Chapter 10, Part 3

The arena in the Mekoval clanhouse was somewhat inappropriately named. It was nothing like the huge arena near the center of the city where gladiator contests and mefutal matches were held. It was, instead, merely the largest room in the clanhouse. Nor was it used simply for challenge duels. It was also used a classroom sometimes, sometimes as a training room, and most commonly it was used as the clan mess hall. And yet, the challenges held such a key place in the mythology of how Clan Mekoval thought of itself that it was referred to as the arena, regardless of how little it was actually used for that purpose.

Despite her mood, Alessandra couldn’t help grinning as she walked into the room, trailed by Halidasa. Finally, she was going to get her revenge. It actually made her want to giggle that Torea, Mikaelo and Halidasa were so worried about her. Oh, if only they knew. She could almost feel the power coursing through her veins. Bezzum was going to try and toy with her, but she was the one who was going to end up toying with him. It was enough to make her want to howl with glee!

The center of the room was cleared for the challenge, with all the tables pushed up against the walls. Every member of the clan was already there, at least all those who weren’t currently out on jobs. She received a variety of looks from the people in the room. A number of them simply looked surprised that she was there. Quite a few looked rather pleased at the thought that (as they saw it) she was about to be destroyed by Bezzum. Only a very few looked like they were worried on her behalf.

She would win them over, she knew that. Once they saw how powerful she’d become, they would know that she was worthy of being Clan Master. After all, once she killed Bezzum, she would be Clan Master, and no one would dare challenge her once they saw how strong she was. She caught the eye of a few people who had expectant looks on their faces and gave them a wink, and laughed at the confusion they displayed. They really thought she was going to lose, and they couldn’t imagine how she could be so confident. Well, they would learn.

She took her place on one end of the cleared-out space, and watched Bezzum approach from the other direction. He directed a nasty grin at her as he entered, which she returned with another wink. His grin became even nastier in response, but Alessandra was certain that there was a hint of doubt in his expression. He knew how strong he was, how skilled. He knew that under normal circumstances there was no one in the clan who was nearly good enough to best him. His confidence wasn’t arrogance. He really was as good as he thought he was. So for Alessandra to be as confident as she was, it had to be eating at him a little. Or so she assumed.

Vegora strode forward out of the crowd and took his place at the center of the circle, with Alessandra and Bezzum on either end. He looked at Bezzum and nodded, and then he looked at Alessandra. He gazed at her impassively for a moment, and then he shook his head and turned to the crowd.

“Gathered members of Clan Mekoval,” he intoned, “we are here to witness a challenge to the leadership of Clan Master Bezzum by Clan Member Alessandra. This is a battle to the death, and the winner will take his or her place as the Clan Master of Clan Mekoval. At my mark, the challenge will begin.” Vegora stepped out of the circle, back into the edge of the crowd, raised his hand, and then brought it down quickly and yelled, “Begin!”

As soon as he did so, both Alessandra and Bezzum drew their daggers and began circling each other. Bezzum had a predatory gleam in his eyes and a feral grin on his face. “I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time, chiela,” he hissed, barely audible over the roar of the watching crowd.

“If I’d known you had a death wish, I would have indulged you sooner,” Alessandra shot back. She tried to smile sweetly at him, but she was pretty sure the look on her face was just as fierce as Bezzum’s. He snarled at her in response, and then lunged at her.

Like a serpent, Alessandra dodged out of the way. Bezzum blinked in surprise, but recovered quickly and was immediately back on the attack. Once again, Alessandra slipped away from the bite of his blades, but he was relentless. Again and again he attacked, and again and again he failed to make any contact with her body. Finally, in frustration, he lunged at her again, and when she danced out of his way again, he slipped and fell on his face. Leaping up again, he snarled at her in frustration, and this time, the smile she gave him in response was indeed perfectly sweet and innocent.

“What happened to you?” he rasped.

“I learned a few things while I was in exile,” she said with an innocent shrug, and then it was her turn to attack.

Her blades flashed like lightning, and no matter how hard Bezzum tried to dodge or parry, every time her daggers lashed out, they drew blood. After a few minutes of this, Alessandra drew back to admire her handiwork. Bezzum was covered from head to toe in little cuts, and the floor of the arena was wet with his blood. With a howl of rage and frustration, Bezzum leaped at her again, and Alessandra very nonchalantly stepped out of his way, leaving him to sprawl on his face on the floor.

“How are you doing this!” Bezzum roared, as he sprang to his feet again.

“My little secret,” Alessandra said with a wink. “You know, it’s almost a shame this is a fight to the death. I would love to watch you beg for mercy right now. But I think it’s time to put an end to this little game.” Faster than a human eye could follow, she lunged forward and plunged one of her daggers into his gut. Bezzum’s eyes widened in pain and shock, and Alessandra grinned. “Enjoy the last few seconds of your life, chiela,” she said, and then with her other dagger she slit his throat.

To be continued…

Chapter 10, Part 2

She fell silent, and the two women stared at each other for a few moments, Alessandra with fire in her eyes, and Torea with sadness and pity in hers. Finally, Torea looked away and shook her head.

“If that’s your decision, then so be it,” she said. A small, sad chuckle escaped from her lips. “I suppose it doesn’t matter now anyway. You challenged, he accepted, and there’s no way around that. If you tried to leave the clanhouse now, I would have to kill you.”

“You would have to try and kill me, you mean,” Alessandra replied, her eyes still smoldering. “Don’t underestimate me, Clan Leader. I have no intention of dying today.” And with that, she spun on her heel and stormed out of the room, leaving Torea alone with her grief.

A few seconds later, she turned a corner and ran into Mikaelo. “Alessa!” he gasped. “It’s true! You really are here!”

“Yes, I am here, and before you ask, yes, I did challenge Bezzum,” Alessandra said.

Moi tuval, Alessa,” Mikaelo swore. “What in the abyss are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that I’d rather die than face another minute of exile,” Alessandra replied calmly. “You have no idea what it was like.”

“I don’t, you’re right, and I’m sorry, but Alessa…,” he trailed off helplessly, and then he whispered, “I don’t want you to die.”

“Trust me, Mikaelo, I don’t want to die either,” Alessandra responded. “I learned a few things during my exile. You might be surprised at how this challenge turns out.”

“Are…are you sure that exile didn’t…mess up your mind…or anything?” he asked.

“Look, you’re going to just have to trust me,” Alessandra said, exasperated. “Besides, what does it matter to you if I die? I was an exile. You were never going to see me again anyway.”

“Well…I had…plans,” Mikaelo said lamely.

“You had plans,” Alessandra replied, her voice flat.

“Well…yeah!” Mikaelo said. “I mean, Bezzum’s not gonna be Clan Master forever, and I thought…maybe…when we was gone, I could convince whoever took his place to revoke your exile,” he finished with a little shrug. Alessandra stared at him flatly, her hands on her hips.

“Well, whatever,” she said with a slight shake of her head. “It doesn’t matter now. I’m here, my exile is over, and I’ve challenged Bezzum. You know as well as I do that a challenge can’t be withdrawn once it’s accepted. If I tried to back out now, you’d kill me, right?” Mikaelo hesitated for a moment, and Alessandra got right in his face. “Right?” she asked insistently.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Mikaelo sputtered, backing away hastily. “The good of the clan always comes before that of the individual. I know that. But…Alessa, you have no idea how hard it was to have to bar you from the clan house.”

“Oh, I have no idea how hard it was,” she said flatly, and then she screamed, “I have no idea how hard it was? Let me tell you something,” but he never found out what she was going to tell him, because they were interrupted by Halidasa.

“Um, Alessa?” she said diffidently. “The Clan Leaders told me to tell you that it’s time.”

“Fine,” she said, ignoring Mikaelo. “Let’s go.”

Halidasa and Alessandra made their way through the halls of the Mekoval clanhouse to the arena. Halidasa was uncharacteristically silent as they walked, but Alessandra wasn’t really in the mood to talk, so she didn’t press Halidasa at all. Instead, she focused on her anger toward Mikaelo. How dare he presume to lecture her on how hard life had been for him over the past few weeks? She was the one who’d been living in hovels, stealing just enough to survive. She was the one who had fled from roving mercenaries, and was apparently being chased by demons. All he’d had to do was keep her from reentering the clanhouse after she’d been thrown out! What a hard life that was!

She was so wrapped up in her fuming that it took her a moment to realize that Halidasa had stopped. Turning, she asked, “Hali? What’s up?”

Halidasa was silent for a moment, and then she shook her head and said, “I…I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around what’s happening here. You’ve…always been one of my best friends, and I…I…I don’t want you to die.” Alessandra was stunned for a moment, and then she smiled.

“Oh, Hali, you’re such a sweetheart,” she said. “Trust me, I don’t want to die either. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the outcome of this challenge.”

“But that’s just it, Alessa!” Halidasa wailed. “I don’t want Bezzum to die either! I know you hate him, and I know he hates you, but he’s always been good to me! He’s been like…he’s been like the father I never had, and I don’t want either of you to die!”

Now Alessandra was truly stunned. She’d known that Halidasa and Bezzum were close, but for her to think of him as a father? She was having a difficult time processing that little bit of information. A father? Who even cared about having a father? Nobody in the slums had a father, at least not one who took care of them the way fathers in the city took care of their children. Alessandra didn’t know who her father was any more than Halidasa did, and that had never bothered her, but apparently it did bother Halidasa.

“Hali,” she said quietly, “I don’t know what you expect me to do. I can’t back out of this challenge now, and even if I could, it would just mean a return to exile. I can’t go back to that life, Hali. I won’t. You don’t know what it was like.”

“I know, Alessa,” Halidasa said, sniffling. “I know the rules. But that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.”

No, Alessandra thought with a frown, I suppose it doesn’t. She turned and began walking down the hall toward the arena again, and now her anger had been replaced by…confusion.

To be continued…

Chapter 10, Part 1

The sun was about halfway down to the horizon when Alessandra stood in front of the Mekoval clanhouse once more. Nobody knew she was there, of course. She was completely invisible, to sight, sound and touch. As far as the guards squatting by the door were concerned, the street in front of them was completely devoid of the presence of a young woman named Alessandra. She grinned as she watched them, highly amused at their ignorance. Of course, she would have been just as ignorant as they the last time she was in their position, but she ignored that fact. There was no way the guards would know she was there, not until she was where she wanted to be and she chose to reveal her presence.

The problem was, the door was closed. Alessandra suspected there was some way she could use her power to pass through a closed door, but she didn’t know how to do it, and she didn’t want to experiment with her powers now. She wanted to keep herself and her powers a secret until the appropriate time, so instead she just waited. She would wait for someone to leave or enter the clanhouse, and then she would slip through the door before it closed again.

Fortunately, she didn’t have to wait very long. Alessandra was perfectly capable of waiting for long periods of time. It was an essential skill for a thief, but that didn’t mean she liked it. This time, however, she’d only been waiting about fifteen minutes when a woman she recognized as a member of Clan Mekoval appeared and headed for the door. The guards nodded to her as she approached, opened the door for her, and she and Alessandra passed through. As soon as she was inside, Alessandra made a beeline for the Clan Master’s quarters.

It was strange being back in the clanhouse again. Even though it had only been a few weeks since she’d been exiled, it felt like it had been an eternity. So much had happened in those few weeks, and Alessandra felt like a completely different person now. Added to that was the fact that this place still wasn’t actually her home anymore. She walked its halls, but she was still an exile. Gaining fantastic new powers hadn’t changed that yet, but it would. She was about to end her exile, and accomplish so much more.

She found herself outside Bezzum’s quarters. Looking around, she saw that there was no one in sight, so she decided to try and move through the door without opening it. In a few seconds, she would want to be seen anyway, so she figured at this point it was okay if she screwed up and had to just open the door herself and walk in. Closing her eyes, she thought for a second, and then did what felt natural. She felt something…shift, and then she heard a scream and a thump. Opening her eyes, she found that it had worked, but that she had become visible in the process. Bezzum was sitting at his desk, his eyes round in shock, and Torea was standing next to him, looking nearly as startled.

“What in the seven levels of the Abyss are you doing here?” Bezzum roared, getting up from his desk. “And how did you get in here?”

“I’m here,” Alessandra said, in a surprisingly level voice, considering she was almost as surprised as Bezzum, “to issue a challenge to you.”

“Girl, don’t be foolish,” said Torea, coming towards her. “Promise to leave here at once, and never return, and I will give you safe conduct out of the clanhouse.”

“Absolutely not!” Bezzum bellowed. “I should kill you where you stand! Issue a challenge? You can’t issue a challenge! You’ve been exiled! I’m going to cut you down like the dog you are!”

“What’s the problem, Bezzum?” Alessandra said with a sly grin. “Are you scared?”

“Scared!” Bezzum shrieked, his face turning red with rage. “I- You- How-!”

“You’ve always wanted to kill me, Bezzum,” Alessandra purred, emphasizing the Clan Master’s name. “Now’s your chance. Just you and me in the arena. You know I’m no match for you. You can finally finish me off, once and for all.”

“Alessandra, what is this nonsense?” Torea said, a note of desperation in her voice. “Did you forget what I said to you?”

Bezzum held up a hand to cut her off. “You’re right, chiela,” he said to Alessandra, his voice turning cold. “I have always wanted to kill you. I never thought you’d be so foolish as to challenge me, after what I did your precious Kriesaio, but so be it! I hereby revoke your exile! You are now, once again, a member of Clan Mekoval, and as such, I accept your challenge.” He grinned, a cruel smile without a trace of mirth in it. “Enjoy the last few minutes of your life, chiela.” Then he brushed past her and left the room.

“Alessandra, what are you doing?” Torea asked in a low, worried voice.

“I decided that if I’m going to die, I’m going to do it as a member of Clan Mekoval,” Alessandra said proudly. “Exile was hell, and I have no desire to go back to that life. Death is coming for me, sooner or later, and I’d rather face it on my feet in the arena, then lying on a gutter in the outskirts.” Then she flashed Torea a grin. “Besides, you never know how a challenge is going to turn out until it happens.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Torea said fiercely. “You know how strong he is. This isn’t going to be a quick death! Remember what happened to Kriesaio! He is going to toy with you, make you suffer! He’s going to shame you in front of the whole clan! Is that really what you want your legacy to be?”

“He’s already shamed me in front of the whole clan!” Alessandra roared, rounding on Torea. “Have you forgotten how you dragged me, kicking and screaming, and threw me out of the clanhouse? Have you forgotten how he made sure that the guards on the gate were my two best friends? I have nothing left, Torea! The clan was my life, and he took that away! Just let me choose my own death, okay? At least this way I have a chance of regaining my honor!”

To be continued…

Chapter 9, Part 4

In a flash, she launched herself at the first man, intending to rain down a flurry of punches and kicks. Instead, her first punch was so powerful that it sent the man flying twenty feet. He crashed into a brick wall and slumped over, unconscious. The other three men stared at her for a second, their mouths hanging open in shock, while Alessandra stared at the man she’d punched, with her mouth also hanging open in shock. Then the three men yelled and charged at her at once.
In a few seconds, it was all over. Two punches and one kick were all it took for Alessandra to dispatch all three men, and then she was standing there, taking deep breaths, staring in awe at the unconscious men slumped all around her. There was no longer any doubt in her mind. Ilimay had somehow transferred her powers to Alessandra, and even better, somehow Alessandra instinctively knew how to use those powers. She took a deep breath with her eyes closed, and then, with a quick look around to make sure no one was watching, she turned invisible again and slipped off into the night.
The rest of the night she roamed the slums, zooming from one part of the city to another, beating up thugs and then disappearing again. She had plans for these new powers, but she needed to make sure she knew what they were capable of before she put them to use. During one fight, she deliberately allowed herself to get hurt, and then, once the battle was over, she willed her flesh to heal itself. During another fight, she willed a fireball into existence and flung it at one of the thugs she was fighting. At one point she attempted to fly, but she felt instinctively that such a thing was not possible, and sure enough, her feet remained firmly planted on the ground.
All night long, she raced, snuck, and fought her way through the slums. She didn’t seem to tire at all, and she didn’t know if that was because her newfound powers meant that she didn’t get tired, or if she was just so excited about her new powers that her body was running on adrenaline. A nagging voice in the back of her head told her that maybe she should think about what happened a little more, maybe reflect on it a little, but she shoved that voice back down every time it surfaced. This was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her in her life, and she didn’t want to sully it by thinking too much about it.
Finally, the light of the sun began creeping into the streets of the slums, and Alessandra, for the first time since before the demon showed up in her hut, started to feel a little tired. She wanted to be at peak performance before she put the first part of her plan into motion, so she decided to search the outskirts for a place to sleep. There were so many abandoned buildings on the outskirts that finding a place to hide for a few hours was easy, especially considering her speed and her ability to turn invisible.
Her last thought before she drifted off to sleep was to wonder if she could stay invisible even while she slept, and sure enough, when she woke up in the early afternoon, she was still completely invisible. Because of her confidence in her new powers, she had slept more soundly than at any time since she’d been exiled. In fact, her sleep had been even deeper than most nights when she lived in the Mekoval clanhouse. For the first time in a very long time, Alessandra was confident that things were going to be alright.
She stood in the doorway of her new hovel with a broad grin on her face, brimming with exuberance, confident that today was the day her exile would end. She had a plan, and there was no reason for her to delay carrying it out. Actually, she thought, as her stomach growled, maybe a slight delay would be fine.
Obtaining money for food was easier than it had ever been, of course. She found that not only could she hide herself from sight and sound, she could even buffer herself in such a way that people couldn’t feel her when she touched them. Pickpocketing had never been such a breeze. In fact, she obtained so much money, she was able to buy as much food in one trip as she had in the entire previous week. She only intended to eat a portion of it, saving the rest for later, but once she started eating, she found that she couldn’t stop until it was all gone. That had unsettling implications for the energy costs of her new powers, but she refused to let that bother her. She had a plan, and once she carried out that plan, everything else would fall into place.
Once she had eaten and drank, she felt refreshed, more refreshed, in fact, than she’d felt in a long time. She wondered about what that might mean, but not for too long. She sat on a park bench with her legs crossed and her arms stretched out along the back of the bench. The bench was half rotted and any trace of paint that might once have been applied to it was long lost to the elements. The park that the bench was in was a small, shabby thing, with a pair of bedraggled, scrawny trees, and a few sprigs of wilted grass. Despite these bleak surroundings, Alessandra was happier than she’s been in a very long time. Maybe ever. Everything had gone wrong for her lately, but that changed today. With these new powers, she would be able to take what was rightfully hers, and force her universe to bend to her will. Starting today, everything was going to start going her way. She knew it.

To be continued…