Ch. 4: Child’s Play

Click.

The torchlight flickered mockingly above Rin’s head. The other torch glittered in his line of sight, taunting him from the far side of the room. The vomit puddle smelled abominably like rotten eggs and beans.

He could hear the clicking of that traitorous pressure plate in his head. Over and over and over…

Rin threw himself at the wooden path and slammed his fist down on that first set of pressure plates. Then he did it again. And again. And again. Over and over, he repeatedly beat at the wooden squares, ecstatic to take out his building frustration on something.

I hate this, he thought bitterly, punctuating every word with a fist slammed down on the pressure plates.

Cli-cli-click! the pressure plates cried.

I hate it in here!

Bam!

It’s so bloody dark!

Slam!

I hate the constant clicking!

Crack!

I. Hate. This!

Click.

Rin abruptly found himself back under the torch. Fist still raised.

He blinked. His fist fell to his side.

He stared at the wooden path. The pressure plates sat there, still fully functional, though they looked a little worse for wear now.

He very carefully approached the bridge.

He knew that none of those first squares triggered a jump back. But now they had.

Does a certain combination of pressure plates work instead of specific plates?

No. That didn’t make sense. The last two attempts all he’d touched (at least, all he thought he’d touched) were orange squares. And one hydrawood square. Which were two different combinations!

Unless the combination is a certain number of orange square and then…any square? That sounded dumb, even as Rin thought it.

He frowned down at the wooden pattern, hands braced on either side of the bridge.

He started poking at the pressure plates. Playing with combinations of woods. Mostly just pressing randomly.

After several minutes, with a soft click, he found himself abruptly back under the torch.

Confusion touched Rin’s face as he stared forward at the distant torch. What?

Rin strode forward, determination now warring with confusion. He’d figure this out, by Aapo’s tree he would.

He proceeded to repeatedly depress the orange square, keeping count carefully.

Fifty-eight.

Fifty-nine.

Sixty.

And click. Rin was back under the torch. So, sixty orange squares triggers the jump back. So fifty-nine orange and one hydrawood should too.

A thought occurred to him, as he ran forward again. How’d I hit exactly fifty-nine orange squares whilethrowing a temper tantrum he did not think. But that was beside the point. And I know I didn’t press just orange when I was experimenting.

Rin tried depressing the hydrawood sixty times. Then the pale wood. Then the black plantain squares. Then pressing randomly while counting.

Every.

Single.

Combination.

All of them worked.

As long as sixty pressure plates were used.

Rin dropped his head to the very edge of the wooden platform, hands still holding down a pressure plate.

Sixty. No matter which they were, sixty pressure plates always triggered a jump back.

It’s not a specific wood. It’s not even a combination. It’s a certain number.

Blood and bone, but he felt stupid.

With a long, weary sigh, Rin let his hands slide off the wooden path.

Click.

He sighed again, longer and more world weary than ever before, when he found himself once more under the torch. And apparently they don’t actually trigger until they pop back up.

Why?! Why even have that effect if you can’t even—

Rin’s gaze fell on the fortune bowl. The next thought was near instantaneous: Are the stones heavy enough to hold down the plates? There was really only one way to find out.

It wasn’t until he had already awkwardly clambered up onto the wooden path, fortune bowl held in both hands, that the thought occurred to him that this might not be the best idea. But he was already on top of the platform (which hung over deep depth), feeling more precarious than ever before while holding the bowl and all its stones and standing on one leg on one pressure plate (since both feet didn’t fit). And he (somehow) had to navigate like that along a winding path in utter darkness.

Rin glanced into the bowl. He had roughly three dozen stones to weigh down some pressure plates with. But he’d have to risk triggering some.

Rin glanced down at the plate he stood on. His gaze trailed inexorably down the bridge and into the darkness.

I figured out the trick, he reminded himself with a sharp inhale. Now it’s just physical stuff. Which I’m good at. Now he just had to hop across the pressure plates. And not hop off an edge or sudden turn. He gulped, then squared his shoulders. I can do this.

That first hop was the hardest. Leaving the soft glow of the torch and leaping, literally, blind.

First, Rin very carefully tossed a stone. He had years of experience skipping river stones across the slow surface of the Inanishi River. The issue was getting the stone to stop close enough that he could actually jump to it, but far enough away that he could conserve as many stones as possible.

Still balanced on one foot, Rin bent his knee to get closer to the path’s surface and lined up the stone. With a slight flick of his wrist, the stone went flying down the path and into that darkness.

He had no idea how far away it was.

Okay…Rin slowly straightened. Maybe I should just…jump…then place down a stone to hold the plate down. He hadn’t heard any clicking. No plate had been triggered as the stone skittered across them. Is that because they’re too light?

With another careful bend, he placed a stone on the square he stood on. Then he jumped as far as he could.

Which turned out to not be the best idea.

Rin landed and had to twist uncomfortably to keep the stones from flying everywhere. For a precarious moment, he wobbled too far to the right, toes curling within his boots at smooth wood. But he managed to stay upright and on one leg. Even better, he hadn’t heard any clicking.

The stones are heavy enough. Rin exhaled his held breath in a shuddering sigh of relief, a broad grin stealing over his face.

He blinked back at where that little stone sat. He could just make out that the pressure plate it sat on was slightly lower than the ones around it. He glanced down at his boots, but, predictably, saw nothing but blackness. He wasn’t quite sure where he was in relation to the path. Was he too close to the right edge? The left edge? Was he even on just one square?

A careful bend and balance of the bowl, lowered Rin closer to the wooden bridge. He lightly ran his fingertips over the squares to find those hairline cracks that separated pressure plates. It turned out that he was balanced on a righthand square, and pretty dead center at that. Pretty straight jump for jumping blind, if he did say so himself.

Straightened back up and with the bowl balanced on his hip, like Mum did Meggi, Rin bit the thumb nail of his free hand. This was going to be dangerous. Jumping around in the dark. I’d have more grip without boots. But he’d lose any foot protection against spikes or acid or any other nasty surprises. He went back and forth in his head until, finally, he nodded, and set about removing the soft boot from his raised foot, then switching legs and repeating.

With both boots in the bowl, he ran the toes of his raised foot over the squares. He could just make out the cracks between pressure plates. That’s useful!

With another stone placed, Rin jumped again. Without boots, his toes could grab the wood while he fought to balance out the weight and unwieldiness of the fortune bowl. Needless-to-say, the second landing was far smoother. It helped that he didn’t try to jump as far this time. Once stable, he felt around with his toes, and placed another stone to weigh down the pressure plate. Then he jumped again.

Rin fell into a rhythm: jump, feel for cracks to figure out where on the path he was, place a stone, and repeat. Jumping on one leg at a time was a tiring exercise, but he was suddenly thankful to Mum for imposing it. It certainly beat hobbling along on one leg and two hands.

Then, while toeing the cracks, Rin felt his toes go over an edge.

His heart stopped. There were corners. How had he forgotten that?! He could’ve lept right off the bridge!

Okay. Rin breathed carefully. In through his nose, hold for two counts, and out through his mouth.

Once the panic had subsided, he gingerly felt along the edge with his toes and carefully corrected which way he was facing accordingly with a wiggle of his other foot. Then he bent down, balancing the fortune bowl on his bent knee. With the fingertips of his free hand pressed to the floor just behind his heel, he slowly stretched out his other leg and just barely scraped over the path with his toes, slightly swinging his leg to take in the entire width of the bridge. Once he was content that there was, in fact, room to jump, he straightened and jumped.

The click behind him reminded him he hadn’t placed a stone.

Blood and bone! How many mistakes could he make?!

It’s behind me. No fixing it now. Keep moving.

Rin integrated a careful stretch out along the path into his rhythm. It slowed his motion down considerably. And the bending up and down was a whole other workout. But it was that or leap blindly off the path entirely. Touch was the only sense he really had at the moment, so he shoved back any misgivings and pushed on.

Bend. Stretch. Feel. Stone. Jump. Bend. Stretch. Feel. Stone. Jump.

It’s almost like a weird, drawn out version of jaculi strike, Rin found himself thinking. He couldn’t quite get the proper side kick going with the fortune bowl balanced on his knee, but it was actually pretty close otherwise. Of course, the whole point of a jaculi strike was speed to build up momentum. But thinking about the forms Mum had taught him kept him from thinking about the very long fall that awaited him if he messed up.

Bend. Stretch. Feel. Stone. Jump.

Rin stopped to breathe and shake out his shoulders and legs after the third corner. The glow of both torches was somewhere behind him. It was as far as he’d ever made it before. From what he heard when he shook the bowl, he still had a fair number of stones.

Okay. Here we go.

He set out onto the unknown (as far as he was concerned) path.

Bend. Stretch. Feel. Stone. Jump.

Another two turns saw Rin to a straight stretch of path, both torches only glimmers of light behind him. The more bounds he made without finding a turn, the more uncomfortable and nervous he became.

His paranoia turned out to be completely founded, as he landed and his toes curled around the edge.

Rin jolted back in a rush before he could think. The stones in the fortune bowl rolled against the rim, and he clutched the bowl to his chest as he slammed his other foot down on solid wood. He staggered back again under the momentum and his heel slid off the right side of the bridge. Another jolt forward over-corrected again, and Rin found himself falling forward.

Can’t twist!

Both hands flung out to brace him. One scrabbled at the left edge. The other slammed hard against the wooden bridge, and he felt the wrist give in a way it shouldn’t. Stones spilled over the low rim of the fortune bowl. Then the bowl hit the bridge, and all the air in Rin’s lungs rushed out as his chest followed the bowl. Pain exploded in his left side.

The clicking of the pressure plates finally ceased.

The clattering of the stones hitting the bottom of the pit snapped Rin out of his daze.

Gingerly, testing every joint before he moved it, he sat up. He blinked rapidly, clearing away some of the unshed tears, and cradled his right wrist to his chest. The other hand very carefully pressed along his chest and abdomen, wincing at the bruising, but overall relieved.

No blood at least. Not that that helped the pain in his side.

He spent several minutes just breathing against the sharp ache, as deep as he dared, trying to test for broken bones.

He’d never had broken ribs before. Or even bruised ribs. This definitely hurt. Like all six hells rolled into one. But he could still breathe. That had to mean nothing was broken. Right?

His wrist was easier to test. He’d both broken and sprained a wrist before. Several times. It didn’t feel like that. It was tender, but seemed okay overall.

Wonder of wonders, Rin actually found himself wishing Aunt Kaira were near. Not…not right there, obviously. She’d probably just snip something about him potentially losing his boots. But Aunt Kaira was a Wisdom of Shima, a medicine woman who knew all about setting bones and stitching cuts.

Or Azti. Azti would know what to do and also wouldn’t cause a fuss about it. At least, she’d only complain about his recklessness but not tell Aunt Kaira or Mum.

By unspoken agreement, none of his children ever told Dad anything about their accidents. Not since Aapo.

Rin dragged the fortune bowl towards his knees and ran his left hand through the stones inside it. He’d lost quite a few. And his boots.

With a ragged sigh, he really didn’t have the emotional energy for anything else, Rin proceeded to gather up the stones still on the walkway. His boots weren’t among them.

Those were new. His very first pair of real boots, not just simple sandals that could be kicked off and go running barefoot anyway.

Aunt Kaira was going to throw such a snit when she found out.

Keep moving, he reminded himself.

It took a few false starts, but he was eventually standing, the stupid bowl clutched to his good side with his good hand. He dropped a stone by his feet, then did a small bird hop.

Rin hissed in through gritted teeth. Even that baby hop jostled his wrist and side unpleasantly. But there was nothing for it. It wasn’t like he could turn back.

Keep moving.

So, he did.

Bend. Stretch. Feel. Stone. Jump.

Breathe through the pain.

Bend. Stretch. Feel.

His leg shook too much to hold steady.

Stone.

He took shallow breaths as he rose, trying to ease the tight pang in his side from bending down.

 Jump.

Breathe through the pain.

After several more corners and a rapidly dwindling supply of stones, Rin found himself facing the far torch.

Only it wasn’t so far anymore. And it was directly in his line of sight.

Don’t rush. He swallowed roughly.

He was still a ways away. And running out of stones. He had about six left.

He had no idea how many pressure plates had triggered since he’d started. One from my own stupidity, he noted ruefully. And from his fall…maybe ten? Twenty? He couldn’t be sure. Assume thirty. That meant he could afford thirty more hops without using the stones.

He made the next jump without leaving a stone behind. One, he carefully noted.

Bend. Stretch. Feel. Jump.

Bare toes, sweaty from the exertion, skidded over the smooth wood. He wobbled, lurching to one side then back. Panic over another fall filled him and he stiffened.

He managed to stay standing. Breath came in sharply, and he just stood stock still for a while, willing muscles to relax and stop spasming quite so much. Two, he made himself count. Then bent and stretched once more.

Feel. Jump. Breathe. Three.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Rin closed the distance on that torch. He kept careful count of how many stones he didn’t leave behind.

Bend. Stretch. Feel. Jump. Breathe. Twenty.

Rin’s breath hitched at the number, and he paused to rest, slightly twisting his torso experimentally. His dark eyes locked onto that torch as he counted four in, hold two, four out repeatedly.

It was so close! He might be able to jump to it!

Not now. Not with the bowl. Not with his side the way it was.

But maybe!

Rin stretched out a foot and felt the path. It was solid. After a moment’s thought, he placed a stone down. Then he jumped, pushing himself just a little farther than he had been. The landing wasn’t smooth, his toes skidded slightly. But he didn’t touch more than two pressure plates. And they didn’t click.

Again, he forced himself through meditation breaths before he moved again. Another stretch outwards with his free foot. Another solid patch of bridge. Another stone placed down. Another leap that managed to cover just a little bit more distance than the previous one.

There were definitely only three stones left.

Bend. Stretch. Feel. Stone. Jump. Breathe.

Two stones left.

Bend. Stretch. Feel. Stone. Jump. Lurch and wobble to regain his balance. Breathe steadily.

One last stone…

When Rin next stretched out his leg, he saw his toes in the dim circle of torchlight.

Heedless of bruised ribs or strained muscles, Rin snapped back up straight and kicked off, jumping as far as he absolutely could. He ducked into a roll, and his shoulder slammed into stone floor, then brick wall.

When Rin opened his eyes again, he could just make out the doorless torch on the far side of the room.

I made it…I made it! He buried his face in his arms to muffle the relieved giggles.

One ring down. Two to go.


I’m still dissatisfied with this puzzle, but I can’t rewrite it again.

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