Culmination, Part 2

“The Chair recognizes Captain Hana Lodimeur,” announced the Chairman of the Grand Council, Ven Ron. Councilor Ron was a large man, towering over all the other councilors and wider than most of them as well, although unlike the rest of them, his bulk was all muscle. He had deep brown hair that was cut short like a soldier, and piercing hazel eyes, and a bearing that said he believed that whatever he did, he would do it better than anyone else. Hana had never liked him, as he was one of the most arrogant men she had ever met, but even she had to admit that he was competent enough to justify his arrogance.

“Thank you, Honored Councilor,” Hana said, approaching the podium with a bow. “I humbly come before this most esteemed body tonight to beg a favor.”

“A favor, eh?” sneered Allabide Foss. Foss was young for a councilor, about the same age as Hana, and he had disliked her ever since she’d rejected his advances by slapping him. Few women in Fangalin could get away with so boldly rejecting a member of the Grand Council, but fortunately Hana’s patron was the Supreme Commander himself. “Didn’t we already do you a favor by letting you waste time and money with that haunted house of yours?”

“Don’t be an idiot, Foss,” retorted Jremok Valin, an older man who was one of Hana’s staunchest allies on the Council. He had voted in favor of her raid on the Imperial Palace every time she’d approached the Council. Not that it was up to the Council to decide, of course, but a vote in favor would certainly get the Supreme Commander’s attention. “Starfengt is the best thing that’s happened to Fangalin since the Emergence. You know as well as anyone that the war has gotten bogged down these past few years. Without Starfengt around to thin the ranks of our enemies’ leaders, we wouldn’t have even been able to win the few victories that we have!” Foss sneered at Valin in response, but kept his mouth shut.

“Please continue, Captain,” said Ron, giving her an arrogant wink. Hana just barely managed to refrain from rolling her eyes.

“As you know, Honored Councilors, I have approached this body several times in an attempt to convince its esteemed members that assassinating Neminatrix IV would be favorable to the war effort. I have no doubts that Starfengt would easily be able to penetrate the lax security in the Imperial Palace and eliminate Neminatrix with a minimum of resources and casualties. However, it has been brought to my attention that the death of Neminatrix IV may not necessarily be what is best for our glorious war effort.” She paused for a moment to take a sip of water.

“Therefore,” she continued, “I ask instead that this esteemed and honorable body grant me the life of Neminatrix as a reward for my meager contribution toward the war effort. You all know that Neminatrix is responsible for the death of my father, who served Fangalin faithfully and honorably. And how many other crimes can be laid at the feet of that despicable monster who claims to be Emperor of the Galaxy? Thus I ask you, Honorable Councilors, please give me permission to move my troops against the Imperial Palace and lance this festering boil that so besmirches our honor and our glory.” She fell silent, and watched the faces of the men in front of her. She couldn’t tell if her speech had had any effect yet, but really, there was only one man whose reaction mattered, and he was the one she watched most intently.

Dren Calabane, Supreme Commander of Fangalin, sat behind Ven Ron on a raised platform overlooking the Council chamber. In his mid-60s, his goatee was silver now, rather than black, but other than that, his appearance had not changed much in the past ten years. He still possessed the quiet intensity that had carried him through the ranks of Fangalin to the very top of the hierarchy. He had not spoken a word throughout this entire meeting, which was his normal procedure, as he preferred to let the Council debate matters without being influenced by what they thought he wanted. But he watched everything that happened like a hawk.

The councilors were silent for a moment, digesting what she had said, and then Ven Ron spoke up. “Well said as always, Captain Lodimeur,” he said. “I, for one, am persuaded by your argument. Where would we be without Starfengt, as Councilor Valin already stated? Surely your loyal service over the past decade deserves this small favor. I say we put it to a vote. Do I have a second?”

“Seconded,” said Valin, raising his hand.

“All in favor?” asked Ron, looking around expectantly. Hana barely suppressed a grimace as a little over a third of the Council’s hands went up. But maybe most of the rest would simply abstain from voting. “All opposed?” said Ron, and more than half of the Council’s hands went up. This time Hana did grimace. What would it take to convince them? Hana didn’t know, but there was still hope.

“Let the record book show that Captain Lodimeur’s petition to lead a team to assassinate Neminatrix IV was rejected by the Grand Council on this date,” Ron intoned, his arrogant smirk unfazed by the fact that a petition he’d supported had just been defeated. “Next order of business?”

“A moment, Councilors,” said a soft voice that cut through all other noise in the Council Chamber. Dren Calabane’s voice. Every eye in the chamber turned to him in amazement. “You all know that I hesitate to contradict the Council’s opinion in public, but in this case I believe you have made a grievous error. As both Councilor Ron and Councilor Valin have made clear, Hana Lodimeur’s service to Fangalin and to the Dark Presence has been unparalleled. To deny her this small request is a grave insult to a loyal and valued servant of the Presence. Therefore, I hereby grant Captain Lodimeur’s petition. You may use whatever means are at your disposal to locate and execute the criminal Neminatrix.” And then he fell silent, leaving the Councilors, especially those who had voted against Hana’s request, stunned.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 1

The Amarise House on the outskirts of Crez was the sort of place that had a reputation. A reputation that made adults avert their gaze when they had to pass by it, and children dare each other to sneak over the rickety old fence that surrounded it. Standing on the top floor of the three story house, looking out at a small knot of children who were whispering and nudging each other, Hana Lodimeur couldn’t help but smile. She didn’t mind that her house had such a fearsome reputation. Indeed, she’d spent ten years trying to build it.

Of course, Amarise House wasn’t haunted at all, but it suited Hana’s purpose to make people think it was. What went on here was top secret, authorized by Supreme Commander Zhemeen Fortulis himself, and then, after his death, reauthorized by his successor, Dren Calabane. What Hana Lodimeur had spent ten years building here was nothing less than the culmination of her life’s work.

Ever since her father had been killed by Imperial marines in the wake of his victory over two Emperors at the Battle of Endragar, Hana had made it her sole purpose to avenge his death. For ten years, she had sequestered herself inside Amarise House, devoting herself to building an elite special forces team dedicated to one goal: the death of Emperor Neminatrix IV. She’d had to learn a lot, as she had not been a soldier, but she had always been good at finding people to fill in gaps in her knowledge, and as the daughter of a soldier, it wasn’t as if she had been completely ignorant of military matters. After ten years, she would wager that there wasn’t a better military expert in the galaxy than her.

Her work wasn’t just theoretical, either. Starfengt, the unit she had built, was one of the blackest secrets in all of Fangalin, but those who knew of or suspected its existence were terrified of it. When the Supreme Commander decided to unleash Starfengt on a target, that target had no hope of survival.

Which made it all the more frustrating that the Supreme Commander had thus far denied her request to lead Starfengt on a raid of the Imperial Palace. She understood the political situation. She knew that Neminatrix was one of only two men who currently claimed the Imperial Throne, and that if he died, his rival, Valador Mifalis, would likely become the sole ruler of the Empire. She knew that Neminatrix’s death would put an end to the Imperial civil war and force Fangalin to contend with a united Empire for the first time in 16 years. All of that was clear to her. But she didn’t care. Starfengt existed to kill Neminatrix, and as long as he lived, Hana seethed with vengeful fury.

She sighed as she turned away from the window. The kids outside had failed to muster the courage to scale the fence, hopping on their hoverbikes instead and zooming down the street. Just as well, although she always enjoyed triggering Amarise House’s security systems. They were quite convincing. Amarise House had definitely earned its reputation.

Descending into the House’s interior, she looked around with pride at the sophisticated and modern decor, the complete opposite of the dilapidated exterior. Yes, despite her failure to kill Neminatrix thus far, what she had built here was definitely something impressive. Even though she hadn’t completed her life’s goal yet, she certainly hadn’t wasted the time she’d spent waiting.

“Captain Lodimeur,” said her second-in-command, a grizzled veteran named Commander Arcten Sidel, as soon as he saw her, “I just got a message from the Grand Council. They would be honored if you presented your petition in person at tonight’s meeting.” Arcten Sidel was in his early fifties, with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair, sharp blue eyes, a close-cut goatee, and a pair of scars, one just across his right cheek, and the other stretching from above his left eye, down to his jawline. He was slightly taller than Hana, and solidly built. He had been the first person Hana recruited for Starfengt, and in truth, he should have been the one to command. Almost everything Hana knew about leading a covert unit, she’d learned from Arcten. But she had offered him the command at least three times, and every time he’d refused.

“Oh great,” Hana said, rolling her eyes. “So nice of them to give me plenty of notice. I suppose I’d better get dressed and head out now.”

“Why even bother?” Arcten said with a frown. “You know what their answer will be. They’ve given you the same answer every time for ten years. It’s not like the situation has changed.”

“Because this is the mission that Starfengt exists for!” Hana said fiercely. “I gave the Council the greatest black ops unit in the galaxy! The least they can do is give me something in return!”

“Even if that something jeopardizes Fangalin’s objectives?” Arcten asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Don’t give me that political nonsense, Arcten,” Hana said with a sneer. “The Empire is weak, and it’ll be weak whether it has two Emperors or one. Valador Mifalis is a competent leader, but it’s too late for any Emperor to put the cork back in the bottle now. Fangalin is here to stay, and we’re stronger and better organized than the Empire has ever been. Our victory is inevitable, and it won’t be jeopardized if Neminatrix gets what he deserves!”

“Then tell the Council that!” Arcten roared. “You accuse me of spouting political nonsense, but every time you approach the Council, you try to convince them that killing Neminatrix would be good for the war effort! Don’t insult their intelligence, Hana. They may be politicians, but they’re not that dumb. Tell them what you told me. They know how much they owe you for building Starfengt. They just need a reminder.”

“Hmmm,” Hana said, stroking her chin. “Maybe you’re right. Perhaps I’ll give that approach a try.” She shrugged, and then barked a laugh. “The worst thing they can do is say no again!” She smiled warmly at Arcten. “Thanks, Arcten. You always have given the best advice.”

“Just doing my job, Captain,” Arcten replied stoically. Hana rolled her eyes affectionately at him, and then went to her quarters to get dressed for her meeting with the Council.

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 15

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is it?” Belfamor asked, perplexed.

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Belfamor said warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End

A Shard of Darkness, Part 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

A Shard of Darkness, Part 13

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

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

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

“Understood, sir,” Vondric replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…