She nearly asked the question a hundred times, even opening her mouth twice, but in the end she kept it to herself. She let quiet rule the rest of their glide along the amber and instead focused on the slight singing note of it, like the wet rim of a glass. That was her answer. Chagrinn couldn’t or wouldn’t tell her the truth if he didn’t want to. She was at his mercy. The only truth she had access to was all around her. Everything she learned as a runner was her answers and it wasn’t his fault, the strange empty man that he was, if she didn’t know which questions to ask.
For now she resolved to simply follow him. If he threw her into another dangerous situation she would just have to best that one as well. I escaped that bug didn’t I? If I was bait he wouldn’t have given me this sword. He’ll think me his equal only if I continue to prove it.
When the slide finally stopped they were in a grand cavern with a dripping ceiling. The water fell into intermingled depressions in the amber. They stopped very briefly for a drink after Chagrinn told her how its run through the amber made the water extremely sweet. He was right. She not only felt alert after a few mouthfuls, but her doubts fell away. The shortness of her life mattered not when there were things like this to discover, things that tasted better than the most decadent cakes her employers had treated themselves to. There was no discovery in purchase, no exertion to create real thirst in the first place.
From there they needed to reach an opening near the ceiling and take its narrow tunnel, which would bring them out of the amber, out of the ground, and let them see the red sun of Cain again. In order to get up there, she needed Chagrinn’s assistance.
He had told her that the stuttering back-dash could only be taught in one place, and that was the truth, but she was not entirely cut off from the experience. Chagrinn dropped to one knee and told her to climb upon his back. He was taller than her, but not so much taller that the arrangement skirted awkwardness. She took a sliver of a moment, because Chagrinn never granted her a full one, to consider their physical contact so far. She had slapped and kicked him. He had pulled her into a dark cramped crack in the ground.
Those moments were brief and she was altogether distracted by the flurry of discoveries. When she wrapped one elbow around his collarbone and gripped his sides with her thighs she really got a sense of how the man held himself. He stood with little effort, barely bent by her weight, but she couldn’t sense the tensing of his muscles. It felt like the two of them had simply been converted into boxes and one was stacked atop the other.
He crouched and spun, activating the technique. Bombi was immediately sickened, but not in a way she had any comparison for; it had the soreness of a whopping headache and the instability of seasickness. Her vision doubled, tripled, and quadrupled, the amber cavern turning into a shuddering swirl of itself. There was the sensation of being swept up, like riding the ricketiest of mine carts up a nearly-vertical rail.
All she could do was keep her grip on Chagrinn the best she could. If the shaking had been limited to him, and had not overtaken her body as well, there would have been no chance of hanging on. This is worse than the stretching. How can he stand to do this so often? I think the top and bottom of my mind are bruised already.
The tremors in her vision worsened the sickness, so she shut her eyes tight and waited for it to be over. Quaking in darkness, she catalogued another unusual sensation. The force of their movement struck her back. She remembered that the back-dash was a backwards technique, an exploit in the very gait of man, and that Chagrinn did all this from memory because he could not see the way forward. She wondered how many times he’d been through there or if he had the ability to memorize landscapes instantly.
Eventually the narrow echoes of the tunnel ceased and she knew they neared their destination. Her eyes held fast until the shaking stopped. He told her to dismount, without the slightest hint of discomfort or strain in his voice. The young runner dropped off him and did her best to stay on her feet. It took a moment for her innards to settle, and while they did she kept one hand to her gut and examined their surroundings.
It was still Cain, its sun red and clear, with only a few bars of sandy clouds drifting near its base. The soil and stone were reddish as well and everywhere about them stood cracked, gnarled, dry roots of huge proportions. The roots and their fallen debris were arranged in a circle around them, like a giant bird’s nest. Bombi considered it a genuine possibility; there might have been a monstrous bird that preyed upon the amber swarm as it had tried to prey upon her.
“Are these…” she started to ask.
“The roots of the great tree: source of the swarm-drowning sap? How did I know you would ask that? No. These are just the remains of ordinary large trees, as I am just the remains of an ordinary man.”
Only as he finished speaking did Bombi realize something had changed about his voice. There were more cracks in it, and it had dropped off weakly at the end of his sentence. She stopped gawking at the trees and found him standing right where she had hopped off. It was the longest she’d seen him linger and his eyes suggested he wanted her to look away.
The back-dash had taken much out of him, even he could not handle it infinitely, but that was not the main cause of his distress. Their short trip had aged him a great deal: his white-blonde hair was now solid gray, his lithe brow drooped, and wrinkles grew from the corners of his mouth and eyes like dry stems. Even as she looked at him he wasn’t finished advancing along the mortal coil; his eyes became watery, his ear lobes grew irregular like the heat baking under bread crust, and his breaths came in slight but audible wheezes.
“What’s happening to you?” she asked in horror, before examining her own hands for signs of age. She was relieved to see she looked and felt quite normal apart from the residue of the dashing sickness.
“Don’t worry,” he told her, getting some of his wind back. He cracked his knuckles, wrists, and ankles in about a hundred places. “This is all part of the route. The lands of Shook and Cain know I am not supposed to be in this part of Cain until much later in life. I haven’t found a way to avoid their detection yet, so I am the age they want me to be.”
“Can you still run in this condition? And why am I unaffected?”
“I can, mostly because nothing can stop me. I’ll be moving a little slower, but the strats and exploits do most of the work. As for you… who knows? We’re writing the guide as we go Bombi. The world picked up on a signature of mine, something too small for me to notice, and it happened to not get anything of yours. Incidentally, I assume you’re glad you don’t have that pen or your fingertips anymore. If you did you’d almost certainly be a hag.”
“I don’t know if I could have the…” she searched for a less offensive word than the first one her mind offered, “courage to do that to my body knowingly. To cut its time in half…”
“Cutting time in half is the most beautiful sensation,” he impressed upon her. “If only we could cut our time some more. If only we could die before Shook and Cain had the coffins ready. We would have the world record Bombi.”
“How many times have you done this to yourself?” she asked.
“Many. I’ve been an infant more times than that. That is much worse: your runner’s mind quickly coming back together and finding itself trapped in a chubby grub of a body that doesn’t have the coordination to access the exploits. By far the worst part of every run.”
Bombi felt her fear bubbling inside her and did her best to place a firm lid on it. His decay was not the age she’d always known; it was simply a slower and weaker heartbeat. She had to be careful not to soften her view of him now that he had the settled eyes of an old man. Most who attained such a state got there at least partly by experience. Chagrinn simply burned through experience like coal or oil. There was no difference between the man at the bottom of the amber caverns and this gray creature born in the root nest under a red sun.
“I suppose I’ll see for myself,” she said with some resignation. It was all too late now. She’d seen too much to ever forget. She could either relive her miserable shackled childhood or go destroy herself in the bottom of the world. Or… They could achieve the world record on her first run. “Let’s get moving,” she said, prompting a full beaming smile from the older runner.
“Finally, you’re feeling the pull of it. That’s good. Uphill or downhill the only speed is faster,” he said, now sounding like a slightly-senile grandfather rather than a passionate thrill-seeker.
“Where does this route take us now?” she asked, looking around and seeing nothing but roots.
“First we must get out of this thing before the bird comes back.” Her eyes widened, but she quickly got them under control. Whether it was the beating of a red sun, or the specter of age at her back, Bombi was ready to move, and move they did.
Even after climbing out of the nest, Chagrinn never did tell her what exact sort of bird had built the massive thing. She saw they were on the outskirts of a rocky valley, the sky only interrupted by the bare trunks of long dead trees towering higher and thinner than any building in the palatial city. Indeed, there was no sign of civilization in any direction. Bombi was reminded of the bottom of the world thanks to its tranquility. Both places were empty of the threats that had pierced and bound her.
“If this is Cain, it is not so bad,” she said as they walked across a fallen trunk that spanned a gap in the rock. She held her arms out for balance while Chagrinn strolled like he was off to buy apples.
“Technically, this place is called the rift,” he remarked over his shoulder. “It is the scar between Shook and Cain where the brothers violently split their civilizations. That is why very little grows here, and what does grows just so it can die.”
“So what is the real Cain like?”
“Lush. There are plenty of heavy blue clouds to block that harsh sun. Forests as far as the eye can see, with branches always threatening to lean over and take off your roof tiles.” She thought she sensed fond remembrance in his voice and remembered him saying his family lived near a forest.
“Were you born in Cain?”
“I don’t like to discuss birth. Disgusting process. Death is much cleaner. Once you start to remember birth, to experience it while it is happening, you’ll realize dying is better. It’s a crab casting off its shell. Birth is the growth of innards like fungus and those first wet ragged breaths when bits of your mother’s flesh slip up your nose and down your throat.”
“Alright! Enough of that,” she snapped. He might not have had much stomach left to turn, but Bombi’s was empty and irritable. “What I clearly meant to ask was: did you live in Cain?”
“We should discuss the things of consequence that live in Cain. It has its own peoples: cloudfeet, anytaurs, and tinkertrees. After crossing the rift we will be in their lands. I’ll need to teach you some of the tricks for avoiding their aggro. Then perhaps we’ll go over item duplication and the concept of savety.”
“I already know what safety is,” she said, grasping at the word she thought she understood in a bog of strange terms. They came to the end of the log and hopped off only to find more cracks in the rock. They began hopping across them. Bombi kept her eyes mostly on the silver ducktail of Chagrinn’s hair to avoid looking down.
“Not safety, save-ty,” her teacher corrected. “It is a process by which a speed runner mitigates risk. If you make a plan, usually to meet someone in a specific time and place, the lands of Shook and Cain will often assume you mean to stick to that plan. If you get yourself killed, instead of being reborn, the world will instead resurrect you in that place and at that time. You can recover a run without having to grow up all over again. It often has a hideous time cost though. Rarely use it myself.”
“Is there any part of life that is sacred to you?” she asked. “I would guess not given that you just blew by thirty birthdays without even a single cake.”
“Life will be sacred when it is my own,” he said softly. “Inside someone else’s machine it is worth nothing. That’s what makes it so easy to throw away when I need to. Sometimes a life has to be spent. Was made to be spent, like these trees that never flowered or bore. Watch your step.”
The latest crack was so wide that Bombi hesitated. She wasn’t sure she could make it, but Chagrinn had thought the warning sufficient. She mustered her courage, ran the last five steps, and leapt across. She felt a burst of coolness against her spine as the seafoam sword bounced upon landing, but she was fine. To her dismay, that was merely the practice jump.
They came to the real jump, all the others were simply ‘steps’ to Chagrinn, a few minutes later. He even referred to it as a leap, skipping past skip, hop, and jump. This new crevice in the ground could only be called a canyon. Falling dead trees had tried to bridge the gap, but they were only partly successful. Bombi saw this when she finally looked down. The highest trunk suspended between the walls of rock was still a hundred feet below. There were many, like soldiers in a mass grave, and they held awkward angles in every direction. Their remaining jagged branches were the giant cousins of common thorns.
Beneath the trees, in a space she could only see by a few slivers, there was running water. It was a dense sandy color, more like the bile of the world than a river. Chagrinn took the supplies she carried off her shoulder and slung them over his own. He said she would need to be light as possible.
“I can’t cross this,” she argued, too stunned to raise her voice.
“You can’t cross what you’re seeing,” he said, “but what you’re seeing is not what’s there. There is Source here, for soon a quake will raise a new wall of stone. The source of that stone is already in place, already solid, just as your sword was sharp enough to draw blood before you gave it form.”
“So… the gap is smaller than it appears?” Chagrinn wrapped one arm around her shoulder and drew her face close to his. He pointed about a third of the way across.
“There it is solid.”
“I cannot go even that far.”
“No, but I will help you. I’m going to throw you.”
“I am not a discus,” she said dryly. Logically this comes next. He’s seen that I’m willing to divert the attention of giant bugs and vandals. If I want to be a real runner I must first be the tool of one. I’d be in the bag if I wasn’t so large.
“This is the way forward Bombi and there’s no way around. Either you accept the strat or you get left behind.”
“The strat then,” she immediately snapped. It’s all one motion. From the moment I took his hand I’ve been on a slide. It’s foolish to think you can stop before you reach the bottom. Even if you can, there’s nothing for you except the downward pull and a barren expanse.
She nodded to Chagrinn. He told her to try and keep her upright orientation. Bombi wrung her hands for a moment and wiped them on her thighs. If she waited the fear would only creep higher up her body. If it reached her heart she would never go. He led her to the edge and then dropped his hands together before her in a cup shape. She was to step into them and be launched forward. She stared at the place where he had pointed, where solidity had outpaced substance.
“One,” he counted. Bombi had two seconds left to change her mind. “Two.” Her toes instinctively retracted, but she leaned forward. “Three!” She pumped one leg into the air and brought it down between his fingers. He held her weight gracefully and immediately pushed up with all his strength. His apprentice popped up into the air and sailed forward. She’d done it. There was the empty yet full space where he had pointed. She would clear it significantly and land upon an invisible shelf of rock. Bombi held her feet down and prepared to make contact. She was level with the other side of the canyon. She was below it. Her feet found nothing. She fell.
Her mind froze, but not in the way it had a tendency to. It froze because it did not understand. Her base assumption that Chagrinn was never wrong about the technicalities, never wrong about the exact angle of this or that blade of grass, had silently shattered once her feet passed the invisible marker he’d laid for her.
Chagrinn moved faster than her thoughts. He leapt a moment after she had and was now directly over her. She was sure he would reach a hand down and grab her wrist. It was a simple mistake for a being as mighty as him to correct. Bombi wouldn’t even need much of an explanation; he’d just misplaced an invisible tile. What could be easier to lose?
Her mentor made contact. His foot touched her shoulder. He pressed down. Down. Down. A speed runner trick. Down must be up right here. Down must be salvation. The trees will reject me as identical magnets reject each other. Her stunned hope was untrue. She went down just as she always had when falling, faster in fact, thanks to the pressure Chagrinn had applied. He used her shoulder as a stepping stone between two great jumps. He didn’t even look down to see the white horror circling her pupils.
The canyon took her as Chagrinn reached the other side: the true solid side of visible rock. It’s true then. I was bait. Now I serve my ultimate purpose as a cobblestone. Down I go to shatter… one chip from the statue Chagrinn chisels of himself. It is death that awaits me. I knew it. I knew it was the only way out.
Bombi’s back smashed into one of the trees and she cried out, the impact knocking her fear loose in her chest. She bounced and hit another trunk. She scrambled for purchase, but every twig snapped. Bark flaked away and tore up her palms and wrists. She struck her head on a third trunk. After that she had no control her body; it hung limply as it slowly fell into the gaps and slapped against the sides like a wet rag.
Already she tried to detach, tried to fly her spirit out of her skull, but dying would not be so easy. She hit the muddy river and sank. The current pulled and spun her. The water rushed up her nose and down her throat and under her eyelids. Why must you play with your food? I am long since dead.
She could barely see in the murk, but there was a strange white stone on the riverbed. She hadn’t the will to reach for it, but the current forced her onto it anyway. It was no stone, but a hole in the lands of Shook and Cain. Suction had put her there. Her head emerged from the water into the white bottom of the world. Her body plugged the hole for a moment, dirty drippings racing under shirt and then falling into oblivion.
Chagrinn’s lie of an invisible shelf must have been partly based on truth, as all the best lies are. There was weakness there in the rift. The place was a scar upon the world, and perhaps that was because only scar tissue could cover such a stubborn hole. The pressure of the current forced her through and she was falling again, this time into infinity.
Bombi’s face smashed against something invisible. It was an actual invisible wall and it asserted itself by shattering her cheekbone. A web of pain radiated outward from the impact, but then rapidly numbed her head. The swelling started to blur her vision even as she slid down the wall of nothing and left a muddy stain.
When she peeled away and fell once more it was only a few feet. She was firm upon invisible ground, the extent of which was being marked by the river water that flowed off her. Another fluid helped, this one dark red. The miserable discarded apprentice tried to sit up, but her body did not respond. She bent her head and saw the problem. Her body was pierced by an unseen object, but the running blood quickly outlined it.
The reddened emptiness took the shape of a sword. It emerged just above her navel. Blood did not pool in the depression; it instead moved up the blade and sank into it. Between being half-drowned, half-empty of blood, and doubly concussed, Bombi felt nothing. Her thoughts came with a slowing rhythm, like the drops from an icicle as the night grows colder.
I’ve landed on another weapon source. Just like my seafoam sword before it was seafoam. It’s taking my blood. It suddenly has a new destiny, just as I have. We’re both surprised at this. There I go. So red… I’ve never bled that red before. It must have been hidden deep inside me. It is the cowardly lifeblood: the blood that cannot be lost. Well, I can lose it. I can even give it up willingly and I don’t need Shook and Cain’s approval.
Her eyes closed and after a few minutes there came a tugging sensation. She wondered when she would stop experiencing, but there would be no rest for Bombi. The weapon source took her blood and became a crimson blade, as wickedly sharp as a serpent’s wit. It took one of her nearest bones and made itself a hilt like ivory.
The rest of Bombi’s body gave way, her side opening up like soft cheese, and slipped off the invisible edge. It fell into forever. Her spirit was left behind, lodged in the blade that was itself lodged in invisible stone. She was the only spot of color: the flag marking the end of the wet trail she’d left.
She could not see, she could not feel anything, but she could still sense her surroundings. Gone were the twitching thoughts of idle limbs. Gone was the constant routine of breath that she now realized had been agitating her for all of life. Gone was sight and sound. Bombi’s soul was in her blood and in the blade and there it would stay until somebody saw fit to destroy the object and free her.
She couldn’t tell how swiftly or slowly time passed, but it did pass. That much she was sure of. Naturally, she dwelled on the betrayal of Chagrinn. She dwelled on it so much that it became her passion. Her dreams were visions of him making excuses and then being beheaded by her new form.
If that’s going to happen I will need a wielder. Bombi the blade needs a friend. Bombi the tool seeks to be useful again. I was so good to Chagrinn, so fully utilized, that I have become truly inanimate. Somebody come to me. Find me. Pull me from the nothing and claim me so that we might find old Chagrinn and slice him into wonderfully inert chunks. He will join me in the kingdom of stillness. He’ll have to get over the torture of it eventually. He’ll have to accept that he’s just not going anywhere.
The crimson sword waited at the bottom of the world. There were other speed runners. Another would try this route eventually, or perhaps another discarded apprentice would wash up on this blank shore. Perhaps grabbing Bombi’s steady hilt would save their life. Either way they would spy the beautiful weapon and pluck it from the ground.
She was sure she would be able to communicate with whoever held her, even if it was subtle. Her seafoam sword, now lost to the Source, had been more a part of her than even her uncle’s pen. She would make a similar connection with her new wielder, whenever they came. She would send them thoughts of Chagrinn: a pale blonde demon flitting in and out of the ground. They would learn of the dangers he posed from her concentrated steely malice.
They would find him and cut his run brutally short.