Curiosity is piqued at most inopportune times. The rush of air when someone passes you, his face eluding you, a shade of features that is stained with malice but tantalizes you like a cunning Machiavellian. You follow that shade, down into valleys you did not dream of traveling into.
Little do you know that the valley is the home of the python, and too late do you realize this as you outstretch your hand and feel the venom in the serpent's bite.
Port Ol'val, 0802 hours
Reclining back in her seat in the cockpit, Ronovi kept her eyes forward but remained wary of the Trianii beside her. Sotodeh Sanghedi was the type of hunter she wished to see around more often - almost as tall as she was, cool demeanor, and fast enough to pull your teeth out of your head without feeling the sting. She began keying in coordinates, and Sotodeh splintered the silence with a simple sentence.
"So he's not in Ol'val."
"No," Ronovi instantly responded. "Not anymore, at least. He hasn't left much of an imprint, from what I can sense."
"Hmmm," the Trianii grunted, his cat-like nose twitching. "I wonder why."
"My only guess is that he didn't find much here. Went off somewhere else for bigger fish to fry," said Ronovi. "Fortunately, he at least knows how to mask his Force presence. Last Jedi I had to deal with, the agents were screaming about how everyone could tell something powerful was around."
"Bigger fish?" Sotodeh's sharp golden eyes never left the control panel of the freighter. "So where's our appropriate stop?"
Ronovi smiled. Stroking the scar running past her jawline with three fingers, she let her other hand dance along the controls. The coordinates were set. She thought of the Citadel.
"We're going to Estle City."
She awoke with a start. The sheet fell from her shoulders, the fabric crackling in the still morning air. Eyes flickering to the left found a pile of civilian clothing in the corner of the room.
She did not know where she was. The night before had been filled with revelry, the Sinchi Ring lighting up like gold on a real ring. Streets' veins glistened with ruby lifeblood. She ran her dry tongue against her dry lips. She still tasted wine, bitter before noon.
Lifting her head slowly from the makeshift bed, the young Protector started when she saw a green figure traipse into the room. He was top-less, dimly lit, black embroidery dancing on his arms and chest. She squinted her eyes and saw that the tattoos were a spiel of the Sith language running like spiderweb veins across his skin.
The man smiled. His Lekku twitched as he spoke.
"I must say, you were fantastic last night. Brilliant." When he saw the look on the girl's face, he rephrased. "No, no, not what you're thinking."
"What happened? After we left the cantina..."
"Nothing too burdensome. But my dear, you are a perfect little murderer with a dagger in your hand." The Twi'lek stooped down to pick up his colorless tunic, pulling it over his head.
The Protector swallowed, hard. She did not remember carving her father's prized dagger into anyone that night. She brushed away a strand of damp red hair as the Twi'lek paced across the room.
"Yet there's one thing you still have not done for me. Your allegiance..."
"I told you, I can't follow you."
She half-expected him to choke her, strangle the words and protests from her mouth until her lips went from flush to pearl. As much as he acted endearing and gentlemanly, his darker side still crept into his mannerisms. But he didn't choke her. Instead he let his hand stroke the bedpost beside him, the sunlight finally beginning to seep through the small apartment window.
She had come for a crystal. Why didn't she have one?
"Well, I can't threaten you," the Twi'lek said, "but I can at least persuade you."
His breath was cold in the air. She stood up slowly and shook when her bare flesh was exposed to the temperature. The Twi'lek stepped to her, picking up the girl's forgotten military jacket. She felt its brown cloth swathe her petite body. She felt his fingers caress her throat.
It was as if electricity were zipping through her blood vessels. His touch was arousing, enticing...
She could not escape the touch...
"Okay." She whispered it, her eyes glazed over as she stared into the Twi'lek's emerald face, the sheen radiating an unsteady and truly false peace. "Okay."
Estle City, 0845 hours
"And you say Bril' Talon is a threat to our dominion?"
Ronovi sat at the other end of the table from Wuntila. Having abandoned the protocol of meeting in the throne room, the two more military-inclined minds had decided to talk in a more secluded area. Drinks would have been included were it not so early in the morning, and Ronovi itched for a whiskey about as much as she presumed Wuntila desired his standard tankard of Corellian Spiced Ale.
"I wouldn't call him a 'threat,' per say," she said, pursing her lips. She could hear footsteps as Sotodeh paced behind the door. "That gives him far too much credit. I'd say 'liability' is a better term to describe him."
"And I'd agree," Wuntila replied, "given the extent of collateral damage you've had to prevent in Ol'val over the past few weeks."
Ronovi winced at the remark. It was true that her first official assignment on Ol'val to recruit the aggressively minded Jarrod Wendt had been somewhat sloppy; in the end, too many people had wound up becoming involved in the situation. The elimination of Kurt Mentgis, a bounty hunter who was trying to sell off the information regarding the Wendt-influenced skirmish, didn't go much better. True, Ronovi had made it look like a standard brawl, but she knew that the populace in Besadii had been buzzing about it before the Ol'val agents and criminal syndicates could put it to rest. Sometimes events that should be insignificant turned out to be the notable news of the year.
She realized she wasn't paying attention to Wuntila by this point, just before the Human and Theelin hybrid let a large hand smack the table and send vibrations down to her side. She jolted, cleared her throat, and nodded.
"However, given this particularly delicate mission, the Arconan summit is willing to cover any extensive casualties should they be unpreventable," he continued. "I suppose, Ronovi, you'll be trying to avoid such a scenario."
"I always do."
"I know Marick selected you for this mission for a reason." Wuntila stood up from his chair as he spoke, his blue silhouette towering over Ronovi's somewhat hunched posture. "After all, many Arconan Elders and Arconae would be willing to take on this man. But seeing that you are capable of doing jobs efficiently though not always cleanly..."
"You've made your point, Wuntila," Ronovi snapped, jumping to her feet. Her eyes only just met he superior's, as he stood a mere two inches taller than she. "Don't forget I take this mission with as much caution and seriousness as the Arconan summit does."
"I didn't forget," the Proconsul said. "And I won't. Be sure, however, that you allow my memory not to lapse."
With that remark, he gestured toward the door, allowing it to slide quietly open as his fingers curled and uncurled. Sotodeh could be seen standing outside, arms folded, the grips of his LL-30 pistols glistening in the dim light from the stained glass windows.
"I will relay our conversation to the Consul once he has returned to Dajorra space," Wuntila declared. "Stay alive, Ronovi."
Ronovi grimaced at the remark coupled with the slam of the door. She began to stride purposely toward the stairs that led out of the monstrous tower. Sotodeh moved at his typical feline speed, and the Exarch despite all her agility struggled to keep up.
"He seemed pretty uptight, didn't he?" the Trianii asked, his voice somewhat muffled behind his sharp canines. Ronovi shrugged.
"He's got the mind of a general, just like me. But now he has to think about the details."
"Fair enough. Where to now?"
"Sinchi Ring," Ronovi replied. "It's standard procedure that Journeymen head down there to find lightsaber parts and crystals for their Knight trials, so I figure it'd be a good starting point. If Talon is truly trying to scoop up Dark Jedi, especially female ones...then he probably started there."
Sotodeh said nothing to that as he and Ronovi emerged into the light of Estle City. As they descended the plateau, the Huascar Ring welcomed them far before the Sinchi Ring loomed on the horizon. Marick was right, the Trianii thought; this assignment wasn't like the usual times he offed someone. This time, it was more like a game than a hunt, and he'd have to play cat and mouse for a while. How hilariously appropriate.
Outside the apartment, the Protector had a difficult time staring into the eyes of her new master. His gaze did not grow soft or falter. His jaw did not slacken as he kept it locked firmly.
"Yes, Master Talon."
They were walking now, through the Sinchi Ring. The air was cold and unwelcoming. She pulled her jacket closer to her to endure the fog.
"You may have potential, my apprentice, but you are not difficult to read," Master Talon said. "Do you know that?"
"If you say so, Master Talon."
He stopped moving as he spoke, turning to face her. His fingers found her way to her chin, massaging her flesh. "Then perhaps you'd like to tell me where the 'others' are."
She stiffened. She couldn't turn away from his look nor pull away from his touch. His eyes were too bright. He was going to kill her if she lied. She knew he would.
"You've taken them," she whispered. "All of my friends. There's no one else."
"I swear to you..."
She felt his hands clamp around her throat. A practically metal grip against feeble meat and bone.
"Do not lie to me!" Master Talon was snarling. "I have found more than just your pretty friends that last night. I have been nearly everywhere in this system. I feel the dark side all around me. It teases me, tickles my nose and tempts me with its succulence. I smell it. I taste it. I know there are others."
"He's going to kill me," she thought...
"Master..." She could barely squeak it out.
"He's going to KILL ME!" her mind bellowed...
She waited for the splitting of cartilage, the rupturing of arteries. She screamed before she heard death.
"Eldar! I can take you to Eldar!"
Wonderful air rushed back into her nearly broken throat. She dropped to the ground, the imprint of her master's fingers still lingering on her skin. Then another imprint as she was slapped in the face.
"You fool. We're in a public place. It'd do you well to be quiet."
She didn't say anything. Her master offered the same hand he had used to strike her to pull her up.
"Eldar, you say. Then you will take me to the Giletta Starport. We will travel together, and then we shall meet with our newfound 'Brotherhood' once we've 'eaten our fill' at Eldar." He smiled as he stroked her cheek with a curled finger. The smile was hideous. "Come. Let us dance together."
As they continued walking again, Jereau had her head lowered with her eyes tracing the pavement. For the first time ever in her life, she wished for home.
GALBASE 2, Aedile's Office
Mt. Bralor, Eldar, 0840 hours
"Send Sashar into my office," Talos commanded over the intercom.
The Aedile's office was stifling today, despite the raging cold drifting down the lip of the mountain where GALBASE 2 sat. Even the once frosty Scotch on the rocks resting lazily in his highball glass was beginning to grow lukewarm, and he sipped carefully from it to see if he could still tolerate it. The sound of the turbo-trams jostling alongside the mountain side was rhythmic to him on a daily basis, but today he was feeling particularly on edge and the outside noise more a cacophony in his ears than a pattern.
Opening the top drawer in his desk, Talos seriously considered retrieving the box of pricey cigarras and lighting one up. To Hell with special occasions. He'd have one now. Before he even undid the latch, however, he saw a dim shadow swallow up a good portion of the doorway in front of him, as the tall, battered Elder he had expected appeared under the fluorescent lighting.
"You called for me?" he asked, calmly addressing his fellow Erinos.
"I did, Sashar," Talos replied. "It concerns the small group of Journeymen you sent out to Estle City two nights ago to seek crystals and parts for lightsabers."
"For Soulfire purposes, yes. What's the trouble?"
"The 'trouble' is simple, Sergeant," said Talos, reclining in his chair and picking up his Scotch again. "Some of them haven't returned."
His declaration was countered by a low chuckle from Sashar, who propped himself against the nearest wall. His armor seemed to glow slightly in the office's light.
"Vod'ika," he teased. "You sometimes get so carried away with your job. I assure you that they're fine. Some take longer to complete the task than others."
"They're not fine, Sashar! They were meant to contact base each morning at six hundred hours! Promptly six hundred! I demand to know why measures have not been taken to contact them, especially measures taken by you!"
Talos rose from his desk as he spoke and expected his words to echo in the space. Instead they were swallowed up in a vacuum of silence. It was as if Sashar himself were sucking away the sound, standing firmly with his feet shoulder width apart. His right eyebrow was arched in response to the Aedile's tirade.
"Talos, my good man," he murmured with a small sneer. "Copaani mirchmure'cye, vod?"
Talos felt a rush of warmth behind both ears. He took a large sip of Scotch and shuddered. "I apologize, Sashar. N'eparavu takisit. I shouldn't have gotten so angry."
Sashar laughed. "Fine enunciation of Mando'a there," he said, "and don't worry about it. Now, if they haven't connected to base, there may be several reasons why. Ret, if I may suggest it...might you contact one of your agents to scout out the perimeters?"
"No," Talos replied. "They have other priorities. If anything, someone should be sent out to find them himself. Now, as you have duties at base, I take it you can send someone from Soulfire to do the job?"
"Certainly...as long as he is brought back alive."
"Good," said Talos. "I knew I could count on you to be cooperative. One thing, though, that you and your selection should know about. May be a link to where they went."
"And what exactly is it that we need to know?" Sashar asked.
Talos sat back down behind his desk and leaned forward, speaking in a soft hiss.
"The lost Journeymen are all female."
Estle City, Selen, 0930 hours
"Explain to me why we're here," Sotodeh muttered, "and not out searching the city for this guy."
The two of them were standing in the starport, watching ships scatter the sky like specks of dark and silver ash. Ronovi's hand was pressed against the buttons of her coat, which hid her uniform and her weapons.
"Risky business trying to root him out when he may not even be here," she said. "This is the best place to stay, anyway."
"Why do you say that?"
"Constant movement." Ronovi's eyes scanned the various freighters and ships. "If Talon is here, it won't be long until he leaves for his next target. If anything, he may find his way to Arcona property."
Sotodeh did not like waiting; Ronovi could sense that from him. Still, there weren't a lot of other options. The two were pretty much blindly guessing, as they had no leads to where Bril' Talon could have possibly gone off to next. If anything, he could have not been in Estle at all, but knowing how the city teemed with dark influences, Ronovi would be surprised if he hadn't stopped by.
Still, she figured that Sotodeh was better with a pistol, not with a game of playing detective. As the scream of an engine erupted from above her head, Ronovi felt her mind tingle with some hint of dark power. It was well masked, but she couldn't help sensing it like the smell of a distant delicacy, served piping hot. Not something she should sense from someone as capable of Force masking as an Adept-level Dark Jedi.
"I think someone's coming," she whispered to Sotodeh as she saw a sleek corvette descend onto the platform.
"Who?" Sotodeh demanded. "Is it Talon?"
"No," Ronovi replied. "I think it's an Arconan."
And she was right, recognizing the Soulfire armor as a Dark Jedi she did not know by name disembarked from the ship. He looked like a patrol officer from a distance, his KX-80 blaster rifle protruding from the crook of his arm like a metal appendage. As his helmeted head pivoted to one side, Ronovi wondered what or who he was looking for.
"Should I ask?" she thought to herself, just as she heard a slight growl from Sotodeh.
He wasn't looking at the Soulfire member. Instead, he was staring toward the other side of the spaceport, eyeing two figures as they traipsed the walkway toward the ships. One was dressed in military-based civilian attire, her red hair dangling against her face. When she got closer, Ronovi could feel the Force stronger than ever, noting how young and still naive the probably Journeyman-ranked girl was. Beside her was a green Twi'lek, dressed simply, Lekku dancing as he neared the platform.
Ronovi barely uttered those words to Sotodeh when she saw the blaster fire ripping from the Soulfire member's rifle. As red energy streaked the air, the Twi'lek dodged calmly, casually, as if he were accustomed to such a strike. The girl, however, shrieked and tried to run, but the Twi'lek grabbed her arm and pulled her back, leading her continually forward. It was clear now that she was an Arconan, swept up by the suave yet menacing behavior of her new master.
The Exarch knew what to do next. Beckoning Sotodeh toward her, she ducked under a YT-1300 freighter, the bulk of its tail serving as a cheap cloaking device for now. The two knelt together, watching as the Twi'lek and the girl approached their attacker. Ronovi futilely prayed for calm.
It didn't come. The crack of bone was the next sound she heard, like the gnashing of teeth against granite. The Soulfire striker howled in anguish as he attempted to nurse his left arm, which now dangled disjointed at a terrible angle. His rifle clattered to the ground before suddenly being swept up into the Twi'lek's arms. He seemed to caress it with his long green fingers, teeth bared in a hideous smile, before passing it to the girl beside him.
"Treat it well," Ronovi heard him whisper, before in one fell movement he snapped his opponent's neck.
It all happened so quickly, and the Epicanthix saw the striker standing one moment and then slumped on the ground the next. She watched as the Twi'lek scanned the vicinity, seeming to instantly recognize the ship that the soldier had popped up from. He stooped down beside the body as if analyzing it.
At that moment, Sotodeh snarled and ripped his blasters from their warm holsters, leveling them in the direction of Bril' Talon's head. Ronovi knew what was coming next. She saw the Twi'lek briskly turn his head in the two's directions, then felt her arms latching around the Trianii's waist and yanking him further under the ship. Her chest heaved with unexpected relief when Sotodeh lobbed no shots as a result, but now she could feel the dark side like a snare enveloping her.
He knew she was there.
"Jereau," she heard him whisper to his apprentice, "I believe this man has had a nasty fall. Shall we alert the authorities?"
"No!" the girl answered in a high-pitched squeak.
"Good answer, my beautiful apprentice," Talon replied, his voice airy but dripping with spite. "Then shall we continue our journey?"
Ronovi frowned. She could still feel the Force like a trajectory being pointed at her. And yet Talon seemed completely nonchalant about it. Why wasn't he trying to approach her?
Then she remembered the people, the ships, the roar of engines. Soon officers would be here to discover the body. So Bril' was moving quickly. Peeking from under the freighter, Ronovi watched as Talon and his apprentice boarded the Corvette. As it lifted into the air, she felt a sharp jab in her side.
"Why didn't you let me shoot him?" the bounty hunter beside her snarled.
"It was too dangerous, Sotodeh."
"I had him right there!"
"You don't get it!" snapped Ronovi. "This man is powerful! He's Elder rank! If you tried to shoot me, maybe you'd graze me a little, but he saw you coming from a mile away! Even with your reflexes, he would've evaded you!"
"But - "
"Besides, I believe we're trying not to cause collateral damage," Ronovi viciously continued. "I know it's weird for a Dark Jedi to tell you this, but you have to be patient."
She could feel the exasperation palpitating from the hunter's scowl alone. He was not pleased with being lectured, but she held no regrets. Pulling herself out from under the ship, Ronovi paced the freighter, surveying its bulk and equipment. Then, lifting her hand, she closed her eyes and heard the revving of an engine.
"What did you do?" Sotodeh demanded as the doors of the freighter suddenly hissed open.
"Call it Force hot-wiring," said Ronovi. "Let's go."
"Wherever Talon's going," she replied. "If anything, he's going somewhere else that houses Arconans. If he's already been to Estle and Ol'val, then I can guess where he's going next."
"Thrilling," the Trianii coolly remarked while they boarded.
"I'm serious! Either way, I'll try to tap into his coordinates. But I have a feeling about which direction he's headed."
"And I have a bad feeling about all of this," Sotodeh muttered as Ronovi settled herself into the pilot's seat. As the freighter lurched into the air, neither cared about the unfortunate pilot who would return to find his ship long missing.
Jereau didn't want to say anything this time. She kept her head lowered, paying more attention to the floor than the expanse of cosmos opening its yawning mouth to swallow up the Corvette in its starry jaws. She even wondered if Master Talon even wanted her to respond; instead he probably wanted her to keep her face painted in shame and humility as he tried to rip away the last strips of fabric that held her allegiance to the Brotherhood.
Apparently he did want a response.
Master Talon did not remove his gaze from the viewing portal. The stars streaked by like the long tails of kites on their endless journey for wind in the unwelcoming vacuum of space.
"You know how to fly this ship, Jereau?" he asked.
Jereau swallowed. "I know how to fly some ships," she murmured, "but not this one in particular."
"Then you'll have to learn, and quickly," said her master. "Because you'll be dropping me off near Mt. Bralor."
"Your assignment will be simple. I will be sending you to whatever base your former allies have constructed, in order to build trust. Tell them that a Dark Jedi wishes to join their ranks, for he shall assist them with their endeavors."
"Why don't you go in there yourself?"
He laughed. "Don't be foolish, my dear," he said. "They will not trust me if I simply march in, and likely they will attempt to capture me. No. You must persuade them that my motives are loyal to them and them alone. Only then shall I enter the base."
Jereau's lips grew thin on her face. "So you're telling me," she said, "to drop off away from the hangar doors, and fly in there by myself?"
"That's correct. Why you're by yourself, you'll have to explain on your own. Then when the time comes, you will return to me and pick me up so I can infiltrate the base under a false pretense. I believe it is really the only way without my getting caught."
"And what if they don't believe me?"
Again, he did not look at her, but the sudden heaviness Jereau felt on her brow almost made her believe he was. It was as if he was glaring without glaring, piercing two pinpoints on Jereau's face as his voice pressed firmly into her.
"You will make them believe you, my lovely yet weak-minded apprentice. That's an order."
The Protector said nothing to that. The feeble tendrils of her mind could not see past the physical membrane into her master's thoughts, so all she could do was swallow and nod. As she turned to the portal, she thought of the assignment and the consequences. What she didn't know, however, was that her master's mind was flitting elsewhere, tracing back to the power he felt back in the starport.
Dajorra Space, 1000 hours
"Eldar," Ronovi mumbled. "He's going to Eldar."
She thought about trying to contact Celahir and Talos, but a transmission from an unrecognized ship would be difficult to get through. Sotodeh said nothing, reclined in his seat with his gold eyes flickering back and forth. He was thinking. Preparing. Every fighter and marksman had to relax in order to get the job done.
Ronovi did not need to see coordinates or attempt to peer into Talon's head to know where he was going. She was a safe distance away, watching as the planet loomed before her. There was no checkpoint before arrival into the atmosphere, merely a checkpoint within Eldar if you attempted to near Mt. Bralor. With a Arconan Journeyman, however, Talon could walk right into GALBASE 2, though with Elders in Galeres' ranks it could be considered a suicide mission.
In truth, she could not read him, nor probe into his motives or strategies. Instead, all she could do was tempt him. Once she broke through Eldar's atmosphere, she would send a message out like a radio signal, attracting ears with its voice crawling from the stifling blanket of static. Ronovi knew what bait she would use. Now it was all about the fish snapping its lips around the hook.
GALBASE 2, Aedile's Office
Mt. Bralor, Eldar, 1020 hours
"Sir, a ship has been halted at the hangar. It seems that one of your Journeyman has returned."
Talos frowned. He was hovering over his desk now, listening to his commlink as Sashar and Celahir stood only a meter or so away. In the doorway was also Cethgus Entar, having returned from Revenance Virtuom drills, his arms folded across his chest.
"I see," Talos replied, rubbing his goatee. "What the ship?"
"Marketa-class Corvette, sir."
"The same ship we sent out to find her," Talos whispered, before declaring, "Admit her in."
"Pare sol, Talos!" said Sashar. "What makes you think it's safe?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's been less than two hours since we sent someone out to find the missing Arconans," replied the Elder. "If he did find someone, she had to be right on the starport. Besides, was not his bora to find more than one Journeyman?"
"Fair point," Talos admitted. "Still, we have one, and shouldn't we allow her in?"
"Perhaps," said Celahir, "but I'm just as cautious as Sashar is. Detain her in the hangar bay, and we will go down together to see if anything suspicious is there. Ret'lini."
"I hardly think that's necessary," Talos remarked, his brow quizzical below his dark, closely cut hair.
Still, he agreed to go down with the three to the hangar. Halfway down, Talos felt something off and wondered if they were right. He sensed the Journeyman from yards away, but no sign through the Force of the man who was supposed to have taken her off. If anything, he felt a disconnect; like a string had been cut in the tangled web of their power source.
As they entered the hangar bay, the Aedile realized that the others had felt the disturbance long before he had.
"Protector Jereau!" Celahir was the first to speak as the red-haired girl stepped slowly toward them. "I didn't expect to see you. Alone."
"Quaestor Celahir." Her bow was strained. Talos noticed that much. "I had to come to you alone. It was unavoidable."
"Truly?" Celahir asked. "In a Soulfire ship?"
There was a notable pause. Then Jereau spoke again, feverishly. "Yes. You see, when the one sent to find me arrived, we were attacked in the starport. I was able to escape and..."
"Enough, Protector," Talos heard himself interject. "You're lying. We all sense it."
He could hear Jereau's heart racing, her breath staggering. She had been a questionable recruit, her mind too easy to read and her body too eager for lustful acts. She could not hide it.
"The soldier we sent...he's dead, isn't he?"
Curiosity is piqued at most inopportune times...
"Something happened to him, Jereau," Talos pressed on. "It wasn't a normal scuffle. I can read it in your eyes."
"Wh-what are you talking about?" Jereau stammered.
The rush of air when someone passes you, his face eluding you, a shade of features that is stained with malice...
"I'm talking about the fact that you cost us one of our men, due to some lapse of judgment or some outside force," growled Talos. "And I'm willing to guess the latter, my dear. So what is it? What caused you to come alone, without your other Journeymen, and him to die?"
"Talos," Celahir whispered. "Luubid, Talos. You're frightening her."
"I will not falter until she answers me!" snapped Talos.
You follow that shade, down into valleys you did not dream of traveling into. Little do you know...
...that the valley is the home of the python, and too late do you realize this...
Jereau was backpedaling. She thought about fleeing. She thought about boarding that ship and flying away were the doors not sealed. All she could do, however, was stare down her Aedile, and repeat her innocence. Somehow...
as you outstretch your hand...
"Sir," she squeaked, "I swear to you, I come here as a loyal member of the House Gal -"
Then she let out a loud but small shriek as orange plasma bursting from a toothed handle plunged through her back and out of her chest, a plume of fire in the cold hangar air. As the blade was withdrawn from her, she gurgled, perhaps on the tears that were beginning to form behind her eyes and in the back of her throat. She wobbled, then swayed, then toppled forward, the water oozing from her lids as her head collided with a durasteel floor...
and feel the venom in the serpent's bite.
There was a long, harsh silence before six eyes were turned viciously on Jereau's killer. Cethgus showed no confusion, his eyes frozen in his skull, the tattoos on his face masking any emotion he was harboring.
"Utreekov!" Sashar finally barked, the first time he had uttered a word since they had entered the hangar. "What did you do?!"
"I had no choice," retorted Cethgus. "She was nothing but a damn traitor. Probably got someone to snuff a good man out."
"And your solution is to kill her?!" roared the Elder. "Tion'jor, Cethgus, would you ever think we can possibly get any information out of her if you kill her?!"
"No information is better than false information," Cethgus snarled. "Surely you know that."
His response was met by a loud smack in the face, as Sashar strode forward and used his knuckles against the side of the Zabrak's head. Talos could have sworn he saw the anger like blood rise into Cethgus's forehead, even up into his vestigial horns; it did not match the fury and disappointment that was brewing in Sashar's stomach.
"Ni'duraa," he hissed. "A man with the inability to think before he strikes is a dead one. You will suffer the consequences, if you do not learn."
Cethgus said nothing to that, though his rage was palpable in the still air. Sashar seemed to simmer, however, as he turned to Celahir and Talos.
"We have no leads, but if it is true that Jereau was a aruetil, it does explain a few things," he said.
"Like what?" Celahir demanded.
"Like the truth that one of our men is in fact dead. However, Jereau couldn't have been strong enough to kill him herself. Someone else had to. Someone who most likely traveled with her."
"But he can't be in the ship now," whispered Talos. "Can he?"
"No...there's not a wisp of the dark side emanating from anywhere besides you all, vod."
Despite his statement, Sashar still seemed to scan the space with vigilance, as he too knew of the consequences of being too confident about anything. As he did so, the flurry of footsteps could be heard nearby, as a base officer scurried into the hangar and bowed feverishly to the four Arconans before speaking.
"Sir, an unidentified freighter has been detected near the base but has made no attempt to infiltrate. We have attempted to contact it."
"And was there a response?" Celahir asked calmly.
"Positive, sir. The call seems to be coming from one Ronovi Tavisaen."
Near GALBASE 2
Mt. Bralor, Eldar, 1040 hours
"Celahir Erinos, contacting foreign YT-1300."
At long last. Ronovi breathed deeply as she attempted to speak and still steer the ship around the perimeter at the same time. "Cel! It's Ronovi."
"Ronnie?" His voice was unctuous with incredulity. "What are you doing?"
"Cel," Ronovi barked, "I've been circling Mt. Bralor in search of a target. I need you and Talos to alert GALBASE 2 of a potential threat. He's already taken some of your Journeymen."
"What?" Celahir snapped. "Damn! No wonder they haven't returned! He must be trying to..."
"Recruit them, yes, and he's succeeding," Ronovi replied. "His name is Bril' Talon."
"Rogue Dark Jedi. And cut out the Mando'a when you're speaking to me, you know I'm not fluent."
"Picky, picky," Celahir teased. "So we've got a rogue Dark Jedi picking up our members, and he's now on Eldar?"
"Correct. I as well as one of Marick's friends have been sent out specifically to find him and eliminate him, and I followed him here. Now it's all about finding him."
"Well, then." Ronovi heard a deep breath on the other end of the transmission. "What do you plan to do?"
"Simple," she replied. "Tempt him."
There was a short pause, then a vibe of understanding, before Celahir spoke.
"Understood. We expect you to eliminate the threat, but remember, if you need help, we're here."
"Good," Ronovi breathed. "I'll contact you if necessary. Who've you got ready to fight?"
"Oh, the usual. Me, Talos, Sashar..."
"Sounds like I'm covered."
"Only the best, Ronnie."
Ronovi couldn't help laughing, much to the annoyance of her Trianii co-pilot. She shut off the transmission before dipping her ship lower into the air, passing snowy slopes as the valleys below awaited her descent.
"So," Sotodeh started, "you going to do that tempting thing now?"
The Epicanthix sneered. This was going to be a very interesting experience for her.
An unexpected cry tore its way from between Bril' Talon's lips as he doubled over. The severing of a Force connection was strong to him, despite his less than caring relationship toward his newest apprentice. Now Jereau was dead, and the Twi'lek had no way of accessing the base nor traveling out of Eldar.
Cursing under his breath, Talon paced the snowy area where the lip of Mt. Bralor lay open at a safe distance from him, its real teeth hidden under the rocky slope. He still had his other recruits, but he would be unable to contact them from this distance. The worst part was that they had no real ship to travel to Eldar with to find him, for after he had dropped them off on Boral to build a temporary encampment, his ship had received major damage to its right wing upon his arrival on Selen. The injury to his ship had been the main reason behind his theft of the Corvette, although the fact that it was Arconan property was supposed to have been useful in his infiltration tactics while getting to Galeres.
The best he could do was reach through the Force, though he had no idea if his Journeymen-ranked minions would hear him or even had somewhere to get there. Still, it was worth a try, and he was a safe enough distance to at least slightly probe into the currents of his power without his presence being fully exposed. Taking a long, deep breath, the stranded Talon let his brain settle and open like the shell of a walnut. He closed his eyes as the Force, like a soft breeze, caress his nerve endings and synapses.
He did not hear his recruits. Instead, he heard someone else's voice, raw but inviting. And most definitely female.
I am a lost soul...wandering in these desolate lands. I am a lost soul...
"What is this?" Talon demanded under his breath. The voice did not cease. He could suddenly feel a powerful presence near him, something dark and elusive...
I am a lost soul...but I can be found. I have left Arconan legions to find my place in higher kingdoms. I call to those masters of the Force to find me...and welcome me as their humble servant...
It was too easy. Talon shook his head and paced back and forth. This surely had to be a trick. However, he felt a strange bond from this voice, as if it truly were waiting for someone to come and save its owner. His confidence lifted. He let his mind open further...
Who are you?
He let the simple message drift like a feather in the zephyrs. He received a simple response.
An apprentice who needs a master. And a woman who has the power to topple Arcona with one hand...
Talon looked around the perimeters of his "watchtower" and saw no ships flying. It was this or following the words. And at this point, the Dark Jedi didn't have much of a choice.
Base of Mt. Bralor
Eldar, 1200 hours
"He took it. He took the bait."
Ronovi stood a few yards away from the settled freighter, the snow gathered near its engines and tail. Sotodeh sat by the door, checking his LL-30s.
"Are you sure?" he asked the Exarch. He received a nod.
"I felt his presence. It grows nearer all the time, but he's not too close yet." Ronovi exhaled. "He's powerful. Very powerful. But he's also arrogant. And from what I can tell, he's desperate."
"Desperate for what?"
"Transport, oddly enough." Ronovi laughed. "I guess the poor guy lost his only ticket out of Eldar."
"So, in many ways..." Sotodeh trailed off, reconsidered his choice of words, and decided on, "you snared him."
"Good one, Sotodeh," said Ronovi, just as she felt Talon's presence once again, but stronger.
Gesturing the Trianii to go further into the freighter, Ronovi let her sights fall around the nearby forests before scanning the rocky base of the mountain. She sensed quick, fidgety movements. Then a slow, determined stroll. But the Dark Adept was wide open to her, and presumably he was doing it on purpose. All Ronovi had to do was play the part.
She waited. Waited. The minutes went by. An hour must have passed by now. Then, she felt her head throb.
Bril' Talon appeared from light snowfall like a green light through mist, walking delicately across the landscape. He looked exactly as she imagined - the hardened face, the tattooed arms, the Lekku dancing viciously across his shoulders. His colorless tunic was unfitting of a Dark Jedi as capable as he was, but he wore it well and it covered his concealed lightsaber efficiently. As he drew nearer, Ronovi felt all the tension and all the power congealing in his muscles, burning like lactic acid, predicting her fate against his. Two beasts waiting for carnage.
He stopped only a yard or so away from her, staring intently into her scarred face. Ronovi did not move or speak. They simply stared each other down for a minute or so, waiting for the other to start the conversation. Eventually, instead of using words, Talon smiled, bowing like a gentleman would.
"Do you think I mock you, ma'am?" he asked when Ronovi did not react.
"Hardly," replied the Exarch, and she cracked a smile as she spoke. "But you seem to put on quite a show."
"I heard your voice," Talon continued, walking toward her but never quite closing the distance. "Your request. I'd call them a plea, but you don't seem to be helpless. Lost, you said...didn't you?"
"Strange." Ronovi frowned. She liked to think herself a good actress. "I didn't think I'd find someone so quickly."
The two stopped talking for a moment, and the wind picked up around them like unexpected percussion to the music. The snow flew against Ronovi's face, powdering her hair with white.
"Where is it that you come from?" Talon asked, taking yet another step forward.
"Galeres," replied Ronovi, with no hesitation. "I recently departed GALBASE 2, the night before. Since then, I've been preparing, here in the wilderness. It calms me."
"Convenient that you have a ship to escape."
"But I've not the confidence to leave yet." Ronovi looked up toward the pearly skies. "Abandoning Arcona, like a traitorous soldier...it kills my courage. I suppose my feminine yearnings make me weak at times for home, doesn't it?"
That got a coy laugh from the Twi'lek. "Perhaps," he said, "but you don't seem like other women. You seem to have a sense of humor."
"Rare, isn't it?" Ronovi asked through gritted teeth.
"Yes." Now he was closing the distance. His face was completely clear to her on the terrain. His cars were beginning to glisten in the cold. "You are also....powerful. More powerful than the women I have met already."
He extended a hand as if expecting Ronovi to shake it. She did not take his fingers in her grip. Not yet. As she felt his breath come out in puffs, she smirked as she heard her heartbeat quicken at her looks and height compared to his. "Feminine yearnings may be bad," she thought to herself, "but men's urges are useful."
"Are you, then, a master of the Force?" she whispered. "Come to claim me as your humble servant?"
"Servant? No, my dear, you are nearly my equal. Perhaps I can teach you more, but your prowess already astounds me."
Now Talon extended his long fingers to touch Ronovi's face. She did not withdraw. She had to push herself not to strike him down yet.
"Arcona," he whispered, "has lost a very formidable ally..."
His touch was cold and unyielding. And the Epicanthix felt nothing from it. She waited for him to come closer, to kiss her, to feel his lips and see if they sparked something within her. And his lips came, hard and numb, and left her response delayed and cold. She was like a statue to his gesture.
"Funny," Talon whispered as he pulled away and stepped back. "I may as well have been kissing a dead fish..."
Then Ronovi heard the shriek of blaster fire as several bolts flashed toward its target. Sotodeh had emerged from the freighter, firing shot after shot at the Twi'lek, his body moving in a blur as he worked. The sound ricocheted off the nearby mountain, alerting all those below it of the attack. Echo after echo after echo. Ronovi felt a weight toppled against her, pulling her closer to the ground...
Talon had not been touched. He had escaped harm from over a dozen bolts, the only smoke rising from the snow that had been struck and instantly melted by hot plasma beams. His dexterity was truly of the same caliber as Marick had warned in his report. She heard a somewhat calm curse escape Sotodeh's lips, just as Talon let his arm cross Ronovi's chest as he faced his opponent.
"Well, well," he murmured, casting a look at Ronovi. "Perhaps a man from Galeres sent to pick you up. Shall we take him down together,"
"No," Ronovi growled, "but we'll both take you."
Grabbing the Twi'lek's exposed arm with her left hand, Ronovi remembered her grappling experiences and threw him on his back into the snow. She did not release him as let her double saber fly into her right hand, but as she moved to activate it, she felt a sudden momentum against her knees. She was unable to dodge, instead yelping as her legs flew out from under her and sent her crashing down to earth, her hand slipping from Talon's flesh.
"Or perhaps he truly is your little crony, and the two of you really thought you could trick me into your little game?"
Talon laughed as he asked the rhetorical question. He was lying on his stomach on the snow, and as Ronovi attempted to stand up he threw out his right arm and initiated a tremendous Force shove. Ronovi saw the sky flip upside down and right side up again as she hurtled threw the air, collapsing into the snow with her saber hilt lying a few feet away from her. She crawled viciously toward, straining her arm as she reached forward. Her lungs nearly burst before her weapon collided into her palm, and she exhaled in a half snarl, half yell as she let both blue blades spew from their emitters.
She threw herself forward, outward, aiming for her enemy's exposed chest. Then she was met with a squeal as the Twi'lek's now ignited lightsaber countered her own. She grinned sickeningly.
"Red," she whispered. "Typical."
"Only appropriate," Talon said.
Then he launched into a beautiful maneuver of Makashi, his saber dancing close to Ronovi's face as she used all her strength to parry.
Mt. Bralor, Eldar, 1230 hours
"I sense him. He's too strong for her."
Talos was trying desperately to keep up with Sashar as the latter stormed toward the hangar bay again, with Cethgus and Celahir behind them. They had just removed Jereau's body and returned to Celahir's office to deal with the damage, and now they were going back. Talos felt his face turn red, and he gasped for air and picked up his pace.
"You mean Bril' Talon?"
"He will overpower her," Sashar pressed on without even listening to the Aedile. "It is too bork'yc for her to fight him, even with whatever bounty hunter Marick offered."
"You can't be serious," Talos muttered. "So we're all going after her?"
"No, Talos," said Celahir. "I'll go with Sashar. The two of us will be able to rival Talon perfectly, without the risk of being defeated."
"I'll fight, too!" Cethgus shouted from the wall.
"Nu draar, Cethgus!" Sashar briskly and sharply responded. "You stay here with Talos and don't dare try to follow us!"
Talos watched as Sashar and Celahir, without another word, disappeared toward one of the tunnels leading away from the Quaestor's office. He blinked, then breathed. As much as he was an Erinos, Celahir and Sashar had a friendship he could not yet rival. He smiled at the thought of the two approaching the Dark Jedi, ending his life once and for all.
There was murder to cause. For now, however, Talos had to focus on the Journeymen that were still missing in action.
Ronovi snarled as she swung at Talon's neck and felt his saber clash with hers again. Talon had switched from Makashi to Soresu with a natural ease, and now he was battering at her with Shien strikes, trying to send her offense against her instead of him. From a distance, Ronovi sensed Sotodeh standing at the ready, blasters cocked and lifted. But he could not shoot. Now while the two Dark Jedi dueled in such close proximity toward each other.
Her boots grinding against the snow, Ronovi watched the blur of blue whirl past her shoulders and attempt to separate green from red. Her Juyo skills were improving, but even with her Force rage emerging from her raw and unfiltered strikes she could not touch him. It also didn't help that since the confrontation had started, he hadn't shut up.
"Tell me, my dear," was his latest snarky comment. "How stupid do you feel now for not joining as my apprentice, rather than attempt to kill me without my noticing?"
"I just feel stupid for not biting off your damn tongue when you kissed me!" Ronovi erupted, her right boot flying out in a kick. She barely struck the Twi'lek's knee, causing him to laugh instead of faltering in pain.
"Please. I suppose you were too busy thinking about kissing someone else besides me."
Ronovi did not let the comment slow her down. Her hilt pivoted in her hand as she swung outward before Force jumping into the air. Talon jumped with her, and they crossed each other's paths with their blades slicing the breeze like razors. The bones in Ronovi's legs squealed in protest as she landed, before letting her body spin around and bash her weapon into Talon's waiting Shien stab as she parried the red stream upward.
The sweat had begun to drip from her brow. The cold had become stifling heat against her face. She felt spittle flying from her teeth as she threw her weight into a slash, twirling her saber like a baton until the blades looked like an endless wheel of blue. Talon blocked every hit, parried every step, before locking one of Ronovi's blades with his single one and holding her at bay.
"Perhaps I'll introduce you to one of the beautiful women I've recruited," he hissed. "If that's your preference."
The rage began to spill like hot whiskey from Ronovi's mouth, and she swore and bellowed as she pushed into him. Her right arm kept moving like a crank as she spun her saber forward then back, forward and back, her blades working like a makeshift saw. Talon deflected each blow again, stepping casually backward as if expecting Ronovi in her anger to believe she was gaining the upper hand.
"I..." she was roaring in bursts with each swing, "WILL...KILL...YOU!"
The response was a quick deadlock again, followed by the low and supposedly seductive hum of Bril' Talon's voice.
"Not if I kill you first."
He then let the Force work like a lasso, yanking Ronovi forward by the waist before sinking her blade into her left side. She felt her skin separate like an exploding blister, her intestines beneath sizzling like cooking meat. She could not scream in pain. She merely whimpered and fell, her saber rolling silently away from her grip as she collapsed on the ground.
She saw Bril' Talon stand over her. The glint in his eyes was nothing but delight. His curled lips may as well have belonged to a snake. As her vision began to fade, Ronovi couldn't help letting out a weak chuckle.
"All she needs is the forked tongue," she thought...
The world was slipping from her. The blade was arched above her head. And then...
"Ke'mot!" She recognized Sashar Arconae's voice immediately. "If you want to live!"
Ronovi saw Talon turn his head, his fatal error. Then she heard the cacophony of LL-30 pistols in the wintery air, bolts sinking deep into the Twi'lek's face, chest, and shoulders. He shuddered for a moment, twitching, like a half-dead bug. She saw the saber drop. She saw the eye that had not melted away from the heat bulge and nearly pop from its socket.
She did not see him fall, for at that point she simply collapsed into darkness.
GALBASE 2, Medical Bay
Mt. Bralor, Eldar, ???? hours
Ronovi awoke to the beeping of droids and the hum of machines. It was a sound she had not heard in years, not since she had been severely injured by thud bugs back in 29 ABY. She half-expected to see her master, in his Yevethan form, dangling in a bacta tank.
Instead, she lifted her head to see Celahir and Talos standing over her, half-smiles on both their faces.
"Celahir!" she tried to shout, but she felt too weak to increase her volume. There was no pain, but the exhaustion was profound.
"Easy, Ronnie," he said with a small laugh. "You're still in no fit shape to freak out."
"You..." she wheezed. "...and Sashar...you came to..."
"Save you? Maybe." Celahir laughed louder this time. "But we didn't need to. Right as we arrived, your friend did the job."
"Sotodeh Sanghedi, isn't it?" Talos cut in. "Damn good hunter. Shot down Bril' Talon before Sashar and Celahir had a good chance to cut him open. He was just about to decapitate you, you know. Typical of a cocky guy like him."
"Given how horny I sensed he was, I wouldn't have been surprised if he humped you first," Celahir joked.
Ronovi gave him a look. He quieted down.
"Ahem. Anyway. We took you right over here after Talon was killed. Gotta say, you were a mess. We had to use a bacta tank to heal up that internal wound of yours."
"And the Journeymen?" Ronovi was amazed by how her memory still did not fail her. "The others he had recruited?"
"All well. We found them on Boral, all camped out and scared to death," said Talos. "In the end, not much damage to report. Wuntila would be proud of you."
Ronovi smiled then. She had already owed her fellow Arconans so much, and this was only another tally mark on the I.O.U board. Soon she would hear about the recovery of the Consul from the hands of his captors, and then she would return to duty on Port Ol'val once she had fully recovered. How funny it was sometimes when the only thing you needed to kill a snake wasn't a shovel or sword, but some distraction and a few bullets instead.
"And that's it? That's how it happened?"
Ronovi grinned over the lip of her glass at Chrai Dewal, who looked at her skeptically. "Mostly. I mean, Sotodeh got a nice big reward for a job well done. Guess it was fulfilling for him to make the kill himself."
"And where is he now?"
"Who knows. Marick probably sent him off to another system to off someone of relevance. The guy's always busy."
Chrai smirked, raising her glass of ale up. "Well, Ron," she said, "here's to you and your certified job as a reckless fighter."
It was as if Ronovi simply wanted to entertain Chrai, as they clinked glasses and drank. Immediately after, the Epicanthix stood up, pulling on her coat.
"I don't have a lot of time to spare for you," muttered Ronovi, giving Chrai her typical look of mixed sarcasm and brewing annoyance. "Work to be done. You oughta go home, too. You're up early in the morning."
"Don't give Hot Hands too much business," Ronovi called as she left. She then stopped in her tracks, turned around, and added, "Oh, and if you call me 'Ron' again, I won't hesitate to break your arm."
And then she was gone, leaving the redhead to snicker disbelievingly. More and more of a roller coaster by the day.