She wanted to stop. She wanted off the crazy golden slide so she could stand tall and have a serious conversation with the man. I’ll never get that. Even when the ground flattens out he’ll keep moving. He won’t even miss a step. It was to happen there then, even as the amber directed them lower and lower. If Bombi was to be discarded and have to crawl back up with nothing more than the adhesive she could lick onto her palms, then so be it. She would at least know what to expect on the way back up.
She trembled as little as she could as she rose to her feet. The incline had lessened some, so their speed no longer threatened to whip them around corners and into pits of monsters with no warning. She put out a hand to stop him from taking the lead. That was when she realized that the amber slide was actually the closest thing to a standstill they’d had so far. By setting a constant, almost relaxing, speed, the amber calmed him enough for actual conversation.
“What’s this Bombi? Are you cross with me for doing exactly what we set out to do?”
“Why, pray tell?”
“Perhaps the world has taken more from you than you know or will admit. This is my first run and I still have all the fear and anxiety of a false life. You should respect that. Death here would have felt as real as any at the bottom of the world.”
“Yet you know your emotions to be fa…”
“Don’t interrupt. We’re already getting where we’re going. All this running… It is an adventure, but I won’t become inhuman along the way. I must know. Did you know that creature’s hole was there? Did you send me in as bait? It’s one thing to cast me aside as ballast, quite another to have hauled me aboard for that sole purpose.”
“I didn’t know what route we were going to take when I first picked you up, remember?” he excused, without looking troubled by the concern on her face. His expression seemed a little too perfect, like a straining little gargoyle behind his eyes held the stony dispassion in place. “I know the dangers on some of the paths. Yes, I knew this one. Your use here, on this one path, was initially as bait… but you succeeded! You can be of much more use now! I tell you we’ve got a run under forty-four years possible at this pace! Much of that will pass in what feels like seconds!”
“You’ve just told me it’s a rush to death,” Bombi nearly whimpered. She wanted to dig her toes into the amber, to stop, but her brittle nails didn’t have the strength. It didn’t matter. The slide was at last coming to an end. The amber finally flattened in a huge new cavern. Water dripped heavily from the ceiling into stretched intermingling puddles.
“Your idea of death is too stupid to mean anything,” he insisted, but he didn’t give up on her as easily as he implied he would. “Here.” He marched over to one of the puddles and dipped his hand into it. He drank heartily and sighed as if he still got pleasure from the food and drink of Shook and Cain. “Have some water. The amber it runs through makes it sweet. It’ll restore your energy and you won’t be so sour.”
Bombi held her ground. She was thirsty, and very hungry in fact, but they weren’t done. She examined the new cavern for exits. There were a few tunnels on the ceiling, and she correctly guessed she would need Chagrinn’s help to get to them. I cannot accept any more help. He’ll take the first opportunity to use me up if I go any further, especially now that he knows my resolve has wavered. Now that he thinks me weak he’ll jam me under a door to keep it open a moment longer.
“I will go no further. You called me a slave before. I thank you for that; it needed to be heard, but no sooner will I be your slave than be theirs again. I will find my own way to run.”
“So sure are you?” he asked, the sweet water dripping down his chin. He shook the drops off his hand, dropping the illusion that he was refreshing himself. “You’ll need to come with me once more, to escape the amber. Up there.” He pointed to the tunnels.
“No. I will go back the way we came,” she insisted. The sound of the dripping seemed to grow more intense; it sounded like pouring rain now rather than leaky pipes.
“Suit yourself.” Chagrinn grabbed the bag off her shoulders and whipped it around his own. It seemed he was leaving her the sword. He turned away. “I won’t come back for you next time.”
“I will remember, yes?”
“As soon as you are able. It might be immediate; you might get feelings when you’re five or six. Most people work up the nerve to find an exploit and jump in when they’re only seven.”
“I mean… will I remember you?”
“You will. Even if the Source takes me the runners will remember me. I already can’t be forgotten. You should try to make that of yourself.” With that he bent and swiveled, doubling his body and moving backward up the wall and into a tunnel in one continuous oscillating motion.
Not even a goodbye. I thought at least I would get a little fury, but perhaps after the bug trap he’d already gotten his use out of me. Maybe it was all lies. Maybe he picks up an apprentice every week or so and has but one obstacle in mind for them. We are to break upon a wall so he can use our bodies as ramps.
She didn’t give him quite enough credit. Something small was thrown out of the tunnel he left through. It fell silently through the air and bounced three times, landing perfectly at Bombi’s feet and never hitting a puddle. She bent down and picked it up. It was a circular crust of bread, missing about a fourth. It was her ration to get out of the cave.
Bombi greedily bit into it once she was sure he was out of earshot. There must have been something special going on inside Chagrinn’s bag, for while the bread wasn’t warm it was still incredibly soft and moist. She took two more big bites and washed it down with the puddle water. He was right about it; its syrupy sweetness did improve her mood a little.
Trying not to dwell on him, or her new sluggish pace, she turned around and examined the base of the slide. How to get back up? For now I’m not a runner. I’m just another bug washed to the bottom of a slippery gutter. So immediate was her transition from fast to slow that she wondered if she had erred. Had she stepped off of a racehorse-drawn carriage and into quicksand?
She had no bag now, and no way to store the water, so she drank her fill and stuffed the remainder of her bread crust into the front of her ragged shirt. She would have to be extra careful, as falling on the slide would crush it. Similarly, if it touched her back and thus the seafoam sword, it would go to mush in contact with the salt water.
Traversal was simple enough at first, as the slide had gradually flattened out. She was able to walk up it for several minutes before her foot slipped the first time. Immediately after that, as the squeak of the slip echoed up the tunnel, it looked much more intimidating. Two more slips, and one backward slide of nearly thirty feet, convinced her that she could no longer go upright. Bombi carefully dropped to her knees and palms, ripping the knees of her pants to give her skin extra points of contact.
From there she climbed upward like a nervous frog, her hands making small stretching sounds as they peeled away from the amber. Bugs watched her from below; she was a fly on their window. As much as their twisted chitinous forms frightened her, she wanted them to come closer to the surface. The closer they were, the sooner she would find their exposed limbs and know she made real progress up the amber.
The further she went the closer she had to cling, and the more she had to flatten the bread against her chest. When she found a bump rough enough to hold her feet she twisted around and tied up her shirt, so her bare stomach could help her stick to the amber as well. For a moment she ran her hand up and down her visible ribs. Do I look thinner already? What is this toll that speed running takes? I do feel slightly… robbed. Of a pinch of flesh yes, but something else as well… It’s disappointment I feel, not a lack but a surplus! Disappointment with the entire damned world! It’s just a jostling bag where everyone tries to climb the walls and gets knocked back to the bottom.
Her elbows and knees quickly became sore. Her lower back tightened and twitched. She had been crawling her way up for more than an hour now, and all she had to show for it was a newer steeper angle. She knew her body was not meant for such slug-like inching, but what else could she do?
There was one strat she came up with, and it most certainly saved her a fate as a dried husk at the bottom of the slide. Around the time she encountered the scrabbling exposed limbs of the bugs, the angle became barely manageable. Shortly it would not be and she would lose much of her progress. Her only hope was the last thing that had tried to kill her.
Bombi spotted the trundling pill bug on the curved ceiling. It was calmer now, its antennae waving back and forth. She suddenly remembered the pill bugs of the gardens: the ones polite enough to keep an appropriate size. They were not predators, but grazers on the lush moss. Bombi had been accosted because she had gotten frightfully close to its hole, not because she was supper. The swaying of its antennae seemed to denote search, and what does a bug search for but food?
Slowly she leaned on her side so she could reach into her clothes and extract the bread. She whistled to get the monster’s attention, but it ignored her. Her next attempt involved pinching off a tiny morsel of bread and crumbling it in her fingers to spread its scent in the tunnel. The pill bug’s antennae perked up immediately and it, without hesitation, trundled down the curved wall in her direction.
Oh it’s moving quickly! This was my bright idea; I’d better be ready for it! It got close enough that she could hear its breathing through little tubes all over its body. Luckily, its approach was from slightly below her on the slide, which allowed her to spring off the amber and into the air in hopes of landing on it. A little closer. Come on. I baked it just for you. I knew I’d be stopping by and offering this neighborly gift… got you!
“Ooph!” she coughed as she hit the shell above its head. The bug turned around slowly, trying to figure out where its bread had gone. The girl holding it was not to the left, or the right, or even behind it. Curious. The smell of the bread was so very close though. In answer to its primitive wonderings, the crust of bread dropped down in front of its eyes. The bug walked forward, for the morsel was only a few inches away.
Alas, it could not reach it. To the bug that meant only one possibility: the bread was much larger than initially anticipated, but also much further away. As it was clearly worth the journey, the creature crawled resolutely forward and up the amber tunnel.
Bombi stayed perched just above its head, her toes locked into one of the bands of its armor. From there she dangled the bread in front of its eyes. Keeping her arm outstretched wouldn’t be easy, but better one sore limb than her entire body clinging weakly to the slope.
The unlikely pair continued like this for quite some time with few hiccups. Every once in a while Bombi would reassure the pill bug that its efforts were not in vain by ripping off a small portion and dropping it for the beast to scarf down. Occasionally it took an odd path up the walls, threatening to roll Bombi off the side, but all she had to do was change the angle of the bread to correct their course.
All sense of time was lost in the amber, as it lived by its own glow only. She did not feel the need for sleep and wondered if it was the sweet waters at the base of the world, an effect of the inhuman running, or simple excitement. Her eyelids did grow heavy, but it did nothing to affect her spirit; they were merely creaking dilapidated shutters refusing to stay open.
Eventually they came to the place where Bombi’s slide had first widened out. The pill bug could fit no further if they were to take the path she knew. She hopped down, much to the bug’s surprise. She acted fairly but wisely, breaking the bread into two halves and tossing the larger one away for the bug to chase down the slide. While it was distracted she squeezed back into the hole she’d shot out of so swiftly before.
The last leg of her journey was the most difficult because of the extreme angle. Bombi had to treat her body like one of the wooden stars that topped the holiday trees: each limb a stiff spoke. Only continuous pressure against multiple points of the tunnel allowed her to inch upward. The whole time she wished she had Chagrinn’s dashing ability. With that, all of it could have been avoided. That’s the point though isn’t it? He skips the journey to reach a destination that, so far, hasn’t mattered in the slightest. He’s got no substance at all.
Even as she thought that, Bombi knew she would need what she had learned. One solid day of adventuring was enough to stoke a fire in her heart. Perhaps it wasn’t enough to become a blaze, a disastrous fire whirl that ate up the people and the world around it, but it was enough to keep her out of chains both literal and figurative. She had to find a new life, or perhaps a half-life, somewhere between the rigid paths of Shook and Cain and the lethal void of freedom beyond.
Fretting over that distracted her long enough for her to reach the top. Shortly she was out of the cavern, away from the golden majesty of the amber, away from the amber swarm held fast, and free to breathe the air of Cain. It was air she would have to breathe for quite a long while, as she found the exploit that brought them there was a one-way method. It would not return her to the two boulders at the bottom of the world.
Her limbs ached, her palms felt like rubber while her wrists felt like leather, and her throat was dry as straw. This was as far as Chagrinn’s mercy got her. There was little for her to do but start walking. The entrance to the cavern was about halfway up a reddish hill of stone and dirt. At its base was a forest of unhealthy yellow trees with trunks as white as bone. Their leaves grew up uniformly, as if in fear of wandering pruning shears. Altogether it had the feel of a place man had touched, so she hoped she would stumble across a path soon.
“At last!” Bombi puffed after a sharp inward breath. Pickle juice and bits of broken glass rained down on her, but she welcomed them with open arms like a refreshing rain. She wobbled a little on the wooden stool, because Arton, the man who was supposed to be holding it steady, had backed up in astonishment. Never before had he seen such a thing, and he wasn’t prepared for it despite Bombi telling him of the power of exploits a hundred times before.
It had taken her nearly a year to reach Arton; he was fifth in a line of helpers that aided her in navigating her way out of the dangerous plains of Cain and back to the palatial city of her birth. First had been the man driving a line of mules through the thin yellow forest. He’d allowed her to ride one alongside him all the way back to civilization. There was the implication that he wanted her to meet his nephew, a shy young man in need of a wife, but he was too polite to push the idea.
From his farm Bombi took up temporary work with a gaggle of young women weavers and knitters. They made goods and conversation in covered wagons as they traveled between cities where their fibers and silks were uncommon. The young runner pulled her weight, as she had mended clothes many times as a servant, and bought passage around the land.
She’d hopped between employers and mentors twice more, through a chandler and the captain of a river ship, until she’d gotten her bearings enough to return to the palatial city. She met Arton while wandering the streets and testing the seams of brick walls with her hands like they were fine curtains.
“It’s true!” Arton muttered as Bombi stepped down. He handed her a dish rag so she could wipe the pickle juice off her face. They stood in the back of his store, where he sold cheeses, pickles, and aged meats of a middling quality, with three more testing jars lined up on the counter. They were not needed. Bombi had found her exploit.
From that first slow donkey ride through the yellow trees she’d had this plan. She needed exploits of her own, holes other runners hadn’t touched, so she could navigate the world in her own way. It had to be somewhere in the palatial city, somewhere that, upon rebirth, she could reach at an early age to escape her employment.
She’d survived on the streets for weeks, begging here and there, stealing just as much (her running had softened her opinions on the very notion of property), and all the while testing walls, corners, seams, and objects for the slightest hint of looseness or strangeness. Arton had caught her feeling the walls of that very shop, because she had seen a pigeon in flight have one of its wings oddly stretched by the corner of the roof.
He’d quickly taken a liking to her. Arton knew the game of the city enough to discern she was a servant shirking her duties. The holes on her face told him that much, but he did not care. He’d let her sleep in his shop and eat from his stores and very quickly fallen in love with her. She had so many stories about holes in the world through which one could simply escape the miasma of finance and reputation that was the city air.
He didn’t believe it at first, but she did have the magical sword to back up her story. She was owned by these ideas, thrilled by them, wrapped up in them like a caterpillar baking and sweating inside its cocoon. Just as quickly as he’d fallen for her he had realized he could not have her heart. She was enraptured with the exploits, be they real or not.
As to her side of the matter, Bombi knew she was using the man. He was seven years her senior and his affection was plain. A woman his own age would have him tripping over his tongue during the pleasantries. She justified this behavior with the notion that she would give him something much greater than the common love of a wife. She could give him the pale skin of the world: the perspective of gods and cold outsiders. She could show him ways out; all he needed was the bravery to take them.
She gave that to him in that moment, when she used the pickle jar to test the corner of his shop ceiling. The lands of Shook and Cain were weak there. Before it had exploded the glass of the pickle jar had stretched, as if thrusted back into the fires it was blown from. The world tried to pull it somewhere else, and only Bombi’s grip on it had caused it to shatter.
Now she would be free to cut her own lines across the shell of the world, like a scrimshaw map to buried treasure. Arton would have the chance too. He could learn how little a difference of seven years actually meant to a speed runner, for a day could age them like a thousand. Simply taking a certain path could do that.
She thought of Chagrinn, and what he had so casually started when he picked her up as simple bait. Perhaps she would find him again, through that corner and across the bottom of the world.