‘Pen Kept’ Stratagem
She would need Timorrow’s comfort if she was going to make it in this new, rushed, terrifying world. The pen bounced against her hip with every step and she tried to cherish it instead of worrying.
Once she was next to him, Chagrinn turned and examined her up and down. His eyes narrowed. She tried not to swallow. He pushed a bag into her hands and told her to carry it. They pushed their way through the crowd and away from the Gone Basin.
“With your addition calculated in, I’ve decided we should take the Anytaur Forest route. The strats required there should be simple enough for you to handle,” Chagrinn said.
“What’s a strat?” Bombi asked, somehow unable to slide through people without bumping into them the way he did. The bag over her shoulder was full to bursting, yet light as a pillow. He took her up another set of stairs to a crevice in the stone smaller than a closet. They both squeezed into it. Chagrinn rolled his eyes, grabbed her shirt, and pulled her closer. The stone wall scratched her arm but she said nothing. She felt his breath on her teeth, but couldn’t smell anything on him, as if there was nothing inside him but shadow and condensation.
“Strat is short for stratagem,” he said. “If you want to keep up you’ll have to learn the words. Routes are the paths we take, as cut by runners before. Strats are the actions we take to save time or skip huge tracts of Shook and Cain land. PB is short for personal best, referring to the shortest life you’ve achieved before returning to the track of your birth. WR is world record: the current fastest time. Beating that is always our goal. Do you understand all this?”
“Yes,” Bombi muttered. Squished between Chagrinn and the walls, she was running out of breath. Chagrinn smirked, seeming to recall a discomfort in his past.
“I forgot to mention exploits,” he said, staring at the crack above them. “The tracks of our lives are far from perfectly built. They’re full of holes, cracks, and thin spots. These are our ways in and out and we call them exploits. For example, the lumbering drooling idiot that is the world above knows I’m supposed to be in a specific place right about now. Standing here, we are just high enough for it to detect me. It will do its best to pull me back to my track in three, two, one…”
They were sucked up into the crack, their very being stretched by the grinding of Shook and Cain’s gears. The use of the egg had been strange, but not painful; this was different. Her muscles felt too stretched to even tense. Her hands and feet seemed to be a hundred feet beneath her as her skull softened and flattened so it could be pulled through. Her thoughts were compressed into nothing but shards of agonized light.
Such pain would kill them normally, but the world was trying to correct what they had set askew. It knew only that they were supposed to be alive and in specific positions above ground. No matter what it did to correct them, no matter how much they were stretched, twisted, or knotted, they would not die, even if they wished it.
The rock changed enough that their bodies returned to their proper proportions. Then it gave way as it broke up and loosened into sand. Grains of it lodged in the holes from her various piercings, but she dared not open her mouth lest she fill her stomach and intestines with rushing sediment. She could only hope that soon they would be allowed to breathe.
A sand geyser announced their reemergence. Bombi tumbled through the air and landed in dark brown sand, her bottom sinking low enough for water from the nearby sea to seep into her clothes. Chagrinn landed on his feet. Even in the air he’d been examining their surroundings. They were under docks much larger than the ones they’d seen earlier, surrounded by thick wooden columns. Garbage washed in and out with the tide. Hundreds of sickly purple barnacles waved their limbs about in the air when a wave struck the columns. Bombi knew something was wrong. They were in a different part of it, but they had returned to Lampworm Bay. There was no mistaking the decay in the air.
“What happened?” she asked as she rose shakily to her feet. Chagrinn’s body doubled, more pronounced than before. She saw seven of him at once as he somehow backed toward her without taking a step. When the copies all coalesced back to one, he was before her with burning eyes and a deep snarl. He looked down. Bombi followed his gaze and saw the quicksilver pen showing against her hip, thanks to the water making her clothes cling to her skin. He grabbed at the side of her leg and violently ripped the entire pocket from her clothes. She feared the rip would worsen to nakedness, and so instinctively kicked him away and held her clothes together with her hands.
“What happened?” he repeated, his voice like a campfire suddenly doused. “What happened? You disobeyed my first order! You failed in your first task! Some apprentice you’ll be!”
“So your advice is orders now?” she asked venomously. “This was supposed to be the path to freedom. Or did you lie to me?”
“Eventual freedom! The world record will free everyone from the shackles of Shook and Cain. For now I am the one who can get you there. We might have lost our chance thanks to this!” He held up the pen, still wrapped in shreds of her clothing. He cocked his arm back.
“No don’t!” Bombi shouted, but she couldn’t stop him from hurling it into the sea. The air tore the scraps of cloth away and then the object pierced the water like a spear and disappeared. Whether she wanted it or not, her old life was gone now. She lived in a new place, devoid of everything including kindness. She dropped to her knees and hugged herself. What am I doing? If this life is truly just tracks and the holes between them… then there’s nothing worth standing on. Nothing worth standing for. Artificial purpose or nothingness. A non-choice if there ever was one.
She was pulled from her thoughts by a brutal slap across the face. Chagrinn was not done with her. She had thought, now that she’d demonstrated her disobedience, that he would abandon her immediately, but there he stood, crimson in face. He looked stuck, like a caterpillar covered in toxic red hairs trying to squeeze through a tiny hole.
“Get up,” he seethed. She refused.
“Leave me here,” she insisted, a tear dropping from the corner of her eye. “I will find my own way in this nothingness. I won’t be slapped about by a mad flickering shadow.” The pain of the slap finally tingled its last and anger replaced it. She wasn’t a servant anymore. Bombi shot to her feet and slapped Chagrinn back. His color didn’t intensify; instead it quickly returned to his typical paleness.
“I don’t have time to be angry,” he told himself more than he did her. “We don’t have time. There are still ways. Always ways.” He looked her in the eye. “I won’t strike you again if you don’t disobey again.”
“I’ll disobey as I please.”
“Fine, just warn me if you’re going to disobey. If you pull stunts like that you could get both of us killed, truly killed, or eternally crushed in an exploit. Are we in agreement on that?”
“Yes,” she said after a moment. “I kept that pen because it was the only love shown to me in all my li… track.”
“Fine, fine, fine… it’s over. We’re moving on. As a result of your error we can no longer make it to the Anytaur Forest quickly enough. We’ll have to change route… try something a little more dangerous. No tricks for you Bombi, so we’ll have to get you a weapon instead.” Chagrinn rolled his eyes up behind their lids and seemed to rifle through a few boxes in his head. He hummed loudly and wiggled a finger about in the air. Eventually the finger settled on a direction, further under the giant docks. He walked forward briskly.
“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked as she tried to keep up. One hand was still glued to her hip, keeping her clothes from falling apart. “How did my pen throw us off of our route?”
“Shook and Cain was supposed to only notice me on that exploit,” Chagrinn explained. “It was supposed to suck us up through the ground and spit us out at my family’s cabin outside the forest. We would then carefully avoid my family, the cow-eyed dullards, and sneak into its interior where we would encounter an anytaur, modify its intended behaviors, and create a powerful skip forward.”
“What’s an anytaur?”
“We’re not on that route anymore, so don’t concern yourself with that. What you need to know is that your pen was enough of a marker for the world to identify you rather than me. It grabbed hold of you, of us, and pulled us to where it thought you belonged. That meant the last place you would be if you weren’t running. Lampworm Bay.”
“Your family doesn’t know what you’re doing?”
“My family knows their child vanished, nothing more. Once I discovered the exploits I knew I would never return to picking turnips and trying to court my own cousin.” Bombi knew it was fashionable for the upper echelons of the palatial city to choose brides and grooms from their cousins. It always seemed strange to her, like watching a snake eat its own tail. In her first day of running she’d already seen people more exotic than anything in the home of her employers. They could cover their tables with expensive imported antiques, but they couldn’t lock eyes with those living actual different lives.
The docks went on and on, eventually blocking out so much of the sun that it became quite dim. The greatest source of light was a campfire ahead of them, just out of the tide’s reach and protected by a small pile of sand. Two men and a woman sat around it, roasting a brown shelled thing with too many legs to be appetizing. The wrinkles of their filthy clothes were loaded with sand, giving them a generally droopy look. They glared at the two runners.
“Who are they?” Bombi whispered.
“Vagrants. They’re of no concern yet.”
“Over here.” Chagrinn pulled her away from their campfire and toward the porous rock wall the docks were built against. Huge mounds of red seaweed, where the highest tides hit the rock, dried out before them. Their yellow gas-filled floats withered and expanded slightly, like the breath from a light nap. “Make yourself useful and help me dig.” Chagrinn dropped to his knees and used his hands to shovel the seaweed away. He hit sand and started pawing at it like a dog.
“They’re watching us,” Bombi said as she glanced over her shoulder at the vagrants. They didn’t even notice their eleven-legged dinner had caught fire and was leaking milky white fat.
“You’re a runner now Bombi. You have to ignore most of this fake world. Dig.” Bombi crouched and stuck her hands into the sediment alongside his. The sand was cool and soft, but she had to wonder how much of that was her new smoothed fingertips. They dug for minutes and found only wetter sand and the occasional dead crab pale as a baby tooth.
“What are we looking for?” the apprentice runner asked.
“I told you we needed to get you a weapon.”
“There is one buried here?”
“No,” Chagrinn said with a snort. “There is a weapon source buried here. Eventually, the tracks of Shook and Cain have this rock wall collapsing. A shantytown will be built upon it. Then, a smith will take up residence on this spot and begin forging weapons for sale. Shook and Cain has already begun preparations for that point in the track, calling forth pieces of the Source and shaping them.”
“Ahh!” Bombi squeaked. She pulled her hand back and saw a cut across the inside of her middle finger. Blood mixed with sparkling grains of sand. She looked down at the hole to see what had caused the cut, but saw nothing. She did her best to wipe the wound clean and put pressure on it with her other hand. It stung fiercely, but the injury was minor. Chagrinn reached down into the hole carefully. He wrapped his fingertips around something invisible at the bottom of the sand funnel. He wiggled it back and forth and slowly pulled. The unseen thing emerged, only given form by the few grains of sand stuck to its sides.
Bombi’s eyes struggled to make sense of the thing as Chagrinn presented it to her on flat hands. The end of an edge was clearly marked by her blood. The sand betrayed its length and the rounded handle at its end. It was a sword, a sword that simply wasn’t there.
“This is meant to become a sword,” Chagrinn said to help her along. “It is the inspiration of a sword. All things Shook and Cain, even you, start as this potential. That is the Source.” He urged her to take it. Bombi reached out and ran a finger across its hilt. Destroyed fingertips against invisible substance. Chills ran through her body. She lifted it and stood. Like the bags they carried it was impossibly light.
She was about to speak when the seaweed before the hole rustled. A bug-eyed face with a bulbous nose emerged from the mound and yawned. Bombi guessed this man was another vagrant and he had been using the copious seaweed as bedding. The man ogled the sand-coated nothing in Bombi’s hand.
“My oh my,” he said, his foul breath overpowering the salty sea air. “What kind of a thing is that?”
“Now these fools are your concern,” Chagrinn said. He stood and took a step back, as if encouraging Bombi to dance for his amusement.
“What?” Bombi stammered in sudden panic.
“Hey, looky-here!” the weed-covered man called to his companions. “This one’s got an undetectionable blade she does!” The people around the campfire dropped the knobby legs they gnawed on and rushed over. When the shouting one extricated himself from the weeds she was completely surrounded. They started poking at her clothes and reaching for the weapon source.
“Her clothing is in a right undignified state,” the woman screeched. She pulled at a thread near the tear on Bombi’s thigh. The apprentice responded by swinging the invisible sword. The vagrants backed away only for a moment, then came closer than before.
“Give it here!” one of them ordered.
“You can’t sell what you can’t see,” the woman said as she smacked one of the others on the shoulder.
“You don’t know until you’ve tried,” another said. They continued to paw at Bombi.
“Do something!” she yelled at Chagrinn.
“Do something yourself,” he replied casually. “If you’re going to be a runner you need to know combat.”
“Shut up you,” the biggest vagrant barked. He lunged at Chagrinn, but the runner backed up without moving, his body doubling and disappearing a dozen times. “He’s too slippery! He’s got his own twins inside him or some such magics!”
“Then get the girl,” the woman said; she seemed to have changed her mind about the value of the invisible sword. Bombi swung it again; she struck one of them, but they suffered little for it.
“It’s still just the idea of a sword,” Chagrinn hinted. “Shook and Cain won’t give it substance for ages. You have to do it here and now. Choose something to make your sword from.” Bombi needed some room to think. She threw herself at the woman vagrant and knocked her over. Before they could react she was back on her feet and running toward the sea. Make the sword from what? There’s nothing but water and sand. No metal. The wood of the posts… What good will giving them splinters do me? The burnt smell of the vagrants’ dinner hit her, like crab meat that had already been burned and digested five times over. They were getting closer. In a moment they would be upon her, trying to steal her only possession. The one thing I have isn’t even real. It hasn’t even been born and they still want to take it from me. Not anymore. Now I can fight for what is mine.
Chagrinn watched from the side, practically a non-entity as his body drifted along next to the conflict. If Bombi were to fall to the bandits, according to Chagrinn, she would merely be reborn and start her life over. There would be permanent changes though. There were skips to remember, fingertips to mourn. If she failed he would not come back for her. She could wait another seventeen years and find him cutting things open in Lampworm Bay, but he would just avoid her like the rest of the world.
“I think this one was one of those servants,” the big vagrant mocked. “Look at her eyes. She’s just waiting for someone to tell her what to do.”
“Aww poor girly,” another said. “Don’t frighten. I’ll be your master. I’ll give you peaceful orders and rub your little black head.” Their filthy fingers were outstretched again, months of grime stuck under their nails as black crescents. She had to think. Necessity quickly improved the surroundings as inspiration for her sword.
Two options were clear. Behind her, lapping at her heels, was the sea. A thing of great power, no doubt… but for a sword? Would its blade have a tide as well, shrinking to the size of a dagger half the time? The only solidity to it might be a hilt of sand. Alternatively, its raw power might be perfectly encapsulated. Imagine a wave with an edge that could cut. Imagine the crushing power of its depths focused into a single blow.
Before Bombi, flanked by its makers, was the crackling campfire. The apprentice looked to its orange heart and saw shards of something that did not burn. They were a dull red clay from a fired pot of some kind. Perhaps a vessel for soup accidentally shattered. A blade of flame and clay… would that be superior? Even if the weapon was not solid its heat would be tremendous. She could cut down a forest with a single, slow, spreading thrust. The sight of it might make the bandits scurry like roaches under the lantern.
Anxious and uncertain, Bombi froze. She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.