Chapter 6 - The Road of Trials

The Oxboxtra Dictionary of Inglish and Other Words Inglish has Been so Good as to Take (similar volumes exist under slightly differing titles on many Earths) defines ‘running’ as:


‘The act of moving on legs at a pace faster than what is polite, often employed by Adventurers (see Volume I, pg. 427) as a means of escaping death, taxes, and other responsibilities.’


On one parallel earth Edna visited, the adventurers referred to running reverently as ‘the first and biggest hole’ - the idea being, roughly, that any adventure without running was sure to result in death, like falling in a big hole. Edna even knew some (of both adventurers and laypeople) who would ‘go for a run’, which was a sort of recreational fitness activity that meant running without any external danger - not a single hungry yeti, racing boulder, or slowly lowering wall in the middle distance.


It was insanity. Running - she was sure now as she hopped a low boulder, her breath sticking to her face from the way she pushed quickly through it - was bad. Running was her least favorite part of adventuring. It may seem like almost every part of adventuring was Edna’s least favorite.


Highmond tripped on the rock Edna had just leapt. He had tried to hop the thing, but had cleared absolutely none of it. He fell then, which is one of the scariest things old people can do. Edna turned, swooping in to catch him. If he were injured at all, it would be a death sentence.


She knew she wouldn’t be able to keep him from hitting the ground. Still she hoped she’d be enough to break the fall so it didn’t break Highmond. But as she grabbed him - awkwardly slamming her hands, one each, into his lapel and cheek bone - she found he was lighter than expected.


“I couldn’t let you have all the old man sweat,” Iona said. Her hands were similarly placed so that, together with Edna, Highmond’s cheeks and lips were squeezed in and out like a fish.


“Thank you kindly,” Highmond tried to say, but it came out fishily and garbled. It was of no consequence though, for even as he spoke, the hissing and the heat - mostly the heat - of the encroaching lava became too much to bear.


Oh, yes, there was lava.


Edna had known this would happen. Not the lava specifically, one never expects lava. But, after they had explained to Iona about other worlds and timelines and the Beast at their center pulling the strings to random, devastating effect. And after they had told her of Edna’s kidnapping, and Pythagoras, and the zeppelin crash. And after she had, in turn, told them the (mostly true) tale of how she came to power, and how she had, in fact, seen the flaming skyship and pointed to it as an heavenly auspice to her inauguration, and how the people had been so taken by this idea that they had watched it all the while until it landed, so that she knew, generally, where it was.


After all this, Edna had sighed, because she knew what came next. Death was an adventurer’s constant shadow, but in the road of trials and temptations that awaited them, Death would come out of the shadows, to harry them directly. Still, despite herself and because she knew what must and would be done, she had suggested that Iona join their duo of misfits to make it a proper band, and that together they set out to search for their missing turtoid friend. All had agreed.


Unless you count Highmond.


The old man had been convinced that Iona seemed very capable, sorry, but that, well, it just wasn’t a good idea to bring her along. So sorry. Surely Pythagoras would send them a signal of some kind as to its direction, so they wouldn’t need her for that, and, well, you know. Of course Edna did not ‘know’, and so, after some stammering and involuntary mustache twisting, Highmond had offered as an argument that, “...a smaller invasion force will be more agile.” Then he had hurt his knee, by continuing to sit.


Iona, for her part, displayed remarkable restraint, even managing to keep a relatively straight face. Edna, who was never so restrained, had sighed some more and said some more and at the end Highmond was grumbling and Iona was coming and that was that.


Shortly afterward, Highmond had fallen asleep scrunched up in his chair, his sleeping noises indistinguishable from his waking noises. It had taken Edna and Iona about half an hour to even notice the change, lost as they were in that special sort of exhilaration that comes when a friendship is discovered and it feels as if it’s been there all your life. They giggled, as any of us would, when they finally noticed Highmond’s lilted head and open mouth, spit bubbling in the corners.


Then Iona had begged leave to make preparations for their adventure. Edna had stayed awake for a while, delighting in her tea, and in her new yet old friend, and even in Highmond, the great coot. Then Grief had come knocking. Edna felt all her power drain away, and so she let Grief in, just for the night, and cried herself to sleep.


***


Meanwhile, Iona packed a bag, and thought about all she had learned and believed without question from these two strangest of strangers. She had a sister. That seemed right, but wrong too. And she thought about a watch, so familiar and fleeting and distant. Oh, she would get a closer look at that watch.


When she was done, she found Larry. She placed her hand on his cheek and smiled sadly, saying to him, “There is a gathering of witches to the north. I will leave in the morning, and you will be in charge until my triumphant return.”


Larry’s face was sad but dutiful - so no different than ever - as he said, “Yes, mum. Thank you, mum. When will you return, mum?”


“When I am queen of every universe.”


***


So they had set off at first light, which gave Edna a turn to object. “Why do adventurers always begin at ‘first light’ or ‘rooster’s crow’ or other such evil times?” She grumbled, rolling away from the hand of whomever had gently shook her, “Why never at ‘brunch’s end’ or ‘after a lazy shower’ or… ‘10:30’?” But she had relented in the end.


When she finally did open her eyes, she noticed the horse paintings had all disappeared from the oversized landscape. Portions of their frames lay broken and discarded in a pile next to the bed, and Highmond had a new cane.


Larry, the dear, had organized some small fanfare for their exodus, and Iona had pretended to pretend to be touched by it. Edna guessed this was a way to pretend to not be touched by it. Highmond guessed she would betray them.


The old man led the march for much of the morning, as surprisingly spry as ever. He, of course, did not know where they were meant to be going, but when have such things ever quelled the confidence of Inglishmen?


They were in the shadow of the lone mountain that, as a byproduct of its existence, made the valley in which Iona’s little town sat - when the world’s stomach began to rumble. The ground shook softly beneath them (and more violently beneath that), until at length whatever geological processes had been attempting to avert disaster gave up. The mountain exploded, and earth (the second) spewed its lunch everywhere.


First came a shockwave of so much force it had threatened to smoosh them all by itself. Next came Edna’s sighed suggestion that they, perhaps, run. Then, in an order made unclear by panic, ash blackened the sky, lava rained and rolled down the mountain, and a great cloud of heavy smoke raced across the ground in one direction.


“That,” Highmond panted, running and pointing at the low smoke, “is a pyroclastic flow, and we are very, very lucky it has gone another way - for it would surely devour us in a most painful death.”


A bit of lava fell from the sky, nearly devouring Iona’s head. “Yes, I feel very, very lucky,” she said.


They continued to run, with Iona assuming the lead, for the next five minutes or so, but it was pointless. The lava ran faster and unopposed by obstacles, creeping closer by the moment until it had nearly reached them.


“It’s hot on our heels!” Highmond cried, coining the phrase on Earth the Second.


“Literally,” said Edna, whose earth had the idiom.


“What?” called Highmond, “Yes, that’s what I mean!”


Then there had been the small boulder that Edna had leapt and Highmond, inept, had stumbled and tumbled over. After Edna and Iona had caught him, and he had garbled his fishy gratitude, they yanked Highmond over the rock and stood him up. His trousers were torn, but he himself was alright.


As they were setting Highmond right, and he and Iona were lamenting the ruin of his pants, Edna watched the lava, preparing to run again. She had expected the stuff to overrun the boulder, but instead it broke around the rock, splitting its path of destruction. Too quickly the new streams traced an oval round the edges of the small party, hemming them in from both sides.


Edna turned to check the path ahead. There was a much larger boulder some ten paces beyond, but the lava was already there, pooling at its base. They were surrounded.

“Well,” she interrupted her friends who were now bickering over just how bad Highmond’s trousers looked. “It would be very nice if one of you had a thought that wasn’t about pants right about now.”


“What?” They said in unison, then looked around.


When she had surveyed her doom and concluded its doomfulness, Iona said, well, some words - which words precisely, and the order they were in, was less important than the spirit of them.


Highmond laughed, a scoffing, good laugh, “Nonsense?” he bellowed, “We’re fine! We’ll just lift ourselves out on those branches!” He pointed to the boughs of a large tree. It was nearby, but not quite nearby enough.


Iona turned to Edna, “Did we break his eyes when we caught him?”


Edna turned to Highmond, “And how will we do that?” she asked, trying and (therefore) failing to keep the edge off her voice.


Highmond’s mustache curled in a grin. “With this!” he shouted, hoisting a stick high above his head. Before anyone could react, he aimed the stick’s end toward the tree limbs and pressed a knobby part of the wood with his thumb. The stick sat there, in its sticky way, and nothing else happened.


“Good. Now that’s done, shall we have a group cry?” Iona deadpanned.


Highmond saw what he was actually holding now and burst into a stammer of babbles. “I--well--but! My cane!” He looked to the boulder where he had tripped and saw his cane, sitting on top in a pile of sticks. The others turned as well. As if the cane and sticks had been awaiting an audience, they immediately burst into flames. “That had a grappling hook in it,” Highmond said sadly.


Edna patted his shoulder. “It’s alright,” she said, “You tried, and I understand that’s meant to be a virtue.”


“I--” he began, “But no! There must be another way! A vine perchance, or…” he looked around in the ash-dimmed light, finding no vine on their little island, “or we could jump or… climb that rock!” But even in saying these things he knew they were folly. The molten moat that encircled them was too wide on either side to leap from their position, and the larger boulder to which the lava ran had a sickening overhang that seemed almost eager to deposit them in the burning pool that grew beneath it.


He was trailing off, but Edna could see that his mind was still turning the problem over. She admired that, deeply, but she had looked at every angle - her experience told her - and there was nothing to be done.


She thought about giving him a speech, letting him know that this, not fame and accomplishment, is the soul and whole of adventure. Death is the beginning, middle, and end - the prologue and epilogue and footnotes. It is the glossary and index and every other part of adventure. Glory is only the purgatory in which adventurers await their tragic ends.


But then she had an idea


It was a stupid idea though, one that would never work, so she only smiled at him and clutched her watch in her pocket. Then she turned and smiled at Iona. Then she just looked round, trying to find any less stupid ideas that might be hiding behind a shrub or under a rock. She saw none, only a red-orange glow that underlit the world where it held her so that it looked like a terrible dream.


She sighed. She would not let Highmond be the only one who tried. “Take off your pants,” she told him.


Highmond reddened - there is no heat or exhaustion in any universe that can hide the blush of an Inglishman who has had his sensibilities rustled. Highmond made some noises that sounded almost like, “I dare say!” But when Edna held out her hand, he obliged, muttering, “Impertinence! Indignity!” as he slipped out of his ruined trousers.


When she had got the pants and Higmond had got his remarks out, Edna stuck her hands in the rip and yanked. Highmond might have died from the shock, robbing the lava of its prey, but he managed to hold it together, letting out only a very small squeal.


Edna tore the pants down the new seam and down others she made with a pointy rock. It was a hasty job, barely even taking a minute, but in the end she had sort of slightly longer trousers that she hoped would serve as a rope. She threw one end out and amazingly it caught on one of the larger branches. Highmond squealed again, this time with joy.


“We’re saved!” he shouted, and Edna wished he hadn’t. As soon as she tested her weight on their “rope” it collapsed, pulling further at the rips until it was totally shredded. A small swatch of Highmond’s pants dangled from the tree, but most of the would-be rope fell toward the lava, burning up even before it hit the pool below.


Adventuring leagues don’t advertise this - why would they? - but you don’t drown in lava. You - the part of you that knows your friends and remembers your childhood and forgets the laundry in the wash - you never even touch lava. The heat kills you long before you arrive at the soup of melted rock and metal. It reaches out from that molten earth (the second) and wraps at your chest and your ears.


Her failure cemented, the Heat pulled at Edna now, grabbing on her neck - urging her to the ground. There had been an election, it told her, and The Heat had declared itself Ultimate Viceroy of Now and All Things - So do what it said. She tried to fight, but the adrenaline ran out of her body. Her pain raced back in to the fill the gaps, diligent as ever. She fell to her knees. This was it. This was finally it.


Edna looked again at Highmond, pantsless and panting. She looked at Iona, saying something she couldn’t understand. She looked once more at the world that would wrap her in her final moments. She closed her eyes.


But Curiosity stepped around Grief - still waiting at her mind’s door - and knocked. “What was Iona saying?” it called, when Edna did not answer. She opened her eyes - looked back at her newest friend. What was she saying? Iona was speaking, but not to Edna or Highmond. Edna tried to listen through the throbbing in her ears, but it sounded all gibberish.


“Iona?” she called, and Iona Plum’s eyes darted her way, terror-filled.


“Highmond,” Edna said. He turned numbly toward her and she pointed at Iona. They watched in astonishment as she gibbered playfully at no one. Then she bent down strangely and made an awkward sort of brushing motion with her hand. A memory asserted itself in Highmond’s mind, so forcefully that it shook his head and made his (now quite limp) mustache flap about.

“My pants!” he cried.


“Highmond, seriously, not now,” Edna said, exasperated - even in the wiry fingers of death the old man could not evade his vanity.


“No! Edna, she’s talking about my pants. She’s just brushed her hand on the rip.”

“But you’re--” she began, before seeing what he meant. Iona wasn’t speaking gibberish, she was speaking backward - retracing her words and deeds since they’d arrived. Edna looked around. The lava was retreating. Already the pool beneath the larger boulder had nearly disappeared, the wrapping arms of their encircling moat grew wan. The heat released Edna’s neck.


She and Highmond watched in astonishment as not only the lava, but also the ash, the embers, the destruction all rolled away. They gazed in amazement as birds overhead soared backward through the sky. They saw, feeling a third way, a squirrel in the tree Highmond had tried to reach, putting an acorn back together - bit by bit - with its mouth.


But Edna’s astonishment and amazement and third feeling all turned to worry as Iona dipped and caught Highmond - or an invisible past Highmond - again. “We have to grab her!” she yelled, and lunged from her kneeling position, her pain screaming in protest.


She managed to grab hold of one of Iona’s forearms - the left, so you know - right as her friend leapt backward over the rock that had gotten them stuck here. Iona’s feet dropped to the small boulder, but they kept on pounding in their backward sprint - still tied to whatever invisible force compelled her and the world around them.


Iona’s backward momentum overtook Edna’s desperate pull, and she fell to the ground behind the rock. Edna doubled over the boulder, holding tightly onto one of her friend’s forearms - the left still - feeling her sweat-drenched hands start to slip down Iona’s sleeve.


Just at the moment of Peak Drama, when Edna was sure her hand would fail or else disconnect from her wrist, she felt the burden ease. She looked over to see Highmond now had hold of Iona’s other forearm - the right, if you’re keeping up.


“I couldn’t let you have all the… er, witch sweat,” Highmond said, with a gaze that asked if it had been the right thing to say.


Edna laughed a joyous, grand laugh, “It’s a little too samey, but yes! Splendid, Highmond!”


Together they were able to reel Iona in and over the rock and onto the ground. They sat on her still flailing legs until they became only still, no longer flailing. All three heard a thunderous !MOOB as the eruption un-happened, and whatever trick of time had held Iona seemed to release.


“Thank you both,” she said, “Now if it’s all the same, I should like my legs back.”


Highmond stood immediately, with a mumbled… something (who knows?) and walked off a bit to grumble at his pants. Edna stayed sat where she was. She smiled a sly, soft smile and said, “And how do I know this isn’t a trick from Backward Iona? What’s to stop you running off in reverse at that volcano if not my butt on your legs?”


Iona returned the smile and said, “Well I’m speaking forward, aren’t I? Backward Iona couldn’t do that.”


“You could have learned a new trick.” Edna gave a fauxe-thoughtful pause, then continued “Forward Iona revels in her cleverness - she’s a revel clever - it stands to reason Backward Iona would be one as well.”


“Ahh, I see your mistake. If Forward Iona is a revel clever, Backward Iona would in fact be…” she stopped, then her smile grew exponentially. “Impressive, Ms. Star - a well-laid trap.”


Edna stood and offered a hand down to Iona. “Thank you,” she said, “I thought of it about three minutes ago while sitting on you.”


Iona took the hand and stood. She was about to say something clever (no doubt) when a great BOOM! cracked across the sky and ash and lava filled the distant air. They all looked back at the volcano.


“Right,” Edna said, “Is everyone ready?” She looked back and forth to her companions.


“No,” they both said.


“No,” Edna agreed, “Neither am I. Still, it must be said. Highmond, would you like to?”


The old man was shocked, but he looked delighted. “Really? I may?”


“Yes,” Edna said.


“Yes, of course,” Iona said.


Highmond’s mustache was still limp from the heat, but his smile was unmistakable beneath. He shot a giddy glance back and forth at the two women, then over to the squirrel now re-eating its lunch, then forth and back again. Then he shouted, with no further warning, “RUN!”


And they ran.

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