“Okay. Plan.” Alix cracked the door and glanced down the hallway. No one was coming.
“We have time for that?” Svelen asked.
“Not really. I’m gonna throw the boiler.”
His face crumpled.
“You’re gonna blow us up?”
“Nah. Just turn up the heat. It’ll fill the house with smoke, we can slip out while they’re dealin’ with it. We know the place better than they do. You find Newberry and Lanva and the others- tell ‘em to head for the hills. We got the chance.”
“You think you can get out?”
“Dunno,” Alix said. “Worth it, isn’t it?”
She’d made at least some friends here- and even if she hadn’t, no one deserved to be back in the hands of the powerful. At best they’d be shuffled off to new masters; at worst-
No. As long as she could, she’d stop the worst from happening.
She stepped out into the hall, turning back to face Svelen.
“ – Yeah.” He breathed out heavily. “Don’t get yourself killed.”
“Same for you. Go!”
Alix ran. She could hear Svelen behind her. He made for the stairs; she turned, and slammed the elevator button.
The lift wheezed to life, oozing up with all the speed of an arthritic crab. It might have been faster to take the stairs — but she was trying to overload the boiler. Working it harder could only help.
The grate in front of the elevator opened. Alix stepped in and shoved the lever down.
She held her breath. The lift dropped like a stone. Above her, pulleys creaked and gears squealed. She thought she smelt smoke, but it was so faint she couldn’t really tell.
Down the narrow dark hallway, under the flickering bare bulb — she’d come down here to fetch and carry a half hundred times. It felt like a nightmare where she had to find something impossible to carry in a house that was not a house.
Alix opened the door. Dust puffed out around her. It smelled like smoke and cobwebs. She coughed.
The boiler squatted in the corner like a monstrous toad. Its joints were rusted, and black mold grew around its base. A rusty wheel jutted out from its side – Alix grabbed onto it and gave it a good yank.
The boiler gurgled.
“C’mon-” Alix muttered under her breath. Her shoulders strained. The wheel groaned, and slowly began to spin.
Smoke puffed out around her. Her eyes stung. She held her breath, and wrenched at the wheel with all the strength she had. It loosened, squeaking as it spun- and then tightened again. Metal creaked and groaned.
The explosion happened so quickly that she almost didn’t realise it.
One second, she was in a dark basement, surrounded by smoke. The next, white hot metal burst out around her- flames gnawed at the floor, the ceiling, the walls- boiling water gushed from the broken boiler. She didn’t feel the heat- it was like she’d gone numb.
Alix couldn’t feel scared, even if she’d wanted to. Cold certainty flooded her. Time slowed.
She waded through water she knew should have burnt her. The basement stairs stretched ahead. She started up them, on all fours-
Were those scales on her hands?
No time to think. Alix outraced the water. As soon as her hands reached the top of the stairs, she vaulted upright and ran.
Smoke choked the air; she could barely see an inch in front of her face. Fire climbed and ate the walls.
At the very end of the hall, there was an open window, glass shattered- the perfect escape. If she could reach it.
A beam from the ceiling crashed down in front of her, slamming against the ground. It burned white-hot- the edges had already charred to cinder. It was too tall to climb over.
The hallway split three ways. Right was back towards the foyer- she knew out front was crawling with Vravesva, just waiting to catch anyone who ran. She turned back towards the kitchen. Her legs pumped; her chest burned. Smoke scraped her lungs.
She stopped for a second to catch her breath.
Footsteps. Silhouettes in the smoke- two men in gas masks. Vravesva.
She crept back.
Only one way she could go- through the pantry. She brushed past the shelves, knocked something down behind her, and didn’t look back to see what it was.
I can still make it. There was a window in the back parlor. Wasn’t too close to the street. She could still make it out of this. Hopefully Svelen and Lanva already had-
She didn’t bother to look behind her, even when she heard gunfire. Any hesitation meant she was dead.
The back parlor was a pyre.
Fire roared. It climbed the walls, ate away at the framed photographs, blackened the ceiling. There was more fire in the room than air. But the window was open- broken; someone else had gotten out. Sunlight shone through the smoke.
Alix squinted, held her breath, and ran.
Her chest tightened. Smoke tore at her eyes.
A chunk of burning plaster fell from the ceiling, and her leg grazed flame. It seared. She staggered, trying not to fall.
The windowsill! She leaned against it – eased herself over- let herself fall to the street.
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