Through the Bottom of the World: A Choose-your-own-Speed Run (Sisters Stratagem)

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‘Sisters’ Stratagem

(17:3:28:5:08:54.8)

“I will help you,” Bombi said, surprising herself.  It must have been the raw desperation on Twixit’s face that convinced her.  Yes, she had been part of the Win State, but she paid her recompense in suffering.  What good is punishing the wicked if I can’t also help the deserving?  Twixit was down there in the bottom of the world with her, flouting the rules she used to live by; she lived only to be restored.  “I really don’t know how.”

“If death awaits me at your inexperienced touch, then so be it,” Twixit said, another tear spiraling down her cheek.  She bowed her head and held out her hands, ready to receive Bombi’s treatment like a splash of blessed rosewater.  Bombi looked around, but there was no one to help her.  Chagrinn could’ve been in Cain by now.

All she had to work with was the chunk of unprocessed ore sitting in her mind, the vexing green light left by the assistant’s tool.  Bombi dropped to her knees in front of Twixit; she didn’t want to lord over her.  Then she closed her eyes as well and did her best to examine the light.  She shut out the ragged tight sound of Twixit’s breathing.  She shut out the muffled ponk of the footsteps above.

The green light showed her walls, all of the walls in the world to be specific.  She saw all the tiniest holes in those walls that she could slip through.  She saw the very ground as one gargantuan wall, and she saw Sister Twixit being pulled through it and twisted by forces never meant to touch human flesh.  Bombi focused on her.  She reached out with her spirit to the tortured spring of a woman.  Maybe I can pull her back… maybe I’m as strong as the world…

As soon as she thought that she knew she had erred, but it was too late.  Her hand was outstretched.  Twixit took it; the conduit for her untamed knowledge was opened.  Bombi was not as strong as the world.  No speed runner was; they merely wormed their way through it like a rotten apple.  Nothing could change the fact that worms like the two burrowed into the bottom of the world were at the mercy of the power in that apple’s seeds: the Source.  If it were to target them specifically, to gaze upon them with eyes the size of oceans, mere recognition would obliterate them.

Even in the shallows of the world’s peripheral vision they stood no chance.  Bombi tried to undo what the passive world had done, and was instead pulled into it.  She tried to open her eyes, but something else squeezed them shut now.  There came the familiar horrible pull of traveling through the world, but this time it was far worse.  Instead of rushing past innumerable layers of stone, root, and soil, Bombi twisted around Twixit’s mind.

What rushed by now were the woman’s memories, too fast for Bombi to fully comprehend.  She saw flashes of a pleasant youth cut short by a sibling’s death.  She saw schooling at a strict house that specialized in excessive politeness.  She saw a boy rushing by Twixit’s window, jumping by strat or exploit no doubt, and she saw her chase after him.

After those memories came a stiffer stratum: the boy captured by Hieron and Twixit a witness to it.  A choice.  Join the Win State or be monitored forever.  Bombi knew her answer before she felt it.  After that her life was set out by Hieron like a path of smoothed stones.  Her uniform.  Her missions.  Corralling runners and the people they affected and putting them in whatever boxes the Win State deemed necessary to mitigate their damage.

She saw one mission in particular in which Twixit walked into an inn with four other Win Staters.  They found a chaotic runner standing behind the bar, consuming the streams from three oak barrels at once.  He was tall, with a bushy red beard that reached down to his belt, a belt loaded with sheaths and chains.  His cheeks were red as young coals and his ears fleshy like thick pumpkin rind.  Something had happened to him on his current run, something that quintupled his need for food and drink.  The streams of ale disobeyed their natural flow and treated his throat like it was the entirety of the direction down.

While he consumed the inn’s stores the other patrons acted oddly, no doubt confused by one of his tricks.  They all had their foreheads pressed against one of the walls.  They slowly walked forward, getting nowhere.  A couple of them had conversations with no one as they strolled against the wall.

Bombi gleaned some Win State terminology from the memory.  Twixit had thought of these confused people as NPCs: short for no-problem commoners.  Just like speed runners, Twixit was taught to ignore them in the course of a mission.  Unlike runners, she was also taught to revere them.  Their ignorance to what played out before them was the ultimate treasure, a birthright tooth forcibly pulled from the Win Staters when they joined.  They were heroes holding up that ignorance so the lives of NPCs could go as ordained.

They struck when the man gulped down the last of the ale.  He made a mockery of them, despite their experience with talented runners.  He shoved one of their heads into the bar and instead of breaking the wood it simply became stuck inside it.  He flung plates at odd angles; they exploded when they collided with each other mid-air.  He took up a broom and blew on it, somehow freeing all the dust it had ever swept up in its thirty years of service.  Under that cover he vanished.  That was Twixit’s first encounter with Quicky.

The third time had been in that mountain pass.  She got so close, close enough to grab.  That was when the lands of Shook and Cain made it plain to her that they did not care about her efforts.  They spared not a moment, not a thought, for the servant trying to keep the world from crumbling.  They spared nothing for Bombi either.

The power of the assistant’s tool went inert, but the damage was done.  Both of them laid there in the darkness of eyes squeezed shut for hours.  Their tragic bond tightened, sometimes audibly.  There was too little space left over for them to be separate entities.  Their thoughts mingled like marbles in a bag.  Their breath joined and synchronized.  If they returned to the lands of Shook and Cain the world would treat them as one person.

Bombi opened her eye; the other one was twisted somewhere inside them, away from light.  Twixit opened her eye.  They examined their shared hands; some of the fingers belonged to Bombi and others to Twixit.  Their flesh had not fused into a uniform shade of tan, but remained striated like the layers of a flavored dessert.  Bombi’s lips and one eye were wrapped over Twixit’s face like bandages.  They each had an ear and a foot to use.  Their clothes were permanently wrinkled and a jumble of each of their outfits.

Why?  Why did I help you?  You needed to help us.  We are us now, by the way.  You know this pain now.  Oh… your thoughts are in… ours?  How do we undo this?  We can’t.  We already have the tools and we don’t know how to use them.  We can’t concentrate.  We’ll never be able to…  Wretches.  We are wretches in and out the world.  We are exploits gone wrong, gone bad.  We are Bomtwix.

They got to their feet and stumbled around, learning to walk with their new deformities.  Bomtwix put their hands to their scalp, but didn’t find purchase in Twixit’s hair.  Most of that had been forced to the back of their head in a coiled ponytail.  The sides were cropped short as Bombi’s had been.  Bomtwix shuddered at thoughts of even greater pain.  If Bombi’s face had still been adorned with the silver pins of her servitude, those pieces would now be somewhere inside them, pressed against their taut flesh like swallowed needles.

Where do we go from here?  We have the sword.  We can die by fire right now.  We don’t want to die.  We can come back, but not here.  We can’t fall in the bottom of the world or there will be no return.  We must go up.  Can we still?  Yes.  We still have the assistant’s tool within.  The walls are nothing to us.

Bomtwix found a spot underneath an empty house, a drab drafty thing of wood, and rose through the floor.  There was a dingy mirror before them, its reflection visible now that they were on the right side of the wall.  They examined their combined features: brown mouth askew, mismatched eyes and brows, and a waist unnaturally thinned by the twisting.  In leaning forward their torso bent sickeningly like a flower under heavy rain.  Here.  We can die here.  Bomtwix brought out the sword, the one thing separate from them enough to be spared the twisting, and called out its fire.

There they stood for several minutes, grip tightening and loosening on the hilt.  One strike would undo them.  Ashes could not be twisted.  There are other ways.  We can’t wait.  This hurts too much.  The pain is young to one half.  Twisted teeth can grit and bear; they will not shatter.  We need to find another way.  A way outside Shook and Cain.  A new exploit to give us real new lives.  We won’t have to live again as miserable children.  No schools.  No servitude.  No Win State.  No watching Erebin be captured and plucked.  No mocking Quicky with his red cheeks and dripping lips.  Yes.  We must go and find another way so none can hurt us again.

Bomtwix passed through the walls and into the streets like a ghost.  They drew gasps wherever they stumbled, but the NPCs didn’t matter.  Nothing in their fake world mattered.  Bomtwix knew where to start.  One of the runners passing through the Gone Basin had to know something.  They needed to get back to Lampworm Bay and find another one of those tricky little eggs…

The Gone Basin had not changed since half of Bomtwix’s last visit.  The other half was startled to see a concentration of speed runners the likes of which the Win State had never been aware of.  To that half it was like turning over a rock and finding thousands of pill bugs using each other as sleeping mats.

Runners scurried back and forth, so occupied with the details of their own travels that they hardly noticed Bomtwix’s deformity.  In truth, some of them bore even stranger marks from their meddling with the exploits.  Bomtwix spotted fingers stretched to the length of batons gripping the edge of a cloak, a face spiraled like water down a drain, a chunk of obsidian affixed to a kneecap, and a hundred other effects among the crowd.

They moved by the Gone Basin, Bombi’s memories of it informing Twixit’s.  They watched a new crop of apprentices stand around it and dump their keepsakes.  Bomtwix was unable to remember exactly what Bombi had fed it, which was undoubtedly one of its effects.  It eats away at the world.  How can that be good?  Something needs to eat it.  The world will go bad on its own anyway.  Fresh food is better than rotten.

They tried to ask someone, an experienced-looking female runner in a yellow cloak bearing several arrow shafts through the neck but showing no sign of pain or blood, whether there was any written knowledge of the strats nearby.  They were already quite certain none of the runners would be interested in an extended conversation, especially since most of the people there when they arrived had already gone and been replaced by a new crowd.  The woman pointed them to a far wall decorated with hastily-pinned parchment and thin booklets before she slithered into a crack in the wall and vanished.

Bomtwix pushed her way through the bramble of runners and found relief near the wall.  The crowd gave the wall some space to avoid knocking any of the papers down, so Bomtwix was free to pursue them at her leisure, though the constant pain prevented such a thing.  In their reading they noticed the notes weren’t written for an audience.  They were written for the authors, for those who didn’t have Chagrinn’s perfect memory for detail.  They stashed their strats and routes there so they could return to them in their next lives if they failed.  They were to be analyzed for mistakes rather than followed, but Bomtwix still gleaned what they could from the mosaic of madness.

Strat for 20-24 years of age: Inside the castle of Cherbo there is a lever to a secret passage hidden in the library’s bottom ladder rung.  Throw the lever seven times in less than ten seconds to confuse the worldly mechanism, opening to a different passage in the Cain dungeon of No-go.  Beware illusory ground.  Causes backward life travel of three years.  Strategic use undetermined.  – Pirate Tessimus

Gross monster under the world at midpoint of route 510-D.  Avoid.  – Nodder the Rogue

NPC with weak brain works at the Niffindern bank ten years prior to the Verdant Siege.  Fatigue with minute transactions and he’ll over-compensate you.  Don’t abuse past five hundred or the gold will explode out of the vault, replace his hands, and sew aggro.  – Morm Dinter

Helena Hardmode has WR right now – thirty-six years, zero months, fifteen days, fifteen hours, five minutes, five seconds, and 3 tenths of a second.

Aggro reduction elixir – dew from the EXTERIOR of the Gone Basin, frog bubble-nesting, lavender, and spring water all in equal parts.  Doesn’t work on anytaurs.

Chagrinn knows location on assistant’s tool.  Somebody needs to get it out of him.  His routes put him around the astrolabe and the swarm a lot.  Can reveal gold stash to any who offer the information to me, enough to buy one hundred lesser exploits.  I’m at the basin at the end of most years ending in three.  – Pangle Cardson

Invisible wall on the southern edge of Cain can be breached by stuttering back-dash around seventeen feet high.  Clinging to it can get you as far as the root-rivers.  Minor aging.

Ivan Yarnov’s principles of becoming over-powered: think OP thoughts, use OP items, dream OP dreams.  You’re welcome.  Someday, when Ivan is god, maybe you will match the original Ivan.  You can hope.

To those it may concern: an arranged marriage with the NPC Blake Shoreline can be very beneficial.  He is prone to spending his wealth on the whims of his partner.  Rides in his private wagons can save weeks without any exploits.  The estimated time saved for a woman age twenty is nearly seven months.  The estimated time saved for a man is five months.  Blake can be convinced to take a male partner if you whisper this in his ear: how long will you let it hurt?

I can no longer take the route myself because Blake is simply intolerable.  His face invites vigorous punching and he makes love like a goat constantly losing its footing on the rocks.  If you can stand him that time is yours.  Best of luck, as anyone who can bear his company deserves some sort of world record.  – Stephanie Lynn-ran

To my nine-year old self who will have to jump to read this: stay strong.  Wipe away those tears.  Empty yourself of them because they will only slow you down.  Give them to the basin if you have to.  Even reborn you will know that our love is gone and she cannot return.  We cannot run together any longer.  You can still run though.  You can do it in her name.  When the world record is yours and the new sky ready for your signature, you can write her name instead.  – for little me and for Belinze… who cannot be little.

Win State has new outpost ‘above’ a false one outside the great market.  They’ll be doing this everywhere soon.  Don’t run into it, some sort of invisible glue on the outside.

Language options can be accessed somewhere other than the library!  You know where, me.  Don’t forget.  Go there and switch everything to the ancient tongue of the Cain-walkers.  Their words are much faster.  Every conversation will end in a flash.  It’s as if the whole world forgets how to talk and instead clicks and clacks like waterwheels.  It is so soothing, but it will not slow you.  Don’t forget!  You can find the option in the place where we met the lizard.  The GRAY lizard.

Two anytaur sources under the world just east of here.  They cannot be coaxed free, but they are open to contribution.  Use unknown.  Too close can earn you a scar, not sure how they’re solid enough for that but not solid enough to want anything.  They are for someone more curious than I.  – Ox Newton

Bomtwix stopped.  There was plenty more speed running wisdom, much of it buried under newer iterations, but they had one worth investigating.  Bombi did not know much about anytaurs and Twixit did not know much about manipulating the Source, but together they formulated an idea.

An anytaur was a creature, smart as a man, and their civilization had been purged from most of Shook hundreds of years ago.  As a race they were one with nature, literally becoming one with a specific part of nature upon reaching maturity.  They started life as pale, featureless, slithering things, but an affinity for a specific animal transformed them in its image.  As adults they bore torsos like men, but heads and lower bodies like the animals they protect.

Bomtwix realized the skeleton Bombi had taken her recent clothing from had been an anytaur partly in the form of a lizard.  They felt a twinge of regret for all the childhood stories of anytaurs that couldn’t affect them.  Twixit had heard tell of them as a child, right alongside dragons, tinkertrees, and free-swimming constellations.  Bombi had different bed time stories whispered to her, more about sneaky furry creatures managing to steal from the privileged and live comfortably in secret dark nooks.

Either way, the anytaurs didn’t seem noble and magnificent to Bomtwix; they were just another piece of window dressing for the lands of Shook and Cain.  They came from the same nothing as everything and everyone else.  Worse, none of the runners around the Gone Basin were anything other than human, implying that all anytaurs were NPCs and couldn’t even figure out their world was false.

They could still be of some use though.  The tip on the wall had phrased it as anytaur sources.  That meant bodies that were not yet made, the same way Bombi’s sword had been absent but still sharp before she’d given it form with fire and clay.  Perhaps they could do the same thing, but offer their own spirits instead of fire or water.  Perhaps they could inhabit these sources and be separated from the tightening knot of pain in their souls.

They asked around a little more to determine the exact location of the sources.  As it so happened, there was one crack in the rock wall that led there.  The area in question, a part of the bottom of the world so low that you could hardly see people moving above, was rife with bubbling sources.  It was a hotbed of blank objects and beings that grew denser all the time, perhaps indicating some instability worsened by runner activity.  Some around the Gone Basin feared it would eventually erupt, spewing new lands that would be added to Shook and Cain and slow their runs like amber overtaking bugs to hold them in suspension for ages.

Bomtwix found the correct crack and inserted their hand far into it.  The world took them, squeezed and stretched them, and spat them out in a blank place.  Only one chunk of Shook and Cain was visible above them, like a sun encased in a rocky chrysalis.  The chaotic field of semi-active Source was mostly invisible, the occasional form revealed only by a thin skin of dust.

That skin was enough to give Bomtwix an idea.  They turned back and placed one hand on the stone that brought them there.  They accessed the knowledge of the assistant’s tool, which made their hand pass through the rock like fog.  After that they fanned their hand in and out of it as fast as they could, destabilizing its substance and turning pieces of it to dust.  They fanned this dust out into the Source for hours, waiting until the space before them was made of clear shapes.

The living pieces of the Source turned it into a horrifying wriggling mass, like diseased things sliding into their graves even as they reached for helping hands.  They saw the dusty outlines of babes, beasts, and monsters, but they were only concerned with two.  They wanted the flexibility and the resilience of the anytaurs.

Bomtwix wandered through the patch, careful to stay out of reach of any of the grasping things, until they found their treasure.  The anytaur sources were buried in nothing up to their heads, each with one arm free enough to reach out.  Their heads were smooth and their faces featureless save for two lidded eyes.  Bomtwix dropped to their knees before them.  They entered the deepest meditation they could, their souls seeping through the twists of their bodies.

These bodies are twisted beyond use, but we are not.  We are Bomtwix: speed runner and speed jailor.  We hereby undo our forging and deny our return to nothingness.  We claim these anytaurs as our new selves.  We are separated!

They reached out with their hands and grabbed the foreheads of the anytaurs.  Their sources hissed as if burnt and tried to wriggle free, but their grip tightened.  Just as the heat of the fire had been siphoned into Bombi’s sword, their souls flowed through each twisted arm and into their new heads.  The rush of energy sped the source’s life cycle.  The anytaurs emerged from the mire of nonexistence and took shape as Bomtwix’s body collapsed.  It loosened into a pile of flesh and cloth, like tumbling laundry, dead.  Bombi’s sword was snuffed out beside it.

Bombi opened her new eyes to see what had become of her.  Her feet were gone, replaced by the white scaled tail of a juvenile anytaur.  Limbs would come later, when she chose an animal to protect.  Her hands were soft and delicate, the fingers pointed but devoid of nail or claw.  She touched her own skin and shuddered at its exotic smoothness.  She had no mouth, so she could not call out to Twixit.  They were sisters now, forced together by the world.  Even as they went their separate ways she couldn’t deny Twixit would always be in her mind.

She looked over at her reborn sister.  Twixit looked nearly identical in color and proportion, her sex as undetermined as every other anytaur feature.  She was now little more than an armed serpent, slithering through the air without needing to support her weight.  Bombi realized that she too did not touch the ground.  She spiraled around her own tail, spinning much the way she imagined the stars spinning in the sky.  Until they grew up in the lands of Shook and Cain, the anytaur way, they could move like ghosts, weightless and carefree.

They could not speak to each other in the sense of men, but their emotions were clear in their irises.  The two snaked closer to each other and wound their tails into a shape like a cyclone, but their flesh never touched.  They were as close as could be, but they could not bear true contact any longer.  Each saw, as if in a mirror, a girl made by the world only to be taken apart by it.  Bombi had been pierced, shackled, and dragged.  Twixit had been caged, convinced, and twisted.  These things had happened until there was nothing left… nothing but the tiniest sparks that couldn’t be destroyed because they were wholly separate from their bodies, their suffering.

Those sparks were now anytaurs, washed clean of the evils that had tried to blow them out.  The cyclone unfurled.  The anytaurs, happy to see the other departing, flew in opposite directions.  Somewhere within the lands of Shook and Cain, or just outside them, there was a place for them.  There were creatures that needed their help rather than their obedience.  They flew so far that their white hides disappeared in the bottom of the world.

Run Abandoned

(17:4:02:13:20:16.8)

The End

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