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…

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…