Bombi drew her seafoam sword and pointed it at the amber boulder. Monsters were surely dangerous, but Bombi could appreciate open danger. The monsters of her old life had insisted on the illusions of comfort and civilization. The amber swarm would respect her by baring nothing but teeth.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Chagrinn said, gently pushing the tip of her sword away from the stone with his finger. “Shook and Cain would be overjoyed to see you invested in their little puppet show. We’re merely on a road. The scenery matters not. Come.” He moved his fingertip to the orange and yellow crystal. He was gone in a flash, sucked away to another part of the world.
Bombi took a deep breath. In all the squeezing the world would probably not let her hold onto it. Still, she tried. Her fingernail tapped the amber. As before, she was stretched and twisted through the tiniest paths of reality. The breath was taken. There was simply no room for it inside her.
She gasped when she landed, barely noticing the pain of smashing her knees against a shelf of stone. Chagrinn helped her to her feet, inching them in the right direction even as she struggled to breathe. This place was very strange to her. The air was warmer. Everything smelled like a deep dry hole in clay. The sun seemed redder than usual through the clouds.
“Where are we?” she asked when her throat finally opened back up.
“This is the entrance to a cave system,” Chagrinn answered, “unexplored by the regular world. It is far outside any city, with the nearest being the towers of Talcumpact. We are in Cain.”
“Truly? These are the lands of the betrayer?”
“I would argue there wasn’t anything to betray, but yes. This is the part of the world you’ve been told to fear all your life.”
“What is it we’re here to find?”
“Nothing. We’re simply passing through. The cave has few obstacles within and its amber walls provide very little resistance to runner movement strats.” He pulled her forward. They were there only a moment, but already they said goodbye to the sun. The cave’s entrance did seem inviting, with a gentle orange glow deep inside. Curiously, it did not flicker like the light of a fire.
It didn’t take long for them to find amber bubbled and then crystallized from the stone. Its golden shine reminded Bombi of rock candies seen through a shop window. She’d never been allowed to try them herself, but she had occasionally found a small chip of one in the kitchen. She licked her lips.
“You won’t think it so appetizing when you see what’s locked inside,” Chagrinn warned. He was right. The next time they crossed by a bubble of it Bombi took a close look. There were hundreds of tiny bugs petrified inside. She knew a bug when she saw one, but these were big and their armor was strange and grotesque. They had spikes like rose thorns, splotches of purple and orange that declared they weren’t afraid of being squished, veiny wings, and antennae so long and thick they’d likely drag across the ground.
The amber became more frequent. Other runners had come through. They had followed the paths of their predecessors so closely that there were perfect foot-shaped wear marks in the floor where the orange rock shone through. They followed the glowing path until there was more amber than stone. They were deep inside the largest continuous jewel in all the world, with their only company being the creatures slumbering within.
“How did all this get here?” she asked in awe as she ran a hand across a smooth golden wall.
“There are two schools of thought as to that,” Chagrinn explained as he marched ever forward. He didn’t spare a single glance for the beauty of the stone. “As runners it is our notion that much of it was created all at once and placed here. The illusion of its age nothing more than a soothing element for the creatures of the world, like blinders on a horse.”
“The other school?”
“One of the great creation myths. Before the brothers Shook and Cain were born from the mother Lennalark. Before Lennalark had fertile ground to walk across. The world was just a stone: lifeless, cold, and smooth. From out of the sky came a traveling tree seed.”
As Bombi listened she came across the biggest bug yet. She had thought them dead, but its abdomen was glowing from under its leathery wings like a fire fly. There were more like that deeper in the amber. So this is the glow.
“The will of the seed was truly unique,” Chagrinn continued, “for it was stronger than stone. Its roots managed to form a crack and take hold. It fed on rain and the sun of a cloudless sky, growing and spreading until its roots cleaved the stone in two. It needed an anchor, so it did not release the stone. Instead, its roots split it further. It split for ten thousand years until the stone was simply dirt: the dirt that would be the dirt of Shook and Cain.”
“What happened to the tree?”
“Shook felled it for industry, but an age before that these bugs ruled the land. They might have ruled forever, had the tree not split its own bark to drown them in its resin. Here they sleep. For the most part.”
“They ruled the land?” Bombi questioned. She stopped running her fingers across the wall. The bugs had become denser and more varied. Some were longer than ropes and had more than a thousand legs. Some had a head on either end. Some had iridescent green and blue shells. Some had serrated jaws big enough to sever a finger.
“The small ones didn’t,” Chagrinn corrected. These ones did.” He didn’t stop as he pointed to a spot on the wall, but Bombi had to. The sight was too horrifying. The beast’s eyes were too focused and too inhuman to ignore.
Held fast barely an inch from the surface of the amber was the largest animal Bombi had ever seen. Its metallic shell and mandibles marked it as a bug, but its body was shaped more like something meant to lumber through a forest and topple trees with its tail. Its eyes were like jeweled domes of sapphire with a thousand facets. Though its underside had rows and rows of tiny hairy legs, its body was supported by two much larger claw-tipped ones, giving it the posture of a stalking heron more than anything else.
In its translucent stomach she saw the shredded remains of other smaller bugs. They too were solidly held in amber, meaning the hideous beast had been roaring defiantly when struck by the waves of sap. The fluid had gone right down its throat.
“This thing…” Bombi said breathlessly, “merely sleeps?”
“Yes. One strike from a being as powerful as I could free it,” Chagrinn confirmed.
“Can it see us?”
“It can. It’s likely thinking about how delightfully meaty of a morsel you are.” He chuckled.
“That is funny to you master runner?”
“Only because I can see the fear in your eyes. Relax Bombi. They’ve been here this long without being disturbed; it’s not likely to change now. We runners value this as a peaceful pathway as well as a quick one.”
“Its eyes. I don’t like its eyes.”
“Their minds are nothing more than hungry dispassion, my apprentice. These are not the things you should fear.”
“What do the runners fear?”
“Mires. Things that slow. Fools as well, but only the fools so dense that they see throwing themselves into our paths as a hurdle as a lifelong goal. The Source. You cannot let that last one rule you, or you will never be a runner. If you become fast enough you will have to face the Source head on.”
“Have you ever done that?” She was thankful that they rounded a corner and didn’t have to see the bug’s jeweled eyes anymore. Her relief was short-lived. The next chamber had a higher ceiling and she could see they were directly under another bug, even larger than the last. Its ten legs cascaded down each side, ribbing the way forward. One claw poked nearly through the amber, sharp enough to hang a coat on.
“Nobody has gone that fast yet,” Chagrinn admitted. It seemed to sting him just to say it. “We will be the first.”
“How will we know what to do?”
“I don’t imagine we will. Running is trial and error. Somebody has to be the error.” Chagrinn stopped in front of another extrusion from the wall. This one held the head of something like a mantis, but its mandibles were heavy and toothed like a crocodile. Bombi was horrified to see its antennae were free of the amber. Their twitching became frantic as Chagrinn came close enough to touch it.
He observed her fear, but did not comment on it immediately. He simply hoisted himself up onto the creature’s elongated neck, using it as a stepping stone to reach the edge of a tunnel in the amber. He reached his hand down to help her up, but Bombi did not move closer. Even though its eyes were horrible shapes, likes eggs crossed with conch shells, she could see the rage in them. It certainly wasn’t the ‘dispassion’ he had described.
“Oh, it’s completely harmless,” Chagrinn insisted, “watch.” He bent down and grabbed the exposed antennae. Thwek! He wrenched it off the monster’s head. “You see? It can do nothing.” He whipped the purple antennae back and forth before grabbing both ends and skipping rope with it. Between jumps he balanced perfectly, even on the curved amber, on one foot.
There came a deep furious hum that traveled through Bombi’s ankles, feeling like giant spiders making their way toward her head. The sound came from the mantis-headed thing, but it was picked up by every other bug around them until the entire cavern was possessed by it. At its highest volume she felt like she was being rolled around in the mouth of a spider instead. A crack suddenly appeared along the base of the mantis bug’s neck, causing Bombi to jump backward and yelp.
“There! It’s escaping!” She drew her seafoam sword and struck what she assumed to be a battle pose. If I stab the crack perhaps the water will flow right in and stab it on the other side. It would be a shame to stain these walls with its innards, but better its than mine!
“I know what I’m doing Bombi!” Chagrinn barked. He stomped on the amber around its head, paying no heed to the crack. His apprentice held her breath even though it did not grow from the impact. “You’re still thinking of this all wrong!” He snapped the antennae in two, and then four. He pulled one foot back and then let it swoop forward, kicking the monster’s other antennae and separating it. It sailed weakly across the chamber and landed, twitching, on the amber.
“Please stop!” she cried, her grip tightening on the sandy hilt of her sword. She rubbed a few grains away in an effort to make sure she wouldn’t drop it.
“This creature is not real Bombi. It isn’t true. Only speed is true. Come. Jump this hurdle with me.” He held out his hand again. Bombi had no choice. Lingering would only be worse whether it angered Chagrinn or the bugs. She grabbed it and let herself be pulled up onto its neck. Sickly bile, pale purple with globs of even paler yellow, oozed out of the two holes on the monster’s head. The sight, and the accompanying smell, sickened her, but there was more than one threat to her stomach’s stability.
Before she could cover her mouth Chagrinn grabbed her by the sides and hoisted her into the air, up to a rounded edge in the amber. She grabbed the edge and stared down into it; it was some sort of circular tunnel that went further than she could see. Chagrinn popped her up, forcing her to pull her whole body into the entrance. She had to curl her head, as it was not wide enough to crouch.
“What is this? Another portal to the bottom?” she asked. Her voice slid away down the tunnel, seeming to stretch down it like clay forced through a pipe.
“No,” he answered from below, “just the last tunnels of the amber swarm, made when the sap was fresh enough to bend. Now go. I’ll be right behind you.”
Bombi thought to ask what he meant by ‘go’, but she already knew. It was only fear that wanted her to ask, only the part of her mind that wanted her to stop after every step and reassess. Reassessing is just fear, she told herself. You’re safe when you’re thinking. I’m not supposed to be safe; I’m supposed to be swift. She had picked the path of monsters after all, there had to be some bravery within her, even if it was a sword-waving fool.
She inched her bottom forward until the angle of the amber took her. She hadn’t realized how slick the orange stone actually was until she was off her feet; it was like gliding down a silk curtain placed over glass. The tunnel angled her down. She picked up speed with terrifying quickness. A lump in the amber rushed by, forcing her to lean onto her back so as to not collide with it.
Holding her breath until it dropped her was not an option, as the tunnel had say over her for more than forty seconds already, so she gasped. The air down there was sweet, like honey candies melting on an aged wooden table in the summer sun. The amber had been undisturbed for so long that not even dust had reached this deep.
The ride lasted so long that her fear receded and she began to enjoy herself. She pictured the whole of Shook and Cain and then blew all its dirt away with a gust of imagination. What was left was a tangle of golden glass tubes that had been weaved into the world. That’s where I am now: the veins of the world. Much more exciting than the bottom.
Suddenly the tunnel opened to a stunning wideness, wider than a theater, wider than a coliseum, and wider than many rivers. The golden ceiling rose as well and it was alive with the lights of a thousand bugs held fast. It’s as if the stars had the boldness to shine even during the sun’s reign.
“Now we’re moving!” Chagrinn called out to her with a celebratory hoot. He came up alongside her, sliding just as fast, but somehow balancing on his bare feet. He spun around effortlessly and skated backwards to impress her. He stood on one hand, completely unfazed by the amber waves sliding underneath them. “Come on Bombi! Stand!”
She already thought she was being brave by rising into a sitting position, but of course Chagrinn wanted more. Bombi rolled onto her belly and then, as soon as she felt stable, rose onto her hands and knees. She looked to see if the runner watched, but he’d already split off to enjoy himself some more. The man used bursts of his doubling technique to gather speed so he could skate along the curve of the wall without falling.
Her hands lifted away. She’d done it! She started to hold her arms out for balance, but thought better of it. Such motions would only slow her down, so instead she crouched slightly, increasing her speed down the amber.
“We certainly are moving!” She yelled, trying and failing to match his enthusiasm. She smiled, which felt more unnatural than the sliding, for it was not the pinned-on smile required by her employers to maintain the mood of a weekend brunch, but a genuine one. For the first time in a long while she touched her inner happiness: the giggle of a child, the coo of a parent, and the bark of an adventurer calling after a furry creature as it flees into the underbrush. Alas, a moment of happiness to a speed runner is still just a moment. The next one had to arrive.
The giant tunnel curved aggressively, sending both of them sliding up onto the wall. Here the lights were sparser and smaller, nearly hiding the protuberances in the amber. Here and there things stuck out of it like trees pruned to death. Bombi squinted to make out what they were, but her speed carried her close enough to make it pointless. Krak! One of the trees bent at the middle, revealing a joint, and struck at her with its sharp tip.
Startled, Bombi dropped painfully onto her bottom to avoid it. The tip stabbed the amber, gouging out orange pebbles that tinkled away after the runners. There was no time to gasp, for suddenly they were in a copse of the things, all bending and cracking and stabbing. Bombi pushed herself to her feet. Without the same techniques as Chagrinn, all she had was the angle of her feet for changing course.
In the thick of them she finally grasped that they were the exposed limbs of more bugs, the rest of their bodies locked in the stone just below. She thought it strange Chagrinn had not warned her, but perhaps this was a test. They could hurt her, but they couldn’t chase after her. What better way to prepare for the freer monsters ahead? She took it all in stride as best she could by crouching further and leaning to weave her way between them.
Chagrinn wasn’t among them. A quick glance at the ceiling revealed his position; his doubling gave him enough force to circle the tunnel entirely without falling. She’d cleared the thickest of the limbs, but he hadn’t been observing. Surely the faintest of praise is deserved. I’m keeping up and he hasn’t needed to tug the leash. Of course the tunnel is doing most of the wor…
The amber angled down and revealed a gaping hole. Bombi tried to turn around, but there was nothing to take hold of. She looked to Chagrinn and saw that, strangely, he was behind her. Not leading the way. Had she seen such a thing yet? Could the agile creature even turn backward? A wall of silver shell rose out of the hole. Hairy limbs landed behind Bombi and to her sides. The bulk of the new bug pulled her the last of the way to the hole and dragged her inside.
Bombi braced her back against the now-rough edges of the amber. The beast had carved its own tunnel recently. With all her might she pushed her legs against the bug’s plated chest. It backed up just enough for her to get a look at the grotesque arrangement of eyes and antennae that was its face. It reminded her of a pill bug, like those under garden stones, but with a huge gray frill across its forehead that fanned out like coral. A horn tipped with a purple eye curled off its snout. Below that, rows of mouthparts clicked in waves.
“Chagrinn! Help me!” she cried out as she looked up. Between the hairs on the bug’s limbs she saw a blur of color rush by on the ceiling. “Chagrinn! Come back!” He did not call to her; there were no sounds other than her own grunting as she pushed the creature back and the scrabbling of its limbs. This can’t be a test. It’s going to crush me… unless I…
Bombi reached over her shoulder and drew her seafoam sword. She was lucky; any other blade would’ve been pinned against the wall by her weight, but its liquid form slid out effortlessly. She grunted and forced the blade into a seam between two of the bug’s armor plates. More of that purple bile infected the length of the sword. The bug squealed like a pig suffocating through ten layers of cheesecloth.
Its head folded down as its tail folded up. A moment later it was curled into a full sphere. With all its legs tucked away it quickly fell down its own hole and rolled out of sight. Similarly, there was now nothing holding Bombi up, forcing her to spin around and grab a rough amber ledge with her free hand. Again she called for Chagrinn, but he did not appear. She was forced to stow away her sword and climb all the way back up unaided.
Out of the hole her guide was nowhere to be found. Climbing back up the amber seemed impossible, so she took a step down and resumed her slide through the amber passages. The tunnel of the pill bug marked the end of the dangerous exposed limbs, so she was free to dab at the bloody cut on her forehead caused by smacking it into the lumpy metallic one of the bug.
“Finally,” she heard Chagrinn say casually. He appeared beside her. She spun around even as they slid, completely startled; there didn’t seem to be any place he could’ve come from. “I was worried you let that thing kill you.”
“Let it!” she shouted. “Let it! How was I supposed to stop it?”
“Exactly as you did.”
“Why didn’t you help me?”
“If you want to be a runner Bombi you have to fight your own battles. We should be as ballast to each other: assets only until we start to feel heavy. If that time comes we should part without hard feeling. There’s always the next run.” Bombi held her hand to her cut more firmly than before, as she felt she needed to protect herself against Chagrinn now. The wound acted as a lovely surrogate for all the open hurt and shock of her squished expectations. It didn’t matter if they had fun together or helped each other; he was telling her not only that bonding was a mistake, but that he would never make that mistake. She could save his life and he wouldn’t even understand why.
He… he wanted to do this route with a partner. What does that mean? I thought it was because cooperation was necessary, but no… I know what he needed. Bait. He knew that bug hole was there. He knew it would lunge at anything that came too close and attempt to end their run. That’s why he was behind me; he’d never do that otherwise. I exist only to test the unknown ground in front of him and trigger the traps. I am to walk the bottom of the world and find one empty patch, falling to my doom so he can know where not to step. Then he will get a new apprentice.
She wanted very much to ask him if this was true, but she wasn’t sure what answer she wanted. Even if she was bait her life still bore more fruit this way than the old way. If she upset him he might not come back for her on his next run. She would remember all this, but have no way to rejoin the mysterious speed runners and their white underworld. The question swirled in her mind; it emerged from the mouths of frozen bugs and stuck in the amber. At least they were honest; they simply wanted to eat her.
She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.