Billy relaxed after stepping through the portal and onto solid ground. Ballisea’s invitations tended to catch him by surprise; it was rare he greeted her on his feet. He stepped into a world he’d never been to but knew in his soul. Billy stood atop a violet mountain looking out over a white forest. At first glance, it appeared to be a snow-covered forest. Then he noticed black dots drifting down the crimson sky. He held his hand up and to catch an obsidian snowflake.
“How do you make it black?” Billy asked aloud to no one in particular. A soft giggle echoed in his ears.
“She didn’t figure it out this time either?” Ballisea replied. She sounded as if she stood next to him, but he spotted her sitting further up the mountain. He sighed and started up to join her.
“She was too busy doing you a favor,” Billy replied with a smirk. He didn’t have to speak very loud; she could hear him from a different universe. Normally he was too intimidated to talk back to her, but something about this occasion felt different to him. He felt an inner-playfulness flutter inside as soon as Ballisea’s portal opened for him.
“Poorly,” Ballisea’s laugh carried around his ears. “Vanilla’s gone and she didn’t even find Blueberry before she died. This is the worst one so far,” Ballisea said. The black snow grew deeper as Billy climbed to the top. His feet sank ankle-deep in black, inky slush. He reached the summit and stood behind her. A layer of black snow covered the white forest.
“I could restart it now if you want,” Billy offered. He knew she’d decline, but he knew Vanilla would have offered. He also knew Vanilla kept secrets from Ballisea. “If this one’s already off the rails we can start again. Cherry made her pick already and Peppermint has it narrowed down to a few.”
“Not without Blueberry,” Ballisea replied. The moment she said that Billy realized why Vanilla kept Blueberry hidden. It was the only way to keep Ballisea’s interest.
“So, why am I here?” Billy asked.
“You… Vanilla was the only one I could talk to. Cherry likes to stay young and Peppermint always has things to do in Hell,” Ballisea explained while they watched the dark snow together. “We used to watch the snow together.
“I think I remember,” Billy said. It explained the anticipation he felt when the portal appeared.
“I don’t expect you to be like her,” Ballisea said. “But, I hope you’ll still be there for me… next time.” Billy smiled and nodded at the black and white forest.
“Every time. On one condition,” he added playfully. He was glad to hear her laugh in return.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“No more flavors. Next time we pick a better theme, okay?”
Arnold blinked. He squeezed his thumb on the stopwatch the moment he opened his eyes. The strange man in a white suit and orange tie sat resting on the park bench as if he’d always been there. He stared off into the sky while relaxing with both his arms on the side of the park bench.
Arnold stared intently at the man, not daring to take his eyes off him until he blinked again. He stopped the watch when his eyes opened and looked down.
“59 seconds again,” he mumbled to himself, then added a tally mark to his notepad. He’d been keeping tabs on the stranger for almost 30 days; he didn’t count the dozen or so days before he started keeping track. He never saw the man arrive or leave; somehow, he always blinked at those crucial moments. The stranger was always there at 10:45; then, Arnold realized the stranger never made it to 10:46. It wasn’t until the last week that he thought of using a stopwatch to count the seconds.
After marking the man’s appearance, he checked his camera. Once again, the camera didn’t show anything different. One moment the bench was empty; the next moment, the stranger was there as if he just popped into existence. Arnold sighed.
“I’ll sit there tomorrow,” he decided while collapsing his tripod.
The next day he returned to the park at his usual time and set up the camera. At 10:44 he walked to the bench and sat down with this thumb on the stopwatch. Arnold blinked again and started the watch. He was surprised that the white-suited man wasn’t standing in front of him. He swiveled his head left and right searching for the stranger; and, found him sitting on another bench. He sat further up the flowered park path relaxing against the bench with his eyes on the sky; Arnold felt slightly annoyed.
He hoped to interrupt the man’s pattern enough that they needed to interact. But, the stranger didn’t even seem to give Arnold a second thought. There was no sideways glance like he expected for having taken the man’s seat. After a couple of moments, Arnold decided to confront the man. He stood and walked toward him.
He almost reached the stranger before he blinked again; the man was gone. Luckily, habit prompted him to stop the watch. He looked down and saw it stuck at 59 seconds again.
“Damnit,” he grumbled then returned to collect his camera. “Trying again tomorrow.”
The next day, he decided not to sit in the stranger’s seat. Arnold stayed away with the camera focused on the park bench. AT 10:45 he blinked and started the watch, but the man wasn’t there. Arnold turned to check the new bench and saw the man sitting there again.
Without wasting time like the previous day, Arnold took long steps toward the stranger.
“Hi!” Arnold said as he walked up to him. The man didn’t so much as acknowledge him. Then, Arnold blinked. He stopped the watch and checked it. “32 seconds?!” he looked around in confusion and found the stranger sitting on his original bench. He sprinted toward the man.
“Who are-” Arnold blinked. “-you?” The stranger was gone. “Fine,” he sighed and returned to his camera. The footage showed the man appear about halfway through, then disappear when Arnold ran into the frame. “Tomorrow,” he said again as he walked home.
Arnold spent the rest of the day wondering how to corner the stranger and find out what he was up to. He settled on a questionably legal plan as his only option: tranquilizer gun.
He arrived at the park on time, set his camera up pointing at the usual spot. Then, he took his tranquilizer gun and hid in the bushes behind the bench. He held the watch in his left hand, gun in the right. At 10:45 he blinked again. He squeezed the watch and noticed the man’s dark hair in front of him.
Arnold aimed at the back of the man’s neck then blinked. He stopped the watch while checking the other bench for the stranger. He was nowhere to be seen. Arnold looked down at the watch.
‘THREE HOURS!!???” he shouted. He ran back to his camera; it had three hours worth of video. He rewound it and watched the stranger appear, then he saw the top of his own head moving behind the man.
Then, a tall, pale woman walked in front of the camera. She had long white hair and a flowing orange dress.. The moment Arnold saw her, he knew she was associated with the stranger. She matched his white suit and orange tie perfectly. She walked toward the camera, grabbed it, turned it, then sat down in front of it.
“What’s your problem?” she asked. “My friend just wants to spend a moment alone in the park. He doesn’t need you harassing him.” The woman grabbed the camera and turned it back toward the bench. The man was sitting still, looking at the sky, and Arnold was standing behind him gun in hand.
“Say hi to the psycho, Billy,” the woman yelled behind the camera. As an answer he lifted his arm and flipped off the camera, then he lowered his arm to the bench again. She giggled and continued to show the rest of the park. Everyone was frozen still, joggers floated in the air mid-step.
“We control time,” she said as she carried the camera toward the park bench. “But sometimes it’s nice to feel the seconds go by.” She lifted the camera to her face and gave it a stern look. “Billy is mourning right now; he doesn’t need your petty, intrusive bullshit. He’s living his life, you live yours.” She kept walking, then Arnold saw himself on camera.
“If you bother him again…,” the woman said. She juggled the camera for a moment then it was pointed at Arnold again. The woman stabbed him in the gut with a white knife; it came out covered in blood; then she did it again and again almost a dozen times. “I won’t heal you next time,” she said. Arnold dropped the camera and lifted his shirt; he realized it was riddled with holes.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” A voice filled the air moments after Albert stopped time. The mid-20s man froze time so that he wouldn’t be late to a movie. It was the first time he ever heard anyone else during his extended moments. He whirled around to find the mysterious speaker. A woman in a flowing orange dress glowered at him through crystalline orange eyes.
“Who are you? How can you move?” Albert asked her. As much as it surprised him to see anyone moving around; the fact was that he could control time. No one else on Earth could match that.
“My name’s Vanilla,” she said. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Vanilla repeated her question.
“What? You mean stopping time?”Albert asked smugly. “Or.. rewinding?” The time-stopped pedestrians around them took several steps backward then froze in place again.
“All of it! Every time you touch the timeline, don’t you know what happens?” Vanilla asked.
“No,” Albert replied. At his question, time resumed around them for a moment. “What?” he gave her a self-satisfied smile as the pedestrians froze again.
“Well, what happens is…,” Vanilla smiled at Albert and leaned in closer as if she intended to whisper a secret. “…it lets me know that you have the power to control time.”
“What?” Albert asked, he tilted his head at Vanilla in confusion. “So?”
“So then, I come and eat your soul,” Vanilla replied with a smile.
Billy followed Vanilla into a black stone castle and through the wide open hallways. She led him to an indoor swimming pool filled with crystal clear water. A tall pale woman floated on her back in the center of the pool with her eyes closed; strands of her vibrant red hair floated around her.
“Her?” Billy asked. Vanilla nodded.
“She’s half fairy…,” the white-haired woman said. “…and a Calavera.” Vanilla shrugged. “If it weren’t for her bond with Ballisea, Flutter wouldn’t be as strong as she is.”
“She’s got great hearing though,” Flutter said from the center of the pool. She opened her eyes but continued to float and stare upward. “Hey, Vanilla. What’s the occasion?” she asked. Vanilla stepped into the pool room and walked along the outer edge to get closer; Billy followed.
“This is Billy. The strongest Muerte I could find,” Vanilla said. Flutter straightened herself in the pool and stood up. She focused her attention on Billy and climbed out of the pool. Billy waved at her awkwardly.
“Can he do it?” Flutter asked Vanilla. Billy looked at the white-haired woman too; to see her reaction. She half-nodded.
“With more training. That’s why I brought him to meet you.”
“Do what?” Billy asked.
“I told you,” Vanilla said. She placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it gently. “If you can stop Flutter, you can stop Ballisea.” As soon as Vanilla said Ballisea’s name a tall black portal appeared next to Flutter. The giant woman sighed.
“She’s calling me,” Flutter said. She looked down at Billy and nodded at him with a smile. She extended her hand. “Find me anytime you want to test yourself.” Billy shook her hand and noted her frequency so he could find her again; it seemed like that’s why she offered him a handshake.
“Thanks,” Billy said. He did not know what else to say, or what was happening exactly, but he trusted Vanilla to explain it.
“So, he’s your pick?” Flutter turned her attention back to Vanilla. Vanilla nodded. Billy was surprised when Flutter stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Vanilla; the lean woman returned the hug.
“Goodbye, Vanilla.” Flutter said, then she disappeared into the portal without another word.
“I thought I was going to try and stop her?” Billy asked. Vanilla shook her head.
“You’re not ready yet, but I wanted you to meet her now. You asked about time feeling like sandpaper?”
“Yeah..?” Billy nodded but he was confused. He did not know what his question had to do with meeting Flutter. Vanilla lifted her orange dress slightly and stepped out of her white high heels. She walked to the edge of the pool and sat down with her feet in the water. She patted the stone floor next to her and looked up at Billy. He sat down, in jeans, cross-legged.
“I think of time like a river,” she said while staring at the water. “When you freeze time; the river stops flowing.” Vanilla leaned forward and scooped up a handful of pool water. “Hold your hand out.” Billy did; Vanilla turned and dropped a ball of water in his hand. It did not wobble or come apart.
“I’m going to let go; hold it,” she said. Billy nodded and concentrated on the ball of water.
“Ready…3…2…now.” When she said, “now” most of the water rolled off Billy’s hand; he was left with a round drop floating in the center of his hand. He immediately looked at Vanilla.
“What happened?” he asked. Vanilla smiled and scooped up another handful of water. She held the solid-liquid ball between her thumb and forefinger as if she were inspecting a large jewel.
“You’re good at moving around large chunks of time like rocks or people, but…,” She smiled and held the ball of water in front of him with one hand. With her other hand, she grabbed part of it and pulled them apart like an orange. She tossed one half back into the water, then grabbed the other part and broke it in half again. “…you need to remember that all the big pieces are made from smaller pieces.”
“Huh?” Billy asked. He kind of understood how to shape the water now, but didn’t see how it tied to his question.
“When you took in Steven’s soul, your ability grew stronger. You’re more sensitive to the smaller pieces of time.”
“So.. the sandpaper feeling is time?” he asked Vanilla giggled.
“No dummy,” she said playfully, then sighed. “Absorbing a Muerte soul like you did boosts your power. You can feel air molecules now because you’re powerful enough to control them,” she grabbed his shoulder again and squeezed. “You’re powerful enough to kill-,”
“Whoa…,” Billy sighed when Vanilla finished her tale. He looked out giant bay windows in the living room at the never-ending ocean. Glacier-like chunks of ice dotted the horizon. There was no trace of the mountaintop Vanilla claimed they were on, but he trusted her implicitly. “This is that Earth? Those are all your tears?” Vanilla nodded.
“What happened to them?” Billy stood from the couch and wandered to the window.
“Your dad, everyone on the Earth.”
“Nothing,” Vanilla shrugged and stood from her seat to join Billy by the window. “They’re still down there stopped in time from the moment first moment I stopped it.” Billy noticed her shake her head slightly. “I can’t undo it. Whatever I did, it completely derailed time. Besides…,” Vanilla wrapped an arm around Billy and gave him a gentle hug. “…at least this way he won’t ever die.” Vanilla’s long white hair tickled Billy’s neck and it reminded him of a different sensation.
“Hey!” he said and looked up at her. “Time’s stopped here, right?” he asked; she nodded. “Why can’t I feel it?”
“I just told you I broke time,” she said with a smirk. Billy shook his head.
“Right. Sorry, what I meant was at the lake after I took that guy’s soul, -“
“Steven,” Vanilla reminded him.
“Yeah, Steven. After that, I could feel time. It feels like there’s sand everywhere. And when it’s stopped it feels like walking through a sandpaper hallway. THAT was new to me. But I didn’t remember until I couldn’t feel it here.”
“Great question, C’mon.” Vanilla wiggled her fingers at the air and opened a tall black portal. “We’re going to visit a dragon,” she added as she stepped into the portal and disappeared. Billy followed. He found himself drenched in sweat the moment he exited the portal on the other side. He stood at the shore of a giant molten lake. Its bright orange glow was almost blinding if he tried to look directly into the lava. He looked around.
Dozens of figures lined the beach. They were gathered in groups and it wasn’t until a red-skinned young girl in a one-piece bathing suit ran up to Vanilla that he realized where he was. The girl’s long orange hair flowed through the air like fire as she ran; her red, scaled skin shimmered in the sunlight. The bright golden light reflected off her in a way that reminded Billy of a ruby; the girl’s skin was almost crystalline. The girl was a dragon enjoying a day at the beach with her dragon family. Several of the group she came from waved in their direction.
“VANILLA!!” the girl screeched as she dashed across the dark black sand. The girl leaped off the sand at Vanilla but the air caught her. The red girl hovered in the air; stuck inches in front of the tall white-haired woman. Vanilla reached up and grabbed the girl’s tiny hand. She pulled the girl along the shore like a balloon until she was at the lava’s edge. She stayed out of the way and started time again. Billy watched the girl’s momentum carry her into the lava.
The girl surfaced spluttering molten rock and giggling. She wiped the liquid fire from her eyes and looked up at Vanilla.
“Who’s he?” she asked and gestured at Billy by rolling her eyes in his direction while treading lava.
“He needs to talk to Flutter,” Vanilla replied.
“And?” the girl shrugged, then she swam forward and walked out of the orange lake.
“And it won’t be the last time,” Vanilla said. “Billy, this is Ruby,” she finally gave a proper introduction, then looked at Billy. “If you ever want to know anything about a dragon, Ruby’s family is who you ask.” She produced a small white silk pouch and opened it. “Information is expensive but…,” Vanilla pulled several golden coins and a couple of large sapphires from the pouch. “Ruby charges significantly less than her older family members.” Vanilla dropped the coins and gems into the girl’s small, outstretched hand. “Where can we find Flutter?” Vanilla crossed her arms and asked formally.
“Inside!” The girl screeched then immediately popped the loot in her mouth and jumped back into the lava.
“That little sneak!” Vanilla cursed with a chuckle.
“Who’s Flutter?” Billy asked.
“According to Ruby’s family, and they know everything about dragons, Flutter is the strongest dragon they’ve ever seen.” Billy tilted his head at Vanilla and narrowed his eyes with a confused look.
“That sounds like someone we want to stay away from,” Billy said.
“We can’t, you need to talk to her,” Vanilla started walking up the beach.
“To use her as a benchmark. If you can stop her in time, you can stop Ballisea,” Vanilla said.
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.”
“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.”
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.
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?”
“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.