Bensynn pulled the hood of his cloak up further over his head. The torrential rains of Dromund Kaas washed the city streets, forcing all manner of being to seek shelter in one of the shops or establishments that lined the street of the Fifth District of Kaas City. How long had it been since he had walked these streets? Too long. The renewed war with the Republic and his responsibilities as Wrath kept him occupied. His latest campaign saw him traversing the Hutt homeworld of Nal Hutta and ultimately slaying the Cartel’s leader Karagga in single combat. The Hutt had been driven mad with paranoid delusions of the Empire seizing the Cartel’s territory. Claimed his favorite summer residence had been slagged by unknown assailants.
Administer Rove claimed it must have been the Republics doing. A tactical strategy to turn the Hutt’s on the Empire and ally with the Republic. Bensynn would have agreed with the diplomatic commander had the Hutt leader not of been hostilely attacking Republic transports as well. Then there was the manner of the datapad he had lifted from the dead Karagga. On it was detailed accounts of the attacks the Hutt Cartel had come under by supposed Imperial forces. All within Hutt controlled and neutral systems neither aligned with the Empire or Republic. He had foregone sharing the datapad with Rove; if this was a matter of Imperial forces acting outside of Sith jurisdiction then it was a matter for the Dark Council to sort through and disseminate to the Imperial military accordingly.
He turned and ducked down a small cramped alleyway, taking care to not bump into any of the merchant stalls or beings the scurried to clear out of his way. It was easy for him to brush things aside when he stood well over six feet tall, shoulders broad, arms and legs corded with muscle overlaid with the red skin of his Sith brethren. His dark armor and robes were a hearkening to his status as a warrior, a being not to trifle with. If Vette were here, she would make a big spectacle of his presence, loudly announcing his arrival with a dramatic flair, while he chuckled lowly. Thank the Force she was with Jaesa and Quinn gathering supplies to restock the Event Horizon. He could only imagine what the three were up to now. Most likely three arguments in with Quinn dictating proper restocking protocols while Vette replied with well-timed barbs about where Quinn could shove his protocols, and Jaesa, his poor apprentice, trying desperately to mediate.
He slipped inside a small older establishment but didn’t lower his hood yet. The Grimoire was fairly packed with soldiers and a few bounty hunters interspersed with Mandalorians. Officers tended to avoid the rowdy and rundown cantina, but grunts and foot soldiers flocked to the bar for the cheap drinks and the opportunity to swap stories while on shore leave. It was a place Bensynn visited every time he passed through Kaas City. It gave him a chance to interact with beings in casual comradery, to boast of his accomplishments, and share in the remembrance of those lost. He could bump shoulders with people who he respected.
He weaved through the menagerie of closely placed tables, bypassing the hook-shaped bar where Astin Cinn stood wiping down the counter methodically. The Rodian owner was an old friend of his and had the best Mantellian Ale in Kaas City. He slid carefully into a corner booth. Across from him with fingers crossed primly on the nicked tabletop sat his sister, Massaia. Her auburn red hair traveled the sharp slope of her jaw, orange eyes unreadable, lips pressed together in a thin line. Her dark robes nearly swallowed her small pale frame whole, the poor human girl barely gracing over five feet giving her a false air of fragility. One would only need a second glance to see the shrewd calculating countenance she wore or feel the subtle pull of her power simmering beneath the surface. Darth Nox though young and physically meek was an unrivaled force.
“You’re late,” Massaia spoke. The statement was less an accusation and more a statement of fact.
Bensynn shrugged and pushed his hood back to reveal dark hair and pulled his respirator free from his marred mouth. “The weather isn’t exactly ideal.”
“I know. I traveled in the same conditions and yet I managed to arrive on time,” Massaia pointed out.
“You know how the rain makes my leg act up,” Bensynn said rubbing his prosthetic right leg where his stump joined with metal just above where his knee once was.
“How is it you can survive being skewered, blown up, and shot, but a little rain stops the mighty Wrath in his tracks?”
“I thought you would be happier to see me. It’s been what? Two months since I’ve last seen my beloved sister and I can’t even get a proper hello,” the Sith keened drawing his facial ridges down over red eyes in mock sorrow.
“Hello,” Massaia deadpanned crossing her arms over her chest.
“Thank you and hello to you too.” Bensynn signaled to a passing service droid.
“I heard about your latest campaign.”
“Did you now?” Bensynn murmured noncommittedly. He was pretty sure he knew where this conversation was heading. Massaia didn’t always…agree with his tactics when it came to his war campaigns. Too impulsive she had once said. Or at least that’s what the Dark Council had said and Massaia had relayed to him. They tended to disagree with his tactics, his bold strategies and devil may care attitude put him at odds with more than a few Councilors. It didn’t matter. He didn’t answer to them.
“Administer Rove sang praises of your prowess in battle, though I believe he wished you showed more tact when it came to diplomacy,” Massaia explained waving off the droid as it set down a mug of ale in front of Bensynn.
“Hmm, he must still be annoyed that I gutted Karagga.” Bensynn took a healthy swallow of his ale.
“He’s not the only one,” Massaia revealed. “The Council’s concerned over what consequences your actions may have brought from the Hutt Cartel.”
The warrior sighed and leaned back in his seat. “There was no other choice Saia. He was mad and wouldn’t listen to reason. He slaughtered a contingent of his own troops and leveled the surrounding towns out of paranoid delusion.”
“What was he so scared of?”
Bensynn shrugged but pulled the late Hutt’s datapad from his belt and slid it across the table. “Karagga believed his territory was under siege from Republic and Imperial forces. He began counter-attacking both factions and fortifying his holdings. Rove believed it was an operation set up by the Republic, but there’s evidence in Karagga’s records to suggest Imperial involvement.”
Massaia frowned, lines creasing her forehead the further she read. “I can’t recall the Sphere of Military Offense consenting to any campaigns in the Y’Toub System considering its Cartel territory.”
“I don’t think they did. Vowrawn hasn’t given me any indication otherwise.”
Massaia rolled her eyes at the mention of the older Councilor’s name. “I wish you would stop associating with that man.”
“Why? He’s been a stalwart ally of mine and I value his advice,” Bensynn defended the Pureblood.
“He’s your ally now because you’re of use to him. I wouldn’t trust him or any of the Dark Council frankly,” Massaia shot back.
“Are you including yourself in that statement?” Bensynn playfully asked giving her a smirk.
Massaia stuck her tongue out at him.
“Very mature behavior from a Dark Lord,” Bensynn laughed and Massaia chuckled. It felt good to be here with her again, teasing each other and enjoying the company of the one person he trusted the most. How long had it been since they had both just talked? Their duties often pulled them apart. His war campaigns as the Wrath and her responsibilities as a Dark Council member. Since the Emperor’s death at the hands of a lone Jedi in the Kholat temple, Bensynn had been on a ceaseless quest to discover any remnants of the fallen Sith, any signs that he may still be alive, perhaps residing in another form. Massaia had her own personal inquiries she was researching herself. The sickness ravaging her body had been stalled with the amalgamation of the spirit’s that had once inhabited her body becoming one under the heel of her power. Still, it was only a temporary fix to the unending degeneration her body was suffering from. He frowned at the thought. “How have you been?”
“Fine. The Dark Council takes up a great deal of my time. Well that and making sure Khem doesn’t eat the other Councilors,” Massaia responded with a devious smile. “I’m tempted to let him though.”
Bensynn felt his scarred lips quirk at the thought of the fearsome Dashade ripping into one of the more vexing Councilors. Like Ravage. Or Zhorrid. “I mean how do you feel?”
Massaia’s shoulders stiffened at his question, her jaw tightening imperceptibly. For a second Bensynn wondered if she would lie to him. Something twisted inside of his chest sharply at that thought. Had her condition grown so desperate that she felt the need to deceive him? Instead she let out a heavy sigh. “It’s…bearable at the moment. The less I exert myself the less I aggravate my condition.”
“Saia…” Bensynn began softly reaching across the table to cover one of his sister’s small hands with his own. It killed him, being so helpless as to not being able to save her from her own body’s treason. He could fell a thousand foes who raised a finger against her, but he was powerless to ease her suffering.
Massaia shook her head as if to stop him. “I’m fine Bensynn. Ashara and Xalek do much in terms of physicality and maintaining my order. Talos is an expert of diplomacy on my behalf, and Khem,” she gave a small smile at the mention of her personal assassin and guard. “Is a masterful aid and advisor.”
Bensynn noticed her exclusion of the pirate Revel’s name. His sister’s tumultuous relationship with the outlaw had often left her wounded what with his adulterous whims and cavalier attitude towards commitment. Not that Massaia would ever admit to her weakness for her rugged pilot or that their on-again-off-again relationship affected her so. Personally, Bensynn wanted to wring the man’s neck.
“It’s hard to imagine Khem giving any advice other than to crush your enemies underfoot and scatter their remains among the stars,” Bensynn pointed out.
“Sometimes that’s the advice one needs.”
He couldn’t disagree with her there. He picked up the datapad which had since laid forgotten on the table and held it between them. “I have to deliver this information to the Council.”
“I know. Let me make a copy of the data though.” Massaia pulled free her own datapad and tapped a few commands to sync the devices.
“Something catch your eye?”
“Maybe. It’s disturbing enough to think that a portion of our forces may be acting of their own volition, however…”
“You think it could be something else?” Bensynn surmised tucking the datapad away as Massaia did the same with her own.
“It could be nothing, perhaps a Moff got an inflated view of himself and decided to forge his own crusade devoid of permission, or this could be indicative of a deeper conspiracy,” Massaia explained softly.
“A conspiracy? Like a coup?”
Massaia shrugged. “It is possible now that the Emperor is dead. There are many on the Dark Council vying for his throne though none will openly admit it. Or perhaps the Republic is framing the Empire with unprovoked attacks on neutral systems. Or maybe an unknown third party is at work here.”
“You spend too much time cooped up in the Citadel,” Bensynn teased good-naturedly.
“Bensynn I’m serious,” the woman continued. “There are…forces at work, influencing Council decisions, altering the war. This has been happening long before the Emperor’s death.”
“What forces Massaia? Is there someone threatening you? Bensynn asked feeling his hackles raise at the thought of anyone threatening his family.
She shook her head. “Not me specifically. It’s bigger than that. I can’t explain it, but it’s something I feel…a darkness drifting below the surface. The subtle manipulation of not only the Empire but also the Republic. It’s something I’ve traced as far back as the discovery of the Foundry.”
Bensynn blinked in surprise. It had been a while since he had heard of the massive space station where he had battled a mad Jedi claiming to be a long-dead legend. A madman bent on the genocide of his people. “Massaia the Foundry is in the hands of the Empire. Whatever happened back then, whoever was controlling it is dead.”
“You know I’m right Bensynn. There’s something out there. You saw it with Karagga, something unnatural beyond what the Republic could cook up.”
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. Flashes of Karagga’s wild expressions and unsettling laughter, a high-pitched keen bordering on insane, danced behind his eyelids. “It was like he was possessed, Saia. Almost as if he was seeing things that weren’t actually there. He was terrified.”
Massaia was quiet. She was staring off to her left, eyes unfocused as if reliving a memory of her own. A soft beep drew them both to the present and Massaia checked her comm. “The Council is hailing me.”
“Me to.” He glanced back at his sister in hesitation. “Massaia…be careful with your investigation.”
She nodded. “I will, and Bensynn, keep your eyes open.”
The ride to the Citadel was quiet. Almost sobering. The rain was still pouring down, thick grey clouds covering the sky with brilliant flashes of lightning illuminating the city sporadically. The weather reflected Bensynn’s mood almost perfectly. He mulled over his conversation with Saia, contemplating the information she had told him. On one hand, he wanted to dismiss her theories as nothing more than the imaginary cautions of an overworked mind, but on the other hadn’t he experienced beings in the past few months bent on the destruction of the Empire that hadn’t spawned from the Republic. His encounter with the man claiming to be Revan, and Karagga being the most recent encounter. What if Massaia was right? Could there be some unseen threat lurking in plain sight?
Bensynn reached out with his senses, sliding deep into the embrace of the Force searching for the elusive darkness Massaia claimed to feel. He could feel the flickering lifeforces of every being passing by the taxi. He stretched out further and felt the raw untamed power of the wild creatures that roamed Dromund Kaas’ wilderness and the seething strength of the Sith gathered together. Nothing peaked his concern nor appeared out of place. Maybe Massaia really was imagining things, or perhaps the threat was so well concealed he couldn’t decipher it. Either way, it was disturbing.
The taxi drifted to a halt beside one of the multiple platforms adorning the raised archway leading into the Sith Sanctum of the Citadel. The colossal structure soared hundreds of meters high into the sky, the sweeping arches and black walls coalescing together seamlessly in one mighty testament to the Empires might. Bensynn strode through the main entrance with Massaia at his side. The guards, all dressed in deep red armor, inclined their heads forward in respect. The Citadel spiraled off in numerous adjacent hallways and rooms all cloistered together. Bensynn stepped onto the lift.
“I’ll see you inside the Council chambers. I’m going to drop off my datapad first,” Massaia said bidding him farewell. He waved her off watching her retreating form until the lift ascended. He stepped out and turned a quick right.
The deep gravelly voice was unmistakable, yet still surprising. The Wrath turned to see the thin, withered form of his grandfather Darth Aruk. The Sith Pureblood was one of the oldest Council members second only to Darth Rictus in terms of experience. Though thin with his face weathered with wrinkles and blemishes gained from hours spent under Korriban’s harsh suns, his grandfather still stood tall, back straight and shoulders even. His red eyes were clear, sharp with a keen intelligence and power that beguiled his physical appearance.
“Grandfather,” Bensynn greeted bowing respectfully to his elder. While he may not see eye-to-eye with his elder all the time his grandfather still warranted his respect. “I’m surprised to see you here.” Darth Aruk rarely left his studies on Korriban, preferring the harsh heat and never-ending day to the damp dark forests of Dromund Kaas. His presence at Council meetings was usually holoed in.
“I have personal business to attend to,” Aruk replied gruffly. The tapping of his carved iron-wood cane following the sounds of his muffled footsteps as he continued down the hall. The cane was smooth with natural knobs from the wood sanded over meticulously giving the dark wood a sleek finish belying its impossibly hard nature. Bensynn knew from first-hand experience. His grandfather had hit him with that cane more than once.
“Anything I should be aware of?”
Aruk shook his head. “Business matters that required my presence. Trivial things.”
“Well, it can’t be too trivial. It forced you to come here,” Bensynn pointed out and Aruk scowled. His grandfather often made his distaste of Dromund Kaas very clear. From the weather to the wildlife to even how Kaas City was built, nothing was agreeable in his eyes.
“These are different times we live in grandson. Powers and factions are changing, even the smallest matter could hold a greater significance than one first thought,” Aruk said.
His grandfather’s statement brought him back to his previous conversation he had just had with Massaia. The words echoed a similar message. “Have things truly changed that much since my absence?” He had spent months abroad in the galaxy, fighting in many of the Empire’s campaigns, trying to gain a foothold against the Republic and Jedi. His victories were numerous and his defeats few, yet his return home so far had not been one filled with laughter and the warmth that came from reuniting with family, but rather paranoia and vague theories of shifting alliances.
Aruk’s frown deepened drawing the lines around his eyes into sharp contrast. “Since the Emperor’s death rules have changed. No longer is the battlefield on planets parsecs away from us, but rather wars are being waged in the halls of the Academy and the chambers of the Dark Council.”
“They need strong leadership,” Bensynn murmured. “An individual they can rally behind and focus their intentions back on the war.”
“I agree,” Aruk concurred. They both fell silent as they entered the large main atrium that housed the Dark Council. The vaulted archways scoured to the roof with narrow windows dotting the upper partitions of the walls letting in flashes of lightning occasionally. Thirteen high backed seats arranged in a concentric oval lined the room. Ten of the thirteen seats were filled as Aruk took his place near the thirteenth chair, the tallest one carved with sigils, the Emperor’s vacant throne. Bensynn cast a glance to the late Darth Decimus’ and Lord Acharon’s empty seats as well. The Council had yet to appoint the Sphere of Military Strategy or Biotic Science to another, more pressing matters kept them from naming a successor, or rather personal gains from Decimus’ and Acharon’s scattered forces stayed their hand.
He paced forward standing in the center of the room. Ten pairs of eyes watched his every move. “Karagga is dead. The threat the Hutt Cartel may have presented is gone. Their forces are disbanded, and their holdings diminished significantly.”
“You have our thanks Lord Wrath for your timely intervention on the Empire’s behalf,” Darth Mortis spoke. Out of all the Dark Council members, besides his sister and grandfather, he respected Darth Mortis most of all. The man was intelligent yet tempered, he wasn’t ruled by his ego nor by selfish interests. Rather he remained impartial and sought to grow the Empire as a whole not just for the benefit of the Sith. Fitting he was the head of the Sphere of Laws and Justice. His praise, though rarely given, was honest and not empty flattery for a fool’s ears. Bensynn gave the venerated Councilor a small bow.
“Yes, he squashed a tiny Hutt rebellion, which we are all very grateful for, but he also made our relationship with the Cartel that much more tenuous.” The voice of Ravage on any given day though grated on his nerves. The man was a menace, sticking his nose in the Wrath’s business time and time again while undermining his authority and decisions every chance he got.
“Our alliance with the Hutt’s was already nonexistent before the Wrath’s actions,” Nox pointed out. “You can’t mess up what was never really there to begin with.”
“But this incident casts the Empire in a negative light. The surmounting boss of the Hutt families struck down by the Empire’s greatest warrior appears to others like a grab for power,” Ravage argued. While the man was a nuisance, he was a dangerous one. His words were sprinkled with truth and his favor among his fellow Councilor’s was no secret. Ravage was smart and that made him threatening.
“Ravage raises a valid point,” Darth Rictus agreed. “Our reliance on the hyperlanes that run through Cartel space places us in a precarious position with the Hutt’s. One we cannot afford to upset.”
“And yet we have received no further aggression from the Hutt’s nor have they communicated their displeasure otherwise.” Vowrawn appeared at ease in his chair, a small smile playing at the corner of his lips.
“It does not mean the Hutt’s are satisfied with the events that transpired. It only means they are remaining quiet for their own means,” Darth Marr rumbled, his arms were crossed severely over his barrel chest.
“Karagga was mad,” Bensynn interjected. He grew tired of the Council’s incessant arguments on his actions. “His aggression was founded in the belief that he was under attack from the Empire and Republic.”
“The delusions of a creature overwhelmed by his own faux importance. The Empire has no holdings that far into the Outer Rim,” Ravage said.
“His paranoia was based in fact.” Bensynn removed the datapad from his belt and presented it to the Council. “He recorded extensive logs of an unknown Imperial fleet attacking several planets within Hutt space.”
All eyes turned to Darth Arkous. The Pureblood cocked his head to the side in evident confusion. “Military Offense has not approved any campaigns into Cartel territory. Perhaps this is a separate faction acting on their own authority?”
“Ambitious Lords and Moffs have been known in the past to take on personal crusades,” Darth Acina interjected.
“They’re versed in Imperial tactics. The fact that they have been able to keep their actions hidden for so long indicates they’re a high-ranking military official or Sith.” The datapad’s information had been synced to the other Councils devices, each member perusing the data intently. Marr shook his head. “Then there’s the subject of Karagga’s ‘madness’”.
“What can you tell us about the Hutt’s behavior?” Darth Mortis asked steepling his fingers.
“He was…unbalanced. Something or perhaps someone was disturbing his mind,” Bensynn replied recalling back to the Hutt’s demented chatter about voices in the walls and scratching in his brain. “I could feel the presence of a power over Karagga’s mind. He wasn’t acting of his own volition per se. His actions were being guided.”
“Disturbing claims I’m afraid we cannot ignore,” Mortis agreed solemnly. “Whether this is the act of a Sith or an unknown third party they present themselves under the color of the Imperial military and Sith rule. While the consequences of their actions this time were negated, we cannot allow this faction a chance to inflame more meaningless chaos.”
“I concur,” Aruk finally spoke. “Investigation into this matter is warranted.”
“As the matter of military offense falls under Darth Arkous’ domain we will leave the investigation in your hands,” Mortis appointed. “If there are no objections?”
Darth Nox raised her hand. “I would offer my assistance to Darth Arkous in this matter. If ancient powers are at work, I would appreciate the chance to study them.”
“Your thoughts Arkous?”
The Pureblood let an easy smile grace his aristocratic features. “I would welcome the assistance Darth Nox. Your knowledge will be invaluable.”
The other Council members all voiced their agreement. All except Darth Acina. Bensynn watched the young Councilor fidget slightly. Worry clouded her features and…guilt perhaps.
“The session is adjourned. We will meet during the next standard rotation to discuss changes,” Mortis concluded. The Councilors rose, and all turned to the empty throne of the Emperor, bowing low in deference to their late ruler. Then one by one they drifted off. Bensynn ducked through the milling Councilors towards Acina, hoping to catch her before she left.
Darth Mortis and Vowrawn stepped into his path though. “Ahh Lord Wrath, I was just telling Darth Mortis here of your victory on Telos IV against the Republic insurgents. You’ll have to elaborate for his benefit.”
Bensynn peered over the men’s heads and inwardly swore. Acina was gone having vanished back into the Citadel no doubt. He would have to track her down later. For now, he plastered on a forced grin and turned his attention back to the Councilors. “The battles were fierce; the Republic can fight like feral Nexus when needed.”