Chapter 1: Prologue and Dramatis Personae
Hassk- Mercenary (male Trandoshan)
Rosh Hensen – Mercenary (male human)
Corran Horn- Jedi Master (male human)
Jadek Hunner – Scavenger (male human)
Keenah- Priestess (female Yuuzhan Vong)
Akhi Lian- Commander (male Yuuzhan Vong)
The Master- Dark Side Adept (unknown male)
Kizin Qel- Master Shaper (male Yuuzhan Vong)
Rhona – Mercenary (female human)
Jaina Solo- Jedi Knight and starfighter pilot (female human)
Tahiri Veila- Jedi Knight (female human)
Ziil- former Shamed One (male Yuuzhan Vong)
Prologue: Dreams in Darkness
She stands upon the surface of a dead world. It is not truly a desert- she was born and raised in a desert, and knows that even in the empty wastes of Tatooine there is life if you know how to find it. Nor is it like Coruscant, a world covered in technology with little in the way of true nature. This world is simply dead, from its barren flats to its grey, cloudy sky, as though something has drained it dry and departed in search of other sustenance. To all of her soul- Tusken Raider, Jedi, Yuuzhan Vong- it seems an abominable place, a wound in the living fabric of the galaxy.
She takes a step forward, and the ground before her opens up. A vast chasm stands where once was featureless barrens, and from it rise the spires of ancient buildings. Temples, tombs, palaces- she doesn't know what they are, exactly, but they are terrible, clawing the sky as if they would drag it down and soar into infinity. Somehow, it feels as if the buildings are alive in a way the rest of this terrible world is not, that they are watching her… waiting…
A figure stands in front of the nearest temple, wrapped head to foot in a filthy black cloak. It turns towards her, and she can see nothing beneath its hood except for the outline of a chin and two piercing yellow eyes. Its feeling in the Force is familiar, but somehow off, like a familiar face distorted by twisted mirror, and try as she might, she cannot recognize it. The figure sees her, and it smiles- and then it looks up to the heavens and raises its arms.
A vessel descends from the sky. It is not made from durasteel or any other material familiar to the galaxy, but seems carved or perhaps grown from living coral. She knows that this is an accurate statement- part of her remembers childhood spent on a similar, far larger ship. It hovers over the valley, and then from it descend warriors encased in fearsome spiked armor, their faces tattooed with the symbols of their domain and caste, as well as their own personal glories. They come to stand among the tombs and the cloaked figure welcomes them, and deep within the ground she can feel something rejoicing.
The cloaked figure turns back to her and beckons, and she takes a step forward almost against her will. And as she does so the ground opens up beneath her feet and she is falling into a vast darkness….
Tahiri Veila came awake with a start, sitting up in her bed and breathing deeply to calm herself. She hadn't had a dream that bad in more than a year- not since before in end of the war, in fact, when her warring personalities had merged into a single being. But she knew at once that this was something entirely different. Her integration had been personal, a battle fought within her own mind. This dream had been her mind reaching out and touching the Force, and being told something in return.
It hadn't, in fact, been a dream at all, but a vision - one that her instincts told her portended something yet to come. And although Tahiri didn't know what it had meant, she was certain of one thing- it must never be permitted to come to pass.
The New Jedi Order has been since its publication one of the more controversial storylines in the Star Wars EU, but I’ve always been rather fond of it while admitting it was flawed. The Yuuzhan Vong War is perhaps the single most epic event in the entire franchise, but because of the multi-author format, there were characters who could be somewhat inconsistent and certain storylines never really went anywhere. However, in my opinion, when the NJO was good, it was good. One of my favorites of the authors who contributed to the series was Greg Keyes, and in particular the books Conquest and The Final Prophecy – and something, or rather someone, he brought to the table well was Tahiri Veila.
Tahiri is probably my favorite supporting character in the NJO. There’s a lot I like about her, including her spirit and her snarkiness, but probably the two things that most stood out were her relationship with Anakin Solo (another favorite) both before and after his death, and her wrestling with the half-Yuuzhan Vong nature she found herself with after being the subject of the Shapers’ experiments.
Unfortunately, I felt that Legacy of the Force really dropped the ball on Tahiri’s characterization (among other things…) and Fate of the Jedi was too burdened by LOTF’s legacy to do much damage control. Not only did she fall to the dark side based on emotional baggage she’d spent much of the NJO getting over, her history with the Vong was essentially erased except for a few snide comments. After LOTF ended, I first began work on this fic (based on ideas I’d been toying with since the end of the NJO), ignoring everything after the end of The Unifying Force to tell a story about Tahiri that drew more heavily on her characterization as presented in Final Prophecy, the last time she’d gotten heavy focus. I finished the fic several years ago, but between the new movie coming in a few months and my own current reread of the NJO, I decided to go back and tidy this fic up a bit.
The fic’s title, of course, is based on the Corran-centric novel I, Jedi, since Corran is a character Tahiri liked and respected (I’m not writing in first person, though, which I’m not a huge fan of in general). “Warrior” obviously reflects Tahiri’s Yuuzhan Vong nature, though there’s a bit more nuance to it we’ll get as the fic goes on. The main thing I changed in the prologue for this version is the Dramatis Personae, adding a few characters to it who’d ended up more important in the fic as written than they had been in my head.
I’m not sure how much of an audience this revision will reach, but I do hope to bring a Tahiri-centric adventure that sticks to her prior characterization better than LOTF did. If that sounds interesting to you, strap in. We have an appointment on Cato Neimoidia…
Chapter 2: Chapter 1: The Artifact
Thick clouds obscured the night sky, preventing the stars or moons from illuminating the surface of Cato Neimoidia. This far out from the major cities the jungle was swathed in shadow, and strange sounds echoed through the air. Some of Hassk's grew glanced around uneasily at one particularly loud and fearsome-sounding shriek, but the Trandoshan himself remained fully focused on his target- the only source of illumination for miles. A short distance from where Hassk's ship- Scorekeeper's Talon- had set down rose a tall plateau of rock, and built on its top was the mansion of their target. The Neimoidian species had seen a fall in fortune since the Clone Wars and the downfall of the Trade Federation, but on this particular world one could still find many who were old, wealthy, and hunkered down with their fortune against the tides of a now-unfriendly galaxy. Gane Faaken, businessman and art collector, was one of these.
Immediately behind him Hassk heard his slicer, a human woman named Rhona, curse loudly as she swatted at one of the blood-sucking insects that filled the jungle night. "Quiet, fool!" the Trandoshan hissed at her. "You'll give us away!"
"It's one thing for you, Captain," Rhona snapped back, though she did make an effort to keep her voice low. "You've got scales- you don't have to worry about these things! What are we even doing here, anyway?"
She'd asked that question several times since they'd landed on this jungle world, and Hassk gave the same answer he'd used each time. "Our employer wants us to retrieve an item from Faaken's collection. We will be compensated quite well for enduring this place- assuming that we can endure it. You are free to leave at any time, though you'll have to find your own transportation offworld. I don't carry dead weight." He shot her an expression his species would consider a grin, but that he knew humans found highly unsettling. It had the desired effect.
"Fine, fine," Rhona said, trying not to look at the display of razor-sharp teeth. "No need to get all worked up."
"Then follow." Hassk motioned to his crew- Rhona, a pair of burly Nikto, a Rodian, and a male Twi'lek. There was one more- Rosh Hensen, a human and the ship's pilot- but he remained with the vessel for now. The crew had been together since before the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, and had done mercenary work for the Peace Brigade, though they'd never formally joined the collaborator organization. They weren't as devoted to the ideal of the hunt as a pack of fellow Trandoshans would be, of course, but Hassk had long ago found that devotion to the almighty credit could be just as powerful a motivator- especially in a case like this one, where the prey was not a living being but an object. It wasn't his preferred type of work, but it was close enough, and as long as it paid the bills he wouldn't complain. The worst part, as always, would be stomaching his employers long enough to actually get paid, but that was far off yet. Hassk was both a predator and a professional, and mind was focused entirely on immediate concerns.
The crew hurried through the jungle night, and though the strange sounds continued no strange beast leapt out to challenge them. Apparently all of the local predators recognized that more powerful hunters were about, and while a part of Hassk was a bit disappointed that he wouldn't get at least one pelt out of this, he was pragmatic enough to be grateful for the lack of incident.
After about fifteen minutes they reached the base of the plateau. At another signal from their captain the crew drew their grappler guns and fired. The thin but strong metal cables shot into the sky, finally latching onto the walls of the mansion above. The crew pulled their triggers again and began to rise up the cliff.
The blasterfire started as they neared the top. Hassk had been expecting this, just as he expected the pitiful aim. Leave it to a Neimoidian to install the cheapest security system he could get his slimy hands on. The blasters weren't able to get a good read on six moving targets, and whatever droid intelligence was controlling them was apparently to dim to consider shooting at the cables, but Hassk took no chances. He drew his own blaster with his free hand and shot in the directions from which the enemy fire was coming. He was rewarded with the sound of small explosions and gave a toothy grin in response.
Finally they reached the end of their cables and pulled themselves manually up the short distance to the top of the compound's walls. The remaining weapon turrets swiveled towards them, but were dispatched with casual ease. "They know we're here now, obviously," Hassk said, "and will be sending their battle droids after us. We need to move fast." He began running towards a nearby turbolift that led down to the courtyard, the crew at his heels.
"Get me to a computer terminal and I can shut those droids down in a heartbeat," Rhona said. "Neimoidians always use central computers to control all of their droid soldiers- they're just too paranoid to trust anything that can fight and think for itself at the same time."
"What about organic guards?" the Twi'lek- Gren- asked. "We'll still have to fight them."
"Organic guards will be Neimoidians," Hassk told him, "and Neimoidian soldiers are worth less than deeds to real estate on Alderaan." Hailing from a race of born hunters and warriors, the Trandoshan had little respect for any species that considered business to be the most honored occupation.
Entering the turbolift, the six mercenaries descended to the courtyard. A squad of Faaken's battle droids waited for them there- vintage B-2's from the Clone Wars, certainly far more dangerous than their B-1 cousins but still hardly a threat to beings armed with modern weaponry. The droids raised their arms and activated their built in blasters, but before they could so much as demand the intruders to halt and identify themselves, Hassk and Gren brought their own weapons up and fired. The lead droids collapsed with smoking craters where their heads had been, and the rest of the squad quickly followed.
After kicking the droids to make certain they weren't about to come back to life and resume firing, Hassk and his crew hurried across the courtyard towards the double-doors of Faaken's palatial mansion. When they reached them, the doors proved to be locked, but a few quick blaster bolts remedied that problem. The doors swung open slowly, still smoking, and the crew stepped inside.
Rhona immediately spotted a computer terminal on one wall, and the other crewmembers fell into a defensive posture around her as she accessed it. After a few minutes she grinned fiercely and looked over her shoulder at Hassk. "Battle droids disabled, Captain," she said. "Anything else you want me to do?"
"Yes," Hassk said. "Pull up a readout of the building and an inventory of Faaken's collection. I need to know exactly where the piece we're looking for is kept."
"On it." A few more minutes passed, and finally a holographic diagram of the mansion popped into the air in front of them. "The item we're looking for is housed in the main display room, directly below us," Rhona said. "Looks like our Neimoidian friend's got his own little museum going, where he can just go whenever he's bored and congratulate himself on how good his taste is. Are you sure we can't just loot the whole place?"
"If we take too much, Faaken will stop at nothing to get it back," Hassk rumbled. "But if we restrict ourselves to what we came for, he won't risk exposing that he's been robbed. Besides, this particular item is one he may well be happy to be rid of."
"I know I'd be," Rhona muttered, remembering the description their employer had given of the talisman. "Freaky-looking thing."
Hassk didn't normally agree with human assessments of beauty, but he had to admit that in this case Rhona had a point. He too would be glad to be rid of this particular prey, and hoped that his employer liked it. They'd go well together, he thought.
The corridors of the mansion were empty except for a handful of deactivated droids as they made their way towards the display hall. Finally they came to another pair of double doors that resembled those outside, albeit smaller. Not bothering with his blaster this time, Hassk simply kicked at them with one taloned foot, and they gave way to his incredible strength.
Beyond lay the spoils of civilizations, lined up in display cases with no real regard for symmetry or what pieces came from the same sources. Gane Faaken didn't collect art because he appreciated it for its own sake, but because the more valuable pieces he owned the more prestigious he would appear. Particularly offensive, at least as far as Hassk was concerned, was a display of prize pelts from his own homeworld set up next to an intricate wooden sculpture that had clearly been made on Kashyyyk. Another Trandoshan might have just shot the foul thing then and there, but Hassk forced instinctive distaste down in favor of efficiency. He was here for one item, and it wasn't some Wookiee's attempt at playing artist.
"Captain!" Gren called from across the room. "I found it!" Hassk hurried over and found the Twi'lek pointing at a display case that contained a piece that perfectly matched the description they'd been given- surely there couldn't be two such artifacts! It was a golden collar with an intricate, spiky protrusion projecting from its front, and set in the center of that was a massive ruby that seemed to watch them like an unblinking crimson eye.
"The Talisman of Kassan Hai," Hassk read the label. "Unearthed on Bpfassh year ten Before Empire. Dated to five thousand years Pre Empire. According to legend is said to carry a potent curse." Hassk chuckled darkly. His people believed in a deity who waited in the afterlife to reward great hunters- they did not put stock by the idea of the supernatural interfering in this world.
"So that's it, huh?" Rhona asked as she came up to stand beside her captain. "Every bit as nasty-looking as I imagined it. Well, no sense standing around staring." Drawing her blaster, she took careful aim and fired at the casing, sending it flying off. Stepping forward cautiously, she reached out a hand and grasped the Talisman.
"Stang!" she shouted, pulling back. "It's colder than a comet. I knew I didn't like it." Nursing her offended limb, Rhona gave the collar a vicious glare.
"Human weakling," Hassk said with a hissing chuckle. Reaching out a three-clawed hand he grasped hold of the Talisman and lifted it from its stand. It was cold, painfully so, but he forced himself to ignore it. He was captain, and his crew would see that he was strong. "Come," he ordered. "We have what we came for."
They turned towards the door and stopped. A Neimoidian in rich robes and a ridiculous hat stood there, horror written on his flat face. "Intruders!" he said in a stricken voice. "My collection!"
"Gane Faaken, I presume?" Hassk asked. "Skaze, you know what to do." The Rodian nodded and lunged forward, grabbing the Neimoidian's collar and holding his blaster to his head.
"Don't move, rich man," Skaze said menacingly. "We took care of your droids, but you have any other guards around here and they come after us- well, that's your problem."
"This is intolerable!" Faaken protested. "Unhand me at once, you brute. You will all pay dearly for this! "
"We've got what we came for, Neimoidian, and it isn't you," Hassk growled. "We're going out to the courtyard, and when we get there we'll let you go- if you cooperate. If not, you're staying there permanently. Am I clear?"
"Inescapably," Faaken said with an audible gulp. Together they passed back through the mansion's richly appointed halls until they arrived out in the courtyard again. Hassk nodded his head once, and Skaze released the cringing Neimoidian.
"Fools!" Faaken shouted as he rushed back towards the safety of his home. "I was prepared for this!" He pressed a button on a device wrapped around one of his wrists, and across compound the downed battle droids came instantly back to life. As one they began to march towards the intruders.
"We were prepared too," Hassk hissed and looked to the sky. Above them the clouds churned and then parted as Scorekeeper's Talon descended towards the compound, firing at the nearest droids. They collapsed into smoldering heaps and the rest fell back, their controlling intelligence apparently deciding that it was wisest to retreat and fight another die. The belly of the Talon opened and a boarding ramp descended. With a final vicious smile at the stunned Gane Faaken, Hassk leaped aboard his vessel, his crew right behind him. The ramp retracted and the ship resealed itself, and then it was flying through the cloud cover and out towards space.
Hassk tossed the Talisman to the two Nikto, who caught it effortlessly. "Take this to the hold," he ordered them. "I'm going the helm to lay in the coordinates for the rendezvous point. We mustn't keep our good friends waiting, after all."
Rhona watched the Nikto leave with a scowl. "What do our clients even want with that thing, anyway? It's not their style- that's for sure. I mean, we’ve all heard the stories - can they even use something like that?"
"It is not our place to question, if we value our lives" Hassk told her. "We perform as we are expected, and we receive our payment- it is that simple. If our employers want to keep secrets from us, that is their choice."
"I know- just wondering." Rhona marched off towards her own quarters, to do whatever it was humans did in their downtime- Hassk wasn't sure, and as long as Rhona kept performing well he didn't particularly care.
Despite his words, though, the Trandoshan couldn't help but wonder about the same question the slicer had posed. He normally preferred not to speculate about the motives of his employers, but this was a special case.
The Talisman of Kassan Hai was no work of the Republic, Old or New, but of another, darker state. It was no surprise that it felt so unpleasant to handle, for it was said that the Sith of the old Empire had imbued their dark powers into everything they crafted. The question was, what purpose could it have to those who were supposed to be utterly blind to the Force in all its manifestations – for now as in the war, Hassk’s employers were the Yuuzhan Vong.
For our first chapter, we kick off the plot by meeting some of our antagonists – specifically, Captain Hassk and his merry band of plunderers. While writing the first version of this fic, I ended up liking Captain Hassk more than the mercenary lizard probably deserves, at least in part because I found him rather enjoyable to write. He’s not a monster or a tyrant, just a guy trying to do a job and get out alive (albeit an illegal job for some very shady patrons) and I tried to flavor him with Trandoshan culture without making him a walking stereotype of the species. He’s moderately religious (enough to name his ship for his goddess) but at least in part that’s because the activity his religion valorizes is something he’s good at and enjoys, and though he’s certainly influenced by Trandoshan prejudices, he’s pragmatic enough to not be beholden to him. His theft here kicks off the plot, and we’ll be seeing more of him as the fic goes on.
We don’t get as much of Hassk’s crew, who aren’t as important, but they’ll be sticking around too, particularly Rhona and Hensen, who I went ahead and added to the Dramatis Personae this time around.
This chapter was first mostly to get the plot moving and start with some action, though it unfortunately means we haven’t seen much of our actual main character yet. We’ll be checking in more with Tahiri next time.
Chapter 3: Chapter 2: The Jedi Who Was Shaped
Tahiri stepped out of her dwelling and allowed her senses to take in the tampasi around her. She'd been living on Zonoma Sekot for more than a year now, but she still found the living world fascinating and invigorating. The Yuuzhan Vong experienced a unique bond with this planet because they had originated on its parent, the original Yuuzhan'tar, but in spite of her shaping that wasn't what resonated with Tahiri. Instead, it was a combination of the planet's teeming life and uniquely powerful presence in the Force that reached her, along with something more. Zonoma Sekot reminded her of a lost home- not barren Tatooine, but Yavin 4, where she had trained to become a Jedi- and where she had met Anakin Solo.
Even the beauty of the Sekotan morning, though, couldn't banish the darkness that hung over the young Jedi's thoughts. Her dream last night had been a vision from the Force- she was certain of that. It had been too vivid and powerful to be anything else. The question, as usual with such things, was what it meant. Had she seen something that had already happened, something that might happen in the future, or was it a metaphor rather than literal truth? Though she was usually thankful for her Jedi abilities, Tahiri found herself wishing that in this case the Force had been a little more specific.
Shaking herself out of her dark thoughts, Tahiri turned away from the tampasi and looked down towards the settlement in the valley. Composed of Zonoma Sekot's native Ferroans and some of the more open-minded Yuuzhan Vong who wanted to reconnect with their ancient heritage, the settlement was the closest thing Tahiri had to a permanent home. Even then things could be difficult. To the Ferroans and other galactic natives she seemed very much like one of the Yuuzhan Vong, a fact they found disconcerting and off-putting. To the most traditional of the Yuuzhan Vong, she came across as disappointingly human. Most annoying at all, at least from Tahiri's perspective, were the former members of Nom Anor's Jeedai Heresy, who had latched on to her as some sort of incarnate goddess and refused to be convinced otherwise. She wasn’t the only one, of course – Jacen, Jaina, Master Skywalker, and even Corran to a degree received much of the same veneration – but since Tahiri was the only one so revered who was actually here, she’d found herself bearing the brunt of it.
As a Jedi, Tahiri was called on to defend those weaker than herself, which meant she felt sympathy for the Shamed Ones' pitiful lives and a desire to help them imrpove. This had helped her deal with innate prejudice towards the lower castes that came with her persona as a Yuuzhan Vong warrior, but to both parts of her personality the idea that she- or any other Jedi- were divine was absurd. That didn't stop people from believing it, though.
Tahiri winced slightly as she noticed a prime example of this attitude coming straight towards her. Ziil was a former Shamed One who had been born into the lowest caste, meaning that he bore none of the markings or modifications that dominated the appearance of most Yuuzhan Vong. As a result he looked far more human than most, though his alien origins were still plainly written in his sloping forehead, flat nose and iron-grey skin. He was close to Tahiri's age in terms of maturity- though chronologically he was several years older, of course; Yuuzhan Vong lived longer lives than humans, after all- and had been a heretic and rebel during the last few months of the war. Tahiri herself had featured prominently in the mythology of the heretics- after the Twins and Vua Rapuung, the Jeedai-Who-Was-Shaped was regarded as one of their most important figures- and Ziil had devoted himself to her service with all the fanatical passion of his people after he learned that her home on Sekot was near his own.
Tahiri actually rather liked Ziil- there was something straightforwardly earnest about him that one didn't often see, among the natives of the galaxy or the Yuuzhan Vong. Unfortunately that didn't keep his obsessive hero-worship from grating.
"One-who-was-shaped!" Ziil called out once he was within shouting distance of the young Jedi. "We are in need of your wisdom."
Tahiri rolled her eyes at that, thankful that the Shamed One couldn't see from his distance. She didn't view herself as possessing anything that might be termed 'wisdom', but with Danni and Tekli both studying with the Shapers she was the only Jedi on hand- not to mention the only one who could reason with the Yuuzhan Vong on their own terms. Those two factors put her in the often uncomfortable position of being the one called on to settle disputes.
"What is it this time?" Tahiri asked as Ziil approached.
"There is trouble in the settlement," Ziil panted breathlessly in the Yuuzhan Vong language- clearly he'd been running to get her. "Zal Lah and one of the Ferroans are about to come to blows. If they do, it could start a riot. We need you to settle it for us!"
"Zal Lah," Tahiri muttered. "Why am I not surprised?" The warrior in question was a distant cousin of the great- and thankfully deceased- Warmaster Tsavong Lah, and while most of the Yuuzhan Vong in this settlement were former heretics and others of (relatively) open mind, he seemed to have made it his purpose to see to it that they didn't stray far from the True Way. As he lacked the vision and charisma of his Domain-cousin – so far as Tahiri was aware, he hadn’t even made it to subaltern during his career as a warrior, much less commander - this mostly took the form of picking fights with anyone who disagreed with him. He was becoming a perpetual nuisance, and it seemed that he'd finally gotten in to it with someone important enough to make serious trouble.
"Are you coming? You must!" Ziil was insisting.
"Yes. This isn't going to improve with age." Absently checking to make certain her lightsaber was on her belt- it wouldn't do to confront even an unarmed warrior without it- Tahiri turned and began to sprint towards the settlement, Ziil following at her heels.
Two fair-sized crowds had gathered in the middle of the settlement- one of mostly Ferroans and a few Shamed Ones, and another of warriors and priests. The first group was far larger, but the warriors had better training and hair-trigger tempers- this could get very ugly very fast. In between them stood Zal Lah- a tall, muscular warrior with intricate tattoos and scars indicative of great glory on the battlefield- and an older Ferroan whose name Tahiri couldn't remember.
Calling on the Force, the young Jedi vaulted over the crowd and landed between the two opponents, igniting her lightsaber as she did so. At once all eyes were on her, and Tahiri turned towards Zal Lah and the Ferroan. "There won't be any fighting here today," she said in Basic, and then repeated in Yuuzhan Vong. "Now tell me what started this."
"It was him," Zal Lah snarled, motioning towards the Ferroan. "He blasphemed against the holy name of Yun-Yammka, and when I challenged him to battle he hid behind his friends like the coward he is. You claim that the soul of a warrior resides in you, Jedi Tahiri Veila- you know that this cannot go unpunished. Make him face me alone, that I may punish his insolence." The warrior flexed his clawed fingers threateningly.
"He was preaching about that blood-soaked monster to anyone he met," the Ferroan snapped back. "I merely pointed out that a god who drank the blood of his people the way that figment of his warped imagination did would soon have no worshippers left!"
Zal Lah roared and hurled himself at the Ferroan, but Tahiri put herself between them and raised her lightsaber. The warrior fell back, knowing and respecting that weapon. Like most Yuuzhan Vong he had no real fear of death or pain, but also no desire to experience them over something so trivial. "See!" Zal Lah growled. "Hear him blaspheme. The Slayer God exists in the strength of the warrior caste and the power of conflict that drives the universe. To deny him is folly."
"You should listen to your own High Priest," the Ferroan said. "It was your Eminence Harrar who said that the gods were derived from Sekot's parent, all except for Yun-Yammka, which your ancestors imagined. Don't blame me for agreeing with another's idea!"
“Will you let this stand?” Zal Lah demanded, turning back to Tahiri. “Or is Riina of Domain Kwaad as much a coward as he is?”
Tahiri’s head snapped up at that. “That is not my name,” she said in a soft, dangerous voice. “I’ve told you before that Riina is part of who I am, but she is not all of it.”
“No,” Zal Lah hissed, leaning in close, “but she is the only part of you that is worth acknowledging.”
Tahiri felt her lips pull back from her teeth in a snarl, and a part of her – a part she very much wanted to listen to – was howling in the back of her mind that she should challenge him to an honor duel here and now. Nonetheless, she managed to fight it down. Zal Lah was not a true believer, she was certain – he was just a bully, and she would not give him the satisfaction of getting the reaction he wanted.
"Everyone, quiet!" Tahiri shouted, pulling away from Zal Lah. She spoke in Basic, but the Yuuzhan Vong seemed to get the gist of it. Breathing deeply, Tahiri closed her eyes and focused on staying calm. Rage might be the key to her warrior's instincts, but it wasn't the way of the Jedi or the Force, and as satisfying as punching Zal in his smug face might be, it wouldn't solve this problem.
Finally she opened her eyes and looked from Zal Lah to the Ferroan and back again. "I can understand why you were angry," Tahiri said to the seething warrior, "and nobody likes it when they think their religion is being insulted, but he's right- the priesthood's policy now is that Yun-Yammka does not exist, and you can't go around picking fights about it. If you do, you'll lose, and there won't be any honor in it."
The Ferroan gave a smug smile, but Tahiri turned to him next. "That doesn't mean you're off the hook, though. You know he was baiting you, and you should have just ignored him. By deliberately provoking him you nearly started a riot here. Someone like Zal Lah wants that kind of reaction, and the best thing you can do is to ignore him." Looking around at the whole crowd, Tahiri raised her voice. "All of you go home and calm down. For now, this is over." She repeated her words in Yuuzhan Vong and gestured with her lightsaber for emphasis. Muttering but willing to accept the word of the Jedi, the crowd dispersed.
As they departed Tahiri sighed and rubbed her forehead. It seemed she had to settle something like this at least once a week, and it was becoming both tedious and disheartening. She had learned to live in peace with her dual nature, and she'd hoped that the Yuuzhan Vong could similarly learn to live in peace with the galaxy. That still didn't stop things like this from happening- and these people were among the more peaceful Yuuzhan Vong.
"Don't be troubled, One-who-was-shaped," Ziil said quietly, coming up to stand next to her. "You did well- Zal Lah has been spoiling for a fight for days, but he won't dare do anything with you here."
"I know," Tahiri said sadly. 'I'd just hoped that they wouldn't need me after awhile. I nearly went crazy after my shaping, but I was able to come to terms with what I am now- part of the Jedi, and part of the Yuuzhan Vong. I thought- or at least hoped- that the warriors and the priests could do the same."
"It has only been a year since we found our way home," Ziil reminded her. "The high castes' hatred runs deep. It will not go away so easily."
"I know," Tahiri said. "But that's not everything- I had a vision last night, and I don't know what it means."
"I know of the Jeedai visions," Ziil said, nodding sagely. "But you are the One-Who-Was-Shaped- you will learn what it means, and you will triumph, as you triumphed over the shaper Mezhan Kwaad."
"Thanks for the reminder," Tahiri muttered. She was largely content with what she'd become, but that didn't mean she liked looking back on the process of it. "I wish I had your faith."
"You are Jeedai," the Shamed One said, as if that explained everything.
Tahiri shook her head. "Even Jedi fail sometimes."
Later in the day, Tahiri walked in the tampasi, trying to draw strength and peace from her surroundings. "Do, or do not- there is no try," was one of Master Skywalker's favorite sayings, taken from his own teacher Yoda, but in this case she had to admit that Jedi philosophy just wasn't helping.
"You seem troubled, Tahiri Veila," a soft voice said from behind her. Tahiri turned slowly and found herself facing a young Yuuzhan Vong woman with a shaper hand and writhing headdress who sat against one of the great boras. The face and form belonged to Nen Yim, someone the Jedi had known first as a tormentor and later as something close to a friend.
She was also very, very dead.
"Hello, Sekot," Tahiri said. "What's the matter- the business of running the planet going slow enough that you can take time off to chat with one Jedi?"
The manifestation of Zonoma Sekot's strange consciousness gave a slight smile. "Communicating with you requires only a small part of my mind- as always, the bulk of my consciousness remains spread throughout this world, keeping it in harmony. Now, however, I believe that you and I can help one another."
"What do you mean?" Tahiri asked. She wasn't sure how a being like herself could possibly help something as powerful as Sekot, barring another sabotage attempt like the one performed by Nom Anor or another ship of Alpha Red that needed to be shot down. Neither prospect was one she particularly looked forward too.
"I have recently sensed something in the far reaches of the galaxy," Sekot said. "Something that the Jedi would refer to as a 'disturbance' in the Force. Though it seemed minor at first, it has begun growing on my mind. I believe it concerns the Yuuzhan Vong, but I cannot tell anything more specific than that. It occurred to me that beings like the Jedi, who perceive the Force differently than I do, might be able to detect something specific that I would have overlooked. I have spoken with Magister Jabitha and the other Jedi who came here with you, but they have felt nothing- but I sense that a shadow is weighing on you."
"You're right," Tahiri said. "I think I've felt the same disturbance. Last night I had a vision where I saw Yuuzhan Vong in a dark place, led by a figure in black. It seemed- wrong, somehow. Corrupt. I can't really say more than that."
Sekot looked at her intently. "Can you describe the planet they were on?"
"Want to know if it was a friend of yours?" Tahiri asked wryly. "I doubt it- this place was lifeless, and there was a big crack in the ground filled with temples, or maybe tombs. I couldn't tell, but now that I think about it I'm pretty sure I know where it was. I've never been there, but we learned about it at the Academy- Korriban."
"Korriban," Sekot repeated the word. "I do not know why, but that name fills me with dread. It is not a feeling I am used to."
"Well, if there's a planet that's your opposite, it's Korriban. It was the birthplace of the Sith and is supposed to be saturated with their power. I don't know what Yuuzhan Vong would get out of it, but it's supposed to be an awful place. Lots of famous Jedi went there in the past and were driven insane, and came back out as Sith."
"In that case the problem could be grave indeed," Sekot said. "I do not understand the way in which you Jedi see the Force as Light and Dark, but what I know of the Sith is appalling. They are the enemies of all life, and therefore they are my enemies as well."
"Were," Tahiri said. "There aren't any real Sith anymore- Darth Vader and the Emperor were the last two, and they died a long time ago."
"Be that as it may, I believe that you were allowed this glimpse into the Force for a reason, Tahiri Veila. Because this concerns the Yuuzhan Vong, it concerns me as well, and I believe that you must return to your Master Skywalker and give him this warning: danger is on the horizon. The Jedi have been the galaxy's first, best line of defense, and they must be ready." Sekot shimmered slightly, and then she was gone without a trace.
"Well, that cleared up nothing," Tahiri muttered. "But Sekot's right- the Jedi do need to be warned. And it looks like I'm the one stuck with the job."
The big point of this chapter was to give a hint of what Tahiri’s life has been like since the end of The Unifying Force and to give her the final prompting she needs to set out on her quest. TUF had Tahiri relocating to Zonama Sekot to further explore her half-Yuuzhan Vong nature, but that same nature made falling into the role of mediator seem natural to me (not that Tahiri herself is that thrilled about it). Otherwise I don’t have a whole lot to add about Tahiri’s characterization beyond what I think the chapter makes explicit.
One other important part of this one was introducing an important character going on – Ziil, Tahiri’s self-appointed sidekick (his name being a pun on “Zeal” wasn’t intended, but it fit well enough that I let it stay when I noticed). It seemed logical that at least some of the former members of the Prophet’s heresy would latch onto Tahiri – she may not be a Master or one of the Twins, but she was an important player in the Vua Rapuung story and is the closest thing to an actual Yuuzhan Vong Jedi the galaxy is likely to see for a long time. Of course, canonically Tahiri was never comfortable with her role in the heretics’ religion, and Ziil’s character gives an opportunity to explore that a bit more.
Note: I refer to Tahiri’s “Riina” nature as a warrior because Tahiri herself usually does, even though Riina’s memories were base on Nen Yim, a Shaper. My personal theory is that Mezhan Kwaad mixed in some memories of warrior training into Nen’s basic personality and life experiences, to end up with someone she knew she could manipulate but who also had the skills she wanted. This is never really relevant to this fic, however.
Next time we’ll be checking back in with Hassk, and maybe figure out a bit about why a Yuuzhan Vong would care about an old Sith talisman…
Chapter 4: Chapter 3: The Will of the Gods
Hassk's eyes opened quickly and without warning and he pulled himself into a seated position in his bunk. During his long career as a hunter and later mercenary he'd learned to time his patterns of sleep almost exactly- the fact that he'd awakened meant that he was approaching the rendezvous point, and soon he would have to face his employers.
Unlike many of his former colleagues in the Peace Brigade, who only cared about credits or saving their own cowardly hides, Hassk felt like he understood the Yuuzhan Vong at least a little. The idea of deities who applauded and rewarded glorious deeds in this life was one which the Trandoshans shared. Still, such understanding gave him little comfort, for he knew that even as the Scorekeeper for whom his ship was named waited in the afterlife to honor great hunters, the alien gods of the Yuuzhan Vong smiled on those who converted or destroyed infidels. His current employers were more willing than most to sully their hands by consorting with the natives of the galaxy, but Hassk still always wondered when he would make the one small wrong move and be torn apart.
The Trandoshan knew that there were some humans who enjoyed risk. The cold-blooded reptile, however, preferred certainty. He knew of no easy way to extract himself from his current assignment, but if these Vong continued paying well he felt he'd be able to learn to live with it. Eventually.
Hassk's reflections were cut short as the comlink built into his cabin's wall buzzed. "Captain Hassk," the pilot Hensen's voice said, "we've arrived at the rendezvous point. You'd best come up here now, boss."
"I will join you shortly," Hassk replied. "Call the Nikto and tell them to bring up the artifact."
"Will do, boss. Hensen out." Static crackled and the com connection fell silent. Hassk stood and, after glancing momentarily at the weapons and trophies that served him as decoration, he stepped out into the corridor and stalked towards the cockpit.
When he arrived, Hensen was sitting in his seat and trying to ignore the artifact that rested on the console next to him. They had collected several things like this- relics of the Sith and other ancient cults- for their Vong employers, but that hadn't made any of them less eerie. Though he never admitted it out loud, Hassk was always very glad to be rid of them.
Scorekeeper's Talon hung in orbit above a field of debris that had once been a living world and its moon- Kalarba- destroyed by the Yuuzhan Vong weapon called Yo'Gand's Core. Hassk's employers had chosen it as a meeting place both because it was a system where no one with legitimate business had reason to come any more, and because it was a show of what they were capable of when angered. They weren't here yet, of course, and Hassk tended to suspect that they generally arrived late purely so that he would have a chance to appreciate the view.
Suddenly the space beyond the debris field seemed to twist as though someone had pulled out an invisible cosmic drain-plug and now infinity was rushing down it. After a second reality snapped back- but it was no longer empty. A lumpy, misshapen vessel that could only be a Yuuzhan Vong coralcraft hovered there.
"I've seen that thing a dozen times at least," Hensen muttered, "but it just doesn't get any less ugly."
"Quiet," Hassk hissed. "Keep your wits about you! Speak like that in her presence and you will die."
Hensen swallowed. "Right," he muttered under his breath.
The coralcraft- Hassk didn't know what specific kind it was, or if it even had a specific kind- drifted closer, and then something seemed to happen on its surface. Now an object was flying towards them through the void, something that looked like a large fruit, though Hassk knew it was in fact something far different from anything the galaxy had ever produced. The ovoid thing slammed into the Talon's viewport and then seemed to push its way through. It hovered in midair for a moment, and then it began to change. Within moments the villip had reshaped itself into the head of a female Yuuzhan Vong. Though her angular features and haughty demeanor gave her an aristocratic air and he was no skilled judge of the ages of even the humanoid races native to this galaxy, she seemed young nonetheless. Still, he knew that to dismiss this one as a girl wearing her elders’ clothing would be folly, and her air of cold contempt spoke to the fate that waited any who did not show what she considered her due.
"Priestess Keenah," Hassk said, bringing his talons to the opposite shoulders in what he knew was a Vong salute. "I have your prize."
"Yes," Keenah said through her thick accent. "You continue to please me, Captain Hassk- for an infidel, you show remarkable competence and loyalty."
"You hired me, Priestess," Hassk replied. "I fulfill my contracts- never doubt that."
"Indeed," Keenah said. "I hired you." Now her tone was thick with contempt- the Yuuzhan Vong were not motivated by such mundane things as greed, at least to hear them tell it. "Bring the Talisman to your docking bay. I will arrive presently to collect it."
"As you command." Hassk gave a respectful bow, and the villip reverted back into its fleshy oval form. The Trandoshan picked it up with great distaste and tossed it to Hensen. "Come with me to the docking bay, and carry that."
"But, boss!" Hensen protested, recoiling from the fleshy thing in his hands.
"Would you rather carry the Talisman?" Hassk asked.
"No, not at all!" the human pilot said rather quickly, the answer Hassk had expected. The captain picked up the Talisman himself, ignoring the cold, and marched from the cockpit, Hensen in tow.
Scorekeeper's Talon was a converted transport, capable of hauling both captives and merchandise, and of fighting when the situation demanded it. A large airlock was built into one side of the hull so that the ship could connect with other vessels to trade crew or cargo. Now Hassk and Hensen came to stand in front of it and felt their ship vibrate as the Yuuzhan Vong extended an umbilical to connect them. Hassk quickly checked out of the corner of his eyes to make certain that Rhona wasn't anywhere around. However alien she might be, Keenah was a priestess and the human slicer was too much of a skeptic to treat her with the proper respect. The last thing he needed today was an ill-timed comment leading to an all-out brawl.
When the umbilical was secured, Hassk pressed a key beside the airlock and stepped back as it slid open. The stench of the Vong ship hit him suddenly- how did they live with it anyway?- but he was careful to show no reaction lest he insult his employers. As the smoke, or steam or whatever it was cleared, the Trandoshan could make out three figures standing there- Priestess Keenah in her long shimmering robes and two warriors flanking her, the spines of their armor flexing slowly.
Keenah stepped forward slowly, though she was careful not to allow even the hem of her robe to touch the metal floor of the Talon. As she approached Hassk knelt and held out the Talisman to her. She lifted it lightly from his hands and turned it around slowly, as though admiring every facet. The priestess was murmuring softly in her own language, and the whole scene was weirdly hypnotic.
"You have done well," she finally said, looking down at Hassk. "Rise, and order your subaltern to return my villip."
"You heard the priestess," Hassk growled; he knew full well that they couldn’t resist having the biot discovered on their ship should they ever fall afoul of Alliance customs officers. Hensen scurried forward and shoved the villip rather roughly into one of the warriors' hands. Apparently the Vong couldn't resist the urge to snarl viciously at the human as he quickly stumbled backwards. Keenah scowled and held up a hand for quiet.
"Your payment, Captain Hassk," she said, reaching into some manner of living pouch that hung from her waist and withdrawing a handful of shimmering blue-black crystals. Hassk didn't know where she got them, nor did he care- he only knew they fetched quite an impressive price on the black market. Hensen and Rhona always handled the transactions, of course- humans, he had found, had a love of business the equal of any Hutt or Neimoidian- but he still took the bulk of the profits.
"Is that all?" Hassk asked.
"Not entirely," Keenah said. "I have another task for you- another relic that I must recover."
"Tell me where to find it," the Trandoshan said, "and what it looks like. I will bring it here."
Keenah told him, and if Hassk were human he knew that he would have gone whiter than a dwarf star. "You're insane," he said, and then winced. His thought had slipped out, and now he knew he would pay for it.
Both warriors snarled and seized their weapons, but Keenah held up a hand for calm again. "Infidels often call the Yuuzhan Vong mad," she said. "That does not make it so. We can no longer travel freely in the galaxy- you know this! The eyes of the Jeedai are on the Yuuzhan Vong. You can go to places we cannot, and retrieve the things that we require. You should be honored, Captain Hassk- there are few infidels I would trust with a task of such importance."
"That changes nothing," Hassk said, somewhat more calmly now. "I'm not willing to risk my ship and crew for such a dubious prize. Find yourself another captain, Priestess. You've been a good employer- don't be afraid I'll tell the Jedi about you." Normally he wouldn't walk out on a deal like this- certainly not with the Vong- but there were things that no sane being would do, and this was one of them.
Keenah raised her hand and extended it palm first towards him. For a moment nothing happened- and then Hassk was seized by an unseen force and hurled against the far wall. Before he could react he was lifted off his feet again and dragged within inches of Keenah's tattooed face.
"You are Jedi!" he hissed. "How is this possible?"
"Not Jeedai," Keenah corrected. "A servant of the gods- nothing more or less. But you see they grant me power. These warriors you see with me are angry- they believe you have insulted me, and by extension the entire priestly caste, and they would love nothing more than to send you screaming to Yun-Yammka's presence. But I am not like them, Captain Hassk, and the Slayer is not my patron. My task is not to destroy the enemies of the gods, but to convert them. You are still of use to us, if you chose. Or you can die. What do you say?"
It was no choice at all, and Hassk knew it. "All right- you've made your point, Priestess. I'll bring you the device you want."
"I knew you could see reason," Keenah said with an expression that Hassk had never seen before but knew must be a Vong smile. She lowered her hand and he dropped to the deck. The priestess looked down at him coolly for a moment, and then she motioned to her warriors. Together they swept back into the umbilical and were gone.
Priestess Keenah stood on the top deck of her vessel Vua'sa's Rage and watched as the infidel ship vanished back into darkspace. At her side Akhi Lian, the warship's commander, scowled and turned to face her. "I do not mean to question your wisdom, Eminence," he said darkly, "but I do not like relying on infidels."
"You have mentioned this before," Keenah said, "and my answer is the same- we have no choice. If petty thieves steal the relics we require it will never come to the attention of the infidels' government. If Yuuzhan Vong are involved, then soon their military and Jeedai will all be tracking us. That would be unacceptable."
"Then at least you should have let us sacrifice the captain," Akhi Lian replied. "He was disrespectful."
"Because he was surprised by what I required of him," Keenah explained. "The place we asked him to go is dangerous, and the thing he seeks was made by one the infidels still fear. But you forget that it is only your own Yun-Yammka who cries out continually for infidel blood. I follow Yun-Ne'Shel, and the Modeler teaches that all living things can be made to serve our purposes if we desire it. Even infidels."
As she spoke Keenah lifted up the Talisman and ran her hands over it once more, feeling the power contained within like a cold flame, and the faint throbs of pain that answered from within her limbs and torso. She knew that no other Yuuzhan Vong could do this- none others were gifted as she was. Such knowledge would have made many arrogant, but to Keenah it was merely a sign that she had been chosen to serve. A favored servant of the gods she might be, but still nothing more.
"I do not like that thing," Akhi Lian said. "It is a Jeedai tool. The Yuuzhan Vong do not need it!"
"It is a tool of the gods," Keenah said, her usually calm tone gone harsh. "They gave it to us that we might use it."
"He told us how to find it, and he is Jeedai!" Akhi Lian snapped.
"You go too far, warrior," Keenah said. "Leave me- I must meditate and seek the will of the gods."
Akhi Lian saluted. "Very well, Priestess. While you commune with the gods I shall seek the Shaper and receive an update on his progress." Turning, he stalked from the room.
Keenah sat cross legged on the floor of the observation room, staring into the golden depths of the artifact before her and thinking of the one who had told her to seek it- who had taught her to use the strange power she found herself possessed of. "You are wrong, Commander," she whispered. "He is not Jeedai- he is a true prophet, and he shall lead us to our destiny."
If the New Jedi Order was a controversial series, its main antagonists were even more so, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Yuuzhan Vong. I’ve always enjoyed invasion stories, stories about culture clash, and stories that explore stereotypically “evil” societies and explore how they manage to function and the beliefs that hold them together, and as such the Vong ended up hitting several of my buttons. Something I enjoyed about writing this fic was getting the chance to explore a group of them who still hold to their old ways, but have fallen from the heights of power they held during the bulk of the series.
Keenah is probably the most significant OC in the fic, and I’ll admit I’m very fond of her. In a way, she’s Tahiri’s mirror image – a Yuuzhan Vong who has acquired the power of the Force (a story for later, I’m afraid) rather than a Jedi who was nearly shaped into a Vong. She was partially inspired by the RPG character nicknamed “Vongerella”, at least in terms of being a Force-using Yuuzhan Vong female, but she’s not intended to be a direct representation. There’s a bit of Nen Yim in her too, in terms of being an idealistic young woman trying to navigate her society when events and her actions have put her outside of it, though she’s much more spiritual compared to Nen’s skeptic. I made her a priest because that caste always seemed a bit underutilized, and had her worship Yun-Ne’shel specifically because exploring the worship of a comparatively kind and gentle member of the Vong pantheon intrigued me. Though Tahiri is the central character of I, Warrior, Keenah’s arc will be getting a lot of play as well, and I had a lot of fun writing her
That said, Keenah is still the bad guy, but as this chapter indicates, she’s not the ultimate string puller. We’ll be meeting him next time…
Chapter 5: Chapter 4: Departure
Shouldering the pack that contained her few possessions, Tahiri stopped to admire the Sekotan vessel perched on the landing pad. Memories of Yavin had been shaped from seed-partners that had bonded with the young Jedi during her stay on Zonoma Sekot, and it was a sleek, seamless fusion of organics and technology. Like Tahiri herself, it drew from disparate parts to become a greater whole, and though she was a middling pilot at best under normal circumstances, the telepathic link she felt with the ship allowed her to execute all but the most complex maneuvers. It made her wonder what Anakin, a truly gifted pilot with a tremendously strong connection to the Force, would have been able to do with the Sekotan technology…
Tahiri shook her head. She doubted that she would ever escape the pain of Anakin's loss, but she had learned not to dwell on it or let it dominate her actions. Tuskens, Jedi, Yuuzhan Vong- all believed that death was not a permanent end but that the soul survived in some form in another life. To miss the dead was expected and noble, but to obsess over them was foolish. Tahiri had learned to accept that Anakin was gone but that life continued- that realization more than anything else had given her the strength to prevent becoming dominated by her Yuuzhan Vong side, thereby preventing Anakin's nightmare vision of her as a Jedi-hunting warmaster. Or so she hoped…
The young Jedi shook herself again. Now was the time for a new mission, not losing herself in the past. With a final glance at the tampasi that surrounded the landing field, taking in the beauty of the Sekotan "jungle", she climbed aboard Memories of Yavin and shut the hatch behind her.
Every Sekotan vessel was unique, but they all shared general similarities with each other and their distant cousins, the Yuuzhan Vong coralcraft. After stowing her pack in her cabin, Tahiri made her way to the cockpit and seated herself in the pilot's chair. The control panel was much like the one in the ship she had first traveled to this world in, along with Corran Horn, Nen Yim, the priest Harrar and a disguised Nom Anor. The fact that Memories had been made for Tahiri personally, though, gave her a level of rapport with the ship that Corran, gifted pilot though he was, had never been able to achieve. As she settled herself in front of the controls, the Jedi's awareness expanded until she could feel the ship as her own body, its quasi-sentient mind working together with her own through the Force.
A light on the console flashed, and Tahiri activated it with a slight nudge from the Force. A half-meter tall hologram shimmered into being of two figures the young Jedi knew well- Magister Jabitha, leader of the Ferroans and the closest thing Sekot could be said to have to a confidant, and Harrar, High Priest of the Yuuzhan Vong. Tahiri was surprised that the two most influential people on the planet were giving her a sendoff, but realized that she shouldn't be. Sekot itself had helped put her on this mission- of course its two chief representatives would make sure was safely on her way.
"Tahiri," Jabitha said with a warm smile, "on Sekot's behalf we wanted to wish you good luck in your journey and your mission."
"Thanks," Tahiri said. "Tell Sekot for me that I'll find whatever is causing this disturbance in the Force, and I'll put a stop to it. It probably already knows, but I think it might appreciate the gesture."
"I will tell Sekot," Jabitha said. "May the Potentium be with you." She smiled again and vanished from the hologram. Tahiri shook her head at the use of the term Potentium- the Jedi considered it an outdated, naïve, and rather dangerous view of the Force because it denied the existence of evil, but she knew that the Ferroans were strong believers in it and she accepted the farewell in the spirit it was given.
Harrar looked up at Tahiri solemnly. "May Yun-Yammka guide your blade, warrior," he said in the Yuuzhan Vong language, "and Yun-Harla lend you her cunning."
Part of Tahiri was comforted by the ritual phrase, but she found it strangely out of place nonetheless. "And may they do the same for you, Eminence," she said formally in the same language. "But even for a priest, isn't invoking the old gods a pit passé these days?"
Harrar gave a thin smile. "Perhaps it is. Therefore, I shall also offer you the blessing of the Jeedai as well- may the Force be with you." He crossed his arms in a Yuuzhan Vong salute, and Tahiri did the same. Then the hologram flickered and the High Priest too was gone.
"Well then," Tahiri said to herself, "looks like it’s time to be off." Her hands danced lightly over the controls and Memories of Yavin launched itself into the sky. Looking out the viewport, she could see Zonoma Sekot sinking away below her and offered a silent farewell. Then Tahiri looked forward, into the approaching vastness of space. Sekot had returned to the Unknown Regions following the end of the Yuuzhan Vong War, deliberately avoiding civilized space in an effort to avoid being exploited itself and to protect its new inhabitants from the wrath of a vengeful galaxy. But the coordinates to return to the galaxy proper had been programmed into the navcomputer- all Tahiri had to do was activate it, and she would be off.
Memories left the upper atmosphere and soared off into the blackness of space. After several more minutes Tahiri pulled up the navcomputer and activated it, and the stars changed from pinpricks to streaks of light, and then to the stormy nothingness of hyperspace.
"Next stop, Ossus," she said under her breath. She needed to go to the new headquarters of the Jedi order to inform Master Skywalker of her vision and hopefully pick up a few old friends, if they were available. Then she would start looking for answers.
As Keenah glided down the halls of Vua'sa's Rage, the warriors and shapers she passed paused in their work to offer her a salute. Her robes were those of a full priestess, true, as was the cloth wound expertly around her head and interwoven with her long black hair, but she was still obviously young for her station. Indeed, she had only gained it do to the unfortunate demise of her predecessor, but to the crew that didn't matter. She was a priestess, favored by the gods, and therefore deserving of their reverence. The fact that she was his favorite pupil didn't hurt matters either.
Not all of the crew liked or trusted him, but they all respected and feared him, and winning those emotions from the Yuuzhan Vong was no small feat.
Keenah was going to see him now, and she mentally prepared herself. Her teacher- her prophet- was like nothing familiar to the Yuuzhan Vong mind, a being of purest contradiction. Speaking with him was never easy at the time, though she always looked back on their meetings with awe. He always revealed some new wisdom of power to the young priestess that only confirmed to her his nature as a divine messenger who would lead her people to glory. All she had to do was follow his instructions, and the gods would smile.
She reached the membrane that sealed off the Master's quarters and waved her hand in front of it, allowing the vessel's primitive mind to recognize her scent and genetic code. Identity confirmed, the membrane slid open and she stepped into the antechamber, where the shaper waited.
Kizin Qel's headdress writhed with agitation as he muttered to himself incoherently. He was hardly the image of the composed and pious Master Shaper, but Keenah had to admit he got results. He was the only one able to treat the Master's condition with any regularity, and as such was ranked with Keenah herself and Commander Akhi Lian as one of the most influential Yuuzhan Vong on the vessel. Of course, such expertise wasn't surprising, considering their benefactor's physical origin…
Kizin Qel showed no sign that he was aware of Keenah's presence, so she finally swallowed her dignity and cleared her throat loudly. The Master Shaper looked up suddenly, frantically scanning the room until his eyes- one of which was a glowing yellow maa'it implant- rested on the priestess's face. "Ah, Eminence Keenah," he said. "You are here to speak with the Master, yes?"
"I am," she confirmed. "What is his current condition?"
"Stable," Kizin Qel said. "He endures pain as well as any of our race, unsurprisingly. He must be continually checked for more serious infection, but as of now he seems in no risk of complications. He should be fit for speaking with you, so long as you do not tax him overly."
"Very well." Keenah nodded and swept past the shaper, arriving at the membrane that sealed off the Master's inner chamber. She raised her hand before it, and after a moment it too withdrew. She stepped inside.
The first thing the priestess noticed was, as always, the smell. It was the stench of rot and decay, and it wafted from the hunched figure who sat on a coral throne in the center of the room. A part of Keenah was repelled by the scent- nothing that lived by any right should smell like that. Even most of the Shamed Ones who performed the menial tasks aboard the Rage had better hygiene.
Yuur Cha, Akhi Lian's predecessor as commander of the vessel, had mocked the Master when his condition became apparent, calling him infidel and Shamed One, saying that no true Yuuzhan Vong had any place following him. The Master had stayed silent throughout the entire tirade, and then seized the warrior's throat one handed, lifted him from the floor, and snapped his neck with minimal effort. Since then, if the crew questioned the Master's dictates, they never did so to his face.
Keenah had to admit that he wasn't an impressive sight. Smaller than most Yuuzhan Vong, his form was hunched and broken, wrapped in a filthy black cloak to hide his degeneration. Even his hands and face were concealed behind thick wrappings of living tissue that ate away and his diseased flesh and held his crumbling body together. Only his eyes remained clear- and they were a poisonous yellow-red that almost glowed.
Strange artifacts sat in a semicircle around the Master's throne. They were the things that he had seen in his dreams and ordered his servants to find, vessels of great and ancient power. To Keenah's enhanced senses they fairly glowed, and she always had the sense that they were somehow alive and watching her. The newest one- the Talisman that Hassk had recently delivered- hung from one bandaged hand.
Keenah approached slowly and bowed. "Master," she said, "I seek your wisdom."
The hooded head turned slowly towards her, and she could hear the rasp of his labored breathing. "Priestess," he rasped. "My favorite… disciple. What do you… require of me?"
"I have sent the infidels to retrieve the final prize," Keenah said. "I wish to learn more about how these can be used to further the cause of the gods. The warriors grow restless, and I must have knowledge to placate them."
The Master's eyes narrowed. "They will not… dare challenge us. They know… that I am truly blessed… that I can defeat… any of them. But I sense… that you seek knowledge… for yourself as well."
"Yes, Master," Keenah admitted. "None can read the hearts of the Yuuzhan Vong as you do. You have shown me so much already- I must understand more. All my life I have trained for this- for understanding the will of the gods. You are a conduit to them, as was Dread Shimrra himself."
The Master laughed, but the sound quickly dissolved into wet, hacking coughs. "You do me… too much honor. But come… and I will tell you… of the will of the gods."
Keenah seated herself cross-legged before the throne, as she had as a child when her crèche's instructor had told the legends of their people. The Master sat quietly for a moment, and then he spoke. "You know of… the Jedi, of course. They are… the great warriors of the galaxy… wielders of a power they call… the Force. But they had… great enemies, once… who used the same powers… for conquest. They go by… many names, but the most common is… the Sith."
The priestess nodded, knowing all of this already. The Master continued. "The Sith created… many artifacts, in which they imbued… their dark power. The mightiest of these… could increase a Sith's power… tenfold. But the Sith… lacked the ability to… cooperate with each other… and so the Jedi destroyed them. The artifacts were mostly destroyed… but some were lost, scattered… across the galaxy.
"Using the visions granted to me by the gods… and the Force… I have been able to find several of these… and send agents to return them. There is a world… from which the Sith first came, and there many of them… are entombed. By bringing the artifacts together… in that place of power… on Korriban… we can pool our abilities and… do things no infidel or Yuuzhan Vong has done before. We can… speak directly with the gods… and by their power the galaxy will fall… as should have happened, but for… Shimrra's failure." The Master fell silent, coughing slightly.
Keenah's eyes glowed. "That is a magnificent vision," she said. "I know that the gods sent you to us. I know in my soul that we can bring it to life- and then there shall be no more infidels. All life will follow the true gods, and the universe will be remade as it should have been from the beginning."
"Your faith… is pleasing to me… my disciple," the Master rasped. "Now leave me… I must rest."
The priestess stood and bowed again. "As you will. May the gods walk with you." She turned to leave.
When his disciple was gone, the being who had no name held up the Sith Talisman and inspected it, seeking to draw on its power to aid his faltering body. It was a paltry thing by itself, as such devices went, but it gave him enough of a boost to bring him some relief. Someday he would have the power to heal himself completely, but for now this was all he could accomplish.
Searing pain lanced through his skull and the artifact fell from his nerveless grip. Memories washed over him, chaotic and contradictory, scenes from many different lives. He rocked forward, clutching his head. Physical pain he could endure, even if he didn't enjoy it the way many of his Yuuzhan Vong associates seemed to, but this was different, agony of the spirit rather than the body. But when his flesh was restored he would piece his mind together as well, and then the full abilities with the Force which were locked deep inside him would be at his command once again.
And then all of the galaxy- infidel and Yuuzhan Vong alike- would admit that he possessed the greatest power that had ever existed, and they would bow to him and admit that he was Master. It was this dream that sustained him when the agony became unbearable.
Beneath his bandages, the nameless being smiled.
The name of Tahiri’s ship was something that came to me easily and seemed entirely appropriate on many levels; there’s a lot of meaning packed into that one as it relates to her life’s story. Her part of this chapter is pretty straightforward, existing chiefly to get her from one point to another, but I was glad to be able to work in a brief appearance from Jabitha and Harrar; it annoyed me that they (along with Sekot) were essentially written out of the old EU following The Unifying Force.
The Master is a mystery by design; his true identity won’t be revealed until the end of the fic, but I tried to drop enough clues that a careful reader might be able to figure it out (though I don’t think anyone did when I posted the first version). His appearance is something of a callback to Palpatine, though his physical degeneration is even more extreme (he also bears a passing resemblance to the Crippled God, the main antagonist of the Malazan fantasy series) and his suffering from a degenerative physical condition hearkens back to Vader. Whoever he is, though, this guy has big plans – and they may not quite be what Keenah thinks they are…
Chapter 6: Chapter 5: An Unexpected Passenger
She stands alone in the arid wastes of Tatooine, her wrappings ruffled by the hot wind that is blowing towards her. Her traditional Tusken garments protect her from the worst effects of this harsh environment, even as the twin suns burn down overhead. The wind blows more intensely and she turns to face it. In the distance comes a great dark wave- a sandstorm greater than any she has ever seen. Every instinct tells her to find shelter, but her body remains rooted to the spot as the storm crashes over her…
Now she is on the edge of the jungles of Yavin 4 in the jumpsuit of a Jedi trainee, staring up at the awesome structure that was once the Great Temple of the Massassi and is now Master Skywalker's academy. She is running from something terrible in the jungle, but she knows that the Masters will protect her- as she reaches the pyramid's base she can see Master Tionne coming towards her. She stops, panting but knowing that the threat is gone- and then Tionne reaches up and pulls the ooglith masquer from her face, and it is Mezhan Kwaad who beckons with a taloned hand, cruel madness dancing in her eyes…
Now she is aboard the ancient worldship Baanu Raas in orbit above the world called Myrkr, and she is standing in an embrace with Anakin as they both mouth words too soft to be understood. Then he pulls from her arms and steps back, and as he does so his body begins to smoke and burn, and she can only watch helplessly as he is reduced to ash before her eyes…
Now she is trapped within her own mind, facing a warrior who is a mirror image of herself save for the fact that she wields her lightsaber in the opposite hand. They duel for what feels like an eternity, neither able to gain an advantage over the other, until she finally through sheer luck manages to impale her lightsaber through her double's heart, only to scream as they are both dragged down into the dark abyss…
She falls forever, finally landing on flat, empty ground. She stands and sees that she is in a vast, shadowed chamber, its walls lined with statues that seem to tower into infinity, and before her stands a stooped figure in a dark cloak, leaning heavily on a staff that seems to be made of yorik coral. It seems lost within its own thoughts- but then it looks up and the yellow eyes that blaze within the shadows of its hood see her. "You!" it hisses in a voice that is somewhere between a whisper and a rasp, and it stretches out a hand to drag her towards it by sheer force of its will…
Tahiri woke suddenly, rubbing her head as she sat up in her bunk aboard Memories of Yavin. Another vision- another highly unpleasant vision. "What are you trying to tell me?" she asked rather irritably, not expecting an answer. "If you want me to do something, would it be too much for you to just say it without dragging up a gallery of my least favorite memories?" The Force, of course, made no response.
Deciding that getting back to sleep would be unlikely, Tahiri stood and pulled on a robe. Clipping her lightsaber to her belt, she stepped out of her cabin and walked up to the cockpit.
Memories was semi-sentient and quite capable of flying herself through hyperspace once a destination had been keyed in. After checking the consoles and her Force-bond with the living vessel to make certain that everything was running smoothly, Tahiri settled herself into the pilot's chair and attempted to meditate so that she could clear any left-over unpleasantness from the vision from her mind. Her shaping, Anakin, Riina- it had been years, but all of those were still painful topics.
As the Jedi reached out to the Force, she became aware that something was subtly wrong. She wasn't certain what it was, exactly- the feeling was vague and imprecise, no matter how hard she tried to focus on it, as if the great energy field detected that something was amiss but couldn't focus on the source.
Tahiri realized what that meant. "Of course," she muttered to herself and shifted her focus to the part of her mind where the memories and identity that had once formed Riina Kwaad resided. Her connection to the Force became muted, while a similar but distinct ability activated- Vongsense. Reaching out with it, she scanned her ship- and sure enough, near the back there was a presence. Someone- Yuuzhan Vong or so heavily implanted and shaped as to be indistinguishable from them- was aboard Memories.
Tahiri stood and bared her teeth in a snarl, fighting down the anger that came from her Yuuzhan Vong nature. She needed that part of herself active so that she could use her Vongsense, but she was Jedi first and couldn't afford to give in to anger. Drawing her lightsaber but not activating it yet, she left the cockpit and began to creep towards the presence.
The Sekotan vessel was no freighter, having been created as a personal vehicle for Tahiri, and so finding her intruder wouldn't be difficult. There were three other cabins in addition to her own, in case she ever had to transport any of her friends or allies, and a storage bay in front of the engines for the event that she might need to carry anything large. Tahiri wasn't planning on doing anything of the sort, but she knew better than most how a Jedi's life could turn rather unpredictable. Vongsense wasn't very precise, but from the feel she was getting there was only one intruder, and he or she was somewhere in the hold.
Opening the door to that part of the ship, Tahiri poked her head in and took a quick look around. It was empty except for a few crates of spare parts for the mechanical components of Memories, and there was no sign of the stowaway. Correction, she thought upon noticing something fleshy that had the look of a masquer that no one was wearing sticking out from behind one of the crates. There was one sign.
Using the Force to deaden the quiet steps of her bare feet to absolute silence, Tahiri crept slowly towards the crate and then vaulted over it, landing on the other side with lightsaber activated. "Do-ro'ik Vong pratte!" she snarled, caught up in the moment. "Tell me why you're on my ship- talk fast."
The figure who had been curled up, apparently asleep, behind the crate sprang up and, when he saw the Jedi standing over him, fell face-forward on the ground in a posture of abject submission. "Forgive me, Dread One," he panted. "I intended no disrespect."
Wait a minute- Tahiri knew that voice. "Ziil?" she asked, perplexed. "What, in the name of the Force, the gods, Sekot, and anything I haven't heard of but might be listening anyway are you doing here?"
The former Shamed One looked up at her. "I saw you preparing to depart Sekot alone, One-Who-Was-Shaped, and I felt that I should accompany you. It is not right for the great to travel into danger alone."
Tahiri switched off her lightsaber and sat down, rolling her eyes. "I'm not one of 'the great', Ziil. I'm just a Jedi Knight who somehow wound up with a religion fixated on me, and I don't need a servant. What makes you think I'm going into danger, anyway? Maybe I just wanted to see my friends or train with my old Masters."
"You seemed troubled," Ziil said, "during our conversation on Sekot. You said you had a vision like the great Jeedai, and then you prepared to depart. I may have been born Shamed, but I am not a fool. I knew that there was a connection."
"Okay, I'll admit that I was leaving to tell Master Skywalker about my vision," Tahiri said, leaving out that she'd just had another one. "But you can't just waltz onto Ossus with me. It's the new headquarters of the Jedi Order, Ziil, and you're a Yuuzhan Vong. Master Skywalker wouldn't hurt you, but there are some of the younger Jedi who still haven't forgiven your species for the war. And that's to say nothing of the populace at large."
"I do not fear death," Ziil said grandly. "Besides, you are going there and you are Yuuzhan Vong."
"Riina was Yuuzhan Vong. I'm half and half, and Jedi before I'm anything. Besides, these people know me- some of them went to the Academy with me, some were my teachers, and I fought alongside all of them. You can't say any of that."
"I anticipated that," Ziil said. He prodded the masquer with his foot. "That is why I brought this. I also have a tizowyrm. I should be able to blend in flawlessly."
Tahiri somehow doubted that- a masquer might change your appearance, but unless you were a truly gifted actor it couldn't hide your mannerisms and Ziil was still very much the Shamed One heretic. Not to mention that a Yuuzhan Vong on a planet full of Jedi stood was about as obvious as a lake in the Dune Sea. She shook her head, and then stopped. "Wait a minute- where'd you get a masquer and tizowyrm, anyway? The shapers don't just hand those things out, after all."
Ziil appeared nervous. "I actually felt that, as our society has become rather less strict since the end of the war, it would possibly be justifiable for me to acquire the items without a formal requisition."
"Or informing the Shapers at all, probably," Tahiri said. "So, to put it a little less prettily, you stole them."
The former Shamed One went down on his hands and knees again. "Forgive me, One-Who-Was-Shaped. I only did it so that I might aid you in your quest."
"Get up," Tahiri said. "We're already well on our way to Ossus, so I can't just turn around and drop you back off on Sekot, and it’s probably best to let those Shapers cool off a bit, too. But if you're going to be traveling with me, there are going to be a few ground rules."
"Anything the One-Who-Was-Shaped desires," Ziil said.
"First off, don't call me that. I'm not a goddess, or a prophet, or a messiah, or whatever else you think I am. I'm a Jedi who wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Then what shall I call you?" the Yuuzhan Vong asked.
"Take your pick- you can call me Tahiri, or Tahiri Veila if just using one name makes you uncomfortable, or Jedi Veila if you're feeling formal (though that could get a bit old too), or even Riina Kwaad if you absolutely have to use a Yuuzhan Vong name. But no religious titles, please."
Ziil smiled and nodded. "I will call you Tahiri Veila."
"That'll do," Tahiri said. "Number two- for your own safety, do what I tell you to. I'm not going to try and dominate your life like I'm a Supreme Commander with way too much time on my hands, but if I ask you to stay on the ship, please do it. Masquer or not, I don't want you to slip up and get yourself lynched, okay?"
"There is wisdom in your words," Ziil said.
"If I think up anything you need to know later on, I'll tell you. For now, you'd probably best come up to the cockpit with me. It's not that I don't trust you, but I really don't want you to accidentally damage something while I'm not around." Tahiri stood and clipped her saber back on her belt- Ziil stuffed his masquer into a living pouch at his side and did the same.
They walked quietly back to the cockpit, and Tahiri settled herself back in the pilot's chair, while Ziil took the unoccupied copilot's. He sat still for a moment, then turned to her. "We heretics looked to the Jedi as our guiding light," he said, "but we really knew very little of you. I must confess that I am very curious about this planet we are going to, Tahiri Veila. Can you tell me of Ossus?"
"Not a whole lot," Tahiri said. "I've never been there. The Jedi headquarters used to be on Yavin Four before it was destroyed during the war." She fell uncharacteristically silent as memories both sweet and painful washed over her.
She snapped out of her reverie and looked over at Ziil. "Sorry about that. Anyway, Ossus is where Master Skywalker decided to move the Order after the final battle for Coruscant. It used to be a great center of Jedi learning during the Old Republic, until the planet got devastated during the Great Sith War."
"Seeth." The Shamed One seemed to taste the unfamiliar word. "What is Seeth?"
Tahiri chuckled darkly. "Now there's a question for you. I'm no history expert- you'd be better off talking to Tionne, one of my old Masters; she loves this stuff- but even beings who've been living in holes on asteroids know about the Sith. They're the ultimate enemy, basically- Jedi believe that there is good and evil in living things and that this is reflected in the Force, or that it's the other way around depending on who you ask. The first Sith Lords were evil Jedi who thought they could use their powers to take over the galaxy, as though being strong in the Force meant you were destined to rule. They were defeated and exiled, but their teachings turned out to be seductive and long-lasting. Time and time again the Sith have been destroyed, and time and time again they've returned. The last two were the Emperor and his apprentice, Darth Vader, but Master Skywalker managed to redeem Vader and he sacrificed his life to destroy his Master. There aren't any Sith anymore, thank the Force."
It had been the briefest summary of a difficult topic, but nonetheless Zill seemed disturbed. "But the Jeedai are the holy warriors of the gods- we know this," he said. "How could some of you have become evil?"
Tahiri shook her head sadly. "We try to be good, but a lot of times beings fall short of their standards, and sometimes they do it with flare. Being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force is every Jedi's nightmare. My friend Anakin, who died during the war- and yes, before you ask he was the same Anakin from the Vua Rapuung story- feared it because he was Vader's grandson." A vision rose in Tahiri's mind of herself in Anakin's vision on Yavin- Warmaster Riina, subjugating the galaxy before the Yuuzhan Vong. "It's my nightmare too."
"I did not know," Ziil said. "I am sorry. I did not know what a burden the Jeedai lived with."
"We try not to think of it as a burden," Tahiri said. "Angst never gets you anywhere- I learned that the hard way. Everyone has to choose whether to do good or evil in their lives, and the Jedi are no different." She stretched and yawned. "We've got a few hours before we get to Ossus- I'm going to try and get some hopefully dreamless sleep, and you should probably do the same thing. Follow me- I'll show you the cabin you can have. You shouldn't be sleeping behind a crate in the hold."
Taking one last look at the chaos of hyperspace, Tahiri turned and left the room, Ziil in tow.
Ziil was always intended to be Tahiri’s sidekick for this fic, and this chapter properly introduces him after his brief appearance in the second one. He’s more earnest than he is competent a lot of the time, but he’s fundamentally a decent person who does his best to live up to (what he perceives as) “Jeedai” ideals. He latched onto Tahiri in part because she’s the most dynamic of the three Jedi who stayed with Sekot, and in part because (as some of his dialogue here indicates) he sees her being “The Jeedai Who Was Shaped” as “The Jeedai Who Is Yuuzhan Vong” even though that’s not entirely accurate (I think he may have a bit of a crush on her too, but he’d never, ever admit it, and it doesn’t directly affect the plot).
Tahiri’s still having bad dreams, and in this one she caught a glimpse of the Master himself. Unfortunately, he may have seen her too. Most of it was just regular nightmare (I imagine Mezhan Kwaad has been something of a fixture of Tahiri’s nightmares for a while, honestly) but that last part shows at least some of it was real, and this won’t be the last before the fic is over.
Otherwise, this chapter was mostly just getting Ziil onto Memories and providing a chance to do a quick refresher course on the Jedi and the Sith. Next time Tahiri arrives at Ossus and meets up with some old friends, and we find out a bit more about what Keenah has hired Hassk to do…
Chapter 7: Chapter 6: The New Jedi Order
Hassk's snout wrinkled as he stepped into the hazy darkness of the cantina. There were dozens of places like this near the spaceport of Atzerri, where illicit spacers could relax after a flight or conduct marginally legal business of their own in the shadows. Personally the Trandoshan found cantinas little more than wasteful distractions, for no hunter liked having his wits dulled, but he knew that most of the underworld- including his own crew- felt differently, so he forced himself to tolerate them.
Atzerri was one of Talon's crew's common places to trade the valuable crystals their Vong employers paid them with, with no questions asked. This particular cantina was one they knew well, and Hassk was able to navigate through the crowd and find Rhona, Hensen, and Skaze sitting at their usual table, a game of sabbacc in progress and drinks on the table before them.
"What are you three doing here?" the Trandoshan snarled. "You were to have returned to the ship a standard hour ago. What is the delay?"
Rhona looked up at him across her cards. "We're not sure we're coming on this one, Captain," she said. "After the last mission- well, we're just not sure we want to go around handling any more you-know-whats." Even the most hardened of criminals didn't mention Sith artifacts lightly if they had any experience with them.
"And so you desert me?" Hassk asked. "Coward."
"Realist," Rhona replied. "The stuff we've been getting for them hasn't been too dangerous, but this new one they want- it's one of his. Sorry, but I'll pass. It's nothing personal, Captain- we'll still be here when you get through and are ready to go back to bounty hunting or smuggling. But not for this."
"I did not think you were one to back out when the prize was at hand," Hassk said, appealing to her vanity.
Rhona snorted. "Stang, Captain- I like risk as much as the next girl, but going after something that used to be the Emperor's? That he probably made? On Coruscant, which is still a mess after the war? I don't care how much they pay- it's just not worth it."
Hassk was disappointed, but not surprised- he'd been expecting something like this to happen ever since Keenah told him that the next artifact they needed to retrieve was a relic of the late Emperor Palpatine. The Trandoshans hadn't suffered particularly under his rule- the hunting services that were their primary export had been in great demand under the Imperial regime- but Hassk knew that in most of the galaxy the dead tyrant had been elevated almost to the level of some terrible god. He’d even heard humans swearing by the man’s bones, which seemed at once a preposterous and yet oddly suitable tribute to the Trandoshan’s mind. The fact that he had managed to cheat death at least once- even if it had just been a clone- simply added fuel to the fire.
"So it is fear of the Emperor that keeps you from this prize," Hassk mused. "Understandable. But tell me, which is worse- the retribution of a ghost, evil as he may have been in life, or the retribution of the living?"
"Are you threatening us, Captain?" Skaze asked in his buzzing Rodian voice. "I didn't think you'd stoop to that."
"I wouldn't threaten even former crew who have served me well," Hassk said. "But I was referring to someone else- the ones who hired us."
"Why would they care?" Rhona asked. "Just as long as you get the job done, they don't care if three infidels choose to sit it out. How would they even know?"
Haask planted his claws on the table and stared at Rhona with his unblinking eyes. "They are Vong," he said, the last word little more than a hiss. "Do you think I am fond of this new job? No! I do not like them, I do not trust them, or their twisted gods. But I will not risk their wrath. If I fail to retrieve what the Priestess sent me for, they will kill me and everyone associated with me- including you. Remember Sernpidal, Kalarba, Barab- they are not a species inclined to mercy. If a Vong approaches you, you do whatever it takes to stay on his good side. That is the only realistic option."
Rhona shuddered, and Skaze and Hensen both looked uneasy. "You do have a point," the human male said. "S'why we signed on with the Brigade during the war, wasn't it? So we didn't have to fight them."
"I need all of my crew to carry out this mission," Hassk said. "Are you with me?"
"Well, when you put it that way," Rhona said. "Can we at least finish our game first?" The Trandoshan captain shook his head. His slicer was a gambler- no doubt she currently had a winning hand and didn't appreciate his interruption.
"Very well," Hassk allowed. "Finish your game and return to the Talon within the hour. I think it best to get this job over with." Straightening up, he turned and stalked away from the table, content in the knowledge that he would be heading into the ruined capital of the galaxy with a reliable team at his back.
Memories of Yavin flashed out of hyperspace and into orbit around the planet Ossus. Tahiri sat in the cockpit once more and stared down at the barren, once-lush surface. In the distant past this world had been a great Jedi stronghold. Now Luke Skywalker's new Order had returned to make it one again. Tahiri knew that there had been a time when she wouldn't have fully appreciated the significance of that, but she had absorbed some of the Yuuzhan Vong reverence for the past and tradition.
She felt a prickling in her Vongsense and heard soft footsteps entering the cockpit. "So this is it," Ziil said. "The sacred world of the Jeedai. It is not what I expected."
"Well, the Jedi haven't been there very long," Tahiri reminded him. "This generation of Jedi, anyway. Now let me concentrate- I've not been here before and I need to figure out exactly where the new academy is." Keying in the Sekotan vessel's sensors, Tahiri did a quick scan of the Ossus and was soon able to pinpoint a cluster of buildings that seemed to be much higher technologically than anything the native Ysanna used. That had to be it, and the young Jedi began to take her ship down.
Shortly the academy came into view- a half-finished pyramid perched on a rocky rise, surrounded by smaller buildings and a landing field. A burst of static sounded over the comm, making Ziil jump, and an unfamiliar voice spoke. "Unknown vessel," it said, "please identify yourself and state your business."
"Control, this is Jedi Knight Tahiri Veila flying Memories of Yavin. I'm here to see Master Skywalker about something important. I really hope you’re going to let me land, because I plan on doing it anyway. I'm sure Master Skywalker will understand."
There was a pause from the other end. "Jedi Veila, you have permission to land. You do understand this is only a precaution and not a serious challenge?"
Tahiri laughed. "Of course I do. I was just messing with you. Veila out."
Ziil leaned over to her. "What was that? I do not speak the language of this galaxy well without a tizowyrm. Forgive me- I am only curious."
"It was nothing- just checking to see who I was," Tahiri said. She brought Memories down over the landing field and let her sink smoothly to the ground. "Now then, I'm going to go see Master Skywalker. You'd better stay here- a Jedi would spot you as a Yuuzhan Vong in a heartbeat, even with the masquer, and that could be a problem. I'll let Master Skywalker know that you're here, and maybe after I'm done talking with him you can have a chance to look around. But it's best if everyone knows you're here before they see you."
"I understand, Tahiri Veila," he said.
Tahiri stood and adjusted her robe. "I'll be back in a bit," she said, pressing the button to extend the landing ramp. Quickly she exited the ship and stepped out onto the soil of Ossus.
This world was barren, having been scorched by an ancient Sith weapon long ago, but it was not completely lifeless. Here and there she could see clumps of vegetation struggling to survive, and with the Force she could feel more life out there, lurking out of sight. Ossus lived still, despite the efforts of the Sith to destroy it.
With one glance back at her ship, Tahiri started towards the temple. The main building was still under construction and she could see workmen of various species performing various tasks on and around it, with an occasional Jedi with no pressing duties pausing to watch before continuing on their way. The smaller buildings, on the other hand, seemed operational, so she headed for them.
Tahiri was approaching the nearest building when she felt a familiar presence behind her. Turning, she found herself face to face with a short middle-aged man with a neatly-trimmed beard and keen, intelligent eyes. "Corran?" she said.
Corran Horn, Jedi Knight and former Rogue Squadron pilot, stepped back slightly, eyes widening. "Tahiri?" he asked. "What are you doing here?"
Tahiri and Corran had worked together on two important missions during the war- first preventing the Yuuzhan Vong takeover of Yag'dhul, and then escorting Nen Yim, Harrar, and a disguised Nom Anor to Zonoma Sekot. The second mission had been the first the young Jedi had taken since her warring personalities had fused together and Corran had been suspicious of her, afraid that Riina Kwaad's lingering influence might lead her to betraying the Jedi to the Yuuzhan Vong. Ultimately, though, she had managed to win his trust. She hadn't seen him since the final battle over Coruscant.
"There's something important I have to tell Master Skywalker about," Tahiri said. "I had a vision on Zonoma Sekot- I'm not sure what it meant, but I know that it wasn't good. I told Sekot, and it said it was sensing a disturbance somewhere in the galaxy but that it was too small for it to figure out what it was. We both thought the Jedi should know. Do you know where he is?"
Corran pointed off towards one of the farther buildings. "That's Luke and Mara's home over there- at least until the new temple gets done. He should be there right now, meditating, I think."
"Thanks a lot, Corran," Tahiri said. "By the way- what are you doing here? You don't really seem the type to just hand around headquarters. I bet there's still a lot of field work out there this soon after the war. Are you just between missions, or what?"
Corran scowled. "Unfortunately, no. I got made a Master after the Liberation of Coruscant, and since the Order needs to be rebuilt after we got mauled by the Vong, Luke's pressed all Masters into duty as teachers."
"Yuuzhan Vong," Tahiri corrected absently. "Well, congratulations- if anyone deserved to be a Master, it's you. What are you teaching?"
"I just finished running a bunch of apprentices through a crash course in investigation," the new Jedi Master said wearily. "In another half-hour I'm taking another group into orbit to go over the basics of starfighter tactics."
"Well, good luck with that," Tahiri said. "On that note, I seem to recall you offering to give me some one-on-one instruction back during the war. Surely you won't be too tired to spar with me later on? I haven't had a really good chance on Sekot- Danni and Tekli are great, but neither is particularly good with a lightsaber, and training against someone using an amphistaff just isn't the same."
Corran laughed. "It'd be nice to train someone who actually has some idea of what they're doing," he said. "I'd be up for that. It's nice to see you again, Tahiri."
"You too," Tahiri replied. She and Corran nodded at each other and then he turned and went inside the nearest building, which seemed to be a cafeteria of some kind. Tahiri headed over to the building he had indicated was Master Skywalker's.
The home was small and plain- not exactly what you'd expect from a Jedi Master or the greatest living hero in the galaxy. But then, many Jedi preferred not to clutter their connection to the Force with unnecessary decadence, and Master Skywalker had been raised in the barren deserts of Tatooine. That wasn't a world where you got used to luxury, something that Tahiri, herself raised on the same planet by the Tusken Raiders, knew well. Stepping up to the door, she reached out with the Force and sensed a single being inside- Master Skywalker himself. His wife, Mara, also a Master, and their son Ben were probably somewhere else in the new temple complex. Tahiri reached out and knocked softly on the door.
"Come in," a calm voice said. Tahiri opened the door and stepped inside.
The door opened directly into a small sitting room with three chairs and a table, the only other decoration being a handful of Jedi artifacts Luke Skywalker had discovered in his travels. He sat in one of the chairs, wearing his customary black tunic, eyes shut in concentration. His face was weathered and kind, the idealism of his youth blended with the wisdom of age. At first glance he didn't look impressive, but if one bothered to pay close attention it became easy to see that here was one who had suffered and emerged stronger from it. He was the great inspiration to all the new Jedi Order, but Tahiri remembered about how he had been Anakin's hero in particular. She could understand that very well- uncle and nephew had been very much alike.
"Master Skywalker?" she asked softly.
He opened his eyes slowly and turned to look at her. "Tahiri," he said, standing. "I've been expecting you."
I’m sorry for losing track of this one for so long! Anyway, this chapter is pretty straightforward, though it contains some important bits. First, we see Hassk and his crew officially get ready to take the job Keenah gave them, and learn a bit about what they’re after – some possession of the Emperor’s. I liked being able to get a bit more into Hassk’s head here, especially to showcase his differences from the people and creatures around him. He’s a scoundrel, but a scoundrel of a different sort, much more focused on the mission than the pleasures of spending his credits; part of that’s cultural, but a lot of it’s just him.
And we see a bit more of what the Jedi Order’s been up to in this AU versus Legends. The Unifying Force clearly established that Luke would be moving the Order to Ossus, and here we’re mostly seeing the immediate fallout of that. We see Corran in this chapter for the first time in the fic; he’s a character I know is a bit of a base-breaker, but I’ve never had a problem with him (though I prefer him as a supporting character rather than the lead). He and Tahiri found a rapport in The Final Prophecy that subsequent Legends material basically ignored; I wanted to explore it a bit more here. This is hardly the last we’ll be seeing of Corran in this fic.
And Luke is a Jedi Master. Of course he’s expecting Tahiri.
Chapter 8: Chapter 7: Masters of Light and Darkness
Keenah stood motionless on the dueling floor aboard Vua'sa's Rage, eyes closed and head bowed. She was clad only in a tunic and pants, light garments that wouldn't hinder her movements rather than her customary robes, an amphistaff coiled around one bare arm. She breathed deeply, focusing her mind as she had been taught so that she became aware of the three warriors who stood in a circle around her- and the mightier presence that waited off to the side.
"Begin," the Master ordered.
Keenah's eyes snapped open, and in a flash the amphistaff slid into her hand and stiffened into its bladed form, hard enough to deflect an infidel lightsaber and sharp enough to slice through yorik coral. In the heartbeat it took for that to happen, the three warriors lunged, but the priestess was ready for them. Her special senses warned her of the attack seconds before it came, and drawing on her power she leaped easily into the air, the amphistaffs cutting the air harmlessly below her.
She landed lightly on the other side of the dueling floor and the warriors spun to face her, fanning out as they advanced. Keenah knew they wouldn't kill her- she was a member of the priest caste and the Master's favored disciple, after all- but that was their only restriction. The Yuuzhan Vong believed that any lesson worth learning could only be bought through pain.
One of the warriors suddenly lunged forward, striking out with his amphistaff. Keenah parried with her own weapon and the two lunged back and forth for several moments, easily matched. The warrior was stronger, more skilled, but the priestess's precognition evened the odds, allowing her to anticipate and block his blows far more readily than a normal opponent could. Unfortunately, Keenah made the mistake of focusing all of her will on this one warrior, forgetting the other two. A sharp lance of pain shot down her back as one struck her with his amphistaff, and though she did not cry out she sank to one knee as her three opponents stood over her.
"Use your… passion, my student!" the Master rasped from the sidelines. "That is the source of… your power."
"Passion," Keenah murmured softly. Her eyes narrowed as she focused on the pain of her injury, her pride in her people, her absolute belief in the righteousness of the Yuuzhan Vong cause. Then, when she could contain it no longer, she released it.
The three warriors were thrown backwards by an invisible wall of force. Keenah leaped to her feet and brought her amphistaff up, coiling it around the weapon of one of her opponents and jerking it from his hands. Her own hand came up and thrust out towards him, and he slammed into the coral wall and lay still. One of the other warriors moved up behind her with the sharp end of his staff pointed at her back, but she sensed his presence and spun around, shooting venom from her amphistaff's head. The warrior fell back, clutching his eyes and screaming. An eyeful of amphistaff venom, the priestess knew, was pain enough to daunt even one of her race.
The third warrior stepped in front of her and bowed, amphistaff going limp. "The duel is yours, Priestess," he said. "I know that I cannot defeat you. I offer you my life to claim for the gods."
"I serve the Modeler, warrior, not the Slayer" Keenah said, "and Yun-Ne’shel commands that the Yuuzhan Vong serve her in life, rather than as sacrifices. Rise, and take your companions to the Shapers, to ensure they suffer no lasting damage that might impair their usefulness to the cause. There are too few of us to spare even a single life now."
The warrior bowed his head. "As you will." Getting to his feet, he walked over to his unconscious comrade and slung him over one shoulder. Grabbing the blinded warrior by the hand, he departed from the dueling floor.
Keenah walked over to the edge of the stands and removed her robe from where it hung from a coral spike. Slipping it on, she walked over to the Master. The shrouded figure sat in the stands on his coral throne, which had been borne here by two burly Shamed Ones who now waited silently to one side. Otherwise, the stands were empty.
"You did… well," the Master rasped as his student approached. "You are becoming quite… proficient in the use of your powers."
"I allowed one of them to sneak behind my back," Keenah said. "That is intolerable. If I am to serve the gods well, I must strive for absolute perfection." She knew that it had only been her mistake that allowed the warrior to take her by surprise, for alone among the Yuuzhan Vong she possessed the ability to see beyond herself and into the very fabric of the gods' creation.
Alone among the Yuuzhan Vong, she possessed the power the Jeedai called the Force.
"You will… improve," the Master rasped. "That is… the purpose of these… sessions. Because you alone… possess the power, you must… learn to wield it effectively… in battle."
"I know," Keenah said quietly. Priests didn't normally go into battle- even priests of Yun-Yammka, and certainly not those of Yun-Ne'Shel- but because she had been gifted with the Force, she knew that she would be the Yuuzhan Vong's greatest weapon against the Jeedai when the time came for the great crusade to begin anew. That meant she had to be as proficient in her abilities as they were, or more so.
It was fortunate indeed that the gods had chosen to send the Master to her.
"You must… meditate, my student," the cloaked figure rasped. "Focus on… your passion, and let it… become your strength. That is… the key to the power of… the Force, the key that… the Jedi have forgotten." He slumped forward in his chair. "Leave me now. I must… rest, and recover my… strength. Come and speak with me later… so that we may seek… the will of the gods."
Keenah clapped her fists to her shoulders in a salute. "I shall. Yun-Ne'shel guide your thoughts, Master." She turned to leave, robes sweeping on the floor.
Just as she reached the door, she heard his voice behind her. "Who is she, Keenah?" he asked in a tone even softer than his usual whispering rasp.
"Who do you mean, Master?" the priestess asked.
"The one who… haunts my dreams," he said. "The one I see… whenever I close my eyes. A human female… young… a Jeedai… but with scars on her forehead… like a Yuuzhan Vong. She does not… give me peace. Who is she… and why do I see her… in my sleep?"
Keenah looked back at him. "Perhaps a sign from the gods, one that you will come to understand in time. They speak to us in mysterious ways- I alone possess the Force among our people, for example, and yet it is a common ability among the infidels. Who are we to say why that is? Perhaps your dreams are the same."
"Perhaps," the Master whispered, but Keenah thought she heard a note of doubt in his soft voice.
"Expecting me?" Tahiri asked. "I just left Sekot yesterday- how could you be expecting me?"
Master Skywalker smiled. "I am a Jedi Master," he said. "I can feel when one of my old students is coming to see me."
Tahiri laughed. "I guess I should have figured that. So, does that mean you already know why I'm here too? Because that would really be cheating."
Master Skywalker shook his head. "I'm afraid not. The Force isn't always very precise- you know that. I must admit I am curious about what brought you out here. The last time we talked, it sounded like you were going to settle down on Zonoma Sekot for a while."
"Well, I'd probably still be there now, if I hadn't sensed a disturbance in the Force- and had a vision." Tahiri lowered her eyes and breathed deeply, focusing on meditative techniques taken from both the Jedi and the Yuuzhan Vong. "I saw the Valley of the Dark Lords on Korriban- I've never been there, but I've read about it and seen holos, and there really can't be two places like that, can there? Then a coralcraft came down from the sky and it from it came dozens of warriors. There was someone waiting for them in the Valley- a man, I think, in black with yellow eyes. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn't place him. He turned to look at me and he smiled- and then I woke up. I told Sekot about it, and it told me that it had sensed a disturbance too. I decided that it was something you needed to know."
Master Skywalker began to pace, head bowed. Finally he turned to look at Tahiri. "You do know that just because you have a vision, that doesn't mean it will happen," he said, "Or that it means what you think it means. When I was only a few years older than you, I saw Han and Leia being tortured to death in Cloud City. I ran to save them- and they wound up saving me." He flexed his black-gloved right hand, and a part of Tahiri gave a slight shudder knowing that it was artificial.
"I know." Tahiri squeezed her eyes shut, remembering another vision described to her years ago, by the person she had been closest to in all the galaxy, a nightmare that might still come true. "But it was so real. I couldn't just ignore it."
"I didn't say you should," Master Skywalker said. "But you should think before you act. Remember, a Jedi shouldn't just rush into things that he or she doesn't understand. I am glad you told me this- you aren't the only Jedi to sense that something's wrong, although nobody else saw that clearly. And that's not all."
"What do you mean?"
"Over the past few weeks, I've been hearing, from Talon Karrde and others, about artifacts that have disappeared from art collections across the galaxy." He turned to look at her. "Sith artifacts. Not very strong- the Emperor took all of the powerful ones he could find for himself- but strong enough that they could be dangerous in the wrong hands. Between that and your vision of Korriban, it's starting to sound like someone wants to revive the Sith, or at least make use of their power. Based on what Karrde’s been saying, the thieves sound like fairly ordinary pirates, from the eyewitness accounts, but they could easily be working for someone a lot more dangerous. But where do the Yuuzhan Vong fit in? They can’t use the artifacts, and from everything I saw or heard, they never had much interest in the Sith anyway."
Tahiri shrugged. "I'm afraid I can't help you there, Master. The Yuuzhan Vong and the Sith agree on a lot of things- sacrifice as strength, crushing your enemy absolutely, emphasizing ambition and the desire to advance in rank, and so on. But there's one big difference- the Yuuzhan Vong care about serving the gods before anything else. Even when they’re selfish, there’s usually a kind of selflessness underneath it – a belief that whatever personal agenda they’re following, if they can see it through it will honor the gods and advance the cause. The Sith want to be gods, and based on everything I ever heard about the Emperor, I don’t think he cared about anyone or any cause but himself. I can't speak for the Sith side of things, thank the Force, but the Yuuzhan Vong would hate them for that one reason even more than we- they, I mean- hate the Jedi."
"There's probably something we're both overlooking," Master Skywalker said. If he noticed Tahiri's slip, he didn't comment on it. "But this is just the latest piece in a mystery that's been coming together for weeks. I'm going to call a meeting of the Council tonight, and I want you to be there. If we're all together, we might be able to find some answers."
He reached into his belt and pulled out a small comlink, but before he could activate it, it began to beep loudly. Master Skywalker raised it to his lips. "Hello," he said. "Skywalker. Who's there?"
"It's me," a cool female voice said from the other end- Tahiri recognized the Master's formidable wife, Mara Jade. "Farmboy, we have a situation."
Keenah’s scene sparring with the three warriors was fun to write, and gave her a chance to show off some more of what she’s been learning and is capable of. She can sense and affect other Yuuzhan Vong, which is, to put it mildly, unusual, but Onimi (the only canonical example of a Force-using Vong) was able to do that too, so it made sense. Getting a bit more into her thoughts and motivations, Keenah certainly tries to act like a powerful, self-assured priestess, but deep down she’s essentially a very idealistic kid who’s been thrust into a position she’s not really ready for and may well find herself in over her head before long – and I think deep down, she knows it.
Also, not only did Tahiri have a vision of the Master, it seems the Master’s been having visions of Tahiri. Hmmm….
Tahiri and Luke’s conversation is pretty straightforward, all things told, mostly reiterating things we already knew and bringing everyone up to date. But I did want to do a bit of compare and contrast of the Sith and Vong ethos, something that will become an increasing theme as the fic goes on…
Chapter 9: Chapter 8: Old Wounds
Scorekeeper's Talon emerged from hyperspace on the edge of Coruscant's gravity well and hung there momentarily, its crew taking stock of the devastated former capital-world. Once it had been a world of sprawling cities, with majestic towers soaring high into the atmosphere, covering a surface darker and more savage than that of many wild frontier planets. During the reign of the Yuuzhan Vong it had become a paradise of life gone mad- or so Hassk had heard; he'd never been foolish enough himself to visit the heart of Vong power even when he still ran with the Peace Brigade. Now the planet was caught somewhere between, with Vonglife being cleared away or controlled by the immense World Brain and the ruins of cities poking through, waiting to be refurbished, while a small blockade of Galactic Alliance battlecruisers surrounded it, preventing anyone unauthorized from descending to the surface. Someday it would be the center of the galaxy again; now it merely combined the worst of two cultures.
And Hassk and his crew were heading right into it.
"Hard to believe that used to be the bright center of the universe," Hensen remarked from the pilot's seat. "Even harder to believe we let you talk us into this one, boss."
From the door behind them, Rhona snorted. "I'd agree with you if it weren't for one thing- our big bosses. Between Coruscant and Vong, I'll take Coruscant, thanks."
"There's probably Vong down there too," Hensen muttered, "ones who don't know we're running errands for their buddies. And worse things than Vong, if all the old scary stories are true."
Hassk had had enough. "Silence, both of you," he snarled at the humans. "You know as well as I that stories such as those get blown out of proportion across the generations. Have we not all used planets that were supposedly haunted or cursed as bases before? This is no different. What awaits below are ruins, nothing more or less."
It was clear from Hensen and Rhona's expression's that they didn't believe that any more than Hassk himself did. Still, many species enjoyed their comforting fantasies- even Trandoshans, though they were loathe to admit it- and he needed to keep morale as high as was realistically possible if this mission was to succeed.
The mercenary crew was pulled from their dark thoughts by a signal flaring on the console- they were being hailed by one of the Galactic Alliance warships. Hensen activated the communications array, and a miniature hologram of a Bothan in a GA captain's uniform appeared in midair. "This is Captain Yei'lya of the Freedom's Sacrifice," he said without preamble. "You are entering restricted space- identify yourself or turn back."
Hensen leaned forward- it was the customary role he took whenever the Talon entered this type of situation; too many stereotypes were associated with Trandoshan captains to allow Hassk to be the spokesman and remain above suspicion. "This is Captain Jeral Antilles of the Starlit Panther," the human pilot said, using a common surname from his homeworld of Corellia. "I've got a delivery of supplies for the surface."
Yei'lya's eyes narrowed, and Hassk silently cursed Bothans and their naturally suspicious minds. "What kind of supplies?" the Alliance captain asked.
"Spare parts for construction droids, mostly," Hensen said, "and a few packs of antidote for amphistaff venom and a few other Vong poisons that you might run into down there. Now then, I suppose you'll be needing our clearance code?"
"Yes," the Bothan said, eyes still narrowed in distrust. "Transmit it over presently. Failure to do so will require me to seize and search this vessel." The nearest warship- obviously Freedom's Sacrifice- was rotating towards the Talon, making certain the smaller ship was in range of its tractor beams.
"No need to get jumpy, Captain!" Hensen said with a great air of affronted dignity. Keying in the code- one of several that Rhona had recently sliced from a database on Denon for situations where guile was more profitable than force- he transmitted it to the Alliance ship. Yei'lya's image leaned to one side as he conferred with an unseen subordinate, and finally he looked back up at Hensen.
"You may proceed," the Bothan told him. "A word of advice- there are many… unpleasant… things lose on the world below. Do take care to avoid them while you unload." The hologram flickered and vanished.
"Well, that was pleasant," Hensen remarked. "What is it with Bothans in authority and the need to lord it over everyone?"
"It's not just Bothans," Rhona said. "Every government flunky I ever met was either stupid, arrogant, or both at the same time. Why do you think I work for the underworld?"
"Enough, both of you," Hassk hissed. "Hensen, take us in. We must retrieve Palpatine's artifact as quickly as possible, and then leave this dead world behind us."
"Best idea I've heard all day," Hensen said as he guided Scorekeeper's Talon through the blockade and towards the ruins of Coruscant.
"Farmboy, we have a situation." Mara Jade's cool, controlled voice echoed from the comlink. Her tone didn't sound terribly stressed- whatever it was, the Academy was probably in no immediate danger- but was just urgent enough that it was clear she wanted Luke there as soon as possible.
"What's going on?" Master Skywalker asked, getting to his feet. Tahiri did the same.
"Kyp and some of his students think they've caught a spy near the landing platform," Mara said. "Never thought I'd say it, but he's doing a pretty good job of restraining them. Still, you'd better get out here- this could turn nasty."
"On my way," the Master said, switching the comm off. Walking to the door, he motioned for Tahiri. "I think you'd better come with me- I'm not sure how long it will take to sort this out."
The young Jedi followed Master Skywalker across the grounds, her heart sinking as she considered who the "spy" most likely was. Sure enough, as they reached the landing platforms, she saw a small group- mostly teenagers, though a few were older- surrounding a tall, skinny human Tahiri had never seen before, but whose posture of abject submission was all too familiar, as was the void that was his "presence" in the Force. Ziil, disguised in his stolen masquer.
It was clear that the trainees had recognized the Shamed One for what he was (not difficult, considering they were Force-sensitives and he was a Yuuzhan Vong) and had moved to apprehend him. Though all of them managed to keep a lid on their anger, it was clear that some were barely managing- few worlds had come off of the invasion unscathed. Master Kyp Durron, his natural cockiness somewhat reduced during the war but not totally destroyed, prowled around the edges, keeping his students under control. Mara stood off to one side, apparently having decided that the situation hadn't turned nasty enough to merit her interfering with Kyp's students- yet.
Master Skywalker stepped forward, hands raised. "Would someone care to explain to me what's going on here?" he asked mildly. "Master Durron?"
Kyp turned to look at him, a dark expression on his face. "I was taking my students out to practice their dueling when we ran into this guy." He motioned at Ziil. "He looks harmless enough, but…"
"He's Vong," one of the students, an intense-looking teenage boy maybe four years younger than Tahiri herself, said. "We could all sense it. He's here to spy on us."
"Yuuzhan Vong," Tahiri muttered under her breath; if anyone heard her, they gave no sign.
"Has he said that?" Master Skywalker asked, still looking at Kyp.
"He hasn't said anything, apart from what sounded like some prayers in his own language. I caught "Jeedai" and "Yun-Shuno", but my Vong's a bit rusty," the younger master said. "Like I said, he doesn't seem dangerous, but, all things considered, I thought it was best to corral him first and then figure out why he's here."
"He came with me," Tahiri said, stepping forward. "His name is Ziil, and he's a former Shamed One and heretic. Trust me, he's not dangerous." Though he could learn to be a bit better at staying put. I thought the lower castes were supposed to be good at that sort of thing.
"Tahiri?" Kyp asked, surprised. "Thought you were still on Sekot. Anyway, you brought him here?"
"Not exactly," she admitted. "More like he snuck on board my ship without telling anyone- and trust me, I'm going to have words with him about this."
"Please, Jeedai," Ziil said in halting Basic. "This humble one meant no offense."
"I don't care what he is," the intense-looking apprentice said. "He's Vong, and they're all dangerous."
Master Skywalker stepped forward to face him. "Your name's Phenn Tarrin, if I remember correctly," he said. "You're from Coruscant, aren't you, son?"
"Yeah," Phenn said. "My sister and me made it out when the Vong hit. The rest of my family… wasn't so lucky."
"I know how you feel, Phenn," Master Skywalker told him softly. "When the Empire killed my aunt and uncle, I hated them, just like you hate the Yuuzhan Vong right now. That hate felt good, and it made fighting them feel good, but in the end it almost destroyed me. Hate isn't the Jedi way- blind hate certainly isn't. Ziil here didn't kill your family, didn't destroy Coruscant- you could take your hate out on him, but it wouldn't accomplish anything other than to punish an innocent make you hate even more. Or you could learn to let it go and find acceptance and peace."
"I'm sorry, Master," the young apprentice said, bowing and backing up. "Forgive me. I shouldn't have judged so hastily."
"So long as you learn from it, there is no harm done." Master Skywalker looked over at Ziil. "After saying all that, I do hope you really aren't here to spy on us."
"It is as I said, Master Jeedai," the Shamed One said. "I meant no offense. I merely wished to see the Jeedai in their holy place."
"No harm was done," Master Skywalker told him, "but I do think it would be best if you didn't wander around by yourself. As you saw just now, people- even Jedi- are still somewhat touchy about your species." That was a diplomatic way of putting it, Tahiri thought wryly. Stepping forward, she grabbed Ziil by the arm.
"You'd better get back on the ship," she whispered to him in Yuuzhan Vong to make absolutely certain he got the message. "If you want to wander around, make sure you do it with me. Understand?" He nodded and allowed himself to be led off, the dark stares of some of the trainees still boring into them from behind. Master Skywalker might be able to keep the apprentices from acting on their pent-up hatred, but even he couldn't completely eradicate it with only one short talk.
It's probably a good thing all around that Sekot took responsibility to the Yuuzhan Vong, Tahiri thought, her mind going back to the still-angry warriors on the living world as well as those in the galaxy. Otherwise, I think there are beings on both sides who would have made certain the war never ended.
"Well, that was unexpected," Kyp said as Tahiri and the masqued Vong departed. The three Masters stepped away from the apprentices to have a private conversation while remaining close enough to keep an eye on them.
Mara raised an eyebrow. "Which part? A Yuuzhan Vong showing up here, or you as the voice of reason in a crisis? I'm still not sure which part amazes me more."
"Very funny," Kyp replied. "I meant the Yuuzhan Vong showing up here- and Tahiri too, for that matter. I just never thought it would happen, certainly not so soon after the end of the war. I'm just surprised that Phenn back there didn't try and accuse her of collaborating with the enemy, because of… you know."
"Even if he recognized her, and it's not like she's a galactic celebrity, he knows that if every Jedi with darkness in their past was a traitor, the whole Order would be cut in half- starting with me, you, and Luke," Mara pointed out. "Safer to go for the easy target."
"Both of them- Tahiri and the Yuuzhan Vong- are tied up in the things I've been worrying about lately," Luke said. "The thefts of the Sith artifacts and the general disturbances- or at least she is, and he seems to have attached himself to her. She was just telling me about a vision that she had that disturbed her a lot, and fits in with the signs I've been seeing. I'm going to have her address the council tonight."
"You've got that look in your eye again, Skywalker," Mara said, frowning. "The same one you always get when something big is about to happen. Please tell me there's not going to be another war- I don't think this galaxy would last through another apocalypse."
"Not yet," Luke said quietly. "Things haven't reached that point, but something tells me we need to act to head them off, or else there’s a chance that another nightmare may become reality.”
I feel like this chapter is mostly self-explanatory. Though we see Hassk and co. arriving on Coruscant (which I felt that Legends fixed too quickly, after it had been through one invasion, Vongforming, and then another invasion) the real focus here is on Ossus and the Academy. Ziil’s, er, zeal got him into a bit of trouble here; while the full knights and masters would have probably figured out what was going on relatively quickly (especially if they knew Tahiri was there) a lot of the students aren’t yet as patient and understanding, and are still carrying a lot of baggage from the war. Luckily, Luke showed up to keep anything from happening and turn the whole thing into a teachable moment, and it felt good to get a chance to show him using his own life experiences as a Jedi Master.
Chapter 10: Chapter 9: The Jedi Council
Tahiri breathed deeply and straightened her robes as she stood outside the door to the Jedi Council’s meeting chamber. She knew she shouldn't be nervous- she'd known most of these people for years, after all- but still, so many powerful Masters gathered together was daunting. And when you added in the Yuuzhan Vong reflex to reverence authority… the young Jedi shook her head, clearing it. She wasn't on Zonoma Sekot any longer; this was the new center of the Jedi Order, and Riina of Domain Kwaad was as out of place here as a bantha on Coruscant. Tonight, she was just Tahiri.
Finally, the door hissed open and she stepped inside. The chamber was plain and circular, created in memory of the ancient Jedi Temple that had existed during the Old Republic, with windows that looked out onto the Ossus night. The council members sat around the walls- all Jedi Masters. This was the Masters' Council which dealt with internal Jedi affairs, not the High Council that oversaw Jedi dealings with the Galactic Alliance government. Master Skywalker sat in the chair directly across from the door, with Mara on one side and Kyp Durron on the other. Also present were Cilghal, the Mon Calamari healer, the Barabel hunter Saba Sebatyne, the former Bespin hermit Streen, Kam and Tionne Solusar, and Corran Horn.
"Hello, Tahiri," Master Skywalker said warmly to her as she stepped into the center of the room.
"Masters," she replied with a slight bow, then looked towards Master Skywalker. "So, do you just want me to tell them what I told you earlier?"
"I would appreciate that, yes," he said. "I'll add my information to yours when you're through, but since you came to us- and what you have to tell us comes directly from the Force- I think it would be best to allow you to speak first."
"All right, then," Tahiri said, and she began to speak, relating her vision of Yuuzhan Vong gathering on Korriban with a familiar-seeming figure that could not be identified. She also told them about how she had shared her vision with Sekot and learned that the living planet too felt that something was amiss, and so she had decided that this was something that the Jedi Order should be made aware of. "I know better than most how dangerous the Yuuzhan Vong can be," she finished, "and I don't think anyone here needs reminding of what the Sith can do- this whole planet is proof of that. If there's any possibility of the old guard of the Yuuzhan Vong joining forces with the dark side- even if it’s just some crazy who’s gotten his hands on a holocron and not a real Sith- it's something the Jedi need to deal with before it seriously gets off the ground."
"I think that's something we can all agree on," Kyp said, eyes haunted as he no doubt remembered how the specter of Exar Kun had used him as the not-entirely-unwilling tool of its revenge. "I say that if there is any possibility of this threat becoming reality, we should act now to prevent it."
"Thiz one agreez with that assessment," Saba hissed, "but one cannot hunt without knowledge of one'z quarry." She fixed Tahiri with her penetrating reptilian glare. "Visionz in the Force are strange things- was there anything in yourz to indicate whether it was something happening then, or during the war, or in some distant future? That knowledge iz key if this Council wishes to pursue it."
Tahiri thought back and shook her head. "Nothing that I can think of that indicated time- but it was all so, I don't know, strange and fluid. I don't even know if it really meant that the Yuuzhan Vong were going to Korriban literally, or if it was just symbolic of a union with the Sith. There was a feeling of urgency, though. Whatever's going to happen, it's going to happen soon."
"I might be able to help you pin down the trail you're looking for, Saba," Master Skywalker said. "There's a reason I thought that one Force vision was a matter for the whole council. What Tahiri saw was the latest in a series of clues that's been bothering me for several months now. Some of you," here he glanced at Mara, "are aware that I've recently been receiving reports from Talon Karrde and others dealing with thefts from museums, private galleries, and dig sites. The common thread that links the stolen items, and the reason Karrde decided after the first few that I needed to know, was that they were all relics of the ancient Sith civilization."
"Sith artifacts?" Tionne asked, eyes shining at the idea of ancient history. "My research had lead me to believe that the most potent of those had all been lost or destroyed."
"And you'd have to be a fool to put one in a museum or use it as a wall hanging," Kyp put in.
Master Skywalker shook his head. "None of these artifacts possessed the level of power individually that you're thinking of. These were lesser relics and talismans that were overlooked by the old Order, by Palpatine, and by us. Clearly someone thinks they're worth having, though. I've tried to use the Force myself to determine what that purpose might be, but until today I'd found nothing but a void. After hearing about Tahiri's vision, I think I know why."
"Vong," Kyp hissed, and this time Tahiri didn't bother to correct him.
"Wait, wait," she did say after taking in the meaning of Master Skywalker's last statement. "You've been looking into this- the most powerful Jedi alive- and I'm the one who gets the vision? That doesn't make any sense!"
Luke smiled at her. "The Force doesn't always make sense, Tahiri, at least not in the way we understand "sense". In this case, though, I think it is because of your powerful connection to the Yuuzhan Vong. Of all of us, only Jacen experienced them in anything like the way you did, and it's been months since anyone's heard from him, so we can't tell if he's had a similar experience or not."
Jacen, Tahiri knew, had disappeared into the far reaches of the galaxy shortly after the end of the war to seek out and study divergent Force traditions- a journey that could take years. And in any case, she didn’t bother to correct Master Skywalker in that Jacen didn’t really understand the Yuuzhan Vong the same way she did. He’d received an intocrtination and religious education as filtered through Verger, while Tahiri remembered growing up as a Yuuzhan Vong. There were things about the True Way that Jacen knew that she didn’t – Riina’s memories had been based on Nen Yim’s, after all, and she’d never been terribly devout – but what he didn’t know was what it was to be Yuuzhan Vong. Jacen was a thinker and philosopher at heart, though he had been forced by circumstance to play the role of warrior. Not like Anakin…
The young Jedi shook her head. She would always miss Anakin, but she had learned not to let her grief dominate her life- though if she experienced pangs like that every time his older brother was mentioned, maybe she wasn't coping as well as she'd thought. Focus, she told herself. Anakin's at peace, and you can't drag him back.
Corran was speaking now, and his words pulled her back to the present. "So, Luke," he was saying, "I can tell you called us all together for more than just to hear you and Tahiri talk. I think you have some idea of what you want to do about this. Let's hear it."
Master Skywalker drew a datapad out of his robes and held it up. "I have here all the information that Karrde's organization was able to find on the thieves- a group of multi-species mercenaries, probably ex-Peace Brigade. They're our link to the real masterminds behind this. The Yuuzhan Vong could be hiding anywhere, but their agents have to be able to find them. We find the thieves, we find their trail. That's why I'm going to send a small team of Jedi to hunt them down and take them into custody."
"Who did you have in mind?" Kam Solusar asked.
"Well, Tahiri herself, for one," Luke said. "She's tied up in this, or the Force wouldn't have spoken to her. Of course, if she does encounter the Yuuzhan Vong she'll be in for a fight, so she shouldn't be alone- someone with skill and experience fighting them, and who Tahiri knows and works well with. At the moment I'm leaning towards Jaina- she's on leave from Starfighter Command right now, and we all know that she's a good duelist and a better pilot."
Jaina, Tahiri thought. The part of her that had been Yuuzhan Vong was awake now and coldly analyzing Master Skywalker's choice- Tahiri was a mediocre pilot, and therefore Jaina balanced her out in that area, and was a much stronger Force-sensitive, while Tahiri's shaping gave her certain edges in hand-to-hand combat and an even greater edge in understanding the enemy- but it was her human side that reacted the strongest. Jaina was Anakin's sister, and more than that, she had helped the younger girl through the time when she thought she was going mad, as the old Tahiri and Riina had battled for control of her body. In a very real sense, she owed Jaina her soul.
"Jaina's a good fighter and a great pilot," Corran pointed out, "but, no offense, neither her nor Tahiri is exactly a paragon of subtlety. For something like this, you need someone who knows how to follow evidence and ask the right questions."
"I know," Master Skywalker said, turning to him. "That's why I was going to ask you to go along as well, if you're willing. I think that your particular abilities would be a great help to this mission."
Corran looked somewhat surprised by this request, but quickly regained his composure. "All right, then," he said. "If you want me on the mission, I'll be there."
"I appreciate it, Corran," Master Skywalker said. "According to the information Karrde sent, security images from the latest raid identified the thieves as a crew that often operates out of Atzerri. I'll have Jaina meet the two of you there- it would be the best place to find out where they might be headed next." He looked around at the other Masters. "Unless anyone else has other business to add, then I declare this meeting adjourned."
None of the other Council members spoke, and after a brief pause they rose and began to file from the room. Corran, however, turned and walked over to Tahiri first. "Well," he said, "looks like this is the third time we're getting sent of on a mission together." He gave her a small smile. "Hopefully this time we won't wind up carting our worst enemy around by mistake."
Tahiri snorted. "Unless Jaina's actually Nom Anor in a masquer, I think we're safe." She then paused as she considered exactly how the arrival of two of the most well-known Jedi would affect the unintended passenger she had picked up.
The One-Who-Was-Shaped, the Slayer of Shedao Shai, and the Avatar of Yun-Harla all in one place? Ziil is just going to freak.
For untold millennia, the planet has been the center of the galaxy. Governments have risen and fallen around it, and names have come and gone, but the planet remains, an eternal symbol of power. Coruscant, Imperial Center, Yuuzhan'tar; whatever its name, whoever rules this world rules the galaxy.
Now it is a ruin, devastated by worldshaping and terrible battles, home only to repair crews and ghosts, or so it is believed. But there is more to this world than meets the eye, and deep within it there are places that haven't seen the sun in generations, chasms so vast that their depths are lost in memory. To the rest of the galaxy they are places of mystery and horror, and they have long been a haven for mysterious and horrible things.
In one such chasm, deep beneath a crater that was once a palace, the device waits. It was created by the greatest tyrant the planet, and therefore the galaxy, had ever known, a man of ferocious genius and terrible power, who impressed his own personality upon it so that one day it might lead another in his footsteps and finish what he started- the complete and utter subjugation of all life.
Emperor Palpatine, the Sith Lord known as Darth Sidious, brooked no defeat, not even from death itself.
The device was not truly sentient, for it lacked the capacity to grow beyond the purpose its creator had set for it, but it possessed a rudimentary intelligence coupled with its vast store of knowledge, and further intelligence lurked deep within it, waiting for the right hand to take it and unlock its sercrets. It knew that even now there was one who sought it and sent his agents to pursue it. It could not feel joy as living beings did, but it did experience a sort of satisfaction in this knowledge.
Soon it would be liberated from the dark place where it had been secreted away. Soon its purpose would be fulfilled.
This chapter is fairly self-explanatory once again. We’ve now got our core team of protagonists assembled – Tahiri, Corran, Jaina, Ziil – and they have a mission to track down Hassk and his crew and figure out who’s behind them and why. We also have our first taste of what, exactly, Palpatine left hidden on Coruscant and why the Master wants it. Clones weren’t the only plan Darth Sidious arranged to be set in motion for the event of his own death…
I stole the idea of being two Jedi Councils from the post-NJO Legends novels. I’m normally not very fond of those works, to put it mildly, but in this case it made sense. The GA government and the Jedi should be tied together, on the one hand, but having non-Force Sensitive politicians directly involved in purely Jedi matters always seemed a little off to me.
Chapter 11: Chapter 10: Rebirth
Keenah dreams, and remembers:
She is a child of the priestly caste, born on one of the great worldships that crosses the void between galaxies. Her domain is sworn to the service of Yun-Ne'shel, the Modeler, perhaps the least highly regarded of the Yuuzhan Vong gods. The other castes dismiss Yun-Ne'shel as a weak and foolish goddess, fit only to be worshipped by shapers or children, while true warriors follow Yun-Yammka and Yun-Harla, the Slayer and the Trickster. The child Keenah often wishes that she served one of those mighty gods herself, or that her own goddess was more like them. As she grows older, however, she realizes that because the Modeler is softer and more accepting (relatively speaking) than the other gods, she has a strength they lack- she can adapt where they are stagnant, and can therefore survive where the other gods would die. The young priestess learns to take pride in that, though she keeps such thoughts hidden from those outside her crèche. To over sensitive ears, they might smack of heresy.
Keenah is on the edge of adulthood when the great war begins, the cleansing that has been so long prepared against the infidels of the galaxy and their abominable machines. The basic training in her crèche complete, she is sent to be an acolyte and apprentice to a high priestess of Yun-Ne'shel. They are charged with studying the doctrines native to the galaxy and revealing their heresies and falsehoods- shaping ideas, even as Yun-Ne'shel's favored castes shapes the physical matter of life. The war against the infidels is about more than just military strength, Keenah quickly learns- it is a war of beliefs. For it to be won, the infidels must either be converted or destroyed. She is charged with the former task.
Soon she begins hearing rumors of strange beings among the infidels, beings who wield powers like small gods and yet deny any divinity, who claim to be servants of life and yet shackle themselves to the abomination-users. In time, Keenah is able to put a name to these beings- Jeedai. They fascinate her, for the shapers who study them claim that their powers do not come from machines or from their own bodies, but from something beyond. To the priestess, this can only mean one thing- somehow, they have found a connection to the gods that the Yuuzhan Vong lack. Keenah is called soft, but at heart she is as Yuuzhan Vong as any, and she knows that there is a purpose in this, a purpose that must ultimately benefit her people. The Jeedai are a challenge that has been sent in order to force the Yuuzhan Vong to uncover this new power. She knows that she is skirting closer than ever to heresy with this thought, and yet she takes it to the high priestess she serves, knowing that a single misstep can mean death or, worse, Shame. Surprisingly, however, the high priestess agrees with her. They must investigate the Jeedai and determine from where their powers come, and use that knowledge to bring the infidels to their knees. But they must do so cautiously- if they tip their hands before they are ready, practice heresy with no results, there will be no forgiveness.
Keenah rejoices when the planet that will become Yuuzhan'tar is taken, for she knows that there she and her mistress are most likely to discover the secrets of the Jeedai. What information that is found there, however, is controlled tightly by Supreme Overlord Shimrra and his court, in which one maverick high priestess and her acolyte have little voice. Still they continue their investigations, redoubling their efforts when the Prophet's heresy arises among the Shamed Ones and they find themselves in a race. Which Yuuzhan Vong will acquire Jeedai knowledge- the rebellious holy man, or the rightful interpreters of the gods' will? Ultimately, it is Keenah who asks the wrong question at the wrong time, and the knowledge of her heresy comes to an intendant eager for promotion. He turns her over to High Priest Jakan, and the high priestess she serves is brought up as well, for allowing heresy among her students.
They are saved by the most unlikely being of all- none other than Dread Shimrra himself, who interrupts Jakan's interrogation and brings the heretic priestesses into his own sanctum. There, while his twisted jester mocks them from beside his throne, he reveals that he too seeks knowledge of what the Jeedai call the Force, and that he is assembling a team whose purpose is to find the source of this power and grant it to the Yuuzhan Vong. Their choice is clear- they can serve the Supreme Overlord in this way, or they can die and have their names stricken from the ranks of their domain. It is no choice at all.
They are given over to the commander of the warship Vua'sa's Rage, and with them are a team of shapers who Keenah learns served under the heretic Nen Yim. Together, they will find the mystical and scientific source of the Force and will bind it to serve the Yuuzhan Vong cause. The commander has been given coordinates to a world called Ziost, home not of the Jeedai but of another, rival sect that has long since passed into memory. Before they depart from this world, the shapers bring something aboard that is kept within a life-preserving pupa. They speak of it to no one, but Keenah has her suspicions.
When they reach Ziost, they find that it is a strange world unlike any the Yuuzhan Vong have encountered in the galaxy. There is something wrong in the very air- alive, and yet hostile to all life, something not of the infidels, the Jeedai, or their own people. Even the warriors are unnerved, though they do not show it, as they put the ship down beside an ancient keep or temple. The high priestess goes to investigate and brings Keenah with her to make notes of the iconography of the keep and possible ritual uses of its many chambers. They proceed deeper into its bowels for the better part of a day, and at the bottom find a strange thing- a crystal that pulses with power and yet is neither life nor machine. The high priestess takes it, thinking perhaps that the shapers might be able to make sense of it. Then they return to the surface.
A storm breaks upon them suddenly and without warning. Terrible winds blast across the land, and massive bolts of lightning gouge deep craters into the ground. It is as if Ziost itself has recognized the extragalactic invaders and seeks to purge them from its surface. Keenah narrowly misses being struck by one of the bolts- she is knocked to the ground and temporarily blinded. The high priestess is not so lucky.
A bolt of lightning takes her clean through her body, thrumming with such power that even a high-caste Yuuzhan Vong is reduced to nothing more than vapor by it. The crystal shard explodes and pieces of it fling in all directions, filling the air about them with power. Many of the shards strike Keenah, embedding themselves in her arms and legs. She has known pain before- it is almost always demanded during any serious supplication to the gods- but this is something different, an agony less of the body than of the soul. She feels as if the shards are digging into her very spirit, both tormenting it and changing it.
In that moment of ultimate agony, she touches the Force for the first time- so far as she knows, the only Yuuzhan Vong to have done so since the dawn of creation. In an instant her awareness expands, and she is granted a vision that brings her to the very edge of despair. She sees Yuuzhan'tar in flames, the infidels occupying the planet's surface, the Shamed Ones and other heretics in revolt. Amidst the chaos stalk the Jeedai, and above all hovers the image of another planet, bright and terrible, to Keenah's overwhelmed mind at once a nightmare and salvation. She shies away from it. At last the vision ends, and the final image is seared upon her mind forever- Supreme Overlord Shimrra falling, his head sliced neatly from his shoulders by the twin blades of the master Jeedai. It is over. The gods have turned their backs on the Yuuzhan Vong, and it is the end of all things.
She does not know how long she lays there in a trance, but she finally wakes to find the storm still raging, the pain in her limbs reduced to faint throbbing. Keenah is torn between despair and awe, for she cannot shake the images of horror from her mind- images she knows are true- and yet at the same time she herself is reborn, something more than she was. She can feel the life around her, the presence and emotions of her fellow Yuuzhan Vong. She does not know why this is- the Force is said to be as blind to the Yuuzhan Vong as they are to it- but she does not have the energy to waste on unanswerable questions.
The lightning flashes above her again, and she becomes aware of another presence, one dark and old and powerful, rejoicing at something she cannot imagine. She blinks, and sees a figure coming towards her. He comes from the ship, but he is not Yuuzhan Vong- he is an infidel, smooth-skinned, naked, soaked by the rain, his features younger even than her own, if she is any judge of these things. He is unmarked by the condition that will later cripple him, and for a delirious moment Keenah believes that she sees Yun-Yuuzhan himself, preparing to engage in the act of creation.
He looks down at her and smiles. "Rejoice," he says in her own language, holding out his hand to help her to her feet. "Rejoice, for you have been gifted with a power that few among your people could ever hope to understand. The gods have given you this that you might set right what has gone wrong and succeed even where Shimrra failed- and they have sent me to ensure that this is accomplished. For I will take your gods to be my gods, and we shall deliver the galaxy into their hands."
Scorekeeper's Talon came in low over the ruins of Coruscant, angling away from the reconstruction headquarters and into wilder regions. It is strange indeed to think of this world as having wilder regions! Hassk thought to himself, but the truth his eyes showed him could not be denied. Most of Coruscant's buildings had been reduced to rubble, and atop those ruins had been seeded the mad jungle that was Yuuzhan'tar. The jungle in turn had burned during the final, terrible battle (of which Hassk and his crew had heard much, though they didn't fight on either side- no one's credits were that good). Now ruined spires poked through torn and damaged wildlife, and the resulting contrast was as unnerving as it was otherworldly. There were many planets that had an abundance of both city and nature, but to see them intermingled without thought or reason on Coruscant of all worlds just hit home how devastating the war had been.
They finally passed over a great blast crater from the initial capture of Coruscant, one that neither the Galactic Alliance nor the Yuuzhan Vong had seriously taken on the task of clearing away. Once, however, it had been the Jedi Temple, home not to Skywalker and his followers but a previous generation of Jedi who had fallen to Palpatine and his minion, Vader. Deep below this crater, in the dark undercity that still existed below the jungle, was where Priestess Keenah had told Hassk he would find his prize.
They left the Jedi Crater behind- desolate as it was, it was too high-profile for a landing spot- and flew a safe distance away before putting down in a relatively flat plain. The landing was bumpy- even a pilot with Hensen's skill at unorthodox maneuverings could only do so much- and the repulsors had barely been disengaged before Hassk was lowering the exit ramp and stepping down onto the surface of the ruined capital.
The Trandoshan breathed in deeply, taking in the mixed scents of foliage and metal. His misgivings were falling away now, as they always did when a mission actually got started. He was a hunter, after all, and what was devastated Coruscant but one of the most exotic and dangerous hunting grounds.
Hassk looked behind him to see Rhona, Skaze, Hensen, the Twi'lek Gren, and the two Nikto descending the ramp, all armed to the teeth and looking about themselves warily. When they were all down the ramp Hensen pressed a button on his wrist and closed it, and then a second that armed the auto defenses. "She's locked up good and tight, boss," he said. "If there's anything out here tough enough to get through that, then… well, we probably won't be in any condition to need a ship ourselves."
"Thanks for the cheerful thoughts," Rhona muttered. "Come on, boss- let's do this and get out of here before some freakish Vong mutant comes along and eats us." Her eyes darted around the ruins as though expecting just such a mutant to leap out at any second with a meal on its mind.
Hassk inclined his head. "To the hunt," he hissed, and sped off in the direction of the crater. His team followed closely behind.
Keenah backstory time! This flashback is one of my favorite sequences in the fic, and shines quite a bit of light on just what is going on with our bad guys. Keenah has the Force because she can draw it through the Sith relic embedded in her body (at this point, the shards probably couldn’t be removed without killing her) though what the crystal’s actual purpose was won’t be revealed for a while – it probably goes without saying that it wasn’t there to conveniently empower the first Yuuzhan Vong to wander by. We also get a few more pieces of the puzzle that is the Master.
I also rewrote the Hassk section of the chapter to move the relic from beneath the Imperial Palace to beneath the Jedi Temple, which felt more appropriate thematically. The relic isn’t the source of the dark power under the Temple that appears in Enemy Lines and Traitor, but Palpatine probably put it there so it would “marinate”, as it were, in that energy.
Chapter 12: Chapter 11: A Search on Atzerri
Atzerri wasn't the most despondent planet Tahiri had ever seen- Eriadu was still the proud holder of that dubious distinction- but it came in close. Looking out the cockpit window as Memories descended towards that murky orb of filthy, slime-filled marshland and cities that were only marginally cleaner, she found herself silently blessing the fact that since her integration, she had become rather more comfortable with footwear. Going barefoot in that mess would be about as smart as marching into a krayt's lair with a fresh bantha steak hung around your neck.
"This is a depressing place, Tahiri Veila," Ziil observed beside her. "It reminds me of the older, poorer worldships where my kind were forced to live. Is this a world of Shamed Ones?"
"You might say that," Tahiri said. "This is a planet where the local government is really weak and corrupt, so it winds up a gathering place for all sorts of smugglers, bounty hunters, and criminals in general. I bet it's been seeing a big upswing in business, too, after the Hutts took a beating during the War. In other words, it's exactly the kind of place where our thieves would hang out in their downtime."
"And the Jeedai allow worlds like these to exist?" Ziil looked dubious.
Tahiri snorted. "It's not like we have much of a choice. There's just not enough of us to clean up even one planet like Atzerri, especially since what government there is just wouldn't be willing to help us take out the people who are paying all their bribes. Besides, criminals are never going to go away, so another world like this one would just pop up sooner or later, and nothing would change. There are some battles you just can't win."
"I see," Ziil said, though it was clear from his tone he didn't- or maybe he just didn't like the idea of the Jedi being fallible. "But you do expect to find information here on the ones who trouble your dreams?"
"More like their errand boys, if I'm looking at things right. But Master Skywalker's information said that this Captain Hassk and his crew operate off this slimy rock, so if there are leads, we'll find them here. That's more Corran's department than mine, though. He's ex-CorSec - that's Corellian Security, sorry- and I may be the Jedi who knows the Yuuzhan Vong, but he's the one who knows criminals."
"You have much respect for the Slayer of Shedao Shai," Ziil observed.
"Yeah. Corran's seen and done a lot. He's not as great a Jedi as Master Skywalker- who is?- but you're right- I do have a lot of respect for him." She shook her head and smiled sadly. "I think me and Anakin almost drove him crazy during the whole Yag'Dhul mess, though. Though you would think that a guy with two kids would've been able to handle something like that…" Tahiri's voice trailed off as memories of that near-disaster played through her mind.
"You are both great Jeedai," Ziil said with absolute conviction. "The gods watch over you. You will succeed at anything you put your minds to."
Tahiri gave a short laugh. "I'm not a great anything, Ziil- just a girl who's seen too much and had really bad luck. I wish I had your faith." She of all people knew that even the greatest Jedi wasn't infallible- Anakin had been greater than her and had the potential to be greater than Corran or almost any of the other Masters (except maybe his uncle) and it hadn't saved him in the end.
The young Jedi shook herself. "Get a hold of yourself, Tahiri," she muttered under her breath. "It's just a smelly, dirty outlaw planet and a then a chase after some pirates. Nothing to worry about…"
She brought Memories down to rest at a docking bay in one of Atzerri's larger spaceports. From the information Karrde's people had put together on the mercenary crew, this was one of their favored haunts, though they'd been seen in other spaceports around the planet. Still, this was the place they showed up at most often- if there was anyone who knew where they'd most recently gone, that person was probably here. And according to Corran, in the underworld there was always someone who knew. Jaina hadn't arrived yet, but she and Corran had felt it was best to get the hunt for Hassk underway as soon as possible.
Tahiri was a bit worried about leaving her ship unattended- its unusual design might well attract attention, and if there was anyone who recognized it as one of the near-legendary Sekotan vessels, it would be Life Day come early for every greedy ship-thief in the city. Still she reasoned that Memories could take care of herself- and no one could fly her without Tahiri's permission in any case- so that the ship should be fine for the brief time she'd be away.
Quieting the engines and pulling away from the controls, Tahiri hurried back to her cabin and dug among her supplies for a thin strip of cloth, which she bound tightly around her forehead to hide her Yuuzhan Vong domain markings. That done, she returned to the cockpit where Ziil sat waiting.
"All right," she said to him. "There's no Master Skywalker out there to bail you out if you get into trouble, and if you're following me around gawking at everything like you've never seen it before, people will notice, even with the masquer. So please, please stay in the ship this time, all right?"
"I promise, Tahiri Veila," the former heretic said solemnly.
"By the gods?" she asked, one eyebrow raised.
"May Yun-Yuuzhan devour my soul every day if I break my word."
"A little more graphic than I was looking for, but that'll work," Tahiri said. "Don't fly off and leave without me, either. That was a joke," she added, seeing the mystified and rather insulted expression on his face.
"I see," Ziil said in a tone that said he did not see, but would try to if the Jeedai-Who-Was-Shaped wished it of him. Tahiri chuckled quietly at that, and then turned and lowered the ship's hatch, descending into the Atzerri spaceport.
Stepping beyond the entrance to the docking bay, she found the city to be crowded, noisy, dirty, and smelly. She wrinkled her nose slightly at it all- Tahiri had grown up in a desert and then a jungle, Riina on a worldship, and neither half of her personality was overly fond of cities. Quickly scanning the area, she found the booth where the being in charge of the docking bays- a rather bored-looking Twi'lek- lounged and hurried over to pay him, and then turned her gaze back to the crowd, looking for Corran. She'd offered him transport on Memories, but he'd wryly remarked that the last time he'd let her fly him they'd ended up in the gullet of a giant maw luur, and that he preferred to take his own X-wing. Seeing as he was a Rogue Squadron caliber pilot and she was an amateur of no particular talent, Tahiri had to admit that he had a point.
She felt a familiar Force presence flicker nearby, and then a voice spoke from directly behind her. "You're looking a little lost and dazed, Tahiri," it said, and she turned to see Corran leaning casually against the docking bay wall.
"It's just been awhile since I've been anywhere like this," she said. "At least the cities on Mon Calamari were clean."
"Benefit of having an entire planet's worth of water on hand, one would imagine," Corran remarked. "In any case, this is no Coronet either, but the kind of beings we're looking for shouldn't be that hard to find- they'll show up anywhere you get enough sentient life gathered together. Let's get going." He turned and set off down the street, pulling his hood up over his head. Tahiri followed.
"So," she said, "what kind of beings exactly are we looking for, Master CorSec? I think I can guess, but it's probably best to hear it out straight and up front."
"Well," he told her, "in any society that lasts for any amount of time, you end up with beings who aren't terribly interested in following that society's rules- for fun, for profit, or just because they don't fit in anywhere else. In a society as big as a galaxy, you sometimes get whole planets like that- this one, for example, though there are worse. I think that the Vong ("Yuuzhan Vong," Tahiri put in) did us all a favor when they steamrollered Nar Shaddaa. And wherever you get enough criminals together, you get another kind of being- not precisely criminals themselves, but more than willing to dig up information on them and rat them out to the highest bidder, be it other criminals or more respectable beings, like law enforcement- or us. Sometimes they work for big information brokers like Talon Karrde, but since we're looking for someone local, they're probably on their own."
"And you think someone like that will have information on out Captain Hassk and his merry band of thieves," Tahiri said, nodding.
"There you go. And who says your generation never listens to what their elders are telling them? Trandoshans tend to stand out, and Hassk is a frequent visitor here. If the first sneak we find doesn't know anything solid, odds are he'll know someone who will."
"So it's Horn and Veila, Sneak Hunters, then?" Tahiri asked. "The glamorous life of a Jedi."
"Don't get used to it. Depending on where Hassk is heading, we may have to do something really embarrassing at our next stop."
As the two robed figures walked past, a heavily shrouded being pulled his partner further back into the shadows of an alleyway. "Don't stand out so far where they can see you!" he hissed. "Or do you want to get caught?"
"Of course I don't want to get caught," the second, shorter being said. "But I think you're getting all worked up over nothing. They didn't even look at us!"
"They're Jedi!" the human said, looking down at his Sullustan partner. "They don't need to look at you to find you. They can see with just their minds, or something like that."
"Then why would pulling back into the alley stop them from seeing us?" the Sullustan asked. "Never mind. What makes you think they're Jedi, anyway? All I saw was two humans wearing robes. Jedi wear robes, but so do lots of people. Matter of fact, that includes us. What's your point?"
"I saw the wind blow the girl's cloak back," the human said. "She had a lightsaber. ’Lots of people' don't carry those!"
"And not just Jedi do either. What if one of them killed a Jedi and took it, or something?"
The human shot his partner a nasty look. "Are you really as thick as you sounded there? Someone dangerous enough to kill a Jedi and take their weapon would be even worse than a Jedi, especially if they're bounty hunters."
"They didn't seem to have anything to do with us. They just walked right on past us and ignored us. What's up with you anyway?" The Sullustan was clearly beginning to get irritated- this was a stupid conversation, and they'd both be better off forgetting the whole mess and slipping off to a cantina or tapcaf nearby.
"The reason they're a problem," the human said slowly, as if spelling things out to a monkey-lizard or a rather dim child, "is because one of the beings Jedi or bounty hunters might be looking for on this rock happens to be paying our salary!"
The Sullustan nodded slowly in recognition of that point. At the beginning of the missions his employers had sent him on to locate Sith artifacts, the Trandoshan Captain Hassk had recognized that his activities might draw unwanted attention for a variety of factors. Consequently, he had hired various lowlifes on Atzerri to keep watch for anyone who came snooping into his business and inform him at once- or, if he was off-planet, to deal with the problem themselves.
"We still don't know that's what they're after, though," the Sullustan said, more out of stubbornness than to make a serious point.
"I don't think that's a risk we should take," the human pointed out. "Let's deal with them anyway. Better safe than sorry."
"You do have a point there. But what can two of us do against a couple of Jedi- or bounty hunters as good as Jedi?"
The human smirked. "I've got a plan." The two snoops nodded at each other, and then slipped off into the crowd after the supposed Jedi.
Tahiri could feel something nagging at the back of her mind, and she didn't like it one bit. When one was a Jedi, something like that usually meant that the Force was whispering a warning, and the threat was close but not immediate. The result was a sensation that was both irritating and maddeningly vague.
Beside her, Corran stopped and tensed. "I felt it too," he said softly. "Keep going, but be ready to go for your saber if you have to. Until something shows itself, keep walking."
"Got it." Tahiri picked up her pace again, but more warily this time, with a hand resting lightly at her side near where her lightsaber hung. They passed several more blocks as nothing happened, but the sense of danger increased. Then pandemonium broke out behind them.
Both Jedi spun to face a human in a ragged cloak who pushed his way through the crowded street, expression wild and hateful. "Murderers!" he screamed, seeming about to hurl himself at Corran and Tahiri.
Corran stepped forward. "Listen," he said, "I don't know who you think we are or what you think we did, but-" He was cut off by the man's screaming.
"Jedi murderers! You're supposed to be our protectors, but when the Vong attacked my planet, were any of you to be found? No! You left us out to dry, and my planet was nearly destroyed, all because of the Jedi!"
Something about the man's sense in the Force struck Tahiri as off, and it took her only a moment to realize he was faking it. That didn't mean his words weren't having an effect on the crowds around them, however. Most beings on the street were backing away, but others were advancing, expressions hard. Maybe they'd lost family members during the war and also blamed the Jedi, or maybe on a planet like Atzerri they simply had more selfish reasons to resent the Order. In any case, what had started as an anonymous search looked about to turn into a full-scale riot.
"Just once," Tahiri muttered, "I'd like something to go according to plan. Once."
Another pretty straightforward chapter, and a somewhat lighter one after the villain backstory and portentous foreshadowing from the last two. Tahiri and Corran were fun to write here, as they play off each other really well, and their exchanges gave a chance to see more of Tahiri’s purely human side. Duos of dumb criminals are always diverting as well, but these two have actually whipped up a not-insignificant problem for our intrepid Jedi.
Chapter 13: Chapter 12: The Informant
Tahiri backed towards Corran, fingering the hilt of her lightsaber nervously as she eyed the gathering crowd. Some of these beings looked like desperate, broken sorts who'd probably lost homes, families, or worlds during the war; others had every appearance of being hardened criminals. She didn't mind fighting the latter, but seriously didn't want to fight the former- unfortunately, it didn't look like she was going to have a choice. The one she really wanted was the human who'd set the whole thing off, but he'd apparently backed away behind the crowd, and with so many pedestrians around picking out an unfamiliar Force-signature would be almost impossible.
"Well," Tahiri said softly to Corran, "this is your area of expertise. What do two investigators do when they suddenly find themselves the subject of a riot?"
Corran eyed the group with a cool, practiced eye. "Get out alive and try not to kill anybody," he said simply. "Any questions?"
"Nope. I think I can handle that," Tahiri said.
One of the mob, a big man of a species Tahiri didn't recognize except that he was about two heads too tall to be human and smelled strongly of cheap liquor. "It was cause' of the Jedi that my brother spent more'n ten years of his life rotting away in a prison cell," he rumbled. "I been lookin' forward to returnin' the favor." Tahiri only gave him an incredulous smile, causing him to narrow his eyes in anger. "You think I can't, little girl?"
"Little girl?" she muttered under her breath. "You are so going down for that one." The huge man gave a tremendous shout and charged at her, fists clenched and swinging. Tahiri didn't even draw her lightsaber- she had the advantage of speed, the Force, and two lifetimes worth of combat training, and that was more than enough to handle this brute. Ducking lightly under his swing, she caught him behind the legs with a Force-assisted grip and pulled, sending him sprawling. Looking up, she could see another group of rioters approaching, and reaching out with her thoughts she grabbed her fallen enemy's inert body and sent him flying towards them, knocking all of them sprawling.
Around them, the street dissolved into chaos. Corran was fighting three at a time, his experience making up for the practical nonexistence of his telekinetic abilities; beyond him, the crowds were shoving at each other trying to press forward or get away, while dozens of unrelated brawls had broken out on the side, their instigators having apparently decided that this was an ideal excuse to settle old grudges or just work off some stress. Sighing, Tahiri drew her lightsaber and activated it- the glowing weapon was a powerful sign to any of the rioters that they should keep their distance if they knew what was good for them. The fact that all of them who were nearby widened their eyes and backed up nervously indicated that they hadn't really thought this particular part of fighting a Jedi through all that well.
Tahiri scanned the chaos intently, hoping for even a passing glimpse of the human who'd started it all. Nothing, nothing… there. He- or someone of very similar height wearing the exact same style of robe- was just disappearing around the corner of an alleyway. He clearly thought that he was going to be able to get away easily and let his dupes handle the two Jedi, and he was about to find that he was sorely mistaken. Tahiri allowed herself a predatory smile. She wanted to find out why he'd set the riot up- something told her that it might just have a connection to the reason they were on this planet in the first place.
Lightsaber held in front of her, Tahiri began to dart through the crowd. Thanks in large part to the blade, the riot parted to give way for her- no one wanted to get very close to a weapon well-known for being able to slice through almost any substance. Every so often someone would attempt to take her from behind, but warned by the Force, she was able to dodge easily and simply push or kick her attacker back into the crowd, which would generally carry them away. Finally she made it across the street and ducked into the same alley her quarry had taken.
It was empty, dark, and cool in this space between two tall, run-down buildings. She could see the agitator running at the far end, and calling on a burst of speed beyond what would ordinarily be possible she began to close the distance. The human heard her and turned, eyes widening as he recognized her and saw the lightsaber in her hand. One of his own hands dove into his robe and pulled out a small hand blaster; bringing it up, he began to fire bolts wildly at Tahiri. She easily blocked with her lightsaber and then went into a Force-powered leap, slamming into him with her feet as she came down and knocking him back against a wall, the blaster skittering away across the ground.
"I've got questions, and I think you've got answers," Tahiri hissed, grabbing his collar and pinning him against the wall- there was an odd quality to her voice, but she couldn't place it and decided to just let it slide for now. "You set that crowd on me and the other Jedi. Why?"
"What?" the man asked, feigning innocence. "I told you that if it weren't for your kind, I'd still have a planet. Isn't that enough of a reason to hate you?"
Tahiri shook her head. "Didn't your mother ever tell you that you really shouldn't lie to a Jedi? Unless you're really, really good, we can usually tell- and something tells me you're just about average. So the whole sad story you told? I'm not buying it. I want the truth."
"Or what?" the human asked. "You'll kill me? Torture me? You're a Jedi- I bet you don't even have it in you to bribe me! I'm not telling you anything!"
"I could hand you over to the local authorities and let you spend the next several months in prison for starting a riot," Tahiri pointed out.
He gave her an incredulous look. "On this planet? Girl, you really don't know Atzerri, do you? The only people the government cares about punishing are the ones who cost them too many credits. You could toss me in prison, but it wouldn't take long for me to be out again. I'm still not seeing any reason to tell you anything."
Tahiri growled under her breath- ordinary methods clearly weren't working, so it was time to play her trump card. Reaching up with her free hand, she undid the cloth bound around her forehead and let it fall away. The man's eyes widened as he saw the scars- either he recognized them personally, or, more likely, simply guessed rightly that they had been placed there deliberately, and there was only one species that used that particular style of scars and markings.
"You're Vong!" he gasped in surprise and more than a little fear. "A Vong Jedi? How's that ever supposed to work, anyway? Who rewrote the rules? It's not fair!"
"The name is Yuuzhan Vong," Tahiri grated, "and I'm not really one of them- it's a long story, and I'm not about to share the juicy details with someone like you. But you know what these scars are, and what they mean- I earned these, and I learned a lot about pain in the process. Unless you want me to share it with you, talk."
She was bluffing- the Jedi in her was too strong to allow her to actually indulge in cold-blooded torture, thankfully, at least not without a lot more provocation- but the lowlife in front of her didn't know that, and his eyes widened even further. Scaring people, some part of Tahiri's subconscious decided, could be fun.
"Tahiri!" a voice called, and she turned to see Corran walking down the alley, brushing dirt absently off his robes. "What's going on down here?"
"I caught the guy who stirred the mob up at us," she said. "Right now I'm trying to get answers out of him."
"Please, Master Jedi sir," the man begged in Corran's direction, "I'll tell you anything you want- just get this crazy girl away from me!"
Corran raised an eyebrow at that, but Tahiri only shrugged. "See?" she said. "I can get results." She pulled the instigator away from the wall and pushed him in Corran's general direction. "From here on, he's all yours."
The older Jedi stepped forward and looked the other man directly in the eyes. "Why did you start that riot?" he asked. "You don't look like the kind of lunatic who does that sort of thing for fun. What was in it for you?"
The man seemed to consider for a moment, and then spoke. "Somebody hired me and a bunch of other people to watch for anyone who might want to track him down. I thought two Jedi looked like they could be a problem."
"Well, you were right about that last part," Corran said. "Now, does this somebody who hired you have a name?"
"Maybe," the instigator said, in a tone that seemed to say he'd divulge the name in return for a bit of monetary compensation. "He was just a pirate who didn't want people snooping into his business- but there's a lot of Trandoshan pirates out there, you know. Something about that whole crazy hunting thing their religion has going, right?"
"Trandoshan?" Tahiri whispered. "Was his name Hassk!"
"Stang!" the man cursed. "You Jedi are mind readers. Yes, his name was Hassk! Big, scary-looking lizard, all business, wouldn't even let me buy him a drink, but he paid good, so I took the job."
"And where is Captain Hassk now?" Corran asked softly.
"How should I know?" the man burst out. "I'm not part of his crew- he just hired me for an odd job, and I didn't ask any questions. He might have flown up a black hole for all I know!"
Corran sighed. "I think he's telling the truth. Someone like Hassk wouldn't share information that important with someone this low on the food chain." He turned his gaze back to man. "But I don't think he's telling everything, either. Even if he hasn't gone to the trouble of figuring it out himself, there are those on this planet, and probably in this city, who have the information we need- and I think he knows who they are."
"Yeah, but I'm not ratting them out to you unless there's something in it for me. Right now, I'm not seeing it."
"I think my partner might have something to say about that," Corran observed, motioning to Tahiri, who flashed her most feral smile. The human flinched and glanced back at Corran.
"All right, you win. There's this guy, Gindan, who keeps track of everything around here- you can usually find him in a tapcaf a few blocks down, the Hutt's Delight. That's all I know, I swear! Can you let me go now?"
"You started a riot that could have gotten a lot of beings killed," Corran said coldly. "I said I wouldn't let my partner have you- not that I would let you got. Local law enforcement is cleaning it up out there right now, and you're going straight to them. Seems like they may be willing to let a lot slide, but wide-scale chaos is as bad for underworld business as it is for anyone else's. I don't think you're rich enough to pay your way out of this one."
The human growled angrily under his breath, but clearly felt that antagonizing two Jedi on his own wasn't worth it. He allowed Corran to drag him out into the street, Tahiri following close behind, where he was handed over to an armored security officer with a hastily whispered explanation. The last Tahiri saw of him, he was being loaded into an armored speeder along with several of the other rioters.
"Well," she said, "we've got our name- Gindan. Someone who can tell us where to find Hassk."
"Yeah," Corran said. He turned to Tahiri and looked at her strangely for a minute, and then spoke. "Are you feeling alright?" he asked.
"I'm fine," she said. "Why?"
He shook his head. "It's probably nothing, but I couldn't help but noticing that when you were interrogating that guy, your voice… changed."
"What do you mean?"
"You started talking with a different accent," Corran told her. "A Vong accent."
Tahiri felt herself go cold, and for once she didn't bother to correct him.
Gindan sat alone in his booth near the back of the tapcaf, red eyes scanning the room as he sipped slowly from a glass of dark liquid that smoked faintly. The Duros information broker didn't advertise himself, but neither did he try to hide- those who knew of his line of work needed to be able to find him, and they would find him if they needed him badly enough. Wasting effort concealing or promoting himself was a waste of time that would detract from his true work.
The door to the tapcaf opened, and a short human man in plain robes entered, looking around intently. Approaching the Gotal behind the bar, he had a swift, quiet conversation that ended with the barman pointing his finger in Gindan's direction. The Duros sat forward, eyes intent as the human approached and sat down across from him.
"Hello, friend," he rasped. "How can I help you?"
The man reached into his robes and pulled out a handful of credits, which he passed across the table. "I'm looking for a Trandoshan mercenary captain named Hassk," he said. "I want to know if he's on planet, or if I should look elsewhere."
Gindan eyed the money briefly, then shook his head. "Hassk is not here," he said. "You just missed him- he left a few days back on a job."
The human leaned forward. "Where did he go?"
"That costs extra."
The human grunted, but passed more credits across the table. Gindan looked at them and gave as close an approximation to a human smile as his flat, reptilian face allowed. "Hassk did not want any to know his destination, but my informants overheard him conversing with his crew. He is headed for a planet in ruins, a planet of many names, a planet we all know well." Large red Duros eyes bored into smaller human ones. "Coruscant."
The human's eyes widened, but he showed no other sign of surprise. "Are you certain?" he asked.
"My agents are reliable."
"Thank you," the human said. "That's all I needed to know." Standing up, he turned and made to depart the tapcaf, robes billowing behind him.
As he did so, Gindan's sharp eyes caught a glimpse of the thin metal cylinder that hung from his customer's waist. He recognized the weapon of a Jedi Knight, but unlike many in the underworld, did not fear it. The warrior mystics respected knowledge as much as anyone, and there credits were as good as any in the galaxy.
Settling back into his seat, Gindan began to count his earnings.
This chapter is another one that’s pretty straightforward, in terms of Tahiri and Corran managing to trace Hassk’s destination from his hired minion and back to someone who knows. The real important thing was getting to see Tahiri in action, and while she wasn’t pushed to the edge, she was definitely closer to it than she’d realized. Even having integrated her personalities, she’s still got the old Vong bloodlust bubbling under the surface (having been raised by the Tuskens probably didn’t help either – she’s got not one but two uncompromising warrior heritages at work) and here a little of it slipped back out. This won’t be the last time we’ll be seeing this side of her…
Chapter 14: Chapter 13: Into Darkness
"Am I the only one this place is seriously giving the creeps to?" Rhona asked, her voice echoing through the underbelly of the Coruscant jungle, seeming to carry on forever.
"Quiet!" Hassk snarled at her, motioning savagely with one taloned hand. Though they hadn't seen signs of anything alive that wasn't themselves or plant matter since they'd left the ship behind, the Trandoshan doubted that they were truly alone and had no desire to confront whatever abominations the Vong had left behind before he absolutely had to. He was no coward, and had hunted deadly game- both sentient and otherwise- on many worlds, but neither was he suicidal.
"Sorry," Rhona replied in a softer voice, looking around nervously as she held her small blaster at the ready. "I'm just saying what everyone's thinking, and you know it, boss." The other members of the crew nodded in agreement.
Privately, Hassk felt that they had a point. They'd passed down beneath the surface level of the jungle and had found themselves amidst an eerie world of thin light and deep shadows, roofed by a leafy mat of vegetation that was held up by decaying metal towers. The underbelly of Coruscant looked like it had been abandoned for centuries, rather than years- some gift the Vong had left behind ate away at the technology they found so revolting, and though they were gone from this world now it remained, mindlessly continuing its task. This environment was not natural, but neither was it completely artificial- it was a decaying mix of the two, as though the worst aspects of the galaxy and the Vong had come together here and died, leaving behind only otherworldly ruin. Had he been human, Hassk knew he would have shivered- as it was, he could feel his scales rustling.
"Why do we even have to do this, anyway?" Rhona was grumbling, more to hear the sound of her own voice amidst the terrible emptiness than anything. "If that Vong priestess wants whatever's down here so bad, why not just put on one of those mask-things of theirs and get it herself? Sure save us the trouble. I think-"
"Quiet!" Hassk hissed more forcefully, holding up a hand for silence. He stopped to listen and sniff the air, the rest of the crew piling up on the decaying walkway behind him. He wasn't sure if what he'd heard had been real… needed to listen without Rhona's voice interfering… yes, there it was again. Something was moving in the darkness, its claws scraping on steel. "We are not alone," the Trandoshan said. "Weapons out."
He could hear the others raising their blasters as he scanned their surroundings, hearing again the scraping- closer this time. For an instant he thought he saw the shadow of something large moving nearby, but it vanished before he could get a good focus on it. "Show yourself, blast you," he muttered under his breath.
Suddenly a horrific screech split the underworld twilight. Hassk looked up in the direction it had come from just in time to see a monstrous creature leap from a balcony above them and come streaking down towards his crew. They jumped back as far as they could on the walkway and it landed in their midst, snarling and then giving another nightmare wail. It moved so fast that it was hard to take in what it was, exactly, except that it was larger than most speeders, was covered in scales and spines, and had a long, lashing tail and far too many eyes for its head.
The mercenaries stared in shock at the monstrosity for a brief moment, but before it could strike their combat-honed reflexes took over. Raising their blasters, they began to pepper the creature with bolts, causing it to rear back and howl, but none of the blasts could actually penetrate the thick armor. Even the eyes were protected- Hassk tried aiming at them, but whenever a bolt got close to one a thick lid descended, covered in the same stuff that armored the creature's body.
Though the blaster bolts were doing no serious damage, they were apparently annoying the creature greatly. Its tail shot out and wrapped itself around the nearest mercenary- Gren the Twi'lek- and lifted him into the air, slowly constricting as it crushed the life out of him. At the same time, one forelimb lashed out and struck one of the Nikto, claws raking deep furrows through his torso. As he collapsed, thrashing, his comrade gave an awful howl and leaped onto the monster's neck, wrapping his arms tightly around it in an apparent attempt to strangle the thing. The only effect was to cause it to thrash its head back and forth madly as it tried to shake the attacker off.
Hassk cursed. He hated losing crew- a successful hunter brought the prey to bay, but also brought his pack home alive, and on a more galactic scale, there were few who signed on with a captain who had a reputation of his crew dying on him. Now from the looks of things one had, and two more were about to. This ended now.
As the creature thrashed its head about, it opened its mouth and let loose another piecing wail. As it did so, Hassk seized his chance. Taking careful aim, he pointed his blaster directly down its throat and fired off as many shots as he could manage without hitting any of his crew. The creature screamed again as they struck, but this time there was a wet, painful sound underlying it. After thrashing about a bit more, it pitched forward and lay still. The many eyes fixed hatefully on Hassk as they went dark.
Gren pulled away from the now-limp tail, coughing and clutching his ribs. The attacking Nikto pulled away and ran to where his fellow lay, propping the body up and letting loose with an eerie cry. Rhona, Hensen, and Skaze nervously approached the creature- the Rodian shot it again, apparently purely out of spite.
"What do you think this thing is?" Rhona asked, looking up at Hassk. "Never seen or heard of anything like this."
"Looks like a Krayt Dragon and a Nexu got a bit too friendly, if you ask me," Hensen put in.
"I do not know," Hassk admitted. "I have hunted game on many worlds in this galaxy, and while I was with the Peace Brigade I learned much of the Yuuzhan Vong's bioengineered life. But I have never seen anything like this. Perhaps it is something from their homeworld, or a Shaper's experiment gotten loose." He shook his head. "It does not matter now. We must press on- the fight might attract others of its kind, or worse things." He looked over at the grieving Nikto. "Leave the body. We cannot carry it with us, and we do not have time to return it to the ship."
The Nikto nodded bitterly, and then after a pause shoved the body off the walkway, muttering what sounded like a quiet prayer as he did so. "Better be lost down there," he explained to the others, "Than eaten up here."
The other crew members nodded without comment and then turned to follow their captain towards the destination the priestess had told him of. But there was a darkness that hung over them now- one of their own had been killed, two others nearly so, and they had been down here less than half a local day.
Would any of them be left by the time this job was done?
The droning chant of a Yuuzhan Vong ritual echoed through the belly of Vua'sa's Rage. Earlier this cycle, the warship had dropped out of darkspace on the outskirts of an inhabited system and seized a small outbound infidel craft. The abomination had, of course, been destroyed, but the crew and passengers had all been taken alive. To the Yuuzhan Vong, captives were of far greater value than corpses would ever be.
Keenah stood near the rear of the ordered ranks that gathered in the Rage's arena, her acolytes- some of whom were actually older than her, if not by much- gathered around. She was clad in her full ceremonial robes, head wrapped in cloth and bowed. There had been some dissension earlier among the acolytes that Commander Akhi Lian led this ritual, rather than the priestess, but Keenah had quieted them. Though she was of the priestly caste, she was not a devotee of Yun-Yammka, and it was to the Slayer that this sacrifice would be dedicated. For her to interfere here would be highly improper.
The truth was, she had been against capturing the infidel ship in the first place, fearing that if even one of its crew managed to escape they would bring the entire Alliance fleet down on them. The Commander, however, retained complete control over the military operations of the vessel, and the Master had not forbidden him, so after the attack went off flawlessly Keenah no longer had ground to stand on, and she could not in good conscience deny the warriors the right to petition their patron deity over fears that had never materialized.
The sound of the chanting, backed by ritual drums, reached a crescendo, and Akhi Lian stepped forward from his followers, resplendent in his armor and billowing cloak of command. Behind him followed six warriors, each of whom prodded a bound captive forward. The commander stopped before a hastily-erected icon of Yun-Yammka, tentacles spread as if to engulf the galaxy, and knelt, incense swirling about him. The chanters gave a final shout, and then the music stilled.
"Great Slayer," Akhi Lian intoned, "Lord of War, Conqueror of All Foes, mightiest save one of all the gods, I bring honor to you today, and with it a humble request." He raised his head so that he met the icon's eyes, though his position remained respectful. "We prepare to once again sweep across the galaxy, and finish what Dread Shimrra started, but we know that to conquer the infidels and their Jeedai, we require your favor, for it is the only power that can grant us victory." Keenah could hear his emphasis on the only, and knew it was a jab at her own attempts to learn how to harness the Force. She said nothing, not wishing to interrupt the ritual, but she vowed the someday all the Yuuzhan Vong would know that it had been she, not the tradition—bound Commander, who had discovered the secret that led their people to victory.
Now Akhi Lian rose, and beckoned behind him. "Now, in memory of your own suffering in the creation of our race, Great Slayer, we offer to you these lives, that you may know that we are worthy." The Commander stepped aside and the other warriors herded their captives forward. Akhi Lian snapped his fists to his shoulders in salute to the icon, and the other warriors followed suit. Then the drums gave a single thunderous beat, and the ones who stood behind the captives raised their amphistaffs and struck through their bodies, so that as they died their blood might drip onto the Slayer's form.
"Do-ro'ik vong pratte!" Akhi Lian thundered the battle cry of his caste, and it was echoed throughout the cavernous chamber. Before the icon, the sacrifices stopped twitching as their blood flowed about its base. The Commander gave a final salute, and the crowd began to disperse, while Shaper Adepts hurried forward with blood-drinking ngdins to clean away the infidel remains before they could defile the warship.
Keenah hurried back to her quarters, shutting the membrane behind her and seating herself cross-legged on the floor. From within her robes she withdrew a small icon of her own goddess, Yun-Ne'shel, and set it on the floor before her. Akhi Lian was right to look to the gods, she knew, but wrong to cling mindlessly to the old ways. Yun-Ne'shel taught that all life was to be shaped that it might serve the Yuuzhan Vong; Keenah's dead mentor had taught her that they must shape themselves to face their enemies. The Master had taught her that she must shape herself.
The priestess drew her ritual coufee from her sash and held it in her hands, studying the razor-sharp edge tipped with a mild venom that amplified the burning sensation when it cut. Muttering her goddess's name, she drew the coral knife across her palm, wincing at first at the pain but far too disciplined to make the slightest sound. Still praying, she reached out and brushed her hand across the icon, leaving a blue-black smear behind so the goddess might taste her worshipper's blood and know her devotion. Drawing her hand away, Keenah focused her meditations on the gods' sacrifices to bring the universe into being.
Then, as the Master had taught her, she shifted her thoughts to herself.
The powerful Force-adept had taught that only through the embracing of one's own desires could one access the great energy-field to its full potential. At first that had bothered Keenah- a Yuuzhan Vong was to seek glory, but that glory came from submission to the gods, rather than to the self- but she had realized that the way to square the two teachings was to make the gods’ desires her desires. They wanted all of the universe to acknowledge them as creators and overlords, as was their right, and Keenah came to understand that she was their chosen instrument in doing so. Why else would she be gifted with this power that all others of her race lacked if not for some special destiny?
Akhi Lian gave lip-service to the Master, but in his heart Keenah knew he clung to the old ways- the ways that had failed. Today's sacrifice had shown that, for magnificent as it had been, what had it accomplished? Nothing but the destruction of a single abomination in a galaxy teeming with them, and granting the Slayer paltry offerings that even collectively could offer him little sustenance. The Yuuzhan Vong would never triumph so long as the warrior caste led the charge. They had failed, as had the shapers and the indendants. Now it fell to the priests to lead the great crusade, and to lead the priests the gods had chosen Keenah.
As she focused her thoughts inward, upon her own plans and destiny, Keenah felt a cold, dark power surrounding her and filling her. She embraced it, as the Master said she should, and she could almost hear his rasping voice in her mind, reminding her that with Shimrra dead, she, wielding his teachings and power, was now the last, best hope for the Yuuzhan Vong.
Swiftly the priestess stood, robes billowing around her, blood still dripping from the cut on her hand, as she was filled with a powerful sense of purpose. The gods had spoken to both the Master and to herself, and before long all, both infidel and Yuuzhan Vong, would acknowledge it.
We leave Tahiri and Corran to check in with the bad guys this chapter. Mostly, these sequences speak for themselves, particularly Hassk’s, which shows some of the dangers the Yuuzhan Vong left behind on Coruscant. Keenah’s sequence is a bit more interesting. Keenah, as I’ve mentioned previously, is extremely idealistic in a lot of ways, but her idealism is rooted in a belief system in which killing is entirely mortally permissible – and indeed, in some situations, morally required. Her initial attitude towards Akhi Lian’s ritual here emphasizes that – for her, it would have been immortal to prevent him from killing his captives! Of course, as we see later, Keenah has also begun to mix some Sith ideas into her practice of the True Way. So far, she’s found a way to square these disparate traditions, but that may not hold forever…
Chapter 15: Chapter 14: Recovery
Tahiri sat on the bed in her cabin aboard Memories, breathing slowly in and out and doing her best to keep herself calm. She'd come close to losing control out there in the city today, and that was something that scared her. She had been trained in two distinct warrior traditions (three, if one counted being raised among the Tusken Raiders as "training"), but while the Yuuzhan Vong called for the unleashing of a warrior's most primal instincts, the Jedi taught- no, more than taught, required- intense self-control. Letting herself get goaded into losing her temper couldn't have good consequences, but with her half-Yuuzhan Vong nature it was something she risked too often. Today was only a shining example of that.
Once, when Tahiri had still had two distinct personalities fighting for control of her mind, the thing that had scared her most had been the idea that Riina could emerge and seize control at any time. No, though, Riina was part of her, and the thing she had to fear the most was herself.
"There is no emotion; there is peace," she quoted under her breath. "There is no passion; there is serenity." The ancient words of the Jedi Code helped- a little bit.
There was the sound of someone softly knocking on the cabin door. "You came straight back to your chamber and sealed yourself inside after returning to the ship," a concerned voice said in Yuuzhan Vong. "I am wondering if something is wrong, Tahiri Veila."
"Yeah, you could say that, Ziil," Tahiri told him. "And I do appreciate your concern. I just… don't think you can help me."
"Ah… then it is an issue of the Jeedai?" Ziil asked.
"Kind of- more like an issue of Tahiri," she said. "That's one of the drawbacks of being basically the only one of my kind- I have problems that other people don't generally have to deal with. I wish Anakin were here," she added softly and in Basic so Ziil wouldn't overhear. "He always seemed to get it. Course, considering what he had hanging over him, that's not so surprising."
"Then perhaps it would be best if I simply left you to your reflections?" Ziil asked.
"Yeah," Tahiri said. "I'd appreciate that." She appreciated Ziil'a loyalty and concern, but didn't particularly feel like going over the inner workings of her mind with him, and talk about the Force and the dark side would largely go over his head. After a moment she heard the sound of footsteps receding as he left.
Abandoning her attempts at meditation, Tahiri threw herself back on her bed and stared up at the ceiling. It was more than just her near loss of control and taking on of Yuuzhan Vong speech patterns and mannerisms at the end of the fight that scared her- she'd nearly lost control before, but had always managed to rein it in (though a rather un-Jedi-like part of her still regretted that she'd never got the chance to make good her threat to slice Nom Anor into various small pieces). No- her fears for years now had largely come back to the vision Anakin had during her shaping.
It all came down to that- the monster Mezhan Kwaad had tried to make of her, the vision that Anakin had hoped his rescue would avert. Tahiri had once believed that it had. Since her integration, though, she wasn't sure anymore- on the one hand, the process had left her loyalty to her friends, the Jedi, and the galaxy unshaken, but on the other a fusion of Jedi and Yuuzhan Vong could easily be the vision's first step. Now with some unholy alliance between Yuuzhan Vong and Sith looming, that fear intensified. Every apprentice knew the story of the first Anakin's fall, along with other, less infamous example caused by the Sith over the millennia. That the vision about it had come to Tahiri indicated that she would have some role to play in the coming events, but what if it was to be as some dark messiah leading both sides to victory over the Jedi? That was a terrifying thought.
Tahiri was thankful when her comlink buzzed, pulling her out of her dark thoughts. Sitting up, she pulled it from her belt and held it to her lips. "Tahiri here," she said. "Corran, is that you?"
"Yeah," the voice on the other end said. "I found Gindan right where our crook said he'd be, and got the information we needed from him. He said Hassk's off-planet, which makes things a bit more difficult, but not by much, since he knew where he was headed."
"All right- I don't like the sound of that tone," Tahiri said. "Where exactly is Hassk going?"
"Coruscant, of all places. There's got to be something big there for him to risk running into the Alliance fleet and whatever fun creatures the shapers left behind, but I can't imagine what it could be that Luke would have missed all the times he was on Coruscant. But the important thing is- we've got our lead."
"Great," Tahiri said. "Thanks for taking care of that, Corran. After… well, you know what happened, I just didn't want to have to deal with people for a bit."
"No problem." There was a brief pause. "So- you okay, kid?"
"I think so," Tahiri told him. "So, I guess it's next stop Coruscant, then? Place was a mess the last time I was there- I hope they've managed to get it at least a little cleaned up by now."
"Next stop Coruscant," Corran confirmed. "By the way- you may not have noticed it, but I checked back with my astromech and he said that we both got sent a message directly to our ships. It's from Jaina, and she's in-system and heading our way."
Master Shaper Kizin Qel muttered and fussed to himself as he regarded the objects that lay strewn about his work area. It was hard, this thing he was attempting to shape, harder than many things he had done in his life, but not impossible, no. He knew what the thing was meant to be, was handling the pieces in his mind and could see how they all fit together, just so. The harder part would be to actually to do it, but Kizin Qel had no doubt that he could. The Master had requested it, and he’d been very forceful about it, too.
A cylinder of yorik coral lay before him, small enough to fit comfortably in a Yuuzhan Vong hand; one end of it was solid and the other open, and if the Master Shaper looked inside he could see the fleshy mass of the creature he had placed within it, lining the walls. A raised bump on one side of the cylinder had been made to be sensitive, so that the creature within would respond when it was pressed. It was quite well done, if Kizin Qel did say so himself, oh yes, quite well done. But there was one piece of it missing, the piece that would make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
The coral cylinder was merely a housing; the creature within was a relative of the humble villip and projected living light. But all it would do now was splash pretty colors on the wall, To become something else – something more – it required the final, necessary piece. Kizin Qel held it up before his eyes, tasting it with the nodes on his shaper hands, focusing intently with his implanted eye that he might observe every facet of it. A crystal, recovered by Captain Hassk several raids ago, gifted by him to the Master and now by the Master to Kizin Qel. A kyber, they had called it; a curious thing indeed. And now it fell to Kizin Qel to convince the biot he had shaped to accept this kyber into itself.
He could do it, but it would take time. He knew they mocked him, snickering behind his back – oh, look, there goes poor, mad Master Qel, kept from Shame or execution despite his flirtations with heresy only because his domain was small and needed every Master Shaper it could get – but he knew they were fools, every one. He wasn’t mad, he just saw differently, further, than anyone else. No one had recognized his genius, not even Shimrra – otherwise he, not that slip of a girl Nen Yim, would have led the secret projects – but the Master knew. The Master understood. How could he not? And so when the Master said, make me a mighty gift for Priestess Keenah, Kizin Qel knew he could not fail.
The Master Shaper regarded the kyber for a moment longer, and then he burst into a fit of chuckling, startling the adepts who waited nearby. Oh, yes, now he understood, now it made sense and he could soon finish his work on this project! Rocking back and forth, Kizin Qel continued chuckling as new vistas opened before his mind, as he imagined what he could do if he could apply this knowledge to integrate these crystals into other biots, what wonders he could create. Wonders… and terrors.
Master Shaper Kizin Qel bent to work on inserting the crystal, but one thought echoed in the back of his mind as he did so. He needed more kybers. Many more.
Beneath the silver spires of Coruscant, there had always been outcasts. It was inevitable that in any place where so many sentient beings gathered that there would be some who were far worse off than others, and as the planets famous towers rose, the undesirables were forced down and ever deeper down into darkness. Some were simply the same kinds of scoundrels and criminals one found on a thousand worlds, but those who dwelt on the deepest levels- who had been there for untold generations- gradually became something dark themselves, something feral.
When the Yuuzhan Vong conquered Coruscant, they brought their own outcasts with them- Shamed Ones, those whose bodies rejected the implants and modifications sported by the alien conquerors and were therefore considered accursed by their strange, merciless gods. Many of them had also retreated into the dark underworld, and with them came strange and terrible creatures from their ancient homeworld. The underbelly of the most famous planet in the galaxy grew more deadly still with their presence. And then the Vong were gone too, leaving the devastated world entirely to clean-up crews and those who skulked through its shadows.
Jadek Hunner had been a smuggler once, a long time ago. That had been before he'd failed to deliver his cargo to his boss on multiple occasions and had his ship blown up in front of his eyes, before he was chased across Coruscant by vengeful criminal enforcers and law enforcement both. Finally he'd sought refuge in the one place on the city planet he thought that no one would be crazy enough to look, and had gone down into the darkness of the undercity. There he lost his pursuit, and lost himself for many years- he didn't know how long he'd been down here, anymore- finally becoming the leader of a relatively civilized gang who made a living by scrounging off the underbelly of civilization.
The Vong had presented some challenges- it was hard, after all, to tell what extragalactic lifeform was food, what was useless, and what was a bloodthirsty living weapon, to say nothing of frequent extermination patrols. Jadek, however, was adaptable and good at hiding, and he managed to get most of his gang through the occupation intact. Now, with the Vong and most of the Republic forces gone, the planet was largely theirs for the taking.
Jadek led his band through the narrow, twisted under-streets, looking for something that one of his scouts had reported finding earlier- a large box of black metal that seemed to have fallen from a higher elevation. The scout hadn't been able to get it open on his own, but Jadek thought that the whole band might have a better shot at it. There was certainly something valuable in their- hopefully of the edible variety, but even more hopefully something that could help them get off this ruined rock.
The metal box lay in the middle of a ruined walkway, its fall from somewhere high above having gouged a small crater around it. It had been here longer than Jadek had expected- there were vines growing around it, though they now seemed to be suffering some sort of affliction that left them brown and withered. There'd probably been more of them here before whatever it was had started killing them- that was probably why no one had ever thought the thing of any importance before.
Jadek Hunner was not a poetic man, but as he stared at the strange container he thought it looked like some sort of creature crouching before them, quiet for now but still waiting to spring at a moment's notice. He shivered slightly, but began to walk slowly forward- there was something that fascinated him about this thing. Reaching out, he carefully placed a hand on its side, and suddenly he knew that he had to have whatever was inside. It didn't matter anymore if it was food, or money, or a beacon that would call a ship- his previous needs were forgotten. Now he only knew that he wanted the thing that was inside purely for its own sake.
"Uh, boss," one of the gang said from behind him, "Are you okay? You look kinda funny there…"
"Shut up," Jadek snapped angrily. "Hand me that pick. We need this open, now." The man looked at him dubiously and the scavenger leader whirled on him, filled with an anger he didn't fully understand. "Come on, coward. Give it to me!"
The man looked fearful, but complied- Jadek was a hard leader, and his gang was used to following his orders without question. Raising the pick, the former smuggler flipped the activation switch- it was one of the few vibroweapons that'd been able to acquire- and slammed it against the box's side.
Nothing. Snarling in fury, Jadek hit the container again and again, sending sparks flying as his anger mounted, but doing no permanent damage. Finally he threw the pick aside and slammed against the box with his bare hands, snarling in impotent fury as he realized the treasure inside would never be his.
At that, the box suddenly snapped open.
The gang backed up, staring it amazement as clouds of thick grey smoke billowed out from inside the container. When it cleared, they saw that it was empty save for a curious device- a small, gleaming black pyramid that stood on a raised pedestal, seeming to watch them all malevolently, though it did not have eyes. Jadek approached slowly, reaching out a tentative hand and grasping the pyramid, lifting it from its base.
At once bolts of black lightning shot out from it, doing no harm but seeming to frame the gang-leader in waves of power. The rest of the gang fell back from him, and Jadek laughed as he lifted the pyramid high above his head, letting its dark light fall upon him. He didn't know what the device was, but he found he no longer cared. Its power was his to command, and would be forever more. That was all that mattered.
In his hands, the pyramid pulsed with satisfaction.
Jadek Hunner is a tertiary villain of the fic, mostly there to be an obstacle to both Hassk and Tahiri’s groups as they search for the artifact. He’s Force-sensitive, but only barely, and he was never identified or trained by group, but it was just enough for his anger to let him open the artifact’s container and claim it. Whether he can control what he’s unleashed, on the other hand, is a very different question.
Kizin Qel’s scene is new, added here for two reasons. First, the thing he’s making (you can probably guess what it is) is going to be given to Keenah before long, and I’d thought it came out of nowhere a bit too much in the first version of the fic. Second, the good Master Shaper has an important role in the climax of the fic, and this helps build towards that. Getting into his head was fun – the guy’s more than a little loopy, but he’s also (almost) as smart as he thinks he is. He’s definitely a dangerous ally for the Master and Keenah to have…
Chapter 16: Chapter 15: The Master's Gift
Tahiri hurried to Memories' cockpit, brushing past a startled Ziil. Seating herself in the pilot's chair, she activated the comm and played the recorded message that Jaina had left her. It seemed to be the same as the one that Corran had described- a quick hello and heads-up that she was in-system, followed by wondering if they'd found anything yet. Tahiri quickly keyed the comm to open a channel to Jaina's X-wing.
"Is that you, Tahiri?" Anakin's sister's voice crackled over the device a few moments later. "Wow, it's been awhile. How've things been going on Sekot?" There was a pause. "Have you been having any… problems?" Tahiri knew very well what problems Jaina was referring to, and that the older girl's curiosity and concern were both well-founded, considering the role she'd played in resolving the whole business with Riina.
"Problems?" Tahiri asked, trying to sound as light as possible. "Unless you count some truly awful nightmares and a mission chasing pirates who work for Yuuzhan Vong who may or may not be allied with the Sith, things are fine. What about on your end? How's the last year been on Starfighter Command?"
There was a distinct sigh from the other end of the comm. "Boring. We've mostly been chasing Vong- sorry, Yuuzhan Vong- renegades and Peace Brigaders around and mopping them up, but since most of the best warriors went down at Ebaq or Coruscant and the Peace Brigade were never that bright on their own, to say that there's not been much excitement would be the understatement of the century. Really, this mission sounds like exactly what I've been needing- something unusual to break up the boredom. So, do you have any leads yet?"
"Yeah," Tahiri said. "Corran got some information from a broker that he thinks is pretty solid. Looks like our Trandoshan was here just a few days ago, but left to get to his main target. Get this- it's Coruscant."
"Coruscant?" Jaina asked. "What's he want there? Believe me, I've been planetside down there after we took it back, and the place is a complete mess. Unless this Captain Hassk has decided to quit his life of crime and start selling jungle real-estate, there's not a lot worthwhile there."
"If he keeps following the same patterns he has been, he's after something Sith," Tahiri said darkly. "Guess the Emperor left a toy behind or something."
"Sith," Jaina repeated. "And you think he wants to turn this over to the Vong? Seems kind of a funny match to me. Far as I know there was only one Vong who could even use the Force, and from the little chat I had with him he seemed a little too crazy to care about philosophical niceties- mostly he just wanted to kill everything."
"I know what you mean- but I also know what I've been seeing in my dreams, and you have to admit that apart from maybe Jacen I've got the strongest tie to the Yuuzhan Vong of any Jedi. I don't know what all is going on here, and I'm not sure I want to, but I do know we've got to stop it."
"Definitely," Jaina agreed. "So, are you ready to head on out, or do you want to wait? This is your show, Tahiri."
"My show," the young Jedi muttered under her breath, not entirely certain she liked the sound of that. "The longer we wait, the colder the trail gets. One of us can call Corran and tell him we're ready, and then I think we should get a move on. I want to get to Hassk before he gets to whatever he's after."
"Sounds like a plan. By the way, is that a Sekotan ship you're flying? Congratulations- I always wanted one of those things. Are they really as fast as they’re supposed to be?"
Tahiri smiled. "Well, I'm not an expert on ships, but I do like mine. Her name's Memories of Yavin- I thought it was appropriate on a couple of levels."
"All right then. I'll call up Corran if you like, tell him what's going on. In any case, see you at Coruscant!"
"And you. Tahiri out." The young Jedi reached up and flipped the comm off, then sent a message to spaceport control telling them to be ready for her to launch. Her Vongsense tingled, and a quick glance over her shoulder revealed Ziil standing in the entrance to the cockpit, eyes wide.
"Was that..?" he whispered reverently.
"The incarnation of Yun-Harla, twin of Jacen and sister of Anakin, or as I like to call her, my friend Jaina?" Tahiri replied. "Yeah. And please, don't start praying on me now- that kind of makes me uncomfortable, and I'm about to take off."
"I understand," Ziil said, bowing and backing out, presumably to continue his devotions somewhere that they wouldn't bother her. Tahiri sighed and turned her attention back to the controls.
Several minutes later a sleek Sekotan vessel lifted off from the Atzerri spaceport and made for orbit, followed by an X-wing fighter. Once in space they were joined by a second X-wing and once they were beyond the planet's gravity well all three shot off into hyperspace.
Seeing her course set, Tahiri returned to her cabin for some much-needed rest.
"Something troubles you… my apprentice?" the Master asked, the unseen eyes beneath his hood and wrappings as ever seeming to see straight into Keenah's very soul. Supreme Overlord Shimrra had possessed that same ability, it was said, although the priestess had not been in his presence long enough to confirm it for herself. She took this as another sign that her Master was indeed one favored by the gods.
She looked up at the hunched and cloaked figure from where she sat cross-legged on the ground before him. "It bothers me that Akhi Lian and the others seek their salvation only be clinging to the ancient ways. It is obvious to me that those have failed, and that the gods demand that we find new ways to serve them and bring about their will for this galaxy. And yet the ancient ways were set down by the gods themselves in the first place, and so they must have a purpose."
"They had a purpose," the Master rasped. "They were to … guide the Yuuzhan Vong through the void… so that they might find a place… in the new galaxy and… make a foothold. But now the time has come… for new ways. They reveal them… to me, and you will reveal them… to your people."
Pride welled up in Keenah's heart. "Thank you, Master," she said. "It is, of course, the power of the Force that you speak of?"
"Indeed," he said. "Given to the enemy… to test the Yuuzhan Vong's strength… and now given back to you. I am glad that you have told me of… the emotions you feel, for they will help me… illustrate a most critical lesson." He shifted in his seat, and Keenah focused on his words in order to ignore the foul smell that wafted off him. "You see that to control the Force… you must control emotions. The Jedi… would have you deny them, but they… are wrong. It is the Sith who possess the true knowledge. Your emotions… are a weapon, Keenah. You fear… that Akhi Lian will not change? Fear will give your reflexes an edge. You are angry at those… who would deny the truth of the Force? Forge you anger into a blade… that will cut through any enemy. You hate the infidels… who defeated the Yuuzhan Vong? That hate will give you the strength to crush… all enemies."
"You have spoken of this before," Keenah told him. "You have told me to draw strength from passion."
"Yes. Now you must take it… beyond. Rather than merely being your strength, your passion can be… a deadly weapon. Channel it completely… and you can even slay from a distance with the force… of will alone. The Sith long… possessed such power. The Jedi foolishly deny it… because they are weak. You must not be!"
"I understand, Master," Keenah said. "I await your training in this."
"Not… today," he whispered, seeming to slump. "I am… weary, and I must save my strength. There is so much… I must accomplish…" his voice trailed off. "You may leave."
Keenah stood and brought her fists to her shoulders in salute, then turned to depart. The Master's voice stopped her just as she was about to part the membrane wall.
"Wait!" he said. "There is something… that I wish to give you." Curious, Keenah turned and walked back to him. Reaching into his robes with one bandaged hand, he removed a slender cylinder of yorick coral and held it out to her. "Long have I… had the Master Shaper working on this," he told her. "The technology was… difficult to adapt, but he is…more clever than he looks. Today he… completed it."
Keenah took the cylinder gingerly and held it up, examining it closely. It looked like no tool of the Yuuzhan Vong- indeed there was only one thing that came to mind when she looked at it, but that was impossible- or was it? There was only one way to be sure. The priestess found a raised nub of coral on one end and pressed her long finger against it.
The cylinder thrummed in her hand and then a jet of red light shot from one end. Amazed, Keenah held it before her eyes, admiring it, scarcely believing that something so strange could exist or that bumbling, eccentric Kizin Qel could have crafted it. "This is a lightsaber," she breathed. "A Jeedai lightsaber!"
"A living lightsaber," the Master corrected. "Shaped for you by Master Qel… per my instructions. It contains a focusing crystal… from Ziost, but the energy comes… from Yuuzhan Vong living light. It is… the weapon of a true master… of the Force. Once I could have fought with it… but now I am far too weak. You must be… my blade as well as my voice, Keenah. With this weapon… and the power of the Force that the gods have granted you… you will be the equal of any Jedi."
Keenah deactivated the lightsaber and bowed respectfully to the Master. "Thank you for this gift, god-chosen," she said to him, using a title reserved only for Supreme Overlords. "I promise you I shall put it to good use."
"Yes… you will. Go and… train with it now. Find a warrior to be… a sparring partner. I must rest… and mediate." He lowered his head and seemed to draw in on himself, a clear dismissal. Keenah saluted him again and left his chambers, intent on following his instructions. She was to be his blade and the blade of her people, a weapon that would enact vengeance on the Jeedai and complete the great command of the gods, the command that her belief had never wavered in despite her doubts about its trappings. She must prove worthy of the honor.
In the dream, she stood alone before a being the identity of which she could not tell. It was wrapped in both darkness and light, hidden from her perceptions. She had the sense that it was immensely powerful, and yet at the same time that it was utterly insignificant. It was a creation of her own mind that confronted her weaknesses, no more or less.
"Who are you?" the being asked in a deep, resonant voice.
"I am Tahiri, daughter of the Sand People," she replied, and she stood before it in the traditional garb and mask of her people.
"Who are you?"
"I am Tahiri Veila, Jedi Knight." Now she was clad in plain brown robes, a lit lightsaber in her hands.
"Who are you?"
"I am half of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts." Now she was in the orange jumpsuit of a Jedi trainee, and beside her was an emptiness that was vast and could never be filled.
"Who are you?"
"I am Riina, a warrior of Domain Kwaad." Now she was encased in vonduun crab armor, three scars burning on her forehead where they marked her place among her family and the Yuuzhan Vong.
"Who are you?"
Now all four Tahiris stood in a circle surrounding emptiness. All four were real, and yet none of them was the whole truth, and what that truth was none of them knew…
Tahiri awoke to someone pounding on her cabin door. She sat up quickly, all traces of sleep vanishing. "What is it, Ziil?" she asked.
"We have come out of darksp… of hyperspace, Tahiri Veila," the Yuuzhan Vong said. "If I understand the coordinates you entered correctly, we have arrived in the system of the world that I once knew as Yuuzhan'tar, but the Jeedai call Coruscant.
A mostly transitional chapter this time, though we get some important nuggets nonetheless. Jaina finally puts in her first appearance, rounding out the roster of our heroes; she won’t have as much to do as Tahiri and Corran, I’m afraid, but she’ll still have an important role to play before all is done. Tahiri, as she does in the NJO itself, still thinks of Jaina as ‘Anakin’s sister’ first and foremost, a little character detail that I found important for consistency. Tahiri also has another dream here, but it’s not a Force vision this time, just a regular nightmare speaking to her anxieties about her identity. Which isn’t to say it isn’t important.
We find out what Kizin Qel was working on last time and it is, of course, an organic lightsaber. Keenah’s been training on an amphistaff so far, but the Master wanted to get her onto a proper Sith weapon for propaganda purposes and also, I must admit, to further set her apart from her people. He’s trying to get her to think of herself as his apprentice first and a Yuuzhan Vong second; he’s not succeeded yet, but we’ll see if he ever does.
Chapter 17: Chapter 16: The Underdwellers
The darkness of the Coruscant underbelly was thick now- even Hassk's night-eyes were having a hard time seeing far ahead of him, and he could only imagine how Rhona and Hensen were managing. They had gone below the level of most of the Vonglife now, and were surrounded on all sides by broken, decaying buildings, the occasional strange plant clinging to the metal, and an oppressive gloom. Everything down here seemed still and dead, but Hassk's instincts told him it was not entirely so. There was life down here, hidden and deadly. He didn't like it one bit.
The darkness even seemed to have gotten to Rhona, if the absence of her usual complaints was anything to go by. The whole crew was afraid now, even if they didn't quite know why. Hassk's only consolation was that they were still on track to their destination according to the directions he'd memorized, and that they were now close. Good. That meant they could grab what they came for, get out of here, and then hopefully never have to work for or with the Vong ever again.
His only warning before the silence was broken was that of a slight scrabbling sound from above- not so much like an animal's claws this time, but more like something human-sized adjusting a tight position. The Trandoshan spun towards the noise just in time to see a blaster bolt shoot down from above, and to dodge quickly aside so that it left a scorch-mark in the walkway where he'd been.
In an instant Hassk was back on his feet, his own blaster raised and firing into the darkness, while behind him his crew did the same. Unfortunately, it didn't appear that any of them actually managed to hit anything- the attackers, who were on their home turf and cloaked by darkness. Finally they ceased firing to conserve power, and then a voice spoke out of the shadows. "You've been warned," it said. "It's the last warning you'll get. You can come with us peacefully, or we'll beat you unconscious and take you anyway. Your choice."
Hassk's only response was to aim his blaster again and fire in the direction of the voice, and was rewarded with the sound of a scream as the speaker was blasted off his perch and fell into the abyss of the Coruscant underworld. The Trandoshan gave a toothy smile.
"Think that scared 'em off?" Hensen asked nervously.
"No. They are probably startled, but if they really have the numbers to take us, one death will not be enough to drive them away." Hassk's grin broadened. "Though that does not mean it wasn't pleasurable."
Rhona looked around nervously. "Well," she said, "at least these are people, not monsters. They're probably going to kill us, but at least they won't eat us."
"There are supposed to be tribes of cannibals down here, you know," Hensen pointed out.
Rhona rolled her eyes. "Yeah- that was exactly what I needed to hear."
"Quiet, both of you!" Hassk snapped. "They come!" Sure enough, a number of ragged looking beings- mostly humans, but with some other species mixed in- were emerging from around the broken buildings. They outnumbered Hassk's crew at least two to one, perhaps more, and while most were armed with primitive looking improvised weapons, a handful had very modern- and nasty-looking- vibroblades and blasters.
"So, any idea what these hole-dwellers want?" Skaze asked, leveling his blaster at the nearest one.
"Presumably to avenge the death of their companion, steal our weaponry, and see if we have a way off this planet," Hassk replied.
"So what do we do?"
"Don't miss." As the first of the underdwellers lunged forward, Hassk leveled his blaster and fired off a single shot. The human fell with a smoking hole in his chest, which seemed only to enrage his companions further. The ones with the clubs and vibroblades rushed forward, while the ones with blasters stayed near the back and took aim.
Hassk's shooting took down two more of the attackers, and he saw his crew's shooting account for a handful as well. Then the onrushing humans slammed into them, and one man's flying kick knocked Hassk's blaster from his hands. The attacker grinned, clearly thinking he'd evened the odds, but he had clearly never gone up against a trained Trandoshan fighter before. Hassk's scales weathered the strike of the human's club with minimal pain- and anything seriously damaged would simply regenerate later- and then the captain seized the man by the throat and lifted him one handed into the air. Hassk spun and hurled the human with all his strength into the attacking gang, knocking a handful to the ground and scattering several more.
Unfortunately, more of them seemed to be coming- Hassk wasn't sure how many there were, but it seemed to be at least twenty, possibly more. Though the mercenary crew were on the whole better armed and trained, they simply didn't have the numbers to go up against this mob for much longer. Rhona seemed to be doing relatively well- she'd been backed into a corner but had her own vibroknife out and was dueling with one of the underdwellers and holding her own- but Hensen went down with a club-strike to the head and didn't get up. Hassk didn't know if the man was dead or just unconscious, but he cursed anyway and tore towards his pilot's body, using his claws and superior strength to force the attackers aside.
Suddenly the underdwellers began to fall back, and Hassk and his surviving crew stared around themselves bewilderedly. "Did we just… win?" Rhona asked, panting. "I don't get it!"
But then Hassk saw the reason for it. Another human was coming up from behind them, and there was something commanding in his presence and carriage, but there was a power in him that went beyond that. Then the Trandoshan captain saw the reason why, and felt a chill rush through him- the human had a glossy black pyramid under one arm, and it looked exactly like the description Keenah had given him of the artifact he was to bring her.
Hassk snarled in fury and grabbed up a blaster from the ground nearby, took careful aim at the man so as not to hit the artifact, and fired. The man raised his hand, and a bolt of blue lightning shot from it- did the artifact glow as that happened?- catching the shot midair and absorbing it. Then the human raised his hand higher, and more lightning unmistakably leapt from the artifact and into his palm, and then shot directly at the mercenaries.
Hassk felt a brief stab of terrible pain as it struck him, and then he slid down into darkness.
Tahiri scrambled into the cockpit and opened a comm channel to Corran and Jaina. "Everyone there?" she asked.
"Right here," Jaina said, sounding as if she'd just woken up herself.
"I read you, Tahiri," Corran said. "Look out. We're coming up on the Alliance Fleet. They shouldn't bother us, but they're going to want an account of what we're doing here."
"Thanks, Corran," Tahiri said. She could see the warships hanging in front of the planet out of her front viewport, and sure enough, one of them was now hailing her. She adjusted her comm to hear his transmission.
"Unidentified vessels," a voice with a distinct Bothan accent said. Tahiri felt herself stiffen- near the end of the war, the Bothans had decided to repay genocide with genocide when it came to the Yuuzhan Vong, and she remained wary of them. More than that, she wouldn't soon forget Chief of State Borsk Fey'lya, who had left the academy on Yavin 4 undefended when he knew the Yuuzhan Vong were threatening it. "This is Captain Yei'lya of the Freedom's Sacrifice. Identify your purpose or turn back."
"This is Jedi Tahiri Veila aboard the Memories of Yavin," Tahiri replied. "With me are Jedi Jaina Solo and Master Corran Horn. We're pursuing some criminals we believe have landed on Coruscant's surface."
"Well, I certainly wouldn't want to interfere in Jedi business," Yei'lya said- somewhat sarcastically, true, but without further protest. "I assure you, however, Jedi Veila, that there have been no vessels landing on Coruscant of which we are unaware."
"Doesn't mean they couldn't have tricked you," Corran put in. He gave a brief description of the modified transport Karrde's people had reported Captain Hassk flew- the Scorekeeper's Talon. "Seen anything like that the last few days."
Yei'lya's dark pause said that he had. "Such a vessel made an unscheduled supply run a short time ago. They have yet to depart the system, and we were considering sending a squad down to see if anything was amiss."
"You mean you knew they weren't on the schedule but you let them through anyway?" Jaina demanded indignantly. "How inept are you people?"
"Not as completely as you seem to think" Yei'lya said smugly. "We do have the coordinates of their landing site, which we are now transmitting to you. Good hunting." Tahiri couldn't see the Bothan, but she got the distinct sense he was smiling nastily at them before his line went dead. Checking the ship's computer, however, proved that landing coordinates had indeed been provided.
"Did you get those too?" she asked her companions.
"Yeah," Jaina said. "Could be we've stumbled on a genuinely helpful Bothan, but my credits are on him just wanting us to get eaten by something nasty down there."
From what she'd been able to gather of Captain Yei'lya's personality, Tahiri had to agree with that assessment. "All right then," she said. "Let's head down." The three Jedi vessels flew unmolested through the Alliance fleet, aiming for the provided coordinates. As they descended into the Coruscant atmosphere, Tahiri looked down at the world below them and shook her head. She saw terrible devastation, the result of battles, conquest, an imperfect fusion of two galaxies, and Onimi's final mad attempt to destroy the planet and deny either side victory.
Glancing over, she saw Ziil staring out the viewport as well. "I was a Shamed One on this world," he finally said in a quiet voice. "It is a strange feeling to look down on it from so far above and see its ruins."
"Yeah," Tahiri said. "It is."
Finally they came into view of a relatively flat piece of ground where rested a powerful-looking modified transport that could only be Scorekeeper's Talon. Tahiri sat Memories down beside the larger ship, and the two X-wings landed on either side.
"Should I remain with the vessel here as well?" Ziil asked.
Tahiri shook her head. "There's nothing here that will discriminate against you for being Yuuzhan Vong, and if some monster comes along that's powerful enough to tear through the ship, there's nothing you can do by yourself to stop it. You'd better come with us." Standing up, the young Jedi walked into the body of the ship and found an equipment locker. Opening it up, she pulled out a small blaster and handed it to Ziil.
The Shamed One looked at the weapon in his hands as though it was something that smelled worse than a gundark, but out of respect for Tahiri he didn't drop it. "Is this truly necessary?" he asked.
"It's dangerous out there," she said. "You don't have an amphistaff, I don't have time to teach you how to use a lightsaber, and you can't just go walking around unarmed. This is a blaster. You just aim it at what you want to hit, set it for stun or kill depending on what you want to do, and then pull the trigger. It's hard to master, but easy enough to learn."
"If Tahiri Veila says it is of value, I will take it," Ziil said, though there was still a trace of disquiet in his voice about the prospect of relying on a machine. Tahiri turned and picked up her lightsaber, strapped it to her belt, and then descended from the ship's ramp into a ruined world, Ziil in tow behind her.
Hassk awoke slowly and painfully. Looking around, he saw that he, Rhona, and Skaze were in the middle of a large room of decaying metal, bound hand and foot and surrounded by underdweller guards. There was no sign of their companions, or of the man who'd felled them.
The captain looked over at Rhona, who seemed to have been awake for the longest- Skaze still looked somewhat dazed. "The others?" he hissed. She shook her head, and for a brief moment he caught the trace of tears in her eyes. Rhona was a hardened criminal, but the loss of so many crewmates in such a short amount of time seemed to have shaken her badly. Trandoshans were less overly emotional than humans, on the whole, but this time Hassk found himself sharing her feelings. He didn't feel grief the exact way a human would, but a captain loosing so many crew wasn't easy.
The guards were stepping aside now, and their leader was emerging from between them. The man still had the Sith artifact under one arm, but up close he looked badly worse for the wear- his face was gaunt, and his eyes were sunken and had a faintly mad quality to them. He stopped in front of Hassk and bent down. "Are you the leader of these outsiders?" he asked in a rasping voice.
"I am." Hassk saw no use denying it.
"My name's Jadek Hunner," the underdweller said, "and these are my men. You're on our territory, lizard-man. What are you here for?"
"That." Hassk gestured with his snout towards the artifact. Hunner clutched it tightly and laughed.
"Well, you can't have it!" he said, an insane quality creeping into his voice. "It's mine- I found it, or rather, it found me. It talks to me, you know. I can hear it." His gaze drifted out of focus, but then snapped back to Hassk. "But you have something I want. Where is your ship?"
"My ship?" Hassk asked, sounding as if he had no idea what the human was talking about. Alive or dead, he'd be damned by the Scorekeeper for a failure before he let this piece of filth even set foot on the Talon.
"Yes, your ship!" Hunner screamed. "The vessel you used to get to this cursed rock, and will be my way off. I'll find it sooner or later, no matter how hard you try to hide it, and then I'll be free, and all the galaxy will be mine!"
He laughed again, and Hassk realized that Jadek Hunner was indeed completely insane. Even with that Sith artifact at his command, there was almost no chance that the man could control so much as a single planet, much less topple the Galactic Alliance. Still, the Trandoshan realized sourly that it probably didn't matter.
From the way things were looking, he would be dead before long either way.
Not a whole lot to say here. Hassk has got himself in a bit of a predicament, but he’s down but not out and isn’t just going to roll over and let Hunner get what he wants. Hunner, for his part, has more than a little Gollum in him – able to make the artifact work but not control it, he’s wound up largely controlled by it instead, and it’s done a number on his sanity (not that he was a particularly stable guy to begin with). Of course, with Tahiri and co. now heading his way, it looks like the subplots are about to converge.
Chapter 18: Chapter 17: Voices of the Dark
At first Tahiri had wondered exactly how they were going to track down Hassk's crew- their ship was sealed up tight and probably didn't have their destination conveniently mapped out in it anyway, and they'd left no obvious trace of their passing. True, all three Jedi had experience following people, but the Force didn't tell you much when the trail was days old, and neither Tahiri's own early life on Tatooine, Corran's CorSec training, or Jaina's skill with ships seemed likely to produce results in a largely abandoned, ruined city.
Something was there, however, a presence that beat down on Tahiri's mind from the moment she stepped out of Memories' protective embrace. It wasn't nearby, but in hung in the background like a dark cloud, utterly unlike anything she'd felt during any of her previous visits to Coruscant. This presence didn't feel alive, at least not by any conventional definition of life, but it was active in a way machines and inanimate objects weren't, and it was less… vast than the dark power beneath the old Jedi Temple had been. The closest she'd ever felt too it was the power that inhabited the dark cave on Dagobah.
"Do you feel that, too?" Tahiri asked Corran and Jaina as she walked towards them, "or am I just imagining things?"
"You're not," Jaina said, sounding uncharacteristically subdued. "I feel it too. Think it's whatever our friend Hassk is after?"
"Probably," Corran said. "I don't think it's alive, whatever it is, and two dark side artifacts aren't likely to turn up independently on a planet that until pretty recently was one of the Jedi's main bases of operation. If what we're sensing isn't what the Vong hired Hassk to find, it's probably nearby."
"Wait a minute," Tahiri pointed out. "This doesn't make a lot of sense. Lots of Jedi used to be on Coruscant all the time- how come nobody ever sensed this? Even during the final battle of the war it wasn't here. Did somebody bring it, or what?"
"Maybe, but if I had to guess, this is something of Palpatine's, and if anybody knew all about hiding in plain sight, it was him. Somebody must have disturbed it- maybe Hassk, maybe someone who was already here." Corran shook his head. "If that's the case, we need to get moving. It's bad enough if someone who knows what they're doing got their hands on one of the Emperor's toys, but I for one really don't want to see what it would do if it was left to work on its own."
"Or worse, latches on to someone with just enough potential to be dangerous, and not enough to control themselves," Jaina pointed out. "I just brushed the dark side for a few weeks before I snapped out of it- I don't want to think about what would have happened if I'd had a piece of some dead Sith whispering in my ear. So we follow our senses and see what we find?" The other two Jedi nodded in agreement.
"Come on, Ziil," Tahiri said in Yuuzhan Vong, turning her head to look at the former heretic. "We're going, and you don't want to be stuck here by yourself." He nodded once, and she turned back around to find Jaina looking at Ziil with an uncertain expression on her face.
"Tahiri," she said, "why didn't you at least warn me we were going to be having a Yuuzhan Vong along?"
"I guess I didn't see much reason too," Tahiri said, shrugging. "That's Ziil- he used to be a Shamed One, then one of the Prophet's heretics, and he's harmless." She stepped closer to Jaina and lowered her voice. "Well, being around Jedi he does have something of a tendency to have religious experiences at the drop of a hat, which can be a little annoying, but he's basically a good person- and even if he wasn't, the only weapon he's got is that blaster, which he barely knows how to use. He's nothing to worry about."
Jaina took a deep breath, nodded, and smiled. "I understand, and if you say he's okay, Tahiri, I trust you. It's just a little unnerving fighting his people for years and then having one of them sprung on me like that."
"I get where you're coming from, and if this sort of thing comes up again, I probably should say something." Tahiri returned Jaina's smile.
"Come on, all of you," Corran called out, and Tahiri turned to see him heading towards an opening where the "ground" of Yuuzhan'tar parted to reveal a way down into the crumbling darkness of Coruscant. "Hassk's got a lead on us, and we need to keep moving if we want to catch up to him."
"We're coming," Jaina called, and the two female Jedi turned to follow Corran, with Ziil bringing up the rear. Tahiri pulled back to walk next to Ziil.
"So that is the Other Twin?" he asked softly in his own language. "The one they say has affinity with Yun-Harla?"
"I don't know about the Yun-Harla part, but yeah, that's Jaina," Tahiri said. "Don't let her surface bother you- she's got a temper and she doesn't have a lot of reason to like the Yuuzhan Vong, but she's a good friend. I owe her a lot." My sanity, she added silently to herself, and maybe my soul too.
But why did she feel, as they began to descend towards the dark heart that now beat on Coruscant, that she was putting both of those in jeopardy once again?
Jadek Hunner stroked the device that he had pulled from the depths of Coruscant and sighed with pleasure as he listened to the voices of the night. He couldn't make out what they were trying to say to him- not fully at least- but from the snatches he'd been able to decipher he'd already learned so much, and he was certain that if he only kept listening all the secrets of the universe would be revealed to him. Oh, it hurt sometimes, as if the words he was trying to understand were simply to huge to be contained within his skull, but that didn't matter. All that mattered was the knowledge and the power he might attain. Once he'd been just another criminal, then a minor underdweller chieftain, but now he had the power to make crimelords and chancellors and kings grovel.
If only he could get off this planet…
That desire consumed him utterly, gnawing at him continually when he placed his hand on the artifact. The thought of setting himself up as a king on ruined Coruscant never entered his mind- he needed to go out, to expand into the galaxy. It was a compulsion he couldn't shake, and his captives had proven resilient to his attempts to force them to divulge this information. It maddened him that this was so- shouldn't someone of his power be able to simply take what he wanted?- but it seemed that such was still beyond him. In time, perhaps, that would change.
Suddenly, something began to prick at the corners of his awareness. Sitting up in the chair he'd had cleaned and turned into a makeshift throne, he focused his will on the sensation. Yes- people were coming, three bright sparks that lit up his awareness and caused a voice in the back of his mind to hiss the word Jedi with hate that seemed beyond human, and a fourth presence that was little more than a void. It hurt, to focus like that, but he did it anyway. He had power now- he could handle a little pain.
Jedi- they could be a danger to him, he knew, but at the same time he also knew that their connections to the Force would make them vulnerable to his artifact in ways that ordinary sentient beings were not. As well, they most likely had a way off world. The need to have them brought to him rose in him like a fire that couldn't be denied.
"You!" he barked at two of his people who were loitering near the door of his "throne room" (in truth an abandoned warehouse). Both of them hurried over.
"Yeah, boss?" one of them, a large human man, asked. "What do you need us to do?"
He rose from his throne and leveled his hand at the man, releasing a blast of energy that sent him sprawling on the floor, smoke rising from his flesh and clothes. "What are you supposed to call me?" he asked, stroking the artifact.
The henchman- did he have a name? the man in the chair couldn't remember- climbed back to his feet. "I mean, what do you need, Lord Jadek?" he asked in a halting, pained voice.
Jadek Hunner- yes, the man in the chair remembered, that's my name. "Gather my people," he ordered. "There are a group of beings approaching my domain, and there is something you must do…"
Tahiri could feel the darkness wearing at her as they descended into the bowels of dead Coruscant. Born to the open and arid deserts of Tatooine, this place felt like it was closing in around her and entrapping her, even without the oppressive dark presence that drew them on forward. Tahiri only hoped they were following the right path, though it was their only guide.
The three Jedi spoke seldom, and Ziil tried at first to make conversation with Tahiri but gradually fell silent as she was unresponsive. It was out of character for her, and she knew it- since her shaping she'd not been as much of a talker as she'd been in her childhood, but she'd never been one to indulge in sullen silences. Now, though, it felt as if the darkness were aware of her and pressing down on her, and that seemed to kill any desire for conversation.
It was impossible to tell time down here in the dark underbelly of the planet, but they'd been on the move for a couple of days now, if rest periods were anything to go by. In that time, doubt began to eat at Tahiri's soul. Even if they managed to get to whatever artifact Hassk was after ahead of him, and then capture him and find out who he was working for, did she really think she could accomplish anything? The vision had been hers, and she was just one Jedi who had barely completed her training, who'd been scarred by the loss of places and most of all people dear to her, who'd spent the last year and a half caught between two worlds, experiencing both but at home in neither. What made her think she could stop whatever the renegade Yuuzhan Vong had planned?
Her two Jedi companions weren't faring terribly well either. Corran had withdrawn further into himself than either of the other two and kept glancing into the shadows surrounding them as though he expected an attack. Jaina, meanwhile, was simmering, speaking only to make sharp comments and shooting suspicious glances and both Tahiri and Ziil. Tahiri thought she knew what was happening, and was certain that the other two Jedi did as well, but that didn't make resisting it any easier. The dark presence was playing on their weaknesses- Corran's suspicious nature, Jaina's temper, her own insecurity. Classic Sith move, she thought. Why bother getting your hands dirty destroying your enemy, when you can get them to do the job themselves?
It was on the third day of the dismal journey, so far as Tahiri could tell, when they stopped suddenly, as though they’d hit a wall, though there was no visible barrier. The three Jedi glanced at each other and fell into a protective triangle with Ziil in the middle, staring at the shifting shadows that filled the underbelly of the great ruined city. Something was there, Tahiri knew – she could see a silhouette moving, coming closer. Then it stepped out into the light, and the young Jedi gasped.
Mezhan Kwaad stood before her, a cruel smile playing along the edges of the Master Shaper’s mouth. Tahiri snarled and lit her lightsaber, taking a step forward, but Mezhan Kwaad didn’t seem perturbed. “You’re dead,” Tahiri hissed in Yuuzhan Vong, raising her blade. “I took your head from your shoulders. You’re dead!”
“I’m alive in you, Riina, my greatest creation,” Mezhan Kwaad said. “But our work is not yet done. Anakin saw the future – you know it to be true. Your destiny lies before you. Cast aside the Jeedai, child of Domain Kwaad. Become who you were born to be, and bring this foul galaxy to its knees!”
“Never!” Tahiri cried, lunging forward, but Mezhan Kwaad darted away from her lightsaber blade with effortless grace. She swung again and again, making no contact, the Master Shaper’s cruel laughter echoing in her ears as her eyes danced with malicious amusement. Suddenly another hand rested on her arm; Tahiri snarled and spun, only to find Ziil there, his eyes wide with concern.
“Tahiri Veila?” he asked haltingly, “who do you fight? There is no one there.”
No one there? Could it be? Tahiri closed her eyes and breathed deeply, fighting down the fear and hate her one-time tormenter had evoked. There is no emotion, there is peace… Finally she opened her eyes again, and when she looked to where Mezhan Kwaad had been, the Shaper was gone.
“Thank you, Ziil,” Tahiri said, breathing heavily. “Something, probably the artifact, tried to get to me – but of course it couldn’t fool you, since you can’t be touched by the Force. You could see through the illusion.”
“What about the other Jeedai?” Ziil asked in a concerned voice. Tahiri turned and saw Corran and Jaina, both standing perfectly still with blades ignited; Jaina was mumbling under her breath, and Tahiri could just make out the word “grandfather”.
“Okay, this could be bad,” Tahiri whispered, reaching out a hand and stepping forward. “Maybe I can help them, though; share some of my strength.” Jaina first, she thought, and then froze suddenly. Several presences had suddenly appeared on the edge of her awareness, moving swiftly towards them.
"Tahiri Veila," Ziil hissed to her, "what is it?"
"Trouble," she said. "Stay down- but you'll probably want to have that blaster ready just in case." He nodded and did as she instructed.
Blaster bolts- no, Tahiri belatedly realized, stun bolts- suddenly shot from all directions in the darkness. Her lightsaber flashed in the darkness, catching the bolts and sending them careening back in the way they’d come; behind her she could feel Corran and Jaina snap back to themselves and do the same, their illusions apparently broken by the sudden violence. “Okay, one moment I’m back at the Shadow Academy and the next we’re here getting shot at,” Jaina said in an irritable tone. “You have any idea what’s going on?”
“Some, and it’s not good,” Tahiri said; several more rounds fired, and all were deflected with equal ease.
The shots ceased, and a small crowd of raggy-looking beings, humans for the most part, came from out of the shadows, wielding crude or improvised weapons. They stopped when they saw the three lightsabers up close and glared at the Jedi, fingering clubs and a couple of stun batons. Corran looked around at them and gave a tight smile. "It's your choice," he said, "but I wouldn't recommend it."
The apparent leader looked around nervously, and then he and a handful of the beings closest to him lowered their weapons and charged. Tahiri shook her head as lightsaber blades met ordinary metal and sheared through it with ease, and then raising her hand she used the Force to shove the attackers closest to her against a wall, where they lay in a heap. Beside her she saw Jaina do the same, while Corran held his blade to the leader's throat- not close enough to damage, but enough to make the man sweat. The rest of the attackers paused to take in the scene, and fled.
"Please, Jedi, don't kill me!" the leader begged, eyes wide. Amazing what the sight of what well-wielded lightsabers could do did to even the meanest of street toughs everywhere, Tahiri thought.
"I'm not planning on it," Corran told him. "But I do have a question. You haven't seen a Trandoshan pirate and his crew nosing around here lately, have you? Oh, and don't try to lie. Odds are it won't work."
"Yes," the leader said. "We captured him just a few days ago- the boss has him all locked up. He wants his ship!"
"Well then," Corran said. "At the risk of sounding cliché, take us to your leader."
Our three Jedi’s visions were new in this version of the chapter; I wanted to make the artifact’s effects much more tangible and concrete than I had previously done. Tahiri saw Mezhan Kwaad; Jaina saw Vader and the Shadow Academy; I’ll leave it up to you what Corran may have seen. In any case, what the artifact could do from a distance was limited and relatively easy to snap out of. This was definitely the artifact itself, by the way; Hunner doesn’t have this kind of control.
Speaking of Hunner, he’s only had the artifact a little over a week and it’s already more-or-less destroyed his mind. About all that’s left of him is a weird mix of gangster and Sith Lord who has very little idea how to use the power he has, and doesn’t have as much power as he thinks he does either. He’s still not going to go down without a fight, but he’s not the real villain of the piece…
Chapter 19: Chapter 18: Embrace of Pain
Keenah awoke with the sudden realization that something was wrong. Rising, she wrapped her robeskin around herself and exited her quarters, ignoring the warriors and shapers who saluted as she passed until she made her way to the bridge. There she found Commander Akhi Lian pacing like an angry predator behind the pilot, who was oblivious beneath his cognition hood.
"Commander," Keenah demanded when she was close enough to be heard. "What has happened?"
Akhi Lian rounded on her, glaring. "The Master," he said slowly, "has issued an order that we are to change course. We are now bound- against my better judgment- towards the ruins of Yuuzhan'tar."
"Yuuzhan'tar?" Keenah demanded in shock, mind rushing. That was where they had dispatched Hassk and his band of mercenaries to retrieve the final artifact, the one created by the man the infidels called Emperor- apparently a title comparable to Supreme Overlord. The planet was also under heavy Galactic Alliance guard- why in the gods' names did the Master want them to go there.
"He said only that the object of our quest was in danger," the commander told her. "He said that we must go there at once in order to secure our prize. I am to have a group of my best warriors prepared to make planetfall- and you are to be ready as well." He scowled and shook his head. "It will please me when we can end this skulking and use of Jeedai sorcery- and yet he speaks for the gods, and so I must obey." The commander's tone, though, said that aforementioned obedience was given very reluctantly.
"I see," Keenah said, her thoughts whirling. "Return to your duties, Commander. I must meditate and seek the guidance of Yun-Ne'shel. Inform me when we have reached Yuuzhan'tar."
The commander saluted as the priestess turned and departed. "As you say, Eminence," he said quietly, but there was a hard edge to his voice.
Tahiri looked around with interest as she, Corran, Jaina, and Ziil were led into a cavernous room within one of Coruscant's now-crumbling skyscrapers that had apparently been refitted into an impromptu audience hall. The effect, no doubt intended to be grand, came off more as a parody of the throne room of Emperor Palpatine, Supreme Overlord Shimrra, or any other powerful despot than anything actually impressive. Guards lined the walls, but they were underdwellers with crude blasters and vibroweapons who fidgeted nervously, rather than coldly professional Red Guards or Slayers, and no attempt was made to conceal the rust-stains across the walls. A metal chair sat at the other end of the room, and on it was a gaunt man who stared at them with feverish eyes.
A black pyramid was clutched tightly under one of his arms.
"That our artifact, do you think?" Jaina asked the other two Jedi; Corran nodded once.
"Yeah," he said. "Looks like it could be a holocron, but knowing Palpatine it could just as easily be something a lot worse." He glanced at each of the younger Jedi in turn. "Don't draw your sabers yet, but be ready if you have to. This could turn nasty real fast."
"Got it," Tahiri said, and Jaina nodded. Together with their escort of underdwellers they approached the makeshift throne; up close, the man on it looked even more visibly ill. Probably someone with just enough Force ability to make the artifact work, Tahiri thought, and not enough to keep it under control- and now it was eating him out from the inside.
When they reached the throne, Corran stepped forward. "Let me guess," he said. "You're the boss around here."
"I am," the man on the chair rasped, then gave a short giggle. "I am Jadek Hunner- Lord Jadek Hunner- and these are my loyal followers." He leaned in close, a half-mad grin spreading across his face. "And you're a Jedi- don't try to hide it, I can feel it, I can tell! Come to topple me off my throne, have you?"
"Actually, no," Corran said. "We're here looking for a Trandoshan pirate and his crew- and to take that artifact before it does real damage. Hand it over, and tell us where the Trandoshan went, and we won't bother you anymore."
"You can't have them!" Hunner all but shrieked, clutching the artifact even tighter. "The Trandoshan is mine, and so is this, and you can't take them away from me! I've already learned so much from it, and soon all its power will be mine, and I'll have a ship to take me far from this dead world. Then I will begin my conquest of the galaxy!"
"Conquest of the galaxy?" Tahiri whispered, leaning towards Jaina. "This guy's got about as much of a chance of conquering the galaxy as a Hutt has of going on a diet. What's he thinking?"
"That he's Palpatine, probably," Jaina whispered back. "Though personally I'd say he's more of a Joruus C'baoth."
"Silence!" Jadek Hunner shouted, raising his hand and letting blue-white sparks trail along his fingers. "No one mocks me behind my back, not even Jedi!"
"Listen, Hunner," Corran said, "we don't want to fight you or your people. Just give us the artifact, and tell us about Hassk, and we can all get out of this."
"Oh, I don't think so," Hunner hissed; still clutching the artifact under one arm, he rose to his feet and leveled one hand, from which erupted a torrent of blue-white Sith lightning.
Hassk could hear the sounds of commotion in the throne room from where he and his crew were imprisoned in the next room over. He watched the two underdwellers who had been assigned to guard him and his surviving crew glance at one another nervously, and then they drew their weapons- a stun baton and an antique blaster- and ran into the main chamber. Hassk allowed himself a smile. Sloppy, rookie mistake- and one he fully intended to take advantage of.
He glanced over his shoulder and Rhona and Skaze- the former shot him a grin and the latter only nodded- and then began to strain with all his might on the bindings that held his hands behind his back. They weren't proper binders, really, just some old metal wire that the underdwellers had found somewhere, and while they were probably adequate to hold a human or a Rodian, Hassk doubted they were enough for him. Trandoshans might not be noted for their manual dexterity, but they were both strong and driven- and they did not suffer defeat well.
He strained harder, his scales blunting the pain as the wire dug into his flesh, and then he gave a mighty roar and burst free. Swiftly he used his claws to slice open the wire binding his feet, and then he hurried over and freed Rhona and Skaze.
"What now, boss?" the human asked as she rose to her feet and rubbed her wrists.
"There's something going on out there, and I doubt it is according to our captor's plans," Hassk replied. "I believe it is time we left this cursed place- but first, we will capture the artifact if we can, and show this Jadek Hunner that he was a fool for underestimating us."
The bolt of lightning lanced from Hunner's hand and flew directly at Corran, but before it struck home his lightsaber was in his hand and activated with its distinctive snap-hiss. The blade caught the bolt and held it even as Hunner seemed to pump more and more of his power into it, eyes popping with hate and then fear. Finally he seemed to run out of energy and the lightning ceased; now he stared at Corran with eyes wide. "Impossible!" he breathed.
"We're Jedi," Tahiri shot back, activating her own blade and hearing Jaina do the same. "Impossible is what we do."
"Get them!" Hunner shrieked, and his guards sprang into motion, apparently more afraid of their leader than they were of the Jedi. Tahiri, Corran, and Jaina formed a circle with Ziil protected in the middle, blades extended towards the attackers. Slowly, those underdwellers with blasters raised them, and then the first shots were fired.
Lightsaber blades spun, easily deflecting the shots- the three Jedi avoided hitting their attackers, who were themselves little more than victims of the artifact and Hunner's insanity, but even the sight of the bolts striking the walls and floor of the chamber seemed to be enough for many of the underdwellers to drop their weapons and flee in terror. A different group now approached, these armed with stun batons and vibroblades, but the lightsabers sliced easily through them as well and well placed punches, kicks, and Force-shoves left their wielders in heaps on the ground.
Rising on her feet and craning her neck to look over the attacking mob, Tahiri saw Jadek Hunner himself slipping away, apparently making for a back exit. "Oh no you don't," she muttered to herself and then gathered herself to spring, using a number of startled underdwellers as launching points to hurl herself towards Hunner. He turned and saw her coming towards her just before she struck and let fly another bolt of lightning. Tahiri tried to block with her saber, but at this range even Hunner couldn't miss; the bolt slammed into her and caused her to crash to the floor, where she writhed in agony.
Hunner approached, laughing shrilly as he continued the barrage. "See, see?" He cackled. "Not even the Jedi can match me! All will fall before me!"
Even as he continued to laugh, Tahiri retreated within herself, drawing on her past to give her the strength to survive his attack. As Riina she had been raised in a culture that venerated pain as the truest means of connecting to the divine; as Tahiri she had been tortured by Mezhan Kwaad and later Duman Yaght and had not broken. She knew how to draw strength from pain, and she was not going to let this second-rate darksider with shiny black rock triumph now.
Slowly she stood, crossing her arms in front of her to absorb the worst of the attack, and began to advance. Hunner had stopped laughing, and instead was doubling his power, but Tahiri didn't stop. A true Sith Master, steeped in decades or even centuries of dark side lore and power, could have broken her this way, but not such was Jadek Hunner- just a man who had suddenly acquired power, but had no real idea of how to use it.
"Is that all you've got?" Tahiri grated out as she advanced towards him. "Because it's not going to cut it!" Suddenly her lightsaber was in hand and the blade activated; Hunner barely had time to scream before it sliced cleanly through the arm that held the artifact. The flow of lightning suddenly ceased as both clattered to the ground; Hunner fell beside them, sobbing pathetically.
Tahiri stood over his form, and raised her blade. He'd taken the power of the Sith but been too weak to control it, and had put the lives of her friends and his own followers and risk with his mad schemes. Reversing her grip on her lightsaber, she held the blade over him, point down, and watched with satisfaction as his eyes widened. "Embrace pain, infidel," she heard herself say as though from a distance; at her side, the artifact seemed to pulse with approval.
"Tahiri, stop!" another voice suddenly shouted- Corran or Jaina, which one didn't register. Suddenly her mind seemed to snap back into focus again, and the lightsaber dropped from nerveless fingers. She slid to her knees beside the petrified form of Jadek Hunner, breathing deeply as she did so.
"Are you all right?" she heard the voice ask with concern- yes, it was Jaina, she was kneeling beside her. "What happened?"
"I think it was partially the artifact and partially my Yuuzhan Vong warrior's instincts," Tahiri said quietly. "I needed them to power through that lightning he was throwing at me, but with that thing so close, I… almost lost control."
"Well, you didn't, and that's the important thing," Jaina said, helping Tahiri to her feet. Turning, the two Jedi looked down at the prone form of Hunner. "Well, if we're not going to kill him, what are we going to do with him?"
The words were barely out of Jaina's mouth when the choice was taken out of their hands- a blaster bolt shot beside them and struck Hunner in the chest, slamming him against the ground and leaving him a smoking, lifeless ruin. Tahiri and the others spun towards the direction from which it had come, and saw a Trandoshan holding a blaster with a smoking barrel, flanked by a Rodian and a dark-haired human woman.
"That's for what you did to my crew, Hunner," the Trandoshan hissed. "May the afterlife not welcome you."
Corran approached the Trandoshan slowly and stared into the reptile's unblinking yellow eyes. "Well, well," he said softly. "Captain Hassk, I presume? We've been looking for you, and we know what you're after- and you're not getting it."
"And you are Jedi," Hassk replied, "as are your friends, and you are no doubt capable of enforcing that claim." He paused for a moment, and then let his blaster clatter to the ground. "If it were just one of you, it might be different, but I have no desire to face three Jedi in battle. Take the artifact, if you must. I have had my fill of this miserable world."
Tahiri could tell that Corran didn't trust the Trandoshan, but the Jedi Master nodded once. "All right, then," he said. "But don't think we're letting you go- you're coming with us topside, and then we're turning you over to the Galactic Alliance. Of course, we might be willing to put in a good word for you, get you a shorter sentence, if you tell us what you know about your bosses."
"There is little to tell," said Hassk. "They find us; I do not know why they want these things." He and Corran locked eyes for what felt like several minutes, then both nodded and stepped away.
"I think he knows things he's not telling us, and I'm sure he's got something up his sleeve," he told Jaina and Tahiri quietly. "But we don't have anything better to do with him than take him with us and turn him over to the authorities. Make sure and watch him, though."
"Got it," Jaina said. "But what are we going to do about the artifact?"
"Tahiri Veila?" a voice said in Yuuzhan Vong, and Tahiri turned to face Ziil; in all the excitement, she'd almost forgotten he was there. "If I might make a suggestion- the Jeedai appear to be somehow vulnerable to this device, but I am Yuuzhan Vong and am apart from the Force. Perhaps it would be safest if I carried it."
Tahiri wrinkled her brow in thought. "You know, that might actually work," she said, and then translated Ziil's plan for the others. "Ziil's right," she finally said. "He's Force-blind- he can't use it, and it can't hurt him. I think it may be our best option- I don't think it would be good for any of us to carry it, we can't just leave it down here, and I'm not trusting Hassk and his crew with it for even a second."
Corran nodded along; Jaina looked uneasy at first, then agreed as well. Tahiri motioned for Ziil to come over; he bent down beside the artifact and lifted it gingerly in his arms, regarding it distastefully but apparently suffering no ill effects. "All right, then," Corran said. "Let's move out."
Hassk and his crew slowly fell behind the Jedi as they ascended through Coruscant's underbelly- or at least they tried to; the man in green was always careful to be just behind them, a hand on his lightsaber. Finally, Rhona leaned towards her captain and whispered in his earhole. "Are you crazy?" she asked. "If our big bosses find out about this, they'll toss us into a sun or feed us to their gods or something even worse!"
"Not necessarily," Hassk replied softly. "Be patient, Rhona. It is the clever hunter who gets the prey."
And so falls Jadek Hunner, a man who was just never as important as he thought he was. Though the artifact gave him enough power to bully his fellow outcasts, he was never going to be a match for trained Jedi, and everyone but him knew it (though I’ll admit, writing Tahiri and Jaian heckling him was fun). And, of course, he had the misfortune of facing Tahiri at the end. A word of advice – don’t try to use torture to break someone who’s half-Yuuzhan Vong inside. Odds are, it’s not going to work.
Hassk surrenders when he knows he’s beaten. It’s against the strictest interpretation of Trandoshan religion to allow oneself to be captured, but Hassk is pragmatic enough to follow the better part of valor if it means he’ll live to fight – and get his quarry – another day, and he thinks the Scorekeeper will understand. He’s still got a role in this fic to play before all is done, though.
And now Keenah, the Master, and their crew are coming to Coruscant. Hunner is dead and Hassk is down for now, but the real battle lies ahead…
Chapter 20: Chapter 19: A Mirror Darkly
Vua'sa's Rage came out of darkspace into the edge of Yuuzhan'tar's gravity well (Keenah would not think of it as Coruscant; that world had perished under sacred shaping, and the infidels were fools if they thought it could be reclaimed) with all warriors tense and volcano cannons at the ready. The infidels were here in force- not enough to seriously challenge a full battle group, perhaps, but more than sufficient to the task of destroying a single coralcraft- and while the Master claimed that he had a plan for dealing with them, the warriors still stood ready to face battle and death if the gods demanded it.
Keenah glanced over at where the Master sat in the center of the bridge, clutching one of the artifacts they had captured and coughing quietly beneath his hood. Master Shaper Kizin Qel hovered behind him with his adepts as they fretted over him, while Akhi Lian and his warriors seemed to be trying to do their best to ignore him and the stench of rotting flesh that emanated from his cowled form. Keenah herself ran her hand over her lightsaber where it hung from her sash and kept her gaze fixed straight ahead. In her bones, she knew that today was going to be a turning point; she just wished she knew how it would turn.
Through the bridge's transparent forward-facing membranes she could see two of the abominable infidel craft approaching, training weapons on them. Akhi Lian was shouting orders and his warriors were scrambling to obey, but Keenah's attention was on the infidels and the Master; she was barely even aware that she was murmuring a prayer for Yun-Ne'Shel to deliver them under her breath.
"It is… time," the Master rasped, waving the Shapers away and straightening up as much as he was able. He clutched the artifact tightly in both hands, and Keenah could almost see his eyes gleam yellow beneath his hood as his whole body was wracked with effort. Then, suddenly, he gave a terrible cry and the priestess could feel the Force burst from him in waves, like a dark sun.
At first, nothing seemed to change- and then, suddenly, the infidel ships turned away from the Yuuzhan Vong craft and reoriented on each other. Even though Keenah had been told what would happen, she could still barely believe her eyes as the infidels opened fire on one another. The Rage passed through the blockade unharmed.
"It is as you said," she whispered in awe. "They attack each other and ignore us. But why?"
"I have… clouded their thoughts," the Master rasped, his voice and breathing even more labored than usual. "They each believe that the other craft… is a Yuuzhan Vong warship and that we are an infidel shuttle. The effect… will not hold them for long now that I am no longer… concentrating on it, but it should last long enough… for us to reach the surface- and if we are lucky, they will be too… damaged to pursue."
"A useful trick," Akhi Lian said reluctantly, stepping forward. He hesitated for a moment, then snapped his fists to opposite shoulders in salute. "Perhaps your Jeedai ways do hold some value." But I still do not fully trust you. The words hung in the air, though they had not been spoken aloud.
"Are your warriors… prepared?" the Master asked.
"They are," the commander replied. "We are locked on to the Sekotan energy signature and shall land nearby. When we do, my warriors shall disembark. You are certain we will find the artifact there?"
"The Force… does not lie!" The Master snapped. "You will find the artifact, and you will find Jedi- I do not know which, or… how many, but they will be there. You must… take the artifact from them. Do not… fail!"
"As you say," Akhi Lian said, though his expression was still dubious. "And you are certain you wish me to take Eminence Keenah with us? If the Jeedai are there, it will not be the proper place for one of the priest caste- and certainly not one sworn to the Modeler." Or maybe you don't want to share your glory with someone who isn't from the warrior caste, Keenah thought.
"She is armed… far more mightily than you… Commander," the Master said, and though his face was as ever hidden, it seemed that he smiled. "If you understand… what you must do… then I must go… and meditate." He gestured for Kizin Qel and his Shapers. "You will escort me… to my quarters." Rising unsteadily, he leaned on a yorik coral cane that one of the adepts handed him and walked haltingly from the bridge with them hovering by his sides, the Master Shaper following close behind.
When they were gone, Akhi Lian turned to Keenah and grabbed her wrist. "I do not have warriors to spare to guard you in battle, Eminence," he spat, leaning in close. "Fight, or stay out of my way if you do not feel you can contribute, but I will not allow you to distract me from my victory."
"Trust me, Commander," Keenah said, baring sharp teeth in a smile, "I think I will surprise you." Her free hand went to the lightsaber at her sash, and she knew that she spoke truth.
The return to the surface was devoid of attacks of any sort, but Tahiri couldn't shake the feeling that something was not right. Part of it was probably the Sith artifact, though between the way that the fact that Ziil was carrying it seemed to blunt its power somewhat and all three Jedi were keeping a tight lid on their emotions to avoid letting it get to them, the thing's effects were mercifully less than they could have been. Hassk and his two surviving crewmembers seemed to be cooperating well enough, though every so often the Trandoshan mercenary would glance at the artifact when he thought the Jedi weren't looking. Tahiri had spoken to Jaina about whether or not she'd sensed anything out of the ordinary, and though the older Jedi hadn't, that did little to put her mind at ease. If there was a threat only Tahiri sensed, there were only so many possibilities, and none of them were good.
"Keep a lid on it," she muttered to herself. "You're probably not sensing anything- you're just worried. Yes- that's it. Just worried. Once we get to the surface, we can leave and everything will be over with." That helped, at least a little bit, but Tahiri had a hard time making herself believe it. She had a hard time imagining that they were going to make it off Coruscant without a fight.
Finally, the light of Coruscant's sun could be seen clearly through the tunnel entrance they'd used to enter the undercity, and beside her, Tahiri heard Jaina breathe a sigh of relief. "I'm going to be glad to get out of this hole," she muttered, "and I'm really looking forward to having the chance to say goodbye to that creepy black rock. Hopefully Uncle Luke has someplace nice and deep to stick it in and…"
"Wait," Corran said, stopping and putting his hand on his lightsaber. "I'm sensing something- it's faint, but it's there."
"Me, too," Tahiri said, drawing her own weapon and igniting it. There was something odd in the Force scratching at the back of her mind, which seemed somehow at once alien and familiar- that must have been what Corran had felt- but the other sensation was all too familiar. "We've got incoming, and it feels like…"
"Yuuzhan Vong!" Jaina finished, drawing her saber and dropping into a fighting stance in a single fluid motion. Unlike Tahiri, she didn't have Vongsense, but she didn't need it- directly ahead of them, surrounding the tunnel entrance, was a ring of Yuuzhan Vong warriors in full battle armor, amphistaffs in hand with their heads pointed towards the Jedi ready to spit poison. Behind her, Tahiri heard Ziil and Hassk's crew moan in despair, but a quick glance in their direction showed that the Trandoshan himself was silent, his lizard eyes expressionless.
"Let me guess," Corran said to him. "Your buddies?"
"They are not my friends," Hassk replied coldly, "But I do believe they are my employers."
A warrior stepped forward, the pattern of his scars and tattoos as well as the living cloak that hung from his shoulders proclaiming him to be a commander. "Jeedai," he growled in accented but intelligible Basic, "I am Commander Akhi Lian. You have something that belongs to us. You will surrender it to us now, and we might- possibly- allow you to live. Attempt to resist, and you will all perish."
"He's lying," Tahiri whispered to her friends. "This guy's spoiling for a fight, and he's got us outnumbered. I don't think his type would lose any sleep over breaking his word to a bunch of infidels."
"Seen it before," Jaina muttered. Stepping forward, she raised her saber in challenge. "You want this artifact? You're getting it over our dead bodies- and we have no intention of getting killed by a no-name Vong renegade like you."
Akhi Lian snarled and stepped back as his warriors tightened their circle. "Then you choose your own demise. May the gods feast upon your unworthy souls! Do ro'ik vong pratte!" The warriors raised their amphistaffs and unleashed a barrage of venom.
Three lightsabers flashed in the air, blue, purple, and silver, and the venom hissed and evaporated where it struck their blades. The reprieve was short-lived, however- a number of the warriors were now charging forward, amphistaffs spinning in their hands. Behind her, Tahiri could feel Ziil backing up fearfully down the tunnel- good, she thought, that way he and the artifact would stay out of danger- and then she had no more time to spare thought for him as the warriors struck.
Tahiri found herself facing two at once, and based on the impression she was getting from her Vongsense, Jaina and Corran faced similar odds. She smiled tightly- Akhi Lian had underestimated them, it seemed. The three human Jedi might be smaller and less heavily armed than the Yuuzhan Vong warriors, but between their greater agility, experience, and skill with the Force, the odds were still in their favor. Letting her Vongsense warn her of an incoming attack, Tahiri flipped into the air and landed behind her two attackers, and her hand flicked out as she called on the Force. A nearby chunk of rubble left over from the final battle leaped into the air and soared towards the warriors- one managed to dodge, but his companion was not so lucky. The projectile took him clean in the chest and slammed him back into the wall, where he lay unmoving- probably not dead, with his armor, but still out of the fight.
Tahiri turned back to her still-standing opponent and beckoned. "Come on," she said in Yuuzhan Vong. "Big, tough warrior like you wouldn't be frightened to take on one skinny little human girl in honorable combat, would he?" The warrior started at being addressed in his own language, and then his eyes darted to her forehead.
"The Jeedai Who Was Shaped," he spat. "I will earn much glory by bringing you alive for the sacrifice, abomination!"
"You wish," Tahiri said, and then she brought her lightsaber up to parry his amphistaff. This one was more skilled than his fallen companion seemed to have been, and he met her blows in turn, but he couldn't compete with Force-enhanced reflexes or her ability to sense where he would strike next using Vongsense. Darting under an anticipated blow, she brought her saber up and across his throat. The warrior fell, and his head landed beside him.
Tahiri turned away from her fallen foes to see where Jaina and Corran had fallen back, now pressed by additional warriors than the four they'd originally faced. Glancing up towards the tunnel entrance, she saw that the commander and they warriors who'd been with him were no longer there. That wasn't good. She raised her saber and moved to assist her friends when suddenly she felt a presence behind her, one cold and dark, and strangely… doubled, as if a Force-signature and one of Vongsense had somehow become layered atop one another.
Slowly, she turned to find herself face to face with a female Yuuzhan Vong of about her own age, shorter and slighter than most warriors and with the facial markings that signified a priestess of the Modeler. The weird, doubled up Force presence was coming from her, and she regarded Tahiri with a curious expression. What was she, Tahiri idly wondered as she and the other female began to circle one another warily. Had she been human once, only to be subject to the same shaping that Tahiri herself had been until she was almost indistinguishable from a true Yuuzhan Vong? Or was she truly Yuuzhan Vong, and had somehow acquired the ability to touch the Force?
"I know you," the priestess finally said. "We've never met, but I have heard stories. I admit that I am curious to see if they are true."
"Who are you?" Tahiri asked, raising her saber. "Are you the one who wants the artifacts? Where did you get the power to touch the Force?"
"The gods grant many gifts to their faithful," the Yuuzhan Vong said simply. "I am Keenah, a follower of Yun-Ne'Shel, and I have been chosen to restore my people to glory. Will you join us, or do you insist on fighting for the infidels whose form you wear?"
"I'm a Jedi," Tahiri said. "What do you think?"
Keenah shook her head. "Pity," she said softly, and raised her hand. A small coral cylinder leapt into it, and then ignited a slender red blade from one end. Tahiri's eyes widened. A Force-using Yuuzhan Vong was bad enough, but where in the Corellian Hells had she gotten an organic lightsaber? Keenah raised the inexplicable weapon and smiled. "And so we duel," she whispered. "Taan Yun-forqana zhoi! No sooner had the rarely-heard battle cry of the priest caste left her lips than she struck.
Part of Ziil was ashamed that he pulled himself away from the fighting at the mouth of the tunnel. He knew that he was not a warrior and that he would only get in the Jeedai's way, but the fact remained that he saw the Slayer of Shedao Shai, the living avatar of Yun-Harla, and Tahiri Veila herself engaged in battle while he did nothing, and it shamed him. Still, they had trusted him with keeping the artifact safe- he knew that hanging back would accomplish that better than charging into the fray ever would.
Unfortunately for Ziil, from his vantage point he could see Akhi Lian and his subalterns surveying the battle as though seeking something. Scowling, the commander gestured for more warriors to confront Corran Horn and Jaina Solo, while a slender figure who wore a dark robeskin rather than armor was slipping towards Tahiri Veila. Ziil prepared to shout a warning, but before he could Akhi Lian looked directly at him, saw the artifact beneath his arm, and smiled cruelly. The former Shamed One's cry died as terror froze his throat, while commander and subalterns charged through the battle and straight towards him.
A lifetime of conditioning took hold and terror froze Ziil in his place. Akhi Lian strode forward and stood over him, a resplendent and terrifying specimen of a warrior who regarded him with slashed lip curled and pure disdain in his eyes. "So," he growled, "the Jeedai allow a Shamed One to guard their treasure. How utterly pathetic." He gestured to his warriors. "Take it from him."
As the subalterns moved to obey, Ziil swallowed deeply and stood, the hand that did not hold the artifact going for what he had thrust through his sash and tried to forget. "I am not a Shamed One," he said haltingly but clearly. "I am free, and you will not have this relic!" In a swift motion he pulled the blaster free and fired it.
The orange bolt shot from the barrel at point-blank range, but Ziil's aim was unfortunately poor. It struck Akhi Lian's armored shoulder, leaving a scorch-mark on the vonduun crab's shell but doing no lasting damage. The commander's eyes widened in shock, and then one hand shot forward, striking the blaster from Ziil's grip. The blow was followed by a kick to the stomach that sent the former Shamed One sprawling, and he lay stunned as he felt a subaltern wrest the artifact from his grip. Akhi Lian towered over him, extending his amphistaff to its full length.
"Now you die, vermin," the commander growled, and raised it high.
"What are we gonna do, boss?" Rhona demanded as the Vong and Jedi joined battle. "We don't have any weapons, but while they're all distracted, we could sneak away with no one the wiser."
"And go where?" Hassk demanded. "Back into the undercity? The only way out that we know is being blocked. Do you want to spend the rest of your life in that hole? Whoever wins, Rhona, we will lose. The Vong would not have come here if they had any faith in our ability to complete this mission, and you know they do not tolerate failure. If they win, they will kill us. It was all for nothing."
"Maybe not!" Rhona said suddenly, pointing. Hassk turned his gaze to see the skinny Vong who'd come with the Jedi attempt to confront the commander, and get soundly defeated. Not unexpected- except for the fact that the blaster that had fallen from his grip lay close by. In an instant, Hassk made his decision, and made a silent prayer for the Scorekeeper to favor him.
Lunging forward, he grabbed the blaster- awkwardly, for it was made for smaller hands than his- and took careful aim. Just as the commander raised his amphistaff to kill the Jedi's Vong, Hassk fired. The bolt took Akhi Lian behind the knee, in one of the places where his armor's shell plates met. It passed between then, and struck the sensitive flesh beneath. At once the armor spasmed and the commander fell to one knee, his killing stroke going wild. Hauling himself back to his feet with the help of one of the subalterns, he glared death at Hassk- and then his eyes widened in recognition.
"You!" he spat in Basic. "Infidel traitor! I will wear your hide as a cloak!"
"That may be so," Hassk replied, and shifted his aim to the artifact. "But I can get out one more shot before your warriors can kill me, and then you lose your prize."
Akhi Lian's glare intensified as his mind, honorable in its own way but still more savage than a starving rancor, worked over the problem. Finally, he looked back up at Hassk and spat. "You live another day, infidel," he growled. "But once my mission is complete, know that I will find you and make you howl." He gestured angrily to the subalterns, and together they turned and began to march back up the tunnel.
Two females face one another in a dimly-lit tunnel just beneath the surface of a twice-dead world, one holding a blade of burning red, the other one of brilliant blue. They are opposites, and yet in a way they are also akin- the Jedi who is almost a Yuuzhan Vong, and the Yuuzhan Vong who is almost a Sith. Each sees herself in the other, albeit in a way that seems distorted and reversed. And because of this, both know that they are enemies. And so they duel.
Blue blade meets red as they fight back and forth across the tunnel. Though their skills are different, neither can overcome the other- Tahiri can sense that Keenah is far stronger than she is, and stronger than Corran too, though not Jaina, but her technique lacks polish, as if she's only been training for a year or less; Keenah can see that though Tahiri's human form looks fragile compared to a Yuuzhan Vong's, she is tricky, incorporating elements from Yuuzhan Vong and Jeedai styles, and occasionally something else that the priestess does not recognize. They duel ever more intensely, but neither gains an advantage.
Finally, though, Keenah sees Commander Akhi Lian reappear from down the tunnel, leaning on one of his subalterns because of the way his armor's leg continues to twitch, clutching the artifact tightly to his chest. Keenah notes him as he passes her and then disengages, turning to follow him up to the surface along with the surviving warriors. The Jeedai have proven fiercer than expected- though there are only three, killing or capturing them all might prove more difficult than anticipated. They have the Master's prize, and now they must bring it to him.
Tahiri, Corran, and Jaina move to follow them up the tunnel, but Keenah raises a hand and the entrance buckles, debris falling to block the passage. It isn't enough to stop the Jedi, but it is sufficient to slow them down- as the rubble falls, Tahiri sees Keenah cross her arms in salute to her, and she returns the gesture. Then the entrance is blocked completely, and the Yuuzhan Vong are gone.
On the surface above, a coralcraft prepares itself for departure, the dark side adept aboard it readying himself for the same technique he used to pass the blockade before. In the tunnel below, three Jedi take their lightsabers to a wall of fallen rock and metal, though they know the Yuuzhan Vong will be gone when they break free. Tahiri, though, knows from her visions where they are going, and so she and her companions prepare themselves for one final battle, which will take place on a world that long ago became a tomb.
In the depths of space, Korriban awaits them all.
This is chapter is one of the pivotal moments of the fic. Hassk chooses his side, though more out of pragmatism than conviction. I originally intended for him to die here, but I’ll admit that the character grew on me, probably more than the mercenary lizard deserves. His role in the fic is almost done, but I did end up choosing to spare him. Maybe he’ll have better luck in patrons in the future.
Keenah meets Tahiri. They are intentionally designed as foils for each other (or at least, Keenah is a foil for how the best parts of the NJO characterized Tahiri), and get to have their first, inconclusive duel. Keenah, as Tahiri sensed, is very strong in the Force but, thanks to the unusual way she acquired her ability, her Force-sensitivity is also somewhat separate from her, since she draws it through the shards embedded in her body rather than her body itself. What exactly this means for her future is a question you’d probably want a Jedi Master to answer, though. I didn’t make up her battle cry, by the way – all the major castes’ battlecries are given in Destiny’s Way, except for the intendents, who don’t have one.
Ziil fails to protect the artifact. He really couldn’t have been expected to take on a fully armed and armored warrior, but don’t think he isn’t still going to be carrying around a lot of guilt over this one. He’s still got an important role yet to play, though, so he’ll have a chance to make up for it. But now that the Master has his prize, the story is ready to move to its final venue – Korriban. The final conflicts, and final revelations, will soon be at hand…