A Shard of Darkness, Part 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 10

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…