Bombi noticed the scratches she’d left in the clouds with her left hand were deeper than those of her right. In her panic that suggested she was already more committed to the left pathway. Hesitation would only bring her closer to not going at all, to staying with the cloudfeet, laughing and dancing until she starved and they rolled her off the side like a sack of garbage.
She threw herself forward onto the leftmost windy way. Its surface proved extremely slick, immediately wetting the front of her clothes as the packed clouds had not. It bent under her weight, but did not break. The angle steepened. Bombi passed straight through the next bank. An entire mountain range was suddenly there, gaping before her, yawning with a mighty airy sound.
“Chagrinn! I see the mountains! I’m coming!” she shouted, but there was no response. Their tops were white with snow, but from that height it was impossible to make out any tracks. Her arms were out in front of her; she slid as if diving. The young runner tried to lift her head, crane her neck up and get a better look at the peaks, but this caused her body to separate from the windy way. She simply fell at that point. With a gasp and a flail she dug her hands into the windy way and used the friction to pull her stomach back to it. I won’t try that again.
As the mountains grew closer the windy way leveled out. Its surface was still incredibly slick, so Bombi’s speed had not reduced enough to safely hop off it. I’m going to land in the snow. This is the peaks way then. Damn Chagrinn! He didn’t even say which way he hoped for. I don’t even know if this is good luck or bad luck.
Whatever luck it was, it was the reverse of what she assumed. The windy way plowed straight into the snow, taking her with it. It was so soft and so fresh that she moved through with barely any speed lost. She was blinded by the clouds and the powder mingling, frigid against her skin. She lost her sense of up and down, of where the windy way was. She tumbled down, striking various snow-covered surfaces.
At some point it all turned to water. It invaded her eyes, nose, and mouth. It drummed in her ears, taunting her with the sounds of it striking the rock below. It was dark. She was inside the mountain now. This wasn’t the peaks route after all. The windy way had transformed into an icy waterfall.
Bombi whispered pleas into its flow. They were not aimed at Chagrinn or a god, just whatever force controlled the RNG. If it truly was random, then it could randomly hear her and randomly grant her wish to survive. There was always a chance.
A cave opened up under her, spreading the sounds of the fall to its distant curved walls. There was a shimmering blue lake below her where it terminated. Bombi pressed her legs together just in time to pierce the water without significant pain from impact, but it was agonizingly cold, nearly shocking her to immobility. With the last of her wits and strength she swam to its chalky stone edge and pulled herself out.
Her hands contorted into claws as she dropped to her knees and tried to shiver the cold away. It’s not working. I’m still going to freeze to death. I have to take off these wet clothes. Her arms and legs screamed as she forced them to move, to slowly peel off her clothes piece by piece. She didn’t have the strength to toss them away from her, so she had to step away from them.
“Gahh!” she squeaked. She couldn’t manage hopping up and down, so instead she shuffled her feet with a soft sound, the only sound separate from the rushing water. Her mind thawed first, giving her the idea to use the stuttering back-dash. The cavern was quite dark, so once she activated it she simply spun in a circle until the dizziness toppled her. The fall was painful, but the inhuman rapid motion did dry her.
I’m naked! What if Chagrinn… What if indeed. He wouldn’t care. Do I? Am I any more lost without them? They’re still freezing. I’m not carrying them. I have nothing in this world. Clothes are just a lie now; they suggest I have a home and a purpose. They suggest I have dignity beyond my heartbeat and breath.
Bombi took the first painful step away from the pool. Her eyes adjusted to the low light, and she discerned several passages off her current chamber. Perhaps it was her imagination, but one tunnel looked a little brighter than the others. The memory of what Chagrinn said hopped up, barking in her face before she could manage to embrace hope.
He said if I got stuck down here alone I should avoid waking the boss. He neglected to mention what the boss was or what wakes it. Hopefully the catalyst is not nudity. Bombi marched towards the bright passage. It would’ve been the right time for a song, something to warm her spirit, but she had none for the situation. All the bosses in the lyrics of her childhood were more mundane. You didn’t have to find them or worry about which rock they hid under. The just hovered over you constantly, claiming ownership with their gaze. They didn’t fight you and they didn’t kill you. They simply bossed you. Bombi knew she already preferred the predatory sound Chagrinn had put to speed running bosses. They wanted things to be as swift as the runners; they wanted you to hurry up and die.
When the sound of the water was far behind her, Bombi saw signs of human activity. I think it’s human, but the forests have anytaurs and the skies have cloudfeet. The stone might have its own people. There was a thin layer of dirt under her feet now, with clear footprints going back and forth. She counted the toes: five. Human after all.
Giggling echoed through the passage, along with the crackling of fire. Shadows appeared on the walls, dancing in light that was now clearly orange. A wave of warmth hit Bombi, its effect more intense thanks to her nakedness. It moved through her, easing the tension in her heart and melting the ache in her muscles.
She smelled food. It wasn’t exactly a strong smell; it was simply a large smell. There was so much of it in the air that she could feel it on her eyelashes and inside the folds of her ears. It had to be a colossal amount of food, a pile that could crush you, too large to even eat an escape route. Her nose pulled her closer, separating each part of the mountainous aroma: hens, fish, pork, bread, butter, broth…
Bombi came to a strange open door made of packed and tied straw. When she passed through she hid behind a large pile of firewood. She looked over to see a dog lying next to her: a black creature with a gray muzzle. It stared back, but didn’t bark. It, at least, did not care she’d lost her clothes.
“Thank you,” she whispered to the dog for his discretion. Then she peeked her head over top of the pile and observed the activities. Bombi was a better speed runner than she’d thought. Somehow, subconsciously, she’d run straight to people in the same situation as her. This new chamber was indeed full of people, there had to be at least thirty, but there wasn’t a scrap of clothing among them. There was no pool to suggest they were about to bathe, just fire pits with iron and copper pots funneling smoke into chimneys in the stone, preparation tables covered in dishes and knives, and a long dining table where most of the children already sat, awaiting their meal.
Bombi’s eyes moved to the adults, who were busy preparing to cook. Wait a moment… Something is wrong here. I smell food. Finished food. I can feel the warmth of it. There’s steam coming from that bowl… but there’s nothing inside! Yes, the picture was of a complete meal, but the most vital part was missing. These people were moments from the opening blessing, but there wasn’t a bite in sight.
A child checked to see if any of the adults watched and then leaned over the table. The little girl dipped her finger into an empty bowl, stuck it in her mouth, and sucked on it. She giggled through closed lips. Bombi’s eyes shot back to the adults. A plump old woman stirred a giant empty pot, and yet the wooden spoon’s long handle bent, showing the resistance of a thick stew.
The adults brought over platters and jugs and took their seats at the long table. They poured nothing into their cups, a nothing that audibly poured, splashed, and dripped. A frustrated father wiped his child’s clean face with a cloth napkin. One of them raised their hands and slowly pulled them apart. Bombi heard the sound of bread breaking.
They clasped their hands and bowed their heads. The blessing. If she was going to intrude it was best to do it before the dedication. To appear before it was to join them, afterwards would be an intrusion.
“We dedicate this meal to the brothers Shook and Cain…”
“Excuse me,” Bombi said as she stepped out from behind the wood and stood tall. She didn’t bother to cover her breasts or body with her hands, as none of those at the dinner table did anything of the sort. They all turned and looked at her; their invisible food continued to steam. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m a speed… traveler. I’ve gotten myself lost. I was separated from…”
“From your home,” one of the women interrupted. She stood. Her eyes were wide with concern, but also unsettling fixation. “That’s all that matters. You’re safe now young lady. This is our home. We can share it with you. Come, partake of our bounty.” She waved her hands through a trail of steam. “The food is speaking now, so we can talk after.” The others smiled and agreed, the children waving her over with little floppy hands and uncoordinated clapping.
“That’s very kind of you,” Bombi said with a smile, moving to an empty seat near the end of the table. She decided not to ask about their lack of garb, but that grew more difficult when she sat down. The wooden chair had no cushion. She had assumed everything would be cushioned to compensate for no undergarments or pants. She shifted back and forth in an effort to get comfortable, and looked up to see the whole table staring, hands clasped. “Oh!” Bombi clasped hers as well, and bowed her head.
“We dedicate this meal to the brothers Shook and Cain, who with their work and play crafted these lands and allowed us to plant in them. We thank also Dawmar, their pet, for bringing them joy while they did so. Forever will we feed him with the fruits of this land, to honor the brothers, and to keep us all fat and happy.”
“We feast!” everyone at the table declared simultaneously. They dug in, hands and utensils doling out great heaps of steaming nothing to their plates and bowls. They picked the nothing apart piece by piece and chewed it thoroughly. The air filled with all the right sounds: lip smacking, bone cracking, vegetable spurting… but Bombi couldn’t see any of it. One of the children leaned forward, grabbed nothing, and dropped it on Bombi’s plate. The plate clattered a little under its weight.
“Try it!” the child urged. “It’s my favorite. I like the skin.” Bombi hesitated, but eventually reached towards the plate. Something warmed her fingers. She tapped at it tentatively until she got a sense of its shape before picking it up. Warm, crispy, and greasy. The roasted leg of a chicken or turkey she guessed. All of this invisibility must be an exploit of some kind. It’s why Chagrinn was fine with coming down here; he had a way to use this to our advantage. That likely means… they’re not naked at all! Their clothes simply can’t be seen, and they think the same of me.
Bombi bit into the leg. Its gamey steam rushed along the top of her mouth and into her throat, instantly warming her whole body. Her gooseflesh vanished and her muscles loosened. What else was on the table for her? She surveyed the dishes pretending to be empty. One of them had a ladle, so she grabbed a bowl, but quickly stopped herself and put it down, as the bowl was too heavy to be empty. She tried two others and found one that was appropriately light.
The people of the cave gave her odd looks as she filled her bowl; she only realized why when she put a spoonful in her mouth and realized she’d dished up ten dinners’ worth of gravy. Bombi quickly put the spoon aside and tipped the bowl, drizzling the gravy over the remains of her invisible meat.
“You must think it strange,” the woman who had welcomed her said. Bombi looked up and swallowed. “The missing things, that is. Missing clothes, missing food, except they aren’t missing at all…”
“I’ve seen many strange things in recent days,” Bombi answered. “I’ve been on a journey across the world, with most of the strangeness in the… methods… of crossing. As a former servant I can tell you nothing is so strange to me as your hospitality. Strange, but beautiful.”
“You’re very welcome dear, but it isn’t our hospitality. It is the brothers’ and Dawmar’s.”
“I confess I have not heard of Dawmar,” Bombi admitted. Perhaps that was too much. The chewing of the children slowed, and a few of them looked her way. If she could turn it into a question it would perhaps be less insulting. “You said he was the pet of Shook and Cain?”
“Well they had many pets; they were gods after all,” the woman explained with a snicker. “Dawmar was their greatest. He is a singular beast, too good to actually exist. That is likely why you haven’t heard his stories. People don’t get to see him very often. We see him because we are the keepers of his talent.”
“What talent is that?”
“You’re eating and wearing it! The talent of not-being-seen! Dawmar’s hide is hidden from the eyes of mortals. Sometimes he gets tired and sheds this armor, so we keep it safe for him until he wakes. Speaking of him waking…” The woman clapped her hands twice. A couple older children pulled out their chairs and went to fetch two large sacks from the corner of the room. One of them dragged a very large stone bowl out from under another table.
Bombi watched cautiously as she took a sip from a glass, only to realize it was actually empty. The children tipped the heavy sacks over and emptied them into the bowl. It was as invisible as the rest of the food, but from the sound of a few strays bouncing and rolling away she guessed it was apples or some similar fruit. One of the children grabbed a metal rod and struck a triangular dinner bell beside a wide doorway in the stone. Its clatter brought back Bombi’s gooseflesh. All heads turned towards that doorway. After a few silent moments, Bombi heard something lumbering through the corridor. Most of the light was around the dinner table, so the creature’s form was obscured by shadow.
What sort of animal it was eluded the young runner. In its shadow she could see the mountainous shoulders of a cat, but its long-toed feet moved out to the side with each stride, like a lizard. She couldn’t see the shining of any eyes, so she assumed they were on the side of its head. It made a low sound from the back of its throat, like giant bubbles trapped in a swamp for ages finally surfacing.
Bombi wasn’t allowed to have any more than that. Something changed just before it crossed the threshold into the better lighting of the dining chamber. A wisp of something golden brown flew out of Bombi’s mouth and towards the beast. She couldn’t feel it, but she clapped her hands over her mouth all the same. The mouths and nostrils of everyone around the table did the same thing, though the colors varied.
The people were not bothered by the sight. One man had two trails as red as blood pouring from his nose, but the fluid moved as gas from him to the beast rather than dripping down. Soup. It’s not blood; it’s tomato broth. Bombi looked down at the table. The food was reappearing, its invisibility being siphoned away strand by strand. The exposed bones of a turkey appeared on the largest platter. Its shriveled dead eyes and sharp gray beak pointed straight at Bombi. Crumbs faded into existence between all the plates; the table was actually far dirtier than she’d expected, covered as it was by the stains of a thousand similar meals.
Everything shed its invisibility. The air seemed to peel away from the people of the cave like shed skins. It folded over like fabric partly trapped under a rock in a weak current. The woman who had spoken to Bombi most wore a puffy thing of brown and green. Her bone buttons were the last thing to appear. All of them sprouted filthy clothes, like the blooming of putrid flowers over a natural grave.
Dawmar shuffled over to his bowl, his shadow fully replaced by his invisible hide, and began eating. He swallowed up great mouthfuls of the small warty green apples that Bombi could now see. She saw the apples pulped moment by moment as his mouth opened and closed. The children clapped for the beast as he ate. They started to sing a song about what a good little god-beast he was, but they didn’t make it past the first verse.
Someone had ruined the decorum of their evening. They had disrespected Dawmar with their uncivilized appearance. That someone was Bombi. They had all dutifully turned Dawmar’s talent back over to him, but the former servant had nothing to give. She was simply naked. Bombi quickly covered her breasts with one arm. She wanted to bolt away from the table, but it was doing an excellent job of covering her nether regions.
“What is this?” the man who performed the blessing shouted. He rose, displaying his pants and rusty belt buckle like a drawn sword. “Is this your idea of a joke?” he roared. “You mock our customs? You mock the mighty Dawmar with your brazen nipples and navel?” Bombi froze in her seat. The sound of chewing had ceased. She could hear the monster’s invisible breath turn in her direction.
“I meant no disrespect,” Bombi tried to explain. “I fell into the freezing waters when I arrived. I needed to shed my…”
“In front of the children no less!” one of the women shrieked. She corralled the littlest ones and threw her fingers over their eyes. “Nude at dinner! Only the turkey should have that privilege!” There came another growl. The people stopped yelling, and a moment later they scattered, toppling their wooden chairs as they went. The denizens of the cave disappeared into the shadows, down corridors, and into any chest large enough to hold them. They were all out of sight when Bombi finally rose from her seat and started backing up. Something slapped against the stone floor. Dawmar’s breath pushed the loose straw towards the girl.
“I’m sorry Dawmar, pet of Shook and Cain, I was only…” The breath stilled. The straw stilled. She couldn’t see it, but she could feel it coiling in front of her, preparing to pounce, as if something sharpened the very air. Now the speed runner’s arms had something better to do, so she pulled them from her body and put them in just the right position for a stuttering back-dash. Her body flickered backward just in time to avoid a devastating bite. She couldn’t see the teeth, but the clap of its jaws echoed around the cavern.
She needed a way out. The way she’d come was no good, as that terminated in a waterfall she could not climb. Bombi didn’t have any time to stop and look; even with the speed of the back-dash Dawmar chomped at her heels. The dash also made everything blurry, which was worsened by the flickering of the cooking fires. Only one path was large enough for her to discern: the tunnel Dawmar had emerged from.
Bombi bolted down it. The slapping of Dawmar’s feet and the scraping of its claws stayed after her. With no idea where she was headed, Bombi simply moved with the terrain as best she could. The corridor angled down sharply; her feet dropped out from under her. Her dash turned into a tumbling fall.
When she finally hit the bottom she was battered senseless and covered in blooming bruises. Her ears rang. Her sides hurt, and she realized a second later it was because Dawmar’s teeth pierced them. The invisible beast lifted her off the ground like a dead rat and carried her further in.
It doesn’t even know we should be on the same side. It’s not supposed to be invisible, not supposed to be missing from history beyond this cave. It should be the pet of a runner… How did you get this way Dawmar? What hole in the world did you fall into?
The beast promptly answered her question. It hung its head over a fissure in the stone just as Bombi’s vision cleared of tears. She thought the bottom of the fissure blindingly bright, but it was actually just pure white. Not like ivory. Not like wool. The absence of color as substance. No texture. No end.
It was a gap in the Lands of Shook and Cain. Bombi recalled Chagrinn’s warnings regarding such places. They held true death… and now they would hold Bombi. For the crime of interrupting his meal with his worshippers, Dawmar dropped her into the fissure. Bombi scrambled for a handhold, but found nothing. A moment late she was in freefall. The fissure disappeared above her as the deep parts of the land became her new sky.
I’ll fall until I die. That will be that. The end of Bombi. It certainly was a speed run. I found my grave in no time at all. I should thank Chagrinn. It was more exciting than a noose. I felt more than I would have in any deathbed surrounded by fellow slaves.
If Dawmar crawled out of this hole, maybe there’s something else in my path. Maybe a piece of eternity or godhood. Something that helped spawn him or his talent. I have a while to hope… and I can still taste that gravy…