Chapter 1: Reasonable Fear
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.”
Chapter 2: Second Suspect
Massaia paced about her chambers within the Citadel impatiently. Darth Arkous was supposed to be meeting with her to discuss the results of his ongoing investigation. It had been a few days since the Council meeting and since then she had thrown herself into the extensive job of discreetly tracing and noting the positions and movements of the Imperial military. The work was arduous, consuming her time for little else. Bensynn had been by a few times to visit and her apprentices had reported in their doings along with the urge to rest on her behalf. Ashara especially had been persistent on that topic, dragging her from her office to eat and catch a few winks of sleep before she returned early the next day. And what had she discovered thus far? Nothing. The Imperial military kept extensive well-documented logs about their campaigns and positions throughout the galaxy, showing no hint of disobedience or personal gain. If the threat was internal and coming from within the military then it was well concealed.
A soft beep indicating an individual at her door broke Massaia from her thoughts. She hit the security code on her desk and the door slid open. A woman of slim stature and blond hair just barely brushing her shoulders, shrouded in robes of green and black, appearing to be her age entered. In her hands she held several datapads and at her hip was a lightsaber. One of Arkous’ Sith cretchlings.
“Who are you?” Massaia asked stiffly. She was expecting her fellow Dark Councilor.
The stranger smiled passively, golden eyes calm. “My apologies my lord. Darth Arkous had other matters to attend to. I am his advisor Lana Beniko.”
Massaia raised a brow. “Do you know why you’re here?” The discovery of the attacks had been sworn to secrecy amongst the Councilors as to prevent the spread of rumors and tip the hand of those responsible. To see that Arkous had gone and already spoke of the matter with one of his underlings grated on her nerves.
“Darth Arkous apprised me of the situation and turned the matter of the investigation over to me to oversee. I am to understand I will be working with you,” Lana explained. Never once did her calm countenance falter. The woman appeared completely at ease with the situation while Massaia wasn’t sure if she should be relieved, she wouldn’t have to work with Arkous, or annoyed he had brushed the matter aside to one of his lackeys.
“I see, in that case, you can leave the information you collected here and return to Arkous. I’m sure he has need of you,” Massaia ordered curtly. If she could shake this advisor than that would give her a few solid hours of solitary work before Ashara waltzed in demanding she eat.
Lana shook her head. “With all due respect my lord it would be more beneficial for the investigation if I assisted you. The data will take a considerable amount of time to sift through and decipher. Plus, I have already begun to sort and catalog incidents we will need to cross reference for clarification.”
Massaia just stared incredulously at the woman before her. Not only had she refuted her orders, but she had done it in such a calm, clinical manner Massaia was struggling to figure an excuse to get rid of the other Sith. She harrumphed and turned sternly, returning to her desk. “I’m not getting rid of you, am I?”
“Not unless Darth Arkous requires of me,” Lana replied with an easy smile and a spark of mirth in her golden eyes. Massaia only groused.
The halls of the Citadel on any given day were buzzing with activity. From Imperial officers discussing strategy to apprentices moving to and from with orders from their masters the bastion thrummed with energy. It was easy to get caught up in the controlled chaos. For Bensynn when he had first stepped foot within the Citadel years ago as an apprentice to Darth Baras, he had been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of beings moving about the halls, the buzzing pulse of power that seemed to exude from the very walls. Now he was a little bit older, a little bit wiser, with eyes open, not swayed by the intimidating figures that roamed the various floors.
For the past several days Bensynn had been attempting to meet with Acina. He had requested her presence, yet she had ignored his hails or gave a curt excuse. He had unsuccessfully tried to corner her several times in the Citadel, but the announcement of his arrival traveled fast, giving the Dark Councilor ample time to slip away. It only furthered deepened his suspicions that the woman was involved in something. Perhaps it was related to the attacks in the Y’Toub System or maybe she was scheming for the throne. Neither of which seemed like her though.
Darth Acina was a mystery even to her fellow Dark Councilor’s and more so to the general masses of the Empire. Quiet, often reclusive she spent her time and duties away from Kaas City sequestered away in space studying technologies. Her reserved nature made it easy for her to slip away from the public eye and distance herself from disputes. Her motives were unknown as were her weaknesses and passions. She did not clamor for the glory that came with her stature, rather she was a silent observer, studying the galaxy and all within it, learning much but giving away little.
Bensynn pressed the buzzer outside the office door and waited. A muffled ‘come in’ called out and seconds later the door slid open and he stepped inside. Vowrawn’s office was just as eclectic as him. Various trinkets littered the shelves while the vines of an overgrown unknown weed tangled around his expansive desk. Vowrawn sat at his holoterminal though he stood when he caught sight of the Wrath.
“Bensynn! I wasn’t sure when you would come by,” Vowrawn extended his hand and Bensynn enclosed it in a firm shake. Vowrawn chuckled and pulled him in for a hug which Bensynn excepted. The man was eccentric but harmless.
Bensynn shrugged his broad shoulders. “You said you knew where Acina was. I’ve tried getting in touch with her but haven’t been able to.”
“Yes, about that,” Vowrawn began his red eyes glittering with curiosity. “What may you need with our young Councilor? Business or pleasure?”
Vowrawn’s insinuation was not lost on him. His status as unengaged in any meaningful relationship was the highlight of many gossip circles. The rumors of his conquests or lack thereof were whispered in hushed voices. Truth is a relationship was the last thing on his mind. His responsibilities as Wrath, of defending the Empire and leading the renewed war against the Republic kept him from companionship. Though it didn’t stop others from discussing his love life. Or his absence of one. “Strictly business.”
“Hmmm, shame. Her physical beauty is equally matched by the tenure of her mind. If I were younger.”
Bensynn snorted. “Like your age has ever stopped you before.”
Vowrawn let a rakish grin spread across his features, pointed canines glinting. “Truth does ring in those words Wrath though it matters not, the woman is so wrapped up in her research I’m afraid she would hardly be able to tell a friendly conversation from an amorous compliment.”
“I would not speak for her though she does tend to spend a lot of time alone,” Bensynn mused.
“One does wonder where she escapes to. Her mystery only adds to her appeal,” Vowrawn pushed.
“For some. Where did you say she was now?”
“A…friend of mine may have mentioned her going to Draven’s Guild. One would wonder why considering the riff-raff they let in,” Vowrawn said shaking his head in disdain.
“I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks for the tip,” Bensynn waved to other Sith and ducked out. He was only vaguely familiar with the establishment Vowrawn had mentioned. It was located on the outskirts of Kaas City in the Ninth Ward, a much seedier part of the city. The guild was a popular location for bounty hunters and underworld smugglers looking to offload their goods. It was also a spot frequented by Mandalorians. The warrior people often didn’t take kindly to strangers impeding on their turf. What could Acina want there?
Draven’s Guild was rundown. It operated out of a grimy building crammed between two other equally broken-down constructions that appeared to be condemned. Swoop gangs lounged about outside talking raucously and jostling with each other. Bensynn ignored them and slipped inside. The air was smoky, thick enough to create a smoggy haze over the room. Patrons sat smoking pipes blazing with the acrid scent of spice while erotic dancers gyrated on raised platforms. Not the type of place an introvert like Acina would just visit for kicks. Call it a strong hunch.
He approached the end of the bar and sat down. With his hood pulled up and mouth covered by his respirator, no one could be sure of his identity. He cast a quick look around the bar homing in on a corner booth on the far side of the room. A tall broad-shouldered Mandalorian sat leaning forward, his elbows on the table fingers laced together. His armor was a forest green with accents of black and gray, scratches lining the durasteel. Across sat a smaller hooded figure. Bensynn could sense the presence of the individual. It was unmistakable surrounded by the Forceless beings in the room, though he couldn’t decipher what the two were conversing about. The Mandalorian wore his helmet obscuring his face and Acina’s back was to him.
The bartender approached. Bensynn held up a finger and the man retreated. Acina appeared rattled, she gestured hurriedly with her hands, while the bounty hunter just shook his head. They seemed to disagree. He turned away. Acina was clearly desperate, but why? Why come here and entail the services of a Mandalorian when as a Dark Councilor the resources available to her were far more reliable than those of a bounty hunter? Could she trust no one in her circle with what was troubling her? It piqued his curiosity. What could she be hiding? He turned back to the odd duo. They appeared to have reached a conclusion. Acina stood, Bensynn catching a flash of her golden eyes and brunette hair before she quickly hurried out the door. He was tempted to follow her, confront her, but then what would that accomplish. She would lie, or make up some excuse about her activities, and then she would be aware he was watching her. Best to let her think she got away unseen.
He focused his attention on the bounty hunter now rising from the booth, committing his appearance to memory. He waited a few minutes after the Mandalorian left, thoughts tumbling around in his head about the implications of Acina and the mysterious hunter. Was there something she needed to be taken care of discreetly? Could she be covering the tracks of her involvement in the attacks? She had mentioned herself that ambitious Sith lords before had enacted personal crusades in quests for greater power. Could all this be a ploy? A scheme to take the throne while the other Councilor’s scramble to figure out the trick. Was Acina truly that ambitious and manipulative? She had always come across as calm and practical, never a schemer, but looks could be deceiving.
Bensynn slipped from the bar and headed back to his speeder. He had believed Acina would be the answer to some of his questions and yet she had presented more. Perhaps his sister was right and there were conspiracies at work. His time away in battle had sharpened his combat prowess but dulled his perceptions to deeper machinations. How quick was he to forget his own late master’s plots?
He pulled the speeder down outside the hanger his ship was waiting. The Event Horizon sat dry docked behind the gates of the spaceport and he could sense the presence of Vette and Jaesa aboard. Quinn and Pierce had most likely visited the city, both having family and friends they wished to catch up with, and Broonmark was undoubtedly hunting in the forests. Perhaps he would join his friend later in the hunt for the deadly predators that roamed Dromund Kaas’ forests. He could use the stress reliever and an excuse to practice his form. He climbed the ramp and thumbed the access codes to his ship, the door hissing open. He found Vette sprawled out on the couch in the main hold with her datapad, no doubt reading trashy holonovels. Jaesa sat cross-legged in front of her on the floor, eyes closed deep in meditation.
“Night in?” He asked shrugging off his cloak and pulling his respirator free.
Vette didn’t even look up from her datapad. “Not a big fan of Kaas City. Authority always looking for an excuse to tase me. What have you been up to cus you smell like rank smoke.”
Bensynn chuckled. “I spent some time trying to find someone. It led me to a bar.”
“As it always does,” Vette conceded swinging herself up into a sitting position. “Who were you tracking?”
“Council member goes by Acina. I wanted to talk to her, but she kept ducking my calls. A friend told be me where I could find her.”
“You don’t usually check in with Council members. In fact, we tend to avoid them at all costs. Why the sudden interest in her?”
Bensynn hesitated. Should he tell Vette about his sisters’ misgivings which were fast becoming his own considering the day’s events? Vette was perceptive, often figuring things out on her own through poking around where she shouldn’t or by endless interrogations. If he tried to shortchange her now...
“You’d best tell her master. You know she’ll never let up if you don’t,” Jaesa murmured from her spot on the floor. She must have sensed his indecision.
Bensynn sighed. “Things have changed,” he began. “Power has shifted since the death of the Emperor. Many of the Councilors are fighting private wars of their own, trying to solidify and bolster their own power base in a bid for the throne.”
Vette motioned for him to continue.
“Remember our fight with Karagga?”
“The crazy Hutt with the ridiculous hat?” Vette clarified.
Bensynn nodded. “His actions were influenced by recent attacks by an unknown Imperial regiment.”
At this Jaesa opened her eyes and Vette cocked her head in thought. “I thought the Empire wouldn’t dare mess with the Cartel.”
“That’s what I thought as well. Much of the Dark Council agrees those attacks weren’t sanctioned. They were carried out in secret without the authority of the Council.”
“And you think this…Acina has some connection to it?”
“It’s hard to explain. I don’t have any proof of her involvement. Hell, I’m mostly just working off a hunch, but she seemed…uneasy when the subject of an investigation into the matter was being discussed. Then today I found her meeting with a Mandalorian bounty hunter in the Ninth Ward. She’s been skittish lately, avoiding the Citadel and distancing herself from others,” Bensynn explained.
Vette sat back and whistled lowly. “You think Acina orchestrated the attacks. That’s a pretty ballsy move if she did.”
“She may have, or perhaps she’s working with someone else and this is all a grab for the throne. Either way, she knows something about these attacks. They’ve unnerved her,” Bensynn said sitting down across from Vette.
“If we could lock her in a room with Jaesa we would know lickety-split what her intentions are,” Vette pointed out.
“In a broad sense Vette,” Jaesa reminded her softly.
“Don’t sell yourself short sweetheart, you’ve been getting better at reading people,” Vette encouraged sending Jaesa a coy smile. His apprentice blushed.
“Besides,” Bensynn continued. “We can’t just kidnap a Dark Councilor and hold her indefinitely. Even though it may make things easier.”
“Then I guess we’re stuck with good old-fashioned gumshoe detective work,” Vette announced standing up and stretching.
“We?” Bensynn asked.
“Course, you and me. The dream detective team. You said your lady met with a Mandalorian right?”
“Well while you smooze with the upper ranks and dig into Acina’s background, I’ll track down your bounty hunter,” Vette explained.
“Are you sure? This will be dangerous for you,” Bensynn warned. They were treading into dangerous waters here. Bensynn was a Sith, the danger was something he factored into his life, something he thrived on. But Vette. Vette wasn’t a Sith. Sure, she was resourceful and perhaps the most tenacious person he had ever met, but she was also in greater danger from reproach. If Acina or the Mandalorian caught wind of her meddling the consequences could be grave.
“That’s why I’ll have Jaesa with me,” Vette exclaimed pulling the startled girl to her feet.
“I uh-what?” Jaesa stammered blinking her eyes in confusion.
“No unnecessary risks Vette,” Bensynn warned.
“Sheesh, you’ve gotten stiffer since you became the Wrath you know?”
“This is different,” Bensynn murmured. “Things are changing and not for the better. I can’t explain it, and at first, I didn’t see it, but now…”
Vette sobered quickly and Jaesa frowned deeply the scars on her face being pulled. “Is it really that bad?”
“Yeah and I think it’s only going to get worse.”
Chapter 3: Risks
The soft patter of rain echoed about Bensynn’s empty office as he sat at his desk flicking through the numerous files on his computer. Various messages from the Dark Council and stratagems from high ranking Imperial officers made up the bulk of his work to review. Paperwork made his skin crawl. He would rather be out in the field actively accomplishing something rather than sitting in his barren office located in the Citadel approving or correcting military matters. The nature of his job as Wrath had changed since the Emperors death. No more did he receive his orders from the Emperor and act as his personal enforcer. Now he acted in conjunction with the Dark Council, aiding them in guiding the Empire, though his focus was more on military matters. He focused the military, helped to guide their actions, developed strategies to win battles and conquer planets with the least expense to the Empire. His report and standing with the Imperial military were high, they respected his leadership, his willingness to fight with them in the trenches.
The same could not always be said with the Dark Council. His decisions often clashed with theirs, his values and those on the Council did not always align. While he wished for reform, to bring equality within the Empire for all beings, others clung to the old ways. The Council had often discussed his position in their power structure, trying to exclude him, oust him from his position, but his influence and power could not be denied. Try as they might to undermine his status it all ended futilely. Besides, not all members of the Council were bad. He had his allies in Darth Mortis and Vowrawn. His sister Darth Nox would always have his back as would his grandfather Darth Aruk though they did not always see eye to eye. It was what kept the two powers in a tenuous holding pattern, which only complicated his investigation. If the other Councilors count wind of his investigation they may grow suspicious of his motives.
He sighed and leaned back in his chair. His research into Darth Acina’s past had bore little. Born on Dromund Kaas to Sith her life had been planned out for her before she was even born. Her time at the Academy on Korriban had been surprisingly mundane. Her apprenticeship and appropriation of the title of Dark Lord had happened privately. The woman as a Sith was an enigma, her rise to power only substantiated by whispers. However, her life as a researcher, an academic in the exotic technologies of the galaxy which she would engineer was laid bare for all to see. Countless academic papers and journals written about her theories, discoveries, and engineering feats were scattered about Imperial databases and the holonet alike. There were more holopics of the woman in dirty jumpsuits with grease smearing her face than there were of her adorned in dark robes. It was clear where Acina’s passions lay. Her life had been decided for her, forced into a role she did not wish to have. In some way’s Bensynn could sympathize with her. His own responsibilities as the Wrath were something he grappled with.
Which made her recent behavior even more bizarre. Why would a woman who had no clear interest in the throne embroil herself in a conspiracy to possibly take it? Maybe she was being blackmailed. Perhaps another Councilor had leverage against her and was forcing her hand. Or maybe Acina truly was that cunning. It was all too complicated. Maybe he had given Vette and Jaesa the easy job tracking down the mysterious bounty hunter.
The tap, tap, tap of a cane connecting with the floor of his office interrupted his muddled thoughts. He turned and stood, bowing in respect to his grandfather in the doorway. “Grandfather, is there something I can do for you?”
Aruk limped into the office and took a seat in one of the chairs situated in front of his desk. He motioned for Bensynn to sit. “I hear you are interested in Darth Acina.”
Bensynn bit back a groan. Vowrawn must have gone shooting his mouth again all over the Citadel. He valued the older Councilor’s advice and respected his wit, but the man was a terrible gossip. He had probably miscued his interest in Acina’s location as a secret affair. “Where did you hear this from Grandfather?”
“Around. The Citadel is always far too interested in your personal life.”
“Something we can agree on,” Bensynn muttered.
“I have come to see if these rumors are true. Do you have amorous intentions towards Darth Acina?” He sneered her name, keeping his contempt of his fellow Dark Councilor thinly veiled.
Bensynn shook his head. “My interest in her is purely business. I seek her advice on a campaign I am organizing.” It was rare for him to lie to his grandfather. Frankly, it was rare for him to lie in general. He despised having to do it, finding the action dishonorable and weak, but he understood there were times when it was necessary. His grandfather did not need to know about his investigation nor his misgivings towards his fellow Councilors.
Aruk narrowed his eyes. “I see. You would do best to set that matter straight then as to not have our family’s reputation tarnished by such rumors.”
“Why would my interest in Acina be that bad?”
“For one she a human of lower birth,” Aruk began and Bensynn had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. His grandfather tended to look upon other races with disdain, believing the Pureblooded Sith to be the apex of evolution. He often disagreed with the people Bensynn chose to spend his time with. “Secondly she disgraces the name of a Dark Councilor, her title was hardly gained.”
“Grandfather you forget I was once a slave as low birth as she was,” Bensynn reminded the older Sith rubbing at the scars on the back of his neck.
“An unfortunate circumstance of who your father sought to bring to bed. A mistake I will not see you repeat,” Aruk all but growled.
“Grandfather I have no interest in anyone in that way. My attention is elsewhere.”
“It’s time you start considering your legacy grandson. Your blood will continue our families name.”
Bensynn gave a wry chuckle. “I don’t have the time to find someone. I have much more pressing matters.”
“I am aware of this, which is why I have taken the steps to procure you a meeting with the daughter of the Wyn family,” Aruk said sternly.
Bensynn blinked in surprise at the clinical way his grandfather had just revealed to him that he had set him up. On a date? “Grandfather I can’t. I’m too busy with my work, and I have yet to speak with Darth Acina.”
“Acina’s attentions are always drawn elsewhere. You would do well to exclude her from your plans,” Aruk divulged.
“What do you mean?” Bensynn asked leaning forward a little.
Aruk gave his grandson a sly smile. “Meet with Marianna tonight and I will tell you what I mean.”
The Wrath frowned. On one hand, a blind date set up by his grandfather was the last way he wanted to spend his evening, but if Aruk knew something about Acina that others did not…” Very well grandfather. You win.”
Vette whistled cheerfully as she limberly dodged rain puddles in her path. Jaesa followed behind her wondering why her friend was in such a good mood. Perhaps it was because Master Kurik had finally tasked them with a job which gave the Twi’lek something to focus her attention on rather than being cooped up in the Event Horizon for the duration of their stay. Still, they had spent the better half of the day asking around about the mysterious bounty hunter in green armor. Which of course had turned up next to nothing, because a description like that included nearly half the hunters in Kaas City alone. She pulled her hood up a bit farther. The rain had tapered down to a misty drizzle, allowing a thick fog to settle over the streets.
Vette halted ahead of her and Jaesa stopped at her back. Before them stood the Mandalorian Enclave, a tall ferrocrete building strung about with multiple banners of the different clans, and trophies, the bones of wild beasts hunted and killed by the hunters here. The Enclave was located deep in the Ninth Ward, amongst the slums and black markets of Kaas City, far from the Citadel and the upper echelons of Imperial society. One could almost forget that the Mandalorians were allies of the Empire considering their near disdainful standing among the Sith. This fracture between the two people made for a tense relationship.
“Vette, I don’t think we should be here,” Jaesa murmured lowly to her friend glancing over at two men dressed in the traditional armor of Mandalorian scouts eyeing them suspiciously.
“Nonsense, we’re just two people looking to hire a hunter,” Vette whispered back pulling Jaesa forward towards the entrance.
“Let me rephrase that. I don’t think I should be here,” Jaesa muttered nervously. The Mandalorian Enclave was a place sacred to the Mandalorians, just as the Citadel was to the Sith, which is why the two parties had an unspoken agreement to never breach the others sanctuary. A small token of respect between the two factions. And yet here she was, dark robes and armor with her lightsaber displayed prominently on her belt walking amongst the warrior people, pulled about by a short blue Twi’lek. She could sense their hostility, the air thick with distrust.
The Enclave was home to not just Mandalorians, but to other hunters and smugglers, beings from across the galaxy. The rooms were cluttered, filled with trophies from hunters past and present, adorning the walls and shelves. The air was thick, smoke and humidity from a poor ventilation system trapped every smell within the building. Tapestries and banners lined the walls and hung from the rafters around statues and eclectic objects taken from exotic planets. It was almost claustrophobic and Jaesa felt the familiar itch at the back of her neck when she was too enclosed. She tried to suck in a breath to calm herself. It wouldn’t do her or Vette any good if she lost control of herself here amongst the hardened killers. Force sakes, she was supposed to be protecting Vette! Jaesa stopped short and squeezed her eyes shut, sweat beading her brow. Calm down and breathe.
A small hand slipped around her gloved fist and gave her a reassuring squeeze. “It’s alright Jaesa.”
Vette’s voice was calm, soothing. Jaesa breathed deeply through her nose, letting her chest expand. Memories of being trapped in the caves below Quesh with her Master after Draagh had betrayed them flitted through her mind. Burned, crushed, and suffocating her Master had crawled from the collapsed caverns dragging her broken body with him. It still haunted her, being enclosed made her panic. She forced the air out slowing through pursed lips exhaling the anxiety. She had a job to do. “I’m alright.”
“You sure?” Vette whispered eyes scrutinizing her scarred face.
Jaesa nodded and forced a smile. They pushed forward into the Enclave, maneuvering around other beings that pressed close in small groups to chat or leaned casually against walls. Where would they even begin? Who should they even approach to ask about their mystery man?
“You don’t belong here.”
Jaesa turned at the gruff sibilant voice. A tall Trandoshan warrior stood a meter away. He was dressed in a gray jumpsuit with cracked yellow armor adorning his shins and chest. Slung across his back was a large vibrosword and a scattergun was strapped to his waist. Around him, a few other beings murmured their assent. Jaesa resisted the urge to reach for her lightsaber. Escalating the situation would not help.
“Relax, we’re not here to cause any trouble,” Vette assured swaggering forward and casually planting her hands on her twin blasters.
The Trandoshan snarled. “Sith don’t belong here girlie.”
Vette chuckled sardonically and hooked a thumb back at Jaesa who was now glaring down the hunter. “My girl here is no Sith. She’s an assassin. That lightsaber on her belt is a trophy she took from one of the bastards she killed.”
The Trandoshan took one look at Jaesa and laughed. The others around him joined him. “This little girl killed a Sith? Like I would believe that line of shavit.”
“She has the scars to prove it,” Vette snapped back. Quick as a vine snake Vette pulled Jaesa’s hood back revealing the marred left side of her face. The laughter was cut short and several people gasped at her ruined visage. Jaesa felt the urge to run and a surge of anger at Vette. Her scarred face, courtesy of the Quesh cave in, was something she struggled to accept. Deep pitted lines ripped from her lips up her cheek where they disappeared into her hairline. The flesh was mottled and ridged along her jaw and forehead, pulling the left side of her lips into a permanent grimace. Half of her face forever marred.
All were quiet as if none could comprehend where a being could obtain trauma such as hers and still live through it. The Trandoshan scuffed his feet and spit. “What’s your business here?”
“We’re looking to hire a hunter. Someone specific. He’s tall, wears green armor, a Mandalorian,” Vette explained.
“That describes nearly most of the beings in this place,” someone jeered from the crowd.
“He’s missing two fingers on his right hand,” Jaesa revealed, remembering the last bit of information her Master had told her about the man. Everyone in the crowd went silent, some even looked uneasy.
“Well,” Vette pressed. “Do you know him?”
“You’re talking about Three-finger. Mandalorian alright. Also, the Grand Champion of the Great Hunt,” the Trandoshan muttered apprehensively. “No one knows where he is though. Rumor is he blew jets off the planet.”
“Is there any way we could reach him?” Jaesa asked. By now the crowd had begun to dissipate, returning to their own conversations.
The hunter looked thoughtful. “He has a contact that sometimes sets him up with jobs named Crysta. You could talk with her. If she thinks it’s a worthy job, she’ll let Three-finger know.”
“Where do we find her?”
“Most of the time she’s here in the Enclave, but sometimes she goes bar hopping throughout Kaas City. I can give you a list of her favorite spots,” the hunter rumbled. While Vette and the Trandoshan exchanged information Jaesa tugged her hood up and pushed her way back outside. She didn’t miss the looks thrown her way as she left. The angry knot in her stomach twisted further. She stepped out into the clear air, free from the pointed stares and claustrophobia of the Enclave she could relax a bit.
“Hey, you okay?”
Jaesa bit her lip at Vette’s question. She wanted to snap at the other girl for what she did, but what good would that do. “Yeah fine. What’d you get?”
Vette looked like she wanted to say something more but wisely dropped it. “Got the list. There are several cantinas within walking distance we can hit first.”
Jaesa nodded and they headed off. They were both quiet, thoughts drifting, contemplating different things. The humidity from the rain hung in the air like a heavy blanket, the moisture seeping into Jaesa’s clothes and weighing down her armor. The first two bars they had visited were a bust. Drunken patrons grabbed at Vette who nimbly dodged their clumsy gropes, while Jaesa sent murderous glares in their direction. They had slunk away, muttering curses at her, sneering at her face. She felt her mood sour even more. Her arm brushed against Vette’s as they walked and she stiffened pulling back slightly, but enough for the other girl to notice.
Vette stopped abruptly. “Okay, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Jaesa replied curtly turning back to the Twi’lek who stood with her arms crossed incredulously over her chest.
“Don’t give me that crap Jaesa. You’ve been surly ever since the Enclave. Why?”
Jaesa bit back an angry retort. She didn’t want to fight. She wanted to find Crysta and then get out of the rain and away from the prying eyes of the public. “Drop it, Vette.”
She shook her head stubbornly. “Was it something I said or is this about the Trandoshan thug back at the Enclave?”
The anger that had been simmering in her gut since the incident ignited in her chest at the mortifying memory of the looks of horror and disgust on the people's faces. She wanted to turn on Vette and yell and scream that she, the one person she trusted most, had used what she was most insecure about to win a pissing match with the hunters. The words died in her throat as did the anger, her cheeks turning scarlet with shame when she met Vette's eyes. “You humiliated me.” It came out as a whisper, but Vette heard.
Her blue eyes softened, lips dropping into a frown. “Jaesa…” She reached out and put a hand on her shoulder.
“You know how I feel about…” Jaesa gestured to the left side of her face in revulsion. “This. You…used my scars. I know I shouldn’t care what others think, especially thugs, but it hurts when they look at me like I’m a freak, okay?”
“Jaesa I…” Vette paused as if searching for the right words to say. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
Jaesa just looked away.
“I never meant to hurt you. I just…wanted that guy off our backs. I never stopped to think…I just don’t see you as the freak you see yourself as,” Vette revealed softly. She reached up and eased the hood off Jaesa’s head and gently cupped her face in her palms, blue eyes meeting brown. “You’re just sweet, kind Jaesa.”
Jaesa closed her eyes, unsure if she should pull away or lean further into Vette’s touch. The other girl just silently traced her deep scars with gentle fingers. Jaesa felt the urge to lean down and press her lips to Vette’s. To discover what she had been wondering for so long. To act upon the feelings that had been building inside of her for months now. She hesitated. How could she know if Vette felt the same way? Yes, they shared a very close friendship that bordered on flirty sometimes, but Vette had never expressed an interest in her in that way before. Could she risk the chance of losing her closest friend in an attempt to gain something more? No, she couldn’t. Jaesa pulled away slowly, grasping Vette’s hands in her own.
“It’s okay,” Jaesa murmured.
Vette shook her head. “It’s not. I’m sorry Jaesa. I won’t do it again.”
“I believe you,” she said.
Vette smiled. “Come on. We’ve got like eight other bars to check tonight.”
Bensynn adjusted the collar of his tunic again for the third time. He sat at a corner table of the Nexus Room watching Sith and Imperial officers glide about the floor, sharing drinks and generally mingling. It was not an establishment Bensynn regularly visited preferring to spend his time with the rowdy crowd at the Grimoire rather than the upscale modern Nexus Room. Chandeliers made from blue amorphous crystals glinted overhead casting blue hues over the austere gray and white walls. He signaled for a service droid to bring him another bourbon straight. The anticipation of his date was setting him on edge. He had other things he could be doing. The droid slid the single malt bourbon in front of him before floating away. He took a gulp, draining half the glass.
“Getting the party started without me?”
Bensynn turned at the rich, lilting voice. A voluptuous Sith woman stood before him. Her skin was a deep red without any noticeable imperfection, her stature slim with a small waist and rounded hips sliding down to long legs. A graceful neck led to an aristocratic face with high cheekbones and slim bone spurs sliding along her gently sloping jaw. Ringlets of hair as black as the evening sky framed smoldering yellow eyes and full lips quirked into a playful smirk. She was gorgeous, one of the most beautiful women Bensynn had ever seen.
He stood abruptly, almost knocking over his drink in his haste to stand and extended his hand. “Marianna Wyn?”
She smiled and nodded taking his calloused hand in hers. “Lord Wrath I presume.”
He coughed and rubbed the back of his neck. A nervous habit of his. “Bensynn is fine. No need for formality.”
“Very well Bensynn,” Marianna said giving him another coy smile. “Should we sit?”
“Ah yes! Allow me.” Bensynn pulled his date’s chair out then eased it forward before retaking his own seat. “Forgive me, but I’m afraid I don’t know much about you. My ahem grandfather set this excursion up.”
Marianna laughed lightly. “I understand. My father arranged for this meet up as well. I don’t always have the time for such frivolities what with my responsibilities.”
Bensynn perked up at that. “What is it you do?”
“I fall beneath Darth Mortis’s Sphere. I am one of his advisors, a litigator.”
“Do you enjoy your work?”
“I do. It can be tedious at times, but it allows me to influence the Empire and serve my people better,” Marianna replied. “Though it is hardly as exciting as your work Lord Wrath.” Marianna smiled at him beneath hooded lashes and Bensynn coughed nervously.
“Bensynn, please. My work is definitely…intriguing. I never know what I may encounter,” he said finishing off his drink. “Would you like something?”
“Corellian Red if they have it,” Marianna replied. Bensynn signaled for the droid again giving their orders. “Since the annexation of Corellia it quite hard to come by.”
“Corellian’s can fight like cornered Uvaks when needed. Their resolve and tenacious spirit are quite incredible.”
“You respect them?” Marianna questioned taking a sip of her drink when the droid left.
Bensynn nodded. “I admire their resolve and willingness to fight for their home. They didn’t give an inch of ground without an all out fight.”
“A little barbaric though,” Marianna said.
Bensynn shrugged. “Different beings fight for different things. Their passion for their values and what they hold dear drives their will to fight. Differences can make us stronger.”
“Or weaken us. Purity and knowing where power lies are the key to strength. If you spread it out amongst too many individuals it can dilute what was once strong and eat away at its foundations,” Marianna pointed out.
Bensynn didn’t reply. Marianna was clearly referring to the power held by the Sith. There were some within the Empire that wished for the power of the Sith to be dispersed more evenly among the people. For the ruling class to be held accountable for their actions, for all being’s alien or other to be treated equally. It was something Bensynn strove to push for in his reformation. Inclusion for all, not just the elite. There were many however who did not share his sentiments.
Marianna slid a smooth hand over one of his drawing his attention back to the conversation. “I hope I haven’t offended you Bensynn.”
He offered her a reassuring smile. “Not at all. Opinions can differ. Tell me more about your work or perhaps of your hobbies.”
The time passed quickly, both sharing drinks and swapping stories of their respective work. Marianna was not only breathtakingly stunning but also intelligent. Her beliefs were staunchly traditional favoring many of the Empires strict policies on alien exclusion and Sith rule. Bensynn idly wondered how much of her family had influenced her views given the Wyn family was an old noble line of Pureblood Sith. Their influence reached far, even into the Dark Council. He escorted her home after their date bidding her farewell after an exchange of frequencies. Bensynn watched the buildings whip past in the taxi speeder as he rode to his grandfather’s estate. Marianna was…nice. She was intelligent and enthralling physically, but beyond that what more connection did the two of them share? Their conversation was easy, but only because they chose subjects that were not controversial. She was beautiful to look at, but one needed more than stunning looks to satisfy. At least he did. He sighed and rubbed the bone ridges on his forehead.
The taxi glided to a stop at the doors of a functional mansion. Hardly large in size the building was modest at best with bare redstone from Korriban serving as the structure's base with a granite finish. Guards lingered in the shadows of the garden that encircled the property, flitting about nearly unseen. His grandfather was not one for unnecessary pomp and luxury, instead tending to take a more utilitarian approach to life and invest his resources into his research and preservation of Sith culture and history. Knowledge was the ultimate display of power, not frivolous amenities other lords surrounded themselves with. His grandfather scorned them for their short-sightedness. Blinded by the weakest tenant of the Dark Side: Greed.
Bensynn entered the residence and walked the barren halls to his grandfathers’ study on the second floor. He knocked once and then entered. Darth Aruk’s study was filled to the brim with ancient artifacts of the Sith and relics of Massassi culture. Floor to ceiling shelves housed datapads, books, and ancient scrolls denoting the histories of his people, their philosophies and stories. Although nothing compared to his main study on Korriban, this collection was still impressive. His grandfather sat at his desk, stooped over an ancient manuscript with several datapads scattered about. His protocol droid C7-N2 hovered nearby awaiting any orders. Bensynn sat heavily across from the elder Sith.
“How was your time?” Aruk asked not even looking up from his work. He slid a withered finger across the text and jotted down a few notes on his datapad.
Bensynn shrugged noncommittedly. “Entertaining. She is…a sight to behold.”
Aruk spared his grandson a quick glance. “Is that all?”
“Should there be more? I went, had a good time, and we exchanged frequencies,” Bensynn elaborated stretching out.
“Her family is one of the founding members of Kaas city. They hold incredible influence.”
“I’m aware of that. She’s a lovely girl,” Bensynn agreed.
“But you’re indifferent to her,” Aruk guessed putting down his work and focusing his attention on his grandson.
“We have differing opinions on certain things,” Bensynn said.
“Opinions can change,” Aruk began. “Do not write her off as quickly as you do your other responsibilities.”
Bensynn held his hands up in defense. “I’m not writing her off, but I’m not going to go propose to her tomorrow.”
“You also do not have the luxury of frivolous flings either. You must start thinking about the legacy you will be leaving, the continuation of our family line through an heir,” Aruk pressed steepling his fingers.
“I have plenty of time grandfather. I’m only in my twenties,” he assured.
“Your father had the same thoughts at your age and died soon after before he could sire another suitable heir,” Aruk admonished him sternly.
Bensynn had to suppress the wince at his grandfather’s callous inference to his mixed blood heritage. He had been born a slave, to a mother half Sith half human. Raised until age ten in the slave pits he had caught his fathers’ eye after having killed a taskmaster threatening Massaia. He had nearly been whipped to death when his father had intervened, taking his nearly dead son away from Ziost. Away from his mother and sister to Korriban to be trained. He had been harsh and trained him mercilessly, trying to instill in him the qualities of a great Sith. War had summoned him away and ultimately lead to his death against the Jedi. His grandfather had continued his training and raised him since. And while he strove to live up to his father’s legacy and bring honor to his family his grandfather still scorned his existence at times. Perhaps wishing for an heir pure of blood instead of tainted origins as he was.
“You promised to tell me more about Darth Acina grandfather,” Bensynn reminded Aruk deciding to change the subject. “I followed through on my part of our deal.”
Aruk sighed, narrowing his red eyes. “Very well. Acina’s inclusion onto the Dark Council came as a surprise to us all.”
“Why is that?”
“Because she was not inducted by any of the standing Councilor's. Usually, the Council will appoint a replacement sphere head as they see fit, but her ordination came from the Emperor directly. She’s young and inexperienced in such politics. Few have even heard of her, and none know where her loyalties lie,” Aruk explained. He leaned back in his chair. “Couple this with her mysterious tasks she was given by the Emperor none saw fit to trust her, though there were some who tried to curry her favor.”
“I don’t get it. Why all the secrecy? What is she hiding?” Bensynn inquired leaning forward.
“More like what was the Emperor hiding?” Aruk replied cryptically. Bensynn raised his facial ridges and Aruk continued. “The Sphere of Technology has long held secrets unknown to the rest of the Dark Council.
Bensynn shrugged. “Every sphere has its skeletons.”
“True,” Aruk agreed. “But the Sphere of Technology is tasked with protecting one of the Emperor’s greatest enigma’s, the Arcanum.”
Aruk nodded sagely. “Before Acina there was a Jedi turned Sith named Darth Karrid who was charged with leading the Sphere of Technology. Arrogant of her importance and naïve to manipulation she let slip the existence of Arcanum to her master. An informant of mine overheard and told me. I searched endlessly for any clues about Arcanum and its secrets but found none. No one knows what it holds nor where it even is, save Acina.”
“Karrid’s master may know. She could have revealed more possibly,” Bensynn pointed out.
“Doubtful. Karrid was killed soon after aboard her flagship the Ascendant Spear over Duro. Whatever she knew died with her.”
“I would still like to speak with her master if I can. Who was it?” Bensynn asked feeling the excitement of having the first real bit of information to work with.
“Darth Malgus if I remember correctly,” Aruk answered. “Why are you so interested in Acina’s duties?”
“I told you, to help me plan a campaign. She’s hard to pin down and I just wanted some information to better understand her,” Bensynn lied smoothly.
Aruk only shook his head, disbelief clear in his eyes. “So you’ve said. Last I heard Darth Malgus was aboard the Vaiken spaceport overseeing the refueling of his fleet. If you leave soon you may still catch him before he leaves.”
“Thank you, grandfather,” Bensynn said bowing before he left. He was acutely aware of who Malgus is. A fierce warrior and cunning tactician, Bensynn respected the man’s ruthless prowess in battle and gutsy tactics that had won him many battles. The Sith tended to exclude himself from society, his demeanor harsh and unforgiving. Still, the two of them had worked well together when assaulting the Star Forge and bringing down the imposter identifying himself as Revan. Perhaps he would know more about the secrets of Arcanum.
Chapter 4: And Rewards
Vette wrapped her hands around the mug of Corellian Spiced Ale that was slid across the table in front of her. She glanced across the bar to the older human woman who sat precariously on one of the stools surrounded by several other patrons. Her boisterous voice, overlaid with a thick accent that was clearly not Imperial, cut through the other mindless conversations being swapped around the establishment. The beings gathered around the woman with the spiked red hair were hanging on her every word, some chuckling at her well-timed jokes. Crysta Markon was clearly the life of the party.
Vette sipped her drink. A loud guffaw and a chorus of laughs went up from the bar. Crysta must have finally reached her punchline. Vette slipped from her booth, nodding to Jaesa who stood unnoticed in the doorway and sidled up to the bar. She put an easy smile on her face as she slid into the seat next to Crysta’s.
“Some story you got there,” Vette began casually. “Buy you a drink to hear another?”
Crysta turned, green eyes sparkled with mirth, lines around her mouth pulling deeper as she grinned. “Sure sugar. I’m never one to pass up a free drink.”
Vette signaled to the bartender who slid a fresh Flameout across to Crysta who threw it back in one go. Vette blinked in surprise. Flameouts were known for their potency, the drink scorching the mouth while it froze the throat on the way down. They were usually savored, not taken in one gulp. “Impressive.”
Crysta winked at her. “One of my many talents. Now, what really brings you here? Surely you really don’t want to listen to an old hunter reminisce of the glory days.”
Vette paused studying the other woman carefully, trying to gauge her mood. “What makes you think that?”
Crysta shooed the crowd around her off and turned back to the Twi’lek. Her smiler was sharper now, eyes glinting knowingly. “Cause you and your mysterious friend by the door have been watching me ever since you came in.”
Vette felt her heart thud to a stop at Crysta noticing their presence. Her hand went for her blaster but Crysta was faster. For a woman who looked like she spent most of her time keeping bar stools warm, she was surprisingly agile. And strong. The hunter grabbed Vette’s wrist and twisted it sharply behind her back at an agonizing angle nearly fracturing her arm in the process. The young thief found her face shoved into the stained bar top and the business end of a blaster tapping the base of her skull. The snap-hiss of Jaesa’s lightsaber igniting cut through the air. Several patrons screamed, and the barkeep yelled, ducking for cover.
“Let her go,” Jaesa all but growled the tip of saber centimeters from Crysta’s face.
“Feisty, but I wouldn’t make any sudden moves friend, or I’ll blow your girl’s head clean off,” Crysta shot back cheerfully.
“We just want to talk,” Vette grumbled from her spot facedown in the bar.
“Say your piece.”
Vette arched her head around, so she could see Crysta who was staring down a murderous-looking Jaesa. Her friends’ eyes were a sickly orange, like twin burning suns, muscles in her jaw twitching, hands clenched tightly around her saberstaff.
“We’re looking to hire an associate of yours,” Vette began. Crysta didn’t even spare her a glance. “He goes by Three-finger.”
Crysta’s eyes snapped down to look at Vette’s for a split second. “What kind of job?”
“Search and recovery per se.”
Crysta again glanced down at her, eyes studying her face looking for any hints that she was lying. The position was really starting to hurt, her trapped arm throbbing now. “Tell your friend to put away her glowstick then we can talk.”
Vette nodded to Jaesa who hesitated for a second before she deactivated her blade and clipped it to her belt. The hunter stepped back and released Vette’s arm slowly, keeping her blaster pointed at her back. Vette stood up and wrung her sore appendage out, fresh bruises were blooming on her wrist from where Crysta had manhandled her. She pointed at a back table they could all take, Vette and Jaesa taking a seat across from Crysta as she finally holstered her weapon. The other patrons were beginning to emerge from their hiding spots and retake their seats, though they stayed far away from the odd trio’s table.
“Sorry bought that. Can never be too careful, especially when there’s Sith involved. No offense,” Crysta explained nodding to Jaesa who didn’t say anything in return.
“Well, you didn’t dislocate my arm so no hard feelings,” Vette said. “We were told you can get in touch with Three-finger.”
Crysta shook her head. “Not so much anymore. I used to be his handler for the Great Hunt and helped set him up on jobs, but he operates on his own nowadays. The only time I see him is if we happen to visit the same cantina” Crysta blew a strand of hair away from her eyes before continuing. “You just missed him too. He burned jets off this planet not long ago. Say’s he got a new job from some high up.”
“He tell you where he was going?”
“He was pretty vague about the specifics, but he said he was heading for Taris. Though that could be for other things not related to the job,” Crysta noted.
“Care to elaborate?” Vette pressed.
The older woman smirked. “There’s a smuggler by the name of Hawke who makes routine drops there for colonists. Poor bastard is head over heels for her though he claims he’s only interested in her bounty.”
Vette and Jaesa exchanged looks. “Anything else you can tell us?”
Crysta shrugged. “Not really. Unless you really were interested in hearing one of my stories.”
“We’ll pass,” Jaesa asserted as she stood, Vette, followed, and they ducked out of the bar. They hailed a taxi and headed back to the Event Horizon. Jaesa was quiet, staring out the window at the buildings whipping past the taxi, the lights blurring together. Vette frowned and nudged her friends’ shoulder.
“We got our next lead,” Vette said trying to draw the other girl’s attention.
Jaesa turned. Her eyes were still a smoldering orange and Vette glanced away for a brief second. She wasn’t used to seeing her friend so immersed in the Dark Side. “We have a vague clue that points us at an inhospitable planet. That doesn’t give us much.”
Vette shrugged. “There’s also the smuggler. Maybe she knows something.”
“Do you know how many people are named Hawke in this system alone?”
“Don’t be such a downer. We did good. We’ll comm Bensynn, tell him what we found, then hop the first flight to Taris.”
Jaesa blinked in surprise. “You want to head to Taris now?”
“Beats hanging around here. Besides I hear it’s lovely this time of year.”
The spaceport near Kaas City was thankfully empty, and Bensynn was able to catch a shuttle departing to Vaiken Spacedock before it departed. Vaiken Spacedock was a massive station located above the planet Dromund Kaas where the various fleets of the Empire would stop and refuel and gather supplies while on leave. It was a place always bustling with activity. The multiple decks held crew quarters, barracks, vendors, entertainment lounges, war rooms, and docking ports. Sith, Imperial soldiers, and even the odd bounty hunter roamed the halls searching for work or looking to offload.
Bensynn easily pushed through the masses, his broad-shouldered frame and black armor warning any onlookers to steer clear. He passed through the main atrium and towards the lifts, taking one to the launch hangar. He stepped out and ducked past the various crew moving about refueling patrol fighters or fixing dropships while others dashed about restocking larger vessels. He stopped at one of the large viewports on the far side of the hanger. He had holoed ahead to alert Darth Malgus of his impending arrival, the man insisting he meets him in the drop hangar. Outside the station’s viewport, the Ziost Shadow and White Nova drifted lazily past. The sister vessels were the pride of the Imperial Navy. Harrower-class dreadnaughts with state-of-the-art concussive missile systems, cloaking technology, and spanning over 800 meters in length, the twin ships were the silent guardians of Dromund Kaas and Vaiken Spacedock.
“Impressive, aren’t they?”
“Indeed, they are,” Bensynn agreed turning to nod respectfully to Darth Malgus. The man stood nearly as tall as he did, his head shaved bare, mouth and face scarred by the fire of war, heavy black armor encasing his thick frame.
“You wished to speak with me Darth Tyran?” Malgus said still gazing out the viewport.
“It has to do with your late apprentice,” Bensynn began watching Malgus’ countenance through his reflection on the glass in front of them. Though the man was straightforward in his intentions, which Bensynn respected him for, he was still Sith, prone to lying if it suited him best.
Bensynn nodded and folded his hands behind his back. “She once let slip to you a place that was under her protection.”
Malgus’ right eye twitched. “I don’t seem to recall that.”
Bensynn turned and stared Malgus down. “She was your apprentice, which means she must have told things she told no one else.”
“Karrid was my apprentice in name only. She came to be under my instruction when she was sent by Jedi to infiltrate the Sith. I trained her, unaware of the betrayal she carried with her, until one day she was called by the Emperor,” Malgus disclosed turning to meet Bensynn’s gaze unflinchingly. Bensynn raised his brow spurs in curiosity. “She was under the Emperor’s care for several months. When she returned…” Malgus trailed off.
Bensynn remained quiet, allowing the other man a minute to gather his thoughts. “She was different. Her words were not her own, she acted with indifference, her mind…her will belonged to another. She was no longer my apprentice, but rather another vassal of the Emperor whom he stationed far away.”
“Arcanum,” Bensynn let the name slip past his lips and Malgus glanced at him sharply before turning back to the viewport. But it was too late, he knew that Malgus knew the name. “Karrid told you.”
Malgus was silent as if deciding whether or not he should try to lie again or give in. “The last time I saw her I congratulated her on her position to the Dark Council. It was unheard of for the Council to let an alien, who was also a former Jedi, receive such a prestigious position of power. Many on the Council were against the Emperor’s decision, but what could they do? I saw it as progress. Inclusion for other beings in the hierarchy.”
Malgus’ views were staunchly nontraditional. He believed in the inclusion of other beings and aliens in the Empire, not the traditional purist values many on the Council believed in. It was another reason Bensynn respected the other man. They both fought for equality, for a better Empire.
“I pressed her for details,” the other Sith continued. “She gave me scripted answers. I pressed harder until she let slip Arcanum. It was as if for a second whatever was clouding her mind lifted. She said she had been given the duty to guard Arcanum by the Emperor himself. I tried to ask her what it could possibly be, but all she told me was that it was a space station located somewhere on the fringes of Imperial space. Then she was gone.”
“A space station?” Bensynn pondered. “Did she tell you what it was used for?”
Malgus shook his head. “No. One can only theorize what the Emperor is hiding.”
“Or why he would appoint a Jedi to guard his secrets?” Bensynn murmured.
“All of the appointed heads of the Sphere of Technology have been at the Emperor’s request, besides Darth Hadra, but her tenure was fleeting and by the insistence of the Council. Every other person inducted has been someone of little consequence in the eyes of the Empire’s political games,” Malgus claimed sparing him a glance.
“Mekhis, one of the first, was a scientist, her power in the Force was unimpressive, yet her feats in bioengineering were renowned. She was able to enhance her body and augment her meager abilities to gain some notoriety amongst her peers. However, the Emperor chose her to lead the Sphere of Technology. The same could be said for Karrid. A fallen Jedi with no ties to anyone within the Empire elevated to a position of power by the will of the Emperor. It was unheard of. Hadra’s promotion came from manipulation and the murder of her competition,” Malgus said.
“I heard she obtained the seat by her brief affair with you,” Bensynn pointed out.
Malgus grimaced. “Rumors. The woman was a scheming sleen not fit to hold the seat. Karrid deserved it, she was fearsome in battle and her mind was keen. At least before the Emperor twisted her.”
Bensynn could hear the disdain the other man held in his voice for their former leader. “And now Acina holds the seat.”
“Yes, but her appointment didn’t come from the Emperor, or at least not directly. He was already dead by the time Acina was appointed.”
“And yet the Council did not appoint her. It was the will of the Emperor she be given control of the Sphere.” And Bensynn had a sneaking suspicion of who had appointed her.
“The succession of that Sphere has always been a mystery, that and the secrets it holds,” Malgus turned as an officer approached, waving him forward.
“Apologies for the interruption my lord, I just came to inform you that your flagship is finished refueling and your fleet will be ready to depart shortly,” the officer reported.
“Prep my shuttle I will be there momentarily,” Malgus ordered. The officer offered a smart salute before hurrying off. “This concludes our business?”
Bensynn nodded. “You’ve been most helpful.”
“I won’t ask why you're interested in the Arcanum. I don’t want to know, however, if you find anything out about Karrid.”
“I’ll let you know.”
Malgus nodded. “If you ever find yourself in need of stretching your legs, I could use your blade on the battlefield.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Bensynn promised as he watched the other Sith depart. He turned and headed back to shuttle bays that would take him back to Kaas City. He felt his comm beep as he clicked the receive button. “Bensynn.”
Vette’s excited voice burst over his comm, indicating she and Jaesa had found a lead and were following up on it. “Wait you’re going to Taris?”
The heavy rain beat against the windows of Massaia’s office, torrential sheets washing over the panes of glass casting the room in a watery shadow. The Dark Councilor tapped her stylus against her datapad, one hand supporting her head as she scanned over the files rolling past her screen. A rustle of robes and the clicking of her unneeded companion placing a third datapad to the side caused Massaia to look up. Arkous’ flunky sat across from her, eyes darting back forth across her datapad, jotting notes with her stylus on flimsi beside her. Massaia sighed and returned to her work. The past few days Arkous’ underling had come early in the morning to begin the arduous task of sifting through the Imperial militaries logs and stayed until late into the night. While Massaia preferred to work by herself she begrudgingly had to admit that working with Lana hadn’t been terrible. The woman was thorough in her work and detail oriented. Nothing escaped her eyes; the tiniest indiscretion was added to the growing list they were both compiling.
Still, Massaia wasn’t used to spending so much…time with someone else. She didn’t spend this much time with her crew or even her brother for that matter.
“I think I may have something,” Lana murmured from her spot, pausing to write something down before turning to address her.
“Oh?” Massaia asked gesturing for the other woman to continue.
“Most of the indiscretions that we’ve combed through have been minor, military officials circumventing orders to preserve resources or press for an advantage yes?”
Massaia nodded. “There was bound to discrepancies. It’s understandable with a force as vast as the Empires. But the attacks on Karagga were more than an oversight. Several planets within the Y’Toub system were attacked, couple that with the reports of Karagga succumbing to a fit of madness and paranoia this was a strategic attack not a simple circumvention of orders.”
“Agreed. I have reports of a similar incident taking place two months prior on Denova. A coordinated Imperial attack on the planet. Mercenary forces hired by the Republic to protect it reported the incident,” Lana revealed pushing her datapad across the desk to Massaia who glanced over it.
“I don’t understand what’s Denova’s standing within the Empire?”
“Right now, nothing. It’s a Republic controlled planet, but the Imperial military has a vested interest in it. The planet holds vast reserves of baradium and the Republic mines the planet for the ore daily. The Imperial military has tried several times to initiate small-scale invasions to gain a foothold, but each time was repelled by a group of mercenaries called the Warstalkers,” Lana explained.
“Warstalkers?” Massaia raised a slim brow at the name.
“Trandoshan warriors and mercenaries under a leader by the name of Kephess. They were hired by the Republic to protect the baradium mines. They are efficient and lethal and have repelled every attack force we have sent.”
“So, what does this have to do with our investigation?” Massaia asked leaning forward a bit.
“Imperial Command stopped sending forces to Denova. It was cited as being too costly a campaign to engage in with the renewed war with the Republic, and all forces in the system were recalled,” Lana answered.
“Meaning,” Massaia continued. “Whoever attacked the planet a few months ago was acting of their own volition within the Imperial military.”
“In a sense, but I think this may be a group operating outside of the constraints of the Sith Empire.”
“I’ve thought the same thing myself,” Massaia agreed. “These large-scale assaults could not have gone unnoticed if it was a crew operating within Imperial Command. Someone may be operating under Imperial colors without permission from the Empire.”
Lana nodded. “There’s little information about the attacks from Denova. Most are secondhand accounts taken from intelligence agents stationed in the area, but rumor is the Imperial force took the planet without having to fire a single shot.”
“How is that possible.” Massaia leaned back in her chair. “The Warstalkers up to this point appeared to have been hostile to any form of Imperial presence.”
“Evidently the leader Kephess was overcome by a spell of madness.”
“Like Karagga,” Massaia murmured.
“Kephess met with the leader for a short time and then the fleet departed,” Lana said stretching out a bit.
“What did they want?”
“Remember the baradium deposits? Intel from a source I have on Denova states that Kephess has gone rogue. He’s broken ties with the Republic and forced them off the planet, but that’s not even the most interesting part,” Lana began pulling up several files from her datapad and illuminating them. “Intel claims Kephess has been sending routine shipments of baradium out from Denova to an unknown group.”
“Our mysterious third party. But how did they manage to convince Kephess to defect? And how did we not know about this?” Massaia asked. There seemed to be more questions than they both had answers to. Could the faction that attacked Karagga be the same one that turned Kephess? And if it was the same individual at work why? What was their plan?
“I can’t offer you an explanation for your first question, but I believe that the Republic has covered up much of the incident as to not alert other forces of the defection,” Lana theorized.
“Is the Empire planning to move on this opportunity?” Massaia questioned. It seemed like a ripe opportunity to seize the planet from the Republic while it was in upheaval and to also investigate Kephess’ odd behavior firsthand.
“The Empire has responded by sending an assault fleet to clear the way for a larger invasion force, though the work is slow going. Kephess is somehow singlehandedly repelling both the Empire and the Republic,” Lana replied.
“So how does this fit in with the attacks in the Y’Toub system. What can this group stand to gain from either attack?”
“Well baradium is not only a high yield explosive, but it can also sell for very high prices on the black market. Gangs such as Black Sun pay top credit for unrefined baradium ore. In order to have a fleet, you must have the finances to operate one. I followed some accounting expenditures within the military and found no funds leading back to this fleet and its attacks. It’s operating on its own fiscal resources,” Lana revealed.
“So Denova was for raw resources. I looked over the reports from the Y’Toub attacks. All the planets that were attacked were controlled by the Hutt Cartels and monitored by Cartel mercenaries,” Massaia pointed out.
Lana nodded. “That would make sense. The Hutt’s have the wealth to employ their own army.”
“Reports from those attacked worlds make mention of several mercenary forces defecting and leaving the planet with the mysterious fleet. My brother made mention of how several of Karagga’s lieutenant’s and their companies reneged on their contracts and left. The Hutt killed his remaining enforcers afraid the others would turn against him,” Massaia disclosed. Lana smiled slightly and Massaia cocked her head to the side. “What?”
“I often forget your brother is the Empire’s Wrath,” Lana jested softly.
“It’s hardly worth mentioning,” Massaia dismissed.
“I suppose it is my lord,” Lana agreed.”
“Anyway, we’re now working with the theory that this is a third party unaffiliated with the Empire.”
“Or they once were affiliated with the Empire and no longer are,” Lana pointed out and Massaia nodded in agreement.
“Well not only does a fleet need resources to fuel it, but it needs manpower to run it,” Massaia said spreading her hands wide.
“So, the Y’Toub attacks were possibly a drafting campaign? I suppose that would make sense.”
“Hutt enforcers have no loyalty to anyone only the being who shoves the most credits in their face.” Massaia sat back in her chair. Things were slowly clicking together. Yes, they were still no closer to finding the identity of their mysterious attackers, but they had a possible motive behind the two attacks. And a pattern. The attackers were gathering resources and building a possible army. For what end Massaia could only guess. She sighed and rubbed her forehead. The long days and nights spent working were beginning to take their toll. Her head was throbbing relentlessly, and her stomach rolled rife with nausea. She needed rest, and quite possibly a dose of cell regens.
“Are you okay?”
Massaia looked up at Arkous’ underling. Her golden eyes were scrutinizing her face, curiosity thinly veiled, lips pressed into a neutral line. Massaia inwardly cursed and straightened her back. How could she have been so careless? She was in the presence of a woman whose intentions were unclear and Massaia was so tired and distracted she had let her carefully constructed walls slip, revealing weakness, disease. “I’m fine.”
Lana was silent, eyes continuing to observe her for a brief second before she returned her attention back to her work. She wondered how much the other Sith was able to sense in her fleeting moments of weakness. Massaia reached out and probed gently at the other woman’s mind, nothing obtuse or invasive, just a light testing of the other’s boundaries. Lana’s mind was a vault, tightly locked away but highly structured. She could sense a strong connection to the Force emanating from the other woman, but it was…hidden…her presence and power masked as if to hide its true depths. Lana glanced at her again and Massaia looked away. She was probably aware of her probing. They both sat silently for a few moments, each gauging the others mood and testing boundaries.
“How long have you been working with Arkous?” Lana blinked in surprise at Massaia’s abrupt question but schooled her features quickly into a neutral expression.
“Not long. I have always been under the Sphere of Military Offense, but before Darth Arkous requested my services I worked in a more solitary capacity,” Lana replied leaning back in her chair.
“Doing what,” Massaia pressed. She was curious about this woman, where did she come from? Where did her allegiances lie?
Lana shrugged. “Small-scale invasion campaigns. I was sent to destabilize enemy operations and gather intelligence and then relay my findings back to Command who would then plan their assaults accordingly.”
“You must have been good at your work to catch the eye of a Dark Councilor.”
“I only did what I was tasked to. Darth Arkous had a campaign he was working on and asked my advice about weak points. I gave my assessment and he appreciated my insight and requested for me join him permanently and I agreed,” Lana explained, and she took a breath. “I am aware of your…exploits and your rise to power. It was quite shocking.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Massaia said stiffly. The tables were turning and now Arkous’ lackey was attempting to pry into her life.
But Lana did not press her. Instead, her placid golden eyes held her harsh orange gaze steadily. “The value of a great mind cannot be measured. The Dark Council is no doubt all the better for your involvement.”
Massaia tilted her head in confusion. Was this woman…complimenting her? Other Sith would have taken this opportunity to pick apart her past or shower her with empty flattery, but this woman’s words seemed, no felt sincere. Massaia prided her keen intellect above all else. It was what kept her alive all these years. To have this other Sith decipher this about her without so much as a few words swapped between them and a couple days spent in each other’s company spoke volumes of the other woman’s intelligence and instinct. “You see me well, better than most ever have.”
Lana again shrugged. “To acquire knowledge, one must observe.”
Massaia shook her head. “It’s more than that. The Force it…teems within you.”
“And it always has,” Lana answered truthfully again surprising Massaia with her blunt honesty. “I’m fortunate in that regard. I sense you are too.”
Massaia hesitated unsure of how honest she should be. “I suppose I am.”
Lana smiled and opened her mouth to speak again, but the soft beep of her commlink interrupted her. She gave her an apologetic look and excused herself and stepped outside the office. Massaia watched her leave steepling her fingers and sinking into thought. Lana was…an enigma. She was calm, patient, completely in control of every aspect of her being. She emulated more characteristics of a Jedi than a Sith and Massaia briefly wondered if she was a Jedi turncoat. She would have to dig into the other woman’s past. She could bet Lana had done the same to her. The other Sith returned moments later and sat down with a sigh, gathering up her datapads.
“Something wrong?” Massaia asked watching the other woman’s face closely.
“Another matter I’m currently working on requires my attention at the moment,” Lana replied placing the datapads and flimsi into a satchel.
“Oh? More important than a secret Imperial fleet attacking systems?”
Lana let out a light chuckle. “No, perhaps not, but still a pressing matter in its own right.”
Massaia raised her brows. Lana was being cagey and purposefully vague, though Massaia understood why. Sith prided themselves on secrecy and the ability to hide their weaknesses from each other. “Something I can help with?” It surprised her that she was offering her services to this woman she hardly knew. She often tried to keep to herself and not stick her nose in business that wasn’t hers. But Arkous’ underling was…intriguing.
Lana hesitated as if warring on wanting to tell her or keep her lips sealed. “How much do you know about the cult of Revan?”
That was a name Massaia hadn’t heard in a long time. “Not much. A bunch of heretical lunatics living in tents up in the mountains surrounding Kaas City worshiping a long-dead Sith Lord.” Massaia conveniently left out the part where she had once been inducted into the mysterious order with her brother years ago. She appreciated the other woman’s mind and honesty, but hardly trusted her.
“A few weeks ago, they staged a break out at an Imperial detention center and freed several inmates. Darth Marr has been tasked with hunting them down and requested my assistance with the job,” Lana elaborated further.
“Were you a bounty hunter in your past life?” Massaia jabbed.
Lana shook her head. “No, but I have…experience tracking fugitives.”
“You are a woman of many mysteries.”
“I could say the same about you, my lord,” Lana pointed out. “If there’s nothing else, I can return to our work within the day.”
“Take your time,” Massaia assured and Lana offered one final bow before turning and leaving in a flutter of black robes. Massaia watched the doors slide shut behind her guest and tapped her fingers together. She picked up her personal datapad, one that was encrypted with her own protection hardware, and pressed a few commands bringing up a roster of Imperial detention centers. Lana’s mention of the Revanite’s brought back memories of the brutal fights she and her brother had waged in the jungles surrounding Kaas City with the cult’s followers and wildlife. It also called back to her brother’s recent fight aboard the Foundry with the mysterious man who identified himself as Revan. Could there be some connection or just two incidents unrelated to each other?
Her datapad beeped indicating for her to input her security codes to view the restricted information brought up. She typed in her code and watched as a list of unfamiliar names and prisoner pictures flashed across her screen. She stopped when a name and the picture of a dark-skinned woman with red tattoos crisscrossing over her cheeks and forehead paused on her datapad. The face of Tari Darkspanner, a woman she had betrayed many years ago to the apprentice of Darth Charnus stared back at her. The woman was a delusional fanatic that wielded the power of her cult-like a blunt weapon. She lacked the finesse and guile to operate such a group which is why it had been simple to infiltrate her people and discover her identity. Truth be told Massaia had forgotten about the woman. To her, her fate had been sealed. She vaguely remembered hearing reports of Tari’s capture and her group's abrupt dismemberment, but the fate of its leader? She assumed she had been executed, or perhaps tortured and then thrown into a slave camp. To hear she had been held in a detention center on Dromund Kaas piqued Massaia’s interest. What worth did this woman have beyond her control of a now-defunct cult? And where was she now?
Chapter 5: Cold Dark Places
Storm-bruised clouds, heavy and low, dropped teeming rain into the howling wind, slanting in from the northwest to batter against the tall dark form of the Empire’s Wrath walking across the stone courtyard towards the entrance of Kholat. The ancient temple had been built nearly a millennium ago. Constructed entirely of stone the dark temple stood alone, far beyond the reaches of Kaas City amongst the inhospitable jungles. Cracked stone walkways littered with roughly hewn sconces that would normally cast firelight illuminated the path up to the entrance. Bensynn ignored the abandoned camps and expedition equipment scattered about the courtyard that had been left by the Imperial Reclamation Service when they had been forced to leave their work behind months ago. None had been allowed to set foot upon the hallowed ground since the Emperor’s death; the Dark Council seeing fit to keep the Emperor’s demise covered up. Only those on the Council knew of the Emperor’s fate and a select few tasked to care for the temple’s grounds.
Bensynn hated this place. When he had first come years ago under the instruction of his late master the experience had left him shaken. The temple emanated darkness. The light from the sconces seemed to disappear amongst the shadows cast about the structure as if swallowed whole. Cool fingers brushed against his neck as he ascended the steps setting a cold sweat across his brow and down his spine. Soft whispers, the remnant voices of those long dead, called to him, the sound like a knife scraping against a whetstone. It was more than just his ears hearing them though, it was as if their sibilant voices were crawling around inside of his head, scratching at the base of his skull. People unprepared for the sensation often went mad from the experience and Bensynn could understand why. He pressed forward.
There were no windows to the outside world. The air was still, slightly chilled and heavy, the effect suffocating as if an invisible power was wrapping itself around one’s ribcage and squeezing. The only light came from pillars spaced evenly apart alit with ethereal blue flames that gave no smoke, no scent, and oddly no sound of crackling flame. Kholat distorted reality, a being’s senses warped to betray one’s mind and body, nature itself twisted to the dark power that resided within the very walls. Bensynn pushed out with his senses, ignoring the whispers, the discomfort, and the heady power brushing against his mind, seeking an opening, a weakness to exploit. He had walked these halls before, each time steeling his resolve to better acclimate himself to the strange environment of the dark temple. Yet, he was never fully at ease.
He ascended the stone stairs at the end of the great hall. They wound about a massive statue carved within the very walls itself. It appeared to be a Sith with arms outstretched, palms facing upwards, chin tilted towards the heavens, a stern expression void of emotion etched upon its unmoving face. The statues torso was cut exquisitely from the rock, careful detail put into the Sith’s nearly emaciated frame, each rib laid bare. A spiked crest fanned out from his head, carved eyes cast downwards to the roughly hewn stone statues scattered about below, their heads bowed in humility and deference. An almost uncanny representation of the Emperor and his people. Bensynn paused at the top of the stairs and looked back. Below sealed chambers lay closed tight, shadows twisted around the pillars and statues littered about the floor, abandoned excavation equipment pushed up against the walls. The Reclamation Service had attempted several times to explore Kholat, each expedition ending in disaster. The Emperor did not give up his secrets willingly.
He stalked down the empty halls deeper inside the temple, his footsteps made no echo as he moved. He paused briefly outside of a large room. The walls and ceiling were crumbling, large chunks ripped free haphazardly, columns toppled, and stray cuts from a lightsaber scarred the damaged stone. The bleak gray clouds of the sky peaked through the holes in the ceiling baring the temple to the outside. Bensynn shook his head. He could still see the twisted, crushed bodies of the Emperor and blind Jedi who had struck him down laying unmoving beneath the stone rubble. He had been one of the first to happen upon the scene, shocked to see his master’s broken body lying amongst the destruction. He was certain nothing could kill the Sith, having experienced the man’s power firsthand and nearly dying from the exposure. The Emperor was a void, drawing all that was living into him, trapping and obliterating one’s essence within. Bensynn’s shock had soon given way to sickening relief at the confirmation of the Emperor’s death. While he had blindly idolized the man as a young acolyte and warrior coming face to face with the Sith had left him with the startling realization that the Emperor cared nothing for his people and saw them as little more than cattle. Something to feast upon to quell the void within.
He shook his head and pushed past the desecrated room and farther down the hall. He stepped into the last room on the left. A glowing pit alight with the blue fire found in the sconces was situated in the center of the room. All around the pit were sigils carved into the stone and faceless statues all sculpted into the walls. Their stomachs had been carved out, braziers of fire resting upon their hollowed midsections as heady incenses burned in their blistering coals. Servant Two kneeled before the pit. Raised in his hands was a shallow bronze bowl alight with smoldering embers and burning spices, the smoke a thick gray that swirled around his slight body. The Sith spoke lowly in a language Bensynn wasn’t familiar with. He thought he caught some words whispered in Massassi, the language of his ancient ancestors, but couldn’t be sure. The Old Tongue was forgotten by many of his people, even his grandfather couldn’t speak it fluidly. He claimed it was the language of the Force, a dialect of unknown power. Servant Two’s high keen broke Bensynn from his thoughts. The Sith’s chanting was growing louder now, the bowl trembling in his raised hands, threatening to spill the burning contents.
“He seeks clarity in these dark times,” Servant One murmured emerging from the darkness to answer Bensynn’s unasked question. The Wrath hadn’t even sensed the other Sith’s presence, the man deft at keeping himself hidden.
“Don’t we all,” he grunted sparing Servant One a quick glance. He didn’t say anything, just stared into the dancing blue flames of the pit, red eyes becoming contemplative as he watched Servant Two swirl the coals about the bronze bowl.
“You are troubled,” Servant One surmised suddenly, turning to fix Bensynn with his red gaze.
Bensynn met the stare evenly. Even though he stood a head taller than the other Pureblood the man still made him uneasy. Perhaps it was his unsettling countenance or lifeless stare that disconcerted him or maybe it was the last vestments of the Emperor's power that rested like a garment over the mysterious Servants of the Empire that put him on edge. “I have questions.”
“That are rooted in your troubles, your fears,” Servant One murmured softly.
“I fear nothing,” Bensynn all but growled. He was the Empire’s Wrath, all others feared him, and their fear gave him strength. Fear had no place in his life. And yet even as those words escaped his mouth, he knew they were untrue. The past few weeks had done little to bolster his confidence in the Empire. His investigation had provided him with more doubts than assurances, Malgus’ words echoing in his head.
Servant One having sensed his conflicting emotions spoke. “Those that must convince others of their fearlessness are often the ones most afraid.”
Bensynn bit back a harsh retort. He didn’t come here for pointless arguments or to have his head messed with by the Emperor’s bizarre Servants. He came for answers. “Arcanum. What is it?”
If Servant One knew anything about the place, he gave no indication. Instead, he turned his gaze forward to the flames. They flared and rolled about the pit as if following the bronze bowl Servant Two was waving about. The Sith’s chanting had risen in volume yet again, his voice a high-pitched whine almost like a drill, shrill, painful, persistent. His voice was becoming numerous, echoing around the room as if joined by the long-dead Sith lords buried within the halls of the temple.
“If you can’t tell me about Arcanum at least tell me why you appointed Acina to the Dark Council,” Bensynn asked.
“Why? What does it matter?”
Bensynn ground his teeth. He forgot how tiresome it was dealing with these two. They never gave straight answers. “Because she’s involved in something that is threatening the Empire’s safety.”
“How can you be sure?” Servant One countered still not regarding Bensynn.
Bensynn sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes. How could he be sure? All the clues he had gathered thus far, Acina’s meeting with the bounty hunter, her seats mysterious connection to the unknown Arcanum, and her generally suspicious behavior cast her in a negative light, but Servant One was right. None of it proved anything. It all just further muddied the waters. “Look, your right. I don’t have any concrete proof that Acina is trouble, but there is something out there threatening the Empire. My gut tells me Acina is connected somehow and since I don’t have any other clear avenue to investigate, I’m sticking with her until proven otherwise.”
The Pureblood spared him a knowing look. “Something moves in the darkness, seeking to take advantage of the Emperor’s absence. Acina walked your path to the temple before to seek similar answers.”
Bensynn blinked in surprise. “She visited you?” Were other Sith allowed to visit the Servants? He thought he was the only one who knew of their existence. What was Acina doing contacting them?
“They took what was not their own, stole what was under her care, and have now fled into the void.”
Bensynn shook his head. “Stop speaking in damn riddles. Give me a straight answer. What did Acina lose? And who are they?”
“Dark times are upon us Wrath. The Empire will need your fury to protect it now more than ever,” Servant One said stepping forward towards the fire.
“What-.” He was interrupted by Servant Two whipping around so quickly his hood fell back revealing his gaunt face. The smaller Sith threw the burning contents of the bronze bowl forward, the coals hitting his chest and face, the heady incense washing over him, filling his nose and head causing the room to tilt violently.
“He waits for you Wrath on the ruined planet. A warrior of no equal pulled along by the strings of his masters,” Servant Two breathed pacing forward. The blue fire flared bright, the flames soaring high into the air and arching out nearly consuming Servant Two in the blaze. But the inferno seemed to bend around the Sith, the fire dancing and twisting, figures emerging from the flames their hands stretching out and scorching his skin. Bensynn stumbled backward numbly.
“Face their champion. Strike down their chosen one and find the masters in the shadows,” Servant Two shrieked pointing a bony finger down at him. The flames were twisting higher now with ominous figures dancing among the disturbing images burning before Bensynn’s eyes. He saw Kaas City ablaze and the Academy on Korriban razed to the ground. Dark shadows descended, and his people screamed out their cries echoing around the chamber.
“Stop!” Bensynn shouted trying to cover his ears but the cacophony of terrified wailing only increased. The images were warping together now, his sister and grandfather lying dead, his friends and crew split open, men, women, and children, beings of all races scorched beyond recognition, their bodies burnt husks.
“No more,” Bensynn yelled closing his eyes but only finding the horrible images seared into his mind. The fire roared, the screams reaching their zenith, when a snarl cut through the wails and amidst the burning bodies of his people appeared a reptilian warrior standing astride, his clawed hands gripping a blade and his lips pulled back over sharp teeth. A Trandoshan. The warrior swung his fiery blade, a swath of flames cutting through the air towards him.
“ENOUGH!” Bensynn roared imbuing the Force into his voice. The strength of his yell shook the very foundations of the temple and extinguished the flames in the pit all at once silencing the screams and leaving him shaking on one knee.
“You see the face of the threat. Know that more wait unseen,” Servant One said gliding closer with Servant Two at his side. “Go in the Emperor’s name.”
“The Emperor is dead,” Bensynn spit still rattled by the things he had just witnessed and dazed by the smoke and flames.
“Only in body,” Servant Two revealed drifting past the Wrath.
“What!? What do you mean?” Bensynn shouted after them as they walked away. “Who’s the unseen? Is it someone on the Dark Council? The Republic?”
The two Sith paused at the door and regarded him momentarily, saying nothing. The look in their eyes the only answer he needed.
“Master please you need rest.”
Massaia forced herself to not roll her eyes at Ashara who stood imploringly in front of her desk. Xalek hovered near the door, a silent observer, but also enforcer to the Togruta’s pleas. The two had been skulking around her office as of late having finished their assigned tasks and training to play nursemaid. It grated on her nerves to no end. Had they no better way to spend their time? “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
Ashara winced at the acerbic barb, no doubt finding offense in the morbid reply. “You work too hard Master. You missed your last two cell regen therapies and have been staying out later. Your body can’t-.”
“Ashara!” Massaia interrupted the girl sharply. “Do not assume you know my limits better than me. Do not assume you know what I need more than I, and do not assume you can dictate what my body can and cannot do.”
Ashara opened her mouth as if to retort then closed it abruptly, anger clouding over the worry in her blue eyes. “Yes, Master.”
The subject of her failing health was a sensitive subject, one Massaia wished to discuss with no one. She didn’t need her weakness paraded about. She didn’t need sympathy, or to be handled like a fragile tome about to disintegrate at any second. Especially not by her young apprentices. They needn’t concern themselves with such a matter. But they did. Well, mostly Ashara did and dragged Xalek along. The poor girl was sensitive to the pain of others, she was a caregiver as much as she was a gifted duelist. It was something Massaia could appreciate except when the overwhelming concern was directed at her. “Don’t you two have something else you could be doing?”
“We have completed our tasks Master,” Xalek murmured stepping forward to stand beside Ashara.
Massaia spared her odd duo a quick glance and opened her mouth to give them leave when her brother appeared in her doorway. His black hair was disheveled, and ash streaked across his red cheeks haphazardly. He appeared slightly dazed and the acrid smell of heady incense clung to him. Massaia got up and quickly circled around her desk to her brother, placing her hands on his arms she gave him a slight shake. “Bensynn? What happened to you?”
The Sith Pureblood blinked slowly as if regaining some of his senses and shook his head. “I…I need to talk…with you,” he stammered out as Massaia led him to a chair and eased his large frame down into it gingerly.
She turned to her apprentices and flicked a hand, dismissing them. “Go, restock the Insurgent.” Ashara and Xalek exchanged a brief glance then bowed before leaving.
“You’re too hard on them sometimes,” Bensynn muttered from his seat, rubbing his forehead ruefully.
“They’re Sith. They’ll learn to deal with it,” Massaia said taking a seat across from him.
“At least you know where yours are,” Bensynn grunted.
Massaia raised one slim brow inquisitively. “There’s a story there I’m sure, but right now I want to know what the hell happened to you. You look like shavit.”
Bensynn grimaced as if remembering something disagreeable. “I had a run in with the Emperor’s Servants.”
“Not Thing One and Thing Two,” Massaia said frowning. “Where did you find those two?”
Her brother gave a small smile at the ridiculous name she had given the cryptic duo. “In the dark temple. I was looking for information from them.”
Bensynn frowned and looked away. The past few weeks had seen the two of them spend more time apart then together even though the two of them were walking the very same halls. While she had been tied up with Arkous’ underling investigating the mysterious attacks her brother had been strangely distant and caught up in his own duties. Yes, he had many responsibilities as Wrath, but he tended to shirk those tasks when on shore leave in order to spend time with her. This time however he seemed to be wrapped up in his own work.
“Bensynn,” Massaia pushed softly.
He sighed. “I’ve been…investigating one the Dark Council members in relation to the attacks in the Y’Toub system.”
Massaia blinked in surprise not expecting that. “What? Who?”
Again, Massaia felt shock ripple through her at her brother’s answer. Darth Acina? The quiet, meek Councilor who stayed silent during many of their Council meetings and never committed to anything. “How did you ever reach that conclusion?”
Bensynn shrugged and stared out the window at the lashing rain running rivulets down the windowpanes of her office. “It’s…well a feeling I have. I saw her meeting with a Mandalorian not long ago, and every time I try to contact her, she conveniently vanishes.”
“She a Council member Bensynn. They’re all cagey and paranoid and none of them want to speak with you because you intimidate them. Plenty of Council members have entailed the services of bounty hunters before when they need something discreetly handled,” Massaia explained.
“It’s more than that Saia,” Bensynn argued. “Her entire sphere, the succession of it, doesn’t make sense. Every head of the Sphere of Technology has been chosen specifically by the Emperor himself except for Hadra. Servant One told me she had lost something, that it had been taken from her.”
“What could it have been?”
Again, the man hesitated as if considering he had already said too much.
“Don’t hold out on me now,” Massaia pressed looking sternly over at the Sith. He closed his eyes briefly, still warring with how much he should tell her, then opened them and exhaled slowly.
“I don’t know what exactly was taken, but I have an idea of where it was taken from.”
She nodded for him to continue.
“It’s a place called Arcanum. A space station located in an unknown region of the far borders. It’s a facility containing the Emperor’s secrets and is overseen by the sphere head,” Bensynn revealed.
“I’ve never heard of such a place.”
“No one has, save a select few who discovered its existence by accident,” the Sith continued. “Whatever Acina lost or gave away, it’s connected to the attacks. I just need some form of evidence before I present anything before the Council.”
Massaia sat back in her seat mulling over the information, trying to ascertain just what Acina could stand to gain from allying herself with their innocuous enemy. Perhaps it was a play for the throne, or maybe she was being coerced into joining. There seemed to be no clear indication of Acina’s involvement besides her brother’s misgivings. “So, what’s with the streaks?”
Bensynn rubbed his hands vigorously over his face, trying in vain to remove the ash from his skin. “Servant Two was…well, I’m not entirely too sure what he was doing, but it involved fire and…I had-.” He paused and instead shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.
Massaia could sense he was done discussing the issue. She pressed forward against his mind and found resolute barriers barring her entry. A flash of hurt snapped across her consciousness. Bensynn had never withheld from her before. Out of the two of them, he was always the more open one.
“How goes your search for the missing fleet?”
Massaia glanced back at her brother and tapped a few commands into her terminal bringing up the harried field reports from Denova and the discrepancies she and Lana had found. “From the little information I’ve been able to find it would appear that a few months ago an unknown Imperial fleet approached the planet of Denova and left abruptly.”
“What’s the significance?”
Massaia tapped another switch and brought up a few blurry images of the Warstalkers chieftain. The holos of the massive Trandoshan had been taken by an intelligence agent in deep cover keeping a close eye on the shifting developments on Denova. As of late the reports Massaia had scoured through were disturbing. The warlord had total control over the planet, declared martial law, and began executing Republic troops and sympathizers publicly. “The planet is rich in baradium and a resource target the Empire pursued shortly a cycle ago. However, the Empires advances were halted at every turn and we were eventually forced off the planet by Kephess and his Warstalkers, a mercenary group hired by the Republic to hold Denova indefinitely.”
Bensynn’s eyes flashed with almost a look of recognition as he stared intently at the holos of Kephess. Again, Massaia wanted to ask what all had happened to him in the dark temple but refrained and instead continued. “Reports indicated that after this unknown fleet left Denova Kephess broke ties with the Republic and forced them off planet and began sending large shipments of baradium to an unknown source.”
“How is the Empire responding?” Bensynn asked.
“Standard reconnaissance and assault. Lana would know more about that-.”
“Lana?” Bensynn interrupted to finally tear his eyes away from the holo to look at her.
“One of Arkous’…assistants. She’s been helping me comb through the Imperial data logs and she was the one who discovered the Denova discrepancy,” Massaia admitted begrudgingly.
“Never known you to play nicely with anyone,” Bensynn pointed out.
Massaia rolled her eyes. “She politely forced her services and once this debacle is cleared up, she’ll be on her way.”
Bensynn nodded then returned his attention to the holos. “Could you scan me a copy of your findings and have it sent to me.”
“Why?” Massaia asked suspiciously. “I didn’t tell you this just so you could go rush off headlong into danger.”
Bensynn offered her a quick smile and held up his hands. “I just want it to review the militaries tactics.”
Massaia narrowed her eyes and huffed but scanned him a copy and sent it to his datapad. She wasn’t entirely convinced that her brother’s intentions were completely honest, but she couldn’t figure a reason why he would be interested in the planet outside of organizing a more fruitful campaign. “You’d better not go rushing off to solve this issue with your lightsaber. You’re already on thin ice from Karagga, if you do this, blatantly interfere with Imperial operations and invade a sovereign Republic world-.”
“The Republic has no authority there. You said so yourself, besides I don’t have time to go galivanting off as you say,” Bensynn assured as he stood and stretched. Again, she didn’t wholly believe him. His smile was just a bit too wide and forced, eyes never fully meeting hers. For being the apprentice of one of the most manipulative schemers of the Empire her brother was a terrible liar.
Chapter 6: Red Rising
Vette ducked beneath the swinging arms of a B-series loader droid that was currently attempting to balance two oversized cargo containers while doing a fine job of nearly decapitating anyone who walked within its vicinity. Taris was…well not much had changed on this forsaken mud pit except for perhaps the humidity. Somehow it was even more sticky and hot than when she had, had the pleasure of visiting the world years before. Perspiration beaded her brow as she pulled off her jacket and tied it around her waist. She glanced back at Jaesa to see how her friend was holding up. They had been forced to ditch much of the Sith’s sleek black armor in favor of worn grey robes and leathers to be able to move more conspicuously amongst the colonists and not arouse suspicion with the local authority.
Last thing either of them wanted was to end up in a Tarisan jail. If they even had a jail on this stinking cesspit. The authorities probably just fed criminals to the rakghouls.
Vette paused at a security terminal located by the spaceport they had just come from and keyed in her and Jaesa’s alias’s before quickly backlogging through the system to see if she could find any mention of their mysterious friend or any Captain Hawke’s.
“Vette,” Jaesa whispered behind her, nudging the young Twi’lek to hurry up.
“Keep your pants on,” Vette muttered back. The terminal was ancient and didn’t respond quickly to her commands. She spliced further into the records, eyes scanning through the assorted names.
“A line’s forming.” The angry murmurs of the gathered beings behind her began to rise.
“What’s taking so long?” One individual shouted.
“The system appears to be…sluggish today,” Jaesa apologized doing her best to try to placate the increasingly irritated crowd. Bless the poor girl she couldn’t come up with a lie to save her life.
“Hurry up!” Another yelled.
“What’s going on here?” Vette turned to catch a glimpse of two burley Republic troopers pushing their way through the throng of people. She deftly typed in a few commands to the security terminal and the screen returned to its regular registration layout.
Vette shook her head and grabbed Jaesa’s arm. “No problem. The systems just slow today it seems. Can’t rely on tech can ya?”
The trooper tilted his head as if to say something else, but Vette just gave him a quick wave and hurried away with Jaesa.
“Did you find anything?” She asked as soon as they were out of earshot of the soldiers. Nosing around in Republic territory was always risky, more so for her Sithy companion than her, but Vette highly doubted the Mandalorian or smuggler landed in an Imperial controlled spaceport. Too high of a chance of being shot out of the sky.
“Kind of. No sign of our bounty hunter. He probably landed under an alias or used another unknown port. However, I did find landing registration for a T. Hawke. Could be our smuggler.”
“Or it could be no one,” Jaesa pointed out.
“Love you have to be more optimistic. Your dower mood won’t help ward off this humidity.”
“I’m trying to be realistic,” Jaesa huffed. “The number of people who go by Hawke in this system alone is-.”
“Shhh,” Vette hushed her friend and pointed towards a pair of humans clearly caught in some form of heated dispute. The man, wearing the pressed gray uniform of Republic Customs, was angrily pointing at a datapad and gesturing to a beat up XS Freighter behind them, while the other, a redheaded woman of slim stature stood with her arms crossed impudently over her chest, rolling her eyes at whatever the Customs agent was saying.
“I know how you and Beryl work Hawke. Always smuggling illicit’s on and off Taris under the guise of relief supplies for the colonists. Well, this time I have a warrant to search all cargo you plan to offload.” The man gestured to two other agents behind him who began tearing through the cargo containers haphazardly.
“Knock yourself out Soganti. I’m not hiding anything,” the woman shrugged.
“People like you and Thorne are always hiding something,” he snapped.
“You know agent there are better ways to get a girls attention. I’m sure if you just asked Beryl out nicely…”
Soganti blinked at her in confusion. “What are you-.”
“A little wine, some candles and I’m sure whatever broom closet you call your office would make a very romantic getaway for the two of you,” Hawke elaborated fluttering her eyelashes at him.
“W-what…that’s not…I-I don’t-.”
“Sir we found nothing. All’s clear.” Thankfully Soganti’s agents had finished their search and come to the fortunate aid of their boss while he sputtered hopelessly.
“Just like I said, now if you’ll excuse me.” Hawke turned and stopped short. The packed supplies and rations that had been neatly stowed had been thrown about and rooted through. Several packs lay scattered about and an entire container was tipped over on its side messily spilling its contents onto the ground. “Hey! Your goons gonna clean up the mess?”
“We have more pressing matters to get to Tess. Be lucky I’m not hauling you off,” Soganti grumbled as he and his cronies stalked off.
“No good kriffing sleemo sucking-.”
“What?!” The woman whirled on the two of them her brown eyes blazing.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your name’s Hawke?” Vette asked flashing her a dazzling smile which did little to sooth the other woman’s ire.
“Yeah. Whose asking?” She grumbled back stooping to pick up the scattered rations. Jaesa moved to help, gathering up supplies and neatly packing them away while Vette helped right the tipped container.
“We’re…investigators per se. Privately contracted,” Vette began resealing the containers while the Captain leaned back and scrutinized them carefully.
“You work for the Republic?”
Vette shook her head quickly. “Independently. Right now, we’re looking for a man you may know.”
The redhead narrowed her eyes skeptically but nodded for the Twi’lek to continue.
“He’s a bounty hunter with three fingers and-.”
“I’m gonna stop you right there. I don’t get involved with bounty hunters. I stay far, far away from those people,” Tess began holding up her hands. “So, whoever it is your looking for I can’t help you.”
Vette tilted her head to the side and let out a frustrated sigh. She was sure this was the woman Crysta had been referring to. Something in her gut was telling her to press for more. The way the woman was acting, her defensive stance, shifting eyes. “A friend of his told us he…had strong feelings for you and that you regularly made stops on this planet.”
“Wouldn’t be the first lug head sister,” the woman quipped. “Look even if I did know about the guy you're talking about, which I don’t, no way would I cross him and put my neck on the line. Bounty hunters are fickle people with nasty dispositions.”
“Look I have stuff I got to deliver before agent dickwad comes back and tries to have me detained. I can’t help you,” Tess interrupted her and turned to leave, but Jaesa barred her path.
“You’re lying,” she murmured.
“You’re very good at it, but I’ve spent years discerning falsehoods from the truth. You know who we’re talking about,” Jaesa pressed drawing herself up to her full height which was a few inches taller than Tess and Vette.
The smuggler narrowed her eyes. Her hands came to rest casually over blasters strapped to her sides, fingers tapping the triggers. “What you’d say you two ladies did again?”
“We don’t want any trouble,” Jaesa continued, her voice even, but posture still stiff. “Only answers.”
The other woman didn’t reply, hands coming to wrap around her pistols. Vette went for her own, but Jaesa shook her head. The seconds ticked out slowly, one, two, three then the Captain let out a breath and rubbed a hand across her eyes wearily.
“Haven’t seen him in two karking months and he’s still giving me grief,” she muttered under her breath.
“So, you do know Three-finger,” Vette said coming to stand beside her friend.
Tess grimaced but nodded. “We’ve had our run-ins. Can’t believe he’s still going by that awful name. He got in contact with me recently. Wanted to meet up and I said I may be available.”
Vette clapped her hands together excitedly. “Where did you set up the meeting?”
Tess hesitated. “Just what exactly do you want from him. If your rival hunters…”
“Like I said we’re investigators and he has information we need. We just want to talk,” Vette assured her.
“Right, investigators,” she agreed not looking entirely convinced. “In any case, we’re meeting up on Tatooine in two standard cycles at a cantina we both like.”
“Any chance you could give us the name?”
Tess smirked at them both. “Help me deliver these supplies and we’ll see.”
Denova, a world of peaked mountains and sprawling forests located deep in the Ojoster System at the edge of the Outer Rim nearly bordering Wild Space. A world rich in baradium and sequestered away by the Republic before the start of the Cold War its resources were invaluable. The Republic, already stretched thin protecting its numerous other worlds, had enlisted the services of mercenaries to hold the planet. The Warstalkers. Led by their enigmatic leader Kephess, the group had held the planet indefinitely against Imperial attack, defeating every tactic the military had enlisted. Kephess had even managed to kill several Sith who had been sent to assassinate him. His power and skill were formidable, his temperament benevolent, the mercenary never abusing his position, and instead opting to build the colonies up he had been enlisted to protect. He had nurtured the people and miners of Denova, guiding them to better things, advocating for improvements, fostering trade to benefit the people.
Now the Trandoshan was a madman, wielding his newfound power, his freedom from the Republic, to wreak havoc across Denova. Public executions, the populace driven into forced labor, and the very planet itself burning from the numerous altercations the warlord found himself in with the Republic and now the Empire. Bensynn had read the reports he had collected from his sister, studied the planet, and had even gone as far as to find out which forces were deployed to Denova.
The Eighth Fleet. A solid naval force made up of several Terminus class destroyers and three corvettes, but what the Eighth had in naval superiority they severely lacked in proper ground forces. They had no proper assault companies, only minor scouting parties and a standard company of ground troops. Not nearly enough to take a planet, especially from a warlord like Kephess. They would need reinforcements and experience if they ever even hoped in pushing forward past the meager landing zone they had secured.
Bensynn had made his plans though. Quinn had collected Broonmark and Pierce and begun preparations for their departure to the burning world. Pierce had grumbled a bit, his time cut short from a girl he had been seeing for several months now. Quinn had been ready though, bidding goodbye to his family he had been visiting and immediately setting to work restocking the Event Horizon, and chastising Pierce for his surliness. And Broonmark, well his odd companion had only stared blankly at him, clicking in his native tongue about preparing his blade to spill blood.
He sighed and downloaded the files from his terminal onto his personal datapad, leaning back in his chair to gaze out the window of his office in the Citadel. Gray sun filtered through the clouds overhead in a rare show of no rain. Below him the streets of Kaas City teemed with people, the masses taking advantage of the sun to enjoy the outside before the rains inevitably returned. Bensynn breathed deeply through his nose, settling back and closing his eyes he pushed his senses out beyond his own consciousness. His mind swam amongst the numerous beings that moved about the streets below him, their thoughts a gentle hum against his. Their lives so simple and mundane, something Bensynn sometimes longed for. A life beyond war and complicated politics, to live the life of a job that didn’t require the risk of losing life and limb, to have a family, a wife to come home to.
But then again, there was a larger part of himself that craved danger. Honor, pride, and the tenacious blood of his warrior people ran through his veins. He was born to fight, to vanquish, to conquer. It was what his grandfather had instilled in him. What his father had taught him.
Another conscious brushed against his and he opened his eyes to the lovely form of Marianna. She stood silently in his open doorway, a small smile adorning her face when he caught sight of her.
“I was afraid I was interrupting your nap,” she joked.
Bensynn chuckled and stood, motioning for her to come in while he walked around his desk. “I was…meditating.”
She nodded and stopped to stand with him by the window as he gazed down at the throngs of beings mingling below. “It can be nice, almost numbing to slip into the minds of those who are simple.”
He turned to regard her for a moment. “It reminds me why I fight. For my people, my family, everything the Jedi and Republic have tried to wipe out before.”
She placed a hand on his arm. “I understand.”
They both stood in amiable silence for a few moments watching the sun reflect off the buildings and skyscrapers of Kaas City. Bensynn hadn’t given much thought to the woman standing beside him. Since their get together he had been rather busy with his own duties and had assumed the same of her. For her to have approached him without any provocation and on her own initiative spoke to her degree of confidence. Around his family and friends, Bensynn was a jovial guy, never too serious and quicker to shirk his responsibilities for a joke. But as the Wrath, he was an immovable warrior. He was power personified, feared above all else for his skill in battle. The Sith treaded around him cautiously, as if dancing over burning coals, but it seemed Marianna either wasn’t aware of the searing heat or chose to ignore it altogether.
“Is there something that you needed?” he asked breaking the quiet between them.
“No, I just wished to see you. I enjoyed our time the other night Bensynn.”
He just coughed and offered her a nervous grin. “I enjoyed your company also. You are a lovely person.”
“You flatter me Lord Wrath,” she teased lowering her eyes. “I don’t wish to be too forward, but…” She hesitated momentarily before continuing. “I wouldn’t mind spending some more time getting to know you.”
He gave her a blank stare for a moment. Was she…was she asking him out? This was a new situation he frankly had never seen himself in. He briefly wondered if his grandfather had somehow put the poor girl up to this. Maybe Aruk had sensed his indecisive feelings towards the Wyn girl. She was gorgeous and intelligent, but in terms of compatibility, his feelings were little more than platonic towards the other Sith. But perhaps he was being too hasty. It wouldn’t be fair to not give the girl a chance. Maybe there was more to discover between them.
“I wouldn’t mind getting to know you more myself.”
Marianna gave him a dazzling smile. “If you're free I was wondering if we could have lunch.”
Bensynn spared a glance down at his chrono. He would be meeting up with his crew in a few hours to depart for Denova, but that still gave him ample time to spend with Marianna. “Sounds good. I could eat a Bantha.”
“Mmm I don’t any place that sells a whole Bantha, but I do know a small establishment that has the best steaks.”
“Lead the way,” he said. They spent the afternoon at a quaint eatery in the Third District, a more higher end community of Kaas City it boasted open air parks, museums, galleries, and fine dining. The courthouses were also nearby as Bensynn came to find as he and Marianna strolled through the Memorial Park near the Legislative Building.
“I love coming here,” Marianna began. “I love watching the people come and go, the smell of the rain on the trees. It’s a break from the stark modernity I’m surrounded with at work.”
“I’ve never been here before,” Bensynn remarked as they trailed along the path that wound between twin fountains and Sachi blossom trees. The park was quite beautiful, boasting the natural flora of Dromund Kaas, but also unique hybrids and plants from other planets.
“It’s unique from all other parks in Kaas City. Members of the Sphere of Biotic Science have planted and engineered hundreds of different species of plants and developed a vast hydroponic system to service the park. There are flowers here you can’t find anywhere else in the galaxy,” Marianne explained gesturing to the fern covered greenhouses and rows of blossoms.
“Sound’s like you may have a bit of a green thumb,” Bensynn joked.
“I may dabble in a bit of horticulture from time to time,” she winked back. “My life isn’t all about dusty law transcripts and longwinded legislative bills.”
Bensynn laughed. Away from her work and the public eye Marianna was almost normal. Walking the winding paths of this park so close to where she worked, he saw a more carefree side emerge from her carefully constructed perfect demeanor. He wondered how much she hid away for the sake of maintaining appearances and what it would take to chip away at her manicured outer façade to find the real her beneath. His chrono beeped interrupting the amiable silence they found themselves in.
“I guess that means it’s time for you to make a hasty exit,” Marianna guessed, gesturing to his chrono.
He smiled sheepishly and nodded. “Duty calls. I’ll holo you when I get back. I wouldn’t mind catching lunch with you again.”
“You have my frequency Bensynn.” She bid him farewell, reaching up and planting a quick kiss on his cheek before walking off in the direction of the courthouse. He stared after her. Perhaps his grandfather’s meddling hadn’t been a terrible thing after all.
Arriving at the Event Horizon he found Quinn aboard running preflight diagnostics with Pierce cleaning his rifle while Broonmark skulked in the cargo bay. Bensynn slipped into his quarters and began strapping on his armor. It was black and gray with numerous scorch marks and nicks from the many battles he had been in. There were many Sith who would have had the scratched armor replaced by now with something sleeker, but Bensynn would never even consider parting with the old durasteel. Its grooves and cuts told stories much like the scars on his body. It reminded him to be strong in his victories yet humble in his defeats. To part with his armor would be to lose a piece of himself, like a second skin.
Fully suited he firmly strapped his respirator over his mouth. Since his late master’s betrayal on Quesh, the cave in he had indirectly caused had left his lungs damaged forcing the young Sith to rely on a respirator to aid and bolster his injured respiratory system. He wouldn’t last long in a fight without it. He felt the Event Horizon shudder as it took off. The sleek Fury-class Interceptor slipping through Dromund Kaas’ atmosphere quickly before entering space. Bensynn found his way to the front deck.
Quinn’s fingers were flying across the control terminal in front of him, relaying authorization codes to pass the fleet orbiting the Imperial capital. He nodded respectfully as Bensynn took his seat at the helm. Pierce sat across from Quinn, punching in hyperspace coordinates and flipping switches to prime the hyperdrive.
“We’re all clear my lord,” Quinn said turning to look back at Bensynn. The Pureblood nodded once, and Quinn maneuvered the ship into the hyperlane before pushing the hyperdrive on. The ship rocketed off, the space around them bending into a tunnel of swirling blue light and refracted stars.
Pierce spun in his chair, his heavy boots thumping against the ships paneling as he eyed the Wrath. “So, my lord, what misadventure have you lined up for us now?”
Quinn opened his mouth, most likely to rebuke Pierce for his lack of respect, but Bensynn held up his gloved hand. “Something we have to keep amongst ourselves.”
Pierce raised his brows and even Quinn tilted his head to the side in confusion.
“Where we are going…what we are about to do is unsanctioned by the Dark Council.”
Pierce snorted. “That’s never stopped us before.”
Bensynn chuckled in agreement. “True, but with the Council already scrutinizing my actions since our altercation with Karagga, if they catch word of me interfering with Imperial operations on a sovereign Republic world…”
He didn’t have to finish his sentence. If they were caught blatantly interfering and overstepping military procedure while also going around the Dark Council’s edicts there would most likely be consequences. The most severe of course would land upon Bensynn’s crew, namely Quinn and Pierce who both stood to lose their careers if not their lives. Not that he would let it come to that, but even he was aware of how far he was overstepping the Dark Council’s authority. They had made it quite clear that his actions had to first be sanctioned by them before he went about interfering in Imperial affairs. They were afraid of the threat he posed to their carefully fabricated plans. Or more accurately the threat he posed to them.
He was a power they couldn’t control; his authority lay beyond their bounds and yet he was forced to play by their rules. If not, he would be slowly ostracized no doubt, left on the fringe of power cut off from intel, resources, and allies.
“My lord I would follow you anywhere,” Quinn started interrupting Bensynn’s thoughts. He blinked and nodded gratefully to the man who until recently was just beginning to trust again. It had been a long road of recovery for the two. Quinn’s betrayal, his literal knife to the back had fractured much of the trust between them. Bensynn had many time’s considered rendering Quinn’s services null and returning the man from where he came, the small Balmorran mudhole he and Vette had found the Captain on years ago. And yet he had relented, giving the soldier a second chance, realizing that the man had been backed into a corner by his late master as he had been multiple times. Because of his betrayal, Quinn followed him stoutly, without question or concern to his own wellbeing. It was as if the man had resigned his life to making up the one mistake he could never take back.
Pierce snorted derisively. “I’m always up for sticking one up the ass of Command.”
If there was, anyway, any plan, any scheme that involved giving the absolute middle finger to authority Pierce was always game to be a part of. The man’s life revolved around controlled anarchy. He thrived as a soldier but bucked under the rule of others. How the man came to follow him so willingly was something Bensynn never understood. Perhaps it was because Bensynn himself often disregarded the rules set in place by others far above him, or maybe the man just enjoyed the perks that came with being an officer under one of the most powerful Sith in the Empire. Whichever it was, it didn’t matter to him. All he needed was Pierce’s gun and steady trigger finger. If the man chose to give him nothing else that was fine by him.
“We’re going to support the Eighth. They’ve got their hands tied dealing with a warlord on Denova. The Empire has a vested interest in the planet but can’t seem to make any headway against the mercenaries,” Bensynn explained carefully leaving out his own personal reasons for wanting to investigate the planet and Kephess. When had this become his life? Lying to his sister, deceiving his crew, and finding himself embroiled in a conspiracy that he had more questions than answers for.
“The Eighth is a solid naval fleet. Are we supporting them in secondary measures?” Quinn asked.
“While the Eighth has naval superiority their ground forces are minimal. They can’t seem to gain a foothold on the planet. We’ll rendezvous with the fleet’s commander and then find a shuttle groundside to see what we can do,” Bensynn replied. Quinn and Pierce both nodded in confirmation before returning their attention to the ship’s controls. Bensynn sighed and leaned back in his chair, allowing his conscious to spread out from his body. He felt the warm thrumming heartbeats of his crew echo around him, the only anchors available in the cold vacuum of space.
In his mind's eye, he envisioned Kephess. The Trandoshan warrior stood amidst a swath of flames, baring sharpened incisors, his eyes glinting with a mad edge. “Come face me,” Kephess hissed.
‘I will Kephess. I’ll find you.’
Chapter 7: Buried Secrets
The Dauntless was a fine ship, the helm of the Eighth Fleet. A Terminus-class destroyer which boasted its array of not one but several elite fighter squadrons, she and her crew designed for complete naval domination, which is probably why the Empire controlled the space surrounding Denova wholly. Floating debris of ravaged Republic warships drifted lazily past outside of viewports as compact fighters zipped by out of sight. However, what the Dauntless and the Eighth had in naval superiority they sorely lacked in ground assault resources. The Eighth had three standard companies of troopers amongst them, hardly enough to take a planet. Not for the first time, Bensynn wondered why the Council had decided to send a force more apt for naval combat on a mission where ground assault forces were needed.
The various officers aboard hurried to make room for him as he briskly pressed down the cramped corridors towards the bridge. His arrival had been unannounced, no doubt whoever was the Captain of this vessel was aware of his presence on their ship by now and trying to desperately scrabble to properly greet him. The blastdoors to the bridge slid open and every being turned to regard him. He was used to the scrutiny. His black armor and tall broad-shouldered frame made his presence known in any room he walked into. Across the bridge, standing with hands clasped behind her back and posture rigid was the Captain, a woman of middle age and unremarkable looking. Bensynn approached and she bowed her head respectfully.
“Lord Wrath, it is an honor though an unexpected one.”
Bensynn inclined his head in her direction. “Apologies for my abrupt arrival, but word of your mission reached my resources and left me puzzled.”
“And you traveled all this way because of that?”
Bensynn’s mouth twitched beneath his respirator. Most officers wouldn’t dare question his motives. “My business is my own.”
“Of course, my lord. No offense meant,” the Captain replied, backpedaling quickly at his firm tone.
“Perhaps you could inform me as to why the Eighth, one of the Empire’s most capable naval fleets is drifting above this world attempting to take a planet with minimal ground forces?”
“That is something I would be better suited to explain Lord Wrath.”
Bensynn turned to find a small, aged woman with short graying hair standing behind him, her tailored black uniform impeccable and littered with dozens of stripes and medals denoting her rank and prestige. He quirked a browstalk at her.
“I am Moff Altiss, Interim Commander of this fleet and head of this operation. It is an honor to have you here with us Lord Wrath. When I heard of your arrival, I had hoped I would beat you to the bridge,” Altiss began with a smile that did not reach her green eyes. “Though I was not told by the Council I would be receiving…assistance.”
Bensynn shrugged casually. “My presence here is of my own accord and knowledge. Something I would like to remain that way.”
Altiss’ eyes narrowed, and her smile sharpened imperceptively. “Of course, my lord.”
“I am aware of the Empire’s vested interest in this planet. Its baradium deposits make it a highly valuable target to obtain. So why has Imperial Command seen fit to send no substantial ground forces?”
“The Council and Command both agree that Denova is a resource too great to give up, but also understand that a prolonged campaign against an alien brute that has cost the Imperial military much in the past is not exactly…prudent when extolling assets,” Altiss explained.
So the Council was fighting a war of attrition, ignoring a confrontation with Kephess altogether and instead opting to lay siege to the planet, hoping to strangle resource and supply lines and either wait for Kephess’ natural demise or send in a strike team to finish him off after the majority of his forces were dead or deserted. A strategy that saw limited risk for the Empire as they could pull out at the first sign of trouble or continue with this plan until it came to fruition.
“Has there been no attempts at subterfuge or assassination?” Bensynn asked.
“We’ve sent several scouting parties to the surface to gather information about the surrounding populace and resistance, only to have them disappear or be killed. We’ve learned little and with Imperial Intelligence completely in disarray we have little hope in acquiring an intelligence officer to gather any meaningful information on Kephess.” Altiss paused and wrinkled her nose as if whatever she was about to say next would be distasteful. “However, Colonel Grezor, a Nautolan officer brought in under some reformation act, has been able to acquire a rough data readout of the city and subsequent stronghold Kephess is defending.”
Bensynn mind raced with the news. Actual information on Kephess’ stronghold? How had the man acquired such a wealth of knowledge? “Has this information been properly vetted?”
“No,” Altiss sniffed. “We’ve been…unable to extract Grezor and his team, unfortunately. Though no one is truly surprised by the outcome. This is what happens when you allow lesser species a role in the command structure.”
Bensynn stared down at the Moff incredulously. To Altiss’ credit she didn’t flinch, just merely returned his look with an indifferent one of her own. He could almost see her disdain rolling off her slight body in waves, it was nearly palpable through the Force. “You look down on him?”
“An alien has no place leading Imperial troops. Grezor’s failure proves it.”
Bensynn’s jaw twitched. He could feel his ire rising at the woman before him, her prejudice against aliens nothing new. It was attitude prevalent throughout the Empire at large, something he strove to change. Something that seemed nearly impossible to change. Before he could rebuttal the woman the comm station before them beeped. A blurry unstable image of a Nautolan hunched over, covered in dirt flickered to life.
“Pull those snipers back before-.” A massive explosion cut him off and forced the man onto his stomach as debris and stone rained down around him. Grezor raised his head, his large dark eyes widening when he noticed them. “Imperial Command this is Colonel Grezor. My men and I need immediate evac! We’re pinned down!”
“Grezor’s still alive. Perhaps he’s not as incompetent as you thought,” Bensynn jabbed, but Altiss only scowled.
“His survival hardly makes the mission a success.” She turned to address the man still hunkered down, the sound of blaster fire echoing around him. “Colonel Grezor, this is Moff Altiss. We will need your field report and any pertinent data you have gathered before we decide on a course of action.”
“My field report?!” Grezor sputtered.” Here’s my bloody field report! WE’RE GETTING SLAUGHTERED! If you don’t send help, we’ll-.”
“Compose yourself Colonel Grezor. If cannot transmit a concise report then, unfortunately, I cannot justify risking resources to evac you and your men at this time,” Altiss interrupted the man abruptly.
“You can’t leave us here! There’s something down here, a presence!”
A presence? Bensynn felt his curiosity peak at the Colonel’s frantic words. Could it be like what he encountered with Karagga? “What are you talking about?”
Grezor glanced over at him. “I-I can’t explain it. My men and I started feeling…different the moment we landed on this damn planet. Like, like something was crawling around inside of our heads. It put everyone edge. Several officers tried…they tried to.” Grezor couldn’t finish, as if he couldn’t comprehend what had taken place under his command. He shook his head roughly and instead pointed at Moff Altiss directly. “I know this sounds crazy, but this entire planet is insane. My men and I ran into to some of the other missing scouting teams and they attacked us!”
Grezor nodded. “They weren’t themselves; nobody here is! I don’t care what you think of me, but please get my men out of here, we’re-.”
Another explosion rocked the holo sending Grezor sprawling. Screams erupted but they weren’t from the injured troops. They almost sounded…excited, like howling whoops. A chill settled over of the bridge and Grezor cursed.
Altiss turned towards him, posture less stiff. “We’ve locked onto Colonel Grezor’s location. It would be in our best interest to level the area with an orbital bombardment.”
“No, Grezor has the information I need. Use a targeted missile strike to push back insurgents and secure the landing zone,” Bensynn countered as he turned to leave. “Make sure Grezor and his men get out alive.”
She frowned but inclined her head. “As you wish my lord.”
He had no doubts Altiss would follow his commands. No matter the strength of her beliefs, they would never overwrite her tact or compulsory obedience to the Sith. She would heel, for now, extract Grezor and his men, and leave him to his business on the surface. After that though? Who knows? Pierce sat outside the shuttle he had procured that would fly them to the surface. Bensynn wondered what poor rookie got suckered into giving up his craft. It didn’t matter. The ride down was uneventful. He could see the evidence of war everywhere though. The surrounding forests were scorched, large black craters pockmarked the ground, evidence of mortar bombardment. Infrastructure, what little was still standing, appeared abandoned, the people living there no doubt driven out or killed by Kephess’ forces.
“Coming up on Grezor’s position.”
Bensynn was pleased to see that Altiss had followed his orders. A circle about thirty meters wide stood untouched amongst a ring of ash and dying fire, the orbital missile strike obliterating everything save for the small gathering of soldiers grouped together. He could sense their relief as they set down and disembarked, their emotions nearly strong enough to mask the underlying…unease that seemed to bleed out of the very ground. A nervous tension, almost like bottled pressure waiting to be released swam over his mind. It was a sensation that reminded him of the presence that had surrounded Karagga. He shook his head, clearing his thoughts and gathering the Force around him and Pierce who blinked and rubbed his eyes ruefully.
Bensynn turned to address Grezor who was seeing the last of his men loaded onto the shuttle. The Nautolan turned and regarded him briefly. “My thanks to you.”
Bensynn shook his head. “None needed. I was told you obtained schematics of Kephess’ fortress.”
“They’re rough, but I believe in their accuracy. They had better be my men-.”
“Are safe thanks to you. Take the shuttle and get out of here.”
The Colonel looked like he wanted to say more, but instead nodded and handed his datapad over before offering the Sith a quick salute.
“Last chance to forget about this whole mess and cruise back to Dromund Kaas,” Pierce pointed out as their shuttle’s engines engaged. Bensynn didn’t even reply, he only turned and pushed through the twisted remains and wreckage towards the woods. Pierce huffed and made to follow. “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought.”
Massaia Kallig hated this hot, filthy part of Korriban, as she did much of the red planet. This world held few good memories for her, and the rampant heat and constant blazing sunlight were anything but agreeable. With her fair skin and heavy dark robes swathed around her slight frame, she tended to feel more like a roasting paku chick than a human being. She huffed and trudged up the winding stone steps towards Carthage’s crumbling reliquary.
Like the once grand city of Carthage the reliquary was archaic and battered from years exposed to the harsh elements and minimal upkeep, though one could catch hints of its ancient majesty what with its palatial design and soaring height, stone-carved balusters and ramparts arching around the roof and second floor, complimenting the holy keep’s domed roof. Well, former holy keep. Carthage had long since fallen into antiquated despair, a venerable relic of the past. It had once been the grand bastion of her ancestors the Kallig’s, rivaling the likes of the planet’s capital Sheol, the city which housed the reliquary where the most sacred of Sith artifacts had been stored. Then Aloysius performed the unspeakable taboo, transmutation of a living being, dooming himself and all his descendants to disease and death. With the cities greatest lord felled by his rival and rumors of dark creatures created by Kallig by his mad experiments stalking the streets people fled, leaving the city to fall into a derelict sprawl, the holy reliquary moved to the capital city and the one here renovated into a records storage facility.
If her ancestor could see what had happened to his once beloved city. Perhaps it was fortunate he had been entombed on Dromund Kaas, thus tied to the last vestiges of his power, barely formed and stuck between the living and the dead. A pathetic existence.
She slipped through the doors of the reliquary and breathed a sigh of relief as the cool air of the keep washed over her heated form, thanking the Force that the old building still had proper temperature control. The stippled marble, though worn dull from the years, was still intact and lined the entranceway and ensuing hallway that led to a wired metal gate. Massaia waved her security card and the gate swung open, granting her access to the main atrium. The atrium spiraled upwards, several floors ascending up to breathtaking mosaic that painted the dome of the reliquary. It depicted the Sith, red-skinned warriors and philosophers of old, spread out in various snapshots of history. Their history and hers. The colors of the art had faded, but the clerical detail was all the same.
In a loose semicircle covering one half of the atrium sat several cubicles, separated from the main hold by gilded bars. Behind these partitions sat droids, servomotors whirring nonstop as they cataloged and sorted through the continuous data logs they received constantly. The Carthage reliquary had been transformed into a hub and records facility years ago, one of the smaller secondary storages to better help accommodate the Empire’s record system. From holy bastion to a dusty storage depot. Yes, it was definitely better that Aloysius was trapped on Dromund Kaas. Force forbid the rage his apparition would fly into at seeing such a mockery his city had been turned into. He would rant about it probably for the better part of the century.
She glided past the security droids at the lift entrance, neither paying her any mind. This wasn’t her first time here; she had spent many days holed up in the reliquary’s underground vaults reading the manuscripts and studying the holorecording’s former Kallig’s and Sith had amassed there. In name the reliquary was hers, frankly, the whole of Carthage was her birthright.
An archaic, dilapidated birthright.
The lift ascended to the main archives, stopping midway. Massaia passed by the numerous rooms that held countless databanks and servers, before veering left and ducking into a modest room. The circular room held a fairly large generator in the center with computer terminals branching out around it. Several holotables were rearranged haphazardly on the second landing amongst the shelves of holorecordings and datasticks. She swept down the stairs and seated herself at the nearest terminal, powering on the device with a few keystrokes.
She typed a couple of commands and the console lit up with several dossiers and files on her current partner. A few holophoto’s of the woman with her blond hair pulled back, golden eyes focused elsewhere, dressed in a combination of dark robes and combat gear splashed across her screen. There were no dates attached to the images. She clicked through them, opening her first file and skimming through the information. Born on Dromund Kaas to parents who both served in the Imperial military now deceased, her father became an entrepreneur in trade, while her mother…Lana’s mother died young, a complication of disease and her pregnancy. Her fellow Sith’s early life was unremarkable, much of her record from Dromund Kaas’ Academy sealed away.
Massaia blinked in surprise when she read that Lana had trained under Harkun, a man tasked with training the Empire’s troubled and forgotten. A man who had cruelly trained her. Why was Lana, who for all intents and purposes came from an upstanding family and teemed with promise, subjected to Harkun’s torment? What was locked away in her previous records?
Further research into the mysterious woman revealed little. She had no siblings or close family. Her time as an apprentice was unremarkable, though she did reach the status of dark lord at the astonishingly young age of just twenty-one. Her career beyond that was a secret, with much of her work sealed away or so heavily redacted that the reports Massaia could scrounge up made little to no sense. Lana’s personnel files all listed the same information as well. She favored Form II and VI in combat and was also an avid practitioner of unarmed martial skill. She studied behavioral science and the psychology and structure of societies. And…she had been considered for a seat on the Dark Council.
Darth Arkous’ current seat to be precise. She had heard many of the whispers and gossip that surrounded the Sphere of Military Offenses candidates, Darth Arho, a rather hotheaded individual had vied for the position and still was apparently. Arkous, though his accomplishments are few, had the support of many and was the popular choice to appoint. Never once had she heard a bare whisper of Lana’s name in the running. There were rumors of a third candidate being considered by Darth Marr, but it was never brought up. Could it have been her serene partner, Arkous’ little underling? It seemed unlikely, nearly absurd, and yet…
And yet Massaia had sensed a hint of Lana’s power, witnessed firsthand her intellect and guile, and been swayed to allow the other Sith to work with her instead of shooing her away as she did with everyone else. Perhaps there was more to her than just peaceful smiles and calm words. She wondered if Arkous knew that his top advisor had once been his competition for the seat. He had to have, the information though unknown by most, would still be simple enough to come by with his resources. Perhaps that was why he employed her, to keep his competitor under his thumb, in his power. He wouldn’t be the first Sith to hold an enemy close. Thanaton had done so with Zash.
‘And with me,’ Massaia thought as she turned her inquiries from the present mysteries to past ones. Tari Darkspanner’s tattooed face flickered to life on her console. Her hair, once long, dark luxurious locks bound up in a simple style when she and Bensynn had confronted her years ago on Dromund Kaas, was shaved stubble. Her cheeks were gaunt, brown skin taking on an almost ashy color. Years in an Imperial detention facility tended to break even the most resolute, not just in body but in mind as well. But while Tari’s body looked emaciated and broken, her brown eyes were lit with that same fanatical gleam that had first unsettled Massaia years before.
She scanned through the multiple interrogation reports and prisoner details that had been written on the woman. Most were useless, daily logs about prisoner health and station details, but a few recent records mentioned visions. Dreams that Tari claimed to be having about…Revan?
‘The subject, though not terribly reliable seems to be suffering a psychotic break. Strange, as any interrogation of her has ceased in the past several months, and during those sessions, she never once displayed any predilection for psychosis even when being subjected to extreme techniques. She speaks of a figure, clothed in dark robes named Revan. The figure reveals things to her, visions of a space station lost amongst the stars that can spawn armies.’ At this Massaia feels a jolt run through her. The station mentioned in the report sounds like the Foundry, a factory-made by the Rakatan Empire millennia ago, where her brother had fought a crazed man before escaping the doomed station. He had called himself Revan. How could Tari have known about such a thing? “Clearly these are the ramblings of a delusional lunatic, par for the course for a woman who claims a long-dead Sith lord speaks to her and led an equally deranged cult. Still, her words…affect others. She has gathered a sort of following amongst the other prisoners. I have even heard whispers amongst some of the guards who are convinced of her stories. I have requested Darkspanner be moved to solitary confinement indefinitely to halt the spread of her madness.”
Massaia leaned back in her chair. Tari was seeing things, and convincing others that her hallucinations were real much like she had in the jungles of Dromund Kaas, except this time maybe her delusions held some substance. She knew about the Foundry and claimed Revan spoke to her. If all this was true what else had this enigmatic figure revealed to her. Could it be the same mysterious man her brother had dueled? Could this all be connected to the mysterious attacks against the Hutt’s and other worlds all done under the Imperial banner? Tari had once been a Sith, and there were many active members within the cult, Darkspanner once hinting that her influence permeated the very highest echelons of the Empire. It wouldn’t be stretch to think she may still hold enough sway to convince some support for her cause.
None of it made any sense. The connections she made in her mind were near nonexistent, Tari was a crazy lune who held no real power now that her cult was disbanded. But then if she was of no consequence who had taken the time and effort to break her out? She was of importance to someone. That much was clear.
Massaia copied the remaining files onto her datapad. She would look over the rest in the comfort of her ship. A sound, a quiet creak of movement behind her caused Massaia to whip around, hand going for her lightsaber clipped to her hip, thumb on the ignition switch. One of the antiquated keeper droids shuffled past her with a stack of flimsi files paying her no heed. Of course, no one would be here, the city itself was inhabited by beggars and tomb raiders, cast off acolytes seeking shelter from avenging Academy instructors. No one of any real importance came to Carthage, and no one in the city had access to the reliquary except her. She let out a breath and scooped up her datapad before turning and ascending the stairs out of the room.
Her search here had been mostly fruitless. Arkous’ minion was still as much a mystery as before their last meeting and Darkspanner….
There was something to that woman. Her escape was too convenient and close in proximity to the attacks to be considered a coincidence. Something was festering within the Empire, and not just nascent Imperial fleets going rogue. No, a rot was spreading, threatening to devour them all.
Chapter 8: Wrong is Right
Standing near the outer gates of Onida, Bensynn ducked behind a grounded landspeeder as several armed mercenaries walked past and into the city. The self-proclaimed capital of Denova, Onida was a hodge-podge of spiraling stone structures mixed with rusting durasteel and intertwining trees growing around and sometimes through structures in a bizarre symbiotic relationship. The natural world and the unnatural. He slipped along the outer wall, noting several partitions farther up and no guards along the top. Gathering the Force around him the warrior launched himself high into the air landing upon the first partition. He paused briefly to see if his ascent had garnered any attention.
‘All clear,’ he thought, and he leaped upwards. Pierce had gone on ahead, shedding his armor, albeit not without grousing a bit and blending in with the surrounding populace. He had signaled Bensynn when he had gotten within the city limits and found a suitable rendezvous point. Much easier for a human to travel unnoticed than for a Pureblood Sith. However, now with dusk falling Bensynn could move around the city much easier, avoiding detection, sticking to the shadows. He felt rather silly, usually he detested hiding or subterfuge, instead opting to stride boldly into any situation and face it head-on. But here…
Strange forces were at work. The several hours it had taken both he and Pierce to hike to Onida solidified his misgivings about the planet. Something had seeped into the soil, tainted the air. While resistance had been minimal those that they had encountered were…unhinged. It was like what he had seen with Karagga, though instead of it being contained to only one being the madness plague seemed to have spread. An almost ethereal presence hung over every living thing. It almost reminded him of the Emperor’s presence, suffocating and all-encompassing, but more subdued, as if planted as a natural extension of this world and not forcibly spawned by…
Well, Bensynn wasn’t sure by what? It was clear the Force was at work here, manipulated by an unseen hand. Jedi could twist the minds of other’s; they were adept at concealment tactics and subtly changing an environment to guide objectives. Except, why would they do that on their own planet and to their own people and under the guise of an Imperial banner? Could it be a radical sect that had splintered off from the Order, or a group entirely unknown?
‘Or it could be a Sith,’ Bensynn mused as he stole across several rooftops, leaping from building to building with ease. Below him, a collective of beings roamed about, normal people going about their lives. From a casual glance they appeared unremarkable, mother’s calling out to children, vendors hocking their wares, and workers returning from the mines after a long shift. But looking beneath the surface Bensynn could sense their fear. These people were acutely aware of the precarious position they were held captive in. Few smiled, everyone had a stiffness to them and moved purposefully, never idling. When a mercenary patrol would pass the people would part, pressing themselves into stalls or against buildings, shrinking back to avoid any contact.
‘The entire city is walking on glass,’ Bensynn thought as he slipped from a rooftop and jumped through an open window on the third floor of a lodge. A bed sat in the corner across from an old reclining chair, the room sparsely decorated had a cracked mirror over an old holoprojector, and warped wood ran the length of the floor and walls giving the air a musty odor.
“Best accommodations I could find on such short notice,” Pierce grunted as he stepped into the room from the refresher. He wore dirty gray overalls that covered his black skivvies and a red bandana was tied around his head loosely. Bensynn swung Pierce’s rifle and pack off his back and handed them back to the soldier. He grunted his thanks and slumped down onto the bed. “Word from the tavern downstairs is that Kephess is locking up the city tonight. He’s not pleased with how things went with the strike team that got away.”
“Does he know we’re here?”
Pierce shook his head. “I don’t think so, but I think he assumes something got through. Suppose that’s why he’s being paranoid and locking everything down.”
Bensynn looked out the small window facing east. In the distance stood a large square building with a domed roof, large spiked iron poles littering the parapets. He couldn’t see what was on them, but he needed little imagination as to what Kephess was using them for or what was going on in his stronghold. He pulled Colonel Grezor’s plans up on his datapad and sat down.
The stronghold was ray shielded so no chance of an orbital bombardment to level it, plus there was a very real possibility that the city sat upon a baradium deposit. Bombarding the fortress would most likely lead to the entire city being destroyed. He wanted to minimize casualties as much as he could. Needless violence and callous indifference to others and their plight was something Bensynn opposed. He would have to find a way to cut power to the shield. Beyond the energy barrier, there were large wired fences no doubt running electricity through them, with the fortress itself being roughly five floors with a central courtyard and massive artillery depot. The plans were unclear of the layout as several sketches had been done, each a little different from the next, but Bensynn could get the basic idea. He flipped through Grezor’s notes, taking heed of a name that continued to pop up.
‘Miriam found me today. She had a datastick which she gave before disappearing. It’s been like this for a while now. She comes for supplies which I trade for information. The people are starving. Miriam tells me it’s because all ore collected from the mines is confiscated and shipped off-world to an undisclosed location. She told me she works in Kephess’ stronghold as a data entry clerk. She doesn’t know I’m an Imperial officer, but I think she suspects.’
Bensynn tabbed to the next report. ‘Miriam knows. She knows I’m an Imperial. I told her and she wasn’t surprised or angry. Rather she looked relieved, almost like I was the answer to her prayers. She’s angry at the Republic, they’ve given up on this world, and at Kephess. She’s witnessed his cruelty firsthand, lived in fear with the rest of her people of his madness which seems to seep into every stone and creature here. She says Kephess…performs rituals…sacrifices. For what end I cannot say.’
So Grezor developed contact with a local. He wondered if this Miriam was still alive? Her knowledge would be invaluable to breaching Kephess’ stronghold. Maybe even provide some insight into the warlord also. If she had witnessed him performing rituals what else had she seen?
“We have a target,” Bensynn said drawing Pierce’s attention. “A woman who works within Kephess’ stronghold named Miriam. She was Grezor’s informant and seemed sympathetic to our cause.”
“I can ask around about her in the tavern downstairs. Maybe poke around the city.”
The warrior nodded his approval. “I’m going to explore the mines. There are supposedly miles of tunnels that run under the city in Grezor’s report. Perhaps one leads to the stronghold.”
And for the next few days, Bensynn found out just how vast the mines were. There were dozens of shafts, some open others shutdown for instability. The tunnels crisscrossed deep below the crust of the planet, plunging down into what felt like the planet’s core at times. Even with the multiple marker’s he left along the tunnels it was still easy to become disoriented within the vast caverns. It was complete darkness, the only light coming from his torch. The tunnels twisted and turned, some vaulting high while others he had to crouch and crawl through. Sounds echoed for miles, a dropping rock or shift of dirt reverberating ten times over. At the end of each day, he would sit at the small rickety desk in the room he and Pierce shared and add to the rough map he had constructed. It appeared as if some of the mine tunnels traversed beneath Kephess’ bastion but none breached the surface. Damn.
If he was having little success with exploring the mines, then Pierce was having even less luck discovering Miriam. The soldier was adept at adapting to various roles to suit his needs. He had asked around about Miriam claiming to be an old friend, a past lover, and even a concerned distant family member. No one knew her or no one was saying anything. Either way, it felt like they were just stuck in an endless cycle. They had no clear way forward and trying to go back and hail an Imperial transport would only reveal their presence and put Kephess further on edge. The warlord would further isolate himself while pushing for far more aggressive tactics against his people.
Bensynn sighed and pushed back from the desk dropping his stylus and leaning back. The muscles in his back stretched, spine giving a satisfying pop, joints cracking slightly from their self-induced stiffness. The door to the room swished open softly. Pierce strode in, his mouth set in a hard line, posture tight.
Immediately Bensynn stood sensing a shift in mood from the other man. “What is it?”
“I was followed today,” the soldier replied as he grabbed his rifle and loaded a thermal clip into the chamber. “Same person, dressed in gray, face covered so I couldn’t get a look at ‘em.”
“Did you lose them?”
Pierce smirked. “No, I led them back here. In fact, they may still be down in the tavern if you want to go have a talk with them.”
Bensynn nodded and ducked out the window. Night had fallen fast upon Onida, long shadows down empty alley’s providing the perfect cover for his large frame as he waited for Pierce to funnel their quarry out of the inn and into the street. There! A commotion at the side door and then a hooded figure practically barreled out, tripping on the last step and falling to their knees before scrambling upright and running headlong into the silent warrior. They slammed into his armored chest and fell back into a heap at his feet. The stranger’s hand immediately went for their waist, no doubt for a hidden blaster, but Pierce tapped his pistol against their head and they froze.
“None of that stranger, stand up nice and slow.”
The individual stood and Pierce patted them down snatching up a blaster before pulling off their hood to reveal a young woman with curly brown hair and a thin face. Her hands were trembling slightly.
“We mean you no harm,” Bensynn started wanting to ease this woman’s fears. If she feared them, they may not get any answers from her. “Why were you following my associate here?”
“I-I don’t know w-what you’re talking about,” the woman stammered back. He could sense her unease and beyond that her lie, her heartbeat picking up sporadically, a light sheen of sweat beading her brow.
“I will only ask you one more time, why were you following this man?” Bensynn gestured to Pierce and purposefully flashed the hilt of his saber at her. She saw and shrank back even more.
“I-.” She was about to lie again, but Bensynn stepped fully out of the shadows, the red of his skin undeniable now. Her mouth dropped open and suddenly like a switch being flipped her fear vanished replaced instead with…relief? “You’re a Sith?”
He nodded. “I am.”
“Then you can help me?”
“That depends on if you can help me. Who are you?”
The woman looks around the alleyway to see if they are alone before answering. “My name is Miriam. I was following your friend because I had heard from a source that he was asking around about me. In this town, if someone is looking for you it’s usually trouble.”
Bensynn quirked a browstalk at her.
“People…” Miriam looked uncomfortable as she said this. “Disappear. They’re here one day and then the next…if they talk too much or catch Kephess’ eye they’re taken.”
“Kind of like how you’ve been talking to Imp Military Intelligence?” Pierce still had his blaster trained on the woman’s head, eyes scrutinizing her every action. He didn’t trust her. Neither did Bensynn. And it seemed Miriam felt the same.
“Grezor. Yes, I talked with him, I thought he could help, but then Kephess began locking down Onida and he left. Is…is he okay?”
He’s unsure how to answer, honestly or perhaps smudging the truth a bit. “The Colonel died outside the city walls, unfortunately. His team was caught by some of Kephess’ merc’s.”
She appeared crestfallen, morose even. “He was a good man. I’m sorry.”
Bensynn shook his head. “He died carrying out his duty. His field report we recovered off his body mentioned you several times as a point of contact. An information broker of sorts.”
The woman looked up sharply. “I’m not selling information for personal gain! I’m trying to help my family and keep people safe. Kephess…. he’s a monster!”
Bensynn put up his hands to placate her. “I’ve read the reports-.”
“But you haven’t seen firsthand what he’s capable of. He gassed a mining colony several miles from here with Serran gas because they questioned his work orders!”
He winced internally at that. Serran gas was a highly potent and toxic chemical that when released into the air and breathed in caused a being’s lungs to become inflamed and swell shut, essentially slowly suffocating a victim. The effects were irreversible and horrific. He had seen the gas used by several Balmorran resistance groups on Imperial outposts in the past. No survivors.
“I want to help.” His answer is simple because honestly, he does. These people are suffering, he can feel their fear and pain like a low unbearable throb through the Force. The Republic had abandoned these people to Kephess’ madness. He would not.
“Grezor wanted to help and he left. How can I be sure you won’t leave after you’ve gotten what you wanted?”
“Because I want Kephess dead.” The force of his conviction surprised Miriam who took a step back. It surprised him to. He wanted to speak to Kephess, yes. Gain some answers maybe, but more than that he wanted the warlord to be held responsible for what he had done to Denova and his people.
Miriam said nothing for a few moments, merely studied his tall frame. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Alright…then I’ll be in touch.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have some friends who might be interested in meeting you. Give me a day to set it up,” she replied looking at Pierce’s drawn blaster pointedly. Bensynn waved him down.
“Who are these…friends?”
“The resistance.” And with that Miriam vanished down the alley, hood drawn up again, ducking from shadow to shadow.
“You let her go,” Pierce grunted idly.
“Why? Broad could be settin’ us up, going straight to Kephess and ratting us out.”
“I’m aware of that, but she’s also our only lead to getting to Kephess. Besides whether we let her go or not, he probably knows we’re here already,” Bensynn explained glancing back towards the bastion as he and Pierce ducked inside.
Kephess inhaled slowly, the air whistling between his teeth, gathering low in his lungs. He held the breath. One beat, then two. He appreciated the silence, the total and utter quietness not even disturbed by his own breathing. It…muffled the voices.
Ever since he had been visited by the figures clothed in black, the voices had started. Like a flood gate opening when his senses were awakened it was a surge of stimulation that set his nerves ablaze. It was as if his master’s had awoken something within him. Something that had laid dormant for much of his life, but was always there, scratching just below the surface. Now though…
Now he could see, he could hear. He saw the curves and angles and the lines that separated everyone. He had once lived inside the curves, content in servitude, in fallacy, before his master’s pulled him within the angles. At first, it had been frightening. He had seen things, heard the voices of those long past on and of ancient beings rife with cruel power. It had broken him. But it had all been necessary, for from those broken pieces his master’s had slowly rebuilt him. They showed him the future and it was terrifying and glorious all at once. No more Empire or Republic, no more lines driven between people, everyone would be equal. Everything would be right.
If only others could see. The people of Denova were blind, they mistook his strict laws as cruel, his sacrifices as macabre practices, his new vision as madness. They just didn’t understand, but one day they would. Another breath, inhale and exhale.
He had held this planet for his master’s, though he wanted to join them; driving off the Republic while fending off the Empire. It seemed a task nearly too great to accomplish, but they had left him with a gift. A seed. He had planted it within the earth of his center courtyard and nurtured it tenderly. The seed strengthened him, heightening his connection to the Force while also subtly spreading his influence out amongst the people. It made them more subservient, chipped away at their will, made them second-guess their resolve. With the seed, he had wormed his way into the minds of the Imperials sent here to destroy him. He had shown them the truth, broken them, and left them as warnings to any other’s who dared challenge him. None had come forward, not since he had driven the last squad of Imps out of Onida and into the surrounding forests. They had gotten away, but while in the process of escaping they had left something behind.
The Trandoshan could sense him, the intruder. The power was unmistakable, a force that rivaled his master’s, but he couldn’t pinpoint his location. He was within the city but hiding, waiting patiently. A trained hunter.
‘And skilled killer,’ Kephess mused. He would eventually tip his hand though. They all did, arrogant of their own power, Sith believed none could stand against them. How wrong they were.
The door to his sanctuary slid open with a soft hiss, a pale shaft of light falling across his frame. He didn’t move. “Kephess, another group awaits you on the grounds,” his second-in-command hissed giving a brief bow.
He nodded and stood, striding forward out of the darkness and into the harsh lights of his bastion. It had once been the Republic’s governmental and law offices, now it was his stronghold. The building was well fortified with security measures of the highest quality. The only reason he had taken it so easily was that it had been gifted to him by the Republic when they had ceded the world’s protection over to him. Once he had been a proud warrior fighting on behalf of the Republic. Once he had been blind to their bloated corruption.
He stepped out onto the parade ground. It was a sizable space within the middle of the fortress, the ground dusty with a scattering of rocks and trees dotting the area. A tight circle of black stone encompassing at least five meters around sat in the center of the grounds, and there kneeling within the circle was four beings. Three were human, a male, and a female, along with their young charge who couldn’t be anything more than an adolescent. A family most likely given the strong resemblance they all shared. The fourth individual was an elderly Twi’lek, orange skin wrinkled, shoulders stooped with age. Their hands were bound behind their backs tightly and several of his mercenaries circled the ring of stones, none daring to pass the boundary, none strong enough to leave.
He strode forward, crossing the line and stopping right in front of the captives. Beneath his clawed feet he could feel the slight thrum of the seed. It could sense their fear, their anguish. It was time to feed. Kephess withdrew a long-curved blade from his belt and circled behind them.
“Why are you doing this?” The man asked his voice spiked high with dread.
He didn’t answer, instead continuing his circling, stopping only to regard a prisoner briefly before moving on.
“We’ve done nothing wrong!”
Kephess stopped in front of the man who spoke and leaned down so that he was eye to eye with the human.
“Please, my family-.” He grabbed the man’s jaw silencing him, his claws digging into the pink flesh of his cheeks, his hooked blade hovering over his left eye. The woman adjacent let out a strangled sob. The man had stopped breathing, his pupils dilated so much his eyes almost appeared black. He was fixated on the blade. Kephess tapped the knifepoint to his lips gently then let him go.
No more interruptions.
He stepped behind the old Twi’lek who trembled pathetically at his feet and roughly grabbed one of his lekku. The poor man shrieked in pain, squirming uselessly, but Kephess held tight. He spoke, his words the unrecognizable tongue of a dead language, guided by the seed. The Twi’lek continued to struggle, cursing and pleading all at once in Ryl. The young boy was crying now. It was all so intoxicating, the power flooding through each of his senses setting his nerves ablaze. The seed was ready now. Ready to feed.
In one quick motion he drew his blade across the Twi’lek’s throat, his fervor so great he nearly severed the man’s head. The Twi’lek gurgled, Kephess still holding tight to the alien’s lekku as his blood sprayed over the ground. It seeped into the dirt as quickly as it landed, disappearing from sight. He released the old man, his body dropping into a heap as the rest of his blood pooled beneath him and vanished.
It was quiet, save for the child’s whimperings and the growing hum of the seed. Kephess turned, wiping the blade clean on the sleeve of his shirt. The adults were staring open-mouthed at the dead Twi’lek before them, horrid realization dawning upon them quickly. Kephess began to circle once again.
The woman first.
Then the man.
And finally, the boy.
Chapter 9: Scheherazade
Short chapter now, hopefully, a longer one to come :)
If Denova was distressed by the events that had been transpiring for the past few months, it betrayed nothing to the naked eye while clothed in darkness. Saturating the city of Onida and the surrounding woodlands with golden radiance, the sun continued its steady path across the morning sky slowly revealing a world punished and charred from callous violence. Regions that had once been green, blue, or white now appeared as an ash-gray the world’s ground a reddish-brown as if long dried blood stained the surface. Beneath the banks of panicked clouds, smoke wafted from the immolated forests and tracks of steaming firestormed rivers. It was as if the entire planet were burning. A world on fire.
Bensynn rubbed his eyes ruefully, turning back to his companion who lay on his stomach, hands clasped around a pair of macrobinoculars. Before them lay a maze of warehouses and cargo containers of various sizes stacked high into the air. The area was clogged with shipping crates and equipment, mainly droids transporting packaged goods to and from one of the several cranes and distributing plants to small transport vessels. It was one of the few areas of Onida devoid of plant life and security. Kephess most likely deciding to police the populace instead of the product, leaving handling, security, and distribution up to the old mining droids below.
“Over there,” Pierce grunted from his perch. Bensynn turned and caught three bright flashes of light coming from a warehouse on the edge. The flashes repeated themselves in quick succession then stopped. “That’s the signal.”
It had been two days since he and Pierce had cornered Miriam in the alley behind the tavern they were staying at. For those forty-eight hours, both he and the soldier had waited for any news from her. Bensynn had spent the time meditating, trying to seek some form of clarity through the Force, while Pierce grumbled. ‘It’s a trap, has to be a trap. Two-timing schutta is probably turning us over to lizard-breath as we sit here on our asses.’ Bensynn had ignored him. His answers that he sought were never found. Like everything here even the Force was distorted, the edges ablaze like the forests beyond the walls, his sensations, and visions warping like mud thrown into a clear pool of water. Everything was wrong and nothing made sense.
That is until Miriam returned. She was slightly disheveled and had stopped by just long enough to slip Pierce a message at the bar and then leave. It was coordinates and a time to meet up scrawled across a torn piece of flimsi.
“You still sure about this?”
Bensynn nodded. “It’s our best chance. We can’t do this on our own.”
“I still say we have the fleet level this whole place and be done with it.”
“You’d destroy the city and probably set half the planet ablaze.”
Pierce shrugged and stood. “Beats hanging around here breathing in baradium dust and miner sweat.”
“If Miriam comes through, we won’t be here much longer. Speaking of…”
Pierce waved him off. “Go. I’ve already selected my perch.” Pierce jutted his chin out at a stack of cargo containers adjacent to the factory the light was glinting from. It butted up against a long line of windows giving the soldier an ample firing range if this whole thing did turn out to be a trap after all.
Bensynn was decidedly adopting a more optimistic outlook. He ducked and jumped between factories and cargo, dodging droids and swinging shipments alike before ducking inside the old dilapidated warehouse. Flickering industrial lights overhead lit the dusty interior, crammed full of crates and metal containers stacked precariously on top of one another. He let his senses stretch out. In the middle of the large room were three beings. Bensynn strode towards them.
Miriam stood in the center while to one side stood a tall skinny Rodian and the other a burly human male squatted. As soon as he caught sight of the Sith though he rose, spitting into the dust at his feet and turning a hard gaze on him. The man’s face was cut like a block that sat atop a short thick neck. A dark scraggly beard covered his ruddy skin and matched the equally dark hair atop his head.
Bensynn stopped a few paces from them.
The big man narrowed his eyes. “There's supposed to be another with you.” His voice was accusatory.
Bensynn shrugged. “He’s around, keeping an eye on things.”
“You don’t trust us.” The man sneered, lips twisting into an ugly grin.
If not for the respirator covering his mouth Bensynn would have returned the distasteful smile with one of his own. “The feelings mutual I see.” He could feel the six other lifeforms hidden away in the warehouse around him. Three behind him, two overhead in the rafters, and the last off to his left. He could sense the nervous apprehension, the tense seconds before a coming confrontation. They had come ready to fight.
Miriam stepped forward and looked up at him apologetically. “The others they…needed reassurance.”
“I’m a bit offended. Only six could be spared to confront me,” Bensynn said half-jokingly and half-serious. He wanted to ease the mounting tension growing, but also make it clear he could easily cut them down at a moment’s notice.
The big man grimaced and the Rodian chuckled lowly.
“Relax Brion he’s right,” the Rodian nudged the human with his bony elbow before turning to greet Bensynn. “Don’t mind him, he’s suspicious of everyone. I’m Japla Yeats. The man with the sour disposition is Brion Tade and well…you’ve already met Miriam.”
The warrior nodded and bowed slightly to the Rodian. “Darth Tyran of the Sith Empire. I was told your resistance could help me.”
“In a sense, although Miriam said you would be helping us.”
“We seek the same goal.”
“Do we?” Brion interrupted sharply. “Just what are the Empire’s interests in Denova?”
Bensynn eyed the man carefully. Anger, mistrust, fear all rolled off him in continuous waves. His arms were crossed stiffly over his chest and his dark eyes glowered.
“Does it matter? Anything’s better than living under Kephess’ madness,” Japla disagreed.
“I’m not fighting to trade one tyrant for another,” Brion spit and then he stalked off.
Japla only sighed and shook his head. “You’ll have to forgive him. Brion’s an ex-Republic soldier, he fought in the battle of Coruscant when the Sith sacked the planet. Was practically a kid when that happened and still harbors anger against the Imp’s.”
“And what are your feelings on this?”
The Rodian shrugged. “Republic, Empire doesn’t matter to me as long as Kephess is gone. He’s…”
“Yes,” Japla began. “But he wasn’t always. He was stern and took upholding the law very seriously for a mercenary, but he was also…benevolent. He advocated for us when our own representatives wouldn’t; protected us from you. But when the black ships came everything changed.”
“They came a few cycles ago. Massive Imp destroyers black as night showed up one day. We all took shelter and waited for Kephess to attack like he always did except it never happened. No one fired a single shot. The ships stayed for a few days and then left,” Japla explained.
“Did they ever come back?” Bensynn asked.
“No, but ever since then Kephess has turned into a beast. He drove the Republic off the planet, executed anyone who spoke out against his actions, and…” The Rodian paused and rubbed his head as if suddenly growing weary.
“Go on,” the Sith prodded gently.
Japla hesitated as if unsure how to continue. “The people have changed too. Friend turning against friend, families breaking apart, and then there are the Rasper’s-.”
“Japla that’s enough,” Miriam interrupted.
“It’s nothing. Stories made up by children,” she said and shot a pointed look at Japla who looked like he wanted to say more.
Bensynn narrowed his eyes suspicious of them both. There was more but he knew neither would be willingly to divulge now. “It was risky asking to meet during the day. Why not wait until night?”
“Too many patrols. Curfew’s heavily enforced and anyone caught is immediately killed or worse.”
Japla and Miriam exchanged a look.
Bensynn let out an annoyed breath. “I can’t help you if you keep withholding information. We have to trust each other.”
“Easier said than done.” Brion had returned from his jaunt and looked a bit more relaxed though still angry. And distrustful. “We’ll tell of our plans and if you can be fit in somewhere.”
Bensynn could feel his ire rising at the three who stood before him. One was teeming with presumptuous disgust and the other two were tiptoeing and backpedaling around themselves so much is was like pulling molar’s trying to get a complete answer. He closed his eyes briefly. It wasn’t their fault. They were living in fear, driven to this paranoia by Kephess. He couldn’t expect them to reveal everything to him right away. It would take time to earn their trust.
But was it time he had?
“How big is your resistance? What are your capabilities and armaments?”
“There’s about sixty of us within the city, mostly miners, but a few security officers to. Our resources are few and the only weapons we have are the privately-owned ones not confiscated before Kephess seized them. We made a few strikes, mostly hit and run attacks against small patrols. We tried to breach the armory and lost nearly half our people doing so,” Brion explained grimly. “In short, we’re outmanned, outgunned, and need some serious firepower. I don’t suppose you have an army camped outside the walls, do you?”
Bensynn shook his head. “The Fleet holding space above Denova is specialized for naval conflicts, not ground assault. They have a few squads for deployment but no way to safely land them groundside without Kephess blowing them out of the sky.”
“Then why have you come? What can you do against Kephess?” Japla asked looking defeated.
“I can kill him.”
“Impossible, Kephess…he’s unmatched. No one can stop him,” the Rodian disagreed.
“You’re wrong Japla, we can’t stop him, but he’s a Sith,” Miriam interjected gesturing to Bensynn. “The Sith are some of the greatest warriors in the galaxy next to the Jedi. And we all know the Jedi aren't coming anytime soon to help. I think he can do it!”
“Maybe,” Brion murmured still unconvinced. “But Kephess has killed Force users in the past.”
“I’ve faced being’s stronger than that Trandoshan before. He won’t be any different,” Bensynn assured them.
“Kephess is different though. And it would be a grave mistake on your behalf to think differently,” Japla warned.
“It doesn’t matter either way. We’re lightyears away from offering any meaningful challenge to that lizard scum anyway,” the miner grunted. He turned and spit near Bensynn’s boots, purposefully close but just far enough away to miss. The warrior ignored the slight.
“You need supplies and proper weapons if you want to stand a chance against Kephess. You’ll also need more people,” The Sith laid out looking between the three.
“Yeah well we’re short on volunteers at the moment. People are…less inclined to risk their own necks nowadays,” Brion muttered.
“They’re scared,” Bensynn agreed.
“It’s more than that. Ever since those black ships came there’s been something in the air…it puts people on edge, and nobody wants to face Kephess’ wrath.”
“They need something to galvanize them, proof that if they step up it won’t be for nothing.”
“Hope is in short supply these days Sith,” the ex-soldier murmured.
“We have to try though,” Miriam shot back. “If you have a plan then we’re with you.”
“We need to gauge Kephess’ strength, learn his tactics, how he thinks.”
“There’s no reason to that lunatic.”
Bensynn glanced at the Rodian. “A truly insane person could not have repelled both the Republic and the Empire singlehandedly for so long. His ways may seem foreign and brutal, but there is a reason for them. We just have to better understand his motives. Gain information.”
“What you ask is impossible.”
“We’ll start small. Continue with your raids on Kephess’ patrols. Take any weapons they have along with datasticks or flimsi. When I’ve assessed his strengths, I’ll then find a weakness. We only need one to exploit,” he laid out. The others nodded in turn but Japla frowned.
“If we do this, we will only incur Kephess’ wrath. I’m scared to think what he may do to us.”
“You should be more frightened of what he’ll do if you do nothing.”