‘Leave Morphib’ Stratagem
Pity cannot be my choice here, she realized. There are creatures everywhere that deserve pity. I could run back to the city right now and use my duplication to free all those in servitude. If I do it once I should always do it, at every chance. There would be no speed. I would be dragged down by every pair of desperate hands. If Morphib wants out he’ll need to learn to make decisions, no matter how painful.
Bombi turned away and followed Chagrinn up the vines. She found herself wanting to scream, but she simply let it slide back down her throat as she ascended. If, in the process of climbing, Chagrinn’s boots had tossed flecks of dirt her way, she would have had something to latch onto. She’d have a reason to scream… but Chagrinn knew the surface of the wall as perfectly as he knew every other one. He climbed as nimbly as an insect, which was more than could be said for Bombi. On her way she accidentally pressed her duplication ring against several plants, splitting their vines and leaves in two.
“You made the right choice,” Chagrinn told her once they were out of the crevasse and walking through the Anytaur Forest once again. “If we can get the world record we will be able to undo all of this. We can make it so there never were any NPCs. We can make it so that you never have to grow up the way you did. Of course, you’ve probably grown up more since the Gone Basin than you have any time before it. Speed running does that to you. It rushes you to maturity and keeps you there across all phases of your life.”
“Are you telling me I’ve no maturing left? I’m not even twenty.”
“I’m saying physical maturity won’t matter. Among the runners everyone is an adult. Most have been young and old a dozen times over. A runner can feel gray as a babe or the other way around.”
“Can they feel normal?”
“We don’t have a normal.” Bombi rolled her eyes.
“Who is the Haunchlord?” she asked to knock him off his high horse.
“The Haunchlord is what we call a boss encounter. A boss is an extremely powerful foe. Encountering one in the course of your track is often very difficult. They are lethal foes for many. You could even call them grave diggers.”
“But speed running tricks make it easier to defeat them?” she asked hopefully.
“Ehh… sometimes. More often than not, boss encounters are where we pay the true cost of all the shortcuts we’ve used. We often get to them weaker than we are supposed to be at that point in our lives. That is irrelevant when it comes to the Haunchlord however. He is an unbeatable boss.”
“Unbeatable? Aren’t we heading in his direction? What am I going to do to him, accidentally make a second unbeatable boss?” Bombi nervously played with one of the leaves on her ring, but caught herself before she wound up with a third thumb.
“There are ways to circumvent the Haunchlord on this route,” Chagrinn explained, “but we’re not circumventing. The fastest way is straight through his home as he arrives for his annual soak in his Pond of Serenity.”
“So what will we do about… him?”
“Were you not using your ears Bombi?” he asked. She recalled the interrogation of Morphib. The subject he was most interested in was other speed runners, who also happened to be confronting the Haunchlord it seemed.
“We’re going to work with other runners… I got the sense we didn’t really work together much. Everyone at the Gone Basin looked eager to get out of there.”
“True enough. Runners rarely work in anything more than pairs, but the Haunchlord is an exception. He is a boss that has never been bested by a lone runner. However, his routine is regular enough and his domain important enough for us to organize around him at certain times. Morphib said there were twenty-six runners already waiting for him. I will make twenty-seven. We won’t count you because you can’t do much yet.”
“I can do plenty.”
“Fine. Twenty seven and one tenth runners. Anything less than thirty can get dicey, but I’ve already decided it is worth the risk. I’ll have some time to prepare you for the fight. He doesn’t arrive at the pond for another five hours, but we arrive… now.” Chagrinn stopped inches away from a pond so still that Bombi hadn’t seen it. It reflected the tops of the trees so perfectly that it just looked like a carpet of moss and leaves.
He unshouldered his bag once again and dug around inside. Out came a smooth stone carved into the shape of a water beetle, its wing casing painted iridescent green. Chagrinn walked over to Bombi, pressed the beetle into her palm, and then wrapped her fingers around it. The ring’s magic activated. A moment later her fingers were forced open by a burgeoning pile of beetle-rocks.
“What are these for?” she asked as Chagrinn plucked eight of them from the pile. Once he turned away she assumed it was alright to let the rest of them drop and brush their iridescent dust off her hands. Some of it clung quite aggressively, so she decided to make use of it. Her face had gone undecorated since the basin. Perhaps it was time she chose something of her own to put on it. She rubbed her fingers around her eyes, encircling them in a sparkling aura.
“These are tokens of favor. Anytaurs gift them to those who respect nature. Getting one is easy enough, but it takes eight to open the way to the Haunchlord’s pond and get an audience with him. That’s where our item duplication comes in.” He gently tossed the beetles out over the water one by one. They landed on their tiny feet without a splash or ripple, without sinking. Bombi couldn’t tell if it was magic or Chagrinn’s precise aim that arranged them in a perfect circle.
The beetles turned and followed each other in a circular pattern, eventually distorting the water between them into something like a whirlpool. Chagrinn waved Bombi forward and then stepped into the circle, descending as if down a staircase. Anything was an improvement over the pain she’d felt leaving the Gone Basin, so she followed without hesitation.
The glassy tunnel was short but beautiful. They only walked for ten seconds or so before she felt a slight spinning sensation and they exited out of a different pond in a different part of the Anytaur Forest.
This glade was much more open, but it had clear boundaries where the trees and thorns were so thick that no human could possibly squeeze through them. The sun’s light came down through even slats in a vined dome far above them. The trees in the midst of the glade had drooping branches ending in leaf bunches shaped like scoops. They were perfect for resting in, like hammocks, a fact several of the runners already gathered there took advantage of.
“Better late than never,” a swarthy woman with long knotted hair said, sneering at Chagrinn. Her feet dangled from one of the leaf hammocks. Bombi saw that she had gold dust all across the soles of her boots. The fingers on her right hand were twisted and compressed into the shape of a wicked hook, looking the way Bombi’s whole body had felt when they were squeezed through the ground. The tip of her joined nails was painted with gold as well.
“I don’t see the Haunchlord yet Tessimus,” he responded plainly before bending over and washing his face in the sacred pond. “Bombi, I need to speak with some of these slowpokes. We will prepare in the last hour before his arrival, so for now I’d like you to go socialize.”
“Socialize?” she asked with a grimace, as if asked to rub lotion on everyone’s bottoms.
“Eavesdrop,” he clarified. “Pick up some tips and tricks. Invest in yourself so that you’re a better investment for me. Go. Shoo.” He waved her away with his hands as he moved past her to converse with the runner Tessimus. Suddenly the young runner was very uncomfortable. She knew and hated manners, she knew and hated coerced silence, but she didn’t know true socializing. What do I even say to people that I have no hatred for yet? Even Chagrinn disrespected Timorrow. I can always hate him a little for that. Some of these people might even be… good. I’m not equipped for that. I’m not worthy.
All the same, she couldn’t just stand there silently for four hours, so she wandered about the trees and observed the other runners. Just like at the Gone Basin, they were an idiosyncratic bunch. Some were walking treasure chests with their ears weighed down by the largest gems Bombi had ever seen, while others looked like they were conceived, gestated, born, and raised inside a muddy bucket on the docks of a bottom feeder fishery.
One of the latter was seated on the pond’s shore with his waist and legs immersed in the water. Dirt flowed off his lower half in billowing plumes, quickly clouding the water. It seemed he had an island’s worth of silt stopped up in the stitches of his pants. Another runner strolled across the water itself as the dirt spread under he feet. She muttered something under her breath, but stopped and stared, rather savagely, in Bombi’s direction when she sensed the girl’s eyes on her.
In response Bombi turned around and put herself as far away from the pond as she could. She rounded a tree and leaned up against its trunk. She thought she was safe from others until she looked up and saw three more pairs of feet dangling over her. They were deep in conversation and hadn’t noticed the apprentice standing under them.
She had no faces to judge them by from that angle, so she did her best to analyze their feet. All three were bare, their boots left somewhere near the pond to air out. One set of toes clearly belonged to a dainty woman. She had clock hand tattoos spiraling around her ankles. Is it my imagination or are her toes ticking every time they twitch?
The second and third pair belonged to dark-skinned men. They could only be told apart by the disparity in their general furriness; one was hairless while the other’s skin barely showed under all of it. Bombi heard ripping and chewing; they ate something while they spoke. She tried to smell it, but all the semi-aquatic flowers around the pond with their bubbling aromas obscured anything their food gave off. She gathered that they didn’t enjoy eating it because she never heard the lip-smacking one associates with the savoring of food.
“Is anyone going to try the trophy skin this time?” the woman asked the other two.
“Why don’t you do it? I think you’d be excellent at it,” one of them answered sarcastically.
“Very funny. It’s not unheard of, you know. I was there when someone tried it once.”
“And what happened to them?”
“He was twisted up into a noodle and killed. The order of the two wasn’t clear.”
“Whether Cervidon or his pelt gets you, it all hurts about the same.”
“Then why have the two of you shown up? I thought you were blazing trails with the cloudfeet, raining yourselves down on the deserts with the shiftiest sands.”
“We’ve seen all the angles. The Swallowing Mesa is just too treacherous. Every time we investigated we wound up adding another crack to the pack. Sub twenty-one is a possibility that way.”
“Honest as a naked NPC. One of those cracks leads straight to Death’s March. The problem is there’s no way to tell which and the wrong one can kill you just OOB.”
Bombi listened as they continued to argue. This place called the Swallowing Mesa came up a lot. Am I eavesdropping? Is this useful information? Perhaps they know I’m here and they’re feeding me bad advice just for laughs. That is the sort of thing that would happen to me at this point. Before I would be forced to stand here and listen with an armful of dishes or trash. I’m a speed runner now; I can just move.
She peeled herself away from the tree and walked forward. A tiny piece of something hit her on the shoulder and rolled down the front of her shirt. She caught it and saw it was some sort of fruit rind. The people above her weren’t speaking any more. Had they thrown it to agitate her, or had it merely fallen onto a person they didn’t know was there? She kept moving and didn’t look back. There were still other runners to observe.
There was enough edge to the pond that Bombi could walk all the way around it, so she did. By the time she’d made it to the opposite edge side she had passed both a couple making love in a pile of bushes and a fisherman runner who, upon catching a trout from the pond, immediately threw his prey back in. Seconds later he’d hooked the same fish again and reeled it in. Some sort of precision exercise I suppose. I wonder if the fish has any hope of breaking free of its cycle.
Eventually she found a kindred spirit who joined her in her walk around the pond. The girl was similar in age and had also been taken as an apprentice. She shared that this was her fourth run, as opposed to Bombi’s first. Bombi wasn’t foolish enough to expect friendship. She saw the way the girl ogled her duplication ring. Her questions angled towards it here and there, feeling for information the way a catfish rubs its barbels along a muddy riverbed.
Chagrinn hadn’t told her to keep it a secret, but Bombi kept the details of acquiring it vague. She gave the girl enough to convince her to stay. The company was useful to Bombi because it made her stand out less. She was less of an opportunity for anyone who wanted to accost her or perhaps throw more fruit rinds.
The girls walked and chatted, held together only by the weak adhesive of false comradery. I don’t mind. We both know we’re getting something from each other. This is nice, in a way. This smile is false, as is this laugh, but they feel a little more real each time I do them. At some point I’ll actually enjoy something the proper way. Their talk lasted up until minutes from Bombi’s appointment with Chagrinn; the last questions she asked of her temporary friend regarded the Haunchlord. Alas, the girl had not tried this particular strat before and had no advice to offer. She would only have Chagrinn’s word on the matter. Before they parted, the girl asked a favor. Bombi obliged her, duplicating a necklace of carved bone.
“Did you learn anything?” Chagrinn asked skeptically.
Bombi opened her mouth, but realized she had no idea if she had. Lots of chatter had passed by her, but none of it seemed very trustworthy. Mentioning the calming niceties she’d shared with the other apprentice seemed pointless. She had the Swallowing Mesa. That was a topic. She could mention it and its risk of OOB death, whatever that meant.
If they changed course to a deadlier route, that might not turn out so well for her. Here at least they had safety in numbers for their fight with the Haunchlord. If Chagrinn was crazy enough to try the Swallowing Mesa, which he certainly was, he might get her killed in the process. Bombi’s mouth was open. She needed to say something. She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.