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 feared the left pathway. Hesitation would only bring her closer to not going at all, to staying with the cloudfeet, to laughing and dancing until she starved and they rolled her off the side like a sack of garbage.
She threw herself forward onto the rightmost 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 in it. 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.
The windy way curled up so steeply that Bombi’s face plowed right into it. Her lower half flipped up and she was tossed from the end of it. She flailed wildly, trying to get her head higher than her feet, trying to blink the clouds out of her eyelashes. Before she could she was deposited deep into the soft snow of the peaks. Chagrinn grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet.
“You made it,” he said. Bombi scrutinized the runner. He seemed almost disappointed, turning and walking towards a windy ridge. He dragged his bag of goodies across the ground behind him. As usual he was unbothered by something as trivial as the cold, but Bombi had to immediately rub her upper arms and chatter her teeth. Not only was she not dressed for the place, she’d never actually owned a coat thick enough to handle it.
“I’m glad we’re moving so quickly,” she said, following him, dancing in the snow to keep her feet from freezing. “I don’t know how long I can take this snow.”
“It won’t be long,” he assured, casually strolling along the ridge and looking into the gorge below. “I just want to show you a few things before we’re on our way.” He rummaged around in the bag and pulled out a glass bottle topped with a metal figurine of an iron maiden. Its door was open; Bombi looked closer and squinted. Its interior had tiny white cushions lining it rather than spikes. “This is a soft-lock potion.”
“Do we have to drink it?” Bombi asked with a grimace, eyeing its unpleasant gray color.
“No,” Chagrinn snickered. “Generally you would only force your enemies and obstacles to drink it. It’s made from paradoxes and the nervous sweat of bureaucrats. It’s a toxin that, rather than shutting down your body, shuts down your ability to progress in life. You become a wanderer, devoid of any form of satisfaction. Some of us scummier runners use it on each other to sabotage their attempts.”
He pulled the stopper out, keeping it pointed away from his nose. With one large sweep of his arm, the entire potion came out in an arc. The fluid stopped mid-air and sparkled. They watched it hang there. Chagrinn silently moved along the ridge without explaining why he’d emptied the bottle. Bombi followed. He was up to something. No, he’s down to something. His feet are dragging. Something’s wrong.
For a moment she was relieved to see him pull a pair of boots out of the bag; they looked quite warm. Rather than hand them over, Chagrinn slapped the soles of them repeatedly until something very strange happened. The soles began to bleed. The pair also twitched and bucked in his grip, flinging red droplets everywhere.
“These are the vengeful boots of Mugo Fa,” he said, shaking them, causing the blood flow to increase. “They have been tricked into thinking they are always stomping on the heads of the most evil men in all the world. They can give you some much needed height when your route calls for it, provided none of the commoners around are overly disrupted by their crimson emissions.” He swung his arm and tossed the pair off the cliff. They quickly separated and sputtered as blood shot out of them. “Beautiful.”
“Chagrinn, what are you doing?” Bombi finally asked. His mentor rummaged around for yet another runner’s tool rather than answer her. “Don’t we need those? Why’d we carry them all this way if you’re just going to discard them?”
“You should be happy to see these,” he said as he pulled out an ornate silver doorknob. He tossed it without much ceremony compared to the other two. “These are the last moments of their usefulness. I’m technically wasting time right now, and it’s for your benefit. Every piece of speed running culture you see will benefit you on your future attempts. It’s less educating I’ll have to do should we reunite.”
“Reunite? We’re united right now.”
“Just until these bags are empty.” He flung a severed bird wing out into the air; it promptly doubled in size, turned into a living bird, and flew off. “Though it’s never about the show, some of these things can be quite the sight.” Next to go was a piece of moldy cheese that faded out of existence before it had fallen ten feet.
“What about our run? I’ve hardly learned anything!” Bombi complained. Her legs screamed as the numbness crept up her ankles. She tried to warm them by dancing around Chagrinn; with her arms wrapped tightly around her she looked like someone entombed trying to shake the spiders off.
“This attempt is over Bombi. We’ve been thwarted by Random Nuisance Generation. RNG strikes again. These mountains…” He pointed to various peaks as if Bombi knew what the gesture meant. “This range is randomly generated each life. The Lands of Shook and Cain, though infuriatingly rigid, still need flexible pieces to accommodate the uncertainties of existence. These mountains are like bits of skin on newborns. They could turn into birthmarks, hairy patches, discoloration, etc…”
“So what’s so wrong with these mountains?”
“They’re too low. All of the ways out of here, all of them, would involve being even with the sea. It’s an unusual result, but things like this do happen. There’s nothing we can do about it. If I become even with the sea at any point on this route, the Lands of Shook and Cain will realize I’m supposed to be somewhere else and they will stop me from progressing. They will soft-lock me just as effectively as that potion. I could still move, think, feel, but not achieve.”
“So that’s it?” We’re giving up? We have to do everything over again and hope the mountains are different next time?”
“Well there are plenty of other routes we could try,” Chagrinn said, “but I think I might try this one again, yes. It’s not likely we’ll be so unlucky next time.” He turned the bag over and dumped the rest of its contents down the side of the cliff. Thanks to an exploit, the bag held far more than it should have. It looked like the contents of an entire house tumbling away. Down went piles of precious gems, weapons as brittle as stale bread, mirrors full of screaming reflections, a few live lobsters, some cheap furniture, and a host of other things Bombi couldn’t identify.
“So you’re telling me I have to do all this over again?” Bombi shouted. “I have to be raised a slave once more, spend those years shedding the hope of my childhood, just to find you on that dock again and see if the mountains are better next time? How many times would you do this?”
“Honestly, probably three or four more before I gave up on this route. This is just part of the game Bombi. By speed running we’re misusing a machine. We’ve set a goal that nobody likes.”
“I won’t do it. It’s not a game to me; it’s supposed to be a way out. If I have to do that again… then there’s no point to being a runner. You… you don’t know what it’s like. You’re a rogue. You’re a man; you’ve got the same pale skin as my family’s employers. Escaping your birth is simply rebellion: a misunderstood adolescent phase. Mine is a trap. A cub born in poised steel jaws, growing as it rests on the pressure plate!”
“Bombi,” Chagrinn addressed in a soothing voice, “I don’t have time for your suffering. Let me help you.” He grabbed her by the shoulders. Before she could protest, before she could even feel his grip on her numb arms, he tossed her over the side of the cliff. She tumbled down the rocks. Her stiff limbs couldn’t do much to slow her fall. Not just another windy way. He killed me. He killed me and he thinks it’s nothing. He’s the same as…
Her head struck a boulder and cracked. Her mind was dark and blank for the briefest of moments. When she could, she looked at her hands. They were tiny, puffy, and soft. Her fingernails were like thinning droplets of milk. There was a light above her: the regular light of a worldly lantern.
She tried to turn her head, but it was far too heavy. Someone moved her, handed her to her mother. The woman wept for her beautiful new daughter, wept in joy at her own ability to create. She stroked the infant’s tiny head and cooed.
“You’re going to love life Bombi, because we love you. Nothing else will matter.”
You’re wrong, Bombi’s trapped mind thought venomously. It will be pain, but that doesn’t matter to you does it? Nothing matters but the beautiful ignorance you think you see. You’re not my mother. The world is. As soon as I can walk I will break my true parent over my knee. No Chagrinn this time. I will have the world record. I will be the ultimate speed runner, and once I am victorious I’ll never have to call myself born.