Culmination, Part 49

Shala Votalin sat by the window in her quarters in the Imperial Palace and cried. She’d been sitting there for hours, but she seemed to have no less tears to cry now than when she began. She was still in the quarters she’d been in when her father was alive, but she figured that she’d be moved soon, as she’d just discovered that these quarters were for the Emperor or Empress’s consort. Valador wasn’t married, so these quarters weren’t actually needed for anyone, but it would cause talk if the wife of the Emperor’s second-highest ranked General and daughter of his predecessor was using the quarters that were supposed to be used by his wife.

Shala didn’t really care what quarters she stayed in now. Part of her wanted to stay here because she had a connection with this place where her father had started loving her for the first time. Part of her wanted to burn it down and walk away, and forget everything that happened here. All of her felt completely confused, and, for the first time in a long time, totally alone.

She would have thought that being back together with Belfamor would have helped, at least a little bit, but in reality it only seemed to be making things worse. She understood Belfamor not grieving her father’s death. Her father had done horrible things to Belfamor’s family, and it was only natural that Belfamor would be pleased by his enemy’s death. But what Shala couldn’t understand was that Belfamor seemed to be actively angry that she was grieving her father’s death. He’d barely spoken two words to her since his forces had taken the Palace, and he seemed to be avoiding her entirely.

In a sense, his anger was understandable. After all, Neminatrix had done horrible things to her as well, and as her husband, it was natural for him to feel protective and be angry at someone who had hurt his wife. But it was also natural for a woman to grieve the death of her father, no matter how horrible that father had been, and Belfamor seemed almost…offended that Shala was grieving. All she wanted was a little comfort, a little sympathy while she grieved, and Belfamor was acting as if that was the most reprehensible thing he could imagine.

Well, Shala Votalin didn’t need Belfamor Hemetal. Shala Votalin didn’t need anybody. She knew what it was like to hurt alone. She’d done it before, and she could do it again.

***

Belfamor Hemetal strode through the halls of the Imperial Palace, only half-listening to the report being delivered by the lieutenant at his side. What he was doing was unimportant, but he felt the need to be doing something, if only to get away from his thoughts about his wife and her reaction to her father’s death. Ever since he’d first fallen in love with Shala Votalin, he’d worried that somehow her father would steal her away from him. And now it seemed as if he had, but not in a way that Belfamor would have ever expected.

How could Shala feel any grief toward that murderous, raping bastard! Belfamor thought to himself, his hands clenching into tight fists that he barely noticed. Did she forget what he did to my father? Did she forget what he did to my mother, and my sisters? Did she forget what he did to her!

It was utterly incomprehensible to him that Shala was up in her quarters at this very moment, crying her eyes out over the most reprehensible bit of human trash that Belfamor had ever had the misfortune of encountering. He felt completely betrayed. It was as if she cared more about that monster she called a father than she did him. He even felt like if he had died and Neminatrix had lived, she’d be happy.

“Um, sir?” said the lieutenant next to him hesitantly. With a start, he realized that the lieutenant had been attempting to get his attention for awhile. He also realized he’d been grinding his teeth and growling menacingly.

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant,” he said, taking ahold of himself and pushing his anger aside. “What were you saying?”

“I-I was just informing you that the Emperor is on his way, and he plans to be here in two days,” the lieutenant said, still a little wary.

“Ah. Yes,” Belfamor replied, nodding slightly to himself. “Good. I will be sure to make all the necessary arrangements so that everything is ready when he arrives.”

“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant said, saluting sharply. “Very good, sir.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Belfamor said, glancing at him briefly. “That will be all.”

“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant replied, looking relieved to get away from the crazy general. “Thank you, sir.”

Belfamor sighed heavily, and walked over to a nearby window to gaze out over the Selorin skyline. Nothing was working the way he wanted it to. He thought that destroying the enemy of his family, reuniting the Empire, and rescuing his wife would solve all his problems, but instead it seemed to have made everything worse. Maybe it had been a mistake to press forward with his plans after Emelien Fanas had denied him permission. Maybe he was getting his just reward for breaking every rule imaginable to accomplish his goal.

He shook his head and his expression hardened. No, he wasn’t going to admit that he had made a mistake. Fanas had been wrong to deny him permission. The fact that the battle had been such a resounding success was proof of that. Fanas was an idiot, and nothing was going to change that. And his wife was wrong to be so upset at her father’s death. If she was going to be so ungrateful as to spit in his face when he held out a helping hand, then forget her. He wouldn’t divorce her, because an alliance between House Hemetal and House Votalin was now more important for the health of the Empire than ever. But that didn’t mean he had to associate with her at all. Let her mourn her bastard father. She could do it alone.

The End

Culmination, Part 48

Admiral Kryla Zomulin knelt down in a small chapel in the Hall of Lords on Trisitania, her head bowed and her hands folded, surrounded by hundreds of small, white candles. She was doing something she hadn’t done since she was a teenager: praying. She had grown up in a devout family, but she had never taken the faith seriously, and as soon as she was old enough that her parents couldn’t make her go to church anymore, she’d left and not looked back. But she felt the need to pray now, after the battle she’d just experienced.

Perhaps she should have been praying a prayer of praise to the One for delivering victory to her forces, and indeed, there was an element of that in her prayer. Her fleet had won a smashing victory, at surprisingly little cost. She’d lost less than a third of her ships, and even the ships she’d lost had experienced minor casualties, with most of the crewmembers able to abandon ship. The ground forces, as well, had won an almost total victory, with minimal casualties. According to every measurable variable, the Battle of Trisitania had been a resounding success for the Emperor Valador.

If only it had been the only battle his forces had fought this day.

The raid by Neminatrix’s fleet on Hibellia had been devastating. Over three million people had been confirmed dead, and reports of casualties were still coming in. Hibellia’s defenses had mobilized quickly enough to destroy Neminatrix’s raiders before they could escape into subspace, but destroying the raiders didn’t undo the damage they had caused. Many of Kryla’s best friends lived on Hibellia, and she hadn’t heard from any of them yet. And so she prayed for their safety, or, at the very least, that their souls would find rest in Ashalala.

Valador was now the undisputed ruler of what was left of the Trisitanian Empire. But a bloody bill had been paid to make it happen.

Kryla wished she could be happy about the victory. She wished she could be excited that the civil war was finally over, and the Empire could now focus on reconquering the provinces that had broken away. But all she felt was sorrow, deep, black sorrow.

And anger.

Anger at herself, for going along with Belfamor’s scheme to take Trisitania. But also anger at Belfamor, for coming up with the scheme in the first place, and being so determined to see it through. Even though she’d agreed to lead the Imperial Fleet to Trisitania, it wasn’t as if Belfamor would have aborted the operation if Kryla hadn’t done so. The battle would have still happened, Hibellia would still have been raided, and although Kryla tried to be humble about her skills as a commander, she knew she was the best tactician in the Imperial Fleet, and if she hadn’t been in command, things would have gone much worse. If the battle had to have happened, then it was good that she had been part of it. But the battle should have never happened.

She wasn’t going to do anything crazy. Belfamor was still her commanding officer, and she had no desire to be insubordinate. But she had learned her lesson about helping him. If Belfamor Hemetal ever needed a favor from Kryla Zomulin again, he was going to get a frigid response.

Perhaps it was a mistake to pray with such anger in her heart. Her parents had always told her that the One showered his favor on those who forgave their enemies. But she couldn’t forgive Belfamor. Not now. Maybe not ever. If the One didn’t like that, well, he would have to live with it.

Finally, she sighed and stood up slowly, wincing at the pain in her legs. Being on your knees was surprisingly hard, especially when you weren’t used to it. Glancing around the small chapel, she nodded at the attendant who had been hovering in the corner while she prayed. It was his job to light all the candles whenever anybody used the chapel to pray, and put them out again when they were done. The candles were supposed to symbolize the Azari, the god-spirits who stood in the presence of the One. Or something. Kryla had never really paid attention in her religion classes.

Exiting the chapel, she looked all around at the main sanctuary in the Hall of Lords. It wasn’t the largest building in Selorin, not by a long shot, but it was still a truly impressive structure. Said to be the oldest building on Trisitania, it was certainly one of the few structures in existence that predated the Empire. It had originally been the primary center of the Trisitanian Church, and although it had since been supplanted in that role by the Sanctuary of Adralel, it still was regarded with reverence as the first church ever built. In theory, anyone who wanted to pray in the Hall of Lords was welcome, but in practice, because of its relatively small size and its great prestige, it was limited to the Imperial elite.

But the beauty and magnificence of the Hall of Lords couldn’t fix the pain in Kryla’s heart. It couldn’t bring back the three million who had died on Hibellia. Maybe they were all safely in the presence of the One now. Maybe they really were in a better place, like her parents had told her when her beloved grandfather had died when she was 7. She wanted to believe that, she really did. But the peace of Ashalala was a cold comfort to those still dealing with the brokenness of the here and now.

She sighed and squinted as she emerged into the bright sunlight outside the Hall of Lords. She had hoped her prayers would give her clarity and peace of mind, but instead she’d found the opposite. If anything, she was even more confused and angry than she’d been before. But all she could do now was just keep doing her duty. She would continue to serve the rightful Emperor until her dying day. And as long as she and Belfamor were on the same side, she would treat him with dignity and respect. But woe to Belfamor Hemetal indeed, if he ever found himself on the opposite side of the battlefield as Kryla Zomulin.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 47

The mood on Fluttermask was somber as the members of Starfengt made their way back to Numoris. Three members of their team had fallen, their bodies left behind on Trisitania. And for what? The head of a man who’d just rendered himself irrelevant. For all the Supreme Commander’s worries about upsetting the balance of power in the Empire, what Starfengt had done on Trisitania was like throwing a pebble into an ocean during a raging storm. Kyla Vertrane had intercepted transmissions before they dropped into subspace indicating that Neminatrix had abdicated a few minutes before Hana eliminated him. Hana had lost three people, including her dearest friend, for no reason.

But there was a reason! she told herself insistently. My father needed to be avenged! I couldn’t let Neminatrix go unpunished! He had to die, and I had to be the one to kill him! But why? Now that Neminatrix was dead, Hana genuinely couldn’t comprehend why she had been so determined be the one to kill him. His death hadn’t brought her father back. Knowing that the man who was ultimately responsible for her father’s death was himself dead did nothing to ease the pain in her heart.

If Arcten was here, he’d say, “I told you so.” she thought. But Arcten wasn’t there, and that was the problem. This vendetta had lost her the most important person in her life, and gained her nothing. Her father was still dead, and now her best friend was dead, too. She wanted to scream. She wanted to rage and punch and kick and destroy everything she could get her hands on. She wanted to cry, to break down and sob until she had no tears left.

But she couldn’t. She was still Hana Lodimeur, a Captain in the Grand and Invincible Navy of Fangalin, the commanding officer of Starfengt. She needed to be strong still, for her troops. Glancing around the hold, at the still and somber figures of her soldiers, she imagined that their postures were full of resentment and disgust at her leadership, or lack thereof. How could they not hate her for what had happened on Trisitania? She hated herself. How could she have let herself get so carried away with her lust for revenge? For ten years, it had been all she’d cared about. Why? What had she thought she would gain from it?

All of a sudden, she couldn’t stand it anymore. She had to get out of the cargo hold, away from the incriminating stares and sullen postures of her crew. Standing up, she strode out of the cargo bay and down the corridor. Xeliana and Vedregela looked up as she left, but they didn’t say anything, and she didn’t notice. She walked quickly down the corridor, about half of the length of the ship, but then she slowed down abruptly, and stopped. Slumping against the bulkhead, she felt all of her grief bearing down on her, and she began sobbing uncontrollably.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Captain,” a voice said. Hana looked up, tears still streaming down her face, and saw Kyla standing there. “I didn’t know you were out here,” she said apologetically.

“Oh, um, Captain Vertrane,” Hana said, hastily trying to wipe her eyes. “I, um…I was…well,” she stammered.

“No need to say anything, Captain,” Kyla said, shaking her head. “I know what it’s like to lose somebody close to me.”

“Do you?” Hana asked, tears starting to leak out of her eyes again. “And do you know what it’s like to know that it was your fault?”

“Yes,” Kyla said quietly, and Hana stared at her. For a moment, Kyla just stared back, and then she sighed and looked away. “It was years ago, when I was first starting out as a smuggler. I went on a job with this guy, and I ended up falling in love with him. Afterward, he abandoned me, or so I thought. I was so mad that when somebody came looking for him, to kill him, I told them everything I knew. Soon after that, I connected with him again, and I discovered that he’d had to go into hiding for awhile so that he could get me a position in Fangalin and pay off my debt on Fluttermask.” She took a deep breath and rubbed her temples, and then, after glancing at Hana briefly, she looked down at the deck and continued.

“I didn’t really think much about what I’d done. The information I’d given to those hunting him was so scanty, I couldn’t imagine that it would do any harm. Especially when we had the might of Fangalin behind us. But I was wrong. I’d given them just enough information. I came home from a job one day to find him chained to our bed, with his guts ripped out and strewn all around our bedroom. I was horrified, but at first I didn’t blame myself. And then I found a note, addressed to me, from the leader of the group that had been searching for him, thanking me for the information I’d given them, which led them right to us.” There was a long silence for a moment.

“I’m sorry,” Hana finally said quietly. “I had no idea.” Kyla just shrugged.

“How could you?” Kyla said simply. “In any case, it took me a couple of years, but I tracked down the bitch who did it, and I made her suffer worse than Treben had.”

“And…did that help?” Hana asked, not sure she wanted to hear the answer. Kyla was quiet for a moment, and then she raised her head and looked Hana right in the eyes.

“No,” she said softly. “It didn’t.” She held Hana’s gaze for a moment, and then she looked away again. “Treben was still dead, and I was still alone.”

“I wish you’d told me,” Hana said, her soft voice smoldering slightly.

“Would it have made a difference?” Kyla asked, still not looking at her. Hana was silent for a moment, thinking.

“No,” she finally had to admit. “It wouldn’t have.” And then they both fell silent, as Fluttermask hurtled on through the void.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 46

Surprisingly, getting out of the Imperial Palace proved even easier than getting in. Even though the Palace was swarming with soldiers now that it had been occupied by Valador’s troops, Starfengt’s access to the PTS made it easy for Hana and her team to follow a route that was unoccupied.

Once out of the Palace, however, things got a little trickier. There was no PTS for the city of Selorin, so Hana and her team had to use their eyes, ears, and the motion trackers on their wrists to avoid Imperial troops as they crept through the streets to the extraction point, where Kyla Vertrane and Fluttermask were waiting for them. Even so, this was what the members of Starfengt were trained for, and Hana and her assassins managed to get to the extraction point without incident.

***

“General Hemetal!” came a voice over Belfamor’s communicator suddenly. It had been so long since he’d heard anything over his communicator that he actually jumped at the sound of it, and then shook his head ruefully as he responded.

“Copy. Who is this?” he said.

“Lieutenant Songrenan,” said the voice. “You sent me down to the communication server to deal with the Fangalin jamming.”

“Obviously, you succeeded,” Belfamor said drily.

“Yes, sir,” Songrenan replied. “Not only that, but whoever installed the jammer was either not very good, or sloppy, because I was able to use it to figure out what frequency the assassins are broadcasting on, and jam them instead.”

“Excellent work, Lieutenant!” Belfamor said with a grin. “I bet they won’t like that very much, wherever they are.”

***

“Echo Two, report in,” Hana said as soon as she entered the hangar where Fluttermask was waiting. There was no response. “Echo Two, this is Echo One, do you copy?” Still no response. “Echo Four, are you there?” Again, there was silence. Hana looked at Xeliana. “I can’t raise Two or Four.”

“That’s not good,” replied Xeliana, looking concerned.

“No, it’s not,” Hana muttered, thinking. It was possible that Valador’s troops had found their jamming device, and reconfigured it to jam their frequency. Starfengt could get around that by switching to a different frequency, but Arcten and Vedregela would have no way of knowing which frequency she was using. Honestly, it had never occurred to any of them that the Empire would find their jammer and use it against them. Imperial technicians were usually so hopelessly incompetent that Fangalin operatives didn’t usually think about countermeasures. So Starfengt didn’t have a set backup frequency, an oversight that seemed horribly amateur now that Hana thought about it. And she couldn’t just broadcast on random frequencies and hope that Vedregela and Arcten caught it, because the Imperial Army would be able to hear it too, and they’d be able to triangulate Hana’s position.

“I guess all we can do now is wait,” Hana said grimly. Judging by the looks on Xeliana and the others’ faces, they didn’t like that idea any more than she did.

***

About 15 minutes later, Vedregela and her team came into the hangar, cautiously, with weapons drawn. On seeing Hana and the others waiting for her, she breathed a sigh of relief and holstered her rifle.

“When we lost communications, I didn’t know what to expect,” Vedregela said with a frown. “Do you know what happened?” Vedregela was a short woman with flaming red hair that was straight and came down to her shoulders. She was normally cheerful, but her round face was creased with concern at the moment.

“No idea,” Hana said, shaking her head. “Best we can figure, the Empire found our jammer and is using it against us.”

“Dammit,” Vedregela said with a snarl. “I should’ve gone back for it.”

“How could you have known that they’d be able to decipher it so easily?” Hana asked, shaking her head again. “We’re not used to the Empire being able to counter our electronic warfare tactics.”

“I know, but I still should have gone back for it,” Vedregela countered, still scowling. “There was a vulnerability on the device that I could have accounted for, but I didn’t, cause I was running behind, and I figured if an Imperial found it, they’d be too dumb to make use of it. I should have known better.”

Hana frowned at her for a moment, and then shook her head a third time. “No,” she said firmly. “We are not going to second guess ourselves. The mission is done, and it was successful. We just need to get out of here, and that’s not going to be accomplished by worrying about what we should have done differently.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Vedregela said with a resigned sigh. There was silence for a moment, and then Hana spoke again.

“Did you see Commander Sidel’s team at all?” she asked, somewhat hesitantly.

“Sorry, sir,” Vedregela said, shaking her head. “After we left the Palace and lost access to the PTS, I didn’t see Team Two at all. They were still in the Palace when we left. That’s all I know.”

“Very well, Lieutenant,” Hana said with a sigh, and went back to waiting silently.

***

Another fifteen minutes passed before Team Two arrived at the hangar. Hana’s heart skipped a beat as Master Chief Velencias Moratino and Chief Shalaminas Retico walked through the door, and then it sank into her stomach when no one followed them.

“Master Chief!” she barked. “Where is Commander Sidel?” But she knew the answer even before Velencias shook his head grimly.

“He didn’t make it, sir,” Velencias said, grief etched in every line of his face. “We were ambushed by a platoon of Imperial soldiers. He ordered us to retreat. I thought he was coming with us, but by the time I realized he was staying behind to cover us…it was already too late.”

Hana barely heard a word Velencias said. Arcten was dead. Her dearest friend, her closest companion, the rock she leaned on, the one who’d kept her sane in dark days as she brooded over her father’s death…gone. Her world seemed to shatter into tiny fragments, spiraling off into the darkness. For ten years, she’d thought she had nothing to live for but avenging her father’s death. Too late, she realized she’d been wrong. Arcten had been worth living for, but now he was gone. All because she’d been too focused on her lust for vengeance. In the end, despite all her best efforts, Neminatrix had won.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 45

“Belfamor!” Shala gasped.

“Shala!” Belfamor exclaimed. “It is you! I figured your father would have you locked up in the dungeon somewhere! What are you doing here?”

“Well,” Shala said, looking somewhat bashful, “it’s kind of hard to explain.” She glanced over at her father, and Belfamor followed her eyes.

“You!” he roared. He leveled his assault rifle at Neminatrix, and all of the soldiers with him followed suit.

“Wait!” Shala screamed, throwing out her hands again. “Don’t shoot! Let me explain!”

“Shala, this is the monster who has tortured you ever since you were a child!” Belfamor yelled, still aiming his rifle at Neminatrix’s head. “What are you doing protecting him?”

“Things have changed, Belfamor!” Shala yelled back at him. “My father has changed! For one, he’s abdicated the Throne!”

“Is this true?” Belfamor asked Neminatrix harshly.

“Yes,” Neminatrix replied simply.

“I want to hear it,” Belfamor said, his voice hard as stone. Neminatrix just stared at him for a moment, and then he took a long, deep breath.

“I, Erelesk Votalin, do hereby, henceforth and forevermore, renounce all claims to the Throne of the Trisitanian Empire, and pledge my whole hearted loyalty to His Royal Majesty, Emperor Valador I, under pain of death.” There was a moment of icy silence, and then Belfamor let out a small sigh of relief mingled with regret, lowered his assault rifle, and signaled to his troops to do the same.

“I suppose it would be murder for me to kill you now,” Belfamor said to Neminatrix, his voice cold and hard as ice. “But I will see you put on trial. I have not forgiven you for murdering my father.”

“I am sure that justice will be done,” Neminatrix said in a quiet, weary voice.

***

Hana had just gotten herself in position when Neminatrix, his daughter, and his few remaining guards burst into the Throne Room. She was just about to pull the trigger when Valador’s troops burst in a few minutes later. Their presence didn’t matter, except that as soon they entered, Shala jumped in front of her father to shield him, and Hana couldn’t get a clear shot. Not that she had any qualms about killing Shala Votalin, but she had no good reason to either, and she didn’t want to give away her presence before she killed Neminatrix. She wanted to take her shot and escape, without risking any more of her team members.

Her heart was in her throat as Shala spoke to Valador’s troops. Her vengeance was about to be stolen from her, right before her eyes. But then, miracle of miracles, whatever Shala said to Valador’s troops convinced them to stand down. As they continued to talk, Shala finally moved out of the way, giving Hana a clear shot. She took a deep breath, steadied herself, and fired.

***

For about two seconds, Shala’s life was perfect. She was reunited with her husband, and her father was alive and safe and loved her. For two seconds, she had everything she’d ever wanted.

And then her father’s head exploded.

At first, she couldn’t process what had happened. Time seemed to stand still, and the smile she wore seemed to freeze in place. An eternity passed in slow motion as her father’s blood splattered her dress and his headless body slumped to the ground. And then time returned to its normal flow, and she realized she was screaming, a wordless howl filled with horror and shock and fury.

And then she was being shoved to the floor, as a woman’s voice yelled “Sniper!” and the sound of dozens of booted feet rushed in every direction. And still she screamed, heedless of anyone around her, as she felt as if her soul was tearing in half.

***

Hana watched through the scope as Neminatrix’s head disintegrated in a spray of blood. A grin spread across her face, wider and more vicious than any grin she’d ever worn. It was done. Her father’s death was avenged. In the back of her mind, she heard Shala Votalin’s anguished screams and realized that she’d just done to Shala what Neminatrix had done to her, but she ruthlessly shoved down those thoughts. She was well aware of Neminatrix’s reputation. The wretched woman was probably brainwashed or something.

“Echo Team, target is down, repeat, target is down,” Hana said over the radio. “Withdraw and rendezvous at extraction point Beta.”

“Acknowledged,” came the response from eight different voices. Hana stood up, and watched the chaos down in the Throne Room for a moment. It was strange. She’d imagined this moment for ten years, and every time, she’d imagined herself feeling elated and free. But that wasn’t how she actually felt. Instead, she just felt sort of…empty. She shook her head, and followed her team out of the Throne Room and into the corridors.

***

As soon as Shala was safe, Belfamor and Captain Avredai led their platoon through the halls of the Imperial Palace, searching for the assassins who had killed Neminatrix. Communications were still being jammed, but Belfamor had sent a team down to the communication servers in the basement of the Palace. Hopefully they would be able to cut through whatever the Fangalin assassins had done to shut down all signals in the Palace, so that Belfamor’s troops could inform Neminatrix’s that there was no reason for them to keep fighting.

Even though Belfamor was looking for Neminatrix’s killers, it was a half-hearted effort. Frankly, they’d done Belfamor a favor. Even aside from his personal hatred for his father-in-law, keeping Neminatrix alive would have made incorporating his troops back into the the Empire more complicated, even with his abdication. He had been a highly charismatic leader, and many would have stayed loyal to him as long as he was alive. But there was no one among his followers who could take that role. He had made sure there were no rivals among his servants.

Belfamor scowled as he marched through the corridors with Avredai by his side. He should have been elated that Neminatrix was dead and his wife was safe, but instead he felt frustrated and angry. Something had changed while Shala was with Neminatrix this time. She should have been thrilled that the man who’d tortured her since she was a little girl was dead, but instead she was devastated. Belfamor couldn’t understand that, and it made him angry. How could Shala grieve that bastard? How could Shala shed a single tear for the man who’d murdered his father? Suddenly his sense of unease about this operation was starting to make sense.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 44

Belfamor and the rest of the 3rd Battalion met surprisingly little resistance as they pushed through the halls of the Imperial Palace, searching for Neminatrix and an end to the civil war. Neminatrix’s troops had fought fiercely in the streets of Selorin, but it was almost as if their morale had been decimated by their enemies gaining access to the Palace itself. The 3rd Battalion wasn’t even encountering very many troops, and those they did encounter retreated almost immediately, after only putting up a token effort. It was possible that Neminatrix’s troops were just completely demoralized, but Belfamor suspected that the 3rd battalion was walking into a trap.

“What do you think, Captain?” Belfamor said to Leatoreai Avredai, who was walking alongside him.

“I think you’re right, General,” Avredai said with a grim frown. “It’s definitely a trap, and you know how I know that? Because something is jamming our communications, so I can’t even contact the rest of the unit and warn them of my suspicions.”

“Crap,” Belfamor said with a sour expression. “Guess we just need to be on our toes then, huh?”

“That’s the understatement of the year, sir,” Avredai said drily.

***

Shala and Neminatrix moved quickly through the corridors of the Palace, closely surrounded by their guards. Shala was frightened, of course. It would have been impossible not to be frightened when a room you were in suddenly went dark and armed assassins burst in and started shooting. But she was also strangely exuberant. Her father was going to abdicate, and he was doing it for her. The long, slow-motion nightmare that had been her life thus far was finally ending, and happier days were coming. She had dreamed of this moment for so long, but she’d never really believed it was possible.

Finally, she and her father could have a real relationship. And it wasn’t just for herself and her father that she was excited. Her father’s change of heart also gave her hope for her son, Vendamil. If her father could change at his age, then surely there was still time for her little boy. Of course, they needed to survive this attack before any of her dreams could truly come true. But she was optimistic. After all, what was surviving an assassination attempt compared to convincing her abusive father to love her?

***

I’ve got him now, Hana kept thinking to herself as she crept swiftly through the halls of the Imperial Palace. It was a thought borne of firm conviction, tinged with a hint of desperation. In the back of her mind, the feeling that all of her preparations and the sacrifices of her team might be in vain kept popping up, but she ruthlessly pushed it back down every time. She was so close. She needed to be the one to kill Neminatrix. She would be the one to kill Neminatrix! She wouldn’t be able to truly let her father go until the man responsible for his death lay lifeless at her feet.

Hana and the other members of Starfengt hadn’t met a soul since they’d left the command center, but that wasn’t surprising, considering their access to the Palace’s personnel tracking network. The PTN registered the lifesigns of every human being in the building and used sophisticated motion trackers to triangulate their positions in real time. Hana and her team had devices in their body armor that masked their lifesigns, of course. Trying to infiltrate the Palace otherwise would have been suicide. But as far as Hana knew, such technology was beyond the capabilities of the Empire, giving Starfengt a massive advantage over their adversaries.

“Echo Two,” she said over the radio, “I want you to set up an ambush at the crossroads of corridor 774 and 775 in section E36 on level 5. It looks like they’ll be heading down 774 in a few minutes. I want you to make sure they take a right into 775 and head towards the Throne Room.”

“Copy that, Echo One,” came Arcten’s response.

“Echo Four, I want you to do the same at the crossroads of 775 and 778,” Hana said. “That should ensure that they will pass through the Throne Room.”

“Understood, Echo One,” replied Vedregela.

“Team One and Team Three will be on the upper balcony of the Throne Room. Team Three will provide support while I eliminate the target.” Acknowledgment came back from every surviving member of Starfengt, and Hana nodded in satisfaction. The plan was in place. All that was left was to execute.

***

Shala, Neminatrix, and their four surviving guards limped into the Throne Room, gasping for breath and praising the One that they were still alive. Shala was no soldier, but she’d been married to one for 10 years. She’d seen a lot over the course of that decade, but she’d never seen anything like these assassins. They were devastatingly effective, superbly well trained. She found herself wondering whose troops they were. They couldn’t be Imperial, because she couldn’t imagine that Valador had such skilled soldiers without her knowing about it, and they most likely weren’t Neminatrix’s, considering they were trying to kill him. Not that treason was impossible, but her father seemed as stunned by the existence of these soldiers as she was.

No, they were almost certainly Fangalin. Ever since the destruction of the Senate, Fangalin had been at least two steps ahead of the Empire, technologically and logistically. In fact, Shala recalled that she had heard rumors of a terrifyingly effective squad of assassins being deployed by Fangalin ever since the death of Extrator IV. It was seeming highly likely that those rumors were true.

“We can’t stay here, sir,” the highest ranked surviving guard, a corporal, said as Neminatrix slumped against a pillar to catch his breath. “The Throne Room is too exposed.”

“I know,” gasped Neminatrix. “Just…just give me a minute.” The guard frowned, but Shala could tell that he was well aware that her father wasn’t going to last much longer at the pace they’d been moving. She opened her mouth to say something, but before she could, the huge double doors leading into the main entrance of the Throne Room swung open and dozens of troops poured inside.

“Don’t shoot!” Shala screamed, running forward with her arms outstretched, because it was obvious from their uniforms that these were Valador’s troops.

“Shala?” said a familiar voice, and her heart skipped a beat. It was her husband, Belfamor.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 43

“Echo One, this is Echo Two,” Arcten’s voice came over Hana’s earpiece suddenly. “We are in position.”

“Copy that, Echo Two,” Hana replied. “Now we’re just waiting on Team Four.”

***

“Something’s jamming our communications, Your…um, sir,” an exasperated communications tech said to Neminatrix, clearly unsure what to call him now that he’d announced his abdication. “I’m sending out a message on all frequencies about your surrender, but I’m not sure anyone’s receiving it.”

“Keep trying, Major,” Neminatrix replied. “We need to get that message out ASAP. Every second this battle goes on, more lives are thrown away needlessly, on both sides.”

***

Belfamor’s expression was somewhere between a snarl and a grin as he strode through the front doors of the Imperial Palace. This was a moment he’d been anticipating for well over a decade, a moment that was the culmination of everything that had happened to him since the fateful day when his father had married Shala Votalin. Today was the day he would make everything right. Today was the day when he would finally put an end to the bastard who had torn his family apart. All of his doubts and fears were behind him now. It was time to put an end to this dark chapter of his life, and move on to happier times.

***

“Echo One, this is Echo Four,” said Vedregela. “We are in position.”

“Copy, Echo Four,” Hana said calmly. Then she paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and said, “Echo One to Echo Team… Begin.”

***

Another massive explosion rocked the command center, this one much closer, causing tables, chairs, and people to fall to the ground. A split second later, the lights went out and all the computers and displays in the center went dead.

“What’s going on!” Neminatrix roared, scrambling to his feet.

“Power’s out!” a technician yelled back. “That explosion must have taken out the main generator!”

“Switch to backups!” yelled Termaina.

“Can’t do that, sir!” replied another technician. “Backups are down, too!” There was a moment of shocked silence as Termaina and Neminatrix looked at each other.

“The infiltration team,” Termaina said softly.

“We can’t stay here-,” Neminatrix began, but before he could finish his thought, the doors at either end of the command center blew open, and five soldiers rushed in, guns blazing. Neminatrix immediately threw himself at Shala and pushed her to the floor, desperately trying to shield her from the attack with his body. There was a few seconds of furious gunfire in every direction, and then hands grabbed Neminatrix and Shala firmly and pulled them to their feet.

“We’ve gotta get out of here, sir,” said one of Neminatrix’s guards. A dozen of them flanked Neminatrix and Shala on all sides and rushed them out of a nearby door.

“What’s the problem, Sergeant?” Neminatrix asked as they sped through the corridors. “There’s only five of them!”

“True, sir,” the sergeant replied, his eyes scanning in every direction at once, looking for threats, “but those five were no ordinary soldiers. In the time from when they breached the command center to when we left, they killed twenty of your guards.”

“By the One…,” Neminatrix breathed.

“Exactly, sir,” the sergeant said grimly. “I don’t know how we’re going to keep you safe, but I’m not ready to give up yet.”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Neminatrix replied gratefully. He was silent for a moment, and then he said, “What about Admiral Termaina?” The sergeant shook his head resignedly. “Dammit,” Neminatrix snarled. There was another pause, and then he asked, “So where are we going?”

“We need to get you out of the Palace, sir,” the sergeant replied. “All communications in the Palace are being jammed, probably by the same people who just barged into the command center. If you’re going to surrender to Valador, we need to get you to a place where you can let them know. And hopefully, once these assassins realize that you’re no longer the Emperor, they won’t be so determined to kill you.” Neminatrix frowned at that, thinking that there were probably a large number of people in the galaxy who would want to kill him regardless of whether he was the Emperor or not.

***

Hana quickly surveyed the remains of the Imperial Palace command center. It was already clear that Neminatrix had eluded them. “Dammit!” she growled. “How did we not know there was a third door out of the command center?”

“It must have been added recently,” Xeliana replied, shaking her head. “It doesn’t show up on any of the schematics we have of the Palace.”

“Well that’s just great,” Hana fumed. “Arcten! We need the power back on, now!” A few seconds later, there was a deep hum and the lights and computer screens flickered back on. “Cailor!” she barked. “I need access to the Palace’s systems! We need to get into their personnel tracking system and find out where Neminatrix is!”

“On it, sir,” Lt. Berain Cailor replied. The hacking specialist for Team Three, he was short and thickly muscled, with a shaved head and a thin, black mustache. He didn’t look like a hacker, but then, hacking was only one of his many talents, just like every member of Starfengt.

“He’s moving through a corridor on level 6, Section D41,” Cailor said after a few minutes. “Looks like he’s headed toward the Throne Room.”

“Then that’s where we’ll trap him,” Hana said decisively. “Echo Two and Four, I am sending a link to the Palace’s personnel tracker. Converge on the Throne Room. We are going to ambush our target there.”

“Understood,” came the response from Arcten and Vedregela. Hana motioned sharply to the members of Team One and Team Three, and they streamed out of the command center, assault rifles at the ready for anything.

Hana’s face was expressionless as she followed them, but inside her emotions were churning. They’d come so close, and then they’d lost him. How could they have let him slip away so quickly? This wasn’t over yet, but even once they’d found Neminatrix again, they still needed to get out of the Palace, and Valador’s troops had arrived now. They were going to have to be quick and quiet to have any chance of survival.

To be continued…