Bombi drew her seafoam sword and pointed it at the whispering rock of the shore. She was at least familiar with that land; it would be easier for her to navigate and understand. If she came face to face with lampworms or vagrants again, it could be handled. Whatever knowledge they were after, it might help her understand Chagrinn. If she could think like a speed runner she might not even need his stingy guidance anymore.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Chagrinn said as he pushed her sword lower with a fingertip. “Shook and Cain feed on your sense of drama. It’s like you’re saying the little play they’re putting on is actually worth something. Come on.”
He placed his hand against the stone and was sucked into it instantly. Bombi groaned. Being squeezed through the layers of reality was the worst part of all this, by far. Still, it was either follow him or starve to death beneath the world, tugging at tree roots and asking them for help. She touched her hand to the stone.
When the world stopped stretching, bending, and twisting their bodies it dropped them on a Shook shore once again. Even though she’d never been out of Shook’s arms, Bombi knew they were not in Cain yet. The air would change when that happened, infected as it was by mischief and anger.
She looked around. As far as the eye could see there was nothing but shore in either direction: no buildings, no docks, and no astrolabe. Chagrinn knew where he was going, and by the look of his direction it was the ocean floor. Bombi jogged to catch up with him.
“What exactly is an astrolabe?” she asked, aware of how foolish the question was after she’d just set them on a path toward one.
“It’s a tool for predicting the positions of the sun, moon, and stars,” he said with a wry smile, “but where we’re going isn’t an astrolabe exactly. That’s merely the name given it by its constructor. It’s more of an observatory.”
“Is the hermit more of something else?”
“No, just a silly old hermit.”
“So where is this observatory?”
“Right here.” Chagrinn stopped as a wave touched the tips of his boots and retreated. The sky darkened as the sun fell. Tiny sand fleas began to glow around them and chirp like crickets. “This is one of the benefits of speed running. There are moments when the clock strikes… and becomes striking. You must be in the right place at the right time.”
The sea turned violet and orange. Another wave approached Chagrinn’s feet, but it broke in two before him. Each wave that came after did the same thing, breaking further and further back each time. A path opened up in the water: a tunnel of sorts. Where the sand began to dip there was a roof of water enclosing the path.
“Incredible,” Bombi murmured.
“Your new ordinary,” Chagrinn corrected. He walked down the path in the water and Bombi eagerly followed. Inside the tunnel was the opposite of being stretched through Shook and Cain’s bedrock. The air was soft and constantly spiraling around limbs and necks. It flowed between each hair on their heads and seeped into their skin like cooling balm. Bombi closed her eyes. Of course. My sword… it moves with the same rhythm as these walls. I can feel both their tides against and around. This is better than the ticking of a clock. There is more room for things like me to slide in. The water makes room.
The tunnel went a long way, occasionally twisting and turning across the seabed. The water there was clearer than the bay of the dead, so there were no giant hideous lampworms wriggling by. They instead saw shoals of fish glide over the tunnel, the smallest ones swishing their tails rapidly to keep up. A red-winged ruffle ray glided around as well, curiously watching them with its big green eyes.
“There was a fish tank in my employer’s home,” the apprentice mentioned, her voice echoing and rippling across the liquid walls. “Tiny purple jewels of fish lived within. I oft wondered what it would be like to swim among them.”
“Your thoughts are still wrong,” Chagrinn said, unwilling to let her have the simple memory. “This is not the tank. The world is. Your foolish younger self did not comprehend her caged nature. She wished for a cage within a cage.”
“It’s impossible to know exactly what a cage is when you’re a servant,” she said to defend herself. “I thought serving was my natural place. Sadness my natural mind. Numbness my passion. I suppose I should thank you for that at least. I never knew true anger until you showed up.”
“Your gratitude is so nourishing,” Chagrinn said sarcastically. “Come, we’re almost to the front door.” The watery tunnel took one more turn, and around it they found a round door complicated by rotating curves of brass covered in markings Bombi had never seen. Try as she did, she couldn’t find a spot on the door to knock without risking a bit of pinched flesh between the moving pieces. Chagrinn circumvented the problem by kicking the bottom.
The door opened, none of its busy parts resting. It must have been triggered from somewhere else, because their hermit host was not there to greet them. Chagrinn entered and immediately removed his boots. Bombi copied him. How the sparkling stone floor managed to stay so flawless with endless sand just outside, she had no idea. Against her bare feet it felt like walking across ice that was just warm enough to not sting.
The astrolabe was circular overall, but divided into sections by a central brass mechanism. Metal plates representing the tides moved up and down and forward and back across the bottom of the walls. The entire sky was printed on the dome. The central mechanism had a bright white light inside it, shining through organized patterns of holes. When the light hit the reflective paint of the stars on the walls, it dazzled the eye.
“I’m up here,” an aged woman’s voice called from the top of the mechanism.
“Where else would you be?” Chagrinn shouted back. There were no stairs to get them to the hermit, but there were parts of the mechanism that briefly intersected in a stair-like fashion; they had to time their steps perfectly to slowly climb toward the voice. On their way up Bombi noticed a special arrangement of stars glittering on the wall; it was in the shape of a sharp-toothed whale and its starry eyes seemed to stare at her hungrily.
“Rorquas likes you,” the hermit said once the speed runners stepped from the last moving stair and onto the top of the mechanism.
“Rorquas?” the girl queried. The hermit was in a chair and bent over a desk, an oiled brass tool in her hand. The desk was open; its interior was a mass of twisting and sliding wires. She plucked at a few of them with her tool and seemed satisfied by their discordant twang. Then she turned to look at her guests. She looked past Chagrinn like he wasn’t there, something he considered the height of politeness, and scrutinized Bombi.
“Rorquas is the whale of the stars. King of the tides,” she said. The old woman had frazzled yellow hair that stood as if connected to every point of her dome by invisible strings. Her thick spectacles were speckled with intentional spots and scratches like the constellations across the wall. She spoke very clearly for someone who didn’t have a single tooth left. She turned to Chagrinn. “You always come alone. What has changed? It must be drastic.”
“I’ve taken an apprentice,” he said plainly, his stare slightly more intense than usual. “This is Bombi. She’ll make a fine speed runner once she learns to let go of the world properly. Now if you please…”
“Of course,” the hermit said, her eyes lingering on the girl, “you’re always in a hurry.” She dropped out of her chair. “My name’s Fyar,” she told Bombi with a smile. The hermit pressed her shoe, which contained a metal key in its instep, into a hole in the top of the mechanism. All of a sudden the three of them were moved back to the floor in an elevator of sorts. On their way out they had to duck under a few of the stairs they climbed in the first place. Fyar took them away from the center and to a smaller bubble of a room on the back of the astrolabe. This one had no moving parts, only books with curved spines so they fit in the curved shelves pressed against the curved walls.
Fyar selected a large volume and pulled it out for Chagrinn. He took it from her and began searching its pages with lightning speed. His expression changed to one of concern. A frustrated breath whistled out of his nose before he flipped to another section.
“This is the knowledge I told you about,” he told Bombi without looking away from the page. “These star charts allow me to see the positions of constellations even during the day and even out of season.”
“Can’t you just memorize them?” his apprentice asked.
“He could if not for speed running,” Fyar answered for him. Bombi eyed her quizzically. “The stars are supposed to be constant. They swim lazily in loop-de-loops across the skies of Shook and Cain, but you runners have leashed them.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a consequence of exploits,” Chagrinn said, still flipping through the book and occasionally cursing under his breath. “Do you remember how your pen triggered a reaction from the world and pulled you back near its intended track?”
“It’s the same principal, only the stars get pulled instead. Shook and Cain sees a runner out of place and tries to make the sky match their information. If a runner is supposed to be under a certain constellation at a certain age, Shook and Cain tries to make it happen.”
“You’re saying… running distorts age?”
“It can, if you hit the triggers for it. Shook and Cain could intend me to be forty-seven, but thanks to exploits I could reach the location of my forty-seven year old self only being thirty years of age. If the world noticed, it would try to put the constellation that most characterized my thirty-year old self over me, even if it meant rearranging the sky.”
“Even if it means choking the denizens of the sky on their own leashes,” Fyar rephrased.
“What good is this to us?” Bombi asked. “Won’t the stars simply reset on the next run?”
“We’re checking on the competition,” Chagrinn explained. “When the skies move the book changes, because Shook and Cain likes to keep things as consistent as possible. I can see from the position and contortion of the Vircapra constellation that Norellen is currently using the route that skirts the Swallowing Mesa. It’s helpful to know because there are certain runners we do not want to run into.”
“Let me show you something,” Fyar said. She grabbed Bombi lightly by the wrist. Her hand was steady, but the old woman’s eyes wiggled with emotion. Bombi looked to Chagrinn, but he waved her off. He was still busy analyzing. The girl nodded to the hermit and they both left the chamber and returned to the astrolabe.
“Are you a runner? Bombi asked. Though the woman’s bent posture and slow shuffling provided unavoidable hints, there was still the matter of Fyar understanding what the runners were when most of the world did not.
“Oh no,” she chuckled. “I’m an acolyte of the stars. A researcher. Nothing more. The stars treat me well.”
“How do you know Chagrinn then?”
“I know most of the runners. Lots of them come by here to sneak a peek at the paths of their rivals. Once I’d encountered enough of their nonsense I just started remembering things about them even after my track ended. I was pulled into their world by repeated exposure.”
“I’m sorry to hear it happen that way,” Bombi said. If Fyar was only going to know one truly decent runner, it was going to be her. “I was at least given a choice.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Fyar said. “Look there.” Bombi followed the old woman’s outstretched finger to the whale constellation on the wall. Its eyes glittered again. “I told you Rorquas liked you.” The hermit giggled and took a step back. Bombi wasn’t sure what was going on, but she suddenly felt strange. Her body felt lightly squeezed in a giant’s grip; the pulse of that grip collided with her stomach like panting breath.
Every star on the whale glittered now. The constellation hopped off the wall as a collection of dark blue vapor and dancing lights. The whale swam around her several times, clicking and humming in beautiful crystallized whale song.
“Are they gods?” Bombi asked. She reached out with her hand and touched the constellation’s head. It squealed in delight at the feeling of her smoothed fingertips.
“They are the animals of the sky,” Fyar answered. “Their power is great and their nature, when unthreatened, serene. I study them because it brings me peace of mind. The only reason I learn everything I can about speed runners is so I can compensate for their activity and discern the truth about the stars.”
“Why is he here now?” Bombi asked of the whale. “Shouldn’t he be up there?”
“The astrolabe is a powerful tool. Not only does it let me observe them closely, but the other way around as well. This is a small projection of Rorquas’s power. These little stars are just tricks of the light. Up there his real power is an ocean of brilliant light.” Fyar moved over to the wall and pulled a lever topped with a crescent moon.
The astrolabe groaned as the circular layers of the roof retreated outward. A hole formed in the center and for a brief moment Bombi feared the sea around them would rush in and smash the breath out of them. The water appeared, but it stayed on the ceiling as if an upside down ocean wasn’t strange at all. The projection of Rorquas swam up to the liquid ceiling and produced a sound of perfect harmonious vibration.
The ceiling bent against the force of the sound, turning from small waves to the skin of a giant bubble. Further and further it bent until it created a perfect dome like glass. Bombi stared up in wonder as the night sky revealed itself. She understood now. The magic that manipulated the water was still a mystery, but not its purpose. The astrolabe was here, hidden beneath the waves, so it could make a giant lens of the water and better view the stars, better project their denizens.
Rorquas returned to her side and nuzzled her arm. Bombi held the creature’s head affectionately and cooed to it like she would a kitten. She looked to the sky again. All the stars appeared slightly warped by the skin of the bubble, their already brilliant shine exaggerated. One set of them, shaped into a fork-tailed bull, plodded across the sky.
“It’s a shame Chagrinn has already claimed you as his apprentice,” Fyar said. “I’ve never seen a constellation take to someone so easily before. You must’ve been born directly under Rorquas. That is a connection strong enough to even transcend the world ripping of runners. Wherever you went in Shook and Cain, Rorquas would try to keep an eye on you.”
“That’s… wonderful,” Bombi said, not knowing how else to phrase it. She rubbed her forehead playfully against the whale’s and wondered what it would be like to ride on the back of the true constellation. Certainly better than being squeezed through the ground a hundred times a day.
“Oh good, one of them is already out,” Chagrinn said, further announcing his presence in the astrolabe by slamming the book shut. “Now we just need the others.” He dropped the book carelessly and started rummaging around in his bag. Part of the astrolabe swept by on the floor and caught the tome. It was quickly shredded, some of its paper tossed about in the air.
“What are you doing?” Fyar shouted. The hermit ran by him with surprising speed and snatched as many pages out of the air as she could. “You may think you can start over whenever you like, but I still live my life! Ages! Ages before I can get another copy of this!”
“Aha!” the expert runner declared as he pulled an arrow out of his bag that had a head glowing red like a hot coal. He waved it in Bombi’s direction. The projection of Rorquas opened its mouth, showing its shining star teeth, and made a sound like a hiss. It did its best to hide behind Bombi’s back. “This is the hot arrow of Alissander the complete, borrowed from its greatest day where it split the heads of a hundred verminous anytaurs. It’s not meant to be used in close quarters, but it should be perfect for drawing these things out.”
“No! You villain! We had an arrangement!” Fyar squawked. She rushed toward Chagrinn, but he simply performed a back-dash until he was atop the astrolabe’s mechanism, then cocked his arm back and threw the arrow at the wall. It struck the heart of a stork constellation with a chain around its neck. The arrow seemed to vanish, but its redness remained at the point of impact. Red sparks spread outward from it in a network of cracks, seeming to ricochet inside the astrolabe itself.
“What are you doing?” Bombi shouted to him. Rorquas tried to stick its head under her shirt and hide from the upsetting force of the arrow.
“I think I’m onto something with this route,” he declared as he watched the red cracks infect the rest of the circular wall. It disturbed the stars; they blinked and wiggled as if in pain. “None of the other runners can find it, in case we can’t complete it this time around. We must erase all traces of ourselves. This place must not function. The stars must hate man for a time!”
As if to respond, projections of the other constellations burst forth from the wall one by one. They all rang with a note of anger, like bells struck by spears. The fork-tailed bull. The chained crane. The flat frog. The saddled horse. The blinded opossum. The dome was full of their ethereal blue and purple forms as their rage grew. Even Rorquas’s surface roiled as the whale grew to twice its previous size and leapt at Chagrinn. The runner raced across the ceiling to avoid it, leaving ripples as he went.
“Why? My work! My life!” Fyar cried. She dropped to her knees and began to pray to the stars to counteract Chagrinn’s disrespect. She held her hands above her head and used them to create signs of a language long forgotten.
“They didn’t do anything to us!” Bombi yelled.
“Perspective, my apprentice!” he barked as he landed on the back of the flying bull and yanked on both its tails. He then turned, grabbed it by the horn, and began punching its head until it crashed against the ground with a sound like clouds falling out of the sky. It moaned in pain. “Use your sword. Defeat and humiliate them so they will leave this place.” The opossum lunged at him and wrapped its tail around his arm, but he pelted it with punches as fast as his dash.
“I… I…” Bombi stammered.
“Realize it or not, this is for them!” Chagrinn shouted. He tossed the opossum across the astrolabe where it was squeezed between two pieces of the mechanism. “Their harmony will return. The trap will continue until we destroy it! Until we transcend! Fyar might have a better life waiting out there for her, past the Source! Take up arms Bombi! Don’t be such a sentimental puppet.”
Rorquas looked to her. She sensed fear from the constellation. Even though its eyes were just shining dots she felt its gaze on the hilt of her sword rather than on her face. Shook and Cain was a cruel place, her life had taught her that, but there was no cruelty here between Fyar and the stars. At least… not at the moment. A moment is supposed to be nothing and everything to a speed runner. Moments are the wooden coins of Shook and Cain.
She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.