Chapter 6, Part 4

“And you’re really good,” Meela groaned as she rubbed her jaw. “I fought a lot of people on the streets, and nobody has ever beat me twice.”

“I’m not surprised,” Alessandra replied, holding out a hand to help Meela up. “But street fighting is amateur league compared to fighting in a clan. Not that thieves generally need to fight much, but on the rare occasions we do, we want to make sure we win.

“I don’t know how you’re not the Master of this clan,” Meela said, envy and appreciation warring in her tone.

“That’s because you’ve never seen Bezzum fight,” Alessandra replied, her voice grim. “Believe me, as quickly as I beat you just now, Bezzum would destroy me even faster.” Meela’s eyes became big as saucers when she heard that, as if she didn’t quite believe what Alessandra was saying. Before she could respond, Alessandra said, “Why did you join a thief clan anyway? Someone as good at fighting as you are, I would have figured you’d be more interested in the mercenaries.”

“I thought about it, but I figured being a thief would be more of a challenge,” Meela said with a shrug. “I knew I’d be a good mercenary, but I wanted to do something to push myself.”

“I’m impressed,” Alessandra said, and she meant it. “You don’t see that kind of drive in the slums very often.”

“I guess,” Meela said with another shrug. “I must say, being a thief is even harder than I thought. I figured learning how to fight like a thief would be the easy part. The thief clans don’t exactly have a reputation for toughness.”

“Like I said, we try not to fight if we can avoid it,” Alessandra said, scanning the other sparring pairs to get a read on how they were doing, “but we want to make sure that if we have to fight, we can win. That’s why advancement is handled by duels. Out in the field is how we decide who’s a good thief, but a leader needs to be more than just a good thief. They need to be able to handle themselves in any situation.”

“The more I learn about being a thief, the more I know I made the right choice,” Meela said, sounding satisfied, “but I’m getting more and more confused about you. I’ve heard you’re a good thief, and you obviously can fight, so why were you stripped of your rank? Did you really get a bunch of people killed?”

“That is a story I’d rather not get into,” Alessandra said with a grimace. “Just…try to be on your best behavior. Try to pull the attitude on Bezzum that you just pulled on me, and you’ll be in my shoes before you know it. That’s if you don’t get kicked out of the clan entirely.”

“Yes, Teacher,” Meela said, bowing her head and looking abashed.

“Okay, that will do it for today!” Alessandra barked as the last pair of sparrers finished up. “Report to Neharo for your next class, and I will see you tomorrow!” She stood with her arms folded and her feet spread apart as she watched her students file out of the room. She especially watched Meela. This girl intrigued her, probably because she reminded her so much of herself. Hopefully Bezzum would take to Meela better than he’d taken to Alessandra, at least for Meela’s sake. Then again, it would be even better if Alessandra could turn Meela into an ally against Bezzum. There were possibilities there, if only Alessandra could exploit them.

***

The next day, Alessandra was summoned to Bezzum early in the morning, for the first time since her encounter with the demon. She rushed into Bezzum’s chambers as fast as she could, and found him lounging behind his desk, booted feet resting on top of it, familiar sneer fixed on his face. Her own face twisted into a matching sneer as she looked at him, until she realized what she was doing and forced herself to adopt a look of meek servility.

“That cracks me up every time,” Bezzum said in his grating voice, forcing Alessandra once again to put all of her effort into not letting the disgust and anger she felt show on her features. “You really think you’re fooling me with that fake meekness?”

“I am doing the best that I can, Clan Master,” Alessandra replied, her voice faint with the strain of not growling at him.

“Whatever,” Bezzum said, rolling his eyes. “I’ve got a new job for you. Two nights from now. You’ll be joining Kraylea’s team as his lockpick. Your target is the North Vandeo Bank. Report to him for further instructions.”

“Yes, Clan Master,” Alessandra replied, bowing her head. Bezzum eyed her for a moment, his sneer growing slowly more disgusted and more hateful.

“You really think you’re fooling me, don’t you?” he snarled.

“Excuse me, Clan Master?” Alessandra asked, startled.

“All this fake humility and using my proper title,” he said, standing up and stalking toward her. “You really think you’re convincing me that you’ve changed. Well, I’ve got news for you, chiela. It’s not working. I know you think you’ll be in my place someday, and I’m telling you right now, it will never happen. You’re not fit to be Clan Master. You’re not even fit to be in this clan. And I will destroy you, if it’s the last thing I do.” At this point, he was right in front of her, so close that she could feel his hot breath on her face, his eyes boring directly into hers. She was so stunned by this open display of hostility that she couldn’t bring herself to respond.

“Get out of my sight,” he spat suddenly, and she immediately did so, for fear of what she might have said if she’d opened her mouth at that moment.

To be continued…

Chapter 6, Part 3

“No, no, no!” she barked at one girl whose technique was particularly sloppy. “Your form is all wrong! Try it again, and do it right this time!” The girl, whose name was Ivea, shrunk back from the harshness of Alessandra’s tone, and immediately began running through the exercise that she and the other recruits had been ordered to do.

Alessandra stalked back and forth in front of the line of recruits, eyeing their work, shouting out criticisms here and there. There were about a dozen boys and girls in the room, ranging in age from 11 to 15. Most of them stared at Alessandra with a mixture of fear and awe on their faces, because despite her disgraced status, she still was one of the most talented thieves in the clan, and the new recruits had heard stories of her exploits. There was one girl, however, who stared at Alessandra with undisguised contempt and half-heartedly worked through the exercise she was supposed to be doing.

“You!” Alessandra barked suddenly at this girl. “What’s your name?”

“Meela,” the girl sneered. She was tall, almost as tall as Alessandra. Her head was shaved, except for black bangs that hung down just above her eyes.

“Well, Meela, when I teach a class, I expect my students to follow my instructions,” Alessandra snapped.

“Why should I listen to you?” Meela retorted, folding her arms across her chest defiantly. “I know all about you. You’re the lowest ranked thief in this clan because you screwed up and got a bunch of your clanmates killed. I don’t know why you didn’t get kicked out.”

Alessandra glared at her for a moment, and then beckoned her forward. Meela rolled her eyes and sauntered away from the line of students and stood right in front of Alessandra.

“You and me are going to give the class a demonstration,” Alessandra said in a too-sweet voice, smiling toothily. “Defend yourself!” And with no more warning than that, Alessandra began raining punches and kicks upon her young antagonist.

Meela was quick, and had good reflexes, but that applied to Alessandra as well. Meela, unlike Alessandra, was untrained, and no match for someone with Alessandra’s experience and knowledge. Meela managed to block Alessandra’s first punch, but before she could retaliate, a second blow hit, and then a third, and they just kept coming, and it was all Meela could do to keep Alessandra from landing a blow. After a few seconds, she slipped, and Alessandra slammed a fist into Meela’s stomach. As soon as Meela doubled over from the blow, Alessandra swiftly kicked her in the head, knocking her backwards onto the floor.

“That is why you should listen to me,” Alessandra said, as Meela laid on the floor moaning and clutching her stomach and head, “because I know what I’m doing, and you don’t.” She turned from Meela and faced her class. “Exercise 6, now!” she barked, ignoring the groans coming from the incapacitated Meela.

She stalked around the training room, glaring at her students intently, occasionally yelling at someone who was doing something wrong, even more occasionally offering a terse compliment to someone who was doing something exceptionally right. After a few minutes, Meela recovered sufficiently to resume her place in line, and began running through the exercise, trying very hard to avoid Alessandra’s gaze. Alessandra was pleased to note that Meela was running the exercise perfectly, although her face was beet red and she still looked away from Alessandra anytime Alessandra glanced over at her.

“Okay!” Alessandra yelled suddenly, clapping her hands for emphasis. “I want all of you to pair off and spar. Standard rules apply!” Standard rules meant that there were no rules, except that you had to refrain from killing or maiming your partner. Anyone who failed to adhere to this rule was summarily exiled from the clan. Clan leaders wanted their recruits to learn how to fight on the streets of Serotopolis, not killing and crippling each other.

“Teacher,” Alessandra heard a voice say meekly. She looked over and saw that it was Meela. “There are an odd number of students.”

“Thinking of revenge?” Alessandra asked with a wry grin.

“No, Teacher,” Meela replied, a sickly look on her face, “but I am eager to learn. I apologize for my rudeness earlier. I should have known that what may or may not have happened to you in the field should have no bearing on your ability to pass on your expertise.”

“Now I know how Bezzum feels when I act meek to him,” Alessandra muttered under her breath.

“What was that, Teacher?” Meela asked, confused.

“Nothing!” Alessandra barked. “If you would like to spar with me again, so be it, but I warn you, I won’t go easy on you this time either.”

“I would not want you to,” Meela replied in a firm voice.

Alessandra looked around the room to make sure everyone had found a partner, and then she bellowed, “Begin!”

This time it was Meela who took her by surprise. Alessandra just barely had time to block Meela’s incoming fist, and for a few moments, she was somewhat shocked to find herself on the defensive. Gradually, she overcame her surprise, though, and for a short time, it seemed as if the two of them were fairly evenly matched. They were trading blows back and forth, neither one of them managing to land a hit, but each of them giving as good as they got.

Then Alessandra received a greater shock. Meela feinted like she was going to hit Alessandra on the right, but then, quick as a vieja, slammed her right fist into Alessandra’s left side. Alessandra grunted in surprise, but quickly recovered. Before Meela could take advantage of her successful blow, Alessandra smashed her foot into Meela’s hip, staggering her, and then hit her with a hard uppercut that knocked her flat on her back.

“You’re a quick learner,” Alessandra said in an impressed voice, standing over Meela with her feet spread apart and her fists on her hips.

To be continued…

Chapter 6, Part 2

“Alessa, what are you doing?” Mikaelo asked, frustrated. “There’s no reason to be out here!”

“I don’t know why you’re following me,” Alessandra replied, staring at the barrier. “I didn’t ask you to come. This is none of your business.” Slowly, Alessandra lifted her right hand and moved it toward the barrier. Her hand moved normally until it reached the spot where it seemed as if the air turned purple, but as soon as her hand reached that spot, it stopped. She couldn’t feel anything underneath her fingers. It was as if the air itself was solid. She pressed her palm against the barrier and pushed as hard as she could, and nothing happened. She then put both hands against it, and continued to push, but she might as well have been pushing on a solid stone wall that was five feet thick.

“Why would you want to go out there, anyway?” Mikaelo asked. “There’s nothing but demons out there.”

“I was attacked by a demon, Mikaelo,” she said softly, still staring at the barrier, her hand still resting on it.

“You… What?” Mikaelo stammered.

“I was attacked by a demon,” Alessandra repeated in the same soft, monotone voice. “I was saved by a member of the Order of Sunaru. Her name was Ilimay. She told me that the barrier is failing.”

“I…,” Mikaelo began, and then stopped. Alessandra turned and looked at him.

“Something is happening,” Alessandra said, her voice still soft, but much more intense now. “I don’t know what. I needed to see the barrier with my own eyes, feel it with my own hands. I thought maybe that would answer some of my questions.”

“And does it?” Mikaelo asked quietly.

“No,” Alessandra replied, turning back to gaze at the barrier. “It doesn’t seem like the barrier is failing. It seems perfectly solid. But would I even know what to look for? I don’t know anything about magic. And where are the demons? If the whole world is infested with them, except for Serotopolis, why aren’t they all out there, attacking the barrier, trying to bring it down?”

“I…I don’t know,” Mikaelo said, nonplussed.

“And what does the Order of Sunaru do?” Alessandra continued. “If the demons can’t get into the city, why are they so busy fighting demons that they can’t do anything else to help the people of the slums? How come nobody’s ever seen a demon?”

“Maybe…they’re just really, really good at fighting demons?” Mikaelo said, perplexed. “Besides, you can’t say no one’s ever seen a demon. You just said you were attacked by one!”

“Yeah, but have you ever heard of anyone else being attacked by a demon? Have you ever even heard a rumor of such a thing?”

“Well…no, but… What does that have to do with anything?” Mikaelo exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air. Alessandra was silent for a moment before she answered.

“I don’t know,” she finally said. “I think something is happening, but I have no idea what it is, or how we fit into it. Maybe we don’t. But I just keep thinking about these questions in my mind.”

“I guess I don’t blame you,” Mikaelo said after a moment. “But I don’t think you’re going to find any answers here. I don’t think we should stick around here either. This barrier is giving me the creeps.”

“There is something…unhealthy about it,” Alessandra said hesitantly. She brushed her fingers against it one last time, and then balled her fingers into a fist and punched it as hard as she could. Once again, it was like her hand just stopped. She couldn’t feel anything. “It’s so strange. It feels like there’s nothing there, but I can’t move my hand through it. Like the air is just solid.” She looked around at the barren and blasted wasteland surrounding them and shivered. The outskirts of the city were a couple of miles away, and she could just barely see the ramshackle huts scattered on the edges of the slums from where she was standing. Except for the fact that she could see the Hall of Elders and the other towering skyscrapers in the center of the city, it would have been easy to believe that the whole world was completely lifeless.

“Do you think the barrier caused the land to die?” she asked.

“Maybe,” Mikaelo said with a frown. “It certainly seems like the closer you get to the barrier, the less life there is.”

“Why would they build such a thing?” Alessandra asked, a thoughtful look on her face. “How much longer can we survive underneath it?”

“Maybe they didn’t have a choice,” Mikaelo replied. “Maybe it was between putting up a barrier that kills the land and getting overrun by demons. And this city has stood for over a thousand years with the barrier in place. I don’t think it’s going to die in our lifetime.”

“That’s probably true,” Alessandra said, frowning. She stared at the barrier for several minutes more, and then she finally shook her head. “We should head back. I don’t want to spend my whole free day out here, staring at nothing.”

“You are a strange woman, you know that Alessa?” Mikaelo said, shaking his head. She looked at him, and then gave him a cocky grin.

“I’ll race you back,” she said, and before he had a chance to respond, she was already running back into the city.

“Hey!” he yelled after her. “That’s not fair! Wait for me!” And then he was running after her, with a smile on his face.

***

The next few days, Alessandra was relegated to chore duty again, with no sign that she was ever going to go out on a job again. The terror and wonder of her last job had faded, and all that remained was her eagerness to prove herself once again, and her resentment toward Bezzum that he wouldn’t give her the respect she deserved. At least the chores weren’t as onerous as they had been, though. Instead of being stuck in the mess hall, she had been assigned to the training room and was running through hand-to-hand combat drills with the new recruits.

To be continued…

Chapter 6, Part 1

The next few days passed like something out of a dream for Alessandra. She didn’t see Bezzum at all, and as far as she could tell, nobody did. He hadn’t left his quarters at all since Alessandra had given him her report. Alessandra went about her daily chores, ignoring everyone and being ignored in return. Even though she’d returned from a successful mission, she was still being ostracized by the rest of the clan, except for Mikaelo and Halidasa, and she avoided those two as much as possible. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see them, but she needed to be left alone with her thoughts. She was having trouble wrapping her mind around the events that had taken place in the Morkal District, and she felt like she needed to straighten her brain out before she could interact with anyone. Nobody seemed to know what had happened. Apparently, Bezzum and Torea had not told anyone.

Four days after her encounter with a demon, Alessandra had a free day. Once a month or so, each member of the clan had a day where they weren’t scheduled for any chores, and could spend their time however they wanted. Alessandra woke up that morning, stared at the ceiling for about an hour, and then suddenly, jumped out of bed, dressed in a rush, and swept out of the clan house like a whirlwind.

She stormed down the middle of the street, walking as fast as she could without running. Any thugs from rival clans that saw her and were tempted by the prospect of accosting a young woman out by herself took one look at the fire in her eyes and thought better of it. She didn’t know why she was fired up, but she knew where she was going, even if she didn’t have any idea what she expected to find there.

After she’d gone a few blocks, someone stepped out of the shadows and began walking beside her. It was Mikaelo. She wasn’t sure if she was surprised to see him there or not, but she didn’t say anything. For a few minutes, they walked together in silence.

“So, where are we going?” Mikaelo finally asked.

“I don’t have any idea where you’re going,” Alessandra retorted. “As for me, well, you’ll find out eventually if you keep following me.”

“So that’s how it’s going to be,” Mikaelo replied with a smirk. Alessandra glanced at him, and decided to just ignore him. Mikaelo, perhaps sensing that she was in no mood to talk, kept his silence for awhile.

After several more minutes of walking in silence, Mikaelo spoke up again.

“You know, there’s nothing down this way,” he said, slightly uncertain.

“That’s what you think,” Alessandra said mysteriously. They were walking toward the edge of the city. Serotopolis was arranged like a great wheel, with the Hall of Elders in the very center, and 8 huge roads radiating out from it like spokes. As one got farther and farther from the city center, the districts got poorer and poorer, until one finally reached the slums, which sprawled on the edges of the city like a great parasite infesting the city on all sides. Beyond the slums, there was the barrier.

It was a huge purple dome that surrounded the city on all sides. Or at least, that’s what Alessandra had always assumed. Maybe the barrier was invisible, and the sky was purple. But ancient stories always insisted that the sky was blue, so it was probably more likely that the barrier was purple. It was always up there, overhead, generally ignored by the people of Serotopolis, but a comforting reminder that the city was safe from the demonic threat that had overcome the rest of the world. Or at least it always had been.

The buildings became shabbier and farther apart the closer Alessandra and Mikaelo drew to the barrier. Even in the slums themselves, it was true that the farther you lived from the center of the city, the poorer you were. The people who lived closest to the barrier were destitute even compared to what Alessandra was used to. There were very few people about out here, and the ones Alessandra did see sat and stared at her as if they’d never seen anything like her before. Maybe they hadn’t. The one advantage of living near the barrier was that the people here were ignored by the clans and everyone else. They simply were irrelevant to anyone’s interests.

Eventually the buildings on either side of the road petered out entirely, and several yards after that, the road itself disappeared. Alessandra stood at the edge of the road and looked out over the blasted wasteland beyond the edge of the city. She could see the barrier from where she was, but it was still a couple of miles away. She stared at it for several minutes, expressionless, while Mikaelo stared at her with a bemused look on his face.

“Is there a reason we’re out here, staring at nothing?” he finally asked. She looked at him with a look that was a cross between a grin and a sneer.

“I told you before, I have no idea why you’re out here,” she said, and then she turned away from him and started jogging toward the barrier.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Mikaelo said, exasperated. He hesitated, as if unsure whether to follow her or not, and then he sighed deeply and started jogging after her.

Several minutes later, Alessandra slowed down and stopped, and Mikaelo stopped next to her. They were standing directly in front of the barrier now, and now that they were up close to it, it was very clear to Alessandra that the barrier was, in fact, purple. It was translucent, and it seemed to twist and warp and pulsate as she stared at it. Glancing behind her, she could see the city of Serotopolis rising into the sky behind her, the Hall of Elders and the Avaroth seeming to compete with each other as to which building could reach higher into the sky. All around the edges of the city, the land was blasted and broken and brown, and nothing grew there. It was difficult to see through the barrier, but as far as Alessandra could tell, the land on the other side of the barrier was the same, as far as she could see.

To be continued…

Chapter 5, Part 4

“This had better be good,” Bezzum growled, stepping back to let her in. Alessandra’s stomach clenched at the sight of Torea in Bezzum’s quarters. She knew that Torea sometimes shared Bezzum’s bed, and it wasn’t any business of hers who a Clan Leader chose to sleep with, but Torea was her biggest protector in the clan, and every time she was reminded of how close Torea and Bezzum were, it made her wonder how long it would be before Bezzum convinced Torea to turn against her.

“Apologies, Clan Master,” Alessandra said, bowing, “but I just returned from the job you assigned me, and I had an encounter that I think you need to know about it.”

“Not the Storm Corps again?” Bezzum sneered.

“No, Clan Master,” Alessandra said quietly. “The Order of Sunaru.”

That name wiped the sneer off of Bezzum’s face entirely, replacing it with a look of awe and disbelief. The Order was deeply revered by almost everyone in the city of Serotopolis, especially by those in the slums. The Order was the only thing keeping Serotopolis from spiraling completely into chaos. Everyone in the slums believed that the Order stood between them and the Circle of Elders, and that if it wasn’t for the Order, the Circle would move into the slums in force and obliterate every man, woman and child living there. Everyone also believed that if not for the Order’s war with the demons, the Order would move into the slums themselves and provide food, clothing, and security for everyone who lived there. People in the slums weren’t religious, but the Order of Sunaru was viewed with reverence that was close to worship. As far as Alessandra knew, no one from the slums had ever spoken to a member of the Order before.

“I…are you sure?” Bezzum asked, somewhat stunned.

“As sure as I can be,” Alessandra replied, and proceeded to tell Bezzum and Torea the story of what had happened to her after she left the target house.

“I’ve never heard of someone being attacked by a demon,” Bezzum said softly, as if to himself, once Alessandra’s tale was finished.

“But if the barrier is failing,” Torea murmured.

Bezzum stared at the floor for a moment, deep in thought. Then he shook himself and said, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Alessandra. You may go.” It was a measure of how shaken Bezzum was that he treated her with respect, and even used her name. Just as Alessandra’s addressing him politely was a measure of how shaken she was.

“Thank you, Clan Master,” Alessandra replied, bowing her head. She turned to leave, and then she remembered something. “Oh yes, here is the take from my job tonight.” She took the silverware and bar of braeka out of her pockets and handed them to Bezzum. He stared at them blankly for a moment, and then nodded.

“Thank you,” he said, and then turned away. Alessandra left, and hurried back to her own room.

***

Alessandra was utterly exhausted by the time she got back to her quarters, and she collapsed onto her bed without even taking her clothes off. As soon as her head hit the pillow, she was sound asleep. At first, her sleep was normal, and she had normal dreams. But after awhile, she started having a dream that was far more vivid than any dream she had ever experienced.

She was standing on a vast, grey plain that stretched as far as her eyes could see. Thick, grey fog swirled around her, but despite the fog she could see for miles and miles, although there was nothing in particular to see. She stood there for a moment, confused and disoriented. She knew she was dreaming, and yet she felt as if she were wide awake. She turned around, looking in every direction, trying to see if there were any clues as to what this place was, or why she was there.

THE STORM IS COMING.

Out of nowhere, these words were spoken by a voice that reverberated throughout Alessandra’s very being. She felt as if those words were the entirety of her universe, and in the space of the few seconds when they were spoken, all of history unfolded, creation began and played out and ended. In the silence that followed, it took her a moment to remember who she was. She looked around wildly after the voice spoke, and the grey fog swirling around her began to darken. After a few seconds, or maybe it was a few million years, the fog was so thick and so dark that she couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of her.

“Who’s there?” she yelled, and her own voice sounded like a feeble, frail baby’s cry compared to the Voice that had spoken before.

ARE YOU THE CATALYST?

Again the Voice spoke, and again entire worlds were born, lived and died in space of a moment. Alessandra was even more disoriented this time, and for a few minutes she couldn’t remember if she was Alessandra or if she was the embodiment of countless millennia of collective human lives. The black fog darkened further and swirled even more fiercely, and a howling wind began to blow. It whipped at Alessandra’s clothes, and threatened to blow her away entirely. Desperately, Alessandra dug her toes into the grey soil, lest she lose her footing and be swept away into the infinite void.

“Who are you?” she screamed to be heard over the wind. “What do you want from me?”

THE ASCENSION HAS BEGUN.

For countless eons, she watched as the universe was born out of nothing, expanded out into the void, collapsed upon itself, was destroyed, and then was reborn, the cycle repeating again, and again, and again. Alessandra was one with eternity. There was no longer any Alessandra. There was only the infinite void, the great nothing. The emptiness screamed in pain and joy and ecstasy and horror.

And then Alessandra woke up.

She sat up with a gasp. Her heart was racing and she was breathing heavily, even more so than when she’d gotten back from the Morkal District. She sat staring, wild-eyed, at the door of her quarters, unable to process what she’d seen or experienced. For a long time, she sat like that, trying to calm herself down. Slowly, her heart started beating at a normal rate, and her breathing returned to normal. Even then, she couldn’t make herself think at all about what she’d dreamed. Finally, after about an hour or so, a wave of exhaustion hit her, and she laid back down and went to sleep. Her dreams from that point on were completely normal, and she forgot about the vivid dream entirely.

To be continued…

Chapter 5, Part 3

But death never came.

Instead, something heavy slammed into the ground near Alessandra and blasted her about ten feet away from the creature. Landing hard on her back, Alessandra groaned and struggled to get up and open her eyes so she could figure out what was going on. Her side was still on fire and now her back ached from slamming against the pavement, but she felt very strongly that if she didn’t get up she would be in terrible danger.

Opening her eyes, she saw a figure standing between her and the monster. It was a woman, tall and powerfully built, with black skin and her hair done in a multitude of long braids that hung down to the small of her back. She was wearing some type of black, sleeveless bodysuit, trimmed in gold, and she held a long sword in her right hand. Her left hand was held out in front of her in a warding gesture, and the creature was staring at the woman and snarling.

Alessandra cried out a warning as the creature lunged at the woman, but before the sound had even passed her lips the woman was moving. Gripping the sword in both hands, she brought it up in a tight arc and slashed the monster across its face. Howling with rage and dripping with blood, the monster lunged again, and this time the woman dived to one side, slashing the sword across the monster’s side in the same way that Alessandra had slashed with her dagger, only this time a long, bloody wound appeared where the sword had been. The monster screeched in pain, but quickly lunged toward the woman a third time. The woman stood her ground and stabbed the monster right through its chest. As it hung, suspended from her sword, screaming impotently in her face, she reached up and grabbed its head with both hands. As she did so, the monster’s body contorted, and it screamed even louder, and then its body turned bright white, so bright it was as if every color imaginable were mixed together, and then it disappeared.

It took Alessandra a moment for her to realize that her mouth was hanging open and the woman was speaking to her. “I said, are you alright?” she asked impatiently. She had a deep voice that sounded as if it was used to giving commands and having them obeyed immediately.

“I…yes…but…what was that thing? Who are you?” Alessandra stammered.

“That,” the woman said grimly, “was a demon, a velonif to be exact, and I am Ilimay Ladron, Miskoval of the Order of Sunaru.” Even before Ilimay finished speaking, Alessandra’s jaw was hanging down again, and it took her a tremendous effort of will to pull herself together again.

“Well,” she said hesitantly, “I’m Alessandra, and…wow, I’m glad you were here.”

“It is no coincidence,” Ilimay said firmly. “As soon as we sensed a demonic incursion into the city, I was dispatched immediately to take care of it.”

“So…a demon, huh?” Alessandra asked, feeling strangely timid. “But…I thought the barrier was supposed to keep them out?”

“The barrier is failing,” Ilimay said with a frown. “It has served us well for a thousand years, but I’m afraid it will not serve us much longer.”

“Oh,” Alessandra said in a small voice.

“Yes,” Ilimay replied with an understanding smile. “Not very comforting, but I have no intention of lying to citizens. Dark days are coming, and everyone should be prepared as best they can.”

“I…well, what can I do?” Alessandra asked helplessly.

“Nothing, except for remain vigilant,” Ilimay said. “That may have been your first encounter with a demon, but I can’t guarantee that it will be your last. Stay aware, and keep out of dark places as much as possible.”

“I…um…I’ll do my best,” Alessandra said sheepishly. Ilimay gave her a knowing smile.

“I must return to the Avaroth,” she said. “You would do well to return to your home as soon as possible.”

“Yes, my Lady,” Alessandra said, bowing her head and remembering suddenly who she was dealing with. “I will do that.” Ilimay returned her bow with a slight nod, and then she vanished in a flash of green and purple light. It was so sudden that Alessandra almost wondered if it was a hallucination, but she knew that everything that had happened was too vivid to be a hallucination. She stood in the middle of the empty street for a moment, then she took one step back, then another, and then suddenly she turned around and bolted back to the slums as fast as she could go.

***

By the time Alessandra reached the clan house, she was out of breath, which hadn’t happened to her in several years. But it was a long way from Morkal District back to the Mekoval clan house, and Alessandra had ran the whole way, without slowing down at all. The clan house wasn’t safe, but it was home, and it was familiar, and if there was any place in Serotopolis that she could be reasonably sure she wasn’t going to get attacked by a demon, it was there.

The lookouts gave her questioning looks as she approached, no doubt wanting to know why she was so winded, but she shook her head as she passed and stumbled up the stairs into the house. She wasn’t running anymore, but she was still walking much faster than she normally would. Straight up the stairs she went, up to the Bezzum’s quarters. He was probably asleep by now, but she needed to tell him what had happened immediately. He probably wouldn’t believe her, but she needed to tell him anyway. She wasn’t sure she’d blame him if he didn’t. She wasn’t entirely sure that she believed herself.

Knocking on the door, she heard an angry voice yell, “What is it?”

“It’s Alessandra!” she yelled back. “I have an urgent report!” There was silence for a moment, and then Alessandra heard footsteps thumping toward the door, which opened suddenly. Bezzum was standing there, wearing nothing but shorts. Behind him stood Torea, wearing a thin sleep robe.

To be continued…

Chapter 5, Part 2

Stealing in to the first door on the right, she was pleased to discover that her initial guess was correct. This was the master bedroom. It was fairly small, dominated by a medium sized bed and two large dressers. There was a small viela sitting on top of one of the dressers, and across from the door she entered was another door that presumably led to a closet. Creeping up to the dresser closest to the door, Alessandra opened the drawers quickly and quietly and peeked in. Nothing but clothes. Rounding the bed to the other side, she opened up this dresser and found the same thing.

Just as she closed the last dresser drawer, the light turned on in the hallway. Alessandra swiftly moved toward the closet in order to hide herself, but before she took two steps, the light in the bedroom turned on, and a teenage girl was standing in the doorway, looking dumbfounded. Alessandra lunged across the room before the girl could react. Grabbing her by the wrists, she twisted the girl around so that she was facing away from Alessandra, and held her arms behind her back.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Alessandra said in the girl’s ear in a low voice, “but if you struggle at all, I will slit your throat. Understand?” The girl nodded frantically. She was shorter than Alessandra, with mousy brown hair that fell just past her shoulders and freckles on her cheeks. “Good,” Alessandra said. “Now tell me, do your parents have any jewels or other valuables.”

“M-my dad has a b-bar of b-braeka in a s-safe in his closet,” the girl stammered.

“Oh yeah?” Alessandra said. “Do you know the combination?”

“N-no, I d-don’t,” the girl said, shaking slightly.

“Shame,” Alessandra said lightly. “Anything else?”

“No, I…I don’t…think so,” the girl replied. Tears were starting to roll down her cheeks now.

“Are you sure?” Alessandra said in a conversational tone. “I would hate to have to come back and run you through if I found out you were lying.”

“No! No! I’m sure! I’m sure!” the girl moaned frantically. “I’m not lying, I swear!”

“Okay, I believe you,” Alessandra said, and letting go of the girl’s wrists, she pulled her knife out of its sheath and, before the girl could react at all, bashed her over the head with the hilt of it, knocking her unconscious.

“This is unfortunate,” Alessandra muttered to herself, dragging the girl back into her own bedroom. “But I don’t mind helping myself to that braeka.” As soon as she’d stuffed the unconscious teenager into her closet, she slipped back into the master bedroom, opened the closet, and found the safe wedged in the back, behind a number of hanging shirts and pants. It was a small safe, but it was bolted to the floor so she couldn’t just pick it up and crack it at her leisure. The lock was a simple combination lock, though, so it wouldn’t take her long to break it open anyway. Bending down, she pressed her ear against the cold metal near the lock, and began turning it slowly until she heard a click. Then she spun it the other direction until she heard a click, and finally back the original direction. As soon as she heard a third click, the door of the safe swung open, and sure enough, there was a gleaming gold bar of braeka sitting in the safe. There also were a number of documents and albums of baby pictures stuffed inside, but Alessandra ignored them. Taking the bar, she stuffed in a pocket inside her shirt, and swiftly departed both the room and the house.

As soon as she stepped outside of the house, she heard something growling.

She froze, thinking for a moment that the owners of this house might have a guard dog that she’d overlooked. At first, there was nothing but silence, but even the silence had an eerie, ominous quality to it that she’d never felt before, and that made her skin crawl.

Then she heard the growling again.

It definitely wasn’t a dog, but beyond that she had no idea what it was, and she wasn’t interested in waiting around to find out. Immediately, she darted around the house and toward the street, in the opposite direction of where she’d heard the sound. She ran as fast and as hard as she could, because whatever made that sound, it was something she was certain was more deadly than anything she’d ever encountered, including the Storm Corps troopers she’d met in the Vanmorzen manor. Sprinting down the street, she began to think that maybe she’d lost whatever it was, because she couldn’t hear anything behind her. She also was starting to feel a little winded, so she risked a glance behind her to see if anything was following her.

What she saw was like something out of a nightmare.

It was a creature that perhaps could be described as similar to a dog, if dogs were monsters ripped from the most grisly horror stories imaginable. It ran on four legs like a dog, but those legs were twisted and warped, like they’d been broken a hundred times and left to heal on their own every time. Each of its feet had several long, sharp, twisted claws, and yet it was able to run with frightening speed. It was long and lean, with an elongated head that contained two bright red eyes, like burning coals, and a slavering mouth full of sharp, mismatched teeth. Alessandra stumbled as soon as she saw it, and it nearly had her, but she managed to twist out of its way, and it lunged past her. It quickly corrected itself, though, and began stalking toward her, making that unearthly sound that she’d heard before.

Drawing her dagger out of its sheath, Alessandra took a dueling stance and prepared to die. She knew she couldn’t outrun this thing, and she had little faith that she would be able to fight it either. Suddenly it lunged, and Alessandra just barely managed to dodge out of the way. She was able to swipe her dagger across its side as she rolled, but it scratched her across her side at the same time. The pain was like nothing she’d ever felt before. Gasping, she dropped her dagger immediately and clutched her side with both hands, dropping to her knees and moaning in agony. The creature slowly circled around her, a look of satisfaction on its ghastly face. In growing horror, Alessandra realized that her dagger swipe had done nothing to the creature. There wasn’t even a mark on its side. Growling again, it crouched down and got ready to pounce. Alessandra closed her eyes and waited for death.

To be continued…