“I don’t need the box?” Morgan asked. She and her guildmate, Cherry, stood on a lush hilltop beneath a bright azure sky. The hill overlooked a colorful plain dotted with all kinds of flowers; including a few that Morgan had never seen. Cherry nodded to answer Morgan’s question, her white ponytail bounced with her head.
“You..,” she stressed the word by poking Morgan’s shoulder. “…don’t need the box. You’re strong enough to pull from thin air,” Cherry said. At her words, Morgan reached up and tried to pluck something out of the air; nothing happened. Cherry giggled, then shook her head.
“You still have to follow the rules though,” she said. “Unique Soul #21, La Mano. You can pull things out of other universes, as long as your hands are out of sight. So, don’t let them see your hands.” Cherry made a slow turn with outstretched arms to gesture at the meadow around them. “I brought you here to practice. There’s no one else around. After her spin, Cherry looked up and locked eyes with Morgan. “Try it,” she said.
Morgan kept her focus on Cherry’s crystalline pink eyes and concentrated. She put her hands behind her back and focused on something delicious. Once she learned about her powers, food became the easiest to find. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than a steaming hot slice of pizza.
She imagined her fingers wiggling toward a slice that was just out of reach. All she had to do was stretch a tiny bit more; she splayed her fingers trying to imagine them brushing against a warm, dusty crust. Then, she felt her fingertip bump something.
Once contact was made, she moved quickly. Morgan leaned forward while she shoved her hand back to grab it. She clenched it, yelled, then pulled it out.
“OOOOWWW!!” She threw the hot slice down on the soft grass and rapidly shook her hand to try and get the molten cheese and sauce off her fingers. Cherry noticed the back of her hand was bright red and immediately burst into giggles.
“Next time, try and pick a slice that isn’t still in the oven.”
“Perfect fit,” Archie grinned. He moved his arm up and down quickly to test the strength of the shield straps. The shield itself was useless; he dug it out of a box of scraps. The town smiths would come by in the morning to pick through the remnants of the day’s tournament. That’s why Archie was picking through the box in the middle of the night. All the lords, ladies, knights, and servants were gone from the jousting grounds.
Archie was there all day. He couldn’t get enough of the loud clanking armor and cheering crowds. He longed to compete and stand in the spotlight; to be cheered on and accepted. He spent the evening after the tournament wandering from hiding place to hiding place. Archie felt more comfortable using his human form; plus it was easier to hide in. But he knew two things for a fact. People existed that could see through that disguise, and, it could be anyone from servant to noble. He wouldn’t now until it was too late, so he kept hidden to avoid the situation entirely.
Until the last cleaner left. Archie waited for another hour to be sure, then he approached the box of scraps. During the tournament, he spotted several pieces that he hoped were damaged enough to be tossed into the box. One of them was the champion’s shield. It was not damaged so much as slightly defaced. But, it was the champion’s shield. He only ever used them once because he liked to keep his image strong and new. Archie kicked himself for not realizing the opportunity sooner.
“What the hell?” A girl’s voice broke the midnight silence. It startled Archie and he whirled around while raising the scratched shield. He was surprised to see a teenage girl and a young woman. The younger girl wore a blood-red hoodie. The hood was down revealing her bone-white ponytail. “It’s not supposed to be guarded by a dragon,” the girl said.
Archie did not know what she was talking about, but he didn’t have to. As soon as the word ‘dragon’ left her lips he threw the shield down and leaped into the air away from them. Leathery, bright blue wings sprouted out of his back and he flew as fast as he can. He noticed, too late, that a patch of sky directly in front of him was darker than the rest. He realized it the moment he flew through it and found himself hovering in front of the two girls again.
“Hey, we didn’t mean to scare you,” the white-haired girl said. The young woman was holding the shield up; offering it to Archie.
“You got here first, go ahead. We’ll wait for the next one.” the blond woman said.
Archie hesitated for a moment but allowed himself to land. If nothing else, he trusted the fact that they hadn’t called for any guards yet. And, he already learned he couldn’t get away if he wanted to. He was still wary of a trap, but they didn’t know what he could do yet. He took a step forward and accepted the shield.
“I’m Morgan, that’s Cherry,” the blonde woman introduced them to him.
“Hi. Archie,” he returned the introduction with a nod. He looked at the shield, then back at Morgan. “It’s… really okay for me to take this?” he asked. Morgan shrugged and nodded.
“That’s why it’s here,” she said, then smiled. “That shield’s useful for a lot of different quests, which one are you working on?”
“Uh..,” Archie looked down at the shield, then back at Morgan.
“Quests? Is there a reward for this? The champion throws it away after every tournament,” he said.
“Uhh..,” Morgan repeated Archie’s confusion; then she turned to Cherry and shrugged. Cherry giggled.
“Give him some time. He just woke up.”
“OOOOOHHhhh,” Morgan said. She turned back toward Archie with an even wider grin. “Congratulations!” she said. Archie tilted his head.
“For what?” he asked.
“For coming to life! Now you can do anything you want,” Morgan explained. Archie narrowed his eyes at her for a moment, then shook his head.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about or where you came from; but, life doesn’t work like that here. If it were that easy, I’d be a knight already.”
“That’s your big dream? Being a knight?” Morgan asked. She managed to use a sincere tone that told Archie she wasn’t mocking him. He nodded.
“More than anything,” he replied. Morgan looked at Cherry and they exchanged looks. After a moment, she turned back to Archie.
“Do you have any reasons to stay here?” she asked. Archie chuckled. It was the first time that night; and, the first time in decades. He had no friends to make him laugh. It was hard finding the humor in anything while worrying about whether he’d live through the day. But, Mogan’s question triggered a smart ass response that he couldn’t help but laugh at.
“Just the fact that I have nowhere else to go,” he said. It was true. He’d tried hiding all over the world, but he never stayed in any place for too long.
“Yeah you do,” Morgan said. “We could use a knight on our team,” she said.
“I’m not a knight…,” Archie said. Morgan shrugged.
“We don’t need one right now,” she giggled. “We need one when you’re ready. Come on.” Morgan tilted her head toward Cherry. Cherry was only half there, and Archie watched her other half disappear into the same pitch darkness that brought him back to them. Morgan started to follow her.
“Where?” Archie asked. Morgan’s answer echoed out of the portal as she disappeared.
“Hi, I’m Polly,” The young woman introduced herself to the teenage girl with a smile. The girl looked up at Polly and pulled her red hood down for politeness. She returned Polly’s smile and extended her hand.
“Cherry,” she said. “What can I do for you, Polly?” They were in the middle of a crowded mall bustling with the murmur of holiday shoppers. Cherry sat on the edge of a wishing pond sipping a drink when Polly noticed her. Specifically, she noticed the symbol floating above Cherry’s head. It wasn’t a number like all the others.
When Polly turned 18 she treated herself to a tattoo. The day after that, she started seeing numbers above everyone’s head. It did not take her long to realize it was counting up every second. A quick walk through the nursery ward at the hospital confirmed that she was watching people’s lives tick up second by second.
Not having any practical use for the information, she learned to ignore it over the next couple of years. Until she saw Cherry. Cherry did not have a number counting up; a red infinity symbol pulsed with a faint glow above her.
Polly knew she needed to talk to the girl. It wasn’t until Cherry’s question that she realized she did not have a plan. Her eyes widened in panic.
“Ummm,” Polly suddenly realized she would sound crazy if she tried to explain her ability. Her mouth popped out the first question that came to mind. “How old are you?” Polly asked. Cherry immediately gave a small chuckle and her smile grew broader.
“I’ll make it easy for you,” Cherry said. She raised her hand and pointed at the red infinity sign. “What do you see?” she asked. Polly let out a sigh of relief. She was glad she wasn’t going to be judged as insane.
“Um, excuse me..,” Gregory tapped the young girl on the shoulder and hoped she didn’t mind the brief contact. He didn’t even know why he felt the need to talk to a teenage girl he never met; being a 24-year-old man only made it more awkward.
Gregory was shopping at the mall that afternoon when he heard the music start. The shoppers crowding the mall ignored the upbeat thumping; but, he rushed in the direction he heard music. Gregory loved participating in the unexplained musical numbers. Somehow he always knew the words to a song he’d never heard before. His dance moves always felt natural. He knew the choreography, that was different each time, as innately as he knew how to walk.
Unfortunately, he missed the window. The song was already well underway and he didn’t feel the usual entrancing pull that let him in on the action. Gregory sighed and sat down at the edge of a large water fountain to watch the show. He looked toward the middle of the crowd where he knew he would find the star. Gregory had no idea how the magic worked, but he’d had plenty of opportunities over the years to study it; he learned a few things.
There was always a star, duo, or group at the center of dancing. As far as he could tell he was the only one to notice this trend. Because no one else even remembered participating. He tried talking to friends and familiar faces after a dance number, but they never acknowledged it. At some point, it occurred to him to ask one of the stars of the show, but somehow they always disappeared in the crowd. Gregory had been unable to corner one until now.
The teenage girl in a blood-red hoodie was the most unusual star dancer Gregory saw until that point. She didn’t seem to move at all while Gregory watched the routine. She remained still; her hands in the front pockets of her hoodie while a large crowd sang and danced around her. She didn’t seem interested in the action happening around her, but everyone else’s choreography made it obvious she was the star. The crowd swirled and swayed around her while wiggling their fingers in her direction. He watched her more carefully and noticed a slight head bob in time with the music; he also noted a strand of bright white hair under her hoodie.
Gregory could not remember ever seeing an objectively bad routine, but that morning he discovered they existed. The vocals sounded worse than ever and several of the dancers were out of sync with the rest of the choreography.
It was also unusual that she was still there once the song was over and the crowd began to disperse. Realizing this was his opportunity, Gregory walked up to her and tapped her on the shoulder. The girl turned around. Gregory caught a flash of gold in her eyes for a brief moment, but then she smiled broadly at him.
“Hola, Soldado, what’s up?” she asked. “I’m Cherry,” she extended a hand, which Gregory shook. He understood ‘Hola’ but didn’t understand Spanish enough to pick up the other word. He was glad she spoke in English right after that.
“Hi Cherry, I’m Gregory,” he replied.
“Um, this might sound weird,” Gregory decided to get it over with. “But.. do you remember dancing just now?” he asked. Cherry grinned and nodded.
“I’ll admit, it’s harder than I thought it’d be,” she said. “Oh man, I’m sorry, did I take your spot or something?” Gregory didn’t register her question; he was still focusing on her first answer.
“You DO remember!??” he asked excitedly. It took every fiber of his being to keep from reaching out to shake the teenager. Cherry’s grin flattened slightly.
“Yeah?” she said. “What about it?” Gregory took a moment to collect his thoughts. He had a million questions, but he didn’t want to scare her off with all of them at once. He decided on the question he hoped would give him the most information.
“..Do you know what makes dances happen?”
“What?” Cherry asked. Her eyes flashed gold again. This time, the glow lasted longer; Gregory realized her irises resembled golden stars. “Oh whoa…,” Cherry said as the glow faded again. “I didn’t notice that the first time.”
“What do you mean?” Gregory asked. Cherry reached into the pocket of her hoodie and gave a slight sigh.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have a lot of time right now. I just wanted to come and see what it was like. But, now that I know I need more practice, I’ll be coming back,” she said. She pulled her hand out of her pocket and handed Gregory a piece of glass about the size of a playing card.
“What’s this?” Gregory accepted it. As soon as he touched it, the transparent display lit up with the time and date.
“It’s a node so you can practice too. It’ll give you something to do until I come back and answer all your questions. Uh.. tomorrow maybe. See you then.”
“Practice what?” Gregory asked. His attention was on the node. It took a second of silence for him to look up and realize that Cherry was gone already. He glanced around but there was no sign of her blood-red hoodie anywhere. He tapped the node; the time and date disappeared and the screen was filled with colorful text.
[Song Selection] followed by a long list of songs. Not knowing what to make of it, Gregory tapped the first song on the list without even reading the title. Music instantly started pumping in his ears and tall, bright green text appeared in the center of his vision. It wasn’t on the display; anywhere he looked he saw text floating in the center of his eyeliner.
[Get Ready…] Gregory noticed the crowd of strangers around him tighten up to be closer to him. The text changed as the music built up.
[..to be…] A dense crowd now milled around Gregory. He stared at the text eagerly wondering what would happen next.
[…A STAR!] The text faded in time for a golden star to whizz past him.
[Miss] appeared and Gregory noticed two more stars approaching from behind it. He needed to move but he managed to put his hand out to touch one of the stars. Gregory heard a sharp chime under all the music and the star disappeared.
He spotted three more stars approaching while the crowd danced around him. A warm happiness filled Gregory’s stomach as he processed his situation.
“I’m the star!” the words to a song he never heard flowed out of his mouth as if he knew them in his soul.
“CHERRY!!” Honey yelled through the crowd. It was a Saturday morning at the derby park with the golden sun hanging in the deep blue sky. A teenager in a blood-red hoodie turned around and waved at Honey as the young girl got closer. Honey noticed a girl, closer to Cherry’s age than her own, standing nervously next to Cherry. The girl had a bulging green canvas backpack with several colorful pouches clipped to its various zippers for more storage.
“Honey, meet Cassie,” Cherry introduced the girls once Honey was close enough. She shook Cassie’s hand. “What’s up?” Cherry asked after their greeting.
“Did you pick a class yet? The Luchadoras asked us if the Honeybees wanted to set up a practice match; I said yes.”
“I was just talking to Cassie about that,” Cherry nodded and grinned. “I think I’ve settled on Dancer.”
“Dancer?” Honey tilted her head. She hadn’t known Cherry for very long, but Honey felt she had a decent sense about her. “You know that’s kind of an active class, right?” she asked with a giggle. Cherry tended to have a laid back approach to life; it was hard for Honey to imagine her being as energetic as Dancers needed to be.
“It’s only as active as you want to make it,” Cherry said. “The only thing I have to do is touch the markers, right?” she asked.
“Yeah, but that’s kind of the point,” Honey said. “They’re all over the track.”
“You want to see something awesome?” Cherry asked suddenly. “I brought Cassie here to show her but you’re here too.”
“Sure, okay,” Honey was distracted by the new question. She felt she still had time to talk to Cherry about her class choice.
“Now, watch.” Cherry held both hands up at chest height with her palms outward. She raised both hands toward the sky and aligned her palms to face each other. From Honey’s perspective, it looked like Cherry held the sun in her hands. Then, Cherry clapped her hands together hard. Instead of dropping her hands she continued to hold them up with the sun ‘caught’ between her palms. Honey realized Cherry was counting.
“…3…4…5!” She said ‘five’ with volume then pulled her hands apart.
“What am I watching?” Honey asked, she heard Cassie giggle and assumed that she knew at least.
“Give it a moment,” Cherry said. “In the meantime, when’s this practice match?”
“Saturday,” Honey replied, then she turned her attention to Cassie. “Are you on a derby team? The Honeybees still have room,” she said.
“Thank you,” Cassie said. “but, I’m already in Star Brigade.”
“No way! That’s so cool, you guys should come practice too!”
“R..really? Can we?” Cassie asked. “Sure! The Honeybees formally invite Star Brigade to practice with us. You and anyone on your team.”
“Thanks! I know they’ll be excited,” Cassie replied. “I’m a Merchant, what class are you?” she asked Honey.
“Monk. And I guess Cherry’s going to be a Dancer,” Honey giggled. “Though, I can’t imagine it.”
“I’m pretty sure there’s no rule that says I have to embarrass myself skating up and down the track trying to touch all the markers.”
“But, that IS the rule! You need to touch the markers or we don’t get buffed.”
“Right,” Cherry smiled. “The only rule is I have to touch them, it doesn’t say how.”
“Huh?” Honey couldn’t see what Cherry was thinking. Cherry raised her right hand and wiggled her fingers to get Honey’s attention. Once she had it she slowly dropped her hand and slid it into the front pocket of her red hoodie.
“I don’t need to skate anywhere when I can just do this,” Cherry said. As she spoke a small black portal opened in front of Honey’s face. In an instant Cherry’s hand shot out, flicked Honey’s nose, then withdrew and the portal disappeared.
“Owww,” Honey rubbed her nose. It didn’t actually hurt, but the action gave her a moment to recover from the sudden surprise. Cherry and Cassie giggled.
“Okay, I see,” Honey said. “But can you keep it up for the whole game?” She didn’t know much about Estrellas like Cherry. She vaguely remembered hearing random Estrellas complain that portals take a lot of energy out of them.
“Cherry can swallow the sun! The game is nothing compared to that.”
“What?” Honey chuckled. “What do you mean ‘swallow the sun’?”
“Remember when I asked you if you wanted to see something cool?” Cherry asked. Honey nodded.
“It takes a bit over eight minutes for sunlight to reach the Earth. I think I asked you that about eight minutes ago, right?”
As Honey considered the question, the sun flickered out of existence. The sudden darkness made Honey realize what Cassie said was almost literal. Then, she heard Cherry counting over the growing mumbles of the crowd.
“…3…4…5!” On five, Cherry clapped once and the sun came back on. The other park-goers cheered momentarily then continued about their business.
“Whooaaa..,” Honey said in awe. She always knew Cherry was competent, but she had no idea how powerful she was. “You really did that. Wow,” Honey looked around the park. She knew most of the crowd were NPCs, but not all of them. She giggled.
“Wow, the sun disappeared for five seconds… and none of them will ever know why it happened.”
“You think that’s wild,” Cassie giggled. “Somewhere out there an Earth had two suns for five seconds.”
Morgan sat on the floor in the front room of a small house. The bay window behind her seemed more for decoration than illumination. The house itself was built from golden-tinged translucent bricks that gave the house a warm glow. Three new friends she made that morning sat around her, but she wasn’t nervous. Something about her new friends put her instantly at ease with them; she felt like she vibed with them all. Especially Cherry, the white-haired girl in a blood-red hoodie was the first one she met. After talking for less than half an hour she invited Morgan to join a guild. She was surprised to find this small house was considered the guildhall.
“To traverse..,” Cherry explained. “…it helps to have an idea of where I want to go before I open the portal. Focus on what you want before you reach into the dark.” A black box with a hole in the side rested in front of Morgan’s crisscrossed legs; it had a thick black cloth folded on top.
“That’s it?” Morgan asked. Cherry nodded.
“Okay,” Morgan unfolded the cloth and draped it over the box and hole. She closed her eyes to concentrate. Morgan had skipped breakfast that morning, she hadn’t planned to be at the park longer than a couple of hours. She decided this would be the perfect opportunity to test her power and get something to eat. Cherry told her to aim broad; Morgan wanted something sweet. She took a deep breath, then stuck her hand into the darkness.
Morgan focused on something delicious and firm, if not crunchy. She wiggled her fingers in the darkness until her fingertips brushed something. She reached for it, grabbed, then pulled it out of the box.
“There you go,” Cherry grinned. Morgan opened her eyes as the rest of the group cheered for her. She looked down and found an iced sugar cookie in her hand. Pink letters on the white icing formed the initials S. H.
“That looks so good!” Honey, the guild leader, commented. She was only a 9-year-old girl, but she was literally the strongest person Morgan ever met.
“Taste it,” Morgan handed her the cookie; Honey accepted it without hesitation and shoved half of it in her mouth.
“ITTHDELITHUS!” she replied through her mouthful.
“I’ll get more,” Morgan said. She reached back into the covered box several more times and pulled out three more one by one. She handed one to Willow, a fairy, then Cherry, and she kept the last one to herself. After she took a bit of her own cookie, Honey spoke up.
“Two more, please!” she chirped. “J.J. and Astrid, you haven’t met them yet.” Morgan nodded and retrieved an additional pair of cookies.
“Hold on, how is this not stealing from S.H. whoever they are?” She asked. Cherry shrugged.
“There are infinite universes out there,” Cherry said. “You could have pulled out any number of cookies, but you found those. That means whatever universe they were in, that universe decided they weren’t important. The Zero they belonged to might wonder where they went; but, they weren’t important to anything. Things get shuffled between universes all the time. People lose their car keys, TV remotes, money; but, the universe usually knows what its doing.” After her explanation, Cherry giggled.
“For all you know, the universe wanted to give someone an unsolvable case of missing cookies.” Morgan and the rest of the guild burst into laughter.
“Good luck, S.H.,” Morgan giggled then took another bite.
“Wait, really?” Cassie asked. The scrawny, brown-haired girl stepped in front of her friend in a blood-red hoodie, Cherry. “The Academy said it couldn’t be done.” The pair of friends walked along the beach when Cherry made her unbelievable claim.
“Yeah. Not by them,” Cherry grinned.
“And you can teach me how?” Cassie’s eyes went wide with hope. Cherry nodded, but her grin faded. A black portal opened on the sand next to them.
“C’mon,” Cherry walked into the portal and disappeared. Cassie followed. On the other side of the portal, she stepped out onto a short hill surrounded by a lush, colorful garden. A variety of white flowers surrounded the hill with a band of orange flowers beyond the white ones.
“Where’s this?” Cassie asked as she admired the scenic surroundings.
“Just a place I know,” Cherry shrugged. She sat down on the hill and glanced up at Cassie to let her know she should too.
“What do you know about Ballisea?” Cherry asked the moment Cassie sat.
“Huh?” The change in topics confused her, but she trusted Cherry enough to know there was a point. “Uh, the only thing I need to know is ‘run’.” Cherry nodded.
“That’s a pretty good thing to keep in mind. Why?”
“Why… run?” Cassie asked with a chuckle. ” ‘Cause she’s unstoppable. The most powerful Unique ever.” Again, Cherry nodded.
“What if I told you that she used to be stronger? A lot stronger.” Cassie turned and stared at her friend silently. “The short version is, she accidentally split her soul into five pieces. She kept one, of course, so right now she’s about 20% as powerful as she was.”
“Whoooaaaa,” Cassie’s mouth dropped. “What about the rest?” Cherry pulled back her red hood revealing her snow-white hair.
“She’s #46, El Sol…,” Cherry said. “…the top Celestial. The other four were born into the rest of the Celestials. #14, La Muerte became someone named Vanilla. #37, El Mundo became Peppermint. #35, La Estrella…” she drifted off, but Cassie caught the pattern.
“Cherry,” she said. Cherry nodded. “And La Luna is…” Cassie asked. Cherry shook her head, her white ponytail swished back and forth with the movement.
“We don’t know who the Luna is yet, but they’re supposed to take the name Blueberry.”
“Oh. So.. that’s how you can do what they say can’t be done?” Cassie asked. “Because you’re Ballisea-lite?” Cherry nodded.
“My soul is a piece of hers, it comes with some great perks.”
“And you can teach me, even if my soul doesn’t have that piece?” Cassie asked. Cherry met Cassie’s hazel eyes. Golden stars glowed in Cherry’s eyes and she held her hands out with the palms facing up.
“I promise…,” she said. The palms of her hands began to glow with bright white light, then the glow in each palm changed color. Her right palm glowed with blue light and her left with red, then the colors cycled. Red transitioned to orange, then yellow; blue grew into white. The golden stars in Cherry’s eyes also changed color. Instead of the brilliant golden light, the stars pulsed with a rainbow of glows. “…you’ll be able to channel more than one star at the same time.”
Morgan stretched her arms upward and used the action to lift herself to a sitting position in bed. The 18-year old woman yawned and rested her back against the headboard, then finally checked her cards. It took her almost three months after her 15th birthday to get used to the fact that she woke up with an assortment of cards. She splayed the five cards in her hand and flipped them over to check the backs, then sighed. She’d woken with a wide variety of cards over the past few years, but she narrowed them down into categories sorted by the artwork on the back.
“Druid and Healer,” she mumbled. She saw three green cards with elegant linework that made her think of a dense forest, and two white cards with red crosses on them. “Boring,” Morgan rearranged them by group, then turned them over to see what they were. The druid cards on the right side sparkled with golden text on a forest-green background. Each card showed different artwork illustrating the general concept of the card.
“Spider Climb, Hawk Form, and Rat Swarm,” she read the names and glanced at the rule text on the lower half of the cards. She shrugged at the duration then looked at the two healer cards. They had no artwork and consisted of red text on a clean white background that reminded Morgan of a hospital. “Handy,” she smiled at the pair of cards. “Infinite Stamina and Revive Death, whoa!” It was the first time she’d seen the Revive Death card. Seeing the new card invigorated her. She was starting to think she had seen all the cards already. Suddenly excited about her day, Morgan hopped out of bed to get ready.
When it became clear the cards would keep appearing, Morgan assumed the cards were meant to guide her day somehow. She tried to find uses for the cards to make sure she used them all every day, but over time it became clear they were entirely random. If the Revive card appeared when she was 15 or 16, she would have been worried sick the entire day.
“I guess I’m going to the park,” she decided while showering. The park had several rock-climbing walls and a giant jogging track around it that passed some very scenic views. She’d used both Spider Climb and Infinite Stamina several times to get a good workout, but this would be the first time she got to use them together.
An hour later she arrived at the park and headed straight for the rock climbing walls. Twelve walls of varying heights lined a broad cobblestone path; six on each side. Morgan stood in front of the tallest wall and pulled the cards out of her pocket. She did not bother with being discrete, it never mattered before.
It was a sunny, cool Saturday morning and plenty of visitors milled around the park. Dozens of joggers and others simply taking a stroll walked along the path in different directions behind her.
“Infinite Stamina!” a deep, booming, male voice spoke when Morgan ‘played’ her first card. She didn’t know where the voice came from, but she knew she was the only one that could hear it. She used cards several times in front of her parents, friends, and in public, and no one ever seemed to notice the voice. When the voice spoke she felt a tingle travel down her spine, then radiate out into the rest of her body. “Spider Climb!” the voice said when she used the second card. She returned the rest of the cards to her pocket, then shook her hands and legs to loosen them up and took a step forward to start her climb.
“You’re wasting cards on a wall?” a girl asked as Morgan reached for her first grip. She pulled her arm down and turned to face the voice. A young girl in a blood-red hoodie smiled at her. “Don’t you want something more challenging?” she asked Morgan.
“Wh-what?” Morgan asked. “What are you talking about?” She knew what the girl was talking about, but she wondered what exactly the girl knew about the cards.
“It’s kind of overkill, isn’t it?” the girl in the hoodie shrugged. “I mean, unless you need infinite stamina and spider climb to get up the wall,” she gave Morgan an appraising look up and down. “I don’t think you do.”
“You..heard,-” Morgan started to ask but changed her question. The girl obviously heard the card names. “Why aren’t you surprised?” she asked. The girl shrugged.
“What’s surprising? Card Mage is pretty much the de facto class for Manos,” she said.
“Wh-what?” Morgan needed to ask again. She didn’t understand any of the words in that context.
“#21, La Mano? Your abilities fit perfectly with the Card Mage class.”
“How’d you know my favorite number? What’s a Card Mage?” The girl’s eyes widened and she giggled.
“Now that is a surprise. You don’t know what you are or where you are?” she asked. “Does ‘The AlterNet’ sound familiar?” she added when Morgan didn’t respond right away. Morgan shook her head.
“Whoa…,” the girl replied, then she stuck her hand out. “I’m Cherry,” she said. Morgan shook the girl’s hand tentatively.
“Morgan,” she introduced herself.
“How’d you like to do something more fun with your cards?” Cherry asked.
Six-year-old Billy grinned at his classmates from the front of the class. It was his turn for show and tell and he knew he had the best thing to show off.
“Today I brought my grandpa,” the dirty-blond boy pointed at a wrinkled, silver-haired man in a black suit. The elderly man leaned against the back wall; he smiled and waved when a dozen tiny heads whirled around to face him. “He’s retired now,” Billy continued. “But he used to be in the B.A.A.” Several of the students giggled and the teacher spoke up from her desk beside Billy.
“Did you mean the F.B.I?” she asked. “I’ve never heard of the B.A.A.” Billy shook his head but his grandfather was already walking between the tiny desks.
“That’s how good they are,” the man said with a deep voice and a smile. The teacher almost rolled her eyes but she seemed to remember where she was at the last minute. She managed to turn away and pretend to focus on some paperwork.
“What’s B.A.A.?” a young voice asked as the old man reached the front and turned around. He did not know who asked the question but it didn’t matter; he was there to give answers.
“It stands for Bureau of Alternate Agencies. Who knows what a Bureau is?” he asked. A red-haired girl with freckles and baby-fat cheeks raised her arm.
“It’s where my mom puts my clothes away!” she said. Billy’s grandpa smiled and nodded.
“You’re right!” The girl’s smile lit up the room. “That is also called a bureau, but it’s not the one I was talking about.” Her smile dimmed, but she nodded.
“The bureau I mean is the same one as the F.B.I. That stands for Federal Bureau of Investigation, it’s like an organized group.”
“Like a gang?” a dark-haired boy asked.
“They can be,” the man said.
“What did your bureau do?” the red-haired girl asked.
“We organize all the other groups and help them where we can. If the F.B.I. was a football player, the B.A.A. is the coach.”
“Do you know a lot of secrets? Tell us!” a chubby kid demanded. The old man nodded.
“I know lots of secrets. Too many to explain before school ends,” he chuckled. “So how about you guys ask me what you want to know and If I have an answer I’ll give it to you.”
“Are aliens real?” the question was blurted out so fast that the old man did not see who asked.
“There was no proof they existed when I retired,” he replied. The class stayed quiet for several minutes after that last question. Billy’s grandfather got the impression they didn’t know what to ask about other than aliens. “Any other questions?” he asked. The group of six-year-olds seemed to be growing bored already. He wanted to impress Billy’s friends but he hoped they’d have more interesting questions for him. Luckily he had a secret weapon. The old man reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small glassy rectangle.
“What’s that?” one of the children sitting at the front asked. The man held up the transparent pane.
“This is called a node. It’s like a cellphone but better.” He tapped the front of it and numbers lit up on the front to show the time.
“What makes it better?”
“Well…,” the old man said. He turned the node around and began swiping and tapping on it. “You know how your phones can make phone calls and send texts?” he asked the class while his attention was focused on the node. He used his thumbs to type out a message. None of the children said anything but he assumed they nodded. “Nodes can do that too. But, if you know what you’re doing you can send texts to other universes.” He looked up from the glassy gadget and saw a classroom full of confused looks. He expected more of a reaction at the mention of other universes, but then he remembered they were six. They barely had a grasp on the universe they were in. “Anyone like pizza?” he asked to change the subject; it was time for his secret weapon.
“ME!ME!” More than a dozen hands shot up; several kids raised both hands.
“I just ordered pizza from another universe,” he said. “It’ll be here any-“
“Minute,” a girl’s voice said behind him.
“WHOOOOAAA!” awe swept over the class. Billy’s grandfather turned around. A teenage girl wearing a red hoodie stood between him and the blackboard. Her hood was down showing white hair and she held three pizza boxes stacked in her hands.
“Okay, class,” he turned back to the kids. “Everyone who wants pizza say thank you to Cherry.”
Willow fluttered into the adventurer’s hall with a purpose. Her black, flowy dress hung limp and hid her feet; she hovered ghost-like straight to the quest board. A set of long, veiny, translucent insect wings kept her five-foot fairy frame aloft. The bright pink quest card was still there. It stood out from the wall of drab yellow and off-white quest cards pinned to the board.
It showed up a week ago and immediately caught her interest. When she inspected it she only found a time and place. No other details were given, not even the name of the requester. Willow only recently discovered the AlterNet within the last year. She did not feel ready to handle the unknown. She settled for lesser quests and assumed someone else would take the pink one.
She was surprised to see the quest still on the board the next day; then, the next. A week later it was the day mentioned in the quest and no one had taken it. Something about that made her feel a bit sorry for the quest giver. NPC quests reset each day and most adventurers optimized their routine around them. The pink card couldn’t have been an NPC quest; it was missing all the important information. She hated the idea that she could have helped someone that needed it.
“It could be a trap,” Willow considered the possibility as she stared at the pink card. “But it could also not be…” She stepped back and scanned the rest of the board. All the usual stuff was there, including Sue, the ungrateful hypochondriac. Willow hated the NPC girl, she was obnoxiously snotty. Figuratively and literally. It was an unreasonable hatred since the girl was a fictional character, but it burned in Willow just the same. She yanked the pink card off the board with a shrug and a sigh. “I’d rather get mugged than go see her again,” she decided.
An hour later she found a small house in the center of an open plain. Its size was somewhere between a children’s playhouse and a mobile home. The house was built with golden-translucent bricks. The roof seemed to be made of the same material in shingle form. The sun was reaching its apex and light forced itself through the bricks; Willow saw a small shadow moving around inside.
“It doesn’t look too threatening,” Willow walked to what looked like the door. The golden, glassy squares were arranged in a different pattern on the front of the house. She knocked. A young blonde girl opened the door. She looked at Willow through narrowed eyes until the fairy flashed the pink card. The girl smiled instantly.
“HI! I’m Honey!” She stepped out of the house.
“You put this up?” Willow asked. The girl nodded. “What’s the quest?” Honey bit her bottom lip nervously and looked Willow up and down.
“Wanna be my friend?” she asked.
“I have a guild now,” Honey used her thumb to point at the house directly behind her. “But I don’t have anyone in it,” the girl sighed. “I have one friend but she’s too busy to play much.” She looked up at Willow with eager eyes. “It’s a high level guild! I stole it from a PvP server and they bought all the perks already.
“Maybe,” Willow said. She tried to inject coolness into her voice, but she already decided. She had been looking for a guild recently, but she wasn’t very social. A guild with only one other person in it would let her get used to the flow of things before they recruited too many others. Willow extended her wings and fluttered to give herself more height. Honey was already too close to her short stature. She pretended to be thinking.
“What’s the guild name?” Honey shrugged.
“Deathdealers or something dumb. I haven’t changed it yet. Oh! You can help me pick out a name!”
“Wait. You stole a guild? By yourself?” Honey nodded. She lifted a hand in front of Willow’s face. The light peach skin changed color. It became a translucent gold color that matched the house, then her thumb fell off. It pulled a long, viscous string and was still attached when it landed on the floor. Honey used her other hand to break the string and the golden fluid formed another thumb in its place. Her skin returned to its normal, fair color.
“Oh you’re a slime,” Willow said.
“Hey, don’t talk about my friend like that,” another voice said behind Willow. She turned to see a short girl, older than Honey, in a red hoodie. She was carrying a pink bakery box and wearing a smile despite her reprimand.
“Cherry!” Honey dashed past Willow to hug the new girl.
“Making new friends, huh?” Cherry asked with a smile. Honey nodded.
“Nice,” Cherry walked forward and held the box with one hand to offer Willow her other. “I’m Cherry, nice to meet you.”
“Willow,” she introduced herself.
“Thanks for coming,” Cherry said as Honey grabbed the box from her and ran inside. Once the girl was through the door Cherry lowered her voice. “Even the AlterNet can be lonely if you don’t have friends,” she said. “I’m glad I’m not the only one here for her birthday.”