Chapter 7, Part 1

Alessandra was awoken out of a dreamless, fitful sleep by the sound of someone banging forcefully on her door. She sat up suddenly, in a daze, and then leaped out of her bed and rushed to the door.

“Who is it?” she yelled, exasperated.

“Kraylea!” a deep male voice yelled back. “Open up!” Alessandra forced down a scowl, unlocked the door, and opened it a crack.

“What is it?” she hissed.

“You’re not gonna invite me in?” asked Kraylea with a smirk on his face. He was a large man with thick, bushy hair, a round, beardless face, and skin as dark as Torea’s. He had his arms folded across his broad chest, and was eyeing Alessandra up and down appreciatively. Alessandra was suddenly very conscious of the fact that she was only wearing a tank top and shorts, and was glad that she had only opened the door a crack. She wasn’t a prude by any stretch, and she normally didn’t mind men looking at her, but Kraylea had made it clear in the past that he wanted to do much more than look, and he wasn’t averse to taking what he wanted by force.

“No, Kraylea, I’m not,” Alessandra said with a sigh. “Are you here for a reason, or are you just trying to pester me?”

“Hey, you better not take that tone with me,” Kraylea replied, continuing to smirk. “One more false step and Bezzum’s gonna boot your sexy ass outta here faster than you can blink. So you better treat me with respect, or I’ll give Bezzum the excuse he’s looking for.”

“Fine, Team Leader,” Alessandra said with a heavy sigh. “What is it that you require of me?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Kraylea said, chortling. Alessandra rolled her eyes, and he laughed harder. “Nah, it’s cool. I’m having a briefing in fifteen minutes, and I need you there. Don’t bother to change.” Alessandra slammed the door in his face with an exasperated groan, and she could hear him laughing outside even harder. She shook her head, and then picked out the least-revealing clothes she owned and put them on. Then she opened the door again and was relieved to find that Kraylea wasn’t there anymore. Not that she wasn’t going to have to deal with him again at the briefing, but even a few minutes of not having to put up with his leers was better than nothing.

Unfortunately, that blessed respite only lasted as long as it took Alessandra to walk to the briefing room. When she arrived, Kraylea was lounging in a large couch with his legs crossed and his arms spread out across the back of the couch. His familiar insolent smirk was firmly fixed on his face, and his eyes bored into Alessandra’s as soon as she walked into the room. She pointedly ignored him, and plopped down into a worn-down recliner as far away from Kraylea as she could get.

Fortunately, they weren’t alone in the room. Sitting about halfway between Alessandra and Kraylea was Fihal, a skinny young man with a shock of blond hair that was shaved on the sides. He was also lounging on a couch, but his pose was considerably less insolent than Kraylea’s. He was Kraylea’s decoyer, and Alessandra didn’t know him well. Another person in the room was Sharae, a stocky woman with a deep scar down one side of her face and skin even darker than Kraylea’s. Her hairstyle mirrored Fihal’s except that it was bright pink. She was Kraylea’s second. Despite her closeness with Kraylea, Alessandra had always gotten along well with her, at least until Alessandra’s recent disgrace.

Just as Alessandra had finished taking stock of the occupants of the room, another person came in. This was Shiena, Kraylea’s bypasser. She was of average build, with olive-colored skin and black hair that swooped off to one side and hung over one of her eyes. She scowled at Alessandra as soon as they made eye contact, and made her way over to sit at Kraylea’s side.

“Hey, there’s my little sugar plum,” Kraylea said as soon as he saw her.

“Hey, baby,” Shiena said in a smoky voice, snuggling up next to him. They immediately began making out. Alessandra rolled her eyes and tried to ignore them. Fihal watched them intently with a bemused smirk on his face, but Sharae scowled at them stonily. Alessandra wondered what that was all about. As far as she knew, Sharae and Kraylea’s relationship had always been strictly business. Was she jealous of Kraylea’s latest conquest?

“Kray!” Sharae finally barked after the make out session had been going on for what seemed like an excessively long time.

“Yeah, yeah, keep your pants on, Sharae,” Kraylea said as soon as he disengaged himself from Shiena. Shiena shot Sharae a murderous glance, which bounced off Sharae like a rubber ball hitting the pavement. “Where’s Fergen?”

“I guess she’s not here yet,” Fihal said with an insolent grin.

“I figured that, chiela,” Kraylea said, rolling his eyes. “She better get here soon, cause I ain’t holding this meeting for her.”

“She’ll be here,” Sharae said calmly.

“Yeah, well, she better be,” Kraylea muttered. “Ah, well, we might as well get started. We’re gonna hit the North Vandeo Bank. Pull as many bars of mandyium and braeka outta there as we can get.”

“Ugh, does it have to be the North Vandeo Bank?” Fihal said with a theatrical sigh. “Can’t it be South Vandeo? Or Mercater Central? North Vandeo’s on the other side of the city!”

“It’s North Vandeo cause I said it’s North Vandeo!” Kraylea bellowed suddenly. “Now shut up and listen!” Fihal’s grin slipped a little, but it was back almost immediately. No one else’s expression changed. Everyone who knew Kraylea knew he was like this. Most of the time he would act all genial and suave, and then sometimes, out of nowhere, he would explode. That was part of the reason Alessandra was wary of his advances. He seemed charming on the surface, but there was an undercurrent of menace and violence in his personality that was always threatening to burst out.

To be continued…

Chapter 6, Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Chapter 6, Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Chapter 6, Part 2

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

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

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

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

“You… What?” Mikaelo stammered.

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

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

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

“And does it?” Mikaelo asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

To be continued…

Chapter 6, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…