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Eternal War

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Chapter I : The Hunting Party

 

Arro Silver- Battlemaster of the Jedi Order- saw the Faultline in the Flows of the Force even as  his Light Corvette Silver Pilgrim came out of hyperspace. Darth Marr, one of the leaders of the Dark Council, had sent a message urgently requesting his presence, along with that of many other potential allies in their fight against the Sith Emperor.

He had seen Faultlines since even before setting foot on Tython. They appeared as cracks to his perception, faults in the ebb and flow of the Force around him. Some lasted only for a few moments. Others persisted much longer. Most were difficult to interpret. While he could see the critical points in the fractures easily enough, it was not easy to interpret the best way of striking it. While physically attacking the critical points did work sometimes, more often a careful interpretation was necessary in order to know how to strike it in such a way that the ripples reached your intended destination. Sometimes, setting events in motion was necessary rather than being the tool to strike directly. To set the right domino falling. And sometimes, those subtle actions required merely avoiding the pitfalls, or resisting the impulse to act whatsoever, for sometimes, a desired outcome might require as little interference as possible. But knowing exactly what was needed required wisdom, experience, and skill.

The one running through the Terminus -class Destroyer before him was one of the biggest and most fragile he’d ever seen. Something truly explosive was about to happen, a mega tsunami whose ripples would be felt all over the galaxy. What worried Arro was that this faultline was just a part of a larger tapestry. The ignition point of a much larger conflagration. Which meant that he could do nothing with as little information as he had. He turned in his seat to address T7-01. His oldest and most trusted friend, the earnest Astromech was finishing the routine post-hyperspace jump checks.

“Trouble, old friend,” he whispered. “Another Shatterpoint. This one is massive, volatile and far-reaching. Something big is about to happen. A new chapter in the story of the galaxy, and it will affect everything and everyone we know.”

Teeseven whistled nervously, and suggested that he be ready to run at all times. He even suggested a few remote paradise systems in the rim as a hiding place as the worst case scenario, though Arro was well aware that the little astromech had the courage of any hardened soldier. He would stand and fight, just like Arro himself would. But it reassured Arro that his friend was taking his statement very seriously. The Droid would begin surveying the scene as thoroughly as possible, so as to keep a better understanding of how it all started.

Teeseven began by identifying all the vessels flying in formation around the Terminus -class destroyer. Darth Marr’s Flagship. He recognized several of them, including Darth Prowle’s Fury-class interceptor, the Tempest , Havoc Squad’s BT-7 Thunderclap, the Crow’s Wing . The XS Freighter Voidhound , which was captained by the privateer who had earned the same title, drifted inconspicuously amidst dozens of other similar freighters. But Arro knew that the Hound had the shielding and firepower to enter a serious dogfight if it had to. He also recognized the names of units aboard many smaller ships and shuttles, who had distinguished themselves at Yavin. The Blue Fang Squad, Imperial Black ops, the Duststompers , the Winterwolves .

The Republic Hammerhead cruiser Swiftrunner was the largest Republic vessel present, and the most illustrious. She had seen combat above Rishi, Yavin and Ziost, so her crew was well aware of the threat the Emperor posed. Perhaps even more impressive, the ship had been part of the diversionary strike at Dromund Kaas itself, as well as the raid on Korriban. Her Captain, the astute Iktotchi Stentor, was undoubtedly invited by Marr himself.

He didn’t recognize any of the Imperial cruisers and support ships, though he did know some of their passengers, like Moff Pyron, who served Darth Nox. Marr had put together quite a task force, but the lack of the larger Dreadnoughts troubled Arro, as did the relatively small size of the fleet. Overkill for finding one ghost, but given the faultline he could see, Marr might need something far larger. Although, truth be told, muscle might not be what was needed right now. Reaching out with the Force, he searched for the one person who he would have felt most reassured to have at his side today; Lana Beniko. Pragmatic Sith Lord. Minister of Intelligence. His wife.

His search ended in disappointment: she was far away. And covered neck deep in work of her own, if her patient, determined, but tired focus was any indication. He sent her a wave of affection through their bond, along with a mental Miss you . He felt her pleasure and she sent a surge of love in return, along with the words Be careful, my love .

As always, they both lingered in each other’s minds for a moment, savouring the feel of the other’s psyche before pulling back.

He approached the boarding ramp as his ship docked beside one of the Docking Ports. The deck shuddered slightly as the docking clamp of Marr’s Flagship connected their ship to the larger vessel.

He heard Teeseven calling out a warning to be careful, and gave him a nod and a smile as he crossed the ramp to get to Marr’s ship. His partner and former apprentice Kira Carsen followed him to the airlock.

“I saw another Fracture Kira,” he told her. “The worst I’ve ever seen. And it’ll be upon us very soon. Better make sure the Pilgrim is ready for anything.”

“Fuel, food and fun, coming right up,” she replied, with her characteristic sarcastic tone. “I’m ready and eager to save the galaxy again. I was starting to get nice and bored of all this peace.”

With that she walked toward the waiting steward droid to requisition the needed supplies.

Another woman, this one wearing an Imperial Naval uniform approached him and offered him a crisp salute. Her rank cylinder marked her as the Captain. She must have been the First Officer who replaced the former Captain after he was ousted as a Revanite.

“Master Jedi!” she greeted him, a hint of warmth beneath her professional demeanor. “Welcome aboard. Thank you for coming here so quickly on such short notice. We didn’t know if you could even make it here so soon. Darth Marr awaits you on the bridge. If you would please follow me.”

Arro fell in step behind her, noting the efficiency with which Republic and Imperial troops were working together. Everyone seemed quite focused on the upcoming mission, rather than the fact that they were technically enemies.

“Everyone seems to be getting along,” he remarked.

“We have veterans from Yavin to set the example, and Darth Marr’s orders on the matter were quite clear. We all know what’s at stake.” The captain responded.

“Who else are we expecting to join in?”

“Grand Master Shan and her Jedi, Darth Nox, Lords Scimitarr and Pariah. But we’ve mostly gathered already.”

“I wasn’t expecting to be the last to arrive,” Arro said. He and his crew had made for wild space within six hours of receiving the summons, after hurriedly making the minimum needed preparations for whatever they should encounter.

“While Darth Prowle arrived only a short time ago, Most of what you see here were here before Lord Marr sent you the message, part of the help the Republic has been giving us. He even requested some of these resources specifically.”

“Like Havoc, and the Voidhound . Captain Stentor.”

“Yes, Master Jedi. The Voidhound in particular has proven to be more resourceful than we had anticipated since her Captain has so many connections.”

The bridge was busy with activity. Every man and woman was at busy at their station, monitoring the status of the task force, or watching the sensors for any kind of trouble. Darth Marr stood tall and still, like a statue before the viewport. As always, he cut an impressive figure with his size and armor. He acknowledged the Jedi’s presence with a nod.

“I came as quick as I could when I got your message,” Arro said. “And now that I’m here, I can sense it too.”

“We grow closer every moment,” Marr said, sounding tense yet resolved. “Our former Emperor is out there.”

“You should know,” Arro said. “Something big is about to happen. Larger than a hunt for a single ghost, even the Emperor’s.”

“What do you mean?” Marr asked, sounding intrigued.

“I can sense… Fractures… in the Force. Shatterpoints. Flows in the Force that pull and push each other and cause a strain in the tapestry of the Force. There are Cracks where the strain becomes too much. They usually signal some important moment approaching, ones for whom the shattering of the cracks can have great consequences. I saw one such fracture when I arrived, that was more intricate than anything I’ve ever seen before. Not even when I met the Emperor, or on Yavin IV, or even Ziost.”

“Troubling,” Marr muttered. “Are you suggesting we increase the size of our force?”

“I don’t know if we have that kind of time. All we can do right now is to stay on our toes. Also, whatever our ships can record of the coming events might prove helpful later on. This is the Ignition point of what is to happen, after all.”

“Very well,” Marr said. He turned to the Captain. “Captain Fora, give the order to the rest of the fleet.”

“My Lord,” she bowed and turned and started calling out instructions and hailing other ships.

“So regarding the Emperor. What do we do once we find him? We still don’t know how to destroy him.”

“If he has taken on a physical form we will destroy it, that should weaken him significantly… as you well know” he added. “If he remains incorporeal, we will at least know where to strike, even if we don’t know how.”

Without warning, he whirled to face Arro directly. “Why travel this far? Why consume every living thing on Ziost, then turn and flee into the depths of Wild Space?”

“I wish I could say it was possible something went wrong. That he’s vulnerable, somehow. Or at the very least, needs to focus his strength elsewhere before turning his attention back to us. What worries me is that he’s leading us into another of his games.”

As always, Marr managed to look grumpy even though his face was hidden behind his mask. “And I thought the Jedi loved the Light. You are proving darker than some of the Council meetings. If we do locate him, I believe that between Darth Nox and myself, we can press the Dark Council in line. But what of the Republic? The help we have received has been beneficial, but limited. And apparently unofficial. Will your government assist us in neutralizing this threat?”

“The Jedi will not allow this threat to go unnoticed. Most of the Military understands the peril. So many of them were at Yavin, and Ziost, they saw it themselves. Supreme Commander Malcolm understands the seriousness of all of this. The Senate will hesitate, however, so even if the entire Republic Military arrives to assist us, it will still be unofficial.”

Marr chuckled darkly. “Amusing how the ones that fight for Democracy are willing to disobey their elected representatives.”

“The government can be a Democracy, but the military cannot. And since there’s a war on, highest echelons of that military can make emergency decisions with lesser oversight.”

Arro thought Marr rolled his eyes behind his mask, though he maintained his silence. Idly, he wondered, yet again, what the man looked like behind his mask. This mystique undoubtedly contributed to his image as a Stalwart Titan rather than a man.

Symbols were all well and good, but there was a tradeoff. What would happen when that symbol was gone? The death of their Emperor still shook the Empire, and the subsequent revelation about his mass murders of his own people made matters worse.

His rumination was brought to an abrupt end when a nearby klaxon sounded and a serviceman called out “My Lord! Sensor contact, fifteen klicks. Small, no life form readings- Some kind of probe.”

He switched on a holo depicting the probe they’d detected.

“Scans are identical to the unknown force that attacked Korriban.” A monitor reported from her station.”

That was enough to make up Marr’s mind.

“Raise shields! Pursue and destroy!”

But even as the ship came alive to follow his orders, the proximity alert sounded frantically. A stunned silence reigned as hundreds of near-identical warships came out of Hyperspace before them. Most ominously, they were already arrayed in attack formation even as they came into realspace.

Marr shook off his surprise with surprising speed, and keyed his comms, breaking the entire bridge out of their stupor as well with his rallying command.

“Evasive maneuvers! Come about a hundred-and-eighty degrees! We cannot match that fleet, we have to retreat-- and in good order! Vanguard, engage their frontline vessels and cover the retreat. Fighter crews launch and intercept all boarding pods and fighters.”

In mere minutes the entire Task Force had begun to carry out his orders- an astonishing testament to the cooperation.

But the enemy was  still faster.

The ship shook from the impact of multiple solid impacts breaking through the shields and striking the Cruiser hard.

“We’ve been boarded! All decks report hostile forces.”

Arro only peripherally heard the crewman. He noted that the massive fleet was all but ignoring the meagre vanguard, and the other ships. Marr’s flagship was their target.

“I’ll sweep for boarders,” Arro said, dashing off. As he did so, he sent a warning to Lana through the Force.

Her foreboding concern carried back the words I have a bad feeling about this .

The grandfather of all tempests had begun.

Chapter Text

Chapter II : The Immortal Emperor

 

Arcann, Crown Prince of the Eternal Empire of Zakuul, found that he was eager to meet his new prisoner.

Arro Silver, Battlemaster of the Jedi Order. Not much to look at, frankly. A little taller than average, thin enough to look undernourished. Light green Mirialan face was tattooed. But looking at him, one would never guess he was a war hero. In fact, looking at his body, Arcann wondered how he was the greatest Jedi swordsman: he was far too thin to deliver or deflect heavy blows. While his connection to the Force was not weak, Arcann felt like it was nothing special other. He had defeated Jedi and Sith who were far stronger in the Force than this man. The armored Sith Lord being held in the adjoining cell was brimming with Dark Force. This Jedi however was not.

And yet the records he had read were quite clear. This man had overcome some truly spectacular opponents.

Chief among them, the Sith Emperor. Another avatar of the entity, like his father Valkorion. The Sith Emperor had had much less cunning and subtlety, but had been just as strong. Perhaps even stronger in terms of raw power. Its defeat would not have come easy.

Zeroing in on one swordsman in the recording of an entire battle was hard, so Arcann hadn't found anything other than hazy stills that could be identified as the jedi.

He looked so much less than Arcann would have expected one of his reputation... yet that made Arcann all the more eager to meet him.

His deeds weren't just recorded on holodiscs; Arcann's instincts told him that this man was precisely that good.

"Were you in charge of his recovery?"

"Yes, My Prince," the Doctor stepped forward nervously.

"How bad were they?"

"Nothing too substantial, my Prince. The failsafes kept the section sealed, so he did not suffer from exposure. He had been viciously thrown about as the cruiser was blown apart; he had much bruising. A broken arm. Bloodied from shrapnel and debris, many minor burns. But nothing that couldn't be fixed, although one of those pieces only barely missed his eye. There was also some harmful substances that entered his bloodstream. From the debris, I mean. But we have cleansed his system. He is now fully recovered, or almost so. As the Emperor wished, the Jedi will be back at full strength when we meet him."

"Very good," Arcann nodded with deep satisfaction. "Now, while examining him, were you able to tell anything about previous injuries he had sustained?"

"His skin has bathed in Force lightning on many occasions. Bathed, not just exposed. He was tortured, I think, with the Forcewielder gradually upping the voltage to see that he could take it. He seems remarkably resistant to Force Lightning, and resilient to the Dark Side itself. There were also general signs that he was tortured once. Ripped out nails, some damage caused by drugs."

"Is that so?" Arcann asked. "His strength in the Force itself is nothing too large, so that part about his resistance is surprising."

"It's possible he lost a little of his connection during those days of torture, it has been known to happen...but..."

"Yes?"

"Well, your Highness, blood testing revealed that he was on medication for severe Mental Illnesses."

"Like PTSD?"

"Yes, your Highness. There are a lot of tiny, well healed cuts on his chest and upper legs. Self-inflicted injuries, some of which he then proceeded to treat himself with Kolto, from the looks of it. It’s possible he’s attempted to end his own life a few times. He may also have been slowly cutting himself off from the Force, withdrawing into himself."

“For one of the Republic’s most accomplished War Heroes, he’s surprisingly mortal.”

“Yes, my Prince.”

“We return to Zakuul tomorrow,” Arcann said. “I am looking forward to speaking to him. See to it that whatever medication he was on, he gets his dose. We do want him at his absolute best.”

 

*

 

Arro woke up to the familiar smells of a medbay. He didn’t recognize where it was, when he looked around. The stun-cuffs on his wrists meant he was in unfriendly hands. He wore what looked like a dark grey prisoner’s uniform. But his captors had gone through the trouble of healing him; he didn’t feel any effects of the desperate battle aboard the Flagship. Perhaps there was a chance of a peaceful resolution?

Arro tried to remember but it was all a blur. The boarders were all droids. And deadly droids at that; equipped with heavy magma-pulse rifles, phrik-alloy vibroswords, grappling cables and jetpacks, they were mobile heavy shock troops.

Moreover, they didn’t stop coming. They advanced in waves, pouring out of boarding pods that had been packed far more densely than an army of living boarders could have managed. They tore through the defending Imperial and Republic soldiers with lethal efficiency. Within an hour they had swarmed the ship, disabling and destroying enough systems that Darth Marr had joined Arro for a desperate assault of the Engineering deck to repair the Hyperdrive.

 

Though they had reached the Hyperdrive, the bridge had fallen, and Arro had used the backup systems to restore power to the escape pods and order all hands to abandon ship.

He and Marr, however, had been stranded in the bowels of the ship with no way out. There were explosions… he and Marr were tossed about like ragdolls… and then, his memories stopped.

The stun-cuffs stopped their prisoners from truly using the Force, but Arro could still reach out and See the world around him. His first act was to reach out to Lana and reestablish their connection best he could. He felt her profound relief at hearing from him again, but she felt deeply concerned.

Then he reached out to his immediate surroundings. He was on a ship, one cruising at sub-light speeds, and while many of the crew seemed sentient, he could also feel the thrum of droids in the background. There were many Force-sensitive beings stationed here as well.

Just beyond the medbay, he sensed a particularly powerful presence approaching. The doors swung open, and a tall cyborg in neat, ornate, pearl-white robes-- and a heavily worn, menacing faceplate covering the left side of his face for contrast-- walked in, flanked by two guards. The face beneath the mask appeared to be heavily scarred and burned. His left arm was a cybernetic prosthetic. His visible eye was clouded a muddy yellow with use of the Dark Side.

He stopped in front of Arro, and looked him up and down appraisingly.

“Battlemaster Arro Silver of the Jedi Order. Good to see you awake at last!”

“You know me?”

“Oh, but I do. You were prominently featured in records we recovered during our raids. And everybody is fascinated by a famous swordsman”

As he spoke, another pair of guards walked in, flanking a tall, cuffed man in dark grey prisoner’s uniform of the same kind Arro wore. Darth Marr. He had been stripped of his armor, but there was no mistaking his signature in the Force. Even without his mask he still looked impressive- a weathered, brown skinned face, tousled dark hair and beard cropped close to his chin, but with cold yellow eyes that held as much power and mystique as his predatory armor did. He didn’t seem perturbed by his unmasking; he walked tall and proud, cold rage simmering beneath the surface.

“What “Empire” have we entered?” Marr demanded of his captor.

“The Eternal Empire, Zakuul.” He regarded his prisoners in amusement. “You didn’t even know whose territory you were invading?”

“You were the ones that attacked several of our outposts-- both Imperial and Republic,” Arro responded.

“We tested your strength.” the man replied easily.

“You seemed to have suffered for it,” Marr taunted.

“Less than your people did.”

“Didn’t you have a twin brother? If you are this scarred, I wonder what state he’s in,” Marr attacked again.

That brought a flash of rage, and the guards all hefted their pikes.

“Careful, Sith. My brother Thexan was deeply loved. He died of his wounds but I will not hear the likes of you insult his memory”

“My condolences,” Arro said softly. “It’s hard enough losing someone we love, but losing a twin-- someone you knew from the second you were born-- I can only imagine the pain you must be feeling.”

The man’s head turned to look at him. It seemed he didn’t know quite how to respond to genuine sympathy from an enemy.

“Thank you.” He said finally. “Follow me.”

 

*

 

Their captor led them to a shuttle docked adjacent to the medbay.

As the shuttle disengaged, Arro looked outside the view-port to see a blue world with many towering spires rising into space.

The Force was strong in this world. More, it was in perfect balance. Not light like Tython or stormy like Dromund Kaas. The Force swirled in torrents all across the planet, boasting a power that was awesome in its density. There were two places where the Flows gathered and converged into a mighty, fractured mass; One somewhere ahead of them in space, the other on the planet’s surface.

Marr, who could probably sense some of what he did, showed no signs of being impressed. Stoic and unshakable as ever.

The shuttle took them to the smaller of the two powerful vergences; the one hanging in space.

“Are you taking us to your Emperor?” Marr asked. “For an Emperor is just what we were searching for.”

“Indeed. My father Valkorion, Immortal Emperor of Zakuul. He has ruled and shaped our society for centuries. You will find true civilization here, not like the slums I saw in your Core worlds. And in my Father you will learn to be careful what you wish for.”

The intercom buzzed and the pilot spoke. “ Prince Arcann, we will be docking shortly.

“Very good.”

Arcann. So they had a name for their captor now. And this Emperor… this “Immortal”, named Valkorion. The thought of another Emperor who styled himself an Immortal made the hairs rise up on the back of his neck.

 

*

 

Arcann led his prisoners out of the Docking bay and into a grand throne room; one whose transparisteel windows gave a clear view of the planet below, and of the galaxy beyond.

Guards in bronze colored armor flanked both sides, carrying big rectangular shields of the same color and Lightsaber Pikes. Some beings in priestly cowled robes stood by the door, bearing the look of Force Sages and Seers rather than fighters.

Arro’s attention instantly went to a beautiful girl in bluish grey robes standing ahead of the throne. She was easily the most powerful being he had ever sensed, dwarfing the mighty Darth Nox and surpassing even the Sith Emperor in raw might.

She was strikingly beautiful, with a piercing, hawk-eyed yellow gaze, and brown locks of hair poking out from under her hood. Her slight smile held a cruel edge to it. She gave the overall impression of some petite feline predator, small but deadly magnitudes beyond its size.

But when Arro’s attention went past her, to the high backed, decorated throne behind her, he forgot all else.

For he had sensed this presence before. It haunted his dreams and dogged his path. No matter what he did, his path always led back to the Sith Emperor.

Arcann knelt on one knee. “His glorious Majesty; Valkorion, Immortal Master and Protector of Zakuul.”

“Welcome,” the Emperor greeted them.

Arro had seen the Emperor wearing two Avatars before; menacing and deadly.

This one, however, felt different. Not the signature-- that was undoubtedly the same-- but in the feel.

This Avatar held a regal bearing and posture that the Sith Emperor had lacked.

His molten flame eyes were set deep in his skull, His neat hair and beard white. Ageing, yet far from wizened. Like His son, His armor was pearl-white and ornate, donned over rich purple robes.

“A new name, a new face,” Marr said. “Yet I know your presence beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

“You built a second Empire? You can be in several places at once?” Arro asked.

“Indeed. You presume limits to My power. There are none.”

“Oh there are limits, as we both know, just that they’re beyond what I had imagined.”

The Emperor was amused. “ I am a being beyond anything you could have imagined.”

Marr scowled heavily. “Your constant silence across our history… this was your distraction!”

“No,” Valkorion said. “This was My focus .”

“Then what of the Sith Empire?”

“A failed experiment,” Valkorion answered. “The Sith are all too short-sighted, too self-absorbed. Their constant infighting was tiresome. Their attempts at plotting against Me too time-consuming. Here, I built something grander. Perfect. An enlightened society. The Sith Empire and the Republic are both beneath My notice.”

“If You had all of this, if You already had a physical form and all of this power, then why did You consume everything on Ziost?” Arro demanded, enraged. “If You didn’t care about the Sith or the Republic then why did You fuel decades of war between us? What was the point of the plots on Belsavis and Voss, where You attempted to destroy life on a galactic scale?”

The Knights and Seers behind them didn’t even stir. Not in shock, outrage or disgust. Did they know? Did they care?

Valkorion stood lazily. “My motivations are beyond your understanding, Little One. Even so, as I acknowledge your accomplishments across the galaxy, you too must know the depths of my power by now. Whatever you were hoping to achieve, you were doomed to fail. Eventually, at least. I will admit that you gave it a better run than anyone before you.”

Stepping down from the dais, He gestured outside the windows. “But that is what you face now.”

Groups of warships eclipsed the space behind them, a fleet vast beyond comprehension. Hundreds, thousands. Tens of thousands.

“But you do not have to stand against me,” He waved a hand, and Marr’s cuffs opened. “Instead, you can kneel.”

Marr was outraged. “After what you pulled on Ziost, I will never again kneel to you!”

“You would rather die than acknowledge My superiority?”

“It is you who fears death, “ Valkorion ”. I do not. I will not kneel.”

So saying, he turned and lashed out at the guards behind them, throwing them off the corridor and into the depths below. He Summoned a Lightsaber pike into his hand, and deftly executed three more guards before hurling it at a fourth with so much force that it went clean through his body and lodged itself into the man behind him.

Then he turned to face his former Emperor, summoning up a large, dense Storm of Force Lightning. Valkorion deflected this attack with a gesture, and responded with a burst of His own Lightning. Marr was blown off his feet, the power of the Lightning having torn through his shield like it hadn’t even been there. The energy roasted his body all the way through instantly, and the de facto leader of the Sith Empire dropped dead without another sound.

As the smell of charred flesh filled the air, the Knights who had survived Marr’s short, vicious assault groaned and tried to regain their feet.

“Clear the room!” the girl called, at a gesture from her Emperor. “Everybody out.”

“So here We are, again, Jedi,” the Emperor said as all of his followers, save Arcann, piled out of the Throne room.”Face-to-face again at long last. In all My centuries, you alone have merited My full attention, for wherever you go, you leave your mark upon the galaxy. Just as I do. I have been truly looking forward to this moment.”

He gestured around; at the world below; at the mighty fleet behind; and and at the stars beyond. “I have forged this Empire to surmount all of My previous works-- to span eternity. The Eternal Throne, and the Fleet it commands is the most powerful ever built. It has the power to reshape the Galaxy into any image that I choose. That We choose… But power does not interest a Jedi, does it?”

“No, it doesn’t”

“Then imagine that power as a currency. They that have power can buy anything that they choose with it, and they don’t need to choose violence. Or dominion.”

The Immortal Emperor regarded him in silence for a moment. “Ever since you broke free of Me in that Asteroid facility I have endeavored to learn about you. I know you better than you might think. And I can offer you the one thing you desire more than anything else in the galaxy: a peace and prosperity that permeates all levels of society. A Galaxy free not only of war, but of strife, and crime, and corruption. Where you can devote your life not to killing, but to helping those in need. All while also dedicating yourself to your Art. Where your skills with the Saber are used not to kill, but to enjoy; to immerse yourself in the Dance. All of this, and you can still become the storm to match any other that might occasionally threaten the galaxy. And the price is small; that you kneel.”

Arro was stunned into silence by the Immortal’s knowledge of his motivation… by his choice of words… especially “Become the storm”. Did this being somehow learn of Master Satele’s Prophecy, all those years ago on Tython? How? There had been no one else present, and the room was secure from eavesdropping.

“It may seem noble to turn down My offer,” he continued. “But ultimately, selfish. For in accepting My deal, you can ensure the safety and well-being of every being in the Galaxy. Do you not want that? Serendipity has conspired to offer you this single opportunity that no other Jedi ever received, or ever will.”

Finding his voice, Arro addressed the Emperor. “Do you think I have forgotten?” He demanded, raising his head indignantly. “Ziost! Belsavis, Voss! I have seen You repeatedly plot to consume life on a grand scale! I also worked with Darth Prowle during the Revanite incident. She told me how You promised her similar rewards for her loyalty, yet You were going to dispose of her the moment she outlived her usefulness!”

“That was then. And that was as the Sith Emperor. As Valkorion, I am far greater. Magnanimous. However, I do understand your doubt. Perhaps you need time to convince you of that? Arcann. Consider this man our esteemed guest... and a new brother. Your sister will be delighted… Have a room in the palace prepared for him, and see to it that he is treated well.”

So saying, the Immortal Emperor turned away from them both, staring into the stars behind them.

The Prince walked up to Arro. In an undertone, he growled: “You came here to defeat Him. This is your chance!” With a wave, he unlocked Arro’s restraints and launched himself at his Father, Yellow Lightsaber igniting in his hands.

Valkorion blocked Arcann’s attack without apparent effort, a shield of pure Force rising up in front of his outstretched hand.

“First your brother, now your Father?”

“Shut up!” Arcann’s face, what was visible, contorted in pain as he rained blow upon blow on his father, not a single one making it past the defensive shield. “Thexan… I didn’t mean to kill him! But YOU! After everything I sacrificed, still you treat me as a servant! Do I not deserve your regard? Didn’t Thexan? And what about Vaylin? You , I would happily kill a hundred times over!”

“My poor little son.” Valkorion sneered. “If you want My attention you should work for it! Attempt the mightiest feats, push through your limits! Yet you settle for bites at banquets that you know you can handle and think you’ve had enough when the food doesn’t agree with you… You may be My son, but your blood does not entitle you to endless privilege! An Emperor’s favor is not lightly given.”

“To hell with the Emperor!” Arcann disengaged briefly before hurling himself back in with an almighty effort. “What about a Father’s affection for his sons?” The air around them was a deadly curtain of gold plasma. “You didn’t even bat an eyelid when Thexan shouldered my rage and died for You! For all Your talk of being limitless, is the simple concept of love beyond You?”

“Enough!”

The shield exploded outwards and Arcann was launched into a pillar, where he fell and lay limp.

Lowering His hand, the Emperor turned to regard the Jedi, who had borne witness to this without interfering at all, except once.

“You Braced my son’s body just before the impact, and probably saved his life. Do you think he will thank you for it? That he is more reasonable than I?”

Arro didn’t answer, looking like he was readying himself. He Reached for one of the Lightsaber pikes fallen on the floor behind him and called it into his waiting palm. Activated its blade, a bar of blue energy springing up at its lip.

“And you didn’t strike when my back was turned. How noble.”

“Not nobility.” Arro responded. “Pride. It’s a flaw I allow myself, no matter how expensive it may be.”

 

*

 

Valkorion was amused to hear the boy’s admission of pride. He felt oddly satisfied. Good to know that years of being his most feared adversary had granted the Emperor the most unique place in the boy’s circle. A place that allowed such a singular, unfiltered confession.

But He didn’t linger over His satisfaction. This Jedi had proven to be the deadliest of His enemies. He had to strike cautiously but decisively. Engaging him in close quarters was a mistake most came to regret. But He didn’t attack yet because the second he moved, the Jedi would respond. Quick as lightning.

He briefly considered just… letting him go without a fight. But no! The greater part of Him ached to fight this Jedi again, to face one of the few challenges He had met in a single person… He was on his own battlefield- his Throne room! The time was now!

Without further hesitation He hurled a net of lightning. As the boy moved to avoid the net, he also touched a few prongs of the current with his blade. He caught it, trapped it, and moulded it into an additional coating of electricity running along the blade.

Remarkable. Weak in the Force though he was, he certainly was inventive. As he had been when looking through the eyes of the Sith Emperor, Valkorion was impressed with the Jedi’s fine control over the smaller flows and threads in the Force.

All of this happened in less than a fraction of a second. In the next, the boy closed the gap and struck twice. Each blow was aimed not at Valkorion, but his shield, and the Emperor was intrigued to see how the boy used the Force that he had trapped along his blade. Ripples of lightning spread out over the shield, probing, looking for the gaps in his defense. Of course, there were none, for His defense was perfect-

And then the boy aimed his third blow. He put in a few more threads of Force energy into the point of impact, and Valkorion was surprised when the blow partially cut through the shield. It scored a hit on His gauntlet, and He was thrown off balance by His desperate lunge to avoid further harm.

But how-? There was no way- unless?

There had been no flaw, not truly, but perhaps there had been a point where the shield and the Jedi’s own flows resonated, for the briefest second? Had the boy created his own window of attack?

Remarkable. Strength in the Force so weak, yet he found ways to stand toe-to-toe with Himself.

The Jedi didn’t give Him time to recover His footing, instead gliding forward lightly and striking only centimeters above the ground- aiming at Valkorion’s feet, which were furthest from His hand, where the shield struggled to reform.

The wavering shield only barely protected Him but He still felt enough blow from the impact that He staggered. And even as the Emperor moved to get His feet back under Him, the Jedi had turned and struck again from His blindside. First at His heel, then a pair of thrusts at the center of His back.

Valkorion almost fell flat avoiding the first, and hastily strengthened and expanded his shield to protect His back, defending from the latter blows.

Within this bubble, He was protected. And He was trapped.

Now the Jedi launched many, many glancing blows at the shield, running threads of Force along his blade to cause the shield to resonate and give.

The boy had clearly trained hard for this particular scenario, so Valkorion saw no choice. He dropped the shield and rolled away awkwardly. Then He went for His own Magenta blade.

By the time it ignited, the boy was already on Him, and Valkorion braced as he warded off blow after blow from the unrelenting blue blade. He was banking on the Jedi’s self-confessed pride. Facing a man only wielding a sword, even a man as singular as He, the Jedi would also fall back to pure bladework. Not that it made a large difference; the boy was still too fast for Him, but the Emperor felt more secure in a defense that He could be certain wouldn’t falter.

Briefly, He held. He managed to defend himself from the flurry of attacks by weaving a defense with His own blade as an intricate net around Him.

And then, Arro batted aside His blade and struck a single blow through the center of His chest. The Emperor gasped as the molten blade burned a hole through His heart. Gasping piteously, the Immortal Emperor dropped on the floor, dead.

 

*

 

“That was for all the people who have suffered and died because of you!” Arro looked down upon his fallen opponent. “Please stay dead this time.”

In response, Arro heard Valkorion’s disembodied laughter coming from all around him.

The fallen body rose up into the air again, picked up by invisible strings, and was engulfed in a violent stormy glow. Arro felt a massive pull of something as an unknown force drew waves of energy towards it. It quickly drained him, and he dropped to his knees. The pulsating mass in the center of the of the storm reached a critical point, and exploded, throwing Arro back and knocking him out.

 

*

 

Arcann came to in time to witness the final moments of the battle. He didn’t know what had transpired, but his Father had been forced to rely on a blade rather than the Force.

And then, the Jedi stabbed Valkorion through the chest, and the thing that called itself the “Immortal Emperor” dropped dead. Arcann felt a little light-headed… was he really rid of his father, at least for a time?

He heard the Jedi say something to his Father, and then the ominous laughter out of everywhere that promised that his father wasn’t finished yet. There was an explosion of power, and the Jedi, the Outlander, was thrown backwards. Perhaps the explosion had killed him?

Vaylin walked in flanked by Knights and guards, expression stormy.

Arcann pointed at the fallen Jedi. “The Outlander! He broke free and assassinated our Father! But Father managed to lash out one last time before He died...”

Vaylin knelt to look at the Jedi. “Oh, look at that, he’s alive!” she smiled with a brightness that chilled those who saw it. “Alright boys, take him away~!" she sang. "Make sure he’s properly secured this time. And no, don’t damage him yet.”

 

*

 

Across the planet of Zakuul, the Emperor’s special announcements broadcasting equipment came to life, and  two-stories-high holograms of Prince Arcann addressed the citizens of the world.

“People of Zakuul… the unthinkable has happened.” It announced angrily. “Our beloved Emperor, Valkorion, is dead. Murdered! By an Outlander who sought to shake the foundations of our great society! The assassin will receive swift and just sentence for this most heinous of crimes, and this act of unprovoked aggression will be answered.”

He paused before continuing. “ As your new Emperor, I can promise you this: Zakuul’s enemies will face the full power of the Eternal throne! They will answer for their warmongering ways! And every last one of the Core Worlds… WILL BURN !”

Chapter Text

Chapter III : Vaylin

 

Everything hurt. From the tips of his toes to the top of his scalp, Arro felt like every neuron in his body was grumbling in dull pain.He couldn’t remember what had happened. Where was he?

His senses were all sluggish, including his Force sense, and took a while to focus themselves. His hearing came back first. Someone was singing nearby, softly. A woman’s voice.

“... down rolling hills and the verdant vale,

Like the velvet fur on the torbie cat’s tail

Hold your hands up to the sky

And dance along to the songbird’s cry…”

The voice belonged to a girl sitting at a table, a glass of some cold drink in front of her. She wore robes of bluish grey with a gold trim, hood lowered to reveal chocolate brown locks and alabaster skin. Arro opened his mouth to speak but was overcome with a coughing fit. The girl looked up immediately, and her beautiful face split into a wide smile that sent entire Hoths down Arro’s spine.

“Ah good! Look who’s awake! Did you sleep alright? Well rested?”

“I hurt all over actually…” Arro said before subsiding into coughing again. He was restrained to his bed, which was at an angle to the floor. The girl walked up to him and held a glass of warm water to his parched lips, watching him closely with her raptor-yellow eyes.

“Now. Let’s try again, hmm?” She asked brightly. He shivered. “How are we feeling today?”

“I’ve felt better. My whole body aches…”

“How much do you remember? Do you know where you are? What you did? No? Oooo I would love to jog your memory for you!” She leaned into him, resting her hands on his chest like he were her lover. “Zakuul…” She whispered affectionately. “The Eternal Empire… Arcann… The Immortal Emperor; the one you killed. Ah you’re starting to remember! Good.”

He was, if only a little. It was all a blur-

“My name is Vaylin. He was my Father.”

Without warning, her fingertips glowed purple as she shot Force Lightning directly into his chest at the point of contact. It was carefully controlled to be painful but not damaging. Arro would have screamed in pain, but it caught in his throat.

Panting, he tried to shake it off. “I’m so sorry, Vaylin,” he gasped. “But it had to be done!” He hesitated before continuing. “I know that you won’t believe me, but your Father wasn’t a good man. He has slaughtered billions.”

Vaylin straightened, and looked at him shrewdly. “Oh, I believe you, alright.” She moved her fingers to her collar and began undoing the clasps on her robes. Lowering the hem slightly, she revealed a faint but dense pattern of razor-thin scars running across her chest. “Oh, but I do.”

She then disrobed completely, standing only in her smallclothes. Her expression was severe, daring him to look upon her ravaged body.

Arro gasped in horror.

She was the very picture of senseless, unending torture. There were signs that medical care had erased a lot of the evidence, but she had elected to keep a considerable amount faintly visible as a reminder of what she had endured. Her skin was covered in scars and tattoos, needle-marks with burned edges where it appeared as though painful but non-lethal toxins were directly introduced into her bloodstream. Burns from both fire and acid further marked her skin.

Her body would almost definitely have looked like something picked out of a leopard hyena’s den when these marks were yet untreated and fresh.

“Did… did He do this to you? Valkorion?” Arro’s voice was a strained whisper. The sheer callous nature of it made him feel terribly sick. “To his own daughter?”

“Himself? No. He never liked getting His hands dirty. No, He shipped me off to a dead world where He had made the Force itself cry, had His creatures there do all the poking and cutting.”

She let her robes lay where they dropped, but wrapped herself in a fresh blanket from the nearby rack.

“He was afraid of me, you see. I was far stronger than He. And He wanted me perfectly under His control. His minions-- mad scientists, degenerates, sycophants all of them-- He gave me to them with one directive; to put a leash on me. No matter how hard I struggled, I was always under His thumb. His slave. Until you killed Him. I’m quite grateful for that, you know. That’s why you’re the first one to whom I have willingly shown all of my marks. I don’t strip for just anybody.”

“Indeed, I am eternally grateful to you,” she continued. Then her eyes narrowed, and she stalked closer, a predator approaching for the kill. “However… I so vividly dreamed and dreamed of killing Him myself! It was my goal to break free of His chains, to show Him a fraction of the agony He had caused me. And to see Him suffer with my own eyes. And you…”

She placed her fingers on his temple and fed blinding lightning directly into his nerves. “You took that from me,” she finished when he stopped screaming. “And that… that is an offense graver than you could imagine.”

 

*

 

Four Knights stood guard at the prisoner’s cell. Usually, this would be considered overkill, but this man had already broken free of his restraints once and assassinated the Immortal Emperor, and Emperor Arcann wasn’t taking any chances.

Jovis, Atho, Remmec, Sorrad and Viida took their new role watching the Outlander’s door very seriously. Everyone had been extremely shocked to see what had happened. Viida had cried for hours, and Atho still had a dead look in his eye, and was neither eating well nor speaking more than a word or two at a time.

They were surprised on the first day when High Justice Vaylin elected to keep watch over the prisoner personally, while prison droids watched his vitals and cleaned the cell. Surely she didn’t think such close security was necessary? Except security wasn’t what she had apparently intended. The Outlander awoke on the third day, and though they couldn’t hear most of what the two spoke, within the hour his screams rang out of the cell, accompanied by the unmistakable rumble of Force Lightning. The sounds would die down quickly, and Vaylin would give him time to regain his breath before she started to work again. Never allowing him the release of numbness, or unconsciousness, or death.

Jovis wasn’t a woman given to torture, but she found the sound of the Outlander’s pain bring her deep satisfaction. Vaylin was inside for hours after the murderer woke, and there was scarcely an hour where his muffled screams didn’t echo out of the door at least once. Perhaps this wasn’t justice, but it was certainly justified!

Vaylin finally walked out of the cell after a solid three days of torturing her prisoner. “You didn’t spare him any quarter at all, did you Your Highness? I hope you are feeling less burdened?”

Vaylin looked exhausted. “Not nearly. What he took can never be replaced. But this is enough for now.” Then she walked off, her footsteps fading in the distance. The guards all looked at each other, and their expressions hardened.

Indeed this Outlander had taken far too much. His punishment needed to be severe, harsh. Once the Warmongers of the Core Worlds heard of how this hero had suffered, they would never dare oppose the Eternal Empire!

 

*

 

Arro was shaking so hard he had not a shred of control over his muscles. The torture had gone on and on, never ending until Arro couldn’t tell if it was days since each new scream was torn out of his lungs, or mere minutes. It was likely the latter, since his body would eventually grow numb if it really had been under for more than an hour.

But that logic didn’t stop the moments from feeling eternal.

As a droid hovered by, in its programming to clean the cell, he tried to speak, only to have his tongue betray him with its difficulty in speech. After some concentrated effort, he was able to stop the shaking just enough to ask “How long has it been since I woke up?”

“Three days,” the droid responded in a mechanical voice, not stopping in its rounds.

Three whole days. Arro wasn’t sure if it had seemed like a lot more time, or less.

He had attempted to completely close his mind off to Lana, but snatches of his pain still made it across the link, and now, when he reached out to let her know that he was okay for the time being, she seemed as haggard as he felt. She sent frantic, powerful emotions of love and strength and a desperate relief through the bond but Arro couldn’t make out the message she was trying to send. He was tired, down to his very soul, and he had only been a few days in captivity.

Vaylin was apparently more furious than he could have imagined. And she didn’t look finished- she would definitely return for more.

Arro attempted in vain to fight the despair rising through his chest but it wasn’t long before he was sobbing, every muscle trembling violently. He tried to sleep but that peace evaded him. He didn’t know how long he lay there and wept.

But it didn’t feel like long before the door opened again...

 

*

 

Vaylin cursed as she tripped over the carpet.

She landed almost face down on the coarse mat. She rolled over onto her back so that she was face up, and screamed her frustration at the top of her lungs.

She was out of sorts, to put it mildly. Her usual feline grace had been overtaken by the frenzied pacing of her days as torturer. Disturbed and unsettled after her hours spent torturing her father’s killer. The man who had beaten her to the punch.

She had poured her outrage in waves and waves of Force Lightning that had rained over her prisoner, but her fury hadn’t been satisfied. The torture began to give her far less of a release over the hours, and she had soon been reduced to venting at the Jedi.

“Troubled, Sister?” Arcann’s voice sounded as he came in from the training ground. He stopped short seeing Vaylin as she was, on her back and looking at him upside down. He had evidently abandoned his training in the grounds on hearing Vaylin’s frustrated scream.

“That Outlander !” She used the epithet as a curse. Fittingly, it brought a sour taste to her mouth. “He… He- AAAAARGHHHH!” she screamed again.

Arcann offered her a hand. She considered it for a moment before grabbing on and yanking, bringing him crashing down on the floor next to her.

“Oww!”

He rolled over and sat up, so that at least they were seeing each other’s faces right-side up this time.

“The guards said that you were the one torturing him . What happened? Wasn’t enough?”

“Of course it wasn’t! I’ve been waiting for my own chance to break free and kill Father… I would have waited however long it was necessary… I’d have waited centuries if it meant watching him squirm. It was my only goal. It gave me purpose, helped me sleep through all those tortured nightmares. But now... That Outlander took that from me. He took it from me, Brother!”

Arcann was silent. “Did you tell him that?”

“Of course I did! I had to let him know why he deserved what I gave him, yes? I don’t do that kind of torture for kicks, I’m not insane…” She turned a heavy scowl on her brother. “Am I?”

“You are what Father turned you into,” Arcann said, clearly hoping it was the right answer.

Vaylin snorted. After contemplating for a few minutes, she continued. “I asked him what I had left now. I might live a hundred years, but I don’t have a purpose anymore.”

She turned her harsh yellow eyes on him. “You know what his response was? “ But now, your Father’s hold over you has been broken early. Instead of spending the next century thinking of how to break free and kill Him… you are already free. You are free to make any choice you wish. Be free of Him. ””

She remembered the moment clearly. The Jedi had been trembling all over. He could barely speak; his tongue was too numb to cooperate. He barely even seemed aware of what he was saying, like as though he were drugged or talking in his sleep

And she remembered her own response, though she wasn’t going to tell her brother that. She had been stunned into silence for the longest time. “Choice…” she had said finally. “I could get used to that!”

She realized then that she had spoken out loud; that her cheeks were wet and her lips were  in a tremulous smile, and she had been enraged at her own reaction to his words. Luckily the Jedi been in no state to notice. With luck, he might not even remember that conversation.

After that final exchange, Vaylin had found herself quite unable to punish him further. She had taken a few moments to compose herself-- as short a time as possible-- then she had all but fled from that chamber. In fear .

She felt that teary feeling rise up again, and fought it down angrily. “But am I really free, Brother? Now that He’s gone… Father was what kept me going. Without Him, I’m nothing. Am I truly free?”

“Yes you are,” Arcann assured her. “The Outlander was trying to confuse you, to stop the torture. He would have said anything to appease you.”

Vaylin considered before shaking her head. “Whatever his intention… he’s not wrong. I am free now- at least in theory. I can move on. But I don’t know how.” She turned desperately to Arcann. “Do you know how?”

“Yes,” he answered, a  smile possibly blooming behind that faceplate of his. “Where once you were a slave, now you are the new Emperor’s right hand! As the High Justice of the Eternal Empire you have the power to do anything you want! We are poised to bring the entire Galaxy under our rule! Stay as my right hand, and punish anyone who dares to defy you.”

“Sounds fun,” Vaylin said without feeling it. She was thinking of the Jedi again. Perhaps next she could ask him? Perhaps he could be persuaded to teach her to be free?

She groaned internally. Izax take him, I hope I’m not falling in love with him! she thought. No, she realized that he was doing something possibly worse than winning her heart.

He was making sense. Ugh!

“Well,” she said, sitting up. “Nice talk, Brother. I feel a little better already.”

“Good,” he said, rising. This time he didn’t offer her his hand. “I intend to begin my conquest within the month, Sister, and I would be pleased to have your support. Together we can bring the Galaxy to its knee-”

At that precise moment, they both felt a tremendous surge in the Force. And a presence they knew well.

Behind his mask, Arcann looked stricken. “No! Father is taking form, already? We should have had more time than this!”

Vaylin started sharply. “What? What did you-”

“No time. We must find the source of this disturbance, Sister. You may yet get the chance to kill Father yourself.”

Chapter Text

Chapter IV : Secrets

 

Arcann walked into the Outlander’s cell block behind Vaylin. They were alone. He had forbidden any Knights from following them down.

As he had feared, the surge they’d felt in the Force had originated here. He was the only prisoner in this block: it was reserved for the most dangerous criminals, those who posed a severe threat to Zakuul. He was disconcerted to find that the door was open and the guards were  not at their posts.

The cell door along with the wall opposite were charred black and even the duracrete was molten. The stench of ozone and burned flesh filled the air, enough that Arcann was grateful for his mask. He wondered how Vaylin showed little sign of being affected by the odor.

Perhaps she’s smelled far worse things on Nathema .

As he cautiously followed his sister into the cell and beheld a scene of horror.

The Outlander was slumped against the far wall, and judging by the scorch marks he had been the origin point of a massive outpour of energy; the ground and ceiling in front of him a massive parabola of melted black Duracrete. One Guard sat in a corner, blackened, trembling, praying, hysterical. Two more lay dead on the floor, burnt blackened corpses.

But where were the other two-? Ah… there they were .

The two shapeless lumps closest to the Jedi, mixed in among the melted droids and furniture- those must have been the guards who had stood nearest. They had been fused to their armor from the heat. He could only just make them out… It wasn’t a pretty sight.

And these patterns. Force Lightning-- a massive storm concentrated almost into a single stream-- there was no mistaking it. And there were only two of whom Arcann knew who could unleash such power.

“Father lives,” Vaylin muttered, having come to the same conclusion.

“Not exactly,” Arcann said. “He endures.”

Vaylin’s harsh glare slowly turned to him. “Brother, What do you kno-?”

“In a moment, Sister,” Arcann interrupted her. He turned to the sole surviving guard.

“You. Tell me what happened. Now!”

“My Emperor,” the woman stammered. “After Princess Vaylin left we were all consumed by her grief… Her pain at the loss… We talked about the Outlander- his crimes- his murder of the Emperor- How his actions had affected our beloved Princess- and we…” She trailed off.

“What. Did. You. DO?” Arcann demanded.

The Knight looked up at him, still consumed by terror, before continuing.

“Atho and Sorrad… They decided that the Outlander needed a longer lesson. We took turns, beating him, whipping him,” she indicated the shock-whip-- of the sort used to discipline arena beasts-- at her feet. “And then I said that it would be better to kill him rather than allow him a chance to be rescued. Viida held him up, and Sorrad ignited his Saber Pike… The next thing-- a giant explosion of Power. Then-” she took a sobbing breath. “They were all dead. Atho. Remmec. Sorrad. Viida. I had my shield… but it was only just enough…”

“IDIOTS!” Arcann snarled before executing her with his own fierce discharge of Lightning.

“Arcann… Tell me what you know.” Vaylin demanded. Her eyes were ablaze. “Now.”

This isn’t good . Her rage was ready to boil over. She couldn’t wait any longer… But how would she react? This would have to be handled delicately.

“Our Father’s most treasured secret,” Arcann began after some trepidation. “Was that of His immortality. During our raids of the Sith, Thexan and I heard interesting stories about their own Emperor. Their Immortal Emperor, though they didn’t call Him that. But what are the odds?”

Vaylin’s eyes widened. She understood, alright. “They are connected?”

“More intimately than we first assumed,” Arcann nodded.

Vaylin stood straighter and crossed her arms. “I’m waiting.”

“We interrogated a high ranking Darth, one Darth Skar. He told us a very familiar story: a story of how their Emperor was once a Sith Pureblood named Tenebrae. Strong in the Force, he had been the illegitimate  son of Lord Dramath, born to a lowborn mother. Stories about his power drew the father to Tenebrae, and he proceeded to kill him. This act earned him the title of Lord Vitiate from the then Dark Lord Marka Ragnos. As Vitiate, Tenebrae delved deep into the Dark Side and learned as many of its secrets as he could. He along with his world stayed out of a contact War between Sith and Republic, and when the losing Sith were faced with utter defeat at the Republic’s hands, he invited them to Nathema. Where he proceeded to use a Dark Ritual to suck them and every living thing on the world and indeed the very Force itself dry. And thus, the Sith Emperor was born. Immortal, and supremely powerful.”

“That’s our Father’s own story, word for word but for the names,” Vaylin spat. “So Father once ruled over the Sith? And left to build Zakuul instead? That man, Marr, this is what he meant?”

“Not precisely. You see, up until recently- perhaps four years ago- their Emperor was indeed among them. He would occupy a physical host, a different being every now and again, but his signature in the Force was unmistakable. He ruled them for a thousand years… until the Jedi-- this Jedi, in fact--” he nodded at the Outlander, “Killed him.”

“But he wasn’t dead. He was here. But He was also there. How-” Vaylin shook her head, confused.

“Father’s true form is cloaked in the Force, making Him difficult to kill once and for all. Yet He can occupy hosts. Hosts like the Sith Emperor. And Valkorion. It seems He could occupy both at once. Yet the Sith Emperor’s story doesn’t end there.”

“You have my complete attention,” she hissed, eyes narrowing.

“Its consciousness lingered, dormant, though only a few in the top levels of the Empire were privy to that knowledge. For a time, it slept, and all were content to let sleeping dogs lie. But then he was awakened by the meddling of a man called Revan. It was a disembodied existence still, but it was definitely the same being, not a different avatar like our Father. This… entity… would proceed to consume all life on the planet Ziost before vanishing into Wild Space. At the time, the Sith believed that their Emperor was attempting to take on a physical form again. As I said, it certainly did assume different forms every now and again. Only this time, he didn’t.”

“What happened then?”

“We do not know.” Arcann answered, spreading his hands. “I suspected that Father-- the entity itself-- was gathering its strength for something. It worried me, and I didn’t want to find out the hard way. I decided to act.”

Vaylin’s eyes grew suspicious. “Does that mean… Our Father’s death! You freed the Outlander, you  were behind it!”

“This Outlander had killed Father’s other avatar. And here he was right in my hands! I couldn’t pass up the opportunity! So I freed him, thinking he would work with me to kill Father. Instead, he didn’t move until I went down.”

“But … Wait! If you freed him first, Father was aware he was free, He had His guard up! The Outlander didn’t surprise Him with a cheap shot!”

“Yes. The Outlander exceeded my expectations. He faced Him in single combat. And won.”

Vaylin turned to stare at the Jedi in astonishment, even going so far as to walk up to him, tilt his chin up and look at his face again. After a few minutes’ scrutiny she turned back to her brother. “Very well. Finish the story.”

“I woke in time to see our Father overpowered and cut down. But then I heard his voice. It came not from his corpse, but from the air around us. It laughed before fading away, leaving a massive explosion of power in its wake. This was what knocked out the Jedi.”

Arcann paused. “I knew. Father was dead, but not gone. He might never be gone. But I had hoped I would at least have time to finish my tasks first-- go forth with the Fleet, conquer the Galaxy. To surpass Him. But no… It seems that Father is within the Outlander. But He hadn’t taken control until now… He acted only once the Knights decided to kill him.”

“Then why is the Outlander still here? Why didn’t he run?”

“Perhaps… yes! Perhaps Father cannot fully control him yet! That has to be it! The Outlander fought off the Sith Emperor's control once, and so maybe he can resist even now!”

“So what’s stopping me from killing him right now?” Vaylin asked, palming her Lightsaber.

“From the stories of the Sith Emperor, I gathered that He cannot just up and leave a body at his own convenience. Right now, He is contained inside the Outlander. In fact, He is imprisoned there, since He cannot act unless driven hard.”

“You seem awfully certain.”

“I am! All this research was Thexan’s! He was too careful to make mistakes like this.”

Vaylin accepted that without argument. Their brother had indeed been a thorough man. “So what now?”

“For now, we must keep the Outlander more securely contained until we know how to deal with Father. Perhaps we might never know, and we will need to keep him frozen forevermore.” Arcann turned to the door. “We place him in Carbonite. With that, we can keep him in suspended animation indefinitely.”

He turned when he noticed Vaylin wasn’t following him. “So… the reason Father was killed-- why I couldn’t do it myself-- Was you?”

She said it without inflection, in a soft, neutral tone, but Arcann felt an arctic chill run down his spine.

“Sister, I-”

“You what?”

“It had to be done!”

“Funny,” she crossed her arms. “The Outlander said the same thing.”

“I already told you,” Arcann said, pleading. “Father was up to something! There was no time to-”

“I don’t care about that!” Vaylin roared, eyes flashing dangerously. Then she swallowed, took a deep breath. “However, I have you to thank for my freedom. You and the Outlander.”

The minutes ticked by, but Arcann dared not break the silence.

“Very well, Brother,” she said finally. “I will remain at your side, as you ask. I will be your High Justice and help you surpass Father, and together we shall work to learn how to wipe Him out once and for all. But, please… do not keep me in the dark again.”

 

*

 

Arcann personally oversaw the Outlander’s encasement in Carbonite. Still unconscious, he had been dragged to the carbon freezing facility under a guard of fifty highly alert Knights.

So far as they knew, he had escaped his restraints twice- with deadly consequences each time. They watched him as they might some deadly nightmarish monster- expecting him to stir and wake at any time. Determined to stop him running amok again, but not knowing how.

Everyone breathed a heavy, collective sigh of relief when the last clouds of gas vanished, revealing that their prisoner had been successfully contained.The technicians looked over the readings and the supervisor announced that the Outlander was in perfect stasis; his life processes had been successfully frozen.

Arcann knew that most of the Knights didn’t know why he didn’t just kill the man. He did have just cause after all. But he couldn't. Not yet. Not until he learned of a way to deal with Father.

And he fervently prayed that the Knights never understood the reason why.

Later that night, as he lay in his bed, Arcann found himself feeling more than a little twinge of guilt. He had used the Outlander as a weapon to accomplish his dream, then he had cast him aside. Used him as a scapegoat.

Now on forevermore, the Jedi who should have been hailed a hero, would be reviled by the entire Galaxy. The people of Zakuul would curse him for killing their Emperor. And the citizens of the Republic and Empire would remember him for being the spark that brought down the might of Zakuul down on their heads. All his prior deeds would be forgotten, his memory spat on. His very name would be used in stories to frighten small children.

Arcann had found that he liked the man. Actually, he had been deeply impressed. In his compassion and strength, he had seen a hint of Thexan. Perhaps under other circumstances they could have been friends.

Thexan … the thought of his brother amplified his sense of guilt. Would he have approved of what Arcann was doing? Would he have agreed of the necessity of their Father’s death? Of how he had used the Outlander?

Arcann sat up, reaching for a glass of water.

Father had wanted the Jedi housed here to see if he could be persuaded to change his mind, in these very halls. Perhaps it would have been worth the risk to befriend him, and to strike at Father at a different time, one where they could have found someone else to blame.

But-- as he had said to Vaylin-- they might not have had the time.

And of course, there was Vaylin. He hadn’t realized how Father’s death would have affected her so profoundly. She was changing now, rapidly and completely. He had no idea what she would become by the end of all of this.

But for now, she was willing to work with him. Perhaps the knowledge that she could yet get her hands on their Father herself had calmed her.

But Arcann was under no delusions; he was on thin ice with her. Another mistake and she might turn against him, with terrible consequences. When dealing with someone who incurred her wrath, she was relentless, and she was ruthless.

Things hadn’t gone according to plan. Not that he’d had an actual plan- it had been a seized opportunity. But he wished that he could be more satisfied with the outcome.

But now he was ready for phase two. Expansion. Growth. In a few weeks he would unleash the might of the Eternal Fleet upon the Core Worlds, and find power to surpass, and perhaps destroy his Father.

And to atone for his… accidental murder... of his twin.

I promise you, Thexan. I will make him pay for driving me to that threshold. Valkorion will pay!

Chapter Text

Chapter V : Collapse

 

Citizens of the Republic, Of the Sith Empire.

I speak in the name of Arcann, new Emperor of Zakuul and the Eternal Empire.

Though we were able to repulse your pitiful combined fleet when it invaded our territory, one of the prisoners we captured was able to break free and assassinate his predecessor, the Immortal Emperor Valkorion.

He ruled with wisdom and benevolence for centuries, and was revered as a god on our Homeworld, and as such we are deeply distraught by his unprovoked murder. The assassin, Arro Silver of the Jedi Order, has already been punished, but it is not enough.

Our people demand vengeance on the leaders that sent him here, him and the others with him. And we shall have it! Prepare for war...

Tremble, as the entire might of the Eternal Fleet falls upon you, and know that it was your own leaders, and your own heroes who brought this upon you with their warmongering ways.

 

*

 

All news stations across the galaxy broadcast the sudden declaration of war. Experts and laypeople alike were interviewed as no one quite knew what to make of it.

Zakuul? No one had heard of it before. And what fleet was this? What force could claim to have defeated a force of Imperial and Republic warships? Who would even suppose that the two sides would join together in the first place? They’d been at war for most of the past century! True, they had been in an uneasy ceasefire since the death of Ziost, but to ally with each other? That was beyond imagination.

And Master Arro? He was everyone’s hero… The Sith and Jedi alike admired him for his skill with the blade. And he was a Jedi! Jedi didn’t murder anyone, did they?

But wasn’t Arro already known for having done that once already? Or was that twice-- for hadn’t he killed Emperor Malgus as well? Would he truly just up and kill a third Emperor just because he held that title?

And the question always returned to the front: Who, or what, was Zakuul an Empire of? Who were they to declare war on both Republic and Sith at the same time?

And the answer came in a series of swift assaults on numerous systems across the galaxy. Reports came of entire defense fleets being destroyed before they even had a chance to raise shields, by an enemy that was able to emerge from hyperspace already in formation and ready to fire.

The enemy armies-- almost entirely comprised of droids-- were agile and mobile destroyer droids that could quickly outflank and surround the troops of the Republic again and again; on Ilum, on Iridonia, on Ord Mantell…

Men and women in ornate bronze armor wielding saber-pikes and large shields fought Sith Marauders and Lords and Champions and even Darths.

Both Sith and Republic lost ground at an alarming rate, and it was only then that Leaders in the Senate stopped dismissing the threat as minimal. The Dark Council, already inclined to take the threat seriously on account of the death of Darth Marr, hadn’t been slow to mobilize, but had nonetheless been powerless to meet the unique challenge of Zakuul’s fast, well coordinated navy. It had been less than three weeks since the first broadcast and already it felt like it had been years too late.

 

*

 

Korriban, Chamber of the Dark Council

Though there were twelve seats on the Council, it had become a rarity for them all to be filled at any given time. The Councillors were the highest among the Sith, a position they had fought to attain, and had to fight harder to keep. For the Sith were ever a contentious lot, vying with every other Sith to be higher in the food chain.

And that was before the open war with the Republic. Five members of the Dark Council had been lost in a single month- three to Jedi and two more to their own internal politicking. And replacing such powerful Sith was such a difficult task that some seats remained vacant for months.

But through all these decades, Darth Marr had been one of the few to maintain his seat- and his life. Other Sith, even his greatest rivals, had long ago given up trying to unseat him and it seemed he would last forever

Until one day, he was suddenly gone, the first major casualty in the war against Zakuul. Darth Nox had been surprised by how much that affected the remaining members. All of them, even those that had loathed Marr, had panicked without even bothering to hide it. They had attempted to quickly add as much power from the Imperial Armed Forces to protect their own holdings as they could. As they tried to prepare for Zakuul, still unknown at the time.

When the Eternal Fleet came, the Army had already mobilized but the Council had spent precious days arguing which worlds to protect, and just like that they had lost three weeks, fifty seven capital ships and thirteen Darths.

They needed to fill Marr’s seat. For someone who had the final say in matters of Imperial Defense. When Vowrawn nominated his friend, the Empire’s Wrath, the agreement had been instantaneous and unanimous.

And so it was that Darth Prowle came among them.

 

*

Hoth

Following the ascension of Darth Prowle as the Head of the Sphere of Military Defense, the campaign in the Sith territories had slowed. The crafty woman had reorganized the fleets drastically. Where earlier the massive Dreadnoughts had been the backbone, now the Imperial Navy relied on small Light Vessels. Small ships that were just short of a hundred meters in length.

The Eternal Fleet favoured tactic of using a probe to quickly mark the position of all ships and allow pinpoint coordination of the fleet that appeared moments later was lost. Where earlier the tactic allowed them to destroy the large ships before they could activate their shields and accelerate to attack speed, the lighter Interceptors and Patrol Craft were harder to target. Moreover, they responded quickly, and could close in with the Eternal Ships and engage them. Finally, use of boarding parties was rendered entirely moot, leading to the Eternal Navy’s reliance on surprise and panic to be fully lost.

In some battles, the fully engaged Eternal Fleet had had their roles completely reversed when Harrower and Terminus class Destroyers appeared out of hyperspace and ambushed them instead.

Such reversals were few in number however; for the most part, the Empire stopped using larger ships in combat at all, which baited the Eternal Empire into attempting to destroy the light enemy ships in a drawn out battle rather than hit-and-fade as they preferred.

All the time, tacticians worried what they saved their big ships for. Surely they had more of them? Many more?

Then the Eternal Vigilance, the Intelligence of the Eternal Empire, made a startling discovery. They had determined that the Sith had grounded hundreds of ships on this out-of-the-way planet called Hoth. The formidable Darth Prowle herself was on the world. They concluded that the snow covered world was the staging ground for a massive attack on Zakuul itself, and the Emperor himself led a large Force to attack the stronghold.

The Eternal Fleet had emerged from hyperspace to encounter a fleet of maybe a hundred and fifty of the larger Terminus Destroyers in orbit to defend the planet. Their probe had, as usual, pinpointed the locations, allowing the Eternal ships to pepper them with fire.

But their probes were designed to mark positions, not thoroughly scan ships. Which was why when almost every last ship-- empty but for skeleton crews, but armed with warheads-- accelerated to ramming speed, the ships of the Eternal fleet were caught completely unawares. The entire fleet had in reality been a massive battery of missiles composed of nearly derelict vessels whose engines and armor were their only remaining assets. It had been designed to be wiped out quickly, but to take a large chunk of the enemy with them.

The Eternal Navy had lost over a thousand ships, with over three hundred rendered completely beyond repair. The Emperor’s Flagship, the Thexan’s Legacy itself, had been heavily damaged. And then of course the hundreds of light Sith ships had closed in for a more vicious fight. The remaining dozen or so ships stood no chance.

And so, Arcann had committed the entirety of the remaining fleet- over nine thousand capital ships- to the attack, and though slowed and bloodied, they eventually won the space battle.

But the base was shielded from bombardment, so there had been no fire support for invading ground forces.

Hundreds of dropships had been cut down by the ground batteries and grounded ships before they even broke through the cloud banks. Those that survived had to fight uphill while hip-deep in snow against an entrenched enemy. It had taken two hundred and eighty seven long hours of continuous, arduous fighting and tremendous casualties before they had breached the base.

But even that wasn’t the end, for there was one final hurdle: Darth Prowle and the troopers in the underground base. Entrenched, well supplied, they were safe from bombardment could have withstood a lengthy siege, which was why the Emperor had had to call for yet more reinforcements to clear out the base.

Prowle herself had been a nightmare. True to her title, she was wrath incarnate, cutting down dozens of Knights, thousands of Skytroopers and even more of the regulars. After her initial display of raw combat ability, Sentients had become most reluctant to face her, but finally, after hours and hours of sustained attack, the woman was heavily injured and exhausted.

Twenty surviving Knights stood in a tight circle, pikes pointed at the battered Sith trapped in the center as droids cleared the carnage so that there was room to walk. Everyone was still wary. The fight for this world had been vicious and expensive.

Arcann himself walked in shortly after, fuming. He wasted absolutely no time on niceties.

“The ships that you have grounded here. Where are they?”

“That’s it?” Prowle asked, grinning wide. “Not even a hello? And here I thought for sure you’d start off with “Oh but you’re far more gorgeous than I expected!””

“The ships!” He roared. “Where are they?!!!”

“Not here, sadly,” Prowle answered, expression mournful.

“Nonsense!” Arcann raged. “Our intelligence picked up repeated chatter about the ships on this planet! Orbital Scans told us there were over a thousand capital ships on this world!”

“Not working ships,” Prowle responded coolly. “Dead ones. The Republic and Empire fought a battle here, same as we did today. Every one of the “ships” you detected were downed ships in the Starship Graveyard, beacons repaired and reactivated so that it would give you the impression of a beached fleet. Congratulations! You’ve wasted far too many resources on an insignificant target!”

Incensed, Arcann roared and charged at her, lightsaber igniting. Prowle, injured right arm hanging limp at her side, still caught his blade on her vivid lavender one. Faster than the eye could see, her counterattack left a long molten gash in his prosthetic left arm, only barely missing his face on its upward swing.

“Damn, that was sloppy,” she remarked cheerfully, as a startled Arcann stumbled back and assumed a more defensive stance “I was hoping to see what you looked like behind that mask!”

“You are dangerous,” he whispered.

“What, you didn’t figure that out earlier? By the way, I’m still waiting for you to also figure out how breathtakingly beautiful I am. They call me the Empire’s Wrath, but the title I really wanted was Empire’s idol!”

Arcann spoke no more. Once again, he lashed out, first with a powerful burst of yellow Lightning that Prowle barely caught on her blade, then with a furious flurry of strikes that threw her further off balance. Yellow Blade clashed violently with Purple, and every exchange wore down the already half-dead Sith.

As Arcann backed away for a respite, breathing very hard himself, Prowle’s ceaseless exertion finally caught up with her. Her lightsaber fell from fingers that had gone numb. Her mouth hung low as her limbs began to convulse and jerk. Her jaw suddenly tightened and she bit hard on her tongue; a stream of blood coursed out from behind her clenched teeth. She collapsed in a tight heap on the floor, still convulsing.

Arcann seized the opportunity to strike. Advancing cautiously, he raised his Lightsaber and slammed it down on her exposed back as hard as he could. The blade stabbed through her heart and deep into the floor, ending the life of the Empire’s greatest warrior, and the Battle of Hoth.

Hours later, aboard his ship, Arcann ordered that he not be disturbed. Washing himself in the bath in his quarters did nothing to wash away the shame of having cut down a blademaster like Prowle as she writhed in a seizure. As he looked into the mirror he fancied the Sith woman’s shade grinning behind him, the bright orange eyes glowing like all those warm campfires he and his brother had lit. Reluctantly turned around and addressed his dead foe.

“You were the most gorgeous woman I have ever seen. Would that I had met you under better circumstances- perhaps the Midsummer ball, or the Yule Feast. You were my enemy, you cost me dearly. But you were an amazing General, a peerless warrior and a highly desirable woman.”

Then he broke down and wept for the remainder of the day.

Oh Thexan... Vaylin… It wasn’t supposed to be like this!

 

*

 

Coruscant, Office of the Supreme Commander

Supreme Commander Jace Malcom couldn’t keep up with the nonstop inflow of reports. Truth was, the volume was similar to heated war with the Sith, but… But the Republic had been better matched against the Sith. Even at their worst, they hadn’t been so badly outclassed.

Against Zakuul, they were laughably overwhelmed.

The Sith, under the cunning of Darth Prowle, had managed to make the Zakuulan advance costly for a while, culminating in the brilliant Battle of Hoth, where she had sacrificed herself, along with only a token force, to destroy thousands of Zakuulan ships and dozens of their legions.

Malcom scowled heavily. Darth Prowle. The Empire’s Wrath . He had always thought of the woman as a vicious, bloodthirsty glutton of a warhound, but he most reluctantly admitted that she had been a sly conductor of war.

Certainly better than Supreme Chancellor Saresh, and her sycophant advisors.

Why he could have a title such as “Supreme Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic” and not have the final say in the war was beyond him.

Malcolm wanted nothing more than to pretend that none of this was happening, but he hadn’t that luxury. The meeting with the Joint Chiefs was in three days’ time- they had to come up with a new strategy. Anything at all. It pained him to think of how many soldiers had already died. For their deaths to mean anything at all, they would have to learn from their losses.

And so, he spent the day going through after action reports.



----------------

Third Battle of Malastare

Summary: Zakuulan raid on Malastare aimed at disrupting export of fuel along the Hydian Way. Seven Hammerhead Cruisers, twenty three support frigates, and one hundred and fifty seven starfighters lost in the battle. No enemy ships destroyed.

Orbital Bombardment devastated the Cerenal and Vodarin oil fields.

Seventy six cargo vessels shipping fuel from the planet destroyed.

Planet on lockdown for three standard days.

----------

Raid of the Eriadu droid factories

Eighteen factories for high-end droid parts were destroyed from orbit by a small fleet of Zakuulan ships that retreated when Republic forces attempted to engage.

Estimated casualties: 33 dead, 910 injured.

Estimated damages: 730,000 Credits.

---------

Raid on the Shipyards of Corellia

Raiding Force of Zakuulan Ships attacked shipyards on Corellia, destroying two, heavily damaging three with some destruction also seen in Industrial sectors. Ships did not engage our Naval forces.

Estimated casualties: 650 dead, 3000 injured.

Estimated Damages: 9,720,000 credits

--------

Relief of Agriworlds Tegris, Uphrades, Tranube VII, Ganinga II, Corsin, Dantooine, Ruan, Yulant

The Zakuulan Blockades of Agriworlds successfully broken. Or rather, they fled when our ships emerged.

328 spaceports specializing in exporting crops, and 800 warehouses destroyed by the enemy during their brief stay.

-----------

 

And on it went. The tone was usually the same. Zakuulan ships rarely engaged heavier fleets, choosing instead to raid the worlds they protected. Usually heavy fleets were only committed to the more important worlds after all.

When they did stay, it was when the forces guarding the worlds were small, and where a brief occupation the world itself would disturb trade and shipping along the Hyperspace Lanes.

There were hundreds of worlds that were critical links in those lanes and most couldn’t be guarded. It was likewise impossible to protect agricultural worlds.

Naval superiority allowed Zakuul to be everywhere at once.

Prowle’s doctrine of light decentralized fleets had allowed for a much more flexible protection of Imperial territory. She had also deliberately spread out factories on industrial worlds, and in some cases moved operations out entirely. She also set up dummy decoy factories to confuse raiding fleets on which ones to fire upon. This made them less vulnerable to a targeted bombardment from orbit.

She had, surprisingly, reached out to the Senate and the Republic military, offering not only sharing tactics, but also sensor data, and data of Zakuulan fleet movements, so that they’d have a bigger picture of what the navy was doing. She had proposed a temporary alliance in order to face Zakuul.

Even Malcom, who hated the Sith Empire- and Prowle especially for leading the attack on Tython years ago- had been eager for the offer. But the Supreme Chancellor had flatly refused.

Once he was done reading the summaries, he looked at estimates of fuel availability and winced. The Republic could not continue to relieve every world that was blockaded. Perhaps as soon as tomorrow, they’d have to start abandoning the less significant worlds to conserve fuel. Planets that relied heavily on trade to feed their populations, like Coruscant and Corellia, would have to begin strictly rationing what they had.

Not a single world would be able to last a siege that lasted more than a week.

Coruscant, with its seven hundred billion permanent residents and the six hundred billion estimated refugees was always in danger when trade routes were choked.

Malcom leaned back in his chair and fought off the wave of hopelessness that threatened.

He sat in this posture for almost an hour when his secretary Gavic Erman contacted him on the intercom.

“Excuse me, sir, but your daughter is here to see you.”

Malcom’s mood brightened considerably at the prospect of meeting Jasme, but the Soldier in him reminded him of his duties.

“Tell her I’ll see her later,” he said unwillingly. “After hours.”

“No can do, sir.” Erman said in his usual semi-casual manner. “You’ve been in there for almost two days straight, and I feel it’s my duty to insist you get some rest now. We can’t have the Supreme Commander drop dead of exhaustion.”

“Two days?” Malcom almost shouted. “The meeting of the Joined Chiefs-”

“Postponed, sir. A holomessage marked Urgent arrived this morning… wait a minute, have you been reading those AARs this entire time? Sir!”

Malcom blanched. Getting so caught up in these reports that he missed messages marked Urgent was a huge blunder on his part.

“I’m sorry Gavic,” he apologized. “I think it’s been two months since I last slept more than two hours at a time.”

“Which is why I’m sending her right in. Go on home, sir!”

The door opened, and a tall dark haired woman walked in. “Daddy?”

“Hello Jasme,” he grinned tightly, stumbling as he rose. He held her in a tight hug, grateful for the warmth she always brought him- a power that only she held. Even her mother and twin brother had never made him feel so much happier with just their presence alone.

Perhaps it had been her enthusiastic acceptance of him into her life, the happiness she herself seemed to find when she finally met her father, that also made her special to him. In contrast, Theron had become angry and defensive.

Bending slightly- she was even taller than Malcom himself was; another contrast with her twin brother- she gave him a kiss on his scarred cheek.

Though she was smiling too, her mood was clearly damped as well. “Ready to go home? We’re going to have company.” She had found a Jedi-owned apartment very close to his, so that they could be a part of each others’ lives.

“What? Who?”

“Theron. And mom too.”

 

*

 

Theron served drinks while Satele sat dead-eyed in Malcom’s embrace.

His sister had called him earlier, and told him that he was to meet her at her house for dinner, urgently. On pain of eternal silent treatment. He didn’t think his sister could manage such a severe punishment but she rarely ever made demands on his time, and when she did he found it hard to say no.

Jasme herself sat on the carpet, by her mother’s feet, head rested against her knees.

“How bad?” Jace asked her.

“Near total,” Theron answered into the silence when Satele didn’t. “Of the Jedi Council, only Satele, Dayl Zoran and Gnost-Dural have survived. The Order is down to only four Masters. Eighty one Knights, seventeen senior Padawans. Most of the younglings and students are unharmed, but  have been sent to hostels and refugee on other worlds since there’s no one left to teach them; and we weren’t able to get in touch with their families in most cases. Most will disappear into the cracks the way ordinary war orphans do.”

“No,” Satele spoke up suddenly. Her voice was a hoarse whisper. “Master Gnost-Dural is putting together a plan for the students. They won’t be abandoned.”

She finally seemed to come back to life, but the soul crushing exhaustion and despair remained on the lines of her face. She seemed to have aged thirty years in these past two months. Her face had always looked young for her age, despite the severe stresses of being Jedi Grandmaster in an era of war. But this near-annihilation of the Jedi Order might be a death blow.

Her hair had thinned and gone white as Hoth snow in a matter of months, her face gaunt and lined. Her once serene eyes were haunted and tired. And she had lost so much weight that her skin hung loosely off her bones.

“So many dead… so many lost… I can no longer be with the Jedi. I can no longer remain at the Temple… All those lost…”

“It wasn’t your fault, Satele,” Malcom said gently.

“That doesn’t help at all,” Satele said. “Like I know it’s not helping you.”

Theron’s father didn’t answer that.

“If there is anyone to blame, it’s Arro,” she said, face souring.

Malcom looked at her, looking confused. “The Battlemaster of the Jedi? Why?”

That’s right, he doesn’t know that Arro was going to leave the Order!

Theron almost cursed, and Jasme actually did.

“Mom, you can’t blame him!” Jasme scolded, rising on her knees- one of them flesh-and-blood, the other a cybernetic- a relic of her near execution by the Reborn Revan.

“He was eager to kill the Emperor and be done with it,” Satele said angrily.

“After Ziost, can you blame him?” Theron spoke up. “He was there. He saw what the Emperor’s spirit did firsthand- all that madness and death. He was even there when Master Surro angrily refuted the Jedi and turned herself over to Imperial Intelligence.”

“He was eager to do it even before Ziost,” Satele spat. “All because of that woman!”

“He was not eager!” Jasme exclaimed hotly, but understanding began to dawn on Malcom’s face. “He hated killing and you know it!”

“Be that as it may,” he said gently, interrupting the argument. “He’s gone now. Arcann has already killed him for what he did.”

For a moment Theron thought Satele was going to get further incensed, but instead, those words shattered her completely.

“Dead?” She whispered, tears finally forming in her eyes. “Dead… Oh I’m so sorry Arro!” With that she broke down and began sobbing uncontrollably.

She didn’t stop until she had finally fallen asleep.

“She hates that he made the choice she didn’t,” Malcom guessed. “She chose duty before love but he chose love.”

Theron began to nod then shook his head. “I wish we could summarize it so neatly in a single sentence, but there’s just a bit more to it. Yes Arro did choose love over duty, but he chose duty before family- that’s why he didn’t leave the Order already. He felt he had to finish what he had started- killing the Emperor once and for all.” He thought it better not to mention whom Arro had fallen in love with. It no longer mattered anyway, and Arro would soon be slandered for bringing Zakuul down on the Republic. No sense in hurting his name further by mentioning how he fell in love with Lana. Not just an enemy soldier, but a Sith.

“Aaaah,” Malcom said. “Of course he’d feel responsible seeing as he took down the Sith Emperor before… but that it didn’t take.”

“And mom’s always kinda relied a lot on him,” Jasme said, reluctantly. “During the days on Yavin she seemed to realize that she treated him as a son but hadn’t done the same for Theron… or me… and that made her feel guilty. Then he comes out and says he’s leaving the Order…”

“What a tangled mess,” Malcom groaned.

They all sat silently for a while. Then Jasme spoke up.

“We’re going to lose, aren’t we?”

The men couldn’t respond. At least, Theron couldn’t.

Malcom responded by breaking down completely  just as Satele had.

 

*



Begeren

Akahte sat watching what was left of her meager force, wishing Prowle was still alive.

The Wrath- or Kai’rene, as she preferred her name to either title- had briefly managed to make Zakuul falter, but had announced that they couldn’t keep that up forever.

Akahte remembered that meeting clearly.

“Why now?” Darth Ravage had asked. The man hated Kai’rene the most but even he had not opposed either her ascension or her policies. In recent days he had been awed by her prowess.

“At best, we can keep this up for a few more months before Zakuul adapts. Or decides to move on to open war rather than their hit-and-run style warfare.” Kai’rene had said grimly. “We briefly have the initiative; we need to make them pay a heavy enough cost that they might lose their taste for blood.”

“You’re about to suggest something risky, aren’t you?” Akahte- Darth Nox- asked.

“High-risk, High-reward,” Prowle nodded. “Two objectives. Kill Arcann. Strike at Zakuul.”

The silence had been so absolute you could have heard a pin drop.

Then, Kai’rene had outlined her plan, and it was indeed high-risk, high-reward. Give the impression that the entire fleet was amassing on Hoth for a strike at Zakuul- on the surface itself, out of the way of system wide scans.

How? With a little work on the downed ships in the Starship Graveyard. It would only take some days to prepare.

Then, the Sith were to wait until the Eternal Fleet had deployed its ground forces as well. Going by his psychological profile, Arcann would almost certainly lead the fleet and the ground attack personally.

And when he finally attempted to assault the Imperial base, the real fleet- hidden on Taris- would strike at Zakuul, aiming to wipe out its Orbital defenses and facilities, and bombarding their capital. Perhaps capturing it outright, if they could. With either their Emperor dead or their Capital taken, or both, the Zakuulans were sure to fold. Even more readily if the Hoth phase took a heavy toll.

The Eternal Empire had swallowed the bait much harder than they could have hoped- Arcann indeed led the force, and when a thousand ships were disabled, he summoned nine thousand more.

These numbers intimidated the Council, and when the moment came- when Zakuul reached the bunker itself- they hesitated. Arcann executed a heavily battered Prowle- who had almost killed despite her injuries, and whose heroic last stand was broadcast for everyone to see.

And then, the window began to close. Zakuul began to pull back, and they continued to hesitate.

Nox and Vowrawn had berated them- they had given their word! For Prowle’s strategy to work they had to stick to their end of the plan, now while they had the chance!

But Darth Acina had taken her fleets and returned to her holdings.

“Look at how many ships arrived to reinforce them!” She had blustered. “Ten thousand? If they can commit that many to Hoth, surely they can rebuff any attempt at invasion?”

“Remember what Prowle said,” Ravage had spoken up. “When the initial force is threatened to be overrun, Arcann is the type who will summon the entire home fleet in his outrage! And why wouldn’t he? All of our ships are supposed to be grounded on Hoth!”

Acina did not deign to respond. She cut off all communications and disappeared. With the entirety of her forces. That had caused Darths Rictus, Zhorrid, Aruk, and finally Mortis, to also lose their nerve.

With five members of the Council withdrawing support- and forces- they had been robbed of fighting strength at the last minute, but Akahte, Vowrawn and Ravage had led their combined forces to Zakuul as they had promised.

They had been shocked- there was not a single ship in orbit around the world. That was when they’d made their second blunder; they’d all agreed-- on Grand Marshall Malavai Quinn’s suggestion-- had attempted to contact at least Mortis, Aruk or Rictus to come to their aid.

The enemy Capital was undefended!

But again the fools hesitated! They didn’t even say “No!” right away! And Akahte, who cursed herself for her stupidity, had waited for their response.

They had waited two hours, and then the window began to close. Three hundred of the ships committed to Hoth had returned almost on top of their own ships, and a fight broke out.

Even at this juncture, the Sith would have launched an attack on Zakuul itself, for they still outnumbered this arm of the Eternal Fleet almost three to one. While it might have been nice to win the planet itself, the more important objective had been collecting a hefty price from the Zakuulans, after all.

But the Commander-- one who was also very strong in the Force-- was an uncaring, reckless one, and he-- or she, as they later found out-- pulled a line out of Kai’rene’s code and ordered her ships-- all of them, including her own-- to ram the enemy. She had boarded Ravage’s ship, which served as the Flagship. And she had overwhelmed him in seconds.

When she hailed the other ships, she politely introduced herself as Vaylin, Arcann’s sister, and High Justice of Zakuul. Then she had executed Ravage.

Many of the Imperial ships had been damaged in the ramming, so Akahte didn’t even begrudge Vowrawn running away when he did. Her own ship had been heavily damaged, including the Hyperdrive, otherwise she didn’t know that she might have done the same.

The fighting had continued at close quarters, nearly point blank range, and reinforcements had arrived for Zakuul. Quinn, who had escaped Ravage’s ship only to be trapped on another, gave the order for a general retreat.

Nox, repelling boarders, was relieved when the Hyperspace was restored to some basic functionality. Unfortunately, Begeren would be the final jump her ship would make. From there, the ship failed completely and they crash-landed on the planet.

And here they were now, days later. They had destroyed the last of the droids that had boarded their ship, then waited for rescue. And waited, and waited. None came, though Zakuul’s forces eventually tracked her down and sent in several waves of troops and Knights.

She knew. She’d been abandoned. Why not? They had all been too afraid of her, and that had been the only reason they didn’t plot against her. And with her political allies dead- Marr and Kai’rene, they would all be eager for the chance to rid themselves of her.

Such short-sighted fools!

Sighing heavily, she stood. “Dear Kai’rene, wherever you are. I salute you on your ability to read your enemies. If only you had been as good at reading your allies!”

“Oh but she was,” a heavy Dromund Felsian accent drawled. “She told me this was the probable outcome.”

Akahte turned to see the massive SpecForces soldier, Captain Pierce, walk up to her, steaming mug in each hand.

“Blueberry tea, my Lord? Lady Kai always loved my tea.”

“Thank you,” Akahte accepted the mug and tried a sip. She took a moment to savour the taste before looking back at the man. “What was that? Kai’rene knew the Councillors would lose their nerve?”

“Yes my Lord. She even predicted that Acina would be first to back out. And pretend that she’s afraid.”

“Pretend?” That startled Akahte.

“That’s affirmative. Acina isn’t losing her nerve, she’s moving to leave the other Councillors high and dry, so that she can arrange for them to be caught with their pants down.”

“But… but…” Akahte spluttered.

Taking another sip, Pierce continued. “Acina trusted Lady Kai’s instincts, that Zakuul would be undefended. But she’s always been afraid of her fellow Councillors- you in particular. She figured that by leading at least some strength away from the force, the remainder would take heavier losses. She was counting on Lady Kai’s plan to succeed- at no risk to herself.”

“And she didn’t tell me, why?” Akahte asked, feeling slightly hurt.

“She didn’t think it would matter,” Pierce said. “She felt that you, Vowrawn, Ravage and Mortis between the four of you, had the firepower to do it.”

“But… didn’t she trust me?”

Piers looked surprised “Trust, My Lord?”

“I thought Kai’rene had enough respect for me to know I would go through with this, even if everyone but me backed out!”

Pierce thought for a moment. “My Lord, I can say with certainty that Lady Kai’rene had the deepest respect for you. Your strength, your courage, your convictions, and even your political stances. Maybe she meant to tell you- or thought that she had already. If she didn’t, it wasn’t because she didn’t trust you. I’d wager my life on it. Maybe she hoped she would be wrong, and didn’t want to sow discord between Councillors? She told me because my opinion of the Councilors- and whether I’m hostile to any of them- doesn’t count. But you? You’re a colleague.”

“Hope, eh?” Akahte paused. “Trust? Haha… Yes, I suppose that does sound like her. Are we all so predictable in the end?”

“Quinn used to say so,” Pierce said, tossing a silent toast to his former teammate before downing the rest of his tea, smacking his lips. “Of course, Quinn also thought that I had nothing to do with the essence of Wampa dung he kept finding in his sheets. Blamed poor lil Vette for that.”

Akahte laughed heartily. “One thing still surprises me. How did Lady Kai so accurately predict Acina? She’s not that good, is she?”

“Well that was thanks to Jaesa.”

“Oh. Of course. How could I have forgotten? I wish Jaesa shared her insights with me.”

“Absolutely loyal to Lady Kai she was. And Lady Kai obeyed her wishes in turn. Jaesa wanted none but Kai herself to use her powers. Said she hated looking at how ugly the world is.”

“Dark Lord,” another officer approached. “We found your Dashade. Injured in the crash and attacked by five knights. He’s… not going to make it.”

Oh no…

 

*

 

“Oh, Khem!” She whispered, kneeling beside him. “What happened to you?’

As always, the Dashade replied in the old Sith tongue. “My escape pod’s landing sequence didn’t work right. It crashed into a cliff. Broke some of my ribs.”

“And you still overcame five Zakuul Knights!”

“They are nothing!” he gasped before collapsing in a fit of coughs. “I am Khem Val! I was the right hand of Tulak Hord, devourer of the rebels at Yn and Chabosh! Consumer of the Dromund system! The herald of Darth Nox, Lord Akahte Kallig, the Head of Ancient Knowledge! I will not be killed by the likes of them!”

Then, pleading, he turned to her, a single tear falling from his eye. “Please, my Master. Give me your sword.”

Akahte nodded.

She withdrew her Lightsaber and severed both of the Dashade’s hearts in a single strike.

In honour of Khem’s service, she held onto her stoic demeanor until his shadow had faded entirely. Only then did she allow the tears to fall.

 

*

 

“Breaking news, this is Kinoko Sharale of the Nebcon Corellian News Network, LIVE from the Throne Room of the Eternal Empire where history is being made.

In moments, representatives from both the Republic and the Sith Empire are expected to arrive and surrender to the Eternal Empire. This will be the end of hostilities between Zakuul, the Republic and the Sith, and many are expecting that this day will also see an end to the unending season of war between the Republic and the Sith. For today might be the day that Emperor Arcann demands our governments to demilitarize as terms of the surrender. If nothing else, this might bring us some much needed peace and quiet as we rebuild, and hope for a better tomorrow.”

 

*

 

Dantooine

Master Dayl Zoran looked at the small, brown haired woman standing head bowed before him. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you before, Miss-?”

“Jaesa Willsaam, Barsen'thor,” the woman identified herself.

“Jaesa,” Gnost-Dural repeated next to Dayl. “You were once Nomen Karr’s apprentice, until you swore yourself to another. To Darth Prowle.”

“She wasn’t a Darth then,” Jaesa replied. “Just Kai’rene.”

“As if that matters,” Dayl rebuked. “Master Nomen Karr was so distraught by your betrayal that he fell to the Dark Side! He never recovered from his Fall!”

“What? Master Barsen’thor, he had already Fallen when I got there! He had fallen before we ever met! His obsession with one-upping Darth Baras once and for all consumed him!”

“What do you dare to say?”

“She’s right, Dayl”, Gnost-Dural soothed him. “Remember, I knew Karr for years. I always thought that his fight with Baras, and the Sith as a whole, had gotten too personal for him.”

He nodded at Jaesa. “It was why I wasn’t so keen on him using you to reignite the fires of war.”

Jaesa bowed before him, looking relieved for the support.

“But one thing stands. Why did you swear yourself to the future Darth Prowle?”

She looked right at him. “I don’t know, Master.” She sounded like she had thought about this question herself before, many times. “She just stood there, and asked if I was willing to help her try and make the Empire a less evil place, and I agreed. When I Saw her… through the Force, I mean… I saw someone who fought for the good of people, not for conquest. When she said that she wanted to make the Empire a better place, I knew she would do her hardest to make it so. I saw how much she loved the people closest to her, and I realized… that I wanted that too. I wanted her trust. Her love. I could be calm… but I realized just how much I needed that fierce love. I was willing to put myself in harm’s way for it! And she was did put herself in harm’s way for me, many times! In all these years she never once made me question my choice to follow her. She may have taken me to the Sith Empire, but she encouraged me to walk in the Light.”

Dayl Looked at her through the Force again, this time observing more closely. “Well… You are untainted by the Dark, there is no denying that.” He was surprised.

“Kai’rene protected me from the worst of it… She took me to worlds in the Empire where life went on almost like it does on many Republic worlds… like here on Dantooine. She made me laugh often, and see the beauty in the universe.”

“We are very sorry for your loss,” Dayl said, feeling it. “You gave up everything for her and she lived up to your trust. I can’t imagine how difficult losing her must be.”

Her head was still bowed, but her shoulders began to shake. Slightly at first, then more rhythmically. Dayl placed a palm on her shoulder. “It’s alright, Jaesa. It’s okay to cry. Let it all out. Your grief is great. But we will be here for you. It’s a long way to Ossus, and even once we land we have all the time we need. We will try our best to help you.”

She began weeping in earnest, and Dayl’s apprentice, Nadia Grell, stepped forward and took Jaesa into her arms, whispering soothing words of comfort as she led her to one of the ships they would be using for the exile to Ossus.

Dayl felt something wet on his face and was surprised to find that there were tears there.

“We have all lost so much,” Gnost-Dural said.

“That does hurt deep,” Dayl said. “But that’s not what the tears are for. What she said about Darth Prowle; Kai’rene, as she called her. I was touched. Deeply. Perhaps Arro was right. Perhaps there was more to Sith than rage and hate.”

“Passion takes many forms, my friend. Love and Loyalty just as much. I had always wanted to chronicle the mighty Darth Prowle, who I know for a fact has spared many Jedi and Republic Soldiers… not to mention innocents... and now I am glad to have a firsthand account.”

“The Old Ways are collapsing,” Dayl noted. “It’s painful as we live through it, but perhaps what rises in its place will be something… different. Something better. Even at a time like this, I can feel the warm sunshine of hope.”

Chapter Text

Chapter VI. Rescue


The hour was late in the Eternal City on Zakuul. There were few people to be found on the streets of the Technological Sector 03. Citizens would be asleep in their houses, even most of the ones that loved to stay late in the Cantinas. Most of the people you would find were Overwatch guards, or Zakuul Knights.

The guard droid stationed at the High Security Vault 07 logged a technician and a support droid entering via the elevator to the Tram station. The tech had been scheduled to bring in three replacement wall terminals and miscellaneous parts to the vault.

The droid scanned their ID and it checked out. It notified the building’s main computer of the entry, granting them clearance through the relevant security grid and then powered down.

 

*

 

Lana Beniko followed the path that had been programmed into her datapad, wishing she could just head to her destination directly. But no; this had to be done delicately or the entire plan might fall apart.

She had only been granted access to the Outer Vault, and five additional layers stood between her and the Inner Vault. First they hacked into the Security System, and granted themselves full access to the Vault. Then reprogrammed the cameras to replay footage of the previous day.

Next up was the Main Computer. The Vault had five rings, and at the door to each was a measure designed to record entries, and also notify the local Overwatch office. While in broad daylight they could have ignored this particular measure, Overwatch would be sure to be suspicious of any activity. So they had to discreetly sever the network. And this brought its own problems. Now, each door had to be manually unlocked and opened.

The whole process took thirty seven minutes, each second of which made her feel vulnerable.

At last, they reached the Innermost Vault.

As the doors parted, their prize was revealed and her breath caught in her chest.

There, in a slab of frozen Carbonite, her husband Arro Silver lay trapped. Where he had been for so very long.

Lana unloaded the large slab from the trolley. It was heavy enough that she had had to use the Force. Inside it was a Carbon frozen replica of Arro. The replica was positioned the same way Arro was. Had the same expression; the ripples of pain that he had been feeling from the torture, that still ran through his body as he was frozen.

After years spent searching for him, she had finally found out where he was being held, along with detailed schematics of the Vault he was being kept. When she had gotten her hands on these images, she had been outraged, and wanted nothing more than to mount a rescue at once.

However, TeeSeven had managed to cool her down long enough for reason to take over again. To take the time and formulate a plan that actually stood a chance of freeing the man she loved more than the Galaxy itself.

Once they mounted the fake, they placed the block encasing Arro on the cart, and left the way they came.

At the Main Computer, TeeSeven uploaded a virus that erased all of their tracks, then resealed the holes they had created in the security.

Then just like that, they walked out the front door and into the subway elevator. And to safety.

It was only when their tram reached the Residential district her safe house was in, that Lana breathed a sigh in relief.


*

 

Arro was in the dark. And frozen. Unable to move. Unable to see. Unable to scream. And unable to even think, for his mind refused to move. As a result, he couldn’t gather the focus necessary to feel the Force.

And yet to be aware enough of his… imprisonment… he had to be at least semiconscious-- in some manner he couldn’t describe.

Unthinking, yet aware, he stayed in this state of dormancy for ages. He lost sense of time, for there was no way to measure its passage. A day, a month, a year? It was all the same to him-- an eternity.

The blackness enveloped all corners of his existence until he knew nothing else. He was the black fog.

And then, life began to return. Spots of heat erupted on his skin, like thin, hot fingers probing his cheek, his hands, his chest…

The heat spread, engulfing his entire body. He unfroze, began to come alive. His fingers and facial muscles began to twitch uncontrollably, and his newly reborn ears heard a whisper.

“Don’t try to move… easy there… just try to breathe… that’s it!”

A muffled scream tore free of his lips and he landed on all fours on the ground, a pair of hands catching him before his face hit the floor.

The heat faded and suddenly, he was shivering, cold... So cold...

 

*

 

Lana’s Safehouse, Zakuul

Lana Beniko held Arro with one arm, and wrapped the thick blanket she had brought around his shoulders with the other.

He was trembling, shaking like a leaf, cold from the forced hibernation he had endured.

“Lana?” he gasped, as he shakily threw his arms around her. “Is that you? I can’t see you! I can’t see anything!”

“Shhh! It’s okay my Love… hibernation sickness.  You’ve been under a long time. It will pass.”

She heard her companion whistle a questioning tone, and replied. “Yes, TeeSeven, he’s okay. He’ll be fine with some rest.”

“TeeSeven is here too?” Arro coughed, looking blindly in the Astromech's general direction. “My little buddy to the rescue!”

TeeSeven rolled closer and Arro pulled the droid into their embrace. “It’s really you! You came! Both of you!” He was sobbing quietly. Through their bond she could feel his explosion of emotions; joy, his gratitude. His love... “Is anyone else there? Kira? Doc? Theron?”

“It’s just us for now my Knave,” Lana said, holding back her own tears with the greatest difficulty. After years of terrifying silence, months agonizing over whether Arro, her Knave, was alive or not, their bond had been reestablished, and the strength of it overwhelmed her!

How long had she dreamed of this moment? How much work had she put into making this moment a reality? And now here he was. Here they were!

She failed valiantly in her effort to hold back her tears, she exclaimed, “You’re back! You’re really back!” and pulled her husband and their Astromech friend into a tighter hug. Across their connection her mind vaulted the fence separating their psyches and their minds -their hearts- engulfed each other; the familiar feeling of being whole- of one soul, living as two, reunited, and time seemed to stop as she laughed, cried and laughed some more all at once.

 

*

Chapter Text

Chapter VII: Catching Up

 

Suffering from Hibernation Sickness as he was, Lana had to turn Arro over to the care of Medical Droid N8-J01 for a thorough medical analysis. But even this failed to dampen her high spirits. Years of searching, years of planning, years of running full speed on nothing but desperate hope-- had finally borne fruit! This moment was one of undiluted triumph!

Soon, they would need to return to tackling the problems facing the galaxy. But that could wait.

Here, now, Lana’s face was flushed pink and she was trembling with barely contained glee and was so restless that she was quite unable to sit down. Bouncing on the balls of her toes and humming a merry tune she had spent the day beginning the process of wiping away all evidence of their work here- hers and TeeSeven’s. 

There was much to be done. The main computer had to be scoured clean of all records before being dismantled and each part separately discarded. Before that they had to double-check that there was no information left on the Computer that didn’t already have copies safely with her allies. The Datapads likewise.

All of this Intel had been rock solid-- her smooth heist in one of Zakuul’s most heavily guarded facilities was proof of that. She had no doubt that a lot of this information could find use, again. She wasn’t about to delete any of it unless she was sure that Theron and the others had it too.

She left the job of wiping out all traces of her cover to TeeSeven while she scrubbed all of their gear and got it ready for disposal. She normally had to do such a thing on her own, but Arro’s Astromech was amazingly talented, even for a droid of his kind.

Mind racing through the night’s events, she began mentally compiling a report of the mission, for when she would write it down. A post-action checklist of all of the things that had been part of the plan-- and a list of things that had gone awry --of which there were none today. Such a smooth operation she’d not known since… Forever! 

She recalled for later the tinier things that she had noticed while on mission. The sensitive documents and material that had been left carelessly in the open, all around the offices, of people who assumed that their security measures would be more than good enough to keep their work secure. And while spotless clean, she had noticed that these desks weren’t the best organized. Papers and Datacards weren’t well stacked, a pile in the ajar cabinet in the corner which had the look of something that was routinely searched through for misplaced items.

This was all in line with what she knew of Zakuul; they were a complacent people. Everything provided for- basic necessities, medical care, education, opulent luxuries and security. A welfare state that would have left the Republic feeling jealous in its perfection. In fact, Lana herself had been quite enchanted with how benevolent the Zakuulan home government was.

But successful though it had been, it had the drawback of its citizens being a little too faithful in the omnipotence of their Rule. Complacency killed. Peace is a lie.

But more importantly, the benevolence was a sham. A smokescreen to hide the Despotic tyranny of their Emperor. 

Hundreds of citizens had gone missing for questioning Arcann’s rule. Thousands more had fled, turned refugee. Even in private.On foreign policy, Zakuul was ruthless and cruel, often content with swift and brutal recriminations against any flare-ups.

Lana wondered if it had been like this under Arcann’s predecessor-- the Immortal Emperor Valkorion. About him, she knew no Zakuulan who had but words of praise. He had been worshipped as a god.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the chime of her comm. “Master Lana,” Ennate Joi greeted her. “I have completed your husband’s checkup. Would you please join me in the Main Bedroom?”

 

*

 

Lana desperately hoped that she had misheard Ennate. “Carbonite… Poisoning ?” 

“Indeed, Master,” the Medical Droid nodded. “It is an almost unique affliction; the overwhelming majority victims of imperfect freezing simply die. However, in rare cases the subject is taken into induced hibernation as intended; the biological processes are indeed frozen. And yet it does have an adverse affect on their nervous system. His most obvious symptom, by far, will be the pain. It will be a constant companion for the rest of his life. Nausea and migraines will become common. He may observe periods of intense, explosive flare-ups that may render him unconscious. Perhaps for days at a time. He might also find himself tiring suddenly, reflexes dulling, strength fading, vision swimming. Doctor’s recommendation: he should avoid prolonged exertion, and only enter open combat when there is no other choice.”

The first thing Lana felt was relief that Arro’s life was not in danger. Then she began thinking how it would affect him- as a man almost defined by his love of Martial art. 

But then, with a start, the bigger picture forced itself into the front of her mind. This would cause problems in the effort to resist Arcann. Most of her allies had needed a figurehead to rally around, someone who had already done the impossible before. While there were a few others who could take up the torch- and Lana reluctantly allowed that given her skills and accomplishments, she herself was one such- Arro was the best as an icon who could face the likes of Arcann and Vaylin, perhaps Darth Nox as well, in single combat. He was the very picture of the romantic Knight-Errant from the old tales- always in the thickest of the fighting, virtuous to the point of purity, compassionate even towards his enemies, bound by his word, and with an impenetrable integrity.

Although he did have his share of flaws as well, he could be the soul of their Alliance in a way no other being alive could: give them a legitimacy that few others could have. Once upon a time, there had been Darth Prowle, but now…

“He is alright now,” Joi said gently, “but for the Hibernation sickness. That should pass with some rest. I will power down until I am needed again.” 

With that, he left, leaving her alone with her trepidation. As she watched, Arro stirred and woke.

“What’s wrong, Wolf?” He asked. His voice was still weak. He was still drowsy from the painkillers and anesthesia. But the note of love she heard in his voice brought some light back to her soul. And through their bond, she could sense his love, his concern. A bond that had gone silent for- for so long!

“I’ve missed you so much, Knave,” she smiled. His own face blossomed into a smile- her heart skipped a beat. Then he scooted a little, and cocked his head into the space beside him.

“Will you join me, my Love?”

Lana’s grin widened, almost splitting her face in half. The bed wasn’t so small that they’d need to squeeze, but oh no way in Hell was that going to stop her from sticking to him an a Ysalamir!

“With the deepest pleasure you can imagine!”

 

*

 

Lana glanced at the chrono on the bedside table. It was a little less than an hour before dawn.

She’d been startled awake at Arro’s strangled cry of distress- he’d woken from a particularly strong nightmare.

“I was shooting Lightning,” he said, staring at his trembling fingers with eyes wide as saucers. “The lightning was so dense it reduced two people to ashes!”

Lana had held his head at her chest comfortingly as he had wept, frightened. Whispering soothing words into his ear and through their link as his shoulders stopped trembling. He had eventually gone back to sleep, head still in her arms. But Lana had remained awake. Arro had told her of the first disastrous attempt to capture the Sith Emperor, led by Braga. Though Arro had defeated both the Emperor and his then-Wrath, Lord Scourge in lightsaber combat, the ancient entity had overwhelmed his mental defenses and twisted his mind to the Dark Side. His and that of three other Jedi, all Masters.

Arro had been… less than optimistic about their odds from the start and had said so to the Council. Repeatedly. But they had believed in Braga’s plan, and Arro had had to go along with it.

The result had been him spending eight months as the Emperor’s top enforcer- his Whip.

Masked in shadow and whispers as much as armour, Arro had become Lord Trykhgar. In those eight months the Emperor had dyed his hands red with blood- some of it innocent. A Sith so brutal that he earned the absolute fear of even the deadliest Sith.

The monster that he had become had vanished when he’d shaken off the spell. But many of his forgotten memories had reemerged with a vengeance years later, when they were hunting Revan’s shadow, and their resurgence had left him shaken for months.

Perhaps there were more resurfacing? Hopefully not. Hopefully his besieged consciousness had merely conjured up an image that terrified him. Trykhgar had left more scars in Arro than anyone deserved to have, without hints that Arro had once disintegrated someone.

Well… it was nearing dawn. She had work to do today, and would have to leave the Safehouse early, leaving Arro to continue his recovery. She needed to have a talk with him before she left. 

To mentally prepare him for the fight that was to come.

Sighing, she shook Arro awake.

“Wake up my Love. We need to talk.”

 

*

 

She had talked, and he had listened with complete attention as she recounted Ennate’s analysis for him. They were seated at her table, two mugs of steaming Tea before them. He sighed when she was done.

“Well, if that’s how it is then that’s how it is. It’s still good to know that it’s not going to kill me. Or leave me confined to bed.”

Lana nodded. He’d taken that news as quickly as she’d expected him to. But now she addressed an issue she didn’t know if he could handle.

“My Love… How long do you think it has been? Since you were encased in Carbonite, I mean?”

Arro’s expression grew wary as he shook his head in response; he was expecting a strong blow. 

“It’s… been five years, my Love.”

His jaw dropped. “Five years?”

She nodded, allowing silence to fall as that first piece of news sunk in.

“What has happened?” He asked, rather in a daze.

“Things… have gotten much worse than when we last met. So much worse…” 

Lana inhaled unsteadily, running a hand through her hair. She had pictured this conversation so many times earlier, but now that it was here she felt unsure. Afraid. She was familiar with the game in the shadows, but soon they’d be openly fighting Arcann, a thought she found scary.

“Zakuul’s Eternal Fleet is vast. It is automated and requires far less in the way of resources to maintain than you’d imagine. Their sensor technology outdistances our own, and the ships are faster. Require much less fuel. Only ships retrofitted with Isotope Five could outrun them, but in a straight up fight, competing was difficult. It was vast enough, and flexible enough, to allow Arcann to strike at both Sith and Republic at the same time. They favoured ambush tactics in the war. They disabled the bulk of our naval forces in months. But their campaign… it was the trade that was truly devastated. They routinely attacked shipping lanes, manufacturing worlds, agriworlds… the loss of equipment was bad enough, but the food…! Billions of tonnes of food was simply destroyed, the populations they should have fed left to starve. Coruscant was particularly devastated… you know how difficult it is to stockpile food for a population of that size. And that was before it was directly under siege.”

Swallowing, Lana debated whether to give him a clearer picture of the suffering. But there was little choice, and no doubt he could sense some of her own lingering feelings from when she had heard about it, feelings that were returning now that she recounted them. Inhaling again, she resumed. “They moved everyone but troops to quarter rations after the first month. After the second month the populace turned against each other. The billions of homeless and poor accused the rich and powerful of hoarding, and further accused them of prioritising themselves over the so-called “less critical people”.”

“They were probably not wrong,” Arro said, looking sick. His emotions were a muted storm; contained, but existent.

“There were riots in the streets all over the world. The situation was the same on many major worlds like Corellia, Dromund Kaas, Balmorra and others, but none nearly as bad as a planet with over a trillion residents.”

“How bad…?” he asked. She could sense his dread; he expected the answer to be devastating.

“Too many,” Lana sighed. “The system just couldn’t keep up. Broke down completely. Estimates say one in every seven died. Around a hundred and ninety billion… on Coruscant alone.”

Arro’s jaw dropped. His wide eyes filled with tears and he seemed to fight a wave of nausea.

Reluctantly, Lana continued. “The first deaths from starvation were reported within the third month. The children, the aged and the infirm were the ones hurt the most. People began to just… drop dead as they tried to live. In their beds, at their tables, in their speeders, or at work- they just collapsed. In most poorer districts no one even had the strength to carry the dead away. The bodies were just lying there until droid patrols reached them. The piles of dead also caused some plagues to tear through the more tightly packed sectors. Then there were the riots…”

Arro could take no more. He stumbled out of his chair but his weak knees failed. But with Lana’s help he just managed to reach the fresher before retching.

He was sobbing, a crazed look in his eyes. “This is all my fault, isn’t it? For killing Valkorion?” He asked before heaving again.

“No it wasn’t.” Lana was unsurprised with his conclusion. Not only was it just like him to think so, it was what many out there in the galaxy believed. “Arcann, and Arcann alone, is responsible for the suffering he has caused. Even the Sith Empire hadn’t been so brutal in its war with the Republic.”

When he was finally feeling a bit better he washed his face, his mouth, trying to get the taste of bile out of his mouth. But there would be no easy escape from his horror. She gently led him out, and back to the table.

His face was contorted in tears, but he found his voice. “When we faced him,” he whispered, “We knew right away. He was the Sith Emperor, Lana! There was no mistaking it!”

 Lana nodded. “I know. Everyone who had felt his presence felt the aftershock his death produced. And we connected that to Valkorion fairly quickly. And believe me, there are few who have heard of  what happened on Ziost who didn’t sympathize with the urgency to kill the Sith Emperor.”

She left unsaid that the vast majority of the galaxy wouldn’t take the Jedi’s word that Valkorion had indeed been another incarnation of the dreaded Emperor. Probably even Imperial citizens wouldn’t believe the Sith, though they would never say so out loud.

However, her sources did say that while they blamed him for starting the war, people also accepted that he might have had good reason. That there was more to the story than a cowardly murder, rejecting the premise that he could be such a senseless killer. Such was the power of a spotless reputation. The moderation of the hatred and venom people normally held for those they held responsible was frankly astonishing.

He was silent for a time, but then looked up at her again.“How did it end?” She could feel his daze as he struggled to keep up- his world seemed to be spinning in his head, but he seemed to have stopped it from falling apart altogether.

“Both sides signed an unconditional surrender… but it wasn’t the Supreme Chancellor or the Dark Council that did it. Both were circumvented. Saresh refused to talk about surrender, so a cadre of Senators passed a motion that overruled her. All of them have since then, been discredited or disgraced. The Dark Council was devastated, and no one was anywhere to be found at all so it was the Minister of Logistics, Minister Davidge who negotiated the surrender. As a result, both sides had to pay a heavy annual tribute, one that’s so heavy that it’s stunting efforts to rebuild. They have also been forced to sign an arms limitations agreement. After the smoke cleared, Darths Acina and Vowrawn were the only survivors of the war. Acina claimed the title of Empress, with Vowrawn’s backing. Chancellor Saresh had to step down after she reached her term limits recently, but even she makes no bones about her replacement being her puppet. The Republic is in a State of Emergency, which allows her and her puppet Chancellor to rule with an Iron Fist. Both sides have since then resumed their mutual war, which Arcann does nothing to stop so long as Zakuul isn’t challenged.”

“But…  where are the Jedi? Masters Satele, and Zoran? Surely they don’t stand behind the regime? And what happened to Darth Nox? Or Prowle?”

“The war was hard on both Jedi and Sith. The Jedi Order was almost wiped out. There were only four Masters left alive- Masters Satele, Zoran, Gnost-Dural and Cedral Gend. Eighty-one knights-- including Kira Carsen.” she added before he could ask. “Master Shan took the loss quite hard. Resigned from the Order. Disappeared shortly afterwards, and she’s living in exile. Masters Zoran and Gnost-Dural left the Republic, and they took all of the surviving students- and many of the Knights- with them. They have since vanished, gone underground. It seems… that the Twi’leks from the Kalikori Village on Tython aided them in their venture. The Sith fared only a little better, there’s three hundred of us left. But most of them were more grunts than true Lords- the type that isn’t a glorious graduate of Korriban. They just got assigned to a Sith Lord’s retinue, rather than become apprentice to an influential Lord. They are all not trained to be anything but guards and overseers. Only fifteen of them are Darths, not counting Empress Acina. But the Academies were hit, and most of the overseers and mentors are dead. There are few left to train Sith.”

“As for Kai’rene… Darth Prowle…” Lana continued sadly. “She was asked to join the Council and lead the Spheres of Military Defense… and, temporarily, Offense. She held the position for little more than a month, during which she made the Zakuulan Navy pay dearly for each victory. She forced them to fight drawn-out battles rather than hit-and-run battles-- I’ll give you the details later-- but she knew that it was only a matter of time before Zakuul won. So she planned a daring move, one during which she gave her fellow Councillors a shot at the Capital of Zakuul itself. She gave herself up as bait. A sacrifice to draw out Arcann and almost the entirety of his fleet. After a vicious battle that went on for days, Arcann killed her himself.”

Arro was stunned. “Kai’rene… dead?”

Lana nodded, sighing heavily, then continued. “Vowrawn, Ravage and Nox flew to Zakuul when Arcann was fully engaged, but when they saw that Zakuul was undefended, they delayed their attack, hoping they could persuade the others to join them. Before they could attack, a small part of the fleet, under Vaylin, returned and engaged them. She killed Ravage, and damaged Nox’s ship enough that her ship could only manage one more jump, but Vowrawn got away clean. Darth Nox was pursued and captured shortly after. Vaylin was intrigued enough to lead the force personally. She and Nox fought an epic battle on Begeren, but Nox was only just defeated. She was kept as a prisoner for a while, to show Zakuul’s superiority… but she has since pledged allegiance to Zakuul.”

“What?”

“Specifically, to Vaylin. And from all accounts, she did so of her own free will, gladly, and without any ulterior motive. She is absolutely loyal to Vaylin. And Vaylin, for her part, is so confident of her loyalty that Nox-- or rather Akahte as she prefers now-- has a free run. She can come and go as she pleases. And she’s made no attempt to either escape or to kill Arcann or Vaylin. I have no idea what it was that Vaylin earned her loyalty. Only that it is absolute.” 

Arro ran a hand through his hair, and sighed. He was shaking all over, a dazed look in his eyes. The news had him utterly shocked. “A lot has happened, hasn’t it?” He said before falling into silence. After a few minutes, he spoke up again.

“So Arcann defeated Darth Prowle?”

“Not quite,” Lana said. “He got to her after she had already been exhausted. She had run herself so ragged she actually had a seizure during the confrontation. He struck when her guard had crumbled.”

“Well I see that he hasn’t changed” Arro said hotly. To Lana’s expression of surprise, he added, “He’s the one who forced the confrontation between myself and Valkorion, you know. Destroyed my restraints and attacked him, hoping that I would join him in crushing our mutual enemy.”

“And you did. You had no other choice.”

“Not… quite? I waited until Valkorion had already defeated his son. And even then, I allowed him the chance to end it peacefully.”

“You allowed Valkorion to attack you first?” Lana didn’t know if she was amused or abashed. “You do know it’s a miracle he’s dead and you’re not, don’t you?”

“Actually, he’s still not been vanquished. Just like before, when I struck down his body, there was a blinding flash and I heard his laughter around me. He might be dead, but he’s not gon-”

Arro started suddenly, coming back to himself as though he’d had a great revelation.

“Oh my fuckin goodness!” He said, and Lana immediately looked up; it was rare for him to drop the F-bomb.

“Lana,” he said, despair clouding his face and terror flooded their bond. “I think Valkorion is inside me! That dream, the Lightning! I remember now! Those Knights were going to execute me and suddenly I was moving on my own, a different voice seemed to come alive inside me, and I shot out a fist of lightning from my hands! It was powerful, too powerful- it cooked the Knights alive and melted through durasteel and ferrocrete! He’s inside my head Lana! He’s inside my head!”

Chapter Text

Chapter VIII - Audience

 

Silence prevailed for what seemed like an eternity. A cold horror filtered across the bond, and Lana’s eyes were wide, her mouth open.

“No,” she gasped. She closed her eyes, and Arro felt the desperate fingers of her mental probe as it trembled through his mind. “No! He can’t have you! I won’t let him, not without a fight!”

Lana uttered a choked cry, and she grabbed Arro in a fierce hug-- a hug that was mirrored by her inner self, on their psychic level. Arro felt his mind enveloped by Lana’s and he could sense the strength of feeling behind her conviction--her determination to protect him--not only from the Emperor, but the entire Galaxy, if she had to.

Faced with Lana’s fierce love, Arro felt a flood of relief course through his mind. Letting out his breath in a choked laugh, he returned her bear-hug. “Thank you my Love, thank you!”

Her strength bolstered his; after an eternity of feeling vulnerable, he felt his confidence return. The deepest sense of gratitude surged through him-- one that he could not hope to articulate, but which thanks to their bond he could share without having to say a word anyway. 

And he did, flooding the channel with his deepest thanks, and felt her delighted shudder in response. Leaning back, he placed a tight kiss on the side of her head.

Yes, he was feeling his confidence return-- With her at his side, he would face whatever came their way. 

 

*

 

Lana seemed most reluctant as she prepared to leave. She had to meet her contacts, a holoconference she would be attending from an abandoned warehouse in another sector. 

Though the meeting itself was scheduled for 1030 hours, Lana was departing at 0830, for, as she explained, they weren't ready to leave this safehouse just yet. Not until he was in better shape. 

As a precaution, she would not be sending any signals from here until the moment came. 

But with the revelation of Valkorion's presence she seemed afraid to leave Arro alone, even for a few hours. 

Her utter unwillingness to go compelled him to speak up. "I can come with you, then" 

The suggestion seemed to be as a lifeline to her, but again, she grudgingly shook her head. "No. If Arcann learns that you have broken out… No, we aren't ready to declare ourselves just yet. Besides, you need to rest.  Best if you lie low for now." 

"Then don't worry," he said. "Focus on the task at hand. I'll be here when you return. Oh, and Lana?"

“Yes, Darling?”

“Before we leave Zakuul, there’s something I’d like to look for, out in Zakuul. Something of great interest I noticed when I was in Orbit, being brought before the Emperor.” Lana’s yellow eyes narrowed to slits. “ We’ll need a shuttle, ten to twenty miniature probe droids. Maybe a few Portable Excavators and generators.”

“Consider it done. As it happens, there’s an Industrial Droid shop close to where our extraction team is standing by. They should be able to acquire them.”

With that she left the safehouse, TeeSeven trailing along behind her.

Arro suppressed a grimace as another wave of pain gripped his chest, his shoulders; his vision blurred for a few seconds and he had to take support from a nearby desk to keep from falling over through the dizziness. He shook his head to clear the fog. He was still a ways from recovered. It would be best if he went back to sleep, as Joi had recommended as much rest as possible for the next three days. 

 

*

 

Arro walked weightlessly through a misty world of half-formed rock bridges floating close beneath what looked like a tableau of a space battle. Republic and Sith warships burned under the barrage of Eternal Navy Warships. The Capital vessels--bereft of shields, by the look of them-- were pockmarked by explosions where shots had penetrated the armor and damaged the hull. There were other, smaller explosions and debris fields around them where smaller vessels had already been destroyed. It was too far to make out for certain, but he didn’t see any signs of Escape pods fleeing the downed ships.

They had been caught with their shields down, much as the Task Force had been on that fateful day. Arro was seeing a sculpture of what Lana had said: through their technology, speed and coordination, Zakuulan ships dominated the spaces. Beyond the battle, the stars kept their constant vigil.

“I have always loved the stars.”

Arro turned around, and saw an old man with a bone white beard and in ornate white robes. Valkorion.

Heart sinking, he greeted him with a nod. “I think I know what you mean: each one tells sings its life’s songs always... singing -- or so it feels through the Force--and there are so many of them! It’s an ocean of songs, stories and glimmering light. Even you couldn’t hear more than a fraction of what they had to say, with all your years of life… it makes sense that you’d love the music.”

“Hah!” the Immortal Emperor chuckled. “You have some gift with words, I see! I didn’t take you for a poet. Did you compose any about me?”

“A poet with a sword. What I can’t defeat with the sword, I beat with the pen,” Arro quipped. “Yes, I did write some about the Sith Emperor. But you’re not him-- not quite. You’re different., even though you are the same.”

Valkorion shrugged comfortably. “Well, perhaps you could share some of it with me sometime? I expect to be here a while.”

Arro felt a chill seize his spine and he swallowed the desire to ask How long? Instead, he swallowed a breath and said, “Why not? I’d be a terrible host if I didn’t entertain you. Besides, it’s probably best if I spend less time and energy bickering.”

Valkorion chuckled darkly and Arro decided that now was the time to get to it.

“So why are you here? You risked Arcann knowing where you were hiding, when instead you could have retreated somewhere far, waited and watched from a distance. And now you speak to me directly.”

“Why, hmmm? A good question indeed. To call you a Jedi is an injustice-- you are far more complete than one. You have earned my respect. And since we were talking about songs and poetry... Even as you killed me, I decided that your song was far from complete. I wanted to see it play out in full. For this Galaxy burns, and you are quite an entertaining Fireman. As for my return? I can do that whenever I choose. For I am beyond death’s reach. I can wait and watch a thousand years. Or ten. Even more.”

“If that’s true then what was the point of Ziost?”

“Your Republic, and the Sith, they seemed content to go back to killing each other simply out of habit. I foresaw that if I did not intervene then, you and others like you would grow weary and burn out-- that would have been a waste of good talent. Ziost was a reminder that I was still out there, the danger I posed. A call to the Galaxy to align behind a greater purpose.”

“You’re different as Valkorion. But not noble. Vaylin showed me her scars, told me what you did to her.”

“And yet there is always reason behind my actions. Always. Do not forget that. Vaylin was powerful, but volatile. I needed to control the danger she posed.”

“How did that go? She seemed ready to stab you the second her chains faltered for even an instant!”

For the first time, Valkorion fidgeted. “Yes. That fool Jarak didn’t know the difference between breaking her sanity and breaking her will. I needed more than control, I needed her to submit completely. Yet even as she stood before me I could sense her burning hatred--and not a hint of submission. Her breaking-- her conditioning-- it allowed me to leash her. But like you said, she was waiting for the leash to snap. That was another reason I needed more power; to reinforce the chains.”

Arro felt his blood run cold at those words. “She is your daughter!”

“You must know by now that blood doesn’t mean the same to Sith as it does most peoples. To us, everyone is a potential rival. I myself killed my father and siblings centuries ago. Back then I did not yet see that I would shed the skin of Valkorion. I thought I would need her in perfect control for after the Great Ritual. The one you stopped when you killed the Sith Emperor on Dromund Kaas.”

Arro felt his knees turn into jelly; he stumbled to an outcropping of rock and eased his weight onto it. “” After the Great Ritual? ” Let me get this straight- you had a plan for after? I thought you were intent on consuming all life in the Galaxy, not just one world!”

Valkorion let out a bark of laughter. “And who told you that? Lord Scourge. He who betrayed everyone he ever followed. Present company excluded, of course. Oh, he didn’t lie. He merely misunderstood his vision. My aim wasn’t to swallow up the Galaxy, but to conquer it. Not as an Emperor. But a god. The Ritual was intended to have heralded a Dark Age into the Galaxy. It would have killed those on some worlds-- and the ensuing screech would create a surge in the Dark Side. One that would have driven Jedi and Sith alike mad, while also affecting most other species. In ten years they would have fought with everything they had-- mutually assured destruction. And then I would step in-- with the Eternal Fleet and my augmented power-- I would do for the Galaxy what I did for Zakuul; raise it from the primitive mud-huts and into a Golden Age of peace and plenty, with myself as their god. That plan was squashed when you killed him. Zakuul and its Fleet alone isn’t enough for the scale of conquest I had intended. A conquest of the heart.”

“You don’t dream small, do you?”

“Why does this surprise you? You alone, in all the galaxy, were able to penetrate my cloak. You saw what I really am. You saw my fear-- but you saw my ambition too. My will.”

Arro was thunderstruck. He opened his mouth but coughed, finding it dry as parchment, and Valkorion continued, not allowing him to speak.

“Back to the question of “why”. Zakuul is the greatest power in the galaxy! A fleet larger than any that the Galaxy has seen, and an army of guardians for whom the Force is more than Light or Dark! But my children abuse their power. They squander Zakuul’s resources. Did you know that there are now over six hundred thousand Heavy Dreadnoughts in the navy? What a waste of resources! And for what? He won his war years ago. His continued arms buildup shows his paranoia, not his dominance. And Vaylin is now an unchained monster.”

The tableau before them had changed. They were now in the Throne Room again, with Arcann in the Seat. Several Sith, and some Senators, knelt in submission before him. Vaylin lurked behind the Throne. And a Shadow stood next to her. Beyond the transparisteel he could see the fleet. And the multitude of stars beyond.

“I’m surprised that you even had children. Or even a wife.”

Valkorion looked out into the stars

“I was even more different here on Zakuul than you know. I experienced pleasures that I had denied myself before. I even knew love. My wife was strong and willful. Too strong. When I imprisoned Vaylin on Nathema, she attempted to break her out. An attempt that would have succeeded… had she not already been too late. Vaylin rejected her, and she was crushed. She went into exile after that. Living on the fringes of my Empire. Where she thought she was beyond my sight. But she was wrong; I watch her. I watch her everyday. And I miss her, even though she had the temerity to defy me. Perhaps that is why.”

He abandoned his ruminations, and turned to Arro. “We must deal with my errant son and daughter before they ruin the Galaxy. They are deadly, and worse; they lack discipline! It will take the both of us to bring them down-”

A soft giggle interrupted him. The Shadow stirred, and exerted its will on the Force around it, crossed into the Dream.

“My, oh my! Jedi Battlemaster Arro Silver!” The Shadow swirled, took form and shape… of a Twi’lek with a gaunt face, and pink skin. Akahte. Previously Darth Nox. “And who is this? Yes I have felt you before, on Yavin… you are my former Emperor… and also Valkorion! Oh I simply must call her as well!”

She reached for the Force again. And suddenly, Vaylin was alert and aware as well. She looked around in wild confusion as Akahte stood defensively in front of her. 

Valkorion looked uncertain. Disturbed.

“Spies, love. I noticed them watching us, through the Force.”

“Father…” Vaylin hissed. “Outlander… What is the meaning of this? You are supposed to be frozen in Carbonite! Your mind should be too static to do this- you have broken out! How! When?”

“His girlfriend, no doubt. Lana’s a crafty one. Sneaky too. How was your reunion?”

Arro finally managed to speak up. “Akahte. Why did you abandon the Sith? Why side with Zakuul?”

“Vaylin tells me she showed you her scars? That’s why.” Akahte moved her attention to Valkorion, eyes glaring with unhidden rage. “How could even one so twisted as you do this to a person? Let alone your daughter? When I saw the depths of hell you dragged her through, the chasm you created within her, I swore that I would dedicate myself to healing her.”

Valkorion had begun to fade when she turned her attention on him. Now he was gone entirely, leaving Arro alone to face the two women. 

“Did you just cut him off?” Vaylin said, amused. Her rage had subsided, and Arro saw something different about her. Happier. A true, purer kind of happy than what she had seemed capable of in the dungeon. 

Proof that Akahte was indeed working to vanquish her demons.

“So we meet again, Jedi. Not really in the flesh, but I intend to rectify that. I’m coming for you.”

And with that she lashed out, and the dream world disintegrated- Arro stumbled out of bed with a splitting headache, dashing for the emergency footlocker.

Chapter Text

Chapter IX - Conference

 

Tau District, New Rinara Town, Zakuul 

There were times when Koth Vortena didn’t feel confounded about why he had agreed to participate in Lana’s crazy plan. But those times were always few, and far in between. 

Most days, when there was little else to occupy his mind, he would dedicate all his focus on the mystery of why he had agreed to such an insane plan. 

There had been a time, when he had been younger, when he would do anything to see a smile on a pretty face; but those days were long past, and Lana was not quite the prettiest face he had ever seen. Oh sure, there was a certain charm about her-- a sense of lightning and grace. Her professional demeanor was calm and friendly, yet carrying the undercurrent of a deadly, no-nonsense war-hawk. The sort that you didn’t fool around with, for fear of breaking a limb. But sometimes such women attracted attention specifically because they looked so forbidding.

Yet Lana wasn’t that either; so far as Koth knew, he was the only one who found her attractive in such a way. Most were instantly intimidated, and somehow-- somehow --more were able to completely ignore her presence, as if she were just another customer in a cantina.
How did they not notice that she was usually the deadliest threat in any room? It boggled the mind!

And it was her lost husband they were working to rescue. One of the few girls he had found himself attracted to since joining--and leaving-- the military, and she was already married. Just his luck. And he was helping her bust out her husband.
From a cogdamned Maximum Security facility!
He was out of his mind!

And then there was the husband himself. Arro Silver. Battlemaster of the Jedi Order. War Veteran. Hero.

Murderer .

He had been the one to kill their beloved Emperor. Initially, Arcann had claimed that he had struck like a coward, striking from behind. But after some years he had conceded that his father had not, in fact, been caught off guard. And that Arro had beaten him in a fair fight.

And while he still maintained the fiction that it was unprovoked, every man and his drunk uncle knew that the hostilities had begun months earlier-- and by Zakuul no less. The same action that had seen the death of Arcann’s twin brother, Thexan.

Military accounts confirmed that Arro had been part of a convoy that had been ambushed by the Eternal Fleet. They had been attacked while still beyond the border of their Empire, not within. And oriented in a different direction, in a thoroughly insufficient force, as though they had no idea who they were up against. 

Indeed, when the Eternal Empire had gone to war, the citizens of the Republic and Sith Empires didn’t even seem to know who they were. They had been too busy with their own squabbles.

No, despite the fiction Arcann tried to maintain, Zakuul was the aggressor in that war.

But then, Koth more than most knew that Arcann was a vicious tyrant. He understood that he had to be brought down. Even if the cost was high.

But he had been… uncomfortable -- to say the least-- about believing that Valkorion had been a threat that needed to be killed.

Oh, sure, he had taken some Sith Lord’s mocking challenge and gone to check out Ziost. Seen files about how it had been before the disaster, and seen what it was like afterwards.
But there was no way that that carnage had been caused by their benevolent Emperor! It didn’t make any sense!

Lana had gently told him that as Valkorion he had shown a different face here on Zakuul, one which he wanted his citizens to see as the fount of all their blessings.
To be their god.
And that made sense in that… it made too much sense. Valkorion really had been seen as a god by his people--one responsible for all their prosperity.
It was just difficult to see how that had all been just a front. A sham.

Perhaps that’s why he wanted to meet this Jedi; to see who he was. If he was the sort who would never kill unless pressed, as his reputation claimed. A Noble Knight, just like from the stories.
Lana had laughed, and said that he was only mortal-- with his share of flaws and failings-- but she had agreed that his reputation of not killing unless pressed was accurate.

Koth wondered what he would believe when he met the man. Whether he would have to deal with the hardest of facts. That everything he had ever believed in--and fought for while in the Military-- was a lie.

While he often reached this conclusion he was usually quick to discard it too-- for now at least. Otherwise… he’d have to start coming to terms with the fact that reality was a different truth than he had ever known.

His thoughts were interrupted by his chrono chiming at 1029 hours-- a minute before the meeting.
He didn’t bother making himself presentable. Lana had insisted that he use heavy encryption software. The comm channel was secure, and if there was one thing the coreworlders had better than Zakuul, it was Cyber safety. By miles.
But she had replied that Zakuul was not the only side she was worried about.

Instead, callers were all hidden-- but objects that they held were not. Nor were their immediate surroundings-- done so that each knew where in the Galaxy the caller was. Approximately at least. Somewhat?

And in case they were attacked, in which case details about the ambush would be crucial to record.
Sometimes Lana seemed a little too paranoid. He wondered where that came from-- most Sith didn’t care about such contingencies.

1030 hours. Right on cue, the comm pinged, and Lana came online. Punctual as ever.
Others would take a few minutes to come online.

“Hey there Winter!” Using her codename. “How’s it going, girl?”

From behind him, the Bronzium armored wardroid that he was currently teamed up with--HK-55, who sometimes exasperated Koth-- spoke up. 
“Greeting: It is a pleasure to see you alive and well Master!”

“Hello Leopard, HK,” came her greeting, emotion drained by the voice filter, but Koth imagined that she was looking very happy right now. If she had failed, surely he would have heard of it?
“HK, I’m sending you a small requisitions list. Can you see it filled? Top priority.”

“Acknowledgement: Consider it done, Master.
Assessment: Hmmm: droids; for search and excavation. Hunting for lost treasure are we?”

“Perhaps,” came the response, and this time Koth was certain there was amusement from the other end. “Can you get it done within the hour? I might have details tomorrow, but I’m not sure.”

“At your service,” HK responded, heading for the door.

“What’s the matter, Winter? Something hasn’t gone wrong, has it?”

“Oh no, Leopard. Just something I learned after the op. I’ll give you more details as I get them.”

Huh. So she had a lead, promising but lacking details.

“Acknowledged.”

Others had started to come online. Koth knew two of them. One was his Lieutenant--Len Parvek-- codenamed Liger. The other was the Republic Spy, Theron Shan, codenamed Teff’ekkwithes. He refused to drop the name, and only snickered when asked what it meant. He also spoke terrible Basic while using the name, and Koth had a feeling it was something personal, an homage that other people wouldn’t understand. Had to be something to make Mr Serious of all people laugh.

The others were codenamed Valor, Mystic, Lady Luck, Lip, Spade, and Duty.

“I’ve heard nothing at all from my end,” Duty began. “No alerts, no alarms. No covert activity. I suppose that means you were either successful, or gave up your mad venture.”

“Indeed, the op was quiet and smooth as planned.”

A chorus of relieved exclamations came from each of the others, and Theron spoke up.

“Well you wann us ter congraterlate you or somethin? Get with it! give us the dee-brief!”

“She just pulled off the greatest heist Zakuul hasn’t even seen yet, Teff’ekkwithes! Congrats are in order, and a hearty one at that!” Duty admonished.

“Indeed, I saw your success Winter,” Mystic said in serene tones. “But am glad nevertheless. That was a job well done.” Mystic always spoke softly, and implied Farsight, causing Koth to be reminded of the Scions.

“Yes, yes, but how did you fare with your secondary objectives?” Lip asked. 

Lana started. “Oh, I completely forgot about those… only teasing,” she added when Lip and Valor started to voice their dismay. “There was nothing else of terrible value in the vault--no game-changing designs, schematics or plans-- that seemed relevant. But I did get a lot of information. Details of some important projects--including their locations. The Vault’s reports from the past few years-- hopefully there’ll be something of value in those. And yes, I got a lot of information on the Space stations too. Sending the summary now-- I’ve already dispatched the full data by courier. It should reach Red Hulls base in a few days.” 

“Excellent news Winter,” Valor said with obvious satisfaction. “I know what this Jedi has achieved but even he is just one man. Datafiles, intel! These can get us somewhere!”

“Yeh yeh so hows the greenboy?” Theron asked. “You two got your lil kissy kissy reunion over with? Seen enuf of you twos for a lifetime-- OWWWW!” Theron yelped as a boot flew off a nearby rack and smacked him in the back of the head.

“There was some unexpected trouble there,” Lana said cooly as Koth, Len and Lady Luck laughed. “Carbonite poisoning. But it’s not lethal… and it should still be okay for him to-” she faltered for a moment before rallying. “To fight. And Hibernation sickness takes a while to wear off as well.”

“What all you tell 'im bout the state of the Galaxy?” Theron asked.

“I might have gone into more detail than I should have,” Lana sounded regretful. “Gave him a clearer picture of the losses.”

“Reminds me of the time my good-for-nothing scamp pulled me out of Carbonite,” Lady Luck said sympathetically. “I told ya girl! “Take it easy, not burden him with too much!” Took me weeks to get over the headache. And the fever too. Nasty! You should have given him at least a month before the heavy details.”

“I wasn’t sure if we had much time,” Lana said uneasily. “We’re in hostile territory here, and he deserved to know. We are asking him to be the Spearhead of our resistance effort after all, and he needs time to come to terms with how much has changed.”

“And whens that happ'ning again?” Theron asked.

“We leave the city tomorrow, as planned, but I’ve been made aware of a different opportunity. Here, on Zakuul. I have no idea what it is, but he Saw something through the Force… something important. It could take us a while to pinpoint it.”

“I wish you could make it clearer to us non-Forcers,” Valor grumbled. 

“It’s not just you, Valor,” Duty spoke up. “Even Wielders can get frustrated by the Force sometimes. Often.”

So Duty was a Force-Wielder! And someone who was in a position to hear about any covert alarm bells! Perhaps they were a Zakuul Knight? Koth had met more than a few who had been disaffected by Arcann’s regime. Lana had taken a great risk scouting among the active Knights. But then, Koth was sure that Duty went back even farther with Lana than he did. Back then there hadn’t been a group. Only Lana with a shadow of a plan; born of hope and longing. In the two years since then…

Koth suppressed a shudder thinking about how much Lana had achieved on pure determination alone. Master Arro really had to be something to get this kind of loyalty. And from a woman like her too. All of the others seemed to respect him a great deal as well. More signs that they were on the right track.

“Now tell us about the preparations, Spade,” Lana said. 

Silent hitherto, Spade spoke up with crisp professionalism. “The next phase can begin immediately. I’ve made all preparations--resources, contracts, provisions and material. Give the signal and I can get the entire machine moving with a single button.”

“Wow, really?” Lady Luck said. “Tell me you’re exaggerating!”

“Not at all, Lady Luck. Planning and arranging exchanges, large scale coordination, has always been my forte. And I’ve been planning this move for months. And do be proud of yourself as well-- your contacts helped greatly making this happen.”

“Are you certain you can’t join us for the action?” Valor said. “I could use a planner like you. We all could.”

“I’m deeply sorry, sir, but I have been quite ill for some time. I agreed to help Winter because what she asked could be done from within my recovery pod. And because I owed her. And I liked that Jedi too. But for the next phase you will need people with more energy… more mobility...” He sounded dejected at that.

“It’s okay, Spade,” Lana said soothingly. “There are similar jobs you can do from where you are. You can continue to help us, and the galaxy, by helping small teams and planning such major events. And even if you don’t, you have done so very much already! No one else could have put this organisation together like you did, so quickly.”

“And are there any-- jobs?” Spade asked, sounding hopeful.
Koth suddenly realized what was happening and felt deep pity for this man. He had dedicated his life to service. He had found meaning, purpose. He reveled in being useful. Surrendering to the isolation of his recovery… that would be worse than death for this man.

“Yes,” Theron said first. “Got friends out there negoteatin more funds, more equipment more contracts. Could help us tons if someun could co wardinate em. Shall I send you the details?”

“Thank you, Teff’ekkwithes,” Spade said, bowing, sounding delighted despite the filter. It was kinda funny to hear him say Theron’s codename with that professional voice of his. “May I disconnect, Winter? My part here is done, I can speak with Teff’ekkwithes later.”

“Very well,” Winter said, and Spade’s image vanished. “What about the rest of you?”

“Well, with everything ready, we can move to Odessen right away,” Valor said. “We can begin building, training. Gathering our forces and seeing exactly what we have to work with at last. Maybe four months, we can start launching our first operations.”

“We located some of the missing Jedi,” Mystic said. “Those that didn’t go into exile with the Masters. They have started training hopefuls in the ways of the Force. And we also have some Sith with us now, and their own apprentices and acolytes. Both sides also brought together as many datacrons and teachings that they could, and have set up here on Red Hulls base. You won’t have an army of Wielders like the one the Republic and Empire had earlier, but perhaps they can be the seeds of the next generation.”

“I am ready to move my personal equipment,” Lip spoke up. Unlike the others, his icon didn’t have a holofeed. Just an avatar. Lana had explained that he was a non-humanoid species, and an easily recognizable one at that. “All of my fellow scientists and researchers are likewise ready to pack up and move to Odessen. We are eager for the Quest to begin!”

“Excellent,” Lana said with satisfaction. “In that case-”

She was interrupted by an urgent chime from her personal comm. “An emergency,” she said. Her voice sounded panicked through the filter. Enough so that she didn’t mute the conference, like she normally would have.

“Lana! We’ve got trouble,” Koth heard a shaky voice. Sharing Lana’s filter, it would have sounded just like hers, but the accent was different, and sounded weak. “It’s Nox-- her and Vaylin. They sensed me. They know I’m free, and they’re on their way!”

Chapter Text

Chapter X- Heading Out

 

Calm down. Calm down. Breathe. Yes, that’s it!

Lana turned her attention back to the conference and noticed with annoyance that she had failed to mute her mic. Her collaborators would have heard exactly what she had, and worse, they might realize just how bad the emergency call would have had to shake her up for her to throw caution to the wind.

They all knew of their marriage-- Lana had decided to be open with that fact right from the start because they would have to work together later. She would need their trust-- that she wasn’t just doing this for a captured husband and intended to remain in the fight. And they needed to know that they had hers. 

But for them to suspect the depth of her affection-- to know that she cared more for Arro’s well-being than for the effort to bring down Arcann-- Lana cringed.

“Well, there you have it,” she said to the conference. “They are onto us now.”

“Why arentcha runnin?” Teff’ekwithes-- Theron-- asked calmly. “Isn yor mate in danger? Move et!”

“Enough, please,” she cut him off. “Leopard, get ready to extract us. Prepare your shuttle and be ready to come for us the second we give you our coordinates. I’m sorry, but this meeting is adjourned. I’ll contact you all from Asylum when we’re ready to resume. I will signal the moment I land, and we can continue at 0800 hours Galactic Time the next day. Begin the move to Odessen in the meantime.”

 

*

 

“TeeSeven, head to the Security Network’s main hub, we’ll be relying on you to cover us.”

TeeSeven chimed acknowledgement, hurrying away to begin monitoring and thwarting Zakuulan efforts to pinpoint them.

She was still more than an hour and a half away from the safehouse, once she caught the next tram at-- she glanced at the chrono and sighed-- 1130 hours; she would never make it in time for the one that left at 1100. 

She could, of course, rent a speeder--which would allow her to begin moving sooner and be more flexible in her choice of routes-- but at the cost of overall travelling speed. She needed to decide.

For fear of interception and eavesdropping, Arro hadn’t stayed on the frequency long enough to discuss their next move. She reached for him through their link and was comforted to find that Arro was also calm. His mind was working fast but it wasn’t in panic. He would exercise caution. Knowing him, he would study some of her notes and abandon the house-- and travel away from the Vault she had spent months casing. The same notes would give him a good idea of the zone; allow him to look for and pick out places that were better suited for hiding.

Very well then; she had no idea where they could rendezvous. No clear destination.

Speeder it is then , she thought as she headed for the door.

Time:1055 hours

 

*

 

Panic solved nothing. Once he had warned Lana, Arro took a few minutes to calm down. Focus.

Once he had separated himself from the rush of fear and panic, he began to plan his next move.

Lana’s emergency supplies had never been meant for him-- she had never intended him to be alone for more than a few hours.
As such, they lacked the one thing that would have given Arro some measure of confidence-- a Lightsaber. His had been confiscated, probably in some evidence locker somewhere, and Lana never went anywhere without her Lightsaber in sight.

The Emergency supplies held some maps of the immediate area, with emphasis on escape routes, vantage points and hiding places. They also marked out places of interest like hotels, shops and public facilities of all kinds. There were notes about the major sectors and settlements across Zakuul. Ration bars-- enough to last two or three days. Neat packets of credit chips, around seventeen thousand in Zakuulan currency.

He looked through the closet and was relieved to find that Lana had some clothes made there to fit him. But on second thought, he looked at some of Lana’s own clothes… Most were quite utilitarian, as he’d expected, but there were also the casual sort that women wore in their daily lives. Forgettable, but definitely feminine. 

He grinned tightly. She’s never going to let me live this down. Not that I want her to, this is hilarious!

Trusting that she wouldn’t put in clothes that were too casual for Zakuul, he wore some of them quickly. He packed a few clothes in a satchel for later-- he didn’t want to dress as a woman for longer than he had to.
Using the mirror and makeup kit on the dresser he wore a little lipstick-- not too much, he hoped-- before trying the eyeliner and eye shadow and rouge. He looked at the result in the mirror, trying hard not to laugh. Next, he attempted to comb his hair in something of the styles that women would, and added a few bright bronze highlights on some of his locks.
He thought he looked fairly feminine right now. Perhaps it wasn’t too bad? Though he wasn’t sure what passed for such on Zakuul.
Come to think of it, would a Mirialan stand out here? Peeking out from behind the curtains quickly, he observed with satisfaction at least twenty people with skin of different shades of green.
Good!

“Master Jedi, you should be resting!” Joi protested, entering the room.

“We’ve been compromised, Joi,” Arro informed him.

“Ah. I see. Acknowledged.”

“What are your protocols in case of emergency?” 

“Master Beniko has already disposed of most of the crucial equipment and gear. I can wipe out all biological traces within an hour. Furthermore, she has provided me with an exit route that should get me to her allies offworld.”

“Do you have any weapons I can use? Any other equipment?”

“A pair of hold-out blasters. A standard glove-mounted computer, and an earpiece.”

“What about identification papers?”

“Stay away from all zones marked “Entry restricted”, and you should be fine.”

“Thank you, Joi. I appreciate all the care you have given me. May the Force be with you, and I hope we meet again soon!”

“Thank you, sir, and it was my pleasure” the Droid bowed. “May the Force serve you well… actually sir, if you don’t mind my saying, that makeup is poorly done! I must insist that you allow me to redo it for you!”

 

*

 

Arro cautiously stepped out of the building and into the street. Not a single one of the pedestrians gave him a second look. Good. 

With that out of the way, he took in the city around him. He couldn’t help but be amazed at it all! Valkorion hadn’t been exaggerating when he talked about the opulence of Zakuul.

He started at the thought. Then, hesitating, he reached within.

Any advice, Valkorion?

Sadly, no. Valkorion responded smoothly. As Emperor, I rarely had time to explore Zakuul on foot. But neither Arcann nor the Knights are trained in searching through the Force, so you can safely use it around them. Vaylin, on the other hand, has a hunter’s instinct. She will notice, if she is close enough. As for Darth Nox; you know her better than I.

Thank you , he acknowledged. Clearing his mind one final time, he joined the foot traffic.

Time: 1200 hours

 

*

 

It was Akahte who suggested that they determine when the body was frozen. After all, DNA tests would take a few hours, and they’d have to thaw the Outlander out. Once thawed, it would kill him if he were refrozen until he had recovered from the Hibernation Sickness. A month, usually. 

It wasn’t something anyone wanted. But testing the Carbonite itself-- getting the approximate age since the gas had been frozen, would be the quickest litmus test.

The report came back: sixteen days. Furthermore, it wasn’t a live body that was in there, but a well crafted replica. 

The guards and chief administrator finally stopped trying to assure them that no one could possibly have broken in undetected, let alone switch the prisoner with a decoy.

“Someone certainly planned well, don’t you agree Chief?” Akahte asked cheerfully.

“I... uh…” the poor man stammered. “I don’t understand how this could have happened! There must be a mistake!”

But Vaylin already had all the proof she needed. She reached out, and overloaded the internal circuits. The body was blown out of the case, and one glance was enough to tell everyone that it was inorganic.

“H-h-high Justice!” The Chief was sweating profusely now, his teeth chattering. “H-h-h-how c-c-could this happen? S-sec-security was-s-s airtight, I swear it!”

“Don’t you worry,” Vaylin assured him, even as his body was squashed into the ground by an unseen fist. The same Force channeled the splatter away from Vaylin and her exit route, splattering the walls with crushed blood, bone and tissue.
“Everybody makes mistakes.”

Some people screamed. Others retched, several Knights removing their helms just in time to avoid vomiting with them still on.

She led the way out, Akahte close behind, then resealed the Vault and jammed the controls, leaving the unlucky personnel inside trapped. She heard her confidante sigh, felt her Reach Out, and, following a brief pause allowing Vaylin the time to stop her, the Twi’lek removed the door from its frame. Vaylin shivered slightly, a small smile blooming on her lips. It awed her always, feeling someone else-- someone she actually liked-- using the Force with a strength comparable to her own. And though she never understood why, Akahte’s use of the Force always had a unique… flavor to it. Like her every use of it caused a sigh in the Dark Side, an echo that hung in the air like a ghost.

“So this… girlfriend.” Vaylin prompted.

Akahte shrugged. “A very resourceful Sith Lord, named Lana Beniko. She’s quite strong in the Force, but it’s her attunement to subtleties and secrets that truly makes her a foe to be feared. I thought she had died in the War.”

“Then how do we know she is still alive?”

“It would take years and years of searching just to find this vault. Longer to plan such a silent heist. I doubt anyone could have pulled this off in a mere five years unless they dedicated themselves, their whole soul, to searching for Arro the second he disappeared. Ignoring Zakuul’s war in doing so. There is literally no one else out there who would have begun searching for him until at least two years ago, and even they would have been too distracted to fully commit until the end of Chancellor Saresh’s term.”

“You think she did this alone ?”

“No, but she began alone. Picked up allies and resources along the way. She’s very good-- she was the leader of a small team that single-handedly rooted out a large cult that had embedded itself into both Republic and Empire.”

“You have to be more than just “very good” to pull this off,” Vaylin purred admiringly.

“Oh she was more than good,” Akahte responded. “She was highly motivated. It would be like one of us, if the other was in danger.”

Grinning wide, Vaylin reached out again, this time seeking traces of presence left by the living… like a visible scent-- strange as that sounded… in the air around her. The traces lit up like spiderwebs to her eyes; bathed in a gloomy violet light. Observing the tapestry she isolated one presence that was different from all the others. It was subtle, almost invisible-- the woman had been working to conceal herself even in the Force. But she had slipped up. A brief flare-up of anger, there by the final door.

Vaylin laughed. No doubt that was when this woman, this Lana Beniko, had first beheld her lover in his prison. She couldn’t detect the Outlander’s presence in the immediate vicinity-- Beniko must have waited till they were safely away before freeing him. 

Expanding her senses to their limit, Vaylin cursed in frustration when she failed to find another trace of the all but invisible trail, amusement gone.
“She… she only slipped up once!” Vaylin said aloud. “I only got a whiff of her scent near the door; she kept her presence hidden all the way until she left! Such control! I can recognize her scent in the Force if I came upon it again, but I can’t pick it out like I did here; her presence here was an anomaly after all, but out there it would be less uncommon. And now, I don’t even know what direction she was last headed in!”

“Well no matter,” Akahte said. “We can try good old reasoning from here. She would need an inconspicuous route in and out, and a discreet means of escape. The tram station sounds right.” 

“Even the tram entrance requires really high clearance!”

“Then assume she had it. That was her way in and out. How she got it, how she beat internal security: that’s unimportant right now.”

Vaylin grunted in acceptance, and indicated that she continue.

“After escaping she’d need a hideaway. Somewhere nice and quiet, with space enough to accommodate enough equipment for the operation. And space for Arro to recover from Hibernation Sickness once she released him. It would have to be close. Close enough that she could visit the Vault regularly. Case the place.”
Akahte consulted the map on her datapad.

“There are three residential areas within a five mile radius. One in the Sector of the Holy Temple, two in the Sector of the Great Tiger Guardian.”

Vaylin nodded. “I’ll check each zone out. Maybe I can pick up their trail. You take charge of the hunt-- mobilize the Knights and Skytroopers, and comb through holofeeds of the past sixteen days. In all three districts.”

Akahte bowed formally. “Of course, High Justice.”
Raising herself slightly on her toes, she kissed Vaylin’s cheek, gave her a fond smile, and said “You be good now.”

Vaylin was still feeling her spirits slightly lifted when she reached the first of her hunting zones. 

Time: 1230 hours

Chapter Text

Chapter XI - Huntress

 

Arro strolled the opulent streets of Zakuul casually, taking in the grandeur as he walked. It seemed to house hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, yet here the urban jungle wasn’t as oppressive or absolute as the ones on Coruscant and Corellia. Plenty of trees, gardens and even clean artificial ponds and canals. Birds and small animals flitted around the streets, some even stopping by near benches where people clearly sat regularly to feed them for pleasure.
This place actually felt alive rather than inhabited.

The statues that stood impressively at intervals were of bronzium, ebony and crystal. Buildings all bore intricate carvings. The walkways were decorated with small coloured tiles that, acting in concert with the carvings and statues, turned the Eternal City into a massive work of art.

Each District was powered by a dedicated Fusion Reactor; small suns suspended in containment fields dotted every five kilometers of the city, according to Lana’s research.

“Do you see the big pillar ahead of us?” Valkorion’s ghost asked, strolling beside Arro. Existing purely inside Arro’s head, he was invisible to all but Arro himself. Kind of like the voices the mentally ill heard that no one else could.

“The one that stretches all the way to the heavens?.” Arro said. 

Valkorion smirked and continued. “That is the Spire of the Golden Heavens, the center of the Zakuul Empire. The Eternal Throne sits on the top of that spire.”

Arro nodded. He had sensed the churning maelstrom in the Force above, at the top, and surmised as much. But he wanted to avoid clearly explaining all of his strengths and weaknesses to the cunning Emperor if he could.

“This is the Holy Temple sector, home to the Imperial Palace. The heart of my Capital. And you are wandering deeper and deeper into hostile territory.”

“That’s what the disguise is for,” Arro whispered. “Besides, for now I have to move away from the safehouse-- and away from where the Vault is. I can’t risk engaging Vaylin or Akahte, let alone both of them.”

“Indeed, your foolish lover should have secured a spare lightsaber for you.” Valkorion grumbled. “You are unarmed and helpless.”

“I still have The Force with me, and this blaster. I’m a decent shot.And if I get into a fight here I’ve already lost. I can’t very well fight my way to the Spire, and confront Arcann.”

“Oh but you could!” Valkorion responded, wheeling slightly ahead and looking at Arro head-on. “You have my unlimited Power at your disposal! And all of my intricate knowledge of not only your enemy, but of the Force itself! If you choose to accept it, and combine it with your own formidable battle-prowess-- you who has rightly earned the rank of Battlemaster of the Jedi Order! Armies, fleets, superweapons. None of those can stand against us, if we fully unleash ourselves!”

“Lovely plan,” Arro stated in an interested tone. “But there are some problems. First of all…” he grunted as pain erupted in his chest, stiffening his muscles and causing him to slow down. “Akh… that. I’m still in recovery. And secondly, so what if I kill every last Knight and Soldier between here and Arcann? The people of this world still hate me, and this place won’t look so beautiful covered in blood and thick with droid soldiers.”

“I suppose so,” Valkorion allowed.

Rounding on a corner, Arro found what he had been looking for; one of the spots Lana had marked as a safe vantage point. It was a secluded rooftop cafe, entirely droid-operated. This spot had a good view of the streets, the notes said. And the place was rarely crowded at this hour, seeing rush hour in the early dawn and late evening to see Zakuul at its most beautiful.

Arro covertly entered a blind alley and changed into attire more suited to a man, then washed off some of the makeup at a nearby fountain.

Then he walked over to the cafe, ordered some fancy caf and sat at a table. Reaching out to Lana, he briefly let out a tiny flare in the Force. Too tiny, he hoped, for Vaylin and Akahte to see, but for Lana to still feel through their link.

Then he settled down to wait for his date.

Time: 1330 hours

 

*

 

Lana wove through the traffic on Zakuul. Drivers rode at a comfortable pace, and in an orderly fashion. In that it was much like Dromund Kaas, or Ziost before the cataclysm.

However, the mood was completely different. Where order was enforced on Sith worlds, here the people welcomed the compliance. People here were never in a rush. Their lives unfolded at a pleasant, perhaps even leisurely pace. With the whole world automated, the people could pursue exactly what they wanted, and personal comfort droids maintained their schedules for them. 

There was little gained by being rash, true; the Patrol droids overseeing the streets would probably crack down on rule-breakers, but it was the inconvenience they hated more than they feared the droids. 

And so, there was a content attitude as traffic was guided, occasionally stopped at junctions. 

Speeders were also mostly automated, with an override which allowed the rider to drive if they ever chose. Most aircars and skybikes were fancy and lavish. Even the rental one that Lana was using was of better quality than what most affluent people on Dromund Kaas normally used.

This was her first time driving through the skies of Zakuul, as she had deemed it sufficiently riskier and slower than using the tram. And so, when she had first joined the traffic above the streets, she had marvelled at what Zakuul looked like from the city skyroads.

She had already seen their beauty when she was shuttled onto the surface, but from here the city shone with a different light. The various terraces and buildings looked vibrant and hand-crafted. From this vantage the line of Miniature suns gained a different aesthetic, adding to the artistic component of the city itself rather than standing apart from it.

It was all so beautiful! If only she could one day find the time to take this in properly! One day when they weren’t so pressed for time.

Shaking her head, Lana suddenly grinned with satisfaction when she sensed Arro reach out, and Flare his presence in the Force for just an instant. He was letting her know where he was. Perhaps he had chosen to, or forced to stop. The former probably, since she was feeling his more peaceful calm rather than his battle focus. 

She reached the section quickly enough, and instantly realized where her Jedi was waiting; Greater Plom Cafe.
She smirked. How romantic!
If they hadn’t been in a hurry they could have spent some time here, perhaps caught that Zakuul sunset Koth told her was best seen from that walkway. 

Approaching one of the parking zones for rented vehicles, she powered down her speeder and dismounted, She then keyed her comm, and said “Koth? We are at the Greater Plom Cafe. Can you extract us at Landing pad 21- Aurek?”

“Sure,” his tinny voice sounded over the comm. “We’re halfway there already. Let you know when I land. Should be thirty minutes. Oh, and HK managed to get the stuff you requisitioned.”

The probe droids! Lana had forgotten about them completely. “Understood. Well, perhaps we can talk about that phase once we meet up. See you soon, I hope.”

Time: 1345 hours

 

*

 

Vaylin’s mood was beginning to go sour. She’d had skimmed through all three of the sectors, and not caught a whiff of her prey. She had hoped that since she already knew Arro’s presence in the Force, she might be able to pinpoint it if it were close.
But no luck so far. It had already been over an hour since she’d begun her search. If they took too long, the Outlander might slip through their fingers. The Outlander, and him .
Father .

Her comm hummed for a moment, and she responded. “Yes.”

“Vaylin,” Akahte said. “We got lucky. The breakout occurred only two nights ago, so we didn’t need to go through too much footage. We barely caught a glimpse of an Astromech that fits the description of the one that served with Arro. We were able to track its movements for a bit. We weren’t able to locate the hideout itself, but based on sightings, it’s definitely in the Holy Temple Sector and not either of the residentials in the Serene Mother Sector. I’m alerting the Knights to start combing the sector, and watching for unscheduled shuttles.”

“Well done,” Vaylin approved. “I’m in the Temple Sector myself right now,” she closed her eyes and reached out for the Force, not as the Knights of Zakuul did, but as Akahte had been teaching her. “Inform me if you get any more leads, or find the Outlander himself,” she looked through the currents of the Force and again saw the web of life and death, chaos and order, ebb and flow around her.

And then she started.

There was… something. She had reached out and touched the opposite side of the walkways, and though she hadn’t felt anything through the Force itself, she felt her body stiffen, a rush of inexplicable excitement flowing through her. Instinct, perhaps?

She felt her hackles rising.

“Akahte, I might have found something. Sending you my coordinates. Keep an eye out, see if you find anything I miss.” She realized she was purring slightly and that only heightened her conviction that she was on the hunt.

“Done,” Akahte said before switching off her comm.

Vaylin took a deep breath, savoring the scent of Daffodils and Esne’s Bells. She might have been imagining it, but she thought she caught a whiff of her prey as well.

Time: 1410 hours. Aka, time’s up.

 

*

 

They felt it at the same moment. The situation had changed. Perhaps they had been spotted? Perhaps someone-- Vaylin or Akahte-- had chanced upon their trail somehow? Either way, it was time to move. Security droids everywhere seemed to be shifting subtly from patrol to search mode.

Their impromptu date-while-on-the-run had been going so well, too!

As calm as though they had all the time in the world, they stood, nodded politely to their droid hosts and left.

Right on cue, Lana’s wrist comm beeped for attention. “I read you.”

“An updated timetable would be good.”

“Why, is there a problem?”

“You could say that. Security is starting to tighten up. This zone is getting hot. We’re going to have to do the pickup fast, military style. You are with the Outlander?”

Lana made an adjustment on her wrist-comm, then said, “Yes, I’ve patched him in.”

“Great. I’m Koth Vortena. Welcome to the most suicidal rescue mission in history. Hope you’re everything Lana said you were.”

“Koth will fly us out of here, just as soon as we reach the landing pad on the other side of this bridge.”

It was then that things changed again. A jolt in the Force drew their attention to the  plaza on the opposite side of the landing pad. Someone had spotted the. Someone deadly.

Despite the throng of civilians around her, they had no difficulty spotting Vaylin. And she was staring right back at them-- beaming widely-- and would be upon them soon if they didn’t hurry.

“Koth, change of timetables. Vaylin has arrived. She’s almost upon us.”

“Already? Okay, let me know the second you reach the platform.”

Abandoning the draw-no-attention mindset, Lana broke into a run, urging Arro on ahead of her.

“We need to get across the bridge, now!”

Four security droids stationed at the bridge turned towards them as they approached.

Arro drew the concealed blaster and fired as Lana charged.

Arro’s first bolts caught two droids right in the optics, but the other two reacted quickly, lowering into a crouch, better covering their exposed optics with their armored heads. His subsequent rounds hit their armor, scoring the durasteel and throwing off balance slightly but not hurting them.

And then Lana closed in, cut them both down with lethal efficiency.

As acrid smoke filled the air, the crowds finally began to realize that a fight was breaking out. Many screamed, they all began to scatter. Most fled away from the smoke. 

Good. Lana suspected that Vaylin would not shirk from attacking the crowds, which meant that they would only serve to slow them down, not provide some cover. Besides, now Arro would feel more free to fire as well; good shot though he might be, his aim wasn’t perfect, and he was always worried about collateral damage. She really should have secured a Lightsaber for him after all!

They ran across the bridge, situation darkening by the minute as the comm’s urgent beeping caught Lana’s attention again.

“Hope you’re not too close yet.”

Heart sinking, Lana asked “What’s happening?”

“Nothing I can’t handle, but we need to move the pickup. If I land now I’ll be shot to pieces. Run through another tower and I’ll find you.”

“Watch your back out there,” Arro said, voice already shaking. Not good-- he should have been resting, he was in no shape for this.

“My number one passtime,” Koth quipped. “Always love our little excursions, Lana.”

“I’ve got a good feeling about him,” Arro said after the line had disconnected. 

“So did I when I first met him. Koth is a native a of Zakuul, believe it or not. Arcann may be Emperor but not all his people support him blindly.”

They had reached the end of the bridge, but the strain was showing on Arro, he had all but fallen to his knees, clutching his side and coughing hard. Sweat covered his face and he was shaking hard in Lana’s arms as she moved to support him.

They needed to slow down their pursuers, for just a few minutes.

 Lana tossed her Lightsaber, and guiding it with the Force, used it to completely sever the bridge on their end. She then used the Force as a mallet, striking down hard on the bridge, causing it to bend and crack. It would hopefully buy them some time-

A tremor in the Force caused both Lana and Arro to turn their attention to Vaylin. She shook her head, still wearing that cruelly amused smile which was visible even from the other side of the now-broken bridge. 

 

*

 

Vaylin was thrilled; her prey were in her sights, the Outlander and his lover. The blonde woman with the red blade. She was also greatly amused; The route they were taking would lead them right into a factory. Of War Droids.

“Not the way I would have picked,” she said to herself.

She turned her attention towards the nearest Fusion Reactor, which was close to where they were standing. Reaching out through the Force, she easily shattered the base, causing the mini sun to go dark, which further caused a powerful backlash in the reactor. In a short while, it would go “Boom”, taking the Outlander and his troublesome lover with him.

Turning her gaze back towards her prey, she was delighted to see the look of sheer terror on their slack-jawed faces. She cheekily waved, blowing a kiss at Arro, before she turned and walked away.



Chapter Text

Chapter XII - Act and React

 

Arro fought to stay on his feet as he stumbled behind Lana. The pain in his chest and side was getting worse, his leg muscles numb. His vision swam as his consciousness threatened to vanish.

Through the haze of his symptoms he could just make out Lana demolishing Skytroopers and security droids. The stench of acrid smoke and the melted wiring added to the list of things that affected his ability to stay awake. Most of the hallways were narrow, so she didn’t have to move too much to protect them both from Blaster Rifle fire, but in some of the bigger rooms the droids attempted to flank her and bring Arro under fire. In each of the encounters there had been a few near misses-- shots that almost hit Lana or Arro but for blind luck.
But their luck held, and soon there were no more droids firing in their general direction. Lana kept her saber well in hand just in case.

As they made their way through the factory the klaxons continued to wail louder and louder; a sign that whatever calamity Vaylin had caused was fast approaching. All around, panicked technicians, janitors, staff, and security personnel ran in disarray, evacuating the factory. 

It wouldn’t be enough, Arro thought dimly. That reactor looked like it could decimate several kilometers of the city if it went off. He reached for the Force, briefly observed the flows, the deadly buildup of electrical energy; the failing emergency containment shields...

Not all of them were running. Some had given up, curled up next to tables and workstations waiting for the explosion to come. 

“Which way to the Control Center?” He asked loudly, addressing anyone who would listen. Several looked up, including a woman of an unfamiliar species.Her large eyes seemed to have trouble focusing on him, but she obligingly pointed the way. “Straight ahead. You can’t miss it.”

“Follow me. If this reactor blows, hundreds of thousands of your people will die. We have to do anything we can do to stop this.”

“What?” Lana barked, running up to him. “Are you mad? There is no time to play hero, we have to get to the Shuttle pad and get out of here while we still can!”

“No, my Love. We have to do this, or I’m not worth saving. Besides, there is no time to run either.”

“Oh… very well,” Lana grumbled, grabbing him by the arm and leading him towards the Control Center. “Well, what are you lot waiting for? Follow us now!”

Many of the cowering Zakuulans stayed put; unwilling or unable to move. But some got shakily to their feet and started following them. The alien who had spoken up earlier got in step with them and took some of Arro’s weight in order to hasten their progress.

“I recognize you,” she stated. “You are the Jedi who killed our Immortal Emperor. The Outlander.”
An uneasy ripple passed through the motley group behind them.
Arro nodded. “I am he. He was my enemy. But I am not yours. I won’t allow even a single person to die if I can help it.”

“Very noble. But you look like you should be in intensive care,” she noted. “Do you really think you can stop this, in your state?”
Arro nodded, attempting to show a confidence he did not feel.
“Not by myself. I will need all the help I can get.”
“I’ll help you then, for there is no other choice. My name is Caradha.”

 

*

 

The technicians in the control center were in a panic. One, probably the head technician, called out, “It’s no good; it’s going to rupture! Sound the evacuation, get everybody out! Ten blocks in all directions!”

As if to punctuate her order, the surge in the reactor got more destructive-- electrical systems began to overload. Small explosions began to bloom around the reactor core as the power surge strained against the shield.

“Wait!” Arro called. Most ignored him in their mad dash to evacuate, but some faltered. “There’s not enough time to evacuate. We have to do everything we can to stop this explosion if we want to survive.”

“And just what is it we can do? Controls here are fried now, we only have manual access.” A very large human man spoke up uncertainly.

“We  have to reroute power to other systems-- maybe even other blocks-- but especially to the shields. Overload them so that they can contain the buildup, and give us time to initiate a total reactor shutdown.”

“That could work, theoretically,” Caradha spoke up in a shaky but resolute voice. “But we will have to be extremely lucky to work the overloaded grid without burning it entirely, we don’t have the means of monitoring such things.”

“For some who can use the Force, we have a gift of seeing things… differently. I can monitor the buildup, the discharge and the state of the circuits. But I need you all to work on the different controls and overrides.”

“How do you propose to direct us?” Another tech asked. “Sign language? The adjustments will be delicate and there’s no way you have the time to tell us exactly what needs being done!”

Arro braced himself. “This will require your trust. You will have to open yourselves to me through the Force. Let me in completely, be an extension of my will. I’m no good at affecting minds, so I need your willing cooperation.”

“Trust you?” One of the men who had been with Caradha erupted. “You’re the fuckin Outlander that killed the Emperor! Why should we trust you?”

Lana made an impatient noise. “Because there’s no other way, and we’re running short of time. Sorry about this, you’ll thank me later.”

Reaching out, she seized their wills in an iron grip.
“You will do whatever it takes to save the city, you will do whatever it is the “Outlander” asks.”

“We will do whatever it takes to save the city,” One woman repeated.
Another man nodded. “We will do whatever it is the Outlander asks.”

 

*

 

Caradha stood at the controls of one of the power grids. Her station, as it were. Just like the fifteen other colleagues who had agreed to help with the Outlander’s desperate plan.

She believed that it was crazy--even mad-- with small chance of success, yet it was the only one they had and the intent to save lives was genuine; she could taste the scent of his sincerity as it filled the air. For that alone, she was willing to help this man, this Outlander.

She felt it when his mind and hers connected-- a sudden cold ripple through her scales, and an inflow of sensations not her own. But more than that, an impression-- secondhand-- of something vast and glorious and terrible that could only be this “Force” that he and some others talked about. 

It filled her head and spilled out into infinity, carrying with it all the scents of life and death, past and present, decay and growth, chaos and harmony. To people around her, to their dreams, their hopes, their likes and their pains. And to the very stone and metal that made up her surroundings.

She was one with it all. Her mind recoiled at the alienness of what it now saw, but a vague understanding came of how the Outlander intended to-

A sharp sensation of pain, quickly suppressed: The Outlander really was sick and in pain.

But she could not linger on the thought, for he had begun his work.

She felt her hands fly across the keypad, felt her eyes at once absorbing the details on the screen yet disregarding them entirely. The taste of the overheating circuitry grew ever thicker in the air and the alarms wailed louder but these too she ignored.

Guided by the Outlander-- by the Force-- she and her colleagues channeled power away from the buildup, easing the strain on the systems. As the Outlander had proposed, they empowered containment systems, overloaded the shields, and siphoned off massive amounts of power. The buildup was reduced greatly, but the gates couldn’t be kept open for too long, and when the unavoidable dance of closing some gates and opening others began, the buildup began to grow once again, though slower.

She did not understand how, but he saw when each node approached its threshold, and closed it so that it wouldn’t blow.

All the while Head Technician Zurah frantically continued her efforts to shut down the reactor.

When they had begun they had perhaps five minutes on the countdown, but surely it had been fifteen since they’d begun. At least twenty, in fact. Did it mean they were succeeding?

Were they really about to save the city?

Hope began to fill her chest, her gut.

And after yet more time of unknown quantity had passed, the reactor finally began the shutdown sequence. She heard the distinct humm of the systems powering down. The reduction in the strain on the coolant systems, the shielding. 

The Outlander’s presence in her head flared in pain one final time before it pulled back and cut itself off.

And then all systems went dark, and she suddenly felt like most of her senses had stopped working. But she was… alive?

Laron called out to his friends and they responded. Some coughed. Some retched and heaved. Some wept in unadulterated relief.

Yes, it was over. They were alive. Safe. Saved by the Outlander.

And suddenly the immensity of what had happened bore down on her, and Caradha felt her knees grow very weak. If there had been any light she might have noticed her vision blurring too.

She sank to the floor, collapsing from relief and exhaustion, and gratefully accepted the total dark of unconsciousness.

 

*

 

Valkorion mused as he watched from the recesses of Arro’s mind. The boy was unconscious; exhausted and in pain, and being carried out in his wife’s arms. 

The Jedi had impressed him with his Sight. Every wielder of the Force saw things differently, that was certainly true. He himself perceived it a subtle differently each time he changed his vessel.

But for the life of him, he could not quite understand what it was the Jedi had seen that allowed him such a grasp on whatever it was he was doing!
He had never liked mysteries. He-- or rather the Sith Emperor-- had learned almost at the very beginning that this boy could see something differently through the Force. He had ordered the best agent-- the one called Cipher Nine-- to dig deep into his life, to uncover his secrets, to know him better than he knew himself. He himself had devoted much energy to figuring that out.
And yet he was still unsure as to the nature of this boy’s gift.

It made him uneasy.

Chapter Text

Chapter XIII - Three Minutes

Lana stumbled out of the maintenance hatch, carrying Arro unconscious on her back. She was on the catwalks now, and moving away from the facility as fast as she could. It was quite dark, so she had to rely on a glow rod: one which was dim enough that it wouldn’t give away their position to whoever happened to be searching.
She consulted her schematics to verify; There was a Landing Platform close by.
Good.

“Koth where are you?”

His tinny voice responded over the comm. “Ran into sort of a maintenance issue.”

“Damn. How bad is it?”

“It’s not great, but we’re on top of it. Give us… err three minutes?”

“Three minutes… okay!”

She walked to the platform, and gently laid Arro onto the surface.
Sitting down next to him, she settled down to wait.
Three minutes… ten… thirty...

 

*

 

Arro groaned. The world was black, and refused to turn bright again. Had he been severely injured? No, Lana was right next to him, he could feel her. And he could feel her uneasy calm. He wasn’t hurt too bad; if he was she’d have been far more upset. So why was it dark?

Oh . The memories started coming back. The reactor. He’d caused a blackout to save the city.

He relied on his other senses to get a better grip on where he was. He got the smell of ozone and fuel and metal. Could hear the sounds of gears turning, parts moving. Like he was in the center a large machine.
But he could still hear the wind, feel its cold grasp. So perhaps not in the center of one machine, but surrounded by several?

“How are you feeling, my love?” Lana’s voice sounded from beside him.

“A little groggy. So tired. Body hurts so bad… Lana, where are we?”

“Maintenance catwalks, beneath the city. One with access to a Landing pad. You should be proud; you saved the city. And us.”

“Where’s Koth?”

“Good question,” she responded.
He heard the electronic beeping as she keyed her comm.
The signal must have been bad, there was some noise in the background. It almost sounded like-

“Koth, is that… blaster fire? Are you okay? And on foot?”

“Almost there,” Koth shouted, not really answering the question. “Three more minutes!”

Arro heard the sound of an approaching craft. Within moments a troop transport emerged out of the darkness, lights blinking.
He heard two distinct thuds on the far end of the platform, and blue Lightsaber Blades ignited; Zakuul Knights wielding those distinctive spears.

The transport turned its light on the platform, momentarily blinding both of them.

“Koth, we don’t have three minutes!”

“Two and a half!”

“Outlander,” One of the Knights called. “You are guilty of assassinating the Immortal Emperor, and evading imprisonment.”

“We demand your immediate surrender!” The other declared.

“Is this a bad time to tell you that we dropped your blaster in the confusion at the reactor?” Lana asked, rising. Ignoring Arro’s disbelieving groan, she ignited her own red blade and charged.

Arro stood up behind her, ignoring another wave of exhaustion.

He needed a weapon. Hmmm No other way .

He charged as well, tackling the larger of the Knights to the ground. The spear was no good at such close quarters, and the Knight discarded his weapon and fought back with his fists. The odds were heavily in the Knight’s favor; not only was Arro exhausted and sick, the large man was armored. Oh, and he was almost twice the size.
Arro wouldn’t last ten seconds in a contest of pure grappling.

But that was not counting the Force. Recalling Valkorion’s earlier advice, Arro suspected that they didn’t know how to use it except in the most obvious ways. Arro channeled the Force through his body, strengthening his bones, his muscles, his skin… and adding some explosive punch to his fists.
The Knight reeled as the shockwaves woven into the blows dented his armor. It knocked him off of Arro, and gave the Jedi a second to breathe, and See through the Force…

He searched for the man’s combat Shatterpoints. Noted the holes in his defense. The weakest spots in his armor. And the pressure points on the man’s body.

He quickly closed the gap between them and jabbed twice, thrice, seven times. Each strike landed on its intended spot. The Force exploded out of his palm, his fist, breaking through his armor and striking muscles and nerves so hard that he got thrown off his feet and landed, dazed, some twenty feet away.

In the meantime, Lana had also disarmed her own opponent, who had managed to avoid the coup-de-grace and backflipped onto the transport. 

“Tannek, run! We fight another day!” He called out to his companion before scurrying away. With the vehicle. Leaving his partner behind.

But the man was quite thoroughly down. He wouldn’t be standing, much less running, for a few days.

As Lana lit a glow rod, Arro knelt and picked up Tannek’s lightsaber Pike, and looked it over. He ignited it, gave it a few experimental thrusts and swings.
He had trained with swords and double-ended swords, but wasn’t as proficient with a spear. Extinguishing the blade, he looked it over, and decided that all of the important parts were in the top quarter of the Lightsaber, meaning that the lower three-quarters…

With a gesture, he summoned the other Knight’s pike, ignited it, and cut off the bottom three quarters of the other, turning it into a Lightsaber hilt which was only a little longer-than-normal. Reigniting the Lightsaber, he hefted it again.
It was just the same as any other Lightsaber.

Lana had been watching him. “At least you are armed now, but please remember that you are far from okay?”

“Even if I’m half-dead I can block blaster fire with this,” Arro responded. “So the next time we face Skytroopers you can attack them without worrying about me.”

“At least for a little while,” she accepted.

Over in his corner, Tannek groaned, still too dazed to stand.

Lana threw an exasperated look at Arro and very pointedly put away her Lightsaber.

“Three minutes, Koth said.”

 

*

 

They’d spent almost another hour waiting. Where was that man?
Every second they could sense their pursuers getting closer, and one in particular---

And the catwalks began to tremble ominously. A segment of the one above came crashing down on them, and they had to roll to avoid it.

A small robed figure landed nimbly before them, pale face wearing a wide, hungry grin, tiger-like eyes transfixed upon her prey.

“Vaylin,” Lana breathed.

“I don’t know you,” she purred. “But you…” She giggled sweetly, eyes fixing on Arro. “I’ve missed you!”
An escort of Skytroopers and Knights formed up behind her.

“Vaylin,” Arro greeted her tensely. “When we met in the dream I thought you’d changed. That Akahte had managed to begin the healing process with you. But that stunt with the reactor? That was reckless. Pointless.”

Vaylin’s expression fell at the mention of Akahte’s name. She seemed to contemplate her actions for the first time, and a look of horror started to dawn on her face.
“You’re right… I let her down! What have I done?”

It was at that precise moment that they heard the roar of engines approaching. Lana’s comm came alive and Koth said, “Heads down, eyes open, run like hell!”

A shuttle emerged from the mist before them, spitting plasma and fire at Vaylin and her company.

Vaylin shielded herself using a piece of skywalk that she broke off using the Force but the barrage downed her escort in seconds.

Lana went first, leaping onto the shuttle’s open boarding ramp.

At the precise moment Arro jumped, Vaylin hurled her makeshift shield at the shuttle, scoring a hit on one of the wings and causing it to sway unexpectedly. Arro missed the ramp, only barely grabbing on to what felt like a mechanical hand.

He heard a cheerful mechanical voice speak. “Declaration: Meatbags can’t fly!” and was pulled on board by a bronze-and durasteel Droid. Arro recognized the droid as being of the same make as his HK-51 assassin droid.

As the ramp closed behind him, he heard Koth’s voice calling down the aisle. “Hang on!” I’m gonna punch it!” And in moments, the ship hurtled forward.

 

*

 

Vaylin watched as the shuttle escaped, trailing smoke from the small hole she had opened.

Beside her, the hapless Knight who had been disabled by the escapees fought to breathe as she Choked him.

“High Justice Vaylin, please! There was no way I could possibly-” his words trailed off as she broke his neck. She tossed his body off the precipice and turned to find two other Knights who had survived the barrage.
“Are you awaiting instructions?” she asked. The Knights shivered. And fled.

Vaylin finally answered her incessantly ringing holocomm. It was Arcann.

“Oh good morning Brother dear? Did you sleep well?”

Arcann wasn’t in the mood. “The Outlander?” he asked

“No, he’s gone.”

“I want him found, whatever the cost,” Arcann snarled, before disconnecting. 

“Vaylin…” This voice came not from the comm, but somewhere closer.

Akahte came gliding down one of the catwalks, planted herself directly in front of Vaylin.

Vaylin blanched; her friend’s eyes were bloodshot, and filled with tears.

The Twi’lek simply asked, “Why?”

And Vaylin suddenly felt ashamed and horrified of herself again.