Effective this week…

Running with Rats now posts biweekly, rather than weekly.



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.

Running With Rats updates every other week on Fridays. 

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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”

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.”

Running With Rats updates every week on Fridays. 

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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.


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.

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!