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…