Hieron was moving. He rolled to his knees and elbows and crawled out of the cell, toward the assistant’s tool. Bombi leapt off the cot and out the open door. She bounded to the wall, grabbed the hilt of her sword, and rushed back just as the man reached for the tool. She grabbed him by the back of his shirt collar and pulled up.
The fires of her sword came to life and singed the stubble from his chin. He held his hands up in surrender. She didn’t have the strength to make him do anything, but the heat at his throat sent him in any direction she nudged.
“My death would be inconvenient right now,” he hissed. “If you turn on the other runner I can offer you a way out of here with no penalty.” Bombi turned him around, her blade moving back and forth near his throat like a violin bow. “I’m honest in my opposition. He’ll turn on you. Runners never collaborate for long. Only one of you can have the world record.”
“I have a question for you,” Bombi said, but before she could get it out Hieron planted his elbow in her side and knocked some of the wind out of her. She kept one hand on his shoulder and leaned backward to compensate, but the assistant’s tool was right under her foot. She slipped on it, rolling them both backward and toward the wall. Something on the device clicked down. A jolt of electricity passed through Bombi. The energy took no detours; it went straight from heel to brain. Her mind saw the approaching wall and saw a way to avoid collision that never would have occurred before.
Her body twisted, a fresh foreign reflex, and her shoulder blade, the precise tip of it, landed on one of the wooden wall’s seams. There was a weakness there, too small to see and too small for ordinary men and women to find, but the assistant’s tool knew the way. Bombi and Hieron disappeared into the wall like phantoms.
Her eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness, much quicker than her prisoner’s. The tool makes you better at everything. It made my eyes find the light faster! Her sword had gone out when it passed through the wall, thanks to a moment with no air, but she reignited it inside the hollow space. Hieron’s face was right there, covered in sweat and dripping fear. He may use a strat or two, but he doesn’t like being in here. Perhaps a man as big as this is afraid of tight spaces.
“As I was saying, I have a question for you,” she repeated. They were alone now, with just his embarrassingly rabbit-like breathing and the crackle of her sword. Alone with the musty woody smell of the wall. “I am a slave on my original track. If I do what the world tells me I will bend under the finery of others, for decades, bear fruit doomed to the same, and then die. Is this what I deserve? Is this what’s right for me?” She waited for his answer. She knew she couldn’t kill him permanently, but he did not look thrilled about the pain of death. His face was still full of fear. Yet, his rigid principles would not bend.
“Yes. We all deserve what we naturally get. You haven’t learned how to appreciate it. We could teach you…” She didn’t let him get further than that. Without Chagrinn she would’ve lived her life as ordered or ended it prematurely. Without running she would’ve done it over and over again and never been the wiser. She would’ve handled it, because she was built to handle it, but the knowledge was there now. She had those shining pearls in her mind, shining with internal light, which never extinguished. Her soul could never have the peace of acceptance again. It could have fire. She could let confident Hieron borrow some of that fire for a while.
“You haven’t stopped to think if being on the wrong track has filled you with the wrong answers!” she spat, her throat practically knotting itself in rage. There was no room to pull her arm back, so she simply dragged the red hot blade across his throat. The fire seared his flesh, his blood becoming thick and black before it could even pour out. His eyes rolled into the back of his head and steam billowed out of his gaping mouth.
How dare you tell me I deserve to be under someone’s heel. How dare you insist I have a place. I am a speed runner and all places are my place. You see only the whole, while I see the missing pieces. I see the cracks, the chips, the weathering… Your blindness to these things is evil.
She put a hand to his chest. His breathing had stopped. She’d killed a man. She expected to be hit by a wave of remorse or disgust, but none came. The man wasn’t dead as long as his ideas lived on. He would replace himself eventually, and even if he couldn’t someone else would. The whole thing had to be upended. The Win State had to be destroyed so the speed runners could succeed… so Bombi would never have to be born into that again. She stared at the ashen slit in Hieron’s neck for a few moments, and then dropped his body. She left it there, slumped in the wall to rot.
“Bombi, are you in there?” Chagrinn’s voice asked through the wall, after a few knocks on the wood. He sounded almost jealous that he wasn’t the one hidden from view.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Dead. For now.”
“That a girl. I’ve got the tool. It’s time we leave.”
“What about that woman?”
“Wh… oh yes. Twixit’s her name. Sister Twixit. Our fight was mostly fictitious: a distraction to help get you out. I’ve convinced her to help us.”
“I want to burn this place down,” Bombi added. Suddenly the musty smell felt like cobwebs spreading down her nostrils.
“I was about to suggest the same thing,” Chagrinn said gleefully. “It’ll distract the other Win Staters. Go and do it, just don’t burn yourself up. Meet us out back in one minute and forty seconds, behind the rain barrels. If you’re late we’re going without you.”
“Plenty of time,” Bombi whispered. Her voice stoked the flame of her weapon. Already the space in the wall was extremely warm. She touched the blade to the wood and stepped over Hieron’s body. She dragged it across, splintering the oldest spots and igniting them. The wall crackled behind her, spurring her forward. Bombi picked up speed, first dashing, and then sprinting through the walls. She let her shoulder slam into the corner whenever there was a turn, reveling in the dust falling from above before the fire ate it. She painted with her sword, waves of red, up and down across the walls.
I am a fever in the Win State, burning it invisibly. These people live their lives intentionally avoiding people like me. If they can’t see the suffering then there isn’t any. Well, if you can’t see my fire… then I assure you it isn’t there. If you believe you’re breathing air rather than smoke, then you are! Please, believe that! It only helps me now.
The Win State wasn’t quite as oblivious as she hoped. As the fires spread she heard panicked shouts. They said nothing about speed runners, so Bombi assumed they had no idea where she was and continued to make her way from wall to wall, working toward the back of the barracks. She knew she could go no further when she turned a corner and found flames licking the wood in front of her. It didn’t need her touch anymore, and now it seemed to resent her presence some. There was only room for fire in the walls. Bombi bowed to the blaze with an impish grin before turning. She stabbed the outer wall and looked through the hole. Fresh air.
She was about to hack her way out when she perceived a weakness in the wall, the same sort of weakness that had gotten her in there in the first place. Even without touching the assistant’s tool, its influence remains. I know this strat permanently! In her excitement she tackled the wall a little too aggressively, tumbling out of it and smacking her chest against the grassy ground outside.
Her head popped up. Chagrinn did not see her stumble. She was slow getting to her feet, there was a little grass to pick between her teeth, but she hurried away when an explosion rocked the barracks. They must have had something volatile in there! Perhaps it was just all the hot air from Hieron’s chest. The rain barrels weren’t far; she could see them clearly behind a row of saplings. They were the largest barrels she’d ever seen, more than eight feet tall, and emblazoned with the Win State emblem. It seemed they put that on absolutely everything.
“It is done,” she said quietly when she rounded the barrels and found Chagrinn and the woman leaned up against them. She would’ve added something about the joy of killing Hieron, or the splendor of watching a house of ignorance burn, but she was stopped by her first good look at the person Chagrinn had called Twixit.
Her uniform wasn’t the patchwork Bombi thought she had seen; it was actually twisted. It did not appear wet, yet it looked to have been washed and wrung out just moments ago. The gold buttons started at her neckline but ended up on the small of her back. The sleeves were as tight on her arms as possible, twisted to the point of hearing them strain when she bent her arms. The leather of her boots had the spiral of black licorice.
As much as her uniform was in disarray, her body had it far worse. Somehow the woman, barely older than Bombi, was just as twisted. Bombi held back the urge to retch, not because the woman’s appearance was disgusting, but because it reminded her of being stretched through the world when they had left the Gone Basin behind, only Twixit’s body had not returned to its natural state; she had been stretched to the absolute limit and then twisted like a piece of straw forbidden to snap.
Her breathing was labored because her twisted lungs had difficulty inflating. A few of her fingers were on backwards. Every few inches her auburn hair forgot what sort of texture it was supposed to hold. Her face had curved lines across it, with one tilted eye positioned slightly higher than the other. When she locked eyes with Bombi she cast her face downward as if ashamed. She hadn’t done the same with Chagrinn, as there wasn’t enough of the old life left in him to care about appearances.
“Bombi, this is Sister Twixit… as of five minutes ago she is a former member of the Win State. Come along.” He walked away from the burning building, giving the women no choice but to follow.
“What…” his apprentice started to say, but she needed to rephrase her thoughts. She couldn’t simply ask what monstrous thing had been done to her. Could I? Chagrinn would. He would suggest stomping through a bush rather than beating around it. “I’m sorry to be so blunt,” she said in an attempt to find a middle ground, “but what has happened to you?” Twixit did not answer immediately. She looked back at the blaze of the Win State, the fire growing taller. “I… I did that because Hieron told me I deserved to be a servant,” Bombi offered as an excuse.
“I don’t need your reason,” Twixit said, her open mouth revealing a twisted tongue and slanted teeth. Her voice was taut, and it quivered like a hangman’s rope in the middle of its workday. “They were not my friends.”
“But you wear their colors. I could’ve killed you the same as Hieron.” Bombi looked to Chagrinn in hopes he would participate, but he marched forward steadily, eyes down as he tinkered with the hexagonal panels of the assistant’s tool.
“I can feel your eyes on me Bombi,” he said without turning. “Obviously this tool is the most pressing matter. You two discuss whatever womanly things you’re going to discuss and let me worry about routing.”
“The Win State had my sympathy years ago,” Twixit continued, “but it’s been wrung out of me. This,” she gestured to her face and body, “is painful. Even my dreams… even they are twisted.” Her eyes glistened but her voice remained steady. “I sought to end the pain, to take my own life and start over, but the State stopped me. I was already off my path, but I was not allowed to stray from their path.”
“I’m sorry,” Bombi said dumbly. “What is the source of your pain?”
“Speed runners,” she answered. “Specifically, a man who calls himself Quicky.”
“Talented, no doubt,” Chagrinn threw over his shoulder. “Quicky had the world record six records ago. Pioneered the initial routes through the Swallowing Mesa. Found the salted cod exploit.”
“I was loyal to the State back then, rather than bound to them,” Twixit said, already learning to overlook Chagrinn’s callousness. “I found their reasoning convincing.”
“What reasoning was that?”
“The idea that speed runners threatened everything. That their constant usage of the world’s holes could widen them, could cause everything to fall apart. That your thrill seeking could get all the world destroyed.”
“A world that is even partly miserable has it coming,” Bombi said.
“That makes sense coming from someone who just burned down a building full of partly-evil people.” Bombi stared back at her unflinchingly. This woman was suffering, but Bombi would not live as a creature of regret.
“What did Quicky do to you?” the apprentice asked. Chagrinn depressed a few parts of the assistant’s tool. The women stopped to watch as he performed a strange little dance and kicked a nearby boulder. The rock flew ten feet into the air and then stayed there. Chagrinn jumped down the resulting hole, arms so close to his body that his clothes didn’t suffer a speck of soil. Bombi and Sister Twixit followed. Once down they looked around to see the bottom of the world.
“So much time saved!” Chagrinn giggled. “I’ve never been here before, yet I know the solid paths! My sharpened eyes can see them! Ha! Follow me ladies.” He started down an invisible path. It took them under the town proper; soon they stared up through the floors of people’s houses, watching their private business. Bombi paid special attention to the spaces between the walls and the occasional rat scurrying within.
“Quicky ran,” Twixit said after several minutes of silence, reigniting the conversation. “I was assigned to capture him, along with three other members of the Win State.”
“Funny how for every runner, they need three to five people to stop them,” Chagrinn commented.
“He used an exploit in a mountain pass, just as we caught up to him,” she went on. Her words were squarely aimed at Bombi; her odds of getting sympathy from either of them were slim, but Bombi was clearly more vulnerable to it than her teacher. Her eyes still sparkled and her lips still quivered from time to time. “At first we thought he was committing suicide to reset rather than be captured, for he picked up a rusty abandoned pickaxe and touched its point to his chest.”
“I know where this is going,” Chagrinn said slyly, “never had to use that one myself.”
“Instead he tossed the axe at a rock wall. It bounced off, flew back, and then pierced his chest. Hieron called it a ‘delayed death’ stratagem. The lands of Shook and Cain were confused as to whether he had discarded the axe or indeed killed himself. In its confusion the world pulled him toward the grave he was supposed to eventually fill, but he was still alive enough to wriggle free.”
“How did that hurt you?” Bombi asked.
“I grabbed hold of him,” she said, holding out her mangled hand, “just as the pulling started. We were taken into the mountain, squeezed and stretched through stone destined as impassable. He broke free. I was left there, pinched by the world, to twist and die. I wish I had died. Eventually Shook and Cain spat me back out without untangling the knots it had created. Now… I am this. I am the suffering I sought to prevent. It’s all about to change though.”
“Why is that?” Bombi asked, but her voice was distant. She was losing interest, her attention actually centered on the people strolling around above them. She saw a scruffy man strike his daughter across the face in the darkness of a closet. Bombi’s hand tightened on the clay handle of her blade. According to the Win State, she is supposed to get slapped. It’s for the best. It’s so she learns her place; it’s so she doesn’t smudge the narrative of the happy people.
“Chagrinn says he can undo the twisting. The assistant’s tool contains the knowledge necessary.” Chagrinn stopped. They all stopped. Overhead an old woman beat at a hanging carpet and waved the dust away. She muttered something about her children’s perpetually muddy boots. Thwump thwump. The dust fell like snow, but only a few tiny specks of it slipped through the ground.
He turned to face them, the tool gripped firmly around the middle with one hand. Already he had significantly rearranged its metal hexagons. Thin shafts of green light emanated from a few newly visible seams.
“Correction: the assistant’s tool had the knowledge,” he said.
“What?” Twixit blurted, her voice vibrating like an iron hummingbird.
“I now understand the tool merely holds knowledge too big and complex to be held by men normally. To use it, you must take some of its stored knowledge. It appears to be a one-way process. Undoing your twists and turns would take the knowledge of passing through solid obstacles, which is what caused your deformity. Bombi accidentally took that knowledge when she stumbled over the tool… and into the walls. She contains your cure.”
Sister Twixit turned on Bombi, who suddenly felt like she was treading water in the middle of the ocean. Before her was another poor soul, one not quite as good at swimming. Twixit’s fists were clenched, but she dropped to her knees and begged rather than attack. She begged Bombi for her help, to end her suffering, to give her back her face and body. All the while Chagrinn simply fiddled with the tool, not even sparing a glance for his suddenly desperate apprentice.
“I… I would,” Bombi assured, “but I don’t know how. I swear; there aren’t any instructions for de-twisting a person rattling around in my head.”
“They’re in there,” Chagrinn insisted. He flicked a metal hexagon with a tlink sound. The green light from the tool intensified. “Unfortunately, you may not have enough experience with running to interpret them. Either way, you have what Twixit wants.”
“Please,” Twixit pleaded. She tried to clasp her hands together, but her gnarled fingers made a mess of it. “You must try. It couldn’t hurt you to try.”
“Actually it could,” Chagrinn added. Both of them suddenly felt like strangling him, but he showed no concern. “If Bombi tries to help you without fully understanding what she’s doing, there are all sorts of ways it could go wrong… especially if you try it down here in the bottom of the world. She could corrupt her Source, or yours, or both of yours.”
“I was about to leave,” Bombi moaned, even surprising herself a little. Chagrinn finally looked up. Bombi glanced at the dark spaces between the walls above them. “When I took Hieron’s life I realized something; there are more ways to use the strats and exploits than just speed running. Rather than dismantle the whole world, or transcend its boundaries, I could simply correct its course. I can eliminate evil… like Hieron.”
“Are you abandoning our run?” Chagrinn asked, a tinge of something in his voice. Bombi couldn’t tell what it was, other than it sounding vaguely displeased.
“Yes,” she answered. “Now that I have this knowledge I want to use it. I want to be a shadow in the walls, listening in on every powerful conversation. I want to seep through their safest places and strike from behind. I will use death to make the lands of Shook and Cain better.”
“An assassin,” Twixit said. “The old me would swear to stop you.” She shed a tear; it bore tiny sparkling twists of its own, like the rippled pattern of a melting icicle. “I cannot bring myself to care,” she sniveled. “Do what you want with your power… but help me first!”
“You were marginally helpful I think Bombi,” Chagrinn interrupted. “There is no time for goodbyes, so we don’t get one.” He wrapped both hands around the assistant’s tool and twisted. Tarink tarink tarink tarrrriiinnkk! Green light blinded. His body doubled, tripled, quadrupled, and became a blur, like a portrait painter collapsing onto his work during the finishing touches. The smudge of a runner stretched into the empty distance and vanished, off to be the fastest of all things.
Of course he left me here with her. It’s not his problem, and neither of us are part of his solution anymore. This decision is impossible. I want to be a murderer, I admit it, but it is murder with only positive consequences. Everyone I take out will be reborn, perhaps to be taken out by me again. They’ll have their wonderful corrupted time before I come along and cut them like foul-smelling crimson flowers. Twixit is not one of them though. If I save her, I might not be able to save anyone else. That child with the reddened cheek needs a dead father more than Twixit needs symmetry.
She needed a nudge, either from the lands of Shook and Cain… or somewhere else entirely.