Bombi boldly walked backward. Her feet hit water. The bandits followed for a moment but stopped at the water’s edge. Perhaps they’re afraid of bathing. Bombi kept going. She let the sharp cold of the seawater eat up her ankles. Further and further she went until it seeped into the bottom of her clothes. She was up to her knees. Chagrinn gave her no clue as to how she could encourage the blade to take shape, so she made her best guess.
“I am Bombi the speed runner!” she declared. The declaration sounded false, but she waved the feeling away as novelty. She’d never been allowed to declare herself with such force or volume before. The vagrants laughed.
“We didn’t ask your name sugar tart,” one of them chided.
“This weapon source belongs to me and no other!” Bombi shouted, trying to muster authority once more. “I am its master and its inspiration! With the power of the exploits, and the wisdom of the strats, I hereby forge a sword of mighty ocean!” She lifted the invisible hilt into the air and plunged the tip of the source into the water.
Her enemies’ laughter was drowned out by a roaring geyser of white foam. The water’s surface bent out of the way as the tip of the source struck. It all spun around, faster and faster, creating a whirlpool before Bombi. It shook in her hands. Her feet sank deeper into the sand. Everyone’s ears filled with the sound of squalls crashing against the beach. Only Chagrinn acted as if he couldn’t hear it, as if he listened to music originating from a continent away.
Wreathed in foam, water began to climb up the invisible edge. A cloud of disturbed sand was carried with it. Bombi felt every grain slide into place inside her grip. She knew that, like the legends of old, she had to pull the blade from its rest to claim it. The whirling water was so strong she feared she couldn’t do it, but it moved with the lightest of pulls. Up into the air she raised it, the last drops of seawater that didn’t make it into the source dripping off the edge or running down her arm.
The vagrants took a few steps back, terrified she would bring the bathing to them. The sword was certainly something to behold, with its sparkling quartz hilt and the undulating edge of its translucent teal blade. Bombi held the sword in front of her. It was heavy now, the way such a powerful thing should be. She marched forward, out of the water. Once she had set foot back on the beach and the blade had not immediately flowed back to its home, the last of her doubts were gone. They could not touch her.
“Big magics!” the filthy woman spat. “Since when do servants get big magics?”
“That magic’s no bigger than I is,” the huge vagrant argued. He rolled up his sleeves and lunged at Bombi. The apprentice stepped back and then leaned forward, just like the tide behind her. The tip of her watery blade extended just enough to puncture the man’s chest near his armpit. He howled and fell backward. A dark bloody spot appeared under his hand. “It’s salty!” he cried. “It stings! By Shook it stings!”
“It’ll sting all of you if you stay!” Bombi said. She realized she didn’t need volume if she believed what she said. The vagrants had preyed on enough people to know conviction when they saw it in someone’s eyes. Bombi was no more a victim now than the nearest shark was. They took off running. The only one that lingered was trying to fish a few belongings out of the seaweed. He called after his cohorts to wait, but they didn’t even spare him a glance. The pathetic creature dropped polished rocks, rusted forks, and seaweed everywhere as he lumbered away from Bombi as fast as he could.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Chagrinn asked, reasserting his presence. He walked back toward the seaweed without waiting for an answer. Always on the move. Never standing still. No pause between the tick and the tock for the mighty Chagrinn.
“This is a wonderful thing,” Bombi admitted as she followed behind and admired her new weapon. They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but only one had proven helpful in a bind for her. “But… It would be more helpful if I could move like you. Then I could avoid the fight entirely as you did.”
“Not even I can avoid all fights. Sometimes there just isn’t an exploit.”
“You should teach me to move as you do.”
“I should just explain things immediately,” he sighed. “You’re always wasting my time with extra questions. I should assume everything you’ll ask. The way I move is called the stuttering back-dash. I cannot teach it to you because it can only be taught in one place. We would have visited that place if we were still on our intended route, but you thought a pen was more important. You’ll have to make do with the sword.”
“I can’t make do with this clothing,” she noted. In bending to check the tears again she accidentally widened them.
“You’re right,” Chagrinn said. Bombi blinked, as if her mind had stumbled over a cobblestone. She didn’t know Chagrinn was capable of saying that to her. “We can’t have you drawing aggro everywhere with your appearance.”
“Aggression. We need to present an ordinary image if we want to go about our clandestine work in populated areas. So you should take those off and put on… these.” Chagrinn rummaged around in the seaweed and produced something the vagrant woman must’ve left behind: a collection of mustard-colored and gray rags that, if properly straightened out, vaguely resembled clothing. Many women might have complained at the sight of them, but Bombi saw no dignity in her servant clothes either.
She snatched the rags away from the runner and hopped into the seaweed, burying herself sufficiently so she could not be seen. The mound trembled for a few moments. She reemerged clad in her new attire; they were baggy, but not so much that she tripped over them.
“How do I look?”
“Sufficiently terrible. Now come on; we’ve got a long walk ahead of us.”
Chagrinn had told a plain truth. Many were the days that Bombi had gone into town on the elbow of her mistress and carried her shopping like a mule. The wealthy women of the palatial city only showed their true stamina in the marketplace, skittering between stores and restaurants from dawn until dusk. Even that exercise had not prepared Bombi for the ‘long walk’.
First they had to cross the rest of Lampworm Bay. Chagrinn constantly reminded her that he could cross it in a fraction of the time if he used his stuttering back-dash. Bombi grew a bit of armor on the subject of his constant needling. If he would be faster without me then he would just leave. He needs an apprentice for certain routes or he can’t stay competitive. Somebody else might beat him to his ‘transcendence’.
Next they had to scale the cliff that acted as the boundary between the city of the dead and the city of the living. Chagrinn demonstrated the versatility of his movement again, speeding and doubling his way to the top in less than a minute. Bombi was forced to use a rope that he dropped down for her.
He was concerned that her seafoam sword might damage the other goodies in his bag, so she was forced to carry it on her person. There was no sheath source to go with it, but luckily its watery quality provided a solution. She found that the blade, when placed against the bare skin of her back, conformed to it perfectly as water would. The hilt stuck out from one shoulder, but was mostly obscured by the hood of her rags.
From there they snuck into the palatial city itself. Normally Bombi’s jewelry would have served as sufficient proof of residency, but all of that was gone now. Chagrinn, as ever it seemed, had a solution. His apprentice didn’t know if he’d passed through several times before or if he’d learned the guards’ walking paths and sight lines from other runners. Each seemed equally likely. Sometimes his accuracy was simply absurd; he would press Bombi up against the wall with the side of his arm and advise silence. Not a second later a guard would pass by. Even the slightest turn of his head, distraction from a buzzing fly, could have revealed them. The guard always kept going.
Once past the security they merged with the foot traffic of the market streets. The neighborhood was respectable, free of the illicit goods of Cain. The fashion of that year was dinnerware, so most displays had rows and rows of forks, ladles, and skewers. Bombi had numbing flashbacks to her table manner lessons as a child, having to memorize tine arrangements and lengths so she could differentiate between salad forks, lemon forks, prawn forks, and a dozen other varieties.
As they passed through she noticed a woman pick up and examine a golden sugar bowl with a diamond-encrusted rim. The woman looked right at Bombi after noticing the runner’s reflection in the side of the bowl. To Bombi’s horror, she recognized the woman as a friend of her mistress; the two of them often gossiped about disgraced orchid watering techniques and the waistlines of their other friends.
Aggro. I’m about to create aggro. What do I do? Luckily, nothing came of it. The woman merely frowned at Bombi’s rags and unadorned face before turning back to the finery. Through the grime of the apprentice’s experiences that day she had become unrecognizable to the people of her city. This truly is speed running. I’ve changed so much in one day that it’s like I have a new face! By Shook, what will I look like tomorrow? Will I even be human? The thoughts made her wonder about Chagrinn, about what was left of him on the inside, but her mentor didn’t allow her to dawdle.
He pulled her past the bakery, the air smelling of horse butter and pretzel knots, and into the alley on its side. At first glance there was nothing there but a few barrels, a broken down wagon, and the three white cats living inside it. None of them made a sound at the sight of the runners. Have the cats seen him before? Can certain animals remember between the tracks? Perhaps there’s no harm in it because they can’t speak their minds. I’ve got it! Cats always land on their feet because they’ve fallen there before and remember how to avoid it. Clever beasties.
She patted the smallest one on the head as they passed by and got the momentary pleasure of feeling it purr. She didn’t have time for the others, but in her mind there was always the next go-round to get to them. Chagrinn pulled her to the edge of one of the barrels. She was glad to see it was empty, as the day had had sufficient muck already. Chagrinn climbed inside it and crouched down. His voice echoed out of it as he spoke.
“We need to bypass various hazards meant to keep me on this side of Shook and Cain until I am fifty-four. That means going under the world again, though you will see something quite different from the lair we runners have built.”
“This side…” Bombi pondered aloud. “You’re not saying… We’re going to the land of Cain?”
“Oh yes.” Chagrinn performed a few calculations in his head and then wiggled his shoulders a little further into the barrel.
“The land of inbred monsters? The land where even shrubs will scurry around like thieves? Cain is a farm, where they grow the stories that frighten children into standing up straight.”
“The people of this city are just as inbred as anything over there,” Chagrinn corrected. “You’re right though; it is far more dangerous. Even the exploits are more temperamental. Still, it’s the fastest. That’s the only factor we are to consider.” He wiggled his shoulders some more and aimed himself at one specific crack in the opposite wall.
“Why are you in that barrel?”
“Sometimes you have to do strange things to access an exploit. In fact, you always have to do strange things. Acting out of character forces the world to bend, to adapt to your actions, and often it’s not very good at it. When it can’t compensate, the thin parts become obvious. For example, the lands of Shook and Cain never anticipated someone climbing into this barrel, turning it on its side, and rolling into that crack in the wall over there. Like so…”
Chagrinn rocked the barrel and tipped himself over. He used his shoulders to roll away from her. The cats watched nonchalantly as he picked up speed. Whunk! The barrel smacked into the wall, but didn’t roll away. Part of it was pinched into the crack as if made of fabric. Bombi heard its wood splinter. Then, in an instant, barrel and runner were sucked into the crack with a quick siphoning sound.
“Chagrinn? Are you still… I don’t even know what to ask. Here?”
“Here is a relative term,” his voice replied, coming from everywhere and nowhere. “The easiest way to put it is that I’m below you. I need you to join me. Hop in one of the other barrels and do exactly as I did.”
Bombi looked at the cats. Those are ‘go on, do it’ expressions if I’ve ever seen them. I’m trusting you, cats. If I wind up trapped in the ground there’ll be no more petting for any of you. The apprentice found another barrel. The only things inside were a few white chalky chunks of rock salt. She climbed in. Her eyes peeked just over the edge. There was the crack. Not a crack. A tear in the world. A portal to a better life, or at least one that’s better at ignoring the pain and smallness.
Over she went. She took a deep breath and pushed with all her might, rolling towards the crack. She rolled over a few of her own fingers and pulled them back in, but didn’t slow down. She couldn’t hesitate. Hesitation was slow. The world spun around her faster and faster as she mentally prepared for the transition: ground, wall, sky, ground, wall, sky, ground, wall… Whunk! Bombi threw herself from the barrel and hopped up. She tried to look around but the dizziness spun her vision wildly.
“You failed,” Chagrinn sighed. Bombi grabbed the sides of her head and held it straight. The alley wiggled, but it was still the alley. “You hit too close to the bottom of the barrel. You need to hit the middle against the crack. Tuck your head in more this time.” Bombi blinked. The cats seemed to watch more intently now, more of their paws hanging over the side of the wagon.
“Let’s see you do better,” she whispered to them.
“Stop talking to the cats and try again. Time is everything.” Apparently, even through the walls of the world, he heard her. Bombi bent over and rolled her barrel back to the starting position. Once again she squeezed inside and aimed at the crack. Whunk! “Faster!” Whunk! “Stop wincing at the last second. Treat the wall like it isn’t there.”
On her fourth attempt she succeeded. The barrel was flattened and squeezed with her inside. She felt exactly the way she did when the rocky exploit they used dumped them back into Lampworm Bay. Luckily, it only lasted the briefest of moments this time. Once she landed her barrel still rolled. It started to tip over an edge, she felt herself slipping out, but Chagrinn threw his foot on top and stopped it. He grabbed her hand and carefully pulled her out from it, not letting her step in front of the barrel. She turned and saw the object teeter and then fall… into nothingness.
Everything was nothing. East, west, north, and south produced no sight. Wherever they were, it was pure white space to Bombi’s eyes. The edge the barrel had dropped from was invisible, as was whatever she stood on at the moment. Something in her throat seemed to drop along with the barrel. Smaller and smaller. Eventually it had fallen so far that she couldn’t see it anymore.
“You’ll never hear it land either,” Chagrinn assured her.
“Where are we?” Chagrinn pursed his lips and pointed up. Bombi followed his fingertip and was amazed by what she saw. Above them was the world: the palatial city, the marketplace, the bakery, the alley… It was all there. The runners stood beneath it like moles examining the ornate molding of their burrow’s new ceiling.
Directly over them were the bottoms of the other barrels and the broken wagon. The cats hopped down and walked across the ground, the pink pads of their paws squishing against the world as if against a glass table. The animals looked at them curiously, making it clear they could see them through the solid ground. I always thought cats were sniffing for prey when they bent their heads that way. They’re just looking through the ground. Seeing the rodents before they come up.
“Welcome to the bottom of the world,” Chagrinn said grandly. Anywhere else his voice would have echoed.
“We can see through it… I can see everyone,” his apprentice muttered. She wandered towards the street and examined the soles of everyone’s shoes as they strolled over her. Their footsteps were muffled, but far more audible than any talking going on. “I can see what they all stepped in,” she chuckled. “If that’s the ground up there, then what are we standing on?”
“Pieces of the Source like what we used to make your sword. These will eventually be new ground. You must be cautious though; the ground of the future can be vastly different in its arrangement. One wrong step and you could find yourself falling infinitely like that barrel.”
“Well, not infinitely infinitely. You would still die of starvation or dehydration after a few days. Then your body would do the infinite falling.”
“Are you saying that if we die here it is true death? No returning to our track?”
“Yes. Shook and Cain have lost us and so cannot turn back our time. You need to get moving. You need to get to the city’s far gate, just past the gardens. You know where that is I assume.”
“Me?” Bombi asked. “What about you?”
“I’ve got some more crucial treasures to collect for our run. I can get them in about the time it will take you to cross the city. Walking here lets you bypass all walls and guards. You’re invisible to them as long as you keep quiet.”
“What about the ground? How do I know what’s solid?”
“Use your head.” With that Chagrinn bent forward and sped backward. His body doubled into a chain of fading Chagrinns that rapidly slithered into the white horizon. Bombi was alone. You can do this. The fear is good. It’s real fear this time, not like the fear of punishment or the fear of embarrassment or the fear of a wasted life. This is the fear of death. My heart is racing because it’s closer to the boundary than I’ve ever been. Only now is the distinction between life and death so clear.
She took a deep breath and pulled her seafoam sword from her back, its cooling length sending a pleasant sensation along her spine. She tapped the tip of it against the non-ground in front of her. It was solid, so she took a step forward. The gardens were simple enough to find. Bombi set off in their direction, sweeping ahead of her with the blade and watching for any water that dripped away into the abyss. The three white cats followed her, but eventually she passed under a brick wall they couldn’t scale.
It was a wall Bombi had never cross in her life above either. Servants weren’t allowed there. She had a difficult time keeping an eye on her dripping sword with so much going on just over her head. She passed under a court of law and saw up the robes of every moving part in the city’s justice system. She saw a judge pacing back and forth in his chambers, likely muttering the rules to himself so he wouldn’t forget them in trial.
She saw a man in blue and gold robes hand a bribe to another judge, something small and silver. This made Bombi think of her jewelry, but she didn’t miss it; she just thought about using it to trade for goods useful to a speed runner. It might’ve worked, but it was all taken by the Gone Basin now. Even if her life started over she wouldn’t get it back.
Past the court she found the gardens. The roots of the trees extended down far enough for her to touch. In touching a living root, apart from the air of Shook and Cain, she felt the fragility of it. Bombi wanted to raise her sword and use it to water the trees, but she remembered her blade was made of salt water. She could be of no help to them.
Her parents had told her stories of the greatest trees of Shook and Cain holding the ground together with their roots, but they were merely placed in it like toys. The Source made everything and held it all together. Bombi looked down at the nothingness under her feet. Everything she knew, her whole world, was spun from this nothing. How? Why? Was it wrong of her to move beneath it like a tendril of fungus? Did Shook and Cain care that it had a parasite in its invisible silent heart?
Halfway through the gardens, at about waist height, she found a patch of moss growing on nothing. A tiny piece of it must have fallen through a crack and found foothold on a ridge of the Source. It grew like any other piece, struck by the full light of the sun even under the ground. Pill bugs trundled down its side and then crawled back up to it. A tiny world. An island in an empty sea. There must be something past the sea. A newer bigger shore that I could call home. I am piercing the world as I was pierced, but it does not feel my pain.
As if to prove her point, Bombi slipped. Her left leg dropped into a crack in the Source just wide enough to get her stuck. It scraped the inside of her thigh and sent a few drops of blood down her ankle and off into the white void. Frantically, she tried to wrench herself free. If the Source took things forever, her body might not be able to ever restore that blood. She might be that much paler for all time without it.
When she couldn’t dislodge it by strength alone she carefully slid her seafoam blade between her flesh and the side of the invisible crack. The water proved enough of a lubricant to free her. She hugged her leg, glad to have it back after dangling it like a worm before a vastness that could’ve held any number of strange intangible beasties. Bombi kissed her knee and bandaged the scratch as best she could. She was nearly there.
Eventually she came to two objects, at the end of the gardens, which hovered in perfect stillness. She guessed this was where Chagrinn wanted her to wait. Each was a massive stone, but they seemed to be cleaved from different places. One was like the cliffs of Lampworm Bay; she thought she heard the sounds of the ocean from it like a conch shell. The other had veins of golden amber swelled out of it in bubbled shapes.
A distant sound, like a water wheel turning in a river of cotton, drew her attention. It was the sound of Chagrinn’s doubled body returning. He expertly navigated the holes in the Source until he was right there next to her. His bag looked no heavier, but she expected it was full to bursting with strange new tools for fooling the world.
“Quicker than I thought,” he commended her. He put himself between the two hovering stones and held out his hands. “Time for you to learn how to judge routes for yourself. We have two options before us, dislodged from their homelands by a runner-caused ground-quake. They retain their connection to their proper place. Each one offers a route that is, in my opinion, equally quick. So you shall choose.”
“Oh…” Bombi stammered. I should try to act more like I deserve it when people don’t treat me like a broom with arms. Be decisive Bombi. Live your life through choice. “What are the qualities of each place… of each route?”
“This one,” Chagrinn explained, pointing to the amber stone, “will take us through the caves of the amber swarm. It is a path full of monsters from a different age, but I have the tools to fight them.” He wiggled the bag. “The other exploit will take us to another part of the shoreline. From there we will visit the hermit’s astrolabe and gain knowledge from the stars.”
“You don’t need anything else,” he stressed. “Quick decisions.” He snapped his fingers. “Quick, quick, quick. Smart and slow is the same thing as stupid.” Snap, snap, snap. Despite his frustration, Bombi couldn’t choose. Her mind flitted back and forth between them. I’ve always been told I should avoid monsters, but look where doing what I’m told got me. Chagrinn would say they’re not monsters at all, just pieces of the Source dressed up like them. The death they bring would be only temporary, but the pain would be real.
On the other hand, in the other stone, is knowledge from the stars. Do I want knowledge? I would hardly say no to it, but experience in battle could be infinitely more valuable. Do I even know what an astrolabe is? I have a vague idea… but it may not be good to have vague ideas about very precise instruments.
“Move Bombi!” her mentor ordered. “Are you a speed runner or a weeping willow?” As much as she wanted to, Bombi couldn’t decide. She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.