Chapter 9, Part 4

In a flash, she launched herself at the first man, intending to rain down a flurry of punches and kicks. Instead, her first punch was so powerful that it sent the man flying twenty feet. He crashed into a brick wall and slumped over, unconscious. The other three men stared at her for a second, their mouths hanging open in shock, while Alessandra stared at the man she’d punched, with her mouth also hanging open in shock. Then the three men yelled and charged at her at once.
In a few seconds, it was all over. Two punches and one kick were all it took for Alessandra to dispatch all three men, and then she was standing there, taking deep breaths, staring in awe at the unconscious men slumped all around her. There was no longer any doubt in her mind. Ilimay had somehow transferred her powers to Alessandra, and even better, somehow Alessandra instinctively knew how to use those powers. She took a deep breath with her eyes closed, and then, with a quick look around to make sure no one was watching, she turned invisible again and slipped off into the night.
The rest of the night she roamed the slums, zooming from one part of the city to another, beating up thugs and then disappearing again. She had plans for these new powers, but she needed to make sure she knew what they were capable of before she put them to use. During one fight, she deliberately allowed herself to get hurt, and then, once the battle was over, she willed her flesh to heal itself. During another fight, she willed a fireball into existence and flung it at one of the thugs she was fighting. At one point she attempted to fly, but she felt instinctively that such a thing was not possible, and sure enough, her feet remained firmly planted on the ground.
All night long, she raced, snuck, and fought her way through the slums. She didn’t seem to tire at all, and she didn’t know if that was because her newfound powers meant that she didn’t get tired, or if she was just so excited about her new powers that her body was running on adrenaline. A nagging voice in the back of her head told her that maybe she should think about what happened a little more, maybe reflect on it a little, but she shoved that voice back down every time it surfaced. This was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her in her life, and she didn’t want to sully it by thinking too much about it.
Finally, the light of the sun began creeping into the streets of the slums, and Alessandra, for the first time since before the demon showed up in her hut, started to feel a little tired. She wanted to be at peak performance before she put the first part of her plan into motion, so she decided to search the outskirts for a place to sleep. There were so many abandoned buildings on the outskirts that finding a place to hide for a few hours was easy, especially considering her speed and her ability to turn invisible.
Her last thought before she drifted off to sleep was to wonder if she could stay invisible even while she slept, and sure enough, when she woke up in the early afternoon, she was still completely invisible. Because of her confidence in her new powers, she had slept more soundly than at any time since she’d been exiled. In fact, her sleep had been even deeper than most nights when she lived in the Mekoval clanhouse. For the first time in a very long time, Alessandra was confident that things were going to be alright.
She stood in the doorway of her new hovel with a broad grin on her face, brimming with exuberance, confident that today was the day her exile would end. She had a plan, and there was no reason for her to delay carrying it out. Actually, she thought, as her stomach growled, maybe a slight delay would be fine.
Obtaining money for food was easier than it had ever been, of course. She found that not only could she hide herself from sight and sound, she could even buffer herself in such a way that people couldn’t feel her when she touched them. Pickpocketing had never been such a breeze. In fact, she obtained so much money, she was able to buy as much food in one trip as she had in the entire previous week. She only intended to eat a portion of it, saving the rest for later, but once she started eating, she found that she couldn’t stop until it was all gone. That had unsettling implications for the energy costs of her new powers, but she refused to let that bother her. She had a plan, and once she carried out that plan, everything else would fall into place.
Once she had eaten and drank, she felt refreshed, more refreshed, in fact, than she’d felt in a long time. She wondered about what that might mean, but not for too long. She sat on a park bench with her legs crossed and her arms stretched out along the back of the bench. The bench was half rotted and any trace of paint that might once have been applied to it was long lost to the elements. The park that the bench was in was a small, shabby thing, with a pair of bedraggled, scrawny trees, and a few sprigs of wilted grass. Despite these bleak surroundings, Alessandra was happier than she’s been in a very long time. Maybe ever. Everything had gone wrong for her lately, but that changed today. With these new powers, she would be able to take what was rightfully hers, and force her universe to bend to her will. Starting today, everything was going to start going her way. She knew it.

To be continued…

Chapter 9, Part 3

Finally, with a primal roar and a flash of purple light, Ilimay was able to free her arms from the demon’s grasp. She whipped around and tried to drive her sword into the demon’s chest, but the demon was quicker. It plunged one of its clawed hands into Ilimay’s chest, and the scream she emitted was even more wrenching than her previous one, but as she screamed, she dropped her sword, reached up with both hands, and grabbed the demon by the head. Immediately the demon shrieked, and then it flashed a brilliant white and disappeared.

As soon as the demon was gone, Ilimay collapsed onto the ground. Her breathing was labored and her face was ashen. Weakly, she gestured for Alessandra to come closer, and Alessandra did so, feeling shaken to her very core. Members of the Order of Sunaru were viewed as akin to gods by the people of the slums, and now that Alessandra saw one of them broken and bleeding in front of her, she had no idea how to process it.

“Come here,” Ilimay said hoarsely. Alessandra knelt down close to her, and Ilimay coughed weakly. Then she reached up and touched Alessandra on the cheek. As soon as she did so, Alessandra felt as if she were racing down a long, narrow tunnel at an incredible speed. Images and sounds and sensations flooded her mind, faster than she could possibly process. It seemed to go on and on for an eternity, but in reality it lasted less than a second. As soon as it ended, Ilimay’s hand dropped limply to her side, and Alessandra recoiled with a gasp.

“What…what did you do to me?” Alessandra said in shock, but she didn’t get an answer. She reached out and touched Ilimay’s neck, feeling for a pulse, but there was none. Alessandra recoiled in shock. How could a member of the Order of Sunaru die? They were supposed to be invincible champions of justice. And yet she had just seen one destroyed by a demon. Her mind couldn’t process it. She stood up and backed away slowly, her hand over her mouth in horror. And then, she turned away and started running as fast as she could.

It took her a few minutes to process what was happening. At first, all she could think of was Ilimay’s broken, bleeding body, lying in the gray dust of the outskirts. That image consumed her mind, and she was blind to all else that was going on around her. But gradually, something else broke into her consciousness. She slowly became aware of just how fast she was running. She had always been fast, the fastest member of Clan Mekoval, in fact. But now she was moving at a speed which made her previous top speed look like the top speed of a fat, old man with two broken feet.

She stopped suddenly, and looked around at where she was in awe. She had been running for…what? Five minutes? At the most? And yet she had come an eighth of the way around the city from where she started. Even if she’d been able to maintain her top speed the whole way, there was no way she would have been able to travel that distance in less than an hour before.

Before? Before what? Before Ilimay touched her on the cheek? What had she done? Had she transferred her powers to Alessandra? Why would she do that? Because she was dying? Alessandra stood there, on the very outskirts of the city, her mind racing, trying to comprehend what had just happened to her.

And then, a broad smile crept across her face, and she was gone.

***

The first thing Alessandra did was try to figure out the extent of her newfound powers. At first, she was running at top speed into the slums, but she quickly realized that she shouldn’t draw attention to herself, and slowed to a normal walk before she encountered any people. Night was just falling, so there weren’t too many people out and about in the slums, but she didn’t really want anyone to see her running at superhuman speeds and start spreading rumors. As soon as she did see some people, she thought for a second, and she did…something. She had no idea what she was doing, just that she knew it felt right. Whatever it was, it had the intended effect. She was invisible.

A huge grin broke out on her face as she looked down at her body and saw nothing but the ground beneath her. She started walking down the street, and then realized that her disguise wasn’t perfect. Her feet still made noises as she walked. She thought for a second again, and then did something that seemed right again. Then she stomped her foot as hard as she could, and her grin grew even wider. Completely silence. Now nobody could see her or hear her. Perfect for a thief.

She strolled down the middle of the street, and not a single person so much as glanced in her direction. Perfect. Now, could she undo what she had done? She found a dark alley with no one in it, thought about it for a moment, and then she looked down at herself in the faint moonlight. It was hard to tell, but it seemed as if she was perfectly visible once again. Smiling, she made her way out of the alley, and as she did so, a voice yelled to her.

“Hey there, pretty lady!” a man yelled drunkenly at her. A spike of fear shot through her heart as she realized that this man was much larger than her, and he was accompanied by three other men who were just as big as him. They lurched toward her, shouting suggestions and insults as they came. For a split second, Alessandra panicked, and then she remembered what she’d been doing. She had superhuman speed, and the ability to turn invisible. Why not superhuman strength?

To be continued…

Chapter 9, Part 2

Suddenly Alessandra’s hovel exploded. Alessandra herself was flung through the wall and landed about ten feet away, on the edge of the barren wasteland between the city and the barrier. Slowly she came to her senses and stumbled to her feet, and as she did so, she realized that a fierce battle was raging in the ruins of her shack. A figure in black and gold was fighting the demon with a huge sword, and they both were moving faster than Alessandra’s eyes could track. The demon had no weapon, but it was holding its own even with just its bare hands. Alessandra stood there, staring dumbfounded at the two dueling figures, feeling like she should do something to help, but completely clueless as to what that thing would be, especially since she had no idea where her daggers had gone after her shack exploded.

Just as soon as that thought flitted through Alessandra’s head, the battle was over. The black and gold clad figure slipped through the demon’s defenses and slammed its sword into the demon’s chest. Immediately, there was a flash of red light and the demon evaporated into ash. The figure in black and gold lowered its sword and turned to Alessandra, and for the first time, Alessandra could see that it was Ilimay Ladron, the same member of the Order of Sunaru who had saved her from a demon previously.

“We meet again, Alessandra,” she said in her resonant, commanding voice.

“You do seem to have a knack for saving my life,” Alessandra said weakly.

“Think nothing of it,” Ilimay replied, waving a hand dismissively. “It is what the Order of Sunaru exists for.”

“Even so, thank you,” Alessandra said, bowing. She hesitated for a moment, and then said, “If you don’t mind me asking, my Lady, what do you think that demon was here for?”

“Looking for mortal flesh to feast on, no doubt,” Ilimay said, and as she did so, her sword seemed to evaporate into thin air.

“Oh,” Alessandra said, transfixed by what Ilimay had just done with her sword. “Are you…are you sure? Because it talked to me for several minutes before you showed up, and it didn’t make any moves toward me, even after I attacked it.”

“It was probably trying to lure you into a false sense of security,” Ilimay replied, but Alessandra thought she detected a brief look of uncertainty on Ilimay’s face. She looked around for a moment, and then said, “Perhaps it would be wise for me to stay here for a moment, just to make sure there aren’t any other demons lurking about.”

“Oh, um, well, that would…that would be fantastic, my Lady,” Alessandra stammered, thoroughly flustered about the prospect of spending time with a member of the Order of Sunaru.

“Relax,” Ilimay said with a slight smile. “I’m not going to bite you.”

“Oh, no, of course not. I would never expect anything like that from someone like you, my Lady,” Alessandra rambled. Ilimay’s smile deepened slightly.

“Tell me about yourself, Alessandra,” Ilimay said, sitting down on a large hunk of stone that until recently had been part of Alessandra’s shack.

“I, uh, well…what’s to tell?” Alessandra stammered, taken aback by being asked such a personal question by a member of the Order of Sunaru.

“You’re a thief,” Ilimay said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Well…yeah. It’s hard not to be when you live in the slums,” Alessandra shrugged.

“Of course,” Ilimay said with a slight nod. “You must be an exile from your clan.”

“I am,” Alessandra said, trying, and failing, to keep the resentment out of her voice.

“Tell me what happened.” There was a hint of command in her tone of voice, so Alessandra told her the whole story. About Bezzum’s hatred of her. About Bezzum betraying the clan in order to set ambushes where she might die. About Bezzum blaming her for the failure of those jobs. About him throwing her out of the clan, and the Clan Leaders going along with it for the good of the clan. Finally, she finished her story, and fell silent, feeling slightly shocked that she’d been so forthright with a perfect stranger. Although, this stranger was a member of the Order of Sunaru, and she had saved her life twice now.

“You’ve had a hard life,” Ilimay said when Alessandra had finished. “Perhaps there is something I can do for you.” She pulled out a small, rectangular card from a pouch at her belt. “Take this. It will allow to travel into the city and gain access to the Avaroth. Come meet with me there, and I will be able to help you more.” Alessandra stared at the card as if it was made of pure mandyium.

“I…I can’t accept this,” she breathed.

“Nonsense,” Ilimay said. “Would you rather spend the rest of your life scrabbling on the edge of the city, desperately eking out a meager existence? You were meant for greater things, Alessandra, and I can help you achieve those things.” Alessandra’s eyes were as big as saucers, and her breathing was heavy. Slowly, she reached out a hand, and took the card from Ilimay.

“Thank you,” she whispered, her voice heavy with awe.

“You’re welcome,” Ilimay said gravely. She gave Alessandra a slight nod of her head, and then she turned to go.

A brief feeling of intense malice was the only warning they had, and the next thing Alessandra knew, the demon was grasping Ilimay tightly by the arms and sinking its fangs into her neck. She screamed, and her scream was one of the most horrifying things Alessandra had ever heard. Even as she did so, her sword was back in her hand, but with the demon attached to her back, there wasn’t much she could do with it. She struggled fiercely, but the demon’s grip on her arms and neck only grew tighter. Blood ran down her arms and chest, and Alessandra was powerless to do anything except stare at this grisly scene in horror.

To be continued…

Chapter 9, Part 1

The day that irrevocably changed Alessandra’s life began like just about every other day of her exile thus far. She woke up after a night of sleeping too lightly to get any real rest, and she stumbled out of the outskirts and into the slums, looking for someone to steal money from, so she could buy enough food and water to live for another day. That part of her day went pretty smoothly, and soon enough she was back in her hovel in the outskirts, munching izumal, sipping water, and thinking about how her life had gotten to this point. It wasn’t as if she had anything else she could do right now. Some days she wandered the streets of the outskirts, but generally she tried to conserve her energy. She still had no idea how she was going to get revenge on Bezzum, but she knew there was no way it was going to happen if she was exhausted from hunger.

The sun was starting to set, and Alessandra was still sitting in the doorway of her hovel, gazing out at the barrier and thinking. A vague feeling of despair settled over as she sat there. After three weeks of exile, it was really starting to hit her that this was her life now, that all she had to look forward to for the rest of her life was scrabbling on the edges of the city, desperately trying to cling to survival. What was the point? Why even continue to go on? Torea had said that she was giving Alessandra her life, but what kind of life was this? What was the point of living such an existence?

The longer she sat there, the deeper her feeling of despair grew, until she was seriously considering drawing one of her daggers and ending it all right then. Slowly her fingers creeped toward the hilt of her dagger, but just as they brushed it, she shook her head. This wasn’t like her at all. Alessandra wasn’t one to give up. She’d been in hard spots before, and she’d always found the strength to carry on. There was no reason for her to give up now. Pulling her hand away from her dagger, she stood up, full of a new sense of determination.

“So, you have strong will to live,” said a voice behind her. “That will serve you well in the days ahead.” The voice was unlike anything she’d ever heard. Cold, harsh, almost metallic sounding, it didn’t sound like anything a human tongue could possibly emit. Instantly, she drew her daggers and whipped around, dropping into an alert crouch. What she saw behind her almost made her drop her daggers in shock.

It was unquestionably a demon. It was shaped vaguely like a man, in much the same way that the previous demon she’d seen was shaped vaguely like a dog. It was tall, draped in sinister-looking black and red robes, and had long, white fingers that ended in what looked like claws more than anything. Its face was the most striking thing about it. The skin on its face was a mottled red and black that matched its robes, so much so that Alessandra almost wondered if the robes were actually its skin. Its face was also heavily scarred and pockmarked. It had sharp, white teeth, so sharp they were really more like fangs. It had no eyes, instead it had skin where its eye sockets should have been. Its hair was long, straight, and brilliantly white. Despite its lack of eyes, Alessandra got the unsettling feeling that it could see better than she could.

“What do you want?” Alessandra snarled.

“Relax,” the demon said, putting its hands up in what it clearly intended to be a soothing gesture, although it had the opposite effect on Alessandra. “I’m here to talk, nothing else.”

“Why should I believe you?” Alessandra retorted.

“Does it matter?” the demon replied with a knowing smile. “What would you do if I tried to kill you?” Alessandra had no answer for this, and the demon’s smile grew mocking. “That’s what I thought.” It began strolling toward her, moving almost lazily, utterly unconcerned about the long daggers in Alessandra’s hands. This, Alessandra had to admit begrudgingly, was probably completely justified. “You believe there is nothing left for you except revenge, do you not?”

“Am I wrong?” Alessandra snapped.

“Maybe. Maybe not,” the demon shrugged. “It depends on how events unfold. I make no claims to be able to predict the future.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Merely conversing. It has been a very long time indeed since I have spoken with a mortal. I had forgotten how…fascinating…you can be.”

“I’m…flattered? I guess?” Alessandra said, confused. The demon chuckled at this, and its laugh was perhaps the most bone-chilling thing Alessandra had ever heard. It sounded less like mirth and more like a disdainful hatred of all mortal life.

“Fascinating, indeed,” it said with cruel smile. It turned away from Alessandra and began walking away from her, and as soon as it did, Alessandra struck. She wasn’t sure why she did it. She knew that she had no chance of killing the thing, and it hadn’t made any threatening moves toward her, but an instinct deep inside her felt as if this creature was her mortal enemy, and if she could destroy it, even if doing so cost her her life, it would be the most important act of her life.

The next thing she knew, she was slumped against the wall of her shack, her ears ringing, her vision blurry. The demon was still standing with its back turned to her, but it had one arm outstretched to the side. Slowly, it curled its fingers into a fist, and lowered its arm to its side.

“Perhaps fascinating is the wrong word,” it said. “Amusing might be more apropos.” Suddenly it cocked its head to the side, and then it turned and faced Alessandra again. A truly sinister smile crept across its face. “Now the real fun begins.”

To be continued…

Chapter 8, Part 5

In theory, getting money to pay for food and water was easy. All she needed to do was steal it. She was a thief, and a very good one, and the amounts of money she needed to keep herself fed and hydrated was paltry compared to the amounts of money she was used to stealing for her clan. The problem was that being part of a clan meant that she had resources to draw on, and now that she was clanless, those resources were no longer available to her. She couldn’t disguise herself, for example, which meant that she needed to be extra careful about where she did her thieving. She couldn’t allow herself to be seen, or else the mercenary clans would track her down for sure. Nor did she have a heavily guarded clanhouse to hide in anymore. All she had was an abandoned shanty on the very outskirts of the city.

The precariousness of her situation was driven home to her one evening about a week after she was exiled. She was sitting in the doorway of the dirty, broken-down hovel that was her new home, munching some izumal and staring at the barrier. Her shelter was on the very edge of the slums, so there was nothing but brown wasteland stretching for about two miles between her and the barrier. She still felt drawn to the barrier, but she knew it was a waste of time and energy to actually make the trek over to it. So far, she’d been able to scrounge up enough money to pay for her daily allowance of food and water, and in fact she had enough extra money to last her a few days at the moment. It was buried in one of the corners of her little shack.

She sighed as she finished her izumal. Her food gone, there was nothing for her to do now until tomorrow, when she’d head back to the nearest black market food seller and get enough for another day. She held up a hand in front of her face and stared at it. Filthy. She hadn’t showered for over a week. It made her very happy to know that she didn’t have a mirror, and thus couldn’t look at it and see just how dirty she was. She’d never spent an overly large amount of time caring about her appearance, but she had always made sure that she looked presentable, at least. Now she was just another filthy ragamuffin, lurking on the edges of the city.

Once again, she sighed, and she began to think about laying down and going to sleep. Just as that thought crossed her mind, however, she heard something. Voices. She tensed up immediately, getting up on her feet in an alert crouch and drawing her knives. She listened very carefully. It sounded like there were three or four men, and they seemed to be getting closer.

“Yeah, I’m telling you, this is the right way!” one of the men said angrily.

“And I’m telling you that we’re wasting our time out here,” another man shot back, just as angry. “There’s nobody out here worth the effort.”

“Any time we catch a thief it’s worth the effort,” said a third voice, calmer than the first two, “but what would make you think that one would be hiding out here?”

“I saw her head this way,” said the first voice. “A tall, red-headed girl. She swiped some coins from someone’s pocket, and I followed her out here.” In horror, Alessandra realized that the men were talking about her. Someone must have seen her, despite all of her efforts to remain hidden.

“A ruse, to throw you off her track,” said a fourth voice. “She’s shed her disguise and gone back to her clanhouse by now.”

“Not if she’s an exile,” said the first voice.

“If she’s an exile, we’ll be having some fun with her,” the third voice said in a nasty tone. “No worries about retribution with them.”

“That’s what I’m talking about!” the first voice said excitedly. “No one would go out this way unless they were an exile!”

“I suppose it doesn’t hurt to look around,” said the fourth voice.

The voices continued to speak and get louder, but Alessandra had stopped listening to them. At least four, and maybe more. Perhaps she could have taken them if she was at her prime, but even after just a week of being on her own, she knew she was far from her prime. Her only chance at survival was to escape. She thought for a moment about the money she had buried in a corner of the shack, but with a small pang in her heart, she dismissed it. There was no time for her to retrieve that money and escape before the mercenaries arrived. Maybe she’d be able to come back for it later, but for now she needed to abandon it.

She slipped off into the night as quickly and silently as she could. Behind her she could hear the voices of the men recede into silence. Finally there was nothing but the faint noises of the city way off in the distance, but Alessandra didn’t relax. That shanty had been the closest thing she had to a home since being exiled, and now it was gone too. A new wave of hopelessness and despair washed over her. All she had left to live for was exacting revenge on Bezzum, but that seemed a fainter glimmer with each passing day. It was all she could do to get enough food and water to stay alive. How was she supposed to do anything beyond that?

It hit her all over again that this was all she had to look forward to for the rest of her life. Steal a few coins, buy a mouthful of izumal and water, sleep, repeat. How could she live like that? How could anyone? The mercenaries were long behind her now, but she just kept running. Maybe if she ran far enough, eventually she would find some answers.

Finally, she ran so far that she couldn’t run anymore, and she collapsed on the ground with exhaustion. The next morning, she stole some money, bought some food and water, found a new empty shack to sleep, and continued that cycle for two more weeks.

And then something happened that would change her life forever.

To be continued…

Chapter 8, Part 4

“So that’s how it is,” Alessandra said quietly. She wasn’t crying anymore. To be barred from her home by her two closest friends was the final insult added to this injury that killed all feeling she had left.

“Go, Alessandra,” Torea said, coming out of the clanhouse with her own knife drawn. “Don’t make this more painful than it needs to be. Go, and never come back, on pain of death.” Alessandra hesitated for a moment, on the point of drawing her own knife. “Alessa,” Torea said in a soft, pained voice, “I’ve given you your life. Please don’t make me take it away from you.” Alessandra hesitated a moment more, and then turned away. What would killing people she cared about accomplish? It wasn’t Mikaelo’s fault, or Halidasa’s, or Torea’s. None of them wanted her to leave. They were just doing what they had to do. She would have done the same thing to all three of them if their roles were reversed. The good of the clan had to come ahead of the good of the individual. If not, then what was the point of having a clan?

Slowly, Alessandra, just Alessandra now, no longer Alessandra Mekoval, slowly she began walking down the street, away from her home, away from the only people who she had ever thought of as family, away from the only place she’d ever felt safe. What would happen now? She couldn’t join another clan. Clan Mekoval would put out the word that she was an exile, and no clan would dare take the risk of bringing her in. What if she turned on them next? What if Clan Mekoval was just faking that she was an exile so she could spy on other clans? No, joining a new clan was not an option. All she could do was scrape together a living as best she could, living as an outcast among outcasts. The only consolation for her was that her new life was likely to be short.

***

The next few weeks were a blur for Alessandra, and when she looked back on them later in her life, it would always amaze her that she managed to survive. The prospects for anyone living in the slums without the protection of a clan were grim. Most clanless either died quickly, or fled to the outskirts, where no one cared whether they lived or died. But Alessandra couldn’t accept that fate. She didn’t know what she wanted, or what she was looking for, but she couldn’t bear the thought of retreating to the outskirts and giving up. She didn’t know what she hoped to accomplish, but she was determined to accomplish something. The one emotion she had left, the one burning ember left in what had once been the raging fire of her soul, was the desire to extract vengeance on Bezzum. She had no idea how she might accomplish such a task, but she couldn’t let go of it.

In the meantime, though, she had to survive, which meant finding a place to sleep and getting enough food and water to eat. Finding a place to sleep was easy. Most of the buildings on the outskirts of the slums were abandoned, so it was no problem at all to find a place to curl up in every night for a few hours. She did have to sleep lightly, in case anyone found her and decided to have their way with her, but that wasn’t too much of a danger. The outskirts of the slums really were almost completely ignored by those who didn’t live there, and the people who did live there mostly kept to themselves.

Food and water were a much more difficult problem. Food was hard to come by in Serotopolis even for the richest people. The ancient stories from before the barrier was set up told of things like “farms” and “orchards” and places like “forests” where animals could be hunted for food. None of these things existed in Serotopolis. Instead, the Circles of Elders maintained vast factories where a sort of protein paste called izumal was manufactured. Alessandra had no idea how izumal was made, nor had she ever really thought of it before. It was ubiquitous in the city. The poor ate it as is, or mashed it up, mixed it with water, and heated it up in order to make a sort of stew. The rich had access to other forms of manufactured food, which could be combined and prepared in various ways to create new dishes, but at heart, even the fanciest dish eaten by the richest person in Serotopolis was just izumal.

Izumal was distributed by the Circle of Elders at cost from distribution centers placed throughout the city, but in this, as in all other things, the slums were left to their own devices. There were, of course, black market networks set up to get izumal from the city proper into the slums, but the lack of any official distribution channels meant that the price of izumal was, ironically, higher in the slums than it was in the city. In fact, the main reason that the thief clans existed was so that money could be found to pay for izumal. The vast majority of the money stolen by thief clans went to buying izumal so that the clanmembers could eat.

Water was also a problem. The ancient stories told of something called “rain”, which was water that fell from the sky, but if such a thing was real it was unable to penetrate the barrier. Centuries ago, deep wells had been dug in order to pump water up from the ground, but those had gone dry long before Alessandra was born. Now, along with the izumal factories, there were huge factories where water was manufactured. How such a thing was possible, Alessandra neither knew nor cared. All she did know was that there were places in the city where bottles of water were sold cheaply, and, just as with izumal, they were much more expensive in the slums.

To be continued…

Chapter 8, Part 3

She followed Kraylea up to Bezzum’s chambers, and found that Fergen and Shiena were already waiting outside. As soon as Kraylea knocked on the door, they heard Bezzum’s voice summoning them in, and they all entered the room.

The scene was much as it had been before. Bezzum was at his desk, and the four Clan Leaders were flanking him, two on each side. The Clan Leaders had grim expressions on their faces, but Bezzum looked positively chipper. This did nothing to improve Alessandra’s anxiety, nor did the sarcastic wink he gave her as she entered the room.

“The Clan Master has conferred with the Clan Leaders, and judgment has been decided,” said Vegora in an official sounding tone. “That judgment is as follows: Kraylea is to be stripped of his rank of Team Leader, and his team shall be dissolved. Furthermore, Alessandra is to be exiled from Clan Mekoval, effective immediately.” A wide grin spread across Bezzum’s face as Vegora spoke those words, but for a moment the full impact of what he said failed to hit Alessandra. All she could think at first was that anything Bezzum was so happy about couldn’t possibly be good news for her. Then, the meaning of Vegora’s words finally penetrated her mind.

“NO!” she screamed. “Exiled!? What for? What I do wrong? I wasn’t even in charge!”

“You’re bad luck, girl,” Bezzum said with open delight. “I’ve known it from the very beginning, and I was finally able to get the Clan Leaders to see it too. Twice now, ambushes have been laid for jobs that you were taking part in. Both times, multiple members of the clan have died. You’re too much of a risk. We can’t have your bad luck following us around.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Alessandra screeched. “Bad luck! I’ve never heard anything so stupid!”

“Is that so?” Bezzum sneered. “Well, the alternative is that you are a traitor. Would you rather I go with that judgment? Because the punishment for treason is death, and I would be happy to carry it out.”

“I…you…this…!” Alessandra was so overcome with rage and shock that she was reduced to incoherence.

“Get her out of my sight,” Bezzum growled with obvious glee. “Vegora, Torea, escort her out of the clanhouse. Make it clear to her that she ever sets foot in Mekoval territory again, it’ll be the last thing she does.” Alessandra opened her mouth to scream at Bezzum, to bellow that he had been the one who had betrayed her twice, but she couldn’t get a single word out before Vegora and Torea had taken her by the arms and were dragging her out of the room.

“This can’t be happening!” she yelled as she thrashed in the Clan Leaders’ grip, desperately trying to escape. “You can’t do this to me! This is wrong!”

“Hush, girl,” Torea said quietly. “You wanna make this worse for yourself? At least go out with a little bit of dignity.”

“How could you possibly go along with this, Torea?” Alessandra pleaded. “I’m not bad luck, and I’m definitely not a traitor! Bezzum’s the real traitor! He’s the only one who could have set up those ambushes!”

“Quiet,” Torea hissed. “Do you think we don’t know that? Do you think we’re really that stupid?”

“Then why are you kicking me out!” Alessandra exclaimed.

“Because our duty as Clan Leaders means we have to think of the clan as a whole, above the welfare of any one of its members,” Torea said. “Bezzum’s hatred of you has now cost the clan six members. If we let you stay, how many more clan members will finally die before he succeeds in killing you?”

“If you know he’s doing this, then fight him!” Alessandra cried, desperately. “Don’t just go along with him!”

“It’s not that simple,” Torea said, shaking her head. “Bezzum’s a good Clan Master. He’s made Clan Mekoval one of the strongest clans in the slums. Plus, he’s popular. And he’s strong. If I challenged him, I’d probably lose, and even if I won, most of the members would hate me for killing him. Like I said, I need to think of the well being of the clan above all else.”

“Please, Torea,” Alessandra said, and she was shocked to discover that she was crying. “Don’t do this. There must be another way.”

“This is the best way, for everyone involved,” Torea said sadly. “Any other way would lead to your death, and maybe the deaths of many more of our clan members. At least this way, you still have your life. Maybe you can still do something with it.”

They had reached the entrance of the clan house. Alessandra was still fighting, trying to escape from the Clan Leaders’ tight hold on her. As she fought, hot tears streamed down her face. She couldn’t believe this was happening. The clan was her life. Torea said she still had her life? Nonsense! The clan was everything! Without a clan, how was she supposed to survive in the slums? She kept fighting, knowing it was useless, knowing that even if she broke free, there was no way she wouldn’t get caught and thrown out of the house anyway. And she kept crying. Part of her was ashamed of her tears, and part of her knew that there was nothing she could do to stop them.

They reached the entrance of the house, and the two guards on duty there grabbed Alessandra by the arms, while Torea and Vegora grabbed her by the legs. Together, the four of them heaved Alessandra, still kicking and screaming and crying, out of the door and onto the street outside. As soon as she hit the ground, Alessandra was up on her feet, racing toward the door, tears streaming out behind her, but the two guards drew knives, and as they did so, Alessandra was horrified to realize that they were Mikaelo and Halidasa.

“I don’t want to kill you Alessa, but I will if I have to,” Mikaelo said in a soft, grim voice. Halidasa didn’t speak, but all trace of cheerfulness was gone from her face, and she nodded slowly.

To be continued…