present.

“The clerks don’t get the treatment. It’s a precaution against having people join after the 8th day starts.” Steven stared at the woman through the glass hoping to catch her breathing, or see her blink, or some other proof it wasn’t real. She was perfectly frozen.

“Man, how long have you known about this?” Steven asked his friend. The tall, lean man shrugged.

“‘Bout two months I guess.” Steven was surprised and almost took it personally.

“What? And you waited this long to tell me?” he whined only half-joking. Leo stepped forward and put his arm around Steven him to guide him out of the dim room. The room was at the back of an ice cream shop. As they stepped out Leo gestured at the room full of time-stopped patrons and employees.  Only one person, the manager, was capable of movement. He sat in the corner flipping through a magazine.

“It’s a 24-hour period that most people in the world don’t know about; they don’t even realize it happens,” Leo explained. He tapped  Steven’s forehead with a finger. “Don’t you think there’d be rules to something like that?”

“Oh,” Leo had not considered that. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense. So, what are the rules?” he asked as they left the 24-hour ice cream shop, ‘Vanilla Treats’, and strolled along the empty strip mall.

“Rule number one:  Vanilla doesn’t like trouble-makers. No stealing, killing, looting, and so on.”

“How’s she gonna know?” Steven asked. He did not plan on being a trouble-maker, but he was curious. Leo stopped walking and turned to face Steven. He raised his arm and pointed at the orange dot.

“These track us,” he said, then grinned. “and she can stop time across the world. I don’t think you want to get on the wrong side of that.” Steven nodded.

“Good point. What else?”

“What else what?” Leo asked; he resumed walking.

“You said, ‘rule number one’ like there were more.”

“No, that’s it. She doesn’t like trouble-makers.”

“Where did Vanilla come from? Why’s she doing this,” Leo shook his head. “for free?”

“Rumors say she’s from an Alternate Universe. She wanted to do something nice for this Earth and I guess she doesn’t need money. Or maybe just not our money,” Leo shrugged. “I don’t think anyone knows for sure.”

“I do,” a woman said behind them. The two men whirled around, surprised, and saw a tall white-haired woman wearing a flowing orange dress.

“Vanilla!?” Leo asked, astonished. He recognized her from pictures, but Steven had never seen her.

“Hello, Steven. I’m glad you signed up,” she ignored Leo completely.

“What do you me-,” Steven began to ask but he never finished his question. Leo blinked.

When he opened his eyes Steven and Vanilla were gone, then he heard cars drive by. Time started again for everyone.

Time to Think

“Where’d you go?” Red asked Billy. The young man in navy-blue pinstripe suit stepped out of a black portal into the restaurant that served as the guild hall. Though he was a new member, a majority of the guild considered Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington their leader. It seemed like an innocent question; but, Billy knew Red was testing him. He thought letting Red have some fun on a derby team would be a good way to let him cut loose. He did not count on his prisoner finding a guild of people eager to worship him. The last thing Billy wanted was for Red to think he answered to him in any way.

“Somewhere else,” he said curtly. Billy glanced around the restaurant and noticed only the NPCs were present. Half the tables in the restaurant were occupied by people that never left. They never finished their one meal and only existed to make the restaurant feel alive. “Where’re all your new friends?” Red shrugged.

“Somewhere else,” he said smugly. Billy sighed. If he didn’t deal with Red’s growing attitude early it would continue to worsen. He felt relieved no one was around except for the NPCs.

“Red,” Billy stood up straighter and faced the seated clown. Red’s AlterNet character was a portly, pasty-white clown. He wore a black leather tunic with bright, neon-green suspenders. Red’s hair was made of thin, blue, rubbery strands that reminded Billy of a koosh ball. “I feel like you’re not taking me seriously,” Red burst into laughter but Billy kept talking. “We have an arrangement and you’ve kept your part so far. But, it seems like you think I’m not much more than Vanilla’s messenger.”

Mentioning her name was a risk; Billy hoped the man was still too scared to demand to see her. If he found out Vanilla was dead Billy would lose all leverage he had over Red.

“If something happens to me, she’ll show up,” Billy lied. “But she wouldn’t assign me here if I couldn’t handle you. So, let me make it crystal clear for you,” Billy smiled. Red blinked. When he opened his eyes he stood next to Billy on a small raft out in the middle of a calm. “Vanilla is not the only one strong enough to stop your time. You’re strong, but all you do with your power is bully others,” Billy shook his head. “Bullies are just cowards with power.” Billy smiled at the white-haired man; on this Earth, they were out of the AlterNet. Red’s appearance was now an old, pot-bellied man.

“They say cowards live the longest. I really hope that’s true. In fact, I’m going to make it true just for you, if you step out of line.” Billy paced a circle around the old man. “You’ve probably realized you can’t move. But you can still hear me,” Billy waved a hand directly in front of Red’s wrinkled face. “You can still see, but you can’t speak. I’ve frozen most of your bodily functions in time. You won’t age. You won’t starve, you won’t so much as get a sniffle. But you’ll be able to think and see. You’ll be able to count the sunrises to keep track of how many millennia go by; day by boring day.”

Red blinked again. He opened his eyes back in the guild’s restaurant with rubbery blue hair and a white face. “It doesn’t matter how fast you are; you can’t outrun time. Are we clear?” Red nodded.

Vanilla Bean

“I did it!” Billy shouted. The teenager danced around an orange rock stuck in the air. It hovered several feet off the ground and glowed brightly with heat. “Vanilla! I DID IT!” He yelled at the white-haired woman resting atop a T-rex’s tail. The giant dinosaur was stuck in time like the hot rock. Vanilla hopped off the tail and walked to Billy. She glanced at the rock; then nodded at Billy.

“Good job, now you’re ready to learn something more complicated.” Vanilla reached for the tennis ball-sized rock. Its glow dissipated by the time she wrapped her hand around it; Billy assumed she sped up time to cool it down. She held the stone up with her left hand in front of Billy. “Right now the stone is here,” Vanilla declared. Then she moved it through the air to a spot on her right, Billy’s left. “Now, in the rock’s future, it’s over here. You’ve got a pretty good handle on that since you’ve been looping it through time. The next step is to try and to loop only half of it,” she smiled; her sparkling orange eyes distracted Billy. Then he heard a soft thud on the ground to his right. He looked down at it and saw half the stone.

“Whooaaa,” Billy’s eyes went wide. He looked at Vanilla’s hand and found the other half of the rock still in her grasp. “How’d you get so strong?” Vanilla held up the whole rock in one piece and winked at Billy.

“I had someone teach me like I’m teaching you.” Vanilla lightly tossed the rock at Billy’s head.

“Ow,” the rock bounced off his forehead then stopped in time. He did not react quick enough to stop it before it bumped him. Billy plucked it out of the air. “His lessons were harsher,” Vanilla added and looked into Billy’s eyes. Their bright orange-crystalline color seemed to cloud over. “But he didn’t have as smart a student as I do.” Billy grinned as his cheeks flushed red.

“Thanks! What’s he like? Can I meet him?” Vanilla shook her head.

“That’s enough questions for now,” she pointed at the rock in his hand. “Get to work.” Billy blinked. Vanilla was gone when he opened his eyes.

Ticket to Exposit

“What I wouldn’t give to go back in time,” Percy crumpled the useless lottery ticket in his hand and shook his head. He tossed the tiny paper ball into the nearest garbage can and continued his way through the park.

“What for?” a woman asked. Percy turned toward the voice. A woman with long white hair in a flowing orange dress stood next to a young man in a navy-blue pinstripe suit. They looked more out of place in the park than Percy did in his mechanic’s overalls. The over-dressed pair seemed nice enough that Percy decided to answer.

“T’ win that billion dollar jackpot,” he chuckled. “The things I’d do what that money, boy I tell you.”

“But you wouldn’t win anyway,” the young man said. Then he turned to the woman for confirmation. “Right, Vanilla?” She nodded.

“Right, Billy,” She shrugged and turned to walk away. The boy’s answer irked Percy enough that he felt he had to defend himself.

“O’ course I’d win, that’s how time travel works. If I know the winning numbers I get the money,” he grumbled at their backs then turned away.

“That’s not true,” Billy said. Percy turned around. “Can I prove it to him? Pleeeeease?” he asked Vanilla. The woman rolled her eyes and sighed.

“Alright, but make it quick.” He ran to Percy. “What are the winning numbers?”

“6-17-18-42-58. Why?” Percy blinked. The moment he opened his eyes Billy showed him a lottery ticket. Percy recognized the numbers and yanked the ticket out of his hand. It had the previous day’s date; the day of the drawing. Before Percy got too excited Billy gave him a newspaper with the winning numbers shown. The new winning numbers that did not match his ticket.

Stellar Friend

Billy stepped out of a black portal and into a large, messy, active kitchen. One mountainous cook danced between three different stoves. Multiple pots and pans sat on lit burners on each stove. The giant chef moved between the three stoves like a ninja.

“Who are you?” A woman asked. Billy noticed a short, elderly, Asian woman eyeing him suspiciously. He decided he did not want to deal with her and stopped time. The young man turned to find his way out of the kitchen but stopped in his tracks. The elderly woman stood in front of him again with an annoyed look. In the background, Billy heard the chef still stirring his steaming pots. “Who are you?” She repeated the question.

“I’m Billy. #14, La Muerte,” he replied with a sigh. He expected her to introduce herself too, but she did not.

“What you want here, Billy?” she asked.

“I’m looking for someone. Uh.. a friend; An estrella with a star on her hand,” Billy shrugged. “She’s probably with a diablito.” The woman’s eyes narrowed.

“You know Alliane?” She asked. Billy nodded. “No trouble, okay?” Billy lifted his hands in surrender.

“No trouble. I just need to talk to her.”  

“Start time again,” she said. Billy did. The woman nodded and pointed at a darkened doorway. Wait in the back. Too busy in front. I’ll get her.” She turned to head out the door.

“Uh…” Billy stopped her. “Tell her I said please.”

“Okay,” she disappeared through the swinging door. Billy walked to the dim room in the back. It looked to be a private dining area set up for a giant.

“Hey, Billy. What’s up?” He heard Alliane’s voice behind him and turned around. He sighed with relief when he noticed she came without her fiancé.

“Hi. I need some advice.” The woman nodded and walked into the room. She sat on the monstrous table and waited for Billy to explain. “Do you know anything about Derby?” She nodded.

“Yeah, some. Why?”

“You can’t kill someone while competing, right?” Again, she nodded.

“Technically you can if everyone agrees to turn the safety features off. But as a general rule it’s pretty safe.”

“Thanks,” Billy nodded. He wiggled his hand at the air and opened a black portal.

“Wait! That’s it!?” She hopped off the table and stood between Billy and the portal. “You came all the way here just to ask me if it was safe?” Billy nodded.

“Yeah, it’s not a big deal,” he pointed at the black hole in the air behind her. “As far as I’m concerned I walked into the next room to ask you a question.”

“But why derby?” She grinned. “Are you gonna compete?” He shook his head.

“No. My charge is competing.”

“Your charge?” She burst into laughter. “Like a stepson or something?” she giggled. “Worried about Billy Jr. getting hurt, huh?”

“No. I had to be sure he couldn’t kill anyone,” he replied honestly. He wanted to be sure Ray could not permanently harm the other skaters.

“Oh. Why me?” she asked.

“Why you what?” Billy asked.

“Why did you ‘walk into the next room’ to ask me?” Billy shrugged.

“The person I usually talk to isn’t around anymore and my list of friends isn’t as expansive as you might imagine.”

“Friends, huh?” Alliane grinned and stepped out of the way. “I like that. Anytime you need a friend,” she pointed at the portal. “You can always find one in the next room.”