Nyx entered the War Room striding briskly, immediately followed by Arcann. They had been training together when the news interrupted them. A message had been intercepted and the Alliance had a lead they could potentially track.
"Good, we are all here now," answered a visibly impatient Lana. Theron and Senya were already present and waiting, and all of them gathered around the main terminal where a holo of Zakuul suddenly appeared. "We intercepted and decrypted a coded message that was obviously addressed to our traitor. The bad news is that we were unable to find the recipient on our end but we will continue searching. The good is that we could track it down to a very precise location. On Zakuul." The Sith typed a few commands and zoomed on a specific part of the planet where a precise spot got illuminated, its precise coordinates appearing on top of it.
"The southern part of the Endless Swamps," Arcann uttered, reacting immediately, Senya nodding in confirmation.
"Any known structures there?"
"No Commander. Nothing but inhospitable soggy ground and savage beasts," the former knight added. "Whoever sent that message chose to deliberately send it from the most profound depths of nowhere."
"The content of the message does not give us much to chew on. It was heavily encrypted, but our algorithms were able to translate it into something understandable." With a few more manipulations, Lana slightly reduced the size of Zakuul's map and a few words appeared aside from it in front of their eyes.
Prove your allegiance. Initiate part 3.
"Is this all we got?" Nyx appeared to be clearly frustrated. She had expected them to get more than a few words and a location in an empty swamp. "How comes that we cannot find the recipient?"
"They know we are listening," Theron said, stepping in. "The message was simply delivered with the bulk of the communications addressed to the Alliance. The traitor must have known where to get it from and would have erased it afterwards. Lana has probably been quicker than them this time."
"Which means as well that they have extended access to the in and out communications of the Alliance." Lana sighed. "And we do not even know to what extent. Dammit!"
In other circumstances, it would have been funny to hear Lana use the expression of frustration that was so clearly Theron's signature, but no one even took note of it. The situation was critical. They were realising the level of their blindness to a threat that impacted them all as no one expected the Commander to be the sole target.
The awareness that there was a traitor among their ranks was creating trust issues that undermined the core operations of the Alliance. They had quickly realised how hard it was to avoid becoming suspicious as soon as something unusual happened or people were caught having private conversations. They knew so little that there could even be several traitors coordinating on Odessen right under their noses. It all created a climate of tension and it had become less infrequent to see people calling each other names without any real reason for it. The betrayal they were facing might not have concrete consequences so far, the indirect repercussions of it were as undeniable as unsustainable.
It might even be the worst aspect of it. Since the incident on Iokath almost one month earlier, nothing visible had happened that could be related to a traitor's attempt to destroy the Alliance. And nothing new could be found. The spontaneous response to that lack of visible activity was that there were necessarily events that were unfolding behind their backs that they were incapable to grasp. For people like Nyx and Lana who praised control, this was infuriating. Theron, for his part, seemed overly resigned while the other core members of the Alliance felt helpless. The situation was taking a toll on all of them.
Barely repressing a burst of anger, Nyx inhaled deeply, hitting the table with the palm of her hands. "I am going to Zakuul. Even if the transmission seems to come from the middle of nowhere, there must be a trail we can follow. If it is the only thing we have, we must at least act on it."
"I am coming with you," Arcann added immediately, making a few surprised eyebrows rise at his obvious determination. "I know this part of the swamps, it is not that far from the encampment where I was taken care of after Voss."
Nyx gave him a startled look, as much due to his unequivocal statement than to the revelation that he had just made, then shook her head. "I do not think that your presence on Zakuul will be particularly welcome."
"I do not think that they need to know. We should not announce our arrival if we want to keep the best chances on our side."
He had spoken again in a determined voice leaving little opportunity for discussion. The tone of someone used to lead and take decisions, one he had not really dared using until then in the War Room, usually offering advice and suggestions instead. And the gaze that Nyx met when she looked at him was as determined as his voice had been.
The corners of her lips curved up in a satisfied smile after a few silent seconds and she straightened up. "Very well. We are leaving in one hour with the Queen to remain anonymous. Lana, ask Andronikos to ready the ship, he will be our pilot."
An hour later, Arcann climbed up the ramp of the Fury-class interceptor that would fly them to Zakuul. The ship - the "Blazing Queen" as he had just learnt it was called - had been moved to the main hangar to get prepared for departure. He had seen the ship, that was distinctively of imperial design, from the outside many times as it was docked on the headland facing the base that he had elected his favourite place in the area. The same place the Commander favoured, but they had not met there for a long time and he suspected that she had not been there alone for a while either.
It was the first time that he entered the ship, though, and he felt like a foreigner stepping inside her privacy. She had told him about the history of the ship one time, when they sat in its vicinity at night. It had been the place where she had spent most of her time for years and it was holding many memories. There was little to see of them as the common area appeared to be very neutrally decorated, but the simple fact of knowing that this had been her main home for a long period gave an aura of intimacy to the ship that was rather intimidating. The fact that the two other occupants would, on the contrary, be at ease in a familiar place did not help and he felt a little uncomfortable with the fact that he had no clear idea of the type of relationship they were currently having. For his own sake, he did not really want to experience seeing them intimate in any kind of way.
Arcann remembered the pilot's first day on the base and the way he had felt seeing how he behaved with her. From that day, Vette had been an insufferable nightmare. She tried to convince him to move on the Commander and even though he had denied any kind of personal interest, she had not wanted to believe him and had kept insisting that he should do something about it. Within the week that had followed, she had constantly raised the topic again and had even offered her services, which he had of course vehemently declined, instantly horrified by the out-of-control situation that he could easily picture out of it. The twi'lek had apparently taken her self-decided new mission very seriously and had become shamefully nosy. He knew for certain that she had spied on them to discover if they had resumed sleeping together because she had proudly come back to him to certify that they each slept in their own room, and while he had felt secretly relieved by the news, he had begged her to stop sticking her nose into this matter. He did not even want to imagine what would happen if the Commander noticed her little game and made her admit the reason of it. He was definitely not ready for having to confess his feelings to a probably very upset woman convinced that he mandated someone to spy on her.
Of course he had hoped to leave for Zakuul with her only. Not that he expected anything to happen but simply because he liked the way they interacted when they were alone, the way they became closer. Travelling the three of them would immediately feel more awkward, at least for him as he knew that in this situation he was the new and somewhat unnatural addition to a team formed long ago. He would try to make sure that his unease remained unnoticed, but he was painfully aware that his social skills were dramatically under-developed and that he would not be at his best, whatever he tried.
He was scanning the area and wondering where he was supposed to settle in when the door of what looked like a private cabin from the limited view he had through the door opened, Nyx stepping out of it.
"Welcome on board," she said, stretching an arm in the opposite direction of where he stood. He moved forward, following the indicated way and reached what appeared to be the crews quarters. "Just do not take the first one on the right or you might have troubles with Andronikos. It has always been his."
Arcann went to put the small bag he had packed on a berth located further at the back of the cabin, half relieved that the pilot would have to sleep in the same quarters even if he was not particularly looking forward to share the place with the man. They had shaken hands when Nyx had introduced them to each other a few days earlier but until then, the pilot had always pulled a face when he crossed his path.
Seeing that the Commander had not moved from the doorway, he refrained from sitting on the berth to test it and stepped back towards her, stopping at respectful distance.
"I am glad that you are coming," she said, smiling sincerely. "I am looking forward to seeing the results of our training."
"Thank you, Commander," he answered, giving her a slight formal nod. He did not want it to show, but he had been glad that she had agreed with his presence so naturally. And for her to, on top of that, looking forward to spending that time with him meant a lot to him, even if it was only for his fighting skills.
"Nyx… please," she retorted. "You do not need to stick to the title when we are alone or in trusted company. My friends don't."
Her words put a shy smile on his face which was a pale reflection of the joy he was suddenly feeling from hearing her calling him a friend. Biting his lower lip, he snickered and nodded gazing at her. "Nyx… I… I cannot promise that I will lose the habit easily but… I will certainly try."
"Hey hey, sorry to interrupt but there's a ship waiting for its pilot!"
They were both forced to take a step backward when Andronikos appeared in the common area and forced his way between them to go and throw his bag onto his berth. Turning around, he gave a straight look to Nyx, purposely ignoring Arcann. "So! Are we ready to take-off?"
"Ready when you are, Captain," she answered with a smile, amused by his blunt manners. Had he wanted to make sure that he was indeed wrecking a moment of closeness, he would not have acted differently. Addressing a quick apologetic look to Arcann who replied with a resigned shrug, she followed the pilot to the bridge where the three of them took a seat, fastening their harnesses while Andronikos prepared the ship for departure.
"Control, Fury-class interceptor code Aurek-Usk-One-One-Nine, requesting permission for take-off."
The answer came a few seconds later. "Control to Fury-class interceptor code Aurek-Usk-One-One-Nine, all clear, permission for take-off granted."
"Alright, baby. Time to go see the stars," Nik muttered affectionately to the ship, his hands busy on the pilot's commands.
The interceptor took off smoothly and left the hangar before heading towards the atmosphere. The sky that they could see from the cockpit quickly became a darker shade of blue then as dark as a night sky with stars flickering before their eyes. Andronikos soon started his countdown to hyperspace and the billiards of tiny dots around became rays of light.
"Alright, we're good for a few hours. You planning to stay off the radars?"
"Yes, you will activate the mode when we leave hyperspace," Nyx answered, unfastening her belt and leaving her seat. She moved close to the pilot and pointed on the holomap of the planet that he had in front of him. "Target the coordinates that have been entered in the navigation computer, they will give you a safe angle where we will remain unnoticed."
Arcann snorted and mumbled. "Now, this is how you did it… How many times have you been on Zakuul without my knowledge?" he asked, raising a quizzical, yet amused, eyebrow.
"A few times. But we often ended up being too noisy to remain discrete."
Some parts of the swamps were indeed sprinkled with the carcasses of countless Skytroopers that the Alliance had to fight. Lives had been lost as well, but the remains of those who had died had probably already been taken care of by the surrounding wild life. Zakuul's swamps were far from being a hospitable place. Nyx refocused on the pilot to continue her explanations.
"When we approach, you will have to find a place with solid ground, otherwise you will have to let us disembark without landing. There may be ruins nearby that you can use as a landing pad."
Andronikos frowned, visibly annoyed. "Expecting me to remain on board?"
"Yes, in case we must leave in a hurry."
He grumbled, crossing his arms on his chest, but did not insist. "You Force users are keeping all the fun."
"We will keep all the filth as well and trust me, no one should be looking forward to being covered in Iknayid's mucus."
She straightened up, rapidly checking the countdown of the estimated remaining time in hyperspace. "I am going to have some rest. And try to behave," she whispered into the pilot's ear before leaving.
The two men watched her go, Arcann refraining himself of following her footsteps too closely even if he did not particularly wanted to remain alone in the presence of the Commander's friend. He initiated a move towards the common room a silent minute later.
"Guess I don't need to warn you 'bout harming her…" the pilot said without even turning to face him.
He froze and sighed, closing his eyes in annoyance. No, he did not need to be warned. And despite the fact that he knew that the subject would come out often, he started to be tired of being warned, verbally or not, nearly every day. Even more than tired, in fact. Sick. Because even though almost everyone still seemed to believe that he remained a potential threat for their Commander, the very idea of her being harmed was starting to make his flesh crawl. But they would not understand and he was certainly not planning to say it.
Hearing the pilot's seat turn in his direction, Arcann raised his head and opened his eyes again, swallowing the urge to simply tell him to mind his own business. He was sure that the man considered her as part of the scope of his own business anyway…
"Indeed, you don't. I am regularly reminded of the painful consequences that any treacherous action from my part may have," he answered dryly, making efforts to keep a measured voice. "But you may want to check with Lana if there is an official waiting list where people can enrol and buy their turn for reminding me."
Nik frowned, taken aback by the second part of his answer, unsure if he had to take it as a mark of frustration or some kind of humour. Or perhaps a bit of both. He finally seemed to choose the latter and smirked.
"I'm being too protective?"
Arcann huffed and gave him a rather accusing look. "If you want to protect her, start by showing her respect in public. The Commander has enough on her plate already, she does not need to deal with gossip and loss of credibility on top of it." The pilot gave him an annoyed look but did not retaliate, which Arcann was relieved about as he did not really feel in the right mood to pursue the discussion. He yet had another point he wanted to make clear. "Believe it or not but I mean her no harm," he uttered. "At all," he then insisted, even though he thought that it did not really matter how hard he tried to be convincing. "And for the record, I am not intending to let anyone else hurt her either. " He remained silent a few seconds, wondering if he wanted to add something then shook his head, turning his back to the man to leave.
"That supposed to be a threat?" he heard in his back.
"A statement. As long as we both keep her best interests in mind," he answered, turning around slowly to face the other man again.
The two men stared at each other for a few seconds, measuring each other. Andronikos then leant back into his chair, raising his legs one by one to put his feet on the navigation board.
"You'd better be good at protecting her out there, 'cause I'll be holding you to your word."
"Trust me, I will keep her safe," Arcann guaranteed self-confidently, adding to it a slightly defying look. He then turned on his heels and continued his way to the common room. Walking past the door to the Commander's cabin reminded him about the earlier discussion that the other man had interrupted and the memory made him smile all the way to the crews quarter where he kneeled in front of his berth. Most of the Alliance members might remain suspicious about him, she did not. She had called him a friend and asked him to address her by her name, which he knew not that many people did. That alone made the strain of having to suffer being constantly mistrusted worth it. She did not doubt him, despite the fact that the people around her did not encourage her trust. They had been deadly enemies and now she expected him to shield her in combat. He concentrated on what it meant to him, on the warm feeling it brought inside his chest, and exhaled profoundly, slowly drifting into a meditative state.
When the Blazing Queen left hyperspace a few hours later and offered a view on Zakuul's globe to its occupants, Arcann immediately felt his heart sink. He had seen the planet from space countless times, could almost draw every complex shape outlined by the lights on the surface with his eyes closed and yet he could barely recognise his home world.
Substantial portions of the former glistening shapes had disappeared, leaving space to darkness. Power cuts, due either to the damages dealt to the infrastructure by the fleet's blind attack following his sister's death or to the shortages in raw energy material due to the fall of the Eternal Empire which mostly depended on the world that they had been bleeding.
The extensive automation of the zakuulian's society which had been his father's pride was now his birthplace's bane and the entire planet depended on external help, from the Alliance mostly. Zakuul was once a place where life was easy. People were provided with the finest foods from the whole galaxy, were tended to by droids down to their most simple needs, and what had once been the most vibrant representation of the Emperor's might had now plunged them into chaos. Zakullian people did not know how to use their hands and the very idea of having to actually work seemed an absurd concept to most. Until Valkorion's death, they had experienced nothing else than a lazy decadent life punctuated by the latest gossips and, very rarely though, unexpected minor incidents. If he had not been trained as a warrior and had learnt from the knights, this would have been his life as well. The useless life of people only raised to praise a seemingly benevolent emperor, carefully maintained in a numb carelessness and convenient ignorance.
Now, even those willing to take hold of their lives had everything to learn. They had no idea how to repair, build, create or even solve basic problems. Arcann had kept an eye on the reports issued by the small groups dispatched in the Spire by the Alliance in order to understand his people's needs - his former people's needs, he corrected himself mentally - and had quickly grasped the extend of the issue. They were dying and lacked even the most basic knowledge to reverse the process. They starved and did not know how to grow food, got sick and had no medical knowledge… Izax! They did not even really realise that not making the effort of keeping the city clean, another thing that the droid had always handled for them without even being noticed, was indeed the reason for the pest infestations and diseases they complained about.
"We are doing our best, but we cannot put too many efforts on a single planet. It would not make sense, either strategically, or politically."
He had not heard the Commander approach and the sound of her quiet voice made him startle slightly. She put a hand on his right upper arm and he had to refrain himself from following an instinctive desire of reaching with his cyberarm and thread his cold fingers with her warm ones. That was not something friends did, did they? So as much as he wanted to do otherwise, he forced himself to ignore the hand and remain still, knowing with a certain relief that it would soon be gone.
"I know," he simply stated, turning his head towards her. "Now they have to learn how to take care of themselves and it will take a long time before they really can." He inhaled deeply, trying to let go of the unease that the sight of his planet had awaken in his guts. Too many memories… and above all, too many bad ones, but Zakuul was still his homeland… and it was in ruins.
Andronikos began his descent on the planet, following the route that would allow them to remain discrete. The Fury anyway had an embedded stealth module, the pilot had put it in place many years earlier and it was part of the elements which had survived the damages from which the ship had suffered. The journey from space to subatmospheric level should go smoothly and the remaining low-altitude flight would go under the radar anyway.
They were soon close enough to the ground to almost brush the top of the highest crooked trees scattered amongst the hundreds of ponds forming most of the Eternal Swamps. They had agreed that Nik would drop off both Force users at the intercepted communication's coordinates and then head for the location of the encampment where the former emperor had spent several weeks of hiding before joining the Alliance. Not much would probably remain of the infrastructure that had been in place, but there was at least enough hard ground suitable for landing from where Andronikos could await instructions.
Moments later, the ship, hovering above the ground, lowered its gangplank, letting Nyx and Arcann jump down onto a portion of soft but dry portion of land.
"Watch out down there, okay?" uttered a slightly metallic-sounding voice on the comlink while the Fury already moved away. "Seen a few nasty beasts around."
"We will manage, Nik," she answered, rolling her eyes slightly before looking around, her nose reacting instinctively to the foul smell of the stagnant water. The surroundings of their landing point seemed quiet, the presence of the ship, and the commotion it had caused, had probably scared off the wild fauna, which would offer them a welcomed window of tranquillity. What was worse, though, was that there was as well nothing else to be seen around even if they were only a few meters away of the transmission's coordinates.
Arcann and Nyx looked at each other, both immediately understanding the other's disappointment. He took out his datapad and moved forward, trying to find the exact location that they were looking for.
"Unsurprisingly useless…" she huffed with frustration. "I doubt that there is anything to be found here. You were right, we are truly in the middle of nowhere."
He crouched and began inspecting the ground around, moving weeds aside to examine the soil. "They must have installed a relay antenna, I see marks of where the legs have been. And the vegetation has been trampled on all around. But there is nothing left."
"I want to have a look around. See if we can find something."
Arcann nodded and straightened up, observing around briefly before moving towards a wider portion of land, screening the ground at his feet as he walked.
"There is a visible trail. It must have been more than one person, but not many. Two, three perhaps?"
Nyx looked at him, raising a quizzical eyebrow. "I did not expect you to have trailing skills…"
He chuckled and gave her a quick glance before crouching again to observe the surroundings. "Just the vital minimum. My siblings and I ran away and spent one entire month in the swamps when we were young. Though I suspect that we were not as alone as we thought and had some invisible help from knights watching us." He frowned and move slightly further, suddenly wincing and gesturing her to come closer.
While the smell of the swamps was already far from pleasant, the stench that caught her nostrils instantly gave her nausea. Placing a hand on her mouth and nose, Nyx approached nonetheless to have a look at what Arcann wanted to show.
"Carcasses. They are half eaten and have started to rot but look…" he moved one of the shapeless scaly flesh remains with the tip of his foot. "Blaster marks. They were attacked."
"And unfortunately for the beasts and us, they apparently won…" she answered in a sigh but suddenly stopped and frowned, her attention caught by something. "Hold on…"
She squatted in front of the remains and pulled with her gloved hand on a little shiny part that she had just noticed, uttering a disgusted groan when the piece emerged from the mass with a sucking sound.
Not wanting to stay any longer close to the source of the stench, she retreated quickly followed closely by Arcann. They both inhaled raucously as soon as they were sure that the smell would be more bearable.
"What have you found?"
"Not sure yet," she answered, crouching to clean her finding in the nearby pond then holding the small embossed metal part in front of her at eye level
"A snake?" Straightening up, she held out the piece to her companion. He took it, noticing that her look had slid down to his chest and the golden decorated piece that stood in the middle of his upper body armour.
He shook his head negatively. "Mine is Izax but this one is different. It looks more like a representation of Zildrog."
"I do not know. I do not recall them using any kind of symbol to identify themselves."
"At least it gives us something…" She activated the comlink located on her left wrist that allowed close range communication with the ship and its pilot. "Nik, do you copy? Send a communication to Odessen. I want Lana and Theron to start digging in their intel using Zildrog as a keyword. Ask them to keep an eye as well on anything else related to a snake of some sort. We will be heading your way soon."
"Aye, N… Commander," the altered pilot's voice answered. "Need a lift?"
"Not immediately. I will give you coordinates later. Commander out." Nyx turned her gaze to the direction of the animal remains then to Arcann. "The trail goes in the direction to your former encampment. We can try following it for a while before asking for retrieval."
They started walking, heading south-west in the rough direction of the camp, zigzaging to remain on dry ground. They progressed slowly and silently, ears and eyes open to any threat coming from the surrounding wild lifeas well as to any sign of the former presence of their mysterious opponents. The trail that they suspected to be theirs was soon lost when they reached a wide area that had probably been used as a temporary landing pad for a small shuttle. They had found no other element allowing them to better understand who they were dealing with, but they at least had one. Seeing that they would not be any more successful, Nyx quickly sent the coordinates to their current location to Andronikos so that he could retrieve them, ETA 5 minutes.
"We will have to…" she started, turning her attention back to her companion. She was interrupted by a loud high-pitched hiss resonating all around followed by many other lower ones coming from their back. Both Force users turned around simultaneously, Arcann reaching for his lightsaber and activating it in a single movement.
"Oh Hell…" Nyx sighed, less than happy with the sight of what was moving towards them. Dozens of iknayids of various sizes were slowly circling them and drawing closer. And from the louder hiss that they had just heard, they were led by a bigger one that still remained unseen but was certainly not very far. These disgusting arachnids were among the most dangerous beasts that could be found in the swamps, their long legs making them perfectly adapted to their environment and capable of running and jumping easily, not at all hindered by the stagnant water and spongy grounds. While the smaller ones could be defeated easily one by one, their number could make them deadly, especially as they seemed to be somehow able to carry out organised attacks. She had already had to fight many of them right after her extraction from Arcann's 'private collection' and while she was in much better shape now, she knew that the fight may remain a difficult one as they could easily become overwhelmed.
"It looks like a good moment to verify if training together paid off…" she said in a low voice, voluntarily leaving her lightsaber hilt hooked to her left hip.
Arcann did not answer but gave her a small nod, tightening his grip on the hilt of his weapon. A good moment for that indeed, and for proving his will and ability to protect her as well. The simple fact that she had not drawn her saber at all was a message on its own: she expected him to keep the beasts far enough for her to use only her Force powers and no physical weapon.
The loud shrill sounded again, this time in front of them and they could see the gigantic beast come out of the surrounding mist. The smaller iknayids answered it and, as if it had been a signal to start fighting, began rushing towards them.
The first ones coming on their right were not given any chance, Arcann's blade easily sliced three of them in a single blow while Nyx shocked a few more from behind him. He then swiftly jumped to the left and eliminated the closest ones while she sucked the life away from further ones. The fighters quickly found a pace and a way to work together, alternating sides, lightsaber moving quickly and crashing into closer enemies and Force powers reaching farther into groups of incoming beasts. The giant one had not moved yet, but its screams rang regularly, covering the noises of the fight, always closely followed by new waves of arachnids thrusting upon them. It was leading the attack of the troops but not getting involved, using the smaller beasts to tire them as a commanding officer would have used grunts, but its turn would come and it would take the confrontation to another level.
"Too many!" Arcann shouted. He eliminated the iknayids by two or three with each blow and kept moving and cutting continuously but he could see the endless flow approaching. Nyx's unfurling waves of lightning and swirling dark smoke defeated many others but increasing numbers were getting closer.
"Move back!" he heard and he reacted immediately, turning around and leaping to her side. From the corner of his eye, he could see the purple electric arcs rippling around her as she drew more and more from the Force, concentrating it inside her. When she stretched her arms out, following the move with her whole body, he could feel the blast of the powerful wave that she released in front of them, knocking the arachnids down in an impressive surge of power. He heard her inhale deeply as she straightened up again and extended her arms to her sides, generating a storm of lightning covering the entire ground in front of them. This discharge of power left her panting but they both knew that she only had bought them time for him to recover a bit. He could already see the beasts get back to their numerous feet. Much to his surprise, though, they began backing off but his feeling of relief was immediately forgotten when an angry hiss resonated again and the giant iknayid started moving.
The monster reared and fell back on its front legs with another loud shriek, making the ground shake under the impact. It then started to gallop and was on them in a split second. Both dodged the first attack of its razor-sharp legs and a second one forced Arcann to roll on the side. When he got back to his feet, he saw with horror that Nyx had been less lucky. She was standing too but held her side, wincing from the pain and he could see an ugly bruise darken rapidly on the side of her neck, but the quick glance she gave him contained a silent order not to bother. She would be fine and it was not the time to doubt about it.
He rushed to join her nonetheless, determined not to fail his promise to keep her safe. She managed to make the beast keep its distance but her powers seemed to bother it more than it was hurting it. "Their weak point is at the back of their skull!" he shouted when he reached her side. "One of us needs to get there."
She fixed the beast narrowing her eyes then gave a quick glance to her companion. "Jump. I help."
He nodded and braced himself, switching off his lightsaber. As the monster roared again, stretching its head forward, he ran and leapt in its direction, instantly feeling an extra-push upward coming from the Commander. Their joint efforts allowed him to land on the back of the monster's skull. In a single move he changed his grip on the hilt of his weapon to hold it downward, turned it back on and plunged its blade in the tender spot located at the back of the arachnid's head. The agonising shrill that the giant ikayid let out made their ears ring and Arcann had to hastily jump down from its neck, landing in a splash in the nearby pond, but the monstrosity eventually fell in a groundshaking crash.
"Drawing close! What the hell are you two doing down there?" a voice on the comlink said at last.
"It is about time! Hover above us and get the gangplank down!" Nyx answered. The giant beast was down, but she could see the swarm of smaller one getting closer again and had no intention to remain one more minute around.
The Fury finally reached their position a few seconds later and they were able to avoid another fight and climb aboard the ship. Manoeuvring to take some more distance with the ground, Nik got a better view on the area and let out a curse: "Bloody kriffing stars! You really thought that it was a good time for a hunt?"
"Well, we were more on the preys' side here. Get us to the camp, we are not going home today," she ordered, leaning with a sigh against the wall at the back of the bridge. Seeing the astonished look that Arcann, that had just passed the doorstep, gave her, Nyx then added: "I want to go to the Spire, see what we can find there about this snake."
He nodded and lent back against the facing wall, closing his eyes to let the tension wear away. They were both tired but she was safe and he had kept his promise and now, with the danger gone and adrenaline still flowing in his veins, he felt strangely joyful. Noticing that they had both fell silent, he raised his eyes and met her gaze. She was looking at him with a small smile painted on her face and when his eyes locked with hers, her smile grew brighter and he felt a matching one blossom on his own lips. She ended up uttering a happy laugh which made his own joy reach new heights.
"Not bad for a first real fight as a pair. I liked it," she confessed in a low voice, her eyes lit with excitement.
"I liked it as well," he answered smiling, his eyes still fixed on hers. He did not want this moment to stop, her eyes to move away from him. He knew that they would so he made sure to savour every second of this connection they had right at that moment and that was only theirs. It probably looked awkward from an external point of view, he was almost sure that they looked silly, grinning at each other without a word. But he could not care less. Even though in a very strange way, he had just made her happy and this small victory was the only thing that counted.
A long howl broke the silence of the night that had fell on the swamps, answered by other ones in the distance. The beasts were not close to their location that had been anyway secured by an energy dome generated by the ship.
As expected, not much remained from the encampment where Arcann had spent time recovering after his escape from Voss. Not much more than a few remaining tents and some crates containing basic material, tools and armour pieces had been left behind and if the durasteel had protected the crates' content from the curiosity of the surrounding wild life, they could not say the same about the tents. It was still a rather good place to spend the night on the planet. The Fury would provide them the necessary accommodation for a good night sleep and Arcann had been able to convince his companions that grilled sleen meat would make a rather good evening meal, getting the benediction from the pilot as long as he was the one to go hunting for it. As much as he was frustrated by not having been part of the action, Andronikos did not particularly want to discover the zakuulian wild life and environment.
A delicious smell of roasted meat filled the air when Nyx went out of the ship after a well-deserved shower and a change of clothes. While Arcann was gone hunting, she had spent her time exchanging with Lana and Theron about the potential clue they had found and informed them of her intention to meet with the current zakuulian officials to try and find out more. On their side, they had already begun skimming through their intel in the hope to find hints leading them to the traitor. Without any luck so far.
"Smells good… It reminds me of a few other times when we hunted just for fun," she said to the man taking care of their meal in front of the fire.
"Yeah, just handling it while today's hunter's refreshing himself. But I remember. Good times indeed," Nik answered while turning the meat on its other side. "Done for the day?"
"Yes. I sent a message to the Spire informing them of our arrival tomorrow early morning. They should not suspect that we are actually here already. Not that it does really matter after all as long as they do not know that Arcann is with us."
"Going to hide him?"
"I am not sure yet, but I think that we should be able to handle it," she answered, getting down to sit cross-egged on the ground by the fire, across from Andronikos.
The hearth had been carefully organised to allow cooking on embers on one side while still providing them with fire on the other one and small blazing particles danced in the air above the flames in a mesmerising ballet. It was a quiet moment, one of the very few that Nyx had had an opportunity to live within the last months. Letting her mind wander, she wondered how long it had been since the last time she had felt truly satisfied by a fight, or anything in general. Ages. It had been ages and it all went back to that time when she was not even part of the Dark Council, when she, Nik and the small crew of the Blazing Queen were roaming the galaxy.
From the day when Lana had rescued her from carbonite, events had followed each other at a high pace. Even during the long period that they needed to build the Alliance's infrastructure on Odessen, she had been constantly solicited to convince more and more allies, help find solutions for getting supplies, keep watch on the Eternal Empire's moves. Her duties as Commander of the Alliance had swallowed her entire time and while she had voluntarily plunged herself in the role when her friend had offered it to her, she had to admit that it was taking a toll on her. Ambition had driven her and she was now the head of one of the three main factions in the galaxy. And potentially the most powerful at that very moment. Reigning on such a power had been an unexpected turn of events.
Facing the Emperor and thwarting his plans to absorb all life in the galaxy had been at first purely necessary. She had no intention to die and had acted accordingly. Even though the events of Yavin 4 had been taken as a proof that a collaboration between the Empire and the Republic could be sometimes achieved, she had been there mostly for herself after all, just making sure that what everybody feared about would not happen. There was no way to get better chances to remain alive.
Serving the Empire had always been a mean, not an end, even though it was the side she felt the closest to anyway, the side which at least did not hide their dirty manoeuvres behind beautiful ideals of freedom and peace. Both the Empire and the Republic had the ambition to be the greatest power in the galaxy, but at least one of them was honest about it. And that was an ambition that she considered to be perfectly valid and respectable, which is why the war initiated by the Eternal Empire was not something she had ever considered out of place. Arcann and his siblings had no less right than any other to try claiming the galaxy for their own after all. If they had the power to make their claim real, then there was no reason why they should not have victory. Deaths, even by millions, were only a consequence of war, and not a new one in any case.
The fact that they had considered her as their main enemy had made things personal and motivated her to take the lead of the Alliance that Lana had initiated. But her own survival, and that of the people who had put their trust in her and pledge their allegiance to her, had always been one of the main reasons for her to go ahead. Not an idealistic altruistic wish to protect the galaxy from harm, even though she gladly let people conveniently think that she was this hero that saved them all. If they only knew…
Now that the Eternal Empire had been taken down, things had changed and the Alliance had mostly worked on keeping and increasing the power it had acquired. Like any other faction would, after all, in a time of relative peace. Even though she was not bearing the title, that made her the perfect equivalent to Empress Acina or the new Republic's Chancellor. A position she had certainly wished for countless times. She was respected and feared and, with the Eternal Fleet and the Gravestone at hand, held a power that the other rulers of the galaxy did not have… And yet, she realised that it was this kind of quiet simple moments that she had been craving for and that had become so scarce. Moments she could simply try enjoying without thinking ahead about the next move that had to be done.
Oh, there was a next move, and then plenty of others. She could not allow herself to set the issue of the traitor aside more than for a brief period of time, but that fight against the iknayids had been rather satisfying… She felt contented in a way that she had not experienced for a long time. And to add to the odd situation, it was the man who had strongly contributed in keeping her away from simpler enjoyments that had today offered her such a fulfilling moment.
"Now, that's a smile I hadn't seen for a long time. Credit for your thoughts?"
Nik's voice brought her back to the present and she chuckled lightly. "I was thinking about today's fight. It felt surprisingly good and I enjoyed it more than I have enjoyed any other in a rather long time."
"Yeah. 'm still pissed that you had fun without me. Apparently you two had a bloody good time… If we turn a blind eye to the fact that you would have been shred to pieces had I arrived a few minutes later," he answered scornfully.
His apparent frustration made her laugh out loud. "Then I should not forget to humbly thank our wonderful pilot for his timely arrival which saved us from a horrible death," she declaimed mockingly, adding an elaborated bow to her words.
While her little taunt made him grumble, Andronikos could not help smiling at the sight of her being more joyful than she had been lately. "Alright, alright. Can concede that you've done a pretty good job out there. And he stuck to his word too."
Nyx gave him a quizzical look. "His word? What word?"
"Keeping you safe," he mumbled. "Yeah, I know, I know, Big Bad Sith does not need protection," he continued as soon as he saw her open her mouth to retort. "But I shouldn't be discouraging him to ensure it if he's willing, huh? Besides, I'll have to file a complaint for that bruise on your neck."
The sound of footsteps on the gangplank interrupted their discussion when Arcann came out of the ship, clean and wearing a new set of clothes. He too seemed relaxed and bore a small smile on his face. He joined them near the fire, circumventing it to position himself on Nyx's left side, crouching in front of the fire and looking around.
"It almost feels like I was here years ago. But it has only been a few months," he said in a low voice, only loud enough for her to hear.
"I know. I barely had time to breathe as well," she answered in the same tone. "So this is where you decided to join us."
He snickered sheepishly and nodded. "It was the only path that seemed to potentially lead somewhere. We had the same enemies, I had finally understood it. And the fact that you would deserve the throne more than I did." He chuckled in a slightly sad way. "And I could not see myself running away, I had to try, even though it ended up in a quick death by your hand. But I can now admit that it has probably been the hardest decision that I have ever made. Deciding to pledge myself to you and leave my fate in your hands… I had faced potential death many times before, but never without fighting."
"'I choose my own fate,'" Nyx whispered, turning her head to look at him. "I remember you saying that, yes."
"That was the best choice I ever made," he forced himself to confess, voluntarily not leaving time to his head to instruct him to back down. It took even more strength to continue sustaining her gaze after his words. But he did, feeling his pulse accelerate and cursing himself once again internally for seeking approval from her in a way that painfully reminded him of the countless times he had hoped for the same from his father. But she was different, he kept telling himself. Different. And she did not turn her back on him. Or had not yet, at least.
"I do not regret mine either."
He did not know if it was the way she had said those words or the reflexion of his own aspirations but at that very moment, all he could suddenly think about was leaning closer and kissing her. He wanted her to know how he felt. He had to, could not keep it for himself any longer. It was not the first time he had been taking chances after all, what did he risk? Rejection. Oh Scyva, she could reject him, laugh at him, push him away and he would have to suffer it helplessly. But… perhaps she would not, and in that case…
"Weeeeeeell I rather like campfire discussions, but usually everyone is allowed to participate. I don't know what you two are mumbling about but it would be nice to share if you don't mind."
Suddenly pulled away from the thoughts that had been churning around wildly in his head, Arcann went back to reality in a split second. Izax! The pilot! Andronikos had been there the entire time! Barely containing a gasp, he turned his gaze back to the fire, feeling a cold wave flow down his chest at the realisation that his intentions might have been visible. Certain that his sudden discomfort was as bright as day, he immediately went back to his feet and decided to take care of the meat. He could not even imagine looking at her immediately, he was too worried about what he could see on her face had she noticed anything.
Luckily for him, the meat was ready and gave him a good opportunity to draw the attention on something else than his recent awkward behaviour. It took a while before he was able not to avoid eye contact with her, but the meal helped and tensions eased as both his companions seemed to act normally. He was incapable of knowing if any of them had perceived anything, but decided that they probably had not, which was definitely for the best... At least until he had a moment to think straight again.
When, after the meal, the Commander reminded her intentions to head for the Spire the next morning, he expressed his doubts that he would be welcome there but quickly noticed that she had thought it through already and had a solution to provide. A rather odd one, but it would work.