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Erebus Rising

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Three Jedi stared at him suspiciously as Maul smiled pleasantly at them, sitting perfectly proper in a chair in their archive. No, none of them trusted each other but that was part of the game, was it not? A Noorian, an old woman, and a blond man who did not look like he belonged amongst all the musty scrolls. He looked more apt for combat than anything else.

He would bear watching.

"The Council wants you to help us," the old woman said, frowning severely. "And you agreed?"

"I do wish to stop my brother," Maul said. "There are quite a good number of plans that have been in motion for thousands of years that he is currently working quite diligently at screwing up."

The man snorted. "He's good at that."

Maul's smile widened. "Indeed. Now, I have the information and knowledge on how to stop him but I will not be able to execute it."

"What do you mean?" the Noorian asked.

Maul blinked slowly, trying to decide how much to reveal to these three. "There are crystals that are Sith in nature that reside on Korriban that can strip my brother of his magic and access to the Force, to essentially render him nothing more than a null."

None of them looked surprised. How very interesting. Naughty little Jedi had already been looking for ways to neutralize his brother, but they did not know the full extent of those crystals.

"However," Maul continued. "A Jedi cannot retrieve the crystal."

"Why not?" the man asked. "Jedi have gone to Korriban before. While it is not the most pleasant of planets it is hardly going to kill us."

"No," Maul said, adjusting his gloves and fixing the sleeves of his tunic. "But the tomb that these crystals grow in can only be accessed by someone who uses the Dark side of the Force. They are useless to us, pretty crystals to make into jewelry or the like, so our kind care not for them."

"Only a Sith can retrieve them," the Noorian said slowly, "and only a Jedi can use them."

"Exactly so," Maul said. He'd let these smart little Jedi use the crystals, have their Council kill his brother, and the Galaxy would still be his for the taking. He was, however, disappointed, when the Jedi began to talk excitedly amongst themselves, that they never asked what the crystals did to the one who used them.

If a crystal stripped the target of their magic and their Force-ability one should have logically wondered what it did to the wielder. Maul supposed, propping his head up on his hand as he watched the three begin to make travel plans, that Jedi simply were not logical.

He knew that the tall Jedi, the one he had battled long ago, still lived. He had watched him through his spies. He knew, from his brother, the history that Master Qui-Gon Jinn had with him and that for some bizarre reason the two had been seen together quite often recently. Maul's brother had always had such vitriol for the Jedi and for three specific Masters, strange that he had been caught laughing with one he had loathed so much.

Maybe, Maul thought, closing his eyes, it would be Jinn who would use the crystal to unmake his brother. Ah, there was a term for it, something in Basic that his brother would have found entertaining--yes. Poetic justice.

=

"Why can't we go with you?" Boba demanded, arms crossed as he stared up at Kix. "We know how to fight, we're not dumb or anything."

Ahsoka was looking equally annoyed but kept her mouth shut, letting Boba throw the tantrum for her. Smart, Kix thought, but ultimately useless.

"Because," Jesse said, "if shit goes south, the Captain and the General want you both safe. No chance for Keres to kidnap you, Boba, no chance for you, Ahsoka, to get hurt."

"That's just insulting," Ahsoka said as she crossed her arms. "I'm a Jedi. I can take care of myself."

"No one ever said you couldn't," Kix said. "They just don't want to take the chance."

"Still insulting," Ahsoka muttered.

Boba was frowning, face looking pinched. "I want to see him, though."

Jesse squatted down in front of Boba, hands on his shoulders. "If this works the way everyone is hoping, from what the Captain has said, you might be able to. Let us check it out first, make sure it's safe?"

"Meanwhile," Kix said with a smile. "You two could get into some mischief while no one is around to stop you."

"Kix!" Jesse said, turning to stare at him. "Shut up!"

"Like what?" Ahsoka asked, eyes narrowed.

"We've been told to stop pranking everyone," Boba added. "Rex said it would be better if we knocked it off."

"You two went too far with the armor," Kix agreed. "This idea would be a little less likely to get you two beaten to a pulp. Well, maybe. Fifty-fifty."

"Kix," Jesse groaned.

"Shut up," Kix said. "We're going to be spared because we won't be here."

"What do you have in mind?" Ahsoka asked, starting to smile.

"The best part about all of this is that the Maverick and the Resolute are going to be joined together via airlock so everyone can fly down in one shuttle," Kix said with a wide grin. "So it'll be easy to move between ships. And brothers will be doing wash, taking showers, the normal stuff you do. If you were to, oh, dump some dye in each ship's water filtration system?"

"501st blue and 212th gold?" Jesse asked, looking intrigued for a moment.

"Our brothers would be very colorful," Kix said, face lit up in unholy glee.

Boba looked at Ahsoka. "How would they wash it off? Water wouldn't do it."

Kix looked smug, too smug. "Alcohol-based solution they could only get from medical."

Jesse started laughing. "You are one sly bastard," he said. "No wonder I love you so much." He sobered. "Dammit, I'm not supposed to be encouraging you. Kix, this is wrong. They are going to get in trouble, again, because everyone will know it was them. Our brothers will know where to find them and will be itching to get back at them."

"So make sure you two get dyed too," Kix said with a shrug. "It's not a big deal. It'll come off, eventually."

Ahsoka shrugged. "It's a good way for everyone to blow off steam."

"We'd both have to be 501st blue," Boba said. "Can't allow any gold on us at all or it'd be really obvious."

"That's easy," Ahsoka said. "I'll use the Force to set the dye off for that."

Kix smirked. "I take it that means you want the dye?"

"Sure," Boba said. "Might as well be entertained while everyone's off doing something else."

=

There was no one there when they touched down on the uninhabited moon in the shuttle. Cody, Rex, and Wolffe had a quick discussion on a private channel before sending the men who had come with them on small three-man scouting parties. Constant communication, comms open the whole time, if they saw anything, report it back immediately.

The three Generals were conversing quietly as they set up a table and chairs with the Force, spending their anxieties a different way.

"You feeling anything through the bond?" Cody asked Rex through the comm.

Rex shook his head, gripping his rifle tight. Ever since the mess, things had been quiet but odd feeling, like the build-up before a storm. Something was about to happen and it wasn't going to be pretty.

The scouts returned, reporting nothing, and all the brothers looked uneasy. Wolffe muttered something and went to hover near his General, not that Rex blamed him. Paranoia was running high for everyone right now.

An hour passed before a ship--not a shuttle, a karking ship--burned into the atmosphere of the moon.

"Qui-Gon?" Anakin asked, looking up.

That's when the droids began unearthing themselves. They'd been deeply buried beneath them in several rings, and as they crawled out of the loose packed dirt, they aimed their weapons on the Jedi and only the Jedi.

"Not good," Cody said, readying his rifle as the ship landed. "Not good at all."

Every brother was armed and armored, because that's what they did, and trained on the ship. The Jedi had their lightsabers out and lit and the clones knew their Generals could deal with a couple of clankers if they really needed to. The real threat, if there was one, was Keres.

As the landing bay lowered and more droids marched out, Rex had a very bad feeling that whatever comm Vos had been teasing Keres about touching had not been good.

"That's a lot of clankers," Echo said, sounding faintly worried.

"We can take 'em," Fives said, definitely grinning.

"Shut up," Boil growled. "Just because we can doesn't mean we need to. Let's see what the situation is first."

"Situation normal, all karked up?" Gregor drawled, all dry humor and prepared to throw down.

"Everyone steady on," Cody said. Rex could hear the click that signaled the private comm. "This is a show of force. This is a 'don't make me do it' move."

"Something happened," Rex agreed. "Something bad."

Keres came down next, Vos to his right, looking like fury incarnate.

"Oh shit," Slick whispered.

"Yep, still insane and scary," Kix said with a sigh. "Awesome."

"Permission to shit myself?" Fox asked.

Rex flicked his comm back to broadcast, grinning. "Permission denied."

Keres advanced on the Jedi, the droids all parting for him, shadows billowing around him. From this close, Rex could see what looked like tear-tracks on his face.

"Is this really necessary?" General Jinn asked, gesturing with his free hand. "We agreed to meet peacefully to discuss--"

"Did you know?" Keres asked, voice harsh and raspy. It sounded like he'd been screaming for hours.

"Know?" Jinn asked. "Keres, you will have to be more specific."

"Tholme," Vos said as the ground began to tremble. "He got to Kamino about four years before you did and started taking clones. One or two from a batch here and there, nothing huge, but there are clones apparently doing the Council's dirty work all throughout the Galaxy."

"Clones of me," Keres hissed, fissures opening up in the ground as the trembling stopped. "Brothers who have been so violated by the Kaminoans that they can use the Force."

"Kark me," Wooley whispered. "We thought they were just dead."

"Commander?" Waxer said. "You and… You were one of the first batches. Did you know about this?"

Rex felt sick. His, their brothers. Their batchmates. The Jedi might have taken them? Was it possible they could be alive? After all this time, Ajax and Surge and the others?

"Do you know which ones?" Wolffe asked, pulling his helmet off. "Which batches, which brothers?"

Keres looked at him, yellow eyes burning, mouth pressed into a thin line. "Be careful in asking me questions right now, Commander Wolffe. You might not like the answers you recieve."

Cody pulled his helmet off next--oh, great. Rex's batch had collectively lost their minds. "Red, please. We need to know."

Keres looked to Vos and nodded. The Jedi, if that's what he still was, pulled a datachip and handed it Wolffe. Wolffe slid it into a compartment on his armor and backed up to stand near Cody and Rex, still gripping his helmet tight in one hand. He looked wrecked, and Rex reached out to grab at his forearm, digging into the the spaces between his armor to let his brother know he wasn't alone.

"I did not know," General Jinn said quietly. "However, I do know someone who might. He recently informed me that there were several files I have been locked out of, that there were Council sessions that were never recorded, and missions that never made it on the books."

General Koon holstered his saber and bowed to first Rex and the clones, and then Keres. "I did know about the first contact with Kamino," he said. "And fought against what several members of the Council chose to do. As such, I do not know the extent of what happened as I demanded to be left out of the plotting. What little I know I will share."

"May I ask," Jinn started, hands held out, "how you came by your information?"

"Jango," Keres said, fresh tears spilling down his cheeks. "Not long before he died he started slicing Kamino's databases and Dooku's. No, I'm not sharing. They're messages for me and while I may choose to share the information, you have no right to the original content."

General Skywalker had been quiet, watching, but he nodded. "He was family, right?"

Keres stared at him, eyes narrowing. Rex could see his brothers shifting, nervous, but Cody was relaxing slightly out of the battle-ready stance he had been holding.

"No one is going to ask you to share what little you have left of your family," Skywalker said. "Holos, memories, last wishes--sometimes these are all we have left of those who leave us."

"You're not as stupid as you look," Keres said after a moment.

"He surprises us all, time and time again," Vos said, nudging Keres's shoulder with a wide grin. He didn't seem to mind as Keres turned with a wordless snarl. The dredded Jedi just smiled and mouthed a word at him that had Keres storming toward a droid with command-stripes and saying something. "So! We have a lot to talk about."

"Are we still talking?" Jinn asked.

"Considering that Keres over there wants to smash the Jedi Order to absolute paste?" Vos said, watching as two-thirds of the droids marched back to the ship. "I believe we have much to discuss."

"You okay, brother?" Rex asked Wolffe quietly as Cody walked toward Keres, intercepting the redhead before he could join the Jedi.

"Ask me later," Wolffe said, the muscle in his jaw jumping wildly. "I need to see the list and. And try to settle my thoughts."

Rex pulled his helmet off so he could face Wolffe, bump their heads together, force his brother to acknowledge him. "Wolffe, brother, he has done everything he can to look out for you and yours. He is here. That has to count for something."

Wolffe slumped against him, nodding. "How can we trust any of them?" he asked in Mando'a.

"Faith?" Rex said. "We know our Generals. We know which ones are the good ones, which ones are the bad ones. Ones who listen to us, who respect us. We can go from there."

"Captain?" Fives said. "Commander? Should we, er, what should we do?"

"Baby brothers," Wolffe muttered. "Why did you bring karking babies with you?"

"Because they're good at what they do," Rex said, cuffing Wolffe lightly on the back of the head. "Let's make ourselves comfortable with the Generals, Fives. We're as much a part of this conversation as the Jedi are."

"Oh, are we?" Wolffe mocked, straightening. "We're so kriffing special now?"

"Always," Keres said from behind Wolffe.

Wolffe swore, startled, and pulled his pistol. He was firing before anyone could stop him. Keres grunted, doubling over as he wrapped his arms around himself, and Cody moved with him. Kix was pushing through, shouting at Cody to get out of the way, grabbing medical supplies out of his belt as he moved. Rex felt his heart stop, panicked at the idea of losing him to something as stupid as--

But Keres straightened with a huff. Cody's eyes were wide, his right hand and forearm stained with blood from the injury, but shadows were surrounding the wound. Rex could see it--a decent sized hole in Keres's middle that should have put him on the ground with Kix up to his elbows in his guts. Rex had seen that kind of damage on the battlefield before. Rex had seen men die from those wounds.

"What the…?" Kix asked, taking a step back. A bacta-patch falling from his hand.

Keres grinned, teeth stained with blood. "I'm very, very hard to kill," he said, spitting. Shadows pushed inside the gaping hole, filling it, before shimmering to create pale freckled flesh.

Cody crowded in next to him, hands pushing against newly healed skin and smearing blood, cursing at him lowly. Keres let him, a hand on Cody's shoulder, both for balance as the other prodded and for reassurance. Rex drifted near, his heart still beating too fast, but he froze as Cody snarled.

"What have I told you about scaring the piss out of people?" Cody shouted, smacking the back of Keres's head.

Keres blinked, freezing. "Not...to?"

"Not to!" Cody yelled, voice climbing. "It gets your dumb ass shot! I don't care if you have spells and magic and whatever, you crazy bastard, you are still mortal!"

"Currently up for debate," Vos chimed in, having drawn closer. They all had, in fact, closed in out of morbid curiosity. Keres was actually looking chastened in the face of Cody's anger and oh, Rex knew that anger. That was the "my idiot batchmates have done something stupid and I need to pound it into their heads how much they have kriffed up" expression.

"Oh, what," Cody said, eyes narrowed at Keres. "You think you're immortal now, is that it? You think, nothing can hurt me so I'll be a sneaky shit and scare brothers and if they shoot me it's fine?"

Keres looked like he was trying very hard not to laugh, though Rex could definitely see brothers from the 212th were already losing that battle. Waxer and Boil were leaning against each other, shaking from laughter; Wooley had his helmet off and was bent in half as he held his sides from how hard he was laughing; Crys and Gregor had found nearby rocks and sat down, also removed their buckets, and had some impressive shiteating grins going on. Oddball had pulled out a tabaac stick and lit it, smug as anything else, and Longshot was just shaking his head as he pulled off his helmet.

"Sir," Longshot called. "Maybe you should go easy on him?"

"Why," Cody asked, voice flat.

"We always knew Red was a few cards shy of a sabaac deck," Oddball said, tapping ash off his tabaac. "Picking on him right now just seems mean."

"Fuck you!" Keres said, turning and kicking dirt at Oddball.

"Nope," Oddball laughed, dancing away from the dirt. "That's the Captain's job!"

Rex stared at the 212th, stunned. What the…? Then his mind processed what Oddball said and he threw his helmet at the brother. "Excuse you!"

Longshot caught Rex's helmet and tossed it back to him. "Sir, we've seen Red do a lot of kriffed up stuff before. Spontaneous healing is probably the least of it."

"That is, unfortunately, an accurate statement," General Jinn said with a sigh.

Keres glared at them. "I hate you all."

Cody smacked the back of his head again. "Don't."

Keres rubbed his head, huffing and edging away from Cody and closer to Rex. "Slimy, slimy creatures," he said.

Cody didn't look impressed. "Red? You literally could not even stealth past my bed that one time. What makes you think you could try it now?"

Keres slunk away, twining around Rex's arm and chest, muttering under his breath in that language of his. The 212th were laughing again, and even the 501st looked a lot more at ease--Jesse and Kix had also found seats on nearby rocks with Crys and Gregor and were talking softly together. Fives and Echo had started grabbing the chairs the Jedi had previously set up before and were dragging them over. Slick and Denal had noticed and were chipping in, though Slick was giving Keres odd looks.

"You make them nervous," Rex said.

Keres eyed them, a little smirk on his face. "Good," he said.

"Not good," Rex said. "We're supposed to be showing that we can work together, that you have our best interests at heart. Scaring the very living ossik out of them is not the way to do it."

Keres sniffed and pulled away from Rex, only to walk over to Wolffe--and poke his cheek. "You," he announced, "have shitty aim."

Cody sighed and shook his head, going to help other brothers fetch the table, while their Jedi spoke to Vos too quiet for Rex to hear. Besides, he needed to keep an eye on the situation to know if he had to separate his cyare and brother.

"What," Wolffe demanded in that flat voice he had definitely picked up from Cody.

"If you're going to shoot someone? Don't go for the gut, go for the head," Keres said brightly, smiling. "Works for droids, works for humanoids, works for most alien species I know of too. Always puts your target on the ground and makes sure they can't get up. Always go for the kill shot, and never, ever fucking hesitate."

Rex sighed as Wolffe just stared at Keres in stunned shock. He went over to them and grabbed Keres's elbow, tugging the other with him.

"You're insane," Wolffe said.

"Most definitely," Keres called over his shoulder.

"Stop it," Rex said, pushing Keres down onto a rock.

"Stop what?" Keres asked, arching a brow, barely suppressing a smirk.

Rex squatted down next to him, glancing around to see if anyone was paying attention, and sighed. "Earlier, when you saw the messages, you lost your temper." Keres nodded, all play at humor gone. "Your shadows came to me."

Keres frowned. "What?"

"Your shadows," Rex repeated, voice soft. "They showed up in the mess. I don't know what they were doing but they were trying to protect me? They went away when I asked, though."

Keres looked away, scratching at the edge of his beard, "I don't know why they did that, or even how. You shouldn't be able to use them."

"I don't want to use them," Rex said.

Keres leaned forward, resting his head on Rex's pauldron. "Using the shadows have a cost, love," he said quietly, reluctance dragging at his words. "I don't want you to have to pay it too."

"What cost?" Rex asked, curious.

"You two want to keep flirting or we going to talk about taking on the Order and making them regret, oh, everything ever?" Vos asked.

Keres pulled away, fury burning in his eyes, and Rex sighed. He squeezed Keres's hand as his cyare stood and walked past him to find a seat with the other Jedi.

"Vos, one of these days," Keres said, voice full of promise.

"Mm, so you keep saying and I keep promising," Vos said.

"Promising what?" Skywalker asked.

Rex got up and found Cody, who was apparently determined to stick close to Keres--perfect--and grabbed Wolffe on his way. He could keep an eye on all three of the trouble magnets at once.

"Have we adopted Red into Rip without me knowing?" Wolffe asked, leaning into Rex.

Rex grinned. "I think Cody did it ages before I claimed Red."

Cody leaned forward and glared at them. "Kriff you both, yes I did, get over it, he's ours, say the goddamned vows to make it official already before I do."

Rex stared at him. "What."

Cody smirked at him and leaned back, a casual hand on Keres's elbow. That was about as obvious a claim as Cody ever got and Rex couldn't even get angry over it.

"Oh kriff," Wolffe gasped, slapping a hand over his mouth to stifle a laugh.

"What's so special about a true name?" Skywalker asked loudly, snagging their attention before Rex could punch Wolffe or Cody--he hadn't decided which one yet.

"A true name is very important," General Koon said. "If someone, like a Sith Master, knows your true name, they would have absolute control over you and your actions."

"A slave in name becomes a slave in everything," Keres said, inspecting his nails. "No freewill beyond what is granted, no thoughts in your mind that are your own. If he told me to stop breathing, my body would immediately comply without my own input."

"That's horrific," General Skywalker said.

"That's karked up," Slick said, his helmet off. At some point, all the brothers had removed their helmets, tucking them by their sides or at their feet. "Sir, how have you kept it away from everyone for so long?"

Keres stared at him. "And why, pray tell, should I tell any of you?"

General Jinn chuckled. "Peace, Keres. I believe what Slick is asking is how many people know your name."

"Yoda and Vos," Keres said, looking displeased. "My birth parents, my younger brother. I don't think we'd recognize each other if we were to ever meet face-to-face again. It is not likely the Temple notified them when they changed my name."

"They didn't," Vos said. "Also, you have two more sibs now, about three and five years younger. Temple kept tabs on your family in case anyone else had the same talents you did, which they didn't. No, I haven't gone digging to see what they're up to."

"Don't," Keres said, startled. "I don't want to know."

Vos shrugged.

"Let us start," General Jinn said. "You asked me, once, what I knew of the Sith. While this might be quite boring to our troopers, it is a good place to begin."

"Is it?" Keres asked with a curl of his lips. Rex snorted softly; Keres was playing with Jinn.

"A place of mutual understanding is always a good place to start," Jinn said. Keres gave a fluid shrug and gestured for the other to continue. "The Sith believe, or so we are taught, in power. The stronger you are, the more powerful you are, and the more accomplished you become. The Sith want to conquer everything to prove their power."

Keres sneered but did not interrupt.

"The Rule of Two was established to continue the belief of that power," Jinn said.

"Okay, no, stop," Keres said. "Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong!"

Jinn was smiling and Koon was stroking the edges of his mask, but Skywalker looked troubled. Rex nudged Cody, motioning to his General. Cody shrugged and shook his head. He didn't know either. Maybe it had to do with the friendship General Skywalker had unknowingly had with the Sith Lord?

"Would you care to enlighten us?" General Koon asked.

Keres huffed. "Yes, power has something to do with it, but not as much as you make it out to seem. Maybe in my former Master's mind it's all about power and gathering as much as he can because that's all he cares about, but that's not what the Sith are about. Conflict, first of all, for growth. How can you grow if there is no conflict? The Jedi avoid it and you see what your Order has become. With conflict you also have survival."

"You, in particular, focus a lot on survival," Jinn said.

Keres stood and walked away from the close confines of the table and chairs, pacing between the loose ring of brothers on rocks and those seated. He was silent, hands linked behind his back, as he moved. "You know the theory of natural selection?" he asked.

"No," Fives said, looking put out.

Keres smiled. "Only the strongest survive," he said. "Those who, with the best genetic traits, are able to survive in a galaxy absolutely out to render us dead. If you do not know how to survive, if you cannot fight, if you cannot thrive on conflict, if you cannot claim the right to exist from the Force? Then you do not deserve to exist and there is always someone willing to take your place."

"That is the way of the Sith?" Skywalker asked, frowning.

"No," Keres said, halting his pacing. "That is the way of all sentients. That is the reason I left the Temple. I fought, I survived, and I thrived on conflict and yet I was punished for surviving. Perhaps the methods were the wrong ones, perhaps I was foolish to give into my temper, but then perhaps the adults overseeing the Initiates should not have turned such blind eyes to bullying? I was not the only one who was taunted but I was one of the few who stood up to them." Keres spread his hands with a lazy smile. "And look what happened to me."

"I think I got off easy," Skywalker said, running a hand through his hair. "I just had to deal with Padawans."

"Who were already locked into the mindset that might is right," Keres said with narrowed eyes. "There are good Jedi, but how many of them are dead now?"

"Too many," Jinn said quietly.

"Because their too kind hearts did not know how to survive," Keres said. "Self-reliance is an important aspect of the Sith. I don't think I need to explain that one?" Snickers met that and Keres rolled his eyes. "Finally, you all have some sense. If you are strong enough to take something, it should be yours--so, yes. Power, but more strength of character and strength of mind and soul. Power is all well and good but if you take something by force? Someone else can always come and take it back. Being able to keep what you take is just as important."

"The slaves," General Koon said.

Keres smiled and gave Koon a little bow. "Exactly so. We'll come back to them, however. Passion--while the Jedi disdain emotion, the Sith embrace it. We understand the usefulness of emotions and understand where they can be of use." He hesitated. "Not...all emotions are good. Feel too strongly and they can distract you from your goals. There are several cautionary tales of Sith who have either killed their lovers or children when they realized they have become too much of a liability, or done terrible things because such individuals were threatened."

"Rex," Cody murmured. "The crystal?"

Rex frowned and shook his head. No. Keres had a different reason for that one. He wasn't the one in danger.

"Through passion and the Force, through conflict and self-reliance, through knowing the galaxy has tried to snuff you out and you are still alive? All things are possible," Keres said. "That is what it means to be Sith."

"Infinite power," Skywalker said softly, looking haunted. "The power to control life and death."

Keres arched a brow and spun, taking a free seat. "You could, if you wanted to, but at what cost?" he asked. "Infinite power means nothing because eventually someone will come along and take it away. There is always someone out there stronger because the Force will create a stronger being to bring balance, it just might take a little bit of time for them to grow up."

Jinn chuckled. "The prophecy of the Chosen On?"

Keres stared at him, "Prophecies are nonsense, you do realize this, right? No one person has ever been able to see the currents of the Force that far into the future to correctly predict what will happen. Even if they could, free will destroys any actuality of a prophecy ever coming true. Your choice to not train me, my choice to leave Sidious, everything has a consequence. Our choices change the very landscape of the Force itself."

Rex nudged Cody, grinning. "Your General looks like he swallowed a frog," he said quietly in Mando'a.

"He likes his prophecies," Cody murmured in kind. "Always nattering on about staying in the present but mention a prophecy and he is gone."

"Palpatine always made allusions to being able to control life and death," Skywalker said. "And you, right now, you healed yourself from a fatal wound."

Keres slumped in his seat. "First of all, no. I didn't...exactly heal myself. The shadows took the damage." He tugged his hair out of the bun he wore and braided it quickly. "That is a spell, it has nothing to do with anything you speak of. What he was trying to snare you with? Ehh, he can't really do? There's cloning, obviously, and ensnaring souls, transferring one's essence, alchemic nonsense I've never bothered with. It would not, to put it kindly, be the same person. It would be a chimera, a fusion."

"And these shadows?" General Koon asked. "Is this not something everyone should learn, if they are so helpful?"

Vos was smirking. "Go on, Ben, tell them how helpful your shadows are."

Keres's eyes narrowed at Vos, who yelped, shooting up out of his chair as his cloak caught on fire. He flung it away from himself, scattering brothers who got out of its way, and patted himself down as he cursed. He threw a nasty look at Keres, who was shaking out the braid he had just done and plaiting into a new one. Vos sat down as his cloak burned, snarling something in a language Rex didn't know, and crossed his arms.

"No," Keres said, voice calm. "While the shadows are a good ally and do have their benefits, the downside of using them far outweigh the positive."

"Such as?" General Jinn asked.

"They feed on the lifeforce of the one who summoned them," Keres said, giving up on the braid and rapidly twisting his hair back up into a bun. "Eventually the shadows fully consume the sorcerer, burning them out to nothing but a new shadow, and the cycle begins again. I am slightly mitigating that charming aspect by using a technique called Force Drain. It bolsters my lifeforce so there is--"

"Are you insane?" Rex whispered.

"I think we already know the answer to that," Cody muttered, glaring at Keres.

"Using that practice can make your situation worse," General Jinn pointed out.

"Living Force wound," General Skywalker added. "Really, really big problem. The stories about Darth Nihilus are terrifying."

Keres smiled. "He's not so bad," he said. "Mostly he's a mouthy bastard who has a very vocal opinion on the Galaxy as a whole."

"You have Nihilus's mask?" General Koon asked, sounding alarmed.

Keres shrugged. "Who do you think taught me? My former Master? No. There were holocrons and books and I am not one who would disregard the teaching of the spirits bound to objects. It's remarkable what our ancestors can teach us, afterall."

"Such as?" General Koon asked.

"Did you know there were once Jedi sorcerers?" Keres asked. "They wielded lightsabers and magic much like I do to a devastating effect. Curious, isn't it, how it only started to die out from the Jedi Order some seven hundred years ago?"

General Koon got to his feet and walked away, arms crossed as he stroked the bottom portion of his mask. Wolffe half-rose, looking toward his General, but Cody put a hand on his arm to stop him.

"Our Order has declined much," General Jinn said. "We…" He paused and looked at the clones and then at Keres. "If we do begin this break, certain things need to be taken care of first."

"The Senate and the Jedi will never be allowed to touch the clones," Keres said. "They will not like the results if they try, I promise you that."

"I've, erhm, been talking to a few senators," General Skywalker said. Every brother stared at him, eyes wide, hope obvious on their faces. Rex should have known, but it warmed a part of his heart hearing that his General was looking out for them. "Bail Organa of Alderaan introduced a proposal for clone rights. It's getting a little beat up right now, and every senator has the right to add their thoughts on how it should be enacted."

"It's a mess," General Jinn agreed. "But there is hope that, legally, you will have rights granted. How long it takes it another matter."

"That's, that's amazing," Echo stuttered.

"Rights," Slick whispered. "We'd be actual people."

"May we spread this throughout the GAR?" Cody asked Skywalker, who nodded. "It could help end a lot of the fighting."

Keres hummed softly. "Would giving them something to do help as well? Purpose?"

"Maybe?" Cody said. "I'd recommend having it volunteer only."

"The slaves I freed," Keres said, glancing at Vos who nodded. "They need help of a kind that I cannot provide."

"We'd be babysitting?" Denal asked, sounding less than thrilled.

"No, no babysitting," Vos said.

"They'd need medical help," Kix said.

"No," Keres said slowly. "Medical help has been mostly obtained. Those who still require medical aid are pregnant, drug addicts, or were hiding serious illnesses from their former masters."

"Why hide it?" Fox asked, leaning forward, his armor creaking. "Wouldn't a serious illness be treated?"

"No," Vos said grimly, crossing his arms. "A serious illness means you are defective goods and are not worth the investment. Those with serious illnesses would be put down immediately to save the master money."

"Deactivations," Oddball said, clutching his helmet in his hands.

Keres nodded. "They do not make up a large portion of those freed, but all of the slaves are trauma victims and could use help. They need to feel safe and help finding permanent homes somewhere in the Galaxy. Education can come later, safety must come first."

"A cause that we choose might appeal to a lot of our brothers," Cody said.

"It's not like there won't be fighting," Vos added. "Plenty of people are trying to fill the power vacuum Keres has been so kind to leave vacant and claim these people back."

"That's what droids are for," Keres said. "Anyone who tries to set up slavery again will find themselves very dead, very quickly. Sooner or later the Galaxy will learn that slavery is no longer profitable."

"Good luck with that," General Skywalker said, voice bitter.

"If I have to burn whole planets to ashes to make my point, I will," Keres said, smiling.

"Slavery or a Sith Lord, you have to pick one," Skywalker said with a scowl. "You can't do both. One or the other, there's only one of you, and either is a life's work that would probably kill you."

Keres stared at him. "There are forty-one of me, actually, and while I do not have their current locations I will shortly. So, you see, all things are possible."

Rex leaned against Cody, who was swearing feverently and rapidly under his breath, and Wolffe gave a low whistle. Godsdamn the Kaminoans. He hated them for what they had done to him and his brothers but he could just imagine what they had done to clones of Red.

"Do you know what alterations they made?" Rex asked. "How many to a batch? How they were trained?"

Keres nodded. "Jango sent me information on the entire program, which is still running."

"You're going after Kamino," Cody said, jaw tightening.

"I don't know whether to cheer you on or beg you not to," Boil said, rubbing the back of his neck.

"I would not be harming you or your brothers, those still in development or in training," Keres said. "It would not be too hard to keep one scientist alive to show anyone who wanted to learn how to care for the younger brothers. But the rest of them? Yes. The Kaminoans will die. For what they have done to you, to me, to Jango, to countless scores of sentients across the Galaxy? For the deals they have made with my former Master? They must fall."

"How much of his power base have you taken out?" General Jinn asked.

Keres turned an innocent expression, so cold that Rex shivered, on the General. "Qui-Gon," he purred. "Why do you accuse me so?"

"Because you are terrifying at tactics," Jinn said.

Keres shrugged. "A fair bit of it," he said. "Most of the criminal element has been eliminated and I will be working my way along the legal ones soon enough. There are a few players that pose quite a danger to the Jedi and the brothers as well as me, so it is in everyone's best interest if they simply...do not exist any more."

"Like who?" Skywalker asked, getting up and starting to pace. He looked troubled even as little groups of brothers were talking together, Rex catching the word "Kamino" every now and then. "It would be good to have a head's up."

Vos shook his head and Keres shrugged. Skywalker looked annoyed when he realized there would be no sharing of information.

"I asked you once," Keres said as he turned to General Jinn, "if you believed in the Order's neutrality. You said you did not. Do you still feel such a way?"

Rex felt every eye shift to the General, the conversations stop, and he held his breath.

General Jinn nodded and held his hand out to Keres. "I do. While I believe Commander Cody's idea of letting the clones decide for themselves who will help the slaves is the best idea, I will encourage that we assist you. I know the 212th looks fondly on you--"

"That might be putting it mildly, sir," Wooley said, grinning.

"Tiny bit," Waxer agreed.

"We'd karking go to war for you and you know it, Red," Boil said, grinning.

"Oy," Keres muttered.

"It might take some time to find everyone who would wish to leave with us," General Jinn said, "but I believe we have a good start."

Keres took Jinn's hand and nodded. "A start is all we need."

=

Micah rubbed the back of his neck and looked up as one of his men came into his cabin. Clink was yawning and waving a datapad at him, and Micah waited for the clone to stop moving before reaching for it. Any of the clones from Riptide Batch had a tendency to be a little odd, especially when tired, but Clink was also usually running on too much caff.

Byproduct of being a good comms officer, Micah supposed.

"We've gotten a good bead on the bastard," Clink said, dropping into the free chair in Micah's room. The clone wasn't wearing armor like his brethren did, none of them did, he was dressed like a heavily-armed spacer. Micah started going through the information, noting the ship's flight path and likely boltholes their target might end up at. "Chatter's picked up and I locked on his ship's locator beacon."

"He know you turned it on?" Micah asked, looking up from the pad.

"Psseah, no," Clink said, shifting in his seat. "Surge is getting twitchy, by the way. He says we're nearly out of those detonators he and Hawk love so much."

Micah hummed, looking back at the pad. "We need to drop out of hyperspace soon anyway. I need to contact a friend about a possi…" He frowned at Clink. "You know what, let's go talk to the others. This is something they all should hear."

"Ajax is asleep, same as Piper," Clink said as he levered himself out of the chair. "I don't really feel like waking an angry Piper. He sleeps with his wrenches and he throws with the Force."

Micah smiled. "You fetch the others into the galley, I'll wake those two."

Clink tossed him a lazy salute and Micah set the datapad aside. Their hunt was important, yes, but it was a Council-ordered one. Depending on the information Qui-Gon had for him the chase may change from trap-and-kill to trap-and-convince.

He left his cabin and went to wake Piper first.

When the Jedi Council had found out about the Force-sensitive clones they had been… Micah didn't know how to quantify their reactions, even years later. Some had been horrified at the blasphemy, some had been fascinated it had been possible in the first place; Micah had just wanted to protect the poor children who had been grown like their normal brothers, trained the same way, but had the added danger of not knowing how to control the Force.

When the Council had offered to let him put together his own private squad of clones for missions that would be completely off the books--recorded on a separate book that no one save the Master of Shadows would have access to--he accepted. How could he not? Other Council members had agreed as well, having clones either work with them or for them, but Micah prefered to work and live with his men on a ship that had no registration in any system.

They lived dark, not existing, because Micah could protect them best this way. If they were ever hailed or boarded by any legal entity? His men stayed out of sight and let him handle it. He was a Jedi Councilor, kindly get the fuck off his ship, and off the boarding party went with apologies and minor grumbles. Pirates? Never lived long enough to try it again.

Micah squatted down next to Piper's bunk and nudged the clone's shoulder, smiling when the man mumbled and flailed out a wrench. "C'mon, kiddo, time to wake up," Micah said.

"Nnnn," Piper slurred, rolling back over.

Micah brushed against the training bond he had with Piper and tugged on the thin braid, threaded through with colorful threads and beads, nudging the other closer to wakefulness. "I'll let you wake Ajax," he said. "I need to speak to all of you."

Piper cracked open an eye and glared at him. "Sleeping," he said, grumpy.

"Yes, and you can go back to sleep after this," Micah said. "But this is important."

"We catch up with the asshole?"

"Not yet," Micah said.

Piper muttered, letting go of his wrench and sliding out of his bunk. "I want chocolate when we get to the next port," he told Micah. "You are getting me chocolate."

Micah nodded. "Fair enough. I will get you chocolate."

"The good stuff!" Piper said. "Not that bullshit synthetic stuff, I can taste the chemicals. The real stuff."

Micah nodded again, wrapping an arm around Piper's shoulders and leading him out the door. "You want to wake Ajax?"

Piper ran ahead to the cabin Ajax shared with Surge and Clink, yelling a Mando'a warcry, and Micah laughed. He could hear Ajax screeching and the sound of a scuffle.

Really? Kite sent along the training bond.

Piper talks to the engines all day, Hawk sent back. You think he's not going to be crazy?

You have no room to talk, you would say the riduurok to your damn rifle!

"Children," Micah said as he walked into the galley, hands out to placate. Kite and Hawk were glaring, faces bare inches from each other. "Peace."

Surge was putting out mugs of caff for everyone and shaking his head, well used to the insanity on board the ship. Clink was helping set out food--Micah's boys were always hungry--and stealing bites here and there as he went. Ajax stomped into the galley and threw himself into a chair, arms crossed and looking furious, a whistling Piper on his heels.

"All right, ba'vodu, what's up?" Surge asked. "You don't call a lot of these family meetings."

Micah sat down and took a sip of the caff. "I want us to be on the level," he said. "I have a chance to right a wrong but I won't do it without your input."

"Sounds fair," Hawk said, his brothers murmuring their agreement. "What's the wrong?"

"What was done to you and yours," Micah said, startling them. "Among other things, but this I can right. A friend of mine, Qui-Gon, is proposing a schism, a way to leave the current Jedi Order and start his own."

"That's good for them," Ajax said, jerking a thumb at the three Force-sensitive brothers with their Padawan braids. "But what does that mean for us?"

Micah rubbed the back of his neck. "You three are Riptide Batch," he said and they nodded. "I've kept tabs on the rest of your--"

"Bullshit," Surge said, eyes wide. "They're dead."

"Don't, ba'vodu," Ajax said, looking away.

"Rex is with the 501st, assigned to Qui-Gon's former Padawan, Anakin Skywalker," Micah said, ticking them off on his fingers. "Cody is with the 212th, assigned to Qui-Gon. Wolffe is with the 104th, assigned to my friend Plo Koon. All three Jedi would be willing to defect and you would see them again, if we did this. The others of your batch I could not confirm as alive, I'm sorry."

Clink got up and put his hands on his head, walking in tight circles, whispering too quickly and quietly in Mando'a for Micah to catch. What little he could hear sounded like a prayer. Ajax had laid his head on the table, shoulders shaking, and Surge had a hand on his back, trying to soothe the other.

"We could see them?" Surge asked.

"I'm not going to stop you," Micah said. "We do this, though, and everything comes out. You, how you were taken, all our missions. No more going dark."

"I'm not wearing kriffing armor," Hawk said. "I'm a sniper. Can you imagine me trying to set up a good nest somewhere in that crap they make our brothers wear?"

Micah reached out and tugged on Hawk's braid, smiling. "I would never make you do anything you didn't want to."

"I want to see my brothers," Clink said. "I want to see Wolffe and Rex and Cody. I owe Rex a punch, Cody a, a, kriff. I can't even remember what I owe him anymore. And Wolffe! I. I need. I want to see them. I just know I need to punch Rex for that thing with the sim. It was his fault, I'm sticking to that, and I'm punching him for it."

"Cody got us stuck with KP duty that last time," Ajax said, looking up from the table. "Punch him too."

"Let's just punch all of them," Surge said. "Surprise, we're not dead, have a punch to the face."

"Your batch was brewed different, wasn't it?" Kite asked, reaching for the food.

"Maybe," Ajax said, shrugging. "What positions do they hold?"

Micah frowned, pulling out the datapad and accessing the records. "Cody is a Marshall Commander, Wolffe is Senior Commander, and Rex…"

"Rex is?" Clink asked, sitting down and grabbing the caff.

Micah rolled his eyes. "I should be used to your insanity by now. His listed rank is Major, yet he has a notation here by Skywalker that he goes by Captain and yet he is in command of the entire 501st, which you need to be a Commander to do. I can't decide if that's Skywalker or your brother, because it could be either."

"Either," Ajax and Surge said.

"I'd go with Skywalker, actually," Clink said. "That sounds like a mess and Rex really hated messes on Kamino. Total hotshot with the sims, but he liked them clean."

"What started this?" Kite asked, chewing loudly.

"Good question," Piper asked, snagging some of the food and shovelling it into his mouth. "You don't let us go to Coruscant and you avoid it if you can, but this sounds like you've been waiting for the chance to stick it to them."

"I have," Micah said. "I've watched the Council chose the wrong path too many times. Qui-Gon is a rogue, someone who does what he believes is right and fuck the consequences and the Council."

"Please don't fuck the Council," Hawk said into his caff mug.

"I can't unsee that now," Kite whined. "Stupid brother."

"Aw, kriff you!" Piper whined. "Bad mental picture! Stop it!"

Micah smiled; sometimes training bonds were a bad thing when a thought trickled from one clone to the other. It was very helpful when he taught them if one of the three figured it out before the others since then they could shuffle the method back and forth until they all got it, but the downside was mindworms at the worst of times.

"There's another piece of this," Micah said. "His name is Red, or Keres, depending on his mood."

Clink sat up, eyes wide. "Oh, shit. I know that name."

Micah raised an eyebrow. "You do?"

"The Seppies are kriffing blowing up the back-channels over him," Clink said. "Grievous is planning something big, wanting to take him down and preferably publicly. Someone else, Sidious? They're backing that metal-monster."

"Clink," Micah said, "I need you to tell me everything you know right now."