‘Flickering Flame’ Stratagem
There was something different about this nudge. It was hot; it struck the inside of her sternum like a hot iron. It promptly exploded into a blazing rage the likes of which she had never felt. She’d been furious with Chagrinn for disrespecting her uncle’s body and pen, she’d hated her employers nearly constantly, but what burned inside her at that moment was animalistic. She was a lion with a brilliant orange mane, roar and lick of flame identical in sound. After seeing the seams of Shook and Cain she finally understood what the boundaries of her cage were. She finally knew her back was against the corner and there was no choice left but to lash out.
Bombi hopped forward and plunged the tip of the weapon source into the heart of the vagrants’ campfire. It flared up as if hit by a splash of oil. Whether by heat or awe, the vagrants were pushed back, but not Bombi. She sensed that she needed to stay close, that she needed to be forged alongside the sword, in order to wield it effectively. The heat took all the hair from her arms. It ate her eyebrows. Her lips cracked, but her resolve did not.
The fire narrowed into a pillar. The magic of reality trying to piece itself together made the shards of pottery tremble. They lifted into the air along with a funnel of ash. Each shard traveled up the pillar and found a place inside Bombi’s hands, conforming to the shape of her grip as if they were still wet clay. Once the hilt was complete, the seams separating the shards almost faded, Bombi pulled the weapon from the pyre. There was one last flash: a burst of black smoke with tendrils that wriggled and died like worms.
The blackened fire pit did not smoke. Every bit of its energy and heat had been used to create the sword. Bombi stared, just as surprised as her enemies, at the blade of flame she now held. She could see the filthy woman’s face, orange and flickering, through the length of the weapon.
“I am Bombi the speed runner!” she declared, a growl weaving its way between the words. “My wrath is fire… and you are annoying me.” She swung the sword in a wide arc. It spat a crescent of flame that caught a button on the largest man’s shirt. He yelped like a decorative dog and slapped at his stomach.
“Tamed fire! Now I seen it all! I didn’t want to see any of it!” the filthy woman declared. She threw up her hands and backed away. The others followed suit. Bombi kept the tip of the sword pointed at them as they retreated. She would have kept it on them until they were completely out of sight if Chagrinn had not rushed her along.
“Congratulations. You’ve dealt with your first aggro,” he said, nudging her away from the fire pit and towards the stone cliff and its seaweed-covered foot.
“Aggro?” she questioned.
“Aggression. We try to avoid it most of the time, but there isn’t a single route that can get rid of it entirely. I’m surprised you went for the fire. You seemed more of an oceanic persona.”
“I’m less keen on it now I’ve seen the lampworms squirming around on its bottom.”
“Speaking of squirming around on the bottom, follow me,” Chagrinn segued. He turned back the way they’d come and started examining the wooden supports of one of the gigantic docks. His hands moved up and down them and he occasionally rapped on them with his knuckles and listened to the sound.
“I can’t go anywhere like this,” Bombi complained. “My clothes are ruined.” The tear on her dress grew wider just from trying to keep up with him. She had her flaming sword in one hand and was barely able to keep the tear together with the other.
“A true speed runner would have no problem running naked. The body is more streamlined anyway. The only reason we do keep a civil appearance is to avoid aggro. The amount of aggro a little public nudity creates is truly astounding. It’s ruined some fantastic runs.”
“It’s nice that we can agree, but what are we to do about it? Do you have any spare clothes in these bags?”
“No,” Chagrinn answered, bending unnaturally low to examine a few barnacles on the wood. “Hmm… not here.”
“What’s not here?”
“You can will your weapon extinguished by the by,” he said, ignoring her question. “Free up a hand. Its fire will return when you need it.” Bombi looked down at the weapon. She didn’t really want to extinguish it, the gentle sound of its crackling had already become relaxing to her, but she could imagine the complications of their fast-travel if the world squeezed those flames close to her body. She stared at the hilt. Calm down. Breathe low and slow. I will tell you when and where to direct your rage. The flame shrank, its crackle becoming a whisper. A moment later it was snuffed out like a candle, leaving just the pottery hilt behind. She placed it inside her waistband.
“What are you doing anyhow?” she asked as he rushed to the next wooden pillar. He rapped on it in five different places before answering.
“Aha. Right here. Excuse my fumbling. Your choice in weapon has convinced me we should try a more aggressive route. The fire could come in handy. In order to get where we’re going we need to first reach a place where nobody can go: the bottom of the world.”
“The bottom? Do you mean underground?”
“No. All of the ground is part of the land of Shook and Cain. The bottom of the world is the empty space below the world. Sometimes it occupies the same space as what you would call ‘underground’ though.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We’re not meant to, but oh do we try. You’ll see what I mean shortly. This spot here,” he pointed at a divot in the wood, “will get us there. Its contours are of a special sort: a definite oversight in the building of the world. It is just like the print the tip of a boot leaves in soft ground when running.” Bombi started to say something, but he threw up a hand and shushed her. “I know you don’t understand. Confusion is the song of your people. When a foot strikes this divot, the world will think someone is moving fast, specifically running across the ground.”
“It’s not my fault if you’re being confu…”
“All we need to do is strike the divot with our feet three times without letting them touch the ground. Each time the world will stack the acceleration it thinks we’re achieving with a normal run. After three our velocity will be so great that we will be pulled down into the bottom of the world once we start falling. Observe. Then copy.”
Chagrinn steadied the bag over his shoulder. He lifted each foot one at a time and wiggled his toes. He took a deep breath and jumped towards the column of wood. The tip of his boot struck the divot, about two feet off the ground. He pulled the foot back quickly and replaced it with the other. The first foot came back for a third strike, and then Bombi stared in slight disgust at what happened next.
Chagrinn’s body jerked upward, but the unnatural movement was entirely separate from anything she recognized. It was not a perversion of his own power like when his body doubled, and it was not like the magic of levitation that some conjurers and magicians practiced. He simply moved up as if by the invisible clutch of a giant hand. His head did not rock and his limbs did not sway from the force. As quickly as he went up, he shot downward even faster, disappearing into the ground without disturbing a single grain of sand.
“Copy…” she eventually repeated after staring at the place where he’d vanished. “Do you… do you even exist down there?”
“Yes,” his voice answered her. It was crystal clear, despite the mountain of sand that must have been between them. “Now hurry. You can’t see it but I’m impatiently tapping my foot.”
“I could have guessed,” she muttered. She didn’t know if she was quite ready to be squeezed by the world again, but she had nowhere to go otherwise. Bombi approached the wooden support and touched the spot Chagrinn had focused on.
“Hurry. Kick it three times. We have a place to be.” Bombi already thought of Chagrinn as something of a sexless creature, but she was still slightly disturbed by the position of his voice, which suggested he could look straight up her ripped clothing. With that thought added to the pile of things she was moving too quickly to think about, Bombi jumped. Three times she kicked the divot.
The sensation felt exactly the way it looked. She didn’t feel wind or force going up or down; she simply moved. It was like being an entrée in a dumbwaiter. One moment she was on the beach, the next she was twenty feet in the air, and the third she was somewhere below it all standing on… nothing! Bombi hopped to try and find ground, but everywhere she looked was pure white nothingness. Chagrinn had to grab her by the shoulders to steady her and demonstrate that they were not in fact falling. He pointed up.
“This is the bottom of the world Bombi. See?” She looked up and saw the beach just as they had left it: the docks, the piles of seaweed near the cliffs, and the blackened but cold remnant of the vagrants’ fire pit in the distance.
“How is it that we can see… through the ground?” she asked, mouth agape. I won’t ask such a poetic question, he would hate that, but… what does the rain look like from down here? What does it sound like? It sinks into the ground… so does it fill this place up like a pool?
“The lands of Shook and Cain never conceived of anyone looking at them from outside their boundaries. There’s no reason for opacity on this side, so they didn’t bother. If they did bother with that sort of thing we’d be out of a job. Come Bombi, on our way I will tell you of the people who want us out of this job.”
He took her by the hand and led her away from the beach. The impassable mountains were still there, but they were under their foundations. They walked straight under them, enjoying the shade their massive bodies provided. Here and there pieces of the world had dropped a few feet and settled in the nothingness, like reflected visions seen in drifting soap bubbles. He told her that much of the bottom was not solid, that if they fell they would fall infinitely and eventually starve to death, but that their current path had very few invisible holes. All she needed to do was stay directly behind him and copy his footsteps precisely.
“Where are we headed now?” Bombi asked. She wanted to look up, to keep getting the gopher’s view of the world, but she was too worried about falling. Instead she kept her eyes glued to the backs of Chagrinn’s boots so she could step exactly where he did.
“A small city beyond these mountains,” he answered without looking back. “We’re going to infiltrate the central barracks of the Win State.”
“The Win State. They are our polar opposites. They have learned of the exploits, they remember things between lives, but they do not run. They devote themselves instead to stopping us and closing the exploits any way they can. Usually the dunderheads try bombs.”
“Why does that make them dunderheads?”
“Because the exploits are made of more than just matter. They are the holes in the reality of Shook and Cain. Bombs only have a chance of actually closing them with debris. I’ve heard they once blew up an exploit a hundred times in trying to close it and eventually realized they just couldn’t do it.”
“Why do they hate running?”
“They think Shook and Cain were kind gods. They think the life we’re told to live is always the best life possible. To them our running is like spitting in the eye of their mother. To be blunt, they think you were supposed to stay a slave and be happy about it. What do you think of that Bombi?”
“I do not think well of it,” she said darkly. She was surprised by the black streak of anger that ran through her when she said it. It felt like it both squeezed her heart and protected it. Running was revitalizing her emotions. It hurt. It hurt rapturously, and she was glad to have instant hatred for the Win State. She was glad she still had the power to demonize rather than simply slumping her shoulders or letting her earlobes be stretched by more silver ornaments. “How do they justify that name? What are they winning?”
“Peace I suppose,” Chagrinn guessed. “I rarely think about them to be honest. They catch mostly the amateurs. None of them have ever been on my trail, at least not while it was fresh. They’re too scared of permanent death to chase very far into the exploits. We’re interested in them now only because of some information I gleaned from whisperings back at the Gone Basin. They have something we can use and your sword will serve as an excellent distraction while I steal it.”
“What is it?” she asked, actually more interested in the information than the skeleton they passed. It rested upon a small pile of bronze coins, dirt, and nothing. It wasn’t human. She couldn’t tell what it was with its man-like torso but lizard-like body; its limbs totaled six. Whatever it was it was truly dead, which she could be if she didn’t learn as much as she could as fast as she could. She did have the presence of mind to steal the shirt off its back to replace her torn clothing. It was so long that it worked well as a sort of dress; she cared not that its color was dinginess incarnate.
“It is called the assistant’s tool,” Chagrinn continued once she had pulled her head through and tossed the shed skin of her old life away. “It is an invention of a speed runner much older than I, one of the first, and he used it to enhance his abilities. If you know how a jump can be done while you hold the assistant’s tool, you can do it even if it is beyond your talent or ability. It saves time on every skip. It enables strats that no ordinary person could complete without being utterly destroyed.”
“How does it do these things?”
“Nobody knows. To open it up risks destroying it. I imagine the details are exceedingly complicated and dull. Either way, we need it. Now, to the details of our plan…”
The journey to the Win State barracks was longer than Bombi expected. Up until then everything with Chagrinn had been a matter of hours, but they walked through the bottom of the world for six days. Each night, as they camped upon emptiness and watched the orange glow of their campfires seep down into infinity, Chagrinn quizzed her on the plan. They would be splitting up upon their arrival at the barracks, so she needed a strategy for every exigency.
“What do you do at the front gates?” he asked.
“I set fire to their ornamental plants!” Bombi recited gleefully, drawing her sword and letting it flare up.
“Why do you do this?”
“To serve as a distraction. I will be arrested and taken to a holding cell. My sword will be confiscated. While their attention is on me you will infiltrate the building via an exploit that lets you walk through their walls unseen.”
“Exactly. The fools have no idea that some of us runners spy on them as much as they spy on us.”
“Once you’ve located the assistant’s tool you will free me from the cell and we will escape through the walls.”
“Correct. We will be pursued, but not far.”
As they drew closer to their goal Bombi entertained possibilities of her own. Under the mountain she felt like a plotting devil, some horned bearded thing with glistening yellow teeth and interwoven fingers, and it filled her mind with dark fantasies. They could walk through walls like boogeymen. She could drag one of the Win State’s number into a dark crevice and ask them face to face why they thought she deserved to be a slave. Every answer they could give would be unsatisfactory. Only their terror would answer the question properly.
They came to a wealthy town after clearing the mountains and passed right under its wooden gates. Bombi watched the tiny pink toes of children squish against the ground as if against glass when they waddled overhead. Chickens pecked in her direction as if sensing a giant worm just out of reach. The bottom of the world started to shallow out, bringing them closer and closer to the ground. Mounds of dirt and grass that had slipped through dotted their shrinking path. They stopped once they had to lean over to avoid brushing their hair against soil.
People marched in and out of a large building. It was the barracks, just as Chagrinn had described. The building was neatly constructed from gargantuan logs of wood that retained their smooth gray bark. Thick blue banners with gold trim hung from the front and sides. They displayed the Win State emblem: a woman with a halo of golden chain links.
“Now is the time Bombi,” Chagrinn told her as three blue uniforms passed overhead. The girl found she was not nervous in the slightest. Even if she was captured and abandoned, the world would have finally dropped its illusion. It would finally stop pretending she hadn’t been a prisoner up until now. She would have honest iron bars and the dignity of thin gruel.
She drew her sword and compelled its fire full. The first thing she did was thrust it up through the heel of a marching man’s boot, just far enough to pierce and scald his sole. The man yelped and hopped away on one foot. When all three of the Win State members stared at the blackened patch of grass on the ground she leapt up, sprouting from the spot like an infernal weed.
“Invisible or not, you shouldn’t tread on me!” she crowed, swishing the flaming sword back and forth. She gestured at the emblem on the banners. “Who is that? One of your mothers? Should I cut that nasty thing right off her scalp? I can; fire cuts metal so easily. What an excellent strat this was.” The last bit she said to ensure their suspicions. If they didn’t think she was a speed runner from her sudden appearance, they certainly would with her use of the lingo.
“By the authority of the Win State, surrogates of Shook and Cain, you are under arrest!” the one with the burned foot declared. He sniffled a little at the end, choking back a tear. He was too busy grabbing at his own leg, but the other two were on her instantly. She half-heartedly wiggled the sword to feign defense, but one of them drew a dagger and expertly used its blade to pry the hilt out of Bombi’s hand. The sword snuffed itself out against the ground and was carefully confiscated.
Bombi had to work to keep herself from smiling as they took her by the shoulders and led her inside. She pictured Chagrinn just under them, following to see where she was placed. The holding cells were near the entrance, so she didn’t get to see much of the barracks. Her extinguished hilt was hung on a wall opposite her cage, which was actually bigger than her sleeping quarters back in the palatial city. I could live in here rather comfortably. It just needs one big pillow to tie it all together.
The Win State simply left her there, without any threats or promise of investigation. She didn’t mind. She whistled, wondering how many tunes she could get through before Chagrinn burst out of the ceiling with his prize in hand. Her hands moved a little, not dancing to her tune but simply washing invisible dishes. She used to whistle like that sometimes when she worked in the kitchen; she still had the muscle memory. Her whistle stalled and she wrung her hands. I should be rid of all that. It’s extra weight. Forget everything but the anger. That can be our keepsake.
“That looks like a painful memory,” a voice said. Bombi pulled her hands apart and looked up to see a large man standing just outside her cage with his chest puffed out and his hands behind his back. His uniform was fancier than the rest, with a big golden belt buckle. His blonde jowly face implied stoicism, but Bombi had been around the wealthy enough to sense the smugness steaming behind it.
“All of them are,” she snapped. Look at all that gold. This man is in charge… of something at least. He’s the one, the one who will always insist I belong where I was. He’ll dare to tell me that I was blessed to be born… and maybe I’ll dare to run him through with hot coals.
“Is that why you turned to speed running?”
“Who are you? What’s your name?” she asked instead of answering.
“I am Hieron: a champion of the Win State. I command these brave men and women. We capture runners and put them back in their place. Why have you come here?”
“I was just passing through. That’s all this place is good for: shortcuts.”
“Cute. No, you would not have taunted my people if that were the case. Runners like to keep quiet and avoid aggro. You created it intentionally. You will tell me why you are really here.”
“Or I will end your life and send you back to your track.”
“So what? I’ll just hop off again as soon as I can walk.”
“The threats of the Win State span lifetimes,” Hieron said with a loose smile and a deep chuckle. He paced back and forth, his weight making the floor creak. There’s a rather big mouse down there who won’t like that sound at all. “We can communicate with each other back and forth in Shook and Cain’s time. I’ll put a guard on you, someone to watch you your entire life to make sure you don’t stray.”
“You can’t do such a thing,” she spat, but she heard the uncertainty in her own voice. The stone brazier holding up her blazing rage cracked.
“I can. I could even do it myself if I wanted. Do you see my age? Do you see a single gray hair upon this head? I’ve had this age for many lifetimes now. Some of your strats can convince Shook and Cain that the members of the Win State are perpetually young.”
“Then you’re a hypocrite. Certainly none of this was your intended track.”
“No, the life meant for me is far more comfortable than this. On my track I am royalty, surrounded by luxuries for eighty-plus years. A hundred servants to wait on me hand and foot… but none of that would exist, for me or anyone else, if a speed runner were to smash all the tracks.”
“The tracks that aren’t made of gold deserve to be smashed,” she said, standing to face him. She was not the smallest woman, but he towered over her like a duck staring down at a juicy snail.
“You’re entitled to your opinion… but not your actions,” Hieron said coldly. He brought his hands out from behind his back, presenting them as he would a strangling cord. “Have you died before, young lady? Though it won’t be permanent up here in the light, it won’t be pleasant either.”
He pulled an iron key from his belt and slotted it into the cell door. Bombi backed up as it swung open and he stepped inside. He was as wide as the frame, but looked even wider to her. She blinked a few times, confused as to how he had even squeezed inside. Her back struck the wall, and he kept coming. His hands were up now. Claw at his eyes or bite at his fingers? What sort of caged animal am I exactly? The floor creaked, but it was not the floor under Hieron; it was the one above him. He tilted his head up in time to see the wood bend and crack. Out of the hole tumbled two bodies.
Bombi hopped up onto the cell’s cot as if the floor had turned to acid. What is that mess? How many people are in there? The bale of bodies rolled across the cell floor, eventually smacking into the bars. Something popped out of a hand and rolled out into the open, beyond the door Hieron left open. From that distance she could see only that it was a metal and ivory cylinder. That has to be the assistant’s tool, assuming one of these people is Chagrinn. Yes… That’s his hair there. There’s something terribly wrong with that other one.
That was the one thing that was clear in the scuffle; Chagrinn and Hieron were normal in appearance, but the third person was something else. Bombi guessed the long hair meant a woman, but even her hair was strange; it seemed to change texture and consistency at uneven intervals. She wore a Win State uniform, but it looked like it had been cut to pieces and sewn back together in the wrong order.
“Bombi, get…” she heard Chagrinn shout before he was punched in the mouth. What was she supposed to get? There were two possible targets: the assistant’s tool or Hieron, who had been kicked out of the brawl and now sat stunned at the cell’s threshold. If she went after Hieron she assumed her role was as a combatant. She would need to disable him, or perhaps kill him. If I so much as touch him I’ll have to ask him. And if he gives the only answer a man like him can… I’ll have to kill him.
Part of her already burned for that, burned for vengeance, but the assistant’s tool was their objective. It was right there, ready for the taking, ready to unlock strats even Chagrinn could not achieve. Anger and determination dueled within her. She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.