Chapter 1: The Hunting Party
Chapter I : The Hunting Party
Arro Silver- Battlemaster of the Jedi Order- saw the Faultline in the Flows of the Force even as his Light Corvette Silver Pilgrim came out of hyperspace. Darth Marr, one of the leaders of the Dark Council, had sent a message urgently requesting his presence, along with that of many other potential allies in their fight against the Sith Emperor.
He had seen Faultlines since even before setting foot on Tython. They appeared as cracks to his perception, faults in the ebb and flow of the Force around him. Some lasted only for a few moments. Others persisted much longer. Most were difficult to interpret. While he could see the critical points in the fractures easily enough, it was not easy to interpret the best way of striking it. While physically attacking the critical points did work sometimes, more often a careful interpretation was necessary in order to know how to strike it in such a way that the ripples reached your intended destination. Sometimes, setting events in motion was necessary rather than being the tool to strike directly. To set the right domino falling. And sometimes, those subtle actions required merely avoiding the pitfalls, or resisting the impulse to act whatsoever, for sometimes, a desired outcome might require as little interference as possible. But knowing exactly what was needed required wisdom, experience, and skill.
The one running through the Terminus -class Destroyer before him was one of the biggest and most fragile he’d ever seen. Something truly explosive was about to happen, a mega tsunami whose ripples would be felt all over the galaxy. What worried Arro was that this faultline was just a part of a larger tapestry. The ignition point of a much larger conflagration. Which meant that he could do nothing with as little information as he had. He turned in his seat to address T7-01. His oldest and most trusted friend, the earnest Astromech was finishing the routine post-hyperspace jump checks.
“Trouble, old friend,” he whispered. “Another Shatterpoint. This one is massive, volatile and far-reaching. Something big is about to happen. A new chapter in the story of the galaxy, and it will affect everything and everyone we know.”
Teeseven whistled nervously, and suggested that he be ready to run at all times. He even suggested a few remote paradise systems in the rim as a hiding place as the worst case scenario, though Arro was well aware that the little astromech had the courage of any hardened soldier. He would stand and fight, just like Arro himself would. But it reassured Arro that his friend was taking his statement very seriously. The Droid would begin surveying the scene as thoroughly as possible, so as to keep a better understanding of how it all started.
Teeseven began by identifying all the vessels flying in formation around the Terminus -class destroyer. Darth Marr’s Flagship. He recognized several of them, including Darth Prowle’s Fury-class interceptor, the Tempest , Havoc Squad’s BT-7 Thunderclap, the Crow’s Wing . The XS Freighter Voidhound , which was captained by the privateer who had earned the same title, drifted inconspicuously amidst dozens of other similar freighters. But Arro knew that the Hound had the shielding and firepower to enter a serious dogfight if it had to. He also recognized the names of units aboard many smaller ships and shuttles, who had distinguished themselves at Yavin. The Blue Fang Squad, Imperial Black ops, the Duststompers , the Winterwolves .
The Republic Hammerhead cruiser Swiftrunner was the largest Republic vessel present, and the most illustrious. She had seen combat above Rishi, Yavin and Ziost, so her crew was well aware of the threat the Emperor posed. Perhaps even more impressive, the ship had been part of the diversionary strike at Dromund Kaas itself, as well as the raid on Korriban. Her Captain, the astute Iktotchi Stentor, was undoubtedly invited by Marr himself.
He didn’t recognize any of the Imperial cruisers and support ships, though he did know some of their passengers, like Moff Pyron, who served Darth Nox. Marr had put together quite a task force, but the lack of the larger Dreadnoughts troubled Arro, as did the relatively small size of the fleet. Overkill for finding one ghost, but given the faultline he could see, Marr might need something far larger. Although, truth be told, muscle might not be what was needed right now. Reaching out with the Force, he searched for the one person who he would have felt most reassured to have at his side today; Lana Beniko. Pragmatic Sith Lord. Minister of Intelligence. His wife.
His search ended in disappointment: she was far away. And covered neck deep in work of her own, if her patient, determined, but tired focus was any indication. He sent her a wave of affection through their bond, along with a mental Miss you . He felt her pleasure and she sent a surge of love in return, along with the words Be careful, my love .
As always, they both lingered in each other’s minds for a moment, savouring the feel of the other’s psyche before pulling back.
He approached the boarding ramp as his ship docked beside one of the Docking Ports. The deck shuddered slightly as the docking clamp of Marr’s Flagship connected their ship to the larger vessel.
He heard Teeseven calling out a warning to be careful, and gave him a nod and a smile as he crossed the ramp to get to Marr’s ship. His partner and former apprentice Kira Carsen followed him to the airlock.
“I saw another Fracture Kira,” he told her. “The worst I’ve ever seen. And it’ll be upon us very soon. Better make sure the Pilgrim is ready for anything.”
“Fuel, food and fun, coming right up,” she replied, with her characteristic sarcastic tone. “I’m ready and eager to save the galaxy again. I was starting to get nice and bored of all this peace.”
With that she walked toward the waiting steward droid to requisition the needed supplies.
Another woman, this one wearing an Imperial Naval uniform approached him and offered him a crisp salute. Her rank cylinder marked her as the Captain. She must have been the First Officer who replaced the former Captain after he was ousted as a Revanite.
“Master Jedi!” she greeted him, a hint of warmth beneath her professional demeanor. “Welcome aboard. Thank you for coming here so quickly on such short notice. We didn’t know if you could even make it here so soon. Darth Marr awaits you on the bridge. If you would please follow me.”
Arro fell in step behind her, noting the efficiency with which Republic and Imperial troops were working together. Everyone seemed quite focused on the upcoming mission, rather than the fact that they were technically enemies.
“Everyone seems to be getting along,” he remarked.
“We have veterans from Yavin to set the example, and Darth Marr’s orders on the matter were quite clear. We all know what’s at stake.” The captain responded.
“Who else are we expecting to join in?”
“Grand Master Shan and her Jedi, Darth Nox, Lords Scimitarr and Pariah. But we’ve mostly gathered already.”
“I wasn’t expecting to be the last to arrive,” Arro said. He and his crew had made for wild space within six hours of receiving the summons, after hurriedly making the minimum needed preparations for whatever they should encounter.
“While Darth Prowle arrived only a short time ago, Most of what you see here were here before Lord Marr sent you the message, part of the help the Republic has been giving us. He even requested some of these resources specifically.”
“Like Havoc, and the Voidhound . Captain Stentor.”
“Yes, Master Jedi. The Voidhound in particular has proven to be more resourceful than we had anticipated since her Captain has so many connections.”
The bridge was busy with activity. Every man and woman was at busy at their station, monitoring the status of the task force, or watching the sensors for any kind of trouble. Darth Marr stood tall and still, like a statue before the viewport. As always, he cut an impressive figure with his size and armor. He acknowledged the Jedi’s presence with a nod.
“I came as quick as I could when I got your message,” Arro said. “And now that I’m here, I can sense it too.”
“We grow closer every moment,” Marr said, sounding tense yet resolved. “Our former Emperor is out there.”
“You should know,” Arro said. “Something big is about to happen. Larger than a hunt for a single ghost, even the Emperor’s.”
“What do you mean?” Marr asked, sounding intrigued.
“I can sense… Fractures… in the Force. Shatterpoints. Flows in the Force that pull and push each other and cause a strain in the tapestry of the Force. There are Cracks where the strain becomes too much. They usually signal some important moment approaching, ones for whom the shattering of the cracks can have great consequences. I saw one such fracture when I arrived, that was more intricate than anything I’ve ever seen before. Not even when I met the Emperor, or on Yavin IV, or even Ziost.”
“Troubling,” Marr muttered. “Are you suggesting we increase the size of our force?”
“I don’t know if we have that kind of time. All we can do right now is to stay on our toes. Also, whatever our ships can record of the coming events might prove helpful later on. This is the Ignition point of what is to happen, after all.”
“Very well,” Marr said. He turned to the Captain. “Captain Fora, give the order to the rest of the fleet.”
“My Lord,” she bowed and turned and started calling out instructions and hailing other ships.
“So regarding the Emperor. What do we do once we find him? We still don’t know how to destroy him.”
“If he has taken on a physical form we will destroy it, that should weaken him significantly… as you well know” he added. “If he remains incorporeal, we will at least know where to strike, even if we don’t know how.”
Without warning, he whirled to face Arro directly. “Why travel this far? Why consume every living thing on Ziost, then turn and flee into the depths of Wild Space?”
“I wish I could say it was possible something went wrong. That he’s vulnerable, somehow. Or at the very least, needs to focus his strength elsewhere before turning his attention back to us. What worries me is that he’s leading us into another of his games.”
As always, Marr managed to look grumpy even though his face was hidden behind his mask. “And I thought the Jedi loved the Light. You are proving darker than some of the Council meetings. If we do locate him, I believe that between Darth Nox and myself, we can press the Dark Council in line. But what of the Republic? The help we have received has been beneficial, but limited. And apparently unofficial. Will your government assist us in neutralizing this threat?”
“The Jedi will not allow this threat to go unnoticed. Most of the Military understands the peril. So many of them were at Yavin, and Ziost, they saw it themselves. Supreme Commander Malcolm understands the seriousness of all of this. The Senate will hesitate, however, so even if the entire Republic Military arrives to assist us, it will still be unofficial.”
Marr chuckled darkly. “Amusing how the ones that fight for Democracy are willing to disobey their elected representatives.”
“The government can be a Democracy, but the military cannot. And since there’s a war on, highest echelons of that military can make emergency decisions with lesser oversight.”
Arro thought Marr rolled his eyes behind his mask, though he maintained his silence. Idly, he wondered, yet again, what the man looked like behind his mask. This mystique undoubtedly contributed to his image as a Stalwart Titan rather than a man.
Symbols were all well and good, but there was a tradeoff. What would happen when that symbol was gone? The death of their Emperor still shook the Empire, and the subsequent revelation about his mass murders of his own people made matters worse.
His rumination was brought to an abrupt end when a nearby klaxon sounded and a serviceman called out “My Lord! Sensor contact, fifteen klicks. Small, no life form readings- Some kind of probe.”
He switched on a holo depicting the probe they’d detected.
“Scans are identical to the unknown force that attacked Korriban.” A monitor reported from her station.”
That was enough to make up Marr’s mind.
“Raise shields! Pursue and destroy!”
But even as the ship came alive to follow his orders, the proximity alert sounded frantically. A stunned silence reigned as hundreds of near-identical warships came out of Hyperspace before them. Most ominously, they were already arrayed in attack formation even as they came into realspace.
Marr shook off his surprise with surprising speed, and keyed his comms, breaking the entire bridge out of their stupor as well with his rallying command.
“Evasive maneuvers! Come about a hundred-and-eighty degrees! We cannot match that fleet, we have to retreat-- and in good order! Vanguard, engage their frontline vessels and cover the retreat. Fighter crews launch and intercept all boarding pods and fighters.”
In mere minutes the entire Task Force had begun to carry out his orders- an astonishing testament to the cooperation.
But the enemy was still faster.
The ship shook from the impact of multiple solid impacts breaking through the shields and striking the Cruiser hard.
“We’ve been boarded! All decks report hostile forces.”
Arro only peripherally heard the crewman. He noted that the massive fleet was all but ignoring the meagre vanguard, and the other ships. Marr’s flagship was their target.
“I’ll sweep for boarders,” Arro said, dashing off. As he did so, he sent a warning to Lana through the Force.
Her foreboding concern carried back the words I have a bad feeling about this .
The grandfather of all tempests had begun.
Chapter 2: The Immortal Emperor
Chapter II : The Immortal Emperor
Arcann, Crown Prince of the Eternal Empire of Zakuul, found that he was eager to meet his new prisoner.
Arro Silver, Battlemaster of the Jedi Order. Not much to look at, frankly. A little taller than average, thin enough to look undernourished. Light green Mirialan face was tattooed. But looking at him, one would never guess he was a war hero. In fact, looking at his body, Arcann wondered how he was the greatest Jedi swordsman: he was far too thin to deliver or deflect heavy blows. While his connection to the Force was not weak, Arcann felt like it was nothing special other. He had defeated Jedi and Sith who were far stronger in the Force than this man. The armored Sith Lord being held in the adjoining cell was brimming with Dark Force. This Jedi however was not.
And yet the records he had read were quite clear. This man had overcome some truly spectacular opponents.
Chief among them, the Sith Emperor. Another avatar of the entity, like his father Valkorion. The Sith Emperor had had much less cunning and subtlety, but had been just as strong. Perhaps even stronger in terms of raw power. Its defeat would not have come easy.
Zeroing in on one swordsman in the recording of an entire battle was hard, so Arcann hadn't found anything other than hazy stills that could be identified as the jedi.
He looked so much less than Arcann would have expected one of his reputation... yet that made Arcann all the more eager to meet him.
His deeds weren't just recorded on holodiscs; Arcann's instincts told him that this man was precisely that good.
"Were you in charge of his recovery?"
"Yes, My Prince," the Doctor stepped forward nervously.
"How bad were they?"
"Nothing too substantial, my Prince. The failsafes kept the section sealed, so he did not suffer from exposure. He had been viciously thrown about as the cruiser was blown apart; he had much bruising. A broken arm. Bloodied from shrapnel and debris, many minor burns. But nothing that couldn't be fixed, although one of those pieces only barely missed his eye. There was also some harmful substances that entered his bloodstream. From the debris, I mean. But we have cleansed his system. He is now fully recovered, or almost so. As the Emperor wished, the Jedi will be back at full strength when we meet him."
"Very good," Arcann nodded with deep satisfaction. "Now, while examining him, were you able to tell anything about previous injuries he had sustained?"
"His skin has bathed in Force lightning on many occasions. Bathed, not just exposed. He was tortured, I think, with the Forcewielder gradually upping the voltage to see that he could take it. He seems remarkably resistant to Force Lightning, and resilient to the Dark Side itself. There were also general signs that he was tortured once. Ripped out nails, some damage caused by drugs."
"Is that so?" Arcann asked. "His strength in the Force itself is nothing too large, so that part about his resistance is surprising."
"It's possible he lost a little of his connection during those days of torture, it has been known to happen...but..."
"Well, your Highness, blood testing revealed that he was on medication for severe Mental Illnesses."
"Yes, your Highness. There are a lot of tiny, well healed cuts on his chest and upper legs. Self-inflicted injuries, some of which he then proceeded to treat himself with Kolto, from the looks of it. It’s possible he’s attempted to end his own life a few times. He may also have been slowly cutting himself off from the Force, withdrawing into himself."
“For one of the Republic’s most accomplished War Heroes, he’s surprisingly mortal.”
“Yes, my Prince.”
“We return to Zakuul tomorrow,” Arcann said. “I am looking forward to speaking to him. See to it that whatever medication he was on, he gets his dose. We do want him at his absolute best.”
Arro woke up to the familiar smells of a medbay. He didn’t recognize where it was, when he looked around. The stun-cuffs on his wrists meant he was in unfriendly hands. He wore what looked like a dark grey prisoner’s uniform. But his captors had gone through the trouble of healing him; he didn’t feel any effects of the desperate battle aboard the Flagship. Perhaps there was a chance of a peaceful resolution?
Arro tried to remember but it was all a blur. The boarders were all droids. And deadly droids at that; equipped with heavy magma-pulse rifles, phrik-alloy vibroswords, grappling cables and jetpacks, they were mobile heavy shock troops.
Moreover, they didn’t stop coming. They advanced in waves, pouring out of boarding pods that had been packed far more densely than an army of living boarders could have managed. They tore through the defending Imperial and Republic soldiers with lethal efficiency. Within an hour they had swarmed the ship, disabling and destroying enough systems that Darth Marr had joined Arro for a desperate assault of the Engineering deck to repair the Hyperdrive.
Though they had reached the Hyperdrive, the bridge had fallen, and Arro had used the backup systems to restore power to the escape pods and order all hands to abandon ship.
He and Marr, however, had been stranded in the bowels of the ship with no way out. There were explosions… he and Marr were tossed about like ragdolls… and then, his memories stopped.
The stun-cuffs stopped their prisoners from truly using the Force, but Arro could still reach out and See the world around him. His first act was to reach out to Lana and reestablish their connection best he could. He felt her profound relief at hearing from him again, but she felt deeply concerned.
Then he reached out to his immediate surroundings. He was on a ship, one cruising at sub-light speeds, and while many of the crew seemed sentient, he could also feel the thrum of droids in the background. There were many Force-sensitive beings stationed here as well.
Just beyond the medbay, he sensed a particularly powerful presence approaching. The doors swung open, and a tall cyborg in neat, ornate, pearl-white robes-- and a heavily worn, menacing faceplate covering the left side of his face for contrast-- walked in, flanked by two guards. The face beneath the mask appeared to be heavily scarred and burned. His left arm was a cybernetic prosthetic. His visible eye was clouded a muddy yellow with use of the Dark Side.
He stopped in front of Arro, and looked him up and down appraisingly.
“Battlemaster Arro Silver of the Jedi Order. Good to see you awake at last!”
“You know me?”
“Oh, but I do. You were prominently featured in records we recovered during our raids. And everybody is fascinated by a famous swordsman”
As he spoke, another pair of guards walked in, flanking a tall, cuffed man in dark grey prisoner’s uniform of the same kind Arro wore. Darth Marr. He had been stripped of his armor, but there was no mistaking his signature in the Force. Even without his mask he still looked impressive- a weathered, brown skinned face, tousled dark hair and beard cropped close to his chin, but with cold yellow eyes that held as much power and mystique as his predatory armor did. He didn’t seem perturbed by his unmasking; he walked tall and proud, cold rage simmering beneath the surface.
“What “Empire” have we entered?” Marr demanded of his captor.
“The Eternal Empire, Zakuul.” He regarded his prisoners in amusement. “You didn’t even know whose territory you were invading?”
“You were the ones that attacked several of our outposts-- both Imperial and Republic,” Arro responded.
“We tested your strength.” the man replied easily.
“You seemed to have suffered for it,” Marr taunted.
“Less than your people did.”
“Didn’t you have a twin brother? If you are this scarred, I wonder what state he’s in,” Marr attacked again.
That brought a flash of rage, and the guards all hefted their pikes.
“Careful, Sith. My brother Thexan was deeply loved. He died of his wounds but I will not hear the likes of you insult his memory”
“My condolences,” Arro said softly. “It’s hard enough losing someone we love, but losing a twin-- someone you knew from the second you were born-- I can only imagine the pain you must be feeling.”
The man’s head turned to look at him. It seemed he didn’t know quite how to respond to genuine sympathy from an enemy.
“Thank you.” He said finally. “Follow me.”
Their captor led them to a shuttle docked adjacent to the medbay.
As the shuttle disengaged, Arro looked outside the view-port to see a blue world with many towering spires rising into space.
The Force was strong in this world. More, it was in perfect balance. Not light like Tython or stormy like Dromund Kaas. The Force swirled in torrents all across the planet, boasting a power that was awesome in its density. There were two places where the Flows gathered and converged into a mighty, fractured mass; One somewhere ahead of them in space, the other on the planet’s surface.
Marr, who could probably sense some of what he did, showed no signs of being impressed. Stoic and unshakable as ever.
The shuttle took them to the smaller of the two powerful vergences; the one hanging in space.
“Are you taking us to your Emperor?” Marr asked. “For an Emperor is just what we were searching for.”
“Indeed. My father Valkorion, Immortal Emperor of Zakuul. He has ruled and shaped our society for centuries. You will find true civilization here, not like the slums I saw in your Core worlds. And in my Father you will learn to be careful what you wish for.”
The intercom buzzed and the pilot spoke. “ Prince Arcann, we will be docking shortly. ”
Arcann. So they had a name for their captor now. And this Emperor… this “Immortal”, named Valkorion. The thought of another Emperor who styled himself an Immortal made the hairs rise up on the back of his neck.
Arcann led his prisoners out of the Docking bay and into a grand throne room; one whose transparisteel windows gave a clear view of the planet below, and of the galaxy beyond.
Guards in bronze colored armor flanked both sides, carrying big rectangular shields of the same color and Lightsaber Pikes. Some beings in priestly cowled robes stood by the door, bearing the look of Force Sages and Seers rather than fighters.
Arro’s attention instantly went to a beautiful girl in bluish grey robes standing ahead of the throne. She was easily the most powerful being he had ever sensed, dwarfing the mighty Darth Nox and surpassing even the Sith Emperor in raw might.
She was strikingly beautiful, with a piercing, hawk-eyed yellow gaze, and brown locks of hair poking out from under her hood. Her slight smile held a cruel edge to it. She gave the overall impression of some petite feline predator, small but deadly magnitudes beyond its size.
But when Arro’s attention went past her, to the high backed, decorated throne behind her, he forgot all else.
For he had sensed this presence before. It haunted his dreams and dogged his path. No matter what he did, his path always led back to the Sith Emperor.
Arcann knelt on one knee. “His glorious Majesty; Valkorion, Immortal Master and Protector of Zakuul.”
“Welcome,” the Emperor greeted them.
Arro had seen the Emperor wearing two Avatars before; menacing and deadly.
This one, however, felt different. Not the signature-- that was undoubtedly the same-- but in the feel.
This Avatar held a regal bearing and posture that the Sith Emperor had lacked.
His molten flame eyes were set deep in his skull, His neat hair and beard white. Ageing, yet far from wizened. Like His son, His armor was pearl-white and ornate, donned over rich purple robes.
“A new name, a new face,” Marr said. “Yet I know your presence beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
“You built a second Empire? You can be in several places at once?” Arro asked.
“Indeed. You presume limits to My power. There are none.”
“Oh there are limits, as we both know, just that they’re beyond what I had imagined.”
The Emperor was amused. “ I am a being beyond anything you could have imagined.”
Marr scowled heavily. “Your constant silence across our history… this was your distraction!”
“No,” Valkorion said. “This was My focus .”
“Then what of the Sith Empire?”
“A failed experiment,” Valkorion answered. “The Sith are all too short-sighted, too self-absorbed. Their constant infighting was tiresome. Their attempts at plotting against Me too time-consuming. Here, I built something grander. Perfect. An enlightened society. The Sith Empire and the Republic are both beneath My notice.”
“If You had all of this, if You already had a physical form and all of this power, then why did You consume everything on Ziost?” Arro demanded, enraged. “If You didn’t care about the Sith or the Republic then why did You fuel decades of war between us? What was the point of the plots on Belsavis and Voss, where You attempted to destroy life on a galactic scale?”
The Knights and Seers behind them didn’t even stir. Not in shock, outrage or disgust. Did they know? Did they care?
Valkorion stood lazily. “My motivations are beyond your understanding, Little One. Even so, as I acknowledge your accomplishments across the galaxy, you too must know the depths of my power by now. Whatever you were hoping to achieve, you were doomed to fail. Eventually, at least. I will admit that you gave it a better run than anyone before you.”
Stepping down from the dais, He gestured outside the windows. “But that is what you face now.”
Groups of warships eclipsed the space behind them, a fleet vast beyond comprehension. Hundreds, thousands. Tens of thousands.
“But you do not have to stand against me,” He waved a hand, and Marr’s cuffs opened. “Instead, you can kneel.”
Marr was outraged. “After what you pulled on Ziost, I will never again kneel to you!”
“You would rather die than acknowledge My superiority?”
“It is you who fears death, “ Valkorion ”. I do not. I will not kneel.”
So saying, he turned and lashed out at the guards behind them, throwing them off the corridor and into the depths below. He Summoned a Lightsaber pike into his hand, and deftly executed three more guards before hurling it at a fourth with so much force that it went clean through his body and lodged itself into the man behind him.
Then he turned to face his former Emperor, summoning up a large, dense Storm of Force Lightning. Valkorion deflected this attack with a gesture, and responded with a burst of His own Lightning. Marr was blown off his feet, the power of the Lightning having torn through his shield like it hadn’t even been there. The energy roasted his body all the way through instantly, and the de facto leader of the Sith Empire dropped dead without another sound.
As the smell of charred flesh filled the air, the Knights who had survived Marr’s short, vicious assault groaned and tried to regain their feet.
“Clear the room!” the girl called, at a gesture from her Emperor. “Everybody out.”
“So here We are, again, Jedi,” the Emperor said as all of his followers, save Arcann, piled out of the Throne room.”Face-to-face again at long last. In all My centuries, you alone have merited My full attention, for wherever you go, you leave your mark upon the galaxy. Just as I do. I have been truly looking forward to this moment.”
He gestured around; at the world below; at the mighty fleet behind; and and at the stars beyond. “I have forged this Empire to surmount all of My previous works-- to span eternity. The Eternal Throne, and the Fleet it commands is the most powerful ever built. It has the power to reshape the Galaxy into any image that I choose. That We choose… But power does not interest a Jedi, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t”
“Then imagine that power as a currency. They that have power can buy anything that they choose with it, and they don’t need to choose violence. Or dominion.”
The Immortal Emperor regarded him in silence for a moment. “Ever since you broke free of Me in that Asteroid facility I have endeavored to learn about you. I know you better than you might think. And I can offer you the one thing you desire more than anything else in the galaxy: a peace and prosperity that permeates all levels of society. A Galaxy free not only of war, but of strife, and crime, and corruption. Where you can devote your life not to killing, but to helping those in need. All while also dedicating yourself to your Art. Where your skills with the Saber are used not to kill, but to enjoy; to immerse yourself in the Dance. All of this, and you can still become the storm to match any other that might occasionally threaten the galaxy. And the price is small; that you kneel.”
Arro was stunned into silence by the Immortal’s knowledge of his motivation… by his choice of words… especially “Become the storm”. Did this being somehow learn of Master Satele’s Prophecy, all those years ago on Tython? How? There had been no one else present, and the room was secure from eavesdropping.
“It may seem noble to turn down My offer,” he continued. “But ultimately, selfish. For in accepting My deal, you can ensure the safety and well-being of every being in the Galaxy. Do you not want that? Serendipity has conspired to offer you this single opportunity that no other Jedi ever received, or ever will.”
Finding his voice, Arro addressed the Emperor. “Do you think I have forgotten?” He demanded, raising his head indignantly. “Ziost! Belsavis, Voss! I have seen You repeatedly plot to consume life on a grand scale! I also worked with Darth Prowle during the Revanite incident. She told me how You promised her similar rewards for her loyalty, yet You were going to dispose of her the moment she outlived her usefulness!”
“That was then. And that was as the Sith Emperor. As Valkorion, I am far greater. Magnanimous. However, I do understand your doubt. Perhaps you need time to convince you of that? Arcann. Consider this man our esteemed guest... and a new brother. Your sister will be delighted… Have a room in the palace prepared for him, and see to it that he is treated well.”
So saying, the Immortal Emperor turned away from them both, staring into the stars behind them.
The Prince walked up to Arro. In an undertone, he growled: “You came here to defeat Him. This is your chance!” With a wave, he unlocked Arro’s restraints and launched himself at his Father, Yellow Lightsaber igniting in his hands.
Valkorion blocked Arcann’s attack without apparent effort, a shield of pure Force rising up in front of his outstretched hand.
“First your brother, now your Father?”
“Shut up!” Arcann’s face, what was visible, contorted in pain as he rained blow upon blow on his father, not a single one making it past the defensive shield. “Thexan… I didn’t mean to kill him! But YOU! After everything I sacrificed, still you treat me as a servant! Do I not deserve your regard? Didn’t Thexan? And what about Vaylin? You , I would happily kill a hundred times over!”
“My poor little son.” Valkorion sneered. “If you want My attention you should work for it! Attempt the mightiest feats, push through your limits! Yet you settle for bites at banquets that you know you can handle and think you’ve had enough when the food doesn’t agree with you… You may be My son, but your blood does not entitle you to endless privilege! An Emperor’s favor is not lightly given.”
“To hell with the Emperor!” Arcann disengaged briefly before hurling himself back in with an almighty effort. “What about a Father’s affection for his sons?” The air around them was a deadly curtain of gold plasma. “You didn’t even bat an eyelid when Thexan shouldered my rage and died for You! For all Your talk of being limitless, is the simple concept of love beyond You?”
The shield exploded outwards and Arcann was launched into a pillar, where he fell and lay limp.
Lowering His hand, the Emperor turned to regard the Jedi, who had borne witness to this without interfering at all, except once.
“You Braced my son’s body just before the impact, and probably saved his life. Do you think he will thank you for it? That he is more reasonable than I?”
Arro didn’t answer, looking like he was readying himself. He Reached for one of the Lightsaber pikes fallen on the floor behind him and called it into his waiting palm. Activated its blade, a bar of blue energy springing up at its lip.
“And you didn’t strike when my back was turned. How noble.”
“Not nobility.” Arro responded. “Pride. It’s a flaw I allow myself, no matter how expensive it may be.”
Valkorion was amused to hear the boy’s admission of pride. He felt oddly satisfied. Good to know that years of being his most feared adversary had granted the Emperor the most unique place in the boy’s circle. A place that allowed such a singular, unfiltered confession.
But He didn’t linger over His satisfaction. This Jedi had proven to be the deadliest of His enemies. He had to strike cautiously but decisively. Engaging him in close quarters was a mistake most came to regret. But He didn’t attack yet because the second he moved, the Jedi would respond. Quick as lightning.
He briefly considered just… letting him go without a fight. But no! The greater part of Him ached to fight this Jedi again, to face one of the few challenges He had met in a single person… He was on his own battlefield- his Throne room! The time was now!
Without further hesitation He hurled a net of lightning. As the boy moved to avoid the net, he also touched a few prongs of the current with his blade. He caught it, trapped it, and moulded it into an additional coating of electricity running along the blade.
Remarkable. Weak in the Force though he was, he certainly was inventive. As he had been when looking through the eyes of the Sith Emperor, Valkorion was impressed with the Jedi’s fine control over the smaller flows and threads in the Force.
All of this happened in less than a fraction of a second. In the next, the boy closed the gap and struck twice. Each blow was aimed not at Valkorion, but his shield, and the Emperor was intrigued to see how the boy used the Force that he had trapped along his blade. Ripples of lightning spread out over the shield, probing, looking for the gaps in his defense. Of course, there were none, for His defense was perfect-
And then the boy aimed his third blow. He put in a few more threads of Force energy into the point of impact, and Valkorion was surprised when the blow partially cut through the shield. It scored a hit on His gauntlet, and He was thrown off balance by His desperate lunge to avoid further harm.
But how-? There was no way- unless?
There had been no flaw, not truly, but perhaps there had been a point where the shield and the Jedi’s own flows resonated, for the briefest second? Had the boy created his own window of attack?
Remarkable. Strength in the Force so weak, yet he found ways to stand toe-to-toe with Himself.
The Jedi didn’t give Him time to recover His footing, instead gliding forward lightly and striking only centimeters above the ground- aiming at Valkorion’s feet, which were furthest from His hand, where the shield struggled to reform.
The wavering shield only barely protected Him but He still felt enough blow from the impact that He staggered. And even as the Emperor moved to get His feet back under Him, the Jedi had turned and struck again from His blindside. First at His heel, then a pair of thrusts at the center of His back.
Valkorion almost fell flat avoiding the first, and hastily strengthened and expanded his shield to protect His back, defending from the latter blows.
Within this bubble, He was protected. And He was trapped.
Now the Jedi launched many, many glancing blows at the shield, running threads of Force along his blade to cause the shield to resonate and give.
The boy had clearly trained hard for this particular scenario, so Valkorion saw no choice. He dropped the shield and rolled away awkwardly. Then He went for His own Magenta blade.
By the time it ignited, the boy was already on Him, and Valkorion braced as he warded off blow after blow from the unrelenting blue blade. He was banking on the Jedi’s self-confessed pride. Facing a man only wielding a sword, even a man as singular as He, the Jedi would also fall back to pure bladework. Not that it made a large difference; the boy was still too fast for Him, but the Emperor felt more secure in a defense that He could be certain wouldn’t falter.
Briefly, He held. He managed to defend himself from the flurry of attacks by weaving a defense with His own blade as an intricate net around Him.
And then, Arro batted aside His blade and struck a single blow through the center of His chest. The Emperor gasped as the molten blade burned a hole through His heart. Gasping piteously, the Immortal Emperor dropped on the floor, dead.
“That was for all the people who have suffered and died because of you!” Arro looked down upon his fallen opponent. “Please stay dead this time.”
In response, Arro heard Valkorion’s disembodied laughter coming from all around him.
The fallen body rose up into the air again, picked up by invisible strings, and was engulfed in a violent stormy glow. Arro felt a massive pull of something as an unknown force drew waves of energy towards it. It quickly drained him, and he dropped to his knees. The pulsating mass in the center of the of the storm reached a critical point, and exploded, throwing Arro back and knocking him out.
Arcann came to in time to witness the final moments of the battle. He didn’t know what had transpired, but his Father had been forced to rely on a blade rather than the Force.
And then, the Jedi stabbed Valkorion through the chest, and the thing that called itself the “Immortal Emperor” dropped dead. Arcann felt a little light-headed… was he really rid of his father, at least for a time?
He heard the Jedi say something to his Father, and then the ominous laughter out of everywhere that promised that his father wasn’t finished yet. There was an explosion of power, and the Jedi, the Outlander, was thrown backwards. Perhaps the explosion had killed him?
Vaylin walked in flanked by Knights and guards, expression stormy.
Arcann pointed at the fallen Jedi. “The Outlander! He broke free and assassinated our Father! But Father managed to lash out one last time before He died...”
Vaylin knelt to look at the Jedi. “Oh, look at that, he’s alive!” she smiled with a brightness that chilled those who saw it. “Alright boys, take him away~!" she sang. "Make sure he’s properly secured this time. And no, don’t damage him yet.”
Across the planet of Zakuul, the Emperor’s special announcements broadcasting equipment came to life, and two-stories-high holograms of Prince Arcann addressed the citizens of the world.
“People of Zakuul… the unthinkable has happened.” It announced angrily. “Our beloved Emperor, Valkorion, is dead. Murdered! By an Outlander who sought to shake the foundations of our great society! The assassin will receive swift and just sentence for this most heinous of crimes, and this act of unprovoked aggression will be answered.”
He paused before continuing. “ As your new Emperor, I can promise you this: Zakuul’s enemies will face the full power of the Eternal throne! They will answer for their warmongering ways! And every last one of the Core Worlds… WILL BURN !”
Chapter 3: Vaylin
Chapter III : Vaylin
Everything hurt. From the tips of his toes to the top of his scalp, Arro felt like every neuron in his body was grumbling in dull pain.He couldn’t remember what had happened. Where was he?
His senses were all sluggish, including his Force sense, and took a while to focus themselves. His hearing came back first. Someone was singing nearby, softly. A woman’s voice.
“... down rolling hills and the verdant vale,
Like the velvet fur on the torbie cat’s tail
Hold your hands up to the sky
And dance along to the songbird’s cry…”
The voice belonged to a girl sitting at a table, a glass of some cold drink in front of her. She wore robes of bluish grey with a gold trim, hood lowered to reveal chocolate brown locks and alabaster skin. Arro opened his mouth to speak but was overcome with a coughing fit. The girl looked up immediately, and her beautiful face split into a wide smile that sent entire Hoths down Arro’s spine.
“Ah good! Look who’s awake! Did you sleep alright? Well rested?”
“I hurt all over actually…” Arro said before subsiding into coughing again. He was restrained to his bed, which was at an angle to the floor. The girl walked up to him and held a glass of warm water to his parched lips, watching him closely with her raptor-yellow eyes.
“Now. Let’s try again, hmm?” She asked brightly. He shivered. “How are we feeling today?”
“I’ve felt better. My whole body aches…”
“How much do you remember? Do you know where you are? What you did? No? Oooo I would love to jog your memory for you!” She leaned into him, resting her hands on his chest like he were her lover. “Zakuul…” She whispered affectionately. “The Eternal Empire… Arcann… The Immortal Emperor; the one you killed. Ah you’re starting to remember! Good.”
He was, if only a little. It was all a blur-
“My name is Vaylin. He was my Father.”
Without warning, her fingertips glowed purple as she shot Force Lightning directly into his chest at the point of contact. It was carefully controlled to be painful but not damaging. Arro would have screamed in pain, but it caught in his throat.
Panting, he tried to shake it off. “I’m so sorry, Vaylin,” he gasped. “But it had to be done!” He hesitated before continuing. “I know that you won’t believe me, but your Father wasn’t a good man. He has slaughtered billions.”
Vaylin straightened, and looked at him shrewdly. “Oh, I believe you, alright.” She moved her fingers to her collar and began undoing the clasps on her robes. Lowering the hem slightly, she revealed a faint but dense pattern of razor-thin scars running across her chest. “Oh, but I do.”
She then disrobed completely, standing only in her smallclothes. Her expression was severe, daring him to look upon her ravaged body.
Arro gasped in horror.
She was the very picture of senseless, unending torture. There were signs that medical care had erased a lot of the evidence, but she had elected to keep a considerable amount faintly visible as a reminder of what she had endured. Her skin was covered in scars and tattoos, needle-marks with burned edges where it appeared as though painful but non-lethal toxins were directly introduced into her bloodstream. Burns from both fire and acid further marked her skin.
Her body would almost definitely have looked like something picked out of a leopard hyena’s den when these marks were yet untreated and fresh.
“Did… did He do this to you? Valkorion?” Arro’s voice was a strained whisper. The sheer callous nature of it made him feel terribly sick. “To his own daughter?”
“Himself? No. He never liked getting His hands dirty. No, He shipped me off to a dead world where He had made the Force itself cry, had His creatures there do all the poking and cutting.”
She let her robes lay where they dropped, but wrapped herself in a fresh blanket from the nearby rack.
“He was afraid of me, you see. I was far stronger than He. And He wanted me perfectly under His control. His minions-- mad scientists, degenerates, sycophants all of them-- He gave me to them with one directive; to put a leash on me. No matter how hard I struggled, I was always under His thumb. His slave. Until you killed Him. I’m quite grateful for that, you know. That’s why you’re the first one to whom I have willingly shown all of my marks. I don’t strip for just anybody.”
“Indeed, I am eternally grateful to you,” she continued. Then her eyes narrowed, and she stalked closer, a predator approaching for the kill. “However… I so vividly dreamed and dreamed of killing Him myself! It was my goal to break free of His chains, to show Him a fraction of the agony He had caused me. And to see Him suffer with my own eyes. And you…”
She placed her fingers on his temple and fed blinding lightning directly into his nerves. “You took that from me,” she finished when he stopped screaming. “And that… that is an offense graver than you could imagine.”
Four Knights stood guard at the prisoner’s cell. Usually, this would be considered overkill, but this man had already broken free of his restraints once and assassinated the Immortal Emperor, and Emperor Arcann wasn’t taking any chances.
Jovis, Atho, Remmec, Sorrad and Viida took their new role watching the Outlander’s door very seriously. Everyone had been extremely shocked to see what had happened. Viida had cried for hours, and Atho still had a dead look in his eye, and was neither eating well nor speaking more than a word or two at a time.
They were surprised on the first day when High Justice Vaylin elected to keep watch over the prisoner personally, while prison droids watched his vitals and cleaned the cell. Surely she didn’t think such close security was necessary? Except security wasn’t what she had apparently intended. The Outlander awoke on the third day, and though they couldn’t hear most of what the two spoke, within the hour his screams rang out of the cell, accompanied by the unmistakable rumble of Force Lightning. The sounds would die down quickly, and Vaylin would give him time to regain his breath before she started to work again. Never allowing him the release of numbness, or unconsciousness, or death.
Jovis wasn’t a woman given to torture, but she found the sound of the Outlander’s pain bring her deep satisfaction. Vaylin was inside for hours after the murderer woke, and there was scarcely an hour where his muffled screams didn’t echo out of the door at least once. Perhaps this wasn’t justice, but it was certainly justified!
Vaylin finally walked out of the cell after a solid three days of torturing her prisoner. “You didn’t spare him any quarter at all, did you Your Highness? I hope you are feeling less burdened?”
Vaylin looked exhausted. “Not nearly. What he took can never be replaced. But this is enough for now.” Then she walked off, her footsteps fading in the distance. The guards all looked at each other, and their expressions hardened.
Indeed this Outlander had taken far too much. His punishment needed to be severe, harsh. Once the Warmongers of the Core Worlds heard of how this hero had suffered, they would never dare oppose the Eternal Empire!
Arro was shaking so hard he had not a shred of control over his muscles. The torture had gone on and on, never ending until Arro couldn’t tell if it was days since each new scream was torn out of his lungs, or mere minutes. It was likely the latter, since his body would eventually grow numb if it really had been under for more than an hour.
But that logic didn’t stop the moments from feeling eternal.
As a droid hovered by, in its programming to clean the cell, he tried to speak, only to have his tongue betray him with its difficulty in speech. After some concentrated effort, he was able to stop the shaking just enough to ask “How long has it been since I woke up?”
“Three days,” the droid responded in a mechanical voice, not stopping in its rounds.
Three whole days. Arro wasn’t sure if it had seemed like a lot more time, or less.
He had attempted to completely close his mind off to Lana, but snatches of his pain still made it across the link, and now, when he reached out to let her know that he was okay for the time being, she seemed as haggard as he felt. She sent frantic, powerful emotions of love and strength and a desperate relief through the bond but Arro couldn’t make out the message she was trying to send. He was tired, down to his very soul, and he had only been a few days in captivity.
Vaylin was apparently more furious than he could have imagined. And she didn’t look finished- she would definitely return for more.
Arro attempted in vain to fight the despair rising through his chest but it wasn’t long before he was sobbing, every muscle trembling violently. He tried to sleep but that peace evaded him. He didn’t know how long he lay there and wept.
But it didn’t feel like long before the door opened again...
Vaylin cursed as she tripped over the carpet.
She landed almost face down on the coarse mat. She rolled over onto her back so that she was face up, and screamed her frustration at the top of her lungs.
She was out of sorts, to put it mildly. Her usual feline grace had been overtaken by the frenzied pacing of her days as torturer. Disturbed and unsettled after her hours spent torturing her father’s killer. The man who had beaten her to the punch.
She had poured her outrage in waves and waves of Force Lightning that had rained over her prisoner, but her fury hadn’t been satisfied. The torture began to give her far less of a release over the hours, and she had soon been reduced to venting at the Jedi.
“Troubled, Sister?” Arcann’s voice sounded as he came in from the training ground. He stopped short seeing Vaylin as she was, on her back and looking at him upside down. He had evidently abandoned his training in the grounds on hearing Vaylin’s frustrated scream.
“That Outlander !” She used the epithet as a curse. Fittingly, it brought a sour taste to her mouth. “He… He- AAAAARGHHHH!” she screamed again.
Arcann offered her a hand. She considered it for a moment before grabbing on and yanking, bringing him crashing down on the floor next to her.
He rolled over and sat up, so that at least they were seeing each other’s faces right-side up this time.
“The guards said that you were the one torturing him . What happened? Wasn’t enough?”
“Of course it wasn’t! I’ve been waiting for my own chance to break free and kill Father… I would have waited however long it was necessary… I’d have waited centuries if it meant watching him squirm. It was my only goal. It gave me purpose, helped me sleep through all those tortured nightmares. But now... That Outlander took that from me. He took it from me, Brother!”
Arcann was silent. “Did you tell him that?”
“Of course I did! I had to let him know why he deserved what I gave him, yes? I don’t do that kind of torture for kicks, I’m not insane…” She turned a heavy scowl on her brother. “Am I?”
“You are what Father turned you into,” Arcann said, clearly hoping it was the right answer.
Vaylin snorted. After contemplating for a few minutes, she continued. “I asked him what I had left now. I might live a hundred years, but I don’t have a purpose anymore.”
She turned her harsh yellow eyes on him. “You know what his response was? “ But now, your Father’s hold over you has been broken early. Instead of spending the next century thinking of how to break free and kill Him… you are already free. You are free to make any choice you wish. Be free of Him. ””
She remembered the moment clearly. The Jedi had been trembling all over. He could barely speak; his tongue was too numb to cooperate. He barely even seemed aware of what he was saying, like as though he were drugged or talking in his sleep
And she remembered her own response, though she wasn’t going to tell her brother that. She had been stunned into silence for the longest time. “Choice…” she had said finally. “I could get used to that!”
She realized then that she had spoken out loud; that her cheeks were wet and her lips were in a tremulous smile, and she had been enraged at her own reaction to his words. Luckily the Jedi been in no state to notice. With luck, he might not even remember that conversation.
After that final exchange, Vaylin had found herself quite unable to punish him further. She had taken a few moments to compose herself-- as short a time as possible-- then she had all but fled from that chamber. In fear .
She felt that teary feeling rise up again, and fought it down angrily. “But am I really free, Brother? Now that He’s gone… Father was what kept me going. Without Him, I’m nothing. Am I truly free?”
“Yes you are,” Arcann assured her. “The Outlander was trying to confuse you, to stop the torture. He would have said anything to appease you.”
Vaylin considered before shaking her head. “Whatever his intention… he’s not wrong. I am free now- at least in theory. I can move on. But I don’t know how.” She turned desperately to Arcann. “Do you know how?”
“Yes,” he answered, a smile possibly blooming behind that faceplate of his. “Where once you were a slave, now you are the new Emperor’s right hand! As the High Justice of the Eternal Empire you have the power to do anything you want! We are poised to bring the entire Galaxy under our rule! Stay as my right hand, and punish anyone who dares to defy you.”
“Sounds fun,” Vaylin said without feeling it. She was thinking of the Jedi again. Perhaps next she could ask him? Perhaps he could be persuaded to teach her to be free?
She groaned internally. Izax take him, I hope I’m not falling in love with him! she thought. No, she realized that he was doing something possibly worse than winning her heart.
He was making sense. Ugh!
“Well,” she said, sitting up. “Nice talk, Brother. I feel a little better already.”
“Good,” he said, rising. This time he didn’t offer her his hand. “I intend to begin my conquest within the month, Sister, and I would be pleased to have your support. Together we can bring the Galaxy to its knee-”
At that precise moment, they both felt a tremendous surge in the Force. And a presence they knew well.
Behind his mask, Arcann looked stricken. “No! Father is taking form, already? We should have had more time than this!”
Vaylin started sharply. “What? What did you-”
“No time. We must find the source of this disturbance, Sister. You may yet get the chance to kill Father yourself.”
Chapter 4: Secrets
Chapter IV : Secrets
Arcann walked into the Outlander’s cell block behind Vaylin. They were alone. He had forbidden any Knights from following them down.
As he had feared, the surge they’d felt in the Force had originated here. He was the only prisoner in this block: it was reserved for the most dangerous criminals, those who posed a severe threat to Zakuul. He was disconcerted to find that the door was open and the guards were not at their posts.
The cell door along with the wall opposite were charred black and even the duracrete was molten. The stench of ozone and burned flesh filled the air, enough that Arcann was grateful for his mask. He wondered how Vaylin showed little sign of being affected by the odor.
Perhaps she’s smelled far worse things on Nathema .
As he cautiously followed his sister into the cell and beheld a scene of horror.
The Outlander was slumped against the far wall, and judging by the scorch marks he had been the origin point of a massive outpour of energy; the ground and ceiling in front of him a massive parabola of melted black Duracrete. One Guard sat in a corner, blackened, trembling, praying, hysterical. Two more lay dead on the floor, burnt blackened corpses.
But where were the other two-? Ah… there they were .
The two shapeless lumps closest to the Jedi, mixed in among the melted droids and furniture- those must have been the guards who had stood nearest. They had been fused to their armor from the heat. He could only just make them out… It wasn’t a pretty sight.
And these patterns. Force Lightning-- a massive storm concentrated almost into a single stream-- there was no mistaking it. And there were only two of whom Arcann knew who could unleash such power.
“Father lives,” Vaylin muttered, having come to the same conclusion.
“Not exactly,” Arcann said. “He endures.”
Vaylin’s harsh glare slowly turned to him. “Brother, What do you kno-?”
“In a moment, Sister,” Arcann interrupted her. He turned to the sole surviving guard.
“You. Tell me what happened. Now!”
“My Emperor,” the woman stammered. “After Princess Vaylin left we were all consumed by her grief… Her pain at the loss… We talked about the Outlander- his crimes- his murder of the Emperor- How his actions had affected our beloved Princess- and we…” She trailed off.
“What. Did. You. DO?” Arcann demanded.
The Knight looked up at him, still consumed by terror, before continuing.
“Atho and Sorrad… They decided that the Outlander needed a longer lesson. We took turns, beating him, whipping him,” she indicated the shock-whip-- of the sort used to discipline arena beasts-- at her feet. “And then I said that it would be better to kill him rather than allow him a chance to be rescued. Viida held him up, and Sorrad ignited his Saber Pike… The next thing-- a giant explosion of Power. Then-” she took a sobbing breath. “They were all dead. Atho. Remmec. Sorrad. Viida. I had my shield… but it was only just enough…”
“IDIOTS!” Arcann snarled before executing her with his own fierce discharge of Lightning.
“Arcann… Tell me what you know.” Vaylin demanded. Her eyes were ablaze. “Now.”
This isn’t good . Her rage was ready to boil over. She couldn’t wait any longer… But how would she react? This would have to be handled delicately.
“Our Father’s most treasured secret,” Arcann began after some trepidation. “Was that of His immortality. During our raids of the Sith, Thexan and I heard interesting stories about their own Emperor. Their Immortal Emperor, though they didn’t call Him that. But what are the odds?”
Vaylin’s eyes widened. She understood, alright. “They are connected?”
“More intimately than we first assumed,” Arcann nodded.
Vaylin stood straighter and crossed her arms. “I’m waiting.”
“We interrogated a high ranking Darth, one Darth Skar. He told us a very familiar story: a story of how their Emperor was once a Sith Pureblood named Tenebrae. Strong in the Force, he had been the illegitimate son of Lord Dramath, born to a lowborn mother. Stories about his power drew the father to Tenebrae, and he proceeded to kill him. This act earned him the title of Lord Vitiate from the then Dark Lord Marka Ragnos. As Vitiate, Tenebrae delved deep into the Dark Side and learned as many of its secrets as he could. He along with his world stayed out of a contact War between Sith and Republic, and when the losing Sith were faced with utter defeat at the Republic’s hands, he invited them to Nathema. Where he proceeded to use a Dark Ritual to suck them and every living thing on the world and indeed the very Force itself dry. And thus, the Sith Emperor was born. Immortal, and supremely powerful.”
“That’s our Father’s own story, word for word but for the names,” Vaylin spat. “So Father once ruled over the Sith? And left to build Zakuul instead? That man, Marr, this is what he meant?”
“Not precisely. You see, up until recently- perhaps four years ago- their Emperor was indeed among them. He would occupy a physical host, a different being every now and again, but his signature in the Force was unmistakable. He ruled them for a thousand years… until the Jedi-- this Jedi, in fact--” he nodded at the Outlander, “Killed him.”
“But he wasn’t dead. He was here. But He was also there. How-” Vaylin shook her head, confused.
“Father’s true form is cloaked in the Force, making Him difficult to kill once and for all. Yet He can occupy hosts. Hosts like the Sith Emperor. And Valkorion. It seems He could occupy both at once. Yet the Sith Emperor’s story doesn’t end there.”
“You have my complete attention,” she hissed, eyes narrowing.
“Its consciousness lingered, dormant, though only a few in the top levels of the Empire were privy to that knowledge. For a time, it slept, and all were content to let sleeping dogs lie. But then he was awakened by the meddling of a man called Revan. It was a disembodied existence still, but it was definitely the same being, not a different avatar like our Father. This… entity… would proceed to consume all life on the planet Ziost before vanishing into Wild Space. At the time, the Sith believed that their Emperor was attempting to take on a physical form again. As I said, it certainly did assume different forms every now and again. Only this time, he didn’t.”
“What happened then?”
“We do not know.” Arcann answered, spreading his hands. “I suspected that Father-- the entity itself-- was gathering its strength for something. It worried me, and I didn’t want to find out the hard way. I decided to act.”
Vaylin’s eyes grew suspicious. “Does that mean… Our Father’s death! You freed the Outlander, you were behind it!”
“This Outlander had killed Father’s other avatar. And here he was right in my hands! I couldn’t pass up the opportunity! So I freed him, thinking he would work with me to kill Father. Instead, he didn’t move until I went down.”
“But … Wait! If you freed him first, Father was aware he was free, He had His guard up! The Outlander didn’t surprise Him with a cheap shot!”
“Yes. The Outlander exceeded my expectations. He faced Him in single combat. And won.”
Vaylin turned to stare at the Jedi in astonishment, even going so far as to walk up to him, tilt his chin up and look at his face again. After a few minutes’ scrutiny she turned back to her brother. “Very well. Finish the story.”
“I woke in time to see our Father overpowered and cut down. But then I heard his voice. It came not from his corpse, but from the air around us. It laughed before fading away, leaving a massive explosion of power in its wake. This was what knocked out the Jedi.”
Arcann paused. “I knew. Father was dead, but not gone. He might never be gone. But I had hoped I would at least have time to finish my tasks first-- go forth with the Fleet, conquer the Galaxy. To surpass Him. But no… It seems that Father is within the Outlander. But He hadn’t taken control until now… He acted only once the Knights decided to kill him.”
“Then why is the Outlander still here? Why didn’t he run?”
“Perhaps… yes! Perhaps Father cannot fully control him yet! That has to be it! The Outlander fought off the Sith Emperor's control once, and so maybe he can resist even now!”
“So what’s stopping me from killing him right now?” Vaylin asked, palming her Lightsaber.
“From the stories of the Sith Emperor, I gathered that He cannot just up and leave a body at his own convenience. Right now, He is contained inside the Outlander. In fact, He is imprisoned there, since He cannot act unless driven hard.”
“You seem awfully certain.”
“I am! All this research was Thexan’s! He was too careful to make mistakes like this.”
Vaylin accepted that without argument. Their brother had indeed been a thorough man. “So what now?”
“For now, we must keep the Outlander more securely contained until we know how to deal with Father. Perhaps we might never know, and we will need to keep him frozen forevermore.” Arcann turned to the door. “We place him in Carbonite. With that, we can keep him in suspended animation indefinitely.”
He turned when he noticed Vaylin wasn’t following him. “So… the reason Father was killed-- why I couldn’t do it myself-- Was you?”
She said it without inflection, in a soft, neutral tone, but Arcann felt an arctic chill run down his spine.
“It had to be done!”
“Funny,” she crossed her arms. “The Outlander said the same thing.”
“I already told you,” Arcann said, pleading. “Father was up to something! There was no time to-”
“I don’t care about that!” Vaylin roared, eyes flashing dangerously. Then she swallowed, took a deep breath. “However, I have you to thank for my freedom. You and the Outlander.”
The minutes ticked by, but Arcann dared not break the silence.
“Very well, Brother,” she said finally. “I will remain at your side, as you ask. I will be your High Justice and help you surpass Father, and together we shall work to learn how to wipe Him out once and for all. But, please… do not keep me in the dark again.”
Arcann personally oversaw the Outlander’s encasement in Carbonite. Still unconscious, he had been dragged to the carbon freezing facility under a guard of fifty highly alert Knights.
So far as they knew, he had escaped his restraints twice- with deadly consequences each time. They watched him as they might some deadly nightmarish monster- expecting him to stir and wake at any time. Determined to stop him running amok again, but not knowing how.
Everyone breathed a heavy, collective sigh of relief when the last clouds of gas vanished, revealing that their prisoner had been successfully contained.The technicians looked over the readings and the supervisor announced that the Outlander was in perfect stasis; his life processes had been successfully frozen.
Arcann knew that most of the Knights didn’t know why he didn’t just kill the man. He did have just cause after all. But he couldn't. Not yet. Not until he learned of a way to deal with Father.
And he fervently prayed that the Knights never understood the reason why.
Later that night, as he lay in his bed, Arcann found himself feeling more than a little twinge of guilt. He had used the Outlander as a weapon to accomplish his dream, then he had cast him aside. Used him as a scapegoat.
Now on forevermore, the Jedi who should have been hailed a hero, would be reviled by the entire Galaxy. The people of Zakuul would curse him for killing their Emperor. And the citizens of the Republic and Empire would remember him for being the spark that brought down the might of Zakuul down on their heads. All his prior deeds would be forgotten, his memory spat on. His very name would be used in stories to frighten small children.
Arcann had found that he liked the man. Actually, he had been deeply impressed. In his compassion and strength, he had seen a hint of Thexan. Perhaps under other circumstances they could have been friends.
Thexan … the thought of his brother amplified his sense of guilt. Would he have approved of what Arcann was doing? Would he have agreed of the necessity of their Father’s death? Of how he had used the Outlander?
Arcann sat up, reaching for a glass of water.
Father had wanted the Jedi housed here to see if he could be persuaded to change his mind, in these very halls. Perhaps it would have been worth the risk to befriend him, and to strike at Father at a different time, one where they could have found someone else to blame.
But-- as he had said to Vaylin-- they might not have had the time.
And of course, there was Vaylin. He hadn’t realized how Father’s death would have affected her so profoundly. She was changing now, rapidly and completely. He had no idea what she would become by the end of all of this.
But for now, she was willing to work with him. Perhaps the knowledge that she could yet get her hands on their Father herself had calmed her.
But Arcann was under no delusions; he was on thin ice with her. Another mistake and she might turn against him, with terrible consequences. When dealing with someone who incurred her wrath, she was relentless, and she was ruthless.
Things hadn’t gone according to plan. Not that he’d had an actual plan- it had been a seized opportunity. But he wished that he could be more satisfied with the outcome.
But now he was ready for phase two. Expansion. Growth. In a few weeks he would unleash the might of the Eternal Fleet upon the Core Worlds, and find power to surpass, and perhaps destroy his Father.
And to atone for his… accidental murder... of his twin.
I promise you, Thexan. I will make him pay for driving me to that threshold. Valkorion will pay!
Chapter V : Collapse
Citizens of the Republic, Of the Sith Empire.
I speak in the name of Arcann, new Emperor of Zakuul and the Eternal Empire.
Though we were able to repulse your pitiful combined fleet when it invaded our territory, one of the prisoners we captured was able to break free and assassinate his predecessor, the Immortal Emperor Valkorion.
He ruled with wisdom and benevolence for centuries, and was revered as a god on our Homeworld, and as such we are deeply distraught by his unprovoked murder. The assassin, Arro Silver of the Jedi Order, has already been punished, but it is not enough.
Our people demand vengeance on the leaders that sent him here, him and the others with him. And we shall have it! Prepare for war...
Tremble, as the entire might of the Eternal Fleet falls upon you, and know that it was your own leaders, and your own heroes who brought this upon you with their warmongering ways.
All news stations across the galaxy broadcast the sudden declaration of war. Experts and laypeople alike were interviewed as no one quite knew what to make of it.
Zakuul? No one had heard of it before. And what fleet was this? What force could claim to have defeated a force of Imperial and Republic warships? Who would even suppose that the two sides would join together in the first place? They’d been at war for most of the past century! True, they had been in an uneasy ceasefire since the death of Ziost, but to ally with each other? That was beyond imagination.
And Master Arro? He was everyone’s hero… The Sith and Jedi alike admired him for his skill with the blade. And he was a Jedi! Jedi didn’t murder anyone, did they?
But wasn’t Arro already known for having done that once already? Or was that twice-- for hadn’t he killed Emperor Malgus as well? Would he truly just up and kill a third Emperor just because he held that title?
And the question always returned to the front: Who, or what, was Zakuul an Empire of? Who were they to declare war on both Republic and Sith at the same time?
And the answer came in a series of swift assaults on numerous systems across the galaxy. Reports came of entire defense fleets being destroyed before they even had a chance to raise shields, by an enemy that was able to emerge from hyperspace already in formation and ready to fire.
The enemy armies-- almost entirely comprised of droids-- were agile and mobile destroyer droids that could quickly outflank and surround the troops of the Republic again and again; on Ilum, on Iridonia, on Ord Mantell…
Men and women in ornate bronze armor wielding saber-pikes and large shields fought Sith Marauders and Lords and Champions and even Darths.
Both Sith and Republic lost ground at an alarming rate, and it was only then that Leaders in the Senate stopped dismissing the threat as minimal. The Dark Council, already inclined to take the threat seriously on account of the death of Darth Marr, hadn’t been slow to mobilize, but had nonetheless been powerless to meet the unique challenge of Zakuul’s fast, well coordinated navy. It had been less than three weeks since the first broadcast and already it felt like it had been years too late.
Korriban, Chamber of the Dark Council
Though there were twelve seats on the Council, it had become a rarity for them all to be filled at any given time. The Councillors were the highest among the Sith, a position they had fought to attain, and had to fight harder to keep. For the Sith were ever a contentious lot, vying with every other Sith to be higher in the food chain.
And that was before the open war with the Republic. Five members of the Dark Council had been lost in a single month- three to Jedi and two more to their own internal politicking. And replacing such powerful Sith was such a difficult task that some seats remained vacant for months.
But through all these decades, Darth Marr had been one of the few to maintain his seat- and his life. Other Sith, even his greatest rivals, had long ago given up trying to unseat him and it seemed he would last forever
Until one day, he was suddenly gone, the first major casualty in the war against Zakuul. Darth Nox had been surprised by how much that affected the remaining members. All of them, even those that had loathed Marr, had panicked without even bothering to hide it. They had attempted to quickly add as much power from the Imperial Armed Forces to protect their own holdings as they could. As they tried to prepare for Zakuul, still unknown at the time.
When the Eternal Fleet came, the Army had already mobilized but the Council had spent precious days arguing which worlds to protect, and just like that they had lost three weeks, fifty seven capital ships and thirteen Darths.
They needed to fill Marr’s seat. For someone who had the final say in matters of Imperial Defense. When Vowrawn nominated his friend, the Empire’s Wrath, the agreement had been instantaneous and unanimous.
And so it was that Darth Prowle came among them.
Following the ascension of Darth Prowle as the Head of the Sphere of Military Defense, the campaign in the Sith territories had slowed. The crafty woman had reorganized the fleets drastically. Where earlier the massive Dreadnoughts had been the backbone, now the Imperial Navy relied on small Light Vessels. Small ships that were just short of a hundred meters in length.
The Eternal Fleet favoured tactic of using a probe to quickly mark the position of all ships and allow pinpoint coordination of the fleet that appeared moments later was lost. Where earlier the tactic allowed them to destroy the large ships before they could activate their shields and accelerate to attack speed, the lighter Interceptors and Patrol Craft were harder to target. Moreover, they responded quickly, and could close in with the Eternal Ships and engage them. Finally, use of boarding parties was rendered entirely moot, leading to the Eternal Navy’s reliance on surprise and panic to be fully lost.
In some battles, the fully engaged Eternal Fleet had had their roles completely reversed when Harrower and Terminus class Destroyers appeared out of hyperspace and ambushed them instead.
Such reversals were few in number however; for the most part, the Empire stopped using larger ships in combat at all, which baited the Eternal Empire into attempting to destroy the light enemy ships in a drawn out battle rather than hit-and-fade as they preferred.
All the time, tacticians worried what they saved their big ships for. Surely they had more of them? Many more?
Then the Eternal Vigilance, the Intelligence of the Eternal Empire, made a startling discovery. They had determined that the Sith had grounded thousands of ships on this out-of-the-way planet called Hoth. The formidable Darth Prowle herself was on the world. They concluded that the snow covered world was the staging ground for a massive attack on Zakuul itself, and the Emperor himself led a large Force to attack the stronghold.
The Eternal Fleet had emerged from hyperspace to encounter a fleet of maybe nine hundred and fifty of the larger Terminus Destroyers in orbit to defend the planet. Their probe had, as usual, pinpointed the locations, allowing the Eternal ships to pepper them with fire.
But their probes were designed to mark positions, not thoroughly scan ships. Which was why when almost every last ship-- empty but for skeleton crews, but armed with warheads-- accelerated to ramming speed, the ships of the Eternal fleet were caught completely unawares. The entire fleet had in reality been a massive battery of missiles composed of nearly derelict vessels whose engines and armor were their only remaining assets. It had been designed to be wiped out quickly, but to take a large chunk of the enemy with them.
The Eternal Navy had lost more than four thousand ships, with over three rendered completely beyond repair. The Emperor’s Flagship, the Thexan’s Legacy itself, had been heavily damaged. And then of course the swarms of light Sith ships had closed in for a more vicious fight. The remaining dozen or so ships stood no chance.
And so, Arcann had committed the entirety of the remaining fleet- over fifty nine thousand capital ships- to the attack, and though slowed and bloodied, they eventually won the space battle.
But the base was shielded from bombardment, so there had been no fire support for invading ground forces.
Wave after wave of dropships had been cut down by the ground batteries and grounded ships before they even broke through the cloud banks. Those that survived had to fight uphill while hip-deep in snow against an entrenched enemy. It had taken two hundred and eighty seven long hours of continuous, arduous fighting and tremendous casualties before they had breached the base.
But even that wasn’t the end, for there was one final hurdle: Darth Prowle and the troopers in the underground base. Entrenched, well supplied, they were safe from bombardment could have withstood a lengthy siege, which was why the Emperor had had to call for yet more reinforcements to clear out the base.
Prowle herself had been a nightmare. True to her title, she was wrath incarnate, cutting down dozens of Knights, thousands of Skytroopers and even more of the regulars. After her initial display of raw combat ability, Sentients had become most reluctant to face her, but finally, after hours and hours of sustained attack, the woman was heavily injured and exhausted.
Twenty surviving Knights stood in a tight circle, pikes pointed at the battered Sith trapped in the center as droids cleared the carnage so that there was room to walk. Everyone was still wary. The fight for this world had been vicious and expensive.
Arcann himself walked in shortly after, fuming. He wasted absolutely no time on niceties.
“The ships that you have grounded here. Where are they?”
“That’s it?” Prowle asked, grinning wide. “Not even a hello? And here I thought for sure you’d start off with “Oh but you’re far more gorgeous than I expected!””
“The ships!” He roared. “Where are they?!!!”
“Not here, sadly,” Prowle answered, expression mournful.
“Nonsense!” Arcann raged. “Our intelligence picked up repeated chatter about the ships on this planet! Orbital Scans told us there were over twenty thousand capital ships on this world!”
“Not working ships,” Prowle responded coolly. “Dead ones. The Republic and Empire fought a battle here, same as we did today. Every one of the “ships” you detected were downed ships in the Starship Graveyard, beacons repaired and reactivated so that it would give you the impression of a beached fleet. Congratulations! You’ve wasted far too many resources on an insignificant target!”
Incensed, Arcann roared and charged at her, lightsaber igniting. Prowle, injured right arm hanging limp at her side, still caught his blade on her vivid lavender one. Faster than the eye could see, her counterattack left a long molten gash in his prosthetic left arm, only barely missing his face on its upward swing.
“Damn, that was sloppy,” she remarked cheerfully, as a startled Arcann stumbled back and assumed a more defensive stance “I was hoping to see what you looked like behind that mask!”
“You are dangerous,” he whispered.
“What, you didn’t figure that out earlier? By the way, I’m still waiting for you to also figure out how breathtakingly beautiful I am. They call me the Empire’s Wrath, but the title I really wanted was Empire’s idol!”
Arcann spoke no more. Once again, he lashed out, first with a powerful burst of yellow Lightning that Prowle barely caught on her blade, then with a furious flurry of strikes that threw her further off balance. Yellow Blade clashed violently with Purple, and every exchange wore down the already half-dead Sith.
As Arcann backed away for a respite, breathing very hard himself, Prowle’s ceaseless exertion finally caught up with her. Her lightsaber fell from fingers that had gone numb. Her mouth hung low as her limbs began to convulse and jerk. Her jaw suddenly tightened and she bit hard on her tongue; a stream of blood coursed out from behind her clenched teeth. She collapsed in a tight heap on the floor, still convulsing.
Arcann seized the opportunity to strike. Advancing cautiously, he raised his Lightsaber and slammed it down on her exposed back as hard as he could. The blade stabbed through her heart and deep into the floor, ending the life of the Empire’s greatest warrior, and the Battle of Hoth.
Hours later, aboard his ship, Arcann ordered that he not be disturbed. Washing himself in the bath in his quarters did nothing to wash away the shame of having cut down a blademaster like Prowle as she writhed in a seizure. As he looked into the mirror he fancied the Sith woman’s shade grinning behind him, the bright orange eyes glowing like all those warm campfires he and his brother had lit. Reluctantly turned around and addressed his dead foe.
“You were the most gorgeous woman I have ever seen. Would that I had met you under better circumstances- perhaps the Midsummer ball, or the Yule Feast. You were my enemy, you cost me dearly. But you were an amazing General, a peerless warrior and a highly desirable woman.”
Then he broke down and wept for the remainder of the day.
Oh Thexan... Vaylin… It wasn’t supposed to be like this!
Coruscant, Office of the Supreme Commander
Supreme Commander Jace Malcom couldn’t keep up with the nonstop inflow of reports. Truth was, the volume was similar to heated war with the Sith, but… But the Republic had been better matched against the Sith. Even at their worst, they hadn’t been so badly outclassed.
Against Zakuul, they were laughably overwhelmed.
The Sith, under the cunning of Darth Prowle, had managed to make the Zakuulan advance costly for a while, culminating in the brilliant Battle of Hoth, where she had sacrificed herself, along with only a token force, to destroy thousands of Zakuulan ships and dozens of their legions.
Malcom scowled heavily. Darth Prowle. The Empire’s Wrath . He had always thought of the woman as a vicious, bloodthirsty glutton of a warhound, but he most reluctantly admitted that she had been a sly conductor of war.
Certainly better than Supreme Chancellor Saresh, and her sycophant advisors.
Why he could have a title such as “Supreme Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic” and not have the final say in the war was beyond him.
Malcolm wanted nothing more than to pretend that none of this was happening, but he hadn’t that luxury. The meeting with the Joint Chiefs was in three days’ time- they had to come up with a new strategy. Anything at all. It pained him to think of how many soldiers had already died. For their deaths to mean anything at all, they would have to learn from their losses.
And so, he spent the day going through after action reports.
Third Battle of Malastare
Summary: Zakuulan raid on Malastare aimed at disrupting export of fuel along the Hydian Way. Seven Hammerhead Cruisers, twenty three support frigates, and one hundred and fifty seven starfighters lost in the battle. No enemy ships destroyed.
Orbital Bombardment devastated the Cerenal and Vodarin oil fields.
Seventy six cargo vessels shipping fuel from the planet destroyed.
Planet on lockdown for three standard days.
Raid of the Eriadu droid factories
Eighteen factories for high-end droid parts were destroyed from orbit by a small fleet of Zakuulan ships that retreated when Republic forces attempted to engage.
Estimated casualties: 33 dead, 910 injured.
Estimated damages: 730,000 Credits.
Raid on the Shipyards of Corellia
Raiding Force of Zakuulan Ships attacked shipyards on Corellia, destroying two, heavily damaging three with some destruction also seen in Industrial sectors. Ships did not engage our Naval forces.
Estimated casualties: 650 dead, 3000 injured.
Estimated Damages: 9,720,000 credits
Relief of Agriworlds Tegris, Uphrades, Tranube VII, Ganinga II, Corsin, Dantooine, Ruan, Yulant
The Zakuulan Blockades of Agriworlds successfully broken. Or rather, they fled when our ships emerged.
328 spaceports specializing in exporting crops, and 800 warehouses destroyed by the enemy during their brief stay.
And on it went. The tone was usually the same. Zakuulan ships rarely engaged heavier fleets, choosing instead to raid the worlds they protected. Usually heavy fleets were only committed to the more important worlds after all.
When they did stay, it was when the forces guarding the worlds were small, and where a brief occupation the world itself would disturb trade and shipping along the Hyperspace Lanes.
There were hundreds of worlds that were critical links in those lanes and most couldn’t be guarded. It was likewise impossible to protect agricultural worlds.
Naval superiority allowed Zakuul to be everywhere at once.
Prowle’s doctrine of light decentralized fleets had allowed for a much more flexible protection of Imperial territory. She had also deliberately spread out factories on industrial worlds, and in some cases moved operations out entirely. She also set up dummy decoy factories to confuse raiding fleets on which ones to fire upon. This made them less vulnerable to a targeted bombardment from orbit.
She had, surprisingly, reached out to the Senate and the Republic military, offering not only sharing tactics, but also sensor data, and data of Zakuulan fleet movements, so that they’d have a bigger picture of what the navy was doing. She had proposed a temporary alliance in order to face Zakuul.
Even Malcom, who hated the Sith Empire- and Prowle especially for leading the attack on Tython years ago- had been eager for the offer. But the Supreme Chancellor had flatly refused.
Once he was done reading the summaries, he looked at estimates of fuel availability and winced. The Republic could not continue to relieve every world that was blockaded. Perhaps as soon as tomorrow, they’d have to start abandoning the less significant worlds to conserve fuel. Planets that relied heavily on trade to feed their populations, like Coruscant and Corellia, would have to begin strictly rationing what they had.
Not a single world would be able to last a siege that lasted more than a week.
Coruscant, with its seven hundred billion permanent residents and the six hundred billion estimated refugees was always in danger when trade routes were choked.
Malcom leaned back in his chair and fought off the wave of hopelessness that threatened.
He sat in this posture for almost an hour when his secretary Gavic Erman contacted him on the intercom.
“Excuse me, sir, but your daughter is here to see you.”
Malcom’s mood brightened considerably at the prospect of meeting Jasme, but the Soldier in him reminded him of his duties.
“Tell her I’ll see her later,” he said unwillingly. “After hours.”
“No can do, sir.” Erman said in his usual semi-casual manner. “You’ve been in there for almost two days straight, and I feel it’s my duty to insist you get some rest now. We can’t have the Supreme Commander drop dead of exhaustion.”
“Two days?” Malcom almost shouted. “The meeting of the Joined Chiefs-”
“Postponed, sir. A holomessage marked Urgent arrived this morning… wait a minute, have you been reading those AARs this entire time? Sir!”
Malcom blanched. Getting so caught up in these reports that he missed messages marked Urgent was a huge blunder on his part.
“I’m sorry Gavic,” he apologized. “I think it’s been two months since I last slept more than two hours at a time.”
“Which is why I’m sending her right in. Go on home, sir!”
The door opened, and a tall dark haired woman walked in. “Daddy?”
“Hello Jasme,” he grinned tightly, stumbling as he rose. He held her in a tight hug, grateful for the warmth she always brought him- a power that only she held. Even her mother and twin brother had never made him feel so much happier with just their presence alone.
Perhaps it had been her enthusiastic acceptance of him into her life, the happiness she herself seemed to find when she finally met her father, that also made her special to him. In contrast, Theron had become angry and defensive.
Bending slightly- she was even taller than Malcom himself was; another contrast with her twin brother- she gave him a kiss on his scarred cheek.
Though she was smiling too, her mood was clearly damped as well. “Ready to go home? We’re going to have company.” She had found a Jedi-owned apartment very close to his, so that they could be a part of each others’ lives.
“Theron. And mom too.”
Theron served drinks while Satele sat dead-eyed in Malcom’s embrace.
His sister had called him earlier, and told him that he was to meet her at her house for dinner, urgently. On pain of eternal silent treatment. He didn’t think his sister could manage such a severe punishment but she rarely ever made demands on his time, and when she did he found it hard to say no.
Jasme herself sat on the carpet, by her mother’s feet, head rested against her knees.
“How bad?” Jace asked her.
“Near total,” Theron answered into the silence when Satele didn’t. “Of the Jedi Council, only Satele, Dayl Zoran and Gnost-Dural have survived. The Order is down to only four Masters. Eighty one Knights, seventeen senior Padawans. Most of the younglings and students are unharmed, but have been sent to hostels and refugee on other worlds since there’s no one left to teach them; and we weren’t able to get in touch with their families in most cases. Most will disappear into the cracks the way ordinary war orphans do.”
“No,” Satele spoke up suddenly. Her voice was a hoarse whisper. “Master Gnost-Dural is putting together a plan for the students. They won’t be abandoned.”
She finally seemed to come back to life, but the soul crushing exhaustion and despair remained on the lines of her face. She seemed to have aged thirty years in these past two months. Her face had always looked young for her age, despite the severe stresses of being Jedi Grandmaster in an era of war. But this near-annihilation of the Jedi Order might be a death blow.
Her hair had thinned and gone white as Hoth snow in a matter of months, her face gaunt and lined. Her once serene eyes were haunted and tired. And she had lost so much weight that her skin hung loosely off her bones.
“So many dead… so many lost… I can no longer be with the Jedi. I can no longer remain at the Temple… All those lost…”
“It wasn’t your fault, Satele,” Malcom said gently.
“That doesn’t help at all,” Satele said. “Like I know it’s not helping you.”
Theron’s father didn’t answer that.
“If there is anyone to blame, it’s Arro,” she said, face souring.
Malcom looked at her, looking confused. “The Battlemaster of the Jedi? Why?”
That’s right, he doesn’t know that Arro was going to leave the Order!
Theron almost cursed, and Jasme actually did.
“Mom, you can’t blame him!” Jasme scolded, rising on her knees- one of them flesh-and-blood, the other a cybernetic- a relic of her near execution by the Reborn Revan.
“He was eager to kill the Emperor and be done with it,” Satele said angrily.
“After Ziost, can you blame him?” Theron spoke up. “He was there. He saw what the Emperor’s spirit did firsthand- all that madness and death. He was even there when Master Surro angrily refuted the Jedi and turned herself over to Imperial Intelligence.”
“He was eager to do it even before Ziost,” Satele spat. “All because of that woman!”
“He was not eager!” Jasme exclaimed hotly, but understanding began to dawn on Malcom’s face. “He hated killing and you know it!”
“Be that as it may,” he said gently, interrupting the argument. “He’s gone now. Arcann has already killed him for what he did.”
For a moment Theron thought Satele was going to get further incensed, but instead, those words shattered her completely.
“Dead?” She whispered, tears finally forming in her eyes. “Dead… Oh I’m so sorry Arro!” With that she broke down and began sobbing uncontrollably.
She didn’t stop until she had finally fallen asleep.
“She hates that he made the choice she didn’t,” Malcom guessed. “She chose duty before love but he chose love.”
Theron began to nod then shook his head. “I wish we could summarize it so neatly in a single sentence, but there’s just a bit more to it. Yes Arro did choose love over duty, but he chose duty before family- that’s why he didn’t leave the Order already. He felt he had to finish what he had started- killing the Emperor once and for all.” He thought it better not to mention whom Arro had fallen in love with. It no longer mattered anyway, and Arro would soon be slandered for bringing Zakuul down on the Republic. No sense in hurting his name further by mentioning how he fell in love with Lana. Not just an enemy soldier, but a Sith.
“Aaaah,” Malcom said. “Of course he’d feel responsible seeing as he took down the Sith Emperor before… but that it didn’t take.”
“And mom’s always kinda relied a lot on him,” Jasme said, reluctantly. “During the days on Yavin she seemed to realize that she treated him as a son but hadn’t done the same for Theron… or me… and that made her feel guilty. Then he comes out and says he’s leaving the Order…”
“What a tangled mess,” Malcom groaned.
They all sat silently for a while. Then Jasme spoke up.
“We’re going to lose, aren’t we?”
The men couldn’t respond. At least, Theron couldn’t.
Malcom responded by breaking down completely just as Satele had.
Akahte sat watching what was left of her meager force, wishing Prowle was still alive.
The Wrath- or Kai’rene, as she preferred her name to either title- had briefly managed to make Zakuul falter, but had announced that they couldn’t keep that up forever.
Akahte remembered that meeting clearly.
“Why now?” Darth Ravage had asked. The man hated Kai’rene the most but even he had not opposed either her ascension or her policies. In recent days he had been awed by her prowess.
“At best, we can keep this up for a few more months before Zakuul adapts. Or decides to move on to open war rather than their hit-and-run style warfare.” Kai’rene had said grimly. “We briefly have the initiative; we need to make them pay a heavy enough cost that they might lose their taste for blood.”
“You’re about to suggest something risky, aren’t you?” Akahte- Darth Nox- asked.
“High-risk, High-reward,” Prowle nodded. “Two objectives. Kill Arcann. Strike at Zakuul.”
The silence had been so absolute you could have heard a pin drop.
Then, Kai’rene had outlined her plan, and it was indeed high-risk, high-reward. Give the impression that the entire fleet was amassing on Hoth for a strike at Zakuul- on the surface itself, out of the way of system wide scans.
How? With a little work on the downed ships in the Starship Graveyard. It would only take some days to prepare.
Then, the Sith were to wait until the Eternal Fleet had deployed its ground forces as well. Going by his psychological profile, Arcann would almost certainly lead the fleet and the ground attack personally.
And when he finally attempted to assault the Imperial base, the real fleet- hidden on Taris- would strike at Zakuul, aiming to wipe out its Orbital defenses and facilities, and bombarding their capital. Perhaps capturing it outright, if they could. With either their Emperor dead or their Capital taken, or both, the Zakuulans were sure to fold. Even more readily if the Hoth phase took a heavy toll.
The Eternal Empire had swallowed the bait much harder than they could have hoped- Arcann indeed led the force, and when four thousand ships were disabled, he summoned fifty-nine thousand more.
These numbers intimidated the Council, and when the moment came- when Zakuul reached the bunker itself- they hesitated. Arcann executed a heavily battered Prowle- who had almost killed despite her injuries, and whose heroic last stand was broadcast for everyone to see.
And then, the window began to close. Zakuul began to pull back, and they continued to hesitate.
Nox and Vowrawn had berated them- they had given their word! For Prowle’s strategy to work they had to stick to their end of the plan, now while they had the chance!
But Darth Acina had taken her fleets and returned to her holdings.
“Look at how many ships arrived to reinforce them!” She had blustered. “Sixty thousand? If they can commit that many to Hoth, surely they can rebuff any attempt at invasion?”
“Remember what Prowle said,” Ravage had spoken up. “When the initial force is threatened to be overrun, Arcann is the type who will summon the entire home fleet in his outrage! And why wouldn’t he? All of our ships are supposed to be grounded on Hoth!”
Acina did not deign to respond. She cut off all communications and disappeared. With the entirety of her forces. That had caused Darths Rictus, Zhorrid, Aruk, and finally Mortis, to also lose their nerve.
With five members of the Council withdrawing support- and forces- they had been robbed of fighting strength at the last minute, but Akahte, Vowrawn and Ravage had led their combined forces to Zakuul as they had promised.
They had been shocked- there was not a single ship in orbit around the world. That was when they’d made their second blunder; they’d all agreed-- on Grand Marshall Malavai Quinn’s suggestion-- had attempted to contact at least Mortis, Aruk or Rictus to come to their aid.
The enemy Capital was undefended!
But again the fools hesitated! They didn’t even say “No!” right away! And Akahte, who cursed herself for her stupidity, had waited for their response.
They had waited two hours, and then the window began to close. Eight thousand of the ships committed to Hoth had returned almost on top of their own ships, and a fight broke out.
Even at this juncture, the Sith would have launched an attack on Zakuul itself, for they still outnumbered this arm of the Eternal Fleet almost three to one. While it might have been nice to win the planet itself, the more important objective had been collecting a hefty price from the Zakuulans, after all.
But the Commander-- one who was also very strong in the Force-- was an uncaring, reckless one, and he-- or she, as they later found out-- pulled a line out of Kai’rene’s code and ordered her ships-- all of them, including her own-- to ram the enemy. She had boarded Ravage’s ship, which served as the Flagship. And she had overwhelmed him in seconds.
When she hailed the other ships, she politely introduced herself as Vaylin, Arcann’s sister, and High Justice of Zakuul. Then she had executed Ravage.
Many of the Imperial ships had been damaged in the ramming, so Akahte didn’t even begrudge Vowrawn running away when he did. Her own ship had been heavily damaged, including the Hyperdrive, otherwise she didn’t know that she might have done the same.
The fighting had continued at close quarters, nearly point blank range, and reinforcements had arrived for Zakuul. Quinn, who had escaped Ravage’s ship only to be trapped on another, gave the order for a general retreat.
Nox, repelling boarders, was relieved when the Hyperspace was restored to some basic functionality. Unfortunately, Begeren would be the final jump her ship would make. From there, the ship failed completely and they crash-landed on the planet.
And here they were now, days later. They had destroyed the last of the droids that had boarded their ship, then waited for rescue. And waited, and waited. None came, though Zakuul’s forces eventually tracked her down and sent in several waves of troops and Knights.
She knew. She’d been abandoned. Why not? They had all been too afraid of her, and that had been the only reason they didn’t plot against her. And with her political allies dead- Marr and Kai’rene, they would all be eager for the chance to rid themselves of her.
Such short-sighted fools!
Sighing heavily, she stood. “Dear Kai’rene, wherever you are. I salute you on your ability to read your enemies. If only you had been as good at reading your allies!”
“Oh but she was,” a heavy Dromund Felsian accent drawled. “She told me this was the probable outcome.”
Akahte turned to see the massive SpecForces soldier, Captain Pierce, walk up to her, steaming mug in each hand.
“Blueberry tea, my Lord? Lady Kai always loved my tea.”
“Thank you,” Akahte accepted the mug and tried a sip. She took a moment to savour the taste before looking back at the man. “What was that? Kai’rene knew the Councillors would lose their nerve?”
“Yes my Lord. She even predicted that Acina would be first to back out. And pretend that she’s afraid.”
“Pretend?” That startled Akahte.
“That’s affirmative. Acina isn’t losing her nerve, she’s moving to leave the other Councillors high and dry, so that she can arrange for them to be caught with their pants down.”
“But… but…” Akahte spluttered.
Taking another sip, Pierce continued. “Acina trusted Lady Kai’s instincts, that Zakuul would be undefended. But she’s always been afraid of her fellow Councillors- you in particular. She figured that by leading at least some strength away from the force, the remainder would take heavier losses. She was counting on Lady Kai’s plan to succeed- at no risk to herself.”
“And she didn’t tell me, why?” Akahte asked, feeling slightly hurt.
“She didn’t think it would matter,” Pierce said. “She felt that you, Vowrawn, Ravage and Mortis between the four of you, had the firepower to do it.”
“But… didn’t she trust me?”
Piers looked surprised “Trust, My Lord?”
“I thought Kai’rene had enough respect for me to know I would go through with this, even if everyone but me backed out!”
Pierce thought for a moment. “My Lord, I can say with certainty that Lady Kai’rene had the deepest respect for you. Your strength, your courage, your convictions, and even your political stances. Maybe she meant to tell you- or thought that she had already. If she didn’t, it wasn’t because she didn’t trust you. I’d wager my life on it. Maybe she hoped she would be wrong, and didn’t want to sow discord between Councillors? She told me because my opinion of the Councilors- and whether I’m hostile to any of them- doesn’t count. But you? You’re a colleague.”
“Hope, eh?” Akahte paused. “Trust? Haha… Yes, I suppose that does sound like her. Are we all so predictable in the end?”
“Quinn used to say so,” Pierce said, tossing a silent toast to his former teammate before downing the rest of his tea, smacking his lips. “Of course, Quinn also thought that I had nothing to do with the essence of Wampa dung he kept finding in his sheets. Blamed poor lil Vette for that.”
Akahte laughed heartily. “One thing still surprises me. How did Lady Kai so accurately predict Acina? She’s not that good, is she?”
“Well that was thanks to Jaesa.”
“Oh. Of course. How could I have forgotten? I wish Jaesa shared her insights with me.”
“Absolutely loyal to Lady Kai she was. And Lady Kai obeyed her wishes in turn. Jaesa wanted none but Kai herself to use her powers. Said she hated looking at how ugly the world is.”
“Dark Lord,” another officer approached. “We found your Dashade. Injured in the crash and attacked by five knights. He’s… not going to make it.”
“Oh, Khem!” She whispered, kneeling beside him. “What happened to you?’
As always, the Dashade replied in the old Sith tongue. “My escape pod’s landing sequence didn’t work right. It crashed into a cliff. Broke some of my ribs.”
“And you still overcame five Zakuul Knights!”
“They are nothing!” he gasped before collapsing in a fit of coughs. “I am Khem Val! I was the right hand of Tulak Hord, devourer of the rebels at Yn and Chabosh! Consumer of the Dromund system! The herald of Darth Nox, Lord Akahte Kallig, the Head of Ancient Knowledge! I will not be killed by the likes of them!”
Then, pleading, he turned to her, a single tear falling from his eye. “Please, my Master. Give me your sword.”
She withdrew her Lightsaber and severed both of the Dashade’s hearts in a single strike.
In honour of Khem’s service, she held onto her stoic demeanor until his shadow had faded entirely. Only then did she allow the tears to fall.
“Breaking news, this is Kinoko Sharale of the Nebcon Corellian News Network, LIVE from the Throne Room of the Eternal Empire where history is being made.
In moments, representatives from both the Republic and the Sith Empire are expected to arrive and surrender to the Eternal Empire. This will be the end of hostilities between Zakuul, the Republic and the Sith, and many are expecting that this day will also see an end to the unending season of war between the Republic and the Sith. For today might be the day that Emperor Arcann demands our governments to demilitarize as terms of the surrender. If nothing else, this might bring us some much needed peace and quiet as we rebuild, and hope for a better tomorrow.”
Master Dayl Zoran looked at the small, brown haired woman standing head bowed before him. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you before, Miss-?”
“Jaesa Willsaam, Barsen'thor,” the woman identified herself.
“Jaesa,” Gnost-Dural repeated next to Dayl. “You were once Nomen Karr’s apprentice, until you swore yourself to another. To Darth Prowle.”
“She wasn’t a Darth then,” Jaesa replied. “Just Kai’rene.”
“As if that matters,” Dayl rebuked. “Master Nomen Karr was so distraught by your betrayal that he fell to the Dark Side! He never recovered from his Fall!”
“What? Master Barsen’thor, he had already Fallen when I got there! He had fallen before we ever met! His obsession with one-upping Darth Baras once and for all consumed him!”
“What do you dare to say?”
“She’s right, Dayl”, Gnost-Dural soothed him. “Remember, I knew Karr for years. I always thought that his fight with Baras, and the Sith as a whole, had gotten too personal for him.”
He nodded at Jaesa. “It was why I wasn’t so keen on him using you to reignite the fires of war.”
Jaesa bowed before him, looking relieved for the support.
“But one thing stands. Why did you swear yourself to the future Darth Prowle?”
She looked right at him. “I don’t know, Master.” She sounded like she had thought about this question herself before, many times. “She just stood there, and asked if I was willing to help her try and make the Empire a less evil place, and I agreed. When I Saw her… through the Force, I mean… I saw someone who fought for the good of people, not for conquest. When she said that she wanted to make the Empire a better place, I knew she would do her hardest to make it so. I saw how much she loved the people closest to her, and I realized… that I wanted that too. I wanted her trust. Her love. I could be calm… but I realized just how much I needed that fierce love. I was willing to put myself in harm’s way for it! And she was did put herself in harm’s way for me, many times! In all these years she never once made me question my choice to follow her. She may have taken me to the Sith Empire, but she encouraged me to walk in the Light.”
Dayl Looked at her through the Force again, this time observing more closely. “Well… You are untainted by the Dark, there is no denying that.” He was surprised.
“Kai’rene protected me from the worst of it… She took me to worlds in the Empire where life went on almost like it does on many Republic worlds… like here on Dantooine. She made me laugh often, and see the beauty in the universe.”
“We are very sorry for your loss,” Dayl said, feeling it. “You gave up everything for her and she lived up to your trust. I can’t imagine how difficult losing her must be.”
Her head was still bowed, but her shoulders began to shake. Slightly at first, then more rhythmically. Dayl placed a palm on her shoulder. “It’s alright, Jaesa. It’s okay to cry. Let it all out. Your grief is great. But we will be here for you. It’s a long way to Ossus, and even once we land we have all the time we need. We will try our best to help you.”
She began weeping in earnest, and Dayl’s apprentice, Nadia Grell, stepped forward and took Jaesa into her arms, whispering soothing words of comfort as she led her to one of the ships they would be using for the exile to Ossus.
Dayl felt something wet on his face and was surprised to find that there were tears there.
“We have all lost so much,” Gnost-Dural said.
“That does hurt deep,” Dayl said. “But that’s not what the tears are for. What she said about Darth Prowle; Kai’rene, as she called her. I was touched. Deeply. Perhaps Arro was right. Perhaps there was more to Sith than rage and hate.”
“Passion takes many forms, my friend. Love and Loyalty just as much. I had always wanted to chronicle the mighty Darth Prowle, who I know for a fact has spared many Jedi and Republic Soldiers… not to mention innocents... and now I am glad to have a firsthand account.”
“The Old Ways are collapsing,” Dayl noted. “It’s painful as we live through it, but perhaps what rises in its place will be something… different. Something better. Even at a time like this, I can feel the warm sunshine of hope.”
Why is Zhorrid still alive? Oh that’s right, because she had no real power, and her seat had represented an empty title for a decade- Baras, Arkous and Decimus had taken over her Sphere whenever they wished and Marr had held it when they didn’t, so no Sith wanted her seat anyway. She is a nobody. It doesn’t matter if she’s dead or alive, she’s irrelevant.
Chapter 6: Rescue
Chapter VI. Rescue
The hour was late in the Eternal City on Zakuul. There were few people to be found on the streets of the Technological Sector 03. Citizens would be asleep in their houses, even most of the ones that loved to stay late in the Cantinas. Most of the people you would find were Overwatch guards, or Zakuul Knights.
The guard droid stationed at the High Security Vault 07 logged a technician and a support droid entering via the elevator to the Tram station. The tech had been scheduled to bring in three replacement wall terminals and miscellaneous parts to the vault.
The droid scanned their ID and it checked out. It notified the building’s main computer of the entry, granting them clearance through the relevant security grid and then powered down.
Lana Beniko followed the path that had been programmed into her datapad, wishing she could just head to her destination directly. But no; this had to be done delicately or the entire plan might fall apart.
She had only been granted access to the Outer Vault, and five additional layers stood between her and the Inner Vault. First they hacked into the Security System, and granted themselves full access to the Vault. Then reprogrammed the cameras to replay footage of the previous day.
Next up was the Main Computer. The Vault had five rings, and at the door to each was a measure designed to record entries, and also notify the local Overwatch office. While in broad daylight they could have ignored this particular measure, Overwatch would be sure to be suspicious of any activity. So they had to discreetly sever the network. And this brought its own problems. Now, each door had to be manually unlocked and opened.
The whole process took thirty seven minutes, each second of which made her feel vulnerable.
At last, they reached the Innermost Vault.
As the doors parted, their prize was revealed and her breath caught in her chest.
There, in a slab of frozen Carbonite, her husband Arro Silver lay trapped. Where he had been for so very long.
Lana unloaded the large slab from the trolley. It was heavy enough that she had had to use the Force. Inside it was a Carbon frozen replica of Arro. The replica was positioned the same way Arro was. Had the same expression; the ripples of pain that he had been feeling from the torture, that still ran through his body as he was frozen.
After years spent searching for him, she had finally found out where he was being held, along with detailed schematics of the Vault he was being kept. When she had gotten her hands on these images, she had been outraged, and wanted nothing more than to mount a rescue at once.
However, TeeSeven had managed to cool her down long enough for reason to take over again. To take the time and formulate a plan that actually stood a chance of freeing the man she loved more than the Galaxy itself.
Once they mounted the fake, they placed the block encasing Arro on the cart, and left the way they came.
At the Main Computer, TeeSeven uploaded a virus that erased all of their tracks, then resealed the holes they had created in the security.
Then just like that, they walked out the front door and into the subway elevator. And to safety.
It was only when their tram reached the Residential district her safe house was in, that Lana breathed a sigh in relief.
Arro was in the dark. And frozen. Unable to move. Unable to see. Unable to scream. And unable to even think, for his mind refused to move. As a result, he couldn’t gather the focus necessary to feel the Force.
And yet to be aware enough of his… imprisonment… he had to be at least semiconscious-- in some manner he couldn’t describe.
Unthinking, yet aware, he stayed in this state of dormancy for ages. He lost sense of time, for there was no way to measure its passage. A day, a month, a year? It was all the same to him-- an eternity.
The blackness enveloped all corners of his existence until he knew nothing else. He was the black fog.
And then, life began to return. Spots of heat erupted on his skin, like thin, hot fingers probing his cheek, his hands, his chest…
The heat spread, engulfing his entire body. He unfroze, began to come alive. His fingers and facial muscles began to twitch uncontrollably, and his newly reborn ears heard a whisper.
“Don’t try to move… easy there… just try to breathe… that’s it!”
A muffled scream tore free of his lips and he landed on all fours on the ground, a pair of hands catching him before his face hit the floor.
The heat faded and suddenly, he was shivering, cold... So cold...
Lana’s Safehouse, Zakuul
Lana Beniko held Arro with one arm, and wrapped the thick blanket she had brought around his shoulders with the other.
He was trembling, shaking like a leaf, cold from the forced hibernation he had endured.
“Lana?” he gasped, as he shakily threw his arms around her. “Is that you? I can’t see you! I can’t see anything!”
“Shhh! It’s okay my Love… hibernation sickness. You’ve been under a long time. It will pass.”
She heard her companion whistle a questioning tone, and replied. “Yes, TeeSeven, he’s okay. He’ll be fine with some rest.”
“TeeSeven is here too?” Arro coughed, looking blindly in the Astromech's general direction. “My little buddy to the rescue!”
TeeSeven rolled closer and Arro pulled the droid into their embrace. “It’s really you! You came! Both of you!” He was sobbing quietly. Through their bond she could feel his explosion of emotions; joy, his gratitude. His love... “Is anyone else there? Kira? Doc? Theron?”
“It’s just us for now my Knave,” Lana said, holding back her own tears with the greatest difficulty. After years of terrifying silence, months agonizing over whether Arro, her Knave, was alive or not, their bond had been reestablished, and the strength of it overwhelmed her!
How long had she dreamed of this moment? How much work had she put into making this moment a reality? And now here he was. Here they were!
She failed valiantly in her effort to hold back her tears, she exclaimed, “You’re back! You’re really back!” and pulled her husband and their Astromech friend into a tighter hug. Across their connection her mind vaulted the fence separating their psyches and their minds -their hearts- engulfed each other; the familiar feeling of being whole- of one soul, living as two, reunited, and time seemed to stop as she laughed, cried and laughed some more all at once.
Chapter 7: Catching Up
War is hell. They make for good stories, but experiencing them is a tragedy. Let there be peace on Earth!
Opinions and suggestions are welcome!
Chapter VII: Catching Up
Suffering from Hibernation Sickness as he was, Lana had to turn Arro over to the care of Medical Droid N8-J01 for a thorough medical analysis. But even this failed to dampen her high spirits. Years of searching, years of planning, years of running full speed on nothing but desperate hope-- had finally borne fruit! This moment was one of undiluted triumph!
Soon, they would need to return to tackling the problems facing the galaxy. But that could wait.
Here, now, Lana’s face was flushed pink and she was trembling with barely contained glee and was so restless that she was quite unable to sit down. Bouncing on the balls of her toes and humming a merry tune she had spent the day beginning the process of wiping away all evidence of their work here- hers and TeeSeven’s.
There was much to be done. The main computer had to be scoured clean of all records before being dismantled and each part separately discarded. Before that they had to double-check that there was no information left on the Computer that didn’t already have copies safely with her allies. The Datapads likewise.
All of this Intel had been rock solid-- her smooth heist in one of Zakuul’s most heavily guarded facilities was proof of that. She had no doubt that a lot of this information could find use, again. She wasn’t about to delete any of it unless she was sure that Theron and the others had it too.
She left the job of wiping out all traces of her cover to TeeSeven while she scrubbed all of their gear and got it ready for disposal. She normally had to do such a thing on her own, but Arro’s Astromech was amazingly talented, even for a droid of his kind.
Mind racing through the night’s events, she began mentally compiling a report of the mission, for when she would write it down. A post-action checklist of all of the things that had been part of the plan-- and a list of things that had gone awry --of which there were none today. Such a smooth operation she’d not known since… Forever!
She recalled for later the tinier things that she had noticed while on mission. The sensitive documents and material that had been left carelessly in the open, all around the offices, of people who assumed that their security measures would be more than good enough to keep their work secure. And while spotless clean, she had noticed that these desks weren’t the best organized. Papers and Datacards weren’t well stacked, a pile in the ajar cabinet in the corner which had the look of something that was routinely searched through for misplaced items.
This was all in line with what she knew of Zakuul; they were a complacent people. Everything provided for- basic necessities, medical care, education, opulent luxuries and security. A welfare state that would have left the Republic feeling jealous in its perfection. In fact, Lana herself had been quite enchanted with how benevolent the Zakuulan home government was.
But successful though it had been, it had the drawback of its citizens being a little too faithful in the omnipotence of their Rule. Complacency killed. Peace is a lie.
But more importantly, the benevolence was a sham. A smokescreen to hide the Despotic tyranny of their Emperor.
Hundreds of citizens had gone missing for questioning Arcann’s rule. Thousands more had fled, turned refugee. Even in private.On foreign policy, Zakuul was ruthless and cruel, often content with swift and brutal recriminations against any flare-ups.
Lana wondered if it had been like this under Arcann’s predecessor-- the Immortal Emperor Valkorion. About him, she knew no Zakuulan who had but words of praise. He had been worshipped as a god.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the chime of her comm. “Master Lana,” Ennate Joi greeted her. “I have completed your husband’s checkup. Would you please join me in the Main Bedroom?”
Lana desperately hoped that she had misheard Ennate. “Carbonite… Poisoning ?”
“Indeed, Master,” the Medical Droid nodded. “It is an almost unique affliction; the overwhelming majority victims of imperfect freezing simply die. However, in rare cases the subject is taken into induced hibernation as intended; the biological processes are indeed frozen. And yet it does have an adverse affect on their nervous system. His most obvious symptom, by far, will be the pain. It will be a constant companion for the rest of his life. Nausea and migraines will become common. He may observe periods of intense, explosive flare-ups that may render him unconscious. Perhaps for days at a time. He might also find himself tiring suddenly, reflexes dulling, strength fading, vision swimming. Doctor’s recommendation: he should avoid prolonged exertion, and only enter open combat when there is no other choice.”
The first thing Lana felt was relief that Arro’s life was not in danger. Then she began thinking how it would affect him- as a man almost defined by his love of Martial art.
But then, with a start, the bigger picture forced itself into the front of her mind. This would cause problems in the effort to resist Arcann. Most of her allies had needed a figurehead to rally around, someone who had already done the impossible before. While there were a few others who could take up the torch- and Lana reluctantly allowed that given her skills and accomplishments, she herself was one such- Arro was the best as an icon who could face the likes of Arcann and Vaylin, perhaps Darth Nox as well, in single combat. He was the very picture of the romantic Knight-Errant from the old tales- always in the thickest of the fighting, virtuous to the point of purity, compassionate even towards his enemies, bound by his word, and with an impenetrable integrity.
Although he did have his share of flaws as well, he could be the soul of their Alliance in a way no other being alive could: give them a legitimacy that few others could have. Once upon a time, there had been Darth Prowle, but now…
“He is alright now,” Joi said gently, “but for the Hibernation sickness. That should pass with some rest. I will power down until I am needed again.”
With that, he left, leaving her alone with her trepidation. As she watched, Arro stirred and woke.
“What’s wrong, Wolf?” He asked. His voice was still weak. He was still drowsy from the painkillers and anesthesia. But the note of love she heard in his voice brought some light back to her soul. And through their bond, she could sense his love, his concern. A bond that had gone silent for- for so long!
“I’ve missed you so much, Knave,” she smiled. His own face blossomed into a smile- her heart skipped a beat. Then he scooted a little, and cocked his head into the space beside him.
“Will you join me, my Love?”
Lana’s grin widened, almost splitting her face in half. The bed wasn’t so small that they’d need to squeeze, but oh no way in Hell was that going to stop her from sticking to him an a Ysalamir!
“With the deepest pleasure you can imagine!”
Lana glanced at the chrono on the bedside table. It was a little less than an hour before dawn.
She’d been startled awake at Arro’s strangled cry of distress- he’d woken from a particularly strong nightmare.
“I was shooting Lightning,” he said, staring at his trembling fingers with eyes wide as saucers. “The lightning was so dense it reduced two people to ashes!”
Lana had held his head at her chest comfortingly as he had wept, frightened. Whispering soothing words into his ear and through their link as his shoulders stopped trembling. He had eventually gone back to sleep, head still in her arms. But Lana had remained awake. Arro had told her of the first disastrous attempt to capture the Sith Emperor, led by Braga. Though Arro had defeated both the Emperor and his then-Wrath, Lord Scourge in lightsaber combat, the ancient entity had overwhelmed his mental defenses and twisted his mind to the Dark Side. His and that of three other Jedi, all Masters.
Arro had been… less than optimistic about their odds from the start and had said so to the Council. Repeatedly. But they had believed in Braga’s plan, and Arro had had to go along with it.
The result had been him spending eight months as the Emperor’s top enforcer- his Whip.
Masked in shadow and whispers as much as armour, Arro had become Lord Trykhgar. In those eight months the Emperor had dyed his hands red with blood- some of it innocent. A Sith so brutal that he earned the absolute fear of even the deadliest Sith.
The monster that he had become had vanished when he’d shaken off the spell. But many of his forgotten memories had reemerged with a vengeance years later, when they were hunting Revan’s shadow, and their resurgence had left him shaken for months.
Perhaps there were more resurfacing? Hopefully not. Hopefully his besieged consciousness had merely conjured up an image that terrified him. Trykhgar had left more scars in Arro than anyone deserved to have, without hints that Arro had once disintegrated someone.
Well… it was nearing dawn. She had work to do today, and would have to leave the Safehouse early, leaving Arro to continue his recovery. She needed to have a talk with him before she left.
To mentally prepare him for the fight that was to come.
Sighing, she shook Arro awake.
“Wake up my Love. We need to talk.”
She had talked, and he had listened with complete attention as she recounted Ennate’s analysis for him. They were seated at her table, two mugs of steaming Tea before them. He sighed when she was done.
“Well, if that’s how it is then that’s how it is. It’s still good to know that it’s not going to kill me. Or leave me confined to bed.”
Lana nodded. He’d taken that news as quickly as she’d expected him to. But now she addressed an issue she didn’t know if he could handle.
“My Love… How long do you think it has been? Since you were encased in Carbonite, I mean?”
Arro’s expression grew wary as he shook his head in response; he was expecting a strong blow.
“It’s… been five years, my Love.”
His jaw dropped. “Five years?”
She nodded, allowing silence to fall as that first piece of news sunk in.
“What has happened?” He asked, rather in a daze.
“Things… have gotten much worse than when we last met. So much worse…”
Lana inhaled unsteadily, running a hand through her hair. She had pictured this conversation so many times earlier, but now that it was here she felt unsure. Afraid. She was familiar with the game in the shadows, but soon they’d be openly fighting Arcann, a thought she found scary.
“Zakuul’s Eternal Fleet is vast. It is automated and requires far less in the way of resources to maintain than you’d imagine. Their sensor technology outdistances our own, and the ships are faster. Require much less fuel. Only ships retrofitted with Isotope Five could outrun them, but in a straight up fight, competing was difficult. It was vast enough, and flexible enough, to allow Arcann to strike at both Sith and Republic at the same time. They favoured ambush tactics in the war. They disabled the bulk of our naval forces in months. But their campaign… it was the trade that was truly devastated. They routinely attacked shipping lanes, manufacturing worlds, agriworlds… the loss of equipment was bad enough, but the food…! Billions of tonnes of food was simply destroyed, the populations they should have fed left to starve. Coruscant was particularly devastated… you know how difficult it is to stockpile food for a population of that size. And that was before it was directly under siege.”
Swallowing, Lana debated whether to give him a clearer picture of the suffering. But there was little choice, and no doubt he could sense some of her own lingering feelings from when she had heard about it, feelings that were returning now that she recounted them. Inhaling again, she resumed. “They moved everyone but troops to quarter rations after the first month. After the second month the populace turned against each other. The billions of homeless and poor accused the rich and powerful of hoarding, and further accused them of prioritising themselves over the so-called “less critical people”.”
“They were probably not wrong,” Arro said, looking sick. His emotions were a muted storm; contained, but existent.
“There were riots in the streets all over the world. The situation was the same on many major worlds like Corellia, Dromund Kaas, Balmorra and others, but none nearly as bad as a planet with over a trillion residents.”
“How bad…?” he asked. She could sense his dread; he expected the answer to be devastating.
“Too many,” Lana sighed. “The system just couldn’t keep up. Broke down completely. Estimates say one in every seven died. Around a hundred and ninety billion… on Coruscant alone.”
Arro’s jaw dropped. His wide eyes filled with tears and he seemed to fight a wave of nausea.
Reluctantly, Lana continued. “The first deaths from starvation were reported within the third month. The children, the aged and the infirm were the ones hurt the most. People began to just… drop dead as they tried to live. In their beds, at their tables, in their speeders, or at work- they just collapsed. In most poorer districts no one even had the strength to carry the dead away. The bodies were just lying there until droid patrols reached them. The piles of dead also caused some plagues to tear through the more tightly packed sectors. Then there were the riots…”
Arro could take no more. He stumbled out of his chair but his weak knees failed. But with Lana’s help he just managed to reach the fresher before retching.
He was sobbing, a crazed look in his eyes. “This is all my fault, isn’t it? For killing Valkorion?” He asked before heaving again.
“No it wasn’t.” Lana was unsurprised with his conclusion. Not only was it just like him to think so, it was what many out there in the galaxy believed. “Arcann, and Arcann alone, is responsible for the suffering he has caused. Even the Sith Empire hadn’t been so brutal in its war with the Republic.”
When he was finally feeling a bit better he washed his face, his mouth, trying to get the taste of bile out of his mouth. But there would be no easy escape from his horror. She gently led him out, and back to the table.
His face was contorted in tears, but he found his voice. “When we faced him,” he whispered, “We knew right away. He was the Sith Emperor, Lana! There was no mistaking it!”
Lana nodded. “I know. Everyone who had felt his presence felt the aftershock his death produced. And we connected that to Valkorion fairly quickly. And believe me, there are few who have heard of what happened on Ziost who didn’t sympathize with the urgency to kill the Sith Emperor.”
She left unsaid that the vast majority of the galaxy wouldn’t take the Jedi’s word that Valkorion had indeed been another incarnation of the dreaded Emperor. Probably even Imperial citizens wouldn’t believe the Sith, though they would never say so out loud.
However, her sources did say that while they blamed him for starting the war, people also accepted that he might have had good reason. That there was more to the story than a cowardly murder, rejecting the premise that he could be such a senseless killer. Such was the power of a spotless reputation. The moderation of the hatred and venom people normally held for those they held responsible was frankly astonishing.
He was silent for a time, but then looked up at her again.“How did it end?” She could feel his daze as he struggled to keep up- his world seemed to be spinning in his head, but he seemed to have stopped it from falling apart altogether.
“Both sides signed an unconditional surrender… but it wasn’t the Supreme Chancellor or the Dark Council that did it. Both were circumvented. Saresh refused to talk about surrender, so a cadre of Senators passed a motion that overruled her. All of them have since then, been discredited or disgraced. The Dark Council was devastated, and no one was anywhere to be found at all so it was the Minister of Logistics, Minister Davidge who negotiated the surrender. As a result, both sides had to pay a heavy annual tribute, one that’s so heavy that it’s stunting efforts to rebuild. They have also been forced to sign an arms limitations agreement. After the smoke cleared, Darths Acina and Vowrawn were the only survivors of the war. Acina claimed the title of Empress, with Vowrawn’s backing. Chancellor Saresh had to step down after she reached her term limits recently, but even she makes no bones about her replacement being her puppet. The Republic is in a State of Emergency, which allows her and her puppet Chancellor to rule with an Iron Fist. Both sides have since then resumed their mutual war, which Arcann does nothing to stop so long as Zakuul isn’t challenged.”
“But… where are the Jedi? Masters Satele, and Zoran? Surely they don’t stand behind the regime? And what happened to Darth Nox? Or Prowle?”
“The war was hard on both Jedi and Sith. The Jedi Order was almost wiped out. There were only four Masters left alive- Masters Satele, Zoran, Gnost-Dural and Cedral Gend. Eighty-one knights-- including Kira Carsen.” she added before he could ask. “Master Shan took the loss quite hard. Resigned from the Order. Disappeared shortly afterwards, and she’s living in exile. Masters Zoran and Gnost-Dural left the Republic, and they took all of the surviving students- and many of the Knights- with them. They have since vanished, gone underground. It seems… that the Twi’leks from the Kalikori Village on Tython aided them in their venture. The Sith fared only a little better, there’s three hundred of us left. But most of them were more grunts than true Lords- the type that isn’t a glorious graduate of Korriban. They just got assigned to a Sith Lord’s retinue, rather than become apprentice to an influential Lord. They are all not trained to be anything but guards and overseers. Only fifteen of them are Darths, not counting Empress Acina. But the Academies were hit, and most of the overseers and mentors are dead. There are few left to train Sith.”
“As for Kai’rene… Darth Prowle…” Lana continued sadly. “She was asked to join the Council and lead the Spheres of Military Defense… and, temporarily, Offense. She held the position for little more than a month, during which she made the Zakuulan Navy pay dearly for each victory. She forced them to fight drawn-out battles rather than hit-and-run battles-- I’ll give you the details later-- but she knew that it was only a matter of time before Zakuul won. So she planned a daring move, one during which she gave her fellow Councillors a shot at the Capital of Zakuul itself. She gave herself up as bait. A sacrifice to draw out Arcann and almost the entirety of his fleet. After a vicious battle that went on for days, Arcann killed her himself.”
Arro was stunned. “Kai’rene… dead?”
Lana nodded, sighing heavily, then continued. “Vowrawn, Ravage and Nox flew to Zakuul when Arcann was fully engaged, but when they saw that Zakuul was undefended, they delayed their attack, hoping they could persuade the others to join them. Before they could attack, a small part of the fleet, under Vaylin, returned and engaged them. She killed Ravage, and damaged Nox’s ship enough that her ship could only manage one more jump, but Vowrawn got away clean. Darth Nox was pursued and captured shortly after. Vaylin was intrigued enough to lead the force personally. She and Nox fought an epic battle on Begeren, but Nox was only just defeated. She was kept as a prisoner for a while, to show Zakuul’s superiority… but she has since pledged allegiance to Zakuul.”
“Specifically, to Vaylin. And from all accounts, she did so of her own free will, gladly, and without any ulterior motive. She is absolutely loyal to Vaylin. And Vaylin, for her part, is so confident of her loyalty that Nox-- or rather Akahte as she prefers now-- has a free run. She can come and go as she pleases. And she’s made no attempt to either escape or to kill Arcann or Vaylin. I have no idea what it was that Vaylin earned her loyalty. Only that it is absolute.”
Arro ran a hand through his hair, and sighed. He was shaking all over, a dazed look in his eyes. The news had him utterly shocked. “A lot has happened, hasn’t it?” He said before falling into silence. After a few minutes, he spoke up again.
“So Arcann defeated Darth Prowle?”
“Not quite,” Lana said. “He got to her after she had already been exhausted. She had run herself so ragged she actually had a seizure during the confrontation. He struck when her guard had crumbled.”
“Well I see that he hasn’t changed” Arro said hotly. To Lana’s expression of surprise, he added, “He’s the one who forced the confrontation between myself and Valkorion, you know. Destroyed my restraints and attacked him, hoping that I would join him in crushing our mutual enemy.”
“And you did. You had no other choice.”
“Not… quite? I waited until Valkorion had already defeated his son. And even then, I allowed him the chance to end it peacefully.”
“You allowed Valkorion to attack you first?” Lana didn’t know if she was amused or abashed. “You do know it’s a miracle he’s dead and you’re not, don’t you?”
“Actually, he’s still not been vanquished. Just like before, when I struck down his body, there was a blinding flash and I heard his laughter around me. He might be dead, but he’s not gon-”
Arro started suddenly, coming back to himself as though he’d had a great revelation.
“Oh my fuckin goodness!” He said, and Lana immediately looked up; it was rare for him to drop the F-bomb.
“Lana,” he said, despair clouding his face and terror flooded their bond. “I think Valkorion is inside me! That dream, the Lightning! I remember now! Those Knights were going to execute me and suddenly I was moving on my own, a different voice seemed to come alive inside me, and I shot out a fist of lightning from my hands! It was powerful, too powerful- it cooked the Knights alive and melted through durasteel and ferrocrete! He’s inside my head Lana! He’s inside my head!”
Chapter 8: Audience
Chapter VIII - Audience
Silence prevailed for what seemed like an eternity. A cold horror filtered across the bond, and Lana’s eyes were wide, her mouth open.
“No,” she gasped. She closed her eyes, and Arro felt the desperate fingers of her mental probe as it trembled through his mind. “No! He can’t have you! I won’t let him, not without a fight!”
Lana uttered a choked cry, and she grabbed Arro in a fierce hug-- a hug that was mirrored by her inner self, on their psychic level. Arro felt his mind enveloped by Lana’s and he could sense the strength of feeling behind her conviction--her determination to protect him--not only from the Emperor, but the entire Galaxy, if she had to.
Faced with Lana’s fierce love, Arro felt a flood of relief course through his mind. Letting out his breath in a choked laugh, he returned her bear-hug. “Thank you my Love, thank you!”
Her strength bolstered his; after an eternity of feeling vulnerable, he felt his confidence return. The deepest sense of gratitude surged through him-- one that he could not hope to articulate, but which thanks to their bond he could share without having to say a word anyway.
And he did, flooding the channel with his deepest thanks, and felt her delighted shudder in response. Leaning back, he placed a tight kiss on the side of her head.
Yes, he was feeling his confidence return-- With her at his side, he would face whatever came their way.
Lana seemed most reluctant as she prepared to leave. She had to meet her contacts, a holoconference she would be attending from an abandoned warehouse in another sector.
Though the meeting itself was scheduled for 1030 hours, Lana was departing at 0830, for, as she explained, they weren't ready to leave this safehouse just yet. Not until he was in better shape.
As a precaution, she would not be sending any signals from here until the moment came.
But with the revelation of Valkorion's presence she seemed afraid to leave Arro alone, even for a few hours.
Her utter unwillingness to go compelled him to speak up. "I can come with you, then"
The suggestion seemed to be as a lifeline to her, but again, she grudgingly shook her head. "No. If Arcann learns that you have broken out… No, we aren't ready to declare ourselves just yet. Besides, you need to rest. Best if you lie low for now."
"Then don't worry," he said. "Focus on the task at hand. I'll be here when you return. Oh, and Lana?"
“Before we leave Zakuul, there’s something I’d like to look for, out in Zakuul. Something of great interest I noticed when I was in Orbit, being brought before the Emperor.” Lana’s yellow eyes narrowed to slits. “ We’ll need a shuttle, ten to twenty miniature probe droids. Maybe a few Portable Excavators and generators.”
“Consider it done. As it happens, there’s an Industrial Droid shop close to where our extraction team is standing by. They should be able to acquire them.”
With that she left the safehouse, TeeSeven trailing along behind her.
Arro suppressed a grimace as another wave of pain gripped his chest, his shoulders; his vision blurred for a few seconds and he had to take support from a nearby desk to keep from falling over through the dizziness. He shook his head to clear the fog. He was still a ways from recovered. It would be best if he went back to sleep, as Joi had recommended as much rest as possible for the next three days.
Arro walked weightlessly through a misty world of half-formed rock bridges floating close beneath what looked like a tableau of a space battle. Republic and Sith warships burned under the barrage of Eternal Navy Warships. The Capital vessels--bereft of shields, by the look of them-- were pockmarked by explosions where shots had penetrated the armor and damaged the hull. There were other, smaller explosions and debris fields around them where smaller vessels had already been destroyed. It was too far to make out for certain, but he didn’t see any signs of Escape pods fleeing the downed ships.
They had been caught with their shields down, much as the Task Force had been on that fateful day. Arro was seeing a sculpture of what Lana had said: through their technology, speed and coordination, Zakuulan ships dominated the spaces. Beyond the battle, the stars kept their constant vigil.
“I have always loved the stars.”
Arro turned around, and saw an old man with a bone white beard and in ornate white robes. Valkorion.
Heart sinking, he greeted him with a nod. “I think I know what you mean: each one tells sings its life’s songs always... singing -- or so it feels through the Force--and there are so many of them! It’s an ocean of songs, stories and glimmering light. Even you couldn’t hear more than a fraction of what they had to say, with all your years of life… it makes sense that you’d love the music.”
“Hah!” the Immortal Emperor chuckled. “You have some gift with words, I see! I didn’t take you for a poet. Did you compose any about me?”
“A poet with a sword. What I can’t defeat with the sword, I beat with the pen,” Arro quipped. “Yes, I did write some about the Sith Emperor. But you’re not him-- not quite. You’re different., even though you are the same.”
Valkorion shrugged comfortably. “Well, perhaps you could share some of it with me sometime? I expect to be here a while.”
Arro felt a chill seize his spine and he swallowed the desire to ask How long? Instead, he swallowed a breath and said, “Why not? I’d be a terrible host if I didn’t entertain you. Besides, it’s probably best if I spend less time and energy bickering.”
Valkorion chuckled darkly and Arro decided that now was the time to get to it.
“So why are you here? You risked Arcann knowing where you were hiding, when instead you could have retreated somewhere far, waited and watched from a distance. And now you speak to me directly.”
“Why, hmmm? A good question indeed. To call you a Jedi is an injustice-- you are far more complete than one. You have earned my respect. And since we were talking about songs and poetry... Even as you killed me, I decided that your song was far from complete. I wanted to see it play out in full. For this Galaxy burns, and you are quite an entertaining Fireman. As for my return? I can do that whenever I choose. For I am beyond death’s reach. I can wait and watch a thousand years. Or ten. Even more.”
“If that’s true then what was the point of Ziost?”
“Your Republic, and the Sith, they seemed content to go back to killing each other simply out of habit. I foresaw that if I did not intervene then, you and others like you would grow weary and burn out-- that would have been a waste of good talent. Ziost was a reminder that I was still out there, the danger I posed. A call to the Galaxy to align behind a greater purpose.”
“You’re different as Valkorion. But not noble. Vaylin showed me her scars, told me what you did to her.”
“And yet there is always reason behind my actions. Always. Do not forget that. Vaylin was powerful, but volatile. I needed to control the danger she posed.”
“How did that go? She seemed ready to stab you the second her chains faltered for even an instant!”
For the first time, Valkorion fidgeted. “Yes. That fool Jarak didn’t know the difference between breaking her sanity and breaking her will. I needed more than control, I needed her to submit completely. Yet even as she stood before me I could sense her burning hatred--and not a hint of submission. Her breaking-- her conditioning-- it allowed me to leash her. But like you said, she was waiting for the leash to snap. That was another reason I needed more power; to reinforce the chains.”
Arro felt his blood run cold at those words. “She is your daughter!”
“You must know by now that blood doesn’t mean the same to Sith as it does most peoples. To us, everyone is a potential rival. I myself killed my father and siblings centuries ago. Back then I did not yet see that I would shed the skin of Valkorion. I thought I would need her in perfect control for after the Great Ritual. The one you stopped when you killed the Sith Emperor on Dromund Kaas.”
Arro felt his knees turn into jelly; he stumbled to an outcropping of rock and eased his weight onto it. “ "After the Great Ritual? ” Let me get this straight- you had a plan for after? I thought you were intent on consuming all life in the Galaxy, not just one world!”
Valkorion let out a bark of laughter. “And who told you that? Lord Scourge. He who betrayed everyone he ever followed. Present company excluded, of course. Oh, he didn’t lie. He merely misunderstood his vision. My aim wasn’t to swallow up the Galaxy, but to conquer it. Not as an Emperor. But a god. The Ritual was intended to have heralded a Dark Age into the Galaxy. It would have killed those on some worlds-- and the ensuing screech would create a surge in the Dark Side. One that would have driven Jedi and Sith alike mad, while also affecting most other species. In ten years they would have fought with everything they had-- mutually assured destruction. And then I would step in-- with the Eternal Fleet and my augmented power-- I would do for the Galaxy what I did for Zakuul; raise it from the primitive mud-huts and into a Golden Age of peace and plenty, with myself as their god. That plan was squashed when you killed him. Zakuul and its Fleet alone isn’t enough for the scale of conquest I had intended. A conquest of the heart.”
“You don’t dream small, do you?”
“Why does this surprise you? You alone, in all the galaxy, were able to penetrate my cloak. You saw what I really am. You saw my fear-- but you saw my ambition too. My will.”
Arro was thunderstruck. He opened his mouth but coughed, finding it dry as parchment, and Valkorion continued, not allowing him to speak.
“Back to the question of “why”. Zakuul is the greatest power in the galaxy! A fleet larger than any that the Galaxy has seen, and an army of guardians for whom the Force is more than Light or Dark! But my children abuse their power. They squander Zakuul’s resources. Did you know that there are now over six hundred thousand Heavy Dreadnoughts in the navy? What a waste of resources! And for what? He won his war years ago. His continued arms buildup shows his paranoia, not his dominance. And Vaylin is now an unchained monster.”
The tableau before them had changed. They were now in the Throne Room again, with Arcann in the Seat. Several Sith, and some Senators, knelt in submission before him. Vaylin lurked behind the Throne. And a Shadow stood next to her. Beyond the transparisteel he could see the fleet. And the multitude of stars beyond.
“I’m surprised that you even had children. Or even a wife.”
Valkorion looked out into the stars
“I was even more different here on Zakuul than you know. I experienced pleasures that I had denied myself before. I even knew love. My wife was strong and willful. Too strong. When I imprisoned Vaylin on Nathema, she attempted to break her out. An attempt that would have succeeded… had she not already been too late. Vaylin rejected her, and she was crushed. She went into exile after that. Living on the fringes of my Empire. Where she thought she was beyond my sight. But she was wrong; I watch her. I watch her everyday. And I miss her, even though she had the temerity to defy me. Perhaps that is why.”
He abandoned his ruminations, and turned to Arro. “We must deal with my errant son and daughter before they ruin the Galaxy. They are deadly, and worse; they lack discipline! It will take the both of us to bring them down-”
A soft giggle interrupted him. The Shadow stirred, and exerted its will on the Force around it, crossed into the Dream.
“My, oh my! Jedi Battlemaster Arro Silver!” The Shadow swirled, took form and shape… of a Twi’lek with a gaunt face, and pink skin. Akahte. Previously Darth Nox. “And who is this? Yes I have felt you before, on Yavin… you are my former Emperor… and also Valkorion! Oh I simply must call her as well!”
She reached for the Force again. And suddenly, Vaylin was alert and aware as well. She looked around in wild confusion as Akahte stood defensively in front of her.
Valkorion looked uncertain. Disturbed.
“Spies, love. I noticed them watching us, through the Force.”
“Father…” Vaylin hissed. “Outlander… What is the meaning of this? You are supposed to be frozen in Carbonite! Your mind should be too static to do this- you have broken out! How! When?”
“His girlfriend, no doubt. Lana’s a crafty one. Sneaky too. How was your reunion?”
Arro finally managed to speak up. “Akahte. Why did you abandon the Sith? Why side with Zakuul?”
“Vaylin tells me she showed you her scars? That’s why.” Akahte moved her attention to Valkorion, eyes glaring with unhidden rage. “How could even one so twisted as you do this to a person? Let alone your daughter? When I saw the depths of hell you dragged her through, the chasm you created within her, I swore that I would dedicate myself to healing her.”
Valkorion had begun to fade when she turned her attention on him. Now he was gone entirely, leaving Arro alone to face the two women.
“Did you just cut him off?” Vaylin said, amused. Her rage had subsided, and Arro saw something different about her. Happier. A true, purer kind of happy than what she had seemed capable of in the dungeon.
Proof that Akahte was indeed working to vanquish her demons.
“So we meet again, Jedi. Not really in the flesh, but I intend to rectify that. I’m coming for you.”
And with that she lashed out, and the dream world disintegrated- Arro stumbled out of bed with a splitting headache, dashing for the emergency footlocker.
Chapter 9: Conference
Chapter IX - Conference
Tau District, New Rinara Town, Zakuul
There were times when Koth Vortena didn’t feel confounded about why he had agreed to participate in Lana’s crazy plan. But those times were always few, and far in between.
Most days, when there was little else to occupy his mind, he would dedicate all his focus on the mystery of why he had agreed to such an insane plan.
There had been a time, when he had been younger, when he would do anything to see a smile on a pretty face; but those days were long past, and Lana was not quite the prettiest face he had ever seen. Oh sure, there was a certain charm about her-- a sense of lightning and grace. Her professional demeanor was calm and friendly, yet carrying the undercurrent of a deadly, no-nonsense war-hawk. The sort that you didn’t fool around with, for fear of breaking a limb. But sometimes such women attracted attention specifically because they looked so forbidding.
Yet Lana wasn’t that either; so far as Koth knew, he was the only one who found her attractive in such a way. Most were instantly intimidated, and somehow--
--more were able to completely ignore her presence, as if she were just another customer in a cantina.
How did they not notice that she was usually the deadliest threat in any room? It boggled the mind!
And it was her lost
they were working to rescue. One of the few girls he had found himself attracted to since joining--and leaving-- the military, and she was already married. Just his luck. And he was helping her bust out her husband.
From a cogdamned Maximum Security facility!
He was out of his mind!
And then there was the husband himself. Arro Silver. Battlemaster of the Jedi Order. War Veteran. Hero.
He had been the one to kill their beloved Emperor. Initially, Arcann had claimed that he had struck like a coward, striking from behind. But after some years he had conceded that his father had not, in fact, been caught off guard. And that Arro had beaten him in a fair fight.
And while he still maintained the fiction that it was unprovoked, every man and his drunk uncle knew that the hostilities had begun months earlier-- and by Zakuul no less. The same action that had seen the death of Arcann’s twin brother, Thexan.
Military accounts confirmed that Arro had been part of a convoy that had been ambushed by the Eternal Fleet. They had been attacked while still beyond the border of their Empire, not within. And oriented in a different direction, in a thoroughly insufficient force, as though they had no idea who they were up against.
Indeed, when the Eternal Empire had gone to war, the citizens of the Republic and Sith Empires didn’t even seem to know who they were. They had been too busy with their own squabbles.
No, despite the fiction Arcann tried to maintain, Zakuul was the aggressor in that war.
But then, Koth more than most knew that Arcann was a vicious tyrant. He understood that he had to be brought down. Even if the cost was high.
But he had been… uncomfortable -- to say the least-- about believing that Valkorion had been a threat that needed to be killed.
Oh, sure, he had taken some Sith Lord’s mocking challenge and gone to check out Ziost. Seen files about how it had been before the disaster, and seen what it was like afterwards.
But there was no way that that carnage had been caused by their benevolent Emperor! It didn’t make any sense!
Lana had gently told him that as Valkorion he had shown a different face here on Zakuul, one which he wanted his citizens to see as the fount of all their blessings.
To be their god.
And that made sense in that… it made too much sense. Valkorion really had been seen as a god by his people--one responsible for all their prosperity.
It was just difficult to see how that had all been just a front. A sham.
Perhaps that’s why he wanted to meet this Jedi; to see who he was. If he was the sort who would never kill unless pressed, as his reputation claimed. A Noble Knight, just like from the stories.
Lana had laughed, and said that he was only mortal-- with his share of flaws and failings-- but she had agreed that his reputation of not killing unless pressed was accurate.
Koth wondered what he would believe when he met the man. Whether he would have to deal with the hardest of facts. That everything he had ever believed in--and fought for while in the Military-- was a lie.
While he often reached this conclusion he was usually quick to discard it too-- for now at least. Otherwise… he’d have to start coming to terms with the fact that reality was a different truth than he had ever known.
His thoughts were interrupted by his chrono chiming at 1029 hours-- a minute before the meeting.
He didn’t bother making himself presentable. Lana had insisted that he use heavy encryption software. The comm channel was secure, and if there was one thing the coreworlders had better than Zakuul, it was Cyber safety. By miles.
But she had replied that Zakuul was not the only side she was worried about.
Instead, callers were all hidden-- but objects that they held were not. Nor were their immediate surroundings-- done so that each knew where in the Galaxy the caller was. Approximately at least. Somewhat?
And in case they were attacked, in which case details about the ambush would be crucial to record.
Sometimes Lana seemed a little too paranoid. He wondered where that came from-- most Sith didn’t care about such contingencies.
1030 hours. Right on cue, the comm pinged, and Lana came online. Punctual as ever.
Others would take a few minutes to come online.
“Hey there Winter!” Using her codename. “How’s it going, girl?”
From behind him, the Bronzium armored wardroid that he was currently teamed up with--HK-55, who sometimes exasperated Koth-- spoke up.
“Greeting: It is a pleasure to see you alive and well Master!”
“Hello Leopard, HK,” came her greeting, emotion drained by the voice filter, but Koth imagined that she was looking very happy right now. If she had failed, surely he would have heard of it?
“HK, I’m sending you a small requisitions list. Can you see it filled? Top priority.”
“Acknowledgement: Consider it done, Master.
Assessment: Hmmm: droids; for search and excavation. Hunting for lost treasure are we?”
“Perhaps,” came the response, and this time Koth was certain there was amusement from the other end. “Can you get it done within the hour? I might have details tomorrow, but I’m not sure.”
“At your service,” HK responded, heading for the door.
“What’s the matter, Winter? Something hasn’t gone wrong, has it?”
“Oh no, Leopard. Just something I learned after the op. I’ll give you more details as I get them.”
Huh. So she had a lead, promising but lacking details.
Others had started to come online. Koth knew two of them. One was his Lieutenant--Len Parvek-- codenamed Liger. The other was the Republic Spy, Theron Shan, codenamed Teff’ekkwithes. He refused to drop the name, and only snickered when asked what it meant. He also spoke terrible Basic while using the name, and Koth had a feeling it was something personal, an homage that other people wouldn’t understand. Had to be something to make Mr Serious of all people laugh.
The others were codenamed Valor, Mystic, Lady Luck, Lip, Spade, and Duty.
“I’ve heard nothing at all from my end,” Duty began. “No alerts, no alarms. No covert activity. I suppose that means you were either successful, or gave up your mad venture.”
“Indeed, the op was quiet and smooth as planned.”
A chorus of relieved exclamations came from each of the others, and Theron spoke up.
“Well you wann us ter congraterlate you or somethin? Get with it! give us the dee-brief!”
“She just pulled off the greatest heist Zakuul hasn’t even seen yet, Teff’ekkwithes! Congrats are in order, and a hearty one at that!” Duty admonished.
“Indeed, I saw your success Winter,” Mystic said in serene tones. “But am glad nevertheless. That was a job well done.” Mystic always spoke softly, and implied Farsight, causing Koth to be reminded of the Scions.
“Yes, yes, but how did you fare with your secondary objectives?” Lip asked.
Lana started. “Oh, I completely forgot about those… only teasing,” she added when Lip and Valor started to voice their dismay. “There was nothing else of terrible value in the vault--no game-changing designs, schematics or plans-- that seemed relevant. But I did get a lot of information. Details of some important projects--including their locations. The Vault’s reports from the past few years-- hopefully there’ll be something of value in those. And yes, I got a lot of information on the Space stations too. Sending the summary now-- I’ve already dispatched the full data by courier. It should reach Red Hulls base in a few days.”
“Excellent news Winter,” Valor said with obvious satisfaction. “I know what this Jedi has achieved but even he is just one man. Datafiles, intel! These can get us somewhere!”
“Yeh yeh so hows the greenboy?” Theron asked. “You two got your lil kissy kissy reunion over with? Seen enuf of you twos for a lifetime-- OWWWW!” Theron yelped as a boot flew off a nearby rack and smacked him in the back of the head.
“There was some unexpected trouble there,” Lana said cooly as Koth, Len and Lady Luck laughed. “Carbonite poisoning. But it’s not lethal… and it should still be okay for him to-” she faltered for a moment before rallying. “To fight. And Hibernation sickness takes a while to wear off as well.”
“What all you tell 'im bout the state of the Galaxy?” Theron asked.
“I might have gone into more detail than I should have,” Lana sounded regretful. “Gave him a clearer picture of the losses.”
“Reminds me of the time my good-for-nothing scamp pulled me out of Carbonite,” Lady Luck said sympathetically. “I told ya girl! “Take it easy, not burden him with too much!” Took me weeks to get over the headache. And the fever too. Nasty! You should have given him at least a month before the heavy details.”
“I wasn’t sure if we had much time,” Lana said uneasily. “We’re in hostile territory here, and he deserved to know. We are asking him to be the Spearhead of our resistance effort after all, and he needs time to come to terms with how much has changed.”
“And whens that happ'ning again?” Theron asked.
“We leave the city tomorrow, as planned, but I’ve been made aware of a different opportunity. Here, on Zakuul. I have no idea what it is, but he Saw something through the Force… something important. It could take us a while to pinpoint it.”
“I wish you could make it clearer to us non-Forcers,” Valor grumbled.
“It’s not just you, Valor,” Duty spoke up. “Even Wielders can get frustrated by the Force sometimes. Often.”
So Duty was a Force-Wielder! And someone who was in a position to hear about any covert alarm bells! Perhaps they were a Zakuul Knight? Koth had met more than a few who had been disaffected by Arcann’s regime. Lana had taken a great risk scouting among the active Knights. But then, Koth was sure that Duty went back even farther with Lana than he did. Back then there hadn’t been a group. Only Lana with a shadow of a plan; born of hope and longing. In the two years since then…
Koth suppressed a shudder thinking about how much Lana had achieved on pure determination alone. Master Arro really had to be something to get this kind of loyalty. And from a woman like her too. All of the others seemed to respect him a great deal as well. More signs that they were on the right track.
“Now tell us about the preparations, Spade,” Lana said.
Silent hitherto, Spade spoke up with crisp professionalism. “The next phase can begin immediately. I’ve made all preparations--resources, contracts, provisions and material. Give the signal and I can get the entire machine moving with a single button.”
“Wow, really?” Lady Luck said. “Tell me you’re exaggerating!”
“Not at all, Lady Luck. Planning and arranging exchanges, large scale coordination, has always been my forte. And I’ve been planning this move for months. And do be proud of yourself as well-- your contacts helped greatly making this happen.”
“Are you certain you can’t join us for the action?” Valor said. “I could use a planner like you. We all could.”
“I’m deeply sorry, sir, but I have been quite ill for some time. I agreed to help Winter because what she asked could be done from within my recovery pod. And because I owed her. And I liked that Jedi too. But for the next phase you will need people with more energy… more mobility...” He sounded dejected at that.
“It’s okay, Spade,” Lana said soothingly. “There are similar jobs you can do from where you are. You can continue to help us, and the galaxy, by helping small teams and planning such major events. And even if you don’t, you have done so very much already! No one else could have put this organisation together like you did, so quickly.”
“And are there any-- jobs?” Spade asked, sounding hopeful.
Koth suddenly realized what was happening and felt deep pity for this man. He had dedicated his life to service. He had found meaning, purpose. He reveled in being useful. Surrendering to the isolation of his recovery… that would be worse than death for this man.
“Yes,” Theron said first. “Got friends out there negoteatin more funds, more equipment more contracts. Could help us tons if someun could co wardinate em. Shall I send you the details?”
“Thank you, Teff’ekkwithes,” Spade said, bowing, sounding delighted despite the filter. It was kinda funny to hear him say Theron’s codename with that professional voice of his. “May I disconnect, Winter? My part here is done, I can speak with Teff’ekkwithes later.”
“Very well,” Winter said, and Spade’s image vanished. “What about the rest of you?”
“Well, with everything ready, we can move to Odessen right away,” Valor said. “We can begin building, training. Gathering our forces and seeing exactly what we have to work with at last. Maybe four months, we can start launching our first operations.”
“We located some of the missing Jedi,” Mystic said. “Those that didn’t go into exile with the Masters. They have started training hopefuls in the ways of the Force. And we also have some Sith with us now, and their own apprentices and acolytes. Both sides also brought together as many datacrons and teachings that they could, and have set up here on Red Hulls base. You won’t have an army of Wielders like the one the Republic and Empire had earlier, but perhaps they can be the seeds of the next generation.”
“I am ready to move my personal equipment,” Lip spoke up. Unlike the others, his icon didn’t have a holofeed. Just an avatar. Lana had explained that he was a non-humanoid species, and an easily recognizable one at that. “All of my fellow scientists and researchers are likewise ready to pack up and move to Odessen. We are eager for the Quest to begin!”
“Excellent,” Lana said with satisfaction. “In that case-”
She was interrupted by an urgent chime from her personal comm. “An emergency,” she said. Her voice sounded panicked through the filter. Enough so that she didn’t mute the conference, like she normally would have.
“Lana! We’ve got trouble,” Koth heard a shaky voice. Sharing Lana’s filter, it would have sounded just like hers, but the accent was different, and sounded weak. “It’s Nox-- her and Vaylin. They sensed me. They know I’m free, and they’re on their way!”
Chapter X- Heading Out
Calm down. Calm down. Breathe. Yes, that’s it!
Lana turned her attention back to the conference and noticed with annoyance that she had failed to mute her mic. Her collaborators would have heard exactly what she had, and worse, they might realize just how bad the emergency call would have had to shake her up for her to throw caution to the wind.
They all knew of their marriage-- Lana had decided to be open with that fact right from the start because they would have to work together later. She would need their trust-- that she wasn’t just doing this for a captured husband and intended to remain in the fight. And they needed to know that they had hers.
But for them to suspect the depth of her affection-- to know that she cared more for Arro’s well-being than for the effort to bring down Arcann-- Lana cringed.
“Well, there you have it,” she said to the conference. “They are onto us now.”
“Why arentcha runnin?” Teff’ekwithes-- Theron-- asked calmly. “Isn yor mate in danger? Move et!”
“Enough, please,” she cut him off. “Leopard, get ready to extract us. Prepare your shuttle and be ready to come for us the second we give you our coordinates. I’m sorry, but this meeting is adjourned. I’ll contact you all from Asylum when we’re ready to resume. I will signal the moment I land, and we can continue at 0800 hours Galactic Time the next day. Begin the move to Odessen in the meantime.”
“TeeSeven, head to the Security Network’s main hub, we’ll be relying on you to cover us.”
TeeSeven chimed acknowledgement, hurrying away to begin monitoring and thwarting Zakuulan efforts to pinpoint them.
She was still more than an hour and a half away from the safehouse, once she caught the next tram at-- she glanced at the chrono and sighed-- 1130 hours; she would never make it in time for the one that left at 1100.
She could, of course, rent a speeder--which would allow her to begin moving sooner and be more flexible in her choice of routes-- but at the cost of overall travelling speed. She needed to decide.
For fear of interception and eavesdropping, Arro hadn’t stayed on the frequency long enough to discuss their next move. She reached for him through their link and was comforted to find that Arro was also calm. His mind was working fast but it wasn’t in panic. He would exercise caution. Knowing him, he would study some of her notes and abandon the house-- and travel away from the Vault she had spent months casing. The same notes would give him a good idea of the zone; allow him to look for and pick out places that were better suited for hiding.
Very well then; she had no idea where they could rendezvous. No clear destination.
Speeder it is then , she thought as she headed for the door.
Panic solved nothing. Once he had warned Lana, Arro took a few minutes to calm down. Focus.
Once he had separated himself from the rush of fear and panic, he began to plan his next move.
Lana’s emergency supplies had never been meant for him-- she had never intended him to be alone for more than a few hours.
As such, they lacked the one thing that would have given Arro some measure of confidence-- a Lightsaber. His had been confiscated, probably in some evidence locker somewhere, and Lana never went anywhere without her Lightsaber in sight.
The Emergency supplies held some maps of the immediate area, with emphasis on escape routes, vantage points and hiding places. They also marked out places of interest like hotels, shops and public facilities of all kinds. There were notes about the major sectors and settlements across Zakuul. Ration bars-- enough to last two or three days. Neat packets of credit chips, around seventeen thousand in Zakuulan currency.
He looked through the closet and was relieved to find that Lana had some clothes made there to fit him. But on second thought, he looked at some of Lana’s own clothes… Most were quite utilitarian, as he’d expected, but there were also the casual sort that women wore in their daily lives. Forgettable, but definitely feminine.
He grinned tightly. She’s never going to let me live this down. Not that I want her to, this is hilarious!
Trusting that she wouldn’t put in clothes that were too casual for Zakuul, he wore some of them quickly. He packed a few clothes in a satchel for later-- he didn’t want to dress as a woman for longer than he had to.
Using the mirror and makeup kit on the dresser he wore a little lipstick-- not too much, he hoped-- before trying the eyeliner and eye shadow and rouge. He looked at the result in the mirror, trying hard not to laugh. Next, he attempted to comb his hair in something of the styles that women would, and added a few bright bronze highlights on some of his locks.
He thought he looked fairly feminine right now. Perhaps it wasn’t too bad? Though he wasn’t sure what passed for such on Zakuul.
Come to think of it, would a Mirialan stand out here? Peeking out from behind the curtains quickly, he observed with satisfaction at least twenty people with skin of different shades of green.
“Master Jedi, you should be resting!” Joi protested, entering the room.
“We’ve been compromised, Joi,” Arro informed him.
“Ah. I see. Acknowledged.”
“What are your protocols in case of emergency?”
“Master Beniko has already disposed of most of the crucial equipment and gear. I can wipe out all biological traces within an hour. Furthermore, she has provided me with an exit route that should get me to her allies offworld.”
“Do you have any weapons I can use? Any other equipment?”
“A pair of hold-out blasters. A standard glove-mounted computer, and an earpiece.”
“What about identification papers?”
“Stay away from all zones marked “Entry restricted”, and you should be fine.”
“Thank you, Joi. I appreciate all the care you have given me. May the Force be with you, and I hope we meet again soon!”
“Thank you, sir, and it was my pleasure” the Droid bowed. “May the Force serve you well… actually sir, if you don’t mind my saying, that makeup is poorly done! I must insist that you allow me to redo it for you!”
Arro cautiously stepped out of the building and into the street. Not a single one of the pedestrians gave him a second look. Good.
With that out of the way, he took in the city around him. He couldn’t help but be amazed at it all! Valkorion hadn’t been exaggerating when he talked about the opulence of Zakuul.
He started at the thought. Then, hesitating, he reached within.
Any advice, Valkorion?
Sadly, no. Valkorion responded smoothly. As Emperor, I rarely had time to explore Zakuul on foot. But neither Arcann nor the Knights are trained in searching through the Force, so you can safely use it around them. Vaylin, on the other hand, has a hunter’s instinct. She will notice, if she is close enough. As for Darth Nox; you know her better than I.
Thank you , he acknowledged. Clearing his mind one final time, he joined the foot traffic.
Time: 1200 hours
It was Akahte who suggested that they determine when the body was frozen. After all, DNA tests would take a few hours, and they’d have to thaw the Outlander out. Once thawed, it would kill him if he were refrozen until he had recovered from the Hibernation Sickness. A month, usually.
It wasn’t something anyone wanted. But testing the Carbonite itself-- getting the approximate age since the gas had been frozen, would be the quickest litmus test.
The report came back: sixteen days. Furthermore, it wasn’t a live body that was in there, but a well crafted replica.
The guards and chief administrator finally stopped trying to assure them that no one could possibly have broken in undetected, let alone switch the prisoner with a decoy.
“Someone certainly planned well, don’t you agree Chief?” Akahte asked cheerfully.
“I... uh…” the poor man stammered. “I don’t understand how this could have happened! There must be a mistake!”
But Vaylin already had all the proof she needed. She reached out, and overloaded the internal circuits. The body was blown out of the case, and one glance was enough to tell everyone that it was inorganic.
“H-h-high Justice!” The Chief was sweating profusely now, his teeth chattering. “H-h-h-how c-c-could this happen? S-sec-security was-s-s airtight, I swear it!”
“Don’t you worry,” Vaylin assured him, even as his body was squashed into the ground by an unseen fist. The same Force channeled the splatter away from Vaylin and her exit route, splattering the walls with crushed blood, bone and tissue.
“Everybody makes mistakes.”
Some people screamed. Others retched, several Knights removing their helms just in time to avoid vomiting with them still on.
She led the way out, Akahte close behind, then resealed the Vault and jammed the controls, leaving the unlucky personnel inside trapped. She heard her confidante sigh, felt her Reach Out, and, following a brief pause allowing Vaylin the time to stop her, the Twi’lek removed the door from its frame. Vaylin shivered slightly, a small smile blooming on her lips. It awed her always, feeling someone else-- someone she actually liked-- using the Force with a strength comparable to her own. And though she never understood why, Akahte’s use of the Force always had a unique… flavor to it. Like her every use of it caused a sigh in the Dark Side, an echo that hung in the air like a ghost.
“So this… girlfriend.” Vaylin prompted.
Akahte shrugged. “A very resourceful Sith Lord, named Lana Beniko. She’s quite strong in the Force, but it’s her attunement to subtleties and secrets that truly makes her a foe to be feared. I thought she had died in the War.”
“Then how do we know she is still alive?”
“It would take years and years of searching just to find this vault. Longer to plan such a silent heist. I doubt anyone could have pulled this off in a mere five years unless they dedicated themselves, their whole soul, to searching for Arro the second he disappeared. Ignoring Zakuul’s war in doing so. There is literally no one else out there who would have begun searching for him until at least two years ago, and even they would have been too distracted to fully commit until the end of Chancellor Saresh’s term.”
“You think she did this alone ?”
“No, but she began alone. Picked up allies and resources along the way. She’s very good-- she was the leader of a small team that single-handedly rooted out a large cult that had embedded itself into both Republic and Empire.”
“You have to be more than just “very good” to pull this off,” Vaylin purred admiringly.
“Oh she was more than good,” Akahte responded. “She was highly motivated. It would be like one of us, if the other was in danger.”
Grinning wide, Vaylin reached out again, this time seeking traces of presence left by the living… like a visible scent-- strange as that sounded… in the air around her. The traces lit up like spiderwebs to her eyes; bathed in a gloomy violet light. Observing the tapestry she isolated one presence that was different from all the others. It was subtle, almost invisible-- the woman had been working to conceal herself even in the Force. But she had slipped up. A brief flare-up of anger, there by the final door.
Vaylin laughed. No doubt that was when this woman, this Lana Beniko, had first beheld her lover in his prison. She couldn’t detect the Outlander’s presence in the immediate vicinity-- Beniko must have waited till they were safely away before freeing him.
Expanding her senses to their limit, Vaylin cursed in frustration when she failed to find another trace of the all but invisible trail, amusement gone.
“She… she only slipped up once!” Vaylin said aloud. “I only got a whiff of her scent near the door; she kept her presence hidden all the way until she left! Such control! I can recognize her scent in the Force if I came upon it again, but I can’t pick it out like I did here; her presence here was an anomaly after all, but out there it would be less uncommon. And now, I don’t even know what direction she was last headed in!”
“Well no matter,” Akahte said. “We can try good old reasoning from here. She would need an inconspicuous route in and out, and a discreet means of escape. The tram station sounds right.”
“Even the tram entrance requires really high clearance!”
“Then assume she had it. That was her way in and out. How she got it, how she beat internal security: that’s unimportant right now.”
Vaylin grunted in acceptance, and indicated that she continue.
“After escaping she’d need a hideaway. Somewhere nice and quiet, with space enough to accommodate enough equipment for the operation. And space for Arro to recover from Hibernation Sickness once she released him. It would have to be close. Close enough that she could visit the Vault regularly. Case the place.”
Akahte consulted the map on her datapad.
“There are three residential areas within a five mile radius. One in the Sector of the Holy Temple, two in the Sector of the Great Tiger Guardian.”
Vaylin nodded. “I’ll check each zone out. Maybe I can pick up their trail. You take charge of the hunt-- mobilize the Knights and Skytroopers, and comb through holofeeds of the past sixteen days. In all three districts.”
Akahte bowed formally. “Of course, High Justice.”
Raising herself slightly on her toes, she kissed Vaylin’s cheek, gave her a fond smile, and said “You be good now.”
Vaylin was still feeling her spirits slightly lifted when she reached the first of her hunting zones.
Time: 1230 hours
please let me know your thoughts, I'd appreciate any constructive criticism :).
Chapter XI - Huntress
Arro strolled the opulent streets of Zakuul casually, taking in the grandeur as he walked. It seemed to house hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, yet here the urban jungle wasn’t as oppressive or absolute as the ones on Coruscant and Corellia. Plenty of trees, gardens and even clean artificial ponds and canals. Birds and small animals flitted around the streets, some even stopping by near benches where people clearly sat regularly to feed them for pleasure.
This place actually felt alive rather than inhabited.
The statues that stood impressively at intervals were of bronzium, ebony and crystal. Buildings all bore intricate carvings. The walkways were decorated with small coloured tiles that, acting in concert with the carvings and statues, turned the Eternal City into a massive work of art.
Each District was powered by a dedicated Fusion Reactor; small suns suspended in containment fields dotted every five kilometers of the city, according to Lana’s research.
“Do you see the big pillar ahead of us?” Valkorion’s ghost asked, strolling beside Arro. Existing purely inside Arro’s head, he was invisible to all but Arro himself. Kind of like the voices the mentally ill heard that no one else could.
“The one that stretches all the way to the heavens?.” Arro said.
Valkorion smirked and continued. “That is the Spire of the Golden Heavens, the center of the Zakuul Empire. The Eternal Throne sits on the top of that spire.”
Arro nodded. He had sensed the churning maelstrom in the Force above, at the top, and surmised as much. But he wanted to avoid clearly explaining all of his strengths and weaknesses to the cunning Emperor if he could.
“This is the Holy Temple sector, home to the Imperial Palace. The heart of my Capital. And you are wandering deeper and deeper into hostile territory.”
“That’s what the disguise is for,” Arro whispered. “Besides, for now I have to move away from the safehouse-- and away from where the Vault is. I can’t risk engaging Vaylin or Akahte, let alone both of them.”
“Indeed, your foolish lover should have secured a spare lightsaber for you.” Valkorion grumbled. “You are unarmed and helpless.”
“I still have The Force with me, and this blaster. I’m a decent shot.And if I get into a fight here I’ve already lost. I can’t very well fight my way to the Spire, and confront Arcann.”
“Oh but you could!” Valkorion responded, wheeling slightly ahead and looking at Arro head-on. “You have my unlimited Power at your disposal! And all of my intricate knowledge of not only your enemy, but of the Force itself! If you choose to accept it, and combine it with your own formidable battle-prowess-- you who has rightly earned the rank of Battlemaster of the Jedi Order! Armies, fleets, superweapons. None of those can stand against us, if we fully unleash ourselves!”
“Lovely plan,” Arro stated in an interested tone. “But there are some problems. First of all…” he grunted as pain erupted in his chest, stiffening his muscles and causing him to slow down. “Akh… that. I’m still in recovery. And secondly, so what if I kill every last Knight and Soldier between here and Arcann? The people of this world still hate me, and this place won’t look so beautiful covered in blood and thick with droid soldiers.”
“I suppose so,” Valkorion allowed.
Rounding on a corner, Arro found what he had been looking for; one of the spots Lana had marked as a safe vantage point. It was a secluded rooftop cafe, entirely droid-operated. This spot had a good view of the streets, the notes said. And the place was rarely crowded at this hour, seeing rush hour in the early dawn and late evening to see Zakuul at its most beautiful.
Arro covertly entered a blind alley and changed into attire more suited to a man, then washed off some of the makeup at a nearby fountain.
Then he walked over to the cafe, ordered some fancy caf and sat at a table. Reaching out to Lana, he briefly let out a tiny flare in the Force. Too tiny, he hoped, for Vaylin and Akahte to see, but for Lana to still feel through their link.
Then he settled down to wait for his date.
Time: 1330 hours
Lana wove through the traffic on Zakuul. Drivers rode at a comfortable pace, and in an orderly fashion. In that it was much like Dromund Kaas, or Ziost before the cataclysm.
However, the mood was completely different. Where order was enforced on Sith worlds, here the people welcomed the compliance. People here were never in a rush. Their lives unfolded at a pleasant, perhaps even leisurely pace. With the whole world automated, the people could pursue exactly what they wanted, and personal comfort droids maintained their schedules for them.
There was little gained by being rash, true; the Patrol droids overseeing the streets would probably crack down on rule-breakers, but it was the inconvenience they hated more than they feared the droids.
And so, there was a content attitude as traffic was guided, occasionally stopped at junctions.
Speeders were also mostly automated, with an override which allowed the rider to drive if they ever chose. Most aircars and skybikes were fancy and lavish. Even the rental one that Lana was using was of better quality than what most affluent people on Dromund Kaas normally used.
This was her first time driving through the skies of Zakuul, as she had deemed it sufficiently riskier and slower than using the tram. And so, when she had first joined the traffic above the streets, she had marvelled at what Zakuul looked like from the city skyroads.
She had already seen their beauty when she was shuttled onto the surface, but from here the city shone with a different light. The various terraces and buildings looked vibrant and hand-crafted. From this vantage the line of Miniature suns gained a different aesthetic, adding to the artistic component of the city itself rather than standing apart from it.
It was all so beautiful! If only she could one day find the time to take this in properly! One day when they weren’t so pressed for time.
Shaking her head, Lana suddenly grinned with satisfaction when she sensed Arro reach out, and Flare his presence in the Force for just an instant. He was letting her know where he was. Perhaps he had chosen to, or forced to stop. The former probably, since she was feeling his more peaceful calm rather than his battle focus.
She reached the section quickly enough, and instantly realized where her Jedi was waiting; Greater Plom Cafe.
She smirked. How romantic!
If they hadn’t been in a hurry they could have spent some time here, perhaps caught that Zakuul sunset Koth told her was best seen from that walkway.
Approaching one of the parking zones for rented vehicles, she powered down her speeder and dismounted, She then keyed her comm, and said “Koth? We are at the Greater Plom Cafe. Can you extract us at Landing pad 21- Aurek?”
“Sure,” his tinny voice sounded over the comm. “We’re halfway there already. Let you know when I land. Should be thirty minutes. Oh, and HK managed to get the stuff you requisitioned.”
The probe droids! Lana had forgotten about them completely. “Understood. Well, perhaps we can talk about that phase once we meet up. See you soon, I hope.”
Time: 1345 hours
Vaylin’s mood was beginning to go sour. She’d had skimmed through all three of the sectors, and not caught a whiff of her prey. She had hoped that since she already knew Arro’s presence in the Force, she might be able to pinpoint it if it were close.
But no luck so far. It had already been over an hour since she’d begun her search. If they took too long, the Outlander might slip through their fingers. The Outlander, and him .
Her comm hummed for a moment, and she responded. “Yes.”
“Vaylin,” Akahte said. “We got lucky. The breakout occurred only two nights ago, so we didn’t need to go through too much footage. We barely caught a glimpse of an Astromech that fits the description of the one that served with Arro. We were able to track its movements for a bit. We weren’t able to locate the hideout itself, but based on sightings, it’s definitely in the Holy Temple Sector and not either of the residentials in the Serene Mother Sector. I’m alerting the Knights to start combing the sector, and watching for unscheduled shuttles.”
“Well done,” Vaylin approved. “I’m in the Temple Sector myself right now,” she closed her eyes and reached out for the Force, not as the Knights of Zakuul did, but as Akahte had been teaching her. “Inform me if you get any more leads, or find the Outlander himself,” she looked through the currents of the Force and again saw the web of life and death, chaos and order, ebb and flow around her.
And then she started.
There was… something. She had reached out and touched the opposite side of the walkways, and though she hadn’t felt anything through the Force itself, she felt her body stiffen, a rush of inexplicable excitement flowing through her. Instinct, perhaps?
She felt her hackles rising.
“Akahte, I might have found something. Sending you my coordinates. Keep an eye out, see if you find anything I miss.” She realized she was purring slightly and that only heightened her conviction that she was on the hunt.
“Done,” Akahte said before switching off her comm.
Vaylin took a deep breath, savoring the scent of Daffodils and Esne’s Bells. She might have been imagining it, but she thought she caught a whiff of her prey as well.
Time: 1410 hours. Aka, time’s up.
They felt it at the same moment. The situation had changed. Perhaps they had been spotted? Perhaps someone-- Vaylin or Akahte-- had chanced upon their trail somehow? Either way, it was time to move. Security droids everywhere seemed to be shifting subtly from patrol to search mode.
Their impromptu date-while-on-the-run had been going so well, too!
As calm as though they had all the time in the world, they stood, nodded politely to their droid hosts and left.
Right on cue, Lana’s wrist comm beeped for attention. “I read you.”
“An updated timetable would be good.”
“Why, is there a problem?”
“You could say that. Security is starting to tighten up. This zone is getting hot. We’re going to have to do the pickup fast, military style. You are with the Outlander?”
Lana made an adjustment on her wrist-comm, then said, “Yes, I’ve patched him in.”
“Great. I’m Koth Vortena. Welcome to the most suicidal rescue mission in history. Hope you’re everything Lana said you were.”
“Koth will fly us out of here, just as soon as we reach the landing pad on the other side of this bridge.”
It was then that things changed again. A jolt in the Force drew their attention to the plaza on the opposite side of the landing pad. Someone had spotted the. Someone deadly.
Despite the throng of civilians around her, they had no difficulty spotting Vaylin. And she was staring right back at them-- beaming widely-- and would be upon them soon if they didn’t hurry.
“Koth, change of timetables. Vaylin has arrived. She’s almost upon us.”
“Already? Okay, let me know the second you reach the platform.”
Abandoning the draw-no-attention mindset, Lana broke into a run, urging Arro on ahead of her.
“We need to get across the bridge, now!”
Four security droids stationed at the bridge turned towards them as they approached.
Arro drew the concealed blaster and fired as Lana charged.
Arro’s first bolts caught two droids right in the optics, but the other two reacted quickly, lowering into a crouch, better covering their exposed optics with their armored heads. His subsequent rounds hit their armor, scoring the durasteel and throwing off balance slightly but not hurting them.
And then Lana closed in, cut them both down with lethal efficiency.
As acrid smoke filled the air, the crowds finally began to realize that a fight was breaking out. Many screamed, they all began to scatter. Most fled away from the smoke.
Good. Lana suspected that Vaylin would not shirk from attacking the crowds, which meant that they would only serve to slow them down, not provide some cover. Besides, now Arro would feel more free to fire as well; good shot though he might be, his aim wasn’t perfect, and he was always worried about collateral damage. She really should have secured a Lightsaber for him after all!
They ran across the bridge, situation darkening by the minute as the comm’s urgent beeping caught Lana’s attention again.
“Hope you’re not too close yet.”
Heart sinking, Lana asked “What’s happening?”
“Nothing I can’t handle, but we need to move the pickup. If I land now I’ll be shot to pieces. Run through another tower and I’ll find you.”
“Watch your back out there,” Arro said, voice already shaking. Not good-- he should have been resting, he was in no shape for this.
“My number one passtime,” Koth quipped. “Always love our little excursions, Lana.”
“I’ve got a good feeling about him,” Arro said after the line had disconnected.
“So did I when I first met him. Koth is a native a of Zakuul, believe it or not. Arcann may be Emperor but not all his people support him blindly.”
They had reached the end of the bridge, but the strain was showing on Arro, he had all but fallen to his knees, clutching his side and coughing hard. Sweat covered his face and he was shaking hard in Lana’s arms as she moved to support him.
They needed to slow down their pursuers, for just a few minutes.
Lana tossed her Lightsaber, and guiding it with the Force, used it to completely sever the bridge on their end. She then used the Force as a mallet, striking down hard on the bridge, causing it to bend and crack. It would hopefully buy them some time-
A tremor in the Force caused both Lana and Arro to turn their attention to Vaylin. She shook her head, still wearing that cruelly amused smile which was visible even from the other side of the now-broken bridge.
Vaylin was thrilled; her prey were in her sights, the Outlander and his lover. The blonde woman with the red blade. She was also greatly amused; The route they were taking would lead them right into a factory. Of War Droids.
“Not the way I would have picked,” she said to herself.
She turned her attention towards the nearest Fusion Reactor, which was close to where they were standing. Reaching out through the Force, she easily shattered the base, causing the mini sun to go dark, which further caused a powerful backlash in the reactor. In a short while, it would go “Boom”, taking the Outlander and his troublesome lover with him.
Turning her gaze back towards her prey, she was delighted to see the look of sheer terror on their slack-jawed faces. She cheekily waved, blowing a kiss at Arro, before she turned and walked away.
I had intended to write a chapter exploring the Eternal City, capital of Zakuul, through the eyes of Arro (on the streets with Valkorion), Lana (on a speeder), Vaylin (using the Force to look around for her prey) and Akahte (Looking through security cams), each offering a different perspective of Zakuul. But I've decided to add that as a special exposition chapter for later, for anyone interested about this World's building.
Chapter 12: Act and React
“Follow me. If this reactor blows, hundreds of thousands of your people will die. We have to do anything we can do to stop this.”
“What?” Lana barked, running up to him. “Are you mad? There is no time to play hero, we have to get to the Shuttle pad and get out of here while we still can!”
“No, my Love. We have to do this, or I’m not worth saving. Besides, there is no time to run either.”
Chapter XII - Act and React
Arro fought to stay on his feet as he stumbled behind Lana. The pain in his chest and side was getting worse, his leg muscles numb. His vision swam as his consciousness threatened to vanish.
Through the haze of his symptoms he could just make out Lana demolishing Skytroopers and security droids. The stench of acrid smoke and the melted wiring added to the list of things that affected his ability to stay awake. Most of the hallways were narrow, so she didn’t have to move too much to protect them both from Blaster Rifle fire, but in some of the bigger rooms the droids attempted to flank her and bring Arro under fire. In each of the encounters there had been a few near misses-- shots that almost hit Lana or Arro but for blind luck.
But their luck held, and soon there were no more droids firing in their general direction. Lana kept her saber well in hand just in case.
As they made their way through the factory the klaxons continued to wail louder and louder; a sign that whatever calamity Vaylin had caused was fast approaching. All around, panicked technicians, janitors, staff, and security personnel ran in disarray, evacuating the factory.
It wouldn’t be enough, Arro thought dimly. That reactor looked like it could decimate several kilometers of the city if it went off. He reached for the Force, briefly observed the flows, the deadly buildup of electrical energy; the failing emergency containment shields...
Not all of them were running. Some had given up, curled up next to tables and workstations waiting for the explosion to come.
“Which way to the Control Center?” He asked loudly, addressing anyone who would listen. Several looked up, including a woman of an unfamiliar species.Her large eyes seemed to have trouble focusing on him, but she obligingly pointed the way. “Straight ahead. You can’t miss it.”
“Follow me. If this reactor blows, hundreds of thousands of your people will die. We have to do anything we can do to stop this.”
“What?” Lana barked, running up to him. “Are you mad? There is no time to play hero, we have to get to the Shuttle pad and get out of here while we still can!”
“No, my Love. We have to do this, or I’m not worth saving. Besides, there is no time to run either.”
“Oh… very well,” Lana grumbled, grabbing him by the arm and leading him towards the Control Center. “Well, what are you lot waiting for? Follow us now!”
Many of the cowering Zakuulans stayed put; unwilling or unable to move. But some got shakily to their feet and started following them. The alien who had spoken up earlier got in step with them and took some of Arro’s weight in order to hasten their progress.
“I recognize you,” she stated. “You are the Jedi who killed our Immortal Emperor. The Outlander.”
An uneasy ripple passed through the motley group behind them.
Arro nodded. “I am he. He was my enemy. But I am not yours. I won’t allow even a single person to die if I can help it.”
“Very noble. But you look like you should be in intensive care,” she noted. “Do you really think you can stop this, in your state?”
Arro nodded, attempting to show a confidence he did not feel.
“Not by myself. I will need all the help I can get.”
“I’ll help you then, for there is no other choice. My name is Caradha.”
The technicians in the control center were in a panic. One, probably the head technician, called out, “It’s no good; it’s going to rupture! Sound the evacuation, get everybody out! Ten blocks in all directions!”
As if to punctuate her order, the surge in the reactor got more destructive-- electrical systems began to overload. Small explosions began to bloom around the reactor core as the power surge strained against the shield.
“Wait!” Arro called. Most ignored him in their mad dash to evacuate, but some faltered. “There’s not enough time to evacuate. We have to do everything we can to stop this explosion if we want to survive.”
“And just what is it we can do? Controls here are fried now, we only have manual access.” A very large human man spoke up uncertainly.
“We have to reroute power to other systems-- maybe even other blocks-- but especially to the shields. Overload them so that they can contain the buildup, and give us time to initiate a total reactor shutdown.”
“That could work, theoretically,” Caradha spoke up in a shaky but resolute voice. “But we will have to be extremely lucky to work the overloaded grid without burning it entirely, we don’t have the means of monitoring such things.”
“For some who can use the Force, we have a gift of seeing things… differently. I can monitor the buildup, the discharge and the state of the circuits. But I need you all to work on the different controls and overrides.”
“How do you propose to direct us?” Another tech asked. “Sign language? The adjustments will be delicate and there’s no way you have the time to tell us exactly what needs being done!”
Arro braced himself. “This will require your trust. You will have to open yourselves to me through the Force. Let me in completely, be an extension of my will. I’m no good at affecting minds, so I need your willing cooperation.”
“Trust you?” One of the men who had been with Caradha erupted. “You’re the fuckin Outlander that killed the Emperor! Why should we trust you?”
Lana made an impatient noise. “Because there’s no other way, and we’re running short of time. Sorry about this, you’ll thank me later.”
Reaching out, she seized their wills in an iron grip.
“You will do whatever it takes to save the city, you will do whatever it is the “Outlander” asks.”
“We will do whatever it takes to save the city,” One woman repeated.
Another man nodded. “We will do whatever it is the Outlander asks.”
Caradha stood at the controls of one of the power grids. Her station, as it were. Just like the fifteen other colleagues who had agreed to help with the Outlander’s desperate plan.
She believed that it was crazy--even mad-- with small chance of success, yet it was the only one they had and the intent to save lives was genuine; she could taste the scent of his sincerity as it filled the air. For that alone, she was willing to help this man, this Outlander.
She felt it when his mind and hers connected-- a sudden cold ripple through her scales, and an inflow of sensations not her own. But more than that, an impression-- secondhand-- of something vast and glorious and terrible that could only be this “Force” that he and some others talked about.
It filled her head and spilled out into infinity, carrying with it all the scents of life and death, past and present, decay and growth, chaos and harmony. To people around her, to their dreams, their hopes, their likes and their pains. And to the very stone and metal that made up her surroundings.
She was one with it all. Her mind recoiled at the alienness of what it now saw, but a vague understanding came of how the Outlander intended to-
A sharp sensation of pain, quickly suppressed: The Outlander really was sick and in pain.
But she could not linger on the thought, for he had begun his work.
She felt her hands fly across the keypad, felt her eyes at once absorbing the details on the screen yet disregarding them entirely. The taste of the overheating circuitry grew ever thicker in the air and the alarms wailed louder but these too she ignored.
Guided by the Outlander-- by the Force-- she and her colleagues channeled power away from the buildup, easing the strain on the systems. As the Outlander had proposed, they empowered containment systems, overloaded the shields, and siphoned off massive amounts of power. The buildup was reduced greatly, but the gates couldn’t be kept open for too long, and when the unavoidable dance of closing some gates and opening others began, the buildup began to grow once again, though slower.
She did not understand how, but he saw when each node approached its threshold, and closed it so that it wouldn’t blow.
All the while Head Technician Zurah frantically continued her efforts to shut down the reactor.
When they had begun they had perhaps five minutes on the countdown, but surely it had been fifteen since they’d begun. At least twenty, in fact. Did it mean they were succeeding?
Were they really about to save the city?
Hope began to fill her chest, her gut.
And after yet more time of unknown quantity had passed, the reactor finally began the shutdown sequence. She heard the distinct humm of the systems powering down. The reduction in the strain on the coolant systems, the shielding.
The Outlander’s presence in her head flared in pain one final time before it pulled back and cut itself off.
And then all systems went dark, and she suddenly felt like most of her senses had stopped working. But she was… alive?
Laron called out to his friends and they responded. Some coughed. Some retched and heaved. Some wept in unadulterated relief.
Yes, it was over. They were alive. Safe. Saved by the Outlander.
And suddenly the immensity of what had happened bore down on her, and Caradha felt her knees grow very weak. If there had been any light she might have noticed her vision blurring too.
She sank to the floor, collapsing from relief and exhaustion, and gratefully accepted the total dark of unconsciousness.
Valkorion mused as he watched from the recesses of Arro’s mind. The boy was unconscious; exhausted and in pain, and being carried out in his wife’s arms.
The Jedi had impressed him with his Sight. Every wielder of the Force saw things differently, that was certainly true. He himself perceived it a subtle differently each time he changed his vessel.
But for the life of him, he could not quite understand what it was the Jedi had seen that allowed him such a grasp on whatever it was he was doing!
He had never liked mysteries. He-- or rather the Sith Emperor-- had learned almost at the very beginning that this boy could see something differently through the Force. He had ordered the best agent-- the one called Cipher Nine-- to dig deep into his life, to uncover his secrets, to know him better than he knew himself. He himself had devoted much energy to figuring that out.
And yet he was still unsure as to the nature of this boy’s gift.
It made him uneasy.
Chapter 13: Three Minutes
There was a Landing Platform close by.
“Koth where are you?”
His tinny voice responded over the comm. “Ran into sort of a maintenance issue.”
“Damn. How bad is it?”
“It’s not great, but we’re on top of it. Give us… err three minutes?”
“Three minutes… okay!”
Chapter XIII - Three Minutes
Lana stumbled out of the maintenance hatch, carrying Arro unconscious on her back. She was on the catwalks now, and moving away from the facility as fast as she could. It was quite dark, so she had to rely on a glow rod: one which was dim enough that it wouldn’t give away their position to whoever happened to be searching.
She consulted her schematics to verify; There was a Landing Platform close by.
“Koth where are you?”
His tinny voice responded over the comm. “Ran into sort of a maintenance issue.”
“Damn. How bad is it?”
“It’s not great, but we’re on top of it. Give us… err three minutes?”
“Three minutes… okay!”
She walked to the platform, and gently laid Arro onto the surface.
Sitting down next to him, she settled down to wait.
Three minutes… ten… thirty...
Arro groaned. The world was black, and refused to turn bright again. Had he been severely injured? No, Lana was right next to him, he could feel her. And he could feel her uneasy calm. He wasn’t hurt too bad; if he was she’d have been far more upset. So why was it dark?
Oh . The memories started coming back. The reactor. He’d caused a blackout to save the city.
He relied on his other senses to get a better grip on where he was. He got the smell of ozone and fuel and metal. Could hear the sounds of gears turning, parts moving. Like he was in the center a large machine.
But he could still hear the wind, feel its cold grasp. So perhaps not in the center of one machine, but surrounded by several?
“How are you feeling, my love?” Lana’s voice sounded from beside him.
“A little groggy. So tired. Body hurts so bad… Lana, where are we?”
“Maintenance catwalks, beneath the city. One with access to a Landing pad. You should be proud; you saved the city. And us.”
“Good question,” she responded.
He heard the electronic beeping as she keyed her comm.
The signal must have been bad, there was some noise in the background. It almost sounded like-
“Koth, is that… blaster fire? Are you okay? And on foot?”
“Almost there,” Koth shouted, not really answering the question. “Three more minutes!”
Arro heard the sound of an approaching craft. Within moments a troop transport emerged out of the darkness, lights blinking.
He heard two distinct thuds on the far end of the platform, and blue Lightsaber Blades ignited; Zakuul Knights wielding those distinctive spears.
The transport turned its light on the platform, momentarily blinding both of them.
“Koth, we don’t have three minutes!”
“Two and a half!”
“Outlander,” One of the Knights called. “You are guilty of assassinating the Immortal Emperor, and evading imprisonment.”
“We demand your immediate surrender!” The other declared.
“Is this a bad time to tell you that we dropped your blaster in the confusion at the reactor?” Lana asked, rising. Ignoring Arro’s disbelieving groan, she ignited her own red blade and charged.
Arro stood up behind her, ignoring another wave of exhaustion.
He needed a weapon. Hmmm … No other way .
He charged as well, tackling the larger of the Knights to the ground. The spear was no good at such close quarters, and the Knight discarded his weapon and fought back with his fists. The odds were heavily in the Knight’s favor; not only was Arro exhausted and sick, the large man was armored. Oh, and he was almost twice the size.
Arro wouldn’t last ten seconds in a contest of pure grappling.
But that was not counting the Force. Recalling Valkorion’s earlier advice, Arro suspected that they didn’t know how to use it except in the most obvious ways. Arro channeled the Force through his body, strengthening his bones, his muscles, his skin… and adding some explosive punch to his fists.
The Knight reeled as the shockwaves woven into the blows dented his armor. It knocked him off of Arro, and gave the Jedi a second to breathe, and See through the Force…
He searched for the man’s combat Shatterpoints. Noted the holes in his defense. The weakest spots in his armor. And the pressure points on the man’s body.
He quickly closed the gap between them and jabbed twice, thrice, seven times. Each strike landed on its intended spot. The Force exploded out of his palm, his fist, breaking through his armor and striking muscles and nerves so hard that he got thrown off his feet and landed, dazed, some twenty feet away.
In the meantime, Lana had also disarmed her own opponent, who had managed to avoid the coup-de-grace and backflipped onto the transport.
“Tannek, run! We fight another day!” He called out to his companion before scurrying away. With the vehicle. Leaving his partner behind.
But the man was quite thoroughly down. He wouldn’t be standing, much less running, for a few days.
As Lana lit a glow rod, Arro knelt and picked up Tannek’s lightsaber Pike, and looked it over. He ignited it, gave it a few experimental thrusts and swings.
He had trained with swords and double-ended swords, but wasn’t as proficient with a spear. Extinguishing the blade, he looked it over, and decided that all of the important parts were in the top quarter of the Lightsaber, meaning that the lower three-quarters…
With a gesture, he summoned the other Knight’s pike, ignited it, and cut off the bottom three quarters of the other, turning it into a Lightsaber hilt which was only a little longer-than-normal. Reigniting the Lightsaber, he hefted it again.
It was just the same as any other Lightsaber.
Lana had been watching him. “At least you are armed now, but please remember that you are far from okay?”
“Even if I’m half-dead I can block blaster fire with this,” Arro responded. “So the next time we face Skytroopers you can attack them without worrying about me.”
“At least for a little while,” she accepted.
Over in his corner, Tannek groaned, still too dazed to stand.
Lana threw an exasperated look at Arro and very pointedly put away her Lightsaber.
“Three minutes, Koth said.”
They’d spent almost another hour waiting. Where was that man?
Every second they could sense their pursuers getting closer, and one in particular---
And the catwalks began to tremble ominously. A segment of the one above came crashing down on them, and they had to roll to avoid it.
A small robed figure landed nimbly before them, pale face wearing a wide, hungry grin, tiger-like eyes transfixed upon her prey.
“Vaylin,” Lana breathed.
“I don’t know you,” she purred. “But you…” She giggled sweetly, eyes fixing on Arro. “I’ve missed you!”
An escort of Skytroopers and Knights formed up behind her.
“Vaylin,” Arro greeted her tensely. “When we met in the dream I thought you’d changed. That Akahte had managed to begin the healing process with you. But that stunt with the reactor? That was reckless. Pointless.”
Vaylin’s expression fell at the mention of Akahte’s name. She seemed to contemplate her actions for the first time, and a look of horror started to dawn on her face.
“You’re right… I let her down! What have I done?”
It was at that precise moment that they heard the roar of engines approaching. Lana’s comm came alive and Koth said, “Heads down, eyes open, run like hell!”
A shuttle emerged from the mist before them, spitting plasma and fire at Vaylin and her company.
Vaylin shielded herself using a piece of skywalk that she broke off using the Force but the barrage downed her escort in seconds.
Lana went first, leaping onto the shuttle’s open boarding ramp.
At the precise moment Arro jumped, Vaylin hurled her makeshift shield at the shuttle, scoring a hit on one of the wings and causing it to sway unexpectedly. Arro missed the ramp, only barely grabbing on to what felt like a mechanical hand.
He heard a cheerful mechanical voice speak. “Declaration: Meatbags can’t fly!” and was pulled on board by a bronze-and durasteel Droid. Arro recognized the droid as being of the same make as his HK-51 assassin droid.
As the ramp closed behind him, he heard Koth’s voice calling down the aisle. “Hang on!” I’m gonna punch it!” And in moments, the ship hurtled forward.
Vaylin watched as the shuttle escaped, trailing smoke from the small hole she had opened.
Beside her, the hapless Knight who had been disabled by the escapees fought to breathe as she Choked him.
“High Justice Vaylin, please! There was no way I could possibly-” his words trailed off as she broke his neck. She tossed his body off the precipice and turned to find two other Knights who had survived the barrage.
“Are you awaiting instructions?” she asked. The Knights shivered. And fled.
Vaylin finally answered her incessantly ringing holocomm. It was Arcann.
“Oh good morning Brother dear? Did you sleep well?”
Arcann wasn’t in the mood. “The Outlander?” he asked
“No, he’s gone.”
“I want him found, whatever the cost,” Arcann snarled, before disconnecting.
“Vaylin…” This voice came not from the comm, but somewhere closer.
Akahte came gliding down one of the catwalks, planted herself directly in front of Vaylin.
Vaylin blanched; her friend’s eyes were bloodshot, and filled with tears.
The Twi’lek simply asked, “Why?”
And Vaylin suddenly felt ashamed and horrified of herself again.
Chapter 14: Treasure Hunt
“Koth, take us in that direction,” Arro said, pointing. “There’s something of great importance there.”
“Better if you fly, since I can’t see what it is you’re looking for,” Koth made way for Arro to take over the controls, then dashed into the interior to help Lana and the HK unit fight the fire.
The Swamp at the edge of the Eternal City
The lights were still out in the city, and all civilian vehicles had been grounded due to a city-wide curfew, apparently issued after it was certain that there would be no massive explosions.
This meant that Koth’s shuttle was one of the few shuttles flying, and since he had stolen a military shuttle in an especially chaotic time, it hadn’t been listed as stolen yet. As a consequence, the few emergency and response vehicles they came across didn’t challenge them. And of course surveillance was out too. Their pursuers wouldn’t be able to pick up their trails again easily.
But they had other problems. The shuttle, hit by Vaylin’s attack, had caught fire.
The short, dark-skinned man on the Pilot’s seat barked, “Get those fires out!”
“Did you think to take any extinguishers when you stole this ship?” Lana asked impishly before dashing off.
“Koth, take us in that direction,” Arro said, pointing. “There’s something of great importance there.”
“Better if you fly, since I can’t see what it is you’re looking for,” Koth made way for Arro to take over the controls, then dashed into the interior to help Lana and the HK unit fight the fire.
As Arro sat at the controls, he asked “What all have we got once we’re on foot?”
Koth, attempting to put out a fire with his trench coat, answered. “Military shuttles are always equipped with three speeders and probe droids. Rations, maintenance kits and medpacks; food should last us a few weeks. Weapons, ammo, munitions. Oh, and we have the probes and excavators Lana requested too.”
“What? You were able to hold on to it despite being shot down?” Lana asked incredulously.
“You know it! That’s why you picked me, right? Cuz I’m awesome!”
HK interjected “Interjection: Actually, Master, it was I who held on to it, while master Vortena kept yelling at me to let it go. You did give it a high priority after all.”
“Well done, both of you,” Lana said, and Arro could hear the fond exasperation in her voice.
“How long have you been working together?”
“About a year,” Koth answered. “But we met several times before that. I think the first time we met was back on Asylum. Lana already had HK back then.”
“Answer: I was assigned to Master Beniko by her Mother, Master Kelsa Beniko. She has since modified my programming to also include Master Vortena and yourself under my protection.”
“So you are a bodyguard, not an Assassin?”
“Answer: Yes, Master, but since I am based heavily on an HK unit, I come with the full knowledge of their assassination and targetting protocols, in addition to that of a bodyguard. As a result, I still bear the Hunter-Killer designation. HK-55, fully armed, and ready to serve.”
“Declaration: That I have kept Masters Beniko and Vortena alive despite their high-risk activities is my greatest achievement!”
While they were getting introduced they continued to lose altitude, and Arro located a small clearing that would serve for a rough landing. “Everyone, strap yourselves in! We’re about to land!”
He gave them ten seconds to comply, then landed the shuttle as gently as he could under the circumstances-- they hit the ground with enough force to bury the shuttle’s nose seven feet in the wet soil.
The impact was so jarring that it rattled Arro’s eyeballs and teeth in their sockets. The safety restraints dug into his collarbone and waist as they prevented him from being tossed headfirst into the shatterproof Transparisteel.
The shrieking sound of metal straining grew so loud that it left him feeling dazed and disoriented, and left an almost equally loud silence in its wake.
And then the shuttle came to a halt.
Arro groaned as he disengaged the restraints. He was sweating from the sweltering heat inside the cockpit, ears ringing and feeling a massive headache. He had aches all over his body. And he was still recovering from Hibernation sickness. All that considered, he felt just great!
“Everyone alright?” he asked.
Koth nodded wearily while Lana brushed sodden hair out of her eyes and quipped, “Another happy landing!”
As Arro prepped the speeders, Lana, Koth, and HK gathered essential supplies and placed them on a tarp they’d laid out. They would have to secure the larger supplies, like the Excavator Droids, in a separate harness and attach it separately to the speeders.
“That’s two more shuttles you owe me,” Koth informed Lana.
“You didn’t even own this one, it really shouldn’t count,” Lana said, raising her eyebrows.
“It was mine when it crashed,” Koth answered around a smile. “It counts.”
“Just how often do you crash shuttles?” Arro asked incredulously.
“Not often,” Koth said defensively.
“Seven,” Lana responded, sighing. “I'm counting this as eight, since the damage that downed us happened when Koth was flying. It’s a miracle we’re still alive.”
“Right,” Arro nodded, “Koth, the second we get a real pilot, we can find something you’re better suited for.”
“What?” Koth howled in mock-outrage as Lana laughed. “I am a real pilot! I’ll have you know that I broke records during my time in the Military!”
“Military?” Arro asked. He finished his work on the last speeder and moved to help securing the supplies to them. “You don’t sound Imperial. Are you Republic?”
“Hell no, I’m Zakuulan!” Koth said proudly. “But I’ve dedicated my life to overthrowing Arcann’s tyranny now.”
“Why? What did Arcann do to you?”
Koth paused in his work. “Well, Lana’s told me all about the things you’ve done. I figure I know about your past, Might as well tell you about mine.”
“I was the Captain of a Warship during Arcann’s campaign against the Core Worlds.We were holding territory on Denon. Locals rioted and we were ordered to open fire. Massacring civilians? That’s not how Zakuul is supposed to operate!”
“That was a brave thing you did,” Arro told him. “I know how hard it is to accept that my superiors may be wrong, and to go against their orders. Or to confront the fact that what I’m doing is fundamentally wrong.”
Koth nodded and continued. “My crew and I deserted, but I’m not going to pretend that we didn’t do our share of damage before that.”
Arro winced. “The horror of war; we all kill so many people that when the time comes to work together we…” he trailed off. “We realize that they were people. Like us. Family. Friends. Comrades.” He remembered the Imperial Soldiers on Yavin talking about lost comrades; on Balmorra, on Belsavis, on Voss, Corellia, Illum, and other offensives. He remembered the pang of guilt he’d felt knowing that he might have been responsible for at least some of those deaths himself. Though he had disabled most of those unfortunate enough to cross his path without killing them, the ones that had been killed were still many in number.
Koth nodded. “Yeah. But that’s not what I heard about you; that you only kill when there’s no other choice. That you’re a noble Knight out of the most sacred Legends; you know: sworn to valor; virtuous; his word only speak the truth; he defends the innocent. Slays the wicked demons so that children can once again sleep peacefully at night. That kinda thing.”
Arro’s face had grown very hot. “What?” he asked, incredulous. “No! You’re making it up!”
“Oh no, he’s not,” Lana said, while HK added,“Elaboration: ever since your slaying of the Sith Emperor you became a hero in most bedtime stories and modern stories inspired by real-life events. Such tales only became more popular after the Revan Reborn and Ziost incidents, with even Imperial meatbags telling the tales. Or starting their own. As Zakuul attempted to paint your “Unprovoked” assassination of their Emperor being the reason for their invasion these stories only grew stronger. And then after many contradictory statements Arcann was forced to admit that you defeated his father in fair combat, which exonerated you even further.”
“Even we of Zakuul were stunned by that one,” Koth remarked.
“Continuation: Your tale has endured a brutal smear-campaign Master, and that makes it seem all the more legitimate in the eyes of meatbags all over the Galaxy. Today, you are a legend. An icon. There are monuments to your triumphs all over the Republic, and even a few in the Sith Empire. Some of these weren’t even government funded, instead relying on public goodwill donations.”
“People donated to monuments, even as they had to rebuild their own homes?”
“Correction: In their cases, I believe the term “shrines” would be closer than monuments. A Guardian Deity or Patron Saint of rebuilt settlements, as it were.”
Arro looked over at Lana, silently beseeching her to deny the story. Or at least to say that it wasn’t all that bad.
Lana’s made a bracing gesture. “It’s all true, even accurate. You are one of the greatest heroes of the galaxy today, My Love. That’s the reason why so many were willing to go along with the next Phase of the plan if I managed to successfully break you out-- defying Arcann. They believe in you. There are few names that they’d have rallied behind.”
Arro heard Valkorion chuckle in his mind. “What did you expect? Did you listen to nothing I said? That you leave a mark upon the Galaxy as powerful as my own? This is what I meant!”
Koth was now setting up a detonator that would hopefully help muddy their tracks a little. “Half the reason I went along with this was because I couldn’t believe you were real, "he said. "Thing is-- I’m a believer now. The way you shut down that reactor-- it was heroic, death-defying. And you saved a lot of people doing it. If this is how you operate: save as many people as you can, I can really get behind following you.”
“Well, thanks,” Arro said, at last having finished securing the last of the bindings. That last bit was praise he was too happy to accept. At least, the part about not wanting to harm innocents.
But the rest? He, a legend? The Galaxy really must have gone crazy while he slept.
“We should get moving now, put some distance between ourselves and the Shuttle. And get to… whatever it is that’s giving me such an ominous feeling.”
After an hour or so of riding the Outlander had called a halt and the three speeders touched down on the swamp floor. The skies were dark now; they were far away from any civilization.
It had started raining, grown to become quite heavy for a few minutes, before subduing into a lighter, continuous downpour.
“I was hoping that the swamp would end somewhere near the site,” he said.
“It’s called the “Endless Swamp” after all,” Koth said. He was already weary of batting away at the swarms of flies that--well-- swarmed around him. He noticed with great annoyance that as was the case with Lana, the damned pests didn’t swarm around the Outlander. The observation did not improve his mood. “Pretty damn vast. In the days before flight, people could take a lifetime traveling through it.”
“A lot of the land on this world is swamp,” Lana said, picking her footholds carefully through the ankle-deep muck. “Oceans are shallower than most worlds too. Only mountains and plateaus high enough above it all to boast drier climates. And the closest such zone in this direction is another three hundred kilometers away.”
The Jedi groaned, and began to pick his way through the swamp. “Lovely. I’ve always enjoyed camping in swamps. Hope we don’t have to spend too much time out here.”
The scent of decaying vegetation was strong around them. The waterlogged soil gave way to deeper canals without warning; the moss and lichens floating on the water made it difficult to judge its depth, probably even during the day. Nocturnal life was alive and noisy around them.
But none of that mattered right now. They had finally reached the spot, that Arro had been able to detect all the way from space. Five years had passed, but the brittle threads of the Force looked no less potent.
The Shatterpoint before him could break the galaxy when it was triggered. He could tell just by looking at it. The air before him shimmered, the threads and flows of the Force contorting and twisting, resonating with each other in such a bizarre manner that the entire area appeared to his senses to refract light and sound at impossible angles, creating a most violent tapestry of colors and cacophony of noises so high pitched that they dug into his skull like razor sharp needles.
The whole thing made his knees buckle as he fought a powerful wave of nausea.
Lana was by his side in an instant. “Arro! It’s okay, I’ve got you!”
“You’re probably still reeling from hibernation sickness,” Koth said. “Maybe you shouldn’t push yourself? Tell us what we’re looking for, then get some rest, Lana and I can handle it.”
“It’s not the sickness,” Arro managed. “It’s the thing we’ve come here to find. This close, its Call feels so powerful! So shrill! It’s overwhelming!”
“Well for once in my life, I’m glad I don’t have your senses,” Lana said. “Did you know the number of times I could have benefited from it in… well never mind. It’s powerful, but we already knew that, that’s why we came all the way out here in the first place. What do we do now?”
“It’s below us,” Arro announced. “If I had to guess, at least a hundred meters below. It’s the size of a Cruiser, at least.”
“Well, if it’s the size of a ship and is below us then we don’t have nearly enough excavators to dig it out. Unless you and Lana can use the Force some way I haven’t heard of.”
“We don’t have to dig it out,” Arro said. “We just have to make sure Arcann can’t use it.”
“Actually, if you think about it a moment, a ship that far underground could mean an underground hangar,” Lana said reasonably. “If we look around, we might find a door-- the entrance to the hangar.”
“Oh yeah!” Koth said, looking more excited. “So I can configure the probe droids to look for a hidden door, no problem!”
“I will look for a source of freshwater,” Lana said. “Arro, I think that you and HK should set up a camp nearby. Once that’s done, you should get some rest. It might not be the sickness that has your knees shaking right now, but you are still in need of some considerable rest. For goodness sake, you didn’t even get your rest after stopping that reactor from blowing!”
“Well then,” Arro said cheerfully. “Looks like the way forward is clear then.”
“Enthusiastic Declaration: Operation Treasure Hunt is a go!” HK-55 beamed. “Let’s head out then, Masters!”
Chapter 15: Treasure Hunt II
The Throne Room
Arcann sat on the Eternal Throne; Vaylin was by his right, as always. But Akahte wasn’t on
right… for the first time since she had sworn herself to Vaylin.
Vaylin herself looked rather sad, forlorn, and Arcann couldn’t help but wonder what could have happened.
But that was for another time. For now, he focused on the holo in front of him.
“Reports are still unreliable, Your Imperial Majesty,” the Security Commander said in his message. “Someone was able to slice into the system and cause havoc inside the network. Dozens of shuttles have been labelled as “Stolen”, which effectively hinders our efforts from figuring out which ones are and which one was really stolen. Power is still down following the… incident with the power generator-” Vaylin growled at this “- so there was no way any cams were online and able to track the shuttle even if we knew which one we are looking for. But we have confirmed that no shuttles bearing the damage High Justice Vaylin caused it have landed, so they are not in the Eternal City.”
Arcann closed the message and called up a holomap of the city. He pointed with his prosthetic hand. “The Endless Swamp. It’s the only place where they could have made a safe landing. Skytroopers, comb the area, focus your search on regions with high readings of metals.”
Vaylin was silent, but she clearly had something she wanted to talk about.
“What is it?” He asked.
“I’ve fucked up,” Vaylin admitted. “I’m worried that I’ve hurt Akahte. Maybe forever.”
“With… the reactor?” Arcann asked carefully. He hadn’t seen his sister this shade of sad. Ever. Usually it involved a deadly rage, channeled into cruel jests and even more cruel mockery. Sometimes she would lose control entirely, and Knights would end up dead, Skytroopers dismembered. But this… feeling abashed, introspecting, facing her own faults as something she didn’t like? This was new. And he had no idea how to deal with this. It worried him.
He was certain that she wouldn’t hesitate to kill him if he put a toe out of line.
Luckily it looked like he wouldn’t be dying today; Vaylin nodded, still quiet.
“It upset her.”
“Is that why she’s not here?”
“Sort of,” Vaylin cringed. “I asked her to remain and help with the recovery.”
“You didn’t want to face her?”
Arcann was slightly confused. “I thought she swore allegiance to you? To follow you no matter what you desire, even if it was the crushing of her own home?”
“She will never betray me, that much is certain.” Vaylin said. “She is just… sad. Very Sad. She was in tears.”
“How do I make this right?” Vaylin asked. Her eyes were pleading. Damn it all! She cared about the Twi’lek woman! Probably more than she cared about him, her own brother! No chance of her gruesome death for stepping out of line.
Arcann shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know, Sister. Father’s care didn’t allow me any more chances in learning about such things than you.”
Vaylin stood looking dejectedly. The Knight on duty stepped forward.
“Begging your pardon… High Justice?” the man asked. Vage, Arcann thought, but it was difficult to tell with their helmets on.
“Go on,” Vaylin prompted.
“I couldn’t help but hear… and I had some advice, if I may be so bold.” Vaylin nodded again and the Knight pressed on. “The best way to apologize is to confront what you’ve done wrong head-on. I suggest you ask Lady Akahte what precisely upset her, and ask for forgiveness, promise to never do it again. It's simple yet… I’ve found that it can sometimes be harder to apologize than it is to fight, but this is the only way.”
Vaylin looked dubious. “Really? That simple? Just… ask for forgiveness?”
“It should be, High Justice.”
Vaylin’s face cleared, and the colour began to return to her face. Giggling, she ran at the Knight and enfolded the surprised man in a tight embrace.
“Thank you so much!” She crowed, spinning the tall, armored man around in a circle before setting him down and dashing off.
“It’s possible you just saved my life. Thank you!”
The man giggled nervously. It’s also possible he thought his Emperor was joking.
The Endless Swamp
Koth did his best to get the probes working despite the many distractions the swamp had to offer. Batting away the swamp flies, trying to keep too much rain from covering his display, keeping an extra eye out for predators, and not stepping accidentally into hip-deep (or deeper) instead of ankle-deep water, all while trying to focus on a dozen probes was not the sort of vacation it sounded like.
Koth glared at the screen. “Well done, Koth. You just helped the greatest girl you ever found rescue her husband. Simply brilliant!” But he had already known that’s what he was doing. Reminded himself of the absurdity every day for the past year. Wrestled with it. And here he was, dealing with its success.
Here, in the swamp, and alone.
“So here I am, balls deep in the middle of the swamp, digging for treasure that only one Jedi can detect with his “feelings”. No one else can. Not even Valkorion. And I’m going along with it! Why? For Lana? Am I still fighting for Zakuul?”
He sighed. “I hate that Jedi. Shoulda left him frozen in Carbonite. Gotten Lana to give up on him. She didn’t owe him this much, did she? We could have just found another way to bring down Arcann! This Outlander, this “Arro”... such a fuckin prick!”
He almost roared those last words, giving in to utter frustration. He managed to light a cigarette, taking a few puffs to calm his mood.
Perhaps he was being unkind. He had said himself that Arro had saved countless innocent Zakuulans by stopping that reactor from blowing up. And the Jedi was clearly good with machines going by his familiarity with the speeders, and had a near spotless record as a warrior. And his integrity was already the stuff of legend.
It was the swamp, he told himself. The swamp and the mud and the rain and the bugs that were fouling his thoughts.
But still, he had seen how the two had looked at each other; they were both in need of the other’s embrace. He cringed at the mental image of the two letting their passions run wild.
He heard a rustle behind him, and pulled out his sidearm, spinning around, only to find a very non-threatening swamp turtle staring in askance at him.
“I don’t suppose I could trouble you for a bug repellent?” He asked the reptile. It only blinked in response. “I’ll take that as a no. That is a no, right?”
“Treasure Base” (Named by HK-55)
They had found a decent camp site near the site. The ground was hard and dry, covered by trees, and mostly lacking stones. Between himself and HK, the camp had been set up in less than half an hour, following which HK had insisted that Arro go to sleep immediately.
“Statement: You are still recovering from Hibernation sickness, Master! Not to mention that Carbonite poisoning that Master Beniko mentioned. You must rest. I will begin patrolling the area. You will be quite safe!”
Arro had only laughed. “As you say, HK. Thanks so much.”
He had been unable to sleep long, however. The Noise emitted by that Shatterpoint: it was so close that it filled his ears, the vibration of the flows at this fragile point made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The Shatterpoint dominated his senses, and so, he decided to surrender to it.
Still lying down, he closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. Stilled his thoughts. Immersed himself in the currents of the Force… The bond he shared with Lana grew keener, and across from her end he sensed Lana's unabashed smile, the kiss she sent him in response.
He distanced himself from his body, which was still in pain and very weak. From the distractions of the world around him. From the birds and the insects, the reptiles, the trees, the swamp itself.
For he was all these things, yet none of them.
He was one with the Force. Briefly. Then the disturbance created by the Shatterpoint shook him out of his trance.
He tried again, but this time he didn’t go in very deep. A shallow trance. He refocused on the Fracture. Beheld it in all its majesty, and marvelled. Such a wonder, the Force was! He suspected he could live for a thousand years, ten thousand, and still not comprehend its vastness, its secrets, its glory.
The Shatterpoint before him was massive enough to extend its cracks all the way till the edges of the galaxy, yet the Fracture itself was so tiny. The cracks emerged from below the ground and formed a massive tapestry. While standing right before the dig site, he had been overwhelmed by the magnitude. Here, with some distance-- both physical and in the Force-- he felt it slightly more clearly. He could sense its throbbing hum, see the many threads where they were at their most vulnerable-- for all the world appearing as though a passing butterfly might shatter the whole thing!-- and the beauty of the distorted flows. The threads stretched and twisted almost to infinity, yet none of them would move until the heart was struck. And he noticed, with some trepidation, that there was something in the heart that was almost alive.
Not alive, not exactly. But aware. And watching.
There was something in there, at the heart of the Shatterpoint, that was observing him, and it made him uneasy.
The Emperor lurked in the shadows of His former enemy's mind. There was something that the boy was sensing that He could not. Valkorion knew he had an extra sense, but not knowing what it was still troubled him.
I have been watching you for many years, now. You should have no secrets from Me .
But He tried to put that puzzle away for now, and instead pondered what it was the boy was hoping to accomplish. A millennium of living had given Him a keen instinct of when something big was about to happen.
Something was coming. But what?
The Eternal City
“Oh my dear little Vaylin,” Akahte said, returning her embrace. “It’s not your anger that hurt me. It was your return to what you were five years ago. Before we met. I thought that your hatred for Valkorion was stronger than your feelings for me. And that’s what hurt me.”
Vaylin, throat tight in dismay, couldn’t speak.
When she could, she whispered into her best friend’s shoulder, “It won’t happen again, I swear! I will never allow my hatred for that man undo everything the little peace I have found these five years with you! You are too precious to me!”
Koth lowered his cigarette when he heard a ping from one of the recon Droids.
It had found something.
Already? It wasn't even dawn yet!
A new enthusiasm spread through him as he kickstarted his speeder and began flying in the direction of the Recon Droid.
Chapter 16: The Grave
Then, at long last she looked around at her surroundings.
Belatedly she tasted the stale air of a chamber left untouched for centuries. It reminded her of her trials on Korriban, but this environment was far less disturbed.
The mood in the elevator was tense, not least because none of its occupants knew when it would end. This lift was old and though it still functioned well, it moved with a jerk every now and then. Matters were not helped by the fact that it was a closed box.
One or the other (Or more often, all) of the occupants hissed through their teeth in slight fear at every jerk, causing the general level of unease to rise until when the elevator finally reached its destination and the doors opened, all three sentients eagerly bolted out of the elevator, taking a moment to lean against whatever wall they could find and still their quaking knees.
Lana was surprised that none of them threw up. Sweating feverishly, she took and released slow, deliberate breaths to the count of six, and after what seemed like a lifetime, the pounding of her heart slowed and her limbs stopped shaking.
Straightening, she looked around at her companions; Koth was still trembling like mad, while Arro had sunk to the floor, suffering not only from anxiety but his other ailments as well. His pain flared through their link, and she cringed at the torment he had to endure; would continue to endure for the foreseeable future. HK was, of course, unperturbed, and was even now moving their provisions out of the elevator.
Settling down next to Arro, she gently took him into her arms and hummed one of the soothing campfire chants of the Rishi people, hoping it would offer him some comfort.
Then, at long last she looked around at her surroundings.
Belatedly she tasted the stale air of a chamber left untouched for centuries. It reminded her of her trials on Korriban, but this environment was far less disturbed.
By sentient beings, in any case. More than enough rodents and insects scurrying around, moss on the walls. But before its partial reclamation by nature, this place had once been a fairly well-equipped base; dim lights had flickered on when they had emerged from the elevator. Dim, but steady. Lana figured that it would be some time before they ran out of juice.
Beneath thick layers of dust and the occasional puddle, the floor had been flattened and smoothed using machines. Panels and computers lined the walls every so often. There were a few heavy loading vehicles around, some shuttles. Everything looked like it had been built to withstand humidity, dust, and pests.
But what dominated the base was a massive metallic construct; probably an ancient warship of some sort, as they had guessed. Lana guessed that even before it had been covered in dust and vines, it had been far from pretty. She couldn’t identify the aesthetic of the ship- she had seen nothing like it; not in Zakuul, not in the rest of the Galaxy.
But when she reached out through the Force, her senses immediately recoiled for a moment; as Arro had mentioned, there was something inside that thing that was watching, and aware. Something ominous.
Koth had tried not to hope for much, but was still disappointed by the apparent age of the ship they had found. “So of all the stuff you had to discover, it had to be an antique? Junk? Huh.”
One of the nearest panels had come alive. Koth squinted to read it. ““Welcome to the Grave,” it says. Cheery.”
“Does it say anything else?” Lana asked, her eerie hum trailing off.
“Only that those that came before scuttled this ship and abandoned this hangar on purpose.” Koth started before he continued. “They thought that this ship… that it was too powerful. Could it be-?” He turned his gaze to the grounded ship, then approached it with an awed expression.
Behind him, Lana resumed her humming lullaby.
Koth was not gone long, but it had been long enough for Arro to regain some awareness. He still couldn’t speak too loudly, so he weakly touched the tip of Lana’s nose with a forefinger to let her know that he was awake.
She snorted, her grip on him tightening, but she didn’t try to speak either. Instead, she continued the humming Arro thought he had heard before. Wasn’t that one of the Rishi tunes? The lay of the Night Guardian? He joined her in her humming, and soon their duet was softly echoing throughout the cavern.
“Would you two stop that humming?” Koth called as he emerged from the ship. “Especially in a Hangar called “The Grave”, it’s creepy!”
Arro and Lana both looked at Koth. Lana raised an eyebrow. “So what have you learned?”
“This isn’t just any ship. It’s the Gravestone !” Koth exclaimed in tones of hushed awe. “According to legend, this is the ship that went up against the Eternal Fleet, and won before it disappeared. Pacified the entire fleet, left it dead in space until Valkorion figured out how to reactivate the Throne over three centuries ago!”
Lana had evidently heard of the Gravestone before. “So this is it… I thought it had just been a story!”
“This is destiny,” Koth exulted. “Has to be! We find your Outlander, and he leads us straight to something that has already beaten the Fleet once!”
“According to legend,” Lana cautioned but her heart didn’t seem into it; that they discovered this kind of find exactly where Arro’s gift had led them was clearly proof enough for her. “What will it take to bring it back online?”
“Well, I had a word with the Ship’s Droid brain. There’s quite a bit of work to do. Luckily for us there is a complement of Maintenance Droids here. About a dozen. Also, we don’t need to get it fully repaired. We get power back on, restore engines, shields and Hyperdrive, maybe a few other systems, we can get out of here. Get the rest of the repairs done at a properly equipped hangar. Maybe three days?”
“So soon?” Lana was amazed.
“So soon,” Koth grinned.
It was a few hours before Arro was back on his feet. He had a modest breakfast from their supplies, looking around as he ate.
He reached out through the Force just long enough to note that the Shatterpoint had begun to rapidly fray, its strands growing even weaker and the cracks growing more brittle. With each passing moment, the force of its impending explosion grew.
Arro did not want to think of what he was unleashing upon the Galaxy so he turned away from any further study of the ship, and especially through the Force.
Instead, he joined the others in their efforts. Specifically, he looked for how they were going to get out of this hangar, and decided to explore the large tunnel leading out of the chamber. Wisely, he chose to take a speeder; the tunnel stretched almost fifteen kilometers. Someone had wanted this hangar to remain well hidden indeed, for the exit to be so far from the hangar.
The door panel didn’t need much to have its power restored and once it was, it opened to a massive curtain of water beyond; the opening was hidden behind a waterfall. Deploying a recon probe, Arro confirmed a drop of at least two hundred feet.
He chuckled, marveling at the effort it must have taken to build and then camouflage this Hangar. But on the other hand, it also filled him with dread, for whoever had built this didn’t want the ship to be used again; and yet wasn’t willing to destroy the ship outright.
Just what was the Gravestone? What secret lurked in the monster which was only vaguely ship-shaped?
Sighing, Arro shut the door and set up a remote switch so that they could reopen it without having to get out of the ship.
Koth was pleased with how quick the repairs were going. Even though he had told Lana himself that it would only take three days, it was still good to know that they wouldn’t have to linger here. Arcann was sure to be even now looking for them! Sure, they were underground for the moment, but he didn’t like the idea of digging in and hoping that they’d be forgotten. Lana wouldn’t either, though she was probably pragmatic enough to consider it an option.
It was almost dusk the next day that the first of the Skytrooper Patrols arrived in the area.
Koth and Arro had left the hangar to refill their water bottles. This elevator ride had been much easier than the ride down had been: mostly because they had all confirmed that it was solid construction. It would take a dedicated effort to bring it down. That had eased their minds; and they knew how long the trip would take, roughly.
“Not raining today,” Arro smiled at the sun. Blue skies, green plants: his favorite! Reminded him of Uphrades.
“Yeah, but of course that means the bug swarms are a lot thicker!” Koth complained, fruitlessly batting the air around him in the hopes of getting the bugs to leave him.
“Well then, lets ride then!” Arro said. “Speed will be enough to give us some respite.
Koth grunted in agreement, and within minutes they had gotten a speeder out of the elevator and were headed at top speed to the spring Lana had located.
They had just finished replenishing their water when they heard the sound of jet boosters: Skytroopers emerged from the gaps in the canopy. Taking only a few seconds to verify their targets, they opened fire.
Arro already had his borrowed lightsaber out; taking position in front of Koth he redirected the shots at the droids. Some shots missed, and the rest scored hits that were mostly absorbed by their armour.
Then Koth raised his rifle and answered with a volley of his own; he knocked three droids out of the sky and scored a headshot on the fourth. The fifth turned and attempted to fly away but Arro had Caught fragments of the disabled droid using the Force and used them as projectiles to destroy its head. Then he advanced on the downed droids, beheading them all in seconds.
“That was some fine work there!” Koth cheered approvingly. “I’ve seen Lana do that thing where you stop blaster bolts, but I do believe that you’re even better than she is!”
“We all have our strengths,” Arro smiled. “I can’t conjure a storm like she can! And she is quite a bit more powerful than I am.”
“No chance of you throwing a ten ton statue at me. Noted!” Koth chuckled.
"You said you've only seen Lana deflect blaster fire. Aren't the Knights proficient with that kind of thing?"
"Not that I've ever seen. They rely on their big-ass shields."
Expression turning more serious, he spoke again. “The Skytroopers have arrived here; their disappearance will be noted. We should expect more soon.”
“Wouldn’t they report back before engaging, when they find something?”
“Yeah, you’d think!” Koth scoffed. “But the fugitives they hunt are never capable of beating them. Normally, whatever the Skytroopers are chasing is at their mercy.”
When they were almost at the elevator again, Arro got a call on his holo. It was HK-55.
“Request: Please rendezvous at my coordinates at your earliest convenience, Masters. I require assistance.”
They found HK standing outside a small cluster of tents. There was a group of bedraggled humans cowering behind him, and a heap of still-smoking Skytroopers in front.
“What the heck is going on here?” Koth cried out angrily. “What did you do to them?”
“Protestation: I have done nothing to these pitiable Meatbags! They were merely bystanders when I dispatched a group of Skytroopers!” He nodded impressively at the pile of scrap. “Now, they are requesting our assistance in escaping the enemy’s notice.”
One of the humans, a small man who looked like he had lost a lot of weight from sudden change in living standards, was the first to speak up.
“Please, we are no danger to you! We were exiled for protesting Emperor Arcann’s war.”
A middle aged woman behind him sobbed silently. “They found our camp, and killed two of our friends before your Droid saved us. They will be back for us, I know they will!”
“Is there anything you can do to aid us?” the first man begged desperately.
“We’re repairing a ship that has room for all of you,” Arro said. “We can get you off this planet.”
The pure joy that bloomed on their pitiable faces at such a simple offer was heartbreaking. “You’re serious? Oh thank you, thank you!”
“Statement: I will escort them to the hangar, Masters. We should arrive in approximately fifty minutes.”
In fact, with night approaching the refugees weren’t able to set out immediately, only setting out at daybreak. And the swamp slowed their progress much more than HK anticipated; which means to say that he didn’t factor it in at all. It was almost late afternoon when they finally reached their destination, where they were attacked again by a patrol of easily dispatched Skytroopers.
“Statement: Welcome to “the Grave”,” HK announced cheerfully as he led them out of the elevator.
Chapter 17: The Attention of Immortals
The massive Shatterpoint that had guided him to the Gravestone in the first place… he was inside of it now. Inside, and able to see that the cracks and flows go deeper still, pointing to a more tiny critical point within the ship itself. But what was it?
It was a little past midday on the third day when Koth’s resounding cheers filled the comm channel.
“Good news, people; that’s the last of the repairs! The ship is good to go now, we can leave just as soon as HK arrives with those refugees!”
Lana was in the process of moving several dozen heavy crates using the Force when she heard the announcement. The crates landed in a very neat stack beside the wall, and clamps snapped shut to hold them in place.
She celebrated both the completion of the repairs and her display of fine control and strength in the Force with little more than a small self-satisfied smile and dusted off her gloves.
Arro, having just finished restoring power to an elevator in the very middle of the deck, responded with a small cheer of his own before returning his attention to the elevator.
The massive Shatterpoint that had guided him to the Gravestone in the first place… he was inside of it now. Inside, and able to see that the cracks and flows go deeper still, pointing to a more tiny critical point within the ship itself. But what was it?
He reached out to Lana through their bond, and gave a slight tug, requesting her company if she was willing. She was at his side in minutes, inside the elevator.
The elevator only connected two decks: That would make this easier. He keyed the panel and the elevator began to move. It came to a halt and the doors parted to reveal a corridor that was… Eerie.
The air was frigid, causing Arro to shiver. Mist formed at his mouth when he breathed. A thick fog swirled around him, partially hiding his surroundings from his eyes.
And all around him he heard whispers. Soft, patient and incessant. He could not make out the words, yet they didn’t sound malicious. In fact, they barely seemed to acknowledge his presence. Nervous, he reached out and took hold of Lana's hand at the same time she sought his. She squeezed his hand gently, reassurance that she wasn't going anywhere.
Together, they inched down the corridor, towards the source of the powerful Shatterpoint; each step hesitant, almost reluctant. After a period of time that felt like it should have been longer than it was, Arro and Lana reached the single large door opposite the elevator. It was almost as if time itself seemed to move more slowly down here.
The door opened and another thicker wave of fog rolled out of the room, enveloping them.
Shivering like a leaf, Arro stepped into the room.
And there, at the center of the fractured mass, he saw it.
A giant Monolith. Perhaps three times as tall as himself, and shaped like an oblong box. It almost looked organic--the surface was striated and tubular. They almost reminded him of the muscles of the heart.
And indeed the entire structure looked like one giant heart. Metal stubs protruded from the structure-- reminiscent of veins, and four spherical orbs protruded from the middle of the “Heart”, glowing amber. The orbs pulsated in rhythm, once more reinforcing his impression of a heart.
The Force shone through it, and it almost appeared as though the Heart was pumping the Force through the ship.
The analogy roused a shiver unrelated to the cold.
The closer they got to the Heart, the stiller the air grew, until they had gotten so close it was just within Arro's reach. For a few moments, the silence was absolute.
The Monolith seized them both, through the Force. Lana uttered a surprised yelp and Arro tried to reach for his borrowed Lightsaber, but they were both frozen in place by invisible restraints.
A thought reverberated through the air: Who comes ?
“You first,” Lana challenged, struggling as hard as she could to get free. “Who are you?”
A pause. Who am I? The voice was at once like the crack of a whip, yet the sound of flowing water. That’s quite a bold question! All you need to know for now is that I am the Heart of the Gravestone. It is my power that makes this vessel unrivaled in its destructive potential .
“A superweapon…” Arro whispered in horror.
No weapon can match the power of the Force. I am so much more! Like you, I am a child of the Force, but my link to it is deeper. I can unleash vast amounts of power to destroy anything that stands against you… if I choose to aid you. So tell me, children. Who are you? And why do you seek to wield my strength?
“My name is Arro, and this is my wife, Lana Beniko. I am of the Jedi Order, she of the Sith.”
And? Why did you seek me out?
“We didn’t exactly seek you out,” Arro responded. “I sensed something powerful here, something of many magnitudes stronger than anything else I’ve ever felt. I came to investigate. And to ensure that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.”
Oh? You’ve done more than investigate. You have repaired the ship; reawakened me. You need me.
“That’s true,” Arro admitted. “The Galaxy is suffering under the rule of a tyrant. The Republic and Empire were already exhausted after decades of war when Arcann led Zakuul’s navy on his conquest. Now, the tributes he forces upon them are beginning to starve entire worlds. I must stop him.” He hoped that the Heart wouldn't ask for more elaborate details on who's who. It didn't
What exactly are your goals?
“To end the war with Zakuul. To bring peace to the Galaxy. And to find a quiet place to retire with Lana.” He turned his head to look at her, and found her looking back, a small smile glowing on her face. He meant it; it was important for him to have some years, just for them. No galaxy, no mad cults or governments, no plotting, no wars...
And just what is peace?
“A time of... A time where all wars have ended.”
Fool. Wars never end. Entropy is the way of the universe. Survival of the fittest. Cessation of change is stagnation. Leads to rot and decay.
“Peace is a lie,” Lana recited reluctantly, almost unconsciously.
“Then perhaps I’ll start a war against war itself. Bring a time of healing, plenty, growth, security, and cooperation.”
Raucous laughter filled the air.
Indeed a great fool you are! Of the highest magnitude! One with such splendid delusions of grandeur! Your goals are so brazen, arrogant, and yet you still think you will have time left over for a quiet retirement…? How amusing! Nevertheless, you have piqued my interest. I will aid you. For now. Return to me once this “Zakuul” has been defeated. If it ever is.
Suddenly their restraints vanished and they were free to move again. The entire Shatterpoint exploded into mist and dissipated.
And be judicious in your use of my power. You will regret if you ever incur my wrath.
The couple stumbled out of the room. The whole corridor seemed to have returned to normal now. No more whispers, no more cold, no more sense of wayward time.
They both collapsed panting and gasping onto the floor, exhausted as though they had run miles through a snowdrift.
Lana’s comm was ringing urgently.
“Ye-” She paused as a coughing fit overtook her. “Yes, what is it?”
It was a very irate Koth. “Don’t you “Yes, what is it?” me! You two have been off comms and off my sensors for seventy eight minutes! Do you have any idea how worried I was? If you two want to take some time off to have sex, that’s all fine, but just going dark on me like that? I almost had a triple heart-attack!”
“We’re sorry, Koth,” Arro began.
“-But we were not having sex,” Lana said, voice cool. “We were exploring the ship, and… we met a new friend.”
“A new friend.” Koth’s voice was so dubious that Arro expected some of it to overflow across the channel. “Right. Will we be seeing them in about nine months?”
“Oh shut up!” Lana cried before the coughing fit stopped her again. Arro took up the thread for her. “The Gravestone is apparently powered by something that has a will of its own, something very strong in the Force. It was what I had been sensing, as much as the ship itself. We didn’t know what it would be, we just came down here to have a look. But it came alive, took us prisoner and had a chat with us.”
“Right,” Koth repeated, uneasily this time. “Right... Ooof…” He took a few minutes to let that dangerous--and probably quite ludicrous-- story sink in. “I’m hoping it was asking for a weather update, not forcing the two of you into its malevolent service?”
“It wanted to know what we wanted it for,” Arro said, shivering. “It offered to lend us its strength... for now. Warned us not to abuse its power.”
“So it’s not an insane evil entity?” Koth said, sounding relieved. “Well--uh... that’s a little better. Uhh-- Look, I understand that you guys weren’t expecting trouble down there, but could you at least keep me updated when in hostile territory, in case things go sour?”
Lana was halfway to the elevator, and Arro a few steps behind her, when time stopped again. Arro tensed. The Heart can’t want something else already, can it?
He didn’t want to have to check on this being any more than he had to.
He wasn’t so lucky: It was Valkorion this time.
“Well, it seems My curiosity in you certainly was warranted! All My years spent looking for the Gravestone and you find it like it’s nothing at all. Truly, you shake the foundations of the Galaxy wherever you go. And you have only just gotten out of carbonite!”
“Do you have any insights into... whatever the entity was that we spoke to back there?”
Valkorion shrugged. “Much as any myths and folklore have stories of extraordinary magical creatures, who boast magnificent special powers and are often the children of magic itself; so too, there are beings theorized to be born… of the Force. They have a bone-deep connection to the Force and don’t fully live in our world; therefore they cannot truly die. And they have astounding capabilities that the likes of you cannot hope to understand. This is one such. There are others; you may have heard of: the Whills, the Ones, the Architects, the Artists. What this being is, I cannot begin to guess unless it exerts its true self in our plane; As it is, it lives more in the Force than in our world.”
Arro nodded. He had noted Valkorion’s choice of words: “the likes of which you cannot hope to comprehend.” He did not for a moment buy that Valkorion understood it any better than he did. He also hid the suspicion that Valkorion was even more unsettled than he had been, unnerved by the existence of something potentially far stronger than him.
“I take it you have met one before?”
“No, I haven’t. I used to think that they were just fables” Valkorion said, strengthening Arro’s suspicion. “You have secured this one’s cooperation. For now. But heed its warning: do not overuse its powers. Not that you need them. If ever you find yourself in the time of need against my children-- simply ask, and I offer you my unlimited power.”
Valkorion moved to stand face-to-face with the Jedi who had twice killed him. “You may not believe Me; I wouldn’t, in your position. But you have greatly intrigued Me. And so, I intend to wait out your entire life before considering My rebirth. As I said before, time means nothing to Me. I could sit idly by as a thousand years passed. But you… your time here is limited. And no matter how powerful you are, you will eventually die, your name will be forgotten, your great deeds undone. Such is the way of time to mortals. But rest assured, I will remember you. You may go on to be the greatest hero the galaxy will ever see; or you might even now fail comically. Either way I will be entertained. And I will remember you until the end of time. Until the end of time! That is a better reassurance than anyone else will ever hear. Go now, and do what you do best!”
Arro felt the moment when time returned to its normal flow, and he stopped in his tracks. Lana took a few more steps before turning around. “What’s wrong?”
Arro sighed. “Another chat with yet another powerful, time-altering entity. Come on. I’ll tell you what Valkorion had to say on the way back up.”
Chapter 18: From the Grave
"I just need some time. Give me —”
“Don’t say three minutes!”
That last Skytrooper attack had been ordered to report their position before they attacked. Or so Koth believed. That was the most likely reason for their little hideout being discovered.
Rather than using the elevator, they had blown it up. They instead relied on their jetpacks to descend down the elevator shaft, and emerge through the ruined lift car that now sat on the bottom.
Arro was the first out of the ship to intercept them, Lana pausing to speak to Koth first.
“Can we take off yet?”
“Just need to take care of some preflight stuff. I just need some time. Give me —”
“Don’t say three minutes!” Lana interrupted, eyes flashing dangerously.
“Just buy me some time, okay?” Koth exclaimed.
Nodding, Lana turned to leave, shouting into her comm “HK, please stay and help Koth!”
The Skytroopers came in waves. But fortune was never on their side: Arro had walked out of many intense combat zones completely unscathed — such was his proficiency in the art of deflection. The Droids were being scrapped by their own deflected bolts. The initial wave had managed to take to the air in the hangar but the rest of them were increasingly pinned down in the elevator shaft, which was acting as a good choke-point. The piles of disabled Skytroopers formed another small obstacle for them to overcome, increasing the choke at the point. HK had returned to the ship after shooting down those that had been flying, but in his place now stood Lana.
This was remarkably easy; Even as Skytroopers reached the bottom, they were torn down by a hail of scrap metal; the severed parts of their disabled comrades accelerated by the Force served as a deadly scattershot. Those that made it outside were cut down by Arro’s blue blade.
Skytroopers attempted to compensate by dropping grenades into the shaft to clear the fallen droids, but Lana easily redirected the explosions upwards —not only did the blasts not clear the exit of the elevator shaft, they damaged the Skytroopers who had been dropping in after the grenades.
It wasn’t long before the elevator door was packed.
Behind Arro, the Gravestone started to come alive—albeit rather painfully; many parts stuttered and coughed up smoke and sparks, some circuits overloaded and a few areas on the hull actually witnessed tiny explosions. The engine began warming up too. They had to wait only a short while now…
And then the Knights arrived. Rather than pushing out the Skytrooper bodies blocking the shaft, they Pulled them out, using the Force. It would have probably taken a little longer for the Skytroopers to arrange for, say, an electromagnet to do the job.
Within a few minutes the door was clear and seven Knights landed neatly in the shaft. Pikes igniting, they charged forward in a single file. The first three were cut down by a hail of Skytrooper scrap.
The other four fell to Arro’s blade. One strike, one kill. Or rather, the first three kills were in reality caused by the one, lightning-fast, fluid, graceful motion—a single strike.
Shortly after, another eight Knights dropped in, each carrying their large shield.
Shrapnel wouldn’t work against them, so this time Lana held the broken parts in reserve for when she found an opening, and also to keep the Knights from using it. She hefted her own blade instead.
Arro had faced heavy troopers carrying shields into combat before, but resigned himself to the fact that this particular combination—Lightsaber Pikes, shields, and Force-users—was new to him.
Not that he expected to face anything he truly couldn’t handle—he was fairly confident in his swordsmanship. As soon as the Knights cleared the door, Skytroopers began to follow, lighting up the air with blaster fire as the Knights crouched low to reduce the chance of friendly fire.
Then they fanned out, trying to flank their enemies, then charged. Skytroopers; a dozen in number right now, poured out of the exit and likewise moved to flank their enemies; perhaps attempt to either enter the ship or open fire on it. Luckily, they hadn’t known to bring in the kind of rocket launchers or heavy cannons that could damage the armored vessel.
Arro lithely evaded a shield charge and took the first Knight’s head, and on his return swing he struck at the startled Knights whom he had flanked with his evasive maneuver; three Knights in total. The remaining Knights seemed shocked to have their numbers reduced in such an efficient manner and raised their shields in order to approach him more defensively. Skytroopers were firing relentlessly, allowing the Knights a little more breathing room than they normally would have had.
Still Arro was not too worried; all they needed was a few more minutes and then the ship would be ready—
“Ahhh man!” Koth’s voice sounded through his earpiece. “The docking clamps are malfunctioning again! And the repulsorlift engine is clogged!”
— okay this could be a problem. If these Knights could hold out long enough to keep Lana and Arro from freeing the ship, they would face increasingly larger waves of enemies. And it would get even trickier once he started to feel his symptoms...
And then another arrival shook the battlefield.
A speeder dropped down the shaft, and shot out. A figure backflipped off of it, sending it crashing into the Skytrooper Droids. The crash shook the platform, and most of the Droids and several of the remaining Knights were thrown off their feet. Lana used this opportunity to Crush all of the Skytrooper droids.
The driver leapt neatly over to Arro and Lana, wearing a white variant of the Knight’s armor and carrying a lit lightsaber with a cyan blade.
“You’re late!” Lana exclaimed, sounding relieved. “I was expecting you hours ago!”
Arro observed the newcomer, a woman who seemed to be in her sixties yet whose age hadn’t yet begun to hinder her mobility. “You got one of the Knights to switch sides?”
“Not all of us blindly follow Arcann,” the Knight said.
“You up to fighting your own, Senya?” Lana asked her.
“My issue isn’t with them,” the woman called Senya growled. “But if they’re going to stand in my way—” she raised her Lightsaber. A standard saber, not a pike.
The Knights before her blanched visibly, and one called out, “Lord Commander? You stand with the Outlander?”
“I stand against tyranny,” she snarled. “Something that Arcann and Vaylin seem to enjoy. I stand for what Zakuul is supposed to be! And we all know by now that the Outlander was not the enemy.”
“We are sworn to defend the Emperor—” another Knight spoke in a trembling voice. “Absolute loyalty to the Eternal Throne. That’s our oath!”
“What of your oath to us?” It was one of the refugees who Arro had extended the offer of protection. Two of them had stepped out, unarmed and terrified but resolute. “Weren’t the Knights sworn to protect the innocents as well? Yet so many of us were rounded up, or exiled, or executed! And the Knights aided the persecution! What happened to your oaths of honour, and chivalry?”
“The Outlander protected us,” the other whispered through tears. “Offered us shelter, protection. A way off this world! But you abandoned us!”
That seemed to shake the Knights.
“You may retreat now,” Arro told them quietly. “Tell them you were overwhelmed, and think about what Janek and Sera said. Question whether you are doing the right thing. We don’t want to kill you.”
The Knights looked at each other, braced themselves and threw down their shields. Four of them removed their helmets.
“Outlander,” a woman addressed Arro. “I heard from my friend, head Technician Zurah… did you really risk your life to shut down that reactor?”
“Yes. It was him.” Lana looked so proud of him that Arro blushed. Senya looked round at him in surprise and admiration.
“You… coordinated so many of them, rerouted massive amounts of power without accidents, allowed Zurah the time she needed to shut down the reactor… all while being on the run?”
“Yes,” Arro said.
The Knights all looked at each other. The unmasked Knights stepped forward. “If you are fighting for peace… to end Emperor Arcann’s tyranny… then we join you as well.”
Then the remaining Knights stepped forward. “Please don’t make us regret this.”
Koth watched the feed in amazement as Arro, Lana, and the Knights who had switched sides all stood in a single row on the platform—and as one raised their hands, shoulder height.
There was a deep shudder, a straining noise, and the docking clamps disengaged. Then the ship itself started to tremble and rise, picked up by the Force no doubt.
“They’re actually doing it! Can you believe this?”
“Statement: the Ship is rising. Conclusion: belief is not required.”
Koth shook his head at the bodyguard droid. “Glad you worked that out!”
Koth quickly hit a few buttons and within seconds the repulsorlift engines were able to expel the mud and water that had been clogging them, and the ship began to rise on its own power.
“Hop on aboard, people! We’re ready to get moving!”
Somewhere in the swamp, kilometers away from where the Skytroopers and Knights were mustering, an ancient vessel emerged from behind a waterfall and made a dash for space.
“Would you look at this?” Koth looked ecstatic. “My Gravestone can move!”
“You’ve outdone yourself Koth!” Arro congratulated him over the channel. “I mean, thinking of how it was when we found it, how little time we needed for repairs…”
“Team effort!” Koth replied, beaming. “We’ve all outdone ourselves!”
“Watch out up there,” one of the Knights said. “It will take time for this primitive computer to calculate our route through Hyperspace. Arcann might be able to call for some ships to stop us if he’s already near the Throne.”
“Copy that!” He acknowledged. Her voice… he couldn’t tell for certain, but was that Duty?
And sure enough, as they cleared the outer atmosphere, his sensors read incoming.
“He didn’t call some ships… he called in a lot of them!”
Chapter 19: Shot Fired
Vaylin spoke up. “Ugly ship!”
Arcann stared at the display. “Take it!” he ordered his fleet.
Arcann had been bewildered by the activity. A squad of troops had reported an underground base, and he had hastily sent in several more waves of Skytroopers, and a dozen Knights to confront them, scrambling to send in more.
Then without warning, another alert had been issued over ten kilometers away; a large ship had been spotted clearing the atmosphere. It was fortunate that the Eternal Fleet was so easy to mobilize, otherwise…
Arcann shuddered. But it didn’t matter. He had them now. He had only managed to scrounge up three hundred and seventy ships, but that should be more than sufficient.
Akahte and Vaylin took up their places next to him as Vaylin spoke up. “Ugly ship!”
Arcann stared at the display. “Take it!” he ordered his fleet.
Arro sat in front of the Control Console of the Gravestone’s primary weapon. He was nervous; he still had no idea what the Gravestone could do. Given that it was powered by an ethereal being, and likely drew upon the Force, he imagined it would be… highly potent.
This would be the first weapons demonstration.
May the Force have mercy on me.
Koth spoke through the comm channel, voice tense. “This weapon, this “Omni-canon”... it’s hot. We’ve got a Capital Ship in our sights!”
“Here goes nothing,” Arro whispered and commenced weapon powerup sequence.
The HUD lit up, marking not only the targeted ship, but several score more ships around it.
The ship around him hummed to life. It shuddered and shook. Metal strained as the whole ship felt like it was bracing itself for what was coming. The massive generator at the bottom of the ship worked furiously, coughing up smoke and tiny explosions yet steadfast in its job of focusing energy.
The systems monitored a massive buildup of power and he heard a long musical note, building up in its intensity as the power grew.
The energy was massive, but not even close to what he had feared. Not yet. But then, Arro allowed that the ship wasn’t fully operational, and might not yet be able to unleash more than a fraction of its power.
Then the shot was fired and Arro felt a screech in the Force that made him cup his ears in a futile attempt to muffle it.
“Target down!” Koth crowed. “Wait… five targets. Ten. I can’t keep up!”
The blast had hit the lead ship, then refracted and scattered—at least that’s how it seemed to him—emerging from several points on the center of the ship. It hit three more ships before arcing out again, seeking even more ships. A cascade of explosions ensued, spreading like wildfire across the display and swallowing ship after ship.
The Force sang shrill; each split of the beam was guided by it, empowered such that the fifth jump had nearly as much power as the initial blast. This was the Gravestone’s secret: it guided a powerful beam of energy using the Force, each beam hitting a target splitting into three more streams, seeking out even more. It was built for a target rich environment. If it could do this to a fleet, then it could too, to an army, or a city.
And it seemed like the blasts went on until someone released the trigger. Like some automatic rifle. Insane!
Shaking all over, Arro hurriedly slammed the switch to end the stream, then stood back to take in the dying explosion. It seemed only a few of the ships opposing them had been spared. The rest were disintegrating husks.
“It’s real!” cried a jubilant Koth. “We can take the whole fleet!”
“Statement: coordinates locked, Hyperspace route set.” HK reported.
“Why didn’t you say so? Alright let’s get out of here!”
The starfield exploded into the familiar streaks of light and again into an ocean of blue as the ship jumped into hyperspace.
This is so much more than evading a manhunt. I suppose I’ve just officially declared war on the Eternal Empire .
Arcann had watched in interest as the decrepit ship’s shields had somehow managed to absorb a concentrated volley from three hundred and seventy ships.
Astounding! He had never before seen such powerful shields!
Still, it was only a matter of time before they failed, then the fugitives would be at his mercy.
Then sensors began to pick up a massive buildup of energy in the ancient ship. It began to glow brightly, then fired a single shot.
Next to Vaylin, the Twi’lek Sith fell on her knees shrieking and grabbed her skull, as though hit by some massive sonic boom. Vaylin dropped down beside her, but Arcann’s attention was drawn back to his display. That one shot had split into three, again and again six times, igniting not just one ship, but almost the entire fleet, and then the rogue vessel had disappeared. Made the jump into Hyperspace.
It took a few moments for the damage report to come up.
“Three hundred and sixty four ships… in a single shot?” Arcann was alarmed.
“So that’s the Gravestone!” Vaylin said from where she knelt beside her friend, who was panting, but clearly feeling better. “It’s as powerful as they say!”
“You know that monstrosity?” Nox whispered. Tears seemed to have sprung up from whatever had hit her. She seemed to have difficulty finding her balance, even sitting, and her nose was bleeding profusely. “What was it?”
“An almost mythical ship,” Vaylin whispered. “Said to have defeated the Eternal Fleet once before. I didn’t know it was real!”
“It drew on the Force!” Nox announced in tones of utmost seriousness. “There are limits to what technology can do, but something that can use the Force! I felt a massive disturbance when it fired, like a sonic boom… that thing is a huge threat to anyone!”
“How did he even find it?” Arcann wondered, dumbstruck. “That hidden base was reportedly in the middle of nowhere!”
“I’ve told you this before,” Nox said. “Arro seems to have one of those special Sights. Something so powerful in the Force? He probably sensed it the second he was in the swamp. Maybe sooner. Now this Jedi—war veteran, hero, blademaster—he has it. And he has your Father’s support, for whatever reason. Whatever’s coming our way, it will be tumultuous.”
Vaylin’s face had gone white with rage. No… was it horror? It couldn’t be.
Arcann, himself, collapsed into his Throne. He was suddenly feeling dizzy. Weak. Panicking. Nothing seemed real right now… like that time he had killed Thexan, he was feeling overwhelmed.
“This is Emperor Arcann to all commands. High alert! We are in a state of war!”
Chapter 20: Love in a Time of War
“So… Lord Commander Senya Tiral! You’re ‘Duty’?” Koth looked more than a little intimidated.
“Lieutenant Commander Vortena. Charmed.” Senya responded in a neutral voice.
“Senya here has been working with me since the bombardment of Koru Neimoidia,” Lana informed them. “Where a hundred and seventeen thousand innocents were killed as punishment for a large protest.”
“That was almost the year the war ended! She’s been with you that long?”
“Yes.” Senya answered. “Lana had already been searching for her husband for a year; even with a war going on. On top of everything else, I was seized by how romantic the idea was. Oh, on that subject Lana--”
“Yes I remember our bargain,” Lana said, blushing crimson.
“I get to write a song about your epic search for your lost love.” Senya said, in tones of deepest satisfaction. “You will provide me with the cliff-notes as soon as we reach Asylum.”
The whole room burst out laughing; Koth, the eight Knights of Zakuul and even TeeSeven.
“Indeed that does sound romantic!” Knight Wodar said. “May we see it when you’re done, Commander?”
“What? No!” Lana screamed at the same time Senya toothily grinned, “Oh Yes!”
In response to Lana’s look of utmost horror, she arched an eyebrow. “What did you think this would turn out? Of course I’m going to sing my most epic love song for the whole galaxy to hear.”
Lana stood with her mouth open for a moment, then composed herself. She shrugged, appearing suddenly carefree. “Oh well, I did get Arro back, so totally worth it. The things I do for love!”
To which everyone laughed again. Everyone except Arro, who looked supremely happy and touched, lips moving wordlessly for a few seconds.
“Come here, you!” He choked, pulling her into a tight bear hug, to which the Knights cheered.
So good to see everyone so happy!
“So you’re Arcann and Vaylin’s mother?”
“Yes. And Thexan’s too, of course.”
Arro looked around to find that he wasn’t the only one who was surprised; Koth and seven of the Zakuul Knights had looks of varying levels of stupefied. Only Lana and the eldest Knight, Comar were unsurprised.
He had decided to tell them about Valkorion’s presence in his head. Lana, who had taken a stance of full disclosure among allies since Rishi, had been relieved by his decision. After his story, Senya had fired off a confession of her own.
“So you expect us to believe that you’d fight against your own children?” Koth glowered.
“I can’t deny my responsibility for what Vaylin and Arcann have become. I have to end their bloodshed.”
“But you … You were the Emperor’s consort!” Farya, one of the Knights who seemed to be as old as Lana, said. “Or were you the Lord Commander first?”
“I was Captain of His Honor Guard when He noticed me.” Senya said, eyes staring off into the distance. “I suppose I caught His attention by being unafraid to speak my mind. He was fascinating. Bold. Always completely certain of his next step. What we had wasn’t a child’s notion of romance. But we were happy!” She looked wistful, tears welled up in her eyes.
“Uh-huh.” Koth was looking even less certain. “So when are you going to convince us that you aren’t working for them?”
“Koth-!” Lana admonished.
“I’m serious! You say she was working with you almost from the start? Well she still hounded me and my crew for years! Hunted us like animals!”
“I had my orders,” Senya said smoothly. “I considered resigning earlier, but I had already given Lana my word. When I was told to capture deserters who had abandoned their posts, I had to make it look good.”
“Make it look good?” Koth said, looking less afraid and more angry with each word. “You almost killed several of us, before we managed to shake you off! Dozens of times!”
“Yet I didn’t. And believe me Vortena, if I was trying, most of your crew would have died in those first two encounters. Instead, I made you all realize the importance of keeping your head down.”
“This was before you and I even met,” Lana reminded him. “The two of you were hardly on the same side.”
“Indeed,” Senya affirmed. “The only reason I was so lenient was because I sympathized. What you did… sparing civilians, disobeying a direct order to do so. I admired that. But if it wasn’t me hunting you, it would be someone else. Someone who wouldn’t hesitate to kill every last one of your command. I promise to earn your trust as we work together. May I continue?”
Koth mulled her words over in silence. He nodded.
“When Arcann and his twin Thexan were born, I loved them so deeply! But no matter what I did, they wanted nothing to do with me; and Valkorion wanted nothing to do with them. His mind was somewhere else. He didn’t speak to us for weeks at a time. And then Vaylin was born. She was troubled from the start.”
“She possesses such raw power…” Wodar said. “She must have manifested at quite a young age! Been difficult to manage.”
“Oh you have no idea!” Senya said. “She was powerful, but volatile! She made furniture move when she was still in the womb. Scrapped droids as a toddler. A guard dropped a ball she tossed and she crippled him. I begged Valkorion to help her, and to help his sons; but His solution was to lock her up and train her to obey like some animal.” The memories brought an expression of resurfacing old pain to her lined face.
“Vaylin showed me her scars,” Arro said softly. “What was done to her was monstrous…!”
Senya sniffed. “The rest of us he ignored outright. I couldn’t bear to see what was happening, so I gathered the children and tried to leave. The boys laughed, called me weak! Even as children they were more powerful than I was by far. I couldn’t force them to go! And Vaylin… in the few short days she was being tortured, she changed completely! When I tried to break her out of her prison, she looked at me… it was so cold. So hateful... So hurt. She would rather submit to her father’s minions than go anywhere with me for betraying her. So I left” Tears poured down Senya’s cheeks.
“Lord Commander,” Comar said. His companions looked shaken and Cana was clutching her head. “We didn’t know… did the Emperor really do that to His own blood?”
“Wasn’t His first time,” Arro assured them. Turning back to Senya he said “I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for you.”
Weeping silently, Senya took a moment to speak again. “It was better than staying there, helpless. I transferred to the Outer fringes of our Empire. Worked my way up on my own. Valkorion never spoke another word to me. Since then, I’ve only seen my children in broadcasts of public events. Like Thexan’s funeral. I doubt they even remember me. But I will always love them. And that is why I have to help now.”
Everyone around the table had expressions of varying horror and sorrow. Even Koth. One by one, they all nodded.
“I’m sorry, Senya,” Lana whispered. “I didn’t know it got that bad. If I did… I’m sorry. I wish I had been there for you, in these last five years.”
“Thank you, Lana,” Senya laughed shakily. “But I wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. That changed after what Arro told us about Valkorion. Saying that even today, He still remembers me; still cares. Since I know better than most what he is, I can’t believe how happy that makes me.”
Lana was thankful that there were still so few of them on the ship; This meant that they could have their pick of the Officers quarters. She and Arro had of course jumped at the chance for whatever time alone they could get together before they reached Asylum. And she had waited five years to be with him again—their brief romantic date in the Eternal City had been far too fleeting. Soon she and Arro would have to return to saving a Galaxy apparently too helpless to trek on without them. But for now she wanted to spend time alone with her husband and damn the Universe if it tried to get in their way!
“Mmmhhhhh-!” Lana moaned as she shared a desperate kiss with Arro. He purred in her arms, as eager for her lips as she was his. Had it truly been five years? It had felt like an eternity! How many nights had sleep found her yearning for this feel? His fingers gently ran through her hair, traced her ear…
And at the psychic level, their minds had met, joined—almost fused into one single entity. They quite literally shared each others passion. Each kiss sent a wave of intense emotion surging through them both—echoing to and fro across their bond, amplifying until every moment was pure heaven.
Breaking off the kiss, Lana quickly hoisted off her robes as Arro did the same. She led him to their bed and as she lay down, Arro leaned in and kissed the hollow of her neck—where the nasty scar that normally hid behind her scarf was. The sensation of warmth brought another moan through her lips and her arms wrapped tightly across his head for the moments before he worked his way higher and their lips met again.
They made love twice before she collapsed on top of him, fully content for the first time in years. For the next ten minutes they just lay there panting, catching their breath in silence. He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it softly. “I love you so much!”
“I wish we could just stay here—forever and ever!” Lana remarked. She suddenly felt a little selfish. Surely, the Galaxy didn’t need them? Accomplished people though they both were, they were by no means unique. Others could rise to take their place in this fight. Hadn’t they given enough? They had both suffered, endured and vanquished powerful threats to the Galaxy. Surely they deserved a quiet retirement?
And it had survived for millennia before they were born, seen plenty of catastrophes and upheavals, and it was still here. And most of the worlds-shattering events that had probably seemed so pressing in their time were barely even remembered today. Why did they have to bother at all?
She firmly pushed aside her momentary frustration. If nothing else, she had given her word to people she valued. People like Theron, Koth, Senya, and Shara. For that reason alone she would give her all for their mad venture, just as she had promised.
“Once the Eternal Empire is overthrown I want to retire somewhere quiet, like we wanted to before Ziost.”
Arro was quiet for a moment. “I’m afraid we don’t have that choice, my Love. I have tried to ignore it before, but I have this feeling… Ours is an unending battle. This is our destiny. I’m sure you have felt it as well.”
Lana recoiled sharply. “ Fuck that!” She felt a white-hot rage course through her blood. “We don’t owe anyone that much commitment! The Force is my servant—and yours—not the other way around!” She sat up in the bed, hands trembling and balled into fists.
Arro looked unsurprised by her vehemence. But still terribly desperate and sad. “The Galaxy has been at war for half a century now. People are tired, all worlds ravaged. Once we defeat Arcann, deal with the Eternal Fleet, there will be a power vacuum to fill. And that could escalate. We have to make certain that the Republic and Empire don’t just return to their own conflict.”
He sat up as well, looked her straight in the eye. “In the previous war we were soldiers, We had the luxury of looking only at the short run. But we are the leaders in a war now. Once we seize the throne, it will be our responsibility to fill the void. To foster peace, however brief.”
“No,” Lana implored. “Please! I can’t do this for much longer, Arro! Haven’t I told you? Even during the Revanite incident, when Darth Arkous—whom I deeply trusted—betrayed us… betrayed me … that alone was enough to make me yearn for quiet… And then we had to fight Revan, spent months tracking and thwarting his cult! After what I did to Theron I was on my last legs, and all I wanted was peace; to leave this life behind forever. Yavin was supposed to be the end, but then the Emperor came back, and Ziost happened and our wish kept getting postponed-!” she was on the verge of tears, breathing hard so as to not lose control.
She looked back at him. “Please Arro… The only thing that has kept me going all this time is the hope that we can have our quiet little life. I can’t bear the thought of doing this forever!”
Arro was silent, and he also seemed deeply upset. Not with her, but with the strings of fate. He took her in his arms. “If that’s what you want, then so be it my Love,” she pulled back in disbelief and stared at him. “I mean it.” He assured her. “You are more important to me than the rest of the Galaxy combined. It can live on without us after all, right? I was ready to leave the Jedi and the Republic behind to be with you before. I will do so again, and won’t regret it one bit. After we lead our coalition to victory, I promise—”
“No!” Lana interrupted him. What had come over her? Was she truly so desperate for peace that she was willing to turn away not just herself but her husband as well from their path?
Peace? Her? She was Sith ! Peace is a Lie! Of course her life was going to revolve around conflict and power. And Arro’s too! Jedi though he was he understood the way of things.
“Forgive me, my husband,” She said, more clearly. “I suppose I was just feeling the weight of these last ten years. It has all been so much—!” She took deep, steadying breaths. “You will face your destiny, and I will always be at your side. After all, it’s not peace that I want—it’s you!”
“Are you sure about this Lana?” Arro looked at her uncertainly.
“Positive.” She affirmed. She meant it with every fiber of her soul. He gave her a smile. Terribly sad, but relieved as well. “Thank you so much, Lana.”
Chapter 21: Asylum
Lana walked out of the shower to find that Arro had already fallen asleep. He looked so peaceful! She chuckled softly, taking it in for a second. She walked up to him and placed a gentle kiss on his cheek, getting a whiff of the mint-essence soap they had both used. It had only been six days since his rescue, so it still brought a thrill to see him alive, well, happy, and free. Given the circumstances of their relationship they were already geared away from taking each other for granted; but having lost each other for five whole years she suspected that it would be some time before she got used to the sight of him.
She chose a red plaid shirt and loose fitting swamp-green pants for a change, since it had been ages since she had truly felt secure enough to walk around without her armor. Her Lightsaber, of course, was never out of her reach anymore.
As she made her way to the bridge, Senya emerged from her own cabin down the hall and grinned at her. “Morning Lana. Sleep well? Or at all? I imagine last night was the first time you two had time to properly celebrate your reunion.”
Lana’s answering smile was arranged to convey just how happy she was, since words alone wouldn’t suffice. “I can’t even begin to describe how happy I am right now. Arro’s out of his prison, and he’s safely away from his captors despite the odds being so heavily against us. And when I was with him the past few days, just being in the same room as him, talking to him, laughing with him… it felt so damn good! Sex has never felt that great before either.”
Senya giggled, elbowing Lana in a comradely fashion. “You’ve earned it little girl! I’m so pleased for the both of you; I can’t believe I actually had a part to play in the most romantic kind of story there is!”
“And now I will keep my word and help you all out against the Eternal Throne. I believe I got the sweetest bargain in history.”
Senya threw her head back and laughed heartily at that, and Lana joined in. “You know, Lana, looking at you one would never guess what a romantic you are. Or how open. You look quite the opposite. Like you’re reserved and secretive. In most ways you are even a staunch pragmatist. But in dealing with allies and interpersonal relationships you are much more open. Especially given how every last one of the other Sith I have encountered are like. It always amazes me.”
Lana smiled sadly. “Well, there is a reason for that. But I can’t bring myself to talk about it in depth. In summary though: In the days leading up to the second outbreak of open hostilities, and during the war itself, I worked with Intelligence. There were so many secrets, lies, betrayals. I tried to leave it all behind, but even as late as Rishi, I was still keeping secrets. Using my allies. But that last time was too much for me. I swore I would always be honest and open with my allies at the very least. I never want to be that woman again.”
“I understand,” Senya patted her back sympathetically. “We all have things we don’t want to talk about.”
They had reached the Bridge. The door opened, revealing Koth and Knight Farya arguing light-heartedly about guns
“C’mon girl, you know the M-96 Mattock has a much higher fire rate!” Koth was laughing “And almost a third as light too. Chugging a Zaber around is tiring work!”
“But the Zaber’s Explosive Heads pack enough of a punch to make your target’s ears ring,” Farya argued. “And that’s when they block it with their shield! When it hits the body... I’ve seen a marksman headshot a Swamp Maworr that was charging at his buddy from three hundred meters away; that thing’s head exploded! Deadly, and so accurate too! The weight actually absorbs some of the recoil! And they’re so powerful they have to be custom-made for their bearers.”
“Oh, sure, sounds good for a pampered rich kid” Koth responded disparagingly. “But the M-96 is a true veteran’s choice! It’s larger magazine allows us to fire a lot more rounds before running out!”
“I’m glad to see you two getting along,” Lana remarked.
“Farya’s great!” Koth beamed. “Whoda thought that Knights were such purveyors of fine arms?”
“Vortena kinda knows his weapons too,” Farya grinned. “I am suitably impressed.”
“Did you sleep well?”
Lana gave them her warmest smile in response, making them both blush.
“So when do we reach Asylum? And how’s the ship holding up?”
“Three more hours in Hyperspace,” Koth answered. “Hyperdrive worked well. Once. Omnicannon worked. Once. We can start working on repairs once we’re docked. I reckon we’ll need to requisition a lot of technicians, droids, parts, and heavy machinery. With a standard workforce it should take... Maybe a month to get it fully operational, two tops?”
“That should be fine,” Lana answered. “TeeSeven is interfacing with the ship, acquainting himself with the Droid brains. He should have a good working synergy with the ship’s main computer soon enough.”
“Hell, that droid’s so good he’s done already, getting himself an oil-bath now.” Koth said incredulously. “I still can’t believe he found us in the middle of the Swamp and got onto the ship without any of us noticing!”
“On the subject of capable Droids, where is HK?”
“He’s offered to help the refugees learn some basic tasks on the ship; and to keep them safe from any lingering infestations.”
Lana nodded approvingly. “Once we get to Asylum we can take some time, stretch our legs. We can resume our last meeting. We can drop the disguise filters since we’re on Asylum now.”
“What about Arro?” Senya asked.
“He is still recovering, so we can’t expect him to fight Arcann, Vaylin, and Akahte all by himself. Yet. But he can meet the others, start familiarizing himself with the Leadership and the makeup of the Alliance.”
“In other words, if we get to fight on our terms, Arro can beat all three? I find that hard to credit!”
“You’ve yet to see him at his best,” Lana assured them. “His display yesterday was still a fraction of what he can do.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Senya said. “But Arcann and Vaylin are mighty enemies. And this Akahte… by all accounts she held her ground admirably against Vaylin herself. The three of them together…!”
“In the right circumstances there won’t be time for much use of the Force. In Saber combat, he is peerless. He could take down all three before they could react. But Akahte knows this, and she will never face him directly, if she can help it. Which is why we need the Alliance in the first place; so that we can create the most perfect opportunities we can, to face them in and not just point him in the general direction of the enemy and say ‘Get em, boy!’”
“Even Valkorion feared facing him head on,” Senya conceded. “On that subject, I believe Valkorion when he says that he does not plan to take over, and that he sincerely wants to aid Arro. For now.”
“Then why offer his power at all?” Lana asked. “Why not just sit back and watch?”
“Valkorion might see Arro as being worthy of His powers since he beat Him in fair combat.”
“The Immortal Emperor—” Fariya started uncomfortably.
“Don’t, Fariya. You don’t know Him like I did.”
“Try sharing a little less,” Koth laughed.
“That… wasn’t what I meant!” Senya said, face reddening. “What I mean is… He’s not some God. He was a man, and far more cruel than noble. To the rest of the Galaxy, he’s an outright monster.”
The junior Knight shivered. “That will take some getting used to, Lord Commander. For us all.”
“Take all the time you need,” Senya assured her. “It’s not my Husband we’re fighting against, it’s—well. It’s my children.”
“There it is: Asylum!” Koth pointed at the forward Viewport. It was a blue world with a big moon. From the flashes all over the planet, it appeared that the world was prone to lightning storms. “One of the depressingly few places in Wild Space which is still free of Arcann’s control!”
“That Shadowport isn’t on any map,” Lana said. “It’s a haven for refugees fleeing Arcann’s regime.”
“I can’t wait for you to meet my crew,” Koth grinned. “They’ll be so happy to see you! And one of them claims he’s already met you, so you can finally put an end to the question whether or not he was making it all up!”
“Does he say I owe him money?” Arro asked, much to Lana’s amusement.
“Do you owe money a lot of people?” Knight Khoarad asked, as he entered the bridge leading his comrades Wodar and Jettarn. All of the Knights had discarded their Zakuul armor, at least until they could modify them in some way to reflect their new allegiance.
“The Jedi aren’t supposed to own anything,” Lana gasped, struggling to breathe from her laughter. “They usually draw funds from a collective treasury when they need to pay. Trouble is, those funds are only good in Republic space, and to a lesser extent, Hutt space. Sometimes though, they’re worthless, and have to rely on goodwill, barter, or—most often—for non-Jedi comrades to pick up the tab. Which means that at any given point of time, they owe money to a half the galaxy!”
“I’ve repaid my debts,” Arro said defensively as the others roared with laughter. “Mostly.”
“And still tens of thousands in debt, no doubt!” Lana chortled. “Oh, don’t worry about it, my Love! I’m sure most of them have forgotten by now!”
Arro gave a pained chuckle. He should never have asked.
The ship shuddered as it entered the upper atmosphere of Asylum. The familiar bzzt of the atmospheric shields protecting the ship that Arro normally took for granted were a great relief to hear; given that this had been a derelict ship a week ago, he was afraid of critical systems malfunctioning when used even though he had triple checked each of these. All the more important since they were attempting to enter during a lightning storm; the flashes left deep dark after-images in his eyes and the thunder made his teeth click.
The Landing systems, however, were far from perfect and required a fine handling which Koth didn’t seem to have. The Gravestone all but crashed into the dock.
“That’s it, Koth, as soon as we get a better pilot you’re relegated to cheerleading duty!” Senya admonished.
“My landing in the swamp was better than this,” Arro complained.
“You’re welcome!” Koth glowered. “And welcome to Asylum Kiwiboy!”
“Don’t I get a welcome too?” Farya pouted.
“Welcome to Asylum Farya.” Koth replied, hastily adding “And all you others too!” before each person called him out for forgetting them.
As they emerged from the ship’s main boarding ramp, a group of rough-looking thugs walked up menacingly to intercept them.
Probably not happy with Koth’s landing, Arro thought. “We don’t want any trouble people.”
“That’s a shame, cuz trouble just walked right up to yeh!” The apparent leader, a particularly tall and muscular human male said with a wide grin. Cracking his knuckles, he added “Nice ship you got there. We’ll be coming on board.”
“Please don’t make us fight,” Arro groaned. “It feels like that’s all I’m ever doing! Just for once, can I be welcomed like a friend? Or at least without knuckles and guns, or something?”
“Heh heh heh! Wish granted!” the tall man boomed, slapping him hard on the shoulders. “Welcome to our little haven, half-pint!”
Half-pint ? Arro thought indignantly even as he was confused by the sudden shift in demeanor. The man turned his wide grin to Arro’s side and bounded forward, roaring “Captain!”
“Outlander,” Koth said as he returned the man’s bear hug. “Meet my crew, the best Engine Burners in WIld Space?”
“Is that your official name?” Arro asked with interest and Senya said “‘Captain’? Did you promote yourself after deserting?”
“‘Engine Burners!’,” a woman with shoulder-length, electric blue hair barked. “We could work with that!”
“This is Len,” Koth said, introducing the giant. “My Second-in-Command. Blue here is Tora, the best engineer you’ll ever meet!”
“Wrong!” She declared. “The best Engineer… EVER BORN!” She struck a pose for effect before dropping her arms to her side again. “This is one fugly ship, bossman I can have it scrapped in just a few moments, I don’t think we’ll find anything interesting in that piece of junk.”
“Your best Engineer,” Arro said cheerfully. “Tora, like Koth, you will be kept as far away from important tasks on the Gravestone as we can possibly keep you!”
Tora’s face froze midway into the expression of outrage she was about to assume when she heard Arro’s words. “The
? This piece of crap?”
The others were also stunned into silence. As one, they looked to Koth, who nodded impressively. Like a proud salesman showcasing his prize ware, he indicated the ship behind them. “She may not look like much, but that’s coz we pulled her out of her grave in the Eternal Swamp and only just put some life into her! But even this was enough to take out hundreds of Eternal Warships! Wait until we have her fully operational!”
The silence stretched for almost a minute before the Engine Burners began cheering wildly. They began to talk all at once when they were done applauding. “How did you find it?”, “I wanna take er for a spin NOW !”, “Hundreds of ships?”, “I heard that was from a reactor blowing!”, “The Gravestone !”, “The GRAVESTONE !”, “We’re gonna win this, you hear? We’re gonna win this!”
Arro disengaged from the throng along with Senya and Lana, leaving Koth to talk with his exultant gang. As he did, he recognized a man with an aim-aiding Cybernetic. A soldier—Republic, but who was stationed on Marr’s ship during their fateful expedition.
“Well it’s good to see you alive, soldier!” Arro called. “Corporal... “
“Name’s Rallo!” The Soldier replied, fighting to get to Arro. “You saved my skin that day! Mine, and a bunch of others! I never thought I’d get to say thank you in person!” He grinned as he shook the Jedi’s hand. “Thank you so much, man! I’ve treasured each second of my life that you saved from the past few years more than I did my entire life before! Found my wife, joined a new family—” he indicated the Engine Burners. “And learned to take a moment to be grateful for every day I managed to live through!”
“Well done, Ralo!” Arro laughed. Grinning, Rallo saluted before returning to his new crew.
“There are some more people you should meet now that we’re here,” Senya told Arro. “We can start with the Scions. They were the more mystical of the Orders protecting Zakuul during Valkorion’s reign, but they didn’t fall in line with Arcann, so he had them massacred. The Survivors have an enclave here. They have been greatly looking forward to meeting you.”
Chapter 22: The Scions
With allies like these, we don't need Immortal Emperors
“Fate is a tale whispered to us by the Force, but the voices are silent about you. We wish to know why.”
The Enclave of the Scions was quite dimly lit and covered in a thin fog, and Heskal’s silver eyes shone ominously in the near darkness. Arro was not impressed however. He idly wondered if the Scions deliberately kept the room gloomy to appear more mysterious. A cheap trick, one that would at best, impress children.
He remembered Heskal from the day of his arrival at the Spire, but the memory was dimmer than the lights in the room. One of many robed sages he had noticed in the Throne Room. He remembered Heskal from his none-too-discreet accosting of Arcann before their audience to mumble something about visions and prophecies.
Arro knew about the power of prophecies. He had seen on Voss a society that was centered around them. Heck, he had seen Master Satele prophesize his own path. But he also knew how double-edged the tool could be, leading to false flags and self fulfillment.
While the Mystics could be quite accurate in their visions, they could also be completely wrong; though these cases were always blamed on the interpreters. The Mystics were regarded as infallible.
“What do your visions normally tell you?”
“Do not think to mock us, Boy! We had foreseen Valkorion’s death long before you entered Zakuul!”
“But not when, and at whose hand, I wager.” Arro said. “ Nor did you see what Arcann would do to you once he took the Throne. Otherwise you’d never have allowed me to set foot in the Spire. The gift of foresight is tricky, at best. Even the Voss mystics never tried to interpret their own visions; they had a specially trained cadre of Interpreters for that. By the way, I wasn’t mocking you.”
Heskal scowled heavily. “Your heretical view does not affect us. We do not have to like you, just see if Fate wills that we work together. And for that we need to see what part you play in Arcann’s defeat! We will test you spiritually, pierce the veil surrounding you, and see the Truth.”
Valkorion chuckled within his mind. “Scions believe that there is no greater power than destiny; they cannot believe you exist outside of its influence. Look at him! He is driven purely by revenge but acts as though he requires fate’s compliance!”
“All is as the Force wills it,” Arro said; to the Scions, yes, but also intended for the Immortal Emperor. That pleased them! This next bit wouldn’t. “But do not presume your perfection. We could spend a dozen lifetimes learning and never scratch the surface of the true scope of the Force.”
Heskal seethed. “Enough of this. Prepare!”
He was in a foggy dream world of crumbling buildings and wailing people. His heart stopped for a moment when he could not reach the Force through the haze in his head. The skies were dark, not a single star shone. The only light came from small burning fires. Was this Coruscant? It couldn’t be: he didn’t think Coruscant even had a natural surface anymore, so tightly packed was its urban jungle. And yet there, before him, one of the colossal mounds of rubble; he could clearly see the sigil of the Republic Senate. But there was Corellia’s spaceport. The plaza from Contruum. Sculpture from Dromund Kaas… this was a representation of all worlds affected by Arcann’s rampage.
In the distance, on top of the rubble, he thought he saw something; a figure in white that shone in the gloom.
He tried to run towards the figure but his limbs felt like they were weighed down. As he inched ahead laboriously through the dreamscape, phantoms rose from the debris; men and women and children of all species.
They wailed and cursed at him, “We thought you were a hero!”, “Millions dead because of YOU !”, “We lost everything!”
“No,” Arro tried to tell himself. “This isn’t real.” Wasn’t it though?
The phantoms grew more distinct, more numerous. He could make out faces now, he could see the despair etched onto their faces. More hateful. “You failed us!”, “We trusted you to protect us!”, “But you weren’t there.”
“There was nothing I could do…” he plead as tears ran like rivers down his cheeks. “I was trapped, imprisoned.”
The phantoms grew larger, closer. “Yes… And why was that? It is because you were weak!” Abruptly, their screams increased in intensity and suddenly, Arro was incapacitated by sheer volume of noise, so loud and so deep that it scratched at his ears and stabbed every inch of his skin with white-hot knives.
Howling in pain unlike any he had ever known before, he fell to his knees. The pain let up for a moment and he took his feet again. His throat was raw from the screaming, his ears numb and his body trembling from the pain. But he knew that had to reach the white figure. This time when the pain took him again, he didn’t collapse, not fully, but crawled ahead. When the pain lessened he rose up and tried to run again, but he could only move so fast in this dreamscape. When the pain came, he was reduced to crawling.
At last he stood before the figure. White robes. A black half-mask covering the left side of his face. His left hand was a prosthetic. Arcann.
But it was an Arcann defeated. As Arro neared, his enemy dropped onto the rubble, unconscious.
The noises ceased, and became insistent whispers again. “Kill him!”, “Avenge us!” “Blood!”, “Revenge!”, “Justice,” “Vengeance!”, “KILL!”
Through the fog he heard another voice, stronger and more confident. “You seek to topple Arcann? It is his destiny to fall. That much we have foreseen.” Arro knew this voice but had trouble putting a name to it at the moment. Eskel? That sounded close. “But his final fate remains unclear. When he is defeated and at your mercy, what will you do?”
“What is it you want?” Arro asked the voice.
“To know your intent! A thousand Scions lie dead by his command. Their blood calls or his! As does the blood of every one of those who have suffered at his hands! Don’t you agree? Finish him!”
A lightsaber appeared in Arro’s hands, but it was his old Lightsaber. Its familiar crossguard hilt and pattern that had sat in his palm for years felt nostalgic, but the blade was of mist rather than light. Arcann was right before him, unconscious.
“Arcann will face justice for what he has done,” Arro answered. “But revenge is not justice.”
“Wrong answer!” Pain surged through him again and he screamed. “If you are not with us, you stand against the tides of Destiny! Arcann and Vaylin must die!”
“I… stand… for JUSTICE!” Arro shouted defiantly. “I might have to kill him when the time comes, but I will not choose to end his life like this!”
“If you will not reveal your true self, you leave me no choice!” The Scion himself emerged from the rolling mist, his eyes glowing white. “I will know your fate, even if I must tear you open to see it!”
He raised his arms and loosed not a storm of lightning, as Arro was accustomed to, but a jet of mist. As the mist engulfed him, the cries for vengeance grew louder than before, and the phantoms all reached out for him, clutching at his robes, arms, and legs. Their nails dug deep and their rage and sorrow and hatred seemed to enter his bloodstream along with visions of all of the suffering they had endured.
The visions threatened to overwhelm him, but he adamantly sought the harmony within himself. And then he finally pierced the clouds surrounding his mind. The Force shone through him and he pushed the ghosts and the fog away from himself, creating a small bubble within which he was untouchable. The bubble expanded, out and out until finally it exploded. The vision of Heskal howled as it vanished, and the ghosts and mist dispersed. The fog around his world lifted and he awoke in the Scion’s lair.
His lungs burned as he breathed, and when he opened his mouth to scream he could only utter desperate dry croaks. His body trembled and he was in deep pain as symptoms from the Carbonite poisoning began to torment him.
“What have you done to him?” Senya roared. Arro tried to look around; the situation was a powder keg ready to blow; all of his companions were on their feet, weapons pointed at the Scions who were likewise raising their Magenta bladed Lightsabers.
But it was Lana who took center stage; sitting crouched beside him, energy crackling in her palms, and she was emanating an almost murderous rage that even non-sensitives could feel; and there was a horror that only he could, because of their bond. Her golden eyes were almost spitting fire and venom, and the Scions cowered in the face of her fury.
“I did nothing that should have done this!” Heskal shouted back. “I merely pushed him to reveal his true intent! What he would do after witnessing the full width of Arcann’s atrocities!”
“Witnessing them?” Lana shrieked. “It’s more like he lived through hundreds of them! Hasn’t he suffered enough?”
“Do not lecture me on suffering, woman! He may have lost five years, but the rest of us lost so much more!”
“If ever you had spent time imperfectly frozen in Carbonite, you’d know that he was awake every second of those five years but unable to think or even feel horrified as the days passed him by! Can you comprehend that? You think you can see what Fate intends yet I think you are blinder than any man I have ever met.”
Heskal glowered. Then he gestured to his comrades and they all sheathed their weapons, after which Arro’s friends also stood down.
“Can you speak yet, Jedi?”
“Just don’t ask me to sing,” Arro groaned.
“A final question,” Heskal whispered. “What do you plan for when Arcann is defeated?”
“This galaxy has suffered enough war and tyrants. I want to help foster peace and prosperity.”
The shade of Valkorion stirred. “Blind as bats, the lot of them. All their supposed gifts with visions and they ask you questions that a child will know your answer to. I cannot for the life of me answer why I didn’t disband their order decades ago.”
Heskal’s eyes glinted. “You have nothing further to reveal to me. I now know what blinded you to us. Our Immortal Emperor lives on in your mind! Because of our test, I know that you will defeat Arcann.”
“Your ‘test’ was almost as overpowering as the time when Darth Nox tried to kill me on Ilum!” Arro scoffed. “I didn’t think anyone could be as strong as her in this field.”
“It wasn’t just ‘One’,” Lana spoke. “All thirty of them channeled the Force to power that nightmare. It almost broke you.”
“How long did it last?”
“Less than ten seconds.”
“Felt like forever in there,” Arro grumbled. He tried to rise but fell gasping, clutching tightly at his chest.
“Whoa, whoa whoa! Easy there!” Koth ran up to him. “It’s the effects of the poisoning, isn’t it? C’mon, just relax. Pol and Ralo can help you back to the ship.”
Arro let himself be carried away as Koth and Senya began to voice a few choice words to conclude the meeting.
Chapter 23: The Second Conference
Lana begins to update the Organisation on their recent activities.
“Our conference is scheduled for 0800, Galactic Standard Time,” Lana said. They were in the Gravestone’s lounge, she, Arro, Senya, Koth, and TeeSeven. “Our previous meeting was cut short by our emergency, following which we went dark until I gave the all-clear upon docking. Today will be a full report on what happened to us. In addition, since you are with us now, you will be meeting with the Alliance. They will be briefing you on our strength and capabilities.”
“Sounds good,” Arro said.
Lana winced. “But before that there are some new arrivals right here that I think you should meet. Do you remember SCORPIO?”
Arro shook his head. “Barely. She was a droid…? On Yavin? She sliced the Imperial Guard computers so fast even Theron was impressed.”
Lana nodded. “That’s the one. She is ruthless and calculating, and highly intelligent. And opportunistic. When she joined me six weeks ago she made no bones of the fact that the Eternal Empire had stolen something from her, and was using us to get it back. She’s… not the least bit trustworthy.”
“Troubling,” Arro said, leaning forward. “Odds that she’s already listening in?”
“Slim but non zero. And they increase to a hundred percent once she sets foot on board.”
“Oh.” Arro said, troubled… Knowing Lana —and even Theron for that matter—they’d have taken their precautions against such a dubious ally. But just to be safe—
He reached out to TeeSeven with the Force, and surreptitiously pulled a small switch hidden inside his frame. In response, TeeSeven sent a signal to his wrist comm; “Protocol Seven=engaged.”
“I am no Droid, Battlemaster” the Droid said, her voice programmed to sound like a very formidable woman. “I am an intelligence beyond your comprehension. You may call me SCORPIO.”
“You once served with Cipher Nine—”
“Before she vanished, yes,” Scorpio interrupted him. Her robotic features arranged themselves into a perfect imitation of a frustrated expression. “And before you ask, I don’t know where she is.” Yes, she definitely angry to have failed at something. Or pretending to be.
Arro fought the urge to shake his head. He was off to a great start—already suspecting her every move. Not that that wasn’t a good idea, it’s just that spycraft wasn’t his subtlety. He normally relied on others to make up for that.
“As I was saying,” Arro continued patiently. “Lana says your paths crossed on Zakuul. What were you doing there, and why are you agreeing to help us?”
“I was following my heuristic directive of self improvement. I assumed that Zakuulan technology would be something completely unknown to the galaxy. I was mistaken; there are great similarities. And yet I did find some little treasure chests. In one of them, I realized that Zakuul—Arcann—has something of mine. The severity of his error must be corrected. To that end I place my considerable intelligence at your service.”
She looked around. “I expect you all to stay out of my way.”
“What will you be doing?” Koth asked suspiciously.
“I wish to speak to the Gravestone. It is not often I get to chat with an intelligence that rivals my own.” She stopped to observe Tora slamming a fixture in place with her hydrospanner. “You do this vessel a disservice with your primitive hands. Give me full access and I can greatly enhance its parameters.”
“No way,” Koth said. “Get the Hyperdrive to perfection.”
“Acceptable, for now.” She said before marching off, having successfully made everyone highly wary of her.
The room was silent for a bit, before Arro brightly said. “So… We’re done with the Scions, and now SCORPIO. Anyone else I need to meet?”
It was 0800 sharp, and all of the callers were for once on time. Although that was probably because most of them were in the same place.
There were no filters in place anymore—all masks were off.
“Good day, all!” Lana began.“Sorry to keep you waiting three whole days instead of just one, but our exit was more eventful than I had thought it would be, and we had a lot of urgent repairs to do. We’ve been going by codenames so far, so I think it’s time for a proper introduction. My name is Lana Beniko. Codenamed ‘Winter’.” She nodded to her husband. “This is Arro, Battlemaster of the Jedi. Say ‘Hello’, my love!”
“Hello everyone!” Arro greeted them with a pleasant bow. “It’s nice to meet all of you.”
“Admiral Bey’wan Aygo. Formerly an Admiral in the Republic Navy. Codename ‘Valor’. He’ll be leading our Military.”
The Bothan male gave a crisp salute. “Discharged, but still in this fight! We’ve already got a decent force, big enough for multiple hit-and-run attacks, or small operations. Training is going well and both sides are learning to work together quite well.”
“Hylo Visz, legendary Underworld cargo pilot and crackshot. Answered to ‘Lady Luck’. Logistics and Acquisition.”
“Yeah, that’s me!” The Mirialan woman grinned. “Broke the largest blockade in the Galactic history. Republic’s greatest outlaw hero, basically!”
“Sana-rae. Mystic of Voss… also her codename. She will be in charge of our Force Enclave.”
“Your visage surfaced during my trials. I was destined to assist you long before you were even born. I have learned much of the Force in preparation for this task, for decades. I can help both our Jedi and Sith in their efforts to train and work together.”
“And this is Doctor Juvard Illip Oggurrob, who answered to his old nickname ‘Lip’. He will head our R&D, and attempt to close the gap in our massive technological disadvantage.”
“Greetings Master Jedi!” The Hutt spoke, using basic rather than Huttese as his people preferred. One of many ways this scientist was different from his kind, Arro noted. “I am no biologist, but I am fascinated by long-term effects of Carbonite poisoning on your mental faculties. And when Winter— Miss Beniko I mean— told me about your rare poisoning, I thought of course, that I would like to study that as well.”
“That would actually be very helpful,” Arro said. “Both now and in the future—”.“On our side,” Lana Interrupted. “This is Koth, who went by ‘Leopard’ and Lord Commander Senya Tirall who was ‘Duty’. The Droids are T7-01 and HK-55.”
The Zakuulans nodded when introduced. And the droids were delighted to be considered important enough to introduce.
“I was kinda looking forward to meeting Teff’ekkwithes!” Hylo pouted. Teff’ekkwithes? Arro struggled to contain his laughter. Oh Theron, you are hilarious!
“Agent Shan couldn’t be here today,” Lana grinned. She was probably feeling Arro’s mirth too; and in agreement with his sentiment. “But I am glad to report that we are! So much has happened since we last spoke. This is going to be a long conference—”
They were interrupted by a call on the Emergency Channel. It was Heskel. “Pardon the abruptness,” he said urgently. “There is someone you should meet, Outlander. Come alone.”
“Charmer, that one,” Lana glowered. “After last time, I’m not sure I trust him.”
“I’ll be careful,” Arro assured her. The others were already returning to the conference as he headed out, HK-55 trailing discreetly behind him.
Chapter 24: Battle of Asylum Part I
Arro felt deeply uneasy. Everything felt wrong even before he even set foot in the Scions’ Enclave. The lights were even dimmer than before, the sounds more muted. He could sense some of the people in the main hall but they were all so angry. Heskel was inside, he could tell that much. But this other presence… One that was partially closed off, yet he could swear that he had felt it before. He walked cautiously into the main hall, where Heskel stood in the near darkness, Lightsaber lit.
“Heskel… What is going on?” As his eyes adjusted he saw twelve of the Scions lying down on the ground; were they dead? At that precise moment, a yellow blade emerged from Heskel’s stomach, and he dropped on the floor. From around him, Zakuul Knights emerged from where they were hiding, hefting their pikes that ignited as they closed in.
“The fool thought it was his destiny to betray you,” Arcann scoffed. His eyes narrowed at his enemy. “I don’t leave Zakuul for just anybody. Be honored.”
Arro gave in to the urge to hide his face behind a palm. “Silly man. I knew I didn’t like him. I don’t suppose you’re here to surrender?”
“Were you this funny the last time we met?” Arcann queried. “No Outlander, it is you who must surrender. My entire fleet is standing by to destroy this entire station on my command…”
“Before or after you get off?” Arro interrupted. Arcann pretended not to hear him. “I am not without mercy. Surrender, and you will be returned to Carbonite until I rid you of Father. Your friends can leave, without the Gravestone.”
“Oh, fine!” Arro said, slightly raising his hands in surrender. In the back of his mind, Valkorion seethed with disapproval. “I’ll tell the others to stand down.”
Arcann nodded in satisfaction and Arro activated his comm.
“Lana.” “That was fast,” she said, sounding surprised. “I have some good news for y—”
“Arcann’s here, defend the ship! Evacuate if you have to!” With that, he closed the channel and drew his Lightsaber. Valkorion boomed with laughter. “Idiot,” he said, shaking his head.
Arcann signaled his Knights, who raised their weapons and charged. As his Knights engaged, Arcann activated is own comm. “Spare no one!” he said.
A sweetly cheerful, childish voice on the other end trilled “You always know just how to brighten my day!”
Arro’s warning had given them just enough time to raise barricades and take up defensive positions around the Gravestone. Alerted by their sudden activity, some of the refugees, thugs, and other denizens of Asylum also scrambled to fight. Many others began the process of evacuating.
The first ships had barely left the ground when hundreds of ships of the Eternal Fleet opened fire on them. Almost at the same moment, the Engine Burners were attacked by waves of Skytroopers led by Knights and two ornately robed figures.
Both sides opened fire at roughly 0900 hours, Galactic Time. From deeper within the station, defiant gunmen appeared and opened fire on the Zakuulan forces from their flanks and soon the Skytroopers were attempting to invade outwards on all sides from their landing zone.
The Gravestone’s weapons batteries came alive and started firing at landing craft and Droids, quickly halting further reinforcements from landing. The mighty vessel raised its nose to the sky, pointing its primary weapon at the fleet. It fired once before returning to its original position. Hundreds of ships were disintegrated by the single shot, and the defenders cheered. Most of the fleet pulled back, maintaining its blockade of Asylum from a safer distance, not willing to get within firing range.
Lana charged the first wave of Skytroopers and crushed the last of them. “Arro, can you hear me?” she called through her wrist comm while falling back. “Arro?!”
“Don’t worry about us,” Lem shouted cheerfully. “The Gravestone’s in good hands. Go and get your Kiwiboy, Blondie!” Lana turned and glared at him. “—uh, I mean— Miss Beniko!” Lem amended nervously, ducking behind a crate.
He… He can’t do that, can he?
Thirty Knights, including four of his Imperial Guard. Against two opponents. It can’t be this kind of one-sided, can it?
As the Knights had neared, three of them had been shot down by a flurry of shots from the War-Droid that had been standing discreetly behind the door. The Outlander had cut down two more Knights while slipping through the opening before anyone had a chance to register what had just happened.
By the time they noticed that they were fighting a second opponent who was using a heavy rifle, the Outlander stood before his ally, ensuring that anyone who wanted to attack the Droid had to go through him first. It had only been a few seconds since the fight started, and Arcann was already stunned.
The Outlander didn’t give them time to regroup. From his initial position he had again charged his opponents, jabbed at a Knight’s shield dead center with such tremendous force that it couldn’t absorb most of the kinetic energy. There was a sickening crunch and the Knight shrieked in pain: the bones of her arm had seemingly broken in several places. Her scream was cut short by the Jedi’s blue blade.
The Jedi didn’t stop there. Even as the Knight behind her attempted to maneuver, the Jedi advanced with an almost pirouette-like spin on a heel, neatly decapitating his second target. The third Knight had his shield up at the ready, but rather than attacking him, the Outlander used the shield as a springboard to perform a surprise-leap to the trio who were now advancing on his companion, and took two of them down with a single swing.
A minute after the encounter began, already he was nine Knights down.
“Shields down!” his Captain roared. “Use speed!”
Roaring, the Knights complied, charging only with their pikes.
“No, wait! NOOOO!” Arcann shouted, belatedly noticing the hole in that strategy, but it was already too late—most of his Knights were already upon the Jedi. He met their charge with tremendous speed, weaving in and out of their ranks, attacking their now exposed bodies with punches and kicks, or grabbing pikes and momentarily grappling with his opponents. His blade zipped through the air, knocking aside blows or jabbing at weak spots in the Knights’ defenses. He was never in the same place for more than a moment. Arcann’s remaining Knights were dropping like drunk Jonflies!
He’s a goddamned God of War! Arcann realized. It was just as Darth Nox had said—he shouldn’t have faced him head on!
“He is without a doubt the greatest swordsman in the Galaxy,” she had said. “Perhaps the greatest swordsperson; Kai’rene was peerless with her blade and I’ve seen her do some amazing things with a lightsaber. Or rather, I was in a position to have seen it, but wasn’t able to because she was too fast for my eyes. But even she told me that his skills superior to her own. This man has defeated your father —thrice. Do not engage him until you have crippled him. That is the only way you will win!”
He should have listened! He had been so distrustful of Nox, so certain that this would finally be the moment she chose to betray him and Vaylin, that he had tried to corner his enemy with a rather simple trap rather than one requiring more preparation, or power.
Nox had told him about the one time she had faced him in battle. It had been on Ilum, more than a kilometer away, with him not even having registered her presence yet. He had beaten Darth Styx, one of her allies, and Nox had unleashed a nightmare upon his mind that had briefly overwhelmed him. The Jedi had lived only because Nox had been merciful; she had had the gut suspicion that his was not a life she ought to cut short, that she would need his help very soon. Shortly after he had saved her from five of the False Emperor’s servants, and then from the man himself.
“Colonel! I need help! Send in an airstrike precisely on my signal! And give me a countdown telling me when they arrive!” A countdown appeared on his display: 20 seconds? That was remarkable! It was good that his forces had air superiority! He backed up as far away from the fight as he could, then signalled his personal guard—the two that were still alive— and they returned to his side. By this time there were seven Knights still fighting the Jedi. Then five, then two.
With three seconds to go, Arcann tossed his beacon at the Outlander. The Jedi cut down the last of his enemies and moved to redirect the falling projectile—possibly thinking it was an explosive—but his time was up, and the ceiling collapsed under sudden fire from his fighters.
“Master!” the War-Droid yelled in horror and ran to him and pushed him out of the way.
“HK!” the Jedi screamed.
“Self-sacrifice!” the Droid shouted defiantly as it took the brunt of the bombing. But that didn’t save his master from being buried under rubble, even though the Jedi did throw up a shield to prevent himself from being crushed; just as Arcann himself had, as his Guards had.
With deep satisfaction, Arcann realized that he had finally outfoxed his enemy! He didn’t particularly mind that the building was also falling on him and his remaining Knights as well. Indeed, he was still laughing when it began to fall around him.
“Arcann did what now?”
“He called down an airstrike on his own position,” Valyin answered, greatly amused. “Silly boy. I feel tingly! Oh don’t look so down.” She added at Akahte’s glum expression. “He’s so persistent he can survive the end of the world.” They were picking their way through the unfamiliar Mega Spaceport complex. Arcann’s signal had vanished, but his beacon’s last known position was recorded, and Vaylin and her dearest one were attempting to find and extract him.
This place was a mess, structures rising without much regard to an overall town plan. Streets bottlenecked unexpectedly, and more than once they had found themselves at a dead-end.
As they entered another corridor they heard another voice speaking urgently. “That’s right, I’m on my way to find him, but we might need a pickup. Lock onto my beacon, pick us up when— oh shit!” The speaker, a familiar human woman in dark grayish-blue robes, had exited a stairwell and turned to find herself face-to-face with her enemies.
“Lana!” Akahte greeted her. “It’s good to see you again. Were you happy to meet Arro again?” Her smile was probably genuine, but she would still not hesitate to kill her if Vaylin ordered her to.
Vaylin looked mournfully at the Sith. “He… wasn’t very nice to my Brother.” She changed her expression and tone to a more sunny one. “Now, I’m going to have to kill his girlfriend!”
“His wife , you damn Harpy!” The cornered Sith spat, raising her red Lightsaber.
This declaration bought her a couple of seconds as both her enemies were momentarily surprised. As Vaylin fought to come up with an appropriate response, she heard a surprised “Hhuh-Mfffff!” behind her and turned to see a Zakuul Knight in white armor had snuck up on them from their rear and knocked Akahte out with a pair of powerful unarmed blows. She heard a distinct crack as she heard some bones breaking.
“Akahte!” Vaylin cried. “You’ll pay for tha—” Her eyes narrowed as she recognized her ambusher. “Mother!... Mother? Why—?” But her Mother had closed in on her, and she felt a heavy blow to her face and her vision darkened. The last thing she saw was her dearest one lying unconscious opposite her.
“Senya!” Lana sounded relieved.
“Go!” Senya told her. Lana didn’t need telling twice, and she dashed off, seemingly determined to catch up on lost time. Senya looked down at Vaylin.
Vaylin. This was the first time in almost twenty years that she was seeing her daughter in person again.
She’s all grown up now! Tears welled up unexpectedly in her eyes. And so beautiful!
She had seen her before in a few holo broadcasts of course, but… this was so different somehow! Seeing her here—feeling her—it was more than she could bear.
She removed her gauntlets and knelt down beside her unconscious daughter, tears now coursing thick down her cheeks.
She had always envied Lana’s ability to See using the Force, but unlike her fellow Knights she had some inkling what it was like. When Vaylin was younger, she had been able to feel her at close range. She remembered hours spent just feeling that bond when Vaylin was a baby, as she slept. Unlike Lana and Arro, her bond was far more limited; she couldn’t feel her specific emotions or the occasional thoughts, but she could and did feel her powerful life force. Vaylin’s happiness had affected her in a deeper way than it normally should have, for a mother. Certainly more than the twins had. She had treasured that bond above anything, and she had been so devastated when Vaylin had angrily burned it to cinders that she hadn’t been able to properly eat or sleep for years.
And now here she was. She reached out with tremulous fingers and caressed her cheek softly, nostalgia likening the feel the exact same as when Vaylin had been a girl.
Oh Vaylin— .
They didn’t have the means to restrain someone like Vaylin, which left one option, but...
She had determined to end her children’s rule. But she could not bring herself to kill them. And damn anyone who thought they could judge her!
Darth Nox, on the other hand. Senya rose, ignited her Lightsaber and advanced upon the Sith. She raised her saber to execute the woman, but…
“Akahte!” Vaylin had screamed.
Her voice had sounded so raw, so tortured. She had become enraged, and terrified that her companion had fallen. Senya hadn’t known what to think when she’d heard rumors of Vaylin’s supposed lover being the Deadliest of the Sith, but now…
Well now she knew that even if they weren’t lovers, Vaylin certainly loved her a great deal.
Senya reached out clumsily through the Force, attempting to feel her enemy’s intention, hoping that she had an ulterior motive, anything that could harden her resolve—
But she stopped short when she sensed something deeply familiar. This woman shared a deep bond with Vaylin. Exactly like the one Senya had once had with her.
Damaged though it was, she could still feel her link to Vaylin, and across that bond was a mirror image. A link to Darth Nox.
Senya’s breathing became heavier. She couldn’t kill this woman! Not without severely damaging Vaylin too! Succumbing to a fresh surge of grief she dropped her Lightsaber, which extinguished as it fell. She dropped to her knees, sobbing and shaking; she crawled back to Vaylin.
This might be the last time she saw her Daughter. Yes, she had a few minutes with Vaylin, unconscious though she was. Time was precious. She cradled her youngest child in her arms and placed a soft kiss on her cheek, then settled down to croon a lullaby for Vaylin.
Chapter 25: Battle of Asylum II
Arro fought to keep his breath steady. If his concentration wavered, the debris would break through his shield. His hands trembled, his chest felt tight, and he was starting to have difficulty keeping his composure. All around him the walls closed, tighter, deeper… The Force was slipping through his grasp, soon he would lose his grip entirely, and he would get crushed. A soft, dry sob escaped his lips.
Hush, my love. The voice was soothing, powerful, energizing. I’m right here. I’m right beside you, always.
His eyes shot open. The link! Lana!
I will always be here with you, and so will the Force. Here, hold my hand… There was no hand to hold, and yet all it took was a thought, and he felt her hand in hers. Warm, comforting just as he remembered.
His eyes shot open, and power briefly surged through his veins like sunlight over a mountain spring. He took a deep breath, and Pushed outwards hard. The debris threatening to crush him suddenly flew off of him. And why wouldn’t it? Lifting rocks was something a Padawan was taught.
And now he was free!
“HK!” He scrambled forward, clambering over chunks of ferrocrete and metal. “HK!”
He Lifted the debris in front of him, moved it aside, and found the Droid he was looking for.
“No, no, no, no!” he muttered, running up to him and taking the Droid into his arms. The Bodyguard Droid had been hit not only by debris but by shrapnel from a missile and his head had been blown off. His Memory Core was beyond repair. He was gone. Arro started gasping, tears clouding his vision.
“Are you going to cry over a Droid, Outlander?”
Arro looked around and found Arcann, who had also risen out of the rubble. Both his remaining Knights were also free but hadn't escaped the collapse unscathed. One of them had evidently broken both legs, while the other her left arm, which she held gingerly with her good arm.
Arro looked angrily at Arcann. Had he just risked his Knights’ lives to kill him? He had to have called in that strike while Arro was still fighting his Knights, so at the very least he had been willing to sacrifice their lives.
Arro got to his feet, setting HK’s body down gently. He reignited his saber and tried to get the tight feeling out of his chest. “Request: Surrender, Meatbag!”
Arcann backed away, looking wary. He did not ignite his own Lightsaber, instead, seemingly playing for time, hoping to think of a way out of this predicament.
He wanted some time, eh? Well he was welcome to it. Arro knew that could use a few moments himself, to give his exhausted body some time to recover. His hands were shaking like mad despite his attempts to steady them. The pain in his throat and chest increased, and his vision began to swim in a way completely different from tears.
Ehh— ? Oh. Dammit. Shit . It wasn’t the exhaustion or the panic. It was… not now, please, not now!
As Arcann tried to think of a way out he wondered why the Outlander was letting him bide his time. Perhaps he wasn’t completely unharmed? Maybe it would be wise for a tactical retrea— oh what was this, now?
The Outlander seemed to be having difficulty alright. As he watched, his enemy swayed and fell over, dropping his weapon. He started coughing hard; deep, hacking coughs that brought a stream of blood out of his mouth.
This was more than just exhaustion, or even injury from the cave-in. Arcann remembered that it hadn’t yet been two weeks since the Jedi had been released from the Carbonite. He tried to recall the details on the final scan done on the Jedi, in the report that stated the state of his body following his long slumber.
Hibernation Sickness. Carbonite Poisoning.
Arcann couldn’t believe his luck. His mind flashed back four years, recalling a different formidable enemy whose body had failed them just at the right time. Darth Prowle.
He shivered. Even today, he could still see the woman’s shade behind him in his mirror. He still recalled the feel of extinguishing her life in such a cowardly manner, still had nightmares about her and her haunting grins. She chuckled at his every attempt at honor.
She was cackling even now.
Go on! She seemed to be saying. You can’t beat him fairly. Kicking a dog when it’s down is exactly your style!
Arcann raised his fist and the Jedi was raised into the air, invisible fingers clutching at his throat with the vise-like grip of a Tarisian Crocodile. Arcann marched forward, igniting his saber at last, and stabbed the Jedi straight through his midsection.
“Feel that, Father?”
Arro! NO! NOOOO! Lana appeared just in time to see Arcann run him through. Because of her link she knew how this had happened; Arro had begun to lose consciousness from his symptoms and Arcann had seized his chance like the opportunist he was. He couldn’t defeat him in a straight up duel—it was clear that he’d realized that firsthand, given the number of dead Knights she saw in the debris. So he had tried other methods, and then gone in for the underhanded kill. Underhanded, but that was of no consequence. He’d struck her husband a deathblow.
She felt Arro losing the last of his consciousness, and sank to her knees in despair. No, please. Not like this.
Suddenly, she felt her husband awaken, panicked. His thoughts were a loud shriek in her head. What? No! Valkorion, what are you doing? Stop!
Arro rolled around and propped himself on one arm. He pointed the other at a bewildered Arcann, who seemed too stunned to move.
With the sound of a thousand thunderclouds exploding, a dense, thick stream of lightning shot out from Arro’s outstretched arm. It was power beyond anything Lana had ever felt before, far beyond what she had even imagined possible.
She cried out and shielded her eyes, the image of Arcann being Pulled away and Thrown to safety by one of his remaining Knights burned into her eyes by the intensity of the light. The air before her shimmered and sparkled; all of her hair stood on end, and goosebumps erupted on her skin. The thunder was so loud it drowned out all else.
Oh, Force have mercy…!
From the viewport of the Gravestone’s bridge, SCORPIO looked in awe at the massive outpouring of energy as it rose from the port all the way through the sky, spearing a dozen or more refugee ships, through a whole column of Eternal Warships, and disappearing into the distance.
“Such incredible power…”
Silence… the thunder had stopped, and in its abrupt absence Lana could feel her ears ringing. Moaning, she tried to stand, only to lose her balance and fall over, heaving. Sounds were muted. Were her eardrums damaged?
Taking it more slowly she tried to blink but her eyes were still dazed from that burning light. Her Force senses were also abuzz.
Then she felt a curious tingling in her ear as though it was being Healed, crudely but powerfully. Her other senses followed and she blinked to adjust to her reawakened world.
“Lana Beniko. We meet at last” A majestic voice, deeper than the depths of space itself. The ghost of a tall man with white hair and beard stood before her, arm outstretched. His armor was also white. His eyes burned cold.
“Valkorion.” She didn’t realize she had spoken aloud. He nodded.
“Your Jedi husband is dying. I am doing what I can to save him, but I have never bothered learning Force Healing. Carry him to safety, and see to it that he gets the attention he needs.”
“Thank you,” was all Lana said, scrambling forward and hurrying over to her fallen husband. He was still alive, holding on by a thread—but that thread was holding firm. She tore off his robe to see how bad it was and her breath caught. It was terrible! If not for Valkorion—!
“Not the best moment to be doing that—”
Her head jerked as she looked up. “Arro!”
“Lana!” He grinned. She leaned forward and placed a grateful kiss on his bloody lips, then stood up cradling him in her arms. She picked her way through the rubble, keeping note of Arro’s shallow but steady breathing. Every fifteen seconds or so, he touched her cheek with a hand to indicate that he was conscious—as though she needed it, with their bond! But the gesture comforted her, and she couldn’t help stifling a giggle behind her teeth as she walked. She heard the sound of jets behind her, and turned her head to see three dozen Skytroopers landing in formation.
Fortunately, she was not facing them alone. A trooper dropship landed between her and the Droids, and a Kel Dor standing at one of the doors with a heavy cannon opened fire on the Droids. At the other door, a woman with nut-brown skin leaped out to help Lana with Arro.
“C’mon!” she yelled to be heard over the engines and cannonfire. Together, she and Lana got Arro onto the ship.
“All aboard?” A familiar voice called from the pilot’s seat.
“Theron! Your timing is impeccable!” Lana cried, and the soldier impatiently shouted “All aboard, cast off already!”
“That’s the last of em!” Lem called proudly. “I think they’re regrouping for now! Well done lil Kitty!”
The brusque Cathar soldier who had turned up with three soldiers and almost single-handedly crushed the incoming wave of Droids turned and growled. “That’s ‘Major Jorgan’ to you.” He listened to a transmission on his earpiece and nodded. “Alright everybody, they’re on their way back, ETA 30 seconds! And the ship is—finally—ready for takeoff! Get onboard, now! Move it, people!”
“Wait, we still gotta wait for—” Lem stopped short as he saw Senya round a corner and make straight for the ship. “Never mind, she’s here!”
Lana had jumped out of the ship before it had even touched down. “Medic!” she yelled. “Medic!” Theron couldn’t blame her—Arro was badly wounded. But still, Kanner had examined him and said that his vitals were holding for now, so she could afford to do this nice and slow!
She led a small group of Medical Droids and techs to Arro and they carried him off on a stretcher.
Captain Kanner tossed a salute to her CO. “Mission accomplished sir!”
“I see it, good job Kanner!” Jorgan responded. “Havoc, good job, all of you! At ease now. You’ve earned a break.”
Discarding his thoughts on Lana being overly affectionate, Theron jogged up to the Cathar soldier and threw his arms around him, pulling him into a tight hug.
“Can you believe it? We just gave Arcann a black eye!” His lips held Jorgan’s for a firm kiss. “Stop it, you moron!” Jorgan chided him. “Can’t you see I’m working?”
The ship lurched forward and everyone almost got thrown off their feet. Koth helpfully called over the comms “We’ve made the jump into Hyperspace folks!”
Vaylin stood watching as Soldiers and Knights of the Eternal Fleet poured out of dropships to secure the now mostly-abandoned Starport. Between the Gravestone’s single attack and that awful white Lightning, a massive opening had been created in the blockade through which most of the port’s denizens had escaped. The few that were left behind—those whose ships had been damaged, or unlucky refugees who cowered while the others fled, or people who had been too slow or inebriated or detained to move—these were rounded up, identified for records, and shipped off. Some would be executed, those who had fought the invasion for example. Some who might have a talent for violence might be offered a chance to serve Zakuul, or die.
But most would be released and sent back into exile elsewhere.
Vaylin awoke to find that both she and Akahte were still alive. Her face felt numb and swollen, and she suspected that there would be a bruise there, but for now that didn’t matter. She crawled to Akahte and, sobbing, gratefully took her into her arms. On Akahte’s pained gasp, Vaylin eased her grip a little.
“Just my ribs, thankfully,” she’d answered with a grimace. Whatever Mother’s motivation she had spared Vaylin… but she had also spared Akahte, for which Vaylin was desperately thankful.
Vaylin had gently walked Akahte back to their landing point with several Knights and Skytroopers arriving at her position to provide an escort. Akahte was now being tended to. But where was Arcann?
Shortly afterwards, a small guard of Skytroopers and Knights escorted Arcann back. One of the Knights was helping him walk, and Arcann was showing all the coordination of a drunk. There was blood oozing out from his right ear, and his eye appeared dazed. The left half of his face was hidden behind the mask, of course. But it, along with his upper robes, had been heavily charred.
Vaylin walked up to him and adopted an expression of utmost horror. “Oh, Brother! Can you hear me? What happened to you?”
Arcann blinked. “Force Lightning…” He ran his mechanical arm over his robes and mask.
“No not that!” She abandoned her shocked voice and shifted to teasing. “Why is half your face covered up?” She laughed at Arcann’s dazed expression, then stood tiptoed to give a sweet kiss on his exposed cheek. “Just teasing! I’m glad you’re not dead yet!”
“Yes… thank you, Sister. Thank you.”
“She’s against us.” Vaylin chuckled darkly. “Our own Mother helped the Outlander escape. She’s against us. And she gave me this pretty bruise too.” Her face hardened “I’m going to kill her… except… she spared me. And she spared Akahte too, which is odd.”
Arcann sat silently, still exhausted. It had been a long day.
“Senya was always strong willed,” he said eventually. They were in the VIP medbay now. Private. Away from eavesdroppers.
Vaylin sighed and spoke again. “Do you think she knows? Do you think she’s working with Father against us? Has she betrayed us for Him?”
“It doesn’t matter. If she doesn’t make amends, she will face the consequences when I finally defeat the Outlander and put an end to our Father.”
“And speaking of the Outlander, and Father…”
Arcann hesitated. “I… I uh— I ran the Outlander through, but Father emerged and saved him again. That burst of Lightning was his doing.” That pause was significant, as was Arcann’s quick attempt to ascertain that no one was hovering behind his right shoulder.
Oh Brother, every time you do that I know you are trying to cover something up!
She glowered at him and Arcann broke. “He was suffering from other afflictions. He was already half unconscious when I struck him.” His face turned red with embarrassment. No, shame, more likely, given his love of tales of honor and integrity.
“Ah!” Vaylin nodded. That made more sense.
As Arcann lay back to rest, Vaylin mentally replayed the day’s events. What should have been an easy trap and capture mission had turned into a desperate fight for their lives. Quite a debacle, one that many had escaped to talk about. It would only get more hairy from here.
Oh, and speaking of— The thought made her suddenly look at the mirror. Yep, I definitely need to get a haircut.
Chapter 26: Aftermath of Asylum
Lana watched Arro recuperating in his Kolto Tank. It was such a good thing that Koth had insisted on getting these installed first! The wound Arcann gave him would have been fatal under ordinary circumstances. Arro would have died right there if not for Valkorion.
That realization shattered Lana’s heart. She better than most had known that Arro was not the unstoppable whirlwind popular tales made him out to be; that behind his accomplishments, he was only mortal, that he could be beaten. Or she thought she had known. She should have known. Instead, she had so strongly believed in his strength to save them all— just as he had before, so many times— that she saddled him with the entire burden of fighting Arcann by himself, even though he had been so sick; so vulnerable. He ought to have been in bed for at least another three weeks and she’d had him running around meeting his new allies and attending meetings. If he had been better rested, just a little, then today would have turned out differently. Arcann might have even been defeated!
Instead, Arro was barely alive and only just hanging on. Seeing him like this made her— for what felt like the first time— see Arro not as a Jedi, not as a hero, but as Arro . A man. Her man. It made her sick to think that she might have failed to make that basic distinction. Of course he was just an ordinary man, still in recovery, and she had asked far too much of him. If not for the unknown whims of a ghost, Lana would have lost the Love of her life today.
“Valkorion,” Lana whispered. “I don’t know if you are listening, or if you will choose to respond, but thank you. If not for you—” She shuddered. “If not for you, my husband would be—he would be dead.” She swallowed. “But the destruction you caused today will haunt him, forever.”
She waited for a response. But none came. The Emperor only spoke to her that one time because He had deemed it necessary. She was nothing to Him. Arro was all that mattered for some reason.
“But I don’t understand; why Arro? Why have You chosen to take up residence in his mind? If You don’t need him to survive, why take such a direct role in keeping him alive? Aiding him the way You did is different from sitting back and enjoying the show.”
She fancied she heard mocking laughter in response. The hours ticked by in silence, and she was content to wait. To wait and watch. For once, she didn’t care about her responsibilities, even responsibilities on both hers and Arro’s behalf. She wanted to know that Arro was recovering, not just through their bond, or through the Force, or through reports, but by watching over him.
When Senya had tried to take her to the bridge for a quick recap of events, she had given such a snarl a rancor would have shirked from, before apologizing for her response.
Arro stirred in his tank, and his eyes opened slightly. “Hey you!” She smiled, heart soaring. The breathing mask made it difficult to be sure, but the bond was more than enough for her to know that he had smiled back weakly in response. She felt a powerful and warm emotion flowing from his heart, and the words formed: I love you so much!
She laughed giddily. Seeing him open his eyes after such an injury made her feel so jubilant!
Don’t tell me it’s been another five years?
“Two days, give or take. I wasn’t sure you’d ever wake up.”
She removed her gauntlets and placed a pale hand on the transparisteel. Arro reached out and placed his on the opposite side. Lana giggled uncontrollably—this was straight out of the cheesiest romance stories! But it certainly held such magnificent significance when
“Arro, my Heart: I am so sorry. I don’t know if we will have a moment to talk when we arrive, so I need to say this now. Seeing the damage you suffered at Arcann’s hand; it shook me to my very core. It should have killed you. I got you working as soon as you were out of Carbonite when I should have given you longer to recover. I told you about how bad things were before you had even been free a day. I forced you to start thinking like a warrior even though you needed to focus on recovery. When we reached Asylum I shouldn’t have made you run around and meet allies like we did. I shouldn’t have placed the burden of fighting Arcann on your shoulders alone. Please forgive me. I will never take you or your sacrifices for granted ever again.”
Arro blinked in his tank, and Lana felt his arms wrap around her.
You did what you had to do, and none of this is your fault. If you hadn’t gotten me in the frame of mind in time, I’d never have been able to run from Vaylin, or I’d have had to face Arcann while in a recovery tank, and then where would I be? There were no right calls, but you made the best ones available to you. Thank you. She Felt his kiss on her cheek.
You have no idea how amazed I am that someone as incredible as you loves me!
Sighing, Lana leaned against the glass, hand still opposite Arro’s, and settled in to just… be with him. This was a day for cliches!
Lana swallowed hard, tears forming around the corners of her eyes. “We might never get an accurate count, it was that chaotic. But SCORPIO witnessed it, and she estimates anywhere between twelve and twenty standard capacity vessels being destroyed. That could mean as many as 50000 casualties. The Lightning also struck thirty two Eternal Warships, opening up a massive hole in the formation that allowed hundreds of other ships to escape.”
But it came as no surprise that her Jedi found that poor consolation.
“I should never have believed Valkorion,” He whispered, his face contorted in horror.
“He saved your life,” Lana said, just as softly. “Even I couldn’t have done anything for you. Even I had lost hope when I saw Arcann strike you. You were fading fast, moments from death, until He intervened.”
His gaze still empty, he nodded.
He had been released from the tank an hour ago, and was in the Common Lounge, where he had requested to meet his friends. And Ranking Officers. That meant Lana, Koth, Senya, Lem, and the Zakuul Knights, but also included Theron and Major Jorgan of Havoc Squad. There was also a Rattataki woman who he recognized as one of Doctor Archibahn Kimble’s many exes, but one who thought him beneath her. She introduced herself as Kaliyo, and she made Koth and the Zakuulans bristle in barely contained anger.
“This is exactly how he killed Darth Prowle,” Theron said. “He got lucky, and he seized the moment. He got lucky with his Father too, when he captured you. And now he almost killed you the same way. He is an opportunist. But that gives us an opportunity too. Internal security captured your duel with Arcann and his Knights. Every last second. Just like with Prowle, we get to show the Galaxy that Arcann isn’t the implacable but honorable Conqueror he pretends to be. Every last bit of doubt we can throw at his image, the better it’ll be for us.”
“What happened?” Senya asked. “This all began when Heskal invited you over for Scion Tea.”
“Arcann said that he betrayed us,” Arro said. “That he was the one that told Arcann where to find us.”
“But that makes no sense!” Senya said. “He hated Arcann! Loathed him deeply! Do you think he was lying?”
“Well, you received a recorded message from him shortly after the battle,” Koth spoke up. “I haven’t seen it yet. I mean it wasn’t addressed to me.”
“TeeSeven, can you play it for us?” Arro asked, and the little Astromech complied.
A small blue hologram of Heskal appeared in the air.
“And so it begins, just as I foresaw. You will regroup and your leg will heal. It is a wonder you escaped with something as simple as this. After that you will kill Arcann, and Vaylin, and her Dark Sith Shadow… many innocents will also die but this is what must be so. Know that this was necessary to hasten his fall. Without this you and your allies would have remained a small band of rebels rather than a determined army. Now you will seek battles and weapons capable of hurting him, rather than spending the next ten months debating. The Scions are still with you, and they will return when it is their turn to die.”
And then it went blank.
Koth broke the silence that followed. “What did he mean about your injured leg?”
It was Farya who answered, with a look of profound shock. “He Saw it all wrong!” She looked at all of her fellow Knights in disbelief. “He thought that the Jedi would emerge with only an injured leg! He didn’t foresee the stab wound!”
“And what did he mean by ‘ Seeking ’ weapons?” Khoarad questioned, dark face uneasy. “We’ve already found the Gravestone! This alone is a gamechanger if we use it right. We don’t need to hide.”
“He didn’t know about the Gravestone either,” Senya guessed. “We didn’t tell them, we assumed we didn’t have to, they already knew! They certainly knew when to expect us.”
“Their spies on Zakuul would have told them when we had escaped,” Lana answered. “Though the spies probably didn’t hear anything about the Gravestone . Arcann has tried to keep it under wraps after all.”
“Yes, a lot of the Scion’s knowledge came from spies, or bugs. I ran into some of them while I was on Zakuul. Having a listening device in the right place is far more valuable than relying on a power we can barely control.”
“But…” Senya sputtered. “Spies? They relied on spies?”
“The Force is vast and vastly unknowable,” Arro said. “Even Master Zoran, or Darth Nox—both masters of lore and secrets—didn’t presume to understand it perfectly. The Voss don’t either—they acknowledge that even if visions are never wrong—and that’s a big if—interpreting them accurately is tricky.”
“The Scions relied on electronic and physical eavesdropping to get a hold of information they couldn’t divine through the Force.,” Lana continued. “They wanted to appear more all-knowing than they were. Their supposed clairvoyance is a sham.” Just like so many other things on Zakuul , she added to herself and to Arro. “With allies like them, we don’t need enemies.”
They stood around gloomily, except for Kaliyo who stood playing some holo game on her pad.
“If we’re done depressing each other, can we share the good news?” Jorgan grumbled. Yes, he looked brimming with optimism. “The Battle of Asylum showed the Galaxy that Arcann is invincible, and once Theron shows off the footage of you whooping his Guards’ collective asses they’ll be even more convinced.”
Lana nodded. “Every one of my contacts in the Core Worlds and Empire have thrown in their support behind us. We had some forces before, but now we can really call it an army. I am having them directed to a world named Odessen, which we have chosen as a base of operations. We should be landing soon, but this time I’m going to insist you get some proper rest between all meetings!”
No one looked ready to argue.
“Let’s not keep them waiting.” Arro said.
“Here we go again,” Koth cheered.
Chapter 27: The Emperor's Musings
On a throne of mist in the heart of the Jedi’s psyche, Valkorion meditated on recent events. Everything was going well, with some hiccups. In all His years, it was only while dealing with Arro did he face these.
How rude of him! Still, the hiccups didn’t change too much. He had even come to appreciate them.
Through the decades, it had been His powers that had fueled the Scions’ visions; for the Force was too capricious to work so obediently to someone lesser than He, and this despite Him not having trained to receive visions. His rule had granted them near-perfect accuracy.
He had offered Heskel—that fool—bait that he didn’t even hesitate before latching on to: A false Vision.
Left unchecked, this war might have gone
to the future He showed Heskal. Without Heskel’s betrayal, His son would have been slower to act, cautious so as not to reveal his enemy’s advantage. This would have allowed the Jedi and his allies more time and more breathing room to plan their first moves. With the
at their head, Valkorion didn’t doubt that the allies would find victory remarkably quick and easy, and with lesser loss of life too. When things happened too fast even He might lose control of matters. Besides, what fun would that be?
Now, with his weakness exposed for the Galaxy to see and his pride wounded, he would grow reckless and lash out. Even at unsuspecting innocents. This would force the Jedi to spend less time thinking as well, and responding to these pointless diversions. This would prolong the war, but allow Valkorion a better grip on the course of events. And if the Jedi himself struck down Arcann and Vaylin, then Valkorion could absorb their life forces, amplifying his power greatly. This was something he could only do when living in a host body, otherwise he might have killed Vaylin himself years ago.
He had attempted to have Arro buried and injured by Arcann’s wild, near-suicidal strike, triggered the Jedi’s old fear, attempting to deny him full use of the Force. But Arro had fought it and taken control back. For a few moments Valkorion had been afraid that He had hastened things rather than slowed them down.
Then He had remembered what ailed the boy, and triggered his symptoms in the hope of salvaging something from His plan. That had been a huge gamble—if Arcann had chosen to crush the Jedi’s head, Choke him to death, or break his neck, Valkorion would not have been able to heal him. He had stood by, ready to step in the moment Arcann tried using the Force to finish off his enemy but knowing He might not be fast enough, or too fast.
Instead, when Arcann—true to form, had reached for his Lightsaber, and Valkorion had breathed a sigh of relief.
With the Battle of Asylum, there would be a nice little war for him to enjoy. At the end of that road would be His enemy’s triumph, and the start of his next journey. This was going to be so very interesting!
Chapter 28: The Alliance
The Gravestone docked at one of the larger hangars. Stepping out into the sun, Arro took a deep breath of the fresh forest air. He hadn’t been prepared for how beautiful the planet would be; the most azure of blue skies, rugged cliffs, blue and silver streams, and emerald forests.
Reaching out with the Force, he was pleased to find that this world held a deep natural affinity for it; it was vibrant and strong. He stretched out his senses and felt the vast river of light that was the Force energize him and lift his spirits.
“This is a beautiful world!” Arro sighed happily.
“I’m glad you approve,” Lana said with a chuckle. “It certainly is a good honeymoon destination. And speaking of which, we never really got the chance for ours. We’re going to Spira the first chance we get!”
“For you my Heart, we could leave right now!”
“Oh no we don’t! We’re waiting until you’re nice and recovered before you do anything too strenuous.”
Arro joined the others in looking around interestedly. Parts of the base were still under construction but the essentials stood strong: several hangars for ships of up to three hundred meters’ length, a Command Center, Heavy Turbolaser Turrets for both air and ground defense, long-range sensors, Shield Generators, and power generators—geothermal and hydroelectric.
“I like what you’ve done with the place!” Theron Shan nodded approvingly. “So we’re working on the Cantinas and barracks complexes next before we expand training facilities, right?”.
“And that’s not even where it ends,” Lana said proudly. “We will be building farming and industrial settlements as well, to aim for some self-sufficiency. We had planned to make this a mid- or even long-term settlement in case this turned into a long war. We hadn’t counted on the Gravestone yet.”
“You’ve established a permanent colony here!” Arro was impressed. “A stronghold, even!”
“Why here?” Koth asked.
“It’s remote, undiscovered, away from most Zakuulan hyper lanes, unsettled, and strong in the Force. But unlike Tython or Korriban, this world is balanced—it doesn’t lean Light or Dark, not even a bit.”
Farya nodded, impressed. “How’d you find it?”
Lana shrugged modestly. “The Force guided me here. I’ve always had a strong connection to it.”
Senya barked a laugh. “That would have sounded more impressive if Arro hadn’t uncovered the Gravestone like it was nothing!”
Chuckling again, Lana gestured to the people gathering around them. They seemed to come from all walks of life; Imperial, Republic, and even some Zakuulans; Soldiers, Jedi, Sith, mercenaries, engineers, scientists, and pilots; all from dozens of species.
“This is our new Alliance now.”
“We need to give it a name,” Arro said. “The ‘Odessen Alliance’ sounds right!”
“Yeah, that’s cool,” Koth nodded impatiently, nudging Arro forward. “Now show them what you’re made of.”
“Hello!” Arro nervously smiled at everyone. “My name is Arro. Err- I’m a Jedi.”
Arro was increasingly impressed by his tour of the different enclaves; Military, Logistics and Information, Science and Technology, and Force. Each were getting beyond optimal levels of output with limited resources.
The Smuggler hero Hylo Visz just winked when asked where they were getting their funds from, though she did sober up and explain that they would need to find a better sponsor fast. “I have someone looking into that though,” she said, expression between fond and irritated. “He and his partners are working on getting us a large slush-fund that should help us keep the doors open for the next few years.”
The respected Hutt scientist, Doctor Illip Oggurobb, was just as enthusiastic about his research as Arro remembered. “While we are ahead in some ways, in others we are outclassed. In this hallowed temple of science, I aim to reduce that gap, eliminate it entirely, then widen it again but in our favor this time. To that end I will need to gather the best minds the galaxy has to offer, and get us all creating together.”
Arro grinned. “I expect nothing less, Doctor. And with you as Head of our Science Enclave I think we stand a very real chance of accomplishing that goal.”
Oggurobb nodded approvingly. Arro continued. “I have another little riddle for you; the riddle of the Carbonite Poisoning.”
“Aah yes!” The Hutt boomed delightedly. “As we discussed during the holocall, it would be my pleasure to study your symptoms to study the effect of long term Carbonite imprisonment on your mental faculties, in addition to that rare poisoning.”
“You’re in luck since I’m still suffering from hibernation sickness. I need to rest and recover anyways, so I won’t be doing anything too stressful for the next few weeks. You should have me to yourself for a while. Just don’t do anything invasive without my approval.”
“‘Without my approval’, he says!” Oggurobb laughed. “Not to worry, I am not one of those hacks who needs to cut open his patients to study their symptoms. A few interviews, and blood and tissue samples are all I need.”
The Military Enclave was led by Admiral Bey’wan Aygo, and consisted of professional soldiers of all specialties from all sides of the war, as well as beings that had served with local militias and police forces. There were many more present than Arro had expected, and despite their different origins, saluted as one when he arrived to inspect them. They wore their old uniforms, but their chestplates were striped blue and red, and the insignias on their shoulders bore a fused Republic and Sith device.
“Amazing recruitment efforts, eh, Jedi?” The Bothan Admiral grinned. “Many soldiers here who, uh, disagree with the tyranny of Arcann’s rule, seen the tributes slowly sucking the life out of countless worlds. And ever since the Battle of Asylum, our feelers are picking up more and more recruits every hour. Within a few weeks, we should have a force numbering in the tens of thousands! With these numbers we can maintain a decent garrison here, while also forming special units for surgical strikes.”
“I am most impressed, Admiral.” Arro bowed. Aygo’s Second in command, Commodore Pardex called a command and the troops dispersed in good order.
“There is one thing, however.” The Bothan brought Arro’s attention to a holoprojector displaying an Orbital station. “These are what Zakuulans call ‘Star Fortresses’. They’ve been built around dozens of key worlds like Corellia, Dromund Kaas, Coruscant, and many others. These are heavily armed bases that are meant to keep these worlds in line—and to punish them if they rebel. We will need to destroy as many of these as we can, in as short a timespan as possible. Trouble is, they’re shielded and armored. They have turrets and missile launchers to defend against air raids, and sizable garrisons under command of an elite bunch called ‘Exarchs’. We still know next to nothing about them, but during your rescue, Lana secured a lot of data, including schematics of the Star Fortresses. These are still being decrypted though. I recommend they be our first priority as soon as they’re decrypted.”
“Very Well, Admiral.” Arro nodded. “Once you know what you need, let me know, we can begin putting together a concrete plan.”
The Force Enclave was what Arro had been looking forward to—and apprehensive about the—most. Both Jedi and Sith had been hit hard by Zakuul’s war. There weren’t supposed to be many of either Order left. Certainly not enough for a Round Two. And led by a Voss Mystic, who for all their gifts in foresight, knew nothing of Jedi or Sith. Add to that their ancient rivalry and he was worried about them working together. It had taken the combined wills of Darth Marr and Grand Master Satele to keep the alliance at Yavin IV together.
But when he entered the enclave he was greeted by a sight that greatly lifted his spirits. The Jedi and Sith were each doing their own tasks—and some were even working together. There were even some Voss present. Among the Jedi there were many he recognized, including Jasme Shan, Theron’s twin sister. She bounced over to him with her typical enthusiasm when she saw him enter.
“Arro! Arro, you’re here, you’re really here!” She beamed, wringing his hands.
“So they tell me!” Arro smiled at her. “It’s good to see you again Jasme. I was happy to hear that you made it through the war alright.”
“Made it through alright?” Jasme repeated, amused. “I worked in the archives, remember?”
“That doesn’t automatically make you safe, remember?”
Jasme had been on Tython during the attack orchestrated by the Revanites. She had only narrowly escaped death—Darth Prowle had spared all unarmed personnel, including Force-wielders if they surrendered. Under any other Sith commander, the order would have been to kill.
“Well, that’s true,” she admitted, joy fading. Her angular features turned downcast as she recalled memories that no doubt haunted her dreams. “Zakuul attacked Tython as well. But unlike the Sith, their attack began with an orbital strike. Me, several other archivists, and Master Zoran secured our master Holocron and as many other sources and relics as possible and took shelter in the bunker when it started. There weren’t many of us left by then, so Master Zoran ordered everyone to just surrender without a fight when the Zakuulans landed. There was no ground attack, but there were casualties in the bombardment itself.”
“I’m so sorry you had to live through that,” Arro whispered, silently adding to himself Again .
“Well, after that the Zakuulans pulled back, and we that survived left with the relief force once it arrived. There was no Order left for us on Tython. Only ghosts.”
“But here on Odessen,” a gentle voice said. “We can begin anew.” The voice belonged to the Voss Mystic who led this assorted bunch.
“Mystic Sana-Rae,” Arro bowed to her. “A pleasure to meet you in person. I see you’re off to a splendid start. I am most grateful for your talent.”
“Thank you. But your gratitude is not necessary,” she murmured. “The Mystics see; the Voss respond. We do what we must to protect Voss. In working with you, we serve the Galaxy, we serve Voss. It is we who are honored, Commander.”
In the Throne Room of the Eternal Empire, Akahte stood nearby as Emperor Arcann and his sister High Justice Vaylin watched a very disturbing Holorecording.
A sped-up recording of just over a dozen technicians working desperately at their terminals. Right behind them stood the dreaded Outlander himself, he who had killed the Immortal Emperor. He stood with a look of intense concentration on his face, staring at everything through eyes half-closed. His eyeballs seemed a blur as they shifted focus across several different subjects every second. Flashing emergency beacons lighting the background hinted at the cacophony of alarms wailing in the background.
As time passed, the signs that something was wrong started to disappear; there were fewer sparks and discharges, the smoke lessened, and machinery that looked ready to rupture from the stress began to settle down, their load having been apparently shunted. The recording slowed to normal time, and things in the feed returned to normal as well, before power was abruptly cut off and it went dark. The video dissolved to show an alien of the Zakuulan territories. A Khroovan.
“My name is Caradha,” the woman spoke. “I have tried to process these events over the past week. Here are the facts. While chasing the Outlander, our High Justice Vaylin purposely damaged a reactor hoping to kill him. She was willing to allow hundreds of thousands of us to die in order to kill one man, the Outlander. Granted, this man is her father’s killer, but Princess Vaylin has made no secret of the fact that she despised her father. On the other hand, the Outlander. An enemy of Zakuul, imprisoned for five years and in near-critical condition from said imprisonment, he chose to save me, save us. He could have run. He would have made it out, if only just. But he risked his life to save us. The people of the Eternal City.
Who is friend, and who is foe, I wonder?”
She took a deep breath. “The more we of Zakuul tried to tell the Core worlders of what their ‘Hero’ had done, the stronger the voices of his support. The entire galaxy, including his enemies the Sith, refused to accept our voices of slander. And now I know why. Brothers, sisters, Gentlebeings of Zakuul. In the last five years, we have tried to ignore the tyranny of our Emperor Arcann, of his gluttonous Chimaera of a sister. But it has come time to stop. We cannot in good conscience bow down to them any longer. On the one hand I hesitate to ask an outsider to determine our fate, yet there is no one else strong enough to oppose Arcann. Gods have mercy on me, I cast my lot in with the Outlander, in the pursuit of a better society—the one Zakuul was meant to be. I am one of hundreds, already. Stand with us. Stand for Zakuul.” With that the recording ended.
Akahte was impressed. This woman boldly identified herself, practically daring a reprisal. Whether it came or not, she would win. She would either be a martyr or a leader. And she had wondered how that reactor hadn’t blown. She had chalked it up to the dumbest of luck, but to see that her one-time ally had in fact had a hand in this—had used the Force in some way that eluded even her—well, she always did know he was not to be taken lightly.
She didn’t see Arcann’s response. With a hiss like a charging leopard, Vaylin burst out of the room, and Akahte hastened to follow.
“A ‘Gluttonous Chimaera’,” she seethed. “That’s what she called me.”
“Mother used to tell me stories.” Vaylin’s eyes were bloodshot, tears welling up which she was refusing to shed. “When I was born, they called me the ‘Jewel of Zakuul’!” Her voice was cracking, emotion leaking through her ability to control them. “Now they call me a Chimaera!”
“They don’t know what Valkorion did to you,” Akahte murmured soothingly. “If you are a monster, it’s because He tried His hardest to turn you into one. But you can rise above that! Show yourself that you are better!”
Vaylin didn’t respond in words, but Akahte could feel the question burning white-hot within her. Am I really though?
Chapter 29: Growing Pains
Four months after their founding, the Alliance is growing strong, but their leader is still suffering. And Arcann grows impatient.
Four months later .
Senya was a master of the sword of the Zakuulan school. She had beaten countless opponents over the years, and some had called her the greatest blademaster of the age. But now she sparred with the Jedi Battlemaster Arro Silver. His skill was unparalleled. Even her own teacher Shoyisa, the Unrelenting Master of the Blade, would be no match for him. Her respect for him grew with each exchange, and she began to allow that this man really had beaten Valkorion in fair combat. Thrice, if you counted the times he beat the Sith Emperor who was an avatar of Valkorion. Lana hadn't been lying. Or exaggerating. His rispostes were perfect, his reflexes lightning-fast, his attacks nigh-unstoppable.
And what was more important, people respected him for his abilities. His accomplishments. Jedi and Sith, Imperial and Republic, there was no difference. Senya had seen a lot of these men and women before, and she could tell just how much their morale had lifted just by seeing their old hero again. And that had been before this duel. They had realized that the stories simply could not match the man himself. Even the exiles and rebels from Zakuul were now firm believers.
Lana had been right, so right. It wasn't just his skill that was important, it was his effect as a symbol. He brought hope to a fight most had given up on winning.
Arro pivoted, abruptly changing the angle of his attack at the last possible second, then scored five more hits on her arms and chest before he finally knocked her training saber out of her hand.
"I yield," she said, panting. Laughing. How long since she had been pushed so hard like this? Senya thought that he could defeat Darth Prowle at her best, even as he was now. How good would he be at *his* best?
As their audience burst into applause, she regarded the Jedi, who seemed to be fighting off the pain again. "I dearly hope we never have to fight for keeps, someday, Commander," she addressed him. "I've never been at such a disadvantage before."
"I'll say!" Vortena chimed in. "You looked like you were trying to paddle a ship in the rapids with only your hand!" She fought the impulse to glare at him. She had to admit, he was probably right.
"Beautiful Display, Battlemaster!" the Sith Lord Darth Sapphirus rumbled. "Truly magnificent!"
"Thank you, Lord Sapphirus," Arro acknowledged.
Senya took a few sips from the bottle Lem had offered her, watching for a while as the throng of admirers congratulated him on his skill. She was starting to have a great feeling about their chances.
It took a while before the crowd melted away, going back to their own business. Lana, TeeSeven, Theron Shan and Hylo Wisz were some of the few other than Koth who remained. In her typical fashion, Lana managed to look only professionally pleased rather than exultant as someone might expect of someone who had just seen how awesome her husband was.
"That went even better than I had hoped!" She beamed. "I never expected Darth Sapphirus of all people to cheer that hard!" TeeSeven trilled an excited agreement, saying how wonderful it had been to watch him spar again.
"That makes me wonder how you failed to beat Arcann on Asylum," Koth said. "Senya did say that he's far stronger than her but less skilled. But you should have been able to take him."
"It's the carbon poisoning," Lana said. "It still affects him. The pain spiked just as he was about to finish off Arcann."
"What...? Oh Hell! Dammit!" Now that she mentioned it, the reason was obvious! "But that's a huge liability, what if it happens again? You inspired a lot of people today, but if your body fails you again, Arcann will kill you. And the same people will end up *losing* all that hope!"
"It worries me as well," Lana said. "I don't like having to just pray that nothing happens when you face Arcann the next time."
She tried and failed to hide the note of anguish she felt at the thought. Not for the first time, he felt envious of the Outlander, to have managed to so firmly earn the love of this ice-cold woman. While he was certain she could have just as easily fallen in love with someone else, Koth doubted she'd ever turn the galaxy upside down trying to save them the way she had Arro. For the first few months he had thought that she was lying about Arro, that she simply wanted to save her love. Over time, he had come to accept that Lana was too pragmatic to go that far out of the way even for someone she loved.
But he had still wondered on occasion, as recently as their escape from Zakuul. Arro had shown his nobility, but Lana still had had to lend a shoulder for him to lean on from time to time just to walk; he'd been that weak. He had certainly never put on the display he had today.
He had come to share Lana's faith in Arro's skills and presence. He had even come to ardently admire the heroism that had led Arro to risk his own life to save so many Zakuulans within hours of his escape. He hadn't realized until much later just how much of a risk it had been. Koth felt certain that even he himself couldn't have made the call that Arro had.
"It's certainly a problem," Arro said. "But I won't be facing Arcann again for some time now. I will work with Oggurobb and Sana-Re, maybe even visit the Shrine of Healing on Voss. But we needn't worry ourselves sick right now. We move a step at a time."
Their collective relief was so clear that a dead man could have felt it.
Later that day, Arro stood in the War Room along with Lana, Theron, Koth, Senya, Hylo and Admiral Aygo. The day’s reports from their allies and teams across the Galaxy.
“Choza Raabat from Alderaan,” the Ithorian on the other end of the transmission reported. “I am pleased to report that we have finished stockpiling supplies. We will be ready to storm the bunker at your signal.”
“Veeroa Denz here,” said the Nautolan woman. “The teams on Nar Shadda are standing by.”
“Hemdil Tre from Hoth. We on Hoth are ready.”
“This is Leyta reporting from Tatooine. We are ready to begin.”
“Rokuss speaks. We Gormak are are ready to strike alongside our Voss brethren.”
“K’korohl here, from Belsavis. A day or a year, we will be ready when you give the word.”
“Excellent.” Arro approved. “I promise, it won’t be a year—a month at most. Once we begin, things will get intense, so remember to eat your vitamins, everybody!”
They all chuckled politely as they disconnected.
The reports were good beyond all expectations: teams on Coruscant, Corellia, Dromund Kaas, Begeren, Dromund Fels, and hundreds of worlds—Republic and Sith—had gathered all the necessary supplies and would continue training. When they received the word, all teams would mobilize at once. In a series of coordinated strikes unprecedented in their scale, these teams would attack the Shield Bunkers protecting every last one of the Star Fortresses, heralding the start of the Alliance’s major offensive against the tyranny of Zakuul.
Up until now, they had been playing a game of cat-and-mouse, small-scale sabotage and infiltrations, testing Zakuul’s defenses and their own new technology developed by Oggurobb. There had been a few defeats, but the shadow campaign Lana and Theron had helped Arro concoct had been overwhelmingly successful.
“Well,” Theron shook his head in wonder. “It’s all coming together! And so quickly too!”
“It was thanks to the intel Lana secured for us,” Aygo grinned. “We never would have gotten this far without it!”
“But it’s not just the intel,” Lana said. “Imagine us having gained the resources to tackle all those Fortresses in a single Operation! This is beyond what I had hoped for!”
“All that’s left is for Jorgan and Havoc to identify where on Zakuul our first strike should land,” Arro said. “When we finally strike, we need to hit as hard as possible.”
“And that’s yet another thing I can’t believe,” Senya said. “That your actions at the reactor could cause such a stir. For an Outlander, you have gathered a decent following on Zakuul as well!”
“That was only because Vaylin was the one who caused that incident,” Theron said. “In one move she showed that she was a danger, and the Outlander a friend.”
“Yep!” Koth said proudly. “It’s like I always said; it’s destiny, plain and simple! It was meant to be! We’re gonna win this.”
Above the skies of Zakuul, hundreds of rows of Eternal Warships were on display in impressive fashion. They seemed to be a cloud around the outer Atmosphere of Zakuul—around the Spire of the Golden Heavens, daunting in their size and a loud statement of invincibility.
Vaylin stepped out of the elevator as soon as the doors opened, Akahte on her heel. They strode together down the corridor, a dozen Knights standing guard on each side.
Arcann wasn’t happy. He never was anymore. His forces forever seemed on the back foot nowadays, the Outlander’s Alliance running circles around his people. “You return empty-handed, again!”
“I missed you,” Vaylin smiled. Her voice was playful, but her fury was bubbling just beneath the surface.
“The Outlander, the Gravestone, where are they?”
“Patrols in five sectors report no sign of either!” Vaylin sang. “Perhaps they’re just figments of our imagination!”
Arcann paced and seethed before his throne. “
knows the truth!”
After thinking for a few minutes, he stopped pacing, and sat down very determinedly on the Throne.
“I know that look,” Vaylin teased. “You’re about to order something wonderful !”
“Choose one heavily populated planet in each of the five sectors. Take the fleet to each of them and commence orbital bombardment.”
“For how long?”
“Til’ they’re dust. Someone knows, someone will talk. But only if they are given reason to.”
Akahte could see the cruel delight on Vaylin’s face as they left to carry out Arcann’s order. She wanted this. But just as they prepared to board the shuttle, Vaylin stopped with sudden hesitation, and indicated that Akahte halt as well.
“You don’t have to come with me,” Vaylin said softly. “This isn’t the path you hoped I would take.”
“Maybe not, but if you’re decided, then I set my opinions aside. I live only for you now. I will do whatever you ask of me.”
“Then I ask that you remain here,” Vaylin said. She sounded… sad. Conflicted. “I can no longer be the girl you deserve, and it would pain me for you to witness just how different I am from her.”
Akahte felt cold. “As you wish, Vaylin. But remember that I will always love you, always be proud of you. And if you end up thinking that this is the wrong path after all, you can change it—now, or in the future—and I will be waiting for you. I will always continue to hope”
Vaylin gave a soft gasp and pulled Akahte in a passionate kiss that Akahte eagerly returned. They broke apart, both trembling slightly, both with tears unexpectedly rolling down their cheeks.
Face flushed, Vaylin whispered. “This is the only path I have left to take. All others have been closed to me. I am a monster.” Glutton. Chimaera . “No matter how much I change, I will always revert at the end of the day.”
“You give yourself too little credit,” Akahte reassured her. “One day, you will see yourself the way I do—that every breath you take is in defiance to the man who tried to make you into that monster. That you are a wondrous, incredible young woman, strong—and in more than just in the Force. I will wait for you here on Zakuul. I will be here when you are ready to try again… and Vaylin? I love you so much!”
"So you're telling me the Throne itself is not what commands the fleet?" Arro asked.
"That's it exactly," Theron said. "Broadcasting the signal to thousands of ships across the galaxy takes tremendous power. Which is why the need for a Hyperwave relay system. And it is the only source of the GEMINI frequency to or from the Throne. It's buried ten kilometers below the spire and draws power from two hundred reactors that tap in directly to the planet's core."
They were gathered in the briefing room. SCORPIO had found something interesting while cross-referencing the intel gathered by both Kaliyo and Havoc, seeking the perfect target for their first strike. This relay station was perfect.
"That station is the key to the GEMINI frequency,” Lana said crisply. “If we tap into it, we can eavesdrop on the enemy's plans. A strike team can disable the station right under Arcann's nose, but only if we do it as soon as possible. Our intel grows stale even as we speak."
"Havoc was made for this op," Jorgan said. "We have enough detonite to turn that relay station into a smoking crater. Cut the head off the serpent, and throw the fleet into chaos."
But Kaliyo was already shaking her head. "You're trusting the fate of the galaxy into the hands of these grenade happy bucketheads?" She demanded. "We're only going to get one shot at this. And lucky for you, one shot is all I need."
"Is that what you tell all your victims?" Koth sneered.
"Destroying that relay station is a bonehead play. Send me, and you'll *control* the GEMINI frequency."
"The idea has potential," Lana allowed. "And she's an experienced infiltrator who survived on Zakuul for years."
"She bombed my people. Never again!" Senya declared.
Arro thought for a moment and shook his head. "SCORPIO, what would the fleet do with no one to control it?"
"Unknown," SCORPIO replied. "You should remember that the Eternal Fleet predated Zakuul. Before, it simply drifted. Supposedly the Throne was aboard the lead vessel, the Eternity. But they are clearly warships, so I would assume they were used for waging war. Against whom, I cannot say. But I calculate high odds that they return to their primary function when we destroy the signal."
"Hijacking the signal is risky at best, but... I think that's our only option right now."
"So it's decided then," Lana said. "And a diversionary team to draw fire away from the true objective is vital, I'd say that HAVOC has that job."
"We won't let you down." Jorgan said "You're right, we can't afford to blow it up without knowing the consequences of such a move." He had grasped what Arro was implying. Well, he was a decorated officer after all.
"Kaliyo, the relay station is yours."
"Lucky me," Kaliyo gave them a wide, sinister smile.
They had already begun to set up a rendezvous to plan and prep for their operation when the call was terminated on their end.
Arro stifled a groan as the pain in his lungs spiked again, and he fought a wave of dizziness. He realized that Senya and Koth had said something to him, and he nodded tiredly. "It'll be fine," he tried to assure them, knowing their trepidation of allowing Kaliyo a chance to kill. "She has promised not to hurt an-"
His words trailed off and his mind went blank. He vaguely saw faces swimming above him, their frantic voices sounding muffled and distant as though he was underwater. "It'll be fine..." he said again, his voice sounding slow and small. Then all went dark.
SCORPIO had noticed the telltale signs of the Jedi's affliction getting worse. He was usually quite good at hiding the symptoms, even from her, but she had noticed when his eyes began to glaze over, his spasms getting worse and more frequent. His voice growing ever softer. But even to her, the sudden spike in his symptoms was a shock.
The organics all swarmed around him, Lady Beniko holding onto him for dear life as though her mere embrace could save him. Senya had dashed off to call for a medic; SCORPIO hoped she would be discreet- it wouldn't do to let word slip how precarious their hero's situation was. But of course these people were good at dealing with emergencies so she needn't have worried. Senya had returned with only a few Medical droids and Oggurobb following her. They had the Commander secured in a medical capsule and on the way to a more private suite of the medbay in minutes.
SCORPIO felt a growing sense of annoyance. She needed this one alive until she could accomplish her goals. Lady Beniko had been right in her assessment that he was probably the only one left that could challenge the Throne- both as a champion and a symbol. But his recovery was beyond her power, and that irked her.
She thought she finally understood what the organics meant when they said "Hope".
Echoing her thoughts, Lady Beniko whispered, "It's up to him to fight now. All we can do is hope."
Arro knew the Dreamscape for what it was even as he woke. He remembered blacking out and was fairly certain he was not encased in carbonite this time.
He was on a world whose sun was setting, casting long golden beams over forest capped hills and long dark shadows over the valleys. The alpine trees around him were serene and still. A shallow river ran along nearby, it's sound adding to the lazy symphony of birds, beasts and foliage as night settled. Fireflies danced nearby, adding magic to the scene. As always, the first thing he tried was to reach Lana. The contact was strong, but warped somehow.
"Well, well. Awake at last."
Valkorion was hovering nearby, silent as a shadow. His eyes burned with subarctic fury.
"You see what your earlier refusal has cost you? You had the opportunity to kill my son and take his place as Emperor. To end this war. If you had accepted My gift, you wouldn't have to worry about facing him again despite your affliction. Yet here We are, again. You grow weaker every day, and your chances of victory dim with it! Pitiful. Why did I ever believe you could change anything?"
"You may say that, but I think that deep down, you approve. I survive by my own will. Fight with my own strength. I do not use crutches. I might have my obstacles, but I also have my strengths." Arro replied
Valkorion stared for a moment then smiled coldly. "Well done! Rather than lecture Me on power and the temptation and consequences, you phrase your reasons in terms I can respect. But I know what you leave out, child. You fear me. Just like you fear that affliction of yours, and of losing the little Sith you so love, and of losing this war. You are drowning in fear and desperation, Jedi. You may have the strength to deal with it, but it is a costly struggle. You have little energy to deal with what's really important."
Arro had to admit that he was right.
"You wish to go on with just your strength alone? Then I will respect that wish. But let me offer you this advice instead: if your strength is insufficient... Then become stronger. Simple logic isn't it? Embrace your full potential."
"Very simple indeed, but I don’t know how. Any suggestions?"
"You ask me for a simple answer, and refuse to look within. That is the essence of your failure. I cannot stay and protect you any longer, for there are matters to which I must attend. Fulfill your destiny and I promise to return."
Arro sighed. While he was relieved at the thought of Valkorion departing, the implication that He could exert His influence elsewhere troubled him. It meant that Valkorion existed independent of him. He had hoped that he could keep the demon in check for a while, to come up with a solution of destroying Him for good. But if He existed in avatars and forms aside from Arro himself, they would never find Him, and they could never be certain that they had seen the last of Him.
However, he couldn't dwell on that for now. Now, he had to puzzle out Valkorion's words. The spirit was right. He had to deal with this problem. Even though he was far from thrilled to admit it, he knew that if they lost him now, the Alliance morale would cripple.
With no clue where to begin, he decided to go back to the basics.
He sat down on a nearby boulder. He emptied his mind. He began remembering the Jedi code.
There is no Emotion, only Peace.
No Ignorance, only Knowledge.
No Passion, only serenity.
No Chaos, only Harmony.
No Death, only the Force.
Hmm what was that Valkorion had said? That he was drowning in fear. How could he be strong when he had been forgetting what gave a Jedi their strength? There was no peace where there was fear. There was no tranquility where there was pain.
He needed to relearn the basics, it seemed. To find his centre even when fear and pain nipped at his heels.
That's right, he told himself. The pain is nothing, it has no hold over me.
As if in response, he felt his pain shooting up again. His concentration broke and he doubled over. Chuckling, he tried again. And again.
No luck. The pain was more frequent now, and terrible enough to break through his concentration. Perhaps that was understandable: his mind might be whole but his body was not. It would still be screaming its distress even as his mind meditated here.
He sat back up, fighting off another spasm, and his body began to calm down again soon after. Face sweating, limbs trembling, he lay on the forest floor for a moment and allowed his memories of Tython to come to the fore. He remembered his arrival. His blood soaked welcoming carpet. He remembered his pain that day, his horror at all that carnage. And he remembered Grand Master Shan personally taking the time to help him come to grips with his shock.
"If you’re listening, I could really use your help, Master Satele.."
"I agree," a voice called out from the trees. It was familiar yet foreign. The musical notes and pleasant accent belonged to her but the cool hardness did not.
Arro sat up and turned around. It was her. Grand Master Shan.
"I have waited for you, for such a long time," she said, as she led him to her home. It wasn't too far away, so she had motioned him to remain silent as they walked, but Arro had been so bursting with things to say that the journey might have lasted much longer. She was semi-solid, like the surroundings, indicating that she was real and living on the world he was dreaming about.
She was different than when he had last seen her. Her face was gaunt, and far more lined. Her demeanor bespoke great sorrow. Her clothes, while neat and clean, were worn and faded as though she had been living hard some time. Her hair was the same. Well combed into braids and clean, but worn and white. Thinning. Her gait was slow, she walked with a pronounced limp. Upon closer inspection you could see had lost her right thumb. The war had left a heavy toll on her body, Arro could only begin to guess what it had done to her soul.
In time, the smell of something cooking filled the air. Nearby, a small pillar of smoke indicated the presence of a campfire.
Satele leapt off the ledge and into a clearing. The camp was fairly large: A variant of Arro's own Defender model ship sat nearby. A few tables were laden with what looked like Holocrons, datapads and tomes.
Nearby he saw some logs that had been cut down and moved with the Force, stored for later use. Some tents being used to store tools and supplies outside the ship.There were even a variety of garden crops being grown in several greenhouse tents.
Satele finally spoke. "Welcome to my home, ‘Outlander’."
"Just Satele is fine," she said.
"This camp isn't new; you've been here a while. Where are we? Why are you here?"
A shadow passed across her face. She seemed exhausted beyond all measure.
"Many things changed while you were imprisoned in Carbonite. I led the fight to save the Republic from Zakuul. Nothing prepared me to face that enemy. I failed. Again, and again. When the Jedi Order collapsed, I gave myself to the will of the Force. I left the Core worlds and found this planet. We've been here for years. Waiting"
"‘We’? Is there someone else with you?"
"We are never truly alone in the Force," Satele answered. A flash of irritation. "Yes, I was going to offer him a meal,” she mumbled to the air beside her. “Stop rushing me."
Turning back to Arro she said, "You're going through quite an ordeal. Come. Sit. There's food."
Arro was starting to feel a little wary. "Who else is here? Do you entertain multiple disembodied visitors here or something?"
"Just you and one other, for now," she said. "It's good that I am so far from civilisation. I don't need a pack of youngsters pointing at me and saying "Oooo! there's that senile old Jedi who talks to herself!""
Arro didn't know how to respond.
Satele continued. "When we found your spirit in that clearing, we hesitated before deciding to help you. But then, we felt something we'd lost for a long time. Hope."
"So will you be introducing me to your other guest soon?"
"You've already been introduced to me," a voice spoke to him from the swirling mists. "In fact, you saw me die. I was grateful that you were there, in those last moments. That I wasn't alone among enemies when I died... that there was one I could call an ally... it gave me some comfort."
The cool night air shimmered, and a shade of Darth Marr appeared. Unlike Satele and the forest, which were semi-solid, his body seemed made of light made into mist. A Force Ghost, like Master Orgus.
Arro stared for a moment. Then shook his head. "It's not like I'm certain to recognize you without that armour, but why do you still have it, even in death?"
"I appear as I wish to be remembered. As a symbol."
"We three are all symbols here, Darth Marr."
"Fair enough," Marr allowed. He shimmered again, and his armour changed into simple Dark robes. The face behind the mask was as Arro remembered. And yet like Satele’s, it was completely different as well. More peaceful, more… Light.
What surprised Arro most; there was a small smile on Marr's lined face.
"Hello, my young friend. It feels like a lifetime since we last met."
"Beating Arcann is easy," he sighed. "It's... it's my body. The last time I fought him, it was my body that gave. The carbon poisoning, the damage from the torture... the pain was there before but that time, it just peaked, without warning. It froze me, left me at his mercy. And now I have a lightsaber wound, that hasn’t fully healed, adding to the pain. I can't do it, not like this. I need to master my own body first."
"Indeed," the ghost of Marr said gently. Arro thought that he would never get used to Marr's new personality. "You were always more than a Jedi. You were their Sword. Their weapon, forged and honed to protect the innocent."
"But that is no longer enough," Satele said. "You were forged to fight as a protector. But now your war begins to encompass so much more. Conquest. For it will not be enough to defeat Arcann. The Eternal Throne and the fleet it commands are the greatest threats this galaxy has yet faced."
"Once you are victorious and Arcann lies defeated, it is your destiny to take the Throne," Marr continued. "Any other path leads only into chaos.To forge the future you need to break with the past. Victory in this war requires new perspectives... and new weapons."
"The old ways are not enough. We will help you find a new way. Reforge yourself, and become the weapon that will bring victory."
They were speaking in perfect unison, one will speaking with two voices.
"In life," Marr spoke, "I dismissed the Jedi Code. I was wrong, There is no death, there is the Force. And it has a plan. The will of the Force is a flowing current. You can follow or fight it. But it is always there."
"Nor is the Sith code wrong," Satele said. "Even if we ignore our mortality, our flesh, we exist in this world just as much as the Force. Living, feeling, exulting- they are not things to avoid. In the end, it's being at peace with yourself that matters." Then added, rather slyly,"Even if it means marrying the Sith who you love so dearly."
Arro grinned. It was good to know she was willing to forgive him for that.
"This new way..." Marr cautioned. "It can easily be taken as license to live a life of debauchery. It is important that freedom be given only once one understands responsibility. And Conscience."
"... and the Force." Satele finished.
"Now it is time to reforge yourself. You will become a pure extension of the Force's will. And you will control it."
"We will add our power to the reforging. But you must guide your own rebirth. Decide what form it takes."
"I am ready," Arro responded. He closed his eyes, began to meditate. The Force flowed through him, its currents ebbing and flowing, churning and crashing.
They began intoning, first Satele, then Marr.
"Find the Peace—" "—within Passion."
"Find the Strength—" "—born from Knowledge."
"Seek the Power—" "—within the depths of Serenity."
"Victory comes—" "—by finding Harmony."
"Freedom is yours... by the Will of the Force" The two finished in one voice.
Arro meditated on the words, his new mantra. Each pair sounded like a paradox; alike, yet contradictory. And most of all, it seemed to encompass all that meant being alive, and free.
"You could not resist the pain," Satele said. "So now you fear it."
"Don't be afraid... Embrace it. Let it be another source of your strength." Marr whispered.
"Find peace in the knowledge that you are strong enough to face what comes."
"Find strength in all that which thrills you, for you will know a true peace within your surrender."
"Today you leave the path of the Jedi behind." "Think no more Light or Dark. Think only of Balance."
"You are Ronin now, sworn to no Master or Code, answerable only to the Force, and your own conscience." They ended, together.
The swirls of the Force began to take shape, the current became stronger and more deadly, yet more controlled. He could see the Force with a different clarity than he had before. It was an ocean and a storm of emotion and calm, of lights and winds of all colours and brightness chasing each other, flows converging and diverging to form a great tapestry; one whose true scope he could never hope to understand. And he existed within that storm. And it existed in him. Understanding came, and his mind began to respond to the various sensations that flowed through it. He felt stronger, wiser.
And as his limits began to expand far beyond what he thought was possible, he woke.
As her former student’s presence faded from, Satele drank in deep from the Force. She sought ought the sudden shift that had taken place when Arro had completed his task. “Do you feel it Marr? The Force draws us elsewhere.”
“Our Exile on this moon is over. The Force beckons, and we must follow. Do you think Arro—?”
“His path is his own now. Only the Force knows what’s ahead.”
“But still, do you think he can do it?”
“Defeat Zakuul? Of course. Bear his true burden? Of course not. The Galaxy is doomed. But he didn’t need to know that.”
On a rocky, dead world far far away, the Sith Pureblood’s eyes shot open with a start.
This feeling… could it be?
A deep intake of the Force, the Dark Side filled his being. The wrongness within him— the souls that had been crying for release since the past three hundred years—suddenly fell silent. They felt it too. Anticipated it.
His Jedi Master was back. Lord Scourge had lost a lot of his mortality in his transformation, but not this one. The feeling of triumph spread throughout him and his lips parted in a feral grin.
He activated the emergency channel on his Holocom. “Kira Carsen. If you can hear me... I assume you felt it as well? Our Master is alive and more powerful than ever. A conflagration is at hand, and I go to finish what I once started. I will be leaving Ziost at long last.”
This Chapter, combined with Chapter 29 was the first one I had written in Arro's story months ago. Before Vengeance, before Shatterpoint, before I even knew the name Arro. It was meant to be Chapter 15 in my original Outline, but here we are at Chapter 30! It has been waiting a long time to see the light of day.
Please let me know if you have any thoughts you'd like to share!
Chapter 31: The Fires Spread
The first signal.
At last! The assorted mix of Voss, Gormak, and Alliance eagerly rallied at their chosen staging point on Voss, then sent out their Ready signal.
They had been preparing for this moment for over three months. Everything had come together so quickly! They had lost a humiliating defeat to Zakuul, then forced to pay an oppressive tribute.
And then there were those infernal Space Stations! Heavily armed and well defended, these bastions allowed Zakuul to keep some of the more troublesome conquered worlds still crushed under their boot. These Fortresses allowed swift reprisals to any unrest—real or perceived—so they quickly crushed all thoughts of resistance.
Until eleven months ago, when talk began about an uprising against Zakuul. An Alliance of both Republic and Sith assets, led by the White Knight himself, who had gone missing so many moons ago.
While many joined this cause, even more were reluctant. After all, Zakuul had captured this Jedi without a problem before, what was different now? Why should they allow themselves to feel a shred of hope only to see it viciously torn down?
In response the Alliance feelers asked the fighters to simply prepare, to maintain their fighting readiness like soldiers normally would. They promised to earn their cooperation with a show of strength.
However, Rokuus thought that even the Alliance themselves hadn’t expected the flamboyant show that was the Battle of Asylum. In one fight, Zakuul had been bloodied, and though they were the ostensible victors in the battle, their hero—Arro Silver—survived an encounter with Arcann. In fact, Rokuus had watched the heavily broadcast feed, astounded, as the Jedi had crushed two dozen Zakuul knights like they were nothing. He had his enemy at his mercy, and it was only a poorly timed explosion that had cut off the feed. Later they had learned that this explosion had allowed Arcann to live that day.
Zakuul had lost hundreds of ships, both in this encounter and the one that took place just a few days prior—when Arro and his rescuers broke out from Zakuul.
But more importantly, they had once again lost their aura of invincibility. Their blood was in the water, and the sharks had begun to circle.
This time felt different from the bloody campaign waged under Darth Prowle—for the Jedi had uncovered a weapon built to dominate entire fleets. A sign of providence if ever there was one!
And so, Rokuus had eagerly led the coalition of Voss and Gormak through the build-up phase, where they selected a hideout close to the Shield Bunker, then moved the various shipments from the Alliance there. And when their buildup was completed, they waited, they trained. They familiarized themselves with this technology and their roles in handling it, through intense drills.
The second Signal was sent out if the last team had announced its readiness within an hour of the first.
At this signal, a thirty minute countdown began. At its end, the Third Signal. The call to Arms, and to Glory!
The teams moved stealthily to their targets—the Shield Bunkers— where they hacked the controls using the technology developed by the Science wing of the Alliance. The team captured the Bunker with no problem at all! Caught unawares, resistance inside the Bunker melted. Melted!
With the Shields captured, the team installed the other components shipped from the Alliance.
Components which upon installation, turned the Shield generated by the facility into an Ionized Cloud that functioned as an Ion Cannon. Rokuus didn’t know how it worked, but he had heard some of the Alliance soldiers talking about how it had been inspired by a “Planet Prison” once designed by the Republic. Whatever it’s function or origin, it knocked out all electrical circuits on the Star Fortress, leaving them completely defenseless.
This was the Signal for the final step: a small squad of Light Ships jumped out of Hyperspace and fired Nebula-7 missiles which tore through the Space Station’s armored hull and breached the now-dormant Reactor module of the Star Fortresses. All survivors were stranded aboard, with no way to defend themselves. Their Commander—their Exarch— and his Elite Guards took their own lives in shame, and the others surrendered.
Everything had gone as close to perfect as could have been hoped!
Rokuus was deeply satisfied as he instructed his Communications Officer—a Voss—to report to the Alliance. Today had been such a good day!
Koth, Senya, and the few other Zakuulans at the War Table looked like they couldn’t believe what was happening. Theron didn’t blame them. At the end of the day, they were from Zakuul. They had spent at least some of their lives believing in the myth of Zakuulan superiority. They had both been silently skeptical of the chances of this mission’s success..
And now, in one well coordinated strike, all hundred and thirty of their Star Fortresses—technological terrors the Zakuulans were quite proud of— were gone. Just like that. Although Arro had been the one to suggest the Planet Prison as an idea to Oggurobb, his involvement in the multi-pronged strike had been nominal.
In other words, the conquest of the Space Stations was proof that the rest of the Galaxy could fight Zakuul too. Even without Arro, who by now had their confidence. To think that ordinary fighters of the defeated peoples of the Galaxy could pose a threat to Zakuul was utterly beyond them. Theron savored their stunned expressions, knowing that this was the closest he was going to get to watching Arcann respond to this debacle.
But the greater part of him was deeply worried.
He thought about his boyfriend, Jorgan. He fingered the bronzium Havoc Badge that Jorgan had given him early on in their relationship, along with a wink and the words “This badge is meant to be worn above my heart.”
Jorgan was deployed behind enemy lines, and was several hours away from the next contact. So much could go wrong in four hours! Theron tried not to overthink it, but couldn’t help himself; Jorgan was a high level risk-taker—he had charged at a Sith Lord once—on Voss—only saved because his CO made the luckiest of lucky shots of his life.
Who knows what kind of trouble he would stir up on Zakuul? And so Theron continued in his attempts to try to calm himself despite the decidedly bad feeling he had about this.
Arcann couldn’t speak. Couldn’t blink. He sat weakly upon his throne, trying to process the information he was being presented.
How had this happened? Within a seventy-two minute timeframe, his prized Star Fortresses were gone. All of them. All of them !
The Outlander. He was responsible. He had to be. Who else could even begin to dream of challenging Zakuul’s superiority? Who could come within a Light-year of succeeding?
And yet even he couldn’t be in a hundred different places at once. Even he couldn’t capture and destroy them all, in just a little over an hour!
Unless…? Father was helping him! But even Father had never used more than two avatars at a time. But what other explanation was there? Everyone knew that the Republic and Sith Empire were too weak to put a dent on Zakuul. And that was even more impossible.
But now he had other concerns. He had been waiting on tenterhooks trying to predict where the Outlander would strike first. He had struck everywhere. What was he planning next?
In the brightly lit Throne Room three hundred kilometers above Zakuul’s surface, Arcann continued to brood.
Tongue between her teeth, Kaliyo squinted at the tangled web of wires. Rewiring these boards was tricky, but only because of their small size and sheer number of wires. But working alongside the Empire’s finest spy—Cipher Nine—she had learned how to mentally eliminate most of the wires and narrow down the critical few she had to work with.
Talking to herself in soft whispers, she got to the real work. With deft, practiced motion, she cut the wires, then methodically rewired them. She hummed “Living in the Land Down Under” softly as one more of the underground bunker’s doors opened, leaving her just three high security doors away from her goal. Seven more levels down.
She proceeded to hop on over to the terminal at the heart of the level and inserted her programming spike into the processor. This was the last of several terminals that needed to be hacked in order to hijack the GEMINI frequency’s signal. After this, all she had to do was connect to the Central Hub at the core of the facility, and—
Security Droids! Two of them, emerging from a station in what seemed like a mere routine check of the level.
Cursing in fluent Huttese, she ducked behind the only cover available—a desk . This level was pretty open, nowhere to run or hide. But there wasn’t supposed to be a scheduled Security Droid patrol this deep in the facility! And for her to be at this level just as the damn things began their patrol was the worst possible luck!
No, not the worst, Kaliyo thought. Unless the Droids’ patrol route took them through the center of the level—and many routine patrols didn’t— even her poor cover would be sufficient to hide her from their clumsy scans, and she could continue as though nothing happened.
No such luck. One of them moved in her direction and kept on coming. Kaliyo swore again. Hoping to take out the Droids before they could sound an alarm—and hoping that simply destroying them wouldn’t be enough to trigger one—she leveled her Light Rifle and fired.
She was nowhere near what anyone would call a marksman, but she still cringed at how badly she judged these shots—every last one of them missed hitting any vital components on the Droids.
Heart sinking, she corrected her aim and fired again. This time her shots were much better, and she blew up each droid with a triple burst at each. But the damage was done. Alarms sounded, alarms that would no doubt bring down the mechanical rage of a full battalion of Skytroopers down on her. Kaliyo plucked out her spike from the terminal and made for the stairwell.
Breaking comm silence, she hollered into her wristcomm. “Okay guys, unexpected droid interference, mission blown, gotta get outta here! Oh and if I make it back home alive, someone’s going to pay!”
“I’ve got eyes on the door,” Jorgan’s voice cut through the silence that had descended upon the War Room. “Knights rushing in. I count… Nineteen.”
“They’re gonna be all over her in minutes.” Theron said. “There’s nothing we can do for her, pull out!”
“Sorry Base, we’re getting her outta there! ” Jorgan responded. “Havoc, move out!”
“Jorgan!” Theron yelled.”
But it was too late; Jorgan’s transmission had already gone silent.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,
!” Kaliyo was in for it now!
The stairwell was probably not meant to be used for quick exits. That’s what the turbolifts were for. But if she had access to the turbolifts in the first place, she would have been finished with this job hours ago!
Taking her time, she had been able to pace herself so that she made good progress without tiring herself out. But scrambling up as fast as she could quickly exhausted her. Things got worse when she ran into the first wave of Security Droids. She had packed for stealth and hacking, and hadn’t been able to carry too many in the way of weapons or munitions. She dealt with the first three waves of the Droids using Ion grenades but was loth to use her last two. She had chosen her compact Lancer-II Light rifle rather than the more powerful Mattock. Smaller and easier to wield, it also overheated quickly in prolonged shootouts. Thankfully, her sidearm, a Paladin Heavy Pistol—a gift from Cipher Nine—packed a powerful punch.
She broke cover and fired three rounds at the droids, disabling two of them but not the third. This one managed to get a shot off while she was exposed, and Kaliyo shrieked in pain as the shot hit her square in the shoulder. One level down, the Droids had cleared the debris from her frag grenade, and were now beginning to come up on her from behind. She would be surrounded if she didn’t act soon.
With no other choice, Kaliyo lobbed one of her remaining ion grenades at the droids ahead of her, then hurtled up the stairs. But she didn’t get far; fire from the pursuers behind her grazed her leg and she went down. Snarling, she threw her second frag grenade—causing another collapse—and turned her attention back to clambering over disabled Droids in her escape route.
What level was this? How much longer till the exit?
Her ponderings were brought to an end when she came face to face with a team of Knights. Reflexively, Kaliyo opened fire on her newest threat, and five Knights went down. Oh, boy, was she ever so glad that these morons couldn’t deflect bolts the way Jedi and Sith did! Even so, they could use the Force, and two of them raised their hands and her weapons whipped out of her hands, leaving her defenseless.
Looks like this was it. End of the road. What the heck, she’d had fun!
She was even more startled than the Knights were when they came under fire from behind. A large Khalee wearing a bone-mask heavily decorated by intricate ridges stormed down with an oversized Vibroaxe and cut down two Knights in melee range. A Kel Dor and a Twi’lek emerged from behind him and fired on the still-stunned Knights. Within seconds, they were down.
Kaliyo was quite impressed! The Knights hadn’t even realized there were enemies on their tail. Looks like Havoc Squad more than deserved their rep.
“Can you walk?” Jorgan walked up to her, and offered her an arm.
“Leg’s been hit, but it ain’t too bad! A little Kolto and I should be running. Shoulder will require a Medbay though.”
“Well, we can see about that Kolto in a bit. This next level has an Emergency Maintenance Hatch. It’s our best route out of here.”
Kaliyo tried not to look too relieved as Jorgan helped her get moving again.
The Turbolift doors to the lowest level of the GEMINI Network’s Relay Station opened silently, and a small Nautolan woman with blue skin emerged. She looked around as though she had all the time in the world. Which she did, actually.
“Not so impressive to look at, given its function.” She walked up to the Central Hub—the one Kaliyo had been tasked with hacking—and inserted her programming spike. It would take around fifteen minutes, but Thea was in no hurry.
SCORPIO had provided quite a loud distraction for her.
“Mission Log: I will be done here soon. We should have our own ‘Throne’ in a month or two. But I do not think you will be able to personally interface with the Network from there. You might have to come down here yourself—or board an Eternal Warship.”
While the patrol's timing seemed like happenstance, SCORPIO planned it. Although Kaliyo managed to reach the terminal a full minute ahead of schedule, and would have gotten clear if she'd had another minute.
Chapter 33: Horrors of War
Kaliyo took a long sip from the bottle in her hands, then passed it to Kanner, who didn’t bother looking to Jorgan for permission before taking a swig herself. She tossed it to the gruff Cathar veteran, who caught it without looking. You knew it was bad when Soldiers like these broke protocol.
“So… pretty bad day…” Kaliyo drawled.
“Yep,” Jorgan said heavily.
He looked at the city beyond the building they were currently taking shelter in. A lot of it was on fire. When the Security Forces had failed to pick up their trail in the maintenance tunnels after hours of searching, an infuriated Arcann had ordered them to open fire on the sector. Even the civilians. The carnage had put a damper on even Kaliyo’s spirits.
“Did I thank you guys for coming back for me?”
“Well then… thanks, Maje. Thanks Havoc. Really. I didn’t think you’d come back for someone like me. I’m… feeling quite touched here. Thanks.”
“We don’t leave anyone behind.” Jorgan said tonelessly. “The moment we were both on the same team, you became a comrade-in-arms. And you’re not the worst one we’re working with out of necessity, believe me. But so long as we are, we got your back.”
“Copy that, sir!” the cybernetically enhanced trooper, Dengril, approved fervently. “We there for each other. Separates us from them .”
“That bottle, sir…?” Xabaan asked. Jorgan quietly passed it to the Twi’lek. Once Xabaan was finished, Dengril took a drink, but of course it would be poisonous for the Kel Dor Abeth. Korg, like the rest of his Kaleesh people, only drank to victory or to the celebrated dead. Once he was done, Kaliyo was satisfied that so little of the booze was remaining. She emptied it in one go.
“So what’s the plan now?” She asked. “I normally use this kind of chaos to make my getaway, but for you guys…”
“If we turn up to help them,” Jorgan sighed. “It becomes worse. For them, for us. If we have to do anything for these guys, it has to be covert.”
“But you don’t want to leave.” It wasn’t a question.
“I signed up to stop this kind of thing.” Jorgan said, a tortured expression on his feline face. “Turning away… it feels wrong.”
Kaliyo remained silent. She was an unabashed anarchist. She was a survivor through and through, only ever looking out for herself. But once someone had her loyalty she would die a thousand times for them. As she would have for Cipher Nine. Well, her Cipher Nine, not the half-trained faker who took that title after Corellia.
They watched in silence as a group of citizens cleared some rubble away to free trapped survivors. They worked well together. Perhaps they had been given some rudimentary training in search and rescue? Hard to believe on this pampered world.
“Oh no!” Kanner muttered. “Sir!”
“I see it! Havoc, if those Skytroopers attack those civvies, we break cover and protect them.”
A chorus of “Roger that, sir,” all around them. Kaliyo wanted to shake him hard and remind him of his own words minutes ago. What happened to being covert? But there was just no convincing some people. She tensed, waiting for the order.
The Skytroopers swooped in on the civilians, and Jorgan called “Take em!”
He fired twice, nailing two Skytroopers mid-dive. His squad broke out of their hiding place and attacked the Droid soldiers with a surgeon’s precision. All twenty droids were scrap before they even knew what hit them.
The people they had saved screamed in shock. Several tripped and fell as they staggered back. They began whispering among themselves: “The Outlander’s people…” “The Outlander’s soldiers!” “The Outlander’s …” “They saved us!” “They saved us!”
“Alright, everybody, time to move—” “No, please, wait!”
Jorgan stopped as a trio of citizens stepped forward. These were among those who had been searching for survivors. “We are part of the local Resistance,” a middle-aged man explained. “We work for Caradha.”
“Caradha is that Zakuulan who called for an end to Arcann’s tyrannical reign, right?”
“The same, good Soldier.” The man confirmed. “She has been trying to stop this carnage, but her only plan was discarded because we have no professional soldiers among us.”
Oh? How perfect! Kaliyo grinned wide, a feral expression that was mirrored by Jorgan.
“Well sir, now you have Havoc Squad.”
Odessen, War Room
The Holoprojector chimed and the holo of an ageing dark-skinned human materialized.
“Alliance Base, this is Colonel Vakkes of the Onderon strike force.”
“This is Alliance Base,” Lana responded. “We read you Colonel.”
“We have finished scouring the Fortresses, and there was some horrifying stuff going on in there.”
Lana’s eyes narrowed. “Explain.”
“A Research Lab, by some definition of the term. From what we can tell, they’re dedicated to ‘cutting-edge’ epidemiology experimentation. Hundreds of Onderon and Dxun’s fauna specimens. Dozens of sentients from all walks of life. Some of these guys have been missing for years. We assumed they were dead, but…” the veteran Soldier shivered visibly. “They’ve been used as test subjects. What logs we recovered describe how they were subject to numerous toxins and exotic diseases and kept under observation as their symptoms progressed. Some had organs removed while still alive. Shot repeatedly while hooked up to kolto tanks. It was like they wanted to see how many ways they could discover, of death by torture. Or how long they could endure before it became too much.”
Lana unclenched her jaw, and ran a hand through her hair. She looked around at her comrades; their expressions ranged from disgust to anger to horror. The Zakuulans among them were the most affected, Doctor Oggurobb looked outraged, probably more about the fact that someone would call such terrible methods “Science”. He had his many good points, but empathy wasn’t among them. Theron, like Lana herself, had already seen such setups—both Imperial and Republic—and both of them had braced for such atrocities. But to see them confirmed was something else entirely.
Lana looked at Theron, then Oggurobb. “We will need to alert all teams across the galaxy, have them look for labs immediately. Secure as much data as possible.” She looked back at the Colonel as something occurred to her. “Any survivors?”
“None, not even wildlife. From the looks of it, the scientists killed them before surrendering. They set charges on the computers, but the Ion Prison cloud deactivated the detonators. So even though there were no witnesses, we’ll know exactly what these psychos were up to when we decrypt these files.”
“Good.” Lana said. “Send over everything you can find for us to analyze. You and your people must be feeling quite disturbed by all this. Please get some rest. If you need therapy, we can have you brought here to Odessen. We have set up a well-equipped Mental Health facility for our people, and it should be enough to cope with at least a third of the Strike teams.”
“Appreciate the offer, Alliance Control. We’ll have our people undergo a thorough checkup, then let you know if we need your facilities.”
“Very well then, thank you Colonel. See you soon.” The holo flickered out.
“This— this isn’t Zakuul!” Koth looked like someone had ripped his heart out, Senya was in tears. All the Zakuulans were trembling. “I swear, this isn’t what we are...”
“We know,” Aygo said soothingly. “This isn’t on you. Just your Emperor.”
“But… such a horrifying turn of events!” Senya was stammering, barely coherent. “I can’t believe that this is what my children have become. That they have sanctioned such experiments despite what Valkorion did to Vaylin…”
“It is good we stopped the Fortresses,” Jettarn rumbled. “But we need to stop this. This is a stain on our people. It is suddenly more urgent that we—”
Wodar spoke up. “I’ll see about broadcasting that info across Zakuul. Once our people see it…”
“No, wait,” Theron said. “We need to know exactly what has happened, and who’s involved. I’ve seen Black ops like this, sometimes leadership doesn’t know. They may have drastically overstepped mission boundaries and Arcann might not know about it. It’s possible that this was an isolated incident. Or at least, a limited one.”
Lana nodded. “Yes, I think that’s best. We don’t want to saddle your people with guilty consciences if this was an unsanctioned operation.”
The Zakuulans looked relieved. Senya reached for a glass of water, then changed her mind and picked up the brandy instead. But Lem still had some venting he needed. Roaring loudly, he picked up a tool shelf and tossed it hard over his shoulder.
When the expected loud crash never came, they all turned to look in that direction.
Arro stood there, looking mildly annoyed. The shelf and everything that had spilled out of it hung suspended in the air in front of him. “I only just woke up, so go easy on me please? You don’t want me right back in bed, do you?”
The whole room stood frozen for a moment. Lana was stumped; how had she not sensed him wake up? Had she been so engrossed in operations?
It was Doctor Oggurobb’s delighted greeting broke the spell. “Commander! So good to see you awake again!”
“So much has happened?” Arro looked embarrassed. “How long was I out this time?”
“It’s only been a week,” Theron said. “Hey, given what you’re suffering we’re kinda asking too much of you.”
“In fact,” Senya said gently. “We were discussing taking more of the load off your shoulders so that you could rest. We can handle operations well enough by ourselves, there’s no need to burden you with even more stressors.”
“It’s enough that you be seen enough for morale to remain up,” Koth put in. “It’s your name and your legend that’s keeping everyone inspired.”
Arro bit into the sandwich he was holding. Taking his time to chew, he swallowed and placed it back in his plate. Something seemed different about him, but what? His stance? His bearing? The bright gold glint in his right eye, maybe?
“Before we discuss how aged and infirm I’ve become, I have a story of my own to tell you guys. You’re not going to believe the weird nonsense that can happen when you’re asleep.”