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…

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