If she didn’t learn to go faster she would always be baggage to Chagrinn. She was a paperweight or a coatrack, something to hold down switches or hold onto items so the real speed runner would have his hands free. The stuttering back-dash meant she could keep up with him.
Her mind was made up already, but she became all the more determined when she realized she could count all the times she’d been allowed to run on both her hands, with a finger to spare. Even out by the stables, in the grass, she had been scolded for running and playing a game with her uncle. Only the horses were allowed to run there.
“I want the stuttering back-dash,” she told him resolutely, and was glad he did not mock her choice in any way. His hands moved swiftly, duplicating the vine of Mink’s bloom as it tried to stay on its owner’s finger. It turned into a green ring with two tiny leaves as it tightened around one of his fingers. A moment later he was ready to move on, their bag tossed over his shoulder. The event was over; Mink 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.
Bombi watched the creature leave, but when she turned back to Chagrinn she saw something stunning: a tear in the corner of his eye. A quiver to his lip. She knew he was capable of anger, frustration, and pride, but sadness…
“What are you… doing?” she asked.
“We have to leave this forest,” he said with a sniffle. He dropped to his knees as if giving up on life and then flopped forward, cheek pressing into the soil. The tear ran down his face and he got to work scrunching his brow to produce another. “Come down here with me.” Bombi did as she was told, lying a foot away from him and staring into his eyes. Even though he cried they were still clear as a wine glass, untouched by a drop of red yet.
“Is this another trick like back at the docks?” she asked. “Do you have another of those nasty eggs?”
“This will be just as fast,” he moaned. “The catalyst this time is not an object, but an emotional state. I’m only supposed to feel sorrow like this at one point in my life. I feel it in a place that is perfect for learning physical exploits. I’m taking you there so you’ll have some room to practice.” He moaned again, as if someone released a basket of hairy spiders onto his bare back.
“We’re not moving,” Bombi said as her eyes darted about.
“I’m not quite sad enough yet. I have to tell you about what made me that sad. I have to say it to feel it. So just listen.” Bombi pursed her lips. Somehow he had turned his past into a toolbox. Whatever trauma he’d suffered was now just something he could pull out, a wet cold wrench, whenever he needed it.
“I was out playing with my sister,” he began, “when we found our cave, collapsed. That was our secret spot, where we could always go to escape our parents and the oak rod they liked to share with our backs and shoulders. That cave, nothing more than a dark crevice with soft dirt, was a pause in our lives themselves. We never tested it, but we knew if we were to take a clock there it would stop ticking just past the threshold.
We couldn’t get hurt when we were in there. All we had in its darkness was the hurt we brought with us. My sister, her name was Nicety, made the mistake of telling another boy our age about it. She had sympathy for him; she thought his bruises looked like ours.
I think he went there once by himself. Tried it. Felt the stillness of its pause. The next time we saw him he screamed at us for ‘tricking’ him into it. He called it witchcraft. When we returned to the cave we found it destroyed. He must have pushed with all his might to destabilize the stones above it. There wasn’t enough room for us to sneak in, but we could fit an arm into the crack that was left. We tried, in vain, to squeeze our chests in. All we needed was to get our hearts in there! Give them a rest so they could grow back their innocence…”
Chagrinn’s sobbing became violent. His fists pounded against the soil fast enough to send loose leaves spinning about him. Grasshoppers leapt away. The tears poured, but his eyes were still like glass. He had felt these things once, but now he just wrapped them around his head like a thin scarf. The real Chagrinn was somewhere deeper, calculating things, not even looking over his shoulder at the bawling flailing thing that was his body.
“How long must this go on?” Bombi asked. This is uncomfortable. My instincts tell me to console him, to reach out, but I know it’s all false. He’s not even trying to get sympathy; he’s simply looking for an opportunity… dripping water on a paper until he finds a spot that will rip.
“It’s already over,” Chagrinn said, his face and voice clearing. He sprang back to his feet. Confused, Bombi angled her eyes down. It was different dirt. The moss and leaf litter of the Anytaur Forest had been replaced by something thinner, dryer, and yellower. She got to her feet as well, albeit slower. There were boulders all about them, with only two visible saplings growing out of their cracks.
The most notable feature was a crack in one of the walls of rock, buried in a pile of stones and dirt. Chagrinn had tricked the world into taking them there because it thought he felt the pain of that cave closing. This was a piece of his childhood, his real childhood, before speed running streamlined his soul. Surely there are other open spaces where I could have learned this trick. Perhaps he wanted to return here. Perhaps he wanted somebody to see it.
He grabbed one of her elbows and pulled her to the middle of the space. He told her to watch. Then he proceeded to turn away from her, bend his shoulders and back, tilt them, and… Bombi didn’t know what to call it until she remembered they were there to learn it: the stuttering back-dash. Chagrinn moved with incredible speed, vibrating his feet more than picking them up. He ran circles around her, still backward and hunched, before speeding over to the rock walls and dashing across their surfaces. He never looked close to falling. The maneuver was so fast that it allowed him to temporarily defy gravity.
“Are you not dizzy?” she called out to him. He came to a sudden halt atop one of the rocks and stared down at her with his arms crossed.
“I am not. I can’t really feel dizziness anymore, but even if I could I wouldn’t feel it during the stuttering back-dash. The Lands of Shook and Cain don’t even register it as an occurrence. Since they don’t, there’s no associated feeling. Once your body has adjusted to the nature of exploits you can perform it endlessly. You’ll only have to stop when the natural fatigue of sprinting hits. Or the need for food or sleep.”
“You do still need those things don’t you?” she asked with a slight grin.
“Sometimes I don’t,” he answered, demolishing her joke. “With the right skips you can simply find yourself in a time where you felt full, whether or not you’ve consumed anything. In fact, now that we’re here I can feel my mother’s rabbit stew in my stomach, warming me. There’s a greasy sheen on my palette.” He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
I’ve never been here before, so no meal for me. Is there a meal anywhere in my life that left me feeling full? No. I have only empty growling moments to leap to. Truly, no stone is solid in the boiling lake of my life.
Chagrinn hopped down and approached. Now that she had seen his demonstration, it was time to learn. She stood as still as possible while he manually adjusted her posture, bending her spine to the precise angle, angling her head and shoulders, and even lifting one of her heels off the ground and measuring its distance with three of his fingers. He ordered her to hold that position.
“I can’t stay this way,” she complained. “It’s painful.”
“You can remove the pain by performing the technique,” he offered. “You are not going to be running, dashing, jogging, or sprinting. This is not acrobatics; it’s an exploit. You need to do what seems most counterintuitive. Now, jump backward but think about going forward. That’s what you’re trying to do. You’re moving forward and the only way to achieve that is a leap backward. Now do it.”
Bombi hopped a few inches back. She didn’t feel faster. Chagrinn moved in and adjusted her heel and neck once more. She made her second attempt and again experienced nothing. Another adjustment. Another attempt. Nothing. On her fourth try, at the height of her jump, she was suddenly flung into the air, at which point she lost all composure and flailed wildly until colliding with the ground.
“You could’ve caught me,” she complained, spitting out some dirt.
“It is a terrible idea to touch someone inexperienced while they are attempting exploits,” he said, strolling around her. He picked up a stone from the landslide around his childhood cave and tossed it in the air a few times. “There’s always a tiny chance the world will interpret your movements chaotically and you will be stretched off to a far corner, not necessarily one that is in sight. That’s one reason we’re here. Very few corners to get stuck on.” He ran his other hand across the smooth stone walls.
“At least tell me what I’m doing wrong.”
“You’re doing nothing wrong. Speed running takes many failed attempts. I’d actually be extremely suspicious of you if you got it on your first attempt. If you did you would have a natural aptitude for running exceeding my own, in which case I wouldn’t want to groom you into competition. As it stands, you’re proving helpfully average. Keep it up. Perhaps after the back-dash I’ll show you how to do this one.”
Chagrinn curled his hand around the flat stone and whipped it toward the ground. It skipped in the dirt as if across water, stopped after eight, and then skipped in reverse until it returned to his hand. He flashed a smile and told her to try again.
Bombi recreated the pose from memory this time, and earned a nod instead of an adjustment. I thought too much about the jump. I was thinking forward enough, but I was also thinking too high. I’m not jumping. I’m running forward, but backwards. Backwards is merely a detail. Forwards. Forwards. No matter which way I face I’m always going forward, because to slow down for even one moment is to let the grasping hands of contract and context catch up.
Bombi took a step forward… by hopping backward. Her body spun in a dizzying circle, almost on its own, and she straightened her feet before the force caused her to vomit. She couldn’t see where she was going, so she tilted her head a little more to look under one of her arms. The wall was right there, ready to stop her forward momentum by colliding with her back. She moved her feet again. The wall bounced up and down in her vision as her body shook, but she avoided it and continued to back-dash around the edge of the boulders.
It was working. Even as the shaking of her head, shoulders, and hips worsened, her speed increased. Faster and faster she went around the circumference of their training ground, eventually whistling by Chagrinn. Running in circles wasn’t good enough though; obviously that would never get her anywhere. Bombi darted across the middle, twisted, and then moved back in an undulating pattern, to test her precision.
When she reached what she simply knew was her top speed, it was almost impossible to see due to the vibration. Her teeth chattered in her head as if she gnawed on ice. The soles of her feet were already sore, but based on Chagrinn’s advice that was simply inexperience. Her body would adjust with practice. She would be able to move through the world as if it was paper or fog.
She wanted to impress her mentor, so she made one final circle and then curled towards him. She would stop an inch from his face like it was the easiest thing in the world. The last of the wind she’d created blew through her short hair as she firmly brought her feet down in front of him. She was out of breath, but it was from excitement rather than exertion. Unfortunately, Chagrinn did not look impressed. He looked furious, but that was more likely due to the curved blue dagger held against his throat.
Bombi took a step back: an actual ordinary step backwards. It took a moment for her mind to process what she saw. Ever since Chagrinn she’d just assumed the world and its people were beneath them. The two speed runners were the only things that actually existed, that actually lived, and that knew the truth. That notion was shredded by the shine of the dagger, by the tormented twisted expression of the woman standing behind him.
“You’re from the Win State, right?” Chagrinn asked her after eyeing the blue color of her sleeve.
“That’s right,” the young woman answered. At least, she was likely young. Her body, face, and voice suffered a most unusual condition; they were twisted up like an abandoned sock tossed under a dresser. Her eyes were out of position and one was at a strange angle. Her sleeves and leggings spiraled tightly, as did her wrists and ankles. Her hair was something Bombi had to invent a phrase for: ‘unintentional braid’.
“What’s the Win State?” Bombi asked, unsure if her words were even allowed.
“They’re people who want to stay nobodies,” Chagrinn spat. He struggled against her grip, but not to his fullest ability. Bombi remembered what he said about touching exploits. Her best guess was that this woman was suffering from something like that. “They do nothing but get in our way and destroy our routes when they can.”
“We stop the world from falling apart!” she countered. “All of you runners are worms: parasites in the foundation. You don’t care about the lives you might destroy in the pursuit of your precious world record.”
“I do care about those lives!” Bombi shouted. “I’m here because I finally decided I cared about my own. If done the proper way my life was one of a slave. Destroying it was a moral good!”
“Oh? Look at my face! This is the work of one of you runners. He pulled me into an exploit, got me tangled, and left me for dead. Now I look like this. Now my organs twist and sting while I try to sleep. My very thoughts are pulled so tight they snap… I’m sure I can earn myself some treatment though. I can be an exception to a few of the rules for bringing you two in. I’d heard some of you runners were practicing tricks in this smooth little place. Soon the whole Win State will know the name Sister Twixit.”
“We’re after numbers, not names,” Chagrinn seethed. He tapped his duplication ring against the hilt of her dagger. Out popped another weapon. The runner snatched it out of the air and tried to drive it backwards into his captor, prompting her to release him and slink back. Her body wobbled in sickening ways due to her twists. Bombi compensated for it with her maneuver. She took up her pose, performed the stuttering back-dash, and tackled Twixit with all her force.
The Win State woman tumbled backward and collided with the wall, adjacent to the collapsed cave. She put her hands, full of twisted or backward fingers, against the pile of rocks to steady herself. One of them slipped out from under her, plunging her arm into the open crevice. Her face went white, all except the red lines on the sides of her twists, and then she screamed.
Her arm reemerged like a grappling hook launched from a cannon. Her hand shot off into the sky and disappeared into the clouds. Twixit, however, was still right where she started. Her limb was still sunk into the crevice up to her elbow. The thing that had reemerged was stretched to the point of unrecognizability, and she screamed out her agony. Bombi stared in horror. That cave must be an exploit. Chagrinn meant that time really did stop in there. This is how he found out about speed running.
“Excellent work Bombi,” Chagrinn said as he rushed by her with a rag from his pack. He wrapped it around Twixit’s mouth and tied it in the back to gag her. She still struggled to remove her arm instead of pushing him away, but achieved nothing. The woman’s face was covered in sweat already. The pain was surely excruciating.
“You never told me about the Win State,” Bombi said. Chagrinn answered, but he was busy examining the arm stretched off into the sky.
“The Win State doesn’t matter most of the time. They’re not very good at what they do. They use some of our exploits to catch us, but they have trouble embracing them. They’re either cowards or they get chewed up like this one here. The only reason I ever interact with them is to steal things they’ve confiscated from other runners.”
“Her arm… can she recover?”
“I imagine so. This isn’t an injury; it’s just the world confused over the subject of her arm. There are ways to undo it. There are ways to undo those nasty twists all over her as well, but I imagine her superiors won’t give them to her. They probably think it’s her duty to suffer, that all their confiscated tricks can only be used to stop speed runners directly.” Twixit’s eyes rolled around as her head lolled backward. She collapsed against the stone, with her trapped arm the only thing keeping her upright.
“What do we do with her now?” Bombi was torn. On the one hand the woman’s suffering served no purpose. On the other, she plainly insisted it was Bombi’s role to do nothing but serve. It was only fair that Twixit have some of her pain to bear.
“Interesting question. This could be a boon for us.” He flicked her stretched arm. Its vibration twanged like a violin string. “It appears solid enough to climb. There’s a decent-sized cloud bank above us as well. We could climb her limb and potentially find some of the cloudfeet. They’re a people as much as the anytaurs are, and they could provide us with a pathway.”
“We would have to leave her here then,” Bombi reasoned. How long would she have to stay here to suffer as much as I have? Until she stopped caring if she lived or died… Until she realized there was no road left but the invisible one.
Chagrinn’s choice was clear. He already tested his weight on the freakish arm, wrapping his legs around it like a rope and bouncing up and down. He would attempt to go up regardless of her decision. She was the only opportunity for mercy, pity, and compassion. It was a strange feeling, controlling a chunk of someone’s fate like that. It was like someone had shoved all the wealth in their world into her arms, only to back up and beg for its return.
She didn’t have to. Such kindness had never been extended to her. Chagrinn saw no value in it. Even her uncle Timorrow had his reservations. He looked out for her, and few others. Yet, the stories she’d been read as a child tugged on her heart. The world was a lie, but she didn’t have to be cruel. She could simply be nice. She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.