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…

Chapter 5, Part 1

Later that night, Alessandra was lurking on a roof across the street from a nondescript house of the edge of the Morkal District. In fact, it was so nondescript that it looked exactly the same as every other house on this street, including the one she was crouched on top of. Morkal was a lower middle class district that had, until recently, been part of the slums. In an attempt to push the prosperous areas of the city out further, about twenty years ago the Circle of Elders had razed a chunk of the slums, and built row after row of generic houses for factory workers to live in. The result was Morkal District.

The house that Alessandra was currently watching had no distinguishing characteristics compared to its neighbors on either side. The only reason Alessandra knew it was the right house was because of the address that Bezzum had given her. As far as Alessandra knew, there was nothing special about what was inside the house either. This was, as she had angrily exclaimed to Bezzum, a training mission. New recruits were sent to the Morkal District and instructed to remove at least one item from a specific house. The point of such a job was simply to test the recruits ability to carry out basic thieving tasks. None of these houses contained any valuables that were otherwise worth a thief clan’s time. There were no security systems on these houses, just simple locks. No mercenary clans patrolled Morkal District. No one who lived there could afford to hire such guards.

There was a burning sensation in the pit of Alessandra’s stomach at the thought of being stuck on such a demeaning mission, but at the same time, she felt grateful even to have this chance. After all, even a training mission was better than having to serve stew. Part of her felt like she should just blast into the place, grab the first trinket she saw, and get out. The stronger part of her, however, felt just the opposite. This was her first job since the disaster at the Vanmorzen manor, and she was determined to pull it off perfectly. That meant watching the house carefully, and figuring out the patterns of the family who lived there. Alessandra had no qualms about killing, but she didn’t enjoy it either. Much more satisfying to slip into a house unnoticed, take something valuable, and slip out, without leaving a trace aside from the absence of said valuable object.

So far, she knew little about the family that lived in this house. The father was a heavyset man, in his late fifties, with a receding, gray hairline, and a scowl that seemed permanently affixed to his face. He had departed a couple of hours ago in a denarja, presumably on his way to a night shift in a factory somewhere. The mother had stepped outside briefly after he left, puttering around in a small garden plot. She was as slight as her husband was thick, with short, curly gray hair, and a worried expression that seemed as permanent as her husband’s scowl. The two had at least one child, a preteen boy who came outside to pester his mother for a few minutes, and then followed her inside. There may have been one other child, but Alessandra wasn’t sure. She’d seen an outline in one of the windows that looked vaguely like a teenage girl, but it may have been the boy.

A few minutes later, the mother and the preteen boy left the house and got into another denarja that was parked in the driveway, and then they drove off. Alessandra hesitated for a moment, and then she scaled the side of the house she had been perched on (which looked identical to the house she was casing), slipped across the street, and crossed the target house’s lawn and went around back. Perhaps she was being reckless, but it was entirely possible that the house was empty at the moment. It wouldn’t take her long to slip in the back door, grab something, and get out before anyone returned.

She tried the back door, and was surprised to discover that it was unlocked. She opened it a crack and slid into the house without making a sound, closing it behind her. She found herself in a small, shabby, yet clean, kitchen. There were no lights on, so Alessandra crept very slowly through the room to avoid running into anything. Very quietly, she opened a drawer, and discovered a set of silverware inside. Taking one of each piece, she turned back to the door, and then she stopped for a moment. She was doing exactly what any rookie thief on their first real mission would do, and she was no rookie thief. She needed to do something bigger, something better.

Turning back toward the interior of the house, she stealthily made her way across the kitchen and through the nearest door. This led to a small living room, furnished with a well-worn couch and even more worn recliner, both of which were facing a viela, which was dark. Alessandra considered taking the viela, but decided against it, as it would be difficult to carry back to the slums without attracting attention. Instead, she made her way to the stairs and crept up them.

Reaching the top of the stairs, she froze. The stairs ended in a hallway, which had two doors on either side. One of those doors, the second on the left, was open a crack, and light was shining out of it. Alessandra frowned. It seemed she had been too hasty after all. It was likely that there was a teenage girl in the house, and if so, that teenage girl was still here. That would make things more difficult, but, Alessandra thought with a smile, also potentially more fun. This would be a good test of her skill. If she could get into the master bedroom and take something, and then get out, without the girl noticing she was there, she would at least prove to herself that she was still a superb thief.

To be continued…

Chapter 4, Part 4

“Just can’t seem to stay out of trouble, can you?” Bezzum said with a look that was halfway between a sneer and a snarl.

“I’m so sorry, Clan Master,” Alessandra said in her meekest voice, while looking down at the counter in front of her.

“So you can at least pretend to show respect,” Bezzum said. He was silent for a long time, and Alessandra risked a glance up at him through her eyelashes. He was standing with arms folded, regarding her with a calculating expression on his face, ignoring the mutters of those people who were still waiting for food

“I have a job for you,” he finally said. Alessandra continued to look at her feet, her hands folded in front of her. Amusement colored his voice as he continued, “I think it might even be something that’s easy enough for you to handle. And if it isn’t, well, you’ll be alone this time, so your incompetence won’t hurt anybody else.” It took all of Alessandra’s self-control to keep her hands from balling into fists. “Come see in my study when supper is over. I’ll give you the details then.” Alessandra waited a moment before she looked up, to make sure that he was gone, and then she was back to ladling stew into bowls.

As soon as her shift in the mess hall was over, she made her way up to Bezzum’s study. As she walked, she was torn between her rage that he would blame her for the deaths of her team members, and excitement that she was finally going to be sent out for a job again. Whatever the job was, she knew it was going to be something that would likely kill her, but she didn’t care. She would pull it off, whatever it was, and she would prove, if only to herself, that she was a worthy thief.

Reaching the door of Bezzum’s study, she knocked, and heard his voice calling her to come in. Once again, he had his boots up on his table, and he was trimming his nails with a dagger. He grinned maliciously as soon as he saw her.

“You know, watching you dump that slop they serve in the mess hall into people’s bowls, over and over and over again, I feel like you really missed your calling,” he said. “I should have just stuck you in the kitchen as soon as you showed up on my doorstep, and the forgotten about you.”

“If that is your will, Clan Master, then so be it,” Alessandra said through gritted teeth. Bezzum’s grin grew wider at her tone.

“I really enjoy this whole, ‘pretending to be meek’ thing you’ve got going on right now,” he said. “It almost makes your continued membership in my clan worthwhile.” He regarded her a bit like a cat getting ready to pounce on a tiny mouse. “Unfortunately, the Clan Leaders seem to think you have a bit of talent, so they’re insisting that I use it.” He pulled an ilvesa folder out from a stack of folders on his desk and held it out to her. “Here.” Alessandra took it from him, opened it up, and read the mission briefing. Then she looked up at him.

“Really?” she asked incredulously.

“I told you it was easy,” Bezzum said with a shrug.

“This is a training mission!” Alessandra exclaimed.

“You don’t want it? Fine by me. Go back to the kitchen and scrub some pots.”

“No! I want it, I want it,” Alessandra said hurriedly. “It’s just…” She trailed off at the look Bezzum was giving her. “It’s just great,” she said with a forced grin. Bezzum smirked knowingly at her. “What’s my timeframe?”

“Whenever you want,” Bezzum said with a shrug. “This is no rush job.” Alessandra nodded and frowned pensively, looking over the papers in the folder again.

“Okay,” she said with another nod. “I’ll do it tonight.” Bezzum returned her nod with a neutral expression on his face, but there was a knowing look in his eye that made Alessandra uncomfortable. She needed to get back out in the field, though. No matter what surprises Bezzum had in store for her, she was going to meet them this time, and prevail.

She turned and left Bezzum’s quarters, and found Halidasa waiting outside for her.

“Hi, Alessa!” she chirped as soon as she saw Alessandra.

“Hi, Hali,” Alessandra said with a smile. “What’s up?”

“Oh, I overheard Bezzum talking to you in the mess hall, and I wanted to see what kind of job he gave you,” Halidasa replied.

“Nothing too exciting, I’m afraid,” Alessandra said with a frown. “Just a normal house job.”

“Oh, I see,” Halidasa said, and she was silent for a moment. “Alessa,” she finally said, and there was a note of sadness in her voice that Alessandra was shocked to hear, “what if…what if being a thief is a bad thing?”

Alessandra was so stunned by this it took her a moment to reply. When she did, all she could do was stammer, “Wh-what do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” Halidasa said with a shrug, looking away from Alessandra. “It’s just…we take things from people. Those things don’t belong to us, and yet we take them. Isn’t that…wrong?”

Alessandra thought about this for a moment. She’d never questioned the life that she led. It was all she had ever known, all she had ever wanted. Was it wrong? How would she know? What was the basis of right and wrong? Finally, she said, “I don’t know, Hali. I’ve never thought about it before. But does it matter? What else is there for people like us?” Halidasa shrugged again, and continued to look away from Alessandra. Alessandra began to feel uncomfortable, and she said, “What brought this on, Hali?”

“I don’t know,” Halidasa said with a sigh. “I just feel like there should be something else. Something better. I don’t like being a thief. I’m not good at it, and it feels wrong. But I don’t know what to do about it.” Alessandra didn’t know what to say to this, so she stayed silent. After a moment, Halidasa walked away, leaving Alessandra alone in the hallway with unpleasant thoughts.

To be continued…

Chapter 4, Part 3

“Yeah,” Mikaelo replied with a pensive frown. Alessandra just stared at him blankly for a few more moments, and then she shook her head again and walked away.

It took her a few minutes to get back to her room. She was so deep in thought that she wasn’t paying attention to where she was going, and she kept taking wrong turns. On the surface, she looked perfectly calm. Maybe even a little too calm. Inside, she was seething with hatred. Everything that had happened last night was Bezzum’s fault, she was one hundred percent convinced of that. The only ones who had known about her job had been Bezzum and the Clan Leaders, and out of those five, Bezzum was the only one who had a grudge against her. The Storm Corps had known someone was going to hit the Vanmorzen manor, and that meant Bezzum had tipped them off. Unfortunately, she couldn’t prove it.

In a way, it didn’t really matter if Alessandra could prove Bezzum’s betrayal or not. Clan law allowed any member of the clan to challenge any other member to a duel to the death, and if the lower-ranked member killed the higher-ranked member, he or she gained that rank. So Alessandra could challenge Bezzum to a duel, kill him, and then she’d have her revenge, and she’d become the new Clan Master. The only problem with that plan was that there was no way Alessandra could beat Bezzum in a duel.

Alessandra had had a friend once, a young man named Kriesaio. Kriesaio and Alessandra had been very close, partially because they shared in Bezzum’s animosity. About six months ago, Kriesaio had finally had it with being held back because Bezzum didn’t like him, so he challenged Bezzum to a duel. Alessandra had tried to talk Kriesaio out of it, but he hadn’t listened to her. The duel had lasted less than two minutes. Bezzum had decimated Kriesaio, wounding him several times, and then finishing him off only when Kriesaio was too weak to fight back at all. Kriesaio didn’t even land a single blow against Bezzum.

Kriesaio’s fate was a cautionary tale for Alessandra, because Alessandra and Kriesaio had been evenly matched. Almost every time they had sparred, they’d fought to a stalemate. Occasionally, Alessandra had beaten Kriesaio, and occasionally, Kriesaio had beaten Alessandra. Of course, Alessandra’s skills had improved since Kriesaio’s death, but not nearly enough to beat Bezzum. Alessandra would have loved to step into the dueling ring with Bezzum, but only if she was reasonably confident that she could beat him. At that moment, Alessandra was perfectly confident that the only possible result of such a confrontation would be her swift death.

***

The next several weeks were torture for Alessandra. Being busted down to the lowest rank in the clan meant that she was the butt of all manner of jokes and taunting by the other members of the clan. She was relegated to the most menial of tasks at all times, which meant lots of chore duty, especially cooking. She’d known this was coming the moment the Clan Leaders had convinced Bezzum to demote her rather than exile her, and she vastly preferred this treatment to being dead in an alley somewhere. But that didn’t make it any easier.

The only two people who still treated her decently were Halidasa and Mikaelo. She wasn’t surprised by Halidasa, as it just wasn’t in her personality to be cruel to anyone, but she was a little surprised by Mikaelo. It was customary in the clans for a demoted member to be shamed. If Mikaelo had been the one to be demoted, Alessandra wouldn’t have thought twice about mocking him like everyone else. Maybe it was just because Mikaelo had been there, and he knew more or less what had gone down. Or maybe it was something else.

Alessandra didn’t have much time to think about Mikaelo, though, because most of her time was spent with chores. Not only was she being given the most demeaning and unimportant tasks, but she was being given twice as many of them as anyone else. Some days Alessandra spent so much time in the mess hall that she was too exhausted even to shower before she went to bed. She missed being out in the field desperately, and she was beginning to wonder if Bezzum was ever going to give her another chance to go on a job. If nothing else, this experience was only stoking the fires of her hatred of Bezzum. Every moment she spent dishing up stew in the mess hall was another moment spent contemplating ways of extracting vengeance.

On one occasion, she was spooning some stew into someone’s dish, while ignoring his sneer by imagining chopping Bezzum’s fingers off one by one, when Bezzum himself came into the mess hall. Alessandra hadn’t seen him at all since the day he’d stripped her of her rank (he usually ate in his own quarters), so when she laid eyes on Bezzum, she was so distracted that she dumped soup all over the hand of the man in front of her.

“Argh!” he screamed, jerking his hand back from the hot stew. “You bleeding jacopist!” He brought up his hand to slap her across the face, but her instincts kicked in, and she grabbed the man’s hand inches from her face and bent it backward painfully. He snarled, and tried to punch her with the other hand, but she was too quick for him, and grabbed that arm by the wrist. Then she clutched the first hand tighter, and he winced in pain.

“Don’t you dare touch me, chiela,” she hissed, but before she could say or do anything else, Bezzum was by the man’s side.

“What in the abyss is going on here?” he demanded, but there was delight in his eyes as he glared at her.

“Apologies, Clan Master,” Alessandra tried to say meekly, but she could tell it was ruined by the hatred burning in her eyes. She let go of the man she was holding, and he pulled away from her, massaging his hand and glaring.

To be continued…

Chapter 4, Part 2

“Well, well, well,” Bezzum said after several moments, his nasty grin growing wider. “I sent you out with four of my best people to get an extremely valuable treasure, and here you are, with none of my people, and no treasure. What exactly do you have to say for yourself?”

“The Storm Corps was waiting for us, Clan Master,” Alessandra said quietly. “Not Clan Veldisa. Not regular Elder Guard troops. The freaking Storm Corps! The only reason I survived is that they let me live to warn you to stay away from the Vanmorzen manor.”

“Is that so?” Bezzum replied, the expression on his face unchanged. “What about you?” he asked, shifting his gaze to Mikaelo.”

“Alessandra sent me out of the manor, Clan Master,” Mikaelo replied. “She suspected a trap, and she wanted at least one of us to make it back to report to you.”

“I see,” Bezzum said, and then he shrugged and put his dagger away. “Well, for a failure of this magnitude, there can be only one punishment. You two are stripped of your clan rank and privileges, and removed from clan membership. Now get the hell out of my sight.”

“Not without saying something first,” Alessandra growled, stepping forward. “You knew the Storm Corps was going to be there. You knew we would be walking into a trap. You set this whole thing up just to discredit me. Four people died just so you could have an excuse to kick me out of the clan! If anyone should be stripped of their rank and privileges, it’s you!”

“Are you done?” Bezzum said, unfazed. “I’ve had enough of listening to your nonsense. Get out of my office before I have you removed by force.” Alessandra opened her mouth, ready to start yelling, but Mikaelo laid a hand on her arm. She whipped her head around to glare at him, but he just shook his head slightly, and then nodded toward the door. Alessandra turned back to glare at Bezzum, hatred smoldering in her eyes, and then she turned her back on him and marched out of his quarters.

As soon as she and Mikaelo were out in the hall, however, they stopped short, because all four Clan Leaders were marching up the hall toward Bezzum’s rooms. Alessandra stepped back, surprised, as they all pushed past her and into Bezzum’s chamber. As Torea passed her, she said, “You might want to be here for this.” Alessandra’s eyebrows rose even higher at this, and she exchanged looks with Mikaelo, who looked almost as surprised as her, and then followed the Clan Leaders in.

“What is the meaning of this?” Bezzum sneered as soon as he saw them. “And what are those outcasts doing here?”

“So you have stripped Alessandra and Mikaelo of their clan membership?” Vegora demanded. The four Clan Leaders confronting the Clan Master was a rare occurrence, but not so rare that there weren’t rules governing such a confrontation. As eldest Clan Leader, it was his responsibility to take the lead, but he could call on his fellow Clan Leaders to speak as well.

“Of course I have,” Bezzum said in a dismissively angry tone. “They failed their mission, and their failure cost us four of our best people. How could they be allowed to stay in the clan?”

“The Clan Leaders challenge that decision, Clan Master,” Vegora said solemnly.

“You jacopists!” Bezzum snarled, leaping out of his seat and stalking toward them. “How dare you! This chiela has been a waste of space ever since we took her in, and you idiots have defended her at every turn! What possible excuse can there be for her failure this time?”

“You know full well that none of us could stand up against the Storm Corps, especially if they knew we were coming,” Vegora said calmly. “Alessandra’s failure deserves punishment, but it is the decision of the Clan Leaders that banishment is too harsh. No one in this room would have done better under similar circumstances.”

“So, you admit she needs punishing,” Bezzum sneered. “Well, that’s something I guess. And what punishment would my great and wise Clan Leaders suggest?”

“Torea?” Vegora said in response.

“Stripping her of her rank and associated privileges seems appropriate, under the circumstances,” Torea said, stepping forward. “She admitted that she sensed a trap, but she pushed forward anyway, and lost most of her team as a result. She should have withdrawn as soon as she sensed something was wrong.” She paused for a moment, and then looked at Alessandra. “It seems she forgot the first rule of thievery.” Alessandra blushed and looked at her feet. The first rule of thievery was, “Always trust your instincts”. Of course, it was nearly meaningless, because the second rule of thievery was, “Except when they’re wrong”. But Alessandra should have been experienced enough to know the difference, and she’d failed.

“Fine,” Bezzum snapped. “You can keep your golden child.” He stepped toward the Clan Leaders with a fire in his eyes, and thrust one finger under Vegora’s nose. “Remember this, though: next time she puts even one foot wrong, I’m kicking her out, even if I have to fight all four of you at once. Understood?” He whipped around without waiting for a response, and stormed into his inner chamber, slamming the door behind him.

There was silence for a moment after Bezzum’s departure, and then Torea turned to Alessandra and Mikaelo. “You two had better go get some rest,” she said, and then she and the other Clan Leaders left the room. Mikaelo and Alessandra looked at each other for a moment, and then they too departed from Bezzum’s chambers.

They walked together for a little ways, and then when they reached a point where they would have to go their separate ways in order to reach their own rooms, they both stopped. For a moment, they just looked at each other, and then Alessandra shook her head.

“I don’t know,” she said.

To be continued…

Chapter 4, Part 1

The next thing Alessandra knew, she was face down on what felt like the bottom of an alley. With a groan, she pushed herself up and opened her eyes slowly, only to discover that was exactly where she was. As she sat back against a nearby wall to try and orient herself, she heard a familiar voice.

“Oh, thank the Order!” it said. “I wasn’t sure you were ever going to wake up!”

“Mikaelo?” Alessandra asked, her voice cracking.

“Yeah,” he replied.

“What happened?” she asked, leaning her head back against the wall and closing her eyes.

“I was about to ask you the same question,” Mikaelo said grimly. “I got out of the manor like you ordered, and I took position on a roof across the street. A few minutes later, I saw a Shock Corps trooper carry you out of the manor and dump you in this alley. As soon as he was gone, I came down to you, bandaged your head, and waited for you to wake up. I thought about carrying you back to the clan house, but I wasn’t sure I could evade the mercenary clans while carrying you, and I didn’t know if moving you was a good idea anyway.”

“I see,” Alessandra said quietly, and then she fell silent, keeping her eyes shut. Now that she was conscious, the enormity of what had just happened hit her. Breska, Ahlen, Nieshata, Veloran…they were all dead. Worse, they had died under her command. She should have pulled out of the manor as soon as she realized it was a trap. Instead, she’d been arrogant, and assumed that they could still pull off the job even though it was compromised. And because of her arrogance, four of her clanmates were dead.

“The others,” Mikaelo said softly, “They didn’t make it, did they?” Alessandra just closed her eyes tighter and shook her head. She heard Mikaelo sigh, and then plop down on the ground next to her. “I’m sorry, Alessa.” They sat there, in that alley, for a few minutes, too distraught to do or say anything.

Finally, Mikaelo stood up. “We need to get back, Alessa,” he said. “We need to tell Bezzum what happened here.”

“I know,” whispered Alessandra. There was silence for a moment, and then Mikaelo crouched down next to her.

“Hey,” he said, “it’s gonna be okay.”

“Is it?” Alessandra asked, her voice heavy with grief and dread. “Four of our clanmates are dead, and we’re not even returning with the item we were commanded to retrieve. How can there be any possibility that I won’t be thrown out of the clan?”

“How can they throw you out for this?” Mikaelo asked. “There’s no way you could have known that the Shock Corps would be guarding the manor. Why would they be? What could possibly be in that chest that would be so valuable?”

“Like that matters,” Alessandra scoffed. “Bezzum knew this would happen. He had to! He knows what’s in that chest, and I’ll bet you anything he knows that the Elder Guard would be guarding it. And, they knew we were coming! Who could have tipped them off other than Bezzum?”

“Why…?” Mikealo began, and then trailed off.

“You know why,” Alessandra said levelly. “To get rid of me.” The two of them were silent for a moment, and the Alessandra slowly pulled herself to her feet. “Let’s go,” she said.

“You’re still going back?” Mikaelo asked.

“I am,” Alessandra said, her tone determined. “I’m not going to give Bezzum the satisfaction of slinking away quietly. I’m going to look him in the eyes and make him see what he’s done to me.” With that, she set off, moving slowly but steadily toward the Mekoval clanhouse, Mikaelo following close behind.

***

The lookouts at the Mekoval clanhouse greeted Alessandra and Mikaelo with frowns as they entered, but didn’t say anything. Alessandra was only too happy to respond in kind. She was dreading this encounter with Bezzum, but she was also determined to go out on her own terms. Even if Bezzum did throw her out of the clan, he was not going to humiliate her.

They stopped as soon as they reached the third floor, because Torea and another Clan Leader, Vegora, were standing there talking. As soon as they saw Alessandra and Mikaelo, they stopped their conversation and turned toward them.

“So,” Torea said in a low voice, and paused. “Just the two of you, and you appear to have no loot. I’m going to assume that things did not go well.”

“They did not, Clan Leader,” Alessandra said simply.

“Explain,” Vegora demanded. He was a short, wiry, clean-shaven man with leathery skin, white hair, and a raspy voice, but despite his age, he was still tougher and faster than most members of Clan Mekoval. Which was why he was a Clan Leader, and not dead in a gutter.

“The Storm Corps was waiting for us,” Alessandra said in a level voice. “They knew we would be there.” Torea and Vegora exchanged looks.

“The rest of your team is dead, I assume,” Vegora rasped. “How did you two survive?”

“I sent Mikaelo out of the manor early, because I suspected a trap,” Alessandra replied. “The Storm Corps never found him. Me, they spared, so that I could tell my boss not to mess with the Vanmorzens.” Torea and Vegora exchanged another look.

“Go make your report to Bezzum,” Torea said. “Vegora and I will discuss this with the other Clan Leaders.” Alessandra and Mikaelo saluted, and continued down the hallway.

They knocked on the door to Bezzum’s chambers, and heard his voice calling them in. Once inside, they saw him sitting behind his desk in the outer chamber, with his booted feet up on the desk, sharpening his nails with a dagger. He had a nasty grin on his face, as if he knew exactly what Alessandra was going to report, and he couldn’t wait to hear it. They saluted immediately, and stood at attention, waiting for Bezzum to speak first.

To be continued…