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Beyond - Legends Empire of Ashes (RotJ-DE bridge story; Isard, Carnor Jax, Ken, many more)

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction- Before, Saga, and Beyond' started by cthugha, Feb 28, 2020.

  1. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Words and Violence



    In every society, there is a class of beings who consider themselves above the affairs of the rest, beyond politics and aloof from the fickle concerns of the present moment. In their view, wars are like the winds or tides: something to be accounted for and made use of where possible, but not worthy of partisanship or any kind of improper excitement. They pride themselves on their calm, their long view and their friendships across the shifting lines of politics, blithely ignoring the fact that they can only hold these lofty views thanks to their extreme riches and influence.

    But there were moments, Ambassador Sa-Di thought as he surveyed his guests, when even those people got nervous. The eight beings gathered around the dinner table in his skyhook commanded a good part of the Galaxy’s resources - and yet, in a way, they were all refugees, expats, homeless and uncertain about the future.

    He let the moment linger, basking in the power he held over them. On the far side of the table, Lady Ucce was fingering her headdress as she told the man next to her about the revolt the Rebels had incited on her homeworld of Herdessa. “It is a minor thing,” she assured him, “as thankfully my business has been interplanetary for decades, and the men they executed on Herdessa were mere figureheads, designed to draw attention. But even so, one’s home is still one’s home, would you not say?”

    Gerald Weizel, her neighbor at the table, inclined his head in sympathy. He too had recently been ousted from his post when the Rebels had taken over Chandrila; now he called himself a governor-in-exile, though in reality he had nothing to do. Across from him, Lady Aryn Dro Thul of Alderaan looked a little sour at the remark, but she said nothing. The Baroness Marchia of Virgillia 7 was too busy dissecting the fish on her plate to comment, while Moff Jamson Caglio merely smiled as serenely as he always did.

    It fell to little Ederlathh Pallopides, the nine-year-old ward of Dame Vita Veruna, to voice what they were all thinking. “I don’t want to leave,” she said.

    “Oh poor darling,” Lady Ucce reassured her across the table, “but it is only for a short while, until things stabilize.” Her tone was sweet and sympathetic; on Herdessa, she had been called “Lady Bountiful” by the populace, for the gifts she bestowed on the families whose children she sold into slavery.

    Dame Veruna shot her a glance. “What did we talk about, Edi?” she said. “There is no use complaining over happenstance. We move through the world…”

    “...with dignity,” the girl finished her sentence, pouting.

    “Will you be going back to Naboo?” Aryn Dro Thul inquired.

    “One of its moons, in fact,” Vita Veruna said. “For the time being.”

    “But Narmle is boring!” Ederlathh complained.

    “Edi, you haven’t been there since you were four.”

    Moff Caglio leaned across the table and touched Dame Veruna’s arm. “My offer stands,” he said conspiratorially. “Should the need arise.” Days ago, when the Supreme Prophet’s declaration of war had shaken the Coruscant elites out of their placidity, Caglio had formally offered to shelter any of the nobles and exiles in Sa-Di’s circle on nearby Corulag, which was still firmly in the hands of the Empire. Gerald Weizel and the Baroness Marchia had already accepted, and the others were expected to make a decision in the course of this event.

    Smiling, Ambassador Sa-Di raised his glass. Through the transparent roof, Coruscant looked like an immense glittering bauble, veined with lights and studded with skyscrapers piercing down from the cityscape towards them. He had set the gravity on his skyhook such that the planet seemed to hang above their heads, while they themselves would appear to be dining with their feet towards the sky to an observer on the surface. It made for a much more inspiring view, Sa-Di thought, than merely sitting on top of the city and staring out into the emptiness of space.

    “As it happens,” he said, instantly drawing the attention of everyone around the table, “there will be no need for any of us to leave this lovely planet - not anytime soon, in any case.”

    Surprised murmurs sprung up around the table, with Aryn Dro Thul being the notable exception. “I was wondering when you were going to get around to that,” she said.

    “What do you mean, no need?” Weizel asked. “Did Admiral Kermen finally come through with that relief force Isard begged him for?”

    Sa-Di shook his head. “How did you know, Lady Dro?” he asked instead of an answer.

    “Oh, one hears things.” Aryn Dro Thul shrugged. “Fleet movements along the Rimma, but towards the Outer Rim rather than Corewards now. Interdictors at Bortras."

    "So it seems Delvardus came to his senses," Moff Caglio said, leaning back in his chair. "Interesting."

    "But what about Prentioch? Drommel? Zsinj?" Apparently Gerald Weizel had been listening to the military rumor mill more than was healthy. Caglio tsk-tsked at his loss of composure. "Zsinj would not," he said.

    "Nor will anyone else attack Coruscant," Sa-Di truncated the debate, "because the instigator of this insanity is dead."

    A moment of stunned silence ensued, once again broken by young Ederlathh. "Who?"

    "Kadann," Sa-Di said, "who called himself the Supreme Prophet of the Dark Side."

    "No one of any consequence, dear," Vita Veruna assured her ward. "A madman."

    "How do you know?" Aryn Dro Thul asked. She was frowning, and her gaze flicked to the hooded man who stood off to the side of the room. Sa-Di noticed and graced her with a smile. Good guess, but no. "In a few hours everyone will know," he said. "I thought you might appreciate being among the first."

    "Does that mean we can stay?" Ederlathh Pallopides asked excitedly. "We can still live in the Palace?"

    "I will make inquiries, dear. But if this is true…"

    “If it is,” Caglio cautioned. “We have thought him dead before.”

    “Oh, I assure you it is.” Sa-Di winked at Aryn Dro Thul, well aware that he had not answered her question. “It appears we will not have to impose on your hospitality after all.”

    “Good,” the Baroness Marchia said, wiping her mouth. “No offense, Moff, but Corulag is too close to Chandrila for my tastes anyway. No offense either, Governor-in-exile.”

    “Can you make your inquiries now?” the girl asked, pulling at her guardian’s sleeve. “Please. I want to know!”

    Dame Vita Veruna sighed and excused herself. Sa-Di looked on as the excitement and speculation among his guests ran its course, adding no further information. It was such a small secret, he thought, and yet it set them all abuzz. More amusingly still, the deeper secrets -- such as the fact there had been two Kadanns, one of them fake, or the death of Lord Shadowspawn at Mindor -- would have meant nothing to them even if he had spilled them, as none of them were prone to the dark machinations going on behind the scenes.

    Before long, as was customary in these circles, the talk turned away from politics and towards matters of culture and business. Lady Ucce made Aryn Dro Thul admit that her shipping company, Bornaryn Trading, had profited from the liquidation of Xizor Transport Systems and its subsidiaries; Caglio obliquely referred to criminal elements blossoming in the wake of related events, goading Weizel into launching a diatribe against the crime lord Tyber Zann -- specifically, against his affectation of a cultured air when he was no more than a thug. At that, Sa-Di’s gaze strayed to the hooded man waiting in the corner again. The usual anger emanated from him, mingled with growing impatience; but he kept every emotion off his scarred face and kept his posture with military discipline.

    Ederlathh Pallopides, meanwhile, had climbed off her seat and was strolling around the room, waiting for her guardian to return. Sa-Di raised an eyebrow when she walked up to the hooded man, completely unafraid even though he towered over her by at least twice her size.

    “You don’t look happy,” she said.

    Baddon Fass gave her a look that would have sent hardened criminals scurrying away; but the girl only stepped closer and rose on her toes as if to inspect his face. “In fact, you look like you would rather kill someone.”

    “Edi!” Vita Veruna called, hurrying back in from the corridor. “What did I tell you about harassing the help!”


    ***


    Baddon Fass was boiling inwardly. By the time all the guests had finally left, his intestines felt like an overcooked chunk of meat and his teeth were hurting from clenching them too hard.

    “Accarrgm?” his host asked when he returned from seeing Dame Veruna and the brat to their rooms. He held out a bottle that shone with a soft blue light. “From Kashyyyk. Burns like lava.”

    Baddon Fass forced his lips open. “I was promised carnage,” he growled. “And instruction.”

    “This was not instructive?” Sa-Di asked, indicating the table that was being cleared by floating service droids.

    Shadows moved over the Darksider’s lightning-scarred face as he ruminated on how to express his disgust. In the end he simply said, “Words.”

    “Just so.” Sa-Di looked up at the planet hanging above their heads. “And you would rather kill someone?”

    Again Baddon Fass hesitated. He was eager, but not stupid. “I am here because Coruscant was going to be attacked. I came to stand upon a battlefield.”

    “And now you wonder what you are still doing here.”

    Baddon Fass nodded grimly. His master, the Emperor, had sent him out from Byss to seek out death, and to study under his trusted friend Sa-Di. But so far Fass had learned nothing that seemed in any way relevant to his service, and the only deaths nearby had been from a speeder crash that he had engineered while experimenting with the powers Palpatine had bestowed on him.

    “Learning,” Sa-Di said. “And killing, I suppose. Shall we go?”

    Baddon Fass perked up. “Where?”

    Baring his teeth in a smile, Sa-Di raised his hand. “Down,” he said.


    ***


    They took an open-topped airspeeder from the skyhook's garage; Sa-Di insisted Baddon Fass take the controls.

    "Weapons?" Fass asked before they departed.

    "Do you need weapons to kill?"

    Baddon Fass bared his teeth. "No."

    The garage, at least, was the right way up. Outside the air was thin and cool, and the faint shimmer of the orbital shields appeared closer than the planet below. Weather control was keeping the night free of clouds or storms, so their descent was gentle and undisturbed.

    They passed transportation skylanes packed with drone ships that served the logistical needs of the city. Fass considered sending some of them crashing into the cityscape below. He had been a demolition expert before the Emperor had made him what he was now, so he could estimate the ballistic force with which the trucks would shear through multiple densely inhabited levels; but next to him, the Ambassador shook his head. "Down," he said gently.

    Baddon Fass took the hovercar down. The tallest skyscraper in their vicinity was topped by transparisteel domes filled to the bursting with greenery; it vibrated with lifeforms of all sizes, a verdant island in a sea of durasteel. "The Skydome Botanical Gardens," the Ambassador explained. "Mostly nonsentients; the guests have been cleared out for a reception later tonight. Not worth the effort."

    Fass had been pondering what it would take to bring the place down, but he conceded the point. "Down?"

    "Down."

    An almost flat expanse of rooftops stretched underneath them, a result of municipal tax regulations that made building above a certain height significantly more expensive. At Sa-Di's prompting, Fass steered the hovercar into a gap between two blocks. What had looked like a single line of light from up above turned out to be a chasm more than twenty meters wide, with traffic lines patrolled by floating signal droids. The building faces were a jumble of windows, balconies, walkways, open-air restaurants, shop windows and advertisement screens; and people were milling around everywhere, sentients of more different species than Fass had seen in all his years of military service.

    It would be the easiest thing to steer the vehicle into one of the most crowded establishments here, bail out before it hit and revel in the shock of sudden death. But this time Fass did not even have to look at his host to know he was supposed to go on. Sa-Di had something specific in mind, and it would take them into the depths of the ecumenopolis.

    They joined the downwards line, trudging between a delivery truck and a floating platform carrying a group of gaudily dressed aliens. "What are those?" Fass asked the Ambassador. "Those hammerheads? They're everywhere."

    "Ithorians," Sa-Di explained. "Their planet's ruling class is fanatically ecopreservational - that is, on Ithor they can't do anything that might endanger another lifeform, insects and plants included. So the more reasonable of them emigrate to other planets - preferably to those that are the antithesis of their oppressively bucolic home."

    Baddon Fass understood maybe half of what Sa-Di was saying, but he did not complain. Instead he watched the levels go by, getting progressively darker and more forbidding on the outside - but, absurdly, packed with even more people.

    "Living topside is expensive," Sa-Di said. "The cheaper the lodgings, the more people will cram into it. And the poorer they are, the more they breed. Entire clans - entire races - live and die in the shadows here, stacked on top of each other, without ever seeing the sun."

    "No one will care if they are killed," Fass surmised.

    "No. - Further down."

    The chasm narrowed as they descended; the robots and traffic signs disappeared after a few dozen levels, as did the holo posters and lighted storefronts. There were much fewer flying vehicles around them as well; instead the walkways multiplied, some of them crossing from one building face to the other at seemingly random angles, some so wide they blocked most of the airspace, with bustling street markets or tiny shantytowns on them. Once they passed a huge transparisteel pane that covered one side of the chasm for about fifty levels; behind it, an assortment of strange creatures swam in softly illuminated water. "The Calocour Ocean," Sa-Di said. "Less charmingly called the Dishwater Aquarium by some. Home to uncountable aquatic and amphibian species, including a few ambassadorial colleagues of mine. As the old propaganda posters said, there is a place on Coruscant for everyone."

    Baddon Fass carefully navigated the airspeeder past an increasing number of obstacles, including construction scaffolding, a ferocious brawl between members of a winged species battling it out in midair, and at one point a wall that had partly collapsed and was leaning against the other side. Hawk-bats were hanging from it, waking when they passed and screeching after them until Sa-Di silenced their cries with a subtle motion of his hand.

    Finally they could go no farther. Fass set the speeder down on the most horizontal surface he could find, a piece of roof where something big seemed to have been dragged away recently, and they debarked. Fass expected the Ambassador to secure the vehicle in some way, perhaps with a stunner net to repel thieves, but Sa-Di waved it off. "Leave it. We will not be returning this way."

    They followed a narrow track that creatures of undetermined species had trampled into the debris on the roof. As soon as they entered the superstructure, they were accosted by a gang of diminutive beings who were busy walling off a section of this floor with panes of scrap metal. One of them jabbed a long green finger into Fass's abdomen, but Sa-Di signaled him to keep his peace.

    "They're saying this is spider territory," he translated the aliens' gibberish. "Literal spiders, apparently, taking over this level." He held out a hand and the aliens fell silent, slightly swaying back and forth with a confused look on their faces. "Down here," he said then, pointing to a hatch in the floor.

    They climbed down a ladder that passed through a dozen gloomy levels, most of them occupied by members of the same small species engaged in cooking, sleeping, tinkering, debating or trading. In between, there were infrastructure levels whose nonfunctional ducts were populated by rodents. When the ladder ended, Sa-Di put one hand on the grimy wall and then found them a gap they could squeeze through into a cavernous chamber that reminded Baddon Fass of the Emperor's Citadel at Byss, except for the rubble and bones on the floor. A horde of pale, eyeless humanoids with flabby skin made to attack them, but Sa-Di made them freeze with a gesture, then step aside so they could follow their path to its origin. It was a hollowed-out industrial facility where their maggot-like children grew and played in massive duraplast molds, occasionally slinging projectiles at the swarms of moths that occupied the higher reaches of the structure. Multiple corridors led away from that nest; the on Sa-Di chose brought them to a ledge overlooking what had once been a wide plaza, before the city had grown over it and turned it into a cave.

    "Look," Sa-Di said, indicating the mess of girders and scaffolds overhead. "There was sky once. Then they built a highway over it, which collapsed, was propped up, and then served as the foundation for a new building. That one is rubble now as well, built over a hundred times. Do you think anyone up there knows that this cave, this empty space exists down here?"

    "No," Baddon Fass growled. More words. When were they going to get to the killing? There was plenty of life down here too, he saw: reptiloid creatures gathered around cooking fires at the bottom of the plaza, bugs scurrying around the walkways sniffing at the smoke, luminous molds growing from every fissure. But how, he wondered, was any of this more worthy of murder than the crowds in the bars up top?

    "And yet," the Ambassador continued, "all of their homes, their skyscrapers and esplanades rest on this place, and others like it. Even the tallest, most audacious towers up there have no real foundation, no feet planted into the rock of the planet. They rest on chaos; they rely on the fact that if one wall crumbles under their added weight, there will be hundreds more nearby that will hold. None of the architects or builders know exactly where the pressure goes; they simply assume as a general rule that it will spread out over enough different pillars, walls, arches and heaps of rubble to support their construction."

    Reluctantly, Baddon Fass looked at the girders above the plaza with a new appreciation. How many megatons of brick, steel, glass, plastics and living beings rested on any one of them?

    "Yes," Sa-Di said and ran his fingertips along a pillar beside him. "Place your hand here and feel the lines of force. Pure, base physical force; coarse matter that tends inexorably toward the core of the planet. Come, try."

    Baddon Fass obeyed, understanding dawning inside him. The pillar was one of many supporting this side of the building; but as soon as he touched it, Fass knew that there was a lot more resting on it than just the next few floors and the roof. It was an H-shaped metal beam, and though it looked perfectly straight where they could see it, Fass noticed that it was bent ever so slightly along its entire length, almost but not quite to the breaking point.

    "If I pull here," Fass said, "will it all come crashing down on us?"

    "Try," the Ambassador said with a smile.

    "But won't we die?" Looking up, Fass tried to estimate how many levels were above them. Eight hundred? A thousand? More?

    "Not according to my calculations," Sa-Di said, and seeing Fass's incredulous glare, he added: "The chaos is my domain, you see."

    Baddon Fass hesitated. Emperor Palpatine had made him powerful beyond his wildest dreams; he had sent him to seek out death, and told him to learn from this ambassador. Sa-Di still seemed like a windbag, but Fass saw no reason why he should want to kill him - or himself, for that matter. And despite his new powers, he was still a soldier at heart; the chain of command was in his bones.

    So he pulled.

    Nothing happened. The pillar did not move; it was held in place by incredible forces between the city above and the rocks below.

    "Use your anger," Sa-Di said.

    "I'm not angry."

    "This thing just defeated you. A dumb piece of ore, holding its own against the mighty Baddon Fass."

    Fass creased his scarred forehead. He hooked both hands into the beam and let the power grow inside him. If he had one personal strength, it was grim persistence, an unwillingness to give up or back down. That's what had gotten him through the grueling tryouts for the Imperial Army, and it was what had let him overcome the agony of the Emperor's Force lightning which had killed his comrades. There was no way he would let a pillar get the better of him now.

    With all his body, all his mind, all his defiance, he pulled again.


    ***


    A sharp crack sounded through the plaza, louder than a projectile discharge, in fact louder than anything Sneech had ever heard. His packmates all jumped up from their places around the fire, grabbing clubs, bricks or burning roots to defend themselves. At the next fire over, one of the Softclaws was screaming. Armored rats scurried for cover underfoot, some getting crushed when the Blackscales stampeded toward their motte.

    In all the chaos, Sneech was the only one who looked up rather than around for the origin of the sound. A cloud of panicked hawk-bats blocked his sight for a moment; then they dispersed, and he could see the roof.

    Sneech knew the roof. Many times, while his packmates played their status games, he had lain back and stared at it, imagining what must lie behind this jungle of girders and fissured duraplast plates.

    Something was different about it. There was a little more room between these two girders; and that plate seemed to be creeping sideways, bending as it moved…

    "Look out!" he yelled at his packmates, but it was too late. The last thing he noticed was two bipedal figures standing on one of the top galleries, in Cthon territory, before half of a city block crashed through the roof and squashed him flat.


    ***


    "I win!" Thth squealed. The bone splinter she had lobbed up towards the roof of the Cthon nursery using her skin sling had gone lower than she wanted, but the effect was incredible. All the moths were in an uproar, swarming away from the ceiling and down the walls, looking for exits. Thth could not see them, of course, but the air currents brushing the sensitive folds of her skin told the story of her triumph.

    The next sound made no sense, however. It seemed to come from everywhere at once and was too strong, too condensed for her to tell her anything about what was happening. That the entire building was coming apart in the middle, cut in two by unprecedented shearing forces, was so far beyond her experience of the world that she still thought she had won the slinging game when she was bisected by the roof.


    ***


    Yedde wedged the plate into the final gap. "This should hold," he said. "The spiders are tough but not that strong."

    "You wish," Yalma said. His left ear had fallen off thanks to a spider bite a week ago.

    Yanoddle gave the wall a kick. "Looks good to me."

    The floor bucked, and the wall collapsed. "Yanoddle!" Yedde groaned, drawing his net gun to fend off the nearest spiders. "Now you ruined it!"

    Suddenly, for some reason, he was sliding forward, straight into spider territory, accompanied by pieces of their wall. The whole level had tipped, he realized, and was still tipping further. Yalma was falling along with him, screeching; where Yanoddle had gone, he had no clue.

    Not that it mattered, Yedde figured with the sort of calm normally expected only from the revered elders of his species. In a very short while he would be dead - either from spider bites or from being crushed between the falling debris and whatever first got in their way.

    Neither of that happened, however. Instead, in a final surprise, he drowned.


    ***


    The Calocour Ocean contained over a trillion cubic meters of water, with regions of different salinity separated by filter membranes or plasteel barrages. It housed just over eighty billion registered sentients and perhaps twice that number of unregistered ones, plus several complete marine ecosystems, from krill to kraken, to support them.

    A container of such size will always have some leakage. Engineers both within and without constantly fixed small cracks and replenished the water volume; in some places, the inhabitants and wildlife of the levels below the Ocean actually depended on the moisture seeping out of microscopic ruptures. But on the whole, the saltwater sector of Coruscant had persisted with remarkable stability for hundreds of years.

    Until now.

    The westernmost part of the Ocean rested on the ruins of a district that had been razed almost a millennium ago. The tremors of the collapsing structures further below caused the compressed rubble to settle just a little more - barely a few meters at the outermost end. But with thousands of tons of water pressing down, that small difference increased the tension on the weakest part of the wall plates so much that a previously irrelevant crack widened enough for water to shoot out. The pressure of that jet, in turn, was such that it cut through every bit of stone in its way within seconds, further weakening every bit of substrate which it touched.

    What folllowed was not so much a chain reaction as a simultaneous failure of a thousand seams at once. Nearly all of the Calocour Ocean's contents drained into the underlevels in the space of less than an hour, washing away entire city blocks, jumpstarting avalanches of brick, junk and bodies, and drowning millions of beings while leaving its aquatic former residents to die gasping in the empty shell of their refuge.


    ***


    Tycho Celchu sat on the terrace of the Yellow Lamp, the premier tourist café this side of the government district. With his hair dyed a dirty brown and a cup of cheap Elba beer in front of him, he looked so aggressively mediocre that no less than three scam artists had already tried to make a move on him this evening. Next mission, he thought, I'm going with something more threatening. A Yinchorri bodysuit, maybe.

    He looked over the railing into the canyon the terrace overlooked. Everything seemed as busy as usual; if the continued fragmentation of the Empire had any repercussions here in its heart, the city itself showed no sign of it. Every place he had been to since stashing his stolen TIE Fighter in a black-market mechanic's hangar half a week ago exuded the same mixture of ambition, self-assuredness and corruption Tycho remembered from Palpatine's time. To the Coruscanti, it seemed, the Empire's reign felt eternal and unquestionably secure.

    As if on cue, the cup of Elba in front of him rattled as a tremor ran through the building. A few of the beings around him stopped their conversations to look around, but then resumed them when nothing more happened. Interesting, Tycho thought. Maybe there is more going on down there than it seems?

    On his next mission, he resolved as the first sirens sounded from the depths, he would have to go deeper.


    ***


    "With the dissension these self-proclaimed Prophets spread a thing of the past," Grand Admiral Makati told the holocams as well as the dignitaries Isard had brought together in the Skydome Botanical Gardens to celebrate his return, "I am honored to play my part in ushering in a new age of stability and unity of our glorious Empire!"

    Oh you will play your part just fine, Ysanne Isard thought, watching him from offstage. That of the designated target, that is. Despite her best efforts, the Prophets - both fake and real - still had quite a few friends in the Empire; this show, with Makati taking credit for killing them, was designed to direct their attentions towards him and, more importantly, away from Isard. She cast a sideways glance at Mahd Windcaller, media mogul and onetime initiate of the Prophets' own Church of the Dark Side. There were murderous plans brewing behind that weathered face, Isard was sure of it.

    That's another Grand Admiral Grand Admiral as good as gone. The way Palpatine's twelve Grand Admirals cut through the Navy's regular command structure had long been an obstacle to her control. With them gone, she could finally set the next stage of her plans in motion…

    The thought sent a shudder through her - or was it the thought? For a moment it almost seemed as if the tower she was standing on had vibrated - but of course that was nonsense. This was Imperial City; every skyscraper here was outfitted with repulsor compensators and inertial buffers. They were as safe as they could ever be.

    Or she was, in any case, Ysanne Isard thought, grinning up at the Grand Admiral's resplendent uniform. Those who stood in her path, not so much.


    ***


    In the guest wing of Sa-Di's skyhook, Ederlathh Pallopides was fast asleep. Like most nights, she dreamed of the Palace: of running through secret passages behind the walls, sometimes alone, sometimes with Irek; of discovering hidden places, spying on clandestine and confusing meetings, hiding from the guards, slipping from Quest's large brutal hands at the last moment before he could crush her. As in most of her dreams, she came up in the Throne Room after a long and desperate crawl through a dark tunnel; but this time, when she stuck her head up through the floor grille in front of the throne, there was someone in her way.

    He had his back to her, with his hood raised; for a moment she thought it might be the servant she had annoyed that evening, the one with the scarred and angry face, come to kill her. But when he turned around, her mind reeled between recognition and confusion.

    It was Him. The Emperor. He was alive - but he was younger, stronger, taller, with a spotted face almost like a teenager.

    There was no trace of the tremors downside to be felt in the skyhook, but Ederlathh's bed trembled all the same.


    ***


    "Great," Baddon Fass said.

    First he had almost choked on dust. Then a steel pane had narrowly missed him, shaving off the front edge of the balcony he and Sa-Di were standing on. Then the water had washed the dust away, only to fill the plaza and rise through the cavern until it sloshed around their ankles. Bodies and dirt drifted on the surface, forming an almost solid layer. "So how do we get out of here again?"

    Ambassador Sa-Di stood ensconced in a Force bubble, his clothes immaculate from head to toe. "That depends," he said. "Do you feel strong?"

    Baddon Fass paused to consider that. He had been so focused on the cataclysmic events around him that he barely noticed how he felt. But there it was, just as his master had promised: a richness in the Dark Side, a layer of screaming energy so close to the surface of the world he had only to reach out with his mind to touch it.

    "Yes," he said.

    Sa-Di waved incongruously, and a swarm of hawk-bats appeared from a gap in the warped building face across the plaza. As if following an invisible command, they shook the water from their leathery wings and launched themselves towards them. Up above, Fass noticed as he followed them with his eyes, a wide rift had opened, with transient waterfalls streaming down its sides. It was almost beautiful, he thought, in a genocidal way.

    Then the hawk-bats were on them, clawing for his shoulders and arms. Sa-Di had raised his, and the beasts were already pulling him upward towards the rift. "Come then, strong man!" he called. "Come fly!"
     
  2. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Beasts in the Basement


    Carnor Jax felt every hair on his body rise the moment he first set foot in the Emperor's Citadel.

    The feeling had been building for a while, like a static charge, as they followed the pilot drone ever deeper into the gravitational maelstrom of the Galactic Core. Looking at Byss from the Revenant's bridge, his mentor Lumiya to his left and his frightening new ally Nefta to his right, he had known without a doubt that this was the true center of power in the Galaxy. Hidden from all but a select few, this was nevertheless where all the lines of Force and influence converged.

    This is what we have to contend with, Nefta confirmed his thoughts. What we need to destroy if we mean to rule our own destinies.

    Allowing thoughts like this, this close to Palpatine's lair, still sent a spike of fear through him. Nefta assured him that the protection afforded by the symbionts in the Bosthirdan wine was total; but how certain could he be of anything, in the face of a power such as this?

    So when they entered the Citadel itself, from a docking arm high above the thinning clouds, Carnor Jax reverted to the habit he had practiced with Sarcev Quest: to think of anything but Palpatine, focus on anything but his true desires.

    Fortunately for him, there was a lot to take in here. The Citadel was a work of art; with its huge angular pillars that flowed seamlessly into vaulted ceilings and cavernous walls, it looked as if it had been cast from metal in one piece and then stuck into the planet's crust like a gigantic sword.

    Carnor Jax was a tall man and rarely felt intimidated. He was a Royal Guard, the threat of violence personified, directly serving the most powerful man in the Galaxy. Next to the Emperor on Coruscant, or on one of his rare excursions through his realm, he had been as close to the top of the pecking order as possible.

    He had thought so, anyway; but he realized now that he had never seen behind the curtain. There was a separate hierarchy, one that even his new master Lumiya was only a marginal part of, that did not end at the Emperor’s court in the Imperial Palace but stretched all the way to this top-secret place. It had always been there, controlling the fate of the Empire at a level unimaginable to the courtiers and politicians who spent their lives bickering over surface details. The Emperor had indulged them, had put on a good show for them, had acted like the frail old man hiding behind his crimson guards was all there was to see.

    Carnor Jax and his fellow guards had been props in that show. Background characters in a play Palpatine staged for the benefit of the old elite. He knew it as soon as he saw the guards standing beside the entrance to the Citadel, towering figures with veiled faces and gauntlets of layered metal that looked like they could crush a human head with no effort.

    Those are the true warriors guarding the heart of the Empire. Like living extensions of the Citadel, they silently watched their progress along the corridor, all the more threatening for their stillness and apparent calm.

    Two more of them peeled out of the shadows when their party approached the repulsorlift platform. Before they moved, most human eyes would have taken them for pillars; and when they took their positions on either side of them for the ride down, they seemed to turn right back into architectural embellishments. They were not human, perhaps not even sentient, Carnor Jax surmised; in the Force, they felt like a dull throbbing, like a cancer or an nek’s headache.

    Not warriors after all, then. Tools. In spite of his sense of foreboding, Carnor Jax smiled tightly behind his mask. So there might be a place for me here after all.


    ***


    Lumiya did not appreciate the way she felt when the platform began sinking through the floor. She had never liked this place, from the first time Vader had taken her here to meet his master; and every time she did this, it felt like the Citadel itself was swallowing her whole, delivering her down into its guts for disassembly and digestion.

    Which was not so far from the truth, in her case. Vader and Sidious had waged a secret war for her allegiance ever since they had recognized her potential - a war that extended to her body, which had been salvaged by Vader after she suffered near-fatal injuries during her undercover mission, and then refined by Sidious right here, in his gruesome chambers beneath the Citadel.

    As for herself, she had bided her time, waiting to see how the power dynamics between the two Lords of the Sith would work out before choosing a side - and building her own powers in the process. Only they had both lost when they died at Endor, leaving her the sole heir of the Sith in the Galaxy… that is, until Sidious had returned and called to her, just when she had been fighting one of his old Hands at the behest of Ysanne Isard, a distraction more than anything.

    That had been the last time she had come here, to see if Sidious was really back. And he was… in a way. He had greeted her in his clone body, looking both young and frail at the same time, and she had knelt before him to swear her allegiance.

    He had come back. Vader hadn’t. That should have settled the matter. By her words and his, as well as by her deeds since then, Darth Sidious was her master and she was his apprentice. But secretly, in what was left of her heart, she was still biding her time.

    Something felt off about that clone, and about Byss in general; something different than the first times she had been here. Whoever this new Palpatine was, he was certainly powerful, so she humored him and did his bidding, trying to learn as much as possible in the process; but she would not truly accept him as her Master until he had proven himself to her.

    So far, he had not. As the platform descended through the Citadel, carrying her and those she had brought to the man who would be Sidious, she guarded her thoughts and checked her expectations. How would he react to the fact that she had taken an apprentice of her own - and that she had delivered an old rival Palpatine had banished to his inner sanctum? The fact that they were all still alive and had been allowed to come this far did little to reassure her; after all, she knew how much the old Darth Sidious had liked to gloat and look his enemies in the eyes while punishing them.

    The air was getting warmer now as they sank deeper; root-like structures were snaking up the walls, tentacle shapes that looked as if they could reach out and strangle trespassers at a moment’s notice. Many of the rooms they passed were empty, reminiscent of a palace waiting for the return of its court. If it was really Palpatine, Lumiya caught herself thinking, why hadn't he called everyone to his side yet, gathered his forces and reclaimed his Empire? Why was he hiding here while his subordinates were tearing each other to shreds with the Rebels cheering them on?

    The platform slowed as they entered a section of the Citadel that looked less like a building and more like the bowels of some giant beast. The vaulted ceiling was covered in a fleshy substance, structured by pulsating veins and bulbous growths, from which breeding sacs of various sizes hung like grotesque stalactites. Along the walls, the meat merged with machinery: Lumiya. saw pipes feeding nutrients into veins, tendons attached to pistons, cables piercing ridges of tissue and making them twitch in regular intervals. This was what her body must look like on the inside, Lumiya thought, and the idea made what was left of her stomach clench in revulsion.

    Then she saw something even worse, and heard Carnor Jax beside her suppress a retching noise. Rising next to the platform was a mountain of purple scales, shaped in a crude approximation of a humanoid body, topped by a tiny cadaverous head. The platform stopped at the monster's feet, by which time it was towering three meters above them; and it was only the sight of Palpatine standing next to it, looking entirely unconcerned, that stopped Lumiya from instantly lashing out at it with her lightwhip.

    King Nefta stepped off the platform first, pushing past Lumiya and Carnor Jax. "My friend," he boomed, spreading his massive arms. "It is good to see you again. And so spry!"

    Lumiya tensed, waiting for Palpatine's reaction. A duel between a Sith Lord and whatever Nefta was, next to a monster and in the heart of a place that was dripping with dark side power, would be hard to survive even for her… but the Sentinels standing watch on the platform did not seem inclined to let her leave either. She exchanged a glance with her apprentice and reached for the hilt of her lightwhip.

    Palpatine crossed the rubbery floor towards Nefta, then flung his arms around the taller man. Lumiya, who had never seen Darth Sidious be physically affectionate with anyone, was more shocked by seeing him clap Nefta on the back as he hugged him than she would have been if he had burned him to cinders with Force lightning.

    "Did you grow so tired of your exile," Palpatine asked, "that you decided to join me in mine?"

    "I thought you might be lonely." Nefta looked around, craning his neck to spot the purple monster's head. "But I see you've got… interesting company."

    Palpatine beamed. "Meet my Constable of Homunculi, Borborygmus Gog. But don't get too close, he will eat you whole the moment you touch him."

    "This is Gog? He was much prettier the last time I saw him."

    "A side effect of one of his experiments," Palpatine said. "His mind is intact in there, though… or as intact as you can be while you're under constant assault by a million vengeful souls."

    "And here I thought he finally won that contest for the most egregious transformation with that friend of his, what was his name? The fear-eater."

    "Hoole. We were just talking about him, in fact." For the first time, Palpatine faced his other visitors, greeting them with a toothy smile. "But fortunately I still have faithful servants too. Dark Lady," he addressed Lumiya, his expression hovering on the edge of mocking. "And my loyal guardsman, Carnor Jax."

    Lumiya felt more than saw her apprentice flinch. The Emperor's Royal Guards were almost never called by their names outside of training; they were faceless on purpose, meant to be perfectly interchangeable and impersonal in the discharge of their duties. The fact that the Emperor knew his name, and knew him well enough to recognize him through his mask, came as a shock. Did her apprentice have secret dealings with Palpatine - or had the Emperor merely made a point of finding out exactly who was coming to his stronghold beforehand?

    He didn't give her time to ponder. "Look at this," Palpatine said, indicating a transparent globe as big as a human head that hung suspended from an arch by a bundle of tubes and cables. "I had tasked Hoole, the shapeshifter, with bringing me a boy of some importance. From what I hear, he even had the boy in his possession for a while; but he allowed himself to get distracted, and so he lost him."

    "Is this going to be a parable?" Nefta said, yawning. "You know what I think of parables."

    Once again Lumiya had to hide her shock that anyone would speak to the Emperor like this. This time, even Palpatine seemed annoyed. "It is what happened, Nefta," he said sharply, "but yes, there is a lesson to be learned from it. Because what Hoole did, instead of reporting his failure and then making up for it, was to run and hide."

    "That seems hardly surprising," Nefta said, "considering how you're known to deal with failure. Would there have been anything left of him to make up for it, I wonder?"

    "I am no fool," Palpatine growled. "I do not waste my valuable assets in fits of emotion." He looked at Lumiya as he said that, and she knew he was talking about Darth Vader. He had told her as much, once, obliquely but clearly: that if she cast her lot with Vader over him, she would fall victim to one of his bouts of frustration eventually. She had decided, then, to not rely on either of them for protection ever again, but to appease them as long as they had something to teach her, and then cut them loose.

    "Look at him," the Emperor continued, indicating the heap of purple flesh that was his Constable. "I've long lost count of how many times this wretch has failed me - indeed, the brain soaking in this pot belonged one of his earliest, and grandest, failures in my service. And yet he is still here!"

    "In a manner," Nefta commented, eyeing the colossus sceptically. The waves of pain rolling off him, of a suffering far beyond the merely physical, were thick in the Force.

    "But the worst," Palpatine said, "is not that Hoole fled. That almost shows some measure of respect, if you will. No, the worst is that he sent me a gift. An apology." He placed his fingertips on the bottom of the globe holding the brain, and by the sudden sense of shock erupting from the floating tissue Lumiya knew that it was not only alive but conscious.

    And to compound the terror, the huge purple creature spoke for the first time, its voice an anguished wail emanating from a metal box set embedded in its skin. "It is a… good head," it said. "Use...ful."

    "The head is a trifle. The insult is that Hoole thinks he can placate me. He dares hope that he will sway me, that I will allow him to slither away unscathed because he did me a favor." His gaze swept from Lumiya to Carnor Jax and back as he continued. "I have no patience for half-measures, now less than ever. You either serve me completely, or else nothing will protect you from my wrath."

    From the corner of her eye, Lumiya saw Carnor Jax drop to one knee. "I am yours, Your Majesty," he said, drawing a satisfied smile from Palpatine's lips. "So am I," Lumiya said. She remained standing but bent her head, then retrieved a satchel from her belt. "I hope you will not begrudge me this, my Lord."

    With a flick of the Emperor's fingers, the satchel sailed his way and ripped open in midair. "Ah," he said, "the famed Glove of Darth Vader." The glove, battered and dull but still intact despite all that it had been through, spun between them - and then, with another small gesture from Palpatine, it flew apart. Flakes of metal and duraplast drifted to the floor; only a black object like a shard of obsidian remained.

    King Nefta stepped closer, looking genuinely interested for the first time since their arrival. "So that's what it was all about, huh?" he said. "One of Kaan's?"

    "The last one," Palpatine said, pulling the amulet between his hands. "The Heptad is complete. You have done me a great service," he said, facing Lumiya and her apprentice again. "You shall share in the glory of the Empire to come - the real Empire, not the hamstrung chimaera I had to make do with before my death. With this," - he held the amulet aloft with the Force, so that its dark radiance spread throughout the cavernous room - "you have set me on the path to victory... to absolute power."

    Even King Nefta, Lumiya could not help but notice, trembled at the words.
     
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  3. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Nothing Concrete


    Jax gave the hose another kick to get it settled - droids never got that right, they were much too precise for a material as crude as liquid duracrete - then settled in to wait.

    That Isard woman, he thought, shaking his head while the hose slowly inflated. First she'd been all intense and sinister, checking his background and interrogating him like this was a murder investigation, not a construction gig. Then, after he'd signed all her NDAs and handed over both his private and his work comlink, she'd suddenly gotten all nice and chatty, offering him Elba, cracking jokes about his name he didn't understand, and complaining about the hassle of the official Palace procurement process. Fire and ice, as they said; just like her eyes, one red, one blue.

    "Everything ready down there, Sisi?" he asked his hauler droid. Sisi was floating halfway down the shaft of the absurd room they were in, while Jax was sitting on the edge of the platform suspended over it, his feet dangling. Even leaving aside Isard's mood swings, this was the strangest job he'd had so far, and that was counting the cleanup operations after the Zillo Beast.

    First she had made him and Sisi rappel down all the way to the bottom of the shaft, where to his surprise there was a corridor leading off to the side of the cooling vent. Most of the doors there had been sealed off with construction foam, a very poor job in his opinion, but at the back there was some sort of lab or hospital, he couldn't tell. He'd almost joked about the Emperor having his beauty surgery done there, but then Isard had looked like she might be in one of her more murderous moods again and he'd held off.

    Anyway he understood then why they had called him, of all people, him and Sisi. Sisi's specialty was containment, as in containing dangerous or fragile materials, and those tanks with the green liquid on the walls there sure looked like they were both. Jax had unrigged them, carefully, then Sisi had wrapped his flexible lower body around them, encasing them whole, before flying them gently up through the shaft one by one. Then they'd done the delivery too, just the two of them, in unlabeled boxes to some facility deep underground, handing them off to a pair of stormtroopers who never said a single word.

    It was spooky, that's what it was. But then, Jax supposed, that's just what the Empire must look like from the inside.

    "Ready, Master Pavan," Sisi reported back after what Jax knew would have been a thorough check of the flow channels.

    "Good. Come on up, then." He waited for the droid to float up into sight, looking like a deflated gas balloon clutched by a metal spider; then he punched the release for the duracrete tank.

    The hose next to him twitched and rumbled; then, after an unusual but not unexpected lag, a stream of phase-one duracrete came pouring from its end.

    "I trust everything is in order?" a voice said behind him.

    Jax flinched, but caught himself just in time. "Minions of Xendor," he cursed under his breath. "Madam, I could have fallen off the ledge the way you came creeping up on me there! I mean, with all due respect, Madam." He got to his feet, making sure to stand a bit away from the edge. "But, uh, yes, Madam. Everything is fine. Right, Sisi?"

    The droid turned the tiny head that sat atop its spider torso and flashed its eyes green twice in affirmation. "No leaks or blockages," it said, its voice a fair approximation of Jax's own. "Should fill up nicely."

    They'd had to run the hose all the way from the landing pad where Jax's rented tank was standing, through the endless corridors and service shafts of the Imperial Palace, and finally down here into the chamber. Granted, it had been Sisi doing most of the hard work, but it had been a harrowing experience for Jax anyway, what with all of the decorations, safety protocols and classified sectors he'd had to take into account.

    But now all this was done, it was indeed filling up nicely, and he could probably let Sisi manage the removal on his own. "It's almost done," he said - and he'd be glad to leave this place behind, he added mentally. "When the phase one is up to here" - he indicated the lines Sisi had sprayed on the walls of the shaft at her direction - "we'll add the phase two reactant, which comes through this narrower tube attached to the hose."

    "And that hardens the duracrete?"

    "Uh-huh." For an Imperial bigshot, she was not too bad, Jax decided. Most of his contractors could not care less about the details of his work. "Takes maybe four, five seconds for a volume of this size. After that, good luck getting anything out of there ever again."

    "Fascinating." Ysanne Isard, the most powerful woman in the Empire, leaned past Jax to look at his controls. "And this switch here releases the phase two?"

    "Careful, now, Madam," Jax half-laughed, resisting the urge to swat her hand away. "We don't want any layering; though it's not like you'd get a lot of shear in here. No, you have to turn off the phase one first and wait for it to settle. That's this button here."

    "Ah," Isard said, "of course. Thank you, Mister Pavan."

    And with a casual gesture, she pushed him off the platform. Jax barely even had time to realize his droid wouldn't save him, thanks to the restraining bolt they'd put on him, before the phase one swallowed him.

    She didn't even wait for it to settle. Four, five seconds later he was gone.


    *****
    Author's note (don't worry, I'm not making these a habit) --:--


    Just a short chapter this time, but it's one of my favorite ones -- and one of the first pieces I wrote of this sprawling conglomerate of "missing moments" between RotJ and Dark Empire.

    The plot, insofar as there is one, is slowly agglomerating around Ken and the plottings of Sarcev Quest & Carnor Jax now. Both of those are heading towards a fiery finale at the end of part 1 of this project, but in between there will be plenty more moments like this one interspersed -- pulling different strands of Legends lore together to paint a fuller picture of what was happening beyond and between the books we got. (And yes, we will eventually get to Orinda.)

    Writing this has been and still is tremendous fun, and trust me when I say I have a lot more planned out for this story -- but please bear with me if I occasionally take a while between instalments. I won't drop this project, but I'll let it grow at a pace that it is fun for me and I can be happy with it.

    Glad to have you along for the ride!
     
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2021
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  4. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    Unfrozen


    "Careful," Urai Fen told his crew. "This is a dangerous place."

    "You've been saying that for the last ten hours, boss," Avni said. A slim blue-skinned Duros, Urai Fen's first mate was only half his size, but she had never let that keep her from speaking her mind. "Still looks quiet to me."

    Urai Fen clacked his beak. "It's a feeling." Ever since they had followed the tracking signal into the mysterious region of space called the Stygian Caldera, he had felt like there were daggers pressing into his skull from all sides, slowly pushing their way in towards his brain. As a Talortai, he had been born with a natural sensitivity for what the Jedi called the Force; a talent that had helped him in the past, but which he was now starting to deplore. The last time he had felt a place this thick with the Dark Side had been on Dathomir - where, incidentally, he had first met the woman he was hunting now.

    "I respect that, boss," Avni said. "I'm sure you're right. I just prefer dangers that I can see."

    "And shoot at," Qull chimed in from the copilot's chair. "Like stormtroopers."

    Over the last six months, Urai Fen and his crew had been raiding the personal storehouses of the Emperor, working down a list they had downloaded from the massive but unfinished Star Destroyer Eclipse over Kuat. Ranging from storage lockers on Denon and caves on the frozen moon of an uncharted planet all the way to the heavily fortified Emperor's Retreat on Naboo, those caches had yielded enough treasures for the Zann Consortium to fortify its hold on the galaxy's underworld and fill the vacuum left by the near-total implosion of Black Sun. Some of those missions had been dangerous, thanks to the traps and troops the Emperor had left behind; but none had felt nearly as threatening as this one.

    "How's the signal?" he asked Qull, carefully keeping the tension out of his voice.

    "Still stable. The planet's in sensor range now. Should I do a sweep?"

    Urai Fen put a hand on the viewport and looked out into the darkness of space. "No," he said. "Not yet."

    "We could send a few probe droids ahead," Avni suggested. "Served us well on that rock in the Roche."

    Urai Fen shook his head. "Let's drift a little closer first."

    "Whatever you say, boss. I'm in no hurry to see her again either, to be honest."

    There were sounds of agreement all around the bridge. Since Tyber Zann had recruited her on Dathomir, the witch Silri had made precious few friends in his organization; and matters had not improved when she had absconded with a valuable Holocron that Zann suspected was the key to even greater powers than Palpatine's vaults. Urai Fen had long warned Zann against trusting the witch, and had offered to kill her on numerous occasions, only for Zann to insist that she could still be a valuable asset.

    Until that asset had stolen a ship, taken the Holocron and disappeared. Now, finally, Zann had given Urai Fen leave - and a Crusader-class corvette - to hunt her down and kill her for betraying him.

    "How long until we reach the planet?" he asked Qull.

    "At current speed? Two hours and a bit. We'll have to fire up the engines to make orbit though, or we will shoot right by."

    Fen squinted out the viewport. The planet was visible now, a crescent of light reflecting off its atmosphere. Like most of the worlds inside the Stygian Caldera, it only had a survey number and a navigational hazard warning in the official star charts; but the files from the Eclipse identified it as Rhelg, once a major world in the ancient Sith Empire. No wonder Silri was drawn to this place, Urai Fen thought. And no wonder it is giving me headaches.

    But there was something else besides the pain, there at the edges of his consciousness. "Qull," he said, "are you sure the signal is coming from planetside?" He had long ago planted locator beacons in Silri's boots and in the hilt of her weapon, in anticipation of a hunt like this.

    Qull leaned forward to check. "Positive, boss. On the night side right now, near the equator."

    Urai Fen frowned. "Do a systemwide scan. Full sensor range."

    "Active sensors now?"

    "Yes."

    "What are we looking for?" Avni asked. "A ship?"

    "Could be," Urai Fen said. "It's a feeling." It had been no more than a flicker, but he was almost sure he'd felt a presence there, a strong but clouded one, somewhere farther out in the system.

    "Should I call battle stations, then? Just in case it's a trap."

    "Sure," Urai Fen said distractedly. "Can't hurt. Wait -"

    "There!" Qull called.

    "There?" Urai Fen said, pointing at a spot in the darkness outside.

    "Yes, boss. How did you know?"

    "What kind of ship?" he asked, ignoring the question. "Are they reacting?"

    "Scout ship," Qull said. "And no. Life readings consistent with… one person or less?"

    "Silri?" Avni asked, looking at Fen.

    "If it's her, she left her rancor behind. And her weapon."

    "That's a good thing though, right?"

    "I suppose." Urai Fen reached for the longblades he kept on his back; their cold weight always reassured him. "Prepare a boarding party. I'm going in first."


    ***


    The ship was little more than a tin box running on pure inertia. One of its sideways wings was shredded, half the drives seemed to have ripped clean off, and the remains were leaking air and fuel from a hundred tiny punctures.

    "Someone tried really hard to kill this boy," Tu'par remarked when they floated through the docking tunnel towards the wreck. There was no sign of Silri; the only occupant of the craft was a lanky human teenager who seemed to be sleeping in the pilot's seat.

    "And failed," Urai Fen said. "Let's be careful in any case."

    Tu'par cut a hole into the scout ship's secondary viewport, and Urai Fen propelled himself through it. Hands on his blades, he let his magnetic boots lock on to the cockpit floor with a clang.

    The boy stirred. "Don't move," Urai Fen said. "You're probably injured -"

    The grips of the blades slipped from his fingers, and they crashed against the deck next to his boots. "Boss?" Tu'par asked, coming down head first with his blaster drawn. "What's happening?"

    "Don't -" The blaster went flying, wrenched from Tu'par's bony fingers, then came around to slap him in the face. The Givin lurched weightlessly, but quickly caught himself and reached for the blaster carbine on his back. The boy, meanwhile, was still sitting motionlessly in the pilot's chair, facing away from them.

    "Don't," Fen repeated, grabbing the tip of the carbine and pushing it down. When he was sure the Givin had gotten the message, he raised his hands in a gesture of peace. "We are not here to hurt you, boy."

    "What then?" the boy asked. His voice was cracking, the way it sometimes did in juvenile human males.

    Urai Fen considered his next words carefully. The boy was powerful, that much was obvious. He was also angry, and probably aggressively protective of his status like most males of his species.

    "You're strong," he said. "I felt your strength from far away." It was a gamble, giving away his secret connection to the Force like that, but Fen was almost positive the boy already knew. "We could use someone like you."

    That last bit had been a mistake; he felt it as a pressure against his skull. A little more effort and the boy would crack him like an egg, despite his best resistance. "I will not be used," the boy growled, turning around to face him. He is angry alright. "By no one."

    "Of course," Fen managed. Next to him, Tu'par was cringing and trying futilely to get his weapon back under control. "I meant to say, I'd like to hire you. For a job. A well-paid one."

    The pressure eased off, just a little, while the boy regarded them through narrow, bloodshot eyes. "First the pay," he said, audibly straining to keep his voice deep. "Plus transport away from here. To somewhere civilized."

    "We can get you wherever you want," Fen promised, ignoring the incredulous glances from Tu'par. "And if this job goes well, I'm sure we can offer you more. Your choice, of course."

    The boy considered this for a while, but Urai Fen knew he had him now. Strong as he was, he still needed a way out. His ship was a wreck, and even if he could commandeer the corvette, there was no way he could steer it without a crew. "What's the job?" he said finally.

    Urai Fen allowed himself the slightest of smiles. "A challenge," he said. "We're going to hunt a witch."


    ***


    The largest continent on the planet Rhelg bore a wound in its northeastern flank, a place where even the hardy plainsgrass refused to grow; instead denuded bluffs of stone bulged from the ground like scar tissue. There were no ruins here, no ancient castles of the Sith; this region had been shunned as cursed even by them.

    Which had made it the perfect hiding place for Ludo Kressh's secret army, the one he had held in reserve, encased in carbonite, when he set out to crush his rival Naga Sadow. Too bad he had died before he could even tell his coddled son about it, and the Holocron meant for him had never made it into Elcho Kressh's hands.

    Bad for the Kresshs, but good for Silri. The witch was squatting next to a depression in one of the higher lava bluffs, overlooking a flat expanse of rock beneath her. Humanoid figures were stumbling around down there, hundreds of them, some flailing their arms or swords as if to fight off unseen enemies, some writhing on the ground or huddling together in little clumps, some wailing at the heavens in their incomprehensible ululating language. They were blind, all of them, blind and confused, worthless meat decked out in arms and armor that had been top of the line approximately five millennia ago. Apparently being frozen in carbonite for so long did not exactly leave mammalian brains in pristine condition.

    It did not matter. Silri had no use for their brains anyway; what she needed were weapons. She pulled her gaze away from the chaos below and murmured a simple incantation that drew water out of the ground from far below, made it rise through the pores of the rock in little shining globes, then dropped them into the depression at her feet.

    It was not a cauldron, but it would have to do. Drawing some heat from the magma simmering below through the thin crust was trivial; within moments, the water started bubbling and steam rose into her face. A low growl from behind her reminded her that Cuddles, her pet rancor, was keeping watch, standing behind her in a way that would have made her silhouette seem tall and threatening if anyone down there had been able to see.

    She bit her tongue, hard, and spit a bloody drop into the water. Contrary to what outsiders tended to think, the contents of the potion were of little importance; all that mattered was the connection between herself and what she wanted to accomplish. The mist that enveloped her now, tinted red with magic more than blood, was only the medium through which the spirits worked.

    As was she.

    Silri closed her eyes instinctively against the fumes; when she forced them open again, she was looking out over the gloomy landscape of the spirit world. “Gethzerion!” she called out. “Sister!”

    Gethzerion appeared like a whirlwind, riding on the glare of the Winged Goddess. “Silri,” she said, sounding wary. “I thought you lost.”

    “Never, sister. I have found us an army.” She gestured, and the shadows of the unfrozen Sith warriors appeared on the plain in the spirit world. “They are malelings, and blind; but they will help me carve a way across the galaxy to you, and break your chains.”

    “Our chains,” Gethzerion admonished her. “Come, then, and quickly. We have waited too long.”

    Silri felt irritation grow like a tumor in her neck. For years she had labored in exile, pretending to serve the distasteful maleling Tyber Zann while carefully maneuvering herself into a position to help break the Imperial embargo of her home planet. She had risked her life, swallowed her pride and used her powers to demeaning ends, all to further Gethzerion’s dream. Gethzerion had united many exiles from the Dathomiri clans with the promise of restoring the glory of the Nightsisters of ages past; she imagined that with their combined powers they could grind the Galaxy under their heel if only they got off the planet first.

    From out here, having seen the Galaxy, that dream seemed less plausible than it had on Dathomir’s surface; and yet Silri remained true. Had she clung to her loyalty in the face of disillusionment only to let herself be accosted by an impatient jungle witch?

    Instead of biting down on her irritation, Silri let it grow and rise behind her like the shadow of her rancor. She saw Gethzerion’s wraithlike face crawl with dismay, then the light of the Winged Goddess latched on to the power she unleashed and everything else went away as Her power flowed through her. Back in the real world, the smoke had turned green and dense and was crawling down the hillside towards the warriors, forming tentacles before crawling up their bodies and into their heads. Silri resumed her chant as the spirit ichor took hold of her tools, raising her eyes to the horizon.

    There they were, just in time. A ship large enough for most of her army, or what would be left of it once its current occupants were defeated. Captained by her old nemesis, Urai Fen, who had warned his master against trusting her from the beginning.

    He would die now, Silri thought with a grin, raising her hands to make her warriors rise. He would prove useful one last time by bringing her his ship; then he would die.


    ***


    Qull brought the ship in low on Urai Fen’s orders, its belly almost scraping against the bulges of organic rock below. They had spotted Silri’s stolen shuttle from orbit, powered down, and their sensors detected numerous lifeforms on the plateau it was standing on.

    “Make the call, captain,” Qull said as they neared their target. “Destroy the shuttle or leave it?”

    “Leave it,” Urai Fen said. Next to him, the boy twitched in disapproval, but he ignored him for now. “Can you make the turn at this speed?”

    They were coming in hot, the axe-head front of the Crusader-class corvette still glowing from re-entry - and Qull didn’t slow down even as the distance counter on her viewscreen was quickly approaching zero. “Trust me, captain,” she said, both of her bony hands gripping the controls. “You better get ready.”

    Urai Fen nodded, then waved Tu’par and the boy out of the room. Zianna and Mokce Tu were waiting for them in the aft freight bay, suited up. “This is gonna be tricky,” Zianna said as she handed them their repulsor harnesses. “You sure the boy’s up for it?”

    “I’m up for it,” the boy said, his voice cracking. He pulled on his harness with more force than necessary, then used it to maneuver himself up to the ceiling and do a flip, locking his boots on the ceiling next to the cargo hatch. “You coming?” he asked.

    A look passed among the rest of the assault crew, but they all knew Urai Fen well enough to read his expression. Leave him alone, it said. Trust me.

    To be honest, he thought it was pretty likely that the boy would die over the next few minutes. That was fine; either he was competent enough to be worth keeping around, or he was not and would be out of his hair. Just in case, Urai Fen kept his thoughts guarded as he floated up to join him. He focused on the countdown running on his wristband. “Brace yourselves,” he called out, closing his eyes to find his balance.

    He pictured the corvette hurtling over the last bluff and across the plateau on which Silri had landed. He imagined Silri’s face as the ship came rushing toward her at full speed. Then he tensed all of his muscles, just when Qull pulled up at the hardest angle she could manage with the repulsors and maneuvering thrusters working in concert. The elongated hull of the ship screeched and protested as its forward momentum was forcibly transformed into an upwards shove.

    Urai Fen opened his eyes. Next to him, the boy cursed but held on. Mokce Tu, meanwhile, had lost his grip and crashed into the webbing at the back of the chamber. Zianna, to her credit, ignored his struggle and pushed the hatch release.

    “Now!” Urai Fen called.

    They jumped out, one after the other. The ship was almost completely vertical now, but they made sure to put some distance between them and its bulk before dropping so they would not get fried by its engines.

    Tu’par was the first to set down, his boots hitting the smoking ground with a thud. Urai Fen landed next to him, followed by Zianna and the boy. Above them, the ship roared away into the sky. Around them, hell reigned.

    The ground was scorched and crackled when they moved. Smoke and exhaust fumes and a residue of some strange greenish mist were so thick in the air Urai Fen almost wished he’d followed Zianna’s lead and put on a full vacsuit. But no; he needed to be unencumbered for this fight. Shrugging off the repulsor harness, he drew his blades and looked around with narrow eyes.

    Where was the witch?

    There were a few burned bodies on the ground around them, humanoid and clothed in something that still looked like armor even after the treatment the corvette’s jets had put them through. One of them, Urai Fen noticed with a frown, had been holding a sword when he died. What had Silri dug up here?

    The answer came more quickly than he liked. More of the creatures came walking towards them out of the fog, most of them heavily charred but apparently undeterred by that, swinging swords and hauberks and lances like a gang of crazy juveniles.

    “Engage, sir?” Zianna asked. She had been in Imperial service too long, Urai Fen thought; Tu’par was already hoisting his blaster carbine and mowing down the first row of attackers to his left. “Engage,” Urai Fen grunted, stepped forward and swung his blade to hack one creature’s head from its shoulders.

    They were easy to kill, it turned out. Even the boy got a few, although he clearly was anything but an expert with the blaster they had given him. “Boy,” Urai Fen called while he stepped on the head of a half-burned warrior who was still twitching madly, “get up there and look around. Look for the witch.”

    “And her rancor!” Tu’par added.

    The boy gripped his harness controls and shot straight up; so at least he was quick on the uptake. “Over there,” he said, pointing; and as if on cue, a wind picked up and blew the fog away so Urai Fen could see them for himself.

    There Silri was alright, her hair flying in the sudden breeze, her hands raised in the dramatic gesticulations she used whenever she drew on the Force. Urai Fen felt her gaze meet his - and in the same instant, the humanoids surrounding them changed up their attack, going from shuffling imbeciles to competent warriors as if a switch had flipped inside their heads. One of them jumped Tu’par, getting under his line of fire and pushing him off his feet before Zianna could come to his aid. Urai Fen was busy fending off a coordinated attack by three swordsmen, suffering a slice to the wrist before he smashed one’s face in with his elbow and shattered another one’s sword arm with a blow from both his blades; when he chanced a look in Tu’par’s direction again, the Givin was no more than a pile of dismembered limbs on the floor. Zianna screamed, and Urai Fen barely managed to swat away a pike that was coming toward her face. The warrior holding it ducked to avoid his slash, then kicked up gravel to distract him while another one hurtled a spear that hissed past his face and hit Zianna square in the temple.

    Urai Fen growled and flattened the three warriors nearest him with a furious push from the Force; but there were too many more rushing in to fill the gap. The boy was at his back, loosening salvo after salvo from the bloody blaster carbine he had somehow gotten off Tu’par’s corpse. “Cave!” he called over the noise.

    “What?”

    “To your left. Cave mouth. Get in there!”

    Urai Fen let his blades whirl, driving a half-dozen of attackers back for the moment. There was a dark spot in the rock wall, true; but he did not see how this would help them. “We’ll be trapped,” he growled, activating his comm with a flick of his wrist. “Avni!” he called. “Strafing run!”

    “Coming around, captain,” his first mate reported. “Couple of minutes.”

    A spear tip pierced Urai Fen’s calf, and the pain distracted him for long enough that a warrior with a huge broadsword got inside his guard and nearly took his arm off. Urai Fen twisted out of the way and hacked his beak into the warrior’s skull from behind. “Not fast enough,” he said, spitting.

    “They’re only coordinated,” the boy squawked, “when she sees them. Watch out!”

    Urai Fen ducked just in time for a hauberk to swing over his head; he cut the legs off the guy who had swung it. Silri was up on the bluff there, facing him; the boy was behind him, in his shadow. And the warriors were still fighting even when they were missing half their face. It made sense; way too much sense for his tastes. “You take point,” he said. “Run!”

    They ran for it, the boy cutting a path through the crowd of enemies with the blaster carbine and Urai Fen cutting down everyone who tried to come at them from behind. Halfway to cave mouth they felt the ground reverberate with heavy steps, and saw the rancor loping down the hillside.

    “This,” Urai Fen hissed into his comm, “would be an excellent moment for that strafing run.”


    ***


    Silri ran downhill grinning, weaving air and shadows with her hands, feeling the power of the Winged Goddess lift her up and the hunter’s purpose of the Fanged God lend direction to her movements. Every bounce of her feet carried her further up and forward, and within moments she was floating above the plain, quickly catching up to Cuddles, her pet rancor.

    The battlefield expanded around her in perfect clarity: she saw the Sith warriors stumbling around waving their ancient weapons, momentarily bereft of her guidance as she focused on other things; she felt Cuddles’ innocent excitement at being allowed to hunt; she saw him swiping his claw at the smaller of the two enemies who were still alive, a boy she’d never seen, who narrowly evaded Cuddles’ claws by leaping up into the air, his strength bolstered by a repulsor harness; and she felt the thrum of the corvette’s engines as it thundered her way at low altitude to rejoin the battle.

    Urai Fen, that overgrown bird who fancied himself her nemesis by virtue of his minuscule connection to the Force, looked up at the corvette’s approach, then stopped in his tracks when he saw her gliding smoothly in between the warship and her rancor, drifting on the wind like a soap bubble. She was not nearly as fragile, though: when the ship’s turbolasers lanced out to strike Cuddles, the almost-invisible globe of spirit ichor surrounding her absorbed the energy and sent it to the spirit realm, where she could hear the Fanged God hiss appreciatively. Then the corvette was gone, dragged past the battlefield by its own momentum, and with a grateful gesture she relinquished the power of the Winged Goddess and passed the direction of her movement back to the Fanged God for his own endless hunt. The rest, she thought as she descended on the battlefield, would be up to her own strength, her own fury.

    She landed on the blood-spattered ground in front of Cuddles, her light-whip snapping to life at the same instant. Next to her, the boy was wrestling a two-handed sword away from a fallen Sith warrior; she ignored him and cracked her whip at Urai Fen instead, who came at her with both his broadblades drawn.

    “Now you die,” Urai Fen growled. “I should have killed you long ago.”

    Silri laughed as her whip wrapped around one of his blades, then danced out of the way when he slashed at her midriff with the other. Beside her, Cuddles was rocking the ground with his own dance, trying to step on the boy the way he used to step on whuffa worms when they poked their heads aboveground as a calf on Dathomir. Silri yanked on the handle of her whip to extricate it from her enemy’s blade for another slash, but to her surprise Urai Fen had trapped it with his other blade and pulled as well, almost succeeding in ripping the grip out of her hand.

    Then Cuddles shrieked, and Silri turned to him with sudden concern. The rancor had succeeded in stepping on his prey, but in doing so he had impaled his giant foot on the sword the boy had held. It was a gruesome injury, if none that would kill him; but the distraction was enough for Urai Fen to pull the whip away from her and hurl it at the rancor.

    Silri howled and raised her hands, but too late - the sizzling whip had already cut deep into Cuddles’ side, almost bisecting his massive body, which swayed dangerously for a moment and then toppled sideways, almost on top of her. Called by her wrath and the instinctive gestures of her hands, the Sith warriors rose again and came shuffling to her aid from every corner of the battlefield; but they were too slow to stop Urai Fen from slipping past her, pulling the boy out from under the rancor’s foot, and diving into the cave mouth in a mad, desperate dash.


    ***


    The boy dropped to the ground as soon as Urai Fen let him go. The floor was cut stone, cold and hard and dusty, and every part of his body hurt like… well, like a rancor had stepped on him.

    With an effort of will, he pushed himself up and looked around. The cave was a huge, cavernous hall illuminated by shafts of light that stabbed in through slits in the ceiling. On the floor, symmetric metal spikes were sticking out of rows upon rows of metal platforms; in between the spikes, the boy noticed, some dark material seemed to have melted and congealed. He was hurting too much, and too pumped with fear and battle frenzy, to even try to make sense of it. The only recognizable thing was a massive statue at the very back, bathed in reddish light, that portrayed a larger-than-human warrior holding a giant staff.

    There was a noise at the cave entrance, and the boy quickly turned his back on the statue. Next to him, Urai Fen was holding his blades at the ready, trembling slightly; unarmed himself, the boy hoped it was with anger rather than fear.

    Two of the gaunt warriors came rushing through the entrance, their eyes glowing with an eerie green light. Urai Fen dispatched them both with casual strikes of his blades, then growled deep in his throat when the witch entered.

    The boy froze, paralyzed by fear. She was holding the sword he had stabbed in her rancor’s foot; slick with blood, it seemed to scream revenge at him. He knew he ought to run, but he couldn’t. His only hope, he thought as desperation engulfed him, was Urai Fen.

    The witch laughed. “Urai Fen,” she said, her voice high and dramatic in a way that reminded the boy of holo actresses. “Are you looking forward to our fight?”

    “I am looking forward to your death,” Urai Fen growled, putting one foot forward in a flexible fighting stance. “Very much so.”

    “Sorry to disappoint,” the witch said. “You’ll have neither.” And without warning, she dropped the sword and raised her hands, curling her fingers in a way that hurt even to look at.

    It hurt Urai Fen worse, though. There was a sickening crunch as his thigh bone broke; and before he could steady himself, the bones in his other leg crumpled as well, followed by his arms, his ribcage, then his skull. Within seconds he was a pathetic heap on the ground, unrecognizable save for the beak and his clothes, his blades clattering to the floor next to him. He had died with a whimper as his collapsing torso pushed the last gasps of air out of his lungs, with no chance even for a last defiant scream.

    The boy stared at the ruin of the one who had hired him. The one who had promised to take him out of here as a reward, to a place where he could finally make his own way. Then his gaze rose to meet the witch’s.

    “You have fought well,” she said, holding her hands stretched out before her in the universal gesture for peace. “You will make a good slave. Serve me well, and you will be rewarded.”

    The boy closed his eyes, feeling her spirit fingers prodding at his mind, looking for a weakness. His desperation was gone; instead, a dark wave of fury rose inside him, and he welcomed it with open arms.

    “I will,” he said, taking a step towards the witch, “not,” raising his hands in a mocking imitation of her own gestures, “be used!” - And without so much as a conscious thought from him, like a pure extension of his anger, Urai Fen’s blades rose from the ground, screeching against the stone as they hurtled towards the witch, and cleaved off both her arms below the elbows.


    ***


    Avni almost doubled over when she saw the ruined bag of flesh, feathers and broken bones that used to be her commander. But she did her duty, helped the others to load his remains onto the gravsled next to the bodies of Zianna and Tu’par, then joined Mokce Tu in tying the maimed witch to a separate sled.

    The boy they had found in the drifting ship was hovering over the witch almost possessively. “I took her down,” he said repeatedly. “I could not save him, but I took her down. And the rancor too.”

    “Yes,” Mokce Tu growled, giving him a dark look. “Thank you.”

    “I want my reward.”

    “You are going to get your reward,” Avni said. “We’ll bring you to the boss, and he will pay you.”

    The boy looked like he wanted to protest, but then just stared at the witch some more while they pushed her into the corvette’s hold. “Get her into the sick bay,” Avni told one of the crew, “and tell Bee to keep her alive, but unconscious.”

    “Not too alive,” Mokce Tu said.

    “And…” And the boy too, Avni wanted to say, but she figured she would rather not step on the glum kid’s toes. “What’s your name, anyway?” she asked.

    The boy glowered at her, his brown hair caked to his skull with sweat and blood. “My name,” he squeaked, clearly going for a weighty, grim delivery but failing, “is Lok. Qaga Lok.”

    “I’m Avni.” She stopped short of holding out her hand, opting for a respectful nod instead. “I guess you should get yourself checked out too.”

    “I’m fine,” he said. “But I’m going with her.”

    “Of course.” Avni stepped out of the way to let him pass, then looked after him. “I know,” she said when she felt Mokce Tu staring at her. “I don’t want him on this ship either. But he might come in handy if she wakes up… and most of all, I really do not want to make him angry. Do you?”

    “What, the only survivor of a battle against undead Sith warriors, a rancor and a witch? A boy who survived what killed Urai Fen?” Mokce Tu shuddered, something Avni had never seen him do. “No, I don’t think anyone here wants to make him angry.”
     
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  5. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    This is a short chapter, but it was hell to write -- too many storylines crossing, too much information to fit into what is supposed to be an action scene. But it is done -- things should be easier from here on out, as we enter into the final act of this volume.
    ----------------------------------------------------------------



    Pass on that


    Storms were raging around Mount Yoda. The volcanic summit rose high and proud above the dark green sea of Dagobah’s jungles, but now it seemed as if the planet’s clouds had banded together to beat it back into the ground with lightning, slaps of wind and torrents of heavy rain.

    Within that maelstrom of atmospheric energy, a tiny shuttle descended towards the landing pad built into the crater. By all rights it should have been tossed about and ripped apart by the forces pulling at it; but a greater Force kept it safe and on course even as bolts of supercharged air zapped past it and burned into the mountainside below. Its pilot was Luke Skywalker, and as his only passenger looked on with the pale face of one expecting imminent death he set down the shuttle on the pad as softly as a feather falling to the ground on a mild summer’s day, his eyes closed and his hands hovering above the controls without touching them.

    Moffa,” Lorz Geptun cursed in his native language the moment he felt ready to draw a breath again. “With all due respect, General, I am not flying anywhere else with you.”

    “Then finish rewriting that report,” Luke Skywalker said brusquely, shrugging off his crash webbing and getting up. “And stop calling me General. I quit, remember?”

    “Aye, General.” Lorz pulled up the hood of his jacket and followed the Jedi down the exit ramp, the bag with his meager belongings slung over one shoulder. He’d had a bad feeling about this from the start, when Skywalker had hired him to write an account of his involvement in the Battle of Mindor. It had been hard enough getting enough information out of the people involved to give him something of a coherent picture of the events, what with half the details being classified and most of the protagonists having to rush off to their next mission right away. Bending it all into a plot that would be comprehensible to mainstream audiences and entertaining enough to sell had been comparatively easy; but then of course Skywalker had griped and ranted about the result, calling it ‘garbage’ and ‘the worst thing he’d ever read’. Lorz should have walked out then, but instead he’d let Skywalker blackmail him into rewriting the whole thing to his specifications - which was why he was here, following him around like a tame akk dog while Mister I-Am-Not-A-Hero went about his Jedi business.

    The wind whipping across the landing pad ripped the curses from Lorz’s lips; not that he would have cared if Skywalker heard them. It almost ripped his bag out of his hand too, so that eventually he had to hug it to his chest like a lover while he staggered across the duracrete with the wide gait of someone who had just soiled his pants. At least Skywalker was struggling too, but that was small relief when lightning struck the mountain just a little to the right of them, loosening an avalanche of rocks and pebbles that thundered down the slope.

    They reached the entrance drenched and shivering. The Nautolan on guard duty scrambled to his feet when he saw them, fishing for his weapon before he suddenly relented. "General Skywalker!" he called. "How…"

    "I'm not a General any more," Skywalker said. "I quit." That was turning into his new tag line, Lorz Geptun mused, but it was not one he would incorporate into his script. Skywalker's qualms notwithstanding, a good story needed something uplifting at the end, not the hero giving up and vowing never to do anything like this again.

    "You should have called ahead, uh, Master Skywalker," the guard said, fumbling at his console. "I'll have your quarters warmed up for you. And will your aide be staying with you or does he need separate accommodation?"

    "He's not my aide," Skywalker said. He made it sound like I'm beyond help. "But yes, give him a room. Lorz Geptun, put him in as a contractor with the Judicial Department."

    "Right away, Gen… Master Skywalker." The Nautolan poked at his console again, then handed Lorz a flimsy keycard. "We have plenty of vacancies anyway. Enjoy your stay."

    "Thank you," Luke Skywalker said. He made it sound like I will not.


    ***


    These are the final hours of the Mount Yoda facility:

    At the very bottom, deep inside the volcano, magma is pushing against the solidified stopper on which the facility rests. It lacks the pressure and heat to get past the barrier on its own, but all it needs is a deep enough crack for it to come pouring through.

    Massad Thrumble, an aging scientist working in one of the deepest, most secret DRAPAC labs of the facility, does not actually feel that danger, but something makes him nervous all the same. He double-checks the seals on his project lockers - 'synthflesh-caskets', his young assistant calls them - and reviews the evacuation procedures, just in case. The Rebels who built this facility have clearly learned a lot from Yavin and Hoth and a myriad of other installations that were compromised or overrun. Massad Thrumble would not describe himself as paranoid, but his career has taught him to appreciate a well-prepared escape plan.

    A few levels above Thrumble, Tinian I'att Azur-Jamin (she's still getting used to the long name) tries not to breathe while her baby is finally dozing off. Every time something cracks or rumbles in the walls, every time the struggling ventilation system so much as sighs, she tenses up and throws silent curses at this place. Can’t the lightning storm see her little Tam is falling asleep? Can’t the duracrete stop trying to adjust to rapidly dropping temperatures outside for just one vaping minute until his eyes stop fluttering and jerking open at the slightest noise? How can a solid, unimaginative block of a facility like this be so absurdly active right when it’s the least convenient?

    Tinian’s husband, Daye Azur-Jamin, is sitting in the commissary slightly dazed, because across the rickety aluminum table from him sits Luke Skywalker himself, Hero of the Rebellion and more importantly, Last of the Jedi. This is not the first time they’ve met - General Skywalker dropped in at his wedding to Tinian, both to congratulate them and to tell Daye to meet him here if he wanted to learn to be a Jedi - but it still feels surreal. Daye has known about his sensitivity to the Force for a long time; since the fall of the Empire he dared to be more open about it, and now it seems there is a chance for him to fully embrace that gift. It is a dizzying prospect - or it would be, if Luke Skywalker showed any inclination to actually teach him.

    Instead, the General scowls at him with tired eyes. “They’re all gone,” he mumbles. “All but you. You don’t know anything about where they went either, do you? Hoole’s kids, Zak and what’s-her-name, Tash? And Ken, Ken most of all. He was here, wasn’t he? Until not long ago.” He shakes his head, apparently not actually expecting a reply. “Too late, again. I played at fighting instead of learning and teaching, again. I failed them, just like I failed Flint and Dev.” Daye nods in rote commiseration, not that he has much of an idea what Skywalker is talking about; he is waiting for the pivot, the inevitable “but”, hopefully followed by “you, Daye, I will not fail”, but it never comes. When the General finally raises his head and looks Daye in the eye, he looks even grimmer than before. “Ironic, isn’t it, that it is here on Mount Yoda of all places that I finally realize how I have squandered Yoda’s legacy.”

    While Daye sighs and offers to get Luke Skywalker a drink, two men - or beings looking very much like men - are having a much more cheerful conversation in the facility’s small but well-curated library. “Imagine,” Mammon Hoole tells Arhul Hextrophon, raising his glass in a flourish, “they are now spreading rumors about me being some sort of essence eater, a fiend who thrives on the terror of others and is secretly in league with Palpatine.” He laughs, and Arhul Hextrophon, Chief Historian of the New Republic, explorer and connoisseur of things far worse than ordinary fear vampires, chuckles with him. “The remains of the Empire must be truly afraid of you,” he said. “The worst rumor anyone ever spread about me was that I had fabricated my data while ingesting psychoactive gnats on Exodeen. - It truly is a shame about those kids of yours, though.”

    Hoole waves the comment away. “Like I told General Skywalker, I am sure they’ll be fine. This is not the first time they’ve slipped away, and they have proven extremely resourceful in much more worrying circumstances. I will keep looking for them, though, on the off chance they do need help.” He does not tell his old friend that the real Zak and Tash were never here; that indeed the two kids he had taken under his wing during the war have been stranded on Byss for more than three years now, with little hope of them ever returning. They were the price he had to pay to get back into Palpatine’s good graces; that he is still occasionally impersonating them is part sentimental homage, part obfuscation to keep anyone from ever finding out about their fate.

    The library is located at the very summit of the Mount Yoda facility, to allow for two large roof windows to let the sunshine in - on days when there is any sunshine to be had. Now the windows are covered by blast doors on the outside, so Hoole and Hextrophon cannot see what is going on outside. If they could, they might have spotted a shadowy figure - large for a man, but tiny compared to the elemental battle raging above the mountain - leaping from the clouds, followed by broken pieces of the vehicle that he held together just long enough to get him here. The man’s feet alight on the roof of the facility with a warrior’s grace; moments later, the debris crashes into the metal sheets around him with crude force. A lightsaber blazes to life in the man’s hands, and without hesitation or worries he starts cutting his way in.

    The attacker is Jeng Droga, and Palpatine sent him here to find out what exactly happened to Lord Cronal at Mindor. He has traced Luke Skywalker and his strange companion to this place, and now he means to hunt them down and extract from them whatever information his master needs. He does not want to destroy this Rebel base and everyone inside it, but he does not mind that happening as a side effect of what he is here to do.

    The first to notice his arrival is a pair of overworked maintenance droids in the infrastructure levels just behind the library. One of them gets half its head sliced off when Droga cuts through the ceiling; the other one’s sensory appendage gets caught under the jagged piece of metal that comes crashing down with glowing edges and the Emperor’s attack dog riding on it. One casual flick of the lightsaber bisects the second droid’s batteries before it can log an alarm with the system. Not that it matters much, because Jeng Droga is no man for stealth or subtlety, or anything but killing and maiming his way to what he wants, really.

    It is Luke Skywalker who sounds the alarm a moment later. He feels the dark man’s presence like you would feel a crack breaking open in the building you are in, beginning at the top but reaching all the way down into the bedrock. “Attack!” he yells, startling Daye and a few technicians in the commissary. “We are under attack!”

    It would be easy to dismiss him as crazy if he were not Luke Skywalker - and if Daye Azur-Jamin, well-known and respected among Mount Yoda personnel, did not agree with him. “Sound the signal,” he tells a startled technician. “Evacuate.”

    “Evacuate? In this weather?” The technician, Looris Hobb, has been here since the facility was built; he knows about the turbolift shafts doubling as launch tubes, about the contingencies baked into Rebel construction plans ever since Hoth. But he also understands basic physics and electricity, and the wind speeds and voltages out there are far outside even wartime safety margins.

    But General Skywalker looks at him, one hand on his lightsaber handle, and says: “Believe me, what’s coming for us is worse than any thunderstorm.”
    This is what saves Massad Thrumble, down in his lab. When he hears the alarm, he only nods; so his instincts were right after all. He wheels a trolley holding his best prototype and all his data into the waiting escape shuttle, then hurries to the security terminal to input the code for the purge protocol. Whoever is coming will not get their hands on the secrets of his Human Replica Droids.

    The alarm wakes the baby. Tinian, who was dozing herself at last, jolts upright and begins packing on instinct. Any thoughts of annoyance or rest are forgotten as she wraps up her things and the baby while simultaneously pinging Daye and listening to the announcement from station security. Immediate evacuation, active threat on the upper levels, the entire facility may be compromised. Other people might freeze in terror at news like this, but Tinian has spent most of her adult life as a bounty hunter, always skating on danger's edge. Baby or no, she knows what to do.

    Her husband Daye does not. His Rebel instincts tell him to flee, but Luke Skywalker, the man who gave him hope of one day being more than just a Rebel, seems determined to stand and fight. Standing there in the commissary, watching Skywalker pinpoint the source of danger with his eyes closed and brow furrowed, he only belatedly notices that his comm is trying to get his attention. "Tinian!" he says, the word exploding from his throat. "Are you, is Tam…"

    "We're fine," Tinian says. "Meet us at the shuttle."

    "But General Skywalker -"

    "I'm not a General!" Luke Skywalker yells. "And I'm done having people die for me. Run, Daye! Protect your child." He had his lightsaber in hand now, staring at something unseen above them. "Now!"

    But it is already too late. The ceiling comes down in an avalanche of duracrete and dust. A shadowy figure sails down through the chaos, pushing chunks of debris outward in all directions like a dying star. One hits Daye in the side; then Skywalker upends a table with the Force and pulls it in front of them like a shield. "Stay down," he says, then immediately ignores his own advice and leaps across the table, the lightsaber hissing to life in his hands.

    It would be a fight for the ages: Luke Skywalker, who held his own against Darth Vader, versus Jeng Droga, who has only lost one fight in his entire blood-soaked life. The man he lost to is his master now, and he has given him a job.

    That job is not to kill Luke Skywalker. He could do it, Jeng Droga reckons as he parries the boy's fast-paced attack, but it would be a waste of time and strength. His job is to find out what happened to Lord Cronal at Mindor, and there is someone here who will tell him with much less ado than this sandy-haired puppy with a hero complex.

    So he decides not to fight Skywalker; instead, he distracts him. One weak spot all of these self-proclaimed good guys have is that they care too much about others, and Skywalker has just made the mistake of showing Droga who in here he cares the most about. Reaching out with one hand, Jeng Droga pulls Daye from his hiding place behind the table, lets him dangle there in the air for a moment, then pokes his lightsaber into the man's left eye. He has no feelings for this guy or his eyeballs - eyeball, now - but something in the swirls of the Force around him told Droga that was the place to go for.

    Daye screams, and Skywalker does what heroes are supposed to do: he saves his friend instead of taking revenge on his enemy. Jeng Droga leaves him to it and walks out the door, stepping over the bodies of two men he killed with his debris attack.

    Upstairs, Mammon Hoole is panicking. "They're here for me," he says. "I know it." This, for once, is not a lie; he really thinks Palpatine must have sent one of his minions to hunt him down for his failure to bring him Ken. And all because he thought he could do better by capturing Triclops, Ken's father, as well… but then this idiot Makati had attacked the station and all Hoole had been able to salvage was Triclops' head. Ken was dead; instead Hoole had somehow picked up another useless orphan, an acolyte Prophet called Locor who had been sleeping on his ship when he fled the imploding station. He had gotten rid of the boy at the nearest spaceport, entrusting him with Triclops' head in a specially marked package that would eventually make its way to Byss - but it had been clear to Hoole even then that this small gift would not be enough to still the Emperor's wrath.

    So he fled here, to the Rebels among whom he had spent so much time undercover. This time he intended to defect for real - only for Palpatine's long arm to reach him even here. The facility is breached; water from the rainstorm comes seeping in under the library doors. The main attack seems to have passed them by for now, but Hoole knows it is only a matter of time before he is discovered.

    Perhaps, he thinks, looking at Arhul Hextrophon, perhaps there's still a chance for him to make it up to Palpatine, if he surrenders now and brings a valuable price with him. The Chief Historian of the Rebel Alliance must have plenty of useful intelligence. "Come," he tells Hextrophon, changing his shape to that of a gigantic Wampa. "Let's get out of here while we still can."

    The evacuation alarm blares from every speaker in the Mount Yoda facility, sending everyone running for their lives. Only one man remains stubbornly seated in his room, typing away furiously at his datapad. He's almost there; the book is nearly finished, the cursed rewrite complete. It is still a lie, and he is confident that Skywalker will still hate it, but there's a wholeness to it now, an artistic integrity that even the grumpy ex-General will not be able to resist. It was hard, brain-breaking work to get it to this point, and there is no way Lorz Geptun is going to stop now, with only half a paragraph still missing. Just a few words now, just a final hopeful flourish, then he'll go see what is up…

    The door slams open. Geptun is pretty sure he locked it - he always locks himself in when he's writing - but he can see how that might not be an issue for the man outside. He is huge, Kar Vastor-levels huge, and just as muscular. The bare skin on his chest ripples as he clips his lightsaber to his belt and ducks in through the door.

    Lorz Geptun has no idea who he is, but with a cold stab to the heart he realizes he does know exactly what he is: this man is his death. There is no way, no possible path the future could take but this. So in a feat of bravery unlike anything he has attempted in decades, Geptun swallows his fear, ignores the wetness seeping through his pants, and remains seated behind his desk to type the last few words into his datapad before it is too late.

    The End.


    A massive, callused hand grabs Geptun by the throat, lifts him out of his chair and slams him against the wall. Jeng Droga sees his eyes widen and feels his mind unravel. It is a strange mind: when he pushes into it, something reacts - not pushing back so much as pulling at Droga’s mind in turn. He has killed someone similar before, Droga seems to remember - a Kiffar? Not that it is of much consequence. They yield their secrets like anyone else; they die like anyone else.

    Lorz Geptun gasps for breath. He would have gasped even if the monstrous invader did not hold his throat shut like a vise, because the secret he just learned as the man touched him is so shocking. Geptun has a knack for inferring a thing’s past by touching it - not in miraculous ways, nothing too precise or reliable, but it has sometimes given him a competitive edge in his time with the Judicials. It usually works better for things than for people, and better for the near past than the distant; but there is a fact about this man that is so salient and fundamental that Geptun knows it the moment the other's fingers wrap around his neck.

    This is a servant of the Emperor Palpatine himself, and he is acting under the Emperor's orders. His loyalty to Palpatine is absolute; at some point he even seems to have been Palpatine's body - not that Geptun can make any sense of that specific bit of knowledge. But he does realize, while the enemy stares him in the eyes and rips his mind from his body, that this means Palpatine is still very much alive and poised to take back the Galaxy.

    Geptun feels the last vestiges of life draining from him when suddenly a green glow lights up the room. Skywalker has arrived! Nothing has ever sounded so sweet in Geptun's ears as the hum of his lightsaber. He sucks in air when the giant loosens his grip around his neck. "General!" he croaks. "The Emperor -"

    Jeng Droga lets go of him in the same instant he draws his lightsaber. The red blade slices neatly through Geptun's neck before coming around to catch Skywalker's blow. The boy is good with the weapon, Droga will give him that; and to his credit, he uses his anger and grief over the other guy's death to fuel his strength. He could become a great asset one day, Droga remembers Palpatine saying. But he has much to learn until that day; mere saber play won't save you in a real fight.

    He teaches the boy that by turning off his own saber and stomping on the floor so hard it breaks. Skywalker stumbles, blindsided by the duracrete splitting right between his feet. Clipping his weapon to his belt, Jeng Droga reaches out to widen the gap with such force that the entire room dissolves into rubble and Skywalker tumbles away into the depths of the base.

    Luke Skywalker is falling, but that is fine. For the first time since the Battle of Mindor, his mind is clear and focused on a single goal. There is an enemy here, a murderer, strong in the Force but clearly human. He needs to be stopped before he kills or maims anyone else. There are no doubts and no distractions - Luke has made sure Daye made it into the shuttle with Tinian, the kid and the other evacuees, and just moments ago he felt them lift off at an angle that should keep them out of the worst of the storm. Lorz Geptun is dead and this facility is dying: when he hits the ground, Luke feels it rumbling. The volcano, Mount Yoda itself, is waking up, preparing to spit out the invaders.

    Luke knows what he must do. Not try to do; just do. There is no try. He leaps, holds on to a burst tube that's spitting water, pulls himself up to the crumbling ledge that is all that remains of the next floor, then leaps again. As he makes his way upwards, a crumpled piece of hardware catches his attention: Lorz Geptun's datapad, stuck in a bent piece of cladding. Luke pockets it in passing and continues in pursuit of his enemy.

    Jeng Droga is in no hurry. His ship is gone, but just before it fell apart its radars showed a sturdy vessel parked on the facility’s landing platform. This far up, most of the corridors are still intact, if collectively starting to lean inwards to a soundtrack of ear-splitting shrieks and groans. It is like walking across the body of a defeated enemy, Droga muses as he steadies himself with the Force when the whole installation judders and something rips open some ways behind him. All of the blast doors on the way to the platform are open, most likely courtesy of the evacuation protocol. Jeng Droga steps through placidly, then out into the storm. This has not been the most exciting of missions, but that is not the point. The point is that he has the information he needs to find what remains of Cronal and bring him back to his master. The liar, Geptun was his name, tried to hide the truth beneath layers of lies and fiction, but his confabulations were no match for the power of the Dark Side. Nothing, Jeng Droga knows, is a match for the powers of the Dark Side of the Force.

    There is a hiss behind him, and green light reflects in the raindrops falling past his face. The storm has lessened; it is merely wet now, not as deadly as it was before. Jeng Droga keeps on walking, daring Skywalker to catch up to him before he reaches the vessel.

    Then something startles him. There are two creatures huddled under the wing of the spacecraft, one big and furry and white, the other human. The white one looks dangerous, but it raises both arms as he approaches. “I yield!” it cries. “Don’t kill us! This is the Chief Historian of the Rebel Alliance! I am sure your master…”

    Jeng Droga flicks them aside. Man and beast skid across the slippery platform, screaming, and then straight over its edge. Droga rolls his eyes in amusement when he hears Skywalker bounding after them, his attack forgotten. Heroes. Every single time. He strolls up to the craft and lowers the ramp. With transportation like this, he should be able to catch up to Cronal in a week’s time or less; that is satisfactory.

    He is about to set his foot on the ramp when the ground suddenly tilts so sharply he falls. The ship lifts off the ground for a moment, then falls away as the ground drops out from under it. It is all Droga can do to hold on to a cracked durasteel plate and watch the ship and half the platform tumble into the clouds below. When it zooms up again a moment later, engines blazing, he grinds his teeth in frustration. It seems he has underestimated Skywalker and his ability to do more than one thing at once.

    What remains of the landing platform sways and bends as the caldera of Mount Yoda fills up with lava hot enough to melt durasteel at a distance. Jeng Droga glowers at the destruction he has wrought, at the burning ruins of the facility and the shimmering air above eating the clouds. This is annoying. Just a momentary setback, to be sure, but still annoying.

    Then the mountain explodes.
     
  6. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 24, 2010
    This chapter is short but it was one of the most fun to write so far. A brief recap because it's been a while:

    When Sarcev Quest, one of the Emperor's Hands, felt Palpatine's return to life a few months after Endor, he quickly decided that his interests were best served by keeping Palpatine dead - or, if necessary, killing him again. Allying with the Force-sensitive Royal Guard Carnor Jax, he hatched a plan to achieve that end. While Carnor Jax went to Byss with his Sith mentor Lumiya - forming a surprising alliance with King Nefta, who also wants Palpatine gone, along the way - Sarcev Quest has traveled to the Eriadu Authority to make contact with his old friend Sander Delvardus. Ostensibly acting on behalf of Ysanne Isard, who wanted him to deflect Delvardus' Coreward ambitions, Quest convinced the Superior General to seek out Palpatine in the Deep Core - but not before attacking Sullust to provide a pretext for his retreat...



    Everyday Superweapons


    There was a saying among technology entrepreneurs across the galaxy: To get rich, make something powerful. To get dead, make something really powerful.

    The classic cautionary tale was that of the Gravitational Field Disruptor. Working in tech under Palpatine was a permanent tightrope walk between terror and hope: if you produced something relevant to the war effort, you could look forward to an exclusive contract that would settle you for life - or, just as likely, forced nationalization and a government pension. But if your product was just a bit too good, just a bit too potentially game-changing, chances were your assets would be seized by the Empire and you would be eliminated as a security risk before you could so much as blink.

    Skaz Vynalez, the creator of the Gravitational Field Disruptor, thought he was home free when his product hit the market without anyone raising a fuss. It was not so much a novel invention anyway as a clever application of existing gravity modulation technology, miniaturized for end-user convenience - or at least that's what he told his CTO Kéral to write in the box explaining why they were eligible for the expedited version of the BoSS pre-market audit. Their marketing department, meanwhile, called the GFD "Magic in a Box" - "just point it at something to change its weight by up to 7 orders of magnitude!"

    With the repulsorlift cartels driving up prices everywhere, the Gravitational Field Disruptor was an instant hit. Small merchants could use it to transport heavy loads without repulsor sleds or binary load lifters. Smugglers and other criminals found it convenient to protect contraband against cursory inspections. Acrobats employed it for a whole new range of stunts; variable-weight sports enjoyed an explosion in creativity; and comedians provided free exposure with a whole new generation of Your Mom jokes. Just a few months past market entry, the GFD had become a staple in hardware stores all across the galaxy, and turned Vynalez from a modest Denon businessman into a super-rich magnate living in 500 Republica.

    Then Princess Leia used one on Darth Vader's porter, increasing his weight so much he broke through the crust of Aargau right into the planet's mantle, and it all came crashing down.

    The Empire impounded all Gravitational Field Disruptors it could get its hands on, made it illegal to own one, rent one, use one or even look at one without immediately turning it in, and staged a show trial against Kéral for perverting the audit process and endangering public safety. Skaz Vynalez himself got a visit from Darth Vader.

    Sarcev Quest had never cared to learn exactly what, if anything, had been left of Vynalez after that visit. What he did know, however, was that the impounded GFD units were still in deep storage on Lununmo XIX, a rocky airless moon in the Sullust system, waiting to be converted to Imperial use.

    And the use to which Quest intended to put them would be very Imperial indeed.

    He dropped into the system in the middle of Delvardus’ attack fleet. The Superior General had given him an Omega-class freighter for his personal use, a bulky thing that looked like nothing so much as an AT-AT with its legs cut off. When the fleet had stopped over at Eriadu for repairs and resupply, Quest had a private contractor weld three layers of additional armor plating to the inside of the hull, including over the viewports; so Quest was watching the deployment of the attack force on a hologram in the narrow space that remained of the cockpit, rather than with his own eyes.

    Delvardus' plan for retaking Sullust was solid enough to be convincing. His fleet, led by the Superior General's own ISD Brilliant, was staging in the sensor shadow of Lununmo, the gas giant nearest to the planet Sullust. In a few minutes they would come boiling around both sides of the gas giant in a gravity-assisted high-speed maneuver, hoping to catch the small Rebel contingent above the planet unprepared.

    Only they would be anything but unprepared. Using old Rebel codes Quest had been saving for a time like this, he had gotten word to the Rebels' First Fleet that the attack was imminent. The First Fleet was both nearby and crewed by a disproportionate number of Sullustans - among them Captain Sien Sovv, a veteran leader of the Sullust resistance movement. If the psychological profile of Sovv that Quest had perused was correct, he would stop at nothing to prevent his home planet from falling back into the Empire's hands…

    An alarm sounded over the fleetwide channel. Quest waited for the new engagement data to come in, then told the Astromech unit at the helm to shut it off. "Let's see," he said, running his hands through the hologram. Where there had been only a few red smears before, indicating the most likely positions of the defending ships, dozens of new red spots winked into being. "Not the whole First Fleet," Quest murmured, "but enough." He traced the path of Shea Hublin's fighter squadron, hugging Lununmo so tightly their jets drew swirling trails into the gas giant's upper atmosphere. It was quite possible he had just sent the Empire's most celebrated starfighter pilot to his death, but that was a price Quest was willing to pay. With Hublin here giving his best, no one would ever realize that this entire engagement was a scam, engineered solely to give Delvardus an excuse for retreating.

    The Astromech next to him - the ship's only occupant other than Quest - warbled inquisitively. "No, we're not following the fleet," Quest replied. "The tracking protocol is for after. Set a course for Lununmo's nineteenth moon and set us down north of its largest crater. We're going to pick up some cargo - and some companions for you."