‘Arm Climb’ Stratagem
Chagrinn was already thirty feet off the ground. If she tried to help Twixit now her mentor might fall, and there was certainly no convincing him back down. There is a problem with compassion after all. It’s slow. We’ll never get anything done if we’re slow, and it takes an age to even say ‘compassion’. Bombi walked up to the Win State woman’s face and tried to look her in the eye. Her fluttering eyelids prevented it, but Bombi said her piece anyway.
“Take comfort in knowing some people are meant to be trapped,” she mocked, patting Twixit on the head. She grabbed the arm. It was unsettlingly warm, so the young runner immediately went about pretending it was an ordinary rope. She wrapped her ankles around the bottom of it and pulled herself up.
With the moral dilemma distracting her, she hadn’t even considered the actual physical effort it would take to climb up to the clouds. Her hands and thighs burned within minutes. Chagrinn gained distance on her constantly and didn’t respond to her cries to slow down. Bombi wasted five minutes hanging in the middle of the sky, trying to scrunch her spine in just the right way to trigger her back-dash, but it simply could not be used to climb.
Shortly after that the muscles in her waist contracted violently and locked up. She hung on, but she could barely breathe, let alone move. Chagrinn was out of sight and the clouds were still far above. Her thoughts moved to images of using Sister Twixit’s body to break the inevitable fall, but it wouldn’t come to that.
The arm was pulled up several feet. A moment later, several more. Chagrinn was up there, feet safely on the clouds, pulling her to him. Bombi did her best to compose herself before she reached his altitude, but even as she let go of the arm, coiled in a pile on the clouds, her sweat glistened in the pits of her many piercings.
“I suppose there’s never much need for servants to climb ropes,” Chagrinn mused. “As for us speed runners, there’s a trick for skipping ladders and ropes, but sadly it’s on an outdated route. The time save simply isn’t worth it anymore.”
“How is it that we can stand up here?” she asked as she caught her breath. The surface of the clouds was a soft mass of white, with the occasional blue shadow. Round dwellings stood in clusters, made from the clouds themselves and bearing few features. The air up there was fresh, but thin. It took Bombi several minutes to fully restore her composure.
“These clouds have been compacted by the cloudfeet so they can live up here. They are likely asleep in those huts over there. Do keep your voice down. They aren’t much of a hindrance, but when awake they can be very irritating.” He motioned for her to follow as he snuck between them, their rooves only as high as his neck.
They were nearly through when they heard a sound: something flapping in the wind. They turned to see Sister Twixit’s hand dropping out of the sky, its sleeve flapping wildly. It plummeted out of sight and took the coiled pile with it. The coils knocked over a bucket of clouds on its way down, and it clattered against the packed white ground.
Chagrinn groaned. All at once the domed rooves split open around them, like flowers. Out came geysers of foamy clouds sounding like waterfalls. Each stream was impregnated with two or three blue-skinned forms. They hooted jubilantly as the foam dropped them in the sky and they either drifted or dove back down.
Bombi correctly guessed that these were the cloudfeet. They were certainly less intimidating than the anytaurs; these beings could not be the stuff of dark tales of curses and devoured children. Everything about them was simply… fluff. She saw both men and women, with cherubic faces and spritely bodies.
Their blue skin was free of blemishes, smooth as the palest butter. In place of hair they had crops of buoyant bubbling clouds. They wore no clothing, but again had skins of cloud vapor across their lower bodies. They giggled like the clinking of wine glasses and reached out to touch the speed runners with gentle hands.
“Hello human!” one of them bubbled.
“Yes, hello! We haven’t helloed anyone in ages!”
“Look at how pretty and greasy they are!”
“Oh look at her! She’s much prettier than him. She has little holes all over her face. What do they feel like?” One of the cloudfeet men poked at the piercings around Bombi’s eyebrows; she swatted his hand away. Some of the other cloudfeet grabbed his hand and smelled it.
“We’re just passing through,” Chagrinn grumbled at them. “We’ll be gone in minutes. It’s best you pretend we were never here at all.”
“Yes, don’t mind us,” Bombi reinforced. They were very strange, but as Chagrinn had said they seemed to be of little consequence. They fluttered about like butterflies more than people. The cloudfeet laughed and pranced, their toes barely ever touching the packed clouds below.
“Oh, but you should stay!” one of the women whined. “Wherever you’re going, you will eventually see it from here! We’ve seen every corner of Shook and Cain! Stay with us! Drift with us!”
“We need someone to lose all our races,” another insisted. “If you heavies compete none of us have to feel bad.”
“We’re not as slow as you think,” Bombi said as she pushed his chest back. Even though he was as tall as her, he was light as a bedsheet.
“Don’t engage with them Bombi. You’ll only get their hopes up,” Chagrinn told her. He had one hand held out in front to knock the cloudy crowd out of the way one by one. “They can’t understand speed running anyway.”
“Yeah, we’re pretty stupid,” one of them agreed, a broad shining smile across her blue lips. “I must be really dumb, since speed running just sounds redundant to me. Please tell us what it is. Please. I love feeling tiny and dumb.” She was in Bombi’s face one moment and lifted into the shoulders of the crowd the next.
“Have you tried to explain it to them before?” Bombi asked him.
“No, but I know it’s pointless. They’re all NPCs. It’s a wonder they can even see us; I imagine it’s because they’ve incidentally seen runners pass under them before. Just like the anytaurs and tinkertrees, they simply can’t be runners. Only we humans have the kind of sight that can see past this stage dressing, and even then most lack the insight or deny the truth.”
“We like stages!” a cloudfoot insisted.
“Yes, and we love dress up!” another added. “Let’s make a stage right now! This will be fun. You two are lovers okay? That should be easy because you’re both so very pretty. But… what’s this? Something has come between you!”
The cloudfeet raised their hands all at once. There was a rumble under their feet. A thin wall of cloud shot up, separating Bombi from Chagrinn. The apprentice didn’t panic though, as the thinness of the materials around had already been revealed. She stepped through the wall and saw Chagrinn’s face for a moment, before another divider rose. The giggles of the cloudfeet turned into guffawing. They hopped about on the walls above them, raising more and more, altering them at a whim.
“Keep ignoring it Bombi. Just follow the sound of my voice,” Chagrinn advised. “I don’t need to see where I’m going.” Bombi stood still for a moment. She thought she heard his footsteps, and so pushed through a wall in that direction, but there was nothing there but a dwelling she had to wade through.
“That means you have to keep talking Chagrinn!” she nearly shouted. What’s wrong with me? Something about these creatures rattles me. I know. They’re happy. This giddiness reminds me of the games the other servants used to play when nobody watched. When I was little I was always so afraid we would get caught. Before I left, their happiness was just a disaster waiting to happen.
“Oh, of course,” Chagrinn said with a chuckle. “I’ll blather on for about eleven minutes and thirty seconds. We should be where I think we’re going by then. Now what to blather about…”
“You said you didn’t need to see,” Bombi reminded. She looked up and saw the soles of cloudfeet hopping back and forth between the walls, molding their cloudy crops into costume hats for their little stage show. “Talk about that.”
“There is some fodder there,” he conceded. Bombi changed her direction slightly, aiming towards him a touch better. “If you’ve spent enough time as a speed runner you just have some things memorized. There are things you can do by sound cues alone. For example, there’s a cave system on the southern edge of Cain that is completely black, but that holds a few excellent route skips. If you go there without light you can stay on safe paths by correctly identifying each drip from the ceiling.”
“That sounds like it would take years to learn.”
“It takes lifetimes, but not if you concentrate your time usage properly.”
“Repetition,” he explained. “Memory of the muscles. Let me ask you something. You were a slave, yes? You did plenty of housework?”
“Yes.” She tried to guess how many walls were between the two of them, but was startled when she pushed through one and came face to face with the vacant eyes and stupid grin of one of their attempted captors. She shoved him aside, through at least four walls.
“How much of that do you think you could do with your eyes closed?”
“Much,” she admitted. I’ve certainly put the silverware away enough times. Lemon forks in the third row, sugar spoons in the sixth. Gravy boat in the back, rarely brought out because the ladies of the house feared the thigh-thickening effects of its flow. I could descend those stairs without missing one, could grab the correct drawer handle on the first try…
“That’s what I mean by concentration. You’ve memorized without even realizing. There are some parts of your life where your eyes are superfluous.”
“How much speed running is blind?”
“Only a small percentage. There are those who feel that limiting themselves demonstrates skill to the Source itself, as if it were alive enough to notice those things. They take vows to only run under certain strange conditions: blindfolded, one hand tied behind their back, without ever drawing aggro from a single living thing… Here we are.”
“I still can’t see you,” his apprentice said, probing inside the nearest wall of clouds with her hands. Some cloudfeet on the other side poked her fingernails, pushing them down, and snickered.
“Don’t worry, I’m right here. We have a real issue to discuss now. These imbeciles have blocked sight of them, but we’re directly in front of a few windy ways.”
“And what are those?”
“A hiccup, that’s what. We have to deal with some RNG here. The windy ways are the primary method of travel for cloudfeet: smooth vapor bridges from one bank to another. The ones before us however angle down and undoubtedly end in a mountain range. Getting into those mountains is our goal.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“You’ll see when you step through the last walls. Don’t try that now by the way, or you might push me right off the side.” Bombi put her fingers flat against her legs and stood straight. She even breathed softly to minimize the risk of blowing him over. “These bridges can only hold the weight of one person at a time, and they dissolve after each passage. They reform quickly, but as the cloudfeet are carefree, they often go to slightly different places.”
“And where they take you is random?”
“It can be extremely random, but my instincts tell me there are only two possible destinations from here: a path down to the summits and a path down to the core of the mountains themselves. We have a fifty percent chance of being dropped off in the same location as each other.”
“So how do we figure it out?”
“We don’t Bombi. Sometimes you can’t best RNG. I’ll go first, you’ll step up, and then you’ll have to guess. Both are viable routes, but you’ll have no idea what to do if you wind up alone. This could be where we split.”
“Wait, what? What am I supposed to do if we get separated?”
“Whatever you like Bombi. You’re still free. You can probably spot the traces of runners on your own now. If you die, do it in the normal boundaries of Shook and Cain and you’ll simply be reborn.”
“Can’t we just arrange a rendezvous if…”
“I’ve already wasted too much time explaining. Don’t worry so much. After you die once and get it out of your system you’ll feel much better. One piece of advice: if you wind up alone inside the mountains, don’t trigger the boss.” With that he leapt from the edge of the clouds and slid down something.
Bombi lurched forward, throwing herself onto all fours so she could find the edge. She plowed through two more cloud walls before finding the curl at the end. Her face finally penetrated the last of the nuisances and got a good look at the sky. She saw three airy trails born from the side like vines, draping down into lower clouds. She sensed the mountains in the shadows below.
One of the slides evaporated, and a new one coalesced a minute later. Her hands raked deep lines into the clouds as she panicked. Even if she picked the right one, Chagrinn would not wait long for her. Already this decision felt worse than all the others. It’s literally random. What I deserve doesn’t matter. What I hope for doesn’t matter. I’m an arrow loosed from a blindfolded archer. I can barely stand the thought. There has to be a way to decide… I’ve no coins with me… She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.