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…

Chapter 3, Part 3

Once inside, the team fanned out and began to move toward their target. Breska and Veloran took point, Alessandra, Nieshata and Ahlen followed, and Mikaelo was the rear guard. They slipped through the corridors like ghosts, Breska and Veloran eliminating the few mercenaries who crossed their path and hiding the bodies. They made their way through the hallways of the manor with ease. In fact, it was so easy that Alessandra started to worry. There should have been more guards, or at least some automated defenses. Making their way through the hallways of the Vanmorzen manor was almost as easy as strolling down Vonagar Avenue in the heart of the Circle District in broad daylight.

Giving the signal to halt, she approached Mikaelo and whispered in his ear. “I want you to go back outside and watch the building. Something doesn’t feel right, and I want you to report back to Bezzum if we don’t make it out.” Mikaelo frowned, presumably because he didn’t want to have to abandon her and the team, but he nodded and headed back toward the window they’d come in by. He could feel it too. They were headed for a trap.

A few minutes later, they reached the corridor outside the treasure vault. There were two mercenaries standing guard outside, quickly dispatched with expertly thrown knives. The team moved forward quickly, Breska and Veloran retrieving their knives while Ahlen went to work on the vault door. No sooner had the thieves taken positions to guard either end of the corridor when there was a loud snapping sound, and the vault door swung open.

“That was too easy,” Ahlen whispered.

“Don’t think about it,” Alessandra whispered back. “Let’s just get the chest that Bezzum wants and get out of here.” Ahlen nodded, and they both moved into the vault.

The vast array of riches held in the vault almost made Alessandra’s jaw drop, but she held herself together and began searching for the velisite wood chest. It wasn’t very difficult to find. The vault consisted of two rooms, the first of which was larger and stuffed on all sides with objects made of gold, carotal, intelimai, or some combination of those materials. The second room only contained one thing: a small chest made of velisite, sitting on a tall pedestal. Alessandra’s eyes lit up as soon as she saw it. She had originally intended to grab as many of the items in the vault as she could carry without it slowing her down, but given her worries about how easy this job had been, her only goal now was to get what was in that chest and get back to the slums as quickly as possible. She approached the chest and reached out her hands to open it, but before she could, she heard an unfamiliar male voice behind her.

“I think we’ve let this little charade go on long enough,” it said. “Turn around, nice and slowly.” Alessandra froze, and then she did as the voice ordered. There were three men standing in the vault. They were not mercenaries. Two of them were wearing massive suits of armor that covered every inch of their flesh and made them taller and wider than ordinary men. One of them was holding Ahlen by the throat. She struggled to free herself, but she was like a baby being held by a giant. The third was wearing a black military uniform. He was tall, with slicked back dark hair and a mustache that curled up on the ends. He had his arms clasped behind his back, and there was a smug smile on his face. Unfortunately, Alessandra recognized that uniform. This man was a Commander of the Elder Guard.

“It is always so satisfying to catch a thief in the act,” the Commander said in satisfaction. “And this time we caught not just one, but five! Oh, if only every day could be this productive.”

“How did you know?” Alessandra asked.

“Why would I bother telling you?” the Commander said with a sneer. “Move! Out of the vault!” One of the armored giants moved toward Alessandra, but she was out of the vault before he could grab her. Out in the hall, Alessandra saw that the rest of her team, minus Mikaelo, was each being held by one of the massive armored soldiers. Even huge Breska looked like a child compared to his captor. These were members of the Shock Corps, the most elite unit within the Elder Guard. These huge suits of armor were called inoval, and they were powered by magilisess. They gave their wearer superhuman strength and speed. No normal warrior could stand against a member of the Shock Corps. Alessandra’s whole team probably wouldn’t have been a match for even one inoval-wearing soldier.

“I have to admit, I’m impressed we attracted the attention of the Shock Corps,” Alessandra said, sounding calmer than she felt.

“You’re kidding, right?” the Commander asked, coming up behind her. “You mean you don’t even know what’s in that chest?” He burst out laughing. “By the Circle, you curs are even dumber than I thought!” He continued laughing for a minute or more, leaving Alessandra to stew impotently. Bezzum knew what was in that chest, and he had refused to tell her. Could this whole thing have been set up by Bezzum? Maybe as a way to get Alessandra out of the way? Could Bezzum have that much influence? The questions burned at Alessandra, but she knew she’d never get answers. She was headed for Mokatal Fortress, the prison where the Circle of Elders kept those who defied them. No one had ever escaped from Mokatal, and no matter how confident in her abilities Alessandra was, she knew that being the first person to accomplish that feat was beyond her.

“So what happens now?” Alessandra asked when the Commander finally stopped laughing, even though she already knew the answer.

“Well, I’ve got good news and bad news for you,” the Commander said with an unpleasant grin. “The good news is that I’m letting you go.” Alessandra blinked in surprise.

“Letting…us go?” she asked.

“Even if you didn’t know what’s in that chest, somebody does,” the Commander replied. “I want you to go back to whoever sent you and tell them that the Circle of Elders is losing patience with the lawlessness of the slums. Tell them that if they dare send another slimy rat like you into the City, there will be dire repercussions. Advise them that it would not be in their best interests if the Shock Corps decided to start patrolling the slums.”

“Okay,” Alessandra said slowly. “You’re letting us go. What’s the bad news then?”

“Oh, I never said I was letting all of you go,” the Commander said, his grin spreading lazily. “Just you, girl.” Before Alessandra could even process what this meant, the Commander had gestured to his troops, and with a horrible crunching sound, the necks of all of her team members were crushed simultaneously.

“NOOOOOO!” Alessandra screamed, lunging at the Commander, but before she could move more than a few feet, one of the inoval-clad soldiers moved suddenly, and then all was darkness.

To be continued…