‘Desk Throne’ Stratagem
“Too rigid to rule!” Bombi screamed at the faces of the Win State while they couldn’t scream back. “Everything has to be one way doesn’t it? And it’s your one way because you’re part of the one way! Damn you!” She wanted to keep screaming, wanted that more than anything, a chance to burn out loud after suppressing herself for so long, but there wasn’t time.
She crawled up onto the desk, abandoning her bag of stolen goods to the floor so she could put a foot on each of the throne’s armrests and turn around, Iuda’s head between her legs. Then Bombi let herself drop, going as flat as she could, slipping behind Iuda’s back and forcing her forward. She kicked, toppling the woman from her throne and sending her rigid body rolling over the desk. Iuda disappeared over the side just as Bombi placed both hands on the rests, just as the cut scene ended.
“What are your orders, champion Iuda?” the sternest looking Win Stater asked.
“Uhm… uhhh…” Bombi stammered. She leaned forward, trying to see where the other woman had gone, but she didn’t dare remove her bottom from the throne, lest that break her stolen authority. If Iuda still existed, she didn’t stand. “Orders, yes. I can give orders. And you have to follow them… right?”
“You are our champion,” a young woman answered, “of course we do. Without a chain of command we’re just as lawless as the runners. Like you always say: orders are order.”
“That’s a dreary thing to always say…” Her subordinates stared. “But not incorrect! Yes, my orders are very important. That’s why I’m at the center of the cut scenes. Now that we’re done with the formalities… I need you all to do something.” The six people around her desk stood tall and saluted. “Actually, I only need one of you to do something. The rest of you, go about your duties. You,” she pointed to the young woman, “this order is for you. Sister Twixit is bringing in a speed runner prisoner as we speak. Bring them to me.”
“Yes champion!” she chirped before running off. The other Win Staters returned to the various desks in the room, filing away the documents the previous champion had just signed. Bombi watched nervously, her fingers tapping across the wood. Any moment she expected them to look up, comprehension on their faces like raw egg. How long could the illusion possibly last? I should play the part as much as possible. Her eyes scanned the desk, finding the steel staff leaned up against it. Bombi snatched the heavy thing and tried to hold it straight up, found it so dense and top-heavy that she couldn’t manage it with one hand, having to lean into it with both like an old woman on her walking stick. Still, she kept her bottom on the throne.
Two minutes later the girl returned with Twixit and Chagrinn in tow. Bombi dismissed her and waved her conspirators as close to the desk as possible, before leaning forward and whispering.
“I’m in charge!” she said, a surprise grin sprouting. “I kicked the champion out of the cut scene! They think I’m her!”
“What perfect disobedience,” Chagrinn preened. “That’s almost something I would’ve done! Shockingly good work Bombi.”
“Thank you. I might… I might have killed that woman…”
“Good riddance,” Twixit said. She looked around for a corpse to spit on, but couldn’t find one. “She always kicked me out of the meetings, sent me to fetch refreshments. I know it was because she couldn’t stand to look at this.” She ran her fingers across the grooves in her twisted face. “I can certainly stand the sight of you in that throne. What’s next? Do we still need to whisper?”
“Yes, what do I do now?” Bombi asked Chagrinn. “How do we get out of here? I have this strange feeling the illusion will be broken if I get out of this chair.” Chagrinn rubbed his chin for a moment before he realized his hands were still bound. He snatched a strand in his teeth and pulled the knot loose, spitting the rope out on the desk. Then he wandered around, leaning over some of the other Win Staters’ work. The stern-looking man’s head shot up and the two stared at each other for an awkward moment, Chagrinn almost daring him to look away. Eventually he did, to his champion.
“Oh,” Bombi uttered, thinking fast, “don’t worry about him. He has some… information regarding other runners. Much better runners. He’s just an amateur.” Chagrinn pointed at her, but Bombi found she could only grin back as long as she had a hold of the staff. “Let him do as he pleases.” Chagrinn patted the stern Win Stater on the head and strutted back to the desk.
“While you were insulting me, I came up with a plan,” her teacher whispered, swaying over the desk. Twixit leaned as well, twisted body flopping forward like a spineless fish. “I’m going to leave you here.”
“What? You can’t do that!” Bombi hissed. She hefted the staff and let it hit the floor. It was disturbingly loud, and all the Win Stater heads turned in their direction for a moment. “Back to your work,” she ordered them before pleading with Chagrinn some more. “I’m a speed runner! I can’t run in a chair… unless you have a way for me to run in a chair. Do you?”
“No, don’t be dense Bombi.”
“Well how would I know? You’ve already told me how to run impossibly fast by running backwards! You’ve told me that death as I understood it doesn’t exist! Why would the ability to run in a chair be so strange?”
“She has you there,” Twixit added.
“Fine, I take your point, if only to speed this conversation up. Leaving you here is the best possible thing for our speed run Bombi. You’re in control of a Win State fort. That means whatever your minions confiscate belongs to us. Their nets are full of holes, but they cast them wide. So, you stay here and collect the goodies, and I’ll stop by whenever I can to pick them up and experiment. When the time comes where I think we’ll have a world record route, I’ll snag you and we’ll go become the most important beings to ever best the lands of Shook and Cain! Sound good?”
“I was hoping for something a touch more adventurous,” Bombi said. “I don’t want to be stuck in this fort for my entire life.”
“Oh you won’t be stuck in the fort; you’ll be stuck in that chair.”
“It’s the only way Bombi. Whenever the cut scenes replay, your authority will be reinforced. You can’t miss a single one, or they’ll figure you out. Seeing as someone could come through those triggers at any time, you have to stay put. Sometimes speed running means not moving, because you might ruin the magic of a perfectly weird moment.”
“I can’t live in this chair!” she argued. She leaned forward, but Chagrinn pressed her back down by the shoulders.
“Think of it this way Bombi,” Chagrinn pitched as he held out his hands to frame the other Win Staters hard at work. “This is the exact opposite of your old life. Now you’re the one with all the servants. They have to do everything you ask. They’re soldiers too. You have an army of servants. All you have to do is keep up the appearance of being part of the Win State. Catch a runner every now and then, take their stuff, and then throw them back, like a fisherman too old and kind to pan–fry his perch. Plus, I’ll come visit. You wanted to be a runner Bombi. If you stay here you’ll learn loads about our equipment, history, strategies, rivalries… You get to study it. The actual legwork matters a lot less.”
“What do you have to say about this?” Bombi asked Twixit. Hopefully she could offer a good reason for Bombi to avoid slowly melting into the throne like a candle.
“I think you should stay,” she answered, knotting her fingers up nervously. “I admit it’s for a selfish reason. If you’re in charge here you can put me in command of a team. I’ll have the resources to go in search of a cure, for this.” She gestured to her entire wrung suck of a body.
“Well, I can hardly blame you for wanting that,” Bombi granted. It would’ve been an easier decision if Chagrinn’s eyes were full of tension, if he actually had something at stake in her decision. Alas, he didn’t appear to need her permission or cooperation. He was the same Chagrinn as always, all short-tempered eyes and teeth already buried in the next moment. She snapped her fingers to draw the attention of her nearest servant. Klipt! A woman shot away from her desk, approached, and saluted. “It’s going to be a long day. Bring me the thickest cushion you can find.” The Win Stater nodded and left.
“Now we’re moving!”
Today’s the day where it all stops. Bombi pulled off her lacy sleep mask and opened her eyes. She grabbed the lever on the side of her throne and pulled, raising her out of her reclining position and allowing her to survey the entire chamber. Gone were the smaller desks of her soldiers. In their place stood a copper washtub, a dinner table, and a few bookshelves. Most of the volumes on those shelves were written in corrupted text: a pseudo-language of both speed runners and fallen beings more twisted than Twixit. All of its letters were backward, and some stretched across multiple pages, but Bombi had plenty of time to learn how to read it. It wasn’t clear if anyone bound to Shook and Cain had ever bothered to.
The Win State certainly hadn’t. There was a time where she was so tired of sitting in that throne, so sore from the rigid hold of order, that other champions of the organization grew suspicious of her devotion. Luckily, the task she’d undertaken in her boredom, deciphering corrupted text, quickly became an invaluable skill. Now visiting champions were nothing but courteous when they arrived, bringing along massive tomes full of the stuff. Bombi would sit them down across from her, clear her throat, pull out her tiny gold reading glasses, and translate the runner strategy guides.
She needed the glasses, as she had spent a decade and a half in her throne. Bombi was never willing to suffer for Chagrinn’s plan, so risks were taken as they were revealed. She had a carpenter and a machinist disassemble the back of her throne to add the reclining mechanism and outfit it with giant cushions changed out regularly. She sent her workers out and replaced them with furniture and colorful curtains that completely hid the stone walls.
When her days were done she risked leaving the chair and found it didn’t disturb her authority as long as none of her underlings saw her off it, leaving her free to bathe and move about the room in cover of darkness. She wished she had tried it sooner, for the entirety of the first month had been spent in the chair. She’d stood in its seat, held its back, and exercised on it in the mornings, doing squats until some of the pain of sleeping in it passed.
Sedentary life was not without consequence. With so much time spent in one room, and so many underlings ready to bring her something from the kitchen’s stores at the drop of her steel staff, Bombi had put on a good deal of weight. Her hips were nearly as wide as the throne itself; her plump cheeks were high enough to hold up her glasses without the help of her ears. Her shoulders were soft and sloped, completely hiding the muscle that used to characterize her upper arms.
This is what my mother would have looked like if she’d ever had a home of her own, Bombi realized one day after looking in the full-length mirror just added to her makeshift bedroom. This is what comfort looks like. She thought for sure that Chagrinn would mock her change in appearance when he visited, but he actually paid very little attention.
A visit from him, which came every six to nine months, consisted of the formality of a cut scene followed by a discussion of the contraband she laid out for him across the desk. He was supposed to be her only true friend, her constant in a maddeningly placid sea, but she always felt like a poor merchant when he perused her findings, silently begging him to buy something and prove that what she did served some sort of purpose.
Telling him she had deciphered corrupted text barely earned her an acknowledging grunt. He was too busy to be proud. The Win Staters in her fort brought her much, and she curated their findings as meticulously as she could, presenting only the best, but even then Chagrinn only took one or two items each time. Sometimes he took nothing at all and told her to look harder next time.
On the day Bombi designated as the end, Chagrinn had not shown his face for seventeen months. On his final visit he had looked over her treasures, including a lantern that never flickered or extinguished, a pillow that held the dreams of the monarch who had died on it, and a caged parrot that could list the lowest sale price of a specific item anywhere in the world at any given time, and found them wanting. Left without a goodbye.
She knew he wasn’t coming back. It hadn’t worked out exactly the way he’d wanted. His useless apprentice hadn’t stumbled across any route-defining goodies, instead burying herself in books and swelling up like a pastry. Bombi had considered taking him prisoner on his last three visits, torturing him in a cell to force an admission, to make him say that her time there was a lost cause.
I would’ve run with you. I’m only in this shell because you insisted. Now you’re off somewhere, perhaps breaking the world record, and you’ve left me behind. That’s all you were ever going to do with me. Drop me as ballast. Keep me for a moment and then throw me away so you could revel in the seconds after where you picked up the tiniest amount of speed. Whether I’m kept or thrown away, I’m still treated as a thing. Speed runners are no better than those stuck in the world. Shook and Cain own us, so we always act like we own each other, just for a taste of what it’s like to be a narrow-minded god.
There came a knock on the door. Bombi had long ago moved the second cut scene trigger, the leaned door frame, to another part of the building. She stood by her dresser as she put on the last of her blue and gold Win State regalia. If they had come in without her approval, made that small assumption, it would all fall apart at the last moment, but Bombi didn’t care. If things fell apart that would at least be an occurrence. At her own pace, nobody else’s ever again, she walked back to her throne, took her seat, and took up her staff.
“You may enter,” she told the door. A second later it opened and ten of her underlings came through and brought with them long wooden rods which they immediately began attaching to the base of her throne. They pulled out the pegs that kept it attached to the desk. “Do you have it?” she asked her personal assistant: a wispy man who’d lost his entire family to a runner’s antics. They’d been frozen on the spot, in the middle of a wedding, never able to stop clapping or take off their finery.
“We do,” he answered solemnly, then gestured for the object in question to be brought in. Two Win Staters gripped its stony edges with long thick gloves. They set it down in front of their champion as delicately as they could, but it still made a heavy thunk. Sides of mottled iron bark. The shape of a bird bath large enough for eagles. Filled with liquid so black that its swirling could only be determined by the soft sinking sound it made. The Gone Basin. Source and tar. The ultimate force of destruction in the lands of Shook and Cain.
“This thing is pure evil,” one of them offered. “Claiming it from the runners was not easy champion. We lost six lives in our raid.” They bowed their heads.
“Eyes up here,” Bombi ordered, just as her servants grabbed the wooden poles and hoisted her and the throne up onto their shoulders as a palanquin. She put on her glasses and stared down into the basin. With everything she’d learned about speed running, pried loose from arcane pages and messages that often didn’t exist when you tried to read them, none of it had ever come close to her initiation rite. The Gone Basin was the most powerful artifact she knew. Should’ve known all along. The runners kept it one place. None of them ever tried to take it with them. Too much of a risk. If even one drop was spilled… “It is time for us to end speed running, once and for all. Win State, we have our destination. March.”
They had to destroy the door and part of the wall with hammers to make room for Bombi’s throne. They knew better than to question their reclusive champion. They left the fort behind and traveled deep into the forest. Two hours in, Bombi knew there was no going back. They didn’t have time to return to the cut scene triggers before the next scheduled visits. Even if they failed her authority would end; her loyal servants of fifteen years would throw her into the river instead and let the world batter her on the rocks.
A chill moved down Bombi’s spine as mist tickled her cheeks and eyelids. It was the first time since Chagrinn she’d heard true running water, and it felt as if it flowed directly into her ears. Some went all the way to her eye and produced a tear. Everything was about to end, and she’d never had the chance to live in nature. That was so odd. Her kind had started there, among the trees, moss, and stone. Such places were a birthright, yet Bombi did not know them intimately. That was the root of the cruelty she was about to end.
They came to a cliff overlooking a waterfall. Far below, a strong river drowned its biggest black boulders by several inches. There were visible streaks of white, there for only a moment, at the surface. Bombi knew from earlier scouting missions that these streaks were traces of the Source, brought up from deep under the world.
“Pour it,” she ordered. The Gone Basin was tipped, its black contents bulging like phlegm before relenting. The dark stream fell to the waters below. Her servants believed her lies; they believed she had evidence that combining the basin’s contents with pure Source would gum up the pathways the runners used. Her honest theory was different: the Gone Basin was true destruction while the Source was true creation. If everything were to be destroyed, even the creative force, then nothing could ever return. There would be no world, no cruelty, no servants, and no rules to break.
Bombi stepped down from her throne and leaned over the side of the cliff. Her assistant looked over, saw her for the first time. Not Iuda. He opened his mouth to ask who she was, as the tar of the basin splashed into the river.
“Awww!” the entire crowd sighed as one. A few of the poster-board signs wilted back down between heads and masks. They numbered more than three hundred, but it still wasn’t enough to fill the auditorium. The Greater Wickany Cosplay and Geek Ephemera Festival of 2017, or Gweefest as it was known, had eaten up the university’s entire campus for the weekend.
Most attention was drawn to the costume contests and the trailer debut for the latest Mighty Mutations game, but those who couldn’t squeeze their way into those arenas were eventually funneled off into this smaller display of a gaming subculture: speed running. The audience wasn’t just the tourists and locals dressed as furry alien scientists; there were a few computers and cameras running a livestream as well. Seventeen thousand more people watched from the comfort of their homes, occasionally chipping in a few dollars for the charitable cause the runners pushed between attempts.
No matter where they were, each and every audience member was disappointed. The projector over the runner had a black screen, where moments before there had been an entire fantasy world. The timer was stopped. Below the screen, the shoulders of the runner slumped as he set his custom cobalt blue and burnt orange controller down on the floor. One of the technical staff handed him a microphone. He took it after a moment, stood, and turned to face his crowd.
“Well, that’s a bummer huh?” the runner admitted. He rubbed the cowlicks on the back of his head. “Unfortunately, speed running isn’t like football. Each game is a tiny little world made by someone just as fallible as you or I, and sometimes it just stops ticking, especially when you mess with it the way we do.”
“Try again!” a little girl in the audience, dressed as a superhero with a painted red mask, insisted. Much of the audience applauded in agreement.
“Thank you, thank you,” the runner said, “but we have a schedule to keep to. If I try another run it will cut into somebody else’s time. Loopyfruit is up next and he’ll be playing Venom Crossing one hundred percent plus DLC, and I know I don’t want to miss that. The Lands of Shook and Cain is one of my favorite games, and I’m glad I could show you most of the run, but it has never been the most stable. Sometimes it crashes, and today was one of those times. It’s not a game that’s what we call marathon-safe, as in safe to run in front of an audience, but seeing as we’re in a university I had to give it the old college try. Thanks to all the donors and to all of you, but that’s it for me.”
They applauded again as the speed runner bowed and handed off the microphone. He unplugged his controller and rolled up the cord, stepping aside for Loopyfruit and his antiquated console to take the stage.
No world record today.
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