There was no time to escape.
Alix’s breath caught. Her eyes flicked from the door, to Svelen, back to the door. Someone was speaking outside, and their voice was coming closer and closer.
“Get in the wardrobe.” She pushed Svelen towards it.
He jammed himself in, elbows knocking aside a box. Alix crammed herself inside after him. Her elbow jammed into something soft. Svelen hissed.
She’d apologise if they got out alive. They probably wouldn’t– they couldn’t hide how badly they’d ransacked the place. If they were caught, she’d be killed, or much much worse.
Her heart shuddered.
The door opened. She heard her old master talking to someone.
“- apologies for the mess,” he said. “You know how it is, thoughtforms don’t build themselves.”
He laughed. His voice shook.
“Mm.” The second voice rumbled, cold and deep as the ocean floor. “Are you always this sloppy?”
“I – the new girl must have come in, I’ll make her take care of it. Why did you ask- I mean, it’s wonderful to have a member of the Quorum here, but Vari’s name, if you’d just waited, my hospitality-“
The door clicked closed behind them. Svelen breathed in sharp. In the walls, the boiler gurgled.
“The girl. Where is she?”
“The girl? If you mean Newberry, she’s probably belowstairs, I’ll see to her punishment-“
“Don’t play games with me. The shifter. Where is she?”
“The. Oh. Her. She’s still missing, I’ve sent out a few probes but there’s been no word-”
“When we gifted her to you, you had a responsibility. I told you- this was a favour.”
“Varaxan, please- I can explain, honestly-”
“You’ve had ample opportunity to do so.”
“She disappeared. Off the face of the earth. She didn’t attack anyone, she didn’t show any sign of leaving. One day, she was here, the next- Gone. Without a trace.”
“You were warned she’d be a flight risk.” The other man’s voice was as calm as could be, but colder than an iceberg in winter.
Alix’s shoulders stiffened.
“Varaxan- you said she was safe, you said you’d crippled her! You said she wouldn’t give any trouble! It’s not my fault you set this tiger in my care and then- “
“You asked for her, did you not?”
“Well, I- I didn’t know she’d just-” Her master’s voice trailed off.
“I’d ask you to get her back,” Varaxan said. “But, if you can’t even contain her, what use are you?”
“I- No. No, no, no, you can’t be saying- I’m not useless!”
“This is the second time you’ve failed the Quorum, Satoss.”
“It’s not a failure, I can still-”
“The ice has been getting thinner, and thinner, and thinner, and you haven’t noticed the cracks, have you?”
“I’m productive!” Alix’s master’s voice cracked with fear. “I tithe, I build, I create, you can’t-“
“You poor fool.”
Alix’s master backed away- towards the crack in the door. His hand was sheathed in a long black glove, like the one Svelen still held. Silver tendrils crawled up his forefinger. He lifted his hand and pointed, but whatever he held vanished almost as soon as it appeared.
Then red light exploded behind Alix’s eyelids.
All she could hear was screaming, and the crackle of flame. Even from inside the wardrobe, she could smell burning flesh. A scorch mark smeared across the floor, and then – silence.
Varaxan ground his heel into the ash.
Alix’s breath rattled inside her chest. She wanted to flee, but there was nowhere to run.
Svelen whimpered. She put a hand on his shoulder, and squeezed- trying to comfort him, but ready to cover his mouth if she had to.
She heard a girl gasp. Varaxan walked towards the door- out of sight.
“You. Do you belong here.”
“Yessir.” Alix recognised the voice- it was a girl named Lanva, one of the closest friends she’d had after Svelen left.
“Get your fellows. Gather them in the hallway. You’ll be taken care of.”
He turned and glanced at the wardrobe. She saw his face through the cracked-open door- lean and pale, with great dark eyes. For one horrible moment, Alix thought he’d discovered them. But he turned and left the room, the tail of his long coat drifting behind him.
Alix breathed out, and tried to collect her thoughts. She wanted to scream, but there was no time for that. Her shoulders hunched up.
“Vari’s name,” Svelen muttered. His breath came in shaky gasps. “What’re we gonna do?”
There was only one thing they could do. Her master was dead. Even if she’d wanted to, they couldn’t go back.
“We get out. And we get as many other people out as we can,” Alix said.
Running With Rats updates every week on Fridays.
If you liked this post, and want to support my writing, consider donating to my Patreon? For the price of a cup of coffee, you can get bonus content, worldbuilding notes, news, updates, and more.
Thanks for reading!