It wasn’t much of a drop, but it knocked Alix senseless. She coughed til her lungs ached. She thought a puff of black smoke came from her mouth.
She wanted to curl into a little ball and stay where she’d fallen. But she couldn’t dare- this close to the scene of a crime, loitering was a confession of guilt.
Alix got to her feet. She had to find Svelen if she could, and Lanva, and anyone else who’d gotten out with their lives.
Walk, not run, even though she wanted to bolt. Running was another bad idea, it’d make her look guilty as a rat, and she didn’t have the strength for it anyway. So she walked.
She went round the back of the house- near where she’d found Svelen the first time- and through the twists of an alley. She had to find him. She was not going to lose him again.
Alix turned onto a main street. There were far too many people- most of them Solsva caste, in suits from northern Yunlin that were worth more than a thoughtform’s life. With her smoke-stained skin, knife-chopped hair, and tattered sweater, she stuck out like a tall poppy.
She ducked into a phone booth to give herself some time to sit. Her fingers curled around the edge of the bench. She breathed in deep, then breathed out. She looked down at the concrete floor of the booth- even here, in the rich men’s vrenli, it was cracked. But nothing grew out of it; not like at home.
All she wanted was to sleep for a week. But she couldn’t do that here. Not now. She had to find-
She looked back up. There, passing the mouth of an alley- three huddled shapes.
One had an ugly paisley blanket wrapped over its shoulder. She’d recognise that pattern anywhere- she’d stared at it morning after morning as she made beds.
Alix pushed against the bench, shakily standing, and followed them.
She caught up to them in a blind alley at the edge of the market district, next to a tiny neon shrine. Svelen- he was alive!- braced himself against the shrine’s niche. The blue light made his dark skin glow and played over the statue inside.
Her gaze flicked over to the other two.
The one wrapped in the blanket was gaunt, pale-skinned, with four impossibly-long arms- one of her master’s failed projects, she assumed, kept in the attic for studying. She’d never seen one, but sometimes she’d heard them moaning at night.
The other one was a girl with dark bangs, the ears and tail of a cat, and the rather fanciful name of ‘Masha’. Alix recognised her, but only just.
“You’re alive,” Svelen said. His breath caught. “I- I figured you’d-”
“Yeah, no, I’m fine.”
He pulled Alix into a hug. She breathed out, closed her eyes, and just held on. It was like they were both making sure they were real. Relief flooded Alix like a river spilling over its banks.
“That… I thought neither of us were walkin’ out of there,” Svelen said.
“…Where’s Lanva?” Alix asked.
The look on Svelen’s face told her everything she needed to know.
That cold, clear feeling flooded Alix again. She wasn’t frightened or sad. There was a hollow place inside her where grief should have been.
“…Where’re we going now?” she asked.
Svelen closed his eyes and rocked back and forth on his heels.
“University vrenli,” he finally said. “There’s a professor there named Senvex. He helps us get people to Nalavra or Vleylaand.”
“Is that what you want?” Alix looked at the other two. The pale-skinned thoughtform stared back at her- Alix wondered if they could talk at all.
After a moment, Masha spoke up.
“I’d like to be a sailor,” she said. “Maybe I could help other thoughtforms get away.”
The pale thoughtform nodded.
“All right. Let’s move,” Alix said. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”
“Excuse me.” The pale thoughtform’s voice sounded like rocks grinding together underground. “But – who are you?”
Alix swallowed hard, and looked them in the face.
“We’re the rat runners,” Alix said. “And we’re here to help.”
Running With Rats updates every week on Fridays.
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