A Sword of Ivy, Part 4

“Echo One, this is Fox One,” came a voice over Hana’s earpiece suddenly.

“Echo One here, Fox One,” Hana replied. “Go ahead.” Fox One was the commanding officer of Giant Hammer, Colonel Vondamisk Latrafai.

“Captain, I need Echo Team to take up flanking positions on those two ridges to the northwest,” Col. Latrafai said. “You’ll be providing covering fire for our advance up the middle.”

“That’s a pretty good position, Colonel,” Hana replied. “What are the odds the enemy doesn’t already have troops up there?”

“I know they do, Captain,” Latrafai shot back in a slightly condescending tone. If Hana cared about such things any more, she’d be annoyed at the emphasis he put on the word “Captain”, as if her rank was lower than hers. If she had been a captain in the Army, she would be several ranks lower than Latrafai. But she was a Naval Captain, which meant that she was the same rank as Latrafai. But it didn’t really matter what Latrafai thought of her. “That’s why I’m sending four squads with you to secure the position,” he continued.

“Are you sure that will be enough, Colonel?” Hana asked, her brow slightly furrowed.

“My scouts tell me there’s only 50 troops on each ridge,” Latrafai retorted. “General Belvanoi says that your squad is the best in Fangalin. Two squads per ridge ought to be plenty of backup.”

“Understood, Colonel,” Hana said. “Echo One out.” She looked around at her squad. “Okay, Echo Team. We have our assignment. We’re going to be laying down covering fire from those ridges up there,” she said, gesturing to the sweeping ridges stretching out to either side of them. “The main enemy encampment is in between them, so we’ll be perfectly positioned to support the main push up the middle.”

“Too perfectly,” replied Moratino sourly. “The Empire is sure to have those ridges heavily defended.”

“Colonel Latrafai assures me that there are only 50 troops on each ridge,” Hana said. “We’ll be assisted by four squads from Giant Hammer.”

“Which will be plenty, if there really are only 50 troops up there,” Moratino grimaced. “But what if his information is wrong? If I was defending this valley, I’d have ten times as many troops up there. If they lose those ridges, they’re done for. Any commander worth his salt would know that.”

“Maybe we’re lucky and the enemy commander is an idiot,” Hana said in a slightly exasperated tone.

“We’ve made the mistake of underestimating the Empire before,” Vedregela said somberly. Hana gave her a long, searching look, and suddenly something occurred to her. She cared about these people. As much as she tried to make herself stop caring, she couldn’t. Xeliana, Vedregela, Moratino, Retico, and the rest…they belonged to her, and she belonged to them. They could never fill the void in her heart where Arcten was, but they didn’t need to. If she lost any of them, there would be new voids in her heart.

“Okay,” she said softly, and then she repeated it, louder and firmer. “Okay! Here’s what we’re gonna do.” She leaned forward and told the squad her plan, and as she did, grins spread across all of their faces.

***

“Now this, is devious,” said Vedregela in delight as she, Hana, Retico, and three other members of Starfengt stood at the foot of a cliff, looking up at its sheer face.

“I certainly hope so,” Hana said dryly. “Otherwise this is going to be a one-way trip.” She looked around at the members of her team. “Everybody ready?” They all nodded in determination. “Echo Two, this is Echo One,” Hana said over the radio to Xeliana. “Ready to execute?”

“We are in position, Echo One,” came Xeliana’s response. “Ready to go on your mark.”

“Very good, Echo Two,” Hana said. “Execute.” As soon as she said this, she grasped the wall of rock directly in front of her and began climbing. The plan was simple. If Colonel Latrafai’s scouts were wrong, and the Imperial commander wasn’t an idiot, then a frontal assault on the ridges with the number of troops at Hana’s disposal would be suicide. Instead, Hana was just sending the squad that Latrafai had loaned her up the slopes of the ridges, but their attack was simply a diversion. Their objective was to engage the enemy, and then fall back and draw as many enemey troops with them as possible. Meanwhile, Starfengt would scale the cliffs on the sides of the ridges and assault the enemy encampments from behind. Once Starfengt began their attack, the regular squads would turn and push back, catching the Imperial troops in a vice.

Of course, if Moratino was right, there would be 250 Imperial soldiers waiting for them at the top. 250 Imperial soldiers versus 20 regular Fangalin troops and 6 Starfengt assassins. But at least this was a challenge worthy of Starfengt’s skills.

Climbing the cliff meant that they couldn’t carry as much gear into this battle as they usually would. In theory, they could have used floatpacks to hover up to the top of the cliff, but floatpacks gave off an energy signal that could be detected by anyone paying attention, and if Hana’s plan was going to work, they needed to catch the enemy completely by surprise. They were wearing special gloves and boots that attached themselves to the surface of the cliff face, so they didn’t have to worry about losing their grip, but they still had to use their own muscles to pull themselves up. This meant carrying a light load, but a light load for a Starfengt assassin still meant that they were bristling with weaponry compared to a regular soldier.

As soon as they reached the lip of the cliff, Hana signaled a halt. “Echo Two, what’s your status?” she said over the radio.

“We’re in position, Echo One,” Xeliana replied. “Waiting on your signal.”

“Sigma One,” Hana said again, this time contacting the leader of the squads assaulting the ridge, “give me an update.”

“We have made contact with the enemy and have begun falling back!” yelled the squad leader over the sounds of battle. “You were right, Echo One! There’s a lot more guys up here than we thought!”

“Hold tight, Sigma One,” Hana said reassuringly. “We’re coming.”

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 3

Hana supposed that there must have been parts of Weblish that were nice to look at. After all, it was a habitable world with millions of people living on it. There must have been plants growing on the planet somewhere. But every area she’d seen in the three weeks she’d been there had been more desolate than the last. Sector Bravo Seven, or, as it was known by the locals, the Arabesh Wastes, was no exception to that rule. Long stretches of flat, dry, brown land were periodically broken by massive spikes of dirt and rock that soared thousands of feet into the bright blue sky.

The Arabesh Wastes weren’t just harsh to look at, either. They were also treacherous to traverse. The seemingly unbroken flatlands hid deep, jagged chasms that were nearly invisible until you were right on top of them. For that reason, the vehicles of the 4th Battalion, nicknamed “Giant Hammer”, were creeping along at a snail’s pace. Even though the APCs they were riding in, known as “Groundhogs”, were hover vehicles, they could only hover a few feet above the ground. If the distance between a Groundhog and the ground suddenly went from 3 feet to 300 feet, the result would not be pleasant. Hana figured, with a tiny smirk, that their pace fit the unit’s nickname pretty well. It would, after all, be hard to move a giant hammer quickly. Hopefully they also hit as hard as their nickname suggested once they reached their destination.

“Hey, Captain,” said Lt. Velencias Moratino to Hana suddenly, “look at this.” He was sitting across from her in the transport, and he handed her a tablet that she took with a slight frown. She stared at the tablet for a moment, and then rolled her eyes and flung it back at him with an expression that was half disgusted and half amused.

“Very funny, Lieutenant,” she said dryly as Moratino cackled in delight.

“I figured you could use a laugh, Captain,” he said with a broad grin on his tanned face. Moratino was short but thickly muscled, with a shaved head, a thin beard across his jawline and chin, and no mustache. He had always been something of an enigma to Hana. Normally reserved and serious to a fault, every once in a while he’d do something or say something that revealed a surprisingly deep sense of humor. “We haven’t had much to laugh about for awhile,” he continued, his grin fading and his normal somber expression reappearing.

“Hey, cheer up, man,” said the soldier sitting next to him, Master Chief Shalaminas Retico. Retico and Moratino were best friends, and opposite each other in just about every way. Retico was tall and thin, with long, wavy brown hair, no beard, and a thick, ridiculous mustache that he curled up on the ends. Where Moratino was generally somber, Retico almost always had a boyish grin on his face, and he seemed to consider it his life’s mission to get Moratino to laugh. “Things are never as bad as they seem, ya know? I think better days are just around the corner.”

“You always think better days are just around the corner,” Moratino grunted sourly. “And yet, here we are, riding in a Groundhog across the ugliest desert I’ve ever had the misfortune of laying eyes on.”

“Well, yeah,” replied Retico, “but at least we’re in a Groundhog and not an Adralack.”

“An Adralack would be pretty terrible out here,” Moratino admitted, “but it sure wouldn’t make our surroundings any uglier.”

“Oh, but just think about all the arvinium that’s under our feet!” Retico exclaimed. “Enough to make us wealthy beyond our wildest dreams!”

“I’d rather not think about it,” Moratino sighed. “If there wasn’t arvinium out here, we wouldn’t be bothering to conquer this pitiful rock.”

“Okay, enough!” Hana ordered as Retico opened his mouth to reply. He snapped his mouth shut with a frown, but even frowning, he had a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. Hana glared at him and said, “Don’t even think about it, Master Chief. I’m not in the mood.” Retico sighed dramatically and turned his twinkling eyes on Vedregela, who was sitting next to him, on the opposite side as Moratino.

Hana almost smiled at the way Vedregela rolled her eyes when Retico began chattering away at her in his enthusiastic manner, but it was hard to really smile about anything these days. She sighed and turned so she could look out at the Arabesh Wastes as they crawled by. The unbroken expanse of brown and gray fit her mood perfectly. She wished it was cloudy, so the sky would match the ground. The bright blue of the Weblish sky was the only cheery thing she’d seen in the past three weeks, and she hated it. She wanted it to rain, to pour even, but she got the impression that it rarely rained on Weblish.

“Not much to look at, is it, sir?” said a voice near Hana’s ear. Hana turned and saw Sergeant Cadalar Veska sitting next to her. Sgt. Veska was a member of the 4th Battalion, in charge of the particular Groundhog that Starfengt was riding in. He was a grizzled veteran, with hard, dark blue eyes, a shaved head, a long scar across his left cheek and a short one across his chin.

“That, Sergeant, is the biggest understatement I’ve heard all day,” Hana replied dryly. Veska smiled slightly.

“I forget, sometimes, what this place must look like to outsiders,” he said in a somewhat melancholy tone.

“You’re from Weblish?” Hana asked in surprise.

“Not just Weblish, sir,” Veska replied. “The Arabesh Wastes. I was a miner before the war started. Imperial Army rounded a bunch of us up and forced us into service. I fought for them for a few years, but then I wised up and came over to Fangalin. Never regretted it.”

“No, I can’t imagine why you would,” Hana murmured.

“It’s good to be home,” Veska said, gazing out at the desolate landscape. “I never realized how much I missed this place. Being an arvinium miner was a hard life, but it was a good life. It’ll be satisfying once this planet is firmly under Fangalin control.”

“I bet,” Hana said, thinking. Home. She hadn’t been home in so long. She barely remembered what Bliddle was like. Maybe reconnecting with her roots would help her gain some clarity.

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 2

Hana Lodimeur’s expression was carefully blank and never changed as she pulled the trigger on her sniper rifle and obliterated the head of her target. Her expression stayed blank as she swept the battlefield through the scope of her rifle, selected another target, and did it again. Every time she pulled the trigger, she saw the head of Emperor Neminatrix IV explode, but she kept doing it anyway, because she did it better than anyone else in Fangalin. Maybe she should have allowed her memories of Neminatrix’s death to affect her, but why? She didn’t have any regrets about killing him. Yes, she had regrets about other things that happened that day. But that specific act did not dismay her in the least. And yet she saw Neminatrix’s face every time she killed an anonymous Imperial soldier.

“Echo One, this is Echo Two,” came a female voice over her in-ear radio. “Please respond.”

“Echo One here,” Hana replied. “Go ahead, Xeliana.”

“Command is ordering us to relocate to Sector Bravo Seven,” Commander Xeliana Merane replied, just barely keeping the irritation out of her voice at the fact that her CO had called her by her name instead of her code number, even if this was a secure channel. “We’re needed to support the 4th Battalion.”

“What? Why did they send that order to you?” Hana exclaimed in exasperation. “What happened to chain of command!”

“They’ve been trying to get ahold of you for the past 10 minutes,” Xeliana said, more patiently than she felt. “You haven’t been responding.”

Hana frowned silently in response to this, thinking, but then she shook her head and dismissed her thoughts. There was probably just a glitch in the radio system. It happened from time to time. “Understood, Echo Two.” She paused for a moment, and then said, “Echo One to Echo Team. We’re relocating to Sector Bravo Seven. Acknowledge.” She nodded in satisfaction as all 12 members of Starfengt voiced their acknowledgment, and then she picked up her sniper rifle and crept down off the ridge she’d been hiding on.

Her gaze swept across the desolate wasteland around her as she picked her way down the slope back to the base camp for the 9th Brigade of the 3rd Division of the Grand and Invincible Army of Fangalin. Although Starfengt wasn’t part of the Army, they’d been ordered to assist the 9th Brigade in their invasion of Weblish by the Supreme Commander himself. Once Hana would have been offended that Starfengt’s skills were being wasted on such a mundane battlefield, but now she didn’t care. She couldn’t make herself care about much of anything these days.

As she reached the foot of the slope, she handed her sniper rifle to her assistant and took off her helmet. Her short, brown hair was slicked down with sweat, and she ran a dirty hand through it, making it stand up on end. She looked around at the bustle of activity in the base camp, and spied Starfengt’s number three, Lt. Commander Vedregela Holomein, jogging toward her. Vedregela’s wavy red hair was streaming out behind her as ran, but the cheery glint that usually lit up her green eyes was missing as she glared at her commanding officer.

“What in Nerzaga were you doing up there?” Vedregela barked as Hana turned her emotionless eyes toward her. “Sir?” she added belatedly.

“There must have been a glitch in the radio system,” Hana replied coolly.

“That’s garbage and you know it, sir,” Vedregela snarled. She glared at Hana silently for a few minutes, while Hana gazed back at her impassively. Finally, Vedregela took a long, deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Look,” she said firmly, “we all miss Arcten. And I know you were closer to him than any of us. But you need to let him go, okay? You know better than anybody how pissed he’d be if he knew you were letting your grief for him get in the way of your job. He built Starfengt for you, and he’d be furious if he knew you were letting it fall apart because of him.”

“You and Xeliana give me this lecture at least once a week,” Hana replied, rolling her eyes. “And I’ll tell you the same thing I tell you every time. I’m done grieving Arcten, and Starfengt is not falling apart. The Supreme Commander wants us to shore up the war effort. It’s our duty to go where the Supreme Commander sends us.”

“The Supreme Commander knows you can’t handle anything tough, so he’s sending us to backwater worlds where you can sit on a mountain, pick off greenhorns from 3 miles away, and pretend you’re doing something important,” Vedregela shot back.

“That’s quite enough, Commander,” Hana said in a soft, dangerous voice, the color draining from her face. Vedregela’s face turned as red as her hair, and she dropped her eyes to the ground.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she whispered. Hana glared at her for a moment, and then the expression on her face softened.

“I know, Ved,” she said quietly. “And I know you’re frustrated. I’m trying my best, I really am. I hope, deep down inside, you realize that.”

“I know, sir,” Vedregela replied, still looking at the ground. “And I hope you realize that I care about you. I don’t want to see you destroyed by grief.” Hana just looked at her appraisingly for a moment, and then sighed deeply.

“Come on, Ved,” she said, starting to walk toward the center of the camp. “Let’s gather up the rest of the team and figure out what’s happening in Sector Bravo Seven.”

“Yes, sir,” Vedregela said with a resigned sigh, trotting after her CO. As they walked, Hana thought for a moment about what Vedregela had said. Was she being destroyed by grief? That was probably a pretty good assessment. But what could she do about it? Everytime she cared about someone or something, the universe stole it away from her. It seemed the only solution was to just stop caring entirely.

To be continued…

A Sword of Ivy, Part 1

Morken Velenoth grimaced as his alarm went off at 5 o’clock in the morning. He hated having to get up this early, but he shut the alarm off and crawled out of bed anyway. If he wanted to get to work on time, then he couldn’t laze around and sleep in, and he definitely wanted to get to work on time. For one, his job paid well, and he liked money. But, more importantly, his employer was the type to get…angry, if his employees didn’t show up on time. If there was one thing Morken Velenoth liked more than money, it was making sure that his employer wasn’t angry.

He showered, dressed, and went into his kitchen to have a bite to eat. As he ate his breakfast, he perused the morning news on his tablet. Nothing terribly interesting. The war between Fangalin and the Empire was still dragging on, with no end in sight. It had been two years since Valador Mifalis had put an end to his rival, Neminatrix IV, and unified what was left of the Empire under one person for the first time since the war began. Valador had been exceptionally productive over the past two years, winning battles on every front, and even convening the Senate for the first time since the Emergence. Something would have to be done about that, but fortunately, that wasn’t Velenoth’s responsibility.

Finishing his breakfast, he stuffed his tablet into a pocket of his robes, threw on a long overcoat, and went outside. A few minutes later he was on a hovertrain headed into the heart of Crez. He glanced at his tablet again briefly as he began his morning commute, but it didn’t take him long to realize that there wasn’t anything worth looking at on the internet this morning, and he was soon dozing as the hovertrain trundled slowly toward the Grand Hall of Fangalin, at the center of Crez.

The Grand Hall was one of the most magnificent buildings in the entire galaxy, but Velenoth had spent so much time here that he barely noticed its grandeur as he made his way through security and into the vast foyer of the Hall. Weaving through the crowds of bureaucrats making their way to their offices, he bought a coffee from his favorite cafe, and then started up to his own office.

His office was small but prestigious. In the Grand Hall, the closer your office was to the top of the building, the higher your rank in the Fangalin ruling hierarchy, and Velenoth’s office was on the second highest floor. He was the personal assistant to the Supreme Commander, which made him one of the most important people in Fangalin. It also made him one of the hardest working people in Fangalin as well, but there were enough perks to his job that it was worth the work.

He sat down behind his desk, pulled out his tablet, and started going through his daily messages while he drank his coffee. Today seemed like a fairly light day, both for himself and for the Supreme Commander. Of course, even a light day for the ruler of a vast interstellar empire was far busier than even a busy day for a normal person. But again, the perks of the job far outweighed the business of it.

After a few minutes, Velenoth had a schedule drawn up for the Supreme Commander’s day, and he was on his way up in his private elevator to the Commander’s office to present it to him. As usual, the Supreme Commander, Dren Calabane, looked as if he’d been working without a break all night, although Velenoth knew that he probably had arrived at his desk only a few minutes before Velenoth himself did. Dren Calabane was a workaholic. Velenoth knew that if his wife didn’t stop him, he probably would regularly pull multiple all-nighters in a row, even though the man was 68 years old. That was part of the reason the Grand Council had elected him to the post of Supreme Commander.

“Ah, Morken,” Calabane said as he saw Velenoth approach his desk. “Good timing. I need you to go over a report I just received from Hiboranon.”

“Another one, sir?” Velenoth asked, raising an eyebrow skeptically. “I thought I just read one last week.”

“Yes, well, the situation there is fluid,” Calabane replied, rummaging through the vast pile of tablets on his desk. “The pro-Fangalin rebels we were planning to send aid to last week, who were poised to take the provincial capital, just suffered a crushing defeat two days ago. I want your advice on how we should proceed.”

“As in, are they still worth backing, or not?” Velenoth asked.

“Precisely,” Calabane said, “I also need an update on Imperial forces near Teremalin Venir. They appear to be amassing for an assault on Weblish, but I want to get your take on the situation.”

“Of course, sir,” Velenoth said with a nod. “I’ll have that report for you this afternoon.”

“Good to hear,” Calabane said, continuing to search through his pile of tablets. “You are dismissed, Morken.”

“Very good, sir,” Velenoth replied, bowing his head. He immediately turned and went back down the elevator to the penultimate floor. These two reports would be a great deal of work, and he didn’t have a lot of time to do them, but again, it was all part of the job.

He entered his office, sat down, took a sip of coffee, and got to work. Yes, his job was hard. He had to get up obnoxiously early, he had a ridiculously long commute, and he had to work constantly from the moment he entered his office to the moment he left to go back home. But it was worth it. He got paid well, and people all over the galaxy envied him. But that wasn’t even the important part. The important part was that the Supreme Commander trusted him. It was that trust that his employer had hired him for. That trust was all that mattered.

To be continued…

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…