“The world could always use more flowers,” she said, startled by her own sudden smile. Smiling was so rare for the girl that a full earnest one felt like a paper cut across her face. She suppressed a giggle. It was clear by Chagrinn’s expression that her happiness made no difference to him, but the smile wasn’t for him anyway. It was for the ability to make real choices. She saw now that so many choices in her life had been false; if the options available weren’t equally valid, how was there a choice at all?
She extended her palm further. Item duplication it would be. Chagrinn carefully wrapped the thin coil of vine around her ring finger and Mink’s. The vine tried to tighten, but it was too weak to bind them. It split in two just as Chagrinn said it would, each piece wrapping around a different finger. The one around Bombi’s tightened for a moment, but then loosened before it cut off the blood flow. It fit so perfectly that she barely felt it. She brought it close to her face to examine it, but had to move when Mink finally unfroze.
“I wish you luck human, but even if you should fail the forest will eat up your disaster. The mushrooms will break your deflated love down and the world will forget your folly. Goodbye.” The anytaur turned and hopped over a bush, disappearing with a swish of her long silvery tail.
“Try it out,” Chagrinn suggested. He started to dig in the bag for something to duplicate, but his apprentice had already made up her mind. She grabbed Mink’s bloom off the top. Her new green ring had two minute leaves growing next to each other. Instinctively, she gently pressed the bloom against them both. The ends of the flower’s petals quivered and made a sound like soggy wood bending. An extra bloom popped out of the first suddenly. Bombi tried to catch it, but it slipped out of her hands and landed on the mossy ground.
“Was that right?” she asked, touching the tip of her tongue to one of her lower lip piercings anxiously.
“There are two now aren’t there? Good work. Since you’re the one doing the duplicating we should go this way.” He pointed past the tree and the hollow stump before closing his bag back up and resuming their progress. Bombi followed behind swiftly, practicing duplication. She left a trail of magical flowers behind her.
“I’m surprised anyone keeps running after learning this,” she said after a few minutes, her eyes following another flower as it popped up into the air and tumbled down. This time she caught it. She produced a dozen more and shoved her face down into them, inhaling their enchanted aroma deeply. She let them all drop, but quickly made more. She tried juggling them.
“Why do you say that?” Chagrinn asked. His tone implied he wasn’t interested, but Bombi was happy to accept the conversational reflex anyway.
“Because you can make whatever you want. You’ll never want for anything.”
“You’re not going to give up on this already are you?” he asked.
“No, no. If this is just the beginning then I must know how much more there is. I must know how much I was missing.”
“There’s your explanation.” Their path turned downhill and they had to tread more carefully thanks to thickening patches of thorns. “I’m actually reminded of a story,” he said halfway down the hill. Their destination appeared to be some sort of muddy crevasse full of felled trees and dripping roots. “Since there’s exactly seventeen minutes until we reach our next trigger, I have time to tell you about it. There was a speed runner once, a woman, who learned item duplication and thought exactly what you did.”
“Before you continue, what’s our chance of getting attacked down here?” Bombi asked as Chagrinn took her hand and helped her onto one of the felled trees. There was something resembling a path beneath them: a staircase of wet logs. The walls of the crevasse had been open to the air long enough to grow trees of their own. Clumps of moss and flowers grew from protruding boulders. It looked very cramped.
“Literally zero,” he told her. “This woman, her name was Marline, wasn’t content with copying flowers or gold. At the time she learned item duplication… she was with child.”
“Nobody knew until she tried. She held her duplication device to her bare stomach and only stopped when she felt like she was going to burst. A month later she gave birth to ten identical children.”
“Identical? I’ve known twins, but they are very much their own people. Was it the same with these ten? Or did they all say the same things at the exact same time?”
“Luckily no. They shared faces, but each became their own in time. I imagine RNG played a role in it. Even though I’ve faced identical situations thousands of times, on occasion things just don’t happen the way they’re supposed to. Those children highlighted that particular flaw of the Lands of Shook and Cain.” They hopped down to the next set of logs. The lower ones creaked, but Chagrinn was sure they wouldn’t break under the runners’ weight. It was darker down there and the dripping much louder.
“Did she give up running to raise them? I feel as if I am slowing you down, so I can only imagine what ten babes would do to someone’s time.”
“The mere thought of it feels like a necklace of stones,” Chagrinn agreed. “When it comes to running, she could no longer compete, but she couldn’t give up the strats. If she did she had to give up her family as well.”
“Why is that?”
“Her lover was another runner. They were never supposed to meet on their tracks, let alone have a roll in the bottom of the world. We speed runners repeat our lives, and remember them whenever we fail, so Marline had a choice. She could either forget about them or have them every time.”
“How did the children feel about this?”
“We call such people speed babes,” Chagrinn clarified. “They have troubles of their own. The world mostly ignores their existence, and when it doesn’t it works relentlessly to destroy them. They also can’t speed run, because without any tracks to guide them they have no final destination, no finish line. They mostly have to live outside the boundaries of the world, scavenging things that slip through.”
“Have you ever had any children?” his apprentice asked. They hopped off the last log into a sort of narrow glade. The ground was soggy, but not muddy, covered in spongy springy moss clumps. Lily pads grew here and there, some quite high, despite having no water to hold them up.
“I have not, on or off my track. I’m not in the market either if you’re getting ideas.”
“I’m not flirting with you,” Bombi said with mild disgust. That’s a strange thing to say. Has anyone ever assumed I was flirting with them? That’s not a word I could have before. My parents would’ve arranged everything. That’s yet another dimension to speed running. Perhaps there’s someone for me to love, hidden in the world’s shadow. All I have to do is avoid permanent death. We can run now, at least this first time. There’ll be time for lovely people later.
Chagrinn brought them to a stop. Bombi looked up. The ground actually suited to traversal was hundreds of feet above them now. Some of the larger lily pads were over their head and wide as boats. The shadows of frogs hopped around atop them making a melody out of sounds like hail hitting open parasols. Tiny bubbled plants glowed a faint green in the crevices of the moss.
“If I was flirting this would be a beautiful place for it,” she added. “What are we doing down here?”
“We need information,” Chagrinn said. He flitted back and forth, picking up stones and putting them back down in seemingly random places. He grabbed a fat frog the size of a housecat and tossed it up onto one of the lily pads. The plant shuddered and sprayed water droplets, barely able to hold the creature up. The frog emitted one deep rruuuuurrbbiiiiiiit, but didn’t complain beyond that.
Bombi examined the space to try and make sense of what he was doing. The crevasse had widened some, but the lighting was very dim thanks to the lily pads. They were mostly surrounded by root and slime-coated soil walls, but there was one notable feature before them: a cracked slab of stone bearing a strange plant pod atop it.
The pod wasn’t connected to a stem or vine. It was a cluster of chewed and torn lily pads glued together with something clear and sparkling. It was big enough to hold two or three men Chagrinn’s size. As the runner rearranged the scene he was careful never to step too close to it. Bombi stayed planted where she was until further instruction came. Her mind wandered only a little, picturing speed running lovers hiding their affection from the whole of reality.
“I need you to stand…” Chagrinn pondered aloud after grabbing her shoulders, his head swiveling in several directions, “…over here.” She shuffled along with his pull until she was directly under one of the lily pads to the left of the strange pod. He took his hands back, examined her once again, and then shifted her a few inches further back, partially obscuring her behind the lily pad’s stem. “You should be able to see from there and you should also be completely out of its radius of awareness. There are only four minutes left until it triggers, so I need you to stay completely still and quiet when it does. Don’t do anything until I say; this is a frame perfect trick.”
“That means absolutely nothing can be out of place or mistimed; otherwise the strat will fail and we will lose an infuriating amount of time. Have you ever seen a perfect painting? One in which every single brush stroke was correct and the result was a masterpiece?”
“That’s what we mean by frame perfect. We’re about to make a masterpiece and it only belongs in its frame if every detail is correct. Sometimes a literal single hair can cause these to fail. Two minutes now. It’s a good time to start being quiet.” Bombi nodded. She grabbed the stem to steady herself and put half her face behind it. She glued her other eye to the pod.
Chagrinn put himself directly in front of the stone slab’s largest crack. He tried his feet in various positions, like a wading bird looking for the least slippery section of lakebed, and then held perfectly still once he found the one he was satisfied with. Two minutes passed. Right on cue, the pod stirred.
It wiggled a few times and then set itself rolling across the stone, stopping when it hit the central crack Chagrinn was in front of. The top if it stretched as its occupant worked to tear itself free. Pwiwp! The pod snapped open as the glue between two of the pads gave way. A creature pulled itself free, shaking the rest of the pod off its body like an oversized dress. Bombi never would’ve guessed what she was looking at if she hadn’t seen Mink earlier.
This was another anytaur, but it was out of sorts. Where Mink had been a clear fusion of human and animal characteristics, this new one’s influences were split down the middle. One side of its face was like the frogs all about the lily pads, with a large orange eye and a wide mouth. The other side more closely resembled a salamander with dark skin and a vibrant crest.
Its body was similarly confused, with its human-like torso baring one webbed frog hand and one daintier salamander paw. Below that the conflict really came to a head, with the left side having the squat posture and limbs of a frog and the other the more serpentine and lay-about stance of the salamander.
Bombi could see it had great difficulty walking effectively, the frog half of its body always threatening to tip it on its side when it hopped forward and the other half unable to achieve the same elevation. It wobbled along like this for a moment, stretching and clearing the sleep from its eyes, when it noticed Chagrinn in front of it.
It seemed curious rather than hostile, moving towards him and craning the longer side of its neck down. It opened its mouth, Bombi assumed to speak, but that was when Chagrinn’s frame perfect trick triggered. The anytaur stepped over the crack in the stone and one of its bulbous frog toes slipped inside. The creature pitched forward, but not far enough to hit its head against the stone.
Its motion had hardly seemed natural up to that point, but it became mechanical and headache-inducing after its foot slipped into the crack. One moment its body was angled to the left and, only an eighth moment later, it angled to the right. Back and forth it flickered, its existence now just a candle flame in the wind.
“It’s done Bombi, you can come out now,” Chagrinn told her, his feet unlocking from their position. His apprentice emerged from behind the lily pad and went to his side. “Now he is ready to dispense the information we need.”
“What’s wrong with him? He’s not like the other anytaur; it looks like there’s one too many animals in the mix.”
“You’re exactly right. This anytaur was indecisive when it came to choosing an animal it would spend its life guarding. It was torn between the frogs and the salamanders and when its body metamorphosed it still had not reached its choice. One half of it fused to frog and one to salamander.”
“I thought you said anytaurs couldn’t run? Surely this corruption is some kind of exploit.”
“I can see why you’d think so, but no. This is simply a mistake of the world. Even without our interference its systems are imperfect. This anytaur, his name is Morphib by the way, was never supposed to happen, yet here he is.”
“And that horrible shuddering?”
“Now that was my doing. I positioned myself so that he would slip perfectly into the crack. The frog half of his mind is pulling right in order to recover from the fall and the salamander half is pulling left. That conflict has dislodged him from the world’s harmony. He is torn between two states and is thus in no state in particular. We’ve temporarily destroyed his sense of self, as long as he’s stuck in there. With that gone he can see far beyond the boundaries of his body and provide us with helpful information regarding our possible routes.” Bombi stared at the anytaur’s face as it flipped back and forth. She tried to read the expression in its eyes, but they seemed relatively blank. The tip of its tail vibrated and hummed violently.
“Morphib,” Chagrinn addressed, “please tell me how many runners are gathered for the confrontation with the Haunchlord.” The anytaur was silent for a moment, except for the humming of its tail.
“The Haunchlord is near,” Morphib said slowly.
“Yes, we know. How many runners are gathered?”
“There are figures invading his glade,” the anytaur croaked. “They number twenty-six.”
“Excellent. What are their names?”
“The pain… it is all about me. The left is pain. The right is pain. Release me, please.”
“In due time,” Chagrinn groaned. “Tell me their names.”
“Pirate Tessimus, Hartley Stomber, Gaseous Gebbert, Fleecer…” As Morphib recited the full list of names Bombi kept staring at his mismatched eyes. They were blank, and details were difficult to pin down thanks to the way his head flipped back and forth, but she did manage to recognize something in the creature’s expression. Uncertainty.
The mechanism for this torture isn’t physical, she realized. It’s indecision. He is trapped in the same force that freezes me to the ground when choice rears its unexpected head. When it strikes I am hit with bolts of fear. It’s because they crippled me back in the city. They took my choices away and my tolerance for them dropped to nothing. This creature suffers the way I do. He is trapped between choices. This is true torture.
“We should stop this,” she told Chagrinn. “He said he is in pain.”
“The pain of an NPC can’t be our concern,” he said with a wave of his hand. Morphib moaned, but the runner simply asked his next question, regarding the armaments of the listed runners.
“Pain is pain,” she countered, drawing closer to the anytaur. She reached down towards his foot in an attempt to pry it loose from the crack. Chagrinn grabbed her wrist and pulled it back. It didn’t hurt, his touch was full of finesse, but it was forceful nonetheless.
“Think before you interfere,” he warned. “Everything rides on our skill and speed Bombi. Should we handle our upcoming challenge well, we will need to return and get more information. You must not interrupt the trick. Besides, he’s a fence sitter. What good are creatures that can’t make their own decisions? They’re trapped by their own sense of possibility. It’s pathetic really.”
“I’ve felt almost nothing but that trap biting my shin since I met you,” she barked. “His mind is the same as yours and mine. It was simply the luck of birth.”
“It is not luck that freed me from the rules of this system,” he hissed. “I built this run. Hold your tongue. You can loose it again once we’re following your footprints. Come. The Haunchlord won’t wait for us.” He turned towards the wall and started to climb some of the roots and vines hanging from it. All Bombi had to do was ignore the humming suffering next to her. She could be back above the ground in minutes and on her way to the next encounter. Morphib would still be there though. They would come back and know he’d been there the entire time, split in two by the stress of existing.
There were many people in her life that could have freed her before Chagrinn. They could’ve seen the suffering of her soul, the fading of her fire with every splash of washtub water, and done something. Purchased her contract. Tempted her with a life of crime. Ripped away her jewelry and forced her to look upon the flowing blood the pieces had obscured. They hadn’t. It had taken a man who didn’t care at all to finally do something.
She could change that, but it meant sabotaging their run. She had no idea what it would mean for her, what she could lose. She started to feel Morphib’s anxiety once again. Her heart split and her throat tightened. She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.