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.”

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.

“Ballisea.”

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?”

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.