‘Wreck Everything’ Stratagem
She might never have another moment like this, with a bastion of authority frozen at her fingertips. Here was proof of the rigidity of every rule that had forced her to live as a creature of the background. Even with her dramatically arched metal eyebrows and stern expression, Champion Iuda still looked complacent.
Bombi grabbed her iron scepter and pulled it up, straight out of her hand while she lectured her underlings. The young runner moved to the side of the desk. The cut scene would be over any second. One of them was setting a stack of papers down on the desk throne; it bent as its corner touched.
She could think of nothing better to do but destroy the foundation of such bureaucracy. If there was no throne for Iuda to sit in at the end of the scene, then there was no way to know who was in charge. If there was no desk then there was no place to set those papers.
There wasn’t enough power in her arms to destroy it one blow, not without the trickery that got her through the door in the first place. Bombi crouched, turned, and ran, back-dashing around the desk at incredible speed. The speed built up in her arms, in her grip on the staff, and when it felt sufficiently charged, like its vibration might shake it right out of her hands, she swung it with all her might into the side of the desk throne.
Krak! The desk splintered into four pieces that clattered against the opposite wall. The back of the throne snapped off, sending Iuda tumbling backward with it. The Win Staters turned in her direction. They could react. The scene was over, but there was still a ripe moment of recovery where everyone’s minds adjusted. She still had seconds before coherent shouting, before the drawing of weapons.
Bombi back-dashed out the door and swung the scepter left and right, toppling everything in sight and bashing divots into the stone walls. She raced down the stairs, taking the railing with her as if it was a line of toothpicks glued in place. She smashed the cut scene triggers. Any time a Win State body blocked her path she dashed around or took them head on. One tried to grab the staff and wrestle it away, interrupting her dash enough to send them both careening into the ceiling. Strangely, even though he was winning the tug of war, his eyes emptied of anger and he relinquished his grip. Bombi pulled away, back to her feet, and continued her trail of destruction.
She only stopped when the fort was quiet and the air was full of the gray dust she’d created. The interior of the fort was in ruins. Every door and decoration was destroyed. Every banner torn down. She hadn’t killed anyone; Win Staters were still around every corner. Yet, it was silent. A figure emerged from the dust; Bombi raised the scepter in preparation for a strike.
“I told you to rob them Bombi!” Chagrinn chastised. “What’s all this?” His bindings were gone. A second later Twixit appeared beside him. She took a deep breath and tensed her muscles, forcing streams of dust out of her creases.
“I suppose I got carried away,” the young runner admitted. “I hadn’t found anything good yet and I knew the scene was ending… I could feel it… so I took this from the champion and smashed her throne. I thought… I thought maybe if I…”
“You thought right,” Chagrinn congratulated. He disappeared into the dust once more and came back a second later, pulling a stunned Win Stater by the arm. The young man’s eyes were blank, his mouth slightly open. His arms hung limply and his head was cocked to one side, like he was trying to see a perched bird on the corner of a roof. “You must’ve destroyed a crucial object. The cut scene didn’t end properly, so everyone seems to have lost something to the air.” He waved his hand in front of the Win Stater’s eyes, getting no reaction. “Yes, I’ve seen this before. He has no motivation now.”
“Wait, why weren’t we affected?” Sister Twixit asked. “We were in the cut scene, same as the rest.” She snapped her fingers in front of the Win Stater’s eyes for herself, the tautness of her flesh making the snaps absurdly loud.
“I imagine we’re flexible enough to escape the significance of the scene,” Chagrinn postulated. “My body is accustomed to flouting the natural order. Plus, I’m not a member of the Win State, so I had no stake in a throne’s destruction. You on the other hand sister, it seems your corrupted body was your saving grace. You’re too malformed to be important.”
“At least there’s one benefit to it,” she growled, poking the other Win Stater in the chest to see if he’d topple.
“What do we do now?” Bombi asked.
“Good question.” Chagrinn held up his finger like he was going to elaborate, but then he crouched, turned it into a stuttering back-dash, and disappeared into the dust. He returned less than a minute later, shoving something into a new bag. “That’s everything of value in the fort. A rather paltry haul I’m afraid.”
“I’m sorry,” Twixit blurted. “I wanted to help you…”
“No apology necessary; they’re a waste of time like nearly everything else. It does give me an idea though. Bombi, how do you feel?”
“What sort of a question is that?” his apprentice asked. If Chagrinn is finally interested in my feelings, it can’t be good. He’s going to tell me something absurd now, perhaps that my emotions are actually a liquid that can be rebalanced to increase running speed and overall detachment. He’ll want to poke me with a funnel, drain them out, rebalance them in various glass measuring cups, take a swig from one, and force me to make stew with the others.
“It’s actually terribly simple. You should know by now that I explain these things only when I need to. Answer the question and get your explanation.”
“Fine…” She thought a moment. Her pulse pounded against the iron scepter. Her breath was warm; there was some sort of spirited updraft moving from her heart to the back of her throat and palate. It took her a moment to recognize, but it was the strain of feeling she’d had every time Chagrinn pulled out a new trick. There was a whiff of it in her childhood, when she flouted her chores and rode the ponies with Timorrow. “That was fun. Extremely fun. Possibly the most fun I’ve ever had. Have I ever really destroyed anything before? I don’t think so…”
“That is one of several responses I wanted to hear!” Chagrinn exclaimed with a clap of his hands. “I think it’s time we part ways.”
“What? Why? Did I do something wrong?”
“No, you did something right. Right enough that I’m convinced you can handle yourself on your own, that you can impose our mutual will without my presence. While you handle the background of the run, I’ll handle the foreground.”
“What does that mean?”
“I want you to keep having fun Bombi! Don’t read too much into it; that always spoils fun. Take Twixit, maybe take a cut scene trigger from the debris, and go tackle more of the Win State. Take down another fort, or two, or twenty-five. Every one you knock down is a hurdle removed from speed running. It also means I can swing by at my convenience and pick through the leftovers. It’ll be like your clearing the road for me.”
“You want me to just… destroy?” I’m actually hoping he says yes. Is there something wrong with me? It can’t be good to aspire to be fire. No, it can be good. Imagine a world where fire only burned wickedness, only the things that got in the way. Imagine putting a match to the undergrowth and seeing it leave the forest intact, only burning the quickest path through.
“I don’t want that. You do,” Chagrinn pointed out. “Destroy was your word. Speed running has taught you that there’s a way out of most things, but is a way out what you want most? I can see, now that you’ve seen the light poked in your box, that what you really want is revenge. It’s as noble a cause as any. Go, take it. Bring low those who think your proper place is hands immersed in dishwater, waist forced away from the sink by a womb full of future slaves.”
“I will help you,” Twixit added. “I know where many of the forts are. Somewhere, in one of their vaults, there is surely something that can straighten me out as well.”
“Fine,” Bombi blurted. Normally I can’t make decisions this large. I get stuck. I wait for something off in the aether to give my soul a poke. It’s true. I want this rampage. I want this infamy. She stroked the iron staff, and then hammered its end on the floor. At the sound the stunned Win Stater flinched, dislodging a drop of drool from his lip.
“I wish you both the best of luck,” Chagrinn said with a salute. He clapped Bombi on the shoulder respectfully. “Until our routes cross again!” The man who had teased Bombi from her cage leaned forward, almost like a bow, and back-dashed into the dust. The two women stood there for a moment, just waiting to see if the craziness of the day was finally over.
“I know which part of the doorways had the trigger,” Twixit eventually offered. “Should we go and gather them up?”
“Yes, we have to move at some point,” Bombi said with a weak smile. She followed the twisted woman deeper into the wrecked fort. They passed more stunned Win Staters dead on their feet, eyes unfocused and breath slow. They didn’t know how long such a state would last, but that was the risk the fools took when they put their faith in the rigidity of a cut scene. Twixit’s eyes lingered on one of their faces for a moment, her head turning as she walked. Bombi heard her sniffle and saw a single tear move down her cheek. It ate up the dust on her face before sinking into one of her creases and spiraling down her neck.
“Is something the matter?” she asked the former Win Stater.
“Nothing new,” Twixit answered. “It’s just the pain. My pain. The woman we just passed… I spoke with her frequently. She once told me she would kill herself if she wound up like me. It made me wonder why I never tried. I still don’t know really.”
“Pain never stops,” Bombi offered as they stopped at a pile of wooden debris. Twixit crouched down and dug through it carefully. “It ebbs and it flows, but it’s the only constant in the Lands of Shook and Cain. If you killed yourself and started over, it would just be a new iteration of your pain.”
“You say that, but surely I could avoid becoming twisted next time.” She plucked one piece from the top of the door’s frame out of the pile and set it aside. “I just have to stay away from that one awful runner, or perhaps never join the Win State in the first place, especially now that I know they never cared about me.”
“Well if you change your mind, I’m not going to stop you,” Bombi said with a hint more venom than she intended. Twixit’s hand stalled in the debris. “What I’m saying is that it’s your decision. We all have our pain, and we all squirm under its influence in different ways. Before Chagrinn, before running, I had numbed myself to it. I was barely alive. In a way it was like I had killed myself. There was a peace to it, but it never felt like my choice. Now, we’re both about choices, right?”
“Yes,” Twixit said with a small nod, returning to her search. She stopped a few minutes later, having found the three crucial pieces for triggering a cut scene, one from each side of the frame. Together they found some metal wire and fashioned the three pieces into a triangular charm, which they then tied to the end of Bombi’s staff. They moved on to the remains of a second trigger and fashioned a charm for Twixit as well. After that they left the fort behind, checking the grass for any footprints, any sign of Chagrinn’s direction, but he hadn’t left a trace.
Their second fort was in the middle of a filthy city on the border between Shook and Cain. The streets were full of slavering creatures and shifty merchants, but none of them had any cause to bother the Win State. It was an organization largely separate from politics and regular law. Most glued to their tracks saw their uniforms and guessed they were some sort of pompous trade guild or religious order.
Bombi and Twixit knew better, especially after they forced their way in and found a jail cell literally stuffed with speed runners, a few of them hanging from the bars of the ceiling like monkeys. They took great pleasure in freeing them and watching them scatter in ten different ways. A few knew the stuttering back-dash. One could fly, but only as long as he mimed running in place and climbing ledges. One even put a spatula on one foot and a saucepan on the other, somehow convincing them to shudder violently and act like ice skates.
There were guards that arrived to break up their breakout, but Bombi and Twixit struck swiftly with their cut scene triggers. The slightest tap left the Win Staters with blank stares, their motivation lost to the wind.
Their third fort proved even easier, guarded as it was by only the youngest recruits. They didn’t even need the triggers to destroy their motivation; all it took was a harsh glare in their direction. Twixit yelled after them, told them to run les they end up as twisted as her. Bombi knew she wanted to be cured of the twists, but there was no denying their use in combat. It seemed that was the real reason the Win State never helped her find a solution. In battle, her movements were extremely unpredictable. Her waist was more flexible than it should’ve been, allowing her to whip her body and weapon about with incredible speed. Her twisted wrists and ankles made her punches and kicks come from unexpected directions and hit with shocking snaps of force.
The fourth fort held a lovely surprise, something Chagrinn would’ve certainly wanted for himself. Bombi and Twixit took it anyway, as they had done all the work of clearing the fort and defacing its officers by drawing charcoal moustaches and monocles on them. The item in question appeared to be a normal corkscrew, but upon examining its label they realized it had the power of item duplication, much like the flower Chagrinn had sought in the Anytaur Forest. They stowed it away for another time, thinking they could replicate the cut scene triggers and perhaps dump a barrel of them on a whole crowd of Win Staters.
The fifth fort fell. The sixth. Bombi and Twixit roamed the land, sleeping in a stolen Win State tent, having the time of their lives. Soon, hunters came for them. The elite of the Win State sometimes proved a challenge, but none of them were immune to the cut scene triggers. They were too devoted to their cause, too stuck in the old ways, to retain their motivation. It was like fighting boulders as they rolled down a hill; all you had to do was predict their destination, step aside, and tap them once as they went by.
They thought the fun would never end. As long as there was a Win State left to ridicule, they had their purpose. It was a purpose of their own, never even partly dictated by the world, so they never suffered the drama of a natural cut scene. They were like hecklers who knew they could neither take the stage nor be ejected from the theater. What they hadn’t considered was that the theater might close its curtains permanently.
There were some who could never be dissuaded from hunting speed runners, but that number was too small to keep such an organization grinding. Eventually, two years in, there were no forts left. The Win State’s infrastructure had collapsed under their attacks. It was victory, but there was nothing to celebrate. There was no world record for disbanding the grunts of a bureaucratic destiny. Sister Twixit still had not found a simple solution to her deformity, and without the mean spirits of their fun, Bombi found the firelight of her soul fading once again.
It didn’t need to be discussed. They only had to look at each other to know. It had been decided early on what they would do if they ever reached that point, if they ever stopped moving and realized they’d crossed a simple finish line in the dirt. They were going to leave and they were going to take some of the world with them.
The eighteenth fort had a special map that showed locations of exposed Source material across the Lands of Shook and Cain. Bombi and Twixit headed for the one nearest them. It was a ghost town, marked only on their map as the village of Invalid. Long bereft of even a single lit hearth, Invalid was cut off from civilization by boulders blocking its roads. Climbing them was no use, as an invisible wall, the will of Shook or Cain, extended far above them and into the sky. The only visible sign of the wall’s existence was the slow splashing of clouds against it.
The destroyers of the Win State had picked up a few tricks along the way. Not all invisible walls could be bested, some were so strong that even speed runners saw them as gods unto themselves, but the one outside Invalid was not one of those. Bombi and Twixit took each other’s waists and started to dance. Dry orange leaves were swept out of the way as they spun, jumped, and dipped, fingers never leaving their sides. They danced for two hours, making the routine as real as anything else in the world.
The two women smiled at each other, for this was the last bit of fun. When the dance, runners called it the cadence clip, neared its end they moved across the top of the boulders to the invisible wall. Bombi spun Twixit, grabbing her hand so she could lean as far as possible. Her twisted body curled and hung like a wet lily. The cadence clip was a fact like any object, so the wall couldn’t prevent its final move, even as Twixit was draped past its border. The women were connected by the hand, and a moment later the world decided they had to be either inside the invisible wall or outside. Bombi snapped through, from one frame of reality to the next, and they were both past it.
Invalid was in the centuries-long process of being reclaimed by two separate forces: nature and the Source. Vines grew over all the buildings. Saplings leaned out broken windows to catch what sun filtered through the dense canopy above. Rubbery water plants hung off the sides of barrels. Such plants were rarely seen without frogs resting on them, but there wasn’t a single animal as far as they could see.
The invisible wall proved too dense even for insects, so the only sound was the gentle wind grabbing dead leaves out of the invading trees. The Source was just as obvious in its intrusions, but it did not grow. When it took something over it took it over completely, robbing it of all color or light. Many of the buildings had missing walls, even though ivy crawled across the air like they still existed.
Bombi and Twixit made their way inside the library, wondering if it was the quietest place in existence. They found something that should’ve been a bookshelf, but that presented as nothing more than a white block. It was connected to an infinite white space visible between the remaining floorboards. The Source. The nothing from which the world’s pieces were weaved. Twixit brought out the corkscrew. They were going to assault the Source with the best guess they had, something just as infinite.
They said their goodbyes with their eyes. Bombi raised her iron scepter and hurled it like a javelin toward Twixit, who reached out to catch it with the tip of the item-duplicating corkscrew. Metal clashed with metal, a spark flew and divided, and the assault had begun. Bombi rushed over to her companion and stood behind her, bracing her twisted shoulders. Bombi’s fingers sank into the creases in her flesh as they struggled to keep hold of the corkscrew.
Scepters flew from its tip in a funnel, clattering madly as they ran into each other mid-air, spiraling and flying at the blank bookcase. Each duplicate bore its own cut scene charm, another piece of magic to batter the Source with. After nearly thirty seconds the staffs started to stick in the Source like it was a pincushion. The wind around them grew to the strength of a storm, and died just as suddenly.
Let the whole world lose its motivation. Stop it from making things smart enough to tell their lives are pointless. End these idle white hands. Drive a scepter through them. Still the creative urge with a powerful injury. Let that be the legacy of Bombi: a numb nothing to nobody.
All of the leaves in Invalid died at once, but they couldn’t fall. The rule that things fell faded away. The rule that light showed you things went utterly out. The final scepter struck the Source, and the two rogue beings stopped being.
Leon groaned and leaned forward, dragging his oily forehead across the monitor. His eyes could barely focus, but fourteen hours in front of a computer will do that to a person, especially when they’ve eaten nothing but peppered salami cold cuts and deflated grapes the entire time.
Routing new speed runs could be such a pain. He was doing everything he could to break the game The Lands of Shook and Cain, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t cooperate every once in a while. He thought things were looking up, that he’d have something to show the others after such a long session, once he discovered those invalid file names in the developer console. He’d moved the joystick controlling his character very carefully, forcing them to tiptoe up to the improperly loaded assets blocking his path.
The weapon duplication had worked just as planned, but it was too effective. He only wanted to break the game a little. Alas, there was the dead end that meant he had to start all over, right there on the screen. His saved data was corrupted. If he was ever going to cut the world record down, he would have to wade through the bleary eyes and the failures first.