Calling it a causeway did the word an injustice. Relatively, ‘tightrope’ was more appropriate.
Because its width was nothing when compared to its length, and guessing the former at around half a mile demonstrated neatly how it had chosen to make its home at the very worst part of the canyon.
And, given that it was made out of rock, it of course couldn’t forgo the cracks that ran across it just like they did on real ground. Too many of them allowed the death drop below to peek through and laugh at Max.
Yes, all it would take was gravity to pay some brief attention to this affront, and it was gone. Perhaps in the interests of time they should jump now.
The others were examining the things that made this tightrope of doom infinitely worse.
‘You know what,’ said Andrew. ‘I think this used to be a town.’
A bold pronouncement made from the whimsical evidence of being surrounded by various buildings. But, since this was the tightrope of doom, the buildings had something to live up to.
Thus most of them squatted half submerged in the ground, some tall, some once tall, some a single floor high. A few had gone the distance and of these all that remained was a grey or tiled roof, like the comedy hat left lying on the floor after its wearer has spontaneously combusted. The fact that these buildings were all empty and crumbling was simply par for the course for the rocks.
And, since this was the tightrope of doom, naturally Max could see plenty of foundations too. Concrete jutted, metal prongs poked and wires dangled from the tightrope’s underside like entrails. Below the entrails, a fine grey-brown residue danced and winked in the angled sunlight. That wink knew that the sight was spectacular, and knew that if Max were not planning to cross, he would have appreciated it.
‘It’s a skeleton city,’ said Billy. ‘Probly haunted.’
The boy spoke with dismissive authority, no doubt having hashed out the various requirements for a skeleton city to be such during a particularly intense tea party with the deadies.
‘Think these buildings are what the sign was pointing to, Max?’ asked Kabela.
‘Yes. I do. And - we need to cross that.’ Pointing in a direction he really didn’t want to.
‘Well, it looks like it’s already supporting quite a bit of weight,’ said Andrew. ‘I doubt four humans will make much difference.’
Yes. It was probably going to collapse regardless. But what Max said: ‘I still want to get across it quickly.’
‘Indeed. It does look something of a work-in-progress.’
Max turned to Billy. ‘Stay close, OK?’
There was a crumbling, dissolving sound, and a bit of concrete entrail detached itself from its building and went tumbling down into the death drop. A bit of Max went with it.
Pointy teeth glistening yellow, Billy grinned a wicked grin and said, ‘This’ll be fun.’
Max pushed them into a near-jog, the partly buried buildings soon looking like the wrong pieces wedged inside a giant’s puzzle game.
Billy positively relished the experience, dancing in and around the structures, and to distract his mind, Max wondered what the boy was thinking. Imagining he was under attack, or being chased, or hunting something, maybe. What had Max played when he was a child? Had he ever been a child? He was attacked by a horrible vision of plopping from a womb fully grown, nurses and doctors running screaming. Then he remembered an old tramp - homeless man! - with a chiselled face, and the vision retreated, conceding the point.
In a way, he wanted to tell Billy to stop it, that leaping over the cracks then double-somersaulting upon landing was dangerous - but he didn’t. There was something refreshing about watching a child play, even when this one poked his head from a lopsided window, when Max happened to glance inside, and scream: ‘BOO!’
While Andrew laughed himself sick, and once her face went normal Kabela chuckled, Max - after he’d wrenched his hand from the sword’s hilt and confirmed that, no, they weren’t being tracked by a very frightening gang of flayers - struggled to locate the joke. When he pointed out that the building had definitely sunk a little deeper into the ground, Billy’s grin just got wider and Andrew’s laugh louder.
After that, Billy changed his game to skipping along the tightrope of doom’s very edge, picking up stones and chucking them into the death drop, humming happily to himself for the first time since he’d left the caves. And since leaving the caves, Billy’s musicality had gotten worse.
No. Enough was enough: Max couldn’t walk another step like this, worry gnawing a hole in the middle of his chest. And although the sounds to call Billy over were already halfway up his throat, a sharp wind reached the boy first and -
‘BILLY!’ roared Max. ‘BILLY!’
The death drop swung at him like a drunken punch. A voice somewhere nearby said, ‘Can you see him? Billy!’
‘BILLY! Say something. Billy!’
Another voice, voice number two: ‘I can’t see him. Shit, is this where he fell?’
It was, and voice number two was right. The only sign of Billy was a Billy shaped hole against which the rest of the world failed miserably. The hole streaked downwards into the death drop, and as the death drop stared and swayed with inebriated confidence, Max knew for a fact that if that had Billy, Billy was dead.
Then, possibly trying to atone for its terrible crime, the remnants of the wind brought Max a reedy voice. ‘I’m... here. Holdin... on to an edge...’
‘Where, Billy? We can’t see you, I can’t see you. Billy -’
‘It feels like... a plank of rock, stickin out... I think I can climb up.’
Options, options, Max had none of them. With each word tearing out a chunk of him and tossing it, he said, ‘Yes, Billy. Carefully. Climb up, real slow.’
Seconds crawled by, scoring clefts in Max’s heart, until gloriously a hand snaked into view and gripped a jagged outcropping of rock a few metres below.
‘I can see you, Billy!’ Useless, stupid sentence, useless, stupid voice. He’d gladly discard his voice for Billy.
‘Keep climbing, Billy.’ Voice number one. ‘Slowly. You’re almost in reach.’
At this point, it was probably a good thing that Billy couldn’t see. He inched upwards, a pause, another inch, a pause, a fraction of an inch, a pause: stopped. Splayed out in a frozen, disjointed star jump on the vertical rockface. Gripping on to what appeared to be smooth nothing. Time for Max to use his useless, stupid voice again.
‘A few metres more, Billy, and we can reach you. Just a bit more. You’ve done the worst part.’
Billy grunted and pushed and managed to complete the rest of the inch. But: ‘I don’t think... I can go any further... mister.’
‘You have to, Billy. Please.’
The boy gave no reply, but made a little headway into the next inch. So close. So close - and Max was nothing if he couldn’t do something.
‘Sit on my legs,’ he instructed voice number one as he slid over the edge and began to hinge at the waist. Voice number one didn’t question him.
Did voice number two join it? Max neither knew nor cared. The death drop invited him to take a dive, the silver seamed horizon teased him with an end. But with Billy so close he considered that end no end.
With one hand glued to something unimportant, the other reached out, yearning for tiny bony fingers. In tones more suited for a reading a bedtime story, he said: ‘Just a bit further, Billy. Reach out your hand, and I can pull you up.’
Briefly he grasped cool air, then felt the touch of another, so small, so delicate, that - Christ, had Billy put on weight. Now with a shadow of strain in his voice, Max called behind, above him: ‘Take my arm - help me up -’
There was a grip and a tug as voice number one or two complied. Squirming his legs eased the process.
He’d done it, he thought as he wriggled upwards. He’d done something that really mattered. Someone wanted to present counter arguments, but Max wouldn’t have it. Billy was safe. Three words enough to last three lifetimes. Enough to last -
A sharp shovel for his ribs, a bony dig between them. Three things: Max gasped for air and his hand loosened and Billy slipped away.
‘Billy! BILLY!’ and the rest of the world dropped down the death drop while Max was yanked forcibly from it. He saw Billy bounce off rock like a rubber ball then shoot out his hand and grab something ungrabbable.
Not only was Max now back on top of the tightrope of doom, he was also back to watching. The boy dangled from a pinprick, clasped an impossible handhold, and flapped with each breath that Max exhaled.
‘Billy! You’ve got to climb up again!’ Tears welled in his eyes, almost enough to spill, tears he thought the rocks had wrung dry decades ago. ‘Billy! Climb up! Please!’
Malicious again, the wind that had first ripped Billy from Max now presented him with a thin wheeze of a voice. ‘Not sure... I can, mister. My fingers... slippin. Feel the...dust slidin...’
‘Jesus Christ, he’s going to fall.’
Voice number two, and Max ignored it. Voice number two was under extreme, deadly suspicion. And right now even that was irrelevant.
‘Billy, please,’ said Max, his own voice a cracking croak. ‘Climb back up, climb back up to me. Please.’
And Billy’s arm tensed, and Max tensed with it, but it was nothing more than a twitching flex and nowhere near enough. Held it for a moment then his arm and resolve wilted and he was back to dangling limply, a drip of water on a tap’s nose, thinning and ready to fall. A gentle hand on his shoulder and Max heard voice number one.
‘Don’t look, Max. Turn away.’
Voice number one got shoved aside. ‘There must be something... what can I do...’ and this answer he didn’t want, but he knew it and it promised him Billy would fall. ‘Christ...’
Sure enough, the boy’s hand slipped and continued to do so as his strength pre-empted him and plunged into the death drop. Max’s eyes screamed for the release of a single blink, but he would sooner tear them out than permit them one instant’s respite, willing a miracle, desperate to keep this moment looped forever, praying that the one waiting to shove it and Billy out of the way would find in its tiny moment’s soul the shred of humanity needed to sacrifice itself in place of Billy. And if the moment sought that shred it didn’t find it, because the next moment came as inevitably as night follows day.
But the moment had found something else, and for it Max burnt with thanks: a rope that hit Billy’s head then settled by his hand. A voice, voice number three, barked instruction.
‘Boy! Funny boy! Grip this. Rest of you, help me pull him up.’
Voice number three got its orders obeyed double time.
And they were obeyed with far more vigour than necessary, because a slightly startled Billy hurtled up the rockface as if pumped full of helium. Voice number three again: ‘Careful! You’ll smash him open. Slowly. Easy. Good. Good.’
And then Billy arrived over the edge, whereupon he collapsed into a panting heap. Max went to him and put arms around the boy’s limp frame, any and all thoughts placed on indefinite hold.
‘Not a problem.’ The woman fingered her chin, obscuring her mouth and with it any indication of whether she was smiling. ‘Wouldn’t do to have you dying on me.’
A slightly sloppy sentence, but, yes. Because if the death drop had taken Billy, where it counted it would have had Max too.
‘Who are you?’ he asked.
A good question, its less polite form involving ‘what’. A woman wrapped tight in red and cream bubble-wrap? An exotic pizza? A particularly modern pierce of modern art?
No. They were warts, covering the poor woman from head to toe, and Max could state this with authority, for the woman was also stark naked. Of course, for all he cared, she could have been two foot tall with the head of a frog and forks for hands. Wrapped round her shoulder was the rope slash miracle, and wrapped in Max’s arms was living, breathing Billy, and that meant this wart woman was Max’s new heroine. And her name -
‘Me? You can call me Jessie. A sweet, gentle name. Don’t you agree?’
Warts scraped together to form a definite smile, and Max noticed that, wart rash and nakedness aside, Jessie looked rather - normal. Short brown hair in what he recalled was a bob - had he encountered the earth’s last remaining hairdresser? - healthy brown eyes, the vibrant sheen of life about her.
Though there was something else too, something behind the normal. But his instincts were fried, and he couldn’t yet place it. Anyway:
Max took her smile and returned it with interest. Wart woman Jessie had earned it.
‘What is this place?’ asked Kabela, turning in a slow half circle. ‘And who are these people?’
Seemed his instincts were more fried than he thought, as otherwise he surely wouldn’t have needed a prompt.
Peering out of the sinking buildings and crouched behind their corners were sun splashed figures, watching them with wary eyes. Some clothed, some attempting to be clothed, all of them mutated. It was either patchy skin that gave it away, or overly long limbs with too many joints, or half formed bonus appendages; pick a possibility and the chances are Max saw it. Comparatively, wart woman Jessie was ahead of the game.
And while she considered Kabela’s questions, once again fingering her bumpy chin, Jessie smiled; an ordinary, normal smile.
Then she spread her arms wide, stepped forward, and presented them with a bow, her pendulous breasts swinging like two worn punchbags.
‘This,’ she announced upon straightening, ‘is Elara. And you’ - jabbing a spotty finger at Max and Max alone - ‘may come through. The rest of you, I’m afraid, will have to leave.’