‘Shut Mouth’ Stratagem
“I’m pretty sure I heard several lies,” she offered.
“That’s… something,” Chagrinn said with a slight head tilt. “You definitely can’t rely on this crowd to tell you the truth. They are the competition after all. No matter. It’s time I prepare you for your first boss encounter. Walk with me.” Chagrinn took her by the shoulder and walked her around the glade, which he kept referring to as ‘the arena’.
He gave her an idea what to expect in terms of appearance. The Haunchlord was an ancient anytaur, as tall as a house. His body split into three at the waist, bearing the full shoulders and limbs of a moose, a wild horse, and a stag. Bombi asked if he was some sort of mistake of indecision like Morphib, but Chagrinn shook his head.
“No. The Haunchlord didn’t have trouble making up his mind; he simply decided he wanted to protect all those creatures equally. He is nimble on every last one of his twelve hooves. He has a massive crown of antlers that he can swing with little effort. Now, you’ll be spending the first phase of the fight right there.” He pointed directly up to a tree branch wide enough to perch on.
“How many phases are there?” his apprentice asked.
“Three. He has a spawn phase, a charge phase, and a split phase. The spawn phase comes first and is characterized by his summoning of salamander anytaurs from the bottom of the pond. You’ll be up in the trees in order to avoid those while those of us with more experience variously slay or de-spawn them.”
“Can’t we swim down there and slay them now, before they can fight alongside their master? There’s a fisherman over there; I’m surprised he hasn’t accidentally caught one yet.”
“His minions don’t exist yet Bombi. Their only purpose is this fight, so the world will create them only when the Haunchlord triggers it. Should you get knocked out of your branch during the phase, just seek out another capable of holding you. It’s important that you stay off the ground until all the lesser anytaurs are gone. Do you understand?”
“Yes. What’s phase two?”
“The charge phase activates when he is out of minions. He will cease with most of his hand-based swiping attacks and rely more on his lower body structure. He’ll dip his antlers low and charge back and forth across the arena. Whatever you do, don’t stand next to that boulder.” He pointed to a stone that currently had a speed runner sitting cross-legged atop it, reciting poetry from a book so rapidly that Bombi could not grasp the individual words. “He always destroys that one within the first forty seconds of the phase.”
“So what should I do?”
“Once he shifts you must stay out of the trees. His charge attacks are somewhat random, and can topple any tree in here. There is no way for you to be completely safe, so just do your best to stay out of his way. The other runners have likely gathered you have item duplication, and they’ll expect your cooperation during the fight. If they throw you something you will be expected to catch it, duplicate it, and then toss both of them back.”
“Alright. I can do that,” she asserted, though her lack of confidence was clear. He’s probably already factored in my nerves. I’m a liability until I prove otherwise. If I do well enough I can come out of this fight as something more in their eyes. “Phase three?”
“It is by far the most dangerous,” Chagrinn said, confirming her suspicions. They had nearly circled the entire pond once more, and were coming up on Pirate Tessimus, who no longer lounged in the leaves. She was fencing with one of the other runners, using her deformed hook hand to steady the short lance-like weapon she carried. The other runners were ending their leisure activities as well, donning armor, performing stretches, and taking stock of their strange gear and artifacts. Everyone began to cluster around the base of the largest tree.
“During the split phase the Haunchlord will divide his body,” Chagrinn continued. “He will split the horse or stag from his waist and send the ethereal creatures rampaging. They follow simple arcing patterns, curving around to return to their place on his side. Avoid their arc and you will avoid them. Keep your attention mostly on his center, because he will not attack predictably.”
“And one of you will… slay him?”
“If all goes well, yes. After he falls it will become a free-for-all Bombi. Our unofficial pact will be dissolved and the runners may fight each other for the more magical parts of his body. You and I don’t need to worry about that though as we only seek passage through the glade. We’ll be able to leave immediately, assuming no one attempts the trophy skin strat.” Bombi’s ears perked up.
“I heard someone mention that,” she said, in nearly a whisper since they were now quite close to the crowd. “What is it?”
“A strat with a very low rate of success that requires incredible skill. It involves the runner claiming the mane section of the Haunchlord’s pelt during his death fall. If successful, some of his life force, including the ability to pass through most natural boundaries, is retained by the pelt. The current world record involves its use.”
“If the strat fails?”
“The haunchlord’s life force wraps the runner around the boss’s spine, killing them. I’ve never attempted it myself because I’ve never observed a successful attempt in person. If I did I think I would consider it.”
Just as he finished speaking, all the other conversations around them ended as well. Bombi had a feeling every runner had a timer in the back of their minds, to the point where they’d literally calculated the second in which they needed to quiet. They silently spread out some, picking their initial points of attack.
Chagrinn took all of their supplies and went to hide them in the minute before the fight. He snapped his fingers and pointed to the instructed branch. Bombi nodded, climbed into the tree, and sat perched there with one hand on the trunk. Upon noticing that all the runners hid themselves behind screens of leaves or under mats of false grass, she curled one of the bushiest branches with her free hand and used it obscure her body.
They waited in silence for a single minute once they were in position. The next sound was the groan of several trees bending outward. Their bark did not crack and their wood did not splinter; they simply moved like noodles to open the glade and make room for the boss creature to step in.
Despite having a very detailed description, she still could not believe her eyes. The Haunchlord was a wall of muscle, fur, bone, and hooves. His three bodies stepped in rhythm with each other. His antlers emerged above his ears and created a stunning crown of tan points that looked very heavy. His tails swished back and forth, disturbing the orange fireflies that nestled in their silky hairs. The beast walked to the edge of his pond and dropped to his twelve knees so he could dip his hands into the water and drink. Shluup. Shluup. Shluu…
“Trespassers,” the Haunchlord grumbled. He rose back to his feet, cracking his hoof-knuckles and stamping a few of his feet. “I am Haunchlord Cervidon: the all of the anytaurs. Come forward and face your earned death.” His voice was the heartwood of a forest thrice burned but still standing. It was antlers cracking and falling off the heads of stags across a thousand years. Bombi was very glad she wouldn’t have to fight.
The speed runners stepped out from their hiding places one by one and closed in. They circled the Haunchlord slowly, some of them doing some last minute sharpening of their knives, daggers, and polished pieces of the exploited world. Haunchlord Cervidon did not appear frightened. He raised the fingers on one hand, calling forth his anytaur minions from the bottom of the pond. They rose in patches of bubbles and slithered out into the grass.
The battle began with a roar, but not from the Haunchlord. It was the speed runners who unleashed their war cries and sprinted towards the amphibious minions. As soon as they were in range of the gray and yellow striped creatures they sliced off limbs and hammered away at slimy chests. One of them tossed powder into the pond that reformed the skin of bubbles. Bombi observed closely and saw that any minion tossed into that skin was sucked back into the pond and never resurfaced. That must have been what Chagrinn meant by ‘de-spawn’.
Cervidon was not passive, even in his first phase. He bucked off the numerous runners who tried to land on his back and deal damage to his vulnerable neck. He trampled everything in sight, tossing chunks of mud and vegetation behind him and off to the sides. Bombi searched for Chagrinn, but he was not easy to find in the chaos. Many of the runners moved faster than Bombi’s eyes could track, their forms doubling, tripling, and quadrupling in her vision.
The runner she’d seen catch the same fish repeatedly had a distinct maneuver in which he grabbed an anytaur by the waist, dove into the water with it, and emerged dry as a bone while the creature was repeatedly throttled and dunked by unseen forces until dead. Afterwards its limp body and tail bobbed up and down in the water as if it couldn’t decide to sink or not.
She recognized Pirate Tessimus easily enough, as she was the most aggressive presence on the Haunchlord’s back. She stabbed and hacked at his thick shoulder muscles with her hook hand, drawing a crescent of dark blood with each blow. The red stuff dripped down Cervidon’s various haunches. As much damage as the monster took, he showed no signs of advancing rage or fatigue until the last of his salamanders was dispatched.
Just as Chagrinn warned, the boss became enraged when the last of his support was gone. He used his arms like an extra set of legs, as if he needed yet more, to charge back and forth across the glade and gore any runners who were out of position. Bombi was leaping out of the tree when she saw one runner get tossed into the pond, into the skin of bubbles, and fail to resurface. There were so many new ways to die and stop in her mind now; she had no clue which one had befallen the man.
On the ground she steered clear of the doomed boulder. The Haunchlord destroyed it as predicted, moving on to whichever area had the highest concentration of trespassers. Bombi hugged the wall of trees, near where the boss had entered, and kept her feet moving even when she wasn’t moving in a particular direction. This is my shop. Bombi’s duplication shop. Nothing to destroy here. Cervidon will tangle his horns in the trees if he charges me here. Conveniently located just out of reach of antlered death.
The runners did expect her to perform her service. She watched Chagrinn sprint, backwards and blurry, around the boss’s ankles, when a bald lady runner with blonde eyebrows popped up in front of her and shoved a polearm into her hands. Bombi pressed the base of her ring finger against it, popping the weapon into two. The runner snatched them back and hurled them at Cervidon as javelins.
She duplicated five more things over the course of the second phase: a red leather whip, a smoke bomb full of sparkling powder, an animated straw golem of a bird of prey, something slimy and ethereal, and a coin with a face that winked at her. She guessed the coin was some charm full of luck, because the runner who took it flipped it into the air repeatedly. When he was done the Haunchlord seemed to trip on nothing in particular. The opportunistic runners slashed and bludgeoned his neck even as he slid across the ground and plowed gouges in it with his crown.
That ushered in the third phase. Bombi was no longer safe. The boss rose back to his feet, bellowed, a bellow which seemed to make him immune to all attacks for several moments, and then worked some sort of magic. The heads of a horse and a stag appeared around his waist. They pulled away and took the matching bodies with them. Each one immediately galloped along the outer edge of the glade, closing in on Bombi’s duplication shop from opposite sides.
She sprinted towards the pond, avoiding its wet edge for fear of being sucked into the de-spawning bubbles. If he can be immune why doesn’t he do it all the time? Why risk any of this? I guess the world only allots so much invincibility. It was a dramatic moment to be sure. If it takes drama then I’ve never been invulnerable a moment in my life. Perhaps when I was born. In my greatest terror and confusion I could not be destroyed. What a thing to preserve.
The Haunchlord’s hand slammed down into the ground next to her. Bombi teetered on the edge of the pond; she forced herself to dive forward into the grass instead. Cervidon’s moose hooves stamped all around her: in front, behind, to the left, in front again, the left again, the right… She only had a chance to flee when he stopped and allowed his two other bodies to reconnect.
By now the Haunchlord was all but destroyed. He didn’t have the energy to pull the runners off his back. They crawled across him like ticks and drilled at his spine and shoulders. His horse and stag bodies twisted backward on his waist and kicked in front of him, killing a runner, but there were more than fifteen left. His legs wobbled. He whinnied and bellowed like all three animals at once before collapsing onto his side. Eight different weapons struck at the same point of his throat. His tail stilled. All the fireflies started to disperse, but their lights went out a moment later; they fell like grains of pepper.
Bombi caught her breath and rubbed her arms nervously. She took a few steps back, expecting the runners to descend upon the corpse like hyenas and begin crunching bones. Many of them seemed primed to, including Chagrinn, but something stopped them. They all looked at Pirate Tessimus, who had a length of furry skin in one hand and her hook embedded in the Haunchlord’s shoulder with the other. Carefully, delicately, dexterously, she sliced across the base of the anytaur’s neck and severed it. She leapt away, holding the pelt aloft, clearly expecting the corpse to suck her down into its raw red material. Several of the remaining runners gasped.
“Hah!” she shouted in victory. Bombi had a feeling she’d just seen the trophy skin strat accomplished. She immediately looked for Chagrinn. He said he’d never seen it, so the proper way to observe new strats should’ve been illustrated on his face. The young runner couldn’t see her mentor, but then he appeared beside her in a flash. Without a word he picked Bombi up by one shoulder and by the back of her dress.
“What are you do…” Before she could finish the question Chagrinn threw her with a mighty grunt, right at Pirate Tessimus. Chagrinn was surprisingly strong; Bombi only had a moment to put out her arms defensively before she collided with the other runner and both of them fell to the ground. By this point she knew better than to ask Chagrinn what was wrong with him. Every absurd thing he did was for a selfish but fascinating reason. Bombi made an educated guess.
Her duplication ring touched the trophy skin. Whether it was the air of recent life, still warm, or the power of Cervidon himself, the pelt did not take well to the duplication. The end of it split seven ways and curled like wood shavings, but the pieces wouldn’t separate on their own. It was up to the runners to finish it off. They swarmed around the two of them, grabbing at the fur and yanking, slashing at it with blades.
“Get off you fools; it’s mine!” Tessimus barked, catching Bombi in the back of the hand with her hook. It dug into the girl’s flesh with incredible pain, forcing her to cry out. Hands were everywhere, including in and out of her blood. Chagrinn finally grabbed the curve of his rival’s hook and bent it out of Bombi’s flesh, causing Tessimus to snarl and pull away. He protected Bombi with one hand, but pulled on the trophy skin with the other.
The skin ripped, with seven runners each getting a piece of it. Chagrinn dragged Bombi to her feet and pulled her away. Fast as lightning, he wrapped the pelt around her injured hand to use it as a bandage. The other end he knotted around his own wrist. Her hand still screamed, and her head now swam, so Bombi had difficulty telling what happened next. The runners who had snagged parts of the trophy vanished one by one. They sped off, bodies blurring and passing through the thick outer trees of the glade like they were nothing.
“Hold on Bombi. This is going to be exhilarating!” That was the only warning Chagrinn gave her before wrapping both her hands around his shoulders and lifting her off the ground. Her arms shook, but she managed to clasp them together before the real shaking began. Chagrinn spun around and sped after the other runners, moving backwards the entire time. How he knew where he headed, where exactly to step, she had no idea. They passed through the tree wall; it wasn’t like passing through butter or even clouds. It was simply as if the walls didn’t exist. They had form in the realm of eyes only; every other sense was free to ignore them completely.
“So this… this is the world…” Bombi said quietly as she watched it pass by. The seven runners moved like shooting stars. They knew every crack and illusory wall weak enough to let them pass. They knew every bluff the world made. Chagrinn only leapt, the distance and height incredible, in order to spin around and get a good look at their current path.
“We’re all on track for the world record!” he shouted up to her.
“But… this is my first time!”
“Lucky for you. We need to be the ones to get it. Only the record holder will break free of the Source. I need to get us to the front. If anyone interferes, stop them.”
“I… I’ll try!” By the time they were done speaking they’d moved out of the recognizable world completely. They were in a white space devoid of ground or sky. As far as she could tell the runners sped across nothing at all. It can’t be underground. There’s dirt down there. And there’s a city! None of those are underground. What’s it doing down here? I can see through every wall… It’s like a hive. They’re all moving back and forth, up and down, but they’re trapped on a fishing line. They have no idea this nothingness is out here, that it surrounds them.
Pirate Tessimus pulled up alongside them, utilizing the same backward-running trick. She tried to pluck Bombi off his back with her hook. Her eyes brimmed with determination and hatred. Her hook struck like the sting of a scorpion, ripping into their pelt. If she managed to split it Bombi could get separated from Chagrinn. He wouldn’t come back for me. There’s no way he’d stop this close. I don’t even want him to stop. I need to see the other side. I need to see a world that isn’t being manipulated.
Bombi reached out and duplicated the pelt yet again; the piece Tessimus had hooked split away and threw her off balance. She tripped and rolled forward with the sickening sound of bones crunching. She tumbled off an invisible cliff and fell, squirming and screaming, into the nothingness below. That was her choice. She didn’t have to attack us.
After that the other runners kept their distance. The remaining six raced across what had to be the rest of the Lands of Shook and Cain, slowing or stopping only on the briefest of occasions to complete the trivialities of their individual runs. Through stone more ancient than man, through seas that couldn’t wet them, through towers and streets full of people, many of whom didn’t even recognize the disturbance of the runners, they sped.
“This is it Bombi! This is everything!” Chagrinn said, his voice tight and high. His body hummed aggressively. His apprentice thought if he kept it up he’d probably shake himself apart, like a toppled statue of sand. He feels only the desire. We’re so close that I can feel it… and I don’t even know what I’m feeling. My hand doesn’t hurt anymore. I think we’ve outrun pain. That’s fast and far enough for me, but as long as I can hold on…
Chagrinn’s humming intensified. It didn’t seem like he was breathing. The paths of the runners all split around the same time, each racing off to a different corner of the world. Bombi knew speed running meant completing your life as fast as possible, so they each probably searched out their eventual graves, their finish lines.
The maneuver to finish Chagrinn’s run came so swiftly that Bombi didn’t even have time to register her surroundings. They were in the white space one moment and above ground the next. There was grass and graves. She leaned forward, looked at Chagrinn’s chest, and saw the flash of a blade. Then it was gone. Then they were both gone. Everything was light, but the emptiness of the white space was gone. Every non-thing about them seemed to become more solid. No, not solid. More real. This is it. We beat the others. The world record. We’re the fastest things to ever exist in the Lands of Shook and Cain.
Bombi held out her hands in front of her and watched the currents of color move between her fingers. They dove into the matter beyond the Source. All at once she understood that the Source shouldn’t have been called that at all, because it too needed an origin. The wind between worlds died down. She slid off Chagrinn’s back, planting her feet in a new strange place. Everything seemed silent, but sound started to creep back out like bugs from under their rocks, shaking off the end of the rain.
They were in a room. Bombi had strolled through luxury hundreds of times, occasionally plucking things she could never afford from furniture worth more than her own life and delivering them to some other opulent corner. The room had some of the trappings of the wealthy; it was carpeted, it was bright, and there were colorful doodads and knickknacks everywhere, but whoever owned it certainly didn’t have a servant. Many of the objects were strewn about on the floor. Strange cords, jumbled like the nest of an ornery flightless bird, hung out from a dresser topped with a strange screen full of light.
“There it is,” Chagrinn said. He pointed at the screen, but dared not approach it. He was drenched in sweat. He struggled under the new weight of his breath. Whatever life, whatever nuance, running had taken from him was back now. He was as alive as Bombi, and had shed his composure like a snakeskin. “We’re out. It’s all in there. We… were pressed in there like flowers in a book!” He dropped to his knees. Bombi steadied him, but examined the screen as well.
It held a moving picture. The grass swayed. The wind blew. It was the graveyard they’d just left with the flash of Chagrinn’s blade and the power of the Haunchlord’s pelt. She glanced down at the strip of skin wrapped around her arm. It had a smell to it that wasn’t there before. Everything had something to it that wasn’t there before.
What is this place? It is certainly a place… I was hoping for something less. I thought perhaps we’d have an ocean of nonexistence to backstroke in for the rest of time. I wanted those waters to pull all sensation from my body. Emotions would sink. Bombi would remain, but only as a mechanism, as a clock hand not constrained by the shape of its face. I feel the same here, just, more like my pieces might wander off in random directions.
“We did it Bombi!” Chagrinn huffed. “The world record! We’re out of the Lands of Shook and Cain. We are free! Free to choose our own paths!”
“Who are you?” a small voice asked from the room’s open door. They whirled around to see a child: a pale boy no more than thirteen. “Oh my gosh! Chagrinn? My character? Oh my gosh! Mom! I told you to come up here! My world record! It was magic!”
“Your character?” Chagrinn muttered. “Your world record?”
“My speed run,” the boy said. “It took me like a year. I went through five controllers! I got it though, just now. I beat The Lands of Shook and Cain in under twenty minutes!” Chagrinn looked ready to strangle the boy for a moment, but he dropped back to his knees. He sobbed into the carpet. Bombi patted him on the back. She knew it before he did.
This place was not freedom. It was disappointment. It was merely somewhere else. The speed runner sobbed and sobbed, even after the boy’s mother came in, dumbfounded and horrified that strangers were in her home. Bombi took a deep breath. It was time to explain, but slowly. She left the lingo for the strats behind and stuck to their life stories.
It took time, far more than their run, to get it all out. Eventually, she believed. She had no solutions for the two strangers, only a homemade meal. Chagrinn would not eat. He barely moved. His apprentice, on the other hand, savored every bite of the chicken and vegetable pie. She breathed its steam and drank its gooey cream. Whatever this world was, it had more to offer her than table scraps. That would do for now. She stored her energy for wherever she might run next.
World Record Achieved!