“You heard him,” Bombi said coldly, but she swallowed hard and it betrayed her apprehension. Sister Twixit stood, but her posture was feral. Her twisted cheeks reddened at the seams. Bombi slowly circled around her, trying to find a position directly under the dark interior of a wall. She didn’t know what to do with what the tool gave her, but she knew it was still there as a ball of green light lodged in her memories, somewhere between learning what walls were and meeting Chagrinn.
“You can’t leave me like this!” Twixit moaned. She anxiously stretched a piece of skin around her neck like a shirt collar.
“I’m sorry, but I won’t risk my own life for yours. I didn’t even have my own life until a few days ago. Don’t forget you’re the one who defended those pathways. You contributed to my prison term, to the disrespectful decoration of my flesh with trinkets meant to sparkle and obscure me. You are asking a child to help you, a child kept young and fearful by your convictions. I won’t take the blame for your condition.”
“Blame! Forget about blame! Just help me!”
“You’ll help me or I’ll tear that green light right out of your head!” Twixit pounced, her body spiraling in the air. Her speed caught Bombi by surprise, but she already had her escape planned. She jumped as high as she could, snagging the invisible floor above them with her fingers. The green light flashed behind her eyes and she was pulled up into the space between the walls. The ground quickly solidified and became opaque, but before it did she caught a glimpse of a raging Twixit hopping, twisting, contorting, and practically frothing at the mouth.
Bombi put her ear to the cobweb-coated ground and listened for any sign of her. Nothing. She was in the world and Twixit was in the bottom; they might as well have been an ocean apart. She worked with the Win State; I’m sure she can find her way back up. As for her cure… it can’t be my problem. As I told her, it is actually my life now. It’s time for Bombi’s decisions and actions to be called just that. It’s time to leave my mark on the throats of the world. It’s time to cauterize its wounds and infections with my fire.
She wanted to ignite her sword right there in the wall, but it likely would have caught everything around her. There was someone very near just begging for it though. Bombi stepped backwards out of the wall and into an alley. She knew the woman was on the other side, beating the rug and moaning about her children. A few houses away there was a closet where a man had beaten his child. A few roads away there was a city, the palatial city, where the wealthy kept stables of people and bridled them with tight leathery legalities.
The first spark would be here, wherever this was. The name of the town didn’t matter, as it was just one of a thousand in the lands of Shook. People would pay no attention to one mysterious disappearance, especially after the Win State barracks had burnt down. I wonder what the Win State tells everyone their purpose is. They would think the knowledge of the exploits too dangerous for the peons… Perhaps they call themselves peacekeepers. I could borrow half of that. I will be a peacemaker. I will strike silently and create stillness and freedom. The bodies will rot inside the walls, away from vulnerable eyes. I will blacken them so they leave no rotting smell. Monsters will vanish as if by magic.
Her journey back to the palatial city was swift thanks to the assistant’s tool. Even when her requests to board a wagon were denied, she simply crawled under them and phased through the floor, riding silently with the goods until they reached their destination. In one such wagon she found a chest full of dresses and costumes. She replaced the rag from the skeleton at the bottom of the world with a purple tunic. It was a tight fit, perfect for slinking through walls once she ripped away the scarf and other extraneous pieces.
When she was in her place of birth once again she indulged in the few childhood fantasies she’d had before they’d been snuffed out. She found every fancy shop and bakery she remembered being in (usually to carry her mistresses’ shopping), and then infiltrated their walls to see the back rooms. She wanted to see if there were more servants like her. She wanted to smell all the fancy foods before they finished baking, as they were dusted with clouds of cinnamon.
A servant girl could never have a finished pie; she could only a sneak a finger of the batter in the kitchen or lick the crumbs off a plate. Bombi stuck her hand out of a baker’s dozen walls, startling a dozen bakers, as she dipped her finger into their work and sampled rich fudge, sweet cake batter, and cookie dough filled with nuts and dried fruits. However, once the mischief was done and her stomach achy and full, she got back to her dark work.
The family that owned her contract was called Ridgess. They own it still, she thought, a thought accompanied by an audible snort. They’re probably still waiting for me to stumble back. They’ve got some law clerk with irons at the ready who will tell me all the fines and punishments I’ve incurred.
The Ridgess name was associated mostly with the breeding of show horses and rabbits so woolly that they resembled cotton tumbleweeds. Four sisters, all in their fifties and sixties, presided over the equine empire but constantly competed with their siblings for medals and prizes. Bombi’s contract had been a gift to Winnifred Ridgess: the youngest daughter of the youngest sister Tempest. Winnifred was only five years older than Bombi, but had quickly learned to treat her more like a pet than a friend.
It was Winnifred she observed most closely before her reign of terror began. Bombi slipped into the blue walls of their stately house, climbed the lead pipes, and located Winnifred’s bedroom from memory. She found herself behind a full-length mirror and realized the knowledge of the assistant’s tool let her see through it but not be seen in return.
Winnifred appeared unchanged by the weeks in which Bombi had been missing. She still had her round face, walnut-like chin, dark thick eyelashes, and lips painted a fashionable blue. She brushed her hair with a silver-handled brush just inches away from Bombi’s face. The young runner wasn’t spying, as she already knew the girl’s daily routine from the number of times she had to clip her nails and listen to her babbling; she was simply observing.
Thanks to Winnifred’s narcissistic examination, Bombi had plenty of time to look into the girl’s eyes and judge her soul. She seemed content, but there was a smallness to her stare. She was like a turtle content to live in a box because it contained food and water. A turtle that didn’t know there were places in the world with so much water that you could be completely submerged. Bombi smiled, and then stuck out her tongue at her former master, for she had something the wealthy young woman in front of her could never have.
Tempest’s room was the highest in the house; it had circular convex windows, taller and wider than most wardrobes, on opposite sides of the chamber. From them she could see nearly the whole city, including the circular windows owned by her three sisters. Sometimes she would look out with a spyglass and spot one of her siblings doing the same across the way.
She was a slim woman, but had the demeanor of something inflated, or perhaps holding its breath. Her chin was always held high and she rarely opened her mouth. She didn’t shout, but her anger, for which she had been named, expressed itself with wicked hand gestures and clawing tantrums. Many times Bombi had dodged something thrown at the wall, often something more valuable than her contract. Tempest had nearly broken Bombi’s nose in the process of breaking ornate glass eggs, fine workings of green wood, and sometimes even exotic pets too slow to avoid her grasp.
The other servants, the older ones willing to take the inevitable hits of Tempestuous mornings, were kind enough to come down to Bombi’s quarters before her shift and give her the anger forecast. That allowed her to calculate exactly how much attention she had to pay to her distance from the matriarch of the house. On the worst days she would contrive some reason to stay by the calmer side of the oblivious Winnifred.
She avoided Tempest Ridgess no longer. Bombi held the sides of her perch, two pipes behind another full length mirror, and observed her. She wore the same fashionable shade of blue that her daughter had turned into a pucker. Her hair was done up in a tall series of spirals that looked like a hydra of cyclones. Bombi guessed she silently fumed under all that hair, even more than usual. A style like that would have taken one of her fancy groomers all morning to produce. Tempest likely had it done for some sort of event, a ball perhaps. If she took one wrong step or sneezed it might all go tumbling down.
I wonder if I can end her without disturbing her hair. She can rot in these walls, as I would have done, but keep the fancy bow on top. Eventually she will be born on her track again, but there could be a little something in her memory: a little green bug buzzing around her childhood daydreams.
Chagrinn said that once you interact with the exploits enough, you start to remember your track; you start to see the cycle. You see how you are trapped. I’ll be using one to end her. It might take ten murders, she might think herself insane, but I will convince her to stop being this way. The storm will be tamed.
Bombi stalked around inside the walls, waiting for her prey to get closer. When she was within arm’s reach Bombi would strike like a trapdoor spider. She was the polar opposite of her former master in this task: stoic, patient, and placid. Tempest would draw closer. She might throw something, but it couldn’t hit Bombi anymore.
Three hours she waited, never making a sound. Servants came and went, serving her lunch in bed and touching up her hair. She was so intent on not disturbing her apparel that she had a girl Bombi’s age, a second cousin in fact, spoon feed her bite by bite so she wouldn’t have to crane her precious neck. After that the woman devoted some time to reading a novel the size of a dictionary. It was clear she didn’t enjoy it, she scowled at every word, but Bombi suspected it was for social climbing in some literary circle she’d managed to penetrate. The drudgery of the prose worked in the girl’s favor, for after forty pages Tempest grew quite irate and tossed the volume at the wall… right at Bombi’s feet.
She held up the sides of her hair and stomped over to the book, struggling to pick it up without leaning too far over. When she reached down with one hand her bouffant wilted against the wall with a soft sound. Phuff. Seerk! Tempest’s eyes widened as the majority of her hair fell to the floor before her, the ends of it seared black. She pawed at it like it was a severed limb and then touched the hot, flat, bald patch on the crown of her head. She had to scream. For the first time in years Tempest was angry enough to shriek. She opened her mouth wide and swallowed down her last fresh air.
Bombi’s torso emerged from the wall like a ghost. She snatched Tempest’s shoulders and pulled her into the flank of the room. She plastered her hand over that big Ridgess mouth and placed her smoldering sword against the woman’s neck. Her victim took panicked breaths through her nostrils, eyes darting about by the dim firelight of the weapon. She has absolutely no idea what’s going on. Do I give her the context? Will it help her remember for the next time? I honestly don’t know. Maybe she deserves this confusion. If you spend your entire life ignoring reality it should eventually bloom into a biting blossom. You should have to stare at your ignorance in horror as it devours you alive.
“Do you recognize me?” Bombi asked in a voice slightly lower than her usual. Tempest had heard her speak; she wanted to see if the woman knew her face. She knew she looked different now. The most obvious difference was the lack of jewelry in any of her piercings. Secondly, she wore the sort of layperson clothing a servant would never be allowed; their options were fancy dresses made to enhance the image of their employer’s wealth or scullery rags. Aside from all that, she was sure there was a new hardness to her cheeks and new intensity to her irises, like they had been sharpened against a whetstone.
“I thought not,” Bombi said after Tempest shook her head in the negative. The woman mumbled a question from behind her hand. Bombi guessed it was a form of who are you? “I’ve been here all along,” she lied. “I’ve watched you your entire life, from inside your walls. I had tea with the termites while we laughed at your tantrums, but the joke has gotten very stale my dear Tempest. We, the vermin, don’t find your actions funny anymore. You’re about to die.”
The woman squirmed violently, her tears turning to steam when they landed on Bombi’s sword. She calmed her victim by holding it that much closer to her throat. Tempest whimpered: the most innocent sound Bombi had ever heard from her.
“This won’t make sense to you, but I want you to remember what I’ve told you after you’re gone,” she went on, dropping some of the theatricality. “Remember that we of the walls are watching your every move.” She dragged the blade across Tempest’s throat, cutting, killing, and cauterizing. She dropped the body immediately, suddenly overwhelmed by the smells of burning hair and boiling blood. For some reason this task had proven more difficult than slaying Hieron.
She didn’t want to look at the body any longer, so she immediately pushed herself out of the house. This left her dangling from the edge of a gutter several floors off the ground, the breeze cleansing her of the smells of murder. Her grip was firm, so she calmly glanced down and saw people walking to and fro. They know they can look up and down, yet they never do. Even when their world is so small they let their routines shrink it more. Just wait. I’m opening the lands of Shook and Cain to you, expertly filleting the dreaded monster that is the world.
The other three Ridgess sisters suffered the same fate, though none of them had their hair lopped off. Bombi was careful; she never let her sword scorch the wall. She only attacked when they were alone. After each one she used the sword to blacken the surface of their bodies and dry them, encouraging mummification rather than smelly rot. All of them were thought kidnapped by the people of the palatial city.
Bombi’s silent slaughtering did not end there. After the Ridgess assassinations she went after every similar family in the city. Wherever she saw mistreatment of people under contract she struck with tamed fire. Soon huge fortunes found their way into the hands of either the younger generation or the servants themselves. The city was plunged into an economic chaos of shouting, bartering, and fear. All of it served as excellent cover for her work.
Fancy shops closed because the wealthy were too scared to flaunt it. They started to dress humbly, sometimes even in rags, to hide themselves. Everywhere they looked they saw schemers. Every eye contained the suspicious stare of a crowd. On top of that were the rumors that these people were being snatched from their homes by a ghost. Many of them had been under expensive guard, under gilded lock and key, yet they still vanished, leaving behind nothing but the smell of smoke. Many thought it to be the last puff of hellfire from whatever portal had taken them to the underworld.
The true underworld, the bottom, was where Bombi spent most of her time. Even the wealthy in rags kept hidden money and jewelry. She could easily look up their coats as they walked down the street and discern their coin pouches or fancy belt buckles. She did this for months, until she was certain the palatial city was forever changed. A dinginess had come over it like a blanket of shame; no one wanted to use the word ‘palatial’ anymore. Servants were now frightening conspirators, so it was rare for a new contract to be signed.
When the grandeur that had subdued her was subdued, Bombi moved on. She walked under the roads to the next civilization to do the same. She studied maps upside down as their owners studied them right-side up. She familiarized herself with the boundaries of the lands of Shook. They were just big enough for her to visit every city in an average lifetime. How perfect. Each one could be hit by her as if by a rogue wave. She would pull the greed out of them, this talk of highborn and lowborn destiny, until it was barely a whisper in their soul.
She would do it over and over again, through her own death and rebirth, until it stuck. At some point the Win State would find her trail, but they wouldn’t be able to stop her. It would only take a few lifetimes of terrorizing them instead for it to sink in. Bombi felt like a god, but not one of the ones in the sky dropping the occasional coin and making people believe in miracles even though they had bags and bags of coins hoarded in the clouds. She was one of the pocket gods, one of the ones that actually listened to the prayers hissed in the black of night. Vengeance was often a thing for the small-minded, but Bombi was simply small-hearted.
Just as an infection of the skin can leave scars, so too did Bombi’s actions leave marks on the world. She was long gone, off on her road of hidden death and influence, before these scars appeared on the palatial city. She’d left more than thirty bodies hidden in walls all over. They did mummify, but they did something else as well.
They were never supposed to be there, mouths and throats yawning and inviting in spiders and dust. They were supposed to live the lives the world had set out for them and wind up in their destined graves. Bombi denied them that. The runner Quicky had escaped the Win State several times by getting the world to pull him to his grave, a pull that constantly worked on Bombi’s victims. Locked firmly in the walls, and truly dead unlike Quicky, they were pulled like mold. Their dry flesh flowed off their bodies over decades, seeping into the bottom of the world.
Once there these veins of gray and brown decay had nothing to do but spread. They thought they had to fill a grave, but the only space they had was the infinite bottom. These roots of rot grew in the space beneath the palatial city, curling around invisible sources and pieces of the Source, only occasionally dotted with bone decoration. This decay bloomed under every place Bombi visited one by one, slowly transforming the bottom of the world into a hideous garden of tangled, confused, brittle flesh.
Everywhere it could it grabbed at the Source, begging for rest. It became such an encumbrance that the Source could not properly rise and form in places. Pieces of the lands of Shook and Cain missed their cue for existence and created discord above. Men squatted in the air, driving wagons that did not exist. Pigs starved as they chewed on patches of earth that should’ve been lush with grass, nuts, and truffles. Wars were fought without weaponry and armor, which occasionally turned them into confusing endless festivals.
Bombi did not see this rot or its effects in her quest to change the world. No, the first to truly notice it were wayward speed runners that happened to pass through the bottom of the world. They stumbled into her mess, horrified at the sight. The webs of flesh threatened them as well, clawing and grasping for purchase on their bodies. All they could think to do was change their routes. Saving the world was not their job, breaking it was.
It would take her first death and her first recollected beginning for Bombi to see what she had done. The first time she descended to the bottom of the world in a fresh youth she would find the infectious tomb of her improvements and gasp. Her route would have to change as well.