Bombi finally pulled free of the paralysis. It was the extra glance at Twixit’s tortured unconscious face that did it. She didn’t want to cause pain. She wanted it to exist. She wanted others to feel it as she had, but Twixit’s suffering was different. It wasn’t the pain of draining hope, of a life of servitude. The pain had knocked her out, and there was no way to think about what she’d done if she wasn’t awake. The young runner grabbed the Win Stater by the shirt and, before Chagrinn could look down and yell at her to stop, wrenched the woman away from the stone.
Her corrupted arm emerged from the crevice. Its stretching stopped and reversed. If it made a sound at all in the process of retracting it was drowned out by Chagrinn’s startled grunting. His reflexes were more than admirable, as he managed to keep hold of it as it transitioned from rope back to arm. Her mentor wound up standing right next to them, holding Twixit’s elbow like he was gallantly escorting her to a fancy ball.
“Bombi, what’d you do?” he scolded. He waved Twixit’s flopping hand in her face before dropping it. The Win Stater stood, but she was somewhere between conscious and unconscious, head rolling around on her neck. “I told you we had a route! Now we have to pick a new way forward. All these precious seconds…”
“I couldn’t stand to see her like that,” was her only answer.
“Apparently not.” Chagrinn rubbed his chin and circled around the woman, scrutinizing her twisted form. “There has to be something we can do with such a strange specimen that doesn’t trigger your sympathies.” He gently grabbed the sides of her head and lifted it, encouraging the woman to focus her eyes. Twixit finally came to her senses and jumped backward.
“You pulled me out of there…” she said, pointing a curved finger at Bombi. “Why?”
“I don’t like pain that doesn’t serve a purpose,” the girl explained. “Wasted pain and wasted time are tighter siblings than Shook and Cain ever were. As a speed runner I despise them with my whole being.”
“Perhaps I’ve misjudged you,” the twisted woman said, her voice twanging like a tight laundry cord. “If you are truly an enemy to unnecessary pain, then you are a friend of mine… perhaps my first.” Twixit finally relaxed, the coils of her body loosening only slightly. She sniffled. “I haven’t known what to do with myself lately. I’m just trying to remember right from wrong, but like everything they’ve become so entangled.”
“Bombi freed you from your pain even though it was of no benefit to her,” Chagrinn offered, sensing an opportunity. “It’s not confusing. She is good. I admit I’m no saint, but Bombi? Why do you think a hollow shadow like myself keeps such a person around? She keeps me honest. You should do everything in your power to help her.”
Bombi was about to protest. For some reason she deeply objected to being called a good person. Perhaps it was because Chagrinn implied a personhood she’d never been allotted before. Even in their run she was little more than a student: a person-in-training. She never got to her protest, as Twixit enthusiastically agreed with Chagrinn. Yes, Bombi was good. That much was evident. The Win State wanted her to suffer while Bombi didn’t. It was a fact as straight as a metal bar for Twixit to hold onto, and there was time before her condition managed to twist it.
“What can I do to help you two?” the woman eventually asked. “I’m not a runner, but I’ve interfered with many.”
“Where are you currently based?” Chagrinn asked.
“There’s a Win State fort not far from here,” she answered. “It’s an old capitol building, from a city abandoned by trade. We found the leftovers from its civilization useful for security.”
“Leftovers? Do you mean… cut scenes?” the elder runner asked. Bombi had gotten used to his blank face enough to recognize his emotions. She saw that he practically licked his lips.
“Yes,” Twixit said. “How… how did you know I was going to say that? We have every entrance and exit covered by cut scene triggers. There’s only one manner in which people can enter or leave. That fort has never been breached thanks to it.”
“I’m sorry,” Bombi interrupted, “but what is a cut scene?”
“Depending on how wealthy your owners were, you might have experienced a few of them,” Chagrinn told her. “You wouldn’t have recognized them at the time, not without any running experience. It would’ve just felt like your body was running on its own for a little while, taking care of a few things while your mind wandered.”
“A cut scene is an event that can happen only one way,” Twixit elaborated. “They are cut and dry, hence the name. They are fixed points in the lands of Shook and Cain, even more so than landmarks. Our fort, as it used to be home to important decisions, is full of them. People only ever entered calmly and peacefully, so our prisoners are forced to do the same.”
“Yes, even I can’t break free of a cut scene,” Chagrinn noted. “You just have to ride them out. You on the other hand Bombi… you I’m not so sure about. We should go to this fort immediately. Sister Twixit, lead the way.” The woman nodded and turned, giving them a good look at her ear, twisted into a tight spiral like a wrung sock. Bombi didn’t know how long the walk would take, so she asked her questions as swiftly as she could. She stopped herself from using the word ‘wait’. She wanted information, but slowing down to get it was no help. Better to strike the word from her vocabulary.
“Wa… What are you not sure about Chagrinn?” she asked.
“There were a few reasons you seemed like a viable candidate for an apprentice,” he answered, “and this was one of them. You’ve demonstrated a willingness to split from your path, so you’re not as useless as an NPC, but your lowly station still gives you the aura of one. You were forced to engage in your owners’ cut scenes, but out here I doubt that will be the case. You’re not a lawmaker, you’re not a Win Stater, and you’re not a captured runner, at least not much of one. I think you might be able to move while the rest of us are trapped in cut scenes.”
“And if I can?”
“It’s a Win State fort; I’m sure we’ll find something we can use. While everyone is trapped in formality, you can ransack the place and escape. Twixit and I will follow shortly after to see what you’ve recovered. Yes, that’s definitely a plan.”
“I have no idea what to look for!” Bombi protested.
“Just head to the second floor,” Twixit told her. “That’s where all the contraband is.”
“Details, perhaps?” she begged them. Sure, I’ve stolen before, but only things I was intimately familiar with. Silverware I’d washed a thousand times. Jewelry I’d polished until I could see my aging in them. Things that were practically mine already.
“The Win State misses most objects of importance,” Chagrinn said, “because they still miss the point of speed running. They go after the shiny things, the heavy things, because they look important, but they’re still using the regular standard. Many powerful things look like beige background nothingness. Just take whatever they put on shelves or in boxes; you’re bound to get something.”
“We’re here!” Twixit hissed as she pulled them behind a bank of bushes. Ahead of them was a stone wall. People could be heard off to the side, milling about near the fort’s entrance. The runners and their informant leaned out to see. There were thirty or so people, all in various levels of Win State regalia, walking and talking in circles. Those closest to the large doors seemed almost nervous, as if it would hurt to pass over the threshold into their own facility.
“We never get used to cut scenes,” Twixit explained. “It’s like pulling out hair. I imagine they’ve got to convene inside sometime soon, but they’re waiting for someone to stick the first toe in.” At the sound of rope tightening, Twixit and Bombi turned to look at Chagrinn. He was busy tying a knot around his own wrists and pulling it tight with his teeth. He grabbed a second piece from his bag and ordered Bombi forward so he could bind hers together.
“Twixit, you’ll take us in as prisoners. We’ll leave our supplies here for after the escape. Wait for the cut scene to activate Bombi. That’s your cue to run and grab some goodies. You should be the only one able to move. How long do these scenes usually last?” he asked the twisted woman.
“I think it depends on the rank of those who usher us in,” she answered, “but it’s usually two to four minutes.”
“Good, time enough for her to thieve but not be relaxed about it.” He pulled the knot tight around Bombi’s wrists. “Bombi, just grab this strand here with your teeth once the cut scene starts. One pull will make the rope fall off.” His apprentice nodded. “Now we just wait for these slowpokes.” They stayed crouched behind the bushes for several minutes, waiting for the Win State to stop dreading its own convening.
Eventually a woman with a steel staff and eyebrows that appeared to be steel jewelry rather than hair made her way inside. Ten of her underlings immediately followed. The process of getting them all inside ended up taking more than half an hour. Every other person through the door prompted a complaint from Chagrinn. It was no wonder the Win State could never keep up, since it took them a lunch break just to enter a building.
When there were just two guards left around the doors, Twixit took the runners by their ropes and led them out of the bushes. She stopped and saluted the guards, who saluted back. They didn’t even bother to look at the prisoners’ faces, confident as they were in the power of the cut scenes.
“How are the scenes today?” Twixit asked them.
“Slow and stiff,” one of them answered. “We’ve got Champion Iuda running things today. You know what a stickler she is.” Twixit agreed with a chuckle. To her credit, she didn’t look back at the runners once. She just tugged on their ropes and pulled them through the doors as the guards opened them.
“Halt, who are these prisoners?” another Win Stater asked after stopping them. Bombi tried to look around, to take in their decorations, but she could not move her head. Her eyes wouldn’t move in their sockets either. Was something wrong? She threw her soul up against the left side of her body, but she didn’t budge. She was trapped in the cut scene just like the others. She tried to sense whether or not her fellows panicked, but she couldn’t sense anything either. She could hear, she could see, but there were none of the tingles of actual sensation, like being a tiny wooden puppet on a paper stage.
“Just some speed runner scum I scraped off my boot. Scurried right under me,” Twixit boasted. It was her voice, but not her accent or speech pattern. It must have been part of the scene. “I wanted to drop them here, let them languish in crashed cells. I’ll be watching them go mad tonight if you get bored.”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” the guard answered stiffly, waving them forward. Twixit, against her own will, dragged them down a long hallway with blue carpet and many framed maps upon the wall. Bombi couldn’t identify the places on any of them, as her body now flailed the way a reluctant prisoner’s would. Her head shook back and forth as she hunched over and stumbled along. So strange! This is supposed to be dramatic, but I don’t feel any of it. It’s so staged. Nobody seems to be breathing or sweating. Stay focused. I have to move the second I am free. The plan didn’t work, so Chagrinn will probably leap out a window as soon as the scene’s over!
They approached the end of the hall, where a doorway stood. Technically there were two doorways, one removed from its original wall, sided with a silver frame, and leaned up against the one that actually belonged in the hall. There were more Win Staters on the other side, waving them through.
They were utterly helpless in their progress until three feet from the two doorways. The cut scene dropped them suddenly. It was like reins thrown into their hands, and its arrival was so surprising that Bombi nearly fell over. In the short time the world had a varnished grip on her she’d nearly forgotten how to walk. The trio felt as if they had surfaced from between the pages of an ancient boring book, but only long enough for one gulp of fresh air.
Momentum carried them through the leaning frame and into a second cut scene. The guards took Chagrinn by his bindings and pulled him away from Twixit. Another one grabbed at thin air, pulling that air in the same direction. Bombi stood off to one side. He’s supposed to be dragging me, she realized with a start. It worked this time! I’ve slipped out of this scene! Her companions couldn’t look back; they couldn’t yell at her for wasting her time, but they certainly would have.
Twixit had guessed two to four minutes, so Bombi counted the seconds out loud as she ran from the guards, searching the corridors for any stairs leading up. Every time she passed one of the blue uniforms she expected them to lunge at her, or for their eyes to fill with shock or anger, but none of them could resist enough to even acknowledge her presence. She blew past them all until she found the stairs. Seven more seconds to get up them. Nine more to find an unlocked door.
That old uncertainty struck her again. What to steal? One tug with her teeth freed her hands from their bindings. She ripped a banner from the wall and used ten of her precious seconds to tie its corners up and make a rudimentary bag. She swept items off the shelves and into it as a Win Stater sat at the one desk in the room and played with a set of colorful wooden tops. She never looked up at the flustered runner, even as all her decorations clattered into the bag.
Bombi wasted twenty seconds trying a few other doors, only to find them locked. I’m a speed runner… a locked door is supposed to be nothing! I have a tool now! Bombi crouched, spun, and performed the stuttering back-dash. Her body flickered as she broke straight through the nearest locked door. Its splintered pieces were supposed to be closed during the cut scene, so they acted very strangely upon contact with the floor. The slivers of wood shuddered and twitched, sinking in and out of the floor, occasionally popping out of existence.
She stepped over them delicately, a splinter in her flesh that only existed half the time certainly seemed like something to avoid, and made her way deeper into the room. This was no storehouse of contraband. It was clearly the quarters of whoever in the fort had the highest rank. Banners covered every window in the Win State emblem: a woman with a chain halo. At the far end of the chamber, past two rows of writing desks stacked with papers, medallions, and wax seals, stood a large piece of furniture that was both throne and curved desk.
Bombi slid between Win Staters as the cut scene moved them about the desk, made them hand off papers, shout the dramatic stakes of a situation miles away, and stare, flabbergasted, at the decisions of the woman in the throne. They weren’t her decisions of course. It was all the cut scene.
Her time ran short. The count had gotten away from her as she stared at the surrounding faces. She had been aware of everything happening during the cut scene. Surely these people were as well. Their rage against her built just under the surface, just past their eyes like glass. If it ended while she stood there she might be dead in moments. There were knives in belts, muscles already trying to pull their owners towards her, and that shining heavy staff to consider.
The woman with the steel eyebrows sat in the throne, making her decrees. Her grip on the staff looked like the roots of a tree grown around a stone. Bombi ducked under her intense stare, she guessed this woman was the Champion Iuda the guard mentioned, and pored over the papers and instruments across the desk for anything important.
A few of her fingernails raked across the wood of the desk, giving her pause. A rat. She sounded just like the scrambling of the rats in the wall, back in the palatial city. She was so used to that sound, sleeping as she did in the cellar. Even now, even squeezing between the cracks of reality, she felt lesser. She felt like vermin. It was still sneaking, still pretending there was something shameful about her existence, about her search for something greater, or at least warmer, than misery and servitude.
Time is short. I can feel it now. The air is anxious, because in just a moment it will be back to the chaos of unexpected breath, of turning heads and liquid thoughts. I don’t even have time to run now. That doesn’t matter. I don’t want to leave with a bag of tricks, more ways to hide and run. I might be a rat, you might own this house, but you’re asleep and I’m perched over your warm quivering throat. I know there’s rushing blood just under the surface.
Iuda’s eyes were a harsh blue, like an expanse of ice free of cracks. She saw striations: lines of stress that never actually fractured. Bombi could make them break. Her defenses were down, trapped as she was inside one of them. It only took a moment, one and a half seconds, for the runner to convince herself that something had to be done.
Iuda led the Win State, at least as much of it that was in the building. She pushed to have speed runners stopped, jailed, or killed. She, by her very uniform, lectured Bombi on her place. A cellar. Hands pruned by washing wealthier thighs that could barely be bothered to lift themselves out of the tub. A dead uncle in a wooden box, fed to giant salty worms. Yes, Iuda deserved to fall, but how to do it?
She could push the woman out of the way, use the back-dash to knock her off the throne and take her place in the cut scene. Would that make me her? Would I take command of the Win State? If I do she will likely die as the splinters of her door did: convulsing on the floor. Alternatively she could simply destroy everything. She could dash and break the desk. She could break Iuda and the people around her. The substance of the cut scene might crumple like paper. With no way to properly end, no people to react to the dramatic revelations of the scene, the fort might be destroyed. That part of the Win State might be forever dead.
There was no time. Iuda looked resolute, ready to get on with her day and life. The powerful moment was ending. Bombi squeezed the papers in her hand, bending further and further over the desk. Now or never. She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.