A Shard of Darkness, Part 15

Belfamor sighed and rubbed his hand wearily across his face as he tossed a tablet onto his desk, adding it to the small pile that was already there. It had been three weeks since his ill-fated raid on the Imperial Palace, three weeks that had felt like three years. There hadn’t been any word about his mother or sisters in that time, and every moment that passed without any news felt like a dagger twisting a little deeper into his heart. He had no regrets about ordering his team to withdraw when he did. Even with that, he’d lost two soldiers. But he couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t withdrawn.

At least he had rescued Shala. He felt like rescuing his father’s widow from her abusive father shouldn’t have been as important as rescuing his family, but he found himself thinking that if he’d been told he could only rescue one person from the Imperial Palace, Shala was the person he would have chosen. In fact, (and he wasn’t ready to say this out loud, but he could admit it to himself) it was possible that he was falling in love with her. Of course, politically, marrying Shala would be greatly advantageous, as it would rebuild the alliance between House Hemetal and House Votalin, at least once Neminatrix was dead, but it was also problematic, as it was well known that Shala was unable to have children. Although, Belfamor wondered how true that was, and if true, whether it was really irreversible. Belfamor was disinclined to trust anything that came from the mouth of Neminatrix IV.

He directed a pensive frown at the pile of tablets on his desk. He should have been working, not just sitting and thinking, but he had a lot on his mind. Emperor Valador had made him a full colonel after the raid, which made him quite uncomfortable, but Valador had refused to listen to him when he attempted to turn down the promotion. Belfamor hated the idea of being promoted for a mission that felt like a failure, but Valador had insisted that capturing Neminatrix’s daughter was well worth a promotion. Now Belfamor was on the staff of Valador’s SCIAF, General Emellien Fanas. All in all, things were going pretty well for Belfamor, but it was hard to be happy about his success when it had come at such a cost.

He let out an even deeper sigh when his personal tablet started beeping, letting him know that he had an urgent call coming in. Great, he thought, more work to do, and leaned forward, grabbed the tablet and answered the call.

“Colonel Hemetal,” said a young sergeant who was stationed at the entrance of the Command Complex, “there is a woman here to see you. She says it’s extremely urgent.”

“Who is it?” Belfamor asked, perplexed.

“I…,” the sergeant with a frown, and then shook his head. “Sorry, sir. She says I can’t tell you.” Belfamor stared at him, baffled, and then rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“Very well, Sergeant,” he said in a resigned tone. “Send her up.” For a few minutes, Belfamor sat rubbing his chin and staring at his desk, trying to figure out who this mystery woman could possibly be, and then the door to his quarters chimed. “Come in!” he called, swiveling his chair to see the door. As soon as it opened, his jaw dropped, because standing in the doorway was his sister, Veilia Hemetal.

“Veilia!” Belfamor gasped, knocking over his chair in his haste to stand up and embrace her. “How is this possible? How did you get out of the Imperial Palace?”

“The E…um, Neminatrix let me go,” Veilia said in a near-monotone. “He wanted me to deliver a message to you.” Frowning, Belfamor let go of her and stepped back. His sister looked like she’d been through hell. Her blond hair had once been long and luscious, and now it was a sickly yellow and cut short, like it had been hacked off with a knife. Once she had been vibrant and full of life, but now her cheeks were sunken and hollow, and she had a vague, unfocused look in her eyes. She wore a simple gray tunic that came down to her knees, and gray leggings that hung loose on her emaciated frame.

“What is it?” Belfamor said warily.

“He…he wanted you to know that your mother and two of your sisters are dead,” she replied, still in that near-monotone. Her eyes were locked on his, and he didn’t think she’d blinked yet. “He said that it was your punishment for stealing his treasure, and that your punishment would only increase if you refused to return what is rightfully his.” She stared at him with that unnerving, unblinking gaze, and he stared back, reeling from what she had told him.

“Mother is…dead?” he whispered. Veilia nodded. “And Trishel? Carista?” Veilia nodded again. Belfamor stared at her for a long time, and she stared back, seemingly unfazed by the grim news she’d brought. And then, finally, she blinked, and a single tear rolled down her cheek, followed by another, and then suddenly she was weeping, and Belfamor clasped her tightly to his chest and weeped with her.

For a long time, they stood like that, mourning their fallen family members and taking comfort in each other’s presence. Then, after what seemed like eternity, their tears ceased, and they released each other slightly and looked in each other’s eyes.

“Veilia,” Belfamor whispered fiercely, “I will protect you. Whatever nightmares you’ve experienced at the hands of that filth, they will never be repeated.”

“I know, brother,” Veilia whispered back. The vague look in her eyes was gone now, replaced with determination. “And I will do the same for you. House Hemetal fell for that bastard’s charms once, but never again. I swear to you now–and you’d better be on board with this–we will have our revenge.” Belfamor stared at her in astonishment, and then despite himself, he smiled broadly.

“Well said, sister,” he said warmly. “We will indeed have our revenge, but first, let’s see about getting you a place to stay.” He offered her his arm, and they walked out of his quarters arm in arm.

The End

A Shard of Darkness, Part 14

The journey back to Hibellia was a somber affair. Everyone onboard the transport ship felt the weight of what had happened on Trisitania. Even Shala, who was almost giddy at the thought of escaping from her father for good, couldn’t help but feel subdued at the thought that Ilena and her daughters were still trapped in the Imperial Palace. She knew it was irrational, but she still felt like everything that had happened to the Hemetal family was her fault. If she’d just gone to Trisitania with Lorgad in the first place, he would still be alive, and Ilena and her daughters would still be living their lives in peace on Infanalis. She wanted to talk to Belfamor, and have him tell her that she was being foolish, but he was in no mood to talk. She wasn’t sure she would have believed him anyway.

As for Belfamor, he felt like a complete and utter failure. This had been the first operation that he had planned and led on his own, and it had been a disaster. On one level, he knew that casualties happened during war, and that military operations very rarely went perfectly. He also knew that removing Shala from Neminatrix’s clutches was a huge victory, both personally and for the Emperor that he now served. But he couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that he’d failed to rescue his mother and sisters, and two of the soldiers under his command had died in the process.

As for Captain Vondric and the other soldiers, they were thoroughly infected by their commander’s bleak mood. Losing comrades in battle was never easy to deal with, but the war had been going long enough that every single soldier in the transport ship had experienced it at least once. And kidnapping a rival emperor’s daughter was certainly a great victory, especially since she’d already shown a willingness to denounce her father’s rule. But it was hard to feel good about the operation when it was obvious that their commander was so depressed about it.

So it was that they arrived on Hibellia. Vondric and the other soldiers returned to their regular units, and Belfamor escorted Shala to her quarters in the IAF Command Complex. They made their way through the corridors without a word, and as the door to her quarters slid open and she stepped inside, she wondered for a moment if he was ever going to speak to her again. But he stepped inside as well, and the door slid shut behind him as he stood there with a worried frown on his face.

“Shala, I…,” he began, and stopped. He paused for a moment, while she looked at him expectantly, and then he spoke again. “I’m sorry. I know you think that everything that’s happened is your fault, and I haven’t done a very good job of addressing that.” The frown on his face disappeared, and he gazed at her intently. “I want to be as clear as I possibly can: you are not to blame for anything that happened. You are a victim here, even more so than my mother and sisters. Everything that has happened, happened because your father is a monster. You cannot blame yourself for his twisted desires.”

She stared at him with a gaze as intent as his for a long time, and then she let out a deep sigh and collapsed on the couch. As soon as she hit the couch, she immediately began sobbing. “Why did he do this, Belfamor?” she said between sobs. “Why does he hate me so much? I’ve tried so hard my whole life to get him to love me, to show him that I’m a good girl, someone he can be proud of! Why isn’t it good enough?”

As soon as she began sobbing, Belfamor sat down on the couch and wrapped his arms tightly around her. “I don’t know,” he said soothingly, his voice hoarse. “I don’t know what’s wrong with your father. But I do know this. You are not the reason. There’s nothing you could have done differently. You are a beautiful, wonderful woman, who deserves to be treated with love and respect, and the fact that your father has treated you so horribly, only proves that he is a monster. It says nothing about your worth as a person.” She buried her face deeply in his chest, and sobbed even harder.

For a long time, they sat like that, with her sobbing and him stroking her hair gently and holding her close to him. Finally, her sobs started to slow, and she looked up at him wonderingly, with tear stains on her cheeks and red-rimmed eyes. “What is wrong with you?” she said, half accusing and half wondering.

“What do you mean?” Belfamor asked with a confused smile.

“Why are you so wonderful to me?” she said, closing her eyes and shaking her head with a bemused smile. “I keep thinking that there must be something horribly wrong with you, because it’s so hard for me to imagine that you really are who you seem to be and that you treat me with so much kindness and love. I’m so used to being neglected and abused that it’s normal for me. That’s how normal people act, in my mind. But you don’t. Therefore, you must not be normal.” She looked up at him with a crooked grin, but it didn’t hide the pain in her eyes. He looked back at her tenderly, and caressed her hair gently.

“I don’t know if I’m normal or not,” he said with a warm smile, “but I do know I’m not faking how I feel about you. And, I know that the way you’ve been treated is not normal. Nobody deserves the abuse you’ve experienced, and if I have my way, you will never experience it again.”

Once again, she buried her face in his chest and snuggled tightly against him. “Thank you, Belfamor,” she said, her voice muffled. “I will never forget anything you’ve done for me.”

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 13

“Blank the sensors, NOW!” Belfamor barked over his communicator as soon as he saw what was on his tablet. A few seconds later, the screen went completely blank. Now he and his troops were blind, but so were the ISS forces looking for them. “Captain Vondric, abort mission!” he ordered. “I repeat, abort mission!”

“Sir?” came Vondric’s voice over the communicator. “We haven’t extracted your mother or sisters yet!”

“I understand that, Vondric,” Belfamor replied, his voice strained, “but the longer we stay here, the less chance we have of escaping with our lives. I will not throw your lives away for the sake of my family!”

“Understood, sir,” Vondric replied.

“Meet at rendezvous point Zaric,” Belfamor ordered. Then he severed the connection, turned to Locumin and Trevaia, nodded, and they nodded back. “Come on, Shala. It’s time to go.” Shala looked completely terrified, but she nodded and took up her place between Belfamor and the two female soldiers.

They had to move quickly, but carefully. Now that Neminatrix knew that Shala was in the south wing, he would be sending the bulk of his troops there to find her, so they needed to leave the south wing as soon as possible, but they also needed to be careful that they didn’t just stumble into a mass of ISS troops heading for their last known position. Belfamor wondered if it had been a mistake to rely too heavily on the Palace’s internal sensors, but it was too late to do anything about it now.

Escaping from the south wing of the Palace meant entering the west wing, as there was no access to the outside from the south wing. There were exits from both the east wing and the west wing, but the last view Belfamor had had of the internal sensors told him that most of the ISS troops in the Palace had been in the east wing. Some of them were almost certainly heading for the west wing now, but Belfamor was closer to it than they were.

Creeping softly but swiftly through the west wing, Belfamor and his companions reached the west entrance of the Palace without any incident, but of course the entrance itself was heavily guarded.

“Cover your face with this,” Belfamor whispered to Shala, handing her a spare gas mask. She nodded and quickly put it on, and Belfamor, Locumin and Trevaia did the same. Once that was done, Belfamor nodded to Locumin and Trevaia, who both pulled grenades out and threw them in the direction of the guard post. There was a blinding flash, a loud bang, and then the corridor began filling with a thin white mist. The guards stationed at the entrance started coughing and choking, and one by one, they began to collapse.

“Go!” Belfamor whispered fiercely to Shala. “As fast as you can!” All Belfamor could see of her face was her eyes, and those looked utterly terrified, but she nodded and ran faster than Belfamor would have believed. The two soldiers flanked her as she ran, pistols out and ready to shoot any ISS soldier who didn’t succumb to the gas grenade, and Belfamor followed closely behind. Fortunately, none of the ISS soldiers guarding the door were prepared to counter a gas grenade, so all of them were either completely unconscious or writhing around on the floor, desperately trying to breathe.

Belfamor and the three women continued sprinting through the courtyard that surrounded the Palace, taking off their gas masks as they ran, and emerged in Citizens Plaza, a large open space that surrounded the Palace complex. The crowds in the Plaza were thick, and the three soldiers immediately holstered their pistols so they wouldn’t look suspicious. They stopped sprinting as soon they reached the plaza, but they continued to move quickly, pushing people aside as they moved to the busy streets surrounding the Palace.

As soon as they reached the streets, their pace slackened slightly, so that they looked more like busy commuters than they did fugitives from the ISS. If Belfamor and the two other soldiers were vigilantly watching all directions at once as they trotted along, well, these were dark days. Everyone was more suspicious than they’d been a few years ago.

It took them about twenty minutes to reach the rendezvous point. It was a nondescript, twenty story building, overshadowed by the massive skyscrapers surrounding it on every side. The building was ostensibly an apartment building, but it was owned by one of Emperor Valador’s sympathizers, and used to smuggle Valador’s agents in and out of the capital. Deep underneath the building was a secret tunnel that led to a small starport, also owned by the same woman who owned the apartment building. Belfamor and his soldiers would use a ship from that starport to escape the planet and return to Hibellia.

The safehouse owner, Viraiel Benthane, was in her 50s, with graying hair and a warm smile, but there was something about her body language that made it clear to Belfamor that she didn’t put up with any crap. She greeted Belfamor and the others as they entered, and Belfamor quickly got her up to speed on the situation with their mission. Before she could reply, the door burst open and Captain Vondric rushed in, followed by 14 soldiers.

“Colonel Hemetal!” he exclaimed, relieved. “Thank the One you made it! Did you have any trouble?”

“None to speak of,” Belfamor said with a frown. “I take it you did?”

“Tredix and Lavael didn’t make it, sir,” Vondric replied with a scowl.

“Damn it,” Belfamor snarled. “Anything else? Any signs of pursuit?”

“Negative, sir,” Vondric said, shaking his head. “We lost them in Citizen’s Plaza.”

“Good,” Belfamor said with a sharp nod. “Well, we’re going to have to lay low here for a few days. Neminatrix will have the skies around Trisitania crawling with patrols. I wouldn’t even be surprised if civilian ships are grounded for a few days, although the ISS won’t be able to enforce that ban for long. We just need to sit tight, and wait them out.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Vondric and the other soldiers, and they started to disperse, with Benthane showing them to their quarters. Shala waited a few moments for the others to leave, and then she approached Belfamor diffidently.

“Belfamor,” she said quietly, “I…I’m sorry.”

“Why?” snapped Belfamor, more harshly than he intended. Shala shrunk back from him, but she didn’t take her eyes away from his.

“Because it’s my fault that your mother and sisters were captured,” she said. “And it’s my fault that they’re still there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Belfamor said with a sigh. “The only person who deserves blame is your father. Never forget that. All of this can be laid at his feet. Remember that, because I sure as hell won’t forget.” And with that, he turned away in search of Benthane, leaving Shala alone in the entryway.

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 12

“Wait, what?” Belfamor blurted, the smile on his face freezing in shock. “What do you mean?”

“I’m staying here,” Shala said firmly. “Don’t get me wrong. I want to leave more than anything. And the fact that you broke in here with a group of soldiers to rescue me is…I can’t even imagine how to describe how much that means to me. But I’ve had a lot of time to think in the past few weeks. And I realized that I have a duty to more than just myself. I am the heir to House Votalin, and a Princess of the Empire. Regardless of how I came to possess those titles, I have them, and there are obligations that go along with them.”

“I…I’m not sure I understand,” Belfamor stammered. She closed her eyes and sighed deeply, a pained expression on her face, but when she opened her eyes again, it was replaced with the most determined look Belfamor had ever seen.

“If I’m going to carry out my duty to my House and to the Empire, then my I need to do whatever I can to end my father’s reign, no matter the cost to myself,” Shala said, a fierce glint flashing in her eyes. “If I go with you, I’ll be safe, but I’ll be resigned to sitting around on my butt, waiting for other people to fight my battles for me. If I stay here, I’ll be able to undermine my father’s rule from the inside.”

“Shala, that’s insane,” Belfamor said desperately. “How much more damage would it do to your father if you publicly declared your loyalty to Valador Mifalis? Just think of it! Who would support Neminatrix if his own daughter turned against him?” His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Are you sure that this isn’t about you wanting the Throne for yourself?”

Shala’s eyes widened in shock, and she looked as if he’d slapped her. “Belfamor Hemetal! How could you even think such a thing!” she exclaimed. “Do you really think power means anything to me? How could you imagine that I would subject myself to my father’s attention just for the opportunity to usurp his place?”

“So you’re going to subject yourself to his attention just to get revenge?” Belfamor said skeptically.

“I… Well, when you put it that way, it does seem rather foolish,” Shala said, blushing. Then she sighed again, and looked up at Belfamor, who was surprised to see tears in her eyes. “Okay, there’s another reason I want to stay. I…I’m afraid. I’m afraid that if I leave, my father will just capture me again. At least…if I stay here, I know what to expect. I…I really thought that I was safe on Infanalis. But I wasn’t, and I don’t know if I’ll ever feel safe again as long as my father is alive.”

“Oh, Shala,” Belfamor said. He started to tear up himself, and wrapped his arms around her tightly. “This time will be different. We’re going to be under the protection of an Emperor this time, a man who actually deserves the title. You’ll be heavily guarded, far from anywhere that your father could reach you. And even if he does capture you again, I’ll just come rescue you again. I will not abandon you. Ever.”

For a long time, she just held tightly to Belfamor, reveling in the feel of actually being in the arms of someone who loved her, wondering if that feeling was real or just a dream. What if Belfamor was just using her to get his mother and sisters out? But then she realized that he didn’t have to rescue her to use her in his plan. Just putting a positional masker on her would cause enough chaos and provide enough of a distraction for him to get into the ISS barracks. If he just wanted to use her, he wouldn’t be trying to persuade her to come with him. That sealed the deal for her.

“Okay,” she said huskily, then she cleared her throat and spoke again, her voice stronger, “Okay, Belfamor. You convinced me. Let’s go.”

Belfamor grinned widely down at her, and then motioned sharply to Trevaia and Locumin. Locumin approached the door while Trevaia glanced down at her tablet, and then looked up at Belfamor and said, “We’re all clear.”

“Good,” Belfamor said with a nod, then he tapped a button on his wrist. “Okay, I just activated the positional masker. Let’s get out of here.” Locumin opened the door, and she and Trevaia took point. Belfamor motioned to Shala to walk behind them, while he followed behind her. Using their tablets, Locumin and Trevaia guided the group on a path back to the south wing that was deserted, while Belfamor watched his tablet to see if the ISS barracks had emptied out yet.

By the time they reached the south hallway, only a few people aside from Ilena and her daughters were still in the ISS barracks. It would have been better if every ISS soldier had left, but Belfamor supposed that Neminatrix wasn’t a complete idiot. A steady stream of soldiers was headed towards Shala’s quarters, and then dispersing from there in every direction, but very few of them were approaching the ISS barracks, and none of them were moving toward the south wing. That was good. No one suspected what was really going on yet.

Taking a deep breath, Belfamor leaned up against the wall and slowly slid to the floor. This wasn’t over yet, of course, but everything was going better than he expected. In a few minutes, they would be out of the Palace, and back on their transport, on their way to Revellia. It was almost hard to imagine the feeling of impending doom that had blanketed Belfamor on his way up to Shala’s quarters.

“Colonel! Look at your tablet!” Locumin barked suddenly, her alarmed tone verging on terror. Belfamor’s eyes snapped open, and he whipped his tablet out. Immediately, he picked out what was wrong. Their positional maskers had failed. All of them, including Shala, were now perfectly visible to the Palace’s internal sensors.

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 11

“What’s the plan now, Colonel?” said Captain Vondric as Belfamor approached his troops in the south hallway of the Imperial Palace. The south hallway had been chosen as the meeting point, because the entire south wing of the Palace had been abandoned since the reign of Extrator IV. Before that, it had been the headquarters of the Legion of the Heart, a special unit of the Imperial Armed Forces that had been tasked with guarding the Palace, but Extrator had been convinced that the Legion was plotting against him, and had the Legion wiped out and formally disbanded. In the past five years, no one had yet found a use for their former headquarters, which made it the perfect place for Belfamor’s troops to meet and plan their next move.

“We need to do something to empty out the ISS barracks,” Belfamor said. “Some sort of distraction. I have an idea, but I’m open to any suggestions you might have. That said, here’s my plan. I also would like to rescue Neminatrix’s daughter, Shala Votalin, as long as we’re here. She was my father’s wife, and I promised her that I would protect her from her father. I would like to keep my promise, and I think doing so will help our main mission. If the Emperor’s daughter disappears, that might cause a little bit of troop movement within the Palace, don’t you think?” There were some nods and murmurs of assent. “Any objections?” A few soldiers shook their heads, but they were otherwise silent and still.

“Very good,” Belfamor said, satisfied. “Trevaia, Locumin, you’re with me.” The two soldiers he named nodded and moved closer to him. “Vondric, you’re in command. Keep an eye on the screens. Once the ISS barracks starts to empty out, move in and secure the targets. Stay here until then. If anyone enters the south wing, you’ll need to disperse. It will look extremely suspicious if anyone notices 17 soldiers just hanging out in an empty hallway. I will meet up with you at the rendezvous point.” Vondric nodded, and Belfamor and the other two soldiers moved out.

Walais Trevaia and Berine Locumin were both sergeants, both women, and both had impressive backgrounds. They had both seen extensive combat, and had the scars and decorations to prove it. They also despised Neminatrix, which was one of the main reasons Belfamor had chosen them to accompany him to Shala’s quarters. He quickly briefed them on Shala’s situation as they left the south wing, and they were both shaking their heads and scowling darkly as they entered the east wing of the Palace.

“The day that we pull that pig off the Imperial Throne can’t come soon enough,” Trevaia spat, causing Belfamor to look back wryly at her.

“Careful, Sergeant,” he said quietly. “Remember where we are.” She looked slightly abashed, but the scowl didn’t leave her face. Belfamor supposed that was for the best. One sight of a scarred, scowling veteran soldier would likely be enough to keep any curious types away from them.

The trip up to Shala’s quarters was short but tense. The closer they got, the more heavily populated the hallways were. Belfamor began to worry about something he hadn’t thought of before, namely that they would run into someone who would recognize him. He had never been to Trisitania before, but he had been a major in Neminatrix’s army and the heir to the richest noble house in the Empire. He started thinking that perhaps it had been foolish arrogance to come here himself, and his mood of excited, angry confidence had almost completely dissipated.

And yet, despite Belfamor’s unease, they reached Shala’s quarters without any incident. Taking a deep breath and double-checking his tablet to make sure she was alone in her quarters, he tapped the panel next to her door. A few seconds later, the door slid open, and Shala’s eyes opened as wide as they could go.

“B-Belfamor!?” she exclaimed, utterly shocked.

“Shhh,” Belfamor said quietly. “May we come in?”

“O-of course!” Shala said, her eyes still looking like dinner plates. “What are you doing here?”

“Your father has my mother and sisters,” Belfamor said, his voice as hard as nails. “I’ve declared my loyalty to Valador Mifalis, and he’s put me in command of a team to get them out of here. I’ve also decided that I’m getting you out of here too.”

“Me!?” Shala blurted. Belfamor wouldn’t have thought her eyes could get any bigger, but he was wrong. “But…why?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Belfamor asked, a slight smile crossing his face. “I promised that I would do whatever I could to keep you away from your father, and I always keep my promises. It’s the Hemetal way.”

“Oh, Belfamor,” she said, her voice choking up and her eyes filling with tears, “that’s…I…” Unable to form any coherent thoughts, she rushed over and hugged him as tight as she could. In response, he awkwardly patted her on the back with both hands and smiled sheepishly at Trevaia and Locumin, who both raised a quizzical eyebrow at him.

“Okay, Shala, I’m glad that you’re so happy about this, but we really do need to get going, or this reunion is going to be nothing but happy thoughts,” Belfamor said, gently pushing Shala away from him. “Here’s the plan. We’re going to head in the direction of the east barracks, but before we get there, I’m going to put a positional masker on you, so it will look like you disappeared on the internal tracking system. That should throw your father into a panic, and cause him to send a bunch of ISS troops to look for you. With a little bit of luck, that’ll thin the ranks where my mother and sisters are being held, allowing us to get in there, get them out, and then get out of the Palace and off of Trisitania.”

“That…seems like a good plan,” Shala said softly. “There’s just one problem, though. I can’t go with you.”

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 10

“All units are ready to go, Colonel,” said Captain Lateiel Vondric. He and newly promoted Lt. Colonel Belfamor Hemetal were standing in a conference room on the fourth floor of Emperor Valador’s primary military base, which was located on the planet Hibellia. Belfamor had been gazing out the window and looking over reports, anxiously awaiting the word from Capt. Vondric that they could depart for Trisitania, but now that Vondric had come, he found himself strangely hesitant. This wasn’t a normal military mission. If he screwed up now, it wouldn’t just be himself and his troops that would suffer, it would be his mother and his sisters. Clearly Neminatrix was keeping them alive for leverage, to make sure that Belfamor didn’t take House Hemetal’s wealth away. Once Neminatrix realized that his leverage was gone, the lives of the Hemetal women would become expendable.

“Thank you, Captain,” Belfamor said with a nod. “Tell everyone to load up. I will join you shortly.”

“Yes, sir,” Vondric said with a salute, and turning on his heel, he walked through the door and disappeared down the hall. Belfamor rubbed his temples with a sigh, and then picked up his gear and followed. This was it. Time to figure out if he really had what it took to be a military commander, and the head of his House. It was his duty to make sure and keep every member of House Hemetal safe. If he couldn’t do that, he didn’t deserve to lead.

***

The voyage to Trisitania was long, but uneventful. The ship that Belfamor and his troops were riding in was a civilian ship, in order to hide their military nature. They would land in Selorin, near the Imperial Palace, and use faked credentials to gain access to the Palace. Once inside, they would be able to access the Palace’s computer system to figure out where Ilena and the others were, and plot out the path to their location that was the least guarded. After that, they’d just have to make their way to the Hemetal women, release them from wherever they were, and get back out of the Palace with them.

Belfamor also had another goal, one that he had not shared with his troops yet, as he was not yet sure how feasible it was. There was another prisoner in the Imperial Palace who Belfamor had an obligation to: Shala Votalin. He didn’t want to say anything until he was sure it could be done, but he was determined to rescue Shala from her father.

“We just received clearance to land, Colonel,” said Captain Vondric.

“Excellent, Captain,” Belfamor replied. “Everyone knows the plan?” All of the soldiers on the transport nodded. “Good. We’ll rendezvous in the south hallway of the Palace once my mother and sisters are located. Make sure your beacons are transmitting, so we can all keep track of each other.” He paused for a moment, and then cleared his throat.

“I want to tell you all how grateful I am that you’re here. I know that you were all ordered to participate in this mission, and good soldiers always obey orders, but…well, great soldiers disobey stupid orders. I’ve seen all of your records, and I know that you are all great soldiers, so it means a lot to me to know that none of you thought your orders were stupid. It may seem selfish of me to use Imperial soldiers for my own personal business, and maybe it is selfish, but by coming on this mission, you have earned yourself the eternal gratitude of House Hemetal, which is no small thing. I promise that House Hemetal will take care of you and your families as long as I live.” He paused again, and closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I need to stop now, or else I’m going to start crying, and how undignified would it be for a CO to start weeping right before a mission?” That got a few chuckles. “Thank you, all of you. Now let’s go kick some ass!” A rousing chorus of cheers went up in response to Belfamor’s speech, and he sat down in his seat with a grateful smile.

***

Entering the Palace and accessing the Palace’s internal computer systems proved to be child’s play. About five years ago, the Palace’s chief systems administrator had locked down the Palace’s systems so securely that only he could access them, and soon after he had died of a heart attack, taking his login credentials with him. He had apparently been some sort of supernatural genius, because it proved to be impossible to bypass his encryption, and eventually the entire computer system had been dismantled and replaced with an older, simpler system that couldn’t be locked down by one person. One disadvantage of this system (or advantage, from Belfamor’s perspective) was that it was orders of magnitude less secure than the previous system, which made it almost absurdly easy for Belfamor’s systems officer to gain access and link the whole unit’s tablets to it.

As soon as he accessed the system, it took just a few minutes for Belfamor to locate his mother and his three sisters. All four of them were being held together in the western barracks of the ISS unit that guarded the Palace. Unfortunately, they were heavily defended. It looked like there were at least fifty soldiers in the barracks, so some sort of diversion would be necessary to thin their ranks, as Belfamor only had twenty soldiers available to him.

On the other hand, there were no soldiers anywhere near Shala’s quarters. That presented some possibilities. Maybe if the Emperor’s daughter disappeared, that would provide the distraction he needed to get his mother and sisters out. It was certainly an idea. In any case, he needed to rendezvous with his troops, and figure out what their next move was. As he walked down the mostly empty hallways of the Palace, he couldn’t help but grin fiercely at what was about to happen.

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 9

When the ISS raid on Hemetal Manor had come, Shala Votalin’s reaction had been a strange mix of resignation, terror, and fury. Resignation, because she’d known all along that her father wouldn’t be able to just let her go. Terror, because the last thing in the world she wanted was to go back to her father. Fury, because, for the first time in her life, she truly wanted to destroy her father for subjecting herself and those she cared about to his perverse and selfish whims. In the end, resignation won out. There simply was no other logical emotional response to the sight of a hundred heavily armed soldiers arriving to take you somewhere, even if you desperately didn’t want to go.

She reflected on this as she sat in the library of the Imperial Palace, reflected instead of focusing on the book she was trying to read. In no way did she want to think about the situation she was in, but it was difficult to think about anything else. Despite herself, while she’d been in Hemetal Manor, she’d let herself believe that maybe she was finally free from her father forever. To discover that she was wrong, even though she’d expected to be wrong, was heartbreaking.

Nevertheless, she was trying to make the best of her situation. Her father had forbidden her to leave the Palace, but she had free rein of the entire Palace itself, which was easily the most luxurious place she could have ever imagined. There was certainly plenty here to keep her mind and body occupied, but she wasn’t interested in just entertaining or distracting herself. Instead, she wanted to learn as much as she could, in whatever subject she could imagine, in the hopes of finding something, anything, that would finally allow her to break free from her father, or better yet, to exact revenge for all of the suffering he’d inflicted on her.

It wasn’t just vengeance for herself that she craved, though. Ilena Hemetal and her daughters had been captured by the ISS as well, and if the ISS agents’ treatment of herself had been sternly solicitous, the same could not be said of their treatment of the Hemetals. All three daughters had been raped multiple times, and Ilena had been beaten within an inch of her life. Shala still had a hard time believing that her own life was anything worth preserving, but to witness such horrible treatment of women that she had grown to admire, respect, and maybe even love, filled her with righteous fury such as she had never imagined before.

A commotion at the entrance of the library caused her to look up from her book, and she hastily wiped a scowl off her face that she hadn’t even known was there as her father swept pompously into the library. Even as she gazed placidly at his approach, her heart was almost overwhelmed with feelings of fury and revulsion at the sight of him. Such an arrogant man, so convinced that he could take whatever he desired without any care for the consequences. As she watched him, she vowed in her heart, once again, that if it was the only thing she accomplished in her life, she would bring her father down.

“Well, Shala,” the Emperor said, settling his voluminous robes around him as he eased himself into the chair opposite Shala, “isn’t this a life more befitting a Princess? Isn’t the Imperial Palace a much preferable abode to the Hemetal Manor? You must admit that I did you a great favor by taking you out of that moldy old mansion and bringing you here, to the heart of the universe.”

“Of course, Father,” Shala said, making her voice meek and her eyes downcast, judiciously ignoring the fact that Hemetal Manor was a much newer and more modern building than the Imperial Palace, if not quite so luxurious.

“I’m not sure what you were thinking, staying on Infanalis while your husband came to pay his respects to me,” Neminatrix said with a languid sigh, idly picking up the books she’d carefully arranged on the table, briefly inspecting them, and tossing them carelessly aside. “You would have saved me and the Hemetals a great deal of trouble if you’d just come when I called.” He glanced at her, and then went on talking and inspecting books without giving her a chance to respond. “Lorgad must have held you on Infanalis against your will. That’s the only explanation that makes sense. Surely you wouldn’t have even conceived of defying your beloved father’s will, would you?”

“Of course not, Father,” Shala murmured, keeping her eyes downcast so Neminatrix wouldn’t see the hatred burning there. Neminatrix grunted noncommittally, and then he suddenly stood up and loomed over her.

“Last night you were late when I summoned you to my quarters,” he said, all trace of languor gone from his voice and posture, replaced with steely menace. “I expect you to arrive five minutes early tonight, or you will experience the full measure of my…displeasure.” He swept imperiously away, and as soon as he was gone, Shala shuddered, a gesture that encompassed the full range of the terror and disgust she felt for her father.

Surely there was a way to destroy her father, to bring him down so thoroughly that even his memory would be disgraced. Just killing him wouldn’t do it, and to be honest, she wouldn’t have known how to do it anyway. Ever since she was a little girl, her father’s guards had stripped her naked and searched her before presenting her to him, so she wouldn’t be able to get a weapon into his quarters anyway. For all his talk about how she was his precious flower or whatever, it seemed that Neminatrix IV didn’t even trust his only daughter.

But even if she could kill him in his quarters, she didn’t want to. First of all, his guards would almost certainly execute her on the spot if she did, and she wanted to make sure she outlived him by more than a few minutes. Secondly, she wanted to end more than his life, she wanted to destroy his reign, to smash down everything he’d spent his life working for, and she wanted him to know that she had done it. Whatever it took, however long she spent, she would do it, or she would die trying.

To be continued…