The Master’s Dream: pt 3

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“What in the vexing fuck.”

Vashe folded his arms.

“You stuck them in your belt again, didn’t you.”

“Yeah. I’m- I’m sorry, Vashe, I-” Svelen covered his face with his hand.

“Where’s the last place you had it?” Nvara said.

“Far as I know?” Svelen said, from behind his hand. “The target.”

“Meaning my- my master’s house,” Alix said.

Svelen nodded.

“Could have lost it on the way,” he added. It was a thin skin of hope over the teeth of blind panic. His fingers knotted together behind his back.

“If we did, it’s gone. Someone else would have found it by now. Taken it back to the Cathedral.” Nvara’s nostrils flared.

“It’s all right.” Vashe put a hand on Svelen’s shoulder. “We still have one glove. It’s not the end of the world.”

“It’s close,” Svelen said. He breathed out shakily.

“…You don’t need both of them?” Alix asked.

She’d gone with her master to the temple a few times and watched the priests weave lio- what common folk called dreamstuff. They used goggles to see into dreams and gloves to carry lio out of them, and their set looked just like the set the rat runners had. At the temple, they said you need two gloves, and even then, you could only get so much lio from any one person’s dream. It was hard to find, they said, and risky to go into dreams. How they did it was a most holy secret; all Alix knew was that it had something to do with the goggles and gloves.

“No,” Vashe said. “We tested that. You can only get one hand’s worth, but-”

“It’s not gonna be nearly enough,” Svelen said. He swallowed, hard. “For any of the things we were wanting to do.”

“Well,” Alix said. “We’d better go find it.”

“Wait, wait wait wait. What do you mean, ‘we’?” Nvara said.

“…Me and Svelen? Who else did you think?” Alix’s lips twisted to one side.

“You don’t get it, do you?” Nvara laughed, harsh and barking. “There’s no ‘we’ here. There’s us and there’s you. And we can’t trust you.”

“I do,” Svelen said. He took a step away from her, back towards Alix.

“Yeah, but you trust everyone,” Nvara said.

“Shut it!”  Vashe pinched the bridge of his nose.  

Everyone got quiet. Vashe sighed.

“Stop vexin’ dithering. It’s gonna be light soon. Not gonna be much any of us can do once everyone wakes up.”

“That’s not true.”

Alix brushed her bangs to one side.

“M- The man who lives there, he has really strict habits. He keeps everyone on a timetable. And I worked there. I know the timetable.”

She looked from Vashe to Nvara. Nvara folded her arms; Vashe’s fingers curled in Svelen’s hair. Svelen breathed out, shakily.

“It’s true,” he said. “We could maybe go in there without anyone seeing us. He goes to the Cathedral every morning at exactly nine and stays there for three hours.”

“If we hurry, we can get back in through the slaves’ door and look around,” Alix cut in. “If someone catches me, I can lie.”

“What about me?” Svelen asked.

“Any way we could forge a note? You could be there picking up something for ‘your master’,” Alix said.

“I mean, we could try, but someone might recognise me.”

“If we cover up your freckles? You’d be surprised,” she said. “Keep your mouth shut, put a hood on, no one will notice.”

“…It could work,” Svelen said.

“Yeah.” She grinned.

“Wait. Hold it.” Vashe frowned. “Before you two go swimmin’ off into the triple-vexed unknown.”

“What?” Alix asked.

“Have either of you eaten? I know you ain’t.”

Vashe nudged Svelen’s shoulder. Svelen groaned, and reached up to ruffle Vashe’s hair.

“I have too eaten. I had an entire apple before we left.”

“Ay, me. You’re gonna turn into a feather at this rate. Nvara- where’s the pot? We’re getting you fed,” Vashe said. “And slept if you can manage, but-”

His brows lowered.

“I don’t think I’m gonna be able to,” Svelen said. “Not until we find that glove.”


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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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The Master’s Dream: Pt. 1

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The corridor was long and dark, and at the end of it, Alix heard voices that she knew weren’t supposed to be there.

If she hadn’t been able to make out what they were saying, she would have assumed that it was just wind, coming through the hole in the roof. Her master was a miser, and he only repaired things when not doing so would inconvenience him. But she’d heard words – “dream”, “hurry”, “quiet!” Someone was there. Question was, who?

Alix balanced the tray carefully, and crept forward. There was a board at the end of the hall that creaked; she edged around it.  A funny smell hung in the air- like boiling water, but with a kick to it.

She slid open the door.

The window gaped, spilling moonlight into the room. Someone stood in front of the window, but it wasn’t her master- long horns curled from the top of their head, and they held a knife. In front of them, someone else squatted on the floor. They wore a pair of goggles and night-black gloves that reached their elbows. The stranger’s mouth hung open, and they gazed into nothing.

 Alix dropped the tray. Her master’s glass smashed. Pills scattered on the ground. She took a step back. Her breath stuck in the back of her throat.

The horned person flinched and shook the one in the goggles.

“Svelen. Sve. Wake up-”

Alix felt like her bones had turned to ice. Svelen wasn’t a common name, but— there was no way it was him. He’d disappeared months ago, he was probably dead.

The boy in the goggles blinked, stripped them off, and stood up. The horned person grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him to the window, then through it.

Alix ran to the window, half in a daze. She didn’t want to hope, but if there was even a chance it was Svelen—

She could hear the strangers on the roof, running like starved dogs were at their heels.

Alix swung herself up, and followed them. The loose tiles skidded under her feet. She aimed for the gap in the roof just ahead of her, over the slave quarters.

She jumped it, and glanced over the edge of the wall. Where were they—

There! At the edge of the street, running into an alley. She clambered down onto the lower roof and slid down the drainpipe.

She’d lost her best friend once before. She couldn’t lose him again.

It started to snow, but Alix barely noticed. She squinted, picking out the shape of the person’s horns through the gloom.

The streets twisted and wound around her, but finally, they reached a dead end. She could see them at the end of it.  The horned person stood in front of the boy, and she was only seeing him from behind, but —

He was short, with wildly curly hair, and his dark skin was covered in bright orange freckles. It was him. She didn’t know anyone else, human or thoughtform, who looked like him.

“Svelen?”

He turned.

“Alix? What’re you—”

“There’s no vexin’ time,” the horned person said. “We’ve got to get out of here now.”

From his voice—he sounded like he’d been smoking broken glass—Alix guessed he was probably a man. “Well, I’ll follow you,” she told him, “until you tell me what’s going on.”

The horned man’s eyes flicked from Alix to Svelen. He growled from the back of his throat.

“You know her?” he asked Svelen.

“She’s my friend.”

“C’mon, then. We keep standin’ around and running our yaps, we’ll be easy pickings for the strikers.”  

He started off, Svelen following him.

“Oh-” the horned man said, as if he’d just thought of it. “Stick a fold on her.”

“I’m really sorry, Alix.” Svelen untied a bandage from around his wrist and tied it over her eyes. He pulled it so tight it tugged on her hair.

He grabbed her hand. His was more calloused than the last time she’d held it. What had he been doing while he was gone?

“Get moving,” the horned man said.

And so they did. Alix had no idea where they were. She could barely see lights and shadows through the bandage. She knew that they passed under the belltower of the Cathedral of Industry- the mournful bells tolled midnight- but other than that, she hadn’t a clue.

All she could do was trust Svelen.


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