Chapter 8, Part 3

She followed Kraylea up to Bezzum’s chambers, and found that Fergen and Shiena were already waiting outside. As soon as Kraylea knocked on the door, they heard Bezzum’s voice summoning them in, and they all entered the room.

The scene was much as it had been before. Bezzum was at his desk, and the four Clan Leaders were flanking him, two on each side. The Clan Leaders had grim expressions on their faces, but Bezzum looked positively chipper. This did nothing to improve Alessandra’s anxiety, nor did the sarcastic wink he gave her as she entered the room.

“The Clan Master has conferred with the Clan Leaders, and judgment has been decided,” said Vegora in an official sounding tone. “That judgment is as follows: Kraylea is to be stripped of his rank of Team Leader, and his team shall be dissolved. Furthermore, Alessandra is to be exiled from Clan Mekoval, effective immediately.” A wide grin spread across Bezzum’s face as Vegora spoke those words, but for a moment the full impact of what he said failed to hit Alessandra. All she could think at first was that anything Bezzum was so happy about couldn’t possibly be good news for her. Then, the meaning of Vegora’s words finally penetrated her mind.

“NO!” she screamed. “Exiled!? What for? What I do wrong? I wasn’t even in charge!”

“You’re bad luck, girl,” Bezzum said with open delight. “I’ve known it from the very beginning, and I was finally able to get the Clan Leaders to see it too. Twice now, ambushes have been laid for jobs that you were taking part in. Both times, multiple members of the clan have died. You’re too much of a risk. We can’t have your bad luck following us around.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Alessandra screeched. “Bad luck! I’ve never heard anything so stupid!”

“Is that so?” Bezzum sneered. “Well, the alternative is that you are a traitor. Would you rather I go with that judgment? Because the punishment for treason is death, and I would be happy to carry it out.”

“I…you…this…!” Alessandra was so overcome with rage and shock that she was reduced to incoherence.

“Get her out of my sight,” Bezzum growled with obvious glee. “Vegora, Torea, escort her out of the clanhouse. Make it clear to her that she ever sets foot in Mekoval territory again, it’ll be the last thing she does.” Alessandra opened her mouth to scream at Bezzum, to bellow that he had been the one who had betrayed her twice, but she couldn’t get a single word out before Vegora and Torea had taken her by the arms and were dragging her out of the room.

“This can’t be happening!” she yelled as she thrashed in the Clan Leaders’ grip, desperately trying to escape. “You can’t do this to me! This is wrong!”

“Hush, girl,” Torea said quietly. “You wanna make this worse for yourself? At least go out with a little bit of dignity.”

“How could you possibly go along with this, Torea?” Alessandra pleaded. “I’m not bad luck, and I’m definitely not a traitor! Bezzum’s the real traitor! He’s the only one who could have set up those ambushes!”

“Quiet,” Torea hissed. “Do you think we don’t know that? Do you think we’re really that stupid?”

“Then why are you kicking me out!” Alessandra exclaimed.

“Because our duty as Clan Leaders means we have to think of the clan as a whole, above the welfare of any one of its members,” Torea said. “Bezzum’s hatred of you has now cost the clan six members. If we let you stay, how many more clan members will finally die before he succeeds in killing you?”

“If you know he’s doing this, then fight him!” Alessandra cried, desperately. “Don’t just go along with him!”

“It’s not that simple,” Torea said, shaking her head. “Bezzum’s a good Clan Master. He’s made Clan Mekoval one of the strongest clans in the slums. Plus, he’s popular. And he’s strong. If I challenged him, I’d probably lose, and even if I won, most of the members would hate me for killing him. Like I said, I need to think of the well being of the clan above all else.”

“Please, Torea,” Alessandra said, and she was shocked to discover that she was crying. “Don’t do this. There must be another way.”

“This is the best way, for everyone involved,” Torea said sadly. “Any other way would lead to your death, and maybe the deaths of many more of our clan members. At least this way, you still have your life. Maybe you can still do something with it.”

They had reached the entrance of the clan house. Alessandra was still fighting, trying to escape from the Clan Leaders’ tight hold on her. As she fought, hot tears streamed down her face. She couldn’t believe this was happening. The clan was her life. Torea said she still had her life? Nonsense! The clan was everything! Without a clan, how was she supposed to survive in the slums? She kept fighting, knowing it was useless, knowing that even if she broke free, there was no way she wouldn’t get caught and thrown out of the house anyway. And she kept crying. Part of her was ashamed of her tears, and part of her knew that there was nothing she could do to stop them.

They reached the entrance of the house, and the two guards on duty there grabbed Alessandra by the arms, while Torea and Vegora grabbed her by the legs. Together, the four of them heaved Alessandra, still kicking and screaming and crying, out of the door and onto the street outside. As soon as she hit the ground, Alessandra was up on her feet, racing toward the door, tears streaming out behind her, but the two guards drew knives, and as they did so, Alessandra was horrified to realize that they were Mikaelo and Halidasa.

“I don’t want to kill you Alessa, but I will if I have to,” Mikaelo said in a soft, grim voice. Halidasa didn’t speak, but all trace of cheerfulness was gone from her face, and she nodded slowly.

To be continued…

Chapter 8, Part 2

The journey back to the clanhouse was long, slow, and joyless. They were nearly on the opposite side of the city from the clanhouse, and they couldn’t ride the semorjos anymore, partially because they were loaded down with loot from the North Vandeo Bank, and partially because they’d stripped off their disguises to escape from the mercenaries and thus no longer matched the descriptions on their fake identification papers. So with the semorjos no longer an option, the thieves were forced to make their way across the city on foot.

The sun was almost fully overhead by the time the thieves stumbled down the street in front of the Mekoval clanhouse. The sentries at the door frowned worriedly as soon as they saw Kraylea and his team, but they didn’t say anything as the team passed through the door. Silently, the four of them made their way up to Bezzum’s quarters. Alessandra was not looking forward to this meeting, but she took solace in the knowledge that she couldn’t possibly be blamed for this fiasco, as she had not been in charge of this team.

Once inside, they found that Bezzum was meeting with all four of the Clan Leaders. There was some consternation among the five of them when Kraylea and the others entered, but they were too good at masking their emotions to let any real shock or surprise show. The signs were there if you knew what to look for, though.

“So, four members of a six member team arrive in the middle of the day,” Bezzum said grimly. “I take it things did not go all that well.”

“You could say that, Clan Master,” Kraylea replied, his voice grim. “Sharae and Fihal are dead. The mercenaries knew we were coming. They had an ambush all planned.”

“Is that so,” Bezzum said, his voice unchanged. “And what about the spoils?”

“We managed to get away with some,” Kraylea said, pulling out two large sacks full of riches. Shiena and Fergen did the same. Alessandra stayed motionless. She had been standing guard outside the vault with Fihal, so she hadn’t taken any loot out of the vault.

“A fair take, I suppose,” Bezzum said with a sigh, emptying one bag out onto his desk. “Well, you four are dismissed for now. The Clan Leaders and I need to discuss the appropriate punishment.”

“Punishment, Clan Master?” Kraylea asked, confused.

“Of course,” Bezzum said. “Two of my clan members are dead. Surely you would agree that such an occurrence demands consequences?”

“I…yes, I see,” Kraylea said with a bow. He turned away from Bezzum, and motioned to the others to follow him out of the room. As soon as they were outside, they immediately dispersed in different directions. Alessandra stood outside Bezzum’s study for a few minutes, hoping to hear something of what was going on inside, but she couldn’t hear anything, and finally decided that the risk of getting caught was greater than the possibility of figuring out what the “punishment” was going to be ahead of time. Surely Bezzum wasn’t going to try and blame her for this…was he?

She slouched down the corridor and made her way back to her quarters. Before she made it there, however, she was met by Halidasa, who had her usual cheerful grin on her face.

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

“Hey,” Alessandra replied glumly.

“Uh oh,” Halidasa said, her grin fading slightly. “I know what that look means. Did your latest job go bad?” Alessandra nodded.

“I swear I must be cursed, Hali,” she replied with a sigh. “Everything I do lately goes bad. I don’t know how to fix it.”

“Cheer up, Alessa!” Halidasa said, her smile widening again. “Bad luck never lasts forever. Before you know it, things will be going great again, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a Clan Leader!”

“I wish I could have your optimism, Hali,” Alessandra said, smiling slightly. She started to continue on her way past Halidasa, and then she stopped. “Hali, I need to tell you something.”

“What is it?” Halidasa said, looking slightly confused.

“If anyone ever tells you that I’ve betrayed you, or that I’m thinking about betraying you, don’t believe them, okay? I would never, ever, even think about betraying you.”

“I know that, Alessa,” Halidasa said with a frown. “Why would you even think about that?”

“Just…remember,” Alessandra said, looking at Halidasa intently. “I’ve always got your back. No matter what.”

“Okay, Alessa,” Halidasa said, still confused, but then she smiled. “I will remember.” Then, on impulse, she gave Alessandra a hug. Alessandra just stood there for a moment, looking stunned, and then, awkwardly, she put her arms around Halidasa and returned the hug.

“Thanks, Hali,” she said softly. Halidasa patted her back lightly, released her, gave her a dazzling smile, and then turned and bounced down the hallway. Alessandra stood there for a moment, looking utterly bemused, and then she turned and continued on her way toward her quarters.

She spent the rest of the day laying on her bed, staring at the ceiling. She was completely exhausted, but she couldn’t sleep. All she could think about was how once again, she had gone out on a job and it had been a total disaster. Of course, it wasn’t as bad as the Vanmorzen manor, but in a way, that thought almost made things worse. The job where she hadn’t been in charge was less of a disaster than the job where she had been in charge. What did that say about her leadership skills? How could she ever be Clan Master if she couldn’t even pull off one simple heist?

The hours seemed to crawl by as she stared at the ceiling above her bed, but before she knew it, somebody was banging on her door, startling her.

“What is it?” she yelled, sitting up suddenly, her eyes going wide.

“It’s Kraylea,” came the response. “We’ve been summoned to see Bezzum.”

“Alright, I’m coming,” Alessandra said, ignoring the sick feeling that appeared in pit of her stomach.

To be continued…

Chapter 8, Part 1

As soon as the mercenary leader spoke, Kraylea was moving, his hand lashing out faster than anyone would expect a man his size could move. Almost as soon as the word “them” left his mouth, he had a knife in his throat and was collapsing onto the ground, clutching at the hilt of it. Even before he started falling, Kraylea was moving, racing toward the nearest mercenary with a knife in each hand. The other members of his team followed suit, and the result was that before the mercenaries could even react to their leader’s last command, half a dozen of them were already dead.

They still outnumbered the thieves three-to-one though, and the surviving mercenaries had gotten over their initial shock and were fighting back now. The thieves were much faster than the mercenaries, but the mercenaries had heavier weapons and armor, and were physically much larger than the thieves, even Kraylea and Fergen. The result was a fierce battle that the thieves didn’t stand much of a chance of winning.

Fortunately for them, they didn’t need to win. They just needed to escape. Having taken down a number of mercenaries, the thieves were able to slip through their line and race out of the bank.

Unfortunately, there were more mercenaries outside.

“Scatter!” Kraylea yelled, flinging himself toward the nearest mercenary, ducking under his sword, and slamming a knife into the gap between his breastplate and his helmet. “Meet at the rally point!”

That was the last Alessandra was aware of any of her teammates for quite some time. For the next few minutes all she was aware of was herself, the knives in her hands, and whoever was standing between her and escape at any given moment. She weaved, ducked, and leaped out of the way of swords, axes and polearms, stabbing at vulnerable spots whenever she got a chance, but mostly focusing on moving forward and staying alive.

For what seemed like an eternity, that was all there was to Alessandra’s existence. Then, suddenly, there were no more mercenaries in front of her, just an empty alleyway. She could still hear the sounds of fighting going on behind her, but she didn’t hesitate for a moment before she was racing down the alley as fast as she could. Part of her hated to abandon her clanmates, but Kraylea had ordered them to scatter, and outnumbered as they were, the best could hope to accomplish by going back was to get killed herself.

She emerged from the alley and out onto a busy street. There were no mercenaries here, just a lot of civilians going on about their normal routines. She slowed down and walked quickly through the crowd, looking for another alley. After a few minutes, she found one, and ducked inside. In the alley, she stripped off her wig, wiped off her makeup, popped out her contacts, and shed her jacket. If the mercenaries were smart, they’d be circulating her description to other clans, and maybe even the Elder Guard, and she wanted to make sure she looked as little like the description they had of her as possible.

A few minutes later, and she was rounding a corner and arriving in front of a small park, a different one than the one they had met in before robbing the bank. Kraylea was already there, sitting on a bench and pressing a white cloth to a cut on his forehead.

“You made it,” he said with a grunt as Alessandra walked up to him. “I was beginning to think I was the only one that escaped.” He paused for a moment, and then said, “Fihal’s dead.”

“Ah, crap,” Alessandra said, slumping onto the bench next to Kraylea.

“Yeah,” Kraylea replied bleakly. “One of those bastards got him in the leg, and that was the end of him.”

“What about the others?”

“Dunno,” Kraylea shrugged. “Never saw any of them after we left the bank.” They sat in silence for a few minutes, both thinking bleak thoughts. Then Kraylea stirred, as if he was about to say something, but before he could, Fergen strolled into the park.

“I know that that’s not how a heist is supposed to go, but damn I got to kill a lot of mercs today,” she said with a grin. “So satisfying.”

“How satisfying is it to know that Fihal is dead?” Kraylea asked with a grimace. That wiped the grin off of Fergen’s face immediately.

“Oh, no,” she said. “That’s terrible.”

“Yeah,” Kraylea agreed.

“What about Sharae and Shiena?” Fergen asked.

“No idea,” Kraylea shook his head.

“How much longer we gonna stay here?” Fergen asked.

“Long enough,” Kraylea said. Fergen grunted in reply, and the three of them lapsed into a morose silence.

They weren’t waiting long when Shiena limped into the park. Kraylea jumped up as soon as he saw her,  ran up to her, and wrapped his arms around her. She returned his embrace, but it didn’t change the haunted look on her face.

“Kraylea,” she said, pushing away from him slightly, “Sharae is dead.”

“Wait, what?” Kraylea asked, stunned.

“Yeah,” Shiena said. “One of the mercs was about to run me through, and suddenly she was there. She stabbed the guy, but not before she took the blow that was meant for me.” Kraylea just stared at her, as if unable to process what she was saying.

“Well that’s that, then,” Alessandra said. “We need to get moving.”

“Don’t you have a shred of decency?” Fergen hissed at her angrily. “Give the man a moment!”

“He can grieve when we get back to the clanhouse!” Alessandra hissed back. Before Fergen could reply, Kraylea turned to them.

“Let’s move,” he said tonelessly. He and Shiena shuffled slowly out of the park, he with his arm around her shoulders, and her leaning on him as his body was all that was holding her up. Alessandra and Fergen exchanged a grim look, and then followed after them.

To be continued…

Chapter 7, Part 6

With the guards taken care of, Alessandra went back to the door to the security room and quickly picked the lock. The room was quite small, and it was taken up entirely by a large console covered in buttons and knobs and levers and multi-colored lights. There were two technicians sitting at the console, and they turned around in surprise as Alessandra and Shiena burst in.

“Hey!” one of them yelled. “You’re not allow-” He cut off abruptly as a knife pierced his eye, and the other technician died just as suddenly. Shiena shoved the body of the man she’d just killed out of his seat and sat down in it.

“Let’s see,” she murmured as she inspected the console. “Should be right around…” Jamming her knife underneath the console, she pried open a metal panel, exposing a jumble of colorful wires. “Ah, this’ll do,” she said happily, and sliced through a green wire and a red wire. All of the lights on the console immediately went dead.

“Let’s go down and meet up with the rest of the team,” Alessandra said.

“You don’t give the orders around here, chiela,” Shiena said scornfully. “Just shut up and do as you’re told.” Immediately, she left the room, leaving Alessandra to follow with a scowl on her face.

They made their way down to the first floor without incident. In fact, their progress was so smooth that Alessandra began to get that creeping feeling in her gut that she had had in the Vanmorzen manor. She almost said something to Shiena, but she knew the reaction she would get, so she said nothing, and instead continued to follow after her.

In the main lobby of the bank, they found the rest of their team. They were standing around the door leading to the vault, attempting to get it open. As they approached, Kraylea noticed them and waved them over.

“Hey!” he called. “Come get this door open!” Alessandra hurried over and inspected the lock quickly, then she pulled out her tools and got to work on it.

“What’s taking so long?” Fihal hissed.

“It’s not a standard lock,” Alessandra hissed back. “It’s got some sort of sweep mechanism I’ve never seen before.”

“Well hurry up!” Kraylea demanded. “Those mercenaries guarding the entrances are gonna notice that the security systems are down soon. It won’t be long before they start patrolling the halls.”

“Got it!” Alessandra proclaimed. The door swung open and the whole team quickly rushed inside. They made their way down a long, narrow corridor that slowly sloped downward, so that by the end of it they were completely underground. At the end was a huge door made out of nivotal, a strong, dark gray metal. The lock on the door was bigger than Alessandra’s head, and unlike any she had ever seen before.

“Crap,” she muttered as soon as she saw it.

“I don’t mean to pressure you,” Sharae said grimly, “but you’d better figure out this lock faster than you’ve ever done anything before in your life.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Alessandra said, her tone just as grim as Sharae’s. She pulled her tools back out and got to work.

As it turned out, the lock was unusual but not terribly complex. The trickiest part was the sheer size of it. After a few minutes, she begrudgingly admitted to herself that she wasn’t strong enough to force it open herself, and motioned to Kraylea. He gave her a winking smirk, sauntered over to the lock, and, with a grunt, broke the lock. As soon as he did, he motioned to the rest of the team, and they all grabbed onto the door and hauled it open.

Once it was open, Kraylea motioned for Fihal and Alessandra to stay outside and stand guard, while he and the other members of the team went inside to fill their bags with loot. The process of looting the vault took just a few minutes, and the six of them were headed back up the corridor and out into the lobby.

And then all hell broke loose.

As they were crossing the lobby, doors on either side and behind them burst open and a couple dozen mercenaries streamed into the room. Some of them were carrying swords, others had heavy cudgels, and a few were wielding big, two-handed axes. All of them were bigger than Kraylea, and they all had very satisfied looks on their faces. Kraylea and the others screeched to a halt, and began mentally weighing their odds.

“Oh, you people are in big trouble now, aren’t you?” sneered one man, the biggest one of them all. He had a crew cut, a scar down one side of his face, and black beady eyes that seemed fixed in a permanent squint. “You all thought you could waltz into this bank and take whatever you wanted without paying a fee? Well, the fee has come due now.”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Kraylea said with a smirk.

“Didn’t you ever stop to think that maybe things were a little too easy tonight?” the big mercenary said in a soft, mocking voice. “Didn’t it occur to you that maybe you got into that vault just a little too smoothly?”

“Hey, I was too busy killing your buddies to stop and think,” Kraylea said, his smirk growing wider. The sneer disappeared off the big mercenary’s face and was replaced with an ugly grimace.

“You fools,” he growled. “You were set up! Somebody told my clan you were coming! Somebody from your clan I would bet, unless you’ve been blabbing about your plans all over the slums.”

“If this is an ambush, it’s a pretty lousy one,” Kraylea said with a shrug.

“What are you babbling about, chiela?” the mercenary snarled. “You’re outnumbered and surrounded! None of you are going to leave this place alive.”

“Big talk for someone who hasn’t actually killed a single member of my team yet,” Kraylea said with a wink.

“Enough of this nonsense!” the mercenary leader howled. “Kill them!”

To be continued…