Culmination, Part 45

“Belfamor!” Shala gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this true?” Belfamor asked Neminatrix harshly.

“Yes,” Neminatrix replied simply.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

And then her father’s head exploded.

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 44

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Understood, Echo One,” replied Vedregela.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 43

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Switch to backups!” yelled Termaina.

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

“The infiltration team,” Termaina said softly.

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

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

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

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

“By the One…,” Neminatrix breathed.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 42

“Echo One to Echo Leaders,” Hana said over the radio. “We are in position. Report in, Echo Leaders.”

“Echo One, this is Echo Two,” replied Arcten. “We are approaching our target. ETA five minutes.

“Echo One, this is Echo Three,” chimed in Xeliana. “We are in position and ready to go on your mark.”

“Echo One, this is Echo Four,” said Vedregela. “We’ve just entered the Palace. Echo Seven is down, repeat, Echo Seven is down.”

“Understood, Four,” Hana replied with a scowl. Echo Seven was Sholin Ilimace, the young man who had told her she was the best just before they’d disembarked. She wondered if he had still thought she was the best in his dying moments. Could a commander who led her team to their deaths in pursuit of personal revenge really be the best? She shook her head and cleared the scowl off her face. Was she going to have these thoughts any time one of her team members was killed? That was a cheery thought. Why would she even assume that any more of them would die?

“Two and Four, report in as soon as you’re in position,” she said, and then she looked at Lotarien. “Now we wait.” He grimaced at her slightly, nodded, and then turned away to watch for threats.

***

“What’s the situation, Admiral?” Neminatrix said, already knowing the answer.

“Not good, Your Majesty,” Admiral Termaina replied, just as he had an hour ago. “Things are crumbling fast. The task force reached Hibellia, and it sounds like they did massive damage, but they haven’t reported in yet. Admiral Tred thinks we’ll never hear from them again, and I’m inclined to agree with her. The military might of Valador’s rebels has been greater than we anticipated thus far. Meanwhile, most of Selorin is in rebel hands. Both the outer and inner defensive rings around the Palace have been breached, and we’re bracing for an assault on the Palace right now.

“I’m also getting the suspicion that some sort of infiltration team has made it inside the Palace itself. Several of our drones in the tunnels have gone dark, and a patrol unit just outside the Palace has failed to report in, and they were scheduled to report before the rebel forces hit the outer defensive ring. There were no rebel forces reported anywhere near the Palace at that point, so either the rebels sent in some sort of elite scout force, or someone else is taking advantage of the situation.”

“So, in other words, we’re screwed,” Neminatrix said with a wry smile. Termaina was silent for a moment, and then he gave a heavy sigh and turned toward Neminatrix slowly. He appeared to have aged ten years since the battle began.

“I hate to say it, but yes,” Termaina said grimly. “We’ve been outmatched at every turn. Despite our best efforts, Valador has soundly beaten us.” Neminatrix opened his mouth to reply, but just then the door of the command center opened and Shala walked in.

“Shala!” Neminatrix exclaimed, fear and anger warring in his expression. “What are you doing here? You were supposed to be on the evac transport!”

“Do you really think I’d run away and abandon you, now of all times?” Shala shot back, her expression determined. “No, my place is here, with you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Neminatrix exclaimed, exasperated. “There is a battle going on here! What do you think you can do to help?”

“You’d be surprised what I’ve picked up from Belfamor over the past decade,” Shala replied. “But-,”

“Even if I were to let you stay,” Neminatrix cut her off, “are you really going to be able to choose between me and the rebels? You’ve sworn loyalty to Valador! Your husband is one of his highest ranking generals! I can’t ask you to choose between your husband and your father.”

“I have no intention of doing so, Father,” Shala said calmly, “because I’m going to ask you to surrender.” There was a long pause while everyone in the room processed this comment.

“Surrender?” Neminatrix finally said in a quiet, dangerous voice. “Did I really just hear you say that?”

“I would never suggest it if there was a possibility you could win,” Shala replied. “But you heard Admiral Termaina. The battle is over. You’ve lost. No matter what you do now, Valador’s forces are going to get in here, and they’re going to capture or kill you, and even if they do capture you, you’ll just be executed for treason. Your only hope of survival now is to abdicate and declare your loyalty to Valador.” There was another pregnant moment of silence after this statement.

“No,” Neminatrix finally said softly, and then he repeated it more firmly. “No! I will not abandon the Throne! I am the rightful Emperor, and I will die the rightful Emperor!”

“Dammit, Father!” Shala snarled, her calm composure suddenly shattering. “I don’t give a slylark’s ass about the Throne! I’ve spent my entire life wishing that you would love me, and now that you finally do, I’m not going to lose you because of politics!” If Shala’s suggestion that Neminatrix surrender had let the air out of the room, this outburst was like opening the airlock on a starship. Nobody moved, nobody even seemed to breathe. It was as if Shala’s desperate anger had smothered the very atmosphere in the command center.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Neminatrix drew a long, deep, breath, and then let it out slowly. “You’re right,” he said quietly. “I’ve spent my entire life worrying about what I want, and putting myself ahead of you. It’s time I started making up for my mistakes.” He smiled then, a weary but joyful smile, as if the burdens of three decades had suddenly fallen off his shoulders. A broad grin lit up Shala’s face, and she opened her mouth to say something, but just then a massive explosion rocked the building, and she had to grab onto a nearby desk to keep from falling over.

“Report!” Neminatrix barked.

“Perimeter breach!” one of the technicians yelled back. “Enemy forces are inside the Palace!”

“Dammit,” Neminatrix growled. “We need to get a message to them. If I’m going to abdicate, then this battle is just a waste of lives and resources. We need to let them know soon, or this day is going to turn into an even bigger disaster than it already is.”

To be continued…