The Master’s Dream: Part 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.

Vexxit-

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-

CRASH!

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: Part 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: Part 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: Part 4

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Vashe set the pot down atop the fire barrel.

“Nvara. Check out back, will you?” he asked.

“On it,” Nvara said.

“What’s out back?” Alix asked.

“Food. Monsters sometimes. Nvara’s best at dealing with that stuff.” Svelen leaned against the wall, and rubbed the back of his neck. “What’re we making, Vashe?”

“Stew.” Vashe glanced at the door. “I think we stole some meat. And we got onions n’ potatoes n’ nvoro root.”

“No meat,” Nvara announced. She slammed down a net bag of potatoes and onions, followed by a sack of purple nvoro. “This is what we’re workin’ with. And the flour.”

“We can manage. Sve-”  

Svelen pulled a knife from his waistband, and picked up the net bag. “I’m on it.”

He began slicing potatoes. Nvara took a cleaver from a hook on the wall.

In the corner of her eye, Alix saw something move. The bag of onions jiggled unpleasantly.

At first she supposed they were just settling, but they started rattling like plates in a truckbed. She jolted back, just as a black tentacle tore through the mesh.

The tentacle was thick and grooved like the surface of a brain.  It split in two, and writhed, and split again. A low growl came from inside the bag. Something inside it burst, and the stink of petrol filled the room. Alix gagged.

Something that had probably once been an onion tore its way out. It bore unblinking, slit-pupiled eyes, and four black tentacles wriggled from its sides.

It started hovering, squealing like a tea kettle.

Vashe screamed, and ducked behind the fire barrel. Nvara tried to get between him and the onion-monster. Svelen raised the knife, but his hands were shaking.

“What-” Alix began. A tentacle curled around her wrist. The onion dragged her close. It split down the middle, and a maw with spatially-impossible teeth snapped at her.

She did the one thing that made sense- jabbed it in the eye with two fingers. It screamed like a dying engine.

A flash of silver arced through the air. Alix ducked just in time. The cleaver sliced the onion clean in two. The tentacle around her wrist went limp, and the onion’s eyes glazed over.

Nvara came over, pulled the cleaver out, and stabbed it again and again. Black goo oozed from it, and melted into the ground.

“Vexfucked Blight.” Vashe breathed out. He picked up the bag gingerly, as if something else inside might explode into a monster. “…We’ve got to go somewhere else.”

“Like where?” Nvara said.

“Is this place really safe either?”

Alix jostled Svelen’s elbow.

“I think if we’re quick-” she said. “We can go down to the docks. There’s a bakery down there, if you ask nice enough they give you their old bread. It’s sxote, but -”

“That don’t bother me.” Svelen pocketed the knife.

“Vashe- We’re gonna, uh, get out of here for a minute.”

“…Can’t blame you,” Vashe said. “Come back safe.”

Svelen nodded.

Continue reading “The Master’s Dream: Part 4”