‘Using the Tool’ Stratagem
“It’d be a shame to let any of its power go to waste,” Bombi said, examining Chagrinn’s eyes for signs of approval. He gave her nothing. “Our path will be of wonders whether or not we risk destroying ourselves, so let’s… simply… not risk it.”
“That’s as good an idea as any,” he said, smacking her on the shoulder. The tiny hammer wiggled between his fingers and tapped her neck. She felt the smallest spark of the tool’s knowledge transfer from it, and suppressed a thrilled shudder. Her excitement at the prospects was becoming nearly as unmanageable as her anger with the Win State. She was about to void the power of chains entirely. They could shout at her, grab at her, lecture her, but she would just slip free like a mocking phantom, a jolly spirit existing simply to watch them flounder about, get red in the face, and eventually die.
Chagrinn set to work reassembling the outer layer of panels on the tool. While he did so he told Bombi to search the burrow and bring back any maps she could find, especially ones with heavy notation. She obeyed, happy to get out of the room with the torture chairs. Aside from that chamber it was all very cozy. She wondered how bad Quicky could really be with the stack of plush colorful quilts piled on his giant comfy bed and the well-worm bronze kettle over the black iron stove that smelled like honey and pine needles.
Maps were not difficult to find. Quicky had a bound collection of them, in a variety of sizes and shapes, many of them looking like they’d been ripped out of their volumes in moments of haste. There were maps of the lands of both Shook and Cain, maps of the curve of the night sky, maps of various seas and sea beds, maps of the bottom of the world, maps of places between places, and maps so strange in their depictions that she wondered if their holes and rips represented actual breaks in reality.
In the process of bringing them to Chagrinn she stumbled into him in the hallway. Good. We don’t have to go back into the workshop. She looked past his shoulder to see if he had closed the workshop door. He hadn’t; she frowned a little.
“Perfect,” he said, eyeing the maps. “Let’s get them shoved in here.” He took the stack from her and forced them into his bag, somehow without the bag looking fuller.
“Don’t we need to make copies so Quicky won’t find out we were here? Bombi asked.
“That doesn’t matter now that we have the tool,” he reasoned. “Quicky won’t be able to compete with us. In fact, the first thing we’re going to do now is examine his subtler secrets. Grab hold Bombi. Get ready for a true adventure!” He held out one side of the tool to her. She was mostly past hesitation in anything having to do with speed running, so she grabbed it.
Immediately she felt a connection to both the tool and Chagrinn. Knowledge flowed between the three of them freely, never getting caught on the protruding rocks of their personality flaws. Her eyes lit up green, and in her vision she saw thousands of versions of every object before her. A thing would look normal one moment, transparent the next, invisible the next, absent the next, shadowy the next, and so on and so forth until she’d seen it in every light. She finally understood she did not exist in a world, but a collection of processed figments all calculated to resemble a world.
While gripping the tool they didn’t need to speak to each other, their thoughts flowed back and forth along the knowledge stream, so they silently agreed to rupture the reality of the burrow and examine the area immediately surrounding it. First, they accessed the assistant’s tool’s information on flight. They gripped the permissions that birds were given to cross the skies, and then their feet lifted off Quicky’s carpet.
The two runners hovered up to the ceiling and passed through it without even disturbing any dust. They were within the mound, but no being was ever supposed to be inside its rock and soil, so it appeared as nothing but gray mist cast in darkness to them. Bombi thought of it as the breath of a rickety old spider, something spinning its own coffin as its vision fogged and faded.
They could see the individual rooms of the burrow, but not the meadows they knew surrounded the domicile. Chagrinn pointed to a row of spears embedded in the lowest part of the hallway wall; he identified it as a trap he’d quietly disarmed when they entered. Quicky had other gadgets and treasures stowed away inside the walls, some of which Chagrinn carefully claimed and dropped into his bag: glass bombs containing ever-flickering flames, brittle throwing knives of Source and dust, a tireless green snake chasing its own tail in a circle, a trident with a displaced head that nevertheless moved when the rest of it did, and a few other things.
Most notable were the objects just under the surface of the workshop walls. Chagrinn and Bombi hovered over to the room’s exterior and examined them: more than a hundred small whitish balls. When they got close the balls swiveled, first the closest ones and then the others as they continued forward, to face the runners. They had irises and pupils and little red veins. Tiny projections, like soggy bits of lightning adrift in a creek, trailed behind each of them and glowed faintly.
What are those horrid things? Bombi asked via their connection.
Eyes, Chagrinn answered. His lips puckered in slight appreciation. No wonder we felt like we were being watched in there. We were. Those are the extracted eyes of some of his unwilling guests. He has modified their source so they act as sentries.
They must be new then, Bombi thought back. Otherwise he would’ve known you’d skulked about before.
No. They’ve been there a while. He did know. Yet he never tried to stop me. Very strange. I think he knows something we don’t. No matter. With the tool we’ll soon have whatever it is figured out. Come on Bombi. It’s time to bend and break the lands of Shook and Cain.
He pulled her away from the curved wall of eyes, the sentries losing interest as soon as they were out of range. The runners made their way out of the misty blackness inside the mound and back to wind and sun. There was much to do, and hopefully little time to do it in.
Four months later, Chagrinn and Bombi descended to the ground outside a temple of white stone, its columns marbled by soft pink minerals. The assistant’s tool was between them, as it had been for most of their waking time. Silently they ascended the temple steps, listening to the sound of dozens of shuffling feet inside. They stopped. Completely accustomed to the facilitation of the tool, the runners never bothered to speak to each other anymore. When one wanted to stop or go the other knew it.
Something had to be done before they entered the temple in order to trigger the desired T-sleep. Bombi and Chagrinn turned around, switching the hands that held onto the tool. They walked backward through the entrance, their stride length the exact same as if they had gone forward. Their eyes, and the frame of the passage itself, flashed green as they passed through. The shuffling stopped instantly.
With the people neutralized, Bombi felt comfortable enough to let go of the assistant’s tool and wander further in. Chagrinn tucked it into one of his sleeves, as it was never out of contact with his body. He was afraid of water interfering with its inner workings, so he’d gotten into the habit of skipping bathing whenever they came across a river or spigot. Being Chagrinn, he had another way to achieve the goal of cleanliness; he simply looked for places in the world where people had to be clean at that exact time and triggered a ‘clean’ state in himself.
The assistant’s tool was incredible, but to Bombi it was occasionally overwhelming. She welcomed the chances to set it aside and let water flow over her instead of its ocean of information. She took a deep breath and enjoyed the solitude of her own mind as she examined the denizens of the temple.
There were five in the antechamber, all wearing thick flowing robes that contrasted Bombi’s tight dark runner’s tunic. She and Chagrinn had had their new clothes custom made by a speed running tailor in the underground market of Sub-Forty, a place outside the world named for the occasion when it was discovered: the reduction of the world record to under forty years. The tailor had insisted, eyes behind gold-tinted glasses, on no charge. He told them it was all practice for his own strats, something about making an outfit that would run for him while he rested inside.
The priests’ and attendants’ robes hung down, but did not touch the floor. Every person other than the runners hovered a foot off the ground, arms raised out to the sides and backs straight, in a perfect T shape. Their eyes were either open or mid-blink. They didn’t respond to the runners because they couldn’t. T-sleep was the primordial state of their mind, the state it was in after the Source had finished building them but before life was breathed in. For the moment they were little more than decorative crosses. Chagrinn and Bombi had fooled the temple into thinking the last people of the day had left by entering backward, so the temple became a place without people. It gave the runners a chance to find what they searched for.
Chagrinn did most of the searching, as the tool had him seeing inside walls, statues, and even the coffins of those entombed beneath the stone floor. Images of those people, saints and priests long gone, covered the floor directly over their bodies: mosaics of red, gold, and green tile. Bombi compared their blank stares to those of the T-sleepers.
She followed her bloodhound of a mentor into the sanctuary. There were a dozen greenish bells in the atrium rigging, dripping echoes back down. At the center stood a statue of a woman buried in the antechamber. She had her hand in the air, with her healing magic represented as tendrils of glass with flakes of gold blown in.
That never happened, Bombi thought. All of their stories are false. I’d forgotten… I’d forgotten all these silly religions still exist. People hope with all their might, hope until the last tear is wrung out of them, for a world beyond their world to exist, yet they ignore the one I move in. It is too dispassionate for them. The Source, if it can be called a god, is certainly not a loving one. Instead they find their contentment here, in statues that might contain magic because they simply can’t see inside. All they need is the right tool.
“Is that you Chagrinn?” a voice boomed, pulling their attention to a door past the statue. A man, bulky in stature and spherical in stomach, kicked it open and entered the sanctuary. His arms were loaded with rolled-up carpets and blankets. He tossed them onto the floor and smacked his hands together, creating clouds of tan dust. He breathed it in heartily, a gesture that surely would’ve caused a sneeze or cough in a normal man.
“Quicky,” Chagrinn identified flatly. His eyes darted back and forth across the man, blinking green.
“See anything you like?” the boisterous man asked in response. The green flashes did not concern him.
“Hello,” Bombi said, making sure she was included in whatever was about to happen. She knew from prior conversations that Quicky and Chagrinn had never met in person, yet here he was known immediately.
“Hello Bombi,” he greeted back. She smiled, but narrowed her eyes slightly. It was unsettling to see a speed runner with such a look of contentment. Normally they always looked numb or mid-struggle; feeling fulfilled was like trying to drink quicksilver to them.
“You know us?” she probed.
“I make it my business to know about most of the runners,” he answered. He moved the blankets onto the pulpit and then rested his cheek on one, closing his eyes for a moment. When his head came back up he looked refreshed, as if he’d just taken a two hour nap. “I also know you’ve been looking for me. I’m sorry to say you’ll leave disappointed.” He walked right past them and up to the statue of the saintly woman. He pulled out a magnifying glass and examined the golden glass tendrils from her palm.
I knew this was a waste of time. Chagrinn has been distracted by thoughts of this man ever since we left his burrow. The questions gnawed at me because they gnawed at him. Why did Quicky let us pilfer his hidey hole? Where is his rage? We have the tool; it shouldn’t matter now. We’re hours from the world record and yet he drags me here to tie up a loose end. Who stops to tie their shoe an inch from the finishing line? Certainly not the Chagrinn I met back on the docks as he tossed my uncle’s corpse about.
“We’re about to end this silly game,” Chagrinn said, marching over to the statue and standing inches from Quicky’s face. The larger man did not look away from the glass, forcing Chagrinn to feel what Bombi had felt during their early time together. He was being treated as little more than a bug on the wall, an inoffensive one at that, like a jumping spider or monochrome moth. “In one hour’s time we will be at the site of my intended death. We will have hit all the crucial triggers. The world record will be ours.”
“Go on then; I’m not worried.”
“Why are you not worried?” Chagrinn asked, stress tightening his voice. “What strat are you looking for in this lousy thing?” He reared back and punched the glass, strength enhanced by the assistant’s tool. It shattered into a thousand glittering pieces, many of which landed in Quicky’s bushy beard. He tucked his magnifying glass back into his pocket.
“I know you have the assistant’s tool. It will do you no good.”
“No good!” Chagrinn scoffed. “We’re under two decades Quicky. No one else is even close to that. This thing has cut close to twenty years off my best time.” He pulled out the tool and displayed it. Its hexagonal tiles clicked in and out as it worked in concert with Chagrinn’s mind.
“No one is close to that because no one can be close to that,” Quicky stated. “I’ve done the math. A man’s capability, even if he makes no mistake, even if the random dice come up on all the right numbers, even if he was born onto a near-perfect route, cannot drop below a twenty-three year time.”
“What about a woman?” Bombi asked, reasserting her presence.
“Them too,” Quicky said simply without looking at her. He was done looking at Chagrinn as well, as he went to retrieve his blankets. “The assistant’s tool is cheating. It is not a valid run. You will be denied at the Source.”
“You lie,” Chagrinn accused. “You’re jealous because all you have is… blankets, instead of this.” The tool’s incessant clicking accelerated. Chagrinn’s mind was busy trying to calculate the exact flaw in Quicky’s words, and reading his life signs for the fluttering of dishonesty.
“Jealous? I have the strats of many runners at my fingertips, or at my pupils rather. Hehehe,” he chuckled. “I know you saw my peepers back when you used my workshop.”
“You didn’t pursue us. You didn’t pursue me ever. Why?”
“Then you might’ve stopped coming! You’re not the only one who thinks they found my secret base. I’ve let it slip to dozens of others. I’ve stocked it with mildly useful things as honey for people like you. Then, when you stop in, my eyes analyze you and your gear. You think you’re stealing from me, but I’m actually spying on you. Let me tell you this. Over the lives, others have passed through there with the assistant’s tool in hand. None of them ever had the world record.”
“More tricks!” Chagrinn declared, even as the green light in his eyes fizzled out and the tool stopped clicking. “You’re fat with tricks.” He poked the man’s substantial stomach. “You were right Bombi; this was a waste of our time.” Bombi could hardly believe her ears. She was correct about a route. It was about time, considering that their time was almost out. “Let’s go.” He stormed out of the temple.
“Lovely meeting you,” Bombi said, her tone vacillating wildly between sarcasm and indifference with each syllable. She wasn’t sure if she cared about anything other than the record at that point. I might not even care about that. She followed Chagrinn out. They heard the footsteps of the T-sleepers resume as soon as they were past the entrance. They never knew the two runners were there.
Wordlessly, Chagrinn held out the other end of the tool. Bombi grabbed it. Their fast-travel was as natural as walking at this point, so neither of them batted an eye or teared up when they sank into the ground and flew backward at the speed of a shooting star. They had a sort of friction against the underside of the world; it created a strange light only visible to those in the lands of Shook and Cain briefly, through gopher holes, uprooted plants, and freshly dug graves.
A grave was the last place their light showed before they rose back to the surface. They came up in a cemetery, at the center of a circle of monuments. Much of it was overgrown, with thorny bushes biting at the stony toes of the statues and heavy vine flowers hanging over their shoulders like shawls. The sun was setting and the blue of moonlight was taking over in an unnaturally aggressive fashion. It beat back the oranges and purples within a minute of their arrival.
“This is the place?” Bombi asked. They’d had many silent conversations about the exact procedure of completing a run, but he’d shared few details of his personal finale. A speed runner had multiple ways to trigger the effects of their death, but there were near-universal factors. You could only finish in the place where Shook and Cain intended you to die originally, unless you acquired the exact item or entity that killed you. Sometimes that was enough. A runner had to stand in the right spot, mime the correct action, and then invite death into their mind.
Bombi did not fear this idea as much as most did their first time. When she was a child she’d invited Death to plenty of tea parties, but apparently he wasn’t impressed by the cups and pot she’d cobbled together from firewood scraps and shards of discarded dishware. He’d never even sent her a polite refusal, simply leaving her there with her misery, tears dropping into the cups and making the imaginary tea overflow. Now he would have no choice. They would bust down his door, teapot in hand, and pour the scalding liquid through his lipless mouth.
“Yes this is it,” Chagrinn answered. He held the assistant’s tool out to each statue, scanning them for anything that might interfere. Their granite-lidded eyes were judgmental, but none of them moved. Bombi waited for something, some sort of outburst of violence. Chagrinn was, by the plans of Shook and Cain, supposed to die there, so there had to be something along the lines of a bandit, bear, or betrayal to end him.
“It’s… peaceful here,” she eventually said to encourage a response. He wasn’t moving. They should’ve been claiming the record at that very moment. “Were you supposed to die of old age? I would’ve guessed something more dramatic…”
“I’m supposed to kill myself,” he said suddenly. He stared at one statue in particular: a man carrying a babe under each of his arms as if they were watermelons fresh from the patch. Chagrinn dropped his bag and dug out a dagger Bombi had never seen before. He placed the tip of it over his heart and held the assistant’s tool at the other end of it. He dropped to his knees.
“What did the world do to you to make this your fate?” his apprentice asked. She wanted to know, but she was sure to position herself behind Chagrinn and grab his shoulders before he did anything rash, like claim the record and leave her behind with the well-behaved dead.
“It created me. Now… we undo that mistake. Grip tight Bombi. Our run ends here.” She squeezed his shoulders. Chagrinn extended the assistant’s tool and then hammered it back down onto the dagger’s base. A wave of green passed through the blade and into Chagrinn alongside the blade’s tip.
Bombi opened her eyes. They were nowhere. The graveyard was gone. The moonlight was gone, replaced by a sterile white glow with no source. Her legs unfolded and hung beneath her, because there was no ground or sky, but she kept her grip on Chagrinn’s shoulders. She saw only the back of his head and one of his hands as it reached out to… something ahead of them.
“What is that?” she asked. Chagrinn’s hand shook, fingers opening and closing like a palsied old man trying to grab a nimble moth. Bombi reached and grabbed his left arm, lifting it to see. His hand was empty. The assistant’s tool was gone.
“Where did it go?” he asked the thing before them. It was getting closer. “This isn’t right. Damn it. Damn. We were… so close! Another death of mine the world got to taste. Another sweet drop of my suffering on its lips and all for naught.”
“What do you mean? We’re here! We have the world record!”
“No, Bombi. We have that,” he pointed at the thing, which was almost indistinct enough to avoid the concept of pointing entirely. “That is a new beginning, not an end. Quicky was right. The assistant’s tool doesn’t count. I’ll strangle whoever made the rules. I’ll drain the blood out of whoever categorized our efforts as insuffic-”
Before he could finish the thing was upon them. They were in it. Bombi was holding Chagrinn one moment, and holding nothing in the next. She looked at her hands. They were tiny, puffy, and soft, fingernails 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. Chagrinn and I will join younger. We will have the world record. We will be the ultimate speed runners, and once we are victorious I’ll never have to call myself born.
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