The Aeronaut’s Dream: pt. 1

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“I’m not chickening out,” Alix said.

She pulled the glove up over her elbow. The elastic band inside was sticky, and it bit into her upper arm. But its satin was smooth against her skin.

“Didn’t say you were, but….” Svelen shrugged, and fidgeted with the goggles on his lap. “It’s not the end of the world if you don’t practice now.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Alix breathed out, and pulled the other glove on. The fingers crumpled and flexed.  “The sooner I learn how to dreamrun, the sooner your boy can rest easy.”

“He’s not my boy-”

“Will you two shut up,” Nvara groaned.

Alix glanced over at her.

Nvara lay on the bottom bunk of the left-most bed, wrapped in a sheet so patched that it was nearly a quilt. She squinted up at Alix through a curtain of hair.    

“Sorry, Nvara. I thought the pills would have kicked in by now,” Svelen said.

“Well, they ain’t. So vexxin’ can it already.” Nvara pulled the sheet up over her face and curled up into a ball.

Alix pinched the bridge of her nose with her ungloved hand.

“Maybe we should go into the other room,” she said.

Svelen nodded, and opened the door.

It was late morning, but the main room of the rat runners’ bunker looked much the same at ten o’clock as it did at twenty. Daylight couldn’t come this far underground. The only real difference was that the fire in the barrel in the centre of the room had burnt to coals, and the radio on a pile of boxes in the corner let out faint music instead of static.

“You’re sure you’re ready for this?” Svelen said.

“Positive.” She folded her arms. “Why are you giving me such a hard time?”

“This isn’t ‘a hard time’, Alix.” Svelen sighed. “You’ve seen me give you a hard time.”

“Fair, but- you’re goin’ all mother hen. ‘Are you sure you wanna do this? Are you really sure? Really? Can I quote you on that? Get that in black and white for the Snvitla?'” Alix sighed.

“If I wanted to be sure of somethin’, I’d ask the Snvitla to not print it,” Svelen said.  “They never write anything but propaganda.”

“You know what I mean, Svelen! I know what I want, for Vari’s sake!”

“You’re shouting.”  

“Fucking right, I’m shouting! Don’t you get it-”

“You’re shouting, and you’re gonna wake up Nvara.”

Alix pinched the bridge of her nose again.

“Svelen. You said Mama could be alive.”

“What’s that have to do with this?” Svelen’s voice always got squeaky when he was upset, but it was reaching the point that only mice could hear. “I told you, it was a really lousy ditto copy, I could barely read it, I made out her name and the date-”

“Which is why I need to learn to dreamrun!” Alix threw up her hands.

“If we can go into dreams- can’t you pull memories out of people’s heads? Information? I could find out for sure. And then we could rescue her.”

“And I want to do that!” Svelen’s shoulders hunched up. “I want to help you do that.”

“So why are you trying to stop me?” she said.

“I’m not. I’d be crazy to fight you on this. I’m just worried about you.”

Silence hung in the air. Even the radio signal had faded almost to nothingness. Svelen stayed hunched over, clenching the band of the goggles in his fist. Alix glanced back at the door- if Nvara was still awake, she wasn’t saying a word.

“…are you mad at me?” Svelen asked.

Alix bit her lip.

“I’m not mad.” She breathed out, long and slow. “Not at you.”

He relaxed, some, but his gaze still reminded Alix of a hunted rabbit’s.

“You said it yourself, Sve,” she said. “This isn’t the end of the world. It’s a practice run. You don’t gotta worry about me this much.”

“…Don’t be so sure about that.”

Svelen’s fingers knotted together, twisting the band of the goggles between them.  

“What’s there to worry about?” Alix asked.

“It’s the dreamscapes. They’re scary places. Especially-“

He stopped short and hissed through his teeth.

“Especially Nvara’s?” Alix said.

“I didn’t say that.”

“Were you going to?”

He looked away.

“Why do you two even keep her around?” Alix scowled.

“I didn’t mean it like that!” Svelen threw up his hands. “She doesn’t want to hurt you.”

“That’s not an answer, Sve’, and you know it.”

Alix leaned back against the wall, folding her arms.

“She hates thoughtforms,” she said. “You’re a thoughtform. Vashe’s a thoughtform, far as I can tell. She hates my guts.”

He couldn’t meet her eyes.

“So why do you keep her around? Seems like it ain’t helpin’ anyone.”

“That’s like asking me why I keep you around,” he said.

Alix swallowed.

“That’s- that’s different. I’m not like that,” she said. “Not all the time. Not at you.”

“She ain’t like that all the time either.” Svelen breathed out hard. “You caught her at a bad time. Got a bad first impression.”

Outside, thunder rolled. Static fizzed the radio’s music.

“Must have been one vexin’ bad time.”

“It was. …Nvara doesn’t hate thoughtforms. Not really. She hates shapeshifters.

Svelen held up a hand, cautiously.

“And no- no, I’m not saying you’re one, okay, don’t look at me like that.”

“Didn’t say you were.”

Alix scuffed her foot against the ground. Her toes caught the edge of the burlap rug, and crinkled it up.

“News report came on right before you came in. It was propaganda. But it set her off,” he said. “She gets all… tense when she’s like that. All brittle. Same way you do sometimes.”

His voice and his expression stayed mild. So mild that Alix got the feeling he was trying to talk her down. If it had been anyone but Svelen, she would have been annoyed. As it was… she was still annoyed, but she restrained it.

“So she doesn’t hate you.”

“No. She’s Vashe’s best friend. You really think he’d trust someone who hated his guts?”

“…From the way you talk about him, no,” Alix said.

“Well- he wouldn’t. It’s not her fault she got like that. It’s just- sometimes the inside of her head’s a bad, bad place. And it shows in her dreams. You run into stuff that, well… you don’t wanna see. But she’s the only human we’ve got to practice with.”

Alix glanced through the door. It was dark inside, so she couldn’t see much of anything, but she could hear Nvara’s breathing, soft and slow.

“So you’re not worried that I’ll fuck up. You’re worried she will.”

“Something like that.” He nodded.

“Well, I’m gonna have to learn how to do this sometime. Isn’t it better if we do it now?” she said. “She’s not riled up, I’m not riled up, and nothing’s at stake.”

“You’re right. I just- I feel like I’m puttin’ you in danger,” he said.

“Svelen? I’m putting myself in danger.” Alix grinned. “I’m just gonna need you to get me out of it.”

“Ain’t that just the way.” Svelen smiled; the corners of his eyes crinkled up. “Let’s get this over with, then. Before Nvara wakes up.”

“Thanks, Svelen.” Alix started to pull on the other glove.

“Wire me,” she said.

Svelen held the goggles up and cursed under his breath.

The goggles shone bronze, even in the dim half-light of the oil lamp. The lenses looked thin and wispy, as real as opium smoke. Thin wires hung down the sides, like the straw hair on an old shadow-play mask. Each one was capped by a thin metal circle. And – as wires tend to do when left alone- they’d tangled together like a peasant woman’s braids. He started to untangle them.

Alix pulled her hair back, took the rubber band from her wrist, and tied it into a bun. It was a little comforting, doing something so familiar.

Svelen pulled a little bottle from his pocket and screwed off the cap, smearing glue that looked like clear butter onto each of the metal circles.

“What did you call those things again?”

“The electrodes?” Svelen held up one of the circles by its wire.

“Yeah, that was it.”

Alix closed her eyes. Svelen started to work- sticking an electrode to each of her temples and one to the center of her forehead, just over the bridge of her nose. They stuck on firm, tugging at the little hairs on her cheeks and the edge of her hairline. The glue-jelly felt cold and tingly against her skin, and it smelled awful. She tried not to pull a face, though- it might make them fall off. .

The first time at anything was always the hardest, she told herself. The faster she learnt to dreamrun, the faster and easier it’d be next time, and the time after that. Soon it would just be normal. And once it was normal, she could do it with no problem, until she got what she wanted.

Svelen crept forward and opened the door. He peered around the corner, and then motioned Alix over.

“She’s out. Don’t put those on until I tell you, ai?”

“Ai.” Alix’s fingers curled around the frames. The lenses’ edges were solid under her fingertips.

She followed after him, walking quiet as a cat. Nvara was fast asleep on the bed- a splayed out mess of wild, tangled hair and long awkward limbs. Her face looked different when she slept- calmer and less guarded than Alix had ever seen her.

Alix sat down beside the bed.

“Get closer to her head,” Svelen whispered. “Helps the connection.”

She nodded, scooted forward, and tucked her knees into her chest.

“Right, Svelen said. “You ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” Alix said.

“On my signal, then. Three… two… one… clear.”

Alix pulled the goggles down over her eyes and slid into the dreamworld.

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The Master’s Dream: pt. 7

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“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.

Svelen nodded.

“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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The Master’s Dream: pt. 6

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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.

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The Master’s Dream: pt. 5

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Just as Alix had predicted, the door was ajar.

They’d come up through the market vrenli, hiding themselves in the crowds of people looking to find bread or pants. Neon lights shone from the sides of buildings, and coloured lamps hung from the roofs of stalls and carts- every creator, no matter how puny, trying to grab one’s attention.

No one noticed them there. They were just two more people in a crowd like a river. Even as they passed into the Solsva vrenli, there was nothing that drew people’s attention to them. Svelen had covered his freckles with dirt, and Alix kept her head down, eyes fixed on the ground.

The walls of their old master’s house rose over them in all their shabby glory. Beige, water-stained, studded with windows- and the small door in the back, by the rubbish bins and the ashcans, hung loose on its hinges. The air still smelled like Cook’s cigars.

Alix slipped forward and glanced through the cracked-open door.  The kitchen hallway was as bare as could be-white walls, a plain wooden floor, and no one in sight.

“Clear,” she said. She eased the door open and crept inside. Svelen followed behind her, closing the door. 

Somewhere in the house, a clock ticked. Faint laughter echoed a few rooms down, and dice clicked- Cook’s valaxa game was in full swing.

Alix felt like a hunted hare. If they were caught, by anyone, they’d lose everything – the glove, their freedom, and maybe even their lives. 

But there was no one to catch them. They’d timed it right. The trick was never about getting in; it was getting out.

Alix closed her eyes, breathed in, and started forward. Svelen followed, silent as a cat.

At the end of the hall was the servant’s elevator, behind a thick metal grate. She smelled its dusty emptiness even through the closed door. The elevator was a rustbucket- it rattled and clanked on the way up, and clunked and wheezed on the way down. It used the house’s thrice-vexed ancient boiler system, and clouds of black smoke sometimes rose through the shaft behind it.

“You think-” she started. Using it would be risky, but it might get them upstairs faster.

Svelen shook his head.

“Nah. Stairs.”

She nodded, and turned left, up the servants’ staircase.

The stairs spiraled like the inside of a shell. Alix wanted to take them three at a time, but that would make too much noise. She stuck to the side, where they were less likely to creak.

Finally- upstairs. She’d never been happier to see the deer skulls and dead butterflies mounted on the wall. A shard of glass still stuck between the floorboards- whoever had cleaned up after her hadn’t done their job.

They know I’m gone.

She squinted and tried to look through the lock of bedroom door. No one was inside, as far as she could tell.

“Clear?” Svelen asked.

She nodded, and stepped aside. Svelen pulled a hairpin from his pocket. It was curiously bent at the tips, and gleamed in the dim windowlight. He got to work.

The pin rattled in the locks; every little click of the tumblers sounded as loud as a bone breaking. Alix glanced over her shoulder at the stairs. She thought she heard someone coming, but no one was there.

“Hurry up,” she muttered.

“Trying. It’s stuck.”

Alix cursed under her breath. 

The door creaked open. Svelen smiled, tight as a sailor’s grip.

She slipped through. He closed the door behind them.

Her master- no, her old master- lived in a mess. He fancied himself a scholar. His rooms were always filled with stacks of books the thoughtform slaves weren’t allowed to touch. They towered over his bed like the ruins of a dead city.

His mess had colonized the entire room. It would make their job harder.

 Alix edged around a tower of books and bent under the bed. Maybe in her flight, she’d kicked the glove under there. She scrabbled on her hands and knees, squinting in the darkness.

A book had fallen under the bed. It was a prayer book- extracts from the Variegations – about the size of Alix’s palm. She pocketed it to read later. Better to have shit books than no books; at least they gave your mind something to chew on.

Alix dug around with her hands, to make sure she wasn’t missing the glove in the dark. There were dust bunnies, the odd scrap of paper, and- wait, was that fabric?

She pulled it up eagerly, but dropped it as soon as she saw it. The sweat-stained sock crumpled on the ground.

Ugh. Waste of time.

She stood. Her face burned. Her hair- normally flat as mud- crackled around her head like a prophet’s halo.

“Anything?” she asked Svelen. He shook his head.

“Not in the closet. Or the stacks. Checked.”

“Vexit. So it’s in the study.”

“If it’s here at all,” he mumbled.

“Best get to it.”

Alix eased the door open and peered around it. The hall was still empty. The flowers on the wallpaper looked like a thousand tiny camera lenses, recording her every move.

She stuck to the side, feet brushing the baseboard. There was one floorboard that creaked, no matter how lightly you stepped. She’d learned to edge around it, but with every little step, she half-expected it to shriek.

Her master’s study was behind two very thick oak doors. Inside, a clock ticked from the top of a large armoire. The radio hummed.

“-more news from the front- this is to be a quick war. With luck, our brave soldiers may even be home by the third chain- ”

The announcer’s voice drilled into Alix’s brain. Soon, tinny music replaced his rapid-fire words. She unplugged the radio. If they were unlucky enough to get caught, she wanted to hear them coming.

Just like her master’s room, every flat surface was covered in stacks of papers. Most of them were priestly things- anatomical diagrams, maps of some obscure dream or another, sigils drawn from the many books of Vari- but a few looked like they might be poetry. Alix didn’t have time to read them. Whatever they were, they weren’t what she was looking for.

She squinted under the desk. It couldn’t be there, could it? Not enough space. That meant it was somewhere in the mess of papers.

There was no way she was going to put everything back where she found it. Too many papers, and she didn’t care about sorting them. He’d see the glove was gone anyway. And if they got caught, she’d have a lot more to worry about than a few spoiled papers, wouldn’t she? 

Fuck itThe thought went to her head like cheap wine. She swept papers to the floor. They fell like snow. She wanted to laugh and kick them into the air, just to watch them ruined. 

No. Stay focused. She was here for a reason, and it wasn’t to ruin her master’s work.

Something creaked behind her. She flinched, and looked over her shoulder. Svelen had opened the great hinged cabinet, and was peering through the messily-stacked boxes inside. A safe perched in the bottom left hand corner, balanced on a tiny box barely big enough to hold a ring.

“Quiet,” she muttered.

Svelen glanced behind him. He nodded, and went back to his search. Alix went back to hers. She tucked the little book into her waistband, so she could better use both hands.

“Anything?” Svelen asked.

“Not anywhere obvious.” She shook her head. 

“…Might be in the safe,” Svelen’s lips quirked to one side. 

“Then we’re fucked.”

“No. Gimme a tick-” He took out the hairpin again. Alix raised an eyebrow.

“We have time?”

“What time is it?” he asked.

She glanced at the clock.

“Ten-thirty,” she said. “We’re running short.”

“Just let me -“

“Fine. Make it quick.”

Svelen fumbled with the lock, spinning the wheel over and over. Something inside the safe clicked. He looked up, and opened the door.

“You’re good at this,” Alix said.

“Thanks. Flattery later,” Svelen said.

Inside- mostly more papers. Alix cursed under her breath, and dug in. Papers, papers, what looked like a birth certificate, slave licenses- she crumpled those and threw them behind her. Svelen pocketed a little velvet pouch. Then he cried out, and Alix blinked.

“Look what I-”

He held up the glove. Its fingertips dangled at his elbow.

“It must have settled in the back when he put it in here,” he said; his voice was high and rushed. “Now we just have to-“

Were those voices in the corridor? Alix shushed him, and pricked up her ears.

Outside, clear as a gunshot, the floorboard creaked.

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The Master’s Dream, pt. 2

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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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