‘Free Morphib’ Stratagem
Bombi lunged back to Morphib, grabbed his stuck foot, and wrenched it loose. Both she and the creature tumbled backward. Bombi bounced off a leaning lily pad, but was stopped by Chagrinn’s vice grip on her shoulder. She looked past him, and the pain of his grab, to see Morphib stumbling back and forth across the stone.
“I’m not your slave,” she barked at the elder runner. She grabbed his hand and removed it, fully aware that he allowed her to. If he wanted there would have been no choice of her freeing herself. “Morphib is not your slave either. I don’t care how much you bend the apathetic world to your will, but I will not watch you bend innocent creatures for being too afraid to act.”
“You see yourself in that thing, do you?” Chagrinn raged. “Fine. If that’s the case I was wrong about you. You don’t have what it takes to be a speed runner. You have no idea how much time you’ve cost me by freeing that NPC. We’re through. Give me that duplication ring.” He stuck out his hand.
“It’s mine,” she said, startled by her own possessiveness. She hadn’t realized until a moment after she said it, but the ring had already taken the place of the pen Chagrinn forced her to give up. It was her new investment, her new hope for her life. He’d gifted it just like Timorrow had the pen, and it was easier to reverse time itself than the giving of a gift.
“If you don’t hand it over I’ll…” Thwap! He was stopped mid-threat by a giant wet tongue slapping the back of his head. It stuck there and pulled him backward. He did not lose his footing. Instead, he found a solid stance and grabbed the tongue with both hands. He squeezed it, fingers firm as knotted ropes, until Morphib relented and reeled the pink thing back into his mouth.
“You leaf huh awone!” the anytaur croaked as his numb tongue lolled out of his mouth. The creature stared at the soft ground with some trepidation, but eventually hopped down and confronted the runner. The creature was slim, slimy, and bent, but he still stood at an impressive height nearly a foot above Chagrinn. He shoved the tip of his tongue back into his mouth.
“Just like everything else, I don’t have time for you,” Chagrinn seethed. “It’s faster to leave than teach you a lesson. It was a genuine disaster that I had to know you.” The runner bolted, found his way to a wall of vines, and ascended them so rapidly that they didn’t even shake with his weight. Bombi watched as the tips of his boots vanished over the top of the crevasse, leaving her alone with the anytaur. They stared at each other, the heavy wrinkled lids of Morphib’s amphibious eyes blinking audibly.
“Thank you,” they said simultaneously. Morphib croaked in amusement, half his throat inflating like someone coughing off to one side.
“You’re the first speed runner not to leave me in that agony,” the anytaur said. He grabbed Bombi’s hand in his mismatched but equally moist palms and shook up and down. “This is how you humans greet, yes? Up then down then up…” Bombi slipped her hand free and discreetly wiped it on the side of her dress.
“Yes that’s right,” she said with a weak smile. Now what? Where do I go… I’m a runner and I have no idea where the finish line is. “You’re free now. The way he spoke… It doesn’t seem like he’ll be back to torture you.”
“No, he won’t. They can’t shove me back in that crack. It never happens twice in my life. I never knew that my life would cycle like the seasons, until they came along and tricked me into that crack. Yet, I can never avoid it. It always slips my mind.”
“That’s because you’re an NPC.”
“Never mind.” Best not to tell him he’s inconsequential. “Have you ever tried to tell the other anytaurs about what they do to you?”
“The others will not even look at me,” Morphib admitted. He hobbled over to a lily pad and pulled it down over his body. Bombi saw his shadow through it. “We are nothing without our identities. Mine is muddy, swirly. Unclear. My mind!” The shadows of his fists struck his head, and then the leaf. It shuddered and dropped a curtain of dew. Shadowy frog fingers spread across the pad to steady it. “My mind is so unclear. I see all the paths, but my soul stumbles between them. Back and forth I go, always missing the happenings by seconds.”
“I know how you feel,” she offered. “Sometimes, when a choice is suddenly there, like an explosion or a very beautiful person, there’s nothing I can do about it. I get anxious… I freeze.” Morphib grabbed the top of the pad, squished it down, and stuck his eyes over its lip.
“Then how did you get all the way down here?” he asked. “I was born very close to this spot. I failed to make my choice on the stone where I sleep. The others leave me down here because it keeps me out of their fur and feathers. But… if you, freezer girl, can make your way…”
“My name is Bombi,” she said. “It’s not me who makes my way, it’s…”
“What? What is the secret?” Morphib’s throat quivered in anticipation.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. She walked over to him and pushed the lily pad away, letting it spring back to its original shape. The girl and the anytaur stood in its shade. “Before all this, before the running, I was never allowed decisions of my own. The ones I had were small, like the crumbs that acted as my supper. Do I look out the window and risk envy of the passersby? Do I get up five minutes earlier to just sit on my bed, silently, and breathe?”
“Those do sound small,” Morphib agreed. “Sometimes I go days without eating because I can’t decide if I want ants or grasshoppers. Can I have your decision maker?”
“Your decision maker. I know you said you don’t know what it is, but can I have it? I don’t care if I know what it is or not.”
“I’m sorry Morphib; I wouldn’t know how to hand it over either. I’ve been kept from knowing most things. As has the world apparently.”
“We can help each other,” he croaked. The anytaur grabbed Bombi by the waist, turned, and dropped her onto his back. She tilted to one side thanks to his disparate halves, but did her best to correct it with a lean. Her legs draped over his sides but off the ground, as if he were a horse. “I’ll take you to your next decision, and then I’ll watch you make it. I might learn something.”
“You know where a decision is?”
“Oh yes. Any spot that makes me anxious has one, but I won’t be anxious this time. You’re going to do it. Hold on tight.” Bombi was about to say there was nothing to hold onto, he was all slime and folds, but Morphib jumped into the air before she had the chance. She wrapped her arms around his torso and locked her hands together. Even though only half his body was frog, and the jump took a very strange angle, they still made it halfway up the wall of vines in a single effort.
The anytaur slither-climbed the rest of the way out, his body sometimes threatening to turn them around. Bombi held on even as her legs dangled off his back. She was ready for a break once they were free of the crevasse, but they apparently had a long way to go. Morphib leapt into the trees, his salamander half handling the details of which branch to put their weight on between leaps.
Morphib hadn’t considered the branches and leaves striking Bombi’s face as they went, so she dealt with it herself by squishing her nose against the anytaur’s wet skin, closing her eyes, and waiting it out.
“You blunderer! You woke up the dozy birds!” she heard something yell. Its voice had the trill of a songbird, so she guessed it was another anytaur, resting on its talons and cozied up inside its own wings.
“No blunders today!” Morphib chirped back. “There is something to learn, which means I cannot fail! Goodbye!” The bird anytaur squawked something else, perhaps just a squawk, but Morphib paid them no heed. The two of them continued through the forest for more than two hours, only stopping at the precipice of Bombi’s ability to hang on.
Morphib landed upon the ground and tapped her forehead with a wet finger. She slid off, opened her eyes, and tried to discern the ‘decision’ he’d babbled about for the last hour. At first she saw nothing. It was simply more forest as far as the eye could see. She asked him to clarify. Rather than say anything, he hopped forward and held one arm out to indicate the path forward.
There was something. It was all the same forest, but there was a division. Right where they stood the trees changed. The Anytaur Forest was a place of trees and roots flowing, dancing back and forth, twisting like drunken snakes, but the trees in front of them stood tall and straight with nary an imperfection. All their leaves were the same height and they appeared to be planted in a grid pattern.
The grass and shrubs weren’t trimmed, but they grew in an orderly fashion, like hair that somehow grew into perfectly quaffed style. In addition, she noticed something when she took a step forward, experienced the sensation of grass under her feet, and then did not experience it. She hopped back and observed the patch of ground. There was grass, and then there wasn’t. And then there was. And then there wasn’t.
“I heard a speed runner call that a texture bug,” Morphib offered. He ran a webbed hand across the grass to show it was harmless. The grass itself attested to that, as flickering in and out of visibility disturbed it less than the gentle breeze.
“A texture… bug? I never heard Chagrinn call anything a bug.”
“Runners are always saying silly things. I think they call anything that annoys the world a bug, the same way you humans are bothered by buzzing flies. You know I always thought humans would make better friends than other anytaurs. I could live with them, perhaps as a pet, and eat all the flies for them. Sadly, I’ve only ever met runners.”
“A bug. You’re right. That is silly. I won’t be calling it that. So what is this place? And what is my decision?”
“This is the border between the Anytaur Forest and the tinkertree orchard,” Morphib explained. “You’ll like the tinkertrees; they’re very friendly. I’ve always wanted to go there. They wouldn’t care about my two faces or my wobbly mind. I can’t get in though; I’m always paralyzed by the decision here. Once I knew about it, I could think of nothing else, even if I was at a different point along the border.”
“The choice is between a forest of friendly things and this… texture bu… anomaly? That doesn’t seem so difficult.” She readied herself for some potential sobbing on the anytaur’s part, but he kept a stiff upper lip. Of course, neither frogs nor salamanders did much whimpering or puckering.
“You don’t know what’s under that bug yet. I heard the runners say it is a very peaceful place. The bug shows where the world is infirm. If you jump on it, hard as you can, while the grass is gone from sight, you’ll fall straight through! They called it ‘the bottom of the world’. You can see everything from down there, but it can’t see you! Imagine a place where insults can’t dig.”
“That does sound lovely,” Bombi admitted. She crouched down and ran her fingers through the grass and through the nothing in its place. Morphib’s face was right next to hers.
“Go on,” he encouraged. “Pick one. Do it slowly though, so I can see every detail.”
“I am a speed runner,” she muttered, “so there’s no point in waiting.” Bombi took long looks at both the tinkertree orchard and the texture bug. She didn’t have to strain herself this time. She let herself feel the indecision, the split between two equally valid paths. It still hurt; it still made her heart thump like a rodent trapped in a barn corner with a lamp shining in its face. Come on. Where are you? Where is the force that has been making my decisions up to this point? I know you’re out there. I’d be curled up in a ball somewhere or dead by now if not for you. Show yourself. Be as consistent as the Lands of Shook and Cain aren’t. If you’re going to play with me I should at least be in on the game. She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.