‘Pen Destroyed’ Stratagem
Timorrow was the only one who wanted her to have a real life. This new man, Chagrinn the speed runner, insisted there were no real lives to be had. Logically, the realest one of all would be the one with the most defiance, the one that cursed the sky as well as the ground, the one that cursed parents as well as children.
That’s speed running then, she thought. I honor him by learning it. If he had known he would’ve been a runner. It’s a pen versus potential. Simple. It didn’t feel so simple when Bombi returned to the edge of the Gone Basin and held the tool out over its swirling darkness.
“Time is everything Bombi,” Chagrinn chided her. He was disappearing into the crowd of strange figures. She decided forcing the decision was his version of kindness. She could torture herself over it for months otherwise. She loosened her fingers. The pen dropped from her hand and sank without a splash into the Basin. Gone in an instant. As she hoped, there was no time to grieve; she had to run and push to catch up to the newer freer hope in her life.
Once she was next to him, Chagrinn turned and examined her up and down. His eyes narrowed. He pushed a bag into her hands and told her to carry it. They pushed their way through the crowd and away from the Gone Basin.
“With your addition calculated in, I’ve decided we should take the Anytaur Forest route. The strats required there should be simple enough for you to handle,” Chagrinn said.
“What’s a strat?” Bombi asked, somehow unable to slide through people without bumping into their shoulders the way he did. The bag over her shoulder was full to bursting, yet light as a pillow. He took her up another set of stairs to a crevice in the stone smaller than a closet. They both squeezed into it. Chagrinn rolled his eyes, grabbed her shirt, and pulled her closer. The stone wall scratched her arm but she said nothing. She felt his breath on her teeth, but couldn’t smell anything on him, as if there was nothing inside him but shadow and condensation.
“Strat is short for stratagem,” he said. “If you want to keep up you’ll have to learn the words. Routes are the paths we take, as cut by runners before. Strats are the actions we take to save time or skip huge tracts of Shook and Cain land. PB is short for personal best, referring to the shortest life you’ve achieved before returning to the track of your birth. WR is world record: the current fastest time. Beating that is always our goal. Do you understand all this?”
“Yes,” Bombi muttered. Squished between Chagrinn and the walls, she was running out of breath. Chagrinn smirked, seeming to recall a discomfort in his own past.
“I forgot to mention exploits,” he said, staring at the crack above them. “The tracks of our lives are far from perfectly built. They’re full of holes, cracks, and thin spots. These are our ways in and out and we call them exploits. For example, the lumbering drooling idiot that is the world above knows I’m supposed to be in a specific place right about now. Standing here we are just high enough for it to detect me. It will do its best to pull me back to my track in three, two, one…”
They were sucked up into the crack, their very being stretched by the grinding of Shook and Cain’s gears. The use of the egg had been strange, but not painful; this was different. Her muscles felt too stretched to even tense. Her hands and feet seemed to be a hundred feet beneath her as her skull softened and flattened so it could be pulled through. Her thoughts were compressed into nothing but shards of agonized light.
Such pain would kill them normally, but the world was trying to correct what they had set askew. It knew only that they were supposed to be alive and in specific positions above ground. No matter what it did to correct them, no matter how much they were stretched, twisted, or knotted, they would not die, even if they wished it.
When she could stand it no longer the world spat them out in the midst of thick shrubs. A thorn snagged one of Bombi’s nostrils, right in one of her piercings, and pulled blood. Stiffened by their travel through the ground, it took her a moment to reach up and remove it. Chagrinn took her by the wrist and pulled her in just the right way, moving them out into leaf litter without losing any more blood to the thorns.
Bombi did not immediately realize the nature of the forest they now stood in; she was too busy feeling her piercings with her smooth new fingertips. The fresh air kissed the holes in her skin and made them tingle. She felt as if wind could run through them and pick her up off her feet like a scrap of cloth. Chagrinn pulled her deeper into the trees, where the sounds of the forest were enough to draw her attention.
It turned out there were at least two degrees of forestation in the Lands of Shook and Cain. She had only ever seen one: groves of trees populated by squirrels, rabbits, and the occasional honey glutton bear sleeping off the sweetness in a hollow. This forest was of the second degree: denser, darker, lusher, more rife with hidden toxins, and populated by intelligent things hiding in shade as if it were shadow.
Fleshy colorful flowers the size of teapots hung about, smelling rich and dangerous. They sprayed glittering pollen intermittently that seemed to vanish before it hit the ground, despite the total lack of a breeze. Fat snakes hung over tree branches like wet socks, staring at the people as they passed without a hint of concern. Their tongues flicked in their direction, moving up and down, almost lazy in their slowness. Gliding things broke out of their camouflage and grabbed rotund fruits just as they snapped their stems and fell.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“The Anytaur Forest. What matters to us though is the invisible path we’re following: the Anytaur Forest route. It will take us to an opportunity that can accelerate our running greatly.”
“What’s an anytaur? Any of these nameless creatures could be one as far as I know,” she admitted. “I was never allowed to learn about animals beyond how to brush them or gut them.”
“An anytaur is not an animal,” Chagrinn explained as he callously smacked a viper with the back of his hand and sent it flying off to the side. “It is a sentient NPC creature. It starts life like something between a ghost and a serpent. When it matures it chooses a creature to protect, a purpose in life, and models its body after that creature. This is their forest because there is much life to protect here.”
“That sounds like the sort of twisted creature that lives in Cain,” she said absent-mindedly, reaching out to test her smooth fingers on tree bark.
“We are in Cain,” he confirmed. She pulled her hand back. Most of what her employers and family told her was a lie, but she rarely doubted what they said about Cain because they never went there themselves. It was the land of wild men and of creatures that could only exist as bones in Shook. “It’s time to get over your old fears Bombi. Cain does not matter. The Anytaur Forest does not matter. We only care about traversal.”
“We cannot traverse if we are devoured by monsters.”
“None of it is natural Bombi,” he declared. He picked up speed, forcing her to get over her apprehension. He raced through a mud puddle gracefully, but somehow Bombi’s footfalls produced messy splashes. “Stop worrying about these solid illusions. Real meaning is somewhere past the artistry.”
He stopped suddenly. Bombi smacked into his back and stumbled away. He took a deep breath and let it out through flared nostrils, and then he muttered something about missteps. He backed up, face contorting in distress as he did so, to one of the trees they’d passed. He laid a palm flat on its bark and counted, under his breath, to twelve. Then he pulled a dagger from his overstuffed bag and carved two sets of initials into the tree: CR & ZO.
“Are you the CR?” Bombi asked. Chagrinn stowed the dagger away and resumed their path, his feet fitting perfectly into the muddy depressions he’d left the first time. He only answered half a minute later when the tree was gone from sight and his apprentice couldn’t see his face.
“I am none of the things that I am required to do. I am only a speed runner. Unfortunately, that sometimes means I have to pretend to be the man the world wants. I have to go through the motions so it doesn’t realize what we’re doing and send me back to the beginning. The man the world wants fancies himself an adventurer and a fantastic lover. I am neither of those things, so I sometimes forget those initials need to be carved to complete this section of my life.”
“Who is ZO?”
“All your questions are so wrong Bombi. She’s nobody. Probably an NPC anyway. You should be asking about the consequences of missing triggers like that. They can be dire. Sudden aging or mummification. Complete run neutralization. Real disasters. I lost a very solid run once when I forgot those initials. Years of work out with the wash-water.”
“We are running your life? Would mine be faster?”
“I doubt it. You were a slave. Generally that means you won’t get to go anywhere in your life. Fewer locations means fewer opportunities to find exploits. Homebodies make for terrible runners. You’re better off sticking with me.”
“The man you’re supposed to be sounds fascinating. Why abandon that life?”
“For one thing I already know how it ends. If he’s so fantastic then tell me, why does he take his own life?” It was obvious to both of them that Bombi could have nothing to say in response, but she wasn’t ready to resign herself to silence. The jungle itself teemed with sound: peeping frogs and mud newts, tittering birds, and rattling insects. She had every right to speak as well.
“I’m not that dense,” she started. “I see this subject makes you uncomfortable. We’ll stick to speed running lessons then. You keep saying NPC. What does that mean?”
“It’s an acronym. We runners love our acronyms. Seriously, we practically romance them. It cuts communication time so it is our language of love. I wish you were more experienced. We could’ve finished this conversation back in the basin in a few seconds and only half the alphabet.”
“What does it mean?”
“It’s shorthand for no-problem commoner. NPCs are beings too ingrained in their intended tracks to break free. They cannot be speed runners. Most of them will not even notice when a runner breaks sequence. We could walk into an NPC-owned bakery literally on fire, sporting three heads, and being chased by a spectral desynced crocodilian, and the first thing they said would still be the price of a warm vanilla roll.”
“That sounds like my parents,” Bombi mused. “Every situation was to be treated like a perfect place setting, even if nobody sat there. Work orders are peace, even when it means nonsense.”
“Your parents might be NPCs,” he suggested. “As far as we can tell it has nothing to do with heritage. It’s a spark. That’s how we know there’s something beyond the Lands of Shook and Cain, because that spark of clarity has to come from somewhere.”
“You said the anytaurs were NPCs? All of them? There’s never been a runner among them?”
“I’m afraid not. They’re not the only ones. Shook and Cain has a handful of races with their own histories and cultures, but only humans can see the cracks. The anytaurs are just as blind to it as the tinkertrees and the cloudfeet.”
“Have you tried telling them about it?”
“Of course we have. If they respond at all they simply say they do not speak your language. They are too tied to the world. Their imaginations shot off in the wrong directions. They don’t ask why things are as they are. The anytaurs simply ask nature how they can serve. The tinkertrees ask how they can rearrange resources rather than reality, all in their desires to make artificial light and measuring devices. The cloudfeet simply ask how to become happier, and their answer is to always lie back in the clouds and stare at more clouds.”
“What are we here for?” she finally asked. She knew the intended Chagrinn was an adventurer, but not why a speed runner would take this path. Chagrinn waved her closer with a hand and helped her through a bush as tall as a tree. On the other side of its leaves they found a tree growing out of the remains of another’s stump. All that remained of the stump was its rim; the interior had decayed away and been replaced by a plush cushion of dark moss. A creature rested atop that moss, body curled up by the shape of the stump. Bombi assumed it had to be an anytaur.
The two runners stepped up to it. The creature eyed Chagrinn warily, but paid no attention to Bombi. It did not get up, but its unusual anatomy meant it was already capable of interacting with Chagrinn. The anytaur had a head and torso like a woman’s in shape, but below the waist she had the body of a silvery weasel. Her eyes were large and strange, but the rest of her face was filled by other features of her chosen animal; she had white whiskers, a twitching pink nose, and small round ears full of soft fur. She cradled something in her hands.
“Are you Mink?” Chagrinn asked the anytaur.
“I am. How do you know my name? What is a human doing so deep in our lands?
“All I had to do was trigger the conversation,” Chagrinn said to Bombi. “Nothing I say from this point on matters. She’ll just keep going.”
“I do not believe you human. You are not creatures of love; you are creatures of lust. You cannot love your woman as I love the trees, the rodents, and those that scuttle underneath the heavy shade of stones,” Mink said. She rose on her four paws and circled behind the stump to put some distance between them. Chagrinn did not approach, but she recoiled as if he had.
“You see? Nothing I say matters. She hears and sees only what the world intends her to. I could say that I’m a giant piping hot bowl of soup come to steal all her mushrooms and she wouldn’t flinch.”
“I would never give you such a gift. What reason would I have to? For all I know you’re after my pelt. I’m well aware that we make fine coats, as even off our bodies the seasons change our fur from gray, to red, to white,” Mink said.
“This is where the intended me really works his mind. He comes up with something poetic, convincing, and heartbreaking. He shows genuine emotion and sheds more tears than he has at any other time in his life. More tears than when he eventually plunges a blade into his own heart.”
“You’ve come all this way to say that? With no assured hope of my consent?” Mink continued. She looked at the item in her hand and stroked it once. “Very well human. This is a seed of Cain. A delinquent pod from the traveling tree. Be mindful of its power; it could overwhelm Shook if you leave it there and neglect it.”
“This is why we’re here Bombi,” Chagrinn finally explained. He moved to the side of Mink’s awkwardly outstretched hand. She was trying to give it to someone who was simply out of position. He waved his apprentice over for a closer look. Bombi was wary of approaching the beast, but Mink had not spared a glance for her yet. She assumed this meant she was invisible to the anytaur.
Her paw held a flower half-bloomed amidst a cluster of leaves. Its petals were yellowish-white, streaked with red, and luminous. A tiny vine grew out of its base and wrapped around Mink’s ring finger five times to stabilize it. Its petals opened and closed weakly like the breath of a sleeping child.
“What is it?” Bombi whispered, afraid her normal voice would cause it to wilt.
“It’s Mink’s bloom. Very magical in the terms of the regular world. We’re only interested in its idiosyncrasy. That right there.” He pointed to the tiny vine around Mink’s finger.
“What’s so special about that piece?”
“It enables an exploit.” Chagrinn positioned his bag directly under Mink’s outstretched hand. She still had not responded. Apparently she could not move from that spot, look away, or think until Chagrinn took the bloom from her. He pulled the mouth of the bag open and told Bombi to hold it that way. Then he positioned his hands very close to the bloom, like he was warming them near a campfire. “The bloom needs someone to cling to as a source of nourishment, the same way a tree takes nourishment from the soil via roots.” He stopped and looked over his shoulder.
“Nothing. I just needed to check. There was a seven hundredths chance that another anytaur, one very capable in battle and very defensive of Mink, would come out from behind us and attack just now.”
“A chance?” Bombi asked, aghast at the thought that odds could be applied to monsters. Even if they can, why would anyone want to know? If the chance is ever higher than zero it’s just constant worrying! She checked the bushes herself just to make sure.
“Yes, it’s an unavoidable RNG risk. The world has some flexibility in its outcomes, and it never ceases being the hottest thorn in our paws. RNG stands for random nuisance generation by the way. You attacking me on the docks was an apt example of it in full swing. Stop staring, look at the flower.”
“Right. The bloom. It needs to cling to someone?”
“Yes. It wraps around any finger close enough, but the world never anticipated what might happen if it was wrapped around two fingers simultaneously.”
“What might happen?”
“Duplication Bombi. One of the most versatile techniques available to us. If it is wrapped around two fingers the world will think there are two blooms. Then there will be two blooms. Then more. We can make an infinite number. We could drown in them if we’re not careful.”
“What good are infinite flowers? Do we have to present a forest of a bouquet in order to get the world record?”
“The flower is largely useless. We’ll need to transfer the effect to one of us permanently by clipping the vine while it’s active. Then we can duplicate whatever items we wish: gold, weapons, clothes, gems… Hold out your hand.” Bombi let one side of the bag’s mouth droop and presented her palm. Chagrinn expertly, gingerly, pinched the twirls of the vine and unraveled it from Mink’s finger. He tore the bloom from its vine and let it drop into the bag. Bombi stuck her hand closer, but he didn’t touch it to her just yet.
“Shouldn’t we hurry?” she asked nervously. In her mind the seven hundredths chance of an ambush had already doubled to fourteen.
“Don’t lecture me on hurrying. You have to make a choice first. Even though we humans have the ability to speed run, we’re not built for it. Integrating an exploit into your body strains it. This is your first run, so you’ll only likely be able to handle one. I’ll leave it up to you to choose, as they both offer us numerous strategies. You can take this bloom and learn item duplication, or you can wait and I can teach you the stuttering back-dash a little further down the line.”
“What’s a stuttering back-dash?” she asked. I doubt anything that stutters is better than an infinite supply of gold or pastries.
“It’s a movement technique. You mimic your body’s position during its moments of greatest acceleration and then repeat them, stacking the speed until you’re moving a hundred times faster than normal. The only problem is that you have to face backwards the entire time.”
“But… why did we come here if I don’t need to learn duplication?”
“My body is more acclimated to the exploits,” Chagrinn elaborated. “If you don’t want duplication I can learn it. It will be necessary to finish most branches of this route. So what do you say?”
Bombi had to think hard because she knew she didn’t have long. The impatient Chagrinn would only give her seconds before he started badgering. Infinite items means I can have whatever I want in whatever amount I want. I could give up speed running. I could steal bread and cheese, hole up in a closet somewhere, and eat all the food I was denied until my shape conformed perfectly to the closet’s.
I could duplicate gold coins and buy my family’s contracts. That might get noticed though. Counterfeiting is a real crime; they won’t need to suspect me of speed running at all. On the other hand I could become fast enough to outrun every problem. I could do it backwards and watch their angry faces shrink into the distance. Either way, I will no longer be a servant. I will have an ability, something to leverage, something to wager on. I don’t even have the power yet but I can already feel it in my fingers and cheeks. It’s a rush. My heart’s racing.
Despite every pressure to make a choice, she couldn’t manage to tip herself in either direction. Once again there were two vastly different lives before her: a fountain of wealth and luxury or the freedom of the world’s fastest slipperiest creatures. She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.