Kangaras Investigation: Mystery Of Usharak Keep
The Planet Kangaras
Former Sith Empire
Light rain fell on the jungle, pattering on the leaves of the trees before falling to the dampground. It was quiet, a few sounds of birds above harmonising with the sounds of the raindrops. The sun shone through the light grey clouds. By Kangaras’ standards this was a nice day.
There was a disturbance in the bushes, and a black furred creature stepped out, raising its blaster rifle in its clawed paw. It sniffed, surveying its surroundings, and then raised a paw, giving a safe signal, before moving out into the clearing. Three more of the creatures followed, also wary. They had good reason, the regular routine of a Sith-spawned Ewok wide patrol was a dangerous one, far from the zone controlled by the four villages, and the structure of Usharak Keep in the centre. Out here with the wide variety of viscous beasts and carnivorous plant life that defied imagination roamed or waited for prey, any prey. Many of the ewoks did not return from these patrols.
They were a necessity though, their masters required up to date information of any unusual visitor or occurrence within the wider areas. And yet for the ewoks these missions were the meat and bread of their existence, an honour to be chosen by their chiefs and the greatest end to an ewok’s life was to die in combat alongside their fellows.
The leader paused, studying the ship in front of it. There was no conversation, and none was necessary, another signal and each of the creatures fanned out silently, moving cautiously around the freighter searching for an sign of life or movement, maintaining a visible link between each. Finally the leader nodded in satisfaction and lowered its paw to its belt, raising a communicator. It spoke into it quickly and quietly, making a report that would be relayed back to its village and then onto its masters. It then stood silently still, as did its fellows, maintaining a guard.
After ten minutes a Llamda class shuttle slowly descended on repulsors onto the clearing floor, and the ramp lowered. After a few seconds ten more of the creatures descended it and fanned out in guard positions around the freighter and the shuttle, eyes studying the jungle around them for hostiles, blasters ready. Finally another ewok came down past them, far larger and more powerful than the rest, followed by a tall zabrak in black robes, a lightsaber at his belt. High Chief Urtarg, leader of the four chiefs, and Dark Jedi Knight Imgormiel Slar, apprentice of the Prefect of Kangaras.
The pair of them moved forward, Urtarg growling in their language gesturing to the freighter that his forces had found. Imgormiel nodded, checking the markings and registration number.
“Your followers were right, it is the Argnok.” Imgormiel said thoughtfully, “and a hundred miles from where it was seen last. It should not be here at all. I will send a report to Orian.”
Urtarg spoke again, a questioning tone.
“No,” the young Sith replied, “maintain a guard over it, I have strict orders from my master for this eventuality, I will confirm them before anyone steps inside.”
The High Chief’s reply was disapproving but accepting. It turned and barked orders to the other creatures, while Imgormiel made his way back to the shuttle.
The Consul’s private quarters.
The Sadow Palace
It was several hours later. Malisane had played the second communication from Imgormiel and the Consul and Pro Consul had watched it in silence. “So they found nothing onboard?” Macron concluded.
“Nothing of interest,” Malisane replied, “no sign of the body of Severina, computer wiped, droids memories wiped, and then the droids were put to sterilising the entire vessel, not even a trace of DNA remains.”
“So what is it doing there?” Shin’Ichi demanded.
Malisane clicked a button on the terminal and the picture of his apprentice’s frozen image changed to display a map of Kangaras. He clicked on a point fifty miles from the structure of Usharak Keep, “This is where we left the Argnok and where I saw Anaxela and Severina last.” He clicked a second point a further hundred miles away. “And this is what we classify as sector nine, where the Argnok is now.”
Macron nodded. “This makes no sense, we don’t know who won, or even if they did fight. But surely if it was Severina she’d have taken the freighter and left?”
“Maybe it wasn’t,” Shin’Ichi replied, “maybe it was just Anaxela erasing any last trace of her enemy. She could have cleansed the ship then left in her TIE after disposing of the body.”
“Then why move the ship?” Malisane asked. “It would make no sense. We’d be bound to find it, it’s not as if it was even hidden.”
Macron studied him. “You have a theory?”
The Battlemaster nodded. “Its possible one or both of them didn’t leave Kangaras. Maybe something encouraged one of them to stay. Anaxela I can’t speak for, but Severina told me she lived on Kangaras for decades before we invaded. She hasn’t turned up near Usharak. Maybe there is something else of interest. Kangaras is barely explored, and there are other ruins.”
“Which she or Severak may also have told Anaxela about.” Shin’Ichi replied. It was well known that he had a score to settle with the force witch.
“Either is possible, and warrants investigation,” Macron replied, “maybe we will find one of them alive, or maybe we will find whatever they were looking for.”
“An expedition,” Shin’Ichi agreed.
Malisane nodded. “The ewoks are at your disposal, as am I.”
Macron studied him. “One thing my old friend, you have been honest with both of us about your actions and reasons for what happened between you and Severina, and though we do not approve we have accepted them, and covered for you with the other Sons, most of which needed some convincing to leave you alive. If we do encounter Severina again I expect you to remember who your loyalties are to.”
The Prefect nodded, “Of course, my loyalties are to my Clan, as they ever were.”
“Very well,” Macron replied, “then we will keep the precise reason we are going amongst ourselves and the Sons. To the rest of the Clan we are simply investigating a mystery on the planet, and trying to learn more about it.”
Shin’ichi nodded. “I agree.”
“I will have one of the corvettes prepared, and contact the House Summits to put together a expeditionary force,” the Consul said, “no sense in taking an entire invasion army in and alerting anyone whoever might be there.”
The Amphor Colony of San Korinar
Amphor Life Zone
Amphor, Orian System, Sith Space
The Falleen stared out of his office window at the dark and ugly shapes of the Amphor Colony
. The colony had been constructed hastily, at a time when most of the money was being diverted either to the fortification of Seng Karash
on Aeotheran, or to Kaldex Transport Inc, the corporation's front organization through which the new fleet was purchased.
The colony, formally named San Korinar, was a testament to the rush job it was. The structures were prefabricated, but they had all had to be bought on the open market, as opposed to purpose ordered like had been done with Seng Karash. As a result, San Korinar was a mix of uneven shapes and poor architectural design. It was crude.
And it suited Darth Vexatus fine.
The doorway to Lord Vexatus's office slid open as his personal adjutant stepped through. One of the limited batch of Delta-class advanced clone commandos
, Delta-30, otherwise known by the Aurabesh letter of Krenth after his numerical designation, had been assigned to Vexatus when he had taken office shortly after the invasion of Orian the previous year. Krenth had proven a worthy assistant and was testament to the success of the DAC trooper project.
It was a shame Antei had cost the Dlarit Security Force so many men, the DAC trooper project might still have been running otherwise. However, Antei had been necessary, Vexatus had no doubt about that. Sacrifices had to be made. The Disciples of Sadow still needed to learn that. The loss of life had been great, but the loss of the artifacts stored in Kalekka Tower would have been worse.
Krenth saluted. “Sir.”
The Falleen smiled, pushing aside his private thoughts as he allowed his mind to sink into the all too familiar idiosyncrasies of his public façade. “Yes, Delta-Thirty?” said Commander Zorrixor.
“The Governor-General is mobilising an operation to the Kangaras system. He has requested you come along,” said Krenth. His voice was deeper than the other clones, it carried an air of wisdom and experience about it. It was strange, coming from the mouth of a man who had only been “born” a few months earlier. The Delta-class Advanced Commandos truly had been marvellous work.
Xanos sighed. “What do they want this time? Can't they see I have a colony to run?” It was true, Xanos had been put in charge of the Amphor Colony. The crime levels were through the roof and martial law had been the only way to calm the ever growing population of refugees forced to abandon their home systems by the Yuuzhan Vong and now seeking refuge in the Orian system. It was tiresome and meaningless work, but it was necessary. It was a small price to pay to retain access to the Sadow archives and continue his true work.
Krenth shook his head. “Need to know, Commander, and clearly I don't need to.”
The Falleen shook his head. “Isn't it always?” Xanos muttered something about military procedure under his breath. He had little time for artificial rules. Krenth had proven his loyalty. He shrugged. “And off the record?”
D-30 smiled. “Off record, I hear they found the ship your time witch used to escape last year.”
That perked Xanos's interest. “Really now? Curious.” If the Argnok
had turned up they might finally be able to track Anaxela and Severina down. Xanos cared little about what they had done to the Orian system, but a flow-walker on the loose was too dangerous to be ignored. Especially now he had upset her personally. The Falleen found female humans had a habit of taking things badly. “I thought all the leads had dried up. The invasion was months ago.”
Krenth shrugged. “Don't ask me, Commander. I wasn't born yet,” said the DAC trooper with a smirk that betrayed his embarrassment. Though there was no sign the clones resented what they were, they still had a certain sense of childish innocence about their lives.
“Or course, of course,” said Xanos reassuringly. He had no particular love for clones, but at least they did their job and didn't complain, they were a step up from the mundane filth he had been forced to work with during the Battle of Antei last year. At least Delta-30 didn't complain when he saw a lightsaber. Krenth also seemed to have no problems with Xanos's need to conceal his true identity. The clone didn't much care what name the Falleen was using.
“So, shall I inform the Governor-General you'll be coming along?”
Xanos nodded. “Yes, let them know Commander Zorrixor wouldn't miss a trip to Kangaras for the world.”
Krenth laughed. “Sure thing, sir.” With that, the DAC trooper gave a crisp salute and spun to head back out the door the way he had entered.
Vexatus sat back in his chair. So, the “time witch” as Krenth had called her may have reappeared. It was too convenient. It was either a trap, or a decoy, or nothing at all. No matter. Vexatus had not yet had the pleasure to venture to Kangaras, having been on Antei when the first expedition had gone there to remove the original True Brotherhood forces from the planet. “Darth” Severak had escaped, but de Ath seemed sure he would return someday. Maybe he had. He certainly seemed to believe he had been there recently. There was evidence enough Severak had escaped his hyperspace "prison" at least.
Whatever the truth was behind the Argnok
's sudden reappearance, rogue wannabe Sith Lords and flow-walkers warranted investigation. Besides, even if it was nothing at all, at least it was better than cleaning up San Korinar.
Main Receiving Vestibule
The Sadow Palace
Sai Keibatsu cast a disapproving glare upon the two ranks of men standing stock-still before him and assembled in “parade” formation. The Rollmaster had received this commission, which, among other things, included command of the Palace Guard, as reward for his efforts in ousting the True Brotherhood squatters from the palace’s hallowed halls. His voice echoed off the curved, marble balustrades and massive support columns as he dressed them down, pacing back and forth in front of them, his ‘saber hilt bouncing off of his thigh in time with his steps. Truthfully, the speed and precision that the guards executed this latest “mindless” task of assembling at his whim was admirable; a lesser Senior Commander would’ve been proud. But, Sai was no “lesser” Senior, and his standards, though hard to meet, were not to be compromised.
“Absolutely unacceptable,” he said for what seemed to the men was the umpteenth time. “’The best of the best’, they told me. ‘No finer squad’, they said. I find that extremely hard to believe, given I’ve seen no, I repeat, NO improvement in your response time in the many times we’ve run this exercise. You must not know what artifacts we guard here,” he shouted, referring to the Swords of Sadow and Shar Dakhar and others that lie in vaults many meters below their feet. “Do you think I enjoy being disappointed on a regular basis, or is this a welcome gift from you to me?” The assembled guard stood at attention, silent and eyes locked forward, knowing the folly in answering a rhetorical question. For all of his blustering, the Rollmaster meant to instill the highest level of discipline in them; their performance, in the Keibatsu’s mind, was a direct reflection of him, and he was bent on validating his superiors’ choice. He was, however, careful not to lambaste them directly; a demoralized crew was often an ineffective one, and mutinous at that. The events involving the Yuuzhan Vong had taught everyone that harshest of lessons.
Just as Sai was about to launch into another tirade, he was stopped short by a trill emanating from his ever-present datapad. Though operating as Senior Commander for the moment, Sai was still and always the master of the rolls. He looked at the screen; a requisition for supplies and men stared back at him, sent from the other “artifacts” that lie below them. He let a small smile creep across his lips, born from the joke his mind made of his brethren. As he began to wonder silently at what Shin and Mac would think of it, the smile faded.
As Naga Sadow’s Summit, the Consul and Proconsul had complete autonomy when it came to the usage and deployment of the Clan’s resources; the requests only came across Sai’s desk as a matter of course. What stuck out to Sai, and what allowed him to quickly connect some dots was the extreme detail peppering the request.
For example, a line item containing the activation of a Lieutenant Tor Vaxill told him that the Assassin-class corvette Adjudicator was going to be used in this mission; as the vessel was attached to Kangaras, he knew his long-time friend Malisane de Ath was probably involved as well. Further, a carbon copy of the message had been sent to a “Commander Zorrixor”, not “Darth Vexatus” as those in the know referred to him, and that, in a hushed tone.
Stranger still, Sai knew that these communiqués, sent out over the DB Holonet, were monitored by the Dark Council. It seemed as if the Summit, as aware of this as he was, was making a deliberate attempt at being obvious in their secrecy. Something was brewing, something big.
The priest looked a moment longer at the requisition, failing to see what it all meant. He shrugged his shoulders, confident that clarity would come to him, whether by snatched slivers of information, or by Shin’s and Mac’s word. Slipping back into the mode of Prefect of Sadow Palace, he wheeled on the Palace Guard.
“Run it again!” the Keibatsu bellowed, and the erstwhile motionless ranks instantly broke into a bustle of activity, eager to improve upon a seemingly unreachable standard. The Rollmaster smiled inwardly, self-assured that his charges would perform splendidly when called upon.
As he watched them go, Sai wondered if the near future would determine if they would have to with or without him.
Dlarit Special Operations Group
The Sadow Palace
Lieutenant Tor Vaxill sat on the bridge as the corvette made its final approach on the Sadow Palace, as the concealed doors slid aside to allow entrance to the subteranian hangar. The Adjudicator passed through them before coming to rest on the deck. Immediatley ground crew scurried around it attaching power and fuel connectors.
Lieutenant Vaxill smiled. The corvette was his first command, as one of the surviving officers of the VSD Covenant he'd been promoted and transfered to D:SOG, and the fact that his ship had been chosen was an honour. "Ensign, report that the Adjudicator is ready and waiting."
Malisane looked up at the ship, suspended on repulsors with ramp extending down to the deck floor. He strode past the ground crew to the troopers on guard at the bottom of the ramp. He reached into his pocket and drew out his identification. "Senior Commander Malisane de Ath, Prefect of Kangaras."
They saluted and stood aside. Malisane nodded and back at them and strode up the ramp.
Lieutenant Vaxill saluted as Malisane entered the small bridge of the corvette. "All systems ready sir."
"At ease," Malisane said, recognising the officer, they'd met on the Covenant. As the Adjudicator would eventually be assigned to Kangaras he'd used his influence with the summit to get good officers for the sister ship Exile and the Overseer. He looked around the bridge, the crew sat over terminals. "We're expecting to depart in about four hours, is the platoon onboard?"
"On their way Sir." Vaxill replied.
"Good. Our destination is Usharak Keep on Kangaras. Plot us a course."
A few minutes later Malisane had secured a small cabin, which suited his simple tastes. He went over to the terminal and keyed in his private code, which would scramble the message. He paused then spoke. "Message for Knight Imgormiel. We will be arriving in twelve hours. Have Urtarg maintain guard over the Argnok until we arrive, and prepare a thirty strong force at the site fully armed and ready for departure when we join them. Malisane out."
RSD Final Way
DSOG Maneuvers Battlegroup
"Bring us to four seven niner, and hold position," ordered Macron. "The Adjudicator should be arriving in Kangaras space shortly. Prepare the Nachzerer for debarking. I'll rendezvous with them on my own. I estimate my flight time will be about 6 hours. Inform Prefect Malisane and Lieutenant Vaxil of our imminent arrival."
"Aye aye, Governor General. We will commence your requested 'maneuvers' immediately,"
replied Admiral Simonetti. A chuckle went around the bridge as the crack naval crew went about their buisness. The maneuvers consisted of testing the weapons arrays on a blasted piece of space rock nearby, ostensibly a cover for slipping the DSOG group nearby to Kangaras.
Macron stood with his fingers clasped behind his back. "General Shin'Ichi, ready for some fireworks? You give the order, and then we'll split for Kangaras. Let's have some fun first though- I know you've been waiting to test her out. I also understand Lord Vexatus will be meeting us on Kangaras."
Shin'Ichi would have smiled if he had a lower jaw. His eyes crinkled with a hidden grin. "I can hardly wait, Macron. Admiral Simonetti, you may fire on the asteroid at will. Let's see what she's got," he stated as he pointed at the display. "Commence."
DSOG Designated Hangar
Assassin-class Corvette, Adjudicator
Prefect’s Private Quarters
As Malisane concluded his message to his apprentice, he was interrupted by the chime at his door, signaling a visitor.
“I thought I’d made it perfectly clear that I was not to be disturbed until it was time for departure,” Malisane said in a gruff, annoyed tone. He continued to work, sure that his message was received until he heard the servos of the door activate, signaling an unwelcomed intruder.
“And I thought I’d made it perfectly clear,” said the visitor in an equally gruff tone, “that a piece of jetsam such as this was never to sully my hangars.”
Malisane looked up from his work, but hadn’t turned to face his visitor as yet. “Only a fool,” he started, “or a Keibatsu would announce himself so...ceremoniously.”
He whirled, a smile forming on his face to see his good friend Sai Keibatsu standing in the doorway of the quarters with a wry grin on his own. “Guilty on both counts,” the priest said, bowing with a pronounced and exaggerated flourish before striding forward to clasp Malisane’s forearm with his hand, the Sith returning the grip with his own.
“Long time, my friend,” de Ath said. “How are you taking to your new post?”
“Like a gungan to water,” the Palace Prefect replied. “Jokes aside, nice digs,” Sai continued, gesturing around the cabin with a broad sweep of his hand. “But, I must ask: what causes you to darken my door?”
“Don’t worry, I won’t be here long. I just came to pick up some things, and then I’ll be on my way,” Malisane replied cryptically while retrieving a snifter of dark liquor and two tumblers from a cabinet.
“Mm, hmm. Well, you haven’t told me anything I don’t know already,” Sai rejoined, tapping his datapad, his grin growing. “Care to do a friend a favor and fill in a blank or two?”
Malisane stared at the Keibatsu for a heartbeat before motioning to an empty seat. “All right then. Have a seat, have a drink, let’s chat, and we’ll see if I won’t have you begging to come along before I'm through.” He finished, filling the tumblers and handing one to Sai.
“Keibatsu do not beg,” reminded Sai, still grinning and settling down in the chair. “Still, you’ve got me so far. Go on; I’m all ears.”
DSOG Designated Hangar
Assassin-class Corvette, Adjudicator
Prefect’s Private Quarters
Sai took a drink and waited expectantly. Malisane did likewise. "Thing is," the Sith said after a minute, "we don't know whats going on. The Argnok, the ship I had outfitted to carry the ewoks, has been found on Kangaras."
"If its for the ewoks then that sounds like the best place for it." Sai replied.
"It's not as simple as that." Malisane sketched the events of his journey to Severina, glossing over the precise reasons.
When he'd finished Sai considered this. "You think either of them are there?"
Malisane shrugged. "No idea, we still don't know if either are alive. I can't see any reason that they'd hang around on the planet, unless they wanted something."
"How well do you know that area of the planet?"
"Not even remotely," Malisane replied, "you can't see much from the air, and I've never been tempted to go and look. Outside the ewok control zone the planet is something out of a nightmare, they've dragged back some of the stuff they've killed for us to research and all I can say is I wouldn't want to meet a live one in the dark."
Sai smiled. "Well we will now."
City of Seng Karash
Aeotheran, Orian System
The members of House Ludo Kressh accompanying the mission to Kangaras stood in the hangar of Marakith Skyhook
as teams of DSOG troopers loaded up the transport that would be taking them to Sadow Palace. Governor Ashia Keibatsu watched from the observation deck, a glass room at the rear of the bay.
The larty, also known by its proper designation LAAT/i, was an ageing design but still an admirable ground deployment vehicle. They would be needing it if they were to make their way through the hellish jungle covered world that was Kangaras. Larties had no hyperdrive of their own but could manage short flights in the vacuum of space.
Ashia was growing impatient as the members of her House loaded the larty up with supplies. It may have been able to reach Sepros but the flight was going to be cramped. She didn't want this to take all day. The governor flicked on her comm. “Commander Starlion, Commander Munlear, how much longer is this going to take?” said the former Nightsister impatiently.
Faeril answered first. “Should be done in another twenty minutes, Governor.”
Ashia made an exasperated noise. That was another twenty minutes of standing around. “Very well. Just make sure the troopers hurry up.”
Kar Alabrek Garrison
Tarthos, Orian System
Heavy machinery lumbered in the distance surrounding Ragnos Cathedral, or Alabrek Castle
as it was known to the mundane. The military garrison of Kar Alabrek
had been utterly decimated during the invasion
of the Orian system by the True Brotherhood
the previous year. Most of the prefabricated city had been rebuilt, this time with rather more style in mind, but work was still ongoing.
New ships were arriving every month, the fruits of Kaldex Transport Inc
. It would hopefully only be a few more months before the Dlarit Security Force was finally at full strength. However, it meant Kar Alabrek continued to grow, new recruits arriving every day. When the city was done, it would dwarf all but Seng Karash
, but it would still be some time yet.
In the ring garden surrounding Alabrek Castle, separating it from the main city, the members of House Marka Ragnos scurried about at the orders of Governor Trevarus Caerick and Commander Isradia. The order to assemble a team to head to Kangaras had come suddenly and Governor General Macron Keibatsu was already on site with the Republic
-class Star Destroyer Final Way
Much like his counterpart from House Ludo Kressh on Marakith skyhook, Trevarus Caerick was growing impatient. The Krath Master was seated at one of the decorative garden tables while his DAC trooper adjutant handled most of the work. The governor's mind was elsewhere, another place, another time, back to the previous year when Anaxela and Severina had been allowed to escape.
If they had returned, this time they would pay. But the governor had his doubts. It was all too convenient. Severina wasn't stupid. It was almost surely a trap.
Clad in his black armour, eyes hidden behind the glowing red visors, Trevarus's DAC adjutant strode over, his deep blue kama
blowing in the breeze. The commando saluted. “Sir.”
The governor looked up. “Yes, Captain?”
“The transport is almost loaded, sir. We should be ready to head to Sepros in a few minutes.”
Trevarus nodded. “Excellent.”
The advanced commando saluted again. “Governor.” The DAC trooper spun on his heel before marching back to the ramp of the shuttle, issuing further orders to the surrounding troopers.
DSOG Designated Hangar
Assassin-class Corvette, Adjudicator
Sai tramped down the corvette’s boarding ramp, his polished boots gleaming as he took sure steps towards the hangar. Surrounding him was the practiced activity of loaders and bustling personnel as they scrambled to outfit the vessel, and as he stopped at the foot of the ramp, he allowed a swell of pride to overtake him. Yes, he had trained the new staff here well.
The quartermaster approached him with a datapad, silently requesting the Senior Commander’s signing off on a pallet of foodstuffs currently being loaded onto the corvette. Sai absently took the datapad and indicated his approval, his mind wandering to the conversation he’d just had with Malisane. As good as it was to catch up with his old friend, the exchange he had with the Sith did precious little to fill in those holes in current events the priest’s mind needed to fill. He’d hated loose ends, open questions. He sighed, knowing what his only course of action would be.
Sai handed the datapad back to the quartermaster. The man made to leave when the priest stopped him. “Send word to Captain Orenth that I need him.”
“Aye, Senior,” responded the quartermaster, a seasoned man who’d been hand-picked by the Keibatsu to stay on-staff for his experience and unquestioned loyalty. During the True Brotherhood occupation, he’d surreptitiously played the role of “sapper”, sabotaging the squatter’s transports until the Palace had been liberated. Additionally, he was only one of two men on the Palace’s entire staff who’d been allowed to refer to the Keibatsu, ever the proponent of propriety, in such an abbreviated manner. Captain Orenth was the other.
As Sai exited the hangar, Captain Orenth met him in the corridor and fell in step with him, saluting and giving a brisk “Senior,” as Sai passed.
Captain Orenth, a Delta-class Advanced Commando, was assigned as Sai’s adjutant while the Rollmaster acted as Senior Commander and Prefect of Sadow Palace. Delta-32, or “Oren” as Sai called him in private, had proven to be efficient and economical in the execution of his duties, as all of the thirty-four Advanced Commando’s had. Sai picked him, the 32nd of the batch, not by some mystic connection, but by the virtue of simply being the first one he saw when the rest of the Summit had had their selections. Since that time, Captain Orenth had proven time and time again that he was as disciplined and structured as he himself was; he gave wise and unbiased council, and obeyed without question. In short, he was a perfect foil to the Keibatsu.
The pair reached Sai’s quarters, and the priest began to speak while the DAC stood at ease just shy of the threshold. “Oren, I’ll be away for a bit. Not sure for how long, but rest assured I’ll be returning. You know your standing orders; hold the fort until I get back.” Sai busied himself packing for the trip to the jungle planet, ensuring his lightsaber had a full charge at the last. He’d recently swapped out crystals in the weapon, changing the blade from cerulean to crimson, and it would not do to have the weapon fail him at an inopportune moment.
“Aye, Senior. Will there be anything else?” The DAC looked expectantly at the Krath Priest, who smiled. “No Oren, that will be all. I trust you above all others to act in my stead. Keep the men sharp, would you? If you need me, call.” He patted his mini-comm on his chrono, one of a pair; it’s mate was owned by the Adjutant. “Oh, and send word to Senior Commander de Ath I’ll be joining him shortly.”
“Of course, Senior.” Captain Orenth came to attention, snapped a salute and left the quarters. Sai checked his pack one last time and, satisfied, made his way back to the hangar and the Adjudicator.
Kar Alabrek Garrison
Tarthos, Orian System
The entire mission tasted of mystery, its sharp and bitter tang present over all the secretive, hushed discussions, and the hurried last minute planning. Most of the people around him knew very little, kept in the dark by those of higher rank, but rumors still abounded.
He had heard many different things, all of them rather far-fetched, most of them quite idiotic. All of these rumors centered on the planet Kangaras, which apparently was their target.
From what he knew of the world, it was a disgusting place, humid and rather tropical. He did not relish the prospect of being on this mission, but it was his duty. Shuang-Long never shirked his duty, especially know that he was clad in uniform, going by his old name.
Here, the soldiers knew him as Commander Korodin. Only his fellow Dark Jedi knew him as a Long.
His old name brought with it a flow of curious recollections. Memories of combat from decades ago filtered through the shroud of time. He remembered old friends and old ideals, both long dead.
He had been a general once, when the Empire was dying and the stars were cold with terror in their nightly perches. He could be a general again, given time and the pulse of ambition.
He took a seat beside the Governor.
“We are about to depart, Syrus,” Trevarus said, quirking a brow as he looked over at his Apprentice.
“Fantastic,” Syrus replied, “but I might as well take a seat here and try to pierce your mind with my amazing abilities, thereby learning everything about this particular mission that has been kept from me.”
Kar Alabrek Garrison
Tarthos, Orian System
The Sith Battlemaster sighed when he saw Trevarus' message bleeping on his comm screen. It was
a text only message, an invite to accompany him and Marka Ragnos on a missions. Details were
not mentioned but Ylith figured it might be worth while.
As he rose he almost immediatly fell onto his knee, a sharp pain shot through his body and almost
overwhelmed him. He rose shortly after and shook his head. He knew his time amoung his peers
would be short, a curse rested upon him, one that wasnt mentioned nor noticable, a pain so
severe it flinches flesh and mind.
The Sith simply recompased and grabbed his gear before he moved out into the hallways, heading
towards Trevarus himself to see if there would be something he could do. To show his brothers and
sisters in Naga Sadow he was still worth something.
Sepros, Orian System
The old WR-542
courier came to a rest in one of the private hangar bays sectioned off from the main bay located beneath the Temple of Sorrow
, now known as Sadow Palace. The Temple of Sorrow had once been one of seven identical temples
, built in a heptagonal arrangement surrounding the central Palace of Orian
. The palace was now a ruin, brought down the previous decade by Trevarus Caerick, and many of the surrounding temples had fallen into disrepair during the millennia since the system had been ruled by the Sith Lord Urias Orian.
Sadow Palace had been the temple which had best weathered the sands of time, having been chosen to serve as the headquarters of the Disciples of Sadow ten years ago when the Exodus was first conceived. In the years that had followed, hidden baradium deposits had been unearthed under the Temple of Fire
and a secluded mining operation established, enlisting the local savages by force to slave away in the depths. The lucrative baradium market, used in the manufacture of weapons such as proton torpedoes, had helped bankroll much of the new Dlarit Corporation's new fleet.
More recently, the Temple of Steel
, closest to the Temple of Sorrow, had been outfitted with equipment to serve as a command outpost for the Dlarit Special Operations Group
. By large, DSOG was an autonomous fighting force, without a designated headquarters like the Dlarit Security Force
on Tarthos. Nevertheless, the logistical demands of DSOG were vast, and the Temple of Steel housed most of the division's command and support teams. The rest were spread out throughout the Orian system, small units assigned to outposts such as the Cenota Facility
to oversee the cloning tanks, the Dentavii Facility
on Dentavii Prime to supervise ship repair, as well as brigades to guard Marakith Skyhook and Alabrek Castle. Rumour had it there was talk of establishing an outpost on Kangaras too.
Marshal Commander Xanos Zorrixor strode down the ramp of the old WR-542 courier, his cloak swirling around him. Delta-30, Krenth, followed the prefect as he marched purposely through the hangar toward the turbolift, waving a hand dismissively at the flight control technician as he approached.
The technician approached the Falleen anyway. “Commander,” said the man with a salute. No, not a man, he had the distinct look of an Arkanian. Both eyes were white and the datapad in his hand was clutched between four clawed fingers.
Commander Zorrixor spun, presenting the technician with an irritated stare. “Yes?”
The technician looked unmoved. He obviously was used to Dark Jedi arriving in the palace. His mistake. “Sir, you need to log your transport before proceeding into the main complex.”
Xanos stared at the Arkanian, Delta-30 waiting patiently by his side, black visor making it impossible to see what he was thinking. Xanos could tell in the Force Krenth was amused. “I'm in a hurry...” Xanos glanced down at the technician's rank bar, “...Flight Technician Third Class
.” He made an effort to emphasise the technician's juniority.
The Arkanian just seemed to turn even more stubborn. “I'm sorry, sir, but I cannot let you enter the main complex without first filling in an arrival transcript. Procedure and all.” The man said it as if meaning to sound sympathetic, but the tone of his voice made it obvious he didn't really care who he annoyed. A jobs worth. “We wouldn't want another incident like with those True Brotherhood people last year.”
Xanos simply glared at the technician. He was sure Krenth was now laughing inside his helmet. “I am well aware of last year's invasion, Flight Technician. But I really must be going. I have a transport to catch.”
The Arkanian didn't budge. “I am sorry, sir, but I am not authorised to make an exception. If you want to enter the main complex without first filling in an arrival transcript you will need to talk to my...”
The Arkanian cut off mid sentence. His hands flew to his throat as he slowly rose off the ground, his eyes going wide as he clutched at his neck. “St...” The technician forced himself to speak, managing only a guttural cough.
“Now, Flight Technician, listen to me and listen closely. When Lord Vexatus wants something, Lord Vexatus gets it. Do you understand me?”
The Arkanian nodded, his face starting to go blue as he continued to clutch at his neck frantically.
“In this case, Lord Vexatus wants to leave the hangar. Is Lord Vexatus going to get to do that?”
The Arkanian's nodded his head up and down rapidly.
“Good,” said Vexatus, smiling. He opened his fist, the Arkanian falling to the floor. “Now. Open the door. Please
The Arkanian gasped, relief flooding his features now he could breath again. He looked down at his datapad, hastily punching in commands to open the seals to the turbolift doors and allow Lord Vexatus to be on his way. The red light over the doorway blinked then turned green as the doors swung open.
“There, that wasn't difficult now, was it?” said Vexatus, still smiling. He began towards the turbolift, Krenth having already entered. Right before he passed through the doors he spun around, eliciting a panicked gasp from the Arkanian.
“Si...sir?” stuttered the Flight Technician.
“That's “My Lord
”,” said Vexatus, grinning darkly, “but I won't hold you on that. I regret, however, that you heard me use my true name. That I unfortunately cannot allow.”
The Arkanian's eyes flung open. “M..My Lord? I do not understand.”
Vexatus smiled, the smile of a twisted sadist. He shook his head softly. “Don't worry about that. You don't need to.”
The Sith Lord clenched his fist suddenly and the Arkanian fell to the floor, the sound of his neck breaking echoing across the hangar.
Darth Vexatus turned and stepped into the turbolift. “Mundane
.” He shook his head.
“Don't forget about me, Commander,” said Krenth, undisturbed by the events.
Vexatus stared at his adjutant and grinned. “Consider yourself an exception, Delta-Thirty. We fixed the problems of ordinary mundane when we made you and your brothers.”
Krenth smiled inside his helmet, appreciative as always of the praise from his otherwise icy commander. “Thank you, Commander.” Krenth reached out and touched the turbolift control panel before it shot away into the heart of Sadow Palace.
Alabrek Castle, Gardens
Kar Alabrek, Tarthos
Domain of Clan Naga Sadow
"Shuang Long, you should go to the transport... I will follow shortly."
"Yes, my Master." The old Krath departed, leaving the Master to his own considerations.
A scene out of the past flooded the Master's vision. He raised a glass of glittering amber liquid to his lips. As a trace of fire flooded his taste, he remembered another wash of fire.
"And that fascinating relic on your arm... belongs to me." She said, her Sword held aloft. "With the Sword of Shar Dakhan and the Amulet of Urias Orian... I will become the true Mistress of the Dark Side."
She had escaped. Yet, the fire of her passion lingered in a trace of pure distress along the currents of the Dark Side. Even the better part of a year could not erase the raw longing of denial. Craving is perceived almost as love. The nuances of perception defined the Master's insight. True power is not the abilitiy to see... rather the ability to understand what is seen, at the most intricate levels.
"Esk," Trevarus said, finishing his glass of scotch. "It is time to leave."
"Yes, Governor. Our transports our ready. Your Apprentices, Guardian Pennant and Knight Long have already queried me for your position."
"Inform them that we are enroute to the spaceport. Come." Trevarus rose, and motioned with his silver-gloved hand. His DAC adjutant followed behind, a heavy blaster rifle held at port-ready.
Trevarus was immensely pleased with the construction of Alabrek Castle. Although it was a ghost of Kalekka Tower, a mere shade of its grandeur... the Castle was vast, and extremely well appointed. Desolation defined the major atmosphere of Tarthos, yet here was a refuge of careful order, symmetrical beauty. The passion of life, the intricacy of death, all were displayed in the arrangments of evergreens, stone, and pathways that defined the gardens surrounding the Castle. The duo walked from the south-side Garden Path, into the Grand Promenade of the Keep.
The Castle has four entrances, arranged at cardinal points around the Cathedral it had been constructed around. Trevarus had paid for the construction of a monument to House Marka Ragnos, and to Clan Naga Sadow, that enhanced the work ordered by his brother, Muz Sadow. The Cathedral was but a wing of this mighty palace. In the year since the exile from the Antei System, Trevarus had brought the majority of his library to the Castle, and record-keepers and archivists swarmed to the more accessible location for the chance to skim his vast collection. Three hundred million volumes, and even more uncataloged texts were the prize for any researcher who had a friend within Clan Naga Sadow, or Clan Tarentum, for that matter.
The words of Lady Morrigan rang in his ears as he walked along the grand corridor that was the Promenade.
"Kalekka Tower still stands, Trevarus... I suspect you will even walk through its halls again, someday... possibly even soon. Yet, when you return, you shall see it for what it truly is: a monument to your arrogance. I know the end of what you see, Son of Alaerus... you must learn to abandon attachments, if you are to become the end."
If Kalekka Tower was a monument to his arrogance, then Alabrek Castle was a monument to his expansive vision. The Castle housed the entire cotingent of the DSOG assigned to Tarthos, the entire body of House Marka Ragnos, with untold numbers of rooms to spare, and the staff that kept them well-maintained. A private hangar facility for the Govenor and his Lieutenant, as well as for entertaining visitors from the Dark Council or other luminaries. He stalked through the Promenade that circled the entire rhomboid Castle with his armored adjutant at his side. Cloned abomination that he was... still extremely capable.
Xanos... what do you make of the coincidence that we traced the Flow-Walker and the Ghost to Kangaras, and our current sense of distress on that world? Trevarus said into the Force, to his only true enemy, ally, and Apprentice.
I do not know, came the reply. There is another level of insight that we must investigate. They were drawn to that world, but for what reason?
Indeed, there is something else, Trevarus responded. I will board the Adjudicator shortly.
A mere twenty minute walk had brought the Master and his companion to the star port of Kar Alabrek. It might have required an hour of any others. His cloned adjutant was more than capable of keeping pace with his brisk speed.
In the bay appointed to his private shuttle, Nero Pennant and Shuang Long stood waiting. Both bowed slightly from the shoulders at his approach.
"Master, the Night Hawks are deployed to the Adjudicator, we just have to meet them." Nero said.
"Excellent, my Apprentice. And for your part, Shuang Long?"
"When you decide to tell me what you're keeping from me, I'll be ready to face it." Syrus replied, slightly adjusting his uniform
"Again, excellent. Although, as you know, I will not reveal my secrets to one such as you... rather, I expect you to uncover them for yourself."
Trevarus boarded the shuttle via the lowered ramp. His entourage taking their place in various seats. He would find Xanos, and discussed the implications of his visions.
As the shuttle rose from the frigid atmosphere of Tarthos, Trevarus remembered fire.
Temple of Steel
As Trevarus’ taint slid from his mind, Lord Vexatus stood lost in the quiet noise that were his own thoughts as the turbolift sped towards the DSOG Command deck, Krenth a silent sentinel at his back.
Abruptly, the lift stopped, and the doors whooshed open to present a slightly unsettling sight to the Falleen.
In the corridor stood a man that he recognized as a priest of the Krath Mysteries, Sai Keibatsu, but it wasn’t the Equite that made Vexatus think that his sanity, already tenuously gripped, had finally left him.
The priest was talking to Krenth.
Vexatus gave himself a mental shake; no, it wasn’t Krenth, for he could still feel his DAC standing behind him. Peering closer, he saw that there were subtle differences between his assistant and the clone Sai was addressing, but the similarities were nonetheless astounding.
The priest handed the Delta-unit a datapad, and Vexatus caught the tail end of his address. “...have the quartermaster refuel and restock the WR-542 that has newly arrived, and send word to Commander de Ath that I shall be escorting Marshall Commander Zorrixor, who I’m sure will say whether he’d rather be briefed in Command Central or on board the Adjudicator. Ah, my Lord!”
Vexatus, aware the priest was talking to him, inclined his head in greeting. Sai wrapped up his conversation with his DAC as he stepped onto the turbolift to join the Falleen and his own Delta-unit. “Oh, have the third-class down in the hangar replaced, and tell whomever that is that Marshall Commander Zorrixor is to be considered duly checked in. That will be all, Captain Orenth.”
“Aye, Senior,” said the Delta-unit, designate 32, who snapped off a salute to both the Palace’s prefect and Vexatus just before the doors slid shut.
Sai fell in beside the Falleen, who noted that the priest’s tone was neither accusatory nor annoyed. It seemed the Equite, in personally handling the logistics of checking his transport in, was more aware of events around the Palace than he initially gave him credit for, and he told him so.
“Think nothing of it, my Lord; we are all simply ‘cogs in the machine’. When one’s broken, it needs to be replaced,” Sai replied, referring to the hapless Arkanian. Again, non-accusatory, no annoyance. Still, the phrasing caused Vexatus to wonder distantly if the Equite had actually had the audacity to lump him in with the rest of the Clan’s ilk, what with the ‘machine’ quip and the replacement of broken ‘parts’. He smiled inwardly in spite of himself. This one might be worth keeping around...for the time being.
“Your efficiency is refreshing in its non-intrusiveness,” Vexatus said, mustering what was his equivalent of a compliment. He’d normally not the time to suffer low-level Equites, no matter what trappings they wore. “Still, I need no escort. I know these halls, and better than you, no doubt.”
“Of course, but I must insist, my Lord. You, for all intents and purposes, are my guest, and as Prefect of the Palace, it would be my distinct honor to escort you. Oren is the only other one I’d trust to replace me, but as he is currently busy...” He let the rest go unsaid, again referring to the situation that Vexatus created.
Non-accusatory, no annoyance...but aware.
“And so, my Lord, I am at your disposal. Where shall I have de Ath meet us?”
City of Seng Karash
Aeotheran, Orian System
Warlord Malik Sadow looked over at the people loading the transport. ”This is not going to be a pleasant ride.” The anzat said to himself as he took a sip from his Bottle of Sadow. He turned to the observation deck and noticed that at least he was not the only one not looking forward to the journey.
He couldn’t see why they needed to pack so much equipment, he had everything he would need on his person, his Bottle of Sadow, his two sabers and two blasters mostly for show.
Nevertheless he relished the possibility of feeding on some the soup of what ever it was they were going up against. With that in mind he took another sip from his Bottle of Sadow and waited for the transport to be ready.
DSOG Designated Hangar
-class space cruiser designated Viceroy 1
edged its way into the vast hangar. It was a small courier ship but was still big enough for the needs of Astronicus Aurelius Sadow, Viceroy of the Dlarit Corporation and Overlord of Clan Naga Sadow. As the ship settled into place and extended it's landing gear, jet streams of steam and exhaust poured away from the ancient vessel. The old Corellian Engineering Corporation starship still carried the original paint job given to it half a century ago, Astronicus had seen to it's refurbishment personally.
Inside the ship within the bridge the female communications officer, Gaela Istral, turned in her seat to the Viceroy. "Sir, we've been cleared to disembark."
"Thank you Ms. Istral," replied Astronicus. "Captain Nal your orders are to return to Seng Karash, take some leave until I return." With that he turned and left the bridge. As he made his way to the exit ramp his Delta approached him, packing the gear they would need for the excursion. "Ah, Cresh, good you seem to have everything in order."
"Yes sir, and Dorn will be bringing up the rear with the remainder." Said Delta-3, making reference to his brother and the next in line of the Deltas.
As they exited the starship a paltry unit of guards stood at attention to welcome the Viceroy. Apparently the Palace was busy with getting everything ready and had not recieved the notice that he had arrived. A young human lieutenant walked up to greet him. After the pleasantries accustomed to such an event, they began heading over to the Adjudicator
Technicians seemed to be chuckling at something as Astronicus walked by, he knew it wasn't his two DACs they were laughing at, more likely it was something else. His anger began to burn at the thought they might be mocking him. Didn't they know who he was? What power he controlled? The laughter appeared to be contageous because as they approached the Assassin
-class Corvette, Malisane de Ath too was holding back a chuckle and had a large smirk on his face.
"Overlord, it's a pleasure." He managed to get out. "I must say, your choice of wardrobe is intriguing."
"What's wrong with it?" Asked Astronicus. He looked himself over, he was wearing a Pith helmet
, khakis, and a large Czerka 84-U hunting rifle. "I thought somebody said we were going on a safari to Kangaras?"
Malisane couldn't hold back any more and began to laugh, as did everyone else around even Astronicus. He knew this would lighten the mood somewhat and had dressed for just such. Turning to Dorn, also known as Delta-4, he took a bag containing his change of clothes and the three made their way up the Adjudicator
's landing ramp.
Low Altitude Assault Transport/infantry Marakith 7
Dlarit Special Operations Group Transport
Approaching Sepros, on route to Sadow Palace
The transport was cramped as the members of House Ludo Kressh huddled together in the rear compartment. Though the larty was designed to carry up to thirty troopers, the Dark Jedi were presently packed in between stacks of supplies and heavy equipment. Governor Ashia Keibatsu was fortunate enough to be seated up front behind the pilot. The others, Commanders Starlion and and Munlear among them, had been forced to sit in the back with the rest of the House. Commanders Maharet, Ring and Olar all appeared fairly disgruntled with their situation, unused to being packed into a military transport like marines.
Commander Malik looked noticeably displeased.
“Are we there yet?” barked Malik. Joseem Maruuch, seated beside the Anzat, looked particularly uncomfortable. Anzat were not known for their patience.
“Almost,” replied Ashia. “We should be entering the atmosphere in a few seconds. Hold on.”
The governor had scarcely finished speaking when the larty began to shake violently as it hit the outer mesosphere. Despite being able to operate in space, the LAAT/i
was primarily designed for atmospheric missions. Nobody had quite understood why the governor general had insisted they bring one along. They all assumed it had something to do with the mission to Kangaras. LAAT/i were good troop gunships at least.
's nose began to glow red hot with heat before it broke into the lower stratosphere. The ship stopped shaking suddenly, causing those not strapped in in the rear troop hold to stumble about as they tried to brace themselves. A few among them, including Commander Blackheart, appeared unperturbed as they used the Force to hold themselves steady.
“We're coming up on the palace now,” called Ashia.
Kappa-class shuttle Alabrek 2
Dlarit Special Operations Group Transport
Approaching Sadow Palace, Sepros
decelerated rapidly as it neared Sadow Palace
. The old Kappa-class
, forerunner of the Lambda
-class, had been chosen because of its appreciable troop capacity and ability to store a pair of AT-PT walkers in addition to the troops. House Marka Ragnos were packed into the troop lounge, along with a couple of teams of Dlarit Commandos
. Delta-5, Esk, was seated up front helping guide the pilot in.
The shuttle shot through the clouds as it flew over the murky forest kilometres below. Sepros was a horrific place, home to all manner of creatures which lurked in the dark forests that spanned most of the globe. There were a few plains, but for the most part the planet's surface was unwelcoming. It had made for a perfect site to establish the new Sadow Palace almost a decade earlier, amongst the ruins of the Temples of Orian
. Even now, the planet was rarely visited by the rank and file of the Dlarit Corporation, the flora and fauna deemed too dangerous to support a permanent settlement, not to mention the savage tribes and species that prowled the lands that were collectively known as the Seprosians
The humans and Wookiees, believed to have once been slaves to Urias Orian, had long since abandoned any pretence of civilisation. Most of the technology left behind on the Sith Empire's collapse had been intentionally designed to be unworkable by the slave races. Too much was fuelled directly by the dark side, utterly useless to the mundane. Still, over the millennia a few tribes had been blessed occasionally with a Force-sensitive, and had become all the more savage for it. The Ghosts, a tribe of humans who lived deep within the main forest, were known to be a particularly ferocious collection of cannibals.
But even the Ghosts paled next to the Ekind
. Twisted by years of experimentation, the Ekind had once been human, but were now a shadow of their former species. Covered in scales, hairless, the near-reptiles were the living legacy of the dark work of Urias Orian. The Ekind had had the most success with mastering the old technologies of the Sith Empire, a small comfort in the face of the mutation they had been forced to endure. Also, unlike the feudal human tribes, the Ekind were far more organised. While some still revered the Sith as gods, most had long since turned to hate, having nothing but contempt for their one time lords.
It was troubling to know Kangaras was said to be far, far worse than anything in Orian.
The Temple of Sorrow, home of the Disciples of Sadow, came into view as Alabrek 2
began its descent. The palace was once pyramidal in shape, smoothed off until it was almost conical. This was not so much the case now, and while it had survived better than the surrounding temples much had needed to be rebuilt since the Clan had taken up residence. None of this was apparent to the pilot of Alabrek 2
since only the upper spire at the summit of the temple protruded above the forest canopy, the rest was hidden deep below.
“Beginning our approach now, sir,” said the pilot to Delta-5. Esk nodded in response.
angled through a hole in the canopy, following the narrow path through the forest through to the entrance of the mountain face that would lead them to the underground hangar constructed in the catacombs that had once united the seven temples with the central Palace of Orian
fired its repulsors as the hangar's maw swallowed it whole, slowly rapidly before finally gliding gently to a stop within the main hangar bay, the Assassin
-class corvette Adjudicator
visible at the rear of the hangar, dwarfing the Kappa
“It seems everyone else is already here,” said Governor Caerick, entering the cockpit. He gestured out the window at the LAAT/i sitting beside the neck of the Adjudicator
, supplies and Dark Jedi currently transferring to the waiting corvette. “Let's go join them.” He turned to his adjutant. “Esk, have the commando squads move to the Adjudicator
. Leave the walkers, they can stay on the shuttle.”
Trevarus nodded. “When we're done, have the pilot put the shuttle in the corvette's hangar. It might come in useful when we get to Kangaras.”
Malisane strode onto the bridge. "Whats the current status Lieutenant?"
Tor Vaxill turned to the Sith. "Both shuttles have docked, and their passengers boarded. The company of troopers are onboard also. Currently we're trying to assign quarters to everyone, its putting a strain on my second in command's imagination."
Malisane smiled. "This is what happens when you get the top brass on one ship, everyone wants their own stateroom. Its only an eight hour flight they can make do."
"Yes sir," the Lieutenant said hiding his smile.
"We're ready to depart then."
The Lieutenant nodded. "Yes sir."
"Make it so."
The Adjudicator's repulsors fired, and it broke free of its moorings and rose up through the opening hangar door, maneourering around, before its thrusters fired blasting it up into the Sepros night. From the base below its escort of four XJ X-wings followed it, taking up formation around it as it climbed further out of the planets stratosphere.
On the bridge, Malisane watched in satisfaction as the ship lurched before the stars blured as the Ajudicator entered hyperspace, beginging the eight hour flight to the Kangaras system. He nodded in satisfaction. "I'm off back to my room, assuming no-one else has moved in. If Commander Slar messages me put it through there."
Since given the post of Prefect of Gamuslg, Tsingtao spent countless hours reviewing reports of the Cenota Facility. He knew it was important to have knowledge of the everyday activities of the facility. On this particular day, Tsingtao was reviewing the staff list of the facility as well as the garrison roster. His comm link chirped broke the silence in the room. Annoyed, Tsingtao put down his papers, "What is it, Lieutenant?"
"Sorry for the interruption, sir, but you have a secure transmission from Sadow Palace."
Tsingtao put away the reports and moved to his comm station. "Thank you, Lieutenant." He played the transmission and heard a familiar metallic voice. "Echo Bravo 39." Without hesitation, Tsingtao activated his datapad and had a message waiting. He opened the message and saw nothing. He typed in the passcode and text began to appear.
He read the message from his Master, Shin'ichi Keibatsu Sadow, and quickly deleted. Tsingtao rose from his seat and started for the door. "Lieutenant, ready a shuttle and prepare Blue Team."
It hadn't taken as long to transfer the cargo from the LAAT/i to the Adjudicator as it had to load in the first place. The DSOG troops moved through it expertly and soon they were on their way.
Ashia sat in her room going over the datapads that littered the table. She had been right in the middle of battle team training when she had been called upon to report to Sadow Palace along with supplies. She grumbled at the inconvenient timing of it all.
The Keibatsu rubbed her head and sighed heavily. Her work would have to wait, she needed to find Malisane, Macron and Shin and find out what the plan was.
She entered the corridor, moving towards the bridge. Rounding the corner, she encoutered Astronicus Sadow entering his room.
He nodded in her direction before disappearing inside. She shook her head wondering what was up with the Pith helmet, khakis and the hunting rifle slung over his shoulder before continuing down the hall.
The Governor of Aeotheran entered the bridge. Malisane looked up from the console in front of him; a smile barely creased his lips when he saw her enter.
"Ashia, glad you could join us."
"What's the plan?" Her azure eyes scanned the bridge of the Corvette.
Assassin-class corvette Adjudicator
Dlarit Special Operations Group Corvette
Hyperspace, on route to the Kangaras System
“I was just about to call a briefing,” replied Malisane. “Macron and Shin'ichi are already on site with the Final Way. We need to be ready when we arrive.”
Ashia nodded in agreement. “I'll inform my team,” said the governor before heading back toward the passenger quarters.
Malisane keyed a switch on the comm board, skimming through the list of frequencies until he found the one he needed. The prefect waited a minute before speaking. “Master Caerick?”
The reply came almost instantly. “Speaking. What do you need, Commander de Ath?”
“Mission briefing in ten minutes. Ashia is organising her team. Can I trust you to do the same?”
The speakers elicited a slightly amused noise. “Of course, Commander. It will be done.”
The channel cut off. Malisane shook his head. He had no particular dislike for the Krath Master but there was something deeply wrong about Caerick. He just couldn't put his finger on it.
The briefing room was not particularly big. The governors and their aides were seated around the circular table in the center of the room but the rest had to stand. Even standing, the room could only support half a dozen or so, leaving it feeling cramped.
“I apologise for the inconvenience,” said Malisane. “Kangaras only seems to get the second rate equipment.” His voice was light hearted but there was a slight edge behind it. The prefect of Kangaras was no doubt bitter his world had been bottom of the list behind Aeotheran and Tarthos. Even now, most of the Kangaras fleet was unfinished. It would still be a few months before the Overseer was completed.
Trevarus got right to the point. “What is your assessment of the situation, Commander?”
Malisane keyed a switch on the inbuilt datapad on the table and a holo-emitter in the middle came to life, depicting an image of the planet Kangaras. Kangaras was entirely covered in plant life. Most of the surface was a vast jungle, not unlike Sepros or Aeotheran and the few breaks in the jungle were still covered with heavy plant life. Even to the assembled Dark Jedi, Kangaras looked wild.
“From the looks on your faces, no, Kangaras isn't a nice place,” said Malisane. “It's been left virtually abandoned since the Sith Empire. It could even be older than that, we're not sure. The jungle has proven difficult to tame, making investigation of the remotest ruins impossible without better resources.” He lingered for a moment on the point. “Anyway,” the prefect keyed a button, causing a point on the hologram to turn red, “this is the location of Usharak Keep. The keep is built on the jungle outskirts at the edge of one of the mountain ranges. We're fortunate enough the nearby flora isn't as dense as further inland. The clearing makes defending the keep easier, which is probably why it was built there in the first place.”
“As you all know, Usharak Keep was the True Brotherhood's original base of operations for several decades. It was from there Severak ran things until we raided the planet four years ago.” Malisane pressed another switch and a location several hundred kilometers into the main jungle turned blue. “This is where the Argnok was found. As you can see, it's right in the middle of the main jungle. Usharak Keep is still on the same continent so will be serving as our staging post. From there, we'll be taking the larty and the shuttle out to see what happened. I'm going to need to head into the village once we reach Usharak Keep to pick up one of our Ewok warriors as a guide, the rest will be meeting us at the Argnok crash site. Any questions?”
Trevarus had remained fixed on the hologram of Kangaras until Malisane finished talking. “Just one.”
"What about them?"
“Do you really want me to answer that question, Commander?” an edge crept into the governor's voice.
Malisane sighed. “Look, I know what you're thinking, I'm sure we've all seen the younglings' holodramas of cute and fury Ewoks called Booboo searching for their lost picnic baskets on Endor. They're not like that. These things are nasty critters, with teeth and claws. They don't fight fair. When they see an enemy, they'll pounce on it in packs, tearing and gnawing at it like wild animals. But they're not animals, apart from their vocal cords being unable to pronounce Basic they're actually pretty smart. I've known a few Ewoks who were ship mechanics. Even one who worked for Republic Intelligence.”
Trevarus shook his head. “Whatever you say. But if they get in my way, I won't hesitate to remove them.”
“Fair enough. Just try and remember to think of them like short Wookiees. I'm sure you'll get along fine.”
Ashia coughed. “While I hate to break up the younglings' happy hour meeting, the mission?”
“Right.” Malisane keyed another switch and the hologram zoomed in, depicting the area around the crash site. “The Argnok crash landed near a section of the main ruins. Usharak Keep is huge but some of the structures buried under the foliage dwarf it. If Anaxela or Severina are still there, it probably has something to do with what's inside. Severak and Severina lived there for years. If there was something of worth, she'll have known. And, even if they're gone, finding out what they were after is our best lead to working out where they went.”
“In that case, we'll need to make our way to the ruin,” said Ashia. “How far away is it?”
“Difficult to say. Maybe a few days on foot from the Keep. Less if we go by air, but there's no guarantee there will be anywhere to put down.”
“We could air drop in,” said Trevarus. “We can worry about retrieval afterwards.”
Malisane considered it. “That might work. After the quick stop off at Usharak Keep, if we take the shuttles out and air drop in near the Argnok, it should only take a day to reach the main ruin nearby.”
“Right. Then we do that,” said Ashia. “I'll go and organise my men.”
The creature moved confidently through the undergrowth on its hind legs, its eight foot tall frame striding forward on its clawed feet across the damp ground. It stopped and sniffed, raising its fanged head up. Suddenly its eyes glittered, it smelt flesh. It roared and broke into a run, as fifty metres ahead of it several small black creatures scattered before it. It bounded after them, its long legs covering the ground quickly until it was almost on top of them. Bloodlust drove it on, and a fierce hunger. The small creatures broke for cover but their scent was in the predators nostrils.
Suddenly a pot of liquid hit its face, blinding it, and it snarled clawing at its eyes at the stinging sensation. It roared as a second pot hit its back, before an agonising pain hit it as its tough leathery skin burst into flames. It fell to the damp ground, rolling trying to extinguish the flames on its charred skin. As the flames died, a hoard of the small creatures swarmed it, stabbing with alchemically enhanced knives and pikes, into what remained of its eyes and the weaker areas of its skin. As its arms flailed dislodging its assailants more joined them, until the beast finally lay still, and the creatures attached ropes to it, before dragging it away.
Nearby Imgormiel stood next to the Argnok, speaking quietly to Urtarg while the hound Gmork sat nearby. He looked up as another ewok appeared and spoke quickly.
The Knight listened. "Another one?" he asked, "well keep them clear. We can't wipe out everything between here and the ruins more are coming in, but at least the immediate area ought to be safe."
Assassin-class corvette Adjudicator
Dlarit Special Operations Group Corvette
Hyperspace, on route to the Kangaras System
The air in the cargo space, as all over the transport, was thick with anticipatory jitters and reeked of the anxious sweat of men and women new to battle. Though the Adjudicator’s atmospheric regulatory systems were operating nominally, the moments before conflict usually produced the climate of slight apprehension that now assaulted Sai’s senses.
As Prefect, he played gracious host to Lord Vexatus while they were at the Palace, but now that he was attached to the Adjudicator and the DSOG maneuvers, he’d shed those trappings and once again put on those of the Clan's Rollmaster. Sai was busy making his way through the crowded hold, tallying the stores and counting rations and weapons, ensuring that the supplies reported by the rank and file were actually there. In accepting accountability, he had to play accountant.
He was in the midst of the check when he noted a group of Journeymen, nervously checking and rechecking their armor and weapons. Along with DSOG’s inaugural mission, it was theirs as well. It seemed so long since the Keibatsu had been in their boots, wiping nervous sweat from his brow, checking his blaster’s power pack again and again, pining for the day he’d wield a real ‘saber. Truthfully, he was newly initiated as a Priest of the Krath Mysteries; it struck him as funny, how experiences, and their accompanying scars, stretched out Time’s inexorable passage.
Sai felt he should say something to them, to comfort them, assuage their fears, to give them a supportive hand on their shoulders. He remembered his days as a Journeyman, when at the cusp of battle, even the sight of a Dark Knight would give him reassurance that he, too, could survive and reach greatness.
Then, the coin within his mind flipped, and he remembered the last Great War, when as part of his Clan duties, and obligation to his Family, he had to peer into the sightless eyes of every one of the Clan’s dead. A truly morbid accounting, it was now responsible for the endless stir of echoes within his head. The ghost pleaded with him incessantly, demanding revenge. He could scarcely afford to become attached to more potential “fodder”, if not for military decorum’s sake, for that of his sanity; he was barely sleeping as it was.
Sai made to walk in the other direction when one of the Journeymen noticed his presence and stood tall, calling out in a strong voice, “Attention on deck!”
The Rollmaster winced, composed himself and turned back, seeing the nervous hope beaming from each of their eyes. He considered going to them once again, but he knew that they’d be better served by surviving their own crucibles, just as he had before them, without coddling. Without favor. Without mercy.
“As you were,” he gruffly put them at ease. He strode briskly out of the hold, calls of “Aye, Senior Commander!” resounding at his back. Thumbing his comm, he keyed Malisane’s personal unit. Sai hoped de Ath was finished his briefing; he desperately needed a cigarra, and a drink with which to chase it.
Assassin-class corvette Adjudicator
Dlarit Special Operations Group Corvette
“Final Way to Adjudicator, please confirm authorisation.” The voice of Rear Admiral Araic Simonetti, captain of the special operations flagship sounded over the speakers, carrying the full weight of the man's station and experience. Simonetti was a true veteran and even aurally it showed in the man's voice.
“Adjudicator here,” replied Lieutenant Tor Vaxill, the corvette's commanding officer. Authorisation is Aurek Grek Zerek Three Two, over.”
“Confirmed, Adjudicator,” replied Admiral Simonetti. “You are cleared for landing.”
The comm channel cut off as the Adjudicator angled toward the planet Kangaras, passing the Republic-class Star Destroyer Final Way which was already on station. The corvettes escort flight of four XJ3 X-wings hung back as they headed home to the Star Destroyer which served as their mothership. The XJs were some of the most advanced starfighters presently in production and had been painfully difficult to acquire, most being built specially for the Jedi Order to assist the ongoing war effort against the Yuuzhan Vong.
The Adjudicator passed through the upper clouds of Kangaras as it converged on Usharak Keep. Below, the ancient castle began to take form, a gargantuan stone structure which rose high above the jungle canopy. The jungle before the keep was slightly more tamed than deeper inland, with the level of the treetops slowly falling as they neared the mountainside. Behind the keep, the mountain range it was constructed upon stretched for miles, opening to a vast chasm directly behind it.
There were tell tale signs of the Ewok villages built around the keep a few miles out but apart from one they were almost unnoticeable unless you were specifically looking for them. The only village that stood out was where the jungle had receded, vaporised in an explosion the previous year when the Yuuzhan Vong had briefly scouted the planet. The jungle had quickly moved to reclaim the land, but there was still a scar, almost as if the jungle itself had been wounded.
“We're coming up on Usharak Keep now, sir,” said Lieutenant Vaxill, glancing over her shoulder at Senior Commander Malisane de Ath. The prefect of Kangaras nodded in approval as the captain issued orders to her support crew to guide the ship in. The Adjudicator fired its repulsors as it lowered into the clearing before Usharak Keep, landing gear deploying as the light foliage was blown aside by venting gas as the ship equalised the internal and external pressures.
“Transmission coming in,” said one of the officers over at the communications desk.
“Patch it through.”
The face of Governor General Macron Keibatsu appeared on the main viewscreen. “Malisane, you're finally here, excellent,” said the mad alchemist with a slight giggle. Macron was capable of remaining unperturbed even in the most serious of situations. “Did you bring the men I asked?”
Malisane nodded. “Yes. We've got all the Dark Jedi we could muster in addition to forty troopers, a couple of commando squads and any DAC troopers who have come along. There are a couple of AT-PTs in one of the shuttles as well.”
“Good work,” said Macron. “I'll be waiting in the keep. Shin'ichi is here as well.”
“I need to make a quick trip into the village to pick up a guide then we can take the shuttles out to the crash site. Ashia and Trevarus believe that would be the best way to trace where Anaxela and Severina have gone.”
“Agreed.” Macron's eyes flashed when Malisane had mentioned the man's sister with a look he could not make out. Their relationship was clearly as strange as the alchemist himself. “Well, we'll be waiting for you to get back. Be quick. Macron out.”
The viewscreen went dark and Malisane was left to his thoughts. He keyed a switch on his portable comm transmitter and asked to open a channel direct to the two governors. “Master Caerick, Ashia, I've just received word from Macron and Shin'ichi, they're waiting for us in Usharak Keep. I'm going to head on down to the village to pick up our guide. Have your men ready for when I get back.”
Malisane was the first one to leave the Ajudicator, as the rest of the passengers gathered their equipment. He had travelled light, knowing he wouldn't need much. Imgormiel had supplies at the discovery site. He glanced up at the familiar site of his Keep, the solid rock walls with its towers with the concealed defences that Severak had installed and he's reinforced. A few marks here and there could be seen as a testimony to the coralskippers failed bombardment. Outside a detachment of D:SOG troopers stood to attention, watching the corvette.
He turned to Sai who'd followed. "Unload the shuttles but keep them here. Don't let anyone go beyond the Keep perimeter until I've returned."
"Why?" Sai asked curiously.
"Because I need to introduce them to the local ewok chiefs first." Malisane replied.
"Why?" the Rollmaster asked curiously.
"Because if they go wandering off into the jungle and the scouts don't recognise them they'll be a bloodbath." Malisane replied, "which isn't the start we want. Macron will be in the Keep, check in with him and have a drink I keep a very well stocked cellar. Don't worry I'll bill Dlarit for them."
Malisane strolled over to where a speeder was waiting next to a trooper. Efficient as ever. He climbed onto it, and gunned the throttle, and Sai watched him depart.
RSD Final Way
Simonetti sat in his command chair, watching the jungle world on the main screen. A second later the face of the Govenor General appeared. "The Adjudicator has landed, you are free to move out of the system and maintain position."
Simonetti nodded. "As you wish Govenor." He gave the orders for a short hyperspace jump, and the destroyer entered hyperspace.
Astronicus disembarked from the corvette and made his way to the gathering point where all the troops were prepping for the jungle excursion. His two DACs, Cresh and Dorn, followed closely behind him - both with overstuffed packs and heavy weaponry. To Astronicus this was more an outing to a jungle world with exotic beasties that he could bag for his trophy room back at Seng Karash than anything else. Oh sure they were here to investigate the whereabouts of the former True Brotherhood's leaders, and perhaps see if there was anything worth finding in the jungle. But he had had his share of Dark Jedi wanna-bes always stirring up contentions. This was the closest he got to a vacation now-a-days.
This was virgin country, no man's land, the outback of the Orian System. He was a big game hunter and wasn't about to let the moment pass him by. He found an open area filled with nothing but equipment crates and took a seat, his DACs decided to stand at ease - Dorn took off his laded pack. Unholstering his modified BlasTech DC-15x sniper rifle he began to inspect the sights and make sure the weapon was in top condition. His adjutants did likewise with their BlasTech DC-17m Interchangeable Weapon System rifles.
This wasn't going to be a walk in the park and he knew it as did many of the Dark Jedi venturing on this mission, but it would do no good to be unprepared or nervous about the situation. You didn't know what would be going up against you on Kangaras, but you did know that having an ample supply of hardware would be handy and perhaps even lifesaving. Not to say that your typical lightsaber wouldn't handle the job effectively, but it never hurt anyone to be ready for the unpredictable.
As he began polishing up his DC-15x he heard the loud clomp of feet hitting the earth below and heading towards him. He looked up in time just to see his pet Tuk'ata called Kren come lunging at him. The beast of course was glad to see his master and expressed it so, Astronicus on the other hand wasn't so overjoyed.
"Dorn, I thought I gave explicit instructions that the Tuk'ata were to stay at Sadow Palace." Barked Tron.
"Yes, sir." Replied Delta-4. "Xor was willing to stay, but Kren said it was his duty to safeguard the heir of Sadow no matter what you might think. He said the heir may have delusions of being safe when he is not and that it had been laid upon his father and himself to look out for you."
"Oh really?" Inquired Tron, "And just when did you begin speaking Sith, because last I checked that was the only language Kren knew."
"We uh," the Delta cleared his throat as he prepared to continue, "had the help of an interpreter. Unfortunately Xor did not take a liking to the the scholar and so blame can no longer fall upon his shoulders."
"Well he's here now, so there is no need to make a big deal of it I guess." Said Astronicus, then turning his attention to the Tuk'ata he switched dialects to Sith and said, "You are right in your duty to watch over me, however, never over step my commands again. You will be limited to doing what I order you on this excursion, understood?"
The Tuk'ata of course did, but merely bowed it's head in recognition. It knew it's master was an exacting one and was honor bound to him as his father had been to the previous Sadows. Though he knew that others had been granted the name of Sadow, he swore his allegiance to Astronicus alone and would look after his safety first and foremost.
Kappa-Class Shuttle Alabrek 2
Kaldex Transport Inc. Shuttle
Approaching Kangaras, Kangaras System
The mottled-blue white of sky shimmered through the cabin viewports. He considered the patterns for a moment, but closed his eyes as the vessel soared through atmospher in a thrumming vibration. He perhaps did not understand the urgency, but there was a rift in the pattern. Trevarus was utlimately curious about the Ghost's draw to this world, the Flow-Walker's madness was already apparent to him. Perhaps there was some lingering trace.
He opened his eyes, and watched the glow of Kangaras' atmosphere, blue-green and brimming with life energies flow into the scope of his vision. He turned his head to either side. His Apprentices were sitting quietly, lost in their own thoughts. Esk, his DAC Adjutant was busily cleaning his weapon. All was good.
"Governor?" The pilot said over his headset.
"We'll arrive at Usharak Keep in approximately ten minutes."
And indeed, he could see the jutting towers of the Keep spilling over the rippled-green horizon, tearing into the blue-white cloud cover. An impression settled into the back of his mind: Something else was going on here. He could quite place the sensation, but he allowed his instincts to guide him.
The pilot sat back in utter surprise as Trevarus assumed telekinetic control of the shuttle. It veered northward, accelerating to maximum speed. He sensed urgency, he sensed malice; Trevarus would follow this insight.
Xanos... I've found the... His telepathic link was cut abruptly.
Screeching alarms began to wail out of the controls
"We're losing power! Switching it auxilliary generators and lifts!" The pilot shouted frantic. He flipped a series of switches, jamming the throttle forward. "Alt. is three K's and dropping!"
"Prepare for a crash landing!"
The shuttle dropped like a stone cast into water. Trevarus calmly sat as his companions strapped their harnesses and braced for impact. Ripping through vine and limb, the ship plummeted through the canopy. As the dorsal vane was ripped apart by a massive tree, the anterior cabin of the shuttle was torn away, the smells of stagnant jungle flooded the air, sweet and bringing death.
Trevarus calmly sat. He was not going to die, although his companions were no so certain. Fear flooded the Force, as the energies of life and death mingled on the scattering of random events. Survival became a matter of chance in such a situation.
With a thunderclap, the shuttle impacted against a tree.
For the space of several seconds, everything was still. Still, the Master sat calmly, waiting for sensations of consciousness to return to Nero and Shuang. Esk was alert and looking around through his armored helmet.
"Are you hurt, Sir." Esk asked Trevarus
"No, I'm fine. Our pilot unfortunately... requiscate in pace..."
A branch had peirced the cabin viewports and impaled his Dlarit pilot. His body lay slumped forward, blood dripping forward. The ship hand landed nose-first, skewered on a tree. Past mess of blood and broken metal, Trevarus could see the ground some fifteen meters below.
Nearby, he felt Shaung Long and Nero Pennant stir, shaking themselves back to awareness. Nero could not see the carnage... but perhaps his perception would allow him to take in the situation.
"I'm facing down. What the hell happened, Master?" Shaung Long asked.
"Something interfered with the operation of our shuttle. We've crashed into a tree."
"As if that's just an everyday occurance. Like having a drink." Nero said.
"Manners, Nero. What happens happens... are you not still drawing breath?" Trevarus replied calmly.
"Well... yeah... I suppose...." the Mirulaka stammered out. "But these straps burn."
"You'll be quite bruised, I imagine. Adjust your attention to the Force and the pain will subside."
Trevarus had relied on the Force to shield him from impact, and it held him in his seat. Reaching his hands behind to the seat back, he flipped over and crouched on the back of the seat. He looked over his shoulder and looked for a safe way out of the ruined vessel.
"You'll have to climb down... or jump." Trevarus said, leaping off the seat and through the torn mass of metal. He dropped through vines, leaves, and twisted to avoid another branch, landing in a crouch in the dampness that defined the jungle-floor. Barely any light filtered through the upper levels, and the stench of decay nearly overwhelmed his senses.
Xanos... we have crashed... although I don't know why... Trevarus said into the Force.
No answer, and he could sense nothing of his Apprentice. The presence of the Sith Lord in his mind was almost constant. Even through his year on Korriban, their telepathic conversations were unimpeded.
Trevarus narrowed his eyes and swore.
Kangaras, Kangaras System
Delta-30 came rushing into the room to the irritation of the assembled Dark Jedi. Astronicus, Macron and Shin'ichi had been discussing plans with Ashia and Darth Vexatus while Malisane was collecting the guide from the nearby village. The DAC trooper saluted before flipping up his visor. “Commanders.”
“What is it?” said Macron, for once holding back any giggle of excitement.
“Sir, Commander Caerick has just headed out with one of the transports.”
Shin'ichi narrowed his eyes. “Where has he gone?”
“He said something about needing to investigate the crash site. It seemed urgent.”
“Urgent?” stated Ashia. “Of course it's urgent. That's why we're all here.” She shook her head. “He needs to learn to wait for the rest of us.”
Astronicus shot an inquisitive glance at Vexatus who had remained quiet. “What do you know about this?”
“About as little as you,” said the Falleen, his lip twisting into a faintly amused smile. “Trevarus is not exactly known for always being that... forthcoming with information.”
“Captain, did he say anything else?” asked Macron, inclining his head toward the DAC trooper.
Krenth shrugged. “Not my business to question, sir. He just seemed to think there was something that could not wait. I believe he mentioned a presence.”
“Anaxela,” muttered Macron.
Astronicus shook his head. “We can't assume that. Either way...” The Overlord stopped speaking when Vexatus suddenly slumped forward, dropping to his knees. The Falleen's hand clawed at his head, as if massaging an invisible wound. “What is it?”
Vexatus looked up, his eyes were glazed over. His mouth moved but the sound that came out was not his voice. “Xanos...I've found the...” It was the voice of Trevarus Caerick.
Ashia narrowed her eyes. “What? Found the what?”
Vexatus stood up, his focus returning to normal. He looked visibly shaken. “I don't know.” It was the Falleen's voice again. “That was all he said before he...” The Sith Lord didn't finish the sentence.
“What? Before he what?” This time it was Shin'ichi who was no longer patient.
The Falleen shook his head. “I don't know. He just... went.”
“What do you mean went?”
Vexatus sighed, his gaze falling. “Before he disappeared. I can't sense him.”
“So... I think he's dead.” Despite the fact they all knew the Sith Lord desired nothing better than to take his Master's life, to finish the circle, he seemed to take no comfort in the thought.
“Maybe he's just hiding his presence in the Force?” asked Macron.
Vexatus shook his head. “No. I can always sense his presence, even then. The link we share as Master and apprentice is stronger than normal sensory techniques. This time he's vanished completely.”
“So he's really dead?” asked Astronicus. It was no secret the Overlord despised Caerick and had only reluctantly appointed him governor at Macron's request, but his voice, too, sounded concerned.
“I don't know. Maybe. Probably. I don't know how else our link could be severed so abruptly. He was in no noticeable distress. It isn't as if his last words were a warning.”
“Maybe it has something to do with what happened to Anaxela and Severina?” said Shin'ichi.
“Whatever it is we need to find out,” said Astronicus. “Everyone, get the troops ready. We depart as soon as Malisane returns with our guide. Be prepared. This mission just got a lot more complicated.”
Malisane pulled the speeder to a stop and dismounted. Night was falling and the jungle was quiet around him. He could sense them with the force, watching, and stood still for a moment, hands calmly by his side in a none threatening pose. Finally one of them stepped out of the bushes to his left, and studied him, pike raised, then lowered it. It spoke to him in its growling tongue.
“I will meet with your chief,” he said firmly.
It nodded and pointed to a nearby tree, where a dimly flickering lamp illuminated a wooden cage. He nodded and stepped into it, and gripped the sides as the pulley system pulled the cage up slowly into the treetops. It still fascinated him how the ewoks, initially bred in the laboratories below Usharak, still kept the ways of their ancestors, the ewoks on the moon of Endor, though beneath the surface he knew the modern technology he’d supplied them was utilised whenever needed.
He stepped out of the cage at the top, and looked around the village. More of the Sith ewoks watched him, pikes held in paws, relaxed but with the sense that they would spring into action at any minute if threatened. They also had blaster rifles hanging on their backs. Further from him across the rope bridges cooking fires could be seen, and the smell of roasting meet met his senses. He could also hear the sounds of blades clashing, as on the other side of the village several of the creatures engaged in a semi mock battle. He nodded politely and followed as they escorted him to the centre of the village, where the hut of the local chief was the most prominent structure. Outside Gratusk, the chief of this village, rose as he approached. Malisane had the most dealings with High Chief Urtarg, but the local chiefs were all familiar to him. Gratusk was not as large or powerful as Urtarg otherwise he would have challenged for the leadership, but was still an impressive sight, though only four feet high he was powerfully built, giving the sensation of a coiled spring. In his eyes was the intensive mixture of intelligence and feral cunning all the chiefs had, and the air of relaxed competence that had lead them to leadership in this society.
Gratusk respectfully indicated a spot by the fire, letting his guest sit down before he did himself. He snarled an order and two goblets were brought, and a plate of roasted meat. Malisane who hadn’t had anything to eat since the Adjudicator had left Orian gratefully ate the meat, not caring what it was particularly. It tasted good and he washed it down with a deep swig of the ewok liquor, which was initially smooth before the burning sensation hit him, then he felt his entire body being warmed. Though on his first visit he had been suspicious of the thick dark liquor he had aquired a taste for it, and fully intended to launch it as a product line at Dystopia where he expected it to be a big success, with rebranding of course.
After they had finished eating, Malisane nodded politely, then said, “My Clan wish to explore beyond the site the ship was found, they require a guide to take them to where the High Chief is waiting.”
Gratusk nodded, responding in the language of his people and gesturing.
“No just a guide,” Malisane replied, “Urtarg already has a force awaiting us.”
The chief nodded and gestured to his chest, talking quickly, an eager look in his eyes.
Malisane nodded. “Very well if you wish. Collect your equipment we will leave immediately.”
Gratusk rose, turning and speaking to a nearby ewok, giving quiet orders in their language, then he turned and disappeared into his hut. Less than a minute later the chief emerged, wearing his light black leather armoured hood that came down to his waist, with tough metal plates sewn into it, with a rifle over his back and the traditional pike in hand. Malisane nodded and he and Gratusk made their way out of the village, where a second speeder had been placed next to his own. A minute later they were travelling back to Usharak Keep.
Kangaras, Kangaras System
“Very well, I’ll inform the others,” concluded Sai, closing the channel with Malisane and making his way to the briefing room. He never did get that drink, as logistical affairs had kept him more than too busy to indulge.
Not that he minded, as the Rollmaster had been preoccupied with other thoughts that tumbled about his skull. Ever since making planetfall, he’d been overwhelmed with the new sensations in the Force that seethed all around him. When he had quiet moments, as rare as they were, he noted with wonder how his connection with the Dark Side had seemed amplified; no wonder, as Kangaras teemed with life and where there was life, there was the Force. He’d been experimenting with his growing powers, already augmented by the rites connected with his Krath Priesthood initiaition; here on the jungle planet, he found his grasp of Dark Side abilities to be as no other time in his life. It was truly intoxicating, flexing his telepathic and telekinetic will with far less effort than he was accustomed to.
However, with the sweetness of power came the acidic tang of confusion; Sai was a creature of order, of process, of logic and efficiency. The planet threw him into a completely different paradigm of being, what with its inherent savagery of growth, decay, birth and death, random in its own order. If he dedicated too much of his mind to unraveling the seemingly arbitrary pattern, Sai sensed he’d be paralyzed. For a man used to a purpose of being, it would take some time for him to get used to just being.
Having reached the briefing room, he threw the doors open just as Astronicus finished his command for the others to prepare.
“I’m right on time, I see. Malisane is en route from Arboria; you folks may want to double-time on that.” He whirled abruptly on a heel, not waiting for acknowledgement that they heard his message. He’d even left the chamber doors open, giving no mind to the possibility that there may be other matters for the commanders to discuss.
The assembly exchanged puzzled looks before springing into motion, barking orders into commlinks and gathering themselves for possible coming action; all but two, that is.
Ashia sat staring at her cousin’s back retreating out of the room, moving with purpose down the corridor towards the staging area. She was startled by a strong hand on her shoulder; whirling, she met the eyes of Darth Vexatus.
“A word, if you please.”
“Of course, my Lord.” The pair moved surreptitiously towards an uncluttered corner of the room.
Xanos seldom concerned himself with the affairs of others; his focus on his manipulations of the grand scheme of things simply didn’t allow him the luxury. He was, however, a pragmatist, and his sudden disconnection with Trevarus had unsettled him. Where the others were eager to act, Xanos was determined to know exactly what he faced; maybe, he mused, an inquiry into the behavior of the Rollmaster would give him some clarity.
“Ashia, I’ve had the occasion to spend some time with Sai; very proper, good at his job, efficient. He made my time at the Palace...tolerable,” began the Falleen, getting right to the point.
“Yes, he is all of those things,” Ashia replied, curious as to where Vexatus was going with the conversation.
“So, how would you explain what we just saw from your cousin? I didn’t get the impression he is always that...loose. You know of what I speak, otherwise you wouldn’t have lingered as I have.” Vexatus looked at the Nightsister pointedly.
Ashia gave a non-committal shrug. “And you know that all in our family are all a little...” She broke off, pointing a finger at her temple and twirling it briefly. “Just look at Macron. All of us exhibit it uniquely.” It wasn’t an indictment of her cousins or her family as a whole, but a statement of a well-known fact.
“He did seem a bit...short, then, though, didn’t he,” Ashia mused aloud, more to herself than to Xanos, which signaled the end of the conversation. “If you’ll excuse me,” she said, moving towards the door.
“Of course,” Xanos said absently, plunging into his thoughts, but he said it more to the empty space in the chamber than to the Keibatsu, who had already left, commlink to her lips.
Still, the conversation told the Falleen volumes; something was amiss on the planet, and if they didn’t take care, the mystery that brought them all there would threaten to consume them all.
Domain of Clan Naga Sadow
With a thunder-clap of displaced air, a lightsaber appeared in Trevarus right hand. Working furiously, he hacked and slashed through a tangle of thick vines and growing trees. After a few moments work, he had cleared an appreciable area for the group to operate out of with reasonable comfort.
Nero and Shuang Long had slowly climbed down from the wreckage impaled on the branch high overhead. Walking slowly, deliberately, it was obvious that both had suffered minor injuries. Esk had merely rappelled down on a line attached to his suit of armor, and was busily setting up a small signal amplifier.
The lightsaber vanished from his hand, and was replaced with his small, silver communicator. He flipped it open, dialing Macron's frequency. The device remained silent. He tried numerous other channels to no avail.
"Your comlink is still malfunctioning sir?" Esk asked, as he attached the power-source.
"Yes, although I do not believe it was damaged in the crash." Trevarus said, replacing the device in his pocket. "Have you managed to locate the rest of your operational unit? Surely someone must have survived the crash."
"No word yet, Sir. The inter-unit link also appears to be down. That's why I'm setting up this amplifier. There is potentially an atmospheric variable that we aren't aware of."
"Quite true. Although, my telepathic connections are what trouble me more." Trevarus said, looking at his two Apprentices. "I can sense both of them, my connection to the Force has not been altered... yet something is disrupting my ability to communicate at distance, which is extremely unsettling."
"Understood, Sir. This ought to give us an answer." Esk powered on the unit, and crouched down. He plugged a cord from the amplifier into his helmet, and seemed to sit for a moment or two.
"Nothing. Either they are dead, or out of contact. I can't even reach anyone at Dlarit headquarters on the emergency bands. We're totally cut off."
"Then it is truly unsettling. We should investigate the surrounding jungle, locate the rest of our strike team, and perhaps find a way out of this mess." Trevarus said.
"Sounds like a plan, Sir."
Kangaras, Kangaras System
The horizon outside Usharak Keep was picturesque. From the mountainside high above the jungle canopy, one could see hundreds of miles into the distance. A luscious sight of rolling green, the sound of birds singing on the cool ocean breeze. It was among the most beautiful and tranquil sights in the galaxy.
Or at least, it was to the naïve. Pull back the veil and the picturesque foliage was a ravenous wild. The jungle writhed as if it were alive, the vivid green of the leaves masking the true horror beneath. Even the trees seemed predatory, up close the occasional vine could be seen wrapping around its prey. The birdsong was less beautiful than it was horrifying, the distant calls not that of mating season but that of birds of prey, hungry for the kill. Kangaras was beautiful, no doubt, but it was a black widow.
From the castle grounds, Darth Vexatus gazed out at the horizon. The wonders of Kangaras, good or bad, were far from his mind. The Falleen was lost in deep thought, his expression glassy as he focused his thoughts back to the events minutes before. Xanos...I've found the... Trevarus had never finished.
Vexatus was uncertain what to think. He had once tried to take his Master's life. He had failed and paid the price with his right eye. Vexatus could never truly be the Master until Trevarus was out of the picture. He didn't care about the rest. Trevarus was the only other true Master out there. The rest were blind and foolish. He cared as much for them as he might a blister gnat under his boot.
Two there should be; no more, no less. They were the two. Eventually even they would be only one and then one would be sufficient. We are One Sith now. They were the words of the Falleen's first Master, Vykan, two years before. One Sith. The future was already written in blood. Vexatus would be that One Sith.
He should be jubilant.
But this was not right.
There had been no ripple through the Force. No shift. Nothing. Vexatus had felt it when he had become a true Sith Lord. Not when the Star Chamber had arrogantly claimed he was. When he had felt it. During his captivity with the Yuuzhan Vong, when the Force had shifted and he had truly become a Lord of the Sith.
But now he felt nothing. If Trevarus was dead, should he not have felt it? Should he not have felt the earth move, the will of the Force receding, the dark side crying out in triumph? His transition to Dark Lord of the Sith should have been marked with something. But the Force was silent. Still. Dead.
Surely Trevarus could be nothing but? He had vanished. His presence in the Force had ceased. Died.
And yet he had not. His essence had not rejoined the Force. He would have felt it otherwise. Had he transferred to another body? Did his spirit linger still? Had some dark power entombed his soul in an obtene crystal? There had to be something. But there was nothing.
Trevarus Caerick was dead and yet he was not. It made no sense.
Darth Vexatus sighed as he shook himself out of his thoughts. He could feel the presence of de Ath approaching rapidly. He must have been on his way back from the village. The Falleen spun on his heel, his cape swirling around him as he strode back towards the keep. It was time to get answers.
Kangaras, Kangaras System
Deep Below in the Labs
"Bastards," mumbled Macron as he stalked the deep corridors. Hate, anger, and a burning desire for vengeance filled his mind to the brim. Various scenes of torment danced in his mad visions, urging him to take solace in his favorite place. Gods, he could hardly wait to slake his feelings on some yielding flesh. The alchemist had not been this angry in a long, long time. His hatred boiled around him like some pungent vapor, seething out from his very pores.
Shin'Ichi turned to him as they entered the laboratory. "You are really stepping down?"
The Proconsul could sense the anger in macron, and knew it was barely contained. Although the Sith was normally a bit of a loose cannon, in this instance he was dangerous.
"I am indeed, cousin. The burdens of running things interfere with my development as a Sith. You remember the part about breaking chains in the oath?" canted the madman as the door whoosshed open.
"I do," replied Shin'Ichi thoughtfully.
"Then I am breaking mine right now. You are in charge as Proconsul until a new Consul is selected. And I hear from the powers that be that Trevarus is it. Unfortunate that he is lost right now," giggled Macron. "In any case, have fun with that. It's your demon now."
"You jackass," said Shin'Ichi with an invisible scowl. His brow furrowed, but the lack of a jaw made the expression incomplete. "You are serious?" The question was more of a statement, and the Krath could see it was true in the alchemist's sad yellow eyes.
"I am. I'm not.... good for... ah the hell with it. You'll understand soon if you don't already." Macron turned to the Gungan strapped on the gurney and injected a solution designed to wake the slumbering amphibian from his coma. Three Interrogator droids approached, and the former Consul began his grisly work as Shin'Ichi left shaking his head.
"I'll ring you when we move out," was the Prosonsul's curt reply.
The members turned as Malisane strode through the door into the hall. They weren't looking at him, they were staring at the black furred creature next to him, quietly regarding them, its enhanced pike in its paw, and rifle slung over its back. Some, like Ashia and Ylith, had seen these creatures before on past missions like Kashyyyk and Jaginos, for the rest they were somewhat of a mystery. A source of amusement for anyone who hadn't seen them in battle, and a grudging respect from those who had. Darth Vexatus walked forward, looking at the creature curiously. "So this is a Sith-spawned Ewok." Gratusk looked back at the Sith Lord curiously, then raised its paw and spoke at length in its growling voice.
"This is Chief Gratusk of the Arboria village. He says hello." Malisane translated, giving they the abridged version of the traditional ewok greeting, "he will guide us to the Argnok."
Vexatus nodded. "And you have more of them to reinforce our troopers?"
Malisane nodded. "Another thirty wait with thier High Chief. They will clear the terrain ahead and around us. They are excellant scouts."
"I notice it carries no supplies," Shin'Ichi replied, "will the rest or are we expected to feed them?"
Gratusk looked at the Pro-Consul in puzzlement, then made a scratchy noise that they guessed was laughter, then spoke in his language. They glanced at Malisane for a translation, who paused then said. "He says he does not need to take a female with him to visit his wives," he shrugged, "I think he means they hunt their food as they go along."
"Very well," Vexatus said as Shin's eyes burned into the creature, "then we will waste no more time. We will need to make two trips in the LAAT to fit everyone in."
Malisane nodded. "I agree."
Usharak Keep Grounds
Kangaras, Kangaras System
The LAAT/i hummed quietly where it hovered, dwarfed beside the corvette Adjudicator. Maintenance and technical crews were reconfiguring the old Republic gunship's landing gear, adapting it to accommodate one of the AT-PT walkers which had been unloaded from the Kappa-class shuttle Alabrek 2. The loss of the other shuttle meant the LAAT/i would now be forced to make two runs to transport the whole team.
Half an hour or so later the LAAT/i was ready, the first AT-PT successfully fitted to the underside. Most of the Dark Jedi were assembled, ready to head out on the first trip. The viceroy, governor-general, commander general, governors, aides, commanders, adjutants and so on stood waiting. The support team of ordinary troopers would be following for the second trip.
Chief Gratusk would be going along on both to help guide the pilot to the crash site. The jungles of Kangaras were hard to tell apart to the untrained eye.
Astronicus Sadow approached Darth Vexatus, the look on his face steely. “Any change?”
Vexatus shook his head. “I sense nothing. Trevarus remains dead to the Force.”
“But you don't think he is actually dead?” asked Astronicus, the obvious desire to be rid of one of his biggest threats apparent in his voice, even if he was trying his best to hide it. Little escaped the Falleen.
Vexatus shrugged. “I do not know.”
The viceroy's lip curled just a little. He was clearly displeased. A rogue Trevarus was potentially even worse than one on a tight leash. “I'll be heading out on the first team. Let me know as soon as anything changes.” Astronicus turned on his heel and headed off to board the transport.
Vexatus sighed. He wondered how much longer this charade could last. His desire to be rid of them all increased with every breath. None of them deserved to call themselves Sith. He watched as Astronicus boarded the LAAT/i, along with most of the others. Only a few stayed behind.
Vexatus got the distinct impression none of them wanted to be on the same transport as him. Perhaps they thought it was all a trick and that Trevarus had only gone missing in order to lure them into Vexatus's clutches. The Falleen shook his head. If that was their reason, they were fools. None of them had learned the lessons of Darth Bane. Had he and Trevarus not saved them at Antei? They could as easily have left them there to die, consumed by the eaters of worlds, the Yuuzhan Vong, they who devoured the very Force itself until there was nothing but silence.
Whatever their reasons, at least it meant they feared him. Fear was good. Fear could be moulded into something useful.
The Sith Lord smiled at the thought, thinking of their agent, Macron Keibatsu. He and Trevarus had spent the year manipulating the alchemist. It had paid off. First Trevarus had become governor, then Vexatus prefect. Astronicus's objections had been silenced. The Keibatsu had grown powerful, making Macron the perfect tool.
Still, no plan was perfect. Macron was angry at being forced to step aside. It seemed Astronicus must have called on his allies on the Star Chamber to brush the Keibatsu out of the picture. It was but a minor setback. Vexatus smiled. Indeed, if all went to plan, it would backfire and Trevarus would become consul. The Falleen laughed silently. All was going according to plan. Yes, fear was useful. Fear would be their undoing.
He watched as the LAAT/i lifted off. Astronicus, Macron, Shin'ichi and Ashia, together with the rest, all packed aboard. It brought a smile to Vexatus's face thinking just how easy it would have been to silence them all now, but they still had their uses. Their ignorance in believing he and Trevarus were as naïve as to simply want them all dead was their greatest asset. That ignorance could be shaped. That ignorance is what would allow Trevarus to become consul. As consul, the Star Chamber would be forced to call off their dogs and back down.
Provided Trevarus was still alive. If he was not...
Months of work. Ruined.
In the corner of his eye, Vexatus watched as his adjutant, Krenth, approached. The trooper saluted. “Commander.”
“Yes, Captain?” replied Vexatus, turning to look at the Advanced Commando.
“Permission to speak freely, sir.”
“You look... troubled. Sir. It is not like you.”
Vexatus smiled. The DAC had a habit of getting straight to the point. He liked that. The clones were not afraid for themselves. They lived to do their duty. They were tools and nothing more. That was exactly how the Falleen liked it. “I am merely concerned for Master Caerick, Delta-Thirty.”
Krenth studied him for a second before heading back to continue dismantling and reassembling his guns. It was almost like a ritual for the DAC trooper. His equipment was in perfect order. At times, Vexatus wondered if there was more to the clones than meets the eye. It was of little concern to him however.
You had better not die on me, Caerick...
Domain of Clan Naga Sadow
Time was his immediate concern. Implications and consquences, patterns and motivations, all of equally grave importance. The Master had been sitting on the damp jungle floor for the better part of three hours, his eyes closed in quiet meditation. Esk had busied himself in setting up a temporary shelter. Nero and Shuang Long were sparring with thier lightsabers, the hissing noise and thundercracks of resisting energy did not distract him. The Force was flowing along its usual course, ebbing through the patterns of life. But he could not sense outward. It was as if he had stumbled into a closed room. Everything that happened inside was apparent to him, but the exterior was silent.
The image awoke a new insight to Trevarus. "Gentlemen, I have reached a solution." He said.
Nero and Shuang both lowered their lightsabers, while Esk stood attentive. They watched Trevarus raise his right hand, and mutter something.
A massive fireball erupted from his right hand, a wash of searing heat the roared through the canopy. It burned through leaf, vine, and wood as it tore into the sky.
"That should make a painfully obvious sign that we are still alive. We'll be leaving shortly." Trevarus said.
"Sir, the first rule of survival-rescue... is to stay where you are." Esk said practically. "This jungle is an unquantified hazard."
"This is true... but we don't need a rescue. If there is anything in this jungle more dangerous than my temper... I'd welcome a good fight."
"Noted, sir." Esk said, shouldering his blaster-rifle. "So, where are we going?"
"Deeper into the jungle. We are on the perimeter of a vast disturbance in the Force, and I intend to investigate the central cause." He paused for a moment, considering another consquence. "I sent a signal that Xanos will immediately recognize. He will come to this spot."
Trevarus stood in place, and closed his eyes. The Mark on his brow opened, and a vibrantly violet light flooded the dark jungle. Wordlessly, he retrieved his communicator, and encoded a short message onto it. The device hovered in the air, bathed in violet light.
"Let's go." He said, opening his eyes. "We'll travel north, as that was our heading when our shuttle was first affected."
"Makes sense," Shuang Long said.
Trevarus approached the edge of the clearing his lightsaber had made, and the trio of his companions followed behind him. He gestured foward with his hand, and the undergrowth began to wither, turn black, and die before his presence. They walked forward, the living things retreating from his presence.
The quiet rhythms of the force were not lost to him, but they were strange. A hint of the surreal fluttered about his mind, about the entire forest. His master’s inability to sense outward, his troubling failure in light of a unique disturbance, was by far the most troubling thing.
They had sauntered into some sort of anomalous region, and were now moving deeper into the forest. Shuang learned a long time ago not to question his master’s intuition in times like this. When situations were most dire, Trevarus Caerick’s ability to perceive the right course of action was indisputably inimitable.
“We are traveling deeper into this disturbance correct?” Shuang inquired, arching his brow.
“Yes, Apprentice. It is my intention to uncover the cause of this anomaly.”
“You mentioned that we are at the perimeter. If we go deeper, surely we risk losing even more of our connection to the force?”
“Yes,” Caerick mused, his eyes twinkling as the life around his withered, “but it is a risk I am willing to take.”
Shuang nodded, peering curiously at the dead plant life surrounding his master. They continued to walk, each one buried in their own thoughts.
Trevarus would not tell him the truth about this particular mission, but placed the onus on him to discover it. He was not the kind of master to outright tell. Rather, he expected his apprentice to be resourceful and intelligent enough to discover it on his own.
Nevertheless, Shuang was quite sure that he would be punished if he was discovered peering past the veil of ignorance that had been cast upon the lower ranked. Fear did not strike him. In fact, the potential for harm only made the situation more challenging and, in turn, more appealing.
A howl pierced the air, followed by a distorted roar. Something in the undergrowth rustled. A look of mild apprehension crossed Shuang’s face; he quietly slipped his coilbolt out of its holster.
It was only a matter of time until one of the jungle’s plentiful collection of aberrations decided to pay them a visit.
The Argnok Site
Malisane walked over to the Argnok as Sai supervised the unloading of the first troopers and members from the LAAT. Lord Vexatus had elected to stay behind and make the second trip, something which suited the Kangaras Prefect down to the ground. He still didn't trust the Sadow Elders and their agendas, he never would, and their presence bothered him. Around the clearing ewok warriors stood watching the jungle like a hawk.
Malisane saw his apprentice Imgormiel and High Chief Urtarg and headed towards them. Imgormiel bowed, something the older Sith disaproved of, he didn't stand on ceremony. "Never mind that whats the situation?"
"Chief Urtarg's forces have secured a two hundred metre perimeter around this area," he replied gesturing to the dense jungle, "its crazy out there though, as we kill more of the beasts the scent is drawing still more in."
Urtarg nodded, speaking in his own language.
"No that is very generous but until I know what half of what you're killing is I'm not eating any of it."
Urtarg made a disparaging tone but didn't say anything. Imgormeil continued. "The Argnok is clean, still no sign of who brought it here. No trail either." He found. "Is it true what they say, is Master Caerick lost?"
Malisane shrugged, "I have no idea or interest," he replied, "he may turn up we didn't see signs of a crash when we came over." He shrugged. "I suppose we could wait a few days then send the ewoks out to look for the buzzards."
He glanced as the LAAT took off again, back to Usharak to pick up the rest of the force. He glanced around the clearing. The Overlord was wandering about in his ridiculous outfit pointing his rifle into the jungle, he considered introducing him to the ewok High Chief but decided not to. He glanced at Imgormiel. "You got anything to drink?"
Urtarg laughed and produced a flask of the ewok liquor and Malisane took a swig.
Usharak Keep Grounds
Kangaras, Kangaras System
Darth Vexatus strode out of Usharak Keep into the castle grounds just as the LAAT/i set down. The maintenance crews quickly began attaching the second AT-PT walker to the gunship's underbelly while the remaining troops collected their supplies, strapped on their backpacks and boarded the transport.
The other Dark Jedi had taken the first trip out to the Argnok crash site and were doubtless already meeting with Urtarg, the Ewok High Chief. Vexatus had elected to stay behind and take the second trip out. The rest had quite noticeably been relieved to be rid of him. Few wanted to be around the Falleen at the best of times and with his Master missing he had become particularly detached.
“Sir, the transport is almost ready to depart,” said Krenth. The DAC trooper's face was hidden behind his visor, his armour freshly shined to a pristine black finish. The Advanced Commando's black kama, a kind of "skirt" popularised by the Mandalorians, though Krenth despised it being called such, swirled around his waist in the breeze.
At times, even Vexatus was amazed how much arsenal Delta-Thirty could carry with him. Krenth had a pair of customised blasters hooked around his waist, a heavy rifle of some description strapped across his back, various attachments for which hung from his belt. He had several knives of differing sizes deposited in easily accessible pockets across his armour, a habit of Krenth's to ensure he was armed even if he was taken by surprise. His wrist guards had also been customised, numerous attachments installed.
Flame throwers, grappling hooks, Krenth carried them all. His most prized possession was the jet pack now firmly fixed to his back. Krenth swore by it, claiming it had saved his life, however brief it may have been, more than once. The DAC trooper swore by being prepared for anything. Vexatus expected nothing less.
“I will be there as soon as...”
Vexatus didn't finish the sentence. Far in the distance a massive white spark shot into the air. The light was blinding. Vexatus had to fight not to turn away. The Falleen blinked, his eyesight momentarily blinded, before his eyes readjusted and he saw the flames now enveloping a point in the distance, close to the horizon.
Krenth looked back. “Sir...?”
Not ruined after all. “It would appear Trevarus is still alive.”
“I wasn't aware you could conjure that kind of pyrotechnics, sir,” said Krenth, slightly in awe.
Vexatus shook his head slightly. “I can't. Not quite so directly anyway.” The Falleen stared at the inferno raging around the site where Trevarus had sent up the flare. Even at this distance, the spread of fire should have been apparent, but it seemed static. “Strange, the fire is not spreading.”
Krenth's visor adjusted, acting as an inbuilt scope. The DAC trooper focused his image on where the flare had gone up. “Not just that, sir. It's shrinking.”
“Shrinking?” This was not right. A blast of heat that intense should have started a forest fire. In undergrowth this thick it should have taken hold almost instantly. “This jungle is not right at all.” The Falleen shook himself out of his thoughts. “It is of no consequence. We will unravel this mystery as and when it presents itself.”
The pair headed to the transport, boarding the LAAT/i last. The other thirty troopers were already packed aboard. The two Dlarit Commando teams which had arrived on the Kappa-class shuttle now lost with Trevarus held onto the side railings, their advanced armour helping them maintain their balance. Krenth and Vexatus headed for the cockpit, taking up position behind the pilot.
“Let's go,” said Vexatus to Chief Gratusk who proceeded to jibber what must have amounted to instructions at the pilot.
Low Altitude Assault Transport/infantry Marakith 7
Dlarit Special Operations Group Transport
Approaching Argnok crash site, Sector Nine
Kangaras, Kangaras System
The Marakith 7 neared the crash site of the Wayfarer-class transport Argnok. At eighty meters, the Argnok was relatively large for a freighter. Despite crash landing, somehow the Argnok had managed to remain in one piece, such that it had hidden itself almost perfectly beneath the heavy foliage of the Kangaras jungle. Were it not for Chief Gratusk, Darth Vexatus doubt it would have been possible to locate by one unfamiliar with the location.
The jungle troubled Vexatus. He should have been able to guide the transport to the location himself. But the jungle was too wild, too alive, to make out individual presences. If the other team were down there, he couldn't tell. The entire place just felt of one vast writhing mass of energy, dark energy. For a jungle full of life, there was something deeply questionable about it.
Chief Gratusk chittered something unintelligible while jerking his hands around. Despite being unable to understand a word the Ewok had said, Vexatus comprehended the meaning automatically. To the Force, language was a foreign concept, meaning was all that mattered and it transcended mere words.
“Our friend here tells me we're coming up on the crash site,” said Vexatus, instructing the pilot to begin the descent. The man acknowledged before beginning to angle the gunship down. The larty might have been old, but it could manoeuvre with the best of them.
“Hold on, something is wrong,” called the pilot. “My instruments are going crazy.”
Vexatus looked over, the pilot was right. All his displays were going haywire, the readings shooting off the charts. “What's going on?”
“I don't know,” the pilot now sounded nervous. “It isn't responding.”
“Can't you pull up?” Vexatus was now also concerned.
The pilot fought with the controls but the gunship continued its downward dive. “Nothings happening.” The man started hammering at the instrument panel as he began to panic.
Darth Vexatus turned to look back at the troopers who were by now bracing themselves into their chairs as they had all been trained too, some of them from birth. The Falleen felt a ripple of fear through the Force then his senses went dead. He could feel the troopers standing beside him but the rest of the jungle fell silent.
Had he died? No. Of course not. He was still here.
The Falleen brushed the thought aside. He had faced worse. Fear was of no concern to him these days. He would live. The future demanded it.
“Delta-Thirty, suggestions?” asked Vexatus sounding perfectly calm.
Despite being unable to share Vexatus's blind faith, Krenth remained unperturbed. The DAC troopers knew little of fear. They lived to serve. “Recommend we abandon ship, sir.” The trooper patted his jet pack. “Always be prepared.” Vexatus didn't ask about the rest and Krenth hadn't expected him to. He knew his commander too well. He mentioned them anyway. “They're trained the same as me. They can handle themselves.”
By now Chief Gratusk had started going wild. He was gibbering something obscene and thrusting his arms in all directions.
The DAC turned to the main hold. “We're going to jump,” the commando called back, his voice half lost behind the wail of the gunship as it continued free falling out of the sky. “Leave whatever equipment you can't carry behind. Unpack your parachutes and make for the designated landing zone.”
Inside his helmet, Krenth blinked several times, the action sending silent commands through his helmet's inbuilt comm system. The map in the corner of his heads-up-display, or HUD, lit up, a flashing red cross symbolising the landing zone.
Troopers swiftly began removing their backpacks, digging through for their parachutes and attaching them in their place. Vexatus found himself momentarily marvelling at the sight of such military precision. Even the regular special operations troopers seemed to display a level of organisation above than that of the brotherhood. The Dlarit Commandos were first to assemble beside the port hatch, ready for the pilot to blow the door open. The other troopers were ready no more than a few seconds behind.
Krenth leaned back into the cockpit. He didn't recognise the pilot. “Sergeant, get that parachute fixed, now!”
The pilot shook his head. “Not going to happen, sir. Someone has to blow open the hatch. The minute it goes, this place is going to depressurise so fast everyone is going to blast right out the door.”
Krenth considered what the man had said for less than a second. “Understood. Good luck, Sergeant,” said the DAC trooper, saluting as he spun back to look at Vexatus.
Vexatus smiled. This was why he liked the clones. No emotional issues. Delta-Thirty understood there was a job to be done and that sacrifices were necessary. The pilot had made his decision. That was all there was to it.
“Okay, we're going to blow the door, get ready as you're all going to be shooting out. At this height, the air pressure is still going to be fairly low, so be prepared for the difference in your lungs,” called Krenth. His voice was barely a whisper now as the ship had begun shaking dangerously, its parts creaking noisily as the transport continued its nosedive toward oblivion.
Krenth looked at Vexatus, noticing the Falleen hadn't bothered to strap on his own parachute. “Umm...sir?”
Vexatus stared at him expressionless. “Don't worry about me, Captain.”
Krenth held the Falleen's gaze for a split second before swinging back to look at the pilot. “Sergeant, now!”
The pilot punched the controls and the larty's side doors swung open. The gunship immediately began swinging randomly, heavily armoured troops shooting off into the open air as the sudden shift in air pressure sucked them out the doors.
Krenth clung onto a bar, one hand holding himself stable, the other tight around Chief Gratusk's wrist. The situation still only mildly affecting the DAC trooper. The same could not be said of Gratusk who was spraying saliva across the room as he screeched something foul. Vexatus looked wholly uninterested, presumably having used the Force to hold himself perfectly steady. Once the last of the Dlarit troopers and commandos had jumped, Krenth turned back to the Falleen. “After you, sir.”
Vexatus paced calmly over to the exit and stepped out. The Falleen shot away into the distance as the transport continued its descent. Krenth stared back as Vexatus who to any onlooker appeared to be seemingly falling to his doom. Krenth shook his head. The DAC grabbed hold of Gratusk, holding him in both arms and stepped out, his jet pack firing almost immediately to slow his descent.
Around him he could see black clad Dlarit troopers in the distance, their parachutes opening as they made their way toward the Argnok crash site, carefully angling themselves so they didn't catch an updraft and end up miles off course. Looking ahead, Krenth watched as the LAAT/i spiralled out of the sky, its engines catching on fire as the pilot apparently tried one last ditch attempt to right the fall. Seconds later the gunship and its attached walker exploded, trees catching fire as it incinerated a small crater in the jungle several kilometers below.
Off to his side, Krenth watched as Vexatus seemingly slowed his descent, his cape swirling around him like a black cloud. The Sith Lord smirked at him and gave the DAC trooper a mock salute. Delta-30 shook his head. It was beyond him how his commander could be most alive when his life was in greatest danger.
A few seconds later, Krenth was on the ground, jet pack helping guide him through the canopy to a controlled landing nearby the clearing where the Argnok and Imgormiel's shuttle where seated. Looking up, he watched as Vexatus glided gracefully through the trees to land immediately beside him. The Falleen made it all look as if it was a scene from some mythical holodrama.
The other troopers who had made it in one piece were unfastening their parachutes and either allowing themselves to fall the last few meters or withdrawing a knife and using it to climb down the trees.
Chief Gratusk yapped angrily as he charged across the clearing to patter something at the approaching Ewoks who had come to investigate the disturbance with Malisane de Ath. High Chief Urtarg stared at Krenth and Vexatus as he listened to what Gratusk had to say before nodding and making a gesture that Vexatus could only interpret as a dismissal. Gratusk scurried back to go and return to the rest of the tribe.
“Allow me to introduce High Chief Urtarg,” said Malisane as they approached. “High Chief Urtarg, this is Lord Vexatus.”
Argnok crash site, Sector Nine
Kangaras, Kangaras System
Macron sat in the shadows of the trees and watched as the "Larty" smashed into the canopy meters away with a explosion. "Bummer," he giggled quietly. "I wonder if anyone got killed?" A deep breath exhaled from his lips as he felt in the Force for the quivers that meant death. One strand vibrated, a familiar one... "Ah, one of the clones. That is unfortunate. I rather like them more than most. They remind me of my own genesis," he cackled to himself. "Poor bastard."
The alchemist's yellow eyes scanned the arrivals. One in particular caught his attention- the familiar figure of a Falleen conversing with the Ewoks. Macron's fists clenched as the thought of his manipulation and eventual downfall rose up in his fevered mind. Malisane stood nearby, and both of the Sith were in deep conversation with the high chief.
Most of the Ewoks avoided him when possible, although they all looked at him with a mixture of fatherly love and fear. Macron giggled again. "Little vermin bastards... only thing that makes them good is the Sith material in their veins." He remembered fondly the long hours of torment and screaming that the Ewoks had supplied under his care. "Well, perhaps that's not true. They are pretty useful I suppose," he mumbled to himself. "They do make nice seat covers."
A thin needle pierced the bark of the nearest tree, a silvery trunked one with saw-toothed compound leaves. The liquid was decanted into a vial, mixed with a few drops of another red fluid, and then the resulting aliquot was swirled gently. Macron whistled a meaningless tune as he watched the vial carefully with squinted eyes. The red color disappeared, and then turned a shocking blue. The Sith frowned and dumped the fluid on the ground where it sizzled. "Just as I thought," he hissed as he stomped the mess with an armored boot.
"Which was what?" asked Shin'Ichi as he stood nearby. The Krath's keen eyes scanned the jungle for threats as he conversed. This jungle was dangerous, and a problem could appear at any time. The veteran soldier was more than ready to meet any challenge.
"Manipulation via alchemical methods and the Dark Side in the distant past," mused the madman. "The traces are impossible to hide. This whole jungle may be tainted, somewhat like Dxun. But it's an old recipe, not like Palpatine's new stuff. Most intriguing."
"That would take a long time..." Shin'Ichi's voice trailed off.
"Indeed," replied the Sith as he stood up and stretched. "Well. I hope I find a victim or a fight soon. I need to blow off some steam," chuckled the Warlord. He fingered his weapons longingly and looked toward the jungle.
Argnok crash site, Sector Nine
Kangaras, Kangaras System
Malisane glanced over at the Alchemist then sighed. Macron was loosing the plot. He turned back to Vexatus and Urtarg. The Ewok High chief was gesturing to a portable display hologram, showing the map of Sector nine. Vexatus was patiently waiting for the translation.
Malisane frowned. He pointed. "They think Master Trevarus crashed here," he said, "and he appears to have been heading to this structure here." Pointing on a route further along the Masters route from Usharak Keep to a large black dot. "Its approximatley ten miles from here."
"And what is that exactly?" the Elder asked.
"No idea, we send satelites over reguarly, its some sort of ruin." Malisane said with a shrug.
Vexatus gave him a cold look. "You have lived here for two years, and that is as much as you can tell me?"
Malisane returned the look. "I am a soldier not an archeologist, the planet is dotted with ruins. Do you think I have nothing else to do but exploring every day?"
"You appear to have time to partake in needless commercial ventures. You were not remotely curious about this planets history?" the Elder asked.
"I know its recent history," Malisane replied, "Severak made his home here, time passed, we drove him out. What else do I need to know?"
"If you had taken the time we would not be walking in there blind," the Elder snapped.
Malisane controlled his anger while the Sith Lord studied the map. Anyone else but an Elder and the Battlemaster would have taken a swing at him. Knowing what likely fate that would bring against the Sith Lord he kept quiet.
"Trevarus will be making his way there, we will follow his route," Vexatus decided, "As whatever is there is affecting our ships that will be on foot. Prepare your forces for departure."
"Very well," Malisane replied, "Urtarg have your followers scout ahead, and form a defensive perimeter around us. After Master Trevarus display every monster within twenty miles will be heading in his direction. I want anything hostile between us and him eliminated."
Urtarg growled a response then turned and left. "He says it will be a pleasure." Malisane translated. He stood up. "Alright get your gear together we're moving out!" he shouted.
He glanced at Vexatus, the Sith Lord was still looking at the display. He looked oddly uncomfortable, though he was covering it well. Malisane shrugged and turned to check everything was ready.
Kangaras, Kangaras system
The jungles of Kangaras were savage and wild. They felt mildly claustrophobic, the tall trees blocking out most of the light, bathing the jungle floor in a tranquil twilight. The trees were closely packed, with vines of varying thickness slithering up their trunks. Everything felt alive, not just in the sense that they were plants, but as if they were living creatures.
Vexatus had the distinct feeling of being watched. The trees and vines moved, slithered, almost as if they were keeping their gaze trained on them at all times. There was an almost unnatural quality to the canopy above, as if the leaves and branches moved to eclipse the sun, keeping the Dlarit party hidden in the dark.
“I don't like this,” said Krenth. “I'm not even Force-sensitive and I can tell this jungle is wrong.”
Astronicus glanced at the DAC trooper. His pith helmet looked quite ridiculous in the shade. The Overlord looked uncomfortable. “Keep alert, trooper. The Force here is deadened.”
“I sense nothing unusual,” said Ashia. “Only the jungle.”
Vexatus followed at a distance. Astronicus was feeling it too. The jungle was leeching their energy. It had been barely noticeable at first, at the Argnok crash site the Falleen had sensed but a discomforting ripple in the Force. As they moved deeper into the jungle, toward the ruin where Trevarus was almost sure to be heading, it had begun to feel like a wraith clawing at his soul, wanting to suck him dry.
Macron stumbled a bit and brought his hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
“Are you alright, Mac?” asked Shin'ichi.
“I'm not sure,” said Macron, sounding slightly faint with none of the madness common to the alchemist. “I feel odd.”
Before Macron had finished speaking, Shin'ichi had reached up to clutch at his chest, inhaling sharply. The Krath groaned. “I think I feel it too.”
“I began feeling it about a kilometer back,” said Astronicus, having maintained his composure until now. “The forest is draining us.” The Overlord glanced back at Vexatus who looked unmoved. “Do you feel it?” asked Astronicus, a whisper of contempt in his voice.
Vexatus merely nodded. “I first felt it when the transport began to crash.”
“And you didn't think to mention this earlier?” spat Astronicus.
The Falleen shrugged. “I was unsure what it was until the rest of you just mentioned that you have begun feeling the effects too,” said Vexatus dryly.
Ashura looked around. “I don't feel anything.”
“It seems to be affecting us in order of power,” said Astronicus bitterly, no doubt reluctant to admit Vexatus had felt the effects before him. “That would explain why Lord Vexatus and I felt it first.”
“That is a reasonable conclusion,” said Vexatus. “It would also explain why Trevarus's shuttle went down.”
“What about the Argnok?” said Malisane. “It was in one piece.”
“It was on the outskirts,” said Tsingtao. “They must have been able to land it before going too far in.”
Astronicus nodded. “That makes sense.” The Overlord shouldered his rifle. “We need to keep moving. I'm not sure how long I want to be out in this.”
“The deeper we go,” said Malisane, “the worse its going to be.”
“That's the risk we take,” said Shin'ichi.
Kangaras, Kangaras system
The Overlord motioned for everyone to move forward. Tsingtao stood in a defensive stance as he followed the Elders deeper into the jungle. He felt uneasy knowing that a dreaded feeling was being felt but glad the feeling has yet to hit him.
He motioned for a couple of DAC troopers to maintain their security checks as they walked deeper into the jungle.
OOC: Sorry for the short post, I had a couple of unannounced meetings at work so I was unable to get much written.
Kangaras, Kangaras System
They had been walking for another thrity minutes. Anubis followed in behind the elders and the Aedile, keeping his blasters at the ready along with the troopers. He had never been on Kangaras before, and didn't know what awaited him in the dense jungle. As his slitted red eyes scanned the plant life for any sign of a threat, something moved in the far distance. The Hunter charged his blasters, ready to fire if need be.
"Anubis, cut that out," demanded Tsingtao.
"Yes sir," muttered Wrath, placing the blasters back in their holsters. The Hunter was glad that whatever was affecting the elders hadn't gotten to him...yet. Their power was weakening, and it would soon affect him.
OOC: Yeah I know, short post. Ran into something and knew that I couldn't put this off.
Kangaras, Kangaras System
Malisane felt increasingly worried as he walked along, Imormiel on one side and Urtarg the other, the ewok moving along confidently. Whatever was effecting the Sith obviously did not do the same to the creature, and to him this was just another mission, they patrolled and hunted in this jungle every day of the week, the powerful ewok leading regular forces of young ewok on test patrols. They were slightly ahead of the main party now.
"This doesn't seem wise Master," Imgormiel was saying, "we're walking into the unknown here."
"Tell me about it," the Battlemaster muttered.
"So why?" the knight pressed.
Malisane shrugged. "What do you suggest, we turn back? Its a long way back to Usharak from here, a week maybe on foot though that terrain."
"We have my shuttle, and the Argnok is repairable," Imgormiel replied, "we could have the ewoks drag them to a safe range."
Malisane glanced at him, "We do not know what a safe range is yet," he replied, "anyway, I thought you were enthusiastic about this earlier. You do not wish to test your skills."
"Against a recognisable enemy yes," the Knight replied, "something we can fight."
The Battlemaster sighed. "You have to understand, there is more to being a Sith, and a warrior, that just hitting and shooting at things. Sometimes you have to investigate the unknown, learn from it, learn how to beat it if it occurs again."
Imgormiel nodded. "Yes Master."
"We're not going to take any risks," Malisane added, then glanced back at his fellow Sith, "some of us anyway. We find this place, and we send the ewoks in to scout the area and report back. We can also see how good these DAC clones are."
"I doubt some of party will want to wait," Imgormiel argued.
The Battlemaster shrugged, "More fool them then," he replied, "if there is some horrendous threat threat and anyone goes charging in we might end up clearing up their remains."
Domain of Clan Naga Sadow
Feelings of indescribable uncertainity seemed to surround the trio as they stalked through the jungle, following the trail of dead foilage that Trevarus created through raw hatred. Yet, the vegetative life seemed to be resisting his will, the deeper they crept. Indeed, their pace had slowed to a mere crawl.
Trevarus stopped and paused for a several moments, his eyes glossy and distant. He seemed to be straining to hear something, as he kept turning around and looking down the path they had followed. Neither of his companions wanted to test his patience, and let him be. Esk brandished his weapon, standing at the vanguard. Shuang Long and Nero fingered their lightsabers, seeming to anticipate something.
A series of roars and the closing sounds of broken foilage snapped Trevarus out of his trance.
"I knew that flare was a bad idea." Trevarus said, his lightsabers snapping to life. "But my death would please Xanos ever so much."
"He may yet be pleased Sir," Esk said bluntly. He knelt on an armored knee and began firing through the brush, his sensory equipment was apparently better than the assembled Jedi.
"Oh shavit," Trevarus cursed as two massively bipedal monsters crashed into their line of sight. Gaping slavering maws, filled with fangs of obscene length. Their clawed forearms swiped through branch and vine, smelling fresh blood.
"Rancors." Shuang said. "Its been awhile."
"They seem, rather immense." Nero replied, brandishing the sapphire lightsaber given to him months before.
Trevarus in turn snarled his fury, and leapt into the dense growth. His twin lightsabers flashed black-violet, searing through the arboreal hinderance. Predator or no, he would not be devoured by a slavering beast. One of the bipedal beasts crashed into the deathly clearing Trevarus had created. Esk, Nero and Shuang retreated, holding the monster at bay with their own weapons. Esk peppered it with shots, while the two Jedi distracted it with their bright weapons. Blaster fire didn't seem to phase the beast. Esk drew the heavy blaster-rifle strapped to his back, and snapped in a power-pack. Cannon blasts of crimson light flashed through the dark undergrowth; the shots flashed and smoked against the hide of the great animal.
Nero and Shuang darted in, their weapons searing through sinew and flesh, flashing up into the belly of the great beast. With a feeble roar, it fell over dead.
As it shuddered and lay still, Trevarus leapt out of the undergrowth.
"We have a serious problem. The deeper we advance, the greater my connection to the External Construct seems to diminish. Tell me, do either of you feel your powers weakening?" He asked of his two Apprentices.
"Not really..." Nero said. "I sense the Force as I usually do. And I can still preceive form through it like I usually do."
"I don't feel weakened either Master" Shuang replied. "Although I do sense something very odd."
"What is that?" Trevarus asked
"I cannot sense your presence, at all. It's like you aren't there."
"I suspected as much. The deeper we move, the greater my perceptions are affected. My presence is much more powerful than yours. Any dimunition of my presence would be exponentially more apparent."
"Riddles, my Master?"
"None whatsoever my Apprentice. There's something incredible unusual going on here... but I completely intend to advance. The source of this anomaly will be made apparent to me." Trevarus said, a malicious grin of suicidal intution creeping across his brow.
"Sir." Esk simply said.
Kangaras, Evil Nasty Not-so-happy Icky Jungle
Domain of Clan Naga Sadow
Macron watched as Malisane, Imgormiel and Urtarg pulled away from the main group and forged ahead. Most of them had spread out somewhat as they walked. The alchemist slapped another annoying fly on his face and triggered the helm switch. As the familiar and comforting helm encased his tattooed face, he mumbled. “Flying filth,” came his voice as the vocabulator kicked in. “Gods, I hate vermin.”
Shin’Ichi looked at him. “So you feel like pudu as well, Mac?” queried the mighty Krath.
His keen eyes scanned the jungle, and he brought a set of fine electrobinocs to his eyes for confirmation. It was well known that the Abomination used whatever worked best, and often carried a blaster unlike most Dark Jedi. Macron admired his ruthlessness. Any tool to get the job done was a fine philosophy.
“Smart, enhance your senses with the Force, and then use the tech as well,” commented the madman. His own fingers touched a red-lit stud on the back of his neck. The flow of chemicals slipped easily into his veins, old friends he had not seen in a long time. A morbid giggle escaped his lips as he moaned quietly with pain. “Yeah my gut hurts. Like I’ve been drained.”
The Proconsul looked at him from the side of his eyes. “Uh huh,” he stated questioningly. “Me too. I know what you did just now.”
“You solve your problems your way, and I’ll solve mine my way,” chuckled Macron. “The Sith were notorious for their chemicals. Although they sometimes have… unforeseen results,” he said with a frown. “Like Sai. Truly sorry about that, combat scene and all. In any case, I feel a lot better even if it’s artificial.”
“Mmm,” grunted the Krath as he looked at the ground. “Whatever. He likes it. It's Joseem that I worry about." He kneeled, touching the compressed earth. "Look at those tracks… look like Rancor to you? I guess they are about two hours old. Big too, see that extra toe? Lot of weight pushed them that far down into the humus.”
“If I had them in the lab I could tell you. That extra toe sounds odd,” giggled the Sith. “I’m no tracking expert. Hell, not even a novice. Let’s call the rest,” Mononoke remarked dryly as he touched the internal helm comlink switch with his tongue. Why waste energy on telepathy, he wondered silently. “Overlord, Lord Xanos, Governors, ” he canted into the comlink. “You might be interested in this.”
Kangaras, Evil Nasty Not-so-happy Icky Jungle
Domain of Clan Naga Sadow
"Crikey, a rancor!" Croaked Astronicus with a strange accent uncommon to him. "That's a blimy big one. And take a look at this extra toe. I figure it's not far from here, this track is fresh."
"Tron we do not have time for this." Intoned Vexatus. "We must continue on and locate our targets."
"Very well," Astronicus paused, taking a look around as if he sensed something, but held up his hand and began smelling the air, "Vexatus you and Macron will lead the group further towards the destination. I on the other hand will take Cresh, Dorn and my Tuk'ata with the intent of tracking this rancor. She'll make a beauty of a trophy."
"Snap out of it man!" Growled Vexatus, "We have to stick together if we are to locate the intended."
The group continued on, though as they made their way through the jungle Astronicus, his two DACs and pet tuk'ata continued to fall back lagging behind. Soon it wasn't even noticed that they had turned around and headed back to the rancor tracks. If there was one thing that Astronicus was going to do, it was get himself a trophy worthy of making this miserable trip. He really hated having to come on these so called 'missions' but it was expected of him to be here as the head of the Sadow family.
They made their way back and began inspecting the details of the track. When hunting Astronicus enjoyed the art of observing a place through animal footprints and other signs, including: tracks, beds, chews, scat, hair, etc. Specifically, mapping a changing landscape and soaking up sensory data like a sponge. He thrilled at being able to know an animal through its tracks and trails, also known as spoor. The skilled tracker is able to discern these markings and recreate what transpired. His adoptive father taught him the art of tracking back on Thyferra. They would hunt the indigenous species Vratix.
Apart from knowledge based on direct observations of animals, trackers gain a detailed understanding of animal behavior through the interpretation of tracks and signs. In this way much information can be obtained that would otherwise remain unknown, especially on the behavior of rare or nocturnal animals that are not often seen. Furthermore, tracks and signs offer information on undisturbed, natural behavior, while direct observations often influence the animal by the mere presence of the observer. Tracking is therefore a non-invasive method of information gathering, in which potential stress caused to animals can be minimized.
Rancors have always been toted as a prize of hunters galaxy wide, should Astronicus bag one - a Sith alchemated one at that - he would be content. The trio examined the foot prints closely and headed off in the direction that they pointed. Astronicus checked his rifle one last time as they marched on. Cresh likewise was examining some of his equipment to make sure he was prepared for the unexpected. Rancors weren't a one shot one kill beast.
Typically five- to ten-meters tall, these carnivorous reptomammals which are usually only found on Dathomir have become the envy of Sith alchemists for centuries. Rancors walk on their two stubby legs for the most part but it's not uncommon for them to walk on all fours at times. Their thick dull skin is tough enough to deflect blaster bolts, making it an efficient killing machine.
It was rumored that a mutant rancor that was immune to conventional weapons and could spew out toxic fumes capable of killing a Human near-instantly was discovered in captivity on Taanab. It was purported that the beast was released by the Disciples of Ragnos as a diversion. That rumor though was taken seriously by Astronicus, for he knew all too well that the reborn Emperor Palpatine kept several alchemically altered Chrysalide rancors at his Citadel on Byss. To find such a monster here would not only lead to more questions and interests that would intrigue Astronicus.
Kangaras was undoubtedly becoming a place of fondness for him. His imagination began to plant seeds of enterprising endeavors. He could turn it into "The Most Dangerous Hunting Ground in the Galaxy." A resort for the rich who had nothing better to do than give him their credits while the planet took their lives. Of course that could lead to the untrained and ignorant accidentaly hunting or shooting an ewok, which would lead to an unfortunate incident. But then, who doesn't want to hunt Ewoks?
It would also bring unwanted attention to the Kangaras system, something they wanted to keep low key at this time.
Dorn held up his right hand and the trio stopped. Kren, Tron's pet tuk'ata (Sith Hound), crept forward a little with its head to the ground. Kren sniffed the air, it's ears at full alert, a low rumbling growl echoing from within his powerful lungs. He took a step back and opened his mouth ready to pounce whatever prey he sensed beyond the dense jungle.
Astronicus aimed his rifle at the brush as the thudding noise of a large beast could be heard on the otherside. Cresh and Dorn likewise took up firing positions. The brush rumbled again and the ground shook. Two black beady eyes could be seen peering through blades of tall grass, then they disappeared. Seconds later the large beast jumped through, branches snapping, and a loud roar were all they needed to confirm what they were dealing with. The three hunters opened fire, aiming for vulnerable aras: eyes, ear sockets, nose, mouth.
Kren jumped from his crouched position to the side and landed on the rancor's back, extending its claws into the tuff flesh of the monster. The blaster shots bounced off it's armored hide but Astronicus could tell he scored some crucial hits to it when he saw blood oozing from one eye socket. Throwing down his rifle he charged the beast and lunged at it as Kren had done. However, unlike his pet, he extended his hands and allowed the twin lightsabers on his belt to go one to each hand. Igniting the two white bladed sabers he thrust them upward into the rancor's head just below it's jaw. The sizzle of flesh and no doubt brain tissue could be heard quite audibly. The monster bounded about for a minute or two and then finally collapsed on it's side. Tron went and retried his two sabers and ordered Kren off. It would make a good trophy, at full height he figured it was eight meters tall. Astronicus jumped up on the rancor, it grumbled but that was just the air escaping from it's lungs. Taking a pose he grabbed his rifle as Dorn threw it to him and Cresh took a holoprojection of the event.
Kangaras, Evil Nasty Not-so-happy Icky Jungle
Domain of Clan Naga Sadow
"Look at the size of that thing!" one of the DAC troopers exclaimed as they watched Tron perform a victory dance.
"Cut the chatter Blue 2 and stay alert in case there are more out there." Tsingtao ordered.
Tron jumped down from the Rancor. "Someone take this beast back. I want it cleaned, stuffed, and ready when we return." A couple of the Troopers nodded and did as ordered.
Tsingtao reluctantly asked the Elders, "Should we follow where the Rancor came or continue on?" Either decision was going to take them deeper into the jungle.
Kangaras, Kangaras System
Darth Vexatus chopped away at a cluster of vines as the party continued their frustratingly slow crawl through the jungle. Astronicus had returned with his DAC troopers dragging a rancor corpse behind them. They had proceeded to tie the creature's lifeless body to the AT-PT which was now pulling it along. Vexatus had been shocked by how banal the others were behaving. They seemed to make light of the fact they were following the trail of a dangerous flow-walker, a witch capable of manipulating time itself. As far as he was concerned, it was no laughing matter, but then, Vexatus found little to laugh about these days.
The imaginary hand around his throat had continued to tighten his grip and the effects were starting to drain him. He was no longer wasting energy brushing the plant life away with the Force, having chosen to revert to his lightsaber a mile back. It was like being mundane. The Falleen hated it.
“Hold up,” said Krenth from above. The DAC trooper was using a combination of his jet pack and his wrist based grappling hook launcher to manoeuvre through the trees. The clone had said it would be quicker than moving on foot through the forest floor. He had been right. Sometimes Vexatus envied technology. Right now, blocked off from the Force, was one of them.
“What is it?” said Vexatus, his face covered in perspiration. The forest floor was like a sauna, insulated from the outside air by the heavy canopy, it meant the heat stayed in.
“Rancors.” Vexatus immediately drew his lightsaber up into a defensive stance. Krenth shook his head. “Don't worry, they're dead.”
Krenth floated down to the forest floor as Astronicus and Shin'ichi wandered over. The regular troopers carried on cutting a path through the plants. Slowly. “Can you repeat that, Captain?” asked Shin'ichi.
“Lightsaber wounds, General.”
“Caerick,” said Astronicus, it was unnoticeable but there was a slight hint of disappointment in his voice. “We must be catching up on him then.”
Krenth shrugged. “Unable to tell, Viceroy,” said the DAC trooper. “Lightsaber wounds cauterise so fast its almost impossible to know how long ago they were made.”
Astronicus grinned. “I wasn't asking for the scientific explanation, but than you anyway, Captain.”
“You're welcome, sir,” said Krenth, unable to tell Astronicus was making fun of him. The clones were all work and no play. “There is a trail of dead foliage leading deeper into the forest.”
Shin'ichi's eyes lit up. “A path. Instruct the men to follow it,” said the commander general.
“Acknowledged, sir,” said Krenth before rocketing over to the platoon commander.
Kangaras, Kangaras System
Malisane, Imgormiel and Urtarg still walked at the front, though they could make out several ewok scouts ahead each time they reached a clear path, and they passed several smaller beasts the creatures had killed.
Malisane stopped. He was feeling uneasy, the reduction in his force senses was becoming greater with every step, and a glance back at the two Elders showed they were suffering it more. He paused. "I can sense something, something dangerous."
Imgormiel glanced at him, "Everything around us is dangerous," he replied curiously.
"More local," the Battlemaster replied, his hand going to his saber hilt."
A second later he leapt aside as the ground lurched under him and a green mass burst from the ground, a long "neck" with a snapping head that snatched a nearby ewok in its grip and crunched. Malisane and Imgormiel spun and sliced at it, burning but not severing the neck.
"What the hell is it?" Imgormiel demanded, slicing at it again as it scorched the resilient flesh.
"Some sort of plant," Malisane replied backing off then aiming another strike with his saber, as Urtarg also sliced at the thrashing head with his sharp pike.
Behind them a trooper cried in agony as a second one burst from the ground lifting him high and crunching into his flesh, and the sound of igniting blades around them filled the air as even more burst from the undergrowth. A second later the area around them was filled with the sounds of blaster fire and slicing sabers as the party battled the resilient plants.
"We're in some sort of damn feeding ground!" Malisane said, as finally his saber bit deep into the neck of the plant, causing it to writh then shivel back down. Quickly the two sith and the Ewok leader charged another one.
Kangaras, Evil Nasty Not-so-happy Icky Jungle
Domain of Clan Naga Sadow
Joseem, as usual, brought up the rear. The smell of the Rancor was only slightly less odiferous than a taun-taun, but clearly more putrid than the ewoks he was surrounded with. Joseem called forward towards Tsingtao, "Did you really have to order it cleaned now? You know they start right away on any of your orders." Joseem waved his hand in front of his nose, trying to dispell the horrendous stench.
Joseem moved up towards Tsingtao, awaiting the orders of the Elders.
Plants, the Priest didn't mind, but this overgrown shrub of a jungle was infurating. A few more quick motions of his sulfuric toned saber, and the vines barring his path fell to the forest floor.
Macron heard the hiss of a lightsaber; he didn't need a fancy battle helmet to recognize the sound. Too unique. But it wan't moments before his current situation brought him back to the here an now; the troopers cry up ahead caught his atteniton.
Shin'ichi heard it too, and the both of them charged forward. He had not gone more than a few feet before a tangeled mass erupted past the height of wookie before him.
"What IS that? A flower?" Mac swore, and brought his saber to bear. Shin'ichi's reply was drowned in another loud crash as another 'plant' flew out from behind the brush. The two Dark Jedi brought crimson and violet retribution down on the monstrous weeds.
Sap and syrupy nectar burned and flew, but the energy blades left little but burnt cuts.
Raven heard it too. The petrified scream threw him into a dash, the forest flowing around him, a golden pattern of figure-eights obliterated any foilage in his path.
He broke the underbrush of the small clearing where the two Keibatsu fought back to back, and reacted with extreme predijuice; A simple dip into the Force threw one of several spare lightsabers from his belt ingniting it, launching it like a dart into the back of one of the plantlike creatures. He didn't exactly get the intended reaction. The skin, if you could call it that, of the vile thing bubbled, but the saber blade only penetrated a foot or so, before the thing convulsed, and the saber fizzed out.
"About time someone fecking showed up!" Shin'ichi cursed aloud, twin blades gnashing into the viridian flesh of the beats. "How about getting us the hell out of here?"
"Yeah, I'm working on that," came the hollored reply, and the Priest took a step backwards, closed his eyes to concetrate for a moment, and then extended his palms to release what felt like a shockwave, barely visible, but cut through the body of the beast with relative ease, leaving Macron's crimson blade to cut through empty air.
Raven repeated the process, and quickly explained, "A little maniplulation, and air becomes a keen, solid edge. Takes quite a lot of effort though."
The two sons dove into the eddies of the Force filling the jungle, and prepared to remedy the situation, total cleansing of the land.
Kangaras, Kangaras System
A burst of chittering and angry yapping boomed through the jungle as the Ewoks shot into action. Hook and claw tore at the predatory flora, maws gnashing at the stems of the carnivorous plants. The Ewoks behaved as if this was normal to them, brushing off bites as one might a flit gnat. Even as a pair of Ewoks collapsed, being devoured beneath the tide of writhing vines, barbs tearing at their flesh, the rest continued their fury, if anything only driven further by the smell of blood.
Malisane, Imgormiel and Urtarg moved together as they cut through the mass of serpentine plants. Lightsaber and claw severed vine as they pressed forward, cutting through until they could reach one of the plant's “heads” which they swiftly dismembered. The vines around them ceased their writhing, falling silent as the flora's “neck” unwound through the branches until its weight brought it to a final knotted rest on the jungle floor.
Delta-Thirty came crashing through the canopy, twin blasters flashing as he shot at the plants. The heavily armoured DAC trooper landed in the center of one of the plants, armour stopping the creature's teeth as its head clamped around Krenth's arm. The clone holstered his weapons, bringing his free hand around and unleashing a tide of flame on the creature, engulfing the plant in fire. Vines thrashed around as the flora released its grip on Krenth's arm before writhing around in mock agony before collapsing into a smouldering pile.
Krenth charged through the undergrowth, firing off several more short bursts of flame as he helped incinerate the remaining plants with the other commandos. The DACs and Dlarit Commandos finished cleansing the area and reforming a perimeter as the Dark Jedi regrouped behind them, the AT-PT still bringing up the rear dragging Astronicus's rancor prize.
After the troopers and Ewoks were finished, High Chief Urtarg came over and jabbered something at Malisane. “He says we should keep moving. That the battle will only have attracted more predators to our location.” The battlemaster was beginning to look under the weather, the effects of the jungle evidently beginning to be felt throughout the ranks.
“The sooner we leave this Force forsaken jungle the better,” said Ashia.
“The Force begins to fall silent,” said Vexatus in his sometimes distant sounding voice. “I believe we are closing on the source of the anomaly.”
"Good, let's find Master Caerick and end this," said Shin'ichi.
Near the Target Structure
They moved forward slowly now, they were nearing the epicentre of whatever was affecting them, and they were quiet. Perhaps a dozen troopers and half a dozen ewoks lay behind them on the jungle floor, victims of the plants attack. For the most part the discomforting feeling of the loss of the force was subduing them, it was like a sickness that they couldn’t shake off. They were within a few hundred metres now of whatever the structure was and could see it rearing out of the trees ahead, large and black.
After a while they stopped, as Chief Gratusk, who was now leading the forward scouts, appeared ahead of them. Vexatus, Shin’ichi and Macron waited patiently as Malisane and Urtarg spoke quietly with the ewok chief, while the Overlord stood holding his rifle, still in his ridiculous outfit with a happy look on his face. After a while the Battlelord wandered over to the rest. “They have made a basic survey of the structure ahead,” he reported, “its of similar construction to Usharak Keep, probably same era same sort of reinforced rock, but not as high. They suspect more of the structure might be underground, its impossible to tell. There’s an entrance on this side but its overgrown, it will take a while to cut or burn our way in.”
“Any sign of Trev?” Vexatus asked quietly, absorbing the information.
Gratusk spoke again, and Malisane translated. “They’ve found lightsaber burns around the area, but no sign of anyone. It is likely they got here before us. The ewoks haven’t scouted the other side yet, its possible Master Caerick decided to look for a second entrance.”
“At least if they’ve found signs of him he’s alive,” Shin’ichi observed.
Vexatus nodded. “We’re near now,” he replied, “we’ll secure the first entrance and circle around the perimeter. Its possible Trev might make his prescence felt then."
Malisane nodded. “Alright move out!”
Domain of Clan Naga Sadow
"Fall back!" came the shout over sizzling lightsaber slashes and the sound of explosive blaster-fire. Trevarus shouted again, crossing a threshold that seemed to be free of the malicious herbaceous forms. In all his years, he had never encountered a jungle so alive with pure rage. Some short distance away, his Apprentices and beleagured DAC Adjutant fought against woody tooth and talon with lightsaber and firearms.
He had passed through an arc-way that seemed almost unnatural. Its was built of stone, yet the jungle had overgrown its edges with sheer tenacity. It was weathered and beaten, but not broken. Shuang Long and Nero pushed their way through after a moment or too, and Esk backed in, his weapon firing surpressive shots against another indeterminate foe.
They stood in a vast clearing, almost a dome of empty space, light filtering down from sunlight high overhead gave the place an eerie calm. It was dark, yet lit. A twilight of lethal malice. The jungle had retreated from a space of less than a kilometer around a high conical structure. Rough, weather-battered stone arranged in a way that reminded him of the temples raised on Sepros, with a slight glimmer of those on Antei. The archway they had passed marked the way into a courtyard of sorts.
"What is this place?" Shuang Long asked.
"I can't see anything. Master... the Force seems dead." Nero replied.
"I don't know..." Trevarus said, his voice growing distant. He attempted to reach out, yet there was no answer. He felt the Force flowing from him, yet there was no answer from the Construct, he could sense nothing outside himself.
"...Something powerful is at work here. Come, follow me." the Master continued his thought.
Trevarus beckoned his weary companions with his right hand, the silver metal flowing with violent intesity, a raging storm of impotent wrath on his skin.
They followed a roughly laid stone path, through a tangle of stunted plant-life. It seemed that some were able to take root through cracks in the stone, but none could flourish to truly overgrow the ruin. The temple itself dominated the clearing. After a few moments, they stood outside what appeared to be a door, sealed by an immense stone slab.
Trevarus ran his hands over the stone, looking for a catch or hinge. He paced back and forth, muttering under his breath. At moments he would stop, as he if he had found a solution, then resume his muttering.
"Ahhh... yes..." Trevarus audibly said at last.
"Master.... look!" Shuang Long pointed back the way they had come. Sounds of blaster-fire and the hissing of lightsabers roared from the way they had just come. Thirty meters off, two figures dived through the archway. One wielded a blaster, the other a violently crimson lightsaber.
"Xanos! This way!" Trevarus shouted.
The pair seemed to follow his shout, running towards where the other four stood at the door.
"I see that you did indeed survive." Vexatus said
"Is that disappointment, my Apprentice?" Trevarus cracked a slight grin.
Esk saluted Krenth, who responded in turn with a salute. They began talking about some matter of important, but only their gestures could be seen.
Trevarus ignored them, and turned back to the stone. "The Force is silent, as I'm sure the answer to our riddle lies behind this door."
"Have you any idea why it affected us first, before those less powerful?" Vexatus asked.
"No. But I suspect that, as in all things, we Elders are most sensitive to manipulations, and would therefore be the most strongly affected. Whatever is causing this anomaly.... it is powerful enough to blot out the deepest probings of the Force."
Trevarus placed his hand on Vexatus' shoulder.
"I cannot sense your presence from such a short distance... but as I suspected"
I sense you again... Vexatus replied in the Force
Exactly. Our internal Force is not affected. Trevarus answered
"Now this door is most interesting." The Master ran his hand over the smooth stone work again, probing for a seam. His fingertips brushed a measure of crumbling dust and rock fragments. Fascinated, he revealed a pattern of characters.
"Ekindian." The mad Krath said, revealing what appeared to be a sentence. "Terni ahu var selni atki"
"And that says...?" Vexatus asked
"Nero... come here." Trevarus said, ignoring the Sith Lord
"Yes Master?" the Mirulaka responded.
Trevarus reached under his coat, and withdrew a small silver dagger. "Cut your arm, and smear your blood across the stone... right about here."
Taking the weapon tentatively, Nero sliced a gash in his wrist. Wincing slightly at the pain, he did as instructed. Barely had his blood touched the stone that it began to shake. Dust billowed out from stones that had not moved in thousands of years. Esk and Krenth fell back, weapons at ready. Trevarus and Vexatus stood impassive, even while the Nero and Shuang Long backed several paces out of the cloud of stone fragments.
"Unknowing blood shall open the way." Trevarus said, when the dust had settled.
Temple Ruin, Kangaras
Domain of Naga Sadow
Sai extinguished his ‘saber, the bloodshine column retreating within its chromed hilt as the distant rumbling emanating from the ruins rolled under their feet and put an end to the vestiges of the verdant violence that accosted the expeditionary force. Cries of men and Ewok alike drifted to his ears, cutting through his own labored panting as the remainder took stock of their status.
Sloughing off a rent creeper vine from his forearm, the Priest cast his tripartite gaze in the general direction that he’d seen Vexatus and his clone adjutant disappear to; wherever they’d gone, he’d no doubt that they had a direct hand in the tremor.
Efforts to probe beyond his own weary form proved futile; he barely retained enough Force sensitivity to wield his lightsaber effectively, never mind divining events beyond his line of sight.
Yes, there were forces at work here that were far beyond his ken; the Keibatsu would play his position, remain watchful, and learn all he could. The path to glory, after all was a marathon, not a sprint. Clarity would be granted when it would, all in the Fullness of Time. The best he could do was concentrate on what he had a direct hand in controlling.
As if truly intimating his mindset, he retied his wild mane of hair back and wiped the sweat and grime from his brow with a tattered sleeve, and checked the remaining charge on his lightsaber. Absently, Sai made a mental note that, as soon as he set foot back on Sepros, he’d order his own adjutant, Captain Oren, to scour the grounds surrounding Sadow Palace with enough herbicide to expose the very bedrock upon which it stood.
Temple Ruin, Kangaras
Domain of Naga Sadow
Macron continued his struggle with the plants around the perimeter. The main party had advanced inside the ruin, and the alchemist continued to attempt to understand the herbacious assailants. "Dren, frelling overgrown - stinking - lawn foilage! The fracking arborist is IN!" he screamed as he sliced at a grasping vine. The Armor Fist whined, squeezing green pulpy goo from a crushed trunk as the saber detached the end with a sizzling hiss. The Sith laughed manaically as the light-blade bit into the squirming tentacle.
The clutching vine dropped to the ground with a squelch as Macron shut down his orange saber. A snap of his left hand sloughed the scum from his fist onto the ground, where it soaked in quickly. "Disgusting, but very interesting," he chuckled as Sai adjusted his own blade nearby. "What do you make of that, cousin?" asked the Sith.
"It seems dead to me, cousin. It smells awful," replied the Priest. "I see myself ordering a lot of herbicide once we return." He smiled a wicked grin as he saw his own reflection in Macron's visor.
"Cool, maybe I can cook something especially foul up for you. Ever try Xanos' wife's cooking? That would do it. Hmm. Can't smell it in here thank Darth," replied the Warlord. "Environmental filter is working pretty well today. Say, you think the others are still alive? I can't feel a thing with the Force," he mumbled through the vocoder as he scanned the area. Most of the nearby vines were hanging back from the fury or the two Dark Jedi.
"I believe so," replied Sai as they both heard distant blaster shots muffled somewhat by the structure. "Sounds like they found something more fun than plants."
"I bet so," giggled Macron as he studied the stones of the structure. "Say. This stone looks to have been annealed on the outside by heavy blaster fire. It resembles the Usharak keep stones in every way," he mused. A portable scanner hummed as he pressed it to the rocky surface. "Let's see... oxygen, silicon... calcium... hmm. Pyroxene chain structure...looks to be basalt. This planet hasn't been volcanically active in a very long time. Old stones no doubt. Very damn interesting."
More blaster fire and distant shouts resounded from the interior of the old Temple. "I think things are heating up inside. Let's take a look, shall we?" asked the Prefect as he turned to the entrance.
"Indeed, let's," giggled the madman as they ran into the building.
Temple Ruin, Kangaras
Domain of Naga Sadow
Malisane and Imgormiel followed the two Elders inside, glancing at the flickering torches, Urtarg and the ewoks had been left to guard the perimetre, along with the troopers. "They lit these quickly." the Zabrak observed.
"They didn't," Malisane replied, "I think they've been burning for thousands of years."
"Some sort of gas?" Imgormiel asked.
"Don't think so," Malisane said, "sort sort of sorcery maybe."
They continued for a few minutes, until they reached a chamber. The Elders had stopped in it and the two Sith caught them up.
"Fascinating," Trev was saying, studying something. Malisane moved closer and stopped in suprise. Surrounding the chamber, in alcoves every few metres, was a black skeletal droid, long black cloak hanging around its shoulders. Their silent eyes stared ahead as they Sith studied them. Tron was looking bored, wanting some action.
"Indeed," Vexatus replied, "ancient Sith droids, maybe something we can take back. This trip may be more useful than I thought."
Malisane nodded, but didn't say anything, imagining the powerful looking droids striding the halls of Usharak Keep. His eyes glittered.
"Masters, this one just moved it's head." Imgormiel called from across the room.
Malisane turned, as did Vexatus and Trevarus. They walked over. "You're imagining it," Trevarus said derisively, "its the torchlight."
There was a metallic creak from across the room, and they turned to see a droid slowly moving its arms. "Did he imagine that?" Malisane asked.
More were moving into life now as the Sith slowly moved into the middle. A second later their hands moved to saber hilts as each droid raised a mechanical arm, and the saber they held snapped into life. "Defend yourselves." Vexatus ordered as the droids moved in towards them in a tightening circle, lightsabers raised. The Sith went into defensive postures as one, as the sounds of running feet along the corridor heralded the sound of Macron and the others running to their assistance.
Temple Ruin, Kangaras
Domain of Naga Sadow
Sai trotted into the chamber where his clanmates stood surrounded by the soulless guardians of the structure, their blades ignited and poised to clash.
As he skidded to a halt, the Force-users peered from between the spaces created by the skeletal forms to see who’d come to join them; servos whined as the mechanical heads swiveled in unison to do the same. The pause would’ve been comical, if not for the humming of the sabers within the chamber.
The Prefect got the distinct feeling he was interrupting something, as if he were a petulant toddler barging in on an ‘adults-only’ dinner party. “Oh, my,” he uttered as one of the droids broke ranks to face him, the others closing the circle and beginning to inch towards his bretheren.
He quickly produced his hilt and crimson menace leapt from the emitter. “Don’t fret; I’ve my ‘pass’ right here,” he said with bravado while moving towards the droid.
Sai let a smile creep across his face as the droid moved closer; he hadn’t moved from his ready-position, and it seemed as if his adversary would have no difficulty in striking him down.
The droid raised his ‘saber, and began to swing downwards. Sai executed a one-handed cartwheel, easily avoiding both the strike and Macron Sadow, who’d built up a full head of steam while sprinting down the corridor, careening headlong into the ill-prepared droid, his armor taking the brunt of the blow.
It would be remarked later that if droids could look surprised, that particular one would have been the archetype.
Macron rose to his feet, the neck-actuators of the droid crumpling like so much tissue paper in his Armor Fist’s grip, his orange blade adding its own growling to the chorus with its activation.
“...and here’s mine,” Macron gleefully chuckled.
Temple Ruin, Kangaras
The Sith Lord rolled as one of the lightsaber wielding droids lunged at him with a wide sweeping arc. It was a clumsy attack and the Falleen easily parried the return swipe as he rolled to his feet, but still blind to the Force the droids were more dangerous than not.
“Master,” called Vexatus, sparing a glance over his shoulder to where Trevarus Caerick was artfully dancing between the blows of two of the temple guardians.
Caerick ducked under an attack, striking low and separating one of his attackers from its legs. The droid fell to the floor but continued swiping at him, using one arm to crawl its way across the stone floor. “Yes, my apprentice?”
Vexatus performed a handspring, backing toward the now parted entrance through which they had entered the chamber as the droid he was fighting continued its relentless assault. Unlike the Falleen, the droids did not tire, and without the Force he was starting to feel his muscles tightening. “Ceiling,” shouted Vexatus, waving his lightsaber in the direction of the cracked roof before narrowly avoiding another blow.
Across the chamber the others who had now entered the temple were engaging their own adversaries. Lightsabers crackled and blasters flashed as the darksiders and soldiers were pressed ever backward toward the entrance. Every now and then a whirr would permeate the chamber as one of the droids collapsed, but as each one fell more would emerge from the far side of the chamber, an endless army streaming from the lower catacombs.
Caerick glanced up, twirling to the side as he spun his lightsaber to build up the momentum to hammer his attacker into a wall, forcing its own weapon on itself into its core. The droid spluttered and died, emitting a hiss of steam as a trickle of hydraulic fluid began to leak onto the floor, disappearing into the cracks in the floor. “No Force,” reminded the sorcerer angrily.
The Falleen spun, his lightsaber flashing on and off as he moved under and between his enemies' attacks, adjusting the blade's length to always keep himself out of the range but inside their own defences. The Sith Lord's bravado drew looks of astonishment from some of the troopers as he rolled and dived, the snap-hiss of his lightsaber repeating over and over. “Grenade,” shouted Vexatus over the sound of his blade reigniting.
Caerick took the head of a droid as he turned to his DAC trooper who had remained close by his side to guard his flank. “Trooper, have you got anything to bring that ceiling down?”
Delta-Five's only response was to sever the arm of the droid in front of him with his wrist blade before a compartment on his other hand opened and he withdrew a pair of small oblong devices, grabbing one tightly in each hand. “Take cover.”
The commando flung the two devices at opposing sides of the ceiling, his helmet calculating the optimum fracture points near-instantaneously for him. Esk dived for cover, rolling into a ball and putting his hands over his head. Throughout the room others did the same, some of the unlucky droids being cut down without their own lightsabers to hold the droids off.
A second later the room exploded, light blinding most of the darksiders, though a few of the DAC troopers had managed to reconfigure their visors fast enough to shield their eyes from the blast. Regardless, the ceiling began to collapse, large chunks crushing droid and man alike. The force of the explosion vibrated through the temple as a crack began to form across the floor, splitting into hundreds of pieces before giving way and sending everybody tumbling into the dark abyss.
Temple Ruin, Kangaras
Domain of Clan Naga Sadow
Time always seems to slow at the fore of imminent catastrophe. Booming echoing thunderclaps of breaking, sundering stone filled the enclosed space of the ruined temple with a noise that obliterated almost all conscious thought. Clouded in semidarkness, Trevarus fell through space, blind in nearly all his senses.
"Governor!" A voice called, somewhere nearby
He was dimly aware of something tugging at the back of his coat, and the cessation of movement. A second later, and his awareness flooded back. He looked up, and saw emergency luma-flares glowing brightly-green far above. Krenth was standing at the precipice of where the floor at collapsed, braced on something. Trevarus was suspended in midair, hooked on a grappling line.
"Well played, Krenth. Drinks are on me tonight." Trevarus called up.
"No sweat Master Sadow."
He saw Vexatus hanging on the edge, barely holding on with both hands. Other lights flashed, and he presumed that Esk was making way over to where the Sith Lord clung.
"Krenth, drop a flare and lower me."
"Aye aye, Governor."
The line began to feed, and Trevarus slowly descended. A few seconds later, a red emergency flare burned on the mass of broken stone below him, casting grim light on the carnage of broken droids and ruin. His boots thudded to stone, and he dropped into a crouch. Pulling off his treasured coat, he unhooked the grapple and cursed.
"Yet another one to replace..."
He drew the coat back on, and bent over to pick up the emergency flare. Holding forward, it illuminated space a few meters in all directions. Peering through its red light, he shouted up.
"Xanos, get down here!"
Trevarus walked forward, sweeping the flare in slow arcs to better see the way forward. He stood in the center of a massive auditorium, that much was obvious. He had landed on a series of risers carved from black-grey stone. It was difficult to see in the light, but it appeared to be circular. A few hundred meters away, he judged in the dark, something was glowing violet-black.
A brilliant white light flooded the area as Xanos detached his rappeling harness and switch on a high-powered lumabeam.
"This is almost a replica of the temples on Sepros." Trevarus said, pointing down. Vexatus shifted the beam, illuminating what the Master was gesturing to.
"I would agree," the Sith Lord responded. "How curious... We've never seen temples of this design outside of the Antei Sector.
"I had a hunch, when blood was required to gain entrance. That's something I've only seen on Calabrex." Trevarus said, taking a few more steps forward.
Vexatus followed him. The pair moved between great slabs of broken stone, descending with decent speed. When they had cleared the worst of the rubble, they made better time down towards the central dias. At the bottom, Vexatus shined his flare up and down the pillar of stone, encircled by more steps.
"This is a typical Azurd/Orian layout for sacrificial temples." Trevarus said, looking around. "Supplicants would be forced to kneel on the risers, encircling the priests or Lord on this raised platform. Similair to the Auditorium of the Dark Hall."
"Yet the Iron Throne does not sit on such a high dias." Vexatus said.
"Yes, that particular design is more in line with the architecture of the Okemi or Sadow temples. A slightly raised platform. This one is easliy twenty meters." Trevarus responded. "From above, I thought I saw something glowing at the top. We might find the source of our anomaly there..."
"And a clue to the whereabouts of our Flow-walker and the Ghost-witch." The Sith Lord said. "Shall we?"
"Lead the way, my Apprentice."
Vexatus started climbing up the stairs that encircled the dias. Trevarus studied carvings deeply engraved into the stone at various intervals. Retrieving a small device from his coat, he took images of the bas-reliefs.
"Very curious. At first glance, they seem to be songs of praise... but also of defiance."
"This is a Sith Temple, Trev. We've established that."
"Regardless... it is most unusual."
When they reached the top of the dias, they both looked with amazement on the sheer grandeur of the sacrificial platform. Four figures carved out of stone loomed ancient and foreboding at the cardinal points. Seemingly bent over a central circular altar. They moved closer, bootheels clicking a booming echo through the vast chamber. There was indeed a glow, violet and evil.
"Trev, over here." Vexatus said.
"What is it."
"Look at this." Vexatus shined the luma on the body of a prone droid. "This is the type Malisane crewed the Argnok with. What is it doing here?"
"What's that on its wrist?" Trevarus asked
"Its a bracelet of some sort... Malisane said we might find something of this nature... the ghost was here." The Sith Lord said. Igniting his lightsaber, he sliced the metal arm of the droid and retreived the artifact. He passed it to Trevarus, who turned it over in his hands.
"I can sense nothing... but that is hardly out of the ordinary for our circumstances." He paused. "Speaking of..." He nodded towards the altar.
The pair walked a few spaces closer. Trevarus winced as a pounding throb began to erupt in his skull. Vexatus too seemed as if he was experiencing the pain.
"Without question, this is the source of our anomaly." The Mad Krath said.
"How much closer dare we approach?" Vexatus asked.
"We must..." Trevarus walked forward slowly, as if into a heavy headwind. The throbbing became a stabbing pain. His eyes began to water from the force of it. Great screaming echoes reverberated. He thought he might die from the pain.
He placed his hands on the Altar, gasping for breath.
His eyes ran up a long cylindrical object of silvery interwined metal-work. At its base, it seemed to be plugged into a relay of electrical tracings that thrummed. His eyes ran back up the shaft, to where a small gem was glittering brightly violet-black.
"Is that...? Vexatus asked.
"A fragment of the Star of Ombus. I'm certain of it. Somehow it seems to have been Obtenebrated."
Reaching under his coat, Trevarus retrieved a lightsaber from where they were strapped to his back. Flashing to violet-black light, he cut the wires that ran from the relay. In a flash of blue-white, the glowing antenna grew dim.
Everything flooded back in that moment. The Force rushed back into his senses, obliterating all memories of pain, or impotence. He was powerful and commanding. His will had returned.
Vexatus took a deep breath. "Ahhh.... this must be what birth feels like."
"It is death, my Apprentice. Being born... is also dying."
"Damn you and your riddles." Vexatus said, the shadow of a smile crossing his face.
Vexatus watched the face of his Master contort for a moment, his eyes flashing violet. Shan Long grumbled out of the darkness.
Severina floated down the the stairs that lead towards the cental dias. Her droid dutifully walking along. The journey did not require much time... and even in time, her anticipation was full. Months of preparation had gone into this event. Now it was ready. Malisane de Ath had played his part so well... such a dutiful servant.
The Witch, the stub of her hand showing progress of regrowth stood over a body that lay prone on the altar.
"You're sure of the ritual then, Anaxela?"
"Yes. I will do my part."
"At the exact moment... you must place the Scepter into the power source... it will prevent the Dark Side from breaking my mind as soul and body are reunited." Severina said, her hand almost lovingly wafting an immaterial caress over the beauty of her new body, cloned and perfect.
Their vision became dull, hazed and shifted. A tear in the fabric of time that disguised events. Trevarus shifted his concentration, yet the rift was too great. His mind cleared, and Shan Long grumbled as if in dreams.
"What do you make of that, Xanos?"
"It seems that our suspicions were confirmed... the ghost was seeking a new body."
"Yes. Yet something went wrong. That was an extremely powerful rift. I could not see through it. I suspect that Anaxela had to draw a tremendous amount of power to escape into time."
Trevarus pulled the silver-scepter out of the dead power source. Vexatus studied it more closely. "It seems that there were unexpected complications. This temple reeks of desperation, yet I do not sense a death."
"Nor do I," the Oracle admitted. "Something went wrong, yet it seems to have been successful. There is no body here, and the droid was left with the spirit-fetter. Severina escaped."
"But how? Flight was impossible... and the Scepter prohibited the Force."
Their conversation was interrupted by a ear-splitting wail and violent shaking of the ground. They crouched down, trying to maintain their balance.
"Not again..." Trevarus said as the pair began running, leaping down the dias. Fleeing for their lives agains the impending collapse of the temple.
Temple Ruins, Kangaras
Stone began to rain on them as they ran through the crumbling temple. Trevarus Caerick clutched the sceptre close to his chest, following closely behind his apprentice. Esk and Krenth led the way, their helmets shining torchlight down the winding corridors, the only light in what was a realm of otherwise total darkness.
“Left!” called Krenth as he swung around, the arms of his jet pack cumbersome as they scratched alongside one of the walls. The DAC trooper turned down a corridor, back the way they had came, clambering over the now silent forms of the combat droids which had shattered upon impact from the floors collapse earlier, falling like bricks into the hard stone below.
“Don't step on the...!” cried Caerick, his Force senses in overdrive after the days of silence. The words left his lips too late as Esk's foot depressed a rune inscribed panel on the floor, a spark of energy rippling through the air as he did so. “Duck!”
The quartet dived for cover, their heads narrowly avoiding the glowing red beam of light that shot down the corridor. It circled back, raising up and down as it attempted to dissect the intruders. “Up. Run!” barked the insane sorcerer as the horizontal blade of light shot back up the corridor. The four scrabbled to their feet, quickly breaking into a sprint as they shot back up the corridor, the laser blade close behind.
They jumped, diving out of the corridor into the chamber on the level above seconds before the device completed its circuit. “That was too close,” said Esk as he exhaled heavily.
“No time to relax,” said Vexatus, his voice cold and harsh as ever, “this place is still going to collapse on top of us.” The Falleen's blunt words washed away the brief wave of euphoria as they sped up once more, rushing through the winding passageways, moving ever upwards.
Get everyone back! bellowed Caerick into the Force, his silent order instructing those still above, all of whom were no doubt in the process of trying to find a way down past the broken floor, to evacuate the ruin. They carried on, the two Masters channelling their power into the two soldiers, helping them to push themselves further than should have been possible and keep up with the two Elders.
“One more floor,” shouted Krenth, using his helmet sensors to plot a map of the structure on his internal HUD. “Turn right!”
Vexatus cut the corner first, charging through the rumbling corridor as pieces of stone began to rain down from the heavens, forcing the Master to conjure a barrier of Force energy above their heads and hold the rubble at bay. “Take cover!”
Despite the Masters strength, his concentration was on their need to escape and he had missed the heavy block that was now tearing down the thin corridor toward them. It was square and at least five meters by five meters long. It had probably been part of one of the heavy doorways. It was now rolling, bounding down the corridor with a thundering boom as it rolled its way toward them. They dived to the sides, taking cover in the crooks behind several of the ancient statues embedded in the recesses in the walls.
The block crashed past them, smashing its way down the hallway as it tore up floor tiles and brought chunks of the walls down with it as its weight sent heavy vibrations rumbling through them. “Go!” shouted Caerick as he ducked out from behind the cover and charged up the remainder of the slope to the final level.
On the top floor it was a quick way to the exit, the light already shining through at them. Vexatus found it momentarily blinding after being exposed to the total blackness of the ritual chamber deep below. He could see the dust and debris falling down through the hole in the collapsed floor where they had fell minutes before. “Jump!” cried the Falleen, throwing himself out the doorway just as the ceiling gave way, the temple finally succumbing to its own weight and collapsing inward.
Turning to look at it, the four joined the others as they watched the hidden forest temple come apart, taking whatever secrets which may still have dwelt within to their final resting place in its dark grave far below.
The Argnok clearing
A few hours later the party reached the Argnok, and stopped. The ground was burned, signs of lightning and fallen trees. Here and there around the clearing small black bodies lay, smoking ewok corpses. Malisane stared at them. "Severina."
"Or Anaxela," Vexatus said from behind him, "its impossible to tell."
Imgormiel stood besides them, the Zabrak looking pale. "My shuttles gone." he said quietly.
"They will be long gone," Trevarus said, "it matters not. We have the sceptre. we will meet them again. Is your craft serviceable De Ath?"
Malisane nodded. "It appears to be."
"Then take us back to civilisation." the Master ordered firmly, "we will have no more mishaps."
Torches burned around the courtyard amongst the bushes and fountains as the celebrations continued into the night. Whatever had happened out there in the jungle they had come back successful, Trevarus and Vexatus jealously guarded the sceptre they expected to study back on Sepros, to learn its secrets. Troopers and Clan members alike feasted on roasted rancor, the one caught by the happy Overlord. The sounds of happy laughing was accompanied by the Sith ewok musicians, who banged drums and played horns to the wry amusement of several Sadowite members.
The three elders were sipping wine from Malisane's cellar, which was suprisingly good even for their tastes, when Malisane came over, followed by the black figure of High Chief Urtarg. "Yes?" Vexatus asked.
Urtarg looked at each of them in turn, then spoke in its language.
"He said he and his followers were honoured to have travelled and fought at your side."
The Sadows looked at each other then shrugged. "Tell him thank you." Vexatus said patiently, humouring them in the hope they'd leave them in peace.
Urtarg produced a flask and profered it. "Their liquor," Malisane explained, "its suprisingly good, I'm trialing it at Dystopia."
The three Sadows nodded and passed it around, taking a long swig each. "Not bad," Trevarus admitted.
The Ewok High Chief nodded then raised its arms and shouted in its own language and around then the rest of the ewoks cheered, the music booming out louder immediatley in a more ceremonial air.
The three Sadows looked in confusion at the Ewok leader and the Battlelord who had an innocent expression. "We are now part of the tribe."
Tron's laughter joined the cheering and music as Vexatus and Trevarus shared a bemused glance, as Malisane turned and lead the ewok back to the feast.
Kangaras, Kangaras System
Domain of Clan Naga Sadow
Vibrant revelry, rich smells of roasting meats; the darkly cheerful music of sinister Ewoks played on. Master and Apprentice stood back and considered the events of the prior days. No words were shared, yet the silence spoke volumes about the necessity of the information they had discovered. The scepter was another peice of the puzzle they had spent five years investigating. The mysteries of Urias Orian were not confined to the system that bore his name.
"What did you make of that report about the... fleet amassing near Telos" Trevarus asked.
"It could be of concern..." Vexatus shrugged. "Kaldex hasn't reported any issues."
"I agree... its a matter to observe carefully."
At that moment, Trevarus' communicator began to chime in his pocket. Withdrawing the device, he studied it carefully.
Wordlessly he stood and walked back through the high doors of the Keep. He knew a conference chamber had been constructed by Malisane, and within a few moments he had closed and locked the doors. Placing his comm-unit into the main transponder, he knelt on the transmission pad.
The image of Lord Sarin, Dark Lord of the Sith loomed high overhead.
"How would you command me, my lord?"
"Rise my servant." Trevarus stood as Sarin continued. "Your words before the Star Chamber have proven most wise. The duplicity of Yoni, and his pawn Astronicus have been weakened by Vexatus and your actions through Macron Sadow. The Iron Throne has accepted his resignation, and appoints you Consul of Clan Naga Sadow in his stead."
"Excellent, my gratitude is yours, Majestic one."
"It would not do to have open warfare between the Elders of Clan Naga Sadow. Therefore it is ever more important that you act clandestinely. If it becomes apparent that I am placing you and your Clan in position against Yoni, Khyron may intervene."
"I understand, my Lord."
"Yet I give you leave to continue your search for the missing Fragments of the Star of Ombus."
"Thank you, my Lord."
"We will speak again soon. Sarin out."
For several moments after the hologram had faded, Trevarus stood considering what the Dark Lord had said to him. Vexatus of course knew his intentions and the complex interconnections of his various schemes. Slowly he analyzed this new variable. With the power of Clan Naga Sadow at his full command... the implications were staggering.
Trevarus made his way slowly back out into the courtyard. The atmosphere seemed to have chilled, the celebration not quite as lively. Tron was standing some meters away, in deep conversation with Malisane, Shin'ichi and Macron stared at him menacingly in another arena.
It was Vexatus who spoke first. "I don't know if I should offer my congratulations, or condolences my Master."
With a smirk, Trevarus replied: "The best laid plans of mice and men. I gather the Clan has already been informed?"
"Yes. While you were gone, Muz sent a blanket transmission on the main Brotherhood channels. Tron was the first to read it. His initial wrath was powerful to feel." Vexatus shrugged
"I might only imagine. The Dark Lord commanded my attention."
"And his commands?"
"To play my hand carefully."
"Ever the cautious one, he is"
"Indeed... yet he's right."
Trevarus and Vexatus continued their discussion long into the night. Open hostility never erupted, yet the mood of the Clan never quite changed. Even as they prepared to depart Kangaras at daybreak the following morning, his fellows only accepted his commands hesitantly. Instead, glancing at Tron who did not speak to Trevarus.
All the while, the Consul carried the Scepter they had recovered, seeming to be lost in its infinite complexity.