‘Swallowing Mesa’ Stratagem
“I did hear about something,” she whispered to Chagrinn, eyes darting back and forth. She leaned in, she wanted it to feel like a precious secret, something barely alive passing between soft hands, but he did not reciprocate.
“A few of the other runners mentioned some place called the Swallowing Mesa,” she said. Was that what it was called? Yes. Yes. I’m definitely not sending us off in a random direction.
“What did they say about the Swallowing Mesa?” he asked. He inched towards her. There was the air of secrecy. “Be exact.”
“They said that sub-twenty-one was possible.” Bombi didn’t know what that meant exactly, but by the widening of Chagrinn’s eyes it must have been a stunning detail. “They said one of the cracks in the Swallowing Mesa leads straight to Death’s March. They were wary about their own tale. They said only one crack led to it, and it was impossible to determine which crack it was. The wrong ones can kill you just…” she recalled the exact letters, “O-O-B.” Chagrinn smirked.
“OOB is my bread and butter.” He put his finger to his lips for a moment and calculated a few things. He grabbed Bombi’s hand and examined the condition of her duplication ring. Then he eyed all the other runners, sparing a full second for each. “That’s good work Bombi. Forget everything I’ve told you about our boss encounter. We’ll be avoiding the Haunchlord this day.” He took her elbow and pulled her away, towards the pond. He brought out another carved stone beetle and had her replicate it. He reproduced the portal at the pond’s edge.
“Where are you going?” Pirate Tessimus yelled after him. “The boss’ll be here on schedule.” The other runners stared.
“Good luck fellows,” Chagrinn addressed all of them, “but I’ve other business.”
“We planned around you!” Tessimus shouted back. “You’re lowering all our chances!”
“You’re against me; you never even had a chance.” He waved goodbye impertinently and jumped into the water. Bombi went in right behind him, as she was not eager to be left in the glade with people who could become disgruntled faster than she’d ever done anything. Apparently, they were on their way to the Swallowing Mesa.
On their journey something about speed running finally sank into Bombi’s mind. Time was relative. Among the runners, everyone had their own interpretation and experience of its flow. Everything up to the Haunchlord had seemed so immediate. Chagrinn pulled her this way and that, through stone, land, and time like they were late for an appointment with a god that might avoid them anyway.
The road to the Swallowing Mesa was much more methodical. They moved out of the Anytaur Forest like there was nothing to it. She expected guards, gates, or at least something behind the trees chasing them to the edge, but Chagrinn told her they avoided all that by avoiding common tracks. He referred to it by several names, but Bombi liked ‘quiet space’ the best. He said there were many places in the world that lacked occurrences. They traveled on canvas where paint had not yet struck.
His talk of the Haunchlord convinced her that their speed run could’ve ended hours or days after defeating him, depending on the exact results of the battle, yet he wasn’t worried about the swaths of time they spent on the road to the Swallowing Mesa. He explained that the world’s clock was different from the one they personally felt. All that mattered was the speed on that grander clock, rather than how fast a man could run or fell a beast.
‘Sub twenty-one’ meant completing the key events of one’s life in under twenty-one years by the world’s clock. Chagrinn’s body looked significantly older than twenty-one, but the physical triggers his body had hit again had little to do with the world clock. Once, he had completed his life in under forty years, hobbling to the finish line with a cane and nearly tripping over his lengthy gray beard.
After the forest came weeks of scrubland. Chagrinn purchased a tent from a traveling merchant with duplicated money. They spent their nights in it, under dark skies that didn’t have a hint of the day’s extreme heat in them. There came a night, when they were four days away from the mesa, where Bombi and Chagrinn sat in their tent fiddling with their supplies and discussing running. Chagrinn was editing a history text with a wickedly sharp tool, flaying words from the page and letting them fade in the air like smoke, while Bombi practiced some hand-to-hand speed maneuvers. She’d been at it since the forest, and she was now confident she could throw a punch faster than a man could blink. Her hands flitted about in various configurations, occasionally threatening to knot her fingers or accidentally smash into her nose.
“In my days before running,” Chagrinn said out of nowhere, “I sometimes camped with friends out in the wilderness. We thought we were the masters of the world because we could catch our fish and frogs.” His tool ripped across the page, erasing a line of monarchs.
“I mean no offense, but I never pictured you with friends. You’re the wolf that’s happy to be alone, never walking in another’s paw prints,” Bombi said.
“None taken. We all make mistakes. Those friends who meant so much to me are nothing but NPCs now. I’m going somewhere with this topic though, not merely spilling my guts. There’s probably not much left inside me to spill. When I camped with them, we always told ghost stories to scare each other out of sleeping. That way we could have fun all night long.”
“Do you have a ghost story for me?”
“Yes, an educational one. I want to tell you the tale of Death’s March before we arrive in the Swallowing Mesa.”
“I’m all ears. If I’m not I can always make more.” She wiggled the finger bearing the duplication ring. He didn’t so much as smirk. She went back to her practice, for she knew he wouldn’t berate her for doing two things at once. The fesh sound of her darting hands punctuated his tale.
“They say there is a place that all men go when they die,” he began. “It is a place that offers them a chance to reflect, but not to linger. Once they arrive there they must walk forward ceaselessly until they reach the true end. Their life will pass them by as paintings on the wall. The hallway itself can be wide or narrow, depending on the impact of their life. Some men make little more than mouse holes. Others have trouble seeing the paintings from so far away.
From the beginning of the end, there is a figure standing at the end of the hall, robed in black, enwreathed in bones and toxic metals. He, or perhaps she, stands there wordlessly, their face hidden in their hood. The figure doesn’t beckon you forward, because you have nowhere else to go. The figure has no breath, no sway, and cannot be called alive. It stands there, solid as the hooks holding up your paintings.
Once you’re in front of it, it moves aside and puts a hand on your shoulder. It escorts you to the beyond. For some it’s paradise, for some it’s the underworld, and for some it’s nothing at all. We all get there the same way though. Unless, of course, you’re a speed runner.”
Bombi stopped her hands. Hearing it was anticlimactic. Every story could end this way with us. There is a great enemy to fight, but you can go by it as a speed runner. There is a great truth to face, but you can slip under it if you’re a speed runner. Are we robbing ourselves of substance? I’m not at least. The old life had no substance.
“So we never have to see it if we don’t want to?” she asked, rather than expand on her thoughts. She knew he would have little to say on the inherent substance of life.
“You and I are hoping to see it this time Bombi. Everyone who believes in paradise and eternal torment is wrong. Those who believe in nothingness are partly right, but they don’t understand any of the specifics. When we rush our deaths the march never triggers. We go right from the end back to the beginning, back to infancy.”
“Don’t those who take the march do the same? Everything is on tracks right? They only move in circles.”
“Correct, though those unfamiliar with strats never realize they’re repeating themselves. In our case, if we can find a way to trigger Death’s March, that automatically ends our lives. It circumvents the requirement that we die in a certain way and where the Lands of Shook and Cain intended. We want to find that dark hallway and we want to run down it. It could be the world record.”
“What does this have to do with O-O-B?”
“That stands for out-of-bounds Bombi. Sometimes we call it the bottom of the world, depending on its characteristics or lack thereof. It is the space just outside the Lands of Shook and Cain, which is not subject to its rules. While it enables many skips, it is extremely dangerous. Among the rules that don’t apply there are the rules of death. If your heart stops out there, you’re gone for good. Erased from reality. Nothingness.”
“No repeating? You don’t return as a babe?”
“No. The Swallowing Mesa is a dry piece of land with enchanted cracks in its ground. These cracks can slither about like snakes; they find their way under you and widen to swallow you up. They are anomalies believed to be caused by the reckless tinkering of one of the original runners. Some of the older ones simply tried to break the floor of the world, and hoped everything would tumble into a new one. To me, that’s like hoping when you drop a basket full of eggs they’ll all randomly land on pillows.”
“The cracks drop you into O-O-B? That means they kill you completely…”
“Most likely,” he answered her. “Perhaps you could hang on an invisible ledge somewhere. Perhaps they just trap your essence somewhere deep where it can’t be reborn. These are not the possibilities we should dwell on. According to our information, one of those cracks will drop us straight into Death’s March. It’ll drop us right into the world record.”
“Okay, so how do we figure out which crack is the right one?”
“I’m still working on that one.” Her eyes widened. “Don’t worry; I have plenty of time to think of something.”
Chagrinn and Bombi perched at the edge of a red cliff, overlooking the Swallowing Mesa. Swirling clouds of dust obscured much of the ground. The sun was high; it dragged Bombi’s shadow over the edge, all the way into the dust. Sweat rolled off both sides of her neck. The leaves on her duplication ring had browned and wilted some. Chagrinn looked quite hot as well, but he had no sweat. He seemed more like a chunk of wood dried to splintering.
Scattered across the mesa were stone pillars, weathered in the middle by blowing grit. Their waists were thinner than their heads, but that didn’t give Chagrinn pause. He leapt from the cliff onto one and then pointed to another for Bombi to take. She never had a fear of heights, but the swirling dust had plenty of anxiety to offer. She took the jump, one foot sliding a few inches and causing her to yelp. She held though, and the hungry cracks below did not have ears.
They waited silently. The cracks had natural noises, like the tittering of birds or peeping of frogs, but they heard nothing. Chagrinn had said they sounded like paint cracking. Perhaps they were all asleep, allowing the ground its wholeness until something disturbed tem.
“We need to draw their aggro,” Chagrinn said as he rubbed his chin. “We’ll never figure out which one it is if we can’t see them.”
“Aggression, Bombi. I could’ve sworn I told you that one already. Anyway, we need to be the daring ones here. You see those two other pillars over there? We’re going to slide down these, hit the ground running, and then climb up those. That should get them circling.”
“Are you sure about this?”
“No, but I’m sure of my feet. They won’t step on any cracks. All you have to do is be equally sure of your feet Bombi. Are you ready?”
“Uhm…” It’s just like the feast of Saint Wedluck. Remember? Somebody in the kitchen broke a glass. There were shards everywhere. But the dessert was late. Plates had to keep moving. Drinks needed to be refreshed. We had to scurry back and forth over the glass without getting cut a hundred times. I can do this. They forced me to have quiet feet; it’s time they had a real use. “Yes.”
“I’ll let you go first so you have a touch more time before they react. I’m right behind you,” her mentor assured. Bombi took a deep breath. She dropped to her bottom, letting her feet dangle as if off the side of a boat. Another breath. She held it and twisted, grabbing the jagged side of the pillar’s head and sliding down its body. Her bare feet touched the loose soil. She exhaled. Nothing. Slowly she removed her hands from the pillar and turned around.
She still couldn’t see much through the dust. We want to see the cracks. I’m supposed to disturb them. I’m not a church mouse. I’m a stomping rooster who always thinks it’s the crack of dawn. Bombi bent her knees… and jumped towards the next pillar. The sound of her feet hitting was softer than she’d intended; it simply sent more dust into the air.
Chagrinn found more power as he dropped from his perch without sliding, landing with such force that the dust moved out from him in a wave. His impact revealed the ground around them. It was in one piece. Kruk. Two. Kruk. Three. The ground split in a web pattern, like breaking glass. A moment later each fissure had a will of its own, separating its tail from its siblings and snaking about. Wherever they went the dust vanished, sucked down into their trap.
Many of the cracks immediately went for the runners. Chagrinn crossed the ground in three more jumps and then scrambled up the next pillar like a squirrel up a tree. Bombi had a little more difficulty, one of her feet teetering on the edge of a hungry crack for a moment, but she jumped to a small protuberance on her pillar just wide enough to hold her. She could feel the cracks just below, sucking in the air around her legs.
“What do we do now?” she called out.
“That one!” Chagrinn pointed to one particular crack; it was the easiest to see because it was the largest and it sucked down the most dust. It moved slowly, circling their pillars like a shark around a raft. They heard it occasionally split boulders just below the surface with brutal cracking sounds.
Chagrinn struck a very strange pose somewhere between a stork trying to gargle and a statue waiting to be demolished. He spun his arms at odd angles and wiggled his neck as if trying to focus eyes that couldn’t move in their sockets. Once he had the exact orientation he was after, Chagrinn jumped out over the cracks.
“What are you doing!?” his apprentice cried, for it looked as if he fed himself to the fissures. The runner’s head angled down, allowing him to stare into the depths of the cracks below. When he was inches from the ground his body stalled as if by a giant invisible hand. It went back the way it came, undoing all his twists until he once again stood atop the pillar.
“It’s a jump the world doesn’t like,” he explained. “Doesn’t fit its formula for a proper one, so it cancels the action when it’s mostly finished. Gave me an excellent view of our friends’ guts. My hunch was right. The largest one has Death’s March inside. All we need to do is insure…”
Suddenly his pillar split down the middle. Bombi’s eyes followed the rupture and saw four of the cracks cooperating, fusing end to end and rushing through the pillar, forcing their way up its stone. They were hungry. No runner had been foolish enough to tantalize them for years. Chagrinn had no stability to arrange any of his world-contorting techniques. He fell with the pillar and rolled across the dirt. A smaller crack scurried into his path and swallowed his legs.
“Chagrinn!” Bombi danced nervously atop her pillar. What can I do? They’ll just swallow me too if I go down there.
“Stay!” Chagrinn barked, holding out one hand even as the other scratched lines in the dirt. It took everything he had to fight the crack’s suction. “This is why you have a partner,” he grunted with a weak smile. “I can feel the bottom of this one. It’s not permanent death… but I will be trapped. My source will be… forever. You need to leave Bombi! Leave and return from under, with tools! Mine me out!”
“The… world record…”
“Time is relative! You have years to free me, and we could still have it after. Ahh… do it Bombi! Come back for me and we will resume! I’ll show you the boundaries of…” The crack sucked the man down. It sealed itself, sated. The other fissures circled, the one unbroken spot a grave of an island in a dusty sea. Chagrinn, or at least his soul, was down there somewhere. Nobody in the world knew it but Bombi. She waited until the cracks grew tired and fixed the ground. She turned back.
Hunched in the darkness of a cramped tunnel, with nothing to see by but a flickering brass lamp, Bombi checked her map. It was covered in grit from the last two hours of digging, so she wiped it away and checked again. Her hands shook, so she held her breath to steady the lamp and its light. My hands shake, but my progress does not. The tunnel is sound. At this rate, I’ll be there, under the mesa, in three years. Three more years of this.
Bombi packed her picks and shovels back into her bag and crouch-walked back the way she had dug. It took two hours for her to find the sun again. She’d built her entrance, supported by great lengths of wood partly-multiplied to fortify them, nearly eight months ago. Once she found the light of Shook and Cain she collapsed against one of the supports and dug some food out of her bag: a crust of bread filled with cheese, onions, and spiced potato meal. She ate.
Alone out here… it’s not so bad. Why do I keep thinking I’m wasting my time? There is no time. We can always go back. These years to dig him back out, they’re just a favor. His favor for me, getting me out of there, took only a moment, but so does this. Every period of time is a moment. In this moment I will work myself to the bone, for I will regenerate in the next.
I must slow down, so I can become the fastest thing alive. Three more years…