Terrible Shadow, Part 5

Zhemeen Fortulis sat at his desk in the governor’s mansion on Numoris, gazing out of the giant window that took up the entire wall opposite his desk. The window gave Fortulis a spectacular view of Crez, the capital city of Numoris. Fortulis was not officially the governor of Numoris, but he ruled Numoris nonetheless. He was the Supreme Commander of Fangalin, and Fangalin had run Numoris in all but name for 300 years.

Fortulis was in his early 80s, but in remarkably good health for his age. He was short and round, with a small fringe of white hair around the edge of his otherwise bald head, but he moved and talked with an astonishing energy that belied his age and looks. He wasn’t moving or talking at all at the moment, though. He was thinking.

The news had come to Numoris two days ago that the Empress was on her deathbed. This was the news Fortulis had been waiting for ever since he was elected Supreme Commander by the High Council 40 years earlier. He had immediately contacted Ahsken Lorovic, Director of Security for the Imperial Senate and a loyal Fangalin officer, and ordered him to begin preparations for Operation Thunderclap. That was the code name that Fortulis had chosen for the plan to decapitate the Empire, a plan that had been in the works ever since it became obvious that Emella II was going to die without any heirs.

Destroying the Senate while they were deliberating on who should be the new Emperor would cripple the Empire. Without a Senate or an Emperor, the Empire would have no way to react to Fangalin’s offensive, and that, combined with the considerable penetration Fangalin had made into Imperial society, could lead to the war ending before it really got started. If all went according to plan, Zhemeen Fortulis would go down in history as the greatest Supreme Commander of Fangalin since Wellin Votara himself.

His thoughts were interrupted by the intercom buzzing. “Yes?” he said quietly.

“My Lord,” his aide answered, “We have received a message from Captain Lorovic.”

“Put it through,” Fortulis commanded. A hologram of Lorovic’s head appeared in front of Fortulis, hovering in mid-air.

“My Lord,” Lorovic began, “Preparations for Operation Thunderclap are complete.”

“Excellent,” Fortulis responded, “Make sure that you do not detonate the bomb until the full Senate has met.”

“Of course, my Lord,” Lorovic said with a nod, “I have also made sure that only people loyal to you and the Presence are assigned to the area where the bomb is hidden. There is no possibility of the heretics finding it.”

“Very good,” Fortulis said with a pleased smile, “You have done well, Captain. Your reward will indeed be great once the operation is a success.” Lorovic nodded again with a small smile, and Fortulis added, “You are dismissed.” The hologram of Lorovic’s head disappeared, and Fortulis sat back with a satisfied look on his face.

The Empire’s days were numbered now. The purity and strength of Fangalin’s faith would surely lead them to victory. The Dark Presence would once again reign over all Creation, and the rule of Fangalin would be glorious and eternal. And Zhemeen Fortulis would be remembered as the one who began it.

***

Shayban Drahzen was more displeased than he should have been. He was sitting at his desk in his office in Selorin, the capital of the Empire. He was a small man, with a round, clean-shaven face. He had short, brown, messy hair, and he wore small, round glasses. He was in his early 40s. He didn’t look the part of the most powerful Senator in the Empire, but that was part of his charm. His mild manner and easy-going personality made him more likable than the average politician, but at the moment, the small smile he usually wore on his face was replaced by a scowl.

The Empress’ condition was getting worse, and her doctors had just announced that she was unlikely to last through the night. Assuming they were correct, tomorrow the Senate would meet for the first time to deliberate on the question of who would become her successor. Every Senator in the Empire was already on Trisitania, waiting for the Empress to die so they could begin their most important duty. This should have been Shayban Drahzen’s ultimate moment of glory, the moment when House Drahzen ascended to the Imperial Throne. But already, before deliberations had even begun, he could feel the moment slipping away.

There were ten senators, three generals, two admirals, and four provincial governors who had all submitted their candidacy for the soon-to-be vacant throne. Considering that it had been over 400 years since the last time the throne was up for grabs, Drahzen was surprised that there weren’t more candidates. Anyone who wasn’t a senator, general, admiral or governor was automatically barred from consideration by Senate rules, but there were still hundreds of people who occupied those offices. The fact that more people didn’t apply was a testament to how assured Drahzen’s victory was. Or at least, had been.

Until a few days ago, none of the other candidates had had the slightest chance of winning the Senate’s approval. But somehow, within the past few days, Hesha Vorlan had begun stealing away votes that were previously Drahzen’s. Senator Vorlan had always been his bitterest rival, but until the last few days, he had never seen her as a credible threat to his ambitions.

He could see Embamor Etralis’ dirty fingers all over this development. Despite his drunkenness and laziness, that man had more connections and influence than anyone else in the Empire. No doubt he had decided that he would get more out of Vorlan’s election to the throne than he would out of Drahzen’s. Drahzen wondered what she had promised him to get his support.

In any case, it didn’t matter. Hesha Vorlan was deeply unpopular in the Senate, a result of her snobbish manner and elitist behavior. It would take more than Embamor Etralis and his cronies to stifle Shayban Drahzen’s ambitions. He had been working towards the throne for his entire life. When he was 13, it became obvious to him that it would become available in his lifetime. He had dedicated his life at that moment to becoming the next Emperor, and he was so close now. In just a few days, he would finally be able to achieve that which he’d spent his entire life working toward, and he would not allow a snob and a drunkard to rob him of that which was rightfully his.

Something would have to be done.

To be continued…

Terrible Shadow, Part 4

“So, General,” Senator Hesha Vorlan began, “To what do I owe the honor of this meeting?” The Senator was in her mid-fifties, and handsome rather than beautiful. She had straight black hair that fell to just above her shoulders, and a bold, almost hawk-like nose. She was well known as a patron of the arts, and her dinner parties attracted some of the most beautiful and intelligent people in the Empire.

On the other hand, General Embamor Etralis, to whom her question was directed, was crude and boorish, and exactly the sort of person whom Senator Vorlan did her best to avoid. Unfortunately, politics was a dirty business, and some of the most powerful people in the Empire were the very type who would never get an invitation to one of her dinner parties without that power.

“Well, Senator,” the General began with what Vorlan imagined was supposed to be an ingratiating smile, but really made him look as if he was ill, “I was hoping to have a discussion with you about the security arrangements for the upcoming coronation ceremony. After all, the Legion of the Heart will be responsible for those arrangements, and I would like to be able to begin planning now.”

“Of course, General,” she said with what she hoped was a more natural looking smile, “But what do you expect me to have to do with the coronation?” Etralis looked slightly surprised.

“Are you not making a bid for the throne, Senator?” he said.

“I am,” she responded, “But you and I both know that Senator Drahzen has all but locked up the Senate’s vote. I’m not afraid to admit that my chances of ascending to the throne are all but nonexistent.” General Etralis took another sip of wine and leaned back in his chair.

“Ah, my dear,” he said, “Nothing is set in stone until the Senate actually votes. Senator Shayban Drahzen may have a stranglehold on his fellows’ hearts and minds at the moment. But who knows what the coming days might bring? You may find that you have allies where you least expect them. For example, the Commander of the Legion of the Heart is not without some…considerable…influence.”

Hesha Vorlan frowned at this. She couldn’t quite believe, looking at this bloated wreck of a man, that there was any truth to what he said. And yet, she and the general were sitting in a back room at Mevran’s, the flagship restaurant of Horgan Mevran, the most accomplished and famous chef in the entire galaxy. It was a place that even Senator Hesha Vorlan of Revlingal, for all her status and power, would be unlikely to get a table in on her own. And yet this…crude pig had been able to, not only get a table, but secure access to one of the vaunted back rooms! Clearly he wasn’t exaggerating his status.

“Are you saying, General, that you are interested in helping me ascend to the throne?” Vorlan asked. Etralis leaned forward slightly.

“I am saying, Senator, that I am willing to exert whatever humble influence I may possess to aid you in your bid,” Etralis said smoothly, “But I would require certain assurances from you, in return.”

“Of course,” she responded, “Name your terms.”

“First, I would require your assurance that you would retain me as Commander of the Heart upon your ascension,” he said, and she nodded in response. “Second, I would also require an additional wing within the Imperial Palace for my personal quarters.” She nodded again, inwardly rolling her eyes at the insatiable greed of this swine. “And third, I would need to be given the power to appoint the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Armed Forces… and the Master of the ISS.” He sat back with a bland expression on his face, waiting to see the Senator’s reaction to this request.

Vorlan was stunned. This… this ape was asking to be given the very keys to the Empire! Supreme Commander of the IAF and Master of the ISS were the two most powerful positions in the Empire, aside from the throne itself. With the power to fill those two positions, General Etralis would essentially become the ruler of the Empire by proxy.

“Do you… Do you have any idea what you’re asking?” she whispered, appalled. The expression on the General’s face didn’t change.

“Of course, my dear,” he said in a voice as bland as his expression. She stared at him, unable to comprehend what was going on.

“How could you possibly think that I would agree to these conditions!” she exclaimed.

“Because without my help you will not attain the throne,” he said, his voice firming slightly, “And you will not get my help without agreeing to these conditions.” The Senator shook her head, trying to figure out how to salvage this situation.

“I have no problems with your first two conditions,” she said, “But the third condition is unacceptable. I cannot agree to it.” Etralis smiled smugly.

“Don’t be ridiculous, dear,” he said, “Senator Drahzen has already assured me both of those things if he is elected. If that’s all you’re going to give me, then I have no incentive to back you over Shayban. Especially since, even with my help, your election is by no means assured. And if I back you and Senator Drahzen still wins the election, I will have made a powerful enemy. You can see where I would want to make sure that taking such a risk would be worth my while.” Vorlan frowned and thought this over. Unfortunately, he made some very good points.

“Let me get this straight,” she said, “You want me to promise that you can be the power behind the throne, but you can’t even promise me that I’ll win the election if I give you what you want?” Etralis shrugged and spread his hands wide.

“Shayban has a great deal of support in the Senate,” he said, “I will do what I can, but I can’t promise anything. Besides, if you lose, my help won’t cost you anything. And you have no chance of winning without it.” Vorlan glared at him, but she had to admit that he was right. She wanted the throne more than she’d ever wanted anything in her life. Senator Vorlan might be unable to get a table at Mevran’s, but Empress Hesha would be able to order Horgan Mevran himself to be her personal chef. Furthermore, this was her only chance to secure the throne. Shayban Drahzen was relatively young, in good health, and had several children. If he became Emperor, there was almost no chance that the throne would be available again in her lifetime.

“Fine,” she said begrudgingly, “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

To be continued…

Terrible Shadow, Part 3

In a luxurious bed within a lavish suite of rooms on one of the highest floors of the vast Imperial Palace on Trisitania, General Embamor Etralis was passed out. It was 10 o’clock in the morning and, as usual, he had drunk way too much wine the night before. His aides kept checking to see if he was awake yet, as he had duties he needed to carry out, but none of them dared wake him up. Waking General Etralis from a drunken stupor was a one-way ticket to an assignment scrubbing toilets in the dungeons.

General Etralis was the Commander of the Legion of the Heart, the Imperial Legion responsible for the safety of the Empress and the Imperial Palace. As there had not been a serious threat to the Empress’ safety or that of the Palace in hundreds of years, Commander of the Heart was considered a cushy posting for military officers in their twilight years. General Etralis had risen to that post not through valor or strength or intelligence, but because he was really good at making and exploiting connections.

A particularly loud snore rousted the general from his slumber, and he blearily looked around his extravagant chambers. His connections had been good for more than just obtaining undemanding assignments. He had also managed to amass a fortune through shady business dealings, and he wasn’t shy about showing off the fruit of his labor. He yawned loudly and stretched, and then slowly stood up, rubbing his temples to ease the pain of his sore head.

General Embamor Etralis had the physique of a man who had once been in excellent shape, but had let himself go in his later years. He was tall and still had a vaguely regal bearing, but he also had an enormous potbelly and comparatively skinny limbs. He looked a little bit like a large potato with four toothpicks stuck in it. He had a fringe of wispy white hair around his head, and a large, red, bulbous nose. His blue eyes were watery and unfocused, although he still could muster a piercing stare when he needed it.

He stood in the middle of his room, vaguely blinking and staring off into space, and then he suddenly drew a deep breath and bellowed, “AGANAR!” Almost immediately, the door to his bedroom flew open and a young man rushed in and presented himself to the general.

“Yes, General!” he said, saluting smartly.

“‘Bout time you showed up, boy,” the General said, slurring his words slightly, “It’s almost noon! Were you just gonna let me sleep the day away?”

“Of course not, sir!” the young man said. In reality, Lieutenant Ven Aganar would never have dared wake General Etralis after a night of drinking. But it wasn’t wise to contradict the Commander of the Heart. The General swore loudly, belched, passed gas, and then scratched himself while he idly looked around the room.

“Well!” he said finally, “What’s on the agenda for today, boy?”

“Today is a light day, sir,” Aganar said, “Training exercises at noon, and a dinner with Senator Vorlan this evening.” Etralis swore again and spit on the floor.

“Politicians, eh?” he said, “What a bunch of slimy snakes. I can’t stand the lot of ’em. What does this Senator Vorlan want, anyway?” Aganar’s cheeks flushed slightly and he glanced down at the tablet he was carrying.

“Uh, s-sir,” he stammered, “You r-requested a meeting with the S-Senator to d-discuss security arrangements for the, uh, the upcoming, uh, coronation of the new Emperor.” Rarely did the General stand for having any error pointed out, no matter how minor or insignificant it was, without flying into one of his infamous rages, but this time Lieutenant Aganar was lucky.

“I did?” the General asked, scratching his chin, “Huh. Okay, then.” He scratched himself some more, and stared off into space. Lieutenant Aganar stood at attention, outwardly calm, but inwardly he was shaking with fearful anticipation of the outburst that was sure to come. He didn’t have to wait long. The General started, and then focused his watery blue eyes on Aganar.

“WHY ARE YOU STILL STANDING THERE, BOY?” he bellowed, “GET ME SOME CLOTHES! NOW!” Aganar saluted quickly and ran out of the room. Etralis glared after him for a few seconds, and then his gaze became unfocused again and he belched. He wandered over to his dresser, opened a drawer, and took out a flask of whiskey. He popped open the flask and took a long drink from it. Then he put it back in the drawer and belched again.

His eyes wandered aimlessly around the room. He looked at the rich furnishings and luxurious tapestries without really seeing them. He was trying to remember why he had bothered setting up a meeting with Senator Vorlan. Hesha Vorlan was a Senator from Revlingal, one of the richest and most powerful provinces in the Empire. She was also one of the prime candidates for the soon-to-be vacant throne. But everybody on Trisitania knew that Shayban Drahzen from Nextrafar was almost certainly going to be chosen by the Senate. General Etralis was concerned for his position, and he’d already received assurances from Senator Drahzen that he had no plans to appoint a new Commander of the Heart. So why bother meeting with Senator Vorlan? The General couldn’t remember.

In any case, it didn’t matter. Even if Drahzen wasn’t raised to the throne, Etralis would make the most of the situation. That was his speciality. There had been many times that people had written off Embamor Etralis, and he’d always managed to prove them wrong. Besides, even if he was forced out of his cushy position, he had enough money stashed away to retire comfortably right now. So it didn’t really matter to him who became the next Emperor.

He had thought about making a run for the throne himself, but in a time of peace, it wasn’t very likely that the Senate would choose a military man. Etralis knew that he was good at getting what he wanted, but he also was aware of the limits of his talent. Besides, being Emperor would be too much responsibility. He would rather continue sleeping until noon and drinking as much as he wanted.

To be continued…

Terrible Shadow, Part 2

Ahsken Lorovic was on his way to his office to review some documents when a voice from behind him called out. He turned to see his boss, ISS Master Dren Folmor. Folmor was the highest ranking official in the ISS, appointed by the Empress herself. Master of the ISS was one of the two or three most coveted positions in the entire Empire short of the throne itself.

The Imperial Secret Service was perhaps the most powerful and certainly the most feared division of the Imperial government. It was responsible for upholding the security of the Empire and identifying and neutralizing threats to that security before they could become serious. The ISS had agents in every province of the Empire, in every major city and in most minor ones. Every university, every school, every hospital, every business, every formal organization of any sort had at least one ISS agent attached to it. The ISS monitored all communication on the internet, and watched all the comings and goings of everyone in the Empire. They were omniscient. Or so they thought.

In reality, the sheer vastness of the Empire made it impossible for the ISS to be aware of everything that went on, and Fangalin had found it fairly easy to hide from them over the past few centuries. In addition, there hadn’t really been any serious threats to the Empire’s rule ever since the Nether War, and the ISS had gotten rather complacent in the subsequent centuries.

All these thoughts went through Lorovic’s head in the half-second it took him to turn and face Folmor. Physically, Lorovic and his boss couldn’t have been more different. Lorovic was tall, muscular, and clean-shaven, with a full head of close-cropped dark hair. Folmor was about a foot shorter, and so fat that he was almost perfectly circular. He was breathing heavily as if he’d been running, but in reality he was so out of shape that he breathed like that all the time. His red, round face glistened with sweat, but that too was normal for him. What little hair he had left on his head was gray and combed over, as if he thought that would hide his baldness, but the lack of hair on top of his head was more than made up for by his giant, bushy, gray mustache. Not for the first time, Lorovic wondered how this fat fool managed to rise to such a lofty position.

“Well, Lorovic,” Folmor said, still breathing heavily, “The big day is coming soon! I hope you’re ready for it?”

“Of course, sir,” Lorovic replied with a salute, “All is in readiness for the session to begin.”

“Good, good,” Folmor said, looking around as if he was distracted by something. Lorovic watched him impassively for a few minutes, and then he spoke up.

“Is there something I can help you with, sir?” he asked with a slight touch of impatience. Folmor looked surprised that Lorovic had spoken, but the expression on his face quickly turned thoughtful.

“Actually, now that you mention it, I could use your help with something,” he said slimily. “You’re a loyal servant of the Empire, aren’t you?”

“Of course, sir,” Lorovic responded, frowning. This obese moron couldn’t be on to me, he thought, Could he?

“Yes, yes, of course you are,” Folmor muttered, suddenly distracted again. He looked all around furtively, as if expecting to see spies eavesdropping all around him. He beckoned for Lorovic to lean in close, which Lorovic did while barely suppressing a disgusted grimace. “I have a small problem. You see, my contacts tell me that Senator Drahzen is likely to be chosen as the new Emperor.” He stopped, waiting for Lorovic to react to this. Lorovic stared impassively down at him, and he frowned and shook his head. “You don’t see the significance of this?” he asked irritably.

“I’m afraid not, sir,” Lorovic replied. Folmor made a disgusted noise and rolled his eyes.

“Well, Drahzen’s had it in for me for years,” Folmor said, spitting on the ground to show what he thought of that, “And I just know that if he becomes Emperor, he’s gonna demote me and reassign me to some hillbilly province out on the edge of space. So you can see that it would really not be in my best interest for him to be elected.”

“I can see that, sir,” Lorovic said blandly. Folmor nodded and once again looked around distractedly while Lorovic continued. “I’m not sure what you want me to do about it though. I’m not a Senator, sir. I don’t have a vote.”

“No, no, of course not,” Folmor said, “But as Director of Security for the Senate, you have the power to…influence certain people to view the election my way. Anyway, I don’t really want to say more out in the open like this. And you don’t have to agree to anything now. I just want your assurance that you’ll at least listen to what I have to say later on.”

“Absolutely, sir,” Lorovic lied, “I would be happy to aid you, sir.” He managed to say that with a straight face, but on the inside, he was disgusted and appalled by what Folmor was suggesting. Manipulate the selection of the Emperor? Possibly use violence to do so? Such corruption made Lorovic feel sick to his stomach. It was because of people like Folmor that the Empire deserved what was about to happen to it.

The irony of this line of thought was lost on Lorovic, of course. In his mind, he wasn’t betraying the Empire, because he was never loyal to the Empire in the first place. Fangalin had been his master since he was born, and the only reason he joined the ISS in the first place was to further the cause of Fangalin. He wasn’t betraying anyone by blowing up the Senate Hall. He was carrying out the mission given him by those who held his true loyalty.

To be continued…