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Dante

Factions 2

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He was still unsteady on his feet, but that was to be expected. His muscles were twitching, but not seriously, and several parts of him were numb. He was bound around the waist and left arm with Ixian holdfabric, with more around his right shoulder. He stood in what remained of Ekaterina's office.

Arrayed on stretchers about him he saw the casualties from Ekaterina's two swords. And there, near the breach in the wall, Ekaterina herself. Swollen and bloody, she hardly looked human. Relnev would have thought her too injured to possibly be alive, but Aleksandr's presence near her and Eemins' earlier words reassured him.

"We have to-" Relnev started, but stopped when he saw Eemins' expression when the mentat turned around to face him. "What is it?"

"News from Kaitan." Eemins stated. "House Corrino has launched an assault on the Imperial planet. The Emperor requests our presence at once."

Relnev was silent. His stare was blank for a beat or two, then he blinked.

"We're going back to the frigate." He ordered. "Give the orders to pull back from Catrione, I want all of our forces ready to retreat by the time we get through that tunnel. The Trebesians will have received the same message, we will persuade them to accompany us."

"Yes sir." Eemins nodded, moving away to relay the commands. Relnev closed his eyes, leaning back on his heels for a moment, reflecting silently on all that had passed up until this point in time. Ekaterina, antagonist for more than two years, had finally fallen; and not an hour after her defeat another force had arisen to take her place.

"We're ready to move out, sir." Eemins' voice brought Relnev back to the present. He shook his head to clear it

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The royal palace buzzed with activity, even though it was greatly depopulated. The myriad ambassadors and petitioners had stayed away, their places taken by row upon row of sardaukar, now under the command of Grummani General Nathyrr. They drilled endlessly, preparing for the assault that their comrades from Salusa Secundus had warned of.

In the throne room, the site of his victory over House Corrino not so long ago, Emperor Moritani pored over the charts and maps of Kaitain, memorising every detail, every position of strength and weakness. His mentats had made their prime calculations, his swordmasters had added their advice, his generals and spies had thrown in every detail they could conceive of. And the emperor believed that he had correctly predicted the Corrino attack plan.

"But then, I have been wrong before." He muttered aloud, flicking a finger and spinning the holographic Kaitain on its axis. He smiled ruefully. "If Ekaterina were in any position to comment, I'm sure she would deride my lack of foresight. Leaving the remnants of House Corrino alive may yet prove to be a fatal mistake."

"Being generous in victory is rarely a mistake, your grace." Aurelien the Blade spoke calmly, polishing his sword. "The Corrino sisters simply proved to be stubborn rather than generous."

"Leaving them alive was not a mistake. But you might have crippled them a bit more." General Nathyrr shrugged, "I see little point in ifs or maybes, however. The situation is what it is, and we must defend against a bolstered House Corrino. So be it."

"I have made mistakes." The emperor sighed, standing upright. "I should have moved more of our own forces from Grumman rather than relying on Atilian so much."

"Our home must be protected, your grace." Nathyrr reminded him pointedly. "We have the sardaukar. There is little to fear."

"Indeed. And I suppose I should be grateful that the sisters are taking the bait rather than heading for Grumman." The emperor frowned and leaned over his maps. "Remind me again, how is Captain Deeki'?"

"The Grizelda is fully functional, your grace." Nathyrr reported smartly. "Deeki' informs me that the ship is more than capable of defending the palace alone, if need be."

The emperor snorted.

"Yes, well Deeki' always was a little overconfident in the power of his vessels." He smiled. "Any news from Athalon?"

"None." Nathyrr shook his head. "Last we heard, the Trebeis had contacted on-surface defenses."

"Indeed." Hundro pursed his lips and glared at the table. "Valen, how long do we have?"

"Two and a half hours." A small voice from under the table answered. The emperor's expression tightened.

"That little?" Nathyrr started, "But we haven't even armed the Corrino frigates!"

"Then you had better get started." Hundro replied tersely. He reached up to his ear and pulled down the microphone that nested there. As the emperor started muttering to whoever he wanted, General Nathyrr busied himself contacting the outlying branches of the sardaukar.

The next two hours passed swiftly. Messages came and went, orders dispatched, changed, dispatched again. Guns loaded, ships prepped, civilians evacuated. The palace and corresponding complexes across the planet were guarded not only against aerial assault but also attacks from the ground - the planet had been Corrino until mere weeks ago, after all. It was only to be expected that some loyalists would attempt to aid their old rulers in taking back the seat of the Imperium.

With fifteen minutes to go - and nobody questioned the prediction - a hush fell across the planet. Communication channels were encrypted and re-encrypted, weapons checked and double-checked in the final run-up to the battle. Men stared resentfully at the midday sky and promised their friends that they would live. Women looked at the ground and thought grimly of what it was they were defending. The time ticked away, slowly.

Five minutes.

"Valen, I need you to go find somewhere safe to hide." Hundro tried not to look too closely at the young man as he spoke. "Not in the basements, somewhere where you can run easily."

"The safest place is here." Valen pointed out quietly, looking at the floor.

"But the throne room is not impregnable." Hundro insisted, "I need to know if this place falls that you are safe."

"I'm safest with you." Valen whispered, pointing at the array of swordmasters lining the walls of the chamber.

"I, well I know but this place is going to have bombs dropping on it from all over, I need to be thinking clearly." Hundro tried, "If only for my peace of mind, please go and hide somewhere. I'll send a group of bodyguards with you." Valen pouted, still looking at Hundro's feet.

"'fine." He muttered. The emperor breathed a sigh of relief, even as he felt a guilty twinge in his chest. He beckoned to Aurelien, who sauntered over gracefully.

"Take as many men as you need and go with Valen." Hundro ordered, pointing to the sulking young man. "He's going to hide somewhere, and you're going to make sure that he doesn't get hurt, alright?"

"Sire." Aurelien clicked his heels and bowed. He flicked a signal into the air, summoning three fellow swordmasters at once. As the group left the room, not without a resentful glare from Valen, the emperor tried to put down his growing apprehension.

"Incoming heighliner." A sub-commander reported from a makeshift console sitting to one side of the throne.

"Mm. I must have a word with the guild when all this is over." Hundro mused, putting Valen out of his mind for now. He looked at the holographic Kaitain, a new blip appearing level with the equator.

"A second heighliner!" Another voice called, even as another blip appeared further away from the planet.

"Signal indicates a different point of origin." The first man went on.

"What?" The Emperor strode forward, glaring at the viewscreen readings. They were unmistakable - the second heighliner had arrived from a completely different location than the first. "Where can they be coming from, if not Salusa..." He could not guess.

"More heighliners in the North!" Further calls, more reports. The first heighliner was already spilling its contents into the outer atmosphere, with more appearing all the time.

"They coordinated." The emperor breathed, his eyes wide. He spun to regard the floating Kaitain, now ringed by little green blips. "Corrino has allies."

"Many allies." General Nathyrr muttered darkly. "They will be punished, your grace."

"Do what you do, General." Hundro could hardly speak from shock. He recognised some of the larger ships that the reports were describing. "Golden Lions..." He steeled himself, standing up straighter and berating himself for being so shocked. "Generals! Admiral Deeki'! Fire at will!"

The initial volley from Kaitain almost fell flat, the distance too great for planetary defenses and none of the large battleships prepared to move from their positions. Only a few enemy ships were caught, and those lightly. The attack had been largely symbolic anyway, but as more attacking ships continued to emerge from the heighliners, the Moritani scouts and outer defenders were forced to retreat closer to the safety of the planet.

"General Dmitros reports an attack from disgruntled civilians." An aide reported.

"Repel them if possible, kill them if not." Hundro replied grimly. "They show an array of colours..." He glared at the reports, analysing each marking. "Alman, Forbino, Andersson, Ophelion, Mutelli... How did Chalice do it? How did she gain so many allies so quickly?" He was speaking to himself, and it was only then that Hundro Moritani realised how badly shaken he had been by the reality of the opposing force. He turned around shakily and sat down on the Golden Lion throne. It was too large, and poorly padded.

"Did I make a mistake?" He muttered to himself. Looking up, he gazed across the modified throne room, now more a command centre. "Nathyrr, report!"

"One engagement in the South, only serious if our line of defence fails, being reinforced as we speak." Nathyrr spat, flinging a chart over his shoulder.

Two heighliners had already warped away, their contents disgorged. The remaining forces continued to build, but aside from the occasional skirmish they remained mostly out of range of serious defences.

Half an hour passed with little engagement. Twelve heighliners in total vomited their contents into the atmosphere before disappearing, with the exception of a single class III, which retreated into the background. The enemy fleet arrayed itself purposely, and the throne room held its breath. Aboard the Corrino flagship Elrood II, Chalice Corrino grinned.

"Lets do this."

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"She evaded us." Atilian sighed glumly, drumming his fingers on the plasteel conference table.  "Trosno chased her through the complex, but he lost sight of her sometime after she doubled back.  Now she's gone, and if she escapes..." His hand curled into a fist.

"...If she escapes, you will not have a legal means to pursue her." The holographic Relnev finished for him.  Atilian nodded, his lips twisted into a scowl.

"If she leaves the planet." He muttered, "I left a small force behind under Trosno to hunt her down.  With luck she won't be able to reach a ship before they find her."

"There is nothing you can do about her now." Relnev said peaceably.  "Our more pressing concern is Kaitain, and the supposed attack that is taking place there."

"If this is a ruse of Hundro's..." Atilian growled.

"He is contractually obliged not to interfere with the attack on Athalon IV." Relnev spoke thoughtfully, "If his message was false then he has broken the terms of your contract, rendering it void."

"Meaning?" Atilian snapped.

"That you are freed from your alliance with House Moritani, for a start." Relnev replied.  "On the downside, you have no legal claim to Arrakis or Athlon if that contract is no longer applicable."

"So he might have done this on purpose?" Atilian asked sharply, glaring at Relnev.  The Ixian seemed to glance to one side for a moment, as though listening to a voice offscreen.

"I think that is unlikely." He replied, facing the transmitter once more.  "Besides which, at this time it is a moot point.  We should prepare for the worst and discuss our plan of attack should we find Kaitain beset by Corrino attackers."

"Let them win." Noitpo muttered half in jest.  Atilian glanced sidelong at her, and she shrugged.

"I heard that." Relnev rose an eyebrow, his face a veneer of calm, masking growing discomfort.  "You have an obligation, Duke Trebeis.  Surely you don't plan to back out of it?"

"I... no." Atilian replied uncertainly.  "I know that following the contract, following the law is the right thing to do, isn't it?" His face creased with worry.  "But Hundro- I just don't know, how will he rule the Imperium?  Am I installing a monster?  Have I been manoeuvred into doing something completely evil?"

On the other side of the transmission, Relnev could not help but feel perturbed by the expression of his very own doubts.  Ekaterina, antagonist for more than two years, had finally fallen and not an hour after her defeat another enemy had arisen to take her place.  House Corrino had ruled the Imperium, with Landsraad consent, for several thousand years.  Their rule had sometimes been brutal, sometimes soft, but seldom outright evil.  House Moritani could not claim such a thing, and Hundro seemed the epitome of his breed - he had used Ix and House Trebeis to fulfil his own selfish goals, deposing the rightful holders of the Golden Lion throne.

Why did I aid Hundro Moritani?, Relnev wondered.

Because House Corrino had attempted to end House Trebeis.  A House that had been declared renegade, and showed a marked control over Arrakis.  House Corrino had seen it as a threat, and attempted to protect the Imperium.

Or had it?  Had House Corrino recognised only a threat to itself

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Above Kaitain, the preparation of the Corrino forces had reached completion. The outer atmosphere was already filled with enemy fighters, poorly coordinated but overwhelming in number. They swarmed around the Moritani battleships like gnats.

At the rear of the fleet, nested safely between two Golden Lions, Chalice began to relay orders to contingents of House Minor frigates.

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"The message certainly did not understate the matter." Relnev frowned at an expansive holograph of Kaitain's outer atmosphere.  "Look at this; there are at least fifteen Minor Houses present, not to mention the Great Houses..."

"All valued customers." Eemins sighed.

"They still will be." Relnev pointed out, though he too was less than pleased.  "Following this conflict the most economically viable way for these Houses to recoup their losses will be to make new trade deals with Ix - deals that we shall negotiate to our advantage." He keyed a complex series of commands into a numberpad.  "Evasive manoeuvres please Eemins, I don't like the way those ships are looking at us." The Ixian flagship dropped sharply to avoid a welcoming salvo from the Lions.

"Well now that's just rude." Relnev commented as the projectiles soared harmlessly into space.

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And there we have it, folks. It's been just over a year. I wrote a great big ending to Factions, and Dragoon was kind enough to write a whole lot too. Then we edited each other into oblivion. And this is how it ends. Thanks for taking part, and see you around.

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