The streets wound around each other like intestines. One moment, Alix knew they were close to the docks. She heard foghorns in the distance, and smelled the salty seaweed bread the shrimp-men made. The next, her feet pounded the cobblestones in Solsva Vrenli– the old workers’ district– and the next, she saw the neon lights of the market through her blindfold.
But as they turned around and about, she smelled something– something harsh, biting, bitter. It made her eyes water and burned the inside of her nose when she breathed in.
“We’re not going- into the Blight, are we?”
“Shut your howling gaper.” She could practically hear the horned man’s scowl.
“It’s- it’s gonna be fine, Alix,” Svelen muttered. “Promise.”
“But there’s – things in there. Shifters, monsters-”
“Do you trust me?” Svelen asked.
“Course I do.”
“Then trust Vashe. He knows what he’s doing.”
Alix felt a chill run down her spine. She thought she felt eyes on her back. Was something following them?
Finally, they entered a warm place where the smell was less sharp. Svelen untied the blindfold.
The room Alix found herself in would be comfortable for one person, cozy for two, and cramped for four. Pipes snaked along the ceiling and down the walls. The floor was bare concrete, but someone had spread a few empty sacks on the ground to serve as makeshift rugs. A fire burned in an oil drum in the middle of the room; a girl with ginger hair warmed her hands in front of it.
The horned man- Alix assumed he was Vashe- rubbed his own hands together.
“Why did we even go out,” he grumbled. “It is cold as the stick up a prophet’s ass.”
“Who’s that?” the ginger girl asked. It sounded like she was talking through her nose.
Svelen cut in before Alix could say anything.
“She’s my friend,” he said. “We found her on our last run.”
“More like she followed us.” Vashe’s lips twisted to one side.
“Another thoughtform, huh?” The ginger girl folded her arms. “… Right. My name’s Nvesa. Nice to meet you.”
Alix smiled. It was more like baring her teeth.
“I’m not a thoughtform,” she said. “I’m as human as you.”
“And that’s why your eyes are flat black?”
Alix blinked. Her eyes had no iris or whites; they were black as a moonless night, from corner to corner. She could see just fine, but it scared people.
“It’s a disease. They made a mistake-”
For a second, Alix found herself back in that room- the too-clean, too-white one that she’d stood in at the age of eight, when they’d ripped her away from her mother. She felt the wires stuck to her head and the needles that pierced her arms.
She shook her head, trying to shake the bad memories away.
“Better question. Who are you?”
“We’re the rat runners,” Vashe said.
“Get out,” Alix said.
The rat runners were a fairy tale. They were the thing slaves muttered about in secret, behind closed doors. Rat runners were rebels and anarchists, and they were supposed to be everywhere- hiding in walls and sewers and even the Blight. Someday they’d help the slaves rise up and destroy their masters. Until that time, they stole from the Tesva priests and the Solsva noblemen.
“It’s true, Alix,” Svelen said. “I don’t think the rat runners everyone tells stories about are real. But we’re the closest thing you’re gonna get.”
Alix closed her eyes. She remembered the white room. The hurt. The screaming. Her old rage bubbled up inside her.
“I want to help,” she said. “Can I be a rat runner?”
“What? ” Vashe’s eyes widened.
“Is she a plant?” Nvara pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Of course not, she’s-” Svelen said.
“How can you be sure?” Nvara interrupted. “She comes after you, she says she wants to join up without even knowing what we’re really doing-”
“She has a name.” Alix’s lips tightened.
“Right. Aliss, whatever.” Nvara tapped her fingers against the back of her hand. “How do we know you are who Sve thinks you are?”
“…I mean, why wouldn’t I be?”
“There was an anarchist’s group down in Livova vrenli- they got a thoughtform planted in there that looked just like one of them,” Nvara said. “The priests made it special. Just to get in there and get them.”
“Not this shit again,” Vashe said. “Look- that’s hard to do, right. Near-vexin’-impossible. If they could do it easy, they’d’ve done it to us before now.”
“I’m not a thoughtform,” Alix insisted. “Swear on Vari’s tomb.”
Thoughtforms weren’t real people. They were made by the priests to do the hard, dirty work no one else wanted to do. If Alix was a thoughtform, she’d have been built. But she’d had a mother and a father. She couldn’t be one, right?
“Well- look, there’s an easy way to check if this is the real Alix. Thoughtform or no.”
Svelen took a step towards her.
“What’s my favourite food?” he asked.
“Uh. Shrimp jelly,” she said.
“When did we see the fireworks?”
“Last year? I remember you got me that little kite. And you told me that things were gonna get better.”
“Tea, or svass?” Svelen asked.
Alix wrinkled her nose.
“Are you joking? You know it’s svass.”
“Yup, it’s her.” Svelen let out a deep breath. “I don’t think they could steal her memories like that.”
“…Kay. So it is your friend,” Nvara said. “But she could be a spy, or-“
“What are you doing that’s got you so worried about spies?” Alix asked. “Honestly, if you’re hiding in the Blight, no one cares.”
The three looked at each other for a moment. The fire in the barrel flickered; Svelen poked it.
“We’re thieves,” Vashe finally said. “You know what lio is?”
“It’s, uh, what they make thoughtforms out of. Right?”
“Almost. It’s dreamstuff. You go into some blighter’s dream, they make the stuff like a vexin’ cow makes shit. Huge stinkin’ heaps of it. In a dream you could drown in it. You find out where their dream’s stash of lio is, you grab it, you get out.”
He grinned a crooked grin.
“So that’s what we do.”
“How? I thought only prophets could get lio,” Alix said.
“Anyone can do it,” Svelen said. “You just need the right tools.”
He pulled the goggles down, off his head, and hung them in front of her.
“This lets you see it. And these let you take it.”
He reached down for his pocket, and pulled out one of the long black gloves that Alix had seen before. Then his face paled.
“What is it, what’s wrong?” Nvara frowned.
When Svelen spoke, his voice was very small.
“I lost the other glove.”
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