The Aeronaut’s Dream, pt. 2

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Alix landed in the middle of a clearing like nothing she’d ever seen.

Trees made of brick surrounded her. Their branches crumbled upwards, turning into thin, leafless twigs of steel. Snarled roots of pipe and wire twisted into the ground at her feet. The path beneath her feet was metal, so coated in rust that dust coated her boots. Newspaper-grass and tin can bushes sprouted along each side of the path.

The goggles made the world look like an old movie. Everything was sepia and white, and it flickered as she turned her head.

“Where-” she said, aloud.

“Sshhh!” Svelen’s voice came from above her head, like the voice of a god. She blinked.

“You’re gonna wake her up,” he whispered. “Remember, you’re still in the real world too.”

Alix nodded. She hoped he could see her.

“Where do I go?” she asked.

“Follow the path,” Svelen said. “See if you can find anything glowing.”

She started along, passing through the forest uneasily. Something rustled in the undergrowth, but when she turned to look, nothing was there.

“What happens now?” Alix muttered.

Great puffs of smoke came from the undergrowth. Smog blotted out the sky, thick as the smog around the Cathedrals of Industry.

“Nvara’s at the center of her dream,” Svelen said. “You have to get to the center, find where the lio’s coming from. It’s close to her. Depending on the dream, might be her, might not. Pick up as much as you can carry and bring it back.”

“Aight.” Alix nodded, and walked onward.

She heard the great machine before she saw it. Great pneumatic whooshes and clanks echoed through the metal forest. It sounded like some kind of vast mechanical animal, slowly dying.

But she couldn’t see it properly until she’d gotten to the edge of the trees. When she did, she had to shade her eyes- light glinted off metal, so bright it blinded.

It was a building. A skyscraper made of wood, with roots that twined deep into the ground. Its windows gaped like vacant eyes, and vast machines twisted up its sides like parasitic vines.

Platforms on pulleys cranked endlessly up and down; pumps studded with gauges clunked and groaned as they pushed something out of them. Smoke rose from stacks poking out from the skyscraper’s sides. Alix wondered how it hadn’t burned down.

“Guessin’ this is it,” she said aloud.

“What is it?”

“You can’t see?”

“I’m not wearing the goggles, Alix.”

“Right. It’s a giant… machine-tree.” Still shading her eyes, she looked up its length.

“… Ah, yeah, that’s the place.” Svelen breathed out hard. “Be careful in there.”

“You’re not my vexin’ mother,” Alix said. Despite her brave words, nervousness crept up her spine like a snake.

“No, but still.” She could almost hear Svelen nervously twisting his fingers together.

“Sorry,” she said.

She started for the tower.

“Do you see anything shiny?” Svelen asked.

Alix shaded her eyes and looked up- past the grinding gears and the endless pumps. Near the very top of the tower, in one of the empty windows, there was a light. It looked more like neon than fire, though it was as sepia-toned as anything else through the goggles.

“Yeah. It’s sort of… cold?” She tilted her head to the side and squinted, trying to see it clearly.

“That’s the lio. Go get it.”  

Ai. On the move.”  

She lept, caught the edge of one of the platforms, and pulled herself up onto it. It clanked as she pulled herself up. The platform swayed from side to side.

A bell clanged in the distance. Alix saw something move out of the corner of her eye.


One second, she was standing on the platform; the next, something shoved her, and she fell.

Alix grabbed at the brick, fingers scrabbling against the stone. She caught a pipe and hung. Her legs dangled into the nothingness.

She didn’t dare look down.

Above her, the thing looked down from the platform – a glowing white shape with silver, burning eyes. It looked like a hole in the world.  

“Svelen? What the fuck-” she said. Her voice cracked.

“What? What’s going on?”

The white shape leaped to a platform closer to her. It was graceful as a dancer, but something about the way it moved was wrong. Its limbs had too many joints, and its outline shifted and blurred.

“Alix?” Svelen’s voice echoed in her ears.

She tried to pull herself up. Rust flaked onto her fingers. The pipe groaned.

The creature reached out for her. Its arm flicked through shapes, fast as frames of a film reel. A crab’s claw snapped at her; a bear’s claws lashed forward; a serpent hissed and bared its fangs.

The monster’s reach was just barely too short. The serpent’s breath hit her face, but its jaws snapped onto empty air.

She laughed in breathless shock. Her gaze flicked down the tree’s trunk. She was too far above to drop down onto another moving platform, but another pipe jutted out from the side. If she managed to catch it-

Something moved. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw it- the creature’s torso lengthening, stretching like rubber. It reared up like a snake.

“Alix, answer me-” Svelen said.  

The creature swayed from side to side. Staticky words crackled from its mouth, like a thousand garbled radio channels all speaking at once.

“One Of End Are You Kill End The Our Us Hurt End We Our Save Our End End End End End-”

Alix let go of the pipe. She fell like a stone. The creature tumbled after her, body uncoiling like an eel’s.

She grabbed for another branch, but her fingers only scraped against the brick. Something hot and wet ran down her hand.

The ground rushed closer. Alix closed her eyes-

Something tore at her temples. Cold air hit her face like a brick.

She wasn’t falling; she was sitting on a cold concrete floor. She couldn’t feel the weight of the goggles on her face anymore, but her fingers and her temples smarted.

She opened her eyes.  

Svelen stood over her, coiling up the goggles’ wires.   

“Alix- Are you okay?”

She sighed, and rubbed her hand. It felt like she really had gashed herself on a brick wall, but when she pulled the glove off, her fingers were as good as new.

“I’m fine.” She scowled. “There was a – thing, chasing me. That’s all.”

“…Ohhh dear. Was it the one with the gas mask?” Svelen asked.

She shook her head.

“It was a – shapeshifter-thing,” she said. “I tried to run away. Fell off a tower.”

“So I got you just in time,” Svelen said. He looked down at the goggles, and turned them over in his hands.

“I’m guessing that if you die in a dream, you’re still dead,” Alix said.

Svelen nodded.

“If you want-” he murmured. “She’s still asleep. You can try again.”

Alix raised an eyebrow.

“You’ll let me?” she said.

“…If I didn’t, you’d figure out how to do it without me,” he said.

“You’re not wrong, but-” she said.

Outside, the hatch slammed.

Alix flinched. Every time the door opened or closed, she half-expected jackbooted Vravesva goons to march in.  She nervously glanced at the bunk room door.

It opened. In stepped Vashe, carrying a package wrapped in brown paper. Melting frost dripped down his horns, and his eyes were bright.

He set the package down next to the door, and rubbed his hands together.

“Boys and girls,” he said, “we’ve got ourselves a job.”

Running With Rats updates biweekly every second and fourth Friday. 

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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.

Running With Rats updates biweekly every second and fourth Friday. 

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, and more.

Thanks for reading!


In the city of Isseran, everything is in its proper place. Society runs like a well-oiled machine… but the machine grinds unfortunates between its gears. Slaves and soldiers want more than their masters will give them; rebellion hangs in the air.

Alix Black-Eyes, a former slave with a dark secret, stumbles upon a small band of rebels called the Rat Runners. They hope to harness the endless power of dreamstuff to stop the cruel machine. Can Alix and her new friends build something better in its place, or will their differences tear their rebellion apart before it can truly begin?

Running with Rats is a dieselpunk dark fantasy webserial that posts biweekly (the second and fourth Friday of every month).


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1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11


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If you like Running with Rats, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Patreon’s like a virtual tip jar- it helps me keep writing the stories you love, and as if that wasn’t enough, you get cool stuff for becoming a patron, like side stories, maps, and early access to certain content!

Also, I’ve written other stuff. You can check it out here.

Thank you so much for reading.

Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Among them: Patreon, the Running with Rats ebook, and the other writing I’d like to share with you.

What is Patreon? 

Patreon is a website that lets you support the artists you love. By pledging a little bit of money every month, you give artists the freedom to focus on their art- and get cool stuff in return! You can pay what you want, for as long as you want- and you can opt out at any time.  Think of it as a virtual tip jar.

As you may have guessed, I have a Patreon. If you like Running with Rats and you want to see more neat Rat Runner related stuff, now’s your chance. There’s some content on there that’s only available for my patrons, and more in the future!

Speaking of patron-exclusive content….

Running with Rats arc 1 ebook!

Yep, The Master’s Dream is coming soon to a Kindle near you. (Or a Nook, or a smartphone, or that bootleg Kandle e-reader you got off ebay; doesn’t really matter to me.) All nine episodes will be available in one easy-to-read book that you can take with you anywhere.

It’s going to be available for my Patreon patrons sometime near the end of June. If you don’t want to become a patron, you’ll be able to buy the ebook on Amazon sometime near the end of the year, for a higher price. Watch this space, or my Patreon feed, for more details.

And finally…

If you like Running with Rats, I’ve written other stuff!

My first novel, The Court of Stars, is available on Amazon in both ebook and paperback formats. A young knight discovers the universe is much stranger than he thought- and nearly everything in it is trying to kill him.

I also have two short stories for sale right now:

The Captain’s Sphere, a steampunk short story that made the Tiptree Award’s Long List.  As Lady Ava Loftus pursues her passion- the study and dissection of mysterious creatures called angels- she must move between different social spheres and contend with others’ ideas of who and what she should be.

Chrysalis is a love story to the weird, wonderful people of the internet and the ways it helps us survive.
On the internet, no one knows you’re a bug… unless you tell them. But when Gregor undergoes a painful transformation, he needs his friends’ help to keep his sanity- and to keep his family together.

If you like Running with Rats, give them a look! You might find something you like.

Thanks for reading! Next week- the start of Arc 2!

The Master’s Dream: pt. 9

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Alix loitered outside the university’s red brick buildings, looking up at the sky. Grey clouds gathered over the onion domes, piled up on each other in heaps against the blue sky. The air smelled like snow.

She felt exposed- like an eye in the sky was watching her. But it was better for them not to go in all at once. She’d volunteered to stay outside and keep watch, in case the Vravesva had followed them. For now, that meant she was alone.

She closed her eyes. All she could see was flame. Her breath came in quick gasps. 

Better to look at anything else. Anything but the things inside her mind. She opened her eyes again and traced shapes in the clouds. 

Sailing ship. Anvil. Horned ferret. Dragon. Whale.

By the time Svelen came to meet her,  her breath had calmed. Some of the tension had loosened from her shoulders.

“They safe?” she asked.

“As houses.”

Alix laughed. She laughed long and hard and stupid, until tears fell from her eyes and her chest ached.

“What?” he asked.

“It’s just… houses. Not really safe anymore.”

“…No.” Svelen’s mouth curved up. His expression was more like a grimace than a smile.  

“We should move,” he said. 

She nodded and stuck her hands in her pockets, following after him. 

“When we get back- there’s something I need to tell you,” he said.

Alix frowned.

“…Not about Lanva?” she said.

“No. I’m sorry,” he said. He looked down at a crack in the pavement. Alix followed his gaze. 

“Let’s go, then,” she said. “No time to waste here.”
Continue reading “The Master’s Dream: pt. 9”

The Master’s Dream: pt. 8

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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. 

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!

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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